War brought misery to Iraqi town
Once-lovely Iraqi resort now filled with suffering
Gulf War brought era of pollution and cancer

Hadani Ditmars, Chronicle Foreign Service Friday, February 15, 2002


Basra, Iraq -- The view from the Basra Sheraton would be downright romantic if it weren't for the statues of dead Iraqi pilots pointing accusingly across the bay at Iran.

The latticed windows reveal a scene of ships and fishermen, palm trees and sea promenades that could easily convince one that this ruined city is still the beautiful resort town it once was.

But underneath the charming visual surface lie tales that would chill the bones of any tourist. Iraq's wealthiest and most exotic city before the Iran- Iraq and Gulf wars, Basra today bears the scars of two decades of warfare.

With its sewage, water treatment and electrical facilities heavily bombed during the Gulf War, Basra's canal system is a huge sprawl of raw filth mixed with muddy rain waters. Those waters spawn diseases that are the prime factor in the city's high infant mortality rate.

Because of the lack of maintenance and the absence of new investments, Iraq's drinking water supply systems and sewage evacuation networks have constantly deteriorated since the end of the Gulf War. In many areas they have broken down completely.

The Red Cross has made an admirable effort to repair Basra's central Hamdan sewage treatment facility. But contracts to obtain the needed spare parts have often been subjected to "holds" under the terms of the United Nations' "oil for food" humanitarian program, slowing progress to a crawl.

If the water doesn't get you here, the depleted uranium (DU) might. An estimated 300 tons of the stuff -- a heavy metal used in armor-piercing munitions that is a less radioactive byproduct of natural uranium -- was dropped on Iraq during the Gulf War.

No conclusive link has been established between DU exposure and cancer, and radiation testing equipment needed for recording proper data on DU poisoning is unavailable in Iraq because of the international sanctions.

But physicians at the Basra Maternity and Pediatrics Hospital have kept shocking photographic records of what they say are the effects of inhaling or ingesting DU-contaminated dust.

In his sunlight-flooded office, hospital director Amr Issa al-Jabari graciously offers tea and then pulls out a book of photographs of "monster babies" -- some born without brains, or with their intestines outside their bodies, or with their nose where their eyes should be.

"We have experienced seven times the normal number of birth defects and pediatric cancers since the end of the Gulf War," he said.

Seated beneath a idyllic pre-war photo of Basra's waterfront, al-Jabari explained the theory of "radiation transference," or how radiation is spread by wind.

Since DU, also known as Uranium-238, has a half-life estimated at over 4 billion years, the Basra area may be fighting poison virtually until the end of time. Even the palm trees suffer from mysterious diseases from the pollution and a sanctions-related lack of pesticides.

"This is not just a local problem," al-Jabari added. "The border areas in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were also affected by the bombing."

He is convinced that authorities in those countries are deliberately suppressing DU-related health statistics for political gain. "How would it look if they point the finger at their ally -- the U.S.?"

His voice rising to an emotional pitch of indignation, al-Jabari added, "What about all the American servicemen who are suffering from DU poisoning?"

DU poisoning is often cited as a possible cause of the mysterious malady known as Gulf War syndrome, which afflicts an estimated 100,000 American veterans.

Jinan Ghalib, the hospital's specialist in pediatric cancer, arrived to lead a tour of her wards.

She is a petite woman with a pretty face, but her voice was a low monotone as she recited in near-automatic fashion a list of the cancer-treating drugs the hospital lacks. Her clinical tone might have reflected either stringent training or a kind of moral exhaustion.

"We have fewer drugs available this year than we had last year," Ghalib said. "But the real problem is that we don't have consistency, so that a patient may not have a full course of, say, antibiotics or other drugs, and therefore will not heal properly with an incomplete course."

She blamed the oil-for-food program, which comes up for renewal every six months and thus shortens the length of medical supply contracts to that span. A patient with high blood pressure, for example, must switch to a new medication every half year.

Many families sell their last remaining possessions to pay for medicine that will only have a limited effect.

Ghalib moved on to a ward where a young mother held her baby -- 42-day-old Ali, who is swathed in blankets and tubes and hooked up to an oxygen tank.

The doctor said the baby had pneumonia complicated by marasmus (severe malnutrition). The mother is also suffering from anemia and malnutrition -- health issues in Basra, whose primarily oil-based economy was harder hit than Baghdad's after the Gulf War and whose rebuilding has lagged behind the capital because of its provincial location.

The mother gently rocked her tiny boy in a slow, hypnotic rhythm. Her eyes were hollow as she glanced up at the visitors.

In another ward, a better-fed and slightly older mother comforted her pale infant son, his head bald from chemotherapy treatment. The woman introduced herself as Rawdha Kadhim, a 30-year-old mother of three. She seemed to want to talk.

"My child is suffering from leukemia," she said. "Just a few months ago, he started to have fever and flu-like symptoms. Then we took him to the hospital."

The eventual diagnosis was a huge blow. In Basra, cancer usually means death. The doctor says that the child's chances of survival -- with the incomplete course of medicine available -- are slim.

"We borrowed money from friends to buy medicine on the black market," Rawdha said, "but we couldn't find all that we needed there."

Her eyes flashing with anger, Rawdha spoke of her family's pre-Gulf War existence: "We had a good life before. My father was a civil servant who earned a decent salary.

"My childhood was beautiful. We used to have fun, play games, go on picnics.

The lives my children have now are not the same.

"I blame the Americans. I wish they would just leave us alone. We just want to be free to live normal lives."

But a normal life in Basra is almost impossible -- even for the small percentage of sanctions-profiteering nouveau riche, whose villas stand out gaudily among the garbage-strewn streets.

The sounds of Julio Iglesias emanated from an upscale restaurant in the new- money neighborhood of Bradhiya, where a huge outside generator ensures a plentiful supply of electricity (normally unavailable except at night).

But the cuisine leaves something to be desired.

A patron complained, "You see, the food has no flavor -- or if it does, it has a strange kind of aftertaste."

"The rice we get in our monthly rations we just throw out; it tastes like cardboard," said another diner.

Chewing on her lamb and rice, a foreign reporter pondered the grass that local sheep eat and the soil that it came from -- and the water used to boil the tasteless rice and the soil it grew in.

The way back to the Sheraton takes visitors through the central market, where a huge portrait of President Saddam Hussein presides over a sign screaming Basra Shopping Centre. The area, a square kilometer or so of shops selling everything from food to football uniforms, bisected by a filthy canal of fetid water, was once middle class -- before that class disappeared in the early '90s.

A distorted, warped-pitch version of the Beatles' "Yesterday" fills the Sheraton's cavernous lobby. The suites retain a faded grandeur, but the brown water that flows from the bathroom pipes is cut off at least once a day.

The television offers a pirated Schwarzenegger film. Arnold -- a big star in Iraq -- arrives home one day to find that a clone has replaced him and taken over his life. He must spend the rest of the movie struggling to get back home, fighting to get his life back.

Basrans still seem stuck in the last bit of the movie, before Arnold defeats the villains and arrives safely home. And they might never get back.

Canadian journalist Hadani Ditmars recently returned from a monthlong reporting trip to Iraq.


Wed Feb 13, 9:01 PM ET
By Ted Rall

NEW YORK-The numbers are almost impossible to fathom. In less than a year, Enron went from the nation's seventh-largest corporation to Houston's biggest producer of jobless people. More than 4,000 employees hit the streets; many watching helplessly as their locked-in 401(k)s evaporated. Meanwhile, their bosses cashed in their own chips and walked away with bulging pockets. In 2000, the year before Enron went bankrupt, CEO Kenneth Lay collected $8.3 million in salaries and bonuses. Between October 1998 and November 2001, Lay sold 1.8 million of his shares of Enron stock for a cool $101 million. Oh, and Lay was on the boards of Compaq and Eli Lilly until December 2001. He owned $6.7 million of stock in those companies. His total earnings during the `90s are estimated at more than $300 million.

Americans were losing the war on terror long before September 11th.

As it turns out, some of our deadliest foes have been working deep within the system. Even with 2,800 9-11 victims to his credit, Osama bin Laden has nothing on these home-grown corporate terrorists. Thoughtless, greedy captains of industry like Lay have laid off more than 15 million Americans since 1990, simply to pump up the value of stock given to them for nothing.

They fired people when their companies made money and they fired people when they lost money. Either way, the more they fired the more they earned. How many of those 15 million died because they could no longer afford health insurance? How many more have slipped off the ladder of downward mobility and plunged into abject poverty? Osama bin laden and Ken Lay shared a common target-innocent American workers.

Enron is anything but an anomaly. It's a media-ready parable for post-deregulation capitalism. Enron is what happens when we trust business to do the right thing, when we believe in the magic of the marketplace, when a corrupt government abdicates its duty to protect workers and consumers against guys who think they deserve $101 million to run a company into the ground. There have already been thousands of Enrons. Unless we do something soon, there will be thousands more.

The United States may be the only place on earth where there is both unemployment and understaffing. Lines are longer than they've ever been in banks, grocery stores and airports, but employers save money on staff and pass the inconvenience on to us. It's a simple equation: unemployment scares those who keep their jobs, who are willing to work harder for less pay, whose misery mutates into rudeness, which draws the wrath of sucker consumers who are too busy yelling to know that they're angry at the wrong people. Sure, actual business failures are a part of economic natural selection, but putting 4,000 people out of work while you collect $101 million is not an act of God -- it's a crime.

The Bush Administration has already made clear that it's willing to bend the rules in the pursuit of terrorists abroad. Why not go after domestic terrorism the same way?

On September 24, less than two weeks after the suicide attacks on New York and Washington, Bush ordered the assets of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda frozen. Why weren't the assets of Lay and his fellow execs' -- millions in cash, securities and real estate -- immediately frozen? This would prevent them from moving or hiding those assets before Enron employees and shareholders get their day in court. And it would send a clear message to other practitioners of creative bookkeeping.

Innocent before proven guilty, you protest? Bush didn't worry about such pretty legalisms before signing his executive order.

On October 7, he ordered the bombing of Kabul, beginning a campaign that ultimately led to the fall of the Taliban government. We should conduct a precision airstrike on Enron using fiscal means. Nationalize the company, liquidate every asset down to the last paper clip and divvy up the cash among the newly-unemployed. This is a common method of dealing with rogue corporations in other countries; it should be applied to all companies that break the law.

Beginning in January, U.S. forces have been charged with abusing Afghan prisoners. Northern Alliance troops released from U.S. custody reported that they were locked up in shipping containers, deprived of food and water, and beaten until their ribs snapped. The Bush Administration played fast and loose with the Geneva Convention, first stating that captured Talibs were "unlawful combatants," then paying lip-service to the treaty while nonetheless refusing to grant POW rights to the prisoners languishing in dog pens at Guantánamo.

If guys who fought on our side in Afghanistan deserve such rough treatment, surely the fate held in store for Lay, his fellow Enron executives and anyone else accused of corporate terrorism should be a thousand times worse.

"I am deeply troubled about asserting these rights," Lay told Congress on as he took the Fifth on February 11th. "It may be perceived by some that I have something to hide." Want Lay and other Enron terrorists to talk? Dress them up in orange jump suits, put them on a USMC diet and leave them alone with a few good men for a few good weeks. Terrorists, as Bush has said repeatedly, don't have rights.

Anything less would be hypocritical.

(Ted Rall's new book, a graphic travelogue about his recent coverage of the Afghan war titled "To Afghanistan and Back," will be published in April.)


Business Versus Biznes

February 12, 2002


Memo to critics of the media's liberal bias: the pinkos you really should be going after are those business reporters.

Even I was startled by the tone of the Jan. 21 issue of Investment News, which describes itself as "the weekly newspaper for financial advisers." The headline was "Paul O'Neill's Sweet Deal"; the blurb was "IRS backs off closing loophole, averting tax liability for execs and Treasury chief."

It's not really news that the Bush administration likes tax breaks for businessmen. But two weeks later I learned from The Wall Street Journal that this loophole is more than a tax break for businessmen: it's a gift to biznesmen. And it may be part of a larger pattern.

Confused? In the former Soviet Union, the term "biznesmen" (pronounced "beeznessmen") refers to the class of sudden new rich who emerged after the fall of Communism - and who generally got rich by using their connections to strip away the assets of public enterprises. What we've learned from Enron and other players to be named later is that America has its own biznesmen - and that we need to watch out for policies that make it easier for them to ply their trade.

It turns out that the "sweet deal" Investment News was referring to - the use of "split-premium" life insurance policies to give executives largely tax-free compensation (you don't want to know the details) - is an even sweeter deal for executives of companies that go belly up: it shields their wealth from creditors, and even from lawsuits. Sure enough, reports The Wall Street Journal, former Enron C.E.O.'s Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling both had large split-premium policies.

So what other pro-biznes policies have been promulgated

Last year, both houses of Congress passed bankruptcy reform bills; a reconciliation conference scheduled for Sept. 12 got put off. Now those bills are getting another hard look. They toughened the law for ordinary families. But the bills also included a provision that would have made it much easier for companies to transfer assets to "special purpose entities," putting them out of creditors' reach.

To be fair, there are sometimes sound business reasons for transferring assets off a company's books. But now that we know about Chewco and JEDI and LJM and all those other "entities" that Enron executives used to siphon off cash, you have to wonder whether the legislation would really facilitate business, or whether it would mainly serve the interests of biznes. That, at any rate, is what 35 law professors argued in a Jan. 23 letter sent to Congressional leaders. "If this goes through," declared Elizabeth Warren of Harvard Law School, "the incentive for corporations will be to move more and more transactions off the books." My wife (who is also an economist) was more succinct: "This turns us into Russia."

The issue of business versus biznes is not one that divides neatly along party lines. Democrats as well as Republicans have taken money from lobbyists, and (like the Democratic National Committee chairman, Terry McAuliffe) profited personally from investments in companies that later collapsed. And the new bankruptcy laws had overwhelming support on both sides of the aisle.

But right now the Bush administration is busily doing the
most important thing a government can do to promote biznes: nothing. So far Harvey Pitt, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, has failed to propose any meaningful reform in the lax rules that made Enron possible. And as Floyd Norris noted last week in this newspaper, the Bush administration has balked at providing a significant increase in the S.E.C.'s budget - even though "it pays far less than the private sector and, more amazingly, less than other federal regulatory agencies."

The administration's curious passivity could be a simple
matter of faith in the "genius of capitalism," as Paul
O'Neill put it. But as many reporters have noticed, several
high- ranking administration officials had prior business careers that, in retrospect, look more like biznes careers. As Molly Ivins explained at length in her book "Shrub, the list includes George W. Bush himself.

It's still possible that the administration will wake up
and realize that we seriously need reform. But the
impression I get from the business press is a rising tide
of dismay, a sense that an administration everyone expected
to be pro-business is turning out to be pro-biznes


Bush and Lay: A Common Pattern of Stock Dumps?
02/04/2002 @ 5:04pm
I had hoped to be reporting in this space today the answers of disgraced Enron CEO Ken Lay to a host of impolite questions. As you might have heard, Lay was scheduled to make his first appearance before a Congressional committee this morning--and I had planned to join the gawkers at the press tables. But yesterday, Lay canceled, claiming that recent remarks from members of Congress had led him to conclude that an anti-Lay bias had set in on Capitol Hill. Which meant that a lawyer finally had managed to talk some sense into Lay. Since he is the potential subject of criminal investigations and civil lawsuits, it would not have been wise for Lay to subject himself to wide-ranging questions from members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Consequently, I--and you--did not get to see him respond to such questions as:

* What did you expect in return for the hundreds of thousands of dollars you donated to George W. Bush over the years?

* Did you or anyone else at Enron ever try to exert influence over a regulatory matter of the US government? If so, could you please run us through all the details?

* Did you pull strings to replace the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last year? Did campaign contributions come in handy in such an endeavor?

* Why did you find it useful to retain as lobbyists high-level GOP operatives, such as Ralph Reed and Ed Gillespie? Did Enron place Reed on its payroll as a favor to the Bush campaign, as has been reported (but denied by Reed)?

* Did your donations to the Democratic party during the Clinton years help Enron win highly-coveted seats on trade missions led by Commerce Secretaries Ron Brown and Mickey Kantor?

* What did Enron officials and the staff of Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force talk about?

I am presuming the Senators would have dared to ask such direct questions. But Lay is lying low, and these and other mysteries will remain for the time being.

As a public service, then, let me put to good use the space otherwise reserved for the Lay testimony.

A few days ago, the inimitable Molly Ivins called me. There was a slight dire tone in her voice, which is unusual. Molly gets dire about few things. What had riled her was a quote put out by the White House. In yet one more attempt to distance Bush from his (previously) good friend Lay (once known to Bush as "Kenny Boy"), a White House aide had told reporters that Bush was outraged that Lay and other executives had sold hundreds of millions in Enron stock before the company collapsed and the stock plummeted. The aide quoted an angered Bush as saying, "I thought the captain was supposed to be the last one off the sinking ship, not the first one."

This was hypocrisy, Molly noted. See my book, she said, and you'll see why. As soon as I could, I found my copy of "Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush" (cowritten with Lou Dubose), and located the relevant passage. (For those of you playing at home, pages 27 to 33.)

This section of the book covered the years before Bush entered electoral politics, the time when he was a failing-upward oil man. When W.'s father was president of the United States, George the Younger was a major shareholder in a sinking oil venture called Spectrum 7. But before Spectrum 7 sank completely, the Harken Energy Corporation, which was run by a GOP funder, bailed out the company. Bush got about $500,000 in Harken stock for his piece of Spectrum 7, and Harken signed him up as a consultant. Harken went on to win a 35-year exploration contract with the emirate of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf--an odd deal, since the company had no previous experience in international or offshore drilling. Some observers wondered if Harken's Bush connection had been a factor. But that's not the part of the story we care about at this moment.

In June of 1990, Bush sold two-thirds of the Harken stock he had received in the Spectrum 7 deal--and collected $318,430 more than it was worth when he first obtained it. Get low, sell high? Anything wrong with that? The month before this sale, Harken appointed Bush to a committee to determine, as Ivins and Dubose put it, "how restructuring [of the firm] would affect ordinary shareholders." According to Ivins and Dubose, who note the previous reporting work of "U.S. News and World Report," when Bush served on this committee, he was privy to information indicating the company was in trouble. He then dumped his stocks before this news became public. "U.S. News" concluded that at the time of the sale there was "substantial evidence to suggest that Bush knew Harken was in dire straits."

Bush claims he had merely sold at an opportune time, when word of the Bahrain deal was bolstering the company's position. But he then neglected to notify the Securities and Exchange Commission of his stock-dump, as he was required to do. Is that the tip-off something was amiss? (He filed the appropriate paperwork eight months after the deadline.) In the meantime, two months after he sold his shares, Harken stock dropped 25 percent, and it would sink further in the months ahead. As Ivins and Dubose note, "three years later, during his 1994 race against [Texas Governor] Ann Richards, he claimed he had filed the required report and that the SEC must have misplaced it. SEC spokesman John Heine told 'Time' that no one at the agency ever found any lost document."

Did Bush, one of the captains of Harken, jump that sinking ship because he had inside information the vessel was foundering? The chronology is suspicious. Yet now he is shocked, shocked that his close friend Ken Lay engaged in the same pattern of behavior. Perhaps if Ken Lay ever does permit himself to be questioned by a Congressional committee an additional query ought to be added to the list above: Did George W. Bush ever offer you advice on how to betray the shareholders of your own company by selling stock in response to bad-news known only to insiders?


This forwarded from the Guardian by friend and novelist, Larry Baker.

Observer Worldview
Peter Beaumont and Ed Vulliamy
Saturday February 09 2002
The Guardian

There is a United States special forces dog-handler who meets journalists, diplomats and aid workers off the UN flight to Kabul. His job is to search luggage and ensure the security of US troops in Afghanistan. He is short, gingery and aggressive. His skills at persuasion are limited to shouting at the milling crowd: 'Stand back! Stand back! My dog will bite!'

Last week that phrase had become the defining motto and operating credo for the military and foreign policy of the Bush administration. Already President George W. Bush has put Iran, Iraq and North Korea on notice as terrorist-sponsoring nations at the centre of an international 'axis of evil', despite the CIA's recent evidence that none of them was in the business of threatening the United States at present.

Last Monday, to back that explicit threat, he announced an increase in US military spending of 15 per cent, the biggest in 20 years, more than double the military spending in all of the European Union. The rise will be $36 billion (£26.5bn) this year, $48 billion next year and $120 billion over the next five years, rising to a staggering two trillion over the next five years.

Even this is not enough for General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. They want the US defence budget to increase at an even faster rate.

What all this means is clear. Troubled by the 11 September attacks and buoyed by the ease of the war against Afghanistan, Bush's message to the 'evil doers' of the world is that he has a dog; that it is very big, getting bigger, and certainly it will bite.

The puzzle about the latest rise in defence spending is that America at the beginning of the 21st century is already not so much a superpower as a behemoth on the world stage. Economically dominant, it enjoys military and cultural power unrivalled since the days of the Roman emperors, as the American author Robert D. Kaplan reminds us in his new book, Warrior Politics.

Typically, it has been left to the French, traditionally suspicious of US global hegemony, to find the best words to describe it. Gigantisme militaire they call it, in a phrase that describes both the scale of America's ambitions and also a pathological condition: an organism grown so large it is sick.

The question the rest of the world is asking itself is: Who is the enemy America is arming itself so against? And why?

'Ostensibly,' says one European diplomat, 'this is about security. But quite how a massive increase in defence spending is supposed to prevent another terrorist attack remains unclear. Instead this seems to be about repairing the bruised American psyche after 11 September. America's powerlessness in the face of this attack requires big gestures and reassurances, even if they are counter-productive and meaningless.'

Indeed, some analysts say, if it is security that America seeks it is better sought in dialogue with potentially threatening states, rather than in reinforcing the idea already held by many anti-US groups that it is an evil empire bent on world domination.

Cynics have identified more overtly self-serving strands in the Republican obsession with America's defence. The 'war' rhetoric, as some US liberal commentators have pointed out, serves a purely domestic Republican agenda in the post-11 September mood of national paranoia: to win Bush a second presidential term and, in the shorter term, regain Congress.

The reality - even before the latest proposed increases in military spending - is that America could beat the rest of the world at war with one hand tied behind its back. The requirement that US armed forces be able to fight two fully fledged wars with two separate adversaries simultaneously may recently have been dropped, but only because it would be hard pushed to find two such equal foes to fight.

A single US nuclear-powered carrier group - which forms around the USS Enterprise, for example, with a flight deck almost a mile in length and a superstructure 20 storeys high - concentrates more military power in one naval group than most states can manage with all their armed forces. America has seven of these battle groups.

It is not just the scale and power of these weapons systems. The reach of US arms, too, is awesome. When the USS Kitty Hawk was sent with its accompanying warships from Yokohama to the Gulf for the war against Afghanistan, it covered 6,000 miles in just 12 days to be transformed into a vast floating forward attack station for thousands of US special forces.

Its B-52 bombers can fly and refuel across the world armed with cruise missiles that can be fired hundreds of miles away from hostile skies, the missiles themselves directed to their targets by satellites in orbit.

And America's supremacy in bombs, planes, satellites, tanks and real-time intelligence have made the prospect of US casualties remote, except in the event of cock-up or disaster. And, significantly, as the world's only economic hyper-power, it can afford this level of militarisation.

But against all this even the manufacturers of America's arms - like the aviation giant Lockheed-Martin - have been struggling for a decade or so to define the threat its top-shelf jets will be battling in the skies, being forced in one memorable presentation to show the European Eurofighter as a potential adversary.

So why the need for more and better military power? Even military analysts are baffled. 'The rise in US military spending,' says Dan Plesch, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, 'ought to be compared to the decision in the First World War to order up more cavalry when the first wave had been mown down by machine-guns.

'The US has no competitor in high-tech military equipment. And what it is spending its money on is mostly irrelevant against the knives used to carry out 11 September. The bombing of Afghanistan has created the illusion of victory.'

Professor Paul Kennedy at Yale University calculates that the US now spends more each year than the next nine largest national defence budgets combined. Indeed America is responsible for about 40 per cent of the world's military spending.

The new defence expenditure will be paid for by a freshly dug deficit and cuts to every other federal spending programme - including social security, Medicare and urban renewal - apart from tax breaks loaded heavily in favour of the upper-income brackets. Amid all this, military might has emerged as the central tenet of America's new power, the defining feature of the Bush administration.

Already it is causing alarm, even among America's closest allies in Nato, where Lord Robertson, the usually unflappable secretary-general, has been moved to warn some members that unless the declining European defence expenditure is reversed then Europe - and the Europeans in Nato - are in danger of becoming military pygmies.

It is not a prospect likely to worry the military hawks in the Bush administration, who favour unilateralism over alliance. Indeed the Nato alliance, built to counter the rival superpower conflict of the Cold War, is already almost redundant, some diplomats claim.

'Will the Americans ever fight a war through Nato again?' asks Carl Bildt, former Swedish Prime Minister. 'It's doubtful. The United States reserves the right to itself to wage war, and dumps on others the messy, expensive business of nation-building and peace keeping'. And the Afghan war has not only put the US in sole command of the world, but fundamentally reshaped the architecture of international alliances. Central Asia is splattered with new American fortresses; the Pacific and Indian oceans are patrolled by aircraft carriers and accompanying fleets of awesome size.

As a consequence, a new matrix of alliances exists of states beholden to the US in exchange for a blank cheque as regards their own internal human rights abuses - China, Pakistan, India and Russia and the former Soviet states. And even among them are flashpoints in Kashmir, Chechnya and Tibet.

The writer and academic David Rieff, recently returned from central Asia, said at a seminar in New York on Thursday night: 'Even for someone who's not against the use of American power, it's hard to believe that the people running the country can limit their ambitions for an empire at its high water mark.

'They're not doing the intelligent thing, which would be to forge multilateral institutions that are favourable to us. What's the point of attacking Saddam, which will only entrench the root causes of the problems we're facing? Or Iran just when they're ready to deal?'

Crucially, the new culture of US military hegemony is not a continuation of the might the US enjoyed under Bill Clinton or any other administration. It is new, and in military terms it began the day that the man at the apex of this awesome edifice took office, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. With him, Rumsfeld brought a tight group of political appointees who did not inherit the Pentagon in order to pursue business as usual.

One of them, a deputy under-secretary, describes the group to The Observer as 'a coherent team of firm believers in unilateral, American military power'.

And the aim of this power?

'The war on terrorism,' says Professor Paul Rogers, of Bradford University's Department of Peace Studies, 'is simply a euphemism for extending US control in the world, whether it is by projecting force through its carriers or building new military bases in central Asia.'

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited

This is an important piece by my friend and neighbor David Harris. I've not seen it publicly expressed anywhere, and it is overdue in my opinion. Peter

George W. and the 'Axis of Evil'

David Harris Sunday, February 10, 2002


While we rejoice in our Afghan feat of arms and while George W. exhorts us to now train our bombsights on the "Axis of Evil," America has very quietly arrived at a moral tipping point.

The number of dead Islamic innocents in the War on Terror, according to an estimate by a British newspaper, the Guardian, now equals the tally of American innocents struck down on Sept. 11.

This is a landmark moment. Over the last five months, America has justified its war by invoking the primal human right to strike back when struck.

"An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" resonates universally and requires little explanation. But with America and Islam now even in eyes and teeth for eyes and teeth, this war is about to change character.

One obvious consequence of this transformation is that George W.'s upcoming campaign against the alleged "Axis of Evil" must be subjected to a different moral accounting than has prevailed thus far. From here on we have to find some justification for killing Iraqis, North Koreans and Iranians other than the memory of al Qaeda's assault on New York and the Pentagon.

And if we can't make a better case for our right to kill these people than the president made in his State of the Union address, our presumption to act in the name of dead innocents and on behalf of justice is a fraud.

Understandable revenge is morphing into unprovoked aggression. So let's do the moral audit on phase two before it's bankrupt, rather than after.

Start that accounting with the president's failure to offer any evidence that any of these states in the alleged "Axis of Evil" had anything to do with the attack on the World Trade Center or on the Pentagon or any previous attacks on the United States or any alleged attacks still in the planning stage.

So, before he goes any further, George W. needs to get on television again and tell us what exactly it is that makes the three Axis members so Evil we must now unilaterally claim the right to stamp them out. Proceeding on the basis of what the president has put on the table so far is at best deficient and, at worst, its own kind of Evil.

It's true that all three Axis members have provided protection and nurture over the last 20 years to political groups organizing attacks on civilian populations in pursuit of their political ends. But, then again, so have we, and so have many of our staunchest allies.

The Axis members also all have an apparent interest in developing the same kinds of weapons of mass destruction we already possess and whose possession by a number of other nations we accept without similar objection.

Is our position really going to be that the United States gets exclusive control of the threat such weapons pose? That any nation failing to accept our control will face pre-emptive attack? That our vulnerability to these weapons is sacred, to be avoided at all costs, and that their own is worthless and unworthy of even the most rudimentary recognition?

If so, George W.'s phase two amounts to the declaration of an American empire in which the only two choices are accepting vassal status or facing our wrath.

Of the Axis members, Iraq is the most familiar, featuring an oligarchic pyramid sitting atop an unprotected population and led by the brutal Saddam Hussein.

North Korea is a dictatorship of the proletariat turned into just plain dictatorship and made hereditary, while the proletariat faces starvation.

Iran is more complex -- a theocracy replacing a monarchy and now struggling over how much democracy to allow.

All are, to our eye, flawed, perhaps hopelessly.

That said, the United States has no mandate to choose other people's governments, even if the ones they have are bad, brutal, ugly, stupid, pointless, corrupt or mean. And claiming the pre-emptive right to kill people whose governments we suspect, or simply disapprove of, is a violation of most of the things for which America is supposed to stand.

In arguing against the "Axis of Evil," the administration is quick to point out that all three of these places hate us. This approach sets another unacceptable precedent, though not because the description is inaccurate.

How any nation feels about us is no justification for military assault. We have no license to hunt down people who don't like us. The "Axis of Evil" must actually do something to us to justify the kind of belligerency the president has in mind. That they might hope to see us get what they think we have coming some day is insufficient to justify this kind of gunboat behavior.

Wake up, America. We can't kill people just because our president's speech writer thought up a catchy name to call their countries. And right now, the only other justifications we have for waging war against the alleged "Axis of Evil" are that we are strong enough to do whatever we want and that George W. says they're the kind of people who deserve it. This combination adds up to less than justification in anybody's moral arithmetic.

So if George W. can't come up with a better argument, what he is planning to do next is little more than killing people for no good reason.

And that, of course, is the definition of terrorism itself.

The most recent book by Mill Valley writer David Harris is "Shooting the Moon: The True Story of an American Manhunt Unlike Any Other, Ever" (Little, Brown).