The Saudi-US Crisis Will Pass

U.S.-Saudi ties have withstood crises in the past and will withstand this one, says As’ad AbuKhalil.

Washington and Riyadh Have Had Worse

Crises and Will Survive Khashoggi Murder

By As`ad AbuKhalil
Special to Consortium News

Nobody in Washington, Republican or Democrat, welcomes the crisis in U.S.–Saudi relations prompted by the murder in Istanbul of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi defector, on October 2. Maintaining good relations with the Saudi royal family has been a high bipartisan priority since President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King  Abdul Aziz ibn Saud made their Faustian bargain in 1945:  The U.S. would shield the Saudi kingdom’s tyranny from criticism in exchange for a share of oil revenues and Riyadh’s political loyalty (and American arms sales).

The relationship has continued this way in the decades since—and will still do so. The U.S. has covered up a long history of Saudi crimes and conspiracies; during the Cold War it used the Saudis to spread extremist jihadi ideologies to counter secular Arabs that tilted towards Moscow. More recently, the Saudi regime was not freelancing when it cultivated the likes of Osama bin Laden: He was part of a Saudi-U.S.-Pakistani effort to recruit, arm, and finance fanatical Muslims from around the world to undermine the progressive secular regime in Afghanistan.

If history is any guide, it is highly likely that Washington and Riyadh are collaborating behind the scenes to cover up the truth of the Khashoggi case and preserve the relationship as it has been for the past 85 years.

Beside the current crisis, there have been other dust-ups in the history of U.S.-Saudi relations. The 1973 oil crisis was the most serious, and it nearly undermined the alliance.  Back then the Saudi regime couldn’t ignore the rising tide of Arab sentiment against U.S. intervention on the side of Israel in the 1973 war.

King Faisal was adamant in discussions with Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s secretary of state and national security adviser, that Israel should withdraw from occupied Arab territories in return for lifting the oil embargo. Contrary to his public statements, Faisal hadn’t rejected Israel’s occupation of Palestine since the 1948 war.  Reflecting in part the king’s deep anti-Semitism, Faisal only refused to recognize Jewish religious rights in Jerusalem.

When reminded of the significance of the Wailing Wall (Buraq Wall for Muslims), he recommended construction of a new wall where Jews “could weep.” But Faisal’s firm stance didn’t last long: New U.S. arms sales were enough to make him abandon his insistence that Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories was a necessary condition for the restoration of oil sales to the West.

Another crisis arose with the broadcast of the movie “Death of a Princess” in 1980. The British-made film was based on a true story about the beheading of a Saudi princess who fell in love with a commoner. After the movie was shown in Britain, the Saudi government did not want U.S. television stations to broadcast it. The American oil lobby put enormous pressure on PBS stations around the country not to air it. Very few stations did, and the bilateral relationship was secured. 

There were other crises in the relationship in the 1980s between the Saudi government and Congress: Under pressure from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Congress opposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia, even as administrations (Democratic and Republican) favored them. AIPAC dropped its objections to weapons sales after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the establishment of secret contacts between Israel and Gulf countries.

This is the background from which to view the current, relatively minor crisis in comparison. The Khasshogi killing wouldn’t have amounted to much if the U.S. mainstream media didn’t make a strong case against the Saudi royal family (while suddenly discovering the Saudis’ war on Yemen), and if the Turkish government hadn’t leaked so many gruesome details about the murder in the Saudi’s Istanbul consulate.

Trump’s Waffles

The Trump administration—in line with successive U.S. administrations–—first tried to minimize the significance of the crime.  President Donald Trump typically reminded Americans of the value of arms sales to the Saudi kingdom. But his subsequent statements were inconsistent: First he’d mention $10 billion in arms sales and then he’d promise to sanction the regime. He even uncharacteristically, for a U.S. president, pledged to let Congress decide on sanctions once an investigation is completed. (Which of several investigations he didn’t say.)

It’s not a stretch to believe the Trump administration has been working covertly with the Saudis to come up with a coverup story. The Saudi’s multiple explanations have been unconvincing from the start. The intent of CIA Director Gina Haspel’s trip to Istanbul seemed to be to shield the Saudi regime from the murder and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s involvement. Haspel may have been behind Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s surprising reluctance to reveal “the naked truth,” as he’d promised.

The U.S. almost certainly wanted the Turkish government’s raw intelligence to better advise the Saudis on the coverup. After Haspel’s meeting with Trump upon her return the Saudis admitted it was premeditated murder.

The U.S. likely mediated between Erdogan and MbS, given the animosity between the Turks and Saudis. Outlines of a deal are emerging. The Saudis now refer to their former occupiers as “sisterly Turkey,” though bin Salmon previously included it in the region’s “axis of evil.” Official Saudi rhetoric has also changed towards Qatar, which the Saudis and their allies have blockaded since last year. MbS and Adel Jubeir, his foreign minister, have made conciliatory statements about Doha in the last few days, something unthinkable a month ago.

Western and Turkish media keeps the Khassoghi story alive. But AIPAC, UAE and Israeli pressure has been exerted on the U.S. not to abandon bin Salman. For Israel, he is the opportunity of a lifetime: a rising Saudi prince in line to be king who is unburdened by political or religious attachment to ditch the Palestinians and continue his hostility toward Iran.

It is to Washington’s advantage that MbS has been weakened. He might now abandon his proclivity for adventurism and become a more traditional Saudi despot deferring to DC on key decisions. But that should make him also be more cautious about confronting Iran and endorsing Trump’s “deal of the century” for the Palestinians. The U.S. is still capable, though, of maneuvering to replace him if he becomes no longer useful, despite Saudi threats to align itself with China and Russia, or quit its embrace of Israel. 

The relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has survived previous crises. It will survive this one.

As’ad AbuKhalil is a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Lebanon (1998), Bin Laden, Islam and America’s New “War on Terrorism” (2002), and The Battle for Saudi Arabia (2004). He also runs the popular blog The Angry Arab News Service.

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Despite Saudi Crisis, US Increases Threats Against Iran

Though the U.S.-Saudi alliance may have been weakened because of the Khashoggi murder, both countries are still targeting Iran as new US sanctions are announced on Sunday, writes Marjorie Cohn of Truthout. 

By Marjorie Cohn
Truthout

The alleged torture, murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, widely believed to have been carried out on orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, may put a crimp in Donald Trump’s plans to escalate his aggression against Iran.

Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel are unified in their hatred of Iran, albeit with different motives. Iran has been in the crosshairs of the United States since the 1979 Iranian Revolution overthrew the vicious, US-installed puppet Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi; indeed, in 2002, George W. Bush initiated Iran into his “axis of evil.” Saudi Arabia, home to the two holiest Muslim sites, sees Shiite Iran as a rival for regional hegemony. And Israel considers Iran an “existential threat.”

Trump administration officials and outside experts said that possible repercussions on an elaborate plan to squeeze the Iranians have dominated internal discussions about the fallout over what happened to Mr. Khashoggi,” David Sanger reported in The New York Times.

The allegations against the Saudi crown prince “have already had an effect” on Israel, “effectively freezing the push to build an international coalition against Iran’s regional influence, the top priority for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” Ben Hubbard and David Halbfinger, citing “analysts,” wrote in the Times.

White House officials are worried the mushrooming crisis with Saudi Arabia could “derail a showdown with Iran and jeopardize plans to enlist Saudi help to avoid disrupting the oil market.”

Trump Still Ramps It Up

Following the dangerous and foolhardy withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — which pleased Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration is slated to announce on Sunday that companies doing business with Iran — including purchasing oil or making investments in the country — will be forbidden from doing business in the United States. The imposition of these punishing sanctions are intended to result in a full embargo of Iran’s oil. 

Trump will need Saudi military and political cooperation if, “as threatened,” Iran retaliates against his oil embargo by taking “reciprocal, physical action to halt Saudi and Gulf states’ oil exports via the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf and the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, at the mouth of the Red Sea,” Simon Tisdall noted in The Guardian. “If this crisis point is reached, escalating confrontations across the region cannot be ruled out.”

The Trump administration is relying on Saudi Arabia to pump extra oil once Iran is out of the market. But Congress is considering whether to punish Saudi Arabia for the Khashoggi case.

To penalize what the Saudis care about most – oil revenue – would be to undercut the Iran policy and send the price of gasoline and heating oil significantly higher, just as winter approaches,” Sanger noted.

Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Times, “It’s a neat trick if you both sanction a country and partner with them at the same time,” adding, “it’s not easy to keep the focus on Iran’s behavior when the Saudis are doing terrible things to journalists and dissidents, and bombing children in Yemen.”

The Khashoggi murder has shone a spotlight on the commission of Saudi war crimes in Yemen, aided and abetted by the United States. In a New York Times opinion piece, Sen. Bernie Sanders called for ending US military support to Saudi Arabia. But Sanger cited administration sources as saying, “the issue of limiting American arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which Mr. Trump has said would threaten American jobs, pales in importance [to the plan to squeeze Iran].”

Meanwhile, Trump continues to rattle the sabers at Iran.

Taliban Targeted

On Oct. 23, the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center, comprised of the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, designated nine individuals “associated with the Taliban,” some of whom have “Iranian sponsors.” A Bush-era executive order authorizes the Office of Foreign Assets Control to block the assets of anyone or any group designated as a terrorist.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced the terrorism designations in a press release, stating that the United States is “targeting key Iranian sponsors providing financial and material support to the Taliban.” He added, “Iran’s support to the Taliban stands in stark violation of the United Nations Security Council Resolutions and epitomizes the regime’s utter disregard for fundamental international norms.”

In a May speech, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would “crush” Iran with new sanctions so severe that regime change could result.

Moreover, on Oct. 5, the White House released its long-awaited 25-page counterterrorism strategy, which calls Iran “the most prominent state sponsor of terrorism.” It pledges to fight Iran and “radical Islamist” militants to eliminate the terror threat against the United States.

In fact, Iran has not used aggressive military force against a hostile neighbor for more than 200 years. Curiously, the new U.S. counterterrorism strategy fails to identify Saudi Arabia, which is targeting civilians and killing thousands of them in Yemen (and backing extremists in Syria and elsewhere), as a terrorist threat.

Eric Margolis, a veteran war correspondent in the Middle East, reported in July that the Pentagon has prepared plans for an air attack on Iran:

The Pentagon has planned a high-intensity air war against Iran that Israel and the Saudis might very well join. The plan calls for over 2,300 air strikes against Iranian strategic targets: airfields and naval bases, arms and petroleum, oil and lubricant depots, telecommunication nodes, radar, factories, military headquarters, ports, water works, airports, missile bases and units of the Revolutionary Guards.

The National Coalition to Prevent an Iranian Nuclear Weapon, a group of more than 50 prominent foreign policy experts, released a statement saying, “The Trump Administration’s Iran strategy is to assert maximum economic, political and military pressure to change Iran’s behavior and threaten, if not cause, collapse of the regime.” That strategy, they added, “has left Iran the option of either capitulation or war.”

Many in Congress are worried that Trump may be gunning for Iran. They are trying to prevent him from mounting a preemptive strike.

Will Congress Stop an Attack?

On Sept. 28, Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), joined by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Chris Murphy (D-CT), introduced the Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act of 2018. It would prohibit the United States from appropriating money that could lead to war with Iran unless Congress expressly approves. The legislation makes clear that a preemptive attack on Iran would be illegal under the War Powers Act and the US Constitution.

The Udall bill notes that “the International Atomic Energy Agency repeatedly verified that Iran has continued to comply with it nuclear-related obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” US noncompliance with the JCPOA, the bill continues, “risks an unnecessary conflagration with Iran through the use of sanctions against both allies and adversaries in the region and throughout the world, absent a clear diplomatic path for resolving the crisis.” The bill quotes Trump’s tweet that Iran “[w]ill suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.”

Congress explicitly provided in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019, “Nothing in this Act may be construed to authorize the use of force against Iran or North Korea.”

In April, a bipartisan bill to replace the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Force (AUMF) was introduced in the Senate and is currently pending in the Foreign Relations Committee. The proposed bill would allow the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force” against Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Somalia, al-Qaeda, ISIS (also known as Daesh), the Taliban and their “associated forces.” But by its terms, “associated forces” specifically excludes “a sovereign nation.” So, the new AUMF would not cover Iran.

That wouldn’t stop Trump from purporting to rely on the 2001 AUMF to attack Iran, however. Although specifically limited to those responsible for 9/11, Bush, Obama and Trump have all used it to justify at least 37 military operations, many of them unrelated to 9/11.

Copyright Truthout. Reprinted with permission.

Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and an advisory board member of Veterans for Peace. The editor and contributor to The United States and Torture: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues, Cohn testified before Congress about the Bush interrogation policy.




New Iran Sanctions Risk Long-term US Isolation

The U.S. is going for the jugular with new Iran sanctions intended to punish those who trade with Teheran. But the U.S. may have a fight on its hands in a possible post- WWII turning-point, writes Patrick Lawrence.

New Iran Sanctions Risks
Long-term US Isolation

Europe, Asia May Rebel Against US Penalties

By Patrick Lawrence
Special to Consortium News

The next step in the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran comes this Sunday, Nov. 4, when the most severe sanctions will be imposed on the Islamic Republic. Crucially, they apply not only to Iran but to anyone who continues to do business with it.

It’s not yet clear how disruptive this move will be. While the U.S. intention is to isolate Iran, it is the U.S. that could wind up being more isolated. It depends on the rest of the world’s reaction, and especially Europe’s.

The issue is so fraught that disputes over how to apply the new sanctions have even divided Trump administration officials.

The administration is going for the jugular this time. It wants to force Iranian exports of oil and petrochemical products down to as close to zero as possible. As the measures are now written, they also exclude Iran from the global interbank system known as SWIFT.

It is hard to say which of these sanctions is more severe. Iran’s oil exports have already started falling. They peaked at 2.7 million barrels a day last May—just before Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the six-nation accord governing Iran’s nuclear programs. By early September oil exports were averaging a million barrels a day less.

In August the U.S. barred Iran’s purchases of U.S.-dollar denominated American and foreign company aircraft and auto parts. Since then the Iranian rial has crashed to record lows and inflation has risen above 30 percent.

Revoking Iran’s SWIFT privileges will effectively cut the nation out of the dollar-denominated global economy. But there are moves afoot, especially by China and Russia, to move away from a dollar-based economy.

The SWIFT issue has caused infighting in the administration between Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser who is among the most vigorous Iran hawks in the White House. Mnuchin might win a temporary delay or exclusions for a few Iranian financial institutions, but probably not much more.

On Sunday, the second round of sanctions will kick in since Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 Obama administration-backed, nuclear agreement, which lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for stringent controls on its nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly certified that the deal is working and the other signatories—Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia have not pulled out and have resumed trading with Iran. China and Russia have already said they will ignore American threats to sanction it for continuing economic relations with Iran. The key question is what will America’s European allies do?

Europeans React

Europe has been unsettled since Trump withdrew in May from the nuclear accord. The European Union is developing a trading mechanism to get around U.S. sanctions. Known as a Special Purpose Vehicle, it would allow European companies to use a barter system similar to how Western Europe traded with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

EU officials have also been lobbying to preserve Iran’s access to global interbank operations by excluding the revocation of SWIFT privileges from Trump’s list of sanctions. They count Mnuchin, who is eager to preserve U.S. influence in the global trading system, among their allies. Some European officials, including Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, propose making the euro a global trading currency to compete with the dollar.

Except for Charles de Gaulle briefly pulling France out of NATO in 1967 and Germany and France voting on the UN Security Council against the U.S. invading Iraq in 2003, European nations have been subordinate to the U.S. since the end of the Second World War.

The big European oil companies, unwilling to risk the threat of U.S. sanctions, have already signaled they intend to ignore the EU’s new trade mechanism. Total SA, the French petroleum company and one of Europe’s biggest, pulled out of its Iran operations several months ago.

Earlier this month a U.S. official confidently predicted there would be little demand among European corporations for the proposed barter mechanism.

Whether Europe succeeds in efforts to defy the U.S. on Iran is nearly beside the point from a long-term perspective. Trans-Atlantic damage has already been done. A rift that began to widen during the Obama administration seems about to get wider still.

Asia Reacts

Asian nations are also exhibiting resistance to the impending U.S. sanctions. It is unlikely they could absorb all the exports Iran will lose after Nov. 4, but they could make a significant difference. China, India, and South Korea are the first, second, and third-largest importers of Iranian crude; Japan is sixth. Asian nations may also try to work around the U.S. sanctions regime after Nov. 4.

India is considering purchases of Iranian crude via a barter system or denominating transactions in rupees. China, having already said it would ignore the U.S. threat, would like nothing better than to expand yuan-denominated oil trading, and this is not a hard call: It is in a protracted trade war with the U.S., and an oil-futures market launched in Shanghai last spring already claims roughly 14 percent of the global market for “front-month” futures—contracts covering shipments closest to delivery.

As with most of the Trump administration’s foreign policies, we won’t know how the new sanctions will work until they are introduced. There could be waivers for nations such as India; Japan is on record asking for one. The E.U.’s Special Purpose Vehicle could prove at least a modest success at best, but this remains uncertain. Nobody is sure who will win the administration’s internal argument over SWIFT.

Long-term Consequences for the U.S.

The de-dollarization of the global economy is gradually gathering momentum. The orthodox wisdom in the markets has long been that competition with the dollar from other currencies will eventually prove a reality, but it will not be one to arrive in our lifetimes. But with European and Asian reactions to the imminent sanctions against Iran it could come sooner than previously thought.

The coalescing of emerging powers into a non-Western alliance —most significantly China, Russia, India, and Iran—starts to look like another medium-term reality. This is driven by practical rather than ideological considerations, and the U.S. could not do more to encourage this if it tried. When Washington withdrew from the Iran accord, Moscow and Beijing immediately pledged to support Tehran by staying with its terms.If the U.S. meets significant resistance, especially from its allies, it could be a turning-point in post-Word War II U.S. dominance.

Supposedly Intended for New Talks

All this is intended to force Iran back to the negotiating table for a rewrite of what Trump often calls “the worst deal ever.” Tehran has made it clear countless times it has no intention of reopening the pact, given that it has consistently adhered to its terms and that the other signatories to the deal are still abiding by it.

The U.S. may be drastically overplaying its hand and could pay the price with additional international isolation that has worsened since Trump took office.

Washington has been on a sanctions binge for years. Those about to take effect seem recklessly broad. This time, the U.S. risks lasting alienation even from those allies that have traditionally been its closest.

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author, and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century (Yale). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is www.patricklawrence.us. Support his work via www.patreon.com/thefloutist .

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Why the U.S. Seeks to Hem in Russia, China and Iran

America’s three principal adversaries signify the shape of the world to come: a post-Western world of coexistence. But neoliberal and neocon ideology is unable to to accept global pluralism and multipolarity, argues Patrick Lawrence.

By Patrick Lawrence
Special to Consortium News

The Trump administration has brought U.S. foreign policy to the brink of crisis, if it has not already tipped into one. There is little room to argue otherwise. In Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, and in Washington’s ever-fraught relations with Russia, U.S. strategy, as reviewed in my previous column, amounts to little more than spoiling the efforts of others to negotiate peaceful solutions to war and dangerous standoffs in the interests of an orderly world.

The bitter reality is that U.S. foreign policy has no definable objective other than blocking the initiatives of others because they stand in the way of the further expansion of U.S. global interests. This impoverished strategy reflects Washington’s refusal to accept the passing of its relatively brief post–Cold War moment of unipolar power. 

There is an error all too common in American public opinion. Personalizing Washington’s regression into the role of spoiler by assigning all blame to one man, now Donald Trump, deprives one of deeper understanding. This mistake was made during the steady attack on civil liberties after the Sept. 11 tragedies and then during the 2003 invasion of Iraq: namely that it was all  George W. Bush’s fault. It was not so simple then and is not now. The crisis of U.S. foreign policy—a series of radical missteps—are systemic. Having little to do with personalities, they pass from one administration to the next with little variance other than at the margins.

Let us bring some history to this question of America as spoiler. What is the origin of this undignified and isolating approach to global affairs?

It began with that hubristic triumphalism so evident in the decade after the Cold War’s end. What ensued had various names.

There was the “end of history” thesis. American liberalism was humanity’s highest achievement, and nothing would supersede it.

There was also the “Washington consensus.” The world was in agreement that free-market capitalism and unfettered financial markets would see the entire planet to prosperity. The consensus never extended far beyond the Potomac, but this sort of detail mattered little at the time.

The neoliberal economic crusade accompanied by neoconservative politics had its intellectual ballast, and off went its true-believing warriors around the world.

Failures ensued. Iraq post–2003 is among the more obvious. Nobody ever planted democracy or built free markets in Baghdad. Then came the “color revolutions,” which resulted in the destabilization of large swathes of the former Soviet Union’s borderlands. The  2008 financial crash followed.

I was in Hong Kong at the time and recall thinking, “This is not just Lehman Brothers. An economic model is headed into Chapter 11.” One would have thought a fundamental rethink in Washington might have followed these events. There has never been one.

The orthodoxy today remains what it was when it formed in the 1990s: The neoliberal crusade must proceed. Our market-driven, “rules-based” order is still advanced as the only way out of our planet’s impasses.

A Strategic and Military Turn

Midway through the first Obama administration, a crucial turn began. What had been an assertion of financial and economic power, albeit coercive in many instances, particularly with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, took on further strategic and military dimensions. The NATO bombing campaign in Libya, ostensibly a humanitarian mission, became a regime-change operation—despite Washington’s promises otherwise. Obama’s “pivot to Asia” turned out to be a neo-containment policy toward China. The “reset” with Russia, declared after Obama appointed Hillary Clinton secretary of state, flopped and turned into the virulent animosity we now live with daily. The U.S.-cultivated coup in Kiev in 2014 was a major declaration of drastic turn in policy towards Moscow. So was the decision, taken in 2012 at the latest, to back the radical jihadists who were turning civil unrest in Syria into a campaign to topple the Assad government in favor of another Islamist regime.

Spoilage as a poor excuse for a foreign policy had made its first appearances.  

I count 2013 to 2015 as key years. At the start of this period, China began developing what it now calls its Belt and Road Initiative—its hugely ambitious plan to stitch together the Eurasian landmass, Shanghai to Lisbon. Moscow favored this undertaking, not least because of the key role Russia had to play and because it fit well with President Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), launched in 2014.

In 2015, the last of the three years I just noted, Russia intervened militarily and diplomatically in the Syria conflict, in part to protect its southwest from Islamist extremism and in part to pull the Middle East back from the near-anarchy then threatening it as well as Russia and the West.

Meanwhile, Washington had cast China as an adversary and committed itself—as it apparently remains—to regime change in Syria. Three months prior to the treaty that established the EAEU, the Americans helped turn another case of civil unrest into a regime change—this time backing not jihadists in Syria but the crypto-Nazi militias in Ukraine on which the government now in power still depends.

That is how we got the U.S.-as-spoiler foreign policy we now have.

If there is a president to blame—and again, I see little point in this line of argument—it would have to be Barack Obama. To a certain extent, Obama was a creature of those around him, as he acknowledged in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic toward the end of his second term. From that “Anonymous” opinion piece published in The New York Times on Sept. 5, we know Trump is too, to a greater extent than Obama may have feared in his worst moments.

The crucial question is why. Why do U.S. policy cliques find themselves bereft of imaginative thinking in the face of an evolving world order? Why has there been not a single original policy initiative since the years I single out, with the exception of the now-abandoned 2015 accord governing Iran’s nuclear programs? “Right now, our job is to create quagmires until we get what we want,” an administration official told The Washington Post’s David Ignatius in August.

Can you think of a blunter confession of intellectual bankruptcy? I can’t.  

Global ‘Equals’ Like Us?

There is a longstanding explanation for this paralysis. Seven decades of global hegemony, the Cold War notwithstanding, left the State Department with little to think about other than the simplicities of East-West tension. Those planning and executing American diplomacy lost all facility for imaginative thinking because there was no need of it. This holds true, in my view, but there is more to our specific moment than mere sclerosis within the policy cliques.

As I have argued numerous times elsewhere, parity between East and West is a 21st century imperative. From Woodrow Wilson to the post-World War II settlement, an equality among all nations was in theory what the U.S. considered essential to global order.

Now that this is upon us, however, Washington cannot accept it. It did not count on non-Western nations achieving a measure of prosperity and influence until they were “just like us,” as the once famous phrase had it. And it has not turned out that way.

Think of Russia, China, and Iran, the three nations now designated America’s principal adversaries. Each one is fated to become (if it is not already) a world or regional power and a key to stability—Russia and China on a global scale, Iran in the Middle East. But each stands resolutely—and this is not to say with hostile intent—outside the Western-led order. They have different histories, traditions, cultures, and political cultures. And they are determined to preserve them.

They signify the shape of the world to come—a post-Western world in which the Atlantic alliance must coexist with rising powers outside its orbit. Together, then, they signify precisely what the U.S. cannot countenance. And if there is one attribute of neoliberal and neoconservative ideology that stands out among all others, it is its complete inability to accept difference or deviation if it threatens its interests.

This is the logic of spoilage as a substitute for foreign policy. Among its many consequences are countless lost opportunities for global stability. 

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author, and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century (Yale). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is www.patricklawrence.us. Support his work via www.patreon.com/thefloutist.

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VIPS to Trump:  Intel on Iran Could be CATASTROPHIC

As drums beat again for war — this time on Iran—-the VIPS’ warning is again being disregarded as it was before the Iraq debacle and this time VIPS fear the consequences will be all-caps CATASTROPHIC. 


August 1, 2018


MEMORANDUM FOR: The President

FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)

SUBJECT: 
Intelligence on Iran Fails the Smell Test

Mr. President:

As the George W. Bush administration revved up to attack Iraq 15 years ago, we could see no compelling reason for war.  We decided, though, to give President Bush the benefit of the doubt on the chance he had been sandbagged by Vice President Dick Cheney and others.  We chose to allow for the possibility that he actually believed the “intelligence” that Colin Powell presented to the UN as providing “irrefutable and undeniable” proof of WMD in Iraq and a “sinister nexus” between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

To us in VIPS it was clear, however, that the “intelligence” Powell adduced was bogus.  Thus, that same afternoon (Feb. 5, 2003) we prepared and sent to President Bush a Memorandum like this one, urging him to seek counsel beyond the “circle of those advisers clearly bent on a war for which we see no compelling reason and from which we believe the unintended consequences are likely to be catastrophic.”

We take no satisfaction at having been correct — though disregarded — in predicting the political and humanitarian disaster in Iraq. Most Americans have been told the intelligence was “mistaken.” It was not; it was out-and-out fraud, in which, sadly, some of our former colleagues took part.

Five years after Powell’s speech, the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee minced few words in announcing the main bipartisan finding of a five-year investigation. He said:  “In making the case for war, the Administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent.  As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed.”

Iran Now in Gunsight

As drums beat again for a military attack — this time on Iran, we Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity and other experienced, objective analysts are, by all appearances, being disregarded again.  And, this time, we fear the consequences will be all-caps CATASTROPHIC — in comparison with the catastrophe of Iraq.

In memoranda to you over the past year and a half we have pointed out that (1) Iran’s current support for international terrorism is far short of what it was decades ago; and (2) that you are being played by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claims about Iran: they are based on intelligence exposed as fraudulent several years ago.  Tellingly, Netanyahu waited for your new national security adviser to be in place for three weeks before performing his April 30 slide show alleging that Iran has a covert nuclear weapons program.  On the chance that our analysis of Netanyahu’s show-and-tell failed to reach you, please know that the Israeli prime minister was recycling information from proven forgeries, which we reported in a Memorandum to you early last spring.

If our Memorandum of May 7 fell through some cracks in the West Wing, here are its main findings:

The evidence displayed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on April 30 in what he called his “Iranian atomic archive” showed blatant signs of fabrication. That evidence is linked to documents presented by the Bush Administration more than a decade earlier as “proof” of a covert Iran nuclear weapons program. Those documents were clearly fabricated, as well.

In our May 7, 2018 Memorandum we also asserted: “We can prove that the actual documents originally came not from Iran but from Israel. Moreover, the documents were never authenticated by the CIA or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).”

Iran: Almost Targeted in 2008

There was a close brush with war with Iran a decade ago.  Bush and Cheney, in close consultation with Israel, were planning to attack Iran in 2008, their last year in office.  Fortunately, an honest National Intelligence Estimate of November 2007 concluded that Iran had stopped working on a nuclear weapon in 2003, and that key judgment was made public.  Abruptly, that NIE stuck an iron rod into the wheels of the juggernaut then speeding downhill to war.

The key judgment that Iran had stopped work on a nuclear weapon was the result of the painstakingly deliberative process that was customarily used, back in the day, to produce an NIE. After that process — which took a full year —  the Nov. 2007 NIE was was approved unanimously by all U.S. intelligence agencies.

(In other words, it was decidedly NOT a rump “assessment” like the one cobbled together in a couple of weeks by “handpicked” analysts from three selected, agenda-laden agencies regarding Russian meddling. We refer, of course, to the evidence-impoverished and deceptively labeled “Intelligence Community Assessment” that the directors of the FBI, CIA, and NSA gave you on January 6, 2017. The Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department intelligence bureau were among the other 13 agencies excluded from that “Intelligence Community Assessment.”)

As for the Bush/Cheney plans for attacking Iran in 2008, President George W. Bush, in his autobiography, Decision Points, recorded his chagrin at what he called the NIE’s “eye-popping” intelligence finding debunking the conventional wisdom that Iran was on the verge of getting a nuclear weapon.  Bush added plaintively, “How could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?”

Mr. President, we do not know whether a fresh National Intelligence Estimate has been produced on Iran and nuclear weapons — or, if one has been produced, whether it is as honest as the NIE of Nov. 2007, which helped prevent the launch of another unnecessary war the following year.  We stand on our record.  In sum, if you believe that there is credible evidence that Iran has an active secret nuclear weapons program, we believe you have been misled.  And if you base decisions on misleading “intelligence” on Iran, the inevitable result will be a great deal worse than the Bush/Cheney debacle in Iraq.

For the Steering Group

Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity

William Binney, former NSA Technical Director for World Geopolitical & Military Analysis; Co-founder of NSA’s Signals Intelligence Automation Research Center (ret.)

Sen. Richard H. Black, 13th District of Virginia; Colonel US Army (ret.); former Chief, Criminal Law Division, Office of the Judge Advocate General, Pentagon (associate VIPS)

Marshal Carter-Tripp, Foreign Service Officer (ret.) and Division Director, State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research

Kathleen Christison, Senior Analyst on Middle East, CIA (ret.)

Bogdan Dzakovic, former Team Leader of Federal Air Marshals and Red Team, FAA Security (ret.) (associate VIPS)

Philip Giraldi, CIA, Operations Officer (ret.)

Larry C. Johnson, former CIA and State Department Counter-terrorism officer

Michael S. Kearns, Captain, USAF (ret.); Wing Commander, RAAF (ret.); Intelligence Officer & ex-Master SERE Instructor

Linda Lewis, WMD preparedness policy analyst, USDA (ret.) (associate VIPS)

Edward Loomis, NSA Cryptologic Computer Scientist (ret.)

David MacMichael, Capt., USMC (ret.); former Senior Estimates Officer, National Intelligence Council

Ray McGovern, former US Army Infantry/Intelligence Officer & CIA analyst; CIA Presidential briefer (ret.)

Elizabeth Murray, former Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East, National Intelligence Council & CIA political analyst (ret.)

Todd E. Pierce, MAJ, US Army Judge Advocate (ret.)

Scott Ritter, former MAJ., USMC; former UN Weapons Inspector, Iraq

Coleen Rowley, FBI Special Agent and former Minneapolis Division Legal Counsel (ret.)

Sarah G. Wilton, Intelligence Officer, DIA (ret.); Commander, US Naval Reserve (ret.)

Robert Wing, former Foreign Service Officer (associate VIPS)

Ann Wright, Colonel, US Army (ret.); Foreign Service Officer (resigned in opposition to the war on Iraq)




A Middle East with No Master

The American abandonment of diplomacy in the Middle East has allowed its clients to pretty much do what they want leading to an ongoing realignment in the region, says Chas Freeman.

By Chas W. Freeman Jr.

Time was, the countries of the Middle East relied on the United States for patronage, protection, and guidance.  Suez taught Israel, Britain, and France that without Washington’s acquiescence, their policies could not succeed.  Egypt’s defection showed Russia the limits of its ability to compete for clients in the region.  It was U.S. leadership that enabled Israel, Egypt, and Jordan to end the state of war between them.

The standing of the United States in the region derived in part from its centrality to diplomacy aimed at finding a formula for peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians and acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy by its Arab neighbors. Except on issues related to Israel, many Arab governments followed America wherever it led. The collapse of the Soviet Union erased Russian influence in the Middle East, as it did elsewhere.

To recall this history is to underscore the extent of the geopolitical changes that have occurred so far this century. The United States no longer enjoys primacy in the Middle East.  The former colonial powers need American military support to intervene in the region, but the countries of the region itself now act independently, confident that they can gain American backing for whatever they do. They do not seem to be wrong about this, judging from U.S. backing for Israel’s wars on its neighbors, Gulf Arab efforts to topple the Asad government in Syria, and the ongoing devastation of Yemen by Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.

In this century, the U.S.-managed “peace process” between Israelis and Palestinians served as a distraction while Israel evicted Palestinians from their homes, annexed their lands, and denied them self-determination. The ever less credible “peace process” ended by severely damaging U.S. diplomatic standing in the region and beyond it. Unilateral U.S. recognition of an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital capped what had come to be seen as the world’s longest–running diplomatic farce.

In the absence of strategy, a desire to sustain relationships in the region by supporting clients’ actions drives U.S. policy. The clients themselves have moved beyond relationship-driven diplomacy and are into transactionalism. The extent to which the U.S. now follows rather than leads its client states in the region is reflected in the Trump administration’s obeisance to Israeli and Saudi hostility to Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA—Iran nuclear deal.)

Meanwhile, minimal commitments of force accompanied by deft diplomacy have enabled Russia to exploit the Syrian tragedy [having been invited into Syria by Damascus] to become the most sought-after external actor in the region’s affairs. Turkey, once outside the region and Russia’s NATO enemy, is again part of the Middle East, this time cooperating with Russia there more often than not.  Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are all cultivating ties with Moscow.  Their objective is to correct over-reliance on the United States by diluting it.  The same purpose inspires their efforts to build markets in China and India and to enlist Chinese and Indian support for their foreign policies.

Ongoing Consequences of U.S. Invasion of Iraq

The U.S. invasion of Iraq thrust that country into anarchy and religious warfare that embittered relations between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the region.  U.S. policies focused on regime change gave Iran political hegemony in Iraq, entrenched its influence in Syria, and consolidated its alliance with Lebanese Hezbollah.  The collapse of order in the Levant spawned vicious new  terrorist movements that spread from Iraq to Syria, Somalia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and the Sahel.

From the outset, Islamist forces in Syria enjoyed support from foreign enemies of the Asad government, including Islamists, the Syrian diaspora, most of the Gulf Arab states, Turkey, Israel, and the United States.  As proxy warfare escalated, an avalanche of refugees from Syria destabilized the EU. Six hundred thousand dead and 11 million displaced Syrians later, Asad remains in the saddle in Damascus.  He has defeated his armed opposition but is beholden to Iran, its Shiite allies in Lebanese Hezbollah, and Russia for this victory. Syria’s agonies are ending in a phony war between the United States and Turkey. Israel, which wanted anarchy or partition in Syria, now struggles to contain a hostile Iranian presence there and in neighboring Lebanon. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states that sought to overthrow Asad must now find a way to live with him.

Misguided American interventions and freelancing by U.S. client states have thus transformed the region’s politics, entrenched anti-Americanism with global reach, and facilitated its spread in Africa and Asia.  The wars that did this – the pacification campaigns in Afghanistan that followed the post-9/11 punitive raid of 2001, the destabilization of Iraq, the overthrow of the Libyan government, and incoherently contradictory policies that supported mutual antagonists in Syria – have yet to end or are ending in American defeat.  No longer the playground of imperial powers, the Middle East is now dominated by religious strife, Arab efforts to roll back US-abetted Persian hegemony, and cynical manipulation of Washington’s policy decisions by U.S. client states.

Four Trends in the Region

Let me conclude with four broad observations about overall trends in the Middle East.

First, religion is back as a driver of history.  Once a contest of nationalisms, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle is now part of the region’s multi-dimensional religious strife.  Both Sunni and Shiite extremists have made violent opposition to Zionism – as opposed to support for the Palestinian cause – a central feature of their ideologies.  This position enjoys broad support in the Muslim world.  Despite common interests with Israel, Arab pragmatists are constrained by Muslim loathing of Zionism in what they can do with it.  Meanwhile, the transformation of Judaism into a racist state ideology by Zionist extremists risks separating Israel from mainstream Jews abroad, who recoil from identification with the so-called “Jewish state’s” perversion of Jewish values and its increasingly amoral and inhumane behavior.  Ironically, however, as Hindutva tightens its hold on Indian politics, India’s Islamophobia is drawing it closer to Israel, which is becoming an increasingly important source of the country’s defense imports.

Second, the rising powers that Middle Eastern countries seek to engage in their affairs are unlikely to meet their expectations. China and India are the fastest growing markets for the Middle East’s energy exporters. But China has assiduously avoided entanglement in the region’s conflicts – whether Israel-Palestine or Gulf Arab-Iran. China is now the major foreign presence in Iraq’s oil sector, a significant investor in Egyptian and Iranian industry, a growing force in engineering management and construction in the Gulf, and a lucrative market for Israeli defense and internal security technology. Indian and Pakistani labor is a mainstay of Gulf Arab economies. But with the exception of an effort to loosen Pakistan’s hold on Afghanistan by investing in the Iranian port of Chabahar, India too is keeping its distance from Middle Eastern politics.

Third, with the exception of the United States, external powers have all declined to associate themselves with Israel’s, Saudi Arabia’s, and the United Arab Emirates’ hysteria about Iran. U.S. policy follows that of Israel in its focus on Iran’s potential to become a nuclear weapons state. Americans remain in denial about our role in expanding Iran’s political sway in the region, which is the principal concern of the Gulf Arabs. Washington’s confused approach to Qatar’s blockade by the Emirates and Saudi Arabia reflects this. The U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA will not be followed by other great powers. It is more likely to isolate Israel and the United States than Iran.

Finally, there is a very real danger that the low intensity conflict now underway between Israel and Iran in Syria and the Gulf Arabs’ proxy wars with Iran could escalate into a major war. One scenario for such a war would be a Saudi-assisted Israeli assault on Iran calculated to drag in the United States or a direct attack on Iran by U.S. forces. This would likely trigger strikes on Israel by Iranian forces and their allies in Syria and Lebanon and efforts by Iran to sabotage Saudi and Emirati oil production. It is unclear how such a war would end. But, having delegated U.S. policy toward Iran to Israel and the Gulf Arabs, the United States is in no position to decide that question or very much else.

Remarks delivered to the Middle East Project by Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. in Washington, D.C. on May 10, 2018.

Ambassador Freeman chairs Projects International, Inc. He is a retired U.S. defense official, diplomat, and interpreter, the recipient of numerous high honors and awards, a popular public speaker, and the author of five books.




Delusions and Genocide: A Reply to Diana Johnstone 

Consortium News published an article on May 4 by Diana Johnstone, in which she critiqued an article by Tony McKenna, who has asked for the right to reply.

Editor’s Note: Consortium News published an article on May 4 by Diana Johnstone called, “Trotskyist Delusions: Obsessed with Stalin, They See Betrayed Revolutions Everywhere.”  In the piece, Johnstone critiqued an article by Tony McKenna, who has asked for the right to reply. We are publishing that reply here, with this disclaimer and notice to our readers that we do not endorse McKenna’s views on Syria. We feel they display a profound misunderstanding of the tragic circumstances in that country. To give just two examples:  McKenna’s assertion that it was the Free Syrian Army and other rebels that drove ISIS out of Syria and into Iraq, while ignoring all the many, more powerful forces arrayed against it, such as Syrian, Russian, Iranian, Lebanese, Kurdish and even American and its allied forces (who to some extent fought against ISIS in Syria), is a gross distortion of what has actually happened. 

The second example shows the essential error of McKenna and those that agree with him:  the failure to understand the nature of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad. His government emerged in the conflict as the far lesser evil to foreign-backed jihadists. Assad has never threatened the West the way ISIS has not only threatened, but attacked it. Assad did not kill Christians, Shia, Yazidi, women and other minorities just because of their identities, the way the jihadists have. McKenna’s assertion that it is Islamophobic to call most rebels in Syria terrorists, while comparing that to Israel labeling all Gazans “Hamas terrorists,” ignores the fact that Gazans and Hamas are resisting an occupation, while ISIS actually ran a particularly brutal occupation of both Syrian and Iraqi territory. He also ignores the role the West and Gulf Arabs played in allowing ISIS to flourish.

 

By Tony McKenna

I read with some interest Diana Johnstone’s recent article in Consortium News – ‘Trotskyist Delusions: Obsessed with Stalin, They See Betrayed Revolutions Everywhere’ (May 4, 2018) which was a response to an article of my own – ‘Revolution and Counter Revolution in Syria’ (International Socialist Review, March 1, 2018).  Johnstone’s article doubles as an attack on me and also a broader ‘critique’ of a ‘delusional’ Trotskyism whose ridiculous ideals have sinister real world consequences; that it to say, they allow said Trotskyists  ‘to align…with U.S imperialism. The obsession with permanent revolution ends up providing an ideological alibi for permanent war.’

In the comments section underneath, the same charge was echoed ad infinitum.  I am – either consciously or unconsciously – a supporter of Western Imperialism, at least with regard to Syria. This is the crux of the issue, and therefore something I’d like to address. 

I do not support US military intervention in Syria. I do not support Israeli intervention in Syria. I was against the recent airstrikes which were launched by the US with backing from Britain and France.   But I am also against the Russian and Iranian military interventions which have taken place in Syria.  The side I am not against – oddly enough for a ‘delusional Trotskyist’ – are the Syrian people themselves.  You know, the same guys who have been strafed, bombed, gassed, burnt, raped, tortured and systematically murdered for a sustained seven year period by their ghoulish dictator and his military apparatus –  in collusion, of course, with the cash, weaponry, troops and planes provided by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

Now I am going to emphasise the role of these latter state actors over others (shock, gasp – even over Western Imperialism!) because they are the ones who, in bolstering the Assad regime, have turned the country into a smouldering, ashen graveyard.  From March 11, 2011, to March 1, 2016, the regime was responsible for 183,827 civilian deaths,which accounts for a catastrophic 94.7 percent of all civilian deaths. UN investigators quite correctly described this as amounting to an ‘extermination’ of the civilian population.  This is the regime which Johnstone and her acolytes rally around.  Progressive, radical ‘anti-imperialist’ politics at their finest and most fragrant, served up in a batch, with that extra special dash of civilian mass murder. 

Then again, perhaps all those dead Syrian civilians were all ISIS sympathisers or the like.  Or even if they weren’t, perhaps those civilians had to be killed as collateral damage because they were harbouring rebels of a sinister Islamic fundamentalist bent in their midst.  That is certainly what Assad tells us. It is what the Russians would have you believe.  Ironic isn’t it?  As we watch, in real time, the murderous military machine of the Israeli state mow down unarmed Palestinian protestors taking part in the Great March of Return, Israeli propaganda feeds us a very similar ideological rationale.  The ‘great march’ protestors were, in reality, ‘violent fundamentalists’.  Or at the very least, they had been infiltrated by ‘violent fundamentalists’, they had been weaponised by Hamas.  

Is there any of us that take such claims seriously?  And yet, in the case of Syria, we are more easily swayed by such an insidious logic, we readily accept it as reality.  We take it as an accomplished fact that the rebels are Islamist fundamentalists, and where and when more secular currents emerge, we take it as given that these will eventually give up the ghost before rabid religious interests.  Is the Syrian, predominantly Muslim population, inherently susceptible to the most rabid strains of Islamic fundamentalism?  Or could it be that it is precisely this type of assumption, with all its islamophobic connotations, which has led to the lack of support for secular forces in their struggle against Assad.

FSA Smashed ISIS

In late 2013 a coalition of rebel forces of many different political shades (some secular, some religiously fundamentalist), led by the secular inclined Free Syrian Army, took a break from the bloody grapple with their murderous dictator in order to smash ISIS to pieces – driving them from Latakia, Idlib, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa, sending the black clad, sword wielding fanatics scurrying back into the Iraqi desert. 

This was little covered in the press, of course, and, generally speaking, the rebels were given scant financial backing internationally as they conducted their heroic rout. In contrast, entities like ISIS are heavily subsidised by powerful foreign interests.  The Russians and Iranians pour billions into the Assad regime.   Locked between the snapping jaws of these snarling leviathans, the more secular inclined forces are given little support, and as a result have had their political presence diminished.

And that is why I support the right of the rebels to get arms from wherever they can. That includes, I am afraid to say, the U.S. state – or indeed any other.  Does that make me a de facto supporter of Western Imperialism?  Let’s consider this.  Just imagine being a member of that harrowing number caught between the Scylla of the fundamentalist extremists and the Charybdis of the Assad regime.  You are fighting for everything you have ever known and what is more you are fighting with meagre supplies against overwhelming forces, and in the most perilous of circumstances.  Surely you would accept arms and money from the devil himself if he offered them, no? For the simplest reason of all.  The alternative is annihilation.

Who is the Idealist?

Johnstone’s whole critique of me rests on the fact that I am some sort of ‘head in the clouds, Trotskyist idealist’ who is naïve to the way the real political forces are played out on the ground.  But in my view she is the idealist, if she somehow imagines that any rebel in that situation – in the face of an Assad regime which is genocidal in its intent and which has been fortified by billions in Russian arms and support – if she imagines that such a rebel should demur from using more effective and up-to-date weaponry, casting it to one side, on the grounds that it has been provided by the U.S. – and instead abandon themselves to the slaughter.  

Then again, I don’t think Johnstone troubles herself to think about the people on the ground all that much.  Methodologically speaking, there is a reason for this, and it is revealed in her piece.  In her account she mobilizes the figure of the Trotskyist as the bogeyman par excellence; she writes of Trotskyism in the following, withering terms: ‘The Trotskyists keep yearning for a new revolution, just like the Bolshevik revolution. Yes, but the Bolshevik revolution ended in Stalinism.’

I know something about Stalinism.  You might even say I wrote the book on it.  And in that book I noted the very opposite from that which Johnstone, and so many others, have glibly asserted; I noted that, in fact, the Bolshevik Revolution did not produce Stalinism from within itself.  In October 1917 the Bolshevik Party had a political mandate which came from the workers, soldiers, students and a significant proportion of the poorer layers of the peasantry. 

Such a mandate was channelled through the ‘soviets’, the workers’ councils which had sprung up in over 300 cities and towns across Russia.  In response to the October Revolution, and let me emphasise this – Western Imperialism – in the form of 14 foreign countries including the US, Britain and France, sent its armies into Russia in order to aid and abet the white counter revolution, as the forces of the ex-monarchy, the industrial capitalists and the dispossessed landowners threw everything they could against the new government in a bloody and protracted three year civil war.  

In that conflict, the Bolshevik bureaucracy, the government, managed to cling to power, barely, but the workers and radical peasants who had provided the democratic basis for that power had been exsanguinated in the furore of the civil war.  The Stalinist dictatorship was the ultimate expression of the centralisation of a bureaucracy which was made bereft of its social basis, a social basis which had withered in the fire of counterrevolution, and isolated and inward looking, that bureaucracy was now only able to retain its power from above – by purely administrative, militaristic and ultimately totalitarian means.

Lenin’s Last Battle

Of course, capitalist ideologues and defenders of the status quo adore the whole Bolshevism inherently leads to totalitarianism–Lenin inevitably begot Stalin, trope.   They do so, not because they have any interest in the historical specificities: the decimation of the industrial proletariat, the destruction of the Soviet democracy, foreign invasion, the movement from revolution to counterrevolution which underpinned that historical process.  They remain breezily unconcerned that the last battle of Lenin’s life was waged against the encroaching bureaucratic influence of Stalin. 

Rather, for them, Bolshevism becomes a cipher.  It represents any radical and popular socialist mobilisation which confronts the capitalist system and condemns such an alternative as inevitably destined to mutate into totalitarianism and gulags.  The inference, of course, is crystal clear; fundamental change is either utopian or dangerous –ergo capitalism is the only game in town.

For all her anti (U.S.) imperialism, for all her hatred of U.S. capitalism, Johnstone shares this sensibility with pro-capitalist ideologues to a tee. For her too, Bolshevism simply led to Stalinism – the historical specificity, the development of the popular revolution, the process of counterrevolution, the civil war – all these processes are either irrelevant or invisible; we are made to understand by Johnstone that revolution per-se ‘is more a myth than a reality’.   Needless to say, such a methodological presupposition bleeds into and thoroughly permeates her analysis of Syria.

For Johnstone, the revolutionary struggle of the Syrian masses is not flagging because they have been pulverized by the forces of a counter-revolutionary state bolstered by Russian imperial power; no the Syrian masses are wanting because just as Bolshevism innately led to Stalinism, so too their struggle must innately and inevitably lead to ‘jihadists taking over the country’. And when you understand, as Johnstone does, that forms of popular power from below are inherently irredeemable, the conclusion flows naturally and easily, and Johnstone does not shy away from stating it.  A country ‘such as Syria’ she informs us, is ‘not likely to be “modernized” without a strong ruler.’

In Bashar al-Assad she has found a strong ruler, a strong ruler indeed.  And a genocidal one.

Tony McKenna is a novelist, journalist and philosopher whose work has been featured by many publications including ABC Australia, The Huffington Post, New Internationalist, The United Nations, NewStatesman, The Progressive and New Humanist. His first book “Art Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective“, was released by Macmillan in 2015, the second a critically acclaimed biography of Joseph Stalin was published the following year, and in 2017 New Haven Publishing brought out his debut novel “The Dying Light“.




An Iranian Viewpoint on the Battle for Syria

A new feature from Iran gives a totally different perspective of the war raging in Syria than Western audiences are used to, explains Rick Sterling.

By Rick Sterling  Special to Consortium News

West against East on the Syrian battle-field, in the newspapers and now on film: A new, full-length action movie, titled “Damascus Time,” gives an Iranian perspective on the battle against ISIS in Syria.

The movie comes from Iranian screenwriter and film director Ebrahim Hatamikia. Two award-winning Iranian actors, Hadi Hejazifar and Babak Hamidian, play father and son pilots trying to rescue civilians besieged and attacked by ISIS forces in eastern Syria. The pilots have come to help the townspeople escape in an aging Ilyushin cargo plane.

Syrian and Iraqi actors play Syrian civilians and ISIS terrorists hell bent on blowing up the plane or using it on a suicide mission against Damascus.

The movie portrays sensational scenes from real ISIS atrocities with a backdrop showing the Syrian desert and famous ruins of Palmyra. The city where civilians are surrounded and besieged is similar to the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor, which was surrounded and attacked by ISIS for years. During that time, the townspeople and soldiers depended on air-dropped food and ammunition to hold off the attackers, as shown in the movie.

Damascus Time”’s starkly sensational scenes are drawn from real ISIS atrocities. The jihadists display a human side, but they are wrapped in sectarianism, hate and violence.

Life’s complexities are demonstrated in the younger of the two Iranian pilots who has left his pregnant wife to be with his father. The mother-in-law of the young pilot bitterly criticizes him for leaving his wife. He tells her it will be his last trip.

While the story is fiction, what it portrays is all too real: Hundreds of thousands of real Syrians and Iraqis have been killed by the unleashing of the ISIS Frankenstein. Ironically, American leaders criticize Iran for being the “leading state sponsor of terrorism.” But in the Syrian war, Iran has been combatting it. Iran is more tolerant than most Westerners think too, as indeed Islam is. How many know for instance that Jews are represented in the Iranian parliament?

Western-backed Extremism

In reality, the U.S. and UK have allied for decades with extremists for short-term political gain. As documented in “Devil’s Game: How the U.S. Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam,”by Robert Dreyfuss, Britain and the U.S. promoted a violent and sectarian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood to undermine the nationalist and socialist policies of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. Starting in 1979, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia promoted the founders of what became Al Qaeda to attack the socialist-leaning government of Afghanistan.

This policy has continued to the present. In the summer of 2012, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency outlined their strategy in a secret document : “THERE IS THE POSSIBILITY OF ESTABLISHING A DECLARED OR UNDECLARED SALAFIST PRINCIPALITY IN EASTERN SYRIA (HASAKA AND DER ZOR).”The U.S. looked favorably on what the document predicts will be the creation of the “Islamic State”: “THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT THE SUPPORTING POWERS TO THE OPPOSITION WANT, IN ORDER TO ISOLATE THE SYRIAN REGIME…”.

Then, in a leaked audio conversation with Syrian opposition figures in September 2016, then Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S., rather than seriously fight Islamic State in Syria, was ready to use the growing strength of the jihadists to pressure Assad to resign, just as outlined in the DIA document.

We know that this was growing, we were watching, we saw that Daesh [a derisive name for Islamic State] was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened,” Kerry said. “We thought however we could probably manage that Assad might then negotiate, but instead of negotiating he got Putin to support him.”

Russia began its military intervention in late September 2015 without the United States, with the Kremlin’s motives made abundantly clear by Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials. But such clear explanations are rarely reported clearly by Western corporate media, which instead peddles the line from officials and think tanks that Russia is trying to recover lost imperial glory in the Middle East.

But Kerry knew why Russia intervened. “The reason Russia came in is because ISIL [another acronym for Islamic State] was getting stronger, Daesh was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus, and that’s why Russia came in because they didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad,” he said in the leaked discussion. Kerry’s comment suggests that the U.S. was willing to risk Islamic State and its jihadist allies gaining power in order to oust Assad.

The Biggest Sponsors

The true “state sponsor of terrorism” is not Iran; it is the West and their allies. Since Iran has been fighting ISIS and other extremists in Syria, it is appropriate that the first feature length movie depicting that battle against terrorism and ISIS comes from Iran.

Hundreds of Iranians have given their lives alongside their Syrian and Iraqi comrades. “Damascus Time” is not the product of Hollywood fantasy; it’s the product of actual human drama and conflict occurring in the Middle East today. “Damascus Time” is fictional but based on a real conflict with actual blood, atrocities, tragedies and martyrs.

The movie is currently being shown at cinemas throughout Iran. In recent weeks it was the second highest ranking movie. A trailer of the film can be viewed here. It should be available for viewing in the West in the near future, unless western sanctions and censorship are extended to culture.

Rick Sterling is an investigative journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

He can be contacted at rsterling1@gmail.com




The EU Will Not Stand by Iran

While European leaders have made noises that they will defy Donald Trump’s reneging on the Iran nuclear deal and resist U.S. sanctions, in the end the Europeans will give in to U.S., argues Alexander Mercouris in this commentary.

By Alexander Mercouris

Ever since Donald Trump’s announcement that the U.S. would pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”) with Iran and would unilaterally impose across-the-board sanctions on that country, a procession of European leaders including the leaders of the U.S.’s most powerful European allies – Britain, France and Germany – have publicly declared their intention to stand by the JCPOA.

There is also brave talk of the EU creating safeguards for European companies which in defiance of the U.S. continue to trade or do business with Iran.

President Rouhani of Iran – who has a big personal stake in the JCPOA, which he personally negotiated – has for his part said that Iran will for the time being abide by the terms of the JCPOA whilst it waits to see how Europe will react.

In the meantime the talk of the EU standing up to the U.S. over the JCPOA has increased talk – or hope – that a corner in U.S.-EU relations has been turned, and that the EU will henceforth increasingly defy the U.S., making Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA a further step in the decline of U.S. power.  These words of Craig Murray’s may stand as a good example:

We are yet to see the detail, but by all precedent Trump’s Iran sanctions will also sanction third country companies which trade with Iran, at the least through attacking their transactions through U.S. financial institutions and by sanctioning their U.S. affiliates.

But at a time when U.S. share of the world economy and world trade is steadily shrinking, this encouragement to European and Asian companies to firewall and minimise contact with the U.S. is most unlikely to be long term beneficial to the U.S. In particular, in a period where it is already obvious that the years of the U.S. dollar’s undisputed dominance as the world currency of reference are drawing to a close, the incentive to employ non-U.S. linked means of financial transaction will add to an already highly significant global trend.

In short, if the U.S. fails to prevent Europe and Asia’s burgeoning trade with Iran – and I think they will fail – this moment will be seen by historians as a key marker in U.S. decline as a world power.”

I do not share these expectations or these hopes.

Whilst there is no doubt European leaders are deeply shocked by Trump’s announcement of a pullout from an international agreement in negotiating which the EU played a large part, I strongly doubt that they will find the courage or the willpower to defy the U.S. by in effect encouraging their companies to continue to do business with Iran.

Market Size Matters

It should be said that even with such active encouragement it is unlikely in my opinion that big European companies like Daimler or Airbus will risk U.S. fines by continuing to do business with Iran.  Even if European governments were to guarantee them against any losses caused by such fines, they would worry about losing access to the U.S. market, which utterly dwarfs Iran’s.

Given the head of steam that has built up inside the Trump administration against Iran, only if the EU were to threaten publicly to impose reciprocal sanctions on U.S. businesses doing business in the European Single Market might there be a real possibility of the US being deterred from imposing penalties on European companies which continue to do business with Iran.

Frankly I think there is no prospect of that happening because there is no unanimity within the EU behind it (Poland and the Baltic States would certainly oppose it) whilst I am sure that even the big EU states – Britain, Germany, France, and Italy – would in the end be unwilling to risk an all out rupture with the U.S. on such an issue.

Quite simply, though the Europeans are anxious to trade with Iran and to do business with Iran, Iran is not big enough, and trade with Iran is not important enough, to make the risk of an all-out rupture with the U.S. worthwhile.

I am sure that the Europeans – angry though they certainly are – will therefore in the end knuckle down, and do as the U.S. tells them to do.

That almost certainly means that the JCPOA is doomed.  The Iranians have made clear that they will not stick with it if there are no economic benefits to them from doing so.  I expect within a few weeks – as it becomes increasingly clear that the EU is not prepared to defy the U.S. – that the Iranian nuclear programme will resume with a vengeance.

At that point the danger of a U.S., Israeli and Saudi attack on Iran will grow.

In fact this episode has been a profoundly humiliating one for Europe, exposing the extent of its powerlessness.

Not only did Trump ignore pleas to stand by the JCPOA from the U.S.’s closest European allies – Merkel, Macron and May – but he apparently did not even inform them in advance of the sweeping sanctions on Iran which he had decided to impose.

The European leader who has come out worst from this affair is France’s vain and foolish President Emmanuel Macron.

Macron appears to have genuinely believed that he had forged some sort of personal relationship with Trump, and that France’s contribution to the U.S.’s recent strike on Syria had made this bond even stronger.

In reality what Macron’s recent trip to Washington has done is simply expose the extent to which Trump and the U.S. take neither him nor France seriously.  All his pleas were ignored, whilst his fawning behaviour towards Trump apparently went down badly back home.

As for Angela Merkel, she at least avoided in her trip to Washington the disastrous optics of Macron’s visit.  She is far too skilled and experienced a politician to be caught out in that way.

However no-one should be in any doubt that it is Merkel’s disastrous leadership of Germany and of Europe which has brought Europe to this pass.

Merkel, Macron and May, Not Maggie

Ever since she became German Chancellor she has repeatedly sacrificed European and German interests in order to avoid rocking the boat with the U.S.

In July 2014 she took the fateful step of supporting the U.S.’s demand for sectoral sanctions against Russia even though these were contrary to German economic interests, in effect legitimising the U.S. practice of imposing unilateral sanctions without the agreement of the UN Security Council.  That makes it all but impossible to see how she can realistically oppose such sanctions now.

The contrast with Margaret Thatcher – who in the 1980s vigorously opposed unilateral U.S. sanctions intended to block Russian pipeline projects – is instructive.

In fact European behaviour over the JCPOA has been a textbook case of appeasement.

Instead of telling Donald Trump that a unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA would be contrary to international law – which it is – and that Europe would strongly oppose US withdrawal from an international agreement which was not only working but with which Iran is abiding, European leaders like Merkel, Macron and May instead told Trump that they agreed with him that the JCPOA was in some way “imperfect” and would have to be “improved”.

Needless to say that not only failed to persuade Donald Trump to stick with the JCPOA; it almost certainly emboldened him, convincing him that he is right to pull out of it.

Trump’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA and to impose sweeping unilateral sanctions on Iran will undoubtedly embitter European opinion against the U.S.  It is also likely to make Europe more resistant to any further U.S. pressure to ramp up sanctions against Russia.  Unlike trade with Iran, European and especially German trade with Russia is indispensable for the European and German economies, which explains why constant U.S. pressure on Germany to pull out of the Nord Stream 2 project has been resisted.

In the longer term this episode probably will harden further the anti-U.S. trend in voting on the part of European electorates, though it is worth pointing out that some of the right wing ‘populist’ European politicians who have benefitted from this process are not friends of Iran’s.

However in the immediate term Iran’s economic salvation as it finds itself under renewed sanctions pressure will come not from Europe but from Russia and China and the other Eurasian states.

This commentary originally appeared on The Duran.

Alexander Mercouris is a political commentator and the editor-in-chief of The Duran.




Trump’s War Against Iran

An apparent coordination between Trump leaving the Iran deal and Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Syria portend an attack on Iran itself, says Eric S. Margolis.

 By Eric S. Margolis

Israel attacked alleged Iranian military positions in Syria on Tuesday, just one hour after Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal with Tehran.   Are these big steps forward in the plan by Israel’s leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his ally Trump to provoke a major war with Iran?

The U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel all recently suffered a stinging defeat in Syria. Their campaign to overthrow the Assad government in Damascus by using the rag-tag ISIS movement, and other jihadist wild men, was defeated by the Syrian Army, backed by Russian air power, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and some Iranian militia groups and army advisors. 

The alleged Iranian rocket barrage, supposedly in response to Tuesday’s attack, was directed at the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights that were illegally annexed and occupied after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and are still held, legally, as part of Syria. Israel is very nervous about having world attention drawn to its continued occupation of the strategic Golan Heights from which Israeli heavy artillery can reach Damascus.

Israel now claims to have wiped out more than a score of Iranian positions in Syria.  As far as we can tell, these were minor logistics or communications facilities, not the backbone of a supposed Iranian offensive against Israel. Iran is in Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government.

Neocon Takeover Complete

But now that the Trump administration has fallen fully under the influence of the pro-war neocons, an attempt to overthrow the Iranian government appears highly likely, using both military intervention and intensified economic warfare. 

Iran has been under siege by the U.S. since the American/British installed shah was overthrown by a popular revolution in 1979. The CIA and Britain’s MI6 have mounted numerous attempts to oust the Islamic Republic and re-install a client ruler.

Ironically, the ‘democratic’ western powers – the U.S., Britain and France – rely on medieval monarchs and dictators to control the Mideast while democratic politicians and movements are ignored, suppressed or overthrown.  Iran, in spite of its many rigidities and failings, remains one of the region’s more democratic states.   Ask our Saudi or Kuwaiti allies when was the last time they held a real election?  

The failure of Western intelligence services to provoke serious uprisings in Iran (or Russia), means that the military option is increasingly tempting.   This probably means provoking military clashes with Iran in the Gulf leading to full-scale attacks on its nuclear infrastructure and industry.   U.S. warplanes and warships are actively probing Iran’s borders.  In addition, U.S. forces are getting ever more deeply involved in the Yemen War.

When the U.S. last considered a major attack on Iran during the Bush years, the Pentagon (which opposed the idea) estimated it would need 2,800 air strikes against Iran on Day One alone.   

Many of the same war party crowd that engineered the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq are now running the Trump administration.  Their goal is to cripple Iran and leave the Mideast to joint Saudi-Egyptian-Israeli control.       

Recall President George W. Bush’s assertion that once he had crushed Iraq the next targets of U.S. military intervention would be Lebanon, Syria, Iran and then Pakistan.

No Cake Walk

America controls the skies from Morocco to Afghanistan.  Iran is vulnerable to raids and small incursions but subjugating this large, mountainous nation of 80 million would be very difficult.

In fact, as an Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander once told me, ‘let the Americans invade. They will break their teeth on Iran.’  Over-confidence, of course, but he had a point.  Fighting on the defensive in urban areas, Iran could offer fierce resistance. 

America’s imperial machine, like its British Imperial predecessor, likes small, easy wars against small, backwards nations.  Iran would be very different. 

As we have just seen with North Korea, Iran’s best survival strategy, short of security guarantees by Russia and China, would be to race to produce a small number of nuclear weapons to deter attacks by the U.S. and Israel.  Europe, which co-sponsored the Iran nuclear act and is now humiliated by Trump reneging on the deal, is too weak and disorganized to guarantee the pact and stand up to Washington.  This is too bad.  Now would have been a fine time for the EU to assert its independence from U.S. hegemony and begin building its own independent European military forces.

A version of this article first appeared on CommonDreams.Copyright  Eric S. Margolis 2018

Eric S. Margolis is an award-winning, internationally syndicated columnist and book author. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, Times of London, the Wall Street Journal, the Khaleej Times, Lew Rockwell and other news sites in the Middle East and Asia.  He has appeared as an expert on foreign affairs on CNN, BBC, ABC, France 2, France 24, Al Jazeera, CTV, CBC, CCTV China His internet column is found at  www.ericmargolis.comHe is author of two best-selling books ”War at the Top of the World – The Struggle for Afghanistan and Asia” and “American Raj, How the U.S. Rules the Mideast”.