The Hillary Clinton/Neocon Merger

Between the mainstream media’s demonization of Donald Trump and the neocons jumping ship to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, a Clinton victory might prove grimly inevitable, but that will guarantee more neocon wars, says ex-CIA official Graham E. Fuller.

By Graham E. Fuller

In this crazy year — actually a non-stop circus for 18 months — the press has engaged in an orgy of vitriol and bloodletting against the presumptive Republican nominee for the presidency with a hysteria I have never seen in my life against any mainstream party candidate. And the Donald probably deserves a great deal of it.

Yes, we can all see now how Trump is engaged in shredding, maybe even remaking the Republican party — creative destruction. That, in the view of many including myself, is basically a good thing, given how far off the rails of reality the party has drifted.

Trump has trashed the neocon war party, blamed George W. Bush for the debacle in Iraq and elsewhere, wants to throttle way back on foreign wars, and has declared a readiness to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin — otherwise treated in the US press as toxic and satanic. (Though even Chuck Hagel, former Secretary of Defense, recently had the temerity to suggest that things with Russia were getting dangerous and that we should be in constant dialog with Putin.)

Like many others, I have been galvanized at watching the spectacle of  Bernie Sanders proclaiming issues in his campaign that had been virtually off limits for political discussion for decades: gap between rich and poor, rapacious international trade deals, a fair wage, free university education, the call for US balance (gasp!) in handling the Arab-Israeli, issue, etc.

The great thing about Bernie — even if he probably won’t get nominated — is that he has pushed hawkish, friend-of-Wall-Street Hillary to the left. She has as much acknowledged that. That will be Bernie’s greatest legacy. I would have hoped that the issues Sanders has raised can never be shoved back into the political toothpaste tube again.

That was the hope. But now along comes Trump. The Right — and especially the neocons — are hysterical about what he is doing to the Republican party — of neo-cons, hawks, Wall Street cash recipients, fundamentalist Christians, Tea Party, and U.S. global supremacy. They are pulling out all stops in a desperate attempt to block Trump at all costs. Many of them already say they will vote for Hillary, such is their fear of the Donald.

And herein lies the fear. Just what does that do to Hillary — ever tacking to the shifting winds of popular opinion? Bottom line is that Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton will no longer have to worry about winning over the Sanders’s Left — some of whom might well stay home on Election Day. The massive support of Republicans, and especially neocons, will bail Hillary out.

Hillary will indeed embrace this Republican support — and will accommodate to it. Indeed her basic political instincts have been all along in that direction anyway — rather than to the left.

And that means we are guaranteed to have a President Hillary Clinton far to the right of Obama — who barely qualifies even as centrist himself.

In short, the essential pressures that Bernie has been exerting to pressure Hillary to the left — so vital to balanced government — are being cancelled out. Bernie’s influence, and all those who revel in the fresh air of his platform, will be drowned out in the new love-fest between Hillary Clinton and the Republicans, whose key neocon figures like Robert Kagan and Charles Krauthammer now enthusiastically and publicly embrace her.

The handwriting on the wall is clear: the advisers, counselors, so-called brain trusts and special aides around her (some of whom even infiltrated into Obama’s ranks) — those who remain blindly impervious in their serial defeats in foreign policy — they will all be back in full force to offer us same-old-same-old losing foreign policies dating back to George W. Bush.

And so the U.S. will continue to be virtually the only democratic country in the world whose political spectrum runs boldly from Right to Center — and then stops. There is no Left in America. We operate on half a spectrum.

Why do I cringe in using the word “Left” — even to describe myself? Because Left is a dirty word in the U.S. One can speak freely of politicians on the Right. But to say that someone is on the Left is fightin’ words — it smacks of the un-American.

Trump’s delivery of the neocons and Republican establishment to Hillary Clinton’s door will be his final and greatest damage to our political order. He will bring out all the very worst instincts in Hillary that some of us had hoped might have been softened or nuanced through Bernie Sanders’s unwavering spotlight on what really ails the nation. Precisely in his own defeat will Trump bring about his greatest revenge in decisively coloring the next administration.

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




Ghosts of ’68 in Election 2016

Longtime observers of American politics have noted striking parallels between the unpredictable wartime election of 1968 and the bizarre presidential contest of 2016, another time of war and distress, as Michael Winship recalls.

By Michael Winship

Watching the mad, mad, mad, mad world that is the 2016 presidential campaign, I was trying to remember a presidential campaign that was as jaw-dropping, at least in my lifetime, and easily settled on 1968.

For those too young to remember, imagine: As fighting in Vietnam rages on and the Tet Offensive makes us all too aware of the futility of our Southeast Asian military fiasco, Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy decides to run as an antiwar candidate against incumbent President Lyndon Johnson.

Supported by an army of “Clean for Gene” college students knocking on doors and making phone calls, McCarthy does surprisingly well, and then New York Sen. Robert Kennedy gets into the race, too. Johnson makes a surprise announcement that he will not seek a second term in the White House and McCarthy and Kennedy duke it out in the primaries.

In the midst of all this, civil rights giant Martin Luther King Jr., is assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, and riots erupt across the cities of the United States. Two months later, Kennedy is murdered in the kitchen of a Los Angeles hotel just minutes after winning the California primary.

In August, eight years after his defeat by John F. Kennedy, the Republicans bring back Richard Nixon as their presidential candidate and the Democrats select Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who has not run in a single primary, as their party’s standard bearer.

Simultaneously, a police riot against protesters outside the Democratic convention in Chicago leaves an indelible image of chaos, tear gas and blood. Nixon wins the election with a well-executed campaign set to the accompaniment of dog whistle signals against minorities and left-wing dissenters.

Oh, and one other thing — Alabama Gov. George Wallace, arch segregationist and race baiter, runs as the third-party candidate of the American Independent Party, campaigning as a rebel populist seeking the votes of the angry, white working class. He wins almost 10 million votes and carries five states in the South.

All of which brings me to one of the curiosities of that manic ‘68 campaign season, a slim volume written by Russell Baker, former New York Times columnist and veteran White House and congressional reporter. First serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, it was published as a book under the title Our Next President: The Incredible Story of What Happened in the 1968 Elections.

But here’s the thing: Baker’s book was written before all the events I just described. It was imaginary, a work of speculative fiction that soon found the real thing giving it a run for its money. And yet, much of what Baker dreamed up presaged what really happened and is eerily reminiscent of what’s going on in 2016 America.

In the book, President Johnson is indeed as besieged as the actual LBJ – “being ground in a politics of frustration more bitter than any could remember since the Depression election of 1932,” Baker writes. “A seemingly endless war, record food prices, rising taxes, intractable poverty, a surly unmanageable Congress and now an incipient revolution of race – and Johnson bore the burden of public blame for all.” It’s all too similar to the climate today.

But in Baker’s version of history, Johnson uses his legendary political wiles to create a scenario that he believes will lead to his reelection – Hubert Humphrey is made to step down as vice president, becoming secretary of state, and Kennedy is named as the next vice president, creating a Johnson-Kennedy ticket. Pandemonium ensues.

Art Anticipating Life

As in the actual summer of 1968, there are race riots that impact the campaign and as is the case in 2016, the Republican Party is in complete disarray, riven by a plethora of potential candidates, many of whose names may now seem unfamiliar but all of whom were genuine presidential possibilities – Mitt Romney’s father, George, the governor of Michigan; Ohio Gov. James Rhodes; former Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton and Illinois Sen. Charles Percy, among others. There’s Nixon, of course, New York’s Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and, oh yes, California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

After much shouting and disruption, eventually they choose as their slate New York City Mayor John Lindsay and running mate John Tower, conservative U.S. senator from Texas.

George Wallace is prominent in Baker’s story, too, running just as he really did in 1968… and in 1972 (when he was shot and forever after wheelchair-bound)… and in 1976. Here’s Baker’s description of the Southern populist’s campaign:

“Wallace’s crude animal reaction to the complexities of American society found a sympathetic hearing that summer among millions baffled by the speed at which the future was hurtling upon them and frustrated by their individual impotence against the tyranny of vast computerized organizations spreading through American life. With his snake-oil miracle cures, Wallace satisfied a deep public yearning to be deluded with promises of easy solutions.”

And here’s Baker’s version of Wallace inveighing against protesters: “If I ever get to be president and any of these demonstrators lay down in front of my car, it’ll be the last car they ever lay down in front of.”

If, as Mark Twain supposedly said, history does not repeat itself but certainly does rhyme, Russell Baker’s description of the state of the union nearly 50 years ago and a Wallace candidacy that’s so very much like Donald Trump’s is as blank verse from the past, reflecting a national mood that today is perhaps even more confused and enraged.

I’m far from the first to draw the parallel. George Wallace’s own daughter, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, recently told National Public Radio that both men have played to our basest instincts. “Trump and my father say out loud what people are thinking but don’t have the courage to say,” she said. “They both were able to adopt the notion that fear and hate are the two greatest motivators of voters that feel alienated from government.”

And back in January, Dan T. Carter wrote in The New York Times, “Both George Wallace and Donald Trump are part of a long national history of scapegoating minorities: from the Irish, Catholics, Asians, Eastern European immigrants and Jews to Muslims and Latino immigrants. During times of insecurity, a sizable minority of Americans has been drawn to forceful figures who confidently promise the destruction of all enemies, real and imagined, allowing Americans to return to a past that never existed.”

An aversion to spoilers tempts me to not tell you how Baker’s story ends but you may have trouble tracking down a copy of this long out-of-print little book, so here it is: the three-way election – Johnson vs. Lindsay vs. Wallace – is deadlocked in the Electoral College. As per the Constitution, the choice of president is turned over to the House of Representatives, and the Senate chooses the vice president. A series of maneuvers, miscalculations and skullduggery ultimately results in a second President Kennedy.

We should be so lucky.

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship. [This article first appeared at http://billmoyers.com/story/ghosts-68-haunt-election-2016/]




LBJ’s ‘X’ File on Nixon’s ‘Treason’

From the Archive: The 1968 election had one shocking turn after another, but its final and arguably worst twist – still largely unknown to Americans – traded untold death in Vietnam for political power in Washington, Robert Parry wrote in 2012.

By Robert Parry (Originally published on March 3, 2012)

On May 14, 1973, Walt W. Rostow, who had been national security adviser during some of the darkest days of the Vietnam War, typed a three-page “memorandum for the record” summarizing a secret file that his former boss, President Lyndon Johnson, had amassed on what may have been Richard Nixon’s dirtiest trick, the sabotaging of Vietnam peace talks to win the 1968 election.

Rostow reflected, too, on what effect LBJ’s public silence may have had on the then-unfolding Watergate scandal. As Rostow composed his memo in spring 1973, President Nixon’s Watergate cover-up was unraveling. Just two weeks earlier, Nixon had fired White House counsel John Dean and accepted the resignations of two top aides, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman.

Three days after Rostow wrote the memo, the Senate Watergate hearings opened as the U.S. government lurched toward a constitutional crisis. Yet, as he typed, Rostow had a unique perspective on the worsening scandal. He understood the subterranean background to Nixon’s political espionage operations.

Those secret activities surfaced with the arrest of the Watergate burglars in June 1972, but they had begun much earlier. In his memo for the record, Rostow expressed regret that he and other top Johnson aides had chosen for what they had deemed “the good of the country” to keep quiet about Nixon’s Vietnam peace-talk sabotage, which Johnson had privately labeled “treason.”

“I am inclined to believe the Republican operation in 1968 relates in two ways to the Watergate affair of 1972,” Rostow wrote. He noted, first, that Nixon’s operatives may have judged that their “enterprise with the South Vietnamese” in frustrating Johnson’s last-ditch peace initiative had secured Nixon his narrow margin of victory over Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968.

“Second, they got away with it,” Rostow wrote. “Despite considerable press commentary after the election, the matter was never investigated fully. Thus, as the same men faced the election in 1972, there was nothing in their previous experience with an operation of doubtful propriety (or, even, legality) to warn them off, and there were memories of how close an election could get and the possible utility of pressing to the limit and beyond.” [To read Rostow’s memo, click here, here and here.]

Rostow also was aware that as the Watergate scandal deepened in late 1972 and early 1973 Nixon’s men had curiously approached the retired President Johnson with veiled threats about going public with their knowledge that Johnson had ordered wiretaps to spy on their Vietnam peace sabotage in 1968. Apparently, Nixon thought he could bully Johnson into helping shut down the Watergate probe.

Instead, the threat had infuriated Johnson, who was still pained by his failure to end the Vietnam War before he left office on Jan. 20, 1969, a tragic lost opportunity that he blamed on Nixon’s treachery and deceit. Just a couple of weeks after Nixon’s strange overture about the 1968 bugging and two days after Nixon was sworn in for a second term, Johnson died of a heart attack on Jan. 22, 1973.

‘The X Envelope’

So, in spring 1973, Rostow found himself in a curious position. As Johnson’s presidency ended in 1969 and at Johnson’s instruction Rostow had taken with him the White House file chronicling Nixon’s Vietnam gambit, consisting of scores of “secret” and “top secret” documents. Rostow had labeled the file “The ‘X’ envelope.”

Also, by May 1973, Rostow had been out of government for more than four years and had no legal standing to possess this classified material. Johnson, who had ordered the file removed from the White House, had died. And, now, a major political crisis was unfolding about which Rostow felt he possessed an important missing link for understanding the history and the context. So what to do?

Rostow apparently struggled with this question for the next month as the Watergate scandal continued to expand. On June 25, 1973, John Dean delivered his blockbuster Senate testimony, claiming that Nixon got involved in the cover-up within days of the June 1972 burglary at the Democratic National Committee. Dean also asserted that Watergate was just part of a years-long program of political espionage directed by Nixon’s White House.

The very next day, as headlines of Dean’s testimony filled the nation’s newspapers, Rostow reached his conclusion about what to do with “The ‘X’ envelope.” In longhand, he wrote a “Top Secret” note which read, “To be opened by the Director, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, not earlier than fifty (50) years from this date June 26, 1973.”

In other words, Rostow intended this missing link of American history to stay missing for another half century. In a typed cover letter to LBJ Library director Harry Middleton, Rostow wrote: “Sealed in the attached envelope is a file President Johnson asked me to hold personally because of its sensitive nature. In case of his death, the material was to be consigned to the LBJ Library under conditions I judged to be appropriate.

“The file concerns the activities of Mrs. [Anna] Chennault and others before and immediately after the election of 1968. At the time President Johnson decided to handle the matter strictly as a question of national security; and in retrospect, he felt that decision was correct.

“After fifty years the Director of the LBJ Library (or whomever may inherit his responsibilities, should the administrative structure of the National Archives change) may, alone, open this file. If he believes the material it contains should not be opened for research [at that time], I would wish him empowered to re-close the file for another fifty years when the procedure outlined above should be repeated.”

Opening the File

Ultimately, however, the LBJ Library didn’t wait that long. After a little more than two decades, on July 22, 1994, the envelope was opened and the archivists began the process of declassifying the contents. (Some documents, including what appears to be the oldest document in the file, an Aug. 3, 1968, “top secret” memo from White House national security aide Bromley Smith to Johnson, remain partially or wholly classified even today.)

Still, the dozens of declassified documents revealed a dramatic story of hardball politics played at the highest levels of government and with the highest of stakes, not only the outcome of the pivotal 1968 presidential election but the fate of a half million U.S. soldiers then sitting in the Vietnam war zone.

Relying on national security wiretaps of the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington and surveillance of right-wing China Lobby activist Anna Chennault, Johnson concluded that Nixon’s Republican presidential campaign was colluding with South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu to derail the Paris peace talks and thus deny a last-minute boost to Democratic presidential nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

At the time, Johnson thought a breakthrough was near, one that could have ended a war which had already claimed the lives of more than 30,000 American troops and countless Vietnamese. Nixon, like Humphrey, was receiving briefings on the progress as the negotiations gained momentum in October 1968.

The Johnson administration was encouraged when North Vietnam agreed on a framework for peace talks. However, America’s South Vietnamese allies began to balk over details about how the negotiations would be conducted, objecting to any equal status for the South Vietnamese Viet Cong insurgents.

“Top Secret” reports from the National Security Agency informed President Johnson that South Vietnam’s President Thieu was closely monitoring the political developments in the United States with an eye toward helping Nixon win the Nov. 5 election.

For instance, an Oct. 23, 1968, report presumably based on NSA’s electronic eavesdropping quotes Thieu as saying that the Johnson administration might halt the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam as part of a peace maneuver that would help Humphrey’s campaign but that South Vietnam might not go along. Thieu also appreciated the other side of the coin, that Johnson’s failure would help Nixon.

“The situation which would occur as the result of a bombing halt, without the agreement of the [South] Vietnamese government would be to the advantage of candidate Nixon,” the NSA report on Thieu’s thinking read. “Accordingly, he [Thieu] said that the possibility of President Johnson enforcing a bombing halt without [South] Vietnam’s agreement appears to be weak.” [Click here and here.]

By Oct. 28, 1968, according to another NSA report, Thieu said “it appears that Mr. Nixon will be elected as the next president” and that any settlement with the Viet Cong should be put off until “the new president” was in place.

Nixon’s Go-Between

The next day, Oct. 29, national security adviser Walt Rostow received the first indication that Nixon might actually be coordinating with Thieu to sabotage the peace talks. Rostow’s brother, Eugene, who was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, wrote a memo about a tip from a source in New York who had spoken with “a member of the banking community” who was “very close to Nixon.”

The source said Wall Street bankers at a working lunch to assess likely market trends and to decide where to invest had been given inside information about the prospects for Vietnam peace and were told that Nixon was obstructing that outcome.

“The conversation was in the context of a professional discussion about the future of the financial markets in the near term,” Eugene Rostow wrote. “The speaker said he thought the prospects for a bombing halt or a cease-fire were dim, because Nixon was playing the problem to block.

“They would incite Saigon to be difficult, and Hanoi to wait. Part of his strategy was an expectation that an offensive would break out soon, that we would have to spend a great deal more (and incur more casualties) a fact which would adversely affect the stock market and the bond market. NVN [North Vietnamese] offensive action was a definite element in their thinking about the future.”

In other words, Nixon’s friends on Wall Street were placing their financial bets based on the inside dope that Johnson’s peace initiative was doomed to fail. (In another document, Walt Rostow identified his brother’s source as Alexander Sachs, who was then on the board of Lehman Brothers.)

A separate memo from Eugene Rostow said the speaker had added that Nixon “was trying to frustrate the President, by inciting Saigon to step up its demands, and by letting Hanoi know that when he [Nixon] took office ‘he could accept anything and blame it on his predecessor.’” So, according to the source, Nixon was trying to convince both the South and North Vietnamese that they would get a better deal if they stalled Johnson.

In his later memo to the file, Walt Rostow recounted that he learned this news shortly before attending a morning meeting at which President Johnson was informed by U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker about “Thieu’s sudden intransigence.” Walt Rostow said “the diplomatic information previously received plus the information from New York took on new and serious significance.”

That same day, Johnson “instructed Bromley Smith, Executive Secretary of the National Security Council, to get in touch with the Deputy Director of the FBI, Deke DeLoach, and arrange that contacts by Americans with the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington be monitored,” Rostow wrote.

The White House soon learned that Anna Chennault, the fiercely anticommunist Chinese-born widow of Lt. Gen. Claire Chennault and a member of Nixon’s campaign team, was holding curious meetings with South Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States Bui Diem. On Oct. 30, an FBI intercept overheard Bui Diem telling Mrs. Chennault that something “is cooking” and asking her to come by the embassy.

Johnson Complains

On Oct. 31, at 4:09 p.m., Johnson his voice thick from a cold began working the phones, trying to counteract Nixon’s chicanery. The Democratic president called Republican Senate Leader Everett Dirksen and broached a concern about Nixon’s interference with the peace talks. Johnson said he considered Nixon’s behavior a betrayal because he had kept Nixon abreast of the peace progress, according to an audio recording of the conversation released by the LBJ Library in late 2008.

“I played it clean,” Johnson said. “I told Nixon every bit as much, if not more, as Humphrey knows. I’ve given Humphrey not one thing.”

Johnson added, “I really think it’s a little dirty pool for Dick’s people to be messing with the South Vietnamese ambassador and carrying messages around to both of them [North and South Vietnam]. And I don’t think people would approve of it if it were known.”

Dirksen: “Yeah.”

Referring to his political trouble with Democrats as well as Republicans, Johnson continued, “While they criticized my conduct of the war, they have never told the enemy that he’d get a better deal, but these last few days, Dick is just gotten a little shaky and he’s pissing on the fire a little.”

Johnson then told Dirksen, “We have a transcript where one of his partners says he’s going to frustrate the President by telling the South Vietnamese that, ‘just wait a few more days,’   he can make a better peace for them, and by telling Hanoi that he didn’t run this war and didn’t get them into it, that he can be a lot more considerate of them than I can because I’m pretty inflexible. I’ve called them sons of bitches.”

Dirksen responded by expressing the Republican concern that Johnson might spring a breakthrough on the peace talks right before the election. “The fellas on our side get antsy-pantsy about it,” the Illinois Republican said. “They wonder what the impact would be if a cease-fire or a halt to the bombing will be proclaimed at any given hour, what its impact would be on the results next Tuesday,” Election Day.

Johnson denied he would play politics with the war and recalled Nixon’s pledges to support his handling of the war. Johnson said, “With Nixon saying ‘I want the war stopped, that I’m supporting Johnson, that I want him to get peace if he can, that I’m not going to pull the rug out [from under] him,’ I don’t know how it could be helped unless he goes to parting under the covers and gets his hand under somebody’s dress.”

Knowing Dirksen would report back to Nixon, Johnson also cited a few details to give his complaint more credibility. “He better keep Mrs. Chennault and all this crowd tied up for a few days,” Johnson said.

Bombing Halt

That night, Johnson announced a bombing halt of North Vietnam, a key step toward advancing the peace process. The next morning at 11:38, he discussed the state of play with Sen. Richard Russell, D-Georgia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Johnson again mentioned Nixon’s secret maneuverings though expressing hope that his warning to Dirksen had worked.

Nixon has “had these people engaged in this stuff,” said Johnson, amid loud honking to clear his sinuses. “Folks messing around with both sides. Hanoi thought they could benefit by waiting and South Vietnam’s now beginning to think they could benefit by waiting, by what people are doing. So he [Nixon] knows that I know what he’s doing. And this morning they’re kind of closing up some of their agents, not so active. I noticed that one of the embassies refused to answer their call.”

However, on Nov. 2, Johnson learned that his protests had not shut down the operation. The FBI intercepted the most incriminating evidence yet of Nixon’s interference when Anna Chennault contacted Ambassador Bui Diem to convey “a message from her boss (not further identified),” according to an FBI cable.

According to the intercept, Chennault said “her boss wanted her to give [the message] personally to the ambassador. She said the message was that the ambassador is to ‘hold on, we are going to win’ and that her boss also said, ‘hold on, he understands all of it.’ She repeated that this is the only message ‘he said please tell your boss to hold on.’ She advised that her boss had just called from New Mexico.”

In quickly relaying the message to Johnson at his ranch in Texas, Rostow noted that the reference to New Mexico “may indicate [Republican vice presidential nominee Spiro] Agnew is acting,” since he had taken a campaign swing through the state.

That same day, Thieu recanted on his tentative agreement to meet with the Viet Cong in Paris, pushing the incipient peace talks toward failure. That night, at 9:18, an angry Johnson from his ranch in Texas telephoned Dirksen again, to provide more details about Nixon’s activities and to urge Dirksen to intervene more forcefully.

“The agent [Chennault] says she’s just talked to the boss in New Mexico and that he said that you must hold out, just hold on until after the election,” Johnson said. “We know what Thieu is saying to them out there. We’re pretty well informed at both ends.”

Johnson then renewed his thinly veiled threat to go public. “I don’t want to get this in the campaign,” Johnson said, adding: “They oughtn’t be doing this. This is treason.”

Dirksen responded, “I know.”

Johnson continued: “I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter of this importance. I don’t want to do that [go public]. They ought to know that we know what they’re doing. I know who they’re talking to. I know what they’re saying.”

The President also stressed the stakes involved, noting that the movement toward negotiations in Paris had contributed to a lull in the violence. “We’ve had 24 hours of relative peace,” Johnson said. “If Nixon keeps the South Vietnamese away from the [peace] conference, well, that’s going to be his responsibility. Up to this point, that’s why they’re not there. I had them signed onboard until this happened.”

Dirksen: “I better get in touch with him, I think.”

“They’re contacting a foreign power in the middle of a war,” Johnson said. “It’s a damn bad mistake. And I don’t want to say so. You just tell them that their people are messing around in this thing, and if they don’t want it on the front pages, they better quit it.”

A Worried Nixon

After hearing from Dirksen, Nixon grew concerned that Johnson might just go public with his evidence of the conspiracy. Nixon discussed his worries with Sen. George Smathers, a conservative Democrat from Florida, who, in turn, called Johnson on the morning of Nov. 3, just two days before the election.

Smathers recounted that “Nixon said he understands the President is ready to blast him for allegedly collaborating with [Texas Sen. John] Tower and [Anna] Chennault to slow the peace talks,” according to a White House summary of the Smathers call to Johnson. “Nixon says there is not any truth at all in this allegation. Nixon says there has been no contact at all. Nixon told Smathers he hoped the President would not make such a charge.”

At 1:54 p.m., trying to head off that possibility, Nixon spoke directly to Johnson, according to an audiotape released by the LBJ Library.

“Mr. President, this is Dick Nixon.”

Johnson: “Yes, Dick.”

Nixon: “I just wanted you to know that I got a report from Everett Dirksen with regard to your call. I just went on ‘Meet the Press’ and I said that I had given you my personal assurance that I would do everything possible to cooperate both before the election and, if elected, after the election and if you felt that anything would be useful that I could do, that I would do it, that I felt Saigon should come to the conference table.

“I feel very, very strongly about this. Any rumblings around about somebody trying to sabotage the Saigon government’s attitude, there’s absolutely no credibility as far as I’m concerned.”

Armed with the FBI reports and other intelligence, Johnson responded, “I’m very happy to hear that, Dick, because that is taking place. Here’s the history of it. I didn’t want to call you but I wanted you to know what happened.”

Johnson recounted some of the chronology leading up to Oct. 28 when it appeared that South Vietnam was onboard for the peace talks. He added: “Then the traffic goes out that Nixon will do better by you. Now that goes to Thieu. I didn’t say with your knowledge. I hope it wasn’t.”

“Huh, no,” Nixon responded. “My God, I would never do anything to encourage Saigon not to come to the table. Good God, we want them over to Paris, we got to get them to Paris or you can’t have a peace.”

Nixon also insisted that he would do whatever President Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk wanted, including going to Paris himself if that would help. “I’m not trying to interfere with your conduct of it; I’ll only do what you and Rusk want me to do,” Nixon said, recognizing how tantalizingly close Johnson was to a peace deal.

“We’ve got to get this goddamn war off the plate,” Nixon continued. “The war apparently now is about where it could be brought to an end. The quicker the better. To hell with the political credit, believe me.”

Johnson, however, sounded less than convinced. “You just see that your people don’t tell the South Vietnamese that they’re going to get a better deal out of the United States government than a conference,” the President said.

Still professing his innocence, Nixon told Johnson, “The main thing that we want to have is a good, strong personal understanding. After all, I trust you on this and I’ve told everybody that.”

“You just see that your people that are talking to these folks make clear your position,” Johnson said.

Nixon protested that some of his Democratic rivals were citing the bombing halt as good news for Humphrey’s campaign. “Some of Humphrey’s people have been gleeful,” Nixon said. “They said the bombing pause is going to help them and our people say it hurts.”

“I’ll tell you what I say,” Johnson cut in. “I say it doesn’t affect the election one way or the other. I don’t think it will change one vote.”

Trying to end the conversation on a pleasant note, Nixon inserted, “Anyway, we’ll have fun.”

According to some reports, Nixon himself was gleeful after the conversation ended, believing he had tamped down Johnson’s suspicions. However, privately, Johnson didn’t believe Nixon’s protestations of innocence.

What to Do?

In a 2:18 p.m. phone conversation with Secretary of State Rusk about the messages from the Nixon camp to the South Vietnamese leadership, Johnson said, “I don’t think they say these things without his knowledge.”

Rusk: “Well, certainly not without Agnew’s knowledge, some cutouts somewhere.”

Johnson: “Well, what do we do now? Just say nothing?”

Rusk: “I would think we ought to hunker down and say nothing at this point.”

However, on Nov. 4, the White House received another report from the FBI that Anna Chennault had visited the South Vietnamese embassy. Johnson also got word that the Christian Science Monitor was onto the story of Nixon undermining the peace talks.

The FBI bugging of the South Vietnamese embassy picked up a conversation involving journalist Saville Davis of the Monitor’s Washington bureau, seeking a comment from Ambassador Bui Diem about “a story received from a [Monitor] correspondent in Saigon.” Rostow relayed the FBI report to Johnson who was still at his Texas ranch.

The “eyes only” cable reported: “Davis said that the dispatch from Saigon contains the elements of a major scandal which also involves the Vietnamese ambassador and which will affect presidential candidate Richard Nixon if the Monitor publishes it. Time is of the essence inasmuch as Davis has a deadline to meet if he publishes it. He speculated that should the story be published, it will create a great deal of excitement.”

Davis also approached the White House for comment about the draft article, which had arrived from correspondent Beverly Deepe. Her draft began: “Purported political encouragement from the Richard Nixon camp was a significant factor in the last-minute decision of President Thieu’s refusal to send a delegation to the Paris peace talks at least until the American Presidential election is over.”

The Monitor’s inquiry gave President Johnson one more opportunity to bring to light the Nixon campaign’s gambit before Election Day, albeit only on the day before and possibly not until the morning of the election when the Monitor could publish the story.

So, Johnson consulted with Rusk, Rostow and Defense Secretary Clark Clifford in a Nov. 4 conference call. Those three pillars of the Washington Establishment were unanimous in advising Johnson against going public, mostly out of fear that the scandalous information might reflect badly on the U.S. government.

“Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual [Nixon] elected,” Clifford said. “It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.”

Johnson concurred with the judgment, and an administration spokesman told Davis, “Obviously I’m not going to get into this kind of thing in any way, shape or form,” according to another “eyes only” cable that Rostow sent Johnson. The cable added:

“Saville Davis volunteered that his newspaper would certainly not print the story in the form in which it was filed; but they might print a story which said Thieu, on his own, decided to hold out until after the election. Incidentally, the story as filed is stated to be based on Vietnamese sources, and not U.S., in Saigon.”

Rostow’s cable also summed up the consensus from him, Rusk and Clifford: “The information sources [an apparent reference to the FBI wiretaps] must be protected and not introduced into domestic politics; even with these sources, the case is not open and shut.

“On the question of the ‘public’s right to know,’ Sec. Rusk was very strong on the following position: We get information like this every day, some of it very damaging to American political figures. We have always taken the view that with respect to such sources there is no public ‘right to know.’ Such information is collected simply for the purposes of national security.

“So far as the information based on such sources is concerned, all three of us agreed: (A) Even if the story breaks, it was judged too late to have a significant impact on the election. (B) The viability of the man elected as president was involved as well as subsequent relations between him and President Johnson. (C) Therefore, the common recommendation was that we should not encourage such stories and hold tight the data we have.”

According to a “memorandum for the record,” presumably written by Walt Rostow, “our contact with the man in New York” reported on Election Day, Nov. 5, that Nixon remained nervous about the election’s outcome and thus reneged on his commitment to Johnson not to exploit the peace-talk stalemate for political gain.

“On the question of the problem with Saigon, he [Nixon] did not stay with the statesman-like role but pressed publicly the failure of Saigon to come along as an anti-Democrat political issue,” the memo said. So, even as Johnson refused to exploit evidence of Nixon’s “treason,” Nixon played hardball until the last vote was cast.

Nixon’s Victory

Nixon narrowly prevailed over Humphrey by about 500,000 votes or less than one percent of the ballots cast.

On the day after the election, Rostow relayed to Johnson another FBI intercept which had recorded South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem saying, prior to the American balloting, that he was “keeping his fingers crossed” in hopes of a Nixon victory.

On Nov. 7, Rostow passed along another report to Johnson about the thinking of South Vietnam’s leaders, with a cover letter that read: “If you wish to get the story raw, read the last paragraph, marked.”

That marked paragraph quoted Major Bui Cong Minh, assistant armed forces attaché at the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, saying about the peace talks: “Major Minh expressed the opinion that the move by Saigon was to help presidential candidate Nixon, and that had Saigon gone to the conference table, presidential candidate Humphrey would probably have won.”

The White House also learned that Anna Chennault remained in contact with Ambassador Bui Diem, including a cryptic conversation on Nov. 7, in which she told him she had conveyed a message from President Thieu to “them,” presumably a reference to the Nixon team.

The cable read: “She advised she had given ‘them’ everything when she finally got back to her office to call, that ‘they’ got the whole message. Chennault continued that ‘they’ are still planning things but are not letting people know too much because they want to be careful to avoid embarrassing ‘you’, themselves, or the present U.S. government. Therefore, whatever we do must be carefully planned. Chennault added that Senator John Goodwin Tower had talked to her today. and Chennault and Tower plan to meet [Ambassador] Diem ‘either Monday.’”

After reading the cable on the morning of Nov. 8, Rostow wrote to Johnson, “First reactions may well be wrong. But with this information I think it’s time to blow the whistle on these folks.” Of course, as the president-elect, Nixon was now in the driver’s seat and there wasn’t anything Johnson could do to change that.

Another report on Nov. 8 described a breakfast meeting between Ambassador Bui Diem and “a reliable and trustworthy American,” who discussed President Thieu’s revised approach to the Paris talks which “gave the GVN [South Vietnam] a more prominent status than the NLF [Viet Cong] and put negotiations on a Vietnamese-to-Vietnamese basis rather than a U.S.-to-Vietnamese basis.

“Asked if he [Bui Diem] thought there was much chance of Hanoi’s acceptance, he replied ‘no,’ but he added that it put the GVN on the offensive rather than in the position of appearing to scuttle negotiations.”

In other words, the South Vietnamese government was making a public relations move to ensure the talks would fail but without Thieu getting the blame. Bui Diem also expressed satisfaction that the U.S. elections had ousted key anti-war senators, Wayne Morse, Ernest Gruening and Joseph Clark. [Click here, here and here.]

Pressuring Nixon

The report upset Johnson, but he chose to continue trying to persuade Nixon to live up to his pre-election commitment to do whatever he could to push the peace process toward success. At 2:54 p.m. on Nov. 8, Johnson spoke again with Sen. Dirksen to stress the urgency of Nixon getting Thieu to reverse his position on the peace talks.

“Hell, no, this ought to go right now,” Johnson declared. “If they [the South Vietnamese] don’t go in there this week, we’re just going to have all kinds of problems. We want Thieu to get a message so he can get a delegation from Saigon to Paris next week. We think we’ve held up each day, we’re killing men. We’re killing men.

“Saigon now thinks that they will play this out and keep this thing going on until January the 20th [Inauguration Day] and we think that’s a mistake.”

That evening at 9:23, Nixon called Johnson from Key Biscayne, Florida, where Nixon was taking a vacation after the grueling election. Nixon sounded confident and relaxed, even as Johnson continued to push regarding the peace talks. Johnson recounted the evidence of the continued interference by Nixon’s emissaries and even described the Republican motivation for disrupting the talks, speaking of himself in the third person.

“Johnson was going to have a bombing pause to try to elect Humphrey; they [the South Vietnamese] ought to hold out because Nixon will not sell you out like the Democrats sold out China,” Johnson said.

“I think they’ve been talking to [Vice President-elect Spiro] Agnew,” Johnson continued. “They’ve been quoting you [Nixon] indirectly, that the thing they ought to do is to just not show up at any [peace] conference and wait until you come into office.

“Now they’ve started that [boycott] and that’s bad. They’re killing Americans every day. I have that [story of the peace-talk sabotage] documented. There’s not any question but that’s happening. That’s the story, Dick, and it’s a sordid story. I don’t want to say that to the country, because that’s not good.”

Faced with Johnson’s threat, Nixon promised to tell the South Vietnamese officials to reverse themselves and join the peace talks. However, nothing changed.

At a Nov. 11 dinner party, President Thieu discussed what he termed a U.S. “betrayal” of him when he was getting pressured regarding the Paris peace talks, according to a “secret” U.S. government report on Thieu’s comments. The report added, “Thieu told his guests that during the U.S. election campaign he had sent two secret emissaries to the U.S. to contact Richard Nixon.” [Click here, here, here, here, here and here.]

On Nov. 13, South Vietnam’s Minister of Information Ton That Thein held a press conference criticizing Johnson and his diplomats for rushing matters on the peace talks. Thein also acknowledged possible pre-election contacts with elements of Nixon’s campaign.

A U.S. Embassy cable reported that “Asked whether Nixon had encouraged the GVN [the government of South Vietnam] to delay agreement with the US, Thein replied that, while there may have been contacts between Nixon staffers and personnel of the [South Vietnamese] Embassy in Washington, a person of the caliber of Nixon would not do such a thing.” [Click here, here and here.]

On Nov. 15, ten days after the election, suspicions of the peace-talk sabotage began seeping into the U.S. news media. Columnist Georgie Anne Geyer reported, “Top Saigon officials are boasting privately they helped assure the election of Richard M. Nixon. They are pleased about it. ‘We did it,’ one of them said. ‘We helped elect an American President.’”

Columnists Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson noted in a Nov. 17 column that Johnson “learned that Saigon’s Ambassador Bui Diem had been in touch secretly with Richard Nixon’s people. There were unconfirmed reports that South Vietnamese leaders had even slipped campaign cash to Nixon representatives.”

‘Lady Still Operational’

As the weeks passed and the peace talks remained stalled, Anna Chennault kept up her contacts with South Vietnam’s Embassy, briefing a senior diplomat there on Dec. 9, 1968, about Nixon’s selection of “her very good friend” Melvin Laird to be Secretary of Defense.

According to the FBI cable, “She went on to say that ‘we’ should be very happy about this [and] not to be too concerned about the press’s references about a coalition government. Chennault indicated that Laird is a very strong man.” Rostow forwarded the cable to Johnson on Dec. 10, with the notation, “The Lady is still operational.”

But Johnson’s White House remained tight-lipped about its knowledge of Nixon’s treachery. According to the documents in “The ‘X’ Envelope,” the first detailed press inquiry about the peace-talk sabotage came from St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Tom Ottenad who contacted Rostow on Jan. 3, 1969, just 17 days before Johnson would leave office.

Ottenad outlined the activities of Anna Chennault on behalf of the campaign and pressed Rostow to confirm that the administration was aware of the subterfuge. Rostow responded, “I have not one word to say about that matter.”

An FBI intercept also picked up the Post-Dispatch questioning Bui Diem about contacts with Chennault. While he denied any improper contacts with the Nixon administration, Bui Diem acknowledged that Chennault “has visited the Vietnamese embassy from time to time, but not frequently.”

As published, Ottenad’s article began, “A well-known top official of committees working for the election of Richard M. Nixon secretly got in touch with representatives of South Vietnam shortly before the presidential election. It was in connection with an apparent effort to encourage them to delay in joining the Paris peace talks in hopes of getting a better deal if the Republicans won the White House.”

But there was little follow-up to Ottenad’s scoop. A sketchy account also appeared in author Teddy White’s The Making of a President 1968, which was published in summer 1969, drawing a response from Chennault, who called the accusations an “insult.”

Even in retirement, Rostow remained mum about the Chennault episode, rebuffing another overture from Ottenad on Feb. 11, 1970. Ottenad also approached ex-President Johnson, but he too chose to hold his tongue, though his legacy had been devastated by his conduct of the Vietnam War and by his failure to end it.

After Ottenad’s inquiry, Johnson’s aide Tom Johnson offered a heads-up to Nixon’s chief of staff “Bob” Haldeman about another possible story on this touchy topic. To a somewhat baffled Haldeman, Tom Johnson volunteered that ex-President Johnson had given no authorization to anyone to discuss the matter.

“Haldeman said he was most appreciative that we had advised him of this information and would keep the telephone call completely confidential,” Tom Johnson’s memo to ex-President Johnson read. “Haldeman seemed genuinely pleased and surprised that we would call on such a matter and expressed his thanks again for the attitude we have been taking toward President Nixon.” [Tom Johnson later served as president of CNN.]

More Dead

From the start of Nixon’s presidency in 1969, the U.S. participation in the Vietnam War continued for more than four years at horrendous cost to both the United States and the people of Vietnam. Having allegedly made his secret commitment to the South Vietnamese regime, Nixon kept searching for violent new ways to get Thieu a better deal than Johnson would have offered. Seeking what he called “peace with honor,” Nixon invaded Cambodia and stepped up the bombing of North Vietnam.

In those four years, the war bitterly divided the United States, as anti-war protests turned increasingly confrontational; parents turned against their children and children against their parents; “hard-hats” attacked “hippies”; Nixon baited one group of angry protesters with his “V” for victory sign and called other protesters “bums”; four students were gunned down at Kent State.

But it seemed nothing could stop the war, not massive protests, not even disclosures about the deception that had gotten the United States into the conflict. Former Defense Department official Daniel Ellsberg leaked the “Pentagon Papers,” a secret history of the war’s early years, but the conflict still ground on.

Fatefully, Nixon struck back at Ellsberg by organizing a White House “plumbers unit” that broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. The “plumbers,” including ex-CIA operatives, later switched their attention to Nixon’s political rivals, burglarizing the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate building in search of intelligence, including what dirt the Democrats might have on Nixon.

Before U.S. participation in the war was finally brought to a close in 1973, on terms similar to what had been available to President Johnson in 1968, a million more Vietnamese were estimated to have died. Those four years also cost the lives of an additional 20,763 U.S. soldiers, with 111,230 wounded.

Ironically, as the Democrats stayed mum, Nixon apparently judged that they were more concerned about the information regarding his Vietnam War “treason” coming out than he was. So, after some of his “plumbers” got arrested at the Watergate on June 17, 1972, Nixon began to view the 1968 events as a blackmail card to play against Johnson to get his help squelching the expanding probe.

Nixon discussed the 1968 bugging in his Oval Office meetings about Watergate as early as July 1, 1972. According to Nixon’s White House tapes, his aide Charles Colson touched off Nixon’s musings by noting that a newspaper column claimed that the Democrats had bugged the telephones of Anna Chennault in 1968 when she was serving as Nixon’s intermediary to Thieu.

“Oh,” Nixon responded, “in ’68, they bugged our phones too.”

Colson: “And that this was ordered by Johnson.”

Nixon: “That’s right”

Colson: “And done through the FBI. My God, if we ever did anything like that you’d have the ”

Nixon: “Yes. For example, why didn’t we bug [the Democrats’ 1972 presidential nominee George] McGovern, because after all he’s affecting the peace negotiations?”

Colson: “Sure.”

Nixon: “That would be exactly the same thing.”

By early November 1972, as Nixon was cruising to an easy victory over McGovern but was worried about future problems with the Watergate scandal, the tale of Johnson’s supposed wiretaps of Nixon’s campaign was picked up by the Washington Star, Nixon’s favorite newspaper for planting stories damaging to his opponents.

Washington Star reporters contacted Rostow on Nov. 2, 1972, and, according to a Rostow memo, asked whether “President Johnson instructed the FBI to investigate action by members of the Nixon camp to slow down the peace negotiations in Paris before the 1968 election. After the election [FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover informed President Nixon of what he had been instructed to do by President Johnson. President Nixon is alleged to have been outraged.” But Rostow still was unwilling to help on the story.

Hoover apparently had given Nixon a garbled version of what had happened, leading him to believe that the FBI bugging was more extensive than it was. According to Nixon’s White House tapes, he pressed Haldeman on Jan. 8, 1973, to get the story about the 1968 bugging into the Washington Star.

“You don’t really have to have hard evidence, Bob,” Nixon told Haldeman. “You’re not trying to take this to court. All you have to do is to have it out, just put it out as authority, and the press will write the Goddamn story, and the Star will run it now.”

Haldeman, however, insisted on checking the facts. In The Haldeman Diaries, published in 1994, Haldeman included an entry dated Jan. 12, 1973, which contains his book’s only deletion for national security reasons.

“I talked to [former Attorney General John] Mitchell on the phone,” Haldeman wrote, “and he said [FBI official Cartha] DeLoach had told him he was up to date on the thing. A Star reporter was making an inquiry in the last week or so, and LBJ got very hot and called Deke [DeLoach’s nickname], and said to him that if the Nixon people are going to play with this, that he would release [deleted material, national security], saying that our side was asking that certain things be done.

“DeLoach took this as a direct threat from Johnson,” Haldeman wrote. “As he [DeLoach] recalls it, bugging was requested on the [Nixon campaign] planes, but was turned down, and all they did was check the phone calls, and put a tap on the Dragon Lady [Anna Chennault].”

In other words, Nixon’s threat to raise the 1968 bugging was countered by Johnson, who threatened to finally reveal that Nixon’s campaign had sabotaged the Vietnam peace talks. The stakes were suddenly raised. However, events went in a different direction.

On Jan. 22, 1973, ten days after Haldeman’s diary entry and two days after Nixon began his second term, Johnson died of a heart attack. Haldeman also apparently thought better of publicizing Nixon’s 1968 bugging complaint.

Several months later with Johnson dead and Nixon sinking deeper into the Watergate swamp Rostow, the keeper of “The ‘X’ envelope,” mused about whether history might have gone in a very different direction if he and other Johnson officials had spoken out in real time about what Johnson called Nixon’s “treason.” Still, Rostow chose to keep the facts from the American people.

And the silence had consequences. Though Nixon was forced to resign over the Watergate scandal on Aug. 9, 1974, the failure of the U.S. government and the American press to explain the full scope of Nixon’s dirty politics left Americans divided over the disgraced president’s legacy and the seriousness of Watergate.

Many Republicans viewed Watergate as a Democratic plot to reverse the landslide results of the 1972 election. Other observers saw the scandal as an isolated event provoked by Nixon’s personal paranoia. But almost no one made the connection that Rostow did, that Nixon’s high-handed political espionage had involved an earlier scheme that dragged out the Vietnam War for four bloody years.

If the public had known that story, including the evidence that some of Nixon’s Wall Street friends were using inside knowledge of the peace-talk sabotage to play the markets, the Republicans would have been hard-pressed to argue that Nixon was simply a victim of partisan Democratic scandal-mongering.

Over the years, pieces of the story about Nixon’s “treason” did surface from time to time, but never getting much traction with the major U.S. news media or the political classes. It fell into that hazy category between “conspiracy theory” and “old news.”

In 1980, Anna Chennault published an autobiography entitled The Education of Anna, in which she acknowledged that she, indeed, had been a courier for messages between the Nixon campaign and the South Vietnamese government.

She quoted Nixon aide John Mitchell as calling her a few days before the 1968 election and telling her: “I’m speaking on behalf of Mr. Nixon. It’s very important that our Vietnamese friends understand our Republican position and I hope you made that clear to them.” But still there was no outcry for a serious investigation.

An October Reprise?

The lack of interest in Nixon’s Vietnam peace-talk gambit also might have encouraged the Republicans to dig into Nixon’s bag of dirty tricks again in 1980 when some of his old allies, including George H.W. Bush and William Casey, were key figures in Ronald Reagan’s campaign and saw another prospect for ousting another Democratic president over another “October Surprise.”

After all, if Nixon could get away with sabotaging Vietnam peace talks when half a million U.S. soldiers were in harm’s way, what was the big deal about upsetting President Jimmy Carter’s negotiations to free 52 U.S. embassy employees then held hostage in Iran? And if the Democrats eventually did get wind of any GOP-Iran hanky-panky, what were the chances that they would hold anyone accountable?

Wouldn’t these Democrats be just as susceptible as Johnson’s team was to appeals that telling the whole sordid tale wouldn’t be good for the country? The Democrats had even taken a strange sort of pride in keeping these dirty Republican secrets secret.

As it turned out, Democrats did show the same reluctance to seriously investigate allegations of Republican interference in Carter’s hostage negotiations with Iran as they did regarding the Nixon campaign’s sabotage of Johnson’s Vietnam peace talks. [For details on the 1980 reprise of Nixon’s “treason,” see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege or America’s Stolen Narrative ]

Democrats also presided over timid investigations of Reagan’s later arms-for-hostage deals with Iran, known as the Iran-Contra Affair, and of Reagan’s secret military support for Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, the so-called Iraq-gate scandal.

In 1992, I interviewed R. Spencer Oliver, a longtime Democratic Party figure whose phone was one of those that had been bugged at Watergate. Oliver also was one of the few Washington Democrats with the toughness and tenacity to push serious investigations into these Republican scandals.

When I asked him why the Democrats so often retreated in the face of fierce Republican resistance, he explained that the Watergate scandal though it led to the ruin of one Republican president had taught the Republicans how to thwart serious inquiries: “What [the Republicans] learned from Watergate was not ‘don’t do it,’ but ‘cover it up more effectively.’ They have learned that they have to frustrate congressional oversight and press scrutiny in a way that will avoid another major scandal.”

While Oliver was surely right, there was also the tendency of Democrats to avoid the risks required to stand up to Republican abuses. The failed investigations of the 1980 October Surprise case, the Iran-Contra Affair and Iraq-gate seemed part and parcel with avoiding a confrontation with Nixon over the Vietnam peace talks in 1968.

In all those cases, there was the echo of Rostow’s musings in 1973, wondering whether the silence of Johnson’s White House regarding Nixon’s “treason” in 1968 had proved not to be “good for the country” after all.

By not holding the Republicans accountable, Rostow had reflected, “There was nothing in their previous experience with an operation of doubtful propriety (or, even, legality) to warn them off, and there were memories of how close an election could get and the possible utility of pressing to the limit and beyond.” But even with that recognition, Rostow still had kept silent.

Indeed, if Rostow had had his way, “The ‘X’ envelope” today would still be locked away from the American people for another decade and possibly 50 years longer.

By the time Rostow died on Feb. 13, 2003, the Republican Party had muscled its way back into power once more, via the tainted election in 2000 and the latest GOP president, George W. Bush, was marching the United States into another destructive war behind another smokescreen of lies and distortions, in Iraq.

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).




Donald Trump’s Unsurprising Surprise

Exclusive: Donald Trump’s ascension to the Republican presidential nomination was predictable, paved by years of right-wing fear-mongering and dissemination of anti-knowledge, says former GOP congressional staffer Mike Lofgren.

By Mike Lofgren

A lot of pundits have egg on their faces. Nate Cohn recently issued a mea culpa in the New York Times confessing his underestimation of Donald Trump. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank has even had to make good on his bet that he would literally eat his words if the real estate mogul were nominated.

As late as September 2015, esteemed numbers whiz Nate Silver was telling us that Trump had a 5 percent chance of winning the Republican nomination. Déjà vu: as with the awful consequences of invading Iraq or selling no-documentation mortgages to indigent homebuyers, most of our designated experts didn’t see it coming.

My experience with GOP politics was a bit more up-close and personal than that of most pundits. For 28 years, I worked on Capitol Hill as a Republican staffer. The 2008 selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as vice presidential candidate was embarrassing enough to me, but once the congressional GOP appeared eager to drive the country into a debt default in 2011, I decided to leave and become a political independent.

By that point it seemed plausible to me that Trump – or someone similar – was likely if not inevitable. Although conservative ideologues denounce him for being doctrinally impure, he is the logical culmination of deeper psychological trends both in the party and the broader American culture that I have observed over the years.

Since the demise of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, the Conservative Media-Entertainment Complex – Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and all the rest – has poisoned the well of civic engagement with rancor, scapegoating and pessimism about the state of the nation. These self-styled super-patriots seem to get a thrill from talking down the country, and if you add up all the groups they condemn, their targets probably constitute a majority of the U.S. population.

This cultural pessimism was an ingredient in the makeup of fascist movements during the Twentieth Century: enemies are at our borders; the deadliest enemy is within; the nation will collapse if we don’t purge subversive elements.

As film maker Jen Senko has documented, a steady diet of Fox News alarmism can make viewers angry, paranoid and irrational. With that kind of conditioning, is it any wonder that many Republicans are susceptible to Trump’s description of the world’s foremost economic and military power – us – as “weak” and “pathetic?”

Deliberate Obstruction

A related cause of Trump’s rise is the GOP’s political strategy, which only deepens the pessimism that Republican media have fanned. Gridlock, filibusters, government shutdowns, playing chicken with the debt limit: they all reinforce the belief that the country is ungovernable.

A senior Republican Capitol Hill staffer once explained to me – approvingly – that it was a conscious strategy to create gridlock and lower the public approval of Congress. These alleged worshippers of the Constitution would cripple and discredit the branch of government that is the first and arguably premier institution listed in that document.

Republicans have attempted to repeal Obamacare 62 times, but for the last six years we have been waiting in vain for the Republican health care plan to replace it. When they do not have undisputed control of government (and we have seen the fiscal and human disasters unleashed when they have dominated Kansas, Louisiana, and Michigan), the GOP is determined to seize up the gears.

Abraham Lincoln’s accusation against the antebellum slavocracy applies: “Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government . . . You will rule or ruin in all events.”

If this is the new politics-as-usual, who can blame people for supporting an imperious outsider who promises to break the deadlock by knocking heads together? Trumpism was brewed in the kitchen of Mitch McConnell, the senator who vowed to derail Obama’s presidency.

I have written before about the GOP’s contribution to anti-knowledge in our society. As Nineteenth-Century humorist Josh Billings put it, “The trouble with people is not that they don’t know, but that they know so much that ain’t so.”

Despite three decades of evidence that tax cuts do not pay for themselves, Republican politicians hew to that line with dogmatic persistence. A couple of millennia of history ought to have taught us that invasions of the Middle East are not likely to go well, but the GOP was gung-ho about Iraq and questioned the patriotism of skeptics.

Many in the Republican base believe with a faith that transcends evidence that Obamacare authorizes death panels just as Obama himself is Kenyan born. Under those circumstances, why should it surprise us when Trump promises $12 trillion in tax cuts while eliminating the $19-trillion national debt in eight years, or claims that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination?

Anti-knowledge is virulent in the GOP, but it is a problem in the larger society as well. A study by the journal Science polled on public attitudes about evolution in the United States, 32 European countries, Turkey and Japan; the only country where acceptance of evolution was lower than in ours was Islamic Turkey. States like Louisiana mandate that public schools teach the bogus “controversy” about evolution.

This epistemic closure, whereby facts are a matter of political opinion, threatens not only the country’s future scientific preeminence, but our ability to have rational discussions about public policy. Trump’s rise is a fire bell in the night warning us of a dangerous cultural development.

Fear and Authoritarianism

For the past 15 years, the people who constitute our bipartisan elite consensus – politicians, generals, media personalities, think-tank experts – have been dinning into our heads the message that we must be very afraid of terrorism, despite the fact that we are more likely to die slipping in the bathtub than in a terrorist attack. It has worked.

Voters in the Republican primary in South Carolina, where Trump won in a walk, declared terrorism their foremost concern, eclipsing a low-wage economy, deteriorating living standards leading to an increase in the death rate of GOP voters’ core demographic, and the most expensive and least available health care in the developed world.

The fear that our elite consensus fostered has awakened the latent authoritarianism and paranoia that lurk in all too many ordinary people. This dynamic explains why Trump’s candidacy took off like a moon rocket in November and December of 2015, the period of the terrorist attack in Paris and the murders in San Bernardino.

Government officials and the media whipped up a mood in the country that approached hysteria; Trump deftly exploited it. By being the only politician brazen enough to openly advocate torture – not merely to gain information (a dubious claim), but to inflict pain for its own sake – he tapped into the revenge fantasies of millions of Americans who have been fed a steady diet of fear since 9/11.

We have deluded ourselves that the United States could be a “normal” country while waging a seemingly endless war on terror. We have likewise believed we could carry on with one of our political parties behaving like an apocalyptic cult, along with our public discourse being polluted by bogus “facts” amplified by ferociously partisan media.

Donald Trump is merely a symptom, not the cause, of these troubling cultural markers. His political ascent, then, is really no surprise, as I sensed when I said “goodbye to all that” on Capitol Hill five years ago.

Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His latest book, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, appeared in January 2016.




Neocons and Neolibs: How Dead Ideas Kill

Exclusive: Hillary Clinton wants the American voters to be very afraid of Donald Trump, but there is reason to fear as well what a neoconservative/neoliberal Clinton presidency would mean for the world, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

For centuries hereditary monarchy was the dominant way to select national leaders, evolving into an intricate system that sustained itself through power and propaganda even as its ideological roots shriveled amid the Age of Reason. Yet, as monarchy became a dead idea, it still killed millions in its death throes.

Today, the dangerous “dead ideas” are neoconservatism and its close ally, neoliberalism. These are concepts that have organized American foreign policy and economics, respectively, over the past several decades – and they have failed miserably, at least from the perspective of average Americans and people of the nations on the receiving end of these ideologies.

Neither approach has benefited mankind; both have led to untold death and destruction; yet the twin “neos” have built such a powerful propaganda and political apparatus, especially in Official Washington, that they will surely continue to wreak havoc for years to come. They are zombie ideas and they kill.

Yet, the Democratic Party is poised to nominate an adherent to both “neos” in the person of Hillary Clinton. Rather than move forward from President Barack Obama’s unease with what he calls the Washington “playbook,” the Democrats are retreating into its perceived safety.

After all, the Washington Establishment remains enthralled to both “neos,” favoring the “regime change” interventionism of neoconservatism and the “free trade” globalism of neoliberalism. So, Clinton has emerged as the clear favorite of the elites, at least since the field of alternatives has narrowed to populist billionaire Donald Trump and democratic socialist Bernie Sanders.

Democratic Party insiders appear to be counting on the mainstream news media and prominent opinion-leaders to marginalize Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, and to finish off Sanders, who faces long odds against Clinton’s delegate lead for the Democratic nomination, especially among the party regulars known as “super-delegates.”

But the Democratic hierarchy is placing this bet on Clinton in a year when much of the American electorate has risen up against the twin “neos,” exhausted by the perpetual wars demanded by the neoconservatives and impoverished by the export of decent-paying manufacturing jobs driven by the neoliberals.

Though much of the popular resistance to the “neos” remains poorly defined in the minds of rebellious voters, the common denominator of the contrasting appeals of Trump and Sanders is that millions of Americans are rejecting the “neos” and repudiating the establishment institutions that insist on sustaining these ideologies.

The Pressing Question

Thus, the pressing question for Campaign 2016 is whether America will escape from the zombies of the twin “neos” or spend the next four years surrounded by these undead ideas as the world lurches closer to an existential crisis.

The main thing that the zombie “neos” have going for them is that the vast majority of Very Important People in Official Washington have embraced these concepts and have achieved money and fame as a result. These VIPs are no more likely to renounce their fat salaries and overblown influence than the favored courtiers of a King or Queen would side with the unwashed rabble.

The “neo” adherents are also very skilled at framing issues to their benefit, made easier by the fact that they face almost no opposition or resistance from the mainstream media or the major think tanks.

The neoconservatives have become Washington’s foreign policy establishment, driving the old-time “realists” who favored more judicious use of American power to the sidelines.

Meanwhile, the neoliberals dominate economic policy debates, treating the “markets” as some new-age god and “privatization” of public assets as scripture. They have pushed aside the old New Dealers who called for a robust government role to protect the people from the excesses of capitalism and to build public infrastructure to benefit the nation as a whole.

The absence of any strong resistance to the now dominant “neo” ideologies is why we saw the catastrophic “group think” over Iraq’s WMD in 2003 and why for many years no one of great significance dared question the benefits of “free trade.”

After all, both strategies benefited the elites. Neoconservative warmongering diverted trillions of dollars into the Military-Industrial Complex and neoliberal job outsourcing has made billions of dollars for individual corporate executives and stock investors on Wall Street.

Those interests have, in turn, kicked back a share of the proceeds to fund Washington think tanks, to finance news outlets, and to lavish campaign donations and speaking fees on friendly politicians. So, for the insiders, this game has been a case of win-win.

The Losers

Not so much for the “losers,” those average citizens who have seen the Great American Middle Class hollowed out over the past few decades, watched America’s public infrastructure decay, and worried about their sons and daughters being sent off to fight unnecessary, perpetual and futile wars.

But inundated with clever propaganda – and scrambling to make ends meet – most Americans see the reality as if through a glass darkly. Many of them, as Barack Obama indelicately said during the 2008 campaign, “cling to guns or religion.” They have little else – and many are killing themselves with opiates that dull their pain or with those guns that they see as their last link to “freedom.”

What is clear, however, is that large numbers don’t trust – and don’t want – Hillary Clinton, who had a net 24-point unfavorable rating in one recent poll. It turns out that another indelicate Obama comment from Campaign 2008 may not have been true, when he vouched that “you’re likable enough, Hillary.” For many Americans, that’s not the case (although Trump trumped Clinton with a 41-point net negative).

If the Democrats do nominate Hillary Clinton, they will be hoping that the neocon/neolib establishment can so demonize Donald Trump that a plurality of Americans will vote for the former Secretary of State out of abject fear over what crazy things the narcissistic billionaire might do in the White House.

Trump’s policy prescriptions have been all over the place – and it is hard to know what reflects his actual thinking (or his genuine ignorance) as opposed to what constitutes his skillful showmanship that made him the “survivor” in the real-life reality TV competition for the Republican nomination.

Does Trump really believe that global warming is a hoax or is he just pandering to the know-nothing element of the Republican Party? Does he actually consider Obama’s Iran nuclear deal to be a disaster or is he just playing to the hate-Obama crowd on the Right?

Opposing the ‘Neos’

But Trump is not a fan of the “neos.” He forthrightly takes on the neocons over the Iraq War and excoriates ex-Secretary of State Clinton for her key role in another “regime change” disaster in Libya. Further, Trump calls for cooperation with Russia and China rather than the neocon-preferred escalation of tensions.

In his April 27 foreign policy speech, Trump called for “a new foreign policy direction for our country – one that replaces randomness with purpose, ideology with strategy, and chaos with peace. …It’s time to invite new voices and new visions into the fold. …

“My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people, and American security, above all else. That will be the foundation of every decision that I will make. America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.”

Such comments – suggesting that “new voices” are needed and that “ideology” should be cast aside – were fighting words for the neocons, since it is their voices that have drowned out all others and their ideology that has dominated U.S. foreign policy in recent years.

To make matters worse, Trump outlined an “America First” strategy in contrast to neocon demands that the U.S. military be dispatched abroad to advance the interests of Israel and other “allies.” Trump is not interested in staging “regime changes” to eliminate leaders who are deemed troublesome to Israel.

The real estate tycoon also has made criticism of “free trade” deals a centerpiece of his campaign, arguing that those agreements have sold out American workers by forcing them to compete with foreign workers receiving a fraction of the pay.

Sen. Sanders has struck similar themes in his insurgent Democratic campaign, criticizing Hillary Clinton’s longtime support for “free trade” and her enthusiasm for “regime change” wars, such as those in Iraq and Libya.

Examining her long record in public life, there can be little doubt that Clinton is a neocon on foreign policy and a neolib on economic strategies. She stands firmly with the consensus of Official Washington’s establishment, which is why she has enjoyed its warm embrace.

She has followed Wall Street’s beloved neoliberal attitude toward “free trade,” which has been very good for multinational corporations as they shipped millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries. (She has only cooled her ardor for trade deals to stanch the flow of Democratic voters to Bernie Sanders.)

Wars and More Wars

On foreign policy, Clinton has consistently supported neoconservative wars, although she might shy from the neocon label per se, preferring its less noxious synonym “liberal interventionist.”

But as arch-neocon Robert Kagan, who has recast himself as a “liberal interventionist,” told The New York Times in 2014, “I feel comfortable with her on foreign policy. If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue it’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else.”

Summing up the feeling of thinkers like Kagan, the Times reported that Clinton “remains the vessel into which many interventionists are pouring their hopes.”

In February 2016, distraught over the rise of Trump, Kagan, whose Project for the New American Century wrote the blueprint for George W. Bush’s Iraq War, openly threw his support to Clinton, announcing his decision in a Washington Post op-ed.

And Kagan is not mistaken when he views Hillary Clinton as a fellow-traveler. She has often marched in lock step with the neocons as they have implemented their aggressive “regime change” schemes against governments and political movements that don’t toe Washington’s line or that deviate from Israel’s goals in the Middle East.

She has backed coups, such as in Honduras (2009) and Ukraine (2014); invasions, such as Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011); and subversions such as Syria (from 2011 to the present) all with various degrees of disastrous results. [For more details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Yes, Hillary Clinton Is a Neocon” and “Would a Clinton Win Mean More Wars?”]

Seeking ‘Coercion’

A glimpse of what a Clinton-45 presidency might do could be seen in a recent Politico commentary by Dennis Ross, a former special adviser to Secretary of State Clinton now working at the staunchly pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In the article, Ross painted a surreal world in which the problems of the Middle East have been caused by President Obama’s hesitancy to engage militarily more aggressively across the region, not by the neocon-driven decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and the similar schemes to overthrow secular governments in Libya and Syria in 2011, leaving those two countries in ruin.

Channeling the desires of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ross called for the United States to yoke itself to the regional interests of Israel, Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in their rivalry against Shiite-led Iran.

Ross wrote: “Obama believes in the use of force only in circumstances where our security and homeland might be directly threatened. His mindset justifies pre-emptive action against terrorists and doing more to fight the Islamic State. But it frames U.S. interests and the use of force to support them in very narrow terms. …

“The Saudis acted in [invading] Yemen in no small part because they feared the United States would impose no limits on Iranian expansion in the area, and they felt the need to draw their own lines.”

To counter Obama’s hesitancy to apply military force, Ross calls for a reassertion of a muscular U.S. policy in the Middle East, much along the lines that the neocon establishment and Hillary Clinton also favor, including:

–Threatening Iran with “blunt, explicit language on employing force, not sanctions” if Iran deviates from the Obama-negotiated agreement to constrain its nuclear program (the bomb-bomb-bomb-Iran zombie lives!);

–“Contingency planning with GCC states and Israel … to generate specific options for countering Iran’s growing use of Shiite militias to undermine regimes in the region”;

–A readiness to arm Sunni tribes in Iraq if Iraq’s prime minister doesn’t;

–Establish “safe havens with no-fly zones” inside Syria if Russian President Vladimir Putin does not force Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Employing the classic tough talk of the neocons, Ross concludes, “Putin and Middle Eastern leaders understand the logic of coercion. It is time for us to reapply it.”

One might note the many logical inconsistencies of Ross’s arguments, including his failure to note that much of Iran’s supposed meddling in the Middle East has involved aiding the Syrian and Iraqi governments in their battle against the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Or that Russia’s intervention in Syria also has been to support the internationally recognized government in its fight against Sunni extremists and terrorists.

But the significance of Ross’s prescription to “reapply” U.S. “coercion” across the region is that he is outlining what the world can expect from a Clinton-45 presidency.

Clinton made many of the same points in her speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and in debates with Bernie Sanders. If she stays on that track as president, there would be at least a partial U.S. military invasion of Syria, a very strong likelihood of war with Iran, and an escalation of tensions (and possible war) with nuclear-armed Russia.

The logic of how all that is supposed to improve matters is lost amid the classic neocon growling about showing toughness or reapplying “coercion.”

So, the Democratic Party seems to be betting that Hillary Clinton’s flood of ugly TV ads against Trump can frighten the American people enough to give the neocons and the neolibs one more lease on the White House – and four more years to wreak their zombie havoc on the world.

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).

 




Russians Remember Their WWII Vets

The West’s propaganda war against Russia filters events there through a prism of cynicism and contempt, but that misses the human component of a country still remembering the deep personal scars of World War II, as Gilbert Doctorow reflects.

By Gilbert Doctorow

I will open with full disclosure: I am generally not enthusiastic about crowds or going with the flow. That is simply a question of temperament. So it took a bit of coaxing from my Russian wife to prepare me for the Immortal Regiment parade in St. Petersburg, where we otherwise were staying within the context of our bimonthly visits to the city.

She was intent on honoring her father and grandmother, both of whom were on active duty during the Great Patriotic War: he, a naval officer detached for much of the time to working with the Allies on matters of Lend Lease; she on the front lines as a radiologist in the medical service.

Like thousands and thousands of other residents of St. Petersburg and the outlying suburbs, we did what was necessary to be full-blooded participants of the May 9 march. Several days in advance, we visited our neighborhood photo shop and handed over our less-than-perfect photos of her relatives to be enlarged, placed within a standard Immortal Regiment format, laminated, and affixed to a white plastic pole.

The format contained the obligatory St. George’s ribbon, symbol of the Victory, to one side, plus the last name, first name and patronymic of each family member, their military service, rank and dates of birth and death at the bottom. As I later saw on the parade, some people inserted details of the battles and awards, if any, that their family heroes had earned. Others gave no more than the names.

Accounts of the march that have appeared in Russia media are sparing on details. See the fragment of live RT coverage at https://russian.rt.com/article/301808-bessmertnyi-polk-v-sankt-peterburge–pryamaya. I have not heard a more precise number of participants than “several hundred thousand.” What I intend to share here is a sense of the mood and composition of the crowd, as well as of the efforts of the city to provide the safety infrastructure that made it what it was: a family event.

Given the manifestly patriotic nature of Victory in Europe Day celebrations, which open in Moscow and cities across Russia with military parades, precise marching columns, displays of military hardware on the ground and in the air, I was uncertain how possibly strident the Immortal Regiment component might be.

As it turned out, the crowd was uniformly good-humored and focused on its private obligations to be met: the celebration of parents, grandparents, even great grandparents’ role in the war and reconfirmation of their status as family heroes whatever their military or civil defense rank, whether they survived or were among the countless fatalities.

Among the marchers, there were a great many family groups consisting of two and three generations. The latest demographic trends were on full display – young families with two or three children in tow. There were also young courting couples. Very few single elderly or lone marchers in general.

From the very outset, at the marshalling point, you could see friends and acquaintances waiting to meet up and march together. From conversations en route, it was plain that the parade was an occasion for people who thought they knew one another to talk about what otherwise had been kept under wraps in this country, where so much had was secret during the decades of Communism: details of their family history and innermost thoughts.

Faces on Placards

The faces on placards were unretouched. Simple, honest photos, many of them photos of peasants or laborers. Other placards showed off their more successful relatives in officers’ uniforms bedecked with medals. The whole gamut of service ranks was on display.

One curious but inescapable fact: the marchers were only white folks. Though there is a substantial population of Central Asians or Caucasus nationalities in St. Petersburg, both legal and illegal, and though many of them surely had fathers and grandfathers in the War, they did not show up. Perhaps they were uncertain about the welcome that might await them. If so, they were excessively cautious.

The starting point of the march was the Alexander Nevsky Square overlooking the Neva River and just next to the city’s most famous cemetery, where many of its great literary and artistic lions are buried. From there we proceeded two kilometers down what is called the Old Nevsky Prospekt, today a luxury shopping district for fashion clothing, until we reached the intermediate open space next to the Moscow Railway Station known as Uprising Square.

Then we thinned out a bit as we proceeded down Nevsky Prospekt proper, which is a still wider boulevard that runs a further 2.5 kilometers to meet the Neva at another point is its winding course around the city, at Palace Square. Here, in a large public space framed by the Hermitage Museum and its annexes, there would be entertainment from bandstands in the evening and the closing fireworks display close to midnight.

Along the route, there were several stands for musicians singing WWII and Victory songs to amplified music. Our march was at a slow gait with paused every minute or two to tighten ranks.  The spirit of the crowd was enlivened by shouts of “Ura” that traveled in successive waves from front to rear. Here and there, some marchers spontaneously broke into song, Katyusha being the most popular number.

The local city fathers also did their work very well to ensure both a feeling – and reality – of security for an event in the open that could otherwise pose hazards of keeping out trouble makers, not to mention terrorists for whom this great mass of humanity could be a splendid target.

Every three or four meters along the route of Nevsky Prospekt there were uniformed police, both male and female officers. Many of them trained experienced eyes either on the marchers or on those passing by on the sidewalks. A very few were busy chatting on mobile phones, while a few male and female cops flirted. In brief, it was a very human scene such as you might expect in New York or Paris.

All roads crossing Nevsky were blocked by police lines and/or vehicles. The metro stations where many entered the system on their way to the rallying point of the Alexander Nevsky Square received empty trains in order to very quickly whisk away those traveling to the Square.

In closing, I wish to point out that Russian opposition personalities and cynical intellectuals in Russia and abroad have insinuated that the Immortal Regiment marches around the country are phony, some kind of Kremlin-promoted gimmick to close ranks around President Vladimir Putin. But the efforts invested by the thousands of people I saw and the very private, family celebration that they were conducting within the anonymity of a collective action left me with no doubt this is an initiative fully owned by its participants.

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




A Longwinded and Winding Rhodes

Official Washington is abuzz about the boasts of President Obama’s foreign policy speechwriter Ben Rhodes regarding his selling the Iran nuclear deal, a new club being wielded by the bomb-bomb-bomb-Iran neocons, explains James W Carden.

By James W Carden

A recent New York Times Magazine profile of Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes has been the talk of the Beltway since it appeared last week. In some respects the piece is a wholly conventional piece of Beltway puffery: Rhodes is presented to readers as something of a “boy wonder,” a frustrated novelist called to higher duty after witnessing the collapse of the Twin Towers from the vantage point of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Rhodes, through the help of some well-connected family friends, quickly found his true calling: climbing the greasy pole of the Washington foreign policy establishment.

A staff job working for former Congressman Lee Hamilton at the Wilson Center in Washington, led to staff jobs drafting the findings of the Iraq Study Group and the 9/11 Commission. Before long, Rhodes, the former Rudy Giuliani campaign volunteer, was working side by side with presidential candidate Barack Obama as a foreign policy speechwriter. From there, Rhodes made his way to the National Security Council where he has remained since 2009.

In another New York Times piece on Rhodes, this one from 2013, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and NSC Senior Director Michael McFaul told the Times, “Ben always holds on to the pen … [and] because of his close personal relationship with the president, Ben can always make policy through the speeches and statements made by President Obama.”

In that same piece Rhodes was somewhat more circumspect, telling that Times that, “My main job, which has always been my job, is to be the person who represents the president’s view,” no easy feat when you consider that Mr. Obama, if Jeffrey Goldberg’s lengthy exit interview of the President in The Atlantic is to be believed, seems to hold a number of views which contradict his own policies.

Having allowed three years to pass without publishing a Ben Rhodes profile, the New York Times obviously felt it was once again time to bring readers up-to-speed on the doings of the talented Mr. Rhodes. This time the magazine contracted the job out to David Samuels, a longtime journalist who has seemingly profiled everyone from Yasir Arafat to Britney Spears and Kayne West.

Samuels’ piece contains a number of gems. Rhodes’ self-regard is put front and center. At one point the wunderkind tells Samuels: “I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.” Oh, dear.

Targeting the Iran Deal

But where things get really interesting, and where most of the media attention has subsequently focused, is when Rhodes tells Samuels about his role in “selling” the Iran deal. According to Rhodes, the White House communications strategy was to invent a borderline fictitious narrative and sell it to gullible journalists who they knew they could count on to simply regurgitate the White House (read: Rhodes’s) message.

The task of selling the Iran deal to the press was rather easier than one might expect, since, according to the 38-year-old Rhodes, “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

The question now being asked around town is: what is it that Rhodes knows, exactly? What we know (or at any rate can safely surmise) is that the boy wonder of the NSC was unaware that his interlocutor, Samuels, was one of the Iran deal’s most outspoken (or unhinged) opponents, making the “rational” case for bombing Iran.

Per Samuels: “Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is the surest way for Israel to restore the image of strength and unpredictability that made it valuable to the United States after 1967 while also eliminating Iran as a viable partner for America’s favor.” Uh-huh.

Samuels rather deviously used the Rhodes profile to grind that axe once more, and attempts to paint proponents of the Iran deal as dupes of the Rhodes spin machine. If Rhodes took a perhaps three-minute break from channeling the voice of the President, he might have been better prepared for Samuels, made less a fool of himself, and refrained from impugning the integrity of a very fine journalist like Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen.

Did Rhodes know what Samuels was up to or did he succumb to the all too common of Beltway delusion of believing in one’s own omniscience?

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.  




Still at War with Iran-Nuke Deal

As neocons look forward to dominant roles in a Clinton-45 administration, they are continuing their attacks on the Iran nuclear deal, thus keeping hope alive to eventually bomb-bomb-bomb Iran, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar describes.

By Paul R. Pillar

The never-say-die efforts to kill the Iranian nuclear agreement have been taking some strange turns lately. Two in particular.

One is that some of the same opponents who, before the agreement was adopted, spent much energy berating the terms of the agreement are now focusing instead on criticizing certain actions by the U.S. administration toward Iran that the opponents assert are not among the terms of the agreement, and that the opponents say should not be taken for that very reason. The assertions are incorrect.

The issues at hand mostly concern the stickiness of the U.S. sanctions system and the persistence of fears among European banks and others about doing any business with Iran — even business that is permitted under the sanctions relief granted as part of the nuclear agreement. Efforts by U.S. officials to undo some of the stickiness are not beyond the obligations of the agreement; they are a necessary part of implementing terms that are an intrinsic and fundamental aspect of the bargain incorporated in the agreement.

Another, lesser, issue that has received comment concerns U.S. purchase of some of the heavy water that, under the agreement, Iran must remove from its stockpiles. Any such purchase is a direct facilitation of the carrying out by Iran of obligations that lessen its nuclear capabilities.

The opponents cannot have it both ways: first saying the terms were terrible and then saying what’s terrible is not to adhere strictly to the terms — or rather, to the opponents’ newest interpretation of the terms. If the agreement really says what the opponents now say it says, they should have been delighted with the document that emerged from the negotiations — one that, according to their interpretation, would have imposed all of the same limitations and scrutiny on Iran’s nuclear program that the actual accord does, but with almost no economic benefit accruing to Iran and even with the Iranians incurring additional economic loss in the form of expensively produced heavy water being poured down the sewer.

Another strange turn has come within the last week in the form of attention to a profile of presidential aide Ben Rhodes written by David Samuels and appearing in the New York Times Sunday magazine. If this piece was written to be exploitable by opponents of the nuclear agreement, that is not surprising given that the writer is a confirmed opponent himself. The picture that Samuels conveys is of Rhodes as a master manipulator of public perceptions who got the press that was covering the Iran negotiations to eat out of his hand in a way that conveyed false impressions of what the White House was up to.

Now, whatever one may think of Ben Rhodes, and even if one were to believe that the press covering U.S. foreign relations and security policy were as dumb and dependent as portrayed, there is no there there. There were no impressions, manipulated or otherwise, that ought to cause anyone any heartburn.

One of the supposed instances of manipulated and false impressions is that the administration contended it didn’t do anything on this issue until after Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran in September 2013 despite there having been some earlier secret U.S.-Iranian talks. In fact, the earlier talks have been well known for some time and had been reported long ago by that supposedly gullible press.

Moreover, it would have been surprising, and disappointing to anyone who would like the makers of U.S. foreign policy to be diligently looking ahead and considering all possibilities for advancing U.S. interests, if the administration had not tried to reconnoiter what the possibilities were for negotiating restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program.

And Rouhani’s election did make a significant difference, both in bringing into office on the Iranian side a team with the knowledge and commitment to reach such an agreement, and in rendering irrelevant on the American side the political difficulty of any major dealings with the loathsome Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. So where’s the deception, and what’s the problem?

The Samuels piece also suggests that the manipulator Rhodes got people to believe that the administration’s main purpose in negotiating the agreement was nuclear proliferation but that it really had other objectives in mind having to do with broader Middle Eastern matters. But the Obama administration wasn’t the one going out of its way to talk up an Iranian nuclear threat, even though other administrations have been known to talk up such threats to pursue other agendas. This time there was plenty of agitation from other sources about the danger of an Iranian nuke.

The agreement certainly needs to be assessed, pro or con, primarily in terms of nuclear nonproliferation, and it is in such terms that nonproliferation specialists have overwhelmingly endorsed the agreement. The agreement also needs to be assessed, pro or con, in terms of other effects it may have on regional politics and stability. And it was so assessed in the public debate; certainly the con side addressed it especially vigorously in such terms — you know, all that talk we heard about how Iran supposedly would be “emboldened” to do all sorts of “nefarious” things in the region. So where’s the deception, and how did it affect in any way the debate on the agreement?

The suggestion of duplicity with Ben Rhodes pulling strings from his West Wing office reminds one of those teasers for the eleven o’clock news that are phrased as a question: “Is there…[some shocking development, if it existed]?” only to find out, if one stays up and tunes in to the news broadcast, that the answer is: no, there isn’t.

Each of these strange turns in the tactics of the would-be agreement-killers is an additional example of what we saw so much of when debate on the agreement was most intensive last year: a grasping by the opposition for any straw to raise any kind of doubt about the agreement, however little sense the arguments made.

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




A Gift of Culture to Battered Palmyra

In an extraordinary act of culture and courage, a Russian orchestra performed in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra recently liberated from the Islamic State, but Western media mocked the event, notes Gilbert Doctorow.

By Gilbert Doctorow

Even those with a limited knowledge of Russia may be credited with having heard of St. Petersburg being called the Venice of the North. This is a title it must share with a variety of other claimants famed for their canals, such as Bruges in Belgium, although St. Petersburg has more justification than competing cities given its common architectural roots with the Venice of the South, namely the leading Eighteenth Century Italian architects who contributed greatly to forming its appearance.

To cognoscenti there is also another twin city association of St. Petersburg, that of Northern Palmyra. That notion goes back to the age of Catherine the Great, who was likened to the Third Century Queen Zenobia, powerful ruler of the Palmyran Empire, who conquered Egypt and a large swathe of Anatolia. In the time of Pushkin, Russian writers further developed the allusion, drawing more generally upon the reputed beauty and cultural richness of Roman Palmyra.

The links of consciousness did not end there. Later in the Nineteenth Century, St. Petersburg based archeologists were among the Europeans taking part in digs in Palmyra and writing about their adventures.

With this twin city awareness borne by the Russian intelligentsia to this day, it is not so surprising that precisely a St. Petersburg conductor, Valeri Gergiev, thought up the grand gesture, an act of great imagination that was realized on May 5. He brought the Symphony Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater to Palmyra, recently liberated from the Islamic State by a Russian-backed offensive mounted by the Syrian government.

The orchestrated performed a concert of Bach, Shchedrin and Prokofiev in the Roman Amphitheater to celebrate the return of culture to a UNESCO site desecrated by its Islamic State occupiers who over the preceding year held their brutal public executions here. The concert audience consisted of Russian and Syrian troops, Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky, noted Arabist and Director of the Hermitage Museum Mikhail Piotrovsky, local dignitaries, and a contingent of UNESCO representatives.

The event opened with a short speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin carried over a live satellite link from his residence in Sochi. Putin underscored the courage of those participating in the concert and the will of civilized society to triumph over terror. The entire event was broadcast live on Russian state television and was made available on the web by RT.

As the recording makes clear, this was a world-class performance that featured eminent soloists. The unaccompanied Bach piece for violin was played by a laureate of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, Pavel Miliukov. Quadrille, a work by the Mariinsky’s house composer Rodion Shchedrin, widower of ballet prima donna Maya Plisetskaya, was performed by cellist Sergei Roldugin. And the choice of a Prokofiev symphony was in line with Gergiev’s longstanding efforts to make that great Soviet composer widely known and appreciated at home and abroad.

A Frontline Performance

The concert took place little more than a month after Palmyra was liberated from its Islamic State occupiers and just days after the archeological sites were cleared of mines by Russian military specialists, many of whom were in the audience. Meanwhile, the forces of the Islamic State continue to send missions against Palmyra and its surrounding countryside in attempts to recapture lost ground.

In these circumstances, the action of maestro Gergiev, his orchestra and soloists, the logistics team that moved the orchestra and some 100 tons of telecommunications gear into the war zone, and the broadcasting team who set up the live coverage must be characterized as brave, even daring.

It was also in character for Gergiev. He performed at the front before, as he famously did in 2008 when he brought the orchestra to the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali, just after its liberation from Georgian attackers. But he and his orchestra also perform at home in ways that show similar disregard for their own comfort and incur heightened risks: they regularly bring their music to hard to reach parts of the Russian Federation on grueling tours of the far north and the far east, often taking with them internationally known soloists. Those concerts do not receive the admiring attention of the outside world.

It bears mention that the concert by maestro Gergiev and the Mariinsky orchestra was not a one-off event. It was meant to be the first step in the return of culture and decency to Palmyra. On the next day a follow-on concert featuring a Syrian orchestra and chorus was held in the Roman amphitheater.

Moreover, the Russians did not rush to evacuate their broadcasters and gear, because state television carried a live transmission of this evening concert to Russian viewers late last night.

With all due respect to maestro Gergiev’s intention to present a gift of culture to the residents of Palmyra and to convey the promise of return to normal civilian life in a country devastated by civil war and the intervention of foreign fighters, it would be disingenuous to ignore the way the Kremlin and its state television framed the event for consumption in Russia and the wider world.

Call it an exercise in Soft Power, of which it was surely Russia’s most successful in many, many years; call it what you will, the concert in Palmyra had a clearly stated political dimension. This “Pray for Palmyra” concert was dedicated to the memory of two heroes, one Syrian, the other Russian. Large photos of both were on either side of the stage.

The Syrian being honored was Dr. Khaled Asaad, director of the Palmyra museum complex who in August 2015, at age 81, was brutally executed, beheaded by the Islamic State militants. The presence at the concert of Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky was a direct counterpoint to the missing Syrian scholar and administrator. Piotrovsky symbolized the ongoing and future participation of Russian art restorers in bringing Palmyra back to its pre-war status as a center of research for orientalists and a major tourist attraction.

A Russian Hero

The Russian being honored was Lieutenant Alexander Prokhorenko, Russia’s national hero of the Syrian campaign, the special forces officer working behind enemy lines on the Palmyra front who, when surrounded by jihadists, called in Russian jet strikes on his own position and knowingly paid with his life while taking out an enemy detachment.

Prokhorenko’s body was eventually recovered and returned to Russia where it was given the highest state honors. His funeral in his native Orenburg region was held on May 6. Russian television news coverage of the Palmyra concert was back-to-back with video reportage of the honor guard receiving Prokhorenko’s coffin.

Though some British newspapers had described Prokhorenko as a Russian “Rambo” and some Western military experts saluted the selfless heroism of this fellow professional soldier, Russian state television chose to feature a more personal response. We were shown an elderly French couple who had sent their family medals for World War II resistance heroism to the parents of Prokhorenko via the Russian diplomatic service as their expression of solidarity. The couple was invited to Russia by President Putin and met with the grieving parents of Russia’s hero, as we saw on television.

More broadly, the date for the Mariinsky concert in Palmyra was surely chosen with an eye to the May 9 Victory in Europe celebrations across Russia. The concert was a gift to the Russian nation for its popular if skeptical support of the military intervention in Syria. The people saw on their screens the fruits of Russian-Syrian military cooperation, and in particular images of the secular and friendly Syria that Russian diplomacy has backed with blood and national wealth.

They saw the first step in what will be a long process of reconstruction, preparing the way for the return of refugees and displaced persons. All of this is a direct reproach to the European Union’s handling of the migrant crisis. Europe, like the United States, has at best stood by and at worst aided and abetted the Gulf States and Turkey in their interventions in the Syrian civil war, greatly strengthening the terrorist forces and prolonged the fighting awaiting the collapse of the Assad regime, notwithstanding all the havoc that resulted for the Syrian population.

Western mainstream media coverage of the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra’s concert in Palmyra runs the full range from merely tendentious and sour grapes to overtly hostile and malicious commentary.

U.S. media coverage was meager. The online edition of Time magazine was short, concentrated on the facts and avoided politically colored adjectives. To its credit, we were told that the concert was led “by renowned Russian conductor Valery Gergiev.” The presence in the audience of UNESCO dignitaries was noted.

The New York Times was less cautious, more inflammatory. Its editors chose a headline that sought to deprive the event of any serious merit: “Russian Orchestra Plays in Palmyra Ruins as Strikes Kill 28.” This linkage of two separate news items may be described as the “Washington narrative” because it shows up in many other derogatory press accounts of the concert.

What shred of journalistic integrity the Times managed to produce appears at the very end of the article, when the author admits that: “it was not immediately clear who carried out the attack on the camp in Idlib province where some 2,000 internally displaced people had taken shelter from the fighting in nearby Aleppo and Hama provinces over the past year.”

And the closing words are that it is “too early to say if Assad’s forces carried out the attack.”  But the intended damage to the credibility of the Russian cultural mission to Palmyra was already done up front.

The New Cold War

Probably the most toxic U.S. reporting on the concert was from Radio Svoboda, the old Cold War bullhorn directed against Russia with U.S. government funding.  Here at the outset we are told about the cellist Roldugin, the “close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin” who was revealed in the Panama Papers scandal as the owner of an offshore company engaged in “shady transactions.”

But then the article switches over entirely to a story broadcast by Sky News two days earlier alleging that Palmyra was handed over to Syrian government troops by the Islamic State in accordance with agreements reached between the Islamic State and the Assad regime. The propaganda point was that Assad was supposedly in cahoots with the jihadists. The notion of Russian participation in the city’s liberation is off the radar screen.

British media were more attentive to the concert in Palmyra but, with one or two exceptions, no friendlier than their American confrèresThe Guardian was entirely aligned with the Washington narrative. Valery Gergiev is portrayed as the “Kremlin favourite.” Moreover, we read that “Gergiev, the former principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, is a controversial and outspoken supporter of Putin.”

In this light, we are reminded about Gergiev’s 2008 concert in Ossetia. I note parenthetically what The Guardian omitted in their rush to marginalize the maestro: that Gergiev is now the principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic as well as artistic director of the Mariinsky.

The Guardian also reminds us that featured cellist Sergei Roldugin is “Vladimir Putin’s best friend” and that  “the Panama Papers revealed that Roldugin was the beneficiary of hundreds of millions of dollars in offshore deals.”

Finally, The Guardian tells its readers that among the foreigners present at the concert were representatives from Zimbabwe, China and Serbia. They pointedly omitted that they were present in a UNESCO delegation which also included Europeans.

The BBC online coverage carries many of the anti-Putin, anti-Russian tendentious adjectives, reminders and omissions that we have seen above. But it goes the extra mile by quoting UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s extraordinary comment that the concert was “a tasteless attempt to distract attention from the continued suffering of millions of Syrians. It shows that there are no depths to which the regime will not sink.”

From the BBC quote, it is not clear whether the Minister had in mind Putin’s or Assad’s regime’s plumbing the depths, but his intention to slander the Russians is obvious.

The BBC also carried a more balanced separate report from their bureau chief in Moscow, Steve Rosenberg. He saw that the message from Moscow was that Russia is a force for good, whereas Western officials “remain suspicious of Russia’s intentions.” Otherwise Rosenberg just repeats the same hurtful innuendos that we have seen above: the connection between Rodulgin and the Panama Papers, the Gergiev concert in Tskhinvali in 2008.

To every generalization there is always an exception, and as happens from time to time it is the British tabloids that show more common sense and decency than the high-style outlets of the political class.

The heading given to the article on the concert in the online edition of The Daily Mail says it all:  “Culture and civilization return to Palmyra: Russian orchestra performs concert in the ancient Roman amphitheatre for the first time since ISIS used it to carry out public executions in Syria.” The editors wisely included a click-on video recording of the concert, allowing their readers to judge for themselves.

In summary, the Information War that the West has been waging against Russia is going full tilt. It is an unpardonable error of judgment to speak of a new Cold War as something that lies ahead, just around the corner. We are in the midst of it, and it will take enormous luck or a change of leaders for the better if we are to avoid a hot war.

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




America’s Two-Faced Policy on Iran

The Obama administration seeks to demonize Iran — along with Russia and China — while also demanding their help in areas of U.S. interest, an approach that is both disingenuous and dangerous, as former British diplomat Alastair Crooke explains.

By Alastair Crooke

In an article entitled “Why America needs Iran in Iraq,” former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad argues that “the chaos in Baghdad, culminating in the temporary occupation of the parliament by followers of Shiite Islamist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, is undermining the war against the Islamic State; weakening Iraq’s economy; and accelerating the country’s disintegration.

“Without cooperation between the United States, Iran and Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Sistani, the crisis could very well lead to the collapse of the entire political system set up in Iraq during the temporary U.S. occupation … To prevent this, Washington needs Tehran’s help. And Iran should be as motivated to seek stability [in Iraq] as much as Washington, because” Khalilzad asserts, “Iran, currently is losing favour in Iraq.”

Putting aside the questionable implication that Iran might somehow, through co-operation with America, raise its standing amongst Iraqis, Khalilzad’s presumption that Iran should now attend to America’s needs in Iraq, coupled with Secretary of State John Kerry’s insistence that Iran should help America to end the conflict in Syria too, throw into sharp relief the paradox inherent at the heart of U.S. diplomacy towards Iran, Russia (and China also).

This approach has been dubbed the “middle way” by former special adviser to the Assistant Secretary of State, Jeremy Shapiro: the U.S. Administration has no desire for an all-out confrontation with these three states. They are militarily hard nuts, and there is not much appetite for yet more military confrontation amongst a weary and wary American public (to the continuing frustration of the neocons).

More prosaically, the global financial system is now so brittle, so delicately poised, that it is not at all certain that the prospect of conflict would give the lift to America’s flagging economy that war generally is supposed to give. It might just snap the financial system, instead — hence the Middle Way.

Shapiro points out the obvious contradiction to this two-track approach: the U.S. no longer can ignore such powerful states. Its window of absolute, unchallenged, uni-polar power has passed. America needs the help of these states, but at the same time, it seeks precisely to counter these states’ potential to rival or limit American power in any way.

And America simply ignores the core complaints that fuel the tensions between itself and these states. It simply declines to address them. Shapiro concludes that this foreign policy approach is unsustainable, and bound to fail: “This dual-track approach, condemning Russia [or Iran] as an aggressor one day, [whilst] seeking to work with Moscow [or Tehran] the next … would [ultimately] force ever-greater confrontation.”

The ‘Middle Way’

In a sense, the U.S. approach towards Iran seems to be mirroring the so-called “middle way” policy which the U.S. Administration pursues towards Russia, whereby the putative “reset” with Russia was set aside (when President Vladimir Putin assumed the Presidency for the second time), and Obama – rather than seek outright confrontation with Russia – ruled that America however, would only co-operate with Russia when it suited it, but the U.S. would not deign to address Russia’s core issues of its “outsider” status in Europe, or its containment in Asia — or its concerns about a global order that was being used to corner Russia and to crush dissenter states who refused to enter the global order on America’s terms alone.

And Obama did little to drawback the NATO missile-march towards Russia’s borders (ostensibly, it may be recalled, to save Europe from Iranian missiles).

Ostensibly, too, the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) could have been America’s “reset” with Iran.  Some, including a number of prominent Iranian politicians, thought it was.

But National Security Advisor Susan Rice was very explicit to Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic that this was never intended: “It is assumed, at least among his critics, that Obama sought the Iran deal because he has a vision of a historic American-Persian rapprochement. But his desire for the nuclear agreement was born of pessimism as much as it was of optimism.

“The Iran deal was never primarily about trying to open a new era of relations between the U.S. and Iran,” Susan Rice told [Goldberg]. “It was far more pragmatic and minimalist. The aim was very simply to make a dangerous country substantially less dangerous. No one had any expectation that Iran would be a more benign actor.”

And so, we see a similar pattern, the possibility of a real “reset’ with Iran is pre-meditatively set aside (as per Rice), whilst the dual-track approach of condemning Iran for its ballistic missile tests (which have nothing to do with JCPOA), and its support for Hizbullah, are condemned one day, whilst Iran’s help in Iraq and Syria is being demanded on the next day.

At the same time, Iran’s core dispute with the U.S. – its complaints that exclusion from the international financial system is not being ameliorated as JCPOA was supposed so to do – are not being addressed. Rather they are being met with a shrug that implies “did they really expect anything else?”

Well, some (but by no means all) Iranian politicians had done just that: they had raised the Iranian public’s expectations that all sanctions – other than specific U.S. sanctions – would be lifted.  They rather bet their credibility on it, as it were, and may pay a political price eventually.

And as NATO deploys a further 4,000 troops in the Baltic states and Poland, on Russia’s border, so too the U.S. Congress continues its figurative advance on Iran’s frontiers.

Here is Iran’s (conservative) Keyhan newspaper: “The draft of a new resolution has been presented to the US Congress in which Iran is accused of creating tension in the Persian Gulf, and the US Government has been urged to confront Iran and impose new sanctions against our country. Randy Forbes, a Republican member of the US House of Representatives, has drafted a resolution, which if passed by the Congress, condemns Iran’s military presence in the Persian Gulf as a provocation” (emphasis added)

Shapiro’s specific warning about the “middle way” approach was that “political and bureaucratic factors on both sides would force ever-greater confrontation.” But this is not the only risk, nor does it even constitute being the biggest risk (besides that of having undermined those in Iran and Russia who had put their “hat in the ring” of contemplating Entente with the United State).

America’s Bad Faith

Rather, it is by making this policy approach quite general to those states which have taken on themselves the burden of being the symbol for a non-Western, alternative vision (Russia, Iran and China, inter alia), that a perceived breach of the spirit of the JCPOA (at the least), will have wider repercussions.

Russia and China both spent political capital in order to help persuade Iran to sign up to the JCPOA: Will they not wonder whether America is to be trusted? China has complicated negotiations in hand with America on trade and financial issues, whilst Russia has been trying to resolve ballistic missile, as well as Ukraine sanctions issues, with America.

Is it not a straw in the wind for the consequences to this policy when a prominent Russian commentator, Fyodor Lukyanov, who is not at all hostile to rapprochement with the West, writes in End of the G8 Era that using Russia’s prospective inclusion in the G8 as an instrument of pressure on Russia is pointless?:

“The G8 reflected a certain period of history when Russia really wanted to be integrated into the so-called Extended West. Why it did not happen? Something went wrong? This is another topic. The most important thing is that it did not happen at all … it seemed (in the 1990s) that this membership would not mean just participation in yet another club, but a strategic decision aimed at the future.

“However, the desirable future did not come, and probably won’t come. It is obvious now, that the world does not develop in the direction of the Western model. So, now we have what we have, and there is no reason to restore the G8.”

May this general sentiment come to be reflected in Iran too, as the sanctions-lifting issue drags on? Did the U.S. then “win one over Iran” through the JCPOA accord – as the shrugs of U.S. shoulders at Iranian complaints, might imply? Was Iran just naïve?  Did they really think that the U.S. was simply going to empower Iran financially?

It is pretty clear that the Supreme Leader understood the situation precisely — he had, after all some experience of U.S. non-compliance with agreements from the Lebanese hostage negotiations of the 1980s.

But what has Iran lost by the JCPOA? A few Iranians may have had their fingers burned in the process, but Iran achieved three important things: the world now knows that it was not Iran that was the impediment to a nuclear deal; the deal has transformed Iran’s public image – and created an opening – with the rest of the world (including Europe); and it has, in the process, constructed and strengthened strategic political and economic ties with Russia and China.

But most important of all, the rift within Iran that stemmed from the sense amongst some Iranian orientations, that President Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric was a principal obstacle to normalizing with the West, has been addressed: an Iranian government, with a Western-friendly face, has been given, and seen to have been given, the full chance to negotiate a solution to the nuclear issue.  Whatever the final outcome, that boil has been lanced.

No, the Iranian leadership has not been naïve.

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