“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Manipulation of the American Mind - "Earlier in the case of Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum the party establishment managed to “crush them” using advertising and other such means. “This is the first election they can’t do it. They are amazed, they are upset, and the Republican establishment is going berserk.”

Chomsky Interview: ‘The US is One of the Most Fundamentalist Countries in the World’

Professor Noam Chomsky of Linguistics and Philosophy. photo: Donna Coveney/MIT
Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Credit: Donna Coveney/MIT

Cambridge, MA (US): The United States is a very fundamentalist, religious country – one of the most extreme in the world, says Noam Chomsky, arguably that country’s best-known political dissident of our times.

“And that’s been true since its origins,” he says, explaining this apparently ultra-religious facet of the US and its impact on electoral politics in an interview to The Wire.

There are not too many countries in the world where two-thirds of the population awaits The Second Coming, Chomsky said, adding that half of them think it is going to be in their lifetimes. “And maybe a third of the population believes the world was created 10,000 years ago, exactly the way it is now. Things like that are pretty weird, but that is true in the United States and has been for a long time.”
However, the religious fundamentalists have become a political force more recently, notes Chomsky, tying the country’s “religious-fundamentalist” side to what we see in the run up to the US presidential elections, particularly the mobilisation of the religious right and the soaring popularity of Republican candidate Donald Trump.

At 87, Noam Chomsky shows few signs of fatigue or cynicism. Sitting amid overflowing bookshelves at his office at MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy – where he has taught for over half a century – he speaks slowly, with professorial pauses. A few plants stand in the corners of his room lit by the muted winter sun. And there is Roxy, his personal assistant’s particularly gentle cocker spaniel – Chomsky calls her a cat – quietly roaming about, occasionally fixing her curious gaze on visitors.

Chomsky’s dissenting voice may have shaped the politics of generations, but nothing about him fits the stereotype of a “brooding intellectual”. He makes fun of his colleagues and seems quite happy to be made fun of. “You have started resembling Bertrand Russell,” jokes his personal assistant Beverly Stohl, suddenly struck by their similarity as her boss walks across the philosopher’s imposing black and white portrait on the wall. “Oh, I do?” he asks with a laugh, barely audible. I too find myself distracted, comparing him with Russel. They did look a bit alike if you looked at the pearl-white hair — Chomsky’s curling around his ears— and the pointed noses.

Over the last six months, Chomsky has been commenting extensively on the 2016 US presidential elections. On the one hand, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders – who has brought income inequality on to the table – is drawing considerable support. He has managed to raise about $33 million for his campaign, shattering individual donor records. On the other, someone like Trump on the Republican side is leading in the polls.

In Chomsky’s view the apparently contradictory trends are reflections of the same phenomenon. “It is also something you see in Europe. The impact of the neoliberal programmes of the past generation almost everywhere has been to undermine democratic participation, to impose stagnation or sometimes decline on the majority of the population and to concentrate wealth very narrowly, which of course then in turn affects the political system and how it works.”

And this is seen in different ways, in different places, but some phenomena are common. In Europe, the mainstream more or less traditional parties – Social Democratic, Christian democratic – are declining. “At the edges you are getting increased activism and participation, both Left and Right. Something similar is happening here [in the US].”

An ever-growing anger among wide sections of the population and a hatred of institutions is visible. “There is plenty of anger and good reasons for it, if you look at what is happening to people.” Citing a recent study in the United States that points to increasing mortality rates of less educated, white men in the age range of 45-55 years, he says: “that just does not happen in developed societies.”

“It is a reflection of depression, hopelessness, concern that everything is lost – nothing is in our lives, nothing is in our futures, then at least show your anger.” The propaganda system in the US, in England, in continental Europe is designed to focus that anger on people who are even more deprived and miserable – such as “immigrants, ‘welfare cheats’, trade unions and all kinds of people who somehow you think are getting what you are not getting”.

The Trump phenomenon

Donald Trump at a political rally. Credit : Michael Vadon
Donald Trump at a political rally. Credit : Michael Vadon
The anger then is not focused on those who are really responsible – the power-hungry private sector or the huge financial institutions which are basically supported by tax payers. “But don’t look at them, look at the people who are even below you – like a mother with dependent children who lives on food stamps, she is the one who is a problem. Some of the immigrants fleeing from the destruction that the US caused in Central America and are trying to survive, so look at them – and that’s the Trump phenomenon,” says the political theorist, presenting his analysis of Trump’s ever-growing hate speeches that seem to resonate with some sections of the US’s population.

The data is not precise enough to be sure. It is commonly said that these are angry blue collar males, but they are probably lower middle class when you look more closely. They are white collar professionals, those running small businesses and people who have been pushed out of the system. “You can understand the appeal – at both edges of the political system. It is coming from similar roots, but pointed at a different direction.”

The other group that leaders like Trump seek to please are the nativists, according to. Chomsky. Therefore, they employ the rhetoric of “They are taking our country away from us.” ‘They’ being, minorities, immigrants and others. “It used to be a nice white Anglo-Saxon country but it’s gone.” That sentiment, he says, makes the US an increasingly terrified population, probably the most frightened country in the world. “It has been the safest country in the world for a long time, but if you look at fear it is overwhelming. The fear of ISIS is higher in the United States probably than it is in Turkey.” This sense of deep insecurity also explains the “crazy gun culture”.

Even the Republican establishment – essentially bankers and corporate executives that run the party – are unable to get rid of candidates like Trump.

Earlier in the case of Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum the party establishment managed to “crush them” using advertising and other such means. “This is the first election they can’t do it. They are amazed, they are upset, and the Republican establishment is going berserk.”

And that, Chomsky says, is because the anger around the anti-Washington sentiment, which he thinks should actually be anti-corporate sentiment, is so overwhelming. “You can see it – like the Supreme Court right now is probably going to undermine what remains of public service unions.”

That sentiment is popular in much of the country, he says, where people ask ‘why this fireman should get a pension when I can’t get a good job.’ “Well the reason why he has a pension is because he accepted lower wages, that’s why he has a pension. That requires thought and organisation. In a society of isolated people where each person is alone with his Fox News and iPhone people don’t understand what is happening. It is happening here in this fashion and it is happening in Europe in other ways, but I think these phenomena are very real.”

‘Sanders, a New Dealer’

He sees Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, as appealing to a huge part of the population which is basically traditionally progressive. “Though he happens to use the word socialist, it just means New Dealer.”

Chomsky considers Sanders a New Deal democrat, which in today’s political spectrum is way off on the left. President Eisenhower would look like a radical leftist in today’s spectrum, literally. Eisenhower said that anyone who questions New Deal measures – a series of domestic measures introduced in the US in the 1930s as a response to the Great Depression – is just out of the political system. “By now practically everyone questions them, Sanders is unusual in that he upholds them.”

Bernie Sanders. Credit: Mark Nozell/Flickr CC 2.o
Bernie Sanders. Credit: Mark Nozell/Flickr CC 2.o

On earlier occasions Chomsky has said that the Sanders campaign is valuable for flagging some important economic issues, but the senator wouldn’t be able to do much even if he is elected president – “which was unlikely in the system of bought elections” — for Sanders would be alone with virtually no Congressional support .
Situating the Sanders movement within broader political shifts in the US and globally, Chomsky says one of the things that has happened in the neo-liberal period, in Europe too, is that all the parties have moved to the right. 

“Today’s Democrats, Clinton-style Democrats, are pretty much what used to be called moderate Republicans. And the Republicans just went way off the spectrum. They are so dedicated to service to wealth and the corporate sector that they simply cannot get votes on their own programmes.” In order to just try and stay in the political system, they try to mobilise sections of the population that have always been there but were never really politically organised — like evangelical Christians.

On state spending on public services, which repeatedly figures in the US election campaign, Prof. Chomsky says people’s opinion is varied and nuanced, often coloured by racist ideas.

Obama, a target for racists

Even people who call themselves conservatives say they want more spending on education, on health, but not on welfare which, he says, has been demonised by “Reagan racism”. Foreign aid presents another interesting case. “When you ask people what they think about foreign aid they say it is way too high, we are giving everything away to undeserving people. When you ask them what they think foreign aid is they estimate it way beyond what it is. When you ask them what it should be, they want it to be much higher than what it actually is. Things like that are consistent over a long period.”

Chomsky calls the US healthcare system “an international scandal”, and an outcome of what he terms the neoliberal assault. This is happening in England too. The National Health Service in England is probably the best health system in the world. They are now trying to dismantle it and turn it into something like the American system which is one of the worst in the world.”

The American healthcare system is about twice the per capita cost of comparable countries and has some of the worst outcomes. The reason, he says, is straightforward. It is privatised, it is very inefficient. There is a huge bureaucracy. And companies are interested in profit, not health. “Ask the population what they think. For years, people have been in favour of national health care. When Obama came along with his proposal, almost two thirds of the population was in favour of what was called a public option. But despite public opinion, national health care was not even considered.”

Obama’s proposal, which was a mild improvement on the scandalous system, is opposed by most of the population because they see it through the propaganda system as the government harming their healthcare. “In fact, it is kind of interesting that it is called Obamacare even by the Democrats, even by his supporters. Why is it called Obamacare? Medicare was introduced during the Johnson administration. Is it called Johnsoncare? This is just a reflection of straight racism.” It became rather evident during Obama’s presidency. “A lot of hatred of Obama, which is unbelievable, is really visceral racism. There is still a large part of the Republican that thinks he was born somewhere else – Kenya, he is a Muslim.”

“In fact, recent polls show that about a quarter of Republicans think that he maybe Antichrist. That is tied up with the fundamentalist, religious tales about Armageddon, Antichrist and Jesus having a battle, and the saved souls rise to heaven maybe in our lifetimes. These are big things in the United States. That’s where the Republican base is now.”

(Meera Srinivasan is the IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow 2015-16)

Syria and Russia are displacing US ambitions to occupy Syria with physical forces - Turkey is getting desperate

Syrian civil war: Could Turkey be gambling on an invasion?

Kurdish forces, close to sealing the border, must beware - President Erdogan is unpredictable

A month before Turkey shot down a Russian bomber which it accused of entering its airspace, Russian military intelligence had warned President Vladimir Putin that this was the Turkish plan. Diplomats familiar with the events say that Putin dismissed the warning, probably because he did not believe that Turkey would risk provoking Russia into deeper military engagement in the Syrian war.
In the event, on 24 November last year a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian bomber, killing one of the pilots, in an attack that had every sign of being a well-prepared ambush. Turkey claimed that it was responding to the Russian plane entering its airspace for 17 seconds, but the Turkish fighters made every effort to conceal themselves by flying at low altitude, and they appear to have been on a special mission to destroy the Russian aircraft.

The shooting-down – the first of a Russian plane by a Nato power since the Korean War – is important because it shows how far Turkey will go to maintain its position in the war raging on the southern side of its 550-mile border with Syria. It is a highly relevant event today because, two months further on, Turkey now faces military developments in northern Syria that pose a much more serious threat to its interests than that brief incursion into its airspace, even though Ankara made fresh claims yesterday over a new Russian violation on Friday.
The Syrian war is at a crucial stage. Over the past year the Syrian Kurds and their highly effective army, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), have taken over half of Syria’s frontier with Turkey. The main supply line for Islamic State (Isis), through the border crossing of Tal Abyad north of Raqqa, was captured by the YPG last June. Supported by intense bombardment from the US Air Force, the Kurds have been advancing in all directions, sealing off northern Syria from Turkey in the swath of territory between the Tigris and Euphrates. 

The YPG only has another 60 miles to go, west of Jarabulus on the Euphrates, to close off Isis’s supply lines and those of the non-IS armed opposition, through Azzaz to Aleppo. Turkey had said that its “red line” is that there should be no YPG crossing west of the Euphrates river, though it did not react when the YPG’s Arab proxy, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), seized the dam at Tishrin on the Euphrates and threatened the IS stronghold of Manbij. Syrian Kurds are now weighing whether they dare take the strategic territory north of Aleppo and link up with a Kurdish enclave at Afrin. 

Developments in the next few months may determine who are the long-term winners and losers in the region for decades. President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are advancing on several fronts under a Russian air umbrella. The five-year campaign by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s to overthrow Assad in Damascus, by backing the armed opposition, looks to be close to defeat. 

Turkey could respond to this by accepting a fait accompli, conceding that it would be difficult for it to send its army into northern Syria in the face of strong objections from the US and Russia. But, if the alternative is failure and humiliation, then it may do just that. Gerard Challiand, the French expert on irregular warfare and the politics of the Middle East, speaking in Erbil last week, said that “without Erdogan as leader, I would say the Turks would not intervene  militarily [in northern Syria], but, since he is, I think they will do so”. 

Erdogan has a reputation for raising the stakes as he did last year when he failed to win a parliamentary majority in the first of two elections. He took advantage of a fresh confrontation with the Turkish Kurds and the fragmentation of his opponents to win a second election in November. Direct military intervention in Syria would be risky, but Mr Challiand believes that Turkey “is capable of doing this militarily and will not be deterred by Russia”. Of course, it would not be easy. Moscow has planes in the air and anti-aircraft missiles on the ground, but Putin probably has a clear idea of the limitations on Russia’s military engagement in Syria. 

Omar Sheikhmous, a veteran Syrian Kurdish leader living in Europe, says that the Syrian Kurds “should realise that the Russians and the Syrian government are not going to go to war with the Turkish army for them”. He warns that the ruling Kurdish political party, the PYD, should not exaggerate its own strength, because President Erdogan’s reaction is unpredictable. 

British jets prepare for air strikes in Syria

Other Kurdish leaders believe that Turkish intervention is unlikely and that, if it was going to come, it would have happened before the Russian jet was shot down. That led to Russia reinforcing its air power in Syria and taking a much more hostile attitude towards Turkey, giving full support for Syrian Army advances in northern Latakia and around Aleppo.

For the moment, the Syrian Kurds are still deciding what they should do. They know that their quasi-state, known as Rojava, has been able to expand at explosive speed because the US needed a ground force to act in collaboration with its air campaign against Isis. Russian and American bombers have, at different times, supported the advance of the SDF towards Manbij. On the chaotic chess board of the Syrian crisis, the Kurds at this time have the same enemies as the Syrian Army, but they know that their strong position will last only as long as the war.

If there is no Turkish intervention on a significant scale then Assad and his allies are winning, because the enhanced Russian, Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah intervention has tipped the balance in their favour. The troika of regional Sunni states – Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey – have failed, so far, to overthrow Assad through backing the Syrian armed opposition. 

Their enthusiasm for doing so is under strain. Saudi Arabia has a mercurial leadership, is enmeshed in a war in Yemen, and the price of oil may stay at $30 a barrel. Qatar’s actions in Syria are even more incalculable. “We can never figure out Qatar’s policies,” said one Gulf observer in frustration. A more caustic commentator, in Washington, adds that “Qatari foreign policy is a vanity project”, comparing it to Qatar’s desire to buy landmark buildings abroad or host the football World Cup at home. 

In Syrian and Iraqi politics almost everybody ends up by overplaying their hand, mistaking transitory advantage for irreversible success. This was true of a great power like the US in Iraq in 2003, a monstrous power like Isis in 2014, and a small power like the Syrian Kurds in 2016. One of the reasons that Iran has, thus far, come out ahead in the struggle for this part of the Middle East is that the Iranians have moved cautiously and step by step. 

Turkey is the last regional power that could reverse the trend of events in Syria by open military intervention, a development that cannot be discounted as the Syrian-Turkish border is progressively sealed off. But, barring this, the conflict has become so internationalised that only the US and Russia are capable of bringing it to an end.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Delusion has become the first requirement of citizenship, either to buy into our “values” or live with consequences - or as has been said here many times, “Raise the flag higher, assholes.”

This is an oligarchy, not a democracy: Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and the real reason why change never seems to come

This is an oligarchy, not a democracy: Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and the real reason why change never seems to come

“At the parliament of animals, the rabbits demanded equal rights, and the lions replied, ‘But where are your claws?’”

We often hear it reported that in some benighted countries the people believe that “Democracy is a nice idea, but it’s not for us. We need a strong guiding hand.” So convinced of this are these people that, given the opportunity, they will in fact vote for this strong hand and all that comes with it, making democracy an oxymoron.

We tend to think that these foreign skeptics just don’t understand, and so some of us think that we ought to help them to understand. As my representative, freshman Republican Darin LaHood, said during a recent visit to a local high school, “The goal of our foreign policies is to try to make the world more like us.” (LaHood, son of Ray LaHood, was elected to the seat vacated by disgraced Republican Aaron Schock, he of the Downton-red office walls.)

A default neocon, LaHood wants to bring democracy to the heathens, an even worse idea than trying to convert them to Christianity. The appeal to democracy, coming from the lips of politicians like LaHood, is a paternalistic fraud—at the best! At the worst, it is no more than what it was in the colonial Middle East after World War I: the preparation for a “great looting.”

There are also times when I think that the U.S. is one of these benighted countries, especially when we decide that we need a president who will “stand up” to the nemesis of the hour, i.e. will without hesitation use military force in order to—high irony if not comedy—“make the world safe for democracy.” As David Gergen said of Donald Trump, “There is this extra dimension working in Trump’s favor: Americans are looking beyond particular policy for the personality that looks like somebody strong enough, tough enough, big enough to provide security.”

This is worse than an oxymoron, it is a tale told by an idiot.

What politicians like LaHood are incapable of contemplating is the idea that democracy is fractured by fateful ironies that tend toward its own failure. The first of these ironies is the idea that democracy is the expression of a “we”—the demos, “the American people,” as politicians like to say. If the American people that Barack Obama refers to are the same American people that Ted Cruz refers to, then the American people have a personality disorder. Among the conspicuous realities of social life in the United States, this reality should be the most conspicuous: we are not one and never have been. There is no We. There are no Americans.

Not only are we divided by those things that divide most regions of the world—tribe, sect, class/caste, race, sex—we are also divided by something that feels unique to us, almost genetic. It is our founding psychopathology, first animated by the mutual dislike of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Historians refer to it as our first national crisis, the conflict between Republican and Federalist, and it more than once led Jefferson to contemplate secession for Virginia and likeminded states.

Perhaps we inherited our psychopathology from ancient Rome and its division of senatorial oligarchs from republican populares (led by the brothers Gracchus and Julius Caesar), but there is a uniquely American cast to our everlasting dilemma. This dilemma currently expresses itself as urban liberalism versus the evangelism, guns, and hatred for all things federal that presently enlivens those gathered inside the Tea Party’s sanctimonious Tiny Tent. If there is a word for a country permanently divided against itself, we should use it, because the truth is that for the last 150 years we have lived in a Cold War continuation of the Civil War.

What hath Jefferson wrought?

In spite of this, we hear from all parts of the political spectrum the passionate appeal to “we.” This appeal is especially loud when it comes from social conservatives, although it is perplexing to consider who it is outside of their own tawdry numbers that they can be thinking of. We “real Americans,” one assumes, the usual ad hoc moral majority. Even Cliven Bundy and his 15 or 20 patriot soldiers claim that they level rifles at federal agents in the name of “the American people.”

But we also hear this rallying of “we” coming from democratic socialism, whether Bernie Sanders or the pages of “In These Times” (disclosure: I have written for “In These Times”). Socialists say, “Inequality, climate change, and racism can be corrected if ‘we’ have the will. It’s ‘up to us!’” The bumper-sticker-ready slogan “US means all of us” is the high-water mark for political naiveté.

Whether left or right, the idea that we are one is a delusion at best, and a perilous dishonesty at worst. It is perilous because it hides the fact that what is really being appealed to are the ideas of an impassioned faction. To say “we Americans” is to indulge in what Nietzsche called “civic narcissism.” This narcissism says, “Everyone should live through our ideals because our ideals are self-evidently the best. We’re bewildered that others don’t share our ideals, and we’re indignant that these others are not persuaded when we loudly explain them. As a consequence, we would impose our ideals by main force if the opportunity presented itself. After all, it’s in everyone’s best interest.”

This is why appeals to “the people” are so dangerous. Beneath the call to communist solidarity and the reign of the people’s Party Congress, Stalin understood that there is no “we,” no “people,” no “everyone” and got on with the execution of “right-Trotskyite” plotters, and generally on with egg breaking for his invidious omelet. What Stalin understood that we try to keep hidden from sight is the certainty that the bedrock of every form of mass social organization—including democracy, including our democracy—is force.

The second of democracy’s fateful ironies is the “fooled again” syndrome (as The Who expressed it some time back). Let’s say that some scattered fragment of a deeply committed “we” struggles at great cost through an antagonistic election, or a revolution, or a civil war to put “our man,” the people’s champion, in a place of power, but then the friend of the little guy betrays his people and becomes “just like the old boss.” Consider the disappointment of Greek workers with the conduct of their anti-austerity prime minister Alexis Tsipras. He now enforces austerity measures and attends military exercises wearing a military jacket—he might as well be George W. Bush. And I would hope that there’s no need to mention Mr. Putin, a World Historical Figure of ever-larger betrayals of Russian democracy.

Oddly, Tea Party advocates feel more or less like the Greek Left. Their disappointment is the reason that they send one version or another of their own private Attila to congress: the conservatives they’d previously elected turned out to be establishment clones, merely members of the “Washington cartel.” They earnestly believe that Eric Cantor and John Boehner betrayed them.

Unfortunately, in order to find someone of sufficient ideological purity, they must support candidates who in any other context would be considered sociopaths (I give you the Republican party’s roster of presidential nominees). And if they’re not really crazy, they have to pretend to be if they want to be nominated, or at least I hope that’s what Jeb Bush is up to. The point would seem to be that in order to find someone who won’t betray them, conservatives must find someone who has little respect for reality (I’m lookin’ at you Mr. Trump, Mr. Carson, Mr. Cruz). But even the purest of these candidates will end by betraying their deranged base because… they have little respect for reality. So what gets said in Iowa stays in Iowa. Then it’s on to New Hampshire, where new things will be said.

The poet William Carlos Williams wrote that, “The pure products of America go crazy.” That perception would seem to apply here. But think of it in these more sympathetic terms: Rural conservatives sent people to congress not only to fight against abortion, gay marriage and immigration, they also intended that they should fight the banks, the Fed, Wall Street and, in a word, the oligarchs, the oft-cursed “elites.” But, once elected, instead of fighting the oligarchs, these representatives joined them. Perhaps a more discerning electorate might have realized this from the first, given that business interests and billionaire overlords like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson were paying for the campaigns. However that may be, any Leftist should be able to understand the Tea Party’s grievance. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Roger Hodge seemed to capture a similar disappointment among liberals with his book “The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism.”
I won’t belabor the point because the examples are many. The more difficult task is to think of a leader who hasn’t betrayed his first constituency (Vaclav Havel?). Of course, there’s nothing new about political betrayal. As Cicero wrote of Julius Caesar, “He surrounds himself with an armed guard, and emerges as a tyrant over the very people who elected him to office.” It’s difficult not to feel that nothing much has changed since the Romans: the oligarchs get money and power, while the plebes find no satisfaction beyond a weekly sack of corn, courtesy of the largesse of the Empire. (Perhaps that has changed: I believe that Paul Ryan’s budget eliminates the sack of corn.)

Democracy’s third fateful irony is that it promises that if change is needed, it will come through a plebiscite. But the reality is that any social agenda accomplished by the left (socialists to one degree or another) or the right (the Tea Party, evangelicals, white supremacists) will necessarily be bloody. The right gets that, eagerly gets that, and is locked and loaded. The Bundy clan demonstrated this once again in eastern Oregon, seizing a federal building in a wilderness area. There were few other human beings for hundreds of miles in all directions, but the watchtower was manned, the windows bloomed with rifles and choruses of “Amazing Grace,” and Ammon Bundy said they were in it for the long haul. None of this makes much sense to me, but I think the remaining diehards can be taken down through their own boredom, or when they realize they might miss the Super Bowl.

More seriously, Texas is as close as a state can come to living in permanent preparedness for war with its own government, both in principle and in fact, as we saw in 2015 when Governor Greg Abbott activated the Texas State Guard to monitor the U.S. Army’s Jade Helm 15 exercises in southwest Texas. Of course, Abbott’s actions were redundant. Virtually the whole of rural Texas is one vast citizen’s militia, one great posse comitatus. (Was Abbott perhaps hoping to protect the Army from the Texans?)

The left, on the other hand, God knows what it’s thinking. If it is to have anything remotely like what it says it wants, it will have to fight, something it seems very much disinclined to do. You can hardly blame them (and by them I mean me). We think that in a democracy issues should be decided in the favor of whoever offers the best reasons. Good luck with that. When the New York Times ran a front-page editorial articulating the reasons why it supports gun control, right-wing commentator Erick Erickson forsook rebuttal and shot the page full of holes.

Still, you can’t fault the sense of urgency that rouses Bernie Sanders and his admirers. They see all too clearly that the Progressive dream of ever-larger egalitarianism is dead. The United States has returned to its oligarchic roots, and with a vengeance. Sure, gays can get married and pot is more or less legal; isn’t that progress? But the oligarchs don’t care about that stuff. Smoke pot and fuck yourself silly, they say. In the meantime, well over 50 percent of the population lives on an annual income of $30,000 or less. Making matters a lot worse, this sobering statistic does not include those who went on Social Security early because they couldn’t find work after the recession, those even younger workers who committed disability fraud after their unemployment benefits stopped, those in prison, or those vague and pitiable souls called the “permanently discouraged.” Meanwhile, wealth concentrates at the top, ever denser, as if the sad mass of the rest of the country were being used to make a diamond.

The oligarchs are hated by both left and right, as is right and proper, but democracy’s fateful ironies make it unlikely that there will be any positive consequences for this hatred. As for the oligarchs, they don’t have to live through democracy’s ironies because they don’t live in a democracy. They live in a plutocracy. When they say “we,” they know just who they are talking about. Their “we” is what they call the “rightful owners.” As the saying goes, “Money always returns to its rightful owners.” (And boy hasn’t it steadily flowed back for 35 years now.) When newly elected leaders betray the people who elected them, the oligarchs say, “Welcome! You’ll fit right in!” As for irony number three, the oligarchy is not much concerned about blood because along with everything else it owns, it owns force. As in every nasty, tin-pot dictatorship, the goons are ready to apply a beat-down when necessary. As always, the goons will apply this beat-down to their own communities, their own people. The oligarchs outsource all of the bleeding to their victims.

That irony is jaw dropping: the traitorous “new boss” has no need to repent to those who placed him in power because he has a police apparatus at his beck and call ready and willing to confront his erstwhile supporters. The occasional scene of mothers facing off with their own sons dressed in riot gear—as in the Kiev protests in 2014—testifies to this irony. (During the Chechen wars in the late ’90s, there was actually an organization working against the war called the Russian Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers.) We’re more familiar with this phenomenon from images of black police officers on the front line of demonstrations in black communities, most recently in Baltimore, New York and Chicago.

I say these things because they seem to me to be obvious. And yet they are rarely said. We live in a society that makes no sense, but that we are not allowed to criticize. That makes delusion a requirement of citizenship: first a brainwashing, then freedom of speech.
Where does all of this leave us? It leaves us with the laughable democracy of the oligarchs, the best democracy money can buy.



Thursday, January 28, 2016

Neocon Asshole Robert Gates Dumps on The Party of Dumb

Robert Gates: Republicans' Grasp of National Security Is at Child's Level

Robert Gates, a Republican stalwart and former US defence secretary who served under eight presidents, has derided the party’s election candidates for a grasp of national security issues that “would embarrass a middle schooler”.

An ex-CIA director who first joined the White House under Richard Nixon, Gates joked that if frontrunner Donald Trump wins the presidency, he would emigrate to Canada. He condemned the media for failing to challenge candidates from both parties on promises he believes are unaffordable, illegal or unconstitutional.

“The level of dialogue on national security issues would embarrass a middle schooler,” Gates said of the Republican contenders at a Politico Playbook event in Washington on Monday. “People are out there making threats and promises that are totally unrealistic, totally unattainable. Either they really believe what they’re saying or they’re cynical and opportunistic and, in a way, you hope it’s the latter, because God forbid they actually believe some of the things that they’re saying.”
Gates is among Republican elders who are dismayed by the way this year’s campaign is unfolding. Establishment figures such as Jeb Bush—whose father Gates served as director of the CIA—are failing to gain traction against mavericks with unusual prescriptions for keeping America safe.

Trump suggested “closing parts of the internet” to prevent Islamic State attracting recruits, Ted Cruz pledged to “carpet bomb them into oblivion”, Chris Christie proposed flying Air Force One over disputed Chinese islands and Carly Fiorina boasted of having had “a private meeting” with Russian leader Vladimir Putin when in fact they met in a green room at a conference.

Gates, promoting a new book, A Passion for Leadership, said: “One of the greatest, most appealing aspects of Ronald Reagan was his optimism about this country and about the future, and these guys all make it sound like we’re going down the drain.” All the candidates, he argued, should “try to communicate better to the American people that these are complicated, difficult problems that are going to be difficult to solve and are probably going to require some sacrifice”.
The 72-year-old declined to comment on specific candidates but was pressed by interviewer Mike Allen on the prospect of Trump reaching the White House. After a pause, he replied: “Well, I live about 50 miles from Canada.”

As the audience erupted in laughter, Gates continued philosophically: “I’ve been around a long time. There are a lot of people who have run for president where people have said, ‘Oh my God, if he’s elected, it’s the end of the world!’ And the truth of the matter is, it wasn’t, and so I’m not prepared to be overly dramatic and believe me, the comment I just made was very sarcastic and humorous, not meant seriously. Somebody out there will write a story that I’m going to Canada. It’s totally not true; I intend to remain within the United States.”

Gates was the only defence secretary in American history to be asked to remain in that office by a newly elected president. Working under Barack Obama, he was alongside Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state and praised her as “tough minded” with “a lot of common sense” but admitted they began to disagree on issues towards the end, notably the intervention in Libya.

He did not mention Bernie Sanders by name but did suggest both Democratic and Republican candidates are being given an easy ride by the media. “Frankly, I think that the press needs to be more aggressive,” he said. “A lot of people in both parties are making huge promises and commitments.

“In some cases, the things they’re saying they’re going to do are unconstitutional or merely against the law and others are, from a budgetary standpoint, inconceivable, and so it seems to be that the press has not hammered hard enough and been relentless in saying, ‘How the hell are you going to do that?’”

Gates condemned National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden as a traitor, called on tech companies to put security ahead of business interests and cooperate with intelligence agencies on encrypted data, and repeated his past description of Putin as a “stone-cold killer”, which, in the light of the Alexander Litvinenko inquiry, “the British now seem to reaffirm”.

The intelligence veteran of nearly 27 years also spoke about the danger of leaks and recalled the 2011 raid in Pakistan that killed terrorist Osama bin Laden. A friend later emailed him a Photoshopped version of the famous picture in the situation room with the occupants wearing superhero costumes: Obama as Superman, Joe Biden as Spider-Man, Clinton as Wonder Woman and Gates himself as the Green Lantern.

“And we all had a good laugh, and then I said, ‘Mr President, this is the reason the photographs of the dead Bin Laden must never be released, because somebody will Photoshop them and it will anger every Muslim in the world, even those that hated Bin Laden, because of being disrespectful of the dead, and it will create greater risk for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and for all Americans, especially in the Middle East.’ And to the best of my knowledge, those photographs are the only things about that raid that have never leaked.”
He added: “The Defense Department wrote the book on leaking. They know how to do this. But the Defense Department leaks about policy and budget and weapons programmes and stuff like that. They do not leak about military operations because they know lives are at stake. So the leaks about the Bin Laden raid for the first couple of weeks came from the White House and CIA, and I just thought that was a disgrace.”

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Holocaust Remembrance? Every Day is a Holocaust Day

Why do we ignore the civilians killed in American wars?

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Why do we ignore the civilians killed in American wars?

As the United States officially ended the war in Iraq last month, President Obama spoke eloquently at Fort Bragg, N.C., lauding troops for “your patriotism, your commitment to fulfill your mission, your abiding commitment to one another,” and offering words of grief for the nearly 4,500 members of the U.S. armed forces who died in Iraq. He did not, however, mention the sacrifices of the Iraqi people.
This inattention to civilian deaths in America’s wars isn’t unique to Iraq. There’s little evidence that the American public gives much thought to the people who live in the nations where our military interventions take place. Think about the memorials on the Mall honoring American sacrifices in Korea and Vietnam. These are powerful, sacred spots, but neither mentions the people of those countries who perished in the conflicts.

The major wars the United States has fought since the surrender of Japan in 1945 — in Korea, Indochina, Iraq and Afghanistan — have produced colossal carnage. For most of them, we do not have an accurate sense of how many people died, but a conservative estimate is at least 6 million civilians and soldiers.

Our lack of acknowledgment is less oversight than habit, a self-reflective reaction to the horrors of war and an American tradition that goes back decades. We consider ourselves a generous and compassionate nation, and often we are. From the Asian tsunami in 2004 to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Haiti earthquake in 2010, Americans have been quick to open their pocketbooks and their hearts.
However, when it comes to our wars overseas, concern for the victims is limited to U.S. troops. When concern for the native populations is expressed, it tends to be more strategic than empathetic, as with Gen. David H. Petraeus’s acknowledgment in late 2006 that harsh U.S. tactics were alienating Iraqi civilians and undermining Operation Iraqi Freedom. The switch to counterinsurgency, which involves more restraint by the military, was billed as a change that would save the U.S. mission, not primarily as a strategy to reduce civilian deaths.

The wars in Korea and Indochina were extremely deadly. While estimates of Korean War deaths are mainly guesswork, the three-year conflict is widely believed to have taken 3 million lives, about half of them civilians. The sizable civilian toll was partly due to the fact that the country’s population is among the world’s densest and the war’s front lines were often moving.

The war in Vietnam and the spillover conflicts in Laos and Cambodia were even more lethal. These numbers are also hard to pin down, although by several scholarly estimates, Vietnamese military and civilian deaths ranged from 1.5 million to 3.8 million, with the U.S.-led campaign in Cambodia resulting in 600,000 to 800,000 deaths, and Laotian war mortality estimated at about 1 million.

Despite the fact that contemporary weapons are vastly more precise, Iraq war casualties, which are also hard to quantify, have reached several hundred thousand. In mid-2006, two household surveys — the most scientific means of calculating — found 400,000 to 650,000 deaths, and there has been a lot of killing since then. (The oft-cited Iraq Body Count Web site mainly uses news accounts, which miss much of the violence.)

The war in Afghanistan has been far less violent than the others, with civilian and military deaths estimated at about 100,000.

The numbers can be confusing because some estimates include only those people killed by direct violence; others include deaths from “structural” violence — such as those resulting from a destroyed health-care system. That we do not have an official way of accounting for the dead is one sign of the uncaring attitudes that have accompanied our wars.

It is difficult to obtain accurate mortality figures during wartime, but the best way might be to commission a consortium of public health schools — the most qualified institutions that study violence — to conduct household surveys every year.

The lack of concern about those who die in U.S. wars is also shown by these civilians’ absence, in large part, from our films, novels and documentaries. The entertainment industry portrays these wars rarely and almost always with a focus on Americans.

A few nonprofit organizations have sprung up to deal with the wars’ victims — notably the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, a Washington-based group founded by Marla Ruzicka, an aid worker who was killed in Iraq in 2005. Such efforts rarely register with the American public, however.

Pollsters, meanwhile, have asked virtually no questions of the public about foreign casualties. But on the rare occasions when they do, the results have been striking. A 1968 Harris poll found 4 percent favored an end to the Vietnam war because of harm to civilians. A University of Michigan pollster concluded: “More and more Americans now think our intervention was a military mistake, and want to forget the whole thing.”

On Iraq, when an Associated Press survey asked Americans in early 2007how many Iraqis had died in the war, the average of all answers was 9,890, when the actual number was probably well into the hundreds of thousands. In several polls in 2007 and 2008, Americans were asked whether we should withdraw troops even if it put Iraqis at risk of more civil unrest; a clear majority said yes.

Today there is virtually no support for helping rebuild Iraq or Afghanistan — no campaigns by large charities, no open doors for Iraqi refugees. Even Iraqis who worked with the American military are having trouble getting political asylum in the United States and face a risk of retribution at home. The U.S. response to so many dead, 5 million displaced and a devastated country is woefully dismissive.
Even civilian atrocities tend to fade quickly from view, or else become rallying points for the accused troops. My Lai, where about 400 Vietnamese were murdered by a U.S. Army unit in 1968, at first shocked the nation, but Americans quickly came to support Lt. William L. Calley Jr. — who was later found guilty of killing 22villagers — and the others involved. More recently, eight Marines were charged in the 2005 Haditha massacre in Iraq, and none has been convicted. (The last defendant’s trial started this past week.) Indeed, each atrocity that fails to alter public opinion piles on to further prove American indifference.

Why the American silence on our wars’ main victims? Our self-image, based on what cultural historian Richard Slotkin calls “the frontier myth” — in which righteous violence is used to subdue or annihilate the savages of whatever land we’re trying to conquer — plays a large role. For hundreds of years, the frontier myth has been one of America’s sturdiest national narratives.

When the challenges from communism in Korea and Vietnam appeared, we called on these cultural tropes to understand the U.S. mission overseas. The same was true for Iraq and Afghanistan, with the news media and politicians frequently portraying Islamic terrorists as frontier savages. By framing each of these wars as a battle to civilize a lawless culture, we essentially typecast the local populations as theIndians of our North American conquest. As the foreign policy maven Robert D. Kaplanwrote on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page in 2004, “The red Indian metaphor is one with which a liberal policy nomenklatura may be uncomfortable, but Army and Marine field officers have embraced it because it captures perfectly the combat challenge of the early 21st century.”

Politicians tend to speak in broader terms, such as defending Western values, or simply refer to resistance fighters as terrorists, the 21st-century word for savages. Remember the military’s code name for the raid of Osama bin Laden’s compound? It was Geronimo.

The frontier myth is also steeped in racism, which is deeply embedded in American culture’s derogatory depictions of the enemy. Such belittling makes it all the easier to put these foreigners at risk of violence. President George W. Bush, to his credit, disavowed these wars as being against Islam, as has President Obama.

Perhaps the most compelling explanation for indifference, though, taps into our beliefs about right and wrong. More than 30 years ago, social psychologists developed the “just world” theory, which argues that humans naturally assume that the world should be orderly and rational. When that “just world” is disrupted, we tend to explain away the event as an aberration. For example, when encountering a beggar on the street, a common reaction is indifference or even anger, in the belief that no one should go hungry in America.

This explains much of our response to the violence in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. When the wars went badly and violence escalated, Americans tended to ignore or even blame the victims. The public dismissed the civilians because their high mortality rates, displacement and demolished cities were discordant with our understandings of the missions and the U.S. role in the world.

These attitudes have consequences. Perhaps the most important one — apart from the tensions created with the host governments, which have been quite vocal in protesting civilian casualties — is that indifference provides permission to our military and political leaders to pursue more interventions.

There are costs to our global reputation as well: The United States, which should be regarded as a principal advocate of human rights, undermines its credibility when it is so dismissive of civilian casualties in its wars. Appealing for international action on Sudan, Syria and other countries may sound hypocritical when our own attitudes about civilians are so cold. Korean War historian Bruce Cumings calls this neglect the “hegemony of forgetting, in which almost everything to do with the war is buried history.”

Will we ever stop burying memories of war’s destruction? More attention to the human costs may jolt the American public into a more compassionate understanding. When we build the memorial for Operation Iraqi Freedom, let’s mention that Iraqi civilians were part of the carnage. Count them, and maybe we can start to recognize and remember the larger tolls of the wars we wage.

John Tirman, executive director and principal research scientist at the MIT Center for International Studies, is the author of “The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars.”

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Putin’s Foray against Syrian’s Terrorists

Top 5 Ways Putin has won big in Syria and why Europe is embracing him

Russia is so far winning big in Syria, and making Moscow’s projection of force in the Middle East a reality that the other great powers have to recognize. As Russia has emerged as a major combatant against Syrian al-Qaeda and against Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), it is being accepted back into a Europe traumatized by two major attacks on Paris. France is signalling that it hopes to end sanctions on Russia over Ukraine by this summer. While the Minsk peace process is going all right, the motivation here is to ally more closely with Moscow against Muslim radicals in the wake of Russia’s successes against them in Syria.

Russia’s intervention in Syria last October was in many ways a desperate measure and a gamble. It is said that in mid-summer of 2015, Iranian special forces commander Qasem Soleimani flew to Moscow with a blunt message. The Syrian regime was going to fall if things went on the way they were going and Iran did not have the resources to stop it.

Vladimir Putin, still smarting from having lost Libya as a sphere of influence, was determined to stop the fall of Syria.

The regime of Bashar al-Assad has to to control a y-shaped area and set of transportation routes if it is to survive. The ‘Y’ is anchored at the bottom by Damascus, the capital. In its metropolitan area, given shifting population, live around 5 million Syrians who are afraid of the two major forces battling the regime, al-Qaeda (the Nusra Front) and Daesh (ISIS, ISIL).

The trunk of the ‘Y’ stretches up to Homs and then veers off to the left, to the key port city of Latakia. The right branch of the ‘Y’ goes up through Hama to Aleppo, a city of 4 million before the war, which is divided in half, with the west in the hands of the regime.

Controlling this huge ‘Y’ where 70% of Syrians live is a tall order. It is vulnerable at several key points, of which the rebels have attempted to take advantage.

1. Deraa province to the south of Damascus is largely Sunni and rural and its clans could sweep up and take the capital, with Jordanian, US and Saudi support. If that happened, game over.

2. The Army of Islam, backed by Saudi Arabia, has strong positions besieging the capital just to its north. If it could come down into Damascus, game over.

3. If the rebels could take and hold Homs and Qusayr in the middle of the ‘Y’, they could cut Damascus off from resupply by truck from the port of Latakia.

4. If the rebels, who took all of Idlib Province in the northwest last April, could move west from Idlib and take Latakia, they could cut Damascus off from its major port and deny it ammunition, arms, even some foodstuffs.

5. If the rebels can move from south of Aleppo to cut off the road from Hama and strangle West Aleppo, they could take all of the country’s largest city, making it difficult for the regime to survive.

(COMMENT - the italics below our our guys!}

Along this Y set of trunk roads, the most effective fighting force has been al-Qaeda in Syria, which reports to 9/11 mastermind Ayman al-Zawahiri. This affiliate, called the Support Front or the Nusra Front, is formally allied with other Salafi jihadis in the Army of Conquest coalition and is tactically allied with many small groups in what’s left of the Free Syrian Army. The CIA has sent medium weaponry, including T. O. W. anti-tank weapons to 30 “vetted” groups in the FSA, via Saudi Arabia. Many of these weapons have made their way into the hands of al-Qaeda and been used against regime tanks and armored vehicles to devastating effect.

So when Soleimani when to Moscow, it seemed that the road from Hama to West Aleppo had been lost and Aleppo would fall. Al-Qaeda had also made advances in the south, taking al-Sheikh Miskin just south of Damascus, and preparing for a push on the capital. Idlib had fallen and Latakia might well have been next.

So when Putin sent in his air force, it concentrated on protecting the red ‘Y’ in the map above. It mainly hit al-Qaeda, the primary threat to regime control of the Y, but also struck at Free Syrian Army groups backed by the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which were tactically allied with al-Qaeda. This move was necessary to defend the ‘Y’. It drew howls of protest from Washington, Ankara and Riyadh demanding to know why Russia wasn’t instead targeting Daesh/ ISIL.
The answer was simple. Except at Aleppo and at a point below Hama, Daesh for the most part posed little threat to the ‘Y’. Al-Qaeda and its allies were the big menace, so Putin concentrated on them.

Air support to a determined local ground force can be an effective strategy. It worked for Bill Clinton in Kosovo. It worked for George W. Bush in Afghanistan in 2001, when the US-backed Northern Alliance handily defeated the Taliban. It worked again in March-April 2003, when US air support to the Kurdish Peshmerga guerrillas, allowed them to defeat the Iraqi Baath army in Kirkuk, Mosul and elsewhere in the north.

And so this strategy has been working for Putin. He appears to have rearmed and retrained the Syrian Arab Army, which has new esprit de corps and is making significant headway for the first time in years. It is of course aided by Hizbullah, over from Lebanon, and by a small contingent of some 2000 Iranian spec ops forces (many of them actually Afghan).

So what has the Russian air force accomplished?

1. It allowed the reopening of the road from Hama to West Aleppo, ending the siege of that regime-held part of the city and pushing back the rebels from it.

2. It retook most of Latakia Province, safeguarding the port. Yesterday came the news that the major northern al-Qaeda-held town of Rabia had fallen to the government forces, meaning that Latakia is nearly 100% in government control. These advances into northern Latakia involved hitting Turkmen proxies of Turkey, which is why Turkey shot down a Russian plane last fall. Likely the next step will be to take back cities in Idlib like Jisr al-Shughour, which fell last spring to an al-Qaeda-led coalition, and which could be used as a launching pad for the taking of Latakia port.

3. It strengthened regime control of Hama and Homs, ensuring the supply routes south to Damascus.

4. It hit the Army of Islam as well as al-Qaeda and Daesh around Damascus, forcing the latter two to withdraw from part of the capital and killing Zahran Alloush, leader of the Army of Islam.

5. It hit al-Qaeda and FSA forces in Deraa Province and yesterday the key town of al-Sheikh Miskin fell to the Syrian Arab Army. This is a Deraa crossroads and its loss affects the rebels ability to maneuver in this province.

The Russian air force, in conjunction with Syrian troops and Hizbullah and a few Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps fighters has therefore profoundly braced regime control of the ‘Y’ where most Syrians live and along which the capital’s supplies flow. If in July through September it appeared that the regime could well fall, and quickly, now al-Assad’s minions are on the march, pushing back their opponents.

It shouldn’t need to be said, but I want to underline that the above is analysis, not advocacy. Be that as it may, in the past 4 months, Putin has begun winning in Syria, which means so has al-Assad. And the spillover effects on Russian diplomacy are huge.