Thursday, June 22, 2017

Those 17 intelligence agencies, again

Okay, I'm officially freaking out a little more than I was before I saw this, The Establishment's Russia Fixation Takes A Dark Turn: An Interview With Stephen F. Cohen TYT Politics 06/21/2017:

Stephen Cohen, interviewed there by Michael Tracey, says, "The Democratic Party is worse than a disappointment. It's become part of the problem in terms of war and peace."

This is really worth listening to, especially what Cohen says about the risk level currently in Syria.

He also makes an important point about demonizing anyone and everyone having contact with Russians. He reminds us that former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper suggesting that any contact with Russians may unwittingly lead Americans to treason. One of the most significant effects of McCarthyist hysteria of the 40s and 50s was to cast suspicion on scholars and diplomats that actually had some expertise on Communist politics in Asia. The idea that China and Russia were part of a monolithic bloc was already dubious by 1950. But US policy in Asia, including the disastrous Vietnam War, was heavily influenced by that very idea well into the 1960s.

Cohen also mentions something that surprised me to hear, which is that current agricultural export trends may soon make such exports a bigger source of revenue to Russia than natural gas. This is an indication that the current economic policies there are having some success in diversifying Russia in the direction of becoming less dependent on extractive industries.

What Cohen says about James Comey's lack of knowledge of Gazprom is kind of stunning, too.

Cohen makes an important point about the famous "17 intelligence agencies" that made the claim about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton and her campaign used that as a talking point during the campaign. And I hear journalists use it regularly, still, sometimes as the 17 separate intelligence agencies that independently verified the claim. Just this week I heard one reporter or pundit, I forget who, use "16 intelligence agencies," I hadn't heard that variant before. Sen. Mark Warner in the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing today used "our entire intelligence community" to describe the conclusion of the January intelligence report released to the public.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released their public version of the report dated 01/06/2017, Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections.

After, 16:30, Cohen says, "Now, I don't know anybody who can name the 17 American intelligence agencies."

Wait, I know! I know! Well, I least I know a convenient link, which is to this Los Angeles Times story, There's more than the CIA and FBI: The 17 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community by Nina Agrawal 01/17/2017. The list given there includes:

  1. Office of the Director of National Intelligence
  2. Central Intelligence Agency
  3. National Security Agency
  4. Defense Intelligence Agency
  5. Federal Bureau of Investigation
  6. Department of State – Bureau of Intelligence and Research
  7. Department of Homeland Security – Office of Intelligence and Analysis
  8. Drug Enforcement Administration – Office of National Security Intelligence
  9. Department of the Treasury – Office of Intelligence and Analysis
  10. Department of Energy – Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence
  11. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
  12. National Reconnaissance Office
  13. Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance
  14. Army Military Intelligence
  15. Office of Naval Intelligence
  16. Marine Corps Intelligence
  17. Coast Guard Intelligence

I don't know if the Office of the DNI (#1) actually does raw intelligence collection itself. But those are the agencies that are the known parts of the "intelligence community" (IC), in whose name the Office of the DNI's public report speaks. But the document is very specific about this: "This report includes an analytic assessment drafted and coordinated among The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and The National Security Agency (NSA), which draws on intelligence information collected and disseminated by those three agencies."

Of course, to nitpick it a bit, this doesn't mean that no other of the 17 Intelligence Agencies looked at the findings or the underlying data on which it was based. It doesn't say that none of the other of the 17 Intelligence Agencies It doesn't exclude some kind of general formal endorsement by the other agencies, or a negative affirmation that they had no objection to the finding. But the report itself doesn't specify that.

James Clapper, who was the DNI under whose direction the study was done and the report issued, did get more explicit in his Congressional testimony in May, saying, that the assessment "was a coordinated product from three agencies; CIA, NSA, and the FBI not all 17 components of the intelligence community. Those three under the aegis of my former office." And, "These conclusions were reached based on the richness of the information gathered and analyzed and were thoroughly vetted and then approved by the directors of the three agencies and me." (See my post 05/11/2017 post, Listening closely to James Clapper on the "17 intelligence agencies")

Now, Lord knows I don't take anything and everything that comes out of James Clapper's mouth as the Gospel truth. But if the Clinton campaign and star journalists have reason to think that the 17 Intelligence Agencies is a more accurate description of who put together the report, it's not based on the public report itself or on what the DNI who issued it said about it in public testimony to Congress in May.

And, yes, I have gone a bit OCD on that particular topic, why do you ask?

Michael's interview with Stephen Cohen made a big impression on me. Michael has been particularly concerned about the foreign policy implications of the Democrats' Russia-Russia-Russia theme over the last year. Cohen isn't entirely clear about what part of the basic findings in the January 6 report from the DNI he thinks have been disproven, he definitely raises some legitimate concerns and brings important knowledge and perspective often missing from mainstream media reports on Russia currently.

There are certainly reasons for Congress and the press to take seriously the claims by the (three) intelligence agencies that there is good reason to think that Russia made cyberattacks during the 2016 elections. And the massive indications that Trump and his family and cronies have possibly compromising business dealings with Russians that may be manipulated by Putin's government. (See, for instance: Timothy O'Brien, Trump, Russia and a Shadowy Business Partnership Bloomberg View 06/21/2017)

Not to speak of the even more blatant evidence of obstruction of justice over the investigations of those issues.

But keeping our eyes of the facts, even when they complicate the convenient ideologies of the moment, is also important. Particularly when it comes to relations between the two biggest nuclear powers.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

NATO expansion in the Balkans

A Politico EU article by Howard Amos suggests that Russia is pursuing a more active policy in the Balkans against further NATO expansion there. (Vladimir Putin’s man in the Balkans 06/21/17)

The article's narrative structure is a bit confusing. But it says that a hawkish adviser of Putin's, Nikolai Patrushev, has been given a more prominent role in Russian foreign policy for the Balkans. It cites Mark Galeotti of the Institute of International Relations, "Patrushev is definitely one of those people who think Russia is in an existential struggle for its survival. It’s a Cold-War, Manichean vision of the world. And one in which any reversals for the West are implicitly good for Russia."

And Amos reports:

In public statements, Patrushev has claimed the United States is striving to dismember the Russian state to “open up access to rich resources that they think Russia unfairly controls.” He has also criticized what he sees as increasingly aggressive behavior from NATO, claimed that European Union foreign policy is dictated from Washington and warned of the rise of Nazism in Eastern Europe. ...

Russia is particularly angry over the accession to NATO earlier this month of Montenegro, the small Adriatic country that accused Russian intelligence officers of masterminding an attempted coup in the country last year, apparently designed to derail its bid to join the alliance.

In the wake of allegations of Russian involvement in the murky coup plot, Patrushev rushed to Serbia to meet top government and security officials, in what many saw as a mission to smooth ruffled feathers. Media reports had suggested Belgrade had extradited several Russian nationals accused of masterminding the plot.
NATO expansion means increasing tensions with Russia, and has already encountered notable Russian pushback in Georgia and Ukraine. In strictly practical terms, whatever gains the NATO countries expect to obtain with further expansion, intensified Russian resistance is part of the cost.

Jill Stein and the flap over her Russia connections

Politico has a piece about how Green Party Presidential candidate Jill Stein is still getting criticism from various sources, mostly establishment Democrats, about her effect on the outcome of last year's election. And, of course, about the Russia-Russia-Russia connection. (Ben Schreckinger, Jill Stein Isn’t Sorry 06/20/2017)

She was also at Vladimir Putin's table at the RT gala in Russia in 2015 along with now-resigned National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

It's not until the seventh paragraph of the story that we read that she doesn't sound like a person who has anything to hide:

Stein isn’t sorry about any of it. She says she’d welcome the opportunity to testify before Congress and dismisses the idea that she was a spoiler or that her campaign was co-opted as a tool of Russian influence as Democrats’ “pathetic excuses” for losing the election.

Unlike Flynn — whose initially undisclosed $45,000 RT payout landed him in hot water with congressional investigators — Stein has said she was not offered any speaking fee and that she declined the Russian network’s offer to cover her travel. She tells POLITICO that she was accompanied by a single aide and that her presidential campaign paid for the travel, which included a stop in Paris. The campaign’s Federal Election Commission reports from that period show modest disbursements to multiple airlines, including Air France, and a travel agency.

Stein says that to her knowledge, neither she, her campaign nor the Green Party have taken money from Russian entities: “I am certainly not aware of any ties whatsoever, financial or otherwise, to the Russian government.”
It sounds like she was more discrete about the financing of her presence at the RT gala than Flynn was. Flynn was a retired general who was required to report any payments like the one he received for that event.

I don't encourage RT-phobia. It isn't illegal to appear on RT. And someone like Chris Hedges (who Politico mentions) is appearing on RT and delivering his own perspective, it probably is the case that RT, which is a Russian statement media organization now routinely described in the American press as Russia's propaganda channel, thinks they get some advantage from his appearing, Chris could also argue that if RT is "using" him, he is also "using" them. And it's not illegal for an American to appear on RT. Or to be a paid contributor to RT. Where Flynn messed up in that regard was not properly disclosing the payment he received as required by the regulations to which he was subject as a retired officer.

It's also legal for Americans to travel to Russia and to do business with Russian companies, insofar as they aren't covered by sanctions or other legislation.

Stein alluded in the quote I gave to her being willing to testify before Congress about her involvement with RT. An earlier paragraph reported:

“We're certainly interested in any efforts the Russians made to influence our election,” says California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russia’s alleged meddling in the election. “There have been public reports, I think, that Jill Stein was also in Russia attending the RT function, so we’re going to need to look at any efforts the Russians made through whatever means to influence our elections."
Here, I worry that this could shade over into potential political intimidation. But Stein herself says she would be happy to testify.

It's also worth remembering that it's also perfectly legal and intellectually legitimate to agree with something a foreign government is saying. The fact that a particular position or perspective may be agreeable to another country's leadership at a given moment is not in itself a token that someone is serving a foreign government if they agree with them on some political point. Political ideas don't stay confined in a single country any more than scientific or religious ones. Neither Democrats or Republicans feel much constrained in expressing support for the ideas and programs of various foreign parties. The Republicans in 2015 invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give an address to a joint session of Congress even without President Obama's approval and in spite of the fact that Netanyahu was trying to generate opposition to the nuclear agreement the Administration had been working on with Iran.

I hesitate to make comparisons or analogies between the Cold War (or Cold War 1.0?) and today's situation. Because Cold War dogma in the United was often simplistic and unrealistic, even with (perhaps especially with) direct policymakers. But in this context, it's helpful to recall that with the Soviet-line Communist Parties, including the always-small US Communist Party, were more-or-less explicit in most phases of their existence that they saw the Soviet Union as a model to be emulated. But this was not illegal, either. Some Communists were involved in actual espionage, although after the Second World War the Soviets tended to rely on people persuaded by other means than ideology in recruiting people to do actual spying.

In the case of Jill Stein and her Greens, they are not holding up Putinism as a political model:

Stein has also hit back at “fake news” claiming she has praised Putin. For the record, Stein says, “Putin is an authoritarian and has a very troubled, disturbing record.” But, she adds, “It’s important to look at where Putin comes from. … It was Larry Summers and the guys from Harvard who basically privatized the public domain [in post-Soviet Russia] and created the oligarchs” (the culpability of American economic advice for the collapse of the Russian economy in the 1990s remains hotly debated).
The suspicions and official findings of the FBI, CIA and NSA about Russian interference in the 2016 election also don't have to do with ideology as such. The actions at issue involve cyber intrusions into American systems and specific efforts to influence the outcome of a particular Presidential elections. There are laws governing foreign money from US elections. And one of the things that needs to be clarified is just what kind of violation of laws there may have been and what kinds of collusion in illegal acts may have been occurred. Outside of taking money illegally or strong evidence of direct involvement by people from the Trump campaign with illegal Russian actions, finding criminal collusion will be a big stretch. Although active collusion with the Russians could be embarrassing and possibly politically damaging to Trump and the Republicans without rising to the level of crimes that could be successfully prosecuted.

There are also big questions about dubious and/or illegal dealings with Russian companies and governmental entities that could subject members of the Trump Family Business Administration to pressure from the Russian government.

And the Administration has created some very specific legal problems for itself by trying to block official investigations.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

David Stockman defends Trump from what he calls "a Deep State/Dem/Neocon/MSM prosecution (?!)

David Stockman is best known as the Budget Director for St. Reagan 1981-85. Stockman now describes himself as "the ultimate Washington insider turned iconoclast." "Iconoclast" these days basically means "crank."

Crankery is often a feature of financial tipsheets produced by rightwingers. Stockman's version is the online David Stockman Contra Corner.

Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, who is normally a careful analyst, for some reason decided to reproduce the text of a Stockman rant at Contra Corner, "The Little Putsch That Could ... Beget a Great Big Coup" 06/16/2017; McGovern's post is The “soft coup” under way in Washington 06/19/2017.

I've written before about my reluctance to talk about a possible of impeachments as a "soft coup." There are both left and right versions of this notion, neither of which is persuasive. Stockman's clearly falls into the rightwing category. He starts off by giving Trump advice in the Nixon-should-have-burned-the-tapes variety:

Bull’s eye!

“They made up a phony collusion with the Russians story, found zero proof, so now they go for obstruction of justice on the phony story. Nice … You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history – led by some very bad and conflicted people!”

The Donald has never spoken truer words but also has never sunken lower into abject victimhood. Indeed, what is he waiting for­– handcuffs and a perp walk?

Just to be clear, “he” doesn’t need to be the passive object of a “WITCH HUNT” by “they”.

If Donald Trump had any kind of presidential strategy and propensity to take command, he would have had all the intercepts of Russian chatter gathered up weeks ago. He would then have had them declassified and made public, even as he launched a criminal prosecution against Obama’s hit squad­-John Brennan, Susan Rice and Valerie Jarrett for illegally unmasking and leaking classified information.

Such a course of action would have crushed the Russian interference hysteria in the bud.
I suppose McGovern found it attractive that Stockman notes recognizes that some of the opposition to Trump comes from anti-Russian hawks who fear Trump, for whatever reason, may back off from the New Cold War policy that has been developing. But Stockman doesn't actually get beyond reflexive rightwing conspiracy talk, e.g., "Given that he is up against a Deep State/Dem/Neocon/ mainstream media prosecution [sic], the Donald has no chance of survival short of an aggressive offensive of the type described above."

That kind of cynicism always needs to be tempered by remembering the old saying, "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you." The case against Trump is overdetermined in the sense of involving a variety of motives, some more honorable than less. But Trump's obstruction of justice looks very real. And there are substantial, serious reasons for a real investigation of the Trump campaign's involved in the Russian hacking operations connected to the Presidential campaign in 2016, and certainly investigating his business ties and the potential for pressure against Trump as well as conscious self-dealing on his family's part. It would be irresponsible to not investigate it seriously. It is irresponsible on the part of those who are actively trying to block such investigations.

Being careful with the facts is important for opponents of Trump. On the other hand, the Democrats suffer from chronic bouts of timidity: David Sirota, Al Franken Says Mike Pence Is A ‘Zealot’ Who ‘Would Be Worse’ Than Trump On Domestic Policy International Business Times 06/19/2017.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Democrats and the intensity gap

The Republicans have been a lot more intense in general than the Democrats for aquarter-century or more. Here's an example: Political Ad Uses Scalise Shooting As Its Subject Morning Joe/MSNBC 06/19/2017:

The Democrats can certainly sling accusations. But in confronting the Republicans, corporate Democrats are used to coasting, “'History is on our side,' Pelosi told The Chronicle last week in an interview in her offices just outside the House chamber." (Carolyn Lochhead, Pelosi sees forces aligning to retake House in 2018 San Francisco Chronicle 06/18/2017)

History, and a majority of voters, were on Hillary Clinton's side in 2016, too.

Robert Reich recently warned about complacency on the Democrats' part (Don’t Slow Down on Impeachment Yes! Magazine 06/09/2017:

Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) is already drafting articles of impeachment related to Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, believing there’s enough evidence of Trump’s obstruction of justice to begin an impeachment inquiry (not to mention Trump’s blatant violation of the Constitutions emoluments clause by profiting off his presidency, and much else).

But Democratic leaders are pushing back, warning there aren’t enough facts to justify an impeachment inquiry at this point, and, in any event, such an inquiry would politicize ongoing congressional investigations.
Reich's judgment of that approach by the corporate Dems: "Baloney."

The real reason Democratic leaders don’t want to seek an impeachment now is they know there’s zero chance that Republicans, who now control both houses of Congress, would support such a move. So why engage in a purely symbolic gesture?

Democratic leaders figure that between now and the midterm elections there will be even more revelations from non-partisan sources – future testimony by Trump operatives like Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, early reports from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and leaks to the press – that will build the case, and fuel more public outrage.

That outrage will give Democrats a strong chance of taking back the House and maybe even the Senate. Then they’ll really impeach Trump.
Reich is obviously more than skeptical about that approach. History is also on the side of such skepticism. After all, at this point in the Presidency of George W. Bush, there was also a good chance that the 2002 Congressional elections would swing the Democrats' way.

Then came 9/11, and the runup to the Iraq War, and supposedly cautious Democrats like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry decided the smart move was to vote for Bush's war resolution to invade Iraq. History was on the Dems' side then, too, but the vote didn't exactly look that way.

The Democratic vote actually caught up with History in being on the side of Democrats in 2006, when the Dems took the House. Then they spent two years hedging their fight against the Cheney-Bush Administration in order to not ruffle the feathers of Republican voters in the 2008 Presidential election. Since History brought us a recession in 2007 that flowered into spectacular financial crisis of 2008, the Presidential election did swing Obama's way that year and left the Democrats in solid control of both Houses of Congress. A majority the Democrats frittered away with the quixotic pursuit of Bipartisanship.

Carolyn Lockheed explains the way this plays into the chronic Democratic caution and temptation to keep their heads down and rely on inertia:

More than investigations or even impeachment, winning back control of the House in the 2018 midterms would disrupt the governing capacity of the Trump White House, just as the GOP takeover of the House in 2010 crippled President Barack Obama’s presidency and Democratic victories in 2006 paralyzed the remainder of President George W. Bush’s second term.

Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats next year to retake the House, and typically, when the president’s approval rating is below 50 percent, “the average seat gain for opposing party is 36 seats,” said Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz.

Trump’s popularity is a shade lower than Bush’s in the 2006 midterms, during the depths of the Iraq War. And it is substantially lower than Obama’s in the 2010 midterms. Both Bush and Obama were below 50 percent approval at the time, but Trump’s current 38 percent is a record low for a president just six months into his term.
But she also reports that "some analysts" say "the party’s Bernie Sanders liberal wing could undermine the advantage." Because obviously identifying too closely with the country's most popular politician (Sanders) and his program could sabotage History once again. Or something.

Reading things like this make me tempted to agree with Cenk Uygar's occasional comment that the Democrats are "paid to lose" by big donors.

Bernard-Henri Lévy writes another groaner of a column (yes, I know that's not really news)

French philosopher and chronic gadfly Bernard-Henri Lévy goes full-on Edmund Burke in Emmanuel Macron and the Post-Revolutionary Idea Project Syndicate 07/14/2017. And thereby providing yet another example documenting Glenn Greenwald's characterization of him as "France’s most celebrated (and easily the world’s most overrated) public intellectual." (France Arrests A Comedian for His Facebook Comments, Showing the Sham of the West's "Free Speech" Celebration The Intercept 01/14/2015)

"It all began with the French Revolution," BHL grumps. And he's relieved to think the whole nightmare that the French Revolution started is coming to an end. Yeah, before those dang hippies in the French Revolution started stirring things up, we had a perfectly good feudal system where the grown-ups were in charge and everything worked just fine, thank you very much! Good grief, this is Pat Robertson with a slightly more sophisticated vocabulary. (In the Christian Right construct of history advocated by Robertson, the reign of the Mean Libruls began with the Bavarian Illuminati stirring up the French Revolution.

According to BHL, the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia proved conclusively, "Revolution, it had now become clear, was not just difficult or elusive or impossible; it was downright detestable." The end of history, we might say.

And he writes:

But it was in Cambodia’s faraway killing fields of 40 years ago that revolutionary reason and imagination were smashed to bits and neutralized. And it was the prolonged shock, the slow explosion and the blast effect that accompanied it, the systematic invalidation of the divisions, disputes, and, ultimately, designations that made up the “French exception” that Macron’s triumphs have brought to an end.
Please read the whole column, because I know it must sound like I'm quoting the great philosopher out of context somehow.

And that's partially true. I left out the mind-bending twist in which the evil French Revolution and Pol Pot created ideology left and right, and because of Pol Pot, Emmanuel Macron was elected President of France this year and we've finally achieved the End of Ideology and the End of History. Somewhere in here, in think, the neoliberal ideal of There Is No Alternative (TINA) is buried. That is, no dispute about the sanctity of Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning economic dogma is legitimate. But the argument is so strange, it's hard to tell.

As it turns out, I've been re-reading Tom Paine's The Age of Reason (1793-95). Paine was an active participant in the American Revolution, which was consciously admired by the French revolutionaries. BHL must consider the american Revolution to be just some isolated squabble in the colonial backwaters.

Paine went on to participate in the French Revolution, even being elected as a member of the National Convention (Convention Nationale) that governed 1792-1795. He was arrested in 1793, and served a half year or so in prison. This was during the Terror under Robespierre. So, as Paine describes, the risk that he might have been executed was not negligible. After Robespierre fell in July 1794, Paine was released from prison and reinstated in the Convention.

Paine explained that he accepted the reinstatement "to shew [sic] I could bear an injury without permitting it to injure my principles or my disposition. It is not because right principles have been violated that they are to be abandoned."

Paine wasn't looking for the End of Ideology.

To sum up, good ole Bernard-Henri Lévy, the world's most overrated public intellectual, is sounding like he's only a cocktail or two away from John McCain levels of incoherence. (The THING? Why didn't you ask about the THING?!) BHL says Emmanuel Macron got elected President of France this year because of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia of 1975-79. And Macron's election finally puts an end to the French Revolution and now we can finally have the End of Ideology and the End of History and go back to the glorious 17th century and the Peace of Westphalia and stuff. He's not only gone full-on Edmund Burke, he's on the verge of babbling about the Illuminati and Freemasons.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Venezuelan oil

"Venezuela is Latin America's biggest exporter of crude oil and has the world's largest petroleum reserves." - Brian Ellsworth and Andrew Cawthorne, Venezuela death toll rises to 13 as protests flare Reuters 02/24/2014

"Venezuela claims the world’s largest proven reserves of petroleum, an estimated 298 billion barrels of oil." - Michael Klare, The Desperate Plight of Petro-States TomDispatch 05/26/2016

Venezuelan Economics Minister Ricardo Menéndez 06/17/2017: "That is the essence of the conflict raised in our country. There, in our Orinoco Belt, is the biggest (primera) oil reserve in the world. It is there, and not in another part of the world. And previously, governments in the country were so complicit that they didn't say it was an oil reserve, they tried to sell it as emulsion, they tried to sell it at the price of coal. The price of coal, it was a price inferior to the real price of the product. Commander [Hugo] Chávez certified with international companies what is in the reserve and it turned out that it is the biggest (primera) oil reserve in the world. The appetite for what is there is the fundamental cause of all the vectors of attack that exist on Venezuela." (Empire Files: Venezuela Economy Minister—Sabotage, Not Socialism, is the Problem, just after 21:00; I've adjusted the English caption's translation in places for what I hope is a better rendition. Menéndez' full title is Vicepresidente del Consejo de Ministros para Planificación y Conocimiento.)

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Merkel tries to negotiate the new US/Europe environment

The Trump Family Business Administration has a number of traits that can add up to risky and poorly-considered foreign policy moves: extreme arrogance, contempt for understanding relevant data, a glorification of war, the desire to effect drastic changes quickly in major foreign policy and military alignments.

We have the complicated and obscure dealings with Russia. Trump has expressed his support for a Saudi-lead, anti-Shi'a/anti-Iran push in the Middle East. The immediate consequence was Saudi Arabia began a siege of neighboring Qatar - that is not yet a blockage - that includes the unusual aspect of seriously interfering with deliveries of food and medicine. (Gary Sick, The Siege of Doha LobeLog Foreign Policy 06/16/2017) These moves, and a further escalation of tensions with Iran, could have huge consequences.

So it's stunning that the Senate passed new sanctions against Russia and Iran with little public discussion and no votes against them by Democrats.

One of the most consequential shifts in US foreign policy under Trump has been his Administration's distancing of the US from European allies and its obvious hostility to the EU as an institution.

This kind of unilateralism is not new. Before the Iraq War turned into a disaster too serious for all but the clinically delusional to ignore, the Cheney-Bush Administration was gleefully demanding European submission to US demands on "out of area" military matters. Philip Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro examined that US ploy in Allies At War: America, Europe and the Crisis Over Iraq (2004) with particular emphasis on possible diplomatic paths to mending the damaged relationships.

They may have been eager to apply a both-sides-do-it perspective in some cases. But this observation is a good reminder of the contempt Cheney's Administration showed for the European allies:

The combustible interaction of politicians on both sides also deeply exacerbated the transatlantic split. On the American side, the self-assured, moralistic, and often condescending attitude of much of the Bush administration - particularly Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Richard Cheney, but often the President himself - made many Europeans even more determined to resist American leadership. From the start, Americans, including the President, gave the impression that they considered the Iraq decision - and indeed all decisions about global peace and security - solely for them to make, and that Europeans had little choice but to follow their lead or get out of the way. This was an attitude almost designed to provoke opposition from those in Europe who were reluctant to accept unquestioningly the virtues of American leadership or the merits of a unipolar world. [my emphasis]

Former Green Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer writes about Angela Merkel's German perspective on countering the Trump unilateralism in Angela Merkel’s Challenge to Europe Project Syndicate 06/05/2017:

Anyone who has been paying attention has known for some time that the historic changes taking place today did not originate in Germany. Rather, they are emanating from the geopolitical West’s two founding members: the United States and the United Kingdom. Prior to Trump’s election and the UK’s Brexit referendum, Germans saw no reason to make fundamental changes to the existing geopolitical order.

But those two events have shaken the foundation upon which Europe’s peace and prosperity have rested since World War II.
Britain’s decision to withdraw from the European Union could inspire other countries to follow suit. And Trump’s isolationist, “America first” agenda implies that the US will abdicate its leadership role in the world, and possibly abandon its security guarantee for Europe.

Europeans avoided a disaster of historic proportions in last month’s French presidential election. If Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front had been elected, she would likely have brought an end to the euro, the EU, and the common market. Continental Europe would now be mired in a deep economic and political crisis. [my emphasis]
What Fischer doesn't say here is that without abandoning the austerity economics she has successfully imposed on the EU, including writing it into national constitutions of the members with things like the Fiscal (Suicide) Compact, it will be extremely difficult to rectify that "deep economic and political crisis." The nationalist polarization against EU members like Greece, Irealand, Portugal and Spain and, soon enough, Italy, runs directly contrary to the kind of xenophobia that has given a surge in electoral popularity to Trump-Putin type parties in the EU like Le Pen's National Front in France.

Fischer, who was Foreign Minister during the NATO crisis over Iraq, argues that Merkel isn't trying to further undermine the NATO alliance:

A careful analysis of Merkel’s words shows that she was not questioning the future of the transatlantic alliance. Rather, she was calling for a stronger Europe. Merkel knows that if the US sacrifices its place at the top of the international order for domestic political reasons, it will not be replaced by a new leading power, nor will a new world order emerge. What we will have is a power vacuum, marked by chaos. And as the world becomes less stable, we Europeans will have no choice but to come together to defend our interests. No one else will do it for us.

So, Merkel’s speech was first and foremost about strengthening Europe. And, fortunately, she has found a partner in French President Emmanuel Macron. Both leaders want to stabilize the eurozone, restore economic growth, and strengthen Europe’s security with a joint border force and a new refugee policy.
Of course, anti-Europe politicians and pundits in the United States can always argue that any defiance of orders from Washington by Merkel or other NATO members is to blame for undermining the alliance. Because that's basically what the usual suspects argued during the NATO crisis over the US preventive war against Iraq.

Savior-General Petraeus wants more war in Afghanistan

Former Savior-General David Petraeus, the Surge Man for Iraq, who didn't have to take refuge in Russia or even serve jail time for leaking classified information to his girlfriend, thinks a time-unlimited military engagement in Afghanistan is just a dandy idea: Petraeus: We went to Afghanistan for a reason, and we need to stay PBS Newshour 06/16/2017:

Finding Jesus and cheering for war are two standard techniques for disgraced Republicans to rehabilitate themselves after scandals. I don't know if the Savior-General has got religion since he copped a plea or not. But he's a loyal war cheerleader.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Sanctions can lead to war

It's true as a general matter that economic sanctions can bring pressure on a country without leading to war. It's also true that our general political culture regards sanctions are a relatively harmless war of pressuring a country that isn't doing what we Americans want. And we don't generally view sanctions as a step toward war. But sometimes they can be.

I'm still bumfuddled by the Senate vote yesterday about sanctions on Russia and Iran. It was hard from the early news reports to tell what they actually about. That's among the few news reports that people were able to find even with the Google machine.

Oh, and there's this:


ThinkProgress generally reflects the corporate Democratic perspective. but they also often do good reporting. Adrienne Mahsa Varkiani reports for them in Tillerson calls for regime change in Iran 06/15/2017, "[Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson was asked on Wednesday whether the United States supports regime change inside Iran. He replied in the affirmative, saying that U.S. policy is driven by relying on 'elements inside of Iran' to bring about 'peaceful transition of that government.'"

Peaceful change? Like in 1953? Or maybe Brazil 2016? What could possibly go wrong?

Matthew Calabria and several co-writers wrote recently in a piece for the Atlantic Council, Bringing Iran Back into the Global Economy Will Bolster the JCPOA 06/07/2017:

Given the absence of bilateral ties, Washington lacks sufficient leverage to push Iran in one direction or another to advance core US regional interests—peace, security, prosperity, and stability. Unless the United States changes course, Iran will continue supporting anti-American aims, turning to European, Russian and Asian sources of investment and trade.

We recommend that the Trump administration issue a general license through the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to allow US banks to complete dollar-clearing transactions for Iranian entities, except for those individuals and organizations on the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List.

A license for dollar-clearing transactions would signal that the United States intends to go beyond the letter of its JCPOA commitments and honor the spirit of the accord, which promised Iran major economic benefits in return for long-term restrictions on its nuclear activities. Licensing would also undercut anti-US rhetoric from Iranian hardliners who maintain that the United States does not want to improve relations with Iran. Iran has a sizeable young, well-educated and pro-Western population that supports relations between Washington and Tehran. The United States should strive to maintain the goodwill of the younger generation; improving Iran’s economy is crucial to this goal.

Approving dollar-clearing transactions would also facilitate increased trade between Europe and Iran. Generally, the more ties Iran has to international markets and to Western countries, the more willing Iran should be to abide by international norms. If the United States facilitates Iran’s integration into international markets, Iran would have more to lose by violating these norms. Moreover, it would lessen the possibility that the European Union or other countries would lobby to have their currency replace the dollar as the global reserve standard.
I remember in the 1990s when Bill Clinton signed off on a Congressional resolution pushed by warmongers committing the US to a policy of "regime change" in Iraq. And we did it in a few years, even though Iraq had given up its "weapons of mass destruction." Libya agreed to give up their "WMDs" and a few years later we intervened militarily to overthrow the same government and leave violent chaos behind. Oh, and the head of state that made the disarmament deal with the US was unceremoniously murdered in the process. Our Secretary of State Hillary Clinton thought that was a big laugh, saying, "We came, we saw, he died." More specifically, he was anally raped with a bayonet and murdered just afterward.

Now Iran reaches a nuclear agreement that goes beyond the Non-Proliferation Treaty - and a couple of years later the Secretary of State declares "regime change" to be our policy there, too. And the Senate passes new Bipartisan sanctions near-unanimously.

Hey, North Korea, have we got a deal for you! Give up your nukes and we'll always be nice to you after that, honest to goodness we will! Pakistan? India? Let's talk about you giving up your nukes!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to run for Argentine Senate

Argentina has legislative elections this coming October. The last Presidential election was in 2015, when the current President Mauricio Macri was elected. Macri's party is called the PRO (Propuesta Republicana), originally set up as a vehicle for Macri himself to be elected as the head of government for the City of Buenos Aires (Jefe de Gobierno de la Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires), an office he held 2007-2015.

Former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is now positioning herself for a possible 2020 Presidential run. The step in that that direction she took this week was to announce her candidacy for the Argentine national Senate from Buenos Aires province. [Update: Actually she didn't announce her candidacy directly; a close political ally announced that she would be, but she didn't publicly confirm it.] Her electoral coalition just formally constituted itself as the Unidad Ciudadana, which the Télam agency in this report translates into English as Citizen Unity, Cristina Kirchner announces "citizen unity" will be the name of the front with which Kirchnerism will compete in primaries, outside PJ Télam/Yahoo! Noticias 06/14/2017. For Americans, that sounds awfully close to Citizens United, a name that has a bad odor in the United States because of the 2010 Supreme Court decision of that name. Cristina's politics are definitely not like those of the Citizen's United group in the US that brought that case!

Argentine politics is not a two-party affair like we have in the US. But it is a presidential system. The head of government is elected directly and is not a prime minister in the sense of parliamentary systems. And the political alignments at the national level do tend to align on a two-camp basis. One major camp is that of the Peronists, of which Cristina Fernández is very much a part. Peronism is both a party and a movement. The party is the Partido Justicialista (PJ).

The other major alignment since 1946 has been the Radical Civic Union (UCR), which is typically referred to "the radicals" or radicalism (radicalismo), even though they have long since become conservative. The UCR is being absorbed to some extent by the PRO. There is a small Socialist Party, which essentially lines up with the conservatives in the PRO and UCR.

The various parties and splinter groups on both sides ran in 2015 on umbrella tickets. The Peronist ticket headed by Daniel Scioli was called Frente Para la Victoria (FpV). Macri's group was Cambiemos. Macri was also backed by a significant Peronist splinter group called Frente Renovadora, headed by Sergio Massa.

Cristina has now signed a common platform with other left-Peronist (kirchnerista) leaders to create the Unidad Ciudadana electoral front in Buenos Aires province for 2018. And more conservative faction in the PJ headed by Florencio Randazzo will complete in the provincial election as part of the Frente Justicialista, though he will likely have to win an internal primary for the right to head the ticket.

Elecciones 2017: Cristina Kirchner lanzó el frente "Unidad Ciudadana" C5N 06/15/2017:

The Argentine economy has been in decline pretty much since taking office in December 2015. And that's a feature, not a bug for the Macri government. They have applied Herbert Hoover "Washington Consensus" economic policies from the start, including big budget cuts, deregulation of business, raising utility and public transit prices, all accompanied by major inflation and rising unemployment.

The inflation is very much related to economic policies of Macri's government. The prior government had used a system of capital controls and price regulations to maintain economic stability, promote the growth of domestic industry and maintain necessary dollar reserves. Macri's government pretty much dumped that whole menu of policies very quickly. High inflation and growing unemployment followed.

Debt for developing countries is different for that of the more developed countries. Because it becomes a tool that foreign governments and corporations can use to keep the debtor country in a state of dependency. The Kirchner governments of 2003-2008 had drastically reduced the debt, which had previously led to the severe financial crisis of 2001. Now Macri has put that course into full reverse: Argentina becomes largest debtor among emerging markets Buenos Aires Herald 06/14/2017.

There are plenty of political issues to fight about over the next 2 1/2 years.

Homeland Security guidelines for mass shooting situations

There was another mass shooting incident on Wednesday besides the attack on the Congressmen practicing baseball. It was in San Francisco, as reported here: Evan Sernoffsky, 3 people killed, gunman dead in shooting at UPS building in SF 06/14/2017.

The UC-San Francisco police sent out this notice to University employees after news of the shooting:

In addition to our institutional preparations, every individual should know what to do if there are reports of an active shooter nearby. The general guidance when a shooter is reported in your area is to “run, hide, fight.” For more specific information on how to respond to an active shooter scenario, please visit the U.S. Department of Homeland Security – Active Shooter Preparedness ...
This is part of the Homeland Security Guidelines at the link:

Notice there's nothing there encouraging people to act out an NRA fantasy by carrying a loaded gun at all times everywhere and just start firing in the general direction of where you think a shooter might be.

Meanwhile, we have the New York Times giving this ludicrous spin, which the left and even the center-left can expect every time a half-decent chance presents itself to those inclined to do so: Yamiche Alcindor, Attack Tests Movement Sanders Founded 06/14/2017.

I'm with Gleen Greenwald on this one:

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The violent edge of politics on Wednesday

Early Wednesday we had a case of political violence committed by someone who reportedly was a volunteer of some kind for Bernie Sanders' Presidential campaign in Virginia. (Matt Pearce, Virginia gunman was a Bernie Sanders supporter who was recently practicing his shooting Los Angeles Times 06/14/2017)

Sanders, unlike our current President, hasn't been encouraging political violence of any kind. But some Republicans are already trying to smear him with it.

Emma Vigeland is about two generations too young to have been around personally involved in the debates of the 1960s and early 1970s. But she has a serious and nuanced view, and seems to have a good instinct for the kind of polemics that the Republicans will use in a case like this, BREAKING: Bernie Sanders Denounces Volunteer Who Shot Congressman TYT Politics 06/14/2017:

I understand when Emma or others say "violence is never the answer." And I wouldn't criticize her for how she puts it, because she's speaking in a particular moment and trying to discourage murder, which is a good thing to discourage.

Unfortunately, in real life, "violence is never the answer" is not universally applicable. Even the small number of genuine pacifists in the United States would recognize a right of self-defense when confronted by imminent danger. Instances of sexual assault or domestic violence come immediately to mind.

The Republicans use the right of self-defense as justification for things like the "stand your ground" laws now in effect in various states now, which essentially makes it easier to people to get away with murder. Especially white people murdering black people or Latinos.

The fact that the gun lobby misuses the concept of self-defense for its own purposes doesn't make it invalid. But trying to assassinate Congresspeople and their staff on what appears in today's case with a rifle from a distance doesn't fit with any kind of sensible concept of self-defense. The shooter

One further point this brings to mind for me. Sanders never advocated violence during his campaign. But to me, the ugliest act of Hillary Clinton's campaign and then-DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz claimed that Bernie supporters at the Nevada state caucus were throwing chairs and sending death threats to delegates. If there is any evidence for that having happened, I've yet to see it. But that was a truly irresponsible ploy.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

French elections and austerity economics

French parliamentary elections took place on Sunday. François Hollande won the Presidency five years ago and his Socialists won a majority in Parliament by campaigning against Merkel's austerity policies. Then they got into office and spent five years trying to implement Merkel's austerity policies. The Socialists came in fifth place on Sunday. According to the estimates in Spiegel Online, they could wind up losing 88% of their parliamentary seats.

President Macron's conservative party that was formed a year ago, La République en marche (LREM) won first place. And it looks like Macron will have a solid majority of parliamentary seats, even without a coalition with the conservative Gaullist Republican Party, which came in a distant second place. (So mächtig wird En Marche Spiegel Online 12.06.2017)

BBC News reports (French election: How dominant will Macron party be? 06/122017):

With 32.32% of the vote, even if it was on a low turnout, LREM crushed its rivals on both the right and left.

Ahead in 400 constituencies out of the 577 that make up France's National Assembly, the party is heading for a convincing majority far higher than the 289 seats needed to control parliament. That does not even take into account the 100-odd seats where Mr Macron's centrist MoDem allies are in the lead.

His centrist alliance could control 415 to 455 seats after the second round on 18 June, experts predict. His first-round success is even more impressive than the first round of the presidential election, which he won with 24.1% of the vote.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s new, actually-left France Unbowed party came in fourth ahead of the socialists. This Guardianpiece by Angelique Chrisafis, Emmanuel Macron's party set for landslide in French parliamentary elections 06/11/2017, calls France Unbowed a "new hard-left movement." In Angela Merkel's EU, any party that advocates something like Richard Nixon's brand of Keynesian economics counts as "far left." The Socialists, though, came in fifth place and could wind up losing something like nine-tenths of their Parliament seats. (Stefan Simons, Der Durchmarche Spiegel Online 12.06.2017) This was a crushing defeat for the ruling party of the last five years.

The combined vote for France Unbowed (the English initials FU are kind of unfortunate) and the crushed austerian Socialist Party was bigger than that for the far-right National Front. That means that being identified with Trump and Putin has become a much bigger political liability in Europe in the last few months.

The BBC News report linked above explains some of Macron's proposals, which include the stock neoliberal budget cuts, pension reductions reduced work protections, cutting taxes for corporations.

Jakob Augstein (Jeremy Schulz oder Martin Macron? Spiegel Online 12.06.2017) says of Macron, "Er ist einfach ein Monsieur Merkel à la française. Und wie sozial dieser angebliche Sozialliberale seinen Landsleuten noch vorkommt, wenn er erst einmal mit ihnen fertig ist, das wird man sehen." ("He is simple a Monsieur Merkel à la française. And how social this alleged social-liberal will appear to his people if he gets the chance to do what he wants, we will see.")

Alex Main of the Center of Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) talks about Macron's challenges in France's New President Wins Parliament Vote, But Faces Problems Implementing Program The Real News 06/12/2017:

Monday, June 12, 2017

Unilateral foreign and military policy in the Cheney-Bush Administration

A strong and militaristic trend toward unilateralism in American foreign and military policy didn't begin for the Republican Party with the nomination of Donald Trump for President in 2016.

I'm not trying to make a case for "normalizing" bad behavior by the Trump Family Business Administration. But I am pointing out how deeply rooted this set of bad ideas is within the Republican Party.

Philip Gordon's and Jeremy Shapiro's book Allies At War: America, Europe, and the Crisis Over Iraq (2004) had this to say about the Cheney-Bush Administration's general attitude post-9/11 about alliances and unilateral actions by the United States. This comes in a discussion of how the Administration shafted European and other allies over an environmental agreement by rejecting the Kyoto Protocol:

In retrospect, the manner in which the U.S. government withdrew from the process of international negotiation on global warming signaled more than just a repudiation of Kyoto. The harsh diplomatic style of the rejection contrasted sharply even with a similar rejection by the Reagan administration of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982, when that administration also decided to reject a treaty that its predecessors had supported. But unlike the Kyoto rejection, before doing so the Reagan administration sent a special envoy - ironically, Donald Rumsfeld - to consult with allied governments and convince them not to sign or ratify the treaty. While that position hardly endeared him to European publics, Reagan's willingness to conform to established practices of consultation meant that criticism focused on the U.S. objections to the treaty itself, rather than on its potential to cause a breakdown in the alliance. ...

Bush's efforts with the allies, however - as one senior administration official put it - could best be described as "multilateralism à la carte." He was willing to use multilateral forums when they presented the most convenient path to accomplishing some specific U.S. foreign policy goal. But much of the administration never seemed to believe that U.S. commitment to international institutions and allied relationships had a long-term value that justified U.S. engagement when unilateral action- or actions with the support of certain individual countries-would be more expedient in the short term. The sum total of Bush's actions in his administration's first two years sent the clear signal that this type of deeper commitment simply did not exist. [my emphasis]
Cheney and Bush also used rejection of an international environmental agreement to thumb their noses at the European allies.

Where Gordon and Shapiro could say of that Administration, "The sum total of Bush's actions in his administration's first two years sent the clear signal that this type of deeper commitment [to NATO allies] simply did not exist," the Trump Family Business Administration has managed to do that in less than half a year.

Speaking of which, Digby Parton may have come up with the definitive label for the Trump team: the Carnage Crew. (John Kelly the “grownup”? Forget it — Homeland Security chief turns out to be another Trump zealot Salon 06/12/2017)

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Women's vote in the Early Republic period in the US

Gordon Wood in his 2009 history, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, wrote this about voting in the early days of government under the Constitution in the United States:

Perhaps the most radical change resulting from the Jeffersonian election of 1800 was in politics. Popular voting took on a significance that it had never quite had before, and the increased numbers of contested elections for both federal and state officials sent the turnout of voters skyrocketing. In many places, especially in the North, the participation of eligible voters went from 20 percent or so in the 1790s to 80 percent or more in the first decade of the nineteenth century. At the same time, states that had not already done so began to expand the franchise by eliminating property qualifications or transforming the requirement into the mere paying of taxes. Of course, the enhanced importance of voting and the increase in electoral competition made suffrage exclusions as important as suffrage expansions. Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and New Jersey, which earlier had had no racial restrictions, now confined voting exclusively to white adult males. With the exception of a brief period in New Jersey (1790-1807) no state granted women the suffrage. By modern standards the system was far from democratic, but by the standards of the early nineteenth century America possessed the most popular electoral politics in the world.

Its always both frustrating and fascinating to see how political progress and political retrogression can happen at the same time within the same political entity. Jefferson and his supporters in the Republican Party (the party that later became today's Democratic Party) called his election in 1800 "the revolution of 1800." Jefferson's party wasn't nearly so squeamish at using the word "revolution" in a positive sense in those days, in dramatic contrast to today's corporate Democrats. Today's Republicans with the Reagan Revolution and the Gingrich Revolution and so on has not been nearly so squeamish in that regard in recent decades.

One of the things that strikes me in this passage is that Wood cites the fact that "[p]opular voting took on a significance that it had never quite had before" was "the most radical change" that manifested itself in the 1800 election at all levels. If you're someone who believes that democratic participation and popular interest in public affairs are desirable in a democratic republic, that was a good thing.

I would also note that increasing democratic participation is at the core of what Bernie Sanders refers to as the kind of revolution he wants to see.

Another striking point in that paragraph is that women had the franchise for nearly two decades around the start of the nineteenth century. But as voter participation expanded for white men, the one state that recognized women's right to vote put an end to it. A similar backward step from the standpoint of democracy was that there was also a trend to remove the franchise from free blacks in some places. This is a case where democratic progress (a huge increase in popular participation) happened simultaneously with democratic regression.

The trend toward disenfranchising women had begun earlier, with New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire having withdrawn women's suffrage prior to 1800. (See Wikipedia's Timeline of women's suffrage in the United States.) This is evidence that some men and women even in the late 18th century in the US thought that women voting was a good thing. Not only was the idea talked about at the time. It had actually been practiced to a limited extent in the United States.

But since Wood has a realistic and evidence-based approach to history, he reminds us that "by the standards of the early nineteenth century America possessed the most popular electoral politics in the world."

The egocentric American Exceptionalism is happy to use alleged American superiority in all things as an excuse to make war against foreign governments that displease us.

But it is important to remember that the US in 1800 was at best only a partial democracy by the standards of 2017 - women in Iran also have the right to vote today - it still at that time had the most popular electoral politics in the world. And it really was an inspiration for people in Europe and Latin America that wanted to move in a democratic direction in their countries' governance.

And if we believe democracy is a desirable and necessary for a free people, that was a good thing. And understanding that is an essential part of understanding the history of the Early Republic and antebellum periods.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The stakes for the US and Europe in NATO

The national security expert and adviser to Presidents Zbigniew Brzezinski, who passed away just recently, was a devout Cold Warrior. But he also tended toward a realist perspective. That manifested itself in the run-up to the Iraq War, when he made his opposition to invading Iraq very clear and public.

In an article from 2003, Hegemonic Quicksand The National Interest Winter 2003/04, he looked at the role of the European Union in US foreign policy in Eurasia and the Middle East, particularly the Islamist challenge in its various forms.

The current anti-Europe policy of the Trump Family Business Administration has given the US/European divisions over the Iraq War renewed immediate relevance. Brzezinski's article was written at that now-almost-forgotten moment after the ousting of Saddam Hussein's government when it still seemed possible that violence was quickly winding down in Iraq. War opponent Brzezinski even writes in this article, "The decisive military victories in the 1991 and the 2003 campaigns against Iraq firmly established the United States as the sole external arbiter in the area." It's jarring now to read material from later 2003 which refer to US victory in Iraq as an accomplished reality.

NATO has never been free of conflict among its various partners. At some times, that conflict has been significant. NATO formally began with the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949, constituted as a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union. For the first 52 years of its existence, until 1991, the Soviet Union also still existed. After the fall of the USSR, NATO became an alliance in search of a mission. Brzezinski's 2003 article focused on NATO as a force multiplier and essential partner for the United States. But partner for what?

At the beginning of the article, he forecasts, "For the next several decades, the most volatile and dangerous region of the world - with the explosive potential to plunge the world into chaos - will be the crucial swathe of Eurasia between Europe and the Far East." He describes that area as "the unstable region that currently extends from approximately the Suez Canal to Xinjiang, and from the Russo-Kazakh border to southern Afghanistan - almost like a triangle on the map. In the case of both areas, internal instability has served as a magnet for external major power intervention and rivalry." He also refers the triangle he describes as "the Global Balkans," a term that doesn't seem to have caught on.

And it's in managing the crises in that region in which he sees the mission of NATO consisting going forward from that point. He surveys other significant potential allies for that purpose, and explains why he sees them as less useful than NATO.

He writes that Israel and the United States have historically been close diplomatically and that it could "not only to be America's military base but also to make a significant contribution to any required U.S. military engagement." Israel does have the largest armed forces of any country in the region. And has nuclear weapons.

But, as he notes drily, "American and Israeli interests in the region are not entirely congruent." Brzezinski sees the US has having a strong long-term interest in decent relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), both of which Israel has no interest in strengthening. Although Israel can find common interest with the Kingdom and the UAE on issues like opposing the Alawite regime in Syria and regarding Iran as an adversary.

Brzezinski notes, though, that until there is a real settlement of the Palestinian issue, Israel's value as an active military ally to the US in the Middle East will be limited. Prospects for an Israel-Palestine peace agreement look considerably less optimistic in 2017 than they did in 2003.

He sees India's potential as a strategic ally limited by the intensification of both Hindu and Muslim sectarian politics. The increasing influence of Hindu nationalism in India since 2003 is part of this trend. He writes that "the more radical of the Hindu politicians tend to present" the "war on terrorism" as a war against Islam. This is problematic for reasons that should be obvious. But it does fit with the US Republican Party's understanding.

India also has long-standing tensions with its neighbors China and India. The conflict with Pakistan has the dispute over the Muslim-majority province of Kashmir, which is currently party of India at its center.

Brzezinski notes the trend, already strong in 2003, that "Russia has come to see its Muslim neighbors as the source of a potentially explosive political and demographic threat, and the Russian political elite are increasingly susceptible to anti-Islamic religious and racist appeals." Both of which are potentially factors that should theoretically facilitate an anti-Muslim-extremism alliance between the US and Russia. But Brzezinski also points to Russia's record in Afghanistan and Chechnya as a major factor in giving Muslim countries in the region a dim view of Russia. In addition, "the newly independent Central Asian states [which include many Muslims] increasingly define their modern history as a struggle for emancipation from Russian colonialism."

So Brzezinski saw the most promising ally of the US in promoting stability as being the nations of the European Union:

Only Europe, increasingly organized as the European Union and militarily integrated through NATO, has the potential capability in the political, military and economic realms to pursue jointly with America the task of engaging the various Eurasian peoples on a differentiated and flexible basis-in the promotion of regional stability and of progressively widening trans-Eurasian cooperation. And a supranational European Union linked to America would be less suspect in the region as a returning colonialist bent on consolidating or regaining its special economic interests.
And he states an essential condition for European-American cooperation:

European engagement will not occur, however, if it is expected to consist of simply following America's lead. The war on terrorism can be the opening wedge for engagement in the Global Balkans, bur it cannot be the definition of that engagement. This the Europeans, less traumatized by the September ll attacks, understand better than the Americans. It is also why any joint effort by the Atlantic community will have to be based on a broad strategic consensus regarding the longterm nature of the task at hand. [my emphasis]
The nuclear agreement with Iran is an example of what cooperation with the US and Russia can accomplish in that region. Brzezinski specifically cites the initiative taken by the EU at the time to get that process moving. It took over a decade to get it done. And it took a more cooperative arrangement between the US and Europe than the Cheney-Bush Administration practiced in 2003 and which the Trump Family Business Administration is clearly eager to jettison. Or, jettisoned: it may time to speak in the past tense about that.

But some of the issues on which he focuses are also reminders now of opportunities missed: promoting an Israel-Palestine peace agreement, stabilizing Iraq (a sadly forlorn hope in retrospect) and improving relations with Iran. The latter is something on which significant progress has been made. But Trump seems to be signaling - he sends so many confusing signals - that he's signing on to the Saudi and Israeli push for war with Iran. So it's not only on global climate change that the Trump Family Business Administration is veering away from common ground with the EU. "Active strategic partnership between the United States and the European Union would also make it more likely that Iran could eventually be transformed from a regional ogre into a regional stabilizer." But stabilization of Iran and the Middle East is the opposite of what Trump and his Defense Secretary "Mad Dog" Mattis want.

Brzezinski's article from 14 years ago is a reminder of the stakes involved in the US downgrading NATO and undermining partnership with the European allies. NATO since 1949 has been a power multiplier for the US and has generally supported US policy in the world. And, as Brzezinski points out, achieving a more stable and constructive situation in the "Global Balkans" triangle requires for now and the foreseeable future close cooperation between Europe and the US.

NATO survived the crisis provoked by the Iraq War, just as it survived the Suez Crisis of 1956 in the first decade of its existence. Part of the reason surely had to do with the Northern Atlantic economic crisis that started in 2007-8 and created serious problems for European unity, which obviously took a bit hit from the Brexit vote. The US and European partners also found a common interest in NATO Enlargement, as outlined on the official site (my emphasis in italics):

29 March 2004: Accession of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

21 April 2005: Launch of the Intensified Dialogue on Ukraine’s aspirations to NATO membership and related reforms, at an informal meeting of foreign ministers in Vilnius, Lithuania.

21 September 2006: NATO foreign ministers in New York announce the decision to offer an Intensified Dialogue to Georgia.

28-29 November 2006: At the Riga Summit, Allied leaders state that invitations will be extended to MAP countries that fulfil [sic] certain conditions.

2-4 April 2008: At the Bucharest Summit, Allied leaders invite Albania and Croatia to start accession talks; assure the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia that it will be invited once a solution to the issue of the country’s name has been reached with Greece; invite Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro to start Intensified Dialogues; and agree that Georgia and Ukraine will become members in future.

9 July 2008[-] December 2008: Accession Protocols for Albania and Croatia are signed. Allied foreign ministers agree that Georgia should develop an Annual National Programme under the auspices of the NATO-Georgia Commission.

1 April 2009: Accession of Albania and Croatia.

4 December 2009: NATO foreign ministers invite Montenegro to join the MAP.

22 April 2010: NATO foreign ministers invite Bosnia and Herzegovina to join the MAP, authorising the North Atlantic Council to accept the country’s first Annual National Programme only when the immovable property issue has been resolved.

2 December 2015: NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels invite Montenegro to start accession talks to join the Alliance, while encouraging further progress on reforms, especially in the area of rule of law. In a statement on NATO’s “open door” policy, ministers reiterate decisions made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit concerning the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and encourage Bosnia and Herzegovina to undertake the reforms necessary for the country to realise its Euro-Atlantic aspirations and to activate its participation in MAP. Ministers also reiterate their decisions at Bucharest and subsequent decisions concerning Georgia, welcoming the progress the country has made in coming closer to the Alliance and expressing their determination to intensify support for Georgia.

19 May 2016: Allied ministers sign the Accession Protocol, following which Montenegro has ‘Invitee’ status and starts attending North Atlantic Council and other NATO meetings.

5 June 2017: Accession of Montenegro

Ironically, NATO's "out of area" interventions in the Balkans, Afghanistan and the Middle East, especially Libya, not only served as a common mission that also brought NATO back from the kind of internal strife the Iraq War produced in the alliance. But those actions also helped to tarnish the image of Europe in the crisis area Brzezinski called the Global Balkans.

Even more ironically, the enlargement of NATO membership has brought NATO's value for the Europeans back towards its original purpose. The eastward expansion of membership met with serious resistance from Russia with Georgia in 2008 and then Ukraine in 2014. It's safe to say that the aspirations for NATO membership of Georgia and Ukraine are effectively on indefinite hold. The 2004 expansion included not only more countries from the former Warsaw Pact, but also the three Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Those three had previously been part of the Soviet Union itself, as had Georgia and Ukraine.

Foreign policy "realists," including the late George Kennan and Stephen Walt, warned that in the normal calculation of the Russian government, whether it was Putinist or liberal democratic or whatever else in its orientation, could be expected to treat the enlargement as a national security threat and start to push back against it. Remarkably, though, NATO leaders, including the Bush and Obama Administrations, seemed almost Pollyannish about that warning. In particular, adding Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania committed all other NATO countries to defend those countries in the case of any Russian aggression. But it has never been thought necessary to fortify those three countries as though a Russian invasion might be a likely event, much less an imminent one. And Western policymakers probably seriously underestimated what a dim view that Russian leaders took of NATO military intervention in the Balkans, especially in the Kosovo War.

And Russian strategists much surely be thinking out scenarios in which Russia seizes all or part of those three countries as a way to test the seriousness of NATO commitment to them. Are the US France, Britain, France and Germany prepared to go war with Russia over some occupied strips of land in the Baltic nations? What the Russians did in Georgia and Ukraine, which were aspiring NATO members but not yet part of the pact, were similar actions to that scenario.

Yet both Democrats and Republicans seemed to see NATO expansion as having political and military upsides with relatively small risks on the downside. Cold War triumphalism dulled the collective judgment of our policymakers in many ways.

In the 2002-3 crisis within NATO over Iraq, Russia was actually a political ally of the US in supporting the Iraq War. Vladimir Putin was already President of Russia. But Russia was cooperating with the on the war in Afghanistan, as well. (I've always wondered if there was an element of calculation there in which the Russians thought, yeah, let's allow the United States to learn what an intervention in Afghanistan can be like.) There was still serious tensions over issues like installation of "missile defense" in eastern Europe.

But there was no serious split between the US and the European allies over the need for solidarity in the face Russian aggression directly against NATO members. That was probably in significant part because the prospect of that kind of Russian military aggression wasn't considered a serious possibility.

After the Georgia crisis of 2008 and the Ukraine crisis, the latter including Russia's incorporating the Crimea as its own territory, have shifted those perceptions and calculations in significant ways. Now European leaders have to take into account that the Trump Family Business Administration with its dubious entanglements with Russian interests and its seeming hostility to European unity may not be as committed to supporting NATO allies against Russian pressure. And that's going to affect their willingness to cooperate with the US on "out of area" military and political actions.

This post is part of my efforts to understand the direction that US-European relations in the Trump Era. There are a lot of what-ifs that are difficult to ignore in thinking about NATO. In practical terms, trying to preserve NATO after the fall of the USSR and looking for a new mission for it was probably inevitable. But in retrospect, I have big doubts about the Kosovo War, which I supported at the time. And I think the NATO enlargement was probably not a good idea. Incorporating the Baltic countries directly into NATO and inviting Georgia and Ukraine to eventually join were mistakes, done with far too little realistic consideration of the consequences.

But kicking out the Baltics, for example, would be a dramatically different thing than not incorporating them in the first place. If the US government wants to drastically redefine its relationships to Russia and to oppose rather than support European unity, to do that while minimizing the downsize risks would be a very difficult political and diplomatic task. The Trump Family Business Administration is clearly not capable of pulling off something that complicated while minimizing dangerous disruptions. I'm particularly interested in how the European allies will attempt to minimize risk and damage to themselves while the current US administration attempts to do such a thing. And to do it in what would surely be a blundering way.

Friday, June 09, 2017

On escalating in Syria

"There is no good case for U.S. escalation in Syria." - Paul Pillar

Paul Pillar describes Russia's current stalemate situation in Syria and why he thinks the Russian leadership considers it acceptable for the time being (Syria: Still a No-Win Situation The National Interest 06/05/2017):

The interests of the Syrian regime’s most important ally—Russia—are a key determinant of this stalemate. Russia has succeeded, at a cost acceptable to it, in achieving its objectives of shoring up its only client regime in the Middle East, securing its modest naval and air presence in the country, and demonstrating that it still is a player to be reckoned with in that part of the world. Moscow has an interest in not having those accomplishments erased. To try to do more than that, with a sweeping rollback of remaining opposition positions in Syria, would start to entail unacceptable costs to the Russians. Attempting to own all of Syria, à la Afghanistan in the 1980s, is not in Russia’s interest.

Pillar is not suggested that the US should meddle more in Syria to tweak the Russians. We tried that in Afghanistan in the 1980, when we backed the brave, fiercely independent mujaheddin fighters. Well, that's what we called them then. We usually call them Muslim terrorists now. Pillar writes:

The makers of U.S. policy should bear in mind how little stake the United States has in specific outcomes in Syria, beyond the concern with exportable extremism and political violence (and they should remember that even ISIS was exported from Iraq, where it was born under a different name as a consequence of the U.S. invasion and occupation). Avoidance of situations that risk sucking the United States into a larger military clash will be important. A sample of the risks of such escalation recently occurred when U.S. forces attacked a pro-regime militia, said to be supported by Iran, when it got what the U.S. military regarded as uncomfortably close to an installation that U.S. forces use in southern Syria. [my emphasis]
He concludes with a pragmatic suggestion, which the Trump Family Business Administration will likely ignore, "Meanwhile the Trump administration needs to discard its penchant for regarding every outcome in terms of wins and losses. So regarded, when you have a no-win situation such as Syria, that means the only possible outcome is a loss. And even when parties we don’t like suffer a loss, that does not necessarily help U.S. interests."

Ueber-Realist Stephen Walt also has some current advice for US policy in the Middle East. Walt is a fan of "offshore balancing" in foreign policy. Here's how he recommends the US apply it in the Middle East (Making the Middle East Worse, Trump Style Foreign Policy 06/09/2017):

There is no potential hegemon in the Middle East today, and as yet no external “peer competitor” like the former Soviet Union who might conceivably dominate the region. There is therefore no need for the United States to double down on its present commitments to any Middle Eastern countries. None of America’s current partners deserve unconditional support on either strategic or moral grounds: 1) Egypt is a brutal military dictatorship with a failing economy and of modest strategic value; 2) Saudi Arabia is a fundamentalist theocracy, is helping destroy Yemen and Syria, and engaged on a massive economic reform project that may fail catastrophically; 3) Israel is marching rightward toward full-fledged apartheid; and 4) Turkey is a mockery of democracy that has gone from “zero problems with neighbors” to problems with nearly all of them. Trump is easily seduced by foreigners who cater to his vanity — as his Saudi hosts clearly realized — but stroking the president’s ego is not the same as contributing to the U.S. national interest.

Facing an environment like this, a smart superpower would hedge. Instead of trying to create some sort of Sunni axis, the United States should return to the underlying logic of its earlier approach.The core U.S. interest in the Middle East, as in other vital areas, is to preserve a rough balance of power and prevent any single state (or external great power) from dominating. The Middle East is as divided today as it has ever been, which means the core U.S. objective is easy to achieve. Accordingly, the United States should be reaching out to countries like Iran, instead of jumping deeper into bed with Tel Aviv, Cairo, Riyadh, and Ankara. As the director of the CIA’s political Islam strategic analysis program, Emile Nakhleh, recently wrote, “Taking sides in the perennial sectarian feud between Sunni and Shia Islam or between Saudi Arabia and Iran is, in the long run, inimical to American national security and interests in the Islamic world.”