Portugal: European Left Batting 1,000

Portugal: Europe’s Left Batting 1000

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 7, 2015


In spite of a well-financed scare campaign, and a not very subtle effort by the European Union (EU) to load the dice in the Oct. 4 Portuguese elections, the ruling rightwing Forward Portugal coalition lost its majority in the parliament, Left parties garnered more than 50 percent of the vote, and the austerity policies that have paralyzed the country for four years took a major hit.


Along with last month’s Greek election, it was two in a row for the European Left.


While most the mainstream media touted the election as a victory for Prime Minister Passos Coelho’s Social Democratic Party/Popular Party coalition, the rightist alliance dropped from 50.4 percent in the 2011 election to 38.4 percent, losing 28 seats. In contrast, the center-left Socialist Party picked up 11 seats, the Communist/Green alliance 1 seat, and the Left Bloc 13 seats. All in all, the Left went from 40 percent of the vote in 2011 to a little over 50 percent in 2015.


There are still four seats to be determined by the votes of expatriates, but even if all four went to Forward Portugal, it would still be short of a majority. And given that a flood of young, mostly professional, Portuguese fled the austerity regime inflicted on the country by the “Troika”—the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Commission—those votes may well end up in the Left’s column.


The parliament has 230 seats. The Right now controls 104 and the left 121. A majority is 116 seats.


The surprise in the election was that the Left Bloc more than doubled its representation in spite of the fact that there were three Left parties vying for voters.


The Right ran endless images of poor Greek pensioners lining up at banks, and warned voters that voting for the Left could result in the kinds draconian measures the EU took out on Greece, but the scare tactics didn’t work.


The Troika also eased up on Portugal prior to the election, exactly the opposite approach it took in Greece, even though Portugal’s debt is still high and its growth is anemic—1.6 percent this year. Unemployment has come down from a high of 17 percent, but it is still 12 percent, and over 30 percent among youth—those that haven’t emigrated. Out of a population of 10.4 million, some 485,000 young people emigrated from 2011 to 2014.


In what one leftwing party member told the Financial Times was an “unseemly interference” in the election, Standard & Poor’s upgraded Portugal’s credit rating just two weeks before the election. S&P has long been accused of politicizing its credit ratings.


Forward Portugal is already backing away from some of its more bombastic attacks on the Left, and Coelho says his coalition would enter into “necessary agreements” with the Socialists in the future. Most commentators think the new parliamentary alignment is too unstable to last long.


The question now is, can the Left unite to roll back the four years of austerity that has impoverished the country? One in five Portuguese are below the poverty line of $5,589 income a year, and the minimum wage is $584 a month. Portugal has one of the greatest income disparities in Europe—the top 20 percent earn six times more than the bottom 20 percent—and education levels are among the lowest in the EU.


But much of the Left is not on the same page. Indeed, it did surprising well in the election considering its message was hardly consistent.


The Socialist Party is still saddled with the fact that it instituted the austerity policies in 2011 when financial speculators in the rest of Europe drove up interest rates on borrowing. Contrary to the Right’s charge, the debt was due to financial speculation, not spending. The Socialists also had a corruption problem, so voters turned to the Right in the 2011 election.


With an absolute majority in the parliament, the rightist alliance slashed wages, cut back pensions, privatized public property and raised taxes. One of the few checks on the slash-and-burn assault was the Portuguese Constitutional Court, which blocked some of the more onerous austerity measures.


In this election the Socialists ran against the austerity policies, but the message voters got was mixed: roll back austerity, but abide by EU rules. However, given that it was the EU rules that brought on the austerity, it was a message that voters found hard to decipher. The Socialists were also silent on the debt, a large part of which is of a questionable nature.


A study by the Committee for a Citizen’s Audit on the Public Debt found that most debt was not due to government spending, but massive tax cuts and rising interest rates. The Committee concluded that as much as 50 percent to 60 percent of most countries debts were “illegitimate.”


The Left Bloc—which is close to Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s anti-austerity Podemos Party—not only opposed the austerity, it demanded debt reduction. Indeed, without debt reduction—a so-called “haircut”—it is unlikely that small countries, like Greece, Portugal or Ireland, can ever emerge from their current economic crises. After years of austerity, Portugal’s debt is still among the highest in Europe.


The Communist/Green alliance did marginally better than 2011, although the Left Bloc passed if for the first time. The Communist Party has a strong reservoir of respect in Portugal because of its long resistance to the 48-year military dictatorship. It has been a consistent opponent of the austerity policies, but so far it has shown little interest in working with the Socialists, which its leaders say is Forward Portugal light. The Party calls for an exit from the Eurozone, the 19 countries in the 28-member European Union that use the Euro. While some on the Left also want to leave the Eurozone, the Socialist Party is committed to the common currency.


However, there is agreement scross the Left around privatizations and cuts, and that the crisis in housing, education, and daily life—including food and medical care—has to be addressed. Without a majority, the Right will have to back away from more austerity and plans to privatize some schools and public pensions.


Does this election have reverberations outside of Portugal? The Wall Street Journal’s headline on the outcome was that it was “a cause for concern” for Spain’s rightwing government, which goes before the voters in about 10 weeks.


But if there is one thing that the recent election in Greece made obvious, it is that small countries cannot take on the power of the EU by themselves. The European Union is now the single most powerful alliance of capital on the planet, and it is not a bit shy about crushing anything it sees as a potential threat. However, the Troika’s efforts to scare—and bribe—Portugal failed.


So, what is to be done?


In the long run, a common currency was a bad idea for everyone but Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and the banks, but a quick exit would be like pulling a spear out of your leg—without careful preparations you are likely to hemorrhage to death. While the ultimate goal should be to move away from the euro, the process may take awhile.


One thing the European Union is vulnerable on is democracy. Being in the EU essentially means abandoning sovereignty. The recently signed agreement between the Troika and Greece says that the former can veto any policy it does not agree with, including anti-corruption legislation aimed at tax scofflaws. Essentially, democracy has become dispensible.


Syriza and the Portuguese Left successfully made this an issue in their campaigns, and it has great potential to become a pan-European issue. At the same time, there is potential danger with the issue of sovereignty, and the Left must clearly distinguish itself from the xenophobic European Right’s opportunistic adoption of the issue.


Ronan Burtenshaw, vice-chair of the Irish Congress of Trade Union Youth Committee and Coordinator of the Greek Solidarity Committee in Ireland, has proposed that the European Left look to Latin America for a model.


Mercosur, the huge Latin American trading block, is the third largest on the planet, but it doesn’t dictate economic policy to its members. The Bolivarian Alliance, ALBA, draws progressive countries into a political and economic union, and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States has replaced the U.S. dominated Organization of American States. The Bank of the South offers development loans without the rigid strictures of the IMF and the World Bank.


Latin America is a counter to the European mantra that “there is no alternative” to economic crisis and debt but austerity. Each country in the region developed its own way of turning away from the market-driven, austerity laden “Washington consensus” that blitzed economies from Brasilia to Santiago during the 1980s and ‘90s. And the Left played an important role in establishing continent-wide political and economic connections, specifically in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia.


There are, of course, differences. Many in the European Left contrast Argentina’s successful replacement of the dollar with the peso and its refusal to service its debt with Syriza’s acceptance of the Troika’s demands.


But Argentina is a big, powerful country, self-sufficient in energy and food. Greece—or Portugal or Ireland—is neither. And while Argentina had support from other countries in the region, Greece stood alone, even from parties like the French Socialists and the German Social Democrats.


Somehow the Left will have to chart a perilous passage between resisting austerity on one hand, and not committing suicide on the other—or rather, allowing the Troika to impoverish its base even more than it currently has. How that will happen is hardly clear, but solidarity is its essential ingredient, along with a willingness to work with others.


The Left will have to persuade or pressure center-left forces to abandon their romance with the euro and confront the social crisis created by austerity. Social democratic parties should take note that moving to the right does not translate into political power. Syriza smoked the center forces in Greece, and the Left Bloc made the biggest gains in Portugal.


To a certain extent, this process is underway with the election of long-time leftist Jeremy Corbyn to head the British Labor Party.


In his speech at the Fete de la Rose this past summer, former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, told the Socialist Party gathering that what the Left in Greece had done was to give Europeans “a sense that democracy can change things.” Portugal was another step on that path, with Spain due up in December and Ireland in April.

















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Europe’s Elections: A Coming Storm?

Europe’s Elections: A Coming Storm?

Dispatches From The Edge

Aug. 26, 2015



Between now and next April, four members of the European Union (EU) will hold national elections that will go a long ways toward determining whether the 28-member organization will continue to follow an economic model that has generated vast wealth for a few, widespread misery for many, and growing income inequality. The choice is between an almost religious focus on the “sin” of debt and the “redemption” of austerity, as opposed to a re-calibration toward economic stimulus and social welfare.


The backdrop for elections in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland is one of deep economic crisis originally ignited by the American financial collapse of 2007-08. That meltdown burst real estate bubbles all over Europe—particularly in Spain and Ireland—and economies from the Baltic to the Mediterranean went off the rails. Countries like Ireland, Greece, Spain and Portugal saw their GDPs plummet, their banks implode and their unemployment rates reach levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Debt levels went through the ceiling.


The response of the EU to the crisis was a carbon copy of the so-called “Washington consensus” that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) applied to indebted Latin American countries during the 1990s: massive cutbacks in government spending, widespread layoffs and double digit tax raises on consumers.


Instead of lower debt levels and jumpstarting economies, however, the IMF strictures for Latin America did exactly the opposite. Cutbacks, layoffs, and high taxes impoverished the majority, which in turn tanked economies and raised debt levels. The formula was a catastrophe that Latin America is still digging itself out from.


But the strategy was very good for a narrow stratum, led by banks, speculators, and multinational corporations. U.S, British, German, Dutch and French banks helped inflate real estate bubbles by pouring low interest money into building binges. The banks certainly knew they were feeding a bubble—land prices in Spain and Ireland jumped 500 percent.


However, as economist Joseph Stiglitz points out, the banks had a trick: their private debts would be paid for by the public. Taxpayers did pick up the tab, but only by borrowing money from the Troika—the IMF, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission—and accepting the same conditions that tanked Latin American in the 1990s. Needless to say, history was replicated on another continent.


The upcoming elections will pit the policies of the Troika against anti-austerity movements in Portugal, Greece, Spain and Ireland. If these movements are to succeed, they will first have to confront the mythology that the current economic crisis springs from avaricious pensioners, entitled trade unionists, and free spending bureaucracies, rather than irresponsible speculation by banks and financiers. And they will have to do so in a political arena in which their opponents control virtually all of the mass media.


Never have so few controlled so much that informs so many.


The election terrain is enormously complex, and, while resistance to austerity gives these movements a common goal, the political geography is different in each country. Plus the Left essentially has to fight on two fronts: one, against the policies of the Troika, and two, against a rising tide of racist, xenophobic and increasingly violent right-wing movements that have opportunistically adopted anti-austerity rhetoric. The openly Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece and the fascist National Front in France may attack the policies of the EU, but their programs have nothing in common with organizations like Greece’s Syriza, Ireland’s Sinn Fein, Spain’s Podemos, or Portugal’s Left Bloc.


Size counts in this coming battle. Because Greece makes up only 1.3 percent of the EU’s GDP, the Troika could force Greece to make a choice between, in the words of former Syriza economic minister Yanis Varoufakis, “suicide or execution”—suicide if Syriza accepted another round of austerity, execution of the country’s banks and financial structure if it did not. Because it is small, Greece’s death would scarcely cause a ripple in the EU. A similar situation exists for Ireland and Portugal.


But not for Spain. Spain is the 14th largest economy in the world and the fifth largest economy in the EU. Bankrupting it or driving it out of the Eurozone—the 19 countries that use the euro instead of a national currency—would cause more than a ripple, it could sink the entire enterprise. That is why the austerity measures the Troika impressed on Spain were severe, but not as onerous as those inflicted on Ireland, Portugal and Greece.


Besides trying to ameliorate the worst aspects of the Troika program, the anti-austerity Left faces an existential question: should their indebted countries remain in the Eurozone, or should they call for withdrawal and a return to national currencies?


The Eurozone has been a disaster for most its members, except Germany, and, to a certain extent, Austria and the Netherlands. While the currency is common, there is no shared responsibility for the results of economic unevenness. In the U.S., big economies like California help pay the way for Mississippi, under the assumption that a common interstate market is a good thing and why shouldn’t the wealthier states help the less fortunate? In the Eurozone, it is every man for himself, and if you’re in trouble, talk to the Troika loan sharks.


Since the euro is controlled by the European Central Bank—read Germany—countries can’t manipulate their currencies to help get themselves out of trouble the way the U.S., China, Russia, India, Brazil, Great Britain, and others do. A currency union doesn’t work without a political union, and such a union is a bad idea when it puts countries like Germany and Greece on the same playing field. In the end, the big dogs dominate.


While the issues throughout the Eurozone may be similar, each country is different. A short scorecard:


Greece-Sept. 20


Syriza, the leftwing party that won the last election, has split with 25 former Syriza deputies who formed the Popular Union Party and called for full resistance to the Troika’s demands. Despite retreating from his previous opposition to any new austerity, polls show Syriza’s former prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, is popular. The parties that formerly dominated Greece—the right-wing New Democracy and center-left PSAOK—have been badly discredited, and the centrist Potami Party doesn’t have a clear program, except none of the above. The Left should do well, but it will be divided. Division in the face of the Troika is perilous, but this battle is a long way from over, and there are creative ways to resist the Troika without taking it head on. A civil war within the Left, however, could be disastrous.


Portugal-Oct. 4


The country is currently dominated by the conservative Popular Party/Social Democratic Party coalition that holds 132 seats in the 230-seat assembly. But polls show the opposition is running neck and neck with the Socialists (74 seats), The Socialists put in the austerity program, but have since turned against it. The leftwing United Democratic Coalition (16 seats), an alliance of the Communist Party and the Greens, and the Left Bloc (8 seats), looks like they will pick up deputies. There is a strong possibility that the conservatives will fall, and that the center-left and left opposition will form a coalition government. The Left already controls 98 seats. It will need 116 to form a government.


Spain, December, 2015


The political situation in Spain is fluid. The rightwing ruling Popular Party is in trouble because of several major corruption scandals and its enthusiastic support for austerity. The Socialist Party has recently increased its popularity but it was the Socialists that instituted the austerity policies. Support for the leftwing anti-austerity Podemos Party appears to have stalled, but it has elected, or helped to elect, the mayors of Madrid, Barcelona, Cadiz and Zaragoza. Unlike Syriza, which is a coalition of left parties, Podemos is a grassroots organization that knows how to get the voters out.


There is also the center-right Ciudadanos Party that did well in spring elections, but is anti-immigrant and anti-abortion, and whose economic program is at best opaque.   Those things are not likely to translate into major electoral gains. Whatever happens, Spain is no longer a two party country, and the Left will play a key role in any coalition building to form a government.


There is a wildcard in this election: the newly minted Citizens Security Law, which the Popular Party rammed through Parliament and is aimed at suppressing demonstrations, criticism of the government, and free speech. It is clearly aimed at shutting down Podemos.



Ireland, April 2016


“Volatile” is the only way one can describe the Irish Republic, where the polls shift from month to month. The economy is growing, but the Troika’s austerity regime is still raw. Over 100,000 mortgages are under water and since 2008, some 400,00—mostly young professionals—have fled to Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S., inflicting a crippling brain drain on the island.


The centrist coalition of Fine Gael and Labor currently rules, but that is likely to change after the election. Polls show Fine Gael at 28 percent, and Labor at 7 percent. At 21 percent, the leftwing, anti-austerity Sinn Fein Party is in the number two post, although its support has fallen off slightly since last year. However, the popularity of its leader, Gerry Adams, has been climbing. Lastly, there is a mix of independent parties, ranging from Greens to socialists, supported by 24 percent of the voters. Most are anti-austerity and potential coalition partners if the ruling parties fall. The conservative Fianna Fail Party is polling about 20 percent.


In these upcoming elections, the Left will have to confront the enormous power of the Troika on the one hand, and on the other, deliver services and jobs. It will also have to clearly differentiate itself from the racism of the right on the immigration crisis and challenge the unwillingness of their own governments to find a humane solution to the problem. Since of the bulk of the refugees are generated by the irresponsible policies of countries like France, Britain, Italy and Germany in Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, the Left must clearly link the foreign adventurism of their elites to the flood of people now seeking safety from the storms those elites help generate.


None of this will be easy and disunity will make it harder. The Left elsewhere in the world cannot expect small countries like Greece, Portugal and Ireland to take on the power of international capital by themselves. Not since the rise of Nazism has there been such a pressing need for international solidarity. In a very real way, we are all Greeks, Spanish, Portuguese and Irish. These elections are as much about the U.S. as they are about the parties and movements that have decided to resist a species of capitalism that is particularly red of tooth and claw.






















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Europe’s New Barbarians

Europe’s New Barbarians

Dispatches From The Edge

Aug. 28, 2015


On one level, the recent financial agreement between the European Union (EU) and Greece makes no sense: not a single major economist thinks the $96 billion loan will allow Athens to repay its debts, or to get the economy moving anywhere but downwards. It is what former Greek Economic Minister Yanis Varoufakis called a “suicide” pact, with a strong emphasis on humiliating the leftwing Syriza government.


Why construct a pact that everyone knows will fail?


On the Left, the interpretation is that the agreement is a conscious act of vengeance by the “Troika”—the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund—to punish Greece for daring to challenge the austerity program that has devastated the economy and impoverished its people. The evidence for this explanation is certainly persuasive. The more the Greeks tried to negotiate a compromise with the EU, the worse the deal got. The final agreement was the most punitive of all. The message was clear: rattle the gates of Heaven at your own peril.


It was certainly a grim warning to other countries with strong anti-austerity movements, in particular Portugal, Spain and Ireland.


But austerity as an economic strategy is about more than just throwing a scare into countries that, exhausted by years of cutbacks and high unemployment, are thinking of changing course. It is also about laying the groundwork for the triumph of multinational corporate capitalism and undermining the social contract between labor and capital that has characterized much of Europe for the past two generations.


It is a new kind of barbarism, one that sacks countries with fine print.


Take Greece’s pharmacy law that the Troika has targeted for elimination in the name of “reform.” Current rules require that drug stores be owned by a pharmacist, who can’t own more than one establishment, that over the counter drugs can only be sold in drug stores, and that the price of medicines be capped. Similar laws exist in Spain, Germany, Portugal, France, Cyprus, Austria and Bulgaria, and were successfully defended before the European Court of Justice in 2009.


For obvious reasons multinational pharmacy corporations like CVS, Walgreen, and Rite Aid, plus retail goliaths like Wal-Mart, don’t like these laws, because they restrict the ability of these giant firms to dominate the market.


But the pharmacy law is hardly Greeks being “quaint” and old-fashioned. The U.S. state of North Dakota has a similar law, one that Wal-Mart and Walgreens have been trying to overturn since 2011. Twice thwarted by the state’s legislature, the two retail giants recruited an out-of-state signature gathering firm and poured $3 million into an initiative to repeal it. North Dakotans voted to keep their pharmacy law 59 percent to 41 percent.


The reason is straightforward: “North Dakotans have pharmacy care that outperforms care in other states on every key measure, from cost to access,” says author David Morris. Drug prices are cheaper in North Dakota than in most other states, rural areas are better served, and there is more competition.


The Troika is also demanding that Greece ditch its fresh milk law, which favors local dairy producers over industrial-size firms in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. The EU claims that, while quality may be affected, prices will go down. But, as Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz found, “savings” in efficiency are not always passed on to consumers.


In general, smaller firms hire more workers and provide more full time jobs than big corporations. Large operations like Wal-Mart are more efficient, but the company’s workforce is mostly part time and paid wages so low that workers are forced to use government support services. In essence, taxpayers subsidize corporations like Wal-Mart.


A key demand of the Troika is “reform” of the labor market to make it easier for employers to dismiss workers, establish “two-tier” wage scales—new hires are paid less than long time employees—and to end industry-wide collective bargaining. The latter means that unions—already weakened by layoffs—will have to bargain unit by unit, an expensive, exhausting and time consuming undertaking.


The results of such “reforms” are changing the labor market in places like Spain, France, and Italy.


After years of rising poverty rates, the Spanish economy has finally begun to grow, but the growth is largely a consequence of falling energy prices, and the jobs being created are mostly part-time or temporary, and at considerably lower wages than pre-2007. As Daniel Alastuey, the secretary-general of Aragon’s UGT, one of Spain’s largest unions told the New York Times, “A new figure has emerged in Spain: the employed person who is below the poverty threshold.”


According to the Financial Times, France has seen a similar development. In 2000, some 25 percent of all labor contracts were for permanent jobs. That has fallen to less than 16 percent, and out of 20 million yearly labor contracts, two-thirds are for less than a month. Employers are dismissing workers, than re-hiring them under a temporary contract.


In 1995, temporary workers made up 7.2 percent of the jobs in Italy. Today, according to the Financial Times, that figure is 13.2 percent, and 52.5 percent for Italians aged 15 to 24. It is extremely difficult to organize temporary workers, and their growing presence in the workforce has eroded the power of trade unions to fight for better wages, working conditions and benefits.


In spite of promises that tight money and austerity would re-start economies devastated by the 2007-2008 financial crisis, growth is pretty much dead in the water continent-wide. And economies that have shown growth have yet to approach their pre-meltdown levels. Even the more prosperous northern parts of the continent are sluggish. Finland and the Netherlands are in a recession.


There is also considerable regional unevenness in economic development. Italy’s output contracted 0.4% in 2014, but the country’s south fell by 1.3%. Income for southern residents is also plummeting. Some 60% of southern Italians live on less than $13,400 a year, as compared to 28.5% of the north. “We’re in an era in which the winners become ever stronger and weakest move even further behind,” Italian economist Matteo Caroli told the Financial Times.


That economic division of the house is also characteristic of Spain, While the national jobless rate is an horrendous 23.7 percent, the country’s most populous province in the south, Andalusia, sports an unemployment rate of 41 percent. Only Spanish youth are worse off. Their jobless rate is over 50 percent.


Italy and Spain are microcosms for the rest of Europe. The EU’s south—Italy, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, and Bulgaria—are characterized by high unemployment, deeply stressed economies, and falling standards of living. While the big economies of the north, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany, are hardly booming—the EU growth rate over all is a modest 1.6 percent—they are in better shape than their southern neighbors.


Geographically, Ireland is in the north, but with high unemployment and widespread poverty brought on by the austerity policies of the EU, it is in the same boat as the south. Indeed, Greek Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos told the annual conference of the leftwing, anti-austerity party Sinn Fein that Greece considered the Irish “honorary southerners.”


Austerity has become a Trojan horse for multinational corporations, and a strategy for weakening trade unions and eroding democracy. But it is not popular, and governments that have adopted it have many times found themselves driven out of power or nervously watching their polls numbers fall. Spain’s rightwing Populist Party is on the ropes, Sinn Fein is the second largest party in Ireland, Portugal’s rightwing government is running scared, and polls indicate that the French electorate supports the Greeks in their resistance to austerity.


The Troika is an unelected body, and yet it has the power to command economies. National parliaments are being reduced to rubber stamps, endorsing economic and social programs over which they have little control. If the Troika successfully removes peoples’ right to choose their own economic policies, then it will have cemented the last bricks into the fortress that multinational capital is constructing on the continent.


In 415 BC, the Athenians told the residents of Milos that they had no choice but to ally themselves with Athens in the Peloponnesian War. “The powerful do whatever their power allows and the weak simply give in and accept it,” Thucydides says the Athenians told the island’s residents. Milos refused and was utterly destroyed. The ancient Greeks could out-barbarian the barbarians any day.


But it is not the 5th century BC, and while the Troika has enormous power, it is finding it increasingly difficult to rule over 500 million people, a growing number of whom want a say in their lives. Between now and next April, four countries, all suffering under the painful stewardship of the Troika, will hold national elections: Portugal, Greece, Spain and Ireland. The outcomes of those campaigns will go a long way toward determining whether democracy or autocracy is the future of the continent.



















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The U.S./Turkey Deal-Disaster in the Making

U.S.-Turkish Deal: Disaster in the Making

Dispatches From the Edge

July 29, 2015


The recent agreement between Turkey and the U.S. to cooperate against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria brings to mind the sociologist C. Wright Mills description of those who make American foreign policy as “crackpot realists”: realists about advancing their careers, crackpots about the policies they pursue.


The plan will allow the U.S. to use Turkish airbases to bomb the IS in exchange for Washington’s support for Ankara re-igniting its 40 year old war with the Kurds. The U.S. will also buy in to creating a “buffer zone” on Syria’s northern border that, according to Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, will allow “Moderate forces like the Free Syrian Army…to take control of areas freed from the ISIL,” or IS. One U.S. official describe the agreement as “a game changer.”


In reality it will entangle the U.S. more deeply in the Syrian civil war and give cover to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’ gambit to deepen ethnic divisions in Turkey as part of a strategy to bring his conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) back into power.


The “plan” will also toss the Kurds, one of Washington’s most reliable allies in the fight against the Islamic State, under a bus. “The Americans are not very clever in calculating this sort of thing,” Kamran Karadaghi, former chief of staff to Iraqi President and Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, told the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn. “Maybe they calculate that with Turkey on their side, they don’t need the Kurds.”


While Turkey is also bombing the IS, the major focus of its attacks have been the Kurds. On July 23 a few Turkish F-16s bombed a handful of IS targets in Northern Syria. In contrast, 75 Turkish F-16s and F-4Es pounded the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) with 300 smart bombs, striking hundreds of targets.


Asked about the bombings, U.S. State Department official Brett McGurk said that Washington recognized Turkey’s “right to self-defense.”


The massive bombing attack on the PKK in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains shatters a two-year truce in a four-decade old war that has killed more than 40,000 people. The ostensible reason for re-starting a war with the Kurds was a PKK assassination of two Turkish policemen following an Islamic State bombing that killed 31 young Kurdish activists in the Turkish border town of Suruc July 20. The Kurds have long complained that the Erdogan government has encouraged the Syrian insurgents, including turning a blind eye to the activities of the IS.


The real reason behind ending the truce, however, was not the assassination of the two policemen, but Erdogan’s calculated campaign to spin up a new round of ethnic hated and force another election.


First, there are no “moderate” forces in the Syrian civil war. The Free Syrian Army is, at best, a marginal player. The major antagonists of the Assad regime are Islamic extremists, the al-Qaeda associated Nusra Front , Ahrar al-Sham, and the Islamic State. Indeed, one reason why the Turkish Army is so wary of getting involved in Syria is because it doesn’t want to be allied with the groups leading the fighting. A “buffer” zone will allow those extremist groups to take refuge in a zone protected by Turkish air power.


Erdogan is fixated on overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, arguing that a regime change in Damascus will weaken the IS. But many analysts think the exact opposite and cite the Libya experience as an example. If the Assad regime falls, the extremists, not the moderates, will fill the vacuum. A spillover of violence into Jordan and Lebanon is almost guaranteed, just as the Libya debacle has spread unrest throughout Central Africa.


The “buffer” is also directed at the Kurdish forces that have been so effective in fighting the IS, successfully defending the city of Kobani and liberating several other towns.


Bombing is only effective if it is coordinated with ground forces, and right now the only effective ground forces fighting the IS are the Kurds, the ones we just threw under a bus. Bombing by itself has never worked, as the Saudis are rapidly finding out in Yemen.


As for the Kurds, a little history.


One of Erdogan’s major accomplishments as prime minister was a 2012 ceasefire with the PKK and a promise to deliver more autonomy to Turkey’s 25 million Kurds. Erdogan saw the ceasefire as a way to bring the Kurds on board in his campaign to change the Turkish constitution and create a centralized and powerful presidency. With this in mind, he successfully ran for President in 2014.


But the promised reforms in governance, education and language rights—the Kurds speak several dialects, none of them Turkish—never came through, because the AKP also wanted to attract rightwing nationalist voters who were deeply hostile to anything that smacked of Kurdish autonomy.

Nor is the Kurdish community monolithic. Many Kurds—most of them older, rural, and deeply religious—supported the AKP because for them Islam trumped Kurdish nationalism.


But then AKP made a major mistake.


When the Islamic State besieged the town of Kobani, Turkey refused to help the Kurdish defenders. Indeed, Erdogan equated “Kurdish terrorists” with the IS. Demonstrations demanding that Turkey come to Kurds’ aid were brutally suppressed by the police, and scores of Kurds were killed. Kobani and the police attacks shifted sentiment in the Kurdish community and former AKP backers transferred their support to the left wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP).


The HDP also transformed itself from a Kurdish-based party to a national organization, winning 1.1 million non-Kurdish votes and 80 seats in the 2015 parliamentary elections, effectively denying the AKP its majority and derailing Erdogan’s drive to create a powerful executive.


The rightwing nationalist Nation Action Party (MHP) also did well in those elections, winning 80 seats.


Erdogan has maneuvered ever since to force new elections. By attacking the Kurds, he hopes to make the HDP once again into a Kurdish party by forcing it to choose between its base and the rest of Turkey. And he is gambling that the assault on the Kurds will rally right-wing nationalists to abandon the MHP and move to the AKP. If a lot of Kurds and Turks die because of this cynical stratagem, so be it.


Why is the White House going along with this madness?


In part, because a number of U.S. State Department officials have the same obsession with overthrowing Assad as Erdogan does. In part because the U.S. military generally manages to convince civilians that dropping a lot of bombs will work, all experience to the contrary. And partly that crackpot thing.


As Hugh Roberts points out in his excellent analysis of Syria in the London Review of Books, there is a possible path out, but it is almost exactly the opposite of the one Turkey and the U.S. are pursuing.


To begin with, the primary demand that Assad has to go before there can be serious talks is aimed at torpedoing any prospect of negotiations. No one—least of all Assad—is going to negotiate his own demise, and the Syrian Army and the country’s Alawite, Christian and Druze minorities know exactly what will happen to them if the Damascus regime collapses. The Nusra Front may not as brutal as the IS, but al-Qaeda only looks good if your standard of comparison is the Islamic Front. Anyone who believes the “moderates” will take over should consider unicorn hunting as a profession.


In the long run Assad should go, and one suspects that Syrians will vote him out at some point. But the “out first” demand is just a way to continue the war. The only real hope is a ceasefire and a national unity government representative of Syria’s enormously diverse population. An arms embargo on all parties, and a commitment to block fighters infiltrating the country would encourage the parties to step back from the current stalemate and consider negotiations.


Will that get rid of IS? Nope. The Islamic State is an actual state, with a large population, a lot of whom are not just waiting to rise against their Islamic captors. The IS is brutal—though the Arabs suffered far more deaths in the invasion of Iraq—but it is not corrupt. To imagine that the inept and corruption-riddled Iraqi Army is up for a serious scrap is delusional.


The Shiite militias are tough and capable, but also very sectarian, and many Sunnis simply don’t trust them.


The Turkish Army does not want to go into Syria, and there is zero support in any Western country for a replay of Iraq and Afghanistan. On top of which, a U.S. or NATO invasion is exactly what the IS would like to provoke. Ironically, the only force that could possibility defeat the Islamic State is the Syrian Army. Getting from here to there, however, will require a diplomatic sea change in the region. But one thing is certain: the current U.S.-Turkish “plan” will make everything worse.


How do these crackpots come up with this stuff?











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Filed under Africa, Europe, Iraq, Middle East, Syria

Ukraine: To The Edge

Ukraine: To The Edge?

Foreign Policy In Focus

July 28, 2015


“If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia. And if you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.”

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. Chair U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff


“This is not about Ukraine. Putin wants to restore Russia to its former position as a great power. There is a high probability that he will intervene in the Baltics to test NATO’s Article 5.”

Anders Fogh Rassmusen, former head of NATO




It is not just defense secretaries and generals employing language that conjure up the ghosts of the past. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton used a “Munich” analogy in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a common New York Times description of Russia is “revanchist.” These two terms take the Ukraine crisis back to 1938, when fascist Germany menaced the world.


Yet comparing the civil war in the Ukraine to the Cold War—let alone Europe on the eve of World War II—has little basis in fact. Yes, Russia is certainly aiding insurgents in eastern Ukraine, but there is no evidence that Moscow is threatening the Baltics, or even the rest of Ukraine. Indeed, it is the West that has been steadily marching east over the past decade, recruiting one former Russian ally or republic after another into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).


Nor did the Russians start this crisis.


It began when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych turned down a debt deal from the European Union (EU) that would have required Kiev to institute draconian austerity measures, reduce its ties to Russia, and join NATO through the backdoor. In return, Ukraine would have received a very modest aid package.


Moscow, worried about the possibility of yet another NATO-allied country on its border, tendered a far more generous package. While the offer was as much real politic’ as altruism, it was a better deal. When Yanukovych took it, demonstrators occupied Kiev’s central square.


In an attempt to defuse the tense standoff between the government and demonstrators, France, Germany and Poland drew up a compromise that would have accelerated elections and established a national unity government. It was then that the demonstrations turned into an insurrection.


There is a dispute over what set off the bloodshed—demonstrators claim government snipers fired on them, but some independent investigations have implicated extremist neo-Nazis in initiating the violence. However, instead of supporting the agreement they had just negotiated, the EU recognized the government that took over when Yanukovych was forced to flee the country.


To the Russians this was a coup, and they are not alone in thinking so. George Friedman, head of the international security organization Stratfor, called it “the most blatant coup in history,” and it had western fingerprints all over it. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt were recorded talking about how to “midwife” the overthrow of Yanukovych and who to put in his place.


Besides making Kiev a counterproposal on resolving its debt crisis, no one has implicated the Russians in any of the events that led up to the fall of Yanukovych. In short, Moscow has been largely reacting to events that it sees as deeply affecting its security, both military and economic.


Its annexation of Crimea—which had been part of Russia until 1954— followed a referendum in which 96 percent of the voters called for a union with Russia. In any case, Moscow was unlikely to hand over its strategic naval base at Sevastopol to a hostile government.


Somehow these events have morphed into Nazi armies poised on the Polish border in 1939, or Soviet armored divisions threatening to overrun Western Europe during the Cold War. Was it not for the fact that nuclear powers are involved these images would be almost silly. NATO spends 10 times what Moscow does on armaments, and there is not a military analyst on the planet who thinks Russia is a match for U.S. To compare Russia to the power of Nazi Germany or Soviet military forces is to stretch credibility beyond the breaking point.


So why are people talking about Article 5—the section of the NATO treaty that treats an attack on any member as an attack on all—and Munich?


The answer is complex because there are multiple actors with different scripts.


First, there are the neoconservatives from the Bush years that have not given up on the Project for a New American Century, the think tank that brought us the Afghan and Iraq wars, and the war on terror. It is no accident that Nuland is married to Robert Kagen, one of the Project’s founders and leading thinkers. The group also includes former Defense Department Undersecretary Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams, and former UN Ambassador John Bolton.


The neocons believe in aggressively projecting American military power and using regime change to get rid of leaders they don’t like. Disgraced by the Iraq debacle, they still have a presence in the State Department, and many are leading foreign policy advisors for Republican presidential candidates, including Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush. They are well placed and persistent, and if Bush is elected president there is talk that Nuland will become Secretary of State.


Then there are the generals, who have a number of irons in the fire.


There is a current in NATO’s leadership that would like to see the alliance become a worldwide military confederacy, although the Afghan disaster has dampened the enthusiasm of many. In fact, there is not even a great deal of support within NATO for enforcing Article 5, and virtually none for getting involved with sending arms to the Ukraine. Most NATO countries don’t even pony up the required level of military spending they are supposed to, leaving the U.S. to pick up 70 percent of the bills.


But there is nothing like conjuring up a scary Russian bear to loosen those purse strings. And indeed, a number of former scofflaws have upped their military spending since the Ukraine crisis broke.


The military and its associated industries—from electronics companies to huge defense firms—need enemies, preferably large ones, like Russia and China, where the weapons systems are big and the manpower requirements high.


Right now there appears to be a split among U.S. decision makers over whether Russia or China is our major competitor. For the neocons and most of the Republican candidates, the Kremlin is the clear and present danger. For the Obama administration and most Democrats—including Hillary Clinton—China is the competition, hence the so-called “Asia pivot” to beef up military forces in the Pacific and establish a ring of bases and allies to obstruct Beijing’s ability to expand.


One can make too much of this “division,” because most of these currents merge at some point. Thus the sanctions targeting Russia’s energy industry also squeeze China, which desperately needs oil and gas.


In response to sanctions, Russia is shifting its supplies and pipelines east. Russia and China have also begun establishing alternatives to western dominated financial institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank. Organizations like the BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—have established a development bank and currency reserves, and the new Chinese-initiated Asian Infrastructure Development Bank has already attracted not only Asian nations, but the leading European ones as well. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization now embraces over three billion people.


The U.S. has tried to derail a number of these initiatives.


The sanctions against Russia have made it difficult for Moscow to develop oil and gas in the arctic, and Washington pointedly told its allies that they should not join the China development bank. Both campaigns failed, particularly the latter. Only Japan and the Philippines heeded the American plea to boycott the bank. And Asia’s need for energy is overcoming many of the roadblocks created by the sanctions.


However, the campaign against Russia has damaged the Kremlin’s energy sales to Western Europe. The EU successfully blocked a Russian pipeline through Bulgaria, and the Americans have promised that its fracking industry will wean Europe off Russian energy. Fracking, however, is in trouble, because Saudi Arabia stepped up production and crashed oil prices worldwide. A number of U.S. fracking industries have gone belly up, and the industry is experiencing mass layoffs.


Stay tuned for EU-Russian energy developments.


Why are we in a dangerous standoff with a country that is not a serious threat to our European allies or ourselves, but does have the capacity to incinerate a sizable portion of the planet?


At least part of the problem is that U.S. foreign policy requires enemies so that it can deploy the one thing we know best how to do: blow things up. The fact that our wars over the past decade has led to one disaster after another is irrelevant, explained away by “inadequate” use of violence, lack of resolve or weak-kneed allies.


Americans are currently looking at a host of presidential candidates—excluding the quite sensible Bernie Sanders—who want to confront either Russia or China. Both are hideously dangerous policies and ones that are certainly not in the interests of the vast majority of Americans—let alone the rest of the planet.


It is really time to change things, and, no, the bear is not coming to get you.




































Filed under Europe

Hillary’s Emails: Missing the Story


Benghazi & Hillary: Missing The Story

Dispatches From The Edge

July 7, 2015


The Congressional harrying of former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over emails concerning the 2012 death of an American Ambassador and three staff members in Benghazi, Libya, has become a sort of running joke, with Republicans claiming “cover-up” and Democrats dismissing the whole matter as nothing more than election year politics. But there is indeed a story embedded in the emails, one that is deeply damning of American and French actions in the Libyan civil war, from secretly funding the revolt against Muammar Gaddafi, to the willingness to use journalism as a cover for covert action.


The latest round of emails came to light June 22 in a fit of Republican pique over Clinton’s prevarications concerning whether she solicited intelligence from her advisor, journalist and former aide to President Bill Clinton, Sidney Blumenthal. If most newspaper readers rolled their eyes at this point and decided to check out the ball scores, one can hardly blame them.


But that would be a big mistake.


While the emails do raise questions about Hilary Clinton’s veracity, the real story is how French intelligence plotted to overthrow the Libyan leader in order to claim a hefty slice of Libya’s oil production and “favorable consideration” for French businesses.


The courier in this cynical undertaking was journalist and rightwing philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, a man who has yet to see a civil war that he doesn’t advocate intervening in, from Yugoslavia to Syria. According to Julian Pecquet, the U.S. congressional correspondent for the Turkish publication Al-Monitor, Henri-Levy claims he got French President Nicolas Sarkozy to back the Benghazi-based Libyan Transitional National Council that was quietly being funded by the General Directorate for External Security (DGSE), the French CIA.


According to the memos, in return for money and support, “the DGSE officers indicated that they expected the new government of Libya to favor French firms and national interests, particularly regarding the oil industry in Libya.” The memo says that the two leaders of the Council, Mustafa Abdul Jalil and General Abdul Fatah Younis, “accepted this offer.”


Another May 5 email indicates that French humanitarian flights to Benghazi included officials of the French oil company TOTAL, and representatives of construction firms and defense contractors, who secretly met with Council members and then “discreetly” traveled by road to Egypt, protected by DGSE agents.


Henri-Levy, an inveterate publicity hound, claims to have come up with this quid pro quo, business/regime change scheme, using “his status as a journalist to provide cover for his activities.” Given that journalists are routinely accused of being “foreign agents” in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Afghanistan, Henri-Levy’s subterfuge endangers other members of the media trying to do their jobs.


All this clandestine maneuvering paid off.


On Feb. 26, 2011, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1970 aimed at establishing “peace and security” and protecting the civilian population in the Libyan civil war. Or at least that was how UNR 1970 was sold to countries on the Security Council, like South Africa, Brazil, India, China and Russia, that had initial doubts. However, the French, Americans and British—along with several NATO allies—saw the resolution as an opportunity to overthrow Qaddafi and in France’s case, to get back in the game as a force in the region.


Almost before the ink was dry on the resolution, France, Britain and the U.S. began systematically bombing Qaddafi’s armed forces, ignoring pleas by the African Union to look for a peaceful way to resolve the civil war. According to one memo, President Sarkozy “plans to have France lead the attacks on [Qaddafi] over an extended period of time” and “sees this situation as an opportunity for France to reassert itself as a military power.”


While for France flexing its muscles was an important goal, Al- Monitor says that a September memo also shows that “Sarkozy urged the Libyans to reserve 35 percent of their oil industry for French firms—TOTAL in particular—when he traveled to Tripoli that month.”


In the end, Libya imploded and Paris has actually realized little in the way of oil, but France’s military industrial complex has done extraordinarily well in the aftermath of Qaddafi’s fall.


According to Defense Minister Jean-Yves Lodrian, French arms sales increased 42 percent from 2012, bringing in $7 billion, and are expected to top almost $8 billion in 2014.


Over the past decade, France, the former colonial masters of Lebanon, Syria, and Algeria, has been sidelined by U.S. and British arms sales to the Middle East. But the Libya war has turned that around. Since then, Paris has carefully courted Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates by taking a hard line on the Iran nuclear talks.


The global security analyst group Stratfor noted in 2013, “France could gain financially from the GCC’s [Gulf Cooperation Council, the organization representing the oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf] frustrations over recent U.S. policy in the Middle East. Significant defense contracts worth tens of billions of dollars are up for grabs in the Gulf region, ranging from aircraft to warships to missile systems. France is predominantly competing with Britain and the United States for the contracts and is seeking to position itself as a key ally of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as it looks to strengthen its defense and industrial ties in the region.”


Sure enough, the French company Thales landed a $3.34 billion Saudi contract to upgrade the kingdom’s missile system and France just sold 24 Rafale fighters to Qatar for $7 billion. Discussions are underway with the UAE concerning the Rafale, and France sold 24 of the fighters to Egypt for $5.8 billion. France has also built a military base in the UAE.


French President Francois Hollande, along with his Foreign and Defense ministers, attended the recent GCC meeting, and, according to Hollande, there are 20 projects worth billions of dollars being discussed with Saudi Arabia. While he was in Qatar, Hollande gave a hard-line talk on Iran and guaranteed “that France is there for its allies when it is called upon.”


True to his word, France has thrown up one obstacle after another during the talks between Iran and the P5 + 1—the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany.


Paris also supports Saudi Arabia and it allies in their bombing war on Yemen, and strongly backs the Saudi-Turkish led overthrow of the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, even though it means that the French are aligning themselves with al-Qaeda linked extremist groups.


France seems to have its finger in every Middle East disaster, although, to be fair, it is hardly alone. Britain and the U.S. also played major roles in the Libya war, and the Obama administration is deep into the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen. In the latter case, Washington supplies the Saudis with weapons, targeting intelligence, and in-air refueling of its fighter-bombers.


But the collapse of Libya was a particularly catastrophic event, which—as the African Union accurately predicted— sent a flood of arms and unrest into two continents.


The wars in Mali and Niger are a direct repercussion of Qaddafi’s fall, and the extremist Boko Haram in Nigeria appears to have benefited from the plundering of Libyan arms depots. Fighters and weapons from Libya have turned up in the ranks of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. And the gunmen who killed 22 museum visitors in Tunisia last March, and 38 tourists on a beach July 3, trained with extremists in Libya before carrying out their deadly attacks.


Clinton was aware of everything the French were up to and apparently had little objection to the cold-blooded cynicism behind Paris’s policies in the region.


The “news” in the Benghazi emails, according to the New York Times, is that, after denying it, Clinton may indeed have solicited advice from Blumenthal. The story ends with a piece of petty gossip: Clinton wanted to take credit for Qaddafi’s fall, but the White House stole the limelight by announcing the Libyan leader’s death first.


That’s all the news that’s fit to print?



































Filed under Africa, FPIF Blogs, Middle East, Oil, Syria

Toward A New Foreign Policy

Dispatches From The Edge


‘The American Century’ Has Plunged the World Into Crisis. What Happens Now?

U.S. foreign policy is dangerous, undemocratic, and deeply out of sync with real global challenges. Is continuous war inevitable, or can we change course?


By Conn Hallinan and Leon Wofsy, June 22, 2015.



There’s something fundamentally wrong with U.S. foreign policy.

Despite glimmers of hope — a tentative nuclear agreement with Iran, for one, and a long-overdue thaw with Cuba — we’re locked into seemingly irresolvable conflicts in most regions of the world. They range from tensions with nuclear-armed powers like Russia and China to actual combat operations in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa.


Why? Has a state of perpetual warfare and conflict become inescapable? Or are we in a self-replicating cycle that reflects an inability — or unwillingness — to see the world as it actually is?

The United States is undergoing a historic transition in our relationship to the rest of the world, but this is neither acknowledged nor reflected in U.S. foreign policy. We still act as if our enormous military power, imperial alliances, and self-perceived moral superiority empower us to set the terms of “world order.”


While this illusion goes back to the end of World War II, it was the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union that signaled the beginning of a self-proclaimed “American Century.” The idea that the United States had “won” the Cold War and now — as the world’s lone superpower — had the right or responsibility to order the world’s affairs led to a series of military adventures. It started with President Bill Clinton’s intervention in the Yugoslav civil war, continued on with George W. Bush’s disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and can still be seen in the Obama administration’s own misadventures in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and beyond.


In each case, Washington chose war as the answer to enormously complex issues, ignoring the profound consequences for both foreign and domestic policy. Yet the world is very different from the assumptions that drive this impulsive interventionism.

It’s this disconnect that defines the current crisis.


Acknowledging New Realities


So what is it about the world that requires a change in our outlook? A few observations come to mind.


First, our preoccupation with conflicts in the Middle East — and to a significant extent, our tensions with Russia in Eastern Europe and with China in East Asia — distract us from the most compelling crises that threaten the future of humanity. Climate change and environmental perils have to be dealt with now and demand an unprecedented level of international collective action.

That also holds for the resurgent danger of nuclear war.


Second, superpower military interventionism and far-flung acts of war have only intensified conflict, terror, and human suffering. There’s no short-term solution — especially by force — to the deep-seated problems that cause chaos, violence, and misery through much of the world.


Third, while any hope of curbing violence and mitigating the most urgent problems depends on international cooperation, old and disastrous intrigues over spheres of influence dominate the behavior of the major powers. Our own relentless pursuit of military advantage on every continent, including through alliances and proxies like NATO, divides the world into “friend” and “foe” according to our perceived interests. That inevitably inflames aggressive imperial rivalries and overrides common interests in the 21st century.


Fourth, while the United States remains a great economic power, economic and political influence is shifting and giving rise to national and regional centers no longer controlled by U.S.-dominated global financial structures. Away from Washington, London, and Berlin, alternative centers of economic power are taking hold in Beijing, New Delhi, Cape Town, and Brasilia. Independent formations and alliances are springing up: organizations like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa); the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (representing 2.8 billion people); the Union of South American Nations; the Latin American trade bloc, Mercosur; and others.


Beyond the problems our delusions of grandeur have caused in the wider world, there are enormous domestic consequences of prolonged war and interventionism. We shell out over $1 trillion a year in military-related expenses even as our social safety net frays and our infrastructure crumbles. Democracy itself has become virtually dysfunctional.


Short Memories and Persistent Delusions


But instead of letting these changing circumstances and our repeated military failures give us pause, our government continues to act as if the United States has the power to dominate and dictate to the rest of the world.


The responsibility of those who set us on this course fades into background. Indeed, in light of the ongoing meltdown in the Middle East, leading presidential candidates are tapping neoconservatives like John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz — who still think the answer to any foreign policy quandary is military power — for advice. Our leaders seem to forget that following this lot’s advice was exactly what caused the meltdown in the first place. War still excites them, risks and consequences be damned.


While the Obama administration has sought, with limited success, to end the major wars it inherited, our government makes wide use of killer drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and has put troops back into Iraq to confront the religious fanaticism and brutality of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) — itself a direct consequence of the last U.S. invasion of Iraq. Reluctant to find common ground in the fight against ISIS with designated “foes” like Iran and Syria, Washington clings to allies like Saudi Arabia, whose leaders are fueling the crisis of religious fanaticism and internecine barbarity. Elsewhere, the U.S. also continues to give massive support to the Israeli government, despite its expanding occupation of the West Bank and its horrific recurring assaults on Gaza.


A “war first” policy in places like Iran and Syria is being strongly pushed by neoconservatives like former Vice President Dick Cheney and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain. Though it’s attempted to distance itself from the neocons, the Obama administration adds to tensions with planned military realignments like the “Asia pivot” aimed at building up U.S. military forces in Asia to confront China. It’s also taken a more aggressive position than even other NATO partners in fostering a new cold war with Russia.


We seem to have missed the point: There is no such thing as an “American Century.” International order cannot be enforced by a superpower alone. But never mind centuries — if we don’t learn to take our common interests more seriously than those that divide nations and breed the chronic danger of war, there may well be no tomorrows.




There’s a powerful ideological delusion that any movement seeking to change U.S. foreign policy must confront: that U.S. culture is superior to anything else on the planet. Generally going by the name of “American exceptionalism,” it’s the deeply held belief that American politics (and medicine, technology, education, and so on) are better than those in other countries. Implicit in the belief is an evangelical urge to impose American ways of doing things on the rest of the world.


Americans, for instance, believe they have the best education system in the world, when in fact they’ve dropped from 1st place to 14th place in the number of college graduates. We’ve made students of higher education the most indebted section of our population, while falling to 17th place in international education ratings. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation, the average American pays more than twice as much for his or her education than those in the rest of the world.


Health care is an equally compelling example. In the World Health Organization’s ranking of health care systems in 2000, the United States was ranked 37th. In a more recent Institute of Medicine report in 2013, the U.S. was ranked the lowest among 17 developed nations studied.


The old anti-war slogan, “It will be a good day when schools get all the money they need and the Navy has to hold a bake sale to buy an aircraft carrier” is as appropriate today as it was in the 1960s. We prioritize corporate subsidies, tax cuts for the wealthy, and massive military budgets over education. The result is that Americans are no longer among the most educated in the world.

But challenging the “exceptionalism” myth courts the danger of being labeled “unpatriotic” and “un-American,” two powerful ideological sanctions that can effectively silence critical or questioning voices.


The fact that Americans consider their culture or ideology “superior” is hardly unique. But no other country in the world has the same level of economic and military power to enforce its worldview on others.


The United States did not simply support Kosovo’s independence, for example. It bombed Serbia into de facto acceptance. When the U.S. decided to remove the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi from power, it just did so. No other country is capable of projecting that kind of force in regions thousands of miles from its borders.


The U.S. currently accounts for anywhere from 45 to 50 percent of the world’s military spending. It has hundreds of overseas bases, ranging from huge sprawling affairs like Camp Bond Steel in Kosovo and unsinkable aircraft carriers around the islands of Okinawa, Wake, Diego Garcia, and Guam to tiny bases called “lily pads” of pre-positioned military supplies. The late political scientist Chalmers Johnson estimated that the U.S. has some 800 bases worldwide, about the same as the British Empire had at its height in 1895.


The United States has long relied on a military arrow in its diplomatic quiver, and Americans have been at war almost continuously since the end of World War II. Some of these wars were major undertakings: Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq (twice), Libya. Some were quick “smash and grabs” like Panama and Grenada. Others are “shadow wars” waged by Special Forces, armed drones, and local proxies. If one defines the term “war” as the application of organized violence, the U.S. has engaged in close to 80 wars since 1945.


The Home Front


The coin of empire comes dear, as the old expression goes.

According Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, the final butcher bill for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars — including the long-term health problems of veterans — will cost U.S. taxpayers around $6 trillion. One can add to that the over $1 trillion the U.S. spends each year on defense-related items. The “official” defense budget of some half a trillion dollars doesn’t include such items as nuclear weapons, veterans’ benefits or retirement, the CIA and Homeland Security, nor the billions a year in interest we’ll be paying on the debt from the Afghan-Iraq wars. By 2013 the U.S. had already paid out $316 billion in interest.

The domestic collateral damage from that set of priorities is numbing.


We spend more on our “official” military budget than we do on Medicare, Medicaid, Health and Human Services, Education, and Housing and Urban Development combined. Since 9/11, we’ve spent $70 million an hour on “security” compared to $62 million an hour on all domestic programs.


As military expenditures dwarf funding for deteriorating social programs, they drive economic inequality. The poor and working millions are left further and further behind. Meanwhile the chronic problems highlighted at Ferguson, and reflected nationwide, are a horrific reminder of how deeply racism — the unequal economic and social divide and systemic abuse of black and Latino youth — continues to plague our homeland.


The state of ceaseless war has deeply damaged our democracy, bringing our surveillance and security state to levels that many dictators would envy. The Senate torture report, most of it still classified, shatters the trust we are asked to place in the secret, unaccountable apparatus that runs the most extensive Big Brother spy system ever devised.


Bombs and Business


President Calvin Coolidge was said to have remarked that “the business of America is business.” Unsurprisingly, U.S. corporate interests play a major role in American foreign policy.

Out of the top 10 international arms producers, eight are American. The arms industry spends millions lobbying Congress and state legislatures, and it defends its turf with an efficiency and vigor that its products don’t always emulate on the battlefield. The F-35 fighter-bomber, for example — the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history — will cost $1.5 trillion and doesn’t work. It’s over budget, dangerous to fly, and riddled with defects. And yet few lawmakers dare challenge the powerful corporations who have shoved this lemon down our throats.


Corporate interests are woven into the fabric of long-term U.S. strategic interests and goals. Both combine to try to control energy supplies, command strategic choke points through which oil and gas supplies transit, and ensure access to markets.


Many of these goals can be achieved with standard diplomacy or economic pressure, but the U.S. always reserves the right to use military force. The 1979 “Carter Doctrine” — a document that mirrors the 1823 Monroe Doctrine about American interests in Latin America — put that strategy in blunt terms vis-à-vis the Middle East: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”


It’s no less true in East Asia. The U.S. will certainly engage in peaceful economic competition with China. But if push comes to shove, the Third, Fifth, and Seventh fleets will back up the interests of Washington and its allies — Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Australia.


Trying to change the course of American foreign policy is not only essential for reducing international tensions. It’s critically important to shift the enormous wealth we expend in war and weapons toward alleviating growing inequality and social crises at home.


As long as competition for markets and accumulation of capital characterize modern society, nations will vie for spheres of influence, and antagonistic interests will be a fundamental feature of international relations. Chauvinist reaction to incursions real or imagined — and the impulse to respond by military means — is characteristic to some degree of every significant nation-state. Yet the more that some governments, including our own, become subordinate to oligarchic control, the greater is the peril.


Finding the Common Interest


These, however, are not the only factors that will shape the future.

There is nothing inevitable that rules out a significant change of direction, even if the demise or transformation of a capitalistic system of greed and exploitation is not at hand. The potential for change, especially in U.S. foreign policy, resides in how social movements here and abroad respond to the undeniable reality of: 1) the chronic failure, massive costs, and danger inherent in “American Century” exceptionalism; and 2) the urgency of international efforts to respond to climate change.


There is, as well, the necessity to respond to health and natural disasters aggravated by poverty, to rising messianic violence, and above all, to prevent a descent into war. This includes not only the danger of a clash between the major nuclear powers, but between regional powers. A nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India, for example, would affect the whole world.


Without underestimating the self-interest of forces that thrive on gambling with the future of humanity, historic experience and current reality elevate a powerful common interest in peace and survival. The need to change course is not something that can be recognized on only one side of an ideological divide. Nor does that recognition depend on national, ethnic, or religious identity. Rather, it demands acknowledging the enormous cost of plunging ahead as everything falls apart around us.


After the latest U.S. midterm elections, the political outlook is certainly bleak. But experience shows that elections, important as they are, are not necessarily indicators of when and how significant change can come about in matters of policy. On issues of civil rights and social equality, advances have occurred because a dedicated and persistent minority movement helped change public opinion in a way the political establishment could not defy.


The Vietnam War, for example, came to an end, despite the stubbornness of Democratic and Republican administrations, when a stalemate on the battlefield and growing international and domestic opposition could no longer be denied. Significant changes can come about even as the basic character of society is retained. Massive resistance and rejection of colonialism caused the British Empire and other colonial powers to adjust to a new reality after World War II. McCarthyism was eventually defeated in the United States. President Nixon was forced to resign. The use of landmines and cluster bombs has been greatly restricted because of the opposition of a small band of activists whose initial efforts were labeled “quixotic.”


There are diverse and growing political currents in our country that see the folly and danger of the course we’re on. Many Republicans, Democrats, independents, and libertarians — and much of the public — are beginning to say “enough” to war and military intervention all over the globe, and the folly of basing foreign policy on dividing countries into “friend or foe.”


This is not to be Pollyannaish about anti-war sentiment, or how quickly people can be stampeded into supporting the use of force. In early 2014, some 57 percent of Americans agreed that “over-reliance on military force creates more hatred leading to increased terrorism.” Only 37 percent believed military force was the way to go. But once the hysteria around the Islamic State began, those numbers shifted to pretty much an even split: 47 percent supported the use of military force, 46 percent opposed it.


It will always be necessary in each new crisis to counter those who mislead and browbeat the public into acceptance of another military intervention. But in spite of the current hysterics about ISIS, disillusionment in war as an answer is probably greater now among Americans and worldwide than it has ever been. That sentiment may prove strong enough to produce a shift away from perpetual war, a shift toward some modesty and common-sense realism in U.S. foreign policy.


Making Space for the Unexpected


Given that there is a need for a new approach, how can American foreign policy be changed?


Foremost, there is the need for a real debate on the thrust of a U.S. foreign policy that chooses negotiation, diplomacy, and international cooperation over the use of force.


However, as we approach another presidential election, there is as yet no strong voice among the candidates to challenge U.S. foreign policy. Fear and questionable political calculation keep even most progressive politicians from daring to dissent as the crisis of foreign policy lurches further into perpetual militarism and war.


That silence of political acquiescence has to be broken.

Nor is it a matter of concern only on the left. There are many Americans — right, left, or neither — who sense the futility of the course we’re on. These voices have to be represented or the election process will be even more of a sham than we’ve recently experienced.


One can’t predict just what initiatives may take hold, but the recent U.S.-China climate agreement suggests that necessity can override significant obstacles. That accord is an important step forward, although a limited bilateral pact cannot substitute for an essential international climate treaty. There is a glimmer of hope also in the U.S.-Russian joint action that removed chemical weapons from Syria, and in negotiations with Iran, which continue despite fierce opposition from U.S. hawks and the Israeli government. More recently, there is Obama’s bold move — long overdue — to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. Despite shifts in political fortunes, the unexpected can happen if there is a need and strong enough pressure to create an opportunity.


We do not claim to have ready-made solutions to the worsening crisis in international relations. We are certain that there is much we’ve missed or underestimated. But if readers agree that U.S. foreign policy has a national and global impact, and that it is not carried out in the interests of the majority of the world’s people, including our own, then we ask you to join this conversation.


If we are to expand the ability of the people to influence foreign policy, we need to defend democracy, and encourage dissent and alternative ideas. The threats to the world and to ourselves are so great that finding common ground trumps any particular interest. We also know that we won’t all agree with each other, and we believe that is as it should be. There are multiple paths to the future. No coalition around changing foreign policy will be successful if it tells people to conform to any one pattern of political action.


So how does the call for changing course translate to something politically viable, and how do we consider the problem of power?


The power to make significant changes in policy ranges from the persistence of peace activists to the potential influence of the general public. In some circumstances, it becomes possible — as well as necessary — to make significant changes in the power structure itself.


Greece comes to mind. Greek left organizations came together to form Syriza, the political party that was successfully elected to power on a platform of ending austerity. Spain’s anti-austerity Podemos Party — now the number-two party in the country — came out of massive demonstrations in 2011 and was organized from the grassroots up. We do not argue one approach over the over, but the experiences in both countries demonstrate that there are multiple paths to generating change.


Certainly progressives and leftists grapple with the problems of power. But progress on issues, particularly in matters like war and peace and climate change, shouldn’t be conceived of as dependent on first achieving general solutions to the problems of society, however desirable.


Some Proposals


We also feel it is essential to focus on a few key questions lest we become “The United Front Against Bad Things.” There are lots of bad things, but some are worse than others. Thrashing those out, of course, is part of the process of engaging in politics.


We know this will not be easy. Yet we are convinced that unless we take up this task, the world will continue to careen toward major disaster. Can we find common programmatic initiatives on which to unite?


Some worthwhile approaches are presented in A Foreign Policy for All, published after a discussion and workshop that took place in Massachusetts in November 2014. We think everyone should take the time to study that document. We want to offer a few ideas of our own.


1) We must stop the flood of corporate money into the electoral process, as well as the systematic disenfranchisement of voters through the manipulation of voting laws.


It may seem odd that we begin with a domestic issue, but we cannot begin to change anything about American foreign policy without confronting political institutions that are increasingly in the thrall of wealthy donors. Growing oligarchic control and economic inequality is not just an American problem, but also a worldwide one. According to Oxfam, by 2016 the world’s richest 1 percent will control over 50 percent of the globe’s total wealth. Poll after poll shows this growing economic disparity does not sit well with people.


2) It’s essential to begin reining in the vast military-industrial-intelligence complex that burns up more than a trillion dollars a year and whose interests are served by heightened international tension and war.


3) President Barack Obama came into office pledging to abolish nuclear weapons. He should.


Instead, the White House has authorized spending $352 billion to modernize our nuclear arsenal, a bill that might eventually go as high as $1 trillion when the cost of the supporting infrastructure is figured in. The possibility of nuclear war is not an abstraction. In Europe, a nuclear-armed NATO has locked horns with a nuclear-armed Russia. Tensions between China and the United States, coupled with current U.S. military strategy in the region — the so-called “AirSea Battle” plan — could touch off a nuclear exchange.


Leaders in Pakistan and India are troublingly casual about the possibility of a nuclear war between the two South Asian countries. And one can never discount the possibility of an Israeli nuclear attack on Iran. In short, nuclear war is a serious possibility in today’s world.


One idea is the campaign for nuclear-free zones, which there are scores of — ranging from initiatives written by individual cities to the Treaty of Tlatelolco covering Latin America, the Treaty of Raratonga for the South Pacific, and the Pelindaba Treaty for Africa. Imagine how a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East would change the politics of the region.


We should also support the Marshall Islands in its campaign demanding the implementation of Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty eliminating nuclear weapons and moving toward general disarmament. If the great powers took serious steps toward full nuclear disarmament, it would make it difficult for nuclear-armed non-treaty members that have nuclear weapons — North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, and India — not to follow suit. The key to this, however, is “general disarmament” and a pledge to remove war as an instrument of foreign policy.


4) Any effort to change foreign policy must eventually confront the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which in the words of former U.S. Central Command leader James Mattis, is a “preeminent flame that keeps the pot boiling in the Middle East.” While the U.S. and its NATO allies are quick to apply sanctions on Russia for its annexation of the Crimea, they have done virtually nothing about the continued Israeli occupation and annexation of Palestinian lands.


5) Ending and renouncing military blockades that starve populations as an instrument of foreign policy — Cuba, Gaza, and Iran come to mind — would surely change the international political climate for the better.


6) Let’s dispense our predilection for “humanitarian intervention,” which is too often an excuse for the great powers to overthrow governments with which they disagree.


As Walden Bello, former Philippine Congressman for the Citizens’ Action Party and author of Dilemmas of Domination: The Unmasking of the American Empire, writes: “Humanitarian intervention sets a very dangerous precedent that is used to justify future violation of the principle of national sovereignty. One cannot but conclude from the historical record that NATO’s intervention in the Kosovo conflict helped provide the justification for the invasion of Afghanistan, and the justifications for both interventions in turn were employed to legitimize the invasion of Iraq and the NATO war in Libya.”


7) Climate change is an existential issue, and as much a foreign policy question as war and peace. It can no longer be neglected.

Thus far, the U.S. has taken only baby steps toward controlling greenhouse gas emissions, but polls overwhelmingly show that the majority of Americans want action on this front. It’s also an issue that reveals the predatory nature of corporate capitalism and its supporters in the halls of Congress. As we have noted, control of energy supplies and guaranteeing the profits of oil and gas conglomerates is a centerpiece of American foreign policy.


As Naomi Klein notes in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, the climate movement must “articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals, but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis. A worldview embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.”


International and Regional Organizations


Finally, international and regional organizations must be strengthened. For years, mainstream media propaganda has bemoaned the ineffectiveness of the United Nations, while Washington — especially Congress — has systematically weakened the organization and tried to consign it to irrelevance in the public’s estimation.


The current structure of the United Nations is undemocratic. The five “big powers” that emerged from World War II — the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia — dominate the Security Council with their use of the veto. Two of the earth’s continents, Africa and Latin America, have no permanent members on the Council.


A truly democratic organization would use the General Assembly as the decision-making body, with adjustments for size and population. Important decisions, like the use of force, could require a super majority.


At the same time, regional organizations like the African Union, the Union of South American Nations, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Arab League, and others, have to be strengthened as well. Had the UN Security Council listened to the African Union, which was prepared to start negotiations with the Gaddafi regime, the current Libyan debacle might have been avoided. In turn that might have prevented the spread of war to central Africa and the countries of Mali and Niger.


Working for a dramatic shift in U.S. policy, away from the hubris of “American exceptionalism,” is not to downgrade the enormous importance of the United States. Alongside and in contradiction to the tragic consequences of our misuse of military power, the contributions of the American people to the world are vast and many-faceted. None of the great challenges of our time can be met successfully without America acting in collaboration with the majority of the world’s governments and people.


There certainly are common interests that join people of all nations regardless of differences in government, politics, culture, and beliefs. Will those interests become strong enough to override the systemic pressures that fuel greed, conflict, war, and ultimate catastrophe? There is a lot of history, and no dearth of dogma, that would seem to sustain a negative answer. But dire necessity and changing reality may produce more positive outcomes in a better, if far from perfect, world.


It is time for change, time for the very best efforts of all who nurture hopes for a saner world.


Conn Hallinan is a journalist and a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus. His writings appear online at Dispatches From the Edge. Leon Wofsy is a retired biology professor and long-time political activist. His comments on current affairs appear online at Leon’s OpEd.

The authors would like to thank colleagues at Foreign Policy In Focus and numerous others who exchanged views with us and made valuable suggestions. We also appreciate Susan Watrous’ very helpful editorial assistance.



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