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Why Insanely Expensive, Ineffective American Bombing Campaigns Will Always Get Funded

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Big Mac Won't Satisfy Vietnamese Desire for Human Rights

Vietnam specializes in irony. Its president, Truong Tan Sang, is due to visit the White House this Thursday, where he’s expected to request a lifting of the U.S. ban on lethal weapons sales to his country while also seeking support for a bid to join the UN Human Rights Council.

The irony? 

Besides trying to buy weapons from the United States, a country it defeated four decades ago, Hanoi also continues to trample on human rights, and in the last few years has stepped up arrests of dissidents with no fear of international criticism or, for that matter, U.S. rebuke.

Oh, and it’s also preparing to open its first ever McDonalds store, which, glancing at media headlines here, seems to be the real story. Never mind the persecution.

Vietnam today has more money than ever, and is seeking an international status equal to its newfound wealth. It also needs advanced weapons to counter the looming threat from China, which has laid claim to more or less the entire South China Sea. 

“If Vietnam wants to stand on the world stage, its government should repudiate its crackdown on dissidents and embrace reform,” John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director with Human Rights Watch, said in a statement released this week. “The arc of history may be long, but it certainly bends away from authoritarian retrenchment.” 

Mr. Sifton added, “President Sang cannot publicly justify his government’s crackdown and should use [his meeting with Obama] to repudiate it.”

U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, echoed HRW’s concern in an open letter this week to President Obama, urging him to make human rights a top priority during the Vietnamese President’s visit. 

“Vietnam has long been one of the most oppressive societies in Southeast Asia,” Royce wrote. “Democratic aspirations, human rights advocacy, and grassroots mobilization are met with police brutality and result in show trials where defendants are denied their rights to open and fair proceedings as guaranteed by the Vietnamese Constitution.”

Indeed, dissident bloggers have been arrested routinely, with 50 democracy advocates having been rounded up this year alone. Languishing in its gulags, too, are dozens of prominent clergymen, some of whom, like father Nguyen Van Ly, 67, are in failing health. Father Ly, a Catholic priest sentenced to 15 years in prison for demanding religious freedom in the country (and whose causes are being championed by Amnesty International), suffered a stroke in 2009 and is in dire need of medical care.

Another prominent dissident, Nguyen Van Hai, popularly known as Dieu Cay, is currently staging ahunger strike after he was sentenced to 12 years in solitary confinement for his “propaganda against the state.” His crime: blogging about government corruption and demands for democracy. As of this writing, Nguyen has been on hunger strike for 32 days. 

But unlike in Myanmar, the United States has been hush on the issue of human rights abuse in Vietnam, where for the past decade it has stepped up investments. Hanoi claims that in two years, the United States will become the biggest investor in Vietnam, overtaking Japan and South Korea.

Military ties, too, are deepening. Since 2010 the two nations have engaged in joint military exercises. Last year, Hanoi went as far as dropping a hint to visiting Secretary of Defense, Leon Penetta, that it would like to resume talks about renting out Cam Ranh Bay, America’s old naval station during the war.

So why, in this era of seeming openness and economic progress, has Hanoi stepped up its oppression? The short answer is because it can, for now. 

Despite its dismal human rights records, Vietnam has been awarded for opening up economically. It was granted membership in the World Trade Organization and made its entrance to the world’s economic stage in 2006 when it hosted its first Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference. Its Gross National Product has been growing at a steady and impressive seven percent for almost the last decade. 

And while political dissent is not allowed, its population is experiencing far greater personal freedoms. Many are allowed to travel overseas, while movement within Vietnam is permitted freely. There’s a burgeoning middle class with disposable income and access to the Internet. And therein lies the problem. 

As we’ve seen most recently in Brazil, increased wealth brings with it expectations of increased political freedom. Indeed, despite the arrests more Vietnamese are blogging online, demanding greater respect for human rights and condemning Hanoi for, as they see it, kowtowing to China. 

Hanoi’s efforts to control this rising tide of discontent, moreover, are being stymied by the boom in communications technology. Vietnam has 132 million active cellphones in a country of 93 million, or about 2 phones per adult. Facebook entered Vietnam last October and by March had over 12 million users. 

Concerned over a potential Arab-spring style revolt, Hanoi’s response to date has been arrests and more arrests. 

That it can do this without fear of international condemnation is due in large part to American indifference. President Bush visited Vietnam in 2006 for the APEC summit, and promptly dropped it from the list of nations that severely curtail religious freedom. Under Obama, the United States is licking its chops as it perceives an opening for a grand reentry into the Pacific Rim theatre.

“It’s hard to be seen as deeply concerned about human rights when you are in bed with the politburos selling Big Macs and Starbucks,” noted one Vietnamese American living in Hanoi.

No wonder, then, that those fighting for democracy in Vietnam no longer look to the United States as their major supporter. In online chatrooms, dissidents are increasingly finding inspiration in protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and Burma. 

It would be a tragedy, however, if Uncle Sam, while publically voicing concern about human rights, lifts the ban on lethal weapons sales and supports Vietnam’s bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. That tragedy would turn to irony should a Vietnamese Spring erupt, only to be put down with American bullets and guns. 

Planet Earth Is a U.S. Military Base

It could be any week on that great U.S. military base we know as Planet Earth and here’s the remarkable thing: there’s always news.  Something’s always happening somewhere, usually on more than one continent, as befits the largest, most destructive, most technologically advanced (and in many ways least successful) military on the planet.  In our time, the U.S. military has been sent into numerous wars, failed to win a single one, and created plenty of blowback.  But hey, who has to win a specific war when it’s “wartime” all the time?

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Gen. Petraeus with a Video Game Cameo Appearance? War Games Are Almost Indistinguishable from America's Imperial Wars

David Petraeus may be out of the military and Central Intelligence Agency but he’s found a new role elsewhere — in the game “Call of Duty: Black Ops II.” Well, his likeness, that is. Set in the year 2025, the first-person shooter features Petraeus as the Secretary of Defense serving under a female President resembling Hillary Clinton. Gamers first see Petraeus on board an aircraft carrier named the “USS Barack Obama” greeting an apprehended terrorist in an orange jumpsuit. While Petraeus was uninvolved in the game’s production, his “Call of Duty” cameo reveals the symbiotic relationship between video games and U.S. militarism.

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Smoke Signals: A Psychoactive Journey Through Marijuana's Fascinating History

On a Friday afternoon, Martin Lee sips an espresso at Flying Goat Coffee in Healdsburg, California, 90 minutes north of San Francisco, where he lives with his wife and children. Outside, on the sidewalk, a couple of locals -- a man in sunglasses and a woman wearing a floppy hat -- are talking about their outdoor marijuana crops and the harvest which is still months away. 

“This is definitely a marijuana town,” Lee says. “There are a lot of people who grow it in their own backyards and who smoke it both medicinally and recreationally.” He adds, “I don’t really see a big divide between medicinal and recreational users. That’s the government’s model, not mine, and I don’t think it ought to be the model for the movement to reform marijuana laws.”

The publication of Lee’s new in-depth, comprehensive book, Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical, Recreational and Scientific, coincides with the federal government’s on-going assault on California marijuana dispensaries, growers, and dealers, many of them in compliance with state law.

This spring, in Oakland, agents raided Oaksterdam University, which billed itself as the starship school for the marijuana industry. And in Oakland right now, federal authorities are aiming to close Harborside, probably the biggest above-ground marijuana emporium in the United States. Steve DeAngelo, Harborside’s CEO -- a former Yippie -- is fighting the government tooth-and-nail. He’s found support recently from Oakland Congresswoman, Barbara Lee (no relation to Martin Lee), who wants to keep Harborside and all California dispensaries open for business.

Martin Lee follows these developments like a hawk. They’re too recent to appear in his book, but Smoke Signals is probably the most up-to-date, balanced book about marijuana in print. The politics of pot -- the clash between pot prohibitionists and pot liberationists -- prompted Martin Lee to write Smoke Signals, but once he began to conduct his research it was the science of pot that really piqued his interest.

“I’m fascinated by the whole cannabinoid system, the cannabinoid receptors in the human body, and the chemistry of cannabinoids, too,” he says. “I have long been interested in THC, the chief psychoactive chemical compound in cannabis, but I’ve become interested in CBD, which doesn’t get you high or make you feel stoned, but is helpful for all kinds of medical conditions, including anxiety.””

Lee discovered illicit drugs in the 1960s. He’s never left them far behind, and while he smokes marijuana, and writes when he’s high, he doesn’t smoke when he’s on the road. It’s too risky, he says. He doesn’t pack weed in his suitcase and he goes for weeks at a time without craving marijuana. “I like weed,” he says, “But it’s no big deal to go without it.”

Born in Westbury, on Long Island, New York, in 1954, he says that he “caught the tail end of the 1960s,” but he hit the tail end of the Sixties hard and fast. While he never joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), he attended SDS meetings and listened to SDS members spout politics, power, and the elite.

“It was like someone turned on a light in my head,” he says. “I remember listening to a talk at an SDS meeting about LBJ’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, and telling myself, ‘So that’s how the power elite works.’ I’ve never been a conspiracy theorist. The SDS guys were not talking about conspiracies, but the behind-the-scenes nitty-gritty workings of power.”

Soon afterward, Lee met Carl Oglesby, who had been the president of SDS in 1965 and 1966. They became pals, took acid together and tripped. Lee also began to smoke pot, learned to roll joints, and enjoyed the sensation of being high.

“For me, politics and pot have always been entwined,” he says. “They branded me from an early age and they never left me.” At the University of Michigan, he studied philosophy, then turned to the study of LSD, and with Bruce Shlain wrote and published in 1986 his first book, which is now a classic, Acid Dreams. It’s still in print and has never gone out-of-print.

In 1990, he published, along with co-author and friend, Norman Solomon, Unreliable Sources, A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media. Lee consulted with Solomon on his recent (unsuccessful) campaign for Congress, and urged him to endorse the legalization of weed. Solomon didn’t need to be arm-twisted.

Lee says that he’s always been interested in the doubleness of illicit drugs. He’s fascinated, for example, by the fact that the CIA and the counterculture were both drawn to LSD for very different purposes: for mind control in the case of the CIA, and for mind expansion in the case of the counterculture. Doubleness, he says, also informs the history of cannabis.

“With cannabis is always yes and no,” he says. “I know people who smoke it and feel euphoric. I know others who have used it and became suddenly paranoid and felt terrible.” He adds, “You can also see the doubleness in the movement to reform marijuana laws. Activists swing back and forth from feeling that it’s going to be legalized tomorrow, and on the other hand that the forces against legalization are so entrenched that it won’t ever be legalized.”

Recent events seem to verify that doubleness. “In California in 2010, it looked like the prohibition against marijuana was finally going to end,” Lee says. “Now, in 2012, it looks like it’s not likely to end anytime soon. We’re in a very sober moment for the marijuana movement, though, of course, people are getting high all the time.

The DEA’s gang-busting tactics today don’t surprise Lee. Indeed, they remind him of Harry Anslinger, the long time drug czar, who launched the war on marijuana in the mid-1930s and directed it until the 1960s from his office in Washington D.C. To write Smoke Signals, Lee exhumed the 74-year history of marijuana prohibition in the United States, its up and downs, victories and loses.

He learned, too, what he suspected: that today, as in the past, the prohibition of marijuana keeps police officers busy on the beat, courts jammed with marijuana offenders, and prisons packed with prisoners convicted of violating marijuana laws. It’s a growth industry and it fuels what has come to be known as the prison-industrial-complex.

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