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Baiting The Bear: NATO and Russia

Bear Baiting: Russia & NATO

Dispatches From The Edge

April 28

 

Aggressive,” “revanchist,” “swaggering”: These are just some of the adjectives the mainstream press and leading U.S. and European political figures are routinely inserting before the words “Russia,” or “Vladimir Putin.” It is a vocabulary most Americans have not seen or heard since the height of the Cold War.

 

The question is, why?

 

Is Russia really a military threat to the United States and its neighbors? Is it seriously trying to “revenge” itself for the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union? Is it actively trying to rebuild the old Soviet empire? The answers to these questions are critical, because, for the first time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, several nuclear-armed powers are on the edge of a military conflict with fewer safeguards than existed 50 years ago.

 

Consider the following events:

  • NATO member Turkey shoots down a Russian warplane.
  • Russian fighter-bombers come within 30 feet of a U.S. guided missile destroyer, and a Russian fighter does a barrel roll over a U.S. surveillance plane. Several U.S. Senators call for a military response to such encounters in the future.
  • NATO and the U.S. begin deploying three combat brigades—about 14,000 troops and their equipment—in several countries that border Russia, and Washington has more than quadrupled its military spending in the region.
  • S. State Department officials accuse Russia of “dismantling” arms control agreements, while Moscow charges that Washington is pursuing several destabilizing weapons programs.
  • Both NATO and the Russians have carried out large war games on one another’s borders and plan more in the future, in spite of the fact that the highly respected European Leadership Network (ELN) warns that the maneuvers are creating “mistrust.”

 

In the scary aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, the major nuclear powers established some ground rules to avoid the possibility of nuclear war, including the so-called “hot line” between Washington and Moscow. But, as the threat of a nuclear holocaust faded, many of those safeguards have been allowed to lapse, creating what the ELN calls a “dangerous situation.”

 

According to a recent report by the ELN, since March of last year there have been over 60 incidents that had “the potential to trigger a major crisis between a nuclear armed state and a nuclear armed alliance.” The report warns that, “There is today no agreement between NATO and Russia on how to manage close military encounters.”

 

Such agreements do exist, but they are bilateral and don’t include most alliance members. Out of 28 NATO members, 11 have memorandums on how to avoid military escalation at sea, but only the U.S., Canada and Greece have what is called “Preventing Dangerous Military Activities” (DMA) agreements that cover land and air as well. In any case, there are no such agreements with the NATO alliance as a whole.

 

The lack of such agreements was starkly demonstrated in the encounter between Russian aircraft and the U.S. The incident took place less than 70 miles off Baltiysk, home of Russia’s Baltic Sea Fleet, and led to an alarming exchange in the Senate Armed Services Committee among Republican John McCain, Democrat Joe Donnelly, and U.S. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, soon to assume command of U.S. forces in Europe.

 

McCain: ”This may sound a little tough, but should we make an announcement to the Russians that if they place the men and women on board Navy ships in danger, that we will take appropriate action?”

 

Scaparrotti: “That should be known, yes.”

 

Donnelly: “Is there a point…where we tell them in advance enough, the next time it doesn’t end well for you?”

 

Scaparrotti: “We should engage them and make clear what is acceptable. Once we make that known we have to enforce it.”

 

For the Americans, the Russian flyby was “aggressive.” For the Russians, U.S. military forces getting within spitting range of their Baltic Fleet is the very definition of “aggressive.” What if someone on the destroyer panicked and shot down the plane? Would the Russians have responded with an anti-ship missile? Would the U.S. have retaliated and invoked Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, bringing the other 27 members into the fray? Faced by the combined power of NATO, would the Russians—feeling their survival at stake—consider using a short-range nuclear weapon? Would the U.S. then attempt to take out Moscow’s nuclear missiles with its new hypersonic glide vehicle? Would that, in turn, kick in the chilling logic of thermonuclear war: use your nukes or lose them?

 

Far-fetched? Unfortunately, not at all. The world came within minutes of a nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis and, as researcher Eric Schlosser demonstrated in his book “Command and Control,” the U.S. came distressingly close at least twice more by accident.

 

One of the problems about nuclear war is that it is almost impossible to envision. The destructive powers of today’s weapons have nothing in common with the tiny bombs that incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so experience is not much of a guide. Suffice it to say that just a small portion of world’s nukes would end civilization as we know it, and a general exchange could possibly extinguish human life.

 

With such an outcome at least in the realm of possibility, it becomes essential to step back and try to see the world through another’s eyes.

 

Is Russia really a danger to the U.S. and its neighbors? NATO points to Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia and its 2014 intervention in eastern Ukraine as examples of “Russian aggression.”

 

But from Moscow, the view is very different.

 

In 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and German Chancellor Helmet Kohl pledged to then Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not move eastward, nor recruit former members of the East bloc military alliance, the Warsaw Pact. By 1995 NATO had enlisted Pact members Romania, Hungry, Poland, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and signed on Montenegro this year. Georgia is currently being considered, and there is a push to bring Ukraine aboard. From Moscow’s perspective NATO is not only moving east, but encircling Russia.

 

“I don’t think many people understand the visceral way Russia views NATO and the European Union as an existential threat,” says U.S. Admiral Mark Ferguson, commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe.

 

Most NATO members have no interest in starting a fight with Russia, but others sound like they think it wouldn’t be a bad idea. On April 15, Witold Waszczykowski, the foreign minister of Poland’s rightwing government, told reporters that Russia is “more dangerous than the Islamic State,” because Moscow is an “existential threat to Europe.” The minister made his comments at a NATO conference discussing the deployment of a U.S. armored brigade on Poland’s eastern border.

 

Is Russia reneging on arms control agreements? The charge springs from the fact that Moscow has refused to consider cutting more of its nuclear weapons, is boycotting nuclear talks, deploying intermediate range nuclear missiles, and backing off a conventional weapons agreement. But again, Moscow sees all that very differently.

 

From Moscow’s point of view, the U.S. is continuing to spread its network of anti-missile systems in Europe and Asia, which the Russians see as a threat to their nuclear force (as does China). And as far as “reneging” goes, it was the U.S. that dumped the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, not Russia,

 

The U.S. is also pouring billions of dollars into “modernizing” its nuclear weapons. It also proposes using ICBMs to carry conventional warheads (if you see one coming, how do you know it’s not a nuke?), and is planning to deploy high velocity glide vehicles that will allow the U.S. to strike targets worldwide with devastating accuracy. And since NATO is beefing up its forces and marching east, why should the Russians tie themselves to a conventional weapons treaty?

 

What about Russia’s seizure of the Crimea? According to the U.S. State Department, redrawing European boundaries is not acceptable in the 21st century—unless you are Kosovo breaking away from Serbia under an umbrella of NATO air power, in which case it’s fine. Residents of both regions voted overwhelmingly to secede.

 

Georgia? The Georgians stupidly started it.

 

But if Russia is not a threat, then why the campaign of vilification, the damaging economic sanctions, and the provocative military actions?

 

First, it is the silly season—American elections—and bear baiting is an easy way to look “tough.” It is also a tried and true tactic of the U.S. armaments industry to keep their production lines humming and their bottom lines rising. The Islamic State is scary but you don’t need big-ticket weapons systems to fight it. The $1.5 trillion F-35s are for the Russkies, not terrorists.

 

There are also those who still dream of regime change in Russia. Certainly that was in the minds of the neo-cons when they used The National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House to engineer—at the cost of $5 billion—the coup that toppled Ukraine into NATO’s camp. The New American Century gang and their think tanks—who brought you Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria—would love to leverage Russia out of Central Asia.

 

The most frightening aspect of current East-West tension is that there is virtually no discussion of the subject, and when there is it consists largely of distorted history and gratuitous insults. Vladimir Putin might not be a nice guy, but the evidence he is trying to re-establish some Russian empire, and is a threat to his neighbors or the U.S., is thin to non-existent. His 2014 speech at the Valdai International Discussion Club is more common sense than bombast.

 

Expansionist? Russia has two bases in the Middle East and a handful in Central Asia. The U.S. has 662 bases around the world and Special Forces (SOF) deployed in between 70 and 90 countries at any moment. Last year SOFs were active in 147 countries. The U.S. is actively engaged in five wars and is considering a sixth in Libya. Russian military spending will fall next year, and the U.S. will out-spend Moscow by a factor of 10. Who in this comparison looks threatening?

 

There are a number of areas where cooperation with Russia could pay dividends. Without Moscow there would be no nuclear agreement with Iran, and the Russians can play a valuable role in resolving the Syrian civil war. That, in turn, would have a dramatic effect on the numbers of migrants trying to crowd into Europe.

 

Instead, an April 20 meeting between NATO ministers and Russia ended in “profound disagreements” according to alliance head Jens Stoltenberg. Russian ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko said that the continued deployment of armed forces on its borders makes it impossible to have a “meaningful dialogue.”

 

We are baiting the bear, not a sport that ever ends well.

 

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Dispatches 2015 News Awards

Dispatches Awards for 2015

Dispatches From the Edge

Jan. 3, 2016

 

Each year Dispatches From The Edge gives awards to individuals, companies, and governments that make following the news a daily adventure. Here are the awards for 2015

 

The First Amendment Award to U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter for issuing a new Law Of War manual that defines reporters as “unprivileged belligerents” who will lose their “privileged” status by “the relaying of information” which “could constitute taking a direct part in hostilities.” Translation? If you report you are in the same class as members of al-Qaeda.

 

A Pentagon spokesperson said that the military “supports and respects the vital work that journalists perform.” Just so long as they keep what the see, hear, and discover to themselves? Professor of constitutional law Heidi Kitrosser called the language “alarming.”

 

Runner up is the U.S. Military College at West Point for hiring Assistant Professor of Law William C. Bradford, who argues that the military should target “legal scholars” who are critical of the “war on terrorism.” Such critics are “treasonous”, he says. Bradford proposes going after “law school facilities, scholars’ home offices and media outlets where they give interviews.” Bradford also favors attacking “Islamic holy sites,” even if that means “great destruction, innumerable enemy casualties, and civilian collateral damage.”

 

The Little Bo Peep Award for losing track of things goes to the U.S. Defense Department for being unable to account for $35 billion in construction aid to Afghanistan, which is about $14 billion more than the country’s GDP. The U.S. has spent $107.5 billion on reconstruction in Afghanistan, more than the Marshall Plan. Most of it went to private contractors.

 

The Pentagon response to the report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan on the missing funds was to declare that all such information was now classified, because it might provide “sensitive information for those that threaten our forces and Afghan forces.” It has since partially backed off that declaration.

 

While it is only pocket change compared to Afghanistan, the Pentagon also could not account for more than $500 million in military aid to Yemen. The U.S. is currently aiding Saudi Arabia and a number of other Gulf monarchies that are bombing Houthi rebels battling the Yemeni government. Much of that aid was supposed to go for fighting Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), against which the U.S. is also waging a drone war. The most effective foes of AQAP are the Shiite Houthis. So we are supporting the Saudis and their allies against the Houthis, while fighting Al-Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

 

If the reader is confused, Dispatches suggests taking a strong painkiller and lying down.

 

The George Orwell Award For Language goes to the intelligence gathering organizations of the “Five Eyes” surveillance alliance—the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—who changed the words “mass surveillance” to “bulk collection.” The linguistic gymnastics allows the Five to claim that they are not violating Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In the 2000 decision of Amann v. Switzerland, the Court found that it was illegal to store information on an individual’s private life.

 

As investigative journalist Glen Greenwald points out, the name switch is similar to replacing the world “torture” with “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The first is illegal, the second vague enough for interrogators to claim they are not violating the International Convention Against Torture.

 

A runner up is the U.S. Defense Department, which changed the scary title of “Air Sea Battle” to describe the U.S.’s current military doctrine vis-à-vis China, to “Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons.” The Air Sea Battle doctrine calls for bottling up China’s navy, launching missile attacks to destroy command centers, and landing troops on the Chinese mainland. It includes scenarios for the use of nuclear weapons. “Global Commons,” on the other hand, sounds like a picnic on the lawn.

 

The Lassie Come Home Award to the U.S. Marine Corps for creating a 160-pound robot dog that will “enhance the Marine Corps war-fighting capabilities,” according to Captain James Pineiro. Pineiro heads up the Corp’s Warfighting Laboratory at Quantico, Virginia. “We see it as a great potential for the future dismounted infantry.”

 

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is also designing an autonomous fighting robot. Can the Terminator be far off?

 

The Golden Lemon Award goes to Lockheed Martin, the biggest arms manufacturer in the world, which has managed to produce two stunningly expensive weapons systems that don’t work.

 

The F-35 Lighting II is the single most expensive weapons system in U.S. history: $1.5 trillion. It is supposed to replace all other fighter-bomber aircraft in the American arsenal, including the F-15, F-16 and F-18, and will begin deployment in 2016.

 

Slight problem.

 

In dogfights with the three decade-old F-16, the F-35 routinely lost. Because it is heavy and underpowered, it is extremely difficult to turn the plane during air-to-air combat. It has a fancy 25-MM Gatling gun that gets off 3,000 rounds a minute—but the plane can only carry 180 rounds. As one Air Force official put it, “Hope you don’t miss.” Oh, and the software for the gun won’t be out until 2019.

 

And that’s not the only glitch.

 

The F-35 has stealth technology, but its Identification Friend or Foe system is so bad that pilots are required to get a visual confirmation of their target. Not a good idea when the other guys have long-range air-to-air missiles. The $600,000 high-tech helmet the pilot uses to see everything around him often doesn’t work very well, and there isn’t enough room in the cockpit to turn your head. If the helmet goes out, there is no backup landing systems, so maybe you had better eject? Bad idea. The fatality rate for small pilots (those under 139 pounds) at low speeds is 98 percent, not good odds. Larger pilots do better but the changes of a broken neck are still distressingly high.

But it is not just Lockheed Martin’s airplanes that don’t work, neither do its ships.

 

The company’s new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), The Milwaukee, broke down during its recent East Coast tour and had to be towed to Virginia Beach. The LCSs are designed to fight in shallow waters, but a recent Pentagon analysis says the ships would “not be survivable in a hostile combat situation.” The LCSs have been plagued with engine problems and spend more than 50 percent of their time in port being repaired. The program costs $37 billion.

 

And Lockheed Martin, along with Northrop Grumman and Boeing, just got a $58.2 billion contract to build the next generation Long Range Strike Bomber. Sigh.

 

The Great Moments In Democracy Award goes to Jyrki Katainen, Finnish vice-president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the 28-nation European Union. When Greece’s anti-austerity Syriza Party was elected, he commented, “We don’t change policies depending on elections.” So, why is it that people have elections?

 

A close runner up in this category is German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, who denounced Athens’ government for not cracking down on Greeks who can’t pay their taxes. The biggest tax dodger in Greece? That would be the huge German construction company, Hochtief, which has not paid the Value Added Tax for 20 years, nor made its required contributions to social security. Estimates are that the company owes Greece one billion Euros.

 

 

The Ty-D-Bol Cleanup Award to the U.S. State Department for finally agreeing to clean up plutonium contamination, the residue from three hydrogen bombs that fell near the Andalusia town of Palomares in Southern Spain in 1966. The bombs were released when a B-52 collided with an air tanker. While the bombs did not explode—Palomares and a significant section of southern Spain would not exist if they had—they broke open, spreading seven pounds highly toxic plutonium 239 over the area. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years.

 

While there was an initial cleanup, Francisco Franco’s fascist government covered up the incident and played down the dangers of plutonium. But recent studies indicate that there is still contamination, and some of the radioactive materials are degrading into americium, a producer of dangerous gamma radiation.

 

When Spain re-raised the issue in 2011, the U.S. stonewalled Madrid. So why is Washington coming to an agreement now? Quid pro quo: the U.S. wants to base some of its navy at Rota in Southern Spain, and the Marines are setting up a permanent base at Moron de la Frontera.

 

As for nukes, the U.S. is deploying its new B61-12 guided nuclear bomb in Europe. At $11 billion it is the most expensive nuke in the U.S. arsenal. The U.S. will base the B61-12 in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey, a violation of Articles I and II of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Those two articles ban transferring nukes from a nuclear weapon state to a non-nuclear weapon state.

 

Dispatches assumes they will also bring lots of mops and buckets.

 

Buyer Beware Award to the purchasing arm of the U.S. Defense Department that sent dozens of MD-530 attack helicopters to Afghanistan to build up the Afghan Air Force. Except the McDonnell Douglass-made choppers can’t operate above 8,000 feet, which means they can’t clear many of the mountains that ring Kabul. The Afghan capital is at 6,000 feet. It also doesn’t have the range to reach Taliban-controlled areas and, according to the pilots, its guns jam all the time. The Pentagon also paid more than $400 million to give Afghanistan 16 transport plane that were in such bad condition they couldn’t fly. The planes ended up being sold as scrap for $32,000.

 

The Pogo Possum “We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us” Award goes to Defense Intelligence Agency for warning Congress that “Chinese and Russian military leaders…were developing capabilities to deny [the] U.S. use of space in the event of a conflict”. Indeed, U.S. military satellites were jammed 261 times in 2015—by the United States. Asked how many times China and Russia had jammed U.S. signals, Gen. John Hyten, head of the Air Force Space Command replied, “I don’t really know. My guess is zero.”

 

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End To Right’s Reign In Spain?

An End To Right’s Reign In Spain?

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 12, 2015

 

 

“Volatile” seems to be the adjective of choice for pollsters going into the Dec. 20 Spanish elections, a balloting that will likely not only change the face of politics in the European Union’s (EU) fifth largest economy, but one that will have reverberations throughout the 28-nation organization. Long dominated by two parties—the rightwing People’s Party (PP) and the center-left Socialist Workers Party—the political landscape has atomized over the past two years. “For the first time in general elections in Spain,” says Manuel Mostaza Barros of Sigma Dos poll, “We have four parties polling above 15 percent when it comes to voter intentions.”

 

What levers those voters pull is very much up for grabs. Polls indicate that 41 percent of the electorate has yet to make up their minds. But whatever party ends up on top, it will have to go into a coalition, thus ending the reign of the two-party system that has dominated the country since the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

 

The latest polls indicate that the rightwing PP will take a beating, dropping from the 44 percent that it won four years ago to around 28 percent, but it will still win the largest number of votes of any one party. Behind the PP are the Socialists, with close to 21 percent, followed by the center-right Ciudadanos Party at 19 percent, and the left-wing Podemos Party at 15.7 percent.

 

However, with a chunk of the voters yet to make up their minds, “These are the most volatile elections of recent years,” says pollster Mostanza. Pablo Iglesias of Podemos says, “We’re expecting a bumpy ride with political turbulence.”

 

Spain is just beginning to emerge from five years of draconian austerity that drove the national jobless rate to 27 percent, and above 50 percent in the country’s south and among its young people. While growth has finally returned, unemployment is still 22 percent, and far higher for those under 35. The gap between rich and poor has sharply widened, and many workers have lost their modest state support, because they have been jobless for more than two years.

 

The PP’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has been campaigning on a program of ‘stay the course because things are improving.’ The Party’s slogan is “Espana, en serio” (“Spain, seriously”). Opponents have added a question mark to the end of that sentence.

 

It is true that Spain’s economy is growing—3.1 percent in 2015, and projections for 2.7 percent in 2016—but the austerity program had little to do with that turnaround. The fall in the euro’s value has lifted Spain’s export industries, and the precipitous drop of world oil prices—from $114 in 2014 to $35 today—are the major reasons Spain has clawed its way out of recession.

 

Spain’s woes began with the American banking crisis of 2007-08, which crashed Spain’s vast real estate bubble and threatened to bring down its financial system. At the time, Spain had a budget surplus and a modest debt, but speculators drove borrowing rates so high that the country found itself on the edge of default.

 

The Socialists were in power at the time and accepted a “bailout” from the “Troika”—the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. The term “bailout” is a misnomer, since most of the money went to the speculators: German, Dutch, French and English banks. And the “price” the Troika demanded in return was a savage austerity regime that threw Spain into a five year recession, impoverishing millions of its citizen, and driving the jobless rate to over a quarter of the country.

 

However, the Spanish did not go quietly into that good night. Starting in 2011, hundreds of thousands of “indignatos” occupied the plazas of Spain’s great cities, a massive outpouring of rage that eventually led to the formation of Podemos—“We can.” The Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S. was an offshoot of the plaza demonstrations.

 

Podemos shocked the country in 2012 by winning 8 percent of the vote in the European parliamentary elections and eventually polling as high as 24 percent, making it the second largest party in the country. Since then its poll numbers have fallen for a variety of reasons, but it is still likely to win close to 50 seats in the 350-member parliament.

 

There are a number of complicating factors in the upcoming elections, some national, some regional, particularly in the case of Spain’s wealthiest province, Catalonia.

 

The Spanish newspapers and the international media are harping on Podemos’ declining support—some have been hard pressed to dampen their obvious glee—but the 27 percent was always a soft number. Indeed, Podemos activists charge that the figures were deliberately inflated so that when later polls reflected a decline in support, the media could claim that the left party was “out of steam.”

 

The mass media—dominated by Spain’s elites—have been relentless in their attacks, and Podemos, the most resource-poor of the four major parties, has struggled it get its message out. But the party is a grassroots organization, and it knows how to get out the vote. Plus, in last May’s regional elections Podemos-allied candidates were elected mayor in Madrid, Barcelona, Cadiz, Zaragoza and several other cities.

 

Ciudadanos is the wildcard in this election. Originally a Catalan-based party formed to oppose the push for Catalonian independence, it now has a national profile. It is also anti-abortion and anti-immigrant, and its economic policies are closer to the PP than the Socialists, let alone Podemos. It is, however, deeply critical of the PP’s corruption, and generally supports the kind of constitutional changes favored by the more left forces.

 

The Party’s telegenic leader, Albert Rivera, is hard to pin down on anything but Catalonia and taxes: he opposes independence and he wants to cut business taxes. Whether voters will be attracted to the party’s vague centralism remains to be seen.

 

Catalonia is another wildcard. In the Sept. 27 regional election, the pro-independence parties took 47.7 percent of the vote and 72 of the 135 seats in the regional parliament. While pro-independence parties hailed it as a major victory, the PP government in Madrid called it a defeat for the breakaway movement because the independence parties drew less than 50 percent of the voters.

 

Catalonia was conquered by a joint French and Spanish army during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14) and has never quite reconciled itself to rule by Madrid.

 

Podemos took some losses in the Sept. 27 vote, largely because they are caught in the middle. The Party does not want Catalonia to breakaway from Spain, but it also supports the right of the Catalans to hold a referendum to decide the matter. Standing on the sidelines is not a successful formula in polarized Catalonia.

 

Just as it did in the Greek and Portuguese elections, the EU has waded into the Spanish elections. Brussels has showered the PP government with praise, and the Troika has eased up on its austerity demands, allowing the PP to put forth modest spending increases for education and social services. The EU has also warned Catalans that if they break free from Spain, they cannot assume they will be able to maintain their membership in the organization. Similar threats were aimed at Scotland when it was considering breaking free from Great Britain.

 

The EU and the PP have also warned Spaniards that if they don’t support the PP’s economic program, they could end up like Greece. That line of argument didn’t work in last month’s elections in Portugal, where a coalition of center-left forces has taken control despite a massive media campaign warning the Portuguese that failure to support the rightwing government’s austerity policies would lead to ruin and damnation. Images of Greek pensioners lined up at banks flooded television ads.

 

 

But Portugal has now become a model for a center-left takeover. Initially the rightwing coalition claimed that, because it received the largest number of votes, it should continue to rule. The rightwing Portuguese president agreed and re-appointed the old government, a maneuver that lasted a little more than a week, when they were voted out of office by the progressive coalition.

 

The PP’s Rajoy supported the position of the rightist Portuguese government even though it had received only 38 percent of the vote. The final outcome in Lisbon may be a re-run of Portugal: Rajoy gets the most votes of any single party, but not enough to rule.

 

The difference in Spain is Ciudadanos. The Spanish party is much more conservative than the center-left Socialist Party in Portugal, and there is a possibility that it could go into coalition with the PP. That would give a center right government a majority in the parliament.

 

Ciudadanos leaders are coy about their intentions and also a little wary of being swallowed up by the more conservative Popular Party. When the English Liberal Party made a decision to join with the Conservatives, voters punished them in the next election go-around. Ciudadanos leaders are concerned that the same thing could happen to them.

 

Whatever the outcome, nothing is going to be quite the same in Spain after Dec. 20. The rightwing will almost certainly lose its majority, and that, in turn, will crimp Rajoy’s efforts to intimidate the media and criminalize mass demonstrations through the Citizens Security Law that the PP rammed through Parliament. It will also mean a setback for the policies of the Troika. And one hopes, an antidote to the growing strength of racist and xenophobic forces in Europe.

 

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Portugal: The Left Takes Charge

Portugal: The Left Takes Charge

Dispatches From the Edge

Nov. 25, 2015

 

 

After several weeks of political brinkmanship, Portugal’s rightwing president, Anibal Cavaco Silva, finally backed off from his refusal to appoint the leader of a victorious left coalition as prime minister and accept the outcome of the Oct. 4 national elections. Silva’s stand down has ushered in an interesting coalition that may have continent-wide ramifications.

 

Portugal’s elections saw three left parties—the Socialist Party, the Left Bloc, and the Communist/Green Alliance take 62 percent of the vote and end the rightwing Forward Portugal Party’s majority in the 230-seat parliament. Forward Portugal is made up of the Social Democratic Party and the Popular Party.

 

Even though Forward Portugal lost the election—it emerged the largest party, but garnered only 38 percent of the votes—Silva allowed its leader, former Prime Minister Passos Coelho, to form a government. That maneuver lasted just 11 days. When Coelho introduced a budget loaded with austerity measures and privatization schemes, the left alliance voted it down, forcing the government to resign.

 

Rather than giving the left alliance a chance to form a government, however, Silva—a former leader of the Social Democrats—insisted that the alliance pledge in writing that it would maintain the country’s role in NATO and commit itself to euro zone financial rules. Portugal is a member of the 19-country euro zone, those countries in the 28-member European Union that use the euro as a common currency.

 

Silva’s threat was real. While the president’s term only runs until January, the constitution requires a six-month delay between the appointment of a new president and fresh elections. It would have been eight months before the left alliance could take power and roll back some of the more onerous austerity measures that Forward Portugal had installed.

 

In the face of growing outrage and a threatened general strike, however, Silva finally asked Socialist Party leader Antonio Costa to form a government.

 

Portugal is the victim of the great 2008 international banking crisis. At the time, Portugal’s debt was small and its public spending modest, but speculators drove up the price of borrowing beyond what the country’s small economy could manage. Through no fault of its own, Portugal suddenly found itself on the edge of bankruptcy.

 

In 2011, the “Troika”—the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund—lent Portugal $83 billion, but in exchange instituted an austerity regime that raised taxes, slashed education and medical care, cut wages and pensions, and drove 20 percent of the population below the poverty line. The crisis forced almost half a million young people to emigrate, and Portugal ended up with one of the highest income disparities in Europe.

 

The left alliance government is unprecedented in Portugal, where the Communists and the Socialists have locked horns since the 1974 Carnation Revolution overthrew the 48-year old dictatorship. But four years of austerity have apparently convinced everyone on the left that there needs to be some immediate relief.

 

The Communists and the Left Bloc have agreed to temporarily shelve their demands to exit NATO and the euro zone, and the Socialists have agreed to roll back austerity measures, cut taxes, and raise pensions and wages. Privatization will be on hold.

 

There are still major differences within the alliance, however, and not just over dumping the euro and getting out of NATO. The Communists and Left Bloc want debt reduction because much of the country’s encumbrances are the result of private speculators, not profligate public spending. The Socialists did not mention debt reduction during the election and, at least for now, seem committed to repaying all debts.

 

However, the new government is pledged to loosen austerity’s grip and to challenge the Troika’s tight-fisted formula for economic recovery with one based on economic stimulus. If successful, that could model a new strategy for the rest of Europe, where, in spite of years of austerity, economies are still sluggish or in recession.

 

Even in countries that show growth, the rate is relative. Spain, for instance, is growing at a respectable 3 percent, but unemployment is over 20 percent—close to 50 percent for young people—and its gross domestic product has still not reached pre-2008 levels. Wages have declined in nine out of 14 quarters. According to Simon Tilford of the Center for European Reform, Spain’s recovery is not due to austerity, but rather, to low interest rates, the declining value of the euro, and a worldwide fall in oil prices.

 

Certainly the new Portuguese government will not be welcomed by Madrid, where the declining popularity of the rightwing Popular Party’s threatens its control of the Spanish Parliament. It is not unlikely that the Dec. 20 elections in Spain will produce a very similar outcome to Portugal’s: the Popular Party will lose its majority to the center-left Socialist Party and the left Podemos Party. Whether that will result in the kind of coalition that Portugal’s left has stitched together is not clear, in part because the centrist Citizen’s Party is a bit of a wild card and there are complex politics around Catalan independence.

 

However, even if the smaller Spanish parties cannot unite a’ la Portugal, they will put the brakes on the Popular Party’s austerity policies and its push to muzzle the media and curtail mass demonstrations.

 

The Portuguese model may end up having an influence on the rest of the European left, where conversations are going on about how to begin moving the continent away from the policies of the Troika. There are at least two major currents now engaging the left, the so-called “Plan A” and “Plan B.”

 

Plan A—supported by the United European Left/Nordic Green Alliance, the group representing the left parties in the European parliament—calls for democratizing the European Union and the European Central Bank, taxing the rich, raising wages, funding social services, and creating jobs through public investment. Plan A is backed by Spain’s Podemos, Greece’s Syriza, and Germany’s Die Linke (Left Party).

 

Plan B was launched Sept. 11 by five key figures in the European left—Oskar Lafontaine, a former leader of Die Linke, Italian parliamentary deputy Stefano Fassina, Jean-Luc Melenchon of France’s Left Party, and two former Syriza leaders, Zoe Kostntopoulou and Yanis Varoufakis. Plan B is somewhat more nebulous than Plan A, and not everyone who advocates it is on the same page. While it doesn’t contradict Plan A, most of its advocates are not sure the EU is really reformable.

 

According to Liam Flenady of Green Left Weekly, the September call “remains intentionally open to what this Plan B could look like.” For one thing, it comes off sounding a little wonky: “Parallel payment systems, parallel currencies, digitization of euro transactions, community based exchange systems…euro exit and transformation of the euro into a common currency.”

 

Not all of the five left figures are in agreement. Varoufakis, Greece’s former finance minister, is for staying with the euro, while the Italian Fassina is not. No one openly attacks Syriza, but most supported Popular Unity, the anti-euro split from Syriza that failed to win any seats in the last Greek election.

 

A Plan B summit is set for the end of the year.

 

The disagreements between—and within—the plans reflect the enormous complexity of the task facing Europe’s left, including how to present a united front while still searching for solutions that are not obvious. Is trying to democratize the euro zone like teaching a pig to whistle: can’t be done and annoys the pig? Can a country withdraw from a common currency zone without the Troika destroying its economy? Do countries within the euro zone have the right to experiment with different economic strategies?

 

Greece was forced to swallow the Troika’s medicine, in part because Syriza assumed that the Troika was essentially rational and actually interested in resolving the crisis. It was not, because the Troika saw Syriza’s resistance as the precursor to a continent-wide movement against its austerity policies.

 

Portugal is charting a somewhat different path than Syriza. Instead of head-on confrontation, the left is trying to maneuver while strengthening its base by improving people’s lives. Disagreements will eventually surface—hardly an unhealthy thing—but the Portuguese alliance has decided to kick that can down the road.

 

On Nov. 20, the Portuguese united left used its majority to approve a law allowing same sex couples to legally adopt children and permit lesbians to obtain medically assisted fertilization. That little act hardly shakes the foundation of the EU, and one doubts it caused the Troika to tremble. But suddenly Portugal is a little bit kinder place than it was a month ago.

 

Small things can lead to big things.

 

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Turkey’s Election Turmoil

Turkey’s Election Turmoil

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 18, 2015

 

As Turkey gears up for one of the most important elections in its recent history, the country appears, as one analyst noted, to be coming apart at the “seams”:

 

*Longstanding tensions with the country’s Kurdish population have broken out into open war.

 

*A Kurdish-led left political party is under siege by rightwing nationalists and the terrorist organization, the Islamic Front.

 

*Independent journalists have been attacked by mobs led by leading members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

 

*Erdogan, his family, and leading figures in the AKP have been entangled in several major corruption schemes.

 

*The economy has stalled, inflation is on the rise, unemployment is at a five year high, tourism is tanking, and the Turkish lira is plunging, driving up the national debt.

 

All Turkey lacks these days is a rain of frogs and rivers of blood, but there is still time before Nov. 1 election.

 

Some of these plagues are long standing, but most are the direct result of Erdogan’s determination to reverse the outcome of last June’s election that saw the AKP lose control of the parliament, and the President’s grand plan for an all-powerful executive—run by him—died aborning.

 

In the June 7 election, Erdogan’s AKP lost its absolute majority in the legislature. The defeat was mainly due to a breakthrough by the Kurdish-led, leftist, People’s Democratic Party (HDP) that took 13.1 percent of the vote and won 80 seats, seats that in the past usually went to the AKP.

 

Almost before the final tallies were announced, Erdogan moved to prevent the formation of a government and force another election. Key to this has been an all-out campaign to suppress the HDP and prevent the party from getting at least 10 percent of the vote, the required threshold for representation

 

And in true Old Testament fashion, he has unleashed the furies.

 

First, he ended negotiations and a two-year old ceasefire with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and began bombing Kurds in Syria and Iraq. He also charged that the HDP was a front for the PKK and demanded that the HDP’s dynamic leader, Selahattin Demirtas, be charged with supporting terrorism. HDP offices have been targeted by rightwing nationalist mobs from the AKP and the extreme rightist National Action Party.

 

Several anti-Erdogan newspapers and magazines were also set upon, attacks that the government either ignored or belatedly condemned.

 

The kind of suicide bombings that plague much of the Middle East have made an appearance. Some 32 leftist Kurdish activists were killed July 20 in the border town of Suruc, and on Oct. 10 a peace demonstration in Ankara organized by the HDP was bombed, killing more than 100 people and wounding hundreds more.

 

While the culprit in both cases was likely the Islamic State, paranoia is running rampant these days. Turkish Prime Minster Ahmet Davutoglu blamed the PKK—extremely improbable, given that the rally was protesting the war against the Kurds—and HDP leader Demirtas blamed the government. Others charge it was the work of the National Action Party’s “Gray Wolves,” a shadowy death squad that killed thousands of Kurds and leftists in the 1980s and ‘90s.

 

Not only did the government remain silent for several days after the massacre, Turkish security forces broke up memorial demonstrations in Ankara and Istanbul.

 

A decade ago, Turkey was at peace with its neighbors, its economy was humming, democracy was flowering, the country’s coup-minded military relegated to the barracks, and the 40-year war with its Kurdish population appeared to be over. Turkey, with its efforts to find a peaceful solution to the nuclear crisis with Iran, had also become an international player.

 

Today, Turkey is engaged in an unpopular war in Syria, its economy is troubled, its people are polarized, its relationships with Egypt and Israel are hostile, the Kurdish peace is shattered, and democracy is under siege. It has alienated Russia, Iraq and Iran, and even failed to get re-elected to the UN Security Council.

 

What happened?

 

Much of it goes back to the man who has dominated Turkish politics these past 12 years, and who would like to run the country for another decade, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He bears limited responsibility for some of this. For instance, the economy is bad, but so are most economies worldwide. But much of what has happened in Turkey—for good and bad—is in large part due to his creation of a moderate Islamic regime that curbed the power of the military and the secular elites who had dominated Turkish politics since the nation’s foundation in 1923.

 

Erdogan and his allies—allies he has since fallen out with—reined in a military that had carried out four coups since 1960. He also made peace with the Kurds, ending a war that took 40,000 lives and cost $1.2 trillion. A side benefit for that was that many rural and religious Kurds migrated into the AKP, giving it a significant edge over all other parties in the parliament.

 

But things began to go off the rails in 2010, when the Arab Spring took the Middle East by storm and Turkey made two fateful steps: backing insurgents trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The first step trapped Ankara in a quagmire, wrecking its relations with Russia, Iraq and Iran, and the second was a bad bet: the Egyptian military, bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, overthrew the Brotherhood in 2013.

 

It is all this sturm und drang that makes these elections so critical for the AKP, and Erdogan in particular. A failure to win an outright majority will be seen as a repudiation of the Kurdish war, Ankara’s Syria policy, and may resurrect the corruption changes that the AKP has managed to dodge so far. “For him, this is existential,” one former Turkish official told the Financial Times. “There is still accountability in this country and he knows it.”

 

This “existential” nature of the Nov. 1 vote is the reason why Erdogan has pulled out all the stops, but polls show that the outcome is likely to be much like last June’s election. The AKP may pick up a percentage point or two, but it will fall far short of the majority it requires to push through its constitutional changes and create an all-powerful presidency.

 

The polls also show that Erdogan’s major pre-election target, the HDP, may do slightly better this time around, in part because he has totally alienated the Kurdish community. The Kurds make up 20 percent of the population and about 17 to 18 percent of the voting population.

 

If the polls are correct, Turkey will have a divided government, and that will create its own dangers.

 

First, there are the President’s increasingly authoritarian stratagy.

 

Erdogan, for instance, says he is no longer bound by the constitution because he is the first directly elected president in Turkish history. He won that post with 52 percent of the vote in 2014. Presidents are normally appointed by the parliament and are supposed to be non-partisan. Abdurrahim Boynukalin, the leader of the AKP’s youth wing and a deputy in the parliament, said recently that, “Whatever the results of the election on November 1, we will make him [Erdogan] the leader.”

 

Second, the AKP may form an alliance with the ultra-rightwing National Action Party, which would almost certainly mean an escalation of the war against the Kurds and put into positions of power an organization that celebrates violence and is openly contemptuous of democracy. While the merger would still not give the AKP the 400 seat super majority it needs to amend the constitution, it would have a chilling effect on political activity.

 

There is also the possibility of a “grand coalition” government with the secular People’s Republican Party, the second largest in the parliament. But that would require sharing power, not one of Erdogan’s strong suits.

 

There are, however, strong counter-trends.

 

In spite of Erdogan’s flirtation with authoritarian rule, Turkey is still a democracy, and its military shows no interest in intervening in civil affairs. Indeed, there is some unrest in the military over the Kurdish war, and the government has been denounced at several military funerals. The military has also made it quite clear that they have no interest in getting involved in the Syrian civil war.

 

Erdogan calculated that re-igniting the Kurdish war would unite the country behind him, but it has not turned out that way, and his international allies are lukewarm about the whole endeavor. While saying that Turkey had the right to defend itself, The Europeans and the U.S. call for a “proportional” response, not the massive bombing Ankara has launched on Kurds in Northern Iraq and Syria.

 

Of course, the allies discomfort is a reflection of the fact that while the AKP government draws no distinction between the Islamic State (IS), the PKK, and the latter’s Syrian offshoot, the Kurdish Democratic Union, the allies consider the Kurds their most reliable and effective forces against the IS. The Turks recently complained to Russia and the U.S. about their arming of Syrian Kurds, a complaint that neither country is likely to pay much attention to.

 

The Syria war has been a disaster for Erdogan. Some 63 percent of Turks oppose the AKP’s Syria policy, and only 20 percent back overthrowing Assad. Over 65 percent oppose one of Erdogan’s fixations, the formation of a buffer zone inside Syria.

 

And, while in the past the AKP can say it delivered on the economic front that is a hard sell these days.

 

The next few weeks will be fraught with danger. The AKP and the ultra-nationalists will try to suppress the vote, particular in Istanbul and the Kurdish east and south. The PKK declared a ceasefire for the election, but the Turkish government has ignored it. Will Erdogan use the war as an excuse to cancel the election in the Kurdish regions?

 

Erdogan may even refuse to accept the results of the election if the AKP does poorly, and he has already demonstrated his willingness to use violence. His brutal crushing of the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations is a case in point.

 

But Erdogan can no longer claim the support of a majority of the Turks, and what he does internally will be watched closely by the international community, focused as it is on the refugee crisis that the Syrian war has generated.

 

In less than two weeks, the Turks will vote in an election that will have major regional and international implications. Its outcome may decide whether the Middle East slides deeper into war and chaos, or begins to move in the direction that the Arab Spring originally envisioned.

 

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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?

 

 

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Turkey’s Election Earthquake

Turkish Election Earthquake

Dispatches From The Edge

June 11, 2015

 

Among the many things behind the storm that staggered Turkey’s ruling party in last week’s elections, a disastrous foreign policy looms large. But a major factor behind the fall of the previously invincible Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a grassroots revolt against rising poverty, growing inequality and the AKP’s war on trade unions.

 

On the eve of the election, the government’s Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK) found that 22.4 percent of Turkish households fell below the official poverty line of $1,626 a month for a family of four. The country’s largest trade union organization, TURK-IS, which uses a different formula for calculating poverty levels based on incomes below the minimum monthly wage—$118—argues that nearly 50 percent of the population is at, or near, the poverty line.

 

Figures show that while national income has, indeed, risen over the past decade, much of it has gone to the wealthy and well connected. When the AKP came to power in 2002, the top 1 percent accounted for 39 percent of the nation’s wealth. Today that figure is 54 percent. In the meantime, credit card debt has increased 25 fold, from 222 million liras in 2002 to 5.8 billion liras today

 

In 2001, Turkey was in a serious economic crisis, with the unemployment rate at 10.8 percent. Today 11.3 percent are out of work, and that figure is much higher among young people and women. TUIK estimates that over 3 million Turks are jobless, but at least another 2.5 million have given up looking for jobs. The total size of the Turkish workforce is 28 million.

 

Women have been particularly hard hit. Over 227,000 women have been laid off this past year, a higher percentage than men. According to Aysen Candas of the Social Political Forum of Bogazici University, the “situation of women is just horrible.”

 

While the average rate of employment for women in the 34 countries that make up the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development is between 62 and 63 percent, in Turkey it is 25 percent. According to Candas, in access to jobs, political participation and economic power, Turkish women rank near the bottom of the 126 countries the Bogazici University study examined.

 

Turkish workers have seen their unions dismantled under the AKP government, and many have lost collective bargaining rights. According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, unionized workers have fallen from 57.5 percent of the workforce in 2003 to 9.68 percent today. And, of those unionized workers, only 4.5 percent have collective bargaining agreements. Add to this police repression, the widespread use of the subcontracting system, and a threshold of 3 percent to organize a new union, and there are few barriers to stop employers from squeezing their workforce.

 

In comparison, Sweden has a unionization rate of 67.7 percent, Finland 69 percent, Italy 35.6 percent and Greece 28.7 percent.

 

In the last election, the leftwing People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and the social democratic People’s Republican Party (CHP) pounded away at the AKP’s record on poverty and union rights. “During its 12-year rule, the Justice and Development Party has curbed all labor rights though laws that are unlawful, siding with the capitalist class,” CHP parliamentarian Suleyman Celebi told Al-Monitor. “It has besieged workers from all sides, from their right to strike and collective bargain, to their right of choosing their trade unions. The rights of tens of thousands of subcontracted workers have been flouted despite court rulings.”

 

Erdogan has increasingly come under criticism for relying on force to deal with opponents, like the crushing of Istanbul’s Gezi park demonstrations in 2013. And his drive to change the constitution from a parliamentary system to an American-style powerful executive apparently did not sit will with the majority of Turks.

 

The AKP’s bread and butter has always been bread and butter: it handed out free coal, food, and financial aid to the poor, but as economic disparity grew and unemployment climbed, it was the Left that seized upon those themes, forcing Erdogan to defend spending $615 million plus for his lavish, 1,000 room presidential palace, and his $185 million presidential airplane.

 

With the economy in the doldrums, the AKP fell back on foreign policy and Islam.

 

“Islamization” has been a major AKP theme, but one that may have misfired in this election. A recent book by Turkish scholar Volkan Erit argues that Turkey is becoming less religious and more secular, particularly among the young. In any case, religion did not trump Turkey’s growing international and regional isolation, Erdogan’s fixation with the war in Syria, or his sudden reversal on making peace with the Kurds.

 

He refused to come to the aid of the besieged Syrian Kurds at Kobane last year, and his back peddling on a peace agreement with Turkey’s Kurds alienated even conservative Kurds, who abandoned the AKP and voted for the leftwing HDP.

 

A corruption scandal that implicated several of Erdogan’s family members also hurt the AKP’s image and caused some foreign investors to pull back, further damaging the economy.

 

And as far as the AKP’s foreign policy goes, what was once a strength is now a liability.

 

In the past four years Turkey has gone from a regional peace maker—“zero problems with neighbors” was the slogan that wags have since changed to “zero neighbors without problems”— to odd man out, so isolated that it lost out to Venezuela in a bid for a UN Security Council seat.

 

It is not talking with Egypt, has an icy relationship with Iran, is alienated from Iraq, at war with Syria, and not on the best of terms with Russia and China. In fact its only real allies in the Middle East are the Gulf Monarchies, although in an indirect way it is teaming up with Israel to overthrow the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

 

The AKP has tried to make this isolation into a virtue—Erdogan’s chief foreign policy advisor Ibnahim Kalin called it “precious loneliness”—but voters saw it less as a virtue than as alienation.

 

Its exports are down sharply because it has estranged its leading trade partners Iran and Iraq, and, by choosing the losing side in the Libyan civil war, it is out $28 billion in Libyan construction contracts. Its plans for expanding into sub-Saharan Africa are now on hold, and Libya owes Turkey $5 billion, money it is not likely to see in the near future.

 

The Syrian war is not popular with the average Turk and, with the influx of some two million refugees from that conflict, less so by the day. The Turkish Army opposes any involvement in Syria, because it sees nothing ahead but a quagmire that would ally Turkey with the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front.

 

In short, the AKP lost the election because almost 60 percent of the Turks opposed its domestic and foreign policies.

 

What happens now, however, is tricky, and not a little dangerous.

 

The AKP took a beating, dropping from 49.8 percent to 40.8 percent, and losing 53 seats in the parliament. Not only did the Party not get their magic 330 seats that would allow Erdogan to change the constitution, at 258 seats the AKP needs a coalition partner to rule.

 

They are not likely to find one on the Left.

 

The Leftwing HDP—formerly largely a Kurdish-based party—shattered the 10 percent ceiling to serve in the Parliament, taking 13.1 percent of the vote and electing 79 representatives. The HDP’s breakthrough came about because the Party allied itself with other Left and progressive parties in 2012—much as Syriza did in Greece—and campaigned on an openly left program.

 

Led by the dynamic Selahattin Demirtas, its candidates included many women, as well as gays and lesbians. Some 40 percent of HDP’s parliamentarians will be women and openly gay candidates will serve in the new Grand Assembly. “We, the oppressed people of Turkey who want justice, peace and freedom, have achieved a tremendous victory today,” Demirtas said in the election’s aftermath.

 

The AKP’s traditional opponent, the social democratic CHP, came in at 25.9 percent, a slight improvement over 2014, and an increase of seven seats. The Party now has 132 representatives in Parliament.

 

The danger comes from the performance of the right-wing National Action Party (MHP), which won 16.9 percent of the vote and picked up 28 seats. It now has the same number of seats as the HDP. The MHP is sometimes called “The Gray Wolves” after a neo-fascist hit squad that routinely assassinated left-wingers, academics and Kurds in the 1970s and ‘80s, and still has a shadowy presence in Turkey. The MHP claims it supports parliamentary rule, but the party’s commitment to democracy is suspect.

 

At this point the MHP’s leader Devlet Bahceli says he has no interest in a coalition with the AKP, but the authoritarian streak that runs through both parties might just bring them together. If they do unite, peace with the Kurds will vanish, and engaging in internal dissent will be an increasingly risky business.

 

But Turkey has tamed its formally coup-obsessed military, gone through several elections and, in spite of setbacks like Gezi Park, is a democratic country. It is also one that is in trouble at home and abroad, problems that the Right is notoriously bad at solving, but for which the Left has programmatic solutions.

 

It may be that the parties will deadlock, in which case new elections will have to held. In the meantime, the Turkish lira is at a record low, the stock market has tumbled 8 percent, and neither the economic crisis nor the foreign policy debacles are going away. Stay tuned, the future of a major player is in the balance.

 

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