Friday, 21 January 2022

U.S. heading for its “Suez” moment

— Both parties collude to drive the country into war(s) it cannot win. —

As we have learned nothing from the mass bamboozlement that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, everyone and her brothers are obediently mouthing the security state’s declarations that Russia wants to invade Ukraine. This faith in the mouthpieces of our armament industries’ monetary interests is touching; plus, the believers in this Revealed Truth from our masters can go to bed mocking the conspiracists and nutters of the [choose one] blue/red team, which no doubt is very calming.

Our president and his national security team say that Russia is on the verge of invading Ukraine. What happens in a few weeks if no such invasion occurs? Will Biden et al. claim that they faced down the weak-kneed Russkies successfully by a vigorous combination of finger-wagging, solemn assurances, and threats to cut off Vladimir Putin’s allowance? Perhaps an emergency measure to send another $50 billion over to the Pentagon will get hustled through a suddenly unified Congress.

Meanwhile, the Russians’ demand to revamp the security architecture in Europe, including a NATO retreat from its borders, goes unanswered. Perhaps that is the idea—distract with a non-existent threat and escape the pressure to get serious about negotiations.

If so, it won’t do much but postpone the inevitable, which is straight for a “Suez moment.”

The destruction unleashed by World War 2 ended European colonialism and the long primacy of Britain and France in world affairs. Their postwar decline became painfully clear to both the old bwana powers when Egyptian President Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956.

Britain, France, and Israel thought they could march in and reverse Nasser’s decision to claim control over a piece of Egyptian territory. But Eisenhower, for a variety of reasons, told the invaders to go home and backed up his suggestion with threats of economic sanctions that none of the three could afford. They obeyed. It was a sign of who had emerged stronger from the war and which countries were barely intact.

Suez, as became clear later, was “the last fling of the imperial dice,” at least as far as Britain and France were concerned. (Israel, meanwhile, continues the tradition in a new form.) Britain’s prime minister Anthony Eden was forced out two months later as the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. relegated the rest of the world to the role of chorus.

Our current bosses are hurtling toward a similar rude awakening despite the array of shiny armaments at the disposal of our top-heavy military establishment. Aside from successful invasions of tiny Caribbean islands (Grenada) or devastating bombing runs over defenseless troops with no air cover (Iraq), it’s hard to identify any significant U.S. military success in decades with the possible exception of the smashing of the ISIS franchise in Iraq with the help of the hated Iranians and their local allies.

No one doubts that Americans can destroy cities and reduce whole countries to rubble, but direct combat of the sort being contemplated is another animal entirely. The parade of failed generals now hibernating comfortably on defense-contractor corporate boards might attest to that.

Whether in Ukraine on the Taiwan Straits, U.S. policymakers are in the grips of delusion.

Does anyone doubt that Russian troops fighting on their own frontiers would have a massive psychological motivation that might be lacking among NATO’s untested soldiers? Does anyone really mean to find out?

Should we doubt the nationalistic fervor that would drive however many millions of soldiers the Chinese might set to work on reclaiming Taiwan? Is it worth accumulating heroic war stories to learn the answer?

We have lived for many years under the assumption that neither of those countries would dare to confront the United States given the arsenals of nukes that stand ready to rain down upon them. If one listens to the statements coming out of Beijing and Moscow, however, one gets quite a different impression: that the two powers feel directly threatened NOW and are willing to call the Americans’ bluff.

Does Washington’s policy elite really want to get into a nuclear showdown over an island 10,000 miles away or a failed state in the middle of Europe?

(Incidentally, watch any mainstream news about Ukraine and ask yourself how often the Russians are quoted offering their views on what is happening, should happen, or how to defuse the situation. Of course, all U.S. news is fair and balanced—between Republican Americans and Democrat Americans.)

According to some of those, escalation up to and including World War III is just what we need. Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker said in early December the U.S. should consider “first-use nuclear action” staged from the Black Sea

In case we think such nutters are only found in the GOP, Wicker was joined by Evelyn N. Farkas, a Pentagon official during the Obama administration, who advocates “readying military forces to deter Putin and, if necessary, prepare for war.” Minor issues like attempts to undermine the outcome of a presidential election fade into irrelevancy when the two sides link arms, cast their gaze toward foreign enemies, and rattle nuclear sabers.

This is a dangerous game, and yet the assorted neocons that populate the U.S. foreign policy apparatus march in lockstep, confident that U.S. domination of the world over the last 75 years—and especially the last 30—is destined to continue indefinitely. They seem not to notice that our country is profoundly weakened by internal divisions, stripped of its industrial base, run by Sovietesque gerontocrats who rule a populace who believe in very little of what they say and even less of what they do.

Underlying the strategic myopia of what renegade CIA analyst Ray McGovern calls the MICIMATT (Military-Industrial-Counter-Intelligence-Media-Academia-Think Tank Complex), sometimes called “The Blob,” is a philosophical view of geopolitics and indeed of humanity itself that rejects any possibility of cooperative coexistence among the peoples of the world. The concept that China and Russia might be allowed to pursue their interests in relative peace and that a modus vivendi might be reached among all the heavily armed world powers to tackle other urgent global problems makes no appearance in the encyclopedic textbooks of their incestuous think tanks.  

No doubt such zero-sum thinking has been the norm for millenia of human history, the motivation for its endless destructive wars and periodic bouts of pitiless slaughter. Therefore, with such encouraging outcomes, we should keep doing the same thing?

We, or at least they, seem to think that nothing has changed since ancient times when the Romans cast about constantly to see where the natives might be getting restless and sent out punitive patrols to rein them in, kill a few thousand, and restart the flow of tribute. They feared allowing their subjects any real independence or permitting encroachments into the empire’s far-flung territories by rivals. That’s how Washington thinks. They speak as if failure to dominate means being dominated as if the world were a vast international S&M dungeon with no room for “vanilla” behavior of any kind.

While rival blue and red camps brawl in Congress and soon will do so on the streets as well, a curious unanimity prevails between them when facing the prospect of disobedient foreign actors flexing their local muscles. Democrats and Republicans alike hasten to undermine presidents who fail to maintain a properly belligerent attitude toward our official enemies; this applies to both Trump and Biden and especially to the permanent foreign policy/ security apparatus that surrounds them.

The only danger to our blobiferous MICIMATT parallel state is the frightening idea that peace may break out and obviate the need for more trillions deposited at the Pentagon for distribution among friendly industries and lobbyists.

The incapacity of our leadership to contemplate any approach other than intimidation and demands for obedience is not merely a function of narrowness of vision or Beltway groupthink, though these are real enough. It is also the expression on the world stage of our 40-year surrender to the neoliberal article of faith that markets, and markets alone, must determine our course of action in all spheres of life.

Such ideological enslavement gave cover to the titans of financial power and their friends in elite circles such that when they acted to make themselves immensely rich at the expense of most everyone else, they could convince themselves they were being smart. Did the greed come first or the ideas justifying it? Does it matter?

Did Bill Clinton really believe his own rhetoric that inviting China into the World Trade Organisation and enabling the Chinese Communist Party to set millions of wage slaves in competition with the American industrial heartland would convert China into a democratic capitalist imitation of ourselves? Maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t. The industrialists and financiers drooling over the profit opportunities offered by crushing U.S. workers were all too happy to pretend to believe it whether they did or not. No one paused to consider the long-term consequences because the quarterly profit statements were rosy, and that is enough because Markets.

Do members of Congress really think the U.S. needs to escalate war fever against Russia and China, or do their role as recipients of legal bribes from the MICIMATT dictate their shared worldview? Northrup Grumman doesn’t care.

We have gone so far down this road that the system is incapable of righting itself. Biden, the product of a lifetime of toadying to these corporate cowboys and parroting their justifications, is the perfect expression of our decadent and paralyzed state.

It is my belief that the U.S. will continue down the confrontational precipice with its two rivals and, in one form or another, sooner or later, lose, either little by little or all at once. I expect this process will take no more than five to seven years and that we will wake up by the end of the decade as no longer the world’s preeminent power.

The shock of taking our new place as the chastised victims of our leaders’ hubristic overreach will be something to behold and to experience. Once accomplished, a stimulating discussion about where we want to go next will be possible for the first time in living memory.

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Wednesday, 12 January 2022

Kazakstan: Two (and a half) views

The coverage of recent events in Kazakstan falls roughly into two camps:

  •          People rose up against a dictatorial, corrupt regime and were mowed down by the country’s brutal security forces, assisted and backstopped by Russian troops.
  •          Foreign intelligence services cooked up an attempted “color revolution” to install a West-friendly regime in Kazakstan, threaten Russia along a huge central Asian border, and simultaneously break up the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative.

At the risk of sounding like a Christian Democrat, I propose that both are partly true, and therefore each is incomplete.

Having seen a bit of life in the post-Soviet republics up close, I am immediately pre-disposed to think that demonstrations, riots, street fighting, and even the seizure of government buildings reflect pent-up anger and frustration among the populace at decades of blatant corruption among the self-serving elites along with the elites’ failure to address basic issues of survival and well-being for the majority, even in countries pulling in vast amounts of ready cash (e.g., Kazakstan, Azerbaijan, both oil producers). In my experience, these countries tend to operate on the assumption that state officeholders are nothing more than members of an organized mafia whose sole purpose is mutual enrichment and that no government function is to be performed in the absence of a bribe. 

My immediate apologies to long-suffering, honest bureaucrats in any of those countries—I’m sure you exist, and it can’t be an easy life.

If those are the terms, many citizens will patiently accede to them given the unlikelihood of gaining anything by not doing so. However, the implied exchange is that the state will function, keep a lid on the more grotesque forms of lawlessness, and make it possible to live modestly day to day if one has no particular ambitions beyond an adequate lunch. 

Something like a 100% increase in the price of fuel, then, blasts this social contract apart, and it should hardly surprise us that spontaneous and even violent outbursts followed when the Kazakstani authorities imposed it.

In such a case, one would expect to see clashes with cops, perhaps demonstrations that cannot be controlled, masses of people surrounding key government buildings, and, depending on how many firearms are circulating, a few potshots and casualties. Depending on how scared the regime is, deaths might amount to a handful (as in Chile’s demonstrations in recent years or several hundred (as in Myanmar, given the extreme unpopularity of the military coup-makers there).

What one would not expect in this scenario is news of armed bands attempting to seize the main airports, successfully in one case, especially if they appear to be well prepared and well supplied with small arms, logistical capabilities, and manpower. Nor would you expect the chief of national security, Karim Massimov, to order a pullback by airport defenders just hours before the assault takes place, as he is accused of doing. That is where the long-suffering-people-mowed-down-by-murderous-cops scenario doesn’t provide an adequate explanation.

There is enough evidence, even at this early stage, to suggest that popular unrest was utilized to unleash a deadly power struggle at the top of the very top-heavy Kazak ruling class. According to some knowledgeable observers, the two camps are, or were: a pro-Russian one represented by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and a Kazakophile-but-West-friendly tendency long dominated by former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, the erstwhile power behind the Kazak throne, so to speak.

Nazarbayev, while fulfilling all the clichés about Central Asian autocrats from the personality-cultish naming of the new capital after himself to his supposed plan to have his daughter Nariga inherit the presidency, also tilted quite noticeably in the direction of western oil companies and the governments that stand behind them. Nazarbayev, like Lukashenko in Belarus, attempted to balance the two hostile camps to extract maximum concessions from each. In our increasingly war-ready world, this turns out not to be a winning strategy.

Many accusations are flying over what and who exactly were involved in the two-day uprising, which probably put Tokayev’s life in danger and could shorten those of others. There will be ample opportunity to sort through the claims and accompanying evidence or lack of same. For now, we can keep in mind that the U.S. and its spook allies in Britain, perhaps Turkey, are entirely comfortable with utilizing all sorts of dubious and bloodthirsty elements, including the same jihadis whom we are supposedly at “war” with, to advance their immediate aims. We don’t know if they did, but we know that they would.

At the same time, it would be nice to hear—from those enthusiastic about the Russian role in suppressing the alleged coup—some occasional acknowledgement of the legitimate grievances of the Kazakstani people who have had no role in the governance of their country since the moment of its creation. If the Kazak elites had provided even the slightest opportunity for a democratic airing of grievances, they might have thought twice about ramming through a policy that threatened people’s survival and about how the average Kazakstani might react. A little democracy might have prevented the outbreak of deadly power games costing dozens of lives.

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Saturday, 1 January 2022

Will Russia invade Ukraine? Yes, if they so choose.


After the collapse of the USSR, foreign policy senior wise man George Kennan warned against expanding NATO east toward the borders of Russia, calling it a “fateful error.” Kennan, who coined the term “containment,” which became the shorthand name for U.S. policy toward the USSR for decades, said that the crumbling of Soviet ideology could have led the new country in a positive direction. But providing its leaders with a new external enemy, he said, would “erode the nascent democracy.”

Kennan’s writings and comments in the late 1990s criticizing the expansion of NATO—which occurred in eight stages over 70 years such that the military alliance now comprises 30 countries—are full of dire predictions. Let’s see how many have come true:

NATO expansion, said Kennan, will:

. . . “inflame nationalistic, anti-western, and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion.” Check.

. . . “restore the atmosphere of cold war to east-west relations.” Check.

“. . . have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy.” Check.

“. . . impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.” Check.

In summary, said Kennan, “We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way.” Check.

The last statement is the one looming large over the several meetings Biden and Putin have held in recent weeks, including a call just a couple of days ago. A look at the map above shows what a juicy prize Ukraine would be as a front-line NATO member given the long border it shares with the new Evil Empire. Which Brookings intern wrote the memo assuring his fellow neocons that Russia would be okay with this?

If one squints one’s eyes and peers through the cloud of State Department/Pentagon/White House stenography emanating from our main news outlets, one can glimpse that poor old Joe is playing from a very weak hand. While issuing daily alarms over the Russkies’ nasty intentions toward Ukraine and warning it against taking military action, the U.S. can’t do anything much about a  Russian attack were it to occur and has said as much.

Experts largely agree that the Ukrainian military would collapse within hours of a Russian attack and that the Ukraine as a country might cease to exist. Impoverished refugees flooding toward the prosperous states of Europe is not a welcome scenario for the NATO allies, none of whom have a whit of influence over what the two big guys eventually decide to do in any case.

Biden and his spokespeople wave the threat of further sanctions against Russia were such an attack to take place, such as banning Russian banks from using the SWIFT messaging service to process financial transactions. To which the Russian response has been a version of “Oo, eek, we’re so skeered!”

German and Dutch leaders trying to keep their citizens from freezing this winter, on the other hand, might well be spooked by the prospect of losing easy access to Russian natural gas. Russia has plenty of customers in Asia for its products, and the Americans’ simultaneous campaigns against both it and China have thrown those two giants together in what is increasingly looking like a long-term partnership if not a downright alliance.

How did this come about? Are the Russians seeking to restore the czarist/Soviet empire and gobble up neighboring states? One would think so from the mainstream commentators showcased here.

Back to Kennan: “I think it is a tragic mistake,” he insisted in 1998. “There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves.”

On the Senate debate that occurred before that august body endorsed NATO expansion, Kennan said it was "superficial and ill-informed" and that he was "particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don't people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove it.”

Who were the authors of this colossal blunder? Bloodthirsty neocon warriors like those who gathered around Bush II? No, in fact it was Bill Clinton and William Cohen, Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger, egged on by Trent Lott and Joe Lieberman. That is, the reliably right-wing nutcases of the Republican Party boosting the most reactionary tendencies among the most war-loving Democrats. And our nation’s arms manufacturers no doubt were standing by with the needed lobbying and think-tank millions to encourage this scheme, so profitable for themselves.

Our media elites are incapable of injecting any balance into their reporting of the Ukrainian situation, which would at minimum include some nod to the Russians’ fear of encirclement by hostile military forces aiming nuclear weapons at their major cities with arrival times measured in the minutes. I recall a major international crisis of apocalyptic brinksmanship occurring in 1962 when the shoe was on the other foot.

Putin has made it clear in his public statements that the Russians are out of patience with NATO, with the U.S., and most particularly with the Ukrainians and are not in a forgiving mood. They have demanded written, legal guarantees not only that NATO will not expand further into Ukraine or anywhere else but to roll back the current status quo.

What’s different about this set of demands at this time is that the Russians are in a position to impose them. After all the NATO-inspired talk of military threats against Ukraine, the western powers are faced with a prophecy about to be self-fulfilled. Putin laid out their conditions for not acting and is not interested in verbal assurances given that the U.S. has proven itself not agreement-capable repeatedly (the Iran nuclear deal, various arms control treaties, Libya). The Russians say they are willing to talk but not forever, and by all appearances they are deadly serious.

There is a lot of speculation in the specialty press and blogosphere about what will happen, ranging from nothing to all-our war in Europe. All the scenarios are plausible, and nobody knows.

What is not in doubt is that the whole sorry mess could have been avoided if our leaders had opted for a different course 30 years ago. But that was impossible. Our political system and economy are so enslaved to the war-making industrial complex that belligerence and fear-mongering had to continue to drive U.S. attitudes toward the world because without them, many trillions of dollars might not continue to flow into the right pockets. 

Mr Kennan’s wise words never had a chance. Perhaps they will now that the chickens have come home to roost.

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Sunday, 26 December 2021

Chile vote augurs new possibilities


[Three student leaders try to meet with the president of Chile, Sebastián Piñera, cerca 2012, and are turned away. No matter, the guy on the right is now the president.] 

The first thing many of us noticed about the December 19 second round vote for president in Chile was how eerily closely it tracked the 1988 plebiscite in which the country voted on whether Pinochet should remain in power for another eight years.


2021 results: President

Gabriel Boric             55.87% (Apruebo Dignidad-left)

José Antonio Kast     44.13% (Christian Social Front-right)


1988 results: Pinochet to remain as president

No                               55.99%

Yes                              44.01%


Pinochet lost under his own rules and had to prepare for competitive elections a year later. Or, as the historic headline in the opposition newspaper Fortín Mapocho put it, “He Ran Alone and Came in Second.”

Chile’s electoral system, which assures that the candidate with the most votes wins—quite a foreign concept for some of us—allows anyone to run in the first round, then puts the top two vote-getters into a runoff a month later. (Several Latin American countries vote this way.) Kast, the fundamentalist Catholic who openly admired the Pinochet years, came out on top in the first vote, sending a good half of the country into a profound shock. After all the mobilizations of the last few years, no one could quite fathom how so many people were ready to back someone who didn’t even pretend to regret the horrors of the 1973-1990 dictatorship.

One common feature of the two-step voting procedure, known as ballotage, is that voter participation tends to drop off for the second round. That didn’t happen in Chile, and my impression from this distance is that people hit the streets in an all-out effort to convince their peers and neighbors that this was not the moment for cynical indifference. The estimates for second-round newcomers were something in the 300-400 thousand range, gives the high stakes. In actual fact, 1.2 million new voters showed up. Instead of a cliffhanger, Boric walked away with a crushing victory.

If anyone had funny business in mind to manipulate or dispute the results, the size of the winning margin wrecked those plans. (Something similar may have happened in Honduras, where the non-narco candidate racked up solid margins. Stealing elections is a lot easier when the races are close.) One dirty trick did seem to be playing out when people in many poorer (pro-Boric) neighborhoods found that public transport was suddenly non-existent. We’ll have to wait for more investigation of what happened, but many are suspicious that it wasn’t an accident. In the end, none of it mattered.

Boric came to public attention during the student mobilizations of 2011-13, one of a crop of very young activists who guided that movement adeptly and scored considerable victories. Several of them, Boric included, then parleyed their leadership into seats in the national legislature and have accumulated important experience and credibility, despite active hostility from the right-wing press (essentially all the major outlets). When the “penguin” revolt of high school students erupted in 2018, they were well placed in their senatorial tribunes to echo the popular demands.

I’m too far away from the country both physically and temporally to know much granular detail about Boric’s programs or the constellation of party and institutional forces that constitute his base. That said, I am willing to predict that his presidency will not imitate the disappointing Blair-ite, Third Way, all-hat-no-cattle, more-of-the-same-only-different governments that usually arise after an interesting new political character appears. Nor do I anticipate Venezuelan demagoguery with high-blown rhetoric masking dysfunction and a personality cult.

Despite the parallel with the 1988 plebiscite, the two events are far from equivalent. The NO vote 30-plus years ago was a NO to further dictatorship, NO to the secret police, impunity, disappearances, systematic torture, corruption, and rule by the rich. Beyond that, people were not of one mind and still remained fairly traumatized by the chaotic end of Allende’s Popular Unity government (1970-73), which had concluded in the bombing of La Moneda and summary executions. The alternative at that time to more of Pinochet and his regime was a return to the centrist parties, including those that had supported the military takeover out of hostility to Allende. In fact, a major encourager of the coup became the country’s first president after the democratic restoration.

This time around, the choice was far more stark: back to the Pinochet days or a clean break with all the parts of the Pinochet package, not just political repression but more to the point, the economic variety. Boric has promised that Chile, the birthplace of the neoliberal model, will also be its tomb. Those are strong words, and an ample majority of the Chilean population is ready for them to be fulfilled. Education, health, pensions, housing—all the basic components of a decent life, are ripe for a thorough overhaul because after three decades of glowing discourse about the Chilean “success” story, plenty of citizens have seen the well-to-do elite continue to hoover up most of the benefits of economic growth while their own lives fail to improve.

This should be easy for Americans not lost in the pointless babble of our pundit class to grasp. Boric’s victory was a clear repudiation not only of nostalgia for the dictatorship but also of the failure of the two previously dominant political blocs to create conditions so that the majority of Chile’s citizens can have a decent life. These blocs, roughly equivalent to the Democrats and the Republicans here, are now deeply discredited by their failure, and the country has opted for something new. Chile’s political system, unlike our own, made it possible.

Boric comes to power just as the Constituent Assembly is due to wrap up its formulation of a new constitution for the country to replace the 1981 version written under Pinochet’s guidance and designed to sustain an ongoing dictatorship of the private sector, which it has done quite successfully. The new version has the potential of loosening the minority right-wing’s successful block of any threats to its outsized influence.

Chile has long been a social laboratory, and Boric’s determination to bury neoliberalism should be taken seriously. Margaret Thatcher famously noticed Pinochet’s adoption of the Chicago Boys/Friedmanite school of capitalist restoration to reverse the postwar consensus, and Ronald Reagan took a leaf from her book. We have lived with the result for 40 years.

Things often bubble up from the global South, and we tend to be too First World-centric to pay sufficient notice. Chile has deeply entrenched social and economic inequalities, but the incoming team also has the resources to experiment with a fairer system and to face down the inevitable trench warfare that the privileged classes will now stage.

Chile also has the painful memory of the last go-round with a left-wing experiment, and even though the Boric generation is too young to remember it directly, the country as a whole, and especially its leftist currents, has ample collective knowledge of how important it is for them to play their cards just right. In a world sorely lacking in role models, we may be permitted to hope for, to root for, great things.

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Friday, 10 December 2021

Putin Wins, Americans Not Told


Amid the blizzard of mis-, dis-, and un-information provided to us by our dully conformist messengers in the news media, one could easily miss the crucial outcome of the latest round of alarmism over Russia: Putin has quietly won his principal demand.

For three decades, Russians have raised hell over NATO’s eastward creep. Gorbachev insisted that the USSR would not oppose the reunification of Germany as long as NATO did not expand, and Bush I promised him that. West Germany duly swallowed up the East, and the hostile alliance promptly accrued former Warsaw Pact states such as Poland and the Czech Republic and added them to NATO’s forward military posture—an early example of the U.S. being “not agreement-capable.” NATO spokespeople openly clamored for more. Georgia (the country) was in NATO’s sights briefly until the Russians reacted. But the big prize was always Ukraine with its enormous Black Sea coastline and the strategically crucial Crimean Peninsula.

Dotting Russia’s borders with military outposts, including nuclear weapons systems that could reach major Russian cities in minutes, has been a wet dream of neocon warriors since the Soviet Union’s collapse. According to some commentators, Putin could have been ousted after the 2014 Ukrainian coup for failing to perceive the threat and prevent it. Apparently, the Russians were shocked at the successful putsch that put a hyper-nationalist pro-Western regime in power in Kiev, and Russia’s dual response—backing the quasi-separatist Russian ethnics in eastern Ukraine and annexing Crimea—followed swiftly.

That fighting was stopped by means of a truce and the Minsk Protocol (and its 2015 follow-up, known as Minsk II), which we westerners rarely hear about. That’s because the Ukrainian authorities signed them and then refused to carry them out, no doubt encouraged in this posture by their western masters.

Putin and his patient foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, have been broken records on the subject of what must happen to bring the border tensions to some sort of happy stasis—carry out the Minsk agreements via direct talks between Kiev and its breakaway provinces, achieve some sort of federal modus vivendi among the warring parties, including, crucially, a commitment NOT to put hostile military forces in eastern Ukraine and NOT to contemplate Ukrainian membership in NATO ever.

These Russians demands lie behind the periodic pearl-clutching that our neocon-loyal news media cook up over a supposed Russian scheme to march into the rest of Ukraine. Such a threat is a hallucination birthed in the steaming miasmas of the Potomac, but it conveniently masks the source of hostilities: Washington’s hysteria over losing its accustomed power to dictate terms. Russia’s red line about NATO encirclement means that further NATO expansion will not occur, and Russia is extremely well placed to carry out its threat to stop it should the need arise.

Biden and his amateurish crew of bullies have realized this. While we hear all sorts of dire posturing from Blinken, Sullivan, Biden himself, and a gaggle of nutcases in the Senate (from both parties), they simultaneously acknowledge that the U.S. is not ready to ratchet up to a nuclear confrontation over a rickety, nearly failed state in central Europe.

Meanwhile, the idea that the Russians are plotting to seize more Ukrainian territory assumes that Putin is eager to be saddled with a state on the verge of internal collapse. On the contrary, the uneasy status quo serves Russia perfectly well as they can simply hold out and wait for Kiev to accept the new realities provoked by the errors of 2014—for which, incidentally, the neocon grandees in DC bear a large measure of blame. If Victoria Nuland and her buddies had not encouraged the overthrow of the corrupt but legitimate (i.e., elected) president at that time, the U.S. would not be in the current no-win mess.

The Americans continue to convince themselves that with just a little more aggression, a little more weaponry, a few more ultimata, a bit more butching up, standing tough, insults, and what have you, they will finally force the hands of its adversaries of the moment. Historical lessons from Vietnam through Iraq and Afghanistan leave no trace.

Biden’s video encounter with Putin this week was a predictable dialogue of the deaf, but despite the loyal quotation on every channel here of the script Biden managed to read, Putin came out with a solid win. The U.S. admitted indirectly that NATO will not come to Ukraine’s defense and risk a nuclear confrontation. Our leaders have not yet completely lost their minds—though they’re working hard at it. 

In addition, “further talks” were endorsed, which seems underwhelming until one considers what Putin set out as Russia’s goal: a treaty in which NATO promises to back off. That won’t happen any time soon, if ever, but the fact that the Americans didn’t immediately faint dead away and scotch the idea is a sign of how weak Biden’s position is.

Russia is not worried about further U.S. economic sanctions—the big threat emanating from DC—and is prepared for them in any case. If the Ukrainians go crazy and mount an assault, they will be very sorry as will the European countries facing a new horde of desperate refugees fleeing what’s left of their erstwhile country. Unless some real lunatic gets Joe Biden’s ear, or—heaven forbid—the clueless Kamala Harris gets pushed into a role she is unprepared for, no one in Washington is going to bring on a new geopolitical defeat that would far overshadow that Afghan debacle.

The Americans refuse to grasp the end of the happy days of imperial dictatorship that followed the demise of the USSR. Think-tank chicken hawks must be so bedazzled by all that shiny hardware piled up all over the 800 U.S. military bases scattered around the world that they think its mere existence gives them unchallenged powers. It does not. This week was a tiny defeat for their galactic imperial arrogance: more will follow. The idea that countries might come together to find ways to occupy their respective corners of the globe for mutual benefit seems far beyond their intellectual and imaginative capacities.

Meanwhile, the citizenry is equally unprepared to face facts given the vapid stenography practiced by the herd of “national security” reporters echoing every unsupported assertion emanating from the parallel state at the Pentagon and Langley. The shock of realization once these defeats become impossible to ignore could be surprisingly destabilizing, both a danger and an opportunity.

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Sunday, 31 October 2021

Bipartisan Suicide

These days, political discourse consists mostly of barely intelligible strife, disputes over arcane excuses to “own the libs” or to sneer at the dumb bubbas, respectively. But on more important, even existential matters, our “leaders” are in full agreement: life on earth is dull and should end.

The long-term means of getting there—climate-based destruction—is now being shoved aside in favor of a prompter and more straightforward alternative: war, either with China or, failing that, with Russia, or perhaps—why not? —both.

On this issue, Democrats, if anything, are more insistent than the laggard Trumpians. Biden, his top officials, and his party’s congressional barking dogs in the pro-war camp now daily carry flammable liquids to the diplomatic table in eager expectation of the appearance of matches, firmly believing that America’s pansy enemies will immediately retreat shaking in fear at the sight of big, scary us.

Or perhaps they just want to ramp up worldwide tensions so that no one will notice that our dwindling national treasure is being eaten up by the war profiteers and their Pentagon-congressional allies, in which case let’s hope they’re luckier than most everyone else in human history and can calibrate their provocations short of catastrophe.

The latest sticking point chosen by the Biden team is Taiwan, the island whose status has been left conveniently ambiguous for 50 years. It is part of China, all have agreed, and yet operated for decades with considerable autonomy as long as no one uses the I-word (“independence”) or claims that it is a “state” or a “nation.” Avoiding that red line, all is well, or well enough, and things were allowed to muddle along. Taiwanese businesses do a lot of trade with China, and getting rich kept everyone modestly content.

Biden let the cat out of the bag that this status quo was to be jettisoned on Oct. 22 by answering a question at a CNN event that the U.S. would indeed come to the “defense” of Taiwan. Not only did Biden say it would, but he added “Taiwan” to a list of similarly defended nations, South Korea and Japan as if Taiwan was their equivalent, i.e., an independent state. 

The original Biden statement was at first considered another one of the old duffer’s gaffes, quickly corrected by his handlers. However, since then, a steady accumulation of unmistakably policy-shifting statements by members of his team means Biden did not goof at all but rather knew exactly what he was saying. It is now clear that the U.S. has embarked on a new confrontational attitude toward China by threatening it over the status of a piece of what it considers its national territory.

The final confirmation came just days after Biden’s comments when the U.S. announced its support for Taiwan’s return to full membership in various UN bodies. While getting Taiwan a seat at, say, the World Health Organization might be reasonable in other times, the current push from Washington is all about poking the Chinese in the face and making Taiwan look like an independent state. 

The new belligerence has been eagerly taken up by members of Congress, including plenty of Democrats, who seem just as inclined to beat the war drums than Trump’s hyper-aggressive foreign policy team. Elaine Luria, a member from the uniform-heavy Tidewater area of Virginia, went so far as to propose that the president be given the green light to launch military action over Taiwan without prior congressional approval. Luria endorsed the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, which is a Republican brainchild, proving that on the issue of suiting up for battle, there is zero culture war in America today—everyone fer it, no one agin’ it. 

The practical consequences of Luria’s idea are minimal as anyone not living under a rock can see that the presidency is already far too empowered to go to any war its occupant fancies. The point is to gin up bipartisan clamor for a more threatening posture against China.

No one seems terribly bothered that this proposal encourages the president to launch hostilities with a foreign nuclear power without so much as a brief stop by Congress to see if it’s okay. The 330 million of us who might have other ideas are to be cut out of that rather major decision entirely.

The GOP-Luria bill also calls for a resumption of full U.S.-Taiwan military relations and military exercises with the island’s forces, topped off with a presidential visit to Taiwan. None of this is likely to happen, but it is a sign of the growing detachment from reality that this sort of loose talk is popular in Washington.

Reading what passes for analysis among the foreign policy Blob on Taiwan (and other issues—more below) requires that one enter into a magical land of adult make-believe. (I hope to post this on Hallowe’en, which, come to think of it, is perfect.) The Blobians insist that the decision to throw over 50 years of a peaceable status quo and put up the national dukes will work because the Chinese are sure to back down once their bluff is called. Biden himself referred to the U.S.’s massive war machine that will surely intimidate anyone paying attention. The possibility that foreign nuclear powers might have their own red lines is dismissed as weak-kneed groveling unworthy of Real Men.

Meanwhile, in Europe we have even more demented displays of war-posturing glee. The outgoing German Defense Minister recently called for NATO to get ready for “non-conventional warfare, including nuclear weapons, cyber-attacks, and space military technology. “‘This is the way of deterrence,” Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told a German radio station, repeating her threat of first use of nukes in Europe in defense of the Baltic states. “We must make it very clear to Russia that we are ready to use such measures,” she insisted. 

No doubt the geniuses behind NATO are desperate to drum up some way to convince their populations that that tottering entity still has a raison d’etre of some sort, but ratcheting up talk of a nuclear weapons toss around Europe seems a bit over the top. Given the tone of such statements, the Russian response has been admirably measured, along the lines of “Perhaps you’ve forgotten how that ended last time around. We haven’t.”

A lot of the commentary around all this war talk tends toward reassurances based on the assumption that threat exaggeration is a long-standing tactic of the military-industrial-congressional-intelligence-media-academia-think-tank (MICIMATT) complex [hat tip Ray McGovern], whose ultimate goal is merely more cash for their boondoggles. As Gary Brecher puts it in The eXiled,

No one who matters in the defense business wants total war with China. They just want to keep those trash fires burning, hoping one of them will blaze up big, like a gender-reveal wildfire. And even if none of them do, it’s good for business, because most war scares are about funding. 

But history also has plenty of examples of how provocatively wagging one’s missile at the enemy can lead to an actual war. Pumping up the populace over real or imagined slights can let loose uncontrollable social forces as the Argentine generals learned to their dismay when they let the Falklands/Malvinas genie out of that bottle.

On a deeper level, however, I believe there is a moment of truth approaching about how our species has handled its affairs for many thousands of years, namely, the ingrained assumption that relations among polities is inevitably a zero-sum game in which the mighty dictate and the subordinate obey. The corollary is that if one isn’t up, then one is necessarily down. The idea of simply getting along and working out differences as equals seems foreign to our human consciousness, and it might just be time to evolve to something more intelligent given that the capacity to blow ourselves up once and finally has been in human hands for a while.

Daniel Larison at calls that attitude the “bankruptcy of Great Power Competition,” and I believe he is on to something crucial about why and how opposition to the madness could mobilize: 

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union split Europe down the middle, but it was in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that massive bloodletting took place. During the confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, huge numbers of people were reduced to collateral damage, far away from famous First World flashpoints such as Berlin, their deaths seen as acceptable, if not celebrated,” including genocides in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Indonesia. 

Once major powers have decided on a militaristic, confrontational course, it becomes extremely easy for their political leaders to justify any number of atrocities against innocent people in neutral or contested countries in the name of preventing the rival from advancing. [Therefore,] it is not surprising that almost all states in Southeast Asia want nothing to do with the militarized anti-China coalition that the U.S. is trying to assemble. The nations of Southeast Asia do not want to be forced to choose sides or to become pawns in someone else’s struggle yet again.

The whole article is worth a read. It is a much-needed reminder that the Democrats now in power will have to be completely discredited if the human race is to stand a chance, followed by the complete discrediting of the Republicans who will surely inherit the bipartisan mess.


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Friday, 8 October 2021

Little by little, then all at once

While the evaporation of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has drawn our attention, other momentous developments are taking place in U.S. relations with the outside world that barely have scratched the insular consciousness of our citizenry. Dealings with both major and minor powers have delineated the outlines of strategic decision-making—or perhaps “posturing” is the more apt term—at the highest levels. 

In both the Afghan and non-Afghan matters, there are two considerations: the goals the Biden Administration is pursuing and his team’s competence in pursuing them. 

The record is not encouraging on either count. 

The very concept of “diplomacy” implies the deployment of tact, restraint, and even charm based on the assumption that while states have competing interests, they should tread cautiously around conflicts that could escalate (i.e., most if not all of them). We humans glorify war, but we hate losing; even stalemated fights can be enormously costly. 

Given recent setbacks, we ought to be a bit more mindful of this fact, and no doubt average citizens are. 

From all indications, however, the denizens of our nation’s foreign policy/ military/intelligence establishment, often affectionately termed “The Blob,” are not. 

Belligerence, sometimes called “toughness,” is a popular stance among the domestic U.S. audience,    and no doubt that is a universal tendency among our species. We feel protected when our leaders promise us victory and safety, and powerful states get away with imposing their will on subject peoples. As Thucydides famously phrased it, “The powerful exact what they can, and the weak comply.” 

However, American “diplomats” have become imprudently accustomed to thinking that the U.S. is, and will ever be, the powerful state, the only game in town, the modern Athens lording it over weaker cities and dictating terms of submission. This was unsurprising during the Trump years as it reflected that personage’s self-image and worldview as the Master of All He Surveys. 

Biden’s people have replicated the boorishness. Secretary of State Blinken in Anchorage, Deputy Secretary Sherman in Tianjin, China, and most recently the State Department itself in its inflammatory declaration on Taiwan all have poked the Chinese in the ribs and twisted their noses for good measure. U.S. interlocutors consistently refuse to recognize China’s “red lines,” their non-negotiable, core interests, and think nothing of lecturing Chinese diplomats publicly to browbeat them for not doing the Americans’ bidding.
Wendy Sherman, schoolmarm [Photo ANDREW HARNIK/POOL/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES] 

At the same time, Biden & Co. seem to think that side conversations on topics of interest to the U.S. can proceed normally despite these ongoing attempts at public shaming. 

The behavior might work if the U.S. held all the cards. Because that is not the case, it is time to introduce another concept that originated with the Greeks: hubris. 

Whom the gods would destroy, they first drive mad. –Greek proverb 

Our diplomats’ attitude, apparently shared by the entire Blobosphere, is remarkably schizophrenic. First, the U.S. spokesperson slams China for all its naughty behavior while back home things like nuclear-powered submarines for Australia are openly described as meant to threaten China with destruction and thereby keep it in line. Then, cooperation is expected on issues important to the U.S. 

This is like saying to one’s neighbor, “You really are an asshole. Let’s meet at 4:00 to trim the hedge between our two properties.” 

It has not gone well. Nonetheless, failure seems not to have generated the slightest doubts about the wisdom of continuing to pursue this approach. 

A similar program was rolled out not long ago to deal with awful, terrible, loathsome, despicable, Big Meanie, etc., etc., Vladimir Putin. How did that episode go? The Americans’ freshly minted client state of Ukraine lost two big chunks of its eastern territory to separatists; then Russia annexed Crimea and announced that attempts to stir up military operations along the border will lead to the destruction of the Ukraine as a viable state (which wouldn’t take much in any case). 

The plutocrat-run Ukrainian protectorate and its neo-Nazi militia bands continues to sink into a hyper-corrupt Slough of Despond and periodically causes U.S. domestic politics to boil over into a frothy, putrid mess (Impeachment I, Hunter Biden). This failure could have been—and was—predicted by those who criticized the eastward march of NATO engineered by the Bushes I and II, Clinton, Obama, and some Trumpians. 

Unsurprisingly, this bipartisan plot to encircle Russia where memories linger of 26 million dead the last time that happened drew a reaction as outlined above. The Blob, instead of learning anything, cheered when Hillary (diplomatically) compared Putin to Hitler. 

What did our leaders think they could do when the Russians said, That will be enough? They could threaten nuclear annihilation but not much else. 

We are headed down the same path with the Chinese where Blobish schizophrenia is even more acute and of longer standing. After all, who exactly who paved the way for China to turn itself into the low-cost production behemoth of the industrial world and to compile huge piles of wealth to invest in its infrastructure and in technical advances? The neoliberal consensus, of which The Blob is an integral part, enabled leaders of both our major parties to convince themselves that out-shoring manufacturing and destroying the U.S. industrial base would not only provide juicy profits but also magically transform China into a clone of western capitalist societies. Someone should research whether they really believed this happy dream or simply could not resist the immense short-term gains to be hoovered up by their buddies. 

How ironic that American captains of industry waged a half-century Cold War against communism only to sell out their own workers to it! Apparently, they never heard the quote misattributed to Lenin that “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them.” He never said that though he should have. But I digress. 

What is particularly hard to fathom is The Blob’s persistent belief that by continually confronting and threatening America’s adversaries, the U.S. is guaranteed eventually to win because all these pansy rival countries must and ultimately will “back down.” Given the compelling evidence to the contrary, including the just concluded Afghan debacle, the stubbornness of this delusion is grounds for forensic study. 

American warships recently made a show of force in the waters around Taiwan, a provocation explicitly confirmed by official statements of U.S. commitment to its “democratic ally.” This term suggested a breach of the decades-old One China policy and obliquely questioned China’s sovereignty over Taiwan.

China’s leadership has said in every imaginable key and language that it is not prepared to countenance Taiwan’s independence and will take whatever measures required to prevent it, including the use of force. If the U.S. insists on pushing this dangerous envelope, China will respond militarily at which point the U.S. will face three undesirable options: 

—The U.S. backs down, avoids a confrontation, and is publicly humiliated. Any sitting president would be immediately pilloried in terms rarely seen and could easily find him/herself forced out of office. 

—The U.S. escalates to a nuclear confrontation, earning itself the eternal enmity of all humanity in the unlikely event that there is any left. 

—The U.S. engages in conventional warfare with China, which produces a long and nasty conflict, which ends, in all probability, with the Americans being handed their ass on a plate. If the U.S. “wins,” it then is stuck planning for inevitable next round of fighting and spending untold treasure defending an island half a world away. If Afghanistan cost $6 trillion over 20 years, imagine the price tag of that one. 

Earlier this week, Biden dispatched his national security advisor to an emergency meeting in Switzerland with his Chinese counterpart. Someone in Washington must have escaped the Blobbish bubble long enough to realize China might not be bluffing and that America is in no condition to countenance any of these scenarios. 

While immediate dangers have been avoided, there is no sign that the U.S. has shifted its course. The Chinese must have concluded that there is no reasoning with the Americans and no alternative to preparing for war, which they are plainly doing. 

What is the cause of this stubborn incapacity for seeing the world in anything other than imperial terms? Why can’t America see the benefits of sharing its toys? Or at least not whacking the other kids with sticks? 

One aspect of the mysterious Blob disease is that it is incapable of seeing itself as, well, a Blob, a rigid in-group toeing a party line that admits no real dissent. A recent article in the New York Times illustrated this fact by publishing an article mocking the very notion of The Blob. The author quoted a raft of foreign policy poohbahs who duly agreed that their critics are nincompoops (none of whom were quoted in response) and that the idea of a hegemonic “Blob” was nonsense—itself a sterling example of full-on Blobulousness. 

For example, note how the decline and ignominious fall of the U.S. puppet regime in Kabul stirred Blobbian groupthink to sudden, polemical life. Biden, shepherded into office with their serene approval, was roundly and promptly denounced for abandoning an outpost of empire. Bloboids argued that the rickety apparatus could have been held together a bit longer with some geopolitical sealing wax, thereby avoiding loss of “credibility,” the ghost of Neville Chamberlain, etc. No one was brought onto the TV talk shows or cable networks to offer an alternative view, and any doubters with career ambitions quickly saw that Biden’s decision to withdrawal should not be defended. 

As Daniel Larison wrote in Substack, "The idea that the U.S. would be better off by simply quitting an unwinnable war was considered unthinkable or nonsensical." 

What is never part of this imperial orthodoxy is any hint that the U.S. could fit itself into a world of coexistence with other states and peoples as equals rather than as a master announcing terms to its subjects. A system built on compromise and mutual benefit is unimaginable to them; we are either rulers or ruled. 

Instead, the world is a priori assumed to be implacably hostile and dangerous despite the disappearance of any real ideological competition of the Cold War sort. Threat exaggeration continues in an unbroken line from Kennedy’s fictitious “missile gap” to the Soviet bugaboo of the Reagan years and the convenient elevation of terrorism today, the latter having the special advantage of being impossible to eradicate and therefore eternal.

This post is already long, and the question of whence the intellectual ossification of this inbred gaggle must be set aside for further reflection. That said, the fact of The Blob’s obtuseness remains, and the very brittleness of its consensus makes it highly prone to misjudgment given that it has so effectively suppressed dissident voices. 

No one is tugging at the emperor’s sleeve to remind him that he is a mere mortal, and for that reason the gradual decline of U.S. world dominance could provoke errors that would turn into a precipitous rout. We could find ourselves in a very different world. 

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