Tag Archives: Europe

A Wounded Erdogan Could Be Dangerous

Turkey Takes a Turn

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

June 24, 2019

 

For the second time in a row, Turkish voters have rebuked President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s handpicked candidate for the mayoralty of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest and wealthiest city. The secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, swamped Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate Binali Yildirim in an election that many see as a report card on the President’s 17 years of power.

 

So what does the outcome of the election mean for the future of Turkey, and in particular, its powerful president? For starters, an internal political realignment, but also maybe a dangerous foreign policy adventure.

 

Erdogan and his Party have been weakened politically and financially by the loss of Istanbul, even though the President did his best to steer clear of the campaign over the past several weeks. Since it was Erdogan that pressured the Supreme Election Council into annulling the results of the March 31 vote, whether he likes it or not, he owns the outcome.

 

His opponents in the AKP are already smelling blood. Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who Erdogan sidelined in 2016, has begun criticizing the President’s inner circle, including Berat Albayrak, his son-in-law and current Finance Minister. There are rumors that Dovutoglu and former deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan are considering forming a new party on the right.

 

Up until the March election that saw the AKP and its extreme nationalist alliance partner, the National Movement Party (MHP), lose control of most the major cities in the country, Erdogan had shown an almost instinctive grasp of what the majority of Turks wanted. But this time out the AKP seemed tone deaf. While Erdogan campaigned on the issue of terrorism, polls showed most Turks were more concerned with the disastrous state of the economy, rising inflation and growing joblessness.

 

The “terrorist threat” strategy—short hand for Turkey’s Kurdish minority—not only alienated conservative Kurds who reliably voted for the AKP, but forced the opposition into a united front. Parties ranging from the leftist Kurdish People’s Democratic Party and the Communist Party, to more conservative parties like the Good Party, withdrew their candidates from the Istanbul’s mayor’s race and lined up behind the CHP’s Imamoglu.

 

The AKP—long an electoral steamroller—ran a clumsy and ill-coordinated campaign. While Yildirim tried to move to the center, Erdogan’s inner circle opted for a hard right program, even accusing Imamoglu of being a Greek (and closet Christian) because he hails from the Black Sea area of Trabzon that was a Greek center centuries ago. The charge backfired badly, and an area that in the past was overwhelming supportive of the AKP shifted to backing a native son. Some 2.5 million former residents of the Black Sea live in Istanbul, and it was clear which way they voted.

 

So what does the election outcome mean for Turkish politics? Well, for one, when the center and left unite they can beat Erdogan. But it also looks like there is going to be re-alignment on the right. In the March election, the extreme right MHP picked up some disgruntled AKP voters, and many AKP voters apparently stayed home, upset at the corruption and the anti-terrorist strategy of their party. It feels a lot like 2002, when the AKP came out of the political margins and vaulted over the rightwing Motherland and True Path parties to begin its 17 years of domination. How far all this goes and what the final outcome will be is not clear, but Erdogan has been weakened, and his opponents in the AKP are already sharpening their knives.

 

An Erdogan at bay, however, can be dangerous. When the AKP lost its majority in the 2015 general election, Erdogan reversed his attempt to peacefully resolve tensions with the Kurds and, instead, launched a war on Kurdish cities in the country’s southeast. While the war helped him to win back his majority in an election six months later, it alienated the Kurds and laid the groundwork for the AKP’s losses in the March 2019 election and the Istambul’s mayor’s race.

 

The fear is that Erdogan will look for a crisis that will resonate with Turkish nationalism, a strategy he has used in the past.

 

He tried to rally Turks behind overthrowing the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but the war was never popular. Most Turks are not happy with the 3.7 million Syrian refugees currently camped in their country, nor with what increasingly appears to be a quagmire for the Turkish Army in Northern and Eastern Syria.

 

In general, Turkey’s foreign policy is a shambles.

 

Erdogan is trying to repair fences with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, because he desperately needs the investment that Gulf monarchs can bring to Turkey. But the price for that is a break with Iran and ending his support for the Muslim Brotherhood. While the Turkish President might be willing to dump the Brotherhood, Erdogan feels he needs Iran in his ongoing confrontation with the Kurds in Syria, and, at least at this point, he is unwilling to join Saudi Arabia’s jihad on Tehran.

 

In spite of the Turkish President’s efforts to normalize ties with Riyadh, Saudi Arabia recently issued a formal warning to Saudi real estate investors and tourists that Turkey is “inhospitable.” Saudi tourism is down 30 percent, and Turkish exports to Saudi Arabia are also off.

 

Erdogan is also wrangling with the US and NATO over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system, a disagreement that threatens further damage to the Turkish economy through US-imposed sanctions. There is even a demand by some Americans to expel Turkey from NATO, echoed by similar calls from the Turkish extreme right.

 

Talk of leaving NATO, however, is mostly Sturm und Drang. There is no Alliance procedure to expel a member, and current tensions with Moscow means NATO needs Turkey’s southern border with Russia, especially its control of the Black Sea’s outlet to the Mediterranean.

 

But a confrontation over Cyprus—and therefore with Greece—is by no means out of the question. This past May, Turkey announced that it was sending a ship to explore for natural gas in the sea off Cyprus, waters that are clearly within the island’s economic exploitation zone.

 

“History suggests that leaders who are losing their grip on power have incentives to organize a show of strength and unite their base behind an imminent foreign threat,” writes Greek investigative reporter Yiannis Baboulias in Foreign Policy. “Erdogan has every reason to create hostilities with Greece—Turkey’s traditional adversary and Cyprus’s ally—to distract from his problems at home.”

 

Turkey has just finished large-scale naval exercises—code name “Sea Wolf”— in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean and, according to Baboulias, Turkish warplanes have been violating Greek airspace.

 

Cyprus, along with Israel and Egypt, has been trying to develop Cypriote offshore gas resources for almost a decade, but Turkey has routinely stymied their efforts. The European Union (EU) supports the right of Cyprus to develop the fields, and the EU’s foreign policy head, Federica Mogherini, called on Turkey to “respect the sovereign rights of Cyprus to its exclusive economic zone and refrain from such illegal actions.” While Mogherini pledged “full solidarity” with Cyprus, it is hard to see what the big trade organization could do in the event of a crisis.

 

Any friction with Cyprus is friction with Greece, and there is a distinct possibility that two NATO members could find themselves in a face off. Erdogan likes to create tensions and then negotiate from strength, a penchant he shares with US President Donald Trump. While it seems unlikely that it will come to that, in this case Turkish domestic considerations could play a role.

 

A dustup with Ankara’s traditional enemy, Greece, would put Erdogan’s opponents in the AKP on the defensive and divert Turks attention from the deepening economic crisis at home. It might also allow Erdogan to use the excuse of a foreign policy crisis to strengthen his already considerable executive powers and to divert to the military budget monies from cities the AKP no longer control.

 

Budget cuts could stymie efforts by the CHP and left parties to improve conditions in the cities and to pump badly needed funds into education. The AKP used Istanbul’s budget as a piggy bank for programs that benefited members of Erdogan’s family or generated kickbacks for the Party from construction firms and private contractors. Erdogan has already warned his opponents that they “won’t even be able to pay the salaries of their employees.” The man may be down but he is hardly beaten. There are turbulent times ahead for Turkey.

 

—30—

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Turkey: Revenge of the Kurds

Turkey: Rocks & Hard Places

Dispatches From The Edge

March 25, 2019

 

After 18 years of unchallenged power and success, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suddenly finds himself in the middle of several domestic and foreign crises with no obvious way out. It is unfamiliar ground for a master politician who has moved nimbly from the margins of power to the undisputed leader of the largest economy in the Middle East.

 

His problems are largely of his own making: an economy built on a deeply corrupt construction industry, a disastrous intervention in Syria and a declaration of war on Turkey’s Kurdish population. All of these initiatives have backfired badly. In the Mar. 31 local elections, Erdogan’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost control of all of Turkey’s major cities, including the country’s political center, Ankara, and the nation’s economic engine, Istanbul. The latter contributes more than 30 percent of Turkey’s GNP.

 

That is not to say that the man is down and out. The AKP is demanding a re-run of the Istanbul election and is preventing the progressive mayors of several Kurdish cities in Turkey’s southeast from assuming office. Erdogan is not a man who shies from using brute force and intimidation to get his way. Close to 10,000 of his political opponents are in prison, hundreds of thousands of others have been dismissed from their jobs, and opposition media is largely crushed. The final outcome of the election is by no means settled.

 

But force will only exacerbate Erdogan’s problems.

 

The Kurds are a case in point. When the leftist Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP) made a major electoral breakthrough in 2015—winning 81 seats in the Parliament and denying the AKP a majority—Erdogan responded by ending peace talks with the Kurds and occupying Kurdish towns and cities.

 

Rather than cowing the Kurds, however, it sowed the wind, and the AKP reaped the hurricane in the March election. An analysis of the Istanbul mayor’s race shows that the AKP and its rightwing National Movement Party alliance won about the same percentage of votes it had in last year’s presidential election. The same was true for the AKP’s opposition—the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) and its ally, the right-wing Good Party.

 

The difference was that the HDP did not field a candidate, and its imprisoned leader, Selahattin Demiratas, urged the Kurds and their supporters to vote against Erdogan’s candidate. They did so in droves and tipped the balance to the CHP’s candidate. That pattern pretty much held for the rest of the country and accounts for the AKP’s loss of other cities, like Izmar, Antalya, Mersin and Adana.

 

When the Turkish state waged a war against the Kurds in the 1980s and ‘90s, many fled rural areas to take up life in the cities. Istanbul is now about 11 percent Kurdish. Indeed, it is the largest grouping of urban Kurds in the world. So if there is a phrase that sums up the election, it might be “revenge of the Kurds.”

 

But the AKP’s loss of the major urban centers is more than a political setback. Cities are the motors for the Turkish economy and for the past 18 years Erdogan has doled out huge construction projects to AKP-friendly firms, which, in turn, kick money back to the Party. The President has delivered growth over the years, but it was growth built on the three “Cs”: credit, corruption and cronyism.

 

Those chickens have finally come home to roost. Foreign currency reserves are low, Turkey’s lira has plummeted in value, debts are out of hand, and unemployment—particularly among the young and well educated—is rising. In a rare case of political tone deafness, Erdogan focused the recent campaign around the issues of terrorism and the Kurds, ignoring polls that showed most Turks were far more worried about high prices and joblessness.

 

Where Erdogan goes from here is not clear.

 

Turkey is holding talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) about a possible bailout, but the President knows that means increased taxes and austerity, not exactly the kind of program that delivers votes. There will be no elections until the 2023 presidential contest, so there is time to try to turn things around, but how? Foreign investors are wary of Turkey’s political volatility, and the Europeans and Americans are unhappy with Erdogan’s erratic foreign policy.

 

The latest dustup is fallout from Turkey’s disastrous 2011 decision to support the overthrow of President Bashar Assad of Syria. Assad has survived—largely because of Russian and Iranian support—and now Turkey is hosting millions of refugees and bleeding out billions of dollars occupying parts of northern Syria.

 

Turkey initially tryed to get NATO to challenge Moscow in Syria—even shooting down a Russian warplane—but NATO wanted no part of it. So Erdogan shifted and cut a deal with Moscow, part of which involved buying the Russians new S-400 anti-missile and aircraft system for $2.5 billion.

 

Backing the extremists trying to overthrow Assad was never a good hand, but Erdogan has played it rather badly.

 

The S-400 deal made NATO unhappy, which doesn’t want high-tech Russian military technology potentially eavesdropping on a NATO member country, particularly on American warplanes based in Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base.

 

The US Congress is threatening to block Turkey’s purchase of the F-35 fifth generation fighter plane, even though Turkey is an investor in the project. The Trump administration has also warned Ankara that it will apply the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act if Turkey buys Russian military equipment, sanctions that could damage Ankara’s already troubled economy. Turkey is officially in a recession.

 

The Americans are so upset about this S-400 business, that the Senate recently proposed lifting an arms embargo on Cyprus and signing energy agreements with Greece and Egypt—two of Turkey’s major regional rivals.

 

Although not being able to purchase the F-35 may end up being a plus for Ankara. The plane is an over-priced lemon. Some of Erdogan’s advisors argue that Ankara could always turn to Russia for a fifth generation warplane (and one that might actually work).

 

There is some talk about throwing Turkey out of NATO, but that is mostly bluff. The simple fact is that NATO needs Turkey more than Turkey needs NATO. Ankara controls access to the Black Sea, where NATO has deployed several missile-firing surface ships. Russia’s largest naval base is on the Crimean Peninsula and relations between Moscow and NATO are tense.

 

A strategic turn toward Moscow seems unlikely. The Russians oppose Turkey’s hostility toward the Kurds in Syria, don’t share Erdogan’s antagonism toward Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and have differences with Ankara over Cyprus and the Caucasus. And for all the talk about increasing trade between the two countries, the Russian economy is not all that much larger than Turkey’s and is currently straining under NATO-applied sanctions.

 

On the one hand, Ankara is angry with Washington for its refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim leader that Erdogan claims was behind the failed 2016 coup. On the other hand, the Turkish President also knows that the US pretty much controls the IMF and he will need American support if he goes for a bailout.

 

How Erdogan will handle his domestic problems and foreign entanglements is anyone’s guess. Erdogan the politician made peace with the Kurds, established a good neighbor policy regionally and lifted tens of millions of Turks out of poverty.

 

But Erdogan the autocrat pulled his country into a senseless war with the Kurds and Syria, distorted the economy to build an election juggernaut, jailed political opponents and turned Turkish democracy into one-man rule.

 

If the local elections were a sobering lesson for Erdogan, they should also be a wakeup call for the mainstream Turkish opposition. The only reason the CHP now runs Turkey’s major cities is because the Kurdish HDP took a deep breath and voted for the Party’s candidates. That must not have been easy. The CHP was largely silent when Erdogan launched his war on the Kurds in 2015 and voted with the AKP to remove parliamentary immunity for HDP members. That allowed the Turkish President to imprison 16 HDP parliamentarians, remove HDP mayors, and smash up Kurdish cities.

 

The Kurds demonstrated enormous political sophistication in the recent Turkish balloting, but they will not be patient forever. Erdogan can be challenged, but—as the election demonstrated—only by a united front of center-left and left parties. That will require the CHP alliance to find a political solution to the demands of the Kurds for rights and autonomy.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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EU Elections: Europe Confronts a Cliff

European Union Elections: A Crossroad

Dispatches From The Edge

Mar. 26, 2019

 

 

As the campaigns for the European Parliament get underway, some of the traditional lines that formerly divided left, right and center are shifting, making it harder to easily categorize political parties. In Italy, a right wing coalition calls for a guaranteed income, larger pensions and resistance to the heavy-handed austerity programs enforced by the European Union (EU). In France, some right wing groups champion the fight against climate change, decry exploitation of foreign workers and growing economic inequality.

 

In contrast, Europe’s political center seems paralyzed in the face of growing disillusionment with the economic policies of the EU. Even the social democratic center-left defends doctrines that have alienated its former base among unions and working people, pushing such parties to the political margins.

 

If voters seem confused, one can hardly blame them, which is not good news for the left and the center-left going into the May 23-26 elections. Polls show center-right and center-left parties, which have dominated the EU Parliament since it first convened in 1979, will lose their majority. Parties that are increasingly skeptical of the organization may win as many as a third of the seats in the 705-seat body.

 

However, “Euro-skeptic,” like “populist,” is a term that obscures more than it reveals. In the polls, the two are lumped together in spite of profound differences. The Spanish left party, Podemos, is not likely to break bread with Italy’s rightwing League/ Five Star alliance, but both are considered “Euro-skeptic.” Podemos, along with Greece’s Syriza, Portugal’s three party center-left alliance, and La France Insoumise (“Unbowed”) are critical of the EU’s economic policies, but they do not share an agenda with xenophobic and racist parties like the League, France’s National Rally—formally, National Front—and the Alternative for Germany (AfG).

 

Which doesn’t mean that the upcoming election doesn’t pose a serious threat, in part because the Right has adopted some of the Left’s longstanding issues.

 

In Italy, Mario Salvini, leader of the League, says the EU elections will be fought between a Europe “of the elites, of banks, of finance and immigration and precarious work,” and a “Europe of people and labor.” Take out “immigrants,” and the demagogy of the Right sounds a lot like something Karl Marx might write.

 

In France, young right-wingers put out a lively environmental magazine, Limite, which wars against climate change. Marion Marechal Le Pen—granddaughter of Jean Marie Le Pen, the rightwing, anti-Semitic founder of the old National Front—rails against individualism and the global economy that “enslaves” foreign labor and casts French workers on the scrap heap.

 

Of course, she also trashes immigrants and Islam, while advocating for a “traditional Christian community” that sounds like Dark Ages Europe.

 

During the 1990s, the center-left—the French, Spanish and Greek socialists, the German Social Democrats, and British Labour—adopted the “market friendly” economic philosophy of neo-liberalism: free trade and globalization, tax cuts for the wealthy, privatization of public resources, and “reforming” the labor market by making it easier to hire and fire employees. The result has been the weakening of trade unions and a shift from long-term stable contracts to short-term “gigs.” The latter tend to pay less and rarely include benefits.

 

Spain is a case in point.

 

On the one hand, Spain’s economy is recovering from the 2008 crash brought on by an enormous real estate bubble. Unemployment has dropped from over 27 percent to 14.5 percent, and the country’s growth rate is the highest in the EU.

 

On the other hand, 90 percent of the jobs created in 2017 were temporary jobs, some lasting only a few days. Wages and benefits have not caught up to pre-crash levels and Spanish workers’ share of the national income fell from 63 percent in 2007 to 56 percent today, reflecting the loss in real wages.

 

Even in France, which still has a fairly robust network of social services, economic disparity is on the rise. From 1950 to 1982, most French workers saw their incomes increase at a rate of 4 percent a year, while the wealth of the elite went up by just 1 percent. But after 1983—when neo-liberal economics first entered the continent—the income for most French workers rose by less than 1 percent a year, while the wealth of the elite increased 100 percent after taxes.

 

The “recovery” has come about through the systematic lowering of living standards, a sort of reverse globalization: rather than relying on cheap foreign labor in places where trade unions are absent or suppressed, the educated and efficient home grown labor force is forced to accept lower wages and fewer—if any—benefits.

 

The outcome is a growing impoverishment of what was formally considered “middle class”—a slippery term, but one that the International Labor Organization defines as making an income of between 80 percent and 120 percent of a country’s medium income. By that definition, between 23 and 40 percent of EU households fall into it.

 

For young people, the “new economy” has been a catastrophe. More and more of them are forced to immigrate or live at home to make ends meet, putting off marriage and children for the indefinite future.

 

This income crunch is adding to a demographic crisis. In a modern industrial society, the required replacement rate of births to deaths is 2.1. The world’s replacement rate is 2.44. If economies fall under 2.1, they are in for long-term trouble. Eventually the work force will be insufficient to support health care, education, sanitation, and infrastructure repair.

 

The EU posts a replacement rate of only 1.57. Germany is one of the few EU countries that has shown a rise in the ratio—from 1.50 to 1.59—but that is almost completely due to the one million immigrants the country took in four years ago.

 

The three countries that are leading the crusade against immigrants—Hungary, Poland and Italy—are in particular trouble.

 

Hungary, where strongman Victor Orban has made immigration a central issue for his rightwing government, is struggling with a major labor shortage. Orban recently rammed through a law requiring Hungarians to work 400 overtime hours a year to fill the shortfall, and he has been berating Hungarian women to have more babies.

 

In Italy, the rightwing League/Five Star Movement rode anti-immigrant rhetoric to power in the last spring’s election, but with a replacement ratio of only 1.31—the lowest in the EU—the country is losing the equivalent of the population of the city of Bologna every three years. All one has to do to see where this ends is to look at Japan, where an aging population has created such a crisis that the normally xenophobic Japanese are importing health care workers. China has similar demographic problems.

 

Playing on fears of a migrant “invasion” alarms people, but is it an assured vote getter? In recent German elections, the AfG ran strong anti-immigrant campaigns but ended up losing badly to the Greens. The latter have a more welcoming posture vis-à-vis migrants than even the German Social Democrats.

 

If Germany does not address the problem, its population will decline from 81 million to 67 million by 2060, and the workforce will be reduced to 54 percent of the population, not nearly enough to keep the country’s current level of social spending.

 

Much was made of recent electoral gains by the anti-immigrant neo-fascist Vox Party in Spain’s southern province of Andalusia, but if Spain does shut down the flow of migrants it will be in serious difficulty. The country’s population has declined since 2012, and there are provinces where the ratio of deaths to births is three to one. More than 1500 small towns have been abandoned.

 

Polls indicate that immigration tops EU voters’ concerns, but just. It is only a few percentage points ahead of the economy and youth unemployment.

 

The right—in particular Hungary’s Orban—has done a masterful job of tying “liberal” to the neo-liberal policies of the EU. Unfortunately, it is an easy argument to make. Most “liberals” in the west associate the term with freedom, democracy and open societies, but many people in the EU experience “liberal” as a philosophy of rapacious individualism that has dismantled social services, widened the gap between rich and poor, and enforced a system of draconian austerity.

 

Of course Orban, Marine Le Pen, the League’s Matteo Salvini, and Germany’s AfG are interested in power, not the plight of the EU’s 500 million citizens. And for all its talk of resistance, the League/Five Star Movement government folded when the EU nixed an Italian budget that included a guaranteed income and higher pensions.

 

Global migration is on the rise as climate change drowns coastlines and river deltas and drought drives people out of arid climates in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and Latin America. By 2060, as many as 3 billion people could be affected.

 

Which argues that the Left and center-left has a responsibility not only to resist the economic philosophy that currently dominates the EU, but to see immigrants for what they are: potential allies and the future.

 

As for the Right, it is useful to recall some not so ancient history. In 1934, the Nazi Party’s German Labor Front struck a medal that read “Tag Der Arbeit” (“The Day of Labor”) and featured a Nazi eagle grasping a swastika, each wing tip embracing a hammer and a sickle—but the first victims of the Nazis were communists and trade unionists.

 

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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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Unwrapping Armageddon: The Erosion of Nuclear Arms Control

Nuclear Treaties: Unwrapping Armageddon

Dispatches From The Edge

Nov. 6, 2018

 

The decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Force Agreement (INF) appears to be part of a broader strategy aimed at unwinding over 50 years of agreements to control and limit nuclear weapons, returning to an era characterized by the unbridled development weapons of mass destruction.

 

Terminating the INF treaty—which bans land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of between 300 and 3400 miles— is not, in and of itself, a fatal blow to the network of treaties and agreements dating back to the 1963 treaty that ended atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. But coupled with other actions—George W. Bush’s decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 2002 and the Obama administration’s program to upgrade the nuclear weapons infrastructure— the tapestry of agreements that has, at least in part, limited these terrifying creations, is looking increasingly frayed.

 

“Leaving the INF,” says Sergey Rogov of the Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies, “could bring the whole structure of arms control crashing down.”

 

Lynn Rusten, the former senior director for arms control in the National Security Agency Council warns, “This is opening the door to an all-out arms race.”

 

Washington’s rationale for exiting the INF Treaty is that the Russians deployed the 9M729 cruise missile that the US claims violates the agreement, although Moscow denies it and the evidence has not been made public. Russia countercharges that the US ABM system—Aegis Ashore—deployed in Romania and planned for Poland could be used to launch similar medium range missiles.

 

If this were a disagreement over weapon capability, inspections would settle the matter. But the White House—in particular National Security Advisor John Bolton—is less concerned with inspections than extracting the US from agreements that in any way restrain the use of American power, be it military or economic. Thus, Trump dumped the Iran nuclear agreement, not because Iran is building nuclear weapons or violating the agreement, but because the administration wants to use economic sanctions to pursue regime change in Teheran.

 

In some ways, the INF agreement is low hanging fruit. The 1987 treaty banned only land-based medium range missiles, not those launched by sea or air —where the Americans hold a strong edge—and it only covered the U.S. and Russia. Other nuclear-armed countries, particularly China, India, North Korea, Israel and Pakistan have deployed a number of medium range nuclear-armed missiles. One of the arguments Bolton makes for exiting the INF is that it would allow the US to counter China’s medium range missiles.

 

But if the concern was controlling intermediate range missiles, the obvious path would be to expand the treaty to other nations and include air and sea launched weapons. Not that that would be easy. China has lots of intermediate range missiles, because most its potential antagonists, like Japan or US bases in Asia, are within the range of such missiles. The same goes for Pakistan, India, and Israel.

 

Intermediate range weapons—sometimes called “theater” missiles—do not threaten the US mainland the way that similar US missiles threaten China and Russia. Beijing and Moscow can be destroyed by long-range intercontinental missiles, but also by theater missiles launched from ships or aircraft. One of the reasons that Europeans are so opposed to withdrawing from the INF is that, in the advent of nuclear war, medium-range missiles on their soil will make them a target.

 

But supposed violations of the treaty is not why Bolton and the people around him oppose the agreement. Bolton called for withdrawing from the INF Treaty three years before the Obama administration charged the Russians with cheating. Indeed, Bolton has opposed every effort to constrain nuclear weapons and has already announced that the Trump administration will not extend the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) when it expires in 2021.

 

START caps the number of US and Russian deployed nuclear weapons at 1550, no small number.

 

The Bush administration’s withdrawal from the 1972 ABM treaty in 2002 was the first major blow to the treaty framework. Anti-ballistic missiles are inherently destabilizing, because the easiest way to defeat such systems is to overwhelm them by expanding the number of launchers and warheads. Bolton—a longtime foe of the ABM agreement—recently bragged that dumping the treaty had no effect on arms control.

 

But the treaty’s demise has shelved START talks, and it was the ABM’s deployment in Eastern Europe—along with NATO’s expansion up to the Russian borders—that led to Moscow deploying the cruise missile now in dispute.

 

While Bolton and Trump are more aggressive about terminating agreements, it was the Obama administration’s decision to spend $1.6 trillion to upgrade and modernize US nuclear weapons that now endangers one of the central pillars of the nuclear treaty framework, the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

 

That agreement ended the testing of nuclear weapons, slowing the development of new weapons, particularly miniaturization and warheads with minimal yields. The former would allow more warheads on each missile, the latter could increase the possibility of using nuclear weapons without setting off a full-scale nuclear exchange.

 

Nukes are tricky to design, so you don’t want to deploy one without testing it. The Americans have bypassed some of the obstacles created by the CTBT by using computers like the National Ignition Facility. The B-61 Mod 11 warhead, soon-to-be-deployed in Europe, was originally a city killer, but labs at Livermore, CA and Los Alamos and Sandia, NM turned it into a bunker buster, capable of taking out command and control centers buried deep in the ground.

 

Nevertheless, the military and the nuclear establishment—ranging from companies such as Lockheed Martin and Honeywell International to university research centers—have long felt hindered by the CTBT. Add the Trump administration’s hostility to anything that constrains US power and the CTBT may be next on the list.

 

Restarting nuclear testing will end any controls on weapons of mass destruction. And since Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) requires nuclear-armed powers to eventually disarm their weapons of mass destruction, that agreement may go as well. In a very short time countries like South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia will join the nuclear club, with South Africa and Brazil in the wings. The latter two countries researched producing nuclear weapons in the 1980s, and South Africa actually tested one.

 

The demise of the INF agreement will edge the world closer to nuclear war. Since medium range missiles shorten the warning time for a nuclear attack from 30 minutes to 10 minutes or less, countries will keep their weapons on a hair trigger. “Use them or lose them” is the philosophy that impels the tactics of nuclear war.

 

In the past year, Russia and NATO held very large military exercises on one another’s borders. Russian, US and Chinese fighter planes routinely play games of chicken. What happens when one of those “games” goes wrong?

The US and the Soviet Union came within minutes of an accidental war on at least two occasions, and, with so many actors and so many weapons, it will be only a matter of time before some country interprets a radar image incorrectly and goes to DEFCON 1—imminent nuclear war.

 

The INF Treaty came about because of strong opposition and huge demonstrations in Europe and the United States. That kind of pressure, coupled with a pledge by countries not to deploy such weapons, will be required again, lest the entire tapestry of agreements that kept the horror of nuclear war at bay vanish.

 

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NATO: Time to Re-Examine an Alliance

NATO: The Unexamined Alliance

Dispatches From The Edge

July 24, 2018

 

 

The outcome of the July11-12 NATO meeting in Brussels got lost amid the media’s obsession with President Donald Trump’s bombast, but the “Summit Declaration” makes for sober reading. The media reported that the 28-page document “upgraded military readiness,” and was “harshly critical of Russia,” but there was not much detail beyond that.

But details matter, because that is where the Devil hides.

 

One such detail is NATO’s “Readiness Initiative” that will beef up naval, air and ground forces in “the eastern portion of the Alliance.” NATO is moving to base troops in Latvia, Estonia Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Poland. Since Georgia and Ukraine have been invited to join the Alliance, some of those forces could end up deployed on Moscow’s western and southern borders.

 

And that should give us pause.

 

A recent European Leadership’s Network’s (ELN) study titled “Envisioning a Russia-NATO Conflict” concludes, “The current Russia-NATO deterrence relationship is unstable and dangerously so.” The ELN is an independent think tank of military, diplomatic and political leaders that fosters “collaborative” solutions to defense and security issues.

 

High on the study’s list of dangers is “inadvertent conflict,” which ELN concludes “may be the most likely scenario for a breakout” of hostilities. “The close proximity of Russian and NATO forces” is a major concern, argues the study, “but also the fact that Russia and NATO have been adapting their military postures towards early reaction, thus making rapid escalation more likely to happen.”

 

With armed forces nose-to-nose, “a passage from crisis to conflict might be sparked by the actions of regional commanders or military commanders at local levels or come as a consequence of an unexpected incident or accident.” According to the European Leadership Council, there have been more than 60 such incidents in the last year.

 

The NATO document is, indeed, hard on Russia, which it blasts for the “illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea,” its “provocative military activities, including near NATO borders,” and its “significant investments in the modernization of its strategic [nuclear] forces.”

 

Unpacking all that requires a little history, not the media’s strong suit.

 

The story goes back more than three decades to the fall of the Berlin Wall and eventual re-unification of Germany. At the time, the Soviet Union had some 380,000 troops in what was then the German Democratic Republic. Those forces were there as part of the treaty ending World War II, and the Soviets were concerned that removing them could end up threatening the USSR’s borders. The Russians have been invaded—at terrible cost—three times in a little more than a century.

 

So West German Chancellor Helmet Kohl, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev cut a deal. The Soviets agreed to withdraw troops from Eastern Europe as long as NATO did not fill the vacuum, or recruit members of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact. Baker promised Gorbachev that NATO would not move “one inch east.”

 

The agreement was never written down, but it was followed in practice. NATO stayed west of the Oder and Neisse rivers, and Soviet troops returned to Russia. The Warsaw Pact was dissolved in 1991.

 

But President Bill Clinton blew that all up in 1999 when the U.S. and NATO intervened in the civil war between Serbs and Albanians over the Serbian province of Kosovo. Behind the new American doctrine of “responsibility to protect,” NATO opened a massive 11-week bombing campaign against Serbia.

 

From Moscow’s point of view the war was unnecessary. The Serbs were willing to withdraw their troops and restore Kosovo’s autonomous status. But NATO demanded a large occupation force that would be immune from Serbian law, something the nationalist-minded Serbs would never agree to. It was virtually the same provocative language the Austrian-Hungarian Empire had presented to the Serbs in 1914, language that set off World War I.

 

In the end, NATO lopped off part of Serbia to create Kosovo and re-drew the post World War II map of Europe, exactly what the Alliance charges that Russia has done with its seizure of the Crimea.

 

But NATO did not stop there. In 1999 the Alliance recruited former Warsaw Pact members Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, adding Bulgaria and Romania four years later. By the end of 2004, Moscow was confronted with NATO in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to the north, Poland to the west, and Bulgaria and Turkey to the south. Since then, the Alliance has added Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, and Montenegro. It has invited Georgia, Ukraine, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to apply as well.

 

When the NATO document chastises Russia for “provocative” military activities near the NATO border, it is referring to maneuvers within its own border or one of its few allies, Belarus.

 

As author and foreign policy analyst Anatol Lieven points out, “Even a child” can look at a 1988 map of Europe and see “which side has advanced in which direction.”

 

NATO also accuses Russia of “continuing a military buildup in Crimea,” without a hint that those actions might be in response to what the Alliance document calls its “substantial increase in NATO’s presence and maritime activity in the Black Sea.” Russia’s largest naval port on the Black Sea is Sevastopol in the Crimea.

 

One does not expect even-handedness in such a document, but there are disconnects in this one that are worrisome.

 

Yes, the Russians are modernizing their nuclear forces, but the Obama administration was first out of that gate in 2009 with its $1.5 trillion program to upgrade the U.S.’s nuclear weapons systems. Both programs are a bad idea.

 

Some of the document’s language about Russia is aimed at loosening purse strings at home. NATO members agreed to cough up more money, but that decision preceded Trump’s Brussels tantrum on spending.

 

There is some wishful thinking on Afghanistan—“Our Resolute Support Mission is achieving success”—when in fact things have seldom been worse. There are vague references to the Middle East and North Africa, nothing specific, but a reminder that NATO is no longer confining its mission to what it was supposedly set up to do: Keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.

 

The Americans are still in—one should take Trump’s threat of withdrawal with a boulder size piece of salt—there is no serious evidence the Russians ever planned to come in, and the Germans have been up since they joined NATO in 1955. Indeed, it was the addition of Germany that sparked the formation of the Warsaw Pact.

 

While Moscow is depicted as an aggressive adversary, NATO surrounds Russia on three sides, has deployed anti-missile systems in Poland, Romania, Spain, Turkey, and the Black Sea, and has a 12 to 1 advantage in military spending. With opposing forces now toe-to-toe, it would not take much to set off a chain reaction that could end in a nuclear exchange.

 

Yet instead of inviting a dialogue, the document boasts that the Alliance has “suspended all practical civilian and military cooperation between NATO and Russia.”

 

The solution seems obvious. First, a return to the 1998 military deployment. While it is unlikely that former members of the Warsaw Pact would drop their NATO membership, a withdrawal of non-national troops from NATO members that border Russia would cool things off. Second, the removal of anti-missile systems that should never have been deployed in the first place. In turn, Russia could remove the middle range Iskander missiles NATO is complaining about and agree to talks aimed at reducing nuclear stockpiles.

 

But long range, it is finally time to re-think alliances. NATO was a child of the Cold War, when the West believed that the Soviets were a threat. But Russia today is not the Soviet Union, and there is no way Moscow would be stupid enough to attack a superior military force. It is time NATO went the way of the Warsaw Pact and recognize that the old ways of thinking are not only outdated but also dangerous.

 

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The Spanish Labyrinth

The Spanish Labyrinth

Dispatches From The Edge

June 15, 2018

 

As the socialist-led government takes over in Spain, newly minted Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez faces at least two daunting tasks: cleaning up the wreckage wrought by years of European Union (EU) enforced austerity and resolving the Catalan crisis exacerbated by Madrid’s violent reaction to last fall’s independence referendum. Unfortunately, his Party’s track record is not exactly sterling on either issue.

 

Sanchez, leader of the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), patched together parties in Catalonia and the Basque region, plus the leftist Podemos Party, to oust long-time Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the People’s Party (PP). But is the telegenic former economics professor up to the job, and will his Party challenge the economic program of the EU’s powerful “troika”—the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission?

 

The answers to those questions are hardly clear, and in many ways the cross currents and rip tides of Spanish politics still resemble Gerald Brenan’s classic study of the Civil War, The Spanish Labyrinth.

 

While the issue that brought Rajoy down was corruption—a massive kickback scheme that enriched scores of high-ranking PP members— his Party was already weakened by the 2015 election, and he has been forced to rely on the conservative Ciudadanos Party based in Catalonia to stay in power. In short, it was only a matter of time before he fell.

 

Sanchez promises to address the “pressing social needs” of Spaniards, although he has been vague about what that actually means. But Spain is hurting. While economic growth returned in 2013, unemployment is still at 16.1, and youth joblessness is 35 percent. Rajoy took credit for the economy’s rebound from the massive financial meltdown in 2008, but there is little evidence that budget cuts and austerity did the trick. The two main engines for growth were cheap oil and a weak currency.

 

The job growth has mainly been in short term and temp jobs, with lower pay and fewer benefits. That is not specific to Spain, however. Of the 5.2 million jobs created in the EU between 2013 and 2016, some 2.1 million of them have been short term, “mini” jobs that have been particularly hard on young people. Many continue to live at home with their aging parents, and 400,000 have emigrated to other European countries.

 

Education, health care, and infrastructure have all deteriorated under a blizzard of budget cuts, and Sanchez will have to address those problems. His party’s record on the economy, however, has been more centrist than social democratic, and the PSOE basically accepts the neo-liberal mantra of tax cuts, deregulation and privatization. It was PSOE Prime Minister Jose Zapatero who sliced more than $17 billion from the budget in 2010, froze pensions, cut child care funds and home care for the elderly, and passed legislation making it easier to lay off workers.

 

It was anger at the Socialists over rising unemployment that swept Rajoy and the PP into power in 2011. The PSOE has never recovered from that debacle, dropping from 44 percent of the vote to 24.9 percent today. It has only 84 deputies in the Parliament, just 14 more than Podemos.

 

When Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias proposed forming a government of the left. Sanchez rejected it and instead appointed all PSOE people to the cabinet. However, he will have to rely on support from the left to stay in power, and there is no guarantee that it will be there unless the Socialists step away from their centrism and begin rolling back the austerity measures.

 

Sanchez has a mixed record on leftism vs. centrism. He was ousted from the Party’s leadership last year by the PSOE’s rightwing when he considered forming a united front of the left. It was the Party’s rank and file, angered at the rightwing Socialists that allowed Rajoy to form a minority government that put him back in power. So far, Sanchez has been unwilling to consider the kind of alliance of left parties that has been so successful in Portugal.

 

The new government will also need the support of the two Catalan parties, and that will likely be an uphill slog. The Catalans just elected a government that supports independence, although its President, Quim Torra has called for “talks.”

 

The current Catalonia crisis was ignited when Rajoy torpedoed a 2006 agreement between the Spanish government and the Catalan government that would have given the province greater local control over its finances and recognized the Catalan’s unique culture. Under the prodding of the PP, the Constitutional Court overturned the agreement and shifted the dispute from the political realm to a legal issue.

 

At the time, the idea of independence was marginal in Catalonia, but the refusal of Rajoy to even discuss the issue shifted it to the mainstream. “Independentism, which until 2010 was a decidedly minority option in Catalonia, has grown immensely,” according to Thomas Harrington, a Professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College, CT.

 

The Catalans began pressing for a referendum on independence—nearly 80 percent supported holding one—although it was initially seen as non-binding. Even though Podemos did not support the idea of independence, it backed the basic democratic right of the Catalans to vote on the issue. The PSOE, however, was as hard-nosed on the issue as Rajoy and the PP. Not only did the Socialists not support the right of the Catalans to vote, they backed Rajoy’s crackdown on the province, although they decried the violence unleashed on citizens trying to vote during last October’s referendum.

 

Some 2.3 million Catalans out of the 5.3 million registered voters went to the polls and overwhelmingly endorsed independence in spite of the fact that Rajoy sent some 10,000 National Police and Guardia Civil into the province to seize ballot, beat voters and injure more than 850 people. Legal procedures have been filed against over 700 mayors and elected officials, and the Catalan leadership is either in jail or on the run. While Sanchez said the crackdown was “a sad day for our democracy,” he will have a lot of explaining to do to the Catalan government.

 

Unlike Rajoy, Sanchez says he wants a dialogue with the Catalans, although he also says he intends to uphold the Spanish constitution, which does not permit secession.

 

Catalan society is deeply split. The big cities tend to be opposed to independence, as are many trade unions. The left is divided on the issue, but many young people support it. As the Financial Times’ Tobias Buck points out, “The younger generation, who have been schooled in Catalan and have less contact with the rest of Spain than their parents, are among the most enthusiastic backers of independence.”

 

It is also clear that the brutality of Rajoy’s assault has moved people in that direction, although polls show independence still does not have a majority. But in a sense, that is irrelevant. When almost half the population wants something that “something” has to be addressed, and if Buck is right about the demographics, time is running out for Madrid.

 

There are other serious constitutional issues that need to be addressed as well. Rural areas are greatly favored over cities. While it takes 125,000 voters in Madrid to elect a representative, in some rural areas it takes as few as 38,000. There is also a need to address Rajoy’s draconian laws against free speech and assembly.

 

Just how stable Sanchez’s government will be is unclear. He must keep the Basques and the Catalans on board and do enough on the economy to maintain the support of Podemos.

 

The PP is badly wounded, and the rightwing Ciudadanos Party—the only one that voted against the no confidence resolution—will be looking to fill that vacuum. Ciudadanos calls itself the “center,” but its economic policies are the same as those of the PP, and it is rabidly opposed to separatism. It performed poorly in the last election and in regional elections in Galicia and the Basque region. It did well in the recent Catalan elections, but that is because the Popular Party collapsed and its voters shifted to Ciudadanos.

 

Sanchez must recognize that the Catalan issue is political, not legal, and that force is not an option. As Napoleon Bonaparte’s Foreign Minister Talleyrand once remarked, “You can do anything you like with bayonets, except sit on them,” summing up the truism that repression does not work in the long run.

 

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