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Dangerous Discourse: When Progressives Sound Like Demagogues

By Norman Solomon

The Trump administration has already done enormous harm to the United States and the planet. Along the way, Trump has also caused many prominent progressives to degrade their own political discourse. It’s up to us to challenge the corrosive effects of routine hyperbole and outright demagoguery.

Consider the rhetoric from one of the most promising new House members, Democrat Jamie Raskin, at a rally near the Washington Monument over the weekend. Reading from a prepared text, Raskin warmed up by declaring that “Donald Trump is the hoax perpetrated on the Americans by the Russians.” Soon the congressman named such varied countries as Hungary, the Philippines, Syria and Venezuela, and immediately proclaimed: “All the despots, dictators and kleptocrats have found each other, and Vladimir Putin is the ringleader of the unfree world.”

Later, asked about factual errors in his speech, Raskin floundered during a filmed interview with The Real News. What is now boilerplate Democratic Party bombast about Russia has little to do with confirmed facts and much to do with partisan talking points.

The same day that Raskin spoke, the progressive former Labor Secretary Robert Reich featured at the top of his website an article he’d written with the headline “The Art of the Trump-Putin Deal.” The piece had striking similarities to what progressives have detested over the years when coming from right-wing commentators and witchhunters. The timeworn technique was dual track, in effect: I can’t prove it’s true, but let’s proceed as though it is.

The lead of Reich’s piece was clever. Way too clever: “Say you’re Vladimir Putin, and you did a deal with Trump last year. I’m not suggesting there was any such deal, mind you. But if you are Putin and you did do a deal, what did Trump agree to do?”

From there, Reich’s piece was off to the conjectural races.

Progressives routinely deplore such propaganda techniques from right-wingers, not only because the left is being targeted but also because we seek a political culture based on facts and fairness rather than innuendos and smears. It’s painful now to see numerous progressives engaging in hollow propaganda.

Likewise, it’s sad to see so much eagerness to trust in the absolute credibility of institutions like the CIA and NSA -- institutions that previously earned wise distrust. Over the last few decades, millions of Americans have gained keen awareness of the power of media manipulation and deception by the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. Yet now, faced with an ascendant extreme right wing, some progressives have yielded to the temptation of blaming our political predicament more on a foreign “enemy” than on powerful corporate forces at home.

The over-the-top scapegoating of Russia serves many purposes for the military-industrial complex, Republican neocons and kindred “liberal interventionist” Democrats. Along the way, the blame-Russia-first rhetoric is of enormous help to the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party -- a huge diversion lest its elitism and entwinement with corporate power come under greater scrutiny and stronger challenge from the grassroots.

In this context, the inducements and encouragements to buy into an extreme anti-Russia frenzy have become pervasive. A remarkable number of people claim certainty about hacking and even “collusion” -- events that they cannot, at this time, truly be certain about. In part that’s because of deceptive claims endlessly repeated by Democratic politicians and news media. One example is the rote and highly misleading claim that “17 U.S. intelligence agencies” reached the same conclusion about Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee -- a claim that journalist Robert Parry effectively debunked in an article last week.

During a recent appearance on CNN, former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner offered a badly needed perspective on the subject of Russia’s alleged intrusion into the U.S. election. People in Flint, Michigan “wouldn't ask you about Russia and Jared Kushner,” she said. “They want to know how they’re gonna get some clean water and why 8,000 people are about to lose their homes.”

Turner noted that “we definitely have to deal with” allegations of Russian interference in the election, “it’s on the minds of American people, but if you want to know what people in Ohio -- they want to know about jobs, they want to know about their children.” As for Russia, she said, “We are preoccupied with this, it’s not that this is not important, but every day Americans are being left behind because it’s Russia, Russia, Russia.”

Like corporate CEOs whose vision extends only to the next quarter or two, many Democratic politicians have been willing to inject their toxic discourse into the body politic on the theory that it will be politically profitable in the next election or two. But even on its own terms, the approach is apt to fail. Most Americans are far more worried about their economic futures than about the Kremlin. A party that makes itself more known as anti-Russian than pro-working-people has a problematic future.

Today, 15 years after George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” oratory set the stage for ongoing military carnage, politicians who traffic in unhinged rhetoric like “Putin is the ringleader of the unfree world” are helping to fuel the warfare state -- and, in the process, increasing the chances of direct military conflict between the United States and Russia that could go nuclear and destroy us all. But such concerns can seem like abstractions compared to possibly winning some short-term political gains. That’s the difference between leadership and demagoguery.

_____________________

Norman Solomon is the coordinator of the online activist group RootsAction.org and the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. He is the author of a dozen books including “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.”

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Pro-Trump Identity Politics

By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.

Photo by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann | CC BY 2.0

With Donald Trump in the White House, absurdities erupt on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.  The world feels out of joint — as if the editorial staff of The Onion had kicked God out of Heaven and taken over daily administration of the world.

Familiar expectations are shot.  Americans are fine with robber barons who morph into philanthropists in old age; this didn’t happen very often, but we do tell their stories to our children.  And although it also happens rarely, we are not surprised when heirs of great fortunes from socially prominent families go into “public service” out of a sense of noblesse oblige.

But in what universe would anyone expect someone with Trump’s résumé and pedigree to become the tribune of coal miners and other “forgotten men”?

The short answer is: not in ours or in any other.

Nevertheless, polls tell us that more than a third of the voting public thinks otherwise.  They voted for Trump and they are sticking with him for the time being — because, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they think he is on their side.

Among them are plenty of forgotten men and women from families that used to vote Democratic as if by reflex.  Some were or still are active union people; some used to be or still are coal miners.

That’s how good a conman the Donald is.

Still, it is hard to make sense of people who fiercely support someone whose goals are so transparently opposed to both their material and expressive interests and whose rank incompetence is downright embarrassing.  As he himself might tweet – how sad!  how pathetic!

And then there is Russia, Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” and the great bugbear of the Free World from the October Revolution on – except, of course, during World War II, when they helped us out by smashing the Nazi war machine.

Wasn’t Communism supposed to be the reason for all those Cold War animosities that seemed so antiquated just a few month ago – before the Clintons and then the entire Democratic Party, sore losers all, and their media flacks took up the cause of preparing the groundwork for World War III?

These days, Communists are about as rare in the Kremlin as at Comcast, owner of MSNBC, or Time Warner (soon to be taken over by ATT), owner of CNN.  Nevertheless, Rachel Maddow and others like her didn’t have to skip a beat when the call came to rev up a new red scare – one suitable for time when the reds have gone missing.

Could it be that, for the champions of our seemingly impregnable capitalist system, Communism never really was the issue at all; that the point was and still is, to quash anything that stands in the way of American world domination?

However that may be, in the world before Trump, it was Democrats, not Republicans, who were “soft on Communism” (or whatever).   Yet now, except for enfeebled old timers like John McCain and his sidekick, Lindsey Graham, Republicans actually seem OK with Russia, while Democrats beat every war drum that comes their way.  What gives with that?

And, for that matter, since when are Democrats more besotted than Republicans with “intelligence community” miscreants like James Clapper and John Brennan, and with the FBI and the other pillars of our national security state?

Trumpland isn’t just hell for Muslims, Hispanics, women, and other vulnerable populations; it is hell for anyone trying to make sense of what is going on.  It is a topsy-turvy world, a world turned upside down, a world where absurdity reigns.

It is possible, of course, to concoct explanations for at least some of the weirdness Trump arouses.  However, the explanations are seldom satisfactory; and, even when they are, they hardly dispel the impression that what is going on can’t really be happening.

Understanding the Trump phenomenon has always been a challenge, but people whom Trump never snookered have been having an especially hard time of late, trying to understand why so many Trump supporters are still standing by their man — in view of his repeatedly demonstrated incompetence and the increasingly obvious fact that he is not and never has been on their side.

But that phenomenon is more or less comprehensible.

After all, we already knew that when forced to choose between beliefs supported by evidence and uninformed intuitions, many, maybe most, Trump supporters opt for the latter.

We also know that some of them really do hold “deplorable” beliefs that a Trump in the White House effectively validates.  They depend on him for that, and so they stand by him.  We also know that some of them are just plain stupid.

They are also, like the Tea Partiers who preceded them, stunningly, even sublimely, obdurate.  Combine that with the all-too-human reluctance of people everywhere to admit that they have been conned – and voilà.

Some Trump voters surely did believe, in all sincerity, that a Trump presidency would improve their lot materially.  Because salesmanship is one thing Trump is good at, some still do.

But most of the people who voted for Trump were also “values voters” – willing, if need be, to vote against their material interests in order to strike a blow for what they care about more.

This was what drove them into the Trump camp in the first place.  As much as they abhorred Hillary Clinton, they rejected the species of neoliberalism associated with her family name even more.  They hated everything she represented. Who can blame them!

Remember too that although it feels like an eternity, Trump has not been President all that long — and that, except in highly turbulent periods, political realignments take time, especially when elections are far off.   The fact that Trump’s base is still largely intact is therefore not remarkable at all.

Thus the reluctance of diehard Trump voters to defect is understandable.  What is harder to understand is their seemingly unflinching adherence to a reactionary agenda that neither Trump nor most of the people who voted for him favor or even seem to care all that much about.

Why, for instance, would they vehemently favor Republican efforts to “repeal Obamacare” in ways that do what polling data shows they oppose: giving insurance companies freer rein to take pre-existing conditions into account, for example, or charging premiums too high for most of the people who get insurance under Obamacare to afford.  This is especially odd inasmuch as many of the people who would lose insurance coverage if Obamacare goes fall squarely within the pro-Trump demographic.

And why would they applaud Trump for pulling the United States out of the 2015 Paris accord on global warming?  Do they look forward to catastrophic events befalling themselves and others compared to which, as Trump’s evangelical supporters might say, the Ten Plagues were small potatoes.

Perhaps they don’t understand that turning America into an outcast rogue state is not a particularly good way to make “American first.”

I am being facetious, of course; even the stupid ones are smarter than that.  And, in any case, there is a better explanation at hand: that the ideology of the dunderheads Trump ran against in the primaries has become a marker for the kind of white identity politics that Trump conjured into being in order to work his con.

***

Trump has no ideology.  All he has is a fierce determination to enrich and glorify himself.

However, he is shrewd enough to realize that, by playing to the resentments of people whose material conditions have been stagnant or in decline for nearly half a century, and whom “liberal” Democrats ignore, he could gain the foot soldiers he needs to advance his avaricious and self-aggrandizing objectives.

This is Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” brought up to date and tailored to Trump’s particular needs.  Since the 1970s, Republicans have been actively recruiting from within what has now become the Trump demographic.  Until now, this has worked out well for them.  Currently, though, thanks to Trump, it is becoming a problem.  The party’s grandees lost control of their party in 2016 and, appearances notwithstanding, they have yet to win it back.

Hardly anyone, probably not even Trump himself, expected Hillary Clinton to lose last November.  Trump’s campaign therefore gave little thought to what he would do after Election Day.

But Hillary outdid herself in ineptitude and Trump therefore had to pull a rabbit out of his hat – as quickly as he could.

Because he had no firm policy ideas and no idea how to govern, Trump therefore had no choice but to rely on the Republican Party apparatus for help.

Had Clinton won, Trump would have been remembered as the man who brought the GOP down.  This could still happen, of course; from some future vantage-point, destroying the more retrograde of our two neoliberal parties may still rank high on the Donald’s list of accomplishments.

For the time being, though, his election has been a godsend for Republicans.   Not only did many of them ride into office on his coattails, but his victory gave their otherwise decrepit leaders a new lease on life.

On the face of it, the Trump-GOP alliance is a “deal” made in heaven (or rather, in this case, in hell).   Trump gets what he cannot do without, and Republican ideologues get a vehicle for turning their ideas into the law of the land.

Trump is plainly the least ideological of any American President in modern times, nevertheless he now owns those ideas. They follow from a more or less fixed and generally coherent way of thinking about public policy, grounded in political philosophies that converge on positions that assign a minimal role to the state, leaving the task of coordinating individuals’ behaviors to markets — systems of voluntary, bilateral exchange.

In the real world of American politics, persons of conservative temperaments, who hold genuinely conservative philosophical or religious convictions are sometimes drawn to this way of thinking.  But, in fact, there is nothing inherently “conservative” about it.

Genuine conservatives care, above all, about achieving and maintaining order – through religious, political, and familial institutions.  These concerns are, if anything, undercut by the positions the people we call “conservatives” endorse.

Conservatism, properly understood, is of a piece with ways of thinking about politics and society that antedate the rise of capitalism and, along with it, the demise of traditional social solidarities and communal institutional arrangements.

In marked contrast, the ideology Trump finds himself promoting accords pride of place to a distinctively modern notion of individual freedom – according to which individuals, conceived apart from their relations with others, are free insofar as they are unconstrained by others from doing what they want.

In a word, this is liberalism, not conservatism.  More precisely, it is classical liberalism, the liberalism of eighteenth and nineteenth century political philosophers.

According to their way of thinking, there is almost nothing that states can rightfully do beyond protecting markets – in the first instance, from enemies within, by those who would distort the consequences of voluntary exchanges through force or fraud.

They can also rightfully defend against aggression from without when there is no satisfactory non-state way to do so.  Historically, the presumption has been that this meant defending against other states.  But non-state actors can also be aggressors.  This is why our so-called conservatives – classical liberals – can and do countenance, for example, the never-ending war on terror that Dick Cheney and George W. Bush launched a decade and a half ago.

They can and sometimes do also take a fairly non-austere view of what protecting markets involves.  Thus most “conservatives” today are fine with a state that regulates the supply of money, and even with one that accords “safety net” protections to extreme victims of market perturbations.

In the main, though, they are free market devotees who support private property and unregulated market arrangements with an almost religious fervor.  Inasmuch as their theoretical convictions depend as much on faith as on reason, it is fair to think of them as free market theologians.

The basic tenet of the theology they espouse is that individuals own all that they lawfully possess, and also their own bodies and powers.   They can then do what they want with what they own provided only that they do not use them willfully in ways that harm others.

The details get complicated, and the underlying contentions can be defended in any of a variety of ways — sometimes, for example, by appealing to inherent and inalienable individual rights or by arguing that untrammeled market relations in private property regimes result in better outcomes, in one or another well-defined sense, than any of the feasible alternatives.

In my view, the arguments these theologians advance are not at all compelling, though they can be, and often are, interesting.  They can also be arcane.  A lot is therefore lost in translation as we go, say, from John Locke or John Stuart Mill or even Friedrich von Hayek to Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan.

But apart from these and other self-selected party “intellectuals,” do Trump supporters really care?  That would seem even less likely than that they would fall for the Donald’s con.

Trump latched onto free market theology out of necessity – because he needed to rely on a handful of lackluster, but fervent, Republican leaders who were willing to support him, for lack of any less unpalatable alternative.

However, this does not explain Trump supporters’ seemingly passionate commitment to the positions Trump has taken.  In their minds, free market theology seems almost to have detached itself from its connection to Trump himself, becoming, so to speak, a freestanding cause.

I would venture that what it really is is a marker of identity. That a political philosophy that they know little and care less about would take on such a role is perhaps the most bizarre feature of the very bizarre Trump phenomenon.

If and when the GOP’s leaders come to the conclusion that they would be enough better off without Trump to bear the cost of ousting him, this form of identity politics will pose a severe hazard to all but the very few who actually stand to gain from the political economic arrangements free market theology encourages.

The reason why, in short, is that a President Pence would stand a better chance of doing what Trump talks about than Trump himself, inasmuch as Pence is genuinely, not just opportunistically, committed to the program, and because, as an “adult in the room,” a relieved and weary public would likely let him have his way.

Trump’s temperament and ignorance make him a clear and present danger.  But a hamstrung Trump, fighting off efforts to oust him, is probably less of a menace, all things considered, than the constitutionally prescribed alternative, especially now that Pence would be backed by fervent identity-driven true believers.

Efforts to oust Trump are of crucial importance, but the longer it takes for them to succeed, the better off we all will be.  It would be wonderful to see Trump and all things Trumpian fall and fall hard.  But a death by a thousand cuts that slows the process of his removal down to a crawl would be preferable by far.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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Killer Drones in the Empire State

By Norman Solomon. This article was first published on Expose Facts.

At dusk I stood on a residential street with trim lawns and watched planes approach a runaway along the other side of a chain-link fence. Just a few dozen yards away, a JetBlue airliner landed. Then a United plane followed. But the next aircraft looked different. It was a bit smaller and had no markings or taillights. A propeller whirled at the back. And instead of the high-pitched screech of a jet, the sound was more like… a drone.

During the next half-hour I saw three touch-and-go swoops by drones, their wheels scarcely reaching the runaway before climbing back above Syracuse’s commercial airport. Nearby, pilots were at the controls in front of Air Force computers, learning how to operate the MQ-9 Reaper drone that is now a key weapon of U.S. warfare from Afghanistan to the Middle East to Africa.

Since last summer the Defense Department has been using the runway and airspace at the Syracuse Hancock International Airport to train drone operators, who work at the adjoining Air National Guard base. Officials say it’s the first time that the federal government has allowed military drones to utilize a commercial airport. It won’t be the last time.

No longer will the pilots who steer drones and fire missiles while staring at computer screens be confined to remote areas like the Nevada desert. With scant public information or debate, sizable American communities are becoming enmeshed in drone warfare on other continents. Along the way, how deeply will we understand — in human terms — what the drone war is doing to people far away? And to us?

***     ***     ***

The takeoffs and landings of military drones at the Syracuse airport get little attention in New York’s fifth-largest city. Already routine, the maneuvers are hardly noticed. In an elevator at a hotel near the airport, I mentioned the Reaper drone exercises to an American Airlines flight attendant who had just landed on the same runway as the drones. “I had no idea,” she said.

The Reaper drones using the Syracuse runway are unarmed, the Air Force says. But when trainees go operational, their computer work includes aiming and launching Hellfire missiles at targets many thousands of miles away.

Despite the official claims that drone strikes rarely hit civilians, some evidence says otherwise. For example, leaked classified documents (obtained by The Intercept) shed light on a series of U.S. airstrikes codenamed Operation Haymaker. From January 2012 to February 2013, those drone attacks in northeast Afghanistan killed more than 200 people, but only about one-sixth of them were the intended targets.

Even without a missile strike, there are traumatic effects of drones hovering overhead. The former New York Times reporter David Rohde has described what he experienced during captivity by the Taliban in tribal areas of Pakistan: “The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.”

As civic leaders in Syracuse and elsewhere embrace the expanding domestic involvement in day-to-day drone warfare, clear mention of the human toll far away is almost taboo. Elected officials join with business groups and public-relations officers from the military in extolling the benefits and virtues. Rarely does anyone acknowledge that civilians are maimed and killed as a result of the extolled activities, or that — in the name of a war on terror — people in foreign lands are subjected to the airborne presence of drones that is (to use Rohde’s word) “terrifying.”

Such matters are a far cry from Syracuse, where the local airport’s role in drone warfare is visible yet virtually unseen. My random conversations with dozens of Syracuse residents in many walks of life turned up scant knowledge or concern about the nearby drone operations. What’s front and center is the metropolitan area’s economic distress.

Unlike the well-financed Air National Guard base, the city’s crumbling infrastructure and budgets for relieving urban blight are on short rations. When I talked with people in low-income neighborhoods of Syracuse — one of the poorest cities in the United States — despair was often unmistakable. A major study by the Century Foundation identified Syracuse as the city with the highest concentrations of poverty among African Americans and Hispanics in the United States. Locally, the latest influx of federal largesse is for the drone war, not for them.

***     ***     ***

A group called Upstate Drone Action has been protesting at the Air National Guard base on the outskirts of Syracuse with frequent vigils and persistent civil disobedience. A recent demonstration, on Good Friday, included nine arrests. The participants said in a joint statement: “What if our country were constantly being spied upon by drones, with some of us killed by drones? What if many bystanders, including children, were killed in the process? If that were happening, we would hope that some people in that attacking country would speak up and try to stop the killing. We’re speaking up to try and stop the illegal and immoral drone attacks on countries against which Congress has not declared war.”

The last couple of months have not gone well for authorities trying to discourage civil disobedience — what organizers call “civil resistance” — at the base. In early March, a jury in the Dewitt Town Court took just half an hour to acquit four defendants on all charges from an action two years ago that could have resulted in a year behind bars for disorderly conduct, trespassing and obstruction of government administration.

Later in March, citing a lack of jurisdiction, a local judge dismissed charges against four people who set up a “nativity tableau” in front of the main gate at the Hancock Air Force Base two days before Christmas last year. In a press release, Upstate Drone Action said that the activists had been “protesting the hunter/killer MQ-9 Reaper drones piloted over Afghanistan by the 174th Attack Wing of the New York National Guard” at the base.

***     ***     ***

The U.S. drone war is escalating in numerous countries. A year ago the head of the Air Combat Command, Gen. Herbert Carlisle, told a Senate subcommittee that “an insatiable demand” was causing U.S. drone operations to grow at a “furious pace.” That pace has become even more furious since President Trump took office. In early April a researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, Micah Zenko, calculated that President Trump had approved an average of one drone attack per day — a fivefold increase from the rate under the Obama administration.

Upstate New York is leading the way for the Pentagon’s plan to expand its drone program from isolated areas into populous communities, which offer ready access to workers. One hundred and sixty miles to the west of Syracuse, just outside the city of Niagara Falls, an Air National Guard base — the largest employer in the county — is in the final stages of building a cutting-edge digital tech center with huge bandwidth. There, pilots and sensor operators will do shifts at computer consoles, guiding MQ-9 drones and firing missiles on kill missions. The center is on track to become fully operational in a matter of months.

At the main gate of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, a sergeant from the public-affairs office was upbeat about the base “operating the MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft.” At city hall the mayor of Niagara Falls, a liberal Democrat, sounded no less pleased, while carefully sidestepping my questions about whether he could see any downsides to the upcoming drone role. A local businessman who chairs the Niagara Military Affairs Council — a private organization that has long spearheaded efforts to prevent closure of the base — told me that getting the drone mission was crucial for keeping the base open.

In such ways, functioning locally while enabling globally, the political economy and mass psychology of militarism do the work of the warfare state.

About Norman Solomon

Norman Solomon is the author of “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” He is a co-founder of RootsAction.org and the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. This article was first published by ExposeFacts, a program of IPA.

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ISIS Gains Power and Innocents Die as Syria Retreats From Peace

By Vijay Prashad / AlterNet
Trump's failed leadership is only making the sectarian violence worse.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon staying in small cramped quarters, 3 September 2012.
Photo Credit: By Voice of America News: Margaret Besheer reports from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli; "Syrian Refugees Seek Out Smugglers". [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A few months ago, it appeared as if the local ceasefires and the new geo-political realignments had moved Syria towards the end of its fratricidal six-year civil war. The Syrian government and the Turkey-based leadership of a section of the armed opposition met in Astana (Kazakhstan) and discussed the technical matters of de-escalation. Iran and Qatar had produced very important breakthroughs around towns under siege. There was no easy pathway to a peace deal, but there appeared to be signs that indicated the possibility of a genuine dialogue.

Meanwhile, at Syria’s north and Iraq’s northwest, it appeared as if ISIS would be soon squashed by the massive firepower of the various global players and by the resolve of the various militaries in the region. Gains in Mosul and in the Syrian Desert towns indicated that ISIS would have few options left to exert itself. It would not disappear – for it still commands the allegiance of a large number of fighters and sympathizers – but it would be considerably weakened.

Certainly, the ceasefire dialogue in Astana and the UN-led process in Geneva indicated that the Syrian government had the better bargaining position. Its forces – aided by Iran, Russia and other regional fighting units – had defeated the rebel forces in Aleppo and seemed poised to weaken them further in Idlib. The Syrian government’s forces had removed ISIS from Palmyra and seemed prepared to break the ISIS siege on the western city of Deir ez-Zor. A study of the battlefield in Syria indicates that between 1 April 2016 and 31 March 2017, 43 per cent of the Syrian army’s battles were against ISIS (this is contrary to the view that the Damascus government has not engaged ISIS).

Regime Change

Much changed in the politics of the region when US President Donald Trump authorized the missile strikes on the Syrian government’s air base on 7 April. This is not to say that the airstrikes had a major military effect on the Syrian army, but it did muddy the balance of forces in this bloody war and it will serve to extend the war and break the gestures for peace.

Just before these missile strikes, the Syrian opposition in Istanbul (Turkey) had asked for greater US involvement in the negotiations. The opposition had come to the view that US military action against the government of Bashar al-Assad was no longer possible. Trump’s missile strikes invalidated their assumption. It is now thought amongst the political leaders of the armed opposition that the US might launch a full-scale attack on the Syrian army and deliver Damascus to them.

It is a curious matter that the journalist Anand Gopal told Democracy Now that ‘I think it’s important to understand that there’s no regime change policy from the United States towards Syria. And there never has been a regime change policy.’ This view blinds itself from the decade-long attempt by the US government to overthrow the Syrian government in order to weaken Iran and Hezbollah (as I show in my book, The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution). It also fails to see that ‘regime change’ is not always accomplished by the kind of massive bombardment seen in Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011). In Syria, the armed opposition knew from 2011 that it would not defeat the Assad government without the accompaniment of massive US airstrikes. This is why it has sought to encourage US intervention. Obama’s slogan - ‘Assad must go’ – and the adventures of US Ambassador Robert Ford to opposition protests suggested to the armed opposition that the US cruise missiles were on the way.

The shadowy promises from the United States prolonged this war, with the rebels unwilling to come to the table because they assumed that the maximal position (regime change) would be reality. At the same time, the US along with its Gulf Arab allies and Turkey financed and armed the opposition through Turkey and Jordan. This program was known as Timber Sycamore, which was the pipeline for millions of dollars of arms that entered not only the various rebel forces but also the black market. The hope that the US will eventually overthrow Assad remains central to the strategy of even the al-Qaeda proxy. Trump’s 7 April strike merely rekindled that hope and therefore broke the momentum of the peace talks.

The Pendulum of ISIS

Trump’s 7 April strike hit an airfield that – while bombing Idlib certainly – was also bombing ISIS positions outside Palmyra and toward Deir ez-Zor. Three days before Trump’s assault, Syrian army troops had moved closer to the significant Talilah crossroad, held by ISIS. They took the heights of al-Taj and al-Mazbad from ISIS. It appeared that the Syrian army was getting itself ready for an assault on the Talilah crossroad, whose capture would have allowed them to move on Deir ez-Zor, where 90,000 civilians are living in a wretched siege, and to the T3 airbase near Homs. The oil fields of al-Shaer and the gas fields of Arak would have been secured if the Syrian army had been able to take the crossroad.

Air cover came from the base that Trump’s cruise missiles hit, which delivered ISIS a momentary advantage on the ground. ISIS chatter now suggests that defeat in Mosul would be compensated by a victory in Deir ez-Zor. In practical terms, the Trump strike might very well have made this possible.

Meanwhile, the deeply fraught politics along the Turkish border has also allowed ISIS to breathe. Turkey’s intervention to prevent the advance of both the Syrian army and the US-backed largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces has allowed ISIS to reorganize its forces to delay the fall of Raqqa and to go south to seize Deir ez-Zor. An ISIS suicide bomber killed dozens of refugees from this war zone on 2 May in Hasakeh province. These refugees sought to go into the zone controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces. Such attacks are intended to sow fear amongst the population and in the ranks of those who are fighting ISIS.

Security Zones

The armed Syrian opposition has decided to no longer attend the Astana ceasefire talks, whose fourth round opened today. They now sniff the possibility of regime change in Damascus. Trump’s action indicates that peace is not necessary if victory remains a prospect.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin spoke to Trump on 2 May. Putin asked Trump to endorse the Russian proposal for the creation of ‘security zones’ across Syria. Where a power is relatively dominant, it will guarantee the peace in that zone, and the various powers would ensure that attacks across zones would be curtailed. The four ‘security zones’ would be managed by the Russians, the Iranians, the Turks and the Americans. This framework resembles the Allied-occupation zones in Germany after World War 2. In their read-out of the phone call, the White House called these ‘safe, or de-escalation, zones’ – translating the Russian proposal into the language of ‘no-fly zones’ and ‘safe zones’ familiar to the American policy makers. In fact, Putin said openly that these ‘security zones’ would be ‘no-fly zones.’

At Astana, the main agenda item will be these ‘security zones,’ with a detailed document now doing the rounds of the participants. It is hoped that a final document – with the technical details for the boundaries, checkpoints, and monitoring procedures – will be ready by 22 May.

The armed Syrian opposition leadership rejected the proposal for safe zones. Ahmed Ramadan, leader of their delegation, told the Associated Press that the armed opposition was not happy with the idea of local truces. They wanted to secure a nation-wide policy. Ramadan’s delegation is in Astana, although they have not come to the table. The UN’s envoy Steffan de Mistura has urged Ramadan and his team to come back to the talks and not to ‘destroy the possibility of good news related to this issue.’

It is important to indicate that the Trump attack has also strengthened the sectarian world-view of the Saudi royal family – one of the main patrons of the armed Syrian opposition. On 2 May, the Saudi crown prince and defense minister Mohammed bin Salman told Saudi news media that his kingdom would never be able to have a dialogue with Iran. ‘How can I come to an understanding with someone, or a regime, whose principles are extremist?’ Iran, he argued, represented the Shia quest to ‘control the Islamic world.’ What Prince Salman indicated here was less the reality of Iran’s situation and more the paranoia of the Saudi government. Iran has been willing to meet with the Saudis to find a way to de-escalate the conflict in Syria and elsewhere. It has already been working with Qatar to do so, and is an active player at the Astana meetings. Recalcitrance may be found less in Iran and more in Saudi Arabia, which knows that Washington, DC will back its obstinacy to the hilt. Prince Salman’s comments have been well received by the armed opposition in Syria. They see this as confirmation that neither Trump nor Prince Salman is eager for peace in Syria. Both would like to see that war go on.

 

Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday.

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Legitimation Crises

By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.

Photo by Jörn Schubert | CC BY 2.0

Before long, we will be hearing a lot of talk about “legitimation crises.”  Thank Donald Trump.  Thank Benjamin Netanyahu too.

The problem with Trump is not that he lost the popular vote but won the election.  We can get over that.

George W. Bush lost the popular vote too, and but for five Republican Supreme Court Justices, he would probably have lost in the Electoral College as well.  For a while, this put the legitimacy of his presidency in doubt.  Unfortunately, this didn’t hobble him for long; even before 9/11, the mood had passed.

He was therefore able to go on to break the Greater Middle East and much else too.  The world would have been better off had more been made of the legitimacy of the way he got into the White House; letting the issue go, emboldened him.

Tweet by tweet, it becomes harder to deny that Trump’s ways of thinking and acting defy rational reconstruction.  Therefore, we cannot simply extrapolate from Bush’s case to his; Bush’s shortcomings were legion, but he was not out of control crazy.  It was therefore easier to set legitimacy concerns aside in Bush’s case than in Trump’s.  For as long as he remains President, they will always be with us.

Who knows what Trump will or will not do in these circumstances; the man’s behavior is too erratic to predict.  Even one of those preternaturally gifted profilers depicted in crime fiction and on television shows like “Criminal Minds” would be baffled.

This is why Trump’s presidency is precipitating a legitimation crisis of unprecedented proportions that could cause the world’s only superpower to become unhinged.

If the relevant measures are lethality and damage to world order and stability, Bush is still, by far, the worst President in modern times.  But give the Donald a chance.  He has already outdone George W. in laying siege to the most fundamental of the four freedoms Franklin Roosevelt spoke of, freedom from fear.  When it came to undermining that freedom, Bush and his éminence grise, Dick Cheney, were no slouches, but they were angels compared to Trump.

This is why it is urgent that he be impeached or, if that is politically unfeasible, that he be caused to “self-impeach” either for vanity’s sake or for the sake of his and his family’s bottom lines.

Self-impeachment used to seem the more likely prospect, because Democrats are both useless and spineless, and because Republicans of all stripes thought that they could use his presidency to their advantage.  This could change as it becomes clearer to ever-larger swathes of potential Republican voters that the man ought to be carried off in a straightjacket.  Then leading Republicans could well decide that his continuation in office is more of a liability than an asset.   Stay tuned!

When Nixon saw the writing on the wall, he quit before the House of Representatives could formally impeach him; he removed himself from office.  As a real estate mogul and casino tycoon, Trump would run away from problems too, often finding ways to enrich himself in the process.  But that skill may not transfer.

Self-impeachment – cut and run — would be Trump’s least bad choice, but it now looks like that will only happen if his hard-core base turns against him.  If the polls are right, that isn’t happening.

Meanwhile, the man is too obtuse to realize that everyone who is not willfully blind knows that he is a dangerous buffoon.  He may even be deluded enough himself to believe what he says when he says that he is doing an outstanding job.

Astonishingly too, his brand and his daughter’s are still doing well.  Evidently, there are enough people out there with no taste, no shame, and enough money to keep those emoluments flowing in.

This is why our best hope for getting rid of the Trump menace now seems to be the GOP.

This could change, of course.  Trump is so plainly unfit for the office the Electoral College handed him – temperamentally, morally, and intellectually – that circumstances could arise that would cause a sizeable portion of the Trump base to defect.  The Donald isn’t have the man, or crook, that Nixon was, but, were that to happen, perhaps even he would see the writing on the wall.

Once the assumption that his governance is legitimate wanes sufficiently, he will no longer be able even to muddle through, as he has been up to now – with the help of House and Senate Republicans, a handful of Generals, and some moneymen.  When it comes to that, even he would have to wonder what the point is in staying on.

We do not hear nearly as much about it on cable news, but legitimacy is also an issue in Israel, the “ally” that our political class and their media treat, as best they can, as if it were America’s fifty-first state.

The Israeli government is, or pretends to be, obsessed with what it regards as efforts to “delegitimize” it.

But, unlike the legitimation crisis that the Trump presidency is triggering, that crisis is largely a fabrication of Israeli propagandists.

Their goal is to quash the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and, more generally, to suppress all but the most anodyne criticisms of the Israeli state.  The line they promote is that BDS poses an “existential threat” to Israel and somehow also to Jews the world over.

These are contentions that would hardly be worth taking seriously, except to debunk them, were we not on the brink of a real legitimation crisis that can be instructive to compare and contrast with the one that the Israelis go on about.

***

Palestinians have been vilified in the West for as long as they have struggled for national recognition; it hardly mattered that there was never much to vilify.

They had nothing to do, after all, with the war on European Jewry; that was a European affair.  There is therefore no reason of justice why they should have to pay for what Europeans did to Europe’s Jews.

Neither is there any reason of justice why the state of Israel should be the beneficiary of the sacrifices inflicted upon Palestinians.  Israel did not even exist at the time that the Judeocide was underway, and the harm that the Nazis unleashed befell Jews living in Europe, not Palestine.

Nevertheless, the state of Israel inherited a seemingly inexhaustible supply of moral capital.

It didn’t even have to spend any of it to take over and ethnically cleanse Palestine, at least not according to prevailing understandings in the West.  In effect, Israel got a massive inheritance and a get out of jail free card to boot.

Thank Zionist ideology for that; without it, it would make no sense to identify Judaism’s Holy Land with a Jewish homeland, much less to talk about Israel as “the nation state of the Jewish people.”

In historically Muslim countries, and in most other parts of the world, public opinion has always tended to support the Palestinian cause.  Lately, though, as Israeli governments flagrantly squander the moral capital they still possess, Palestinian calls for justice are finally finding politically receptive audiences in North America, Europe, and Australasia.

This was bound to happen eventually.  But Israel’s rightwing governments have overplayed their hand so often and so egregiously that the process is at last no longer advancing at the glacial pace it was.

Founded twelve years ago in response to a call from leading organizations and figures in Palestinian civil society, the BDS movement, along with other expressions of solidarity with Palestinians struggling to end a half-century long Occupation, is therefore on the rise.

What BDS asks people to do, and forbear from doing, is utterly non-violent and morally unassailable.

Nevertheless, it disturbs even liberal Zionists at the same time that it puts the rest, the vast majority, in such a tizzy that it is hard to believe that they are serious about what they claim.

With the Netanyahu government leading the way, they are calling in every political favor they can in order to put the movement down.

They are also doing their best to intimidate BDS proponents.  In the United States and elsewhere, they focus especially on progressive activists in colleges and universities, much to the detriment of critical and rational discourse.

Their claim, again, is that the BDS movement poses an “existential threat” to the state of Israel by putting its “legitimacy” in jeopardy.

***

For political philosophers, political legitimacy has long been Topic A.

The general idea is that a state is legitimate if and only if its basic institutions and practices satisfy defensible standards.

Some of the standards that are proposed or assumed are so stringent that no actually existing state could ever satisfy them.  When this is the case, notions of political legitimacy may be of philosophical interest – for what they say, for example, about the forms and limits of political obligation or the nature of authority relations in the political sphere, but they are irrelevant from a real world political point of view.

In marked contrast, most philosophical accounts of legitimacy propose standards of such an anodyne nature that most existing states easily satisfy them.  Like philosophers generally political philosophers aim to provide rationally defensible accounts of what already is the case.  They are therefore more likely to be conservative than radical.

In any case, descriptive accounts of the ways that institutions come to be regarded as legitimate are of more direct political relevance than normative theories of political legitimacy.  This has been a topic of discussion in academic circles for more than a century.

Thus we know that charismatic leaders can sometimes legitimate institutional arrangements.  We also know that, for the most part, people come to accept the legitimacy of the regimes under which they live when and insofar as the politicians and bureaucrats who govern them conform to widely accepted expectations that accord with prevailing social norms.

Notwithstanding his belief in his own “wonderfulness,” Trump is hardly a charismatic leader, and his seemingly uncontrollable erratic style confounds ordinary expectations and social norms.  This is why a full-fledged legitimation crisis is brewing.

Israel’s real or purported problem with political legitimacy is of a different nature altogether.

The regime in place in Israel now would surely horrify leading figures from earlier versions of the Zionist project, but the internal stability of the regime is secure. For as long as the idea that Israel faces existential threats seems credible to most Israelis and Zionists abroad, this is unlikely to change.

Settler states in other times and places effectively eliminated the indigenous peoples whose lands they usurped – militarily or by disease or sometimes, especially in Central and South America, by intermarriage.   In the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the preferred strategy was outright elimination, coupled with physical separation, when necessary and feasible.

A British-only population policy was incompatible with economic development, however — and so, before long, slaves were imported from Africa and, in time, immigrants from Europe were permitted entry too.  For the past half-century or so, immigration from all over the world into the United States and the British Empire’s former “white dominions” has been so massive that many of the former targets of nativist animosities, “white ethnics,” get off scot-free in the Trump era.

Settler projects in lands inhabited by African peoples less susceptible to European diseases than Amerindians were less successful.

Palestine was more like South Africa or Algeria than the Massachusetts Bay Colony or Peru; and Palestine was part of a larger Arab and Muslim world that, unlike pre-Columbian North and South America, was rising, not fading away into oblivion.

Therefore there has never been a shortage of plausible existential threats to Israel – especially for a population that is predisposed to believe that the whole world is against them.  That deeply entrenched belief is factually incorrect nowadays, but eminently understandable in light of history.

Add to that a guilty conscience that, though largely unacknowledged, must surely register in the collective consciousness of Jewish Israelis who could hardly fail to realize, at some level, that the people whose land they have taken harbor grievances that are indisputably just.

Therefore even were a genuine peace somehow imposed on Israel/Palestine, it would probably take generations for the “existential” fears of Jewish Israelis to become politically inert.

It hasn’t helped that successive Israeli governments have done all they could to prevent the eruption of peace and that it would take an act of God, as it were, for this to change.

The West, especially the United States, could, of course, make Israel “an offer it couldn’t refuse,” just by refusing to subsidize ethnic cleansing in territories beyond the so-called Green Line, and by withholding economic, military and diplomatic support until all of Israel’s citizens enjoy the same social and political rights as Israel’s Jewish Herrenvolk.

Needless to say, the American government is not about to do anything of the sort.  Therefore, for all practical purposes, Israeli perceptions of existential threats are here to stay.

Even so, the vilification of BDS currently underway is so thoroughly out of proportion that it is hard to take it seriously.

Nevertheless, because its very existence drives home the point that the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine was never an unequivocally good idea, true believers in the Zionist cause do have reason to worry about BDS, along with other calls for justice for Palestinians – many of which have even more far-reaching implications.

There were compelling reasons why most people outside the Middle East thought that acceding to Zionist demands seemed like a good idea seventy years ago.  Back then, there were large numbers of displaced Holocaust survivors who could not easily be reabsorbed back into the devastated lands from which they had come.  Meanwhile, the United States and other intact and prosperous countries in North and South America and the Antipodes were unwilling to accept more than a handful of those displaced persons – thanks, in part, to lingering anti-Semitism and, in part, to Zionist finagling.

In those circumstances, where besides Palestine could the refugees go?

Outside the Middle East, public opinion – left, right, and center — looked kindly upon the Zionist project; even the Communists were on board.

And although the future of British, French, Dutch and Portuguese colonialism was already in doubt, and although nationalist ferment was already brewing throughout the Arab world, hardly anyone at the time fully appreciated how problematic the insertion of a European people into the heartland of the Middle East could become.

There was therefore never much doubt in the international community about Israel’s legitimacy – not, again, in the sense that engages philosophers, but in ways that matter in the real world.

Arab states objected – diplomatically and militarily — from Day One.  But this came to very little in the absence of an organized Palestinian national movement comparable to the one that Jewish settlers in Palestine had developed in the decades preceding independence.

What the Palestinians had instead were pan-Arabist notables claiming to represent their interests, and duplicitous governments in nearby Arab states, purporting to be their allies.  It would be some twenty years before Palestinians had a full-fledged national movement of their own.

Grudgingly, but incontrovertibly, the BDS movement has always accepted these understandings.  Realizing that the past cannot be undone, and cognizant of the hand they have been dealt, the delegitimization of the state of Israel is not and never has been on their agenda.

Quite to the contrary, they accept the UN resolutions that established Israel’s “right to exist” and subsequent resolutions confirming that position, and call only for the end of a half-century long occupation that is blatantly illegal according to that standard.

Even were BDS militants expressly to join those who call for Israel to become a state of its citizens, not just those who are Jewish, their aim would still not be to “delegitimize” the state.  It would only be to turn it off its ethnocratic track.  Ironically, this would cause Israel to become more like what its more progressive founders wanted it to be — a normal, liberal democratic and secular state.

The United States, another settler state, was once but is no longer an Anglo-majority country; before long, according to the Census Bureau, it will not even be a white-majority country.  But except in the minds of a few pro-Trumpian “alt-right” nativists, the United States hardly faces an “existential threat” on that account.

It is the same with BDS.  The movement is not asking for anything that would put the security and well being of Israeli Jews in jeopardy or for anything that would diminish their life prospects.  Neither are they calling for anything that would harm either the Jewish religion or the vitality of the Hebrew-speaking culture that Israeli Jews have forged over the past five or six generations.

BDS does not even put the idea of a Jewish majority state in jeopardy, provided Jewish Israelis would be willing to accept sovereignty over no more of Mandate Palestine than they had before the Six Day War.

There is nothing delegitimizing about that.  Indeed, this is what the “two state solution” is about.

Netanyahu and his co-thinkers still babble on about two states living side by side, but, thanks to them, that idea is now, for all practical purposes, a dead letter.

Something like it though, or confederative arrangements that accord Israeli Jews sovereignty over less of Mandate Palestine than most Israelis nowadays would like, could nevertheless still be implemented if the political will exists.

Thus the only existential threat BDS poses is to a bad idea that may have seemed like a good and even necessary idea to a lot of people half a century ago, but that plainly no longer is.  If that is a legitimation crisis, then bring it on!

It is nothing like the very real legitimation crisis that becomes worse each day that Trump remains in office.  Unlike BDS, Trumpian rule portends real, not imaginary, catastrophes on many levels — and literally does threaten “the world and all that dwell therein” existentially.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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