Wisdom from Ray McGovern

by Berry Friesen (March 28, 2017)

Imagine a man who combines the charm of an Irish storyteller, the hard realism of a 37-year veteran of the CIA and the compassionate heart of a Jesus-follower.  That’s Ray McGovern.

He’s an itinerant witness for Church of the Saviour in Washington D.C., speaking about issues of war and peace on major media outlets, within the corridors of power and in nondescript church basements, wherever there is an audience open to political commentary cleansed of imperial propaganda.

He’s a co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, a private organization that has produced 47 memos on national security for presidents Bush, Obama and now Trump.  And he has a very engaging website (raymcgovern.com) dedicated to current events.

A couple of local peace groups—1040 for Peace and Peace Action Network—brought Ray to Lancaster County PA this past Sunday for two public gatherings.  He spoke at a church in the morning about the Israeli occupation of Palestine and at a pub in the afternoon about perpetual war. 

This post doesn’t do justice to Ray’s presentations, but provides a few highlights.

Why is the USA always at war?

First, Ray quoted George Kennan, appointed in 1947 as the first Director of Policy Planning in the US State Department and widely regarded as the architect of post-WW2 US foreign policy.

“We have about 50 per cent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 per cent of its population .  .  . Our real task in the coming period is to maintain this position of disparity . . . To do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming .  .  . We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford the luxury of altruism .  .  .We should cease to talk about vague, unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we will have to deal in straight power concepts.”

Second, Ray reminded us of the Vietnam War, which caused the deaths of 3 million Vietnamese.  He played a clip from Hearts and Minds, a documentary of the war, in which US General William Westmoreland is asked about the astonishing loss of life. Westmoreland's response:  “The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient." 

Ray simply added this: “It’s racism, folks!”

Next, Ray reminded us of how US leaders love to speak of the USA as “the world’s indispensable nation.”  So other nations are then dispensable, right?  That’s the message US leaders have been giving the world, both by their rhetoric and their policies.

Last, Ray reminded us that war is good for business.  He quoted Pope Francis speaking to the US Congress in September, 2015:

“We have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”

What about Russia?

While with the CIA, Ray was a Soviet specialist; he speaks Russian fluently.  Over the course of his professional career, it was his job to follow closely Soviet events and monitor related diplomatic correspondence.  Here is some of what Ray wanted us to know.

The decisive role in defeating Nazi Germany was played by the Soviet Union, not the Western allies.  At least 25 million Russians died in World War 2; the death toll for the USA was 420,000.

To his credit, President George H.W. Bush reached out to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet Union began to fall apart.  In February, 1990, Secretary of State James Baker and Gorbachev reached general agreement on two items:  (a) Germany would be re-united and aligned with the West; and (b) the US would not expand the European military alliance (NATO) toward Russia’s borders. (You can read about that here and here.)

The US has broken the spirit of that understanding repeatedly.  In 1990 twelve European nations were part of NATO; today there are 28.  It has been moving ever-eastward.

Moreover, the US engineered the election of the highly unpopular Boris Yeltsin to be president of Russia in 1996 (see here and here and here).  During Yeltsin’s government, Russian and US oligarchs plundered Russia’s wealth. 

The February, 2014 change in the Ukrainian government was an American-planned coup. Fascist elements played a major role in the coup and in the illegal regime that followed. We don’t hear reporting about this in the Western media.  Instead, we hear about Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, where over 90 percent of the population voted in a public referendum to stay with Russia.  Not a single life was lost in the change of government in the Crimea.

Sure, Russian intelligence hacks US computer networks; every nation hacks these days. But there is not a scintilla of evidence that the Russians provided WikiLeaks with the information it published about Hillary Clinton, the Democratic National Committee, or the Clinton fraud that resulted in the defeat of Bernie Sanders.

Regarding refugees:

The refugee crisis is fueled by recent wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria.  The US has played a major role in all three.

Consider Syria: why did President Obama and candidate Clinton say “President Assad must go?”  Syria never has threatened this country. But Israel doesn’t like Assad because he is independent of outside control and because he permits Iran to transport weapons across Syria to Hezbollah.  And Israel drives US foreign policy in the Middle East. 

Regarding the Israeli occupation of Palestine:

End the occupation!  Is that so complex, so hard to understand?  It’s gone on 50 years already, longer than the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe.  It must end—now!

And let’s not forget:  the ’67 war that led to the Israeli occupation of Palestine was started by Israel, not by any of its neighbors.  Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was clear about this:  “The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.”

If we support ending the occupation, we also should be supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign aimed at organizations that are part of the occupation.

Regarding US politics:

The Germans are right about our last presidential election here in the US:  it gave us a choice between the plague and cholera, between Clinton-induced war with Russia and Trump-induced environmental disaster.  

President Donald Trump is like a broken clock—right twice each day.  To be specific:

   --A good relationship with Russia is achievable and should be a US priority.

   --Digital surveillance is everywhere now; no one is excluded. *

Ray said that the single biggest change in America since he began his career in 1963 is this:  we no longer have a strong, independent press.  That’s a huge loss; a strong, free press is what prevents tyranny.

No, we shouldn’t stop reading the New York Times and the Washington Post; it’s important to understand what we’re being told to believe.  But be sure to read alternative media, such as ConsortiumNews.com.

What should peace-loving people be doing?

First, refuse to look away from those suffering from war. 

Ray vividly reminded us of the death of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Kurdish child who drowned in August, 2015 while attempting a boat crossing from Turkey to Greece.   We all saw the image of his lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach.  As the line from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman famously said: “He's a human being and a terrible thing is happening to him. Attention must be paid.”

Second, organize small action-and-accountability groups focused on ending perpetual war.  “You’ll have better ideas together than you’ll ever have alone,” said Ray.  “You’ll be stronger together than you’ll ever be alone.  And together, you’ll be much better at following through on your commitments than you ever will be yourself.”

Thank you, Ray!
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*  (4:30 PM addition:  See this ConsortiumNews article from Ray McGovern and Bill Binney for the latest on government surveillance.)

Denying Ourselves Empire?

by Berry Friesen (March 24, 2017)

Where do we start?

Seven years ago, as part of my personal observance of Lent, I wrote a bit of verse, which I share below.

It is in keeping with the season, a time when we Jesus-followers are called to examine ourselves and turn from whatever stands in the way of faithfulness to his way.

And yes, it is a place to start.

Giving Up Empire for Lent

Play music in the morning
   quiet NPR for a change.
Enough of their turning the awful
   into reasonable-sounding things.

That New York Times on the newsstand?
   Let it lie ‘til it’s yellow with age!
They provoked the Iraq invasion
   now it’s Iran we’re supposed to hate.

The suits on the evening news
   reporting what “an anonymous source” said?
It’s just another inside player
   dealing both sides of the game.

Let it all go ‘til Easter
   part of the purge and cleansing we need
   if we’re to tell truth from fiction.
If we’re ever to believe.  

Trump's Middle East Strategy

by Berry Friesen (March 21, 2017)

President Donald Trump appears to have decided on a plan to reverse the Middle East failures of his predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Alas, the President’s plan embraces the Bush-Obama goals, albeit via different methods. And it abandons campaign promises to end the interventionism that has cost America so much in blood and treasure.

Since early 2007, the US has partnered with Sunni-dominated members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates) to pursue imperial objectives in the Middle East via terrorist proxies.

Here is Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Seymour Hersh's March, 2007 description of then-president George W. Bush's decision:

“To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.”

This approach depended on the support and deployment of “Sunni extremist groups” (I routinely use the term “Salafist” to describe such groups) against the three largely secular states of the Middle East and North Africa:  the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and the Libyan government of Muammar Gaddafi. Thus, the US-led empire covertly collaborated with al-Qaeda and with ISIS in those places, equipping them with arms and supporting them with money and imperial intelligence (e.g., satellite surveillance, etc.). *

As Donald Trump repeatedly said during his campaign, the results of the Bush-Obama strategy have been disastrous.  Three once prosperous nations (Iraq, Libya, Syria) are in chaos, ISIS has become entrenched in all three, millions of refugees have been cast adrift upon the world, the moral credibility of the West has been shredded, the US treasury has been depleted by $6 trillion, and US companies did not get the oil.

President Trump’s new approach is now coming into focus.  The goals are unchanged from the Bush-Obama years:  (a) isolate Iran and effect regime change there;  (b) entrench the dictatorial governments of the six nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council; and (c) give Israel freedom to colonize occupied territories (the West Bank and Golan Heights) and perhaps beyond.

But consistent with Trump’s character and preferences, the new approach depends more on intimidation and “direct action” than nuance and misdirection.  There will be less subterfuge, more in-your-face brute force.  

The new approach also gives a leading and very visible role to Israel, which reportedly fears the presence of independent nations in the region, but does not fear Salafist militias such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, even though they operate very near Israel’s borders.

Here is some of the evidence pointing to this new approach.

     ---Trump has doubled US troop levels in Syria (from 500 to 1000) and reportedly has deployed another 4,000 US troops to staging bases in the Middle East. According to the Washington Post, the Pentagon intends to send an additional 1,000 US troops into Syria to join the fight to seize al-Raqqa and expel the Islamic State.

     --- Trump has declared sections of Yemen to be “areas of active hostility” and thus has authorized the Pentagon to make air strikes there without presidential approval. Since making this change, air strikes by US drones and manned aircraft have jumped dramatically.  Rather than pulling back from Obama’s support of this cruel war, the Trump Administration is demonstrating unyielding support for the corrupt Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

     --- Various Trump Administration officials have spread falsehoods about Iran’s role in the Gulf region (see here and here and here and here), including accusations that Iran is to blame for the effort of the Houthi people to defend their country against Saudi invaders, that Iran threatens Israel existence, that Iran’s ballistic missile tests are a violation of its agreement not to pursue the development of nuclear weapons, and that Iran is the source of terrorism in the Middle East.  Completely absent has been acknowledgement of the fact that Iranian forces are directly engaged in the fight against ISIS in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.

     --- In mid-February, Trump met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House. In their joint press conference, Trump expressed support for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, described United Nations actions related to Israel as “unfair and one-sided,” described Israel’s security challenges as “enormous,” and ditched the long-held US commitment to a Palestinian state on the West Bank.

         In the most notable exchange between the two leaders, Netanyahu described Arab countries in the region “increasingly as allies” and then said this:  “I believe that the great opportunity for peace comes from a regional approach from involving our new found Arab partners in the pursuant of a broader peace and peace will the Palestinians.”  In a direct response, Trump said this:  “We have been discussing that and it is something that is very different, hasn't been discussed before. And it's actually a much bigger deal -- much more important deal in a sense. It would take in many, many countries and would cover a very large territory.”

     --- On March 9, Netanyahu traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Netanyahu’s agenda reportedly included a loosening of Russia’s ties with Iran and assurance that Russian air defenses would not be deployed against Israeli air force operations over Syria. Apparently, Israel wants a free hand to operate militarily within Syria against Hezbollah, which is deeply engaged in battling Salafist forces there.

     --- On March 14, Trump met with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House.  The conversations were largely off the record with no opportunity for the press to question the two leaders.  But bin Salman described his conversation with Trump as “an historical turning point” in which the two men agreed that Iran “represents a regional security threat.”

     --- Just last week, the Trump Administration, working closely with Israel, reportedly forced the resignation of the executive secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia because she refused to withdraw findings that “Israel has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole.”   As noted by Glenn Greenwald, “Thanks to the Trump administration’s self-destructive devotion to Israeli interests—an odd posture for a president who ran on a platform of ‘Putting America First’—it is impermissible for U.N. officials to note this reality lest Israel be offended.”

     --- A March 17 US missile attack on a mosque in the province of Aleppo reportedly resulted in the deaths of 40 civilians and the injury of hundreds more.

     --- On March 17, four Israeli jets entered Syrian airspace and attacked a convoy of vehicles carrying supplies to Hezbollah militias fighting ISIS near Palmyra in eastern Syria.  In response, Syria triggered its air defenses, which fired missiles at the intruding planes and perhaps struck one. In response, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman reportedly threatened to destroy Syrian air defense systems if Syria attempted to defend itself against future Israeli attacks.

All of this points to some sort of grand bargain among the US, Israel and the Gulf States to continue the carving up of Syria, the crippling of Hezbollah, the isolation of Iran and the imposition of an Israeli-defined “peace” on the Palestinian people.

A wider war is likely to follow this grand bargain, especially if Syria and Russia defend Syrian airspace against Israel’s hostile intrusions.  Indeed, journalist Tony Cartalucci sees a wider war as a purpose of this new approach:

“Regardless of the details of each incursion, the ultimate purpose is to escalate the conflict continuously until Syria and its allies react and provoke a much larger, direct military conflict the US and others amid its axis of aggression can openly participate in.”

James W. Carden puts the matter more charitably in “Trump Slips into ‘Endless War’ Cycle:”

“President Trump, in the space of two months, has proposed a budget that slashes funding for diplomacy, spends lavishly on military, has committed thousands of troops, conducted dozens of airstrikes, and cemented the U.S. commitment to the wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, he and his team have signaled to the Saudis that they fully share the Kingdom’s obsession with Iranian ‘expansion’.”

However we assess the President’s motives, it appears that rather than pull back from the disastrous Bush-Obama legacy in the Middle East, Trump has decided to go for broke.
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*  This entire scam is covert and top-secret.  Here is how it works.  The Salafist militias are funded by oil-rich individuals and large Islamist political organizations, which are supported covertly by the intelligence services of Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These intelligence services in turn take direction from American and Israeli intelligence services.

A portion of the militias consist of fundamentalist Muslims who flatly oppose Gulf Cooperation Council governments because of their corruption and collaboration with Western governments.  When we hear of drone attacks on al-Qaeda in Yemen (for example), it is likely Gulf governments have provided intelligence about the location of Salafists who are not reliable proxies.  The US destroys them via drone attacks while praising the Gulf government that provided the intelligence on the target’s whereabouts.

Thus, ultra-religious Salafists are weeded out, the Salafists who can be bribed with money and weapons remain available as proxies, and Western publics are convinced their governments as well as Gulf governments are serious about fighting “Islamic Terrorism.”

The Benedict Option

by Berry Friesen (March 17, 2017)

For some, giving up on the USA is a pathway to despair and cynicism.  For others, it is a pathway to recovery and hope.

Rod Dreher is on the second pathway.  He demonstrates this in The Benedict Option, his new book that is creating a major buzz within Christian circles, no matter what their stripe.

I discovered Dreher ten years ago when I read Crunchy Cons, his book about people whose “small Is beautiful” style of conservative politics puts them at odds with the Republicans and sometimes to the left of the Democrats.  John K. Stoner and I quote that book in the concluding chapter of If Not Empire, What?

Six months ago, I started reading Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative because I was eager to hear from an engaged and conservative Christian who refused to support Donald Trump.  I’ve been reading Dreher regularly ever since, in part because he identifies as a “resistance” writer. He even goes so far as to speak of “the American empire,” as in this quote from an interview with Plough Quarterly:

“Our first loyalty is to the church, not to American empire. I want to encourage and cultivate faithful Christian resistance.” 

Recently, Dreher has been blogging mainly about his new book, The Benedict Option, named in honor of Benedict of Nursia, the 6th century monk.  During the years immediately after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 C.E., St. Benedict established twelve religious communities for monks in Italy.  His Rule of St. Benedict became the guide for the establishment of thousands of other religious communities across Europe during the Middle Ages; these communities in turn kept alive critical aspects of Christianity and classical civilization during a time of widespread ignorance and social disintegration.

Dreher describes “the Ben Op” this way:

“I am not advocating an Amish-style withdrawal from the world (though I respect those who feel called to it, and wish them well). That will not be the path for most of us, nor, in my view, should it be.

“I am calling for more of a conscious ‘exile in place’ for the church—that is, for the kind of Christians I call small-O orthodox Christians. Some people may need to physically move for this kind of community, but in most cases (I think) it will be a matter of deepening one’s commitments to one’s own tradition and the church community in which it is embodied, and in thickening the bonds among the community’s members. This requires a clear understanding that our first loyalty is to the church, not to American empire.

“People are struggling to know what to do. I have kids of my own, and I am not content to sit back and accept what the empire has planned for them. I want to encourage and cultivate faithful Christian resistance.”

When Dreher details what the empire has in mind for us and our children, he rarely refers to wars of aggression abroad.  To state the obvious, Dreher and I blog about different things.  Yet we both are acutely aware of two things:  (a) the way empires (including the US-led one in which we reside) render competing worldviews incomprehensible and illegitimate; and (b) that biblically-inspired faith is counter-culture.  This creates a lot of common ground between us.

Of course, the US-led empire claims to protect religious faith and its leaders often evoke religious themes.  Furthermore, here in the US we have just completed a presidential election in which the religious sensibility of conservative Christians was the decisive factor in electing the winning candidate.  So this is an odd time to be speaking of Christianity as a resistance movement.

What exactly is Dreher calling Christians to resist?

Mostly, the dominant religion of the empire—what Dreher calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD).  It posits a loving god whose core demand is that we be good, nice and fair to each other.  It views the central goals of life as happiness and a positive feeling about ourselves.  It assures us that if we are good, we will go to heaven when we die (and if we’re not good, we still might get there because god is love).  Though it uses the language of religion, it rarely insists on anything a secularist would find objectionable. Indeed, behind the religious language, MTD regards human subjectivity—me, my experience, the expression of my heartfelt desires—as the ultimate measure of all things.

We judge god, in other words; god does not judge us.

This is all very different from orthodox Christianity, which gives us a transcendent god who says we are lost sinners in need of repentance, self-denial and transformation to the way of Jesus.  According to Dreher, this difference has been playing out over the past fifty years as the sexual revolution has swept through Western societies, taking most of the church along with it.

“The Ben-Op” is Dreher’s response.  It is designed not to save America, but to keep lit within America the flame of orthodox Christian faith.  On this much depends, Dreher insists, just as in the 6th century much depended on the fragile flame of St. Benedict’s religious communities.  Yes, this includes a Christian understanding of sexuality, but it also includes other counter-cultural values:  self-sacrifice; the dignity of labor and productive work; our identity as spiritual beings created for a divine purpose; the importance of stable communities to sustain humane values; our accountability to an authority higher than ourselves, higher even than the empire.

How will this worldview be sustained and passed along?  The answer makes up most of The Benedict Option.  Reviewer Collin Hansen summarizes the principle content of the book:

“(It’s) how to get started with the anti-political politics of the Benedict Option. Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors. It is not enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer’s market. Teach kids how to play music and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department.”

Reviewer Karen Swallow Prior adds these practices to the how-to list, all taken from the ancient Rule of St. Benedict and discussed in Dreher’s book:  order, prayer, work, asceticism, stability, community, hospitality, balance.

But here’s the thing:  for this flame to remain lit, the underlying worldview—rooted in orthodox Christianity—must remain intelligible.  For minds shaped by public schools, popular culture, corporate marketing, partisan politics and expressive individualism, an orthodox worldview increasingly is viewed as ridiculous, a very stupid career move, and an occasional public threat.  Only a community dedicated to faith in YHWH will be up to the task of communicating the faith of Jesus as a coherent, defensible and attractive alternative to the way of the empire.  This is why Dreher calls groups of Christians to bind themselves to one another, take a step back from full engagement in public life, and get serious about strengthening their faith.

In “Christians in the Hands of Donald Trump,” New York Times columnist Russ Douthat offers this assessment of why this matters:

“Dreher’s deeper, ‘how to build a counterculture’ argument matters regardless of whether his prophecies are accurate, because it matters in the polarized, fragmenting America that exists right now. Whatever comes in 2030 or 2040, whether or not a once-dominant Christianity is doomed to marginalization or merely in decline, we have a severe problem of rootlessness, hyper-individualism and anomie already—how do you think we got Trumpism? There is blame enough to go around, but the weakness of religious community is an important part of the story; strong religious bonds were often an antidote to rootlessness and dissolution in America’s more Tocquevillian, communitarian past, and they remain so in certain present-day case studies (Mormon Utah, most notably).” *

Sure, I wish Dreher wrote more about imperialism and less about sex.  But whether the subject is sex, imperialism or something else, a counter-culture perspective will wither unless rooted in a worldview strong enough to withstand the empire’s relentless shaping of “reality.”  Just look at the pitiful state of the American peace movement!

For this reason and more, we ought to be reading and discussing Dreher’s book.**
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*  For more discussion of Douthat’s point—that the decline of religious practice is causing  increased polarization and greater social hostility—see here.

** Stanley Hauerwas responds briefly to Dreher’s Ben Op while discussing similar themes in an interview with Plough Quarterly.   Here is a quote from Hauerwas:  “My hunch is that you don’t just make a community up. You discover that you need one another because you’re in danger. We need to figure out how to reclaim the disciplines that are necessary for building a communal life in a manner that indicates we are a people who need help."

Candidly Speaking

by Berry Friesen (March 14, 2017)

Jonathan Sacks, the British rabbi I quoted in a previous post, says that a “politics of hope” begins “with a candid acknowledgement on all sides how bad things actually are.”

In that spirit, here are five developments that caught my eye.

1. Congressional Republicans—with the support of President Trump—are getting ready to pass their “fix” of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  According to the Congressional Budget Office, it will cut by 14 million the number of people with health insurance coverage in 2018 (24 million by 2026), especially low-and-middle income people in their 50s and early 60s who can’t afford to pay the high premiums charged people in that age range.

It also will deliver a big tax break to the wealthiest Americans.  Two Medicare taxes that helped finance the ACA will be eliminated:  the 3.8 percent tax on capital gains exceeding $200,000 a year ($250,000 for couples) and the 0.9 percent tax on earned income exceeding $200,000 a year ($250,000 for couples).  In 2015, around 4 million Americans paid these taxes, contributing $27 billion to help fund the ACA.

As a result of these tax cuts, the richest 0.1 percent will pay on average $195,000 less in federal income taxes per person.  Is this the kind of change Trump voters expected from the new administration?

2. Remember the decision of United Technologies back in November to keep 800 jobs at its Carrier furnace manufacturing plant in Indiana instead of moving them to Mexico? Soon after, it announced it would invest $16 million to automate the Indiana factory, replacing many of those jobs with robots.

CNN reports a study by McKinsey & Co. that found “45 percent of the tasks that U.S. workers are currently paid to perform can be automated by existing technology. That represents about $2 trillion in annual wages.”

How exactly would such a prospect serve the people of America?  Tragically, this question no longer factors into economic decisions. Instead, what Chris Hedges calls “the poisonous engine of corporate capitalism” focuses on profits and market share. Writes Hedges:

“The ruling corporate elites no longer seek to build. They seek to destroy. They are agents of death. They crave the unimpeded power to cannibalize the country and pollute and degrade the ecosystem to feed an insatiable lust for wealth, power and hedonism.”

3.  According to an April, 2016 study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the three nations spending the most on their militaries in 2015 were the United States ($596 billion), China ($215 billion) and Saudi Arabia ($84 billion).  Russia at fourth spent $66 billion in 2015. Two other members of the US-led empire (the United Kingdom and France) are close behind Russia at $55 billion and $50 billion.

President Trump intends to increase military spending by $54 billion in the coming fiscal year, a jump equal to 80 percent of the entire Russian military budget.  Yet our media pretend Russia is a threat to the US.

4.  President Trump has ordered an additional 400 US troops to Syria, joining the 500 already sent there by President Obama.  In response, Syrian President Assad said what should be patently obvious: “Any foreign troops coming to Syria without our invitation . . . are invaders."

The 900 US troops currently in Syria are assisting a 10,000 member Kurdish force operating in the northeast part of Syria.  Allegedly, these US troops are in Syria for the purpose of fighting Da'esh (the Islamic State).  Much speculation focuses on what will happen after Da’esh is rooted out of its Syrian capital, al-Raqqa; whoever controls that city will control eastern Syria.  The US-led empire covets control of that area to serve as a barrier between Syria and its Shia-led neighbors (Iraq and Iran) and a pipeline corridor from Qatar to Turkey.

On March 10, Trump also ordered 2,500 additional ground combat troops to a staging base in Kuwait from which they can quickly join the fights in Iraq and Syria.

5.  Perhaps the most destructive deception of the Bush-Obama years is the so-called war on terror.  In fact, the US-led empire has supported Islamic terrorism, especially through funding and coordination by Saudi Arabia (see sources cited here), and has pursued imperial purposes by deploying Salafist forces (al-Qaeda, Da’esh, the Muslim Brotherhood) against secular states that oppose the empire (Iraq, Libya, Syria).  This aggression has always been covert, coordinated under the cover of secrecy by the CIA.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump stoked popular anger over the Bush-Obama deception, the loss of American life it entailed, and the $6 trillion wasted in related wars. By promising to get serious about Islamic terrorism and destroying ISIS, Trump as a campaigner implied he would stop the practice of supporting and deploying Salafist terrorists as proxies. And by his November 21st meeting with Congresswomen Tulsi Gabbard—a courageous critic of US support for terrorism—Trump signaled uncommon courage to consider a change in approach.

Trump’s policy is this regard is likely to remain secret; all we can do is evaluate the results of his actions and for that we need more time.  But early indications are not promising.  Here is an excerpt from his January 21 remarks while visiting the CIA headquarters in Virginia.

“Nobody feels stronger about the CIA and the intelligence community than Donald Trump. Nobody. I am so behind you. You’re going to get so much backing, you’re going to ask ‘Please Mr. President, don’t give us so much backing’. We’re going to do great things. We have not used the real abilities we have, we’ve been restrained. We have to get rid of ISIS. Radical Islamic terrorism has to be eradicated off the face of the earth. It is evil. This is a level of evil that we haven’t seen. You’re going to do a phenomenal job, but you’re going to end it. This is going to be one of the most important groups towards making us safe, toward making us winners again, toward ending all of the problems, the havoc and fear that this sick group of people has caused. I am with you a thousand percent! I love you, I respect you, and you will be leading the charge.”

Russia and China fear destabilization by Salafist fighters operating within Russia (Chechnya province) and China (Xinjiang province).  What Trump does with regard to terrorism will be an important factor in these diplomatic relationships.

America's Deep State

by Berry Friesen (March 10, 2017)

The events of the last week can help us understand the ways and means of the US-led empire, particularly how “the intelligence community” (TIC) and the mainstream media (MSM) work in tandem.  

Last Saturday (March 4), President Trump tweeted “that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to election.”

A spokesperson for President Obama promptly issued a public denial:  “Neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false." 

Choosing between Trump’s claim and Obama’s isn’t what’s important here.  But it prompts us to reacquaint ourselves with the context as a way to understand these recent events.  

Ever since Ed Snowden’s leak of National Security Agency (NSA) documents, we’ve known that TIC (that's "the intelligence community") vacuums up and saves every bit of digital information generated by any of us here in the US.  Absolutely everything (phone calls, text messages, emails, online posts, etc.) is taken into government custody.  Not just the technical details of how a communication occurred, but the substance of our messages too.  This routinely occurs without anyone in authority approving it.

No one is exempted from this privacy intrusion.  Donald Trump is no exception, nor Hillary Clinton, nor members of Congress or Supreme Court justices.  All of them—and all of us—are constantly being surveilled and recorded.

All this information vacuumed up by TIC is stored for future access in searchable databases.  This creates a staggering potential for government abuse via intimidation, blackmail, law enforcement investigation and criminal prosecution.  

Yes, there are detailed laws and procedures in place to describe who can access all this information, under what circumstances, and for what purposes. Who enforces these detailed laws and procedures?  Because it concerns national security, the courts won’t touch it.  Oversight is supposedly provided by congressional committees, but that’s not very effective because TIC has all the secret information and Congress is dependent on what it is told. So TIC pretty much secretly monitors itself (or not, as the case may be). 

How it all works is a highly specialized world unto itself.  Here is a brief overview.

a) If agents of law enforcement want to use in court the communications between two Americans located here in the US, then law enforcement usually needs a specific, prior warrant from a judge. 

b) If for national security purposes TIC wants to use in court communications data collected in bulk within the US from people who are within the US, it must first obtain a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court order.  

c) For national security purposes TIC is authorized to collect communications outside the US without a warrant, even if captured information includes communication with an American here in the US.   So long as the collection occurs outside the US (such as a message routed through a digital switch outside the US), the collection is authorized even if all the parties to a conversation are Americans within the US.  Under this huge loophole, the NSA in 2014 reportedly collected 850 billion phone and internet records and the unfiltered private communications of millions of Americans, all without a warrant of any kind.

d) If a collected communication isn’t authorized one way or another, then it is not to be used by any government agent.  However, since these are all covert agencies, no one knows how often unauthorized intercepts are selectively shared for purposes of intimidation, investigation and building a legal case against a target.

e) In any event, TIC can leak what it has already collected to friendly media outlets, as it did back in January with the call between the Russian ambassador and national security advisor Michael Flynn.  In that instance, the leak led to Flynn’s termination. Though there was nothing wrong with anything Flynn said during the call, he was pilloried for not describing the contents of the call accurately.

With this background in mind, we move to consider the performance of the mainstream media (MSM) in its reporting on this controversy.  

For the most part, the MSM have encouraged us to regard what Obama’s spokesperson said as accurate.  Trump’s tweet, on the other hand, has been widely disparaged as lacking evidentiary support, reflecting poor judgment, and sourced from an “alt-right website” that lacked credibility. 

This rather disparate treatment may not surprise us anymore; we’ve known for several months now that the MSM is very displeased to have Trump as president.  Nevertheless, it is unnerving how the MSM ignored its own reporting in suggesting Trump was spouting nonsense.  

For example, it is likely Trump read this in the January 12 edition of the New York Times:

“In its final days, the Obama administration has expanded the power of the National Security Agency to share globally intercepted personal communications with the government’s 16 other intelligence agencies before applying privacy protections.

“The new rules significantly relax longstanding limits on what the N.S.A. may do with the information gathered by its most powerful surveillance operations, which are largely unregulated by American wiretapping laws. These include collecting satellite transmissions, phone calls and emails that cross network switches abroad, and messages between people abroad that cross domestic network switches.

“The change means that far more officials will be searching through raw data…”

The January 19 edition of the Times included this:

“American law enforcement and intelligence agencies are examining intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, current and former senior American officials said."

The February 14 edition of the Times included this:

“Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.

“American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications ...”

And if Trump read the March 1 edition of the Times, he would have seen this:

“In the Obama administration’s last days, some White House officials scrambled to spread information ... about possible contacts between associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump and Russians — across the government ... to leave a clear trail of intelligence for government investigators.”

When we connect the dots between these MSM reports and the numerous leaks that have plagued the Trump Administration through its first two months in office, a clear picture begins to emerge.  

First, Trump’s campaign was surveilled by TIC (as we all are).  Some of the information authorized by the warrants was shared with law enforcement personnel.  Other collected information was widely shared across the government, thereby increasing the likelihood it would be leaked to the media. 

And that’s exactly what has been happening, according to William Binney, the National Security Agency’s former technical director. Remember news reports about President Trump’s phone call with Mexico’s president?  With Australia’s president?  How do you suppose the MSM gained access to that information?

Score one for the Obama Administration.  

No, President Obama did not explicitly order the surveillance of Trump’s phones; that happened automatically, simply because it is how things work in the USA now (and in a few limited instances, via a warrant).  But yes, President Obama made sure lots of people across the government received access to all of the information vacuumed up about Trump and his staff.  And yes, in his imprecise way, Trump blamed Obama personally for the mess his new administration finds itself in.

Last thing:  on March 7, WikiLeaks began publishing the CIA’s digital hacking tools. Reportedly included in the library of tools is Umbrage, which leaves false “evidence” of who is behind a hack and where it is coming from. Why would this be useful?  Well, let’s say you want to hack the Democratic National Committee and blame it on the Russians. By inserting fake “digital fingerprints” associated with prior Russian hacks, you can point investigators away from the real guilty party and toward an innocent party.  

As Robert Parry at ConsortiumNews.com sees it, the WikiLeaks disclosures raise fresh doubts about claims the Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee last spring.

So what have we learned?  Justin Raimondo, editor of Antiwar.com, provides a summary.

“The campaign to frame up and discredit Trump and his associates is characteristic of how a police state routinely operates. A national security apparatus that vacuums up all our communications and stores them for later retrieval has been utilized by political operatives to go after their enemies – and not even the President of the United States is immune. This is something that one might expect to occur in, say, Turkey, or China: that it is happening here, to the cheers of much of the media and the Democratic Party, is beyond frightening.

“The irony is that the existence of this dangerous apparatus—which civil libertarians have warned could and probably would be used for political purposes— has been hailed by Trump and his team as a necessary and proper function of government. Indeed, Trump has called for the execution of the person who revealed the existence of this sinister engine of oppression – Edward Snowden. Absent Snowden’s revelations, we would still be in the dark as to the existence and vast scope of the NSA’s surveillance.

. . . . 

“What must be investigated is the incubation of a clandestine political police force inside the national security apparatus, one that has been unleashed against Trump – and could be deployed against anyone.

"This isn’t about Donald Trump. It’s about preserving what’s left of our old republic. I don’t want to live in a country where anonymous spooks with access to my most personal information can collect it and release it to their friends in our despicable media – do you?”

March 14 update:  Glenn Greenwald provides an excellent summary of current surveillance practices, including the way officials pretend that they are not allowed to "wiretap" conversations of Americans without a warrant, in his March 13 article, "Rand Paul is Right: NSA Routinely Monitors Americans' Communications Without a Warrant."

March 22 update:  Neema Singh Guliani provides another excellent overview in her "Could the President Spy on His Political Opponents?"

The Enemy of My Enemy

by Berry Friesen (March 7, 2017)

 "The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” 

Are progressives now hawks?

Certainly the Democrats are.  It was their presidential candidate who wanted the US military to get even more engaged in the war against Syria; who supported regime change in Iraq, Libya and Ukraine; who amped up the hostility toward Russia.  Now, the Democrats are demonizing Russia’s President Putin,* pushing nonsense about Russia subverting the US election, pretending pre-inauguration communications by the Trump team with Russian officials were unlawful. With their recent selection of Tom Perez as National Committee Chair, the Democrats have doubled down on hawkishness.**

According to a new CNN poll, 51 percent of Democrats consider Russia to be a very serious threat, compared to 24 percent of Republicans.  That’s a reversal from last spring, when only 15 percent of Democrats held such a view, as compared to 30 percent of Republicans.

If you despise Donald Trump, then it’s tempting to jump on whatever bandwagon seems to be weakening him.   Enemies of my enemy are my friends, right?

Wrong.  Here’s Glen Greenwald breaking it down in his latest column, “Democrats Now Demonize the Same Russia Policies Obama Long Championed."

“This is why it’s so notable that Democrats, in the name of ‘resistance,’ have aligned with neocons, CIA operatives and former Bush officials: not because coalitions should be avoided with the ideologically impure, but because it reveals much about the political and policy mindset they’ve adopted in the name of stopping Trump. They’re not ‘resisting’ Trump from the left or with populist appeals—by, for instance, devoting themselves to protection of Wall Street and environmental regulations under attack, or supporting the revocation of jobs-killing free trade agreements, or demanding that Yemini civilians not be massacred.

“Instead, they’re attacking him on the grounds of insufficient nationalism, militarism, and aggression: equating a desire to avoid confrontation with Moscow as a form of treason.”

As I’ve said before, the tug-a-war unfolding among the imperial elite these days is more complicated than I can understand.***  But the core dynamic is clear enough.  The construction of the US-led empire over the past 75 years has entailed lots of illegal—and criminal—activity.  Information about this activity is now in the hands of a political maverick—a real estate developer/promoter who doesn’t respect the political elite, doesn’t need their money, isn’t loyal to their team.  The establishment is in a panic about all that Trump’s election has put at risk; it will do anything to bring him under their control.

So I am sure of one thing:  being against Donald Trump does not make you virtuous or wise, no more now than it did during the recent presidential campaign.

Of course, it’s also true that denouncing what the neo-cons have done to the world—six countries destroyed, two million people killed, many millions of refugees, $6 trillion wasted—doesn’t make you virtuous or wise either.  Trump is an imperialist too; I’m not giving him a free pass!

But Trump has spoken out against the horror of US foreign policy these past 15 years. That makes him worthy of our attention.  The mainstream media has not done that, nor the Democrats, nor the intelligence services.****  They have all failed us, deliberately and in major ways.  Why would we believe them now instead of Trump?

So no, an enemy of Donald Trump is not necessarily my friend.

In “Liberals Beware: Lie Down With Dogs, Get Up With Fleas,” columnist Mike Whitney brings us back to where progressives stand on all of this.  He begins by commenting on a New York Times column from Nicolas Kristof, “How Can We Get Rid of Trump?

“The reason the Times wants Trump removed is because Trump wants to normalize relations with Russia, which threatens to undermine Washington’s effort to project US power deeper into Central Asia.

“Trump’s decision to normalize relations with Moscow poses a direct threat to Washington’s broader imperial strategy to control China’s growth, topple Putin, spread military bases across Central Asia, implement trade agreements that maintain the dominant role of western-owned mega-corporations, and derail attempts by Russia and China to link the wealthy EU to Asia by expanding the web of pipeline corridors and high-speed rail that will draw the continents closer together creating the largest and most populous free trade zone the world has ever seen.

“This is what the US foreign policy establishment and, by inclusion, the Times are trying to avoid at all cost. The economic integration of Asia and Europe must be blocked to preserve Washington’s hegemonic grip on world power. That’s the whole deal in a nutshell.”

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to know where progressives stand in this imperial struggle.  They rarely speak about war and militarism anymore.  Instead, personal autonomy, social equality and the environment get most of their attention; economic goals are a distant fourth.  It’s pretty easy to meld all of that with the imperialist view that the USA is exceptional and indispensable.  And we’re seeing it happen—the melding of the progressive agenda with imperialism—right before our eyes.

That’s depressing, beyond a doubt.

Yet let’s not miss the opportunity here.  As Trump scrambles the conventional political categories in the US, a desire to turn away from imperialism and war is breaking free.  As anti-imperialists, we have potential allies in all of the conventional political camps, if only we will take the time to notice.
 -------------------------------------------------
*    Vladimir Putin is an oligarch, like Donald Trump. Neither man is an ideologue; each subscribes to the rule of money.  What makes Putin remarkable is his success in leading Russia to restored national pride and purpose, notwithstanding a third-tier economy and a second-tier military.  In his forays into international affairs (Iran, Georgia, Ukraine, Syria), Putin has sought not imperial expansion, but stable conditions for trade and respect for national sovereignty.  In contrast to US presidents, he seems genuinely opposed to Salafist terrorism.  Unsurprisingly, he is very popular with the Russian people.
 
**  See Glen Ford’s “Sheep-dogging Through Trumpland” and Bruce K. Gagnon's "Who Will Lead the Growing Anti-Trump Movement?"

*** See Robert Parry's "Official Washington Tips Into Madness" as a generally reliable source for what is happening in the Washington tug-of-war.

****See Andrew Bacevich’s “Trump and the Six-Trillion-Dollar-Question.”

A Clean Slate

by Berry Friesen (March 3, 2017)

This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
President Donald Trump (Jan. 20, 2017)

Did you listen to President Trump Tuesday evening as he explained to Congress how he plans to stop “this American carnage?”

A $54 billion jump in military spending—“one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history,” according to Trump.  Big new tax cuts for corporations.  An end to subsidized health insurance coverage for the working poor.  $1 trillion in new borrowing for infrastructure projects.  Those are a few highlights of his plan.

America’s top 1 percent is devoid of patriotic spirit.  Over the past 25 years, since Communism collapsed in a pile of dust and the US-led empire stood unchallenged in the world, the American autocracy has made itself very rich by moving capital and business operations overseas and corrupting our democracy.

The result is the “carnage” the President spoke of at his inauguration: depressed cities and towns, working age men and women no longer attached to the work force, an aging and depleted public sector.  Today, most Americans are on a treadmill, holding their own at best or sliding backwards.  Many young people face a less prosperous future than their parents have enjoyed.   The economy is still growing, but nearly all of the benefits flow to the top.

In the context of “this American carnage,” the newly-elected Oligarch-in-Chief went before Congress, blamed foreign countries, Islamic terrorists and immigrants for our problems, and declared, “I am not going to let America and its great companies and workers be taken advantage of any longer.”

What’s astonishing is our interest in what Trump is selling. It’s irrational, but we want to believe a man who has dedicated his life to acquiring wealth and social status is going to save us.  It’s magical thinking.  Still, after all the conventional Democrats and Republicans who have betrayed us, we find ourselves hoping this swashbuckling maverick will bravely make a stand on behalf of us commoners.

Why so eager to believe?  Part of it is we can’t imagine a better way.  We can only imagine the system we have, so we desperately want someone to make it work.

To spur our imaginations, in recent weeks I’ve been highlighting ways of viewing the empire that are out of the mainstream.  Today I bring you another—a frame of reference provided by economist Michael Hudson.

Hudson’s desire for an economy that serves all the people—not just the elite—has taken him deep into Babylonian economic archeology and the study of how ancient societies avoided economic strangulation by the elite.  That pathway, in turn, has taken him to the Law of Moses and from there to words of Jesus.

That’s a lot of ground to cover in a blog post.  Here’s the short version.

America is headed toward the dead-end many societies have reached before.  Our economy and government are controlled by an elite whose goals and purposes are no longer significantly aligned with the well-being of the rest of us.  We need a clean slate, a fresh start.

Ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia had a solution to this kind of problem 4-5,000 years ago.  Here is Hudson describing that history.

“People owed debts because they were in arrears; they couldn’t pay the fees owed to the palace. We might call them taxes, but they actually were fees for public services. And for beer, for instance. The palace would supply beer and you would run up a tab over the year, to be paid at harvest time on the threshing floor. You also would pay for the boatmen, if you needed to get your harvest delivered by boat. You would pay for draught cattle if you needed them. You’d pay for water.”

Over time, the burden of debt would compound and become unpayable.  Yet collection agents would persist in their debt enforcement practices, separating people from their ancestral lands, from their own livelihoods and even from their children, who would be sold into indentured servitude.  All of this further sapped the economy of its vitality. Again, here is Hudson:

“What do you do if you’re a ruler and your people can’t pay? One reason they would cancel debts is that most debts were owed to the palace or to the temples, which were under the control of the palace. So you’re canceling debts that are owed to yourself.

"Rulers had a good reason for doing this . . . It was the way to restore people to self-sufficiency. So in Sumer and in Babylon, every major ruler would proclaim a Clean Slate. We have the records to detail this century after century.

. . . .

“These Clean Slates had three elements: Number one, they would cancel the personal debts – not the business debts, not the debts denominated in silver among merchants and other rich people. These debts were business contracts, and they remained in place. It was the petty debts, the consumer debts, that were canceled. Number two, lands that had been forfeited were restored: the crop rights, if they’d been pledged to creditors. And three, all the human beings who had been pledged as bondservants would be free to return to their families.”

The Jewish people embraced the ancient wisdom of debt forgiveness during their exile to Babylon 2500 years ago.  We read of this in the 25th chapter of Leviticus, where the Law of Moses is described as requiring a “Year of Jubilee” every 50 years, an event which returned land to ancestral owners debt-free and freed slaves and indentured servants. We read of this in the 15th chapter of Deuteronomy, where the Law of Moses is described as requiring the cancellation of private debts every seven years.   We read of this in the 61st chapter of Isaiah, where the prophet proclaimed liberty to the captives and release to the bondservants.

We read of this in the 4th chapter of Luke, where Jesus adopted Isaiah 61 as his mission statement, and in the 6th chapter of Matthew, where Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors.”

Hudson sees all of this as highly relevant to Western societies of today.

“Either you’re going to have economic renewal and restore people’s ability to support themselves; or you’re going to have feudalism.

“That basically is how the Roman historians describe Rome as falling. The debtors were enslaved . . . just about everybody was enslaved, put in barracks on the land. Finally, you needed to have a population, so you let people marry and you gave them land rights–and you had slavery develop into serfdom. Well we’re going into a similar situation today, where I think we’re going into a kind of neo-feudalism. The strain of today’s society is as much a debt strain as it was back then.”

Read Hudson’s entire speech.  It’s a big subject and I can only introduce it here.

Hudson is a fan of classical economists such as Adam Smith and John Stewart Mill. They targeted special interests—landlords, bankers, oligarchs—who added costs to the products people needed to live.  These economists had a word for those added costs: rent.  It was the difference between the cost of an item or service when produced efficiently and its cost after the special interests had taken a premium.

Of course, for several generations now, we’ve been taught that the core problem identified by classical economists was government regulation.  Not true, says Hudson, we’ve been misled.  For more from Hudson about this bit of educational fraud (as well as very interesting commentary on current events), see Hudson’s essays here.

Spending $54 billion more on the military is stupid, to be sure.  But let’s not think the US-led empire is only bombs and military intimidation.  It’s also an economic model that squeezes people dry and an elite who grow unimaginably wealthy as a result.  As we imagine an alternative to empire, let’s read Michael Hudson and remember that when Isaiah and Jesus proclaimed liberty to the captives, they were talking about freeing people from a life of debt and servitude.