Category Archives: Europe

Europe: The Danger From The Center

Europe: The Danger of the Center

Foreign Policy In Focus

June 13, 2017

 

The good news out of Europe is that Marine Le Pen’s neo-Nazi National Front took a beating in the May 7 French presidential election. The bad news is that the program of the winner, Emmanuel Macron, might put Le Pen back in the running six years from now.

 

Macron pledges to cut 120,000 public jobs, reduce spending by 60 billion Euros, jettison the 35-hour workweek, raise the retirement age, weaken unions’ negotiating strength and cut corporate taxes. It is a program that is unlikely to revive the morbid French economy, but it will certainly worsen the plight of jobless youth and seniors and hand the National Front ammunition for the 2022 election.

 

Europe is enmeshed in an economic crisis brought on by the structure of the European Union (EU), on one hand, and the nature of capitalism, on the other. That convergence has derailed economies throughout the 27-member trade group, impoverished tens of millions, and helped conjure up racist, rightwing movements that are not likely to be deterred by a few election losses.

 

Obscuring the roots of this crisis is the myth that debt is the result of spendthrift behavior, the economic sluggishness a consequence of high taxes, and rigid labor rules that handcuff businesses and inhibit growth. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is fond of saying that countries should behave like a “frugal Swabian house frau.”

 

Is Merkel’s observation bases on a myth or is it allegory? While an allegory is the “figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another,” a myth is “an unproven or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution.” The difference may seem pedantic, however, it is anything but, and, because myths are particularly hard to dislodge once they become widespread, it is essential to unpack exactly how the EU got itself in trouble.

 

Part of the problem is capitalism itself, an economic system that generates both enormous productive capacity and economic chaos.

 

Capitalism is afflicted by two kinds of crisis, cyclical and structural. The cyclical ones—recessions—tend to occur pretty much every 10 ten years. The U.S. and Europe went through recessions in the early 1980s, early 1990s, and the first years of 2000. They are painful and unpleasant but generally over in about 18 months.

 

Every 40 or 50 years, however, there is a structural crisis like the 1929 crash and the ensuing Great Depression.

 

When a structural crisis hits, capitalism re-organizes itself. In the 1930s, the solution was to create a re-distributive capitalism that used the power of the state to prime the economic pump and alleviate some of the chaos that accompanies such re-organizations. Unemployment insurance and Social Security took some of the edge off the pain, public works absorbed some of the jobless, and unions got the right to organize and strike.

 

Capitalism went through another structural crisis at the end of the 1970s, and it is the fallout from that one that currently plagues the EU—and the U.S. Using the 1979-81 recession as a screen, taxes on corporations and the wealthy were slashed, business and finance de-regulated, public institutions privatized, and unions assaulted. Capitalism also went global.

 

Globalism did spur enormous growth, but with a deep flaw. With unions weakened—in part by direct attack, in part by the enormous pool of cheap labor now available in the developing world—wages either stagnated or fell in Europe and the U.S., and the gap between rich and poor widened. A 2015 study by Oxfam found that 1 percent of humanity now controls over half the world’s wealth, and the top 20 percent owns 94.5 percent. In short, 80 percent of the world gets by on 5.5 percent of the world’s wealth.

 

This is not just a problem for the developing and under developed world. Germany has the biggest economy in the EU, and the fourth largest in the world. In 2000, Germany’s top 20 percent earned 3.5 percent more than the bottom 20 percent. Today that number has increased five times. For the bottom 10 percent, income has actually fallen. While earnings are up 6 percent, the cost of living has increased 24 percent. If that Swabian house frau was among that 10 percent, it didn’t make a whole lot of difference how frugal she was, she was broke.

 

Globalization generated instability by creating a crisis of accumulation. A few people had lots of money, but far too many had very little, certainly not enough to absorb the output of the global economy. Global capitalism was awash with cash, but where to use it? The answer was financial speculation—especially since many of the restraints and safety measures had been removed through deregulation.

 

For Europe, most of that speculation went into land. Land prices in Spain and Ireland rose 500 percent from 1999 to 2007. In the case of Ireland, it was almost unreal. Irish real estate loans went from 5 billion Euros in 1999 to 96.2 billion Euros in 2007, or more than half the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the Republic. Over the same period, European household debt increased on the average by 39 percent.

 

That this was a bubble was obvious and all bubbles pop sooner or later. This one exploded in the U.S. in late 2007 and quickly spread to Europe.

 

What is important to keep in mind is that the EU countries that got in trouble were hardly spendthrifts. Spain, Portugal, and Ireland all had modest debt ratios and budget surpluses at the time of the crisis.

 

The problem was not prodigal governments but a sudden hike in borrowing rates, which made it expensive to finance government operations. That was coupled with a decision to use taxpayer money to bail out banks that had gotten themselves in trouble speculating on real estate. Essentially, Portuguese, Spaniards, Greeks and Irish picked up the debts of banks they had never borrowed anything from.

 

Irish taxpayers shelled out 30 billion Euros to bailout the Irish-Anglo bank, a figure equivalent to the Republic’s tax revenues for an entire year. Since none of these countries had that kind of money on hand, they applied for “bailouts” from the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission, the so-called “troika.” Some 89 percent of those bailouts went to banks. The day the Greek bailout was announced, French bank shares rose 24 percent.

 

It was not that EU countries were debt free, but in 2014, the Committee for a Citizen’s Audit on the Public Debt found that between 60 and 70 percent of those debts were due not to overspending, but instead tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, and increases in interest rates. The latter favors creditors and speculators. The Committee found that most deficits were the result of “political decisions” that shift the wealth from one class to another.

 

In the long run, some of that debt will have to be forgiven because it is simply unpayable. The 1952 London Debt Convention that cut Germany’s post-war debt and ignited an economic revival could serve as a template.

 

Converging with this crisis of capitalism is the way the EU is structured, although the two are hardly independent of one another. Many of EU’s strictures were specifically designed to favor capital and finance and to marginalize the control that the Union’s 500 million members have over economic matters.

 

The first problem is that all economic decisions are made by the “troika,” an unelected body that answers to no one. There is a European Parliament, but it has little power or control over finance. The same is true for EU member governments. When former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis told German Finance Minister Wolfgang Wolfgang Schauble that his left-wing Syriza Party was elected to resist the austerity policies of the EU, Schuable replied, “We cannot possibly let an election change anything.”

 

The second problem is that national governments have no control over the value of the Euro. Of the EU’s 27 members, 19 of them use the common currency and make up the Eurozone. Germany’s condition for giving up the Mark and adopting the Euro was that Eurozone members were required to keep budget deficits to no more than 3 percent of national income, and debt levels to no higher than 60 percent of GDP. While that formula works well for Germany’s powerful export model, it doesn’t for of a number of other Eurozone economies.

 

The Euro’s value is set by the European Central Bank, which means that members cannot devalue their currency, a common strategy for dealing with debt, and one near and dear to the U.S. Treasury. As long as it’s smooth sailing, this rule works, but when a financial crisis hits, the common currency and the debt restrictions can mean big trouble for the smaller, less export-centered economies. When the financial bubble popped in 2008, countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland—and to a certain extent, France—saw their debts soar, with strategies for dealing with it hamstrung by the Eurozone rules.

 

And that is when the third problem with the Eurozone kicked in. While there is a common currency, there is no sharing of debt through tax receipts. In a single currency system like the U.S., powerful economies in California and New York pay for bills in places like Mississippi and Louisiana.

 

Some 44 percent of Louisiana’s state budget is paid for by the federal government, which collects taxes in wealthy states and doles out some of it to regions whose economies are either too small or inefficient to meet their budget needs. If you get into trouble in the Eurozone, you are on your own.

 

While the EU has been good for banks and countries like Germany and Austria, it hasn’t been so good for many other of its members. Applying austerity as a cure for debt doesn’t cure the problem, it just creates a spiral of more debt and yet more austerity. As Rana Foroohar, business columnist for the Financial Times put it, “No nation can grow when the consumer, the corporate sector, and the public sector stop spending.”

 

Because most the center-left parties bought into the austerity-as-a-cure-for-debt formula, they have been devastated at the polls. The Dutch Labor Party was crushed in the last election, the French Socialists got less than 7 percent of the vote, and the Spanish Socialists are barely keeping ahead of the much more left Podemos Party. The Italian Socialist Party has dropped over 15 points in the polls and is now running behind the rather bizarre Five Star Movement. The Greek Socialists are a footnote.

 

The lesson for the left would seem to be that moving to the center or the right is a prescription for electoral disaster,

 

Macron’s new centrist party, En Marche!, won, but mostly due to the anti-Le Pen vote. His program of austerity, restraints on unions, and corporate tax cuts is popular with everyone, although En Marche! did well in the first round of voting for the legislature, and poll indicate he may get a majority. If he does not, he plans to push the measures through by decree.

 

It is unlikely that such a centrist program will do anything to reduce France’s unemployment rate—9.6 percent overall and 25 percent among youth age 18 to 29—or lift the economy. Labor “reform” and austerity do not jump start economies, and tax cuts have an equally dreary record. Indeed, as Foroohar points out, there is not a single example in the last 20 years where tax cuts for business or the wealthy stimulated an economy. Indeed, the economic surge in the 1990s happened while tax rates were on the rise.

 

If the economic situation worsens, or even stays the same, the right will be waiting to pounce with their easy answers to economic crisis: nationalism and racism.

 

The clock is ticking. Germany will hold elections in September, and it looks as if Italy will also go to the polls this fall. In Spain, the right-wing minority government is looking increasingly fragile and another election is a strong possibility.

 

Center-left parties are doing well in Portugal, where the Socialists have made common cause with two more leftist parties. In Britain the Labour Party’s sharp break with the Party’s centrism upended the Conservative Party, denied it a majority in Parliament. A recent YouGov poll found that a majority of Britains supported Labour’s left-wing platform over the Conservatives’ austerity program.

 

The Portuguese coalition is demonstrating that there are successful economic models out there to deal with debt and growth that don’t impoverish the many for the benefit of a few. The question is, can the left in Italy, Spain and Germany put together programs that tap into the seething unrest that globalism’s inequality has generated?

 

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Europe’s Elections and The Barbarians

Europe’s Elections

Dispatches From The Edge

Mar. 17, 2017

 

Going in to the recent elections in the Netherlands, the mainstream story seemed lifted from William Butler Yeats poem, The Second Coming: ”Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold—The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The Right was on the march, the Left at war with itself, the traditional parties adrift, and the barbarians were hammering at the gates of the European Union.

 

It’s a grand image, a sort of a politics as the “Game of Thrones,” but the reality is considerably more complex. There is, of course, some truth in the apocalyptic imagery: rightwing parties in the Netherlands, France, and Germany have grown. There are indeed some sharp divisions among left parties. And many Europeans are pretty unhappy with those that have inflicted them with austerity policies that have tanked living standards for all but a sliver of the elite.

 

But there are other narratives at work in Europe these days besides an HBO mega series about blood, war, and treachery.

 

The recent election in the Netherlands is a case in point. After holding a lead over all the other parties, Geert Wilders rightwing, racist Party for Freedom (PVV) faltered. In the end, his Islamophobes did not break the gates (but they did pick up five seats). Overall it was a victory for the center, but it was also a warning for those who advocate “staying the course” politics and, most pointedly the consequences of abandoning principles for power.

 

The Left Greens did quite well by taking on Wilders’ anti-Islam agenda and challenging Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right Popular Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) on the economic front. In one national debate, Jesse Klaver, the Left Green’s dynamic leader, argued that janitors should be paid more and bankers less. The election, he said, is not about “Islam and Muslims,” but about “housing, income and health care.” The voters clearly bought it.

 

Rutte’s coalition partner, the left Labour Party, was crushed, losing 29 seats. For the past four years Labour has gone along with Rutte’s program of raising the retirement age and cutting back social spending, and voters punished them for shelving their progressive politics for a seat at the table.

 

The VVD also lost eight seats, which probably went to centrist parties like Democrats66, suggesting that Rutte’s “business as usual” is not what voters want either . VVD is still the number one party in the 150-seat parliament.

 

There were some lessons from the Dutch elections, though not the simplistic one that the “populist” barbarians lost to the “reasonable” center. What it mainly demonstrated is that voters are unhappy with the current situation, they are looking for answers, and parties on the left and center left should think carefully about joining governments that think it “reasonable” to impoverish their own people.

 

Next up in the election docket is France, where polls show Marine Le Pen’s neo-Nazi National Front leading the pack in a five-way race with traditional rightwing candidate Francois Fillon, centrist and former Socialist Party member Emmanuel Macron, Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon, and leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon. The first round, scheduled for April 23, will eliminate all but the two top vote getters. A final round will be held May 7.

 

With Melenchon and Hamon running at 11.5 percent and 13.5 percent respectively, thus splitting the left vote, the race appears to be between Fillon, Macron and Le Pen, with the latter polling slightly ahead of Macron and considerably better than Fillon.

 

If you are is attracted to the apocalypse analogy, France is probably your ticket.

 

Le Pen is running a campaign aimed against anyone who doesn’t look like Charlemagne or Joan of Arc, but her strong anti-EU positions play well with young people, in small towns, and among rural inhabitants. All three groups have been left behind by the EU’s globalism policies that have resulted in de-industrialization and growing economic inequality. Polls indicate she commands 39 percent of 18 to 24 year olds, compared with 21 percent for Macron and 21 percent for Fillon.

 

Fillon has been wounded by the revelation that he has been using public funds to pay family members some $850,000 for work they never did. But even before the scandal, his social conservatism played poorly to the young and workers are alienated by his economic strategy that harkens back to those of British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher, whom he greatly admires. His programs sound much like Donald Trump’s: cut jobless benefits and social services, lay off public workers, and give tax cuts to the wealthy.

 

Macron, an ex-Rothschild banker and former minister of economics under Hollande, is running neck and neck with Le Pen under the slogan “En Marche” (“On Our Way”), compelling critics on the left to ask “to what?” His platform is a mix of fiscal discipline and mild economic stimulation, and he is young, 39, telegenic, and a good speaker. But his policies are vague, and it is not clear there is a there, there.

 

Most polls indicate a Le Pen vs. Macron runoff, with Macon coming out on top, but that may be dangerous thinking. Macron’s support is soft. Only about 50 percent of those who say they intend to vote for him are “certain” of their vote. In comparison, 80 percent of Le Pen’s voters are “certain” they will vote for her.

 

There are, as well, some disturbing polling indications for the second round. According to the IFOP poll, some 38 percent of Fillon’s supporters say they will jump to Le Pen—two million voters—and 7 percent of Hamon voters and 11 percent of Melenchon backers would shift to Le Pen as well. What may be the most disturbing number, however, is that 45 percent of Melenchon voters say they will not vote if Macron is the candidate. Some 26 percent of Fillon’s voters and 21 percent of Hamon’s votes would similarly abstain.

 

Le Pen will need at least 15 million votes to win—the Front has never won more than six million nationally—but if turnout is low, Le Pen’s strongly motivated voters could put her into the Elysee Palace. In this way, France most resembles Britain prior to the Brixit vote.

 

If that comes to pass, Le Pen will push for a national referendum on the EU. There is no guarantee the French will vote to stay in the Union, and if they leave, that will be the huge trade organization’s death knell. The EU can get along without Britain, but it could not survive a Frexit.

 

Germany will hold national elections, Sept. 24, but the story there is very different than the one being played out in France. The government is currently a grand coalition between Chancellor Andrea Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democrats(SD). The alliance has been a disaster for the SD, which at one point saw its poll numbers slip below 20 percent.

 

But German politics has suddenly shifted. On Merkel’s left, the Social Democrats changed leaders and have broken with industrial policies that have driven down the wages of German workers in order to make the country an export juggernaut. On the Chancellor’s right, the racist, neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany (AfG) has drained CDU and CSU voters to support a ban on immigration and a withdrawal from the EU, although the Alternative is dropping in the polls.

 

The game changer has been the sudden popularity of former EU President, Martin Schultz, the new leader of the Social Democrats. The SD is now neck and neck with the CDU/CSU front, and some polls show Schultz actually defeating Merkel. In terms of personal popularity, Schultz is now running 16 points ahead of Merkel. While the Chancellor’s CDU/CSU alliance tops the polls at 34 percent, the Social Democrats are polling at 32 percent and climbing.

 

Schultz has made considerable headway critiquing declining living standards. Germany has large numbers of poorly paid workers, and almost 20 percent of workers age 25 to 34 are on insecure, short-term contracts. Unemployment benefits have also been cut back, even though Germany’s economy is the most robust in Europe and the country has a $310 billion surplus.

 

In any case, the days when Merkel could pull down 40 percent of the vote are gone. Even if her coalition comes in number one, it may not have enough seats to govern, even if its traditional allies, the Free Democrats, make it back into the Bundestag.

 

That creates the possibility of the first so-called “red-red-green” national government of the SD, the left Die Linke Party, and the Green Party. Die Linke and the Greens are both polling at around 8 percent. Such an alliance currently runs several major cities, including Berlin. It would not be an entirely comfortable united front: the SD and the Greens are pro-EU, while Die Linke is highly critical of the organization.

 

But there is a model out there that gives hope.

 

Portugal is currently run by a three-party center-left to left alliance. Those parties also disagree on things like the EU, the debt, and NATO membership, but for the time being they have decided that stimulating the economy and easing the burden of almost decade of austerity trumps the disagreements.

And then there are the Italians.

 

While Italy has not scheduled elections, the defeat of Democratic Party leader and then Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional referendum almost guarantees a vote sometime in the next six months.

 

Italy has one of the more dysfunctional economies in the EU, with one of the Union’s highest debt ratios and several major banks in deep trouble. It is the EU’s third largest economy, but growth is anemic and unemployment stubbornly high, particularly among the young.

 

Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party (PD) still tops the polls, but only just, and it has fallen nearly 15 points in two years. Nipping at its heels is the somewhat bizarre Five Star Party run by comedian Beppe Grillo, whose politics are, well, odd. Five Star is strongly opposed to the EU, and allies itself with several rightwing parties in the European Parliament. It applauded the election of Donald Trump. On the other hand, it has a platform with many progressive planks, including economic stimulation, increased social services, a guaranteed income for poor Italians, and government transparency. It is also critical of NATO.

 

Five Star has recently taken a few poll hits, because the Party’s Mayor of Rome has done a poor job keeping the big, sprawling city running—in truth, the ancient Romans found it a daunting task—and is caught up in a financial scandal. Some Democratic Party leaders are also being investigated for corruption.

 

The only other major parties in the mix are former Prime Minister Silvio Burlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia, which is polling around 13 percent, and the racist., xenophobic Northern League at 11.5 percent. The latter, which is based the northern Po Valley, made a recent effort to broaden its base by taking its campaign to Naples in southern Italy. The result was a riot with protestors tossing rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails at Northern League leader Matteo Salvini.

 

There are informal talks going on about uniting the parties. Burlusconi has worked with the Northern League in the past.

 

There are also a gaggle of smaller parties in the parliament, ranging from the Left Ecology/Greens to the Brothers of Italy, none registering over 5 percent. But since whoever comes out on top will need to form a coalition, even small parties will likely punch above their weight.

 

If Five Star does come in first and patches together a government, it will press for a referendum on the EU, and there is no guarantee that Italians—battered by the austerity policies of the big trade group—won’t decide to bail like the British did. An Italexit would probably be a fatal blow to the EU.

 

Predicting election outcomes are tricky these days, the Brexit and the election of Donald Trump being cases in point. The most volatile of upcoming ballots are in France and Italy. Germany’s will certainly be important, but, even if Merkel survives, the center-right will be much diminished and the left will be stronger. And that will have EU-wide implications.

 

The European left is divided, but not all divisions are unhealthy, and a robust debate is not a bad thing. None of the problems Europe faces are simple. Is the EU salvageable? What are the alternatives to austerity? How do you tackle growing inequality and the marginalization of whole sections of society? How do you avoid the debt trap facing many countries, blocked by the EU’s economic strictures from pursuing any strategy other than more austerity?

 

In a recent interview, Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek economic minister and one of the founders of the left organization DiEM25, proposed a “New Deal” for Europe, where in “All Europeans should enjoy in their home country the right to a job paying a living wage, decent housing, high-quality health care and education, and a clean environment.”

 

The “Deal” has five goals that Varoufakis argues can be accomplished under the EU’s current rules and without centering more power in Brussels at the expense of democracy and sovereignty. These would include:

  • “Large-scale” investment in green technology.
  • Guaranteed employment with a living wage
  • An EU-wide anti-poverty fund.
  • Universal basic income.
  • Anti-eviction protection.

 

None of those goals will be easy to achieve, but neither can Europe continue on its current path. The rightwing “populists” may lose an election, but they aren’t going away.

 

Almost 40 years ago, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher launched her neo-conservative assault on trade union rights, health care, education and social services with the slogan, “There is no other choice.” The world is still harvesting the bitter fruits of those years and the tides of hatred and anger they unleashed. It is what put Trump into the Oval Office and Le Pen within smelling distance of the French presidency.

 

But there is a choice, and it starts with the simple idea of the greatest good to the greatest number.

 

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Red Cloud, Crazy Horse and U.S. Foreign Policy

 

A Foreign Policy of Delusion

Dispatches From The Edge

Mar. 8, 2017

 

In trying to unravel the debates over U.S. foreign policy currently being fought out in the editorial pages of the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the magazine Foreign Policy, one might consider starting in late December on a bitter cold ridge in northern Wyoming, where 81 men of the U.S. Army’s 18th Infantry Regiment were pursuing some Indians over a rocky ridge.

 

The year was 1866 and the U.S. was at war with the local tribes—Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho—in an attempt to open a trail into the Montana gold fields. The fighting was going badly for an army fresh from the battlefields of the Civil War. Oglala Sioux leader Red Cloud and his savvy lieutenant Crazy Horse did not fight like Robert E. Lee, but rather like General Vo Nguyen Giap a hundred years in the future: an ambush by attackers who quickly vanished, isolated posts overrun, supply wagons looted and burned.

 

The time and place was vastly different, but the men who designed the war against Native Americans would be comfortable with the rationale that currently impel U.S. foreign policy. In their view, the Army was not fighting for gold in 1866, but was embarked on a moral crusade to civilize the savages, to build a shining “city on a hill,” to be that “exceptional” nation that stands above all others. The fact that this holy war would kill hundreds of thousands of the continent’s original owners and sentence the survivors to grinding poverty was irrelevant.

 

Is that very much different than the way the butcher bills for the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the overthrow of Libya’s government and the Syrian civil war is excused as unfortunate collateral damage in America’s campaign to spread freedom and democracy to the rest of the world?

 

“We came, we saw, he died,” bragged then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the murder of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Libya is now a failed state, wracked by civil war and a major jumping off place for refugees fleeing U.S. wars in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

In his book “The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire,” author and former New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer traces the roots of this millennium view that America’s mission was to “regenerate the world.” That this crusade was many times accompanied by stupendous violence is a detail that left unexamined by the people who designed those campaigns.

 

Kinzer argues that this sense of exceptionalism was developed during the Spanish-American War (1898) that gave the U.S. colonies in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines. But, as John Dower demonstrates in his brilliant book on WW II in the Pacific, “War Without Mercy,” that sentiment originated in the campaigns against Native Americans. Indeed, some of the same soldiers who tracked down Apaches in the Southwest and massacred Sioux Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee would go on to fight insurgents in the Philippines.

 

The language has shifted from the unvarnished imperial rhetoric of men like Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and Senator Albert Beveridge, who firmly believed in “the white man’s burden”—a line from a poem by Rudyard Kipling about the American conquest of the Philippines.

 

Today’s humanitarian interventionists have substituted the words “international” and “global” for “imperial,” though the recipients of “globalism” sometimes have difficulty discerning the difference. At the ideological core of exceptionalism is the idea that American, in the words of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright—and repeated by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton—is the “one essential nation” whose duty it is to spread the gospel of free markets and democracy.

 

On the surface there appear to be sharp differences between what could call “establishment” foreign policy mavens like Zbigniew Brzezinski, Paul Wasserman, Jonathan Stevenson, and Robert Kagan, from the brick tossers like Stephen Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller. To a certain extent there are. Bannon, for instance, predicts a major land war in the Middle East and a war over the South China Sea. Next to those fulminations, liberal interventionists like Kagan, and even neoconservatives like Max Boot, seem reasoned. But the “old hands” and sober thinkers are, in many ways, just as deluded as the Trump bomb throwers.

 

A case in point is a recent article by the Brookings Institute’s Kagan entitled “Backing Into World War III,” in which he argues the U.S. must challenge Russia and China “before it is too late,” and that “accepting spheres of influence is a recipe for disaster.” Kagan has generally been lumped in with neo-cons like Boot, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams, and Richard Perle—the latter three helped design the invasion of Iraq—but he calls himself a liberal interventionist and supported Hillary Clinton in the last election. Clinton is a leading interventionist, along with former UN representative Samantha Power and President Obama’s natural Security Advisor, Susan Rice.

 

Kagan posits, “China and Russia are classic revisionist powers. Although both have never enjoyed greater security from foreign powers than they do today—Russia from its traditional enemies to the west, China from its traditional enemy in the east—they are dissatisfied with the current global configuration of power. Both seek to restore hegemonic dominance they once enjoyed in their respective regions.”

 

Those “regions” include Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia for Russia, and essentially everything west of the Hawaiian Islands for China.

 

For Kagan this is less about real estate than “The mere existence of democracies on their borders, the global free flow of information they cannot control, the dangerous connection between free market capitalism and political freedom—all pose a threat to rulers who depend on keeping restive forces in their own countries in check.”

 

There are times when one wonders what world people like Kagan live in.

 

As Anatol Lieven, foreign policy researcher, journalist and currently a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar, points out concerning Russia, “A child with a map can look at where the strategic border was in 1988 and where it is today, and work out which side has advanced in which direction.”

 

The 1999 Yugoslav War served as an excuse for President Bill Clinton to break a decade-old agreement with the then Soviet Union not to recruit former members of the Warsaw Pact into NATO. In the war’s aftermath, the western coalition signed up Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania. For the first time in modern history, Russia has a hostile military alliance on its borders, including American soldiers. Exactly how this gives Russia “greater security” from her enemies in the West is not clear.

 

Of course, in a way, Kagan has a dog in this fight. His wife, former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland, helped organize the 2014 coup that overthrew Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych. Prior to the coup, Nuland was caught on tape using a vulgar term to dismiss peace efforts by the European Union and discussing who would replace Yanukovych. Nuland also admitted that the U.S. had spent $5 billion trying to influence Ukraine’s political development.

 

As Lieven argues, “Russia’s intervention in Ukraine is about Ukraine, a country of supreme historical, ethnic, cultural, strategic, and economic importance to Russia. It implies nothing for the rest of Eastern Europe.”

 

Kagan gives no evidence of Russia’s designs on Central Asia, although one assumes he is talking about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Since that trade and security grouping includes China, India and Pakistan, as well as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan—Iran has applied for membership—exactly how Russia would “dominate” those countries is not clear.

 

Kagan’s argument that “accommodation” with Russia only encourages further aggression is, according to Lieven, a “view based upon self-deception on the part of western elites who are interested in maintaining confrontation with Russia as a distraction from more important, painful problems at home, like migration, industrial decline and anger over globalization.”

 

As for “free market capitalism,” the fallout from the ravages that American style capital has wrought on its own people is one of the major reasons Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office.

 

According to Kagan, U.S. allies in Asia—he presents no evidence of this—are “wondering how reliable” the U.S. is given its “mostly rhetoric” pivot to Asia, its “inadequate” defense spending,” its “premature” and “unnecessary” withdrawal from Iraq, and its “accommodating agreement with Iran on its nuclear program.”

 

One wonders through what looking glass the Brookings Institute views the world. The U.S. has more than 400 military bases in Asia, has turned Guam into a fortress, deployed Marines and nuclear capable aircraft in Australia and sent six of its 10 aircraft carriers to the region. It spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined. The illegal invasion of Iraq was an unmitigated disaster, and Iran has given up its nuclear enrichment program and its stockpile of enhanced uranium.

 

But in a world of “alternative facts,” the only thing that counts is that the U.S. no longer dominates the world as it did in the decades after World War II. “Only the United States has the capacity and unique geographical advantages to provide global security and relative stability,” writes Kagan, “there is no stable balance of power in Europe or Asia without the United States.”

 

The fact that the “security” and “stability” that Kagan yearns for has generated dozens of war, a frightening nuclear arms race, growing economic inequality and decades of support for dictators and monarchs on five continents never seems to figure into the equation.

 

Where the politics of Trump fits into all this is by no means clear. If the President goes with Bannon’s paranoid hate of Islam—and given conspiracy theorist and Islamophobe Frank Gaffney has just been appointed special advisor to the President that is not a bad bet—then things will go sharply south in the Middle East. If he pushes China and follows Bannon’s prediction that there will be a war between the two powers, maybe its time to look at real estate in New Zealand, like a number of billionaires—40 percent of whom are Americans—are already doing.

 

But no matter which foreign policy current one talks about, the “indispensible nation” concept—born out of the Indian and Spanish-American wars “weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,” as Karl Marx wrote in the “18th Brumaire.

 

A century and a half ago on a snowy Wyoming ridge, a company of the 18th Infantry Regiment discovered that not everyone wanted that “shining city on a hill.” From out of a shallow creek bed and the surrounding cottonwoods and box elders, the people whose land the U.S. was in the process of stealing struck back. The battle of Lodge Pine Ridge did not last long, and none of the Regiment survived. It was a stunning blow in the only war against the U.S. that Native Americans won. Within less than two years the Army would admit defeat and retreat.

 

In the end the Indians were no match for the numbers, technology, and firepower of the U.S. Within a little more than three decades they were “civilized” into sterile, poverty-ridden reservations where the only “exceptionalism” they experience is the lowest life expectancy of any ethnic group in the United States.

 

The view that American institutions and its organization of capital is superior is a dangerous delusion and increasingly unacceptable—and unenforceable—in a multi-polar world. The tragedy is how widespread and deep these sentiments are. The world is not envious of that shining “city on a hill,” indeed, with Trump in the White House “aghast” would probably be a better sentiment than envy.

 

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The European Union and the Left

The EU & the Left

Dispatches From The edge

Jan. 10, 2017

 

When European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg this past September, he told them the organization was facing an “existential crisis” and “national governments so weakened by the forces of populism and paralyzed by the risk of defeat in the next election.”

 

Indeed it has been a bad year for the huge trading group:

  • The “Breixit,” or the United Kingdom’s vote to withdraw.
  • Rome’s referendum to amend the country’s constitution was trounced, and several Italian banks are in deep trouble.
  • The austerity policies of the EU have kept most of its members’ economies either anemic or dead in the water. Even those showing growth, like Ireland and Spain, have yet to return to where they were before the 2008 economic melt down. Between 2007 and 2016, purchasing power fell 8 percent in Spain and 11 percent in Italy,

 

It is also true that number of national governments—in particular those in Germany and France—are looking nervously over their shoulders at parties to their right.

 

But the crisis of the EU does not spring from “populism,” a term that many times obscures more than it reveals, lumping together neo-fascist parties, like France’s National Front and Germany’s Alternative for Germany, with left parties, like Spain’s Podemos. Populism, as Juncker uses it, has a vaguely atavistic odor to it: ignorant peasants with torches and pitchforks storming the citadels of civilization.

 

But the barbarians at the EU’s gate did not just appear out of Europe’s dark forests like the Goths and Vandals of old. They were raised up by the profoundly flawed way that the Union was established in the first place, flaws that did not reveal themselves until an economic crisis took center stage.

 

That the crisis is existential, there is little doubt. In fact, the odds are pretty good that the EU will not be here in its current form a decade from now—and possibly considerably sooner. But Juncker’s solutions include a modest spending program aimed at business, closer military ties among the 28—soon to be 27—members of the organization, and the creation of a “European Solidarity Corps” of young volunteers to help out in cases of disasters, like earthquakes. But there was nothing to address the horrendous unemployment rate among young Europeans. In short, rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs while the ice looms up to starboard.

 

But what is to be done is not obvious, nor is how one goes about reforming or dismantling an organization that currently produces a third of the world’s wealth. The complexity of the task has entangled Europe’s left in a sharp debate, the outcome of which will go a long way toward determining whether the EU—now a house divided between wealthy countries and debt-ridden ones—can survive.

 

It is not that the European left is strong, but it is the only player with a possible strategy to break the cycle of debt and low growth. The politics of racism, hatred of immigrants, and reactionary nationalism espoused by the National Front, the Alternative For Germany, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Denmark’s People’s Party, and Austria’s Freedom Party, will not generate economic growth, any more than Donald Trump will bring back jobs for U.S. steelworkers and coal miners and “make America great again.”

 

Indeed, if the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany Party gets its way, that country will be in deep trouble. German deaths currently outnumber births by 200,000 a year, a figure that is accelerating. According to the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, to have a sufficient working-age population that can support a stable pension system, the country will require an influx of 500,000 immigrants a year for the next 35 years.

 

Many other European countries are in the same boat.

 

There are several currents among the European left, ranging from those who call for a full withdrawal, or “Lexit,” to reforms that would democratize the organization.

 

There is certainly a democracy deficit in the EU. The European Parliament has little power, with most key decisions made by the unelected “troika”—the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. The troika’s rigid debt policies mean members have lost the ability to manage their own economies or challenge the mantra that debt requires austerity, even though that formula has clearly been a failure.

 

As economists Markus Brunnermeier, Harold James, and Jean-Pierre Landau point out in their book “The Euro and the Battle of Ideas,” growth is impossible when consumers, corporations, and governments all stop spending. The only outcome for that formula is misery and more debt. Even the IMF has begun to question austerity.

 

But would a little more democracy really resolve this problem?

 

Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, a long-time critic of austerity, argues that while the EU does indeed need to be democratized, a major problem is the common currency. The euro is used by 19 of the EU’s 28 members that constitute the Eurozone.

 

Stiglitz argues that the Euro locked everyone into the German economic model of modest wages coupled with a high power export economy. But one size does not fit all, and when the economic crisis hit in 2008, that became painfully obvious. Those EU members that used a common currency were unable to devalue their currency—a standard economic strategy to deal with debt.

 

There is also no way to transfer wealth within the EU, unlike in the U.S. Powerful economies like California and New York have long paid the bills for states like Louisiana and Mississippi. As Stiglitz points out, “a lack of shared fiscal policy” in the EU made it “impossible to transfer wealth (via tax receipts) from richer states to poorer ones, ensuring growing inequality between the core and the periphery of Europe.”

 

Stiglitz proposes a series of reforms, including economic stimulus, creating a “flexible” euro, and removing the rigid requirement that no country can carry a deficit of more than 3 percent of GDP.

 

Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, however, argues that the Union “is not suffering from a democratic deficit that can be fixed with a ‘little more democracy’ and a few reforms here and there.” The EU, he says, “was constructed intentionally as a democracy-free zone” to keep people out of decision-making process and to put business and finance in charge.

 

Is the machine so flawed that it ought to be dismantled? That is the opinion of British Pakistani writer and journalist Tariq Ali and King’s College Reader in politics, Stathis Kouvelakis, both whom supported the Brexit and are urging a campaign to hold similar referenda in other EU member countries.

 

But since that that position is already occupied by the xenophobic right, how does the left argue for Lexit without entangling itself with racist neo-Nazis? Varoufakis, a leading member of the left formation, DiEM25, asks whether “such a campaign is consistent with the Left’s fundamental principles” of internationalism?

 

He also argues that a Lexit would destroy the EU’s common environmental policy and the free movement of members, both of which find strong support among young people.

 

Is re-establishing borders and fences really what the left stands for, and wouldn’t re-nationalizing the fossil fuel industry simply turn environmental policies over to the multi-national energy giants? “Under the Lexit banner, in my estimation,” says Varoufakis, “the Left is heading for monumental defeats on both fronts.”

 

DiEM25 proposes a third way to challenge the disastrous policies of the EU, while avoiding a return to borders and “every country for itself” environmental policies. What is needed, according to Varoufakis, is “a pan-European movement of civil and governmental disobedience” to create a “democratic opposition to the way European elites do business at the local, national and EU levels.”

 

The idea is to avoid the kind of trap that Greece’s left party, Syriza, has found itself in: running against austerity only to find itself instituting the very policies it ran against.

 

What DiEM25 is proposing is simply to refuse to institute EU austerity rules, a strategy that will only work if the resistance is EU-wide. When Greece tried to resist the troika, the European Central Bank threatened to destroy the country’s economy, and Syriza folded. But if resistance is widespread enough, that will not be so easy to do. In any case, he says, “the debt-deflationary spiral that drives masses of Europeans into hopelessness and places them under the spell of bigotry” is not acceptable.

 

DiEM25 also calls for a universal basic income, a proposal that is supported by 64 percent of the EU’s members.

 

Portugal’s left has had the most success with trying to roll back the austerity measures that caused widespread misery throughout the country. The center-left Socialist Party formed a coalition with the Left Bloc, and the Communist/Green Alliance put aside their differences, and restored public sector wages and state pensions to pre-crisis levels. The economy only grew 1.2 percent in 2016 (slightly less than the EU as a whole), but it was enough to drop unemployment from 12.6 percent to 10 percent. The deficit has also declined.

 

Spain’s Podemos and Jeremy Corbyn of the British Labour Party have hailed the Portuguese left coalition as a model for an anti-austerity alliance across the continent.

 

Debt is the 800-pound gorilla in the living room. Most of the debt for countries like Spain, Portugal and Ireland was not the result of spendthrift ways. All three countries had positive balances until the real estate bubble pumped up by private speculators and banks burst in 2008, and taxpayers picked up the pieces. The “bailouts” from the troika came with onerous austerity measures attached, and most of the money went straight to the banks that had set off the crisis in the first place.

 

For small or underdeveloped countries, it will be impossible to pay off those debts. When Germany found itself in a similar position after World War II, other countries agreed to cut its debt in half, lower interest rates and spread out payments. The 1952 London Debt Conference led to an industrial boom that turned Germany into the biggest economy in Europe. There is no little irony in the fact that the current Berlin government is insisting on applying economic policies to debt-ridden countries that would have strangled that German post-war recovery had they not been modified.

 

It is possible that the EU cannot be reformed, but it seems early in the process to conclude that. In any case, DiEM25’s proposal to practice union-wide civil disobedience has not really been tried, and it certainly has potential as an organizing tool. It is already being implemented in several “rebel” cities like Barcelona, Naples, Berlin, Bristol, Krakow, Warsaw and Porto, where local mayors and city councils are digging in their heels and fighting back.

 

For that to be successful throughout the EU, however, the left will have to sideline some of the disputes that divide it and reach out to new constituencies. If it does not, the right has a dangerous narrative waiting in the wings.

 

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Dispatches News Awards for 2016

Dispatches 2016 News Awards

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 21, 2016

 

Each year Dispatches From the Edge gives awards to individuals, companies and governments that make reading the news a daily adventure. Here are the awards for 2016.

 

The Golden Lemon Award had a number of strong contenders in 2016, including:

  • General Atomics for its MQ-9 Reaper armed drone, which has a faulty starter-generator that routinely shorts out the aircraft. So far, no one can figure out why. Some 20 were either destroyed or sustained major damage last year. The Reapers costs $64 million apiece.
  • Panavia Aircraft Company’s $25 billion Tornado fighter-bomber that can’t fly at night because the cockpit lights blind the pilot. A runner up here is the German arms company Heckler & Koch, whose G-36 assault rifle can’t shoot straight when the weather is hot.
  • The British company BAE’s $1.26 billion Type 45 destroyer that breaks down “whenever we try to do too much with them,” a Royal Navy officer told the Financial Times. Engaging in combat, he said, would be “catastrophic.”

 

But the hands down winner is Lockheed Martin, builder of the F-35 Lightning stealth fighter. At a cost of $1.5 trillion it is the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history. Aside from numerous software problems, pilots who try to bail out risk decapitation. The Director of Operational Test and Evaluation recently released an assessment of the F-35’s performance that states, “In an opposed combat scenario,” the “aircraft would need to avoid threat engagement and would require augmentation by other friendly forces.” Translation: “If the bad guys show up, run for your life and pray your buddies arrive to bail you out of trouble.”

Lockheed Martin also gets an Honorable Mention for its $4.4 billion littoral combat ship, the USS Zumwalt, which had to be towed out of the Panama Canal. The ship also leaks, as do other sister littoral combat ships, including the USS Freedom.

Note: U.S. students are currently $1.3 trillion in debt.

 

The Dr. Frankenstein Award to the U.S. Air Force for zapping the brains of drone operators with electricity in order to improve their focus. The electrical stimulation was started after scientists discovered that feeding the pilots Provigil and Ritalin was a bad idea, because both drugs are highly addictive and Provigil can permanently damage sleep patterns. Nika Knight of Common Dreams reports that “European researchers who studied the brain-zapping technique years ago warned that the technology is, in fact, extremely invasive, as its effects tend to ‘spread from the target brain area to neighboring areas.’”

 

The Golden Jackal Award goes to United Kingdom oil companies BP and Royal Dutch Shell for their lobbying campaign following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Executives of the companies met with UK Trade Minister Baroness Elizabeth Symons five months before the U.S. attack to complain that the Americans were cutting them out of the post-war loot.

 

According to Parliament’s 2016 Chilcot Report on the Iraq War, Symons then met with Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, to tell him it was a “matter of urgency,” and that “British interests are being left to one side.” Straw dutifully told Blair to raise the issue “very forcefully” with President George W. Bush, because U.S. companies are “ruthless” and “will not help UK companies unless you play hardball with Bush.”

 

Runner up in this category is the Washington Post, which won a Pulitzer Prize in Public Service journalism for publishing Edward Snowden’s revelations about illegal U.S. wiretapping and then called for the whistleblower to be charged with espionage. Glenn Greenwald—who met with Snowden and wrote stories about the scandal for The Guardian—said “The Washington Post has achieved an ignominious feat in US media history: the first-ever paper to explicitly editorialize for the criminal prosecution of its own source…. That is warped beyond anything that can be described.”

 

The Thin Skin Award is a five-way tie among the governments of Spain, India, Israel, Turkey and Thailand:

 

*Spain-Under Spain’s 2015 public security law—nicknamed the “gag rule”—police are trying to fine a woman for carrying a bag on which was written “All Cats Are Beautiful.” The police say that the writing and color of the bag is “traditionally associated with insults to the police” and that the four capital letters really mean “All Cops Are Bastards.”

 

*India: The rightwing government of Narendra Modi is proposing a law that would make it illegal to publish any map indicating that Kashmir is disputed territory divided between India and Pakistan. Currently such maps are censored by either preventing the publication’s distribution or covering the maps with black stickers. The new law would fine violators $15 million and jail them for up to seven years.

 

*Israel: The Ministry of Education has removed a novel—“Borderlife” by Dorit Rabinyan about a romance between a Jewish woman and a Palestinian man—from the list of required reading for Hebrew high schools literature classes. Education official Dalia Fenig says, “Marrying a non-Jew is not what the education system is educating about.”

 

Turkey: In the aftermath of July’s failed coup, novelist and journalist Ahmet Alten, and his brother Mehmet, a professor of economics, were arrested for “colluding with the military” even though both men are known to be sharp critics of the Turkish armed forces. The prosecutor had no evidence against the men, but charged them with giving “subliminal” and “subconscious” messages backing the coup during a TV talk show. The authorities also closed down the Smurfs, Maya the Bee, and SpongeBob SquarePants, because the cartoon characters were speaking Kurdish on Zarok TV, a station that does programming in the Kurdish language. According to Al-Monitor, “Many social media users went into lampoon mode, asking, “Who is the separatist: SpongeBob or Papa Smurf?”

 

*Thailand: Patnaree Chankij, a 40-year old maid, is to be tried by a military court for breaking the country’s lèse-majesté’ law that makes it a crime to insult the royal family or their pets. She replied “ja” (“yeah”) to a private post sent to her on Facebook. She did not agree with the post, comment on it, or make it public. One man is currently serving a 30-year sentence for posting material critical of the Thai royal family. Following the military coup two years ago, the authorities have filed 57 such cases, 44 of them for online commentary. One person was arrested for insulting the king’s dog.

 

The Cultural Sensitivity Award goes to Denmark, France, and Latvia.

 

The center-right Danish government, which relies on the racist Danish People’s Party to stay in government, passed a law that confiscates valuables, including jewels and cash, from refugees. Immigrants can only keep up to $1,455. The Danish town of Randers also required pork to be used in all public day care centers and kindergartens in what the Socialist People’s Party (SPP) charges is aimed at Muslims. “What do children need? Do they need pork? Actually not,” said Charlotte Molbaek, a Randers Town Council member from the SPP. “Children need grownups.”

 

Several French towns run by rightwing mayors have removed alternatives—like fish or chicken—from school menus when pork is served. On those days Muslim and Jewish children eat vegetables.

 

The rightwing government of Latvia is banning the wearing of full veils, in spite of that fact that, at last count, there were three such women in the whole country. Former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga told the New York Times, “Anybody could be under a veil or under a burqa. You could carry a rocket launcher under your veil.”

 

A runner up in this category is former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who, during a speech in Kiev, said that Ukrainians should stop complaining about the economic crisis that has gripped the country since the 2014 coup that overthrew President Viktor Yanukovych. “Anyone who believes that life is bad in Ukraine should go to Liberia, where the standard of living is much lower, and then you will be thankful.”

 

The Head In The Sand Award to British Prime Minister Theresa May for closing down the government’s program to study climate change. A co-winner is the conservative government of Australia that laid off 275 scientists from its climate change program. Some were rehired after an international petition campaign, however, the leading international researcher on sea levels, John Church was let go permanently.

 

In the meantime, the U.S. Air Force is spending $1 billion to build a radar installation in Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The Atoll is halfway between Australia and Hawaii and is only a few feet above sea level. It is estimated that sea levels will rise at least six feet by 2100, but the increase is moving far faster than scientists predicted. “The future does not look very good for those islands,” says Curt Storlazzi, and oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Service.

 

The Little Bo Peep Award to the U.S. Defense Department for being unable to account for $6.5 trillion in spending. Yes, that is a “T.” According to Mandy Smithberger, director of Straus Military Reform Project at the Project On Government Oversight, “Accounting at the Department of Defense is a disaster, but nobody is screaming about it because you have a lot of people in Congress who believe in more military spending.”

 

According to UK watchdog group Action on Armed Violence, the Pentagon also can’t account for 1.4 million guns shipped to Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

The CIA won some laurels in this category as well. According to an investigation by Al Jazeera and the New York Times, Jordanian intelligence operatives stole millions of dollars in U.S. weapons bound for Syria. Some of the guns were used to kill Americans at a police training school in Amman.

 

The Annie Oakley Award to the American firearms manufacturers and the National Rifle Association (NRA) for their campaign to arm kids. The guns for tots are lighter than regular firearms and have less recoil. They are also made in “kid-friendly” colors, like pink.

 

Iowa recently passed legislation making it legal for any minor to own a pistol. According to state Representative Kirsten Running –Marquardt, the law “allows for one-year olds, two-year olds, three-year olds, four-year olds to operate handguns,” adding, “We do not need a militia of toddlers.”

 

The Violence Policy Center reports, “As household gun ownership has steadily declined and the primary gun market of white males continues to age, the firearms industry has set its sights on America’s children. Much like the tobacco industry’s search for replacement smokers, the gun industry is seeking replacement shooters.”

 

If your two-year old is packing and really wants that Star Wars droid, Dispatches recommends you buy it.

 

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U.S. Threat to Irish Neutrality

Irish Neutrality & The U.S.

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 31, 2016

 

“We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.”

Proclamation of Easter Week 1916

 

Controlling their own destiny has always been a bit of a preoccupation for the Irish, in large part because for 735 years someone else was in charge. From the Norman invasion in 1169 to the establishment of the Free State in 1922, Ireland’s political and economic life was not its own to determine. Its young men were shipped off to fight England’s colonial battles half a world away, at Isandlwana, Dum Dum, Omdurman and Kut. Almost 50,000 died in World War I, choking on gas at Ypres, clinging desperately to a beachhead at Gallipoli, or marching into German machine guns at the Somme.

 

When the Irish finally cast off their colonial yoke, they pledged never again to be cannon fodder in other nation’s wars, a pledge that has now been undermined by the U.S. Once again, a powerful nation—with the acquiescence of the Dublin government—has put the Irish in harm’s way.

 

The flashpoint for this is Shannon Airport, located in County Clare on Ireland’s west coast. Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on Washington and New York, some 2.5 million U.S. troops have passed through the airport on their way to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The Shannon hub has become so important to the U.S. that it hosts a permanent U.S. staff officer to direct traffic. It is, in the words of the peace organization Shannonwatch, “a US forward operating base.”

 

 

The airport has also been tied to dozens of CIA “rendition” flights, where prisoners seized in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan were shipped to various “black sites” in Europe, Asia, and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

 

Irish peace activists and members of the Irish parliament, or Oireachtas Elreann, charge that an agreement between the Irish government and Washington to allow the transiting of troops and aircraft through Shannon not only violates Irish neutrality it violates international law.

 

“The logistical support for the U.S. military and CIA at Shannon is a contravention of Ireland’s neutrality,” says John Lannon of the peace group Shannonwatch, and has “contributed to death, torture, starvation, forced displacement and a range of other human rights abuses.”

 

Ireland is not a member of NATO, and it is considered officially neutral. But “neutral” in Ireland can be a slippery term. The government claims that Ireland is “militarily neutral”—it doesn’t belong to any military alliances—but not “politically neutral.”

 

But the term militarily neutral “does not exist in international law,” says Karen Devine, an expert on neutrality at the City of Dublin’s School of Law & Government. “The decision to aid belligerents in war is…incompatible with Article 2 of the Fifth Hague Convention on the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in Case of War on Land.” Devine argues that “the Irish government’s decision to permit the transit of hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers through Shannon Airport on their way to the Iraq War in 2003 violated international law on neutrality and set it apart from European neutrals who refused such permission.”

 

Article 2 of the Convention states, “Belligerents are forbidden to move troops or convoys of either munitions or war supplies across the territory of a neutral power.”

 

Ireland has not ratified the Hague Convention but according to British international law expert Iain Scobbie, the country is still bound by international law because Article 29 of the Irish Constitution states, “Ireland accepts the generally recognized principle of international law as its rule of conduct in relations with other states.”

 

The UN Security Council did not endorse the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, making both conflicts technically illegal. Then UN General Secretary Kofi Annan said that the invasions “were not in conformity with the UN Charter. From our point of view, from the Charter’s point of view,” the invasions were “illegal.”

 

Shannonwatch’s Lannon says the agreement also violates the 1952 Air Navigation Foreign Military Aircraft Order that requires that “aircraft must be unarmed, carry no arms, ammunition and explosives, and must not engage in intelligence gathering and that the flights in question must not form part of a military exercises or operations.”

 

The Dublin government claims all US aircraft adhere to the 1952 order, although it refuses to inspect aircraft or allow any independent inspection. According to retired Irish Army Captain Tom Clonan, the Irish Times security analyst, the soldiers are armed but leave their weapons on board the transports—generally Hercules C-130s—while they stretch their legs after the long cross Atlantic flight. Airport employees have also seen soldiers with their weapons.

 

The Irish government also says that it has been assured that no rendition flights have flown through Shannon, but Shannonwatch activists have tracked flights in and out of the airport. As for “assurances,” Washington “assured” the British government that no rendition flights used British airports, but in 2008 then Foreign Secretary Ed Miliband told Parliament that such flights did use the United Kingdom controlled island of Diego Garcia.

 

Investigative journalist’s Mark Danner’s book Spiral chronicles the grotesque nature of some of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques inflicted on those prisoners. The rendition program violated the 1987 UN Convention Against Torture, which Ireland is a party to.

 

Roslyn Fuller, Dublin-based scholar and author of Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning And Lost Its Way, says terror suspects were taken to sites where “in an appalling re-run of the Spanish Inquisition tactics, [they were] routinely tortured and mistreated in an attempt to obtain confessions and other information.”

 

Fuller points out that Article 11 of the Hague Convention requires that troops belonging to a “belligerent” army must be interned. “In other words, any country that would like to call itself neutral is obligated to prevent warring parties from moving troops though its territory and to gently scoop up anyone attempting to contravene this principle.”

 

Besides violating international law, Ireland is harvesting “the bitter fruits of the Iraq and Afghan wars” and NATO’s military intervention in Libya, charges MP Richard Boyd Barrett of the People Before Profit Party and chair of the Irish Anti-War Movement. “The grotesque images of children and families washed up on Europe’s shores, desperate refugees, risking and losing their lives,” he says, “are the direct result of disastrous wars waged by the US, the UK and other major western powers over the last 12 years.”

 

The Irish government, says Barrett, has “colluded with war crimes and actions for which we are now witnessing the most terrible consequences.”

 

The government has waived all traffic control costs on military flights, costing Dublin about $45 million from 2003 to 2015. Ireland is currently running one of the highest per capita debts in Europe and has applied austerity measures that have reduced pensions and severely cut social services, health programs and education. Other neutral European countries, like Finland, Austria and Switzerland charge the US military fees for using their airspace.

 

Shannon might also make Ireland collateral damage in the war on terror, according to the Irish Times’ Clonan. Irish citizens are now seen as a “hostile party,” and British Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary has named Shannon a “legitimate target,” according to Irish journalist Danielle Ryan.

 

The Dublin government has generally avoided open discussion of the issue, and when it comes up, ministers tend to get evasive. In response to the charge that Shannon hosted rendition flights, then Minister of Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern said, “If anyone has evidence of any of these flights please give me a call and I will have it investigated.” But even though Amnesty International produced flights logs for 50 rendition landings at Shannon, the government did nothing. Investigations by the Council on Europe and European Parliament also confirmed rendition flights through Shannon.

 

Peace activists charge that attempts to raise the issue in the Irish parliament have met with a combination of stonewalling and half-truths. Apparently kissing the Blarney Stone is not just for tourists.

 

The government’s position finds little support among the electorate. Depending on how the questions are asked, polls indicate that between 55 and 58 percent of the Irish oppose allowing US transports to land at Shannon, and between 57 to 76 percent want to add a neutrality clause to the constitution.

 

The “forward base” status of Shannon puts the west of Ireland in the crosshairs in the event of a war with Russia. While that might seem far-fetched, in 2015 NATO held 14 military maneuvers directed at Russia, and relations between NATO, the US and Moscow are at their lowest point since the height of the Cold War.

 

Of course Ireland is not alone in putting itself in harm’s way. The US has more than 800 bases worldwide, bases that might well be targeted in a nuclear war with China or Russia. Local populations have little say over the construction of these bases, but they would be the first casualties in a conflict.

 

For centuries Ireland was colonialism’s laboratory. The policies used to enchain its people—religious division and ethnic hatred— were tested out and then shipped off to India, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria and Guyana, and Irish soldiers populate colonial graveyards on all four continents, now, once again, Ireland has been drawn into a conflict that is has no stake in.

 

Not that the Irish have taken this lying down. Scores of activists have invaded Shannon to block military flights and, on occasion, to attack aircraft with axes and hammers. “Pit stop of death” was one slogan peace demonstrators painted on a hanger at the airport.

 

That resistance harkens back to the 1916 Easter Rebellion’s proclamation that ends with the words that ring as true today as they did a century ago: “In this supreme hour the Irish nation must, by its valor and discipline and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called.”

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Spain’s Turmoil and Europe’s Crisis

Spain’s Turmoil & Europe’s Crisis

Dispatches From the Edge

Oct. 7, 2026

 

While the chaos devouring Spain’s Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) mixed elements of farce and tragedy, the issues roiling Spanish politics reflect a general crisis in the European Union (EU) and a sober warning to the continent: Europe’s 500 million people need answers, and the old formulas are not working.

 

On the tragedy side was the implosion of a 137-year old party that at one point claimed the allegiance of half of Spain’s people now reduced to fratricidal infighting. The PSOE’s embattled General Secretary Pedro Sanchez was forced to resign when party grandees and regional leaders organized a coup against his plan to form a united front of the left.

 

The farce was street theater, literally: Veronica Perez, the president of the PSOE’s Federal Committee and a coup supporter, was forced to hold a press conference on a sidewalk in Madrid because Sanchez’s people barred her from the Party’s headquarters.

 

There was no gloating by the Socialists main competitors on the left. Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, somberly called it “the most important crisis since the end of the civil war in the most important Spanish party in the past century.”

 

That the party coup is a crisis for Spain there is no question, but the issues that prevented the formation of a working government for the past nine months are the same ones Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, Irish—and before they jumped ship, the British—are wresting with: growing economic inequality, high unemployment, stagnant economies, and whole populations abandoned by Europe’s elites.

 

The spark for the PSOE’s meltdown was a move by Sanchez, to break the political logjam convulsing Spanish politics. The current crisis goes back to the Dec. 20 2015 national elections that saw Spain’s two traditional parties—the rightwing People’s Party (PP), led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and Sanchez’s Socialists—take a beating. The PP lost 63 seats and its majority and the PSOE lost 20 seats. Two new parties, the leftwing Podemos and the rightwing nationalist party Ciudadanos, crashed the party, winning 69 seats and 40 seats, respectively.

 

While the PP took the most seats, it was not enough for a majority in the 350-seat legislature, which requires 176. In theory, the PSOE could have cobbled together a government with Podemos, Catalans and independents, but the issue of Catalonian independence got in the way.

 

The Catalans demand the right to hold a referendum on independence, something the PP, the Socialists and Ciudadanos bitterly oppose. While Podemos is also opposed to Spain’s richest province breaking free of the country, it supports the right of the Catalans to vote on the issue. Catalonia was conquered in 1715 during the War of the Spanish Succession, and Madrid has oppressed the Catalans’ language and culture ever since.

 

The Catalan issue is an important one for Spain, but the PSOE could have shelved its opposition to a referendum and made common cause with Podemos, the Catalans and the independents. Instead, Sanchez formed a pact with Ciudadanos and asked Podemos to join the alliance.

 

For Podemos, that would have been a poison pill. A major reason why Podemos is the number one party in Catalonia is because it supports the right of Catalans to hold a referendum. If it had joined with the Socialists and Ciudadanos it would have alienated a significant part of its base.

 

It is possible that’s what Sanchez’s had in mind, reasoning that Podemos’ refusal to join with the Socialists and Ciudadanos would hurt it with voters. Sanchez gambled that another election would see the Socialists expand at the expense of Podemos and give it enough seats to form a government.

 

That was a serious misjudgment. The June 26 election saw PSOE lose five more seats and turn in its worst ever performance. Ciudadanos also lost seats. While Podemos lost votes—at least 1 million—it retained the same number of deputies. The only winner was the Popular Party, which poached eight seats from Ciudadanos for an increase of 14. However, once again no party won enough seats to form a government.

 

The current crisis is the fallout from the June election. Rajoy, claiming the PP had “won” the election, formed an alliance with Ciudadanos and asked the PSOE to either support him or abstain from voting and allow him to form a minority government. Sanchez refused, convinced that allowing Rajoy to form a government would be a boon to Podemos and the end of the Socialists.

 

There is a good deal of precedent for that conclusion. The Greek Socialist Party formed a grand coalition with the right and was subsequently decimated by the leftwing Syriza Party. The German Social Democratic Party’s alliance with the conservative Christian Democratic Union has seen the once mighty organization slip below 20 percent in the polls. England’s Liberal Democratic Party was destroyed by its alliance with the Conservatives.

 

The ostensible reason Sanchez was forced out was that he led the Socialists to two straight defeats in national elections and oversaw the beating the PSOE took in recent local elections in the Basque region and Galicia. But the decline of the Socialists predated Sanchez. The party has been bleeding supporters for over a decade, a process that accelerated after it abandoned its social and economic programs in 2010 and oversaw a mean-spirited austerity regime.

 

The PSOE has long been riven with political and regional rivalries. Those divisions surfaced when Sanchez finally decided to try an alliance with Podemos, the Catalans and independents, which suggests he was willing to reconsider his opposition to a Catalan referendum. That’s when Susana Diaz, the Socialist leader in Spain’s most populous province, Andalusia, pulled the trigger on the coup. Six out of seven PSOE regional leaders backed her. Diaz will likely take the post of General Secretary after the PSOE’s convention in several weeks.

 

The Andalusian leader has already indicated she will let Rajoy form a minority government. “First we need to give Spain a government,” she said, “and then open a deep debate in the PSOE.” Sanchez was never very popular—dismissed as a good looking lightweight—but the faction that ousted him may find that rank and file Socialists are not overly happy with a coup that helped usher in a rightwing government. This crisis is far from over.

 

In the short run the Popular Party is the winner, but Rajoy’s ruling margin will be paper-thin. Most commentators think that Podemos will emerge as the main left opposition. While the Socialists did poorly in Galicia and the Basque regions, Podemos did quite well, an outcome that indicates that talk of its “decline” after last June’s election is premature. In contrast, Ciudadanos drew a blank in the regional voting, suggesting that the party is losing its national profile and heading back to being a regional Catalan party.

 

Hanging over this is the puzzle of what went wrong for the left in the June election, particularly given that the polls indicated a generally favorable outcome for them? It is an important question because while Rajoy may get his government, there are few willing to bet it will last very long.

 

Part of the outcome was its dreadful timing: two days after the English and the Welsh voted to pull the United Kingdom out of the European Union. The “Brexit” was a shock to all of Europe and hit Spain particularly hard. The country’ stock market lost some $70 billion, losses that fed the scare campaign the PP and the PSOE were running against Podemos.

 

Even though Podemos supports EU membership, the right and the center warned that, if the leftwing party won the election, it would accelerate the breakup of Europe and encourage the Catalans to push for independence. The Brexit pushed fear to the top of the agenda, and when people are afraid they tend to vote for stability.

 

But some of the lost votes came because Podemos confused some of its own supporters by moderating its platform. At one point Iglesias even said that Podemos was “neither right nor left.” The Party abandoned its call for a universal basic income, replacing it with a plan for a minimum wage, no different than the Socialist Party’s program. And dropping the universal basic income demand alienated some of the anti-austerity forces that still make up the shock troops in ongoing fights over poverty and housing in cities like Madrid and Barcelona.

 

Podemos was also hurt by Spain’s undemocratic electoral geography, where rural votes count more than urban ones. It takes 125,000 votes to elect a representative in Madrid, 38,000 in some rural areas. The PP and the PSOE are strong in the countyside, while Podemos is strong in the cities.

 

Podemos had formed a pre-election alliance—“United We Can”—with Spain’s Unite Left (UL), an established party of left groups that includes the Communist Party, but made little effort to mobilize it. Indeed, Iglesias disparaged IU members as “sad, boring and bitter” and “defeatists whose pessimism is infectious,” language that did not endear IU’s rank and file to Podemos. Figures show that Podemos did poorly in areas where the IU was strong.

The Galicia and Basque elections indicate that Podemos is still a national force. The Party will likely pick up PSOE’s members who cannot tolerate the idea that their party would allow the likes of Rajoy to form a government. Podemos will also need to shore up its alliance with the IU and curb its language about old leftists (which young leftists tend to eventually become).

 

The path for the Socialists is less certain.

 

If the PSOE is not to become a footnote in Spain’s history, it will have to suppress its hostility to Podemos and recognize that two party domination of the country is in the past. The Socialists will also have to swallow their resistance to a Catalan referendum, if for no other reason than it will be impossible to block it in the long run. Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont recently announced an independence plebiscite would be held no later than September 2017 regardless of what Madrid wants.

 

The right in Spain may have a government, but it is not one supported by the majority of the country’s people. Nor will its programs address Spain’s unemployment rate—at 20 percent the second highest in Europe behind Greece—or the country’s crisis in health care, education and housing.

 

For the left, unity would seem to be the central goal, similar to Portugal, where the Portuguese Socialist Workers Party formed a united front with the Left Bloc and the Communist/Green Alliance. While the united front has its divisions, the parties put them aside in the interests of rolling back some of the austerity policies that have made Portugal the home of Europe’s greatest level of economic inequality.

 

The importance of the European left finding common ground is underscored by the rising power of the extreme right in countries like France, Austria, England, Poland, Greece, Hungry, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Germany. The economic and social crises generated by almost a decade of austerity and growing inequality needs programmatic solutions that only the left has the imagination to construct.

 

One immediate initiative would be to join Syriza’s and Podemos’ call for a European debt conference modeled on the 1953 London Conference that canceled much of Germany’s wartime debt and ignited the German economy.

 

But the left needs to hurry lest xenophobia, racism, hate and repression, the four horsemen of the right’s apocalypse, engulf Europe.

 

—30—

 

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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