How the World Views US ‘Clown Show’

Some Americans may be amused by the “clown show” that is modern U.S. politics, particularly the Republican presidential race. But the crude insults and gross bigotry are seen around the world, reducing the appeal of democracy and turning more people against the U.S., notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The U.S. political class and political system in effect grant a lot of leeway and a lot of tolerance to excesses of American politicians, including excesses exhibited during election campaigns. There is little consistency and almost no principle in determining which comments by candidates come to be considered as campaign-crippling gaffes and which do not. Much gets said that does not cripple a campaign but which a majority of decent Americans, if they carefully thought about it, would probably agree is unreasonable, untrue, mean, inflammatory, bigoted, or extreme.

The tolerance comes partly from an acceptance that, oh well, politicians will be politicians, and that especially during a race for a party’s nomination extreme things will be said to appeal to the angriest and most active part of a party’s base and will not necessarily endure during a general election campaign let alone once the winner takes office. It comes partly from a quest for even-handedness, especially among the press, involving a supposed need to give equal respect to every position expressed merely because it is expressed, regardless of the unreasonableness of its content.

And it comes partly from how much all of us who are political junkies (which includes to varying degrees a large proportion of the U.S. population) are entertained by the spectacle. This last factor has been especially at work this year with the phenomenon that is Donald Trump, who first came to be known to most Americans primarily as an entertainer. What is extreme and unreasonable gets treated as harmless fun.

Essays can and should be written on how the fun isn’t really harmless even when confining our perspective to the United States, about how this sort of crude followership rather than the exercise of true leadership by contenders in political races is a race to the bottom when it comes to reason and decency, and how it encourages a further lowering of political and moral standards among the America public as a whole and not just in the portions of the electorate that are the main targets of the crude appeals. But what may be even more likely to be overlooked is the effect such discourse has on perceptions overseas.

American politics unfortunately has not been stopping at the water’s edge, in at least a couple of respects. One, which we saw recently with opposition to the nuclear agreement with Iran, involves how much domestic politics complicates and impedes the making and implementation of U.S. foreign policy.

Another involves foreign governments and publics forming impressions about the United States and about Americans based on what they see and hear going on in American politics, including the crazy and disgusting aspects of it. Globalization and modern mass communications have made this second factor more important and more inescapable than ever.

Every indication of dysfunction in U.S. politics diminishes in foreign eyes the reliability and trustworthiness of the United States as a partner and leader in world affairs. Foreigners just got another such indication with the resignation of the speaker of the House of Representatives because members of his own party considered him insufficiently obdurate and too willing to work cooperatively with others.

Beyond the general picture of dysfunction are more specific hateful or prejudicial positions that some politicians get away with taking, which leads foreigners to conclude reasonably that such views must be shared by much and even most of the American public. This greatly harms the image of America as an open and tolerant land and the substantial soft power that has flowed from it.

The problem has been most acute in recent years, though by no means limited to, the frequent indications of Islamophobia. It is bad enough when impressions are conveyed to foreigners by the words and actions of Koran-burning pastors or religiously biased army generals. It has become even worse with leading (according to opinion polls) candidates for the presidential nomination of one of the two major U.S. political parties appearing to go along with statements that “We have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims” or stating themselves (notwithstanding Article VI of the U.S. Constitution) that a Muslim should never be president of the United States.

The deleterious effects in majority Muslim countries of such postures taken by U.S. politicians are multiple. The belief that the United States as a whole is out to persecute or subjugate Muslims gets entrenched, making it that much harder for the United States to win trust and get accomplished what it wants to accomplish in those parts of the world. Foreign governments, sensitive to their own public opinion, find it politically harder to cooperate with the United States. The motivations for anti-U.S. extremist violence grow stronger, and thus the probability of such violence increases.

Politicians who like to appeal to the baser sentiments of a political base ought to think hard about such consequences. If they nonetheless continue such appeals, they ought to be condemned for doing so and voters ought to reject them, decisively.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

The Frantic Fear of Islam

The American Right and neocon activists have whipped up so much Islamophobia that this bigotry is now shaping the Republican presidential race and contributed to the arrest of a 14-year-old Texas boy who built a clock as a school project, writes Nat Parry.

By Nat Parry

The arrest of Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old whiz kid who brought a home-made clock to school in Irving, Texas, seems to have struck a nerve in the United States in a way that any number of other stories regarding anti-Muslim bigotry over the years have not.

While there have been countless examples of Islamophobia run amok since 9/11 including attacks on places of worship, harassment at airports, hostile protests against the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” and even a recent “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest,” which encouraged Americans to draw deliberately offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad few events have garnered as much sympathy for the Muslim targets of religious and racial intolerance as the shabby treatment endured by Ahmed Mohamed last week.

A photo of the high school freshman being marched out of school in handcuffs after administrators accused him of possessing a “hoax bomb” quickly went viral. Yet, even following his release from custody, the police apparently refused to accept that he only built the device as a clock and did not intend it to resemble a bomb, saying, “He kept maintaining it was a clock, but there was no broader explanation.”

While being interrogated, Mohamed was not allowed to contact his family and was repeatedly asked about his suspicious-sounding last name, according to reporting by the Washington Post. During the questioning, he also claims he was threatened with expulsion, and although he was not criminally charged, he was ultimately suspended from school for three days.

The support he has received has been overwhelming, including invites from Facebook, Google, MIT and the White House. The hashtag #IStandWithAhmed quickly shot to number one as the top trending topic on Twitter, garnering more than 370,000 tweets within five hours last Wednesday, and the Twitter account @IStandWithAhmed ballooned to thousands of followers within a few hours of being set up.

Even the music streaming site Spotify threw its support behind the wrongfully arrested teen with a special playlist titled “For Ahmed.” Featuring tracks intended to send Mohamed “good vibes & upbeat jams” with songs such as “Time Is On Your Side,” “Keep Your Head Up” and “You’re the Best,” the playlist was meant, it seems, to both inspire the young inventor and to counter the culture of fear that led to his arrest in the first place.

But notwithstanding this touching outpouring of sympathy and solidarity, America’s uglier side of intolerance and small-mindedness has returned with a vengeance. In case anyone may have hoped that this unfortunate incident would provide a teaching moment leading to greater tolerance and understanding, prominent right-wing politicians jumped in to remind everyone that nastiness and prejudice still rule the day.

Sarah Palin for example chastised Obama for inviting Mohamed to the White House, calling his clock a “dangerous wired-up bomb-looking contraption.”

“Yep, believing that’s a clock in a school pencil box is like believing Barack Obama is ruling over the most transparent administration in history,” Palin wrote on Facebook. “Right. That’s a clock, and I’m the Queen of England.”

Beth Van Duyne, the mayor of Irving, defended the actions of school administrators and police as understandable and justifiable. “We have all seen terrible and violent acts committed in schools, the workplace, and in public venues,” Van Duyne wrote on her Facebook page. “Perhaps some of those could have been prevented and lives could have been spared if people were more vigilant.”

Some have pointed out that Van Duyne’s response is unsurprising considering that she has “been on an anti-Muslim crusade all year,” having led an earlier attempt to nip “sharia law” in the bud when an “Islamic Tribunal” was set up in nearby Dallas to arbitrate civil disputes between Muslims in the community.

Van Duyne took a firm stand against the Dallas arbitration panel, vowing to keep a close eye on it and fight any perceived encroachment into state law.

“While I am working to better understand how this ‘court’ will function and whom will be subject to its decisions, please know that if it is determined that there are violations of basic rights occurring, I will not stand idle and will fight with every fiber of my being against this action,” she wrote.

Her stance earned her a reputation as an “anti-sharia crusader,” but although the words “crusade” and “crusader” are sometimes casually thrown around to describe the demagoguery of politicians like Van Duyne, it is not clear whether the historical significance of these terms are fully understood, nor how fitting they actually are to describe the climate of anti-Islamic hysteria in the United States today.

Cause or Crusade?

George W. Bush was once criticized for using the word “crusade” to describe the campaign against terrorism that was being launched in the wake of 9/11. As the president said on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, “This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while.”

Wall Street Journal reporters Peter Waldman and Hugh Pope noted at the time that the “crusade” reference “could hardly have been a more indelicate gaffe.”

“Crusade?” they asked. “In strict usage, the word describes the Christian military expeditions a millennium ago to capture the Holy Land from Muslims. But in much of the Islamic world, where history and religion suffuse daily life in ways unfathomable to most Americans, it is shorthand for something else: a cultural and economic Western invasion that, Muslims fear, could subjugate them and desecrate Islam.”

While Bush’s spokesperson later tried to clarify his remark, saying that it was only meant in “the traditional English sense of the word, a broad cause,” the damage had largely already been done, and America’s enemies seized on the statement as proof of the West’s anti-Muslim bias.

As al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden said in a televised message on Nov. 3, 2001, “After the U.S. politicians spoke and after the U.S. newspapers and television channels became full of clear crusading hatred in this campaign that aims at mobilizing the West against Islam and Muslims, Bush left no room for doubts or the opinions of journalists, but he openly and clearly said that this war is a crusader war. He said this before the whole world to emphasize this fact.”

Bin Laden described what he perceived as historical continuity between the medieval Crusades and the modern-day “war on terror.”

“These battles cannot be viewed in any case whatsoever as isolated battles, but rather, as part of a chain of the long, fierce, and ugly crusader war,” he said.

However Bush meant the “crusade” reference, there are clearly recognizable parallels between the historical Crusades and the current “war on terror,” both of which can be seen as an amalgamation of religion, politics, opportunism and conquest. What the historical Crusades dramatically demonstrated most clearly is the power of exploiting religion in order to advance political goals not unlike the demagoguery on display in contemporary American political discourse.

Victim Status

In calling for the liberation of Christians living under Muslim rule in Jerusalem, Pope Urban II appealed to a sense of victimhood and desire for revenge prevalent among medieval European Christians. In his call for the First Crusade, he said in 1095: “We have heard how, with great hurt and dire sufferings our Christian brothers, members in Christ, are scourged, oppressed, and injured in Jerusalem, in Antioch, and the other cities of the East. Gird yourselves, every one of you, I say, and be valiant sons; for it is better for you to die in battle than to behold, the sorrows of your race and of your holy places.

While he appealed to religious sensibilities, it is clear that political considerations played a key role in Pope Urban II’s decision to launch the Crusades, calculating that there was no better way to gather the various elements of the Christian West under his cloak.

To entice people to take up arms, the pope promised the suspension of any legal proceedings being taken against them the modern day equivalent of prosecutorial immunity and absolution for any sins they may have committed, assuring them a place in heaven.

Claiming their ordained status as victims of Muslim oppression, the Christian Crusaders then proceeded to “liberate” Jerusalem on July 15, 1099, killing an estimated 40,000 men, women and children in the process. The massacre was described by eyewitness Raymond of Aguiles:

“Wonderful sights were to be seen. Some of our men cut off the heads of their enemies; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses. [I]n the temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed it was a just and splendid judgement of God that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies.

And so began an era of sustained and extraordinary violence that lasted two centuries. This violence ultimately included attacks against not only Muslims and pagans but also other Christians.

The Fourth Crusade in 1204 for example sacked Constantinople, the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church. While some Crusaders dissented against the idea of attacking an innocent Christian city and deserted the Crusade before the attack, others stayed on and eagerly joined the assault.

Despite having taken oaths to conquer the city in a manner appropriate to the occupation of a Christian city, with no women were to be molested and no churches to suffer depredations, the Crusaders attacked the city mercilessly.

According to historian Jean Richard, the Crusaders spared “neither churches nor the monuments and works of art inherited from Antiquity; the population, without there being a true massacre, suffered badly.” Karen Armstrong goes into more gruesome detail, calling the sack of Constantinople “one of the great crimes of history.”

As she described the rampage: “For three days the Venetians and Crusaders rushed through the streets, raping, killing and pillaging with a horrible eagerness. Women and children lay dying in the streets and nuns were raped in their convents.”

Pope Innocent III was so distressed by the sack of Constantinople that he excommunicated the entire Crusade.

Historical Revisionism

Scholars have long debated the efficacy of the Crusades and their larger meaning, and while there may be no clear historical consensus yet, most experts tend to agree that this was generally a dark chapter in history, with Christian teachings exploited and misused as an excuse for murder and pillage.

What is striking however is that there now seems to be a concerted effort underway to revive the Crusades and polish their status in history, with recent books such as Steve Weidenkopf’s The Glory of the Crusades claiming to “debunk the numerous myths about the Crusades that our secular culture uses as clubs to attack the Church.”

Similarly, the “Real Crusades History” series on YouTube paints a picture of the Crusades as a necessary and just campaign against alleged Islamic expansionism. Islam is portrayed as bent on devouring Christian Europe despite the fact that there is no historical evidence to support this theory, and the Crusades are further celebrated in the videos as a crucial event that united European Christendom.

Mainstream conservative pundits have also taken up this cause, with Jonah Goldberg, writing recently in the National Review, emphasizing that “The Crusades despite their terrible organized cruelties were a defensive war” (thus distinguishing them from the barbarities of offensive jihad).

Those who fail to see the Crusades as glorious, necessary and just are the ones guilty of historical revisionism, according to the contemporary conservative view.

Running for the Republican nomination for president four years ago, Rick Santorum said, “The idea that the Crusades and the fight of Christendom against Islam is somehow an aggression on our part is absolutely anti-historical.” He attributed this “anti-historical” perception to propaganda perpetrated by “the American left who hates Christendom.”

The revival of the Crusades has even extended into the marketing of firearms, with one Florida-based gun manufacturer now offering a “Crusader Rifle,” emblazoned with biblical verses and a symbol of the Knights Templar, a religious sect tracing its roots to the First Crusade. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) of Florida objected to the gun, asking whether it may inspire right-wing extremists to commit violence against Muslims.

“Sadly, this manufacturer’s fancy new gun won’t do anything to stop the real threat in America: the escalating problem of gun violence,” said Hasan Shibly, executive director of CAIR-Florida. “This is just another shameful marketing ploy intended to profit from the promotion of hatred, division, and violence.”

While it might be easy to dismiss the rantings of a few right-wing politicians and pundits, or as shameless profiteering the marketing tactics of an obscure Florida gun maker, the fact is, these views are infusing the U.S. political debate to a degree once unimaginable. Far from the fringes where they belong, the Christian-Crusader mentality has seeped into the echelons of both policy-making and military strategy.

Total War on Islam

In May 2012, journalists Noah Shachtman and Spencer Ackerman revealed in Wired magazine that for years, the U.S. military had been teaching its future leaders that a “total war” against the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims would be necessary to protect America from Islamic extremism.

The lessons taught in the class included using the lessons of “Hiroshima” to wipe out entire cities at once, targeting the “civilian population wherever necessary.”

“For the better part of the last decade,” Shachtman and Ackerman reported, “a small cabal of self-anointed counterterrorism experts has been working its way through the U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement communities, trying to convince whoever it could that America’s real terrorist enemy wasn’t al-Qaida , but the Islamic faith itself.”

“We have now come to understand that there is no such thing as ‘moderate Islam,’” Army Lt. Col. Matthew A. Dooley noted in a July 2011 presentation to young cadets. “It is therefore time for the United States to make our true intentions clear. This barbaric ideology will no longer be tolerated. Islam must change or we will facilitate its self-destruction.”

The class, which has since been discontinued by the Defense Department, included course material that explicitly stated that international law including the Geneva Conventions no longer applies to the United States in its conduct of the “war on terror.”

More recently, Republican presidential hopefuls have insinuated that Muslims are constitutionally unqualified to hold the highest office in the land, and have even hinted at the possibility of removing Muslims entirely from the country.

Ben Carson, who’s currently running for the Republican nomination, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that Islam is antithetical to U.S. constitutional principles, and that a Muslim should never be elected president in the United States.

“I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that,” Carson said.

Other presidential candidates criticized Carson for his statement, including Lindsey Graham, who said that Carson should apologize to American Muslims. Ted Cruz reminded Carson that “the Constitution specifies there shall be no religious test for public office.”

Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders said his sentiments have no place in the Twenty-first Century.

“You know, this is the year 2015,” Sanders told reporters. “You judge candidates for president not on their religion, not on the color of their skin, but on their ideas on what they stand for. I was very disappointed in Dr. Carson’s statement.”

Curiously silent on Carson’s controversial remarks was Donald Trump, the billionaire construction tycoon and reality TV personality who has propelled to the front of the race for the Republican nomination with his own divisive statements on immigration, race and religion.

For his part, the Republican frontrunner last week seemed to suggest that deportations of Muslims could be a possibility if he lands himself in the White House.

At a town hall in New Hampshire on Thursday, Donald Trump nodded in agreement when a supporter declared, “We have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims,” warning darkly of supposed “training camps” in America. “When can we get rid of ’em?” the man asked.

Throughout the meandering question, Trump encouraged the man, saying “we need this question” and “mm-hmm.” He then responded, “We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.” The implication was that a future Trump Administration would be “looking at” how to “get rid of ’em,” i.e. Muslims.

Clarifying Trump’s response, his campaign issued a statement the next day blaming the media for twisting the issue. “The media wants to make this issue about Obama,” said Trump’s campaign. “The bigger issue is that Obama is waging war against Christians in this country. Their religious liberty is at stake.”

Thus, much like Pope Urban II a millennium ago, Trump portrayed the issue in simple terms that victimized Christians can easily understand: their faith is under attack by heretics who threaten their very religious liberty.

Meanwhile, the actual victims of persecution, innocent clock-makers like Ahmed Mohamed, continue to suffer the very real consequences of religious intolerance.

Nat Parry is the co-author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush. [This story originally appeared at Essential Opinion]

A Moral Challenge for Pope Francis

Exclusive: In modern times, the Catholic Church has made excuses for unjustifiable wars even as it has made abortion a cardinal sin, a hypocrisy that will be tested as Pope Francis visits the United States, a country immersed in all the immorality that comes from warfare, writes ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern

Pope Francis could use his visit to the U.S. this week to make unmistakably clear that the Catholic Church’s teaching on the “sanctity of life” applies to more than just the first nine months of gestation.

If he does so, he would face formidable opposition. The bishops appointed by Francis’s two predecessors had to swear allegiance to anti-abortion principles while showing less commitment to saving lives from war. The phalanx of right-wing bishops that Francis inherited were eager to be used, twice, to help elect President George W. Bush because he said he opposed abortion.

These bishops then aped the silence of the German bishops who could not find their voice when Adolf Hitler began what the post-war Nuremberg Tribunal defined as a “war of aggression.” Bush’s unprovoked attack on Iraq fit that definition to a T complete with what Nuremberg called the “accumulated evil” that inevitably results from such a war. Think lies, racism, kidnapping, secret prisons, torture, millions of refugees.

One can only hope that someone has told Francis that he would not have to start at Square One to rescue “the sanctity of life” from those who would confine it to abortion. The Pope needs no jackhammer to break through abortion-hardened concrete. Readily available are the writings of the justice-oriented Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, whose most important contribution before he succumbed to cancer in 1996 was a simple formula he proposed the “seamless garment” to link the Church’s “consistent ethic of life” to a whole range of moral and social issues.

Bernadin raised consciousness about the sanctity and reverence due all human life from conception to death. “The more one embraces this concept, the more sensitive one becomes to the value of human life itself at all stages,” wrote Bernadin. “This consistent ethic points out the inconsistency of defending life in one area while dismissing it in another. … there is a linkage among all the life issues, which cannot be ignored.”

If Pope Francis has the courage to endorse Bernadin’s approach to the sanctity of life, many presidential candidates will have to find a way to dance around it. One, Sen. Marco Rubio, told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Sunday: “I’m a Roman Catholic. For me, the Pope … has authority to speak on … theological matters. And I follow him 100 percent on those issues; otherwise I wouldn’t be a Roman Catholic. And so I believe that deeply. …

“On the social teachings, essential issues, like the sanctity of life and things of this nature, those go deep to the theology of this — of the faith. And I do believe — those are binding and I believe strongly in them.”

However, during the same interview, Rubio told Stephanopoulos that Obama was not forceful enough in making war in the Middle East. U.S. airstrikes, Rubio said, “are not, quite frankly, as vibrant as they should be.” Odd word, “vibrant.”

Will Francis find words to make it clear to Rubio and other U.S. officials that sanctity of life includes those tens of thousands of non-Americans who may not look like Rubio but who nonetheless deserve to be protected from the death that rains down from U.S. bombs, Bernadin’s “consistent ethic of life”? Will the Pope go beyond applauding the countries that are taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees and address Washington’s role in the wars and other violence that create refugees?

Will the Pope remind the Catholic majority of the U.S. Supreme Court justices that execution is against Church teaching? And will he remind flamboyant, right-wing Catholic Justice Antonin Scalia that it has been 500 years since the Church condoned torture?

Techniques Like Waterboarding

It will be interesting to see if Pope Francis has enough sensitivity to the horrors of the Inquisition, and the role played by the Jesuits in it, to suggest that presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham go easy on using that sordid history to brag about the “effectiveness” of torture. At a May 13, 2009 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing discussing waterboarding, Graham said: “One of the reasons these techniques have been around for 500 years is apparently they work.”

That torture “works” is a lie, unless your aim is to produce false confessions. That worked like a charm when President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney ordered interrogators to obtain “evidence” of operational ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq in order to associate Saddam Hussein with the 9/11 terrorists. (Before the invasion of Iraq, 69 percent of Americans had been led to believe that Saddam Hussein played a role in the attacks of 9/11.)

However, whether or not torture “works” is not the point here. When the Jesuits taught me ethics at Fordham College a half century ago, we learned of a moral category called “intrinsic evil,” inhabited by rape and slavery as well as torture. I had no idea that “intrinsic evil” could be somehow rehabilitated. But at Fordham, at least, it has been and in a most Jesuitical way.

Those graduating from my alma mater in 2012 encountered this not-so-subtle change when they objected to the invitation extended by Fordham’s President Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J. to “extraordinary rendition” aficionado John Brennan to give the commencement address in 2012 and to receive an honorary doctorate in humane letters (I am not making this up).

McShane had fallen victim to what more grounded Jesuits call the “celebrity virus.” At the time, Brennan, a Fordham College alumnus, worked in the White House (before becoming CIA director). It did not seem to matter very much what he did for the U.S. government. Confronted by graduating seniors who had been taught that torture was always and everywhere evil, McShane gave a glib gloss on torture and on Brennan’s role in compiling lists of those to be killed by drones with these words: “We don’t live in a black and white world; we live in a gray world.”

After the Senate Intelligence Committee released its major study on CIA torture in December 2014, a faculty-initiated petition asked McShane to revoke the honorary degree given to Brennan, calling “indefensible” his defense and support of torture. McShane rebuffed the petitioners. Another sad day for Fordham.

In his autobiography, To Dwell in Peace published 28 years ago, Vietnam War protester/prophet Daniel Berrigan, S.J., now 94 and spending his last days in Fordham’s infirmary for elderly Jesuits, wrote of “the fall of a great enterprise”, the Jesuit university. He recorded his “hunch” that the university would end up “among those structures whose moral decline and political servitude signalize a larger falling away of the culture itself.”

Berrigan lamented “highly placed” churchmen and their approval of war, “uttered with sublime confidence, from on high, from highly placed friendships, and White House connections.”

“Thus compromised,” warned Berrigan, “the Christian tradition of nonviolence, as well as the secular boast of disinterested pursuit of truth, these are reduced to bombast, hauled out for formal occasions, believed by no one, practiced by no one.”

It will be interesting to see if, during his visit to New York, Pope Francis decides to visit a Jesuit prophet named Berrigan or the celebrity virus-afflicted McShane.

Sexual Abuse

As if Francis needs additional sanctity-of-life issues to address during his visit to the U.S., a front-page, above-the-fold article in Monday’s New York Times provides yet another. Joseph Goldstein writes about the orders given to U.S. troops to ignore the sexual abuse of young boys by Afghan “allies.” Until now, the mainstream media had avoided this story, but it is not new.

Those who took the trouble to read the information leaked to WikiLeaks by Bradley/Chelsea Manning were aware of this ugly story several years ago. I alluded to this depravity in December 2010 toward the end of a short interview on CNN. I have not been invited back since, but it was worth it.

Sexual abuse, of course, is a major problem that Pope Francis, as well as his predecessors, have had to deal with. During his U.S. visit seven years ago, Pope Benedict chose to dwell on steps to address the Church’s pedophilia scandal to the exclusion of much else, but he got a free pass from the media in disguising his own role in trying to cover the whole thing up.

While still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he headed The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith the Vatican office that once ran the Inquisition. In that capacity he sent a letter in May 2001 to all Catholic bishops throwing a curtain of secrecy over the widespread sexual abuse by clergy, warning the bishops of severe penalties, including excommunication for breaching “pontifical secrets.” Lawyers acting for the sexually abused accused Ratzinger of “clear obstruction of justice.”

Very few American bishops have been disciplined. And when Bernard Cardinal Law was run out of Boston for failing to protect children from predator priests, he was given a cushy sinecure in Rome. In my view, he should be behind bars.

Barring Female Priests

While Pope Francis’s popularity stems largely from his penchant for doing unexpected things, sadly, he has shown zero flexibility with respect to the ban on women priests, and no miracles can realistically be expected. The prohibition on female priests is another “truth” that has been set in concrete, even though it lacks firm foundation in either Scripture or early Church tradition.

One still hears, “But Jesus did not ordain women.” Truth is Jesus did not ordain anyone. “Ordination” did not exist until well over a century after Jesus. At that point, power-hungry males decided to marginalize women to make the Church more “acceptable” in sexist societies.

How many people are aware that, in the years right after Jesus was killed, many of the men and women who knew him personally worshiped in house churches led by women? THAT tradition (women in leadership positions) does have firm foundation in Scripture as well as in Jesus’s behavior toward women, but has been ignored by the self-ordained theologians and prelates often to the point of absurdity.

Thomas Aquinas, for example, followed Aristotle in attributing the conception of a woman to a defect of a particular seed, resulting in a failed male. Can it be that this is still part of our Catholic tradition? With his limited vision of 800 years ago, Aquinas explained:

“Woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind, which is moist, as the Philosopher observes.” (Prima pars, q. 92, a.1)

Sadly, there seems to be little hope for equality for women in the Catholic Church anytime soon. At the same time, it is not impossible to hope that Francis will reaffirm Cardinal Bernadin’s inclusive approach on the sanctity of life.

How good it would be to remind American Catholics that ALL have a right to a decent life including not only those in utero, but also babies, young people exposed to predators, and adults with no economic or educational options but a poverty draft into the armed forces.

In addition, we Catholics, and most Americans, do need reminding that Bernadin’s “seamless garment” and “consistent ethic of life” apply to people of all nations; that intrinsic evil should not be given a facelift; and that Thou Shalt Not Kill still applies even to a country claiming special privileges as the “sole indispensable country in the world.”

Ironically, it was Russian President Vladimir Putin who, in an op-ed in the New York Times on Sept. 11, 2013, took issue with Obama’s oft-proclaimed claim of American exceptionalism. Putin wrote:

“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

For more on the last papal visit, see:’s “What About the War, Benedict?” For an op-ed appearing in Sunday’s Baltimore Sun, see: “Will Pope Francis Be Polite or Prophetic”

Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst, works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He studied theology and Russian at Fordham, holds a certificate in Theological Studies from Georgetown, and now teaches at the Servant Leadership School in Washington.

Obama’s Fateful Syrian Choice

Exclusive: President Obama faces a choice that could define his legacy and the future of the American Republic: He can either work with Russia’s President Putin to stabilize Syria or he can opt for a confrontation that could lead to an open-ended war with grave risks of escalation, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

There is an obvious course that President Barack Obama could follow if he wants to lessen the crises stemming from the Syrian war and other U.S. “regime change” strategies of the past several decades, but it would require him to admit that recent interventions (including his own) have represented a strategic disaster.

Obama also would have to alter some longstanding alliances including those with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel and correct some of the false narratives that have been established during his administration, such as storylines accusing the Syrian government of using sarin gas on Aug. 21, 2013, and blaming the Russians for everything that’s gone wrong in Ukraine.

In retracting false allegations and releasing current U.S. intelligence assessments on those issues, the President would have to repudiate the trendy concept of “strategic communications,” an approach that mixes psychological operations, propaganda and P.R. into a “soft power” concoction to use against countries identified as U.S. foes.

“Stratcom” also serves to manage the perceptions of the American people, an assault on the fundamental democratic precept of an informed electorate. Instead of honestly informing the citizenry, the government systematically manipulates us. Obama would have to learn to trust the people with the truth.

Whether Obama recognizes how imperative it is that he make these course corrections, whether he has the political courage to take on entrenched foreign-policy lobbies (especially after the bruising battle over the Iran nuclear agreement), and whether he can overcome his own elitism toward the public are the big questions and there are plenty of reasons to doubt that Obama will do what’s necessary. But his failure to act decisively could have devastating consequences for the United States and the world.

In a way, this late-in-his-presidency course correction should be obvious (or at least it would be if there weren’t so many layers of “strategic communications” to peel away). It would include embracing Russia’s willingness to help stabilize the political-military situation in Syria, rather than the Obama administration fuming about it and trying to obstruct it.

For instance, Obama could join with Russia in stabilizing Syria by making it clear to putative U.S. “allies” in the Mideast that they will face American wrath if they don’t do all that’s possible to cut off the terrorists of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda from money, weapons and recruits. That would mean facing down Turkey over its covert support for the Sunni extremists as well as confronting Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Persian Gulf sheikdoms over secret funding and arming of these jihadists.

If Obama made it clear that the United States would take stern action such as inflicting severe financial punishments against any country caught helping these terrorist groups, he could begin shutting down the jihadists’ support pipelines. He could also coordinate with the Russians and Iranians in cracking down on the Islamic State and Al Qaeda strongholds inside Syria.

On the political front, Obama could inform Syria’s Sunni “moderates” who have been living off American largesse that they must sit down with President Bashar al-Assad’s representatives and work out a power-sharing arrangement and make plans for democratic elections after a reasonable level of stability has been restored. Obama would have to ditch his mantra: “Assad must go!”

Given the severity of the crisis as the refugee chaos now spreads into Europe Obama doesn’t have the luxury anymore of pandering to the neocons and liberal interventionists. Instead of talking tough, he needs to act realistically.

Putin’s Clarity

In a sense, Russian President Vladimir Putin has clarified the situation for President Obama. With Russia stepping up its military support for Assad’s regime with the goal of defeating the Islamic State’s head-choppers and Al Qaeda’s terrorism plotters, Obama’s options have narrowed. He can either cooperate with the Russians in a joint campaign against the terrorists or he can risk World War III by taking direct action against Russian forces in pursuit of “regime change” in Damascus.

Though some of Official Washington’s neocons and liberal war hawks are eager for the latter insisting that Putin must be taught a lesson about Russia’s subservience to American power Obama’s sense of caution would be inclined toward the former.

The underlying problem, however, is that Official Washington’s foreign policy “elite” has lost any sense of reality. Almost across the board, these “important people” lined up behind President George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, arguably the worst blunder in the history of U.S. foreign policy.

But virtually no one was held accountable. Indeed, the neocons and their liberal interventionist sidekicks strengthened their grip on the major think tanks, the op-ed pages and the political parties. Instead of dialing back on the “regime change” model, they dialed up more “regime change” schemes.

Although historically the U.S. government like many other imperial powers has engaged in coups and other meddling to oust troublesome foreign leaders, the current chapter on “regime change” strategies can be dated back to the late 1970s and early 1980s with what most American pundits rate a success: the destruction of a secular regime in Afghanistan that was allied with the Soviet Union.

Starting modestly with President Jimmy Carter’s administration and expanding rapidly under President Ronald Reagan, the CIA mounted its most ambitious “covert” operation ever funding, recruiting and arming Islamic extremists to wage a brutal, even barbaric, war in Afghanistan.

Ultimately, the operation “succeeded” by forcing a humiliating withdrawal of Soviet troops and driving the Moscow-backed leader Najibullah from power, but the cost turned out to be extraordinary, creating conditions that gave rise to both the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

In 1996, the Taliban took Kabul, captured Najibullah (whose tortured and castrated body was hung from a light pole), and imposed a fundamentalist form of Islam that denied basic rights to women. The Taliban also gave refuge to Saudi extremist Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda band enabling them to plot terror attacks against the West, including the 9/11 assaults on New York and Washington.

In response, President George W. Bush ordered an invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in late 2001 followed by another invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 (though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11). Those “regime changes” began a cascade of chaos that reached into the Obama administration and to the present.

As Iraq came under the control of its Shiite majority allied with Shiite-ruled Iran, disenfranchised Sunnis organized into increasingly vicious rebel movements, such as “Al Qaeda in Iraq.” To avert a U.S. military defeat, Bush undertook a scheme of buying off Sunni leaders with vast sums of cash to get them to stop killing U.S. soldiers called the “Sunni Awakening” while Bush negotiated a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The payoffs succeeded in buying Bush a “decent interval” for a U.S. pullout that would not look like an outright American defeat, but the huge payments also created a war chest for some of these Sunni leaders to reorganize militarily after the Shiite-led regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to make significant economic and political concessions.

Obama’s Misjudgment

Obama had opposed the Iraq War, but he made the fateful choice after winning the 2008 election to retain many of Bush’s national security advisers, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and General David Petraeus, and to hire hawkish Democrats, such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Council aide Samantha Power.

Obama’s pro-war advisers guided him into a pointless “surge” in Afghanistan in 2009 and a “regime change” war in Libya in 2011 as well as a propaganda campaign to justify another “regime change” in Syria, where U.S. Sunni-led regional “allies” Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf sheikdoms took the lead in a war to oust President Assad, an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Syria was allied with Iran and Russia.

At the same time, the Sunni rebel group, “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” expanded its operations into Syria and rebranded itself the Islamic State before splitting off from Al Qaeda’s central command. Al Qaeda turned to a mix of foreign and Syrian jihadists called Nusra Front, which along with the Islamic State became the most powerful terrorist organization fighting to oust Assad.

When Assad’s military struck back against the rebels, the West especially its mainstream media and “humanitarian war” advocates took the side of the rebels who were deemed “moderates” although Islamic extremists dominated almost from the start.

Though Obama joined in the chorus “Assad must go,” the President recognized that the notion of recruiting, training and arming a “moderate” rebel force was what he called a “fantasy,” but he played along with the demands from the hawks, including Secretary of State Clinton, to “do something.”

That clamor rose to a fever pitch in late August 2013 after a mysterious sarin gas attack killed hundreds of Syrian civilians in a Damascus suburb. The State Department, then led by Secretary of State John Kerry, rushed to a judgment blaming the atrocity on Assad’s forces and threatening U.S. military retaliation for crossing Obama’s “red line” against using chemical weapons.

But the U.S. intelligence community had doubts about the actual perpetrators with significant evidence pointing to a “false flag” provocation carried out by Islamic extremists. At the last minute, President Obama called off the planned airstrikes and worked out a deal with President Putin to get Assad to surrender Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal even as Assad continued to deny a role in the sarin attack.

Still, the U.S. conventional wisdom held fast that Assad had crossed Obama’s “red line” and amid more bellicose talk in Washington Obama authorized more schemes for training “moderate” rebels. These sporadic efforts by the CIA to create a “moderate” rebel force failed miserably, with some of the early trainees sharing their weapons and skills with Nusra and the Islamic State, which in 2014 carried its fight back into Iraq, seizing major cities, such as Mosul and Ramadi, and threatening Baghdad.

As the Islamic State racked up stunning victories in Iraq and Syria along with releasing shocking videos showing the decapitation of civilian hostages the neocons and liberal war hawks put on another push for a U.S. military intervention to achieve “regime change” in Syria. But Obama agreed to only attack Islamic State terrorists and to spend $500 million to train another force of “moderate” Syrian rebels.

Like previous efforts, the new training mission proved an embarrassing failure, producing only about 50 fighters who then were quickly killed or captured by Al Qaeda’s Nusra and other jihadist groups, leaving only “four or five” trainees from the program, according to Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, head of the U.S. Central Command which has responsibility for the Middle East.

The Current Crisis

The failure of the training program combined with the destabilizing flow of Mideast refugees into Europe from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and other countries affected by the regional chaos due to “regime changes”  has brought new calls across Official Washington for, you guessed it, a U.S.-imposed “regime change” in Syria. The argument goes that “Assad must go” before a solution can be found.

But the greater likelihood is that if the U.S. and its NATO allies join in destroying Assad’s military, the result would be Sunni jihadist forces filling the vacuum with the black flag of terrorism fluttering over the ancient city of Damascus.

That could mean the Islamic State chopping off the heads of Christians, Alawites, Shiites and other “heretics” while Al Qaeda has a new headquarters for plotting terror strikes on the West. Millions of Syrians, now protected by Assad’s government, would join the exodus to Europe.

Then, the option for Obama or his successor would be to mount a major invasion and occupation of Syria, a costly and bloody enterprise that would mean the final transformation of the American Republic into an imperial state of permanent war.

Instead, Obama now has the option to cooperate with Putin to stabilize the Syrian regime and pressure erstwhile U.S. “allies” to cut off Al Qaeda and the Islamic State from money, guns and recruits. Though that might seem like clearly the best of the bad remaining options, it faces extraordinary obstacles from Official Washington.

Already there are howls of protests from the neocons and liberal interventionists who won’t give up their agenda of more “regime change” and their belief that American military power can dictate the outcome of every foreign conflict.

So, whether Obama can muster the courage to face down these bellicose voices and start leveling with the American people about the nuanced realities of the world is the big question ahead.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

Congress Deserving of Dunce Caps

The inability of the U.S. Congress to address basic responsibilities, such as funding the government, invites negative comparisons to unruly school children in need of detention, dunce caps or worse, as Michael Winship describes.

By Michael Winship

Already we’re deep into September and Congress has reconvened in Washington, prompting many commentators to compare its return after summer’s recess to that of fresh-faced students coming back to school, sharpening their pencils, ready to learn, be cooperative and prepared for something new. This, of course, is where the analogy crumbles.

For this particular Congress to cooperate and do something new would require a miracle on the order of loaves and fishes, perhaps Pope Francis can do something about that when he’s on the Hill next week. His Holiness may be the only hope.

What’s happening is just the latest virulent iteration of the strategy with which the Republicans have infected Congress from the night Barack Obama became president. Make governing impossible (as the old P.J. O’Rourke saying goes, “The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.”). Shut down democracy, if that’s what it takes. Keep from happening anything that helps and protects the 99 percent or threatens the plutocracy.

No wonder J. David Cox, union president of the American Federation of Government Employees, told the publication Government Executive, “I’d like for them to stay out of town for the rest of the year. That would make my life more complete.”

The House and Senate sprinted off to vacation a few weeks ago with much undone, and thus have returned to a series of difficult deadlines that need to be addressed before the end of the month. Once they’ve put the Iran nuclear deal to bed, kicking and screaming all the way, there are a dozen spending bills that require resolution.

But because of right wing GOP threats insisting on tying the defunding of Planned Parenthood to these appropriations measures, there’s the real possibility some say as high as 70 percent, of deadlock and yet another government shutdown. With that would come the delights of forced federal furloughs, delayed paychecks, closed national parks and monuments and all the other attendant joys with which we became too familiar just a couple of years ago.

The probable outcome of all this sturm und drang is passage of a yet another continuing resolution (CR) that would keep government running at its current funding levels until a solution is hammered out.

Mike DeBonis and Kelsey Snell reported in The Washington Post, “Congressional Democrats [have] already named a price for backing a short-term funding extension: no unrelated policy riders or attempts to undo Obama policy initiatives in the stopgap measure, with long-term negotiations over increases in domestic spending to follow.”

What a tangled web of malarkey and obfuscation members of this legislative body doth weave. Even the CR may run up against the anti-Planned Parenthood crowd, although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell patiently told Kentucky constituents a couple of weeks ago, “We just don’t have the votes to get the outcome that we’d like. The president’s made it very clear he’s not going to sign any bill that includes defunding of Planned Parenthood so that’s another issue that awaits a new president hopefully with a different point of view.”

Picking up the school analogy again, maybe they should hold parent-teacher conferences to get the unruly kids in line. Instead, McConnell, House Speaker Boehner and others in the leadership are offering “listening sessions” and calling on their colleagues to rely on stand-alone anti-abortion bills (symbolic, as they won’t get past a Senate filibuster or the president’s veto pen), as well as investigations of Planned Parenthood and hearings.

But so far this hasn’t been enough to corral the more vociferous lawmakers, including the members of the so-called “House Freedom Caucus” and that cowboy quartet of senators with visions of the Oval Office square-dancing in their heads. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul grapple for any foothold in the fight to out-Trump Trump, even if it means dissembling and clambering roughshod over women’s reproductive rights. Not to mention that it’s a great way to roil the ire of the Right and haul in more campaign cash.

Democrats would like to see this resolved sooner rather than later, although they not-so-secretly delight in the other side’s mess (also relishing the potential for Democratic leverage) and could raise some serious campaign coin on their own just by selling tickets to this whole sorry spectacle.

Down the road, with any luck, what this Congress should be up to is debating income inequality and tax reform, restarting the Export-Import Bank, reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Act, the Social Security disability trust, and a new long-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund some cockeyed optimists even dream of funding it for as long as five or six years instead of what would be the 36th short-term extension.

And then there’s raising the $18.1 trillion borrowing cap, a lifting of the debt ceiling that’s due soon. It may or may not be tied to a budget deal before Christmas.

Given recent experience, easing that last one through is what’s called wishful thinking, because the same confederacy of dunces, especially the candidates among them, will cry murder once again as year’s end approaches.

“They will join the chorus,” as legislative expert Norm Ornstein wrote in The Atlantic last month, “raising bloody hell as the primaries and caucuses begin about the perfidy of their own establishment leaders, getting even more distance from a Washington where Congress is run by Republicans.”

A recent editorial in the Houston Chronicle said it well: “A truly impressive presidential candidate would actually get the gears of government turning and help usher through a new federal budget that reduces long-term debt while fully funding government services. But so far, nobody seems up to it.”

If it’s back to school, this Republican Congress should be made to go sit in the corner.

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship. [This article first appeared at]

Are Neocons an Existential Threat?

Exclusive: Despite a record of unprecedented error, American neocons remain the dominant foreign policy force in Official Washington, demanding more “regime change” in the Middle East and a new Cold War that could heat up and end all life on the planet, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

The neoconservatives arguably have damaged American national interests more than any group in modern history. They have done more harm than the marginal Communists pursued by Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, more than the Yippies of the 1960s, more than Richard Nixon’s Watergate burglars in the 1970s or the Iran-Contra conspirators in the 1980s.

The neocons have plunged the U.S. government into extraordinarily ill-considered wars wasting trillions of dollars, killing hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, and destabilizing large swaths of the planet including the Middle East, much of Africa and now Europe. Those costs include a swelling hatred against America and a deformed U.S. foreign policy elite that is no longer capable of formulating coherent strategies.

Yet, the neocons have remained immune from the consequences of their catastrophes. They still dominate Washington’s major think tanks as well as the op-ed pages of virtually all the leading newspapers, including The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and New York Times. They hold down key positions in the State Department, and their “liberal interventionist” pals have the ear of President Barack Obama.

Clearly, the neocons are skilled operatives, knowing how to arrange a steady stream of funding for themselves, from military contractors donating to think tanks, from U.S. taxpayers footing the bill for organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, and from ideological billionaires set on aligning U.S. foreign policy with hard-line Israeli desires.

The neocons are adept at writing op-ed articles that twist any set of facts into support for their ideological cause; they supply just the right quote that fits into the news cycle’s latest narrative; and they host policy conferences that attract powerful politicians and fawning media coverage.

But are the neocons a force that can coexist with the American Republic? Have they become an existential threat not only to the constitutional structure crafted in 1787 but to continued life on the planet? Are they locked on a course of action that could lead to a nuclear holocaust?

Clearly, the neocons’ commitment to Israeli interests violates a key principle established by the nation’s early presidents who all warned against “foreign entangling alliances” as a fundamental threat to a citizens’ republic that would transform America into a warrior state that would inevitably sap the nation’s liberties.

That loss of liberty has surely happened. Not only is there now bipartisan support for a surveillance state that can spy on the personal lives of American citizens, but the U.S. government has wedded itself to the concept of “strategic communications,” a catch-phrase that merges psychological operations, propaganda and P.R. into a seamless approach toward managing public perceptions at home and abroad.

When information is systematically pushed through a filter designed to ensure consent, the core democratic concept of an informed electorate has been turned on its head: The people no longer oversee the government; the government manipulates the people.

Neocon Tactics

All this has been part of the neocon approach dating back to the 1980s when key operatives, such as Robert Kagan and Elliott Abrams, were part of inter-agency task forces designed to whip the American people into line behind the government’s aggressive war policies. Guided by seasoned CIA propagandists, such as Walter Raymond Jr., the neocons learned their lessons well.

But the neocons are no longer just threatening the existence of the Republic; they are now endangering the continuation of life itself. They have decided to launch a new Cold War against Russia that will push the world toward the brink of thermo-nuclear war.

Of course, the neocons will frame their doomsday strategy as all Vladimir Putin’s fault. They will insist that they are just standing up to “Russian aggression” and that anyone who doesn’t join them is a “stooge of Moscow” or “weak.” They will dictate the shape of the debate just as they have in countless other situations, such as guiding Americans to war in Iraq over non-existent WMD stockpiles.

The neocon pundits will write seemingly authoritative op-eds about devious Kremlin strategies which will glue black hats on the Russians and white hats on whomever is on the other side, whether the neo-Nazis in Ukraine or the Islamic State/Al Qaeda terrorists in Syria. Americans will be whipped up into a frenzy that will demand a direct clash with the “Russ-kies” or “regime change” in Moscow.

There will be little or no concern about the risks. With the neocons, there never is. The assumption is that if “Amur-ika” is tough, the other side will back down. Then, with U.S.-led economic sanctions from the outside and U.S.-funded NGOs stirring up trouble from the inside, “regime change” becomes the cure-all.

Everyone who’s important in Official Washington everyone on the talk shows and op-ed pages knows that these disruptive situations always play out just the way they’re diagramed inside the top think tanks. A hand-picked “democratic reformer” who’s traveled the think-tank circuit and gotten the seal of approval the likes of Iraq’s Ahmed Chalabi will easily be installed and then the target country will do whatever the neocons dictate. After all, that approach worked so well in Iraq. The neocons always know best.

Raising the Stakes

Yet, with Russia, the stakes are even higher than with Iraq. Yes, it’s easy to find fault with Vladimir Putin. I myself have a personal rule that men over 40 should keep their shirts on when out in public (unless maybe they’re actors in a Bond film or going for a swim at the beach).

But Putin at least is a rational player in global affairs. Indeed, he has tried to cooperate with President Obama on a variety of key issues, including convincing Syria to surrender its chemical weapons and getting Iran to make concessions in the nuclear deal two contributions to world peace that infuriated the neocons who favored bomb-bomb-bombing both Syria and Iran.

At a dinner party in Europe this summer, I was asked by a well-informed British woman what should be done with Putin. My answer was that Putin doesn’t frighten me; it’s the guy who comes after Putin who frightens me because despite the neocons’ confidence that their “regime change” plans for Moscow will install a malleable moderate, the more likely result would be a much harder-line Russian nationalist than Putin.

The idea of the nuclear codes being handed to someone determined to defend the honor of Mother Russia is what scares me. Then, the clumsily aggressive neocons in Washington would have their reckless counterpart in Moscow, with neither side having the wisdom of a John F. Kennedy or a Nikita Khrushchev as displayed during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Would American neocons or a Russian super-nationalist have the wisdom and courage to back down, to compromise, to make the concessions necessary to avoid plunging over the edge? Or would they assume that the other guy would blink first and that they would “win” the showdown?

I recall what William R. Polk, one of Kennedy’s mid-level aides during the Cuban Missile Crisis, wrote recently about what happens to the human mind under such stress.

“Since human beings make the decisions, we must be aware of decision makers’ vulnerabilities,” Polk wrote. “During the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was one of about 25 civilians fully engaged in the events. I was not at the center but in the second or third ‘echelon.’ So I did not feel the full strain, but by the Thursday of the Crisis, I was thoroughly exhausted. My judgment must have been impaired even though I was not aware of it.

“I do remember, however, a terrible episode fortunately lasting only a few minutes at which I thought to myself, ‘let’s just get it over with.’ When later I met with my Soviet counterparts, I got the impression, although they denied it, that my feelings were not unique. How the strain impacted on the inner group I can only guess.”

If someone as stable and serious as Bill Polk had such thoughts “let’s just get it over with” what might happen when American neocons or hyped-up Russian nationalists are inserted into the decision process? That is an existential question that I don’t want to even contemplate.

Endless Putin-Bashing

And, if you doubt that the neocons will engage in over-the-top Cold War-style Putin bashing, you should read the op-ed by The Washington Post’s neocon deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl on Monday, entitled “Putin shifts fronts: With a move into Syria, he continues his in-your-face maneuvers.”

Diehl delves into Putin’s psyche a process that is so much easier than doing real reporting and concludes that Putin’s decision to join the fight in Syria against the Islamic State and Al Qaeda is just another attempt to stick his finger in the eye of the righteous but clueless United States.

Diehl, of course, starts off with the neocon-approved narrative of the Ukraine crisis, ignoring the key role of neocon Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland (Robert Kagan’s wife) in midwifing the Feb. 22, 2014 coup that overthrew democratically elected President Viktor Yanukovych and installed an intensely anti-Russian regime on Russia’s border. Nuland even handpicked the new Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, telling U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt in a phone call several weeks before the coup that “Yats is the guy.”

The coup-makers then dispatched neo-Nazi militias (and Islamist militants) to wage a bloody “anti-terrorism operation” against ethnic Russian Ukrainians who resisted the “regime change.” [See’s “Ukraine Merges Nazis and Islamists.”]

But all that complexity is neatly boiled down by American neocons and the mainstream U.S. media as “Russian aggression.” Regarding the Syrian civil war, some neocons have even joined with senior Israeli officials in claiming that a victory by Al Qaeda is preferable to the continuation of Assad’s secular regime. [See’s “Syria’s Nightmarish Narrative.”]

Yet, however the story goes, the biggest bad guy is Putin, always with sinister motives and evil intent. So, in explaining the situation in Ukraine and Syria, Diehl writes:

“Throughout the summer, Russia’s forces in eastern Ukraine kept up a daily drumbeat of attacks on the Ukrainian army, inflicting significant casualties while avoiding a response by Western governments. On Sept. 1, following a new cease-fire, the guns suddenly fell silent. Optimists speculated that Vladi­mir Putin was backing down.

“Then came the reports from Syria: Russian warplanes were overflying the rebel-held province of Idlib. Barracks were under construction at a new base. Ships were unloading new armored vehicles. Putin, it turns out, wasn’t retreating, but shifting fronts, and executing another of the in-your-face maneuvers that have repeatedly caught the Obama administration flat-footed.”

The rest of the op-ed is similarly didactic and one-sided: Putin is the villain and Obama is the rube. In Diehl’s world, only he and other neocons have what it takes to take on Putin and put Russia down.

Any alternative explanation for Russia’s action in Syria is brushed aside, such as Putin deciding that a victory by either Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front as favored by Israel or the even more bloodthirsty Islamic State is unacceptable and thus Assad’s regime must be stabilized to avert a major geopolitical catastrophe.

Typically, the neocons breeze past the frightening logic of what the collapse of Assad’s military would mean for the Middle East, Europe and the world. After all, once Israeli leaders decided to throw in their lot with Al Qaeda in Syria, the die was cast as far as the neocons were concerned.

But the notion that the neocons can micromanage the outcome in Syria, with “moderate” Al Qaeda taking Damascus rather than the more “radical” Islamic State, reflects the arrogant know-nothing-ism of these U.S. opinion leaders. More likely, Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front would coordinate with their former allies in the Islamic State and share in the Sunni revenge against Syria’s Christian, Alawite, Shiite and other minorities.

So, while the Islamic State would busy itself chopping off heads of “heretics,” Al Qaeda could use its new headquarters in Damascus to plot the next round of terror attacks against the West. And, as destabilizing as the current refugee flow into Europe has been, it would multiply astronomically as the survivors of the Islamic State/Al Qaeda bloodletting flee Syria.

With Europe in chaos and the neocons still insisting that the real enemy is Russia, the possible consequences would be frightening to contemplate. Yet, this is the course that the neocons have set for the world and nearly all the Republican candidates for president have signed on for the journey along with Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

In 2014, arch-neocon Robert Kagan, whom Secretary of State Clinton selected as one of her advisers while also promoting his wife, Victoria Nuland, told The New York Times that he could embrace a Clinton presidency: “If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue it’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else.” [For more, see’s “Is Hillary Clinton a Neocon-Lite?” and “Obama’s True Foreign Policy ‘Weakness.’“]

So far, virtually no one in the 2016 presidential race or in the mainstream U.S. news media is seriously addressing the reality of the neocons’ “regime change” chaos spreading across the Middle East and the prospect of a destabilized Europe. What limited discussion there is on the campaign trail mostly echoes Jackson Diehl’s Putin-bashing.

No one dares confront the existential question of whether the United States and the world can continue to tolerate and accommodate the neoconservatives.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

Donald Trump’s Nativist Impulse

The anti-immigrant focus of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign reminds historian Bernard A. Weisberger of shameful past eras that conflict with America’s self-image as a place of refuge for people from many lands.

By Bernard A. Weisberger

It has so far annoyed but not really surprised me that Donald Trump, despite being an obnoxious bully, has defied expectations with a steady rise in the public opinion polls. It may be that his buffoonery and megalomania are simply more attractive to some early voters than rival candidates, with their solemn professions that what pushes them into the grind of campaigning is their dedication to promoting the public welfare.

But I am considerably more than annoyed when Trump puts himself at the head of the armies of the new nativism by using his bullhorn to echo the warnings of the movement’s Cassandras against the supposed “hordes” of undocumented immigrants pouring through our “open southern border.” His point of attack is the so-called “anchor babies”, children of pregnant mothers who supposedly sneak into the United States so that their children will be born here and automatically become citizens.

The hidden, malodorous and unproven subtext is that these children, entitled to the privileges of citizenship, will open the gates to legalizing the entry of family members, swarms of whom will qualify for welfare state entitlement programs, so that they may live in happy idleness at the expense of ¨real” American taxpayers. None of these suppositions has yet been proven by any serious evidence.

So thus far, disgusting enough. But when Trump dipped into the gutter to add to this repertory of lies and half truths one of the oldest and rankest, namely that Mexico was emptying its prisons and asylums to let rapists and thieves run free on our streets (a charge eagerly snapped up by the likes of O’Reilly and Limbaugh, and left unchallenged by many of Trump’s rivals for the nomination) I boiled over. That’s crossing the line that separates debate from shameless indecency.

Historical Background

I am a historian of the United States and have heard it all before, sometimes almost verbatim and no less gross. Our works of history rightly celebrate our role as a land of asylum and opportunity for people from almost everywhere on the globe. It’s a pillar of our cherished self-image as exceptional among nations. But they often overlook or minimize the contrasting truth that there was always stiff resistance to that hospitality.

Listen to this: “America has become the sewer into which the pollutions of European jails are emptied.” Substitute “Mexican” or “Latin American” for “European” and it could be straight out of Trump’s latest eruption. But it’s from a newspaper published in the 1850s by supporters of an anti-Catholic and foreigner-hating movement that began as a secret society whose members were ordered, when asked nosy questions, to say: “I know nothing.”

Eventually, the “Know-Nothings” emerged into the open and organized themselves into a political organization that campaigned in 1854 as “the American Party.”

In that first off-year foray, the new entry won a number of state and local offices and some seats in both House and Senate. The basic glue that held Know-Nothing-ism together was hatred of the alien (especially the Irish). The slither of the Know Nothings into the American Party was a way of “protecting” America from the Pope’s minions and other evil foreign influences.

Happily, 1854 was only a flash in the pan. When the party ran a national ticket headed by so respectable a figure as ex-US President Millard Fillmore, they won only a single state, Maryland.

By the time Abraham Lincoln ran for the Senate in 1858, two years before his presidential campaign, as many as half of the American people were the offspring of Europeans and could not trace their ancestry back to the stirring days of 1776. But if they looked at the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln said in a campaign speech in Chicago, they found the words “all men are created equal” became “the father of all moral principle in them, and they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.”

This self-evident truth of equal creation became the “electric cord that link[ed] the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men everywhere.” To be American was not about ancestry but to commit oneself heart and soul to the ideal of equality.

Defining Citizenship

A few years later, Lincoln was dead along with some 600,000 casualties of the Civil War, and a radical Republican Congress oversaw writing the Union’s victory into the Constitution via the Fourteenth Amendment. Its opening clause proclaimed, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

That flipped the prewar position, in which state citizenship was necessary to become a United States citizen, leaving room for states to refuse citizenship to “undesirables” like Negroes and foreigners. Now, no state could deny its born or naturalized resident citizens “the equal protection of its laws” or the guarantees of the Bill of Rights.

The Fourteenth Amendment clearly intended to make sure that the newly freed ex-slaves would have their full civil rights, though it would take a Fifteenth to specify that voting was included. The inclusion of children born in the United States to recent immigrants was almost incidental. That is the “error” that the enemies of birthright citizenship aim to correct. They argue that almost no other nations outside the Western hemisphere show such foolish generosity. Somehow, this is one issue on which they are willing to forget or forgo our proud exceptionalism.

Meanwhile, American ports began receiving the first waves of an enormous and transformative mass migration, some 31 million between 1860 and 1930. They represented a “new” immigration: Chinese, Italians, Greeks, Poles, Russians, Syrians, Slovaks, Serbs, Armenians. To many so-called “old stock” Americans, millions of these newcomers were dangerous and unworthy, and to the members of an Immigration Restriction League which included in its number many of “the best people” of New England the immigrants were of the “wrong” religions and nationalities. Poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich explained that through our “unguarded gates” pressed,

a wild motley throng Men from the Volga and the Tartar Steppes Flying the Old World’s poverty and scorn; These bringing with them unknown gods and rites Those, tiger passions, here to stretch their claws.

The same old charges were recycled, newcomers threatened the jobs of Americans; they swelled the statistics of crime, violence and dependency; they clung stubbornly to their religions, customs and languages and could neither absorb nor understand the values of genuine Americans.

Eventually, the gates began to swing shut on unrestricted immigration. There was denial of entry to those convicted of crimes in their home countries, which might include rebellion against tyrannical regimes. Then, rejection for those harboring contagious diseases.

A third barrier, literacy tests, never quite made it into law but in 1921 and 1924, laws were enacted that set overall limits on immigration, divided by “national origins” quotas that favored the descendants of pre-1860 immigrants, while sharply narrowing openings for the children and grandchildren of those who had come later. Asians were barred completely.

But those who squeezed through narrowed gates did what immigrants have always done when given a chance, assimilated the American values of the time, grabbed educational opportunities provided by the public school system, and by the millions took out the naturalization papers that gave them the ultimate step in acceptance, participating in democracy on an equal footing with the snootiest Mayflower descendant. So armed, they entered American politics and, over time, changed it for the better.

An Era of Liberalism

A three-decade period of liberalism following the Depression, World War II and the assumption of an American global presence resulted in a 1965 change to the laws that replaced national origins quotas with others based on family reunification, specially needed skills, and refugee status. They erased the barrier to Asians altogether, setting off a new and continuing wave of immigration, still in progress.

But none of this will continue if the likes of Trump and his allies can help it. The children of that slandered “new” immigration helped to build our cities and dedicated their working lives in mines, mills and factories to make us a mighty industrial power. They fought and died in our wars. But for some “real Americans” that hasn’t been enough. So here we are again, in a period of reaction, staring into the ugly face of nativism.

Trump’s announced intention to deport 11 million “illegals” while building a wall from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico at no cost, details conveniently not provided, is simultaneously savage and ludicrous. Yet what troubles me deeply is the possibility of this kind of cesspool politics finding wider acceptance, or being ignored apathetically by large numbers of Americans.

Even more disturbing is the sluggishness of the response from Republican and Democratic opinion makers. Where is the outrage? Why is the counterattack left largely to Hispanic organizations? Why isn’t every decent media outlet shouting a few, simple home truths over the bullhorns of those insisting on their xenophobic lies? Such truths as these:

–The “illegals” are not indolent. For years now they have been picking our crops, nursing our elderly, cleaning our homes and babysitting our children. They are not freeloaders. That honor should be reserved for people like rancher Cliven Bundy who grazes his cattle on federally owned land but refuses to pay federal fees and taxes.

–They do not take jobs from Americans. Their bottom-of-the-ladder, low-wage service jobs don’t pay enough to attract American workers, white or black. Probably as many or more job losses are caused by employers moving operations abroad, or automation, which is a generic problem for all of today’s workers.

–They are not “takers.” They contribute positively to the economy through sales and excise taxes, and cannot claim Social Security, Medicare or other benefits because it would reveal their undocumented status, which makes them vulnerable to threats and exploitation by their bosses.

–Their crime rates are comparable to those of the general population, allowing for differences in income and living conditions.

It’s true that completely unregulated immigration may no longer be feasible. But the movement of people from poor and turbulent nations to wealthy, stable and reasonably free ones is happening all over the world. Our governments must come together in trade and economic treaties that level the playing field by helping to enrich and empower poorer peoples. Trade pacts need to elevate the status of working men and women rather than maximize the profits of corporations promising that some of the swag will mysteriously trickle down to “the lower orders.”

Until that miracle happens, no walls will keep desperate and courageous, motivated people from taking big risks to evade or scale them. Far better to provide our undocumented with reasonable and non-punitive paths to citizenship.

That can’t take place when truth is befogged by racist and hateful lies, which is the reason that every school should teach and every network newscast should repeat this essential reality: the story of our nation’s long practice of welcoming immigrants and opening a wide door to full rights is an American triumph, all the more so because it has been achieved over constant resistance and with many relapses and setbacks.

Should Trump and associates ever get their way, the symbol of America would change from the Statue of Liberty with her uplifted torch lighting the path through the golden door to one of the Wall, complete with searchlights, guard towers, barbed wire and watchdogs. May it never be so.

Bernard A. Weisberger is a historian who has been by turns a university professor, an editor of American Heritage and a collaborator on several of Bill Moyers’s documentaries. He is the author of Many People, One Nation, a history of immigration to the United States. [This article originally appeared at,]

A Challenge to Neoliberal Orthodoxy

Conventional thinkers say Jeremy Corbyn’s election to head Britain’s opposition Labour Party and Bernie Sanders’s surge against Hillary Clinton are passing fancies that will fade as the summer ends, but Nicolas J S Davies sees the hope for an inspiring new politics.

By Nicolas J S Davies

Jeremy Corbyn, the chairman of the U.K.’s Stop the War Coalition, is now also the leader of the U.K.’s main opposition Labour PartyBernie Sanders, the independent socialist Senator from Vermont, is leading in the polls for the Democratic Party primary in New Hampshire and the latest poll for the Iowa caucuses.

As Corbyn told the BBC, “politics can change, and we have changed it.”

American socialist Michael Harrington coined the phrase “on the left wing of the possible” to define the most effective position that people of conscience could take amid the corruption of capitalist politics. Harrington had a way with words – he is also credited with coining the term “neoconservative.” But the challenge on the left of U.S. politics has always been to define just what is “possible.”

The Sanders campaign’s failure to stake out strong progressive positions on foreign policy and militarism (in contrast with Corbyn in the U.K.) risks squandering a historic opportunity to build a united front for “a new kind of politics” in the United States, but it is not too late for him to do so.

The rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s succeeded in marginalizing progressive politics for a generation in the U.S. and U.K., reducing most political activists’ view of “the possible” to focusing on single-issue advocacy or supporting the “lesser evil” in actually existing politics – or some ill-fitting combination of the two.

Rationalizations abound to excuse the outrages of the Clinton and Obama administrations. Many Democrats now subscribe to a myth of the Presidency as a powerless office where a fine speech from the “bully pulpit” counts for more than actual policy decisions that bring death or misery to millions – and yet the same people still hold President George W. Bush responsible for his actions!

Such cognitive dissonance is an essential, paralyzing element in the marginalization of participatory democracy under neoliberalism.  People consider themselves sophisticated for accepting the glaring contradictions and compartmentalizations of a “political reality” that is really based on the endless and uncritical repetition of myths and misinformation, much of it deliberately crafted by corporate-funded think tanks and PR firms.

Political philosopher Sheldon Wolin coined the term “inverted totalitarianism” to describe this political system in which traditional tools of democracy like elections and the press have not been abolished but simply co-opted. Wolin explains how this has led to a more effective and sustainable concentration of wealth and political power than “classical totalitarianism” could ever achieve.

But the ability of the wealthy and powerful to define the limits of what is possible in our society is finally being challenged by political developments in the U.S. and Europe.

I had the privilege of working with Tim Carpenter during the final years of his life. After playing a leading role in Harrington’s Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and serving as Deputy Campaign Manager in Dennis Kucinich’s presidential campaign, Carpenter founded Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) in 2004. His vision of being “on the left wing of the possible” was always expansive and creative, opening up possibilities for constructive action where others saw only irreconcilable differences and insoluble problems.

For example, after PDA endorsed Elizabeth Warren for the Senate, she posted a threatening, misinformed position statement about Iran on her campaign web site. PDA members were divided between peace activists who wanted to withdraw the endorsement, something PDA had never done before, and many members in Massachusetts who loved Warren regardless.

As always, Carpenter listened to everybody’s point of view, and then he united PDA in a campaign to educate Warren on Iran and urge her to change her position, which she eventually did. By the time she came to consider the agreement with Iran as a U.S. Senator, she was a firm vote for diplomacy on every whip list.

Tim Carpenter and PDA may have been the first national group to ask Bernie Sanders to run for President as a Democrat, with a “Run, Bernie, Run” campaign that began in 2013. I remember making the case for this campaign to a skeptical PDA steering committee in Miami. The Democrats were putting all their eggs in one basket with Hillary Clinton.

If and when her campaign would implode from the cynicism of her neoconservative foreign policy record, the corruption of the Clinton Foundation or a dozen other liabilities, Bernie Sanders could be left standing as the de facto front-runner for the nomination. Neoliberal power-brokers would scramble to draft somebody else – as they are now doing – but anyone acceptable to them risks taking more votes from Clinton than from Sanders.

Tim Carpenter tragically died of cancer in April 2014 after a long and characteristically courageous struggle. But today’s headlines vindicate his principled and expansive view of what is “possible” in politics: a nuclear agreement to avert war on Iran; the rise of Corbyn, Sanders and like-minded new political leaders in Spain, Greece and elsewhere; a new ceasefire in Ukraine brokered by France, Germany and Russia; huge rallies all over Europe to welcome refugees fleeing U.S.-backed wars; and a world starting to wake up to what is “possible” beyond the injustice, violence and chaos conjured up by the neoliberal wizards of Washington and Wall Street.

Nicolas J S Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.  He also wrote the chapters on “Obama at War” in Grading the 44th President: a Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.

Madness of Blockading Syria’s Regime

Exclusive: The U.S. State Department is trying to block Russian supplies going to Syria’s embattled government despite the risk that collapsing the regime would create a vacuum filled by the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, another nightmare dreamt up by the neocons and liberal hawks, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Does the U.S. government want the Islamic State and/or its fellow-travelers in Al Qaeda to take over Syria? As far as the State Department is concerned, that seems to be a risk worth taking as it moves to cut off Russia’s supply pipeline to the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad — even as Sunni terrorist groups expand their grip on Syrian territory.

It appears that hardliners within the Obama administration have placed the neocon goal of “regime change” in Syria ahead of the extraordinary dangers that could come from the black flag of Sunni terrorism raised over the capital of Damascus. That would likely be accompanied by the Islamic State chopping off the heads of Christians, Alawites, Shiites and other “heretics” and/or Al Qaeda having a major Mideast capital from which to plot more attacks on the West.

And, as destabilizing as the current flow of Middle East refugees is to Europe, a victory by the Islamic State or Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front would open the flood gates, sending millions of desperate people pouring out of Syria and creating a political as well as humanitarian crisis. At that point, there also would be enormous pressure on President Barack Obama or his successor to mount a full-scale invasion of Syria and attempt a bloody occupation.

The human and financial costs of this nightmare scenario are almost beyond comprehension. The European Union already strained by mass unemployment in its southern tier — could crack apart, shattering one of the premier achievements of the post-World War II era. The United States also could undergo a final transformation from a Republic into a permanent-warrior state.

Yet, Official Washington can’t seem to stop itself. Instead of working with Russia and Shiite-ruled Iran to help stabilize the political/military situation in Syria, the pundit class and the “tough-guy/gal” politicians are unleashing torrents of insults toward the two countries that would be the West’s natural allies in any effort to prevent a Sunni terrorist takeover.

Beyond words, there has been action. Over the past week, the State Department has pressured Bulgaria and Greece to bar Russian transport flights headed to Syria. The U.S. plan seems to be to blockade the Syrian government and starve it of outside supplies, whether humanitarian or military, all the better to force its collapse and open the Damascus city gates to the Islamic State and/or Al Qaeda.

In explaining its nearly inexplicable behavior, the State Department even has adopted the silly neocon talking point which blames Assad and now Russia for creating the Islamic State, though the bloodthirsty group actually originated as “Al Qaeda in Iraq” in reaction to President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Then, backed by money and weapons from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other U.S. “allies,” AQI moved into Syria with the goal of ousting Assad’s relatively secular government. AQI later took the name Islamic State (also known by the acronyms ISIS, ISIL or Daesh). Yet, the State Department’s official position is that the Islamic State is Assad’s and Russia’s fault.

“What we’ve said is that their [the Russians’] continued support to the Assad regime has actually fostered the growth of ISIL inside Syria and made the situation worse,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday. “If they want to be helpful against ISIL, the way to do it is to stop arming and assisting and supporting Bashar al-Assad.”

Yet, the reality is that Assad’s military has been the principal bulwark against both the Islamic State and the other dominant Sunni rebel force, Al Qaeda’s affiliate, the Nusra Front. So, by moving to shut down Assad’s supply line, the U.S. government is, in effect, clearing the way for an Islamic State/Al Qaeda victory since the U.S.-trained “moderate” rebels are largely a fiction, numbering in double digits, while the extremists have tens of thousands of committed fighters.

In other words, if the U.S. strategy succeeds in collapsing Assad’s defenses, there is really nothing to stop the Sunni terrorists from seizing Damascus and other major cities. Then, U.S. airstrikes on those population centers would surely kill many civilians and further radicalize the Sunnis. To oust the Islamic State and/or Al Qaeda would require a full-scale U.S. invasion, which might be inevitable but would almost certainly fail, much as Bush’s Iraq occupation did.

A Scary Fantasyland

As scary as these dangers are, there remains a huge gap between the real world of the Middle East and the fantasyland that is Official Washington’s perception of the region. In that land of make-believe, what matters is tough talk from ambitious politicians and opinion leaders, what I call the “er-er-er” growling approach to geopolitics.

Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton joined in that growling on Wednesday at the Brookings Institution, which has become home to neocons such as Robert Kagan and a host of “liberal interventionists,” such as Michael O’Hanlon and Strobe Talbott.

Though she formally endorsed the nuclear agreement with Iran, former Secretary of State Clinton insulted both the Iranians and the Russians. Noting Russia’s support for the Syrian government, she urged increased punishment of Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin — aimed at forcing Russia to abandon the Assad regime.

“We need a concerted effort to up the costs on Russia and Putin; I am in the camp that we have not done enough,” Clinton declared. “I don’t think we can dance around it much longer,” she said, claiming that Russia is trying to “stymie and undermine American power whenever and wherever they can.”

Clinton appears to have learned nothing from her past support for “regime change” strategies in Iraq and Libya. In both countries, the U.S. military engineered the ouster and murder of the nations’ top leaders, but instead of the promised flourishing of some ideal democracies, the countries descended into anarchy with Sunni terrorists, linked to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, now controlling large swaths of territory and engaging in widespread atrocities.

Yet, for Clinton, the higher priority is to come across as super-tough, proving her value to Official Washington’s influential neocons and liberal hawks. Thus, a potential Clinton presidency suggests an even more warlike foreign policy than the one carried out by Obama, who recently boasted of ordering military strikes in seven different countries.

Clinton seems eager for more and more “regime changes,” targeting Syria and even Russia, despite the existential risks involved in such reckless strategies, especially the notion of destabilizing nuclear-armed Russia. The neocons and liberal hawks always assume that some malleable “moderate” will take power, but the real-life experience is that U.S. interventionism often makes matters worse, with even more extreme leaders filling the void.

Where’s Obama?

Now, with Official Washington lining up behind a blockade of Russian assistance to the Syrian government even if that would mean an Islamic State/Al Qaeda victory the great unknown is where President Obama stands.

A source familiar with the back channels between the White House and the Kremlin told me that Obama had encouraged Putin to step up Russian aid to the embattled Syrian government as part of the fight against the Islamic State and that the Russians are now bewildered as to why Obama’s State Department is trying to sabotage those efforts.

As odd as that might sound, it would not be the first time that Obama has favored a less confrontational approach to a foreign crisis behind the scenes only to have neocon/liberal-hawk operatives inside his own administration charge off in the opposite direction. For instance, in 2009, Obama bowed to demands for what turned out to be a useless “surge” in Afghanistan, and in 2014, he allowed neocon Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland to start a new Cold War with Russia by helping to orchestrate a “regime change” in Ukraine.

As Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, Nuland would presumably be at the center of the recent arm-twisting in Bulgaria and Greece to get those countries to block Russian flights to Syria, which has been a longtime neocon target for “regime change,” a goal that the neocons now see as within their grasp.

Typically, when his underlings undercut him, Obama then falls in line behind them but often in a foot-dragging kind of way. Then, on occasion, he’ll break ranks and make a foray into genuine diplomacy, such as Syria’s 2013 agreement to surrender its chemical-weapons arsenal or Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal both of which were achieved with significant help from Putin. But Obama has proved to be an unreliable foreign-policy partner, bending to the hawkish pressure from many of his subordinates and even joining in their rhetorical insults.

Today, Obama may feel that he has gone as far as he dares with the Iran nuclear deal and that any foreign policy cooperation with Iran or Russia before Congress decides on the agreement’s fate by Sept. 17 could cause defections among key Democrats.

Once the deadline for congressional review passes, Obama could get serious about collaborating with Iran and Russia to stabilize the situation in Syria. By strengthening the Syrian government’s military which has protected Christians, Alawites, Shiites and other minorities and incorporating reasonable Sunnis into a power-sharing arrangement, there would a chance to stabilize Syria and push for elections and constitutional reforms. But that would require dropping the slogan, “Assad must go!”

So, while President Obama is saying little about his Syrian plans, his State Department has moved off on its own aggressive course hoping to finally achieve the neocon/liberal-hawk dream of “regime change” in Syria regardless of what nightmares might follow.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

If Mark Twain Met Donald Trump

The great American novelist Mark Twain had a particularly insightful understanding of hypocrisies of the powerful and the bluster of bigots, which would have given him a deep understanding of Donald Trump and his political appeal, writes Michael Winship.

By Michael Winship

How I spent my summer vacation — part of it, at least. One weekend in August, my girlfriend Pat and I went upstate to visit my sister, also named Patricia, and while there took a field trip to Elmira, New York.

We were on bit of a pilgrimage. Mark Twain, real name Samuel L. Clemens, is buried in Elmira and the three of us decided to visit his grave. For many years, Twain spent his summers at the Elmira home of his in-laws, Quarry Farm, overlooking the Chemung River Valley.

His sister-in-law even built him a small gazebo retreat in which he did much of his finest writing. It is, he wrote, “the quietest of all quiet places” in “an elevation that commands leagues of valley and city and retreating ranges of distant blue hills.”

Twain stopped visiting Elmira after his daughter Suzy’s death in 1896, only to return in 1910, following his death in Redding, Connecticut. His remains were brought to Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery for burial. It’s a short drive from the center of town. Twain, his wife, children, son-in-law and only grandchild are all there. Each has a stone marker and in front of Twain’s, fellow writers and devotees have planted their pens in his memory.

There’s a larger monument, too, placed by his daughter Clara. It honors Twain and Clara’s husband, the Russian musician Ossip Gabrilowitsch, with large bronze medallions, each a bas-relief profile. But at the beginning of the year, the tomb was vandalized. Twain’s medallion was pried from the stone. Luckily, the thief was caught. Repairs and restoration of the plaque will take a few more weeks.

Vandals and Mark Twain. The two ideas tangoed in my head and naturally danced me over to Donald Trump. We were having a quiet weekend’s interlude in upstate New York but even there it was impossible to ignore the cacophony of Trump’s verbal vandalism and braying pitch to nativism and bigotry.

Such jingoism was just the kind of ideological humbuggery Mark Twain loved to puncture. Yet he would agree with Trump’s and our, disgust for the current, disheveled and inert state of our governance.

In fact, years ago, historian and author Garry Wills wrote, “To understand America, read Mark Twain. No matter what new craziness pops up in America, I find it described beforehand by him

“What made Twain so prescient?” Wills continued. “Our own persistence in folly, no doubt. But more than that he understood the peculiarly American brand of folly as no one before or after.”

So while it may be too easy to piggyback onto Twain’s prescience, in these disturbed and disturbing times, it’s irresistible, with the understanding that there’s a lot of spurious Twain material out there that never came from him and the knowledge that in some cases what he said and wrote can be as variously interpreted as the Bible or Koran.

Twain was a contributor to the 19th Century magazine The Galaxy, and in it, he claimed, “I shall not often meddle with politics, because we have a political editor who is already excellent and only needs to serve a term or two in the penitentiary to be perfect.” He lied about the meddling part. Lucky for us.

Twain would have sympathized with all who heap scorn on Congress and Washington. As he famously wrote, “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

And, “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.” And, “ I never can think of Judas Iscariot without losing my temper. To my mind, Judas Iscariot was nothing but a low, mean, premature, Congressman.”

He believed “public office is private graft,” and nowhere did Twain sink his teeth more deeply into the hypocrisy and greed of Washington and its politicians than in his first novel, The Gilded Age, written with Charles Dudley Warner. The very title gave its name to an era of wretched, wealthy excess by plutocrats who embraced economic inequality, an era we revisit today in our own Second Gilded Age.

So devastating is the book’s portrayal of Washington skullduggery, replete with lobbyists and the superrich on a spending spree, buying up government officials, Twain and Warner originally hoped that Thomas Nast, the political cartoonist who savaged New York’s Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall, would provide the illustrations. Garry Wills called it “our best political novel,” greater than Henry James’ Democracy or John Dos Passos’ USA.

Says Colonel Sellers, the get-rich-quick schemer who’s one of the novel’s central characters, “There is no country in the world, Sir, that pursues corruption as inveterately as we do. There is no country in the world whose representatives try each other as much as ours do, or stick to it as long on a stretch. I think there is something great in being a model for the whole civilized world, Washington.”

But beyond the peccadilloes of the capital and its affluent gatekeepers, Mark Twain feared our baser instincts. Yes, “the political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet,” he wrote, but he also feared our reasoning powers “are not above the monkey’s.”

On the one hand, “We are called the nation of inventors. And we are. We could still claim that title and wear its loftiest honors if we had stopped with the first thing we ever invented, which was human liberty.” On the other, “To create man was a quaint and original idea, but to add the sheep was tautology,” a built-in redundancy thrown in by a distracted Creator.

So I thought about which of Twain’s characters would come closest to Donald Trump’s bumptious personality but ultimately rejected the well-to-do wheelers and dealers that populate The Gilded Age. Instead, I decided that in many respects, the character most like The Donald was that of Huckleberry Finn’s dissolute father, Pap.

Even though Pap lusts mostly for liquor and Huck’s loot, a treasure trove back then of $6,000 that today wouldn’t cover Trump’s barber bills, he shares the billionaire’s braggadocio, the propensity for noise, surly resentments and irrational lashings out, especially at minorities.

A good substance-free rant is just Pap and Trump’s style: “Then the old man got to cussing,” Huck recounts, “and cussed everything and everybody he could think of, and then cussed them all over again to make sure he hadn’t skipped any, and after that he polished off with a kind of a general cuss all round, including a considerable parcel of people which he didn’t know the names of, and so called them what’s-his-name when he got to them, and went right along with his cussing.”

Derisively, Pap says, “Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment [sic], wonderful,” and then explodes at the notion of an educated, free black man. “They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? I says I’ll never vote agin. Them’s the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me, I’ll never vote agin as long as I live.”

Many Republicans fear Trump’s possible nomination, “increasingly concerned that [his] inflammatory language is damaging the party,” Jonathan Martin wrote in The New York Times, “that his remarks are hardening the tone of other candidates on racial issues in ways that could repel the voters they need to take back the White House.”

Yet if another GOP candidate wins their nod instead, those same Republicans fear that Trump’s voters will stay at home, just like Pap. It is a wretched bed they have made for themselves this last 50 years, a legacy of mongering and misinformation, and with the unlikely Trump of New York, instead of someone from the Deep Red South, the Republicans have managed to achieve a destructive apotheosis of dog whistles and hatred.

“Such is the human race,” Twain wrote back in 1907. “Often it does seem such a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.” Prescient indeed.

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos.