Taking Away the Ladder

Industrialized countries advanced by means that have been impermissible to the developing world, write Anis Chowdhury and Jomo Kwame Sundaram.

By Anis Chowdhury in Sydney and
Jomo Kwame Sundaram in Kuala Lumpur
Inter Press Service

The notion of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and later, South Africa) was concocted by Goldman Sachs’ Jim O’Neill. His 2001 acronym was initially seen as a timely, if not belated acknowledgement of the rise of the South.

But if one takes China out of the BRICS, one is left with little more than RIBS. While the RIBS have undoubtedly grown in recent decades, their expansion has been quite uneven and much more modest than China’s, while the post-Soviet Russian economy contracted by half during Boris Yeltsin’s first three years of “shock therapy” during 1992-1994.

Unsurprisingly, Goldman Sachs quietly shut down its BRICS investment fund in October 2015 after years of losses, marking the end of an era, according to Bloomberg.

Growth spurts in South America’s southern cone and sub-Saharan Africa lasted over a decade until the Saudi-induced commodity price collapse from 2014. But the recently celebrated rise of the South and developing country convergence with the OECD has largely remained an East Asian story.

Preventing Emulation

Increasingly, that has involved China’s and South Korea’s continued ascendance after Japan’s financial “big bang” and ensuing stagnation three decades ago. They have progressed and grown rapidly for extended periods precisely because they have not followed rules set by the advanced economies.

Industrial policy — involving state owned enterprises (SOEs), technology transfer agreements, government procurement, strict terms for foreign direct investment and other developmental interventions — was condemned by the Washington Consensus, promoting liberalization, privatization and deregulation favoring large transnational corporations.

Well-managed SOEs, government procurement practices and effective protection conditional on export promotion accelerated structural transformation. When foreign corporations were allowed to invest, they were typically required to transfer technology to the host economy.

Countries have only progressed by using industrial policy judiciously when sufficient policy space was available, as was the norm in most developed countries.

But such successful development practices have been denied to most developing countries in recent decades. The North now emphasizes the dangers of industrial policy, subsidies, SOEs and technology transfer agreements, to justify precluding their use by others.

Instead, corporate-led globalization continues to be sold as the way to develop and progress. Major OECD economies appear intent on tightening international rules to further reduce developing countries’ policy space under the pretext of reforming the multilateral trading system in order to save it.

President Donald Trump and others who challenge this neoliberal narrative do not offer any better options for the South. Nevertheless, their nationalist and chauvinist rhetoric has undermined the pious claims and very legitimacy of their neoliberal “globalist” rivals on the right.

Infrastructure Finance

The 2018 Trade and Development Report,” by the U.N.’s Conference on Trade and Development, emphasizes the link between infrastructure and industrialization. It argues that successful industrialization since 19th century England has crucially depended on public infrastructure investment for economic growth and structural transformation.

The ascendance of the neoliberal Washington Consensus agenda has not only undermined public interventions generally, but also state revenue and spending in particular, especially in the developing world. But even the World Bank now admits that it had wrongly discouraged infrastructure financing, which it now advocates.

Most Western-controlled international financial institutions have recently advocated public-private partnerships to finance, manage and implement infrastructure projects. The presumption is that only the private sector has the expertise and capacity to be efficient and profitable. In practice, states borrowed and bore most of the risk, e.g., of contingent liabilities, while private partners reaped much profit, often with state guaranteed revenues.

Unexpected Policy Space

Infrastructure, including both its construction and financing, has been central, not only to China’s own progress, but also to its international development cooperation. China’s financial redeployment of its massive current account surplus has created an alternative to traditional sources of investment finance, both private and public.

The availability of Chinese infrastructure finance on preferential or concessionary terms has been enthusiastically taken up, not least by countries long starved of investible resources. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in over-investments in some infrastructure, resulting in underutilization and poor returns to investment.

The resulting debt burdens and related problems have been well publicized, if not exaggerated by critics with different motivations. Now threatened by China’s rise, Western governments and Japan have suddenly found additional resources to offer similar concessionary financing for their own infrastructure firms.

Thus, not unlike the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, the perceived new threat from China has created a new bipolar rivalry. That has inadvertently created policy space and concessions reminiscent of the post-Second World War “Golden Age” for Keynesian and development economics.

Anis Chowdhury is adjunct professor at Western Sydney University and the University of New South Wales (Australia). He has held senior United Nations positions in New York and Bangkok.
Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor, was United Nations assistant secretary-general for economic development, and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought in 2007.




The Neocons Have Their Caesar

Hail, Donald J. Trump, we who are about to read your latest tweet salute you! Tom Engelhardt pens an obituary for the republic.

By Tom Engelhardt
TomDispatch.com

What dreamers they were! They imagined a kind of global power that would leave even Rome at its Augustan height in the shade. They imagined a world made for one, a planet that could be swallowed by a single great power. No, not just great, but beyond anything ever seen before — one that would build (as its National Security Strategy put it in 2002) a military “beyond challenge.” Let’s be clear on that: no future power, or even bloc of powers, would ever be allowed to challenge it again.

And, in retrospect, can you completely blame them? I mean, it seemed so obvious then that we — the United States of America — were the best and the last. We had, after all, outclassed and outlasted every imperial power since the beginning of time. Even that other menacing superpower of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union, the Evil Empire that refused to stand down for almost half a century, had gone up in a puff of smoke.

Imagine that moment so many years later and consider the crew of neoconservatives who, under the aegis of George W. Bush, the son of the man who had “won” the Cold War, came to power in January 2001. Not surprisingly, on viewing the planet, they could see nothing — not a single damn thing —in their way. There was a desperately weakened and impoverished Russia (still with its nuclear arsenal more or less intact) that, as far as they were concerned, had been mollycoddled by President Bill Clinton’s administration. There was a Communist-gone-capitalist China focused on its own growth and little else. And there were a set of other potential enemies, “rogue powers” as they were dubbed, so pathetic that not one of them could, under any circumstances, be called “great.”

In 2002, in fact, three of them — Iraq, Iran, and North Korea — had to be cobbled together into an axis of evil to create a faintly adequate enemy, a minimalist excuse for the Bush administration to act preemptively. It couldn’t have been more obvious then that all three of them would go down before the unprecedented military and economic power of us (even if, as it happened, two of them didn’t).

It was as clear as glass that the world — the whole shebang — was there for the taking.  And it couldn’t have been headier, even after a tiny Islamist terror outfit hijacked four American jets and took out New York’s World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. As President Bush would put it in an address at West Point in 2002, “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.” In other words, jihadists aside, it was all over. From now on, there would be an arms race of one and it was obvious who that one would be. The National Security Strategy of that year put the same thought this way: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.” Again, anywhere on the planet ever.

Look at more or less any document from the period and you’ll sense that they weren’t shy about touting the unprecedented greatness of a future global Pax Americana. Take, for instance, columnist Charles Krauthammer who, in February 2001, six months before the terror attacks of 9/11, wrote a piece swooning over the new Bush administration’s “unilateralism” to come and the “Bush Doctrine” which would go with it. In the process, he gave that administration a green light to put the pathetic Russians in their nuclear place and summed the situation up this way: “America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. Accordingly, America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations, and create new realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.”

‘How Did USA’s Oil Get Under Iraq’s Sand?’

And soon enough after Sept. 11th, those unapologetic, implacable demonstrations of will did, in fact, begin — first in Afghanistan and then, a year and a half later, in Iraq. Goaded by Osama bin Laden, the new Rome went into action.

Of course, in 2019 we have the benefit of hindsight, which Charles Krauthammer, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and the rest of that crew didn’t have as they applied their Roman-style vision of an imperial America to the actual world. It should be added, however, that the millions of people who hit the streets globally to protest the coming invasion of Iraq in the winter of 2003 — “How did USA’s oil get under Iraq’s sand?” said a typical protest sign (which Donald Trump would have understood in his own way) — had a far better sense of the world than did their American rulers-to-be. Like the Soviets before them, in fact, they would grievously confuse military power with power on this planet.

More than 17 years later, the U.S. military remains stuck in Afghanistan, bedeviled in Iraq, and floundering across much of the Greater Middle East and Africa on a planet with a resurgent Russia, and an impressively rising China. One-third of the former axis of evil, Iran, is, remarkably enough, still in Washington’s gunsights, while another third (North Korea) sits uncomfortably in a presidential bear hug. It’s no exaggeration to say that none of the dreams of a new Rome were ever faintly fulfilled. In fact, if you want to think about what’s been truly exceptional in these years, it might be this: never in history has such a great power, at its height, seemed quite so incapable of effectively applying force, military or otherwise, to achieve its imperial ends or bring its targets to heel.

And yet, wrong as they may have been on such subjects, don’t sell Krauthammer and the rest of that neocon crew short. They were, in their own way, also prophets, at least domestically speaking. After all, Rome, like the United States, had been an imperial republic. That republic was replaced, as its empire grew, by autocratic rule, first by the self-anointed emperor Augustus and then by his successors. Arguably, 18 years after Krauthammer wrote that column, the American republic might be heading down the same path. After all, so many years later, the neocons, triumphantly risen yet again in Washington (both in the administration and as its critics), finally have their Caesar.

Hail, Donald J. Trump, we who are about to read your latest tweet salute you!

A Rogue State of One

Let’s note some other passing parallels between the new Rome and the old one. As a start, it’s certainly accurate to say that our new American Caesar has much gall (divided into at least three parts). Admittedly, he’s no Augustus, the first of a line of emperors, but more likely a Nero, fiddling while, in his case, the world quite literally burns. Still, he could certainly say of campaign 2016 and what followed: Veni, Vidi, Tweeti (I came, I saw, I tweeted). And don’t forget the classic line that might someday be applied to his presidency, “Et tu, Mueller?” — or depending on who turns on him, you can fill in your name of choice.

One day, it might also be said that, in a country in which executive power has become ever more imperial (as has the power of the Senate’s majority leader), blowback from imperial acts abroad has had a significant, if largely hidden, hand in crippling the American republic, as was once true of Rome. In fact, it seems clear enough that the first republican institution to go was the citizen’s army. In the wake of the Vietnam War, the draft was thrown out and replaced by an “all-volunteer” force, one which would, as it came to fight on ever more distant battlefields, morph into a home-grown version of an imperial police force or foreign legion. With it went the staggering sums that, in this century, would be invested — if that’s even the word for it — in what’s still called “defense,” as well as in a vast empire of bases abroad and the national security state, a rising locus of power at home. And then, of course, there were the never-ending wars across much of the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa that went with all of that. Meanwhile, so much else, domestically speaking, was put on the equivalent of austerity rations. And all of that, in turn, helped provoke the crisis that brought Donald Trump to power and might, in the end, even sink the American system as we’ve known it.

The Donald’s victory in the 2016 election was always a sign of a deep disturbance at the heart of an increasingly unequal and unfair system of wealth and power. But it was those trillions of dollars — The Donald claims it was seven trillion — that the neocons began sinking into America’s infinite wars, which cost Americans big time in ways they hardly tracked or noticed.

Those trillions didn’t go into shoring up American infrastructure or health care or education or job-training programs or anything else that might have mattered to most people here, even as untold tax dollars — one estimate: $15,000per middle-class family per year — went into the pockets of the rich. And some of those dollars, in turn, poured back into the American political system (with a helping hand from the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision) and, in the end, helped put the first billionaire in the Oval Office. By the 2020 election campaign, we may achieve another all-American first: two or even three of the candidates could be billionaires.

All of this not only gave Americans a visibly unhinged president — think of him, in axis-of-evil terms, as a rogue state of one — but an increasingly unhinged country. You can feel so much of this in Trump’s confused and confusing attempts to both end American wars and ratchet them up, 17-and-a-half — he always claims almost 19 — years after the invasion of Afghanistan. You can feel it in his gut-level urge to attack the “deep state” and yet fund it beyond its wildest dreams. You can feel it in his attempts to create a corps of “my generals” and then fire them all. You can feel the unhinged nature of events in a world in which, after so many years of war, America’s enemies still seem to have the formula for staying afloat, no matter what Washington does. The Taliban in Afghanistan is on the rise; al-Shabaab in Somalia, is still going strong; the Houthis in Yemen remain functional in a sea of horror and starvation; ISIS, now without its caliphate, has from Syria to the PhilippinesAfrica to Afghanistan, become a distinctly global brand; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula thrives, while terror groups more generally continue to spread.

You can feel it in the president’s confused and confusing explanations for his urges to withdraw American troops in days or four months or whenever from Syria and do the same or maybe not exactly in Afghanistan. (As he said in his State of the Union address, American troops would both withdraw and “focus” on “counterterrorism” in that country.) You can feel it in the way, after so many years of visible failure, the neocons are once again riding high in Washington, ascendant both in his administration and as critics of its global and military policies.

These days, who even remembers that classic early Cold War question — who lost China? — that rattled American domestic politics for years, or later, the similar one about Vietnam? Still, if Donald Trump ever truly does withdraw American forces from Afghanistan (undoubtedly leaving this country’s allies in a Vietnam-style ditch), count on foreign policy establishmentarians in Washington and pundits around the country to ask an updated version of the same question: Did Donald Trump lose Afghanistan?

But no matter what happens, don’t make the mistake of blaming him. It’s true that he tweeted endlessly while the world burned, but he won’t be the one who “lost” Afghanistan. It was “lost” in the grisly dreams of the neocons as the century began and it’s never truly been found again.

Of course, we no more know what’s going to happen in the years ahead than the neocons did in 2001. If history has taught us anything, it’s that prediction is the diciest of human predilections. Still, think of this piece as an obituary of sorts. You know, the kind major newspapers write about those still living and then continually update until death finally occurs.

Think of it not as an obituary for a single loopy president, a man who, with his “great, great wall,” has indeed been an opiate of the masses (for his famed base, at least) in the midst of an opioid crisis hitting them hard. Yes, Donald J. Trump, reality TV star and bankruptee, he of the golden letters, was elevated to a strange version of power by a troubled republic showing signs of wear and tear. It was a republic feeling the pressure of all that money flowing into only half-noticed distant wars and into the pockets of billionaires and corporate entities in a way that turned the very idea of democracy into a bad joke.

Someday, if people ask the obvious question — not who lost Afghanistan, but who lost America? — keep all those failed imperial wars and the national security state that went with them in mind when you try to answer. Cumulatively, they had a far more disruptive role than is now imagined in toppling the dominos that sent us all careening on a path to nowhere here at home. And keep in mind that, whatever Donald Trump does, the Caesarian die was cast early in this century as the neocons crossed their own Rubicon.

Hail, Caesar, we who are about to die salute you!

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture.”He runs TomDispatch.com and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).




Telling Only Part of the Story of Jihad

A CNN star reporter should not be shocked to learn that U.S. allies are consorting with Yemeni terrorists, writes Daniel Lazare.

By Daniel Lazare
Special to Consortium News

A recent CNN report about U.S. military materiel finding its way into Al Qaeda hands in Yemen might have been a valuable addition to Americans’ knowledge of terrorism.

Entitled Sold to an ally, lost to an enemy,” the 10-minute segment, broadcast on Feb. 4, featured rising CNN star Nima Elbagir cruising past sand-colored “Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected” armored vehicles, or MRAPs, lining a Yemeni highway.

“It’s absolutely incredible,” she says.  “And this is not under the control of [Saudi-led] coalition forces.  This is in the command of militias, which is expressly forbidden by the arms sales agreements with the U.S.”

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” she adds.  “CNN was told by coalition sources that a deadlier U.S. weapons system, the TOW missile, was airdropped in 2015 by Saudi Arabia to Yemeni fighters, an air drop that was proudly proclaimed across Saudi backed media channels.”  The TOWs were dropped into Al Qaeda-controlled territory, according to CNN.  But when Elbagir tries to find out more, the local coalition-backed government chases her and her crew out of town.

U.S.-made TOWs in the hands of Al Qaeda?  Elbagir is an effective on-screen presence.  But this is an old story, which the cable network has long soft-pedaled.

In the early days of the Syrian War, Western media was reluctant to acknowledge that the forces arrayed against the Assad regime included Al Qaeda. In those days, the opposition was widely portrayed as a belated ripple effect of the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings elsewhere in the region.

However, in April-May 2015, right around the time that the Saudis were air-dropping TOWs into Yemen, they were also supplying the same optically-guided, high-tech missiles to pro-Al Qaeda forces in Syria’s northern Idlib province.  Rebel leaders were exultant as they drove back Syrian government troops.  TOWs “flipped the balance,” one said, while another declared: “I would put the advances down to one word – TOW.”

CNN reported that story very differently. From rebel-held territory, CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh described the missiles as a “possible game-changer … that may finally be wearing down the less popular side of the Shia-Sunni divide.”  He conceded it wasn’t all good news: “A major downside for Washington at least, is that the often-victorious rebels, the Nusra Front, are Al Qaeda.  But while the winners for now are America’s enemies, the fast-changing ground in Syria may cause to happen what the Obama administration has long sought and preached, and that’s changing the calculus of the Assad regime.”

Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and The New York Times all reacted the same way, furrowing their brows at the news that Al  Qaeda was gaining, but expressing measured relief that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was at last on the ropes.

But now that Elbagir is sounding the alarm about TOWs in Yemen, CNN would do well to acknowledge that it has been distinctly more blasé in the past about TOWs in the hands of al Qaeda.

The network appears unwilling to go where Washington’s pro-war foreign-policy establishment doesn’t want it to go.  Elbagir shouldn’t be shocked to learn that U.S. allies are consorting with Yemeni terrorists.

U.S. History with Holy Warriors    

What CNN producers and correspondents either don’t know or fail to mention is that Washington has a long history of supporting jihad. As Ian Johnson notes in  A Mosque in Munich” (2010), the policy was mentioned by President Dwight Eisenhower, who was eager, according to White House memos, “to stress the ‘holy war’ aspect” in his talks with Muslim leaders about the Cold War Communist menace.”  [See How U.S. Allies Aid Al Qaeda in Syria,” Consortium News, Aug. 4, 2015.]

Britain had been involved with Islamists at least as far back as 1925 when it helped establish the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and both the U.S. and Britain worked with Islamists in the 1953 coup in Iran, according to Robert Dreyfus in Devil’s Game” (2006)

By the 1980s a growing Islamist revolt against a left-leaning, pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan brought U.S. support.    In mid-1979, President Jimmy Carter and his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, armed the Afghan mujahideen — not at first to drive the Soviets out, but to lure them in. Brzezinski intended to deal Moscow a Vietnam-sized blow, as he put it in a 1998 interview.

Meanwhile, a few months after the U.S. armed the mujahideen, the Saudis were deeply shaken when Islamist extremists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca and called for the overthrow of the royal family. While Saudi Arabia has been keen to repress jihadism at home, it has been a major supporter of Sunni extremists in the region, particularly to battle the Shi‘ite regime that came to power in Tehran, also in 1979.

Since then, the U.S. has made use of jihad, either directly or indirectly, with the Gulf oil monarchies or Pakistan’s notoriously pro-Islamist Inter-Services Intelligence agency.  U.S. backing for the Afghan mujahideen helped turn Osama bin Laden into a hero for some young Saudis and other Sunnis, while the training camp he established in the Afghan countryside drew jihadists from across the region.

U.S. backing for Alija Izetbegovic’s Islamist government in Bosnia-Herzegovina brought al-Qaeda to the Balkans, while U.S.-Saudi support for Islamist militants in the Second Chechen War of 1999-2000 enabled it to establish a base of operations there.

Downplaying Al Qaeda

Just six years after 9/11, according to investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, the U.S. downplayed the fight against Al Qaeda to rein in Iran  – a policy, Hersh wrote, that had the effect of “bolstering … Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.”

Under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, policy toward Al-Qaeda turned even more curious.  In March 2011, she devoted nearly two weeks to persuading Qatar, the UAE and Jordan to join the air war against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, only to stand by and watch as Qatar then poured hundreds of millions of dollars of aid into the hands of Islamist militias that were spreading anarchy from one end of the country to the other.  The Obama administration thought of remonstrating with Qatar, but didn’t in the end.

Much the same happened in Syria where, by early 2012, Clinton was organizing a “Friends of Syria” group that soon began channeling military aid to Islamist forces waging war against Christians, Alawites, secularists and others backing Assad.  By August 2012, the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that “the Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the [anti-Assad] insurgency”; that the West, Turkey, and the Gulf states supported it regardless; that the rebels’ goal was to establish “a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria,” and that “this is exactly what the supporting powers want in order to isolate the Syrian regime….”

Biden Speaks Out 

Two years after that, Vice President Joe Biden declared at Harvard’s Kennedy School: 

“Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. …  The Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. what were they doing?  They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do?  They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of military weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except the people who were being supplied were al Nusra and al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”  (Quote starts at 53:25.)

The fact that Obama ordered the vice president to apologize to the Saudis, the UAE and Turkey for his comments provided back-handed confirmation that they were true.   When TOWs turned up in the hands of pro-Qaeda rebels in Syria the following spring, all a senior administration official would say was: “It’s not something we would refrain from raising with our partners.”

It was obvious that Al Qaeda would be a prime beneficiary of Saudi intervention in Yemen from the start. Tying down the Houthis — “Al Qaeda’s most determined foe,” according to the Times — gave it space to blossom and grow.  Where the State Department said it had up to 4,000 members as of 2015, a UN report put its membership at between 6,000 and 7,000 three years later, an increase of 50 to 75 percent or more.

In early 2017, the International Crisis Group found that Al Qaeda was “thriving in an environment of state collapse, growing sectarianism, shifting alliances, security vacuums and a burgeoning war economy.”

In Yemen, Al Qaeda “has regularly fought alongside Saudi-led coalition forces in … Aden and other parts of the south, including Taiz, indirectly obtaining weapons from them,” the ICG added. “…In northern Yemen … the [Saudi-led] coalition has engaged in tacit alliances with AQAP fighters, or at least turned a blind eye to them, as long as they have assisted in attacking the common enemy.”

In May 2016, a PBS documentary showed Al Qaeda members fighting side by side with UAE forces near Taiz.  (See The Secret Behind the Yemen War,” Consortium News, May 7, 2016.)  

Last August, an Associated Press investigative team found that the Saudi-led coalition had cut secret deals with Al Qaeda fighters, “paying some to leave key cities and towns and letting others retreat with weapons, equipment, and wads of looted cash.” Saudi-backed militias “actively recruit Al Qaeda militants,” the AP team added, “…because they’re considered exceptional fighters” and also supply them with armored trucks.

If it’s not news that U.S. allies are providing pro-Al Qaeda forces with U.S.-made equipment, why is CNN pretending that it is?  One reason is that it feels free to criticize the war and all that goes with it now that the growing human catastrophe in Yemen is turning into a major embarrassment for the U.S.  Another is that criticizing the U.S. for failing to rein in its allies earns it points with viewers by making it seem tough and independent, even though the opposite is the case.

Then there’s Trump, with whom CNN has been at war since the moment he was elected.  Trump’s Dec. 19 decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria thus presented the network with a double win because it allowed it to rail against the pullout as bizarre and a win for Moscow while complaining at the same time about administration policy in Yemen.  Trump is at fault, it seems, when he pulls out and when he stays in.

In either instance, CNN gets to ride the high horse as it blasts away at the chief executive that corporate outlets most love to hate.  Maybe Elbagir should have given her exposé a different title: “Why arming homicidal maniacs is bad news in one country but OK in another.”

Daniel Lazare is the author of “The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy” (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and other books about American politics.  He has written for a wide variety of publications from The Nationto Le Monde Diplomatiqueand blogs about the Constitution and related matters at Daniellazare.com.




‘Rule of the Rabbis’ Fuels Holy War in Israel

Palestinians, the secular and women all face a harsher environment as theocratic tendencies are entrenched, writes Jonathan Cook.

By JonathanCook
Jonathan-Cook.net

In which country did a senior, state-salaried cleric urge his followers last month to become “warriors,” emulating a group of young men who had murdered a woman of another faith?

The cleric did so with impunity. In fact, he was only echoing other highly placed colleagues who have endorsed a book – again without penalty – urging their disciples to murder babies belonging to other religions.

Where can the head of the clergy call black people “monkeys” and urge the expulsion of other religious communities?

Where does a clerical elite wield so much power that they alone decide who can marry or get divorced – and are backed by a law that can jail someone who tries to wed without their approval? They can even shut down the national railway system without notice.

Where are these holy men so feared that women are scrubbed from billboards, college campuses introduce gender segregation to appease them, and women find themselves literally pushed to the back of the bus?

Is the country Saudi Arabia? Or Myanmar? Or perhaps, Iran?

No. It is Israel, the world’s only self-declared Jewish state.

 ‘Shared Values’

There is barely a politician in Washington seeking election who has not at some point declared an “unbreakable bond” between the United States and Israel, or claimed the two uphold “shared values.” Few, it seems, have any idea what values Israel really represents.

There are many grounds for criticizing Israel, including its brutal oppression of Palestinians under occupation and its system of institutionalized segregation and discrimination against the fifth of its population who are not Jewish – its Palestinian minority.

But largely ignored by critics have been Israel’s increasing theocratic tendencies.

This hasn’t simply proved regressive for Israel’s Jewish population, especially women, as the rabbis exert ever greater control over the lives of religious and secular Jews alike.

It also has alarming implications for Palestinians, both under occupation and those living in Israel, as a national conflict with familiar colonial origins is gradually transformed into a holy war, fuelled by extremist rabbis with the state’s implicit blessing.

Control of Personal Status

Despite Israel’s founding fathers being avowedly secular, the separation between church and state in Israel has always been flimsy at best – and it is now breaking down at an ever-accelerating rate.

After Israel’s establishment, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, decided to subordinate important areas of life for Israeli Jews to the jurisdiction of an Orthodox rabbinate, representing the strictest, most traditional and conservative stream of Judaism. Other, more liberal streams have no official standing in Israel to this day.

Ben Gurion’s decision in part reflected a desire to ensure his new state embraced two differing conceptions of Jewishness: both those who identified as Jews in a secular ethnic or cultural sense, and those who maintained the religious traditions of Judaism. He hoped to fuse the two into a new notion of a Jewish “nationality”.

For that reason, the Orthodox rabbis were given exclusive control over important parts of the public sphere – personal status matters, such as conversions, births, deaths and marriages.

Biblical Justifications

Bolstering the rabbis’ power was the urgent need of Israel’s secular leaders to obscure the state’s settler-colonial origins. This could be achieved by using education to emphasize Biblical justifications for the usurpation by Jews of the lands of the native Palestinian population.

As the late peace activist Uri Avnery observed, the Zionist claim was “based on the Biblical history of the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, the kingdoms of Saul, David and Solomon … Israeli schools teach the Bible as real history.”

Such indoctrination, combined with a much higher birth rate among religious Jews, has contributed to an explosion in the numbers identifying as religious. They now comprise half the population.

Today, about a quarter of Israeli Jews belong to the Orthodox stream, which reads the Torah literally, and one in seven belong to the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, the most fundamentalist of the Jewish religious streams. Forecasts suggest that in 40 years the latter will comprise a third of the country’s Jewish population.

‘Conquer the Government’

Both the growing power and extremism of the Orthodox in Israel was highlighted in the last week of January when one of their most influential rabbis, Shmuel Eliyahu, publicly came to the defense of five students accused of murdering Aisha Rabi, a Palestinian mother of eight. Back in October they stoned her car near Nablus, in the occupied West Bank, forcing her off the road.

Eliyahu is the son of a former chief rabbi of Israel, Mordechai Eliyahu, and himself sits on the Chief Rabbinical Council, which controls many areas of life for Israelis. He is also the municipal rabbi of Safed, a city that in Judaism has the equivalent status of Medina in Islam or Bethlehem in Christianity, so his words carry a great deal of weight with Orthodox Jews.

Last month, a video came to light of a talk he gave at the seminary where the five accused studied, in the illegal settlement of Rehelim, south of Nablus.

Eliyahu not only praised the five as “warriors” but told fellow students that they needed to overthrow the “rotten” secular court system. He told them it was vital to “conquer the government” too, but without guns or tanks. “You have to take the state’s key positions,” he urged them.

Law-Breaking Judges

In truth, that process is already well-advanced.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who should have been the first to denounce Eliyahu’s comments, is closely aligned with religious settlers. Tellingly, she and other government ministers have maintained a studious silence.

That is because the political representatives of Israel’s religious Jewish communities, including the settlers, have now become the lynchpin of Israeli coalition governments. They are the kingmakers and can extract enormous concessions from other parties.

For some time, Shaked has been using her position to bring more openly nationalistic and religious judges into the legal system, including to the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court.

Two of its current 15 judges, Noam Sohlberg and David Mintz, are law-breakers, openly living in West Bank settlements in violation of international law. Several more judges appointed to the bench by Shaked are religious and conservative.

This is a significant victory for the Orthodox religious and the settlers. The court is the last line of defence for the secular against an assault on their religious freedoms and on gender equality.

And the court offers the only recourse for Palestinians seeking to mitigate the worst excesses of the violent and discriminatory policies of the Israeli government, army and settlers.

Chosen People

Shaked’s colleague, Naftali Bennett, another ideologue of the settlement movement, has been education minister in the Netanyahu government for four years. This post has long been a critical one for the Orthodox because it shapes Israel’s next generation.

After decades of concessions to the rabbis, Israel’s school system is already heavily skewed towards religion. A survey in 2016 showed 51 percent of Jewish pupils attended sex-segregated religious schools, which emphasise Biblical dogma – up from 33 percent only 15 years earlier.

This may explain why a recent poll found that 51 percent believe Jews have a divine right to the land of Israel, and slightly more – 56 percent – believe that Jews are a “chosen people”.

Those results are likely to get even worse in the coming years. Bennett has been placing much greater weight in the curriculum on Jewish tribal identity, Bible studies and religious claims to Greater Israel, including to the Palestinian territories – which he wants to annex.

Conversely, science and maths are increasingly downplayed in the education system, and entirely absent from schools for the ultra-Orthodox. Evolution, for example, has been mostly erased from the syllabus, even in secular schools.

‘No Mercy’ to Palestinians

Another key sphere of state power being taken over by the religious, and especially the settlers, are the security services. Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh lived for years in a settlement renowned for its violent attacks on Palestinians, and the force’s current chief rabbi, Rahamim Brachyahu, is also a settler.

Both have actively promoted a program, Believers in the Police, that recruits more religious Jews into the police force. Nahi Eyal, the programme’s founder, has said his aim is to help the settler community “find our way into the command ranks.”

The trend is even more entrenched in the Israeli military. Figures show that the national-religious community, to which settlers belong – though only 10 percent of the population – make up half of all new officer cadets. Half of Israel’s military academies are now religious.

That has translated into an increasing role for extremist Orthodox rabbis in motivating soldiers on the battlefield. In Israel’s 2008-09 ground invasion of Gaza, soldiers were issued with pamphlets by the army rabbinate using Biblical injunctions to persuade them to “show no mercy” to Palestinians.

Aggressive Youth Nationalism

Meanwhile, the rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox population has been encouraged by the government to move into West Bank settlements purpose-built for them, such as Modi’in Illit and Beitar Illit. That, in turn, is gradually fueling the emergence of an aggressive nationalism among their youth.

Once the Haredim were openly hostile, or at best ambivalent, towards Israeli state institutions, believing that a Jewish state was sacrilegious until the Messiah arrived to rule over Jews.

Now, for the first time, young Haredim are serving in the Israeli army, adding to the pressure on the military command to accommodate their religious fundamentalist ideology. A new term for these hawkish Haredi soldiers has been coined: they are known as the “Hardal.”

Brachyahu and rabbis for the Hardal are among the senior rabbis who have endorsed a terrifying book, the King’s Torah, written by two settler rabbis, that urges Jews to treat non-Jews, and specifically Palestinians, mercilessly.

It offers God’s blessing for Jewish terror – not only against Palestinians who try to resist their displacement by settlers, but against all Palestinians, even babies, on the principle that “it is clear that they will grow [up] to harm us.”

Gender Segregation Expands

The dramatic rise in religiosity is creating internal problems for Israeli society too, especially for the shrinking secular population and for women. Posters for the forthcoming election – as with adverts more generally – are being cleaned of women’s faces in parts of the country to avoid causing offence.

Last month, the Supreme Court criticized Israel’s Council for Higher Education for allowing segregation between men and women in college classrooms to spread to the rest of the campus, including libraries and communal areas. Female students and lecturers are facing “modesty” dress codes.

The council has even announced that it intends to expand segregation because it is proving difficult to persuade religious Jews to attend higher education.

Violence of the Mob

Israel has always been a society deeply structured to keep Israeli Jews and Palestinians apart, both physically and in terms of rights. That is equally true for Israel’s large Palestinian minority, a fifth of the population, who live almost entirely apart from Jews in segregated communities. Their children are kept away from Jewish children in separate schools.

But the greater emphasis in Israel on a religious definition of Jewishness means that Palestinians now face not only the cold structural violence designed by Israel’s secular founders, but additionally a hot-tempered, Biblically sanctioned hostility from religious extremists.

That is most keenly evident in the rapid rise of physical assaults on Palestinians and their property, as well as their holy places, in Israel and the occupied territories. Among Israelis, this violence is legitimized as “price tag” attacks, as though Palestinians have brought such harm on themselves.

YouTube is now full of videos of gun- or baton-wielding settlers attacking Palestinians, typically as they try to access their olive groves or springs, while Israeli soldiers stand passively by or assist.

Arson attacks have spread from olive groves to Palestinian homes, sometimes with horrifying results, as families are burned alive.

Rabbis such as Eliyahu have stoked this new wave of attacks with their Biblical justifications. State terrorism and mob violence have merged.

Destroying al-Aqsa

The biggest potential flashpoint is in occupied East Jerusalem, where the growing symbolic and political power of these Messianic rabbis risks exploding at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

Secular politicians have long played with fire at this Islamic holy site, using archaeological claims to try to convert it into a symbol of historic Jewish entitlement to the land, including the occupied territories.

But their claim that the mosque is built over two Jewish temples, the last of which was destroyed two millennia ago, has been rapidly reconfigured for incendiary, modern political purposes.

The growing influence of religious Jews in parliament, the government, the courts and the security services means that officials grow ever bolder in staking a physical claim to sovereignty over al-Aqsa.

It also entails an ever-greater indulgence towards religious extremists who demand more than physical control over the mosque site. They want al-Aqsa destroyed and replaced with a Third Temple.

The Gathering Holy War

Slowly, Israel is transforming a settler-colonial project against the Palestinians into a battle with the wider Islamic world. It is turning a territorial conflict into a holy war.

The demographic growth of Israel’s religious population, the cultivation by the school system of an ever-more extreme ideology based on the Bible, the takeover of the state’s key power centers by the religious, and the emergence of a class of influential rabbis who preach genocide against Israel’s neighbors has set the stage for a perfect storm in the region.

The question now is at what point will Israel’s allies, in the US and Europe, finally wake up to the catastrophic direction Israel is heading in – and find the will to take the necessary action to stop it.

Jonathan Cook is a freelance journalist based in Nazareth. He blogs at https://www.jonathan-cook.net/blog/.




PATRICK LAWRENCE: Pompeo, Pence & the Alienation of Europe

If the objective was to further isolate the U.S., the two officials could not have done a better job last week, writes Patrick Lawrence.

By Patrick Lawrence
Special to Consortium News

What a job Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did in Europe last week. If the objective was to worsen an already critical trans–Atlantic rift and further isolate the U.S., they could not have returned to Washington with a better result.
We might have to mark down this foray as among the clumsiest and most abject foreign policy failures since President Donald Trump took office two years ago. 

Pence and Pompeo both spoke last Thursday at a U.S.–sponsored gathering in Warsaw supposedly focused on “peace and security in the Middle East.” That turned out to be a euphemism for recruiting the 60–plus nations in attendance into an anti–Iran alliance.

“You can’t achieve peace and stability in the Middle East without confronting Iran,” Pompeo said flatly. The only delegates this idea pleased were Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and officials from Gulf Arab nations who share an obsession with subverting the Islamic Republic.

Pence went on to the annual security conference in Munich, where he elaborated further on a few of the Trump administration’s favored themes. Among them: The Europeans should ditch the nuclear accord with Iran, the Europeans should cut off trade with Russia, the Europeans should keep components made by Huawei and other Chinese companies out of their communications networks. The Europeans, in short, should recognize America’s global dominance and do as it does; as if it were still, say, 1954.

It is hard to imagine how an American administration can prove time and again so out of step with 21stcentury realities. How could a vice-president and a secretary of state expect to sell such messages to nations plainly opposed to them?

Pounding the Anti-Iran Theme 

Pompeo, who started an “Iran Action Group” after the Trump administration withdrew last year from the 2015 nuclear accord, returned repeatedly to a single theme in his Warsaw presentations. The Iranians, he said, “are a malign influence in Lebanon, in Yemen, and Syria and Iraq. The three H’s—Houthis, Hamas, and Hezbollah—these are real threats.”

Pence ran a mile with this thought. “At the outset of this historic conference,” he said, “leaders from across the region agreed that the greatest threat to peace and security in the Middle East is the Islamic Republic of Iran.” To be noted: all the “leaders from across the region” in attendance were Sunnis, except for Netanyahu. The major European allies, still furious that Washington has withdrawn from the nuclear accord, sent low-level officials and made no speeches.

The European signatories to the Iran accord knew what was coming, surely. While Pence insisted that Britain, France and Germany withdraw from the nuclear pact—“the time has come,” he said—he also criticized the financing mechanism the three set up last month to circumvent the Trump administration’s trade sanctions against Iran. “They call this scheme a ‘special purpose vehicle,’ ” Pence said. “We call it an effort to break American sanctions against Iran’s murderous revolutionary regime.”

There were plenty of European leaders at the security conference last weekend in Munich, where Pence used the occasion  to consolidate what is beginning to look like an irreparable escalation of trans–Atlantic alienation. After renewing his attack on the Iran agreement’s European signatories, he shifted criticism to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

Now under construction, this will be the second undersea pipeline connecting Gazprom, the Russian energy company, to Germany and other European markets. Last month the U.S. renewed threats to sanction German companies working on the $11 billion project. “We cannot strengthen the West by becoming dependent on the East,” Pence said at the security conference Saturday.

These and other remarks in Munich were enough to get Angela Merkel out of her chair to deliver an unusually impassioned speech in defense of the nuclear accord, multilateral cooperation and Europe’s extensive economic relations with Russia. “Geo-strategically,” the German chancellor asserted, “Europe can’t have an interest in cutting off all relations with Russia.”

US Primacy V. Europe’s Future  

Merkel’s speech goes to the core of what was most fundamentally at issue as Pompeo and Pence blundered through Europe last week. There are three questions to consider.

The most obvious of these is Washington’s continued insistence on U.S. primacy in the face of full-frontal resistance even from longstanding allies. “Since day one, President Trump has restored American leadership on the world stage,” Pence declared in Warsaw. And in Munich: “America is stronger than ever before and America is leading on the world stage once again.”

His speeches in both cities are filled with hollow assertions such as these—each one underscoring precisely the opposite point: America is fated to continue isolating itself, a little at a time, so long as its leaders remain lost in such clouds of nostalgia.

The other two questions concern Europe and its future. Depending on how these are resolved, a more distant trans–Atlantic alliance will prove inevitable.

First, Europe must soon come to terms with its position on the western flank of the Euro–Asian landmass. Merkel was right: The European powers cannot realistically pretend that an ever-deepening interdependence with Russia is a choice. There is no choice. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, as it progresses westward, will make this clearer still.

Second, Europe must develop working accommodations with its periphery, meaning the Middle East and North Africa, for the sake of long-term stability in its neighborhood. The mass migrations from Syria, Libya and elsewhere have made this evident in the most tragic fashion possible. It is to Germany’s and France’s credit that they are now negotiating with Turkey and Russia to develop reconstruction plans for Syria that include a comprehensive political settlement.

As they do so, Washington shows no sign of lifting sanctions against Syria that have been in place for more than eight years. It may, indeed, impose new sanctions on companies participating in reconstruction projects. In effect, this could criminalize Syria’s reconstruction—making the nation another case wherein Europe and the U.S. find themselves at cross purposes.

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author, and lecturer. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is www.patricklawrence.us.

Support his work via www.patreon.com/thefloutist.

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Will the Trade War Lead to Real War with China?

What the U.S. faces with China is not a new Cold War but a contest unlike any it has known before, says Chas W. Freeman, Jr.

By Chas W. Freeman, Jr
ChasFreeman.net

Chas FreemanFive hundred years ago, Hernán Cortés began the European annihilation of the Mayan, Aztec, and other indigenous civilizations in the Western Hemisphere.  Six months later, in August 1519, Magellan [Fernão de Magalhães] launched his circumnavigation of the globe.  For five centuries thereafter, a series of Western powers — Portugal, Spain, Holland, Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and, finally, the United States — overturned preexisting regional orders as they imposed their own on the world.  That era has now come to an end.

In the final phases of the age of Western dominance, we Americans made and enforced the rules.  We were empowered to do so in two phases.  First, around 1880, the United States became the world’s largest economy.  Then, in 1945, having liberated Western Europe from Germany and overthrown Japanese hegemony in East Asia, Americans achieved primacy in both the Atlantic and Pacific.  Almost immediately, the Soviet Union and its then-apparently-faithful Asian companion, Communist China, challenged our new sphere of influence.  In response, we placed our defeated enemies (Germany, Italy, Japan), our wartime allies, and most countries previously occupied by our enemies under American protection.  With our help, these countries — which we called “allies” — soon returned to wealth and power but remained our protectorates.  Now other countries, like China and India, are rising to challenge our global supremacy.

President Donald Trump has raised the very pertinent question: Should states with the formidable capabilities longstanding American “allies” now have still be partial wards of the U.S. taxpayer?  In terms of our own security, are they assets or liabilities?  Another way of putting this is to ask: Do our Cold War allies and their neighbors now face credible threats that they cannot handle by themselves?  Do these threats also menace vital U.S. interests?  And do they therefore justify U.S. military presences and security guarantees that put American lives at risk?  These are questions that discomfit our military-industrial complex and invite severe ankle-biting by what some have called “the Blob” — the partisans of the warfare state now entrenched in Washington.  They are serious questions that deserve serious debate.  We Americans are not considering them.

Instead, we have finessed debate by designating both Russia and China as adversaries that must be countered at every turn.  This has many political and economic advantages.  It is a cure for enemy deprivation syndrome — that queasy feeling our military-industrial complex gets when our enemies disorient us by irresponsibly defaulting on their contest with us and disappearing, as the Soviet Union did three decades ago.  China and Russia are also technologically formidable foes that can justify American R&D and procurement of the expensive, high-tech weapons systems.  Sadly, low intensity conflict with scruffy “terrorist” guerrillas can’t quite do this.

China and Russia Blamed for Our Malaise

No one in the United States now seems prepared to defend either China or Russia against the charge that they, not we, are responsible for our current national dysfunction and malaise.  After all, we’re the best, Russia’s a rogue, and China’s an unfair competitor.  Our patriotism is admirable, theirs is malign.

It must have been the Russians who overcame our better judgment and made us vote against Hillary Clinton and for Donald Trump.  Who other than China could have caused our companies to outsource work to places with cheap labor, instead of upgrading equipment and retraining their workers to meet foreign competition?  A pox on all foreigners, not just Mexican rapists, European rip-off artists, Japanese free riders, Russian trolls, immigrants from “shithole” countries, and Chinese cyber burglars.  Why worry about how to boost our own competitiveness when we can cripple the competitiveness of others?

Today our government is trying to break apart Sino-American interdependence, weaken China, and prevent it from overtaking us in wealth, competence, and influence.  We have slapped tariffs on it, barred investment from it, charged it with pilfering intellectual property, arrested its corporate executives, blocked tech transfers to it, restricted what its students can study here, banned its cultural outreach to our universities, and threatened to bar its students from entering them.  We are aggressively patrolling the waters and air spaces off its coasts and islands.  Whether China deserves to be treated this way or not, we are leaving it little reason to want to cooperate with us.

Our sudden hostility to China reflects a consensus — at least within the Washington Beltway — that we need to wrestle China to the ground and pin it there.  But what are the chances we can do that?  What are the consequences of attempting it?  Where are we now headed with China?

Realism is out of fashion in Washington even if it’s alive and well elsewhere in America.  It should give us pause that our new enemy of choice is a very different, larger, and more dynamic country than any we have unbefriended before.  China had a couple of bad centuries.  But 40 years ago, the Chinese Communist Party and government began to evolve what turned out to be a successful model of economic development that blended state capitalism with free enterprise.  This unleashed the entrepreneurial talents of the Chinese people.  The results have been staggering.   Per capita income in China today is 25 times what it was in 1978.  Back then, well over 90 percent of Chinese lived in poverty, as defined by the World Bank.  Today, less than 2 percent do.  China’s GDP is now 60 times bigger than it was 40years ago.

China is no longer isolated, poor, or irrelevant to affairs distant from it.  It is a society with capabilities that rival and are beginning to overtake our own.  China faces many challenges, but its people are resilient, resourceful, and optimistic that the lives of their descendants will be vastly better than their own — this at a time that we Americans are unprecedentedly pessimistic about our own country’s present and future condition.

Despite increasingly problematic policies, the Chinese economy is still growing almost three times faster than ours.  By some measures, it is already one-third larger.  China’s manufacturing sector accounts for over one fourth of global industrial production and is one-and-a-half times bigger than that of the United States.  China’s ability to defend itself and its periphery against foreign attack is now formidable despite its spending less than 2 percent of GDP on its military.  If pressed to do so, China could spend as much on defense as we do — and that’s a lot: almost $1.2 trillion when you add up all the military spending that is hidden like Easter eggs all over non-Defense Department budgets.

China is slightly larger than the United States – 6.3 percent of the world’s landmass vs. 6.1 percent for the U.S.  But there are 1.4 billion Chinese, with only one-third the arable land and one-fourth the water we Americans have.  If we had the same ratio of population to agricultural resources that the Chinese do, there would be almost 4 billion Americans – about 600 million of them over 65 – most of them probably planning to retire in Florida.

In China, No Margin for Error

I suspect that, if there were that many people crammed into the United States, Americans would have a much lower tolerance for social disorder and a different attitude toward family planning than we now do.  We’d also be more worried about the prospects for individual security and survival.  Sixty years ago, perhaps 30 million Chinese died in a man-made famine known as the “Great Leap Forward.”  Chinese are acutely aware that they have narrow margins for error.  This makes them naturally risk averse and, in most respects, a more predictable actor in foreign affairs than we now are.

Until we suddenly launched a trade war last year, China was our fastest growing export market.  It is, after all, the largest consumer of a vast array of commodities and products.  China consumes 59 percent of the world’s cement, 47 percent of its aluminum, 56 percent of its nickel, 50 percent of its coal, 50 percent of its copper and steel, 27 percent of its gold, 14 per cent of its oil, 31 percent of its rice, 47 percent of its pork, 23 percent of its corn, and 33 percent of its cotton.  It consumes about one-fourth of the world’s energy.  It provides one-third of the global market for semiconductors.  Its companies’ demand for these has been growing around 16 percent annually. Microchips have become China’s largest single import — around $110 billion this year.  China has been the main market for U.S. chips, one of the few products of industry we Americans still monopolize.

By slapping tariffs, quotas, and export bans on China, the United States is throwing these markets away as well as raising prices and reducing choices for American consumers.  Food security has been an obsession for every Chinese state over the course of the last 2,500 years.  No responsible leader in China is again going to commit his or her country to long-term dependence on the U.S. for its feed-grain, wheat, corn, cotton, pork, or fresh fruit supply.  Erratic behavior in business makes one the supplier of last resort.  Whatever the short-term outcome of the trade war we launched against it, in future China is going to look elsewhere for critical imports.

No “wall” is in prospect on the U.S.-Mexican border, but the United States is surrounding itself with a moat full of protectionist measures aimed at denying China not just sales in the U.S. market, but opportunities to invest its rising wealth in U.S. industry, agriculture, and services.  This is in part a response to a real but far from unprecedented problem.  In the 19th century, encouraged by Alexander Hamilton and others, Americans pioneered the art of technology theft from Britain and other more advanced manufacturing economies.  As the 20th century began and we became a net exporter of innovation ourselves, we renounced intellectual property crime.  Japan and Taiwan then took over our role.  When Japan got rich, it too retired.  Taiwan moved its pirate industries across the Strait to the China mainland.

Fighting the Last War

China took up the by-now, well-established practice of upgrading its industrial base by lifting technology from wherever it could.  But, like the U.S. and Japan in earlier days, China is now itself becoming an exporter not just of capital but advanced, innovative technology.  With a lot of competition among its own enterprises and an increasing share of the world’s intellectual property, Chinese companies have become very concerned to secure their innovations from pilferage.  This has made them responsive to our pressure on them to clean up their act.  In their own interest, they are almost certain to do so whether we make a deal with them or not.  Like the proverbial generals, we may be fighting the last war, not the one to come.

The end of the 21st century’s second decade is a remarkably inauspicious moment for us to be severing ties with scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians — so-called STEM workers — in China.  Technology advances through collaboration, not the sequestration of knowledge.  In the United States, we graduate about 650,000 scientists and engineers annually, over one third of whom are foreigners.  (In some disciplines, like engineering and computer science, foreign students account for about half of new U.S. degrees.)  Almost one third of all foreign students here are from China.  On its own, China now graduates 1.8 million scientists, engineers, and mathematicians annually.  It is about to overtake us in the number of doctorates it confers in these fields.

Already about one-fourth of the world’s STEM workers are Chinese.  This Chinese intellectual workforce is eight times larger than ours and growing six times as fast.  By 2025, China is expected to have more technologically skilled workers than all members of the OECD combined.  (The OECD is not a trivial grouping.  It consists of the world’s most advanced economies: the United States, Canada and Mexico, all non-Russian-speaking Europe, Australia, Israel, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and Turkey.)  By severing ties with the Chinese, we Americans are isolating ourselves from the largest population of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians in the world.

U.S. Educated, Working in China

The United States has always been a major importer of foreign brainpower.  Since 2000, 39 percent of our Nobel Prize winners have been immigrants.  A great many of our technology companies were started by immigrants or are now managed by them.  Asian immigrants, mainly from China (including Taiwan), India, and Korea, make up about 17 percent of our current STEM workforce.  In large part as a result of the less welcoming atmosphere in our country today, less than half of Chinese graduates from our universities now join the U.S. workforce.  Most are going home to work or start companies in China rather than here.  China is now home to 36 percent of the world’s “unicorns” – start-up companies valued at more than $1 billion.

Some estimates are that the United States is already one million short of the STEM workforce our economy requires to sustain our competitiveness.  Tightening restrictions on foreign students and workers as we are now doing undercuts our ability to fill this gap.  We are reducing our openness to foreign science and technology at precisely the moment that other countries — not just China but nations like India and Korea — are pulling even with us, Europe, and Japan, or charging ahead.  China has begun to outspend us on research and development, especially in the basic sciences, where breakthroughs in human knowledge that lead to new technologies occur.

Our strategy is not aimed at upping our own performance but at hamstringing China’s.  This is more likely to induce intellectual constipation here than in China.  The Chinese are not going to oblige us by ceasing to educate their young people, halting their progress, or severing their science and technology relationships with other countries. Nor will most other countries join us in shunning them.  We Americans, not the Chinese, are the most likely to be weakened and impoverished by our growing xenophobia and nativism. Others, not Americans, will leverage China’s advancing prosperity and brainpower to their advantage.

At root, of course, our concern about China’s increasing technological prowess is about the balance of military power between us.  Since World War II, Americans have become accustomed to being the privileged custodians of the global commons, setting the rules and calling the shots in all the world’s oceans, including the Western Pacific.  We gained our primacy there nearly seventy-five years ago when we defeated Japan and filled the resulting power vacuum in its former imperial domain.

But Japan is back as a major power even if it has preferred to pretend otherwise.  South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, and others in East Asia have become powerful, independent states that bow to no foreign power.  There is no vacuum in Asia for either the United States or China to fill.

No country in Asia can ignore the power that China’s huge and growing economy confers on it.  None could achieve a decisive victory in a war with China.  But none is prepared to enlist in our campaign against China or China’s backlash against the United States.  None wants to choose between us.  As uneasy as China’s neighbors may be in the face of its economic and military ascendancy, they all know they must accommodate it.

For over half of the last millennium, all or part of China fell prey to a remarkable range of foreign invaders – Qiang, Jurchens, Mongols, Manchus, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British, French, Russians, Austro-Hungarians, Germans, Americans, and Japanese.  Often, China was ruled by foreigners or dominated by them.  The most recent set of invasions was from the South and East China Seas.  It should surprise no one that Chinese are determined to defend the approaches to their coasts or that, to this end, they are developing what the Pentagon calls “anti-access, area denial” or A2/AD capabilities.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s rapidly strengthening capabilities have become a formidable impediment to anyone planning to mount an attack on China or on shipping approaching or leaving Chinese ports.  The United States has repeatedly declared that we see China’s new ability to control its periphery as a threat to us.  The Chinese take this, our plan to “pivot” much of our military to their frontiers, and our aggressive patrols of their defenses as ipso facto evidence of U.S. preparation for war with them.  The United States and China are caught in a classic “security dilemma,” in which each side’s defensive moves are seen as threats by the other.

The contest between our determination to defend our continuing military primacy in the Indo-Pacific and China’s imperative of keeping potentially hostile armed forces like ours at bay is clearest in the South China Sea.  Though long claimed by both China and Vietnam and fished in by the Philippines, this was traditionally a no-man’s land – part of the regional commons where fishermen from all the littoral countries felt free to ply their trade.  But, in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam seized most of the land features in the Spratly Islands in an effort to secure its seabed resources for themselves.  A decade later, China took the few rocks and reefs that were left.  It has since turned these into islands with secure harbors, garrisoned them, and built airfields on them.

Games of Chicken

The U.S. and PLA Navies are now engaged in escalating games of chicken around these artificial islands as well as along the coasts of the China mainland.  Both navies are highly professional.  The danger of an accident is therefore low, but the risk of miscalculation is high.  Should actual combat between our armed forces occur, it could rapidly widen.

In the East China Sea, the United States has pledged to back Japan’s claims to the Senkaku (or Diaoyu) islands.  These are barren rocks about 100 miles east-north-east of Taiwan and 250 miles west of Okinawa.  Chinese in both Taiwan and the mainland claim them as part of Taiwan.  Armed Japanese and Chinese coast guards began patrolling them a decade ago..  At least for now, both seem determined to manage their differences prudently.  Neither wants a war.  Still, there is a decided risk that we Americans might be dragged into a bloody encounter between Chinese and Japanese nationalism.

But the greatest danger of a Sino-American war is Taiwan.  Taiwan is a former Chinese province that was recovered from its Japanese occupiers by Nationalist China at the end of World War II.  In 1949, having been defeated everywhere else in China, Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist forces retreated to it.

The universal expectation at the time was that the People’s Liberation Army would cross the Taiwan Strait and unify China by finishing off Chiang and the Nationalists.  But, when the Korean War broke out, the United States intervened to prevent its widening through a PLA invasion of Taiwan or a Nationalist attempt to retake the China mainland.  We Americans thus suspended but did not end the Chinese civil war.  To this day, we remain committed to preventing war in the Taiwan Strait.  To this end, we continue to sell weapons to the island.  China sees this as hostile interference in a quarrel among Chinese in which foreigners should not involve themselves.

Behind its U.S. shield, over the course of 70 years, Taiwan emerged as a prosperous democratic Chinese society with decidedly mixed feelings about whether it should be part of China.  The island is now ruled by a political party that is deterred from declaring independence from China only by its realization that this would trigger a violent resumption of the Chinese civil war that would almost certainly destroy Taiwan and its democracy.

Chinese on the mainland see their country’s continued division as an artifact of U.S. policy.  While they have pledged to try to resolve their differences with Taiwan peacefully, they remain determined to erase the humiliation that the continued foreign-supported separation of Taiwan from the rest of China represents.  War is not imminent, but it is an ever-present danger, with the potential to produce a nuclear exchange between China and the United States.

Taiwan illustrates the dangers of managing disputes by relying exclusively on deterrence to the exclusion of diplomacy.  Deterrence can inhibit the outbreak of war, but it does nothing to resolve its underlying causes.  In the case of Taiwan, the United States lacks a diplomatic strategy to encourage the parties to the dispute to address and resolve their differences.  In default of a strategy, we are now doubling down on our politico-military support of Taiwan.  But if Beijing loses confidence in the possibility of a peaceful reconciliation with the Taiwan authorities, it will be increasingly tempted to use force.  This is precisely the trend at present. We have no plan to deal with that trend other than to prepare ourselves for combat.

China enjoys widening military superiority over Taiwan.  Many judge that it could already defeat an effort by us to defend Taiwan.  The PLA need not invade Taiwan to devastate it.  Taiwan would be the main loser in any conflict whether the U.S. supported it or not.

A Sino-American war over Taiwan could quickly escalate to the nuclear level.  China has a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons but it could deliver a devastating counterstrike on the U.S. homeland if we attacked it.  There is very little substantive contact between the U.S. and Chinese militaries, and there are no mechanisms for escalation control in place.  It is not clear how either side could fend off domestic pressures for escalation if we come to blows, as we may.  Instead of exploring means of establishing and managing a strategic balance with China, we are withdrawing from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in part to enable us to deploy nuclear weapons closer to China.

For better or ill, the admirably liberal Chinese society on Taiwan cannot assure its security or prosperity without reaching some sort of accommodation with the much larger, authoritarian Chinese society on the other side of the Strait.  Sooner or later, Taiwan will have to negotiate a durable modus vivendi with the mainland.  Current U.S. policies help Taiwan avoid hard choices even as the balance of power shifts against it.  We are inadvertently helping Taiwan set itself up for a Chinese offer it will be unable to refuse.  Meanwhile, US-China relations are increasingly hostile politically, economically, and militarily.

What we face with China is not a new Cold War but a contest unlike any we have ever experienced in our 230 years as a constitutional democracy.  China is fully integrated into the global economy.  George Kennan’s grand strategy of containment was based on the correct judgment that, if isolated for long enough, the defects in the autarkic Soviet system would cause it to fail.  China cannot be isolated, and its economy is currently outperforming ours.

The Soviet Union was an overly militarized state that collapsed under the burden of excessive defense spending.  China has kept the proportion of its GDP devoted to its military at or below the level of our European “allies,” whom we accuse of spending too little on their defense.  The Soviet Union controlled satellite countries and sought to impose its ideology on others, including us.  The Chinese have no satellites and are notorious for not caring at all how foreigners govern ourselves.

Our competition with China is primarily economic.  It will not be decided by who has the more appealing ideology, the most aircraft carriers, or the greatest stash of nuclear weapons, but by who delivers the best economic performance and by which country’s statecraft is soundest.

Are we ready for such a contest?  Let’s look at the bright side.  Maybe it will challenge us to get our act together.  Let’s hope so.

It doesn’t seem to matter which political party controls the House or Senate.  Congress still can’t pass a budget or otherwise set national priorities.  When it’s not shut down, our government runs on credit rollovers.  Our debt is out of control.  So far this century, we’ve committed almost $6 trillion to wars we don’t know how to end.  Meanwhile, we’ve deferred about $4 trillion in maintenance of our rapidly deteriorating physical infrastructure.  We are disinvesting in our human endowment, cutting funding for our universities and scientific research.  Our government is bleeding talent.  This is not our finest hour.

And, if allies are assets rather than liabilities, the willingness of our security partners abroad to follow us is more uncertain than at any point since we became an active world power seven decades ago.  We are withdrawing from international agreements and institutions, not seeking to shape them to our advantage or crafting new ones.  Instead of asking our allies to do more to defend themselves, we are asking them to pay us to defend them.  Our Senate can no longer bring itself to consider, let alone ratify treaties – even those we ourselves originally proposed.  In short, we are not leading the world as we once did.  We’re not part of the solution to transnational problems like global warming or arms control.  Instead, we are becoming active obstructionists of solutions to pressing global problems.

The social mobility that once made equality of opportunity a reality in our country has ebbed away.  Our wealthy are getting richer; those less fortunate are not.  We have the highest percentage of our population imprisoned of any country in the world.  That superlative aside, on many other measures of international excellence, we have complacently fallen to levels of mediocrity.  Our students are thirty-eighth in math proficiency and twenty-fourth in science.  We rank forty-second in life expectancy, forty-fifth in press freedoms, nineteenth in respect for the rule of law, and seventeenth in quality of life.  Need I go on?

There’s a lot to fix at home before we can be sure we have what it takes to go abroad in search of dragons to destroy.  There is a real danger that we have taken on more than we can handle.  China is guilty of malpractice in several aspects of its trade policies.  We are right to demand that it correct these.  Experience strongly suggests that, if we work with others of like mind in organizations like the World Trade Organization to persuade China to do so, we can move China in desirable directions.  An across-the-board assault on China of the sort we have just mounted is not only likely to fail, it entails risks we have not adequately considered.  These risks include armed combat with a nuclear power.  And China is getting relatively stronger, not weaker, even as our inept handling of foreign affairs increasingly marginalizes the United States in areas of human endeavor we have traditionally dominated.

We have given inadequate thought to how to leverage China’s rise to our advantage.  Trying to tear China down will not succeed.  Neither will it cure our self-induced debilitation as a nation.

We have launched a comprehensive competition with China for which we are not ready.  We cannot afford to learn this the hard way.  Whatever we do about China, we have to get our act together and do it now.

Remarks to the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, St. Petersburg, Florida, 12 February 2019

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman chairs Projects International, Inc. He is a retired U.S. defense official, diplomat, and interpreter, the recipient of numerous high honors and awards, a popular public speaker, and the author of five books.




The FBI Came Close to Staging a Coup

Andrew McCabe, a senior bureau official, provided the alarming evidence in a “60 Minutes” interview, writes John Kiriakou.

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

Former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, in an explosive interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” said that in early 2017,  in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey, he and other FBI officials discussed the possibility of recruiting a cabinet secretary to help push the president out of office by using the Constitution’s 25thAmendment 

McCabe further contended that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein offered to wear a wire when he was around Trump in order to gather evidence against him.  (Rosenstein

denies the allegation.)  McCabe said that Justice Department officials believed at the

time that Trump may have obstructed justice by firing Comey, and they worried that Trump was somehow under the influence of the Russian government.  In the end, nothing came of the plan. Regardless of one’s feelings toward President Trump and his

policies, what McCabe is describing is nothing less than a coup attempt. It’s something that happens in weak or nascent democracies, following interference by the CIA perhaps.  It should never happen here.

Trump has long had an antagonistic relationship with the FBI, the CIA and other elements of the intelligence community.  Indeed, in early 2017, when news of the FISA warrants and the private intelligence Steele dossier began to leak out, Trump began to tweet his disgust at news of impending investigations of him, his campaign, and his business dealings.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer responded almost immediately, saying “(The president) is being really dumb to do this.”  “This” was to take on the intelligence agencies, the so-called Deep State, in public.  A few days later, Schumer went on MSNBC to sharpen his warning to Trump, saying, “Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community—they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.”

But Trump was right.  The intelligence community—the FBI, CIA, the NSA and other three-letter agencies—are too powerful, too entrenched and two well-funded. And they have far too little oversight. They’re a threat to our democracy, not the saviors of it.  That is why it pains me to see Democrats lining up behind them to attack Trump.

Presidents Come and Go 

I was a member of that “Deep State” throughout my 15 years at the CIA.  I can tell you from first-hand experience that the CIA doesn’t care who the president is. Neither does the FBI.  Senior CIA and FBI officers are there for decades, while presidents come and go.  They know that they can outwait any president they don’t like.  At the very least, at the CIA, they could made administrative decisions that would hamstring a president:  Perhaps they don’t carry out that risky operation. Maybe they don’t target that well-placed source.  Maybe they ignore the president’s orders knowing that in four years or eight years he or she will just go away.

Even worse, these same organizations—the FBI and the CIA—are the ones that have sought to undermine our democracy over the years.  Don’t forget programs like COINTELPRO, the FBI’s operation to force Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide; the infiltration of peace groups; the CIA’s efforts to control the media with Operation Mockingbird; the CIA’s illegal spying on American citizens; the CIA hacking into the computers of the Senate Intelligence Committee; and the Agency’s extrajudicial assassination program; to name a few.

McCabe’s almost offhanded comments on “60 Minutes,” that the FBI actively considered deposing a sitting president should be cause for alarm.  Set partisan politics aside for a moment.  We’re talking about deposing a sitting president. We’re talking about wearing a wireto catch a sitting president saying something because you’re angry that he fired your boss.  Even the idea of it is unprecedented in American history.

The FBI is perfectly free to investigate collusion. That’s what they ought to be doing. But they ought not plot the overthrow of a president, no matter how quirky and offensive he may be.  That’s anti-democratic and illegal and it harkens back to the bad old days of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover and the CIA before the reforms of the Church Committee.

We have a way to depose presidents.  They’re called “elections.”  The FBI should familiarize itself with them.

John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

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How Much of Venezuela’s Crisis is Really Maduro’s Fault?

There are several factors for Venezuela’s economic crisis, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to U.S. leaders or following corporate media, writes Steve Ellner.

By Steve Ellner
Special to Consortium News

The recognition by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Vice President Joe Biden of Juan Guaidó as Venezuelan president is the latest demonstration of the consensus in Washington over the nefariousness of the Nicolás Maduro government. Not since Fidel Castro’s early years in power has a Latin American head of state been so consistently demonized. But the 1960s was the peak of the Cold War polarization that placed Cuba plainly in the enemy camp, and unlike Venezuela today, that nation had a one-party system. 

The scope of that consensus was evident by the recent faceoff between two figures as far apart as President Donald Trump and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In his State of the Union address, Trump attributed Venezuela’s economic crisis to the failed system of socialism. Ocasio-Cortez responded by arguing that the Venezuelan case is “an issue of authoritarian regime versus democracy.”

Taken together, the comments by Trump and Ocasio-Cortez complement one another. According to the narrative that dominates Washington, Venezuela is a disaster from both economic and political viewpoints. The exclusive blame for the sorry state of the economy and for the country’s allegedly authoritarian rule lays with Maduro and his cohorts.

Not surprisingly, the mainstream media have refrained from questioning these assumptions. Most of their reporting puts the accent mark on state incompetence and corruption, while skirting the detrimental effects of the economic sanctions implemented by the Trump administration.

In addition, many on the left point to the economic sanctions as responsible, at least in part, for the nation’s pressing economic difficulties, but few critically examine the mainstream’s characterization of the state of Venezuelan democracy. Some oppose the sanctions but join the opposition in bashing the Maduro government.

A recent article by Gabriel Hetland, for instance, posted by Jacobin and NACLA: Report on the Americas claims that Maduro “holds onto power through authoritarian means.” The author then turns to the nation’s economic difficulties by arguing that “the primary driver is the government’s mismanagement of its oil revenue” and corruption.

During my participation in a two-month Venezuelan solidarity tour late last year in the U.S. and Canada, I often heard the statement that knowing the specifics about Venezuela’s economic and political problems is not essential because the bottom line is the illegality of Trump’s sanctions and threats of military intervention. But does international law end the discussion?

If it could be proven that Maduro is a dictator and a totally incompetent ruler, would people enthusiastically rally behind his government in opposition to foreign intervention? I don’t think so. Undoubtedly, it is necessary to take a close look at both political and economic fronts because the effectiveness of solidarity efforts hinges on the specifics. The dominant narrative about Maduro and its assumptions cannot be taken at face value, even while there are elements of truth in it.

How Far Back Do the Economic Problems Go?

The Venezuelan opposition frequently argues that neither the sanctions nor depressed international oil prices are to blame for the nation’s economic difficulties, only the mismanagement of the economy. At best, declining oil prices contributed to the problems but were not a root cause. Some opposition analysts deny or minimize the importance of oil prices as a factor by pointing out that the economies of other OPEC nations are as dependent on oil exports as that of Venezuela but have not plummeted to the same levels.

The opposition’s central argument here is that Venezuela’s dire economic problems predate Trump’s implementation of sanctions and even predate the sharp decline in international oil prices beginning mid-2014. That is, government follies with disastrous effects came first, followed by the decline in oil prices and then the sanctions. Two-time presidential candidate for the opposition Henrique Capriles claimed that the crisis began prior to the fall of oil prices but for a long time was “ignored, repressed and covered up” by the government.

There are two fallacies in this line of thinking. In the first place, the so-called economic war against Venezuela, which eventually included the Trump-imposed sanctions, preceded everything else. Washington almost from the beginning of Hugo Chávez’s presidency in 1999 did not stand by idly while he defied the neoliberal Washington consensus as well as U.S. hegemony. Washington’s hostility seriously harmed the economy in multiple ways.

For instance, the George W. Bush administration banned the sale of spare parts for the Venezuelan Air Force’s costly F-16 fighter jets in 2006, forcing the country to turn to Russia for the purchase of 24 Sukhoi SU-30 fighter planes. Furthermore, the international sanctions did not begin with Trump, but rather Obama in 2015 which were justified by his executive order calling Venezuela a threat to U.S. national security. That order was followed by an avalanche of pull-outs from Venezuela by multinationals including Ford, Kimberly Clark, General Motors, Kellogg’s and nearly all the international airlines.

In the second place, oil prices under Maduro have not only been low since 2014 but nosedived, just the opposite of what happened under Chávez. This is particularly problematic because high prices create expectations and commitments that then get transformed into frustration and anger when they precipitously drop. Prices are currently slightly over half of what they were before the decline, in spite of their modest recovery since 2017.

Three factors explain Venezuela’s economic woes, not one: low oil prices, the “economic war” against Venezuela, and mistaken policies. Prominent in the latter category is Maduro’s lethargic response to the problem of the widening disparity between official prices set by the government on certain items in short supply and their prices on the black market. The government has encountered major problems in distributing basic commodities forcing Venezuelans to buy those same goods on the higher-priced black market. The system is conducive to corruption and contraband as many of the products that are supposed to be retailed at reduced prices end up being sold on the black market or sent off to neighboring Colombia.

The Dictatorship Label Repeated a Thousand Times

The media are in desperate need of good fact-checkers in their reporting on Venezuela. Statements about Venezuelan democracy range from blatantly misleading to accurate with most lying between the two extremes. An example of the former is the Guardian’s claim that the Venezuelan government “controls most TV and radio stations which transmit a constant stream of pro-Maduro propaganda.” In fact, of those who tune into Venezuelan TV channels, 80 percent watch the three major private channels (Venevisión, Televén, and Globovisión) which cannot be seriously accused of being pro-government.  

At the other extreme is Hetland’s assertion in his Jacobin-NACLA piece that the decision to strip Henrique Capriles of his right to run for office as a result of corruption charges was politically motivated. The statement is accurate. Actually, the move was worse than what Hetland discusses. For some time before that, Capriles, whose political positions have vacillated considerably, favored a less intransigent stance toward the government than those on the radical right, which has largely dominated the opposition of late. The move, in effect, played into the hands of the radicals and undermined efforts to bring about a much-needed national dialogue.

Those who call Maduro a dictator make two basic assertions. In the first place, the government is alleged to have brutally repressed the four-month long peaceful demonstrations designed to bring about regime change carried out in 2014 and then 2017. In fact, the protests were hardly peaceful. Six National Guardsmen and two policemen were killed in 2014 and protestors fired into an air force base in Caracas and attacked a number of police stations in Táchira in 2017. There are different versions of the circumstances surrounding the numerous fatalities in 2014 and 2017, thus requiring an impartial analysis, which the media has hardly attempted to present. Police repression is reprehensible – and repression there was on both occasions – regardless of circumstances, but the context has to be brought into the picture.

In the second place, the opposition denies that Maduro’s re-election in May of last year was legitimate because the election was called for by the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), whose existence allegedly has no legal basis. One of the nation’s foremost constitutional lawyers, Hermann Escarrá, has defended the ANC’s legality, while others formulate plausible arguments to the contrary. Again, the mainstream media has failed to present both sides or to objectively analyze the issue. Nearly all the opposition parties that refused to participate in the presidential elections in 2018, however, did participate in the gubernatorial elections of the preceding year that were convened by the same ANC. The justification for Juan Guaidó’s self-proclamation as Venezuelan president on Jan. 23 was predicated on the illegitimacy of the ANC.

Violation of democratic norms and cases of police repression do not in themselves demonstrate that a government is authoritarian or dictatorial. If they did, the United States would hardly be considered democratic. The real defining issue is whether electoral fraud takes place in which votes are not correctly counted. That accusation has been largely absent in the controversy over recent elections, even among leaders of the radical opposition.

The mainstream media and Washington politicians freely call Maduro an “autocrat” a “dictator” and “authoritarian.” More than anything that is said about Venezuela’s economic difficulties, the use of these terms has had a profound effect on policy making. A nation’s economic problems should not justify intervention of any sort. The real issue of contention, therefore, is the state of Venezuelan democracy as depicted by the dominant narrative. Amazingly enough, there is no major actor in mainstream politics and the mainstream media willing to challenge that narrative with all its questionable claims regarding the Maduro government.

Steve Ellner is a retired professor from Venezuela’s University of the East and is currently associate managing editor of “Latin American Perspectives.” Among his over a dozen books on Latin America is his edited “The Pink Tide Experiences: Breakthroughs and Shortcomings in Twenty-First Century Latin America” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).

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The Notable Silence of Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill

In a strangely old-school, Catholic, sense, they chose not to look back or question the assassinations of the 1960s, writes Edward Curtin.

By Edward Curtin
edwardcurtin.com 

Growing up Irish-Catholic in the Bronx in the 1960s, I was an avid reader of the powerful columns of Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill in the New York newspapers. 

These guys were extraordinary wordsmiths. They would grab you by the collar and drag you into the places and faces of those they wrote about. Passion infused their reports.  They were never boring. They made you laugh and cry as they transported you into the lives of real people.  You knew they had actually gone out into the streets of the city and talked to people. All kinds of people: poor, rich, black, white, high-rollers, lowlifes, politicians, athletes, mobsters — they ran the gamut. You could sense they loved their work, that it enlivened them as it enlivened you the reader. Their words sung and crackled and breathed across the page. They left you always wanting more, wondering sometimes how true it all was, so captivating were their storytelling abilities. 

They cut through abstractions to connect individuals to major events such as the Vietnam War, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, the Central Park jogger case, AIDS.  They were spokesmen for the underdogs, the abused, the confused and the bereft. They relentlessly attacked the abuses and hypocrisies of the powerful.

They became celebrities as a result of their writing.  Breslin ran for New York City Council president along with Norman Mailer for mayor with the slogan “No More Bullshit.” Breslin appeared in beer and cereal commercials. Hamill dated Jacqueline Kennedy and the actress Shirley MacLaine.  Coming out of poor and struggling Irish-Catholic families in Queens and Brooklyn respectively, they became acclaimed in NYC and around the country. As a result, they were befriended by the rich and powerful with whom they hobnobbed.

HBO has recently released a fascinating documentary about the pair: “Breslin and Hamill.” It brings them back in all their gritty glory to the days when New York was another city, a city of newspapers and typewriters and young passion still hopeful that despite the problems and national tragedies, there were still fighters who would bang out a message of hope and defiance in the mainstream press.  It was a time before money and propaganda devoured journalism and a deadly pall descended on the country as the economic elites expanded their obscene control over people’s lives and the media.

Irish Wake

So, it is also fitting that this documentary feels like an Irish wake with two wheelchair-bound old men musing on the past and all that has been lost and what approaching death has in store for them and all they love.  While not a word is spoken about the Catholic faith of their childhoods with its death-defying consolation, it sits between them like a skeleton. We watch and listen to two men, once big in all ways, shrink before our eyes. I was reminded of a novel Breslin wrote long ago: “World Without End, Amen,” a title taken directly from a well-known Catholic prayer. Endings, the past receding, a lost world, aching hearts and the unspoken yearning for more life.

Hamill, especially, wrote columns that were beautifully elegiac, and his words in this documentary also sound that sense despite his efforts to remain hopeful.   The film is a nostalgia trip.  Breslin, who died in 2017, tries hard to maintain the bravado that was his hallmark, but a deep sadness and bewilderment seeps through his face, the mask of indomitability that once served him well gone in the end.

So, while young people need to know about these two old-school reporters and their great work in this age of insipidity and pseudo-objectivity, this film is probably not a good introduction.  Their writing would serve this purpose better.

Assassination Investigations

This documentary is appearing at an interesting time when a large group of prominent Americans, including Robert Kennedy Jr. and his sister Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, are calling for new investigations into the assassinations of the 1960s, murders that Breslin and Hamill covered and wrote about. Both men were in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel when  Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968.  They were friends of the senator and it was Hamill who wrote to RFK and helped persuade him to run.   

Breslin was in the Audubon Ballroom when Malcolm X was assassinated.  He wrote an iconic and highly original article about the JFK assassination. Hamill wrote a hard-hitting piece about RFK’s murder, describing Sirhan Sirhan quite harshly, while presuming his guilt.  They covered and wrote about all the assassinations of that era.  Breslin also wrote a famous piece about John Lennon’s murder.  They wrote these articles quickly, in the heat of the moment, on deadline.

But they did not question the official versions of these assassinations. Not then, nor in the 50-plus years since.  Nor in this documentary. In fact, in the film Hamill talks about five shots being fired at RFK from the front by Sirhan Sirhan who was standing there.  Breslin utters not a word. Yet it is well known that RFK was shot from the rear at point-blank range and that no bullets hit him from the front. The official autopsy confirmed this. Robert Kennedy Jr. asserts that his father was not shot by Sirhan but by a second gunmen.  It’s as though Hamill is stuck in time and his personal memories of the event; as though he were too close to things and never stepped back and studied the evidence that has emerged.  Why, only he could say.

Too Close to the Events

Perhaps both men were too close to the events and the people they covered. Their words always took you to the scene and made you feel the passion of it all, the shock, the drama, the tragedy, the pain, the confusion, and all that was irretrievably lost in murders that changed this country forever, killings that haunt the present in incalculable ways.  Jimmy and Pete made us feel the deep pain and shock of being overwhelmed with grief.  They were masters of this art.

But the view from the street is not that of history.  Deadlines are one thing; analysis and research another. Breslin and Hamill wrote for the moment, but they have lived a half century after those moments, decades during which the evidence for these crimes has accumulated to indict powerful forces in the U.S. government.  No doubt this evidence came to their attention, but they have chosen to ignore it, whatever their reasons.  Why these champions of the afflicted have disregarded this evidence is perplexing.  As one who greatly admires their work, I am disappointed by this failure.

Street journalism has its limitations.  It needs to be placed in a larger context. Our world is indeed without end and the heat of the moment needs the coolness of time.  The bird that dives to the ground to seize a crumb of bread returns to the treetop to survey the larger scene.  Breslin and Hamill stuck to the ground where the bread lay.

At one point in “Breslin and Hamill,” the two good friends talk about how well they were taught to write by the nuns in their Catholic grammar schools.  “Subject, verb, object, that was the story of the whole thing,” says Breslin.  Hamill replies, “Concrete nouns, active verbs.” “It was pretty good teaching,” adds Breslin. And although neither went to college (probably a saving grace), they learned those lessons well and gifted us with so much gritty and beautiful writing and reporting.

Yet like the nuns who taught them, they had their limitations, and what was written once was not revisited and updated.  In a strange, very old-school Catholic sense, it was the eternal truth, rock solid, and not to be questioned.  Unspeakable and anathema: the real killers of the Kennedys and the others.  The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 as well.

When my mother was very old, she published her only piece of writing.  It was very Breslin and Hamill-like and was published in a Catholic magazine.  She wrote how, when she was a young girl and the streets of New York were filled with horse-drawn wagons, the nuns in her grammar school chose her to leave school before lunch and go to a neighboring bakery to buy rolls for their lunch.  It was considered a big honor and she was happy to get out of school for the walk to the bakery she chose a few streets away. She got the rolls and was walking back with them when some boys jostled her and all the rolls fell into the street, rolling through horse shit.  She panicked, but picked up the rolls and cleaned them off.  Shaking with fear, she then brought them to the convent and handed them to a nun.  After lunch, she was called to the front of the room by her teacher, the nun who had chosen her to buy them.  She felt like she would faint with fear.  The nun sternly looked at her.  “Where did buy those rolls?” she asked.  In a halting voice she told her the name of the bakery.  The sister said, “They were delicious.  We must always shop in that bakery.”

Of course, the magazine wouldn’t publish the words “horse shit.” The editor found a nice way to avoid the truth and eliminate horse shit.  And the nuns were happy.

Yet bullshit seems much harder to erase, despite slogans and careful editors, or perhaps because of them.  Sometimes silence is the real bullshit, and how do you eliminate that?

Ed Curtin teaches sociology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. His writing on varied topics has appeared widely over many years. He states: “I write as a public intellectual for the general public, not as a specialist for a narrow readership. I believe a noncommittal sociology is an impossibility and therefore see all my work as an effort to enhance human freedom through understanding.”   His website is http://edwardcurtin.com.

 




Why a Bernie 2020 Campaign is Drawing Fire

Sanders is in step with most Americans, says Norman Solomon, and that bothers the defenders of oligarchy.

By Norman Solomon
NormanSolomon.com

With a launch of the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign on the near horizon, efforts to block his trajectory to the Democratic presidential nomination are intensifying. The lines of attack are already aggressive — and often contradictory.

One media meme says that the senator from Vermont made so much headway in moving the Democratic Party leftward with his 2016 presidential bid that he’s no longer anything special. We’re supposed to believe that candidates who’ve adjusted their sails to the latest political wind are just as good as the candidate who generated the wind in the first place.

Bloomberg News supplied the typical spin in a Feb. 8 article headlined Sanders Risks Getting Crowded Out in 2020 Field of Progressives.” The piece laid out the narrative: “Sanders may find himself a victim of his own success in driving the party to the left with his 2016 run. The field of Democratic presidential hopefuls includes at least a half-dozen candidates who’ve adopted in whole or in part the platform that helped Sanders build a loyal following . . .”

Yet Bernie is also being targeted as too marginal. The same Bloomberg article quoted Howard Dean, a long-ago liberal favorite who has become a hawkish lobbyist and corporate mouthpiece: “There will be hardcore, hard left progressives who will have nobody but Bernie, but there won’t be many.”

So, is Bernie now too much like other Democratic presidential candidates, or is he too much of an outlier? In the mass media, both seem to be true. In the real world, neither are true.

Last week, Business Insider reported on new polling about Sanders’ proposal “to increase the estate tax, the tax paid by heirs on assets passed down by the deceased. Sanders’ idea would lower the threshold to qualify for the tax to $3.5 million in assets, down from the current $11 million. The plan would also introduce a graduating scale of tax rates for the estates of wealthier Americans, eventually reaching a 77 percent marginal rate for assets over $1 billion.”

Here are the poll results: “When presented with the details of the proposal, 37 percent of respondents supported Sanders’ policy while 26 percent opposed, according to Insider’s survey.” (The rest had no opinion.)

Giving Voice to Majority Views

That kind of response from the public is a far cry from claims that Sanders is somehow fringe. In fact, the ferocity of media attacks on him often indicates that corporate power brokers are afraid his strong progressive populism is giving effective voice to majority views of the public.

A vast range of grassroots organizing — outside and inside of electoral arenas — has created the current leftward momentum. “As a progressive, it is heartening to see so many other candidates voice support for Senator Sanders’ policies,” said Alan Minsky, executive director at Progressive Democrats of America. “However, I’ve been around the block enough times to know that politicians who adopt positions in tune with the fashion of the moment are not as trustworthy as those rare few, like Bernie Sanders, who have held firm to a powerful social justice vision through his entire long career.”

I also asked for a comment from Pia Gallegos, former chair of the Adeline Progressive Caucus of the New Mexico Democratic Party. “Bernie’s competitors lack his track record on economic security for all American workers, Medicare for All, free public college education, taxing the rich and opposing bloated military budgets,” she said. “Those are long-standing positions that — more than ever — resonate with grassroots activists and voters. Other Democratic presidential candidates will try to imitate this populist agenda, but only Bernie can speak with the vision, clarity and moral authority that the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate needs to defeat the incumbent.”

The overarching fear that defenders of oligarchy have about Bernie Sanders is not that he’s out of step with most Americans — it’s that he’s in step with them. For corporate elites determined to retain undemocratic power, a successful Bernie 2020 campaign would be the worst possible outcome of the election.

Norman Solomon is cofounder and national coordinator of RootsAction.org. He was a Bernie Sanders delegate from California to the 2016 Democratic National Convention and is currently a coordinator of the relaunched Bernie Delegates Network. Solomon is the author of a dozen books, including “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” He is the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy.