The Saudis have destroyed a key airport in Yemen, a point of entry for crucial aid shipments, making the grim prospect of a major famine even more likely than before. This happened the same week that the Kingdom apparently chose to hold Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri against his will, by some accounts, and forced his resignation (Hariri now disputes this) in an effort to sow discord in a country that survived a 15-year sectarian civil war. This multi-pronged effort to roll back Shi’a influence in the region is largely the handiwork of Arabia’s 32-year-old crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (or “MBS” as the folks in the know call him), a man who is taking the blood-stained legacy of Saudi’s extremism up to the next level.
Praised by many in the American imperial class as a “modernizer”, Prince Salman has leveled neighboring Yemen over the past two years, turning it into one of the world’s most deadly war zones. This attack was probably born of the Iran nuclear deal; perhaps Yemen was the bone thrown to a disgruntled kingdom after an American war with Persia was averted. The fight in Yemen is an extension of Saudi’s longterm efforts to remake the Arab world in its own image. Its principal enemy used to be Arab nationalism, championed by Nassar and others. Now that that wave of leaders is past, Iran and Shi’a populations are in the crosshairs, and the trigger has been pulled repeatedly – in Bahrain, in Syria, and most devastatingly in Yemen.
I don’t want to place responsibility for this disgusting war solely at the feet of MBS and his autocratic government. They could not do what they’re doing without military and diplomatic support from the United States. If we told them – firmly – to stop, they would stop. The fact that it continues demonstrates a desire on the part of Washington – and elements of both major political parties – for the conflict to continue. It’s similar to the situation in Korea in that there is an obvious solution to the problem and the fact that we fail to grab it up suggests more than stupidity and stubbornness. The other similarity is that MBS’s swagger is like that of Kim Jong Un, only our leaders appear willing to eat it up. Really disturbing.
I strongly suggest you contact your congressional representatives and tell them in no uncertain terms that this conflict has gone on long enough and it is time for the killing to stop. Senator Chris Murphy appears to have gotten the memo – now let’s see if we can get others on board.
I’m not going to spend a lot of column space on the foibles of the Trump White House, entertaining as they may be. You’ve heard it all, right? Everything about Scaramucci, Priebus, and whoever the fuck. Hey, we elected a clown-car cartoon character president – we should expect this. What’s really much more disturbing is what they’ve been up to behind the screen of all this palace intrigue. Some of it is fairly clear, like the disingenuous attack on the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid (i.e. Trump’s repeated promises that the new bill would be better, that everyone would be covered, and that premiums and co-payments would be low). Some is not so obvious, and the devil in this administration is truly in those details.
Take the Sessions Justice Department (please). Reporting this week has indicated that they are redirecting the Civil Rights Division to look into cases of reverse discrimination in college admissions. They are denying it up and down, but it would in no way be out of character for Beauregard and his new Civil Rights Division chief, John Gore, who was part of a law firm defending North Carolina’s recent “bathroom bill” anti-LGBTQ legislation as well as working for increased ballot access restrictions. I think it’s obvious that any agency or division in the Executive branch not currently headed by someone who opposes its core mission is on borrowed time.
Foreign affairs is a mess, of course. Trump has expressed interest in the mineral wealth of Afghanistan, raising the specter of an even further resource-fueled extension of our pointless war in that unfortunate country. Meanwhile, Iran and North Korea are both on notice again, the Trump team trying its best to ratchet up the tension in the powder keg that is the Korean peninsula while setting the United States on a course to war with Tehran. Just what we need: too more pointless, avoidable wars. (Trump felt it necessary to do the typical fake bombing runs over Korea as well as test one of our massive arsenal of ICBMs.) It should come as a surprise to no one that a foreign policy left mostly to the generals will tilt toward warfare.
Okay, I haven’t covered much, but there will be plenty of time to go into all that is left (I hope). As horrendous as all this sounds, it’s really just been another week of the Trump administration …. which actually sounds even more horrendous, particularly with 3-1/2 years to go. Fuck me – this is awful.
It’s been more than 15 years and we’re still at war in Afghanistan; a deployment and occupation considerably longer than that of the now-defunct Soviet Union. It’s been more than 14 years and we’re still at war in Iraq, a conflict longer than the one military historian Dilip Hiro once described as “The Longest War” (the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980s). We’re killing people in Roqqa, Syria, in Mosul, Iraq, in Yemen, and quite a few other places. Far from stepping away, we are preparing to double down, sending another contingent of thousands of American troops to Afghanistan on some quixotic effort to tamp down the wildfire we helped ignite thirty-seven years ago.
Endless war in an of itself is now an invariant reality of modern U.S. foreign policy, regardless of which major party holds the reins of power. The broad political consensus has built a nearly unassailable war machine – not in the sense that it is impervious to military defeat, but rather that it is designed to run on and on regardless of what the American people have to say about it. The killing machine is well insulated from the voting, tax paying public – there’s no conscription, no war tax, no apparent sacrifice associated with these extended deployments except with respect to the volunteer soldiers who are sent to fight, be grievously wounded, and even die. The beauty of this political creation is that it appears to defy gravity; only a herculean effort on the part of the American people could stand a chance of ending these wars.
Of course, Donald Trump has now been stitched into the driver seat of the killing machine. I am among those who consider this a very dangerous state of affairs, even though the background level of warfare remains about the same. The danger is in the fact that Trump is (a) phenomenally ignorant, (b) supremely incurious about any topic that doesn’t bear directly on him, his image, his family, his fortune; and (c) recklessly arrogant in a third-world dictator kind of way. His response to foreign policy challenges reminds me of D’artagnan on his first day in Paris, unwittingly challenging all three of his future fellow musketeers to a duel. A dispute with the Syrians, the Russians, the North Koreans, and the Iranians all in one week. It’s not too hard to imagine a quintet of new conflicts breaking out all at the same time, largely because Trump doesn’t really understand or believe in diplomacy.
We live in dangerous times, to be sure. But at the very least, unless we all decide to make a point of it, we are well and truly stuck with these wars for years – even decades – to come.
We were treated to the third and final presidential debate this week, moderated by Chris Wallace of FoxNews. I can’t decide which I found more annoying – the ridiculous utterances by the candidates themselves or the clueless pundit commentary on what a great moderator Wallace was. Maybe MSNBC is planning on hiring Wallace, I’m not sure – it seems like they were blowing him pretty hard the morning after, even though he apparently cribbed questions from the Peterson Institute and Operation Rescue. “Partial birth abortion,” really? And no questions about climate change, of course. What a great news man.
I could sit here an write about the obviously outrageous statements made by Trump over the 90 minute program, but you’ve probably heard enough of that. Suffice to say that the guy proves his unsuitability for the office of the presidency every time he opens his big yap. No one should need additional convincing, but alas … this is America. No, what astonishes me is some of what gets discussed (and what doesn’t get discussed) in the wake of these debates. That in itself is enough to make you want to rip your own head off. Take Syria. On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, it’s pretty much a consensus that the Syrian conflict is a failure of the Obama administration on the scale of Bush’s Iraq invasion. Scarborough himself regularly refers to the conflict with terms like “holocaust” and “genocide”, which is frankly offensive.
I have never been a fan of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, but the comparison with Iraq doesn’t pass the laugh test. For one thing, more people were killed in the Iraq conflict than thus far in Syria, and that was entirely down to us. Syria is a civil war stoked by extremist remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq (thank you, Bush and Cheney) and other elements covertly supported by the US (thank you, Obama), facing off with an ossified authoritarian regime that knows only one thing: crush dissent. The Morning Joe crew is apparently disappointed that we didn’t roll into Syria in 2013 and turn it into an even broader international conflict, which would have resulted in open war with Iran, probably Lebanon, and maybe Russia. Would Scarborough want one of his sons to fight that war? Doubt it.
Nothing out of either candidate last night gave me any confidence that we wouldn’t get more deeply involved in this wretched civil war after January 21. It’s up to us as a nation to make certain that the war fever we heard last night stays in Vegas and doesn’t guide American policy moving forward.
I’m going to rant about something that has really gotten under my skin this week, and I want to say up front that I am not raising this in defense of Obama’s foreign policy so much as in response to a thirty-five year hyper-nationalist obsession that shows no sign of abating. I’m referring to the recent stories about the $400 million transfer to Iran coinciding with the release of some key detainees, and the consequent hysterical response and cries of “ransom!” on the part of center-right pols and pundits. Even purported liberals have adopted some of the language of this crusade, pointing out apparent “linkage” between the payment and the release. Let me make just a few points in response.
First, the $400 million is not our money; it is Iran’s money. It represents funds paid by the Iranian people for arms sold to the despotic Shah before his overthrow; the arms were never delivered, and with the application of sanctions, the money was frozen, like the proceeds from oil sales. As a component of the nuclear deal, the United States and its partners agreed to free up this money while keeping the bulk of the sanctions in place. Once the agreement was settled, the administration apparently reserved delivery of these funds – the $400 million in cash, since Iran still can’t use the international banking system – as some surety that the prisoner release (negotiated as a side agreement) would actually happen.
So let me put this as simply as possible. Giving people back their own money is not the same as paying them ransom. I know it’s fun to play with the word “ransom”, but it simply doesn’t apply here.
Ironically, many of those who are now calling it “ransom” are the same fuckers who complained during the nuclear negotiations that Obama’s administration was not working hard enough to release the prisoners. Clearly they were working on this. But the return of Teheran’s money was not payment for the release; it was compliance with the terms of the nuclear agreement.
Lastly, this is not like the Iran/Contra scandal; not at all. Reagan was trying to find off-the-books ways to fund his terror army in Nicaragua, since funding had been prohibited by Congress. He arranged a sale of arms to Iran (while in the midst of helping Saddam Hussein attack Iran) as a payment for release of prisoners captured in Lebanon, then funneled the proceeds of the sale to the Contras. There was a quid pro quo there – arms for hostages – but also the broader crime of illegal aid to the psycho killers attacking community centers and health clinics in Nicaragua.
None of this will appear in the media coverage. That’s because the war party in the U.S. – Democrats and Republicans alike – have had Iran derangement syndrome since 1979. Iran took something from us back then and we have never forgiven them for it – something very valuable, namely, Iran. That means endless demagoguery on this issue, regardless of the facts.
This has been a week of sobering political news, to be sure. The gradual implosion of the institutional republican party continued apace, their preferred candidate falling into a deep hole that I suspect neither Mitt Romney nor an MSNBC town hall can pull him out of. Far more disturbing was various pieces of news from overseas: the heightened war of words on the Korean peninsula, the continued saber-rattling over Iran, and a strike in Somalia that killed 150 “terrorists”, though no one is quite sure who these people were.
Korea is potentially the most volatile of these. There are literally millions of people living under the gun there, and while the North’s leadership is ultra paranoid and appears irrational, they have been driven to this point by the presence of an existential threat: us. We have scores of military bases in South Korea. The South Korean military is under the operational command of our Pentagon. On top of that, we engage in the annual provocation of our joint exercises with Seoul, which amounts to a massive mock-invasion of North Korea. Given our troubled history with Pyongyang (and the memory of a war that cost 3 million Korean lives), you might think we would try to err on the side of diplomacy. North Korea wants direct bilateral talks with us because we are their principal adversary. They are not a direct threat to us, but they can do a lot of damage to Seoul, so for the sake of all those people we should ratchet down this conflict now.
With respect to Iran, I am going to set aside whatever they claim to have scrawled on the outside of their test missiles (incendiary as it is, it only makes me think of the racist crap IDF soldiers wrote on the walls of destroyed Palestinian elementary schools during the second Intifada). The reporting on the facts of their test launch is instructive. The missiles are not nuclear-capable, so they are not covered by the recent agreement – this was acknowledged in press reports. The expectation of the Security Council, we are told, is that Iran will not test missiles, but they are not “bound” by that expectation. So why the hair on fire? Why should they be the only power in the world not to test their weapons? I think that’s the reason why they led the story with the stuff written on the outside.
Regarding the 150 killed in Somalia, I’m trying to imagine how this gets Somalia closer to peace. But then … that was never the objective in Somalia. Imperial utility is more what we were looking for when we started intervening there in a big way during the late Carter administration – a convenient replacement for Iran.
All I can tell you is that it’s likely only to get worse after this coming election. Unless we vote and stay engaged. You heard it here.
Lots going on this week, so I’ll comment on a few random things. Stop me if it gets confusing.
Cuba vs. Cuba. The spectacle of Cruz and Rubio spouting anti-immigration rhetoric in a kind of xenophobic pissing match is hypocritical beyond belief. Here are two examples of the offspring of Cuban exiles, their parents having arrived in the United States under the extremely preferential terms that have been in effect for Cuban immigrants since the early 1960s, an experience nothing like what immigrants from other Central American nations have to deal with. When you leave revolutionary Cuba and go to the U.S., you have a golden ticket. You’re practically guaranteed a green card and a place in the exile community. Compare that with what you face when you run here escaping the drug gangs in El Salvador – a cell in an outsourced cinder-block detention facility and an eventual boot out the door.
The Cuban exile policy is the perfect illustration of what these GOP pols complain about with regard to incentivizing the influx of undocumented immigrants, and yet they have no problem with folks flocking here from Cuba because they can’t earn a lot of money back home. But when it comes to families running for their lives from the hell holes we helped destroy during the 1980s, that’s different. If the likes of Cruz and Rubio had had their way, Cuba would be a free market basket case like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and every other disaster area we “helped” over the years. Of course, then the legions of exiles fleeing drug gangs would find no red carpet on these shores.
Get the lead out. The water crisis in Flint Michigan reminds me of the slow motion disaster that was New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, when every level of government seemed paralyzed by a kind of neoliberal lethargy. We are not seeing government rushing to the aid of the people their austerity programs have poisoned. Who says austerity doesn’t ruin lives? For chrissake, it doesn’t even save money. The financial cost (to say nothing of the staggering human cost) of a generation of young children stricken by lead poisoning far outstrips the amount of funds it would have taken to keep Flint on marginally potable water. Someone needs to go to jail over this, but since the crisis mostly affects people of color, that seems doubtful.
Iran lets the neocons down. They were hoping for another hostage crisis, but were sorely disappointed, I expect, when the Iranian government released captured U.S. naval personnel after 16 hours. This is the sort of touch point that would have started the neocons’ much sought-after war with Persia back a few years ago. No such luck, boys and girls. Though my principal question is, what the fuck were our sailors doing there? Who sent them on this fool’s errand and why? No answers yet.
Well, it was quite a week for the right. First the dramatic jailing of the county clerk in Kentucky and her equally dramatic release into the arms of Mike Huckabee and Tony Perkins (not the actor). Then there was the non-satirical version of the Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington, headlined by Ted Cruz, who was shut out at the Kentucky celebration of bigotry. Lots of posturing, quite a bit of screeching (particularly on the part of the estimable Sara Palin), and some very bizarre opinions being aired – tirades that speak of a truly distorted view of reality; noises from that airless box the reactionary right spends all of its time in.
I think the part that’s most flabbergasting is the level of hysteria over the Iran deal. You expect to hear overheated rhetoric at an event that features Michelle Bachman and some dude from “Duck Dynasty,” but this was way the fuck over the top. Ted Cruz suggested that the Iranians, once they have acquired the nuclear weapon they so LUST after, will blow it up off the coast of the U.S. to create an electromagnetic pulse, shutting down our electrical grid and killing MILLIONS! What. the. fuck. What a fantasy! And this from a sitting Senator.
Sure, I know what you’re thinking. (Or at least I think I do.) These are the crackheads, the crazy people, the tea party faithful, waving their freak flag high. Except that these opinions are broadly held among Republicans, great and small. Just as Trump channels the inner wingnut of every member of the party faithful, the bizarre rhetoric of Palin, Cruz, Bachman and others emanate from the mouths of the GOP’s supposedly more temperate and measured spokespeople. On Thursday morning MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough launched into a rant about the Iran deal that diverged from Palin’s argument only in the style of delivery. Less screechy, but just as nuts. We’re shuddering in the shadow of Iran. Scarborough could have been channeling Cheney, except that the wreck of an ex vice president appeared on his show only days before.
Fact is, they’re all nuts. Be advised.
Pressed again this week, so I’m going to comment briefly on a few topics. Stop me if I get ahead of myself.
Eliminate the middleman. I guess it’s official: Donald Trump is a phenomenon. Of course, in a field of seventeen candidates, all you need for first-tier status is to poll in the double digits. It’s not surprising that a quarter of the Republican activist electorate find his brand of arrogant, reality-star crackpotism attractive. He does make one valid point, I will admit – he doesn’t need another billionaire to bankroll him, unlike his 16 rivals. That’s because he’s his own billionaire.
So that’s his competitive advantage, right? No middleman necessary. Let the rich rule directly. Let’s hear it for feudalism! Submit yourself to the will of the landlord!
Schumer’s gambit. Senator Schumer has defended his decision to oppose the nuclear deal with Iran by suggesting that a deal more favorable to the U.S. and Israel can be forced through extension and intensification of sanctions and – I suppose – more aggressive negotiations. In this respect, he is channeling Trump. What’s sad about this is that even the administration, in its defense of the pact, buys into the same imperial mindset that has defined our relationship with Iran since 1979.
Personally, I don’t think the agreement is a particularly good deal for Iran. We still target them economically and politically, surround them militarily, blame them for every ill in the Middle East – which is really too much like the pot calling the kettle black. This is just payback for Iran’s unforgivable crime of stealing something truly valuable from us: their sovereignty.
What matters. Many have commented on the Black Lives Matter movement’s interruption of political rallies in recent weeks, and some have complained about the tactic being used on Bernie Sanders. Though I like Bernie, I can’t blame BLM for speaking up at every opportunity. This is an emergency for Black Americans, one that has been underway for hundreds of years. Until white folks start listening and responding appropriately, expect more disruptions.
The draft agreement with Iran represents a step away from yet another war in the greater Middle East / Southwest Asia region, but it is being presented and discussed squarely within the same imperial context that has defined our relationship with the Islamic Republic for my entire adult life. It is a little hard to see how Obama can inch this country away from its delusions about Iran without departing from them himself, at least in a small way. He has always been an incrementalist when it comes to human progress. Often, as the drones fly, I feel like we’re moving incrementally in entirely the wrong direction, but even where I agree that we should have this kind of agreement with Iran, it is with the realization that we are still reaching substantially beyond anything that should be considered our legitimate concern.
Before anyone accuses me of it, I am not a fan of the clerical regime in Iran. The Iranian people have, however, been subjected to sustained attack by the United States since we expanded our empire during and after World War II. We have caused them immense suffering, through the overthrow of their democratically elected government in 1953, through the imposition of our close ally, the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, through our support of Saddam Hussein in his murderous war against Iran, through decades of draconian sanctions. There are many Americans – some friends, even – who will list for me the strikes against Americans attributed to Iran (all in the context of various military adventures on our part), but in all honesty, they pale in comparison to what we have done to them.
It’s a stretch to say that Iran was interested in developing nuclear weapons, but frankly, it wouldn’t come as any surprise. The regional nuclear arms race various American politicians – from Obama to the G.O.P. – have been warning us about is already underway. With an arsenal of hundreds of warheads in Israel and nuclear-capable assets deployed in the region by the U.S., who can blame anyone in Iran’s position for wanting some kind of deterrent, particularly since we have demonstrated in very practical terms our willingness to invade non-nuclear states and our reluctance to attack those who maintain an atom-powered arsenal.
Let’s get past this obsession with our own “great satan” and stop being afraid of this country we’ve been threatening for 35 years. If this agreement is the first step, I’m all for it.