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Seven Generations

by Berry Friesen (December 29, 2016)

There is popular discontent in the land—an intuitive sense that we are on the wrong path, that we have lost our way.  We see evidence of this discontent in the erratic voting behavior of the American people, choosing inexperienced and marginally qualified politicians such as George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, one after the other.

Can we hear it?  Do we perceive what this popular discontent is saying?

To liberals, I hear it saying, “Your vision of the good life is barren.  It provides great freedom, happiness and self-fulfillment to the current generation, but shows little concern for those coming next.  You render us cut flowers, beautiful for a short time but unable to sustain ourselves because we have no roots.”

To conservatives, I hear it saying, “You proclaim the importance of traditions, of roots. But you water our roots with the poison of corporate neo-liberalism, which makes money and the market the measure of all things.  You leave us desiccated and weak, unable to sustain coming generations.”

This popular discontent—this populism—contrasts with a distant call from the “water protectors” of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota.  When explaining why they resist the oil pipeline, they speak of “the seven generations” who will depend on the water of the Missouri River.  Listen to Joni Sarah White interpret this wisdom:

“Each Indian Nation has its own sacred covenant with their maker . . . a sacred trust that binds their existence and spirit with those that have come before and those yet to travel . . .  a journey sculpted by that trust. It is a bridge for today that connects all that has been with all that is yet to be; a duty to act here and now to preserve and protect what was and what will be. Without it, for Native people there can be no tomorrow.”

“Seven Generations is a river and we, my friends and family, are in the midst of its current. We the People will continue to insure its waters are defended, clean and pure.”

Tell me, is this a liberal voice?  A conservative voice?  Or, in this talk of “seven generations,” do we hear a voice fresh and life-giving because it cuts across the barrenness of the liberal/conservative divide?

I hear this same emphasis on “the generations” in the Psalms.  For example, listen to Psalm 119:89-90.

“The LORD exists forever; your word is firmly fixed in heaven. Your faithfulness endures to all generations, you have established the earth and it stands fast.”

Yet this is an emphasis too rarely heard in the debates I am party to, whether those debates concern church teaching about sexuality or the construction of a gas pipeline through local forests and farmland.  In such debates, individualistic assumptions reign supreme, couched in terms of personal happiness or the inviolability of financial profit and the marketplace.  A larger sense of community—giving coherence to our individual lives and spanning the generations—seems increasingly elusive.

As we enter 2017, this is my wish:  whether we regard ourselves as liberals/progressives or as conservatives/traditionalists, we will give high priority to self-critique.  Why isn’t my vision connecting with more people?  What are these “populists” looking for that my liberalism/conservatism does not provide?

It’s not only here in the US that popular disconnect is ascendant; it’s true of Europe too. “Is it possible to have populism without racism?” by Benjamin L. McKean provides helpful commentary on the contrasting ways this populism is playing out in Europe and the US.

Each of us must do his/her own work to exit the liberal/conservative cul-de-sac we’ve been given and enter into fruitful engagement with our time and place. The seven generations motif of Native peoples is one such path. Reading Rod Dreher and friends at The American Conservative is another (here is one example of the kinds of dialogue Dreher encourages).

My own effort in this regard was shaped by a couple of authors, one of whom was Christopher Lasch, an American historian whose True and Only Heaven:  Progress and Its Critics impacted me as much as any book I’ve ever read.  For those willing to dip a toe into the stream of Lasch’s writings, I suggest this commemorative essay by Susan McWilliams.

But be warned: Lasch may spoil your day.  He had an incisive way of spotting the myriad ways progressive folks “absorb avant garde ideas only to put them at the service of consumer capitalism.”

Shortly before dying of cancer in 1994 at the age of 61, Lasch lamented “the modernist ideal of individuals emancipated from convention, constructing identities for themselves as they choose, leading their own lives as if life itself were a work of art” (The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy at 234).  Within such a worldview, “religion is consistently treated as a source of intellectual and emotional security, not as a challenge to complacency and pride” (242). Thus, the “purposes of the Almighty” are neatly folded into smug assumptions related to the inevitability of human progress and the paramount value of personal happiness and fulfillment.  Former priorities—such as a community context in which to share life’s difficulties, support future generations and embrace life’s paradoxes—recede from view.

In contrast, Lasch pointed to a 19th century “republican tradition” that pre-dated modern liberalism and outlined a very different pathway to rich relationships, an enlivened spirit and an equitable world.  Represented in American history by writers as diverse as Jonathan Edwards, Orestes Brownson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Martin Luther King, Lasch claimed the memory of this tradition still resonates within blue-collar America, even though it has been largely lost among more highly educated classes.

To be sure, many working class people have become as liberal as the rest of us in their preoccupations with comfort, consumption, self-expression, entertainment and the pursuit of happiness.  But especially among older folks, the memory of another way remains: loyalty to family, faith and friends; solidarity with one’s neighbors and class; a commitment to work and productivity; an acceptance of life’s limits; a desire to leave descendants amid at least as much friendship, equity and opportunity as we’ve enjoyed.

In part, this memory is what spurs the populism roiling the United States and Europe these days.  May 2017 be the year we stop seeing this as a problem and begin seeing it as an opportunity.

What the Fuss is About

by Berry Friesen (December 26, 2016)

My nearly 4-year-old granddaughter, Saffi, has been thinking some deep thoughts. Here’s a recent bedtime conversation with her mother.

“Mama, why am I special?”
“Because god made you.”
“How did god make me?”
“God made all of us.”
“Where is god?”
“God is everywhere and also inside us.”
“Is god a person?”
“Not really.”
“Does god have a nose?”
“I don’t think so, Saffi.”
“Does god have eyes and a mouth?”
“I don’t think so.”
“What does god look like?”
“Mmmm, maybe like a cloud?”
“I don’t think god looks like a cloud, mama. Maybe like the sun and the moon?”
“Maybe, Saffi. Good night, I love you.”
“Good night mama.”

A few days later at the childcare center where Saffi typically spends part of her day, Saffi had this exchange with one of her caregivers.

“God is not a person.”
“What does he look like?”
“He looks like the sun, moon and the stars.”
“What does he do?”
“He looks after all the little people around the world.”

Forgive my grandfatherly pride, but dear Saffi has articulated here universal patterns of human thought.  One, the desire for her life to be special, to have meaning; two, curiosity about what god is like; three, associating god with the awe she feels in the presence of the heavenly bodies.

Granted, “god” was mentioned first by Saffi's mother.  I imagine this usually is how it is: an adult explains life to a young child by introducing the concept of god.  And yes, one can argue “god” is merely a screen upon which we humans project the unanswerable questions.  That screen is not universal, in other words, only the questions that prompt some of us to erect it.

Be that as it may, Saffi’s questions (and the caregiver’s too) deserve to be taken seriously.  And if they take us to god, then we too find ourselves asking important, life-shaping questions, such as “What does god look like? What does god do?”

For Christians, Jesus of Nazareth answers these questions.

I don’t mean to take us into a theological thicket where we feel compelled to sort out the identity of Jesus vis-à-vis the god, YHWH, whom Jesus called father (“Abba”).  If interested in exploring that thicket, I suggest the 20th chapter of If Not Empire, What?, available via the homepage of this website.

I ask only that we wrap our minds around the central claim of the Christian faith—that the universal questions of humanity about the meaning of our lives, the character of god and the way creation works are answered by Jesus of Nazareth because, in the words of a Second Testament text, “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:19). That’s why we Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus—because he showed us what YHWH is like, what YHWH does.

In many ways, this turned out to be very good news.  Jesus was passionate, but never violent.  He spent his days engaged in acts of mercy, “looking after all the little people around the world” (as Saffi put it).  For others, Jesus turned out not to be good news.  As Jesus’ mother put it, “The hungry he satisfied with good things, but the rich he sent away empty” (Luke 1:53).

Obviously, one so divisive does not magically sweep away all the difficulties we encounter when we ponder the meaning of life, the identity of the Creator, or the way the world works.  Difficult questions remain.  Still, during this season of Christmas, it’s important to remember what the fuss is all about.

The "Fall of Aleppo"?

by Berry Friesen (December 19, 2016)

The so-called “fall of Aleppo” is the liberation of thousands of residents of east Aleppo from the grip of al-Qaeda and its imperial allies.

You won’t hear the word "liberation" from Western mainstream media, which want us to regard this as an atrocity.  But reporters on the ground, such as Vanessa Beeley (see link below), tell us that in Syria the events of recent days in Aleppo have been cause for rejoicing.

It’s a confusing situation, to be sure.  We’ve been led to believe that the war in Syria is the result of tyrannical rule, murderous Arab rivalries and the desire of the Syrian people to be “free” of their government.

Yet before the war, Syria was a relatively open and tolerant society.  Though Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has long had a reputation for autocratic rule and harshness—especially in his response to Salafist terrorism—the record of his government is in many ways preferable to Jordan’s, Saudi Arabia’s or Israel’s in regard to torture, the suppression of civil rights and use of lethal force as collective punishment.  Although Assad is of the Alawite branch of the Islamic faith, 80 percent of the personnel in his pre-war government/army practiced the Sunni version of Islam, including many persons of high rank.

To help readers who have absorbed six years of media disinformation about Syria—and as a tribute to the courageous people of Syria—I offer this overview of the war.

Even for readers not interested in Syria, this history is worth reading as it reveals how the empire operates to work its will in the world.

The war in Syria is not over.  Intense fighting is expected in coming weeks in Idlib Province, just to the southwest of Aleppo, where the rebels remain in control and government forces are expected to eventually prevail.

Also heavily contested are the eastern portion of Syria (where the Islamic State remains in control), the northern regions bordering Turkey (where Turkey’s army and Kurdish militias are in control) and the southern region bordering Israel (where al-Qaeda in cooperation with Israel are in control).  The reintegration of these areas into Syria remains in much doubt; they may remain indefinitely in the hands of non-Syrian forces.

To date, over 400,000 people have died in the Syrian war:  300,000 combatants evenly split between pro-government and anti-government forces; and 100,000 non-combatant civilians, including children.

Pray for the peace of Syria; call for the end of all interference by foreign governments in Syrian affairs.

This thumbnail history consists of 85 numbered paragraphs.  I initially posted 66 paragraphs on December 19 so that people could use it while Aleppo remained in the news.  On December 22, I added five paragraphs to 2015, moved two from 2015 to 2016, and added thirteen new ones for 2016. On December 31, I posted the 85th paragraph.

Sources:  here and here and here and here and here.

2007:

1. President George W. Bush, in consultation with leaders of Saudi Arabia and Israel, adopted a new strategy for undermining Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.  This new strategy entailed “bolstering” and empowering the Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafist groups (including al-Qaeda) through clandestine operations planned and funded by Saudi Arabia. What all of these Salafist groups had in common was their support for the violent imposition of sectarian rule in Syria under Sharia law.

Sources:  here and here and here.

2008:

2. A Pentagon-funded Rand Corporation report endorsed the Bush plan. It recommended the US maintain control of Persian Gulf oil and gas deposits by using “covert action, information operations and unconventional warfare” to enforce a “divide and rule” strategy.  Specifically, the report suggested “the United States and its local allies could use the nationalist jihadists to launch a proxy campaign” and that “U.S. leaders could also choose to capitalize on the sustained Shia-Sunni conflict trajectory by taking the side of the conservative Sunni regimes against Shiite empowerment movements in the Muslim world.”

Source: here.

2009:

3. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced that “to protect the interests of our Russian ally,” he would not approve construction of a Qatar-Turkey natural gas pipeline through eastern Syria.  Instead, said Assad, he would approve a proposal from Iran to run a pipeline through Iraq, across Syria and into Lebanon.  Both pipelines had been proposed to connect the world’s largest known gas deposits—jointly owned by Qatar and Iran—with the European market, which historically has been dependent on Russian gas sources.

4. In response to these developments, President Obama unleashed long-planned capacity to bring down the Assad government, including an extensive propaganda campaign aimed at the Syrian people.  This included a satellite television channel based in London and beamed into Syria, media operations in the Middle East and direct funding of opposition groups inside Syria.

5.  According to former French foreign minister Roland Dumas, in 2009 British authorities were already planning covertly for a regime change operation in Syria.  “I was in England two years before the violence in Syria on other business," Dumas told French television. "I met with top British officials, who confessed to me that they were preparing something in Syria. This was in Britain not in America. Britain was preparing gunmen to invade Syria."

6.  A US State Department cable about terrorism stated that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

Sources: here and here and here and here and here.
 
2010:

7. President Obama appointed Robert Ford as ambassador to Syria. From 2004-06, Ford had served as a political advisor to US Ambassador John Negroponte in Iraq where the two men implemented a strategy of using “death squads” to spur Sunni-Shia acrimony and curtail Iraqi resistance to the US occupation.  Soon after Ford’s appointment, he began to act as a destabilizing force within Syria by meeting with dissident groups and encouraging their activities.

Sources:  here.

2011:

8. On March 15, a large street demonstration protesting police brutality in the arrest of teenage graffiti artists occurred in the southern Syrian city of Daraa.  The protest included armed individuals—some on rooftops—who fired weapons at the police.  Seven police officers and at least four civilians were killed in the initial street demonstration.

9. Many subsequent street demonstrations also included armed participants who used the pretext of a “peaceful protest” to mask violent attacks on Syrian security personnel. By the end of April, dozens of police and members of the Syrian army had been killed by street “protesters” and in military-style ambushes.

10. Also in April and May, an Al-Jazeera journalist (Ali Hashem), working along the Lebanon-Syria border, observed many armed men and large amounts of military-style weapons entering Syria from Lebanon.  Though Hashem’s documentation included video footage, Qatar-funded Al-Jazeera refused to broadcast Hashem’s report; it did not fit the story line of peaceful civilians seeking redress from a harsh and oppressive government. Hashem subsequently resigned in protest.   In retrospect, this incident became the pattern for mainstream media coverage throughout the following years of war.

11. As civil unrest continued throughout April and May, spokespersons for the Muslim Brotherhood repeatedly declared that the purpose of the street protests was the overthrow of the Assad government and its replacement with a sectarian, Islamic state.

12. By late spring, open war against the government was underway in parts of Syria.  For example, on June 5 a coordinated rebel attack on a Syrian army unit in Idlib Province killed 149 Syrian soldiers.

13. On August 18, 2011, US President Obama called for Syrian President Assad to step down.

14. That same month, al-Qaeda’s central command authorized the start-up of a Syrian unit to attack and defeat the Syrian government.

15. Throughout the fall, armed rebel attacks on Syrian army installations became a daily occurrence.

16. In November, only a few weeks after the Gaddafi government of Libya had been overthrown by Salafists supported by a NATO-imposed no-fly zone, representatives of the Syrian rebels traveled to Libya to meet with Libya’s new rulers about arms shipments. A second meeting of the parties hosted by Turkish officials in Istanbul confirmed the details of the plan to support Syrian rebels with Libyan fighters, money, training and weapons.  Late in the month, 600 Libyan fighters entered Syria to join the rebels.

17. Notes of a December meeting of US military officers—published by WikiLeaks—stated that it was clear “without saying that SOF (special operations force) teams (presumably from US, UK, France, Jordan, Turkey) are already on the ground” in Syria conducting reconnaissance  and training missions.

18. A late 2011 poll in Syria conducted by an international polling firm and paid for by the government of Qatar found that 55 percent of Syrians wanted President Assad to continue in office, notwithstanding the civil strife and fighting.

Sources: here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

2012:

19. As the year started, the Syrian government reported that during the first ten months of the crisis, 2,500 army and police personnel had been killed.  Nevertheless, the Syrian government claimed to be bringing the situation under control.  

20. But outside pressure on Syria was only beginning to intensify.  The US and European governments imposed broad sanctions against Syrian financial institutions and against individuals in government or commerce who refused to defect to the rebel cause. International conferences of “Friends of Syria” created an aura of legitimacy for the forces working inside Syria to overthrow the government.  These carefully staged events were heavily publicized by Western news outlets, which completely ignored huge street demonstrations in Syria supportive of the government and opposed to foreign interference.

21. In February, Jabhat al-Nusra, the branch of al-Qaeda newly established in Syria, began making its presence felt by carrying out suicide bombings in Damascus and Aleppo.

22. Also early in the year, President Obama signed an “intelligence finding” authorizing the CIA to provide direct support to forces seeking to overthrow the Syrian government. Authorized “support” included the procurement of arms for the Syrian rebels and a “nerve center” at the US air base in Incirlik, Turkey, sixty miles north of the Syrian border to provide communications linkages and surveillance intelligence to the rebels.

23. Throughout the year, Western media highlighted atrocities involving the wanton murder of Syrian civilians.  Reports of these atrocities, such as the May massacre of 108 women and children in Houla, routinely pointed to the Syrian army or related militias as responsible.  Later reports, based on more complete investigations and pointing to rebel fighters as responsible, rarely received a mention in Western media.   This early pattern of false accusations receiving extensive media coverage, but subsequent corrections receiving little-to-no mention, continues through to the present.

24. In the spring of 2012, United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan led an initiative to bring an end to the fighting.  The US government publicly supported the Annan initiative, yet at the same time continued to coordinate the multi-nation, multi-billion-dollar war against Syria.  By late June, the Annan-led effort collapsed, unable to overcome US insistence that President Assad must immediately resign.

25. Meanwhile, large number of foreign fighters began arriving in Syria from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Pakistan and various countries of Europe.  These fighters received training in camps located in Jordan or Turkey, weapons and regular paychecks from funds provided by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and overall coordination and intelligence support from NATO members, including the US.  Fighting under the banners of several different Salafist groups, the flow of foreign fighters into Syria was sufficient to add around 30,000 troops to rebel forces at any point in time.

26. An August 2012 Pentagon intelligence report on Syria confirmed that “the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda in Iraq are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”  The intelligence report predicted the establishment of a “Salafist principality” in the eastern part of the country.  Most importantly, the report stated “this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition [western countries, the Gulf States and Turkey] want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).”

27. Also in August, President Obama said the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government would cross “a red line" triggering an American military response.  “We’re monitoring that situation very carefully,” said Obama; “We have put together a range of contingency plans.”

28. In late summer, al-Qaeda in Syria (al-Nusra), together with other rebel groups, took control of the eastern portion of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, where it remained in control for more than the next four years (until December, 2016).

29. A September attack by on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya resulted in the deaths of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.  Stevens was coordinating an extensive operation to ship arms from Libyan government warehouses to Syrian rebels via Turkey.  Up to 35 CIA agents were working on the project in a nearby annex in Benghazi at the time of the attacks.

30. A CIA-coordinated airlift of arms from eastern European (especially Croatia) for rebel fighters accelerated late in the year.  At least 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari military-style cargo planes participated in the arms transfers.  While President Obama continued to insist the US would not provide “lethal aid” to the rebels, this CIA-coordinated supply of lethal arms (paid for by Gulf partners) enabled the rebels to achieve major gains in territory in battles with the Syrian army.

31. Thus, what appeared to start as a civil conflict in 2011 was transformed during 2012 into a sophisticated invasion of Syria supported by the resources of many of the richest and most powerful nation-states in the world.  During the summer of 2012, around 6,000 people per month were killed in the fighting.

Sources:  here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

2013:

32. During the spring, yet another Salafist rebel group—an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq—crossed into Syria to join the attacks against the Syrian government.  Branding itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the new group was composed mainly of Iraqi fighters, but its rapid success in seizing control of small towns and territory in eastern Syria soon enabled it to attract Syrian recruits as well.

33. The development and growth of ISIL in Syria was a Saudi project led by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services and former Saudi ambassador to the United States (1983-2005).  Prince Bandar was a long-time friend of both presidents Bush, so close that he acquired the nickname “Bandar Bush.”

34. During March, two separate chemical attacks occurred in Aleppo.  The US immediately blamed the Syrian government.  In response, US Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham called for the imposition of a US-enforced “no-fly zone.”  The UN commenced an investigation, which confirmed that a nerve agent (sarin) had been used in the two Aleppo attacks and uncovered evidence that the attack had been carried out by rebel forces, not the government. However, the investigation remained open without final conclusions.

35. On August 21, a chemical attack on civilians in rebel-held Ghouta (a suburb of Damascus) caused the death of 1,429 people, including at least 426 children.  On August 30, the White House announced that “the US Government assesses with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out” the chemical attack using “a nerve agent in the attack” (likely sarin).  It declared that a scenario in which rebel groups carried out the attack to be “highly unlikely.”

36. Also on August 30, British Prime Minister David Cameron brought to the House of Commons a plan to commence military action against Syria in response to the sarin attack.  The House of Commons narrowly rejected Cameron’s proposal (272-285).

37. On August 31, President Obama said he would seek the support of Congress for military action against Syria.  On September 10, President Obama attempted to mobilize popular support via a nationally televised speech.  “Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people,” he said. “After careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.”

38. Congressional support was uncertain.  Senator Rand Paul mocked the President’s plan to “provide an air force for al-Qaeda.”  A CNN poll showed 70 percent of the public opposed the President’s plan.

39. Mid-September, Russian President Putin offered an alternative to US military intervention: Syrian President Assad would destroy Syria’s chemical weapons inventory. Recognizing the lack of support for military intervention, President Obama accepted the plan and abandoned his plan to commence a military attack on Syria.  Subsequently, Syria’s chemical weapons inventory was destroyed under international supervision.

40. In late September, eleven of the largest rebels groups repudiated their links to the so-called Free Syrian Army and formed an alliance under the leadership of al-Nusra.  The new coalition declared its goal to overthrow the Syrian government and create “an Islamic state in Syria.”  The alliance highlighted the weak and marginal character of the so-called “moderate rebels” who remained outside the Salafist alliance.  Nevertheless, in fall the Obama Administration announced the CIA would expand efforts in Jordan to raise up and train an army of “moderate rebels” able to contribute to the overthrow of Assad and serve as a non-sectarian anchor for a new government to replace President Assad’s administration.

41.  In December, President Obama approved the sale of 15,000 TOW anti-tank missiles to Saudi Arabia for use by Salfists in Syria.  These technically advanced weapons, costing nearly $1 billion, were distribued by the Saudis according to US preferences.  Initially, the direct recipients were Salafist groups not aligned with al Nusra, the Syrian unit of al Qaeda.  However, as al Nusra had emerged as the strongest and most successful fighting force among the array of Salafist militias, the "less extreme" groups receiving TOW missiles from the Saudis often had no practical choice but to share their elite weapons with al Nusra.

42. Late in the year, technical analysis of the artillery shells used in the August sarin attacks confirmed they could not have been fired from government-held territory, as alleged in the initial reports.  Although responsibility for the attacks remains disputed yet today, evidence accumulated over the past three years strongly suggests that Syrian rebels supported by Turkish intelligence committed the atrocity.

Sources:  here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

2014:

43. On January 13, ISIL seized complete control of the largest city in eastern Syria, al-Raqqa.  ISIL proceeded to execute Alawites and supporters of President Assad and destroy Shia mosques and Christian churches.  Christians, who constituted 10 percent of the population, fled the city.

44. In an interview with New Yorker magazine published in January, President Obama was asked about ISIL and international terrorism.  “The analogy we use around here sometimes. . .  is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

45. Yet within a few months of the President’s casual dismissal of ISIL, it gained control of vast expanses of Syria and Iraq.  Using suicide bombers—often in vehicles loaded with explosives—it captured Iraqi cities of Tikrit, Sinjar and Mosul and Iraq’s largest oil refinery.  With each victory, ISIL seized state-of-the-art military equipment the US had provided the Iraqi army.  On June 29, ISIL declared a new worldwide caliphate under the leadership of Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, named Syrian city al-Raqqa as its capitol, renamed itself the “Islamic State” and demanded allegiance from all other Salafist groups.

46.  Also in June, Syria held a general election, the first in decades in which more than a member of the Assad family was on the ballot for President.  With voting occurring only in government-held areas, around 77 percent of the electorate turned out.  Bashar al-Assad won 88 percent of the vote.

47.  A public opinion poll conducted in Syria by an international research firm working with the US and British governments found that 47 percent of Syrians believed President Assad was having a positive influence on Syria.  This compared to 35 percent who said the same thing for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and al-Nusra and 21 percent who said the same thing about the Islamic State.  According to the poll, Assad had majority support in seven of fourteen Syrian provinces.  In one of the provinces (Aleppo), approval of Assad’s leadership was similar to that of one or more of the rebel groups.  In six of the provinces, approval of Assad was significantly less than approval of other groups.

48. Flamboyant and brutal executions of those who would not accept its authority followed each of the Islamic State's military successes.  It routinely slaughtered captured opponents, especially government soldiers, but also Sunni Salafists who fought under the flags of other groups.  At al-Raqqa (Syria), it crucified a group of captives.  Twelve Sunni imams were executed in Mosul for refusing to swear loyalty to the Islamic State. Several Western hostages were beheaded; a captured Jordanian pilot was burned alive in a cage. Christians were victimized too, although most fled safely to Kurdish-held territory in Iraq and government-held territory in Syria.  Abundant media attention to these acts of brutality added to the group’s notoriety and fueled its recruitment efforts.  Indeed, some atrocities seemed packaged for Western viewers.

49. In early July, US Secretary of Defense Secretary Hagel described the Islamic State as "a force that is sophisticated. It's dynamic, it's strong, it's organized, it's well-financed, it's competent. And it is a threat to our allies all over the Middle East. It's a threat to Europe. It's a threat to every stabilized country on Earth, and it's a threat to us." That same month President Obama sent U.S. troops back to Iraq.

50. By August, US planes were bombing Islamic State assets; by September, the U.S. had assembled a 40-nation coalition to resist the Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. President Obama claimed authority for the bombing in legislation passed by Congress on September 14, 2001—the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF).  It gave the President authority to act anywhere in the world against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks.  When critics pointed out that the Islamic State did not exist in 2001, President Obama further claimed authority to bomb the Islamic State based on the 2002 amendment of the AUMF, which authorized military action anywhere in the world “against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.”

51. Note that neither AUMF provided any justification for the use of US military force against the government of Syria.  Moreover, no such authorization has ever been given by Congress, the United Nations or the state of Syria.  Thus, any and all military action by the US to effect regime change in Syria is a violation of international law.

52. In September, Congress approved a $500 million Obama initiative to train and equip “moderate” forces to oppose the Assad government.  Critics pointed out that the US had been following this failed strategy for nearly three years already and it had failed to produce a secular alternative to Salafist forces.  Others acknowledged the accuracy of this critique, but went on to observe that the training and equipping so-called “moderates” was an effective pretense by which the US could support Salafist forces such as al Nusra and the Islamic State, since nearly all rebels trained by the US and nearly all military equipment provided to those “moderates” ended up under Salafist control in the end.

53. On October 2, US Vice President Biden responded to critics of US policy in Syria by blaming US allies in the region.  “Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. . . . They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except that the people who were being supplied were al Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis . . .  We could not convince our colleagues to stop supplying them.”

54. A November report by German television reported that “every day, trucks laden with food, clothing, and other supplies cross the border from Turkey to Syria. It is unclear who is picking up the goods. The haulers believe most of the cargo is going to the ‘Islamic State’ militia. Oil, weapons, and soldiers are also being smuggled over the border.” Turkey also is a US ally and is a member of NATO.

Sources:  here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

2015:

55. As the war in Syria entered is 5th year, prominent US voices expressed impatience with the slow progress in defeating Syrian government forces and removing Syrian President Assad from power. Some of these voices suggested the US should regard the Islamic State as a potential ally.   Former CIA Director David Petraeus said on March 2015 that “the Islamic State isn’t our biggest problem” in the Mideast, Iran is.  New York Times columnist Tom Friedman made the same point, asking if it wasn’t time for the US to directly arm the Islamic State in order to off-set the emerging influence of Iran. Meanwhile, Iraqi and Iranian media regularly reported that the US already was providing direct support to the Islamic State with covert air drops.

56. In February, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2199 forbidding any trade with the Islamic State, al-Nusra or other entities associated with al-Qaida as specified in prior UN resolutions.  Nevertheless, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia continued to work openly with al-Nusra to organize and arm the so-called Army of Conquest in the winter and spring of 2015. The Army of Conquest conducted military campaigns in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, overwhelming the Syrian army in both places.  By April, "less extreme" Salafist groups with US TOW missiles openly joined these al-Nusra led campaigns.

57. Throughout the year, al-Nusra remained the dominant rebel group across western Syria, including the Syrian portion of the Golan Heights bordering Israel to the south.  In March, the Wall Street Journal reported that over the previous two years, Israel had opened its border to 1,500 injured al Nusra fighters so they could receive medical care in Israel and then return to battle the Syrian government.   Israel also was reported to be providing al Nusra fighters in the Golan with material aid.  Israeli defense officials confirmed that Shia forces—especially Hezbollah—were regarded as a much greater threat to Israel’s security than Salafist Sunni forces, which do not have a history of attacking Israeli targets.

58. During May, the Islamic State captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the Syrian city of Palmyra.  Soon after, the US Senate Armed Services Committee hastily convened to discuss these latest Islamic State successes.  Witnesses praised its military prowess, predicted a deluge of new Muslim recruits rushing to join its ranks, and described the Islamic State as having the capacity to strike Europe and the United States. It all sounded terribly serious until the conversation turned to the military forces engaged on the ground in fighting the Islamic State:  the Syrian Army and Iraqi militias composed of Shia soldiers and backed by Iranian advisors.  Then the concern about the Islamic State receded into the background as a more important concern emerged:  the defeat of the Syrian army and the severing of Iranian-Iraqi cooperation. Absent entirely from the conversation among Senators was the most obvious step the US could take if it were serious about defeating the Islamic State:  cutting off its supply lines from Turkey, Jordan, and the Gulf States.

59. Also in May, US Special Forces conducted a night-time raid on a residence in Deir Ezzor, an Islamic State-held city in eastern Syria, killing the Islamic State’s finance director (Abu Sayyaf ). Financial records seized in the raid documented Islamic State sales of Syrian oil in Turkey of $1 - $4 million per day.  Though illegal under UN Security Council Resolution 2199, such sales are the primary source of Islamic State revenue, fueling its expansion despite efforts to “contain” its spread.  The seized documents were expected to bring pressure on Turkey and its practice of permitting Islamic State agents to pass freely across the Turkey-Syria border.  The raid was the first known instance of US forces engaging in combat in Syria, a place where the US military has no authority to operate and where President Obama has said he wants “no US boots on the ground.”

60. In August the Pentagon reported that it had conducted 6,000 bombing runs against the Islamic State over the course of the 12-month period since President Obama had ordered aerial attacks in August, 2014.  Yet many planes involved in bombing runs—75 percent during the first four months of 2015—returned to their bases without firing their weapons, allegedly because of a lack of targets.  Meanwhile, the Islamic State continued to expand its territory in Syria, notwithstanding US control of the skies.

61. As the summer ended, Syrian government forces continued to suffer severe loses in men and material and to lose ground to Salafist forces.  Damascus itself appeared to be increasingly vulnerable to invasion.

62.  On September 3, media around the world front-paged the image of the lifeless body of one 3-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, washed ashore on a Turkish beach.  Aylan, his 5-year-old brother, and the boys’ mother drowned while attempting a small boat crossing of the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to Greece.   Much of the Western world reacted with anguish and outrage over the children’s death, two of the 2,500 refugees who had drowned over the summer attempting to reach Europe.  Numerous media reports laid the blame for “the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War 2” (366,402 arrivals during 2015 alone) at the feet of Syrian President Assad for his defense of his country. Remarkably, the displacement of the Syrian people started four years earlier, but had received relatively little attention in the world media.  Now that changed, triggering a rush of urgent calls for governments to “do something” to stop the horror.

63. On September 30, Russia entered the war at the invitation of the Syrian government. Days later, Iranian troops entered the war on Syria’s behalf, as did Hezbollah militia from Lebanon.  Because Russia, Iran and Hezbollah were responding to the invitation of the recognized government of Syria, their actions were legal under international law.

64. President Obama promptly criticized Russia’s intervention, saying it would not prevent the defeat of the Syrian government, but would prolong the fighting and lead to more destruction, more refugees and greater loss of life.  Obama predicted Syria would become a deadly “quagmire” for Russia, much as Afghanistan became for the Soviet Union during the ‘80s.  And he suggested that most of the Russian bombing was likely to be directed at “moderate rebel” forces.

65. Mid-October, Syrian government sources reported that warplanes of the US-led alliance had violated Syrian airspace and attacked  the biggest electric power plant that feeds Aleppo city.  The attack reportedly resulted in cutting off power from most neighborhoods in Aleppo city and causing the municipal water system to fail.  The loss of this critical infrastructure was expected to prompt more Syrians to flee their country and seek refugee status in other places.

66. Working from Syrian military facilities and from Russia’s long-established air and naval military base along the Mediterranean coast, Russian air forces commenced vigorous bombing of Salafist arms depots and forces, whether fighting under the flag of the Islamic State, al-Nusra or some other group.  Russia also invited the US and other Western powers to join coordinated bombing campaigns against the Islamic State.  The US agreed to exchange scheduling and flight path information with Russia so as to avoid mishaps, but declined to exchange information related to surveillance or targeting.

67. On October 31, Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 was blown out of the skies over Egypt by a bomb, killing all 224 passengers and crew aboard.  The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it retaliation for Russia’s entry into the war on Syria’s behalf.   Two weeks later, suicide bombers and gunman in Paris killed 130 people and injured 368 more in coordinated attacks. The Islamic State again claimed responsibility, calling the attacks retaliation for French bombing of Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq.

68.  At a November 15 G-20 meeting in Turkey, Russia’s President Putin disclosed the names of 40 countries from which the Islamic State was receiving economic assistance.  Putin also distributed satellite photos showing long columns of oil tankers carrying oil from Islamic State-controlled facilities and into Turkey for sale. The photos implicitly raised the question:  if the US is serious about defeating the Islamic State, why does the US not stop the movement of Islamic State oil to world oil markets?  On November 16, the US commenced bombing of Islamic State oil tanker convoys in eastern Syria.

69. On December 18, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2254, a plan calling for a ceasefire in Syria and the commencement of a Syrian-led political process facilitated by the UN to plan and hold national elections, adopt a new constitution and establish an inclusive, non-sectarian government of Syria.  The resolution also called for talks to begin in January between the Syrian government and opposition parties and for the ceasefire to begin as soon as the parties to the talks had taken initial steps towards a political transition.

Sources:  here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and  here and here.

2016: 

70. In early February, the Syrian army--strengthened by Iranian and Hezbollah fighters and by Russian intelligence and air support—severed supply lines from Turkey to Salafist rebels occupying the eastern portion of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.  With this turn of events came a growing sense of crisis.  Turkey’s armed forces and tanks massed on the Syrian border and its artillery began shelling targets inside Syria.  Saudi Arabia announced a "final" decision to send ground troops into Syria to join the war.  Western media headlined unsubstantiated reports of Russian jets destroying hospitals in Aleppo; Russian officials provided documentation that Aleppo hospitals were indeed being attacked from the air, but by US fighter jets.  A car bomb in Turkey’s capitol, Ankara, killed 28 people. Tens of thousands of displaced Syrians massed on the northern border of Syria, seeking to escape the fighting north of Aleppo.  In Greece, amid growing controversy in Europe over the burgeoning inflows, 70,000 refugees in overflowing encampments were blocked from moving north by transit restrictions and fences.

71. All eyes turned to US President Obama.  Would he “green-light” Turkey and Saudi Arabia—both close US allies—to expand the war in Syria?  If so, would that lead to a US-Russia confrontation and perhaps nuclear war?

72. Amid the escalating tension, US and Russian negotiators met in Geneva and struggled to outline a ceasefire to implement UN Resolution 2254 by stopping the fighting between Syrian army forces and "moderate" rebels, but continue the suppression of Salafist groups identified as “terrorists” by the UN.  The so-called “moderate” rebels refused to participate in the Geneva talks.  US negotiators repeatedly attempted to protect al-Nusra forces by including them in the proposed ceasefire.  Finally, on February 27, a ceasefire was achieved.  It included a US commitment to separate “moderate” rebels from Salafists so “moderates” would be protected from continued Russian air attacks and Syrian ground assaults.

73. During the nearly 5-week ceasefire, the “moderate” rebels replenished their stores of weapons and material, drawing on sources from within the US-led alliance.  The “moderates” did not separate from al-Nusra and other Salafist groups, as the US had promised.  On April 2, the ceasefire ended when “moderate” rebels joined an al-Nusra unit in attacking a Syrian government position near Aleppo.   The distinction between “moderates” and Salafists was rapidly eroding; many called it a fiction.

74. On March 26, after three days of intense fighting with the Islamic State, the Syrian army captured Palmyra, the eastern desert city known for its antiquities.  Syrian troops unearthed there the graves of many civilians slaughtered by the Islamic State.  The Obama Administration was unable to find any good news in the liberation of Palmyra. NPR reported March 28 that the liberated city and its beleaguered inhabitants “fell into government hands.”

75. In May, the Guardian reported that “Contractors hired by the [British]Foreign Office but overseen by the Ministry of Defence produce videos, photos, military reports, radio broadcasts, print products and social media posts branded with the logos of fighting groups, and effectively run a press office for opposition fighters.  Materials are circulated in the Arabic broadcast media and posted online with no indication of British government involvement.”  Many such reports are subsequently aired on mainline media outlets as if they reflect independent journalism.  In response to critics who described the government-funded media operations as “propaganda outlets,” Defence Ministry officials said such operations are a necessary element of “strategic communications” in a media-driven age.

76. In a related development that occurred throughout the year, first-responder units in Syria—known as the White Helmets—came under increased scrutiny for their role in shaping how the Western public understands the war.  These emergency-response units are largely funded by Western sources (including governments) and function only in rebel-held areas.  Often these units include media operations (primarily video crews) that provide newscast-ready video clips of battlefield scenes and casualties.  Western media rarely have their own reporters on the scene in Syria; instead they rely heavily on reports and video provided by other sources, including the White Helmets.  Reports from the White Helmets are by definition anti-Syrian government; on occasion, their reports have proved to be complete fabrications.

77.  Through the summer, the Syrian army maintained its encirclement of east Aleppo while Russian fighter jets bombed al-Nusra positions and supply depots from above.  While holding its ground in east Aleppo, al-Nusra and its allies continued efforts to re-open supply lines and attack neighborhoods in west Aleppo.  In mid-August, al-Nusra opened a gap to the southwest, but intense Russian bombing enabled the Syrian army to close the gap again two weeks later.  By late summer, the likelihood that the Syrian army would prevail in east Aleppo looked increasingly promising.  Syrian forces supported by Russian air support also made significant gains in other parts of the country.

78.  On July 15, a faction of Turkey’s armed forces attempted to depose Turkey’s President Erdogan.  After briefly appearing to succeed, the coup attempt was crushed. At least 300 people were killed in the attempt; thousands were arrested and jailed in the aftermath.  President Erdogan accused Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish resident of Pennsylvania, of helping to plan the coup attempt, but the US refused to make Gulen available to Turkish authorities.  In the months after the coup attempt, Turkey began to edge away from its close alliance with the US and Europe and toward warmer relations with Russia.

79. During early September, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov negotiated another agreement—a multi-stage, week-by-week “cessation of hostilities” plan. The first stage began September 12.  Like the earlier ceasefire, it required “moderate” rebels to separate themselves from terrorist groups such as al-Nusra.  The Syrian army complied with the cessation; the “moderate” rebels continued to attack Syrian government positions and remained embedded in al-Nusra-held areas alongside al-Nusra fighters.  Meanwhile, Pentagon officials criticized the cessation of hostilities agreement and notwithstanding President Obama’s explicit support for the plan, expressed doubt about complying with the second stage, which required US-Russia cooperation in targeting and attacking al-Nusra and the Islamic State.

80. On September 17, US-led coalition fighter planes based in Iraq attacked Syrian army forces defending the Deir Ezzor airport in eastern Syria from a siege by the Islamic State. Nearly 100 government troops were killed and many more were wounded.  Within ten minutes of the US-led air attack, Islamic State fighters attacked and routed Syrian government positions.  As a result, planes using the airport to resupply the beseiged city of Deir Ezzor (civilian population of 150,000) are now vulnerable to Islamic State weapons fire.  US officials have claimed the attack on Syrian forces was a mistake, but that claim is highly suspect.  Many are convinced that Pentagon officials ordered the attack as part of a plan to sabotage the cessation of hostilities agreement and ensure the Islamic State maintained control in eastern Syria.

81.  On September 19, the Syrian government announced it would not extend the ceasefire beyond the initial week because “moderate” rebels had not complied with their side of the agreement.  Also on September 19, a convoy of trucks reportedly carrying humanitarian assistance was destroyed in al-Nusra-controlled territory.   Western media widely reported that the convoy had been destroyed by an air attack and blamed Syria and Russia. Russian officials denied the accusation, noting that while the destroyed convoy showed ample evidence of fire, there was little evidence of an air attack.  Though the details remain murky, there is a substantial possibility the entire incident was contrived to rally Western opinion against Syria and its Russian ally.

82. Through late fall, Syrian forces supported by Iranian militias and Hezbollah fought their way into east Aleppo neighborhood-by-neighborhood.  Repeated Syrian offers of a ceasefire to enable noncombatants to leave the city were rejected by al-Nusra. Mid-December, as the defeat of al-Nusra became inevitable, it finally released noncombatants and allowed them to leave the area.  Al-Nusra combatants then laid down their weapons and accepted transportation with their families to the neighboring province of Idlib, just to the southwest of Aleppo, where al-Nusra remains in control. The battle of Aleppo was over.

83. During early December, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D, Hawaii) introduced proposed legislation —the "Stop Arming Terrorists Act”—in the US House.  “The US government has been violating [the] law for years by quietly supporting allies, partners, individuals and groups who are working directly with al-Qaida, ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and other terrorist groups by providing them with money, weapons and intelligence support in their fight to overthrow the Syrian government,” said Gabbard in an NPR interview.  “What is happening in Syria today, we are providing— the United States is providing—this direct and indirect support to terrorist groups in order to overthrow the Syrian government.”

84. On December 21, Russia, Iran and Turkey commenced discussions about the next steps in the war in Syria and how to implement a political transition to a new government. None of the Western powers or Gulf States was invited to the discussions.

85. The Eastern Catholic (Maronite) Church celebrated mass in Saint Elias Cathedral on Christmas day.  The damaged Cathedral—named after Elijah the prophet and built in 1873—is located in the Christian quarter of east Aleppo, one of the areas liberated by the Syrian government during the third week of December from the grip of al-Nusra. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the complete evacuation of east Aleppo involved about 88,000 people, including 54,000 people transported to other parts of the city and 35,000 (13,000 Salafist fighters and their families) transported to Idlib province, which largely remains under the control of al-Nusra.  By the end of December, parts of east Aleppo had been cleared of explosive booby-traps and an estimated $100 million in weapons and ammunition, thus enabling noncombatant residents to return to their homes.


Sources:  here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here  and here and here and here.

Where I Went Wrong

by Berry Friesen (December 13)

My March 8th post included this:

"Trump has been anointed leader of the disaffected and given the task of neutering that threat.  I expect he will be elected the next President of the United States."

Five months later, my August 10th post reflected a change in my expectations.  I wrote:

"Trump will do what is necessary to lose, in other words. That’s what the script calls for."

A reader asks that in light of what has since transpired, I reflect on the August 10th post, especially my suggestion of a “conspiracy (with Trump’s cooperation) to elect Hillary.” Here is my three-part response.

1. On August 10, aggregated polls showed Clinton leading Trump by 8 points, a big jump from the 2.4 point margin less than three week earlier.  Trump appeared to be throwing away his chances with increasingly distracting and self-indulgent messages.  I interpreted his conduct as purposeful (not incompetence) and evidence of a plan—a conspiracy—to lose.

A second factor in my analysis was the behavior of the mainstream media. It had given Trump huge amounts of free publicity through the primary season, fueling his successful effort to claim the Republican nomination. In my experience, free publicity is solid evidence of support.   Yet in the race against Clinton, it was virtually united against him.

Even the leading newspaper of conservative Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (where I live) endorsed Clinton!

A third factor—admittedly less relevant than the other two—was the behavior of Bernie Sanders.  Like so many progressive Democrat candidates before him, he had animated the base of the Democratic Party and had won the loyalty of young voters.  Yet he carefully avoided criticism of Clinton’s terrible record on foreign policy.  And despite ample evidence of cheating by the Democratic National Committee, Sanders obediently accepted defeat without putting up a fight.

In short, each of the major party primaries had been wired to produce the Trump-Clinton contest. Trump’s campaign performance, together with the media’s behavior post-convention, suggested to me that the general election was “fixed” as well.

In retrospect, my August 10 post was premature and perhaps dead wrong.  During the final stage of his campaign, Trump became a more disciplined and focused campaigner who tried to win.

A week after my post, Trump began shaking up his campaign staff, elevating Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon.  Trump’s campaign director, Paul Manafort, a seasoned political operative with many compromising business interests in Russia, resigned a few days later.  

During the following weeks, the performance of the Trump campaign improved markedly. Clinton’s lead narrowed to 3.9 percent on September 12, only to widen again to 7.4 percent after the first debate and the broadcast of a videotaped Trump bragging in 2005 about grabbing women’s genitals.

So if there ever was a conspiracy for Trump to lose, it ended mid-August.

Moreover, even in early August, my perception of Trump’s ineffectiveness as a campaigner was distorted by my reliance on media reports highlighting Trump’s many tangents and distractions.  Only later did I learn how effectively he connected with audiences (mainly public rallies) about America’s wars, the economic woes of blue-collar households and cultural issues.

As for my perception of nearly unanimous support for Trump from mainstream media, it was premature too, as discussed below.

2.  On October 28, eleven days before the election, FBI Director James Comey delivered the "ultimate October surprise" when he announced the Bureau was re-opening its investigation of Clinton’s handling of classified materials. Over the course of the following week, aggregated polling tightened by nearly a point, down to a five point margin for Clinton.

Comey’s decision to open a criminal investigation of one of the candidates so close to Election Day was unprecedented.  It broke with long-standing Bureau policy of avoiding public actions likely to swing votes away from one candidate and toward another.

A week later Comey again shut down the Bureau’s investigation of Clinton, but the damage had been done.  Some voters leaning toward Clinton decided not to vote for her—some by staying home, some by leaving blank the “president” portion of the ballot, some by voting for Trump or another candidate.

And some voters leaning toward passing on the election came off the sidelines to vote for Trump.

If one-half of one percent of the electorate made one of those various choices in each of the closely contested races of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, then the impact of the Comey announcement was large enough to swing those states into wins for Trump and give him the national victory.

Of course, this is exactly the kind of impact the FBI policy of non-interference is designed to avoid. So we can assume Comey did not act on his own brief; he stepped out of line only after having the support of powerful players in the imperial power structure.  Who might they be?

Michel Chossudovsky and John Steppling point to the Wall Street Journal, which on October 24th broke the story that during 2015, Clinton allies had donated nearly $700,000 to the campaign fund of a Virginia pediatrician making her first run for a political office, the state senate.  Who is this political novice who drew such big-time support? Dr. Jill McCabe, wife of Andrew McCabe, Deputy Director of the FBI.

Later reports put the total of all donations from Clinton allies to McCabe at $1 million.

Chossudovsky rightly describes the Journal as “the mouthpiece of the US financial establishment.”  Its publication of the McCabe scoop raised serious questions about whether the FBI has been bought off by the Clinton machine.  This not only triggered Comey’s defensive response; it also revealed that the pro-Clinton consensus was falling apart.  Important elements of the political elite wanted Clinton to lose.

Sheldon Adelson is another imperial mover-and-shaker.  The Las Vegas casino billionaire—known for his “Israel first” commitment and his direct line to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—bet big on Trump during the final days of the campaign.  Three days after Comey re-opened the investigation, Adelson gave the Trump campaign $25 million, according to FoxNews.

In summary, when Comey re-opened the investigation of Clinton’s emails, he had the backing of powerful interests such as the Wall Street Journal and Adelson.

None of this implies I was correct in August to suggest Clinton and Trump were co-conspirators in a plan by which Clinton would win the election.  It simply identifies a coordinated development late in the campaign that played a large role in Trump’s surprising triumph.

3.  There are several remarkable aspects to the ongoing Trump transition to the presidency.

Trump has named three Pentagon officers to his inner circle:  generals Mike Flynn, James Mattis and John Kelly.  More generals and admirals are under active consideration. Trump seems to be preparing for some kind of fight.

The empire’s European members are warning Trump against any cooperation with Russia.  The empire’s Middle East members are warning Trump against getting serious about fighting ISIS.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter visited Afghanistan last week and insisted US troops would stay there indefinitely in order to avoid another 9/11.

Trump appears surprisingly casual about the international threat—terrorism—commonly thought to dominate our age.  He reportedly is offered a CIA intelligence briefing every day, but is declining all but one a week.

President Obama has ordered a comprehensive intelligence review of Russia’s alleged interference in the election.  Though the results may never be made public, the investigation itself will plant seeds of doubt serving to delegitimize President Trump.

Meanwhile, the CIA is leaking to the media unsubstantiated reports that Russia interfered in the election for the specific purpose of helping Trump win.  Trump has responded by publicly questioning the integrity and reliability of the CIA.  And the FBI is weighing in too, telling Congress that the evidence against Russia reportedly isn’t as clear as the CIA claims. Other intelligence agencies are also distancing themselves from the CIA's claims.

Craig Murray, the former British diplomat who champions human rights and government transparency and has direct connections to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, says he has personal knowledge that the WikiLeaks documents from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) were not obtained via hacking, but via an insider leak.  I find Murray credible.

Veteran Intelligence Agents for Sanity helpfully describes the difference between hacking and leaking and explains that hacking always leaves a digital evidence trail.  The failure of the CIA to produce such evidence points strongly toward a leak and away from Russian involvement.  I also find the individuals involved in this organization highly credible.

Washington “seems divided” at the moment; the late-campaign erosion of the pro-Clinton consensus has developed into a serious power struggle over whether to accept or reject a Trump presidency. If it continues to escalate over the course of this week (and important voices are trying to make that happen), Hillary Clinton may yet prevail in the Electoral College vote December 19.  For example, should Trump’s victory be formalized without knowing whether or not he owes Russia or China lots of money?

This is not a debate over whether the US will continue to function as an empire; that is beyond question.

What is at issue is how the US will maintain world dominance in the years ahead. Toward that end, Trump wants to work with Russia and stop depending on Islamic-based terror groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.  The long-entrenched imperial power structure (including the Clinton machine) is digging in its heels; it likes the plan currently in place.

Alternatively, as William Engdahl describes it, the apparent power struggle precipitated by Trump’s election is merely “a deception strategy” designed to engage and distract the American public, lure Putin’s Russia back into junior membership in the US-led empire, and ultimately “weaken the developing deep bonds between Russia and China.”

As noted, I’m inclined toward the view that the current elbow-throwing at the apex of the empire is genuine, not merely theatrics meant to deceive.  But as I’ve learned the hard way, it’s too soon to say.

Trump's Fake News

by Berry Friesen (December 6, 2016)

In my previous post on “fake news,” I touched on three branches of the phenomenon:  (a) garden variety, money-making schemes; (b) grand moral narratives—often based on “false flag” events— designed to justify wars of aggression; and (c) fog-of-war propaganda, such as what we see coming out of the White Helmets in Syria and regularly rebroadcast on cable and network news.

Imperial states invest heavily in the second and third form of fake news. For anyone with doubts about this, Anthony DiMaggio’s essay “Reviewing the History of Fake News and Propaganda” is a must-read.

This post considers Trump-speech as another form of fake news.  By Trump-speech, I mean the exaggerations and outright falsehoods President-elect Donald Trump throws out like so much confetti at a street parade, uttered with apparent sincerity and a straight face.  Because it’s coming from the President-elect, it’s news and gets reported as such, even though it’s usually unhitched from reality.

Of course, all politicians lie. DiMaggio reports that “non-partisan fact checkers at Politifact concluded that, after examining hundreds of Trump’s statements, just 15 percent could be classified as ‘mostly true’ or ‘true’.”  This compares to Clinton’s 50 percent.

So the specific problem with Trump is that he is wrong or mistaken extraordinarily often. Most of the time, he’s apparently not even trying to be accurate; instead, he seeks to convey an attitude or approach.  And he does this through a kind of rhetorical impressionism, much as a painter creates the feeling of being in a scene by applying the paint in an imprecise manner.

There are obvious dangers in Trump’s style.  It creates division between those who document how flatly wrong he is on the facts and those who insist he is conveying a deeper kind of truth.  And it confuses people.   Indeed, confusion is such a predictable result that we might describe it as Trump’s purpose.

But why would the President-elect deliberately confuse us?

Perhaps what we see in Trump is the full flowering of an attitude of cynical nihilism, which some say is part of the zeitgeist of our time in the decadent West.  Within this worldview, there is no such thing as truth or facts; there are only personalities, subjectivities, endless spin.  Megan Garber’s fine essay, “The Image in the Age of Pseudo-Reality,” illustrates this point of view with her comparison of Donald Trump with P.T. Barnum.

Or perhaps what we see in Trump is “gaslighting”—a deliberate attempt to make an audience doubt its grasp on reality and capacity to interpret what’s going on in the world. The term comes from a 1940s-era movie in which the antagonist manipulated the emotions of a victim, thereby convincing her she was delusional and rendering her unable to defend herself.

Ned Resnikoff sees such malevolent purpose in Trump. Writing at ThinkProgress.org, Resnikoff calls it “non-linear warfare” and describes Trump’s closest advisor, Stephen Bannon, as an accomplished practitioner.  Writes Resnikoff:

“When political actors can’t agree on basic facts and procedures, compromise and rule-bound argumentation are basically impossible; politics reverts back to its natural state as a raw power struggle in which the weak are dominated by the strong.

“That’s where Donald Trump’s lies are taking us. By attacking the very notion of shared reality, the president-elect is making normal democratic politics impossible. When the truth is little more than an arbitrary personal decision, there is no common ground to be reached and no incentive to look for it.”

And this:

“It is tempting to take solace in the belief that, if Trump cannot be taken literally, his extreme rhetoric might conceal a secret moderate streak. But that hope would be misplaced. Non-linear warfare is intrinsically authoritarian. The president-elect is speaking the language of dictators.”

I take Resnikoff’s view seriously.  Regrettably, he frames it as a manifestation of Russia’s influence on Trump, a framing which is propaganda in and of itself.  But Trump’s 17 million Twitter followers and his mastery at manipulating the media position him to powerfully impact public opinion.  In other words, he already has considerable capacity to quash dissent and stigmatize opposition, if he’s so inclined.

Pepe Escobar, a journalist long acquainted with the endless smoke-and-mirrors of imperial deception and deceit, agrees with Resnikoff’s view that Trump’s troubling communications style is highly strategic.  But Escobar then goes on to describe a potentially positive outcome.  In an essay entitled “Lenin Comes to the White House?” Escobar first describes our context as a state of perpetual war-making by the neo-liberal elite against the rest of us.  Then he writes:

“’America First’; but for whom? The key question is who will end up defining America’s real national interest; true nationalists embedded in Team Trump, plus the proletariat ‘elite’, or the usual – globalist – suspects able to infect and corrupt any notion of nationalism.” In other words, in the unrelenting war against the 99 percent, Trump's subversive style equips his Administration to overthrow neo-liberalism itself.

A third perspective—less speculative than Resnikoff’s and Escobar’s—is offered by Russian Marxist Boris Kagarlitsky in his essay, “Once Upon a Time in America.”

Kagarlitsky begins by noting how Trump’s electoral victory has refuted conventional political analysis on the right and the left.   Though derisive of both liberal and conservative gloom-and-doom scenarios (“we will have four years of apocalypses, and then – business as usual”), Kagarlitsky perceives economic changes to have shifted the earth beneath our feet.  Specifically:

“Trump’s victory is not a result of an unpleasant coincidence; it is a result of a systemic social-economic crisis due to the fact that the current capitalist model of development is completely exhausted. It is not that the system will collapse because of the Trump’s success, but rather his success is caused by the collapse of the system.”

Needed now, says Kagarlitsky, is a politics that fits this new economic reality:

“The 2016 elections signified the collapse of the politics of political correctness, and created the preconditions of its substitution by the politics of solidarity. . . . Both Bernie Sanders’ campaign, and voting for Trump, demonstrated, the last one to a higher degree, that the lower classes of the society are willing to consolidate, independently from the appeals of the self-proclaimed ‘defenders of the minorities’.

“An African-American laborer realizes that he has much more in common with a ‘white male’ laborer than with a privileged liberal smugly reasoning about the need for political correctness. A single mother fighting for survival understands how alien are the interests and the views of a feminist who distributes multimillion gender related grants among her friends and clients.”

So where does all this analysis take us?

Trump’s fake news is a genuine threat.  It may take us into fascism.  It may take us into new political alignments that address more equitably the bleak world we’ve inherited from 35 years of neo-liberal rule.  Or it may do both.

We’d better pay careful attention and we’d better start preparing now by building strong relationships with potential allies.  More about that in a future post.

*****

Speaking of fake news, let’s not be fooled by what the Western mainstream media are reporting out of East Aleppo.

Although the reports of horrible fighting are accurate, what’s not being reported is the Syrian success against al-Qaeda forces there and the liberation of thousands of civilians from al-Qaeda imposed hostage status.  Those liberated are receiving humanitarian assistance in West Aleppo through Syrian, Russian and United Nations-provided resources, though they continue to be killed by artillery shells reportedly targeted by the empire’s technicians and launched from the parts of East Aleppo still held by outside forces.

The defeat of al-Qaeda in East Aleppo is a defeat of the US-led empire.  Stop for a moment and reflect on this fact, which is seldom spoken in the West, the land of fake news.

Fake News

by Berry Friesen (December 1, 2016)

(Dec. 2 update:  For highly relevant commentary on how mainstream media are spinning the "fake news" controversy, see "The Orwellian War on Skepticism" by Robert Parry.)

In early November, as I was skimming reader comments at www.MoonOfAlabama, I saw a brief reference and hotlink to a “Denver Guardian” article about an apparent “murder-suicide” involving an FBI agent who had been investigating the source of the Democratic National Committee leak of Hillary Clinton’s emails. Within a few minutes at the same site, I saw another comment—and then another—warning readers that the “Denver Guardian” article was “fake news.”

That was the end of it for me.

On November 23, National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast a feature report about the “Denver Guardian” article. The man responsible (Jestin Coler) is a small business owner from southern California who supports himself, his wife and children by ad revenue attracted to the websites he creates.  Web advertisers are interested in traffic volume and clicks.  Coler’s “Denver Guardian” article attracted an audience and so Coler made a decent profit.  Apparently, there is nothing illegal about any of this.

It illustrates one branch of the fake news phenomenon.

The story President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney told about Saddam Hussein’s “weaponsRobert Parry.) of mass destruction” is an example of a second branch. The story was relentlessly promoted by the New York Times, Washington Post and other mainstream media outlets during 2002 and early 2003 and formed the rationale for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  But the weapons—first described as nuclear, then chemical—did not exist.  The entire story was manufactured by US intelligence agencies.

Or consider a third branch of this problem—the conduct of war.  Western mainstream news outlets have reported since mid-summer about the destruction of Syrian hospitals by Syrian and Russian fighter planes; it’s described as “a humanitarian crisis.” An alleged 90 hospitals have been destroyed in this way.

Problem is, the Syrian Ministry of Health is on record to the effect that Syria never had more than 88 hospitals scattered all across the country.  Syrian and Russian jets have been bombing a relatively small portion of Aleppo and a small province nearby (Idlib), where forces seeking to overthrow the government are in control.   It’s obvious that at least some of those reports have been fabricated.  And it’s almost farcical how often NBC has reported the destruction of “the last pediatric hospital in Eastern Aleppo."

In recent years of the war against Syria, Western media outlets have stoked anti-government sympathies by broadcasting videos of civilian deaths and injuries caused by Syrian forces or their Russian allies.  Many of these videos have been distributed by the White Helmets, a group of emergency first responders who operate only in areas held by the anti-government forces.  Recently, a media group working with the White Helmets was caught red-handed making a fake rescue video.

Here’s how CNN reported this embarrassment:  “It's a familiar scene: Syria Civil Defence, also known as the ‘White Helmets,’ rushing to rescue a man covered in rubble, but unlike thousands of other videos from Aleppo, this one is staged.” CNN doesn’t explain how it knows it’s only “this one.” Reporter Tony Cartalucci alleges "fake news" is a White Helmets specialty.

So we do have a big problem with fake news in this country, much of it published by mainstream sources and much of it supporting the goals of the empire.

With this as background, consider the attempt launched November 24 by the Washington Post to link alternative news websites critical of the US-led empire with Russia. Wrote Post reporter Craig Timberg, “The flood of ’fake news’ this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy, say independent researchers who tracked the operation.”

You got it: according to the Post, Russia is the source of the "fake news" problem.

The Post's “independent” source naming problem websites is www.propornot.com. According to the Post article, it “identifies more than 200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season, with combined audiences of at least 15 million Americans. On Facebook, PropOrNot estimates that stories planted or promoted by the disinformation campaign were viewed more than 213 million times.”

Proceeding to www.propornot.com, we find this explanation of how the anonymous “researchers” compiled their hit-list.  “We have used a combination of manual and automated analysis, including analysis of content, timing, technical indicators, and other reporting, in order to initially identify (‘red-flag’) the following as Russian propaganda outlets. We then confirmed our initial assessment by applying whatever criteria we did not originally employ during the red-flag process, and we reevaluate our findings as needed.”   Huh?

Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi calls the Post story “shameful and disgusting;” his story quotes Chris Hedges as describing it as “an updated form of red-baiting.” Glenn Greenwald calls the Post story a “disgraceful” attempt to “conflate criticism of Western governments and their actions and policies with Russian propaganda.”

Stay tuned.  This new campaign by the empire’s media agents isn’t likely to fade quickly from view. The empire, wounded by the defeat of its preferred presidential candidate, is striking back. See here and  here and here for more about that.

And yes, most of the news outlets often referenced in this website are being targeted.

You, dear reader, get to decide: will you follow the Post and obediently run for cover?  Or stick around and prepare yourself for the tough years ahead?