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We Need a Coronavirus Truce

During World War I, soldiers all along the Western front held a series of informal truces in December 1914 to commemorate Christmas.

It was early in the war, and opposition had not yet hardened into implacable enmity. The military command, caught by surprise, could not impose complete battlefield discipline. An estimated 100,000 British and German soldiers participated. They exchanged smokes, sang together, and even, on at least one occasion that has since been widely mythologized, played a game of soccer.

Imagine how different the world would look today if that truce had held, if it had turned into a lasting ceasefire, if Europe had not burned itself to the ground in a fit of nationalist pique. There might not have been a global flu epidemic spread by soldiers in 1918. The Nazis might not have seized power and precipitated the Holocaust. World War II might never have happened and nuclear weapons never used.

At the very least, nearly 20 million people would not have perished in that first world war.

We are now in the early stages of another world war, call it World War III, this time against the common enemy of pandemic. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres last week called on all countries to observe a global ceasefire to focus all resources on beating back the coronavirus. “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, eight countries that have been suffering under economic sanctions — China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela — have appealed for an end to the economic sanctions that are hampering their efforts to battle the disease.

And a number of civil organizations are pressing for the release of political prisonersjailed journalists, and as many nonviolent offenders as possible to reduce the crowding that makes prisons a potential killing ground for the coronavirus.

Not surprisingly, there has been pushback to the idea of even temporarily ending these three expressions of state power: military conflict, war by economic means, and mass incarceration. But this pandemic, for all of its ongoing horrors, can serve as a jolt of smelling salts. International cooperation needs to take priority right now, and countries must stop their wars against one another and against their own populations.

Bombs, sanctions, and prisons are not effective tools in the fight against the coronavirus. Indeed, by aiding and abetting the enemy, they will only make the war worse.

Silencing the Guns?

There has been much talk of repurposing the U.S. military to fight the coronavirus. Two Army field hospitals have been sent to New York and Seattle. Some soldiers have already been deployed, the National Guard has been activated in three states, and the Pentagon has been authorized to call up former soldiers to help in the fight. But the military is, to use an apt simile, like a large battleship that is not easily turned. The Pentagon hasn’t even allowed immigrant doctors in its ranks to help against the pandemic.

In the meantime, the Pentagon continues to pursue its prime directive: planning war and killing people. On March 12, the United States conducted air strikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq, in response to attacks that killed two U.S. service personnel. It was billed as a “proportional” response. Yet the Pentagon has been pushing a far more ambitious plan to go to war against Iranian proxies and, ultimately, Iran itself.

“Some top officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, have been pushing for aggressive new action against Iran and its proxy forces — and see an opportunity to try to destroy Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq as leaders in Iran are distracted by the pandemic crisis in their country,” write Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt in The New York Times.

In nearby Afghanistan, the United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal at the end of February. But any end to the war in Afghanistan will require a truce among the factions within the country, indeed within the government itself. After a disputed presidential election that once again pitted President Ashraf Ghani against chief rival Abdullah Abdullah, even the threat of reduced U.S. aid didn’t persuade the two sides to unify.

The fighting continues on the ground, with air strikes against the Taliban most recently on March 24 as well a series of Taliban attacks in the last week against Afghan soldiers and policemen. In the leadup to the signing of the peace agreement, the United States conducted the second highest number of air attacks for the month of February since 2009. And last year, Afghanistan sustained the most U.S. aerial attacks since 2006.

Wars grind on in other parts of the world, pandemic be damned. All sides declared a truce in Syria in early March, but Turkey exchanged attacks with “radical groups” in Idlib province on March 19. This week, Israeli war planes targeted a Syrian military base near Homs. And the Islamic State has indicated that it sees the coronavirus as an opportunity to step up attacks — like a recent massacre at a Sikh temple in Kabul — because the last thing the “crusaders” want is “to send additional soldiers to regions where there is a chance for a spread of the disease.” However, COVID-19 will most harm Syrian refugees, particularly the recent wave of nearly a million people who fled Idlib and Aleppo in December.

In Libya, both sides of the civil war agreed to a humanitarian truce that evaporated after only a day and now the fighting there has even intensified. Whoever wins Tripoli will take over a capital with an already ravaged infrastructure and a collapsed economy. The Pyrrhic victor will then have to address a mounting health emergency with ever diminishing resources.

Meanwhile in Yemen, which is on track to becoming the poorest country in the world because of its five-year-long war, the combatants agreed to a truce last week. As in Libya, it hasn’t lasted long. The Houthis have since launched some easily intercepted ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia, which retaliated by once again bombing Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.

Conflicts throughout Africa — in CameroonChad, Nigeria, Mozambique, Mali — also continue despite pleas for a truce. Neither has al-Shabaab stopped its suicide bombings nor the United States ceased its drone attacks in Somalia.

Elsewhere in the world, there’s no pandemic pause for a series of equally deadly cold wars.

Weaponizing Sanctions

For years, the United States has tried to shut down North Korea’s economic relations with the outside world as a way to force the government to negotiate away its nuclear weapons program. North Korea devised a variety of methods to get around U.S. and UN sanctions, including illicit transfers of oil from foreign ships to North Korean vessels in the middle of the ocean.

But the most lucrative source of goods and revenues continued to be China, which has been responsible for upwards of 95 percent of North Korea’s trade. Washington has intermittently put pressure on Beijing to shut down this trade to pressure Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table. It hasn’t worked.

Then the coronavirus hit. By the end of January, North Korea had shut its borders with China to minimize the risk of infection. It even issued a directive to guard posts to put a stop to flourishing smuggling operations. What sanctions couldn’t accomplish in years, the virus managed to achieve in weeks.

Despite these precautionary measures, the coronavirus has no doubt reached North Korea. There have been reports of probable coronavirus-related deaths in the North Korean military. Thousands of people have been quarantined. Even as the North Korean government insists that the country remains pandemic-free, it has quietly appealed to other governments for assistance in addressing the disease.

The United States has so far held firm. Even though sanctions are holding up the delivery of critical humanitarian aid, Washington has refused to reconsider sanctions. Secretary of State Pompeo continues to talk as if a pandemic isn’t raging outside: “The G-7 and all nations must remain united in calling on North Korea to return to negotiations and stay committed to applying diplomatic and economic pressure over its illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”

Pompeo has been even more ruthless toward Iran, an early pandemic hotspot. Tehran initially fumbled its response to a disease, which was quickly spreading through the populace as well as the political and religious leadership. As Human Rights Watch has meticulously detailed, U.S. economic sanctions have only made a bad situation worse.

Yes, the U.S. government formally permits humanitarian aid to the country. But its sanctions regime — which includes the threat of secondary sanctions against entities that engage Tehran — ensures that banks and companies steer clear of Iran. Pompeo’s take: “Things are much worse for the Iranian people, and we’re convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.”

That’s also pretty much the U.S. strategy toward Venezuela, which is in an even more vulnerable position. Though it only has a little more than 130 confirmed cases, COVID-19 will likely ravage the weakened country. “Only a quarter of Venezuela’s doctors have access to a reliable supply of water and two-thirds are without soap, gloves or masks,” reports The Guardian. “There are 73 intensive care beds in the whole country.”

This week, the Trump administration conditioned any reduction in sanctions on a political deal that requires President Nicolas Maduro to step down in favor of a transitional council that includes the political opposition. The current government has rejected this regime-change option.

These maximum pressure tactics toward North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and others recently led Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl, who is no softy on foreign affairs, to conclude that Pompeo’s “pandemic performance will ensure his place among the worst ever” secretaries of state.

Emptying the Prisons

Egypt freed 15 prominent oppositionists on March 21. A few days earlier, Bahrain let go nearly 1,500 detainees, but no prominent human rights activists or political oppositionists. Iran has released 85,000 prisoners, but only temporarily. Turkey is planning to release 90,000 prisoners, but none of them political.

Prisons are the perfect breeding ground for the coronavirus: poor sanitary conditions, overcrowding, minimal medical facilities. Many countries, including the United States, are looking into ways of reducing the population behind bars.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is mobilizing support to pressure governments to release the 250 journalists who are currently in prison worldwide. UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has urged countries to reduce the numbers of people in detention, with a special emphasis on political prisoners. “Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views,” she said last week.

Those behind bars are frequently the victims of various government campaigns: against a free press, against political dissent, against drugs. But when a major war threatens the homeland, prisoners are sometimes drafted into military service. That happened during the French colonial period and by different sides in World War II.

In World War III, we need everyone on our side. If countries don’t significantly empty out their prisons during this COVID-19 crisis, the inmates as well as the guards will likely be drafted by the enemy. This foe only gets stronger as our petty conflicts continue and the stiffest sanctions remain in place.

It’s time for a truce on all fronts — or else we will surely lose the larger war.

Foreign Policy In Focus, April 1, 2020

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Trump’s Attack on the Law Is Global

Shortly before the Thanksgiving holiday, Donald Trump decided to ignore the advice of his own top brass and personally dismiss charges in three military court cases dealing with war crimes.

That decision has already cost Navy Secretary Richard Spencer his job, outraged a wide range of U.S. veterans, and raised concerns abroad of a weakened U.S. commitment to international law.

Trump’s direct intervention into the judicial process is not simply a function of his impulsiveness. In fact, Trump is following the same script as other far-right leaders around the world: He is launching an assault on the most powerful challenge to his executive power — the court system.

Because they have ruled against him on such issues as immigration and the release of his tax returns, the president has frequently spoken out against the courts. He’s singled out what he calls “Obama judges” for criticism. And he’s pushed hard to appoint as many like-minded judges as he can — over 150 so far.

It’s a familiar tactic. As I discovered from interviewing 80 activists and academics from around the world for a new report on the rise of the far right, one of the first targets of populist leaders has been the rule of law. There’s no greater obstacle to gaining absolute power than an independent judiciary.

In Poland, the ruling party has gone to great lengths to compromise the independence of the judiciary. Meanwhile, in nearby Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban went so far as to create a parallel court system under his own control. The European Union has censured both of these member states.

Right-wing populist leaders have targeted the courts not just to fast-track their overall agendas. Many also want to avoid prosecution for their own personal wrongdoing.

Indicted on three criminal charges, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused his country’s prosecutors of attempting a coup. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has withdrawn his country from the International Criminal Court, where he stands accused of crimes against humanity connected to his drug war.

In all of these cases, the populists have pursued inside-outside strategies. The inside strategy is to pack the courts with loyalists. The outside strategy is to attack any element of the judicial system that dares to challenge executive authority.

Donald Trump differs only by virtue of the size and power of the country he governs. As such, Trump is not content to transform the U.S. court system for his own gain. Trump aspires to change the world.

Trump’s flouting of international law is by now a familiar story. He’s attempting to destroy the Iran nuclear deal. He’s withdrawn the United States from the Paris climate accord. And recently he ignored international consensus by declaring settlements in Israel’s occupied territories to be perfectly legal.

Trump recognizes that putting America First requires a substantial upgrade to run-of-the-mill American exceptionalism. After all, despite this exceptionalism, the United States has still been party to many international agreements, from the Geneva Conventions to a slew of U.N. human rights accords.

The president’s decision to intervene in three military cases — all involving alleged war crimes like the killing of civilians or captured soldiers — is a signal that the administration no longer considers itself bound by the requirements of these agreements.

Trump is attacking the notion that U.S. soldiers should be held accountable for such crimes. The standard U.S. conservative tactic has been to prevent the United States from joining the International Criminal Court. Trump is going a step further by actually releasing war criminals.

It’s also part of a larger military strategy that has resulted, for instance in Afghanistan, in a significant uptick in civilian casualties. The Trump administration has already launched more drone attacks than the Obama administration did over two terms.

The president, in short, has not let rule of law stand in the way of his continuation of America’s wars.

Right-wing populist leaders like Trump and Orban complain all the time about “globalists.” They challenge international treaties and institutions that make their countries somehow less “great.” They are hellbent on tearing up the rules of the road and returning the international arena to an older principle of might makes right.

It’s not only wrong. Ultimately it will undermine what remains of American might as well.

Inside Sources, December 9, 2019

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Soldiers Who Fight War

One of the enduring myths connected to the Vietnam War is that the U.S. military could have won the war if the politicians and protestors back in Washington didn’t somehow handicap the generals.

When George H. W. Bush launched the first Gulf War in 1990, for instance, he said that “this will not be another Vietnam. Our troops will…not be asked to fight with one hand tied behind their back.”

This myth doesn’t account for the determination of the Vietnamese to repel the U.S. troops. It also doesn’t take into consideration the U.S. troops themselves and how they felt about the war. If any hands were secured by any backs, it was often the GIs themselves who were doing the tying.

As David Cortright writes in his contribution to the important new book, Waging Peace in Vietnam, which he edited with Ron Carver and Barbara Doherty, the U.S. military by the early 1970s was in no condition to fight a war much less win one. By 1971, he points out, the AWOL rate had hit an all-time high of 17 percent. One in six soldiers were not showing up at their job.

Also by 1971, the military recorded nearly 500 acts of attempted damage to military equipment by the soldiers themselves. Then there was all the “fragging” that was taking place, 500 of them by 1972, in which soldiers rolled fragmentation grenades into the quarters of their superiors – either to send a warning or to outright kill them. Many veterans and even some active-duty soldiers were involved in protesting the war.

The U.S. army, particularly by the early 1970s, was a house divided.

By this time, too, many Americans had turned against the war. Mass street protests were taking place in Washington. Respected figures like TV newscaster Walter Cronkite were urging the U.S. government to negotiate and pull out troops.

Opposition from the soldiers themselves occasionally made it into the headlines, for instance when John Kerry, representing the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971. In that year, too, 700 veterans threw their medals over the fence in front of the White House, which merited a small article in The New York Times.

These acts of resistance, however, are largely ignored in the official narrative about the Vietnam War, which allows the “hand behind the back” myth to endure. Waging Peace in Vietnam provides a corrective. By assembling the accounts of dozens of veterans and activists, the book paints a much fuller picture of the resistance to the Vietnam War by GIs and their supporters. It documents the extensive anti-war newspapers published by soldiers in the United States, Europe, Asia, and even Iceland. It includes interviews with the people who set up GI coffeehouses on or near bases, which then became centers of resistance. It covers the uprisings by African American soldiers disgusted with the racism that permeated the armed forces. It provides snapshots of several of the 30,000 draft resisters who left for Canada at that time.

In one particularly poignant episode in the book, helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson recounts how he saw from the air the bodies of dead Vietnamese women, old men, and children in what would later become known as the My Lai massacre. He landed his copter and managed to rescue nine civilians from certain death at the hands of his fellow soldiers. Even more remarkably, Thompson told his crew to shoot at his compatriots in order to force them to stand down. “I’m not going to let these GIs kill any more of these people,” he radioed his friends in a nearby gunship.

When Thompson testified before Congress at the end of 1969, the then-chairman of the House Armed Services Committee argued that the pilot, for trying to stop the massacre, should be the only soldier punished for what happened at My Lai.

Thompson would eventually return to Vietnam, part of a wave of veterans who sought some form of reconciliation with the people they fought against. These veterans, including both the anti-war John Kerry and the pro-war John McCain, played an important role in effecting a remarkable rapprochement between what had once been two implacable enemies.

Given the myths about why the United States didn’t win in Vietnam, it’s no surprise that Washington has never learned the right lessons from the conflict. It would blunder into even more challenging quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq. The war in Afghanistan is now 18 years old, nearly twice as long as U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

And just as there’s a terrible continuity between these wars, there is also a hopeful parallel in the efforts of active duty soldiers and veterans to put an end to America’s endless wars in the Middle East. Waging Peace in Vietnam includes a chapter on the resistance waged by the latest generation of anti-war vets. It’s a useful reminder that those who know war best can be the most effective anti-war activists.

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Trump’s Endless Wars

Donald Trump loves to talk about ending the endless U.S. wars that he inherited as president. He tweets about it. He endlessly criticizes his predecessors for their martial mistakes.

But like the old saw about the weather, Trump talks a whole lot about endless wars but doesn’t do anything about them.

Just this month, he went against the advice of pretty much everyone to pull 1,000 U.S. troops out of northern Syria where they were protecting a largely autonomous Kurdish region. The result has been an immediate flare-up in the Syrian conflict as Turkey sent troops over the border to take advantage of the U.S. withdrawal.

Then Trump turned around and sent an additional 2,000 troops to Saudi Arabia to help them defend against Iran or the Houthis or perhaps just internal critics of the regime.

In fact, the Trump administration has deployed 14,000 additional U.S. troops to the Middle East since the spring. Compare that with the 1,000 troops that Trump is withdrawing from northern Syria. The president seems more focused on starting fires than putting them out.

Last month, Trump promised a grand deal with the Taliban that would allow the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan. But that didn’t happen.

And what about the Kushner plan that was supposed to end the endless conflict between Israel and Palestine? Dead on arrival.

America’s drone wars? By March 2019, Trump has launched more drone strikes (2,243) than Obama did in his two terms in office (1,878).

Counter-insurgency campaigns in Africa? Trump has ordered a 10 percent cut in forces on the continent by 2022, but the total forces under the Africa Command actually went up by more than double that amount from 2017 to 2018 (6,000 to 7,500).

Containment of China? The Pentagon, under Trump, has made China its “number one priority,” and much of the increase in military spending in the Trump administration has gone to preparing for war with Beijing.

Meanwhile, on the home front, Trump has declared war on Congress, on the mainstream media, on anyone who disagrees with him. A recent video shows Trump mowing down all of his critics in an altered outtake from the movie, Kingsman. As a meme, it’s disgusting. As a metaphor, it’s chillingly accurate.

Let’s face it: Trump is not against endless war. He is the embodiment of endless war. It’s the essence of his operating system. He went into politics because he understood that it’s endless war by other means (and he’s always been too squeamish to fight in endless wars by ordinary means).

Once and for all, let’s bury the myth of Trump the dealmaker. He’s about as transactional as a heavyweight boxer. Remember: he was the host not of Let’s Make a Deal but of The Apprentice, in which he presided over a war of all against all with a single winner and lots of losers. He has simply brought that spirit of ungenerosity into the White House.

The consequences have been devastating all around.

The Mess in Syria

Somehow Trump figured out the one geopolitical move he could make that could pave the way for a Turkish invasion of Syria, force a desperate alliance between beleaguered Kurds and the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad, improve Russia’s standing in the region, and revive the fortunes of the Islamic State.

He seized on this strategy of withdrawing 1,000 troops from northern Syria probably because everyone warned him not to do it. Trump loves to defy expert advice. He’s convinced that he knows better. It’s unclear whence he derives this confidence since he has made disastrous decisions his entire life that have produced bankruptcies, unbuilt buildings all over the world, and a near total refusal of banks to provide him with loans.

The latest fiasco started with a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on October 6 in which Trump effectively endorsed the Turkish cross-border operation in Syria.

David Sanger, in The New York Times, explains that Trump’s “error, some aides concede in off-the-record conversations, was entering the Oct. 6 call underprepared, and then failing to spell out for Mr. Erdogan the potential consequences — from economic sanctions to a contraction of Turkey’s alliance with the United States and its standing in NATO.”

This was enough of a green light for the Turkish leader. Erdogan has been dreaming of invasion for some time in order to neutralize what he believes are a bunch of terrorists aiding Kurdish separatists in southeastern Turkey. He’d also like to relocate many of the Syrian refugees in Turkey to a new Turkish-controlled area in northern Syria.

Until this month, however, Erdogan had been satisfied with a buffer zone. In a sense, U.S. troops were serving as peacekeepers in the region. There were not enough to launch significant military operations but just enough to stand between Turkey and the Kurds on one side and the Syrian government and the Kurds on the other. But no more.

The immediate victims of Trump’s latest decision are the Kurds, the ally that Trump relied on so heavily in his campaign against the Islamic State. The hope of Syrian Kurds for maintaining a peaceful and semi-autonomous state is now gone. The Kurds immediately signed a deal with Damascus that has brought Syrian government forces into the one significant part of the country that remained in opposition hands. When Trump’s callous move forced them to choose, Kurds opted for the devil they knew over the devil across the border.

Turkey’s intervention has displaced tens of thousands of people from their homes. Kurdish refugees are flowing into Iraqi Kurdistan, and humanitarian organizations like Mercy Corps are pulling out their staff from northern Syria. Atrocities against civilians have taken place, including the execution of Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf. Turkey is also moving against domestic critics of the military operation, which also happen to be mostly Kurds. Erdogan’s move is motivated in good part by domestic considerations — his desire to silence his critics and generate a spike in nationalist sentiment.

Russia, meanwhile, has moved swiftly to take the place of the United States. Russian troops have flowed into northern Syria to serve as a buffer between Turkey and the government in Damascus. Perhaps it’s better for the Russians to play this role, particularly in the Trump era. But given Moscow’s support for the ruthless Assad, its willingness to sell anybody pretty much any weapon, and its general indifference to human rights, I’m not enthusiastic about an expanded Russian role in Middle East affairs. The United States was no great shakes, but Russia is worse.

Then there’s the Islamic State, which has not disappeared, contrary to Trump’s fanciful assertions. According to The New York Times:

The White House statement on Sunday came as the Islamic State is gathering new strength, conducting guerrilla attacks across Iraq and Syria, retooling its financial networks and targeting new recruits at an allied-run tent camp, American military, counterterrorism and intelligence officers say.

Over the past several months, ISIS has made inroads into the sprawling Al Hol tent camp in northeast Syria, and there is no ready plan to deal with the 70,000 people there, including thousands of family members of ISIS fighters.

American intelligence officials say the Al Hol camp, managed by Syrian Kurdish allies with little aid or security, is evolving into a hotbed of ISIS ideology. The American-backed Syrian Kurdish force also holds more than 10,000 ISIS fighters, including 2,000 foreigners, in separate makeshift prisons.

In the chaos of the Turkish intervention, at least 750 Islamic State adherents escaped from a displacement camp in the Kurdish-held region. Trump has speculated without any proof that the Kurds deliberately released the prisoners in order to draw the United States back into military engagement. Nice try, Donald: the Kurds are no longer counting on the United States for anything.

But the worst part is: it turns out that Trump didn’t end the war with the Islamic State after all.

The War at Home

The president has been conducting a two-front foreign policy war ever since he took office.

Overseas, he’s been involved in numerous conflicts with both allies and adversaries. But at home, he’s also been at war: with his own policymaking apparatus. He has chewed through foreign policy advisors of all types: Jim Mattis, John Bolton, Rex Tillerson, HR McMaster. As he retreats further into the mancave of his twitterverse, Trump has fallen back on the advice of someone with an even more paranoid and incoherent worldview than his own.

It turns out that there’s an advisor even worse than Trump’s own gut: Rudy Giuliani.

The impeachment hearings are every day revealing the real deep state — the shadow foreign policy orchestrated by Trump and Giuliani. Fiona Hill, who was responsible for Russia and Europe policy at the National Security Council, testified that Giuliani worked to get Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, removed from her post. He was also trying to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. He was even trying to prove that Ukraine helped the Democratic Party in the 2016 elections.

According to The Washington Post, Giuliani “said he believed Hill was out of the loop compared to Sondland and others involved with Ukraine. ‘She just didn’t know,’ he said. He added that he had never talked to her about Ukraine policy.”

Wake up and smell the facts, Rudy: that’s the definition of a shadow foreign policy. The person who knew the most about Russia and Ukraine was out of the loop? And you, Rudy Giuliani, whose knowledge of Ukraine can be boiled down to a handful of ludicrous conspiracy theories, presume to displace Marie Yovanovitch, who speaks the languages of the region, was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Kiev from 2001 to 2004, and was determined to help root out corruption in Ukraine?

And your chief ally in this endeavor, other than a president who has even less understanding of geopolitics than you do, is Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union? Sondland has only one qualification for his job: absolute fealty to Donald Trump. The guy’s nothing more than a glorified hotelier who has spent most of his time in Brussels overseeing an expensive renovation of the ambassador’s residence.

Giuliani has emerged as this generation’s Oliver North, the architect of the Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan years. Like North, Giuliani has been running a covert operation under the noses of the foreign policy professionals. Rudy’s goal was much narrower and grubbier than North’s: the reelection of the president. Giuliani, in other words, was basically a CREEP (Committee to Reelect the President) unto himself.

All of this is bad news for Trump on the impeachment front. But it’s also bad news for Giuliani, particularly if it turns out that he didn’t disclose his lobbying ties, which would expose him to criminal charges. After all, he actively lobbied on Turkey’s behalf to persuade the Trump administration to extradite the cleric Fethullah Gulen from Pennsylvania back to Turkey. Mike Flynn, Trump’s erstwhile former national security advisor, went down for almost the identical offense.

Meanwhile, Rudy was pulling down half a million dollars for his consulting work with the aptly named Fraud Guarantee (or is that Guaranteed Fraud?), which just happened to be owned by one of the Ukrainians recently arrested for campaign finance violations.

It’s not looking good for the president and all the president’s men. Trump continues to try to fight his way out of his predicament. So far, he still has the Republican Party in his corner. But that might not last long.

The impeachment will not be an endless war. It will be nasty and brutish, but it will be relatively short. Trump the putative dealmaker might make one last appearance in an effort to stay out of jail. But the more fitting scenario would be if the president goes down in flames as the most prominent casualty of his own endless war against the U.S. people.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, October 16, 2019

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A Farewell to Arms Control?

My first trip to Washington, DC to do something other than protest on the streets was to interview for a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship, which brings young people to the nation’s capital to work on arms control and disarmament.

It was 1987, around the time that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Agreement. The INF treaty committed the United States and the Soviet Union to eliminate nuclear weapons for the first time on a large scale (over 2,500 of them by 1991). It was a high point for the arms control movement.

To get to the interview stage, however, I wrote an application essay about the flaws of arms control agreements — that they provided a false sense of accomplishment, that they capped the number of nuclear weapons but rarely reduced them, that they accepted the “logic” of mutually assured destruction, that they reinforced the privileges of the nuclear club, and so on.

Arms control was conventionally thought of as the path toward disarmament. I made the case instead that arms control was a detour around disarmament.

When I walked into the room for my interview, I found myself facing a dozen of the leading arms control advocates in the country. I’d anticipated a one-on-one discussion, not a full court of inquisition. They understandably grilled me about my arguments and looked universally dissatisfied with my answers. Yet, in the end, they gave me a fellowship, perhaps for the same reason that Antonin Scalia liked to employ one liberal Supreme Court clerk — to have a dissenter close at hand to sharpen arguments. I did my fellowship at Nuclear Times magazine, a periodical devoted to scrapping nuclear weapons rather than merely controlling their production.

Nuclear Times folded long ago. Now the INF agreement, after both the United States and Russia suspended their compliance this February, is effectively dead too. Led by National Security Advisor John Bolton, an inveterate opponent of arms control, the Trump administration has taken aim at a wide range of efforts to control the production and proliferation of weapons, from the Iran nuclear deal to the Arms Trade Treaty that the president just savaged in front of a group of cheering National Rifle Association members.

And yet, Trump has also said, just this week, that he wants to get rid of all nuclear weapons. So, is it time to write an epitaph for arms control and herald a new age of disarmament?

The Swerve

Since my time at Nuclear Times, two major events contributed to pushing some otherwise conservative policy makers away from arms control and towards actual disarmament.

The first development was the collapse of the Soviet Union. The number of nuclear weapons in the world peaked the year before my Washington interview at just over 70,000. The end of the Cold War spurred a reduction to under 14,000 today.

Also, in 1991, Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican Richard Lugar teamed up to create a groundbreaking piece of legislation, the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, later dubbed the Nunn-Lugar Act. It provided U.S. funds to decommission weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet states. Among other results of the program, the new states of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus became the first countries in history to abandon their nuclear weapons.

But attempts to negotiate a new set of arms control treaties with Russia have run up against a number of obstacles, from the intransigence of congressional hawks to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and involvement in the civil war in Ukraine. Over the years, Congress has chipped away at the funding for CTR. And Richard Lugar died this weekend, the passing of one of the last moderate Republicans committed to a cooperative U.S. relationship with the world.

The other half of Nunn-Lugar, meanwhile, has been part of the second major development: the response to global terrorism.

In 2007, Sam Nunn joined Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and William Perry to author a series of op-eds in The Wall Street Journal urging the foreign policy establishment to embrace not just arms control, but disarmament. They expressed concern about states like North Korea and Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and disrupting the tenuous balance of nuclear power. But they reserved most of their anxiety for scenarios in which non-state actors acquired nukes:

In today’s war waged on world order by terrorists, nuclear weapons are the ultimate means of mass devastation. And non-state terrorist groups with nuclear weapons are conceptually outside the bounds of a deterrent strategy and present difficult new security challenges.

The United States built an arsenal of nuclear weapons to preserve and extend its global dominance. But now, in a perverse development, nukes threatened that dominance. So, the lions of U.S. foreign policy had decided that they must go. No longer convinced that nukes kept the peace, they pushed for a world free of these weapons of mass destruction.

Two years later, clearly influenced by these arguments, President Barack Obama gave a speech in Prague announcing for the first time that the United States was committed to nuclear disarmament. He outlined a number of steps toward that goal: a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Moscow, U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a fissile material cut-off treaty, a strengthened Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and so on. It was an impressive to-do list, but alas this agenda remains unrealized.

The nuclear stand-off of the Cold War was predicated on predictability. The United States and Soviet Union wouldn’t launch a first strike because of the near certainty that the other side would then engage in massive retaliation. But the end of the Cold War and the possibility that nuclear material would fall into the hands of unpredictable actors changed the nuclear calculus.

Then, to complicate matters further, along came the most unpredictable element of all: Donald Trump.

The Trump Paradox

As the self-professed king of negotiators, Donald Trump used to boast of his ability to solve the nuclear impasse if only the U.S. government would appoint him as special emissary to the Soviet Union. Within an hour of meeting Gorbachev, Trump told Nobel Peace Prize winner Bernard Lown, he could end the Cold War. In an article for The New York Times in 1984, journalist William Geist wrote:

The idea that he would ever be allowed to get into a room alone and negotiate for the United States, let alone be successful in disarming the world, seems the naive musing of an optimistic, deluded young man who has never lost at anything he has tried. But he believes that through years of making his views known and through supporting candidates who share his views, it could someday happen.

Young no more and now in a powerful political position, Trump still holds on to this illusion. But to achieve his ambition of personally disarming the world, Trump believes that first he has to get rid of all the poorly negotiated efforts of his predecessors. In this endeavor he is aided by Bolton, who has made it his personal mission to torpedo every arms control treaty that he can bring within his sights.

That’s why the Trump administration seems to be all over the map on arms control. On the one hand, the president has withdrawn from the nuclear deal with Iran and pulled out of one of the last remaining arms control agreements with Russia, the aforementioned INF treaty.

Then, last week, he announced that he would unsign the Arms Trade Treaty, which the Obama administration supported and which imposes a number of important restrictions on the sale and transfer of armaments across borders. The Senate has yet to ratify the treaty. Over 100 nations have both signed and ratified the ATT, and it went into effect in 2014. Trump, by denigrating the ATT, has thrown the United States into the same camp of opposition as North Korea, Iran, China, and Russia.

On the other hand, Trump also declared last week:

Between Russia and China and us, we’re all making hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, including nuclear, which is ridiculous. And I would say that China will come along, and I would say Russia will come along. It doesn’t really make sense that we’re doing this.

The president has thus instructed officials to prepare for big agreements on nuclear weapons with both Russia and China.

To get from here (dangerous) to there (disarmament), Trump has to follow some pretty obvious steps, points out David Wright, of the Union of Concerned Scientists. These include a new treaty on strategic nuclear weapons with Russia, reentry into the INF Treaty, scaling back on missile defense, and kicking Bolton out of his administration. So far, Trump has expressed zero interest in making any of these moves.

When it comes to any kind of large-scale arms control treaty with Russia and/or China, as Daryl Kimball writes in Arms Control Today, the administration has “no plan, strategy, or capacity to negotiate such a far-reaching deal. Even if it did, negotiations would likely take years.” Kimball suspects that the administration has an entirely different goal in mind: to load the arms-control agenda with so many big asks that it makes future deals, like a new strategic treaty with Russia, untenable. Kimball continues:

If in the coming weeks, however, Team Trump suggests China must join New START or that Russia must agree to limits on tactical nuclear weapons as a condition for its extension, that should be recognized as a disingenuous poison pill designed to create a pretext for killing New START.

Trump will soon come to the same realization on arms control that he did on health care: “Nobody knew [it] could be so complicated.”

Of course, everyone knew that health care — and arms control — could be so complicated. Only Trump believes that he alone, though force of will, can substitute for the patient and informed diplomacy of hundreds of experts. As with his efforts to negotiate with North Korea, once he bumps up against the complexity of the situation, Trump will hand over responsibility for the details to his aides — and that means that Bolton will have a free hand to block any progress in talks with Russia and China.

Since 1987, the logic of arms control has changed. Because of the end of the Cold War, arms control agreements have led to dramatic reductions in nuclear forces and the prevention of states like Iran from becoming nuclear powers. The threat of nuclear material falling into the hands of non-state actors, meanwhile, has shifted the consensus away from deterrence and toward disarmament. Arms control is now clearly part of the solution, not part of the problem.

So, I’ve changed my mind about arms control being a detour around disarmament. Arms control has become more important than ever before, given that a new nuclear arms race beckons.

The United States, China, Russia are all modernizing their arsenals. Key arms control treaties, like the INF, no longer serve as checks on weapon development and deployment. Important initiatives like the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty can’t go forward without U.S. support. The nuclear club refuses to sign the new treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. And John Bolton is on the loose, like a fox bent on killing off every inhabitant of the henhouse.

So, it isn’t just Donald Trump who has a paradoxical attitude toward nuclear weapons. The world as a whole has never been closer to consensus on the need for disarmament. And yet it’s also never been further away, in a practical sense, from following the necessary steps to achieving global zero.

Perhaps, however, this is only a temporary paradox. Let’s hope that the Trump administration proves to be the detour on the path to finally bidding farewell to nuclear arms.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, May 1, 2019

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Articles Featured Korea Security

North Korea: Nukes vs. War?

Nuclear weapons have held the world hostage for more than 70 years. Although they possess terrifying power and the world has come close to nuclear war on several occasions, these weapons have only been used twice, in 1945, by the United States against Japan.

Advocates of deterrence believe that nuclear weapons actually kept the peace during the Cold War. The United States and Soviet Union, according to this theory, did not attack each other directly because of the fear that one side or the other would launch an ICBM, the conflict would quickly escalate, and the world would go up in smoke.

Over the course of the nuclear era, there have been plenty of conventional wars. Those conflicts have left millions dead, injured many more, and created today’s unprecedented refugee crisis.

Nuclear weapons possess great potential evil. Conventional wars represent persistent, everyday evil.

The United States has expended a great deal of energy to prevent other countries from acquiring nuclear weapons. It hasn’t eliminated its own arsenal, nor has it of late vigorously pursued arms control agreements with Russia that would achieve global disarmament any time soon. Meanwhile, the United States has initiated or supported a disproportionate number of wars around the world, including ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

In general, the United States has prioritized nuclear non-proliferation over the prevention of war.

That helps to explain the muted U.S. reactions to the recent Pyongyang summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. But it doesn’t make those reactions any less frustrating.

As a result of the third inter-Korean summit, the two countries have agreed to a remarkable set of security measures. The two Koreas will cease military exercises along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), establish a no-fly zone above the MDL, and establish a maritime peace zone around the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea. Even more dramatically, they announced a plan to turn the most visible symbol of inter-Korean division and hostility – the border area at the 38th parallel – into a peace zone, beginning with the withdrawal of 11 guard posts from the DMZ, the demilitarization of the Joint Security Area, and the creation of a joint team to recover remains within the zone.

And what was the predominant U.S. reaction to these momentous changes? Even though Kim Jon Un did make several proposals to move forward on nuclear disarmament, U.S. politicians and pundits focused on what was missing, namely unilateral moves before the United States reciprocates. These skeptics somehow expect North Korea to provide an inventory of the country’s nuclear capabilities, relinquish its existing weapons, or shut down its plutonium and highly enriched uranium processing facilities simply to show good faith and in the hopes that Washington will remove economic sanctions. In other words, the U.S. skeptics are not interested in the give-and-take of negotiations. They want some sign that North Korea is bending to pressure.

For instance, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) tweeted: “”Surprise, surprise: North Korea wants concessions from the U.S. for steps far short of denuclearization. Glad the admin has made no commitments. Maximum pressure campaign should proceed.”

His Republican colleague in the Senate, Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tweeted much the same thing: “While North Korea has stopped testing missiles and nuclear devices, they have NOT moved toward denuclearization.”

“Talk is cheap,” said Bruce Bennett of Rand Corporation. “What Washington has been looking for is action.”

The Trump administration has praised the results of the recent inter-Korean summit. But here, too, U.S. officials have talked about the need to advance the denuclearization agenda.

Obviously, the U.S. preoccupation with nuclear non-proliferation has blinded the foreign policy elite to what is ultimately a more profound development. The two Koreas are not waiting for a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953. They’re not relying on a U.S. declaration that hostilities have ended. They are actively dismantling the very mechanisms of war on the Korean peninsula.

I don’t necessarily believe that nuclear deterrence kept the peace during the Cold War. First of all, the nuclear powers were exceptionally lucky not to have blown each other up. Second, there were plenty of hot wars during that period, including the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and several of these wars could have escalated to the use of nuclear weapons.

For these and other reasons, I think it’s important to push for nuclear disarmament. Nuclear weapons, even if they haven’t been used in more than 70 years, are extraordinarily dangerous.

But ultimately, the most important task is to prevent war – to prevent the circumstances that would give rise to the potential use of nuclear weapons. In this way, the two Koreas have gotten the order correct. They are focusing on dismantling war structures before the talks on nuclear weapons have really started.

This is a profound lesson for Americans. Instead of seeing the inter-Korean talks as a prelude to the “more important” discussions on nuclear weapons, the United States should see the denuclearization negotiations as supporting Korean efforts to end war on the peninsula.

As long as Washington’s preoccupation with nukes goes hand in hand with conflict reduction between the two Koreas, the non-proliferation agenda is part of the solution. But if denuclearization gets in the way of peace – if squabbling over the particulars of North Korea’s nuclear program disrupts the progress North and South have made on reducing tensions – then it’s part of the problem.

Hankyoreh, October 1, 2018

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Articles Featured Russia and Eastern Europe Security

The New New Cold War

When an epoch ends, as the Cold War did between 1989 and 1991, it takes some time to come up with a name for the new order. For some years, the world lived in a “post-Cold War” era. That phrase was supposed to capture the optimism of a new beginning as well as the uncertainty that accompanies any great transition.

“Post-Cold War” didn’t last long. The horrors of Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Somalia in the 1990s were a grim reminder that the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States wasn’t the only source of instability and violence in the world. Instead of disappearing, NATO not only discovered new missions for itself but began a seemingly inexorable march eastward during the Clinton years. New tensions emerged between Beijing and Washington.

By December 1994, The Economist was already using a new phrase to describe this brave new world: “post-post Cold War.”

Plenty of pundits came up with their own phrases to describe the post-1989 reality. There was the rise of the Pacific Rim, the EU-ification of the globe, the division of the world into three currency zones (yen, euro, dollar), and the descent into civilizational clashes. In the early 2000s, the BRICS emerged, along with a new vision of multipolarity. In the mid-2000s, Thomas Friedman pushed his thesis that the “world is flat.” By the end of the 2000s, Fareed Zakaria was talking about a post-American world, a “rise of the rest.”

Nothing has stuck, for the post-post Cold War reality has outpaced the attempts of pundits to define it.

And now, if you had the misfortune of falling into a coma just before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and only happened to wake up last year, you might actually think that you haven’t missed much at all.

Both Russia and NATO are conducting large-scale military exercises — “Zapad” vs. “Aurora” — across from each other along the Eastern European border. In his annual address to parliament last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin described a new generation of hypersonic nuclear missiles that would render U.S. anti-ballistic missile system as porous as cheesecloth (actually, given its technical difficulties, the system is already little more than a shamanic invocation).

In December, meanwhile, President Donald Trump authorized the largest commercial sale of weaponry to the Ukrainian government and then followed up this month with the provision of precisely the heavy equipment — Javelin anti-tank missiles — that Ukraine lamented were not part of the December package.

As of mid-February, a street outside the Russian embassy in Washington, DC has been re-named Boris Nemtsov Plaza, after one of Vladimir Putin’s assassinated opponents. This might remind old-timers of the decision back in 1985 to rename the segment of 16th Street outside the Soviet embassy Andrei Sakharov Plaza, after one of the prominent Soviet dissidents.

Thirty-three years, and only the names of the streets have changed.

Let’s be clear. This is not simply a “new Cold War.” That phrase emerged rather quickly in the 1990s, with no less a figure than George Kennan declaring the Senate vote in 1998 on NATO expansion “the beginning of a new cold war.”

No, this is, like the post-post Cold War, the “new new Cold War.” Perhaps, as I wrote back in 2014, the Cold War will eventually be viewed like the 100 Years War, an epic struggle across more than a century with the occasional lull that fools observers into believing that peace has come. But for the time being, let’s treat this recrudescence of conflict between Moscow and Washington as something different from that old ideological struggle between capitalism and communism or the narrower disagreements over European security architecture in the 1990s.

This new new Cold War — between a United States nostalgic for its glory days of the 1950s and a Russia equally nostalgic for the same period of time — is potentially very dangerous indeed.

Yes, much of the responsibility for this conflict lies with the more powerful party, the United States. As I pointed out in that same 2014 article, “If the United States had disbanded NATO, pushed for nuclear abolition, and helped to create a new security architecture for Europe that included Russia, the Cold War would have died a natural death. Instead, because the institutions of the Cold War lived on, the spirit of the enterprise lay dormant, only waiting for the opportunity to spring forth.”

But let’s dispense with two equally ridiculous notions. This uptick in tensions does not in any way “prove” that the Russiagate allegations are fallacious. And not all critiques of Russian actions — from the wars on its periphery to its actions in the far abroad — should be read as somehow a covert desire to see a return of the Cold War.

Defusing this new new Cold War will require a much more clear-eyed view of Vladimir Putin and the future trajectory of Russia.

First the Stakes

Today’s Russia isn’t the major military force that the Soviet Union once was. Sure, it comes in as the third largest spender in the world, but that’s actually not as impressive as it sounds. In 2016, the United States was responsible for 36 percent of total global military spending. China was number two at 13 percent. And Russia managed a mere 4.1 percent, just a nose ahead of Saudi Arabia.

Of course, $70 billion in annual spending still translates into a lot of firepower. And until recently, Russia had actually been behind Saudi Arabia in fourth place. In 2016, it boosted its share of military spending as part of the overall budget to over 5 percent, its highest since 1991. Meanwhile, the Kremlin presides over one of the two largest nuclear arsenals in the world.

Vladimir Putin has not only embarked on a serious modernization of the Russian military — begun in 2011 at an estimated price tag of $670 billion and including $28 billion by 2020 to upgrade the nuclear triad — but considers military force to be a key element of statecraft. The seizure of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine illustrate the relative importance of diplomacy and military in Putin’s thinking, while military force has positioned Russia as a player in the Syria conflict where it can now assert its vaunted diplomatic role.

Although it has plenty of conventional and nuclear firepower, Russia has also developed its “asymmetrical” capabilities — cyberwarfare, disinformation campaigns, and the maskirovka(deception) operations that attempt to conceal Russian involvement (as with the “little green men” in Ukraine). Russia cannot hope to achieve “full-spectrum dominance” worldwide. But it can certainly control its “near abroad” and play a spoiler role elsewhere.

Under Donald Trump, meanwhile, the United States is starting from a much more well endowed base and surging from there. Trump wants to up the Pentagon budget to $700 billion in 2018 and $716 for 2019. As analyst William Hartung points out, that’s an additional $165 billion for two years — which is more than what the Russians will spend overall during the next two years. “It brings total spending on the Pentagon and related programs for nuclear weapons to levels higher than those reached during the Korean and Vietnam wars in the 1950s and 1960s,” he writes, “or even at the height of Ronald Reagan’s vaunted military buildup of the 1980s.”

At one point, Trump called for a massive increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. With the latest version of the U.S. nuclear strategy released in February, he has settled for something a little different — and even more dangerous: more usable nukes.

The Obama administration, for all the contradictions of its nuclear policy, at least took steps to reduce the usability of nuclear weapons. Not so the Trump administration. It wants more “low-yield” nuclear weapons in order to incorporate them into actual war planning — as in “limited nuclear attacks.” This is supposedly in response to Russia’s similarly lowered threshold for the use of nuclear weapons — Moscow’s purported “escalate to de-escalate” strategy — but that in fact is a misreading of Russian nuclear doctrine.

The National Security Strategy, released in December and showing the imprint of National Security Advisor HR McMaster, reserves some choice words for Russia. The NSS groups Russia with China as the twin hegemonic threats to U.S. global power. It asserts that:

Russia is investing in new military capabilities, including nuclear systems that remain the most significant existential threat to the United State, and in destabilizing cyber capabilities. ­Through modernized forms of subversive tactics, Russia interferes in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world. The combination of Russian ambition and growing military capabilities creates an unstable frontier in Eurasia, where the risk of conflict due to Russian miscalculation is growing.

Them’s fighting words!

Finally, the Trump administration has not relinquished the overall U.S. foreign policy of fighting anywhere and everywhere in the world. It promises to scale back on programs that particularly irked the Kremlin — such as democracy promotion through the auspices of the National Endowment for Democracy and its attendant institutions — but otherwise it has upped U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan and Syria. And it seems to be angling to expand the conflict with Iran, a key Russian ally.

So: new capabilities, new strategies, new fears, new rhetoric. The bromance between Trump and Putin has obviously not yielded an improvement in U.S.-Russian relations.

But please: This has little to do with Russiagate.

Russiagate and the Cold War

Russia tried to influence the U.S. elections. But it remains unclear how effective it was and how closely it worked with the Trump campaign. I’ve written about why I think this somethingburger comes with all the fixings.

But let’s put that controversy to one side for the moment to focus on a different kind of assertion: that Trump’s current stance toward Russia somehow “proves” that there was no coordination between the two at some point during the campaign or between the election and inauguration.

Let’s hear from “rogue journalist” Caitlin Johnstone, who has cultivated a following on Medium with her anti-Russiagate rants:

You need to plug yourself into Louise Mensch and Rachel Maddow ramblings so extensively that you can contort your sense of reason to the point where it looks perfectly rational to believe that Putin was omniscient enough to know that Trump could defeat all primary opponents and take the fight to the heir apparent Hillary Clinton back when virtually no one else imagined such a thing was possible, recruited his team reportedly at the cost of billions of dollars, poured all kinds of intel and resources into ensuring Trump’s election using hackers and bots to influence American opinion, only to get a U.S. president who is, when it comes to facts in evidence, already just a year into his administration demonstrably more hawkish towards Russia than his predecessor was.

It takes a certain chutzpah to complain about other people’s “ramblings” with a sentence as serpentine as that one. But let’s ignore the stylistic excesses and focus instead on the twisted logic.

Putin’s omniscience is not at issue. The Kremlin has backed all sorts of long shots without any guarantee that they will pay off in the short term or even over the long run. Putin knew what he didn’t like: a U.S. foreign policy consensus that generally backed NATO expansion, democracy promotion, and U.S. military interventionism. Trump seemed to offer something different. Plus, supporting Trumpism helped drive various wedges into the U.S. political system.

Has Trump proven to be more hawkish than Obama?

Well, yes, he has authorized the arms sales to Ukraine and has promised a new round of sanctions against Russian cyber entities. He has proven to be a disappointment to Moscow in his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and his support for a surge in Afghanistan.

But in other respects, Trump has been more accommodating of Russia in Syria, has not raised issues of human rights with Putin, and has consistently taken Putin’s word on the various Russiagate issues. Other foreign policy positions that Trump has taken probably warm Putin’s heart as well, such as his scrambling of transatlantic relations, his withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership, and his broadsides against immigration. So, it’s a mixed bag.

But the real problem is the projection backward of a result that was indeed very hard to predict. Trump has been the very definition of unpredictability — as a businessman, as an “entertainer,” as a husband, and yes, as a political figure. The fact that Trump has taken certain hardline positions against Russia can’t be taken, ex post facto, as proof somehow that Putin wouldn’t have bothered to put the energy or resources into supporting Trump because he must have anticipated that outcome. If Putin lacked the omniscience to know that Trump would get elected, he obviously couldn’t predict what the president would do in office either.

I imagine — and I’m just guessing here — that Putin feels that:

  • He got pretty good bang — a lot of American political chaos and a reduction of the U.S. global hegemonic footprint — for not a lot of bucks.
  • S.-Russian relations still suck, but given the power of the Blob in Washington, any real improvement from the Obama years would have been the real long shot.
  • At least Trump is proving to be useful from a domestic point of view. Putin can use the American military build-up to justify his own continued modernization and burnish his own credentials as the strongman that Russia desperately needs in these perilous times.

And you thought that only the American military-industrial complex ran on foreign threats?

From Critique to Cooperation

There might be a few critics of Russia who would be happy to throw another bag of ice onto the new new Cold War between the world’s two largest nuclear powers. Former UN ambassador John Bolton comes to mind, or perhaps the ever-lunatic former Pentagon official Frank Gaffney.

But the notion that covering Russiagate or critiquing Russian policies represents a desire to disrupt U.S.-Russian relations even further is far-fetched. Media critic Norman Solomon makes an even more logic-defying leap in an AlterNet piece from January: “Narratives scapegoating Russia now have an extremely powerful grip on the USA. The consequences include heightened U.S.-Russia tensions that absolutely mean heightened risks of nuclear war and worsening threats to democratic discourse at home.”

Nonsense. U.S.-Russian tensions existed prior to the 2016 election and have far more to do with NATO expansion, Russian moves in Ukraine, disagreements over Syria, and Putin’s own efforts to dispatch his domestic critics. An investigation into Russian activities in the U.S. presidential campaign, which has already yielded any number of revelations (though you can dispute the impact of those activities), is an entirely legitimate exercise in a democracy.

To connect these critiques of Russian behavior to an increased risk of nuclear war and threats to democracy at home is an extraordinary overstatement. It’s the actions of the two leaders that are contributing to the increased risk of nuclear war. And can you cite any examples of how Russiagate investigations have threatened democratic discourse in the United States? Okay, Glenn Greenwald no longer appears on the Rachel Maddow show. But he seems to have taken this “McCarthyism” in stride by appearing before larger audiences on Fox.

There’s no dispute, however, that U.S.-Russian relations are at a nadir. So, the question must be: what to do?

First, as during the original Cold War, let’s come up with some ground rules. Back then, you could support arms control and disarmament activities and still criticize the Soviet Union for its human rights record, its foreign policy, and the lousy chocolate it produced. It pains me that this kind walk-and-chew-gum distinction must again be made with respect to Russia, but so be it.

Next, during the Cold War, activists in the east and the west teamed up in support of peace and human rights on both sides of the divide. It’s essential that peace activists pursue something similar today. Neither East nor West, neither Trump nor Putin!

Third, let’s focus on making Eastern Europe — the broader swath that includes the eastern members of the European Union as well as Ukraine and Belarus — a zone of peace. Let’s start with the easy part, places like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, which are EU members but maintain good relations with the Kremlin.

I’m no fan of the leaders of those countries, but let’s leverage their influence. These countries would lose the most from any escalation in tensions between Washington and Moscow. They must take the lead in creating a new kind of security forum for addressing the tensions of the new new Cold War. Bulgaria and Serbia would certainly join. Poland and Romania would be tougher sells.

Once that’s in place, let’s move on to Ukraine and come up with a solution that can satisfy both Kiev and Moscow. It might mean bidding Crimea goodbye — a move I’ve compared to cutting off your arm to get out of an impossible situation — but that would be a small sacrifice for the territorial integrity of the rest of Ukraine plus peace and security for the region.

Is this something that Putin and Trump can pull off? I have my doubts. But these guys won’t be in power forever. The Cold War has been around, in various permutations, for a long time. It will take patience, organizing, compromises, and some luck to bury it once and for all.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, March 8, 2018

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Articles Featured Security

The Fall of the House of ISIS

The Middle East today is enduring a replay of World War II — with the Islamic State in the role of Nazi Germany.

Having seized much of Europe and parts of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany reached the peak of its expansion by the fall of 1942. Then, stopped at Stalingrad and unable to overwhelm Britain, the Nazis began to fall back, and the war turned into a race between the Soviet troops marching from the east and the Allied soldiers surging from the west. After the war, as a result of the competition between these two sets of armed forces, Europe would remain divided for the next half century.

The Islamic State likewise reached its peak expansion in mid-2014 when it controlled large chunks of Iraq and Syria. It has experienced a rise and fall even more precipitous than the Nazis’. By mid-2016, a mere two years later, it had already lost 45 percent of its territory in Syria and 20 percent of its territory in Iraq.

Today, with the fall of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, the Islamic State has dwindled to a swath of land around the border of the two countries. Once a “state” of 11 million people with an economy worth about $1 billion a year — the size of Great Britain, the population of Greece, the economic output of Gambia — ISIS is now little more than the several thousand fighters desperately fending off attacks from all sides. From the west, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad is attempting to retake as much of Syria as it can. From the east, Iraqi forces and Kurdish peshmerga operating under the cover of U.S. air support have been steadily ejecting the would-be caliphate from Iraqi territory.

In both Iraq and Syria, significant divisions exist among the anti-ISIS fighters. Indeed, the lands encompassing Iraq and Syria would be lucky to experience the frozen hatreds of a Cold War in the wake of the fall of the house of ISIS. The shrinking of the caliphate will more likely lead to a new level of fighting — over the future structure of both Iraq and Syria and, more ominously, the dispensation of the region as a whole.

In Syria

It not only feels like 1945 in Syria, it looks that way as well. After months of saturation bombing, the cities that ISIS once controlled look like Germany after it had been reduced to rubble in the final months of World War II, as the Allies and the Soviets tightened their vise grip on the Nazis.

Thanks to the help of both Russia and Iran and to its ruthless aerial campaign, the Syrian government has managed to regain 60 percent of the country. Syrian forces have continuously bombed civilian targets, such as hospitals. Of the 1,373 attacks on civilian infrastructure in 2016, for instance, Syrian and Russian forces were responsible for 1,198. Last month, September, registered the largest number of casualties for 2017, with nearly 1,000 civilians killed, including over 200 children, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Assad regime has specialized in the comparatively low-tech barrel bombs, which maximize civilian casualties, dropping nearly 13,000 of them in 2016.

The U.S.-led coalition, meanwhile, has been equally brutal in its effort to dislodge the Islamic State from its capital of Raqqa. The city now looks like Dresden after the firebombing of World War II, as the Russian government has rightly pointed out. According to Syrian activists, over 1,000 civilians died in the bombing.

The third leg of brutality in Syria is Sunni extremism. True, ISIS is on the decline. But other militant forces aspire to kick Assad aside, keep the Kurds down, and beat back the Americans, Russians, and Iranians. After several name changes, the latest collection of al-Qaeda-like factions in Syria — which may or may not maintain a link to al-Qaeda itself — is the Levant Liberation Committee (Tahrir al-Sham or HTS). With its ISIS rival shrinking daily, HTS could emerge as the insurgency of choice for those who hate Assad as well as anything associated with the Americans.

Large tracts of ISIS territory in Syria were thinly populated desert, but the caliphate possessed some jewels in their crown. This weekend, on the heels of the liberation of Raqqa, U.S.-backed militias took over the Islamic State’s largest oil field. Syrian government forces were reportedly within a few miles of the strategic asset, but were pushed back by ISIS fighters. The Syrian Democratic Forces that took over the Omar oil field are led by Kurds, but some of the soldiers are also Arab. Although the SDF as a whole is putatively fighting for a secular democratic Syria, the Kurds are more pragmatically trying to gain leverage to safeguard their gains in the north where they have established the de facto autonomous region of Rojava.

Hatred of ISIS has been the lowest common denominator for a broad range of actors in Syria, from American neocons and Syrian generals to Kurdish militias and al-Qaeda sympathizers to Kremlin geopoliticians and Hezbollah. ISIS has been a knife stuck deep into Syria. There’s no argument that the knife is life threatening. But remove it, and Syria risks bleeding out.

In Iraq

On his recent swing through the Persian Gulf, where he failed to get Qatar and Saudi Arabia to kiss and make up, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also made some especially ill-conceived comments about Iraq.

“Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home,” he said.

There aren’t any Iranian militias in Iraq. The Popular Mobilization Forces that have played a major role in pushing the Islamic State out of Iraq are largely Shiite, but they also contain Sunnis and Christians. Many of the brigades in this coalition force have links to Iran, but at least one major unit so far has been incorporated into the Iraqi army. In other words, the so-called “Iranian militias” are already home. They’re Iraqis, after all.

Tillerson also said, “Any foreign fighters in Iraq need to go home, and allow the Iraqi people to rebuild their lives with the help of their neighbors.” Was Tillerson announcing that all U.S. soldiers currently in Iraq — 5,262 according to the Pentagon, but possibly as high as 7,000 — are about to go home? If so, everyone in the media and the U.S. government seems to have missed this second “mission accomplished” announcement.

Thanks largely to the United States and its earlier decision to invade and occupy the country, Iraq faces the same kind of fragmentation problem as Syria. Iraqis have divided loyalties. Now that the acute threat of ISIS has passed, the fissures in Iraqi society are once again widening.

Consider the ongoing conflict between Kurdistan and the central government in Baghdad. The residents of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq went to the polls last month and overwhelmingly endorsed independence. The central government immediately went on the offensive, putting economic pressure on the wayward province and sending army units to seize the disputed oil-rich region around the city of Kirkuk. With ISIS on the decline, anti-Kurdish sentiment can unite the rest of Iraq. As Juan Cole points out, the Kurdish move brought out Iraqi nationalism even in the Shiite militias that helped the Iraqi army retake Kirkuk.

In retrospect, Kurdistan President Mahmoud Barzani’s bid to use the independence referendum to boost his own political fortunes was, according to veteran Kurdish politician Mahmoud Osman, a “miscalculation.” It may revive Iraqi nationalism and thwart Kurdish aspirations. Or it could trigger more centrifugal forces. With ISIS on its way out and the U.S. military presence relatively modest, Iraqis may well turn back to their post-invasion preoccupation of fighting each other to the point of the country’s dissolution.

After ISIS

The war against ISIS is like a matryoshka “nesting doll” from hell. The campaign against the caliphate is inset in the larger Syrian civil war and the Iraqi federal conflict. These are in turn nested within a larger confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And this regional tug-of-war is itself part of an even larger competition for influence between the United States and Russia.

Now, imagine giving this matryoshka doll to a six-year-old child prone to tantrums. Enter Donald Trump. He has done just about everything he can to make a bad situation worse short of destroying the doll with nuclear weapons. He has antagonized the Iranians at every turn, encouraged the worst tendencies of the Saudis, done little to keep Iraq together, made no effort to push the warring sides in Syria back to the negotiating table, and pursued a woefully inconsistent policy toward Russia.

Yes, the looming defeat of ISIS is to be cheered, but the costs have been huge. There’s the enormous loss of civilian life and the destruction of ancient cities. There’s the uptick in ISIS attacks abroad. Iraq remains fragile, though the Kurds have offered to freeze their independence vote. Syria is no closer to an end to its civil war, though more rounds of peace talks are set to begin shortly. Human rights violations by the Assad government continue, though the first trialshave taken place in Europe to hold those responsible for those violations.

Most importantly, no one is tackling the nested conflicts in the region. The first step is to take the matryoshka doll out of Donald Trump’s hands. Give him something else to play with, perhaps another tour of his favorite campaign stops in the United States. Then let some real adults — the UN, the EU, Jimmy Carter? — grapple with the post-ISIS realities of the Middle East.

 Foreign Policy In Focus, October 25, 2017
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A Fairy Tale from 2050

Once upon a time, long, long ago, I testified before the great assembly of our land.

When I describe this event to children today, it really does sound to them like a fairy tale. Once upon a time — a time before the world splintered into a million pieces and America became its current disunited states — this old woman was a young idealist who tried to persuade our mighty Congress that a monster was stalking the land.

“Did they listen to you, Auntie Rachel?” they typically ask me.

“Oh, they listened to me, but they didn’t hear me.”

“So, what did you do?”

“I thought and I thought, and I wrote and I wrote, and I put together an even better presentation,” I say patiently. “I had to somehow make that monster visible so those mighty people could see it.”

“What did it look like, Auntie Rachel?”

“It was invisible, my dear children, but we could feel its hot breath. And we could see the terrible things that it did. It could make the oceans rise. It could make the crops wilt in the fields. Still, we kept feeding this terrible beast.”

“But why?”

“It’s what the monster demanded. Some monsters want to devour little children. Others insist on young maidens. But this one insisted on tankers of oil and truckloads of coal. Even as it grew, it only demanded more and more.”

At this point, the children are always wide-eyed. “What did you do then?”

“I talked to those great people again. And this time I tried even harder to describe the monster.” As I slip into the past, the faces of the children become those of long-dead politicians. “I provided more detailed graphs of rising temperatures. I cited statistics on the impact of burning coal and oil and natural gas. I displayed photos of what the melting ice and the surging waters had already done. And then I showed them pictures of what the future would look like: submerged cities, drought-stricken lands, dead seas. They looked and still they didn’t see. They listened and still they didn’t hear. Great people,” I conclude, “are not always good people.”

“What did you do then?” they always ask.

“I stopped talking, my darlings. I came here to escape the monster. I came to Arcadia.”

They look disappointed. The children know their fairy tales. They expect someone — perhaps a knight in shining armor — to appear suddenly and slay the monster.

“There was no knight,” I lament. “And the monster still lives. We can feel its hot breath even now.”

Of course, my young charges don’t really understand my story. Today, in 2050, there is no Congress. There are no committee hearings. There are no intergovernmental panels or global gatherings. I might as well be telling them about Roman banquets or medieval jousts. And yet my little students always clamor for more stories of the vanished world of Washington, D.C., 2017, just as they would beg for yet another of Aesop’s fables. But they don’t quite see how these tales of long ago connect to their lives today.

After all, they live in a post-political world.

The Death of Politics

Before the global thermometer went haywire, before the great economic panics of the early 2020s, before the battles escalated between vigilantes and jihadis, before the international community cracked like a mirror smashed by a fist, there was that initial death, which was barely noticed at the time.

As the historians — those left to tell the tale — will inform you, there were no funerals for the death of politics, nor were there obituaries. And even if there had been, few would have shed any tears. The confidence the American public had in Congress back in those days was lower than in any other institution — a mere 9% had such confidence, compared to 18% for big business and 73% for the military.

Politics in the muggy swamp of Washington, where I lived in those antediluvian years, had become a tug of war between two hated teams. Sometimes, one side won and dragged the other through the muck. Then the situation would be reversed. No matter: at the end of the day, everyone was left covered in mud.

Yes, things might have turned out differently. Radical reforms might have been enacted, a new generation of politicians cultivated. But at the moment of greatest peril — to the republic and the world at large — Americans turned their backs on politics, electing the most anti-political candidate in the history of the country. The founding fathers had done everything they could to ensure that the system would not produce such a result, but there was no way they could have anticipated Donald Trump or the circumstances that put him in power.

When the initial Europeans arrived in North America more than half a millennium ago, they brought weapons far more powerful than the stone axes and wooden clubs wielded by the First Nations. But it wasn’t just the guns that proved so devastating. The Europeans carried within them something far more lethal: invisible diseases like smallpox and the flu. Those viruses cut through the Native Americans like so many scythes, killing nine out of every ten of the original inhabitants of this continent.

Many centuries later, Donald Trump arrived in Washington armed with the explicit weapons of extremist rhetoric and sociopathic sangfroid with which he had destroyed his political opponents. But it was what he carried hidden within him that would ultimately turn out to be so catastrophic. Although he had railed against the political establishment in the election campaign that put him in the Oval Office, in his own way he had also played by the political rules to get there. Deep down, however, his greatest urge was to destroy politics altogether: tweet by tweet, outrage by outrage.

And his attack on politics would finish off the world as we knew it in Washington circa 2017. In the end, it would render congressional testimony and Congress itself irrelevant. Even today, more than 30 years later, the bodies are still piling up.

The Judgment of Paris

I teach science to the young children here in Arcadia. It’s not difficult to explain the basic scientific concepts that so changed our world, and we have a well-equipped lab for them to run experiments. So they understand the science of climate change. What bewilders them is how the crisis came about.

“Why didn’t our grandparents run the factories every other day?” a bright young girl once asked me. “Why didn’t they drive those stupid cars just on the weekend?”

Our children know little but Arcadia, and this community is fully sustainable. We produce everything we need here in this corner of what was once the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. What we don’t grow, we synthesize or create on our 3-D printers. We conduct limited trade with the few neighboring communities. If there is an unexpected death, we issue another birth permit. If our solar batteries run low during the winter, we ration energy. Everything is recycled, from our chicken bones to our night soil. The children of Arcadia don’t understand waste.

They also don’t understand the now-strange concept of an international community. They’ve never ventured beyond the walls of our little universe.  It’s only thanks to virtual tourism that they’ve seen the world outside, which just reinforces their desire to remain here. After all, the world out there is just a collection of sharp little shards, what my ex-husband used to call the “splinterlands” of this planet. My students can’t comprehend how those shards, most of them exceedingly dangerous micro-environments, once fit together to form larger nations that in turn sometimes cooperated to solve common problems. It’s like that old story of the elephant and the six blind men. The children of Arcadia can understand the parts, but unsurprising enough, given the events of the last three decades, the whole eludes them.

Think of that long-gone international community, I tell them, as a squalling infant born in 1945 to bickering parents. A troubled childhood was followed by an awkward youth. Only in middle age, with the end of the Cold War in 1989, did it finally seem to come into its own, however briefly.  Unfortunately, within a few short years, it was prematurely in its dotage. In 2017, at 72, the international community was past retirement age, in frail health, and in desperate need of assisted care.

Once upon a time, this aged collective creature, this Knight of the Sad Countenance, was supposed to be our savior, the slayer of the horrible monster. When the time came, however, it could barely lift a lance.

Without some knowledge of the life cycle of the international community, my children can’t possibly understand why global temperatures continued to rise in the first part of this century, despite the best efforts of scientists, environmentalists, and concerned citizens. Several countries, Uruguay and Bhutan among them, had gone to extraordinary lengths to reduce their carbon footprint, and more than a dozen cities eventually became carbon neutral. Individuals adopted vegetarianism, drove electric cars, turned down their thermostats in the winter — as if lifestyle changes alone could slay the monster.

Unfortunately, a global problem really did require a global response. The Paris climate accord, which 196 countries signed at the end of 2015, was just such an effort. Only two countries refused to sign, one (Syria) because it was mired in a civil war and the other (Nicaragua) due to sheer cussedness. And yet the terms of the agreement were far from adequate. The international community, which had come together in this twilight of cooperation, well understood the enormity of the challenge: to keep global temperatures from rising two degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial average. At best, however, the Paris treaty would have kept temperatures from rising three degrees.  And as everyone now knows, the best was hardly what happened.

In this way did that community abandon the very idea of sustainability and embrace its lesser cousin, resilience. I try to explain to my children that sustainability is all about harmony — maintaining balance, never taking more than what we give back. Resilience, on the other hand, is about making the adaptations required by a crisis, about simply getting by. The judgment of Paris, with its nod toward resilience, was, in fact, an acknowledgment of failure.

Although flawed, it was at least part of a process. That’s what democratic politics is all about, I tell my charges. You have to begin somewhere and hope to improve from there. After all, there’s always the possibility that one day you might even graduate from resilience to sustainability.

But, of course, there’s also the option of going backward, which is exactly what happened, big league — to use an expression of the new American president — in 2017.

The Trump Revolution

It’s an unfortunate fact of our world that destruction is so much easier than construction. Anyone can wield a sledgehammer; few can use a trowel. An inadvertent sneeze can take down the most elaborately built house of cards.

Donald Trump was more than just a sneeze. His devotion to the destruction of the “administrative state” was impressive. At the time, we were all so focused on the domestic side of that destruction — the toppling of the pillars of the welfare state, the repeal of universal health care, the rollback of legal protections and voting rights of all sorts — that we failed to pay proper attention to just how devastatingly that destruction spread internationally.

Yes, the new president cancelled pending trade deals, thumbed his nose at traditional allies, and questioned the utility of agreements like the one that mothballed Iran’s nuclear program. But those were largely bilateral attacks. Much more dangerous were his fierce sallies against the international administrative state.

The most important of these, of course, was his decision to withdraw from the Paris accord. Admittedly, it was a weak, voluntary agreement. Yet even that was too much for Donald Trump. The president declared that the agreement would disadvantage Americans and force workers and taxpayers “to absorb the cost” of reducing greenhouse gas admissions through “lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production.” It didn’t matter that none of that was true.  Renewable energy programs were creating more well-paying jobs in the United States than the dirty energy industries were trying to maintain.  In his surge of destruction, however, President Trump never felt the need to justify his actions with recourse to actual facts.

The United States, moreover, was both the richest country in the world and historically the largest producer of carbon emissions. As we tell our students here in Arcadia, if you’re most responsible for the mess, you should be most responsible for the clean-up.  It’s a simple concept for children to absorb. Yet it was beyond the ken of most Americans.

Worse than being merely indifferent, the new president was determined to hasten global warming, single-handedly if necessary, by expanding offshore drilling; green-lighting more gas and oil pipelinesreducing restrictions of every imaginable sort on the dirty energy industry; cutting support for the development of alternative energies; encouraging the production of, and reduced emissions standards for, gas-guzzling vehicles; and slashing the budget for the enforcement of environmental standards of every imaginable sort. Trump, in other words, wasn’t just willing to let the buried treasure of fossil fuels well enough alone.  He was eager to feed the monster even more than it demanded.

If we had been living in a normal time, it might have been possible to fight back effectively in political terms against this onslaught. But just as Trump’s carbon-based vision of America and the world was exploding upon us, politics was taken into a backroom and strangled.

The Politics of Antipolitics

I remember the birth of antipolitics. I was a young woman when dissidents in the communist world began to associate official political activity with support for an immoral order. Voting, they believed, was an empty gesture if the ruling party won 99% of the ballots cast. Parliaments were empty vessels if the Party leader and the Politburo always ended up making all the decisions. When politics are compromised in this way, all but the opportunists retreat into antipolitics.

Communism died in 1989, and politics was reborn in those lands of antipolitics — but all too briefly. Within a decade, the new converts to democracy began reverting to their earlier mistrust of anything political and conventional politicians became the enemy.  Collaboration and compromise were once again anathema.

And then this very dissatisfaction with politics as we knew it began spreading beyond the post-communist world. Voters elsewhere became dazzled by the most illiberal of politicians, a crew who were naturals for one-party or one-leader states. Donald Trump was just part of this new fraternity of nationalist populists that included Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and Viktor Orban of Hungary.  All of them quickly began concentrating power in their own hands in an attempt to rule by decree (or, in Trump’s case, by executive order). In the process, they used antipolitics strategically to defeat any potential challenges at the domestic and transnational level.

It was odd that, in so many countries, voters seemingly couldn’t wait to disenfranchise themselves through this new antipolitics. To a man, these autocrats came to power not through coups but through elections. Odder still was the fact that, in those years, it was increasingly young people who no longer considered it important to live in a democracy. When only the old believe in such a system, then it, too, is but one step from the grave.

Perhaps the culprit was economic. The major parties in these countries had almost uniformly supported policies that widened the gap between rich and poor, robbing young people of jobs and any hope for a future. No surprise, then, that they lost faith in the secular religion of democracy.

Or perhaps technology killed politics. The computer and the cell phone combined to reduce the attention span required for sustained involvement in public affairs. The micro-communities created by social media obviated the need to interact with those who didn’t share one’s own micro-concerns. And of course everyone began to insist on immediate results at a single keystroke, which, at the political level, translated into an increased preference for decrees.

For a brief moment, the Trump “shock” provoked a counter-reaction. In the United States, there were huge protest marches, while unsympathetic government bureaucrats dug in their heels — but this only strengthened the populist narrative of an irresponsible liberal elite and a hostile “deep state.” In this brief moment of seeming reversal, Trump’s allies in Europe even lost a few elections, but the victors in those contests continued policies that disadvantaged the majority economically and politically and in the next round or the one after the predictable happened.

As those of a certain age remember, Trump himself eventually fell from power, undone in the end by his own self-defeating vengefulness.  At that moment, his critics exulted in their schadenfreude, only to find that he was replaced all too soon by someone who shared his destructive anti-politics without his noxious personal traits.

Trump stunned the international community. His successors gutted it.  And as everyone in Earth’s splinterlands now knows, the monster continued to be fed, while the thermometers, floods, droughts, wild fires, sea levels, tides of refugees, and all the rest continued their inexorable rise.

Childhood’s End

Fairy tales should have happy endings. I assure our children that they are safe inside Arcadia. They can see for themselves how successfully we raise our crops. They are far enough from the ocean’s tidal waves not to fear the waters. They participate in the democratic political life of our community. The occasional breakdown notwithstanding, Arcadia is a small island of hope in a sea of despair.

The temperatures continue their climb. Outside, the scramble for resources becomes bloodier by the year. Many of the communities that once dotted the landscape around us are nothing but a memory. The walls surrounding Arcadia may be next to impregnable and our armory remarkably well stocked, but the question remains: Can we survive without our founding members, who are just now beginning to die off?

We raise and educate our children under the threat of the same monster grown larger yet. As they get older, some of the young accuse my generation and me of failing to slay that creature and, unfortunately, they couldn’t be more right. I believe that we, at least here in Arcadia, did do our best, but sadly it wasn’t good enough.

Soon, it will be our children’s turn. They will tend the crops and maintain the armory. They will continue the search for a scientific solution to climate change in the absence of a political one and an international community to enforce it. And they will be the ones who must make sure that the monster, however much it huffs and puffs and threatens our very livelihood, does not in the end blow our house down, too.

TomDispatch, July 18, 2017

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New Trump, Old Bottles

It didn’t take long for Donald Trump to discover that U.S. foreign policy is about as easy to turn around as a warship in dry dock. Despite any number of promises to shake things up — during the election and even in his first days as president — Trump is falling back on some very conventional approaches to the world.

In the last week, for instance, Trump suddenly discovered that firing a few missiles at a much-hated target — in this case, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces — can gain him plaudits from across the political spectrum. Earlier, he said he’d focus American firepower on the Islamic State, not Assad. He was cautious about intervening in the Syrian civil war.

Now the greenhorn president is heading down a well-worn path: see a problem, fire a missile at it.

In so doing, Trump has scotched whatever remaining hopes his administration might have had about negotiating some quick deals with Moscow. The relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin had already been heading south — as I detailed a couple weeks back in Shortest Reset Ever — but now Trump has bloodied one of Russia’s most important allies. Bye bye, bromance.

Also this week, after bashing China left and right during his campaign, Trump met with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and discovered that, hey, maybe the two countries can get along after all. Virtually every president in recent memory has gone through a similar transformation. There are no political costs in criticizing Beijing during an election campaign. But presidents soon discover the considerable costs of not doing business with China once they occupy the Oval Office.

So much for Trump’s promise to proclaim China a currency manipulator extraordinaire.

Meanwhile, some of the more ideological voices in the administration appear to be heading to the sidelines. Strategic adviser Steve Bannon, reportedly as a result of his clashes with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, has lost his seat at the National Security Council and, it seems, even the trust of the president. K.T. McFarland, once the number two under the disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, is also out, and probably on her way to Singapore. The generals and the Wall Street execs seem now to have the upper hand.

But Bannon hasn’t given up, and the war at the top is far from over. Bannon loves a good fight, and he’s the master of fighting dirty.

The remaking of Donald Trump into a more conventional — and thus, predictable — president is good news in some quarters. No doubt the foreign policy establishment in Washington, which former president Barack Obama and his advisers called The Blob, is rejoicing that the new president can be weaned off his more fanatical delusions (and pumped full of The Blob’s own fanatical delusions).

But the New Donald Trump, just like the much-hyped New Coke so many years ago, is just as bad for our collective health as the old version. Don’t be fooled by the ongoing Trump rebrand. The president is just finding new ways to be toxic.

Striking Syria

Bombardiers have a tradition of writing slogans on the bombs they drop on their enemies. Donald Trump might as well have scrawled “I’m Not Obama” on the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles U.S. forces directed at a Syrian airbase on Friday. The bombardment came in response to a chemical attack the Assad government allegedly launched a few days earlier against a town in rebel-held Idlib province that left 69 people dead.

Trump’s desire for big wins has previously kept him out of the Syrian conflict and focused instead on the Islamic State, which has been losing its grip over territory in recent months.

But Trump also wants to demonstrate that he’s bigger and better than Barack Obama: He’s more popular, attracted more people to his inauguration, proposed a better health-care plan, has bigger hands, and so on. Obama failed to attack Syria after a high-profile chemical attack in 2013. Here was an opportunity for Trump to show his resolve. After sustaining non-stop attacks against his character, his policies, and his advisers over the last several months, Trump has finally hit back with the tools that, unfortunately, are now at his disposal.

Yet it was not much of a show of force. The airbase was not damaged enough to prevent the Syrian government from restoring it to full operational status within a couple days. And Syrian forces subsequently re-bombed the very same town that had suffered the chemical attack. The Trump administration has not followed up with any other demonstrations of power, nor does it seem likely to do so.

The problem isn’t so much geopolitical, though the United States risks an outright confrontation with Russia if it escalates. Rather, the problem for Trump is domestic.

Standard-issue hawks, like John McCain (R-AZ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), are urging Trump to go the next step toward regime change. So are the neocons, as Jim Lobe points out:

The neocons, who have rarely met a slippery military slope they weren’t tempted to roll down, embraced wholeheartedly both the strike and its justification. They view it as a first — but absolutely necessary — step toward a new phase of U.S. interventionism of precisely the kind that Bannon and his “nationalist” and Islamophobic allies abhor. 

The nationalists and the libertarians have indeed reacted in horror. Richard Spencer, the darling of the far-right, not only condemned the attack but even suggested that he would support Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) in 2020 (presumably because she’s sat down with both Assad and Trump, a tyrannical twofer). Ron Paul wrote that Trump’s assertion that the missile attack was vital to U.S. national interests was “nonsense.”

Good luck trying to preserve such a fickle coalition. To do so, Trump will probably refocus his military attention, as Rex Tillerson has suggested, on the Islamic State. The limited missile strike accomplished its goal, which wasn’t to cripple Syrian forces in any serious way. Rather, the attack put distance between Trump and Obama, reminded both Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un that Trump is trigger-happy when necessary, regained some credit with European allies (France, Germany, and the president of the European Council all pledged their support), and did the minimum of damage to warn the Russians not to take Trump for granted.

In this way, Trump is proving just as reluctant to engage in large-scale military adventures as his predecessor. Before you rejoice that the wolf has revealed his inner fleece, however, remember that the Trump administration has been in some ways more willing to use military force than the Obama administration. As Micah Zenko wrote at the CFR blog earlier this month:

During President Obama’s two terms in office, he approved 542 such targeted strikes in 2,920 days — one every 5.4 days. From his inauguration through today, President Trump had approved at least 75 drone strikes or raids in 74 days — about one every day. 

Moreover, as Michael Klare points out at The Nation, Trump has “stepped up the delegation of decision-making authority to senior military officers, making it easier for them to initiate combat operations in a half-dozen countries.”

It’s all a question of targets. Until he attacked Syria, Trump was “bombing the shit” out of non-state actors, as he promised he would. Syria aside, he’s not so interested in challenging actual states. So far, at least.

Trump: What’s Next?

As the 100-day mark approaches for the administration, Trump’s staff is reportedly desperate for a rebrand. The first months have been disastrous in so many different ways. RussiaGate remains a dark cloud over the administration. The travel ban and the health-care substitute were both high-profile disasters. The mainstream media has savaged Trump on a nearly daily basis.

“One hundred days is the marker, and we’ve got essentially 2 1/2 weeks to turn everything around,” one White House official told Politico. “This is going to be a monumental task.”

According to the same article, the administration is divided between those who believe that the Trump doctrine is “America First” and those who, like Communications Director Mike Dubke, argue that there is no Trump doctrine.

When it comes to foreign policy, they’re both right. The ostensible Trump doctrine is “America First,” but it’s not a doctrine. It’s an empty slogan. At one level, every administration has adhered to some version of American exceptionalism and some effort at focusing on the U.S. economy. So, Trump’s special sauce is nothing new.

At another level, Trump has demonstrated that he will make the same concessions to international realities as his predecessors. He’ll negotiate with the Chinese. He’ll poke the Russian bear. He’ll engage in showy military attacks. Maximum flexibility equals no doctrine.

The new Trump, then, is the worst of both worlds: blustery nationalism plus the conventional pieties of the foreign policy establishment. It’s certainly a relief that the United States won’t go to war with China any time soon and the U.S. president cares about the deaths of (some) children.

But as tensions escalate with North Korea and Trump’s crude counter-terrorism campaign continues, Mr. America First seems conceptually ill equipped and all-too-committed to business as usual to push US foreign policy in a peaceful direction and make anyone sleep easy at night.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, April 12, 2017

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