Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sat, 01 Oct 2016 06:47:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Syria Quagmire: Has Russia Accomplished anything in a year of Bombing? Sat, 01 Oct 2016 06:46:16 +0000 By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Alarabiya says that Russia has killed over 3,000 civilians in its bombing raids of the past year.

BBC Monitoring translated an article by Mikhail Khodarenok at the site from 23 September that tries to explain why any decisive victory in Syria has eluded Russia during the past year.

The author points out that the Syrian Arab Army of Bashar al-Assad has not made any significant gains in territory in the past twelve months. He says that the rebels still control 60-70 percent of the country’s territory, but this is completely misleading. Most of that “territory” is the eastern desert and it is irrelevant who holds it. The regime likely controls some 70 percent of the population mostly in the west or what the French colonialists used to call “useful Syria.”

He says that people living in regime-held areas, even military personnel, “are forced to pay tribute to the corrupt special services.” Khodarenok does not think the war is winnable under these circumstances without substantial rethinking.

He says that the lion’s share of Russian armed forces have been withdrawn from Syria, save for a single aviation group at the Hmeimin base. The Russian government is strapped for cash and trying to do Syria on a shoe-string, using gasoline and jet fuel sparingly.

He says that the Russians are running low on ammunition, and are thinking of trying to buy some missiles that can be launched from the air from Belarus, which has large old Soviet stores of them.

Khodarenok will admit that the first six months of Russian air intervention in Syria went fairly well. Russian Aerospace Forces helped the Syrian army take some territory from the rebels.

But, he says, the second six months saw those efforts stall out, with rebels retaking some of the territory they had lost.

He describes rebel holdings as:

“a significant proportion of Aleppo, the whole of Idlib Province, a significant part of Homs Province, the area around the city of Deir al-Zour, the oasis of East Al-Ghutah to the south of Damascus, the district of Az Zabadani on the border with Lebanon, and a number of other areas.”

The problem with this list is that he pays no attention to how many people live there. Syria had 22 million people in 2011 before the civil war. Deir al-Zor has only about a million. Likewise, al-Raqqa Province was 800,000 before the war, of which half have run away to Turkey or now live under Kurdish rule in the north of the province. East Aleppo is probably only 250,000, with three or four times that many under regime control in West Aleppo. You go down the list, and I doubt the rebels have more than 6 million or so under their control, and that is counting the Syrian Kurds. And I think the regime has the other 12 million. (Four million have fled abroad, so I think the country’s population has fallen to 18 million).

The author maintains that the old USSR and Russian-trained officers have largely been fired, and most of the officer corps studied in the Middle East. Many of those with Turkish or Saudi ties defected. The remaining officers are plagued by corruption and fraud.

Russian military advisers have been withdrawn, and the Syrian Army HQ has no Russian advisory staff. There is little coordination on the battlefield.

Khodarenok advocates a single Russian command in Syria, with a kind of viceroy in charge of all the moving parts.

He suggests sending a brigade of some 10,000 men into Syria from Russian Chechnya.

He critiques the logistics of the Syrian army, which he says has no centralized supply system. As a result many young people have defected.

He complains that Syrian army morale is extremely low. At key moments in the struggle for Aleppo, troops ran away.

So that’s a pretty pessimistic take on the Russian intervention.

I think he’s missing some successes of a defensive sort– shoring up Latakia and forcing the fundamentalists out, e.g., or a similar strategy in other areas such as the city of Homs.

But he could be right that the struggle is going nowhere fast.


Related video:

Masdar News: “Syrian army advance in Bustan Basha district in Aleppo city”

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Iran releases Canadian Academic it accused of ‘Feminism,’ but Crackdown on Women Activists Continues Sat, 01 Oct 2016 05:29:52 +0000 By Mahsa Alimardani | ( | – –

Some good news reached Canada this week when Homa Hoodfar, an Iranian-Canadian anthropologist, was released after months of incarceration in Iran. Hoodfar is known for her research on women and Islam, especially women's participation in Iranian elections.

Her arrest highlighted two particular areas of sensitivity for Iranian hardliners: the presence of dual nationals, and any activity related to women's rights in Iran. Hoodfar was therefore particularly problematic amongst the hardline Iranian institutions of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the judiciary. These two bodies have been responsible for the arrests and incarceration of many activists, journalists, and dual nationals. They operate independent of the elected government, and often work to undermine the relatively progressive tendencies of the moderate Rouhani administration.


Hoodfar's status and persecution as a dual national has been widely discussed. However, what has been given less focus is the Iranian government's recent crackdown on activism and discourse around women's rights, in which Hoodfar's case was also entangled.

Women's participation in Iran's parliamentary elections in February 2016 was unprecedented since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Women won 17 of the 209 parliamentary seats. These gains for women marked the first time since the revolution that there are more female politicians than clerical politicians in the parliament and signalled a shift in public support away from hardline Islamic conservatives. This female participation was the subject of Hoodfar's research when she spent time scouring the Iranian parliament's library on her February visit to Iran.

Following the beginning of her detainment in June, Tehran's prosecutor general gave a media interview stating that Hoodfar’s “criminal” case was connected with “her entry into fields concerning feminism and national security offences”. Days earlier, media outlets affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards ran articles claiming that the 65-year-old Concordia University professor was “the Iran agent of a feminist network building operation” and the Campaign for Changing the Male Dominated Face of Parliament was “her latest project”.

Hardliners see feminism as a Western-orchestrated plot

The Campaign for Changing the Male Dominated Face of Parliament worked to promote women's participation within parliament; it is not clear if Hoodfar has any direct affiliation with them.

Those who participated in it belong to a large network of women in Iran with a solidarity network from within the Iranian diaspora, including prominent activists inside Iran such a Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, who has previously faced arrest and imprisonment for her women's rights work on campaigns such as the One Million Signatures Campaign to Repeal Discriminatory Laws and the Feminist School.

The Feminist School explained on its website that its goal was to move beyond the right to vote towards the right to be elected — women only held 3% of the seats in the Iranian parliament before the February elections:

We need our parliamentary representatives to be committed to equal human rights for women and other citizens. It’s because of this that we have initiated our campaign for changing the male-dominated face of the parliament. […] Women hold critical responsibilities at all levels of society from the household level to economic, social and cultural arenas. It’s now time for the place of women in the legislative body to change commensurate with the responsibilities they hold.

Participation in the political management and legislative processes is a justified demand that has been stipulated in clause 25 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution: “All citizens irrespective of their gender are protected by the law and enjoy political, economic, social and cultural rights consistent with Islamic standards”.

The campaign's goal was to elect 50 female parliamentarians. While the total of 17 women elected fell short, they had significant success in generating an unprecedented amount of candidates. Official numbers calculated 1,234 women registered to run for parliament — a three-fold increase compared to the previous parliamentary elections in 2012 — and at least 16 women applied to become candidates in the Assembly of Experts. There were mass disqualifications by the Guardian Council, the body that vets all candidates running in different elections in Iran, and no woman was vetted to run for the Assembly of Experts, the body that will be responsible for electing the country's next Supreme Leader.

As the February elections neared, the Revolutionary Guards started an intensive campaign of repression against women's rights activists. In January, they started linking any collective initiatives in the field of women's rights to criminal activity, much like Hoodfar's case. Many with associations to the Campaign for Changing the Male Dominated Face of Parliament were summoned for interrogations by the Revolutionary Guards, according to Amnesty International. Their efforts promoting female political participation were cast as Western-orchestrated plots — Iran's hardline elements often view the expansion of a woman's role beyond the home as stemming from Western influence, as opposed to a homegrown desire by Iranian women to have a stake in their country's laws and policies.

In an interview with Basij news agency — the Basij being the volunteer militia under the authority of the Revolutionary Guards — Zahra Nasiri, a female member of the women's branch of the hardline Islamic Society of Students, explained that she was dismayed that elements within the Rouhani government were encouraging these “Western” derived efforts to promote women in parliament:

It’s not surprising to see feminists popping up every once in a while and shouting slogans about equal rights, but what’s unfortunate is seeing government officials supporting these ideas and allowing them to creep into government positions…These days it seems like the Arrogant Powers [Western governments] are trying to infiltrate our country through feminist forces.

President Rouhani and members of his administration had expressed their encouragement of women's participation in the February elections on numerous occasions, such as this December 2015 statement:

Women should be present in the elections for the Assembly of Experts and especially for [Parliament] because their presence in the mix is important for us…We are not doing women a favor [by bringing them into government]. This is their natural right…There’s no difference between women and men as far as Creation, art, intelligence and closeness to God are concerned.

Nasiri's opinions however, were echoed amongst many other hardline figures, including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, whose notable theories on women include the following from May 2013:

One of women’s greatest responsibilities is to bear children. That’s the art of being a woman.

Khamenei's many speeches concerning women often discourage women from participating in activities outside of the home.

Many women however are hopeful that the election of the new female parliamentarians, mostly from within the more progressive reformist camp, will indeed push back against traditional policies regarding women through parliamentary legislature.

The crackdown inside Iran continues

These hardline sentiments were indeed the reason for the mass disqualifications by the Guardian Council, and the crackdowns on members of the Campaign before and after the parliamentary elections.

The interrogations the women faced had to do with their affiliation with both the Feminist School and Campaign for Changing the Male Dominated Face of Parliament. As a result, many working on the initiative either suspended or heavily self-censored their activities. The Campaign told Amnesty many of its active campaign members have ongoing national security-related cases against them.

The most tangible outcome of these crackdowns can be seen in the fact that neither the Feminist School website or Facebook page have been updated since February 2016. Additionally, Iran's renowned women's rights magazine Zanan-e Emrooz ceased its publication after years of struggle with the government over its content. The magazine was shut down in April 2015 and reopened again later in the year, only to be finally shuttered for good in July 2016.

While Hoodfar's release as well as the international attention are in large part due to her status as a Canadian academic and dual national, the continued persecution of women's rights activists with ties only to Iran should not be forgotten.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

CBC News: “Homa Hoodfar arrives in Montreal: ‘It’s wonderful to be home'”

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‘Smoking Gun’ Shows GOP-Oil Industry Climate Denial Collusion Sat, 01 Oct 2016 05:09:39 +0000 By TeleSur | – –

Republican attorneys general are accused of helping shield ExxonMobil over climate change fabrications.

Environmental groups have called allegations of Republican attorneys generals colluding with lobbyists from the fossil fuel industry “a smoking gun when it comes to fossil fuel industry corruption.”

These Republican officials are accused of protecting oil giant ExxonMobil, which faces ongoing investigations over downplaying climate change.

“The recently-exposed collusion between Republican attorneys general and fossil fuel lobbyists exemplifies exactly why we need to kick big polluters out of climate policymaking,” said Katherine Sawyer, from Corporate Accountability International.

In July, audio recordings from the Center for Media and Democracy implicated Republican attorneys general in the scandal. Attorneys general met with fossil fuel lobbyists during private, undisclosed meetings during a Colorado summit hosted by the Republican Attorneys General Association, RAGA.

The allegations are “a smoking gun when it comes to fossil fuel industry corruption. These recordings are more evidence that big oil is bankrolling Republican attorneys general’s attacks on climate legislation,” said Jamie Henn, from Action.

The recordings reveal discussion on how ExxonMobil could be shielded from investigations that it was purposefully misleading climate change evidence to the public and its shareholders.

The RAGA hosted summit included a presentation “Climate Change Debate: How Speech is Being Stifled,” which reportedly did not include any scientific reports. Climate change skeptic, Myron Ebell, also spoke at the meetings. Ebelll is currently part of Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump’s energy team.

Representatives at the summit included a number of fossil fuels organizations such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, CEI, and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, AFPM, who have received large funds from ExxonMobil. The RAGA has received US$100,000 from ExxonMobil since 2015.

Earlier in the year, 13 members of Congress were accused of attempting to protect ExxonMobil and protect its image against in relation to climate change, including funding scientists to argue that petroleum products could help control the climate.



Related video added by Juan Cole:

Thom Hartmann from last year “Could Exxon Mobil Face RICO Charges over Climate Denial?”

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The Shootings you Didn’t Hear Trump Denounce because, not Muslim Fri, 30 Sep 2016 05:39:28 +0000 By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Cable news and social media in the United States don’t go into “OhmyGod there’s only One Story” mode about mass shootings unless they somehow involve Muslims. The downside of this procedure is that Americans think Muslims in the US are way more violent than they actually are, and have started to associate Islam with violence.

That shooting by hand gun in at a kindergarten playground South Carolina? I don’t think they obsessed about it on cable news. By the way, the firefighter who tackled the shooter and ended it was unarmed.

Then the Houston shooter who killed one and injured 9 but wanted to kill dozens and who was armed to the teeth (2600 rounds of ammo) and dressed in Nazi insignia– did that guy even get the “breaking news” logo and ominous music on basic cable? I mean, Erin Burnett said the other night that Trump addressing a rally in Florida was breaking news. That’s breaking news the way it is breaking news that he took a dump. And then they just turned over their airwaves to him (he went on to tell numerous lies with no fact checking). But did they spend any similar amount of time on the Nazi shooter in Houston? And, it is related, because we all know that the Neo-Nazis are a significant constituency for Trumpism.

That is, if we’re going to be hysterical about shooters and terrorism, maybe we should save some of our hysteria for having a guy in the White House who is so admired by and exciting to the racist far right.

Or there were the six killed in a mass shooting in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago.

Or a mass shooting in Baltimore with 6 victims, apparently an act of reprisal.

None of these mass shootings was politicized (though you would think Nazism is, like, political). None attracted much media attention. But if the shooters in any of these attacks had been Muslim, we would have never heard the end of it, especially from Trump.

Then of course the big gun manufacturers have bamboozled Americans into thinking there is nothing we can do about this cascade of mass shootings, when Australia fixed their similar problem with a single law. They are so powerful that Congress won’t even consider limiting firearms to suspected terrorists!

There is no social science reason to think Muslims are more violent than anyone else, over time. Catholic Colombia has signed a peace agreement with FARK, a welcome development, but for most of the past 30 years it has been one of the more violent societies on earth. (This had nothing to do with being Catholic or Colombian; it was a social struggle that coud have broken out lots of places). Mexico’s death from drug wars toll has been similar to the death toll in Iraq from political violence (the US bears some blame in both). Back in the 70s and 80s, Cambodian Marxists of Buddhist heritage polished off 1 in 6 Cambodians. And, I estimate that white people of Christian European ancestry rubbed out on the order of 100 million people in the twentieth century, if we count all the wars, revolutions and colonial massacres.

But Trumpism, which has taken over our national discourse, is all about ignoring nuance and facts, and going off half-cocked based on stereotypes and gut feelings.


Related video:

TomoNews: “Houston mass shooting: Disgruntled lawyer in Nazi military garb goes on shooting spree – TomoNews”

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Saudi women demand full rights, end to guardianship system Fri, 30 Sep 2016 04:38:57 +0000 By Sarah Aziza | ( Waging Nonviolence ) | – –

In Saudi Arabia, a country many view as synonymous with gender discrimination, women are seeing signs of change. While a few top-down reforms have come in recent years — the right to vote in municipal elections, for example, was introduced by King Abdullah in 2011 — many working at the grassroots level are agitating for more fundamental change. Over the summer, activists launched an online campaign calling for the dismantling of Saudi Arabia’s controversial “guardianship” system, which puts women under the authority of male relatives — something many see as a fundamental obstacle to women’s basic rights in the kingdom.

For the past several months, Saudi women and their supporters around the world have tweeted under the hashtag #سعوديات_نطالب_باسقاط_الولايه [translation: “Saudi Women Demand the End (literal: downfall) of Guardianship”]. The campaign has also used the English hashtags #IAmMyOwnGuardian and #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen to draw in international supporters, as well as local advocates. The goal, says long-time activist Aziza al-Yousef, is to gain Saudi women the right to be “full citizens … responsible for her own acts.” Alongside their tweets, activists circulated a petition calling for the end of the guardianship system, which garnered over 14,000 signatures by last weekend. On Monday, activists, including al-Yousef, brought the petition in person to the royal court, where they were unable to deliver the document, but were directed to send it via mail.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh came out strongly against the campaign, calling the tweets a “crime against Islam.” Many others, however, have argued that the guardianship system, as it is practiced in Saudi Arabia, is an inaccurate interpretation of the Qur’an. According to organizers, many religious leaders have voiced their support for the campaign. “They all declared that [the guardianship system] is not religion,” said al-Yousef. “[They said] this is all government rules and it should be changed.”

According to Human Rights Watch, Saudi women — as the law now stands — are in many ways “perpetual minors.” Currently, they lack full legal standing in Saudi Arabia and are required to gain the permission of their male guardians for essential tasks such as travel and marriage, and, often, medical services and employment. Typically, guardians are a close male kin such as father, brother, husband or son. Women wishing to contradict the decisions of their guardians have few avenues for recourse. In addition, fiercely-enforced segregation, a functional ban on female drivers, and informal discrimination create a sense of disenfranchisement that transcends legal codes. As one 44-year-old Saudi woman testified to Human Rights Watch, “It can mess with your head and the way you look at yourself. How do you respect yourself or how [can] your family respect you, if he is your legal guardian?”

The Saudi government has twice promised to end the system — once in 2009 and once in 2013 — when it came under scrutiny by the United Nations Human Rights Council. This month’s campaign was launched with the support of Human Rights Watch, which has published a scathing critique of the guardianship system, most recently in its report “Boxed In,” calling it “the most significant impediment to women’s rights in the country despite limited reforms over the last decade.” While the kingdom’s Vision 2030 has proposed an expansion of women’s roles in Saudi society, critics insist that the guardianship system remains in contradiction with this goal.

Nevertheless, a tide is turning in Saudi Arabia. Greater numbers of Saudi Arabia’s highly-educated female population have gained access to employment in recent years, along with some limited participation in local politics. On the national level, women leaders like Princess Reema bint Bandar have advocated openly for women’s empowerment and appear to be making headway. Meanwhile, this month’s viral campaign has grown out of previous activism, indicating a steadily growing grassroots movement that is in it for the long haul. “We always hope,” al-Yousef told BBC this week. “Without hope, you cannot work.”

Sarah Aziza is an Arab-American writer, graduate student and activist based in NYC. She has previously worked among refugee populations in North Africa, Jordan and the West Bank. Her areas of focus include immigration, human rights, international politics, feminism and mental health. She is a lover of the story-less-told. Find her on Twitter @SarahAziza1 or

This article was originally published on Waging Nonviolence )


Related video added by Juan Cole:

TRT World: “The Newsmakers: Saudi women’s rights”

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Would Trump in White House defraud us into Crash worse than 2008? Fri, 30 Sep 2016 04:23:16 +0000 By Nomi Prins | ( ) | – –

Imagine for a moment that it’s January 2009. Bernie Madoff, America’s poster-child fraudster, has yet to be caught. The 2007-2008 financial crisis never happened. The markets didn’t tank to reveal the emptiness beneath his schemes. We still don’t know what’s lurking in his tax returns because he’s never released them, but we know that he’s a billionaire, at least on paper. We also know, of course, that he just won the presidency by featuring the slogan — on hats, t-shirts, everywhere — “Make America Rich Again!” On a frosty morning in late January, before his colleagues, his country, God, and the world, Madoff takes the oath of office. He swears on a Bible to uphold the constitution.

The next day, everything comes crashing down. The banks. The markets. His fortune.

Madoff is a businessman, not a politician. He’s run and won as an anti-establishment maverick. Now, he’s faced with a choice: save the United States or his own posterior.  During the campaign, he promised that he could separate the two, that his kids could run his empire, while he did the people’s business.  But no one wants to talk to his progeny. They want him. They want the man in the suit who owes them money.

Okay, so that never happened, though over two decades Madoff did build a $65 billion Ponzi scheme. In December 2008, he became the most vilified man in America — at the very moment when Washington and Wall Street needed a distraction from the crippling financial crisis. He’s now serving a 150-year sentence for multiple felonies.

Of course, Donald Trump is not Bernie Madoff, who was 70 when he took up residence in the Big House. Trump at 70 is eyeing the White House. Other glaring differences separate them, though certain overriding similarities can’t be ignored. Let’s look at those differences first.

Trump vs. Madoff, The Scorecard

1. Trump is much richer than Madoff ever was, though we have no idea by how much. Forbes puts his wealth at $4.5 billion. Trump says it’s $10 billion. (Compared to just under a billion for Madoff.)

2. Madoff took advantage of individuals. Trump extracted tax breaks from entire cities.

3. Madoff broke the law and got caught. He’s in jail. As a felon, he can’t even vote in this election. Trump may have broken the law, and has bragged about paying people off, but now deflects everything and is running for president.

4. Trump forced poor people from their homes and onto the street. Madoff ripped off customers who were predominantly financially well off to begin with.

5. In 2007, while Madoff was enjoying himself at Mar-a-Lago Country Club, Trump’s premier Palm Beach hotel, The Donald racked up $120,000 in unpaid fines to that city. In exchange for a $100,000 donation to a veterans’ charity, the city agreed to forget about it. That check came from the Donald J. Trump charitable foundation (that is, from other people’s donated money), not from The Donald himself. This seems to have been typical.  According to the Washington Post, more than a quarter of a million dollars from his charity went toward solving his own business woes, a violation of “self-dealing” laws. Madoff actually did donate money to charity. Okay, technically, it wasn’t his money either, but at least he had the decency to pretend it came from his own pocket.

6. Madoff never ran for president.  

Moving In on Pennsylvania Avenue

If those are the differences, think about the similarities. Both men manipulated people over decades, were less than forthcoming about the numbers behind their methods, and had long-term plans for their own success at the expense of others. But where Madoff merely scammed his generally well-off clients, Donald Trump, if elected, could possibly scam us all. 

Imagine this: if he wins in November, he’s going to be right on Pennsylvania Avenue twice, once as the people’s representative and once representing himself — and can there be any question which of the two will be more important to him?  Indeed, Trump first targeted Pennsylvania Avenue just after abandoning his unofficial bid for the presidency in 2012 to focus on his fortune.

As he said at the time, “Ultimately… business is my greatest passion and I am not ready to leave the private sector.” He then managed to corral the political real-estate deal of the century, outbidding a group of hotel chains to secure 60-year rights from the government to the Old Post Office building at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue.  That’s just southeast of the White House. He then pledged more than $200 million toward its renovation, assuring its future customers — hardly a cross section of average Americans — that “the hotel is going to be incredible, super luxury.”

Normally, Trump merely licenses his gilded name to the constellation of hotels that bear it. Not so in D.C. There was too much at stake for him in our nation’s capital. When the hotel opened ahead of schedule and just in time to aid his publicity drive in this year’s election, rooms were said to start at $750 to $850 per night and escalate to $18,000 for a “presidential suite.” It costs about $33,000 for election night in the elite Trump Townhouse section of the hotel billed as the “largest presidential suite in Washington.” My scan of prices on revealed some “bargains.” For a mere $489 (not including tax), I could have been writing this piece in the comfort of my own hotel room, slightly bigger than Madoff’s cell. Trump knew exactly what he was doing when he opened his business on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Now, imagine another chill morning, this time in January 2017. Foreign dignitaries are hopping into black Lincoln Town Cars emblazoned with the Trump logo and lined up by that Trump hotel. President Donald J. Trump, a businessman and by his own account the best dealmaker in the history of deal-making, is pledging to uphold the Constitution.  He smiles and gestures with those not-too-small hands of his at his family, a.k.a. his business associates, a.k.a. his advisers.  They beam.  They wave.  They’ve got this.

Consider what Trump wrote about Ronald Reagan in The Art of the Deal: “He is so smooth and so effective a performer that he completely won over the American people. Only now, nearly seven years later, are people beginning to question whether there’s anything beneath that smile.”

Trump could hardly be described as smooth. More like nails on a chalkboard combined with Dr. Strangelove-level crass. But one thing is guaranteed: he brings into the Oval Office with him a set of conflicts of interest that would make Madoff’s head spin and potentially make the Iran-Contra affair look like a bad episode of Celebrity Apprentice.

Conflicts of Interest Galore

When Hank Paulson, former CEO and chairman of Goldman Sachs, was appointed treasury secretary by George W. Bush in 2006, he had to sell his 4.58 million shares of stock in that company. Executive branch conflict-of-interest laws require appointed senior government officials to divest themselves of investments that could be affected by or benefit from decisions they might make in public office. (Let us note, however, that even without the stock Paulson would prove to be a walking conflict of interest. From his public post, he would help Goldman Sachs survive the financial crisis with federal funds, and look where that got us.)

However, the president and vice president don’t even have to abide by those formal laws of divestment. Trump has indeed promised to focus on the country and not his business and branding empire by, among other things, placing the Trump Organization in a blind trust. But don’t count on it. Why would he? That would be like asking him to actually release his tax returns. In addition, Trump’s businesses are the antithesis of the sort that easily lend themselves to inclusion in such a trust. As David Cay Johnston, author of The Making of Donald Trump, told me in an email, “The ethics rules don’t apply to the president. But a blind trust is absurd as this is not simply an issue of stocks and bonds.”

According to his tax lawyers at Morgan Lewis, the blue-chip global law firm, his 2002-2008 returns were under audit by the Internal Revenue Service precisely because he runs “large and complex businesses.” During the primary, he said, “I have three children now who are grown and could run [the business].” This July, when asked by the New York Times whether he would actually step away from his business dealings while president, he equivocated, “I’ll let you know how I feel about it after it happens.”  

As with most things Trumpian, we are left with nothing but his word and a belief that someone as impossibly rich as him might not mind losing some ground in his business empire because of decisions, foreign and domestic, that he might make in moments of crisis or otherwise. We are also supposed to believe that he always makes the best deals. What if the two aren’t compatible?

And what if possible illegal activities follow Trump directly into the Oval Office?  Examining the possible conflicts of interest of a Trump administration and his track record when it comes to siphoning the money of others to his personal uses makes him look like a prospective — to use a term of his disaster.

The first and most obvious potential area where conflict of interest is likely play a crucial role: the many decisions a President Trump would have to make on foreign affairs. Kurt Eichenwald vividly explored this issue at Newsweek recently and concluded that it would be a singular reality of any future Trump presidency.  After all, many of his businesses exist in countries with which the U.S. has, shall we say, squirrelly relationships.

As Vin Weber, partner at Mercury Consulting in Washington, told me: “Even though he says he won’t be influenced and has only basically addressed the issue of whether his businesses would distract him time-wise, other countries may feel they have leverage on him and therefore on the U.S.” That’s obviously a problem. As a way to achieve ends of their own, foreign leaders could easily fashion their future policies in terms of threats of damage to the Trump empire. It would make no difference whether Ivanka or anyone else was in charge of daily operations. Trump would be dealing with countries that could impact his brand in significant ways.

Trump’s foreign business holdings (the ones publicly disclosed anyway) span areas that already involve scandal, as in the case of India, or dicey national security issues, as would be true of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Foreign parties have helped Trump out of business jams in the past. Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, for instance, came to Trump’s aid during his corporate bankruptcies in the 1990s. He even bought Trump’s yacht and some bad hotel debt.

Another kind of major conflict of interest hits far closer to home. As president, Trump gets to appoint federal district court judges nationwide. The media has focused exclusively on the crucial Supreme Court seats he might get to fill. But if any of those federal judges turn out to have jurisdiction in areas touching on Trump’s widespread business activities, imagine the opportunity for conflict of interest both in who might be appointed to the bench and how they might act. Keep in mind that, in addition to properties he owns or that bear his name, Trump is the sole proprietor of 268 of the 500 or more limited liability companies (LLCs) that he disclosed in his Federal Election Commission filings. These LLCs can be found all over the country, including in New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, and San Diego where, for instance, Trump University is already in the dock.

Last month, San Diego federal court judge Gonzalo Curiel, appointed by Obama, green-lighted that case to proceed to trial after Trump had lambasted him and claimed that he had an “absolute conflict” in presiding over it because of his “Mexican heritage.” What would a Trump appointee have done in the same situation? Of Obama’s 320 federal district court appointees, 262 were district court judges. Imagine the conflicts of interest to come in a Trump presidency where each lawsuit (and so many possible appointments) might represent one. And we’re not talking about the unlikely here. Trump or his businesses have been involved in a reported 3,500 lawsuits over the last three decades.  In 1,900 of them, he or his companies were the plaintiff; in about 1,300, the defendant. He’s essentially guaranteed the title of most litigious leader in the modern world, possibly in history.

Trump’s sole proprietorships — companies where he alone is listed as the owner — also pop up in tax havens like Panama, Cozumel, and Dubai, bringing up a third area of potential major conflict of interest for the country, but of enormous potential benefit to Trump. Those elusive tax returns of his undoubtedly would reveal hints about this. They might also show that he’s not as rich as he says he is, and perhaps that he hasn’t given as much to charity as he claims, but those are unlikely to be the real problems that have stopped him from releasing his taxes because neither of them is illegal.

What Trump may worry about is whether a thorough public analysis of those returns would illuminate dodgy behavior, ways in which he’s been operating possible financial shell games. Shady deals can be easily hidden in shell companies and tax havens or in LLCs that no one can examine.

If he’s president, none of this is likely to matter much. Remember, he would get to appoint the new IRS commissioner, the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and of course the Attorney General. We don’t know how all of his little sole proprietorships interrelate and what they could be hiding. (It should be noted that a sole proprietorship is a business owned and run by one individual with no distinction between the business and its owner.) All we know is what his lawyers wrote him regarding his 2002-2008 returns: “Because you operate these businesses almost exclusively through sole proprietorships and/or closely held partnerships, your personal federal income tax returns are inordinately large and complex for an individual.”

He has not released proof from those lawyers that he even filed personal tax returns after 2008, or that such filings are actually under audit, though he says his taxes since 2009 are. But even if he did file them and they are being audited, there’s nothing in federal law or IRS regulations to prohibit him from sharing what he’s done — except perhaps the fear of getting caught.

Reportedly, he’s already played fast and loose with donated money from the Donald J. Trump Foundation to cover some of his personal business shortcomings. As the New York Times recently revealed, he used charity money on multiple occasions to settle personal legal issues. These were relatively small-scale matters, but — as Madoff found out with his smaller clients — small-scale can add up fast. In Florida, for instance, Trump paid a $2,500 IRS penalty for a tax regulation violation after his nonprofit foundation contributed an improper donation of $25,000 to a political action committee of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who may have been contemplating whether or not to investigate fraud allegations against Trump University.

In fact, using money to wash away problems seems to have been a characteristic of the Trump way of life. For instance, he gave at least $35,000 to Democrat Alan Hevesi for his campaign to become New York state comptroller. According to the Huffington Post, “Trump’s donations coincided with a $500 million lawsuit he filed against the city of New York in the hopes of reducing his property taxes.” Hevesi won his 2002 race. In the fall of 2003, the city settled Trump’s lawsuit. Imagine, then, how — once he’s in the Oval Office — this country could become his personal piggy bank.

The final potential conflict of interest: his entire administration to come. According to figures from the U.S. Government Policy and Supporting Positions, a congressional publication also known as the “Plum Book,” a president (or his administration) could appoint people to nearly 9,000 positions in the federal government. Of those, only about 800 must be confirmed by the Senate. This would mean, for instance, that in areas of gaming, environmental building codes, or housing and urban development, he would control the game. Business and politics would become one and the same in a unique fashion.  

How all of this would play out, of course, remains unknown. Trump’s family has touted The Donald’s super-ability to focus exclusively on the affairs of the country. “My father is going to be a government official, and he’s going to separate himself” from the Trump Organization’s business interests, Donald Trump Jr., 38, typically promised a bunch of editors and reporters.  But who would dare to count on this being anything but fantasy?

A Pandora’s Box for Americans

Trump and Madoff knew each other in the old pre-cellblock days. Madoff frequented the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach. In an April 2009 Vanity Fair spread, Trump noted that Bernie and his brother Peter (later sentenced to 10 years in jail for his role in their mutual swindle) played golf at the Trump International Golf Club, where Bernie’s game was as steady as his returns. “Out of hundreds and hundreds of rounds, he never shot lower than 80 or more than 89,” said Trump.

It wasn’t until after Madoff pled guilty on March 12, 2009, that Trump sounded warning bells. As he said about Madoff in his 2009 book, Think Like A Champion, “I think we would all do well to pay heed to all of our transactions no matter how much we might respect or like someone. But the main lesson is never to invest 100 percent of your money with one person or one entity.”

Whatever Trump may be, perhaps we should heed his warning in the present situation. Because as he also wrote, “Just because someone is well established doesn’t mean they’re not above being a total crook.”

The immense power Donald Trump would wield over his own interests as president already looms as the biggest conflict of interest in the nation’s history. Think of the Oval Office under Trump as a kind of Pandora’s Box for the American people. Giving him the White House threatens to be no better than giving Madoff your bank account information. You know how the story is likely to end.

Nomi Prins, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of six books. Her most recent is All the Presidents’ Bankers: The Hidden Alliances That Drive American Power (Nation Books). She is a former Wall Street executive. Special thanks go to researcher Craig Wilson for his superb work on this piece.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 Nomi Prins



Related video added by Juan Cole:

CBS News: “Did Donald Trump’s charity commit fundraising fraud?”

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Top Six things *You* can Do to Stop Global Warming – Bill Nye Fri, 30 Sep 2016 04:01:15 +0000 AJ+ | (Video)

“Bill Nye the Science Guy has a few solutions to curbing climate change and putting a stop to global warming.”

AJ+: ” Bill Nye’s Climate Call To Action”

1. Increase efficiency
2. Produce electricity renewably (wind and solar)
3. Revolutionize energy infrastructure & distribution
4. Electrify all ground transportation
5. Carbon tax
6. Vote with environment in mind

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How the JASTA override on Saudi could Bite Americans in the Ass Thu, 29 Sep 2016 06:38:37 +0000 By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

President Obama vetoed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, but Congress has for the first time in his presidency over-ridden his veto. This is a disastrous law with potentially ruinous effects on the US economy and US policy.

Individual tort suits against other countries had been forestalled by a doctrine of sovereign immunity, from which the United States and other countries also benefit. JASTA removes sovereign immunity for any state found to be practicing terrorism anywhere, apparently as defined by US court judges.

Saudi Arabia is extremely unpopular in the US, more especially on the Left, but also among right wing Islamophobes. But however appealing it is to let the 9/11 victim families sue Riyadh for the attacks, it is wrong-headed every which way from Sunday.

First of all, Saudi Arabia did not back Usama Bin Laden as of the Gulf War of 1990-1991, because King Fahd chose US troops to kick Saddam’s tanks out of Kuwait, and Bin Laden and al-Qaeda objected that bringing non-Muslim troops into the Arabian Peninsula was contrary to Islamic law. The Saudis therefore withdrew Bin Laden’s passport and he went into exile in Sudan. Saudia put pressure on Sudan to expel him, so he returned to Afghanistan. The Saudi government was angry at and afraid of Bin Laden.

The Saudi government and most high officials are heavily invested in the US stock market and have other American investments. Anyone could have predicted that an attack like 9/11 would wipe out the value of those investments, and it did. The Saudi government was not behind them and did not know they were coming. If they had suddenly pulled a lot of money out of the market, the SEC would have known about it. People complain that George W. Bush let Saudis vacationing in Florida leave the US. But what blockhead would vacation in the US in September of 2001 if he or she knew what was about to happen? Bush was afraid there would be mob action against these innocent Saudis.

Bin Laden got his start fund-raising for the Reagan administration’s jihadis (Mujahideen) in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The US was acting completely outside international law and an impartial court might well have considered the Reagan jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan material support for terrorism.

Saudi Arabia will be sued, and it might well lose in court; our judges are not Middle East experts and most of them couldn’t tell you the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite or a terrorist and a Salafi. A US court already found Shiite Iran complicit in al-Qaeda, which is like accusing the Unionists of Northern Ireland secretly supporting the Real IRA. American domestic institutions, including the FBI, and the courts, have often committed gross miscarriages of justice when it comes to the Middle East, out of a combination of ignorance and misplaced vindictiveness.

What country would be stupid enough to park almost a trillion dollars in the US if it thought that the courts might unfairly confiscate it? The Saudis have already said that they will take their investments elsewhere if JASTA passed.

Sovereign wealth funds are a big part of finance in today’s world, and they are most at risk from this overturning of sovereign immunity.

A lot of foreign governments and concerns invest in the US or park their money here, which helps the US economy enormously. One study found that “foreign multinational firms that invest in the United States are, alongside US-headquartered American multinationals, the most productive and highest-paying segment of the US economy. These firms conduct more research and development, provide more value added to US domestic inputs, and export more goods and services than other firms in the US economy.”

But the vague wording of the law (one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter) will allow all kinds of people to sue all kinds of governments. Irish-Americans could sue the UK for injuries during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Palestinian-Americans will line up to sue Israel, and Jewish Americans will likely sue Palestine. Ukrainian-Americans will sue Russia. Old Pro-Gaddafi Libyan elites now in the US could sue France and Britain for supporting terrorist groups in Libya. Kenyan victims of the British colonial suppression of the Mau-Mau now in the US could sue Britain.

But why stop there? Why shouldn’t Saudi Arabia now let Saudi citizens sue the US over US support for the Israeli squatter terrorists on the West Bank? Or what if Pakistan lets the US be sued for its unilateral drone strikes, which often kill civilians, on Pakistani soil? Or Greek courts could, on the model of JASTA, allow Pakistanis in Greece to sue the US over strikes on Waziristan.

Instilling this fear in governments (and in corporations that have any government connections) could cause a fall in Direct Foreign Investment around the world and provoke a downward spiral of the world economy.

The US benefits from having the world’s reserve currency, but those at risk of being sued may well not only take their money out of the US but denominate it in Euros or Renminbi.

And after the judgments against Saudi Arabia and the hard feelings they will create, the next time the US goes to Riyadh and says, we need your help to track down so-and-so in al-Qaeda, they might get the cold shoulder.

Bin Laden deliberately packed the 9/11 hijackers with Saudis (he had volunteers from lots of countries) in hopes of driving a wedge between the US and Saudi Arabia, to make both countries more vulnerable to terrorism. He had failed until the US Congress decided to help him succeed.

Congress has done a lot of stupid things. But this one takes the cake. Ordinary Americans will suffer for this unwise law.

Related video:

Euronews: “Obama slams vote to override his veto of 9/11 legislation”

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