Category Archives: Cold War

Bin Laden: Destroying the Monster We Created (Part 1)

Back in the 1980s, before the Cold War gave way to the War on Terror, American money and supplies helped Osama Bin Laden create Al Qaeda and build it into one of the world’s most successful terrorist organizations. And without the close alliances between Al Qaeda and our “allies” Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the attack on the World Trade Towers could not have been carried out. What follows are the bare bones of what we know of this world as it existed in the days before September 11, 2001, as pieced together in my book The Five Unanswered Questions About 9/11.

In August 1998, shortly after the Al Qaeda bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, Osama Bin Laden was interviewed by Agence France Press.  In grandiose but concise terms, he described his own rise to power in the early 1980s, during the years of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. “To counter these atheist Russians, the Saudis chose me as their representative in Afghanistan,” he said. “I settled in Pakistan in the Afghan border region. There I received volunteers who came from the Saudi kingdom and from all over the Arab and Muslim countries. I set up my first camp where these volunteers were trained by Pakistani and American officers. The weapons were supplied by the Americans, the money by the Saudis. I discovered that it was not enough to fight in Afghanistan, but that we had to fight on all fronts, communist or western oppression.”

In spite of its self-serving message and self-aggrandizing tone, the basic facts of Bin Laden’s account are not inaccurate. The terrorist organization that would one day launch the most devastating attacks ever to take place on American soil owes its existence, in large part, to U.S. covert operations and U.S. allies. At its inception, Al Qaeda was trained and supported by Pakistani agents, funded by Saudi sympathizers, and supplied by the CIA.

Later, when Bin Laden turned his sights on the United States, the CIA’s former friend in Afghanistan became its enemy. But the strategic and financial support provided by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia continued, right up to the moment of the 9/11 attacks. Without these two countries—and especially their powerful intelligence services—the attacks could not have taken place. Attacks of this magnitude required money, and they required a friendly regime in Afghanistan to provide a training base; these were supplied courtesy of our “allies” in the region. Their support for Al Qaeda continued over nearly two decades, with little intervention from the United States beforehand, and few consequences after the fact.

How the CIA and the Pakistani Secret Service Launched Al Qaeda

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the trail of the terrorists quickly led back to Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda maintained its camps under the protection of the Taliban regime. But in reality, the trail leads further back into Afghan history, to the final decade of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union perceived a threat on its southern border and made the disastrous decision to invade and occupy Afghanistan.

The launch of U.S. covert actions in Afghanistan did not merely respond to the Soviet invasion—it helped to provoke the invasion. In January 1998, Jimmy Carter’s National Security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, told Nouvel Observateur, “According to the official history, CIA aid to the [anti-Soviet] Mujahaddin began during 1980, that’s to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan.  But the reality, kept secret until now, is completely different: On 3 July 1979 Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And on the same day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained that in my opinion this aid would lead to a Soviet military intervention.”

Brzesinski continued, “On the day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, saying, in essence: ‘We now have the opportunity of giving the Soviet Union its Vietnam War.’ Indeed, for almost ten years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.”

 Asked whether he regretted having supported an operation that would foment Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan, giving aid to future terrorists, Brzesninski said, “What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”

The “agitated Muslims” indeed became a key part of the CIA’s strategy in Afghanistan, where a full-scale covert war was carried out during the Reagan Administration, with hundreds of millions in funding eventually provided by Congress. The covert operation took place under the zealous leadership of CIA Director William J. Casey, from 1982 until he became incapacitated in the autumn of 1986. Afghanistan seems to have held a special place in Casey’s heart, representing an opportunity to fight the Soviets right on their own border. In his book Ghost Wars, Steve Coll describes Casey in his famed black C 141 Starlifter transport, streaking through the night sky from CIA headquarters in Langley to Islamabad and back, sometimes stopping off in Riyadh to drum up funding. Casey promoted the idea that would eventually blaze a trail directly from the Cold War to the attacks of 9/11. He wanted to see the formation of an “All Arab” volunteer force that could recruit Muslims from around the world to come to Afghanistan to join the jihad against the Soviet Union.

Pakistan quickly became the U.S.’s number one ally in the Afghan campaign. Although it was long viewed as a strategic ally in the Cold War, relations between Pakistan and the United States at that time had been strained by Pakistani human rights abuses and nuclear weapons development, and most U.S. aid had been cut off. According to Soviet journalist Artyom Borovik, Pakistani leader General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq “saw in the Afghan conflict a unique opportunity to obtain a sharp increase in U.S. military and financial aid to Pakistan. The Pakistani generals regarded the entrance of Soviet troops into Afghanistan as ‘Brezhnev’s gift.’” And indeed, soon after the Soviet invasion, Jimmy Carter described Pakistan as a “frontline state” in the Cold War, and offered Zia $400 million in military and economic aid. In 1981, Reagan increased the aid package to $3.2 billion over six years, renewed in 1986 at the level of $4 billion. This aid required waivers to Congressional measures forbidding aid to countries developing nuclear capabilities—the first of many instances where the United States would look the other way when it came to Pakistan.

 Zia was more than willing to support Casey’s strategy of building an international Islamic force to fight in Afghanistan. According to Ahmed Rashid in his book Taliban, Pakistan issued standing orders to all its embassies to grant visas to anyone who wanted to come and fight with the mujahaddin against the Soviets. As a result, a growing force of Muslims from around the world gathered in camps in easternmost Afghanistan, just across the Pakistani border. These camps, Rashid notes, became “virtual universities for future Islamic radicalism.”

The CIA in Afghanistan worked closely with its Pakistani counterpart, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. According to Mohammad Yousaf, the ISI operations chief for the Afghanistan campaign, most of the U.S. money and supplies were channeled right to the ISI, which then made the decisions as to which commanders in Afghanistan got what weapons. The ISI maintained four base commands within Afghanistan, and they in turn reached out to smaller units, organized around clans and villages.              

As reported in the Financial Times, in the early 1980s, the ISI even “started a special cell for the use of heroin for covert actions”– initiated, according to the article, “at the insistence of the Central Intelligence Agency.” This cell “promoted the cultivation of opium and the extraction of heroin in Pakistani territory as well as in the Afghan territory under mujahideen control for being smuggled into the Soviet controlled areas in order to make the Soviet troops heroin addicts. After the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, the ISI’s heroin cell started using its network of refineries and smugglers for smuggling heroin to the Western countries and using the money as a supplement to its legitimate economy. But for these heroin dollars, Pakistan’s legitimate economy must have collapsed many years ago. . . . Not only the legitimate State economy, but also many senior officers of the Army and the ISI benefited from the heroin dollars.”

Mikail Gorbachev made the decision to withdraw Soviet forces from Afghanistan, and pullout took place in early 1989. By that time, reports and complaints about the growing force of militant Islamic volunteers began to come back to the CIA. But with the advent of the Soviet wind-down and withdrawal, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union and demise of the Cold War, the West lost all interest in Afghanistan. The United States never made any real attempt to deal with the realities it had helped create on the ground in Afghanistan. The war left behind a country where 1.5 million citizens—10 percent of the total population–had been killed, and 6 million had fled as refugees; where a third of the towns and villages had been destroyed outright or rendered unlivable, three-quarters of the paved roads were gone, and half of the agricultural production and livestock had been lost. It also left behind a heavily armed and heavily mined country in a state of virtual anarchy.

As the leaders of former mujaheddin factions fought one another for control, Afghan and Pakistani students were building a new political movement. This movement grew up around the thousands of madrassahs, or religious schools, that had taken root within Pakistan along the northwestern Afghan border. The founders of the new Taliban had no trouble finding recruits in the madrassahs, and in the crowded refugee camps on the Afghan-Pakistani border, and they soon became a force to reckon with within the warring factions in Afghanistan.

Among those keeping their eye on the growing Taliban movement was the ISI, long a major instrument of Pakistani foreign policy. The jihadists within the Pakistani government, and especially within the intelligence service, were unstinting in their support of the Taliban, and the ISI as a whole looked upon the Taliban with increasing favor. The ISI would be instrumental in bringing the Taliban to power, and would continue to provide them aid and advice in managing the country once they had assumed control. At times, Afghanistan almost seemed to be an administrative appendage of Pakistan.

At the same time, the cadre of militant Islamic guerrilla fighters who had converged from across the Islamic world were determined to maintain Afghanistan as a headquarters for future jihads. The time was ripe for the completion of what would prove a deadly troika joining the Pakistani secret service, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda.

Tomorrow: How The ISI Sustained the Taliban and Protected Bin Laden

The End of the Little Red Cars: Remembering East Berlin

In this week’s 20th anniversary celebrations of the “fall” of the Berlin Wall, two images predominate: First,  Ronald Reagan stands before the Brandenburg Gate, intoning “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Next, throngs of jubilant Berliners stream through Checkpoint Charlie, while others clamber atop the Wall or hack at it with sledgehammers, often to the musical accompaniment of David Hasselhoff. Based on these images, you’d never guess that there were more than two years separating these two events–and you’d certainly never know how little they actually had to do with one another.

The mainstream media this week has been full of homages to what they call the “speech that ended the Cold War.” Some news outlets–along with Angela Merkel and the German people themselves–have had the decency to acknowledge that Mikhail Gorbachev had something to do with it, as well. Either way, most accounts attribute the destruction of the Wall to actions and policies that came from the top, from the leaders of the two great Cold War powers.  Largely forgotten or ignored are the ordinary citizens who for years had gathered in the churches of the GDR, placing themselves at great personal risk as they peacefully and persistently worked for change.  

I caught a glimpse of this grassroots movement when I went to East Berlin in the first days of October 1989, a month before the Wall was breached. Along with Sylvia Plachy, the photographer, and Bettina Muller, a young West German journalist, I was ostensibly covering the 4oth anniversary of the GDR; actually, we were there to cover the growing pro-democracy movement. For the better part of the decade, dissidents had been meeting in protestant churches in Leipzig and Dresden, as well as in Berlin–initially to protest the arms race, and later to advocate for political reform. These churches were tolerated by the government and allowed to provide a protective cover for the opposition–although, like everything else in the GDR, they were closely monitored by the Stasi. 

By the fall of 1989, the movement’s numbers had swelled, and there was a sense of excitement, but also one of fear: East German leader Erich Honecker was a hard-liner with no interest in perestroika. Some movement leaders had been arrested, and after the carnage in Tiananmen Square a few months earlier, there were worries that the government would choose a “Chinese solution” to the growing protests in the GDR.

I remember a cold, damp October afternoon when my colleagues and I tried to make contact with someone who had offered to direct us to a meeting of the pro-democracy activists. Entering a small square, we cast a quick look around and saw that at every corner there was a Trabant, the boxy little East German car, each with two men sitting in the front seats. All the cars seemed to be red: This was the Stasi, and they had no need to hide their presence. 

We turned up a sidestreet and went halfway up the block to an address we had been given, the office of an environmental book store. But the windows were shuttered, the door padlocked shut. As we retreated down the block, we passed a young couple, bundled up against the raw cold. They nodded, and walked straight past us. Their clothing was plain and worn and, like everything else in East Berlin, drab. But on the girl’s coat collar, tucked almost out of sight, was a little pin. “That’s it,” Bettina whispered. “They’re here.”

Keeping an eye on the Stasi vehicles, we watched as the couple crossed the square and disappeared into the door of a nondescript building. We followed, and found  ourselves in a small café with a dozen or so people. Noone talked much. They seemed to be waiting. Here and there among them we saw the little pin. Soon, paying no heed to us, they began to drift out in ones and twos.

Bettina had spoken briefly with a young man who gave her another address. We now doubled back out, got into a half-empty metro, went a couple of stops, and crossed another square to a large church built of red stone, with a parish hall next door. It was beginning to get dark, and lights shone through the windows. Outside, all around the building, were little red Trabants.

We had found our way to the Erloeserkirche, or Church of the Redeemer, where that evening thousands of people had gathered by candlelight. Some represented various pro-democracy groups, who were drafting a joint declaration laying out the terms of a new society in East Germany, with free speech and free elections. (Capitalism, at least then, wasn’t on their agenda.) Many others had come to Berlin from deep in the east to catch a glimpse of Gorbachev, who was about to arrive in the city to celebrate the GDR’s anniversary. They wore–timidly at first, then proudly–their little perestroika pins, proud emblems of what seemed to be a peaceful revolution.

I couldn’t understand what was being said, so I watched the crowd; they listened quietly and seriously, but the air buzzed with subdued energy. When the meeting came to an end, we followed the crowd outside. Suddenly, the doors of the little red cars slammed shut. Their engines turned over. The men inside glared out as they began to follow their targets off into the night.

If this all sounds too much like a John Le Carre story, it’s because things really were like that in East Berlin, right up to the end. While there was some sense that things were changing, my colleagues and I didn’t know that we were witnessing the run-up to a cataclysmic transformation in global politics.  Neither, I think, did most of the people inside the church. But that week, churches in Berlin, Leipzig, and elsewhere would become the site of mass demonstrations and mass arrests. Another week more and Honecker would resign. In a month, half a million people would demonstrate in East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz; a few days after that, the Wall would be breached. 

The members of pro-democracy movement who gathered in those churches invoked the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who opposed Hitler and was executed by the Third Reich; they paid homage to Martin Luther King, Jr., who launched a liberation movement from his pulpit in Atlanta. They cheered on Gorbachev, whom they saw as emboldening their revolt, and they were hungry for news of dissdents in other parts of Eastern Europe. But not once did I hear any of them mention Ronald Reagan.

Although it may be lost in the bombastic rhetoric of Western, especially American, self-glorification, the fact is that the fall of the Berlin Wall–and in fact, our so-called victory in the Cold War–had almost nothing to do with us. It didn’t result from the billions the United States spent on nuclear arms, or the thousands of spies we  deployed (none of whom, by the way, saw this coming). It did owe some debt to the maverick Soviet premier who created a  window of opportunity. But in the end, it was down to people like these unassuming  young East Berliners, who braved a 40-year habit of repression and a fleet of little red cars to gather in a church on a raw October evening.

(For those interested in this history, I recommend this piece by Andrew Curry in the Wilson Quarterly.)

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Gethsemane Church, East Berlin, October 9, 1989

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Alexanderplatz, East Berlin, November 4, 1989

Ellsberg’s Memoirs of JFK War Planning

When Sibel Edmonds,the young Turkish-American translator hired by the FBI in the days immediately following 911, was blocked first by the 911 commission,then Congress, and finally by the courts, from telling what she had seen inside the FBI—the incompetence, petty intra-bureau dealngs,security breaches,along with hints that Islamic terrorists might well be intertwined with money laundering and drug dealing—one of the first people who came to Washington to defend her was Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers fame.
And it was Ellsberg, who casting an eye back to the early days of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, could talk with the depth of knowledge and certainty about how government took every means possible to hide the details of its secret dealings,in his case,the Vietnam war. He never suggested Edmonds should break the law by speaking out despite the court gags, but his example proved a steadying force among the whistleblowers of the intelligence community who began to come forward. If Ellsberg could do it, they could do it.
Now, Truthdig.com is running his online memoirs of the government’s secret plans in those days that so many people have forgotten or ignored,events that took place when they were children, or not yet born.They remind me of those days in World War II when as children, we scarcely knew what was taking place around us.
Here is but one terrifying snippet from Ellsberg’s writings:

One day in the spring of 1961, soon after my 30th birthday, I was shown how our world would end. Not the Earth, not—so far as I knew then—all humanity or life, but the destruction of most cities and people in the Northern Hemisphere.
What I was handed, in a White House office, was a single sheet of paper with some numbers and lines on it. It was headed “Top Secret—Sensitive”; under that, “For the President’s Eyes Only.” ….
The deputy assistant to the president for national security, my friend and colleague Bob Komer, showed it to me. A cover sheet identified it as the answer to a question President John F. Kennedy had addressed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff a week earlier. Komer showed it to me because I had drafted the question, which Komer had sent in the president’s name.
The question to the JCS was: “If your plans for general [nuclear] war are carried out as planned, how many people will be killed in the Soviet Union and China?”
Their answer was in the form of a graph.The vertical axis was the number of deaths, in millions. The horizontal axis was time, indicated in months. The graph was a straight line, starting at time zero on the horizontal—on the vertical axis, the number of immediate deaths expected within hours of our attack—and slanting upward to a maximum at six months, an arbitrary cutoff for the deaths that would accumulate over time from initial injuries and from fallout radiation.
The lowest number, at the left of the graph, was 275 million deaths. The number at the right-hand side, at six months, was 325 million.

Read the entire article at http://www.truthdig.com and Ellsberg’s online memoirs—The American Doomsday Machine– at http://www.ellsberg.net. As the editors of Truthdig describe them:

The online book will recount highlights of his six years of research and consulting for the Departments of Defense and State and the White House on issues of nuclear command and control, nuclear war planning and nuclear crises. It further draws on 34 subsequent years of research and activism largely on nuclear policy, which followed the intervening 11 years of his preoccupation with the Vietnam War. Subsequent installments also will appear on Truthdig. The author is a senior fellow of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

Armies of the Right

Across the nation this summer, unknown numbers of people are hunkering down and arming up for what they believe is an imminent battle for the soul of America. Town halls and tea parties provide just a small glimpse of the rage, fear, and paranoia fomenting on front porches and in Internet chat rooms, in the conservative heartland and beyond. While the details may vary, the visions in such forums share a common theme: In one way or another, a fight to the death is coming, and coming soon.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user theonetruebix used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user theonetruebix used under a Creative Commons license.

These deep-seated fears explain at least some of the vitriol, the violent scuffles, and death threats bubbling up in town hall protests against health care reform. It’s all too easy for certain right-wing activists to accept that the president’s plan will create death panels or mandate taxpayer-funded abortions. Because some of these people don’t just believe that Obama wants to destroy capitalism and kill their granny and their unborn child—they believe he wants to kill them, too.

At a town hall meeting with Democratic Senator Ben Cardin in Hagerstown, Maryland, on August 12, one attendee carried a sign that read “Death to Obama,” and “Death to Michelle and her two stupid kids.” Another sign at the same event compared Obama to Hitler. At least some of the Obama-Hitler iconography originates from followers of perennial whack-job Lyndon LaRouche, but the comparison has been disseminated by Rush Limbaugh to a wider audience of hardline conservatives.

That’s not the only insidious comparison making the rounds: One protester who attended a raucous town hall with Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter told a Village Voice reporter that Obama was a “21st-century Marxist” who would adopt the same methods Hugo Chavez used to take power in Venezuela: “infiltration of the education system, political correctness, class warfare ideology, voter fraud, brainwashing through the mainstream media.” 

As the town halls have become more heated, the hints of violence have become increasingly overt. One man showed up outside the president’s town hall meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with a hand gun strapped to his thigh; on August 17, another brought an assault rifle to a demonstration at the site of Obama’s speech to veterans in Phoenix. It emerged that the latter’s presence at the meeting had been coordinated with a former member of the Viper Militia, whose adherents were convicted of weapons and conspiracy charges in the 1990s and were accused of plotting to blow up federal buildings. 

Clearly, this is about far more than health care policy. Instead, it’s just one sign out of many heralding a resurgence of the extreme right wing. It’s been widely reported that extremist groups are growing, in numbers and membership, since Obama launched his presidential campaign. As in the past, some of the ideas espoused by these groups are working their way further toward the political core with the help of right-wing politicians and media figures. 

For instance, take Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) claim that expanding AmeriCorps would result in liberal “re-education camps.” This statement has now morphed into rumors that the young community service volunteers are being armed to take over the country—possibly with some help from the New Black Panther Party.

Similarly, Dick Armey, the former House majority leader and lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry, is predicting an October surprise from Obama in the form of “a hyped-up outbreak of the swine flu, which they’ll say is as bad as the bubonic plague to scare the bed-wetters to vote for health care reform.”

The assertion may sound ludicrous, but it dovetails nicely with a view among conspiracy theorists that a sweeping and deadly plot lurks behind the swine flu pandemic. Influenced by the work of a whacked-out Austrian “journalist” named Jane Bürgermeister, some on the far right believe the virus was manufactured by the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and the rest of the black helicopter crowd’s usual suspects, as “part of a long-term plan by the syndicate, who have built large numbers of FEMA concentration camps with incinerators and prepared mass graves in states such as Indiana and in New York to quarantine people and dispose of the bodies of the people who are killed by the bioweapons attack.” This “depopulation” scheme has in turn been linked by conspiracy theorists to the Obama administration’s plans for a “global planetary regime to enforce forced abortion” and sterilizing the population through the water supply.

Among liberals, the dominant take on all of this seems to be ridicule and derision, or else impotent hand-wringing about the demise of “civil discourse.” It’s as if they’d forgotten that many of these so-called loonies just happen to own guns—and while liberals go on chattering, these folks are stocking up on ammunition. And right-wing radicals have an advantage when it comes to ideological fervor. Obama and the Democrats in Congress quickly frittered away any populist energy that might have come out of the recession, the fiasco of the Bush years, or the 2008 election. All that’s left are the compromises on top of compromises that they call policymaking, for which no one can muster much enthusiasm. Right-wing zealots, on the other hand, think they are fighting for their lives by standing fast against communism, or the anti-Christ, or both; they’re not only doing God’s work, but also fulfilling their destiny as true American patriots.

Indeed, the right-wing revival is infused with the words and imagery of the American Revolution. The gun-toting protestor at Obama’s New Hampshire health care town hall was also carrying a sign that read, “It Is Time To Water The Tree Of Liberty”—a clear reference to a quote from Thomas Jefferson that the “tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” (Because he had a permit and wasn’t in shooting range of the tyrant, the patriot was allowed to keep his gun.) On a website also called The Tree of Liberty, members exchange Obama insults and apocalyptic visions in a forum called Committees of Correspondence, named for assemblies in colonial America that protested tyrannical British policies.

The denizens of these gatherings and websites, the tea parties and the raucous town halls, represent a long-standing force in the country’s political culture: American nativism. This oft-ignored strain draws its central impulse from an opposition to anything that challenges the vision of America as a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant nation. Nativists have taken aim at Catholics, Jews, freed slaves, and successive waves of immigrants, beginning with the Irish fleeing the potato famine in the 1840s and continuing through to present-day immigrants from Latin America. They call for a closing of US borders and support strict adherence to the Constitution in its most literal sense, shorn of equivocating amendments, as a remedy for unwanted social change. And they have been inextricably linked to racist right-wing movements, from the Ku Klux Klan to the Militias to the Minutemen who now “guard” the border. (In the current debate over health care reform, one of the most powerful myths is that it will extend free coverage to illegal immigrants at the expense of “real” Americans.)

Many followers of modern extremist right-wing groups also adhere to the doctrine of Christian Identity, which teaches that white men are the descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, who traced their lineage back to Adam and Eve. The black and yellow people, they believe, are of lesser stature, likened by some to a bad first copy made by God in his fashioning of the Garden of Eden. They are not real people, the thinking goes, and should be cast down as “mud people.” The American Founding Fathers were among the true sovereigns, and the white patriots of today are their descendants. Even before Obama’s election, many believed that the nation’s political and economic systems had been taken over by the Zionist Occupied Government. Jews, according to them, are not true white people, and are bent upon world domination, with the aid of their henchmen, the racial minorities.

That’s why the election of Barack Obama adds even more fuel to nativist rage: The president is a black man, child of an interracial union, the son of a foreigner who bears a foreign name. According to some, he is not even an American citizen. “[T]he face of the federal government—the enemy that almost all parts of the extreme right see as the primary threat to freedom—is now black,” says a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups. “And the fact that the president is an African American has injected a strong racial element into even those parts of the radical right, like the militias, that in the past were not primarily motivated by race hate.”

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Iran: The Protests in the Streets–and Their Cold War Precursors

As demonstrators continue to protest what was clearly a corrupt election and possibly a stolen one, police are responding with “water cannon, batons, tear gas and live rounds,” according to the BBC today. For those who want to follow what’s going on in Tehran’s streets, I’m listing some sources for breaking news and ongoing updates. With the government trying to effect a news blackout, this is first-hand reporting on the fly–and at considerable risk to those providing it. 

Tehran Bureau, which describes itself as “an independent online magazine about Iran and the Iranian diaspora,” is running this Twitter feed, describing developments as they happen.

My old colleague Laura Rozen is constantly updating a series of news links on Iran on The Cable, the blog she runs for Foreign Policy. It includes on-the-scenes reporting from Tehran Bureau and other on-the-ground sources, as well as a roundup of the best reports from more traditional Western and local new sources, official statements, and the like. 

There are also plenty of clandestine videos being released on YouTube and elsewhere, most of them shot on cell phones, showing the beating, tear gassing, and shooting of protestors. This one, sent to me by an Iranian reporter, reportedly shows how the Ahmadinejad regime prepared stacks of fradulent ballots before the election even began. 

For members of the Silent Generation like myself, all of this will bring back memories of 1953, when a coup overthrew nationalist premier Mohammed Mossadegh. While the images are familiar, however, the situation is quite different: Rather than a homegrown democratic movement, the 1953 coup was engineered by the CIA, aided by British intelligence. At the height of the Cold War, the West could not tolerate the leftist Mossadegh, especially seeing that he intended to take over the oil business from the international corporations.

iran 1953The two events are not entirely disconnected, however. The CIA-engineered coup reinstalled the despotic Shah of Iran, which in turn led more or less directly to the Islamic Revolution and the repressive regimes of today. In addition, the destructive history of American meddling inevitably affects the U.S. government’s response to the current uprising. 

The Obama administration is under pressure–mostly from the right–to make a more aggressive response to the situation in Iran. But American support for the protestors–or for Ahmadinejad’s rival Mir Hussein Mussavi–is tantamount to the kiss of death. As Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the New York Times: “If we overtly take sides, the regime could well react with a massive and bloody crackdown on the demonstrators using the pretext that they are acting against an American-led coup.” Or, as he might have said, another American-led coup.

“Identity Politics” at Princeton: Sotomayor (’76), Alito (’72), and Me (’59)

princeton-university_300wide_200highWhat do Sonia Sotomayor and Samuel Alito have in common? Several commentators have pointed out that both graduated from Princeton University (along with ten other Supreme Court justices) before going on to Yale Law and first jobs as prosecutors. But there’s another parallel in their backgrounds, as well: Sotomayor’s and Alito’s time at Princeton in the 1970s shaped and reflected their views on the politics of race, class, and gender. And it’s those views which have turned out to be the most controversial issue in both their nominations.

Sotomayor’s statements about her Latina identity have been used by a cohort on the right to brand the nominee a “reverse racist.” At the center of the storm is a line from a 2001 speech: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O’Reilly, among others, have declared this proof that she is a bigot who wants to see white men laid low by upstart women and minorities, and this will form the basis of the “judicial activism” she’ll exercise on the court.

As pundits argue about how Sotomayor’s sense of Latina identity might affect her judicial conduct (something never done when the nominees are white men), Politico’s Ben Smith on Friday traced the formation of that identity back to her experiences at Princeton. As a member of the class of 1976, Sotomayor was part of the first group of women admitted to the university, and of a slowly growing number of students of color. Smith writes:

Friends, classmates, and Judge Sotomayor herself say that sense of racial identity as a central political category—and of her own place on the stage as not just a wise judge, but as a wise Latina—were formed in the unlikely crucible of Princeton…

The school was “an alien land for me,” Sotomayor recalled two decades later… Her writing skills, she’d discovered, weren’t as polished as those of her prep school classmates. And few could identify with the daughter of a single mother from one of the poorest counties in America.

The center of Princeton social life, meanwhile, were its exclusive eating clubs, which were largely white. Some even barred women at the time.

 Sotomayor found her own way at Princeton, becoming involved in the campus Puerto Rican group, which helped file a 1974 complaint with the federal government based on the university’s a “lack of commitment” to federally mandated minority recruitment goals. Twenty years after her graduation, she would say in a speech that while “it is not politics or its struggles that creates a Latino or Latina identity…Princeton and my life experiences since have taught me…that having a Latina identity anchors me in this otherwise alien world.” (As Smith notes, another Princeton undergraduate, Michelle Obama, would write something similar in her senior thesis in 1985: “My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my ‘blackness’ than ever before. I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don’t belong.”)

Although it happened less than four years ago, there has been less talk about another Supreme Court controversy that revolved around race and gender politics at Princeton University. In November 2005, a few weeks after George W. Bush nominated Samuel Alito,  documents emerged showing that in a 1985 application for a job in the Reagan Justice Department, Alito had listed under his “personal qualifications” the fact that he was “a member of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton University, a conservative alumni group.” The New York Times reported at the time:

The group had been founded in 1972, the year that Judge Alito graduated, by alumni upset that Princeton had recently begun admitting women. It published a magazine, Prospect, which persistently accused the administration of taking a permissive approach to student life, of promoting birth control and paying for abortions, and of diluting the explicitly Christian character of the school.

As Princeton admitted a growing number of minority students, Concerned Alumni charged repeatedly that the administration was lowering admission standards, undermining the university’s distinctive traditions and admitting too few children of alumni….A pamphlet for parents suggested that “racial tensions” and loose oversight of campus social life were contributing to a spike in campus crime. A brochure for Princeton alumni warned, “The unannounced goal of the administration, now achieved, of a student population of approximately 40 percent women and minorities will largely vitiate the alumni body of the future.”

 Alito said that he did not recall being in CAP, and his supporters tried to characterize it as simply a “conservative” alumni group. But that the Concerned Alumni of Princeton was a racist and sexist organization was not even a debatable point. CAP’s brand of “conservatism” is reflected in a piece in the group’s magazine written by its co-chair, Shelby Cullom Davis, a notorious right-winger and one of Princeton’s largest alumni donors:

May I recall, and with some nostalgia, my father’s 50th reunion, a body of men, relatively homogenous in interests and backgrounds, who had known and liked each other over the years during which they had contributed much in spirit and substance to the greatness of Princeton….I cannot envisage a similar happening in the future with an undergraduate student population of approximately 40% women and minorities, such as the Administration has proposed.

The Princeton Davis reveres is something like the Princeton I remember, but not with nostalgia. As a member of the class of 1959, I, too, was shaped by my four eye-opening years at Princeton. Being what Sonia Sotomayer would call a “white male who hasn’t lived that life,” I was largely an observer, rather than a target, of the insidious bigotry that dominated life at Princeton University. But the experience permanently changed my world view, too.

My family were great admirers of former Princeton president Woodrow Wilson, who had coined the university’s unofficial motto, “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.” I’d heard this all through my early life, so I faced a shock when I arrived for my freshman year. I would like to say that my idealism or iconoclasm made me reject the whole superficial, conformist, class-based system I found at Princeton—but in fact, I never got the chance. It rejected me first. I might have been a white male, but I didn’t have the right pedigree, the right prep school diploma, the right clothes or social graces to make the grade. The only thing that saved me was working on and later editing the student newspaper, especially through its efforts to expose the vaunted eating club system for what it really was: an officially sanctioned instrument of racial and class exclusion. 

At that time, the club system was even more appalling than the fraternities or secret clubs of other Ivy League institutions in that it required every member of the student body to join a club or face exclusion from the university community. Students joined clubs through an annual event called “Bicker,” something resembling a fraternity rush in which students were chosen largely on the basis of looks, dress, social behavior, and class status—the same criteria that would have been used for inviting people to a cocktail party. You can imagine how minorities fared in such a contest. And in the late 1950s, the outsiders in question weren’t women, who wouldn’t be admitted for another ten years, or blacks and Latinos, who could almost be counted on one hand. They were white males—Jewish white males. During my time at Princeton, anti-Semitism was as much an institution as the clubs themselves.

It all came to a head in the 1958 Bicker. Facing criticism about some students not being chosen for a club, student leaders came together and, on the advice of the administration, devised a plan to make sure all members of the sophomore class would be included in one eating club or another. First, they called together everyone who had not yet been admitted to the back porch of Ivy Club, which was dubbed “The Cage.” There, on a cold night, I watched as the unwanted (of whom a disproportionate number were Jewish) were traded back and forth like playing cards, and reported on the scene for the Daily Princetonian.

According to Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, publicity surrounding what came to be known as the Dirty Bicker of 1958 affected Princeton’s prestige and application rates, and actually ended up bringing about reform. In my opinion, it will always seem too little and too late. But it was those reforms that would eventually allow the admission of someone like Sonia Sotomayor—or, for that matter, Sam Alito. (There weren’t many Italian Americans from Trenton at Princeton in my time.)

While commenting on the Sotomayor nomination on Friday, Bill O’Reilly (another white male who wouldn’t have made the grade at the best Princeton eating clubs) complained

The left sees white men as a problem. They believe women and minorities in power is a solution to that problem. That is called gender and race politics. With minority voters now able to swing presidential elections, gender and racial situations become extremely important.

And thank god for that.

Advice for Anxious Old Folks: Duck and Cover

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This story appeared last week in Senior Journal under the title “Geriatric Psychiatrist Sees Anxiety Gripping Senior Citizens in Economic Crisis”:

For older adults who have lived through the Great Depression, news stories comparing present circumstances to the harsh realities of food lines, few jobs, and extreme poverty of the 1930’s may be panic-producing. Add that to the fact that an economic crisis disproportionately affects older adults who need access to retirement funds, and it’s not surprising that seniors are feeling anxious.

No, not surprising. But what surprised me was the advice provided by Saint Louis University psychiatrist George Grossberg, in response to the “increase in economy-related anxiety” he sees among old folks.

My own advice to geezers who’ve just lost their life savings would be to hobble down to Wall Street and beat the money managers senseless with their canes–or, for the nonviolent, to demand that their government punish the malfeasance and make provisions for the well-being of its elders.

Instead, Dr. Grossberg makes a series of apolitical, self-help suggestions like “Do a reality check,” “Count your blessings,” and “Get help” (from a doctor, not your government).

It all began to remind me of the advice handed out in the early 1950s, when Cold War fears of a nuclear attack were at their height. In reassuring posters and films, terrified schoolchildren were told that they’d be all right when the bomb exploded if they would just “Duck and Cover”:

Then as now, the reality more closely resembled parodies of the “Duck and Cover” campaign, which went something like this: “In case of a nuclear attack: 1) Stay calm. 2) Sit down and put your head between your legs. 3) Kiss your ass goodbye.” I’ve been told that the Russian equivalent was: “1) Remain calm. 2) Proceed in an orderly fashion to the nearest cemetery. 3) Dig your own grave.”

No Country Club for Old Men

Last week my old friend Sam Smith, who made his entrance to geezerdom just a year after I did, celebrated his 71st birthday with a post on his excellent, iconoclastic website, The Progressive Review.

Sam, who has been blogging since before the word existed, is one of those stubborn old farts who refuses to subdue his radical spirit or retire to the golf course, despite what he calls a “culture which has done everything in its power to infantilize, institutionalize and ignore its elders.”

Called “No Retirement Age for Rebellion,” Sam’s birthday post is a homage to members of the so-called Silent Generation who, like Sam himself, have managed not to give in or give up—and might stand as a model for young people today.

The twenty olds of today are in a situation much like the twenty somethings of my era. We had been taught–whatever our ethnicity or gender–to believe explicitly in white male hegemony and in the rules of the Cold War. Within ten years of leaving high school that was no longer part of our truth. Today, the mythology of Reagan-Clinton-Bush economics and the America’s superpower status have been similarly shattered. Never again will a majority of Yale undergraduate tell pollsters they want to go into investment banking.

Our establishment was stupid, cruel, selfish and incapable of reform. Today’s is no ifferent–just the issues. Instead of segregation and nuclear bombs we have a collapsing economy, damaged ecology and destroyed democracy. If today’s young want some idea of how to cope, I suggest our example, not because it was any more than occasionally on target but because there are so few parallels. Our efforts ranged from a civil rights revolution to drinking coffee, talking about it all and doing nothing. But there are no right answers when you suddenly find yourself trapped in an interregnum between insanity and uncertainty. The first step, however, is to separate yourself from those who have been running the place and turn your loyalty not to the powerful but to the best truth you can find.

The interesting thing about the rebels of the Silent Generation, Sam writes, is “that it stuck with us. Unlike the later boomers, many of whom seemed to use the 1960s as a crash pad for their souls and then lost interest once the draft was eliminated, I am struck by the number of refugees of the silent generation who are still on the case.”

The post–in which Sam also manages to quote both Cicero and Charles Bukowski—is worth reading in full.

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