Trump Bends to Neocon Pressures

Exclusive: President Trump’s calls for reorienting American foreign policy look to be disintegrating in his first two weeks in office as he embraces the neoconservative hostilities toward Iran and Russia, as Andrew Spannaus notes.

By Andrew Spannaus

The Trump Administration’s goal of de-escalating tensions with Russia is meeting stiff resistance in Eastern Europe where many reject the notion that a diplomatic solution can be reached over the issues of Ukraine and NATO expansion.

This reality was on clear display at the 10th Europe-Ukraine Forum held in Rzeszow, Poland, from Jan. 27 to 29, which brought together over 900 government officials, politicians and analysts from across Europe, to discuss how to respond to the new political situation in the United States while continuing to provide support to Kiev’s efforts to bind itself closer to the West.

The atmosphere at the Forum – an annual event organized by the Eastern Institute of Warsaw – was more muted than last year, as the reality of the “realpolitik” likely to be adopted by President Trump’s administration sinks in.

The previous forum in 2016 was opened by the American neoconservative Philip Karber, president of the Potomac Foundation, who lamented the “sophistic” reasoning of those who argue against providing military assistance to Ukraine and said he couldn’t wait for the next presidential administration to arrive (when it appeared likely it would be headed by Hillary Clinton or a traditional Republican). Karber noted that President Barack Obama had refused to fully arm the Ukrainians in their battle against Russia.

This wasn’t just idle talk coming from Karber, as we found out a few months later in 2016, thanks to leaks published by The Intercept last July. It appears that Karber had gone repeatedly to the front lines of the fight in Ukraine to draw up his own – inflated – intelligence reports regarding Russian intervention. He sent the reports to General Philip Breedlove, at the time the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, who in turn used Karber’s figures to challenge the lower estimates drawn up by official intelligence agencies.

General Breedlove then went a step further, seeking to mobilize pressure on President Obama to provide lethal assistance to Ukraine. Despite enlisting the help of prominent individuals such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell and one of Breedlove’s predecessors at NATO, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, Breedlove’s efforts proved ineffective. Although President Obama continued to direct harsh criticism at Russia in public, behind the scenes his message to the General was: “do not get me into a war.”

Harlan Ullman, senior adviser to the Atlantic Council, wrote to Breedlove about his attempt to “leverage, cajole, convince or coerce the U.S. to react” to Russia: “Given Obama’s instruction to you not to start a war, this may be a tough sell.”

The hope for a more aggressive stance against Russia by the future U.S. administration obviously didn’t take into account the possibility that the next President would be Donald Trump. In January 2016, few gave Trump any chance to actually win the election, and thus the assumption was that by this time, Hillary Clinton or a Republican such as Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush would be occupying the White House.

Trump’s election seemed to upend the U.S. establishment’s push for a more aggressive stance towards Russia that has been on full display since last fall in particular. The news media and political class have, in fact, focused almost hysterically on alleged Russian intervention into the U.S. elections, despite crucial gaps in the evidence presented to the public and the question of whether Russian President Putin would have taken such a risk when it appeared Clinton was a shoo-in to win.

The WikiLeaks disclosures – primarily confirming Clinton’s close ties to Wall Street and the Democratic National Committee’s help in undermining Bernie Sanders’s campaign – were not initially considered a major factor in Clinton’s defeat, which she principally blamed on FBI Director James Comey’s last-minute reopening and re-closing of the investigation into her use of a private email server for State Department business. No one has suggested that Putin was behind Comey’s actions or Clinton’s server decision.

Trump’s Uncertainty

The early Trump administration has sent mixed signals regarding relations with Russia. Trump’s initial comments indicated that the U.S. would seek a diplomatic deal to reduce tensions around Ukraine, including by potentially recognizing the pro-Russian referendum in Crimea, in exchange for a broader deal with Russia involving cooperation against terrorism or nuclear arms reduction. However, Trump’s United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley on Thursday vowed to continue sanctions against Russia until it surrendered Crimea.

At the Europe-Ukraine Forum, the earlier expectation of reduced tensions with Russia was grudgingly accepted by some, but outright rejected by most. Many speakers called for an even more aggressive stance on NATO expansion to include not only Ukraine, but also Sweden, Finland and any other country in Russia’s neighborhood.

Tomasz Szatkowski, Undersecretary of State of the Polish Ministry of National Defense, also said Poland would volunteer to lead a group of nations in creating a first-response network, ready to organize out-of-area military missions in response to Russian aggression. Other officials agreed with the idea of creating an alliance between a group of countries going from the Baltics down through Eastern Europe, to put pressure on the European Union and the United States to head off any potential diplomatic accords with Putin.

The fear among these participants was that Ukraine would lose out in any U.S.-Russian diplomatic accord. They argued further that if nothing is done to counter Putin’s alleged expansionism then Russia will inevitably move into Eastern Europe in order to restore its former empire.

However, this view is based on the assumption that the conflict in Ukraine broke out simply because the Russian president woke up one morning and decided it was time to expand Russian military power again. It ignores what the West did up to 2014, such as expanding NATO towards Russia’s borders and providing support through both official sources and numerous NGOs to “pro-democracy” groups, some of which wanted regime change not only in Kiev but in Moscow.

A prominent example is the head of the U.S. taxpayer-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Carl Gershman. As journalist Robert Parry has reported, NED funded scores of “democracy promotion” projects in Ukraine, contributing to undermining the previous elected government and touching off the civil war between Ukrainian nationalists from the west and ethnic Russians from the east. Gershman also has called for the overthrow of Vladimir Putin in Russia.

A False Narrative

Although the West’s propaganda narrative has obscured the circumstances around the ouster of Ukrainian President Yanukovych on Feb. 22, 2014, the violent putsch has been called the “most blatant coup in history” by George Friedman, the founder of Stratfor and Geopolitical Futures. At the time of the coup, a diplomatic deal had been struck for new elections by the end of the year, but far-right militia groups stepped in to seize control of the government institutions and the coup regime was quickly declared “legitimate” by the U.S. government and its allies.

A key player in the change in power was U.S. Undersecretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, who was recorded in a pre-coup phone call saying “Fuck the EU” with regard to Europe’s role as a mediator for a diplomatic solution, and also hand-picking the person who would become the new prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, with the comment “Yats is the guy.”

This direct intervention by the West provoked a predictable reaction from Russia, which moved quickly to ensure that Crimea would not end up under the NATO umbrella and then provided support to ethnic Russian rebels in the east of Ukraine who battled Ukrainian troops spearheaded by the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion and other ultra-nationalist militias.

The intensity of the conflict in Ukraine decreased considerably after a ceasefire agreement was hammered out in early 2015. However, on Jan. 28, barely a week into the Trump administration, new fighting broke out around the city of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine. Staunchly anti-Russian media outlets and politicians immediately tried to leverage the situation to block any moves by President Trump to press ahead with a diplomatic solution.

However, at the Forum in Rzeszow, there were at least some voices calling for a recognition of the new reality ushered in by the change in approach in Washington. In private discussions several government officials noted that with further NATO expansion probably off the table at this point, there is no alternative to dialogue.

A few speakers, such as Markku Kangaspuro of Finland and former Ukrainian government official Oleksandr Chalyi, admitted publicly that there cannot be total war with Russia, and that at this point a political solution seems to be the only way forward. The most that can be done, from the standpoint of those who aim to counter Russia’s influence as much as possible, is to try to limit and mitigate a potential deal between Trump and Putin.

Andrew Spannaus is a freelance journalist and strategic analyst based in Milan, Italy. He is the founder of Transatlantico.info, that provides news, analysis and consulting to Italian institutions and businesses. His book on the U.S. elections Perchè vince Trump (Why Trump is Winning) was published in June 2016.




A Reprise of the Iraq-WMD Fiasco?

Exclusive: Official Washington’s new “group think” – accepting evidence-free charges that Russia “hacked the U.S. election” – has troubling parallels to the Iraq-WMD certainty, often from the same people, writes James W Carden.

By James W Carden

The controversy over Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election shows no sign of letting up. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators recently introduced legislation that would impose sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its acts of “cyber intrusions.”

At a press event in Washington on Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, called Election Day 2016 “a day that will live in cyber infamy.” Previously, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, called the Russian hacks of the Democratic National Committee “an act of war,” while Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, has claimed that there is near unanimity among senators regarding Russia’s culpability.

Despite all this, the question of who exactly is responsible for the providing WikiLeaks with the emails of high Democratic Party officials does not lend itself to easy answers. And yet, for months, despite the lack of publicly disclosed evidence, the media, like these senators, have been as one: Vladimir Putin’s Russia is responsible.

Interestingly, the same neoconservative/center-left alliance which endorsed George W. Bush’s case for war with Iraq is pretty much the same neoconservative/center-left alliance that is now, all these years later, braying for confrontation with Russia. It’s largely the same cast of characters reading from the Iraq-war era playbook.

It’s worth recalling Tony Judt’s observation in September 2006 that “those centrist voices that bayed most insistently for blood in the prelude to the Iraq war … are today the most confident when asserting their monopoly of insight into world affairs.”

While that was true then, it is perhaps even more so the case today.

The prevailing sentiment of the media establishment during the months prior to the disastrous March 2003 invasion of Iraq was that of certainty: George Tenet’s now infamous assurance to President Bush, that the case against Iraq was a “slam drunk,” was essentially what major newspapers and television news outlets were telling the American people at the time. Iraq posed a threat to “the homeland,” therefore Saddam “must go.”

The Bush administration, in a move equal parts cynical and clever, engaged in what we would today call a “disinformation” campaign against its own citizens by planting false stories abroad, safe in the knowledge that these stories would “bleed over” and be picked up by the American press.

WMD ‘Fake News’

The administration was able to launder what were essentially “fake news” stories, such as the aluminum tubes fabrication, by leaking to Michael R. Gordon and Judith Miller of The New York Times. In September 2002, without an ounce of skepticism, Gordon and Miller regurgitated the claims of unnamed U.S. intelligence officials that Iraq “has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes … intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium.” Gordon and Miller faithfully relayed “the intelligence agencies’ unanimous view that the type of tubes that Iraq has been seeking are used to make centrifuges.”

By 2002, no one had any right to be surprised by what Bush and Cheney were up to; since at least 1898 (when the U.S. declared war on Spain under the pretense of the fabricated Hearst battle cry “Remember the Maine!”) American governments have repeatedly lied in order to promote their agenda abroad. And in 2002-3, the media walked in lock step with yet another administration in pushing for an unnecessary and costly war.

Like The New York Times, The Washington Post also relentlessly pushed the administration’s case for war with Iraq. According to the journalist Greg Mitchell, “By the Post’s own admission, in the months before the war, it ran more than 140 stories on its front page promoting the war.” All this, while its editorial page assured readers that the evidence Colin Powell presented to the United Nations on Iraq’s WMD program was “irrefutable.” According to the Post, it would be “hard to imagine” how anyone could doubt the administration’s case.

But the Post was hardly alone in its enthusiasm for Bush’s war. Among the most prominent proponents of the Iraq war was The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who, a full year prior to the invasion, set out to link Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. Writing for The New Yorker in March 2002, Goldberg retailed former CIA Director James Woolsey’s opinion that “It would be a real shame if the C.I.A.’s substantial institutional hostility to Iraqi democratic resistance groups was keeping it from learning about Saddam’s ties to Al Qaeda in northern Iraq.”

Indeed, according to Goldberg, “The possibility that Saddam could supply weapons of mass destruction to anti-American terror groups is a powerful argument among advocates of regime change,” while Saddam’s “record of support for terrorist organizations, and the cruelty of his regime make him a threat that reaches far beyond the citizens of Iraq.”

Writing in Slate in October 2002, Goldberg was of the opinion that “In five years . . . I believe that the coming invasion of Iraq will be remembered as an act of profound morality.”

Likewise, The New Republic’s Andrew Sullivan was certain that “we would find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I have no doubt about that.” Slate’s Jacob Weisberg supported the invasion because he thought Saddam Hussein had WMD and he “thought there was a strong chance he’d use them against the United States.”

Even after it was becoming clear that the war was a debacle, the neoconservative pundit Charles Krauthammer declared that the inability to find WMDs was “troubling” but “only because it means that the weapons remain unaccounted for and might be in the wrong hands. The idea that our inability to thus far find the weapons proves that the threat was phony and hyped is simply false.”

Smearing Skeptics

Opponents of the war were regularly accused of unpatriotic disloyalty. Writing in National Review, the neoconservative writer David Frum accused anti-intervention conservatives of going “far, far beyond the advocacy of alternative strategies.” According to Frum, “They deny and excuse terror. They espouse a potentially self-fulfilling defeatism. They publicize wild conspiracy theories. And some of them explicitly yearn for the victory of their nation’s enemies.”

Similarly, The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait castigated anti-war liberals for turning against Bush. “Have Bush haters lost their minds?” asked Chait. “Certainly some have. Antipathy to Bush has, for example, led many liberals not only to believe the costs of the Iraq war outweigh the benefits but to refuse to acknowledge any benefits at all.”

Yet of course we now know, thanks, in part, to a new book by former CIA analyst John Nixon, that everything the U.S. government thought it knew about Saddam Hussein was indeed wrong. Nixon, the CIA analyst who interrogated Hussein after his capture in December 2003, asks “Was Saddam worth removing from power?” “The answer,” says Nixon, “must be no. Saddam was busy writing novels in 2003. He was no longer running the government.”

It turns out that the skeptics were correct after all. And so the principal lesson the promoters of Bush and Cheney’s war of choice should have learned is that blind certainty is the enemy of fair inquiry and nuance. The hubris that many in the mainstream media displayed in marginalizing liberal and conservative anti-war voices was to come back to haunt them. But not, alas, for too long.

A Dangerous Replay?

Today something eerily similar to the pre-war debate over Iraq is taking place regarding the allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. Assurances from the intelligence community and from anonymous Obama administration “senior officials” about the existence of evidence is being treated as, well, actual evidence.

State Department spokesman John Kirby told CNN that he is “100% certain” of the role that Russia played in U.S. election. The administration’s expressions of certainty are then uncritically echoed by the mainstream media. Skeptics are likewise written off, slandered as “Kremlin cheerleaders” or worse.

Unsurprisingly, The Washington Post is reviving its Bush-era role as principal publicist for the government’s case. Yet in its haste to do the government’s bidding, the Post has published two widely debunked stories relating to Russia (one on the scourge of Russian inspired “fake news”, the other on a non-existent Russian hack of a Vermont electric utility) onto which the paper has had to append “editor’s notes” to correct the original stories.

Yet, those misguided stories have not deterred the Post’s opinion page from being equally aggressive in its depiction of Russian malfeasance. In late December, the Post published an op-ed by Rep. Adam Schiff and former Rep. Jane Harmon claiming “Russia’s theft and strategic leaking of emails and documents from the Democratic Party and other officials present a challenge to the U.S. political system unlike anything we’ve experienced.”

On Dec. 30, the Post editorial board chastised President-elect Trump for seeming to dismiss “a brazen and unprecedented attempt by a hostile power to covertly sway the outcome of a U.S. presidential election.” The Post described Russia’s actions as a “cyber-Pearl Harbor.”

On Jan. 1, the neoconservative columnist Josh Rogin told readers that the recent announcement of sanctions against Russia “brought home a shocking realization that Russia is using hybrid warfare in an aggressive attempt to disrupt and undermine our democracy.”

Meanwhile, many of the same voices who were among the loudest cheerleaders for the war in Iraq have also been reprising their Bush-era roles in vouching for the solidity of the government’s case.

Jonathan Chait, now a columnist for New York magazine, is clearly convinced by what the government has thus far provided. “That Russia wanted Trump to win has been obvious for months,” writes Chait.

“Of course it all came from the Russians, I’m sure it’s all there in the intel,” Charles Krauthammer told Fox News on Jan. 2. Krauthammer is certain.

And Andrew Sullivan is certain as to the motive. “Trump and Putin’s bromance,” Sullivan told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on Jan. 2, “has one goal this year: to destroy the European Union and to undermine democracy in Western Europe.”

David Frum, writing in The Atlantic, believes Trump “owes his office in considerable part to illegal clandestine activities in his favor conducted by a hostile, foreign spy service.”

Jacob Weisberg agrees, tweeting: “Russian covert action threw the election to Donald Trump. It’s that simple.” Back in 2008, Weisberg wrote that “the first thing I hope I’ve learned from this experience of being wrong about Iraq is to be less trusting of expert opinion and received wisdom.” So much for that.

Foreign Special Interests

Another, equally remarkable similarity to the period of 2002-3 is the role foreign lobbyists have played in helping to whip up a war fever. As readers will no doubt recall, Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, which served, in effect as an Iraqi government-in-exile, worked hand in hand with the Washington lobbying firm Black, Kelly, Scruggs & Healey (BKSH) to sell Bush’s war on television and on the op-ed pages of major American newspapers.

Chalabi was also a trusted source of Judy Miller of the Times, which, in an apology to its readers on May 26, 2004, wrote: “The most prominent of the anti-Saddam campaigners, Ahmad Chalabi, has been named as an occasional source in Times articles since at least 1991, and has introduced reporters to other exiles. He became a favorite of hard-liners within the Bush administration and a paid broker of information from Iraqi exiles.” The pro-war lobbying of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has also been exhaustively documented.

Though we do not know how widespread the practice has been as of yet, something similar is taking place today. Articles calling for confrontation with Russia over its alleged “hybrid war” with the West are appearing with increasing regularity. Perhaps the most egregious example of this newly popular genre appeared on Jan. 1 in Politico magazine. That essay, which claims, among many other things, that “we’re in a war” with Russia comes courtesy of one Molly McKew.

McKew is seemingly qualified to make such a pronouncement because she, according to her bio on the Politico website, served as an “adviser to Georgian President Saakashvili’s government from 2009-2013, and to former Moldovan Prime Minister Filat in 2014-2015.” Seems reasonable enough. That is until one discovers that McKew is actually registered with the Department of Justice as a lobbyist for two anti-Russian political parties, Georgia’s UMN and Moldova’s PLDM.

Records show her work for the consulting firm Fianna Strategies frequently takes her to Capitol Hill to lobby U.S. Senate and Congressional staffers, as well as prominent U.S. journalists at The Washington Post and The New York Times, on behalf of her Georgian and Moldovan clients.

“The truth,” writes McKew, “is that fighting a new Cold War would be in America’s interest. Russia teaches us a very important lesson: losing an ideological war without a fight will ruin you as a nation. The fight is the American way.” Or, put another way: the truth is that fighting a new Cold War would be in McKew’s interest – but perhaps not America’s.

While you wouldn’t know it from the media coverage (or from reading deeply disingenuous pieces like McKew’s) as things now stand, the case against Russia is far from certain. New developments are emerging almost daily. One of the latest is a report from the cyber-engineering company Wordfence, which concluded that “The IP addresses that DHS [Department of Homeland Security] provided may have been used for an attack by a state actor like Russia. But they don’t appear to provide any association with Russia.”

Indeed, according to Wordfence, “The malware sample is old, widely used and appears to be Ukrainian. It has no apparent relationship with Russian intelligence and it would be an indicator of compromise for any website.”

On Jan. 4, BuzzFeed reported that, according to the DNC, the FBI never carried out a forensic examination on the email servers that were allegedly hacked by the Russian government. “The FBI,” said DNC spokesman Eric Walker, “never requested access to the DNC’s computer servers.”

What the agency did do was rely on the findings of a private-sector, third-party vendor that was brought in by the DNC after the initial hack was discovered. In May, the company, Crowdstrike, determined that the hack was the work of the Russians. As one unnamed intelligence official told BuzzFeed, “CrowdStrike is pretty good. There’s no reason to believe that anything that they have concluded is not accurate.”

Perhaps not. Yet Crowdstrike is hardly a disinterested party when it comes to Russia. Crowdstrike’s founder and chief technology officer, Dmitri Alperovitch, is also a senior fellow at the Washington think tank, The Atlantic Council, which has been at the forefront of escalating tensions with Russia.

As I reported in The Nation in early January, the connection between Alperovitch and the Atlantic Council is highly relevant given that the Atlantic Council is funded in part by the State Department, NATO, the governments of Latvia and Lithuania, the Ukrainian World Congress, and the Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk. In recent years, it has emerged as a leading voice calling for a new Cold War with Russia.

Time to Rethink the ‘Group Think’

And given the rather thin nature of the declassified evidence provided by the Obama administration, might it be time to consider an alternative theory of the case? William Binney, a 36-year veteran of the National Security Agency and the man responsible for creating many of its collection systems, thinks so. Binney believes that the DNC emails were leaked, not hacked, writing that “it is puzzling why NSA cannot produce hard evidence implicating the Russian government and WikiLeaks. Unless we are dealing with a leak from an insider, not a hack.”

None of this is to say, of course, that Russia did not and could not have attempted to influence the U.S. presidential election. The intelligence community may have intercepted damning evidence of the Russian government’s culpability. The government’s hesitation to provide the public with more convincing evidence may stem from an understandable and wholly appropriate desire to protect the intelligence community’s sources and methods. But as it now stands the publicly available evidence is open to question.

But meanwhile the steady drumbeat of “blame Russia” is having an effect. According to a recent you.gov/Economist poll, 58 percent of Americans view Russia as “unfriendly/enemy” while also finding that 52 percent of Democrats believed Russia “tampered with vote tallies.”

With Congress back in session, Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain is set to hold a series of hearings focusing on Russian malfeasance, and the steady drip-drip-drip of allegations regarding Trump and Putin is only serving to box in the new President when it comes to pursuing a much-needed detente with Russia.

It also does not appear that a congressional inquiry will start from scratch and critically examine the evidence. On Friday, two senators – Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse – announced a Senate Judiciary subcommittee investigation into Russian interference in elections in the U.S. and elsewhere. But they already seemed to have made up their minds about the conclusion: “Our goal is simple,” the senators said in a joint statement “To the fullest extent possible we want to shine a light on Russian activities to undermine democracy.”

So, before the next round of Cold War posturing commences, now might be the time to stop, take a deep breath and ask: Could the rush into a new Cold War with Russia be as disastrous and consequential – if not more so – as was the rush to war with Iraq nearly 15 years ago? We may, unfortunately, find out.

James W Carden is a contributing writer for The Nation and editor of The American Committee for East-West Accord’s eastwestaccord.com. He previously served as an advisor on Russia to the Special Representative for Global Inter-governmental Affairs at the US State Department.




Trump’s Iran-Bashing Distraction

Like other U.S. presidents, Donald Trump is falling in line behind the Israeli-Saudi fiction that Iran is the principal source for world terrorism and regional disorder, a dangerous turn, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

One of the most direct indications of Donald Trump’s failure, or refusal, to understand issues involving Iran is his tweeted declaration this week that the Iranians “should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!”

It supposedly should be an occasion for Iranian thankfulness when Iran, subjected to economic punishment, gains only partial relief from that punishment through difficult negotiations in which it subjects itself to greater restrictions and more intrusive monitoring than any other state has willingly accepted for its nuclear program, even though some neighbors unfriendly to Iran not only have nuclear programs without those restrictions but also nuclear weapons.

No mention is made of Iran abiding by the agreement while most of the questions about compliance concern U.S. behavior and sanctions relief — which is why many Iranian hardliners argue that the nuclear agreement was a bad deal from Iran’s perspective.

Another illusionary Trump tweet asserts that Iran “was on its last legs” — which it certainly was not, having endured not only years of sanctions but also an extremely costly war begun by Iraq — until the U.S. “gave it a life-line in the form of the Iran deal: $150 billion.” That $150 billion figure has long been discredited, with regard not only to the amount but also to how Trump and others who have thrown it about ignore how money that came into Iran’s hands (unfrozen overseas assets, and restitution for goods the United States never delivered) was always Iran’s money to begin with.

In explaining the timing of Trump’s declarations, one always has to look at what he is trying to divert attention from, and right now the uproar over the anti-Muslim travel ban is no doubt involved. But the supposed trigger for these tweets and for an anti-Iran blast that Trump’s national security adviser delivered in the White House press room was an Iranian test of a ballistic missile. Missiles have long been used by Iran-bashers as a red herring.

Singling Out Iran 

Missiles of various ranges are so much integrated into conventional armed forces, and missile proliferation has gone so far in the Middle East, that it does not make sense to single out an Iranian missile test as something that, in the hyperbolic language of security adviser Flynn, are among Iranian actions that “undermine security, prosperity, and stability throughout and beyond the Middle East and place American lives at risk.”

If rivals of Iran can’t develop their own missiles, they buy them. Saudi Arabia has bought them from China. The United Arab Emirates has bought them from North Korea. Short of the negotiation of a comprehensive regional missile disarmament pact, Iran will have missiles.

Former State Department intelligence officer Greg Thielmann highlights the most important points about this latest attempt to brew a tempest in the Iranian missile teapot. A prohibition on Iranian missile activity incorporated in a United Nations Security Council resolution that was enacted during Barack Obama’s presidency was intended and used, just like other sanctions, as one more pressure point on Iran to induce it to negotiate restrictions on its nuclear program.

Accordingly, the later Security Council resolution enacted after negotiation of the nuclear agreement included only a hortatory clause “calling” on Iran to lay off the missile tests. It is at best a stretch to call the latest test a “violation” of this resolution, and it certainly is not a violation of the nuclear agreement or any other agreement that Iran has signed.

As long as the nuclear agreement lives and Iran does not have nuclear weapons, Iranian ballistic missiles are of minor importance, and they do not pose a threat to U.S. interests (and this most recent test, by the way, was a failure).

Thielmann summarizes as follows the environment that Iranian defense planners face, and the reasons Iranian missiles are a symptom rather than a cause of conflict and weapons proliferation in the Middle East: “During the eight-year war following Iraq’s invasion, Iran was more the victim of than the source of ballistic missiles raining down death and destruction. In spite of its large missile arsenal, Iran has no long-range ballistic missiles; three of its regional neighbors do. Iran has no nuclear warheads for its missiles; two of its regional neighbors do. Iran does not have a large and modern air force as an alternative means of projecting force as do Saudi Arabia and Israel.”

Misrepresenting the Yemen War

The other bit of allegedly “destabilizing behavior” by Iran on which Flynn focused concerned the civil war in Yemen and most recently an attack by Houthi rebels on a Saudi warship. Flynn disregarded how whatever aid Iran gives to the Houthis pales in comparison to the direct military intervention by the Saudis and Emiratis, which is responsible for most of the civilian casualties and suffering in this war. It would be surprising if the Houthis, or any force on the opposite side of this conflict from the Saudis, did not try to go after Saudi forces at sea as well as on land. 

Flynn also disregarded how the Houthis are not obedient clients of Iran, how in the past the Houthis have ignored Iranian advice urging restraint in their operations, and how there is no evidence whatever, at least not among what is publicly known, that Iran had anything to do the attack on the Saudi ship, let alone of posing a similar threat to U.S. assets in the area. Nor was anything said about how the major U.S. terrorist concern in Yemen — Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — is on the anti-Houthi side in this war. Nor anything about how former president and longtime U.S. counterterrorist partner Ali Abdullah Salih has been allied with the Houthis.

Flynn’s statement represents a taking sides in a local rivalry for no good reason, and in which the United States does not have a critical stake. One of several harmful consequences of this kind of needless side-taking is to embolden those who side is taken to engage in more destructive behavior without being brought to account.

James Dorsey describes this way the destructive behavior that Riyadh is encouraged to take by the United States siding so unquestioningly with the Saudis in their rivalry with Iran: “A four-decade long, $100 billion global Saudi effort to box in, if not undermine, a post-1979 revolution Iranian system of government that it sees as an existential threat to the autocratic rule of the Al Saud family by funding ultra-conservative political and religious groups has contributed to the rise of supremacism, intolerance and anti-pluralism across the Muslim world and created potential breeding grounds of extremism.”

Several motivations are driving the Trump administration onto its collision course with Iran (including—as a subject for another time — Trump going all in with the right-wing government of Israel). There is the general and enduring negative view of Iran among Americans; capitalizing on this is exploitation that Trump shares with many politicians of both parties. There is the legacy of using opposition to the nuclear accord as a way of frustrating and opposing Barack Obama at every turn — something that Trump shares with other Republicans.

Somewhat more specific to Trump and his team is how confrontation with Iran is a way of putting the specific, named face of a nation-state onto the Islamophobia that pervades the Trump White House. Other states would not serve that purpose as well, including the other six of the states subject to the total ban on inward travelers. Iraq is supposed to be supported by the United States, Sudan is too peripheral for people to get worked up about, and the other four are beset by so much internal warfare that it would not be credible to portray them as an external threat. Other Muslim nations, such as Saudi Arabia, are not convenient targets for other reasons, perhaps including Trump’s business interests.

None of these are sound motivations as far as U.S. interests are concerned. The unsound motivations get reinforced by personal animus toward Iran even among a more thoughtful official such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis. If anything is to influence the President in the opposite direction, it might have something to do with his friend Vladimir Putin getting him in line with Russia on the war in Syria, which would mean acting more in parallel with Iran than in conflict with it.

Meanwhile, Trump and Flynn leave themselves no apparent exit from an ever-escalating confrontation with Iran, no matter what the Iranians could reasonably do.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 




Trump Veers Off Course with Iran Threats

The Trump administration has veered into dangerous territory with its threats against Iran, a threat to President Trump’s larger vision of a revamped international order, reports ex-British diplomat Alastair Crooke.

By Alastair Crooke

Donald Trump needs détente with Russia for precisely the opposite motives to those who oppose him: for the latter, tension with Russia wholly underpins the need for a U.S.-led, global defense posture that can draw on a storied, centuries-old (in the European case), legacy of hostility towards Russia.

The continuance of this global “threat” meme, in its turn, pulls Europe and other pro-Western states into a tighter hug with the U.S. And, last but not least, a globalist defense strategy is an integral component to globalism itself (together with globalist financial institutions, and global economic governance).

At the heart of Trump’s critique of the post-war élites, precisely is the negative impact of globalization on U.S. production, trade and fiscal imbalances, and on the labor market. Trump cites the fact that U.S. industrial capitalism has drastically shifted the locus of its investments, innovations and profits overseas – as the prime example of globalization’s negative effects. To reverse the paradigm, he needs to undo America’s “defense globalization,” which effectively has been the umbrella under which the stealth forces of U.S. financialized globalism, and so-called, “free trade” policies, hide. Détente with Russia therefore, in, and of, itself, would help to dismantle the overarching “globalization paradigm.” This would give the U.S. President a better possibility of instituting a new, more self-sufficient, self-supporting American economy — which is to say, to facilitate the repopulation of the languishing American “Rust Belt“ – with some new, real, economic enterprise.

Détente not only would go a long way to wind back America’s over-extended and often obsolete defense commitments, and to make some of those now-committed “defense” resources newly available for reinvesting in America’s productive capacity needs. But crucially, taking a hammer to the globalized defense paradigm would break down what, until now, has been seen as a homogenized, single, American-led cosmos – into a collection of distinct planets orbiting in a vast space.

This would allow America to cut bilateral trading deals with other states (planets), freed from the need to maintain aloft a global defense “cosmos” primordially dedicated to keeping its “enemy” out, weak and in its own attenuated orbit (with no moons of its own).

Trump’s Vision

President Trump seems to view (even a U.S.-led) global defense “cosmos” as an impediment to his planned transformation of America’s economy: As James Petras has pointed out:

“President Trump emphasizes market negotiations with overseas partners and adversaries. He has repeatedly criticized the mass media and politicians’ mindless promotion of free markets and aggressive militarism as undermining the nation’s capacity to negotiate profitable deals … Trump points to [previous] trade agreements, which have led to huge deficits, and concludes that US negotiators have been failures. He argues that previous US presidents have signed multi-lateral agreements, [primarily] to secure military alliances and bases, [but done so] at the expense of negotiating job-creating economic pacts … He wants to tear up, or renegotiate unfavourable economic treaties while reducing US overseas military commitments; and demands NATO allies [should] shoulder more of their own defence budgets.”

In short, Trump does not particularly want defense solidarity, or even European alliances, come to that. Simply said, such groupings serve (in his view) to inhibit America’s ability to negotiate, on a case-by-case, individual state-to-state, basis – and thus, by using leverage specific to each nation, achieve better terms of trade for America. He would prefer to deal with Europe piecemeal – and not as composite NATO or E.U. “cosmos,” but as the individual recipient (or not) of U.S. defense protection: a negotiating card, which he believes has been inadequately levered by previous administrations.

Remove the “Russian threat” from the game, and then America’s ability to offer – or withdraw – American defense shield becomes a hugely potent “card” which can be used to lever improved trade deals for the U.S., or the repatriation of jobs. In short, Trump’s foreign policy essentially is about trade policy and negotiation advantage, in support of his domestic agenda.

Russian Doubts

Seen against this background, Russian fears that Trump’s détente initiative cannot be trusted because his true underlying aim is to drive a wedge into the China-Russia-Iran strategic alliance may be misplaced. Trump wants détente with Russia, but that does not necessarily mean that he wants “war” with China. It is not plausible that Trump should want war with China. He wants trade; he believes in trade, but only on “equal” terms – and in any case, China simply doesn’t carry a legacy of China-phobia in any way comparable to the weight and longevity of the Western investment in Russo-phobia. There is no constituency for war with China.

This does not however mean that Russians have nothing to fear, and that Fyodor Lukyanov’s concerns about American wedge-driving, should be dismissed. They should not. But rather the fears, perhaps, should be contextualized differently.

As Paul Craig Roberts, the former Assistant Secretary to the U.S. Treasury, puts it: “President Trump says he wants the US to have better relations with Russia and to halt military operations against Muslim countries. But he is being undermined by the Pentagon. The commander of US forces in Europe, General Ben Hodges, has lined up tanks on Poland’s border with Russia and fired salvos that the general says are a message to Russia, not a training exercise [see here] … How is Trump going to normalize relations with Russia when the commander of US forces in Europe is threatening Russia with words and deeds?”

And now we have General Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, and well known as an Iranophobe, saying, “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice”:

Statement by the National Security Advisor

“Recent Iranian actions, including a provocative ballistic missile launch and an attack against a Saudi naval vessel conducted by Iran-supported Houthi militants, underscore what should have been clear to the international community all along about Iran’s destabilizing behavior across the Middle East.

“The recent ballistic missile launch is also in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.

“These are just the latest of a series of incidents in the past six months in which Houthi forces that Iran has trained and armed have struck Emirati and Saudi vessels, and threatened U.S. and allied vessels transiting the Red Sea. In these and other similar activities, Iran continues to threaten U.S. friends and allies in the region. Iran continues to threaten U.S. friends and allies in the region…

“As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.”

Add to that statement the upsurge of violence in eastern Ukraine, most probably intentionally provoked by Kiev, and a botched U.S. military operation in Yemen that killed a Navy Seal, 8-year-old Nawar al-Awlaki and “numerous” civilians, and one might conclude that the combination of events are just too much of a coincidence.

Paul Craig Roberts further suggests that “the military/security complex is using its puppets-on-a-string in the House and Senate to generate renewed conflict with Iran, and to continue threats against China” to put a spoke in Trump’s wheel:

“Trump cannot simultaneously make peace with Russia and make war on Iran and China. The Russian government is not stupid. It will not sell out China and Iran for a deal with the West. Iran is a buffer against jihadism spilling into Muslim populations in the Russian Federation. China is Russia’s most important military and economic strategic ally against a renewal of US hostility toward Russia by Trump’s successor, assuming Trump succeeds in reducing US/Russian tensions. The neoconservatives with their agenda of US world hegemony and their alliance with the military-security complex, will outlast the Trump administration” [… and Russia knows this].

No Free Hand

U.S. Presidents – even one such as Trump (who has given very few hostages to fortune during his campaign) – do not have a completely free hand in their choice of key cabinet members: sometimes circumstances demand that a key domestic interest is represented.

The endorsement of General James Mattis from the defense and security Establishment, for example, suggests that he has been wished upon President Trump in order to attend to U.S. security interests. Trump will understand that.

The question rather is whether Trump – in his choice of certain senior posts (i.e. that of General Flynn) – inadvertently, has laid himself open himself to manipulation by his Deep State enemies who are determined to torpedo détente with Russia.

Professor Walter Russell Mead in a recent Foreign Affairs article underlines just how deeply contrarian is Trump’s foreign policy.  It runs directly counter to the two principal schools of U.S. policy thinking since WW2 (the Hamiltonians and the Wilsonians), who “both focused on achieving a stable international system with the United States as “the gyroscope of world order.” It is, as Walter Russell Mead describes it, a cultural legacy that is deeply embedded in the American psyche.  It is doubtful whether Generals Mattis and Flynn, or others in the team, fully appreciate or endorse the full scope of Trump’s intended revolution. True belief, perhaps, is confined to a small circle around the President, led by Steve Bannon.

In any event, whether by external design or “inadvertent” happenstance, President Trump has two key members of his team, Flynn and Mattis, who are explicit belligerents towards Iran (see here on Mattis on Iran. It is however, less extreme, than the explicit manicheanism of Flynn).

Paul Craig Roberts says that “Trump cannot simultaneously make peace with Russia and make war on Iran and China.” That is true. But neither can Trump pursue his war on Islamic radicalism – the principal plank of his foreign policy platform – and in parallel, pursue a Flynn-esque antagonism towards Iran.

Trump will not co-opt Russia as an “aerial bombing” partner in such a regional war, while America is simultaneously attacking the only “boots-on-the-ground” security architecture that now exists in the Middle East capable of confronting Takfiri jihadism: the Syrian, Iranian, Hashad al-Shaabi and Hezbullah armed forces. There is none other.

It seems that President Trump’s weekend phone call to President Putin has quieted some of Russia’s concerns about the direction of America’s foreign policy, according to Gilbert Doctorow, but Rex Tillerson (now that he has been confirmed as Secretary of State) will need to have a serious discussion with Trump and his inner circle, and colleagues Mattis and Flynn, if Trump does not want his discreet dismantling of globalization disrupted by Russo-phobes – or his own Irano-phobes.

This assumes, of course, that Tillerson is not himself at least partly culturally embedded in the zeitgeist of America as the “gyroscope of the world order,” identified by Walter Russell Mead.

The problem for visionaries of any new order is that inevitably they start with such a tiny base of followers who really “get it.”  President Putin likely does “get it,” but can he too dare build from such a narrow base? Can Putin convince colleagues? Most Russians still recall the very bad experience of the Yeltsin détente with America. Can Trump and Tillerson pull this together?

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.




The Irony of Trump’s Immigration Ban

Although the vast majority of Americans are descended from immigrants, the country goes on periodic rages against immigration for certain groups, now including President Trump’s partial ban on Muslims, reports Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

On April 21, 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered a speech to a very conservative organization, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). He told them to “remember, remember always that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”

FDR’s message confused and irritated his audience. On the one hand their descending from America’s original European immigrants was the source of the DAR ladies’ pride and status. On the other hand, they saw most of the immigrants that came after their own ancestors as rabble.

This was not a logical attitude; it was rather an emotional one suggesting that their self-image was built around an elitist in-group – out-group identification. Roosevelt could see past this. He understood that for Americans to turn their backs on immigrants was to turn their backs on themselves.

Despite the lack of logic, the attitude of the DAR ladies toward immigrants was typical of most American citizens throughout a good part of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries. A consistent, if inaccurate, link was made between labor strife, political radicalism, crime and immigration. Many elected and appointed officials were just as wrapped up in this mindset as everyone else, and so the animus often found expression in the policies of the federal and state governments. The result was not only restrictive immigration laws, most often based on geographic origins, but also periodic deportationsnot all of them legal.

Historical Ignorance

Not many of today’s Americans know this history. They do not realize that some of the feared immigrants managed to stay in the U.S. and become their own progenitors. The children of these “aliens” learned English and American ways, intermarried with the offspring of other immigrants, and settled down. Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are as authentically American as members of the DAR, and thus they too can now get anxious and fearful over the present controversial round of alleged dangerous immigration.

Donald Trump and his cohort of xenophobes benefit from this historical ignorance. When you are caught up in the moment and told by politicians and other “talking heads” that Muslims from Yemen to Syria are heading your way with murderous intent, the instinctive reaction is to take a defensive position.

Who stops and puts things in perspective? Well, we might as well do just that: roughly 85,000 refugees and asylum seekers were admitted into the United States in 2016. About 10 percent of them were Muslims. Of those from the seven countries on Trump’s travel ban list, none of them has killed anyone on American soil. In 2017 an American citizen has a .00003 percent (roughly 1 in 3.6 million) chance of dying at the hands of a foreign-born terrorist. In the meantime 36 Americans per day die as the result of gun violence (this figure is from 2015 but nothing has happened to make it obsolete).

So Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration are not fact-based. Thus, they are hardly likely to be effective. Indeed, if periodic violent incidents involving Muslims do occur in the U.S., it is the Muslim-Americans who are most likely to be the victims. After all, many Americans are not only running around with heads full of frightening misinformation, but they are armed to the teeth. If Trump and his agents want to “protect the homeland” – and save American lives – they should start by reforming the gun laws.

Why Such Ignorance?

Why such prevailing historical ignorance and analytical impotence? Well, among other reasons, it is a fact that one can get a college degree in the U.S. without ever taking a history course, much less one in formal logic. Core curriculums have been gutted because students (now seen by educational administrators as “customers”) want vocational educations and don’t care much about what was once known as the “liberal arts.” Things are not much better in the grade schools and high schools, where history tends to play a propagandistic role. The object here is to learn to love our country and respect its leaders.

Making us all learn the historical facts (real and not alternate) about what periodically ails us – like immigration, race, labor issues, unemployment, human and civil rights, etc. – would certainly help calm the waters and move citizens in the direction of rational awareness.

I would like to think that the million or so protesters who have hit the streets against President Trump’s actions know more, historically, about their causes than the average citizen. However, that is probably naive. The protesters are also wrapped up in the moment and emotionally moved. They are also probably more single issue-oriented than they appear.

Yet, they have a common enemy, and that lays the basis for a possible united front, which is a good first step. That immigrants benefit from this collective action is only fitting because the United States is, as FDR said, a nation of immigrants. Finally, let’s hope that the grandchildren of those who today do manage to reach the “land of the free” remember the tribulations of their grandparents, and be willing to hit the streets with the next generation of protesters. Because these are struggles that never really go away.

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. He blogs at www.tothepointanalyses.com.




Trump’s Troubling First Days

Donald Trump’s presidency is off to a chaotic and troubling start with provocateur Steve Bannon pushing controversial policies and Trump closing ranks with the Right, say Bill Moyers and Michael Winship.

By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

The smell of a coup hung over the White House this past weekend, like the odor of gunpowder after fireworks on the Fourth of July.

In these first few days of the Trump administration we have witnessed a series of executive orders and other pronouncements that fly in the face of the Republic’s most fundamental values. But Friday’s misbegotten announcement of a ban on refugees from Syria and a 120-day ban on refugees from seven Muslim nations defies reason, pandering to a segment of the population festering with paranoia and rage.

Let’s just look at some of the misrepresentations that litter Trump’s declaration like garbage strewn across a sidewalk. Despite claims that the order is not about religion (!), it gives Christian refugees priority because, Trump wrongly said, “If you were a Muslim you could come in, but if you were a Christian it was almost impossible.” The New York Times reports that, “In fact, the United States accepts tens of thousands of Christian refugees. According to the Pew Research Center, almost as many Christian refugees (37,521) were admitted as Muslim refugees (38,901) in the 2016 fiscal year.”

Trump went on to say that in Mideast war zones, “Everybody was persecuted, in all fairness — but they were chopping off the heads of everybody, but more so the Christians.” Again the facts: The Washington Post notes that “Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, many more Muslims than Christians have been killed or displaced because of the violence.”

What’s more, The New York Times editorial board observed, “The order lacks any logic. It invokes the attacks of Sept. 11 as a rationale, while exempting the countries of origin of all the hijackers who carried out that plot and also, perhaps not coincidentally, several countries where the Trump family does business.”

Add to all this the haste and hurry, the sloppiness of preparation and apparent lack of prior review by qualified attorneys and affected government agencies, the chaos and pain created by its sudden, thoughtless implementation and the fuel this will doubtless add to the propaganda of the very same radical Islamic terrorists the executive order is supposed to keep out of the country. What Trump did makes little or no sense, and the way he did it was an insult to due process.

Immigration Decree

The President’s decree on immigration is the act of a self-assumed Caesar — a Peronista strongman, wielding power like a blunt instrument with no regard for the short- or long-term consequences on fellow human beings or other nations. The courts have countered him for the moment on some provisions, but the stay is temporary. And Trump will soon be replacing more than 100 federal judges, all in his image, no doubt, like mannequins in a store window.

Oddly enough, while it seems clearer than ever that Donald Trump has never really read the U.S. Constitution, he may have inadvertently picked up a wrong idea or two from the Declaration of Independence. Among the Founders’ grievances against King George III was that the monarch was “obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners” and “refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.”

Does it come as any surprise that with his refugee ban Trump favors a ban that sounds more like it came from tyrannical old King George than leaders of the American Revolution? No wonder he leaped at the invitation extended by the U.K.’s Prime Minister Theresa May last week to dine with Queen Elizabeth. Next thing you know the gilded letters T-R-U-M-P will grace Downton Abbey. You can imagine dreams of reviving old royal traditions like primogeniture jitterbugging in his head — otherwise, what’s the use of having three sons if not so at least one of them can inherit the gilded throne? (Sorry, Ivanka and Tiffany.)

But we digress. Let’s also not forget Trump’s ludicrous feud with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Trump’s childish obsessions with voter fraud and crowd size at his inauguration, his failure to mention 6 million Jews when saluting International Holocaust Remembrance Day and still, the never-ending tweets.

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus got it right: “You don’t have to disagree with Trump’s policies to be rattled to the core by his unhinged behavior. Many congressional Republicans privately express concerns that range from apprehension to outright dread.” Which raises another question: Why do GOP lawmakers remain so publicly cowed? Is it because they cherish their party’s power more than they do America’s principles?

The Rise of Bannon

Now the new president has placed his spooky senior counselor Steve Bannon on the National Security Council. This is a man so far to the right he called William Buckley’s National Review and William Kristol’s The Weekly Standardboth left-wing magazines.” During his reign as chief of Breitbart News, he tolerated racist and sexist attitudes, and announced to a real journalist, “I am a Leninist.” He went on to explain: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

At least until the President gets fed up with the attention Bannon’s receiving and fires him, the gruesome twosome appear to have settled on their mode of governance: Trump does the theatrics, Bannon does the policy. Bannon writes the executive orders, Trump signs them.

With all this instability, it’s not surprising that not only progressives but also thoughtful conservatives already have had it with the President. Here’s neo-con Eliot Cohen in The Atlantic: “Trump, in one spectacular week, has already shown himself one of the worst of our presidents, who has no regard for the truth (indeed a contempt for it), whose patriotism is a belligerent nationalism, whose prior public service lay in avoiding both the draft and taxes, who does not know the Constitution, does not read and therefore does not understand our history, and who, at his moment of greatest success, obsesses about approval ratings, how many people listened to him on the Mall and enemies. He will do much more damage before he departs the scene, to become a subject of horrified wonder in our grandchildren’s history books.”

At Washington Monthly, Martin Longman agreed. “Cohen and I couldn’t be more different in our personal politics or our foreign policy priorities,” he wrote, “and yet we’re singing from the exact same hymnal on Trump. … I honestly do not think this country can endure a four-year term of Trump as our president, and the prospects for worldwide calamity are so great that I can’t avoid saying very radical sounding things about where we stand and what must be done.”

Those “things” could be impeachment or implementing Section 4 of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, the one that says that if it’s determined that the President “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we are already in the midst of a national emergency. The radical right — both religious and political — have been crusading for 40 years to take over the government and in Trump they have found their rabble-rouser and enabler. They intend to hallow the free market as infallible, outlaw abortion, Christianize public institutions by further leveling the “wall” between church and state, channel public funds to religious schools, build walls to keep out brown people and put “America first” on the road to what Trump’s nominee to be Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has called “God’s Kingdom.”

You can see in the chaos a pattern: the political, religious and financial right collaborating to move America further from the norms of democracy with the triumph of one-party, one-man rule. There’s never been anything like it in our history. But many in the media are catching on, which explains the strategy Trump and his pack have adopted to discredit journalists, as Bannon tried last week when he proclaimed that the media “should keep its mouth shut.”

That’s not going to happen. Nor does it look as if the hundreds of thousands of protesters who marched the day after the inauguration and this past weekend at the nation’s airports to protest the refugee ban are about to stop either. A sturdy line of resistance is forming as the press, the people and patriotic lawyers join in fighting for our rights in the nation’s courts of justice and in the court of public opinion. Perhaps some brave Republican legislators, uncharacteristically demonstrating a profile in courage, will take a stand, too, against the despotic urges now roiling the Republic.

Bill Moyers is the managing editor of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com. Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship. http://billmoyers.com/story/donald-trumps-mission-creep-just-took-giant-leap-forward/




Ukraine Sabotages Trump’s Russia Detente

Exclusive: A Ukrainian military offensive into rebel-held eastern Ukraine is giving Washington’s war hawks an excuse to demand President Trump escalate tensions with Russia, negating his hopes for détente, writes Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall

Less than two weeks into office, President Trump faces one of the first big tests of his non-confrontational policy toward Russia. As new fighting erupts in Eastern Ukraine, the Kiev regime and its U.S. supporters are predictably demanding a showdown with Vladimir Putin.

Initial evidence suggests, however, that the latest flare-up in this nearly three-year-old conflict was precipitated by Kiev, possibly in the hope of forcing just such a confrontation between Washington and Moscow. It’s looking more and more like a rerun of a disastrous stunt pulled by the government of Georgia in 2008, which triggered a clash with Russia with the expectation that the George W. Bush administration would come to its rescue and bring Georgia into the NATO alliance.

After months of relative quiet, the fighting in Ukraine erupted on Jan. 28 around the city of Avdiivka, a now-decrepit industrial center. Eight pro-government fighters and five separatists apparently died in the first two days of hostilities. Meanwhile, residents of the city are struggling to survive heavy shelling and sub-zero weather with no heating.

Perennial critics of Russia were quick to blame Moscow for the renewed bloodshed. “We call on Russia to stop the violence (and), honor the cease-fire,” declared a State Department official.

The Washington Post’s reliably neo-conservative editorial page suggested that Russia felt liberated to unleash rocket and artillery barrages after Putin spoke with Trump by phone, with the goal of wrecking a meeting between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The Russian onslaught “look(s) a lot like a test of whether the new president will yield to pressure from Moscow,” the Post declared, as if this were Czechoslovakia, 1938, all over again.

Poroshenko was quick to take advantage of the clash by asking, rhetorically, “Who would dare talk about lifting the sanctions in such circumstances?” Just last month, Austria’s foreign minister called for an easing of sanctions on Russia in return for “any positive development” in Ukraine. President Trump has been noncommittal about sanctions in the face of full-throated demands by congressional hawks in both parties to keep them in place.

Who’s to Blame?

The jury is still out on who provoked the latest violence, but Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, established by the U.S. government to broadcast propaganda during the height of the Cold War, reported Monday:

“Frustrated by the stalemate in this 33-month war of attrition, concerned that Western support is waning, and sensing that U.S. President Donald Trump could cut Kyiv out of any peace negotiations as he tries to improve fraught relations with Moscow, Ukrainian forces anxious to show their newfound strength have gone on what many here are calling a ‘creeping offensive.’

“Observers say the Ukrainians appear to be trying to create new facts on the ground . . . In doing so, the pro-Kyiv troops have sparked bloody clashes with their enemy, which has reportedly made advances of its own — or tried to — in recent weeks.”

A senior member of Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine warned, “The direct result of forward moves is escalation in tension, which often turns to violence.” How right he was.

It’s hard to see what Putin gains from new fighting, at a time when Trump faces an army of skeptics at home for his go-easy-on-Russia strategy. Poroshenko has everything to gain, on the other hand, by pressing Americans and West Europeans to reaffirm their support for his government, which took power after a 2014 coup that ousted elected President Viktor Yanukovych, who was strongly supported in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

The Georgia Playbook

The situation is reminiscent of the August 2008 conflict between Russia and its neighbor on the Black Sea, Georgia. A bloody clash between the two countries’ armed forces in the tiny enclave of South Ossetia prompted a blast of militant rhetoric from American hawks.

Vice President Richard Cheney declared, “Russian aggression must not go unanswered.” Richard Holbrooke, who would become a senior adviser to the future President Obama, said, “Moscow’s behavior poses a direct challenge to European and international order.”

It may have been significant that the Georgian president’s paid U.S. lobbyist was also presidential candidate John McCain’s chief foreign policy adviser. As one analyst commented at the time, “McCain’s swift and belligerent response to the Soviet actions in Georgia has bolstered his shaky standing with the right-wing of the Republican Party. . . . Since the crisis erupted, McCain has focused like a laser on Georgia, to great effect. According to a Quinnipiac University National Poll released on August 19 he has gained four points on Obama since their last poll in mid-July and leads his rival by a two to one margin as the candidate best qualified to deal with Russia.”

Yet when the smoke settled, it turned out that Georgia, not Russia, had started the war by launching an artillery barrage against South Ossetia’s capital city. It was a ploy by Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili to drag the West into supporting his campaign to take over the enclave.

The independent International Crisis Group had warned in 2007 that Georgia’s risky strategy of provoking “frequent security incidents could degenerate into greater violence.”

A year later, following the brief war with Russia, an ICG investigation reported authoritatively that it began with a “disastrous miscalculation by Georgian leadership,” who “launched a large-scale military offensive” into the Russian-occupied enclave, killing dozens of civilians and causing severe damage to South Ossetia’s capital from artillery barrages.

The report also criticized “Russia’s disproportionate counter-attack,” which it deemed a response to “the decade-long eastward expansion of the NATO alliance” and other grievances.

Putting blame aside, the ICG report observed that “The Russia-Georgia conflict has transformed the contemporary geopolitical world, with large consequences for peace and security in Europe and beyond.” Indeed, it marked one of the greatest setbacks in post-Cold War relations between Moscow and the West until the 2014 Ukraine crisis.

If the 2017 Ukraine crisis gets out of hand, the consequences for peace and security may be just as great or greater. It will be informative to see whether President Trump and his national security team get the straight facts before capitulating to the interventionists who want to see U.S.-Russian relations remained strained and volatile.

Jonathan Marshall is author of many recent articles on arms issues, including “How World War III Could Start,” “NATO’s ProvocativeAnti-Russian Moves,” “Escalations in a New Cold War,” “Ticking Closer to Midnight,” and “Turkey’s Nukes: A Sum of All Fears.”

 




Dangers of Democratic Putin-Bashing

Exclusive: As national Democratic leaders continue to blame Russian President Putin for their 2016 defeat, they’re leading their party into a realignment with the neocons and other war hawks, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

The Washington establishment’s hysteria over its favorite new “group think” – that Russian President Vladimir Putin put Donald Trump in the White House – could set the stage for the Democratic Party rebranding itself as America’s “war party” alongside the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party.

This political realignment – with the Democrats becoming the party of foreign interventionism and the Trump-led Republicans a more inwardly looking America First party – could be significant for the future. However, in another way, what we’re seeing is not new. It is a replay of other “group thinks” in which some foreign leader is demonized beyond all reason allowing any accusation to be lodged against him with virtually no pushback from anyone interested in maintaining a U.S. mainstream career.

We saw this pattern, for instance, in the run-up to the Iraq War when Saddam Hussein was demonized to such a degree that any accusation against him was accepted without question, such as him hiding WMDs and colluding with Al Qaeda. In that context, some individuals supposedly with “first-hand knowledge” – “Iraqi defectors” – showed up to elaborate on and personalize the anti-Saddam propaganda message. We learned only later that many were scripted by the U.S.-government-funded Iraqi National Congress.

Since 2011, we saw the same demonization treatment applied to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who was depicted as a ruthless monster opposed by a “moderate opposition” which, in turn, was embraced by “human rights” groups, touted by Western media and applauded even by citizen “peace groups” around the United States and Europe. The Assad demonization obscured the fact that many “opposition” groups were part of an externally funded “regime change” project spearheaded by radical jihadists connected to Al Qaeda.

A Reagan Strategy

For me, this pattern goes back even further. I have witnessed these techniques since the 1980s when the Reagan administration tapped into CIA psychological warfare methods to rally the American people around a more interventionist foreign policy – to “kick the Vietnam Syndrome,” the public skepticism toward war that followed the Vietnam debacle.

Back then, senior CIA propagandist Walter Raymond Jr. was assigned to the National Security Council staff where he tutored young neocons, the likes of Elliott Abrams and Robert Kagan, drumming into them that the key was to personalize the propaganda by demonizing a particular leader, making him eminently worthy of hate.

Raymond counseled his acolytes that the goal was always to “glue” black hats on the side in Washington’s crosshairs and white hats on the side that Washington favored. The grays of the real world were to be avoided and any politician or journalist who sought to deal in nuance was disparaged as a fill-in-the-blank “apologist.”

So, in the 1980s, the Reagan administration targeted Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega, “the dictator in designer glasses,” as President Reagan dubbed him.

In 1989, before the invasion of Panama, Gen. Manuel Noriega got the treatment. In 1990, it was Saddam Hussein’s turn, deemed “worse than Hitler” by President George H.W. Bush. During the Clinton administration, the demon du jour was Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic. In all these cases, there were legitimate criticisms of these leaders, but their evils were inflated to fantastical proportions to justify bloody military interventions by the U.S. government and its allies.

Regime Change in Moscow?

The main difference in recent years is that Official Washington’s neocons and liberal interventionists have taken aim at Russia with the goal of “regime change” in Moscow, a strategy that risks the world’s nuclear annihilation. But except for the stakes, the old script is still being followed.

Rather than a realistic assessment of what happened in Ukraine, the American people and the West in general have been fed a steady diet of propaganda. As U.S. neocons and liberal interventionists pushed for and achieved the violent overthrow of elected President Viktor Yanukovych, he was lavishly smeared as the embodiment of corruption over such items as a sauna in his official residence. Yanukovych wore the black hat and the street fighters of the Maidan, led by ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis, wore the white hats.

However, after Yanukovych’s unconstitutional ouster, his supporters, concentrated in Ukraine’s ethnic Russian areas, resisted the putsch. But the Western storyline was simply a Russian “invasion.” The absence of any evidence – like photos of an amphibious landing in Crimea or tanks crashing across Ukraine’s borders – didn’t seem to matter. Since Americans and Europeans had already been prepped to hate Putin, no evidence apparently was needed. The New York Times and other mainstream publications just reported any accusations as flat fact.

Even the exposure of a pre-coup phone call in which neocon U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland discussed with U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt who would lead the post-coup regime and how to “glue this thing” or “midwife this thing” didn’t matter either. Evidence of U.S. coup plotting wasn’t welcome because it didn’t fit the narrative of brave young Ukrainians promoting democracy by overthrowing the democratically elected leader.

Indeed, the leaked phone call, which the Western media attributed to Russian intelligence, became – rather than proof of U.S. coup plotting – an example of Moscow’s use of “kompromat” (i.e., compromising material) against the “victim,” Assistant Secretary Nuland, who was embarrassed because she had also disparaged the European Union’s lack of aggressiveness with the pithy remark, “Fuck the E.U.”

So, while many of these U.S. propaganda patterns can be traced back to Reagan and his desire to “kick the Vietnam Syndrome,” they have truly become bipartisan. Up had become down whichever party was in office with the mainstream media reinforcing the propaganda themes and deceptions.

The Trump Future

One can expect that the Trump administration will come to enjoy its own control over the levers of propaganda – especially given President Trump’s obsession with always being right no matter what the contrary evidence – but there has been some addition by subtraction in the changeover of administrations.

Many of the neocons and liberal hawks who nested in the Obama administration – people like Victoria Nuland – are gone. That at least creates the possibility for some fresh thinking on such issues as continuing the “information war” against Putin and Russia. A more realistic assessment regarding the Kremlin may be possible given the fact that Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn are not Russo-phobes and have personal experience with the Kremlin.

But the Democrats – and even progressives – appear determined to keep alive the anti-Russian hysteria that reached “group think” levels in the final weeks of the Obama administration and is now being carried forward by leading liberal organizations.

As James W. Carden reported for The Nation, “In the time between the November election and [Trump’s] inauguration, the Center for American Progress (CAP) and its president, former Hillary Clinton aide Neera Tanden, have been at the forefront of what some are calling ‘the resistance.’ Yet one troubling aspect of ‘the resistance’ seems to be its belief that Trump owes his surprise victory in the early morning hours of November 9 to the Russian government.”

Carden cited a session at CAP’s Washington headquarters at which Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Tanden hammered home the U.S. intelligence community’s still evidence-free claims that Putin ordered his intelligence services to sabotage Clinton’s campaign and help Trump. Again, details and nuance were unwelcome and unnecessary since the villains were the thoroughly demonized Putin and the widely despised (at least in Democratic circles) Trump.

But there are multiple dangers from the continuation of this propaganda narrative: the obvious one is the risk that the Washington establishment will make the Putin-Trump “guilt” a certified “group think” rather than a charge that needs careful analysis and that certitude could lead to an eventual nuclear showdown with Russia.

Democratic Delusions

Another risk, however, is that the Democrats will come to believe that Putin’s interference defeated Hillary Clinton and thus a desperately needed self-evaluation won’t happen.

Even if Putin did have his intelligence agents hack Democratic emails and then slipped them to WikiLeaks (although its founder Julian Assange and an associate, former U.K. Ambassador Craig Murray, have denied this), it is clear that the contents of the emails were legitimate and revealed some newsworthy facts about both the Democratic National Committee’s tilting the playing field against Sen. Bernie Sanders and what Clinton told Wall Street bankers in paid speeches that she was hiding from the voters. In other words, the emails weren’t disinformation; they provided real facts that the American people had a right to know before heading to the polls.

But the other key point is that these emails had little impact on the election. Even Clinton herself initially put the blame for her defeat on FBI Director James Comey for briefly reopening and then re-closing an investigation into her use of a private email server as Secretary of State. It was then that her poll numbers began to crater – and Putin had nothing to do with either her reckless decision to conduct State Department business through her private email server or Comey’s decisions regarding the investigation.

But the blame-Putin diversion has enabled the national Democratic Party to avoid reexamining its own contributions to Trump’s Electoral College victory, particularly its insistence on nominating Clinton despite many polls showing her high unfavorable numbers and a widespread recognition that 2016 was an anti-establishment year. The Democratic Party put on blinders to ignore the grave vulnerabilities of its candidate and the sour mood of the electorate.

In a larger sense, the Democratic Party ignored its own reputation as a home for internationalists, elitists and interventionists. Indeed, Clinton chose to cater to the neocons who are very influential in Official Washington but carry little weight in Middle America. Then, she made things worse by insulting many white blue-collar Americans as “deplorables.”

Yet, instead of conducting a thorough autopsy of their demise – sinking into minority status in Congress and across the country – the Democrats apparently think they can whistle past their political graveyard by blaming their defeat on Putin and by building a movement based on attacking Trump’s erratic and offensive behavior, very similar to the failed strategy that Clinton employed last fall.

Not only does this negative strategy threaten again to backfire but – by feeding into a new and dangerous Cold War – it risks tying the Democrats to conflict and militarism and letting the Trump Republicans position themselves as the alternatives to endless and escalating wars.

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).




Trump’s Chaotic Management Style

Donald Trump’s White House – under the strong influence of tear-the-government-down agitator Steve Bannon – is doing exactly that with a chaotic policy style, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

The fiasco of President Trump’s executive order involving travel bans from selected Muslim-majority countries has consumed public attention for several days, although it was only one of several actions that have constituted the most disorganized and strife-laden opening ten days of any U.S. administration in memory.

This order deserves the vigorous criticism it has received on several grounds, but it is important to note how such a badly drafted document ever made it under the presidential pen in the first place. Reportedly it was the product of a small circle of political advisers surrounding Trump, with amazingly little input or review from any other parts of the government, including those parts responsible for implementing the order.

Not only were the responsible portions of the bureaucracy excluded; so were Trump’s own cabinet appointees. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, whose department is most directly involved in the implementation, was only halfway through receiving his first briefing on the new policy when the President signed the order.

Such an absence of an orderly policy-making process — an absence that has characterized not only the order about travel but several other of Trump’s early actions — is markedly at odds with what has long been the usual procedure leading to presidential decisions involving major initiatives or redirections of U.S. foreign and security policy.

With only minor variations, most such major policy decisions in past administrations have been preceded by lengthy review and discussion, at multiple levels, among all the departments and agencies with responsibilities bearing on the subject at hand.  Such review mostly takes place in interagency committees chaired by the National Security Council staff.

There are good and important reasons for such a process. Relevant realities that must be confronted, including political and diplomatic realities abroad, are best recognized and highlighted by those components of the government that have to deal with those realities every day or have a responsibility for monitoring them. All relevant U.S. interests and objectives that could be affected by a policy change need to be considered.

Diverse Input

Again, getting input from different departments and agencies that have specific responsibility for advancing different U.S. interests is the best way to ensure that all U.S. equities are taken into account. Then there are the potential unintended consequences and problems of interpretation and implementation that bedevil many major changes in policy. Having many different eyes, with different bureaucratic perspectives, being part of the review reduces the chance of overlooking such consequences and problems.

The order on travel and immigration was clearly and badly deficient on all of these grounds. Other early orders from the Trump White House may not have had as much immediately disruptive effect but, absent a decent policy process, also are deficient in the same way, with their overlooked problems likely to surface later.

Another of the early Trump directives, involving NSC machinery, reflects an inclination to keep operating in the same way that produced the travel ban. Trump’s political adviser and chief ideologist Stephen Bannon, who reportedly played the biggest role in writing the travel order, has been given a permanent seat on the policymaking principals’ committee, even as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence are denied such seats. Such an arrangement is certainly not aimed at accomplishing the legitimate and important purposes of policy review as mentioned above.

Bannon proudly told an interviewer a couple of years ago, “I’m a Leninist,” explaining that “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too.”

One can already see Leninist tendencies in the Bannon-Trump White House, including with things like the handling of the anti-Muslim executive order. The Bolshevik leader installed what was called democratic centralism, with the “centralist” part being exceedingly tight control from the cabal at the top, and unquestioning obedience from everyone else. Other similarities between Petrograd 1917 and Washington 2017 can also be seen.

Probably we should focus most on Bannon’s own words in conveying his sense of Leninism. No, he won’t be able to destroy the state literally and send the United States into an anarchic state of nature. But he already has begun in effect to destroy it as far as policy formulation is concerned, with decisions coming out of the small band at the center.

As for the rest of the state, especially parts that include experienced and well-informed officials with relevant responsibilities, the response will be, “Fall in line, or leave.”

A Risky Model

The one instance in U.S. foreign policymaking since World War II that involved a major redirection that was run out of a White House vest pocket and excluded the normal policymaking machinery, and that in retrospect was successful, was Nixon and Kissinger’s opening to China in the early 1970s. One look at the personnel in corresponding positions in the current administration makes it immediately clear that this experience cannot be taken as a model.

Mr. Bannon, you’re no Henry Kissinger. Neither are you, Mr. Flynn. (And Mr. Trump, you’re no Nixon, at least as far as acumen about foreign affairs is concerned.) Even Kissinger himself later said that his method of running foreign policy and gaming the bureaucracy was so bizarre and so dependent on his own unusual skill set that no one else should ever try to run foreign policy the same way.

There was one other big decision in recent times for which there was no policy process and no opportunity for the relevant departments and bureaucracies to weigh in. There never were, in this case, any meetings in the Situation Room or any options papers that ever considered whether the decision to be taken was a good idea. This was the decision to launch the Iraq War of 2003.

The Deputy Secretary of State at the time, Richard Armitage, later commented, “There was never any policy process to break, by Condi [Rice] or anyone else. There never was one from the start. Bush didn’t want one, for whatever reason.”

And we all know how well that one worked out.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 

 




Trump Quiets Some Russian Doubts

President Trump’s weekend phone call to President Putin seems to have quieted some of Russia’s concerns about the unpredictability of the real-estate-mogul-turned-politician, reports Gilbert Doctorow.

By Gilbert Doctorow

Donald Trump’s desire to establish constructive working relations with Russia got off to a rocky start, although for reasons that he might not have understood. In an interview with The Times of London just days before the Inauguration, Trump proposed changing the metrics used for possible lifting of sanctions on Russia from full implementation of the Minsk Accords, regarding the Ukraine conflict, to progress on curbing the nuclear arms race and disarmament.

While the shift was seen by many Western observers as a concession to Moscow – because it separated the sanctions from the nettlesome Ukrainian crisis – Trump’s proposal failed to take into account the Kremlin’s aversion to any reductions in its nuclear arsenal as long as there is no new security architecture in Europe that would reduce NATO’s advantage in conventional weapons. So, the response from Moscow was a firm “nyet.”

This false start was compounded by remarks from Trump’s White House spokesman suggesting that America still favored creation of safe havens or a no-flight zone in Syria. This American initiative had already been dismissed when advanced by President Obama as just another ruse to protect anti-Assad terrorists and armed rebels who are supported by Washington and its Gulf State allies.

But those early reversals were more than repaired by the 45-minute telephone call between President Vladimir Putin and Trump on Saturday. Trump appears to have kindled a very respectful and enthusiastic response from Official Russia, i.e., the Kremlin elites in parliament, in the universities and think tanks, and in the media upon whom Putin depends for nationwide support of his policies. Their collective views may be a better indication of where Russia is headed than remarks of Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson.

There is no need for a bug under Putin’s pillow or that of his Kremlin entourage to figure this out. The reality is clear from open sources, such as the premier television news and political talk shows that run every Sunday night.

The first half-hour or so of Vesti Nedeli (News of the Week) on Sunday might have been mistaken for a U.S.-origin program dubbed into Russian because it was almost entirely devoted to the phone call and to the demonstrations against Trump’s various executive orders. The presenter, Dmitri Kiselyov, is also the head of all news reporting on Russian state radio and television, so his giving his seal of approval to the talks between the two presidents carried a lot of weight.

Another Thumbs Up

But the more telling “thumbs up” evaluation came on the next featured program of the Rossiya-1/Vesti-24 channel, “Sunday Evening with Vladimir Soloviev,” which has a deserved reputation as the most serious political talk show in the country. It was posted on Youtube.com immediately after airing on nationwide television and within 12 hours had received more than 280,000 views, which is a fair indication of its popularity with Russia’s chattering classes.

The Vladimir Soloviev show is important precisely because of the array of panelists having their own power bases and contributing what was complementary but clearly defined and individualistic appreciations of why the conversation between the presidents was so promising.

Among the panelists and the first to speak was Vyacheslav Nikonov, who as the grandson of Molotov may be called hereditary Soviet aristocracy; he is also chairman of the Duma’s Committee on Education; member of the top governing body of United Russia, chairman of the Board of Russky Mir, the NGO supporting Russian culture and the Russian diaspora abroad.

Second in the pecking order was Aleksei Pushkov, chairman of the Commission on Information Policy in the Federation Council and from 2011 to 2016 chairman of the Duma Committee on Foreign Affairs. Other notables included Oleg Morozov, member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federation Council;  Andrei Sidorov, head of the World Politics Department, Moscow State University; and Sergei Stankevich, head of the  International Contacts section in the center-right Party of Growth (Boris Titov).

Another noteworthy aspect of the program and of the positive view presented on prospects for collaboration with Donald Trump’s America is that it unfolded under the direction of the great Trump-skeptic, Vladimir Soloviev himself.

As I know from talking to Soloviev on the sidelines of one of his broadcasts last September, Soloviev was no fan of Trump before the U.S. elections and preferred to see Hillary Clinton win on the logic that it’s better to deal with the devil you know. In Trump, he saw only unpredictability and  volatility. He assured me that Trump’s pro-Russian statements were purely pre-election rhetoric which Trump would betray the day after taking office.

In later broadcasts, after Trump’s election, Soloviev was one of those who remained guarded, arguing that this businessman would hardly succeed in implementing his promises over the opposition of America’s Deep State. However, now it would appear that Soloviev is less leery of Trump and more hopeful.

With one phone call, it appears Donald Trump has set the stage for serious negotiations and, possibly, substantive “deals” with Putin at their eventual summit.

Below are translations of some select comments by the panelists:

Vyacheslav Nikonov

“All things considered this [Trump-Putin telephone chat] gave the maximum results one could hope for from the first conversation between Trump and Putin. To be sure, the American President is under very heavy pressure from opposition within his own party and the Senate of the USA, from the mass media with their anti-Russian tone. The fact that the conversation was constructive will, I think, disappoint many of the critics of Trump and Putin in America, though it did not really make the news there, being overtaken by the huge scandal over emigrants…. What were the main aspects? At the center of attention was Syria. This is precisely the aspect that was emphasized in the short press release from the White House. It means it is possible to create an anti-ISIS coalition with participation of both the USA and Russia. There are the first signs this is happening. The second important aspect I’d note is in the Russian press release, namely the agreement to the establish partnership on an equal basis The United States has not had partnership relations of equals not only with Russia but with no one else as well in the years following the end of the Cold War. They dealt with Russia as the side that had lost the Cold War and towards whom you can carry out any policy line without regard to our concerns. Then another very important word we noted was “restoration” – used to characterize our future trade and economic relations. Restoration of trade and economic relations is a rather transparent reference to the idea that one way or another the sanctions will be reexamined. This is so although the word “sanctions” itself was not mentioned. I’d also note that they reviewed a wide range of issues. Syria, Ukraine, Iran, the Korean peninsula, and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. This presupposes, at a minimum, that in this rather short conversation there were no serious disagreements or differences of opinion. They discussed what they wanted to discuss. The questions were prepared and the participants in the discussion afterwards were satisfied. Therefore, I consider this a very good, encouraging start in Russian-American relations. Let us not tempt fate and let us knock wood..Let us hope this continues in the same way in the future. We could not hope for better than this.”

Vladimir Soloviev

“What bothers me is that I don’t remember that it was ever otherwise the first time in conversation with an American president. The first contacts with an American president always were very good, in their first terms in office. Is there anything special this time? You know, this Trump is a strange fellow. So far he is not at all like a traditional American president. He is fulfilling he pre-election promises like a bulldozer.”

Alexei Pushkov

“Trump is truly not like a traditional American president, because he does not come from the political milieu. He was never a Governor or a Senator or Congressman. He signifies a new style. Incidentally I think this is symbolic, because we are in new times. The times are changing. The world is changing. The US is changing. It think it makes sense that in new times Americans elected a new type of president. As for the suggestion that we always began this way with new American presidents, it’s not quite right. With Obama, yes. But then relations were not on such a negative basis. It appears that Trump set as his goal to improve relations with Russia considering that they are deeply negative. We are not starting out at 0 but at minus 10. A very negative zone. He said he wanted to pull us out of this during the pre-election campaign and now has repeated it during the conversation.  That is the first distinction. Next, consider how it was with Bush. He came to office on a very anti-Russian wave. He accused Clinton of having lost Russia, and he would apply a much tougher policy. Under Bush we established contact only 6 months after his [inauguration], that is in June 2001 when they met in Ljubljana and he said he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul. But that is not how it started. At the very beginning, he criticized Clinton for his close relations with Yeltsin. I won’t go into the details but it was a different scenario. So what’s important here? It’s that Trump, unlike what his critics say, is very predictable. He said what he did in the campaign, and now he is taking steps in this direction. He said, by the way, ‘I don’t know if I will succeed with Putin, but I hope it will work out. That is, he puts the question quite openly and honestly. He doesn’t promise what he cannot be sure to achieve. ‘I’ll try…’ He will try to find common language. And this explains the general shock of the whole American elite who got used to candidates lying during the electoral campaigns and then backing off from it all. ….Let’s remember Obama. How much he promised. He tried to fulfill some of it, the medical insurance. “

Vladimir Soloviev

“So we should nominate Trump for the next Nobel Peace Prize?”

Alexei Pushkov

“I think the Nobel Prize Committee is also in shock over Trump. They are liberal and Obama was rather close to them. Trump is on another branch entirely. The second thing I’d note, and this is in the American release, that the conversation between Trump and Putin took place in a warm atmosphere. It was a ‘warm conversation.’ By contrast the conversation with Merkel was ‘business-like’ and rather dry. And the conversation with Hollande was tense. These are the terms they used. Hollande is the outgoing president; he has practically no importance and can say what he likes. Trump called him out of respect for France and the French people, not respect for Hollande who has ratings of 10% if not less. The value of the conversation between Trump and Hollande was, for us, that Hollande, unlike Merkel, who is trying to stay in power and is very cautious and careful in my view, Hollande presented Trump with the whole list of liberal claims against him. You can see in his list the pressure points liberal Europe will try to use against Trump: that you cannot remove the sanctions until the full implementation of Minsk Agreements, that half-dead formula; then on Syria…..Hollande presented this fully aware of what he was doing. …. Trump has to find common language with Europe, with NATO allies. You have to remember that around Trump there are people who are accept the concerns of Europe. So not everything is decided. “

Sergey Mikheyev – political scientist

“This is not Reagan and Gorbachev…Gorbachev was trying so hard to please the West he forgot about the Soviet Union and everything else. ..If only they would like him in the West, he could change the whole world. Putin cannot do the same because over these years we learned a lot. If Trump tries to behave with Putin the way Reagan did with Gorbachev then that is an absolute dead end and will lead to conflict. If we try to behave like Gorbachev and please the President, then that is also a dead end. The challenge before them and us is to find a wholly new formula. ….We need to find a qualitatively new form of dealing with one another. In my view that will not be very easy. “

Oleg Morozov

“You posed the question – what has changed with the coming of Trump. I understand perfectly that the times of Gorbachev are long gone and thank God they will not return. ….What did we have before? There was always an agenda from one side and an anti-agenda from the other side. Each side set out an agenda that was not necessarily at all topical or important for the other side.   What did they set out 4 years ago: how to build democracy in Russia in dialogue with the USA , or human rights defenders, or whether it is good or bad that rockets appear right on the border with Russia because there is some sort of threat from Iran, so let’s put rockets in the Baltic States, in Romania, in Poland. What is now radically new is that the agenda proposed in this dialogue, which was clearly discussed in advance, this is an agenda that is absolutely interesting in equal measure to both sides. My second observation: all of the issues discussed are really of prime importance. They only had 45 minutes and Putin and Trump managed to cover it all. …Thirdly, I want to continue the idea of Alexei Pushkov. Here in this studio, but more especially outside this studio, there was a very strange reading of Trump – that he is a populist, that he doesn’t understand what foreign policy is all about, he doesn’t understand where Russia is located and what to do about Russia, that he will look to his more experienced partners who understand the world much better than he and so what will happen is he will succumb. But look at what is happening: instead he is constantly seeking to strengthen his own positions. Intuitively he entirely correctly guides the policy line he set out in his electoral campaign. He does not weaken his position but instead strengthens it. So when Trump says ‘let’s try to find a dialogue with Russia,’ in my view this Is not just tactics, it is really a long-term strategy of Trump today. And this gives us a good chance for this format…”

Vladimir Soloviev

“We have no illusions. We don’t expect anything good from Trump. Our task is to formulate our own agenda…..Soviet and Russian diplomacy had a tendency to get disappointed. When they say we have to reexamine our commercial and economic relations, remember that they will never be what they were before. We don’t need it. We were used to setting the table for guests. The vodka and snacks were gone and we were left asking, where is their technology, where is…? That won’t happen again. We seek equal relations. “

Alexei Pushkov

“We have just heard the phrase that ‘Europe has been sleeping.’ The discussion today is between Trump and Putin. ….Merkel and Hollande are stuck in the old formulas…..They have an old agenda. They don’t have anything in particular to offer…..Europe is off the highway and sidelined. This is another point that comes out of the [Trump-Putin] conversation.”

Yakov Kedmi [Israel, ex-Soviet, ex-Israeli intelligence]

“The conversation showed Trump’s rejection of bloc mentality. – EU and NATO are blocs. The USA prefers to deal with nations one to one. There is sense in this. When the US is so confident in its might, it is easier to deal with one than with many. They expect to achieve better results, and most likely it is correct….Two other observations. The conversation with President Putin was in a constructive tone, to agree and resolve conflicts. This is not due to Russia having changed its policy. Russia has not moved a millimeter from the position it held. The US administration was obliged to change its position. That is the US was obliged to change its positions and Russia stayed in the positions it held. The same happened with Turkey, which has radically changed its position.”

Sergey Stankevich

“It is good that the Presidents of the United States and Russia had a conversation. As a citizen of Russia, I don’t like to think half the world is holding its breath over how they prepare for this conversation and then hangs on every word, that we expect the course of the world to change or of Russia to change as a result of the two presidents conversing. I’d like a predictable international order. And I hope after this conversation it will begin. An order that is safe, comfortable and pleasant to live in. I’d like to see in this diplomacy the start of it which responsible statesmen….”

Vladimir Soloviev

“And I think of battalions marching when I hear the term ‘new world order.’ This is a dangerous combination of words.”

Sergey Stankevich

“We had a new world order at Yalta, Potsdam, then the creation of the UN, then in Helsinki where a new order was set down that included many elements including humanitarian issues and defense of human rights that were necessary for the world. I’d like to see this now, in the sense of building on predictability…”

Oleg Morozov

“Before this telephone conversation the world order existed in a state that did not suit anyone. Even the Americans were not satisfied with it. Not one of the tasks called out could be resolved. Dialogue between Russia and the USA is precisely the foundation on which you can build the new world order.”

Andrei Sidorov

“I’d like to start with agreeing terms. World order is precisely the agreements between victorious powers after a global war. That is what was done at Yalta, Teheran, Potsdam. Helsinki was not on that level. When the Yalta arrangements collapsed the West, and the USA in particular took this to mean its victory. And it was not accidental that we had all those discussions about the unipolar world. And it was the dissatisfaction of Russia and others with this unipolar world led to the fact that now Trump will set up a new world order by reaching agreement with those powers who did not accept globalization from the 1990s which was supposed to set up a new world order. ….Russia can now be a participant in the creation of the new world order. Putting aside the list of issues, the main item on the conversation was when do we meet and in what format…..ISIS is the number one evil of our times. And if it is possible to joining forces to combat ISIS why not do so. That would be the implementation of precisely what Trump spoke about all during his electoral campaign.”

Yakov Kedmi

“What we are talking about is not a new world order but a new set of rules of conduct. It is not just a stop to military interventions but also to interference in other countries in general. That is what Trump was talking about. ….Order is too rigid…. That is what Trump was saying, what Putin was saying. Let’s set up proper relations: everyone will live at home as he wishes. No one will give instructions to others. Not in the name of democracy, not in the name of God…All the wars and cruelty took place in the name of ideals. Therefore let’s not speak about a new world order but about a new, civilized way of communicating and dealing with one another.”

Vyacheslav Nikonov

“In fact that world order which is now being reconstructed, it was born not in Yalta or Potsdam but in the end of the Cold War. This was a unipolar world order in which strictly speaking the ‘world government’ was the United States itself , which was more powerful than the Roman Empire in its day, or the United States and its allies acting through the NATO bloc and the international financial institutions. This was the global, liberal world order in which Russia had its place as a conquered power on which others wiped their feet or in the best of circumstances was ignored. Precisely this world order is passing into history. Firstly because the United States was unable to maintain world domination nor did it have the desire to do so as we now see. As Trump said in his Inauguration speech, you have to allow that other states have their own interests. That had a revolutionary sound to it coming from an American President, since they never recognized national interests other than their own and their allies. Nobody now wants to dissolve the NATO bloc, but I’d call attention to the following. During all the years of NATO’s existence, the press of the member states has not been allowed to ask any serious questions about the American leadership, except for the period of the war in Iraq. Now 90% of what you read in the newspapers about the USA is so very negative like we never saw before. A real trans-Atlantic split that never existed before. So, what is coming? We see application of the term “new normalcy,” which is very debatable. The “new normalcy” of a world with Trump, Putin, Brexit. What does that mean? There are various opinions, but it is clear it will be a multi-polar construction in which the poles are the great powers: ….China, India, Russia, United States. Maybe it will be 4-sided. Brzezinski recently spoke about the need for a triangular system: the USA, Russia and China. We also have a place in the Eurasian project, in the Chinese Silk Road, which might include the European Union. Ahead will be very serious re-formatting over the coming years, not months….But one thing is clear, in the new world order one of the decisive places will be held by our country.”

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