Archive for the ‘Foreign Affairs’ Category

Will Trump restart the nuclear arms race?

November 22, 2019

Click to enlarge.

President Donald Trump has threatened to allow the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to lapse when it comes up for renewal in 2021.

Renewal of the treaty would mean a drastic reduction in nuclear weapons.  Failure to renew would mean a resumption of the nuclear arms race and, sooner or later, a virtual certainty of nuclear war.

The Federation of American Scientists reports that number of nuclear warheads has been reduced from a peak of about 70,300 warheads in 1986 to 13,890 early this year.  That’s good progress, but no reason to stop now.

The USA and Russia still have enough nuclear weapons to obliterate each other and much of the rest of the human race in the process.

We the human race have been lucky so far.  The world has come close to the brink of war, but avoided it.  We can’t count on being lucky forever.

If you don’t count nuclear warheads retired, but not yet dismantled, the USA has 3,800 and Russia has 4,490.  The new START, if renewed, would reduce the number to 1,550 each.

President Trump has said he will not renew the treaty unless it covers China as well.  China has an estimated 290 warheads, which is not trivial.

Pakistan only has an estimated 160 nuclear warheads and India has 140.  Analysts say that if those two countries found a nuclear war, just the dust and soot from the nuclear explosions (never mind the radioactive fallout) would darken the skies and bring about nuclear winter.

It would be desirable for all the smaller nuclear powers, including France, the UK, Israel and North Korea, to accept an upper limit on their numbers of nuclear weapons.  But it is unlikely they would cut back so long as the USA and Russia have thousands of weapons.

So what is Trump’s motive?  My guess is that either he or the national security establishment thinks that, by restarting the nuclear arms race, the USA can force Russia to spend itself into bankruptcy or accept U.S. global military supremacy.

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Why risk war with Russia over Ukraine?

November 15, 2019

The impeachment hearings are about allegations of President Donald Trump’s interference with the criminal justice system in Ukraine..

How and why did the United States become so deeply involved in Ukraine in the first place?  The video above of an interview of Prof. Stephen F. Cohen, a historian of Russia and the Soviet Union, gives a good background of this.

The conflict in Ukraine stems from a U.S. effort to draw Ukraine into an anti-Russian alliance, and from a military coup in 2014 that brought an anti-Russian government to power in Ukraine.

The Russia of Vladimir Putin is not a country I would want to live in.  There are too many unsolved murders of investigative journalists and opposition leaders, too much wealth in the hands of corrupt oligarchs, too much power in the hands of secret intelligence agencies.

But Putin is not paranoid to see a threat to Russia in an American-dominated Ukraine.  Look at a map of the greatest advance of the Nazi armies during World War Two, and then look at a map of a NATO including Ukraine and Georgia and you’ll see why.

President Zelensky of Ukraine is a political unknown who was elected by an overwhelming majority on a promise to seek peace with Russia.  He is hemmed in by his dependence on U.S. aid, and by the anti-Russian faction, including neo-Nazis, in the Ukrainian government.

President Trump wants to be a peacemaker and he also wants to dominate.  But he lacks the knowledge, skill or constancy of purpose to pursue either peace or power effectively.

His foreign policy is incoherent.  He is like a drunkard staggering along a sidewalk, sometimes to in the direction of peace, sometimes in the direction of war.

But when he staggers in the direction of peace, he bumps up against a wall—the war hawks in the Pentagon and CIA and in Congress.  So the likelihood is that he will wind up in the gutter and blunder into war.

The USA and Russia are the main nuclear powers.  Each has the power to totally destroy the other.  I don’t think that President Trump or President Putin desire to go to war, but the present confrontation along Russia’s borderlands creates a danger that it could happen anyway.

LINKS

Ukraine for Dummies by Ray McGovern for Consortium News.  A timeline of recent Ukrainian history.

Why Are We in Ukraine? by Stephen F. Cohen for The Nation.

We’re More at Risk of Nuclear War With Russia Than We Think by George Beebe for POLITICO.

There is a corruption case against Hunter Biden

September 27, 2019

Joe and Hunter Biden

Ukrainian prosecutors have good reason to investigate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.  And they reportedly have been investigating him since well before President Trump made his controversial telephone call to President Zelensky of Ukraine.

It’s not just that Hunter Biden served on the board of directors of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company, even though he has no special knowledge of the Ukraine or the energy industry, at a time when his father was President Obama’s “point man” for Ukraine policy.

Ukrainian prosecutors told journalist John Solomon that Burma Holdings apparently made unexplained transfers of money to a U.S. company partly owned by Hunter Biden, in possible violation of Ukrainian law.

Hunter Biden hasn’t been charged, let alone convicted, of a crime.  But there are objective reasons, not just partisan political reasons, to look further at his record.

Back in January, 2018, Joe Biden boasted to the Council of Foreign Relations about how he pressured Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to fire Special Prosecutor Viktor Shokin by threatening to withhold $1 billion in needed loan guarantees.

Solomon took the trouble to get Shokin’s side of the story and wrote an article about it for The Hill, an on-line news service.

He was told that Ukrainian prosecutors re-opened the investigation following Biden’s speech.  That’s significant, because he wrote his article in April, and President Trump’s controversial phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymer Zelensky about the case was on July 21.

Solomon reported:

The prosecutor … [Biden] got fired was leading a wide-ranging corruption probe into the natural gas firm Burisma Holdings that employed Biden’s younger son, Hunter, as a board member.

U.S. banking records show Hunter Biden’s American-based firm, Rosemont Seneca Partners LLC, received regular transfers into one of its accounts — usually more than $166,000 a month — from Burisma from spring 2014 through fall 2015, during a period when Vice President Biden was the main U.S. official dealing with Ukraine and its tense relations with Russia.

The general prosecutor’s official file for the Burisma probe — shared with me by senior Ukrainian officials — shows prosecutors identified Hunter Biden, business partner Devon Archer and their firm, Rosemont Seneca, as potential recipients of money.

Shokin told me in written answers to questions that, before he was fired as general prosecutor, he had made “specific plans” for the investigation that “included interrogations and other crime-investigation procedures into all members of the executive board, including Hunter Biden.”

After Shokin was fired, the investigation was wound up without any charges filed against Burisma Holdings or Hunter Biden.

Yury Lutsenko, the current special prosecutor, said that, after Biden’s speech, he re-opened the case.  He told Solomon he found out things he’d be happy to share with Attorney General William Bar.  He didn’t say what these things were.   That, of course is not evidence of anything.  But there is other evidence against Hunter Biden.

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Trump, Biden and Ukraine

September 25, 2019

I wrote a week ago that impeachment of President Donald Trump is a mirage, and now Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has called for an impeachment investigation of the President.  Such are the perils of commenting on breaking news.

The circumstantial  information already available to the public indicates that President Trump has abused the powers of his office.

President Trump

He acknowledged holding back $250 million in military aid that Congress had appropriated for Ukraine.

He acknowledged talking to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine about reopening an investigation of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that paid Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden, $50,000 a month to serve on its board of directors.  The younger Biden resigned from the board earlier this year.

The House Judiciary Committee wants the transcript of Trump’s conversation with Zelensky, but even if nothing was said that connects the aid package to the investigation, the implication is clear.

The House has a duty to investigate.  I don’t think it is a good idea to call it an impeachment investigation just yet because calling it that means the investigation will be considered a failure if it does not result in impeachment recommendations.

Impeachment by the House may or may not be justified.  Conviction by the Senate would be next to impossible because it would require unanimity among the 47 Democratic Senators plus support by at least 20 Republicans.

Joe and Hunter Biden

What Republicans will point out is that Vice President Joe Biden threatened to hold up $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine unless the government fired Viktor Shotkin, the prosecutor that was investigating Burisma.

Biden claims that Shotkin was corrupt, and his threat had nothing to do with his son.

I know of no evidence that either Joe Biden or his ne’er-do-well son, Hunter, broke the law.  But it’s obvious that Hunter would not have gotten his position if his father had not been Vice President.

It was a conflict of interest for Biden to be President Obama’s point man for Ukraine after his son took the job.

Biden may suffer more political damage than Trump.  The Trump Organization’s worldwide operations involve more extensive potential conflicts of interest.  But Biden has a reputation to lose and Trump doesn’t.

The greatest reputational damage of all in the whole affair is to the reputation of the United States of America as a whole.  It shows that American political leaders do not respect the sovereignty of allies.  It shows they use American power to advance their personal family and political interests.

So far as political strategy goes, I think that so long as public attention is focused on personalities, Trump benefits, and that Democrats can win only if they focus on policy and governance.  Trump may win if the 2020 election hinges on impeachment, and impeachment fails.

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China comes to the rescue of Iran

September 9, 2019

The Chinese and Iranian governments have announced that China will invest $400 billion to develop the Iranian oil and gas industry, a petroleum industry newsletter has reported.

The Iranian government has embraced the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the New Silk Road, an ambitious plan to build infrastructure to unify the economy of the interior of Eurasia under Chinese leadership.

It will include $120 billion for new oil and gas pipeline, including a pipeline through Turkey in violation of U.S. sanctions.  All the equipment for the new projects will be provided by Chinese contractors.

China has the right to buy Iranian oil at a discount and pay for it in soft currencies it has accumulated in dealings with countries in Africa and Asia.  This amounts to an overall 30 percent discount from the world price.

China will employ 5,000 “security personnel” to guard its properties.  This means that any attack on Iran would involve risk of killing Chinese and inviting Chinese retaliation.

Presumably the Iranians, like the Russians, would prefer to sell to Europe, their natural market, for full price, but the U.S. government has blocked them from doing business in Europe in dollars.

The goal of U.S. foreign policy for 70 years has been to control the oil of the Middle East.  Now the oil of Iran is within the Chinese sphere of influence.

There is little intrinsic common ground between China, Iran and Russia.  The U.S. government has driven them together by waging economic warfare against all three.  In the process, it is antagonizing its allies in Europe by forcing them to act against their economic interests.

China’s foreign policy makes it economically stronger.  United States foreign policy is a drain on U.S. strength.  China is making friends.  The U.S. is making enemies.  This will end better for China than it will for the United States.

LINKS

China Defies Trump Big Time With $400 Billion Belt and Road Investment, 5,000 Security Personnel by Juan Cole for Informed Comment.  Hat tip to peteybee.

China and Iran flesh out strategic partnership by Simon Watkins for Petroleum Economist.

How Tehran Fits into Russia-China Strategy by Pepe Escobar for Asia Times.

The hour of maximum danger for U.S. democracy

August 16, 2019

The hour of maximum danger for U.S. democracy, or what will be left of it, will be when other nations rebel against the power of the U.S. dollar.   That will be when the United States is most in danger of a would-be Hitler or Mussolini.

The power of the U.S. dollar is what gives Washington the means to be a great economic power despite huge trade deficits and a hollowing out of American manufacturing.  It provides the means to maintain the world’s most expensive military.

It gives Washington the means to wage economic warfare against nations such as Iran, Venezuela and Russia, and to force poor nations to sacrifice the well-being of their people to foreign creditors.

But the power of the U.S. dollar is a legacy of a past when the U.S. was the world’s leading industrial nation, leading creditor nation and leading exporting nation.   Now the dominance of the dollar rests on the fact no nation’s leaders are both brave enough, and lead a nation that is strong enough, to defy the dollar system.

Benjamin Carter Hett wrote in The Death of Democracy that many European nations turned to fascist and right-wing dictatorships as a result of military defeat, which discredited the established governments, and strong Communist and revolutionary movements, which caused the middle classes to look for protectors.

German democracy survived for a time, but was pushed over the brink by onset of the Great Depression, which the established government was unable to cope with.

The conditions will exist in the United States following the crash of the U.S. dollar.  The U.S. government will no longer be able to raise money by borrowing in foreign markets.  Lack of borrowing power will mean it no longer will be able to pay for a world-wide network of military bases.

At the same time, the military will have to pay more for imported electronics components, imported oil and other supplies, including uniforms.  The fall in value of the U.S. dollar will make U.S. manufacturing costs cheaper in relation other currencies, but it won’t be able to fix the lack of manufacturing capacity.  And it will make investment in new manufacturing capacity more expensive.

The sudden collapse of U.S. military power without a military defeat would open the way to a “stab in the back” myth, comparable to the one about Germany’s defeat in World War One.

The buying power of U.S. workers will fall and the prices of merchandise, so much of which is directly or indirectly dependent on foreign supply chains, will fall.  There will be a crash in the U.S. financial markets and real estate markets.  Many workers will strike.  Many citizens will turn to the streets in protest—probably very few that are explicitly Communist, but who knows?

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What’s at stake in Venezuela

May 6, 2019

The unlabeled country at the bottom center is Nigeria; the one at the upper right is Kazakhstan.  Click to enlarge.

What’s at stake in Venezuela is which oil companies get to control the world’s largest national oil reserve.

LINKS

Venezuela and Binary Choice by Craig Murray.

Venezuela: Forensics of a Clownish Coup by Moon of Alabama.

The Making of Juan Guaidó: U.S. Regime-Change Laboratory Created Venezuela’s Coup Leader by Dan Cohen and Max Blumenthal for Consortium News.

Bernie’s progress

February 28, 2019

Of all the announced U.S. presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders is the one who is unequivocally on the side of American working people (including but not limited to the “white working class”).

He has done more than any of the others to provide a rallying point for those who support labor in its battle with the oligarchy of wealth.

I wish he also was a peace candidate.  He’s moving in a good direction, he’s closer to being a peace candidate than anyone in the field except Tulsi Gabbard, but he does not challenge the U.S. neoconservative foreign policy in the same way that he challenges neoliberal economic thinking.  At least not yet.

LINKS

Six Thoughts on Bernie 2020 by Caitlin Johnstone.  Excellent.  She says it all.

Foreign Policy Distinguishes Bernie Sanders in 2020 by Peter Beinart for The Atlantic.  The case for Sanders.

Think Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are the same?  They aren’t by Bhaskar Sunkara for The Guardian.

Where are the liberals on Venezuela?

February 27, 2019

Reps. Tulsi Gabbard, Ilhan Omar and Ro Khanna are among the few liberal Democrats who unequivocally oppose the Trump administration’s economic and covert war against  Venezuela, but they are isolated.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and many other top Democrats support Trump’s plan.  Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are on the fence. They oppose direct military intervention, but they accept the pretense is that the U.S. government is concerned about the democratic process in Venezuela.

In fact the U.S. gets on very well with the governments much less democratic than Nicolas Maduro’s.  Only the naive think the U.S. government is concerned about anything except Venezuela’s oil.

I don’t have an intelligent opinion on how much of Venezuela’s plight current is due to bad policies of its government, and how much is due to continuing U.S. economic warfare and political subversion.  The only way to find out would be to make the experiment of leaving Venezuela alone and seeing what happens.  Venezuela is the responsibility of the Venezuelans.

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The peril of repealing arms control treaties

February 8, 2019

The danger of all-out nuclear war is two-fold.  One is that a leader of a nuclear-armed nation may launch a first strike in hope that the target nation will not be able to retaliate.  The other is that the leader of a nuclear-armed nation may think another nuclear nation has launched or plans a first strike.

Although neither the American and the Soviet/Russian governments has been willing to give up the option of all-out war, the two governments have over the years made treaties to make all-out war less likely.

But since the dawn of the 21st century, the U.S. government has moved backwards.  President George W. Bush withdrew from the anti-ballistic missile treaty in 2002.  President Donald Trump has announced the U.S. will withdraw from the INF (intermediate nuclear force treaty.  There is a possibility that the strategic arms reduction treaty) will not be renewed in 2021.

Arms control treaties can give a false sense of security.  They do not eliminate nuclear weapons, only stabilize them.  But without such treaties, the danger would be much greater than it is.

ABM Treaty.   The anti-ballistic missile treaty was signed by Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev in 1972, after nearly 10 years of negotiation.  The USA and USSR agreed to limit themselves to 200 anti-ballistic missiles—missiles intended to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles—at two sites.. Later this was reduced to 100 ABMs at one site.  Missile defense against short-range and intermediate-range missiles was allowed.  After the breakup of the USSR, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan agreed to abide by the treaty.

The purpose was to preserve the principle of mutual assured destruction, which was considered a guarantee of peace.  If either American or Soviet leaders thought they had a reliable defense system, they might think they could attack the other nation and then be able to repel whatever weapons weren’t destroyed in the attack.

President George W. Bush canceled the treaty in order to place ABM systems in Poland and Romania.  He said such systems were necessary not just to protect against attack by Russia, but by “rogue nations” such as Iran.

There are grave doubts as to whether these ABM systems would work.  Maybe the best outcome would be that Russian leaders will fear that they might work and NATO leaders will fear they won’t work.

INF Treaty.  Negotiations of the intermediate nuclear force treat were begun by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, and completed in 1987 during the George H.W. Bush administration.  The purpose of the treaty was to eliminate Soviet or Russian missiles aimed at European targets and Europe-based missiles aimed at Russia.

The treaty called for a ban on land-based missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (310 to 3,420 miles).  It did not affect missiles fired from airplanes, ships or submarines, which was to the advantage of the United States, as the leading air power and sea power.  Under the treaty. the U.S. destroyed 346 nuclear weapons and the Soviets destroyed 1,346.

In the early 21st century, Vladimir Putin called for renegotiation of the treaty on the grounds that it did not set limits on other powers, particularly China, with its long land frontier with Russia.  Later Russia reportedly developed and tested an intermediate-range missile, the 9M729, and may have deployed some of them.  Putin claimed that the U.S. ABM system violated the treaty, arguing that nuclear warheads could be fitted on the supposedly defensive missiles.

President Donald Trump announced cancellation of the treaty, based on Russia’s violations.  Critics say that’s what Putin wanted him to do, since it frees Russia from any treaty obligation.

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The ‘deep state’ plan to remake Latin America

January 31, 2019

Evidently the Trump administration’s demand for regime change in Venezuela was not a spur-of-the-moment decision.

It is part of a long-range plan to remake Latin America, along the lines of the failed plans to remake the Middle East.  Other targets are Cuba and Nicaragua.

At best, this will result in increased misery for millions of people who have never harmed or threatened us Americans, and an increased flow of refugees.

At worst, it will result in all these things, plus an increased Russian and Chinese presence in Latin America.

By ‘deep state,’ I mean all the U.S. military, intelligence and covert action agencies that set their own policies and operate out of sight of the U.S. public.

LINKS

Venezuelan Coup Attempt Part of US Plan to Remake Latin America by Yves Smith for Naked Capitalism.

The Making of Juan Guaidó: US Regime-Change Laboratory Created Venezuela’s Coup Leader by Dan Cohen and Max Blumenthal for Consortium News.

Sanctions Are Wars Against Peoples by Moon of Alabama.

‘You’re either for us or against us’

January 30, 2019

Every time a U.S. President targets some nation as an enemy, and tries to drag other countries into the conflict, he creates the possibility of a backlash.

“You’re either for us or against us.”  Say that too many times, and the answer is likely to be, “we’re against you.”

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Why the push for ‘regime change’ in Venezuela?

January 29, 2019

National Security Adviser John Bolton explains U.S. Venezuela policy.

I think I’ve seen this script before.  The unpopular ruler of an oil-rich country cracks down on the opposition.  The U.S. government sees an opportunity and tries to bring about a change in regime.

What can go wrong?  In Iraq, this led to an inconclusive quagmire war in which thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives.  In Libya, it led to the collapse of civil order, leaving Libyans worse off than before.  In Syria, it led to another inconclusive war, benefitting no one.   The chief result of these wars was the European refugee crisis.

Now the U.S. seems to be playing out the same script in Venezuela—doing the same as before and expecting a different result.

The Trump administration has recognized Juan Guaido, the leader of the National Assembly, as the legitimate president of Venezuela, and called for the overthrow of President Nicolas Maduro.  Guaido is indeed the leader, but that’s because the leadership is rotated among the parties, and the Trump administration’s decision happened on his watch.

To support Guaido, the administration has blocked Venezuela’s oil company from collecting revenue from its oil exports.  Instead the money goes into a blocked account until Guaido takes power.

And if he doesn’t?  “All options are on the table.”

As far as I’m concerned, this is a pass-fail test of political leadership.  Only those who oppose intervention are lovers of peace.  So far Bernie Sanders passes this test, as do Democratic Reps. Tulsi Gabbard, Ro Khanna, Ilhan Omar and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.

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Who’s in charge of the U.S. government?

November 23, 2018

Kevin Drum, writing for Mother Jones, defended President Obama against charges of being too supportive of the Saudi Arabian royal family.

Obama, like all US presidents, was heavily constrained by our foreign policy establishment, but in the end he did provide Saudi Arabia with less support than any previous president—and the Saudis made no secret of their intense dislike of Obama over this.  

I think [Glenn] Greenwald underrates just how hard this is in real life, and how much credit Obama deserves for taking even baby steps against the virtually unanimous opposition of the entire US government.

Notice what Drum is saying here.  The elected President of the United States is one thing.  The unelected actual government of the United States is another.  The first can influence, but not control, the second.

I think this is all too true, like Senator Schumer’s warning to Donald Trump to not mess with the intelligence agencies.  What does this say about American democracy?

LINKS

Trump’s Amoral Saudi Statement is a Pure Expression of Decades-Old “U.S. Values” and Foreign Policy Orthodoxies by Glenn Greenwald for The Intercept.

Donald Trump’s Statement on Saudi Arabia is a Lot Worse Than Just Removing a Mask by Kevin Drum for Mother Jones.

Bernie Sanders wants to crusade for democracy

November 9, 2018

The big weakness of Bernie Sanders as a political leader has been the lack of a consistent peace policy.  His tendency has been to oppose wars launched by Republican Presidents and support wars launched by Democratic Presidents.

Now, according to an article in POLITICO, he is rethinking foreign policy.  His idea is to make American foreign policy a crusade in favor of human rights and democracy.

Bernie Sanders

The problem with that is that all the recent disastrous U.S. military interventions have been justified as a duty to support human rights and democracy.  What would keep Sanders from being led down the same path?

The Clinton administration bombed Serbia supposedly to protect the human rights of the Bosniak Muslims and Kosovar Albanians.  The George W. Bush administration invaded Afghanistan and Iraq supposedly to free the Afghan and Iraqi people from the tyrannies of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.  The Obama administration engineered the overthrow of Qaddafi and attempted the overthrow of Assad supposedly to protect pro-democracy people.

Economic warfare against Venezuela and Iran, with a goal of reducing their people to destitution and misery, is justified in the name of protecting their human rights.  A ramp-up to military confrontation to Russia, with the risk of triggering nuclear war, is justified as resistance to the tyrant Vladimir Putin.

Here’s what Sanders had to say in a speech last September—

“Today, I say to Mr. Putin: We will not allow you to undermine American democracy or democracies around the world. In fact, our goal is to not only strengthen American democracy, but to work in solidarity with supporters of democracy around the globe, including in Russia.  In the struggle of democracy versus authoritarianism, we intend to win,” Sanders thundered.

He continued: “Inequality, corruption, oligarchy and authoritarianism are inseparable. They must be understood as part of the same system, and fought in the same way … Kleptocrats like Putin in Russia use divisiveness and abuse as a tool for enriching themselves and those loyal to them.”

Source: POLITICO Magazine

What statements like this imply is some kind of support for anti-Putin forces in Russia, continuation of sanctions against Russian oligarchs and possibly attempting to draw Ukraine and Georgia into NATO.

We’d be telling Vladimir Putin that our goal is to drive him from power.  That means it would be a matter of survival for him to interfere in U.S. politics and try to change that goal.

If I were part of the liberal democracy movement in Russia, the last thing I would want is some American politician announcing support for people like me.  It would be poison.

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China’s geopolitical strategy is economic

October 17, 2018

There is an old saying, “You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.”  While U.S. government tries to impose its will through threats of military action, covert action and economic sanctions, the Chinese have a long-range strategy based on offering economic incentives.   These two videos from Caspian Report give a good idea of what that strategy is and how it works.

The key parts of the strategy are the Belt and Road Initiative (aka New Silk Road) for extending roads, rail lines and oil and gas pipelines across the interior of Asia to connect China with other Asian nations, Russia and Europe, and also for buying rights to key seaports in the Indian Ocean and beyond.  Another is to finance infrastructure projects to Asian and African nations that can’t get credit from European and U.S. banks.

This is not altruistic.  It is a means of making China more powerful and secure, and giving the Chinese access to the world’s natural resources.  In the long run, leaders of small Third World nations may regret having got into debt to China.  But what do the USA—or, for that matter, the European Union—have to offer as an alternative?

What we know about Trump’s ties to Russia

September 8, 2018

Here’s what is known so far about Donald Trump and his relationship to Russia.

He has had extensive business dealings with rich Russians, including organized crime figures.  He son spoke of how the Trump Organization benefited from Russian money.

President Trump

Like many right-wing Republicans, he admired Vladimir Putin as a decisive, authoritarian leader.

During the 2016 Presidential campaign, Trump expressed a desire to improve relations with Russia.  I personally think that was a good thing, not a bad thing.  There is no conflict of interest between the USA and Russia that justifies risk of nuclear war.

President Putin, in response to questions, publicly said in 2015 and 2016 that he would welcome Trump’s election because he wanted better relations with the United States.

Various Russian agencies tried to aid Trump’s campaign, almost certainly by using social media to campaign and probably by leaking embarrassing e-mails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign.  I’m not sure how significant this was.  It may have been more significant than I thought.

President Trump has weakened the Western alliance against Putin and Russia, not by making concessions to Russia but by breaking up the unity of the alliance.  Trump’s trade war threatens the economic interests of allies.  So does his demand that they participate in sanctions against Iran and other countries.   His insults and threats are damaging in themselves.

What I see no evidence of is the claim that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin made an explicit deal that Trump would ease up on economic warfare against Russia in return to Putin’s help in the election campaign.

I think Putin would have been a fool to make such an explicit deal, especially with someone as erratic and lacking in self-discipline as Trump.  A deal also would be unnecessary.  All that is necessary for him to advance his goals is for Trump to be Trump.

I also think that the various meetings and attempted meetings between Trump’s supporters and Russians in 2016 are an indication that no deal had been made.  If there had been a deal, what need for further meetings?  Trump and Putin would have made sure to keep their supporters apart.

The solution to U.S. problems regarding Russia are in the United States, not in Russia.  Congress should curb presidential power to change tariffs at will and to commit acts of war.  It should reconsider economic sanctions against Iran and other countries that do not threaten us.

Voting systems should be secured against electronic hacking by means of publicly counted paper ballots.  Social media should be protected against robo-memes.  Confidential computer files should be made secure even if it means making FBI and NSA surveillance more difficult.

Unfortunately there is no way to curb Trump’s erratic personal behavior between now and the 2020 election.

LINKS

Interview of Glenn Greenwald for the Huffington Post.  Russiagate skeptic’s new view of what’s proven and not proven at this point.

Manafort, Cohen and why Republicans won’t turn on Trump by Emily Stewart for Vox.

How the West empowers Central Asian tyrants

August 8, 2018

The regime of Islam Karimov, who ruled the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan from 1991 to 2016, once had a couple of dissidents boiled alive.  When the grandmother of one of them complained publicly, she was sentenced to six years in prison.

People under his rule could be jailed, tortured or killed for the slightest reason.  Police raped women at will.  His country’s chief export crop, cotton, was picked by forced labor.  Karimov’s family, especially his daughter Gulnara, and his cronies controlled the economy.

Click to enlarge

But he was not a primitive tyrant ruling a backward country remote from the centers of civilization.  Rather he and his fellow Central Asian dictators were intimately connected with global finance and politics, and owed their power to those connections..

International banks helped Karimov and his family take their wealth out of the country and hide it.  Russian, American and Chinese governments completed for his favor, and turned a blind eye when his secret services reached out to capture and kill political opponents living abroad.

Corrupt Third World dictators that Western governments support are not mere puppets.  Empowering them means compromising and corrupting institutions that are supposedly based on the rule of law.

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I recently read two books about Central Asia – MURDER IN SAMARKAND: A British Ambassador’s Controversial Defiance of Tyranny in the War on Terror by Craig Murray (2006) and DICTATORS WITHOUT BORDERS: Power and Money in Central Asia by Alexander Cooley and John Heathersaw (2017).   I’ll first comment on Murray’s book, then on the other book.

Uzbekistan and the other Central Asian nations were part of the Soviet Union until it broke up.  Their governments were continuations of the former Communist governments.

Craig Murray was British ambassador to Uzbekistan from 2002 to 2004. His descriptions of life in Uzbekistan reminds me of accounts of the USSR in the 1930s

He was a colorful character—a drinker, a womanizer and a proud Scot who appeared in formal occasions in Highland dress complete with kilt.  But his physical and moral courage were indisputable.

He once found himself with a stalled car on a country road, alone except for his female interpreter, a female staff member and the widow of a murder victim.

A couple of roughnecks approached, and the widow whispered Murray that they were the murderers of her husband.  Murray pushed one of them in the chest, told them he was the British ambassador and to get out of his way.  He did.

He in theory was supposed to advocate for human rights laws that the British government had endorsed, but in reality, his superiors wanted him to go along with U.S. policy, which was to support Karimov as a valued supporter of the U.S. “war on terror” and interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Uzbekistan was part of the Northern Supply Route, by which U.S. forces in Afghanistan are supported by way of Russia and Central Asia, and it allowed a U.S. air based on its territory.

This mean that Murray was expected to overlook at lot, as he told a Guardian reporter at the time:

People come to me very often after being tortured.  Normally this includes homosexual and heterosexual rape of close relatives in front of the victim; rape with objects such as broken bottles; asphyxiation; pulling out of fingernails; smashing of limbs with blunt objects; and use of boiling liquids including complete immersion of the body.  This is not uncommon.  Thousands of people a year suffer from this torture at the hands of the authorities.

Source: The Guardian

He once interviewed an old professor about imprisoned Uzbek dissidents.  A short time later, the body of the professor’s 18-year-old grandson, bearing the marks of torture, was dumped on the professor’s doorstep.  That is the “murder in Samarkand” in the title.

The U.S. ambassador strongly opposed Murray’s meddling.  At the time was Uzbekistan was a destination for American “extraordinary rendition” of suspected terrorists.  The CIA set great store by information obtained by torture and so did the British government.

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Are normal relations with Russia even possible?

July 19, 2018

I didn’t vote for Donald Trump in 2016, but I thought one of the good things about his campaign was his promise to try to improve relations with Russia.

Now I wonder whether this was even possible.

President Trump in the Helsinki summit showed himself incapable of engaging in normal diplomacy.

Even if he were, he is locked in to Cold War by Congress and by the Mueller investigation.

I have no liking for Vladimir Putin’s regime, but since Russia is the only country in the world with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the United States, I think the drift toward military confrontation with Russia is dangerous.

Trump in his rhetoric seems to agree.  But his administration has armed Ukraine, continued to deploy nuclear weapons around Russia’s borders, sought an increased military budget agreed to increased sanctions against Russia and kept troops in Syria, which is Russia’s ally.

Either Trump does not understand the implications of what his administration is doing or he Is not in control of his administration.

Probably both are true.

It’s also hard for Trump to justify peaceful co-existence with Russia or North Korea while he is stepping up military operations around the world and flirting with war with Iran and Venezuela.

Since he is ignorant and inexperienced in diplomacy, he would need the help of experts to negotiate successfully.  But he has staffed his administration with war hawks who oppose normalizing relations with Russia.  He fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the only one who could have helped him.

He is an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.  He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

Even if he were not the person he is, the ongoing Russiagate investigation stands in the way of peace.  So long as Trump and members of his administration remain under suspicion of plotting with Russian agents to rig the 2016 election, it is not politically feasible to treat Russia like a normal country.

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What’s behind Trump’s demands on NATO?

July 18, 2018

Click to enlarge

President Trump last week demanded that NATO allies, who have already pledged to increase their military spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2024, raise their spending to 4 percent.

This is supposedly necessary to defend against Russia.  Whether or not he really thinks Russia is that much of a threat, the fact is that the European members of NATO already outspend Russia by a considerable amount.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Institute, Russia’s spending military spending last year was $66.3 billion, down from $69.2 billion in 2016.

France spent $57.8 billion, the UK spent $47.2 billion and Germany spent $44.3 billion—a combined total of $149.3 billion, more than double what Russia spent.  Estimated US spending was $610 billion.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies made different but similar estimates.

Its estimate was that Russia spent $61.2 billion last year, while the UK spent $50.7 billion, France spent $48.6 billion and Germany spent $41.7 billion—a combined total of $141 billion, also more than double Russia’s.  The IISS estimated that US spent $602.8 billion.

So what was the purpose of Trump’s demand?  I think it was to increase sales by the U.S. armaments industry.

I think his motivation was the same for his criticism Germany for importing 70 percent of its natural gas from Russia and planning a second natural gas pipeline across the Baltic.

His goal is to have Germany import American liquefied natural gas (LNG), despite its higher cost and current lack of suitable infrastructure.  Russia is just an excuse.  He wants American companies to get Germany’s business.s.

The European Union countries are competitors of the United States in world trade.  Hence his hostility to the EU.   Russia is not.  Hence his lack of hostility to Russia.

Donald Trump sees foreign affairs in terms of trade, and trade in terms of making deals. That is shortsighted.  The way for the United States to regain our advantage in world trade is by building up our own industry, not by demanding other countries do things that are not in their own interest.

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When the shoe is on the other foot

July 17, 2018

Jack Goldsmith, who posts on the Lawfare blog, asked what will happen when Russia, China and Iran start naming and indicting U.S. officials for computer intrusions and interfering in their politics.

As the Snowden documents and David Sanger’s great new book and other books make plain, and as U.S. officials are wont to brag, the U.S. intelligence services break into computers and computer networks abroad at an astounding rate, certainly on a greater scale than any other intelligence service in the world.

Every one of these intrusions in another country violates that country’s criminal laws prohibiting unauthorized computer access and damage, no less than the Russian violations of U.S. laws outlined in Mueller’s indictment.

This is not a claim about the relative moral merits of the two countries’ cyber intrusions; it is simply a claim that each side unequivocally breaks the laws of the other in its cyber-espionage activities.  [snip]

Recall that President Obama boasted that U.S. offensive cyber capacities were the greatest in the world.

Sanger reports that “the United States remains the world’s stealthiest, most skillful cyberpower.”

Then consider:

  • The wide array of U.S. cyber intrusions abroad revealed by Snowden.
  • Olympic Games, the operation against Iranian centrifuges that Michael Hayden compared in significance to the use of nuclear weapons in August 1945.
  • The Shadow Broker leaks of many of the NSA’s offensive tools and what the NSA was doing with those tools.
  • The U.S. Internet Freedom program, which (among other things) provides cyber tools and training to activists in authoritarian nations with the aim of achieving political change there.
  • U.S. officials assisting and urging U.S. social media giants such as Twitter to help activists bring down foreign governments.

This is but a bit of the public evidence—surely a tiny sliver of the overall evidence—of U.S. “interferences” abroad using offensive cyber tools of various sorts.

This is not to say, Goldsmith wrote, that Robert Mueller is wrong to pursue his investigation or that we Americans should not be concerned about securing our computer systems.

But if we want other governments to change their behavior, we must be willing to admit and change our own.

LINKS

Uncomfortable Questions in the Wake of Russia Indictment 2.0 and Trump’s Press Conference by Jack Goldsmith for Lawfare.  Worth reading in its entirety.

How to Stop Russian Election Interference by Ian Welsh.

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The danger of peace has been averted

July 17, 2018

Here are my takeaways of the mainstream press reporting on the Trump-Putin summit.  [Note: This is sarcasm.]

  • The overriding issue of our time is Russians trying to influence the 2016 elections by using illicit means to reveal true facts concerning Hillary Clinton.  This is nothing less than an attack on democracy itself.
  • The threat of nuclear war and a nuclear arms race is not even worth mentioning.
  • The default policy toward Russia is to threaten and punish Russians until they become more friendly.
  • The CIA and FBI are like an independent fourth branch of government.  Showing disrespect for them on foreign soil is unpatriotic.
  • Meeting with the President of the United States is such a great privilege that Vladimir Putin should not be allowed to do so without making major concessions.
  • Other nations should do as we Americans say, not as we do.

For some non-mainstream views, click on links below.

LINKS

U.S. Media Is Losing Its Mind Over Trump-Putin Press Conference by Joe Lauria for Consortium News.

The Helsinki Debacle and U.S.-Russian Relations by Daniel Larison for The American Conservative.

A walk on the wild side as Trump meets Putin at the Finland station by Pepe Escobar for Asia Times.

When Did Russia Become an Adversary? by Gary Leupp for Counterpunch.  Answer: Since 2014.

Has the U.S. interfered with Russia? Yes

July 15, 2018

The U.S. government engages in regime change, which is much more than simply interfere in foreign elections.   Just in the past 20 years, it has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, funded foreign fighters to attack governments of Libya and Syria, and supported military coups in Honduras, Ukraine and Venezuela.  The coup in Venezuela failed, so the U.S. government uses economic warfare instead.

In 1996, the U.S. State Department engineered the election of the unpopular Boris Yeltsin.  He disbanded the Russian parliament, took over Russian TV and used all the techniques later used by Vladimir Putin to stack elections in his favor.   Time magazine actually ran a cover story hailing the U.S. success.

The results were that he crashed the Russian economy for the benefit of a few corrupt insiders, and destroyed the possibility of U.S.-Russian friendship for a generation, maybe longer.

Yanks to the rescue, a PDF of the Time cover article for July 15,1996

“Yanks to the rescue”: Time’s not-so-secret story of how Americans helped Yeltsin win 1996 presidential election from OffGuardian.

Currently many foreign-backed NGOs operate in Russia.  Their stated purpose is to promote democracy and freedom.  Many get funds from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, which is funded by the U.S. State Department and private philanthropists.  Some are supported by billionaire George Soros.

It is possible that most of them or maybe all of them, are doing things that I, as a believer in democracy, would approve of.  If so, I can understand why Vladimir Putin might not think so.

I have no way of knowing what, if anything, the CIA is covertly doing to spread information or disinformation in Russia.

Russia Expels USAID over ‘political meddling’ by Deutsche Welle.

The Mueller indictments have convinced me that Russian intelligence services probably did disseminate confidential e-mails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, that certain Russians used social media to comment on the election and that Russian intelligence agencies tried to gain access to voter registration rolls.

I think there are a lot of other things that had much more influence on the election that this.  The question is: What happens if and when the Russian covert agencies try again?

I don’t believe in “moral equivalence,” if the meaning is that, just because the U.S. government has done bad things to other nations, we Americans should sit back and let them do bad things to us in return.

Neither do I believe that we get very far by saying “you are bad, we are good, so you should stop doing certain things while we keep on doing them ourselves.”   It would be very interesting to see if U.S. intelligence agencies would be willing to sacrifice their manipulations of foreign politics if that would safeguard the integrity of our own.

Americans can spot election meddling because they’ve been doing it for years by Owen Jones for The Guardian.

Russia Isn’t the Only One Meddling in Elections | We Do It, Too by Scott Shane for The New York Times.

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Putin, Trump and a hypothetical question

July 15, 2018

Suppose Donald Trump, as many Americans urge, demands that the Russian government cease all interference in American politics.

Suppose Vladimir Putin says he’ll agree, provided that the American government ceases all “regime change” activities against Russia and other countries.

What should President Trump’s response be?

LINKS

Russia Indictment  2.0: What to Make of Mueller’s Hacking Indictment on Lawfare.

The Mueller Indictment by Ian Welsh.

Trump, Russia and the NATO alliance

July 13, 2018

President Donald Trump wants to (1) force European allies to commit to more than double their military spending to meet the Russian threat and (2) engage in peace negotiations with Vladimir Putin without consulting European allies.

On the one hand, Russia is a menace that the NATO allies must unite against.  On the other hand, Russia is a normal country with which normal negotiations are possible.  And, by the way, U.S. dealings with Russia are no business of our European allies.  So which is it?

Donald Trump

President Trump presents himself as a master negotiator, but he weakened his negotiating position by advertising and widening the divisions in the Western alliance.   I can’t tell what his objectives are, or even if he has specific objectives.

My best guess is that the Putin-Trump talks, like the Trump-Kim Jong-un talks, will end in vague generalities that each side will interpret differently.  Trump’s erratic behavior frightened the South Korean government into talking with North Korea on its own.  Maybe his current behavior will be to frighten the European nations into making their own agreement with Russia.

That’s not to say that a summit meeting with President Putin is a bad idea.  It is just that Trump by his actions has shown that he can’t conduct normal diplomacy.

So what should U.S. policy toward Russia be?  The most important fact about Russia is that it is the only nation with enough nuclear weapons and missiles to destroy the United States.  To be sure, this would involve the destruction of Russia itself.

So American leaders should avoid backing Russia leaders into a position where they might think they have nothing to lose, or in which a nuclear war could be triggered accidentally.

The missile defense systems put in place by the U.S. in Poland and Romania, and the deployment of nuclear missiles to the borders of Russia, gave the Russian leaders reason to think that the U.S. was planning a nuclear first strike.  Their response has been to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons with which they could strike the United States.

The aim of negotiations should be to reduce the nuclear threat on both sides.  I don’t think President Trump understands this issue, and he has surrounded himself with war hawks such as John Bolton who see no point in negotiation.  This is dangerous for both sides.  We need new negotiations to wind down the nuclear threat.

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