John Feffer – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Mon, 06 Dec 2021 03:39:57 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Donald Also Rises? The Far Right Continues to Build Its International Mon, 06 Dec 2021 05:06:58 +0000 ( – What alt-right guru Steve Bannon failed to create, German taxpayers have just stepped in to revive: a Nationalist International. Thanks to the German government, the far right is about to get its own well-heeled global think tank, complete with the sort of political academy that was so dear to Bannon’s plan for world domination.

Germany’s gift to the far right is the Desiderius Erasmus Foundation, the public-policy arm of the country’s most prominent extremist party, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Erasmus, a Dutch humanist of the Renaissance best known for his ironic essay “In Praise of Folly,” would have been appalled at such a grotesque misappropriation of his name. The AfD, after all, has built its political base on a series of follies diametrically opposed to humanism, from its initial anti-immigration screeds to its current overtures to the anti-vaccination crowd.

Strangely enough, the AfD underperformed in the recent German elections, its parliamentary delegation losing 11 seats. Still, by capturing a little more than 10% of the vote, the party made it into parliament a second consecutive time. As a result, it qualifies for what all other major parties also receive: government support of its foundation. Unless legal efforts to block this largesse succeed, the Erasmus foundation will soon enjoy the equivalent of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars a year.

Consider that an extraordinary shot in the arm for the global far right, since the AfD will be funded to establish outposts of hate throughout the world. The foundation of the left-wing Die Linke party, the more appropriately labeled Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, already has offices in more than 20 countries. The Green Party’s foundation, named after Nobel Prize-winning German novelist Heinrich Böll, is in more than 30 countries. The far right hasn’t had this kind of opportunity for global expansion since fascism’s heyday in the 1930s.

The notion that the AfD could engage in anything remotely resembling “political education” should be laughable. But that’s exactly how its foundation plans to use the coming federal windfall: to recruit and train a new generation of far-right thinkers and activists. The Erasmus Stiftung aims to hire more than 900 people for its political academy and allied educational institutions. That’s even more ambitious than the academy of intellectual “gladiators” Bannon once dreamed of creating in a former monastery in the Italian countryside.

The Erasmus website says nothing about its global ambitions. Based on the AfD’s latest platform, however, expect the foundation to gather together Euroskeptics to plot the evisceration of the European Union; advance the AfD’s anti-immigrant platform with counterparts across Europe like Lega in Italy, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, and several extremist groups in the Balkans; and pour money into establishing a “respectable” face for white nationalism by networking among identitarian groups in North America, the former Soviet Union, and Australasia.

This thunder on the right certainly sounds ominous. And yet, after the defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 elections, the precipitous decline in public support for President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and the ongoing efforts to counter the far right in Eastern Europe, the prospect of a Nationalist International might seem further away today than, say, four years ago.

One well-funded German foundation is not likely to change that forecast. Unfortunately, the Erasmus Foundation is anything but the only storm cloud on the political horizon.

In reality, the global disillusionment with mainstream politics that fueled the rise of Trump and his ilk has only grown more intense in these last months. New authoritarian populists have consolidated power in places like El Salvador — where President Nayib Bukele calls himself the “world’s coolest dictator” — and are poised for possible takeovers in countries like Chile and Italy. And who knows? Even Donald Trump might claw his way back into the White House in 2024.

In other words, just when you thought it might finally be safe to go back into the international community, the global situation may grow far worse. With the help of German taxpayers and aided by anger over vaccine mandates, a malfunctioning world economy, and the enduring corruption of the powerful, the global right could rebound, securing greater power and influence in the years to come.

The Building Wave of Reaction

At this point, by all the laws of politics, Donald Trump should be radioactive. He lost his re-election bid in November 2020 and his subsequent coup attempt failed. He’s had a lousy record when it comes to expanding Republican Party power, having helped that very party forfeit its House majority in 2018 and its Senate majority in 2020. He continues to face multiple lawsuits and investigations. He’s been barred from Facebook and Twitter.

For Trump, however, politics is a philosopher’s stone. He’s managed to transmute his leaden style — not to mention his countless private failings and professional bankruptcies — into political gold. The big surprise is that so many people continue to fall for such fool’s gold.

Because of his fervent, ever-loyal base of support, Trump continues to control the Republican Party and remains on track to run for president in 2024, with no credible Republican competition in sight. Even his overall popularity, which never made it above 50% when he was president, has recently improved marginally from a February low of 38.8% percent to an almost sunny 43.4%.

Led by this urban elitist from New York, the Republican Party has all but given up on cities and reliably blue regions of the country. Still, it now controls all the levers of power in 23 states, while the Democrats do so in only 15. With a mixture of gerrymandering, voter suppression, federal stonewalling, and a master narrative about fraudulent elections, the Republicans aim to win back control of Congress in 2022 — something the odds increasingly favor — on their way to reclaiming the White House in 2024. At the moment, Donald Trump is the bookies’ choice to win the next presidential election, largely on the strength of not being Joe Biden (just as he won in 2016 by not being Hillary Clinton).

Since he can’t run for king of the world, Trump cares little about building international alliances, but the growing potential for him to return to power in 2024 has inspired right-leaning populists globally to believe that they, too, can lead their countries without the requisite skill, experience, or psychological stability. Indeed, from President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines to President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, being vulgar and vicious has already served a variety of them all too well.

Even more troubling is the new generation of Trump-style politicians coming to the fore globally. In Chile, for instance, the once-traditional conservative José Antonio Kast has remade himself as a far-right populist and in November won the first round of that country’s presidential elections. Across the Pacific in the Philippines, an all-too-literal political marriage of authoritarianism and populism is taking place as Bongbong Marcos, the son of the notorious former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, has selected Sara, the daughter of Rodrigo Duterte, to be his running mate in next year’s presidential election. Polling already puts them way ahead of the competition. In France, where Marine Le Pen has had a lock on the extremist vote for a decade, journalist Éric Zemmour is challenging her from the right with his predictions of a coming civil war and Muslim takeover.

Meanwhile, Trump’s minions in America are strengthening their international connections to create a global field of dreams. For many of them, Hungary remains the home plate of that very field of dreams. Right-wingers have been flocking to Budapest to learn how that country’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, transformed the most liberal corner of Eastern Europe into the region’s most reactionary country. (Admittedly, he now faces stiff competition from the Law and Justice Party in Poland and Janez Janša’s Slovenian Democratic Party, among other right-wing forces in Eastern Europe.)

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Typically enough, former vice president Mike Pence visited Budapest in September to praise Orbán’s “family-centric” anti-abortion version of social policy. This summer, Tucker Carlson broadcast a full week of his Fox News program from that same city. In the process, he devoted an entire show to Orbán’s virulently anti-immigrant initiatives, headlining it: “Why can’t we have this in America?” In fact, this country’s most reactionary political types are so in love with Hungary that they’re scheduling the annual Conservative Policy Action Conference for Budapest next spring, which will only cement such a transatlantic link.

Remember, in 2002, Orbán was kicked out of the prime minister’s office after one term in office, only to return to power in 2010. He’s been ruling ever since. The Trumpistas dream of pulling off just such a political comeback in America.

Elsewhere in Europe, the Spanish far-right party Vox has established its own Disenso Foundation to knit together a reactionary “Iberosphere” that includes the Mexican right, extremists in Colombia, the Bolsonaro family in Brazil, and even Texas senator Ted Cruz. But the Western Europe state most likely to follow Hungary’s lead is Italy. Right now, Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank, presides over a technocratic administration in Rome. Italian politics, however, is heading straight for neo-fascism. The party that’s only recently surged to the top of the polls, Brothers of Italy, has its roots in a group started in the wake of World War II by diehard supporters of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. It promotes an anti-vaxx “Italy first” agenda and, if elections were held today, would likely create a ruling coalition with the alt-right Lega Party and right-wing populist Silvio Berlusconi’s Forward Italy.

Meanwhile, several right-wing nationalists and populists are padding their CVs for a future role as the head of any new Nationalist International. Russian President Vladimir Putin may have the strongest claim to the title, given his longstanding support for right-wing and Euroskeptical parties, as well as the way he’s positioned Russia as the preeminent anti-liberal power around.

Don’t rule out Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, though. He’s mended fences with the far right in his own country, while trying to establish Turkey as a regional hegemon. Increasingly disillusioned with his NATO peers, he’s purchased weapons from Russia and even hinted at pushing Turkey into the nuclear club. And don’t forget Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi either. Working overtime to contain China, the Hindu nationalist has also been assiduously cultivating strong relations with the right-wing in both the U.S. and Israel.

Creating an actual Axis of Illiberalism from such disparate countries would not be easy given geopolitical rivalries, ideological differences, and personal ambitions. Still, the failures of current global institutions — and the liberal internationalism that animates them — provide a powerful glue with the potential to hold together genuinely disparate elements in an emerging right, adding up to a new version of global fascism.

When the future members of a Nationalist International argue that the status quo — a raging pandemic, runaway climate change, persistent economic inequality, staggering numbers of displaced people on the move — is broken and they have just the plan to fix it, plenty of non-extremists are likely to find the message all too compelling. Short on hope and desperate for change, the disaffected and disenfranchised have proven willing to offer the noisy nationalists and reactionary populists a shot at power (which, given their unscrupulous tactics, may be all they need).

Saving the World (from Liberals)

One of the most persistent symbols of international politics has certainly been the wall. Think of the Great Wall of China, designed to protect successive dynasties from the predations of nomadic outsiders. Many metropolitan areas around the world have retained some portion of the historic walls that once established them as city-states. The Berlin Wall was the most visible symbol of the Cold War, while Trump’s border wall was the only infrastructure program of his presidency (even if it was never truly built).

The far right is now — thank you, Donald Trump! — obsessed with walls, drawing on not only history but a deep reservoir of fear of the outsider. Like “austerity” for neoliberals, “walls” have proven the far right’s one-size-fits-all answer to almost every question. Immigrants? Wall them out. Climate change? Build walls now to prevent future waves of desperate global-warming refugees. Economic decline? Hey, install those tariff walls. Angry neighbors? Walls of weaponry and anti-missile defenses are the obvious answer.

The far right considers not rising sea levels but globalization — trade flows, the movement of people, expanding international governance — as the tide that needs containing. Far right populists are busy constructing dikes of all sorts to keep out such unwanted global flows and preserve national control in an increasingly chaotic world.

Moving down the great chain of governance, it’s no surprise that the far right also wants to culturally wall off communities to uphold what it calls “family values” against contrary civic values, different religious practices, and alternate conceptions of sexuality and gender. It even wants to wall off individuals to “protect” them against intrusive government practices like vaccine mandates. To secure such walls, literal or metaphoric, what’s needed above all are a bloated military at the national level, paramilitaries at the community level, and a semi-automatic in the hands of every red-blooded right-wing individual.

Such walls are a hedge against uncertainty, though ironically the far right’s truest contribution to modern political ideology is not certainty, but a radical skepticism. Sure, that ancient right-wing American crew, the John Birch Society, did traffic in conspiracy theories involving Communists and fluoridated water. But that was nothing compared to the way the modern political right has weaponized conspiracy theories to acquire permanent power. With claims of stolen elections, Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu, and others have even cast doubt on the very capacity of democracy to represent voters, emphasizing that only populist extremists can represent the “authentic” wishes of the electorate.

On the other hand, elections that far-right candidates win, like the recent gubernatorial race in Virginia, are automatically defined as free and fair. Radical skepticism about the electoral system, after all, is only a convenient ladder that, once in power, the far right is all too ready to kick away.

The final conspiracy theory to fall will undoubtedly be the nefariousness of the “globalists” who have teamed up to sully the “precious bodily fluids” of pure Americans (or Brazilians or Hungarians). As long as liberal internationalists run global institutions like the World Bank and the World Health Organization, “globalists” will be useful bogeys for the nationalists to rally their followers. However, if the Trumps of this world capture enough countries and successfully infiltrate global institutions, then there will be no more talk of evil globalists.

In that worst-case scenario, even a Nationalist International will no longer be necessary as we discover in Hemingway fashion that, for Trump and his kind, the sun also rises. For all practical purposes, right-wing populists will have taken over the world. Given their blithe disregard for pandemics and climate change, such a victory would, of course, be pyrrhic.

Their win, humanity’s loss.

Copyright 2021 John Feffer


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Despite 5.1 bn Tons of deadly annual CO2 Emissions, 39% of Americans Think US is Doing a Good Job on Climate Tue, 23 Nov 2021 05:04:20 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus) – We all think that climate change is somebody else’s problem. We have to be persuaded otherwise.

There is an astonishing statistic in a Pew research study released in 2020 on perceptions of how different countries handled COVID-19.

Only 15 percent of people in a dozen countries around the world thought the United States was doing a good job of addressing the pandemic. That sharply contrasted with how Americans felt: 47 percent praised their own government’s management of COVID-19.

What’s astonishing is that people outside the United States had a much better understanding of what was going on inside this country. By all objective standards, America was doing a terrible job back in 2020. We had the highest number of infections and the highest number of deaths. We had critical shortages of personal protective equipment, and hospitals in a number of cities and rural areas were completely overwhelmed. Contact tracing was sporadic and masking requirements inconsistent. The federal government was incoherent, to put it mildly, and states veered off in very different directions, some of them suicidal.

So, how could nearly half of America give a thumb’s up to such a nightmare? Part of it was pure nationalism (whatever America does is by definition great), part ideological (whatever the Trump administration did was by definition great), and part of it simply ignorance (the pandemic was a hoax, the numbers were exaggerated, it’s bad all over).

This perception gap between outsiders and insiders does not bode well for the global response to the climate crisis. After all, the tendency has been to point fingers at others and rarely at one’s self. Everyone has criticized China for its expanding carbon footprint. The Global South has criticized the industrialized north for producing the lion’s share of carbon emissions over the last 150 years. The United States has been attacked for its devotion to fossil fuels, its radical swings in policy, and its ungenerous arrogance.

They are all correct. But rarely are such judgments balanced by self-criticism.

The domestic-international gap in perceptions is not quite as large on climate change as it was on the pandemic back in 2020. For instance, 39 percent of non-Americans surveyed by Pew in 2021 rated the U.S. record on climate change as “good.” A much larger number of Americans, 49 percent, share that opinion. More troubling is the ideological gap in the United States, with 67 percent of those on the right and only 26 percent on the left thinking that the U.S. record is good.

In Glasgow

Such gaps in perception were on full display at the big climate confab that’s taking place in Glasgow. Last week, leaders gathered to make declarations while critics mobilized in the streets to decry the insufficiency of those efforts. This week, the negotiators try to transform the declarations into numbers.

A couple of those declarations look promising. A deal on beginning to reverse deforestation by 2030 would be a great step forward (of course, a similar agreement in 2014 would also have been a great step forward). A pact to cut methane levels by 30 percent by 2030 is certainly welcome, but the biggest sinners in this regard (India, Russia, and China) are not yet on board.

The assembled leaders agreed to what they have called the “Glasgow Breakthrough Agenda” covering five sectors that account for half of all carbon emissions: power, road transport, steel, hydrogen, and agriculture. This collection of initiatives is meant to create 20 million jobs and increase global GDP by 4 percent over what it would otherwise be by 2030.

Deeply troubling in all of these declarations is the continued reliance on private finance to lead the way toward a carbon-neutral world, like the pledge from the captains of finance to push for cleaner technologies. Unfortunately, they are not making a comparable commitment to stop investing in fossil fuels.

Just as citizens of countries tend to view the climate policies of their own governments more favorably than outsiders do, the leaders of the international community generally have a self-congratulatory approach to their own efforts. Those on the outside of the Glasgow meetings, on the other hand, were harshly critical. “Blah, blah, blah,” said Greta Thunberg in one of her latest jeremiads against the insufficiency of response.

Let’s be clear: it’s not nothing.

Going into the Glasgow meeting, the cumulative impact of all the pledges countries have made to reduce their carbon emissions would have led to the world heating up to 2.1 degrees Celsius (over pre-industrial levels) by 2100. Factoring in the pledges made at Glasgow, according to the International Energy Agency, will bring down that number to 1.8 degrees.

It’s not the 1.5 degree-level that represents the consensus of scientists and activists who want to avoid the worst effects of climate change. But it’s also the first time that the international community has managed to get below the 2-degree mark, which was the upper level established by the Paris accords.

But wait, this analysis comes with a number of important asterisks.

First, despite all the fine words surrounding the Paris Accords, countries have largely not met the agreement’s voluntary limits. Five years after making those commitments, countries were on track to reduce carbon emissions by a mere 5.5 percent by 2030 compared to the minimum requirement of 40-50 percent.

That’s probably a generous estimate. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, meeting the Paris commitments would only result, by 2030, in a 1 percent reduction from 2010 levels.

Both estimates, in any case, are probably off because, as The Washington Post reports this week, the data is incomplete and sometimes falsified outright. Algeria hasn’t reported since 2000, Qatar since 2007, Iran since 2010, China since 2014, Libya and Taiwan since, well, never: in all, 45 countries haven’t reported data since 2009. No country claims the carbon emissions from international travel and shipping (more than a billion tons a year). Countries like Russia and Malaysia have subtracted carbon emissions from their balance sheets based on their forests, and sometimes those estimates bear little relationship to reality. Even the emissions they do report don’t line up with the estimates of independent assessments. According to the Post, as much as 13.3 billion tons of carbon each year goes unreported.

Compounding this problem is the so-called brown recovery. The modest reductions in carbon emissions that took place during the COVID-19 economic shutdowns are being obliterated by the burst of post-pandemic economic activity. The world could have built back better in a sustainable manner. Instead, it is building back brown.

So, let’s take another look at the IEA prediction of substantial progress after Glasgow. The UN’s own estimate, released this week, suggests that the combined reduction in global temperature as a result of the Glasgow pledges—given the failures to meet earlier commitments, the gaps in the data, and the current upsurge in post-pandemic emissions—will be a mere .1 degrees, not .3 degrees. And the world is heading not toward a 2.1-degree Celsius increase by the turn of the next century but 2.5 degrees.

So, the gap between perception and reality has some very dangerous consequences indeed.

To narrow that gap, activists will have to continue to push governments to do better. Individuals think they are doing enough, think that their governments are doing enough, and on the whole consider climate change to be somebody else’s problem. They have to be persuaded otherwise.

Bridging the Gap

One of the great compromises—or grand delusions, if you prefer—at the heart of the Breakthrough Agenda is encapsulated in the phrase “green growth.” At Glasgow, the luminaries promise millions more jobs and a boost in global GDP. Political leaders are not in the business of taking things away from people, of promising belt-tightening, of Scrooging everyone’s Black Friday buying spree. At Glasgow, like pretty much everywhere else, politicians promised more jobs (green ones), more energy (the clean kind), more gadgets (like electric cars).

More, more, more has been humanity’s mantra for the last 150 years or so. It used to be only the watchword of the rich. The industrial revolution democratized the phrase.

The problem, however, is that the planet can no longer accommodate our collective voracity. There just isn’t enough stuff to go around.

Oh, yes, of course, sunlight is unlimited and will be for the next umpteen million years. But the resources it takes to capture that sunlight – the materials for the solar panels, the energy to build those panels, the land to site solar farms – are not unlimited. The same applies to wind and waves and geothermal.

So, we’re going to have to have a serious sit-down about this problem of economic growth and our unexamined assumptions about more, more, more.

That needs to be a global conversation, but the north continues to out-consume the south by an order of nine to one, if you compare the per capita carbon footprint of the United States (15.53) with that of Indonesia (1.72). So, global equity has to be part of this conversation as well—transferring resources to the Global South on an unprecedented level to ensure an equitable green transition.

It’s not just a bill of reparations for what the industrialized world has extracted—often through outright theft—over the last few hundred years. It would also need to reverse the current outflow of resources from the Global South. As I wrote recently for TomDispatch, “By one estimate, the Global North enjoys a $2.2 trillion annual benefit in the form of underpriced labor and commodities from there, an extraction that rivals the magnitude of the colonial era.” And that doesn’t even count the debt repayment outflow. Or the costs associated with ongoing climate change, which disproportionately affects the Global South.

Here, the gap in perceptions turns deadly. Consumers can believe that they are doing their part by buying electric cars. Americans can believe their government is going the extra mile with the clean energy provisions of the new infrastructure bill (all those charging stations) and perhaps one day the Build Back Better bill as well. Europeans can feel good about themselves by meeting the goals of their new Fit for 55 provisions (which mandate a 55 percent reduction of carbon emissions from 1990 levels by 2030). The international community is awash in self-congratulation after the meeting in Glasgow and all the promises made.

But all that good feeling will leave us thinking that we’ve done enough. In this case, the perfect needs to be the enemy of the merely good. As the waters continue to rise, good simply is no longer good enough.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

The Conversation: “After COP26: climate change experts discuss what needs to happen now”

Is America’s Political Dysfunction harming Democracy around the World? Thu, 04 Nov 2021 04:06:23 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus) – In 988, Prince Vladimir was undecided about which of the three great monotheistic religions to bring to his Russian realm. He sent envoys to the lands of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. The envoys returned with stories of the three faiths.

According to legend, Vladimir rejected Judaism and Islam because of their dietary restrictions. The envoy who returned from Byzantium, meanwhile, spoke of the beauty and pomp of the services in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. As a result, Vladimir chose what would become Orthodox Christianity and forced his subjects to convert accordingly. Today, more than a thousand years later, Russia remains a predominantly Orthodox nation.

Now, imagine that the ruler of a contemporary country must decide on what political system to adopt. She sends envoys to the capitals of three different realms: Washington, Brussels, and Beijing. A month later, the envoys return full of stories.

The envoy to Brussels describes the prosperous region of Europe.

“Each country has its own democracy,” she tells the ruler. “And they all cooperate to form a European Union of democracies. There is a strong sense of social responsibility toward the less fortunate, and the richer regions help out the poorer ones. The state plays an important role in the economy, citizens are involved in all levels of governance, and there is a lively multilinguistic culture. On the other hand, the decision-making in Brussels can be very confusing and many people complain about what seem to be arbitrary rules. Sometimes it seems that the market drives the government and not the other way around. The strangest part is that some countries and regions want to leave this European Union while other countries are desperate to join.”

“Should we adopt their system here?” the ruler asks.

“It is well adapted to the diversity of our country,” the envoy responds. “So, I give you a qualified yes.”

The next envoy describes the dynamic region of China.

“It is a vast land,” he reports. “But it is ruled over by a single man. The people there told me that there was once more of a collective leadership under the ruling party but this man has effectively declared himself leader for life. Some provinces and municipalities show some independence, but it is a rigidly hierarchical political system. On the other hand, the country has pulled countless people out of poverty, it continues to grow economically, and the state can allocate resources very quickly to address issues such as the climate crisis.”

“Should we adopt their system here?” the ruler asks.

“It is a good choice if we only care about economic growth,” the second envoy answers. “But it is not a good place for people who think differently, and we are a diverse country. So, I give you a qualified no.”

The ruler turns to the last envoy. “I have heard very much about this distant land of America. I have watched many American movies and listened to a lot of American music. It boasts that it is the best country on earth. Should we adopt the American style of democracy?”

The third envoy is quiet for a long time before she begins to speak.

“America is a very strange country,” she says. “It calls itself a democracy, but I’m not sure if that is the right label for its political system. In their Congress, for instance, one man is blocking the passage of a number of important bills. This Democratic senator from West Virginia is holding up a major spending bill because he thinks it’s too big and includes money for things like reducing the use of fossil fuels. But he comes from one of the poorest states in the union and he actually makes a lot of money from the coal industry.”

“How can one man hold so much power in a democracy?” the ruler asks.

“I don’t know. This senator has also insisted on his own version of a voting rights bill in order to attract Republican support, but no Republicans will support his bill. And still he refuses to consider changes to the filibuster rule.”

“The filibuster rule?” the ruler asks.

“The Senate is divided evenly between 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. Because of the filibuster rule, the passage of most legislation requires at least 60 votes. Some Democrats want to change the filibuster rule so that they can pass the voting rights bill with 51.”

“But you said that the Senate is evenly divided.”

“The vice president, who is a Democrat, votes to break 50-50 ties.”

“But surely these policymakers can work together in the national interest?” the ruler asks.

“America is very polarized,” the envoy replies. “A number of Republican members of Congress believe that the previous president, who lost the last election, actually won and should be sitting in the White House. They say that there was widespread fraud in the last election, but they have absolutely no proof. And that isn’t even the most outlandish conspiracy theory that’s circulating among elected officials. Some believe that the coronavirus pandemic isn’t real and that the vaccines are not effective.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” the ruler observes.

“The country is literally falling apart,” the envoy reports. “The roads, the bridges, the public transportation: all are in terrible shape. But elected officials disagree about the simplest fixes. There are enough guns in the country for every citizen to have at least one, and the homicide rate is shocking. But elected officials can’t agree on the mildest gun control measures. In 2016, the citizens elected a president who very nearly launched a coup to stay in power. This ex-president remains the de facto head of his party and will likely run again for office in 2024.”

“Well,” the ruler begins, “that all sounds – “

“I haven’t told you about the Supreme Court or the widespread racism or the influence of big corporations.” The envoy grows more agitated. “Or about the 2000 election. Or the gerrymandering and voter suppression and what’s happening now with school board elections.”

“Perhaps you – “

“There was just an election in Virginia for governor that was so full of lies and misrepresentations that I couldn’t believe what I was hearing!”

“I’m sure that – “

“And Washington continues to promote its version of democracy abroad as a model!” the envoy continues. “How can Americans think that anyone would want to follow their version of democracy? Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if America splits into two parts in the next five years and one part becomes a dictatorship!”

This last envoy collapses in tears. “I am just so grateful to be home.”

The ruler puts her arm around the shoulders of the envoy. She doesn’t even need to ask her last question.

“Maybe we should send out some more envoys,” the ruler says. “I’ve heard some good things about South Korea, New Zealand, and Bhutan…”

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

An earlier version of this piece appeared in Hankyoreh.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

MSNBC: “Pennsylvania AG Warns ‘We’ve Got A Lot To Do To Protect Our Democracy’”

Not all Wars are Planned: China and the U.S. need to Stop Playing Chicken in the Taiwan Strait Mon, 25 Oct 2021 04:04:36 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus) – When he was running for office in 2008, Barack Obama wanted to put an end to the war in Iraq in order to focus U.S. troops and resources on the conflict in Afghanistan. This August, the Biden administration finally withdrew the remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan. It’s hard not to get the sense that it has done so in order to perform a similar military pivot—this time toward China.

After all, U.S. policy toward China remains as provocative today as it was under Trump. Tariffs and economic sanctions against Beijing remain largely intact. Little has been done to resolve disputes on trade, security, and human rights. The Pentagon is cutting back on the kinds of weapons it was using in the Middle East in favor of munitions more suited to the Pacific theater. There hasn’t been much in the way of cooperation on the major global problems of pandemic and climate change. Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have barely talked with one another, though there are plans for a virtual meeting by the end of the year.

All of that would suggest merely a continuation of the cold war that has settled on U.S.-China relations since the tail end of the Obama administration.

But recent events point to the possibility of the cold war turning hot.

In early October, China sent 150 jets into Taiwanese air space. Although Beijing periodically tests Taipei’s air defenses, this was a record number of incursions. And the flights came after military exercises the month before that looked suspiciously like a dry run of an invasion of the island with China launching missiles into the sea south of Taiwan and conducting an amphibious assault on a beach in southern China. It was enough to prompt Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu to announce that his country was preparing for a war that “we will fight to the end.”

For those primed to expect the worst from China, it looks as though Xi Jinping has cracked down on the Uyghurs in the far east and consolidated control over Hong Kong all so that he can now focus his attention on the central prize of speeding the “reunification” of Taiwan with the mainland. China’s more strident nationalism and more robust military capabilities under Xi are not the first steps of a new Chinese imperialism. But the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has never viewed Taiwan as a foreign country to be conquered so much as a rebellious province to be subdued.

The problem lies not just with China. The United States has been subtly altering its longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” as it relates to the triangular relationship connecting Washington, Beijing, and Taipei. The United States has recognized the PRC as the “one China” and kept its relationship with Taiwan strictly unofficial. As part of this policy, Washington hasn’t extended diplomatic recognition to Taiwan but nevertheless sends heaps of military hardware in that direction.

The Trump administration, however, began to elevate relations with Taiwan. Trump himself set the stage as president-elect by accepting a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, the first direct communication between U.S. and Taiwanese leaders in nearly four decades. In 2020, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Undersecretary of State Keith Krach were the highest-ranking officials to visit Taiwan since 1979. Also in 2020, the administration announced more than $5 billion in arms sales to the island. And in 2021, as one of his last acts as secretary of state, Mike Pompeo abolished prohibitions against meetings between U.S. and Taiwanese diplomats.

Although Biden was careful not to take any congratulatory calls from Taiwan, his administration did not roll back Pompeo’s decree. In fact, U.S. and Taiwanese diplomats met for lunch in France in early May, prompting a stern rebuke from Beijing. The U.S. ambassador to Palau also visited Taiwan last spring. Meanwhile, the administration authorized its first military sale to Taiwan in August: $750 million worth of howitzers and similar artillery. It sent warships through the Taiwan Strait eight times in the first eight months of 2021, and American troops have been conducting training sessions with Taiwanese forces for the better part of a year.

Influential voices outside the administration have been urging the United States to put an end to strategic ambiguity and more vigorously support Taiwan. Richard Haass, the head of the Council on Foreign Relations, made this case in a September 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs: “Ambiguity is unlikely to deter an increasingly assertive China with growing military capabilities.”

Some members of Congress want to act accordingly. At a recent Politico event, both Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Ami Bera (D-CA) supported the abandonment of “strategic ambiguity.” And Elaine Luria (D-VA) recently joined her Republican colleagues in calling for legislation that authorizes the president to use military force to defend Taiwan.

And The Washington Post has called for—ugh, not this again!—an increased Pentagon budget to push back against China.

Even as it encourages more effort from Taiwan, Japan and others in the region, the United States itself needs to invest more heavily in the hard-power assets — especially naval forces — required to back up its commitments in East Asia. The president, however, proposed a defense budget that barely kept up with inflation, albeit with $5.5 billion earmarked for deterrence in the Pacific. On a bipartisan basis, the House has approved a bigger spending plan, with money for 13 new ships. That might impress China more than even the sternest words.

Some of this posturing reflects an understandable frustration that the United States has done so little to stand up for the beleaguered Uyghurs and the besieged residents of Hong Kong. Analysts and lawmakers want to draw a more clearly visible red line through the Taiwan Strait. Unlike Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Taiwan is not legally part of the mainland. Surely the United States would stand up to aggression against a prosperous, democratic state even if it’s not a member of the United Nations and is only recognized by 14 countries (plus the Vatican).

The question is not whether the United States should or should not go to war with China over Taiwan. The question is: how can we best avoid such a war?

The usual argument against any imminent Chinese attack on Taiwan is that Beijing knows that it would suffer a tremendous economic blow if it were to do so—on top of the military casualties it would incur. The problem with this argument, of course, is that Beijing experienced just such an economic shock in 1989 in the wake of the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests—and survived the few years it spent in the time-out corner. Since that time, China has both become more economically powerful and developed institutions independent of the IMF and World Bank that can function, in effect, as a global economy of its own. China, in other words, is better prepared than in 1989 to weather the West’s disapproval.

China’s calculation would not, however, be purely economic. China might decide that it doesn’t have a choice but to launch a war across the strait—not so much to force the issue of reunification with Taiwan but to avoid being fully encircled.

Consider the big movie hit in China today: The Battle at Lake Changjin. Much has been made about the propaganda value of Chinese moviegoers cheering the spectacle of Chinese soldiers beating back American GIs during this key Korean War battle.

The film, though, is about the Chinese not only prevailing over the U.S.-led UN forces in North Korea at the battle of Chosin Reservoir in 1950 but the People’s Liberation Army helping to break through the encirclement of enemy forces and preventing the collapse of North Korea. If China attacks Taiwan, it may similarly view the campaign as a defensive maneuver to push through the encircling forces of the United States and its allies.

Tightening the military containment of China, then, is precisely the opposite of what the United States should do if it wants to avoid a war in the region. Beijing will not so much be deterred by such displays of strength as incited by them.

What, then, is the alternative?

The first step is to bring together a broad coalition of analysts and policymakers who believe it’s a terrible idea to dispense with strategic ambiguity. The participants in this coalition could have a range of opinions about economic relations with China. They could be rightly concerned about events in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. They could be strong advocates of Taiwanese independence. What draws them together is one thing: the importance of avoiding a war with China.

In the last five years, the right has successfully pushed the political debate in Washington in a distinctly anti-Chinese direction. It’s time to push back by brokering an anti-war coalition that draws from the broadest possible range of opinion leaders.

The second step is to identify a concrete agenda of U.S.-Chinese cooperation. The two countries have no choice but to cooperate on reducing carbon emissions, strengthening pandemic response, and curbing nuclear proliferation. The United States and the Soviet Union found ways to cooperate during the worst years of the Cold War. Washington and Beijing have far stronger economic ties and shared global responsibilities. Despite differences on a host of issues, China and the United States can work together for mutual benefit.

Ending the two-decade war in Afghanistan will eventually redound to Biden’s benefit—but not if he starts an even costlier conflict with China. Obama discovered soon enough the disadvantages of jumping out of the Iraqi frying pan and into the Afghan fire. A war with China would be no mere fire. It would be a world-altering catastrophe.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Biden says US would defend Taiwan against China | DW News

Make them Pay Up: Pandora Leaks show that the Super-Rich rob Public of $200 bn a year in lost Tax Revenues Thu, 14 Oct 2021 04:04:37 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus ) – The rich have always flaunted their wealth. It was rarely good enough to enjoy financial success, you had to be conspicuous about it.

They build enormous homes for everyone to gawk at. They throw lavish parties. They commission paintings, statues, biographies. They endow institutions so that their names can live on in granite forever.

At the same time, the rich withdraw into gated villas, travel in their own private jets, and buy their own Picassos so that they don’t have to mix with the hoi polloi at museums. The rich want us to know about their wealth, but they also want to be left alone to enjoy it. They engage in an enormous game of peekaboo with the public. Now you see my wealth, now you don’t

In our globalized era, this game of peekaboo has become a vast enterprise. Enormous fortunes are generated by multinational operations and transnational financial flows. The profits in turn are protected by a baroque system of secret bank accounts and tax shelters. The rich will give away their money, occasionally, but as little as possible to governments. Their gifts to private charity are often just another way of robbing the public. Global tax shelters, meanwhile, are grand theft.

The recently released Pandora Papers, a trove of nearly 12 million documents, shines some light on the mechanisms by which the wealthy squirrel away their gains. One example jumps out: Tony Blair.

The former British prime minister and his lawyer wife Cherie purchased a multi-million-dollar townhouse in London as her office but did it in such a way as to avoid paying a tax on the sale. In this offshore financial sleight of hand, they skipped out on paying several hundred thousand dollars to the very government over which Blair once presided.

The maneuver, which was perfectly legal, is salient for two reasons.

First, Blair himself had initially railed against tax dodges of this nature. “Offshore trusts get tax relief while homeowners pay VAT on insurance premiums,” he said as Labor Party leader. “We will create a tax system that is fair which is related to ability to pay.”

Second, Blair celebrated a “third way” that was supposedly an accommodation between socialism and capitalism. When it came to global markets, Blair wanted “to remove regulatory burdens and to untie the hands of business,” as he put it in a celebrated 1999 speech.

It’s no surprise, then, that he took advantage of the very mechanisms that he initially opposed and subsequently facilitated through deregulation.

Blair is by no means alone in his opportunism. The Pandora Papers are full of politicians who campaigned on anti-corruption platforms and are now being hoisted by their own petards.

The billionaire Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš, for instance, made his political fortune on the basis of promises to stand up to corruption and run the Czech Republic like a business. When Czechs gave his party an overwhelming victory in 2017, they didn’t seem to find anything contradictory about such promises. Babiš at that time stood accused of various corrupt practices involving his businesses, including improper receipt of European subsidies. These allegations continued to dog him throughout his term of office, leading to an official European Parliament censure several months ago.

So, naturally, Babiš turns up in the Pandora Papers as well. According to the documents, the businessman transferred $22 million to offshore entities to buy a luxury French chateau. He engaged in this subterfuge to keep the purchase secret and probably to reduce his tax burden as well. This week, Czech voters finally changed their minds about Babiš and effectively voted him out of office.

Other anti-corruption campaigners have been ensnared in the Pandora web of incriminating documents. Volodymyr Zelensky, for instance, promised voters that he would clean up Ukraine’s swamp of corruption, but the Pandora Papers revealed his ownership of shares in offshore entities and shell companies. Oh, Zelensky “cleaned up” all right.

What was surprising about many of the 35 current and former world leaders that appear in the Pandora Papers was not so much their presence on the list— Gabon’s Ali Bongo, for instance, is notoriously corrupt while Chile’s Sebastian Pinera was already linked to 14 corruption investigations before he became president again at the end of 2017—but that they went to such great lengths to hide their purchases from the public.

Jordan’s King Hussein is a monarch, for goodness sake. Monarchs are expected to spend royally. The Queen of England enjoys $500 million in personal assets, and hardly anyone blinks an eye at all the money the royals spend very publicly on weddings, junkets, and the like. And yet, according to the Pandora Papers, King Hussein went about collecting $100 million of property around the world in secret. Of course, Jordan is a relatively poor country, and the government has imposed very unpopular austerity measures. It doesn’t look so good for their king to buy three cliff-top mansions in Malibu, four apartments in Georgetown, and several properties near Buckingham Palace.

Tolerance for the fabulously wealthy waxes and wanes. Back in the 1980s, TV viewers thrilled to glimpses of the “lifestyles of the rich and famous.” Nowadays, anger has been steadily mounting against the 1 percent. That’s why kings and politicians have been more discrete in moving their wealth around.

And that’s why governments feel that they have the public on their side when they try, even in half-hearted ways, to tap into this stream of globally circulating wealth.

Doing the Minimum

One of the virtues of globalization, from the perspective of a corporation, is the ability to move operations from one jurisdiction to another to take advantage of better tax deals. Some countries, like Ireland and Hungary, have billed themselves as havens for corporations that want to pay as little tax as possible.

At the prodding of the United States, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has been pushing through a corporate minimum tax rate of 15 percent. It will also tax digital companies in locations where they operate even if they don’t maintain any offices there.

All of this is lower than what the United States initially pushed for—a 21 percent rate. The measure, if passed, will have a 10-year transition period. And it’s not entirely clear that the United States itself will ratify the accord given the predictable Republican opposition. But hey, it’s something.

This effort might make a small dent in the gross receipts of the world’s wealthiest, like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. But even a small dent adds up to a lot of revenue. “Tax havens collectively cost governments between $500 billion and $600 billion a year in lost corporate tax revenue,” writes tax haven expert Nicholas Shaxson. “Of that lost revenue, low-income economies account for some $200 billion—a larger hit as a percentage of GDP than advanced economies and more than the $150 billion or so they receive each year in foreign development assistance.”

It’s not just corporations that are hiding their profits from tax authorities. Individuals continue to profit enormously from the global economy and, with the help of their accountants, avoid paying as much as possible to their respective governments. Shaxson offers a range of anywhere between $8.7 trillion and $36 trillion, which adds at least another $200 billion in lost government tax revenue per year.

To take advantage of low to non-existent tax rates, the rich love to park their money, and sometimes themselves, in places like the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands. But the real surprise of the Pandora Papers is South Dakota’s status as a capital magnet. Like those island hideaways, South Dakota has no income tax, inheritance tax, or capital gains tax. And, like the Switzerland of old, it protects the money of the rich behind walls of secrecy.

On top of that, South Dakota trusts offer something else the rich crave: deniability. As Felix Salmon explains, “All three parties — the settlor, the trustee, and the beneficiary — can legally claim that the money isn’t theirs. The settlor and the beneficiary can say they don’t have the money, it’s all in a trust run by someone else. The trustee can say that she is just looking after the money and doesn’t own it.”

In other words, the rich often want to be as inconspicuous as possible—to avoid the tax inspector, that persistent creditor, and the anger of crowds.

So, the first step to clean up this highly lucrative mess is sunlight. One global tool is the Common Reporting Standard by which participating countries provide basic information about foreign assets held in their territories. Guess what: the United States is alone among major countries in not participating. In its usual exceptionalist way, America shares financial information on its own terms, not according to a global standard. Sunlight should extend to corporations as well, which should be obligated to submit financial information on every country where they operate.

The next step is to crack down on tax havens. The European Union maintains a tax haven black list, but it only has nine locations on it after the recent removal of Anguilla, Dominica, and the Seychelles. “Today’s decision to delist Anguilla, the only remaining jurisdiction with a 0% tax rate, and the Seychelles, which are at the heart of the latest tax scandal, renders the EU’s blacklist a joke,” concludes Oxfam’s Chiara Putaturo. So: better black lists.

And, of course, more should be done to raise the floor on corporate tax rates. The United States was right (for once): 15 percent is too low.

Soak the Rich

Decades of deregulation have led to the rise of a new class of the super-rich. More than 500,000 people around the world possess more than $30 million each, and half of these live in the United States. Of that latter number, over 700 are billionaires, and they saw their collective wealth increase by $1.8 trillion during the pandemic.

It’s time for rich people to fork over their fair share. The planet is presenting its bill to humanity. Pay up, says Mother Earth, or you’re toast.

Right now, those who are the least able to shoulder the costs of climate change are suffering its worst effects. In 2015, the World Bank estimated that, unless the international community took immediate steps, climate change would push 100 million people into poverty by 2030. Those immediate steps have not been taken. As a result, more than a million people are on the brink of famine because of drought in Madagascar. Poor islands like Haiti are especially vulnerable to climate change, and the population simply doesn’t have the capacity to adapt to their changing circumstances.

Elsewhere, the poor are doing whatever they can to keep their heads above water. In a recent astonishing study, the International Institute for Environment and Development reports that the rural poor in Bangladesh are spending more than their government or aid agencies to combat the climate impacts on their communities.

The rich are clearly embarrassed by their riches, so much so that they are going to great lengths to keep their transactions a secret. Now, can we embarrass them even more so that they pay what is necessary to save the planet?

Via Foreign Policy in Focus


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

CBC News: “‘Pandora Papers’ leak reveals offshore tax havens of the rich and famous”

The military stood up to Donald Trump. Who will now stand up to the military? Thu, 23 Sep 2021 04:04:17 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus ) – When he was trying to win the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon famously told his chief of staff that he wanted Communist leaders—in the Soviet Union, in North Vietnam—to think that the U.S. president was a mad man, that he was capable of doing pretty much anything up to and including the use of nuclear weapons. Fear of an unpredictable, erratic leader would bring the Communists to the negotiating table and render them more conciliatory.

Nixon’s was, of course, a calculated craziness. “When the wind is southerly,” Tricky Dick certainly could distinguish “a hawk from a handsaw,” as Hamlet famously put it.

A half century later, America has had to deal with a different kind of crazy in the White House. Although Donald Trump has insisted that he’s a “stable genius,” all the evidence suggests otherwise. After Trump lost the 2020 election, even those in his close circle of advisors began to question the president’s sanity. There was a distinct possibility that a real mad man now held the reins of power and that he was willing to do pretty much anything to stay in the Oval Office, up to and including a coup.

Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was one of the most prominent members of this group of the concerned. In their new book I Alone Can Fix This, Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker report how Milley considered Trump’s declaration of fraud after the November elections a “Reichstag moment,” with the president potentially using false charges of electoral misconduct to subvert the democratic process and remain in charge. Milley began to strategize on how to prevent Trump from using the military toward that end.

According to another recent book, Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Milley went further. On two occasions, just before the elections and after the January 6 insurrection, he called his Chinese counterpart to provide reassurances that the United States wasn’t planning on starting a war. He also told advisors to keep him informed of any presidential decisions around the use of nuclear weapons.

Those specific dangers have passed. Trump is out of the White House. The right-wing coup didn’t take place.

But now Milley, who has continued on in his position into the Biden administration, finds himself at the center of controversy because of these recent revelations. Trump, not surprisingly, has called Milley’s actions “treasonous,” a charge repeated by Republican politicians and the right-wing media as part of their demand that Milley be fired.

Most everyone else has been quietly relieved that someone like Milley was in place to put a policy straitjacket on the madman in the Oval Office.

Interestingly, it’s not just right-wing lunatics who have voiced reservations about Milley.

The Vindman Argument

Alexander Vindman came to public attention during the first impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump. Here was military rectitude personified: a lieutenant colonel working in the National Security Council who went through all the proper channels to voice his concern about the pressure Trump was putting on Ukraine to launch an investigation into corruption charges involving Joe Biden’s son. Vindman gave testimony twice to Congress at great personal cost. When the Senate acquitted Trump, Vindman was booted off the National Security Council and forced out of the Army as well.

Here, in other words, was someone who threw himself into the line of fire in order to call attention to presidential misconduct. You’d think he’d feel some affinity for Mark Milley.

Not so.

In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, Vindman argues that Milley should have simply resigned. He should have “publicly expressed his concerns and joined other senior leaders, including Cabinet officials, who stepped down after Jan. 6, which would have been a proactive move against further abuse of power,” Vindman maintains. “Instead, the reporting suggests, Milley blustered to subordinates, raised grave concerns with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and, sometime in the same period, sought to circumvent or subvert the chain of command.”

But wait, wouldn’t resignation have given Donald Trump exactly what he wanted, an opportunity to replace Milley with someone more pliable?

Vindman disagrees: “I am befuddled by the notion that only Milley was standing between a madman and Armageddon. That is the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster. That is not the way the U.S. military operates. Any one of the other chiefs of staff or the vice chairman would have stepped up and continued to serve as a guardrail.”

This all sounds reasonable.

But it doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny.

Let’s first address the China question. Military officials routinely contact their counterparts as part of efforts to avoid war and deescalate conflict. “I didn’t consider that abnormal at all,” former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen said about Milley’s communications with Chinese officials.

Now let’s add some information from Post columnist Josh Rogin to the effect that Milley wasn’t acting alone. Pentagon chief Mark Esper, who was also reaching out to China with reassurances, even went so far as to delay the deployment of U.S. ships as part of a planned exercise to make sure that the Chinese got the message.

Okay, then what about Milley’s insistence that he be involved in any decision to use nuclear weapons? In The Washington Post, Carrie Lee portrays this action as a breach of the chain of command, because a mere advisor to the president like Milley does not have such authority. U.S. presidents can unilaterally order a nuclear attack and the rockets will fly a few minutes later.

But Milley’s intervention wasn’t unprecedented. Defense secretary James Schlesinger did something similar late in Nixon’s term when he was worried that the president had gone well beyond playing crazy and had descended into despondency and drunkenness. Writes Garrett Graff in Politico:

Defense Secretary James Schlesinger recalled years later that in the final days of the Nixon presidency he had issued an unprecedented set of orders: If the president gave any nuclear launch order, military commanders should check with either him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before executing them. Schlesinger feared that the president, who seemed depressed and was drinking heavily, might order Armageddon.

As Fred Kaplan points out in Slate, Milley didn’t go as far as Schlesinger. He only asked to be consulted, which he was fully entitled to do.

And let’s face it: this unilateral launch authority is insane. Just because such a mechanism was established during the Cold War doesn’t mean that it should endure. By all means, let’s have a reasonable discussion about how to constrain this power of the president. But in the meantime, let’s not insist on protocol in the exceptional circumstance that the president goes off the rails.

By Carrie Lee’s argument, Stanislav Petrov should have been fired for defying the requirements of the chain of command. In 1983, sitting in a bunker near Moscow, Lt. Colonel Petrov was obligated to notify his superiors that nuclear missiles were on their way toward the Soviet Union. The computer system monitoring incoming attacks provided him with not one but five separate warnings. But Petrov hesitated to confirm the attacks because something felt wrong about the notifications. As it turned out, the computer had made a mistake. Fortunately, Petrov did not blindly follow protocol.

The same argument concerning “exceptional circumstances” and “gut instincts” applies to Milley’s outreach to domestic politicians around his fears of a coup. It was on November 10 that Milley felt his presentiments of a possible putsch. The occasion was a security briefing on a “Million MAGA March,” which would draw thousands of Trump supporters to Washington five days later.

This mid-November march turned out to be a dud in terms of turnout. But on November 10, the situation was perilous. The president, refusing to concede the election, was making unsubstantiated claims of fraud. Earlier that summer, Trump had talked about putting Milley in charge of a military crackdown on civil rights protests and bruited the possibility of shooting protestors, all of which Milley pushed back against. A month after the elections, Trump himself would toy with the idea of declaring martial law to overturn the results. And, of course, on January 6, a MAGA march turned into an authentic insurrection.

So, yes, Trump was increasingly out of control and dictatorial. Milley was not imagining things.

Milley made the decision to talk to policymakers on both sides of the aisle. And what was his message? Did he rally the anti-Trump forces? Did he come up with his own plot to counter what Christopher Caldwell, in a frankly ridiculous piece in The New York Times, dismisses as little more than “mayhem”?

No, Milley had a different message. “Everything’s going to be okay,” he told the policymakers. “We’re going to have a peaceful transfer of power. We’re going to land this plane safely. This is America. It’s strong. The institutions are bending, but it won’t break.”

In other words, Milley was promising an anodyne adherence to the rule of law, not its subversion.

Institutional Craziness

A madman is, by definition, someone who is not playing by the rules. But what happens when the rules themselves are mad? The president’s unilateral authority to launch nuclear weapons is one such example of institutionalized insanity. The two-decade war in Afghanistan was another case of extended craziness. And what of the decision, year after year, to bestow upon the Pentagon another $700 billion when so many urgent needs are not being met at home and abroad?

Mark Milley’s record of standing up to that kind of crazy is not so good. He’d never previously questioned nuclear protocols (that I know of). He tried to persuade Biden to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan in an emotional but not terribly substantive appeal earlier this year. And he has never shown any Eisenhower-like skepticism of the military-industrial complex.

It took considerable courage to stand up to Trump and his coterie of yes-men in the waning days of that presidency. I’m glad that someone was available at the time who knew how to put on a straitjacket and tie it tight.

But right now, this country needs a different kind of courage to address a different kind of crazy. We dodged the bullet of a military coup. But we’re still dealing with the reality of a military that has way too much money and way too much power.

The military stood up to Trump, but who will stand up to the military?

Via Foreign Policy in Focus


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Forbes: “Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin: ‘I Have Confidence In Gen. Milley'”


The Trump Albatross around Joe Biden’s Neck Sat, 18 Sep 2021 04:04:29 +0000

Trump didn’t just tie his successor’s hands. He handcuffed them to the throttle of a runaway train.

( Foreign Policy in Focus) – The far right would like to impeach Joe Biden, kick him out of the White House, perhaps even throw him in jail. “Lock him up” has been a predictable chant at Trump rallies going back to before the 2020 election. Even Republicans in Congress have joined this chorus.

Bipartisanship? As Donald Trump would say in his New York accent: fuhgeddaboutit!

One day after Biden’s inauguration, QAnon sympathizer Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) introduced HR 57 to impeach the new president on the Trumped-up charge of bribery. As the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan proceeded at its telescoped and chaotic pace, impeachment calls came with greater regularity from the Republican Party, with Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) demanding the president’s ouster for the high crime and misdemeanor of “ignoring sound advice.”

It’s a curious turn of events when the Republicans lambaste the current president for implementing the policy of their own party’s standard-bearer and doing so in a dysfunctional manner that was a hallmark of Trump’s tenure. And why exactly are Republicans complaining? They’ve already effectively handcuffed the current president—without the bother of actually trying to send him to jail—by forcing him to deal with the consequences of the actions taken by Donald Trump during his four years in office.

Sure, Biden has emphasized the few global issues on which he has boldly departed from Trump’s agenda. The new administration dramatically re-entered the Paris agreement on climate change. It committed the United States to fight COVID-19 worldwide with a somewhat more generous policy on vaccine distribution. It rescinded the “global gag rule” prohibiting foreign aid for family planning overseas. It signaled the end to U.S. support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

But in many other foreign policy areas, Biden has had to operate within the parameters established by his predecessor. On Afghanistan, Iran, immigration, trade, and many other issues, Trump implemented radioactive policies that have long half-lives. The Biden administration has been stuck with the job of cleaning up the toxic waste. Worse, in some cases, the president has for political reasons decided to live with the mess.

The Greater Middle East

Afghanistan has been perhaps the most significant foreign policy legacy of the Trump team. In February 2020, the administration negotiated a deal with the Taliban in Doha to end the two-decade war. At the time, about 13,000 U.S. troops provided training, muscle, and firepower to a seriously underperforming Afghan army. According to the deal, the last U.S. soldiers would depart Afghanistan in May 2021. By the time Biden took office in January 2021, U.S. forces were officially down to 2,500 (though in reality there were about a thousand more American soldiers in country).

Biden could have scotched the Doha deal, just as Trump threw out so many of the agreements that the Obama administration signed. He could have once again expanded the U.S. military footprint inside Afghanistan, as some of his advisors recommended. But there was virtually no popular support for another surge, and Biden had never been a fan of more boots on the ground. He’d promised during the presidential campaign to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan, so the 2020 agreement served as a useful rationale.

What the new administration was not happy with, however, were some of the consequences of the peace deal, including the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners without a quid pro quo and the ultimate undermining of the authority of the government in Kabul. The radioactive gift from the Trump administration was to rob the Biden team of any real leverage in its implementation of the deal. The most Biden could do was to delay the withdrawal of troops by a couple of months and hope for some kind of power-sharing arrangement between the Taliban and the government in Kabul.

Instead, an emboldened Taliban clearly capitalized on the feelings of abandonment among provincial officials in the wake of the 2020 deal to negotiate the handover of one city after another. Sure, Biden could have begun withdrawing American personnel and Afghan colleagues before the Taliban reached Kabul. But the president would have been blamed for jumping the gun and contributing to the demoralization that hastened the Taliban’s ultimate victory. Trump’s ill-planned deal—and his determination to pull out all troops by January 15, 2021 regardless of the “sound advice” of his national security team—set up nothing but bad choices for Biden around what was ultimately a necessary military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Another poisonous gift from Trump has been his Iran policy. Trump backed out of the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 and tried, with additional sanctions and pressures, to ensure that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) would never be resuscitated.

The Biden administration has promised to find a way back to the nuclear agreement. But it has yet to come up with a formula in its negotiations with Iranian counterparts on eliminating Trump-era sanctions and providing compensation for their impact while at the same time walking back Iran’s moves to expand its nuclear program. In one good sign, Iran recently concluded an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency that preserves previously agreed-upon monitoring.

But there’s no guarantee that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action can be revived. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is hedging its bets. “We’re putting diplomacy first and see where that takes us. But if diplomacy fails, we’re ready to turn to other options,” Biden has said. If diplomacy fails, Biden will certainly deserve some of the blame—but Trump did what he could to make success as unlikely as possible.

Trade Policy

Iran is not the only country still suffering under the burden of Trump-era sanctions.

China was hit with a variety of tariffs and economic sanctions during the Trump years, and it retaliated with trade penalties of its own against the United States. To get the tariffs reduced, China signed the “phase one” trade agreement in which it promised to purchase $200 billion more U.S. products in 2020-21. In 2020, China fell short of its targeted purchases by 40 percent. Of course, the global outbreak of COVID didn’t help, as global trade in general plummeted. The numbers for 2021, on the other hand, have been better, with Chinese purchases of agricultural products in particular rising sharply.

Significantly, that “phase one” agreement didn’t lift any of the tariffs on Chinese goods, just reduced some of the rates. Tariffs on 66 percent of Chinese products remain in place, amounting to about $350 billion. That’s cost the United States around 300,000 jobs, not to mention the $28 billion in subsidies Trump sent to farmers to offset the initial drop in Chinese purchases of soybeans and other foodstuffs.

The Biden administration shows no sign of reducing or eliminating those tariffs. Indeed, it has piled on more economic sanctions against China over its policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. It expanded a Trump-era prohibition on U.S. investments into Chinese companies connected to defense or surveillance technology. Meetings between Chinese and American officials have failed to establish common ground on trade or any other issue for that matter.

The bottom line is that Trump helped move the needle in Washington against China, so that anti-Chinese policies now have strong bipartisan support. Biden would have difficulty lifting tariffs and sanctions even if that’s what he wanted to do.

But even where such animus doesn’t exist, like Europe, Biden hasn’t pushed hard to lift penalties. Although this summer the administration finally ended a 17-year trade war with Europe over subsidizing the aerospace sector, Biden has not lifted the tariffs Trump imposed on European steel and aluminum.

When asked after the G7 summit in June about these measures, a clearly exasperated president said, “A hundred and twenty days. Give me a break. Need time.”

His response is disingenuous. He could have lifted those sanctions on day one. In fact, protectionism strikes a chord in certain sectors of the Democratic Party, and Biden doesn’t want to lose blue-collar voters.

Trump made protectionism great again. Biden is loath to push against this tide.


Trump’s protectionism also extended to border policy. He spent much of his four years in office doing whatever he could to cut the numbers of people entering the country and, where possible, deporting people who were already here.

Biden pledged to reverse the ugliest of Trump’s policies. He stopped the construction of the infamous wall on the southern border. He ended travel bans for people coming from majority Muslim countries. He recommitted to protecting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which covers undocumented young people who came to the United States at a young age.

But Trumpism lives on throughout the U.S. court system. In July, a federal judge in Texas ruled that the Biden administration must stop accepting new DACA applications. In August, the Supreme Court ordered the administration to reinstate Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” program, which forces asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while awaiting a decision on their status. In putting asylum-seekers at risk, the program clearly violates international law.

It gets worse. The Biden administration is not happy with the above rulings and is seeking to challenge them. Yet in other immigration matters, the Justice Department continues to prosecute Trump-era cases.

“Over the past six months, the U.S. government has backed the expiration of certain visas, pushed for tougher requirements for investors seeking green cards, and supported the denial of permanent residency for thousands of immigrants living legally in the U.S.,” Anita Kumar reports in Politico. “Former administration officials and immigration lawyers say Biden’s hands may be tied in certain cases—that the government may not necessarily agree with the specific policy but that the Justice Department may have to defend Trump-era policy because of requirements in law and the time needed to review all the cases.”

Trump didn’t just tie his successor’s hands. He handcuffed them to the throttle of a runaway train.

Not a Rule-Breaker

Trump made some changes that Biden has accepted without reservation. The previous president created a new focus in Asian policy that he called “Indo-Pacific,” which brought together the United States with Japan, India, and Australia to form “the Quad” (not to be confused with the Squad). Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell has continued to prioritize India in the new administration’s containment of China, which had been a major Trump focus (to the extent that he could focus on anything).

The Biden administration has also embraced Trump’s “Abraham Accords” that secured new diplomatic relations between Arab countries and Israel (but at the expense of Palestine). Meanwhile, Biden shows no sign of attempting to reverse such Trump innovations as establishing the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.

Of course, Biden is in a policy space whose parameters were established long before Trump came along with his sledgehammer. Biden is not exactly a rule-breaker when it comes to international affairs. The new administration has increased Pentagon spending and reaffirmed military commitments to NATO and allies in the Pacific. Biden has resurrected the old approach of “strategic patience” with North Korea. Aside from some proposed increases in foreign aid, he has largely ignored the Global South. It turns out that the new president is comfortable working within the constraints of the status quo ante.

Trump was a true rule-breaker who did manage to do quite a lot in the international arena, where he had far greater leeway to make changes beyond congressional control. Much of that activity was destructive, because Trump proved quite adept at smashing things. Indeed, Trump smashed things—the Iran nuclear deal, détente with Cuba—not just because of a peevish desire to destroy his predecessor’s legacy but as part of a scorched-earth policy to FUBAR the federal government for generations to come.

As a result, Biden will spend much of his term picking up the pieces—and that’s a whole lot harder when you’re in handcuffs.


MSNBC: “Trump Tries To Have It Both Ways, Bashing Biden For Afghanistan Deal He Locked In

How can America Promote Democracy When the GOP Half of the Country Doesn’t Believe in it? Thu, 26 Aug 2021 04:02:16 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus) – America desperately needs a dose of its own medicine of democracy promotion. By | August 25, 2021

Arizona’s Maricopa County is ground zero in the continuing debate over election integrity in the United States. The so-called audit of the 2.1 million votes cast in that county in last year’s presidential election—by the almost comically inept firm Cyber Ninjas—was supposed to arrive at the Arizona Senate this week. But delivery was once again delayed as three members of the five-person Ninja team contracted COVID-19.

The Maricopa “audit” has assumed such mythic proportions among the Trump diehards who insist that their Il Duce won the presidential election that some QAnon believers have insisted that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is a hoax—to distract attention from the allegations of vote-tampering in Arizona. No doubt rumors have begun somewhere in cyberspace that the forest fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, and droughts sweeping across the world are also “false-flag operations” designed by the Biden camp to help them erase evidence of election fraud.

The Trump forces that have taken over the Republican Party regularly fulminate against The Squad, antifa, that “socialist Biden,” and other convenient punching bags. But the real target of their ire is closer to home: Republicans who have refused to join the Trump personality cult.

Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer is a very conservative Republican who supported Trump as his party’s leader. He has also refused to lie for the president. Prior to the release of the Cyber Ninja “audit,” he reiterated that a tri-partisan (Republican, Democrat, Libertarian) hand count of the ballots immediately after the election matched the machine count 100 percent while a live-streamed assessment of the tabulation equipment revealed no manipulations whatsoever.

The thanks Richer has gotten for standing up for the rule of law? Death threats and ridiculous trolling for being a RINO (Republican In Name Only).

Bill Gates is an Arizona Republican who serves on the Maricopa Board of Supervisors, which oversaw the 2020 election and certified the results. Gates is one of four Republicans who serve on the five-person board. He and his colleagues resisted calls for the Cyber Ninja audit even as his GOP colleagues in the Arizona Senate unanimously supported a resolution calling to arrest all the supervisors for contempt.

In a telling passage in Jane Mayer’s recent New Yorker piece on the financing of the anti-democratic initiatives of the far right, Gates spoke of the death threats that he received for what would ordinarily be the routine actions of the Board of Supervisors.

Part of what had drawn Gates to the Republican Party was the Reagan-era doctrine of confronting totalitarianism. He’d long had a fascination with emerging democracies, particularly the former Soviet republics. He had come up with what he admits was a “kooky” retirement plan—“to go to some place like Uzbekistan and help.” He told me, “I’d always thought that, if I had a tragic end, it would be in some place like Tajikistan.” He shook his head. “If you had told me, ‘You’re going to be doing this in the U.S.,’ I would have told you, ‘You’re crazy.’ ”

Democracy promotion—it was supposed to be a method by which the United States remade the world to look more like us. Thus, the interchangeability of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the above passage couldn’t be more revealing. In traditional democracy promotion, the foreign contexts have been wildly diverse—and largely irrelevant. The important part of the equation has never been the various facts on the ground but, rather, the verities of the American constitutional system.

These verities are now under attack as insurrectionists, vigilante groups, and conspiracy theorists attempt to undermine the fundamental principle of one person, one vote. With Democrats rushing to promote democracy at home, Americans are now getting a taste of our own medicine.

Actually, given the rapid spread of the anti-democratic disease, we’re in desperate need of a full course of antibiotics.

Destroy Democracy to Save Democracy?

After the January 6 insurrection, I wrote about the future of democracy promotion overseas, concluding that the concept was still viable as long as democracy means not only checks and balances but also grassroots efforts to promote racial justice, reduce economic inequality, and address the climate crisis. At the end of the piece, though, I noted that “at some point in the future, we may need to call upon the international community to help us save our democracy as well.”

So, only six months later, how close is America to sending out that SOS? For the time being, much depends on Donald Trump.

In the best-case scenario, Trump exits the political scene as smoothly as he did the White House after one disastrous term. He continues to poll poorly in the country as a whole with a 60 percent disapproval rating (and only 76 percent of Republicans viewing him favorably). Still banned from Facebook and Twitter and largely ignored by the mainstream media, he lacks a platform to appeal beyond his base. And let’s not forget the multiple lawsuits he faces from election tampering, inciting violence on January 6, sexually assaulting at least two dozen women, and engaging in myriad corrupt business practices.

If Trump drops out of political life, his followers in the Republican Party will be left leaderless, though any number of rogues aspire to take his place. Without a broadly popular standard-bearer, the Trump forces would disintegrate and the Republican Party would face the inevitable. America is becoming increasingly multiracial (and the Republican Party isn’t). Climate change is raging across the country (and the Republican Party remains in denial). The United States needs to retool its economy to meet the demands of the global market and the constraints of natural resources (and the Republican Party still has its head in the tar sands).

In this scenario, Trump has been little more than a deus ex machina inserted into the final act of the Republican Party’s story to enable it to escape, momentarily, its self-inflicted marginality. Trump has been the last-ditch effort of America’s version of the Nationalist Party in South Africa, the minority Afrikaner party that presided over apartheid, to preserve white power.

Trump or no Trump, the Republican Party extremists have latched onto an age-old method of maintaining control: voter suppression. Democrats have demography on their side: African-American voters supported Biden over Trump by a margin of seven to one, Latinos by two to one, and Asians by almost two to one. Instead of trying to woo the non-white vote, which is growing every election cycle, Republicans have decided simply to make it as hard as possible for those folks to vote.

So far in 2021, 17 states have passed 28 laws making it harder to vote. Democrats in Texas fled the state to prevent one more such vote from passing, but that looks to be only a temporary gambit. Meanwhile, the omnibus voting rights bill (For the People Act) has attracted exactly zero Republican support in the Senate, which means that it will die without some modification of the filibuster. The narrower bill that just passed the House along party lines, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, faces a similar fate in the Senate.

Then there’s the effort among some Republican extremists to do an end run around the popular vote altogether by empowering state legislatures to pick electors in the Electoral College and thereby determine the outcome of presidential elections. They call it the “independent state legislature doctrine,” and unfortunately it has even attracted some support from four Supreme Court justices. In one 2024 scenario, Richard Hasen writes in Slate, “Republican legislatures in states won by the Democratic candidate could seize on some normal election administration rule created by a state or local election administrator or some ruling from a state court, and argue that implementation of the rule renders the presidential election unconstitutional, leaving it to the state legislature to pick a different slate of electors.”

So, all those careful arguments about Trump’s unpopularity, the divisions within the Republican Party, and the demographic transformation of the United States mean little in the face of a brazen power play by Republican stalwarts who have already demonstrated on multiple occasions that they could care less about rules, law, or the rule of law. Like the U.S. Army units in the Vietnam War that were determined to “save” Vietnamese villages by destroying them, the Republican Party is mission-driven to “save” American democracy in their own special way.

In between the voter suppression laws and ploys like the “independent state legislature doctrine” are the more insidious efforts to call into question the integrity of all elections that produce outcomes that Trump supporters simply don’t like. The spread of insane conspiracy theories undermines not only the impartiality of elections but the verifiability of their integrity. Conservative Republicans have time and again debunked the outlandish claims of “voter fraud” in Maricopa County, but that has not silenced the crazies.

Multiply Maricopa by the hundreds, even the thousands, and U.S. elections will no longer reflect popular will but extremist skepticism. When faith in elections erode, democracy can’t endure.

Geopolitical Implications

It would be comforting to report that the defeat of Donald Trump in 2020 has taken the wind out of the sails of the far right around the world. But the success of the far right relies on a globally networked set of ideas—the failures of neoliberal globalization, the perfidy of “globalists” in supporting this failed project, and the perception of immigrants as the foot soldiers of globalization—not any one figure.

In fact, Trump proved to be something of a liability to the global far right. He’s an American (a no-no among the anti-American right), a nationalist (who believes that America is better than everywhere else), and an ignoramus (whose gaffes are so gross as to embarrass the more discerning members of the far right). In America, Trump was the perfect candidate to unite disaffected independents, traditional conservatives, and the American alt-right. As his would-be Svengali Steve Bannon discovered in his failed effort to create a Nationalist International, Trump was not a grand unifier on the international stage.

Without Trump in the White House, the far right continues to prosper. In Europe, right-wing nationalists remain securely in power in Poland, Hungary, and Slovenia. A neo-fascist party leads the polls in Italy, the far-right Sweden Democrats are poised to exercise real power after helping to oust the Social Democratic prime minister, and the extremist Marine Le Pen continues to run head-to-head with Emmanuel Macron in presidential polls (though her Nationalist Rally didn’t do so well in recent regional elections).

Authoritarian nationalists still preside over the largest countries in the world: China, India, Russia, Brazil, Turkey. The Taliban has taken over in Afghanistan, the conservatives have come to power in Iran, and the Saudis are still running their extremist theocracy. In the one Arab Spring success story, Tunisia, Kais Saied just extended the state of emergency he declared last month. Coup leaders continue to control Thailand and Myanmar. It’s hard to find good news on the democracy front in Africa. Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Venezuela: all still run by strong-arm caudillos despite significant public protests.

All of this means that the list of countries that can pitch in to save American democracy is a short one. New Zealand and Iceland can teach Americans how gender equality is central to a healthy political system. South Korea can give us some pointers on how to put a Green New Deal at the center of national policy. A number of European countries can provide guidance on the importance of strong social policy for any thriving democracy.

Joe Biden plans to invite these countries to his Summit for Democracy in December. The three pillars of this initiative are reasonable: “defending against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption, advancing respect for human rights.” Given the trends in the world, however, the gathering has a whiff of the desperate. It threatens to be a farewell party: “Alas, poor democracy, I knew it well for it hath borne me on its back a thousand times…”

It would be a different matter if Biden convened the summit as a true listening session. The Summit for Democracy could be an opportunity for America to admit that it has a problem and submit to a 12-step program of self-help, perhaps with a couple sponsors (South Korea, Costa Rica) to keep us on the road to political health.

But that’s just a fantasy. The United States doesn’t listen to other countries. America is like the alpha male who refuses to ask for directions even when he’s dangerously lost.

Right now, America is heading into uncharted political territory. Will any of our leaders ask for directions before it’s too late?

Via Foreign Policy in Focus


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Guardian News from Last Month: “Protesters disrupt Republican politicians’ press conference in support of Capitol rioters”

Afghanistan is not the only place at risk of takeover by extremists: US has Dangerous Homegrown Radicals trying to Overthrow our Government Thu, 19 Aug 2021 04:00:34 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus) – It’s as if a sudden natural disaster has just struck Afghanistan.

The scenes from the capital Kabul reflect the kind of panic that comes when a Category 5 hurricane makes landfall, when the waters rise and the levees are breached, when a forest fire jumps over a fuel break to spread out of control.

The Taliban victory this past weekend was not a complete surprise. The news had been full of warnings of their territorial advance, and pundits had worked hard to out-Cassandra one another with their pronouncements of impending doom.

And yet no one expected the sky to fall quite so quickly.

The Biden administration had been expecting at best some kind of power-sharing agreement and at worst a few months to prepare for the fall of Kabul. In the end, the Taliban needed only a few days to go from seizing the last provincial capitals to marching into the Afghan capital and occupying the presidential palace this weekend. Also unexpected was their method. They accomplished this blitzkrieg as much with political persuasion as military force—by negotiating surrender agreements with Afghan army and government officials in the areas where they were advancing.

The Biden administration has tried to reassure the American people that it is presiding over an orderly response. The media, however, has depicted a street-level reality of chaos. The international airport in Kabul, where the United States is making its last stand, has been the last hope for many Afghans who fear that their collaboration with the Americans, their support for human rights, or even just their style of dress will earn them a jail sentence or worse. They are desperate to get on the last flights out, even to the point of clinging to the fuselage of a departing U.S. plane.

Until we get full eyewitness reports, the best description of the catastrophe in Kabul comes from Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer, which has a harrowing section on the last-minute scramble of South Vietnamese to get on American transport planes as Saigon was falling in 1975.

“The plane was a garbage truck with wings attached, and like a garbage truck deposits were made from the rear, where its big flat cargo ramp dropped down to receive us,” Nguyen writes of the C-130 Hercules and its open compartment.

Adults squatted on the floor or sat on bags, children perched on their knees. Lucky passengers had a bulkhead berth where they could cling to a cargo strap. The contours of skin and flesh separating one individual from another merged, everyone forced into the mandatory intimacy required of those less human than the ones leaving the country in reserved seating.

From the Western perspective, this exodus is the result of an unnatural disaster, an armed band of religious fundamentalists that have seized Afghanistan and are determined to drag it back to the Middle Ages. They have little professed interest in democracy, human rights, or pluralism. The last time they were in charge in Kabul, they presided over a theater of cruelty: stoning, floggings, amputations, executions. This last week, in the territories they grabbed on their way to taking power, the Taliban enlisted child soldiers, rolled back the rights of women, and restricted free expression, showing little sign that they’d updated their style of governance.

The velocity with which the relatively modest number of Taliban (75,000) swept aside the Afghan national army (300,000) is reminiscent of the sudden expansion of the Islamic State throughout Syria and Iraq in 2014. Then, too, U.S. allies in the region proved no match for a highly mobile and fiercely dedicated group of insurgents. The United States and its allies, deeming this so-called caliphate a risk to the region and the global order, conducted an all-out war that culminated in the Islamic State’s defeat.

As the presumed linchpin in the war on terror, Afghanistan once commanded similar attention from Washington. But that was 20 years ago, and the United States is now leading the charge for the exit. In recent months, the Biden administration downplayed the risk of the Taliban taking over the country—on July 8, the president said that “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” The Pentagon, meanwhile, was arguing back in June that the risk of the country again playing host to terrorist organizations was only a “medium” risk, with Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin maintaining that “it would take possibly two years for them to develop that capability.” The Pentagon is now in the process of “reassessment.”

The Taliban are now more firmly control of the entire country than they were back in the late 1990s. It’s not just the Afghan national army that has given up. It seems like the country’s entire civil society is trying to get out as soon as possible. But that also demonstrates how different the country has become. When the Taliban were last in charge, there was barely any civil society.

The images from Kabul might seem horrifying, but you reassure yourself by saying that all of this is very far away. Also, the Taliban don’t have global ambitions. What happens in Afghanistan, stays in Afghanistan.

Don’t kid yourself.

Next Steps for Afghanistan

Stalin once complained that imposing the Soviet model on the Poles was like “saddling a cow.” The Catholic Church remained a powerful force in communist Poland, and Polish farmers put up so much resistance to collectivization that the land remained largely in private hands. It took more than 40 years, but the cow eventually threw off its saddle.

Surely Western efforts to liberalize Afghan society can’t be compared to the attempted Stalinization of Poland: different times, different ideologies. But the Soviets, too, thought that they were bringing modern civilization to the benighted Poles. Similarly, the United States believed that it could drag Afghanistan kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. It found willing partners: a government, an army, a lot of NGOs.

The Taliban represented everyone else. Much of the country resented the intrusions of outsiders. Afghanistan had been combating such pushy foreigners for centuries. Much of the country remained effectively pre-modern, a constituency that the Taliban have actively courted.

Consider just one indicator of modernity: the rate of literacy. In Afghanistan, less than 20 percent of the population could read in 1979. By 2018, that rate had grown to 43 percent. On the one hand, that’s a big jump. On the other hand, Afghanistan continues to have one of the worst literacy rates in the world, well below Sudan and Yemen. Compare Afghanistan’s current literacy rate to that of Iraq (86 percent), Iran (86 percent), and Syria (81 percent) and you can understand the utter presumptuousness of U.S. efforts to modernize the country.

A thin layer of human rights activists did manage to do some extraordinary work in Afghanistan. But if you listen to this interview on the new podcast Strength & Solidarity with Shaharzad Akbar, the chairperson of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, you can hear the frustration in her voice as she talks about dealing with the entrenched interests and the outright corruption in her country. She has continued to do her work up to the last minute, reporting on the Taliban’s human rights abuses in the territories it was capturing. She tweets on latest developments here.

Anyone like Akbar who might form a domestic opposition to the Taliban has emigrated, is trying to leave, or is lying very low. Protests have broken out, including one in Jalalabad that the Taliban shut down by firing into the crowd of demonstrators, killing three. Pushback will come in other forms as well. Relying primarily on support from the Pashtun community, the Taliban will face resistance from other ethnic groups. It may also have to deal with doctrinal disagreements with other Islamic forces in the country. But the Taliban can make up for any deficit in popularity with its capacity for total ruthlessness.

At the same time, this is not the same Taliban that ruled 25 years ago. A number of the current leaders have negotiated with U.S. representatives in Doha, and they’ve met with numerous foreign leaders. In late July, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi welcomed a delegation of Taliban officials in Tianjin, which suggests that both sides are willing to compromise after some significant disagreements over what constitutes religious extremism. With the United States blocking the Taliban from accessing billions of dollars in Afghan reserves held in U.S. banks, Kabul will increasingly rely on China for capital and technical expertise. Beijing will be happy to provide that capital without the pesky political strings that the West attaches, though it will likely demand other quid pro quos, like access to the riches that lie beneath Afghan soil.

Some form of rapprochement with the West is not impossible. The Taliban, after all, have learned how to craft messages that resonate in Western capitals. “We are committed to working with other parties in a consultative manner of genuine respect to agree on a new, inclusive political system in which the voice of every Afghan is reflected and where no Afghan feels excluded,” wrote Sirajuddin Haqqani, a deputy leader of the Taliban, in The New York Times last year.

I am confident that, liberated from foreign domination and interference, we together will find a way to build an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam—from the right to education to the right to work—are protected, and where merit is the basis for equal opportunity.

Taliban spokesmen have echoed these same phrases in some of their recent statements as well. There is no consensus on political and economic issues within the Taliban leadership. Ousting the foreign powers will soon seem easy in comparison to running a country where the citizens, even if mostly illiterate, have different expectations of the state than they did 25 years ago.

Those within the leadership who favor rapprochement with the West will only prosper politically if they can point to some reciprocal interest. The Biden administration should not, in Afghanistan, repeat its mistake of letting reformists twist in the wind, as it has done in Iran.

Will the Taliban Take Over the World?

The Taliban represent a powerful strand in Afghan society: fiercely anti-colonial and distrustful of the West. They are not alone. These sentiments can be found throughout the region. The mullahs in Iran and the crown princes in Saudi Arabia, despite their many mutual disagreements, have their own versions of this ideology. Given their historical experiences, who can blame them.

We also make a fatal category error when we assume that fundamentalism is somehow a Middle Eastern or Islamic character flaw. Outside the region, you can find the Taliban wherever people gather in the name of rejecting modern politics in favor of tribal affiliations, decrying the permissiveness of liberal culture, and elevating religious dogma to the single principle governing society.

So, let’s stop all the hand-wringing about the barbarians massing at the gates of the West. Whether it’s Steve Bannon, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., or Jim Dobson, the barbarians have been inside the gates all along.

The U.S. war in Afghanistan is over. Let’s now focus on the fight against these homegrown extremists.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Reuters: “U.S. warns of violent COVID-19-related attacks”