Archive for ‘USA’ Category
Browse:
USA »
Subcategories:

The real roots of Iranian “brinkmanship.”

datePosted on 12:47, July 21st, 2019 by Pablo

I have been unimpressed with Western corporate media coverage of the tensions involving Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. They repeat the line that Iran is the source of current tensions, that it is a major sponsor of terrorism, that it is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and threatening its neighbours and that it is playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship with its attacks on shipping in the Strait. I disagree with much of this, so allow me to explain why.

A few months back the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the Iranian nuclear control agreement (the P5+1 deal involving the US, UK, France, China and Russia plus Germany). Leaked diplomatic cables show that it did so manly because the Obama administration had signed it, not because it was a “bad deal” (in fact, the Iranians were upholding their end of the bargain and had complied with all international monitoring conditions). After withdrawing from the deal the US imposed a new round of tougher sanctions on Iran, with most of the bite coming from secondary sanctions on non-US based firms and organisations that do business with the Persian giant.

Let us be clear on this. The US unilaterally withdrew from a viable multinational agreement mainly because of presidential hubris, then unilaterally imposed sanctions not only on Iran but others who may wish to continue to commercially engage with it. The US sanctions are not supported by, and in fact are seen as illegitimate by many countries, including China, Russia and most of the countries in the EU. Yet, because the US has great economic weight, it can use the secondary sanctions in order to force international compliance with its edict.

Until recently the sanctions were not enforced by the military of any country other than the US. But on July 4 the Royal Navy stopped and seized an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar, arguing that it was transporting oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions (the sanctions only apply to aviation fuel and only cover EU members, which Iran is not). The tanker’s proximity to the colony was fortunate in that Britain has limited autonomous power projection capability in the Middle East but does have a naval garrison on the Rock. So the seizure was as much due to opportunity as it was support for principle.

Iran warned that it would retaliate to this act of “piracy” and this past week it did by seizing two tankers, one of which was UK-flagged (the other was briefly detained and released). The owners of the UK-flagged vessel have not be able to contact it since it was boarded by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commandos.

This follows on Iran recently shooting down a US drone over the Strait and the sabotage of four vesels in a UAE port and two merchant ships in international waters that have been attributed to the IRGC. Needless to say, this appears to demonstrate that indeed, a brinkmanship game is being played. But let us disaggregate a few facts.

The UK was informed of the Iranian tanker’s movements by the US, which asked that it be seized when it made the passage from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean. The May government complied even though Trump has repeatedly disparaged her and welcomed her ouster. The Iranians know that Teresa May is a lame duck and that Boris Johnson, her likely successor, simply does not have the stomach for a all-in confrontation with Iran when the Brexit mess is ongoing and the government is effectively paralysed on multiple fronts. To be clear: the UK is facing a crisis of governance and the Iranians know this. So any military counter has to come from somewhere else.

It certainly will not come from Europe, Asia or anywhere but the US. That is the rub. The Iranians know that Trump is a classic bully. All bluster and bravado but a coward at heart. When informed of the Iranian’s seizure he first uttered threats but then put distance between himself and the UK by saying that the US does not receive much oil that transits through the Strait and that other nations need to up their military patrols through it and the Persian Gulf if they want their vessels to be safe.

This signals that Trump does not believe that a US-Iran conflict would be existential or done out of necessity and that he does not see alliance commitments as universally binding. This gives him room to refuse UK requests for military assistance in getting the Iranians to resolve the stand-off on its terms. In doing so he effectively has thrown the UK under the bus as a reward for it doing the US bidding with regard to the Iranian tanker now tied up in Gibraltar. So much for that “special relationship.”

Although chickenhawk John Bolton, Trump’s National Security Advisor, is keen to shed other people’s blood in order to force an Iranian submission, Trump, like Johnson, does not appear to be inclined to do so. Besides his neo-isolationist proclivities, Trump has undoubtably heard from US military authorities that a conflict with Iran would make Afghanistan and Iraq look like a kindergarten party. The US military is stretched as it is, the US public is sick of constant war, a long election year is just beginning and no allies other than Israel and perhaps Saudi Arabia are going to be willing to join the US in a fight of its own making.

That is an important point to note. It is clear that for Bolton and other re-cycled neoconservatives like Mike Pompeo, the march to war with Iran is about regime change, not international commerce. US foreign policy elites have never gotten over the Iranian Revolution and the US embassy seizure in 1979, and the US military has since then had a prickly relationship with Iran in its regional sphere influence. US criticism of some of Iran’s more regressive policies as a reason to push for regime change holds little weight given its support for the likes of Saudi Arabia, and regardless of the theocratic nature of the regime Iranian elections are considered by international observers to be among the cleanest in the Middle East (thereby putting the lie to claims that Iran is as authoritarian as other regional autocracies).

The US push for war with Iran is therefore not grounded in concerns about international norms and the specifics of Iranian behaviour but in getting some measure of retribution for what some US elites feel was a great loss of face forty years ago and an ongoing reminder of US powerlessness in specific instances. The trouble for the likes of Bolton and Pompeo is that most world leaders understand their real motivations and so are reluctant to join their war-mongering bandwagon.

The Iranians know this. They know that they have Russia as a military partner and China as an economic lifeline. They know that any military conflict involving them will close the Strait for more than just the duration of hostilities. They not only have one of the largest militaries in the Middle East but they also have proxies like Hezbollah and allies like Syria who will join in what will be a multi-fronted asymmetric war of attrition against the US that will not be confined to the immediate region. They key is for Iran to isolate the US and a few allies in a manoeuvre-based military conflict that avoids short mass-on-mass exchanges and which over time inflicts political and military costs that become unbearable.

Although Bolton may believe in the rhetoric of “effects-based strategy” and therefore assume that any successful kinetic engagement between the US and Iran will be limited, short and intense, the problem with such assumptions is that the adversary may not subscribe to what is taught in US command and general staff colleges. I assume that US military planners understand this.

It is therefore very likely that Iran will get to exchange the British tanker for the ship detained in Gibraltar and that it will be able to continue to make the point that it has the means to disrupt commerce in the sea lanes adjacent to it. The latter is an important tactic for Iran because the price for it ending its maritime disruption campaign is a loosening of the US sanctions regime on it. Unless oil-importing countries step up their own naval protection of ships flagged by or destined for them (which brings with it the possibility of military confrontation with Iran), then they run the risk of economic slowdowns caused by fuel shortages, to say nothing of increased insurance costs and fuel prices as the impasse continues.

In short, it does not appear likely that the US is going to come riding to the rescue of non-US vessels anytime soon and yet will continue to demand that the world bow to its Iranian sanctions regime. Trump and his advisors may see it as a necessary hard choice for US allies but to them it is more likely to be seen as being placed in an untenable position.

Finally, it should be remembered that modern Iran has not engaged in an unprovoked attack on another country. Although it supports and uses irregular military proxies, it is nowhere close to being the sponsor of terrorism that several Sunni Arab petroleum oligarchies are. In spite of its anti-Israel rhetoric (destined for domestic political consumption), it has not fired a shot in anger towards it. Its strategic position in the Middle East is as strong now as it ever was. It has complied with the terms of the nuclear control agreement. It has good commercial relations with a wide variety of countries, including New Zealand. It therefore has no incentive to start a conflict even if it does have a strong incentive to turn the tables on the sanctions regime by demonstrating that imposing costs works in many ways and on more than just the targets of sanctions themselves.

It would be wise for Western leaders to put themselves in Iranian shoes when considering the security dilemma in the Persian Gulf, because if anything the root of the current tensions lies not in Tehran but in Washington, DC.

Xenophobia is not always racist.

datePosted on 15:46, July 18th, 2019 by Pablo

I have been reading and listening to the aftermath of Trump’s comments about the four female first term Democratic representatives, all of whom are “people of color.” I found the US coverage interesting both as evidence of partisanship and the deep vein of bigotry that Trump has tapped into in order to advance his political career. But some of the coverage has got me to thinking about how the issue is being framed, specifically whether or not his comments were “racist.”

Here is how I see it: Strictly speaking, the “go back to where you came from” line is xenophobic. It often is underpinned by racism, as in Trump’s case. But it is not the same or reducible to racism because culture, religion, language, dress etc. factor in as well. The primary inference is that the “other” is “foreign.” The distinction is important, especially in a country that has the Statue of Liberty as a national symbol.

Trump’s ignorance of his target’s birth origins does not take away from the underlying anti-foreign message. It appears that in the US xenophobia is more widespread than racism. Trump knows this. That allows him to disavow racism and yet throw bigoted meat to his base because foreigners are “aliens,” the inference being that they are sub-humans who come from crime-infested sh*tholes (his language, not mine). That he speaks of these first generation citizens’ supposed hate for America and loyalty to foreign enemies like al-Qaeda (both demonstrable lies) rather then focus on their racial characteristics is proof that the emphasis is on their foreign “otherness.” Likewise, in calling them socialists and communists Trump and his minions emphasise the “un” American nature of those ideologies and their supposed embrace of them. It is to the xenophobic streak in US society that Trump is speaking to, some of which may be embedded in broader racist sentiment.

As a third generation US citizen descended from Irish Catholic, Italian and Scottish stock, I am well versed in the “go back to where you came from” opinions directed at my grandparents. Then as now it may have overlapped with but was not strictly a matter of racism.

Anyway, as I see it, for all of the nice inscriptions on Lady Liberty, the US has a deeply rooted xenophobic streak that parallels and often overlaps with its history of racism. There are times when one strand overshadows the other, for example during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s when racism took centre stage and xenophobia took a back seat. In today’s context the “acceptable” form of bigotry–besides ongoing homophobia and misogyny–is xenophobia, not racism.

This is what allows the Trump administration to detain thousands of “illegal aliens” (most of the world uses the term “undocumented migrants”) in internment camps. It is what allows it to separate hundreds of “alien” children from their parents and remove them to detention centres far from where their parents are held. The justification for such depravity is not offered on the basis of race but on the basis of birth origin. That, it seems, is more acceptable to many “Americans” who would not accept the wholesale incarceration of African- or Asian-Americans on the sole basis of race.

Oh wait, check that thought. That was only true in other times.

Incidentally, I place qualifier marks around the term “Americans” because “America” refers to continents rather than individual nations, so the appropriation of the word by the US is more a form of linguistic imperialism than an actual descriptor of who is born there.

In any event, I feel that the emphasis on whether Trump’s comments were racist or not obscures and detracts from the fact that xenophobia, stoked by years of endless war against and tensions with foreigners (mostly of color) has made it the preferred form of bigotry wielded by Republicans and those who are fearful of the loss of white dominance in a country where demographic change does not favour them.

Whether or not it will be used as part of a winning electoral strategy by Trump and the Republicans in 2020 remains to be seen. But what it does demonstrably prove is that the historical roots of xenophobic “othering” are being well watered today.

Postscript: Conspicuous by its absence from the MSM coverage is the fact that Trump’s bigotry is, amid all of the rest, gendered at its core. He appears to take particular issue with women who challenge him, especially those who are non-white. He saves the worst of his personal insults for them, and in the case of Rep. Omar he has walked up to the fine line separating protected offensive speech from hate speech. After all, when he falsely claims that someone “hates America,” “is loyal to al-Qaeda,” is a “communist” and even was married to her brother (yes, he did indeed say that), then he is coming perilously close to inciting violence against her. After all, if you condense what he is saying, she is an insolent commie incestuous female who hates America and who therefore does not deserve the common protections afforded “real” citizens.

Yet the media has not focused on these components of his rhetoric as much as they should be. Instead we get the usual analyses that “he is consolidating his base” and “he is trying to tar the Democratic Party with the “four women of the apocalypse” brush”, which if true do not fully capture the evilness of his intent. While I do not think that his offensive views merit impeachment at this point (since in my opinion they do not rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanours), should anything happen to any one of the so-called “squad,” and should that be the work of a Trump supporter, then I think that there is fair grounds to do so.

Torture works.

datePosted on 15:55, July 1st, 2019 by Pablo

I have been working my way through a 47,000 document tranche of declassified US government communications related to Argentina and the “Dirty War” of 1976-83. I grew up in Argentina in the period leading up to the March 24, 1976 coup d’état that ushered in the so-called “Process of National Reorganisation,” the euphemism that the military junta used to justify its actions. That was the period when I was politically socialised and which has marked my approach to politics ever since.

I also do so because I did human rights work in Argentina in the early 1980s and wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on the Argentine state that required repeated primary source field research in the country throughout that decade. Those trips afforded me the opportunity to complement my human rights work with documentary and interview data that, while tangental to the dissertation, were central to my interest in what happened to people I knew who were caught up in the “Process.” I continued this interest as a sidebar to my academic work and official obligations while serving in and with US government agencies in the late 80s and early to mid 1990s. Even so, I did not have the time or authority to access what has emerged in this tranche of documents.

The documents (known as “cables” in diplomatic parlance) come from the CIA, FBI, State Department, Department of Defense and other agencies such as the Commerce Department that had involvement in Argentine issues during that period. The quality of the reporting and analysis is surprisingly good and the tone often brutally frank. Even so, thousands of pages in the declassified tranche are redacted or completely blank, attesting to ongoing sensitivity of some of the subjects being discussed. On a more personal level, the documents reveal the names of people that I knew while growing up, both embassy officials as well as private businessmen, school officials and missionaries (they were all men) who were fathers of kids that I went to school with and who either wrote the cables in question or served as informants to the embassy.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the reporting is the constant references to the Argentine security forces use of murder and torture. Time and time again the cables detail how torture was used to extract information and confessions, often followed by the murder of prisoners. The cables report things such as corpse disposal techniques improving after scores of bodies were discovered in public places with clear signs of torture and execution-style bullet wounds (among others, the “disposal-via-plane” method–where prisoners were sedated, loaded onto Air Force planes and dumped over the South Atlantic away from shore–was perfected after weighed-down bodies surfaced in the River Plate and many others were identified on land even though efforts had been made to destroy any possibility of identification). They note that many of the dead were said to have been killed in armed confrontations with security forces that never happened, and that many of those killed were students, unionists, academics, journalists, politicians and others unconnected to the various guerrilla groups (Montoneros and Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo or ERP, primarily) that were operating at the time.

The more I read the more I began to question a long held belief of mine: that torture does not work as an interrogation method, but instead is simply a cruel form of punishment. Readers may remember that, following on earlier academic and policy writing on the subject, I blogged here at KP about how torture does not work. But as I read the horrific descriptions of the methods used by the Argentine inquisitors and what happened as a result, and even though I had interviewed a few torture survivors during my human rights work, it dawned on me that I was wrong. Torture does, in fact, work as a means of extracting time sensitive tactical as well as strategic information from victims. Allow me to explain.

Torture only works in specific circumstances. Where it does not work is in democracies with strong institutions and the rule of law. Take, for example, the US torture program known as “enhanced interrogation.” This was an extension of coercive interrogation techniques that US military counter-intelligence officers developed by adapting a blueprint provided by the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) programs operated by the US military for personnel at high risk of capture in hostile territory. Those programs emulated the unpleasantness of foreign interrogations (say, by North Vietnamese) so that those going through the SERE programs would have the mental and physical ability to cope without breaking.

After 9/11 the CIA decided to turn SERE on its head and use it as a basis for enhanced interrogation of suspected jihadists. That in turn led to its use by the US military against jihadists and insurgents in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Supervised by psychologists and medical doctors, techniques like water-boarding, exposure to extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation, painful binding by ropes, simulated executions and threatened electric shocks (where captives were hooked up by wires to car batteries or wall power outlets), simulated attacks by military working dogs (reportedly suggested by Israeli intelligence because of Arabs’ aversion to dogs) and sexual degradation were used by interrogators to try and extract both real-time and broad picture information from prisoners. The pictures that emerged from the Iraqi prison at Abu Ghraib–where US Army military police went rogue because of the environment created by their commanders–alerted the world to the fact that the US was routinely employing torture as an interrogation method, something that also occurred at detention facilities at Baghram Military Air Base in Kabul and in at the detention centre (Camp X Ray) operated by US Marines at the US Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This stopped when the Obama administration took office.

There were limits to what the US torturers would do. Deaths, rapes and other atrocities did occur but the overall thrust of US torture programs was to avoid such “excesses” and to remain within the broadly defined limits of US military codes of justice and the laws of war. It can be argued whether that in fact happened, but the point is that the US military, the CIA and the US government all wanted to give at least the appearance of norm adherence and legal cover. This forced the interrogators to engage in self-limiting strategies when it came to the treatment of prisoners, even if the boundaries of that self-limitation were broad. They were constrained by both the institutional and legal apparatus under which they operated and perhaps by their internalisation of cultural mores and norms regarding acceptability and limits to what can be done in defence of the State’s interests.

Whatever the reason for the relative self-limitation of the US torturers, the end result is that, rightwing apologist’s bluster to the contrary, limited “actionable” intelligence was obtained via the enhanced interrogation program (this was detailed in the Congressional Report on the matter).

Bottom line? Torture does not work when practiced by agents of modern democratic states with strong institutions and laws and a concern for human rights and civil liberties even when dealing with foreign enemies.

No such thing happened during the “Dirty War.” There were no limits set on what interrogators could do to prisoners other than what their consciences dictated. Moreover, the torturers were required to observe each other’s work, to include murdering people, so as to cement the bonds of group complicity (presumably in the hope of securing group silence in future years). The barbarity unleashed on suspects was medieval, modern and mind-bending in its depravity. The interrogators used flame, electricity, water, blunt, bladed and teethed tools, surgical instruments, pneumatic machines, vices and industrial presses. They removed body parts without anaesthesia for no medical purpose. They made captives perform grossly degrading acts and penetrated them with an assortment objects. They raped and sodomized both men and women alike and used animals to do so as well. They mutilated, tortured and murdered children, spouses, siblings, parents and grandparents in front of prisoners. There was simply nothing they would or could not do in pursuit of a confession and/or information about others. Worse yet, many of these evil beings still walk amongst us, either in exile or still in Argentina in spite of the various trials of officials implicated in the atrocities of the Dirty War.

Beyond the personal tragedies of those victimised, this is the saddest part: The torturer’s methods worked. Time and time again the US cables document Argentine security officials stating that prisoners identified other members of political resistance groups after “hard” interrogations. Time and time again the cables detailed how one by one “terrorist” cells were dismantled thanks to information gleaned from such interrogations. From the time the military took power on March 24, 1976 to the time of the Soccer World Cup held in Argentina in June-July 1978, tens of thousands of people vanished (some into exile) and levels of political violence declined from an average of half a dozen murders a day to near zero. Both urban and rural guerrilla groups were decimated and thousands of people disappeared. By the time the World Cup started under the watchful eyes of the junta and celebrity guests like Henry Kissinger, Argentina was once again at peace, even if it was the peace of the dead.

Two things stand out for me. First, why did the victims give up the names of comrades, friends, acquaintances and family rather than just accept the fact that they were going to die? Surely they must have known that they and the people tortured in front of them would not make it out alive, so why give the torturers what they wanted? All I can think is that while many people broke because of the physical horrors inflicted on them and hoped to escape death in their moment of agony, an equal number broke because they wanted to save the lives of their loved ones even if they knew that they would die and their loved ones or others would likely die anyway. Between desperation and pain, it seems that the captive’s minds searched for futile hope in the midst of darkness.

The second standout point is what made the torturers do what they did? There certainly was both individual and collective psychopathic behaviour involved (such as in the case of the infamous “Angel of Death” Lt. Carlos Astiz, later captured by the British in the first confrontation of the Falklands/Malvinas War), but it also appears that to reach the state of mind that they operated in they had to believe that a) democracy and human rights were useless concepts; b) the rule of law was no longer viable as a social construct; c) ideological enemies were sub-human; d) they were part of a greater good; e) morality was relative and the ends justified the means; f) they were inured to violence given the ongoing and escalating social conflict of the previous decade; g) they had impunity, both present and future; h) their cause was existential (in this case defence of the Catholic, capitalist, heterosexual, patriarchal and white-dominant parameters of Argentine society).

Which is to say, when unconstrained by democratic norms and (at least concern about) the rule of law, torture works. It works because once there is no limit to what torturers can do, their victims have only one–even if futile– hope to save themselves or others, and that is to talk. The democratic “variant” of torture simply cannot enter this realm unless the very values that underpin democratic socialisation are absent in the interrogator.

That explains why I was wrong about the utility of torture. I used to think that torture persisted because it was useful as a punishment that reminded potential victims of the costs of engaging in specific courses of action and thereby deterred them from doing so. I also thought that it involved sadistic pleasure on the part of desensitized socio- or pyschopathic perpetrators.

Now I believe that, along with both of these motives, torture persists throughout history because it is a useful interrogation method under specific conditions where democratic norms, values, institutions and legal codes do not apply. Since democracies have historically been a minority among world governance structures, this can explain the wide-spread use of torture to this day.

I am belabouring the obvious.

I will not go into how the Catholic Church and several democracies were active supporters of the Argentine dictatorship (including the US until Jimmy Carter was elected, and then after he was replaced by Ronald Reagan). Nor will I delve into how civil wars often see more atrocities committed than in foreign wars. What I will note is that when democracies begin to be corroded from within and respect for institutions and laws and basic norms about civility begin to be supplanted by partisanship, opportunism and treachery, then the slide into darkness has begun.

Perhaps that is what happened to the Bush 43 administration, and which may be happening now under Trump. Perhaps it is what led the French to go feral when trying to cling on to their colonial possessions in the 1950s and 1960s.

Whatever the case there is one more thing to ponder. If a liberal democracy like New Zealand had anything to do with the extraordinary rendition and black site programs that the US ran as conduits into and locations for its “enhanced interrogation” efforts, then merely having strong institutions and respect for the rule of law is not enough to guard against complicity in torture when fear of “the other,” bureaucratic opportunism and security partner pressure is involved. That is a major reason why I am interested in reading the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security’s (still delayed) report on whether New Zealand had anything to do with that part of the US “war on terrorism.”

The Hollow Giant.

datePosted on 16:42, March 14th, 2019 by Pablo

Towards the end of the Soviet Union, intelligence analysts in the US began to focus more on its social geography and less on its military capabilities (which if formidable were not keeping pace with US technological advancements). This came about because, unlike the Kreminologist bean-counters, more astute analysts saw in that technological stagnation fundamental signs of a society in decline. The simplest of the observations made during those years was this: the problem of productivity in the USSR “worker’s paradise” was in large part due to the fact that work only got done in the mornings. After a (liquid) lunch, workers simply were too drunk to put in more hours of hard graft. The problem was apparently pervasive, to include inside the Soviet military. This led to scrutiny of data on alcohol-related injuries, illnesses, deaths and other pathologies (street fighting, domestic violence) which, even if incomplete given the nature of Soviet rule, allowed the US intelligence community insight into the causes of what turned out to be a terminal malaise of the Soviet social economy.

Technological innovation is hard to come by, much less put into practice, when many of productive age prefer distilled spirits over spiritual or societal improvement. The “Socialist Man” was no more.

I say this because the US is starting to increasingly look like the Soviet Union in decline. The president just announced his 2020 budget proposal that includes US$714 billion on “defense” but cuts US$1.7 trillion from public health, education, welfare and social security allocations while decentralising and privatising nearly as much through the use of bloc grants to states and profit-oriented entities.

This is important to understand because the US is a nation with increasing numbers of elderly, fixed income residents who depend on social services to live out their twilight years with some measure of dignity and grace. It is in the midst of an opioid crisis of unparalleled dimensions, to the point that a US resident is more likely to die of an opioid overdose than in a car crash. The Trump budget does nothing to address that.

Income inequality continues to grow, with nearly 40 percent of US residents (140 million) living near or in poverty. Health indicators remain largely stagnant. While some areas improved, other declined, with geographic dispersion and income being major factors in health indicator scores nation-wide. Likewise, education statistics show a levelling off of the number of people graduating from both high school and tertiary institutions, while literacy rates are showing signs of slipping.

The point of these data source linkages is to show that while the US continues to devote huge amount of resources to its military, it is under-resourcing and therefore underachieving on major social indicators that are the backbone of a healthy, robust nation (both characteristics of the USSR in decline). With Trump in office the hollowing out process has accelerated to the point that the US has begun to cede ground to rivals when it comes to technological innovation: witness PRC advances in space exploration, Russian hypersonic weapons development and the myriad high tech incubators sprouting up everywhere from Mumbai to Buenos Aires.

This is not to say the the end is nigh, but it does indicate that if not Rome before the Fall, the US is starting to look more and more like the USSR before perestroika and glasnost.

The trouble for the US is that all of its ills are compounded by the crisis of its political system, which is not just embodied in the persona of Donald Trump and his entourage of grifters, incompetents and venal opportunists. It is also enshrined in the Republican Party, which abandoned any pretence of adhering to principle in pursuit of partisan gain and personal enrichment. That in large part is due to the profound corruption of the political system, now dominated by corporate lobbies and insider deal-making that are oblivious to the popular will. This extends to the judiciary, which far from being independent in many instances has deep ties to the private and public agencies that it is responsible for adjudicating (for example, via the appointment of corporate lawyers to state-level and federal district benches).

The USSR was fortunate to have Mikhail Gorbachev as its eighth and final leader. He knew that the pathologies mentioned at the start of this essay were irreversible under the system as given and that the USSR could not respond to, much less sustain the pace of the competitive pressures of strategic rivals pressing ahead with socio-economic and military advancements. He knew that the system was broken and had to change, not only economically, but socially and politically as well. As much as we may look back at his days as tinted with too much idealism and too little understanding of the deeply rooted authoritarian ethos embedded in Russian culture, he was able to resurrect Russia out of the ashes of the former USSR and set the stage for its return to great nation status under subsequent (and much less enlightened) leadership.

The US has no such saviour. What it has is the political equivalent of a drunken sailor lurching about after a night on the terps. In fact, to continue the analogy, the US political system is a bit like the drunk who finds himself lying in a gutter, bruised and covered in his own secretions. At that moment, he has two options: realise that he has hit rock bottom and get up and seek help; or roll over, sleep it off and continue on a bender once he can stand again. The US–or at least the Republican Party and the MAGA masses–has chosen the second option.

For Soviet workers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the turn to liquid lunches represented a quiet, passive protest against the failures of the worker’s State. It was a weapon of the weak used against uncaring bureaucrats and apparatchiks who no longer related to the everyday struggles of the Soviet Man. Used as a form of collective action, it slowly ground the Soviet productive apparatus to a near halt, thereby making it vulnerable to the pressures of its external rivals at the same time that it no longer had the internal vigor, will or stability that allowed it to defeat the Germans in WW2 and grow into a super-power. It was just a shell of its old self, a mostly declawed paper tiger that while dangerous if cornered, was in need of rejuvenation based on fundamental social, economic and political change.

In a sense the US is in the same predicament, except that it does not know it yet. Its form of capitalism has gone from cowboy (they would say “entrepreneurial”) to rapacious. It is no longer a meritocracy for all (if it ever truly was), at least if the recent university admissions pay-to-pay scandal is any indication. It still has leading edge sectors of the economy, but the bulk of GDP is located in provision of services rather than production of tangible assets. It has a political class that is decadent, venal and corrupt. And it has an alcoholic’s blindness to its own flaws and failures, instead hiding behind short-sleeve patriotism and nationalistic bluster.

Robert Mueller will not be the US’s Gorbachev. Even when Trump is removed, the systemic problems that have caused the US decline will remain. The crisis, in a word, is organic. US politics is broken, society is fractured and the economy is more brittle that it appears at first blush. Maybe the Democrats will stage an intervention in 2020 and remove the addled-minded bully from the White House along with his congressional enablers. Perhaps a new social contract can emerge from the MAGA mess that rejects its core tenets of chauvinism, xenophobia, bigotry, ignorance and greed. It is possible that the era of short-sighted economic opportunism rooted in finance capital, the military-industrial complex, social media tech and fossil fuels will finally come to an end. But if that does not happen, then the Hollow Giant will plod along like Nero in a stupor or the USSR under Brezhnev until it, too, ultimately falls.

The Bully’s gambit.

datePosted on 12:54, February 28th, 2019 by Pablo

It has been an open secret in US foreign policy circles that Donald Trump wants to go to war with Venezuela. He has said as much on a number of occasions, not always disguised by the “all options are on the table” rhetoric his advisors urge him to use. In his recent book former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe mentions that Trump asked his national security team “why can’t we go to war with Venezuela,” claiming that it should be easy to do so. He may soon get his wish.

Let’s be clear on why Trump wants to wage war on a southern neighbour. It stems from the fact that he is an ignorant bully who believes in the 1823 Monroe Doctrine (or as much as he is told of it, especially the part about being the Western Hemisphere’s police force) and pines for the days of Teddy Roosevelt’s Roughriders and gunboat diplomacy. He covets Venezuelan oil even though its decrepit pumping and refining infrastructure, US oil surpluses and relatively low oil prices make his notions of “controlling” it a bit more complicated than his simple mind can grasp. But as a deep-seated xenophobic racist he hates Latinos in any event, and the corruption and incompetence of the olive-skinned Venezuelan leadership led by Nicole Maduro feeds into all of is prejudices about them. Add to that the fact that, even though he himself is a draft-dodging silver-spooned coward who has no real comprehension of the sacrifices and costs of going to war, he revels in it and the bloodlust it incites amongst the MAGA morons who follow him.

What he is not interested in is the plight of the Venezuelan people or the nature of Maduro’s rule. After all, he heaps praise on Kim Jong-un, Mohammed bin-Salman, Rodrigo Dutarte and Vladimir Putin, so respect for human rights, providing for the common good and freely-chosen open government are not high on his list of priorities. Instead, the Venezuelan crisis, which essentially is an economic crisis brought about by government mis-management, corruption and incompetence that evolved into a national humanitarian crisis and now a political crisis–or what Gramsci called an organic crisis of the State–provides Trump with a window of opportunity for him to act out his fantasy of being a war-time president.

The machinery for going to war appears to have been switched on. Since I have been involved in such things in a past life, let me explain how it works.

The move to war starts with the White House via the National Security Council (NSC) asking the Department of Defense (DoD) to draw contingency plans for an armed confrontation with Venezuela. The request is conveyed to the regional units responsible for Latin America, in this case the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for the Interamerican region (OSD-ISA-IA). The request is also sent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and its directorates responsible for war-planning in Latin America (especially J2 (Intelligence) and J3 (Operations)), as well as the Undersecretary of Policy and Plans (OSD-US-PP). These agencies often combine resources into a Joint Task Force (JTF) that games out a number of scenarios.

Military intelligence agencies such as the DIA are tasked to gather actionable intelligence on key targets, and the regional military command responsible for Latin America, the Southern Command based in Miami, is assigned the role of drawing up battle plans. The US Special Operations Command in Tampa will also be involved, and between these commands and the JCS the specific mix of airforce, naval and ground forces will be calibrated, then activated (the US favours an air-sea-land approach to conventional warfare, especially if special operators are involved). This will include units with regional focus such as the US Atlantic Fleet and 12th Air Force, as well smaller detachments like Special Boat Units and Air Force special operations wings.

Strategic planners in DoD will narrow down feasible options using multi-level cost/benefit analyses. Interagency working groups will be formed in order to coordinate information flows and policy feedback across affected bureaucracies (for example, the State Department, Homeland Security, Treasury and Customs, since all are involved in the pre-and post conflict response). US military attaches will be ordered to liaise with their Latin American counterparts in order to gauge reaction to any hostile US move (and explore the possibility of cooperation in operations in the case of Brazil and Colombia) and diplomats will be dispatched throughout the region to shore up support for the US and explore the possibility of material assistance from individual countries.

The CIA, NSA and DIA will assign regional and country specialists to the planning and covert assets and signals specialists will increase their reporting on the Venezuelan regime’s internal dynamics and its military’s behaviour, movements and communications. In a case like Venezuela’s where the regime is under siege and the US backs the opposition, the CIA will facilitate backdoor talks between exiles, opposition figures, disgruntled military personnel and US officials so as to ensure that all are playing off of the same page in the lead up to war. If needed, a cover plan–say, the need to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to desperate people as requested by the US friendly opposition–is drawn up in order to pre-position assets and material in preparation for hostilities.

All of this has already been or is being done by the US with regards to Venezuela. Reports have it that numerous flights operated by a CIA-front air charter service from a civilian airbase adjacent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina (home to US Army special forces) have departed for Colombia carrying humanitarian aide. The US special envoy for Venezuela, Elliot Abrams, and the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Interamerican Affairs traveled to the Colombian-Venezuelan borders last weekend to meet the Opposition leader Juan Guaido and oversee the unloading of provisions destined for Caracas (a move that was blocked by Venezuelan National Guardsmen). Cuban authorities have reported that US special forces have deployed to Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands in a pre-positioning move (the Cubans have their own reasons to make such claims but their intelligence is very often accurate).

If plans are in an advanced stage, contact with opposition resistance groups in the Venezuelan capital and other population centers will have been made and perhaps weapons supplied. A plan to neutralise the regime leadership and its intelligence networks will be readied. A provocation ploy (say, murder of a US-backed Opposition figure) or excuse for action plan (e.g. threats to US citizens) may be drawn up should it be required as a justification for war.

These things take time, so it is safe to say that if by this point the battle plan is well developed, Trump gave the war order very early in his presidency. DoD and JCS cannot refuse the president’s request even if they oppose it; their duty is to comply with what the Commander-in-Chief has requested. This may not preclude them from approaching Congress about concerns regarding the proposed operation. After all, this is would not be a war of necessity but rather one of opportunity (if not vanity), and the costs involved may not justify what is achieved even in a best-case scenario. But with people like Senator Marco Rubio baying for regime change in Venezuela, the congressional mood to resist the president at this stage is mixed at best, so military concerns about it may not find a receptive audience on the Hill.

In any event, the CIA and US Air Force planes ferrying supplies to Colombia land and take off from the town of Cucuta, located on the Venezuelan border and the site of a violent confrontation last weekend on the transnational bridge linking the two countries. Abrams flew in a USAF aircraft to that town’s airport, which is home to an Army mobile infantry brigade and conventional infantry brigade (largely made up of counter-insurgency companies). This reminds the Venezuelans that Colombia is the US’s closest Latin American military ally, having fought decades together against drug traffickers, the FARC and other guerrilla groups. Colombia is signalling that it will, at a minimum, allow the US to stage and pre-position forces on its territory, even if just on military bases. The Colombians have despised the Bolivarian regime since Chavez’s times, and now their ideological enmity has been practically reinforced because the crisis has seen a mass refugee migration from Venezuela into Colombia at the same time that increased smuggling flows head in the other direction. Social cohesion in border regions has been negatively affected and the public purse is being stretched by the need to provide for the refugees as well as maintain public order and border security. The Colombians have had enough.

Usually the Brazilian military would be reluctant to allow the US to stage and deploy military forces from Brazilian territory. But the election of right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, who explicitly modelled himself on Donald Trump during the 2018 campaign, means that things have changed. Bolsonaro is keen to cultivate the White House’s good graces, and offering forward positioning rights along the Venezuelan border is one way of doing so. Brazilian and US commandos will welcome the opportunity to hone their skills together in a real operational environment. Here too ideological enmity dovetails with practical necessity, as Venezuelan refugees have fled into Brazil in increasing numbers over the past few months. It is therefore likely that Brazil has agreed to a US military presence on its border with Venezuela.

As the crisis accentuates and the impasse continues, US military planners will pour over maps and powerpoints, then hammer down the details of the means, methods and tactics to be used, as well as Plan B and C scenarios. Assets will be discretely transferred to staging areas and liaison with host militaries and resistance groups will be established. Strategic targets such as oil derricks and refineries will be given special attention.

Trump has a short term reason to activate the war plan: the 2020 elections. His political rationale in the upcoming election year is to influence the outcome via manipulation of nationalistic sentiment at home. This comes naturally to him given his vulgar political mind, and he sees Venezuela as an easy nut to crack. Aided by his allied media outlets, the drumbeat for war has been banging loudly for the last few months and is getting louder. Given the potential results of the Mueller investigation as well as those of several Democrat-controlled House Committees (such as the Michael Cohen hearings now underway), to say nothing of his failed summits with Kim Jong-un about denuclearising the DPRK (as if that was a realistic prospect), Trump might not be able to wait to pull an “October Surprise” even this year (they usually happen in the month before the election, not a year before). So we can expect that the pace of war preparations will increase over the next weeks to months.

For the Maduro regime, the issue is simple: raise the costs to the US (and possibly others) of any armed intervention in the country while either exhausting the opposition via attrition or negotiating a transition pact with it. The military will need to use stealth, manoeuvre and cover against a superior force, hoping to prolong the conflict so that Trump begins to pay a price for his folly. In this it will have the help of Cuban advisors skilled in the art of guerrilla warfare, including proficiency in tunnelling (learned from the Vietnamese) and the use of tactics such as helicopter trapping (where attack helicopters are lured into range of anti-aircraft weapons by small arms fire). If the conflict can be prolonged and US soldiers begin to die in significant numbers, then the bully gambit may just backfire on Trump.

I may have omitted or erred on a few details, but this will be the general thrust of things should Trump decide to pull the trigger that starts a war. I have not included post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building scenarios, but I assume that State Department planners, including those from the Agency for International Development (AID, already on the ground in Cucuta) will be hard at work figuring out post-conflict plans (although truth be told the US is not very successful at producing post-conflict outcomes that are clearly favourable to it). The matter of “what happens next?” once the war is over remains open to conjecture.

The bottom line is that a lot of preparation and resources go into contingency planning for war even against a relatively weak opponent, and even if the costs and fallout are uncertain and multidimensional in nature. This is true even if war is avoided: the costs of the preparations alone are monumental. One thing is therefore certain. The US path to war with Venezuela would have to have started some time ago and the costs are real even if battle is not joined. And if it is, the consequences will be felt for a long time to come way beyond Caracas.

On the post-truth moment.

datePosted on 14:36, January 25th, 2019 by Pablo

For a while now I have been wondering about how we have come to the current state of affairs where objective facts and reality-based truths are subject to question at the same time that blatant falsehoods and denials of fact are promoted and increasingly accepted as part of contemporary social discourse. We now live in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts” where reality denial and abject lying are regular features of the cultural landscape.

I cannot claim any expertise in tracing the origins of the phenomenon. What I can say is that fake news and truth relativism follow a long line of disinformation, misinformation and propaganda aimed to deceive or distract from a particular reality or fact. It has roots dating back to ancient times, where the practice of seeding public debates with false narratives was employed by Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Romans and Chinese dynasties. In the late 20th century it was associated with a type of “yellow” journalism as practiced by the Daily Mail and National Enquirer, where stories about alien abductions and pregnancies shared space with false stories about celebrity deaths, illnesses, criminality, two-headed babes and assorted other lunacy. This overlapped with conspiracy theories peddled by Right and Left wing extremists, who saw dark machinations behind an array of global events.

As of the late 1980s another factor entered into the mix. The rise of post-modernism and its attendant notions of epistemological, cultural and moral relativism, liminality, intersectionality, post-structuralism, rejection of “objective” reality in favour of subjective, contingent and socially-constructed interpretations of “truth” and concern for the narratives of subordinated and traditionally unheard of voices (e.g. indigenous peoples, women, LGBT communities) gave intellectual foundation to the idea that nothing real was truely “objective” and that no fact was universally factual. Like four blind people groping an elephant, reality is defined by the position of the subject as much as it is by the empirical conditions in which s/he is located. And as Isaac Asimov noted with regard to his extraterrestrial beasts and characters, they only appear grotesque, scary and outlandish because we are trapped in the physical constraints of our own Earthly reality, which in turn determines the mental framework we use to categorise what is real, imaginary and unimaginable.

Post-modernism has been deservedly critiqued for its focus on subjectivity and relativity, particularly where it intersects with hard science (say, with regards to the laws of physics and biological imperatives). But it also is correct in bringing attention to the fact that history as well a values lie in the eye of the beholder, and that perspective is often socially constructed and not universally shared.

9/11 gave conspiracy theorists a major boost and the false pretences under which the US invaded Iraq (non-existent WMD “ready to launch” in Tony Blair’s words) spawned wide-spread skepticism about official claims and narratives once the ruse was exposed and the consequences revealed. Meanwhile, the rapid rise of social media and telecommunications technologies gave state intelligence agencies and non-state actors new channels of communication through which they could manipulate and distort “reality” for partisan, political, military, economic and diplomatic advantage.

It appears that the right-wing propaganda outfit Breitbart was one of the first Western agencies to introduce fake news into mainstream political coverage. Steve Bannon honed his skills in this dark art at Breitbart and used them very successfully during the course of the Trump campaign for the US presidency. He got a boost from Wikileaks, which was used by Russian intelligence as a conduit for hacked communications by and disinformation about Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This in turn fed into the Rightwing echo chamber fronted by Fox News and conservative talk radio, who willingly and unknowingly parroted fabricated lies deliberately planted by Bannon and his coreligionists.

Trump then turned everything on its head. Although the mass propagation of “fake news” began with Brietbart and its ilk, Trump started (probably at Bannon’s behest) to use the term as an attack on mainstream, corporate media coverage of his campaign and later presidency. His assault on the free press has been relentless yet very effective because it depends on doubt about factual veracity in the media as a whole. On top of that Trump uses another tactic that seems absurd but which works: he denies obvious things he has said and done even if they have been recorded the day before and lies on top of lies to the point that it is near impossible to determine when the falsehoods began.

In Trumpworld objective reporting is fake and outright lies and deceptions are truth. Climate change is a hoax; the security threat posed by undocumented migrants of colour is real.

His advisors and surrogates imitate his style and add their own flourishes, such as Kelly Anne Conway’s remark that the administration deals in “alternative facts.” A whole machinery of Republican-linked PR and crisis management agencies now engage in institutional whitewashing and blacklisting via dissemination of fake narratives and denial of reality. Witness the case of the catholic school punk who confronted an Omaha tribe elder outside the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Within days of his smirking gob going “viral” on cellphone videos he was fronting up to leading television outlets spouting the manicured lies of a Republican advisory agency that he, in fact, was the victim of the encounter. Also consider the Republican-backed campaigns to link the Clintons to various murders and the infamous pizza parlour pedophile ring. And of course the “Obama is a Muslim non-citizen” trope.

The practice of using fake news and accusing honest media agents of doing so has spread world-wide particularly in rightwing political circles. Although authoritarians like Putin are masters at the art of disinformation, even upstart despots like Erdogan, Bolsonaro and Dutarte have trotted out their variations on the theme.

But that is not the only realm where the post-truth moment has gone. It is now considered–at least in large parts of the US– to be a socially accepted strategy to deny, dispute and lie about objective facts rather than take responsibility for what actually happened. It is now acceptable to flout ignorance of facts, be they scientific or political, in support of a particular world view. It is now common for bigots to not only come out fo the closet but to openly display prejudice while denying doing so. One is no longer a racist; one is a proud white nationalist simply sticking up for his/her heritage and cultural values.

It is like a kid caught out stealing cookies from a bakery display jar. When confronted about stealing cookies, he yells “says who?” When told that he was seen by several people in the act of committing the deed, he yells “who are they?” When told they are responsible adults who just happened to be on the scene he yells that they saw wrong and even of they did see right they are plants and snitches out to get him. And when his parents turn up, they angrily take his side of the story even though he has crumbs on his hands and chin. At that point the baker and witnesses just want to move on, thereby allowing the kid to get away with his misbehaviour. So it is with Trump and an ever growing number of people enamoured by his type of approach to facts that do not accord with his notion of a preferred reality.

New Zealand has so far been largely spared the ignominy of embracing the post-truth moment. But if the actions of certain ideological circles are an indication, the introduction of Bannon-style politics is on its way, at least in terms of using fake news to cloud public perceptions of what is fact and what is not.

For the time being I remain confident that Kiwis have the ability to identify and call out the BS artists and purveyors of mistruths. And I am reminded of something that I have said to my children over the years as they came of age and found it difficult to discern fact from fiction when reality is contested:

“May your path be that of the gentle warrior, steeled by conviction. And may your eyes always shine brightly with the beacon of truth.”

It’s over.

datePosted on 14:01, December 27th, 2018 by Pablo

Media coverage of the Trump administration is like a group of people standing around the bedside of a terminally ill person. Instead of dealing with the fact that the person is soon to depart this earthly coil, they linger on the details of her illness, the early symptoms that remained undiagnosed, the downhill course of her trajectory, the therapies used to prolong her life, the deterioration of her body and the awfulness of it all. That is all well and true but the bottom line is that for the person in the bed, life will soon be over and no amount of picking through her medical history will change that.

Whether it be out of morbid curiosity or driven by ratings boosts linked to the politically macabre, the US media fixates on Trump’s every action. He fuels their addiction to administrative chaos with his inane tweets and moronic statements. Truth be told, the press cannot get enough of it and many a pundit has made his name off of analysing the Trump train wreck. But all this ignores the larger picture, which is that, whether it happen in days, weeks, months or a year, the Trump presidency is finished. Done. Dusted, Kaput. Finis.

The disaster that is his presidency is too obvious to recount in sordid detail here. Suffice it to say that people are being fired or leaving the administration in droves, and many jobs remained unfilled or have been taken by intellectual lightweights. Trump lashes out and reacts impulsively across a range of issues, with suspicions emerging in print that he is addicted to the prescription stimulant Adderol (which is a 25th amendment grounds for removal). He is besieged on several legal fronts, both at the federal as well as state level. Congress is soon to see Democrats gain control of the House of Representatives (which means his legislative agenda is all but finished), and his own Party is not wiling to blindly follow his policy leads. His foreign policy is in tatters, his border wall will not be built and the Mexicans certainly will not pay for it, North Korea still has nukes, his trade war is hurting the states where is electoral base is strongest, the Russians and others laugh at him to his face, his children are in legal jeopardy, and his cabinet has an increasingly feral character to it. Daily scandals, lies and inanities are a constant soundtrack of his presidency. Absorbing all of that, Wall Street, which had been so opportunistically bullish when he entered office (and for which he claims credit), is now moving beyond skittish into full bear territory (for which he blames the Federal Reserve). As New York state prosecutors pointed out with regard to the Trump Foundation, his administration is basically an on-going criminal enterprise rooted in fraud and corruption posing as a government. His lying acolytes are no longer able to keep straight faces when spinning the White House narrative and many of his supporters in high places have simply gone to ground. Even Fox News and rabid rightwing radio personalities are breaking ranks with him. The exact precipitant and method of exit remain unknown, but one thing is clear: He is isolated, incoherent and irrational. He will soon be irrelevant.

That is why the media would be better off ignoring him and focusing on the line of succession and other aspects of institutional continuity. The era of president Mike Pence is at hand, and if it turns out that he played loose with the Russians during the campaign (as is claimed), then he too may be shown the door. That brings the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, into the Oval Office, and if he is unfit to serve, then Nancy Pelosi as the incoming Speaker of the House follows in the line of succession. If Pence is not indicted or otherwise tainted by his association with Russians during the campaign, he is free to choose his own Vice President (subject to Senate confirmation).

It behooves the US political elite to be working with Pence on transition scenarios. Pence is a religious freak and troglodyte on gender and sexual issues, but as a former congressman and governor he knows what it takes to get things done in DC and he is rational in a hyper-conservative way. Although he will likely return to the neoconservative approach to foreign policy and continue to be on the wrong side of history when it comes to guns, reproductive choice and race relations, he will be, after the lunatic steps down, positively easy to deal with. The same goes for Pompeo, who served in Congress before being named CIA director and then Secretary of State.

The institutions themselves need to develop transition plans. Already defence strategists openly worry about Trump going rogue and trying to launch a nuclear strike somewhere as a diversion or as a act of petty revenge on his successors. They point out that he can do so on his own and that there are no formal institutional checks on him (he is only supposed to consult with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defence and National Security Council as well as other cabinet officials, but he is not obliged to do so or to heed their counsel). Even if senior officers refuse his orders to launch a nuclear strike, he can work his way down the nuclear chain of command until he finds a compliant one. There is consequently a move to get Congress to re-write the law governing nuclear weapons use, but in the meantime DoD and the service commands need to consider the very real possibility of having to refuse a presidential order to use the arsenal. There is precedent for this under Nixon (during Watergate) and Reagan (after his Alzheimer’s became apparent), so it is not an unimaginable task.

The same can be said across the federal bureaucracy. Although Pence will not roll back all or most of Trump’s policies (say, on the environment), he will want his own team at the helm of federal agencies and will want to impose his own stamp on the policy-making process. In order for that to happen in an orderly fashion, planning must be done in anticipation of the change-over. It would be best for career public service managers to prepare contingency plans with an eye towards moving out from under Trump’s political appointees, particularly in contentious portfolios like Education and Homeland Security.

The bottom line is that the obsessive focus on Trump obscures the inevitability of his demise and the need to prepare for a change of administration. Because his downfall of itself will not right the ship of state. For that to happen a plan of action must be in place, something that requires congressional and executive branch coordination even if done without the knowledge of the political moribund in the White House.

Political Market Clearing.

datePosted on 15:27, November 17th, 2018 by Pablo

As I watched the results come in on US midterm election night, it struck me that the tally was a microcosmic distillation of what democracy is in terms of preferred outcomes: no one gets everything that they want, but everyone gets something of what they want. With the Democrats regaining the lower House in Congress and the GOP increasing its Senate majority, and governorships distributed more evenly with a few Democratic wins, it struck me that this was the “mutual second best” that democratic theorists argue is the core of the democratic bargain.

Over the ensuing days it became clear that the Democratic wins were larger than anticipated on election night and that even if the GOP holds on to disputed seats in places like Florida (where I voted in infamous Palm Beach County), the erosion of Republican electoral support was significant. Conventional wisdom has it that Trump was a decisive factor in both victory and defeat for the GOP, as he galvanised his Red state base but alienated the suburban female demographic nation-wide. Women candidates, including women of colour and non-Christian cultural backgrounds, were the major winners in the congressional contests, although most of that came on the Democratic side (but even Republican women did well in places). What the results mean in practice, beyond all of the talk about investigations and impeachment (which are real possibilities now that the House is under Democratic control), is that Trump’s legislative agenda has had the brakes put on it. Unless he moderates his behaviour and reaches across the partisan aisle to secure bipartisan support for landmark legislation on health care, immigration reform, infrastructure spending, etc., then nothing will get done. And if the Democrats try to unilaterally push through their own pet projects, they may find resistance in the Senate and a veto waiting in the Oval Office.

Given that many in the GOP blame Trump for their losses and most of the new Democratic legislators are ideologically to the Left of their House and Senate leaders, the president and leaders of his congressional opposition have reason to seek each other out in an accord. That could cement their legacies and ward off insurrection within their party ranks in the build up to the 2020 elections.

Of course, Trump can just continue to behave like the unhinged bullying a-hole that he is, the GOP can continue to fracture along pro- and anti-Trump lines while Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer stifle calls for change from the Left of their party. That will lead to government dysfunction and potential gridlock, which opens the door to unforeseen and unexpected developments on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. And then there is the Mueller investigation…

All of that aside, what interests me the most at this juncture is the notion that the 2018 midterms represent a type of political market clearing in the US. As with the notion of “mutual second best” the term “political market clearing” is a conceptual transfer from economics. It refers to the moment when after a period of stress and tension in the political system there is a breakthrough that leads to the re-establishment of the system along new equilibrium points. This can entail a clearing out of old structures and individuals and their replacement with newer political agents and/or can come via a re-balancing of the political party system at the federal, state and local levels. The idea is that a watershed moment leads to a catharsis  of the political system, which then seeks a new equilibrium of power relations that is more efficient than the previous aggregation.

This is not just another way of saying political “pendulum swing.” Pendulum swings are metronomic, which makes them regular and predictable. There is nothing regular or predictable about a political market clearing, as it is born of the crisis of the previous system and may undergo several iterations before settling into a newly equilibrated status quo.

In the political market policy ideas and initiatives are the stock in trade. Some rise as others fall. For example, a decade or so ago the idea of universal single user pays health care with no exclusions for pre-existing conditions was considered ridiculous and politically impossible to achieve in the US. Today, it is at the centre of the health care debates, with the non-exclusion of pre-existing conditions being a successful Democratic talking point in the midterms. Likewise, for years the notion of limiting the type of firearms made available for public purchase was considered as ludicrous as was the notion that the National Rifle Association could be confronted directly in any election. Now both of those notions are being actively disputed, including by a few Purple state Republicans. Even the intractable issue of campaign finance reform has, thanks to Bernie Sanders and his influence on the incoming class of congressional Democrats, now been pushed onto the policy trading floor.

If policy platforms are the stocks traded in the political market, then votes are its currency.  With the shift to Democratic governors in several important states two years before the national census and subsequent congressional re-districting process (which are controlled by State governments), gerrymandered  districts that favor Republicans by atomizing non-White voting populations will cease to exist and will be replaced by those that more accurately reflect the demographic and socio-economic shifts of the last decades. That will translate into continued and perhaps more elected Democrats in state and federal legislatures and/or a move to moderation among Republicans at both levels. Voting occurs in committees as well as in upper and lower chambers as a whole, and with the shift in power last week the relative value of selected policy stocks have undergone reappraisal. This will inform any approach to bipartisan consensus on federal legislation so, for example, the sell-off of plummeting stock in the border wall policy proposal will be balanced by increased buying of the rising stocks of comprehensive immigration and health care reform.

It seems to me that the US midterms mark the deepening of a political market clearing. Although the Obama administration will be treated kindly by history, it represented the end of a political generation marked by a quarter century of increasingly polarised and partisan politics reproduced and magnified by media outlets masquerading opinion and advocacy as journalism. It culminated the end of a bipartisan consensus and its replacement with a fiercely disloyal Republican opposition in Congress that stymied any administration initiatives simply because it could. And it was under those conditions that the Trump candidacy emerged and won the presidency with its calls to drain the swamp and make America great again. Although Trump’s rhetoric is more demagogic rather than informed by the realities of the day, it marked the beginning of the US political market undergoing value reappraisal.

The midterms have shown the direction of the reappraisal and the emerging equilibrium points around which policy efficiencies will cluster. Yet the process is ongoing. The political market clearing will not fully re-equilibrate until after the 2020 elections (if then), even as the foundations for new policy efficiencies have been and will continue to be laid.

If I am correct, then we will be able to look back at the Trump era as the last gasp of a political system drowning in its lack of popular representation and elitist excess. Think about it: the racism, misogyny, xenophobia and general celebration of bigoted ignorance unleashed by the Trump effect on US politics–Trump being both a symptom and aggravator of already latent trends–is the inevitably futile last stand of a cultural, racial and socio-economic demographic in inexorable decline. The venality of its political defenders is proof of that, and  the ideological vitality of its supplanters is evidence of the sea change coming ahead. Political clinging to a mythical past that never was will continue for a while more but the trend is clear and that is where the political market re-equilibration gains strength. It is not a matter of if but when the new policy efficiencies are  balanced and a new stable political equilibrium is established.

The questions for the next few months are whether Trump has the ability to build a bridge to the congressional Democrats after demonizing them as a means of whipping his retrograde base, and whether the Democratic congressional leadership will take the bait of bipartisanship on the terms that he may offer. If this happens then the political market clearing will be stymied (which is beneficial mostly to the current political status quo). On the other hand, if the congressional Democrats impose on Trump and the congressional GOP a new legislative agenda that recognises the changing electoral demographic that brought them victory last week, then the process of policy re-equilibration in a political market clearing could well begin to take hold.

One can only hope.

Respect, fear and laughter.

datePosted on 12:48, September 28th, 2018 by Pablo

This week Donald Trump chose the wrong place and the wrong time to brag about MAGA. For its myriad faults, the UN General Assembly is probably the most objective place with which to evaluate the US’s position in the international community and the impact of the Trump presidency on it.

When Trump thumped his chest about the greatness that is his administration during his speech to it, the UNGA laughed in his face. He later said that they were laughing with him, not at him. He would be wrong on that.

According to US foreign policy lore, “it is better to be respected than feared, but it is enough to be feared.” It is now clear from the UNGA response to Trump’s chauvinistic utterances that the US, or at least the US under Trump, is neither feared or respected. Instead, it is seen as the large oaf best avoided, toyed with from afar or irritated at a distance. It is dangerous, to be sure, but it is in many ways a paper tiger much in the way that Trump is. This was best illustrated at the UN Security Council meeting that Trump chaired two days after his UNGA speech. While most attention focused on his claims that China was interfering in the upcoming US midterm election on behalf of the Democrats and his threats against Iran, lost in the coverage was the fact that Bolivian President Evo Morales, sitting in his country’s temporary Security Council seat less then 2 meters from Trump, ridiculed him to is face after Trump started going about restoring democracy to Venezuela after airing his complaints about China.  Morales reminded Trump of the US’s sorry history of interventionism in Latin America and denounced his hypocrisy in a way that few would ever had done in years gone by. But that was then and Drumpf is now.

The UN’s laughter is also rooted in the knowledge that the shift to populist governance in the US could well be the last gasp of a dying empire. The move to economic nationalism under personalist leadership and the reassertion of mono-cultural ethno-religious dominance in the face of multicultural demographic shifts and the globalisation of economic relations represents a call to a past that even if it existed (it never fully did), is no longer possible in an age of emerging great power multipolarity in which US decline as a superpower is matched by the rise of new and resurgent powers. The turn to myopic vanity (MAGA) under Trump’s brand of populism spells the end of imperial hubris, if not of imperial ambition itself. That is because in mature liberal democracies the rise of nationalist populism is a response to crisis of the political status quo but is not the answer to it. Instead it represents the last gasp of a dying empire, one last grasp at “greatness” before the cold reality of potentially terminal decline begins to set in.

World leaders also know that even if it is a temporary paralysis under Trump rather than a terminal illness, the current “America First” US foreign policy needs to be waited out or side-stepped rather than confronted. It is increasingly clear that Trump may not survive his term in office because of the Mueller investigation and the distinct possibility that the Democrats regain at least one chamber of Congress in the November 2018 midterm elections. Even if he does complete his current term it is unlikely that he will get re-elected in 2020 given the support levels he receives. If the Democrats win the House of Representatives it is probable that they will commence impeachment proceedings against him, something that will make much harder his ability to press forward with his policy agenda. If his popularity continues to slump due to the negative impact of retaliatory tariffs on exports from so-called Red States that backed him in 2016 (which is what the Chinese have done in a targeted way and which is why Trump is claiming that they are trying to interfere in the 2018 midterms), then his chances for re-election in 2020 are virtually nil as are those of any GOP candidates still trying to ride his coattails.

Unlike the Chinese Communist Party that can demand and enforce public austerity in the face of US tariffs on its exports, US politicians face electoral scrutiny on a regular basis. And when a trade war begins to bite on the US side, be it in loss of jobs or rises in mass consumer non-durable retail prices, then something will give, and what gives is electoral support for those who support the trade war. Call it the “Walmart Effect:” when cheap goods can no longer be bought cheaply at retail outlets like Walmart, then not only are consumers denied their consumption preferences but the profit margins of the retail corporations take a hit as well. And when the corporate elite see their bottom lines negatively impacted by trade wars, then they will work hard to ensure that those responsible for the loss of profit are punished accordingly. Trump and his economic nationalist supporters are therefore on a political hiding to nothing if they continue down the current path when it comes to trade relations.

Then there is what Mueller’s investigation may have in store.

So the best thing for most foreign governments to do is to laugh at or play along with but not diplomatically confront the MAGA madness. The exception to this is Iran, which has responded relatively calmly but firmly to Trump’s provocations, and North Korea, which has decided that the best way to manipulate Trump is to stroke his ego via slavish praise and flattery (while doing very little in the way of making substantive concessions to the US regarding its nuclear weapons development program). In between lies a continuum of response from making nice with him while keeping channels open with the US foreign policy bureaucracy (India) to ignoring him while concentrating on other diplomatic initiatives not involving the US (the EU). For rival powers like China and Russia, the response is to proceed with their strategic plans without concern for the US response–what can be called pulling the tail of that paper tiger. They key point is that the global community increasingly sees Trump as a temporary aberration rather than an indicator of a hegemonic long-term project.

Whatever the response, it is pretty clear that the US is coming to the end of a long political cycle. Trump is the product and symbol of it as well as its last response and manifestation. What emerges from the ashes of his administration has yet to be determined and it is possible that, having not seen what is obvious from the outside, the US political elite will continue with their partisan squabbles and corporate bankrolling while the country continues its socio-economic descent into division and strife. But it is also possible, like the drunk who wakes up in a gutter and decides to go sober (insert reference to Brett Kavanaugh here), the US political establishment will realise that they have hit rock bottom and need to change their approach to political life.

Then again, it does not appear that the GOP and some of the Democratic establishment have even woken up yet.

Unearthing the mole.

datePosted on 14:12, September 7th, 2018 by Pablo

The issue of who wrote the anonymous “Resistance” op ed in the NY Times (about Oval Office insiders working to thwart and buffer Executive policy-making from Trump’s impulses and excesses) has dominated the media cycle in the US since its publication. Coming on the heels of the publication of excerpts from Bob Woodward’s book Fear, which chronicles the dysfunction of the Trump White House, the search is on for the “senior official” mole. The text has been carefully parsed in order to detect grammatical patterns that could identify the author. Attention has focused on the word “lodestar” in the essay, a word that has been used repeatedly by Vice President Mike Pence in public speeches but which has not been used by other senior Trump administration officials. Focus is also on the phrase “anti-trade,” which suggests to some that someone involved in economic policy making is the author. Others have pointed to phrases in the text said to be used by other senior officials, either as proof that they wrote it or as a cover and deflection from their real identity.

Since my opinion is about as good as anyone else’s when it comes to speculating about the author, and since I have not seen this particular angle covered as of yet, let me offer the following possibility:

The op ed is a joint effort by mainstream Republican insiders now serving in the White House. It was released with at least the tacit knowledge of the Republican congressional leaders, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, and it has been done as a way of terminally undermining Trump in the run up to the November 2018 mid term elections. The reason is that the authors and GOP leadership may well believe that they are headed to a landslide loss in November if they continue to ride Trump’s coattails. For them, it is not so much the possibility of Trump being impeached that is a primary concern (if the Democrats regain a majority in the House he certainly will be impeached), but of the disruption to their legislative agenda if they lose control of Congress. Should they lose the House and even more so if they lose the Senate as well, the GOP will be dead in the water when it comes to advancing its policy agenda. And although the economy is strong, they know that Trump’s disapproval ratings are at record levels and his divisiveness is corrosive to the national well-being, something that has prompted a rise in youth and ethnic minority political involvement and a shift to the Left in Democratic congressional primaries at the same time that cleavages between mainstream and populist Republicans in their primaries grow larger. None of this augers well for Republican electoral chances on November 6.

By the tone and language of the op ed, the authors are mainstream “traditional” Republicans, not Tea Party adherents, economic nationalists like Steve Bannon or alt-Right freaks like Stephen Miller. They clearly exhibit insider knowledge of beltway politics and congressional dynamics.  The language used in the essay suggests that the two retired generals that are senior administration officials–Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis–are not centrally involved even if phrases attributed to them appeared in the text (although they may have been aware of the drafting process).

Pence could be  involved as an author. As Vice President he stands to gain much if Trump resigns, and as a former congressman before becoming Indiana Governor, he has close ties to the GOP Congressional caucuses. But Jeff Sessions could also be involved in the drafting of the op ed. A former Senator and current Attorney General who has been the subject of relentless attacks by Trump for recusing himself from the Mueller investigation into Russian involvement with the Trump presidential campaign, Sessions shares the views outlined in the Times piece. He  has ties to Congress that go back decades and he has a motive for revenge. Kelly Ann Conway is another likely conspirator. Married to a long-standing GOP operative who despises Trump and herself a long-time Republican strategist, she has the worldview presented in the op ed and the connections to the “steady state” that is said to be running things in the pursuit of stability and consistency under the nose of the irrational fool in charge.

So my take is this. Regardless of who exactly are involved, no one individual in the White House would have the courage to write the Resistance essay alone. But a group of mainstream Republican senior officials stuck with an incompetent, ignorant, narcissistic sociopath as leader of their own party as well as president, one who could well be leading them to a historic defeat that could in turn irretrievably fracture the Party, might well have decided to put their heads together and come up with a plan to undermine Trump in order to force his ouster via resignation. They will not come forth and give their names because to do so would allow Trump to regain some initiative by firing them.  Remaining anonymous and in the shadows so close to the Oval Office has and will send Trump into a witch hunting frenzy that, given his obsessive personality, will dominate every aspect of his routine. And in the measure that he obsesses about leakers and scurries to rallies in order to seek comfort and solace far from the isolation he feels in Washington, the more nothing else will get done when it comes to Executive policy-making. Along with the ongoing vendettas, feuds, insults and scandals that are the daily circus that is Trump’s “crazyland” (as General Kelly purportedly referred to it), that makes it easier for Republican candidates to abandon him in all but the most die hard pro-Trump districts. Since those districts alone cannot keep a GOP House majority, it is in contestable districts where the GOP choice to ride his coattails or jump ship is starkest. The Resistance op ed is a signal to them as to which way to go.

So, as others have already pointed out, there is a slow moving coup at play here. It is not coming from the armed forces and/or Democratic Party. It is coming from within the Republican Party in an effort to save itself from the cancer that is Trump. The questions are whether the Resistance coup will succeed and whether it will be enough to save the Republicans from what they have become.

Bonus media link: Mitch Harris and I talk about the Resistance essay and more during our latest radio conversation.

123... 121314Next