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Is Trump the Worst President Ever?

Counterpunch - Fri, 02/17/2017 - 04:10

Photo by Jake Cunningham | CC BY 2.0

Although Donald Trump has only been in office for a few weeks, it is hard to go anywhere and not hear that he is the worst ever American president. Neither Richard Nixon nor Warren Harding, or even the thirty days of William Henry Harrison’s pneumonia, are believed to rank in his bottom-feeding percentile. But if Donald is that bad, it may go down as his greatest achievement.

I grant you that Trump has the potential to be great on the worst-ever scale. It is no small accomplishment that his national security adviser did not last three weeks on the job and was run out of town for pillow talking with the Soviets. (I was reminded of the last scene in No Way Out, when Kevin Costner starts speaking Russian.)

Domestically, Trump has a lot to offer with his denigration of women, minorities, immigrants, and Muslims. That said, his racist attitude only puts him in a league with Woodrow Wilson (fond of the n-word) and Teddy Roosevelt (who liked to brag that his government had hired fewer Negroes than did William McKinley). Further out on the spectrum are the twelve slave-owning American presidents (from Washington to Grant), who will be tough to bring down.

As someone ethically challenged, Trump brings a lot to the table. He’s worked Atlantic City casinos and fondled Miss Universe contestants. Both avenues show promise. And before assuming office, Trump put his labyrinthine business interests (including, presumably, dividend checks from sheikdoms) into a revokable trust and staffed it with his inflatable-doll sons.

But the jury might be out for a while if it has to decide whether Trump University or Trump Steaks (“Believe me — I understand steaks, it’s my favorite food!”) are as bad as Grant’s dallying with Credit Mobilier, Harding’s drain from Teapot Dome, or the Clinton Foundation.

* * *

In terms of international affairs, and ignorance thereof, I grant you that Trump could—as they say at the Olympics—“go podium,” especially if he keeps finding the likes of Michael Flynn to advise him on national security or continues to think of foreign relations as a variation on Caribbean hotel development (E pluribus condominium).

Keep in mind that making a hot mess of American foreign policy is something presidents do well. Most left the world in worse shape than they found it.

For example:

—Washington set the gold standard early, getting rolled by the British with the Jay Treaty, but then Jefferson punted on the same impressment issue, leaving it to James Madison (a brave man, by the way) to fight a war with England.

—Both James Polk, with his invasion of Mexico, and William McKinley, in his liberation of Cuba, wanted to make the world safe for American imperialism, although often their instrument of war was massacre.

—With the Treaty of Versailles, the pious Woodrow Wilson condemned Europe to another world war. (Referring to Wilson’s Fourteen Points, French President Georges Clemenceau whispered: “God only needed ten.”)

—Then there are all those presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Nixon who decided that American blood and treasure were best consigned to a rat hole in Indochina, the example of which allowed later presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to play dominoes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So for Trump to be among the worst in foreign affairs, he will have to be very bad.

Getting embroiled in a Russian blackmail scandal would help, for sure, but somehow those rumored Moscow sex tapes—with Russian hookers in a former Obama presidential suite—sound more like KGB revenge porn than another shadow over Blooming Grove.

* * *

Sexually speaking, with two messy divorces and a triple-double in groping, Trump clearly merits consideration as a world-class predator, certainly someone who could hold his own with Bill Clinton as a fondler or Lyndon Johnson, who liked to say: “I’ve had more pussy by accident than Kennedy had by design.”

Still, I am not sure how Trump would fare in an extramarital playoff with, say,  John F. Kennedy (who on most days needed to be with a woman who was not his wife) or Warren Harding, who while president had a love-child stashed away on the Jersey Shore and made love to Nan Britton on the floor of a White House closet.

For now, despite his blatant sexism, Trump probably belongs in a womanizing category somewhere between Woodrow Wilson and Grover Cleveland.

Before becoming president Wilson had a torrid affair with a Mrs. Mary Peck, who he had met in Bermuda, and while running for office in 1912, Wilson’s henchmen were dispatched to buy up a huge collection of love letters.

Trump might, however, find more common cause with fellow New Yorker Grover Cleveland, who was prone to dalliances, some of which involved unwelcome aggression.

According to a new biography, when living in Buffalo, Grover had his way forcefully with 38-year-old Maria Halpin, who became pregnant and delivered the baby that Cleveland might well have fathered.

Although Cleveland’s moniker was “Grover the Good,” he responded to Halpin’s demands for child support by having the baby put in an orphanage and committing the mother to a lunatic asylum, which in presidential history is up there with Hillary Clinton slut-shaming some of Bill’s conquests.

* * *

If Trump aspires to being the worst president ever, he will probably need to make his bones with some kind of world-class financial scandal. After all, he got to the White House by way of Atlantic City, the casino wheel, Florida real estate, and Hollywood, where the only common denominators are the easy virtue of other people’s money.

So the talent is there. And he has put up the numbers as a stock jobber.

In case you missed the Atlantic City story, in the 1990s, when Trump’s boardwalk empire collapsed, the foreclosing banks decided it was better—to use Lyndon Johnson’s expression—to have Trump inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent….

When several corporate reorganizations failed to pay back his creditors, the lending banks allowed Trump to roll his subprime assets into a public company, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, which was floated on the New York Stock Exchange (ticker symbol DJT—guess what that stands for). Then Vaudeville Trump was put on the road to pump the stock. He found his calling as a financial carnival barker.

The company went public in 1995 at $14 a share. It raised $140 million from investors (later more) and installed Trump as chairman of the board, a position he held until 2009. For a while he was also chief executive officer.

During these years the public Trump company lost an accumulated $647 million (as of 2004), although the chairman routinely voted himself multimillion dollar bonuses and overall sucked out of the company $44 million in executive compensation, not to mention other fees and sweetheart deals that the company sent his way as if fairy dust.

Anyone in 1995 who invested $1 million in Donald Inc. had less than $100,000 by 2004, when the company declared bankruptcy, sheltering Trump from personal liability.

Part of the reason for the company’s miserable performance is that Trump stuck the public company with many of his earlier, non-performing debts that had been in his name.

The same pyramid man is now running that great subprime savings and loan, the Federal Reserve Bank. Maybe he can take it public?

* * *

Although the chances are good that Trump (still the beneficial owner of an indebted global empire) will get run out of town under the Title of Nobility (aka Emoluments) Clause of the Constitution, which reads,

No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state,

he could also find himself brought down in the kind of old fashioned political scandal that doomed Richard Nixon (Watergate) or John Adams (Alien and Sedition Acts). Any one of these scandals would let him go top five.

File these high crimes and misdemeanors in the drawer marked “abuse of power,” but both had their origins in a hatred of the press.

The Watergate scandal involved Richard Nixon tapping the phones of the Democratic Party national chairman, Lawrence O’Brien, who had his office in the Watergate building, although the caper made no sense. Nixon was well ahead in the polls, and O’Brien was a ceremonial chief.

In reality—those celebrated Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein actually missed the story—Nixon’s plumbers had more interest in a call-girl ring run from those offices than they did in Democratic phone calls.

In a larger sense the Nixon black-bag operatives were searching for administration leaks to the press, much the way in 1798 Adams persuaded Congress to pass sedition laws that “made it a crime for American citizens to ‘print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous, and malicious writing’ about the Government.”

Wait until Trump starts quoting John Adams as precedent for his hatred of the press. And he would also love the Alien Act, of the same year, that made it harder to become an American citizen and easier to deport illegals.

* * *

Pressing hating could well bring down the new administration.

The Trump gang sees most journalists as if they were the love children of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, with Julian Assange presiding at the baptism.

The president hates criticism, especially when it is satiric. I can easily see him becoming obsessed with media calls for his removal, to the point that he would stop at nothing to silence those in opposition or celebrating his misfortunes.

Notice how the Trumps, collectively, sue for libel anyone who questions their vast wealth or altruism. Trump sued one biographer for, allegedly, underreporting his net worth. Melania Trump sued a blogger and the London Daily Mail for reporting the heresy that sometimes supermodels have been known to work as “high-end escorts.”

If Trump is willing to burn his bridges to the CIA and the NSA over Russia leaks to the press, why not use the judicial system to go after seditious reporters, who last time I checked rarely pack heat.

* * *

So far in opposition, the best the Democratic party can manage is to suggest that Trump is a Manchurian president, elected with the ballot connivances of Putin’s Russia and sustained by moles and fifth columnists (as in irredentist Spaniards, not Frank Bruni).

The problem with Trump starring in a rewrite of a John Le Carré novel—The Russian President?—is that most Soviet scandals require enormous leaps of faith.

Senator Joseph McCarthy, for example, had his famous list of “205 card-carrying” Communist sympathizers in the State Department, but those charges went nowhere, and he was left barking at alleged subversion in Hollywood.

Even if the Trump campaign did have a hot line with Russia during the election, and even if Trump authorized such bromancing, I can’t see how that would be an impeachable offense. Embarrassing, yes; impeachable, I doubt it.

After all, Richard Nixon had back channel links to North Vietnam during the 1968 campaign, much the way in 1980 Ronald Reagan’s transition team was speaking with the Iranians who were holding Americans hostage in Tehran. Treating with the enemy comes with the job description, unless, of course, the political forecast calls for golden showers.

* * *

A more durable scandal will have to come out of Trump’s financial world, where few media consumers can understand the small type of money.

Played out in breathless primetime, even a vanilla transaction can be turned into a deal with the devil, once someone unpacks all the Delaware front companies, incentive compensation, sweetheart union contracts, no-show jobs, off-shore hedge funds, padded banking fees, and links with mob-related contractors that are part of any gilded construction job, especially in New York, New Jersey, or Florida.

Then imagine such a cascade of doubt played out daily in the press, on Comedy Central, or in front of a Senate investigation, especially if some Cypriot bolt-hole company, stuffed with Russian flight capital, has tried to influence peddle around Trump Inc.

For his defense, Trump will claim all aspects of his business life protected by executive privilege (remember that Nixonian flag of convenience?), and in no time—as with the clumsy travel ban—Trump’s financial house of cards will be on trial before the Supreme Court.

* * *

Mercifully, most presidencies, even the bad ones, have limited shelves lives. Harding was gone in less than three years—done in by his cronies who met everyday with the president in a clubby townhouse near Dupont Circle, where the only items on the menu were whisky, insider trading, and solicitous women.

Nixon flamed out in five years, although the irony of his My-mother-was-a- saint end-game was not that a courageous press restored a balance to power, but that the FBI, in the guise of Deep Throat (aka Deputy Director Mark Felt), was a main instrument in the silent coup. (If anything, Woodward and Bernstein were dupes and pawns.)

I don’t blame the impeached Andrew Johnson for cratering his presidency. His drunkenness didn’t help, of course, but the Tenure of Office Act was a Republican ploy to entrap the Democratic president suspected of soft-soaping the South. Simply politics as usual.

Lyndon Johnson gave up his presidency in 1968 when the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, against American bases and South Vietnamese cities, exposed the administration’s bluster about the war as hollow boasting. The question was asked: If the United States is winning the war, how come the Viet Cong is running loose on the Saigon embassy grounds?

* * *

Do I think Trump will leave office in disgrace as one of the worst ever American presidents? Sadly, even for someone with his titanic ego, such a milestone could be a tall order.

He would need to match Nixon’s paranoia and arrogance with Lyndon Johnson’s military incompetence, and then throw in Chester Arthur’s corruption and maybe Harding’s lust for life. It’s asking a lot.

Racism alone will not consign a president to the dustbin of history. Both Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson spoke well of segregation, yet many Americans still think of both men with affection.

Nor will xenophobia drive a president from office. John Adams hated foreigners, especially the French. So, too, did Millard Fillmore, who as a former president ran again in 1856 as a nativist candidate, campaigning on his hatred of Catholics.

Calvin Coolidge allowed Sacco and Vanzetti (who became symbols of immigrant America) to go to the electric chair. George W. Bush put America on Islamic lockdown because Karl Rove convinced him it would be good for his reelection (it was).

* * *

More precarious for Trump is that Americans tend to turn against a president whenever they sense that he is lying.

Nixon was shown the door, not for tapping Democratic telephones, but for lying about the coverup. Johnson’s mistake wasn’t killing a generation of young men in a pointless war, but for misleading the public about the progress of the fighting.

One thing we know, even after three weeks of Trump’s presidency, is that he likes to lie. Big lies, little lies, white lies—they all suit his infomercial (Infowars?) style. For Trump so far, the bigger the lie (voter fraud, inauguration crowds, etc.), the more believable it seems. This deception could well be his ticket to immortality.

During the campaign, there was a certain outrageous good fortune about Trump’s lying, as if he were remaking The Sting with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, dealing cards from a marked deck to con the Clintons. (Doyle Lonnegan: Your boss is quite a card player, Mr. Kelly; how does he do it?

Johnny Hooker: He cheats.)

Americans can handle a sting, but they don’t like lying.

Rather than run the wire scam with Steve Bannon on the liberal establishment, however, Trump will probably go out in the manner of Willy Loman, even though that salesman was from Brooklyn, not Queens. As Arthur Miller writes:

He’s a man way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple spots on your hat and you’re finished.

Who isn’t seeing a few spots on Trump’s neckties?

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of many books including, most recently, Reading the Rails.

Roaming Charges: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Flynn?

Counterpunch - Fri, 02/17/2017 - 04:01

How did Michael Flynn fall? Did he jump or was he pushed? All of Washington is desperate to know, even though most Americans, worried that their neighbors, gardeners and house-cleaners are being snatched away in the night, shrug their shoulders, as if to ask: “Who is Flynn? What has he done? Why should we care?”

Good questions, all. We find ourselves in the midst of a “newsgasm,” a kind of press orgy where the media spends 23 hours and 45 minutes a day obsessing on Flynn, while giving 2 minutes, maybe, to mass deportation raids or the fact that a chunk of ice the size of Manhattan just broke away from Antarctica. Yet even with all of that wall-to-wall coverage the meaning of the scandal remains elusive.

Let’s summarize the story to date, with a cautionary note that almost all of the incriminating information comes from anonymous leaks by US intelligence sources hostile to both Trump and Flynn that were leaked to reporters who are slavishly tracking Trump’s trail of scandal, the surest path to career advancement.

On November 18, Trump announced that he was tapping Flynn, a retired Army General and disgraced former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, as his National Security Advisor. This position does not require congressional approval and Flynn, who is viewed with disdain on Capital Hill, likely wouldn’t have been confirmed if it had.

On December 28, the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, texted Flynn. The content of that text is unknown.

On December 29, after a wave of news reports alleging Russian involvement in the hacking of the email archive of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta, Barack Obama imposed new sanctions on Russia, including the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the United States. After Obama’s announcement, Flynn and Kislyak engaged in a series of phone conversations, which were intercepted by the NSA. When reports of these calls went public, Flynn denied that the two men had discussed Obama’s new sanctions.

The following day Vladimir Putin stated with a sly grin that Russia was not going to retaliate against Obama’s sanctions, thus breaking a long-standing tradition of tit-for-tat reprisals dating back to the Cold War. Putin’s curious placidity sparked an investigation by US intelligence, which soon scooped up the recordings of the conversations between Flynn and Kislyak.

Two weeks later, on January 12th, one of the first salvos against Flynn was launched by the Washington Post’s columnist David Ignatius, a long-time mouthpiece for the high lords of Langley. Ignatius reported that Flynn had talked to the Russian ambassador several times on the day the sanctions had been announced. Ignatius implied that Flynn had suggested that Trump would reverse the sanctions once in office, a promise that must have been quickly relayed to Putin.

The next morning White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, responded emphatically to Ignatius’s story, saying that Flynn and Kislyak only discussed the logistics of setting up a post-inauguration phone call between Trump and Putin.

On January 19th, acting Attorney General Sally Yates convened a meeting in her office with FBI directory James Comey and several other top intelligence officers to discuss what action, if any, to take about Flynn’s calls. Yates argued that the White House should be warned about Flynn’s conduct, but Comey objected saying that it would impede the FBI’s ongoing investigation.

The following morning Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States and officially appointed Flynn as his National Security Advisor.

On January 24, the FBI interviewed Flynn about his conversations with Kislyak. According to an account in the Washington Post, Flynn denied any discussion of sanctions with the ambassador. If true, Flynn may have exposed himself to charges of lying to the FBI, an offense which the FBI prosecutes at its discretion (see Martha Stewart).

Two days later Sally Yates informed White House counsel Don McGahn about Flynn’s conversations. Yates warned McGlahn that Pence, Spicer and Kellyanne Conway had made misleading public comments regarding Flynn’s conservations with the Russian ambassador. She told McGahn that there were transcripts of the calls which showed that Flynn had indeed talked about sanctions. Yates said that she was concerned that Flynn had opened himself up to blackmail by the Russians.

According to Sean Spicer, McGahn swiftly briefed Trump and several other top officials at the White House (excluding Mike Pence) on his meeting with Yates. Trump reportedly instructed McGahn to determine whether Flynn’s remarks violated any laws, particularly the Logan Act, a federal statute from 1799 that prohibits citizens from engaging in unauthorized negotiations with foreign regimes. McGahn studied the issue for a couple of days and decided that Flynn had not violated the law.

On February 7, Flynn gave an interview with the Washington Post where he emphatically denied he talked about sanctions with Kislyak. The next morning, after the Post story ran, Flynn’s office called the paper with a clarification, saying that Flynn “couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”

An irritated Mike Pence read the Post story and learned for the first time that he may have misled the country when he denied on Meet the Press that Flynn didn’t mention sanctions in his conversations with Kislyak. Later that day, Pence was told of the Justice Department’s briefing on Flynn that had occurred in the White House 15 days earlier.

On February 9, an anonymous White House staffer, presumed to be someone close to Pence, told the New York Times that Pence had been misled by Flynn. Another New York Times piece from the same day reported that transcripts of the Flynn/Kislyak calls existed.

Flynn then flew with the Trumps and Japanese Prime Minister Abe on Air Force One to Florida for a weekend at Mar-a-Lago. When the plane landed, Trump was asked by a reporter about reports that Flynn had indeed talked about sanctions with the Russian Ambassador. Trump replied: “I don’t know anything about it.”

On Saturday night, Flynn broke the news to Trump and Abe about North Korea’s missile test, turning Mar-a-Lago’s outdoor restaurant into a kind of Reality TV war room. Trump was seen putting his arms around Flynn and engaging in jovial banter.

On Monday afternoon, Kellyanne Conway told NBC News that Flynn still enjoyed the “full confidence” of the president. Later than night Flynn submitted his resignation. Within 24 hours, the resignation had morphed into a firing by Trump due to an “evolving, and eroding level of trust as a result of this situation in a series of other questionable instances.” By Thursday, Trump himself said Flynn “did what he was supposed to do” in his conversation with Kislyak and blamed his ouster on the press.

As with most of the actions coming out of the Trump White House, the administration’s rationale for the firing of Flynn strain logical analysis. If we are to believe the White House, Flynn was booted from his post as National Security officer because he wasn’t completely honest with Vice-President Mike Pence about the content of his conversations with Sergey Kislyak. But the Flynn calls were innocuous and Trump himself says he approves of them. No one has ever been prosecuted for violations of the Logan Act, not even the Reagan emissaries who convinced the Iranians to delay the release of the American hostages until after the inauguration.

As the media scourging of Flynn mounted, no one was heard rallying to the general’s defense, except for a few distant bleats on RT and SputnikNews. Flynn had burned his bridges with the political elites, which can be an honorable, if suicidal, career choice. The general was, no doubt, banking on the loyalty of Trump to save his ass. But he would learn a harsh lesson about the power dynamics of his Master’s circle. In Trumpland, loyalty is a one-way, and often dead-end, street. In fact, the relationship is not really about loyalty at all. It’s a matter of absolute obedience. And even then, one must understand that even the most obedient are expendable.

In an administration where prevarication has gone pathological, are we really to believe that Flynn was fired for not fully briefing Mike Pence on his calls with the Russian ambassador? Perhaps Flynn was canned for a simple reason, namely that he was in over his head, like most of Trump’s inner circle. Like many intelligence officers, Flynn is a professional paranoid, seeing conspiracies everywhere he looks. This can be a useful psychological trait in a field agent, but it can prove disastrous in an administer. Consider the case of spy-hunter James Jesus Angleton, one of the most wretched figures in the history of the CIA, whose mental collapse led him to see Soviet agents on every barstool and bus bench in DC.

Some believe that Flynn cracked up a few years ago, overwhelmed by the task of running the Defense Intelligence Agency where his behavior became increasingly erratic. He was abusive to staff and obsessed with bizarre plots and conspiracy theories. Where Angleton was haunted by Soviet agents, Flynn hallucinated about Arab bombers. Ultimately, he was relieved from his post.

The orchestrated agitating against Flynn, perhaps for good reasons, began the moment his former colleagues in the Pentagon picked up his radar signal orbiting the Trump campaign. The charge was lead by Colin Powell, who called Flynn “right wing nutty” and “a jerk.”

Flynn played right into the hands of his enemies. He forgot his own tradecraft by speaking so openly to Kislyak on lines that he should have known were wiretapped. And he apparently compounded that remarkable blunder by dissembling to the FBI, when he should have known the agents had transcripts of his exchanges with the ambassador. Flynn was undone by his own arrogance and stupidity.

The Democrats, still dressed in their funeral clothes, have seized on the Russia stories as a life raft in the maelstrom. When the Democrats speak of Flynn, they say largely the same thing: he was a great guy, a helluva soldier back when he was committing war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan with good old Stan McChrystal. He only went over the edge when he began to pursue detente with Russia. They have assiduously fanned the contagious fantasy that Russian meddling somehow titled the election to Trump, besmirching the integrity of American democracy. Yet these new revelations, of contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials, hardly qualify as startling. In fact, most of the stories breathlessly pushed above the fold in the Washington Post and New York Times merely recycle in more assertive prose vaguely sketched stories of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia from the fall, stories which are infused with graver tones in the wake of Flynn’s humiliation.

Was Michael Flynn a Russian mole, groomed for decades by his handlers for this very moment like Bill Hayden in LeCarré’s masterpiece, who had penetrated the Trump campaign and later the highest levels of US intelligence? Or was the retired general a reformer with a plan to radically realign US foreign policy by forging a welcome new detente with Russia? Probably, neither. Mostly, Flynn was a head case, out of his depth in the position he suddenly found himself thrust in, whose conspiratorial view of the world synched so closely with Donald Trump’s own that as soon as Trump fired him he seemed to regret it.

It is entirely possible, of course, that the Russians do have something on Trump, though that leverage is likely to involve financial rather than sexual entanglements. Sex scandals, including his own, only seem to feed Trump’s ego. Even revelations of financial shenanigans might not exert much political sway over Trump. He is, after all, our first antinomian president, a man whose psyche is unclouded by any moral laws.

I think Trump’s Russian fixation has more mundane origins. Russia, of course, is not even faintly socialistic and hasn’t been for decades, which is probably why America-at-large is proving to be immune to the rusty McCarthyite tactics being recycled by Cold Warriors and aggrieved Democrats. Instead, Russia functions as a kind of highly leveraged kleptocracy, a form of government that Trump has long idealized. The president sees himself as an oligarch among oligarchs and his intention is to run the federal government as his own private fiefdom.

I suspect that behind the scenes Mad Dog Mattis served as Flynn’s secret executioner, in a kind of soft palace coup. As the lone agent of the neoconservative crew in the Trump cabinet, Mattis hoped to consolidate his own power behind the throne by having Flynn replaced with his own protege, Adm. Bob Harwood. If so, the move blew up in Mattis’s face when Harwood turned down the job, after Trump refused Harwood’s demand to fire KT McFarland, Flynn’s deputy at NSC. Like Flynn, McFarland is a professional Islamophobe and serial fabulator. When McFarland was running in the GOP primaries for a US senate seat was caught in two lies about her CV: 1. That she co-wrote Reagan’s Star Wars speech; 2. That she was the top-ranked woman in the Pentagon during Reagantime. Those are both pretty standard resumé embellishments for the DC political class. But here’s something truly vile. McFarland’s brother Michael contracted AIDS in the 1990s and died of an AIDS related illness in 1995. Shortly before he died, KT publicly outed him as gay and blamed his homosexuality on familial abuse. Her other brother Tom later said, “If there’s one word I could use to describe my sister, it would be ‘evil.'”

If he avoids prosecution for lying to the FBI, Flynn may yet be able to franchise himself as a political martyr to the blue-collar nativists who form the core of Trump’s support. The general may even prove useful to the president, out on the revival circuit in the hinterlands, inveighing against the Mullahs of Iran and the spinelessness of the foreign policy elite. Who knows, Trump may even keep Flynn’s number on speed dial on that secret, after hours Android he keeps on the nightstand, for midnight consultations on how to deal with Putin and John McCain.

As Flynn was packing his bags, Trump couldn’t resist blaming his fall on the press. “Michael Flynn, General Flynn,” Trump growled, “is a wonderful man, who has been treated very, very unfairly by the media.” Which may be Trumponics for “Don’t rat me out, bro.”

This struggle is all playing out in a wild new political ecosystem in Washington, where the polarities of power pit the foreign policy establishment, the mainstream press and the intelligence agencies against Trump’s visigoths. The Democrats are all but irrelevant, reduced to little more than background noise. Trump has been in power for a month and the rhetorical niceties of Obamaism already seem like a kind of pre-history. We’ve entered a time when the mad dogs are leading the mad.


Roaming Charges

+ Back in September, Clinton and Trump both met with a foreign leader and pledged him whatever the hell he wanted. No howls about violating the Logan Act were heard….

+ So the CIA leaks a story about not sharing intelligence with the President for fear that he would leak the information. I think we are officially well beyond anything Orwell warned us about now…

+ Whatever the opposite of a Sanctuary State is, that’s what Virginia should put on its license plates:

“The Virginia Senate advanced a bill that would require jails and prisons in the state to detain inmates up to two days beyond their sentence to give federal immigration authorities time to pick them up. The measure is part of a flurry of Republican-backed legislation meant to crack down on illegal immigration.”

+ Clinton/Obama hack Tom Perez appears to be closing in on taking over as new chair of the DNC. Campaign theme? “Stasis you can believe in.”

+ Perhaps Trump should try some of that Extreme Vetting on White House staffers?

+ Hippie Pope stands up for Standing Rock, declares Native People have rights over their lands. Now if he’d only apply the same logic to his own Church and ditch the Doctrine of Discovery.

+ Ditto whatever Trump tweeted about federal judges

+ Another under-reported act of domestic terrorism, courtesy of Big Oil…

+ Strange Fruit in Harris County, Texas…

+ Do sheep dream of electric androids? Apparently, at least one of them does….

+ Rex Tillerson booked lodging in a sanitarium during the G20 Summit in Bonn. It won’t help Rex. Things are going to be even more insane when you return…

+ A woman in Houston was seized in a courthouse by ICE during a hearing on a domestic violence case. The person who informed on her was her abuser. Much more chilling than a few premature phone calls to the Russian Amb.

+ Trump’s current job approval by race, according to Gallup: blacks 11%; Hispanics 19%; whites 53%. (Not much change, after all the fuss. Trump’s actually up 3 with blacks, slumping with Hispanics though–wonder why.)

+ I confess that I didn’t watch all of Trump’s 1.5 hour press conference, but I assume with all of that time he fully addressed the news that the oceans are running out of oxygen. Didn’t he?

+ You won’t have the Hamburgler to kick around any more. Andy Puzder withdrew his nomination as Secretary of Labor, before being confronted with a variety of unsavory entries on his resumé, from abuse of workers to spousal abuse. Puzder griped to reporter Major Garrett that he quit because he was “very tired of the abuse.” What a snowflake…

+ Finally, a David Brooks column that Alexander Cockburn would have endorsed. Brooks writes that the resistance to Trump should emulate Gerald Ford, who Alex long considered our greatest president. Get out your pardon pen, Mike Pence!

+ A new poll alleges that a “generic Democrat” would defeat Trump in 2020, even though Elizabeth Warren would lose to the pompous faker by six points. Which begs the question: what’s a generic Democrat? The love child of Joe Manchin and Nancy Pelosi? And can they be manufactured at a low-price in Canada and secretly shipped across the border?

+ Comey-comey-comey-comey-chamleon, he comes and goes, he comes and goes

+ In case, you’re thinking Trump is the most vile president in recent memory, a flashback to Bill Clinton standing above Nixon’s grave:

“Today, we can look back at this little house and still imagine the young boy sitting by the window of the attic he shared with his three brothers, looking out to a world he could then himself only imagine … When he became President, he took on challenges here at home on matters from cancer research to environmental protection, putting the power of the Federal Government where Republicans and Democrats had neglected to put it in the past – in foreign policy….Oh yes, he knew great controversy amid defeat as well as victory. He made mistakes and they, like his accomplishments, are part of his life and record. But the enduring lesson of Richard Nixon is that he never gave up being part of the action and passion of his times.’”

Sound Grammar

What I’m listening to this week…

Nir Felder: Golden Age
Diggs Duke: Gravity
Electric Squeezebox Orchestra: Cheap Rent
Ab-Soul: Long Term 1 & 2
Sacred Paws: Strike a Match

Booked Up

What I’m reading this week…

Raul Hilberg: The Politics of Memory: the Journey of a Holocaust Historian
Pauline Butcher: Freak Out!: My Life with Frank Zappa
Michel Foucault: On the Government of the Living

Turning Sadism Into Justice

Joseph Heller: “It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”

Brexit and Trump: Why Right is Not the New Left

Counterpunch - Fri, 02/17/2017 - 04:00

Photo by Sam | CC BY 2.0


In his 1928 musical play, The Threepenny Opera, Bertolt Brecht regales us with the following critique of the dehumanising properties of capitalism. ‘’A man who sees another man on the street corner with only a stump for an arm will be so shocked the first time he’ll give him sixpence. But the second time it’ll only be a threepenny bit. And if he sees him a third time, he’ll have him cold-bloodedly handed over to the police.’’

How many reading those words could honestly claim immunity from the kind of desensitisation Brecht describes? Unless you are living on an island in the middle of nowhere, it is almost impossible not to be guilty of it on a regular basis. How else could we possibly cope with the ubiquity of suffering and despair we encounter as we go about our daily lives — the army of homeless people begging for change, the human casualties we see all around us (or perhaps refuse to see) of a brutal system underpinned not by justice or fairness or solidarity, but by social Darwinism?

In Britain in the wake of the 2008 economic crash and the resulting imposition of austerity — an ideologically-driven project to transfer wealth from the poor and working class to the wealthy and business class in order to maintain the rate of profit — the callous and cruel disregard for the most vulnerable in society spiked to the point where it became de rigeur to desensitize ourselves to the plight of its victims: the unemployed, benefit claimants, the low waged, and so-called underclass. In other words, those whose ability to survive was dependent on the state, on an already truncated social wage, were lined up by the Tories and its right wing media cohorts as sacrifical lambs in service to a strategy of deflection from the underlying cause of the economic crash – namely private greed and an unregulated financial and banking sector.

Instead, a crisis caused by said private greed was successfully turned into a crisis of public spending, nicely setting up the poor, vulnerable, and most powerless demographics in the country as convenient scapegoats.

This scapegoating has continued apace; only now, on the back of the EU referendum, the guns have been turned on migrants, on foreigners, refugees, and by extension existing minority communities, depicted as the fount of all evil — a threat to that hoary old leitmotif, constantly being drummed into us, of British values. The recent revelation that hate crimes have reached record levels in England and Wales since the EU referendum in June last year tells its own story.

In parenthesis, what precisely are these British values that we’re supposed to hold so dear? Are we supposed to take pride in an empire that plumbed new depths of racism and brutality in its super-exploitation of millions of human beings and their lands? Are we talking the propensity for unleashing war against poor Third World countries? Or are we talking the history of callous cruelty when it comes to the disregard for the plight of the poor that has long been the shameful hallmark of a sociopathic ruling class? Or how about the shining contribution to the cause of democracy represented by an unelected head of state, the monarchy, and likewise unelected second chamber, the House of Lords?

Brexit is the culmination of this callous process of scapegoating and ‘othering’, fuelled by the mounting despair and, with it, righteous anger of those who have and continue to suffer at the hands of a government for whom cruelty is a virtue and compassion a vice. The problem is that this anger is being channelled at the wrong targets, signifying the extent to which the right is winning, if it has not already won, the battle of ideas. The fact that a large section of the left has succumbed to right wing nostrums on the EU, free movement, and migrants as the cause of society’s ills in our time, rather than the government’s vicious austerity, obscene inequality, and the continuing unfettered greed of the private sector, merely confirms it.

In the wake of Brexit, we have witnessed an opportunistic attempt by the Brexit-supporting left to justify its capitulation to these right wing nostrums as the rejection of a liberal fixation on identity politics to the deteriment of class. In other words we are meant to believe that right is the new left.

That the traditional organized industrial working class no longer exists, this is a symptom of the defeats suffered at the hands of Thatcher in the 1980s, when she unleashed class war as part of the structural free market adjustment of the UK economy. The result was the country’s wholesale deindustrialisation and concomitant atomisation of working class communities. Collectivism was replaced by individualism and a homogenous class identity with a hetergenous cultural one.

Thus identity politics, which undoubtedly do exist to the determinent of class, filled the vacuum left behind, providing the locus of political activity for hitherto marginalised groups. However this in no way implies that Brexit, or indeed Trump in the US, represents a return to the politics of class. The campaign to exit the EU was not led by Che Guevara or Rosa Luxemburg. On the contrary, it was was led and driven by a clutch of ultra right-wing ideologues for whom the left-behind and put-upon working class filled the role of convenient fodder, and enough of whom they succeeded in winning to the xenophobic, nativistic, and reactionary precepts of British nationalism.

The result is the biggest and most crushing defeat suffered by the left and progressive forces in Britain since the miners’ strike.

Rogue Elephant Rising: The CIA as Kingslayer

Counterpunch - Fri, 02/17/2017 - 03:59

Photo by Toxic5 | DeviantArt


With members of the CIA and NSA leaking materials on Michael Flynn’s communications with Russian officials, we are witnessing a slow boiling domestic coup that will transform American governance and the Executive Branch’s relationships with intelligence agencies. It remains to be seen whether these moves signal broader attacks on the Presidency by agencies long accustomed to taking out administrations threatening the Agency’s perceived interests.

This moment tells us more about the CIA revolting against a particular administration than it does about Trump’s people engaging in unusually diabolical-illegal activities designed to undermine an outgoing administration. We know enough about Reagan’s pre-election dealings with Iran to know that the CIA and NSA knew about these transactions, yet these agencies were content to remain silent; apparently glad to see Carter ousted and welcoming a new era of unparalleled “peace time” military and intelligence spending. Similarly, American intelligence agencies knew of Nixon’s efforts to sabotage the Paris peace talks before the 1968 election, and the CIA did nothing to undermine a new president who was going to give the agency the war it wanted. The leaking of Flynn’s information tells us little new about how incoming administrations act, but it suggests something new about US intelligence agencies willingness to take out an administration not to their liking.

To be clear: I see nothing wrong with the leaks themselves. I like intelligence leaks. I think they are generally good for democracy and reveal important truths about power. I am not worried about leaks, I am worried about the CIA and other intelligence agencies making a significant power grab that is not being critically considered. This is a move that no future president will soon forget, and that will make him or her think twice before crossing these agencies.

The left’s widely shared disdain for Donald Trump makes the current rushing national wave of schadenfreude understandable, yet there are few on the left who appear worried about what this domestic CIA coup portends for American democracy. Because of the long history of liberals’ attractions to using the CIA, perhaps we should not be too surprised at this elation, but we need to cautiously think beyond this moment.

It is no secret that many at the CIA hold disdain for Flynn. His years at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and in command of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) coincided with efforts to move many of what had been CIA operational activities and covert operations away from CIA to DIA. With the CIA attacking the Trump administration so soon after the election with leaks of the Russian hacking report there were clear public fissures appearing between the Agency and the new Executive.

I assume that there are lots of reasons why many at the CIA and NSA wish to undermine the Trump administration—I even assume I may share a few of these reasons with them. While the agency is comfortable with much of the corporate looting that Trump appears ready to unleash, few in the agency like the sort of instability that Trump generates—and I suppose some within may take his ongoing barbs and attacks on Agency incompetence seriously.

As it is to many of us on the left, it is obvious to me that Trump is the most dangerous, unqualified, and reckless US President I have ever seen—much less imagined. And while it seems as if he will soon enough seize some opportunity to declare a national security disaster granting himself new unlimited powers, I know no reason to trust the CIA and other intelligence agencies any more than we trust Trump.

This attack on the Executive Branch is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. The most historically interesting element of this moment is the rarity of seeing the CIA operating, in real time, not in its usual historical role as a covert arm of the presidency (which Congressman Otis Pike argued was its primary function), but as the sort of rogue elephant that Senator Frank Church and others long ago claimed it is. As members of the Republic, no matter what momentary joy we might feel watching this rogue elephant canter towards our incompetent Commander and Chief, we must not ignore the danger this beast presents to one and all.

We should welcome calls to investigate Trump, Flynn, Bannon, Pence and others within the administration, but we need to also investigate and monitor the CIA for this latest in its long history of attempted coups.

France: Another Ghastly Presidential Election Campaign; the Deep State Rises to the Surface

Counterpunch - Fri, 02/17/2017 - 03:59

As if the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign hadn’t been horrendous enough, here comes another one: in France.

The system in France is very different, with multiple candidates in two rounds, most of them highly articulate, who often even discuss real issues. Free television time reduces the influence of big money. The first round on April 23 will select the two finalists for the May 7 runoff, allowing for much greater choice than in the United States.

But monkey see, monkey do, and the mainstream political class wants to mimic the ways of the Empire, even echoing the theme that dominated the 2016 show across the Atlantic: the evil Russians are messing with our wonderful democracy.

The aping of the U.S. system began with “primaries” held by the two main governing parties which obviously aspire to establish themselves as the equivalent of American Democrats and Republicans in a two-party system.  The right-wing party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy has already renamed itself Les Républicains and the so-called Socialist Party leaders are just waiting for the proper occasion to call themselves Les Démocrates. But as things are going, neither one of them may come out ahead this time.

Given the nearly universal disaffection with the outgoing Socialist Party government of President François Hollande, the Republicans were long seen as the natural favorites to defeat Marine LePen, who is shown by all polls to top the first round. With such promising prospects, the Republican primary brought out more than twice as many volunteer voters (they must pay a small sum and claim allegiance to the party’s “values” in order to vote) as the Socialists.  Sarkozy was eliminated, but more surprising, so was the favorite, the reliable establishment team player, Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppé, who had been leading in the polls and in media editorials.

Fillon’s Family Values

In a surprise show of widespread public disenchantment with the political scene, Republican voters gave landside victory to former prime minister François Fillon, a practicing Catholic with an ultra-neoliberal domestic policy: lower taxes for corporations, drastic cuts in social welfare, even health health insurance benefits – accelerating what previous governments have been doing but more openly. Less conventionally, Fillon strongly condemns the current anti Russian policy.  Fillon also deviates from the Socialist government’s single-minded commitment to overthrowing Assad by showing sympathy for embattled Christians in Syria and their protector, which happens to be the Assad government.

Fillon has the respectable look, as the French say, of a person who could take communion without first going to confession.  As a campaign theme he credibly stressed his virtuous capacity to oppose corruption.

Oops!  On January 25, the semi-satirical weekly Le Canard Enchainé fired the opening shots of an ongoing media campaign designed to undo the image of Mister Clean, revealing that his British wife, Penelope, had been paid a generous salary for working as his assistant. As Penelope was known for staying home and raising their children in the countryside, the existence of that work is in serious doubt.  Fillon also paid his son a lawyer’s fee for unspecified tasks and his daughter for supposedly assisting him write a book.  In a sense, these allegations prove the strength of the conservative candidate’s family values.  But his ratings have fallen and he faces possible criminal charges for fraud.

The scandal is real, but the timing is suspect.  The facts are many years old, and the moment of their revelation is well calculated to ensure his defeat.  Moreover, the very day after the Canard’s revelations, prosecutors hastily opened an inquiry.  In comparison with all the undisclosed dirty work and unsolved blood crimes committed by those in control of the French State over the years, especially during its foreign wars, enriching one’s own family may seem relatively minor.  But that is not the way the public sees it.

Cui bono

It is widely assumed that despite National Front candidate Marine LePen’s constant lead in the polls, whoever comes in second will win the runoff because the established political class and the media will rally around the cry to “save the Republic!”  Fear of the National Front as “a threat to the Republic” has become a sort of protection racket for the established parties, since it stigmatizes as unacceptable a large swath of opposition to themselves.  In the past, both main parties have sneakily connived to strengthen the National Front in order to take votes away from their adversary.

Thus, bringing down Fillon increases the chances that the candidate of the now thoroughly discredited Socialist Party may find himself in the magic second position after all, as the knight to slay the LePen dragon.  But who exactly is the Socialist candidate? That is not so clear.  There is the official Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon. But the independent spin-off from the Hollande administration, Emmanuel Macron, “neither right nor left”, is gathering support from the right of the Socialist Party as well as from most of the neo-liberal globalist elite.

Macron is scheduled to be the winner. But first, a glance at his opposition on the left.  With his ratings in the single digits, François Hollande very reluctantly gave into entreaties from his colleagues to avoid the humiliation of running for a second term and losing badly.  The badly attended Socialist Party primary was expected to select the fiercely pro-Israel prime minister Manuel Valls.  Or if not, on his left, Arnaud Montebourg, a sort of Warren Beatty of French politics, famous for his romantic liaisons and his advocacy of re-industrialization of France.

Again, surprise.  The winner was a colorless, little-known party hack named Benoît Hamon, who rode the wave of popular discontent to appear as a leftist critic and alternative to a Socialist government which sold out all Holland’s promises to combat “finance” and assaulted the rights of the working class instead.  Hamon spiced up his claim to be “on the left” by coming up with a gimmick that is fashionable elsewhere in Europe but a novelty in French political discourse: the “universal basic income”.  The idea of giving every citizen an equal handout can sound appealing to young people having trouble finding a job. But this idea, which originated with Milton Friedman and other apostles of unleashed financial capitalism, is actually a trap.  The project assumes that unemployment is permanent, in contrast to projects to create jobs or share work.  It would be financed by replacing a whole range of existing social allocations, in the name of “getting rid of bureaucracy” and “freedom of consumption”. The project would complete the disempowerment of the working class as a political force, destroying the shared social capital represented by public services, and splitting the dependent classes between paid workers and idle consumers.

There is scant chance that the universal income is about to become a serious item on the French political agenda.  For the moment, Hamon’s claim to radicality serves to lure voters away from the independent left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.  Both are vying for support from greens and militants of the French Communist Party, which has lost all capacity to define its own positions.

The Divided Left

An impressive orator, Mélenchon gained prominence in 2005 as a leading opponent of the proposed European Constitution, which was decisively rejected by the French in a referendum, but was nevertheless adopted under a new name by the French national assembly.  Like so many leftists in France, Mélenchon has a Trotskyist background (the Posadists, more attuned to Third World revolutions than their rivals) before joining the Socialist Party, which he left in 2008 to found the Parti de Gauche.  He has sporadically wooed the rudderless Communist Party to join him as the Front de Gauche (the Left Front) and has declared himself its candidate for President on a new independent ticket called La France insoumise – roughly translated as “Insubordinate France”. Mélenchon is combative with France’s docile media, as he defends such unorthodox positions as praise of Chavez and rejection of France’s current Russophobic foreign policy.  Unlike the conventional Hamon, who follows the Socialist party line, Mélenchon wants France to leave both the euro and NATO.

There are only two really strong personalities in this lineup: Mélenchon on the left and his adversary of choice, Marine LePen, on the right.  In the past, their rivalry in local elections has kept both from winning even though she came out ahead.  Their positions on foreign policy are hard to distinguish from each other: criticism of the European Union, desire to leave NATO, good relations with Russia.

Since both deviate from the establishment line, both are denounced as “populists” – a term that is coming to mean anyone who pays more attention to what ordinary people want that to what the Establishment dictates.

On domestic social policy, on preservation of social services and workers’ rights, Marine is well to the left of Fillon.  But the stigma attached to the National Front as the “far right” remains, even though, with her close advisor Florian Philippot, she has ditched her father, Jean-Marie, and adjusted the party line to appeal to working class voters.  The main relic of the old National Front is her hostility to immigration, which now centers on fear of Islamic terrorists. The terrorist killings in Paris and Nice have made these positions more popular than they used to be. In her effort to overcome her father’s reputation as anti-Semitic, Marine LePen has done her best to woo the Jewish community, helped by her rejection of “ostentatious” Islam, going so far as to call for a ban on wearing an ordinary Muslim headscarf in public.

A runoff between Mélenchon and LePen would be an encounter between a revived left and a revived right, a real change from the political orthodoxy that has alienated much of the electorate. That could make politics exciting again.  At a time when popular discontent with “the system” is rising, it has been suggested (by Elizabeth Lévy’s maverick monthly Le Causeur) that the anti-system Mélenchon might actually have the best chance of winning working class votes away from the anti-system LePen.

Manufacturing Consent

But the pro-European Union, pro-NATO, neoliberal Establishment is at work to keep that from happening.  On every possible magazine cover or talk show, the media have shown their allegiance to a “New! Improved!” middle of the road candidate who is being sold to the public like a consumer product.   At his rallies, carefully coached young volunteers situated in view of the cameras greet his every vague generalization with wild cheers, waving flags, and chanting “Macron President!!!” before going off to the discotèque party offered as their reward. Macron is the closest thing to a robot ever presented as a serious candidate for President.  That is, he is an artificial creation designed by experts for a particular task.

Emmanuel Macron, 39, was a successful investment banker who earned millions working for the Rothschild bank.   Ten years ago, in 2007, age 29, the clever young economist was invited into the big time by Jacques Attali, an immensely influential guru, whose advice since the 1980s has been central in wedding the Socialist Party to pro-capitalist, neoliberal globalism.  Attali incorporated him into his private think tank, the Commission for Stimulating Economic Growth, which helped draft the  “300 Proposals to Change France” presented to President Sarkozy a year later as a blueprint for government.  Sarkozy failed to enact them all, for fear of labor revolts, but the supposedly “left” Socialists are able to get away with more drastic anti-labor measures, thanks to their softer discourse.

The soft discourse was illustrated by presidential candidate François Hollande in 2012 when he aroused enthusiasm by declaring to a rally: “My real enemy is the world of finance!”.  The left cheered and voted for him.  Meanwhile, as a precaution, Hollande secretly dispatched Macron to London to reassure the City’s financial elite that it was all just electoral talk.

After his election, Hollande brought Macron onto his staff. From there he was given a newly created super-modern sounding government post as minister of Economy, Industry and Digital affairs in 2014.  With all the bland charm of a department store mannequin, Macron upstaged his irascible colleague, prime minister Manuel Valls, in the silent rivalry to succeed their boss, President Hollande.  Macron won the affection of big business by making his anti-labor reforms look young and clean and “progressive”. In fact, he pretty much followed the Attali agenda.

The theme is “competitiveness”.  In a globalized world, a country must attract investment capital in order to compete, and for that it is necessary to lower labor costs.  A classic way to do that is to encourage immigration.  With the rise of identity politics, the left is better than the right in justifying massive immigration on moral grounds, as a humanitarian measure.  That is one reason that the Democratic Party in the United States and the Socialist Party in France have become the political partners of neoliberal globalism.  Together, they have changed the outlook of the official left from structural measures promoting economic equality to moral measures promoting equality of minorities with the majority.

Just last year, Macron founded (or had founded for him) his political movement entitled “En marche!” (Let’s go!) characterized by meetings with young groupies wearing Macron t-shirts.  In three months he felt the call to lead the nation and announced his candidacy for President.

Many personalities are jumping the marooned Socialist ship and going over to Macron, whose strong political resemblance to Hillary Clinton suggests that his is the way to create a French Democratic Party on the U.S. model.  Hillary may have lost but she remains the NATOland favorite. And indeed, U.S. media coverage confirms this notion.  A glance at the ecstatic puff piece by Robert Zaretsky in Foreign Policy magazine hailing “the English-speaking, German-loving, French politician Europe has been waiting for” leaves no doubt that Macron is the darling of the trans-Atlantic globalizing elite.

At this moment, Macron is second only to Marine LePen in the polls, which also show him defeating her by a landslide in the final round.  However, his carefully manufactured appeal is vulnerable to greater public information about his close ties to the economic elite.

Blame the Russians

For that eventuality, there is a preventive strike, imported directly from the United States.  It’s the fault of the Russians!

What have the Russians done that is so terrible?  Mainly, they have made it clear that they have a preference for friends rather than enemies as heads of foreign governments.  Nothing so extraordinary about that. Russian news media criticize, or interview people who criticize, candidates hostile to Moscow.  Nothing extraordinary about that either.

As an example of this shocking interference, which allegedly threatens to undermine the French Republic and Western values, the Russian news agency Sputnik interviewed a Republican member of the French parliament, Nicolas Dhuicq, who dared say that Macron might be “an agent of the American financial system”.   That is pretty obvious.  But the resulting outcry skipped over that detail to accuse Russian state media of “starting to circulate rumors that Macron had a gay extramarital affair” (The EU Observer, February 13, 2017).  In fact this alleged “sexual slur” had been circulating primarily in gay circles in Paris, for whom the scandal, if any, is not Macron’s alleged sexual orientation but the fact that he denies it.  The former mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, was openly gay, Marine Le Pen’s second in command Florian Philippot is gay, in France being gay is no big deal.

Macron is supported by a “very wealthy gay lobby”, Dhuicq is quoted as saying.  Everyone knows who that is: Pierre Bergé, the rich and influential business manager of Yves Saint Laurent, personification of radical chic, who strongly supports surrogate gestation, which is indeed a controversial issue in France, the real controversy underlying the failed opposition to gay marriage.

The Deep State rises to the surface

The amazing adoption in France of the American anti-Russian campaign is indicative of a titanic struggle for control of the narrative – the version of international reality consumed by the masses of people who have no means to undertake their own investigations. Control of the narrative is the critical core of what Washington describes as its “soft power”.  The hard power can wage wars and overthrow governments.  The soft power explains to bystanders why that was the right thing to do.  The United States can get away with literally everything so long as it can tell the story to its own advantage, without the risk of being credibly contradicted.  Concerning sensitive points in the world, whether Iraq, or Libya, or Ukraine, control of the narrative is basically exercised by the partnership between intelligence agencies and the media.  Intelligence services write the story, and the mass corporate media tell it.

Together, the anonymous sources of the “deep state” and the mass corporate media have become accustomed to controlling the narrative told to the public.  They don’t want to give that power up.  And they certainly don’t want to see it challenged by outsiders – notably by Russian media that tell a different story.

That is one reason for the extraordinary campaign going on to denounce Russian and other alternative media as sources of “false news”, in order to discredit rival sources.  The very existence of the Russian international television news channel RT aroused immediate hostility: how dare the Russians intrude on our version of reality!  How dare they have their own point of view! Hillary Clinton warned against RT when she was Secretary of State and her successor John Kerry denounced it as a “propaganda bullhorn”.  What we say is truth, what they say can only be propaganda.

The denunciation of Russian media and alleged Russian “interference in our elections” is a major invention of the Clinton campaign, which has gone on to infect public discourse in Western Europe.  This accusation is a very obvious example of double standards, or projection, since U.S. spying on everybody, including it allies, and interference in foreign elections are notorious.

The campaign denouncing “fake news” originating in Moscow is in full swing in both France and Germany as elections approach.  It is this accusation that is the functional interference in the campaign, not Russian media.  The accusation that Marine Le Pen is “the candidate of Moscow” is not only meant to work against her, but is also preparation for the efforts to instigate some variety of “color revolution” should she happen to win the May 7 election. CIA interference in foreign elections is far from limited to contentious news reports.

In the absence of any genuine Russian threat to Europe, claims that Russian media are “interfering in our democracy” serve to brand Russia as an aggressive enemy and thereby justify the huge NATO military buildup in Northeastern Europe, which is reviving German militarism and directing national wealth into the arms industry.

In some ways, the French election is an extension of the American one, where the deep state lost its preferred candidate, but not its power.  The same forces are at work here, backing Macron as the French Hillary, but ready to stigmatize any opponent as a tool of Moscow.

What has been happening over the past months has confirmed the existence of a Deep State that is not only national but trans-Atlantic, aspiring to be global. The anti-Russian campaign is a revelation.  It reveals to many people that there really is a Deep State, a trans-Atlantic orchestra that plays the same tune without any visible conductor. The term “Deep State” is suddenly popping up even in mainstream discourse, as a reality than cannot be denied, even if it is hard to define precisely.   Instead of the Military Industrial Complex, we should perhaps call it the Military Industrial Intelligence Military Media Complex, or MIIMMC.  Its power is enormous, but acknowledging that it exists is the first step toward working to free ourselves from its grip.

Trump’s One-State Option

Counterpunch - Fri, 02/17/2017 - 03:58

Following his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Donald Trump declared that the US would no longer insist on a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Decades of US diplomacy were thus cast aside in an instant. “I’m looking at two-state and one-state” formulations, Mr. Trump said during a White House news conference; “I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.”

Although Palestinian representative Saeb Erekat was infuriated by Trump’s proclamation, and Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, immediately retracted the statement, averring that Washington “absolutely” supported a two-state solution to the conflict, Trump’s pronouncement can actually be understood as a positive development.

Even though Trump does not appear to support Palestinian statehood or basic Palestinian rights, the abandonment of the two-state paradigm, which has informed years of political negotiations (from the Madrid conference in 1991, through Oslo, Camp David, Taba, and Annapolis), has the potential to bring about a new and long overdue kind of debate in the US and Europe.

On the ground, Israel currently controls the area between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea, indicating that de-facto there already is only one state. Moreover, past negotiations based on the two state paradigm have allowed Israel to continue bolstering its hold on Palestinian land, where currently an estimated 600,000 Jewish settlers live. The two-state solution has become no more than a chimera used by Israel to sustain the status quo while fortifying its colonial project. In other words, the so-called two state solution has become an effective tool of domination.

By changing the paradigm, the parameters for discussion will also have to change. If within the two-state framework the major points of contention involve Israel’s full withdrawal to the 1967 border, Jerusalem’s status and division, and the acknowledgement of the right of return of all Palestinians, discussions revolving around the one-state framework will—sooner or later—have to focus on the shift from apartheid to democratization.

Within the area controlled by Israel there are currently two legal systems operating, one for Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens, and the other for the occupied Palestinian inhabitants. Such a situation, according to any reasonable definition, is apartheid. Consequently, only after the one-state paradigm is accepted will the important questions come to the fore and discussions about how to establish a form of power-sharing governance among Israeli Jews and Palestinians based on the liberal democracy model of the separation of powers finally emerge.

Unlike Jewish Israelis, many Palestinians have already come to realize that even though they are currently under occupation, Israel’s rejectionist stance will unwittingly lead to a bi-national solution. And while Netanyahu is still thousands of miles behind the current juncture, it is high time for an American and European Awakening, one that will force world leaders to support a viable democratic future for the 13 million Jews and Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. And while it is extremely unlikely that Trump himself will take the lead in such a move, he has, nonetheless, opened the door precisely to such a development.

Neve Gordon is a Leverhulme Visiting Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies and the co-author of The Human Right to Dominate.

Emperor Trump Has No Clothes: Time to Organize!

Counterpunch - Fri, 02/17/2017 - 03:58

Photo by Joe Crimmings | CC BY 2.0

Leftists perennially lament that each successive US president has no clothes, but nobody else is admitting it. With Trump, the CEO of the US empire is clearly naked. This is an organizing opportunity.

The Trump team is filled with inexperienced, incompetent, and incoherent competing operatives. Is that a problem? Would it be better if they could efficiently implement their right-wing agenda? Let them trip over each other.

Out like Flynn” is their latest contribution to the American lexicon. Andrew Puzder has withdrawn as Trump’s labor secretary nominee. And after only three weeks in office, Pres. Trump’s odds are nearly even of not making it through the full four-year term.

Neither should we be melancholic that US prestige abroad is being sullied. Unless you really do believe the Navy advertisements (recently abandoned) that “our” military is a “global force for good,” the world would be a better place if America’s standing were to be whittled down a few notches. Martin Luther King’s admonition that the US is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world rings truer today than ever.

Class Divide Exposed

Trump has done some of the work for us of stripping the system of its obscuring cover to its naked essence. Liberals are no longer all misty eyed as they were in 2008 when Mr. Obama led them to fantasize that NAFTA would be repealed and a union card checkoff would be instituted. The illusion that all we had to do is elect a Democrat into the White House to facilitate a new era of resurgence for working people is being unclothed.

We now know – or in some cases need to be reminded — these were Obama’s bait and switch campaign ploys, no less lies than Trump’s many fibs about putting Americans back to work with good paying jobs. With the new president, it is becoming increasingly clear to working Americans which side of the bread is buttered and for which class. Financial predator and new Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, a former George Soros associate and consummate corporate crony, should dispel any lingering illusions of populism in this administration.

Yes, it should be clear on which side of the class divide the various factions of the political class are despite their now openly rancorous internecine bickering. Mr. Obama implored us to give Mr. Trump a chance. Mrs. Clinton chose to sit in a place of honor at Trump’s inauguration, but was AWOL the next day on the Women’s March.

The formerly independent Mr. Sanders has joined the Democratic Party leadership group as their chief recruiter, dropped single-payer health care, and helped vote in Trump’s generals Kelly for Homeland Security and Mattis for Defense. Most recently, Sanders has been tapped by moderate Democrats to “calm down” their constituents angry with the party’s failure to support progressive issues.  House Democratic leader Pelosi has nixed impeaching Trump.

Neoliberal Trajectory Intensified

The liberal establishment in today’s political context is about accepting the lesser evil. Liberalism no longer pretends to offer something better. Yet with each successive capitulation to the lesser evil, things get progressively more evil. Now we have Trump, continuing and intensifying the neoliberal trajectory that he inherited from Obama to a yet more naked capitalism with increased privatization and deregulation.

Before any reasonably sane person contemplated a possible Trump presidency, Obama promised comprehensive immigration legislation. Yet once in office, Obama never even tested the waters to see if it could pass. He just did nothing…other than deporting more immigrants than all previous presidents combined, privatizing jails for immigrants, further militarizing the border, and extending the fence between the US and Mexico.

When Trump assumed the presidency, he had no immigration reform bill to reverse. But he had a jump start on intensifying the anti-immigrant measures of his predecessor.

Decent Americans who want this country to at least try to emulate the ideals inscribed on the Statue of Liberty are mobilizing this time around as never before. Let’s see what this coming February 20th, Not My President’s Day, portends followed by May 1st, International Workers Day.

From Resisting Against to Organizing For

Resisting the inherent racism, sexism, and reactionary nationalism, which is institutionalized in the capitalist order and personified by its current CEO, is essential. But these defensive actions can and should be carried to a higher political level of not just resisting what we are against but also organizing for what we are for.

Direct action to resist attacks on immigrants, Muslims, and other targeted identities is imperative. It is also an opportunity to drill deeper.

Poor Mexicans are risking their lives to cross into the US because actions by our government such as NAFTA destroyed small farms south of the border. These were deliberate policies – not mistakes – to drive tillers of the soil off their traditional lands in Mexico in order to make way for industrial farms there. These policies as well served to provide an expanded market for subsidized agricultural goods produced by US agri-business, all the while generating a vast reserve army of cheap labor.

Or take the Middle Eastern immigrants escaping from inhumane chaos, which is a direct consequence of the US government’s and its allies’ regime change policies against the last remaining secular Muslim states. Among the tragic ironies of this humanitarian crisis is that the victims are fleeing to the lands governed by their perpetrators.

Fissures within the Ruling Circles

Not all is hunky-dory, however, with Trump and the other big dogs. The ruling elites are in a fight over the commanding positions of power such as the composition of the National Security Council. They are scrapping over how best – not whether – to dominate the world and subjugate working people. We don’t have a dog in those fights. Choosing our own poison, however procedurally democratic the choice between Democrat and Republican may sound, is not the only option.

These fissures within the ruling circles are opportunities for us to go outside the binary choice of one ruling class faction or the other. Our opportunity is to promote a progressive alternative, which extends beyond just ameliorating the worst excesses of capitalism to one that positively promotes a new order.

The ruling elites may quarrel among themselves, but are united in seeking to perfect their world order. Even liberals within the establishment are relegated to legitimizing the existing order, as with their promotion of “humanitarian war.”

Meanwhile, as more and more of us become dispossessed and disaffected, the time is ripe to carry resistance against repression to organization for a new order. More new people are becoming more actively involved in protest for the first time. The first demonstration one goes to is a big deal; a seminal act, which will have positive reverberations going forward.

The problem with Trump being naked – as repulsive as he is – is not his haberdashery but his hegemony. That is what has to change.

What Else is Wrong with Globalization

Counterpunch - Fri, 02/17/2017 - 03:58

It isn’t just an issue of whether they have the jobs or we have the jobs. From a red-green, eco-socialist perspective we must ask: what are they producing, how does the product and process affect the health, happiness and self-esteem of the worker, how does it contribute to the health and happiness of the consumer, and what effect do product and process have on the environment and culture of the producing and receiving countries?

Globalization has benefits, undoubtedly. There are international human rights treaties that have enabled local activists to improve conditions for their fellow citizens; there are developments in medical treatments that are now widely available. But as the benefits of globalization are widely described, I will argue for the minority and indicate some of the serious problems that we don’t hear much about.

A red-green view advocates for a predominately local economy. What can be produced locally should be, even if imports are cheaper. Exceptions might be made for rare items that contribute substantially to the quality of life, when the production conditions can be ascertained.

How is it possible to provide for needs locally? Scientists, now employed mostly in weapons, pharma, and agricultural chemicals, can work with local residents to figure out how to provide for clothing, housing, food, fuel, medicine, and entertainment from local resources. Education might introduce children to all pacific and useful technology, and stimulate their creativity in providing for the needs of life (instead of the rocket building competitions featured in STEM recruitment, sponsored by weapons corporations).

Modern transportation would still be needed, but on a much smaller scale would produce far lower carbon and particulate emissions. Commuting could be greatly reduced, as well as the transportation of chocolate chip cookies from British Columbia to New Hampshire; I have encountered such an import. Vodka now shipped halfway across the earth turns out to be pure alcohol; given some grain and an old bathtub, a child could make it in her backyard (and would). Transportation of goods, even by sea, is a huge fuel consumer and environmental polluter.

An energy source that is hugely underutilized is human labor. If moderately extracted from all, it can provide great gains for health. Currently, many are idle, or engaged in pointless “workouts” or hazardous games. Food can be produced almost anywhere, with composting, raised beds, etc., and a diet based on legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and small animals would provide appropriate exercise. No one needs 50 t-shirts; a small, durable, elegant supply of clothing can be fabricated even in the northern regions from wool, linen, and hemp. Given that millions of people have voluntary hobbies of gardening, macramé tying, and geegaw fabrication, this type of labor would not be unduly harsh or violate the human spirit.

Of course, if the enormous energy, resources, and brains now devoted to human destruction in the military-industrial complex were employed for human well-being, there would be a plenitude. Add to this all the resources used producing junk that earns profits for some, provides work and subsistence for others, and gives short term amusement to consumers.

What is wrong with a globalized economy and free trade based on cheapness? Adam Smith, Scottish philosopher of capitalism and free trade, said that each country should produce what it can best sell to the rest of the world, and trade with other countries for its other needs. At the time, 1776, Britain was the only industrialized country, so it naturally, or perhaps unnaturally, had a competitive advantage over countries exporting natural resources.

The early triumph of the British industrial revolution, cheap textiles made with cotton produced by slaves, put the skilled weavers out of business, hence the Luddites. T-shirts and curtain material were exported to India and Africa, destroying local textile production, creating fashions that were not needed by indigenous people, and in any case, were quite inferior to native fabrics.

One problem with the extreme specialization implied by Smith’s idea is that it reduces the range of occupations available to citizens of a country. In a similar way, high value crops: coffee, tea, chocolate, cocaine, ganja, flowers, tropical fruits, and exotic vegetables lead to monoculture. The lucrative luxuries draw all resources, labor, and capital away from basic food production.

Furthermore, mechanization, which cheapens products and makes them more exportable, results in massive unemployment. Today, as entire factories can easily be imported, comparative advantage lies with those places that have the lowest labor and environmental standards. As competition constantly leads to new lows, abandoned production sites and lost jobs are another cost to communities. Ghost towns were also a feature of early industrialization, as water power yielded first to coal and then to electricity as power sources.

Another problem is the nature of the products that really sell well: historically, and today, these have been guns and drugs (coffee, tea, sugar, tobacco as well as harder stuff), fossil fuels, lumber, and minerals. Information technology has costs as well as benefits; entertainment and news services can drown out local cultures and varied perspectives. Industrialized agriculture and farmed fish have environmental and health effects for both exporting and importing countries. Junk food floods the world with serious inroads on traditional diets, especially in poor countries where small incomes are diverted to snacks and sodas regarded as treats, even for babies.

Subsistence and mid-size farmers have a hard life, and must contend with erratic weather and harsh market conditions. They are under pressure to self-exploit and wear out the soil to produce the cheapest. It would be better if their hours were regulated and they were paid a living wage, rather than be dependent on the returns for their crop.

In France, the rules of free trade have been evaded by conservation subsidies to farmers, as the French do not want to abolish the countryside and eat only the cheaper imported food. In Mexico, farmers have been chased from the land by the more competitive industrialized agriculture. Some of them have migrated north; others have found jobs in the tourist industry, and often their diet comes from the only available source: processed food from convenience stores. Obesity is now a problem in poor as well as rich countries.

While we may be aware of the human and environmental costs of natural resource extraction, for example, oil and gas, mineral mining, and forestry, there is little that the ultimate consumer can do about it. In Australia, Canada, the US, throughout Africa, and elsewhere, uranium mining is a job for indigenous people; the wastes are also inflicted on their communities. Extraction of gold and other minerals has long poisoned the lands of Latin America and elsewhere. Now that the balanced economy of Mongolia has disintegrated, international mining companies are rapidly digging up the country.

As for the items that we purchase individually, it is difficult to research all the conditions of their production. Some organizations have done this for a few products, e.g., shoes, or fish, but even in these cases, the producers keep shifting locations and practices, so the information is quickly outdated.

Tourism is one of the largest items in international markets. Certainly it has educational benefits, but it is also energy intensive and polluting. It can provide a good living for artists, musicians, and cultural workers, but it requires armies of cab drivers, waiters, and janitors. It is a very competitive industry, and some countries find their comparative advantage in providing juvenile sex tourism. Another lure is gained by stripping forests and agricultural land to create golf courses. Caribbean losers of the“banana war,” have tried this, often on the advice of the World Bank.

Countries of the European Union, which now import most of their food, furniture, and clothing, are heavily dependent on tourism. They also import labor for service and factory work. However, an important contribution to “free trade” of the leading social democratic nations, e.g., France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, are weapons export industries.

Many of the 200 or so nations of the world have very little to offer in the international market. Toxic waste sites are attractive to foreign corporations, but not so much for the communities and workers that will operate them. Another handy earner of foreign exchange is the harboring of off-shore corporate headquarters for tax evasion purposes. Even Bermuda has resorted to this, as its fine beaches and coral reefs do not have enough zing for younger tourists.

The “banana war” has contributed to a strange export: citizenship. The war began in 1996, when the head of Chiquita bananas complained to the World Trade Organization that the European Union preference, a very small quota, for bananas from former colonies violated the rules of free trade. For some islands in the Caribbean, for example,

Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Trinidad, and Jamaica, bananas produced on small family farms were an important part of the economy. They could not compete in price with the Chiquita and Dole U.S. based corporations (which have no plantations inside the US). The WTO eventually ruled that the preferences had to stop, and similarly, preferences for the sugar exports of St. Kitts. There was some hope in exporting organic bananas, but that niche was dashed when the large corporations also went into that business. With island tourism a declining industry, St. Kitts, Antigua, St. Lucia, Dominica, and Grenada are now selling citizenship. In St. Kitts, the cost is $50,000 in processing fees and the purchase of a house worth at least $400,000. The wealthy buyers can obtain tax evasion benefits as well as visa free entry to many countries, especially those of the European Union.

The political costs of globalization are often unremarked. Democratic choice is more difficult to exercise when major decisions are made at higher levels, remote from ordinary citizens. For example, the US Metalclad corporation wished to develop and enlarge a leaking toxic waste plant in Mexico. The local community didn’t want it, and refused to issue a permit, but the rules of the North American Free Trade Agreement denied locals any choice in the matter. Mexico was required to pay a fine of $16 million. Even local and national laws may have to be jettisoned according to trade agreements. This has been notable in Canada’s experience with NAFTA; several of Canadian environmental laws have been ruled violations of “free trade.” Not only trade in goods, but investments, services, and ownership of land and natural resources must be open to all according to the rules of globalization’s institutions. There have been a few cases where citizen action has delayed or defeated trade agreements, but they require tremendous efforts.

The European Union imposes financial limitations on members, despite what might be best for their citizens. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization promotes militarization and participation in aggressive wars among its members—in this supposedly defensive alliance. In addition to members, “partners in peace” and other nations have been herded into a global army, devastating Afghanistan and wherever else it decides to punish. NATO’s bases (and those of the Empire’s other alliances) create local service economies but demand exemption from environmental and criminal laws. The United Nations, despite its great promise and outlawing of war, has not been able to end aggression in foreign policy or enforce nuclear disarmament treaties. International law is mocked, except where there is some commercial advantage to its enforcement.

Further erosion of democracy results from the very attractiveness of participation in international governmental organizations, their task forces, and the non-governmental organizations that shadow them. Local political parties and activities have declined and are neglected by the leading activists who would rather travel the world in the hopes of doing some good.

Not everything we need or strongly desire can be produced locally, but by limiting imports from abroad or even great distances within a nation, we can more feasibly be informed of their production conditions. As to the high costs of “localvore” items, we discover that it is what they really cost, given humane labor conditions and respect for the environment. Political decision-making at local levels can empower ordinary people and improve the prospects for democracy. Cultural and informational exchanges can create and enhance a cosmopolitan world, provided the people, their values, and their environments are respected.

Joan Roelofs is Professor Emerita of Political Science, Keene State College, New Hampshire. She is the author of Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (SUNY Press, 2003) and Greening Cities (Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), which includes examples of local economy initiatives. Roelofs is the translator of Victor Considerant’s Principles of Socialism (Maisonneuve Press, 2006), and co-translator, with Shawn P. Wilbur, of Charles Fourier’s anti-war fantasy, World War of Small Pastries, Autonomedia, 2015. Web site: www.joanroelofs.wordpress.com Contact: jroelofs@keene.edu

Blood in the Water: the Trump Revolution Ends in a Whimper

Counterpunch - Fri, 02/17/2017 - 03:58

Photo by woodleywonderworks | CC BY 2.0

The Flynn fiasco is not about national security advisor Michael Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador. It’s much deeper than that. It’s about Russia. It’s about Putin. It’s about the explosive rise of China and the world’s biggest free trade zone that will eventually stretch from Lisbon to Vladivostok.  It’s about the one country in the world that is obstructing Washington’s plan for global domination. (Russia) And, it’s about the future; which country will be the key player in the world’s most prosperous and populous region, Asia.

That’s what’s at stake, and that’s what the Flynn controversy is really all about.

Many readers are familiar with the expression “pivot to Asia”, but do they know what it means?

It means the United States has embarked on an ambitious plan to extend its military grip and market power over the Eurasian landmass thus securing its position as the world’s only superpower into the next century. The pivot is Washington’s top strategic priority. As Hillary Clinton said in 2011:

“Harnessing Asia’s growth and dynamism is central to American economic and strategic interests… Open markets in Asia provide the United States with unprecedented opportunities for investment, trade, and access to cutting-edge technology…..American firms (need) to tap into the vast and growing consumer base of Asia…

The region already generates more than half of global output and nearly half of global trade…. we are looking for opportunities to do even more business in Asia…and our investment opportunities in Asia’s dynamic markets.”(“America’s Pacific Century”, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton”, Foreign Policy Magazine, 2011)

In other words, it’s pivot or bust. Those are the only two options. Naturally, ruling elites in the US have chosen the former over the latter, which means they are committed to a strategy that will inevitably pit the US against a nuclear-armed adversary, Russia.

Trump’s National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, wanted to normalize relations with Russia. He rejected the flagrantly hostile approach of the US foreign policy establishment. That’s why he had to be removed. And, that’s why he’s been so viciously attacked in the media and why the threadbare story about his contacts with the Russian ambassador were used to force his resignation.

This isn’t about the law and it isn’t about the truth. It’s about bare-knuckle geopolitics and global hegemony. Flynn got in the way of the pivot, so Flynn had to be eliminated. End of story. Here’s a clip from an article by Robert Parry:

“Flynn’s real “offense” appears to be that he favors détente with Russia rather than escalation of a new and dangerous Cold War. Trump’s idea of a rapprochement with Moscow – and a search for areas of cooperation and compromise – has been driving Official Washington’s foreign policy establishment crazy for months and the neocons, in particular, have been determined to block it.

Though Flynn has pandered to elements of the neocon movement with his own hysterical denunciations of Iran and Islam in general, he emerged as a key architect for Trump’s plans to seek a constructive relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Meanwhile, the neocons and their liberal-interventionist sidekicks have invested heavily in making Putin the all-purpose bête noire to justify a major investment in new military hardware and in pricy propaganda operations.” (“Trump Caves on Flynn’s resignation“, Consortium News)

US foreign policy is not developed willy-nilly. It emerges as the consensus view of various competing factions within the permanent national security state.  And, although there are notable differences between the rival factions (either hardline or dovish) there appears to be unanimity on the question of Russia. There is virtually no constituency within the political leadership of either of the two major parties (or their puppetmaster supporters in the deep state) for improving relations with Russia. None. Russia is blocking Washington’s eastward expansion, therefore, Russia must be defeated. Here’s more from the World Socialist Web Site:

“US imperialism seeks to counter its declining world economic position by exploiting its unchallenged global military dominance. It sees as the principal roadblocks to its hegemonic aims the growing economic and military power of China and the still-considerable strength of Russia, possessor of the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal, the largest reserves of oil and gas, and a critical geographical position at the center of the Eurasian land mass.

Trump’s opponents within the ruling class insist that US foreign policy must target Russia with the aim of weakening the Putin regime or overthrowing it. This is deemed a prerequisite for taking on the challenge posed by China.

Numerous Washington think tanks have developed scenarios for military conflicts with Russian forces in the Middle East, in Ukraine, in the Baltic States and in cyberspace. The national security elite is not prepared to accept a shift in orientation away from the policy of direct confrontation with Russia along the lines proposed by Trump, who would like for the present to lower tensions with Russia in order to focus first on China.” (“Behind the Flynn resignation and Trump crisis: A bitter conflict over imperialist policy“, WSWS)

Foreign policy elites believe the US and its NATO allies can engage Russia in a shooting war without it expanding into a regional conflict and without an escalation into a nuclear conflagration. It’s a risky calculation but, nevertheless, it is the rationale behind the persistent build up of troops and weaponry on Russia’s western perimeter. Take a look at this from the Independent:

“Thousands of Nato troops have amassed close to the border with Russia as part of the largest build-up of Western troops neighbouring Moscow’s sphere of influence since the Cold War…Tanks and heavy armoured vehicles, plus Bradley fighting vehicles and Paladin howitzers, are also in situ and British Typhoon jets from RAF Conningsby will be deployed to Romania this summer to contribute to Nato’s Southern Air Policing mission…

Kremlin officials claim the build-up is the largest since the Second World War.” (“The map that shows how many Nato troops are deployed along Russia’s border“, The Independent)

Saber-rattling and belligerence have cleared the way for another world war. Washington thinks the conflict can be contained, but we’re nor so sure.

The inexperienced Trump– who naively believed that the president sets his own foreign policy–has now learned that that’s not the case. The Flynn slap-down,  followed by blistering attacks in the media and threats of impeachment, have left Trump shaken to the core. As a result, he has done a speedy about-face and swung into damage control-mode. On Tuesday, he tried to extend the olive branch by tweeting that “Crimea was taken by Russia” and by offering to replace Flynn with a trusted insider who will not veer from the script  prepared by the foreign policy establishment. Check out this blurb on the Foreign Policy magazine website on Wednesday:

“President Donald Trump offered the job of national security advisor to retired Vice Adm. Robert Harward on Monday night…If, as expected, Harward accepts the job today, he is likely to bring in his own team, from deputy on down, with a focus on national security types with some experience under their belts…

Harward also would work well with Defense Secretary James Mattis. When Mattis was chief of Central Command, Harward was his deputy. Mattis trusted him enough to put him in charge of planning for war with Iran. Mattis has urged Harward to take the NSA job.

If Harward becomes NSA, Mattis would emerge from the Flynn mess in a uniquely powerful position: He would have two of his former deputies at the table in some meetings. The other one is John Kelly, now secretary for Homeland Security, who was his number two when Mattis commanded a Marine division early in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.” (“A Mattis protégé poised to take the helm of Trump’s NSC,” Foreign Policy)

In other words, Trump is relinquishing control over foreign policy and returning it to trusted insiders who will comply with pre-set elitist guidelines. Trump’s sudden metamorphosis was apparent in another story that appeared in Wednesday’s news, this time related to Rex Tillerson and General Joseph Dunford. Here’s a clip from CNN:

“Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford meet face to face with their Russian counterparts Thursday, as the Trump administration evaluates the future direction of US-Russian relations….But even as Tillerson’s plane was taking off in Washington, the Pentagon announced the meeting between Dunford and his Russian counterpart Valeriy Gerasimov, which will take place Thursday in Baku, Azerbaijan….

“The military leaders will discuss a variety of issues including the current state of U.S.-Russian military relations …Trump’s envoys have been expressing positions more keeping with previous US policies. …

Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, indicated the US would maintain sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea in 2014. She condemned what she called the “Russian occupation” of the Ukrainian territory…

The US has deployed thousands of troops and tanks to Poland and Romania in recent weeks, while other NATO allies have sent troops to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

“There is a common message from the President, from his security team, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, that they stay strongly committed to NATO,” he added.

Let’s summarize: The sanctions will remain, the tanks are on the border, the commitment to NATO has been reinforced, and Dunford is going to explain Washington’s strategic objectives to his Russian counterpart in clear, unambiguous language. There will be no room for Tillerson, who is on friendly terms with Putin, to change the existing policy or to normalize relations; Dunford, Haley, and Defense Secretary James Mattis will make sure of that.

As for Trump, it’s clear by the Crimea tweet, the sacking of Flynn and the (prospective) appointment of Harward, that he’s running scared and is doing everything in his power to get out of the hole he’s dug for himself.  There’s no way of knowing whether he’ll be allowed to carry on as before or if he’ll be forced to throw other allies, like Bannon or Conway, under the bus. I would expect the purge to continue and to eventually include Trump himself. But that’s just a guess.

The hope that Trump would bring an element of sanity to US foreign policy has now been extinguished. The so called “Trump Revolution” has fizzled out before it ever began.

In contrast, the military buildup along Russia’s western flank continues apace.

Why Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban?

Counterpunch - Fri, 02/17/2017 - 03:57

Even troglodytes concede that Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban was poorly thought out and poorly executed.  More evolved citizens understand that it was also stupid and odious.

Was this just a case of Trump being Trump?  Or is there something more sinister going on?   Most likely, the former, but perhaps not; the only sure thing, at this point, is that it would be foolish to wait to find out.

Trump is wicked and capable of doing grave and irreparable harm.  He could start a war out of desperation or in a fit of pique.  But, by all accounts, Steven Bannon, Trump’s “chief strategist,” is qualitatively worse.

Insofar as the ban was an indicator of Bannon’s increasing influence within the Trump bubble, it is all the more urgent to deepen and expand the resistance to Trump and all things Trumpian in every way and by every available means.

It is more important still to turn that resistance into a determined and capable political opposition.  There is now no real opposition at all; there is the Democratic Party, and it is worse than useless.


As a candidate, Trump would say whatever popped into his mind at the moment; this was usually determined by whomever he had spoken to last.

To his everlasting credit, he would also sometimes utter forbidden truths — about the mediocrity of his rivals and about how corrupt both Democrats and Republicans are.

He did something like that again recently in a Fox News interview on Superbowl Sunday when, in response to a question of Bill O’Reilly’s about the evils of Vladimir Putin, he replied: “ do you think our country’s so innocent?”

Ninety-nine percent of the time, however, he would jabber on without regard to evidence or logic, and, when it served his purpose, he would flip flop with reckless abandon.

This was not just the mindless babble of a man in the grip of “alternative facts.”  It was also a sales pitch targeted at one or another or both of two broad categories of voters — white, middle aged victims of neoliberal economic policies, and the miscreants whom neoliberalism’s standard bearer, Hillary Clinton, called “deplorable.”


Now that the end of Trump’s first month in office is in sight, he is still peddling the same snake oil to the same people.  This is all the more remarkable inasmuch as the pre-Trump world already feels like a distant, barely remembered past.

One thing that has changed since those long ago days is that reactionary millionaires and billionaires, and rank incompetents, are now ensconced in the highest offices of government.  What a gaggle of scoundrels!

George W. Bush is therefore losing his claim to be, by far, the worst President in modern American history.

This is no mean feat: with Dick Cheney calling the shots, and with some real doozies of his own for advisors and in cabinet and cabinet level positions, Bush did incalculable harm to the United States.  Worse still, his wars – all of them wars of choice — destabilized large swathes of the Muslim world.  It could take decades to put back together all that he broke, even if all goes well.  Meanwhile, the consequences reverberate around the world.

It is already clear too that it will not be long before Barack Obama is no longer the unsurpassed, and seemingly unsurpassable, Deporter-in-Chief.

Hardcore deplorables must be pleased with the way things are going, but the scales are starting to fall from the eyes of at least a few of the marks the Donald conned.   It helps that nearly everything Trump does and says is embarrassing.

Naturally, it will take a while for most of them fully to fess up.  Nobody likes to admit to being wrong, and as long as they are not feeling the pain themselves, they can remain willfully blind.

Even now, though, when pressed, many of them struggle to find hopeful things to say. What they come up with usually comes down to Trump’s “authenticity.”  He may be a badass, they say, but what you see is what you get.

Seriously?  The man is as phony as a three-dollar bill.  Even the Clintons are better than that.

This is why there really is no way to say what he wants to get out of his Muslim travel ban or anything else, for that matter — except glory, of course – fat chance of that! — and money. The problem is not that he is secretive; quite to the contrary.   It is that there is no there there.

He probably does believe what he says when he says it.  This is only human; even pathological liars are momentarily sincere.  But this is a psychological phenomenon, not an indicator of relatively stable political views.

Even so, there is no need to deal with each utterance – or with each Executive Order –without any purchase at all on the beliefs and desires behind them.

To find method in the madness, we can impute rationales – rationally reconstruct them, as it were, regardless of what Trump or his appointees are thinking.

Getting this right can be helpful.  The more that reasons can be discerned, the easier it will be for the anti-Trump resistance to understand what it is up against, and therefore to defeat it.

The Muslim travel ban poses particular challenges in that regard, not least because it is so  stupid.

The stupidity starts with the claim that the Executive Order that initiated it was not actually a ban on Muslims.  It is, the story goes, just a ban on persons coming from seven “dangerous” countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan.

Trump and his people have to say this.  A ban on Muslims as such would be so ridiculously unconstitutional that even Trump knows not to go there.

Leave aside why Trump targeted those countries, but not others – for example, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, historically Muslim countries whose citizens actually have been involved with terrorism directed against Americans.  There is no mystery about that: as with all things Trumpian, follow the money – see where the Donald has business interests, and where he does not.

The Trump line – fashioned, it seems, in the crack legal mind of Rudolph Giuliani – is that the travel ban is not a Muslim ban at all because the Executive Order Trump issued does not use the word  “Muslim,” and also because there are plenty of Muslims in the world who do not fall under its scope.

The first of these contentions is too idiotic to dignify with a response; the second makes as much sense as claiming, say, that when the police kill an African American in their custody, it cannot be because their victim is black, since they don’t kill every African American they detain.


The most implausible of all the rationales for the Muslim travel ban currently in circulation is the one that Trump keeps repeating: its purpose, he says, is to keep Americans safe.

No matter that the seven targeted countries have never been implicated, even indirectly, in terrorist acts committed on U.S. soil or directed against Americans abroad.

No matter too that the ban actually makes Americans less safe by lending credence to ISIS and other jihadi groups that claim that the West is at war with the Muslim world.

In this respect, it is only an extreme version of the normal politics of the Bush-Obama era.

Obama did seem “kinder and gentler” than Bush and Cheney, but only because the wars they started in Afghanistan and Iraq had evolved in ways that made this possible, and because the weaponized drones and special ops assassins he favored didn’t raise nearly as much domestic opposition as “boots on the ground” or CIA “dark sites.”

But the Nobel laureate changed nothing fundamental.  Under his aegis, just as under his predecessor’s, the United States made more terrorists than it killed or maimed.

In the final analysis, the slogan “no justice, no peace” rings true; and nothing Trump said during the campaign indicated even the slightest interest in a just foreign policy.  But he did talk a lot about negotiating “good deals” for America.  It is far from clear what that would mean, but, insofar as the goal is to make America safe, it could hardly be worse than what Bush and Obama have been doing.

Don’t count on any changes for the better, however.

Indeed, we already have some inkling of what counts as a good deal in the Donald’s mind;  in the case of Israel and Palestine, it comes down to additional support for the settler movement and for politicians even more viciously ethnocratic than Benjamin Netanyahu.

At his joint press conference with the Bibster last Wednesday, Trump volunteered that it would be fine with him if Israel were to drop its nominal support for a “two state solution” altogether.  Needless to say, what he had in mind was not a democratic and secular state that accorded full and equal rights to all of its citizens; he meant an Apartheid state governed by a Jewish Herrenvolk.

This may be a good deal in the eyes of his hyper-Zionist son-in-law and the bankruptcy lawyer he chose to be his Ambassador to the ethnocratic settler state, but it would be a disaster for the United States – and for Palestinians and, whether they know it or not, for Israeli Jews as well.

The conclusion is clear: what Trump says he will do, and what he does are often worlds apart, even when he and the people who speak for him go on endlessly about how he is fulfilling his campaign promises.

What a risible lot those spokespersons are!

Kellyanne Conway is, by now, even more a laughing stock than the Donald himself; and if Steven Miller didn’t look quite so goofy, he could do a respectable parody of a film noir sadistic killer.  That boy’s appearances on the Sunday talk shows last week could have been scripted by “Saturday Night Live” writers.  And even if there were no “Saturday Night Live,” Sean Spicer, the Donald’s press secretary, would still be a cartoon.

Yet this is what they trot out to show the world how they are making America safer!

There is also the slightly more plausible idea that the apparently mindless way that the Muslim travel ban was set out was purposeful; that, it was somehow a riff on Richard Nixon’s “madman theory.”

Nixon is said to have thought that he could prevail in Vietnam and force the Russians and Chinese into submission if he could get his opponents to think that he was crazy enough to do anything, up to and including unleashing a nuclear apocalypse.

Of course, not even Trump would go that far just to keep a few Muslims out of the United States.  But seeming to be chaotic and out of control can be nearly as effective as being, or seeming to be, bat shit crazy.  Instead of scaring people into submission by acting nuts, the idea would be to drive people nuts – by acting like a spoiled brat beyond the reach of reason.


But this is a tactic; and tactics only matter insofar as they advance some strategic objective.

Nixon understood that; he always had an objective in mind – usually a demented one, but an objective nevertheless.   If Trump does, he has yet to tweet it out.

Another possibility is that he issued that Executive Order because, as a conman, he understands that he has to seem to be doing something, anything, to keep his marks on board.  In a good con, “atmospherics” are all.

Then the point of his travel ban would be of a piece with his fondness for appearing on stage with generals, the more bloodthirsty the better, and with mouthing off about the effectiveness of torture.

This makes him look tough to the deplorables in his base.  It also deflects attention away from what has always been obvious: that his efforts to “fix” the economy are bound not only to fail, but also to worsen the material condition of nearly everyone who is not already hyper-rich.

The only way to fix the economy is to change it.  As a class conscious capitalist that is the very last thing that Trump would do.

Trump also understands the importance of keeping the public in a state of fear.  A frightened people is a docile people.

Before Communism imploded and the Soviet Union collapsed, capitalist elites, with the political class and mainstream media in tow, managed to scare the hell out of Americans by invoking the Communist menace.

Trump’s travel ban is of a piece with that: with the Red Scare that followed the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, and with Cold War anti-Communism.  The difference is that “radical Islamic terrorism” is the Great Fear now.


Since even before 9/11, our leaders have taken it upon themselves to encourage that fear – a complicated business in view of the close political and economic ties between the Muslim world and the West.

Nevertheless, with the help of jihadis intent on provoking a “clash of civilizations,” they have been more than up to the task.  Insofar as Trump acts for reasons larger than his own needs, it may be that he wants is to keep fear alive.   From that purview, his   Muslim travel ban almost makes sense.


It is possible and even likely that Trump’s ban is the result of nothing more sinister than the nefarious instincts and clueless flailing about that is the Donald’s standard operating procedure.

When Trump is being Trump, people and institutions are harmed egregiously.  The good news, though, is that Trump is also harming himself.  Nixon finally got the axe because he was what he said he was not – a crook.   If and when Trump falls, it will be because he is an embarrassment.

Perhaps, by then, he will not have done too much irrevocable damage to the body politic and to American society generally.  There is at least some chance of that, especially if he goes sooner rather than later.


There is another more noxious possibility, however: that the man behind the Muslim ban is not so much Trump himself as his ethno-nationalist Svengali and consigliere, Steven Bannon.

Reliable journalists say that Bannon has been consolidating his power within the administration.  If they are right, this would be a disturbing development indeed.

Unlike Trump, Bannon does seem to have an ideological streak; and also unlike Trump, he does not appear to be empty upstairs.

What his ideological commitments are is unclear however; he is an ideologue without writings – unless a half dozen rightwing film documentaries count.   There is his work at Breitbart, but he was an editor there, not a journalist – the views he was trying to promote therefore have to be inferred from what he published, not from what he wrote.

Even so, his political orientation is clear enough; it is of a piece with ways of thinking current on the European hard Right – the Greek neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party, for example, and the Hungarian nationalist party Jobbik.

Classical fascism was a creature of the class struggles of its time and place.  It suffered an historic defeat at the end of World War II, and can never be revived.

But the social and psychological factors that made mass fascist movements possible can be, and have been, revived – to the point where they pose a grave danger.  Insofar as they seek to explain themselves to the world and to each other, they draw, for want of better or more recent alternatives, on strains of classical fascist thought.

There never was a single fascist ideology, but there were philosophers who gave theoretical expression to the various facets of fascist politics.  Bannon may not be steeped in this literature, but he is plainly acquainted with it; and he seems to be drawing on it — picking and choosing what suits his interests.

Fascist thinkers opposed democracy and glorified political violence; they also developed distinctive aesthetic and moral theories, and had views about how capital, labor and the state ought to collaborate for the good of the Nation.  If Bannon cares about any of that, he has kept his interest hidden.

However there has been discussion of his apparent familiarity with the writings of some esoteric fascist thinkers – Julius Evola, for example – noted for their opposition not only to Enlightenment values but to modernity itself.

That strain of fascist thought glorifies notions of racial purity and of the collective wisdom of the Volk — the people, purged of outside, corrupting influences.

As Catholic and Protestant anti-Judaism gave way to anti-Semitism, Jews were the quintessential outside, corrupting influence.  Now that Muslims are the new Jews, and now that Israel has become a love interest of right-wingers the world over, the endemic anti-Semitism of the European hard Right has been muted to a considerable extent.

But deeply entrenched habits of mind die hard, and this one never did quite fade away in the first place.

Bannon, and therefore the Trump administration, is not many degrees of separation away from the hardest of hard core anti-Semites.  But hard core Zionists like Jared Kushner and David Friedman are OK with that, and vice versa.   Hard core Zionists are honorary white Americans; ordinary Jews not so much.

What an odd ethnos white America is!   Elsewhere, history and demography have conspired to make the state and the nation one (or nearly one).  But the United States is exceptional.   Therefore, our ethno-nationalists have a harder time of it than, say, their counterparts in the Netherlands or France.

Dutch and French nationalists can plausibly ground their imaginings in the purported reality of the Dutch and French nations.  Like all others, these nations are socially constructed and based, as Ernst Renan famously put it, on forgetting a great deal, but at least they are fixtures in the collective consciousness of the Dutch and French publics, respectively.

The United States is, and long has been, too “diverse” for anything quite like that.  American ethno-nationalists have only the ravings of white supremacists to work with.

Even so, there are insiders and outsiders in America too.   And like everywhere else, large influxes of outsiders can exacerbate insiders’ feelings of economic and social insecurity, causing the inner fascist in some of them to break free from the normal constraints of human decency.

Bannon, it seems, would make a virtue of this moral and psychological debility; that is what the classical fascists did, and it is what the hard Right around the world is doing today.

If Bannon’s way of thinking is, or becomes, the functioning ideology of the Trump government, we are in for big trouble.

The Muslim travel ban would then be just a foretaste of what is about to come down.


With Trump in office, it can only get worse – there will be two, three, many Muslim travel bans. The odiousness will become qualitatively worse as well.

This, again, is why it is imperative to resist all things Trumpian by any and all available means, and why it is urgent to move from resistance to effective opposition.

Rule the Democrats, the party of the Clintons and Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, out for that.  By now, inveterate Trump-haters in the GOP – people like John McCain and his sidekick Lindsay Graham — are showing signs of calling for Trump’s impeachment.  But from the ranks of the mainstream Democratic Party there has been, until very recently, only deafening silence.

That now seems to be changing, for reasons that are true to form and far from good.

Redbaiting is pointless when there are no reds to bait; but that didn’t stop Clinton when she needed an axe to grind during the campaign.  Now that the campaign is over, Democrats – “progressive” and otherwise — won’t let it go. Neither will Republicans of the McCain – Graham variety.  Hallelujah — bipartisanship at last!

Of course, Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans can’t exactly redbait, but they can do the next best thing; they can go after Russia.

What is it with them?  Are they itching to start World War III?  Anyone who can stand to watch MSNBC (MSDNC) for long cannot help but think so.

The silver lining in this is that Trump’s purported ties to Russia are at least getting Democrats to start talking about impeachment.  But for all the good there is in that, there is their newfound affection for the CIA and “the intelligence community” generally, and for other nefarious components of the so-called “deep state.”

Thus the evidence mounts: while civil society may sometimes force some Democrats to do the right thing the Party itself is hopeless.

Its record on impeachment is especially pathetic.  When there was a chance in 2006 to hobble George W. Bush’s war machine by launching impeachment proceedings against him, House Leader Pelosi, Clintonite extraordinaire, put the kybosh on the idea.   She didn’t want to do anything that would put Hillary Clinton’s election in 2008 at risk.  Neither, before Obama came on the scene, did any other leading Democrat.  Too bad for all of them that “the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley…”

The Democrats were the Party of Pusillanimity in 2006; they are worse now.

This is why, as resistance to Trump grows, it is important to bear in mind that Trump is not the only enemy, and to realize that if all the energy that is now spilling out into the streets ends up benefiting the Democratic Party “as we know it,” it will all have been a spectacular waste.

According to news reports, Schumer wants Bernie Sanders to tell anyone who still listens to him to support Democrats come what may.  He well might; he has already betrayed the movement he started on just those grounds.

But whoever follows his advice is going to make matters worse.  The only issue worth pondering for anyone with a progressive bone in his or her body is whether to try to smash the Democratic Party or to try to take it over Tea Party style.

Resisting Trump is Job Number One, but unless and until the Donald causes the politics of our time to change fundamentally, Trumpism is only the symptom; Clintonism (or Schumerism or Pelosiism) is the disease.

Therefore, now is the time to resist — not only Trump and his posse of vile incompetents and ignoramuses, but Democrats too.

Trump, Turmoil and Resistance

Counterpunch - Fri, 02/17/2017 - 03:56

Time is of no consequence in America these days. President Donald Trump awakens early and fires off a tweet. These are as important as the executive orders he has been signing with remarkable frequency. He is a man in a hurry. There is a great deal, he feels, to undo from the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency. It is almost as if Trump does not believe that he will be long in the job. Changes must be made, and speed is of the essence. The midnight oil burns in the White House feverishly.

The executive orders are hard to keep up with. Serious issues are deliberated in a few pages. Trump ordered federal agencies to set aside Obama’s health care initiative, which was one of the main social reforms passed in recent memory. Trump’s anger at what is known as Obamacare is part of the general corporate sensibility against regulations of any kind. Trump pushed for oil companies to be able to build their controversial pipelines and demanded that federal agencies must ease up on financial and environmental regulations. One order said that if the government introduces a new regulation, it must first abolish two others. This is sweet music to the corporate sector, which instinctively dislikes the fetters of government intervention. The Trump claim is that deregulation will spur business activity, produce growth and therefore deliver jobs to the “forgotten Americans” —Trump’s base.

The deregulation orders did not receive the kind of attention they deserve. These are dull compared with the more flashy orders, the ones that reflected Trump’s most dramatic campaign promises: build the wall against Mexico, ban Muslims, and fight “radical Islamic terrorism”. It was the flash of the orders on these issues that drew all the attention. No one expected Trump to actually enact these policies. It was felt by the encrusted establishment that Trump—like other politicians—would make grand social claims during the campaign but would then ignore these promises when the “realities” of governance settled in. But Trump and his team had no patience for such formulas. Trump and his advisers know full well that his base—the “forgotten Americans”—is hungry for action. They want their man to deliver something fast. Trump will not be able to take the American economy by the throat and make it cough out jobs. That is simply impossible. Far easier to tackle these social issues to prove his fidelity to his base.

When the orders came out, a frisson of delight went through Trump’s base. Early polls showed that the majority of Americans disapproved of Trump’s “Muslim Ban”, but 45 per cent of those asked said that they approved of it. That is about the same percentage of the electorate that voted for Trump. A seam of the Far Right —including the fascists—have long said that the decline in the fortunes of the white Americans came from the enfranchisement of blacks, Latinos, immigrants, gays, lesbians and Muslims. “Make America Great Again” is a line that Ronald Reagan used as his campaign slogan in 1980. During a speech in that campaign, Reagan said that his project was for a “national crusade to make America great again”. The word “crusade” with all its Christian implications is an old one for the American Right, but here it was linked to the suggestion that America—in 1980—had been lessened by the gains of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which had been driven by secularism. These had to be put in their place. Reagan, and now Trump, would cleanse the country of its crud and reveal it for what it was always supposed to be: a white, Christian nation. It is fitting that the Trump administration will remove the white supremacist groups and the fascist groups from the terror listing; only “radical Islamic terrorists” will be on that list.

Orders can be delivered with ease, but implementation is another story. The “Muslim Ban”, for instance, created chaos between the Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security. Officials in these government agencies, as well as in the State Department, did not know how to act on the basis of the orders. A hundred thousand visas were cancelled in the chaos. One minute no one from the seven countries was allowed to board a flight to the U.S., and the next minute people were allowed on aircraft. It is this chaos that has come to define the Trump administration. Deliberative statements from above do not translate easily for the massive apparatus of the U.S. government.

These orders came from Trump’s pen with a great flourish of royalty. Trump did not deign to explain his decisions or make any argument. There is no time for that. His language is simple and direct. “We’re going to do great,” he says, “we’ll make America great.” Complexity is not necessary. There is no conversation here about how computers and other technology have made workers more productive, which has led to a great haemorrhaging of jobs. It is this, rather than foreign trade, that has truly cut deep into the heart of employment in factories and in fields. None of this is on the table. Trump is able to blame a long list of people who have gained socially for the ailments of those who have been defeated economically. Hate crimes against the long list of Trump’s enemies —Mexicans, Muslims and those who look like them —have risen. Hatred has taken on a mundane quality. “Muslim-free zones” is a sign that can be found in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where there are only a handful of Muslims in residence. In Little Falls, Minnesota, two white men came to the home of a Somali family and told them to move out or else they would burn down the home. The Roth Family Jewish Community Centre of Greater Orlando (Florida), which runs a preschool, received three bomb threats in two weeks. In San Francisco (California), a white man accosted an Asian woman and said to her: “I hate your fucking race. We’re in charge of this country now.”

Will removing Bannon help?

Hatred of Obama defined Trump’s political life over the past eight years. He was one of the first to stoke the rumour that Obama was not an American and that he was a Kenyan immigrant. The “Birther Movement” embraced Trump, who thumped on this theme right until he became a presidential candidate. The sewers of the American Far Right—the fascists and racists—welcomed the attention given them by Trump’s celebrity. Here was a rich real estate baron and television star who was giving credence to the worst kind of falsehoods. It was in this drain that Trump met Breitbart News’ Steve Bannon.

Bannon drifted from Wall Street into the propaganda world of the Far Right, where he made films and curated a website that produced what is now known as “alt-facts” (alternative facts or, in more common language, lies). Over the years, Bannon has made clear his great dislike of the gains made by minority communities and of H-1B visa technocrats who surrounded him in the world of finance and media. His hatred of them was clarified in a March 2016 radio show, when he said: “Engineering schools are all full of people from South Asia, and East Asia. They’ve come in here to take these jobs.” American students, he said bitterly, “can’t get into these graduate schools”. Twenty per cent of the U.S. population is made up of immigrants, Bannon noted. “Is that not the beating heart of the problem?” These technocrats not only surrounded him, but they made him feel uneasy. “These are not Jeffersonian democrats,” he complained. “These are not people with thousands of years of democracy in their DNA coming in here.” Resentment and revenge are the contours of Bannon’s viewpoint. It is fitting that he used the term DNA in his statement. Skin is the limit of ideas such as democracy. America made an error, Bannon suggests, in allowing darker skins to participate in its democratic experiment. Trump brought him in as his main adviser for his campaign. Bannon is now, it is said, one of the main intellectuals of the Trump presidency.

Is Bannon Trump’s brain? Bewilderment at the depth of the Trump presidency has led some to think that the removal of Bannon would somehow bring normalcy to Trump’s world. But this might be wishful thinking. Each of Trump’s Cabinet appointments and many of his political appointments into the agencies seem Bannonesque in their world view. They are behind the “Muslim Ban” and the “Mexican Wall”; they would like to undermine public education and eviscerate regulations; they would like to lift up “alt-facts” to the status of reality and send pesky reporters to prison. This is a world view shared across the administration, from Vice President Mike Pence to Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly. Talking to people in the Trump administration is startling: they believe that they have been out of power and are now, finally, in charge, with little time to spare. Bannon is not their leader. What unites them is the feeling of resentment and revenge that he articulates and Trump embodies.


Trump’s ban on the entry of people from seven Muslim-majority countries was not going to be taken quietly. Organisations that work on civil liberties and refugee relief as well as Left groups and platforms such as Black Lives Matter and Occupy hastily mobilised people to flood the airports. From John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to San Francisco International Airport, the crowds chanted “Let Them In” and “Not My President”. It was a powerful demonstration, with bodies on the line to resist the Trump order and to make it clear that such actions would not go unchallenged on the streets.

Democratic Party politicians hastened to the airports to give their support to the protests. Senator Elizabeth Warren went to Boston airport and said: “We will make our voices heard all around the world. We will not turn away children, we will not turn away families, we will not turn away anyone because of their religion.” Senator Kamala Harris, the first Indian American Senator in U.S. history, was forthright in her criticism. “On Holocaust Memorial Day, President Trump enacted an executive order that will restrict refugees from Muslim-majority countries. Make no mistake—this is a Muslim ban. During the Holocaust, we failed to let refugees like Anne Frank into our country. We can’t let history repeat itself.”

Trump’s threat to deport undocumented migrants received a sharp rebuke from Democratic politicians. Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh said that any migrant who felt threatened could come to City Hall and take shelter. “If people want to live here,” he said, “they’ll live here. They can use my office. They can use any office in this building.” When a reporter asked him if this applied to “illegal immigrants”, Walsh was sharp with his rebuke saying that no one was illegal. Trump has threatened to withdraw federal money from cities and towns that do not enforce his anti-immigration agenda. “We will not be intimidated by a threat of federal funding,” said Walsh. “We will not retreat one inch.”

Popular resistance strengthened the spine of these leaders, many of whom come from political traditions not used to such forthright resistance. This is not the time for politeness, they suggest. Stiffer measures are needed.

Boycotts of businesses that operate alongside the Trump agenda have had an impact. During the airport protests, the New York Taxi Workers’ Union decided to go on strike at the airport. Seeing an opportunity, Uber suspended its surge fees and decided to break the strike. Thousands of people deleted their Uber app, sending a strong message to the company. Its CEO felt the pressure to resign from Trump’s business council. Department stores such as Nordstrom’s and Neiman Marcus have dropped the Ivanka Trump jewellery line. Amazon and Expedia took the Trump administration to court saying that the immigration orders would hurt their business.

When the acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, refused to execute the “Muslim Ban”, Trump fired her. The view from the White House is that officials of the federal government must be loyal to Trump and not worry about the U.S. Constitution. Trump’s allies came in to defend his action, blaming the bureaucracy for their allegiance to liberal and secular values. “This is essentially the opposition in waiting,” said Trump’s friend Newt Gingrich. “He may have to clean out the Justice Department because there are so many left-wingers there. [The] State [Department] is even worse.” A chill has gone through the administration. Judge James Robarts, nominated to the federal courts by Trump’s fellow Republican George W. Bush, stayed the “Muslim Ban”. Trump called him a “so-called judge”, like the “so-called protesters”. These are not real people to Trump. They are to be swatted aside. Whether by an executive order or on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Frontline (India).

U.S. Imperial War Personified

Counterpunch - Fri, 02/17/2017 - 03:55

Photo by AK Rockefeller | CC BY 2.0

Modern warfare is both extremely personal and robotically impersonal. The psychological and emotional intensity of a firefight in a jungle or urban war zone is contrasted with the carpet bombing of a city from bombers more than a half mile above the target or an armed drone piloted by a human at a computer a half world away. Of course, this is mostly the perspective of the invading or occupying military. The civilians in the jungle, city, town or village under attack know only the most personal aspect—the blood, the maiming, the loss of shelter and stability, and the death of loved ones. The guerrilla fighter against the invader experiences something akin to their civilian counterpart, but at the least displays some kind of hope by the fact of fighting back.

Meanwhile, those who profit from the warfare go about the business of developing ever more murderous weaponry often designed to create even more distance between the killer and the killed; the general and the soldier. The citizens of the nation to whom the invaders belong intentionally and naively go about their business as if their tax dollars had no connection to the mayhem and murder being carried out in their name.

It is this contrast I contemplated while reading two recently published books: Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein by John Nixon and The Drone Memos: Targeted Killing, Secrecy and the Law, edited by Jameel Jaffer. The former, by a retired CIA analyst who was the first US functionary to question Saddam Hussein in depth after he was captured, is both a revealing look at a very personal series of interactions between a civilian member of the US war on the world and a profile of the longtime president of Iraq. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear exactly how misinformed the Bush administration, the Pentagon, and the CIA were not only regarding the presence of WMDs in Iraq, but also about the psychology and personality of Saddam Hussein. Nixon comments that this was in large part due to the political influence of the neocons in the US government, but also related to George W. Bush’s personal distaste for Hussein and a possible need to prove his worth to his father and those around him.

Perhaps the most humane aspect of this book is the author’s growing respect for Saddam Hussein the man. As Nixon’s reporting progresses, it becomes clear that his opinion of Hussein changes from one that considered him a murderous scoundrel to one that begrudgingly acknowledged Hussein’s patriotism and sense of honor to his tribe, his mentors and his country. In the process, listening to Hussein’s version of his nation’s history under Hussein’s rule causes Nixon to challenge the narrative of his agency and his government. In doing so, it is revealed how the similarities between the two governments (Bush’s and Hussein’s) were greater than that imagined by the warmakers and the supplicant US media.

Don’t get me wrong, John Nixon never questioned that Hussein was a war criminal and deserving of his fate. Nor did he question his role in the drive to war on Iraq. He describes the Clinton administration in less than laudatory terms, in large part because it did not seem to consider all-out war in the Middle East to be a reasonable foreign policy move. Nixon remains a defender of the imperial polices of the United States and has differences only with how that policy is carried out. In other words, he was a good soldier who believed in the CIA and what he did for the agency. His book describes a deeply personal aspect of war that is rarely revealed. In other words, by describing his conversations and desire to understand the subject of this interrogation (and a target of the invaders) the text humanizes both the interrogator/warrior and the president/dictator, reminding the reader of their common humanity and the reality of war, which renders that humanity irrelevant.

It is this irrelevance that is the essence of the targeted killing program of the United States. Although the practice originated in modern times more or less with the state of Israel, it is the United States during the reign of Barack Obama that has refined it. Thanks to technological advances in the development of airborne drones and the computer guidance systems designed to send armed drones to their targets, the impersonal nature of war has made it possible to leave intentional randomness of previous versions of aerial bombardment behind when desired. Furthermore, it has made the killing of certain individuals suspected of criminal acts possible without any personal interaction with the targeted individuals. In essence, these killings are illegal. However, in the tradition of attorneys who defended slavery or those that helped create the transportation and extermination plans to rid Nazi Germany of Jewish residents, the United States has found attorneys willing to twist the US constitution and international law to justify their murders.

This is the essence of the second book mentioned above, The Drone Memos. The book is a collection of documents (with the obligatory black redaction lines through some of the text) from the Obama White House, the US Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, and various legal counselors in the US bureaucracy. The documents in this book are the definition of the legal banality of evil. Its saving grace is the excellent discussion of the documents’ content, and the process gone through to procure them by the American Civil Liberties Union. This introduction by former Deputy Director of the ACLU Jameel Jaffer, lays bare the abuse of power targeted killing requires and the consequent growth of executive power in the US government. Indeed, the book itself goes far in explaining how we arrived at our current situation of permanent war.

Together, these texts provide a chilling look at the pervasiveness of that war and its psychology. Neither the interrogator Nixon nor the authors of the drone memos seem to have any serious moral qualms about the nature of their enterprise. At times it seems they believe their sense of moral certainty as to the crimes they are involved in is absolution by itself. Because no one else will judge them, they judge themselves and find no crimes. When a climate of criminality such as this is the norm, then all of us are to blame unless and until we stop it.

Can the Climate Survive Adherence to War and Partisanship?

Counterpunch - Fri, 02/17/2017 - 03:55

Photo by Steve Johnson | CC BY 2.0

For the past decade, the standard procedure for big coalition rallies and marches in Washington D.C. has been to gather together organizations representing labor, the environment, women’s rights, anti-racism, anti-bigotry of all sorts, and a wide array of liberal causes, including demands to fund this, that, and the other, and to halt the concentration of wealth.

At that point, some of us in the peace movement will generally begin lobbying the PEP (progressive except for peace) organizers to notice that the military is swallowing up enough money every month to fund all their wishes 100 times over for a year, that the biggest destroyer of the natural environment is the military, that war fuels and is fueled by racism while stripping our rights and militarizing our police and creating refugees.

When we give up on trying to explain the relevance of our society’s biggest project to the work of reforming our society, we generally point out that peace is popular, that it adds a mere 5 characters to a thousand-word laundry list of causes, and that we can mobilize peace groups to take part if peace is included.

Often this works. Several big coalition efforts have eventually conceded and included peace in some token way in their platforms. This success is most likely when the coalition’s organizing is most democratic (with a small d). So, Occupy, obviously, ended up including a demand for peace despite its primary focus on a certain type of war profiteers: bankers.

Other movements include a truly well informed analysis with no help from any lobbying that I’ve had to be part of. The Black Lives Matter platform is better on war and peace than most statements from the peace movement itself. Some advocates for refugees also seem to follow logic in opposing the wars that create more refugees.

Other big coalition actions simply will not include any preference for peace over war. This seems to be most likely to happen when the organizations involved are most Democratic (with a capital D). The Women’s March backs many other causes, but uses the word peace without suggesting any preference for peace: “We work peacefully while recognizing there is no true peace without justice and equity for all.” There is also, one might note, no justice or equity for anybody living under bombs.

Here’s a coalition currently trying to decide whether it dare say the word peace: https://peoplesclimate.org.

This group is planning a big march for the climate and many other unrelated causes, such as the right to organize unions, on April 29. Organizers claim some relationship among all the causes. But, of course, there isn’t really an obvious direct connection between protecting the climate and protecting gay rights or the rights of workers. They may all be good causes and all involve kindness and humility, but they can be won separately or together.

Peace is different. One cannot, in fact, protect the climate while allowing the military to drain away the funding needed for that task, dumping it into operations that consume more petroleum than any other and which lead the way in poisoning water, land, and air. Nor can a climate march credibly claim, as this one does, to be marching for “everything we love” and refuse to name peace, unless it loves war or is undecided between or uninterested in the benefits of mass murder versus those of nonviolent cooperation.

Here’s a petition you can sign to gently nudge the People’s Climate March in the right direction. Please do so soon, because they’re making a decision.

The struggle to save the climate faces other hurdles in addition to loyalty to militarism. I mean, beyond the mammoth greed and corruption and misinformation and laziness, there are other unnecessary handicaps put in place even by those who mean well. A big one is partisanship. When Republicans have finally proposed a carbon tax, many on the left simply won’t consider it, won’t even tackle the problem of making it actually work fairly and honestly and aggressively enough to succeed. Perhaps because some of the supporters seem untrustworthy. Or perhaps because some of the supporters likely don’t believe you need labor unions in order to tax carbon.

And which ones would you need, the ones advocating for more pipelines or the ones working in other fields?

Scientists, too, are planning to march on Washington. The scientific consensus on war has been around as long as that on climate change. But what about the popular acceptance? What about the appreciation among grant-writing foundations? What do the labor unions and big environmental groups feel about it? These are the important questions, I’m afraid, even for a scientists’ march.

But I appreciate the scientific method enough to hope my hypothesis is proven wrong.

Governor of Jakarta: Get Re-elected or Die!

Counterpunch - Fri, 02/17/2017 - 03:53

Photo by Global Media Sharing | CC BY 2.0

They call him “Ahok”, and according to many, he is the best thing that ever happened to Jakarta – this enormous, polluted and until recently unloved capital city of Indonesia.

Very loosely translated, “Ahok” is an abbreviation of the Chinese words (yes, he is ethnic Chinese). The meaning is: “never stop learning” (ban-hok), a piece of advice given to him by his greatest role model – his father.

And learning he is! Instead of just doing what his predecessors have been doing for decades – aimlessly travelling to Western Europe, the United States and Japan, ‘Ahok’ goes where he can actually really discover things that are implementable in his city, one so full of grave problems – China and Latin America.

Before him, almost everyone gave up on Jakarta. The city’s reputation was terrible, and the verdict and diagnoses of many became short and dark: “Beyond salvation, beyond repair!”

Jakarta has been suffering all imaginable ills: from endemic corruption, toxic bureaucracy and inefficiency, to the epic traffic jams, pollution, deadly annual floods (due to its terrible drainage system), lack of modern garbage collection and garbage processing, appalling filth (rivers and canals clogged with trash, waste covering sides of the roads), notorious lack of green spaces and parks, and the almost total lack of cultural institutions. Public transportation could be described at best as a joke.

The most talented brains were leaving. Expats found it impossible to convince their families to follow them to the “Big Smoke” (one of the city’s nicknames), and most of them decided to settle in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, ‘commuting’ to Jakarta on a weekly basis.

Capitalist and pro-Western to the core, Jakarta has been offering some of the most cynical images of social inequality on Earth: posh 5-star hotels and shopping malls, and deadly slums in their vicinity. Poor people simply ceased to exist; their plight didn’t matter.

Then came ‘Ahok’!


In just over two years, Jakarta has changed. Its infrastructure has been getting better: there are new green areas and parks, and new public transportation projects. Canals and rivers are being cleaned and the drainage is improving (as a result, during the rainy seasons, the floods are not reaching their previous devastating levels).

But above all, there is now hope. It lifts and it transforms the entire city and its surrounding areas. Expectations of the people are suddenly high.

Mr. Khairul Mahadi, a retired civil servant, is content:

“In my opinion, there is great progress achieved under Ahok’s leadership, especially when it comes to the public services. There are also some significant changes in work ethics of the local government. Their services are faster, and the culture of bribes is almost gone.”

Mr. Anton Hinawan, an architect, agrees:

“The most important thing about his leadership is that the local government’s budget is not used for bribes and corruption. Funds are now used for development, and it is visible. I’m very optimistic, and I support his leadership. If elections are fair, he should have no problems of winning.”

Elections are right around the corner, scheduled for February 15, 2017. ‘Ahok’ is supported by over 40%, which is nearly double the backing enjoyed by the next most popular candidate.

But ‘Ahok’ is stepping on too many feet, and his anti-corruption drive is not necessarily popular with the ‘elites’ of the country. Even less so are his attempts to relocate and house the poor, and to provide them with adequate medical care.

His enemies are ingenious and venomous.

Now he is on the election trail, but he is also facing a trial for ‘defaming Islam’, a twisted case brought against him by his political opponents and based on a gross manipulation of the language.

To make things worse, some Indonesians loathe him for being ethnically Chinese, in a country that is known for its racial intolerance, for the genocides in East Timor and Papua, and countless anti-Chinese pogroms.

Still, most of Jakarta residents are pragmatic. The Governor’s performance seems to be much more important to them than his race or religion.


Ms. Mustika Purwanegara, a professor at the prestigious Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) is all praises for ‘Ahok’:

“I admire what he has been doing for Jakarta. He is a great leader, and he works for the people, unlike what we have here in West Java. Other cities in Indonesia should be following his example.”

But is he doing too much, in such a short time? Can he really survive in a country that is constantly dragged down by inertia and by the corruption rooted in Suharto’s era?

Mr. Rachmad Mekaniawan, the CEO of a construction management company, ‘Ciria Jasa’:

“’Ahok’ is insane! But Jakarta needs truly a crazy person as a leader. Who else would dare to start tackling, for instance, seemingly unsolvable problems of capital’s traffic congestion by beginning to build various modern modes of public transportation?”

Mr. Mekaniawan is an ‘Ahok’ fan, but even he is uncertain about whether the governor can get re-elected, with all those powerful political and economic forces trying to derail his campaign.

Several years ago, in a backroom of a restaurant, a prominent Indonesian businessman told me, that no comprehensive public transportation network would ever be allowed to grow in Jakarta, because the foreign car and scooter makers had already totally corrupted the city government. An effective mass transit scheme would significantly reduce their profits.

Still, ‘Ahok’ dares. Now there are ten-carriage secondhand Tokyo subway trains running on rapidly improving commuter rail tracks, two elevated LRT lines are being constructed, the airport rail link is about to open by the end of 2017, and 11 previously notorious bus-ways are receiving new and modern vehicles.


Suddenly there is hope, but there is also fear.

Late in the evening, I visited his Rumah Lembang in Central Jakarta, a support center for the ‘Ahok’s campaign’. There I informally spoke to his two volunteer aides, one Muslim, one Christian.

The atmosphere was tense. It was clear that what is taking place in Jakarta is having an enormous impact on the entire Indonesia. People all over this vast archipelago are watching, and beginning to demand the same changes that are taking place in the capital.

“Do you expect the elections to be manipulated?” I asked.

“Yes… We see that there is definitely such a possibility,” I’m told by Mr. Rekky Silalahi. He continues:

“Those who are determined to vote for ‘Ahok’ are already facing some serious problems: like getting their election cards issued…”

“What if the elections are rigged? Would there be an explosion?” I wanted to know.

“There would be a big one,” I was told. “If he’d lose fairly, than it’s ok. If rigged, there would be huge trouble.”

Southeast Asia is boiling, awakening: Thailand before the coup, Philippines under the present administration, and now Jakarta, the enormous and scarred capital city of perhaps the most complex nation in the region.

In this part of the world, changes have come with the new and enlightened leaders. Some of them have managed to plant fragile seeds of hope, something that had not been done for decades, under the Western-sponsored dictatorships and pseudo-democracies. After that, the expectations of people grow very quickly. And with the expectations comes a strong determination to fight for, to defend even those small gains that have already been made.

[First published by NEO]

The Coming Destruction of Mosul

Counterpunch - Fri, 02/17/2017 - 03:53

Photo by The U.S. Army | CC BY 2.0

The Iraqi armed forces will eventually capture west Mosul, which is still held by Isis fighters, but the city itself will be destroyed in the fighting, a senior Iraqi politician told The Independent in an interview.

Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish leader who until last year was the Iraqi finance minister and prior to that the country’s long-serving foreign minister, says that Isis will fight to the last man in the densely-packed urban districts it still holds.

“I think west Mosul will be destroyed,” says Mr Zebari, pointing to the high level of destruction in east Mosul just taken by government forces. He explains that Isis is able to put up such stiff resistance by skilful tactics using networks of tunnels, sniper teams and suicide bombers in great numbers. He adds that no date has yet been set for the resumption of the Iraqi government offensive into west Mosul, but he expects the fighting to be even tougher than before.

A further reason for fanatical resistance by Isis is that Mr Zebari is certain that the Isis leader and self-declared Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still in west Mosul and reports of him being killed or injured in an air strike elsewhere in Iraq are incorrect. He says that Isis sector commanders in the city are experienced professional soldiers, all of whom were once officers in Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard or Special Forces, and will fight effectively to defend their remaining stronghold in the larger part of the city that is to the west of the Tigris River.

The elite Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Services, led by the 10,000-strong Golden Division, had expected to take the whole of Mosul, once a city of two million people, by the end of 2016. But ferocious resistance by some 3,000 Isis fighters on the east bank of the Tigris meant that this part of the city was only captured after three months of fighting with heavy loss of life on all sides, especially among civilians.

Mr Zebari, who originally comes from Mosul, describes the present situation in the city as “horrible” and “a shambles”, even in those parts of it that Iraqi government forces have captured, though not fully occupied and secured. “There are Isis ‘sleeper cells’ with maybe 16 to 24 men in each district which come out of hiding and kill people who are cooperating with the government,” he says. “They target restaurants which have reopened and serve soldiers.” There has also been a complete failure by the government to restore basic services like electricity and water supply.

Asked about casualties, Mr Zebari said those on the Iraqi security forces side had been heavy, but the government in Baghdad has refused to produce exact figures. US reports say that some units of the Golden Division, which is a sort of highly trained army within the army, had suffered up to 50 per cent losses. He discounts official Iraqi claims that 16,000 Isis fighters had been killed, saying that the real figure was probably between 1,500 and 2,000 Isis dead out of a total of 6,000 in Mosul. He thought that they had brought in reinforcements and there were probably 4,000 Isis fighters left who would defend west Mosul, which is home to about 750,000 people.

This account is borne out by other reports from in and around east Mosul where this week two suicide bombers attacked a market, killing twelve and wounding 33 people. Mortars and rockets fired by Isis are still exploding and the main water system was destroyed in fighting in January. Pictures show cavernous craters reportedly caused by bombs dropped by US Air Force B-52s to aid the Iraqi army advance. People who fled Mosul at the height of the fighting and have been returning to it are often leaving again. The UN says that it is worried by arbitrary arrests of displaced people as possible Isis sympathisers and records that on 8 and 9 February some 1,442 came back to east Mosul, but 791 left for displacement camps.

Despite the Iraqi security forces’ focus on weeding out Isis supporters and “sleeper cells”, Mr Zebari says that this does not provide real security because travel documents can be bought from corrupt security officers for 25,000 Iraqi dinars (£17). Drivers on Iraqi roads have confirmed to The Independent that the main concern of checkpoints is not security, but to extract bribes from passing vehicles. This would explain how Isis suicide bombers driving vehicles packed with explosives are able to pass through multiple checkpoints before detonating explosives in civilian areas in Baghdad or other cities.

Mr Zebari notes that rivalry between the US and Iran in Iraq is increasing under President Donald Trump, with the latter slow to call the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and making US help conditional on a reduction in Iranian influence. During the US presidential election campaign, Mr Trump claimed that Iran had taken over Iraq. There is also growing friction between the different Shia parties and movements that Mr Zebari says makes “inter-Shia fighting imminent”.

Mr Zebari’s prediction that Mosul will be destroyed as a city by the next wave of fighting is all too likely because the last three years in Iraq and Syria have seen deepening sectarian and ethnic hatred. This was greatly fostered by Isis massacres, primarily of Shia and Yazidis but also of its other opponents. There is an ominous precedent for what may happen in Mosul because other Sunni cities and towns up and down Iraq have been wrecked or rendered uninhabitable by government counter-offensives since 2014. Some 70 per cent of the houses in Ramadi, the capital of the overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar province, are in ruins or are badly damaged. Even where many houses are still standing, as in Fallujah 40 miles west of Baghdad, the people who come back to them have to live without electricity, water, jobs or medical care. In practice, the Shia-dominated Iraqi government wants to break the back of Sunni resistance to its rule so it will never be capable of rising again.

Self-Devouring Reaction: Governmental Impasse

Counterpunch - Fri, 02/17/2017 - 03:53

Photo by Shardayyy | CC BY 2.0

Fascism commends itself on its self-evidence (to its adherents) and its tidiness (making the trains run on time), a mental frame which harnesses the cult of action to a certitude of belief that translates into authoritarian submissiveness. How else explain what is happening in America today? We have billionaires floating around and in government who we did not know existed and who seemed pulled out of a rabbit’s hole of gut-level extremism heretofore always present but under wraps waiting for its day in the sun.

We are still at sunrise, after a predawn setting, under Liberal/Democratic auspices, which already created the conditions for its breaking surface in a new day. There could not be Trump, if there were not, first, Obama, and there could not be Obama, if there were not first the continuity of predecessors, bipartisan, single-minded, dating back half-a-century. Trump is not happenstance; he is as American as apple pie.

Take for example his invitation to Stephen Feinberg to review United States intelligence agencies, with his possible appointment as director of one. An incestuous process at first glance, it is actually a still more rightward shift of mainstream government, with Republicans goading him on, and Democrats largely marginalized, shooting arrows at hardcore nutcakes ordinarily beneath contempt. Yet in present-day America, to be a billionaire is certification of competence, (nonexistent) prior public service, patriotism (the single word driving a state of false consciousness, and yes, America’s own Nazification), and mood of hardening ideology.

Feinberg is the co-partner in Cerebus Management, a fund unerringly pointed in the direction of America’s fascistic underpinnings, from heavy investment in defense industries to covert counterrevolutionary forces. That he and Trump would go public with such a record speaks volumes about the prideful assertion of what had once been publicly unsuitable and almost beyond the pale. But there he is in full display (as are the others around Trump: take your pick, Bannon?), no apologies, on the contrary, bulldozing straight ahead.

Once, from the standard of structural analysis, the interpenetration between business and government, a unification of two modern spheres of authority, capitalism and the state, was adequate to the definition, as found in late stages of Weimar, and corresponding stages in Japan and Italy. With internal regimentation and the outpouring of militaristic expansion, matched by, or even preceded by, the concentration camp and gas chamber, the definition was seen as too simple. that in fact history was in the throes of civilizational upheaval, capitalism a driving force, even within itself, of world conflict. (Neither Russia nor China has evinced the staying power to be a viable challenge in determining the global order.)

Under Trump, American world ascendance is proving catastrophic, a frenzied feeding in search of still greater power: America First, as our neo-Nanzis of the late 30s would have understood and appreciated the phrase, has come to signify a solipsistic national universe, unilateral in its power surge, that, perhaps without need of the concentration camp, will produce the same result, passivity, marginality, of the people below. Trump, Feinberg, Mattis, Bannon, make even the CIA look good. The rehabilitation of Obama is rapidly underway, if that was ever in doubt. In sum, there is no governmental impasse, only the next step in the uphill slog to greater supremacy.

What Do Louisiana Pipeline Explosion and Dakota Access Pipeline Have in Common? Phillips 66

Counterpunch - Fri, 02/17/2017 - 03:53

The day after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave the owners of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) the final permit it needed to build its line across Lake Oahe, which connects to the Missouri River, a natural gas liquids pipeline owned by one of the DAPL co-owners exploded and erupted in flames in Paradis, Louisiana.  Paradis is located 22 miles away from New Orleans.

That line, the VP Pipeline/EP Pipeline, was purchased from Chevron in August 2016 by DAPL co-owner Phillips 66. One employee of Phillips 66 is presumed dead as a result of the explosion and two were injured.

In a press release published by Phillips 66 announcing its purchase of VP/EP, the company stated that “approximately 200 miles of regulated pipelines that carry raw NGLs from a third-party natural gas processing plant.” A DeSmog investigation shows that the “third-party natural gas processing plant” is owned by the company Targa Resources, and that plant is fed in part by a gas pipeline owned by Enbridge, another co-owner of Dakota Access.

Merchant of Venice

The Targa Resources plant is also known as the VESCO facility, with VESCO shorthand for the Venice Energy Services Company, located in Venice, Louisiana.

“Through the Partnership’s 76.8% ownership interest in Venice Energy Services Company, L.L.C., [Targa] operates the Venice gas plant…and the Venice Gathering System (‘VGS‘) that is approximately 150 miles in length,” explains Targa’s 2016 U.S.Securities and Exchange Commission Annual Report. “VESCO receives unprocessed gas directly or indirectly from seven offshore pipelines and gas gathering systems including the VGS system. VGS gathers natural gas from the shallow waters of the eastern Gulf of Mexico and supplies the VESCO gas plant.”

Enterprise Product Partners and ONEOK serve as co-owners of VESCO. Among the seven pipelines connected to VESCO, one is owned by Enbridge, the Mississippi Canyon Gas Line. That Line feeds gas extracted from the Gulf of Mexico via two offshore wells owned by Shell, as well as other companies, according to Enbridge’s website.

Targa’s Venice Gathering System is fed by Gulf of Mexico offshore gas drilled by Chevron, Apache Corporation and other companies, according to the Venice Gathering System website. VP Pipeline/EP Pipeline is part of what is known as the Texaco Expanded NGL Distribution System (TENDS), which Phillips 66 has acquired and renamed the River Parish NGL System.

“The $70 million TENDS project is an important element in TNGI‘s South Louisiana strategy embracing growth and development of new business,” Texaco, since purchased by Chevron, said in a 1997 press release. “TENDS consists of a network of pipelines capable of transporting a combined maximum of 230,000 barrels of product each day to numerous refineries and petrochemical complexes across South Louisiana.”

According to Reuters, VP Pipeline/EP Pipeline carries a natural gas liquid mix known as “y-grade.”

“After being extracted in the field, mixed NGLs, sometimes referred to as ‘Y-grade’ or ‘raw NGL mix,’ are typically transported to a centralized facility for fractionation where the mixed NGLs are separated into discrete NGL products: ethane, ethane-propane mix, propane, normal butane, iso-butane and natural gasoline,” states Targa’s website of the mix.

Aging Pipelines

The New Orleans Advocate reported that VP Pipeline/EP Pipeline opened for business originally as a pipeline in 1958. Like the line that connects to Dakota Access, the Energy Transfer Crude Oil Pipeline (ETCOP), it is decades old.

Built in 1947, ETCOP will carry the oil obtained from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) via North Dakota’s Bakken Shale basin from Patoka, Illinois to Nederland, Texas. ETCOP was formerly known as the Trunkline Pipeline, which carried gas from south to north.

Aging pipelines are seen as a major issue that could create catastrophes like those seen in Paradis, where the fire lasted for days until officials finally got it under control. The 2013 ExxonMobil-owned Pegasus Pipeline spill in Mayflower, Arkansas, which saw 3,190 barrels (134,000 gallons) spew out of the line, ensued on an aging pipeline constructed between 1947-1948.

“About 55% of the 135,000 miles of oil and gasoline pipelines in the U.S. was installed in 1969 or earlier, according to government data,” reported CNN in September. “That’s before current safety regulations were in effect, Many are still cast iron pipes.”

The BlueGreen Alliance, a collaborative of U.S. labor unions and environmental organizations, has pushed for aging pipelines to be repaired as part of a broad employment program. They called the effort the Repairing Our Cities’ Aging Pipelines initiative, or RECAP.

Why Corporations are Too Big to Jail in the Drug War

Counterpunch - Fri, 02/17/2017 - 03:53

Two of America’s largest drug distributors, McKesson and Cardinal Health, recently entered into civil settlement agreements for not properly monitoring and reporting suspicious sales of prescription drugs. Naturally, these cases provided the DOJ and DEA with good PR. In fact, Lee Bentley, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida, wrote an op-ed column, “The U.S. Attorney’s office is fighting opioid abuse.” However, let’s review the facts and decide if these cases should be a source of pride for the law enforcement community.

Lee Bentley was one of the lead investigators in a $44 million settlement agreement with Cardinal Health. That penalty resulted from violations in multiple states, but arguably the worst offenses occurred in Florida. Cardinal Health’s own investigators warned their company about highly suspicious pharmacies that were receiving massive quantities of OxyContin. Nonetheless, Cardinal Health didn’t report this information to the DEA and continued supplying the orders. Over the course of three years, records show that the Lakeland facility sold over 12 million oxycodone pills to only four Central Florida pharmacies.

Needless to say, that kind of brazen activity sounds like something that warranted a thorough criminal investigation. However, Cardinal Health’s CEO George Barrett astoundingly responded that he was “outraged” by the DEA’s decision in 2012 to suspend the Lakeland branch from selling controlled substances. Then again, you can apparently express that kind of audacity when you run the twenty-first ranked company in the Fortune 500. Three months later, after a federal appeal was denied, Cardinal Health agreed to a two-year license suspension for their Lakeland facility. And, in the end, after a lengthy staredown, the government blinked first. Cardinal Health never faced any criminal charges from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. This recent $44 million settlement was the culmination of four years of negotiations.

It was no coincidence that Cardinal Health’s Lakeland facility was responsible for the widespread distribution of prescription opiates. The state of Florida didn’t have a prescription drug monitoring program until 2010. Consequently, over 900 pain management clinics, or “pill mills,” sprouted throughout the state. These unregulated businesses served as wholesalers of black market OxyContin. Over time, the authorities eventually apprehended several shady doctors and pill mill operators. One such Tampa-area physician who was responsible for three overdose deaths, Edward Neil Feldman, was sentenced last May to 25 years. The judge told him, “If you would have been selling heroin on the streets and three people died, this would have been a much shorter trial and proceeding.” That’s an accurate assessment, but the justice system hasn’t been nearly as punitive with the drug manufacturers and distributors that have also played a major role in tens of thousands of overdose deaths.

Bear in mind, Cardinal Health had multiple run-ins with the DEA in the past. As early as 2005, the DEA warned their company about suspicious hydrocodone sales to online pharmacies. The DEA had even suspended the license of that same Lakeland facility, along with another one in Auburn, WA, in 2007 due to excessive sales of controlled substances to online pharmacies. That led to a $34 million settlement agreement in 2008.

No state has been hit harder by the opioid epidemic than West Virginia, which has the highest rate of overdose deaths. Once again, you have to look at Cardinal Health. Their company distributed 241 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to pharmacies throughout the state over a six-year period. That’s roughly 130 pills for every West Virginian! It’s difficult to label those facts as anything other than criminal misconduct, but Cardinal Health somehow negotiated a separate settlement in January with the state of West Virginia for $20 million.

McKesson, America’s top drug distributor and the 5th ranked company in the Fortune 500, also has a similar track record with the DEA. McKesson negotiated a $13 million settlement in 2008 for not properly monitoring and reporting their suspicious prescription drug sales. This same pattern continued afterward. From 2008 to 2013, their company only submitted reports for suspicious transactions in 16 out of their total 1.6 million orders for controlled substances in the state of Colorado. Obviously, few people would interpret that as acceptable corporate behavior, yet the company never faced the threat of an indictment.

McKesson agreed to a $150 million settlement in January of this year. In addition, McKesson’s license for selling controlled substances will be suspended in four states. They will also have to allow for independent monitoring. Nonetheless, these aren’t serious deterrents for a multi-billion dollar company. McKesson’s investors certainly weren’t dismayed by the news of this settlement agreement. In fact, McKesson’s stock price actually finished 0.85% higher on the day of this press release. Wall Street reacted in a similar way on December 23, 2016, when Cardinal Health’s $44 million settlement was announced; the stock price finished the day up 1.07%.

Make no mistake, Cardinal Health and McKesson received the white-glove treatment from the law enforcement community, but their cases were no different from any other powerful corporation. Even though their company was only slapped on the wrist, the size of McKesson’s latest fine and their new compliance requirements were actually unprecedented penalties for drug distributors. Suffice it to say, there is a two-tiered criminal justice system in this country.

Consider the case against Benjamin Galecki and Charles Ritchie whose company, Zencense, manufactured synthetic marijuana, or “spice.” Their small company of roughly ten employees arguably tried to work within the gray area of the law. After their warehouse was raided by federal agents in 2012, Zencense voluntarily opened their doors for a DEA inspection. However, both men were convicted in federal court this January, one week after McKesson’s recent settlement agreement. This was the conclusion to years of work by a task force involving multiple federal agencies, state, and local officials. As a result, Galecki and Ritchie are now facing potential sentences of 79 years in prison. That’s quite a dichotomy.

The DOJ’s press release referred to Zencense as a “$21 million spice distribution and manufacturing conspiracy.” Clark E. Settles, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, added, “Spice wreaks havoc on the lives of its users.” Granted, synthetic marijuana, or “spice,” can result in an overdose death (unlike marijuana), but it’s nothing like prescription opiates. Nonetheless, the narratives were more guarded in the DOJ’s press releases with Cardinal Health and McKesson, which focused heavily on compliance and reporting issues.

Understandably, some prosecutors don’t look forward to battling Fortune 500 companies that have the resources to contest convictions with endless appeals. However, there is also a layer of systemic corruption that protects corporate criminality. Unlike Zencense, the major drug companies have gained tremendous political leverage via campaign donations and professional lobbyists. Arguably, no industry benefits as much from the revolving door between government and the private sector. There are more former Congressmen and staffers representing drug companies as lobbyists, 857, than any other industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

These kinds of conflicts of interest were evident in West Virginia’s case against Cardinal Health. West Virginia’s Attorney General, Patrick Morrisey, had been paid $250,000 in the past as a lobbyist for a trade group of drug wholesalers that included Cardinal Health. Morrisey had also received a total of $8,500 in campaign donations from Cardinal Health. Furthermore, his wife, Denise Henry, is a lobbyist for Cardinal Health. That’s why Morrisey insisted that he would recuse himself from this case. However, CBS News confronted him with the fact that he met with executives of Cardinal Health while this case was still pending. Morrisey responded that the meeting had no effect on the case and he was otherwise completely removed from the process.

There’s no proof that Morrisey was involved in a quid-pro-quo agreement. Then again, there didn’t need to be one. Everyone in the Attorney General’s Office knew that there could be a much better payday in the future if they were to tread lightly. There is a term for this situation in which government agencies become corrupted by the private businesses that they’re supposed to regulate; it’s known as “regulatory capture.” Former U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, is often the first person mentioned with this subject. During his tenure, the DOJ didn’t prosecute a single executive involved with the financial crisis. Ultimately, Holder, along with other top DOJ officials, returned to private practice working for the powerful law firm, Covington & Burling, which represents several major Wall Street banks.

Ethical issues inherently arise from the revolving door. Former government officials can exploit influence and insider knowledge to the detriment of public interest. For example, the drug manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, faced a civil suit in West Virginia in 2001 for their aggressive marketing of OxyContin. Their company had claimed that their drug had “reduced addiction risk” and even asserted that opioids posed an addiction rate of “less than one percent.” Purdue Pharma should have faced much more than a civil suit, but their defense attorney, Eric Holder, negotiated a sweetheart $10 million settlement. That was only a fraction of the profits from the sales of OxyContin.

To be fair, there are legitimate medical uses for prescription opioids, however, this industry needs to be tightly regulated. But here’s the kicker. Our government has the authority to keep this industry in check, but it doesn’t exercise that power. The production of drugs like OxyContin are not dictated by the supply and demand forces of most consumer goods. No. Drug companies, such as Purdue Pharma, meet privately with officials from the DEA to discuss their production goals. In turn, the DEA’s Diversion Control Division decides the limits for production for each drug. To be perfectly clear, the DEA dictates the exact market size for all controlled substances. However, their agency remarkably continued raising the limits for prescription opioids while this epidemic worsened.

The late Gene Haislip led the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control for 17 years. After retiring in 1997, he became one of the most vocal critics of that unit. He declared that the office had been besieged by special interests. In fact, Haislip recommended that the Office of Diversion Control be removed from the DEA’s control and operated as an independent agency. “The Diversion Control initiative should be aimed at the gradual replacement of incompetent individuals with more qualified officers and at restricting the role of private company executives and consultants away from determining policy,” he once wrote.

A couple of eye-opening investigations by The Washington Post affirmed Haislip’s assertions. These reports clearly demonstrated the corrupting power of the revolving door between the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control and the private sector. One article revealed that 42 former DEA officials (31 with the Office of Diversion Control) had taken jobs at pharmaceutical companies or law firms representing them since 2005. In most instances, they joined those companies only weeks after leaving the agency. Consequently, several field agents noticed a drastic shift in protocol as more ex-DEA officials began working for the drug companies. In fact, these agents insisted that their supervisors were often working against them to prevent their cases from coming to fruition.

Joseph Rannazzisi, who led the Office of Diversion Control for ten years, can attest that there is also outside political pressure that is placed on that division. He encountered pushback even when implementing limited actions against major drug distributors. As mentioned earlier, the DEA suspended the license of Cardinal Health’s Lakeland facility in 2012 when the agency was armed with a mountain of evidence. Nonetheless, Rannazzisi described the events leading up to that decision for The Washington Post. That included multiple encounters with top DOJ officials who pressured him to not suspend Cardinal Health’s license. These DOJ officials had been contacted by former members of the Justice Department who were presumably working on behalf of Cardinal Health.

All in all, it’s easy to see why companies like Cardinal Health and McKesson have been immune from criminal charges. Rannazzisi retired in 2015 after being ousted from his leadership position with the Office of Diversion Control. Like one of his predecessors (the late Gene Haislip), Rannazzisi is now an adamant critic of the special interests dominating government policy. He has publicly expressed that the pharmaceutical lobby has a “stranglehold” on Congress.

To wrap up, the DEA has deftly avoided accepting any culpability for this opioid crisis. For instance, the DEA Chief, Chuck Rosenberg, made an appearance last year on CBS This Morning. He was asked why his agency hasn’t significantly cut back the production quota for prescription opiates. Rosenberg replied that had the DEA had reduced the limits that year, but he didn’t mention the specifics. The production limit for oxycodone was reduced in 2016 to 108 tons, which is a 1300% increase from 20 years earlier. Rosenberg also essentially sidestepped the question by stating, “We don’t regulate the practice of medicine.” He added that our country needs to reduce the demand through education and rehab. Indeed, the latter part is accurate as drug addiction needs to be addressed as a public health issue. However, that doesn’t mean that the DEA should be let off the hook for their gross negligence of regulatory duties.

These stories provide more examples from the drug war that illustrate the deficiencies of our government. Powerful corporations will continue to be held unaccountable, contrary to public interest, until substantial reforms are made to campaign financing laws and new restrictions are put in place to close the revolving door. Keep these details in mind the next time that you read a story about a drug company that has been fined for criminal misconduct. And you can rest assured, there will be a next time.

Brian Saady is the author of the upcoming three-book series, Rackets, which is about the legalization of drugs & gambling, and the decriminalization of prostitution. www.briansaady.com. Twitter handle @briansaady

Ethiopia: Peaceful Protest to Armed Uprising

Counterpunch - Fri, 02/17/2017 - 03:52

What began as a regional protest movement in November 2015, is in danger of becoming a fully-fledged armed uprising in Ethiopia.

Angered and exasperated by the government’s intransigence and duplicity, small guerrilla groups made up of local armed people have formed in Amhara and elsewhere, and are conducting hit and run attacks on security forces. Fighting at the beginning of January in the North West region of Benishangul Gumuz saw 51 regime soldiers killed, ESAT News reported, and in the Amhara region a spate of incidents has occurred, notably a grenade attack on a hotel in Gondar and an explosion in Bahir-Dah.

In what appears to be an escalation in violence, in Belesa, an area north of Gondar, a firefight between ‘freedom fighters’, as they are calling themselves, and the military resulted in deaths on both sides. There have also been incidents in Afar, where people are suffering the effects of drought; two people were recently killed by security personnel, others arrested. The Afar Human Rights Organization told ESAT that the government has stationed up to 6000 troops in the region, which has heightened tensions and fuelled resentment.

Given the government’s obduracy, the troubling turn of events was perhaps to be expected. However, such developments do not bode well for stability in the country or the wider region, and enable the ruling regime to slander opposition groups as ‘terrorists’, and implement more extreme measures to clamp down on public assembly in the name of ‘national security’.

Until recently those calling for change had done so in a peaceful manner; security in the country – the security of the people – is threatened not by opposition groups demanding human rights be observed and the constitution be upheld, but by acts of State Terrorism, the real and pervasive menace in Ethiopia.

Oppressive State of Emergency

Oromia and Amhara are homelands to the country’s two biggest ethnic groups, together comprising around 65% of the population. Demonstrations began in Oromia: thousands took to the streets over a government scheme to expand Addis Ababa onto Oromo farmland (plans later dropped), and complaints that the Oromo people had been politically marginalised. Protests expanded into the Amhara region in July 2016, concerning the appropriation of fertile land in the region by the authorities in Tigray – a largely arid area.

The regime’s response has been consistently violent and has fuelled more protests, motivated more people to take part, and brought supressed anger towards the ruling EPRDF to the surface. Regional, issue-based actions, quickly turned into a nationwide protest movement calling for the ruling party, which many view as a dictatorship, to step down, and for democratic elections to be held.

Unwilling to enter into dialogue with opposition groups, and unable to contain the movement that swept through the country, in October 2016 the government imposed a six-month ‘State of Emergency’. This was necessary, the Prime Minister claimed, because, “we want to put an end to the damage that is being carried out against infrastructure projects, education institutions, health centers, administration and justice buildings,” and claimed, that “we put our citizens’ safety first”.

The extraordinary directive, which has dramatically increased tensions in the country, allows for even tighter restrictions to be applied – post an update on Facebook about the unrest and face five years imprisonment – and is further evidence of both the government’s resistance to reform and its disregard for the views of large sections of the population.

The directive places stifling restrictions of basic human rights, and as Human Rights Watch (HRW) states, goes “far beyond what is permissible under international law and signals an increased militarized response to the situation.”

Among the 31 Articles in the directive, ‘Communication instigating Protest and Unrest’ is banned, which includes using social media to organize public gatherings; so too is ‘Communication with Terrorist Groups’, this doesn’t mean the likes of ISIS, which would be reasonable, but relates to any individual or group who the regime themselves define as ‘terrorists’, i.e. anyone who publicly disagrees with them.

The independent radio/TV channel, ESAT (based in Europe and America) as well as Oromia Media meet the terrorist criteria and are high up the excluded list. Public assembly without authorization from the ‘Command Post’ is not allowed; there is even a ban on making certain gestures, “without permission”. Specifically crossing arms above the head to form an ‘X’, which has become a sign of national unity against the regime, and was bravely displayed by Ethiopian marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa, at the Rio Olympics (where he won a silver medal).

If anyone is found to have violated any of the draconian articles they can be arrested without charge and imprisoned without due process. The ruling regime, which repeatedly blames so called ‘outside forces’ for fueling the uprising – Eritrea and Egypt are cited – says the new laws will be used to coordinate the security forces against what it ambiguously calls “anti-peace elements”, that want to “destabilize the country”.

Shortly after the directive was passed, the government arrested “1,645 people”, the New York Times reported, of which an astonishing 1,220 “were described as ringleaders, the rest coordinators, suspects and bandits.”

All of this is taking place in what the ruling regime and their international benefactors laughably describe as a democracy. Ethiopia is not, nor has it even been a democratic country. The ruling EPRDF party, which, like the military, is dominated by men from the small Tigray region (6% of the population) in the North of the country, came to power in the traditional manner – by force; since its accession in 1992 it has stolen every ‘election’.

No party anywhere legitimately wins 100% of the parliamentary seats in an election, but the EPRDF, knowing their principle donors – the USA and UK – would sanction the result anyway, claimed to do so in 2015. The European Union, also a major benefactor, did, criticise the result; however, much to the fury of Ethiopians around the world, President Obama speaking after the whitewash, declared that the “elections put forward a democratically elected government.”

Government Reaction

Since the start of the protests the Government has responded with force. Nobody knows the exact number of people killed, hundreds certainly (HRW say around 500), thousands possibly. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, have been arbitrarily arrested and detained, probably tortured, definitely mistreated; family members of protestors, journalists and opposition politicians, are intimidated and routinely persecuted. And whilst 10,000 people have recently been released, local groups estimate a further 70,000 remain incarcerated and the government has initiated a new wave of arrests in which young people have been specifically targeted.

Amongst the list of violent state actions – none of which have been independently investigated – the incident at Bishoftu, which many Ethiopians describe as a massacre, stands out. On 2nd October millions of ethnic Oromos gathered to celebrate at the annual Irreecha cultural festival. There was a heavy, intimidating military presence including an army helicopter; anti-government chants broke out, people took to the stage and crossed their arms in unity. At this democratic act, security forces responded by firing live ammunition and teargas into the crowd.

The number of casualties varies depending on the source; the government would have us believe 55 people died, though local people and opposition groups claim 250 people were killed by security forces. The ruling regime makes it impossible to independently investigate such incidences or to verify those killed and injured, but HRW states that, “based on the information from witnesses and hospital staff…it is clear that the number of dead is much higher than government estimates.”

A week after the Nightmare at Bishoftu, the ruling party enforced its State of Emergency. Another ill-judged pronouncement that has entrenched divisions, strengthened resolve and plunged the country into deeper chaos. Such actions reveal a level of paranoia, and a failure to understand the impact of repressive rule. With every controlling violent action the Government takes, with every innocent person that it kills or maims, opposition spreads, resistance intensifies, resolve grows stronger.


The Ethiopian revolt comes after over two decades of rule by the EPRDF, a party whose approach, despite its democratic persona, has been intensely autocratic. Human rights declared in the liberally worded constitution are totally ignored: dissent is not allowed nor is political debate or regional secession – a major issue for the Ogaden region, which is under military control.

There is no independent media – it is all state owned or controlled, as is access to the Internet; journalists who express any criticism of the ruling regime are routinely arrested, and the only truly autonomous media group, ESAT is now classed as a terrorist organization. Add to this list the displacement of indigenous people to make way for international industrial farms; the partisan distribution of aid, employment opportunities and higher education places; the promulgation of ethnic politics in schools, plus the soaring cost of living, and a different, less polished Ethiopian picture begins to surface of life than the one painted by the regime and donor nations – benefactors who, by their silence and duplicity are complicit in the actions of the EPRDF government.

People have had enough of such injustices. Inhibited and contained for so long, they have now found the strength to demand their rights and stand up to the bully enthroned in Addis Ababa. The hope must be that change can be brought about by peaceful means and not descend into a bloody conflict. For this to happen the government needs to adopt a more conciliatory position and listen to the people’s legitimate concerns.

This unprecedented uprising may be held at bay for a time, restrained by force and unjust legislation, but people rightly sense this is the moment for change; they will no longer cower and be silenced for too much has been sacrificed by too many.

The Case of Tony: Inside a Lifer Hearing

Counterpunch - Fri, 02/17/2017 - 03:52

I’ve put off writing about lifer hearings because I don’t like to relive painful experiences and I’ve been hung up on trying to find an angle. What would be a good, illustrative case? There are a variety of types: Perhaps the campesino from the highlands of Mexico, more Old World than New, going through the process via an interpreter, getting all of his instructive, lengthy documents in English and often finding his credibility fatally undermined through simple and obvious misunderstandings in translation.

Then there’s the one who receives a disciplinary write-up through a petty misunderstanding, or an officer having a bad day, or a new officer unaware of the tacit agreements in place -one typically has to go about 5 years without a write-up to have a chance at parole.

Or there’s the one who is several lifetimes removed from the teenage street gang and violence of his youth and you want to sweep aside all the hoops he has to jump through and all the boxes he has to check, and shout, LOOK AT HIM. HE’S FIFTY. HE WAS SEVENTEEN. HIS ENTIRE LIFE OF CRIME WAS TEENAGE BULLSHIT THAT PEOPLE GROW OUT OF! And, of course, there are the roughly 10% I meet who I do not think committed the crime that put them there.

I decided to write about the next hearing on my schedule:

Tony is in for first-degree murder. Some descriptions of a commitment offense can break your heart and make it clear that here was a menace-to-society who had to be locked up for a long time. That’s not the case with Tony, but he committed the act: A “tax-collector” gangster let it reach Tony’s ears that he was going to kill the heroin-dealing, heroin-addicted Tony and a couple of other Valley miscreants. They decided to get out in front of the threat and somehow got him to use enough smack to pass out. They drove to a quiet spot by an irrigation canal where their rookie hired hitman realized that he couldn’t do it. Believing that turning back now meant certain death in the very near future, Tony pulled the trigger and got twenty-five-to-life. It was his one documented act of violence before and after his arrest. It’s been thirty-seven years since he shot that man to death but at seventy, he seems like a nice enough guy.

Tony used and smuggled in prison until about ten years ago. For this he picked up two consecutive terms totaling six years, to commence when he is paroled for his commitment offense.

Tony is a terrible test-taker, especially at oral exams. His word is “brainlock” for what overwhelms his thought processes when talking to important people on important topics pertaining to his freedom. Because he is a terrible test-taker and, to get paroled, he has to nail the most difficult oral exam of all, his Parole Consideration Hearing, he is still awaiting a grant of parole so that he can at least see the finish line.

He’s fairly slow and deliberate in general, but when he senses that the line of questioning has reached a pivotal point, he freezes. His denial of parole a couple of years ago was narrowly based on the difficulty he had reciting and discussing the 12 steps to recovery. At his recent hearing, every time the topic got around to the 12 steps, his slow, thoughtful, sometimes grasping, answers ground to a clock-ticking… chair-squeaking… fluorescent-light-humming… throat-clearing.  Halt.

Once someone has reached his minimum eligibility date, a grant of parole “shall normally be given” per the penal code. The ‘fundamental consideration’ for the Board is whether or not Tony is still an unreasonable danger to the public. To find this in a seventy-year-old with minimal violence beyond his thirty-seven-year-old commitment offense, they must find a ‘rational nexus’ between past criminality and current dangerousness.

As it goes in the vast majority of these hearings, a ‘rational nexus’ was found. The Parole Board concluded that because he experiences his “brainlock” under stress, he will be unable to handle stress in the “free community” and is therefore dangerous. He was denied parole for the ninth time.

I can only imagine a situation remotely comparable to being grilled for a couple of hours by two flinty-eyed, hard-to-read, squares across a long table knowing that if you respond properly, you might get to walk out of prison before you die.

This case was interesting because the Board made an end-run around my analysis of his “brainlock” and my confident assertion that “this is not a performance test,” but the catch-22-laden, surreal, aspect is all too typical. Common sense slowly dissipates and the aura of hope fades from the room if the hearing doesn’t have the right feeling and flow, regardless of whether or not the person on the spot is remotely like the person who put himself there.

Luke Meyer is the pen name of a Bay Area lawyer.