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A Bleak Decade Since the 9/11 Attacks

BOSTON -- To arrive in the United States, as I did a few days ago, one week before the tenth anniversary commemoration of the 9/11 terror attacks against the United States, is to reach a land that is remarkably little changed from what it was on that shocking September day in 2001 when Al-Qaeda zealots attacked and killed thousands of civilians. This classic act of terror had two dimensions, in two different spheres, all of which remain with us today as we try to understand the meaning of the act then and its consequences today. In the first sphere of the human mind and its perceptions and reactions, the 9/11 attacks were about psychological terror and political assertion. In the second sphere of the dichotomy of people and values, the attacks were about us and them, good and evil, strength and vulnerability, Islam and the world, and America and the world.

Only by tackling the four dimensions simultaneously does the terrible assault then become comprehensible in its political and criminal ways, and do we have a more realistic chance of actually taking actions that might reduce the chances of such acts recurring again, in this or any other country. I was here in the Boston area on September 11, 2001 when the attacks occurred, and am here again a decade later. It seems to me that very little has changed in the world, and certainly almost nothing has changed in the worlds of the principal actors in this ongoing global drama that pits, in its most simple form, Al-Qaeda vs. the United States government and military.

The most basic equation of what happened on 9/11 was that a criminal gang of terrorists called Al-Qaeda attacked the United States in a successful endeavor to send a terrifying political message. The zealots who followed Osama Bin Laden felt that their Islamic realm was sullied and blasphemed by un-Islamic leaderships and the American-led Western powers that supported those leaders across the Arab and Islamic world. Attacking the heart of the United States, they thought, would send a clear message that Muslims would defend themselves and cleanse their polluted lands, perhaps leading the United States and others in the West to change their policies in the Arab-Asian region.

The two most important things to remember about the Islamic zealots who carried out the deeds of 9/11 are that they started their careers in this business by attacking the Russians in Afghanistan a decade earlier, and that the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslims rejected their tactic of attacking civilians in the West. These two central points about Al-Qaeda and the terror attacks it inflicted on the United States seem largely to have been ignored in the mainstream of American public analysis and discussion in the last decade. The emphasis instead seems to have been on the awesome human spirit of sacrifice, courage and generosity among the many who responded to the 9/11 attacks, and a continuing strange combination of perplexity and perseverance in going after Al-Qaeda and other such terrorists, using both military and political means.

The perplexity reflects the fact that much time is spent in the American public realm in discussing Islam, Muslims, extremism and terrorism, but rarely is the discussion taken to the depth of nuance and specificity needed to really come to terms with why, for example, an Egyptian medical doctor like Ayman el-Zawahiri, now the leader of Al-Qaeda, would become a militant and join Al-Qaeda in the first place. The perseverance reflects the fact that the United States and its allies have spent trillions of dollars in the past decade waging wars against the violent and aggressive phenomenon that Al-Qaeda personifies, but without conclusive successes other than preventing new attacks against the United States -- while terror in the Arab-Asian region and parts of Europe is more prevalent and destructive than it was a decade ago.

more from Rami G. Khouri at Agence Global

Lessons of two wars: We will lose in Iraq and Afghanistan

One of the things that gets in the way of conducting good national security policy is a reluctance to call things by their right names and state plainly what is really happening. If you keep describing difficult situations in misleading or inaccurate ways, plenty of people will draw the wrong conclusions about them and will continue to support policies that don't make a lot of sense.

Two cases in point: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are constantly told that that "the surge worked" in Iraq, and President Obama has to pretend the situation there is tolerable so that he can finally bring the rest of the troops there home. Yet it is increasingly clear that the surge failed to produce meaningful political reconciliation and did not even end the insurgency, and keeping U.S. troops there for the past three years may have accomplished relatively little.

Similarly, we keep getting told that we are going to achieve some sort of "peace with honor" in Afghanistan, even though sending more troops there has not made the Afghan government more effective, has not eliminated the Taliban's ability to conduct violence, and has not increased our leverage in Pakistan. In the end, what happens in Central Asia is going to be determined by Central Asians -- for good or ill -- and not by us.

The truth is that the United States and its allies lost the war in Iraq and are going to lose the war in Afghanistan. There: I said it. By "lose," I mean we will eventually withdraw our military forces without having achieved our core political objectives, and with our overall strategic position weakened. We did get Osama bin Laden -- finally -- but that was the result of more energetic intelligence and counter-terrorism work in Pakistan itself and had nothing to do with the counterinsurgency we are fighting next door. U.S. troops have fought courageously and with dedication, and the American people have supported the effort for many years. But we will still have failed because our objectives were ill-chosen from the start, and because the national leadership (and especially the Bush administration) made some horrendous strategic judgments along the way.

more from Stephan Walt at Foreign Policy

Symptoms of the Bush-Obama Presidency

Is it too soon to speak of the Bush-Obama presidency?

The record shows impressive continuities between the two administrations, and nowhere more than in the policy of “force projection” in the Arab world. With one war half-ended in Iraq, but another doubled in size and stretching across borders in Afghanistan; with an expanded program of drone killings and black-ops assassinations, the latter glorified in special ceremonies of thanksgiving (as they never were under Bush); with the number of prisoners at Guantanamo having decreased, but some now slated for permanent detention; with the repeated invocation of “state secrets” to protect the government from charges of war crimes; with the Patriot Act renewed and its most dubious provisions left intact -- the Bush-Obama presidency has sufficient self-coherence to be considered a historical entity with a life of its own.

The significance of this development has been veiled in recent mainstream coverage of the national security state and our larger and smaller wars. Back in 2005-2006, when the Iraqi insurgency refused to die down and what had been presented as “sectarian feuding” began to look like a war of national liberation against an occupying power, the American press exhibited an uncommon critical acuteness. But Washington’s embrace of “the surge” in Iraq in 2007 took that war off the front page, and it -- along with the Afghan War -- has returned only occasionally in the four years since.

This disappearance suited the purposes of the long double-presidency. Keep the wars going but normalize them; make them normal by not talking about them much; by not talking about them imply that, while “victory” is not in sight, there is something else, an achievement more realistic and perhaps more grown-up, still available to the United States in the Greater Middle East. This other thing is never defined but has lately been given a name. They call it “success.”

much more in an excellent piece by David Bromwich at TomDispatch

Is the SEC Covering Up Wall Street Crimes?

Imagine a world in which a man who is repeatedly investigated for a string of serious crimes, but never prosecuted, has his slate wiped clean every time the cops fail to make a case. No more Lifetime channel specials where the murderer is unveiled after police stumble upon past intrigues in some old file – "Hey, chief, didja know this guy had two wives die falling down the stairs?" No more burglary sprees cracked when some sharp cop sees the same name pop up in one too many witness statements. This is a different world, one far friendlier to lawbreakers, where even the suspicion of wrongdoing gets wiped from the record.

That, it now appears, is exactly how the Securities and Exchange Commission has been treating the Wall Street criminals who cratered the global economy a few years back. For the past two decades, according to a whistle-blower at the SEC who recently came forward to Congress, the agency has been systematically destroying records of its preliminary investigations once they are closed. By whitewashing the files of some of the nation's worst financial criminals, the SEC has kept an entire generation of federal investigators in the dark about past inquiries into insider trading, fraud and market manipulation against companies like Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and AIG. With a few strokes of the keyboard, the evidence gathered during thousands of investigations – "18,000 ... including Madoff," as one high-ranking SEC official put it during a panicked meeting about the destruction – has apparently disappeared forever into the wormhole of history.

read the full article by one of the best investigative reporters working in the U.S., Matt Taibbi, in The Rolling Stone

London Riots and the Big Picture

It is astonishing to find that the British press that is so quick to tell us about the ‘true’ nature and motivations behind each mass protest in the Arab world, is somehow intellectually lame in its attempt to grasp their own huge scale riots at home. Until now, I have failed to see even a single worthy analytical attempt to understand the full meaning or significance of the current violent events taking place on the streets of cities all over the UK. British papers have been outlining the events as being driven by, associated with, and defined by hooliganism. They talk to the victims, and sometime even manage to interview some protagonists and perpetrators.

But, amongst such shallow, sensationalist coverage, we are still missing the most important information. What is the demography of the riots? Who is leading it? Does it have any leaders? Is there an ideology behind it all? Why do they loot, what do they loot, and from whom do they loot? And most importantly, what is the meaning of it all?

The events we saw in the past week in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and Manchester were possible signs of disintegration within British society. Some sectors within the society were clearly saying “we have had enough of it.” The truth is that these people we see rioting on our streets have been drifting away for quite some time, and no one has shown any concern, and now they are clearly not interested anymore in obedience to any notions of law and order. They do not see any great value in it. And the reason for that may be simple — there is simply not much in it for them.

What we see in Britain is not a political protest. It is not a battle with any coherent call for justice. Neither is it an outburst of mere racial hatred. It is none of those things — and yet, considered in its entirety, it comprises and manifests all of those factors at once. It is actually a rejection of the entire system. It is a clear manifestation and forceful expression of generations who have lost all hope in a society that does not convey any prospect of a future for them — what we now see in British cities is young people who are putting the current system on trial. It is a spontaneous eruption of a demand for recognition.

more from Gilad Atzmon at

A Half-Century at the Local Tire Factory in a Globalizing World

For most Americans who were alive at the time, 1963 was a traumatic year that saw the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the abrupt ending of the 1000 days in the White House known as Camelot. Despite that tragic event, that year in my small Midwestern hometown there was great cause for optimism. The Goodyear Corporation was finishing construction of a brand new tire factory just beyond the city limits. Over a thousand good paying jobs were being created in a community that had just over 20,000 residents. Good times would surely follow.

One of the people who benefited immensely from Goodyear’s decision to build that plant among the cornfields was my father, who was recently married and had just been discharged from a two-year stint in the Air Force. The timing of the plant’s opening allowed him to return home and earn the kind of living that would enable my parents to raise a family in the place where they both grew up.

Being a college graduate, my father quickly worked his way up into middle management and became a personnel officer in charge of recruitment. In the 1960s, he used to caravan around the Midwest searching for workers to become tire builders at the plant. It was actually not an easy job. Many workers my father recruited would decide after a week or so that the physical demands of tire building were not for them. Employment was so plentiful back then that quitting wasn’t a problem; they could easily find another job somewhere else the very next day. The local union was very powerful because of the strong economy, and was able to win numerous wage and benefit increases from the corporation.

My father’s service at the plant allowed my parents to live the middle class American dream. They bought a starter house in a brand new subdivision on the outskirts of town, and then traded it up for a larger model in town a decade later when the third of their three sons was born. Growing up in the 1970s, I was educated at good public schools and spent the long summers playing outside with the neighborhood kids. No video games or cable tv back in those days.

My father’s career flourished for more than 20 years. He never aspired to the senior management ranks, but was loyal to the company and content with his lot in life. But trouble was to strike in 1986 when, in a scenario right out of the movie Wall Street, Goodyear was subject to a hostile takeover attempt by British financier James Goldsmith. The corporation managed to survive intact, but at the cost of $90 million being extracted from the company’s coffers.

more from William Hicks at

How Fraud and Bad Economic Thinking Got Us Into This Mess

Yves here. Our resident mortgage maven Tom Adams pointed me to a speech by James Galbraith via selise at FireDogLake, which discusses, among other things, how certain key lines of thinking are effectively absent from economics, as well as a lengthy discussion of the failure to consider the role of fraud. Galbraith is not exaggerating. The landmark 1994 paper on looting, or bankruptcy for profit, by George Akerlof and Paul Romer, was completely ignored from a policy standpoint even though it explained why the US had a savings and loan crisis.

Similarly, Galbraith refers to an incident at the most recent Institute for New Economic Thinking conference, in which he stood up and said, more or less, that he couldn’t believe he has just heard a panel discussion on the financial crisis and no one mentioned fraud. The stunning part was how utterly unreceptive the panel and the audience were to his observation. You’d think he’d had the bad taste to say the host had syphilis.

I strongly urge you to read the entire piece; non-economists may want to skim the first third and focus on the crisis material and what follows. This is the key paragraph:

This is the diagnosis of an irreversible disease. The corruption and collapse of the rule of law, in the financial sphere, is basically irreparable. It’s not just that restoring trust takes a long time. It’s that under the new technological order in this field, it can not be done. The technologies are designed to sow and foster distrust and that is the consequence of using them. The recent experience proves this, it seems to me. And therefore there can be no return to the way things were before. In other words, we are at the end of the illusion of a market place in the financial sphere.

read Galbraith's speech here

An un-American response to the Oslo attack

Over the last decade, virtually every Terrorist plot aimed at the U.S. -- whether successful or failed -- has provoked greater security and surveillance measures. Within a matter of mere weeks, the 9/11 attacks infamously spawned a vast new surveillance statute (the Patriot Act), a secretly implemented warrantless eavesdropping program in violation of the law, an explosion of domestic surveillance contracts, a vastly fortified secrecy regime, and endless wars in multiple countries. As it turned out, that massive over-reaction was not a crisis-driven anomaly but rather the template for future actions.

The failed Christmas Day bombing over Detroit led to an erosion of Miranda rights and judge-free detentions as well as a due-process free assassination program aimed at an Muslim American preacher whose message allegedly "inspired" the attacker. The failed Times Square bombing was repeatedly cited to justify reform-free extension of the Patriot Act along with a slew of measures to maximize government scrutiny of the Internet. That failed plot, along with Nidal Hasan's shooting at Fort Hood, provoked McCarthyite Congressional hearings into American Muslims and helped sustain a shockingly broad interpretation of "material support for Terrorism" that criminalizes free speech. In sum, every Terrorist plot is immediately exploited as a pretext for expanding America's Security State; the response to every plot: we need to sacrifice more liberties, increase secrecy, and further empower the government.

The reaction to the heinous Oslo attack by Norway's political class has been exactly the opposite: a steadfast refusal to succumb to hysteria and a security-über-alles mentality. The day after the attack -- one which, per capita, was as significant for Norway as 9/11 was for the U.S. -- Oslo Mayor Fabian Stang, when asked whether greater security measures were needed, sternly rejected that notion: "I don't think security can solve problems. We need to teach greater respect." It is simply inconceivable that any significant U.S. politician -- the day after an attack of that magnitude -- would publicly reject calls for greater security measures. Similarly inconceivable for American political discourse is the equally brave response of the country's Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, whose office was the target of the bomb and whose Labour Party was the sponsor of the camp where dozens of teenagers were shot:

He called on his country to react by more tightly embracing, rather than abandoning, the culture of tolerance that Anders Behring Breivik said he was trying to destroy.

“The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation,” Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg insisted at a news conference. . . .

Stoltenberg strongly defended the right to speak freely -- even if it includes extremist views such as Breivik’s.

“We have to be very clear to distinguish between extreme views, opinions — that’s completely legal, legitimate to have. What is not legitimate is to try to implement those extreme views by using violence,” he said in English.

Stoltenberg’s promise in the face of twin attacks signaled a contrast to the U.S. response after the 9/11 attacks, when Washington gave more leeway to perform wiretaps and search records.

It reflects the difference between the two countries’ approaches to terrorism. The U.S. has been frustrated by what it considers Scandinavia’s lack of aggressive investigation and arrests.

Since the attacks, Stoltenberg and members of Norway’s royal family have underlined the country's openness by making public appearances with little visible security.

Norway's government understandably intends to investigate what happened and correct any needed gaps in security, such as slow police response; but what it refuses to do is transform itself into a closed, secret surveillance state. About all of this, The New York Times today says that "Norway’s policy on public security [] seemed defined by a belief that bad things happen elsewhere." No: it is defined by a belief that there are other values besides security that matter a great deal and that pursuing security above all other values, in a quest for absolute safety, is both self-destructive and futile.


What's most striking, and ironic, is that the Norwegian response to the Oslo attack is so glaringly un-American even though its core premise -- a brave refusal to sacrifice liberty and transparency in the name of fear and security -- was once the political value Americans boasted of exhibiting most. What we now have instead is the instinctive exploitation by political elites of every threat -- real and imagined -- as a means of eroding liberties, privacy and openness, based in part on fear and in part on an opportunistic desire for greater power. That's why Norway's courageous, principled response seems so foreign to American eyes and ears.

more from Glenn Greenwald

For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up. We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred. I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

– Franklin Roosevelt in Madison Square Garden, 1936

from an article on Roosevelt in the NY Review of Books

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