March 10, 2017
Forget Liberalism, Let’s Redefine Conservatism
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
10 March 2017
What is it about the US that makes it virtually the only country in the world where a political Left scarcely exists? We have a center Right—the Democratic Party. And we have a far Right—the Republican Party. In fact, just invoking the L-word “Liberal” can inflict quick political death.
Yes, we’re safe from the Left here in America.
Having such a stunted political spectrum is bad enough in itself. Still worse is the utter corruption of the word conservative. US society has allowed the Republican Party to hijack the word, distort it and redefine it to its own ends, against its real meaning.
Isn’t it time for progressives to stop bashing their heads against the “liberalism”wall? Even the Democratic Party machine itself has barred the gates against progressive Democratic candidates.
At this point, we need a rethink. Wouldn’t it make more sense simply to yield up the term Liberal to all its many enemies? Put it in the cold freeze? In a doggedly right-of-center country, it might instead be smarter to seize back the term conservatism out of Republican hands, re-own it, and restore it to its true meaning.
Conservatism has a venerable history. The very word says a lot. It seeks to preserve and conserve fundamental human institutions, values, and lives in a precarious world.
Such as, for example, conserving the planet we live on, its forests, its water, its creatures, its bounty. It’s our only home. In fact, preserving and conserving the earth really is the ultimate conservative agenda. We have been given a stewardship over this unique and precious blue orb in the cosmos upon which all life depends.
Indeed, it’s the Republicans who are False Conservatives. They place the interests of the corporate world, profit and the welfare of a minority above all else. Their agenda is clear: generating ever more corporate business, clearing more land for “development,” installing more robots to make production more efficient—this is a conservative agenda? Actually it sounds like a very aggressive revolutionary approach to reshaping our entire earthly domicile in economic terms. It risks all in the name of production and profit. What true conservative could buy into that?
What of the preservation of life? Wouldn’t prioritizing the preservation of human life over death represent a true conservative agenda as well? How much good does war do for people actually living it on the ground? Nobody is saying that one should never fight in true self-defense, but in the end, it’s hard to make the case that war has done a lot of good for mosthuman beings involved.
Might one even say that almost any peace that spares human lives is better than almost any war? Might not that be a conservative value? In the US we’re used to thinking about fighting wars over there. We are spared the need to conceive of war at home. So who among us actually ends up better off as a result of war? Our families? Our streets, our infrastructure, our loyalties, our institutions, our civilities, in the violence and anarchy of war? Yet our nation has been at almost non-stop war since the collapse of the USSR—following “conservative” values.
Republicans tend to believe that war is heroic, glorious, “our finest fighting men,” pride of the nation, anything to keep our nation safe, huge budget expenditures at the cost of almost everything else. Here’s what founding father James Madison had to say about it:
Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes … known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
So is it a “conservative value” to arm the nation to the teeth and lead the world in arms sales to others?
“Conservatives”want to “protect freedom” by advocating the greatest and most intrusive national security surveillance state in history?
When it comes to “national security,” how much do our own communities genuinely benefit from US military encirclement of China and Russia—an incredibly costly, provocative, never-ending undertaking that gins up increased international tensions? For that matter, would the US ever tolerate for one second efforts by Russia or China to “encircle the US” militarily? Is it “”conservative”” to “go abroad to seek monsters to slay,”” as John Quincy Adams warned?
And what of the civilian sciences and exploration of space? NASA and non-military scientific research have grown impoverished. Education, surely a prime conservative value, languishes underfunded.
And then there’s the economy. Republicans generally believe that the number one policy goal of the nation is first and foremost the health of the economy—read the health of our corporations. President Calvin Coolidge before the Great Depression famously said, “The chief business of the American people is business.” Republicans have ever since managed to persuade faux Democrats to adopt this position. (Remember Bill Clinton—it’s the economy stupid!) But prioritizing the health of the economy gets the priorities wrong: for a genuine conservative the first priority is the health and welfare of our communities and our people.
Now, there is undeniably a relationship between the health of the economy and the general welfare, but they are not one and the same thing at all. Human welfare must be the end goal; a healthy economy, however interpreted, represents the means and says nothing of equitable distribution.) This is another issue that should be denied to the False Conservativism of the Republicans.
Preserving our communities should be among the highest conservative priorities.
But it’s going to be increasingly hard to preserve jobs at home. Robotics above all is seeing to that. And it is more efficient to ship most jobs off to China, Vietnam or Bangladesh. That’s why many creative western thinkers are now seriously examining the concept of a guaranteed national income for all. Once a wildly radical idea maybe, but it’s time is coming. Because capitalism by definition sends jobs to where they can be most cheaply performed—and it’s not in the USA. Sending jobs abroad is not “conservatism.” Keeping people alive, healthy, and engaged —not alienated or resentful—is the most important social task we face.
Remember, that while capitalism is a powerful productive engine it has no direct interest in community welfare. It’s not that capitalism is immoral, it’s just outside capitalism’s functional purview. Capitalism by definition is about maximizing profit; that’s what capitalism does. Yet today most Republicans now enshrine free market capitalism as the Holy Grail over the welfare of the community. They don’t worry about poverty and domestic despair. Or even the need to spread profits if society is to function.
Nor is efficiency a prime conservative value. Human welfare is. If we pay a dollar cents more for a loaf of bread that is largely locally produced, don’t we all gain in the community? France, for example, has always sought to keep some elements of small-scale domestic agriculture alive rather than yielding it all to agro-business. They perceive some absolute social good in preserving this way of life, even if it raises costs. Japan does the same thing on growing (expensive) domestic rice that most Japanese support on social grounds. It’s kind of a tax for local benefit and welfare, to conserve the community. Yes, the benefits of globalization can be real, but they need to be viewed in terms of the welfare of all, and not as an absolute ideological good. What good is a cheaper i-Phone when the rest of our standards of human welfare are dropping?
But where do our budget priorities now lie with most members of both parties in the US? Cutting taxes. Yet what of the huge tax levied upon our families by a US defense budget that is greater than the next seven most powerful nations put together? And going up. Have we become safer in a more stable world as a result?
Healthy communities also reflect a pride and exercise of artistic accomplishment. Is it conservative to dismiss cultural resources such as Public Broadcasting or National endowment for the Arts as economically without value? Or local arts? Do you think the French or the Russians or Canadians don’t place high community and national value on preservation of their national arts—which is unprofitable from a business perspective but central to national pride and cohesiveness?
And what of privatization of public lands? How do Republicans get away with calling that “conservative?” Doesn’t “public” mean for the community? Is there is no longer such a thing as the “public good?”
So let’s maybe give up the “L-word” as a hopeless cause and instead work to restore the real meaning of what conservatism should be. This has been the colossal hoax the Republican Party (and some faux Democrats) have perpetrated upon this nation—utterly twisting and redefining conservatism to their own ends. We must take the word back. It is unconscionable—and incomprehensible— that conservatism today has come to stand for profit, the welfare of the military-security-industrial complex, and the massive corruption of our political order through their “political contributions.” Or that Republicanism should celebrate conservatism by throwing away social safety nets and sowing religious and ethnic fears.
And in the end there just might be some gain for the embattled progressive community in reclaiming the word: it could do better at the polls.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com
February 20, 2017
Trump is Right on Palestine: Beyond the “Two-State Solution”
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
20 February 2017
Just because Trump said it doesn’t mean it has to be wrong.
During the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to Washington, President Trump publicly stated he is not necessarily wedded to a “two-state solution” in Palestine. He is the first US president to commit the heresy of questioning that sacred article of faith in US Middle East policy. Indeed, a serious rethink is long overdue in recognizing the bankruptcy—indeed the cruel cynicism—of the defunct two-state scheme.
Many honorable people have dedicated the bulk of their professional lives to the tedious minutiae and sad diplomatic history of the Palestinian-Israeli morass. Sadly, none of those efforts have brought any resolution whatsoever to a gangrenous issue—in many respects the granddaddy of so many of the Middle East’s contemporary ills.
Trouble is, apart from a few dedicated diplomats and scholars who had hopes of one day truly accomplishing something, the two-state solution in practice is by now revealed as essentially a fraud. Yes, a few wiser Israeli leaders in the past just possibly might have believed in that ideal, but for decades now the “two-state scheme” has simply been cynically exploited by newer Israeli leaders, especially by Bibi Netanyahu—the long-serving and most right-wing Prime Minister in Israel’s history. Netanyahu has been backed by a formidable and wealthy pro-Zionist cheering section in the US. The goal is to conceal their true agenda—the ultimate Israeli annexation of all of Palestine. They themselves have been subtly but systematically torpedoing the “two-state solution” behind the scenes to that end.
None of my observations here on the hoax of the two-state solution are new or original. Many liberal Israeli observers have been stating the self-evident for years now. But those voices never get heard in the US where it constitutes an unmentionable. But there should be no doubt: the concept of a “two-state solution”—a Palestinian and an Israeli state sharing historical Palestine and living side by side in sovereignty and dignity—is dead. It is almost inconceivable that it can now ever be resuscitated: nearly all the operative forces within Israel are systematically working to prevent it from ever coming about.
The harsh reality is that Israel, through a relentless process of “creating facts on the ground,” is now decades deep into the process of taking over illegally, step-by-step, the totality of Palestine. Israel has scant regard for any international law in this respect, and never has had. Washington, apart from a few periodic pathetic bleats, has ended up functionally supporting this cynical scheme all the way, perhaps unwilling to confront the painful reality of what is really taking place, along with its dangerous political repercussions at home.
Israel is extending day-by-day its control—indeed ownership—of Palestinian lands through expansion of illegal Jewish settlements and the dispossession of the rightful owners of these Palestinian lands. Put simply, there is little left of Palestinian land out of which ever to fashion a “two-state solution.”
That leaves us with only one alternative: the “one-state solution.” Indeed, Israel’s actions have already created the preconditions that make the “one-state solution” an unacknowledged but virtual fait accompli.
Honest observers know full well that the mantra of preserving “the peace process” for the two-state solution is now little more than a cover for full Israeli annexation of Palestinian lands. The sooner we all acknowledge this ugly reality, the better. That will then require Israel, the Palestinians, and the world to get on with dealing with the complex challenge of crafting the bi-national state—the one-state solution.
The calculations of the hard-line Zionists—who are now largely in control of Israeli state mechanisms— are unyielding. 1) Israel should functionally take over all of Palestinian territory and permit full Jewish settlement therein. 2) Israel should still play the “two-state solution” game with visiting foreign diplomats to reduce pressure on Israel, to play for time while it quietly establishes the irreversible facts on the ground that shut out any possible viable Palestinian state. 3) Make life harsh enough for Palestinians that, bit by bit, they will grow bitter and weary, give up and go elsewhere, leaving all the land for Zionist settlers. 4) If Palestinians “stubbornly” resist, predictable periodic military and security crises in Palestine over the longer run will enable Israel to rid Palestine of all Palestinians—a gradual process of ethnic cleansing that returns all the land promised by God to the Jews.
Some liberal Israelis actually do accept the idea of a “one-state solution” in their own liberal vision of a future Israel—one in which Israelis and Palestinians live as equal citizens in a secular, democratic, binational, multi-cultural state enjoying equal rights, rather than the increasingly religiously dominated state that it is. And the liberal ideal makes sense: the country is already well on the way to becoming bi-lingual—and Hebrew and Arabic are closely-related languages. Both are Semitic peoples with ancient ties to the same land.
The problem is, ardent Zionists don’t want a binational Palestinian-Jewish state. They want a “Jewish state” and demand that the world accept that term. Yet, in today’s world isn’t the term “Jewish state” strikingly discordant? Who speaks of an “English” or “French” state? The world would freak out if tomorrow Berlin started calling itself “the German State.” Or Spain a “Christian state.” So what do we make of a state that is dedicated solely to Jews and Judaism? Such concepts are remnants of nineteenth century movements that promoted the creation of ethnically and/or religiously pure states. Indeed it was precisely that kind of ugly religious and ethnic nationalism that caused Jews to flee from Eastern Europe in the first place to find their own homeland.
The true historical task of Israel, with the support of the world, is now to begin the challenging work of introducing the range of major reforms that will transform Israel into just such a multi-ethnic and bi-lingual state of equal citizens enjoying equal rights under secular law. It is not a question of “allowing Palestinians” into Israel, they are already there and have been for millennia, in far greater numbers than Jews. Palestinians now seek full legal equality of treatment under secular law in Israel.
So let’s acknowledge the useful truth that Trump has blundered onto. Let’s abandon the naive and cynical rhetoric about the “two-state solution” that will never come about—in any just and acceptable form. Half of Israel never believed in it in the first place. It has served only as a cover for building an apartheid Jewish state—a term used frequently by liberal Israeli commentators.
Netanyahu and the right-wing Zionists clearly want all of Palestine. But they’re not ready yet to admit it. They want all the land, but without any of its people. But despite Zionist hopes, the Palestinians aren’t going to abandon their lands. And so the logical outcome of Israel’s take-over all of Palestine leads by definition to an ultimate single binational state.
The challenge to Israelis and Palestinians is huge. It entails a deep Palestinian rethink of their options and their future destiny in a new order, and the need to fight for those democratic rights in a binational state. It involves Israeli evolution away from “God-given rights” in a state solely for Jews and Judaism that can only be forever oppressive and undemocratic as it now stands. The process will be a slow and difficult one. But it also represents an evolution consonant with emerging contemporary global values.
We expect a democratic multi-cultural state from Germany and France, or from Britain, Canada and the United States— why not from Israel?
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com
January 20, 2017
Graham E. Fuller (firstname.lastname@example.org)
20 January 2017
With the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, it’s hard to know where first to focus attention.
Rage and righteous indignation on all sides are mounting. There is more than enough blame to go around for how the US got itself into this situation. Where it will all go from here is beyond the imagination of the most lurid screenwriters of White House dramas.
Whatever the outrage du jour may be, we must not forget that history didn’t begin with the 2015-2016 presidential campaign/circus. To believe that is analytically lazy, an easy cop-out, even self-serving. Major elements of these deep domestic pathologies trace back at a minimum to America’s fateful actions from the very beginning of this disastrous American twenty-first century.
It was in 2000 that the Supreme Court, in an act of sheer partisanship, threw the contested Florida election to George W. Bush. This “decision” did two things: it demonstrated that the politicization of the Supreme Court had now touched the very pinnacle of the US political order. The Court’s reputation would never recover from the event. Second, it enraged many democrats who felt that the election had been stolen from Al Gore, thereby tainting the presidency of George W. Bush from the outset. Bush’s incompetence, ignorance, and domination by dark neocon forces led us into a series of desperate wars in the Middle East that shaped the region down to this day—the Global War on Terror, the collapse of Iraq, Libya, Yemen, an Afghanistan on the ropes, the creation of ISIS on the smoking ruins of Iraq’s civil struggle and to the beginning of the Syrian agony whose impact has massively shaken even Europe, and pushed the nature of US-Russian relations towards resuscitation of the Cold War.
Unlike other nations that have undergone terrorist cataclysms but succeeded in rising above it, the United States never survived the psychological shock of 9/11. It is still living with it. US obsession with domestic security— in one of the world’s safer environments— even invented a new, Teutonic-sounding word “Homeland” to celebrate the birth of the security state; it also raised the corrosive specter of the “Muslim Other” in our midst.
It was this event that spurred Washington to massively expand the size and number of existing security and intelligence organizations, and create vast multiple layers of new ones. We see how they now compete and stumble around against each other; their very unmanageable size has arguably contributed to an overall deterioration in the quality of US intelligence. A sober grip on the trajectories of world forces seems quite beyond Washington’s ken.
Whatever Donald Trump may think about the CIA—and how legitimate any of his perceptions may or may not be— his dissatisfaction is not entirely out of place; it would be prudent for him to undertake a close, zero-based review of the entire massive and redundant national security structure. More is not better; bigger is not better. The national security structure would be leaner, meaner, and more efficient were it immediately slashed by 50% at the outset. All organizations work hard to preserve their individual corporate fiefdoms; when does a bureaucracy voluntarily ever downsize? Better intelligence is no longer even the real dynamic at work; institutional self-preservation is.
The militarization of American foreign policy grew special wings under the Global War on Terror. It is little wonder that so many of the key senior positions in the Trump cabinet and the White House are now being filled by military men: National Security adviser, CIA chief, Director of National Intelligence, the NSA, the Secretary of Defense, etc. We narrowly missed a military secretary of state. This is not to say that the military cannot produce significant competence at the top, but again the problem with the miitary—and a military budget that surpasses most of the rest of the world combined—has led to securitization and militarization of foreign policy. Defense trumps State every time. Global threats expand to meet and justify the military budget; military solutions become default approaches to world issues. Where would we be without our threats?
The new national security state has promoted the most dangerous security idea of all—the idea that international security is a zero-sum game; that among great powers everything takes on the character of a win-lose confrontation. Our think tanks earnestly scour the globe for “coming threats.” (I know, I’ve written many of them in my day.) We cannot contemplate such a thing as a win-win relationship among great powers. Of course the massive resources consumed by the US military (think of the staggering lost opportunity costs) are powerfully backed by the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower presciently warned us about half a century ago.
Now, coming to today’s real third-rail topic: Russia. The obsessive—virtually hysterical—narrative of Russia in US domestic politics today is not really about a true threat to the national security. Russia hasn’t done anything that we don’t routinely do to ourselves (and others). Hacking abounds, it is the new growth industry. “Blame Russia” instead is a convenient joint project for several unexpected bed-fellows: Clinton democrats, embittered by Hillary’s defeat, seeking a scapegoat; democrats who may detest Trump for quite understandable reasons, and seek to fully delegitimize his presidency at any cost and to refuse any constructive cooperation. What better device than to label him a Russian agent. End of discussion. In addition we have the military-industrial-security complex viscerally opposed to any kind of rapprochement with Moscow or talks with Putin; it’s simply bad for business. By all means investigate the Russians. But that is not basically why our nation is in a fix.
We are talking of sacred cows here. NATO is perceived as a God-given good in itself. Yet there are plenty of good, rational reasons for rethinking the place of NATO in the world. Try the views of the seasoned, beady-eyed conservative geopolitician George Friedman who does exactly that. http://us11.campaign-archive1.com/?u=781d962e0d3dfabcf455f7eff&id=27e61a3626&e=4fbaa66e69 Or my more critical blog of last July: http://grahamefuller.com/nato-versus-the-eu/
It constitutes neither treason nor ignorance to reconsider these foundations of our future place in a world that no longer resembles that of NATO’s founding. And of course by now NATO has its own priority of deeply-rooted institutional self-preservation at any cost, through promotion of ranges of new missions designed expressly to preserve its role. Serious debate with Europe about what NATO should and should not be is urgently due, but any such rational debate is not to be found in Washington, on this or so many other global strategy issues.
And finally, however emotionally satisfying, where does legitimization of the president take us? Rejection of the (highly flawed) electoral system entirely? Good luck at changing it. And who has the right to determine “legitimacy”? Our partisan Supreme Court? Determined citizens? This all represents exceptionally dangerous ground indeed. We’ve been this delegitimization route now against George W. Bush and Barack Obama (for differing reasons), and now Trump. It gets uglier with each iteration, but also exceedingly more dangerous to the nation as more and more people join the ranks of “he’s not my president.”
Draining the Swamp?
Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington had some allure during the primaries. The swamp goes back decades. Yet very little draining has yet taken place; instead we have a celebration of plutocracy in power as never before. Money in politics has simply moved yet one further step up the rung, now foreshadowing a permanent future American corporatist governing structure. This deep, corrosive, bald presence of money in politics has grown by leaps and bounds in this century; no need to go to election 2016 to start bemoaning it. It is self-deception if we let the coarseness of the Trump image lead us away from the thought that it has ever been much different. And the 90% left behind this time will be the chief victims of oppression, poor health, prejudice, discrimination.
The US does not even seem capable of governing itself at this point, and the fault lines are sharpening. The specter of domestic political violence can hardly be excluded in this swirl of personalized politics of black hats and white hats. There is no debate, only vituperation, slander, vilification and demonization.
Drastic failures in US foreign policies going back at least to 2000 have raised ongoing serious doubts in the eyes of the world about US “leadership.” More and more countries, friends and rivals, are moving into damage limitation mode in dealing with us; their main task is to prevent the US from dragging the rest of the world into dangerous confrontation.
Like so many others, I too am deeply disturbed at Trump’s style, manner, impulses, psychology, and policy preferences. Worse perhaps are their translation into dismaying top personnel choices. Trump himself may not be an ideolog but his appointments mostly are.
But don’t let the grossness of the immediate Trump symbol lead us to overlook the degree to which most of this goes back many many years, and we all had a hand in it in one way or another.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com
December 19, 2016
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
19 December 2016
I cannot recall a period in which the US public debate across the media has reached such implacably partisan and toxic proportions. The issues are indeed important—particularly the specific case of Russian involvement in helping make public the activities of the Democratic National Committee—information that was strongly unfavorable to the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton. It is imperative that such Russian actions be thoroughly investigated and aired publicly by responsible authority as soon as possible. To date such information has not been forthcoming.
Worse, however, is that such information war—while venerable in the history of intelligence organizations—now has achieved greater clout with the advent of electronic media and internet. As a former CIA operations officer I can well remember routinely helping promote anti-Soviet material, usually veering towards disinformation or “false news,” to be played in various overseas media to weaken the Soviet image and position. The Soviets were spreading similar disinformation about the US.
But a traditional game is getting ever more dangerous now, and new rules of the road have yet to be written. Broad investigation of the doings of Russia, China, and indeed the US itself needs to be aired as a foundation for reaching some potential agreement on what states may or may not do in interfering in whatever way in foreign affairs and elections. Indeed, as the article I reproduce below points out, “legal” efforts by foreign countries to tilt American elections have been in place for a long time, including from foreign “friends.”
But it’s not like Russia can simply throw stuff out on the table and the damage is done. We also need to perceive the diverse agendas at work here, the co-actors in the heated rhetoric issuing from among various US groups on the Russian issue. First, harping on the Russian role in publicizing the backroom activities of the DNC is designed to distract attention from the actual content of that DNC activity which aimed (successfully) at denigrating and weakening the candidacy of Bernie Sanders; all of that now conveniently shoved under the rug. Yet it mattered heavily to our democracy.
Second, it represents a drive to delegitimize the victory of Donal Trump. Now Trump is a figure about whose presidency I feel the deepest forebodings. But delegitimization of now-elected officials is in the longer run even more unhealthy to the political health of the Republic, yet it seems now to be part of the new US politics since Obama took office. Opposition yes, delegitimization no.
Third, the Russian theme represents from the conservative and neocon side a desire to undercut any effort by Trump to improve relations with Russia; the anti-Putin cabal is deeply tied into the roots of the Cold War. An improvement of relations with Russia is furthermore very bad news for the military industrial complex and all its outlying organizations and consultants in and out of government. Any improvement of relations with Russia also undercuts those who still yearn for “US leadership” against global enemies—with Russia and China at the top of the list. These are the people who view international relations as a zero-sum game; whatever benefits China or Russia is automatically and by definition a setback for the US. Everything is win-lose, never a possible win-win game.
At this point I am delighted to turn over the rest of this blog to offer a highly balanced and insightful commentary on all these issues by Ambassador Robert E. Hunter. Hunter says it as well or better than I could; his piece is required reading in the midst of so much herd mentality in the national press. Hunter offers a wise and sober commentary on the toxic state of politics in Washington today. He also reminds us of many of the core realities of international relations that we often forget. Equally importantly, he writes as a solidly establishment figure in US foreign affairs and defense circles: Robert E. Hunter is a former senior National Security Council official and was US Ambassador to NATO in the Bill Clinton administration.
Rex Tillerson and the Russian Problem
by Robert E. Hunter
Lobelog, December 16, 2016
Washington, DC, our nation’s capital and the center of governmental angst in fair times and foul, is going through its most profound trauma in years, a collective PTSD. For most of Washington’s political class, even on the Republican side of the aisle that divides the city, “this wasn’t supposed to happen.” Hillary Clinton was to be president and Donald Trump an also-ran, a showman who provided entertainment, though all-too-often holding up a mirror to the foibles and hypocrisies of those who do politics for a living.
But here we are.
At least three major institutions have been given an unprecedented shaking: the pollsters, who believe that their computer-driven Ouija boards can be dignified by a formal name–psephology; the Main Stream Media that (with few exceptions) worked assiduously to defeat Donald Trump, after first having raked in the big bucks by promoting him when they thought he was just a second-rate Elmer Gantry; and the foreign policy establishment, most of whose members will now be excluded from power and influence, deprived of their God-given right to set the nation’s agenda abroad and determine its directions.
The turmoil in these three institutions (and there are others) is so profound that more than a month after the election provided a definitive outcome–by the rule-book that every political animal knows by heart and follows assiduously, even when believing that the Electoral College “are an ass”–efforts are still underway to reverse November 8’s outcome. A truly minor candidate asked for and got recounts in three key Trump states–Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania–which, if Mrs. Clinton were judged the victor in all three, would have made her president. This maneuver came up empty.
The latest ploy is an effort by several Electors to ask that they play their constitutional role as actual deliberators. Striking, however, is that all but one of the many signatories to this plea come from states that Hillary Clinton won. But to be relevant, at least 37 additional Electors from states that Trump carried would have to play this game. In the few days left before they meet in their respective state capitals on December 19, there is little prospect of that, nor of postponing the legally-mandated date for this, the actual election of the President of the United States. And even if the Electoral College denied Trump the needed 270 votes, by the Constitution’s 20th Amendment, with one-vote-per-state-delegation where Republicans have a clear majority, Trump would still win.
Russia and the Election
Each of these points is worth a major article or even a book. But here I will confine myself to the state of play as it relates to foreign policy and national security. There are two primary but interlocking activities underway: one is to reduce the legitimacy of Trump’s victory, perhaps hoping that this will make him more responsive to views of the Disappointed and Dispossessed after he becomes president; the other is to reduce his latitude for action in at least one major area of foreign policy.
The focus of these efforts can be summarized in one word: Russia. For months, there have been reports, some even endorsed by leaders of the U.S. Intelligence Community, first, that Russia has been trying to show that American democracy is corrupt and not worthy of emulation; and, second, that Moscow has been using advanced cyber tools both to sow confusion in America and actually to sway votes. The clear implication is that Trump won the 2016 presidential election because Russia’s Vladimir Putin interfered, directly and indirectly, in the U.S. electoral process. He was, in this view, violating unwritten rules of how major states are supposed to conduct their struggles for power and influence (latter-day Marquis of Queensbury Rules, which were indeed devised and largely followed during the Cold War, when the consequences of not doing so could have been a nuclear conflict).
Make no mistake: this matter is serious. At the extreme, it could even produce a U.S. constitutional crisis without precedent. It turns on the presumption that the Russian impact on the U.S. electoral process was large enough in key swing states to determine the outcome (or at least to leave the validity of the outcome in doubt.) Maybe so, but highly doubtful. Yet the idea has attained widespread currency, including White House allegations of Mr. Putin’s direct engagement. The full case has been laid out in a five-page article, beginning in the middle of Page One, in the December 14 New York Times. Its bottom line is summarized as follows:
Did he [Putin] seek to mar the brand of American democracy, to forestall anti-Russian activism for both Russians and their neighbors? Or to weaken the next American president, since presumably Mr. Putin had no reason to doubt American forecasts that Mrs. Clinton would win easily? Or was it, as the C.I.A. concluded last month, a deliberate attempt to elect Mr. Trump?
In fact, the Russian hack-and-dox scheme accomplished all three goals. [Emphasis added]
It would be difficult to be more definitive than that!
Certainly, given the seriousness of the charges, Congressional hearings (endorsed by leaders of both political parties) are appropriate, as is President Barack Obama’s call for a root-and branch investigation. The key question is why he took so long to act, and why he is asking for a report only before he leaves office (January 20), instead of for some dispositive indicators much earlier–say, before the Electoral College meets in a few days’ time.
“They All Do It”
Anyone with experience in international politics or historical knowledge knows that interfering in other countries’ politics and even elections is SOP–standard operating procedure. Others regularly do it to us: legally through their embassies, tolerated through K Street lobbyists they employ to the tune of millions of dollars, and also through their expatriates or others who convince themselves that the interests of foreign government X are also in the best interests of the United States. In the early 20th century, Americans of Irish and Italian descent used to be masters of this game. In the 1930s, until discredited by Adolf Hitler’s actions, many German-Americans joined the German American Bund, which tried to keep the United States out of the Second World War. American citizens, misled by foreign propaganda and arguments that the United States had “lost China,” revered Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek and kept the United States from normalizing relations with the People’s Republic of China from 1949 until “Nixon’s visit to China” in 1971. And the Israel lobby actively seeks to influence U.S. Middle East policy. This was evidenced most clearly by congressional cheering for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a joint session of Congress, when, in speaking of Iran’s nuclear program, he asked its members to trust his judgment rather than that of the U.S. president.
At the same time, the United States has regularly interfered in the politics and elections of other states, notably during the Cold War, and it still does now. People in both political parties argue that it is in a “good cause” or at least in a “necessary cause.” Perhaps at times they are right. The New York Times exposé, cited above, elides over one event, when it scolds Russia for “outing” a phone call between the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, as they were trying to affect the outcome of Ukraine’s political struggle. According to the Times: “Ms. [Victoria] Nuland [the assistant secretary] was heard describing a little-known American effort to broker a deal in Ukraine, then in political turmoil.” In this case, “broker a deal” is a euphemism for “promote a coup d’état.” Maybe that was the right course (though I do not agree), and it certainly did not justify the Russian military intervention in Ukraine that followed; but it was not as though we were the impeccable “good guys,” just trying to promote democracy, to Putin’s demonstrable “bad guy.”
The Tillerson Nomination and Russia
Now, from the wings, enters Mr. Trump’s nominee to be Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil. With all the media coverage, it is not necessary here to recount all the potential problems there might be with this choice in the one place that matters, legally if not politically: the U.S. Senate. Suffice it to recall that Mr. Tillerson’s company has massive business dealings in the Russian Federation, some of which he negotiated personally, that he is on record as having opposed sanctions imposed when Mr. Putin seized Crimea, and that he has had a long-standing relationship with the Russian president. This includes his having received a decoration, though not one on a par with the old Soviet honor of “Hero of the Soviet Union.”
Mr. Tillerson’s activities in industry are thus sufficient to raise questions about whether he would be an effective steward of American interests rather than being compromised, in fact as opposed to perception–the Caesar’s Wife of political combat, even when invoked by people whose own “skirts are not clean.” Perhaps he would be so inclined as Secretary of State, but given his experience and reputation, it is hard for an outsider like me (who has never met him) to conclude that he would sell out U.S. interests because of a supposed “friendship” with Putin or a mess of pottage for ExxonMobil. Mr. Tillerson has certainly displayed none of the traits of deep ideological bias that mark another of Mr. Trump’s senior national security selections, LTG Michael Flynn, who, while reportedly inclined to support a new approach in U.S. dealings with Russia, has repeatedly made statements and written a book about Iran and Islam that raise profound doubts about his fitness to be National Security Advisor.
Further, Mr. Tillerson’s nomination elides into the other question that is most pertinent, now: the allegations of Russian meddling in our election campaign, whether accurately portrayed or inflated in their impact (which can never be truly assessed). At one level, Mr. Tillerson is a stand-in for Mr. Trump, who has spoken so often of wanting to create a more positive relationship with Russia and Mr. Putin. What that would in fact mean is anyone’s guess–most likely Trump himself does not yet know. There is some risk that, in seeking both to “reach a deal” and to be different (and more effective) that President Obama, President Trump might compromise objectively-important interests–both America’s and others’. But it is easier for opponents of any change in U.S. policy toward Russia to challenge a nominee for a cabinet post than to take on the president, while sending the same “message.”
This debate comes at a difficult time in relations between the United States, along with several European states, and the Russian Federation, where “difficult” is defined not just in terms of some profound differences of interest and the facts of Russian aggression in Ukraine and intimidation of other European countries. “Difficult” also means that in both Russia and the United States there has been a steady rise of attitudes that are redolent of the Cold War. People in both countries who should know better have been invoking the existence and even potential role of nuclear weapons; Russia has characterized NATO as its enemy; and some top U.S. military leaders have argued that Russia is an “existential threat” to the United States–a view, given that “existential” means “ready and perhaps willing to destroy us,” that is both absurd and as dangerous as some rhetoric by Russia.
The wheel thus comes full circle: allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. election campaign become a tool to limit, if not cripple, President Trump’s attempts to change the downward course of U.S. and Western relations with Russia. Of course, what calculations Putin is making are unknowable, but we do know one thing: he is playing a weak hand. Russia is not the Soviet Union. Its economy was struggling even before imposition of sanctions. Its principal source of wealth and export earnings, hydrocarbons, is not worth what it was even a couple of years ago, and oil is unlikely, at least anytime soon, again to reach $100 or more a barrel. The Russian population is aging and, while its decline in numbers may have been arrested, the population is certainly not growing significantly. The Russian Federation is also socially fractured. Notably, Russia has one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, a major part of which is disaffected from ethnic Russian domination. Thus, it is no wonder that Moscow has cooperated with the United States in Afghanistan and regarding the nuclear deal with Iran.
Unfortunately for Rex Tillerson, these factors will come together in his Senate confirmation hearings and will distract from due consideration whether he is qualified to do the job in terms that are truly relevant. His task before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will not be easy, given that so much extraneous material–he surely had nothing to do with Russian hacking–will be introduced. His background will work against him, both as portrayed by much of the main stream media, which already have him in their sights, and among any senators who choose to grandstand. But if because of Russian matters he is defeated for confirmation or must ask that his nomination be withdrawn, the implications will go far beyond the issues being debated. The new U.S. president could find himself crippled in trying to work out the kind of relationship with Russia that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry would have liked to achieve but could not–in major part because of Russian behavior, but also because of hardening attitudes here, including old Cold War overtones, that exist far more in the foreign policy establishment than in the country at large.
If that is what happens, we in the United States stand to be big-time losers.
December 12, 2016
The Never-Ending Extravaganza
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
12 December 2012
It had been an exhausting, interminable 18-20 months of presidential campaigning during which much of the business of thoughtful American governance had to yield space to the riveting follies of politics. Yet most other countries in the world, not locked into dictators or kings for life, conduct their elections far more briskly and get on with business. Canada with its parliamentary system extended its last federal election campaign to eleven weeks; many were angered that the campaign had been extended even that far beyond the more traditional seven or eight weeks it takes to hold a federal election.
One might have hoped too, that whatever the electoral cost and fatigue had been in the US, the process would at least eventually distill it all down to the finest of candidates, tempered and honed in the exhausting demands of the campaign, to now represent America’s best.
Instead we got what was demonstrably far from America’s finest—two candidates competing for the honor of who was hated the least. Election night left almost no one truly inspired, enriched or empowered by the outcome.
One might also have expected that by now, hallelujah, it would at least be all over, leaving nothing but a few sober post-mortem analyses of events. But even here the agony is exquisitely drawn out in a two month interregnum, closer to purgatory, between the election and the inauguration. The campaign indeed now seems far from over as we enter a new, extended, and possibly uglier period of speculation and spectacle in the parade of contestants now modeling for high office. Here again this interregnum seems unduly prolonged and messy compared to a parliamentary system where a back bench opposition steps in ready to take over within days after election results are in.
Indeed, the circus now shifts to the very nature of the electoral college system itself, exciting partisan passions further as to who the “legitimate” victor is. The challenging of the very legitimacy of winners seems now to have become part of the system—most vividly begun with George W Bush’s appointment as president by the Supreme Court in 2000, followed eight years later with significant parts of the nation questioning Obama’s legitimacy—even his very citizenship.
Conspiracy theories (and yes, in theory conspiracies can exist) continue to flow about what might have been, including whether the FBI had intervened improperly and deliberately to swing the election to Trump. And now it is all eyes on Russia.
The handwriting is on the wall. The specter of Russia has likely now become a permanent beast lurking behind the scenes in the Trump era.
The Russians may well have had a hand in helping hack the Republican and Democratic National Committees. But these Wikileaks also revealed how a corrupted DNC contributed heavily to skewing the Democratic Party nomination process against Bernie Sanders. If the Russians were involved—and we have not yet had an official pronouncement on that, only leaks—such interference is unacceptable and must be fully and publicly investigated. But such investigation should neither distract from nor delegitimize the content of the specific Wikileaks on the DNC which should also be the object of outrage. And now, in perhaps the most volatile delegitimization gambit ever, Trump is now whispered to be “Putin’s candidate,” a Russian pawn who has infiltrated the White House itself. The witch hunt on Russia conveniently displaces the entire substance of critically needed electoral and policy reform.
This is all very ugly stuff. Worse, it looks like questioning the electoral process and the legitimacy of the election itself may become a permanent feature of our domestic politics, inciting further divisiveness and bitterness on both sides of the political divide, rendering the country (even more) ungovernable.
The bread and circuses of the interminable campaign extravaganza now seamlessly transition into the background noise of the entire Trump presidency itself.
Apart from the damage to the moral fibre of the nation and its divisive recriminations, the business of governance continues to be indefinitely sidetracked by such circuses. It blocks sober debate about the sad plight of so many aspects of the nation—erratic foreign policy, runaway military spending, non-stop wars, the failing education system, the degradation of the national infrastructure, the decline of health care and rise of mortality rates, the ignoring of the environment, the need to treat broad ethnic injustices, myths about immigration, the movement of American jobs overseas (as the very essence of how capitalism is supposed to work)—these hard questions all lie unaddressed. And they are much less fun or telegenic than hurling charges about foreign conspiracies and presidential legitimacy.
Who Trump really is remains a major question. While his earlier utterances have been all over the map, his appointments provide more concrete indicators. And so far it doesn’t look pretty. We seem poised to enter a period of extreme retrogression and reaction across the boards, a massive setback on nearly all fronts—unless some welcome surprises are in store from the very people who we wouldn’t expect it from. That cannot be utterly ruled out.
But it is no wonder that the US, for all its massive military power and huge economy, is increasingly becoming an outlier on the international scene. Foreign statesmen both good and bad simply shake their heads in incredulous dismay at the decline of US rationality, prestige and steadiness. But who can avert one’s eyes from a train wreck?
Yet this isn’t new. It’s not as if the US has suddenly turned a corner with this election. US foreign policy has grown ever more isolated from the world and from reality since at least 9/11. Life in this world of denial may even date from the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. That was when the US received what must now be seen as palpably a curse—the transient domination of the entire global scene, when we trumpeted ourselves as the “sole global superpower.” We assumed that such was the new permanent order of the world. We’ve never gotten over it. We’re still trying to maintain that fiction and it’s not working. Trump will find that out painfully soon.
Our domestic political antics exclude us ever further from the ranks of more responsible, sober and clear-sighted states. The rest of the world is simply going to have to go on working around us in damage limitation mode as it has been doing since 9/11. Are we capable of limiting the long-standing damage to ourselves at home? The necessary very heavy lifting seems now almost a bridge too far.
November 9, 2016
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
9 November 2016
The very words hit the ear as a shock; the mind is not ready for it.
And that is exactly the problem. We could not see it coming. Among other things this tawdry and interminable election represents a massive American intelligence failure. Not failure of IQ, but failure to grasp reality—now a deeply engrained American characteristic. We not only fail to perceive and grasp reality abroad, but now even at home.
The Establishment was cocksure down to the last hours that such a thing could not, would not happen. It had drunk its own Kool-Aid.
A huge portion of this intelligence failure rests with the Democratic Party. Its complacent certitude of its right to win, expressed right down to the end of election day, was vivid. Such smugness also fed the anger of Trump supporters, many of whom were apparently shamed into hiding it, but who voted Donald Trump in the anonymity of the polling place.
It did not fully grasp the racism that still runs so deeply in American society, the poisonous and corrosive legacy of slavery that has not truly been internalized by most white people. The prejudice against Latino, and especially Mexican people, betrays ignorance of the historical reality that vast areas of rising Latino power in the US today are precisely those regions that once constituted an integral part of a large state of Mexico, its society, culture and politics—Texas, Arizona, California.
The US power Establishment—the two national parties, the bureaucracy, the “deep state,” the military, the security establishment, Wall Street and the corporations—all have believed in their own exceptionalism and right to dominate and determine the course of American society—and indeed even much of the rest of the world.
We had no reason to expect that the Republican Party could serve as the natural voice of those who feel disenfranchised and economically marginalized—dissed in the fullest sense. In this sense, Trump was a revolution from within the ranks of the Republican Party. Or perhaps more accurately, he seized the mechanism of the Republican Party to broadcast a message that the Republican establishment could not see or believe until too late.
And there was widespread and shocking misogyny towards Hillary Clinton and women. And there was shocking racism in the subliminal hostility to the legitimacy of President Obama. That cannot be blamed on the Democratic establishment.
But for all the ugliness of the Trump campaign, the failure and the blame for this situation rests more deeply with the Democratic Party. This is the party that nominally is supposed to represent the liberal conscience of the country, of those who feel excluded or disadvantaged or just plain hurting within American society. Yet the party’s establishment not only remained insensitive to the deep source of discontent across American society, it actively sought to crush expressions of it. It was openly allied with corporate American, reveling in the contest of who could collect greater bribe money.
Bernie Sanders, however, did represent a true, clear, open voice articulating a great deal—but not all—of what was profoundly wrong in American society and politics. The Democratic establishment mocked, diminished, or ignored that message as best it could, including President Obama himself. Yet ironically Sanders would likely have defeated Trump.
The performance of the New York Times is especially egregious in this regard. I pick on the Times because it is supposed to represent America’s greatest newspaper, the “newspaper of record,” in theory a voice of centrist liberalism in the country. Yet the Times, fully representing establishment and corporate interests, would not/ could not acknowledge the Sanders campaign for what it was. It treated it as an amusing human interest story at most, a sideshow while the big boys got on with serious politics. It constantly opposed Sanders to the end. And once Hillary Clinton was the anointed candidate, the Times turned its powerful establishment guns against Trump as the sole remaining threat to the Establishment.
There are lots of things to dislike or even condemn about Trump and many of his followers. But the Times abandoned any pretense of deeper examination of the establishment that Trump was posing. It became all anti-Trump all day 24/7 with every single writer and voice assigned a niche role in denigrating Trump. News coverage was indistinguishable from editorial.
The paper became analytically a bore, predictable, a kind of Pravda-on-Hudson. Same-old same-old every day. They began to believe it. One had to turn to the foreign press to sometimes get a little broader and deeper analysis.
More hearteningly, we got to see the significant power of the left-of-center voices, primarily relegated to the internet, which made major contributions in understanding the phenomena at hand if anybody bothered to look. The Nation has to rank high in this regard, a publication largely dismissed by the Establishment as marginal, ideological and crank. So did other sites like Truth-Out, Common Sense, Real News, Real World News, Consortium News, Tom Englehardt, and Reader Supported News. It was not that these sites were right about everything, and god knows each had their own clear perspective and preferences as well, but they were willing to examine the alternative realities around us in the world. The Establishment and the Main Stream Media never got beyond their own smug stance in support of what they believed was the dominant, anointed perspective.
What do we now face with the election of Trump? The scariest thing is that we don’t really know. There is a welter of conflicting signals and we each have had our favorite reasons to hate him. Yet manifestly Trump has had his fingers on the pulse of a huge portion of the country that feels angry, oppressed and isolated. (Sanders grasped this as well.) Trump is also an opportunist. He will say anything to get elected. Most politicians will, but he did it better. (Sanders, to his credit, did not say anything to get elected—that is why the Establishment was so shocked, dismissive and incredulous about him.)
How else to explain the rush of the entire spectrum of the Establishment, Democrat and Republican, including leading neoconservatives, to publicly repudiate Trump and declare Hillary as their candidate?
At this point, Trump’s checkered and inconsistent platform record makes it hard to know who the real Trump is. President Obama is probably right that Trump would seem to be temperamentally unfit to be president. But Trump is not the first to be so.
Let’s remember that for much of his earlier campaign Trump was often to the left of Hillary—he said the rich should pay more taxes, he attacked and discredited Bush Jr.’s military adventures, he said he could get along with Putin, he said that the US should adopt a neutral stance on the Palestinian issue, he opposed the corporatization of foreign policy in the form of “globalization,” and he opposed compulsive US intervention abroad. He tacitly acknowledged that America was no longer “great”—fairly evident by so many measures, but denied shrilly by Hillary. Trump has subsequently backed off from many of these positions. Were those his instinctive “default” positions? They served him well at the outset, along with lots of other bad ideas and attitudes.
The Republican and Democratic Establishments and the American “deep state” are indeed aware that they may be losing their sinecure on political, financial, military and security policy. How successful might they be in enfolding Trump within their embrace and “rightly guiding” him. And do we want that?
The co-optive power of the American “deep state” is great.The Republican and Democrat Establishment may be deeply competitive on domestic issues, especially social ones. But they seem to close ranks on foreign policy. There has been no debate, no discussion about American “exceptionalism,” its right to intervene anywhere and everywhere in the world, and the need to maintain American supremacy in all things, especially military. The knee-jerk hatred of Russia as its former Cold War opponent, now no longer prostrate. America’s deep fear of China as a rising and successful rival. The reluctance to embrace multilateralism except on US terms. The routine preference for military solutions (“if we have it, why not use it?”) involving issues that above all require diplomatic and political solutions. US reluctance to acknowledge the importance of other rising nations, among them the BRICS. The tendency to believe that every issue in the world may represent a “vital American interest.”
In the absence of information so far on whose President Trump’s actual appointees will be, it is hard to speculate about future foreign policy. Initial rumors of potential nominees are disquieting. But I tend to think that Trump, by himself, may not be any more likely to stumble into war than Hillary Clinton would have been. Worryingly, the foreign policy “deep state” may override him.
Domestically, non-white Americans, and all women, have much reason to fear his language—even more, to fear the views and voices of many of Trump’s supporters. But Trump may have enough ego to now try to be president of “all of America.” His FDR, New Deal instincts—occasionally uttered— could be significant. A bold, dramatic new domestic agenda could have great impact and be entirely affordable, but only if corporations pay their taxes and if half the US military budget—bigger than the next ten nations in the world combined—was dedicated to fixing America’s crying infrastructural and economic needs for the bottom 90% of the population. Shockingly, we have a military budget six times greater than the monies allocated to American education —and this in a techno-competitive world.
In the end, this election represents the total collapse of the Republican Party (which is not a true conservative party but a corporate and socially reactionary party). And the election has now gutted the Democratic Establishment as well. It had it coming.
But the forces that have kept this country on the wrong path for so long are so intractable, so institutionalized, so resistant to change that it may just require just such a massive shake-up of the system to allow new and creative forces to arise.
Strikingly, America is the only democracy in the world that has no Left. The US political spectrum begins just right of center with Obama (except on social issues) and marches on across to a Crazy Right. Indeed, it is slanderous to be called a liberal today, much less a “leftist.” (Being a “rightist” is fine.) Above all, we should hope that a true genuine Left will now arise in the country, of which Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are important components. Youth will be its vital second base. Its ranks will grow rapidly if Trump fails to deliver.
The need for big time change has never been more apparent. Will this cataclysm within the Establishment now give birth to new creative forces, bigger than Trump himself?
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on geopolitics and the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com
October 18, 2016
Capitalism Is Not a Moral Virtue, It’s Like Fire
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
18 October 2016
By now it is almost an article of faith in US political discussion that capitalism—more gently referred to as “the free market”—is a moral virtue in itself. It is not. Capitalism is amoral, like fire.
I grew up in a world in which the virtues of the American political system were perceived as unquestioningly superior to those of the Soviet Union. And indeed they were. “Freedom” and “free-market capitalism” were the philosophical underpinnings of the country. You had to have grown up during the Great Depression of 1929, as my parents did, to harbor any basic questions about the capitalist system.
The post-World War II era ushered in the real ideological confrontation between the “free” western and capitalist world that stood in stark contrast to the Soviet system—typified by its totalitarian character, brutality of rule, and economic misery. Meanwhile American living standards boomed.
For that matter, there is little reason to doubt the capitalist system now; narrowly conceived, it can produce more consumer goods more cheaply than any other economic system out there. Karl Marx was in awe of the productive power of the capitalist system.
But of course production is only part of the story of economic life: broad social welfare and social satisfaction represent the higher measure.
Yet we have been socialized — at least in America—to see capitalism as an absolute good in itself. (Europeans, however, often flirt with abhorrent socialism.)
Today, during an election that exposes the greatest massive voter dissatisfaction in living memory—both with the candidates as well as the overall system—it’s time for a rethink. Not to reject capitalism, but to see capitalism in the right context.
Capitalism is not a virtue in itself. That’s a misleading way to think about it. Capitalism is like fire. Fire in itself possesses no moral qualities. It is simply a powerful force, over millennia. It has heated our homes, cooked our food, driven our engines, illuminated the darkness. Handled right it has served us in admirable, even indispensable ways.
Heavily controlled, fire can be smothered and the flames can go out. But out of control, fire can be exceptionally dangerous and destructive to life and property. So the whole point of fire is not to cherish it as a moral good in itself, it’s an amoral force. The great trick is to employ fire as a powerful and valuable physical force, but also to keep it tamed, controlled, never allowed to run wild.
Today nuclear power possesses much the same qualities—an extraordinary source of energy, but its essence must be highly controlled, tightly confined and narrowly directed if it is to be productive. Otherwise it is a menace to the world. (Look at Fukushima). And, like fire, nuclear energy is not a moral good either, just a powerful force.
These ideas should be self-evident. Yet in the US, and perhaps in much of the UK, the public is socialized to worship at the shrine of the free-market as a moral principle, as an absolute good in itself—the freer the market, the better. US governance tends to operate on that principle.
A closely related proposition looks at the purpose of governance. In simplest terms governance should provide the broadest wellbeing for the most number of people. How that “broadest wellbeing” is defined is debated across various societies, but at bare minimum it must provide a modicum of food, shelter, health, education and security. That’s rock bottom. Without that there is nothing, not even the freedom to act as creative individuals.
Thus the ”health of the market-place” as such is not one of those primary goals—nor should it be.
Now, it’s obvious that there is a relationship between the health of the market (economy) and the overall health of society. But it is not a direct relationship. A healthy market can contribute significantly to the broader welfare, but it doesn’t do so automatically; it depends on how the market is defined and to whose benefit the economic system is operated. Yet in the US there is an unspoken assumption that the health of the market belongs at the top of the list of goals (“it’s the economy, stupid”). The state of the economy may considerably impact the general welfare, but it is not synonymous with the general welfare itself—the primary goal.
Thus the US—with its particular veneration of capitalism—needs to think about the trade-offs in its handling of this amoral engine. It is not enough to say that the free market has brought higher standards of living to more people than ever before in history; it has undoubtedly done so, but by making that the first priority is to displace what should be the real first priority— the overall welfare of the public. It is precisely that displacement in favor of the market that is now producing the present deep dissatisfaction with the present presidential campaign and the broader system it represents, a system where the interests of big money—the drivers of the engine—take top priority.
And when capitalism is allowed to run wild, it doesn’t stop with its disproportionate distribution of wealth and social priorities. It corrupts the very political order itself. Political candidates today publicly revel in the horse-race of who can receive bigger bribes (“contributions”) from corporate interests.
These thoughts are hardly new. Yet such fundamental principles seem to have gotten lost in our veneration of the capitalist (or “free market”) system as an absolute value itself. It is a means, not an end.
Scandinavian societies in particular have devoted a great deal of thought to trying to define the general welfare in concrete terms, to create a measure for quality of life that goes beyond Gross National Product or corporate earning statements. They look instead at complex measures of overall quality of life: health, education, housing and food, leisure, and yes, fairness and social justice. These are the priorities. We then need to examine the best tools to achieve that.
Fire is by all means an extremely valuable force. Don’t let the flames go out, but don’t worship it or give it free run. And remember that nurturing the flames is not why we are on this earth.
October 6, 2016
Syria—what cost “victory?”
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
6 October 2016
A deep contradiction lies at the heart of US policy towards the present horrifying conflict in Syria. Which is better? To now reluctantly accept continuation of Bashar al-Asad in power in Damascus for the foreseeable future, thereby hastening the end of the war and the killing? Or to fight till the last Syrian in the belief that an indefinite prolongation of the civil war will somehow bring about a much brighter future for Syria and deal a rebuff to the position of Russia and Iran in Syria?
The Syrian war represents one of the darkest moments in civil conflicts anywhere in the world in recent years. At this juncture its locus is now in Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, and an ancient center of Middle Eastern high culture. And this is where the human level of suffering particularly cries out for relief. The number of people who have been killed by bombing—in recent weeks especially by Syrian government forces and Russian air attacks— is horrendous. Fear, starvation and death haunt this once magnificent city.
But there is a decision to be made. Back in 2011 in the midst of the Arab Spring revolutions, there was reason to believe that the Asad regime too, would quickly bite the dust, as did Mubarak in Egypt, Qaddafi in Libya and Bin Ali in Tunisia. But as an early uprising emerged against Asad, the regime reacted swiftly with harsh reprisals in the belief that a quick putdown would nip it in the bud.
If Syria had just been left to its own devices, Asad’s cynical calculations for maintaining power—typical of most authoritarian rulers who fight to the bitter end—might have quickly ended with a regime victory. But unlike Egypt or Libya, Syria itself was indeed divided over his rule: although Asad was never popular, much of the Sunni economic, military and governing elite had become de facto aligned with the minority Alawite Asad regime. Other minorities such as Christian, Jews, Druze and others believed that while they didn’t like Asad, he was far preferable to a scenario of overthrow by jihadists or a long civil war. That belief considerably explains why Asad has not fallen.
But of course Syria was not left to its own devices but rather became the magnet of regional power-struggles, the cock-pit of proxy wars rapidly involving Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the US on one side, with Iran, Iraq (to some extent) and Russia on the other. Now, the US for over forty years has viewed the Asad family regime as a thorn in its side against US dominance in the Middle East; it intermittently sought to overthrow it, with little success. This time around the US now saw Syria as offering a great venue to strike back at Iranian and Russian influence in the region as well. It therefore became willing to support “moderate” jihadis in the anti-Damascus struggle.
Sadly there have been almost no genuinely moderate and effective Syrian guerrilla forces since the outset. Jihadist groups have dominated the military struggle. And radical jihadi forces have been invariably more effective fighters on the ground than “moderate jihadis.” Obama finally wisely came to perceive that backing a civil war that would bring jihadists to power in place of Asad was, in the end, not a good deal. But the impulse to deliver a blow to Iranian and Russian interests still dominated most of Washington’s hawkish thinkers. The Syrian people would become the pawns of Washington’s struggle against Moscow and Tehran.
The US-Russian agreement to establish a cease-fire and reach a political solution—to which Kerry and Lavrov devoted so much attention—might have stood a chance. But it required one key condition: Asad would not be overthrown; he would retain power pending a multinational process to transition to a new regime.
Washington in principle bought into that difficult-to-implement principle, but still could not bring itself to abandon the “moderate jihadis” as a fighting force on the US side. Moscow’s view is starkly simple: disarm—or eliminate—all forces fighting the Asad regime to hasten the end of the war and a political solution (with few US allies).
After five years of hideous and devastating civil war—whose refugees have shaken up the very politics of Europe itself—there are probably few Syrians alive at this point who would not prefer to go back to the unfriendly peace and stability of Asad authoritarianism—that was otherwise not known for the degree of brutality that characterized, for example, Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Meantime, war is hell. For most civilians, in the end almost any peace is better than almost any war.
Washington must now decide: Does it want to continue for months to argue about how moderate or violent a particular jihadi group is to find suitable allies among them—to use as bargaining chips over the negotiations of new governance down the road in Damascus? (Most of these would-be allies are now in the al-Qaeda orbit to one degree or another.) Or will it decide that an end to the war, even on Asad’s terms, is not more realistic, and yes, even more humane?
Russia holds the stronger cards in this confrontation. If the US decides to end the war now and accept an Asad victory, there is no doubt that Moscow will have emerged as relative strategic victor. But how serious a strategic setback is that in reality? Is every battle, every piece of turf, worth trying to best Moscow over? Is Washington still willing to fight till the last Syrian—with all the radicalization in the region and its refugee flows—simply to parry Russia? Yes, Russian and Syrian bombings in Aleppo against all insurgent strongholds have recently been vicious and murderous. The US has also bombed. Civilians always die, whoever bombs. An end to bombing and civil war is imperative from any humanitarian perspective. This is not, or should not be, a zero sum game with Russia. The game is not worth the candle, the stakes are low. The US still shares the major common goal with Russia and the region—ending jihadism in Syria and the neighborhood.
Conversely, if blocking Russian (and Iranian) interests at every turn is the supreme American strategy then Washington stands just as guilty as Russia and Iran in tossing more Syrian bodies onto the bonfire of this feckless proxy war.
September 29, 2016
Democracy, the “Great Debates,” and China
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
29 September 2016
The “Great Debates” between candidates Clinton and Trump encapsulate what is wrong with the US political process. There’s been little substance; it’s all about personalities and sound-bytes and gotcha. Never mind the grand issues of our time and how they should be handled—income inequality, corporate control of media, corporate-dominated electoral funding, global warming, long-term global refugee issues, jobs going overseas in perfect conformity with capitalist principles, wall street corruption, race relations, health care, etc. None of these have easy—or palatable— answers and so the system reverts to entertainment over substance. The Romans got it right way back—it’s all about bread and circuses. We have only the trappings of democracy to pretend that the people are actually deciding anything.
And it’s not new. Just read historical accounts of the savage political campaigns going back to our Founding Fathers down to the vituperative language of today. Sadly, this all may just reflect the human condition, locked in eternal struggles for power since cave men. Might generally makes right; but might today no longer flows from the cave-man’s club. Today it is control of the media, the banks, the political establishment. There will always a political establishment defending its own.
Let’s not forget Winston Churchill’s famous quote that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Corruption and incompetence may still be preferable to assassination or revolution that produce leaders nobody ever voted for.
When I was doing research among Islamists in the Middle East in years past I was struck by one comment about why many Islamists have been coming around to appreciation of some aspects of democracy. Islam has always placed great weight on the religious obligation of the ruler to rule justly, to provide good governance. But what if the ruler doesn’t? Many Islamists have observed that democracy at least enables you to get rid of a ruler whom you don’t want, by due process. That is no small advantage, even if the political wheels of democracy grind slowly.
So what’s different about today, if anything? Two things jump out: money and media.
“Money makes the world go round” and it certainly makes politics spin out of control. Is it not stunning to observe how, without the least trace of irony, the US campaign system treats solicitation of bribes (“fund-raising”) as a legitimate and newsworthy part of electoral competition? It’s basically about who can fetch the highest price in the influence market. Mark Twain, who got a lot of things right, commented that the US “had the best Congress money can buy.”
Now, only the naive would believe that influence-peddling is something new in the world. But to publicly champion the competition in which a candidate sells him/herself is really rather incredible. Recipients of contributions may claim they can remain independent-minded, but only a fool believes that when we receive a significant sum of money from a donor we are not influenced by that “gift.”
As for the media, of course it is not a public service. It is a line of business, whose owners also seek to mold public perceptions. (How many people are trying to kill off PBS?) Even the “paper of record,” the New York Times, routinely demonstrates striking bias: suppression of political candidates or voices who dare stray from mainstream establishment analysis. (How often do you ever seen the name of Noam Chomsky in the New York Times on any topic? Or find balance in its reporting on Russia, Israel, or China? Can we ignore the fact that mainstream media is bought and owned by an alarmingly small circle of wealthy who set general guidelines?
But what is really different these days is the pervasive reach of the media. One hundred and fifty years ago how many people ever heard the Lincoln-Douglas debates? How many people ever read newspapers? What other sources of information existed apart from the town-crier? Or a campaigner coming through town once-in-a-life-time on the back of a train in a whistle-stop campaign?
The transformation of politics into our modern infotainment is an invention of US political culture. And that invention is in the process of bringing the US down. Why? Because the issues that really matter are not discussed—because they are complex, can’t be reduced to sound-bytes, and nobody dares answer them honestly. Because image matters more than content.
And today this circus now occupies roughly half of any presidential term. US politics are now almost in perpetual election mode.
The circus atmosphere bids up extremist postures by candidates. Okay, candidates might not really quite mean what they say on the campaign trail; they might not really do what they claim they will (or will not) do. But the fact remains that the level of discussion is coarsened and dumbed-down. Incendiary sound-bytes linger in the political air long after they have been uttered, infusing greater demagogy to political process, especially in Congress, for the rest of the political cycle. And the establishment’s gameplay—what even President Obama recently referred to as “the Washington playbook”—is perpetuated.
Canadians complained when their last national election campaign was extended by loser prime minister Stephen Harper to run for eleven weeks. And Canadian politics are boring. Politics are not part of the entertainment scene. Maybe boring is good. It suggests things are more or less working.
The US, with the most advanced mass culture and mass info-technology in the world, has created this baleful system that is in the process of making the US ungovernable, its policies increasingly ineffective, its citizens angry, its foreign policies incoherent.
But, as with many American firsts, has the US now created a democratic model that may come to be emulated in the rest of the world? Hints of it can now be seen in Canada and the UK, maybe on the Continent.
So what is the way out? Reform of the US order would seem extremely difficult given its entrenched nature backed by so many powerful special interests.
Yet as the US democratic order becomes increasingly dysfunctional, we already see revolts taking place. But revolts the world over historically often lead to greater autocracy, dictatorship or even revolution from the left or right. We know well the resulting horrors that can emerge from that. But people will always demand stability, protection, fixes for problems that are ever more complex to answer.
Wise men have of course grappled with this problem for centuries. The US Founding Fathers tended to believe that day-to-day democracy should be insulated from the volatile passions of the people through more indirect government; the “wiser heads” of the Senate were supposed to balance the popular impulses as represented in the House. Presidents were elected “indirectly” through ostensibly “wiser” electoral colleges. All those arrangements, for what they were worth, broke down; such indirect elections are probably unachievable today.
Now let’s look at the other end of the spectrum. It’s interesting that China today is actually quietly touting to the rest of the world its own evolving system. Of course we recoil from the terrible catastrophes of Chinese regimes over most of the past century. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that China has been concerned with principles of good governance going back some three thousand years, including Confucian principles of the responsibility of “cultivated” or educated people to govern wisely; that was probably as good as it got in that era. More important, the state bureaucracy was selected through massive nation-wide examination systems to choose the most qualified. The system had its good periods and bad, almost on a 300 year cyclical basis—breakdown and restoration.
Today China is creeping back again, this time from the disasters of Chairman Mao towards a semblance of order and rationality in governance. It has implemented a series of often unusually effective policies that are slowly bringing an ever rising percent of the rural and urban poor into the middle class and a slightly freer life.
Now, I don’t want to live in China particularly. But consider the daunting challenges of running this country: one that was left behind in the last century or so, invaded by English and Japanese imperialists, massively misruled under fanatic communists (not all were fanatic) for fifty years, and now presides over a population approaching 1.4 billion people. China’s leaders operate on the razor’s edge: meeting pent-up demand after decades of deprivation, managing the transition of millions of peasants who want to come to the cities, feeding and housing everyone, maintaining industrial production while trying to reverse the terrible environmental damage wrought in earlier decades, to maintain stability, law and order while managing discontent that could turn violent, and to maintain the present ruling party in power to which there is no reasonable alternative as yet. That’s quite a high-wire act.
So if you were running China today, what would you advocate as the best policies and system to adopt? Chances are few of us would simply urge huge new infusions of democracy and rampant capitalism. The delicate balance of this frail recovering system needs to be guided with care. But it is basically working—as opposed to looming alternatives of chaos and poverty.
China today suggests to developing countries that China’s own model of controlled cautious light authoritarian leadership—where leaders are groomed over decades up through the ranks of the party— may be a more reliable system than, say, the bread and circuses of the US. That’s their view.
No one system has all the answers. But it’s worth observing that by now the US probably lies at one extreme of a political spectrum of bread-and-circus “democracy.” Can the system be reformed? Ever more serious questions arise about the present system’s ability to meet the challenge of this century—along multiple lines of measurements.
And, as world gets more complex, there is less room for radical individualism, whistle blowing, and dissent. Vital and complex infrastructural networks grow ever more vulnerable that can bring a state down. The state moves to protect itself. The strengthening of the state against the individual has already shifted heavily since the Global War on Terror and even more so under Obama.
I’m not suggesting that China is the model to be emulated. But we better note how it represents one rational vision of functioning governance of the future—under difficult circumstances—at one end of the spectrum. The US lies at the other. Is there anything that might lie somewhere between these two highly diverse systems of governance?
September 14, 2016
What is Eurasianism?
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
13 September 2016
You might recall the term “Eurasia” from high school geography classes. The term isn’t used much any more in political discussions in the West, but it should be. That is where the most serious geopolitical action is going to be taking place in the world as we move deeper into the 21st century. The US, focused so intently on “containment” of Russia, ISIS, and China will be missing the bigger Eurasian strategic picture.
Eurasia is the greatest landmass of the world, embracing Europe and all of Asia—some of the oldest and greatest centers of human civilization.
So what is Eurasianism? It has meant different things at different periods. A century ago, the Kissingers of the time spun theories about a deep and inevitable strategic clash between sea-borne power (UK/US) and continental/land-based powers (Germany, Russia.) “Eurasia” then meant mostly Europe and western Russia. Indeed, what need was there to talk then about Asia itself? Most of Asia was underdeveloped and lay under the control of the British Empire (India, China) or the French (Indo-China) and had no independent will. Japan was the only real “Asian power”—that ironically developed its own imperial designs, mimicking the West, and thus came to clash with American imperial power in the Pacific.
Today of course all that is different. Eurasia increasingly means “Asia” in which the “Euro” part figures modestly. Furthermore, China has now become the center of Eurasia as the world’s largest economy. Not surprisingly, China (like the Muslim world) projects a decidedly “anti-imperial” bent based on what it sees as its humiliation at the hands of the West (and Japan) during its two-hundred year eclipse—during one of its dynastic down-cycles. But China is very much back now into a classic “up-cycle” mode of power and influence again and is determined to project its weight and influence. India too now is now a rapidly developing power with regional reach. And Japan, while quiescent, still represents formidable economic power, perhaps to be augmented by greater military regional reach.
The significance of the term “Eurasian” has changed a good deal, but it still suggests strategic rivalry. At a time when the US formally declares its intent to militarily dominate the world (“full spectrum dominance” was the official Pentagon doctrine in 2000) the concept of Eurasianism is responding with vigor. And not just in China, but in its new significance for countries like Russia, Iran, even Turkey. It suggests a sense of the eclipse of dominant western power in the face of new Asian power.
It’s not all just about military and money. It’s also cultural. Russian culture has for two centuries maintained a lively debate about whether Russia belongs to the West, or embodies a distinctly Eurasian (yevraziiskaya) culture that is separate from the West. Eurasianists represent a significant force within Russian strategic and military thinking (although Putin, interestingly, does not fully embrace this world-view.)
The idea is a vague but culturally important one; it grapples with Russian identity. It speaks of a Slavic culture but with deep Eurasian roots even in an old Turkic and Tatar past. Remember that historically it is the modern West that torched Russia twice: witness the invasions of Napoleon and Hitler up to the gates of Moscow. Nato today probes ever more deeply all around the Russian periphery. The Eurasianists are suspicious of, if not hostile to, the West as a permanent threat to “Holy Mother Russia.” “Eurasianism” will always lurk just beneath the surface in the Russian strategic world-view.
That is what Russia’s new Eurasian Economic Union is all about, a goal to at least economically unite Belarus, the Central Asian states and others into a greater Eurasian economic whole. (Oil-rich Kazakstan was actually the author of the concept; it will seek to maintain ties with the West; but look at it its place on a world map to see where Kazakstan’s real long-term options lie. Russia may not now be the best economic star to tie one’s future to, but it is just one of many Eurasian vehicles out there and they are not mutually exclusive. Options bring greater security.
China is moving in stunningly ambitious directions in creating the new Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (that 57 states have signed onto including most European states, Canada and Australia—but conspicuously without Japan so far, or the US.) This creates a new Eurasian-focused central banking instrument with strong Chinese influence. China is also projecting massive new transportation networks (the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road —“One Belt One Road”) across Eurasia to China linking China to Europe, the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and the Far East by rail, road, and sea. China’s “Eurasian strategy” is already a burgeoning reality. Yes, suspicions and rivalries exist between Russia and China and India and Japan. But the strong economic and developmental thrust of these proposals differ markedly from the American more “security” focused organization with its worrisome military implications.
Not only has Washington fought these Chinese and Eurasian initiatives unsuccessfully, but it is US policies in particular—that identify both Russia and China as the presumptive enemy—that
have helped bring Russia and China together on many issues, linked now by shared distrust of US global military ambitions.
Japan, incidentally, before World War II had its own doctrine of “Eurasianism” —an effort to identify with and stir up Asian peoples and territories against western colonial domination; this strategy could have been quite effective had it not been accompanied by Japan’s own brutal military invasions of East Asian countries, destroying the credibility of the Japanese “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.” Today Japan hasn’t moved its location; it will still have to deal with the reality of Chinese power in the East. And what Japanese leader would seriously pursue a long range policy of hostility to China in support of a US Pacific strategy that is inherently designed to bottle up China? Especially when China and Japan are huge mutual trading and investment partners?
Iran is keenly interested in balancing against geopolitical pressures from the US and seeks membership in these Russian and Chinese economic development institutions. Iran is a natural “Eurasian “ and “Silk Road” power.
Turkey has gotten into the Eurasian game, again. Going back to the early days of Erdogan’s AK Party foreign policy— in the vision of then foreign minister Davutoglu—Turkey was no longer limited to being a western power, but also proclaimed its geopolitical interests (nearly a hundred years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire) in the Middle East, and indeed, Eurasia. (After all, the Turks originally come from Eurasia, having migrated west from Lake Baikal a thousand years ago.) That means serious ties with Russia, combined with deep ethnic, cultural and historical ties with Central Asia, and with China. Turkey (like Iran and Pakistan) seeks to be part of these Russian and Chinese networks. And, among some Turkish nationalist politicians and military officers (including many secular Kemalists) there is strong “Eurasianist” leaning to expand Turkey’s geopolitical options to explore strategic and cultural ties with Eurasia. It also reflects an expression of distrust of western and US efforts to dominate the region.
For Turkey this is not an either/or issue. It can seek to be part of Europe (including Nato) but will not relinquish the broad geostrategic alternative options to the East, with its ever greater economic clout, and roads and rails to link it.
In short, the new Eurasianism is no longer about nineteenth century land and sea power. It is an acknowledgment that the era of western (and especially US) global dominance is over. Washington can no longer command (or afford) a longer-term bid to dominate Eurasia. In economic terms no state in the region, including Turkey, would be foolish enough to turn its back on this rising “Eurasian” potential that also offers strategic balance and economic options.
There are, of course, huge fault-lines across Eurasia—ethnic, economic, strategic, and some degree of rivalry. But the more Washington attempts to contain or throttle Eurasianism as a genuine rising force, the greater will be the determination of states to become part of this rising Eurasian world, even while not rejecting the West.
All countries like to have alternatives. They don’t like to lie beholden to a single global power that tries to call the shots. America’s narrative of what the global order is all about is no longer accepted globally. Furthermore it is no longer realistic. It would seem short-sighted for Washington to continue focus upon expanding military alliances while most of the rest of the world is looking to greater prosperity and rising regional clout. (China’s military expenditures are about one quarter of US spending.)