The Sanders/Clinton Split on Israel

Because U.S. politicians reflexively bow to whatever Israel wants, any deviation is surprising, such as Bernie Sanders’s call to respect Palestinian rights, especially in contrast to Hillary Clinton’s Israel pandering, notes Marjorie Cohn.

By Marjorie Cohn

An amazing thing happened at the prime-time Democratic debate in Brooklyn last Thursday. A few days ahead of Tuesday’s delegate-rich New York primary, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders dared to criticize Israel. Rival Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, stood firm as an uncritical apologist for Israel.

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Sanders to explain his assertion that Israel’s actions during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, after Hamas launched rocket attacks on Israel, was “disproportionate and led to the unnecessary loss of life.” Sanders stated that Israel has the right to defend itself and “to live in peace and security without fear of terrorist attack,” adding, “That is not a debate.”

But Sanders went on to say that 10,000 Palestinian civilians had been wounded and 1,500 were killed. Sanders actually understated the fatalities. According to an independent international commission of inquiry convened by the United Nations Human Rights Council, more than 2,100 Palestinians lost their lives in that conflict. Seventy-one Israelis were killed.

Sanders added, “Now, if you’re asking not just me, but countries all over the world was that a disproportionate attack? The answer is that I believe it was.”

The U.N. commission documented 2,251 Palestinian deaths, including 1,462 civilians (299 women and 551 children), and the wounding of 11,231 Palestinians, including 3,540 women and 3,436 children. By contrast, six Israeli civilians and 67 Israeli soldiers were killed, and up to 1,600 were injured.

Quoting “official Israeli sources,” the commission reported that Israeli “rockets and mortars hit civilian buildings and infrastructure, including schools and houses, causing direct damage to civilian property amounting to almost $25 million.” The commission found that 18,000 Palestinian housing units were totally or partially destroyed; much of the electrical, water and sanitation infrastructure was incapacitated; and 73 medical facilities and several ambulances were damaged. Moreover, 28 percent of the Palestinian population was displaced.

In international law, the principle of proportionality requires an attack be proportionate to the military advantage sought. Israel did not provide information to the commission to support the conclusion that “the civilian casualties and damage to the targeted and surrounding buildings were not excessive.” The commission therefore found that the Israeli attacks could be disproportionate, and may amount to war crimes.

When Blitzer asked Clinton whether she agreed with Sanders that Israel “overreacts to Palestinians attacks” and that in order to achieve peace, Israel must end its “disproportionate” responses, she demurred, citing the requirement that Israel take “precautions.”

The principle of precautions in international law means Israel had a legal duty to take precautions to avoid or limit civilian casualties. The commission concluded, “In many incidents, however, the weapons used, the timing of the attacks, and the fact that the targets were located in densely populated areas indicate that the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] may not have done everything feasible to avoid or limit civilian casualties.”

The commission said that the IDF’s use of roof-knock warnings before the strikes did not constitute effective warning. The commission found that either the people affected didn’t understand that their homes were being subjected to “roof-knocking” or the IDF gave insufficient time for them to evacuate after the warnings.

The commission also criticized Israel for “inferring that anyone remaining in an area that has been the object of a warning is an enemy or a person engaging in ‘terrorist activity.’ Those civilians choosing not to heed a warning do not lose the protection granted by their status. The only way in which civilians lose their protection from attack is by directly participating in the hostilities.”

As the commission pointed out, the targeting of civilians may amount to a war crime as well as a violation of the right to life enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Sanders made another declaration one would not expect from an American politician on national television. He said, “If we are ever going to bring peace to that region which has seen so much hatred and so much war, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.”

But Clinton could not bring herself to agree with Sanders. In fact, Sanders pointed out that during Clinton’s speech to AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) in March, “I heard virtually no discussion at all about the needs of the Palestinian people. Almost none in that speech.”

Clinton did tell AIPAC that “Palestinians should be able to govern themselves in their own state, in peace and dignity,” and she made a veiled reference to “avoiding damaging action, including with respect to settlements.” Israel continues to build illegal settlements on Palestinian land.

But Clinton spoke only of the threat to Israel from the Palestinians and Iran. She called out anti-Semitism, and opposed BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions), an international nonviolent movement initiated by Palestinian civil society to pressure Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian lands.

In the Brooklyn debate, Sanders said that in order to achieve peace in the region, the United States must play “an even-handed role,” adding, “We cannot continue to be one-sided. There are two sides to the issue.”

But for Clinton there is only one side and that is Israel’s. When she mentioned the Palestinians during the debate, she described them as threats to Israel, focusing only on Hamas. Absent from her remarks was any mention of the humanity of the Palestinian people.

During her address to AIPAC, Clinton advocated “bolstering Israeli missile defenses with new systems.” But she said nothing about providing the Palestinians with missile defenses against 155-millimeter Israeli artillery.

Although Sanders had declined an invitation to personally address AIPAC, he made a statement he would have delivered to the group. It included: “But peace also means security for every Palestinian. It means achieving self-determination, civil rights, and economic well-being for the Palestinian people.”

Sanders also argued for “ending what amounts to the [Israeli] occupation of Palestinian territory, establishing mutually agreed-upon borders, and pulling back settlements in the West Bank,” as well as “ending the economic blockade of Gaza.”

Clinton promised AIPAC that one of the first things she would do as president would be to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House. She would probably also push to increase the $3.1 billion in military assistance the United States provides to Israel annually—more than to any other country.

There is a vast difference between Sanders and Clinton on Israel. Make no mistake. A President Hillary Clinton would strengthen Israel’s noose around the necks of the Palestinian people. She would not be an honest broker in any process to bring peace to that region.

Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, and deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues. Follow her on Twitter @marjoriecohn. [This article first appeared on Truthdig.]

Democrats March Toward Cliff

Exclusive: Barack Obama once called Hillary Clinton “likable enough,” but a new poll raises doubts about that, as the Democratic frontrunner’s net-negative has nearly doubled to 24 points, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

As Democratic-insider “super-delegates” give Hillary Clinton a seemingly insurmountable lead for the presidential nomination, the former Secretary of State’s negative ratings continue to soar to stunning levels, hitting a net 24-point unfavorable in the new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll.

It is hard to imagine someone who is viewed unfavorably by a clear majority of voters (56 percent) and with a net-negative of 24 points winning the White House, except that most voters also don’t like the top Republican choices either. Donald Trump sports a 41-point net-negative and Sen. Ted Cruz is at minus-23 points. (By contrast, of the two trailing candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders gets a net-positive 9 points and Gov. John Kasich a net-positive 12 points.)

But a major difference between Trump and Clinton in the latest poll is that Trump’s numbers haven’t moved much while Clinton’s net-negative has almost doubled in the last month. In other words, the more Americans get to see of Clinton the more they don’t want her.

While Clinton’s dismal approval ratings haven’t seemed to have shaken the Democratic establishment, which continues to line up behind her long-anticipated coronation, some outside analysts see the party leaders blindly marching toward a cliff.

Despite Sanders’s string of victories, Clinton still leads him in elected delegates, but her daunting lead comes from her dominance of “super-delegates,” party insiders who are not chosen by primaries or caucuses but still get to vote at the convention. According to The Associated Press tally, Clinton has 1,289 elected delegates to Sanders’s 1,045, but she has the backing of 469 “super-delegates” to Sanders’s 31. To win requires 2,383 delegates.

So, if Clinton’s eventual nomination is inevitable, the Democrats will be putting up a candidate who is broadly disliked by the American people. That means a Clinton candidacy will require massive spending on negative ads to make the Republican candidate so frightening in the eyes of most Americans that they will vote for Clinton out of fear, not hope.

There’s also the irony that although most attention has focused on the Republican need for a brokered convention – to block a Trump nomination – an argument could be made that the Democrats would benefit from a brokered convention themselves.

If neither Clinton nor Sanders could clinch the nomination on the first ballot, that could open the process to allow the party to select an alternative who has not been in the race, someone such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, an economic populist who is beloved by Sanders’s backers and a woman who might be acceptable to Clinton supporters wanting the first female President.

Still, such a possibility does not appear to be in the cards. The odds remain heavily weighted in favor of Clinton securing the nomination and the Democrats then trying to make the best of her soaring unfavorable numbers.

In a 2008 debate, addressing a question about Clinton’s high negatives, then-Sen. Barack Obama condescendingly opined that “you’re likable enough, Hillary.” But it turns out Obama may have been overstating the case. With her current unfavorable level at 56 percent – and only 32 percent holding a favorable view – many voters seem to be saying, she’s not likable enough.

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

Saudi Arabia Coerces US Over 9/11

Saudi Arabia is threatening to financially punish the U.S. if it holds the kingdom to account for its 9/11 role, coercion that hovers over President Obama’s new visit to the Saudi “allies” and that 9/11 widow Kristen Breitweiser condemns.

By Kristen Breitweiser

On Saturday, Mark Mazzetti wrote an article that appears on the front page of the New York Times called, “Saudis Tell U.S. To Back Off Bill On 9/11 Lawsuits.” The shocking title alone should make American citizens sit up and take notice.

When did the U.S. government start taking orders from foreign nations? Did I miss something? Have we become a foreign territory of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Did Saudi Arabia somehow become a branch of the U.S. government with sway over the President, Congress, and the Judiciary?

Mazzetti documents disturbing details that reveal a U.S. government not just taking and carrying out Saudi orders, but a U.S. President being brought to his knees by Saudi extortion. Mazzetti also summarizes the Obama Administration’s decision to support the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia over the 9/11 families’ right for justice and accountability for the 9/11 attacks.

The Saudis get such royal, preferential treatment because they’ve stomped their feet, threatened to pull all their money out of the U.S. economy and bankrupt the world if not given their way. As ridiculous as that threat sounds, the Obama administration is apparently very scared by it.

Currently, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been dismissed from the 9/11 families’ lawsuit via their Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) protections. As a result, the court has yet to have the opportunity to see the evidence against the Kingdom with regard to their alleged role of financing the 9/11 attacks.

This sets a dangerous precedent since it means that as long as a foreign nation is not listed as a “known state sponsor of terrorism,” they are completely immune from being held accountable for any bad behavior or illegal acts they perpetrate inside the U.S. — yes, even the mass murder of 3,000 people on 9/11.

Suffice it to say, this isn’t your typical young Saudi prince getting a parking ticket for his gold Lamborghini. This is the Saudis getting a pass for funding mass murder — with the blessings of the U.S Government.

At a time when most can’t get Washington to agree on much of anything, the 9/11 families have been able to gather Members of Congress — both Democrats and Republicans, and as polar opposite as Al Franken and Ted Cruz — to work together on a vital piece of legislation called Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism (JASTA). Quite a feat. But then again, 9/11 has the unique ability to unite almost everyone together under that one broad undeniable theme: being a true American.

JASTA removes the protection of the FSIA from any nation (regardless of their status as an ally or named state sponsor of terrorism) that participates in a terrorist attack when the terrorist attack is perpetrated on U.S. soil. JASTA makes clear that U.S. citizens remain the priority not foreign nations that fund terror. Specifically, JASTA removes the Saudis’ use of the FSIA as a shield of immunity — allowing them to be brought to court to finally answer charges for their alleged role in the 9/11 attacks.

Clearly, the Saudis are deeply concerned about JASTA since it would mean all the incriminating evidence gathered against them and their alleged role in the 9/11 attacks would finally be revealed and presented in an open court of law — nearly 15 years after the crime was committed. Indeed, many who have seen this evidence have commented that Americans will find the information “shocking” and that the “revelations will require a complete re-appraisal of the U.S./Saudi relationship.”

Why should this vital information be kept from the 9/11 families and the American public by President Obama? Why should evidence of the mass murder of 3,000 people be kept out of a court of law? Why does the Obama White House oppose holding the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia accountable for their funding of terrorist acts, including the terrorist attacks of 9/11? Why isn’t the U.S. government protecting the rights of the U.S. victims of terrorist attacks?

It is bad enough that Wall Street tycoons got off the hook in 2008 because they were “too big to fail.” But, to re-victimize the 9/11 families in order to protect the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia because they are “too invested in the U.S. economy to be held accountable” is appalling. It is extortion — plain and simple.

We struggle to understand why the U.S. government led by President Obama would so willingly drop to its knees and bare its neck to the shiny sword of Saudi extortion. What has become of our country?

America needs elected officials and leaders who recognize that U.S. citizens are their constituents — not oil-rich nations that bankroll terrorists. America needs to send a clarion message to the world — if you murder our citizens, you will answer for it. And America should never succumb to extortion by terrorists.

Are we to do away and dispense with all laws and accountability everywhere leaving us with a sort of Wild West environment where murder by the wealthy is OK, and rule of law is secondary to greed and power?

We call upon every member of Congress and all presidential candidates to endorse JASTA and to publicly rebuke such Saudi extortion. And we ask President Obama, to ignore the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s undue influence and extortion attempts by passing JASTA now.

Kristen Breitweiser is a 9/11 widow and activist who – working with other 9/11 widows known collectively as the “Jersey Girls” – pressured the U.S. government to conduct a formal investigation into the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Follow Kristen Breitweiser on Twitter: [This article originally appeared as a blog post at HuffingtonPost.]

Is Hillary Clinton Above the Law?

Exclusive: Secretary of State Clinton was harsh on subordinates who were careless with classified information, but those rules apparently weren’t for her, a troubling double standard, says ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern

“Enough of the emails,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders in Brooklyn-ese, while turning to Secretary Hillary Clinton during their first debate on Oct. 13, 2015. Sanders won loud applause for what seemed a gentlemanly gesture in withholding criticism for her use of a private email server for classified information.

But when Sanders said “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” I had a flashback to a House hearing three decades ago on large liberties taken with the law during the Iran-Contra affair under President Ronald Reagan. Beginning his testimony, then-Secretary of State George Shultz made the mistake of saying, in effect, who cares about laws being violated: “The American people are tired of hearing about Iran-Contra.”

Rep. David Obey, D-Wisconsin, was quick to respond: “Mr. Secretary, I did not take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States until I got tired.”

Well, we intelligence professionals also took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. There was no “until we got tired” – or even “until we retired” in that oath. It has no expiration date. Congressman Obey’s persistence and tenacity offer a model for patriots.

It has been six months since Sanders’s magnanimous gesture let Clinton off the hook for playing fast and loose with laws passed to protect classified information. During subsequent debates, everything but the kitchen sink has been hurled at the candidates, but there has been little appetite for asking Secretary Clinton what she thought she was doing, and why she decided to ignore security safeguards. (The reason often given – because she liked her Blackberry so much – does not withstand close scrutiny.)

While “mainstream” media have largely avoided the issue, it did get mentioned during the March 9 debate in Miami. Longtime news anchor for Noticiero Univision, Jorge Ramos, asked Secretary Clinton whether she would quit the presidential race if she were indicted for putting classified information on her private email server. She replied: “Oh, for goodness sake, it’s not going to happen. I’m not even answering that question.”

But this is too important an issue to sweep under the rug. It is not only we veteran intelligence professionals who are alarmed at what appears, at best, to be Clinton’s carelessness and, at worst, her deliberate attempt to conduct her affairs in complete secrecy, avoiding the strictures of, for example, the Freedom of Information Act, which can give the people and historians access to public records in the future so they can understand how government decisions were made. So researchers who care about democracy care.

It is also the FBI that cares, and the National Security Agency, which is responsible for ensuring secure communications, cares. And so do all who may have sent a sensitive piece of intelligence to her that she, in turn, might have put on her unclassified system. If Americans at large were briefed on the potential national security implications, they too would care.

One of the distinct advantages of the collegial way we operate in Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) is that when, as now, one of us needs input from tried and trusted specialists, it is immediately at hand. So, I consulted several of my colleagues with special knowledge of these matters.

A Severe Compromise

For technical commentary on this issue, I turned to a specialist VIPS colleague named William Binney, who worked for NSA for 36 years. Binney co-founded NSA’s SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) Automation Research Center, and retired from NSA as Technical Director. He said he shares my very strong feelings on the issue. He told me the following:

“The email issue with Secretary Clinton is one of the most severe compromises of security I have ever known. After all, if the Chinese, Russians and other hackers can penetrate the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) servers and take the records of over 21 million U.S. citizens that over the years have applied for security clearances, then penetrating Hillary Clinton’s private server would be a piece of cake. Such penetration would yield insight into decision making at the highest level of the U.S. government, including what might be revealed in emails with the President.

“This is worse that the compromise of predominantly lower-level data by Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and gives insight into planning at the highest levels in Washington – something that even all the torrent of data exposed by Edward Snowden could not provide. Reports that Clinton instructed subordinates to delete the security classification line on sensitive reports and email them to her, suggests a total disregard for the need to protect classified information and arrogance in deeming herself above lawful regulations governing the handling such data.

“We might as well have had an in-place mole at the highest level of our government. The FBI/Department of Justice would have already indicted lesser officials for less. Certainly, Clinton is receiving special treatment. It is a safe guess that FBI investigators are seething over their inability, so far, to pursue the case against Hillary with the vigor it merits.

“The case of Gen. David Petraeus comes immediately to mind. There was mucho seething at the FBI, when Petraeus gave his mistress classified documents of extreme sensitivity, lied about it to FBI investigators, and was let off with a slap on the wrist.” [See’s “Gen. Petraeus: Too Big to Jail.”]

Operational Perspective

With the aim of getting expert commentary from an operational perspective, I turned to Scott Ritter, who served on Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s staff during the first Gulf war, before he became chief U.N. weapons inspector for Iraq. Here’s what Ritter had to say:

“I can say that NSA/JSOC (and even U.N. teams such as the one I was running in Iraq) would LOVE for a foreign official at the secretary-of-state level to use a private server for official communications. One need simply to mimic a cell tower (the Stingray technology in vogue today would suffice) and you instantly have access to everything such an official does/says/types on a cell phone. That senior official would no longer have the unique identifiers and encryption that an official server would provide.

“By the way, it is no longer a secret that we targeted the unencrypted communications that Saddam Hussein and his closest advisers sent out, not just the encrypted ones. Any communications traffic analyst will tell you that simply reading the unclassified traffic provides a plethora of actionable intelligence – particularly since the communications intercepted are in real time.”

In the Field

So what can happen in the field – in combat areas and in places like Kabul – when regulations governing the handling of classified information are disregarded? For perspective on this, I turned to Matthew Hoh, Marine Captain in Iraq and later a senior State Department official in Afghanistan. He answered:

“Ordinary Americans need to know how serious this is. Just last week we witnessed one example of what could have happened when Secretary of State John Kerry was visiting Kabul and the Taliban tried to attack him with rockets. Whenever the President, Vice President, Secretary of State or Defense, Joint Chiefs Chairman, or a congressional delegation visits Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq, the planning and arrangements are secret. But this is the type of information that could be sent over Clinton’s personal email, hacked, and gotten a senior American official killed.

“Another example would be Clinton discussing information relating to intercepts of foreign leaders. It’s possible in her correspondence she could mention something regarding Putin, Cameron, Modi, et al. that we capture via SIGINT. That would not only be an embarrassment; it would blow that capability for such access (and squander the millions of dollars spent in creating it). Fortunately for the other world leaders, they don’t seem to have been as arrogant or dumb (or both of the above) in insisting on using non-secure communications.

“Was it not amazing that Clinton protégé, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, plotted the Feb. 22 coup in Ukraine with the U.S. Ambassador in Kiev on an insecure telephone! Wonder where Nuland got the idea that was all right.

“Only transmitting and sharing classified information via email through the secure email and internet system used by the U.S. government also prevents accidental transmission of secret information to people who should not receive secret information. It’s a closed system. Only those with the approved clearance and an authorized email account can receive the email. So you can’t accidentally type in the wrong name of a contact who is not trusted, is not a U.S. citizen, does not have a security clearance, etc. and send them an email with classified information.

“We’ve all done that with our email, type in the wrong name and send someone an email by accident. Or we’ve forwarded an email string with a chain of information somewhere down the body of the message that you didn’t want the recipient to see. By transmitting classified information via her personal email account Hilary Clinton could have very easily sent classified information to someone by accident. Of course, as everyone who uses email knows, once you send a message you have no control over where that message gets sent after you hit send. So, once she forwarded an email with classified information that information could be sent to anyone, anywhere in the world whether on purpose or on accident. That’s why you don’t transmit classified information outside the secure system.

“Another question: What information regarding her dealings outside of her official capacities may have been targeted? What I mean is besides U.S. government secrets that she possibly exposed were Clinton’s own secrets – perhaps a quid pro quo or two regarding foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation. Such information could be used against her as political blackmail. What information could have been captured by a foreign power that could be used if/when Hillary Clinton came to office as President to gain leverage over her?

“Undoubtedly, if she wins election, her first priority will be re-election. So, my concern is not just for information that she could have compromised as Secretary of State that would have harmed the U.S. from 2009-2013, but what information has been compromised that could be used against her as blackmail if she is in the Oval Office?”

Clinton’s Judgment

So whether Sen. Sanders is right or not – that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails” – Hillary Clinton’s carelessness and entitlement in brushing aside the lawful security rules that apply to other government officials is an issue that bears on whether she has the character and judgment to be President.

In December 2011, when then-Secretary of State Clinton was busy denouncing Pvt. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning for leaking evidence of U.S. government wrongdoing, Clinton declared: “I think that in an age where so much information is flying through cyberspace, we all have to be aware of the fact that some information which is sensitive, which does affect the security of individuals and relationships, deserves to be protected and we will continue to take necessary steps to do so.”

For leaking mostly low-level classified information to the public so the people could know about illegal or questionable acts by the government – none of the data top secret, the level that some Clinton emails have now been stamped – Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

But it seems that the applicable legal standard — or double standard — is that the more sensitive the security breach and the higher the status of the offender the lighter the punishment. For instance, Gen. David Petraeus divulged top-secret/code-word information to his biographer/mistress and lied to the FBI about it, but received only a misdemeanor citation (a fine and probation but no jail time) for mishandling classified material.

If that pattern is followed – and since Secretary of State Clinton outranked Gen. Petraeus – she might well expect even more lenient treatment, but her behavior might be something that the American voters would want to consider before giving her a promotion to U.S. President.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for a total of 30 years.

Obama’s Failed ‘Hope’ in Gaza

Eight years ago, President Obama offered “hope” for change in the world, but politics and pressures won out, with his failure nowhere more obvious than in Gaza, as Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer explains in this open letter.

By Mohammed Omer

To President Barack Obama

Dear Mr. President,

As president of the most powerful country on the planet; the loving and protective father of two children; and a man fully aware of the human struggles of so many in the down-trodden communities of many lands, including your own, your eyes must have been opened during the last three — of many — Israeli assaults on besieged Gaza, where I live with my wife and young son.

I recall being in the Netherlands when you were first elected president. Like so many millions around the world, I cheered loudly for you, believing that a fresh wind was blowing through the narrow halls of U.S. politics. I dared to hope that a brave man — a champion of good people who were neglected and abused — had arrived to stand up and ease the pain and injustice inflicted on so many, including my people in Palestine, long tormented and driven from their ancient land, deprived of their human dignity.

Sadly, however, I perhaps dared to believe too much. As I look around Gaza today and see only the aftermath of more Israeli cruelty and evidence of ever more bloodshed, pain, sadness and destruction, the words “Yes, we can” now drift away with the dust, carried by the winds of despair.

This despair has hung over our heads for at least the past 10 years, the result of Israel’s harsh collective punishment of the 1.9 million human beings who struggle to survive in Gaza. Half of them are children younger than your Sasha and Malia; many are babies, like mine, held in their parents’ arms.

Perhaps, being so far removed from it, you cannot empathize with the effects of collective punishment. Having studied law and worked closely in community projects, however, you surely have an intellectual and historical understanding. I think you know that Israel’s intentions extend beyond removing Hamas — or any other group that would resist an occupier’s expansion and invasion of their homes and leaders.

The U.S. Constitution does not call for the punishment of an entire population simply for voting for the “wrong party.” It and the Bill of Rights guarantee Americans the freedom to express themselves freely and the right to struggle and defend their inalienable rights. The American Revolution was an act of rebellion against oppression and the denial of “self-evident” rights and freedoms.

In Gaza, we are struggling against similar oppression. Israel increasingly confines and punishes us for our struggle, as we use whatever meager means we have to attain the same freedom and human dignity your forbearers fought for.

“Do Americans like us? Does Obama like us?”

What is the bond that binds U.S. politics and power to Israel’s ongoing cruel oppression? How can the U.S. justify its unconditional patronage of Israel escalating infliction of pain upon innocent others? What satisfaction and reward does Israel gain for punishing every aspect of human life for nearly two million good Palestinian people in Gaza, who just want their freedom again?

Three recent wars have whipped, beaten and left homeless many families who are still waiting for short- and long-term protection from cruelty. I met with Ahmed Al Kafarneh, an elderly man of dignity, living with his wife, son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. Before the 51-day war in 2014, he, like 100,000 other Palestinians, had built a beautiful home after 20 years of working in Israel — no easy task indeed. Now everything is gone, and he lives with his extended family in a rusty metal shipping container.

Mr. President, it is a cold and wet winter here — the coldest in years. Try to imagine yourself, Michelle, Sasha and Malia sitting on cold metal floors with rain dripping in from more holes in the container roof than you can count.

Are you not the same president who, when proclaiming Israel’s right to defend itself, vowed that you would do everything to protect your children? Does that same determination to protect not apply to our Palestinian children?

It seems you have forgotten our right — not only as Palestinians, but as human beings — to exist in freedom and safety from oppression and disproportionately heavy attacks from the Israeli military. In Gaza, our youngest generation knows only war, displacement, loss, trauma and pain. It faces even more obstacles in the path of “Yes we can” in the form of massive unemployment, repression and isolation caused by Israel’s U.S.-sanctioned economic blockade, denying an entire people free movement and a normal life of choices.

Does that not sound like slavery, Mr. President?

We are locked behind walls, contained like cattle, spied on by armed drones, with Israeli-army snipers patrolling barbed-wire fences, and placed on a “diet” meted out by occupiers and thieves. Is that not extremism? Would you not resist it?

A few days ago, I met with 13 brave and dedicated U.S. doctors who came here to assist the local hospitals — a rare occasion when American doctors get to meet face to face with our own courageous doctors and Hippocratic Oath colleagues. A 24-year-old Palestinian fine arts student paused when she heard of the delegation and asked, “Do Americans like us? Does Obama like us?”

This is why I am writing this open letter to you, Mr. President.

Human beings, of all generations, live here in Gaza, waiting for your replies to these questions. “Change we can believe in,” Mr.President — but it must include our freedom of choice.

Gaza is the size of Manhattan Island. We are human beings like you and your fellow Americans — but we are trapped behind walls and fences we have never lived behind before and don’t want to wake up to tomorrow. Our southern borders are now fenced off by Egypt, locking down Rafah crossing. To the west, our beaches — frequented by children, families and fishermen — are threatened by Israeli naval vessels armed with missiles and water cannons. They confine our fishing boats to 6 nautical miles offshore instead of the designated 20 nautical miles.

Are you aware that 73 Palestinian fishermen were fired upon and arrested in 2015? Or that 55 percent of Gazans suffer from clinical depression, that 43 percent are unemployed, 40 percent fall below the poverty line, and 60 percent are food insecure? Do you know how few hours of electricity we are allowed in 24 hours, with no power for 12 to 16 hours?

The same shortage applies to water, cooking gas and many other basic essentials. As you are served your meal this evening, remember we have half a million gas cylinders waiting to be filled before we can cook or boil water for washing and drinking (a human right).

This is all the more tragic because Gaza could be the perfect neighbor for Israel, living in peace and harmony and sharing mutually beneficial economic and trade relationships. We have many skilled workers and a well-educated young generation. Palestine has always been progressive. The only thing we need is a chance to grow, develop and contribute with dignity and equality.

We want to build bridges of understanding, instead of separation walls of bigotry and hatred. We don’t want Israel experimenting with its new hi-tech weapons on the children of Gaza. Your American-made missiles have been used to attack U.N. schools and shelters — the very schools which offer quality education and steer our children away from extremism. This is usually something to be applauded, not targeted.

You have not seen Khuza’a and the massive destruction that Israel’s war machine left behind. Its children’s feet are cold this frigid winter because water continues to drip from their shell-pocked ceilings onto their beds. You are welcome to visit us at any time, should you choose to place humanitarian considerations over political ones.

It is time for you, Mr. President, to provide the children and youth of Gaza with hope they can believe in. You can do it before you leave office, and all your promises, behind. You can reignite the enthusiasm we felt when you stepped up to address the world, and strengthen your legacy for promoting peace after you leave the Oval Office.

Meanwhile, you are among the very few people on earth who could influence Israel and Egypt to open borders and end the collective blockade. Is not a decade enough? Especially when we know that the ones who suffer from the siege are ordinary people, not political groups such as Hamas. If the aim is for people to look beyond Hamas, they must be given options for the future.

The children and parents of Gaza are waiting for a solution, and you can revitalize the positive energy that came with you and your speeches early in your presidency. Make all people proud — including Americans — of your long-lasting achievements.

Stand up for Gaza, as you always do for Israel, regardless of how badly they treat their fellow man (including yourself). We don’t want or need extremism in any form. We want stability, peace and to live in our homes without drones and tanks threatening us day and night. The young people of Gaza are seeking a better future.

Can we do this? Yes, we can! Step up Mr. President—please.

Award-winning journalist Mohammed Omer reports from the Gaza Strip. Follow him on Twitter: @MoGaza. [This letter was adapted from an article in Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.]

Yes, Hillary Clinton Is a Neocon

Exclusive: The argument over whether Hillary Clinton is a neocon may have been settled by her hawkish debate performance on Thursday, which followed her Israel-pandering speech before AIPAC, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

If there were any doubts that Hillary Clinton favors a neoconservative foreign policy, her performance at Thursday’s debate should have laid them to rest. In every meaningful sense, she is a neocon and – if she becomes President – Americans should expect more global tensions and conflicts in pursuit of the neocons’ signature goal of “regime change” in countries that get in their way.

Beyond sharing this neocon “regime change” obsession, former Secretary of State Clinton also talks like a neocon. One of their trademark skills is to use propaganda or “perception management” to demonize their targets and to romanticize their allies, what is called “gluing white hats” on their side and “gluing black hats” on the other.

So, in defending her role in the Libyan “regime change,” Clinton called the slain Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi “genocidal” though that is a gross exaggeration of Gaddafi’s efforts to beat back Islamic militants in 2011. But her approach fits with what the neocons do. They realize that almost no one will dare challenge such a characterization because to do so opens you to accusations of being a “Gaddafi apologist.”

Similarly, before the Iraq War, the neocons knew that they could level pretty much any charge against Saddam Hussein no matter how false or absurd, knowing that it would go uncontested in mainstream political and media circles. No one wanted to be a “Saddam apologist.”

Clinton, like the neocons, also shows selective humanitarian outrage. For instance, she laments the suffering of Israelis under crude (almost never lethal) rocket fire from Gaza but shows next to no sympathy for Palestinians being slaughtered by sophisticated (highly lethal) Israeli missiles and bombs.

She talks about the need for “safe zones” or “no-fly zones” for Syrians opposed to another demonized enemy, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, but not for the people of Gaza who face the wrath of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Yes, I do still support a no-fly zone [in Syria] because I think we need to put in safe havens for those poor Syrians who are fleeing both Assad and ISIS and have some place that they can be safe,” Clinton said. But she showed no such empathy for Palestinians defenseless against Israel’s “mowing the grass” operations against men, women and children trapped in Gaza.

In Clinton’s (and the neocons’) worldview, the Israelis are the aggrieved victims and the Palestinians the heartless aggressors. Referring to the Gaza rocket fire, she said: “I can tell you right now I have been there with Israeli officials going back more than 25 years that they do not seek this kind of attacks. They do not invite the rockets raining down on their towns and villages. They do not believe that there should be a constant incitement by Hamas aided and abetted by Iran against Israel. …

“So, I don’t know how you run a country when you are under constant threat, terrorist attack, rockets coming at you. You have a right to defend yourself.”

Ignoring History

Clinton ignored the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which dates back to the 1940s when Israeli terrorist organizations engaged in massacres to drive Palestinians from their ancestral lands and murdered British officials who were responsible for governing the territory. Israeli encroachment on Palestinian lands has continued to the present day.

But Clinton framed the conflict entirely along the propaganda lines of the Israeli government: “Remember, Israel left Gaza. They took out all the Israelis. They turned the keys over to the Palestinian people. And what happened? Hamas took over Gaza. So instead of having a thriving economy with the kind of opportunities that the children of the Palestinians deserve, we have a terrorist haven that is getting more and more rockets shipped in from Iran and elsewhere.”

So, Clinton made clear – both at the debate and in her recent AIPAC speech – that she is fully in line with the neocon reverence for Israel and eager to take out any government or group that Israel puts on its enemies list. While waxing rhapsodic about the U.S.-Israeli relationship – promising to take it “to the next level” – Clinton vows to challenge Syria, Iran, Russia and other countries that have resisted or obstructed the neocon/Israeli “wish list” for “regime change.”

In response to Clinton’s Israel-pandering, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who once worked on an Israeli kibbutz as a young man, did the unthinkable in American politics. He called out Clinton for her double standards on Israel-Palestine and suggested that Netanyahu may not be the greatest man on earth.

“You gave a major speech to AIPAC,” Sanders said, “and you barely mentioned the Palestinians. … All that I am saying is we cannot continue to be one-sided. There are two sides to the issue. … There comes a time when if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time.”

But in Hillary Clinton’s mind, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is essentially one-sided. During her speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last month, she depicted Israel as entirely an innocent victim in the Mideast conflicts.

“As we gather here, three evolving threats — Iran’s continued aggression, a rising tide of extremism across a wide arc of instability, and the growing effort to de-legitimize Israel on the world stage — are converging to make the U.S.-Israel alliance more indispensable than ever,” she declared.

“The United States and Israel must be closer than ever, stronger than ever and more determined than ever to prevail against our common adversaries and to advance our shared values. … This is especially true at a time when Israel faces brutal terrorist stabbings, shootings and vehicle attacks at home. Parents worry about letting their children walk down the street. Families live in fear.”

Yet, Clinton made no reference to Palestinian parents who worry about their children walking down the street or playing on a beach and facing the possibility of sudden death from an Israeli drone or warplane. Instead, she scolded Palestinian adults. “Palestinian leaders need to stop inciting violence, stop celebrating terrorists as martyrs and stop paying rewards to their families,” she said.

Then, Clinton promised to put her future administration at the service of the Israeli government. Clinton said, “One of the first things I’ll do in office is invite the Israeli prime minister to visit the White House. And I will send a delegation from the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs to Israel for early consultations. Let’s also expand our collaboration beyond security.”

Pleasing Phrases

In selling her neocon policies to the American public, Clinton puts the military aspects in pleasing phrases, like “safe zones” and “no-fly zones.” Yet, what she means by that is that as President she will invade Syria and push “regime change,” following much the same course that she used to persuade a reluctant President Obama to invade Libya in 2011.

The Libyan operation was sold as a “humanitarian” mission to protect innocent civilians though Gaddafi was targeting Islamic militants much as he claimed at the time and was not engaging in any mass slaughter of civilians. Clinton also knew that the European allies, such as France, had less than noble motives in wanting to take out Gaddafi.

As Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal explained to her, the French were concerned that Gaddafi was working to develop a pan-African currency which would have given Francophone African countries greater freedom from their former colonial master and would undermine French economic dominance of those ex-colonies.

In an April 2, 2011 email, Blumenthal informed Clinton that sources close to one of Gaddafi sons reported that Gaddafi’s government had accumulated 143 tons of gold and a similar amount of silver that “was intended to be used to establish a pan-African currency” that would be an alternative to the French franc.

Blumenthal added that “this was one of the factors that influenced President Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to commit France to the attack on Libya.” Sarkozy also wanted a greater share of Libya’s oil production and to increase French influence in North Africa, Blumenthal wrote.

But few Americans would rally to a war fought to keep North Africa under France’s thumb. So, the winning approach was to demonize Gaddafi with salacious rumors about him giving Viagra to his troops so they could rape more, a ludicrous allegation that was raised by then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, who also claimed that Gaddafi’s snipers were intentionally shooting children.

With Americans fed a steady diet of such crude propaganda, there was little serious debate about the wisdom of Clinton’s Libyan “regime change.” Meanwhile, other emails show that Clinton’s advisers were contemplating how to exploit Gaddafi’s overthrow as the dramatic moment to declare a “Clinton Doctrine” built on using “smart power.”

On Oct. 20, 2011, when U.S.-backed rebels captured Gaddafi, sodomized him with a knife and then murdered him, Secretary of State Clinton couldn’t contain her glee. Paraphrasing a famous Julius Caesar quote, she declared about Gaddafi, “we came, we saw, he died.”

But this U.S.-organized “regime change” quickly turned sour as old tribal rivalries, which Gaddafi had contained, were unleashed. Plus, it turned out that Gaddafi’s warnings that many of the rebels were Islamic militants turned out to be true. On Sept. 11, 2012, one extremist militia overran the U.S. consulate in Benghazi killing U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Soon, Libya slid into anarchy and Western nations abandoned their embassies in Tripoli. President Obama now terms the Libyan fiasco the biggest mistake of his presidency. But Clinton refuses to be chastened by the debacle, much as she appeared to learn nothing from her support for the Iraq invasion in 2003.

The Libyan Mirage

During Thursday’s debate – instead of joining Obama in recognition of the Libyan failure – Clinton acted as if she had overseen some glowing success:Well, let me say I think we did a great deal to help the Libyan people after Gaddafi’s demise. … We helped them hold two successful elections, something that is not easy, which they did very well because they had a pent-up desire to try to chart their own future after 42 years of dictatorship. I was very proud of that. …

“We also worked to help them set up their government. We sent a lot of American experts there. We offered to help them secure their borders, to train a new military. They, at the end, when it came to security issues, … did not want troops from any other country, not just us, European or other countries, in Libya.

“And so we were caught in a very difficult position. They could not provide security on their own, which we could see and we told them that, but they didn’t want to have others helping to provide that security. And the result has been a clash between different parts of the country, terrorists taking up some locations in the country.”

But that is exactly the point. Like the earlier neocon-driven “regime change” in Iraq, the “regime change” obsession blinds the neocons from recognizing that not only are these operations violations of basic international law regarding sovereignty of other nations but the invasions unleash powerful internal rivalries that neocons, who know little about the inner workings of these countries, soon find they can’t control.

Yet, America’s neocons are so arrogant and so influential that they simply move from one catastrophe to the next like a swarm of locust spreading chaos and death around the globe. They also adapt readily to changes in the political climate.

That’s why some savvy neocons, such as the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan, have endorsed Clinton, who The New York Times reported has become “the vessel into which many interventionists are pouring their hopes.”

Kagan told the Times, “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.”

Now with Clinton’s election seemingly within reach, the neocons are even more excited about how they can get back to work achieving Syrian “regime change,” overturning Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, and – what is becoming their ultimate goal – destabilizing nuclear-armed Russia and seeking “regime change” in Moscow.

After all, by helping Assad bring some stability to Syria and assisting Obama in securing the Iranian nuclear deal, Russian President Vladimir Putin has become what the neocons view as the linchpin of resistance to their “regime change” goals. Pull Putin down, the thinking goes, and the neocons can resume checking off their to-do list of Israel’s adversaries: Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, etc.

And what could possibly go wrong by destabilizing nuclear-armed Russia and forcing some disruptive “regime change”?

By making Russia’s economy scream and instigating a Maidan-style revolt in Moscow’s Red Square, the neocons see their geopolitical path being cleared, but what they don’t take into account is that the likely successor to Putin would not be some malleable drunk like the late Russian President Boris Yeltsin but, far more likely, a hardline nationalist who might be a lot more careless with the nuclear codes than Putin.

But, hey, when has a neocon “regime change” scheme veered off into a dangerous and unanticipated direction?

A Neocon True-Believer

In Thursday’s debate, Hillary Clinton showed how much she has become a neocon true-believer. Despite the catastrophic “regime changes” in Iraq and Libya, she vowed to invade Syria, although she dresses up that reality in pretty phrases like “safe zones” and “no-fly zones.” She also revived the idea of increasing the flow of weapons to “moderate” rebels although they, in reality, mostly fight under the command umbrella of Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front.

Clinton also suggested that the Syria mess can be blamed on President Obama’s rejection of her recommendations in 2011 to authorize a more direct U.S. military intervention.Nobody stood up to Assad and removed him,” Clinton said, “and we have had a far greater disaster in Syria than we are currently dealing with right now in Libya.”

In other words, Clinton still harbors the “regime change” goal in Syria. But the problem always was that the anti-Assad forces were penetrated by Al Qaeda and what is now called the Islamic State. The more likely result from Clinton’s goal of removing Assad would be the collapse of the Syrian security forces and a victory for Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and/or the Islamic State.

If that were to happen, the horrific situation in Syria would become cataclysmic. Millions of Syrians – Alawites, Shiites, Christians, secularists and other “infidels” – would have to flee the beheading swords of these terror groups. That might well force a full-scale U.S. and European invasion of Syria with the bloody outcome probably similar to the disastrous Iraq War.

The only reasonable hope for Syria is for the Assad regime and the less radical Sunni oppositionists to work out some power-sharing agreement, stabilize most of the country, neutralize to some degree the jihadists, and then hold elections, letting the Syrian people decide whether “Assad must go!” – not the U.S. government. But that’s not what Clinton wants.

Perhaps even more dangerous, Clinton’s bellicose rhetoric suggests that she would eagerly move into a dangerous Cold War confrontation with Russia under the upside-down propaganda theme blaming tensions in Eastern Europe on “Russian aggression,” not NATO’s expansion up to Russia’s borders and the U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine in 2014 which ousted an elected president and touched off a civil war.

That coup, which followed neocon fury at Putin for his helping Obama avert U.S. bombing campaigns against Syria and Iran, was largely orchestrated by neocons associated with the U.S. government, including Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland (Robert Kagan’s wife), Sen. John McCain and National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman.

After the violent coup, when the people of Crimea voted by 96 percent to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia, the U.S. government and Western media deemed that a “Russian invasion” and when ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine rose up in resistance to the new authorities in Kiev that became “Russian aggression.”

NATO on the Move

Though President Obama should know better – and I’m told that he does know better – he has succumbed this time to pressure to go along with what he calls the Washington “playbook” of saber-rattling and militarism. NATO is moving more and more combat troops up to the Russian border while Washington has organized punishing economic sanctions aimed at disrupting the Russian economy.

Hillary Clinton appears fully onboard with the neocon goal of grabbing the Big Enchilada, “regime change” in Moscow. Rather than seeing the world as it is, she continues to look through the wrong end of the telescope in line with all the anti-Russian propaganda and the demonization of Putin, whom Clinton has compared to Hitler.

Supporting NATO’s military buildup on Russia’s border, Clinton said, “With Russia being more aggressive, making all kinds of intimidating moves toward the Baltic countries, we’ve seen what they’ve done in eastern Ukraine, we know how they want to rewrite the map of Europe, it is not in our interests [to reduce U.S. support for NATO]. Think of how much it would cost if Russia’s aggression were not deterred because NATO was there on the front lines making it clear they could not move forward.”

Though Clinton’s anti-Russian delusions are shared by many powerful people in Official Washington, they are no more accurate than the other claims about Iraq’s WMD, Gaddafi passing out Viagra to his troops, the humanitarian need to invade Syria, the craziness about Iran being the principal source of terrorism (when it is the Saudis, the Qataris, the Turks and other Sunni powers that have bred Al Qaeda and the Islamic State), and the notion that the Palestinians are the ones picking on the Israelis, not the other way around.

However, Clinton’s buying into the neocon propaganda about Russia may be the most dangerous – arguably existential – threat that a Clinton presidency would present to the world. Yes, she may launch U.S. military strikes against the Syrian government (which could open the gates of Damascus to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State); yes, she might push Iran into renouncing the nuclear agreement (and putting the Israeli/neocon goal to bomb-bomb-bomb-Iran back on the table); yes, she might make Obama’s progressive critics long for his more temperate presidency.

But Clinton’s potential escalation of the new Cold War with Russia could be both the most costly and conceivably the most suicidal feature of a Clinton-45 presidency. Unlike her times as Secretary of State, when Obama could block her militaristic schemes, there will be no one to stop her if she is elected President, surrounded by likeminded neocon advisers.

[For more on this topic, see’s “Would a Clinton Win Mean More Wars?’]

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and

Putin Deftly Answers Russia’s Questions

Russian President Putin appeared on top of his game as he fielded questions from across Russia in his annual Q&A event which focused on concerns about the economy, as Gilbert Doctorow describes.

By Gilbert Doctorow

Anyone watching Russian state television in the past weeks would have been keenly aware that Thursday was D-day, the day of the annual marathon Q&A session of President Vladimir Putin with the nation. Russians were advised not only how to dial in on the usual land lines, but how to direct their video calls, send SMS or MMS, write in by email.

The only instructions missing were for acquiring seats in the auditorium which were evidently allocated by the presidential administration following its own notion of distribution by profession and industrial sector. Millions of questions and opinions were sent in ahead of the show. The operators during the show indicated that there were tens of thousands of live attempts to get a word to the President as he spoke.

Thursday’s show was clocked at something more than three hours. A year ago it was well over four hours. But the difference then and now went well outside any question of volumes of questions or time spent with Vladimir Putin on air. The whole exercise was far better choreographed and more impressive technically.

Just as Putin has recently taken to using teleprompters from time to time to achieve a more polished effect, so the Q&A today was more corporate in format and finish than in preceding years. Corporate means firstly no surprises.

The audience in the auditorium was better dressed and better behaved than in years past. We had no loudmouths like Ksenia Sobchak a couple of years ago using their invitations to sound off against the Putin regime.

The one easily identifiable critic from a Moscow radio station who was given the microphone was restrained and posed his question in rather oblique language: in plain text he was asking about the branding of the opposition as traitors by Chechnya boss Ramzan Kadyrov. And he nodded assent, when Vladimir Putin diplomatically reminded him of where Kadyrov came from, what his life path had been, and urged that his verbal outbursts not be given undue weight.

The well-behaved and well-turned out audience this time held no banners and wore no funny hats to draw the President’s attention to the outlying regions from which they had come for this event. Instead, television crews were prepositioned in Tomsk, on the Kerch bridge construction site of the Crimea, on Sakhalin, and one or two other remote sites. The provincials were well-vetted and stuck to business-like questions, instead of the traditional appeals to the President to visit them and share some dumplings over lunch.

Putin was visibly relaxed, though as always he was exceedingly well prepared with statistics on the tip of his tongue, able to answer questions about every imaginable aspect of government policy, economic forecasts, the international political situation. At the same time, his sense of humor and amusing use of Russian folk terms livened up what could otherwise be a dull session.

One outstanding example was his answer to a query from a nine-year-old as to whether he had been forced to eat hot cereal (kasha) as a child and whether his view of kasha had changed over time. He explained that “no” he had never been forced to do anything against his wishes as a child, that he always had liked kasha and had eaten it for breakfast today. Then he closed this out with the remark that, yes, his view of kasha had changed with the years, for the better: “As you get older and have fewer teeth, you enjoy kasha all the more.”

With similar aplomb Putin responded to a question about the cellist Sergei Roldugin, a friend whose name came up in Western media coverage of Russians having offshore accounts per the Panama Papers. In the past week, Putin directly defended Roldugin against harsh innuendo from foreign critics of Russia.

Then Russian state television in its weekly wrap-up broadcast on Sunday evening, Vesti nedeli, broadcast a feature interview with Roldugin to show what Roldugin’s “business activities” on- and off-shore have been all about: funding the purchase of rare Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Century violins, cellos and other instruments abroad and making them available to young Russian virtuosos.

In his Q&A remarks, Putin on Thursday took a lighter tone and retold how a journalist’s account of a recent concert appearance of Roldugin mentioned that the maestro was playing some “second-hand” instrument, his slang term generally identified with flea markets.

Domestic Concerns

The questions for the most part were about domestic issues like the cost of living generally and inflation in food products in particular ever since the imposition of the Russian embargo in response to Western sanctions. Other typical subjects were the scarcity of cheap generic Russian drugs in pharmacies and the problem of monthly housing unit management costs that have far outpaced family income.

On the economic front Putin was cautiously optimistic, predicting a small 0.3 percent contraction this year and resumed growth from early 2017. This was the one nugget that The Financial Times has just seized upon to headline its coverage of the Q&A, thin pickings though it may be. (Western economic estimates predict a greater drop in Russia’s GNP in 2016 and are less bullish about 2017.)

One could just as easily have featured Putin’s assurances to a Russian dairy farmer concerned over how he could repay the loans he has taken to expand production if the sanctions end and the Russian counter-sanctions are dropped, as WTO rules require. Said Putin, I don’t think the sanctions are likely to be lifted any time soon, so don’t worry.

International affairs occupied a very small part of the Q&A session, and the very few controversial questions posed were deftly and diplomatically dispatched by the President. Thus, he dodged completely the request to identify which American presidential candidate, Clinton or Trump, was less threatening to Russia.

Instead, Putin chose to highlight the positive and to reiterate that Russia is ready to cooperate with all who treat it with respect and equality. And he stressed that in some areas even today Russia and the United States cooperate constructively, in particular on non-proliferation and the Iran nuclear issue.

Though the Q&A session this year was more corporate in style, the distinctive nature of the event that dominated past editions and which always made it hard for Westerners to comprehend, was not entirely absent. That essence is the traditional petition of the people to the Tsar for redress of abuses by local potentates, whether corrupt regional officials or thieving company bosses.

Thus, we heard from one auto industry worker in the Urals that he and his comrades receive their salaries three months in arrears and only partially. Another petitioner asked whether the governor in his Siberian region now under criminal investigation would be given the prison term he deserves for his thievery. And the lady on the video line from Omsk who opened the Q&A spoke for a vast number of write-and call-ins who complained about the deplorable state of the roads now that the snow has melted and the potholes were simply shocking to see. If any subject has come down through the ages in Russia, it is surely roads.

Vladimir Putin has often been called a modern-day Tsar in Western media in what is meant to be a pejorative label for an authoritarian ruler. To the extent the Q&A raises the image of traditional Russian petitions and denunciations to the sovereign, we have to ask how Vladimir Putin, the elected President of Russia and head of state,  measures up.

In a remarkable book entitled The End of  Tsarist Russia, the widely respected British historian Dominic Lieven remarks that it was almost impossible for any man to live up to the expectations that the Russian people had of their Tsar. He said this to exculpate Nicholas II, whom history has judged very harshly.

In this context, I would note that if Putin is to be seen as a Tsar, his performance in the Q&A, just as his daily performance of his duties, day-in-and-day out, deserves the highest grades for intelligence, diligence, reserve, management skills and the rest. If he is a Tsar, a Tsar of this quality comes along once in 300 years.

Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator, American Committee for East West Accord, Ltd. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? (August 2015) is available in paperback and e-book from and affiliated websites. For donations to support the European activities of ACEWA, write to © Gilbert Doctorow, 2016

Balancing Principles and Pragmatism

An important distinction in politics is discerning the difference between a politician who advances principles pragmatically and one that puts career before principle, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

In a story out of Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani, who in the Iranian political context merits the labels “reformist” and “moderate,” is being pushed by others in the reformist camp who believe he has not been aggressive enough in challenging Iranian hardliners across the full spectrum of issues that separate hardliners from reformists.

The immediate challenge comes in the form of a letter from someone who otherwise has much in common with Rouhani: the cleric, reformist leader, and former presidential candidate Mehdi Karrubi, who has been under house arrest since 2011, demands in his letter that he be given a public trial.

Rouhani has said in the past that he would work for the release of Karrubi and another prominent reformist leader under house arrest, Mir Hussein Moussavi. But Rouhani and his allies evidently believe that to press that issue right now would be one too many confrontations with hardliners and would risk losing the support of supreme leader Ali Khamenei for accomplishing other reformist priorities.

Chief among those priorities is to turn around Iran’s economy, which in turn has been a reason for Rouhani to place as much emphasis as he has on negotiation and implementation of the recent nuclear agreement and improvement of economic relations with the West.

The division in the reformist camp in Iran is similar to some disagreements in other political systems, including our own, between people who share between themselves the most important objectives but differ over strategy and tactics in terms of how many of those objectives can be accomplished and how quickly they can be accomplished, and whether in certain situations direct confrontation with political opponents is better or worse than husbanding political capital to spend in a more selective way.

Barack Obama is in a similar situation to Rouhani in this respect, even though unlike Rouhani he does not have to deal with a Supreme Leader sitting on top of the political system in which he operates. President Obama does have to deal with the strong expectations in what he describes as the Washington “playbook,” and also with a Republican-controlled Congress that is even worse than a Supreme Leader in that the majority in that Congress is determined to oppose Mr. Obama at every turn.

The President’s pragmatic way of dealing with this political reality has meant that not all of the principles and goals he articulates, including in foreign policy, get pushed all the time as hard as he might otherwise like to push them. He is one of those who believes in the importance of keeping priorities in mind and expending political capital selectively.

This approach has subjected him to criticism from those, who generally would be labeled as liberal or progressive, who share far more of his objectives than anything they might share with the Republican opposition but who are disappointed that Mr. Obama has not pressed those objectives any more strongly and comprehensively than he has, and who wish that he had tried harder to change political realities rather than just adapting to them.

A somewhat similar dimension characterizes the race for the Democratic presidential nomination between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Although there are some genuine differences in objectives — and the differences in what they have said about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which have been stark enough to get attention in Israel, might be one such issue — such differences appear to be much less than differences over strategy and pace in pursuing the objectives.

A common observation about this contest, that Sanders is unhesitatingly promoting a full-throated progressive agenda while Clinton is giving more attention to what is practicable and what is not, is only slightly an oversimplification.

Neither side in these sorts of debates over political and policy strategy has a monopoly on truth or wisdom. Each side has legitimate arguments. Those who favor pushing full-steam ahead on parts of a policy agenda can rightfully ask what is the purpose of political power if it is not going to be used to the utmost to pursue what is worth pursuing. They emphasize the role of political leadership in changing minds and not just in accepting opinion as it is. They point to the risk, if there is too much trimming of political sails for reasons of practicality, of power and office-holding coming to be treated as ends in themselves.

Those on the other side of the debate, who stress the need to pay attention to priorities and practicality, correctly observe that political capital is limited and that one has to work with the political system one has and not what one would wish it to be. They note that compromise and log-rolling are intrinsic to politics and policy-making. They are mindful of the risk that if you try to accomplish everything you may bring about reactions that lead you to accomplish next to nothing. They correctly point out the risk that a political leader who is seen, for better or worse, as going against a generally accepted playbook on too many issues will lose credibility as being outside the mainstream and will lose the political clout to do good works.

Pundits and voters will not be able to settle this whole debate. Against the backdrop of such debates, however, they should try to do two things. One is to discern, through careful attention to the statements and records of individual political leaders, why those leaders act, or refrain from acting, as they do.

This means distinguishing, for example, a genuine progressive who avoids some confrontations out of considerations of political practicality from someone who is not really a progressive at all. It also means distinguishing a leader who is trying to preserve political capital to accomplish worthwhile tasks to come from a politician for whom holding high office is an end in itself, with the true objectives having more to do with personal ambition than with good works. Examples of each of these types are to be found in the political class of most countries, including our own.

The other thing that pundits and voters alike ought to do is place these debates over strategy into the larger context of what is at stake and what are the available choices — choices of policies by office-holders, and choices of candidates by voters. With Iran, for example, one needs to be mindful of the differences between hardliners and reformers and how those differences are much greater — in their implications for Iranians as well as for relevant U.S. interests — than any difference between a Rouhani and a Karrubi.

In the United States, one must remember that despite the acrimony and invective that have characterized the race for the Republican presidential nomination (and despite some caustic qualities having more recently infected the Democratic race as well), the differences between the parties are vastly greater on issues that matter most to the nation than are differences among the remaining candidates within each party.

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.)

Hillary Clinton’s Gender Argument

Exclusive: Hillary Clinton calls on women to support her to be the first female President, but all Americans should look carefully at her record advocating bloody, neocon “regime change” wars, says ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern

Not race nor gender — nor any other innate characteristic — should be the touchstone in voting for President of the United States. Yet, as I have traveled the country these past several years, I have been amazed at how many Americans have no qualms in stating that their support for President Barack Obama is based solely – or mostly – on his being black. Equally amazing is the unabashedly indiscriminate support I hear voiced by highly educated women for Hillary Clinton – “because she is a woman and it’s our turn,” as they put it.

Five years ago in Atlanta, I sat down with Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, then 90 and a legendary leader of the African-American-church-led struggle for human rights in the South. We met in an historic building used 50 years before by the courageous young leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

I had been a longtime admirer of Dr. Lowery, who acted very much in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when Lowery chose the occasion of Coretta Scott King’s funeral (Feb. 7, 2006) to admonish a captive audience that included Presidents Bush-41, Bush-43, Carter and Clinton.

“We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there [in Iraq]. But Coretta knew and we know that there are weapons of misdirection right down here,” Dr. Lowery said. “Poverty abounds. For war billions more but no more for the poor!”

So I was pleased to meet with Dr. Lowery in early May 2011 and felt comfortable enough to voice disappointment at how Barack Obama, despite his rhetoric, seemed to be pursuing the pro-war/pro-Wall-Street policies of his predecessor. But I was brought up short when Lowery reacted quite strongly.

“Obama is one of us,” he said. “We will support him no matter what!”

Sensitive Topic

I am aware of the delicacy involved in saying these things and the criticism one can expect. Granted, I carry the proverbial knapsack of white/male privilege. I do make a constant effort to reflect on the very real implications of that reality, rather than give it mere lip service. I have been working at a black-led nonprofit in inner-city Washington for the past 18 years; I worship at a predominantly African-American church, and just this week I was “Best Man” at the marriage of black friends.

If that sounds a little like “some of my best friends are black,” well, they are. I do try hard to divest myself of the knapsack of white/male privilege that is mine by accident of birth.  Recognizing that unearned privilege will always be part of my DNA, I feel all the more conscience bound to put those unmerited gifts to good use. Often this means risking opprobrium attached to telling it like it is – or, admittedly, like I think it is.

Twenty-five years ago I earned the epithet “radical feminist” (not a good thing in Catholic circles) to which I proudly plead guilty. Rather than take the chance that our three daughters end up with the idea that they were second-class citizens, and not having any better idea, I stood up in silence in the middle of my parish congregation for the entire Sunday Mass for almost five years. It was a witness to the reality that the Catholic liturgy itself is flawed with fundamental injustice when women are barred from presiding. From time to time other “radical feminists,” women and men parishioners, joined me.

But for many it was a most unwelcome reminder — a disruption. I was treated like a leper by some of my most “progressive” co-parishioners, until I left the parish after those five years (1991-96) of standing. (Catholics in Crisis, a book by Jim Naughton centers on the bitter controversy sparked by what came to be known as “The Standing.”)

Gender and Justice

In the midst of such witness, there seemed to be signs of some progress – at least in the secular world. In 1993, I rejoiced that our country was getting a “two-for” with Hillary Clinton as a new kind of First Lady, essentially a partner in governance with her husband. And just four years later, another breakthrough, Madeleine Albright became the first female Secretary of State and the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government.

But, alas: as U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Albright had justified the brutal effects of the sanctions imposed on Iraq (later branded “unconscionable” by the U.S. Catholic bishops). When asked in May 1996 about the U.N. finding that the sanctions had taken the lives of 500,000 Iraqi children, Albright told CBS’s Leslie Stahl, “We think the price is worth it.” Albright displayed not only callousness, but entitlement.

In February of this year, while on the campaign trail in New Hampshire for former Secretary of State Clinton, Albright condescendingly chided and challenged women, especially the young who were rallying to Sen. Bernie Sanders: “You have to help. Hillary Clinton will always be there for you. And just remember, there’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other.”

Hillary Clinton is clearly expecting the votes of many women who believe she is entitled to become President because “it is time.” While I agree that it is well past time for a woman to be President, I disagree that it should be Hillary Clinton. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us that people should not be judged by external factors (whether the color of their skin or, in this case, their gender) “but by the content of their character.”

Hillary Clinton’s record as Secretary of State makes it unmistakably clear that – like her hawkish predecessor Albright – she lacks the level-headedness, vision, and, yes, compassion without which the country’s top diplomat or (even more importantly) the commander in chief can be outright dangerous.

If there is a Hell, I could visualize a special place for both men and women who operate with the cold-blooded, unfeeling cruelty toward victims of American power. What brought this to mind was the way Clinton exulted shortly after getting word that Muammar Gaddafi had been killed.

The Libyan leader had been flushed out of a culvert hiding place, tortured, sodomized with a bayonet and murdered. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chose to rejoice with undisguised glee, using a riff on words attributed to Julius Caesar, “I came; I saw; I conquered.”  Hillary said: “We came; we saw; he died!”

Chaos now reigns in Libya and, according to Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” rule, Clinton broke it, so she now owns it. And Obama has just conceded publicly that if he could get a do-over, it would be Libya. He recently expressed open regret over the aftermath of the U.S. military involvement championed by Secretary of State Clinton, calling it the “worst mistake” of his presidency.

In Lock-Step With Neocons

Frankly, it is hard to distinguish Clinton’s foreign policy from the neocons’ “regime change” obsession. Like the neocons, Clinton expresses full support for whatever Israel does and applies the same step-by-step approach toward dragging the United States into more “regime change” wars against governments and political movements that don’t toe Washington’s line.

Currently, she’s pushing for the U.S. military to impose a “safe zone” or “no-fly zone” in Syria, nice-sounding phrases that mean in reality a direct U.S. invasion of Syria, requiring the violent destruction of Syria’s air force and air defenses. It is the same ploy that Clinton used in beginning the disastrous “regime change” in Libya: start with sweet phrases like “responsibility to protect” and “no-fly zones” and then escalate to another “regime change.”

President George W. Bush and his neocon advisers pulled a similar stunt in drawing the United States into the Iraq War. Bush insisted that he simply needed the authority to use force to pressure Saddam Hussein to surrender his WMD; then U.S. troops were deployed to the region to show that the U.S. meant business; then, U.S. “credibility” would be impaired if the troops simply had to wait around until the U.N. weapons inspectors searched for the WMD, so the invasion began.

Clinton has consistently been onboard such neocon bandwagons, famously voting for and supporting the Iraq War as a U.S. senator. She also has favored coups and wars to remove troublesome leaders whom she demonizes much as the neocons do, understanding the importance of propaganda and “perception management” to bring a sometimes reluctant U.S. population along for the blood-soaked ride.

As Secretary of State, Clinton supported the 2009 coup in Honduras that ousted a relatively progressive president who had offended powerful corporate and oligarchic interests. Also in 2009, she joined hawkish Republican holdovers inside the Obama administration to push for what turned out to be a pointless but bloody “counterinsurgency” escalation in Afghanistan.

In 2011, Clinton tipped the balance in convincing Obama to support the Western invasion of Libya. And in seeking another “regime change” in Syria, she advocated arming Syrian rebels, even though many fought side-by-side with Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front.

Clinton also has voiced excessive hostility toward Iran, heightening the confrontation during her years as Secretary of State and threatening to renew it if she becomes President. With Iranian hardliners already questioning the value of Iran’s accepting extraordinary constraints on its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief (when much of that relief has not materialized), it’s not hard to imagine how a President Clinton-45 might push Iran into renouncing the deal, thus reopening the “bomb-bomb-bomb-Iran” option favored by the neocons.

Only the blindest supporters of Secretary Clinton could fail to acknowledge that there is little or no daylight between her and the neocons.

Full Disclosure

I should note that five years ago as Secretary Clinton began a major speech at George Washington University on the imperative of respecting dissent (in Iran), she did not miss a syllable as “security” officers brutally assaulted me and hauled me away directly in front of her. My crime? Standing silently with my back to her.

Clinton’s confidant Sidney Blumenthal sent her a quick email, telling her that I was well known in the U.S. intelligence community, where I had long served as a CIA analyst, though since then I had “become a Christian antiwar leftist who goes around bearing witness.” He added, “Whatever his views, he’s harmless.”

Harmless or not, I ended up with cuts and bruises, far less than the slaughter and maiming of the millions of victims of Clinton’s misbegotten policies. Her gender does not excuse her for that suffering nor does it mean that we should ignore her judgment when deciding whether she should be elevated to the most powerful office on earth.

Ray McGovern is a former Army officer and CIA analyst. He prepared the President’s Daily Brief for Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan, and conducted the morning briefings, one-on-one, of Reagan’s most senior advisers. He is a member of the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

Learning to Love the Bomb — Again

Perhaps the height of Official Washington’s madness is the casual decision to invest $1 trillion in a new generation of nukes, including a downsized, easy-to-use variety, with almost no debate, a danger that Michael Brenner addresses.

By Michael Brenner

By now we are accustomed to bizarre foreign policy moves from the White House. The last 15 years have seen a series of initiatives that defy reason and good sense. The pattern is so well established that on the very rare occasions when a President follows a policy that is eminently logical – like Barack Obama’s decision not to bomb Iran – it is met with shock and awe.

Against this backdrop, the program to spend $1 trillion on developing an upgraded arsenal of nuclear weapons with expanded capabilities suggests a return to “normal” – that is, the bizarre. Yet this vast expenditure for no apparent strategic purpose has generated little debate whether within the Obama administration, political circles or the public.

This fits a by now recognizable pattern: critical decisions are taken on matters heavy with consequence without explanation of why that course of action is chosen and it then goes unremarked by the politicos and media. That double failing is making a mockery of our supposedly democratic governance. Furthermore, it allows to slip under the radar costly – potentially dangerous – initiatives that cannot hold up under scrutiny.

We have 70 years of history with nuclear weapons. The accumulated experience includes decades of Cold War dealings with the Soviet Union, nuclear arms spread to nine other countries, the refinement of our thinking about all aspects of their strategic role, and rigorous exercises on the logic of deterrence, of coercion, and compellence. No subject has been received as concentrated critical examination.

The understanding and wisdom acquired, though, seems to have largely eluded those who have chosen to head down the path of elaborating our nuclear capabilities and doctrines for their use. Why? We haven’t been told. However, we have learned from leaks what are the features of this massive new nuclear program.

One, it aims to design and to build a class of small (in size and yield) bombs in the 5-10 kiloton range. Incorporating highly sophisticated engineering, it theoretically would be possible to adjust the “yield’ depending on the target and the purpose.

Two, these nuclear munitions could be packaged as precision-guided weapons deliverable from either stationery missile platforms or aircraft that would launch them as they currently do warheads with conventional explosives.

Three, these refined capabilities would enable them to be used against hardened targets such as underground nuclear facilities, against an enemy’s military installations or against other high value targets.

Four, by implication these are “first-strike” weapons; that is to say, their value is not to deter another nuclear armed state by threatening devastating retaliation, but rather to accomplish a mission either related to a conventional conflict or to eliminate an objective judged to pose a potential threat. Thus, this “new age” nuclear force represents a radical departure from what has become the “no first use” principle of nuclear strategy – in practice if not in treaty.

Some Basic Truths

To place this radical development in perspective, it is essential to remind ourselves of a few basic truths distilled from our collective experience of the nuclear era.

–When we speak of an encounter between two nuclear armed states, the weapons’ primary utility is to deter the other. The risk and consequences of nuclear war are so great as to outweigh any possible advantage in trying to actually use them as part of a military strategy. This holds for all binary pairs of nuclear states: India-Pakistan, Israel-Iran (conjectured).

The resulting condition of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) is stable when the following conditions are met: both sides have the capacity to withstand a first strike while retaining the means to deliver a nuclear riposte; and when there is the will to do so. No one has ever thought of testing the credibility of the latter. The exact modalities of the countries’ nuclear arsenals have no bearing on this fundamental logic.

This logic manifestly has been absorbed by everyone who has been in a position to order a nuclear strike. No civilian leader (or military commanders with a few exceptions) with the authority to launch a nuclear attack ever believed that the result would be other than a massive exchange – mutual suicide for those with large arsenals. This did not encourage risk-taking at lower levels of conflict. Just the opposite – for fear of escalation.

We have a contemporaneous account of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev visiting a Soviet ICBM site in the 1970s. The commanding general demonstrated to him exactly what the launch procedures would be were Brezhnev to punch in the codes that set the process in motion. For demonstration purposes, he was offered the opportunity to push this or pull that which would release the missiles if they had not been deactivated. Brezhnev’s hand began to shake, he broke into a cold sweat and he asked for reassurance three times that in fact the system had been deactivated.

We have abundant first-person evidence of how deeply engraved this inhibiting logic is. One example is from President Richard Nixon’s effort to persuade the Soviet leadership through hints and gestures that unless it applied its full weight on Hanoi to accept terms of a settlement satisfactory to Washington, he Nixon might consider a resort to battlefield nuclear weapons.

Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger went so far as to call in Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to convey the message personally in the hope of scaring him and the Kremlin leadership. The Soviets ignored the menace as a bluff lacking all credibility. (See the account in Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War by Jeffrey P. Kimball & William Burr)

First Use?

–That raises the question of whether Washington has an interest in keeping open the option of making first use of nuclear weapons against Iran or North Korea. It is not at all obvious that these doctrinal nuances have any practical meaning other than as post hoc rationales for decisions taken for different reasons.

Preemptive nuclear strikes are highly risky since one never knows with certainty that they will disarm an enemy and prevent them from responding in other highly disagreeable ways. Think of 20,000 North Korean artillery pieces trained on Seoul. Think of Iran’s several opportunities to wreak havoc in the Gulf.

–First-use – even as doctrine – also sets dangerous precedents. It weakens the nuclear taboo entrenched since 1945, and it thereby heightens anxiety in a manner that increases the risk of accidental or miscalculated use.

–The smaller the caliber of nuclear arm, the greater the temptation to devise military doctrines for their use – despite the experience of the past 70 years and the logic outlined here. So-called Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) are inherently dangerous.

TNWs have a long history – both as to their inclusion in arsenals and in strategic thinking. This history, though, is now being ignored, whether neglect is due to inattention or to intentional dissimulation. The net effect is the same. There was a military reason why the United States was attracted to TNWs. In the context of Mutual Assured Destruction – or mutual dissuasion – wherein the resort to nuclear weapons leads inexorably to massive exchanges amounting to total destruction on both sides, the one with superior conventional forces possesses a theoretical advantage.

That is to say, it could overwhelm the weaker party, present it with a fait accompli, and expect that there would be no nuclear riposte since that would mean mutual destruction. In theory. The seeming answer: TNWs which, it was hoped, could be used to counter a massive conventional attack without triggering an all-out nuclear war. The risk of that happening, in turn, deters the would-be conventionally superior attacker – as does the fear of uncontrolled escalation.

However far-fetched, this was official American/NATO strategy in Europe from 1960 until the Cold War’s end. Our strategy, our force configuration, our contingency plans in Europe were all formed by this concept. We built thousands of TNWs of various calibers (including nuclear mines and shells that could be shot from artillery) and spread them around Europe and Korea. Whether and under what conditions they might be detonated always was obscure. It was a question that faded with stabilization of the nuclear relationship with the USSR. Under post-Cold War arms control agreements, they have been withdrawn.

Today, Pakistan military planners worry that they are facing an analogous dilemma in contemplating a conventionally superior India. Their strategic thinkers are pondering the idea of developing and deploying TNWs as deterrent/defense reinforcement. India, as did the Soviets, is pondering how it might counter such an eventuality: strike first with TNWs to neutralize those in the Pakistani inventory or warn that any first use likely would lead to mutual suicidal resort to strategic nuclear weapons.

The risk of nuclear war by miscalculation is greater in South Asia than it was in Europe. For geography characterized by the contiguity of the protagonists reduces warning times and immediately endangers national integrity. In addition, the absence of invulnerable Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) undermines the credibility of massive retaliation as a deterrent to first strikes.

Why Press Ahead?

So what is the point of constituting a high-tech nuclear force now to be centered on TNWs, precision-guided munitions and low-yield warheads? There is no conventionally superior, or equal, potential adversary out there. The United States enjoys conventional superiority over all conceivable enemies. So, the scenarios are quite different.

Pentagon military planners and their obedient White House “overseers” obviously have Iran and other possible ”rogue” states in mind – that is to the extent that strategic considerations of any kind lie behind the program’s development. For the driving forces are more likely to have been a dedication to technological along with powerful bureaucratic interests.

Let us assume, for the purpose of this logical exercise, that whatever strategic thinking has been done was not simply post-hoc justification. Can the inferior nuclear state deter the superior nuclear state from launching conventional attacks?

We do not have much data on this – especially since there is no case of the superior state trying to do so. Would an Iran with a rudimentary nuclear arsenal be able to deter an American or Israeli-led assault a la Iraq by threatening troop concentrations and/or fleet elements in the Persian Gulf? We certainly can say that it would heighten caution. An inferior nuclear state might wish to instill anxiety that its weapons could be activated accidently at the height of a crisis – thereby deterring a superior (nuclear and/or conventional) antagonist from pressing its advantage.

A similar logic points to cultivating an image of being ‘irrational.’ Would the United States have invaded Iraq if it believed a “crazy” Saddam had three or four nuclear weapons? Would it consider aggressive action against Iran if it believed the “mad Mullahs” in possession of three or four nuclear weapons? Not sure. But what bearing would upgraded TNWs have on this calculus? None.

If the inferior state (e.g. North Korea) has the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon against the superior’s homeland, that cautionary element grows by several factors of magnitude. Again, in theory. Again, TNWs add nothing to deterrence.

A second question: Can the nuclear state provide a credible deterrent umbrella for an ally that is conventionally inferior to a superior armed enemy? (Western Europe facing the Red Army; Saudi Arabia facing Iran circa 2040). The NATO and South Korea experience says ‘yes.’ That is, if the stakes are highly valued by the state providing the “nuclear umbrella.” Again, the risks of escalating to nuclear exchanges have a conservative effect on everyone. Two things deter: certainty; and total uncertainty.

Here is one general thought about extended deterrence as a “generic” type. Throughout the Cold War years, the United States and its strategically dependent allies wrestled with the question of credibility. Years of mental tergiversations never resolved it. For one intrinsic reason: it is harder to convince an ally than it is to convince a potential enemy of your readiness to use the threat of retaliation to protect them.

There are two aspects to this oddity. First, the enemy has to consider the psychology of only one other party; the ally has to consider the psychology of two other parties. Then, the enemy knows the full direct costs of underestimating our credibility and, in a nuclear setting, will always be ultra conservative in its calculations.

By contrast, the ally that has not experienced the hard realities of both being a possible target of a nuclear attack and the possible originator of a nuclear attack cannot fully share in this psychology. Is this last observation a point in favor of developing a more refined first-strike capability? No. For one thing, given the disproportion of forces, there is no conceivable gain from the conjectured fine-tuning. For another, the risk of nuclear proliferation in the region is very low.

Loose Talk

There is much loose talk about a nuclear arms race in the Middle East were the Sunni states truly worried about the prospect of an Iranian “breakout” 15 or so years from now. This proliferation scenario is fatally flawed. For one thing, a quick move to build a bomb within 90 days (as the Israelis say) or even a year is nonsense.

There is a lot more to the development of an atomic weapon than accumulating sufficient Uranium enriched to 90 percent (HEU). You don’t just pile it up in a corner, cover with a layer of dog-eared nuclear engineering manuals, and then come back a few months later to find that you have acquired a weapon by a process of spontaneous generation.

The engineering and manufacturing requirements are stringent. A competent, disinterested expert on matters of nuclear engineering and design will tell you that three-to-five years is a much more reasonable estimate – if there are no obstacles encountered.

Second, speculation about a Saudi nuclear program should stress the capabilities factor rather than the factor of will. Building a primitive nuclear bomb has become progressively easier as knowledge and technology are more readily available. Still, a development program requires sophisticated engineering skills and a deep industrial base. Saudi Arabia lacks both and will continue to lack both for the indefinite future.

Indeed, it is very thin even by regional standards. The KSA is unable to manufacture all but the most basic mechanical products. That deficit cannot be offset by contracted specialists. So once again we have supposedly responsible people holding responsible positions playing games of make-believe as if their politically driven pronouncements were grounded in reality and logically thought through.

So why are we pushing ahead with a hugely expensive nuclear weapons program that serves no evident strategic purpose? One conceivable answer is that we are just “keeping up with the Joneses.” But there are no Joneses anywhere out there. Greater efficiency? Nuclear weapons are unique in that they serve their purpose when they are not used – just sitting in the garage. Small improvements in potential performance, therefore, offer no benefit to the owner.

Another, more realistic explanation is that we want to prove to ourselves that we “can” do it. That is also why we climb mountains. In this case, there is something of a technological imperative involved as well. If advances in science and engineering hold out the prospect of our being able to do something technologically impressive, then we are tempted to demonstrate that we are up to the challenge.

Much of innovation in the post-modern era is of this nature, i.e. technological feats of uncertain practical benefit. To nuclear weapons, we should add the macho enhancement effect. That mind-set includes an element of faddism. We cultivate a desire for a product after the fact of its being manufactured. Smart Watches, for an example. Or, self-driving cars.

Post-hoc demand creation likely plays a role in maintaining impetus behind the $1 trillion nuclear arms build-up. Once the military people and defense “strategists” fix their minds on ultra-capable, precision-guided and customized nuclear missiles and bombs, they come up with ends to which they might be put. And let’s not forget that for some the idea of being able to launch a smart, nuclear-tipped missile down an imagined Iranian tunnel to where critical projects are located is thrilling.

Or, just think what might have happened had we such masterful technology when Osama bin Laden was holed up in a Toro Bora cave in December 2001. I guess that by some abstract thinking it could have compensated for the obtuseness of General Franks in refusing to send up Special Forces (for fear of casualties) or the ineptitude of the CIA/NSA in losing track of him for a decade until a walk-in gave away his location.

The titanosaur-sized price for that dubious gain hardly seems worth it when the much cheaper alternative is the promotion of qualified generals and Intelligence officials. The pity is not realizing at the outset that this greatest of all dinosaurs is actually a White Elephant.

Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.