Category Archives: Iran

Turkish Leader’s Election Woes

Turkey’s Leader’s Election Woes

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 12, 2019

 

“Democracy is like a tram; you get off when you have reached your destination.” The comment by Recep Tayyip Erdogan—made more than 20 years ago when he was first elected mayor of Istanbul—sums up the Machiavellian cynicism of Turkey’s authoritarian president. As Turkey gears up for municipal elections March 31, it is a prophecy Erdogan has more than fulfilled: the prisons filled with the opposition, the media largely silenced, the courts intimidated, the bureaucracy tamed, and more than 150,000 people fired.

 

But for all that, there are dark clouds on the horizon, much of them largely of the President’s own making. And since it is traditional for the Turkish electorate to use local elections to send a message, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) may be in for a setback.

 

For one thing, the AKP’s bread and butter issue, the economy, is in trouble, and maybe very serious trouble. Industrial production has fallen 6 percent and retail sales 7 percent, and overall growth has dropped from 7.4 percent in 2017 to a projected 2 percent in 2019. Inflation is at 20.3 percent and unemployment is accelerating. The most recent figures show that more than 11 percent are out of work, with almost twice that for young people age 15 to 24, who constitute some 20 percent of Turkey’s population.

 

In the past “terrorism” was the major concern for voters, but recent polls indicate that the economy is the number one issue, followed by unemployment and Syrian refugees.

 

Erdogan constructed his election juggernaut on economic growth that lifted a considerable section of the population out of poverty and fueled a major growth of the middle class. Much of that economy was centered on the construction industry and mega-projects like shopping malls, bridges and the largest airport in the world.

 

For Erdogan an economy built around massive projects was a win-win formula: the AKP handed out lucrative contracts to big construction firms, which, in turn, filled the electoral coffers of a party that went from the margins of the political spectrum to at one point winning almost 50 percent of the electorate.

 

But growth fell to an anemic 1.6 percent in the third quarter of last year, and the construction industry is in a recession, with large layoffs almost certain. The crisis of the building trades has had a domino effect on allied industries in cement, steel and ceramics. And the combination of the lira’s fall in value, coupled with the economic insecurity people are feeling, has depressed sales in the automotive industry, electronics and appliances,

 

The Turkish economy has long been reliant on foreign capital—so-called “hot money”— to keep the factories humming and living standards rising. But hot money is drying up and the bills are coming due. Since much of Turkey’s debt is in foreign currency, it is harder to pay off those debts with a depressed lira. Ankara has opened talks with the International Monetary Fund to explore a bailout, but IMF bailouts come with a price tag: austerity, not exactly a winning electoral program.

 

While much of Erdogan’s political opposition has been jailed or sidelined, it has not been cowed. In spite of nine parliamentary deputies from the Kurdish-based left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP) being imprisoned, that party still managed to get enough votes in the last election to hold their spot as the third largest party in the parliament. A hunger strike by imprisoned Kurdish activists has also generated sympathy for the HDP, and for the first time in Turkish history many of the Kurdish parties have formed a united front.

 

The HDP has also decided not to run candidates for the mayoralties of the big cities like Istanbul and Ankara, in order to help elect candidates from the secular center-right Republican People’s Party (CHP). In short, anyone but the AKP.

 

The AKP used to get a substantial number of Kurdish votes, particularly from conservative rural areas. But when Erdogan launched a crackdown on the Kurds in an effort to marginalize the HDP, he lost many of those voters. While not all of them have migrated to the left party, they have shifted their votes to other Kurdish parties, now united under the Kurdistani Election Alliance.

 

There is a certain amount of irony here. In an effort to make sure the AKP’s ally, the extreme rightwing National Action Party (MHP) made it into Parliament, Erdogan rammed through a law that allows parties form electoral alliances. Even if a party doesn’t reach the 10 percent threshold required to enter parliament, it will still win seats if it is allied with a bigger party.

 

But what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

 

The CHP has formed an alliance with the nationalist Iti (“Good”) Party, and most of the Kurdish parties are under one umbrella. It is likely that those alliances will end up winning seats that they wouldn’t have under the old rules.

 

Besides domestic woes, Erdogan’s foreign policy is hardly a major success. The Turkish occupation of northern Syria has failed to scatter the Kurdish-based Syrian Democratic Forces, and it looks increasingly like Ankara has stumbled into a quagmire. Erdogan’s plan was to drive the Kurds out and re-populate the area with Syrian refugees. Instead he is in a standoff with the Russians and the Americans, and, to protect themselves, the Kurds appear to be cutting a deal with the government of Bashar al-Assad.

 

There is a strong streak of nationalism among the Turks, and Erdogan may yet harvest it by pressing the Kurds in Turkey’s southeast, Iraq and Syria. But the Turkish army is overextended and still reeling from the purge of officers and rank and file that followed the failed 2016 coup. And there are credible reports that the military is not overly happy with occupying part of Syria.

 

The Turkish President did score points in his battle with Saudi Arabia over the kingdom’s murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as with his support for Kuwait and Qatar in their dispute with the United Arab Emirates and the Saudis. His willingness to resist US sanctions against Iran is also popular, because it means trade and a lift for Turkey’s ailing economy.

 

However, the March vote is not likely to turn on foreign policy, but rather on pocket book issues like unemployment and the wobbling economy. Erdogan is doing his best to head off any unrest over the economy by handing out low-interest loans and giveaways, like paying electrical bills for economically stressed families.

 

The opposition also claims that the AKP alliance is stuffing the rolls with non-existent voters. HDP investigators found that one house in Hakkari in the Kurdish southeast has 1,108 registered voters.

 

But Turkish agriculture is a mess, and construction and manufacturing are staggering under an enormous debt load. Erdogan has used the power of the state to hobble his opposition, but the state of emergency is alienating foreign investors and many Turks are increasingly weary of it.

 

In the 2017 referendum that bestowed almost unlimited executive powers on Erdogan, he lost Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, Turkey’s largest cities. A recent poll showed support for the AKP had dropped from 42.5 percent the Party got in the 2018 election to 35 percent today.

 

After 17 years of power, after using every device he could—including stuffing ballot boxes—to build a powerful executive system orbiting around him, it is hard to imagine Erdogan suffering a set back. But tossing people in prison and intimidating opposition has had little effect on repairing the economy or raising living standards. And many Turks may be souring on the “destination” that Erdogan has brought them to, and they could well decide to send that message on March 31.

 

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Iran: The Drift Toward War

Edging Toward War With Iran?

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 1, 2019

 

 

Keeping track of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is like trying to track a cat on a hot tin roof: We’re pulling out of Syria (not right away). We’re leaving Afghanistan (sometime in the future). Mexico is going to pay for a wall (no, it isn’t). Saudi Arabia, Russia, the European Union, China, Turkey, North Korea—one day, friends, another day, foes. Even with a scorecard, it’s hard to tell who’s on first.

 

Except for Iran, where a policy of studied hostility has been consistent from the beginning. Late last year, National Security Advisor John Bolton pressed the Pentagon to produce options for attacking Iran, and he has long advocated for military strikes and regime change in Teheran. And now, because of a recent internal policy review on the effect of US sanctions, Washington may be is drifting closer to war.

 

According to “On Thin Ice,” a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), the Trump administration has concluded that its “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions has largely failed to meet any of the White House’s “goals” of forcing Iran to re-negotiate the 2015 nuclear agreement or alter its policies in the Middle East.

 

While the sanctions have damaged Iran’s economy, the Iranians have proved to be far more nimble in dodging them than Washington allowed for. And because the sanctions were unilaterally imposed, there are countries willing to look for ways to avoid them.

 

“If you look at the range of ultimate objectives” of the administration, from encouraging “protests that pose an existential threat to the system, to change of behavior, to coming back to the negotiating table, none of that is happening,” Ali Vaez of the ICG’s Iran Project, told Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor.

 

That should hardly come as a shock. Sanctions rarely achieve their goals and virtually never when they are imposed by one country, even one as powerful as the US. More than 50 years of sanctions aimed at Cuba failed to bring about regime change, and those currently aimed at Russia have had little effect beyond increasing tensions in Europe.

 

This time around, the US is pretty much alone. While the Trump administration is preparing to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear agreement—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the European Union (EU) is lobbying Iran to stay in the pact. Russia, China, Turkey and India have also made it clear that they will not abide by the US trade sanctions, and the EU is setting up a plan to avoid using dollars.

 

But the failure of the White House’s sanctions creates its own dangers because this is not an American administration that easily accepts defeat. On top of that, there is a window of opportunity for striking Iran that will close in a year, making an attack more complicated.

 

The nuclear agreement imposed an arms embargo on Iran, but if Teheran stays in the agreement, that embargo will lift in 2020, allowing the Iranians to buy weapons on the international market. Beefing up Iran’s arms arsenal would not do much to dissuade the US, but it might give pause to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates (UAE), two of Teheran’s most implacable enemies.

 

It is not clear who would be part of a coalition attack on Iran. Saudi Arabia and the UAE would almost certainly be involved, but that pair hardly has the Iranians quaking in their boots. The rag-tag Houthi army has fought the two Gulf monarchies to a standstill in Yemen, in spite of not having any anti-aircraft to challenge the Saudi air war.

 

Iran is a different matter. Its Russian built S-300 anti-aircraft system might not discomfort the US and the Israelis, but Saudi and UAE pilots could be at serious risk. Once the embargo is lifted, Iran could augment its S-300 with planes and other anti-aircraft systems that might make an air war like the one the Gulf monarchs are waging in Yemen very expensive.

 

Of course, if the US and/or Israel join in, Iran will be hard pressed. But as belligerent as Bolton and the Israeli government are toward Iran, would they initiate or join a war?

 

Such a war would be unpopular in the US. Some 63 percent of Americans oppose withdrawing from the nuclear agreement and by a margin of more than two to one, oppose a war with Iran. While 53 percent oppose such a war—37 percent strongly so—only 23 percent would support a war with Iran. And, of those, only 9 percent strongly support such a war.

 

The year 2020 is also the next round of US elections where control of the Senate and the White House will be in play. While wars tend to rally people to the flag, the polls suggest a war with Iran is not likely to do that. The US would be virtually alone internationally, and Saudi Arabia is hardly on the list of most American’s favorite allies.

 

And it is not even a certain that Israel would join in, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls Iran an “existential threat.” Polls show that the Israeli public is hardly enthusiastic about a war with Iran, particularly if the US is not involved.

 

The Israeli military is more than willing to take on Iranian forces in Syria, but a long-distance air war would get complicated. Iraq and Lebanon would try to block Israel from using their airspace to attack Iran, as would Turkey. The first two countries might not be able to do much to stop the Israelis, but flying over a hostile country is always tricky, particularly if you have to do it for an extended period of time. And anyone who thinks the Iranians are going to toss in the towel is delusional.

 

Of course Israel has other ways to strike Iran, including cruise missiles deployed on submarines and surface craft. But you can’t win a war with cruise missiles, you just blow a lot of things up.

 

There are deep fissures among the Gulf monarchs. Qatar has already said that it will have nothing to do with an attack on Iran, and Oman is neutral. Kuwait has signed a military cooperation agreement with Turkey because the former is more worried about Saudi Arabia than it is Iran, and with good reason.

 

A meeting last September of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emir Sabah Al-Sabah of Kuwait to discuss problems between the two countries apparently went badly. The two countries are in a dispute over who should exploit their common oil fields at Khafji and Wafra, and the Saudis unilaterally stopped production. The Kuwaitis say they lost $18 billion revenues and want compensation.

 

The bad blood between the two countries goes back to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, when Saudi Arabia refused to accept the borders that the British drew for Kuwait and instead declared war. In 1922 the border was re-drawn with two-thirds of Kuwait’s territory going to Saudi Arabia.

 

Lebanese legal scholar, Ali Mourad, told Al-Monitor that Kuwait has tightened its ties to Turkey because “they are truly afraid of a Saudi invasion,” especially given “the blank check Trump has issued” to Prince Salman.

 

Whether Kuwait’s embrace of Turkey will serve as a check on the Saudis is uncertain. Prince Salman has made several ill-considered moves in the region, from trying to overthrow the government of Lebanon, blockading Qatar, to starting a war with Yemen. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are currently at odds over the latter’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, probably the only thing that the Saudi princes hate more than Iran.

 

Would—or could—Ankara really defend Kuwait from a Saudi attack? Turkey is currently bogged down in Northern Syria, at war with its own Kurdish population, and facing what looks like a punishing recession. Its army is the second largest in NATO, and generally well armed, but it has been partly hollowed out by purges following the 2015 coup attempt.

 

So is US National Security Advisor Bolton just blowing smoke when he talks about regime change in Iran? Possibly, but it is a good idea to take the neo-conservatives at their word. The US will try to get Iran to withdraw from the nuclear pact by aggressively tightening the sanctions. If Teheran takes the bait, Washington will claim the legal right to attack Iran.

 

Bolton and the people around him engineered the catastrophes in Afghanistan and Iraq (the Obama administration gets the blame for Libya and Yemen), and knocking out Iran has been their long time goal. If they pull it off, the US will ignite yet another forever war.

 

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Are You Serious ? Awards for 2018

“Are You Serious?” Awards 2018

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan 1, 2019

 

 

Each year Dispatches From The Edge gives awards to individuals, companies and governments that makes reading the news a daily adventure. Here are the awards for 2018

 

The Golden Sprocket Wrench Award to Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest arms manufacturer, for its F-22 Raptor Stealth fighter, a fifth-generation interceptor said to be the best in the world. That is when it works, which is not often. When Hurricane Michael swept through Florida this fall, 17 Raptors—$339 million apiece—were destroyed or badly damaged. How come the Air Force didn’t fly those F-22s out of harm’s way? Because the Raptor is a “hanger queen”— loves the machine shop. Less than 50 percent of the F-22 fleet is functional at any given moment. The planes couldn’t fly, so they got trashed at a cost to taxpayers of around $5 billion.

 

Lockheed Martin also gets an Oak Leaf Cluster for its F-35 Lightning II fighter, at $1.5 trillion the most expensive weapon system in U.S. history. Some 200 F-35s are not considered “combat capable,” and may never be, because the Pentagon would rather buy new planes than fix the ones it has. That may cost taxpayers $40 billion.

 

The F-22s and F-35s also have problems with their oxygen systems, but no one can figure out why.

 

However, both planes did get into combat. According to Vice Admiral Scott Stearney, the F-35 achieved “tactical supremacy” over the Taliban (which doesn’t have an air force). The F-22, the most sophisticated stealth fighter in the world, took on Afghan drug dealers.

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As for Lockheed Martin, the company was just awarded an extra $7 billion for F-22 “sustainment.”

 

 

The Golden Parenting Award to the U.S. State Department for trying to water down a resolution by the UN’s World Health Assembly encouraging breast feeding over infant formula. A Lancet study found that universal breast-feeding would prevent 800,000 infant deaths a year, decrease ear infections by 50 percent and gastrointestinal disease by 64 percent. It lowers the risk for Type 1 diabetes, two kinds of leukemia, sudden infant death syndrome and asthma. It also makes for healthier mothers.

 

In contrast, infant formula—a $70 billion industry dominated by a few American and European companies—is expensive and not nearly as healthy for children as breast milk.

 

When Ecuador tried to introduce the breast-feeding resolution, the U.S. threatened it with aid cuts and trade barriers. Several other Latin American countries were also threatened and quickly withdrew their names from a list of endorsers. Finally, Russia stepped in and introduced the resolution. The measure finally passed, but the U.S. successfully lobbied to remove language urging the World Health Organization to challenge “inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children.”

 

So apparently the White House is fine with silicon in breasts, just not milk.

 

The Golden Cuisine Award to Ron Colburn, president of the U.S. Border Patrol Foundation, who told Fox & Friends that the tear gas used on migrants at the U.S. border was not harmful, because pepper spray was a “natural” product that “you could actually put on your nachos and eat it.”

 

The Marie Antoinette Award has two winners this year:

 

* Nikki Haley, retiring U.S. Ambassador to the UN, who blasted Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) for supporting the UN’s Special Rapporteur report on poverty in the US that found tens of millions of Americans suffer “massive levels of deprivation.” In a letter to Sanders, Haley said it was “patently ridiculous” for the UN to even look at poverty in the US, because it is “the wealthiest and freest country in the world.”

 

In a response, Sanders pointed out that while this country is indeed the wealthiest in the world, it is also one of the most unequal. “Some 40 million people still live in poverty, more than 30 million have no health insurance, over half of older workers have no retirement savings, 140 million Americans are struggling to pay for basic living expenses, 40 percent of Americans cannot afford a $400 emergency, and millions of Americans are leaving school deeply in debt.”

 

* US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, who expressed surprise that the people attending the World Economic Forum in the resort town of Davos, Switzerland were considered elite. “I didn’t realize it was the global elite.”

 

Basic membership in the Forum costs more than $70,000, and getting to the event by helicopter or car is expensive, as are accommodations. There also numerous glittering parties hosted by celebrities like Bono and Leonardo DiCaprio. But those parties can have a sharp edge: one had attendees crawl on their hands and knees to feel what is like to flee an army.

 

The Golden Matthew 19:14 Award (“Suffer the little children”) to Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen for threatening to seize the children of poor people if parents commit crimes or fail to teach children “Danish values.” The parliament has designated 25 “ghetto” areas—Denmark’s term—which Muslim immigrants are crowded into. Families living in “ghettos” must send their children—starting at age 1—to schools for 25 hours a week where they are taught about Christmas, Easter and the Danish language. Failure to do so can result in a welfare cutoff. Proposals are also being considered to double prison sentences for anyone from a “ghetto” convicted of a crime, and a four year prison sentence for parents who send their children back to their home countries to learn about their cultures. The neo-fascist People’s Party, part of the governing coalition, proposed forcing all “ghetto” children to wear electronic ankle bracelets and be confined to their homes after 8 PM. The measure was tabled.

 

Runners up are:

 

* The British Home Office, which, according to a report by the House of Lords, is using children for undercover operations against drug dealers, terrorists and criminal gangs. “We are concerned that enabling a young person to participate in covert activity for an extended period of time may expose them to increased risk in their mental and physical welfare” the Lord’s report concluded.

 

* The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for placing Dr. Ruth Etzel, head of Children’s Health Protection, on administrative leave and derailing programs aimed at reducing children’s exposure to lead, pesticides, mercury and smog. Etzel was pressing to tighten up regulations because children are more sensitive to pollutants than adults. A leader in children’s environmental health for more than 30 years, Etzel was asked for her badge, cell phone and keys and put on administrative leave.

 

The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight Award to arms maker Raytheon (with a tip of the hat to contributors Northup Grumman and Lockheed Martin) for its Patriot anti-missile that has downed exactly one missile in 28 years of use (and that was a clunky old Scud). An analysis of the missile interceptor system by Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Ca., concluded that Patriot is “a lemon.” Writing in Foreign Policy, Lewis says, “I am deeply skeptical that Patriot has ever intercepted a long-range ballistic missile in combat.” But it sure sells well. Saudi Arabia forked over $5.4 billion for Patriots in 2015, Romania $4 billion in 2017, Poland $4.5 billion in 2018, and Turkey $3.5 billion this year.

 

The Golden “Say What?” Award has three winners:

*The US Department of Defense for cutting a deal in the Yemen civil war to allow al-Qaeda members—the organization that brought us the Sept.11 attacks—to join with the Saudis and United Arab Emirates (UAE) in their fight against the Houthis. According to Associated Press, while the Saudis claim that their forces are driving al-Qaeda out of cities, in fact, the terrorist organization’s members were allowed to leave with their weapons and looted cash. US drones gave them free passage. Why, you may ask? Because the Houthis are supported by Iran.

 

* Saudi Arabia and the UAE for bankrolling a series of racist and Islamaphobic attacks on newly elected Muslim Congress members Ilhan Omar (D-Minn) and Rashid Tlaib (D-Mi) because the Gulf monarchy accuses both of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Neither is, but both are critical of the absolute monarchs of the Persian Gulf and are opposed to the Saudi-instigated war in Yemen.

 

* Israel, for selling weapons to the racist and anti-Semitic Azov Battalion in the Ukraine. On its YouTube channel, members of the militia showed off Israeli Tavor rifles, the primary weapon of the Israeli Special Forces. The Tavor is produced under license by the Israel Weapons Industries. The unit’s commander and Ukraine’s Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov, met with Israel’s Interior Minister Aryeh Deri last year to discuss “fruitful cooperation.” Azov’s founder, Anriy Biletsky, now a Ukrainian parliament member, says his mission is “to restore the honor of the white race,” and lead “a crusade against the Semite-led untermenschen.”

 

The Blue Meanie Award to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for blocking medical supplies to North Korea. Drugs to fight malaria and tuberculosis have been held up, as have surgical equipment and soy milk for child care centers and orphanages. According to the UN, sanctions “are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population” of North Korea. The US position has come in for criticism by Sweden, France, Britain, Canada, and the International Red Cross.

 

The Little Bo Peep Award to the Pentagon for its recent audit indicating that some $21 trillion (yes, that is a “t”) is unaccounted for. Sharing this honor is the U.S. Air Force for losing a box of grenades, which apparently fell off a Humvee in North Dakota. The Air Forces says the weapons won’t go off without a special launcher. Right. What can possibly go wrong with grenades?

 

In Memory of Dr. Victor Sidel, a founding member of the Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Nobel Prize winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Sidel, along with Dr. Barry S. Levy, wrote several important books including “War and Public Health,” and “Social Justice and Public Health.” In 1986 he was arrested, along with astronomer Carl Sagan, at the Mercury, Nevada nuclear test site. He once said, “The cost of one-half day of world arms spending could pay for the full immunization of all the children of the world against the common infectious diseases.”

 

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Iran: A Rumor of War

Iran: Rumors of War

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 1, 2018

 

“The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story Inside Iran And What’s Wrong with U.S. Policy” By Reese Erlich

Routledge Taylor & Francis Group

New York and London 2019

 

 

Want another thing to keep you up at night?

 

Consider a conversation between long-time Middle East reporter Reese Erlich and former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Charles Freeman, Jr. on the people currently directing the Trump administration’s policy toward Iran. Commenting on National Security Advisor John Bolton’s defense of the invasion of Iraq, Freeman says “The neoconservative group think their good ideas were poorly implemented in Iraq,” and that the lesson of the 2003 invasion that killed upwards of 500,000 people and destabilized an entire region is, “If at first you don’t succeed, do the same thing again somewhere else.”

 

That “somewhere else” is Iran, and Bolton is one of the leading voices calling for confronting the Teheran regime and squeezing Iran through draconian sanctions “until the pips squeak.” Since sanctions are unlikely to have much effect—they didn’t work on North Korea, have had little effect on Russia and failed to produce regime change in Cuba—the next logical step, Erlich suggests, is a military attack on Iran.

 

Such an attack would be a leap into darkness, since most Americans—and their government in particular—are virtually clueless about the country we seem bound to go to war with. Throwing a little light on that darkness is a major reason Erlich wrote the book. For over 18 years he has reported on Iran, talking with important government figures and everyday people and writing articles on the country that increasingly looks to be our next little war. Except it will be anything but “little.”

 

History matters when it comes to life and death decisions like war, but unfortunately, one of the mainstream media’s glaring deficiencies is its lack of interest in the subject. If newspapers like the New York Times had bothered to read Rudyard Kipling on Afghanistan or T.E. Lawrence on the British occupation of Iraq, the editors might have had second thoughts about supporting the Bush administration’s invasions of those countries. Of course, this was not just the result of wearing historical blinders. As Erlich points out, the mainstream media almost always follows in the wake of American foreign policy, more cheerleader than watchdog.

 

But if that media learned anything from the disasters in Central Asia and the Middle East, it is not apparent when it comes to its reporting on Iran. Most Americans think that country is run by mad mullahs who hate the U.S. and is—in the words of President Donald Trump— a “terrorist nation.” Americans don’t hold that image of Iran by accident, but because that is the way the country is represented in the media.

 

The fact that the U.S. government (along with some help from the British) overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953, and backed Saddam Hussein’s attack on Iran in 1980 that resulted in over a million casualties has vanished down the memory hole.

 

One of the book’s strong points is its careful unraveling of US-Iranian relations, setting the record straight on things like the development of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. While the Shah was in power, Washington pushed nuclear power plants on Iran, including nuclear fuel enrichment technology, even though the Americans were aware that it could lead to weapon development. Indeed, that is exactly how India produced its first nuclear weapon back in 1974.

 

Erlich also analyzes everything from class structure to Iran’s complex ethnicities and explains how the Islamic Republic functions politically and economically. While he is a long-time critic of US foreign policy, Erlich is no admirer of Iran’s political institutions. Iran is far more democratic than the absolute monarchies of the Persian Gulf—with which the Washington is closely allied—but it is hardly a democracy.

 

“Iran is ruled by a reactionary, dictatorial clique that oppresses its own people,” he writes, “however, that does not make Iran a threat to Americans.” What Teheran does threaten “are the interests of the political, military and corporate elite who run the United States.” On a number of occasions Iran has made peace overtures to the U.S., all of which have been rejected.

 

Iran is a country with a very long history, and its people have a strong sense of nationalism, even if much of the population is not overly fond of Iran’s top-down political system and clerical interference in everyday life. The idea that the Iranian people will rise up and overthrow their government because of sanctions or in the event of a military attack on the government is, according to Erlich, pure illusion.

 

The Iran Agenda Today covers a lot of ground without bogging down in a overly detailed accounts of several millennia of history. It certainly provides enough historical context to conclude that an attack on Iran—which would likely also involve Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and possibly Israel—would unleash regional chaos with international repercussions.

 

Such a war would be mainly an air war—not even the Trump administration is crazy enough to contemplate a ground invasion of a vast country filled with 80 million people—and would certainly inflict enormous damage. But to what end? Iran will never surrender and its people would rally to the defense of their country. Teheran is also perfectly capable of striking back using unconventional means. Oil prices would spike, and countries that continue to do business with Iran—China, Russia, Turkey and India for starters—would see their growth rates take a hit. No European country would support such a war.

 

Of course creating chaos is what the Trump administration excels at, and in the short run Iran would suffer a grievous wound. But Teheran would weather the blow and Americans would be in yet another forever war, this time with a far more formidable foe than Pushtin tribes in Afghanistan or jihadists in Iraq.

 

Mr. Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may get their war, but war is a deeply uncertain business. As Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke, one of the founders of modern warfare, once noted, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

 

Erlich, a Peabody Award winner and the author of five books, has written a timely analysis of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran and why, if our country continues on its current path, we—and the world—are headed into a long, dark tunnel.

 

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Afghanistan: Peace at hand?

Afghanistan: Is Peace At Hand?

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 26, 2028

 

 

The news that the Americans recently held face-to-face talks with the Taliban suggests that longest war in US history may have reached a turning point, although the road to such a peace is long, rocky and plagued with as many improvised explosive devices as the highway from Kandahar to Kabul.

 

That the 17-year old war has reached a tipping point seems clear. The Taliban now controls more territory than they have since the American invasion in 2001. Causalities among Afghan forces are at an all time high, while recruitment is rapidly drying up. In spite of last year’s mini-surge of US troops and airpower by the Trump administration, the situation on the ground is worse now than in was in 2017. If any one statement sums up the hopelessness—and cluelessness—of the whole endeavor, it was former Secretary of State’s challenge to the Taliban: “You will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you.”

 

Of course, like any successful insurgency, the Taliban never intended to “win a battlefield victory,” only not to lose, thus forcing a stalemate that would eventually exhaust their opponents. Clearly the lessons of the Vietnam War are not part of the standard curriculum at Foggy Bottom.

 

Why things have gone from bad to worse for the US/NATO occupation and the Kabul government has less to do with the war itself than a sea change in strategy by the Taliban, a course shift that Washington has either missed or ignored. According to Ashley Jackson of the Overseas Development Institute, the Taliban shifted gears in 2015, instituting a program of winning hearts and minds.

 

The author of the new strategy was Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who took over the organization following the death of founder Mullah Omar in 2013. Instead of burning schools, they staff them. Instead of attacking government soldiers and police, they strike up informal cease-fires, even taking turns manning checkpoints. They set up courts that are not tainted by corruption, collect taxes and provide health services.

 

Mansour also made efforts to expand the Taliban from its Pashtun base to include Tajiks and Uzbeks. According to Jackson, both ethnic groups—generally based in northern Afghanistan—have been appointed to the Taliban’s leadership council, the Rahbari Shura.

 

Afghanistan’s main ethnic divisions consists of 40 percent Pashtuns, 27 percent Tajiks, 10 percent Hazara and 10 Uzbeks.

 

It is not clear how much of the country the Taliban controls. NATO claims the group dominates only 14 percent of the country, while the Kabul government controls 56 percent. But other analysts say the figure for Taliban control is closer to 50 percent, and a BBC study found that the insurgents were active in 70 percent of the country.

 

Jackson says the “Taliban strategy defies zero-sum notions of control” in any case, with cities and district centers under government authority, surrounded by the Taliban. “An hour’s drive in any direction from Kabul will put you in Taliban territory.”

 

Taliban leaders tell Jackson that the group is looking for a peace deal not a battlefield victory, and the new approach of governance seems to reflect that. That is not to suggest that the group has somehow gone pacifist, as a quick glance at newspaper headlines for October makes clear: “Taliban assassinate Afghan police chief,” Taliban attack kills 17 soldiers,” “On 17th anniversary of U.S. invasion 54 are killed across Afghanistan.”

 

The Taliban are not the centralized organization that they were during the 2001 U.S./NATO invasion. The US targeted Taliban primary and secondary leaders—Mansour was killed by an American drone strike in 2016—and the group’s policies may vary from place to place depending who is in charge.

 

In Helmand in the south, where the Taliban control 85 percent of the province, the group cut a deal with the local government to open schools and protect the staff. Some 33 schools have been re-opened.

 

In many ways there is an alignment of stars right now, because most of the major players inside and outside of Afghanistan have some common interests. The problem is that the Trump administration sees some of those players as competitors, if not outright opponents.

 

The Afghans are exhausted, and one sign of that is how easy it has been for Taliban and local government officials to work together. While the Taliban can still overrun checkpoints and small bases, US firepower makes taking cities prohibitively expensive. At the same time the US has dialed down its counterinsurgency strategy, and, along with government forces, redeployed to defend urban areas.

 

The Taliban and the Kabul government also have a common enemy, the Islamic State (IS), which, while not a major player yet, is expanding. The growth of the IS and other Islamic insurgent groups is a major concern for other countries in the region, in particular those that share a border with Afghanistan: Iran, Russia, China and Pakistan.

 

But this is where things get tricky and where no alignment of stars may be able to bring all these countries into convergence.

 

Pakistan, China, Iran and Russia are already conferring on joint strategies to bring the Afghan war to a conclusion and deepen regional cooperation around confronting terrorism. China is concerned with separatists and Islamic insurgents in its western provinces. Russia is worried about the spread of the IS into the Caucuses region. Iran is fighting separatists on its southern border, and Pakistan is warring with the IS and its home-grown Taliban. And none of these countries are comfortable with the US on their borders,

 

Russia, China and Pakistan are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Iran has applied to join. The SCO consults on issues around trade and energy, but also security. While India is also a member, its relationship to Afghanistan is colored by its competition with Pakistan and China. New Delhi has border issues with China and has fought three wars with Pakistan over Kashmir, but it, too, is worried about terrorism.

 

All of these countries have been discussing what to do about ending the war and getting a handle on regional terrorism.

 

A path to end the war might look like this:

 

First, a ceasefire in Afghanistan between the Taliban and the Kabul government and a pull back of American troops. The argument that if the US withdrew, the Kabul government would collapse and the Taliban take over as they did during the civil war in 1998 is really no longer valid. Things are very different locally, regionally and internationally than they were two decades ago.

 

The Taliban and the Kabul government know neither can defeat the other, and the regional players want an end to a war that fuels the kind of terrorism that keeps them all up at night.

 

The SCO could agree to guarantee the ceasefire, and, under the auspices of the United Nations, arrange for peace talks. In part this is already underway since the Americans are talking to the Taliban, although Washington raised some hackles in Kabul by doing so in secret. Transparency in these negotiations is essential.

 

One incentive would be a hefty aid and reconstruction package.

 

There are a number of thorny issues. What about the constitution? The Taliban had no say in drawing it up and are unlikely to accept it as it is. What about women’s right to education and employment? The Taliban say they now support these, but that hasn’t always been the case in areas where the group dominates.

 

All this will require the cooperation of the Trump administration, and there’s the rub.

 

If one can believe Bob Woodward’s book “Fear,” Trump wants out and the US military and the CIA are trying to cut their losses. As one CIA official told Woodward, Afghanistan is not just the grave of empires, it’s the grave of careers.

 

However, Washington has all but declared war on Iran, is in hostile standoffs with Russia and China, and recently cut military aid to Pakistan for being “soft of terrorism.” In short, landmines and ambushes riddle the political landscape.

 

But the stars are in alignment if each player acts in its own self-interest to bring an end to the bloodshed and horrors this war has visited on the Afghan people.

 

If all this falls apart, however, next year will have a grim marker: some young Marine will step on a pressure plate in a tiny rural hamlet, or get ambushed in a rocky pass, and come home in an aluminum casket from a war that began before he or she was born.

 

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The Syrian Chess Board

Syria’s Chess Board

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 10, 2018

 

 

The Syrian civil war has always been devilishly complex, with multiple actors following different scripts, but in the past few months it appeared to be winding down. The Damascus government now controls 60 percent of the country and the major population centers, the Islamic State has been routed, and the rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are largely cornered in Idlib Province in the country’s northwest. But suddenly the Americans moved the goal posts—maybe—the Russians have fallen out with the Israelis, the Iranians are digging in their heels, and the Turks are trying to multi-task with a home front in disarray.

 

So the devil is still very much at work in a war that has lasted more than seven years, claimed up to 500,000 lives, displaced millions of people, destabilized an already fragile Middle East, and is far from over.

 

There are at least three theaters in the Syrian war, each with its own complexities: Idilb in the north, the territory east of the Euphrates River, and the region that abuts the southern section of the Golan Heights. Just sorting out the antagonists is daunting. Turks, Iranians, Americans and Kurds are the key actors in the east. Russians, Turks, Kurds and Assad are in a temporary standoff in the north. And Iran, Assad and Israel are in a faceoff near Golan, a conflict that has suddenly drawn in Moscow.

 

Assad’s goals are straightforward: reunite the country under the rule of Damascus and begin re-building Syria’s shattered cities. The major roadblock to this is Idlib, the last large concentration of anti-Assad groups, Jihadists linked with al-Qaeda, and a modest Turkish occupation force representing Operation Olive Branch. The province, which borders Turkey in the north, is mountainous and re-taking it promises to be difficult.

 

For the time being there is a stand down. The Russians cut a deal with Turkey to demilitarize the area around Idlib city, neutralize the jihadist groups, and re-open major roads. The agreement holds off a joint Assad-Russian assault on Idlib, which would have driven hundreds of thousands of refugees into Turkey and likely have resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties.

 

But the agreement is temporary—about a month—because Russia is impatient to end the fighting and begin the reconstruction. However, it is hard to see how the Turks are going to get a handle on the bewildering number of groups packed into the province, some of which they have actively aided for years. Ankara could bring in more soldiers, but Turkey already has troops east of the Euphrates and is teetering on the edge of a major economic crisis. Pouring more wealth into what has become a quagmire may not sit well with the Turkish public, which has seen inflation eat up their paychecks and pensions, and the Turkish Lira fall nearly 40 percent in value in the past year. Local elections will be held in 2019, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party ‘s power is built on improving the economy.

 

In Syria’s east, Turkish troops—part of Operation Euphrates Shield—are pushing up against the Americans and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the Islamic State (IS). Erdogan is far more worried about the Syrian Kurds and the effect they might have on Turkey’s Kurdish population, than he is about the IS.

 

Ankara’s ally in this case is Iran, which is not overly concerned about the Kurds, but quite concerned about the 2,200 Americans. “We need to resolve the difficulty east of the Euphrates and force America out,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in early September.

 

That latter goal just got more complex. The U.S. Special Forces were originally charged with aiding the Kurdish and Arab allies drive out the IS. President Donald Trump told a meeting in March, “we’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon.” But that policy appears to have changed. National Security Advisor John Bolton now says U.S. troops will remain in Syria until Iran leaves. Since there is little chance of that happening, the U.S. commitment suddenly sounds open-ended. Bolton’s comment has stirred up some opposition in the U.S. Congress to “mission creep,” although Trump has yet to directly address the situation.

 

The Kurds are caught in the middle. The U.S. has made no commitment to defend them from Turkey, and the Assad regime is pressing to bring the region under Damascus’ control. However, the Syrian government has made overtures to the Kurds for talks about more regional autonomy, and one suspects the Kurds will try to cut a deal to protect them from Ankara. The Russians have been pushing for Assad-Kurd détente.

 

Turkey may want to stay in eastern Syria, but it is hard to see how Ankara will be able to do that, especially if the Turks are stretched between Idlib and Euphrates Shield in the east. The simple fact is that Erdogan misjudged the resiliency of the Assad regime and over reached when he thought shooting down a Russian fighter-bomber in 2015 would bring NATO to his rescue and intimidate Moscow. Instead, the Russians now control the skies over Idlib, and Turkey is estranged from NATO.

 

The Russians have been careful in Syria. Their main concerns are keeping their naval base at Latakia, beating up on al-Qaeda and the IS, and supporting their long-time ally Syria. Instead of responding directly to Erdogan’s 2015 provocation, Moscow brought in their dangerous S-400 anti-aircraft system, a wing of advanced fighter aircraft, and beefed up their naval presence with its advanced radar systems. The message was clear: don’t try that again.

 

But the Russians held off the attack on Idlib, and have been trying to keep the Israelis and Iranians from tangling with one another in the region around the Golan Heights. Moscow proposed keeping Iran and its allies at least 60 miles from the Israeli border, but Israel—and now the U.S.—is demanding Iran fully withdraw from Syria.

 

The Assad regime wants Teheran to stay, but also to avoid any major shootout between Iran and Israel that would catch Damascus in the middle. In spite of hundreds of Israeli air attacks into Syria, there has been no counter attacks by the Syrians or the Iranians, suggesting that Assad has ruled out any violent reaction.

 

That all came to end Sept 17, when Israeli aircraft apparently used a Russian Ilyushin-M20 electronic reconnaissance plane to mask an attack on Damascus. Syrian anti-aircraft responded and ending up shooting down the Russian plane and killing all aboard. Russia blamed the Israelis and a few days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow was sending its S-300 anti-aircraft system to Syria, along with a series of upgrades in Damascus’ radar network. Syria currently uses the S-200 system that goes back to the ‘60s.

 

The upgrade will not really threaten Israeli aircraft—the S-300 is dated and the Israelis likely have the electronics to overcome it—but suddenly the skies over Syria are no longer uncontested, and, if Tel Aviv decides to go after the Syrian radar grid, the Russians have their S-400 in the wings. Not checkmate, but check.

 

How all of this shakes down is hardly clear, but there are glimmers of solution out there. Turkey will have to eventually withdraw from Syria, but will probably get some concessions over how much autonomy Syria’s Kurds will end up with. The Kurds can cut a deal with Assad because the regime needs peace. The Iranians want to keep their influence in Syria and a link to Hezbollah in Lebanon, but don’t want a serious dustup with Israel.

 

An upcoming Istanbul summit on Syria of Russia, France, Turkey and Germany will talk about a political solution to the civil war and post-war reconstruction.

 

Israel will eventually have to come to terms with Iran as a major player in the Middle East and recognize that the great “united front” against Teheran of Washington, Tel Aviv and the Gulf monarchies is mostly illusion. The Saudis are in serious economic trouble, the Gulf Cooperation Council is divided, and it is Israel and the U.S. are increasingly isolated over in hostility to Teheran.

 

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Asia’s Shifting Alliances in the Time of Trump

Asia/Pacific’s Shifting Alliances

Dispatches From The Edge

 

Aug. 28, 2018

 

“Boxing the compass” is an old nautical term for locating the points on a magnetic compass in order to set a course. With the erratic winds blowing out of Washington these days, countries all over Asia and the Middle East are boxing the compass and re-evluating traditional foes and old alliances.

 

India and Pakistan have fought three wars in the past half-century, and both have nuclear weapons on a hair trigger. But the two countries are now part of a security and trade organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), along with China, Russia and most of the countries of Central Asia. Following the recent elections in Pakistan, Islamabad’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, has called for an “uninterrupted continued dialogue” with New Delhi to resolve conflicts and establish “peace and stability” in Afghanistan.

 

Pakistan’s new Prime Minister, Imran Khan, is a critic of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and particularly opposed to the use of U.S. drones to kill insurgents in Pakistan.

 

Russia has reached out to the Taliban, which has accepted an invitation for peace talks in Moscow on Sept. 4 to end the 17-year old war. Three decades ago the Taliban were shooting down Russian helicopters with American-made Stinger missiles.

 

Turkey and Russia have agreed to increase trade and to seek a political solution to end the war in Syria. Turkey also pledged to ignore Washington’s sanctions on Russia and Iran. Less than three years ago, Turkish warplanes downed a Russian bomber, Ankara was denouncing Iran, and Turkey was arming and supporting Islamic extremists trying to overthrow the government of Bashar al Assad.

 

After years of tension in the South China Sea between China and a host of Southeast Asian nations, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei, on Aug. 2 Beijing announced a “breakthrough” in talks between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). After years of bluster— including ship-to-ship face-offs—China and ASEAN held joint computer naval games Aug. 2-3. China has also proposed cooperative oil and gas exploration with SEATO members.

 

Starting with the administration of George W. Bush, the U.S. has tried to lure India into an alliance with Japan and Australia—the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or “quad”—to challenge China in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. The Americans turned a blind eye to India’s violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and dropped the ban on selling arms to New Delhi. The Pentagon even re-named its Pacific Command, “Indo-Pacific Command” to reflect India’s concerns in the Indian Ocean. The U.S. is currently training Indian fighter pilots, and this summer held joint naval maneuvers with Japan and the U.S.—Malabar 18— in the strategic Malacca Straits .

 

But following an April Wuhan Summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, New Delhi’s enthusiasm for the Quad appears to have cooled. New Delhi vetoed Australia joining the Malabar war games.

 

At June’s Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore, Modi said “India does not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of limited members,” and pointedly avoided any criticism of China’s behavior in the South China Sea. Given that Indian and Chinese troops have engaged in shoving matches and fistfights with one another in the Doklam border region, Modi’s silence on the Chinese military was surprising.

 

China and India have recently established a military “hot line,” and Beijing has cut tariffs on Indian products.

 

During the SCO meetings, Modi and Xi met and discussed cooperation on bringing an end to the war in Afghanistan. India, Pakistan and Russia fear that extremism in Afghanistan will spill over their borders, and the three have joined in an effort to shore up the Taliban as a bulwark against the growth of the Islamic State.

 

There is also a push to build the long-delayed Iran-Pakistan natural gas pipeline that will eventually terminate in energy-starved India.

 

India signed the SCO’s “Qingdao Declaration,” which warned that “economic globalization is confronted with the expansion of unilateral protectionist policies,” a statement aimed directly at the Trump administration.

 

The Modi government also made it clear that New Delhi will not join U.S. sanctions against Iran and will continue to buy gas and oil from Teheran. India’s Defense Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman also said that India would ignore U.S. threats to sanction any country doing business with Russia’s arms industry.

 

Even such a staunch ally as Australia is having second thoughts on who it wants to align itself with in the Western Pacific. Australia currently hosts U.S. Marines and the huge U.S. intelligence gathering operation at Pine Gap. But China is Canberra’s largest trading partner, and Chinese students and tourists are an important source of income for Australia.

 

Canberra is currently consumed with arguments over China’s influence on Australia’s politics, and there is a division in the foreign policy establishment over how closely aligned the Australians should be with Washington, given the uncertain policies of the Trump administration. Some—like defense strategist Hugh White—argue that “Not only is America failing to remain the dominant power, it is failing to retain any substantial strategic role at all.”

 

White’s analysis is an overstatement. The U.S. is the most powerful military force in the region, and the Pacific basin is still Washington’s number one trade partner. In the balance of forces, Canberra doesn’t count for much. But the debate is an interesting one and a reflection that the Obama administration’s “Asia pivot” to ring China with U.S. allies has not exactly been a slam-dunk.

 

Of course, one can make too much of these re-alignments.

 

There are still tensions between China and India over their borders and competition for the Indian Ocean. Many Indians see the latter as “Mare Nostrum” [“Our Sea”], and New Delhi is acquiring submarines and surface crafts to control it.

 

However, since some 80 percent of China’s energy supplies transit the Indian Ocean, China is busy building up ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Djibouti to guard those routes.

 

India has recently tested a long-range ICBM—the Agni V—that has the capacity to strike China. The Indians claim the missile has a range of 3000 miles, but the Chinese say it can strike targets 5000 miles away, thus threatening most of China’s population centers. Since Pakistan is already within range of India’s medium range missiles, the Agni V could only have been developed to target China.

 

India is also one of the few countries in the region not to endorse China’s immense “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative to link Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe into a vast trading network.

 

A number of these diplomatic initiatives and re-alignments could easily fail.

 

Pakistan and India could fall out over Kashmir, and resolving the Afghanistan situation is the diplomatic equivalent of untying the Gordian Knot. The Taliban accepted the Russian invitation, but the Americans dismissed it. So too has the government in Kabal, but that could change, particularly if the Indians push the Afghan government to join the talks. Just the fact that the Taliban agreed to negotiate with Kabal, however, is a breakthrough, and since almost everyone in the region wants this long and terrible war to end, the initiative is hardly a dead letter.

 

There are other reefs and shoals out there.

 

Turkey and Russia still don’t trust each other, and while Iran currently finds itself on the same side as Moscow and Ankara, there is no love lost among any of them. But Iran needs a way to block Trump’s sanctions from strangling its economy, and that means shelving its historical suspicions of Turkey and Russia. Both countries say they will not abide by the U.S. sanctions, and the Russians are even considering setting up credit system to bypass using dollars in banking.

 

The Europeans are already knuckling under to the U.S. sanctions, but the U.S. and the European Union are not the only games in town. Organizations like the SCO, ASEAN, the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), and Latin America’s Mercosur are creating independent poles of power and influence, and while the U.S. has enormous military power, it no longer can dictate what other countries decide on things like war and trade.

 

From what direction on the Compass Rose the winds out of Washington will blow is hardly clear, but increasingly a number of countries are charting a course of their own.

 

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