• Cover Art Released for Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan

    April 30, 2017 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Hooper's War, Military

    Here’s the full cover for my new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. It’s available now on Amazon as a pre-order, for sale on May 15.

    Click for a larger version.





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  • NYT Calls My First Amendment Story “Writing You Shouldn’t Miss”

    April 29, 2017 // 5 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America




    So don’t miss it — here in the New York Times.











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  • Film Review: National Bird Looks Deeply in the Drone War’s Abyss

    April 27, 2017 // 5 Comments

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    Posted in: Afghanistan, Iraq, Military



    National Bird, a documentary film about America’s drone wars by filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck, airs May 1 at 10 pm on your local PBS station as part of the Independent Lens series.

    I had a chance to see the film in advance, and here’s why you should watch it: it is terrifying even in the quiet moments; it is most terrifying in the quietest moments.


    National Bird is a deep, multilayered, look into America’s drone wars, a tactic which became a strategy which became a post-9/11 policy. To many in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the world, America’s new national symbol is not the bald eagle, but a gray shadow overhead armed with Hellfire missiles.

    The Silence

    Scattered throughout the documentary are silent images from drones and aerial cameras, sweeping, hypnotic vistas taken from above both Afghan villages and American suburbs. The message could not be more clear: the tools used over there can just as easily be used over here, not merely for surveillance (as is already happening in America) but perhaps one day soon to send violence down from the sky. Violence sudden, sharp, complete and anonymous.



    The Americans

    The anonymity of that violence comes at a price, in this case in the minds of the Americans who decided who lives and dies. National Bird presents three brave whistleblowers, two former uniformed Air Force veterans (Lisa Ling, Heather Linebaugh) and a former civilian intelligence analyst (Dan), people who have broken cover to tell the world what happens behind the scenes of the drone war. There are ironic elements of “old hat” here, chilling in that we have sadly grown used to hearing that drone strikes kill more innocents than terrorists, that the people who make war justify their actions by calling their victims hajjis and ragheads, that America draws often naive young people into its national security state on the false promises of hollow patriotism and turns them into assassins.

    Heather suffers from crippling PTSD. Lisa is compelled to travel to Afghanistan with a humanitarian group to reclaim part of her soul, a victim of moral injury. Dan is in hiding as an Espionage Act investigation unfolds around him. A sobering side to this all is the presence of the whistleblowers’ attorney, Jesselyn Radack, who currently also helps defend Edward Snowden. Radack ties the actions of the drone whistleblowers into the larger post-9/11 narrative of retributive prosecutions and government attempts to hide the truth of America’s War on Terror from everyone but its victims.



    The Afghans

    The final layer of National Bird is what may be some of the first interviews with innocents who have suffered directly from drone attacks. The film interviews at length members of an Afghan extended family attacked from the air in a case of mistaken targeting even the Department of Defense now acknowledges.

    The family members speak six years after the fact as if still in shock. Here’s a boy who shows off his leg stump. Here’s a woman who lost her husband, the boy’s father, in the same attack. Here is another father discussing the loss of his own child. In a critical piece of storytelling, National Bird does not seek to trivialize the deaths in Afghanistan by weighing them against the psychological trauma suffered by the Americans, but rather shows the loss to everyone done in our names.

    (Full disclosure: Jesselyn Radack helped represent me in my own whistleblower fight against the U.S. Department of State in 2012)




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  • Do American Airports Suck? Yes, Yes They Do

    April 26, 2017 // 16 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America

    tsa toy

    Traveling by air in America is one of the best ways to see the country, although it is not always the nicest view. I recently took a fresh look, with the goal of advising my foreign friends what to expect when they drop by the United States.



    Our Air Palaces

    You’ll enjoy our older airports’ retro-touches, which evoke the Golden Age of air travel of the 1950s and 1960s. The typical lack of free WiFi, just like when your parents first visited America, the two electrical outlets serving an entire wing of the airport, the toilets which have not been cleaned since when your parents first visited America, and the “Welcome Home Troops” signs reminiscent of those displayed for soldiers coming home from that war where America invaded your country, all quaintly harken back to simpler times.

    Your chances of finding public transportation to and from the airport are slim. Maybe if you look around there’ll be an old city bus for the workers (live like a local!) And stop standing out as a “tourist,” looking for trains that connect to the city center as you’ll find nearly everywhere else in the developed world. As you pay a month’s salary out to the cab driver who is cheating you just like in Cairo, or the Uber guy 23 hours into a shift trying to feed his family, think of it all as a great only-in-the-developing world story to tell if you survive to get back home.

    Keep in mind our newer airports are clean and shiny, and look like shopping malls, our most popular places of worship. You can buy the same stuff made in some other country in the airport as out of the airport, eat at the same fast food places, and sample the daily ration of fat required by all the pre-diabetic locals. The newer airports are also a lesson in economics. America has only three viable industries left: government, our largest employer (generally off limits to foreigners, though those we accuse of being terrorists are often taken in as a kind of adjunct), retail sales, and serving/delivering things to each other. See it all while you’re here!



    Security First

    But the real treat inside our airports is that most American of things, security.

    Prior to 9/11, no one but Nazis in old movies and zoologists mapping out elephant migration routes used the term “Homeland.” But now everyone in America does. You should try it, too. Say it with the right mix of fear and awe, and the locals might not even guess American English is not your first language.

    Speaking of which, one fun thing that distinguishes our international airports from those in many other third world countries is the near-exclusive use of English. Few Americans appreciate the efforts we go to as a nation to provide these gratis tutorial sessions to you.

    A curious fact is that American airport workers seem to believe that anyone can speak English if it is blasted at them loud enough and s-l-o-w enough. Idiomatic phrases, such as “ I SAID, liquids in a baggie, 3:1, c’mon, people are waiting behind you” will be taught to you by our security staff. If you don’t catch it all the first time, don’t worry, the worker will repeat it as many times as necessary. American passengers will often help out by advising you how to manhandle your laptop, tear open wrapped gifts, disassemble iPads, and pour out bottled water purchased earlier in the airport, all so you can speed through the security checkpoint enroute to Disneyworld and not Guantanamo.


    If you are new to our shores, understand removing shoes at the airport wasn’t always some sort of American custom, but we now embrace it with fervor. Even the Japanese, who are shoe-removing fetishists, often seem unsure about wearing only socks to tread upon a filthy public floor, but you jump right in. We also love to take off our belts, jackets, and jewelry at the airport. Play along; I once saw some yokels from Communist China, where the government controls their every action, worried pants might be next. Hah!

    They quickly found out we Americans would never bow to a bully government like they do at home. We instead wait in long, slow lines for our chance to appear before a petty government official with blind power over us, all for safety. Pay attention to our unique style of officials. Unlike in some parts of the world where holding near-life-or-death power over someone is just an excuse to collect bribes, or the bored-as-hell Euro style, our airport workers approach their task with gusto.

    If you get touched by a security agent on your private parts, that’s considered good luck by many.

    You may think this anger is all directed at you, as a foreign visitor. Actually, if you are from a Muslim country, it is all directed at you. But sometimes Americans are also often singled out for some fun.

    For example, on my last trip I was selected for random extra screening, which included removing a Chapstick from my pants pocket, and opening it in front of the security person as proof it was not terrorist balm meant to moisten my lips before shouting “Allah hu Akbar!”

    Just like with the foreigners, the agent spoke English loudly to me, as if to reaffirm we are all equal here in America. He also made me open my wallet in case it included a very, very thin gun. In some countries that might be seen as a request for a bribe, but here I understood it was just bullying by a public servant.

    What happened after I passed through the checkpoint I think as a “fun” freebie for those who comes from cultures that revere elders. After discovering a typo in the name on a boarding pass, security sent an elderly woman back to the airline counter for a new one even though she said that would cause her to miss her flight, after which she would need a new boarding pass once again. You’re not going to see something like that sitting at home!



    Boarding Your Flight

    At your the gate, be sure to see who boards first, as the list includes military in uniform. I know of no other country in the world that does that, so foreign friends, watch for it as a real “thing.”

    Americans will try and rush onto the plane as if they’re not sure that there’ll be a seat for them. But looks can be deceiving, because what those citizens are actually doing is playing one of America’s favorite blood sports, fighting for overhead storage space.

    See, the airlines had this idea that since everyone carries luggage on trips, if they charged a fee for luggage, they’d get rich. Americans responded as revolutionaries do, protesting such unjust laws by dragging enough crap on to the plane as “carry on” luggage that the aisles often look like the barricade scene from Les Miserables. The plane cannot accommodate all that stuff, and so a struggle ensues.

    Watch closely for regional variations, from passive aggression to outright close combat. Have your camera ready, and let the kids take a swing! If you miss that photo while boarding, you’ll see a slimmed down version of the scrum when it is time to exit the plane. Sometimes the exit fights are even more fun; people have been drinking inflight, and there are scores to settle from the boarding process.

    You’ll soon enough arrive at your American destination feeling very much like a local — exhausted and frustrated. And isn’t feeling like you belong somewhere new one of the real goals of travel anyway?



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  • Flashback! Questions from the Last Time America was Supposed to “Take Out” Assad

    April 25, 2017 // 5 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Military, Syria, Trump

    assad
    History is a funny thing, because we forget it so easily, and so quickly. That forgetting is usually based on the political needs of the moment, and politicians and the media count on us being that way so they can manipulate us. Works nearly every time, too.

    One of the latest versions of this is the media meme that the Syrian quagmire is kinda new-ish, and that the most recent American spurt of 59 cruise missiles into that country represents something, maybe an escalation, maybe a change of policy, maybe some domestic political thingie. To help disprove all that, here’s an article I wrote about a year ago.

    Let’s see how that holds up in hindsight.

     

    Quick Summary:

    Despite over 400,000 dead and ongoing ground and air campaigns inside the country by the U.S., Russia and several others, 51 U.S. diplomats in 2016 publicly demanded the Obama administration launch strikes directly against Bashir Assad in Syria.

    The Assad family has ruled Syria since the 1970s with an iron hand, employing secret police and other standard dictator tricks to suppress dissent. Things got so cozy between Syria and the U.S. that in the early days of the war on terror the CIA was sending “suspects” to Syria for some outsourced torture, as nobody can run a secret prison better than Arabs.

    Papa Assad passed away and his son Bashir assumed the presidency in 2000. Some ten years later Assad did the same thing most Arab dictators did, including U.S. allies like Egypt, and ordered crackdowns on Arab Spring protesters. The U.S. then decided in an on-again, off-again fashion to “remove” Assad. When no one in the U.S. really liked the sound of that following the disastrous failed regime changes in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, the U.S. attacked Syria anyway in the name of smiting Islamic State [ISIS]. Assad, whatever else he is, is also at war with ISIS. Some 400,000 Syrians have died so far in the civil war.

    And there’s a photo above of Secretary of State and Bashir Assad hanging out in better days. Times change, man.



    A Memo

    With that as background, 51 mid-level American diplomats took the brave stand of writing a memo (technically known as using the State Department dissent channel.) The memo was promptly leaked to the press [Note this was in mid-2016].

    Oh, a memo calling for more war written by people who wear suits and ties to work (technically known as chickenhawks.)

    The memo says American policy has been “overwhelmed” by the unrelenting violence in Syria. It calls for “a judicious use of standoff and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed U.S.-led diplomatic process.”



    Regime Change

    Robert Ford, former ambassador to Syria, said, “Many people working on Syria for the State Department have long urged a tougher policy with the Assad government as a means of facilitating arrival at a negotiated political deal to set up a new Syrian government.”

    Regime change. Bloody change, as it seems odd to imagine Assad would negotiate his own ouster.



    What the Memo Left Out

    The dissent memo makes no suggestions, actually no mention at all, about who would succeed Assad, or how this regime change would be any different than the failed tries in Iraq, Libya or Yemen, or how ISIS, who also seeks the end of the Assad regime through violence, would not be further empowered, or how the U.S. would get away with airstrikes given the overt Russian support for the Assad regime. Everyone except for those brave memo-ists has seen this movie before.

    Also missing from the memo are any notes on what if any military service the 51 signatories have amongst them, or why this call for more blood comes from the State Department and not from the military, whose commanders have raised questions about what would happen in the event that Assad was forced from power. Their questions are likely motivated by the fact that they would be asked to risk their lives to clean the mess.

    Finally, no one seems to remember anymore why “we” need to “take out” Assad. He is no doubt a terrible person who kills to protect his power. But leaders like that are not in short supply across the Middle East, in Africa, in North Korea. It seems a more specific rationale, tied directly to some clear U.S. strategic interest, is needed (remember, Assad is fighting ISIS and has never sought to export terror to the U.S.) Assad also enjoys support inside his country by some minority, who will not go away quietly if he is changed out. See what happened to the Baathists in Iraq, who organized some of the first resistance to the U.S., and went on to help staff up ISIS.

    History sure is funny. It also bites hard, especially when you ignore its lessons.

     

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  • Hooper’s War Now Available for Pre-Order on Amazon!

    April 24, 2017 // 2 Comments

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    Posted in: Hooper's War, Military



    My new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan is available now for pre-order on Amazon. You can order it here.

    Here’s how one reviewer described the book (more reviews):

    In Hooper’s War, a Novel of WWII Japan, an American veteran remembers his time in Japan during a World War II that might have been.

    In this alternate-history novel, author Peter Van Buren follows both present-day and historical timelines to explore what might have happened if the United States had launched a ground invasion of Japan to end the second world war instead of dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    In 2017, elderly Nate Hooper is in a retirement home, reflecting on a recent visit to Kyoto, during which he kept a promise to his late Japanese wife. But back in 1945, Hooper is an 18-year-old Army officer leading a group of equally young soldiers through the remnants of Kyoto, dealing with the horrors of war. The narrative jumps between the two timelines as Hooper contends with memories of battle and secrets he’s kept for decades. Readers gradually discover the truth about his wartime actions.

    Van Buren presents a complex world in which no action is ideal but avoiding decisions is impossible. The dialogue captures the raw emotion of war and the soldiers’ struggles for self-preservation amid moral injury. Hooper is an engaging main character, an innocent young man dealing with the loss of his illusions and the demands of a new role.

    Hooper’s War doesn’t provide simple answers, and readers are left with the understanding that decisions made in battle can be both right and wrong at the same time.


    Pre-order your copy of Hooper’s War today!


    A Personal Note: If you enjoy this website and my other commentary, please consider buying a copy of Hooper’s War.

    Unlike most other sites, I don’t ask for donations, run funding drives, try and trick you into handing over your email address or any of the other annoyances out there. Instead, I rely on your book purchases to keep things afloat, and for me to keep running this site I need to ask for your support.

    Please also help out by tweeting about my book, and by recommending it to your local library. Ask for it at your local bookstore and see if they’ll carry it. I appreciate your help.

    — Peter




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  • Tell Us Why We’re At War, President Trump

    April 24, 2017 // 30 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Iraq, Libya, Syria, Trump



    People speak of Afghanistan as “our generation’s” Vietnam, a quagmire, a war that goes on simply because it has been going on.


    The Afghan war is dragging into being our generation’s, and soon the next generation’s Vietnam as well, over a decade and a half old. There are troops deploying now that were two years old when the conflict started. There are fathers and sons deploying together. Bin Laden’s been dead for years.

    With a slight break, the current war in Iraq has been ongoing for some 14 years. If you want to think of it in a longer view, Trump is now the fifth consecutive president to make war on that country. Saddam’s been dead for years.

    And though of more recent vintage, the war in Syria appears both open-ended in duration and ramping up in U.S. involvement. If Assad died tomorrow, the war would likely only intensify, as the multiple parties in the fight vie to take over after him.

    The reason we’re fighting all of these places and more can’t still be “terrorism,” can it? That has sort of been the reason for the past 16 years so you’d think we would have settled that. Regime change? A lot of that has also happened, without much end game, and nobody seems to know if that does or ever did apply in Syria to begin with. America can’t be under threat after all these years, right? I mean, world’s most powerful military and all that.


    So maybe it’s time for the current president to tell us why we’re still fighting in all of these wars. Because previous presidents’ track records on explaining to the ever-bloodthirsty American public why we are fighting is poor. Perhaps history has a lesson for us?


    — When I was a kid, successive presidents told us we had to fight in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, because if we didn’t fight them over there, we’d have to fight them on the beaches of California. We believed. It was a lie.

    — I was a teenager during the Cold War, several presidents told us we needed to create massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons, garrison the world, maybe invade Cuba, fight covert wars and use the CIA to overthrow democratically elected governments and replace them with dictators, or the Russians would destroy us. We believed. It was a lie.

    — When I was in college our president told us that we needed to fight in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua or the Sandinistas would come to the United States. He told us Managua was closer to Washington DC than LA was. He told us we needed to fight in Lebanon, Grenada and Libya to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.

    — When I was a little older our president told us how evil Saddam Hussein was, how his soldiers bayoneted babies in Kuwait. He told us Saddam was a threat to America. He told us we needed to invade Panama to oust a dictator to protect America. We believed. It was a lie.

    — Another president told us we had to fight terrorists in Somalia, as well as bomb Iraq, to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.

    — The one after him told us that because a bunch of Saudis from a group loosely tied to Afghanistan attacked us on 9/11, we needed to occupy that country and destroy the Taliban, who had not attacked us. The Taliban are still there 15 years later, ISIS now too, and so is the American military. We believed. It was a lie.

    — After that the same President told us Saddam Hussein threatened every one of our children with weapons of mass destruction, that the smoking gun would be a mushroom cloud, that Saddam was in league with al Qaeda. We believed. It was a lie.

    — In 2011 the president and his secretary of state told us we needed regime change in Libya, to protect us from an evil dictator. We believed. It was a lie.

    — In August 2014 the same president told us we needed to intervene again in Iraq, on a humanitarian mission to save the Yazidis. No boots on the ground, a simple, limited act only the United States could conduct, and then we’d leave. We believed. It was a lie.

    — That same president later told us Americans will need to fight and die in Syria. He says this is necessary to protect us, because if we do not defeat Islamic State over there, they will come here, to what we now call without shame or irony The Homeland. We believed. It was a lie.


    So with a new guy in the White House, maybe it’s time to renew the question. Perhaps the media can take a day off from what borders on sexual pleasure gushing over the latest super bomb and ask the president a few simple questions: why are we fighting, what is the goal, when will we get there? Someone should have asked a long time ago, but since no one did, this is as good a time as any.




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  • Sorry, No War in North Korea

    April 21, 2017 // 32 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Military, Trump



    I’m so sorry to disappoint so many people, but there is not going to be a war with North Korea.


    No, no, Trump is not going to start a war there. And, no, Kim Jong Un is not going to start a war there. It is not going to happen, despite a cottage industry of pundits who seem to really believe war is only moments away.


    Let’s start with the obvious. A war on the Korean peninsula benefits no one and is really, really bad for everyone (we’ll get to the irrational madman theory in a moment.)

    Any conflict means the end of North Korea, and the end of the Kim dynasty. The U.S. will win any fight, nuclear or not, and Kim and everyone with any power or money in the North knows that. North Korea has no reason to start a war that will end in its own destruction. The people there with power and money do not want to give those things up.

    South Korea, same thing. They will also be destroyed in whole or in part, and, should much survive in the south, they will also get stuck with the mass of refugees flowing out of whatever is left of North Korea. China will not want war for much of the same reason, plus the loss of the buffer state the North represents, plus the desire not to have a smoking radioactive ruin on its border.

    The U.S. does not want war because of all of the above, the likelihood that ally Japan will get trashed along the way, the likely global economic depression that will follow and/or because no one in Washington will bet the house that the North Koreans don’t have a submarine that might get close to Hawaii, a way to deliver a dirty bomb somewhere, or that a glow-in-the-dark North won’t spark off a worldwide radioactive climate crisis.

    Because see, how unlike every other shooting war of the last 70 years including everything in the Middle East, war on the Korean peninsula is different. North Korea is a nuclear state, and that changes everything. Deterrence works, it really does. Ask the Cold War about that.


    And that leaves us with the madman theory, the idea that either Trump or Kim or maybe both are irrational, impulsive crazy people who could just one night say, to hell with it, let’s push the button. The problem with this theory is that nothing in history supports it.

    The Kim dynasty has been in power some 70 years, three generations. They have weathered conventional war, sanctions, and numerous war-like acts. They have dealt with famine. They survived the fall of the Soviet Union and generations of American governments. They did not act irrationally. You don’t stay in power for seven decades acting irrationally or impulsively. You stay in power and hold your own against multiple superpowers by careful actions and good choices. There is nothing — nothing — to support any contention Kim might act any more irrationally than his nuclear-armed dad did.

    Sorry to say it, but same for Trump. You hate him, I know that. He is not bright. But same as Kim, he has decades of actions that show he knows how to handle things. He ran a company, he made money, he got himself elected president. He’s been in office now some 100 days and absolutely none of the apocalyptic predictions people have been puking up on the Internet since November have happened.

    And sorry to again mess with what movies have taught you, but both Trump and Kim are surrounded by complex command and control systems. They literally cannot just do what you think they can do, wake up for cocoa and push a button like Dr. Evil and start WWIII.

    So relax. There are other things to worry about. Say a Chernobyl-like nuclear accident in North Korea that sends millions of refugees into South Korea and irradiates Japan as air currents blanket Tokyo with glowing dust.



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  • Would You Like to Review Hooper’s War?

    April 19, 2017 // 46 Comments

    Tags:
    Posted in: Hooper's War




    Would you like to review an advance copy of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan?

    If so, please contact me: info (at) wemeantwell.com Be sure to include a link to where you review books or your blog. If you review on Amazon or Goodreads, please let me know the name you work under.

    If you’d like an e-copy, please specify format.


    Many thanks,

    Peter


    Hooper’s War is also available for pre-order!



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  • Iraqis Making Freelance Bomb Disposal Into A Lucrative New Business

    April 17, 2017 // 15 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Iraq, Military

    ied


    When someone gives you lemons, you make lemonade, right?

    And so it goes in Freedom Land of Iraq, where for many, now out from under the heels of Islamic State, the Iraqi people have only to clear out all the bombs, IEDs, and unexploded ordnance left everywhere they want to live by all sides in this ongoing clusterf*ck of foreign policy adventurism.

    Despite the gazillions of dollars in U.S. aid, Iraq claims not to have the personnel to defuse all the explosives left behind once freedom reigns in places like Fallujah. So, concerned local citizens, who have been making defusing bombs for decades (handling explosives is an Olympic event in Iraq), smelled a business opportunity.

    The fellows at NIQASH tell us the story of one Faleh al-Marsoumi, who got involved in the lucrative new trade because it was taking too long for authorities to come to his home and remove booby trapped explosives. He tried unsuccessfully to find someone to help him on the freelance market (there is no TaskRabbit franchise — yet — in Iraq.)

    Unable to find anyone at a reasonable price, Marsoumi decided to do the work himself.

    “I watched some videos on the Internet about how to remove IEDs,” he says. See the video, below, at around :55. That’s the wrong way to do it.

    After clearing his own property, Marsoumi soon was helping out friends at their houses. Eventually he began charging for his services. He made so much money that he quit his day job and now focuses exclusively on IED disposal. He has even hired on two guys to assist him.

    “There are three of us now working together and we charge some of the lowest prices in the market,” Marsoumi said.

    Clearing a house costs between US$300 and US$700. Clearing a car of IEDs costs US$200.





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  • Great Start for Hooper’s War Pre-Orders

    April 15, 2017 // 13 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Hooper's War, Military


    Thanks to everyone for helping launch Hooper’s War pre-orders this weekend!


    The book is ranking high on Amazon, running alongside similar books from large-scale publishers. Without their advertising budgets, books like Hooper’s War from smaller publishers willing to take the risk of putting out an anti-war book depend on word of mouth. So thank you.


    RealClearBooks was nice enough to publish an excerpt.

    Kirkus Reviews had some good things to say — “Van Buren doesn’t provide simple answers, and readers are left with the understanding that decisions made in battle can be both right and wrong at the same time.”


    So take a moment and see what Hooper’s War is all about!




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  • An Entire Generation is Likely to See Its Standard of Living Regress

    April 14, 2017 // 23 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: #99Percent, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    pigs_trough
    It is modern feudalism, happening in a slow motion crash as we watch, aware of what is coming down, but at first unwilling and likely now unable to stop it.
    Welcome to the Third World

    We are living in so-called first world societies where economic disparity is trending toward developing world levels. Some numbers you can argue about individually if you like (and how does your head feel buried in the sand?), but the aggregate situation is beyond debate:

    — The one percent holds 35.6 percent of all private wealth, more than the bottom 95 percent combined.

    — The 400 wealthiest individuals globally have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans.

    — Between 1983 and 2009, over 40 percent of all wealth gains flowed to the one percent and 82 percent of wealth gains went to the top five percent. The bottom 60 percent lost wealth over this same period.

    — A significant amount of the redistribution of wealth, redistributed upward, took place following the 2008 market collapses in the United States as bailouts, shorts, repossession of home and land, and new laws helped the top end of the economy at cost to the bottom. More and more of government is controlled directly by corporations.

    — The world’s one percent own $42.7 trillion dollars, more than the bottom three billion residents of earth.

    — A rising tide lifts all yachts, as historian Morris Berman observed. Less than half of Americans do not own any stock at all. The wealthiest of Americans own over 80 percent of all stock, and 40 percent of America’s land.

    It’s Getting Worse

    Now add to that grim tally new information that shows the problem of gross income and wealth inequality is getting worse.

    report from McKinsey finds that in developed economies such as the United States two-thirds of all households experienced “flat or falling” incomes over the past decade, from 2005-2014. In the U.S., the portion was even worse: 81 percent.

    “While the recession and slow recovery after the 2008 global financial crisis were a significant contributor to this lack of income advancement, other long-run factors played a role — and will continue to do so,” McKinsey notes. “They include demographic trends of aging and shrinking household sizes as well as labor-market shifts such as the falling wage share of GDP.”
    Capital Beats Labor Every Time

    As predicted by economists from Karl Marx to Thomas Piketty, this is the natural progression of capital (making money by owning things) over labor (making money by working.) It represents the same basic economic world of the Middle Ages, land-owning kings and serfs who have no option but to work the fields.

    It is statistically likely that you won’t live a better life than your parents did. The economic world of your parents and grandparents was an aberration, a one time exception that was called the American Dream. And even that was largely limited the white people.

    Do enjoy that gig economy youngsters, and hope Uber doesn’t put you out of an income by flooding the market with more drivers.

     

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  • The White House Easter Egg Roll, Alongside the Republic, is in Peril!!!!!!

    April 12, 2017 // 10 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Trump



    The Two Minutes Hate was a daily event in which the proles in George Orwell’s 1984 watched a movie of the Party’s enemies and screamed out their hatred for exactly two minutes. Orwell wrote:

    A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.

    That seems to be what’s happening with our media, especially outlets like the New York Times, who are stuck in a loop of denial some six months after the election. Each day it seems they find fellow party members something Trump to direct their hate at.


    Enter a lengthy story on… how the annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn appears to be teetering on the edge of failure, along with the Republic (see, it’s a metaphor.)

    It seems that (and watch the dates) back in February the company that makes the wooden eggs for the egg roll tweeted at the White House to put in an order, Twitter apparently the only communication tool left functional in the DC area. The White House indeed put in an order in early March. The free tickets given away are late, and only one Sesame Street character will be there.

    That’s it. That’s really the entire story.


    Well, not really, according to the Times. See, it turns out this Egg Roll is way more important than a nice thing for selected kids to enjoy. Per the NYT:

    Could this White House, plagued by slow hiring and lacking an on-site first lady, manage to pull off the largest, most elaborate and most heavily scrutinized public event of the year?

    “It’s the single most high-profile event that takes place at the White House each year, and the White House and the first lady are judged on how well they put it on,” said Melinda Bates, who organized eight years of Easter Egg Rolls as director of the White House Visitors Office under President Bill Clinton. “I’m really concerned for the Trump people, because they have failed to fill some really vital posts, and this thing is all hands on deck.”

    I had no idea it was the Easter Egg Roll, not any of those state dinners or VIP visits, that was the highest profile event of the year. I also did not know that someone out there judges the president and first lady on how the Egg Roll comes off. I also never heard the phrase “on-site first lady” used as if she was some sort of hotel amenity.

    It gets worse. There are other issues. The Times tells us the event may even include “military bands in place of A-list entertainers like Justin Bieber.” In addition, it does not appear the Yoga Garden from all eight of the Obamas’ Easter Egg Rolls will be around this year either.



    How does the Times know this kind of critical information so as to carry out its First Amendment responsibilities? From sources, who “spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to describe the plans for the Easter Egg Roll.”

    For the love of God, the venerable New York Times is now justifying the use of anonymous sources to report on plans for the White House Easter Egg Roll. The reporters who risked their freedom to report on the Pentagon Papers sit in silent judgement on you all.


    I’ve been reading the news for some 50 years, through Johnson and the Vietnam war, Nixon and Watergate, the Reagan era, Clinton-Lewinsky, the Bushes, and Obama. There has never been a time when so-called legitimate journalism trafficked in silliness, open mockery, name calling, and simple character slagging as a matter of daily news.

    The Easter Egg Roll is not an important thing. America faces new war in the Middle East (plenty of old war, too) and challenges across the globe. The Secretary of State is in Moscow. There are real things going on, but Americans seem far more concerned about how much a golf trip to Florida costs (as if most of security is not a fixed cost that happens with every president — remember the Bush and Reagan ranches, the elder Bush’s weekends in Kennebunkport?) than anything that matters past a few news cycles.

    A prediction: the Easter Egg Roll will take place as scheduled on Monday. It’ll be OK. Kids will have fun. There really isn’t a story here. Well, maybe a story about how far the standards have journalism have fallen as America recovers from its national stroke post-November, but nothing about Easter eggs.




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  • So Yeah, Here’s America, 2017

    April 9, 2017 // 71 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage


    As America’s new economy starts to look more like the old economy of the Great Depression, the divide between rich and poor, those who have made it and those who never will, seems to grow ever starker. I know. I’ve seen it firsthand.

    Once upon a time, I worked as a State Department officer, helping to carry out the occupation of Iraq, where Washington’s goal was regime change. It was there that, in a way, I had my first taste of the life of the 1%. Unlike most Iraqis, I had more food and amenities than I could squander, nearly unlimited funds to spend as I wished (as long as the spending supported us one-percenters), and plenty of U.S. Army muscle around to keep the other 99% at bay. However, my subsequent whistleblowing about State Department waste and mismanagement in Iraq ended my 24-year career abroad and, after a two-decade absence, deposited me back in “the homeland.”

    I returned to America to find another sort of regime change underway, only I wasn’t among the 1% for this one. Instead, I ended up working in the new minimum-wage economy and saw firsthand what a life of lousy pay and barely adequate food benefits adds up to. For the version of regime change that found me working in a big box store, no cruise missiles had been deployed and there had been no shock-and-awe demonstrations. Nonetheless, the cumulative effects of years of deindustrialization, declining salaries, absent benefits, and weakened unions, along with a rise in meth and alcohol abuse, a broad-based loss of good jobs, and soaring inequality seemed similar enough to me. The destruction of a way of life in the service of the goals of the 1%, whether in Iraq or at home, was hard to miss. Still, I had the urge to see more. Unlike in Iraq, where my movements were limited, here at home I could hit the road, so I set off for a look at some of America’s iconic places as part of the research for my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad.

    Here, then, are snapshots of four of the spots I visited in an empire in decline, places you might pass through if you wanted to know where we’ve been, where we are now, and (heaven help us) where we’re going.

    On the Boardwalk: Atlantic City, New Jersey

    Drive in to Atlantic City on the old roads, and you’re sure to pass Lucy the Elephant. She’s not a real elephant, of course, but a wood and tin six-story hollow statue. First built in 1881 to add value to some Jersey swampland, Lucy has been reincarnated several times after suffering fire, neglect, and storm damage. Along the way, she was a tavern, a hotel, and — for most of her life — simply an “attraction.” As owning a car and family driving vacations became egalitarian rights in the booming postwar economy of the 1950s and 1960s, all manner of tacky attractions popped up along America’s roads: cement dinosaurs, teepee-shaped motels, museums of oddities, and spectacles like the world’s largest ball of twine. Their growth paralleled 20 to 30 years of the greatest boom times any consumer society has ever known.

    Between 1947 and 1973, actual incomes in the United States rose remarkably evenly across society. Certainly, there was always inequality, but never as sharp and predatory as it is today. As Scott Martelle’s Detroit: A Biography chronicles, in 1932, Detroit produced 1.4 million cars; in 1950, that number was eight million; in 1973, it peaked at 12 million. America was still a developing nation — in the best sense of that word.

    Yet as the U.S. economy changed, money began to flow out of the working class pockets that fed Lucy and her roadside attraction pals. By one count, from 1979 to 2007, the top 1% of Americans saw their income grow by 281%. They came to control 43% of U.S. wealth.

    You could see it all in Atlantic City, New Jersey. For most of its early life, it had been a workingman’s playground and vacation spot, centered around its famous boardwalk. Remember Monopoly? The street names are all from Atlantic City. However, in the economic hard times of the 1970s, as money was sucked upward from working people, Boardwalk and Park Place became a crime scene, too dangerous for most visitors. Illegal drug sales all but overtook tourism as the city’s most profitable business.

    Yet the first time I visited Atlantic City in the mid-1980s, it looked like the place was starting to rebound in the midst of a national economy going into overdrive. With gambling legalized, money poured in. The Boardwalk sprouted casinos and restaurants. Local business owners scrambled to find workers. Everyone and everything felt alive. Billboards boasted of “rebirth.”

    Visit Atlantic City in 2017 and it’s again a hollowed-out place. The once swanky mall built on one of the old amusement piers has more stores shuttered than open. Meanwhile, the “We Buy Gold” stores and pawnshops have multiplied and are open 24/7 to rip off the easy marks who need cash bad enough to be out at 4 A.M. pulling off their wedding rings. On a 20-story hotel tower, you can still read the word “Hilton” in dirt shadow where its name had once been, before the place was shuttered.

    Along the Boardwalk, there are still the famous rolling chairs. They are comfortable, bound in wicker, and have been a fixture of Atlantic City for decades. They were once pushed by strong young men, maybe college students earning a few bucks over summer break. You can still ride the chairs to see and be seen, but now they’re pushed by recent immigrants and not-so-clean older denizens of the city. Lots of tourists still take rides, but there’s something cheap and sad about paying workers close to my own age to wheel you around, just a step above pushing dollars into the G-strings of the strippers in clubs just off the Boardwalk.

    One of the things I did while in Atlantic City was look for the family restaurant I had worked in 30 years earlier. It’s now a dollar store run by an angry man. “You buy or you leave,” he said. Those were the last words I heard in Atlantic City. I left.

    Dark Side of the Moon: Weirton, West Virginia

    The drive into Weirton from the east takes you through some of the prettiest countryside in Maryland and Western Pennsylvania. You cross rivers and pass through the Cumberland Gap along the way and it’s easy going into the town, because the roads are mostly empty during typical business hours. There’s nothing much going on. The surrounding beauty just makes the scarred remains of Weirton that much more shocking when you first come upon them. Take the last turn and suddenly the abandoned steel mills appear like a vision of an industrial apocalypse, nestled by the Ohio River.

    In 1909, Ernest T. Weir built his first steel mill next to that river and founded what later became the Weirton Steel Corporation. In the decades to come, the town around it and the mill itself were basically synonymous, both fueled by the industrial needs of two world wars and the consumer economy created following the defeat of Germany and Japan. The Weirton mill directly contributed to wartime triumphs, producing artillery shells and raw steel to support the effort, while Weirton’s sons died on battlefields using the company’s products. (A war memorial across the street from the mill sanctifies the dead, the newest names being from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.)

    At its peak, the Weirton Steel Corporation employed more than 12,000 people, and was the largest single private employer and taxpayer in West Virginia. The owners of the mill paid for and built the Weirton Community Center, the Weirton General Hospital, and the Mary H. Weir Library in those glory days. For years the mill also paid directly for the city’s sewers, water service, and even curbside garbage pickup. Taxes were low and life was good.

    In the 1970s and early 1980s, however, costs rose, Asian steel gained traction and American manufacturing started to move offshore. For the first time since the nineteenth century, the country became a net importer of goods. Some scholars consider the mid-1970s a tipping point, when Congress changed the bankruptcy laws to allow troubled companies an easier path to dumping existing union contracts and employee agreements. It was then that Congress also invented individual retirement accounts, or IRAs, which were supposed to allow workers to save money tax-free to supplement their retirements. Most corporations saw instead an opportunity to get rid of expensive pensions. It was around then that some unknown steelworker was first laid off in Weirton, a candidate for Patient Zero of the new economy.

    The mill, which had once employed nearly one out of every two people in town, was sold to its employees in 1984 in a final, failed attempt at resuscitation. In the end, the factory closed, but the people remained. Today, the carcass of the huge steel complex sits at one end of Main Street, rusting and overgrown with weeds because it wasn’t even cost-effective to tear it down. Dinosaur-sized pieces of machinery litter the grounds, not worth selling off, too heavy to move, too bulky to bury, like so many artifacts from a lost civilization. A few people do still work nearby, making a small amount of some specialty metal, but the place seems more like a living museum than a business.

    Most of the retail shops on Main Street are now abandoned, though I counted seven bars and two strip clubs. There’s the Mountaineer Food Bank that looks like it used to be a hardware store or maybe a dress shop. The only still-thriving industry is, it seems, gambling. West Virginia legalized “gaming” in 1992 and it’s now big business statewide. (Nationally, legal gambling revenues now top $92.27 billion a year.)

    Gambling in Weirton is, however, a far cry even from the decaying Trump Hotel in Atlantic City. There are no Vegas-style casinos in town, just what are called “cafes” strung along Main Street. None were built to be gambling havens. In fact, their prior history is apparent in their architecture: this one a former Pizza Hut, that one an old retail store with now-blacked out windows, another visibly a former diner.

    One sunny Tuesday, I rolled into a cafe at 7 A.M., mostly because I couldn’t believe it was open. It took my eyes a minute to adjust to the darkness before I could make out three older women feeding nickels into slot machines, while another stood behind a cheap padded bar, a cigarette tucked behind her ear, another stuck to her dry lips. She offered me a drink, gesturing to rows of Everclear pure grain, nearly 99% pure alcohol, and no-name vodka behind her. I declined, and she said, “Well, if you can’t drink all day, best anyway that you not start so early.”

    Liquor is everywhere in Weirton. I talked to a group of men drinking out of paper bags on a street corner at 8 A.M. They hadn’t, in fact, been there all night. They were just starting early like the cafe lady said. Even the gas stations were stocked with the ubiquitous Everclear, all octane with no taste or flavor added because someone knew that you didn’t care anymore. And as the state collects tax on it, everyone but you wins.

    Booze is an older person’s formula for destruction. For the younger set, it’s meth that’s really destroying Weirton and towns like it across the Midwest. Ten minutes in a bar, a nod at the guy over there, and you find yourself holding a night’s worth of the drug. Small sizes, low cost, adapted to the market. In Weirton, no need even to go shopping, the meth comes to you.

    Meth and the Rust Belt were just waiting for each other. After all, it’s a drug designed for unemployed people with poor self-images and no confidence. Unlike booze or weed, it makes you feel smart, sexy, confident, self-assured — before the later stages of addiction set in. For a while, it seems like the antidote to everything real life in the New Economy won’t ever provide. The meth crisis, in the words of author Nick Reding in Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, is “as much about the death of a way of life as the birth of a drug.”

    The effects of a lifetime working in the mill — or for the young, of a lifetime not working in the mill — were easy enough to spot around town. The library advertised free diabetes screening and the one grocery store had signs explaining what you could and could not buy with SNAP (food stamps, which have been called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program since 2008). The local TV channels were chock-a-block full of lawyers’ ads urging you to call in if you have an asbestos-related illness. A lot of health was left behind in those mills.

    There are some nice people in Weirton (and Cleveland, Detroit, or any of the other industrial ghost towns once inhabited by what Bruce Springsteen calls “steel and stories”). I’m sure there were even nicer parts of Weirton further away from the Main Street area where I was hanging out, but if you’re a stranger, it’s sure damn hard to find them. Not too far from the old mill, land was being cleared to make way for a new Walmart, a company which already holds the distinction of being West Virginia’s largest private employer.

    In 1982 at the Weirton mill, a union journeyman might have earned $25 an hour, or so people told me. Walmart pays seven bucks for the same hour and fights like a junkyard dog against either an increase in the minimum wage or unionization.

    The Most Exclusive Gated Community: U.S. Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina

    I grew up in a fairly small Ohio town that, in the 1970s, was just crossing the sociological divide between a traditional kind of place and a proper bedroom suburb. Not everyone knew each other, but certain principles were agreed upon. A steak should be one inch thick or more. A good potluck solved most problems. Vegetables were boiled, faith rewarded. Things looked better in the morning. Kids drank chocolate milk instead of Coke. We had parades every Memorial Day and every Fourth of July, but Labor Day was just for barbecues because school began the next day and dad had to get up for work. In fact, that line — “I’ve got to get up for work” — was the way most social events broke up. This isn’t nostalgia, it’s history.

    In 2014, you could travel significant parts of the decaying Midwest and not imagine that such a place had ever existed. But turn south on Interstate 95 and look for the signs that say “Welcome to U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune,” in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Actually, welcome to almost any U.S. military base outside of actual war zones, where a homogeneous military population and generous government spending (re)creates the America of the glory days as accurately as a Hollywood movie. For a first-time visitor, a military base can feel like its own living museum, the modern equivalent of Colonial Williamsburg.

    Streets are well maintained, shaded by tall trees planted there (and regularly pruned) for just that purpose. Road, water, and sewer crews are always working. There are no potholes. There is a single school with a prominent football field, and a single shopping area. The restaurants are long-time Department of Defense franchise partners and there’s always a pizza place with a fake-sounding Italian name. Those creature comforts on such bases in the U.S. and around the world come at a cost to taxpayers of billions of dollars a year.

    Some of the places employ locals, some military spouses, some high school kids earning pocket money after school. The kids bag groceries. Everybody tips them; they’re neighbors.

    The centerpieces of any base like Camp Lejeune are the Base Exchange and the Commissary. The former is a mini-Walmart; the latter, a large grocery store. Both are required by law not to make a profit and so sell products at near wholesale prices. Because everyone operates on federal property, no sales tax is charged. When a member of a Pentagon advisory board proposed shutting down some of the commissaries across the U.S., a step that would have saved taxpayers about $1.4 billion a year, World War III erupted in Congress and halted the idea.

    Over in officers’ housing areas, everyone cuts their lawns, has a garage full of sports equipment and a backyard with a grill. Don’t keep up your assigned housing unit and you’ll hear from a senior officer. People get along — they’re ordered to do so.

    The base is the whole point of Jacksonville, the town that surrounds it. The usual bars and strip clubs service the Marines, and Camp Lejeune is close to being the town’s sole employer like that old steel mill in Weirton or the gambling palaces in Atlantic City. The base shares another connection to places like Weirton: as men lost their health in the mills thanks to asbestos and other poisons, so Camp Lejeune’s drinking water was contaminated with trichloroethylene, a known carcinogen, between 1953 and 1987.

    There, however, the similarities end.

    Unlike the archipelago of American towns and cities abandoned to shrivel and die, the “city” inside Camp Lejeune continues to thrive, since its good times are fully covered by taxpayer money. The 23% of the national budget spent on defense assures places like Camp Lejeune of their prosperity.

    The Department of Defense, with 3.2 million employees (albeit not all in uniform) is the world’s largest employer. It makes up more than two percent of the American labor force.

    And the military pays well; no scrambling for a minimum wage at Camp LeJeune. With combat pay more or less standard since 9/11 (the whole world being a battlefield, of course), the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the average active duty service member receives a benefits and pay compensation package worth $99,000. This includes a livable pension after 20 years of service, free medical and dental care, free housing, a clothing allowance, and more. In most cases, dependents of service members continue to live on a base in the United States while their husbands or wives, fathers or mothers serve abroad. Unlike in the minimum-wage jobs many other Americans now depend on, service members can expect regular training and skills enhancement and a clear path to promotion. Nearly every year, Congress votes for pay increases. The arguments for military benefits may be clear — many service members lead difficult and dangerous lives. The point is, however, that the benefits exist, unlike in so many corporate workplaces today. The government pays for all of them, while Atlantic City and Weirton struggle to stay above water.

    Small Town America in the Big Apple: Spanish Harlem

    The number of Americans who have visited Harlem, even for a quick stop at a now-trendy restaurant or music club, is unknown but has to be relatively small. Even many lifetime New Yorkers riding the uptown subway under the wealthy upper east side are careful to hop off before reaching the 116th Street stop. Still, get off there, walk a few blocks, and you find yourself in a micro-economy that, in its own way, has more in common with America of the 1950s than 2014.

    There are, of course, no shaded areas along the block I was visiting in what has traditionally been known as Spanish Harlem, no boyish Little League games. But what you do find are locally owned stores with hardly a franchised or corporately owned place in sight. The stores are stocked with a wondrous hodge-podge of what people in the area need, including South American root vegetables, pay-as-you-go cell phones, and cheap school supplies.

    These stores could not exist in many other places. They are perfectly adapted to the neighborhood they are in. While the quality of goods varies, prices are wondrously below what similar things cost a half-dozen subway stops away in midtown Manhattan. In the stores, the employees of these family businesses speak the same languages as their mostly Dominican immigrant customers, and those who work there are eager to make suggestions and help you find things.

    People actually chat with each other. Customer loyalty is important, so prices are often negotiable. When he discovered that his customer was also his neighbor, one shop owner helped carry purchases upstairs. Another store informally accepted and held package deliveries for neighbors.

    The guy selling frozen ices on the sidewalk nearby did not work for a conglomerate and doled out healthy-sized servings to his regulars. He told me that he bought his raw materials in the very grocery store we were camped in front of.

    Even at night, the sidewalks here are full of people. I never felt unsafe, even though I obviously wasn’t from the neighborhood. People seemed eternally ready to give me directions or suggest a local eatery I shouldn’t miss. The one established mega-corporate store in the area, a Rent-a-Center charging usurious prices for junk, had no customers inside on the day I visited. The shop next to it, with an impressive array of used TVs and small appliances from unknown Chinese manufacturers, seemed to be doing gangbuster business. The owner shifted among English, Spanish, and some sort of Dominican creole based on the needs of his customers.

    Few things here are shiny or new. There are vacant lots, an uncomfortable sight at night. Homeless people, some near naked despite the weather and muttering to themselves, are more prevalent than in Midtown. The streets have more trash. I saw drug deals going on against graffiti-scarred walls. There is a busy methadone clinic on a busy street. Not everyone is the salt of the earth, but local businesses do cater to the community and keep prices in line with what people could pay. Money spent in the neighborhood mostly seems to stay there and, if not, is likely sent home to the Dominican Republic to pay for the next family member’s arrival in town — what economist John Maynard Keynes called the “local multiplier effect.” One
    study found that each $100 spent at local independents generated $45 of secondary local spending, compared to $14 at a big-box chain. Business decisions — whether to open or close, staff up or lay off — were made by people in the area face-to-face with those they affected. The businesses were accountable, the owners at the cash registers.

    The stretch of Spanish Harlem I passed through is a galaxy away from perfect, but unlike Weirton, which had long ago given up, Atlantic City, which was in the process of doing so, or Camp Lejeune, which had opted out of the system entirely, people are still trying. It shows that an accountable micro-economy with ties to the community can still work in this country — at least in the short run. But don’t hold your breath. Target recently opened its first superstore not far away and may ultimately do to this neighborhood what cheap foreign steel imports did to Weirton.

    Looking Ahead

    I grew up in the Midwest at a time when the country still prided itself on having something of a conscience, when it was a place still built on hope and a widespread belief that a better future was anybody’s potential birthright. Inequity was always there, and there were always rich people and poor people, but not in the ratios we see now in America. What I found in my travels was place after place being hollowed out as wealth went elsewhere and people came to realize that, odds on, life was likely to get worse, not better. For most people, what passed for hope for the future meant clinging to the same flat-lined life they now had.

    What’s happening is both easy enough for a traveler to see and for an economist to measure. Median household income in 2012 was no higher than it had been a quarter-century earlier. Meanwhile, expenses had outpaced inflation. U.S. Census Bureau figures show that the income gap between rich and poor had widened to a more than four-decade record since the 1970s. The 46.2 million people in poverty remained the highest number since the Census Bureau began collecting that data 53 years ago. The gap between how much total wealth America’s 1% of earners control and what the rest of us have is even wider than even in the years preceding the Great Depression of 1929. Argue over numbers, debate which statistics are most accurate, or just drive around America: The trend lines and broad patterns, the shadows of our world of regime change, are sharply, sadly clear.

    After John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, he said he was filled with “certain angers at people who were doing injustices to other people.” I, too, felt anger, though it’s an emotion that I’m unsure how to turn against the problems we face.

    As I drove away from Atlantic City, I passed Lucy the Elephant still at her post, unblinking and silent. She looks out over the Boardwalk, maybe America itself, and if she could, she undoubtedly would wonder where the road ahead will take us.

     

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    Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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  • Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan

    April 5, 2017 // 82 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    Here’s an excerpt from a new book, Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan, by Douglas Wissing. The passage deals with the unnecessary death of State Department diplomat Anne Smedinghoff at age 25. Anne gave her life for a needless PR stunt as part of America’s failed reconstruction project in Afghanistan. It could have been any of us.

    ANNE SMEDINGHOFF IS A RISING 25-year-old diplomat, an assistant information officer in the Kabul embassy. She’s my minder, assigned to escort me to an interview with a Justice Department official who is heading up the Afghan Threat Finance Cell (ATFC) that is charged with finding and disrupting sources of Taliban funding.

    In many ways, Smedinghoff is representative of many young American women working in Afghanistan, where they can combine adventure with a career-enhancing posting and hefty paychecks plumped with danger pay. As we walk to the meeting room, Smedinghoff quizzes me about life outside the embassy compound, as the staff is trapped inside.

    When I mention some of the Kabul restaurants, she tells me the State Department banned dining at most places outside the embassy. She longs for a good pizza. I ask about her path from her home in the Chicago suburbs to this Kabul powder keg. Catholic high school, Johns Hopkins international studies, then the State Department. An interesting post in Venezuela. Then on to Afghanistan. Anne Smedinghoff is lively, bright, educated and funny; poised and gracious in a natural way. Brimming with youthful vitality, accomplishments and promise, she is the daughter any parent would be proud to have.

    We talk about my embeds in Zabul and Helmand, and she tells me in Venezuela she could explore the hinterlands when not working. But here in Afghanistan, she’s penned up like most foreign service officers. She tells me she wants to “break the wire” in the worst way. “On a good day, this is a like a small liberal arts college,” she laughs. “On a bad day it’s like a maximum security prison.”

    Smedinghoff’s career continued to go well after I left Kabul. She was a comer. Her colleagues started calling her Ambassador Anne. When Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kabul in late March for an official visit, the embassy assigned Smedinghoff the plum job of escorting him. She was his control officer. As with other people, she made an impression on her big boss.

    Anne Smedinghoff did eventually get to break the wire — and in the worst way.

    A few weeks after the successful Kerry visit, she escorted a group of Afghan journalists on a media day down to Qalat City, the capital of Zabul, the Taliban-controlled province that so interested her when we met. It was one of those winning-hearts-and-minds missions, in this case to distribute school books that the US corporation, Scholastic, Inc., had donated to My Afghan Library, an aid program jointly run by the State Department and the Afghan Ministry of Education. Scholastic, Inc. wanted some good press for their donation.

    An email from the embassy public relations office stated, “Scholastic would like to see more media reporting.” So the mission was a WHAM photo op to get some press for an American corporation, while pretending Zabul was secure and still receiving U.S. aid. “A media extravaganza,” a military briefing called it. “Happy snaps,” the security grunts derisively termed these PR events that they hated to guard.

    In my experience there, Qalat City was a wild and wooly ambush-prone place, where the military units took extraordinary security precautions before venturing from the tightly guarded US compounds. To travel two miles across Qalat City, we had to drive in a convoy of five armored MRAPs accompanied by a heavily armed security platoon.

    So I was stunned to later learn that Anne Smedinghoff and a group of journalists were walking around Qalat City—lost. That seemed insane. Taliban suicide bombers detonated their explosives near them, killing her and four other Americans, including three soldiers and an interpreter. Other Americans were grievously wounded. It was an egregious breakdown in operational security. An Army report stated the mission “was plagued by poor planning that failed at all levels.” And it was a great loss.

    I exchanged emails of condolences with the embassy public relations officer, who was a great friend of hers. I saw heart-wrenching tributes to Anne Smedinghoff posted on-line. Secretary Kerry eulogized Anne Smedinghoff, praising her idealistic commitment to “changing people’s lives.” He noted the “extraordinary harsh contradiction” of her being killed while carrying books to a school. He described the Zabul media event was “a confrontation with modernity,” and said Smedinghoff embodied “everything that our country stands for.” It did little to salve my dismay that yet another promising American had been lost for such a dubious, failed cause. I thought of the remarks Kerry made on Capitol Hill in 1971, when he was a young, anti-war Vietnam vet.

    The then 27-year-old John Kerry poignantly asked America, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

    ——————————

    Here’s Anne:

    The State Department tried to cover-up Anne’s death. Read more, and more.




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  • Does it Matter Who Pulls the Trigger in the Drone Wars?

    April 3, 2017 // 28 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Iraq, Military, Trump



    We’re allowing a mindset of “anything Trump does is wrong” coupled with lightening-speed historical revisionism for the Obama era to sustain the same mistakes in the war on terror that have fueled Islamic terrorism for the past 15 years. However, there may be a window of opportunity to turn the anti-Trump rhetoric into a review of the failed policies of the last decade and a half.

    A recent example of “anything Trump does is wrong” has to do with his changing the rules for drone kill decision making. In May 2013 President Obama self-imposed a dual-standard (known as the “playbook”) for remote killing. The White House, including Obama himself reviewing a kill list at regular meetings, would decide which individuals outside of the “traditional war zones” of Iraq and Afghanistan would be targeted.

    Meanwhile, in America’s post-9/11 traditional war zones, military commanders then made, and now make, the kill decisions without civilian review, with the threshold for “acceptable civilian casualties” supposedly less strict. Of course the idea that any of this functions under “rules” is based on the bedrock fallacy that anything militarily done by the last three presidents has been legal under the never-updated 2001 authorization for war in Afghanistan. For perspective, remember Islamic State never existed, and Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen had stable governments at the time Congress passed that authorization.

    In sum: since 2013 the military can kill from the air at will inside Iraq and Afghanistan (the status of Syria is unclear), as well as other areas designated unilaterally by the U.S. government as “traditional,” with allowances for less regard for the collateral damage of innocents slaughtered. It is the president himself who plays judge, jury, and executioner across the rest of the globe, including in several acknowledged cases, ordering the deaths of American citizens without due process.

    Supporters of this policy set refer to the president’s role as oversight. And because the president is supposed to make his decisions with more regard than the military for civilian deaths (though there are no statistics to support that has been the outcome), the process represented, in the words of the New York Times, “restraint.”

    Now there has been a change. Trump in mid-March granted a Pentagon request to designate certain areas of Yemen as “areas of active hostilities.” Trump is expected to approve the same new policy for parts of Somalia. That would shift more decision making for drone strikes from the Oval Office to the Pentagon.

    The issue being raised by Trump’s opponents some is that the new policy will kill more civilians as it will be carried out by an unfettered military instead of a “restrained” executive, and that those deaths will lead to more radicalization of more Muslims, which will impede America’s strategic progress toward, it’s unclear, maybe a world without radicalized Muslims.

    Such twisted logic is based on an almost insta-nostalgia that ignores President Obama approved 540 drone strikes killing 3,797 people in non-traditional war zones. No one knows how many of those bodies were civilian, although for the record the U.S. says it was precisely 324. The analytically conservative Council on Foreign Relations, however, assesses drone strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan killed 3,674 civilians as of 2014.

    Those body counts do not include fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and do not include any unacknowledged strikes elsewhere globally (stories persist, confirmed to me by a former U.S. Special Forces operator, of drone kills in the Philippines, for example.)

    Bottom line: There are already a lot of bodies out there under a policy of “restraint.”

    It is important to note Trump’s change in policy focuses only on who makes the decision to pull the trigger in places already under American attack, him or generals in the Pentagon. The killing itself is ongoing, seamless, and happening today as it happened six months ago (in fact, civilian casualties rose during the last months of the Obama administration, suggesting changes in U.S. rules of engagement predate Trump.) It is unlikely the people on the ground know or care which official in Washington decided to blow away a vehicle with their brother in it. The idea that it matters a whit in terms of radicalization whether the thumbs up or down is rendered by Trump, Obama, or a general would be comical if it was not horrible.

    An odd sense that all this killing globally is something new and damaging to America was captured in a letter some three dozen former members of America’s national security establishment (including Bush and Obama-era staff) to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stating “even small numbers of unintentional civilian deaths or injuries — whether or not legally permitted — can cause significant strategic setbacks,” increasing violence from militant groups and prompting others to reduce collaboration with the United States. The letter claims that pre-Trump, public confidence and belief in legitimacy were important facets of U.S. policy.

    Even the American Civil Liberties Union appeared to wake from a long slumber, claiming with Trump’s decision to slide sideways the kill decision, “the limits of war as we know it could virtually dissolve. At stake is no less than the global legal framework that protects life and preserves international peace and security.”

    At that point one must sit back and ask: Seriously? Who besides presidents Obama and Trump has endorsed that framework and under what set of laws is it legal?

    Are the signatories unaware of the attacks on hospitals, the wedding parties in Afghanistan and elsewhere blown to pink mist by Hellfire missiles? Civilian casualties overall in America’s 2003-2011 Iraq War alone were anywhere from 140,000 dead to upwards of 500,000, many by artillery, cluster munitions, and depleted uranium, indiscriminate weapons unique to American forces.

    As with the recent Navy SEAL raid in Yemen that took civilian lives, the new-found interest by the media and many Democrats in the costs of American war abroad is welcome. If it took the election of Trump to alert Americans what horrors are being done in their names, then that election has already served some larger purpose.

    But the next step is the critical one — can the new found revulsion for civilian deaths drive action to stop them or will nostalgia for the “good killings” under the previous administration block focus on ending the 15 year cycle of violence and revenge that has set the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia on fire? Will we simply again settle on a domestically palpable process of killing under Trump as we did under Bush and Obama?

    No matter who pulls the trigger — Bush, Obama or Trump — civilian deaths are not accidental, but a policy of preventable accident. The new drone rules under Trump are simply another example.



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  • Putin Paranoia

    March 31, 2017 // 42 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Trump



    Things about America we’ve learned since November.


    Our nation, the republic, democracy, our very system of government is more fragile than at any other time in American history. So fragile that everything has, or is in near-immediate danger of, collapsing, after only a two month jog from near-perfect to the edge of dystopia.

    The cause of this is Vladimir Putin, who is an evil genius, spymaster, mastermind, brilliant, super criminal, chessmaster, but also a thug and dictator.


    Only a few months ago, stuff like this lurked in the dank corners of the Internet, usually web sites that were designed in the 1990s, or on late night talk radio, or on six hour YouTube video rants. These were the same sources who found the Illuminati, Mossad, childhood vaccines, and chemtrails responsible for the impending end of our nation. We called this stuff conspiracy theories and if rational people mentioned them at all, it was as a punchline, with a shake of the head and a muttered “How can people believe this crap?”

    Good times. But they are over.

    We now live in a media world where what used to be crazy is now mainstream. Today’s example is from Salon, with a piece subtitled “The Soviet Union never attacked America as blatantly as Putin has — and we’re in danger of losing democracy.”

    The article gets right to it, announcing this is

    …the first time in modern history in which Russia has directly attacked the United States — on American soil no less, and precision-aimed at what matters most: the very integrity of our democratic process.”

    How was this done? By hacking our election, hacking being a word that no longer means anything but something something computers I don’t really understand but it’s bad. Like when your mom calls you up and says her laptop was hacked because it lost the wifi link to the printer (just restart it, mom…)

    Anyway, how was this hacking done? Social media. Russia ‘bots. Fake news. RT.com which no one watches. The upshot according to Salon? Millions of Americans

    …were manipulated into acting as unwitting foot soldiers for Vladimir Putin’s invasion… Americans were suckered by and acted in accordance with Putin’s plot… [because] Americans are deeply vulnerable to digital manipulation and weaponized social media hoaxes.

    More about how stupid our nation is in the face of Putin’s brilliance? Here you go, same article:

    The blind acceptance of Russian propaganda, because it happened to include “facts” that some of us were starved to read, is what turned otherwise decent though gullible Americans into Putin’s infantry, virally blitzing the Kremlin’s message through the trenches of the political internet, attacking and converting more voters with zombie lies. Trench by trench, Facebook group by Facebook group, Americans executed Putin’s attacks for him.

    And then oh-my-God things really start to fall into place to somehow explain Hillary Clinton’s inexplicable loss:

    The hacking of the DNC and Podesta aside, the effort to trick Americans into being recruited as Russian cyber-soldiers began by turning Democrats who supported Bernie Sanders against the predicted front-runner, Hillary Clinton. Using “bots” and human resources, Putin lobbed fake news and ridiculous conspiracy theories into social media. Voters who were predisposed to distrust Clinton willingly shared these stories, poisoning everyone who inexplicably wanted to be poisoned.

    Knowing what we know now, it’s no longer a stretch to report that Trump was placed in office by Putin. But it only happened because millions of Americans unknowingly volunteered to serve as enemy combatants, undermining and betraying their own country.

    So there it is, laid out in black and white: Americans were duped by Putin into destroying our own democracy by exercising our right to vote in a way Salon doesn’t like. Basically, our precious bodily fluids are at grave risk. Brilliant, evil, but brilliant.

    BONUS: So in summary, some substantial number of Americans clearly and truly believe Putin engineered the results of our last election, not by manipulating actual ballot counts, but via influencing social media in a way that influenced some 50% of Americans to vote a certain way. And that the entire universe of factors that went into the election (advertising, endorsements, emails, you choose) did not have as significant an effect as Facebook and RT. And that as a result, the President of the United States is under the direct and immediate control of Putin and has and will continue to purposefully act against the interests of the U.S.

    Seriously, that is some whack paranoid sh*t right there.




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  • Quick Update, End-of-the-World

    March 29, 2017 // 36 Comments

    Tags:
    Posted in: Economy, Iran, Trump



    Well, just checking in from my bunker. After taking inventory of my canned goods and ammunition, I thought I’d look into how some of the media’s predictions have been playing out over the first weeks of the new administration.

    — No nuclear wars.

    — No wars with China, Russia, Iran or North Korea. Same wars Obama started or escalated still going strong.

    — No diplomatic breakdown because of Taiwan. No change in U.S. “Two China Policy.”

    — No new wars anywhere.

    — NATO and alliances with Australia, Japan, etc. still intact.

    — No mass resignations among government employees. CIA, NSA, and State Department still open for business.

    — No coups.

    — 1st Amendment, and others, still in place.

    — No impeachment, no invocation of Emoluments Clause, 25th Amendment, formal charges of treason.

    — Congress has approved Cabinet nominees.

    — No roundups of POC, women, journalists, LGBTQ, deportations are still below Obama-era headcount of 2.5 million deported, highest under any presidency.

    — Stock market did not crash.

    — No psychological break down by Trump leading to anarchy, war, etc.

    — No signs of capitulation to Putin.

    — U.S. justice system and courts still open and functioning.



    I will keep an eye on all this, and update as necessary.

    BONUS: I don’t like Trump. This post is a criticism of his critics and the media for all their idiot fear-mongering.

    BONUS BONUS: Someone will respond “Yes, but it’s only been _____ weeks, so you never know.” This is true because no one knows the future, but it is also irrelevant because I am writing about what has already (not) happened.




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  • Sexism is OK (As Long as it’s Aimed at Melania, Apparently)

    March 27, 2017 // 16 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Trump


    She doesn’t sleep with him. They have separate beds, according to one anonymous source. And him?



    He has had a lot of women, some public and much, much younger, some only rumored about (but we know.) One of the most talked-about involved him, an older, powerful man, bedding a younger woman infatuated with him, and likely controlled by him.

    And it’s apparently OK to talk about all this, and shame the dutiful wife, even by feminists. At least as long as it is about Melania Trump, and not, for heaven’s sake, about that other White House power “couple.”

    Christina Cauterucci, writing in left-of-center Slate, headlines the anonymous-sourced based news that Donald and Melania sleep in separate beds. See, that implies they don’t… you know… have sex.

    Now normally a) where people sleep is not news in any way; b) where people sleep is their private business and c) a woman in 2017 should not be shamed or commented on in the media for whatever choices she makes regarding her married life, and certainly not for her (implied and unconfirmed) choices regarding sex. What is it, 1950 at Slate?

    It apparently is 1950. Because writer Cauterucci says all that shaming is actually OK, because it’s Trump. She writes:

    …with this particular president, [it] does matter. Trump used a big-powerful-rich-daddy persona to win the presidency, and he painted that persona with the help of the ever-younger string of women he’s married and claimed to sleep with. All three of his marriages generated press “leaks” that suggested Trump was great at sex and had a lot of it with his respective wives, sometimes multiple times a day. The implication to anyone with eyes is that a past-his-prime man uses money and power to get sex and arm candy service from traditionally beautiful women. The report turns that implication on its head.

    Um, OK?

    But I really don’t get any of this. If one assumes all those pejorative statements about Trump are true, why does his sleeping arrangement with his spouse matter in any way? Is the writer, what, reverse slut-shaming Trump, maybe stud-shaming, mocking him for not be the swordsman she feels he’s claimed he is and that matters somehow? Is the point of mocking Trump and his wife to suggest he is not a stallion and, what next, should be impeached?

    No, no, here’s the point buried near the end of the piece:

    Trump’s marriage is not, like the Obamas’, a seeming match of life partners who fully respect one another’s intellects… Trump’s ignorance on policy and other issues of national importance is a point of pride for him, but when someone threatens his manly-man persona in public, it hurts.


    BONUS: The same article gets in a few sex digs on Pence, too. Here you go:

    An unofficial study of my personal opinions reveals that 100 percent of hetero couples who call one another “mother” and “father,” as Mike Pence and his wife do, sleep in separate twin beds with the sheets firmly tucked in on all sides, in formal pajamas and nightcaps, crucifix affixed on the wall where it can be seen from any potential sexual vantage point.

    Bada bing, Sexy time!




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  • Cornerstone of Afghan Reconstruction Effort — Roads — is Near-Total Failure

    March 24, 2017 // 40 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Military

    road

    One of the planned cornerstones of the 15+ year Afghan Reconstruction Effort was to be an extensive, nationwide network of roads.


    The United States’ concept was roads would allow the Afghan economy to flourish as trade could reach throughout the country, security would be enhanced by the ability to move security forces quickly to where they were needed, and that the presence of the roads would serve as a literal symbol of the central government’s ability to extend its presence into the countryside.

    The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released its audit of the Department of Defense’s and USAID’s $2.8 billion investment in Afghanistan’s road infrastructure.


    The project has been a near-total failure. The audit notes:

    — An Afghan Ministry of Public Works’ (MOPW) official stated 20 percent of the roads have been destroyed and the remaining 80 percent continue to deteriorate.

    — USAID estimated that unless maintained, it would cost about $8.3 billion to replace Afghanistan’s road infrastructure, and estimated that 54 percent of Afghanistan’s road infrastructure suffered from poor maintenance and required rehabilitation beyond simple repairs.

    — SIGAR inspections of 20 road segments found that 19 had road damage ranging from deep surface cracks to roads and bridges destroyed by weather or insurgents. Some 17 segments were either poorly maintained or not maintained at all.

    — MOPW officials noted that Afghanistan’s road infrastructure plays an important role in the country’s development and governance, and if the Kabul to Kandahar highway were to become impassable, the central government would collapse.

    — MOPW officials stated it will cost $100 million annually to carry out the necessary maintenance on Afghanistan’s road infrastructure. However, between 2011 and 2016, MOPW received only an average of $21.3 million annually from its American patrons.

    — According to a former U.S. official, the Afghan government would always sign the required memorandum acknowledging it had the capability to sustain a project, despite not having the capability to do so. American advisors would always accept the memorandum despite knowing the Afghans did not have the capability to do so.


    BONUS: Who in America would not want to see $2.8 billion of American taxpayer money spent on roads here in the Homeland?



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  • Is Tillerson Skipping NATO for Russia a Crisis? (No.)

    March 23, 2017 // 41 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump


    Is Tillerson committing treason skipping a NATO meeting for Russia? A diplomatic crisis? The end of the alliance? A favor to Putin? No. It’s just a scheduling decision.

    Senior government leaders are often called on to be in more than one place at a time. They make choices. Not everyone agrees with those choices. Sometimes deputies go instead. This happens to every country; the more global a nation’s interests, the more it happens. None of this is new.

    Yet a decision to have Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attend a meeting between President Trump (Tillerson’s boss) and Chinese President Xi rather than a NATO ministers gathering (i.e., Tillerson’s peers) in early April has been blown up into yet another end-of-the-world scenario. The fact that Tillerson will attend an event in Russia weeks later was somehow thrown into the mix and the resulting cake was pronounced proof that the U.S.-NATO relationship is in tatters.

    It is fully reasonable to debate which event, meeting with Xi or NATO, is the best use of Tillerson. It’s just not a hard debate to resolve.

    “Skipping the NATO meeting and visiting Moscow could risk feeding a perception that Trump may be putting U.S. dealings with big powers first, while leaving waiting those smaller nations that depend on Washington for security,” two former U.S. officials said.

    Bigger stuff over smaller stuff, who could imagine?

    Despite much rhetoric, NATO has been a stable, predictable relationship for the United States over decades. Tillerson, and the U.S., will be represented at the April event by the familiar (he’s worked for State since 1984) and competent Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Shannon. Tillerson may be skipping the event; the United States is not. And FYI, Colin Powell skipped the same meeting once as Secretary of State.

    Meanwhile, Trump is set to attend a NATO summit in Brussels in May. Tillerson met his NATO counterparts at an anti-ISIS conference on March 22. State is proposing other dates for NATO’s foreign ministers to gather. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner stated in the midst of all this “the United States remains 100 percent committed” to the alliance.

    NATO is covered.

    China meanwhile is dead center on action. China will play a significant role in anything to do with North Korea. China and U.S. allies Japan and South Korea face continued friction in the South China Sea, with the U.S. involved as well. China is one of America’s most significant trading partners, and holds considerable U.S. Treasury debt. Weigh all that against sending a signal to NATO about a problem in the alliance that sort of doesn’t even exist outside the self-created media spectacle.

    And the same people criticizing Tillerson for attending the meeting between Trump and Xi have only recently criticized Tillerson for not attending meetings between Trump and other world leaders.

    Problems with Tillerson’s plan to go to Russia weeks after the missed NATO meeting are just conflation. Tillerson will be doing all sorts of things following the NATO meeting and simply throwing Russia into this NATO story is pure sensationalism, a desperate attempt to get the news hook of the moment, Putin, into the headlines and imply more diplomatic naughtiness on the part of Trump.

    Much of the can’t-win-either-way positions taken on Tillerson flow from two interlocking issues.

    The first is the trope that basically anything the Trump administration does is wrong, dangerous, and reckless. Politico comes out with it, saying “Two months and a string of eyebrow-raising decisions later, people in and outside the State Department wonder if there’s any tradition Tillerson thinks is worth keeping.” Suggest negotiations and you’re too soft. Rattle the saber and you’re tempting Armageddon.

    The second is Tillerson’s disdain for the media. The media as a rule is nothing but self-righteous and jealous, ready to wave the flag, wrap themselves in it, then throw themselves writhing to the ground claiming they alone stand between The People (who no longer trust them) and the abyss. Tillerson didn’t take a press pool with him to Asia, and this set of the latest round. Left out of course is that the press could and did travel commercially to Asia longside Tillerson and missed out only on the possibility of some back-of-the-official-plane leaking.

    This will become a self-licking ice cream cone, as 24/7 press criticism of Tillerson makes him even less likely to engage with a press that will seize on his comments to criticize him further.

    It is also deeply amusing to watch the press decry the lack of official State Department briefings that they for years criticized as being content free and little more than propaganda. It reminds of an old joke — Q: How was the food on your vacation? A: Terrible! And such small portions!

     

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  • Advice for Trump: It’s All About the Infrastructure

    March 21, 2017 // 25 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Economy



    Dear Donald:

    I didn’t vote for you and generally don’t support what you do, but hey, we both live in this country for now, and I don’t want to see you mess things up more than they are. So, as a public service, here’s some advice. I don’t see a lot of this in the media; mostly they just write articles mocking you. I’m pretty sure if you came out against poop the media would demand sh*t sandwiches for everyone in response.

    But we’re Americans, we look forward not behind where the poop comes out, so here goes.

    You need a grown up in the White House right away. Your team clearly hasn’t figured out how to work Washington when you need to do so. So go get yourself a James Baker. Baker was White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Treasury under Reagan, and Chief of Staff under George H. W. Bush. He may still be alive (check Wikipedia) but if not, someone like him. Not an ideologue, but someone who prefers to work behind the scenes, trusted by most in Congress, calm and steady but still enough of a conservative that he’ll fit in at meetings. He’ll be, what can we call it, a kind of Chief of Staff-concierge combo. That will also be very reassuring to your own party members.

    Next up is a new Secretary of State, in a few months. I get that Tillerson is there to debone the Department of State, and it is good that he do so. Let him get that done, make all the enemies, do the heavy lifting, and then get someone new in there who can take over the hassles of day-to-day foreign policy. It’s clear, Donald (if I may) that you don’t like the photo-ops and glad-handing with foreigners. OK, we’re not all good at everything. So outsource that part of the job, same as you’ve done pretty successfully with James Mattis over at Defense (see how that no-drama appointment thing can work out?) Get a SecState who can play nice with allies and let you be you on other stuff. C’mon, you know how to do this. As a businessman you delegated tasks all the time.

    With that team in place, get your plate clear of the ideological things you owe your base. Pass your healthcare, throw a bone to immigration reform, whatever The Wall, stop messing around too much with arts funding, just get that stuff off the front pages except in areas of the country where it being on the front pages is to your benefit.

    Then move on to the big deal, the thing that should be the signature event of your term, rebuilding infrastructure. You promised jobs, America needs jobs, the Democrats can’t be against jobs (well, they can, but at that point they’ll join the Whigs in political party trivia answers.) Don’t spend a lot of time at first sorting things out, just get money into the economy. Cut Retire one aircraft carrier, something. Have states send in proposals, or just start. Build a bridge. Fix an airport. Put people to work in Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, places that really have been hit hard.

    Make it fast, make it visible, show (pardon the pun) concrete results.

    ALTERNATE POINT OF VIEW: “Forget your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap,” Kevin Williamson wrote of the white working class in National Review. “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible.”

    Or from NY Magazine’s Frank Rich “Maybe they’ll keep voting against their own interests until the industrial poisons left unregulated by their favored politicians finish them off altogether. ”

    BONUS: For the Democrats, don’t chase away the man or woman who feels like a third party candidate. Don’t push a hack forward who you think you’ve dressed up to look like a third party candidate; it’ll just come off fake, like when Dad tries to look “cool” around the teenagers. Stop acting smug about how all those Trump voters won’t get the change they sought. You don’t have the best record there, either. Don’t tell people who have really been living with Obamacare in its imperfect form that it is not imperfect.

    Imagine yourselves taking control of the healthcare debate. Imagine saying “Obamacare has problems. We’re going to fix them, and yeah, it means working with the Republicans, but people before party.” Now there’s something to take into the 2018 and 2020 campaigns, especially if you do fix Obamacare.

    And for the love of Gawd, find something more to be in favor of. “We’re not Trump” and “Trump’s a stupid jerk” were the policy positions that cost you the election. Nobody besides your own paranoid base bought deeply into the Putin controls Trump line, and the longer you stick to that the more it will end up looking like the endless Benghazi hearings.

    See, people outside your base will see through your current war cry: July Comey bad, March Comey is good. July investigations mean nothing, March investigations are the end of democracy. Saudi money into the Clinton Foundation had no proof of quid pro quo, Some Trump guy appearing on RT.com is proof that the Kremlin controls Washington DC.

    Understand that you have to build your base out from the coasts; you will not lure middle-of-the-road voters back with #resistance. Resistance is just blunt opposition and you tried that and the result was President Trump. Don’t make it President Pence down the road.

     

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  • Book Giveaway For Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan

    March 20, 2017 // 13 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Hooper's War

    You can win an autographed, advanced reading copy of my next book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.

    Here are the details:

    Goodreads Book Giveaway

    Hooper's War by Peter Van Buren

    Hooper's War

    by Peter Van Buren

    Giveaway ends March 26, 2017.

    See the giveaway details
    at Goodreads.

    Enter Giveaway



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  • You Can Be a Journalist, Too, Just Calling Names Like 7th Graders

    March 19, 2017 // 18 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Trump



    The New York Times employs a columnist named Charles Blow (above). Blow writes the same column twice a week, about 800 words of simple name calling directed at Trump. That’s what his job is. He gets paid a lot of money for something that must take him about 15 minutes to type up. It is an amazing world we’ve entered since November.


    Let’s have fun looking at the journalistic insights that are Charles Blow’s job. Everything that follows is a direct quote from one of his recent pieces:


    There is only the same old Trump: Dangerous and unpredictable, gauche and greedy, temperamentally unsuited and emotionally unsound.

    If you were trying to create in a lab a person with character traits more unbecoming in a president, it would be hard to outdo the one we have.

    He continues to have explosive Twitter episodes — presumably in response to some news he finds unflattering or some conspiracy floated by fringe outlets — that make him look not only foolish, but unhinged.

    Trump’s assaults on the truth are not benign. Presidential credibility is American credibility. There is no way to burn through one without burning through the other.

    And when he’s not making explosive charges, he’s taking destructive actions.

    Trumpcare would likely not only be more expensive and cover fewer people, but some people currently in need of care to extend their lives would no longer get it. Put quite simply: This plan is not only bad, it could be deadly.

    Add to these destructive policies the fact that this president and his family are burning through taxpayer funds like it’s Monopoly money.

    In February, numerous media outlets pointed out that Trump was spending on travel in a month nearly as much as what the Obamas spent in a year. This doesn’t even include the travel and security costs of Trump’s children or the cost of Trump’s wife and son remaining in Trump Tower in New York, at least for now, which is estimated to cost taxpayers hundreds of thousand of dollars a day.

    This was particularly jarring because Trump had been a chief critic of the amount of money the Obamas spent on vacations. Indeed, Trump tweeted in 2012: “President @BarackObama’s vacation is costing taxpayers millions of dollars — Unbelievable!”

    No, what is unbelievable is the staggering nature of the hypocrisy of Trump and his current spending and the near silence of Obama’s conservative critics.

    Trump appears to view the Treasury as a personal piggy bank and the presidency as a part-time job.

    This is a 70-year-old man who has lived his entire life as the vile, dishonest, incurious creature who got elected. That election validated his impulses rather than served as a curb on them.

    Trump will continue to debase and devalue the presidency with his lies.

    Trump will continue to leech as much personal financial advantage as he can from the flesh of the American public.

    America elected a parasite.


    BONUS: The temptation to mock Charles Blow because his last name is literally a slang term for a sex act is huge. I mean, think of the countless hours of humiliation that Blow suffered a a child that made him the mean, bitter man he is today. But it would be wrong to stoop to his level and just name call. Except for this: At the New York Times, do they call Charles’ role in the company The Blow Job?




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  • Crushing Free Speech (Oh, Let’s Save Democracy That Way!)

    March 15, 2017 // 45 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America



    I’m not advocating violence. I’m hoping to stop it.

    So this guy beat the crap out of this Black Lives Matter woman; she was spewing out hate speech, really racist stuff, and the guy acted in self-defense. Then some people who opposed Trump’s travel ban started calmly laying out their views on a street corner, and the same guy, who believes deep into his soul that Muslims are a threat to democracy and allowing them into America is a step toward fascism, got a bunch of his buddies together and by sheer force of numbers shouted down the pro-Muslim people, forcing them to run away for fear for their safety.

    Justification? The dude was pretty clear he was just exercising his First Amendment rights, that it was wrong for those protesters to have a platform and hey, he isn’t the government and the 1A only applies to the government, not private acts like his. Sure violence is bad in isolation, but in defense of freedom, well, by any means necessary. While he was beating on the activists, he shouted he “understands the moral and practical limitations of wholly free discourse.”

    After wiping hippie blood of his knuckles, this patriot took to a mainstream media outlet and wrote this:

    But this moment in American politics and American life proves that the victory of reason cannot always be assured. The purveyors of logic, of facts dutifully checked and delivered to the public, lost big league in November. The cost has been an erosion of our national character that we will be powerless to stop unless we fight prejudice wherever it lies. The critics of political correctness have argued that shutting down certain conversations may bear political costs and alienate potential allies. This is a certainty. Morality is alienating. But the costs of being moral have been borne successfully by innumerable movements for social change. This is, to borrow a phrase, a time for choosing.



    You get it yet?


    The actions above, and the quote above, were written by an author for Slate, in justification for the students of Middlebury College, and “activists” elsewhere, using acts like violence and shouting down speakers to stop speech they personally judged as hate and/or offensive or dangerous.

    The latest specific case involved some guy named Charles Murray. I have no idea who he is, but a lot of people say he is a racist so let’s go with that. But I don’t care.

    I simply cannot believe that it is the left, or progressives, or whatever name is best, that are attacking people’s speech. I’ve written extensively about what I call “Post-Constitution America,” an era that started on 9/11 where the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights no longer applied. I never imagined it would play out this way.

    And I know that the 1A does not apply to non-government actions, no need to educate me. But I also cannot believe I have to tell people like the author of the article above that stopping people from saying things that offend them is exactly the tool real live fascists and anti-democratic people use. They send brownshirts to break up rallies, accuse activists of inciting riots, take away access to platforms like newspapers and media, by violence or any other means necessary.

    When you advocate for closing off speech, the bad guys have already won. If you’re too stupid to see that, please ask for a refund from wherever you got your reducation, because you learned nothing. In a free and open society you get some good and some bad and you are not allowed to define those words for others. You let the ideas exist so that each person can define them.


    And I sincerely hope when someone punches you, or shouts you down, or takes away your platform by hacking your website, you are equally tolerant of their goals and tactics. Idiots.




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  • State Department: Is America’s Oldest Cabinet Agency Trumped?

    March 14, 2017 // 4 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump


    What if it’s not incompetence? What if it is by design? What if President Donald Trump has decided American doesn’t really need a Department of State and if he can’t get away with closing it down, he can disable and defund it?

    The only problem is Trump will quickly find out he’ll have to reluctantly keep a few lights on at Foggy Bottom.

    Things do not look good for State. There were no press briefings between Trump taking office on January 20 and some irregular gatherings beginning in early March. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wasn’t seen at several White House meetings where foreign leaders were present, and has taken only two very short trips abroad. Of the 13 sets of official remarks he has given, 10 have been perfunctory messages to countries on their national days, with one speech to his own employees. Sources inside State say he is nowhere to be seen around the building, either in person or bureaucratically via tasking orders and demands for briefings.

    Meanwhile, President Trump has proposed a devastating 37% cut to State’s tiny budget, already only about one percent of Federal spending.

    And as if that isn’t bad enough, the Trump administration has left a large number of the 64 special representative and other “speciality” positions empty. Tillerson already laid off a number of his own staff. Add in a Federal-wide hiring ban, and the only good news at Foggy Bottom is that it’s no longer hard to find a seat in the cafeteria.

    The original concerns around State that Trump’s transition was in chaos seem sadly mistaken; there are too many empty slots for this to be anything but purposeful. As for Tillerson himself “Either he’s weak or he’s complicit,” one State Department official said. Neither option bodes well.

    Alongside Trump himself, State is its own worst enemy. Team Trump no doubt took careful note of the Department’s slow-walking the release of Hillary Clinton’s emails (after helping hide the existence of her private server for years), and the organization’s flexibility in allowing aide Huma Abedin to simultaneously occupy jobs inside and outside of the Department, alongside alleged quid pro quo deals related to the Clinton Foundation. Senior State officials purged in late January were closely associated with Hillary Clinton. Happens when you back the wrong horse.

    The already open wound of Benghazi festered just a bit more when a post-election Freedom of Information Act release revealed State covered up the fact the assault on the Consulate was not “under cover of protest” as the Obama administration claimed but was, in fact, “a direct breaching attack.” Never mind the leaked dissent memo aimed at Trump’s so-called Muslim ban, and the leaked memo admonishing State staffers to stop leaking.

    And what has been one of State’s public actions this February? Dropping $71,000 on silverware to entertain foreign dignitaries. An organization that will be missed by the bulk of Trump supporters this is not.

    So is this it? The end of the United States Department of State, founded alongside the republic in 1789, with Thomas Jefferson himself as its first leader?

    Maybe not. Trump will quickly find that there are several State Departments, and he’ll need to hang on to a couple of them, even if he sidelines the others.

    Most of the actions described above refer to the political State Department, the traditional organ of diplomacy that once negotiated treaties and ended wars, but more and more since 9/11 (maybe earlier) has been supplemented if not left behind by modern communications that allow presidents and other Washington policymakers to deal directly with counterparts abroad. Throw in the growing role of the military, and you end up with far too many State staffers having a lot of time on their hands even before Trump came along. The Wikileaks cables, years of State Department reporting from the field, contained as much filler and gossip as they did cogent policy advice.

    Trump can make his deep cuts in that part of State’s work and few will even notice. In some ways, no one yet has; as far back as 2012, more than one fourth of all State Department Foreign Service positions were either unfilled or filled with below-grade employees. The whole of the Foreign Service diplomatic corps is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier, and has been for some time.

    There’ll be a few functions that may need to be rolled into other parts of the government if most of State fades away: whatever refugee processing Trump allows to DHS, trade promotion to Commerce, foreign aid to perhaps DOD, all have ready homes waiting if necessary. Trump’ll need to have ambassadors abroad, not the least of which is because 30-50% of those positions are routinely handed out to rich campaign donors, banana-republic style.

    So what is left at State Trump will need to hold on to?

    Those 294 embassies and consulates abroad State operates serve a function as America’s concierge that cannot be easily replaced, and will have to be funded at some level whether Trump likes it or not.

    Dozens of other U.S. government agencies rely on State’s overseas real estate for office space and administrative support to keep their own costs down. American government VIPs traveling need someone to arrange their security, get their motorcades organized, and their hotels and receptions booked. Meetings with local officials still require on-the-ground American staff to set up. Supporting CODELS (Congressional Delegations’ visits to foreign lands) is a right of passage for State Department employees, and every Foreign Service Officer has his/her war stories to tell. While stationed in the UK, I escorted so many Important Somebody’s on shopping trips that I was snarkily labeled “Ambassador to Harrod’s Department Store” by my colleagues. Others will tell tales of pre-dawn baggage handling and VIP indiscretions that needed smoothing over.

    Never mind the logistics for a full-on presidential visit to a foreign country. No, Trump will need this side of State to stay on the payroll.

    The last part of the State Department Trump will need around one way or another is the Bureau of Consular Affairs. Consular performs the traditional government functions of assisting Americans overseas when they’re arrested, caught up in a natural disaster, or just need help with social security or a new passport.

    The big swinging bat, however, is visa issuance. Visas are what fills the American economy with tourists, Silicon Valley with engineers, and universities with foreign students. Visas are the State Department’s cash cow: in 2016 close to 11 million tourist, worker, and student visas were issued at an average fee collected of $160. That’s well over $1.7 billion in revenue in addition to the budget Congress allots State. The Bureau of Consular Affairs holds a budget surplus in reserve whose dollar amount is one of the most closely held non-national security secrets inside government.

    But in a Trumpian state of mind, what looks like a strength at Foggy Bottom might turn out to be a weakness. State fought viciously after 9/11 to hold on to consular work, even as the Bush administration sought to consolidate the consular function into the then-new Department of Homeland Security.

    State won the bureaucratic fight in 2001, but if the Trump administration really wanted to effectively wipe away most of the State Department proper, it might need to do little more than kick out the strongest (and most profitable) leg holding up the whole edifice. Like a jenga tower, Trump can pick away at the top positions for media and political points, but if he really wants to see it all fall down, he’ll attack the bottom. Watch for it; it’ll tell you how serious this fight really is.

     

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  • NYT Falsely Tries to Tie Afghan Visa Problem to Trump Travel Ban (Two Aren’t Related)

    March 12, 2017 // 25 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Trump




    Here’s a NYT article that goes out of its way trying to tie the lack of Afghan Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs; for former U.S. military translators) to the Trump travel ban executive order.


    The two are not related, and it would have taken the New York Times exactly one Google worth of journalism, or even reading elsewhere on their own website, to understand that instead of publishing a misleading piece. For a newspaper claiming its work stands between us and fake news, this is just sad.


    The article includes these lines:

    — Afghans who worked for the American military and government are being told that they cannot apply for special visas to the United States, even though Afghanistan is not among the countries listed in President Trump’s new travel ban.

    — It was unclear if the visa suspension was related to the president’s new ban.

    — Officials at the International Refugee Assistance Project… said “Our worst fears are proving true.”

    — It is unclear whether the reported suspension of new applications was related to the number of available visas or to the president’s order reducing refugee intake generally, or to a combination of the two factors.

    — Afghanistan was not included in either of the president’s travel bans, but his decision to reduce the overall number of refugees accepted by the United States would affect Afghans as well.


    To be clear, the Trump travel ban and visas for Afghan translators have absolutely no connection. None.


    Afghanistan is not included in Trump’s travel ban at all. Afghans translators are not refugees under the law. Like its now-defunct sister program for Iraqi translators, the Special Immigrant Visa Program (SIV) was set up to provide immigrant visas (Green Cards) to Afghans who helped U.S. forces. Congress, not the president, sets numerical limits on how many of these visas are to be made available each year. When the limit is reached, the program goes on hiatus until next year. Congress is free at any time to expand the number of these visas available. That’s it.


    Now, how could the Times have uncovered these facts? Journalism.

    The Times could have Googled Afghan Special Immigrant Visas. That would have shown them a State Department page explaining things.

    The Times could have contacted any number of advocacy groups that also have online explainers about all this. Most competent immigration lawyers would know, too.

    The Times could have looked at its own archives from 2011.

    Or, the Times reporters on this story could have read their own website. Because elsewhere in the Times was reprinted a Reuters story that pretty much accurately explains the problem.


    That’s it, that’s really all that was necessary to publish an accurate story. But that accurate story would not have included the attempts to link the Afghan problem to Trump, which is the takeaway rocketing around the web.

    And for the haters, my own article here is not “pro-Trump.” The reason? Because the Afghan story has nothing to do with Trump.




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  • Ten Things the Media Will Get Wrong About Trump’s New Executive Order on Immigration

    March 9, 2017 // 18 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump


    As Trump issues a revised Executive Order on immigration, the media is almost certain to get many things wrong in its reporting; they did with the earlier order in late January. After 24 years of doing visa and immigration work for the Department of State,

    Short version: most of what people will be very upset about this week has been U.S. policy for some time and is actually unrelated to the Trump Executive Order.

    1. The Executive Order (EO) is invalid because the United States cannot discriminate based on national origin.

    False. 8 U.S.C. 1152 Sec. 202(a)(1)(A) makes it unlawful only to ban immigrants (Legal Permanent Residents, green card holders) because of “nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.” The law however is silent on banning non-immigrants such as tourists or students, as well as refugees, for those same reasons. Including green card holders was one of the major errors committed by Trump in the January EO. The new EO excludes them.

    2. The six countries affected by the new EO are being unfairly singled out. There’s no evidence the nationals from those countries pose any threat.

    The countries affected by Trump’s executive order – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – have been singled out under American immigration law since the days following 9/11.

    For example, the six are included in a 2015 law signed by President Obama, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12). The list thus has nothing to do with any of Trump’s business interests. He did not create it, nor is he the first American president to omit Saudi Arabia from post-9/11 scrutiny. That 2015 list, part of the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, disallows use of America’s visa-free travel program to foreigners who even once visited the targeted nations. So, for example, British citizens otherwise eligible to enter the United States without a visa must instead appear for questioning and be individually approved for an actual printed visa in their passport at an American embassy or consulate abroad.

    The six countries are also included in a special vetting process in place since the George W. Bush administration, continued under Barack Obama, and still operating today. Simply called “administrative processing,” people from these nations and others go through an alternate visa procedure that delays their travel as they wait to be vetted by various intelligence agencies. Some applications are left to pend indefinitely as a way to say no without formally saying no in a way that invites challenge.

    Lastly, three of the six nations included under Trump’s EO — Iran, Sudan, and Syria — have been designated for years by the State Department as state sponsors of terrorism.

    As for the numbers, in FY2015, 27,751 tourist visas were issued to Iranians, Sudan 3,647, Syria 8,419, Libya 1,374, Somalia 185 and Yemen 3007. All of those people may still travel under the new EO, but the number are illustrative of the relatively small scale of the EO; in that same year, the United States issued almost 11 million visas worldwide.

    3. But some people with valid visas are being refused entry into the U.S.

    Yes, and they always have, long before Trump. Unlike many nations, the U.S. uses a two-tiered system for immigration. Visas are issued abroad by the Department of State, and represent only permission to apply to the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at a U.S. entry port for admission. A traveler can have a valid visa and for a variety of reasons still be denied entry into the U.S.

    4. Travelers have other rights that are being denied.

    Foreign persons outside the United States are not protected by the Constitution. U.S. courts have also ruled continuously over time that decisions to issue or refuse visas abroad are not subject to judicial review.

    Non-citizens without green cards generally do not have the right to an attorney at an airport, except if questions relate to something other than immigration status, such as certain types of criminal charges. Non-citizens can generally be temporarily detained without formal due process. In most cases the government maintains until admitted to the U.S. by CBP, a traveler is actually not “in” the U.S. with the full range of legal protections. Nothing new here specific to the Trump EO.

    5. They’re deporting foreigners without due process.

    Again, nothing new and unrelated to Trump’s EO. In most cases only an immigration judge can order a deportation. But if the foreign traveler waives their rights by signing something called a “Stipulated Removal Order,” or takes “voluntary departure,” agreeing to leave the country, they could be deported without a hearing. Some people choose to give up their green cards voluntarily at the airport for a variety of reasons by signing a form I-407. There are both good reasons and bad reasons for signing such documents.

    That said, most people who aren’t allowed into the U.S. at the airport are not actually deported. They are removed, or denied entry. The words have specific legal meanings and trigger different levels of rights. Standard denials of entry are considered administrative actions and do not typically allow for court appearances or lawyers.

    6. A traveler was denied boarding by the airline when they tried to leave a foreign country. Do the airlines enforce American law now?

    Sort of. Airlines are responsible for the passengers they board. If a passenger is denied entry into the U.S. for any reason, the airline typically faces the costs of returning the passenger to a country abroad. So if someone from Syria is boarded by Lufthansa in Frankfurt and refused entry to the U.S. in Boston, Lufthansa can be held financially responsible. So, it is in the airlines’ best interests to follow U.S. immigration law.

    This system is not new with Trump’s EO, though the EO does establish new criteria for the airlines to follow.

    7. CBP is denying American citizens entry into the U.S.

    Very, very unlikely. Absent some extremely rare and technical issues, or cases where a traveler is misidentified, American citizens are entitled to enter the United States. A person with a U.S. passport is an American citizen for the purposes of entry, even if they hold a passport from another country. Green card holders are not American citizens and remain citizens of their home country. American citizens have always been subject to questioning, temporary detention, and search when entering the U.S. CBP is authorized to conduct searches and detention in accordance with 8 U.S.C. § 1357 and 19 U.S.C. §§ 1499, 1581, 1582.

    8. CBP asked a traveler about their religion, or said they were detained because they were a Muslim, or…

    Anything is possible, but not everything is likely. Actions cannot be taken based on religion, though CBP has always had procedures that allow them to have a traveler remove their head covering. Most airport interactions are under surveillance. CBP officials wear badges with numbers. Asking about religion is potentially grounds for job dismissal, even a civil rights suit. Wrong things do happen, but one should be skeptical about how often it is claimed to have happened. Persons can be asked where they came from (i.e., Sudan.) Human error, or a bad CBP person of course exist, but are in isolation not signs that the “gloves have come off” or that their one-off actions are signs of impending fascism.

    9. I Googled this and…

    Stop. There’s a reason people go to law school. Legal practice at the border is complicated; immigration law is as complex as tax law, and based on a tangle of regulations, practices, court cases, administrative rulings, and the like. Even experienced immigration lawyers differ with one another on how some things work. Other parts of the process are subject to the judgment of CBP officials. Almost anything can be challenged in court, and courts overturn old laws from time to time. So be careful when pronouncing something “unconstitutional” based largely on a Google search, or quoting one lawyer with a client in trouble, or confusing the filing of a lawsuit, or even a temporary stay by a court, as proof of the point you’re trying to make.

    10. Trump can’t do this.

    The answer to this question will take a lot of legal testing to resolve. Generally, however, the Supreme Court acknowledges immigration law’s “plenary power” doctrine, leaving most discretionary decisions in the hands of the executive branch. Legal victories over the original Trump EO were only stays of actions inside American borders, and complied with by the Department of Homeland Security on an exceptional “national interest” basis, not a policy one.

    Yet while precedent seems to favor the administration, there are a lot of issues and a very complex body of law in play with this EO. In particular how/if the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of religion apply is in contention. Anyone who claims this is simple on any side of the argument is misinformed. However, what is simple is that this is not a constitutional crisis. Tension between the power of executive orders and the power of Congress/the courts is nothing new, and in fact is the cornerstone of the Constitution’s system of checks and balances.

    The opinions here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Department of State. This is not legal advice. Consult an immigration lawyer before making any immigration, travel or legal decision.

     

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  • The U.S. Government Did Not Revoke Khizr Khan’s ‘Travel Privileges’

    March 8, 2017 // 19 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State, Trump



    Here’s the anatomy of a fully made-up “news” story, abetted by a media that could care less to check any fact as long as the story feeds the preconceived notions of its audience.

    You remember Khizr Khan (above), the guy who used his soldier son, killed in Iraq, as a prop at the Democratic National Convention to criticize Trump’s immigration policy and help elect Hillary Clinton? Well, like all good Americans, Khan exploited his exploitation into a minor media career. He was booked to talk in Canada by a speaker’s bureau called Ramsey Talks. A decent gig — tickets ran $89 a seat.

    Then Trump supposedly struck. Ramsey Talks released a statement on its Facebook page saying:

    Late Sunday evening Khizr Khan, an American citizen for over 30 years, was notified that his travel privileges are being reviewed. As a consequence, Mr. Khan will not be traveling to Toronto on March 7th to speak about tolerance, understanding, unity and the rule of law. Very regretfully, Ramsay Talks must cancel its luncheon with Mr. Khan. Guests will be given full refunds.

    Mr. Khan offered his sincere apologies to all those who made plans to attend on March 7th. He said: “This turn of events is not just of deep concern to me but to all my fellow Americans who cherish our freedom to travel abroad. I have not been given any reason as to why. I am grateful for your support and look forward to visiting Toronto in the near future.


    A major Canadian broadcast outfit (CTV) ran the story based solely, only, 100% on that single unverified and unsubstantiated Facebook posting, saying the Trump administration interfered with Khan’s “travel privileges” to prevent him from speaking, because of some sort of revenge for Khan’s statements this summer.

    The Internet then, as expected, lost its shit.

    Twitter boomed, and within an hour or two the story appeared in the New York Times, LA Times, Boston Herald, CNN, Maddow, and across the globe. Every one of those stories was based on nothing but that Facebook post. Reuters, the only outfit that apparently bothered to commit a minor act of journalism and reach out to Khan, was told by him no comment. All of the web’s many experts on stuff became experts on passport law, immigration, naturalization, and visa lore. Amazingly creative theories of “denaturalization of Muslims” were concocted out of thin air.

    The only problem is that none of this is true. It in fact could not be true.

    The U.S. has no law that deals with reviewing or rescinding “travel privileges.” No U.S. government agency calls people at home to tell them their travel privileges are under review. If, in very, very limited specific legal instances a court has ordered someone not to travel, their passport itself can be revoked in response to that court order. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection people, the State Department, and the government of Canada all eventually denied doing anything to Khan in any way or having anything to do with this story, so please stop calling them to ask.

    Khan, or Ramsey Talks, seems to have made this all up.

    Now, funny thing, this made-up story about Khan being denied travel hit just as Trump’s new Executive Order (“Muslin Ban 2.0”) was announced. Gee willikers Biff, you think this tale of a Muslim patriot denied travel was timed for that news cycle? Maybe so that when Khan’s speech is rescheduled tickets will be more expensive and sell out faster? Maybe so Khan and/or Ramsey Talks could get a zillion dollars of free publicity? Hah hah, coincidence, amiright?

    As I write this, not one of the media outlets that ran with the false story has published a correction, update or apology. The Washington Post has semi-backed away, but left itself plenty of wiggle room in not admitting it was wrong.

    The problem is if you Google Khan’s name, the story is still flowing around the web, and is now being cited in unrelated stories as “proof” of whatever else the writer believes is fascism and the end of freedom in America.


    BONUS: A source inside CBP tells me that what is most likely to have happened is that Khan’s membership in one of the expedited processing programs was set to expire. These are programs run by private companies that gather information and submit members’ names for background checks to allow them to use expedited processing lanes at the airport when re-entering the United States from a foreign country. Khan/Ramsey likely confused, by accident or on purpose, the expiration of that membership with some nefarious U.S. government action, and the media took it from there. Khan’s only privilege under fire was that of standing in a shorter line at the airport.



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  • The Four Stories You Can Write About Trump

    March 6, 2017 // 27 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Trump



    It is nearly-impossible to write anything that purports to be objective about Trump. No one wants to read it. Instead, there are only four basic stories you can do.


    The Apocalypse

    These stories tend to appear in both the mainstream press (New York Times, Washington Post, cable news) and on left-of-center smaller outlets featuring Michael Moore and Robert Reich. They have headlines and indeed whole paragraphs announcing the end of democracy, the fall of the republic, destruction of the press, and so forth.

    Many have references to Hitler, or, if the writer has checked online, the burning of the Reichstag and WWII Japanese internment camps. If the writer does more than a Google search, you’ll see references to Weimer. The stories need to be more hyperbolic than the last one, and are usually framed around one Trump event inflated into a “historians will someday note this as a turning point, assuming they will still be allowed to write freely.”

    So, CBP wrongly detains someone = brownshirts are on the march, today the airport, tomorrow maybe in our home? Fear the 2 am knock on the door.

    As a bonus, these articles will often use dramatic phrases like “a clear and present danger,” “be afraid. be very afraid,” and end with an out-of-context quote from a Founding Father such as “The tree of liberty without our vigilance will be upended by an orange man as darkness gathers.”


    Related: Trump is Stupid and Evil

    These stories are basically a personal variant on the The Apocalypse, and are a staple of NYT Op-Eds by guys like Charles Blow, everything on Rawstory and HuffPo, and late night comedy shows like Colbert.

    Trump has small hands, a joke about Cheeto Jesus, homophobic jokes about Putin and bromance, a spell-checker typo blow up into proof of something sinister, that sort of thing. They’ll go as far as comedians calling Melania a whore and the Trump kid a ‘tard, followed by an apology if the Internet blows up. They also run as Tweets and Facebook memes that say Trump is mentally ill or has syphilis. Throw in a favorite failed-as-a-businessman tale.

    A lot of these stories are based around leaks from anonymous sources that are little more than gossip from interns, such as “Trump is said to chew on the ends of pencils, which many aides claim is embarrassing to the nation.” Look for headlines that have colons, such as Revealed:, Sources: or Report: and passive constructions such as “I’m told…”



    Trump is a Savior

    For anything positive about Trump, you have to look w-a-y right, often deep into the dank corners of the web where true racism and hate lie. The more centrist right media seems to spend most of its time debunking stories about The Apocalypse and Trump is Stupid and Evil, or arguing the meaning of fake news.

    Hillary Fan Fiction/Obama Revisionism

    These are really the sad stories. They will repeat that Hillary won the popular vote you guys, how she would have won except for Bernie, Jill, Stein, Comey and Putin, and/or focus on all the reasons Trump will be impeached (Emoluments Act, Russia, 25th Amendment, a military coup, Chinese buy-out, etc.) They are all textbook examples of denial, lead by once-sane academics like Lawrence Tribe.

    Right alongside Hillary fan fiction lurks Obama Revisionism. The last eight years were all unicorns and rainbows, with free healthcare falling from the sky while we all lived in racial harmony and celebrated each other’s’ diversity with vegan, gluten-free treats handed out to undocumented aliens at Whole Foods by smiling refugees.


    FYI: I have given up, and get the majority of my news now from watching old Spongebob episodes. Trump’ll get my NetFlix when he prys it from my cold dead hands.



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