“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."

Friday, April 29, 2016

Fewer than three-in-ten Americans have expressed trust in the federal government in every major national poll conducted since July 2007 - Why should Iran ( or anyone else) trust Washington?

U.S. Torpedoing the Nuclear Deal Will Reaffirm Iran’s Distrust

Seyed Hossein Mousavian Head of Foreign Relations Committee of Iran’s National Security Council (1997-2005)

The nuclear deal reached between Iran and the P5+1 world powers last summer, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was predicated on a basic give-and-take. In exchange for Iran agreeing to intrusive international inspections and monitoring and limits on its enrichment and heavy water capacity for a confidence-building period, the P5+1 would respect Iran’s right to nuclear enrichment and remove all nuclear-related sanctions. Today, the future of this quid pro quo is under threat — and not from the Iranian side. 

The consequences of the JCPOA falling through would not only be on the size and scope of the Iranian nuclear program. For Iran, the JCPOA was a criterion for judging whether it could trust the West to cooperate on other issues. If the United States faithfully abides by its commitments under the deal, then the view of Iranian leaders towards broader negotiations would be positively affected. 

However, if the United States acts with ill intent and makes it difficult for Iran to receive the benefits it is due under the deal, then the belief of Iranian leaders that the United States is insincere and cannot be trusted will be reaffirmed. Years of diplomacy will be undone and a zero-sum mentality will once again take hold between the two countries — with disastrous consequences for the region. 

By the JCPOA’s “implementation day” on Jan. 16, Iran had followed through on all of its commitments; reducing its enriched uranium stockpile by 98 percent, capping its number of centrifuges enriching uranium to 6,000, modifying its heavy water reactor and implementing strict surveillance measures, among other obligations the International Atomic Energy Agency has verified and Iran has abided by. 

However, now that the JCPOA has been implemented, Iran has yet to derive the expected benefits from sanctions relief. As Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said: “They [the United States] write on paper that banks can cooperate with Iran, but in practice they promote Iranophobia so that no one trades with Iran. American officials say that sanctions are still in place so that foreign investors get scared and do not come.” 
If the U.S. acts with ill intent and makes it difficult for Iran to receive the benefits it is due under the deal, then the belief that America is insincere and cannot be trusted will be reaffirmed.
Indeed, fearful of existing non-nuclear sanctions and the prospect of new sanctions, international banks and corporations with U.S.-based operations have been fearfulof trading with or investing in Iran. Major European banks have in the past paid billions in fines due to supposed Iran sanctions violations. As a consequence, Iran has not been able to receive expected foreign investment or have international banks facilitate the business agreements it has signed since the JCPOA’s implementation. 

“The most important problem is that the United States is taking a back seat after eight years of scaring everybody off, imposing heavy penalties on people who wanted to do business with Iran,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in a recent interview with The New Yorker’s Robin Wright. “The United States needs to do way more. They have to send a message that doing business with Iran will not cost them.”

U.S. sanctions have also prevented Iran from repatriating its much-hyped frozen oil revenues, which have been held at banks abroad. For Iran to retrieve this money, much of which was denominated in U.S. dollars, requires the foreign banks to conduct dollar-clearing sanctions for Iran, which they are hesitant to do for fear of running afoul of U.S. sanctions. According to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iran has so far been able to repatriate only $3 billion of its $55 billion to $100 billion in frozen funds abroad.

Adding insult to injury, the U.S. Supreme Court also recently broke all precedent by ruling that families of American victims of a 1983 Beirut bombing can sue Iran for $2 billion worth of frozen Iranian assets. Iran’s centrist and pragmatic president, Hassan Rouhani, called the decision a “continuation of hostilities against Iran” and a “flagrant theft and a legal disgrace.” Iran’s Central Bank Chief Valiollah Seif alsoplaced blame on the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration for making investments in dollars, which were among the frozen assets the Supreme Court ruled on. 
iran nuclear deal
Secretary Kerry heads to Vienna for “implementation day” of the nuclear deal. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/AFP/Getty Images)

In January, the United States also adopted new visa regulations requiring Europeans who visit Iran to attain a visa before entering the United States, creating another barrier to European trade with Iran. All of these measures have not just spurred frustration in Iran, but also in Europe. 

“Europe is being taken hostage by American policy,”declared Marietje Schaake, the vice president of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with the United States. “We negotiated the nuclear deal together, but now the U.S. is obstructing its execution.”

With all of this said, there is still reason to hope that these hurdles will be overcome and Iran will reap the benefits it is due from sanctions relief. Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif met twice last week to discuss how to resolve the problems with Iran receiving sanctions relief. Kerry said after his meeting with Zarif: “The United States is not standing in the way and will not stand in the way of business that is permitted with Iran since the (nuclear deal) took effect.”
He added: “We’ve lifted our nuclear-related sanctions as we committed to do and there are now opportunities for foreign banks to do business with Iran. Unfortunately, there seems to be some confusion among foreign banks and we want to try to clarify that as much as we can.”
If the deal collapses, not only would there be no chance for any compromise between Iran and the U.S on any other issue, but Iran would also lose its faith in the Security Council.
The Obama administration recognizing these problems and declaring it is willing to clarify what transactions foreign financial institutions can conduct with Iran is a hopeful sign. The JCPOA was the first major agreement between Iran and the United States, and also involved the rest of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. For it to be a step towards a more constructive relationship between Iran and the West, it is imperative that all sides faithfully implement their commitments. 

Foreign Minister Zarif said in this regard recently: “As the Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] said last year, if the experience of the nuclear negotiations proves that the United States is changing its approach toward Iran — is basing its approach to Iran on mutual respect and interests — then there is a chance of change.”

If the JCPOA collapses, not only would there be no chance for any compromise between Iran and the United States on any other issue, but Iran would also lose its faith in the U.N. Security Council. Unfortunately, there are powerful forces in U.S. politics that seek to increase U.S.-Iran enmity and revert Iran and the United States back onto the path to war. These special interest groups are doing everything in their power to destroy the landmark diplomatic agreement and have strong sway over Congress, which is pushing for over a dozen new sanctions against Iran. The efforts of these groups, sadly, are done more at the behest of the Israeli and Saudi governments and done more for the purpose of obstructing President Obama’s foreign policy goals than enhancing global peace and security. 

Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian is a research scholar at Princeton University and a former spokesman for Iran’s nuclear negotiators. His nuclear book, “The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir,” was published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book, “Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace” was released in May 2014. Sina Toossi in an analyst focusing on the Middle East and Iran. He tweets 



Washington has been double ass fucking from the beginning

...”By characterizing the events of Sept. 11 as a bolt out of the blue unrelated to past actions by the United States, the version of truth constructed in the wake of those events served both purposes. Rather than prompting a reassessment of prevailing U.S. policies — the problematic U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia among them — it upheld those policies, justifying their perpetuation and not incidentally affirming the wisdom of those who devised them in the first place.”

Of the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, 15 were citizens of Saudi Arabia. What does that fact signify?
According to senior U.S. officials, little or nothing. From the outset, they treated the national identity of the terrorists as incidental, connoting nothing of importance. It was as if the 15 murderers just happened to smoke the same brand of cigarettes or wear the same after-shave.
Had they come from somewhere other than Saudi Arabia, a different attitude would surely have prevailed. Imagine if 15 Iraqis had perpetrated the attacks. In Washington’s eyes, Saddam Hussein’s direct involvement would have been a given. Fifteen Iranians? U.S. officials would have unhesitatingly fingered authorities in Tehran as complicit.
Saudi Arabia, however, got a pass. In its final report, the 9/11 Commission said it “found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually” had funded al-Qaida. This artfully crafted passage was an exercise in damage control, designed to preserve the existing U.S.-Saudi relationship from critical scrutiny.
The effort never fully succeeded, skeptics suspecting that there might be more to the story. Today those doubts find expression in demands to declassify 28 pages of a congressional investigation said to detail Saudi relations with and support for the al-Qaida terrorist network before September 2001.
According to a report by the Associated Press, the Obama administration may finally do just that. Whether the 28 pages sustain or refute suspicions of Saudi involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks will remain impossible to say absent such executive action.
Yet implicit in this dispute is an issue of even greater moment: Who ultimately exercises jurisdiction over truth?
Does it fall within the exclusive province of the state? Or do judgments about truth rightfully belong to the people?
On anything that touches national security — an infinitely elastic concept — the state has long since staked out its position: Views expressed by government authorities are authoritative.
In matters relating to war and peace, U.S. officials tell us what in their judgment we need to know. They deny access to information that we ostensibly could misconstrue, or that they deem too dangerous for us to possess.
In effect, the state curates truth. In doling out information, curators working at the behest of the state — a category that includes more than a few journalists — fashion narratives that may not be entirely accurate but that have the compensatory virtue of being expedient. In some instances, the aim of the narrative might be to obfuscate past mistakes, thereby sparing policymakers embarrassment. More commonly, the purpose is to facilitate the exercise of power along certain lines.
By characterizing the events of Sept. 11 as a bolt out of the blue unrelated to past actions by the United States, the version of truth constructed in the wake of those events served both purposes. Rather than prompting a reassessment of prevailing U.S. policies — the problematic U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia among them — it upheld those policies, justifying their perpetuation and not incidentally affirming the wisdom of those who devised them in the first place.
No wonder the foreign policy establishment insists that the 28 pages remain secret; not only might the document challenge the state’s preferred Sept. 11 narrative, but the demands for its declassification also call into question the establishment’s very authority to control that narrative.
Opposing the pages’ release, Philip Zelikow, the Washington insider who served as executive director of the 9/11 Commission, describes them as “unvetted, raw material.” The contents, he insists, are “misleading.” Besides, were they to become public, “hundreds, if not thousands” of pages of additional material would also need to be declassified.
Why not allow Americans to judge for themselves? Why not make available those thousands of relevant pages? The answer is self-evident: Because in the estimation of those such as Zelikow, ordinary citizens are not to be trusted in such matters; policy must remain the purview of those who possess suitable credentials and can therefore be counted on to not rock the boat.
But the boat needs rocking. In the Middle East, the foreign policy establishment has made a hash of things. Indulging that establishment further serves no purpose other than to perpetuate folly. Releasing the 28 pages just might provide a first step toward real change.
Andrew Bacevich is author of the new book “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.” Email:

Thursday, April 28, 2016

“in the White House these days, one occasionally hears Obama’s National Security Officials pointedly reminding visitors that the large majority of 9/11 hijackers were not Iranian, but Saudi.”

Saudi Arabia and 9/11: The Kingdom May Be in for a Nasty Shock

Foreign leaders visiting King Salman of Saudi Arabia have noticed that there is a large flower display positioned just in front of where the 80-year-old monarch sits. On closer investigation, the visitors realized that the purpose of the flowers is to conceal a computer which acts as a teleprompter, enabling the King to appear capable of carrying on a coherent conversation about important issues.

One visiting U.S. delegation meeting with King Salman recently observed a different method of convincing visitors—or at least television viewers watching the encounter—that he can deal with the escalating crises facing Saudi Arabia. The king did not look at the group but at a giant television screen hanging from the ceiling of the room on which was appearing prompts. Simon Henderson, the Saudi expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who tells the story, writes that off to one side in the room was an aide who “furiously hammered talking points into a keyboard.”

Of course, King Salman is not the only world leader past or present whose inability to cope has been artfully concealed by aides and courtiers. But eyewitness accounts of his incapacity does put in perspective the claim by the White House that President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia and two-hour meeting with the king on April 20 was “cordial” and cleared the air after a troubled period in Saudi-U.S. relations.

It is hardly a secret that real authority is shifting to Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and his son, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. But the power vacuum does help explain the bizarre and self-destructive nature of present-day Saudi foreign policy that suddenly shifted from cautious use of Saudi Arabia’s vast oil wealth to further its aims, while always keeping its options open, to a militarized and confrontational pursuit of foreign policy objectives.

It is not exactly that the Saudi’s priorities have changed, but that the means being used to achieve them are far riskier than in the past. Since King Salman succeeded to the throne, Saudi Arabia has escalated its involvement in the war in Syria and engaged directly in an air war in Yemen. Both ventures have failed: greater support for armed opposition to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria early last year allowed the rebels to advance, but also provoked direct Russian military intervention, making Assad very difficult to displace. Bombing Yemen has not forced the Houthi opposition out of the capital Sanaa and, where the Houthis have retreated, there is chaos which al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has used to set up their own mini-state on the south coast of Yemen.

The Saudi leaders are more or less openly saying that they are waiting for the departure of President Obama from the White House to resume their status of most favoured ally of the U.S. The permanently anti-Saudi bias of the present administration, though usually verbal rather than operational, came across clearly in the interviews with Mr Obama and his top officials in the Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg. He says that “in the White House these days, one occasionally hears Obama’s National Security Officials pointedly reminding visitors that the large majority of 9/11 hijackers were not Iranian, but Saudi.”

But the Saudis are making a mistake in imagining that hostility to them will dissipate once Mr Obama leaves office. There is renewed pressure for the release of the unpublished 28 pages in the official Congressional 9/11 report on possible Saudi official complicity in the attacks, with CBS’s influential and widely watched 60 Minutesdevoting a segment to it, thereby putting it back on the political agenda. “Saudi Arabia legitimises Islamic extremism and intolerance around the world,” states an op-ed by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times. “”If you want to stop bombings in Brussels or San Bernardino, then turn off the spigots of incitement from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.” Not only is there a growing anti-Saudi mood in the U.S., but it is one of the few political developments common to both parties.

In reality, the missing 28 pages in the 9/11 report on possible high level Saudi involvement may not be as categorical or as damaging to the Kingdom as the fact of their continued non-publication. The secrets that Saudi Arabia has most interest in hiding may be rather different, and relate to allegations that between 1995 and 2001, two senior Saudi princes spent hundreds of millions of state funds paying off Osama bin Laden not to make attacks within Saudi Arabia, but leaving him free to do whatever he wanted in the rest of the world.

Patrick Cockburn is a Middle East Correspondent for the Independent. He has written four books on Iraq’s recent history—The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the Sunni Revolution, Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq, The Occupation, and Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession (with Andrew Cockburn)—as well as a memoir, The Broken Boy and, with his son, a book on schizophrenia, Henry’s Demons, which was shortlisted for a Costa Award. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Trump on Foreign Policy

The Right Guy

After northeastern drubbing, Ted Cruz says more favourable terrain coming

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas tried to put his bravest face on his failure to win or even manage a respectable showing in primaries in five northeastern states on Tuesday reassuring supporters that the election now moves to “more favorable” terrain for his sputtering campaign.

The hard numbers were hard to ignore - Mr Trump achieved the clean sweep of all five states that many had predicted - but the Cruz campaign reached into cinematic sentimentality placing its candidate in an Indiana gym once used as the set of the 1986 basketball film “Hoosiers” about a plucky underdog team rising to win the state championship.

“There is nothing Hoosiers cannot do,” Mr Cruz declared, making reference to the common nickname to residents of Indiana.  The state votes next Tuesday and represents Mr Cruz’s possibly last best chance to slow Mr Trump’s march towards the nomination.  

With large numbers of conservative, evangelical Republican voters, Indiana should be fairly fertile ground for Mr Cruz. He and the other rival still in the field, Ohio Governor John Katich, have announced a strategic partnership whereby the latter would eschew campaigning in Indiana while Mr Cuz would leave Oregon, which votes a week later, to Mr Kasich.

“Tonight this campaign moves back to more favorable terrain,” Mr Cruz said during his rally in Knightstown, Indiana, the town famous for accommodating the cast of the cast of the 30-year-old film that starred Gene Hackman as the coach of the team. 

Mr Cruz acknowledged Mr Trump’s strong showing on Tuesday even though he was speaking before all the results from the northeastern states were in.  “The media is going to say Donald trump is the republican nominee,” he said. However, he issued a warning about what that would mean of the party.  “Donald Trump is the one man on Earth Hillary Clinton can beat,” he offered.
While it is true that Mr Cruz remains his nearest rival, Mr Trump is not evincing much fear about him, not least because the firebrand Texan no longer has a realistic chance of winning enough delegates to claim the nomination before the party convention in July.   Although narrow, that path remains at least navigable for Mr Trump.  

The rejection of Mr Cruz along the eastern seaboard was emphatic with early returns suggesting that he had placed third in four of the five states, possibly managing second place only in Pennsylvania.  He was similarly wiped out in New York a week ago. 

A symbol of our steep decline: Donald Trump has unwittingly exposed America for what it’s become

A symbol of our steep decline: Donald Trump has unwittingly exposed America for what it's become
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch

Low-energy Jeb.” “Little Marco.” “Lyin’ Ted.” “Crooked Hillary.” Give Donald Trump credit. He has a memorable way with insults. His have a way of etching themselves on the brain. And they’ve garnered media coverage, analysis, and commentary almost beyond imagining.  Memorable as they might be, however, they won’t be what last of Trump’s 2016 election run.  That’s surely reserved for a single slogan that will sum up his candidacy when it’s all over (no matter how it ends). He arrived with it on that Trump Tower escalator in the first moments of his campaign and it now headlines his website, where it’s also emblazoned on an array of products from hats to t-shirts.

You already know which line I mean: “Make America Great Again!” With that exclamation point ensuring that you won’t miss the hyperbolic, Trumpian nature of its promise to return the country to its former glory days. In it lies the essence of his campaign, of what he’s promising his followers and Americans generally — and yet, strangely enough, of all his lines, it’s the one most taken for granted, the one that’s been given the least thought and analysis. And that’s a shame, because it represents something new in our American age. The problem, I suspect, is that what first catches the eye is the phrase “Make America Great” and then, of course, the exclamation point, while the single most important word in the slogan, historically speaking, is barely noted: “again.”

With that “again,” Donald Trump crossed a line in American politics that, until his escalator moment, represented a kind of psychological taboo for politicians of any stripe, of either party, including presidents and potential candidates for that position. He is the first American leader or potential leader of recent times not to feel the need or obligation to insist that the United States, the “sole” superpower of Planet Earth, is an “exceptional” nation, an “indispensable” country, or even in an unqualified sense a “great” one. His claim is the opposite. That, at present, America is anything but exceptional, indispensable, or great, though he alone could make it “great again.” In that claim lies a curiosity that, in a court of law, might be considered an admission of guilt.  Yes, it says, if one man is allowed to enter the White House in January 2017, this could be a different country, but — and in this lies the originality of the slogan — it is not great now, and in that admission-that-hasn’t-been-seen-as-an-admission lies something new on the American landscape.

Donald Trump, in other words, is the first person to run openly and without apology on a platform of American decline. Think about that for a moment. “Make America Great Again!” is indeed an admission in the form of a boast. As he tells his audiences repeatedly, America, the formerly great, is today a punching bag for China, Mexico… well, you know the pitch. You don’t have to agree with him on the specifics. What’s interesting is the overall vision of a country lacking in its former greatness.

Perhaps a little history of American greatness and presidents (as well as presidential candidates) is in order here.

“City Upon a Hill”

Once upon a time, in a distant America, the words “greatest,” “exceptional,” and “indispensable” weren’t even part of the political vocabulary.  American presidents didn’t bother to claim any of them for this country, largely because American wealth and global preeminence were so indisputable.  We’re talking about the 1950s and early 1960s, the post-World War II and pre-Vietnam “golden” years of American power.  Despite a certain hysteria about the supposed dangers of domestic communists, few Americans then doubted the singularly unchallengeable power and greatness of the country.  It was such a given, in fact, that it was simply too self-evident for presidents to cite, hail, or praise.
So if you look, for instance, at the speeches of John F. Kennedy, you won’t find them littered with exceptionals, indispensables, or their equivalents.  In a pre-inaugural speechhe gave in January 1961 on the kind of government he planned to bring to Washington, for instance, he did cite the birth of a “great republic,” the United States, and quoted Puritan John Winthrop on the desirability of creating a country that would be “a city upon a hill” to the rest of the world, with all of humanity’s eyes upon us.  In his inaugural address (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”), he invoked a kind of unspoken greatness, saying, “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”  It was then common to speak of the U.S. with pride as a “free nation” (as opposed to the “enslaved” ones of the communist bloc) rather than an exceptional one.  His only use of “great” was to invoke the U.S.-led and Soviet Union-led blocs as “two great and powerful groups of nations.”

Kennedy could even fall back on a certain modesty in describing the U.S. role in the world (that, in those years, from Guatemala to Iran to Cuba, all too often did not carry over into actual policy), saying in one speech, “we must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent or omniscient — that we are only six percent of the world’s population — that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind — that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity — and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.”  In that same speech, he typically spoke of America as “a great power” — but not “the greatest power.”

If you didn’t grow up in that era, you may not grasp that none of this in any way implied a lack of national self-esteem.  Quite the opposite, it implied a deep and abiding confidence in the overwhelming power and presence of this country, a confidence so unshakeable that there was no need to speak of it.

If you want a pop cultural equivalent for this, consider America’s movie heroes of that time, actors like John Wayne and Gary Cooper, whose Westerns and in the case of Wayne, war movies, were iconic.  What’s striking when you look back at them from the present moment is this: while neither of those actors was anything but an imposing figure, they were also remarkably ordinary looking.  They were in no way over-muscled nor in their films were they over-armed in the modern fashion.  It was only in the years after the Vietnam War, when the country had absorbed what felt like a grim defeat, been wracked by oppositional movements, riots, and assassinations, when a general sense of loss had swept over the polity, that the over-muscled hero, the exceptional killing machine, made the scene.  (Think:Rambo.)

Consider this, then, if you want a definition of decline: when you have to state openly (and repeatedly) what previously had been too obvious to say, you’re heading, as the opinion polls always like to phrase it, in the wrong direction; in other words, once you have to say it, especially in an overemphatic way, you no longer have it.

The Reagan Reboot

That note of defensiveness first crept into the American political lexicon with the unlikeliest of politicians: Ronald Reagan, the man who seemed like the least defensive, most genial guy on the planet.  On this subject at least, think of him as Trumpian before the advent of The Donald, or at least as the man who (thanks to his ad writers) invented the political use of the word “again.”  It was, after all, employed in 1984 in the seminal ad of his political run for a second term in office.  While that bucolic-looking TV commercial was entitled “Prouder, Stronger, Better,” its first line ever so memorably went, “It’s morning again in America.” (“Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”)

Think of this as part of a post-Vietnam Reagan reboot, a time when the U.S. in Rambo-esque fashion was quite literally muscling up and over-arming in a major way.  Reagan presided over “the biggest peacetime defense build-up in history” against what, referencing Star Wars, he called an “evil empire” — the Soviet Union.  In those years, he also worked to rid the country of what was then termed “the Vietnam Syndrome” in part by rebranding that war a “noble cause.”  In a time when loss and decline were much on the American brain, he dismissed them both, even as he set the country on a path toward the present moment of 1% dysfunction in a country that no longer invests fully in its own infrastructure, whose wages are stagnant, whose poor are a growth industry, whose wealth now flows eternally upward in a political environment awash in the money of the ultra-wealthy, and whose over-armed military continues to pursue a path of endless failure in the Greater Middle East.

Reagan, who spoke directly about American declinist thinking in his time — “Let’s reject the nonsense that America is doomed to decline” — was hardly shy about his superlatives when it came to this country.  He didn’t hesitate to re-channel classic American rhetoric ranging from Winthrop’s “shining city upon a hill” (perhaps cribbed from Kennedy) in his farewell address to Lincoln-esque (“the last best hope of man on Earth”) invocations like “here in the heartland of America lives the hope of the world” or “in a world wracked by hatred, economic crisis, and political tension, America remains mankind’s best hope.”

And yet, in the 1980s, there were still limits to what needed to be said about America.  Surveying the planet, you didn’t yet have to refer to us as the “greatest” country of all or as the planet’s sole truly “exceptional” country.  Think of such repeated superlatives of our own moment as defensive markers on the declinist slope.  The now commonplace adjective “indispensable” as a stand-in for American greatness globally, for instance, didn’t even arrive until Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright began using it in 1996.  It only became an indispensable part of the rhetorical arsenal of American politicians, from President Obama on down, a decade-plus into the twenty-first century when the country’s eerie dispensability (unless you were a junkie for failed states and regional chaos) became ever more apparent.

As for the U.S. being the planet’s “exceptional” nation, a phrase that now seems indelibly in the American grain and that no president or presidential candidate has avoided, it’s surprising how late that entered the presidential lexicon.  As John Gans Jr. wrote in the Atlantic in 2011, “Obama has talked more about American exceptionalism than Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush combined: a search on UC Santa Barbara’s exhaustive presidential records library finds that no president from 1981 to today uttered the phrase ‘American exceptionalism’ except Obama. As U.S. News‘ Robert Schlesinger wrote, ‘American exceptionalism’ is not a traditional part of presidential vocabulary. According to Schlesinger’s search of public records, Obama is the only president in 82 years to use the term.”

And yet in recent years it has become a commonplace of Republicans and Democrats alike.  In other words, as the country has become politically shakier, the rhetoric about its greatness has only escalated in an American version of “the lady doth protest too much.”  Such descriptors have become the political equivalent of litmus tests: you couldn’t be president or much of anything else without eternally testifying to your unwavering belief in American greatness.
This, of course, is the line that Trump crossed in a curiously unnoticed fashion in this election campaign.  He did so by initially upping the rhetorical ante, adding that exclamation point (which even Reagan avoided). Yet in the process of being more patriotically correct than thou, he somehow also waded straight into American decline so bluntly that his own audience could hardly miss it (even if his critics did).

Think of it as an irony, if you wish, but the ultimate American narcissist, in promoting his own rise, has also openly promoted a version of decline and fall to striking numbers of Americans.  For his followers, a major political figure has quit with the defensive BS and started saying it the way it is.

Of course, don’t furl the flag or shut down those offshore accounts or start writing the complete history of American decline quite yet.  After all, the United States still looms “lone” on an ever more chaotic planet.  Its wealth remains stunning, its economic clout something to behold, its tycoons the envy of the Earth, and its military beyond compare when it comes to how much and how destructively, even if not how successfully.  Still, make no mistake about it, Donald Trump is a harbinger, however bizarre, of a new American century in which this country will indeed no longer be (with a bow to Muhammad Ali) “the Greatest” or, for all but a shrinking crew, exceptional.

So mark your calendars: 2016 is the official year the U.S. first went public as a declinist power and for that you can thank Donald — or rather Donald! — Trump.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Wrong Guy

Murat Kurnaz was born in Germany but traveled to Pakistan in 2011 to learn about Islam. A month after 9/11 was probably not the best timing though.
“Were you a terrorist?” Bee asked Kurnaz. “No,” answered Kurnaz.
Kurnaz was swept up in a U.S. spree through the Middle East. "The government claimed to have intel linking Marat to a suicide bomber who blew himself up in Istanbul,” Bee recounts. Except the “suicide” part was completely false.
“He still lives with his family in Germany,” confirmed Kurnaz.
After months of repetitive questioning, "The CIA, FBI, FBI, DOD and Guantanamo’s joint task force all agree that Marat was not a threat to the United States,” Bee said.
But, yet, he was still tortured.
“They tortured me by waterboarding, electroshocks and hanging me on chains for many days,” Kurnaz told Bee.

By registering as a Democrat, I get my first chance today to vote against Hillary Clinton today and again in November. Hopefully, I am not alone.

Digging deep into Hillary's connections to Wall Street, Abby Martin reveals how the Clinton's multi-million-dollar political machine operates. 

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Sunday, April 24, 2016

I Don’t Give a Crap that Prince Died

When we mourn the passing of Prince but not 500 migrants, we have to ask: have we lost all sense of perspective?

Robert Fisk 

Has something gone adrift within the moral compass of our ‘news’ reporting?  In the past week, 64 Afghans have been killed in the largest bomb to have exploded in Kabul in 15 years.  At least 340 were wounded.  The Taliban set off their explosives at the very wall of the ‘elite’ security force – watch out for that word ‘elite’ – which was supposed to protect the capital.  Whole families were annihilated.  No autopsies for them.  Local television showed an entire family – a mother and father and three children blown to pieces in a millisecond – while the city’s ambulance service reported that its entire fleet (a miserable 15 vehicles) were mobilised for the rescue effort.  One ambulance was so packed with wounded that the back doors came off their hinges.

But Prince also died this week.

Now Afghanistan is the country to which we and our EU partners are happily returning refugees on the grounds that Kabul and its surrounding provinces are “safe”.  It is, of course, a lie – as flagrant and potentially as bloody as the infamous weapons of mass destruction we claimed were in Iraq in 2003.  By then, we had already promised the Afghans – in 2001 – that we wouldn’t let them down.  We wouldn’t forget them as we did after the Soviet war.  A Blair promise, of course, and thus worthless.

There was another story on Afghan television last week, which carried its own dark implications for the future.  A young man called Sabour was convicted of murdering two American advisers and told the court that he had absolutely no regrets.  Afghan social media began to fill with comments in support of the man.  He was “a real Afghan,” said one.  “A true Afghan.”  So much for Afghanistan and its utterly corrupt government and our continued claim that we support this bogus administration and that our advisers are there to produce, well, not ‘Jeffersonian democracy” – as the Americans coyly admitted in 2003 – but at least stability.

But Prince also died this week.

Then there was the latest Mediterranean catastrophe.  Up to 500 refugees and migrants were believed to have drowned after refugees from a small vessel sailing out of Libya were transferred onto a larger boat on which Egyptians, Ethiopians, Somalis and Sudanese were traveling.  The survivors were landed in Greece, some having seen their families drown.  But there were no pictures of the sinking.  No autopsies for them, of course.  No dead little Aylan Kurdis were washed up on a soft beach for the cameras.  They simply drifted straight down to the depths of the ocean to join the other thousands of skeletons who never made it to Europe.  Do not reflect that five hundred lives is almost exactly one third the total passenger deaths on the Titanic.  Do not mention that another million human beings are likely to choose this Mediterranean passage now that we are closing the straits between Greece and Turkey.

Because Prince died this week.

Migrants' desperate boat journeys to Europe

No, I don’t begrudge those who mourn this brilliant musician and the social revolution he represented.  The ‘Purple Rain’ ‘superstar’ also had fans across the Middle East.  There are Arab Facebooks aplenty today expressing their sorrow at his death.  But I do wonder if we are going too far.  When network television presenters are expressing their condolences to the mayor of Minneapolis and the Eiffel Tower has turned purple, there must surely come a time when we ask ourselves if our sense of priorities has not lost all perspective.  Could not one of those three dead children in Kabul have become a ‘Prince’?  Or the children among the five hundred souls on the sinking Mediterranean boat?  Could not he or she have become a ‘superstar’?  How about a few presenters expressing their sorrow for their deaths, too?  The colour would be black instead of purple, of course.  The Eiffel Tower lights would have to be switched off.

But this will not happen.  Because ‘Prince’ died this week.

al-Qaeda in Syria and it’s unsavory connections

US finally acknowledging al-Qaeda factor in breakdown of Ceasefire

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

One of the frustrations of following the Syria conflict from the Arabic press is that when you then turn to the English language accounts, they tend to play down the importance of al-Qaeda or the Support Front (al-Jabha al-Nusra).

In American parlance, there have just been three sides– the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Free Syrian Army, and Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). The Free Syrian Army is depicted as democrats deserving US support (only some of them are).

There is a fourth force, however, al-Qaeda, which has been among the more successful fighting groups and which holds key real estate. They led a coalition of hard line Sunni Salafi groups into Idlib city last year. They have a position around Aleppo and inside it.

Even the 33 “vetted” guerrilla groups that are supported by the US CIA via Saudi intelligence often make ad hoc, battlefield alliances with al-Qaeda, and US munitions from other groups flow to the latter. 

Al-Qaeda in Syria reports to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, a mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, so it is quite disturbing to see American allies coordinating with it.

Late last week Syrian regime planes hit civilian markets in West Aleppo with heavy civilian casualties, in what was likely a war crime. That kind of thing as must shoulder responsibility for the breakdown of the ceasefire. But it is also possible that these strikes were at least trying to hit the Nusra Front/ al-Qaeda.
On Friday, Kerry told the NYT that Russia might indeed be targeting Nusra in Aleppo, 
He added that it has proven harder to separate” the militant group from the more moderate opposition groups “than we thought.”
Then  US Army Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, said of the Russian air war,
“I’m not going to predict what their intentions are. What I do know is that we have seen, you know, regime forces with some Russian support as well begin to mass and concentrate combat power around Aleppo. … That said, it’s primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo, and of course, al-Nusra is not part of the cessation of hostilities. So it’s complicated.” 
While it is too sweeping a statement to say that al-Qaeda holds Aleppo, it is true that al-Qaeda is one of the important groups that holds territory in West Aleppo and around the city, so it is a departure that Warren was being straight with us all. 

Al-Qaeda has not signed on to the cessation of hostilities. Worse, it has convinced Free Syria Army factions such as Brigade 13 to join in its offensive against the regime, in which significant territory has been gained by the radicals.

So while it may be that the ceasefire is breaking down, it should be remembered that al-Qaeda played an important role in making it break down. 

That continued aggressiveness appears to have impelled the Russians to try to cut the rebels in West Aleppo off for once and for all by cutting their supply line to Turkey.
Related video: 


Israel cooperates with ISIS, Al-Qaeda terrorists – Syria chief govt negotiator

Bashar Ja'afari © Shannon Stapleton
Syria's chief government negotiator has accused Israel of cooperating with Islamic State and Al-Qaeda militants in the Golan Heights, a region captured from Syria in 1967. The comments were made during talks to discuss the future of war-torn Syria.

Bashar Ja'afari made the accusations after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel would never relinquish the Golan Heights.
“This Israeli provocation...confirms without any doubt the cooperation between Israel and terrorists of Daesh (an Arabic acronym for Islamic State, IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) and Nusra Front on the demarcation line between where the Golan is and UN troops are positioned,” he told reporters during peace talks in Geneva, after meeting the UN special envoy to Syria.

"It is no coincidence at all that this Israeli escalation was accompanied by irresponsible statements by members of the so-called Saudi delegation at talks here in Geneva," Ja'afari added, referring to the main opposition group.
Netanyahu declared on Sunday that Israel would never give up control of the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in a 1967 war.

“It is time that the international community recognized reality,” Netanyahu said, as quoted by the Times of Israel. “Whatever happens on the other side of the [Syrian] border, the border itself will not move.”
“And secondly,” Netanyahu added, “the time has come after 40 years for the international community to finally recognize that the Golan Heights will remain under Israeli sovereignty forever.”
Netanyahu went on to say that “the Golan was an integral part of the Land of Israel in ancient times,” as well as an “integral part of the State of Israel in the present time.”

Israel annexed the strategically important territory in 1981, extended its jurisdiction there, and began the construction of Jewish settlements. The annexation of the Golan Heights has never been accepted by the international community.

The area, which borders Syria, has economic significance for Israel. In October, the Israeli business website Globes suggested that oil deposits on the territory could make the Jewish State self-sufficient for years to come.

The comments came during peace talks on Monday convened to discuss the future of Syria, which has been engulfed in a civil war since 2011. The five-year conflict has led to the deaths of 250,000 people and displaced more than 12 million others, according to official UN figures.