Slaying the Dragon

Posted December 31, 2009

Categories: Articles

In a mountain overlooking a village, a dragon has found a cozy lair and a steady supply of villagers to eat. Idealistic young men and women periodically ride out to the mountain to slay the dragon, only to be scorched by its hot breath or eaten like tasty snacks. The best and the brightest in the village have been working on the “dragon problem” for the last five decades but haven’t gotten anywhere. The dragon has long been a drag on the local economy. Key village industries have simply moved elsewhere. Desperation and apathy have become pervasive.

Many villagers have gotten used to the dragon. Some are even enthusiastic supporters of the beast. After all, it only eats a small percentage of the population every year. That’s a small price to pay for keeping out invading armies, which are scared of coming anywhere near the dragon’s lair. And there are rumors of worse dragons. Better the dragon you know …

The new king of the village, however, isn’t happy with the status quo. He has come to the throne with a popular slogan: Change. The villagers expect great things from their new leader. The last king, the deeply unpopular King George, was rumored to have been feeding the dragon on the sly. Indeed, the dragon may have played a role in installing him on the throne in the first place. The new king, meanwhile, has grand plans for his realm. What’s the point of a new village healthcare system if the dragon continues to carry off so many young people?

So, one bright summer morning, the new king suits up in special armor. He climbs atop the strongest and fastest steed in the village. He selects the longest lance from the royal arsenal. And he rides off to the mountain to slay the dragon.

The villagers gather in the town square and wait. And they wait. And they wait.

Finally, near dusk, the king rides back. His armor is battered. His lance is broken. His horse is lame. But when he throws his helmet to the ground, the villagers see that he is smiling.

“I have confronted the dragon,” he proclaims. “And I have won.”The villagers cheer. They eagerly crowd around his horse to see some proof of the demise of their nemesis.

The king holds something high in the air. It can just be seen in the fading light. It is rather small. Is it the dragon’s mighty heart? Its tiny, malevolent brain? No, it’s, it’s…

“I have brought you back the dragon’s toe,” the king says proudly.

The people of the village exchange glances. There is much murmuring. Finally, a voice rings out.”The toe?” the village idiot guffaws. “I could have done that myself. On a donkey. With a bread knife.”

“You don’t understand,” the king replies hotly. “It’s a big dragon. We have to start somewhere!”

And indeed, President Obama has started somewhere in his fight with America’s great dragon, the military-industrial complex. The toe, in this case, is the F-22, a stealth fighter jet. As toes go, it’s an impressive one. The F-22 has been around for 30 years. Each one costs about $350 million to build.

But in the grand scheme of things, the F-22 is just the smallest appendage. The overall savings is about $1.75 billion. And it’s not really savings. The money will simply be applied to other Pentagon priorities. Obama was able to gain John Kerry’s support for axing the F-22 only when he promised that the Pentagon would still be building F-35s in Massachusetts. This F-35, the Joint Strike Fighter, is going to cost about $1 trillion to buy and operate. It’s like removing the dragon’s toe only to provide it with a new, bionic replacement.

The dragonkeeper, Pentagon chief Robert Gates, has supported Obama on this minor surgery. He knows that, when it comes to dragons, it’s best to sacrifice a small toe to keep the overall animal happy. After all, the Obama administration’s first military budget — a whopping $636 billion — provided a comfortable increase over and above inflation. The dragon doesn’t have to go on a diet.

The truly frightening aspect of this cautionary fairy tale is the sheer difficulty the president and the Pentagon chief faced in carrying out their modest operation. The Senate Armed Services Committee initially restored funding for the F-22. The House was leaning in that direction too. This support came even though Lockheed Martin, the builder of F-22s, was supporting Gates and Obama.

Our representatives are particularly vulnerable on the jobs issue. They are loath to reduce employment in a flat-lining economy. So, to slay the dragon, we need to demonstrate that reductions in the Pentagon budget will translate into new jobs for workers in other sectors.

That’s exactly the approach we’re taking with the new report from Foreign Policy In Focus: Military vs. Climate Security: Mapping the Shift from the Bush Years to the Obama Era. Report author Miriam Pemberton points out that the Obama administration is doing better than its predecessor in addressing the threat of global warming. But we need to start converting jobs in the military sector to jobs in the climate change sector. “The public interest in a habitable planet, now threatened by climate change, requires us to rethink an old topic: industrial policy. This topic has been off-limits to public discourse for decades — except when it is raised to kill attempts to steer industrial production in one direction or another, as in: ‘Government can’t fund research and development into low emission vehicles — that’s industrial policy. That’s communism.’”

The dragon is still happily ensconced in its lair. We have one of its toes, and we should celebrate that victory. But we need an entirely new strategy to dislodge the beast from our midst. We can’t wait for a knight in shining armor to do the job for us.

School of Coups

The United States is still running its School of Americas (SOA) under a different name — the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation — at Fort Benning in Georgia. The institution earned the nickname “school of coups” because it has trained so many Latin American officers and soldiers who subsequently seized power from civilian leaders.

Those same fingerprints can be found on the latest coup in Honduras. “School rosters obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, leader of the recent Honduran coup, trained there in 1976 and 1984,” write FPIF contributors Father Roy Bourgeois and Margaret Knapke in School of Coups. “He was assisted in deposing President Zelaya by General Luis Javier Prince Suazo, head of the Honduran Air Force, who in 1996 rather presciently took an SOA course in Joint Operations.”

The more recent relationship between the United States and Honduras has been even more troubling. “With regard to U.S. military goals, the Honduran military has been loyal, providing a continuous base of operations at Soto Cano, 60 miles outside of the capital, Tegucigalpa, and supplying troops who are stationed in Iraq,” writes FPIF contributor Lynn Holland in Honduras: A Broken System. “In reward for this loyalty, the military is substantially provided with military assistance from the United States. Unfortunately, this very assistance has bolstered the power of the armed forces against that of civil society. In addition, the courageous efforts of political reformers to subordinate the military to civil government and strengthen the rule of law have been undermined.”

The Obama administration is repeating this same mistake in Colombia. Obama recently met with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe in the Oval Office. “The two countries are negotiating an agreement for five military bases in Colombia that would replace not only the U.S. airbase in Ecuador, but much of the controversial Plan Colombia,” writes FPIF contributor John Lindsay-Poland in Revamping Plan Colombia. “With bases in place for 10 years and more, and the secrecy that accompanies such installations, the proposed agreement would constitute an end-run around the struggles to make U.S. policy in Colombia and the region less militarized.”

Returning to Africa

President Obama’s speech in Ghana was meant to chart a new direction in U.S.-African relations in much the same way that his Cairo speech opened a new chapter in U.S.-Muslim relations. The Ghanaian parliament, judging from its applause, welcomed Obama’s words.

FPIF contributor Mukoma wa Ngugi begs to differ. “Africans are wading knee-deep in world financial institutions and leaders advising ‘good governance,’ ‘transparency,’ ‘accountability,’ and the ever-elusive ‘democracy,’ he writes in Obama to Africa: Tough Love or Tough Luck? “We did not need to hear these catchphrases that laced Obama’s Ghana speech. They are so benign that even Africa’s dictators, such as Kenya’s former dictator Daniel Arap Moi, promised them with each stolen election.”

Meanwhile, on the ground, students are working hard to address a conflict that is practically invisible to the U.S. press. Nearly six million people have died in the conflict in Congo, at the very heart of Africa. Kambale Musavulu, an engineering student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, decided to raise awareness of the conflict by focusing on Congo’s production of coltan, a key component of cell phones. His “Congo Week” last year involved thousands of students around the world.

“The popularity of Congo Week, if nothing else, shows that activism amongst young people from all walks of life is far from dead,” writes FPIF contributor Kwaku Osei in Fighting the Forgotten War. “Fifth graders at Kipp DC: Will Academy, an elementary school in Washington, DC, raised $800 in donations for the Congo in a single day after viewing a presentation on the situation, while students at Osaka University in Japan hired a public relations firm to help advertise their Cell Out for the Congo. Young people around the world are remembering a conflict the rest of the world has largely forgotten.”

Growing instability in Somalia is spilling over into neighboring Kenya, reports FPIF contributor Andre Vltchek. “In June, Kenyan military amassed troops and artillery on the Somali border, contributing to rumors that it was ready to invade to stabilize the border area,” he writes in Postcard from…Eastleigh. “But the warning from the other side was swift and chilling: ‘If you attack us we will launch suicide attacks in Nairobi and we will destroy the tall glass buildings,’ declared the spokesman of al-Shabaab in Kismayu, Sheik Hassan Yacqub Ali. The situation on the border remains tense.”

Obama’s visit to Africa was only the coda to his much longer trip that included stops in Russia and Italy. In Italy, he attended the Group of Eight (G8) meeting of the top industrialized countries. There is much rumbling in the international community about the exclusivity of these meetings, particularly at a time of global economic crisis.

“Obama expressed support for expansion at this final press conference of the summit, calling the exclusion of China and India ‘wrongheaded,’” write FPIF contributors Erin Fitzgerald and Sarah Yun in The Advent of the G14. “He stressed the need to find the right combination of member states that balances inclusivity with capacity for action, with an eye to streamlining the international system and reducing the number of summits. With the internationally popular U.S. president throwing his not-inconsiderable weight behind expansion, it seems only a matter of time before the club opens up.”

Intelligence and Iraq

News of an assassination squad run out of the White House during the Bush years originally surfaced during a presentation by veteran journalist Seymour Hersh back in March. The controversy has snowballed since then.

FPIF contributor John Prados puts the controversy in the context of eroding congressional oversight over intelligence activities. “The White House — the executive branch — should have learned its lesson long ago,” he writes in The Intelligence Oversight Mess. “And not just about schemes to create hit teams. Bush administration defenders are wrong to argue that this is a mere political charge over a plan that never left the drawing board. Far from some empty dispute over technicalities, today’s controversy over whether the Central Intelligence Agency kept the oversight committees in Congress fully and currently informed regarding this significant, planned CIA operation is not new. Indeed, this struggle has been at the heart of efforts to implement a system of legislative monitoring of intelligence activities since the creation of the oversight system in the 1970s.”

The security situation in Iraq, meanwhile, remains fragile. In Iraq: Nightmare or New Democracy, FPIF senior analyst Adil Shamoo and FPIF contributor Bonnie Bricker argue that the “proper framework for stabilizing Iraq begins with a simple notion: Iraq is for all Iraqis. Armed militias, lack of safety, and deterioration of Iraqi society are artifacts of a vicious regime under Saddam Hussein, coupled with untenable laws written under America’s occupation. These laws have undermined the sense of fairness that we wish for all living in a democracy — the majority rules, but minorities’ rights are also protected.”

Finally, in North Korea’s Papillon, I take a look at the story of Kim Yong, who made a daring escape from a North Korean labor camp. “Kim Yong’s story is a reminder of the brutality of the North Korean regime,” I write. “It is also a reminder that these atrocities, like those on Devil’s Island, take place far from the lives of average people. Estimates vary, but less than one percent of the North Korean population labors in these camps. In the United States, approximately one percent of the population is behind bars, but most people go about their lives without a thought of the penal system. The conditions are not comparable, of course, nor are the penal systems. But North Korea is not Cambodia under Pol Pot where the entire population was in one form of penal servitude or another. Do not underestimate the capacity of average people to ignore injustice masquerading as justice.”

FPIF, July 28, 2009

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