• The Media and the Myths of Trump

    December 1, 2017 // 23 Comments »


    Donald Trump’s victory was so loathsome to journalists that instead of acknowledging their cultural and partisan blindness lead to them misreport the election, they doubled down, growing two overlapping myths to delegitimize the presidency they never wanted to happen.

    The two myths are Trump did not really win the election, and that once in office Trump is so unfit to serve that he is a danger to the nation and must be removed as a people’s act of literal self-defense. Psychiatrists call this denial; political scientists may call it a kill shot to democracy.

     

    The myth Trump did not actually win exploded outward like the Big Bang from November 8, 2016. There were the Jill Stein recounts, and false claims of voter fraud, gerrymandering, and racist voter suppression that lead to an “unfair” win. This all morphed into what stands as one of the most ignorant themes ever expressed in American politics, that because Clinton “won” the popular vote she was somehow entitled to the Oval Office. Reporting on all this came close to claiming the Constitution itself conspired against Hillary. “We’re in uncharted waters,” proclaimed CNN’s Anderson Cooper; the network also featured an ex-CIA officer calling for a new election, what in CIA-speak is better known as an overthrow.

    Instead of dismissing such unconsitutional nonsense, the media featured elaborate justifications, and coined the term “Hamilton Electors” to tie the quixotic effort to one of the few Founding Fathers voters knew via song. An online petition to declare Clinton president that in normal times would have been seen as a crank call was instead promoted into gaining the largest response in Change.org history. Editorials called for the Electoral College vote to be unconstitutionally postponed. Once-cogent pundits like Lawrence Tribe and Robert Reich were handed mainstream platforms to morph themselves into human cottage industries proclaiming the impeach-ability of various Tweets and statements.
    Even today, the New York Times’ White House correspondent beats the fan fiction drum for the importance of the popular vote. Her paper continues to focus on the urgent need to do away with the Electoral College after 220 years, the system that put Obama and Clinton and Carter into office, before the next time Trump runs. In what under normal times would be dismissed as a conspiracy theory, Huffington Post features interviews saying the election may not be “legitimate,” over a year later.

     

    The efforts to somehow keep Trump from office continued right up to the swearing in ceremony, itself boycotted by Democrats who did not want to “normalize” the election.

    It was at that point the second myth came to the fore: Trump was unfit to serve. The uber-disqualification is that Trump is literally a Russian agent (“Is Donald Trump Working for Russia?” asked New York magazine, in a headline that would have made reporters blush during the McCarthy Red Scares), directly under the control of the Kremlin, who holds power over him via some sort of pornographic pee tape no one has seen, or sweetheart real estate loans no one has seen, or in return for buying Trump the election demonstrated by evidence no one has seen.

    Alongside the “Trump is a Russian agent” disqualifier are a handful of memes never before seen in American politics. Trump’s hotels make his presidency illegal under the Emoluments Clause, a Constitutional snippet that generally escaped notice for 220 years (that Obama might get a $60 million book advance to write about things he did in office but only paid out, alongside six figure speaking engagements, after he left office, or that foreign governments donated to the Clinton Foundation while Hillary was Secretary of State, are not discussed.) Trump’s tax returns, available to the IRS for decades, are a media strawman; only if the people of Twitter examine those old 1040s can democracy be saved, IRS auditors and their technical knowledge be damned. Maxine Waters, a Member of Congress, said Trump should be impeached because he is boorish and crude.

    Waters’ statements and other similar, albeit slightly more coherent ones, are addendums to the myth, the idea that Trump is on borrowed time. The media fans the flames of Mueller, expecting the smoking gun that has so far eluded the CIA, NSA, FBI, IRS, and NYT to emerge any day. The 25th Amendment, created after the Kennedy assassination to codify the line of succession should the president become incapacitated, has been crowd-sourced into some sort of psychological failsafe mechanism whereby the Vice President, et al, will wake up one morning, realize the Washington Post has been right all along, and force Trump out of office.

    Ensuring that Trump is to appear as unqualified, the media focuses on “evidence” of that. Looking at his trip to Asia, the main story out of the Japan leg was some silliness over Trump overfeeding fish, not what was discussed with the Japanese regarding North Korea. CBS News’ White House Correspondent purposefully pulled a quote about Japanese auto manufacturing out of context to make Trump appear uninformed, whereas the full statement paints the opposite picture. From China, the theme was Trump was “rolled,” cajoled into, well, something, via a VIP visit to the Forbidden City. The main point of the APEC meeting in the Philippines? A silly photo. His speech in Korea, focusing on the problems with the North, was largely reported based on a irrelevant cherry-picked sentence about a Trump golf course. Back at home, the New York Times headlined Trump taking an awkward drink of water.

     

    Running alongside such spot reporting is a steady stream of anonymous source-based predictions war is imminent in Iran or North Korea, and that DeVos, Mueller, Sessions, Kushner, Tillerson, Mattis, and Kelly will be fired or resign. That such things haven’t happened in a year is irrelevant; the media says without evidence they still might. A silly Trump tweet criticizing a reporter becomes “evidence” the President has abandoned the First Amendment. Journalists, who as a group once took pride in their objectivity, now openly proclaim their “not Trump” political allegiance.

    Routine tussles of government, the stuff of our system, are overstated to a rube-like public such that courts doing what they are supposed to do, ruling on the President’s immigration orders, are inflated into “constitutional crisis.” It’s not a crisis if the system functions as it was created to do.

    Journalistic standards of evidence, typically requiring multiple sources and/or on-the-record witnesses, are replaced by the egregious use of anonymous sources that are little more than gossip from interns. Watch the mushroom-level growth of headlines with colons, such as Revealed:, Sources: or Reported: and passive constructions such as “I’m told…” that get around the fact that the story is not really based on facts.

    Reporters compete with one another to show how aghast they are at the “latest.” Newsweek is gleeful at the possibility Trump won’t finish his term. CNN talks of deposing the president. Politico runs an innuendo-heavy but fact-free piece claiming the KGB, seeing into the future, compromised Trump in 1987.

    The sum of such snarky, non-substantive reporting is clear: America is on the lip of chaos, Trump is not leading America, he is accomplishing nothing of substance, he is unfit.

     

    But the most unprecedented element of myth is the steady stream of reporting the President of the United States is so mentally ill that his continued presence in the White House is a suicide plan for America. Never before have mainstream media so freely and casually declared the President to be medically, legally, insane, and all based on little but fear and a few Tweets. The media has normalized this into common knowledge; as an example, an article pitch I made to a global media outlet explaining why war was not imminent in Korea was rejected because I could not “prove” Trump was not insane (The American Conservative bravely published my story.)

    The myth is buttressed by medically unethical remote diagnosis, such as that of Dr. John Gartner, former assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University Medical School. “I don’t think people have any idea how close we are the point of no return,” Gartner said. “I think that there is an 80% chance he’s going to push that nuclear button. Why? Number one, Trump is a malignant narcissist. As far as I know, I cannot recall a single malignant narcissist in history who did not start a major war.” Gartner concludes “the noose is tightening around their necks and unlike Richard Nixon, Trump and his cabal are not going to leave gracefully. Donald Trump is going to be really like Bonnie and Clyde; he’s going to shoot his way out.”

    Though the nation’s nuclear command and control procedures have for better or worse been left relatively unchanged since the Truman administration, it is only now, under the guise that Trump is insane, that the media and some Members of Congress are promoting the idea that change is needed. Media outlets champion the idea the military could refuse to launch missiles, advocating insubordination, essentially a coup, as the best hope our nation will survive. Such paranoia exceeds the worst of Cold War fears.

    Along the way the myths have created their own new normals; it is now perfectly acceptable to call out the President with schoolyard-taunts: Trump has small hands, a joke about Cheeto Jesus, the orange man-child, homophobic jokes about Putin and bromance, that sort of thing. Writers like Charles Blow in the New York Times build whole columns out of lists (“ignorant… churlish… tacky”) of personal insults.

     

    For the first time in our nation’s history powerful mainstream forces are trying to change the results of an election. Shocked by Trump’s victory, many in the media wanted to stop him from entering the White House. Failing that, they delegitimize the president in the manufactured-from-thin-air belief that he is such a threat that it is necessary to destroy democracy in America to save it.

    At some point Trump will leave office. CNN and others would be expected to return to their originally scheduled programming at that time. The problem is once you let the genie of trying to overturn an election loose, you won’t be able to stop it. It’s foolish to think this process won’t be used again in 2020, or 2024. The clumsiness of the Obama birth certificate conspiracy to delegitimize a president is nothing compared to the approach being tried with Trump. People are getting more skillful at the game, learning more about the tools available. A new political weapon has been unsheathed. America is playing with fire.

     

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    A Media Blacklist, Courtesy of WaPo: Now I’m Afraid for Our Democracy

    November 26, 2016 // 51 Comments »

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    In most third world societies, when people don’t like the results of an election, they take to the streets. In America, we take to the Internet.


    But the end result is the same. The system is undermined because we do not like the results it yielded. Accusations of something unfair having happened are slung around, usually either unsupported by facts, based on faux “statistical anomalies,” or via a small data set that is blown up into something general to prove “the system is unfair/corrupt/wrong/inaccurate” to people who already believe that to be true but need talking points for their Facebook pages.

    This is the thought process that is driving the wishful thinking behind the recount efforts, and campaigns to push the Electoral College into voting Hillary Clinton into the White House.

    Of course a nice tag-along is if this can all be blamed on an outside third party. Dissatisfied people have little interest in blaming themselves, their flawed candidate, or acknowledging the strengths of the opponent among a large segment of voters. Nope, easier to blame someone else. For that, a person who has been molded into a one-word symbol of, well, everything and anything Americans fear, Putin.


    And so a recent article in the Washington Post terrifies me. It is at a level of journalism that previously was reserved for conspiracy theories on Geocities’ style web sites. Here’s a selection from the article:

    The flood of “fake news” this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy.

    Russia’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery — including thousands of botnets, teams of paid human “trolls,” and networks of websites and social-media accounts — echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers.

    So: Clinton lost because Russia wanted Trump to win because Trump will favor Russia so Russia created fake news which influenced over 62 million Americans to overlook Trump’s flaws and vote for him. Got it.


    Proof? Stuff on Facebook. Main source of that proof? A group of unknown origin, financing, and makeup (“an independent team of concerned American citizens”) called PropOrNot, i.e., propaganda or not. The group also “strongly suspects that some of the individuals involved have violated the Espionage Act, the Foreign Agent Registration Act, and other related laws.”

    A second source quoted by the Washington Post is Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (which has been around in one form or another since the 1950s, dedicated to the Cold War), who says of the Russians “They want to essentially erode faith in the U.S. government or U.S. government interests.” Watts’s report on his work appeared on a blog this month as Trolling for Trump: How Russia Is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy. That piece claims without any real evidence at all that “Russia is actively trying to put Donald Trump in the White House… And the evidence is compelling.”

    I encourage everyone to read some of the linked articles. This is seriously scary Cold War paranoia stuff.


    And guess what? The ProporNot group has created a (black)list of websites that it claims are controlled/influenced by the Russians. While — dammit — this website in not included, I take some solace in noting that I have written for or been reprinted by 11 of them.

    “They use our technologies and values against us to sow doubt,” said Robert Orttung, a George Washington University professor who studies Russia, quoted in the article.

    And that sounds dangerously close to saying our First Amendment’s freedom of speech provisions seem to be the root of this threat to American democracy.



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    Acts of Quiet Desperation: Wisconsin Recount Edition

    November 23, 2016 // 21 Comments »

    trump-clinton

    It is quite sad to see so many well-meaning and otherwise intelligent Americans embarrassing and deluding themselves that Hillary Clinton didn’t lose the election held over two weeks ago.

    I hear many using words like mourning, markers of the kind of feelings that follow an actual death. If that is the case, then it is time to move on into some form of acceptance.

    In addition to the clueless bleating about the electoral vote not matching the popular vote (you win at baseball with more runs, not more hits), Hillary Clinton is now being urged by a group of prominent computer scientists and election lawyers to call for a recount in three swing states won by Donald Trump. The story, somehow, despite the scientists not speaking on record and only to the Clinton team in private, has gone viral across the same media (HuffPo, Vox, you know them) that never saw the flaws in Candidate Clinton and still doesn’t.

    The group believes they’ve found “persuasive evidence” results in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania may have been manipulated or hacked. Let’s take a look at that.


    The sole evidence presented so far, according to New York magazine, which broke the story is (emphasis added):

    In Wisconsin, Clinton received seven percent fewer votes in counties that relied on electronic-voting machines compared with counties that used optical scanners and paper ballots.

    Based on this statistical analysis [NOTE: this is not a statistical analysis, just counting], Clinton may have been denied as many as 30,000 votes; she lost Wisconsin by 27,000. While it’s important to note the group has not found proof of hacking or manipulation, they are arguing to the campaign that the suspicious pattern merits an independent review — especially in light of the fact that the Obama White House has accused the Russian government of hacking the Democratic National Committee.



    So let’s unpack that:

    — Assuming the counting is accurate, there is no known connection between the vote tally and anything else. At best this is a correlation, in likelihood it is just a tally. There is no evidence of any suspicious pattern. Ballots are not “patterns.” They’re just ballots.

    — There is no evidence of any hacking or manipulation. Even if it is true (a big if given the lack of evidence) that someone connected with Russia hacked the DNC, that does not in any way connect to a handful of voting machines in Wisconsin reviewed as a very small sample.

    — Though pitched as a “Save Hillary” effort, there is no evidence to suggest any recount would favor Clinton.

    — The reporting on this says the scientists have shared the information only with the Clinton campaign. Why not the Justice Department? If they really have something, it is evidence of a grave felony. Why not share it with the people who can really do something about that? Put up or shut up time.

    — Are these otherwise intelligent scientists really, truly, claiming that Russian hackers reached into individual voting machines in Wisconsin somewhere to throw a small number of votes Trump’s way?



    Bottom Line: Some people didn’t like the election results so they are throwing themselves on the ground like a soccer player trying to claim a faux foul.

    Disclaimer: I hate Trump. I hate racism and sexism and nazis. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a racist, or sexist, or nazi. This is not a pro-Trump article just because it criticizes Clinton in part. Stop acting like *ssholes. Please.




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    Did Russian Intelligence Hack the DNC Servers?

    July 26, 2016 // 42 Comments »

    russianbear

    Short answer: nobody knows, but the media is treating it as a fact based primarily on a single technical source employed by the Democratic National Committee. I read the source’s publically available explanation. Here’s what I found.

    A Quick Taste of Media Conclusions

    Despite a line in paragraph five saying “Proving the source of a cyberattack is notoriously difficult,” the New York Times offers the following statements.

    — “researchers have concluded that the national committee was breached by two Russian intelligence agencies;”

    — “Though a hacker claimed responsibility for giving the emails to WikiLeaks, the same agencies are the prime suspects;”

    — “Whether the thefts were ordered by Mr. Putin, or just carried out by apparatchiks who thought they might please him, is anyone’s guess.”

    — “It is unclear how WikiLeaks obtained the email trove. But the presumption is that the intelligence agencies turned it over, either directly or through an intermediary. Moreover, the timing of the release, between the end of the Republican convention and the beginning of the Democratic one, seems too well planned to be coincidental.”

    There’s more, but you get the picture. The article also quotes Clinton staffers citing unnamed experts and researchers.

    Who Are These Experts?

    The only experts cited work for a company hired by the Democratic National Committee to investigate the hack. There is no indication of any neutral third party investigation. The company, Crowdstrike, issued a publicly available report on what they found.

    The report title makes clear the company’s conclusion: Bears in the Midst: Intrusion into the Democratic National Committee.


    What Does the Report Say?

    The report has some technical explanations, but focuses on conclusions that seem to be at best presumptions, despite the media treating them as fact.

    — The key presumptive conclusion seems to be that the sophistication of the hacks points to a nation-state actor. “Their tradecraft is superb, operational security second to none and the extensive usage of ‘living-off-the-land’ techniques enables them to easily bypass many security solutions they encounter. In particular, we identified advanced methods consistent with nation-state level capabilities.”

    — The hackers, two separate entities Crowdstrike says worked independently, used techniques known to be used by Russians. Better yet, with no evidence at all presented, Crowdstrike concludes, “Both adversaries engage in extensive political and economic espionage for the benefit of the government of the Russian Federation and are believed to be closely linked to the Russian government’s powerful and highly capable intelligence services.” Also, for one of the alleged hackers, “Extensive targeting of defense ministries and other military victims has been observed, the profile of which closely mirrors the strategic interests of the Russian government.”

    — By the end of the report Crowdstrike is just plain out called the hackers “Russian espionage groups.”

    FYI: Fidelis, another cybersecurity company, was hired by Crowdstrike to review the findings. Fidelis worked exclusively and only with data provided by Crowdstrike (as did several other companies.) Fidelis They concluded the same two hackers, COZY BEAR and FANCY BEAR APT, committed the intrusion, but made no comments on whether those two were linked to the Russian government.


    Um, Valid Conclusions?

    Despite the citing with certainty of experts and researchers by the media and the Clinton campaign, the only such expert who has made any findings public has basically thrown out little more than a bunch of presumptions and unsubstantiated conclusions.

    Left undiscussed are:

    — the commonality of hackers using “false flags,” say where an Israeli hackers will purposely leave behind false clues to make it seem that a Hungarian did the work. As one commentator put it sarcastically “The malware was written in Russian? It was a Russian who attacked you.
    Chinese characters in the code? You’ve been hacked by the Peoples Liberation Army.”

    — the question of if the hackers were “Russians,” can anyone tie them to the Russian government? Joe Black Hat breaking into some system in Ireland may indeed be an American person, but it is quite a jump to claim he thus works for the American government.

    — there is also a significant question of motive. For Putin to be the bad guy here, we have to believe that Putin wants Trump in power, bad enough to risk near-war with the U.S. if caught in the hack, and bad enough to really p.o. Clinton who will be nominated this week anyway, and hoping of course that evidence of dirty tricks by the DNC released in July will be enough to defeat her in November. That’s a real s-t-r-e-t-c-h, Sparky.

    — other than those private persons who hack for their own entertainment or personal political beliefs, most work for money. They steal something and sell it. Information from the DNC system would find an easy buyer.

    — Who might be intersted in buying these emails? Along the range of actors who would benefit from exposing these emails, why would the Russians come out on top? Perhaps the Republicans? China? Pretty much any of the many enemies the Clintons have amassed over the years? Hell, even Bernie Sanders, whose complaints about the DNC were validated by the email release. The suspects based on motive alone make up a very long list.



    Learning More

    For some intelligent analysis suspicious that the DNC hack was a Russian intelligence job, try this.

    For some more technical information on one of the alleged DNC infiltrators, here you go.




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    Who Benefits from the Tragedy? Tour Sales from Russia to Egypt Down 70 Percent

    November 9, 2015 // 2 Comments »

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    One of the most basic precepts of detective work is always to first ask, “who benefits from a crime (cui bono)?” That answer will often point you toward your perp, and his motive.

    With the downing of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai, departing one Egyptian airport bound for another, a full list of who might benefit from the tragedy is long. Depending on your politics, some of these that seem like conspiracy theories to you will be likely culprits to others:

    — the U.S. could benefit by inflaming feelings worldwide about ISIS, reinforcing the narrative of how evil they are;

    — the U.S. could also benefit by sending a message to the Russians that they have chosen to play inside a dangerous sandbox;

    — the Russians could benefit by enraging their own people, prepping them for a longer fight in the region;

    — Chechnyan terrorists could benefit by carrying on their war against Russia, having found a security weak spot inside Egypt;

    But it is ISIS, or another of the radical Muslim terror groups at war with the pro-U.S. thugs now running Egypt, that seem to benefit the most. The downing of the airplane has hit tourism to Egypt very hard, a painful blow to an unpopular government given that tourism brings in $11 billion of revenue and employs 12 percent of the Egyptian workforce. This is a clearly destabilizing situation.

    And that’s just tourism in general in Egypt. The choice to down a Russian airplane does not seem random. Egypt is the most world’s most popular warm weather holiday spot for Russians. In the first half of 2015, over one million Russians visited the country, many to the same resort area from which the doomed plane departed. A clear signal was sent: Russians (and your money) stay away.

    It seems to be working. According to the New York Times, bookings from Russia to Egypt fell 70 percent overall in the aftermath of the Metrojet plane crash. Before the crash, more than 25 flights travelled from Egypt to Russia every day. To give you a better idea of the scope of tourism, suspension of scheduled service has stranded more than 45,000 Russians in Egypt.

    So perhaps there is more than a little validity to the idea that ISIS, or another radical Muslim group, is behind the downing of the Russian plane. But not for the crude narrative reasons the United States and Britain are pushing out. This is more about Egypt than anything else, and the real weapon being used is tourism dollars (rubles?)




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    What If They Gave a War and Everyone Came?

    November 3, 2015 // 5 Comments »

    army

    What if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq in 2003? How would things be different in the Middle East today? Was Iraq, in the words of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the “worst foreign policy blunder” in American history?

    Let’s take a big-picture tour of the Middle East and try to answer those questions. But first, a request: after each paragraph that follows, could you make sure to add the question “What could possibly go wrong?”


    Let the History Begin

    In March 2003, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq, the region, though simmering as ever, looked like this: Libya was stable, ruled by the same strongman for 42 years; in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1983; Syria had been run by the Assad family since 1971; Saddam Hussein had essentially been in charge of Iraq since 1969, formally becoming president in 1979; the Turks and Kurds had an uneasy but functional ceasefire; and Yemen was quiet enough, other than the terror attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Relations between the U.S. and most of these nations were so warm that Washington was routinely rendering “terrorists” to their dungeons for some outsourced torture.

    Soon after March 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, neighboring Iran faced two American armies at the peak of their strength. To the east, the U.S. military had effectively destroyed the Taliban and significantly weakened al-Qaeda, both enemies of Iran, but had replaced them as an occupying force. To the west, Iran’s decades-old enemy, Saddam, was gone, but similarly replaced by another massive occupying force. From this position of weakness, Iran’s leaders, no doubt terrified that the Americans would pour across its borders, sought real diplomatic rapprochement with Washington for the first time since 1979. The Iranian efforts were rebuffed by the Bush administration.


    The Precipitating Event

    Nailing down causation is a tricky thing. But like the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that kicked off the Great War, the one to end all others, America’s 2003 invasion was what novelists refer to as “the precipitating event,” the thing that may not actively cause every plot twist to come, but that certainly sets them in motion.

    There hadn’t been such an upset in the balance of power in the Middle East since, well, World War I, when Great Britain and France secretly reached the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, among other things, divided up most of the Arab lands that had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Because the national boundaries created then did not respect on-the-ground tribal, political, ethnic, and religious realities, they could be said to have set the stage for much that was to come.

    Now, fast forward to 2003, as the Middle East we had come to know began to unravel. Those U.S. troops had rolled into Baghdad only to find themselves standing there, slack-jawed, gazing at the chaos. Now, fast forward one more time to 2015 and let the grand tour of the unraveling begin!


    The Sick Men of the Middle East: It’s easy enough to hustle through three countries in the region in various states of decay before heading into the heart of the chaos: Libya is a failed state, bleeding mayhem into northern Africa; Egypt failed its Arab Spring test and relies on the United States to support its anti-democratic (as well as anti-Islamic fundamentalist) militarized government; and Yemen is a disastrously failed state, now the scene of a proxy war between U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels (with a thriving al-Qaeda outfit and a small but growing arm of the Islamic State [ISIS] thrown into the bargain).


    Iraq: Obama is now the fourth American president in a row to have ordered the bombing of Iraq and his successor will almost certainly be the fifth. If ever a post-Vietnam American adventure deserved to inherit the moniker of quagmire, Iraq is it.

    And here’s the saddest part of the tale: the forces loosed there in 2003 have yet to reach their natural end point. Your money should be on the Shias, but imagining that there is only one Shia horse to bet on means missing just how broad the field really is. What passes for a Shia “government” in Baghdad today is a collection of interest groups, each with its own militia. Having replaced the old strongman prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, with a weak one, Haider al-Abadi, and with ISIS chased from the gates of Baghdad, each Shia faction is now free to jockey for position. The full impact of the cleaving of Iraq has yet to be felt. At some point expect a civil war inside a civil war.


    Iran: If there is any unifying authority left in Iraq, it is Iran. After the initial 2003 blitzkrieg, the Bush administration’s version of neocolonial management in Iraq resulted in the rise of Sunni insurgents, Shia militias, and an influx of determined foreign fighters. Tehran rushed into the power vacuum, and, in 2011, in an agreement brokered by the departing Bush administration and carried out by President Obama, the Americans ran for the exits. The Iranians stayed. Now, they have entered an odd-couple marriage with the U.S. against what Washington pretends is a common foe — ISIS — but which the Iranians and their allies in Baghdad see as a war against the Sunnis in general. At this point, Washington has all but ceded Iraq to the new Persian Empire; everyone is just waiting for the paperwork to clear.

    The Iranians continue to meddle in Syria as well, supporting Bashar al-Assad. Under Russian air cover, Iran is increasing its troop presence there, too. According to a recent report, Tehran is sending 2,000 troops to Syria, along with 5,000 Iraqi and Afghan Shia fighters. Perhaps they’re already calling it “the Surge” in Farsi.


    The Kurds: The idea of creating a “Kurdistan” was crossed off the post-World War I “to do” list. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres at first left an opening for a referendum on whether the Kurds wanted to remain part of what remained of the Ottoman Empire or become independent. Problem one: the referendum did not include plans for the Kurds in what became Syria and Iraq. Problem two: the referendum never happened, a victim of the so-called Turkish War of Independence. The result: some 20 million angry Kurds scattered across parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.

    That American invasion of 2003, however, opened the way for the Kurds to form a virtual independent statelet, a confederacy if you will, even if still confined within Iraq’s borders. At the time, the Kurds were labeled America’s only true friends in Iraq and rewarded with many weapons and much looking the other way, even as Bush administration officials blathered on about the goal of a united Iraq.

    In 2014, the Kurds benefited from U.S. power a second time. Desperate for someone to fight ISIS after Iraq’s American-trained army turned tail (and before the Iranians and the Shia militias entered the fight in significant force), the Obama administration once again began sending arms and equipment to the Kurds while flying close air support for their militia, the peshmerga. The Kurds responded by fighting well, at least in what they considered the Kurdish part of Iraq. However, their interest in getting involved in the greater Sunni-Shia civil war was minimal. In a good turn for them, the U.S. military helped Kurdish forces move into northern Syria, right along the Turkish border. While fighting ISIS, the Kurds also began retaking territory they traditionally considered their own. They may yet be the true winners in all this, unless Turkey stands in their way.


    Turkey: Relations between the Turks and the Kurds have never been rosy, both inside Turkey and along the Iraqi-Turkish border.

    Inside Turkey, the primary Kurdish group calling for an independent state is the Kurdistan Workers party (also known as the PKK). Its first insurgency ran from 1984 until 1999, when the PKK declared a unilateral cease-fire. The armed conflict broke out again in 2004, ending in a ceasefire in 2013, which was, in turn, broken recently. Over the years, the Turkish military also carried out repeated ground incursions and artillery strikes against the PKK inside Iraq.

    As for ISIS, the Turks long had a kind of one-way “open-door policy” on their border with Syria, allowing Islamic State fighters and foreign volunteers to transit into that country. ISIS also brokered significant amounts of black market oil in Turkey to fund itself, perhaps with the tacit support, or at least the willful ignorance, of the Turkish authorities. While the Turks claimed to see ISIS as an anti-Assad force, some felt Turkey’s generous stance toward the movement reflected the government’s preference for having anything but an expanded Kurdish presence on its border. In June of this year, Turkish President Recep Erdogan went as far as to say that he would “never allow the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Syria.”

    In light of all that, it’s hardly surprising that early Obama administration efforts to draw Turkey into the fight against ISIS were unsuccessful. Things changed in August 2015, when a supposedly anti-ISIS cooperation deal was reached with Washington. The Turks agreed to allow the Americans to fly strike missions from two air bases in Turkey against ISIS in Syria. However, there appeared to be an unpublicized quid pro quo: the U.S. would turn a blind eye to Turkish military action against its allies the Kurds. On the same day that Turkey announced that it would fight the Islamic State in earnest, it also began an air campaign against the PKK.

    Washington, for its part, claimed that it had been “tricked” by the wily Turks, while adding, “We fully respect our ally Turkey’s right to self-defense.” In the process, the Kurds found themselves supported by the U.S. in the struggle with ISIS, even as they were being thrown to the (Turkish) wolves. There is a Kurdish expression suggesting that Kurds have “no friends but the mountains.” Should they ever achieve a trans-border Kurdistan, they will certainly have earned it.


    Syria: Through a series of events almost impossible to sort out, having essentially supported the Arab Spring nowhere else, the Obama administration chose to do so in Syria, attempting to use it to turn President Bashar al-Assad out of office. In the process, the Obama administration found itself ever deeper in a conflict it couldn’t control and eternally in search of that unicorn, the moderate Syrian rebel who could be trained to push Assad out without allowing Islamic fundamentalists in. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda spin-offs, including the Islamic State, found haven in the dissolving borderlands between Iraq and Syria, and in that country’s Sunni heartlands.

    An indecisive Barack Obama allowed America’s involvement in Syria to ebb and flow. In September 2013, on the verge of a massive strike against the forces of the Assad regime, Obama suddenly punted the decision to Congress, which, of course, proved capable of deciding nothing at all. In November 2013, again on the verge of attacking Syria, the president allowed himself to be talked down after a gaffe by Secretary of State John Kerry opened the door to Russian diplomatic intercession. In September 2014, in a relatively sudden reversal, Obama launched a war against ISIS in Syria, which has proved at best indecisive.


    Russia: That brings us to Vladimir Putin, the Syrian game-changer of the moment. In September, the Russian president sent a small but powerful military force into a neglected airfield in Latakia, Syria. With “fighting ISIS” little more than their cover story, the Russians are now serving as Assad’s air force, as well as his chief weapons supplier and possible source of “volunteer” soldiers. 

    The thing that matters most, however, is those Russian planes. They have essentially been given a guarantee of immunity to being shot down by the more powerful U.S. Air Force presence in the region (as Washington has nothing to gain and much to worry about when it comes to entering into open conflict with the Russians). That allows them near-impunity to strike when and where they wish in support of whom they wish. It also negates any chance of the U.S. setting up a no-fly zone in parts of Syria.

    The Russians have little incentive to depart, given the free pass handed them by the Obama administration. Meanwhile, the Russian military is growing closer to the Iranians with whom they share common cause in Syria, and also the Shia government in Baghdad, which may soon invite them to join the fight there against ISIS. One can almost hear Putin chortling. He may not, in fact, be the most skilled strategist in the world, but he’s certainly the luckiest. When someone hands you the keys, you take the car.


    World War I

    As in imperial Europe in the period leading up to the First World War, the collapse of an entire order in the Middle East is in process, while forces long held in check are being released. In response, the former superpowers of the Cold War era have once again mobilized, at least modestly, even though both are fearful of a spark that could push them into direct conflict. Each has entangling regional relationships that could easily exacerbate the fight: Russia with Syria, the U.S. with Saudi Arabia and Israel, plus NATO obligations to Turkey. (The Russians have already probed Turkish airspace and the Turks recently shot down a drone coyly labeled of “unknown origin.”)

    Imagine a scenario that pulls any of those allies deeper into the mess: some Iranian move in Syria, which prompts a response by Israel in the Golan Heights, which prompts a Russian move in relation to Turkey, which prompts a call to NATO for help… you get the picture. Or imagine another scenario: with nearly every candidate running for president in the United States growling about the chance to confront Putin, what would happen if the Russians accidentally shot down an American plane? Could Obama resist calls for retaliation?

    As before World War I, the risk of setting something in motion that can’t be stopped does exist.


    What Is This All About Again?

    What if the U.S. hadn’t invaded Iraq in 2003? Things would undoubtedly be very different in the Middle East today. America’s war in Afghanistan was unlikely to have been a big enough spark to set off the range of changes Iraq let loose. There were only some 10,000 America soldiers in Afghanistan in 2003 (5,200 in 2002) and there had not been any Abu Ghraib-like indiscriminate torture, no equivalent to the scorched earth policy in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, nothing to spark a trans-border Sunni-Shia-Kurd struggle, no room for Iran to meddle. The Americans were killing Muslims in Afghanistan, but they were not killing Arabs, and they were not occupying Arab lands.

    The invasion of Iraq, however, did happen. Now, some 12 years later, the most troubling thing about the current war in the Middle East, from an American perspective, is that no one here really knows why the country is still fighting. The commonly stated reason — “defeat ISIS” — is hardly either convincing or self-explanatory. Defeat ISIS why?

    The best Washington can come up with are the same vague threats of terrorism against the homeland that have fueled its disastrous wars since 9/11. The White House can stipulate that Assad is a bad guy and that the ISIS crew are really, really bad guys, but bad guys are hardly in short supply, including in countries the U.S. supports. In reality, the U.S. has few clear goals in the region, but is escalating anyway.

    Whatever world order the U.S. may be fighting for in the Middle East, it seems at least an empire or two out of date. Washington refuses to admit to itself that the ideas of Islamic fundamentalism resonate with vast numbers of people. At this point, even as U.S. TOW missiles are becoming as ubiquitous as iPads in the region, American military power can only delay changes, not stop them. Unless a rebalancing of power that would likely favor some version of Islamic fundamentalism takes hold and creates some measure of stability in the Middle East, count on one thing: the U.S. will be fighting the sons of ISIS years from now.

    Back to World War I. The last time Russia and the U.S. both had a powerful presence in the Middle East, the fate of their proxies in the 1973 Yom Kippur War almost brought on a nuclear exchange. No one is predicting a world war or a nuclear war from the mess in Syria. However, like those final days before the Great War, one finds a lot of pieces in play inside a tinderbox.


    Now, all together: What could possibly go wrong?




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    U.S. to Iraq: If Russia Helps You Fight ISIS, We Won’t

    October 28, 2015 // 5 Comments »

    obama-mission-accomplished

    This. Is. Hilarious.

    Honestly, I can’t stop laughing. I gotta wipe the tears out of my eyes, seriously. I feel like I need to start including the line “This is real. It is not from the Onion” as a standard disclaimer.



    But They Promised

    So it seems the U.S. has told Iraq’s leaders they must choose between American support against Islamic State and Russian support. Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Iraqis “promised” they would not request any Russian airstrikes or support for the fight against IS.

    Dunford told reporters he had laid out a choice when he met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. “I said it would make it very difficult for us to be able to provide the kind of support you need if the Russians were here conducting operations as well,” Dunford said. “We can’t conduct operations if the Russians were operating in Iraq right now.”

    He said there was “angst” in the U.S. when reports surfaced that al-Abadi had said he would welcome Russian airstrikes in Iraq. The U.S., Dunford said, “can’t have a relationship right now with Russia in the context of Iraq.”



    And Now, We Laugh

    We begin laughing in that the U.S. does not seem to have any problems with the Iranians (who are also active in Syria, supporting Assad) working out in Iraq. The Iranians overtly have special forces, leadership and trainers on the ground there, have sent in armor and by many accounts supplied limited numbers of ground troops. But that seems to be OK.

    The hilarity continues because the U.S. sort of started off welcoming the Russians into the fight against IS in Syria, at least until the U.S. realized it had been played by Putin, and that the Russians in fact did not share American goals (who would have thought it?) and instead supported Assad. I mean, Russia has been Assad’s only supporter, ally, and benefactor for decades, and the Russians maintained their only remaining overseas military base in Syria since forever, so it made perfect sense for the U.S. to believe they would not side with Assad, right?

    It is even funnier when you realize the U.S. has no real goals or business left in Iraq, except now to have hissy fits to make sure that it is Iran that retains defacto control there instead of the Russians.

    And of course, since the Iraqis “promised” not to take Russian help, well, that makes it a done deal, right?

    Plus if the Russians did step in, what would the U.S. really do? Pack everything up in Iraq and just come home? Leave the Russians to guard the American Embassy? Hah, as if the U.S. would just leave Iraq.

    But the true amusement is that if the Iraqis want the Russians to help — maybe as “volunteers” — there is not a damn thing the U.S. can do about that, other than move aside, as is happening in Syria.


    Seriously, this is what’s left of American foreign policy?




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    Shilling for a Living: Public Diplomacy in Russia

    September 6, 2013 // 5 Comments »

    Wow, Russia.

    ‘Lot going on there, Obama attending the G-20, what with Russia taking in NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Russian support for the other side in Syria, the famous Obama-Putin sourpuss photos, why, golly, you’d figure America’s public diplomacy warriors at Embassy Moscow would be busy, busy, busy seeking out Russian hearts and minds to influence.

    Instead, those diplomatic warriors are seeking Russian stomachs to fulfill with America’s last domestically-made product, junk food. Shilling for a living, one of our best, Joseph Kruzich, is pictured to the left. He posted on his Facebook page:

    Krispy Kreme doughnuts have arrived in Moscow. We had some at the American Embassy in Moscow yesterday. Delicious!

    And oh yes, he did add the final exclamation point. Oh yes.

    Kruzich, who as a slim man makes a poor advocate for the goodness of America’s toxic junk food to the stout Russians, also apparently like potato chips. Here’s another terse Facebook post. He posted in Russian but here’s the Google version:

    Today is the birthday of potato chips! Credited with creating the popular snack is American chef George Crumb, who invented the chip this day 160 years ago. The finely chopped crisp was for a disgruntled restaurant customer at Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs, who said the french fries were cut too thick.

    Nobody commented on the fact that the inventor of the potato chip was surnamed “Crumb,” so I will. Also, it is not at all certain that Crumb was even the inventor. Facts, meh, it’s social media!

    And oh yes, I did add the final exclamation point. Oh yes.

    Kruzich also seems to have a habit of reposting a lot of his boss’ stuff, but that is really just part of the overall job of a foreign service officer, so no points off for that. And to be fair, shilling for promoting American products abroad is indeed one of those things America’s diplomats are told to do, whether it is Boeing 747s or the ever-popular F-16s we sell to various thugs and dictators, for freedom.

    …or is it?

    Perhaps Kruzich is… more clever, shall we say, more cunning, than we give him credit for? While Putin plays checkers, sticking his thumb in Obama’s eye and then moving on, perhaps Kruzich is playing chess (also a Russian fave) The long game here may be to slowly choke the Russian people to death on American-infiltrated cholesterol, until, gasping with strokes and heart attacks, they realize that you just. don’t. mess. with the U.S.

    Well played young diplomat, well played.




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    Russians Understand the Hypocrisy State Department Denies

    March 20, 2012 // Comments Off on Russians Understand the Hypocrisy State Department Denies

    The article below appeared on a Russian news site. It shows the Russians, after years of autocratic governments, and after years of watching the US plead for their rights when it was politically beneficial for the US to do, understand the hypocrisy of our State Department.

    While blathering about how other governments should not stifle dissent, State claims that its “regulations” do not permit writing, speaking or blogging in a free society without the Government’s permission. The State Department can talk itself into believing there is no hypocrisy in that, but the rest of the world understands what is really going on.

    The American media, always ready to stand behind Russian whistleblowers, shows remarkably little interest in whistleblowers operating closer to home. There is a good example for that in the case of Peter Van Buren, a State Department officer, who recently received a termination notice from his employer. Obviously, the foreign service is not unhappy about Van Buren’s language skills (he speaks four languages) or lack of experience (in his 24 years of service he had been posted to a dozen of countries, including Iraq). The reason is Van Buren’s book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.

    To a Russian, this title sounds familiar, since it reminds us of the immortal formula coined by Russia’s former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin for bungled government action: “We always mean well, but we invariably do it the usual way.”

    One could easily imagine how the American correspondents in Moscow would pounce on a similar author from some government service in Russia after the news of his receiving a termination letter. But when the “Terminator” is Mrs. Clinton, there is surprisingly little fascination about the case.

    And this is certainly an undeserved lack of attention, since Van Buren’s story has all the elements of a whistleblower drama (or shall we call it a “human rights thriller”?) Here we have the State Department’s bureaucrats moving to fire Mr. Van Buren on 8 charges such as linking his blog to the WikiLeaks site (what about access to information acts?); disclosing classified information (as if the results of George W. Bush’s action in Iraq are a secret to anyone); and publishing an unauthorized blog (what about freedom of speech?)

    The most interesting accusation, although, is the one of “bad judgment” which consisted in Mr. Van Buren’s criticism of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and some of his blogged remarks on the then-presidential candidate Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R.-Minn.). The “coup de grace” on top of it all was Van Buren’s failure to clear each blog posting with his bosses. (Never read the stories about “tight-lipped officials” in other countries, such as Russia? But even the Soviet bureaucrats did not have to “clear” their letters with their superiors.)

    So, what was so bad about Mr. Van Buren’s “judgment”? In his blog, he almost never uses previously unpublished materials, most of the space is filled with comments on the recent killing of 16 civilians by a US soldier, on failures of the American economic aid to Iraq, on the generally flawed character of American “nation building” in Moslem countries.

    “Quite obviously, the State Department is prosecuting me for exercising the right to freedom of opinion and expression. No, not really: they say they’d love for me to write stuff they don’t agree with, all I need is to ask their permission first,” Van Buren writes sarcastically in his blog.

    One cannot find any personal calumnies against Mrs. Clinton on Van Buren’s blog, there is just some pretty sound judgment on the “American empire” and its future. Here is a typical quote:

    “America faced a choice and blew it. As an empire, we either needed to take control of the world’s oil or create a more equitable and less martial global society to ensure our access to it. We did neither. We needed either to create a colonial system for adventures like Iraq or Afghanistan along the Victorian model, or to not invade and rebuild those places. We did neither. Simply pouring more and more lives and money into the military is a one-way street going in the wrong direction. We can keep spending, but when the millions of dollars spent on weapons can be deflected by acts of terrorism that cost almost nothing, we will lose.”

    Is it “bad judgment?” A lot of people, having read the stories about the “postwar” (or is it wartime?) reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan would argue that this judgment actually hits the spot. New York Times

    But, obviously, such a judgment would not get a “clearance” from the State Department’s officials. So, who is making a “bad judgment” in this case?



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