William Pfaff is the author of The Irony of Manifest Destiny, published in June 2010 by Walker and Company (New York) -- his tenth and culminating work on international politics and the American destiny. He describes the neglected sources and unforeseen consequences of the tragedy towards which the nation's current effort to remake the world to fit America's measure is leading. His previous books and his articles in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and his syndicated newspaper column, featured for a quarter century in the globally read International Herald Tribune, have made him one of America's most respected and internationally influential interpreters of world affairs.   [Read more...]
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Columns : At Nuremberg They Were Hanged.
on 2014/12/17 15:20:00 (829 reads)

Paris, December 17, 2014 --The wartime Western allies, their judges pronouncing on war crimes in the city of Nuremberg, ordered hanged until dead eleven major World War II criminals at Spandau Prison in Germany on October 6, 1946. Those judged were not hanged because their crime was that they were themselves torturers; they were too highly placed for that. They were people who had ordered that the gloves be taken off. It was the people under their orders who took the gloves off and tortured and murdered.

For many years preceding the second world war, torture of a human being was widely considered a heinous crime. It was not formalized in international law as such, because it was taken as part of the General Law of Humanity, which is to say law that was obvious to humans in Western Civilization.

Since World War II and the Nuremberg Tribunal, and other war crimes trials held in the months and years that followed, torture has been formally identified as an international crime in a number of conventions and treaties, and by such bodies as the International Red Cross, and of course the United Nations.

It has widely become adopted into national as well as international legal codes. It is part of the Laws of War as recognized by the United States Armed Forces.

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Columns : China has changed the Game.
on 2014/12/3 16:00:00 (1064 reads)

Paris, December 3, 2014 -- The bad habit with which the United States was left by victory in the Cold War was to believe that the war had been a zero-sum game, which is to say that whoever won, won—they were now and forever Number One, the leader in whatever international situation demanded solution.

ISIL? “Stand aside—We’ll send bombers and lead a coalition!” “Ebola?—our Special Forces and military hospitals are on the way!” These actions don’t in fact solve the problems, either ISIL or Ebola, or the rise in Taliban activity in Afghanistan or car-bombings in Baghdad, but all of this contributes to the American self-image as the “indispensible” nation—as Madeleine Albright put it in 1998, a phrase to be recalled and reasserted ever since.

Moreover whoever lost: lost—and was expected to stay lost. Washington and the U.S. press are obsessed with Vladimir Putin today because he is unwilling to stay lost. President Obama’s “reset” with Russia at the beginning of his first administration was expected to have settled for good the Russia problem for Americans. China was now the great challenge in the future. Hence the “pivot” to Asia announced by the administration. Russia was settled. In the Middle East (then, before Mr. Obama lost his complacence) the war supposedly was won in Iraq, and Mr. Obama was now committed to win in Afghanistan.

He would apply the new tactic of the “surge” there, as in Iraq. The Iraq war was finished off by the newly-celebrated counter-insurgency program which had meant generous subsidies to the Sunni tribes to do away with al Qaeda, while the U.S. trained a new Shia army to enable the Shia government to dominate that part of the world. The “Arab Awakening,” followed by uncontrollable uprisings in Syria and Libya, and counterrevolution in Egypt, had yet to come—as had the ISIL—the new Arab Caliphate that exploded out of the Syrian war, to American astonishment.

To bring matters up to date, the new Taliban upsurge in Afghanistan has prompted the United States to prolong and increase the size of its army’s stay in Afghanistan, where Barack Obama thought he had a guaranteed new government backed by American forces with a status-of-forces agreement that would let them keep things quiet until after the president had bid goodbye to Washington. Then the Republicans (or Hillary, who would puncture the Clinton myth and leave the Obama administration looking good in retrospect) could take over the thankless (as it had turned out) role of Number One in the world.

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Columns : The President's Clausewitz Problem
on 2014/11/26 15:00:00 (1525 reads)

Paris, November 26, 2014 – Chuck Hagel’s departure from the Obama Defense Secretary’s post has been attributed to his failure to fit in with the Obama cabinet’s crowd. Among his other reported differences was that he was only a sergeant in Vietnam, twice wounded.

A twice-wounded veteran, I should think, would make him a rare specimen in a Washington packed full of Senators and Congressmen, and State Department and National Security Council staff who assume that they know more about war than Clausewitz, and unwounded but heavily decorated generals eager to get back to showing their stuff, as in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

(As I have noted before, the most celebrated of those, David Petraeus, when he resigned from the army, was entitled to display more than 50 items of military adornment up one side of his chest and down the other, none of them the Purple Heart - for foreign readers, a U.S. military decoration awarded for wounds suffered in combat. One understands why a former sergeant may be thought a social embarrassment, especially if he calls himself “Chuck.”)

Sergeant Hagel’s real problem seems he supported too few wars for President Barack Obama, agreeing with the generals that airplanes alone don’t win wars - and certainly he supported not enough wars to satisfy the Pentagon and some of the aggressively ideological ladies in the State Department and on the White House staff. The president was elected on a platform of ending the war in Iraq, already presumed effectively won, and to expedite victory in the more important war in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden made his home.

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Columns : Obama's World Leadership
on 2014/11/19 14:30:00 (1697 reads)

Paris, Oct. 19, 2014 - For a man who had taken a stunning electoral blow two weeks earlier, Barack Obama completed his Asian trip with an air of unperturbed leadership of the world -- whatever the Republicans at home thought about who was in charge of what now will happen in the United States

The nation and its politicians have since the cold war been so confident of American supremacy over the whole of western civilization that not only allies have ceased to count but enemies. Americans are the leaders who make the decisions on how the world should work, even when this clearly is not what experience teaches, as one might think had been learned in recent years in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

The President signed a carbon emissions agreement with China. He went to Myanmar hoping to bestow a gold star for merit on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi but found it necessary to chide the generals in power in the country that they must do better in matters of human rights – at a moment when a scandalous forced expulsion of a Burmese Muslim minority was taking place. Another time for Madam Aung San Suu Kyi.

In Brisbane for the G20 discussions the President oversaw David Cameron of Britain (who has become the new Tony Blair) reiterating the State Department script, and issuing a lordly warning to Vladimir Putin that he must do as he is told concerning Ukraine or there will be still more sanctions.

Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, presented to the Russian president, insulted him by saying, “I guess I’ll shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you. You need to get out of Ukraine.” The other members of what in espionage circles are known as the Five Eyes (not a new band, but the U.S., U.K., Canada, New Zealand and Australia) gave versions of the same speech. Mr. Obama was pleased. Stars for all!

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Columns : Defeating Plutocracy
on 2014/11/12 17:00:00 (1818 reads)

Paris, Nov. 12, 2014 – A week ago this column asserted that the present electoral system in the United States now places the U.S government on sale every two years -- the presidency and congress every four years, and the entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate, as well as assorted state governors, judges, and other officials, every two years, as in the mid-term election that took place on November 4th.

The argument I made and make is that since national elections now are largely won or lost by the quantity of paid and unregulated television advertisements (or so politicians and professional observers are convinced, a possibly self-fulfilling expectation), those who have the largest amount of money at their disposal win the elections. There are few exceptions.

This is not as things should be, but overall it was the result of the November 4 vote. The success of big money was even greater than widely expected. Hence Americans now live in a plutocracy: the country that claims to lead the world is largely controlled by major American corporations and financial groups, and exceedingly rich individuals.

The question posed is can anything be done to reverse this situation, in which money has steadily accumulated national political power until reaching the seemingly decisive position it possesses today. The international economy’s present tendency, as the French economist Thomas Piketty has recently argued, is to augment the fortunes of the already rich, since the rate of return on investment tends to run ahead of the rate of growth in the overall economy.

The rich are not, as mainstream economists (and Republican Party candidates and supporters) have argued for years, “the creators of jobs.” Industry does not, as assumed for many years, support an enlarging workforce. What it does produce is enlarging return for investors.

In the economy of the past three decades, technology has tended to destroy jobs – that, after all, is one of its principal purposes, cost-reduction. The globalized economy has tended to export those fields of manufacture that still require human employees to poor countries, where wages are low and working conditions poor. As governments of countries thus favored by globalization tend to do what they can to maintain conditions that attract foreign investment, industry moves to where conditions are worse and wages lower : thus the competitive race to the bottom.

There are countertendencies, of course. There are enterprises convinced that a well-paid and skilled labor force is an asset. Public opinion tends to oppose the most sinister consequences of globalized manufacturing and services. But there is as yet no convincing evidence that forces exist in the United States today to reverse the conditions that now prevail. That is a condition in which the economy has awarded one single family – the owners of Walmart stores – 37% of U.S. national wealth, virtually the same amount of wealth possessed collectively by the poorest 40% of the nation’s population. (These figures, which are well known, were cited again by Senator Bernie Sanders [I-Vt.] in a recent interview with Bill Moyers).

In theory, this distribution of wealth affords such a family (let us say the Koch brothers, to take one of the most politically active families), the possibility of wielding as much electoral power -- measured in television political advertising -- in national elections than a major part of the total electorate.

I asked in my last column if there is “no way out” of this situation -- other than by revolutionary change in the way the economy and political system function, a change which is against the material interests of the dominant business, investor, and existing political classes, who may be expected to fight against any such challenge, or effect alteration in the existing government to prevent it, conceivably by force.

Change has, however, happened in the past, against severe resistance -- three times since the Civil War, for example.

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