June 18, 2011

A travesty of a mockery of a sham, part 2

First of all, for the sake of clarity: the title of this post, and the one preceding it, were taken from the riveting argument given by Fielding Mellish in his New York trial for treason in Woody Allen's "Bananas." Fielding was a fearless advocate of free speech and for the right of an individual to act out his political views, including temporarily becoming the dictator of a small banana republic in Latin America, the chief export of which was apparently gonorrhea.

With that cleared up, I move on to saying that I'm having a difficult time letting go of the intransigence of the White House and Obama's refusal to just flat out admit the violation of the clear terms of the War Powers Resolution of 1973. While it has become de rigeur in modern American politics for presidents simply to ignore the law and to do whatever they feel like doing, with no consequences whatsoever, maybe it's still worthwhile, once in a while, just to point out that such lawlessness is in fact occurring.

Thus, going back to the beginning: here's how the mission was described very close to the inception of America's bombing campaign in Libya (from Reuters, on March 20):

The aerial assault by U.S., French and British planes has halted an advance by Gaddafi's armored units on the rebel-held city of Benghazi and attacks on air defenses and radar sites have allowed the ad-hoc Western coalition to establish "a consistent and persistent" air presence over Libya, enforcing a no-fly zone, a U.S. official said.
Okay, we've established what we did, and what we've been doing, although I get the part about "handing over" leadership to NATO, our "subordinate role," blah blah blah. None of this matters, however.

I may as well take advantage of my age and summon up certain memories of violent protests on the Berkeley campus in 1970. These were some of the bloodiest and most out-of-control of all. People got shot and killed on Telegraph Avenue, the Blue Meanies of the Alameda County Sheriff's Department and the tang of tear gas were everywhere, and a lot of the fun began to go out of the rights of free speech and assembly. What inspired this chaos? Nixon and Kissinger's expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia through an illegal bombing campaign, kept secret by the systematic falsification of military records of bombing runs and other ruses, all as documented in William Shawcross's brilliant account in Sideshow.

This is what led to the War Powers Resolution of 1973. President Obama may not realize this; most of his time seems to be spent these days (a) playing golf, (b) hobnobbing with rich Republicans or (c) doing both at the same time, as he is today. Congress, which was a much stronger political institution in 1973 than it is today, banded together to override Nixon's veto of the legislation. Old Tricky Dick knew who the statute was aimed at.

Thus, to keep quoting more and more of the Resolution itself in an effort to seal off all the exits:
Under what circumstances, legally, can Obama commence a bombing campaign in a foreign country without consulting Congress? The Resolution defines the "unilateral" right of the President to introduce American forces into foreign hostilities as follows:

Presidential executive power as Commander-in-Chief; limitation
The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to
(1) a declaration of war,
(2) specific statutory authorization, or
(3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.

Okay, so we know, for a fact, that (1) there was no "declaration of war" (since the Libyan campaign did not begin on December 8, 1941); (2) there was no specific statutory authorization; and (3) there was no attack upon the United States. Therefore, Obama lacked the Constitutional and legal right to proceed on his own. This brings us to the question of when Obama should have sought Congressional authorization for his latest war of choice in Libya.

Here we look at 50 United States Code Annotated 1542:

§ 1542. Consultation; initial and regular consultations

The President in every possible instance shall consult with Congress before introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, and after every such introduction shall consult regularly with the Congress until United States Armed Forces are no longer engaged in hostilities or have been removed from such situations. (Emphasis added.)

Yes, there were Libyan citizens in peril; there are Sudanese citizens in peril right now, and every single day. In Bahrain, Syria and other places, too. This was a "possible instance" where Obama could have easily sought and (maybe) obtained the authorization of Congress to commit U.S. forces before launching bombing and missile attacks. Maybe Congress would have said no; well, that's how the system is supposed to work. The right to declare war belongs to the legislature, not to the President. (Article I, Section 8, United States Constitution.)

Finally, with regard to this preposterous sophistry from Obama's inner circle (because it appears that Obama overruled his Office of Legal Counsel, who told him he was way off base) that the United States is not engaged in "hostilities" because it's such a one-sided massacre, or something: Baloney. We covered this one before. Congress in 1973 smoked out that end run in the Cambodian bombing campaign and thus deliberately established another, separate predicate for the meaning of "hostilities," to wit:

§ 1543. Reporting requirement

(a) Written report; time of submission; circumstances necessitating submission; information reported
In the absence of a declaration of war, in any case in which United States Armed Forces are introduced—
(1) into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances;
(2) into the territory, airspace or waters of a foreign nation, while equipped for combat, except for deployments which relate solely to supply, replacement, repair, or training of such forces (emphasis added); or
(3) in numbers which substantially enlarge United States Armed Forces equipped for combat already located in a foreign nation;

the President shall submit within 48 hours to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and to the President pro tempore of the Senate a report, in writing, setting forth—
(A) the circumstances necessitating the introduction of United States Armed Forces;
(B) the constitutional and legislative authority under which such introduction took place; and
(C) the estimated scope and duration of the hostilities or involvement.


You cannot conduct bombing runs or launch missile attacks in the airspace of a foreign nation unless you're doing so with personnel and weapons "equipped for combat." This "hostilities" nonsense, concocted after the fact, does not pass the straight-face test.

To sum up: Obama lacked a legal or Constitutional basis for committing U.S. forces to combat in Libya without prior authorization from Congress, because the United States was not under attack. He then walked all over the reporting requirement to Congress. Finally, he continued his illegal war without ever obtaining (or even trying to obtain) authorization from Congress.

It's clearly an impeachable offense. It violates the primary Oath of Office of the President: to uphold the laws and Constitution of the United States. Our law-flouting President, of course, will take comfort in knowing the only institution capable of stopping him, the U.S. Congress, is an equally lawless group of scoundrels. A great day for the Republic all the way around.

June 16, 2011

A travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham as a justification for an illegal war

Sometimes when I seek consolation from some of the more egregious disappointments of the Obama Administration (and there are many to choose from), I cheer myself up with the idea that the real problem is that President Obama and his team are just not very good at their jobs. Admittedly, this belongs in the "as good as it gets" category, but it does offer some relief from the idea that Obama is moving us closer to a police state, or gutting the Bill of Rights, or undermining the rule of law, et cetera on purpose. It's easier just to believe that he doesn't know what he's doing. He's overwhelmed by the job, pushed around by seasoned in-fighters, and people keep asking him to make decisions about hopelessly complex situations when all he really wants to do is smile and be a figurehead. Now that we have the leisure time to consider his entire career, maybe we should just admit (even though we're agreeing with the Right Wing pundits) that, in fact, there was absolutely nothing in his background to prepare him for a very demanding, complicated managerial position. Nothing whatsoever, in fact. Here's how Andrew Levine, a think tank scholar, summed it up on Counterpunch:

"President is a real job, but Obama has been and will likely remain awful at it. His administration has been a disaster. I should qualify that: it has been a disaster for all but the "investor class," the military brass (who boss their Commander-in-Chief around shamelessly) and other pillars of the National Security State, and for some of Washington's most nefarious lobbies (who boss him around more shamelessly still)."
This is more or less the consensus tone one hears from the educated and informed elements of Obama's "base." They don't know what else to say. His reversals from campaign rhetoric are so extreme and obvious that there's really no other way to put it. Nothing is really going right in this country, he didn't Change a thing, and there's not much reason for Hope that he will. He's probably also the odds-on favorite for reelection; this is a measure of the extent to which the country has become completely inured to incompetence and failure. By 2016 it is very likely that the United States will have endured sixteen consecutive years of incompetent leadership.

I try not to think about these things, but current events keep intruding on my oblivion. This "War Powers" situation in Libya represents another fiasco for Team Obama. The 1973 War Powers Resolution, passed by Congress over Richard Nixon's veto, was intended to be a limitation on the power of the executive to wage war unilaterally without the authorization or consultation of Congress. The War Powers Resolution is itself a dubious end-run around the clear language of the Constitution; the power to declare war resides in Congress, period. However, although the United States is always at war, Congress never declares war, at least not since December 8, 1941, so I guess we should be thankful for at least this modicum (the Resolution) of "people's" control on the involvement of American forces in foreign hostilities.

The language of the War Powers Resolution isn't really that complicated. I generally prefer to consult the language of legislation itself rather than the usually inaccurate gloss placed on the words by Washington's punditocracy; that way, you at least have a chance at clear understanding. The operative section, in my view is this:

(a) Written report; time of submission; circumstances necessitating submission; information reported
In the absence of a declaration of war, in any case in which United States Armed Forces are introduced—
(1) into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances;
(2) into the territory, airspace or waters of a foreign nation, while equipped for combat, except for deployments which relate solely to supply, replacement, repair, or training of such forces;

Not later than 48 hours after such an action, the President must "report" to Congress on why the hell the United States is in another war. Even the 48-hour delay depends on the emergency nature of the action, such as an invasion of the United States or a direct attack on its international assets (such as a military base). The Libyan campaign did not even meet this threshold condition; Obama could have easily "reported" to Congress before the United States started bombing and launching drone attacks on Gaddafi's forces. He did not do so. He started the war, then he sought to establish excuses for (a) not reporting the war in a timely fashion and (b) failing to seek Congressional approval within the requisite 60-day period.

Ten members of Congress, led by Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul, have sued Obama in the federal district court for the District of Columbia. The allegations lay down this predicate for the case:

The Libyan War

31. On March 19, 2011, at approximately 3:00 p.m. EDT, President Obama ordered U.S. forces to attack the armed government forces of Libya.
32. Before attacking the government of Libya, President Obama did not seek or receive a declaration of war from Congress.
33. Before attacking the government of Libya, President Obama did not seek or receive approval of Congress in any form.
34. Subsequent to the start of military operations in Libya, the Obama Administration stated that, as a policy, the President did not consider himself bound to consult with Congress or receive its approval for military operations like those ordered in Libya.
35. U.S operations in Libya now include all of the classic elements of a war, including but not limited to close combat support, bombing of Libya’s capital and key Libyan military assets, and commitment of U.S. personnel to ground operations to assist the rebel forces in the Libyan civil war.
36. The cost to the United States of the Libyan War now exceeds $750 million and has resulted in the loss of U.S. aircraft in combat operations.
A lawsuit, of course, is not really the way to deal with the issue. The court is very likely to rule that the question is inherently political and subject to Separation of Powers, and that Congress can simply remove all funding and put an end to this war. However, that would involve taking a position instead of asking a court to take it for them.

Belatedly, to say the least, the Obama Administration is now contending, in a report addressed to Congress, that the Libyan war is not actually a war; we're just using American bombers, jets and missiles to attack Gaddafi in Libya, and maybe supporting the rebels with troops, and maybe, sure, also helping the United Nations out with carrying on this non-war by refueling their bombers in mid-air, doing reconnaissance, and a lot of other stuff you do in a war, although this one is not a war, because, you know, we don't even have any casualties (yet). These arguments would no doubt surprise an actual American bomber pilot flying missions over Tripoli. To him, it all would seem very much like "hostilities."

The arguments of the Obama Administration reek of desperate flop-sweat. I would prefer an argument where Obama claimed that he did report in a timely way, but one of his (non-rescue) pet dogs ate the report and he forgot about it, because he was out creating jobs, or maybe having dinner at Daniel with Lloyd Blankfein. You know, something credible. It's pretty demeaning to armed forces personnel to claim they can fly sorties over hostile terrain in complete safety, so much so that it's not even a "war." American armed forces have been "introduced" into Libyan air space while "equipped for combat;" this is a basis for a requirement of Congressional authorization separate from the "hostilities" subsection. This is how you read a statute - logically, assuming all the words mean something. In fact, the Obama Administration also loses on the "hostilities" argument, but a simple reference to the "air space" language puts the matter completely to rest. The "justification" is simply ludicrous.

Still, I actually don't think Obama is attempting to establish a new precedent for unfettered presidential discretion in the use of the armed forces. I think he and his inner circle just don't know what they're doing, can't read statutes, and can't read the signs of opposition from Republicans and dovish Democrats, who are now jumping on what is clearly an impeachable offense. This situation is a complete fiasco, right out in plain view where a moment's reflection shows you the Obama Administration is pathetically out of its depth.

It will become worse, of course, as the Obama Administration messes up the response to all this opposition by creating new legal and constitutional problems. I guess as we resume the Depression (which was never really gone in the first place), it will be something to distract us.

June 14, 2011

Who was that Mass Man, anyway?

The text for today's sermon comes from David Brooks, esteemed columnist and fence-straddler extraordinaire of the august (actually June in this case) New York Times, the Old Gray Lady of American journalism. Enough snarky intro:

"The election is happening during a downturn in the economic cycle, but the core issue is the accumulation of deeper structural problems that this recession has exposed — unsustainable levels of debt, an inability to generate middle-class incomes, a dysfunctional political system, the steady growth of special-interest sinecures and the gradual loss of national vitality.

"The number of business start-ups per capita has been falling steadily for the past three decades. Workers’ share of national income has been declining since 1983. Male wages have been stagnant for about 40 years. The American working class — those without a college degree — is being decimated, economically and socially."
I would first note the slight internal inconsistency in this jeremiad: Brooks relates that the election is happening "during a downturn in the economic cycle," but then describes national problems which have existed for 40 years, at least, suggesting that the last 20 elections have occurred "during a downturn in the economic cycle." Okay, I guess that's not exactly an inconsistency, but you can see how it might throw someone a little off the scent. Not to make too big a deal about this point, but that's highly symptomatic of a Mass Media Man writing for Mass Men & Women out there in MassMediaLand. If Brooks is going to write a credible column about a reasonable basis for interest in this upcoming election (which, God help us, is still a year and a half away), then he needs to place his analysis within a context of business-as-usual. If he drew the actual reasonable inference from his premise, that these two parties, the Democrats and Republicans, are the very same political institutions which have presided over this steady decline for 40 years, then there would be no intellectually honest way to write his column at all. And then this particular Mass Media Man would be out of a job, which, of course, would be a very good thing for society in general, because detaining ourselves endlessly with on-one-hand-on-the-other-hand vamping, ad infinitum, does not actually get us anywhere.

You can also note certain significant lacunae in the list of Our Mr. Brooks's "structural problems:" He never mentions climate change, resource constriction, coming oil shortages, or the need to transform the country's energy paradigm from big, centralized power grids to localized energy such as solar and wind power (other than to mock, elsewhere in the column, suggestions by the Democratic Party to invest in solar panels). The entire Earth is currently in a situation of 40% overshoot of available resources, and the United States continues to lead the way in waste-per-capita of available nonrenewable energy and other finite resources.

The simple truth is that the USA has devolved to a nation where only institutions organized at the Mass Level can prosper. Multi-national corporations which can engage in labor and environmental arbitrage by moving their operations overseas, while evading taxes here at "home" and destroying the Earth abroad, can do well. To the extent that big business does any hiring here, it can continue to constrict such employment through advanced technology which, while it depersonalizes the hell out of everything we encounter, eliminates humans and all their clamoring needs. Mergers and acquisitions; chain hotels, restaurants, retail Big Box and everything else; concentration of power and money (and thus political influence); agribusiness; skewing of wealth concentration to an absurd level -- there is nothing in any of this for the American Commoner, who is left to his own increasingly desperate devices.

Mr. Brooks, as a representative and spokesguy for one of the few remaining Big Media Newspaper outlets, is not going to draw any logical inferences. He is going to suggest working within the same system which has disenfranchised and alienated the vast majority of the American people. If he does otherwise, he is striking at his own power base. He ridicules the pathetic policy ideas of both parties, but if pressed, I am sure he would say that the existing Two Party System and the American Way of Life, for all its flaws, is just the best darned way to do anything.

It does at times seem to me that there are social or historical analogues to Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems, which state:

The first incompleteness theorem states that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an "effective procedure" is capable of proving all facts about the natural numbers. For any such system, there will always be statements about the natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system. The second incompleteness theorem shows that if such a system is also capable of proving certain basic facts about the natural numbers, then one particular arithmetic truth the system cannot prove is the consistency of the system itself.
The political "system itself" cannot solve the problems which lie ahead because the axioms which govern that system are premised on limitless growth, the flow of money in exchange for policy, and crony capitalism in favor of concentration of power. Thus, the future will be decided by "extra-systemic" axioms or factors, which, in fact, are beginning to appear.

June 13, 2011

Another Omnivore's Dilemma

"Specialists without spirit, sensuality without heart, this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved." Max Weber

I can see how people who begin looking into the questions surrounding America's food supply get caught up in the subject. It tells you an awful lot about how things actually work in a society, since food is as basic as it gets. Thoreau's simple formula for survival, maintaining one's vital heat, depends on food for the "internal fire;" and when you think about it, if those earliest humans had not decided to venture north out of Africa, an exterior shelter might never have been necessary. Still, where we live food and shelter are essential for survival, but that's the whole short list.

In reading the various books I have about food and where it comes from, I have found Michael Pollan's to be the most humane, thoughtful and illuminating. He describes the "omnivore's dilemma" in terms I can relate to. We've evolved to thrive on a modicum of animal-derived fat and protein, accompanied by plant-based carbohydrates, including leafy greens, berries and nuts.

Unfortunately, the way that we derive our animal fat and protein in modern times is little short of completely dismaying and disgusting. I suspect that the disturbing implications of this meat-factory approach to supplying food is one of the reasons that humans are so receptive to the idea that you shouldn't eat saturated fat. Indeed, in terms of a diet, I personally much prefer the ideas of Francis Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet than the blood-drenched routine of Gary Taubes and his meat triumphalism. (I think Taubes is generally right, and his writing has incited something of a beneficial revolution, particularly about the problem of sugar in the obesity epidemic and in "Western diseases" generally. But his carno-centric approach gets a little sickening when it's considered in the context of how food is actually produced in this country.)

The problem is that homo sapiens is a species that is built on the evolutionary chassis of a hunter-gatherer, and that's the reality we have to deal with. The other reality that we have to come to terms with, as noted above, is the industrialized process that produces meat for consumption, now that the vast majority of us never hunt for anything except bargains at Safeway. Pollan's writing inspired the documentary "King Corn" (available on streaming Netflix), which chronicles the return of two Boston-area college graduates to their ancestral home in Greene, Iowa. They decide to grow one acre of corn and then follow the results into the food chain. I learned some interesting things, things that must be obvious to everyone in Iowa but which I had never heard. Neither had the two new young farmers from Boston.

Such as: For the most part, you can't eat the corn grown in Iowa. It's genetically modified (Liberty seed was used by the film makers) so that it will survive the herbicides dumped on the fields, but the result is inedible corn on the cob. It tastes like sawdust. The corn farmers in Iowa do not "live off the land," because they don't grow anything they can eat. The sole purpose of the corn is to supply a fermentation product for ethanol distillation (about 20%); cow feed (close to 50%); and the balance for producing high fructose corn syrup, corn oil and other derivatives. Those giant, monoculture farms, subsidized by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture with absolutely critical payments, are concentrated in fewer and fewer hands as the years go by, and can best be thought of immense commodity factories run on solar power.

Every use of the corn produced is a bad idea. Ethanol from corn produces less energy than the sum total of the energy necessary to produce it. Cows should not eat corn; they are grazing animals, and one does not ordinarily see cows grazing in corn fields. As Michael Pollan detailed (and as the movie graphically shows), cows get very sick eating corn, and thus about 70% of all antibiotics consumed in the United States are consumed by feed-lot cows. Yum. HFCS is a hepatotoxim, a carcinogen (under some theories), and maybe the major obesogenic substance in the world. Corn oil has a high smoke point, which is unfortunate, since its best use would be to burn it all up. It's certainly a bad idea to cook with it or to eat margarine made from it.

The reason for all of the above is that mass, monoculture farming of corn keeps the price down, both of beef and of beverage sweeteners. The farmers in the movie seemed like a dispirited bunch, honestly. They know they're growing crap that isn't really food, not even (not especially even) for cows. In a basic sense, it's all completely insane, those hundreds of thousands of acres of this weird stuff growing in worn-out soil gassed with anhydrous ammonia, poisoned with herbicides and insecticides, and then mainly fed to cows and to Big Gulp enthusiasts.

Like most of the defense department and its wars to protect oil sources (read the Washington Post's latest [http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/conflict-in-libya-us-oil-companies-sit-on-sidelines-as-gaddafi-maintains-hold/2011/06/03/AGJq2QPH_story.html] on why we're really in Libya), industries like corn growing and endless foreign wars are just legacy businesses that continue on their own momentum, solely for the sake of money, an institutionalized form of insanity that is fundamentally anti-life, and, as Max Weber says, a complete nullity. And so very typical of a mass, unconscious society.