Clinton Shows a Dovish Side on Nukes

Exclusive: Hillary Clinton, who has carved out a reputation as a war hawk, has quietly voiced opposition to a $1 trillion plan to modernize America’s nuclear arsenal, including a nuke-tipped cruise missile, notes Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall

Whoever is hacking Hillary Clinton’s emails just did her a big favor, at least with anti-war critics: One newly released message reveals her skepticism about wasteful and dangerous spending on new nuclear weapons in the name of “modernization.” It’s a refreshing change from her usual hawkish stand on national security.

An email leaked to the conservative Washington Free Beacon includes an audio file of Clinton’s remarks at a private fundraiser in McLean, Virginia, last February. Asked by a former senior Pentagon official about her willingness to cancel plans for a next-generation nuclear cruise missile program, she replied, “I certainly would be inclined to do that.”

“The last thing we need are sophisticated cruise missiles that are nuclear armed,” Clinton added.

Current Air Force plans call for spending upward of $30 billion on the Long Range Stand-Off (LRSO) missile program to acquire 1,000 such weapons. The Air Force says it will begin awarding contracts as early as next summer for the stealthy missiles, which will be launched from bombers more than 2,000 kilometers from their targets.

The LRSO program, in turn, is part of the Obama administration’s grandiose plan to spend more than $1 trillion over the next three decades on new land, sea, and air-launched nuclear weapons. That plan calls for building 12 new nuclear-armed submarines, 100 long-range strategic bombers armed with a new class of bombs, and at least 400 silo-based ballistic missiles, in addition to the new cruise missiles.

While nearly every aspect of the administration’s plan has garnered criticism, including the sheer improbability of finding enough funds to pay for such an extravagant “all of the above” program, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter delivered a resounding defense during a recent speech at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, home to Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, B-52 bombers, and several hundred nuclear-armed cruise missiles.

Offering more rhetoric than substance, Carter insisted that failure to rebuild every leg of America’s nuclear force “would mean losing confidence in our ability to deter, which we can’t afford in today’s volatile security environment.”

Senators Object

Carter’s speech was a belated reply to a letter from 10 prominent progressive senators, including Bernie Sanders, asking President Obama to reconsider his nuclear modernization program. “In particular,” they wrote, echoing Clinton’s own concerns, “we urge you to cancel plans to spend at least $20 billion on a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile, the Long Range Standoff weapon, which would provide an unnecessary capability that could increase the risk of nuclear war.”

Experts in the arms control community backed them up. “The Air Force does not need a costly new and more capable nuclear-armed cruise missile,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, “especially if the new long-range penetrating bomber is truly penetrating. We are seeing a return to the days of nuclear excess and overkill.”

Even more authoritative criticism of the LRSO program came from former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who guided development of the current generation of air-launched cruise missiles, and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Andy Weber, who oversaw all nuclear weapons programs in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2014.

They warned that the missiles are not just a waste of money, but could actually put our national security at risk.

“Because they can be launched without warning and come in both nuclear and conventional variants, cruise missiles are a uniquely destabilizing type of weapon,” Perry and Weber observed. Canceling the new cruise missile program, they declared, “would not diminish the formidable U.S. nuclear deterrent in the least” and “could lay the foundation for a global ban on these dangerous weapons.”

British Defense Secretary and Conservative Party politician Philip Hammond offered a similar view in 2013: “A cruise-based deterrent would carry significant risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation. At the point of firing, other states could have no way of knowing whether we had launched a conventional cruise missile or one with a nuclear warhead. Such uncertainty could risk triggering a nuclear war at a time of tension. So, the cruise option would carry enormous financial, technical and strategic risk.”

Nuclear War ‘Flexibility’

To such criticisms, the Pentagon has argued chillingly that the new cruise missiles will give the United States greater “flexibility” in fighting a nuclear war — contrary to President Reagan’s common-sense dictum that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Clinton has made few firm pledges about nuclear weapons policy, but she told supporters at the private fundraiser that “This is going to be a big issue. It’s not just the nuclear-tipped cruise missile. There’s a lot of other money we’re talking about to go into refurbishing and modernization.”

That event was not the first or only place she has raised questions about the current direction of America’s nuclear policy. At a town hall meeting in September 2015, Clinton expressed admiration for President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous warning about the military-industrial complex and ridiculed the idea of spending a trillion dollars on new nuclear programs.

This January, in Iowa, Clinton told an activist that the Obama administration’s current plan for nuclear modernization “doesn’t make sense to me.”

Clinton also takes great pride in her role in negotiating a 2011 nuclear agreement with Russia, which limited the number of strategic nuclear warheads that each side can deploy.

To be sure, history gives little reason for optimism that Clinton would follow through as president on her concerns.

President Obama’s transformation from an eloquent advocate of a nuclear-free world to a supporter of unprecedented nuclear spending suggests that the military-industrial complex remains a powerful force.

Still, it’s encouraging to know that Clinton isn’t a hard-wired hawk, and that at least a few generals and defense lobbyists may be losing sleep over the uncertain future of their prized weapons systems.

Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford University Press, 2012). Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Obama Flinches at Renouncing Nuke First Strike,” “Dangerous Denial of Global Warming,” “How Arms Sales Distort US Foreign Policy,”  “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.




The Russian View of Trump-Clinton Debate

Russian media is much more nuanced than the U.S. public is led to believe, even showing a perceptive approach to describing the Trump-Clinton presidential debate, as Gilbert Doctorow observed first-hand.

By Gilbert Doctorow

On Sept. 25, I received a phone call at my Brussels home inviting me to Moscow to participate in a political talk show on a state-run station to analyze the first Trump-Clinton debate, which was clearly the flavor of the day for Russian television programming.

I was not surprised when shortly thereafter I got an email invitation to participate in another talk show on a competing state channel also devoted to this subject. As a Russian-speaking “talking head” carrying a U.S. passport and willing to go to Moscow, I am part of a thin group. Out of consideration of professional ethics, I declined this second invitation but took a rain check to join them on Nov. 9 for a U.S. election postmortem.

The political talk show that was the first to invite me, called “Sixty Minutes,” is entirely new, launched at the start of the fall television season and runs daily Monday through Friday. Its name self-consciously recalls a similarly named long-running American television news program, though the format here is not pure news but more talk show.

Yet, the program borrows much from its American namesake. It’s slick, show-biz in visual impact with well-researched scripts that the presenters, a husband and wife team of widely known young and bold journalists, Yevgeny Popov and Olga Skabeyeva, deliver with panache.

The show on Tuesday evening – a day after the debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – was not ideal, but I was grateful to my hosts for being brought to Moscow for the event. The invitation forced me to get up in the middle of the night, European time, to watch the Clinton-Trump debate from beginning to end and to direct my full attention to it, which I would not otherwise have done.

It also forced me to read the Russian press fairly thoroughly on my way to Moscow in order to anticipate the angle of interest there. And most importantly, once I was on the panel, it gave me an insider’s look into how Russia’s elites view the contest between Trump and Clinton, not only from what was said during the show but also from our exchanges in the breaks and immediately after the broadcast in the relaxation room with snacks before we headed our various ways.

The premise of the show’s producers was that the debates would hold great interest for a good many Russians because their country has figured large in the U.S. campaigns of both parties.

The Clinton camp has repeatedly and publicly accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of interfering in the U.S. political process. Russian hackers were blamed for the very embarrassing publication of internal emails from the Democratic National Committee showing a bias against the candidacy of Bernie Sanders during the primaries. Moreover, Clinton and her assistants have portrayed Trump as a kind of modern-day “Manchurian candidate” who would betray American interests to Putin, his supposed friend.

For his part, Donald Trump publicly criticized the Establishment position of escalating conflict with Russia and China to which Hillary Clinton has long contributed. He has said that he saw nothing wrong in redirecting relations to cooperation and has praised the Russian military action against the Islamic State jihadists in Syria.

Trump also has made clear his accommodative stance on Russia’s reunification with Crimea. Plus, Trump challenged directly the relevance today of NATO with its focus on countering Russia’s recovery of its great power status, coming at the expense of distracting from the threat of Islamic terrorism. Trump broadly hinted at a possible reduced U.S. presence if not withdrawal altogether from the alliance for failing to carry its own weight in the common defense.

All of these aspects of the American campaign have been brought to the attention of the broad Russian public by its mass media over recent months.

Assessing the Russian Role

The proposed message of the talk show’s producers last Tuesday night was Russia as an important factor in the U.S. debates, which they measured by the number of times each of the candidates made reference to Russia. There is some merit to this argument, given that only a few separate countries were mentioned by either candidate during their 90 minutes: Russia, China and Iran in descending order of frequency.

However, the two contexts for mention of Russia – the alleged hacking of the DNC server and the renewal of a nuclear arms race – were both old news. The far more striking feature of the debates was the failure of either candidate to raise and discuss the alarming escalation in verbal confrontation between the two countries in and on the sidelines of the United Nations Security Council over the preceding two weeks.

During that time you had U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power calling Russian action in and around Aleppo “barbarism.”  And you had Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov stating in an interview that it seemed the Pentagon was no longer under the control of the White House. This type of rhetoric from both sides marks a 30-year low point in relations and could be described as what you hear just before countries engage in hostilities.

The escalating confrontation with Russia had two book-ends. It began one day into the cease-fire when a U.S.-led air attack on an isolated Syrian Army position at Deir Ezzor resulted in the death of more than 60 Syrian soldiers. At the other end, a week later, was the combined Syrian and Russian heavy bombing of East Aleppo, which Power denounced.

The show’s hosts must be congratulated for trying hard to convey the essence of American political culture to their audience, and they did some effective research to this end. Whereas French and other Western media devoted coverage on the day after the debates to the physical appearances of the candidates, Russia’s “Sixty Minutes” tweaked this aspect of the debates to find politically relevant commentary.

To make their point, presenter Yevgeny Popov came on stage in a blue suit and blue tie very similar in coloring to Trump’s, while co-presenter Olga Skabeyeva was wearing a garment in the same red hue as Hillary. They proceeded to note that these color choices of the candidates represented an inversion of the traditional colors of the Democratic and Republican parties in American political tradition.

And they took this a step further by declaring it to be in line with the inversion of policies in the electoral platforms of the candidates: Hillary Clinton has taken over the hawkish foreign policy positions of the Republicans and their neoconservative wing; and Donald Trump has taken over the dovish foreign policy positions normally associated with Democrats.

Moreover, Trump also has gone against the free-trade policies that were engrained in Republican ideology until now, while often rejected by Democrats with their traditional backers from labor unions. All of these observations are essentially correct and astute. It was curious to hear them coming from Russian journalists, when they are largely missed by West European and American commentators.

Of course, a talk show is only partly formed by its producers and presenters. The greater part of the program is the opinions put forward by the invited panelists.

As is typical of such shows, the panel changed slightly during the course of the three 20-minute segments, with some panelists replaced by others who were waiting on the benches for their turn. And of the seven or eight on stage at any one time, two or three were foreigners. I was one of two Americans, and the third foreigner was a Brit, the long-time Moscow correspondent of Newsweek magazine.

Russians Debating Russians

Sometimes foreigners are important to the Russian talk shows to add pepper and salt. In this case, we were largely decorative. The lion’s share of the program was shared between the Russian politicians and journalists on the panel who very ably demonstrated that Russian elites are split down the middle on whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is their preferred next occupant of the Oval Office.

The reasons given are not what you hear within the U.S.: that Trump is vulgar, that Trump is a bigot and misogynist. Instead the Russian Trump-skeptics were saying that he is impulsive and cannot be trusted to act with prudence if there is some mishap, some accidental event occurring between U.S. and Russian forces in the field, for example.

They also expressed the cynical view that Trump’s positions in the pre-election period are purely tactical, to differentiate himself from all competitors first in his own party during the primaries and now from Clinton. In that view, Trump could turn out to be no friend of Russia if elected.

A direct answer to these changes came from the pro-Trump members of the panel, best enunciated by the senior politician in the room, Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Duma member from Putin’s United Russia party, the chair of the Education Committee in the Sixth Duma. He is also chair of a government-sponsored organization of Russian civil society, Russian World, which looks after the interests of Russians and Russian culture in the diaspora abroad.

Nikonov pointed to Trump’s courage and determination which scarcely suggest merely tactical considerations driving his campaign. According to Nikonov, Trump has gone up against the entire U.S. political establishment, against the whole of corporate mainstream media and has been winning. Nikonov pointed to the surge in Trump poll statistics in the couple of weeks preceding the debate. And he ticked off the four swing states which Trump needs to win and where his fortunes had been rising fast. Clearly, this presentation was carefully prepared, not something casual and off-the-cuff.

During this exchange between doubters and backers of Trump, one doubter spoke of Trump as a “non-systemic” politician, which may be loosely interpreted as meaning he is anti-establishment. But in the Russian context it has an odious connotation, for instance, applied to Alexei Navalny and certain members of the American- and European Union-backed Parnas political movement, including its head Mikhail Kasyanov. The word suggests seditious intent.

In this connection, Nikonov put an entirely different spin on who Trump is and what he represents as an anti-establishment figure. But maybe such partiality runs in the family. Nikonov is the grandson of Molotov, one of the leading figures who staged the Russian Revolution and governed the young Soviet state.

Who won the first Trump-Clinton debate?  Here the producers of “Sixty Minutes” gave the final verdict to a Vesti  news analyst from a remote location whose image was projected on a wall-sized screen. We were told that the debate was a draw: Trump had to demonstrate that he is presidential, which he did. Clinton had to demonstrate she had the stamina to resist the onslaught of a 90-minute showdown with Trump and she also succeeded.

In summation, the talk show analysis of the first U.S. presidential debate that I saw up close in Moscow may have been more glitzy and had less gravitas than Charlie Rose’s postmortem session at Bloomberg TV, but it was, in its own way, a value to its audience, which probably numbered in the tens of millions.

Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord. His most recent book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. © Gilbert Doctorow, 2016




How Arms Sales Distort US Foreign Policy

Exclusive: Money may not be the root of all evil but it surely contributes to horrible war crimes when lucrative arms sales distort U.S. foreign policy and cause selective outrage over human rights atrocities, writes Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall

Forget oil. In the Middle East, the profits and jobs reaped from tens of billions of dollars in arms sales are becoming the key drivers of U.S. and British policy. Oil still matters, of course. So do geopolitical interests, including military bases, and powerful political lobbies funded by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf states.

But you can’t explain Washington’s deference to Saudi Arabia, despite its criminal war in Yemen and its admitted support for Islamist extremism, without acknowledging the political pull generated by more than $115 billion in U.S. military deals with Saudi Arabia authorized since President Obama took office.

As arms sales expert William Hartung observed earlier this year, “U.S. arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia have increased by 96% compared to the Bush years. . . In 2014 alone more than 2,500 Saudi military personnel received training in the United States.”

These deals have generated huge new business opportunities for politically powerful U.S. contractors such as Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Boeing, and Raytheon. Neither the White House nor Congress will let mere war crimes stand in the way of continued sales that fund thousands of jobs.

The Pentagon approved its latest $1.2 billion deal, including more than 130 Abrams tanks (produced by General Dynamics), in early August, just as Saudi Arabia resumed  airstrikes on the ancient Yemeni capital of Sanaa, killing nine civilians at a potato chip factory.

A spokesperson for Human Rights Watch said at the time, “The Saudi-led coalition’s campaign in Yemen has been devastating for civilians (and) the U.S. should be suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia, not approving more.”

On Sept. 22, 71 members of the U.S. Senate rejected that advice and approved the deal, even as another Saudi-led air strike killed at least 26 civilians and wounded 60 more in a residential neighborhood of the port city of Hodeidah. A few days later the coalition killed another 10 civilians in the provincial capital city of Ibb.

The Guardian reports that “more than one-third of all Saudi-led air raids on Yemen have hit civilian sites” — a figure that strongly suggests such targeting is a matter of policy, not mere bad luck. These attacks are fomenting rising support for Al Qaeda and other extremists in Yemen, subverting Western security interests.

Yet U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who rips Moscow and Damascus for “barbarism” and “laying waste to what is left of an iconic Middle Eastern city,” is strangely silent when the target is Sanaa rather than Aleppo, and the perpetrator is Riyadh rather than Assad.

Great Britain Fuels the Fires

The same is true of the U.K. ambassador to the UN, who accused the Syrian government of a “sick bloodlust against its people,” while his own government blocked a European Union investigation of war crimes in Yemen.

One reason may be that Great Britain has sold almost $3 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since it intervened in Yemen’s civil war a year and a half ago. Those sales provide plenty of reason to duck accountability.

A hard-hitting British parliamentary report this month concluded that British weapons — including notoriously indiscriminate cluster munitions — have almost certainly contributed to attacks by the Saudi coalition on targets such as “camps for internally displaced persons and refugees; civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses.”

The report called on the British government to stop ignoring blatant evidence of Saudi war crimes and suspend arms sales pending “an independent, United-Nations-led inquiry” into violations of international law.

“[Her Majesty’s] Government has obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty, as well as European and domestic law, to ensure there is no risk that arms it has licensed might be used in contravention of international humanitarian law,” the report declared.

“Saudi Arabia is one of our closest allies. However, the weight of evidence of violations of IHL (international humanitarian law) by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is now so great that it is very difficult to continue to support Saudi Arabia while maintaining the credibility of our arms licensing regime.”

The BAE Bribery Scandal

The link between British foreign policy and arms sales was conclusively established during a multi-year investigation of suspected bribes and kickbacks by arms giant BAE Systems, related primarily to its $80 billion Al Yamamah (“Dove”) arms deal, initially signed in 1985 by the Thatcher government, to sell fighter planes to Saudi Arabia. In 2010, BAE pleaded guilty to two criminal charges and agreed to pay nearly $450 million in penalties.

In 2006, British Prime Minister Tony Blair ordered a halt to his government’s investigation of BAE’s alleged corrupt practices, including payments to Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former ambassador to the United States and a close confidant of the Bush family.

Bandar was not charged in the BAE case, and denied doing anything improper, but his suspicious receipt of $17 million in an account at Riggs Bank in Washington D.C. — ostensibly for “home improvement” — triggered the start of a bribery investigation of BAE.

(Riggs Bank had previously been identified as the source of funds sent from Bandar’s wife to two of the 9/11 hijackers. The recently declassified pages of the 9/11 commission report revealed indirect ties between Bandar and a senior Al Qaeda operative — a finding that former Sen. Bob Graham called “one of the most stunning parts of the investigation.”)

In 2008, a federal judge froze Bandar’s U.S. assets after a small Michigan pension fund with holdings in BAE sued its directors for allegedly letting the company pay $2 billion in bribes to Bandar.

According to the London Sunday Times, Bandar was instrumental in stopping an investigation by Britain’s Serious Fraud Office of BAE’s dealings with Saudi Arabia. The prince reportedly went to Prime Minister Blair in 2006 to say, “Get it stopped.” He allegedly warned the fighter plane contract would be terminated and “intelligence and diplomatic relations would be pulled.”

Following a spate of media revelations, Blair defended his decision to shut down the investigation of BAE on national security grounds.

“This investigation, if it had it gone ahead, would have involved the most serious allegations in investigations being made into the Saudi royal family,” he said. “Quite apart from the fact that we would have lost thousands, thousands of British jobs.” (A U.S. investigation continued, leading to the company’s eventual guilty plea.)

Blair has continued his cozy relations with Riyadh over the years. In 2008, as Special Envoy to the Middle East, he “lavished praise” on Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, touting his many “reforms.” Just two years later, the former prime minister signed a lucrative contract with a company owned by the son of King Abdullah to promote Saudi oil sales in China. (In 2015, The Telegraph estimated Blair’s fortune at £60 million, noting that “his financial affairs can appear as complex and opaque as his global influence is remarkable.”)

Meanwhile, the Conservative government of David Cameron signed a $3 billion electronic warfare equipment sale to Saudi Arabia in 2010 — with provisions to siphon off tens of millions of dollars to the Cayman Islands for the benefit of Saudi officials. The Ministry of Defense insisted that any investigation of whistleblower complaints would “compromise” relations between the two countries.

Plus ça change . . .

Today’s wildly lucrative military market in the Middle East is reminiscent of the arms bazaar of the 1970s, when Saudi Arabia, Iran and other OPEC countries recycled billions of “petrodollars” by purchasing entire armories from the United States and Great Britain (thus setting the stage for the eventual emergence of radical Islamist critics like Osama bin Laden).

The parallels between then and now are sometimes eerie. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter invoked his executive authority to approve the sale of nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of arms to North Yemen without congressional review, following that country’s clashes with South Yemen. That sale turned that small and poor country into the third largest recipient of U.S. arms after Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The administration claimed the sale was essential to restoring Saudi confidence in U.S. foreign policy after the fall of the shah of Iran — just as President Obama today keeps reassuring Riyadh of U.S. support following the nuclear deal with Iran.

A few prescient observers questioned whether shoveling more arms into such Middle East conflicts was really in America’s best interests. Said Rep. Les Aspin, a Wisconsin Democrat and member of the House Armed Services Committee,

“Yemen is an unwise spot on which to stake our prestige. It is yet another case where the United States … will be unable to exert much control over events with sophisticated military gear. And yet the sale of such equipment sucks us into the whirlpool and puts American prestige on the line. Selling such vast quantities of advanced weapons is almost certainly not the best way of dealing with the sort of tribal conflicts that have beset Yemen for years.”

Those words ring as true today as they did 37 years ago. But the name of the game in Washington is money, not taming tribal conflicts. One of the most compelling challenges of our time will be to find a way to take the money out of war so we can refocus our national priorities on peace.

Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford University Press, 2012). Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.” ]




A Process That Makes Democracy Look Bad

The circus-like U.S. political process, with a media that treasures trivia over substance, is giving democracy a bad name in the world and making alternative structures look good by comparison, says ex-CIA official Graham E. Fuller.

By Graham E. Fuller 

The “Great Debates” between candidates Clinton and Trump encapsulate what is wrong with the U.S. political process. There’s been little substance; it’s all about personalities and sound-bytes and gotcha. Never mind the grand issues of our time and how they should be addressed seriously and comprehensively — income inequality, corporate control of media, corporate-dominated electoral funding, global warming, long-term global refugee issues, jobs going overseas in perfect conformity with capitalist principles, Wall Street corruption, race relations, health care, etc.

None of these have easy — or palatable — answers and so the system reverts to entertainment over substance. The Romans got it right way back — it’s all about bread and circuses. We have only the trappings of democracy to pretend that the people are actually deciding anything.

And it’s not new. Just read historical accounts of the savage political campaigns going back to our Founding Fathers down to the vituperative language of today. Sadly, this all may just reflect the human condition, locked in eternal struggles for power since cave men. Might generally makes right; but might today no longer flows from the cave-man’s club. Today it is control of the media, the banks, the political establishment. There will always be a political establishment defending its own.

Let’s not forget Winston Churchill’s famous quote that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Corruption and incompetence may still be preferable to assassination or revolution that produce leaders nobody ever voted for. 

When I was doing research among Islamists in the Middle East in years past, I was struck by one comment about why many Islamists have been coming around to appreciation of some aspects of democracy. Islam has always placed great weight on the religious obligation of the ruler to rule justly, to provide good governance. But what if the ruler doesn’t? Many Islamists have observed that democracy at least enables you to get rid of a ruler whom you don’t want, by due process. That is no small advantage, even if the political wheels of democracy grind slowly.

So what’s different about today, if anything? Two things jump out: money and media.

“Money makes the world go round,” as the song from Cabaret reminds us, and it certainly makes politics spin out of control. Is it not stunning to observe how, without the least trace of irony, the U.S. campaign system treats solicitation of bribes (“fund-raising”) as a legitimate and newsworthy part of electoral competition? It’s basically about who can fetch the highest price in the influence market. 

Mark Twain, who got a lot of things right, commented that the U.S. “had the best Congress money can buy.” 

Not New, But Worse

Now, only the naive would believe that influence-peddling is something new in the world. But to publicly champion the competition in which a candidate sells him/herself is really rather incredible. Recipients of contributions may claim they can remain independent-minded, but only a fool believes that when we receive a significant sum of money from a donor we are not influenced by that “gift.”

As for the media, of course it is not a public service. It is a line of business, whose owners also seek to mold public perceptions. (How many people are trying to kill off PBS?) Even the “paper of record,” The New York Times, routinely demonstrates striking bias: suppression of political candidates or voices who dare stray from mainstream establishment analysis. (How often do you ever see the name of Noam Chomsky in The New York Times on any topic? Or find balance in its reporting on Russia, Israel or China? Can we ignore the fact that mainstream media is bought and owned by an alarmingly small circle of wealthy who set general guidelines?

But what is really different these days is the pervasive reach of the media. One-hundred-and-fifty years ago how many people ever heard the Lincoln-Douglas debates? How many people ever read newspapers? What other sources of information existed apart from the town-crier? Or a campaigner coming through town once-in-a-lifetime on the back of a train in a whistle-stop campaign?

The transformation of politics into our modern infotainment is an invention of U.S. political culture. And that invention is in the process of bringing the U.S. down. Why? Because the issues that really matter are not discussed — because they are complex, can’t be reduced to sound-bytes, and nobody dares answer them honestly. Because image matters more than content. 

And today this circus now occupies roughly half of any presidential term. U.S. politics are now almost in perpetual election mode.

The circus atmosphere bids up extremist postures by candidates. Okay, candidates might not really quite mean what they say on the campaign trail; they might not really do what they claim they will (or will not) do. But the fact remains that the level of discussion is coarsened and dumbed-down.

Incendiary sound-bytes linger in the political air long after they have been uttered, infusing greater demagogy to the political process, especially in Congress, for the rest of the political cycle. And the Establishment’s game play on foreign policy — what even President Obama recently referred to as “the Washington playbook” — is perpetuated.

Canadians complained when their last national election campaign was extended by loser Prime Minister Stephen Harper to run for 11 weeks. And Canadian politics are boring. Politics are not part of the entertainment scene. Maybe boring is good. It suggests things are more or less working.

The U.S., with the most advanced mass culture and mass info-technology in the world, has created this baleful system that is in the process of making the U.S. ungovernable, its policies increasingly ineffective, its citizens angry, its foreign policies incoherent. 

But, as with many American firsts, has the U.S. now created a democratic model that may come to be emulated in the rest of the world? Hints of it can now be seen in Canada and the U.K., maybe on the Continent. 

Looking at Alternatives

So what is the way out? Reform of the U.S. order would seem extremely difficult given its entrenched nature backed by so many powerful special interests. 

Yet as the U.S. democratic order becomes increasingly dysfunctional, we already see revolts taking place. But revolts the world over historically often lead to greater autocracy, dictatorship or even revolution from the left or right. We know well the resulting horrors that can emerge from that. But people will always demand stability, protection, fixes for problems that are ever more complex to answer. 

Wise men have, of course, grappled with this problem for centuries. The U.S. Founding Fathers tended to believe that day-to-day democracy should be insulated from the volatile passions of the people through more indirect government; the “wiser heads” of the Senate were supposed to balance the popular impulses as represented in the House. Presidents were elected “indirectly” through ostensibly “wiser” electoral colleges. All those arrangements, for what they were worth, broke down; such indirect elections are probably unachievable today. 

Now let’s look at the other end of the spectrum. It’s interesting that China today is actually quietly touting to the rest of the world its own evolving system. Of course, we recoil from the terrible catastrophes of Chinese regimes over most of the past century. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that China has been concerned with principles of good governance going back some 3,000 years, including Confucian principles of the responsibility of “cultivated” or educated people to govern wisely; that was probably as good as it got in that era.

More important, the Chinese state bureaucracy was selected through massive nation-wide examination systems to choose the most qualified. The system had its good periods and bad, almost on a 300-year cyclical basis — breakdown and restoration.

Facing Challenges

Today China is creeping back again, this time from the disasters of Chairman Mao towards a semblance of order and rationality in governance. It has implemented a series of often unusually effective policies that are slowly bringing an ever rising percent of the rural and urban poor into the middle class and a slightly freer life. 

Now, I don’t want to live in China particularly. But consider the daunting challenges of running this country: one that was left behind in the last century or so, invaded by English and Japanese imperialists, massively misruled under fanatic communists (not all were fanatic) for 50 years, and now presides over a population approaching 1.4 billion people. 

China’s leaders operate on the razor’s edge: meeting pent-up demand after decades of deprivation, managing the transition of millions of peasants who want to come to the cities, feeding and housing everyone, maintaining industrial production while trying to reverse the terrible environmental damage wrought in earlier decades, to maintain stability, law and order while managing discontent that could turn violent, and to maintain the present ruling party in power to which there is no reasonable alternative as yet. That’s quite a high-wire act.

So if you were running China today, what would you advocate as the best policies and system to adopt?  Chances are few of us would simply urge huge new infusions of democracy and rampant capitalism. The delicate balance of this frail recovering system needs to be guided with care. But it is basically working — as opposed to looming alternatives of chaos and poverty. 

China today suggests to developing countries that China’s own model of controlled cautious light authoritarian leadership — where leaders are groomed over decades up through the ranks of the party —  may be a more reliable system than, say, the bread and circuses of the U.S. That’s their view.

No one system has all the answers. But it’s worth observing that by now the U.S. probably lies at one extreme of a political spectrum of bread-and-circus “democracy.” Can the system be reformed? Ever more serious questions arise about the present system’s ability to meet the challenge of this century — along multiple lines of measurements.

And, as the world gets more complex, there is less room for radical individualism, whistle-blowing, and dissent. Vital and complex infrastructural networks grow ever more vulnerable that can bring a state down. The state moves to protect itself. The strengthening of the state against the individual has already shifted heavily since the Global War on Terror and even more so under President Obama.

I’m not suggesting that China is the model to be emulated. But we better note how it represents one rational vision of functioning governance of the future — under difficult circumstances — at one end of the spectrum. The U.S. lies at the other.

Is there anything that might lie somewhere between these two highly diverse systems of governance? Just sayin’. 

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan. (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com




Russia-Baiting and Risks of Nuclear War

Exclusive: The propaganda war on Russia is spinning out of control with a biased investigation blaming Moscow for the MH-17 tragedy and angry exchanges over Syria, raising the risks of nuclear war, says ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern

As U.S. and Russian officials trade barbed threats and as diplomacy on Syria is “on the verge” of extinction, it is tempting to view the ongoing propaganda exchange over who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014 as a side-show. That would be a huge mistake – easily made by President Obama’s wet-behind-the-ears sophomoric advisers who seem to know very little of the history of U.S.-Russia relations and appear smug in their ignorance.

Adult input is sorely needed. There are advantages to having some hands-on experience, and having watched how propaganda wars can easily escalate to military confrontation. In a Sept. 28 interview with Sputnik Radio, I addressed some serious implications of the decision by the U.S. and two of its European vassal states (the Netherlands and Ukraine) to stoke tensions with Russia still higher by blaming it for the downing of MH-17.

In short, there is considerable risk that the Russians may see this particular propaganda offensive (which “justified” the European Union’s economic sanctions in 2014), together with NATO’s saber rattling in central Europe, as steps toward war. In fact, there is troubling precedent for precisely that.

A very similar set of circumstances existed 33 years ago after the Soviets did shoot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 on Sept. 1, 1983, when it strayed over sensitive military targets inside the Soviet Union and the KAL-007 pilots failed to respond to repeated warnings. After the tragic reality became obvious, the Soviets acknowledged that they had downed the plane but said they did not know it was a passenger plane.

However, 1983 was another time of high tensions between the two superpowers and President Ronald Reagan wanted to paint the Soviets in the darkest of hues. So, his administration set out to sell the storyline that the Soviets had willfully murdered the 269 passengers and crew.

U.S. government propagandists and their media stenographers laid on all the Sturm und Drang they could summon to promote the lie that the Soviets knew KAL-007 was a civilian passenger plane before they shot it down. As Newsweek’s headline declared, “Murder in the Sky.”

Exploitation of the tragedy yielded a steep rise in tensions, and almost led to a nuclear exchange just two months later. There is an important lesson, now three decades later, as Western governments and the mainstream media manufacture more endless fear and hatred of Russia.

The Dutch/Ukrainian Follies

On Wednesday, new “evidence” blaming Russia for the downing of MH-17 over eastern Ukraine was made public – brought out of the oven, as it were, at a Dutch Maid bakery employing Ukrainian confectioners. A bite into the evidence and it immediately dissolves like refined sugar – and leaves an unpleasant artificial taste in the mouth.

The Dutch-Ukrainian charade played by the “Joint Investigation Team,” on which Belgium, Australia and Malaysia also have members, is an insult to the relatives and friends of the 298 human beings killed in the shoot-down. Understandably, those relatives and friends long for truth and accountability, and they deserve it.

Yet, as happened in 1983 with the credulous acceptance of the Reagan administration’s version of the KAL-007 case, the mainstream Western media has embraced the JIT’s findings as “conclusive” and the evidence as “overwhelming.” But it is in reality extraordinarily thin, essentially a case of deciding immediately after the event that the Russians were to be blamed and spending more than two years assembling snippets of intercepted conversations (from 150,000 provided by the Ukrainian intelligence service) that could be stitched together to create an impression of guilt.

In the slick video, which serves as the JIT’s investigative “report,” the intercepted voices don’t say anything about Russian Buk missiles actually being deployed inside Ukraine or shooting down a plane or the need to get the Buk missiles out of Ukraine afterwards. One voice early on says he’d like to have some Buks but – after that – Buks aren’t mentioned and everything in the video is supposition. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Troubling Gaps in MH-17 Report.”]

There’s also no explanation as to why the Russians would have taken a bizarrely circuitous route when a much more direct and discreet course was available. The JIT’s embrace of that strange itinerary was made necessary by the fact that the only “social media” images of a Buk system traveling on July 17, 2014, before the MH-17 shoot-down, show the Buks heading east toward Russia, not west from Russia. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Official and Implausible MH-17 Scenario.”]

In other words, to make the storyline fit with the available images, the JIT had to take the alleged Russian-Buk convoy on a ridiculous trip far out of the way so it could be photographed in Donetsk before doubling back toward the alleged firing site near Snizhne, which could have been reached easily from the Russian border without the extensive detour through heavily populated areas.

Ignoring Inconvenient Evidence

The JIT also had to ignore its own evidence that on the night of July 16-17, 2014, Ukrainian military convoys were pressing deep inside what has been called “rebel-controlled territory.” The obvious implication is that if a Ukrainian convoy could move to within a few miles of Luhansk, as one of the intercepts described, a Ukrainian Buk convoy could have traveled to the east as well.

And, the JIT’s presumed motive for the Russians taking the extraordinary decision of supplying a Buk battery to the rebels – that it was needed to shoot down Ukrainian warplanes attacking rebels on the front lines – doesn’t fit with the placement of a Buk system on farmland south of Snizhne, far from the frontlines. Indeed, very little about the JIT’s case makes sense.

It also appears that the JIT devoted no effort to examining other plausible scenarios regarding who might have shot down MH-17. The JIT video report makes no reference to the several Ukrainian Buk systems that were operating in eastern Ukraine on the day that MH-17 was shot down.

The Dutch intelligence service MIVD, relying on NATO’s intelligence capabilities, reported earlier that the only anti-aircraft-missile systems in the area on July 17, 2014, capable of shooting down MH-17 were under the control of the Ukrainian military.

But the JIT’s report offered no explanation of where those Ukrainian Buk systems were located or whether Ukraine had accounted for all the Buk missiles in those batteries. The JIT’s blinders can be explained by the fact that it was coordinating with (and relying on) Ukraine’s SBU intelligence agency, which has among its responsibilities the protection of Ukrainian government secrets.

The shocking reality about the JIT is that one of the major suspects for having shot down MH-17, Ukraine, was pretty much running the inquiry.

Yet, since the JIT’s accusations on Wednesday, the West’s mainstream media has put on its own blinders so as not to notice the gaps and inconsistencies in the case. But what should be apparent to anyone without blinders is that the JIT set its sights on blaming the Russians for the MH-17 shoot-down in 2014 and nothing was going to get in the way of that conclusion.

That predetermined conclusion began with Secretary of State John Kerry’s rush to judgment, just three days after the shoot-down, putting the blame on the Russians. It then took the JIT more than two years to scrape together enough “evidence” to “confirm” Kerry’s findings.

The Near-Nuclear Clash

As a longtime CIA analyst covering the Soviet Union, the MH-17 case immediately brought to my mind the exploitation of the KAL-007 tragedy for propaganda purposes in 1983. After KAL-007 went down, the U.S. propaganda machinery, led by the U.S. Information Agency, went into high gear, even doctoring evidence for a U.N. Security Council meeting to “prove” the Soviets knew KAL-007 was a civilian aircraft and still shot it down deliberately.

“Barbaric” was the word used then – and in recent days U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power has applied that epithet again to the leaders in the Kremlin.

The same sort of anti-Russian hysteria is in play today as it was in 1983. And we now know based on declassified records that the extreme vilification of Moscow back then led Soviet leaders to believe that President Reagan was preparing for a nuclear war, a conflict that almost got started because of the harsh propaganda, combined with unprecedented military exercises and other provocations.

Last year, a former CIA colleague and senior manager of Soviet analysis, Mel Goodman, wrote about the “war scare” in the Kremlin in the fall of 1983, and asked if history may be repeating itself. Goodman personally helped persuade Reagan to ratchet down the tension, but it’s less clear if any adult remains who could tell President Obama to do the same now.

Goodman wrote: “1983 was the most dangerous year in the Soviet-American Cold War confrontation since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.  President Reagan declared a political and military campaign against the ‘evil empire’ …  Soviet leaders believed that the ‘correlation of world forces,’ Soviet terminology for the international balance, was unfavorable to Moscow and that the U.S. government was in the hands of a dangerous anti-Soviet crowd.

“In response to Reagan’s references to the Soviet Union as the ‘focus of evil in the world’ …  the new Soviet general secretary, Yuri Andropov, a former KGB chief, suggested that Reagan was insane and a liar …  Andropov would take no chances. Soviet leaders believed the Reagan administration was using a mobilization exercise called ‘Able Archer’ in November 1983 to prepare a nuclear surprise attack. The KGB instituted a sensitive collection effort to determine if the United States was planning such an attack. …

“In addition to the Able Archer mobilization exercise that alarmed the Kremlin, the Reagan administration authorized unusually aggressive military exercises near the Soviet border that, in some cases, violated Soviet territorial sovereignty. The Pentagon’s risky measures included … naval exercises in wartime approaches to the USSR where U.S. warships had previously not entered. Additional secret operations simulated surprise naval attacks on Soviet targets.”

Reining in Reagan

Goodman continued: “One of the great similarities between Russia and the United States was that both sides feared surprise attack. The United States suffered psychologically from the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor; it has still not recovered from 9/11. Yet, the United States has never appreciated that Moscow has similar fears due to Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion in the same year as Pearl Harbor, a far greater nightmare.

“Russia’s fear of surprise attack was accentuated in 1983, when the United States deployed the Army’s Pershing-II missile and land-based cruise missiles in West Europe as a counter to the Soviet Union’s SS-20 missiles. The SS-20 was not a ‘strategic’ weapon because of a limited range (3,000 miles) well short of the United States. The P-II, however, could not only reach the Soviet Union, but it could destroy Moscow’s command and control systems with incredible accuracy. Since the Soviets would have limited warning time – less than five minutes – the P-II was viewed as a first-strike weapon that could destroy the Soviet early warning system.

“In addition to the huge strategic advantage from the deployment of P-II and numerous cruise missiles, the U.S. deployment of the MX missile and the D-5 Trident submarine placed the Soviets in an inferior position with regard to strategic modernization. Overall, the United States held a huge strategic advantage in political, economic, and military policy.

“The Pentagon’s psychological warfare program to intimidate the Kremlin, including dangerous probes of Soviet borders by the Navy and Air Force, was unknown to CIA analysts. Thus, the CIA was at a disadvantage in trying to analyze the war scare because the Pentagon refused to share information on military maneuvers and weapons deployments.

“In 1983, the CIA had no idea that the annual Able Archer exercise would be conducted in a provocative fashion with high-level participation.  The exercise was a test of U.S. command and communications procedures, including procedures for the release and use of nuclear weapons in case of war.”

Goodman continued: “I believed that Soviet fears were genuine and Reagan’s national security advisor, Robert McFarlane, was even known to remark, ‘We got their attention’ but ‘maybe we overdid it.’  …  [CIA Director William] Casey took our analysis to the White House, and Reagan made sure that the exercises were toned down.

“For the first time, the Able Archer exercise was going to include President Reagan, Vice President Bush, and Secretary of Defense Weinberger, but when the White House understood the extent of Soviet anxiety regarding U.S. intentions, the major principals bowed out.  …  Soviet military doctrine had long held that a possible U.S. modus operandi for launching an attack on the USSR would be to convert an exercise into the real thing.

“Three decades later, history seems to be repeating itself. Washington and Moscow are once again exchanging ugly broadsides over the confrontations in Ukraine and Syria. The Russian-American arms control and disarmament dialogue has been pushed to the background, and the possibilities of superpower conflict into the foreground. Pentagon briefers are using the language of the Cold War in their congressional briefings, referring to Putin’s Russia as an ‘existential threat.’”

(END of excerpts from Mel Goodman’s account of “Able Archer.”)

The KAL-007 Prequel

As I wrote after the MH-17 shoot-down in 2014:

The death of all 298 people onboard the Malaysia Airline flight, going from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, will surely provide plenty of fuel for the already roaring anti-Russian propaganda machine. Still, the U.S. press might pause to recall how it’s been manipulated by the U.S. government in the past, including three decades ago by the Reagan administration twisting the facts of the KAL-007 tragedy.

In that case, a Soviet fighter jet shot down a Korean Air Line plane on Sept. 1, 1983, after it strayed hundreds of miles off course and penetrated some of the Soviet Union’s most sensitive airspace over military facilities in Kamchatka and Sakhalin Island.

Over Sakhalin, KAL-007 was finally intercepted by a Soviet Sukhoi-15 fighter. The Soviet pilot tried to signal the plane to land, but the KAL pilots did not respond to the repeated warnings. Amid confusion about the plane’s identity — a U.S. spy plane had been in the vicinity hours earlier — Soviet ground control ordered the pilot to fire. He did, blasting the plane out of the sky and killing all 269 people on board.

The Soviets soon realized they had made a horrendous mistake. U.S. intelligence also knew from sensitive intercepts that the tragedy had resulted from a blunder, not from a willful act of murder (much as on July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes fired a missile that brought down an Iranian civilian airliner in the Persian Gulf, killing 290 people, an act which President Ronald Reagan explained as an “understandable accident”).

But a Soviet admission of a tragic blunder regarding KAL-007 wasn’t good enough for the Reagan administration, which saw the incident as a propaganda windfall. At the time, the felt imperative in Washington was to blacken the Soviet Union in the cause of Cold War propaganda and to escalate tensions with Moscow.

To make the blackest case against Moscow, the Reagan administration suppressed exculpatory evidence from the U.S. electronic intercepts. The U.S. mantra became “the deliberate downing of a civilian passenger plane.” Newsweek ran a cover emblazoned with the headline “Murder in the Sky.”

“The Reagan administration’s spin machine began cranking up,” wrote Alvin A. Snyder, then-director of the U.S. Information Agency’s television and film division, in his 1995 book, Warriors of Disinformation.

USIA Director Charles Z. Wick “ordered his top agency aides to form a special task force to devise ways of playing the story overseas. The objective, quite simply, was to heap as much abuse on the Soviet Union as possible,” Snyder recalled.

Snyder noted that “the American media swallowed the U.S. government line without reservation.” Said the venerable Ted Koppel on the ABC News ‘Nightline’ program: ‘This has been one of those occasions when there is very little difference between what is churned out by the U.S. government propaganda organs and by the commercial broadcasting networks.’”

On Sept. 6, 1983, the Reagan administration went so far as to present a doctored transcript of the intercepts to the United Nations Security Council. …

“The tape was supposed to run 50 minutes,” Snyder said about the recorded Soviet intercepts. “But the tape segment we [at USIA] had ran only eight minutes and 32 seconds. … ‘Do I detect the fine hand of [Richard Nixon’s secretary] Rosemary Woods here?’ I [Snyder] asked sarcastically.’”

But Snyder had a job to do: producing the video that his superiors wanted. “The perception we wanted to convey was that the Soviet Union had cold-bloodedly carried out a barbaric act,” Snyder wrote.

Seeing the Whole Story

Only a decade later, when Snyder saw the complete transcripts — including the portions that the Reagan administration had hidden — would he fully realize how many of the central elements of the U.S. presentation were false.

The Soviet fighter pilot apparently did believe he was pursuing a U.S. spy plane, according to the intercepts, and he was having trouble in the dark identifying the plane. At the instructions of Soviet ground controllers, the pilot had circled the KAL airliner and tilted his wings to force the aircraft down. The pilot said he fired warning shots, too. “This comment was also not on the tape we were provided,” Snyder wrote.

It was clear to Snyder that in the pursuit of its Cold War aims, the Reagan administration had presented false accusations to the United Nations, as well as to the people of the United States and the world. To Reagan’s people, the ends of smearing the Soviets had justified the means of falsifying the historical record.

In his book, Snyder acknowledged his role in the deception and drew an ironic lesson from the incident. The senior USIA official wrote, “The moral of the story is that all governments, including our own, lie when it suits their purposes. The key is to lie first.”

[End of my excerpt]

In 2016, as we deal with the West’s new hysteria regarding Russia – complete with rehashes of prior propaganda themes and military escalations – the pressing question is whether there are any adults left at senior levels of Official Washington who can rein in the madness before things spin entirely out of control.

Santayana famously noted, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But the real danger now is that history won’t stop at repeating itself but will continue beyond, plunging over the nuclear precipice.

Ray McGovern 27-year career as a CIA analyst included leading CIA’s Soviet Foreign Policy Branch.  He later conducted morning briefings of President Reagan’s most senior national security advisers with the President’s Daily Brief.  He now works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.




A Victory in Mosul Could Help Clinton

If a U.S.-backed coalition drives the Islamic State from Mosul, Iraq, before the U.S. elections, the victory could boost Hillary Clinton’s campaign and undercut Donald Trump’s criticisms, writes Joe Lauria.

By Joe Lauria

The liberation of Mosul ahead of the Nov. 8 U.S. election would boost Hillary Clinton’s chances and enhance the legacy of her chief proponent, Barack Obama. As preparations continue to intensify for a major military operation to free Iraq’s second largest city from ISIS’s grip, talk here 55 miles away in Erbil is that the operation could be launched on Oct. 15.

A source who speaks regularly to residents of Mosul told me that ISIS militants have virtually disappeared from the streets of the city. Where before they were out in numbers enforcing their extreme version of Sharia law (you could be executed for smoking a cigarette), they are now hardly to be seen. The residents aren’t sure what’s going on. But it could mean ISIS fighters have begun evacuating ahead of the attack.

This is what happened in June when, after initial fighting, ISIS deserted Fallujah allowing the Iraqi army and Shia militias to take the city. Then last month, ISIS extremists abandoned the oil town of Qayyara, just 48 miles south of Mosul, ahead of advancing Iraqi army units. The militants released petroleum into the streets and set it on fire as they retreated.

Preparations are being made outside Erbil for an influx of refugees from Mosul that could number as many as 500,000, according to Stephen O’Brien, the U.N.’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs. Another million people could flee elsewhere to the Kurdish region.

If the reports of vanished ISIS militants from the streets of Mosul are correct, occupying the city may come without the immense civilian casualties that would almost certainly result from U.S. aerial bombardments and house-to-house fighting.

Meetings among Iraqi Kurdish authorities, Baghdad officials and Americans have intensified here in the Kurdish capital and in Baghdad. The aim is to avoid a clash over who gets to control Mosul once it is taken. The city is a mix of Sunni Arabs and Kurds, as well as several other minority groups.

Relations between Baghdad and Erbil have been severely strained for several years over the control of oil and territory. The Kurds have been selling petroleum on their own through Turkey, cutting off revenue to the central government. In response Baghdad has cut off all government revenues to the region. The Kurds have long sought independence from Baghdad but have been prevented by the U.S. from going ahead with a referendum.

Kurdish peshmerga forces have been accused of seizing control of Arab majority towns that they have liberated from ISIS. Amnesty International reported that the Kurds have raised houses to prevent Arab Iraqis from returning.

Divided Allies

The fear is that the real battle will be between Kurdish and Iraqi Army units after ISIS leaves Mosul, the biggest prize in the war to rid Iraq of the Islamic State. Such a bloody fight, especially if Mosul is taken relatively peacefully, would undermine the narrative of the Obama administration’s triumph.

So the U.S. is sending 600 more troops to help coordinate logistics for the attack, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said on Wednesday. There are already 4,400 U.S. troops throughout Iraq.

ISIS has controlled Mosul since July 2014. Where they would flee to, if they are indeed leaving the city ahead of the operation, is another issue. It could further complicate the war in neighboring Syria, whose border is less than 180 miles from Mosul, if they retreat there. Raqqah, the so-called Syrian capital of the Islamic State, is only 290 miles away.

The U.S. effort against ISIS has been focused more on Iraq than Syria. Obama announced his air war against the group when it came within a few miles of capturing Erbil in the summer of 2014. U.S. air power and the peshmerga pushed them back towards Mosul.

U.S. operations in Syria, on the other hand, have been questionable. It has appeared that the U.S. has largely left ISIS alone as it advances there. For instance, Washington did nothing to stop ISIS’s capture of Palmyra, which was liberated by the Syrian government with Russian help earlier this year.

If in fact ISIS has been allowed to play a role in Washington’s goal of “regime change” in Damascus, the influx of ISIS fighters from Iraq would put additional pressure on the Syrian government. It could also help create the conditions for the quagmire that the U.S. seems so intent on getting the Russians into.

The liberation of Mosul, especially without a fight, would be trumpeted as a major victory for the legacy of Obama’s beleaguered foreign policy and indirectly a boost for Hillary Clinton. Though she hasn’t been Secretary of State for four years, Clinton is still closely associated with Obama White House.

The expulsion of ISIS from Mosul could undermine Donald Trump’s insistent criticism of the Obama administration’s failure to deliver a knockout punch to the extremists.

Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist based at the U.N. since 1990. He has written for the Boston Globe, the London Daily Telegraph, the Johannesburg Star, the Montreal Gazette, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. He can be reached atjoelauria@gmail.com  and followed on Twitter at @unjoe.




Obama’s Gift to Israel — and Lockheed

President Obama approved $38 billion in military aid to Israel, but that cash is then recycled to subsidize the U.S. Military-Industrial Complex like some giant money-laundering machine of the taxpayers’ money, explains JP Sottile.

By JP Sottile

The Israeli lobby wins again! That’s the obvious takeaway from President Barack Obama’s historically large, but not quite unprecedented $38 billion “aid package” to Bibi Netanyahu’s supposedly intransigent government.

In Israel, the ten-year deal is seen as a solid, but not complete victory for Bibi. In the U.S., the deal looks like it’s the cost of doing business with Iran. Sadly, the deal also looks like a bad sign of things to come for the Palestinian people.

Shortly after the deal was sealed, President Obama’s farewell tour took him to the United Nations where he stated without irony, “Israel must recognize that it cannot permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land.” The utter toothlessness of his admonition was preemptively underlined by a fascinating online video posted by Netanyahu in which he claimed the Palestinians — not the rapidly encroaching Israelis — were the real outlaws. Apparently, they are advocating “ethnic cleansing” by hoping to reclaim pilfered land from illegal Israel settlements peppered throughout the absconded territory of the West Bank.

It’s an amazing bit of pretzel logic gleefully served up to a dwindling, demoralized crowd of two-state enthusiasts. The mustard came when Obama made his final, flaccid appeal to a now-buoyant Bibi regarding his not-so-subtle expansion of Israel’s ethnically-pure settlements.

Of course, this predictable turn of events confirmed what critics of Israel’s outsized influence have always believed — that when it comes to the State of Israel, the fix is always in no matter how badly the “special relationship” appears to be broken.

In 2006, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard University made a strong case that, as they wrote in the London Review of Books, the “Israel Lobby” surpasses all “other special-interest groups” in its ability to not just “skew foreign policy” away from America’s “national interest,” but it has also simultaneously convinced “Americans that US interests and those of the other country – in this case, Israel – are essentially identical.”

Although there’s little doubt that much of America’s foreign policy establishment seems inexorably convinced that the two nations share “identical” interests, there are indications that Israel is not quite the arm-twister it used to be.

That’s because the Iran Nuke Deal was a distinct departure from the usually suspect arrangement between Washington and Tel Aviv. It does appear that Obama broke 40 years of Israeli exceptionalism to defeat the vaunted Israeli Lobby. In exchange, Obama had to paper-over that unprecedented break with 38 billion greenbacks. In effect, he purchased Israel’s acceptance of the Iran Nuclear Deal.

Transactional Politics

It’s transactional politics and it makes a lot of sense. To keep war with Iran off the table, Obama simply had to reinforce Israel’s nuclear-tipped military edge over Iran, over other regional powers and over the people living in the bombing range also known as Gaza. But there is another thrust to the bulging aid package.

It also reinforced the United States’ notable edge as the world’s leading salesman of military hardware.  And that’s the interesting upshot of the big deal with little Israel. It’s all laid out in a synopsis of the “Memorandum of Understanding” published by the White House:

–This amount represents a significant increase over the current MOU by every measure, and will enable Israel to acquire additional advanced military capabilities from the United States.

–It includes $33 billion in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) funds and an unprecedented $5 billion commitment in missile defense assistance.  This funding will be disbursed in equal increments of $3.3 billion in FMF and $500 million in missile defense funding each year for the duration of the understanding.

–In practical terms, the level of funding specified in the MOU will permit Israel to update the lion’s share of its fighter aircraft fleet including through the acquisition of additional F-35s — increase its missile defense, and acquire other defense capabilities needed to meet its threat environment.

–The $500 million in annual missile defense funding under the MOU exceeds the average level of non-emergency support the United States has provided to Israel for missile defense over the last five years.

Most importantly, President Peace Prize secured a key provision that terminates Israel’s ability to spend 26.3 percent of Uncle Sam’s annual gift “within Israel on non-U.S. products.” In other words, all of the tax dollars Uncle Sam sends over there now have to come back here and be spent in Uncle Sam’s Club — a.k.a. America’s Supermarket of Military Hardware.

The Needy Military Industrial Complex

In fact, the White House stated with detectable pride that “Israel will spend more funding, as much as $1.2 billion per year, on the advanced military capabilities that only the United States can provide.” So, Israel’s big win also cornered a part of their market for those American corporations that lead the world in developing new and exciting ways of killing people.

And it comes none too soon for America’s defense industry. As a “longtime consultant for American military contractors” recently told Foreign Policy, the already wildly profitable defense industry is looking for some assistance because “domestic defense spending is flat as a pancake and Israel is a consumer of high-end military technology.”

And nothing is more “high-end” (and more in need of aid) than Lockheed Martin’s bloated boondoggle — the F-35. As it turns out, the biggest win of all might be for Lockheed’s embattled, trillion-plus dollar weapon system.

So far, the “next generation” fighter injures its pilots, just suffered “another engine fire” from tailwinds, probably cannot beat the F-16 or European Typhoon in a dogfight and is still hampered by a panoply of “serious problems,” according to the “Pentagon’s top weapons tester.” But fear not, Lockheed shareholders … here comes military aid to the rescue!

As Eric Pianin detailed in The Fiscal Times, Israel was an early-adopter of the “ill-fated, long overdue and far over budget” fighter jet. In 2006, they slated an “augmented version” of the jet as a replacement for yet another profitable weapon system purchased from Uncle Sam’s Club — their fleet of 300 F-16s.

The problem is that they’d budgeted $5 billion to buy 100 F-35s. That works out to a bargain price of $50 per plane. But now “the price tag has ballooned to $15 billion – or about $200 million per plane,” writes Pianin.

So, it’s quadrupled in price over the last decade … and it hasn’t even been delivered yet! But the first souped-up Israeli model is supposed to arrive on Dec. 12, 2016. And that’s where the $38 billion deal comes in. The “aid” is going to help the Israelis make up the difference.

So, thanks to the American taxpayer, they’ll be able to afford to receive the plane from Lockheed, which has only been able to build the plane because of an ongoing subsidy also provided by the U.S. taxpayer in the form of the Pentagon’s own haphazard effort to get the “most expensive weapons system in history” off the ground here in the United States.

Can’t you just hear the money flushing down the drain … and into the already-flush bank accounts of the executives and shareholders who are perennially enriched by the world’s biggest weapons-maker and the U.S. government’s biggest contractor?

Investment in Lobbying

Not coincidentally, Lockheed has spent over $7 million on lobbying thus far this year. And that’s why it’s worth considering that the Israel Lobby is not, as Mearsheimer and Walt claimed in 2006 and many believe today, the apex predator among the herd of special interest groups feasting on U.S. foreign policy.

The vaunted American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has spent $1.8 million on lobbying so far this year. Its high-water mark was during last year’s scrum around the Iran nuclear deal when it spent $3.88 million, according to OpenSecrets.org.

And Lockheed’s high water mark? They hit $16.1 million in 2008, when the profitable, but ever-more catastrophic Global War on Terror came under a great deal of election year scrutiny. That year was a high-water mark for the industry as a whole with a whopping $153.3 million spread around the political process by Profiteers of Doom.

Lockheed also leads the defense industry pack in giving to Congressional candidates of both stripes. So far this year they’ve doled-out $3.1 million while the entire industry has dropped a cool $22 million around Capitol Hill, according to OpenSecrets.org’s latest numbers. It’s enough to (almost) make Sheldon Adelson blush.

So, here’s the question: Is Israel’s $38 billion windfall really yet another example of how Washington, DC is “Israeli Occupied Territory”? Or it is just a continuation of a decades-long defense industry money-laundering scheme dating back to the start of the Cold War with the Mutual Defense Assistance Act of 1949?

That’s when the so-called Iron Curtain officially became a cash cow for the Military-Industrial Complex and President Harry Truman created one of the industry’s most reliable slush funds — foreign military assistance. Some of that aid was used to send U.S. weapons directly to allies. Some of it was direct aid (a.k.a. money) used to buy U.S. weapons. Some of it financed the purchase of U.S. weapons. And some of was used to buy from other dealers — particularly as Europe built-up its own, NATO-stoked defense industry.

But mostly it’s been a tidy little loop that cycles U.S. tax-dollars back to the corporate arms-dealers back in the United States. And it still is. That’s why contractors are touting Cold War 2.0 to investors and why the State Department deploys de facto salespeople to push arms around the Middle East and why the Israelis always get their way in spite of what would seem to be America’s larger national interests.

Frankly, the $38 billion “aid” package is as much of — if not more of — a gift to the Military-Industrial millionaires who’ve made a killing off of the Middle East’s woes. And now that Obama nixed Israel’s use of aid on its own industry, it is really just the middleman through which the money passes on its way back to America’s defense industry.

A Money-Laundering Scheme

The stark truth is that America’s so-called ‘’national interests” reflect the wishes of the Military-Industrial Complex far more than they do Israel or any foreign power. That’s why military aid so often laundered tax dollars through a rogue’s gallery of strongmen, counterproductive military juntas, brutal anti-Communist regimes and, since the advent of the Global War on Terror, through those snazzy little coalitions cobbled together out of nations willing to aid in overthrowing governments, to abet in torture and, thereby, to create an endless supply of enemies around the world.

Really, once you view U.S. foreign policy as a vast money-laundering scheme, America’s frustrating (perhaps even immoral) policies toward Israel and Saudi Arabia and Eastern Europe and practically everywhere else suddenly look a lot more rational.

So, it isn’t ideology or stupidity or some Svengali-induced trance that has America looking the other way in the Occupied Territories or supporting the carnage in Yemen or fueling the largest military build-up in Europe … since the last largest military build-up in Europe.

Rather, there is a simple profit motive at the heart of U.S. foreign policy. Always has been. Maybe there always will be. To wit, America isn’t just the world’s biggest spender on its own military, but it also accounts for one-third of all foreign military sales worldwide.

Uncle Sam’s Club services “at least” 96 countries. That’s nearly half of the world’s nations. And 40 percent of those weapons end up in the Middle East. Like Israel, Saudi Arabia is among its most reliable customers and Uncle Sam is keeping them supplied with everything they need to turn Yemen into a humanitarian catastrophe.

Just like Israel, many point to the pernicious power of Saudi influence in shaping U.S. policy. And like Israeli policy, Saudi policy seems counterproductive to U.S. interests. Perhaps even more so since Saudi-exported jihadism helped set the conditions for the Global War on Terror. But that means the Saudi Government is not just a great customer, but they even open up new markets!

And that’s the real reason Saudi Arabia, just like Israel, always seems to get away with (literally) murder. It’s not because they “control” the United States. It’s because U.S. taxpayer-funded defense spending in a “dangerous world” is the most reliable source of income in human history.

Like Listerine needs “chronic halitosis” to sell mouthwash, the post-Cold War defense industry needs lotsa “bad breath” in Russia, in the South China Sea, in Africa and, of course, in the Middle East. And who leaves a more bitter taste in the mouths of their neighbors than Israel and Saudi Arabia?

Even better, here in the U.S. they’ve become big glaring targets of disdain and suspicion despite the fact that the biggest beneficiaries of U.S. policy toward both are the U.S. corporations that sell them big bangs for big bucks … and profit even more off the collateral chaos they spawn.

So, it’s not influence. It’s really about customer service. And the customer is always right.

JP Sottile is a freelance journalist, radio co-host, documentary filmmaker and former broadcast news producer in Washington, D.C. He blogs at Newsvandal.com or you can follow him on Twitter, http://twitter/newsvandal.




Parry Laments Loss of Journalistic Skepticism

From Editor Robert Parry: Skepticism once was considered a universal virtue in American journalism, but – as we’ve seen in too many recent cases – it is now applied selectively. When some demonized American “adversary” is accused of something, skepticism disappears and the charges, no matter how thinly supported by evidence, are accepted as flat fact. Entirely different rules apply for an American “ally.”

However, at Consortiumnews.com, we still believe in the old values that call for skepticism in all cases. So, whether we’re talking about Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi or Vladimir Putin, we insist on checking out the accusations against them and trying to apply fair standards.

That’s not always popular. Many people want us to join the pack and denounce the “evil ones.” But skepticism is what I think you, the reader, deserve. In my view, it’s also what’s best for American democracy, the concept that an informed electorate – not a population numbed by propaganda and disinformation – is central to making the process work.

Honest reporting also is necessary for the world to avoid unnecessary wars. We’ve seen how unprofessional journalism at America’s premier newspapers has contributed to conflicts with Iraq, Libya, Syria and now nuclear-armed Russia. Things are getting more and more dangerous.

But for Consortiumnews to continue to serve this role of applying skepticism when others won’t, we need at least a modest budget, which is why we make fundraising appeals three times a year. We are currently trying to wrap up our late-summer/early fall fund drive, but we’re still less than halfway to our $30,000 target.

So, please contribute what you can with a donation by credit card online (we accept Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover), by PayPal (our PayPal account is named after our original email address, “consortnew @ aol.com”), or by mailing a check to Consortium for Independent Journalism (CIJ); 2200 Wilson Blvd., Suite 102-231; Arlington VA 22201.

We also are registered with PayPal’s Giving Fund under the name Consortium for Independent Journalism. And, since we are a 501-c-3 non-profit, donations by American taxpayers may be tax-deductible.

And, we are offering a special thank-you gift for those who can give $125 or more – or if you set up a recurring monthly donation by credit card or PayPal.

You can receive a signed copy of the new edition of my second book, Trick or Treason, which was originally published in 1993 and has been long out of print. It tells the inside story of my PBS-Frontline investigation of the 1980 October Surprise mystery (whether Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush sabotaged President Carter’s Iran-hostage negotiations to ensure their electoral victory). There is also a new “Afterword” that brings the story up to the present day.

As part of the gift package, we are including a DVD of the Frontline documentary, “Election Held Hostage,” the 1991 program that resulted from the investigation.

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Thanks for your support and for making our two decades-plus of honest journalism possible. Our work could not happen without your help.

Robert Parry is a longtime investigative reporter who broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for the Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. He founded Consortiumnews.com in 1995 to create an outlet for well-reported journalism that was being squeezed out of an increasingly trivialized U.S. news media.




US Foreign Policy Elite vs. the Evil One

The crème de la U.S. foreign policy establishment gathered in Texas last week, reaffirming at a friendly conclave the need for their skillful stewardship of the national security state, as Michael Brenner witnessed.

By Michael Brenner

The combined security/intelligence communities held a high-powered public conference at the University of Texas in Austin last week, a now regular event blessed by Chancellor (Admiral) William McRaven who previously had led OPERATIONS COMMAND (SOCOM).

The line-up of heavy hitters was impressive:  Clapper, McLaughlin, Hadley, Breedlove, Zelikow, Negroponte, Eliot Cohen, General Norton Schwartz (former Chief of staff, Air Force), Joshua Bolten (Bush Chief of Staff), John Helgerson (CIA Inspector General), Kurt Campbell.  Its purpose, though, remains obscure.

Outreach to the American public is one standard explanation for this type of shindig. Communication in this instance, though, was one-way. The panels included only true believers in a hard-line, aggressive approach to a very long security agenda. The speakers’ roster was similarly stacked. Token participants from outside the “community” who had figured in previous meetings were nowhere in sight. So what the public gets is instruction rather than exchange or communication.

The choice of Texas is particularly odd since there are few locals who need conversion. At last year’s event, CIA Director John Brennan’s litany of grievances against all those who, like the Senate Intelligence Committee, were trying to rein in the CIA, NSA, et al elicited a standing ovation from the entire audience (minus one).

The level of enthusiasm was what one might expect had he announced the decimation of the last Comanche band or a State Supreme Court’s decision to void all land grants to Mexicans from the King of Spain. In 2015, Russia, Iran, Syria, the Islamic State and – not least- domestic enemies provided the amphetamine-like rush. Same this year. So what we had was the College of Cardinals trekking 1,200 miles to preach to the choir of a provincial town.

This effusive welcome is not surprising. After all, Texas is where the Governor (Greg Abbott) called out the State Guard to defend the citizenry from the threat of abuse by U.S. Army units engaged in a training exercise in one county north of Austin. He voiced sympathy for their claimed fears about possible rapine, robbery, wreckage, and – above all – confiscation of their firearms. So did almost all other elected officials.

In other words, the event had elements of an Evangelical rally – the crowd leaned toward the elderly, albeit with a considerable sprinkling of the college-aged and Generation “Xs.” Still, it was illuminating to hear the Word straight from the apostles. Understandably, in those congenial conditions restraint or ellipse are dispensed with in outbursts of self-satisfied candor.

Perhaps a better metaphor is a gathering of senior prelates at Rome’s Society of Jesus sometime in the early Seventeenth Century. For America’s foreign policy Establishment has a “near enemy” and a “far enemy.”  The former includes those forces who would curb the robust exertion of power at home and abroad – either through misguided legal constraints or a scaling back of its audacious goals.

The aroused opposition to draconian surveillance and associated illegalities had been a threat to the Establishment’s authority and legitimacy. Now, that abortive Reformation has been quelled and the status quo ante restored with trivial concessions to the heretics. The outgoing Pope had seen the necessity and virtue of aligning with the Society and the Pope-designate is a proven sister-in-Christ.

Prioritizing Enemies

The “near enemy” is the priority, of course. For it poses a manifest or latent threat to the essence of the Establishment: its bureaucratic control, its lavish financing, its political clout and – above all – its position as cynosure of the creed, defender of the Faith from heresy, and spiritual guide to the nation in pursuing its external relations.

The “far enemy” is the world “out there.” That space can be divided into four categories: those places where conversion is complete and governments can be expected to bow to American suzerainty: Western Europe, Japan, etc.; other places where active proselytization is well underway: Eastern Europe, South Asia; places occupied by hostile forces which threaten directly or otherwise endanger the Establishment’s supremacy or general well-being; and, finally, those ambiguous zones where threats potentially could spawn.

Category III is where the “Evil One” resides – in his many manifestations: e.g. Russia, Iran, North Korea, Islamic terrorists. The “Evil One” is omnipresent – even when not visible as was the case in Austin.

Category IV embraces two concerns: a) nests where minor vipers may lurk – Latin American “reformers,” African gangster cabals, Mexican drug cartels – but not Afghan ones; and b) China. This last bulks large and ominously in the anxious imagination of the Establishment. It is the equivalent of nascent Islam to Christian Europe of the Dark Ages or – perhaps more closely – the Ottomans to Renaissance Europe.

What to do – confront, co-opt, co-exist, engage tactically? The Establishment’s movers-and-shakers instinctively lean toward confrontation. Their practical sense leans them toward vigilant accommodation. They fret but they don’t think creatively.

The blunt truth is that China scares the American foreign policy elite. It is too big, too successful, too self-confident, too ready to make claims of exceptionalism that supposedly are an American exclusive. That is why these Establishment apostles compulsively deploy the classic avoidance devices of disparaging it, of magnifying its problems, of persuading themselves that the United States’ position as king of the hill is impregnable. In other words, adolescent wishful thinking.

The “near enemy” front and the “far enemy” front intersect. They are mutually dependent. High-threat assessments on the latter are assets in campaigning for maximum support on the former. Expanded assets, material and political, in turn permit for more extensive engagement abroad. A veritable perpetual motion machine.

There does indeed exist a terrorism industry whose behavior largely conforms to that of other industries. It admittedly has a number of distinctive features. It is a public/private partnership; therefore it deals in two currencies – political rewards and money. Its activities have deep and pervasive support among the populace at large and elites. It is impervious to criticism since its functions are deemed critical to the nation’s basic security. Critics are either shrugged off or accused of not taking seriously grave threats.

The terrorism industry’s value to the country is impossible to measure since its success is defined in terms of negatives (things that haven’t happened) rather than positives (things that did happen). While tangible benefits are immeasurable, there are millions of people whose livelihood, status, self-esteem and political future depend on perpetuation of the terrorism industry as it currently is structured and operates.

In addition, the terrorism industry is both seller and buyer of its products – all of which are in the form of services. Its for-profit and non-profit components both depend on a high level of demand. Fear of terrorism generates the demand. Stoking fear generates higher returns for all those who work in the industry.

The same people in the non-profit sector who benefit also make the judgments, launch the policies and control the discourse as to how great the need is.   A critique of assertions about the magnitude, nature and change in the level of threat we face must be understood against this backdrop. So, too, must any assessment of how well present policies and practices are working.

Remarkable Conclave

The Austin conclave was remarkable in two respects: its calm self-confidence; and its unquestioning belief that the American Establishment has a Providential mission to oversee the affairs of the globe. Truth is immanent (or inherent) in U.S. foreign policy. America’s motives pure. Its means measured.

The paramount responsibility of those who lead is to scour the world to find and identify threats – and then to devise strategies for eliminating them. Periodically, they must also ensure that the American people fully understand why and what is being done on their behalf.

When it comes to policy advocacy, the two recurrent words are “should” and “must” – as in New York Times editorials. “We should strengthen our military presence in Syria to counter Russian influence.” “Putin must stop his aggression in the Baltics and Balkans” – Stephen Hadley, national security adviser to President George W. Bush. (Geography evidently is not this crowd’s strong suit).

Embedded in this rhetoric is a pair of core propositions. Like pillars of the Faith, they do not require explicit restatement. The overriding purpose of American foreign policy is to achieve absolute security for the United States. In the long run, that means Americanizing the world. In the shorter term, that means strenuous, unrelenting efforts to smite our enemies and to preempt potential threats.

There are four guiding principles:

It is legitimate, even imperative, for the threatened democratic world, led by Washington, to use its power to forestall assaults on them.

–Traditional concepts of state sovereignty do not constitute an acceptable legal or political barrier to efforts at imposing that solution.

–The United States, therefore, is not a “global Leviathan” that advances its selfish interests at the expense of others.  It is, rather, the benign producer of public goods.

–The privilege of partial exception from the international norms, including the right to act unilaterally, is earned by an historical record of selfless performance.

Don’t Look Back

The worthies on the Austin panel spent no time on a retrospective critique of the policies and action that have flowed from this world-view. The objective record may show that the country has invested enormously in serial failure relieved only by the modest success of dispersing Classic Al Qaeda and dislodging the Taliban – temporarily.

The global struggle goes on against enemies real and imagined without any appreciable change in strategic thinking. Its sole convincing victory has been mastery of the American public mind. Yet, there is no reappraisal of core premises. The tragic Iraq fiasco got one mention: “we need to better identify what factors in the equation we have inadequate Intelligence about, like WMDs” –Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

The resilience of Faith in strategic doctrine as some sort of Holy Writ is evident in the Establishment’s approach to Syria. Speakers evinced an undifferentiated and unqualified consensus on America purposes there. American priorities emerged clearly. In this mess, we still can discern what they are – and that there exists a consensus on their importance and ordering. As noted in an earlier post:

  1. The paramount objective is to thwart Russia’s efforts to exercise influence and to establish its position in Syria.
  2. Get rid of Assad. We have committed ourselves to the Israelis, the Turks, and the Saudis on this. Their wish is our command.
  3. Marginalize and weaken Iran by breaking the Shi’ite Crescent
  4. Wear down and slowly fragment ISIS. Success on this score can cover failure on all others in domestic opinion.
  5. Ensure a permanent American physical presence in Iraq, i.e. achieve what we failed to achieve in 2008.
  6. Facilitate a de facto partition of Iraq with bits of Syria attached to the Iraqi bits. Hold this out as the lure for the Kurds to act as our infantry.
  7. Facilitate some kind of Sunni entity in Anbar and eastern Syria. How can we prevent it being destabilized by attacks from ISIS remnants? How can we prevent it falling under the sway of Al Qaeda? Good subjects for the Obama Foundation’s first major study project.
  8. Al-Nusra in Syria proper? Hope that the Turks can “domestic” al-Nusra. Incentive? Obscure. No one made mention of Washington’s tacit alliance with Al Qaeda in Syria. No one made mention of pressuring Turkey and the KSA to cease and desist supporting jihadi elements, no mention was made of Israel, no mention was made of post-Assad Syria.

The words “should” or “must” in regard to other parties were absent from all discussion of Syria. Indeed, Hadley and others urged that we redouble efforts to repair credibility in the eyes of Riyadh and Ankara. These Establishment figures have spent so much time in blind alleys that they seem unable to tell night from day.

Every Soul is captive

Of its own Deeds — Qur’an  74:38

The U.S. foreign policy Establishment is not big on introspection or self-reflection – it sparks fear of an acute agoraphobia attack.

Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. mbren@pitt.edu




How the US Armed-up Syrian Jihadists

The West blames Russia for the bloody mess in Syria, but U.S. Special Forces saw close up how the chaotic U.S. policy of aiding Syrian jihadists enabled Al Qaeda and ISIS to rip Syria apart, explains ex-British diplomat Alastair Crooke.

By Alastair Crooke

“No one on the ground believes in this mission or this effort”, a former Green Beret writes of America’s covert and clandestine programs to train and arm Syrian insurgents, “they know we are just training the next generation of jihadis, so they are sabotaging it by saying, ‘Fuck it, who cares?’”. “I don’t want to be responsible for Nusra guys saying they were trained by Americans,” the Green Beret added.

In a detailed report, US Special Forces Sabotage White House Policy gone Disastrously Wrong with Covert Ops in Syria, Jack Murphy, himself a former Green Beret (U.S. Special Forces), recounts a former CIA officer having told him how the “the Syria covert action program is [CIA Director John] Brennan’s baby …Brennan was the one who breathed life into the Syrian Task Force … John Brennan loved that regime-change bullshit.”

In gist, Murphy tells the story of U.S. Special Forces under one Presidential authority, arming Syrian anti-ISIS forces, whilst the CIA, obsessed with overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad, and operating under a separate Presidential authority, conducts a separate and parallel program to arm anti-Assad insurgents.

Murphy’s report makes clear the CIA disdain for combatting ISIS (though this altered somewhat with the beheading of American journalist James Foley in August 2014): “With the CIA wanting little to do with anti-ISIS operations as they are focused on bringing down the Assad regime, the agency kicked the can over to 5th Special Forces Group. Basing themselves out of Jordan and Turkey” — operating under “military activities” authority, rather than under the CIA’s coveted Title 50 covert action authority.

The “untold story,” Murphy writes, is one of abuse, as well as bureaucratic infighting, which has only contributed to perpetuating the Syrian conflict.

But it is not the “turf wars,” nor the “abuse and waste,” which occupies the central part of Murphy’s long report, that truly matters; nor even the contradictory and self-defeating nature of U.S. objectives pursued. Rather, the report tells us quite plainly why the attempted ceasefires have failed (although this is not explicitly treated in the analysis), and it helps explain why parts of the U.S. Administration (Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and CIA Director Brenner) have declined to comply with President Obama’s will – as expressed in the diplomatic accord (the recent ceasefire) reached with the Russian Federation.

The story is much worse than that hinted in Murphy’s title: it underlies the present mess which constitutes relations between the U.S. and Russia, and the collapse of the ceasefire.

“The FSA [the alleged “moderates” of the Free Syria Army] made for a viable partner force for the CIA on the surface, as they were anti-regime, ostensibly having the same goal as the seventh floor at Langley” [the floor of the CIA headquarters occupied by the Director and his staff] – i.e. the ousting of President Assad.

But in practice, as Murphy states bluntly: “distinguishing between the FSA and al-Nusra is impossible, because they are virtually the same organization. As early as 2013, FSA commanders were defecting with their entire units to join al-Nusra. There, they still retain the FSA monicker, but it is merely for show, to give the appearance of secularism so they can maintain access to weaponry provided by the CIA and Saudi intelligence services. The reality is that the FSA is little more than a cover for the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra. …

“The fact that the FSA simply passed American-made weaponry off to al-Nusra is also unsurprising considering that the CIA’s vetting process of militias in Syria is lacklustre, consisting of little more than running traces in old databases. These traces rely on knowing the individuals’ real names in the first place, and assume that they were even fighting-age males when the data was collected by CTC [Counterterrorism Centre] years prior.”

Sympathy for Al Qaeda

Nor, confirms Murphy, was vetting any better with the 5th Special Forces operating out of Turkey: “[It consisted of] a database check and an interview. The rebels know how to sell themselves to the Americans during such interviews, but they still let things slip occasionally. ‘I don’t understand why people don’t like al-Nusra,’ one rebel told the American soldiers. Many had sympathies with the terrorist groups such as Nusra and ISIS.”

Others simply were not fit to be soldiers. “They don’t want to be warriors. They are all cowards. That is the moderate rebel,” a Green Beret told Murphy, who adds:

“Pallets of weapons and rows of trucks delivered to Turkey for American-sponsored rebel groups simply sit and collect dust because of disputes over title authorities [i.e. Presidential authorities] and funding sources, while authorization to conduct training for the militias is turned on and off at a whim. One day they will be told to train, the next day not to, and the day after only to train senior leaders. Some Green Berets believe that this hesitation comes from the White House getting wind that most of the militia members are affiliated with Nusra and other extremist groups.” [emphasis added.]

Murphy writes: “While the games continue on, morale sinks for the Special Forces men in Turkey. Often disguised in Turkish military uniform, one of the Green Berets described his job as, ‘Sitting in the back room, drinking chai while watching the Turks train future terrorists’ …

“Among the rebels that U.S. Special Forces and Turkish Special Forces were training, ‘A good 95 percent of them were either working in terrorist organizations or were sympathetic to them,’ a Green Beret associated with the program said, adding, ‘A good majority of them admitted that they had no issues with ISIS and that their issue was with the Kurds and the Syrian regime.’”

Buried in the text is this stunning one-line conclusion: “after ISIS is defeated, the real war begins. CIA-backed FSA elements will openly become al-Nusra; while Special Forces-backed FSA elements like the New Syrian Army will fight alongside the Assad regime. Then the CIA’s militia and the Special Forces’ militia will kill each other.

Well, that says it all: the U.S. has created a ‘monster’ which it cannot control if it wanted to (and Ashton Carter and John Brennan have no interest to “control it” — they still seek to use it).

U.S. Objectives in Syria

Professor Michael Brenner, having attended a high-level combined U.S. security and intelligence conference in Texas last week, summed up their apparent objectives in Syria, inter alia, as:

–Thwarting Russia in Syria.

–Ousting Assad.

–Marginalizing and weakening Iran by breaking the Shi’ite Crescent.

–Facilitating some kind of Sunni entity in Anbar and eastern Syria. How can we prevent it falling under the sway of al-Qaeda?  Answer: Hope that the Turks can “domesticate” al-Nusra.

–Wear down and slowly fragment ISIS. Success on this score can cover failure on all others in domestic opinion.

Jack Murphy explains succinctly why this “monster” cannot be controlled: “In December of 2014, al-Nusra used the American-made TOW missiles to rout another anti-regime CIA proxy force called the Syrian Revolutionary Front from several bases in Idlib province. The province is now the de facto caliphate of al-Nusra.

That Nusra captured TOW missiles from the now-defunct Syrian Revolutionary Front is unsurprising, but that the same anti-tank weapons supplied to the FSA ended up in Nusra hands is even less surprising when one understands the internal dynamics of the Syrian conflict, i.e. the factional warfare between the disparate American forces, with the result that “Many [U.S. military trainers] are actively sabotaging the programs by stalling and doing nothing, knowing that the supposedly secular rebels they are expected to train are actually al-Nusra terrorists.”

How then could there ever be the separation of “moderates” from Al-Nusra – as required by the two cessations of hostilities accords (February and September 2016)? The entire Murphy narrative shows that the “moderates” and al-Nusra cannot meaningfully be distinguished from each other, let alone separated from each other, because “they are virtually the same organization.”

The Russians are right: the CIA and the Defense Department never had the intention to comply with the accord – because they could not. The Russians are also right that the U.S. has had no intention to defeat al-Nusra – as required by U.N. Security Council Resolution 2268 (2016).

So how did the U.S. get into this “Left Hand/Right Hand” mess – with the U.S. President authorizing an accord with the Russian Federation, while in parallel, his Defense Secretary was refusing to comply with it? Well, one interesting snippet in Murphy’s piece refers to “hesitations” in the militia training program thought to stem from the White House getting wind that most of the militia members were “affiliated with Nusra and other extremist groups.”

Obama’s Inklings

It sounds from this as if the White House somehow only had “inklings” of “the jihadi monster” emerging in Syria – despite that understanding being common knowledge to most on-the-ground trainers in Syria. Was this so? Did Obama truly believe that there were “moderates” who could be separated? Or, was he persuaded by someone to go along with it, in order to give a “time out” in order for the CIA to re-supply its insurgent forces (the CIA inserted 3,000 tons of weapons and munitions to the insurgents during the February 2016 ceasefire, according to IHS Janes’).

Support for the hypothesis that Obama may not have been fully aware of this reality comes from Yochi Dreazen and Séan Naylor (Foreign Policy’s senior staff writer on counter-terrorism and intelligence), who noted (in May 2015) that Obama himself seemed to take a shot at the CIA and other intelligence agencies in an interview in late 2014, when he said the community had collectively “underestimated” how much Syria’s chaos would spur the emergence of the Islamic State.

In the same article, Naylor charts the power of the CIA as rooted in its East Coast Ivy League power network, its primacy within the intelligence machinery, its direct access to the Oval Office and its nearly unqualified support in Congress. Naylor illustrates the CIA’s privileged position within the Establishment by quoting Hank Crumpton, who had a long CIA career before becoming the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism.

Crumpton told Foreign Policy that when “then-Director Tenet, declared ‘war’ on Al-Qaeda as far back as 1998, “you didn’t have the Secretary of Defense [declaring war]; you didn’t have the FBI director or anyone else in the intelligence community taking that kind of leadership role.”

Perhaps it is simply – in Obama’s prescient words – the case that “the CIA usually gets what it wants.”

Perhaps it did: Putin demonized, (and Trump tarred by association); the Sunni Al Qaeda “monster” – now too powerful to be easily defeated, but too weak to completely succeed – intended as the “albatross” hung around Russia and Iran’s neck, and damn the Europeans whose back will be broken by waves of ensuing refugees. Pity Syria.

Alastair Crooke is a former British diplomat who was a senior figure in British intelligence and in European Union diplomacy. He is the founder and director of the Conflicts Forum, which advocates for engagement between political Islam and the West.