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Credit the Arab Spring and what’s followed in the Greater Middle East to many things, but don’t overlook American “unilateralism.” After all, if you want to see destabilization at work, there’s nothing like having a heavily armed crew dreaming about eternal global empires stomp through your neighborhood, and it’s clear enough now that whatever was let loose early in the twenty-first century won’t end soon.

If, from Tunisia and Egypt to Syria and Libya, the Arab Spring was a series of popular uprisings, it was also a series of unravelings.  Two decades late, the Cold War system of great power control in the Middle East, in which the U.S. was the dominant partner and the Soviet Union the lesser one, is finally disintegrating. The abattoir that is now Syria could be considered the Russian contribution to the present chaos; Egypt, with its besieged fundamentalist president, its irate soccer fans in the streets of its Suez-Canal-bordering cities, and its army chief talking about a possible “collapse” of the state, should be considered part of the far greater and more devastating American contribution. (Along with Israel, Egypt was one of the three pillars of the American system in the region; the other, still standing in all its fundamentalist glory, its vast oil reserves pumping away, remains Saudi Arabia.)

In any case, when you see what’s happening these days, first thank the American unilateralists of the 1990s, our own financial jihadis. They dreamed of organizing a planet subservient to American financial power and ended up, in 2008, blowing a hole in it instead. A decade later came George W. Bush and his neocon followers, dreaming of doing the same thing in military terms, with similarly disastrous results.  If the neoliberals helped create the 1% world of Middle Eastern oppression that a young Tunisian with a lighter set afire, Bush’s visionary militarists, with their catastrophic invasion and occupation of Iraq, did even greater damage.  They punched a hole directly in the oil heartlands of the planet and set what they already liked to call “the arc of instability” -- little did they know -- aflame. Between them, they drove us through what, in 2004, Amr Moussa, then head of the Arab League, called “the gates of hell,” imagining they were the gates to an imperial paradise.

Now, from Pakistan and Yemen to Mali and Niger, Washington's drones, special ops, and cyber warriors are now blindly pushing that process of destabilization forward, even as they further undermine American power in the region. This post-Arab Spring world and the state of U.S. power are the subjects that TomDispatch regular Noam Chomsky takes up in the following excerpt adapted from his wide-ranging new interview book with David Barsamian, Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire. (It’s another Chomsky must-read.) Tom

The Paranoia of the Superrich and Superpowerful
Washington’s Dilemma on a “Lost” Planet
By Noam Chomsky

[This piece is adapted from “Uprisings,” a chapter in Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire, Noam Chomsky’s new interview book with David Barsamian (with thanks to the publisher, Metropolitan Books).  The questions are Barsamian’s, the answers Chomsky’s.]

Does the United States still have the same level of control over the energy resources of the Middle East as it once had?

The major energy-producing countries are still firmly under the control of the Western-backed dictatorships. So, actually, the progress made by the Arab Spring is limited, but it’s not insignificant. The Western-controlled dictatorial system is eroding. In fact, it’s been eroding for some time. So, for example, if you go back 50 years, the energy resources -- the main concern of U.S. planners -- have been mostly nationalized. There are constantly attempts to reverse that, but they have not succeeded.

Take the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example. To everyone except a dedicated ideologue, it was pretty obvious that we invaded Iraq not because of our love of democracy but because it’s maybe the second- or third-largest source of oil in the world, and is right in the middle of the major energy-producing region. You’re not supposed to say this. It’s considered a conspiracy theory.

The United States was seriously defeated in Iraq by Iraqi nationalism -- mostly by nonviolent resistance. The United States could kill the insurgents, but they couldn’t deal with half a million people demonstrating in the streets. Step by step, Iraq was able to dismantle the controls put in place by the occupying forces. By November 2007, it was becoming pretty clear that it was going to be very hard to reach U.S. goals. And at that point, interestingly, those goals were explicitly stated. So in November 2007 the Bush II administration came out with an official declaration about what any future arrangement with Iraq would have to be. It had two major requirements: one, that the United States must be free to carry out combat operations from its military bases, which it will retain; and two, “encouraging the flow of foreign investments to Iraq, especially American investments.” In January 2008, Bush made this clear in one of his signing statements. A couple of months later, in the face of Iraqi resistance, the United States had to give that up. Control of Iraq is now disappearing before their eyes.

Iraq was an attempt to reinstitute by force something like the old system of control, but it was beaten back. In general, I think, U.S. policies remain constant, going back to the Second World War. But the capacity to implement them is declining.

Declining because of economic weakness?

Partly because the world is just becoming more diverse. It has more diverse power centers. At the end of the Second World War, the United States was absolutely at the peak of its power. It had half the world’s wealth and every one of its competitors was seriously damaged or destroyed. It had a position of unimaginable security and developed plans to essentially run the world -- not unrealistically at the time.

This was called “Grand Area” planning?

Yes. Right after the Second World War, George Kennan, head of the U.S. State Department policy planning staff, and others sketched out the details, and then they were implemented. What’s happening now in the Middle East and North Africa, to an extent, and in South America substantially goes all the way back to the late 1940s. The first major successful resistance to U.S. hegemony was in 1949. That’s when an event took place, which, interestingly, is called “the loss of China.” It’s a very interesting phrase, never challenged. There was a lot of discussion about who is responsible for the loss of China. It became a huge domestic issue. But it’s a very interesting phrase. You can only lose something if you own it. It was just taken for granted: we possess China -- and if they move toward independence, we’ve lost China. Later came concerns about “the loss of Latin America,” “the loss of the Middle East,” “the loss of” certain countries, all based on the premise that we own the world and anything that weakens our control is a loss to us and we wonder how to recover it.

Today, if you read, say, foreign policy journals or, in a farcical form, listen to the Republican debates, they’re asking, “How do we prevent further losses?”

On the other hand, the capacity to preserve control has sharply declined. By 1970, the world was already what was called tripolar economically, with a U.S.-based North American industrial center, a German-based European center, roughly comparable in size, and a Japan-based East Asian center, which was then the most dynamic growth region in the world. Since then, the global economic order has become much more diverse. So it’s harder to carry out our policies, but the underlying principles have not changed much.

Take the Clinton doctrine. The Clinton doctrine was that the United States is entitled to resort to unilateral force to ensure “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources.” That goes beyond anything that George W. Bush said. But it was quiet and it wasn’t arrogant and abrasive, so it didn’t cause much of an uproar. The belief in that entitlement continues right to the present. It’s also part of the intellectual culture.

Right after the assassination of Osama bin Laden, amid all the cheers and applause, there were a few critical comments questioning the legality of the act. Centuries ago, there used to be something called presumption of innocence. If you apprehend a suspect, he’s a suspect until proven guilty. He should be brought to trial. It’s a core part of American law. You can trace it back to Magna Carta. So there were a couple of voices saying maybe we shouldn’t throw out the whole basis of Anglo-American law. That led to a lot of very angry and infuriated reactions, but the most interesting ones were, as usual, on the left liberal end of the spectrum. Matthew Yglesias, a well-known and highly respected left liberal commentator, wrote an article in which he ridiculed these views. He said they’re “amazingly naive,” silly. Then he expressed the reason. He said that “one of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers.” Of course, he didn’t mean Norway. He meant the United States. So the principle on which the international system is based is that the United States is entitled to use force at will. To talk about the United States violating international law or something like that is amazingly naive, completely silly. Incidentally, I was the target of those remarks, and I’m happy to confess my guilt. I do think that Magna Carta and international law are worth paying some attention to.

I merely mention that to illustrate that in the intellectual culture, even at what’s called the left liberal end of the political spectrum, the core principles haven’t changed very much. But the capacity to implement them has been sharply reduced. That’s why you get all this talk about American decline. Take a look at the year-end issue of Foreign Affairs, the main establishment journal. Its big front-page cover asks, in bold face, “Is America Over?” It’s a standard complaint of those who believe they should have everything. If you believe you should have everything and anything gets away from you, it’s a tragedy, the world is collapsing. So is America over? A long time ago we “lost” China, we’ve lost Southeast Asia, we’ve lost South America. Maybe we’ll lose the Middle East and North African countries. Is America over? It’s a kind of paranoia, but it’s the paranoia of the superrich and the superpowerful. If you don’t have everything, it’s a disaster.

The New York Times describes the “defining policy quandary of the Arab Spring: how to square contradictory American impulses that include support for democratic change, a desire for stability, and wariness of Islamists who have become a potent political force.” The Times identifies three U.S. goals. What do you make of them?

Two of them are accurate. The United States is in favor of stability. But you have to remember what stability means. Stability means conformity to U.S. orders. So, for example, one of the charges against Iran, the big foreign policy threat, is that it is destabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan. How? By trying to expand its influence into neighboring countries. On the other hand, we “stabilize” countries when we invade them and destroy them.

I’ve occasionally quoted one of my favorite illustrations of this, which is from a well-known, very good liberal foreign policy analyst, James Chace, a former editor of Foreign Affairs. Writing about the overthrow of the Salvador Allende regime and the imposition of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in 1973, he said that we had to “destabilize” Chile in the interests of “stability.” That’s not perceived to be a contradiction -- and it isn’t. We had to destroy the parliamentary system in order to gain stability, meaning that they do what we say. So yes, we are in favor of stability in this technical sense.

Concern about political Islam is just like concern about any independent development. Anything that’s independent you have to have concern about because it might undermine you. In fact, it’s a little ironic, because traditionally the United States and Britain have by and large strongly supported radical Islamic fundamentalism, not political Islam, as a force to block secular nationalism, the real concern. So, for example, Saudi Arabia is the most extreme fundamentalist state in the world, a radical Islamic state. It has a missionary zeal, is spreading radical Islam to Pakistan, funding terror. But it’s the bastion of U.S. and British policy. They’ve consistently supported it against the threat of secular nationalism from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and Abd al-Karim Qasim’s Iraq, among many others. But they don’t like political Islam because it might become independent.

The first of the three points, our yearning for democracy, that’s about on the level of Joseph Stalin talking about the Russian commitment to freedom, democracy, and liberty for the world. It’s the kind of statement you laugh about when you hear it from commissars or Iranian clerics, but you nod politely and maybe even with awe when you hear it from their Western counterparts.

If you look at the record, the yearning for democracy is a bad joke. That’s even recognized by leading scholars, though they don’t put it this way. One of the major scholars on so-called democracy promotion is Thomas Carothers, who is pretty conservative and highly regarded -- a neo-Reaganite, not a flaming liberal. He worked in Reagan’s State Department and has several books reviewing the course of democracy promotion, which he takes very seriously. He says, yes, this is a deep-seated American ideal, but it has a funny history. The history is that every U.S. administration is “schizophrenic.” They support democracy only if it conforms to certain strategic and economic interests. He describes this as a strange pathology, as if the United States needed psychiatric treatment or something. Of course, there’s another interpretation, but one that can’t come to mind if you’re a well-educated, properly behaved intellectual.

Within several months of the toppling of [President Hosni] Mubarak in Egypt, he was in the dock facing criminal charges and prosecution. It’s inconceivable that U.S. leaders will ever be held to account for their crimes in Iraq or beyond. Is that going to change anytime soon?

That’s basically the Yglesias principle: the very foundation of the international order is that the United States has the right to use violence at will. So how can you charge anybody?

And no one else has that right.

Of course not. Well, maybe our clients do. If Israel invades Lebanon and kills a thousand people and destroys half the country, okay, that’s all right. It’s interesting. Barack Obama was a senator before he was president. He didn’t do much as a senator, but he did a couple of things, including one he was particularly proud of. In fact, if you looked at his website before the primaries, he highlighted the fact that, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, he cosponsored a Senate resolution demanding that the United States do nothing to impede Israel’s military actions until they had achieved their objectives and censuring Iran and Syria because they were supporting resistance to Israel’s destruction of southern Lebanon, incidentally, for the fifth time in 25 years. So they inherit the right. Other clients do, too. 

But the rights really reside in Washington. That’s what it means to own the world. It’s like the air you breathe. You can’t question it. The main founder of contemporary IR [international relations] theory, Hans Morgenthau, was really quite a decent person, one of the very few political scientists and international affairs specialists to criticize the Vietnam War on moral, not tactical, grounds. Very rare. He wrote a book called The Purpose of American Politics. You already know what’s coming. Other countries don’t have purposes. The purpose of America, on the other hand, is “transcendent”: to bring freedom and justice to the rest of the world. But he’s a good scholar, like Carothers. So he went through the record. He said, when you study the record, it looks as if the United States hasn’t lived up to its transcendent purpose. But then he says, to criticize our transcendent purpose “is to fall into the error of atheism, which denies the validity of religion on similar grounds” -- which is a good comparison. It’s a deeply entrenched religious belief. It’s so deep that it’s going to be hard to disentangle it. And if anyone questions that, it leads to near hysteria and often to charges of anti-Americanism or “hating America” -- interesting concepts that don’t exist in democratic societies, only in totalitarian societies and here, where they’re just taken for granted.

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus in the MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.  A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of numerous best-selling political works, including recently Hopes and Prospects and Making the Future.  This piece is adapted from the chapter “Uprisings” in his newest book (with interviewer David Barsamian), Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books). 

Excerpted from Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire, published this month by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright (c) 2013 by Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian. All rights reserved.

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Comment Preferences

  •  From Manifest Destiny to the present. same (12+ / 0-)

    thing only different.  We're trained and conditioned from birth that the U.S. is "transcendent", special and that our country's actions are noble and for freedom and democracy. Still too few see thru the bullshit.  It does appear the ruling elite are losing control but that's when they may become even more dangerous, which appears to be what we're seeing with the massive accumulation of wealth at the top, the formation of a police state and a constant global war footing.  Sometimes when people lose control they become desperate.  The true believers won't go down without a fight.  

    "The Global War on Terror is a justification for U.S. Imperialism. It must be stopped."

    by BigAlinWashSt on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 07:40:19 AM PST

    •  There is something going (3+ / 0-)

      wrong with the whole structure.  I'm not quite sure what it is but it has to do with globalization, the way that the 1% and some governments largely disregard boundaries now.  It also has to do with maintaining a relatively high standard of living in the imperialist countries.  It's a lot easier to delude yourself that you are the good guys of the world if you are very comfortable yourself and you have higher motivation for rationalization.  When the populations of the imperialist countries start relating to the "lesser" and occupied (overtly or covertly) countries, that's a recipe for trouble.  So I think globalization is mucking more than a few things up.

      "Justice is a commodity"

      by joanneleon on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 09:50:39 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  "... largely disregard boundaries..." (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I believe you have part of the answer in this. Somehow it seems as though the aristocracy throughout the world is shifting its loyalty from where they live to a more ethereal world class structure. Patriotism, while focused on the nation when speaking to the masses, more probably refers to their own economic class in private meetings. There appeared a struggle in the past for top position world wide, economic leadership vs. political leadership, but that looks like it's been settled. I fear economic class has already purchased the political class who is now a wholly owned subsidy.

        While there has always been unfairness in the systems what we have seen in the last decade suggests no one feels the need to pretend we do not have several classes of justice. If you work with big money domestically or international  money at any level you can do anything you want without fear. All the enforcement power is aimed at the bottom 90% of the citizenry.

        Yeah, democracies still hold elections and the politicians are free to tweak and drag the nation's culture forward on social policies, but here are just about everywhere except Iceland, no political structure attempts to challenge the big economic players. They are the bosses after all and they do not welcome disagreement from their lessors.

        Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. --Edward Abbey

        by ricklewsive on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 10:48:57 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Like Nixon said: (6+ / 0-)

    "Well, when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal"
                              -Interview with David Frost (19 May 1977)

    "Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it." ~ Mark Twain

    by wonkydonkey on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 07:57:20 AM PST

  •  "Having things," ownership of material assets, as (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    a2nite, Ageing Hippie

    well as other people, has always been a sop to make up for the fact that the person could not be secure in his/her own rights.  Human rights have always taken a back seat to property rights. Had to.  Otherwise, the owning of people as property could not have been legal. Slavery is our original sin. Embedding it in the Constitution an affront to man and nature. Making it illegal, EXCEPT as a punishment for crime did not get rid of it. Indeed, that exception is one of the signs of our "exceptionalism." Something always gets excepted by the ex-men.
    The rule of law is full of exceptions. Justice has to wait.

    We think that when someone recognizes an error, he will be moved to make amends. Not so. Some humans are adept, even expert, at doubling down as if to prove the error was not wrong. So, we continue to have involuntary servitude in prisons, voluntary servitude in our military, and property rights in our children until they are emancipated into the arms of the state. That involuntary servitude is only a possibility to meet extraordinary circumstances (military necessity) does not change that it is a matter of law.

    We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

    by hannah on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 08:01:28 AM PST

    •  Slavery was a source of exceptionalism, (0+ / 0-)

      but ownership of people as property was not endorsed in the Constitution, although masters of fugitive slaves claimed otherwise decades later. See Sumner's senate speeches "Freedom National, Slavery Sectional", "the Crime Against Kansas" and "the Barbarism of Slavery". Dred Scott was ignored by Lincoln because unconstitutional, back when oaths of office meant something.

  •  Strangely ahistorical (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Eikyu Saha, blackjackal, VClib
    Centuries ago, there used to be something called presumption of innocence. If you apprehend a suspect, he’s a suspect until proven guilty.
    I don't think the notion that OBL should be apprehended rather than killed on sight would've arisen in any other historical milieu but the post-WWII one where we've seen the rise of IHL and IHRL.
    •  And some hackish dishonesty: (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Take the Clinton doctrine. The Clinton doctrine was that the United States is entitled to resort to unilateral force to ensure “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources.”
      This is FNC-level dishonesty.  The Clinton doctrine tells us that we should use military action when (1) we may do so in self-defense, and (2) when our national interest is sufficiently implicated.  (2) is where we assess economic effects, but (1) is a necessary condition.  ie, we can't use military force just to protect access to markets; the military action must also be legitimate.
      •  I think it's hard to differentiate. (0+ / 0-)

        Attacks can always be made to appear as if they fulfill military security interests when the deeper motivation is economic.  Bush overplayed his hand in Iraq and made it embarrassingly obvious what he was up to.  With others it's less clear -- which is another reason why Chomsky needs to back off his one-size-fits-all claims and show, painful point by painful point, how his claims hold up.  It's all to be found within the Chomsky oeuvre, -- somewhere, always somewhere -- but he renders himself about as transparent and accessible as Marx.  You can win battles (i.e., Chomsky versus U.S. standard media) and still lose a war, but you can't win the war without winning battles.  

      •  Where do you get that from? (0+ / 0-)

        The Kosovo war was not in self-defense. There was no military threat whatsoever to the US. Clinton said he waged war because it was a "moral imperative" and "important to America's national interests".

        uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources.
        That statement comes from the 1997 Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review by Clinton's Defense Secretary, William S. Cohen.

        Decisions about whether and when to use military forces should be guided, first and foremost, by the US national interests at stake - be they vital, important, or humanitarian in nature - and by whether the costs and risks of a particular military involvement are commensurate with those interests. When the interests at stake are vital - that is, they are of a broad, overriding importance to the survival, security, and vitality of the United States - we should do whatever it takes to defend them, including, when necessary, the unilateral use of military force. US vital interests include, but are not limited to:

        protecting the sovereignty, territory, and population of the United States, and preventing and deterring threats to our homeland, including NBC attacks and terrorism;

        preventing the emergence of a hostile regional coalition or hegemon;

        ensuring freedom of the seas and security of international see lines of communication, airways, and space;

        ensuring uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources.

        deterring and, if necessary, defeating aggression against US allies and friends

  •  Chomsky needs a translator. (4+ / 0-)

    Every point he makes is worth its weight in gold, but his points are too fast and too furious, and end up having no impact.  

    Passive resistance in Iraq?  Half a million people in the streets? How would anyone even know about that without a massive program of research? It is extraordinarily difficult to find any information about what happened in Iraq after the initial attack: the deaths, the migrations, the feuds that surfaced, the solidarities that surfaced, the voices, the economic predation by outside capitalists, the continue forces of micro-destabilization.  This stuff has all been hidden in a morass of disinformation.  Chomsky could help untangle that, but he doesn't.  He just goes for the jugular every time -- in his books, but especially in his interviews.  

    I which Chomsky would slow down a bit, and allow his points to be presented so that people can chew them over a bit and let them sink in.  His one-sentence-covers-all style of hit-and-run commentary undermines the content therein.  It looks like baseless cherry-picking.  

    I'm convinced that the reason why mainstream media won't touch Chomsky is only secondarily because he bucks the common understandings; primarily it is because he fails to take the efforts necessary, detail by detail, to bring his viewers and readers up to his own speed.  

  •  Blast from the past (5+ / 0-)

    Just change the location

    "I don't think,the whole of Southeast Asia, as related to the present and future safety and freedom of the people of this country, is worth the life or limb of a single American [and] I believe that if we had and would keep our dirty, bloody, dollar-soaked fingers out of the business of these [Third World] nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own.... And if unfortunately their revolution must be of the violent type because the "haves" refuse to share with the "have-nots"  by any peaceful method, at least what they get will be their own, and not the American style, which they don't want and above all don't want crammed down their throats by Americans."

    General David M. Shoup, former US Marine Commandant and recipient of the Medal of  Honor after Tarawa, 1966

    Served under General Smedley Butler in China

    Help me to be the best Wavy Gravy I can muster

    by BOHICA on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 08:34:14 AM PST

  •  He has never liked us, no matter (0+ / 0-)

    There was a day when I listened to him.  He has a very reasonable sounding voice and approach to public speaking.

    But no matter what we do, no matter under what administration, he will always disapprove.  Often he is right, but he does not fix things.  He just looks for broken things.

    We are broken.  He will always say so even if there are incremental improvements.

  •  US economy is dependent on perpetual war (0+ / 0-)

    The US military wages war to increase and cement US economic hegemony worldwide which in turn finances the military in an ever tightening spiral.

    America's Faustian Deal with the Devil of War
    Today, the United States is the most powerful and wealthiest nation on the planet.

    No other nation even comes close in terms of military power. The United States spends more on so-called "defense" than the next 17 top military nations combined. And when it comes to our supposed biggest threat in the future, the Chinese, we spend six times more on our military than they do.

    And in terms of wealth, the United States GDP in 2010 was $14.5 trillion - nearly three times the GDP of China, the second wealthiest nation on the planet.

    Unfortunately, just like Faust, all of this power and wealth did not come honestly. It came as a result of a bargain - a bargain with the Devil of War.
    As President Obama said in his Super Bowl interview with CBS on Sunday, "The economy shrank a little bit despite the fact that housing is recovering, manufacturing is going strong, car sales are up ... the big problem was defense spending was cut 22 percent."

    With so much of our economy dependent on perpetual war, we officially have a war economy, which means we must continue this endless war or suffer further economic ruin beyond what we're already experiencing with rampant joblessness, declining wages and spiraling budget deficits on a local, state and federal level.

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