Netanyahu Uses US Congress as Prop

By addressing the U.S. Congress for a third time, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will again demonstrate his mastery of the American political process, using the backdrop of repeated standing ovations to keep Israelis from thinking too much about economic troubles, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

A recent poll confirmed what other polls and many observers have noted about concerns of the Israeli public as Israel’s general election next month approaches. Presented with a list of six subjects and asked which is the most important one for the government of Israel to address, 48 percent of all likely voters picked “economic issues.” Nineteen percent said it was relations with the Palestinians, 14 percent picked education, and only 10 percent chose “the Iranian threat.” Instability in the region, enlisting ultra-Orthodox, “other,” and “don’t know” collectively got 11 percent.

Compared with a poll that asked the same question two years ago, “economic issues” went up five percentage points and “the Iranian threat” went down two. Given how much the incumbent government unceasingly pounds away in its rhetoric on the Iranian issue and how dire a threat it portrays it to be, it may be remarkable how few respondents chose that subject.

Two salient facts about the Israeli economy provide the background to the views and concerns of Israeli citizens. First, Israel is a prosperous state with an economy that, looked at in a macro way, is admirably dynamic. Don’t let that $3 billion in annual aid from the United States fool you into thinking that Israel needs that money; Israel is in the top 25 countries of the world in GDP per capita.

But second, and perhaps not surprisingly given that Israel has been ruled by a right-wing government for the last several years, Israel has some of the worst economic inequality among the developed countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Israel’s high-tech success has not trickled down to much of the rest of the economy. Despite the nation’s overall prosperity, a good many ordinary Israelis strain to make do. This is especially true of young adults of the millennial generation, particularly with regard to finding affordable housing.

A demonstration of these patterns that was more dramatic than opinion polls came in huge street demonstrations in the summer of 2011, when many Israelis marched and chanted, “we demand social justice.” The hundreds of thousands of participants, bearing in mind the size of the Israeli population, represented a far bigger display than anything the Occupy Wall Street people were able to mount in the United States.

There is a genuine opening here for the Israeli Center-Left. The Israeli public, compared to the American public, is more positively inclined toward a welfare state and more tolerant of government deficits and public sector spending.

The way Likud and the rest of the political Right counters this vulnerability is to keep trying to shift the focus by hammering away on what it presents as national security issues, keeping the Israeli public scared, notwithstanding the overwhelming regional military superiority that Israel enjoys at all levels, and portraying itself as best able to protect Israelis from what is scary.

For Benjamin Netanyahu, the specter of Iran and especially its nuclear program has been central to this political strategy. When Netanyahu comes to Washington and makes his Congressional appearance that Republican/Likud political operative Ron Dermer (aka the Israeli ambassador) arranged for him, he bolsters his domestic political standing in a couple of ways.

One is that, insofar as he is successful in sabotaging any agreement to restrict the Iranian program, he can continue to fulminate about the Iranian bogeyman in as unrestrained fashion as he always has. If he can kill an agreement, he puts off the day when scaremongering about Iran gets even less of a rise out of the Israeli electorate than what the recent poll measured.

In the meantime, the speech itself enables Netanyahu to show the U.S. Congress again eating out of his hand, reassuring his voters that he has everything under control as far as U.S. politics are concerned, notwithstanding any unpleasantness with the current U.S. president.

Lest there be any doubt about Netanyahu’s use of Congress as an electoral prop in this way, in the last previous Israeli election in 2013, Netanyahu’s political coalition broadcast a campaign ad that used footage from an earlier Congressional appearance of his, replete with several of those standing ovations from the members (and also used a clip of Netanyahu’s display of his cartoon bomb before the U.N. General Assembly). The ad conveyed the message, “When Netanyahu speaks, the world listens.”

The structure of the Israeli economy thus does more harm besides making it hard for some Israelis to find housing and pay bills. It also provides an added political incentive for their government to undermine U.S. foreign policy, to constrain U.S. freedom of action in the Middle East, and to destroy the best chance the world has had to ensure that the Iranian nuclear program stays peaceful.

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




Can ICC Mete Out Justice to Powerful?

The International Criminal Court brought hope that victims of serious crimes of state could finally get some justice, but instead the truly powerful have retained their impunity while alleged violators from weak countries are dragged before the ICC, a reality that may yet change, says Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

Americans consider themselves citizens of “the Land of the Free” with a tradition of rugged individualism that still provides mythical fodder for organizations such as the Tea Party and the National Rifle Association.

People associated with such organizations (and their numbers are in the millions) also exhibit a deep suspicion of government. They believe that the politicians they elect should, as one-time Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater put it, “aim not to pass laws, but to repeal them.” They believe that the fewer rules and laws there are (except those promoting their own peculiar brand of morality), the greater is the citizen’s freedom.

It takes just a little bit of historical knowledge to know that this attitude is dangerous nonsense. The fact is you cannot have a stable and safe human environment without rules and laws.

That is one reason why they have always existed in one form or another at multiple levels of human society, in the family, the classroom, private clubs, the town, the state, the country, and so forth. In fact, human history can be read as the expansion of enforceable rules or laws from smaller to larger groupings. Wider circles obeying the same set of hopefully humane rules.

It is also a historical fact that the larger and more developed a society becomes, the more rules and laws it accumulates. This tendency, which has become analogous with “big government,” seems to drive right-wingers crazy.

And indeed, some of these regulations might well be superfluous (generating “red tape”), but others are not. In fact, it is well thought-out rules and laws that hold societies together – countering, though not always adequately, the centrifugal forces of economic greed, special interest selfishness, and the callousness of citizens who would turn their backs on societal needs so as to avoid paying taxes.

It is my guess that most of us, worldwide, know what good rules or laws look like. In part they reflect the sort of rights and restrictions enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, various Geneva Conventions, the Charter of the United Nations and similar documents agreed to by peoples of many cultures.

When these are taken seriously as models for enforceable law, they have the potential to both rein in the anarchists and prevent draconian behavior by the powerful and influential.

 

Who Is Above the Law?

The adage that no one should be above the law is of particular importance here. The problem is that there are innumerable cases where some individual or group holds sufficient political power to defy the rule of law.

This situation, which almost always leads to an abuse of power, can arise both domestically and internationally. In the context of domestic national affairs we call such people dictators or tyrants, or amoral CEOs of companies that allegedly are “too big to fail.”

These folks are easily identified but, short of revolution, less easily brought to account. Then there are the crimes committed under the guise of foreign policy and directed against people of other countries.

In such cases the average citizen of the offending nation either does not know what is happening or is made to believe that crimes are not crimes, but rather actions in defense of alleged national interests. These highly placed leaders presuming to be above the law are sometimes harder to identify and even less likely to be held accountable.

It is to address this problem of accountability that the the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established in 2002 by a multilateral treaty known as the Rome Statute. According to its own rules, the Court operates only when national courts will not or cannot prosecute an individual suspected of heinous crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, or other war crimes.

Also, in order for the Court to have jurisdiction, crimes must have taken place within the territory of one or more of the 123 states that have ratified the Statute.

A number of important countries, such as India, China and Saudi Arabia, have refused to sign on to the Rome Statute. Others, like the United States and Israel, have signed but never ratified the treaty and, subsequently, announced that they do not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC.

That does not mean suspected criminals from non-ratifying nations are completely beyond the court’s jurisdiction. If a ratifying state claims that nationals of a non-ratifying state have committed crimes within its territory, the Court can investigate and, if warranted, indict the accused party.

But then one comes up against the problem of enforcement. How do you arrest the indicted person if he is Henry Kissinger, George W. Bush or any number of Israeli military and civilian leaders, all of whom may well warrant the Court’s attention.

This issue has not yet been fully confronted because, until very recently, no one has actually brought the crimes of individuals representing large and powerful states or their allies to the attention of the Court. As a result the ICC’s list of prosecutions is notably lopsided.

To date, all those indicted by the court have come from small nations without great power allies and lacking influence within international institutions like the United Nations. Indeed, many of these prosecutions are against citizens of so-called failed states.

However, this is about to change due to the decision of the Palestinian National Authority to join the ICC. This has resulted in an ICC preliminary investigation of Israeli war crimes during the 2014 invasion of the Gaza Strip.

How this investigation plays out will be a real test of ICC effectiveness. At this stage of our collective political history, how serious are we about creating a common set of rules allowing the investigation and punishment of serious crimes committed not just by leaders of small and weak states, but also by those who lead strong and influential nations?

In other words, since law is one of the foundations of civilization, shouldn’t we make sure that no one stands above it.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.




The One-Sided US Narrative on Iran

In the preferred U.S. narratives, American leaders are always wise and rational but must deal with pigheaded and crazy adversaries. That is the way the current U.S.-Iranian nuclear negotiations are presented inside Official Washington but there is a very different reality, as Gareth Porter explains.

By Gareth Porter

Talking to reporters last Monday, President Barack Obama asked rhetorically, “[D]oes Iran have the political will and desire to get a deal done?”  Iran “should be able to get to yes,” Obama said. “But we don’t know if that is going to happen. They have their hardliners, they have their politics.”

The idea that Iranian agreement to U.S. negotiating demands is being held back by “politics” is a familiar theme in U.S. public pronouncements on these negotiations. The only reason Iran has not accepted the deal offered by the United States, according to the standard official view, is that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is a hardliner who is constraining the more reasonable Iranian negotiating team from making the necessary compromises.

But that is a self-serving understanding of the problem, and it reflects a much more profoundly distorted view of U.S. -Iran relations on the nuclear issue. The premise of Obama’s remark was that U.S. demands are purely rational and technical in nature, when nothing could be further from the truth.

The U.S. proposal on enrichment capacity is justified by the concept of “breakout,” which experts acknowledge is based on a completely implausible scenario. But Iran has now had a “breakout” capability meaning the capability to enrich enough uranium at weapons grade level for a single bomb – for six years. So the U.S. insistence on reducing its capability so that the breakout timeline is a few months longer clearly has nothing to do with denying a nuclear weapons capability.

But the official narrative clings to the idea that Iran is acting irrationally in refusing to accept that U.S. demand. The clearest illustrations of this warped U.S. understanding of the negotiations is a long essay last month by former U.S. proliferation official Robert Einhorn.

Analyzing the reason for the failure of the talks to date, he blames “deep divisions within the Iranian elite,” and specifically the position of the supreme leader. Einhorn cites a speech by Khamenei in Qom on Jan. 7, where he quotes Khamenei as concluding, “[B]y relying on the nation and domestic forces, we must act in such a way that even if the enemy does not lift the sanctions, no blow will be struck against the people’s progress.”

Einhorn suggests that Khamenei believes “Iran can live without an agreement,” implying that he is not really interested in an agreement. But a crucial point in the speech was Khamenei’s statement about U.S. intentions: “The Americans say with completely shamelessness, ‘Even if Iran makes compromises on the nuclear issue, sanctions will not be lifted altogether and at the same time.’” And Khamenei concludes, “This shows that the enemy cannot be trusted.”

Khamenei’s point was clearly not that he was any less interested in an agreement that achieved the end of sanctions, but that he was doubtful about the willingness of the Americans to do so. But in an effort to force the speech to fit the U.S. framework, Einhorn insists that it shows the Supreme Leader is “deeply skeptical of the value of an agreement.”

What is missing from Einhorn’s analysis – and from the American approach to negotiating with Iran in general – is any understanding that decades of aggressive U.S. policy toward Iran have forced the Iranian national security elite to think very hard about its strategy for negotiating with the United States to achieve Iran’s fundamental objective of getting the sanctions lifted.

Khamenei is not a simple-minded Ayatollah who likes the idea of going it alone, as Einhorn and others in the U.S. national security elite like to believe. He has been deeply involved in every major national security policy decision Iran has made from the beginning. He was Ayatollah Khomeini’s first representative to the Supreme National Security Council from 1980 to 1982, and was president of Iran from 1982 to 1990.

Khamenei has been criticized in the West and by his successor as President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani for having refused to support negotiations with the United States either in 1989 and again after President Mohammad Khatami was elected in 1997. What critics of those policy decisions have failed to take into account, however, is that Iran would have been trying to negotiate with the United States from a woefully weak position in both cases.

In her 2005 book, Persian Mirrors, New York Times reporter Elaine Sciolino quotes then Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whom the Americans have never dismissed as a wild-eyed Islamic radical, providing a remarkably revealing explanation for the Iranian calculation in rejecting negotiations with the United States at that point:

“Look at it this way. The United States has most of the cards. We discarded our rhetorical card when Khatami reached out and called for a dialog among civilizations. The United States discarded its rhetorical card when it abandoned its negative tone toward us. Now the United States wants to keep the rest of its cards but want us to discard all of ours. It wants to open a dialog while it still is keeping a number of sanctions against us. We’re saying, ‘You can’t keep all your cards. It’s not in our interest and it’s not in your interest.’”

Khamenei and Zarif both believed the United States was seeking to force Iran to accept an agreement on normalization under which Washington would continue to hold the sanctions over Iran’s head. The Iranian analysis further implied that it needed to accumulate more negotiating cards in order to have successful talks with the United States.

That was the point at which Iran’s nuclear program intersected with its strategy for negotiating with the United States. Iran was planning to build a uranium enrichment facility within a few years. The United States chose to interpret such a facility as evidence of a covert nuclear weapons program, but the evidence indicates that Khamenei and his advisers were actually counting on that enrichment program to provide it with stronger cards with which to negotiate with the United States.

Political scientist Jalil Roshandel, who worked on a research project for the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s think tank in 1997-1998, told me that influential figures he interviewed expressed the belief that having a uranium enrichment program would provide bargaining chips to be used in negotiating with the United States for the removal of the sanctions.

Roshandel, who now teaches at East Carolina State University, recalled that those who made that connection in conversations with him included an adviser to Ali Akbar Velayati, who had been foreign minister for 16 years, and then deputy Revolutionary Guards commander Yahya Rahim Safavi, who become chief commander in 1997.

Khamenei knows very well that this is the opportunity to play Iran’s nuclear cards in order to get the sanctions removed. But the United States appears to be using its sanctions card to force Iran to accept a reduction of roughly 75 percent in its enrichment capacity and not even offering to lift all sanctions in the short run even if Iran caves in.

The second problem is that Iran’s enrichment capabilities have taken on a new political significance in public opinion as symbols of Iranian technological advancement that limits how far they can go in dismantling it.

In the context of the history of the sanctions in U.S.-Iran relations, Iran’s determination to hold out for a better deal is hardly irrational. If the Obama administration fails to understand that fact the diplomatic stalemate is likely to continue.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian writing on US national security policy.  His latest book, Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, was published in February 2014. [This story originally appeared in Middle East Eye.]




The Putin-Did-It Conspiracy Theory

Exclusive: A new truce agreement in Ukraine rekindles hope that the bloodshed can be reduced if not stopped, but Official Washington’s gross misunderstanding of the crisis, blaming everything on Russia’s President Putin, raises doubts and portends a potentially grave catastrophe, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

The original falsehood behind the Iraq War was that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and intended to use them against America either directly or by giving them to al-Qaeda. The opening lie about the Ukraine crisis was that Russian President Vladimir Putin instigated the conflict as part of some Hitlerian plan to conquer much of Europe.

Yet, while the Hussein-WMD claim was hard for the common citizen to assess because it was supposedly supported by U.S. intelligence information that was kept secret, the Putin-Ukraine lie collapses under the most cursory examination based simply of what’s publicly known and what makes sense.

Nevertheless, the New York Times much as it did when it was falsely reporting breathlessly about “aluminum tubes” for Iraq’s non-existent nuclear weapons program continues to promote U.S. government propaganda about Ukraine as fact and dismisses any rational assessment of the situation as crazy.

On Friday, the Times concluded its lead editorial with the assertion that: “What remains incontrovertible is that Ukraine is Mr. Putin’s war.” But the point is anything but “incontrovertible.” Indeed, the crisis was most certainly not instigated by Putin.

The actually “incontrovertible” facts about the Ukraine crisis are these: The destabilization of President Viktor Yanukovych’s elected government began in November 2013 when Yanukovych balked at a proposed association agreement promoted by the European Union. He sought more time after the sticker shock of learning from Kiev economic experts that the deal would cost Ukraine $160 billion in lost revenue by cutting trade with Russia.

It was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, not Vladimir Putin, who pushed the EU agreement and miscalculated the consequences, as the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel has reported. Putin’s only role in that time frame was to offer a more generous $15 billion aid package to Ukraine, not exactly a war-like act.

Yanukovych’s decision to postpone action on the EU association prompted angry demonstrations in Kiev’s Maidan square, largely from western Ukrainians who were hoping for visa-free travel to the EU and other benefits from closer ties. Putin had no role in those protests and it’s insane to think that he did.

In February 2014, the protests grew more and more violent as neo-Nazi and other militias organized in the western city of Lviv and these 100-man units known as “sotins” were dispatched daily to provide the muscle for the anti-Yanukovych uprising that was taking shape. It is frankly nutty to suggest that Putin was organizing these militias. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “When Is a Putsch a Putsch.”]

Evidence of Coup Plotting

By contrast, there is substantial evidence that senior U.S. officials were pushing for a “regime change” in Kiev, including an intercepted phone call and various public statements.

In December 2013, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, a neocon holdover, reminded Ukrainian business leaders that the United States had invested $5 billion in their “European aspirations.” In early February, she discussed with U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt who the new leaders of Ukraine should be. “Yats is the guy,” she declared, referring to Arseniy Yatsenyuk. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Who’s Telling the Big Lie on Ukraine?”]

The Maidan uprising gained momentum on Feb. 20, 2014, when snipers around the square opened fire on police and protesters touching off a violent clash that left scores of people dead, both police and protesters. After the sniper fire and a police retreat — carrying their wounded — the demonstrators surged forward and some police apparently reacted with return fire of their own.

But the growing evidence indicates that the initial sniper fire originated from locations controlled by the Right Sektor, extremists associated with the Maidan’s neo-Nazi “self-defense” commandant Andriy Parubiy. Though the current Ukrainian government has dragged its feet on an investigation, independent field reports, including a new one from BBC, indicate that the snipers were associated with the protesters, not the Yanukovych government as was widely reported in the U.S. media a year ago.

The worsening violence led Yanukovych to agree on Feb. 21 to a deal guaranteed by three European countries. He accepted reduced powers and agreed to early elections so he could be voted out of office. Yet, rather than permit that political settlement to go forward, neo-Nazis and other Maidan forces overran government buildings on Feb. 22, forcing Yanukovych and his officials to flee for their lives.

The U.S. State Department quickly deemed this coup regime “legitimate” and Nuland’s choice, Yatsenyuk, emerged as Prime Minister, with Parubiy put in charge of national security.

In other words, there is plenty of evidence that the Ukraine crisis was started by the EU through its mishandling of the association agreement, then was heated up by the U.S. government through the work of Nuland, Pyatt and other officials, and then was brought to a boil by neo-Nazis and other extremists who executed the coup.

A Nutty Conspiracy Theory

But there is zero evidence that Putin engineered these events. There is no evidence that he got Merkel and the EU to overplay their hand; no evidence that he organized the neo-Nazi militias in Lviv; no evidence that he manipulated U.S. officials to manipulate the “regime change” behind the scenes; no evidence that he ordered the Maidan militants to attack.

Is the New York Times really suggesting that Putin pulled the strings on the likes of Merkel and Nuland, secretly organized neo-Nazi brigades, and ruthlessly deployed these thugs to Kiev to provoke violence and overthrow Yanukovych, all while pretending to try to save Yanukovych’s government all so Putin could advance some dastardly plot to conquer Europe?

The Times often makes fun of “conspiracy theorists,” but the Times’ narrative is something that would make even the most dedicated “conspiracy theorist” blush. Yet, the Times not only asserts this crazy conspiracy theory but calls it “incontrovertible.”

Beyond the lack of evidence to support this conspiracy theory, there is no rational motive for Putin to have done what the Times claims that he did.

In the actual chronology of event, Putin was preoccupied with the Winter Olympics in Sochi when the Ukraine crisis took its turn for the worst a year ago. He was fearful that the Olympics would be marred by Chechen or other terrorism and thus was personally overseeing security.

Putin had spent some $40 billion on making the Olympics a glamorous show to introduce the new Russia to the world as a country ready to join the West. I’m told that he was very proud of Russia’s position in the G-8 and felt he had built a constructive relationship with President Barack Obama by helping him resolve crises in Syria and Iran in 2013.

The last thing Putin wanted to do was provoke a crisis in Ukraine. Nor is there any intelligence that he had designs on the Baltic States, as the conspiracy theory contends.

However, when a right-wing regime seized power in a violent coup in Ukraine on Russia’s border and then took provocative actions against Ukraine’s ethnic Russians, Putin responded to calls from Crimea both from its parliament and a referendum to take the peninsula back into Russia.

Putin also feared that the new powers in Kiev might give the historic Russian naval base at Sevastopol to NATO with its nuclear-armed submarines. In other words, as much as the New York Times has bandied about claims of a Russian “invasion” of Crimea, the Crimeans requested Russia’s intervention and up to 25,000 Russian troops were already there in the agreement with Ukraine over the naval base.

Reactor, Not Instigator

But the key point is that Putin was reacting to the Ukraine crisis, not instigating it. As even former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger explained to Der Spiegel, “The annexation of Crimea was not a move toward global conquest. It was not Hitler moving into Czechoslovakia.”

Kissinger added, “Putin spent tens of billions of dollars on the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The theme of the Olympics was that Russia is a progressive state tied to the West through its culture and, therefore, it presumably wants to be part of it. So it doesn’t make any sense that a week after the close of the Olympics, Putin would take Crimea and start a war over Ukraine.”

In this case, Kissinger is clearly right. It never made any sense for Putin to provoke the Ukraine crisis. Yet, that became the lie upon which the United States has built its increasingly aggressive policies over the past year, with politicians of all stripes now shouting that America must stand up to the madman Putin and “Russian aggression.”

This is a dangerous “group think” for a number of reasons, not the least the disturbing fact that both the United States and Russia have lots of nuclear weapons. On a less existential level, the “Putin-is-Hitler” analogy has prompted a major miscalculation on the right approach for the Obama administration to take vis a vis Putin.

As Harvard Professor Stephen M. Walt has noted, the most effective response to a crisis is different if a foreign leader is an aggressor on the march or if the leader feels cornered. The former calls for a “deterrence model,” i.e., a tough reaction. But a tough response in the latter case will only make the beleaguered leader more belligerent like a cornered animal, thus spinning the crisis into more dangerous territory under what’s known as the “spiral model.”

“When insecurity is the taproot of a state’s revisionist actions, making threats just makes the situation worse,” Walt wrote. “When the ‘spiral model’ applies, the proper response is a diplomatic process of accommodation and appeasement (yes, appeasement) to allay the insecure state’s concerns.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “‘Realists’ Warn Against Ukraine Escalation.”]

Perhaps the new ceasefire agreement in Minsk spearheaded by German Chancellor Merkel will finally help defuse the crisis, with the legitimate concerns of the various sides being taken into account rationally rather than letting the past year’s hysteria continue to control events.

But the Times’ editorial doesn’t give much reason for hope that America’s upside-down “group think” has righted itself in any meaningful way. In the mainstream media’s latest repeat of the Iraq-WMD fiasco, the Times and virtually every other major news outlet remain committed to a dangerous misreading of the facts about Ukraine.

And anyone who dares point out the real history of the crisis is immediately shouted down with the anti-intellectual riposte: “Putin apologist!” — just as in 2002-2003, when anyone who doubted the certainty about Iraq’s WMD was a “Saddam apologist.”

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




A Vague War Declaration on ISIS

President Obama has tossed Congress a draft resolution on using force against Islamic State militants but the vague language is something of a hot potato that neither the White House nor Congress is comfortable with, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The draft that the Obama administration submitted to Congress to authorize the use of military force against ISIS (also called the Islamic State) seems to be pleasing almost no one, and that was bound to be. Some of the strongest early criticism is coming from doves, including people who support Mr. Obama on most other issues, but hawks are complaining as well.

One can see why this tardy submission of a draft resolution was preceded by months of an Alphonse-and-Gaston routine in which both the administration and the Congress were looking to the other to offer a proposal first. Each seemed to sense it was impossible to come up with something that would not have unavoidable and easily noted flaws. Probably the draft will be modified in the course of the coming Congressional debate, and probably the modifications will still leave many doves and many hawks dissatisfied.

Several questions and potential problems are worthy of attention in the debate. Perhaps the most significant question concerns the fact that this draft does not repeal the authorization that Congress passed in 2001 shortly after the 9/11 attack, and that two administrations subsequently have used as the legal basis for a variety of armed actions in several different countries.

The current administration has been saying that this earlier resolution was all the authorization it needed for the military actions it already has been taking for months against ISIS. If the 2001 resolution, so interpreted, remains in force, then how can whatever limits are specified in a new resolution have any significance and any effect?

The coming debate in Congress, however overdue it is and however flawed will be whatever product comes out of it, is nonetheless welcome. It is part of a proper function of the legislative branch. This is not an instance, as has arisen on some other issues, of members trying to act like 535 secretaries of state and getting in the way of negotiating international agreements.

Nor is it, at least not yet, a case of members trying to act like 535 commanders-in-chief and interfering in the management of military operations. Instead it is a matter of the people’s representatives setting basic policy and priorities when it comes to deciding whether a particular goal overseas merits expending American blood and treasure and putting American lives in harm’s way.

Whatever its outcome in terms of a specific resolution, the debate might help to illuminate why it is so difficult to put into legislative language a precise statement of what is intended. The fundamental reason goes back to the habit of thinking of counterterrorism in military terms, as reflected in the unfortunate phrase “war on terror.”

Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy. Wars end; terrorism doesn’t. Military measures are only one type of tool, and not necessarily the most effective one, in countering terrorism. Regarding that last point, it would be appropriate for members of Congress to debate not only the legal issues involved in an authorization of force but also the practical and empirical issues pertaining to what is most likely to cause a group such as ISIS to wax or to wane.

Declaring war, or authorizing force, against a state involves a well-defined adversary, with the limits of the armed conflict defined by the activities of the target state. The organizational manifestations of international terrorism are much different, consisting of amoeba-like groups that shift shape and identity and that lack clear boundaries in terms of either structure or theaters of operation.

Terrorist groups, including the ones that have most preoccupied the United States in recent years, metamorphose, splinter, and spread. The names assumed by groups are of little use in adding clarity to this chaos, because adoption of a name sometimes is nothing more than an expression of fondness for a certain ideology or of admiration for what another group carrying that name has done, or an attempt to sound scarier, rather than reflecting any organizational cohesion.

This has been true of many who have adopted the al-Qaeda name as well as ones today adopting the ISIS name. This is why it is so hard to word a resolution authorizing force resolution against such groups, as if it could be done as clearly and precisely as declaring war against state X.

It is why there is justified concern about whether any meaningful limit is being applied by the current draft resolution when the stated target is ISIS “or associated persons or forces” and this is further declared to mean “any closely-related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” That is a very wide window.

It is good for Congress to try to come up with the least bad version of a resolution aimed at ISIS. But what is needed even more is a different kind of Congressional authorization, perhaps a much-improved version of the 2001 resolution, that recognizes that it might be appropriate in carefully selected times and places to apply the military tool in counterterrorism, without vainly pretending as if this could be done in the same way as declaring war against a particular state. But exactly what such an authorization would look like is not at all clear.

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




Pressuring Obama toward More War

Still fearing of accusations about a lack of patriotism, Hollywood keeps making movies like “American Sniper” that ignore the criminality of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an attitude that, in turn, makes it harder for President Obama to show restraint in foreign crises, notes Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland.

By Ivan Eland

As the American cable news entertainment channels focus on the artificial American Sniper controversy, the Obama administration’s issuance of its second and final national security strategy (the last one was done in 2010) was buried deep in the back pages of the newspapers.

Unfortunately, most Americans don’t choose to know much about U.S. foreign policy or American history, and therefore even the small minority that watches cable news or movies about such topics thinks they represent reality.

For example, Clint Eastwood, a Republican, uses his movie to helpfully rewrite history to confirm George W. Bush’s fantasy conflating pursuit of the 9/11 attackers with his unrelated and disastrous invasion of Iraq.

No matter that the heroically portrayed Chris Kyle, the sniper, is part of a U.S. force that invaded the country in violation of international law for no good reason and is killing an Iraqi insurgency — which is trying to fight off the foreign occupiers and their oppressive Shi’i government — that didn’t exist before the invasion. And Eastwood’s alternative reality, like leftist Oliver Stone’s similar blockbuster film fantasy some years ago about that liberal icon’s assassination, has a good chance of hardening in the public mind.

That’s because most Americans (unlike say Europeans), including U.S. policymakers, are ignorant of their own history, even recent history — and especially where foreign policy is concerned. And because they are foggy on this history or choose to ignore it, American policymakers have difficulty developing a coherent strategy for the United States.

Obama’s strategy fails this test too, but it at least recognizes the limitations of U.S. military power in remodeling countries around the world to American liking. In an introduction to the strategy, Obama writes: “America leads from a position of strength. But this does not mean we can or should attempt to dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world. As powerful as we are and will remain, our resources and influence are not infinite. And in a complex world, many of the security problems we face do not lend themselves to quick and easy fixes.”

Given the recent dumping of trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives (American and local) in losing wars (OK, I said it) in Afghanistan and Iraq and the current U.S.-induced or -aggravated chaos in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, this statement should be obvious on its face.

It is apparently not to administration critics, such as the ubiquitous Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and his sidekick Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina, however, who berate Obama for running a weak foreign policy that is too reluctant to use American power.

When Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, defended the new strategy by saying, “There is a lot going on. Still, while the dangers we face may be more numerous and varied, they are not of the existential nature we confronted during World War II or during the Cold War. We cannot afford to be buffeted by alarmism in a nearly instantaneous news cycle.” Again, this conclusion is seemingly obvious — reminiscent of the more restrained foreign policy of President Dwight Eisenhower during the 1950s. Eisenhower would deftly deflect foreign policy “crises” and sent U.S. forces into battle on only one curious occasion during his eight years in office — Lebanon in 1958. Ike was proud of the fact that no American service member lost a life during combat while he was president.

During his tenure, Eisenhower faced similar criticism that he was a “do-nothing” president, yet historians now correctly see that he was secretly on top of things and that he merely regarded doing nothing as doing something. Obama is less confident in his ability to resist pressure from the military and other vested interests for an interventionist American foreign policy, because he didn’t serve in the military and he didn’t defeat the Nazis, as did Ike.

So despite his laudably cautious nature (relatively speaking), Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan, was slow to get out of Iraq, got back into Iraq and now Syria, was goaded by the French into overthrowing Libya’s leader, and has escalated Bush’s drone wars in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen — all in Islamic countries, thus continuing Bush’s documented fueling of resultant Islamist radicalism the world over.

Obama is now being pushed into providing arms for the Ukrainian government to battle Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists and putting more forces on the ground to fight the ISIS in the Middle East. He should avoid both of these options, because Ukraine is in the Russian sphere of influence, and ISIS is more of threat to the Middle East region that it is to the United States.

If Obama wants a lasting legacy in foreign policy, he should be the first president in the post-Cold War era (the elder George Bush and after) to create a coherent and sustainable national security strategy that deals with the current limited real threats to U.S. security and hedges against the future rising of China.

After the disastrous and costly wars, the great recession, and consequent accumulation of monstrous levels of national debt, the United States needs to work toward real economic renewal through cutting defense spending (which Obama and the Congress are currently toying with increasing) and slashing massive entitlement programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, etc. In the long-term, all indices of national power — including military expenditure — rest on a strong economy.

Thus, to reduce defense spending, the United States, in all regions of the world, should let regional powers take the lead unless a potentially catastrophic security crisis erupts — the crises in Ukraine and involving ISIS do not reach that level.

This “balancer-of-last-resort” strategy would save trillions of dollars, allow the renewal of American power well into the future, save American and foreign lives, and reduce Islamist radicalism worldwide and consequent blowback terrorism, thus making America more secure and less prone to curtail unique civil liberties.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.




NYT Whites Out Ukraine’s Brown Shirts

Exclusive: The New York Times has been more biased on the Ukraine crisis endlessly promoting State Department propaganda than when it published false Iraqi WMD stories last decade. Case in point: a story from Mariupol hailing the Azov battalion without noting its neo-Nazi fighters, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

In covering the Ukraine crisis, the New York Times continues its descent into becoming little more than a propaganda organ for the U.S. State Department and the Kiev regime, again refusing to acknowledge the role of neo-Nazi militias in the civil war against ethnic Russians in the east.

On Wednesday, the Times published a long article by Rick Lyman that presented the situation in the port city of Mariupol as if the advance by ethnic Russian rebels amounted to the arrival of barbarians at the gate while the inhabitants were being bravely defended by the forces of civilization. But then the article cites the key role in that defense played by the Azov battalion.

Though the article provides much color and detail and quotes an Azov leader prominently it leaves out one salient and well-known fact about the Azov battalion, that it is composed of neo-Nazis who display the Swastika, SS markings and other Nazi symbols.

But this inconvenient truth that neo-Nazis have been central to Kiev’s “self-defense forces” from last February’s coup to the present would presumably disrupt the desired propaganda message. So the New York Times just ignores it and refers to Azov as simply a “volunteer unit.”

What’s particularly egregious about this omission is that the connections between the Azov battalion and Nazism have been well-documented for months and even acknowledged by officials of the Kiev regime, who knowingly sent these and other extremists into the battle because they are the fiercest fighters.

Even the Times itself has included at least one brief reference to this reality, though buried deep inside an article. On Aug. 10, 2014, a Times’ article mentioned the neo-Nazi Azov battalion in the last three paragraphs of a lengthy story on another topic.

“The fighting for Donetsk has taken on a lethal pattern: The regular army bombards separatist positions from afar, followed by chaotic, violent assaults by some of the half-dozen or so paramilitary groups surrounding Donetsk who are willing to plunge into urban combat,” the Times reported.

“Officials in Kiev say the militias and the army coordinate their actions, but the militias, which count about 7,000 fighters, are angry and, at times, uncontrollable. One known as Azov, which took over the village of Marinka, flies a neo-Nazi symbol resembling a Swastika as its flag.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Discovers Ukraine’s Neo-Nazis at War.”]

Not a Mistake

The conservative London Telegraph offered more details about the Azov battalion in an article by correspondent Tom Parfitt, who wrote: “Kiev’s use of volunteer paramilitaries to stamp out the Russian-backed Donetsk and Luhansk ‘people’s republics’ should send a shiver down Europe’s spine.

“Recently formed battalions such as Donbas, Dnipro and Azov, with several thousand men under their command, are officially under the control of the interior ministry but their financing is murky, their training inadequate and their ideology often alarming. The Azov men use the neo-Nazi Wolfsangel (Wolf’s Hook) symbol on their banner and members of the battalion are openly white supremacists, or anti-Semites.”

Based on interviews with militia members, the Telegraph reported that some of the fighters doubted the reality of the Holocaust, expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler and acknowledged that they are indeed Nazis.

Andriy Biletsky, the Azov commander, “is also head of an extremist Ukrainian group called the Social National Assembly,” according to the Telegraph article which quoted a commentary by Biletsky as declaring: “The historic mission of our nation in this critical moment is to lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade for their survival. A crusade against the Semite-led Untermenschen.”

In other words, for the first time since World War II, a government had dispatched Nazi storm troopers to attack a European population and officials in Kiev knew what they were doing. The Telegraph questioned Ukrainian authorities in Kiev who acknowledged that they were aware of the extremist ideologies of some militias but insisted that the higher priority was having troops who were strongly motivated to fight. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Ignoring Ukraine’s Neo-Nazi Storm Troopers.”]

But a rebel counteroffensive by ethnic Russians last August reversed many of Kiev’s gains and drove the Azov and other government forces back to the port city of Mariupol, where Foreign Policy’s reporter Alec Luhn also encountered these neo-Nazis. He wrote:

“Blue and yellow Ukrainian flags fly over Mariupol’s burned-out city administration building and at military checkpoints around the city, but at a sport school near a huge metallurgical plant, another symbol is just as prominent: the wolfsangel (‘wolf trap’) symbol that was widely used in the Third Reich and has been adopted by neo-Nazi groups.

“Pro-Russian forces have said they are fighting against Ukrainian nationalists and ‘fascists’ in the conflict, and in the case of Azov and other battalions, these claims are essentially true.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Seeing No Neo-Nazi Militias in Ukraine.”]

SS Helmets

More evidence continued to emerge about the presence of Nazis in the ranks of Ukrainian government fighters. Germans were shocked to see video of Azov militia soldiers decorating their gear with the Swastika and the “SS rune.” NBC News reported: “Germans were confronted with images of their country’s dark past when German public broadcaster ZDF showed video of Ukrainian soldiers with Nazi symbols on their helmets in its evening newscast.

“The video was shot in Ukraine by a camera team from Norwegian broadcaster TV2. ‘We were filming a report about Ukraine’s AZOV battalion in the eastern city of Urzuf, when we came across these soldiers,’ Oysten Bogen, a correspondent for the private television station, told NBC News. “Minutes before the images were taped, Bogen said he had asked a spokesperson whether the battalion had fascist tendencies. ‘The reply was: absolutely not, we are just Ukrainian nationalists,’ Bogen said.”

Despite the newsworthiness of a U.S.-backed government dispatching neo-Nazi storm troopers to attack Ukrainian cities, the major U.S. news outlets have gone to extraordinary lengths to excuse this behavior, with the Washington Post publishing a rationalization that Azov’s use of the Swastika was merely “romantic.”

This curious description of the symbol most associated with the human devastation of the Holocaust and World War II can be found in the last three paragraphs of a Post lead story published in September 2014. Post correspondent Anthony Faiola portrayed the Azov fighters as “battle-scarred patriots” nobly resisting “Russian aggression” and willing to resort to “guerrilla war” if necessary.

The article found nothing objectionable about Azov’s plans for “sabotage, targeted assassinations and other insurgent tactics” against Russians, although such actions in other contexts are regarded as terrorism. The extremists even extended their threats to the government of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko if he agrees to a peace deal with the ethnic Russian east that is not to the militia’s liking.

“If Kiev reaches a deal with rebels that they don’t support, paramilitary fighters say they could potentially strike pro-Russian targets on their own, or even turn on the government itself,” the article stated.

The Post article like almost all of its coverage of Ukraine was laudatory about the Kiev forces fighting ethnic Russians in the east, but the newspaper did have to do some quick thinking to explain a photograph of a Swastika gracing an Azov brigade barracks.

So, in the last three paragraphs of the story, Faiola reported: “One platoon leader, who called himself Kirt, conceded that the group’s far right views had attracted about two dozen foreign fighters from around Europe.

“In one room, a recruit had emblazoned a swastika above his bed. But Kirt dismissed questions of ideology, saying that the volunteers, many of them still teenagers, embrace symbols and espouse extremist notions as part of some kind of ‘romantic’ idea.”

So, why did the New York Times excise this well-documented history as it touted the Azov battalion to its readers on Wednesday? Isn’t the role of neo-Nazis newsworthy? In other contexts, the Times is quick to note and condemn any sign of a Nazi resurgence in Europe. However, in Ukraine, where neo-Nazis, such as Andriy Parubiy served as the coup regime’s first national security chief and neo-Nazi militias are at the center of regime’s military operations, the Times goes silent on the subject.

It can’t be because the Times is unaware of what has been extensively reported about the Azov battalion. The Times could even find a brief reference in one of its own prior stories. The only logical answer is that the Times is committed to a propaganda position on the Ukraine crisis and doesn’t want the facts to get in the way of its preferred storyline.

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




‘Christianists’ Howl at Obama’s Truth-telling

Though founded by a pacifist who spoke for the oppressed, Christianity has contributed to more wars, injustices and genocides in all corners of the world than any other religion. But President Obama’s glancing reference to this reality prompted howls of protests, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.

By Paul R. Pillar

President Barack Obama gave a speech last week at the National Prayer Breakfast that was instructive, reasonable, accurate and fair. It also contained messages that are all the more important to hear and heed in light of some of reactions to the speech itself.

I’m not talking about the usual reflexive Obama-bashing, which happens all the time and is not worth paying attention to. I am referring instead to reactions that indicate some more fundamental attitudinal problems that jeopardize not only U.S. foreign policy but also some core American values.

Some of the most outlandish reactions, such as former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore’s comment that Mr. Obama’s remarks at the event were “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” probably reflect these problems and are not just the familiar garden-variety partisanship.

Mr. Obama’s remarks included upbeat and informal comments about the Dalai Lama’s presence and an earlier speech by stock-car race driver Darrell Waltrip. They also included some observations, which seemed to get all the attention in the subsequent reactions, about how at different times through history different religions have been “twisted and distorted, used as a wedge,” sometimes with outrageously inhumane consequences.

But the core of the speech consisted of three main points. The first was a call for “some basic humility”, for a recognition that “the starting point of faith is some doubt,” and that we should not be so full of ourselves that we think “God speaks only to us” and “somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.”

The second point concerned the need “to uphold the distinction between our faith and our governments, between church and state.” And the third was to affirm the “Golden Rule that we should treat one another as we wish to be treated.”

It is hard to see how any American who isn’t in active denial about the benefits to mankind of the Enlightenment could disagree with any of those three points. As for the first, and the President’s preceding comments about how all religions, including Christianity, have at times been twisted for nefarious purposes, as E. J. Dionne observes, if acknowledging one’s imperfections were to be considered an insult to one’s religious faith, that would make St. Augustine a heretic.

The second is a bedrock principle of the American political system, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. The third is at the center of any ethical system apart from rationalizations of selfishness à la Ayn Rand.

In many ways, unfortunately, the United States has in its dealings with the rest of the world repeatedly flouted both the principle of humility and not assuming a monopoly of truth and the principle of treating others as we would want to be treated.

We could go on at great length on those themes, but sticking to strictly religious issues leads to a comparably disturbing observation: that American discourse and American politics have been moving ever farther from separation of faith and government, and toward having the United States take sides in favor of some religions over others. This trend manifests itself in several ways.

One way is in the prominence and power in the United States of Christianist politicians, who are every bit as worthy of that descriptor as many politicians elsewhere merit the label Islamist. Overt religiosity among American political leaders and their tendency to apply religious faith to public policy issues has waxed and waned through different phases of the Republic’s history, but the trend over the most recent decades has been upward.

A reflection of change in this regard over the past half century was the comment of Rick Santorum, a prominent example of a Christianist politician and a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, that his fellow Catholic John Kennedy’s pledge to keep his religion out of the conduct of Kennedy’s presidency made Santorum “want to throw up.” The latest phase of increasing prominence of overt Christianists in American politics coincides with increasingly reflexive negative views about Islamist politicians elsewhere.

Another manifestation has been a series of more specific attacks on the establishment clause of the First Amendment, no one of which may be earthshaking but which collectively represent a substantial weakening of that foundation of American constitutionalism.

The attacks have included such things as proselytization at U.S. military academies, a Supreme Court decision (in the Hobby Lobby case) allowing one citizen’s private religious beliefs to govern the content of other citizens’ taxpayer-assisted medical care, and most recently defiance of that same Supreme Court on same-sex marriage by the chief justice of a state supreme court whose campaign to insert his religious beliefs into public affairs has included earlier defiance of a federal court order to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments that he had erected at a state courthouse.

A third indication of the trend, noticeable especially over the past decade and a half, has been increased Islamophobia, the overt rejection or distrust of an entire religion and not just of an extremist fringe. The sentiment has been pervasive in the private sector but repeatedly bleeds over into public and political space, as when Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal says that if American Muslims “want to set up their own culture and values, that’s not immigration, that’s really invasion.”

This entire pattern damages the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy. It leads many foreigners to believe that U.S. actions are motivated by an objective of bashing one religion and advancing another, even if that is not their actual purpose. This belief leads to resentment and hatred of the United States and resistance against what it is trying to do.

This is why the current administration wisely eschews the term “Islamic terrorism,” notwithstanding all the baiting it gets from domestic opponents on this semantic point. It is also why the previous administration wisely backed off from calling its counterterrorist effort a “crusade,” as George W. Bush initially called it shortly after 9/11.

But such resistance and reactions to U.S. foreign policy initiatives don’t even constitute the most fundamental danger of going down the sectarian path. That danger has to do with how through the centuries religiously-defined and religiously-motivated conflict has been one of the biggest sources of organized bloodshed and human suffering.

We see such bloodshed and suffering in abundance today in the Middle East, South Asia, and parts of Africa. The West has mostly extracted itself from that type of agony, but did so only after the agony of the Thirty Years War led Europeans to erect a state system that banished to the past the idea that religious difference should be the basis for one state waging war against another state.

It would be disastrous for the United States to do anything that even hints at return to a pre-Westphalian mindset that unites sovereigns and scripture. Dionne notes that some secularists criticized President Obama’s remarks last week for having “soft-pedaled the theological roots of violence.” They have a point, but a speech at a prayer breakfast would not have been an appropriate occasion for lecturing on that broader lesson.

There are fundamental values at risk at home in the United States, too. Mr. Obama gave a nod in his speech to the Founding Fathers, and rightly so. Anyone with an interest in the Founders’ intent should pay attention to their intent regarding the importance of non-establishment of religion. George Washington said, “The United States is not a Christian nation, any more than it is a Jewish or Mohammedan nation.”

The Founders’ thinking on the subject was influenced both by the sordid history of religiously-driven conflict and by their awareness of how specific dominant religious identifications of some of the American colonies raised the risk of religious repression of those not part of the dominant sect. They saw non-establishment of religion by the state as critical to the preservation of religious freedom, one of the basic freedoms that are part of American values.

President Obama managed to hit the right notes for a prayer breakfast, speaking positively about religious faith, from the compassion of a spiritual leader such as the Dalai Lama to the role that prayer may have played for Darrell Waltrip as he was driving a race car 200 miles per hour. He also had an important message that should be heeded by anyone who makes any proposals about public policy that would involve the United States taking sides in favor of, or against, any particular religion.

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




A Peace Activist in Federal Prison

The U.S. incarcerates its people at the highest rates in the world and many times what other developed nations do, including citizens who engage in non-violent protests against America’s war policies, as Kathy Kelly experienced both in her youth and now as she returned to the same aging prison in Kentucky.

By Kathy Kelly

Here in Lexington federal prison in Kentucky, Atwood Hall defies the normal Bureau of Prisons fixation on gleaming floors and spotless surfaces. Creaky, rusty, full of peeling paint, chipped tiles, and leaky plumbing, Atwood just won’t pass muster.

But of the four federal prisons I’ve lived in, this particular “unit” may be the most conducive to mental health. Generally, the Bureau of Prisons system pushes guards to value buffed floors more than the people buffing the floors, walking the floors. Here, the atmosphere seems less uptight, albeit tinged with resigned acceptance that everyone is more or less “stuck” in what one prisoner described as “the armpit of the system.”

I think every prison throughout the system should be closed, but if it weren’t for the asbestos and concerns about toxic water, perhaps this old hall would be better than the more modern “facilities” prison architects have designed. At any rate, new prisoners arrive each week, indicating “the warehouse” is open for storing more human beings.

I thought of my younger self, this morning, while gazing out of a third floor window at fields, trees and farms outside. In 1989, when this prison was a maximum security prison for women, I spent nine months here after having planted corn on nuclear missile silo sites in Missouri. Confined to first floor environs, other prisoners and I stared at the fields and horses outside the prison through chain link fences and coiled barbed wire. Even so, we saw a beautiful spring, that year, in Kentucky. Reliably, spring will again emerge.

Slowly, I’m forming relationships now, unusual friendships that will likely grow. I’m also finding extended time to read and study. In the prison library, I found Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of Maladies: a Biography of Cancer. When I finished reading it, I felt troubled and deeply moved.

Mukherjee, an oncologist and researcher, traces the history of cancer. His narrative includes personal stories about himself and his patients. Through their lives and struggles, he draws readers into scientific discussions of the disease itself as well as the slow and often disappointing developments of treatment and prevention.

He believes he must help his patients resist total despair. Mukherjee notes (p.397) how concentration camp survivor Primo Levi had “often remarked that among the most fatal qualities of the camp was its ability to erase the idea of a life outside and beyond itself  To be in the camps was to abnegate history, identity and personality — but it was the erasure of the future that was the most chilling.”

I’ve heard prison described as “hard time.” It’s a phrase given strange and tragic resonance by the walling off of these women’s futures. Shortly before I arrived here, a woman on my floor had removed all her photos from her bulletin board, convinced that she would soon be among a few inmates recently granted immediate release because of retroactive changes in sentencing laws for drug related charges.

“I’m not going to get immediate release,” she sadly told me. When she finished recomposing the board, she told me about each photo. Like pieces of a puzzle, the stories helped form her life story, full of human desire to love and be loved. She’ll likely be here for 33 more months, having already been “down” for 17 months. The cherished photos and memories, the painful fact of their own love for the world outside, helps pull women through hellish feelings of utter isolation and despair.

Our society barely recognizes the futility of imprisoning people for onerously long sentences. I think of Mukherjee and wonder whether U.S. people invested as much money in cancer research as they did in Super Bowl celebrations this year.

“We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society,” said Dr. King, and it’s a shift that in many ways we’ve yet to make. He called for a rapid shift, and said, “We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly.”

And yet a foolish over-concern for our own safety, as well as for “profit motives and property rights,” locks these women away and bombs the poor in distant countries, and barely notices what it has done. So much is spent on entertainment, so little to abolish punishing inequality, or the cancer of war.

Abolitionists like King urged humans to abandon the cruel futility of war and to shut down the development, sale, storage and use of weapons: “A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

I’m fortunate, here in prison, to revisit through memories my young friends in Afghanistan embracing King, in Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s words, as “a voice, a vision, and a way.” They are working full tilt at plans for expanding an alternative school for street kids, and at supplying their poorest neighbors with blankets and local seamstresses with work, and they’re working to cultivate soil as well as imagination, striving for a border-free world. They help one another overcome desires for revenge, they show a light of human dignity that has at times transformed, and never wholly failed to illuminate, even the darkest times.

A few nights ago, at dinner, a fellow inmate here remarked that the food was bland and overcooked. Then she turned to me, her eyes suddenly having filled with tears. “Some of the people you met in Afghanistan,” she said, “might call this a feast.”

If the liberating day ever arrives when Dr. Martin Luther King’s goals are realized, spirits coursing through Atwood Hall will have contributed toward our collective release from the vise-like grip of “militarism, racism and economic exploitation.”

Every day, here in Atwood Hall, prisoners long to receive fairness, forgiveness and love but instead offer these treasures to those around them. The other day, at a choir rehearsal, we practiced a song called “Breaking the Chains.” The lively refrain, “I hear the chains falling,” filled the small chapel. Swaying and clapping, we could believe another world is coming.

I’m learning from my fellow prisoners, who will remain here long past my meager three months’ sentence. Our society may or may not learn, from any commitment we show now, to free its prisoners. If we turn to each other with a readiness to share resources, live simply and practice fairness, perhaps it will find a way to end cruelties as wrongheaded as this prison system.

Meanwhile the shift we make in our own lives might help give us and our suffering neighbors the saving vision beyond our present moment, and light to see a shared future through isolation and darkness. A moment can become a movement but in any case it’s worthwhile to do all we can to help each other do easier time.

Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence (info@vcnv.org), is in federal prison for participation in an anti-drone protest.  She can receive mail at:  KATHY KELLY 04971-045; FMC LEXINGTON; FEDERAL MEDICAL CENTER; SATELLITE CAMP; P.O. BOX 14525; LEXINGTON, KY 40512. Kathy Kelly (Kathy@vcnv.org) is distributed by PeaceVoice.




‘Realists’ Warn Against Ukraine Escalation

Exclusive: The neocons’ war-and-more-war bandwagon is loaded up again and rolling downhill as “everyone who matters” in Washington is talking up sending sophisticated weapons to Kiev to escalate Ukraine’s civil war, but some “realists,” an endangered species in U.S. foreign policy, dissent, notes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

In recent years, Official Washington  the politicians, the think tanks and the major news media has been dominated by neoconservatives and their sidekicks, the “liberal interventionists,” with the old-school “realists” who favor a more measured use of American power largely marginalized. But finally, on the dangerous issue of Ukraine, some are speaking up.

Two of the few remaining “realists” with some access to elite opinion circles, Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer, have written articles opposing the new hot idea in Washington to arm the Kiev regime so it can more efficiently kill ethnic Russians battling to expand their territory in eastern Ukraine.

As classic “realists,” these two academics do not argue so much the moral issue of whether the eastern Ukrainians should be slaughtered in the Kiev regime’s determination to crush all resistance to its authority or whether the U.S. support for last year’s overthrow of elected President Viktor Yanukovych was justified. Instead, they focus on whether arming the Kiev regime makes sense for U.S. interests.

But what is most remarkable about the two articles one in Foreign Policy and the other in the New York Times opinion section is that they deviate from the relentless pro-escalation “group think” that has dominated the U.S. policy debate, across the board, on Ukraine. It’s almost shocking to encounter two foreign policy experts who aren’t on the latest rush-to-war bandwagon.

Granted, their arguments are relatively narrow, focusing on the likely consequences of shipping weapons to the unstable Kiev regime, but still such skepticism about the conventional wisdom is almost heretical these days.

In Foreign Policy, Walt notes that despite the emerging consensus to ship arms to Ukraine, “few experts think this bankrupt and divided country is a vital strategic interest and no one is talking about sending U.S. troops to fight on Kiev’s behalf. So the question is: does sending Ukraine a bunch of advanced weaponry make sense? The answer is no.”

Walt contends that many of the prominent Washington figures advocating weapons shipments have been wrong before about the results of expanding NATO eastwards in the 1990s, predicting that the move would not threaten Russia and contribute to enduring peace in Europe.

“That prediction is now in tatters, alas, but these experts are now doubling down to defend a policy that was questionable from the beginning and clearly taken much too far,” Walt wrote. “As the critics warned it would, open-ended NATO expansion has done more to poison relations with Russia than any other single Western policy.”

Misreading Moscow

Walt also notes that the arm-Kiev advocates were misinterpreting Russia’s posture regarding Ukraine and thus were applying a “deterrence model” to a “spiral model” situation, i.e., that Russia was not the expansive and aggressive power that Germany was in the 1930s but rather a cornered and weakened ex-superpower fearful of what it views as encroachment against its dwindling sphere of influence.

In the case of an emerging power like Nazi Germany, deterrence would be the strategy to block its expansion, but a declining power like Russia believes that it is the one on the defensive and thus its reaction to an aggressive military response would be to increase its paranoia and thus create a spiral toward a worsening conflict and greater hostility, not toward a peaceful solution.

“When insecurity is the taproot of a state’s revisionist actions, making threats just makes the situation worse,” Walt wrote.  “When the ‘spiral model’ applies, the proper response is a diplomatic process of accommodation and appeasement (yes, appeasement) to allay the insecure state’s concerns.

“Such efforts do not require giving an opponent everything it might want or removing every one of its worries, but it does require a serious effort to address the insecurities that are motivating the other side’s objectionable behavior.”

But the problem with Walt’s prescription is that it goes against the “group think” of Official Washington, which “knows” that Russian President Vladimir Putin is the new Hitler instigating the Ukraine crisis as part of some master plan to conquer much of eastern Europe and build a new Russian empire.

Though that scenario lacks any evidentiary support and goes against the facts of the Ukraine crisis which was actually instigated by the European Union and neocons in the Obama administration it is a storyline that nearly every important person in Washington believes. Which is what makes Walt’s accurate assessment so startling.

Walt describes the dominant view as: “Vladimir Putin is a relentless aggressor who is trying to recreate something akin to the old Soviet empire, and thus not confronting him over Ukraine will lead him to take aggressive actions elsewhere. The only thing to do, therefore, is increase the costs until Russia backs down and leaves Ukraine free to pursue its own foreign policy.

“In addition to bolstering deterrence, in short, giving arms to Kiev is intended to coerce Moscow into doing what we want. Yet the evidence in this case suggests the spiral model is far more applicable. Russia is not an ambitious rising power like Nazi Germany or contemporary China; it is an aging, depopulating, and declining great power trying to cling to whatever international influence it still possesses and preserve a modest sphere of influence near its borders, so that stronger states, and especially the United States, cannot take advantage of its growing vulnerabilities.

“Putin & Co. are also genuinely worried about America’s efforts to promote ‘regime change’ around the world, including Ukraine, a policy that could eventually threaten their own positions. It is lingering fear, rather than relentless ambition, that underpins Russia’s response in Ukraine.

“Moreover, the Ukraine crisis did not begin with a bold Russian move or even a series of illegitimate Russian demands; it began when the United States and European Union tried to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and into the West’s sphere of influence. That objective may be desirable in the abstract, but Moscow made it abundantly clear it would fight this process tooth and nail.

“U.S. leaders blithely ignored these warnings, which clearly stemmed from Russian insecurity rather than territorial greed, and not surprisingly they have been blindsided by Moscow’s reaction. The failure of U.S. diplomats to anticipate Putin’s heavy-handed response was an act of remarkable diplomatic incompetence, and one can only wonder why the individuals who helped produce this train wreck still have their jobs.”

Safety in Numbers

But the reason that people like Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, who helped plot the overthrow of the Yanukovych government a year ago, is that they represent the neocon/liberal-interventionist dominance of Official Washington. That’s also why key media advocates for the Iraq War, like the Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt and the New York Times’ Thomas L. Friedman, still have their jobs; they ran with the powerful herd and are proof that there really is safety in numbers.

Citing the “spiral model,” Walt warns that the current popular idea of arming the Kiev forces “will only make things worse. It certainly will not enable Ukraine to defeat the far stronger Russian army; it will simply intensify the conflict and add to the suffering of the Ukrainian people.

“Nor is arming Ukraine likely to convince Putin to cave in and give Washington what it wants. Ukraine is historically linked to Russia, they are right next door to each other, Russian intelligence has long-standing links inside Ukraine’s own security institutions, and Russia is far stronger militarily. Even massive arms shipments from the United States won’t tip the balance in Kiev’s favor, and Moscow can always escalate if the fighting turns against the rebels, as it did last summer.”

Walt also saw danger signs around Washington’s take-it-or-leave-it style of negotiating, rather than trying to reach a solution that would work for both sides. He wrote:

“Instead of engaging in genuine bargaining, American officials tend to tell others what to do and then ramp up the pressure if they do not comply. Today, those who want to arm Ukraine are demanding that Russia cease all of its activities in Ukraine, withdraw from Crimea, and let Ukraine join the EU and/or NATO if it wants and if it meets the membership requirements. In other words, they expect Moscow to abandon its own interests in Ukraine, full stop.”

Though the facts and logic rest with Walt’s argument, he is confronting one of the most single-minded “group thinks” in modern U.S. history, even more unquestioning than the certainty of 2002-2003 that Iraq possessed WMDs and was about to share them with al-Qaeda.

A Second Voice

Similarly, Mearsheimer warns that the idea of shipping advanced weaponry to Ukraine “would be a huge mistake for the United States, NATO and Ukraine itself. Sending weapons to Ukraine will not rescue its army and will instead lead to an escalation in the fighting. Such a step is especially dangerous because Russia has thousands of nuclear weapons and is seeking to defend a vital strategic interest.

“Because the balance of power decisively favors Moscow, Washington would have to send large amounts of equipment for Ukraine’s army to have a fighting chance. But the conflict will not end there. Russia would counter-escalate, taking away any temporary benefit Kiev might get from American arms.

“Proponents of arming Ukraine have a second line of argument. The key to success, they maintain, is not to defeat Russia militarily, but to raise the costs of fighting to the point where Mr. Putin will cave. The pain will supposedly compel Moscow to withdraw its troops from Ukraine and allow it to join the European Union and NATO and become an ally of the West.

“This coercive strategy is also unlikely to work, no matter how much punishment the West inflicts. What advocates of arming Ukraine fail to understand is that Russian leaders believe their country’s core strategic interests are at stake in Ukraine; they are unlikely to give ground, even if it means absorbing huge costs.

“Great powers react harshly when distant rivals project military power into their neighborhood, much less attempt to make a country on their border an ally. This is why the United States has the Monroe Doctrine, and today no American leader would ever tolerate Canada or Mexico joining a military alliance headed by another great power.

“Russia is no exception in this regard. Thus Mr. Putin has not budged in the face of sanctions and is unlikely to make meaningful concessions if the costs of the fighting in Ukraine increase. The possibility that Mr. Putin might end up making nuclear threats may seem remote, but if the goal of arming Ukraine is to drive up the costs of Russian interference and eventually put Moscow in an acute situation, it cannot be ruled out. If Western pressure succeeded and Mr. Putin felt desperate, he would have a powerful incentive to try to rescue the situation by rattling the nuclear saber.”

In other words, the dominant neocon-to-liberal-hawk axis of Washington is pushing the United States into a dangerous confrontation that could easily be avoided if traditional diplomacy were allowed to work and the reasonable interests of the various parties were taken into account.

While the outer-limit endgame of the Ukraine crisis could be the ultimate endgame of nuclear war, the core issue in dispute is remarkably pedestrian the pace of Ukraine increasing its economic ties to the EU while maintaining many of its traditional business ties to Russia.

This disagreement should have been resolved fairly easily within the political structure of Ukraine’s constitutional process. In November 2013, President Yanukovych after learning that the cost of abruptly cutting ties to Russia would be a staggering $160 billion asked for more time to work on the problem.

But, amid mass protests by western Ukrainians against Yanukovych’s decision, Nuland and other U.S. neocons saw an opportunity for another “regime change” and some neocons, like National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman, hoped that Ukraine could be the route toward ousting Russia’s Putin, who had offended the neocons by opposing their “regime change” strategies for Syria and Iran. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocons’ Ukraine-Syria-Iran Gambit.”]

After the coup ousting Yanukovych last Feb. 22, ethnic Russians in southern and eastern Ukraine resisted the new right-wing regime in Kiev, which was backed by neo-Nazi militias. Crimea’s leaders and voters opted for secession from the Ukrainian madhouse and Putin agreed to take the strategic peninsula back into Russia.

Ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine also rose up and were targeted by the Kiev regime for an “anti-terrorist operation,” which involved shelling their cities and unleashing brutal neo-Nazi brigades to go door-to-door killing suspected separatists. Conservative estimates of the death toll primarily among ethnic Russians now exceed 5,000 and some estimates are many times that number.

But Official Washington views the conflict almost entirely through the neocon prism of “Russian aggression” and “everyone who matters” is now intent on escalating the bloodshed by upgrading the lethality of Kiev’s arsenal. That’s why it’s startling to hear a couple of rare and “realist” voices of dissent.

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