From Syria to Sanctions, Flynn-Russia Quid Pro Quo?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The headlines about Trump and his team on the one hand and the Russian Federation on the other are coming fast and furious. The items are often, however, merely isolated data points. Can we draw them together?

First, while the Obama administration was imposing sanctions on Russia over its hacking attempts and other activities aimed at influencing the US presidential election, we now know that incoming National Security adviser Mike Flynn was calling the Russian embassy, on December 25. The current cover story for this call, delivered by Sean Spicer, is that Flynn was wishing the Russians merry Christmas. All the policy people are falling down laughing at this assertion. Flynn doesn’t seem to have called any other embassies to wish them a merry Christmas. And as he surely knew but Sean Spicer apparently does not, Eastern Orthodox Christians in Russia do not celebrate Christmas on December 25 but usually two weeks later. And moreover, New Year’s is the big holiday in Russia, not Christmas. Finally, Flynn called the Russians five times that day, which is a lot of holiday cheer.

So we may conclude that Flynn was actually doing something other than conveying holiday greetings. The most likely hypothesis is that he was reassuring Russia that Trump did not agree with Obama’s sanctions and that they would be lifted.

The second bit of news is that Trump told the Wall Street Journal Friday that he might remove sanctions on Russia entirely if they are helpful in, e.g., fighting terrorism. US sanctions on Russia are reducing Foreign Direct Investment and so harming the Russian economy. They also ruined a $500 billion deal Putin had done with ExxonMobil, whose CEO, Rex Tillerson, has been nominated for the Secretary of State position. You could imagine Putin and Tillerson wanting the sacntions lifted so that they could get back to pumping oil and making money.

The third piece of the puzzle is that the Russians have abruptly invited the United States to join them, the Turks, the Iranians and the Syrians at Astana in Kazakhstan on January 23. Trump will be sworn in on January 20. The Russians had not extended any similar invitation to the US in recent months during Obama’s last months in office. So we may conclude that the Russians hope that the incoming Trump administration will be a more constructive diplomatic partner in Syria than had the Obama administration (at least as Moscow defines constructive). The Russians represent themselves as fighting Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) and the Levantine Conquest Front (i.e. al-Qaeda in Syria) in that country, and so as indeed helping the US versus terrorism. The Obama administration had been dismayed that the Russians mainly focused on al-Qaeda and its battlefield allies. Some of the Salafi groups the CIA had allegedly vetted as moderate are in fact extremist and in recent weeks have been making closer alliances with al-Qaeda. But the Obama administration kept calling them moderates even if they had obviously become Salafi Jihadis. With Obama out and Trump in, the political geography of Syria may well be redefined, so that Washington will see the people the Russians are targeting as bona fide terrorists.

Maybe it is a coincidence that all three stories have broken in the past couple days. Or maybe the stories are threaded together, with Flynn at the center. Flynn perhaps reassures Russia about Obama’s new sanctions. Then Trump hints strongly that he will lift the sanctions on Russia growing out of its unilateral annexation of Crimea and its election hacking efforts. He makes this end of sanctions dependent on Russia helping with terrorism.

And now the US is being suddenly invited again to the diplomatic table regarding Syria at Astana, in what is being advertised as, in part, an anti-terrorism effort.

——–

Related video:

CNN: “Coons: Flynn’s calls with Russia “very suspicious”

All the President’s Deniers

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

This week, we’ve seen a parade of Donald J. Trump’s far-right cabinet appointees attempting to tone themselves down (with help from pliant GOP senators) for the general public with half-truths and evasions. They were not challenged on some key issues. Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, didn’t admit his company’s complicity in fooling the public about the danger of climate change, e.g. In particular, Mike Pompeo for CIA got off amazingly lightly.

So here’s the problem. Trump is putting someone in charge of the Company who doesn’t trust the facts. When his exhaustive persecution of Hillary Clinton over the Benghazi attack of 2012 yielded conclusive findings that exonerated her, he wrote his own dissenting report. His report was a dark fantasy; he should leave that to horror writer Stephen King.

Pompeo was behind an attempt to undermine the CIA in Iraq by claiming that the success of the fight against Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) there had been exaggerated by the intelligence community. In fact, Daesh has been steadily rolled up and is now besieged in virtually its last Iraqi territorial bastion, of West Mosul.

Pompeo, of Wichita Kansas, who is in the back pocket of the dirty-carbon Koch brothers, is a major climate change denialist. Climate change is one of the big security challenges facing the US. How can a denialist deal with the refugee flows it will create, the damage to infrstructure it will do, the terrorism it might provoke?

Pompeo was asked by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) if he would order the waterboarding of suspects by the Central Intelligence Agency if he were confirmed to lead it.

“Absolutely not,” he replied. “I will always comply with the law.”

Then he added, “I can’t imagine I would be asked by the president-elect or then president.”

So just close your eyes, Mike, and listen to Trump from Feb. 2015: “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work — torture works. Half these guys say ‘Torture doesn’t work’. Believe me, it works.”

Although Pompeo said he had voted for a law that banned waterboarding, what he actually voted for was banning torture; the trick is that he doesn’t define waterboarding as torture. In fact he has continued to advocate it and has slammed the Obama administration for not using it, so I think he wasn’t being entirely forthcoming here.

He wrote at his website in 2014, ““President Obama has continually refused to take the war on radical Islamic terrorism seriously—from ending our interrogation program in 2009 to trying to close Guantanamo Bay . . .”

What exactly does he mean by “ending our interrogation program”? By the way, Obama killed Osama Bin Laden; Pompeo didn’t.

Pompeo also caused a stir by arguing that Muslims must go around denouncing Muslim terrorism all the time or else they are “potentially complicit in these acts, and more importantly still, in those that may well follow.”

I can’t say how monstrous this is. Did Pompeo ever once stand up in Congress and denounce the terrorist actions of white supremacists, which are far more frequent and damaging than those of Muslims? And why is he comfortable joining an administration where Neofascist Steve Bannon is White House chief strategist? Maybe Pompeo is complicit?

Ironically, three white supremacists from Pompeo’s part of the country were busted in a plot to kill local Somali Muslims and to kill white officials and clergymen whom they saw as soft on Muslims. Some of Pompeo’s own political colleagues were in danger from these terrorists. So again, I ask. Did Pompeo denounce this group of white terrorists? If not, did he approve of their plans?

The CIA is in the business of having field officers recruit and run agents, including in the Muslim world. Will a Pompeo CIA really be good at gaining the trust of Muslims in the Middle East, if he thinks they are all terrorists?

Then there is Pompeo’s determination to go to war against Iran:

So you have to wonder whether someone who unfairly bashed the CIA for its successful work against Daesh in Iraq, who has alienated all America’s Muslim allies with his extremist Islamophobia, who denies the challenge of a rapidly changing climate, who lives in a fantasy world in which Hillary Clinton had any operational role at Benghazi, who favors waterboarding, and who doesn’t seem to have heard the speeches demanding torture given by his own prospective boss– and who has consistently failed to denounce terrorism by white supremacists– you have to wonder whether he can be successful at the helm of the CIA.

——–

Related video:

Sen. Kamala Harris questions Pompeo on climate change,

Trump does Poor imitation of Tin-Pot Dictator at “Press Conference”

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

In his first news conference in months, president-elect Donald J. Trump engaged in a series of petulant tirades. For anyone like myself, who has lived under dictators in the global South, his performance was unpleasantly reminiscent of their authoritarian publicity techniques.

Instead of letting a wide range of reporters attend, he limited their spots so that he could pack the hall with his own supporters. Those supporters were the ones applauding, and since the cameras were not turned on the audience, television viewers may have thought the cheers came from reporters. This effect was intended. There are some allegations that some of the Trump supporters in attendance were actually part of a rent-a-crowd, a common technique among Middle Eastern dictators. And then there was the typical technique of painting dissidents and critics as themselves authoritarian. Innocent Japanese were interned during WWII on unsupported charges that they were imperialists. Members and former members of the 50,000-strong Communist Party in the US were accused of trying to take over the US government. Trump on Wednesday characterized the leak of the intelligence report as “Nazism,” as though he were a victim of an authoritarian genocide being perpetrated by a web news site. The charge is ironic, as Rula Jebreal pointed out:

1. Disagreement is treason. Trump’s spokesman slammed Buzzfeed for publishing the annex to the US intelligence report on Russian hacking of the US election, complaining that it was false and not verified by the intelligence agencies. I said yesterday that I found the dossier unconvincing. But Buzzfeed’s conviction that the document was of public interest and the at the public should be able to see and judge it for themselves can be argued about. Buzzfeed did not certify it as true. Trump essentially put them on trial for treason. As for inaccuracy, Trump and his people want a monopoly on it. Let’s remember that Trump denied for years that President Obama was born in the United States, that he keeps saying that the murder rate in the US has risen (it has fallen dramatically since the 1990s), that he denies that humans burning hydrocarbons causes climate change, that he says that unemployment is 42%, and that there are 30 million undocumented workers in the US (it is about 11 million and has fallen). His campaign allies at the Neo-Nazi Breitbart rag accused Hillary Clinton (edited by Steve Bannon) of practicing voodoo and/or of being part of a pedophilia ring run from a Washington, DC pizzeria. At least the report on Trump’s having been compromised by Russian intelligence on his escapades in Russia actually exists.

2. Divide and rule. Trump tried to single out Buzzfeed for publishing the document and CNN for reporting that it was part of the intelligence community’s report by denouncing them as “fake news” and refusing them the opportunity to question him. He instead allowed the white supremacist Breitbart (a chief producer of fake news from its inception) to toss him a softball. Creating disfavored and favored news outlets is a typical authoritarian move. Trump is punishing CNN to create an incentive for other news outlets to treat him with kid gloves, and he is hoping the other reporters will climb over the prostrate bodies of the Buzzfeed and CNN journalists on their way up to White House access. The reporters and news organizations will have to stick together to overcome this tactic. Trump is also trying to legitimize his buddy Steve Bannon’s Neofascist monstrosity, Breitbart, by favoring it over CNN in public. (The Breitbart reporter suggested that Trump crack down on all those mainstream ‘fake news’ outlets, which is sort of like a wine-seller arguing for prohibition). Incidentally, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed CNN’s story later in the day. CNN did not publish the two pages of salacious material and were treated completely unjustly by Trump.

3. The Big Lie. Trump contradicted the US intelligence community, which maintained that Russian hackers also broke into the servers of the Republican National Committee but declined to leak those documents– in contrast to the way they treated the Hillary Clinton campaign. Trump said, “had they broken into the Republican National Committee, I think they would’ve released it just like they did about Hillary . . .” But they did and they didn’t. Trump continues to manufacture his own reality, in his own interests. (If the Russians treated their hacked information differently, some would argue, that his how they threw the election to Trump. He wants to deny that he had any help and so denies the facts of the case.)

4. Weasel words. Aware of arguments being made that he is beholden to Russian financial concerns, Trump said “As a real estate developer, I have very, very little debt. I have assets that are — and now people have found out how big the company is, I have very little debt — I have very low debt. But I have no loans with Russia at all.” This assertion is disingenuous because he might have partnerships or Russian investors without categorizing that money as “loans.” In fact, Trump owes at least $300 million to creditors, and if you total up the debts held by all the companies in which he has at least a 1/3 stake, the debts may come to $1.5 billion! One of the New York City buildings he has a part ownership of carries a $950 million debt, some of which is held by the Bank of China. Trump may presently have no Russian creditors or projects (and his finances are so Byzantine that it is impossible to know), but that does not rule out his having Russian partners or investors in US or European projects. As for investments inside Russia, he certainly has tried. Contrary to what he said, he has tried on several occasions to build Trump Towers in Russia. The deals collapsed, but not for lack of trying. in 2008 he made $54 million on a sale of a Florida mansion for $95 million to a Russian billionaire. That’s a suspiciously large profit in Florida in 2008, and there have been questions about Russian or former Soviet Union businessmen laundering money through joint ventures with Trump. Trump also had a $30 million deal to put on a Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013 and wanted to invited and befriend Vladimir Putin.

5. Substituting spectacle for substance. Trump had one of his attorneys put on a dog and pony show about how he will handle his finances during his presidency, implying that he thereby put to rest the worries about his business conflicts of interest. No one who knows about the pertinent laws appears in the least convinced that Trump’s proposals resolved these issues. The attempt to use smoke and mirrors to finesse this matter is typical of authoritarian regimes, who deny their own corruption via public spectacle and the strong-arming of critics. The big piles of Manila folders were apparently empty and just for show.

Empty and just for show will be some of the words inscribed on the tombstone of Trump’s presidency.

——

Related video:

PBS: “Donald Trump’s first press conference as president-elect”

Informed Comment Fundraiser Success- with Profound thanks

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Many, many thanks to everyone who contributed during the annual IC Fundraiser! I’m bowled over by your generosity, and pledge to keep Informed Comment at the cutting edge of analysis of both foreign and domestic policy!

Am enclosing a photo I took last fall in Istanbul at Istiklal Avenue, a busy shopping and cultural scene, which, however, is now a ghost town because of a series of terrorist attacks in the city. Let’s remember what normal looks like. My solidarity with the city’s people as they face an unknown future!

cheers Juan Cole

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For Russian hold on Trump, follow the Money, not the Sex tapes

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Buzzfeed has published the unverified allegations by a former MI6 analyst with good Russian contacts, contained in a two-page hitherto secret annex to the US intelligence community’s report on Russian hacking and interference in the 2016 election. These two pages have circulated in Washington for months. David Corn talked about them, though not with salacious detail, in October, and then Senate minority leader Harry Reid wrote a sharp letter to FBI director James Comey about them.

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The notion that Donald J. Trump might have been recorded doing kinky things on business trips to Moscow or St. Petersburg is plausible, but people should be careful here. It isn’t proven, and intelligence professionals gather a lot of raw intelligence that is nonsense. The specific allegations in the annex don’t make much sense (urolagnia is a fetish for sexual satisfaction, not an instrument of revenge on a political opponent).

Note, too, that it is just as plausible that the National Security Agency and/or the Central Intelligence Agency have data on Trump in Russia. If Trump were in contact with Russians whom the NSA was monitoring then they would have ended up monitoring him, as well.

That is,if the worry is that foreign intelligence agencies could blackmail someone like Trump, why isn’t it equally worrying that the US government could? J. Edgar Hoover used to blackmail congressional representatives all the time.

The unusual thing here is that even if Russia had such video, it is difficult to see how they could damage Trump. The people who elected him knew that he had appeared in pornographic videos, liked to tour the dressing rooms of the Miss Teen contests when the contestants were naked, and gropes random women in public places. That he paid for a golden shower or two isn’t even the most disgusting thing in his closet (at least if it was paid for it was consensual). So I think if Russia threatened him with being outed, he could just brush them off. The evangelical ministers who encourage their flocks to vote Republican have decided that they are all about forgiveness when it comes to Trump. I wouldn’t have said this last year this time, but the guy is teflon on the right.

If Trump has a vulnerability with regard to Russia, it is far more likely to be financial. He kept going bankrupt (six times!) as a strategy to avoid paying creditors, and understandably real banks stopped wanting to lend to him. The Financial Times alleges that Trump then got in bed with very wealthy figures from, e.g., Kazakhstan, who loaned him money or licensed his name for, e.g., the Trump Soho, in which he was a partner with a shadowy Kazakh figure. But FT suggests that the quid pro quo was that he got them into the New York real estate market, which they then used for money laundering. Money earned from embezzling (say, from the Kazakh ministry of petroleum) or criminal activity needs to be laundered before it can be openly invested. The criminal claims that the ill-gotten funds are profits from an investment, e.g. The FT thinks Trump may have, knowingly or naively, facilitated this kind of activity. If it was knowingly, of course, that was a heavy duty crime.

Or there is the Washington Post‘s expose of Trump’s relationship with a Russian “businessman” whom the Post characterizes as possibly having links to organized crime and whom, the Post alleges, former business partners accuse of routinely threatening to kill them.

In fact, big business people often seal deals at strip clubs, and sex parties in St. Petersburg were likely to be sweeteners for a business deal. Only puritan Americans would think it was the sex party that was the important thing.

James S. Henry in The American Interest surveyed several cases of Trump’s sketchy financial relationships with Russian or Former Soviet Union Oligarchs. Henry doesn’t allege criminality in these relationships, though the accounts he gives heavily hint at it. And if there was ever a place where Honore de Balzac’s maxim in Le pere Goriot was true, it is post-Soviet lands. Balzac said, “the secret of great fortunes with no apparent explanation is a crime forgotten because it was well executed.” Mario Puzo paraphrased it to “behind every great fortune there is a crime.”

Mark Sumner at Daily Kos also rounds up these oligarch/ organized crime links.

So if Russia has a hold on Trump, I’d look at the business angle, myself. The idea that they could shame him by attacking his reputation for sexual propriety seems a little far-fetched.

—-

Related video:

USA Today: “Intel chiefs told Trump that Russia targeted him”

Meryl Streep calls out Trump: Having Bully-in-Chief Coarsens whole Culture

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Occasionally entertainment and politics intersect, often hitting a false note. You never want your screenplay to be, as they say in Hollywood, “on the nose.” You have to step sideways away from ordinary news and address some dimension of the human condition to make art.

But in moments of national crisis, stars feel a need to speak out. Nick Gass has reviewed some of the major such incidents at the Academy Awards. Jane Fonda used ther moment on the stage at the Academy Awards in the 1970s to denounce the Vietnam War. Marlon Brando declined to appear and had a Native American activist accept for him, making a statement about Indian rights.

Robin Corey tells the story of how in 1978 Vanessa Redgrave was picketed by the Jewish Defense League because of her support for Palestinian rights, and when she won her category anyway, she said, “I think you should be very proud that in the last few weeks you’ve stood firm and you have refused to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and to their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.”

Michael Moore denounced the Iraq War.

So we now have another such moment, as Meryl Streep tearfully addressed the stars assembled at the Golden Globes about her anxieties and distress at the advent of the Trump era in the United States.

“Meryl Streep Speech The Golden Globes 2017”

She pointed out, as Hugh Laurie already had, that those assembled at the Golden Globes award ceremony (put on by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association) were Hollywood, foreigners, and the press, the very sort of people who have been vilified for the past 18 months by Donald J. Trump. (Laurie had wondered if last night’s ceremony would be the last, as all the foreigners were kicked out of the country).

She pointed out the diversity of the origins of the actors in the room, saying that Amy McAdams, Natalie Portman, Ruth Negga, Ryan Gosling and Dev Patel were born abroad: “Where are their birth certificates?” she asked. The essence of the acting art, she affirmed, is to get inside a character who is foreign to us and make us feel what they feel. “And there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that, breathtaking, passionate work.” She was making two points against the xenophobia, the irrational hatred of foreigners, at the center of the Trump campaign and at the center of his Neonazi fringe, such as the Breitbart thugs. One is that key American industries, including the entertainment industry, often attain their excellence through openness to talent from abroad. The second is a far more subtle and powerful point, which is that no human experience is really foreign to us as human beings if only we can find the tools to understand it, emotionally and intellectually. She was standing up for her craft, acting, as xenophilic, as involving a love of the foreign, insofar as the falling away of strangeness is the goal of great acting.

Her most powerful intervention, however, referred to Donald J. Trump’s mocking of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who is challenged by a congenital joint condition.

trumpkova h/t KTLA & thx to LunaPic

By the way, the mocking was provoked by Kovaleski’s having stood up to Trump over his false and monstrous claim that large crowds of Muslim-Americans celebrated the September 11 attacks in New Jersey. She called Trump’s antics a “performance” but lamented that it was in “real life.” She thus drew attention to the similarity of the political speech, which spins a narrative and often involves some mugging for the camera or even doing impressions of people, to the actor’s performance. Her complaint is that when Trump bully Kovaleski in public, he gave permission to all Americans to be mean to the weak, to become a nation of goons.

CNN: “Trump mocks reporter with disability”

Streep is in tears because a Fascist is about to take the helm of our country. And her apprehension over how the tone set by the White House could coarsen the fabric of everyday life is well-placed. Her call on the press to confront these tendencies may be a bit forlorn. The television media, at least, appear to view Trump as a cash cow because he attracts eyeballs, which allows them to earn more from advertising.

But I think the situation is even more dire than just a president who encourages bullying by example. I think there is a danger that Neo-Nazis and Klansmen and other such gangs may start beating up Jews, and Muslims and Latinos and African-Americans. I think there is a danger that Attorney General Jeff Sessions will encourage this racialized violence, and that local police will be encouraged to wink at it. I fear a tear in the fabric of the rule of law. Fascism doesn’t begin with a big military machine, it begins with gangs of brutes.

Ms. Streep left us with the most wonderful advice, relayed from the late Carrie Fisher: “the dear departed Princess Leia, said to me once, take your broken heart, make it into art.”

Art yes. But also resistance.

________
Transcript of Ms. Streep’s remarks:

“Thank you very much. Thank you very much. Thank you. Please sit down. Please sit down. Thank you. I love you all. You’ll have to forgive me. I’ve lost my voice in screaming and lamentation this weekend. And I have lost my mind sometime earlier this year. So I have to read.

Thank you, Hollywood foreign press. Just to pick up on what Hugh Laurie said. You and all of us in this room, really, belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it. Hollywood, foreigners, and the press. But who are we? And, you know, what is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places.

I was born and raised and created in the public schools of New Jersey. Viola [Davis] was born in a sharecropper’s cabin in South Carolina, and grew up in Central Falls, Long Island. Sarah Paulson was raised by a single mom in Brooklyn. Sarah Jessica Parker was one of seven or eight kids from Ohio. Amy Adams was born in Italy. Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem. Where are their birth certificates? And the beautiful Ruth Negga was born in Ethiopia, raised in — no, in Ireland, I do believe. And she’s here nominated for playing a small town girl from Virginia. Ryan Gosling, like all the nicest people, is Canadian. And Dev Patel was born in Kenya, raised in London, is here for playing an Indian raised in Tasmania.

Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners. If you kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts. They gave me three seconds to say this. An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like. And there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that, breathtaking, passionate work.

There was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good. There was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it. I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life.

And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.

This brings me to the press. We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call them on the carpet for every outrage.That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in our constitution. So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the committee to protect journalists. Because we’re going to need them going forward. And they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.

One more thing. Once when I was standing around on the set one day whining about something, we were going to work through supper, or the long hours or whatever, Tommy Lee Jones said to me, isn’t it such a privilege, Meryl, just to be an actor. Yeah, it is. And we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy. We should all be very proud of the work Hollywood honors here tonight.

As my friend, the dear departed Princess Leia, said to me once, take your broken heart, make it into art. Thank you.”

US Media outraged by Russia, won’t Notice Israeli plot on UK Parliament

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment)- –

Washington is obsessed by the story put out by US intelligence agencies that Russia tried to interfere in the US presidential election. But for reasons of self-preservation, the blockbuster story just hitting the headlines that an Israeli operative was plotting to get up scandals to unseat British members of parliament will sink like a stone. This, even though part of the concern voiced by official Washington is that Putin may target the elections of European democracies allied to the US to push them in a right wing direction. That’s exactly what the right wing Likud government of Israel has been caught planning to do to Britain.

Ian Cobain and Ewen MacAskill of The Guardian report on undercover footage taken of Shai Masot, a “senior political officer” in the Israeli Embassy in London who has been an officer in the Israeli Army and still is employed there. I conclude that he is likely Israeli military intelligence with a cover at the embassy.

Masot is overheard in the video discussing plans to politically ruin members of parliament, including foreign office minister Sir Alan Duncan, who wants to see a Palestinian state established.

“Israeli diplomat caught on camera plotting to ‘take down’ UK MPs”

One of the people in the tape, Maria Strizzolo (a civil servant and aide to a Conservative Member of Parliament or MP), boasted that she had helped her boss, MP Robert Halfon, rise in politics.

Masot asked her if she could also demote politicians. “Can I give you some MPs that I would suggest you would take down?”

She replied, “Well, you know, if you look hard enough, I’m sure that there is something that they’re trying to hide.” In case Masot did not get the point, she later added “A little scandal, maybe.” A third person in on the conversation, one “Robin,” was supposed to be from “Friends of Israel” but was actually an investigative reporter from the Qatar-based Aljazeera, who made the recording.

Masot says, “I have some MPs.”

Strizzolo says, “Well let’s talk about it.”

Masot gets coy. “No, she knows which MPs I want taken down.”

Strizzolo says, “Yeah, it’s good to remind me.”

Masot names the Deputy Foreign Minister [Sir Alan Duncan] (equivalent in the US to an Undersecretary of State).

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Strizzolo asks, “You still want to?” This question shows that Strizzolo has discussed the possibility of creating a scandal around Duncan with the Israelis before.

The question arose whether Duncan had already been disciplined and tamed. Masot demurred. “No, he’s still doing a lot of problems.”

The question turned to Duncan’s boss, Foreign Minister Boris Johnson. Masot agreed that he was safely pro-Israel and “doesn’t care” (presumably about Palestinian human rights). Moreover, Masot observed, Johnson is “an idiot.”

The video comes in a film claiming to expose the way that the Israeli government has ‘infiltrated’ both the Conservative and Labour parties via its embassy in the UK, using secret cash and covert support.

The longer Aljazeera report also catches Masot telling Joan Ryan, a senior Labor member of parliament that he he has gathered more than one million British pounds ($1,229,000) to bring cooperative British Members of Parliament to Israel.

Other footage shows pro-Israel Labour Party members admitting that Tel Aviv backs their activities.

Masot in some of the footage calls Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn “crazy” and dismisses his supporters as “weirdoes.”

I’ve always wondered why American politicians are mostly so timid and intimidated by the Israel lobbies. The US Congress is so out of line with regard to the opinions of the rest of the world about the illegal Israeli colonization of the Palestinian West Bank that it is like something out of a science fiction movie. (Of course, our Congress did also vote resolutions in support of Afrikaner colonial racism in South Africa, which was also bizarre).

It isn’t a matter of the American Jewish community, which is more liberal than Americans as a whole and mostly quite powerless. The Israel lobbies often operate in opposition to the polled opinions of Jewish Americans, and often has no more relationship to ordinary Jews than the ExxonMobil lobby has to Americans who drive gasoline-fueled cars. Lobbies are about power for a minority within a minority.

The usual answer is that the Israel lobbies are well-heeled and give a lot of money to political campaigns (as much as 30% nationally), and few politicians want to risk the possibility that they might throw their funding to the other candidate. The Israel lobbies sometimes lose (they lost the fight on the Iran deal, at least the first round) and don’t by any means control things.

But Israeli intelligence operations against politicians are also a threat, and evidence for how exactly such efforts are pursued has just emerged. It is highly unlikely that the Israeli embassy in Britain was behaving in an unusual way, and I think we may conclude that such conversations are common in the capitals of important democratic countries, including the United States.

But this interference, unlike that of Russia, will provoke no national outrage or even be covered in any serious way by US television news. This silence will not be because the subject is unimportant.

Reflections by a Middle Easterner on the Electoral College as a Remnant of Elite Tribalism

By Hsain Ilahiane | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Founding Fathers wrote the electoral college in the United States Constitution.

In late summer 2004, I became a naturalized United States citizen in Des Moines, Iowa. The following November election day, with my voting card in hand, sure-footed and full of excitement, I walked over to my precinct polling station, sited in one of the neighborhood’s churches, and performed my newly minted constitutional right to vote in the presidential elections. Upon the completion of my civic duty, the polling station monitors rewarded me with cookies and an I-Voted-sticker which I proudly placed over the left pocket of my fleece-lined flannel shirt for all to see. I still keep the I-Voted-sticker, now decorating my cassette and CD player and in prominent display in my living room. As a first-time voter, the I-Voted-sticker still reminds me not only of my initiation into the rituals of American politics but also of my encounter with participatory democracy. The sticker, and the relic that it has become and in a tangible way, still represents my transition from being a subject in a Third World and tribal context I left behind, a context saturated with technicalities of elections and little or no democracy, to being a citizen in a First World participatory democracy where I have gained agency and my vote counts, and for that matter, everyone’s vote counts and makes a difference in the outcome of who wins and who loses in the presidential elections.

Later on that night of November 2004 while watching the election results come in, television reporters, pundits, and commentators kept stressing the necessity of the magic number of 270 electors for George W. Bush to win the election. The magic number of 270 electors was also cloaked in a fast-paced discussion of the legal context behind the electoral college and the popular vote modalities, and keyed into this discussion, was the fact that the winner of the presidential election is not picked by the direct popular vote (one man, one woman, one vote) but appointed by the indirect electoral college– a political body made of 538 party leaders and members or electors. Today, of course, citizens vote directly for electors or representatives but the electors are not legally bound to vote for any particular candidate and could act as faithless electors if they choose to do so. It is worth remembering that the 2004 presidential elections came on the heels of a spirited election results contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the presidency. In 2016, Donald Trump lost the popular vote and won the presidency. Unlike 2000, where the election race results were tight, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by more than 2.8 million votes, or 2.1 percent of the popular vote and yet she lost the key to the White House. What does this tell us? It tells us many things and one of these things is that representation is a refereed political and historical act. It tells us that there is no direct national election for president in the United States, only state elections. For a candidate to win the presidency, he or she must concentrate their campaign energies on winning states or electors, not on winning the direct popular vote. The nagging questions that have been on my mind ever since my first time to vote are: What is it about a political system that prevents the popular vote winner from becoming president? What is the matter with the one-man-one-woman-one-vote principle in a constitution whose fundamental and guiding principles are inscribed in the popular phrase: “… all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”?

Despite the fact that I took a course on American Government in undergraduate school, the genealogy and historical context of the electoral college concept remained nebulous and its analytical prominence gained importance only in the presidential election season. As I was refreshing my encounter with the political and historical setup of the American election system and learning about the legal bricolage it took to stitch it together, I found myself going back and forth between the American legal scene that gave birth to the electoral college and my familiar Berber upbringing and ethnographic research I carried out in the multi-ethnic communities of southern Morocco. The more I learned about the founding era of the electoral college, the more I found myself engaged in a comparative exploration of the differences and similarities between Berber and American political institutions. I kept thinking that both systems, despite that one is federal and the other tribal, have actually more in common in terms of their political formation and complexity. While American institutions were constructed in historical settings shaped by slavery, the Berber structures were defined by social and ethnic stratification in southern Morocco. Both societies developed political structures in which they applied the notions and tools of racism and discrimination to deny direct political representation to non-white men and women. Is it then possible that the electoral college is essentially a tribal institution too? Could it be that the electoral college is the American version of the Berber jama`a?

With respect to the electoral college, constitutional legal scholars argue that there are three major reasons behind the setup of the electoral college. In 1787, the framers of the constitution were at best bricoleurs and crafted a government as they went along that brought together the best practices of existing political formations in the United States and Europe. However, the founding fathers agreed to disagree on two major issues. The first deals with how much power people should have and the second on how much power large and small states should have. Some readings of this legal bricolage suggest that direct democracy, as we understand it today, constituted somewhat a subversive concept that raised fears and concerns in the minds of some framers of the constitution. In short and as a result of this, the United States government chose the political format of a republic, in which people governed and managed themselves only through elected representatives. The third reason deals with how the office of the president was thought to be too important to the young republic to be left to the people or the masses to decide. Instead, people were made to elect electors, who would establish a “college of electors” to pick the president and the vice-president of the land. Regarding the compromise between big and small states, the framers maintained that each state electors should be equal to the total number of its senators and members of the House of Representatives; and while big population states had the most influence, small states will not be allowed to be swallowed up by the most populous states in the presidential elections (Perea 2012; Finkelman 2002).

The compromise of the electoral college framework, which is written in the Constitution, has remained unchanged since the Civil War and despite the abolition of slavery that conferred citizenship and voting rights to black people. It also caused five candidates to lose the race to the White House after they won the popular vote — most recently in 2016, when Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump. While there are many criticisms of the value and utility of the electoral college in 21st century politics, one criticism that is seldom brought out into the light is its embeddedness in and connection with slavery and ways in which southern slave states used it to protect slavery and its oppressive racist infrastructure, remnants of which still inform and maintain the political architecture of large disenfranchised populations. To the point, the electoral college included a three-fifths clause, where black men and women were counted as three-fifths of a white person. This clause, some legal scholars argue, not only was used to give slave states more electoral votes but it also provided them with political power to establish a dominant white class. Additionally, it allowed states to enact discriminatory voting laws and regulations despite the 1965 Voting Rights Act that was passed to fight the compression and suppression of civil rights and other measures (Perea 2012; Finkelman 2002).

Today the electoral college, an institution which dates back to the late 18th and early 19th century, gives smaller and/or swing states with white majority voters a disproportionate power in deciding the outcome of presidential elections, pushing millions of voters to the sidelines. A recent statistical analysis of the electoral college results by Gelman and Kremp (2016) found that “The probability of one person’s vote being decisive… ranged from roughly one in a million for a resident of New Hampshire — a swing state with a relatively small population — to less than one in one billion in states that are reliably “red” or “blue,” such as New York, California, Kansas, and Oklahoma… and particularly within swing states, the Electoral College amplifies the power of white voters by a substantial amount.”

This is remarkable for three critical reasons. The first reason deals with the obvious principle of fair and direct representation (one man, one woman, one vote) which is connected with the urgent need to answer the questions that are on almost everyone’s mind: why vote at all if one’s constitutional right to vote is put aside by overrepresented white voters in battleground states? How is it that 2.8 million more people voted democratic in 2016 yet political power stayed in Republican control? Could it be that the wider issues of gerrymandering and injections of big money into politics are exacerbating the undemocratic leftovers of the electoral college? The second reason is the incoherence and contradiction that are part and parcel of claims made of and for democracy in Western democratic societies. The social drama of elections and their constitutive elements (political parties, campaigns, super political action committees, conventions, and nominations) are put together to authenticate and intensify the democratic narrative, feeling, and practice at the same time they are made to throw in barriers against full and meaningful political participation of their subjects and/or citizens. Simply, the contradictions in the claims of the electoral college allowed the dominant political class not only to define who is a subject, who is a citizen, but also the modalities that subjects have to go through on their path to be counted and transformed into citizens. The third reason this is remarkable is that the electoral college, a relic of slavery and racism of the founding era, bears family resemblance to the Berber tribal institution of jama`a.

berbers

Berber notables and electors, southern Morocco, circa 1933.

The Arabic term jama`a refers to the assembly of notables of a tribe, or a tribal section, which in Berber society, acts as a legislative, executive, and judicial entity. In some places it goes by the name of taqbilt, the term being the Tamazight (Berber) form of the Arabic word, qabila: tribe and/or confederation referring to a political unit based usually on a segmentary lineage framework. It applies the abrid or qanun which are embodied in the corpus of customary law, called azerf. This legal coded is oral as well as written. A select group of elders who retain the legal code in memory are known as aït al-haqq (men of truth), and serve as final arbiters in determining the rules of the code. The practice of community consensus through jama`a indicates that Berber society is relatively democratic, though only elder men generally participated. Women, young men, slave-descendants, and Haratine (black people) were excluded until the recent past.

Customary laws, called azerf and ta`qqit in Berber, are documented in local legal treatises. Some of these legal documentsdate back to the late 18th and early 19th century, and deal with the ethno-political life of communities, management of the palm grove and irrigation, law and order, and sharecropping arrangements. These documents still inform much of the power relationships among ethnic groups in most present day communities and illustrate how discrimination and religious ideology were put to work in a stratified society with white Berbers and holy Arabs on top and Haratine and slave-descendants at the bottom and denied access to land ownership and political participation in the tribal council.

The internal and political affairs of Berber communities were (some are still) administered by the local agnatic lineage based council called taqbilt or jama`a. The jama`a was composed of id-bab n-imuran or lineage representatives headed by amghar n-tamazirt, the country or land chief. The amghar was elected every year from a different lineage. The id-bab n-imuren, meaning the people who own land and shares of protection of the non-Berber groups, were nominated to the council by the amghar but not appointed by the members of their own lineages. For instance, in old town village, one Berber sub-tribe was divided into six lineages and these six lineages make the taqbilt or jama`a of the community. Each year, after the wheat harvest, they gathered to elect the annual amghar or chief of the community. The office of the chief rotated among the lineages. Once all the lineage representatives, as well as a the fqih (imam)of the local mosque to bless the gathering with benediction, were assembled in the jama`a meeting room, the elections started. The candidates from the incoming lineage sat on a red carpet and waited while the electors from the other lineages went outside to discuss their choice of the individual to be elected. Once the electors made their decisions, they came back, walked in a circle around the candidates, reported their decision to the fqih, and finally the fqih put his finger on the head of the person who was about to assume leadership.

The annual elections of the amghar n-usgguas (annual leader) by the lineage constituency is what Gellner (1969) calls “rotation and complementarity.” This process safeguarded the political system, Gellner argues, in two critical ways: the electors could never elect themselves and its annual rotation acted as a check against any abuse of power and corruption. Neither candidates for the office of the chief nor the members of their lineages had the right to vote. Thus, through this process of complementarity, delegation of authority and representation, and exclusion of women and non-white populations such as slave-descendants and Haratine, the political system paradoxically remained immune to any temptations of hegemony of one group over another. However, post-colonial reforms coupled with the social mobility of the Haratine and former-slave descendants have to a large extent undermined the traditional workings of the jama`a. The social mobility of these former low-status groups was made possible by migration financial flows which allowed them to purchase land, which in turn, gave them the opportunity to have a voice and a place in the tribal council. While a few communities have grudgingly adjusted to these social and ethnic changes, most communities still resist the incorporation of Haratine and other former-slave descendants into decision making institutions.

In light of this brief comparative account, the institutions of the electoral college and the Berber jama`a appear to be cut from the same cloth and constitute remnants of a disquieting ethno-political era shaped by slavery, racism, and ethnic stratification. Both the electoral college and the jama`a privilege the idea and act of voting via the agency of delegation, and in the process, they both negate, or at best, short change direct participatory democracy. They devalue modern and progressive principles of fairness, equality, and dignity, and rob people of their capacity to make their history as they please. Both institutions are outdated and are out of step with peoples’ aspirations, and dare I say tribal. The question now facing us, anthropologists, is what is it that we must do to banish these tribal institutions from the vocabulary and practices of 21st century politics?


[1] I would like to thank Thomas Park (University of Arizona) and George Baca (Dong-A University, South Korea) for their valuable comments.

Hsain Ilahiane teaches at the University of Kentucky

Those Times the NSA Hacked America’s Allies

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The hysteria about Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee servers and the phishing scam run on Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, is short on evidence and high in self-righteousness. Much of the report issued Friday was old boilerplate about the Russia Today cable channel, which proves nothing.

My complaint is that American television news reports all this as if it is The First Time in History Anyone has Acted like This. But the head of the Republican Party in the early 1970s hired burglars to do the same thing– break into the Watergate building and get access to DNC documents in hopes of throwing an election. Dick Nixon even ordered a second break-in. And it took a long time for Republican members of Congress to come around to the idea that a crime had been committed; if it hadn’t been for the Supreme Court, Nixon might have served out his term.

In the past decade and a half, the US National Security Agency has been deployed for hacking purposes not, as the cover story would have it, for counter-terrorism (there isn’t much evidence that they’re any good at that), but to gain political advantage over allies.

So, for instance, George W. Bush had German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s personal cell phone hacked to monitor his position on the Iraq War that Bush wanted to launch illegally.

Then Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had Schoeder’s successor’s personal cell phone put under surveillance. Angela Merkel’s personal cell phone. An ally . It may just have been face-saving for President Obama, but the White House leaked that Obama was surprised and disturbed that her personal phone had been targeted. This leak tells us that Clapper and the NSA were acting without the president’s knowledge. Yet no one was fired over it. It makes you think maybe the US cyberspies are an authority unto themselves and this elected democracy thing is so eighteenth century.

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But it wasn’t just Germany. The NSA hacked into the private and government communications of French Presidents Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Francois Hollande. Sarkozy even wanted to sign a bilateral US-France intelligence cooperation agreement. (Gee, that might be useful in preventing terrorist attacks in the two countries). But he was frustrated, because the US wouldn’t sign if it meant promising to give up spying on . . . France and Sarkozy!

The BBC writes,

“One of the files, dated 2012, is about Mr. Hollande discussing Greece’s possible exit from the eurozone. Another one – from 2011 – alleges that Mr Sarkozy was determined to resume peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, possibly without US involvement.”

Then there is Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and all of his cabinet members and the CEO of Mitsubishi, all of whom US cyber-spies hacked systematically and continuously.

And as for the hacking being aimed at influencing Japan’s direction and policy, IBTimes wrote:

“Today’s publication shows us that the US government targeted sensitive Japanese industry and climate change policy,” [Sarah] Harrison [of Wikileaks] said. “Would the effectiveness of Japan’s industry and climate change proposals be different today if its communications had been protected?”

These stories were above the fold front page news only 18 months ago! Yet the breathless hyperventilating about Russian hacking (from what we can tell, far, far less intrusive and far less effective) neglects to bring up the US hacking of allies at all. French and German troops were part of the NATO military force in Afghanistan. The French fought alongside US troops and took hundreds of casualties. Germans were more in the peacekeeping mode but were often in substantial danger. Japan is an ally with whom the US does joint military exercises.

If we started going into the dozens of times the US has casually switched out other people’s governments since WW II, despite the lack of any direct threat to the United States, this would be a very long blog entry.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

The Young Turks: “Trump On Russian Hacking”

Circus of Liars: How Trump & GOP are Twisted into Pretzels over Putin Hack

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Donald J. Trump has picked another fight with the elders of his own Republican Party, over whether Russia engaged in hacking aimed at influencing the US election. Trump has maintained that it is impossible to trace hacking attempts, that it isn’t clear who was behind them, and that he knows a lot about hacking and knows things about these incidents that the rest of us do not know, which he would reveal last Tuesday or Wednesday (he didn’t).

At one point, in Trump’s assault on the case for Russian hacking being presented by the CIA, he cited statements of Julian Assange of Wikileaks:

This reference to Assange, who published Chelsea Manning’s copied State Department cables and who published emails of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, infuriated official Washington, who would love to render Assange from the Ecuadoran embassy in London and execute him by firing squad.

At today’s Senate hearings on the Russian hacking, Sen. John McCain asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper whether Assange has any credibility. Clapper replied by smearing Assange with reference to the complicated and obscure Swedish sex charges against him, which actually do not speak to Assange’s credibility on whether the Russians passed him hacked emails. This ad hominem logical fallacy is typical of the sneaky and duplicitous way Clapper operates.

McCain also accused Assange of putting the lives of US intelligence professionals and their assets in danger. But McCain did not move to impeach former Bush vice president Dick Cheney, who outed CIA field officer Valerie Plame to punish her for her husband’s having revealed the emptiness of the WMD case for the Bush-Cheney illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Trump was wounded by the charges that he was supporting Assange, and replied, essentially, that retweets are not endorsements.

All twitter users consider such hedging to be disingenuous; why retweet something if you deeply disagree with it?

The entire circus was marked by outlandish self-contradiction and clownish hypocrisy.

For instance, Sen. McCain and other national security Republicans have a longstanding animus against the Putin government and so are eager to accept the Clapper case that Russia attempted to interfere in the US election.

But McCain and the other hawkish Republicans don’t want to follow their position to its logical conclusion, which is that Putin intervened to give us a Trump presidency.

If Russia did some hacking and leaking to hurt the Democrats, but did not succeed in having a big impact on the election outcome, then why is the issue so important? The Russians were ineffectual.

As for foreign hacking and spying on the US election, James Clapper for a long time was personally listening into German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private cell phone.

Moreover, Clapper was listening in to millions Americans on American soil without a warrant, a gross violation of the fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which promises us privacy from government prying with regard to our mail and personal effects unless law enforcement can convince a judge that we are engaged in a specified crime. For all we know, US officials privy to this illegal form of wiretapping could have used the information for insider trading or self-aggrandizement or to smear politicians they didn’t like or even to affect the outcome of elections. There isn’t really any oversight over this unconstitutional activity of the Federal government, and even sitting senators who knew about it such as Ron Wyden were afraid to tell the public lest they be arrested for revealing classified information (almost everything in Washington is classified as soon as it is written down).

When Clapper was asked in Senate testimony whether US intelligence was spying on the American people, he denied it. “No,” he said.

Ron Wyden: “DNI Clapper tells Wyden the NSA does not collect data on millions of Americans”

It was the lie of our new century, the Big Lie, the ultimate Whopper.

The US NSA hacked the whole world for many years until Ed Snowden blew the whistle on them. And that was when the full extent of Clapper’s mendaciousness became clear. He should have been held in contempt of Congress. He should have been fired. But no. He got away with it.

It is extremely unclear why anyone should believe anything this proven and professional liar says.

Then Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, was asked about Trump’s tweet questioning the Russia hacking narrative. He replied that Trump was unwise to take on the intelligence community, since they had six ways to Sunday to get back at you.

So Schumer seems to have been celebrating that we are no longer a democracy, but that even an elected president has to defer to the intelligence establishment in Washington or else must fear that they will play dirty tricks on him and undermine him.

Shouldn’t the Democratic Party senate minority leader be standing for democratic values, not advising the president to shut up if he knows what’s good for him?

So to conclude, this is a sorry spectacle. Yes, Putin is a thug who should not have unilaterally annexed Crimea, and so created a European crisis that has yet to be resolved. But yes, the US has acted thuggishly– the unprovoked and monstrous invasion of Iraq is a recent example– and US aggressiveness toward Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union bears some of the blame for Russia’s bullying insecurity. And yes, Russia likely engaged in hacking during the US election and hoped to tilt the playing field toward Trump; but they likely failed to have any significant effect on the outcome. And yes, Clapper and other US intelligence officials have hacked everybody and his brother both abroad and inside the US, so they are hardly morally superior to Putin.

Now we have a food fight full of ignorance and hypocrisy or both, in which the Washington Establishment professes itself shocked, shocked that any hacking of one country by another could have gone on. Trump has continued his creepy bromance with the Kremlin and wants to get his information from any source that agrees with his prejudices. The Democrats have taken advantage of the story to paint Trump as a Manchurian candidate, and some of them seem to delight in the idea that Trump may provoke the CIA to do to him what Oliver Stone thinks it did to JFK.

Nobody and nothing here to admire.