Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sun, 12 Jul 2020 04:45:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Amid Pandemic Spike, Israel cuts Electricity to Palestinian Hamlets in Apparent Pressure to accept Annexation Sun, 12 Jul 2020 04:45:13 +0000 Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Palestinians are saying that Israel, the Occupation Authority, cut off their electricity last week. Akram al-Waraa at Middle East Eye reports that locals believe that the black out was intended to send the message that Israel controls their lives and they should not make trouble over the impending Israeli annexation of 1/3 of the Palestinian West Bank.

The Palestinians say the Israelis are threatening to black out some 38 localities, and are afraid hospitals will be affected in the midst of the pandemic.

Mondoweiss reports that on Friday, Palestinian health authorities reported five deaths and 316 new cases of coronavirus in the Palestinian West Bank Over all, 6,225 cases have been reported, and there have been 30 deaths from Covid-19. Hebron, the district in which the hamlets lie that have been threatened with an electricity shut off, is the epicenter of the current outbreak.

The Israeli authorities are said to have maintained that the electricity was shut off over failure to pay bills. The Palestinians insist, however, that they have paid and can prove it.

The mechanisms for paying the electricity bill have changed. The small town Palestinians had been paying the Palestine Authority, which transferred the money to Israel. Since Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed to steal vast swathes of Palestinian territory last month, however, the Palestine Authority has ceased all cooperation with the Israeli government. The Palestinians in small towns are thus having to pay in a more direct way.

The Palestinian minister for local government, Majdi al-Saleh, complained that the Israeli move is a violation of agreements signed between Israel and the Palestine Authority, and called it “piracy” and “collective punishment.”

Since Palestinians live under Israeli military occupation, they have no control over their own land, water or air, and are not allowed to run their own infrastructure. Where Palestinians have attempted to install solar panels, Israeli authorities often destroyed them, on the grounds that no building permits were issued by the Occupation authorities. (They won’t be.)


Bonus video:

Kairos Canada: “What’s Next? Annexation, COVID-19 and Palestine”

]]> 0
Iran? N. Korea? If Trump needs a war to win in November, which enemy will he choose to wag the dog? Sun, 12 Jul 2020 04:02:45 +0000

He’s failed on COVID-19 and the economy is tanking. Could a military adventure in Afghanistan, Iran or North Korea be coming soon?

By Paul Rogers | –

( – With the US presidential election less than four months away, Donald Trump trails Joe Biden in the polls by a substantial margin. His strategy as his ratings decline has been to concentrate on his core vote, which amounts to a little more than 30% of the population together, and another 10% that is less assured. The task now is to harden support from that 10% and also to extend it towards a majority, an expanding economy being essential for that.

Hence much of the motivation around ending lockdown has been to counter the multitude of economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. New cases surging to over 65,000 a day has really knocked back this key aim.

So far, Trump’s response has been increasingly strident speeches and tweets that may well appeal to that core 30% but will be much less effective with the flakier supporters he desperately needs. If anything, opposition to his presidency is hardening.

One obvious way forward is to look for international threats that require a strong presidential response, preferably a small war in a far-off place, and this may well be a choice in the run-up to the election. There are three main candidates for the theatre of action: Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran. All, though, are problematic in different ways.

In Afghanistan, the clear plan until a few months ago was to conclude a peace deal with the Taliban and ‘bring our boys back’, or at least most of them, before the election. It would fulfil a 2016 promise and would be popular with his supporters, but there are two difficulties.

Sign up

One is that the Taliban are already stepping up their attacks on government forces and, even by November, they will have chalked up plenty of wins. Biden will therefore be able to present the removal of troops not as a success but as an ignominious retreat.

The other problem for Trump is the current furore over claims that Russian agents have offered bounties to Afghan paramilitaries to kill US troops. Whatever the truth of the accusations, they are difficult for Trump because of his many links with Russia.

So, as things stand, he is unlikely to focus electioneering on Afghanistan, leaving him with Iran and North Korea.

Just over a week ago, a large new structure at Iran’s nuclear plant at Natanz was somehow badly damaged. Israeli and US sources hinted that this was a new facility for producing advanced gas centrifuges for Iran’s nuclear programme. Iranian sources claimed it was a fire, but satellite data points to an explosion.

Furthermore, it followed a large explosion that lit up the night sky a few days earlier at a missile production plant at Parchin near Tehran.

These may have been unhappy coincidences, although Iranian government sources have now admitted that the Natanz incident will affect its nuclear programme. There is considerable speculation that, if these were not accidents, foreign elements are at work, possibly through cyberattacks, sabotage or even stealthy cruise missiles. The finger points at Israel, with or without US involvement.

Benjamin Netanyahu certainly has an interest in engineering a US-Iran confrontation. There are several reasons for that, but helping Trump’s popularity in the US is certainly one of them. If Trump, his key ally, loses in November, Biden might come in aiming to revitalise the international nuclear deal that Trump ditched two years ago. Iran is therefore certainly a candidate for an engineered pre-election crisis.

As to North Korea, the Kim Jong-un regime appears to be already in considerable difficulties thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. The regime had no option but to close the border with China in January, being woefully unprepared to handle a pandemic, but the economic impact has been dire. International sanctions had already made the regime highly dependent on China for trade, tourism and income from North Koreans working there, so it was a desperate measure.

In these circumstance, Kim has few cards to play other than his nuclear missiles. Back in 2016 Trump pledged that he would never let North Korea develop the ability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles powerful another to threaten the continental US with a nuclear strike. Yet in the past three years the Pyongyang regime has quietly continued its nuclear and missile programmes to the point that a single ICBM test would be enough to threaten just that.

To do that in an attempt to reopen negotiations with Washington would be hugely risky, but Kim might just take that risk. It could backfire, though, and turn out to be a gift for Trump, giving him a huge if deeply unstable diversion right in the middle of an election. US-Iranian relations may be a source of diplomatic concern in western Europe, but North Korea is the one issue that, we can be sure, is already worrying officials in many capital cities.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy’s international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is ‘Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins’ (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows ‘Why We’re Losing the War on Terror’ (Polity, 2007), and ‘Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century’ (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers


This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Al Jazeera English: “US killing of Iran’s Qassem Soleimani ‘unlawful’: UN expert”

]]> 0
The Other Black Lives Matter Protests are in Africa: Sudanese wanted Democracy, not a Long Military-Civilian Transition Sun, 12 Jul 2020 04:01:55 +0000 By David E Kiwuwa | –

In the last few days, tens of thousands of people have, once again,
taken to the streets of Sudan’s major cities to demand “freedom, peace and justice”, the rallying cry for the protesters who ousted Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

The big difference is that this time they are marching against the civilian-military Sovereign Council, demanding a greater role for civilians in the country’s transition towards democracy and faster reform.

A year ago the people of Sudan were heralding the fall of Bashir, the country’s long-serving strongman. A mass uprising led by the Sudan Professional Association and Resistance Committees had eventually managed to precipitate the deposing of the president. A host of grievances fanned the protests. Among them were endemic corruption, a struggling economy, human rights violations, and a failed health system.

Why then have the protests returned to the street so soon after they vacated them in triumphant euphoria?

The answer lies in the fact that the balance of power in the transition period that follows the fall of a despot is always tricky. This was evident in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt. When reformers are relatively weak and those determined to protect the status quo are strong, substantive change will be demonstrably lethargic and long-winded. It will sometimes be stalled, and even reversed in certain instances.

Entrenched status quo elites will be reluctant to change because this poses a threat to their interests.

Events in Sudan point to this tension.

What’s been done

Following Bashir’s ouster, a civilian-military sovereign council
headed by a civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, and made up of six civilians and five military officers, was instituted. Its immediate challenge was ensuring security and stability, negotiating peace with Darfur rebels, and repairing Sudan’s battered economy.

So what is on its report card a year on?

For starters, the systematic jailing of opponents has stopped, and arbitrary arrests from the security bureau have largely ceased. Censorship and the muzzling of the press has all but stopped. And the public order law has been repealed. This law was notorious for giving police disproportionate powers of arrest and punishment including for moral and religious infractions.

In rebuilding institutional trust, the police chief and his deputy have also been fired, after protesters demanded more measures against officials linked to Bashir.

In addition, serious effort have been made to meet another core protest demand – the end to incessant conflicts in Sudan. Peace efforts have been pursued with the rebel Sudan Revolutionary Front. These efforts produced a preliminary peace accord, including the drawing down of the UN peace keeping mission in Darfur.

Most recently, an anti-corruption body to trace ill-gotten wealth and provide accountability has been set up. The confiscation of almost $4 billion of assets from Bashir, his family and associates signals a move in the right direction.

In addition, the transitional government has actively sought to change Sudan’s standing in the world by shedding its image as a pariah state. This was not of primary concern to the protest movement, which was focused more on issues of bread and butter. But the transitional government nevertheless has acted to mend fences in the hope that it will deliver dividends for the country.

To this end, it has actively lobbied the US government to remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Washington is still considering this request. In the meantime it has removed the country from a black list of states endangering religious freedom. It has also lifted sanctions on 157 Sudanese firms.

And, for the first time in 23 years, the two countries have exchanged ambassadors.

For its part, Sudan has reduced the number of troops it has in Yemen by two thirds.

What’s missing

But the expectations of last year’s popular uprising have not been met. The reason for this is that substantive reforms have been slow.

One area of clear frustration has been the snail’s pace at which civilian control is taking place. The civilian governance footprint on the country’s body politic is not yet evident. Instead, the military elite continues to have de facto control and influence, sidelining the civilians and often pushing for greater compromises from civilian partners.

Examples of this include the fact that a legislative transitional council has yet to be installed. This would have provided a degree of counterweight to the military dominated sovereign council. Legislation is thus being done in an ad hoc manner.

In addition, civilian governors haven’t been appointed to replace military ones in the various provinces, which would signal another move away from military governance.

The lack of urgency in bringing Bashir and his henchmen to trial is also frustrating people. It appears to be a marginal priority, and in some instances deliberately frustrating.

Nor have the country’s economic woes been addressed. People still queue for three to six hours to buy bread, or fill their tanks at petrol stations. Electricity reliability is still sketchy, with power cuts the norm. Accessing domestic gas is also a problem.

The economy has been contracting and oil revenues have slumped due to falling oil prices and low production capacity. This has affected public expenditure and the investment needed to jumpstart the economic recovery.

COVID-19 has done even more damage.

What’s holding back reforms

Sudan has competing power structures that are inhibiting coherent and far reaching reforms. In the one camp are the reformers, in the other those who wish to defend the status quo. Reformers are constantly having to negotiate and make strategic calculations about what changes can be made and how fast.

This game of political brinkmanship is beginning to take its toll.

Clearly the civilian half of the transitional government has struggled to assert or leverage its moral authority or “popular legitimacy” in the face of military intransigence.

But the prime minister Abdalla Hamdor remains popular. In seeking to placate the demonstrators, he recently admitted that the transitional authority had to “correct the revolution’s track”. This was tacit acknowledgement that on his watch things have gone off the desired path.

But does he have the leverage to correct this diversion from the expectations of the street?

That answer might sadly be, not to a great extent.

For now, the reality that the protesters and civilian elite have to contend with is that after a long and destructive authoritarian legacy, change will not come easily. Nor can it be fast-tracked. Rather it is a product of patience, compromise – and above all perseverance.The Conversation

David E Kiwuwa, Associate Professor of International Studies, University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Al Jazeera: “Sudan: Growing protests against insecurity in central Darfur”

]]> 0
Trump, Convicted of University Fraud, wants to Defund the Universities to Stop People Thinking Sat, 11 Jul 2020 05:16:22 +0000 Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Trump notoriously set up a phony “university” to bilk prospective students of millions of dollars. He lost a civil suit to the outraged victims and had to pay them $25 million.

Now the stable genius is coming for America’s universities. He wants to kick out all international students where their universities hold online classes. Such students contribute on the order of $50 billion a year to the US economy and help keep some colleges solvent. Trump said Friday he wants the Internal Revenue Service to look into depriving them of their tax exempt status because, he says, they are left wing propaganda mills.

Actually, that isn’t a thing. What gets you denied 501(c)3 tax exempt status is being partisan, i.e. using your resources to elect members of one political party or another. Having members who express thoughts about values is not grounds for removal of tax exempt status for an organization. Moreover, university professors teach students to think critically, not to accept propaganda, and that is what really upsets Trump, who has told 20,000 lies and doesn’t like having them challenged.

Except that the American Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute have repeatedly served as extensions of the Republican Party, and they still are tax exempt. Not to mention that hundreds of evangelical preachers have openly urged their congregations to vote for Trump and other Republicans in Sunday sermons, and their tax exemption isn’t being challenged.

So it seems it is only when university professors dare express an opinion in public that the Right gets up in arms.

Moreover, universities are not left wing. I wish they were. Universities are called that because they have lots of schools. The Business School, the School of Pharmacy, the Medical School, or the School of Engineering at universities do not typically tilt left. To say the least. Even within the schools of sciences and the arts (which are typically lumped together), there is a wide range of views. Most professors are not very political, and politics doesn’t come into most of what they do. Stanley Fish pointed out that is it hard to see how a book about medieval French literature can be positioned as left wing or right wing. Likewise I’m not sure that physicists working on quarks give much thought to whether the quarks favor medicare for all.

Most universities in the United States have not divested from fossil fuels. Most of them put out hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide every year. Most of them are not very good on racial diversity. African-Americans are some 12% of the US population but are not very visible in the faculty and might be 4% of undergraduates at the major universities. American universities have a shameful record on supporting Palestinian rights, where they haven’t actively joined in suppressing them. At many of them, the custodial staff is not paid very well. I’m just not sure what is left wing about these universities. There are leftist faculty members, but they aren’t typically the ones who become provost or president or wield any power.

Unlike Trump, who not only ran his own businesses into the ground but now has through his mismanagement of the coronavirus contributed to a new Great Depression, universities actually add value to society. Universities are engines of economic growth, as careful studies have shown. Inventions made at US universities and licensed by them from 1996-2016 may have contributed half a trillion dollars to industry profits and thus to the gross domestic product.

AGB notes:

    “Colleges and universities are major employers. Higher ed institutions are the largest employers in 10 states and two-thirds of America’s 100 largest cities. Overall, U.S. colleges and universities employ 3.98 million people, or more than 2.5 percent of the population…

    Colleges and universities ignite innovation. From 1996 to 2015, technology transfer from universities sparked development of more than 380,000 new inventions, contributed $591 billion to the national GDP, and supported 4.3 million jobs. In fact, 9 out of 10 U.S. patent holders have bachelor’s degrees, and nearly half have professional or doctoral degrees.”

Trump has contributed nothing to American innovation and has not invented anything. He has been a parasite, as with his fraudulent university and preying on people with his casinos. Casinos are a racket. In many of the games, the house is guaranteed 20% or 30% over time. But Trump still managed to go bankrupt four times.

If the Orange Menace succeeds in knee-capping the universities to dull the critical faculties of Americans, then the whole Republic will be lost.


Bonus Video:

KTLA 5: “California sues Trump Administration over policy on international students”

]]> 0
Syrian Refugee Children Are Still Being Robbed of an Education Sat, 11 Jul 2020 04:05:21 +0000

Education Not Prioritized at Annual Donor Conference

By Breanna Small and Bill Van Esveld |

( Human Rights Watch ) – June 30 was possibly the most important day of 2020 for Syrian refugee children. At the annual pledging conference for the “Future of Syria and the Region,” dozens of governments and multilateral donors pledged US$7.7 billion in humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees over the next two years.

But how much of that funding goes to schooling for Syrian children – who have been “robbed of their right to a decent education,” as United Nations relief chief Mark Lowcock reminded donors – is unclear. Many donors did not even mention education in their pledging statements.

The summit’s goal was to increase financial support for Syrian refugees and host countries, but pledges at last year’s conference were higher, at US$9.4 billion for two years. Yet donors’ support for education is vital for Syrian children.

In 2016, in the small city of Mafraq, Jordan, we met Amal, a Syrian refugee girl who was being educated at a center set up by a local sheikh. That year’s Syria pledging conference was supposed to be a turning point, with participants promising that “all refugee children and vulnerable children in host communities will be in quality education” by 2017.

But in 2017, Amal’s informal school lost its funding. The sheikh, Nour Waqfi, took out personal loans to try to keep it open, but in vain. He is still in debt. Meanwhile, Amal’s father sent her to work. Like 80 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan, the family lived in poverty.

But Amal’s mother, Hanan, pushed back. She convinced her husband to let Amal leave her back-breaking farm work and persuaded Jordanian school officials to enroll her last year. “I want my kids to learn,” Hanan told us when we saw her again in March 2020. “I want them to have more than I had.” Amal now plans to finish secondary school.

But she is an exception. More than three quarters of Syrian refugee children drop out of education before secondary school, which is crucial for any child today. The promise made in 2016 of quality education for all children is being broken, almost a decade into the Syria conflict.

It is up to donors to make good on those promises. As Hanan, who married at age 14 and never learned to read herself, said: “My one wish is to educate my children, so that they gain something valuable in this life.”

Breanna Small is the NYU School of Law Fellow at Human Rights Watch for 2019-2020. She works in the Children’s Rights Division. During law school, she interned with Asilo in Europa, a refugee policy NGO in Italy, and with the Center for Economic and Social Rights in New York. As a member of NYU Law’s International Organizations Clinic, she conducted research on social protection policies and global governance.

Bill Van Esveld (Associate Director, MENA, Children’s Rights Division) began working on children’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa in 2015. For the previous six years he focused on Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. As the Arthur Helton research fellow at Human Rights Watch in 2007-08, he wrote or contributed to reports on Western Sahara and Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria, asylum seekers in Egypt and Israel, and migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates.

Via Human Rights Watch

Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Human Rights Watch: “Syrian Refugee Kids Face Educational Crisis in Jordan”

]]> 0
Europe’s Tunisian Heritage: Common German, English Words Suggest Carthage was Present in the North Sat, 11 Jul 2020 04:01:56 +0000 By Robert Mailhammer | –

Remember when Australians paid in shillings and pence? New research suggests the words for these coins and other culturally important items and concepts are the result of close contact between the early Germanic people and the Carthaginian Empire more than 2,000 years ago.

The city of Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, was founded in the 9th century BCE by the Phoenicians. The Carthaginian Empire took over the Phoenician sphere of influence, with its own sphere of influence from the Mediterranean in the east to the Atlantic in the west and further into Africa in the south. The empire was destroyed in 146 BCE after an epic struggle against the Romans.

Carthaginian sphere of influence.
Adapted from Kelly Macquire/Ancient History Encyclopedia, CC BY-NC-SA

The presence of the Carthaginians on the Iberian Peninsula is well documented, and it is commonly assumed they had commercial relations with the British Isles. But it is not generally believed they had a permanent physical presence in northern Europe.

By studying the origin of key Germanic words and other parts of Germanic languages, Theo Vennemann and I have found traces of such a physical presence, giving us a completely new understanding of the influence of this Semitic superpower in northern Europe.

Linguistic history

Language can be a major source of historical knowledge. Words can tell stories about their speakers even if there is no material evidence from archeology or genetics. The many early Latin words in English, such as “street”, “wine” and “wall”, are evidence for the influence of Roman civilisation.

Punic was the language of the Carthaginians. It is a Semitic language and closely related to Hebrew. Unfortunately, there are few surviving texts in Punic and so we often have to use Biblical Hebrew as a proxy.

Proto-Germanic was spoken in what is now northern Germany and southern Scandinavia more than 2,000 years ago, and is the ancestor of contemporary Germanic languages such as English, German, Norwegian and Dutch.

Identifying traces of Punic in Proto-Germanic languages tell an interesting story.

Take the words “shilling” and “penny”: both words are found in Proto-Germanic. The early Germanic people did not have their own coins, but it is likely they knew coins if they had words for them.

Silver double shekel of Carthage.
© The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

In antiquity, coins were used in the Mediterranean. One major coin minted in Carthage was the shekel, the current name for currency of Israel. We think this is the historical origin of the word “shilling” because of the specific way the Carthaginians pronounced “shekel”, which is different from how it is pronounced in Hebrew.

The pronunciation of Punic can be reasonably inferred from Greek and Latin spellings, as the sounds of Greek and Latin letters are well known. Punic placed a strong emphasis on the second syllable of shekel and had a plain “s” at the beginning, instead of the “esh” sound in Hebrew.

But to speakers of Proto-Germanic – who normally put the emphasis on the first syllable of words – it would have sounded like “skel”. This is exactly how the crucial first part of the word “shilling” is constructed. The second part, “-(l)ing”, is undoubtedly Germanic. It was added to express an individuating meaning, as in Old German silbarling, literally “piece of silver”.

This combining of languages in one word shows early Germanic people must have been familiar with Punic.

Similarly, our word “penny” derives from the Punic word for “face”, panē. Punic coins were minted with the face of the goddess Tanit, so we believe panē would have been a likely name for a Carthaginian coin.

A silver coin minted in Carthage, featuring the Head of Tanit and Pegasus.
© The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

Cultural and social dominance

Sharing names for coins could indicate a trade relationship. Other words suggest the Carthaginians and early Germanic people had a much closer relationship.

By studying loan words between Punic and Proto-Germanic, we can infer the Carthaginians were culturally and socially dominant.

One area of Carthage leadership was agricultural technology. Our work traces the word “plough” back to a Punic verb root meaning “divide”. Importantly, “plough” was used by Proto-Germanic speakers to refer to a more advanced type of plough than the old scratch plough, or ard.

Close contact with the Carthaginians can explain why speakers of Proto-Germanic knew this innovative tool.

The Old Germanic and Old English words for the nobility, for example æþele, are also most likely Punic loanwords. If a word referring to the ruling class of people comes from another language, this is a good indication the people speaking this language were socially dominant.

Intersections of language and culture

We found Punic also strongly influenced the grammar of early Germanic, Germanic mythology and the Runic alphabet used in inscriptions in Germanic languages, until the Middle Ages.

Four of the first five letters of the Punic alphabet and the first four letters of the Germanic Runic alphabet.
Mailhammer & Vennemann (2019), Author provided

This new evidence suggests many early Germanic people learnt Punic and worked for the Carthaginians, married into their families, and had bilingual and bicultural children.

When Carthage was destroyed this connection was eventually lost. But the traces of this Semitic superpower remain in modern Germanic languages, their culture and their ancient letters.The Conversation

Robert Mailhammer, Associate Dean, Research, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Featured Image: Dido building Carthage, or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire. Joseph Mallord William Turner, c 1815.

]]> 0
For Trump, Schools are just a Pawn: He wants the Parents back at work for his Reelection Campaign Fri, 10 Jul 2020 04:58:45 +0000 Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Trump is insisting that schools must open normally in the fall or he will cut their funding. About 10 percent of US K-12 education funding comes from the Federal government but most of it is paid for by local taxes. The Federal portion is allotted by Congress and Trump doesn’t have the authority to cut it. He also, it should be remembered, said he had the authority to set aside the will of Congress and spend Pentagon money instead on his vanity border wall. When it went to a Federal appeals court, it struck Trump’s move down as unconstitutional.

Trump’s motivation for wanting the schools open is suspect. Since the US does not, unlike civilized countries like Sweden, have a childcare system, families where both parents work use schools to park the children. If schools are closed, it makes it impossible for both parents to go off to work unless a grandparent will step in. Trump wants both parents at work ASAP to create the illusion of a return to normalcy, for the sake of his reelection bid.

Some industries can indeed return to a semblance of normalcy now, if they do not involve bringing large numbers of people together indoors for long periods of time during which they shout or sing or otherwise spew droplets from their mouths at fifty miles an hour.

Others, like sports events, movie theaters, stage plays, restaurants, bars meat packing plants, and church congregations (yes, the church is a service industry) are at special risk of spreading the virus.

The restaurant industry is about 4 percent of US GDP, at nearly $1 trillion a year. But it also anchors many downtowns, drawing consumers who also do some shopping.

Trump’s pressure to reopen all industries by Memorial Day was a disaster for Florida, Texas, and Arizona, the compliant governors of which kowtowed to the Orange One. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has now admitted that opening bars was crazy, since a bar is tailor made for spreading a contagious disease.

On the other hand, just because Trump is greedy and sociopathic in his inability to care about others does not mean he is wrong about school openings.

There are good reasons to open schools, and a French study found that small children do not appear to spread the disease very easily to each other or to their teachers and parents. They mostly seem to contract it from their elders rather than the other way around. Statistically, children form a microscopic proportion of those sickened by the virus, which instead mostly attacks older people with comorbid conditions and weakened immune systems.

High schoolers may be a different matter, but unfortunately there is no good scientific research on them as a coronavirus vector, as Jennifer Couzin-Frankel, Gretchen Vogel, Meagan Weiland point out at Apparently getting research permissions for human subjects who are minors is an almost insuperable obstacle, and so researchers are stuck with working with imperfect reported statistics.

Reasonable people can agree or disagree about school openings. A lot of children cannot or won’t get online, lacking broadband or a calm enough home environment. Losing a year of education can set a student way back, and hence the society as a whole.

The problem for Trump and his henchman, VP Mike Pence, is that the Centers for Disease Control have issued guidelines for school reopenings that complicate the process. CDC is urging that desks be set far apart. You know that just is not going to happen in all schools.

It is also obviously riskier to open schools in areas with active and expanding outbreaks.

So in a news conference on Wednesday, Pence actually said that the CDC guidelines should not impede school reopenings, by which I think he meant that if the guidelines have to be ignored to get the school open, then they should be. Pence also peddles the line for Big Tobacco that smoking doesn’t cause cancer.

The problem is that policy is being driven not by public health concerns but by what is perceived as good for one man, Donald Trump.

Some schools should reopen. Some, in areas with high infection rates, probably shouldn’t. Other schools should stay closed. Trump wants one size fits all. And when you in the end stitch them all together, they will spell out T R U M P.

Bonus Video:

CBS This Morning: “President Trump threatens school funding, demands new CDC guidelines amid reopening battle”

]]> 0
Supreme Court Slaps down Trump’s Claim of Immunity from Grand Jury Subpoena Fri, 10 Jul 2020 04:02:09 +0000 By Stanley M. Brand | –

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that President Donald Trump has no immunity, by virtue of being president, from a state grand jury subpoena for his business and tax records in a criminal investigation by the Manhattan district attorney.

“[N]o citizen, not even the president, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority opinion.

The court rejected the president’s claims that permitting subpoenas from state prosecutors would open the floodgates to prosecutors nationwide, distracting him from his presidential duties. It reiterated what the court had said in a previous case in which President Bill Clinton had tried to avoid giving a deposition, Clinton v. Jones: The Constitution does not require protecting the president from state grand jury subpoenas.

While a victory for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., the ruling does send the case back to the lower courts to determine if the president has any other basis available to any citizen to object. The courts typically respect the scope of grand jury subpoenas, and reject attempts to limit them.

And because grand jury proceedings are secret, the public is unlikely to see any of the subpoenaed documents unless Vance charges Trump with a crime.

Striking a balance

Two companion cases, also decided 7-2, involved congressional subpoenas for some of the same Trump financial records. These were a major test of Congress’ ability to exercise oversight of the presidency.

[Get facts about coronavirus and the latest research. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]

The court held that concerns about separation of powers in disputes between the president and Congress require the courts to balance the competing interests of both. Since Congress’ ability to subpoena records is tied to its authority to legislate, its demands for materials from a president must be “no broader,” the court said, than is necessary to aid in enacting legislation – especially where that legislation may affect the presidency.

“The more detailed and substantial the evidence of Congress’ legislative purpose the better,” wrote Roberts.

The court sent the two consolidated cases back to the lower courts to apply this new standard. Upholding Congress’ oversight power will require legislative committees to make a stronger and more specific link between the records they want and legislative proposals than they had made before.

Congressional oversight limits

Not since the “Red Scare” subpoena cases from the 1950s-1960s, where Congress conducted hearings that many called political witch hunts against alleged communists, and the Watergate era in the 1970s, when President Nixon claimed through his attorney that he was “as powerful a monarch as Louis XIV, only four years at a time, and is not subject to the processes of any court in the land except the court of impeachment,” has the Supreme Court taken up such far-reaching questions about the ability of Congress to oversee and check the president’s power.

Congress is investigating whether Trump used his power as president to profit his business, whether he accurately reported his finances as all government employees are required to do and whether he accepted gifts from foreign governments without permission from Congress, which is banned by the Constitution. This ban reflected the framers’ concern that no official be subject to foreign intrigue or influence of any kind – a common practice at the time among foreign sovereigns.

Trump v. Mazars related to those investigations. Trump tried to stop his accountants and the bank he deals with from providing information subpoenaed by two House committees – oversight and intelligence.

Trump objected to these subpoenas on the grounds that they lack a legislative purpose and that their true aim was to obtain personal information for political advantage.

The Court of Appeals rejected this argument. It found that the records the congressional committees wanted were relevant to Congress’ legislative duties, and thus the subpoenas were legitimate.

All subpoenas from, and investigations by, Congress must have a legislative purpose. By law, Congress has the authority to pursue any “subject on which legislation can be had” as well as inquiries into fraud, waste and abuse in government programs. The broad standard for upholding that investigative power is affirmed in the Supreme Court’s ruling in McGrain v. Daugherty in 1927, which established that “the power of inquiry – with process to enforce it – is an essential and appropriate” aspect of how Congress carries out its legislative function.

The case that was consolidated with Mazars was about House committee subpoenas for Trump companies’ bank records from Deutsche Bank and Capital One. As with the Mazars case, Trump tried to stop the banks from handing over the documents.

Those subpoenas were related to reviews by the House Financial Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee of the movement of illicit funds through the global financial system and money laundering. Deutsche Bank, which has loaned large amounts of money to Trump businesses, has already been fined US$10 billion for a money-laundering scheme unrelated to Trump.

The Court of Appeals rejected Trump’s argument and said Congress was legitimately entitled to pursue and get the records.

They wrote that the committees’ focus on illegal money laundering was not on any purported misconduct by Trump but instead on whether such activity occurred in the banking industry, the adequacy of banking regulation and the need for legislation to fix any problems – all legitimate oversight goals.

Nixon, Clinton precedents

None of these cases involved the president claiming executive privilege – the doctrine that keeps confidential many of the communications between the president and his closest advisers. Nor did the cases involve any challenge to the performance of his official duties.

All concerned only his private business activities before he assumed office. The records from before he was president were relevant because he refused to divest from his businesses, raising the concern of whether his official actions once in office conflict with, or appear to conflict with, his existing business interests.

Two previous Supreme Court cases weighed significantly in the court’s decisions in these cases.

One is United States v. Nixon, which took place during the Watergate scandal, when Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski subpoenaed the tape recordings of conversations between the president and four of his advisers who had been indicted. President Richard Nixon tried to claim executive privilege, saying the recordings of conversations between him and his advisers were confidential and should not be given to the special prosecutor.

The court ruled unanimously that the need for the tapes in the aides’ upcoming trial outweighed the president’s claim of confidentiality. And although no case applying the Nixon case precedent to a congressional subpoena has reached the Supreme Court, the implication drawn from the case was that if his privilege can be overcome by a subpoena for conversations with his closest aides, business records generated before a president came to office could legitimately be subpoenaed by Congress.

The other case relied on in the Trump financial documents decisions is Clinton v. Jones in 1997. The case stemmed from a sexual harassment suit against Clinton concerning his conduct before his presidency. Clinton had refused to give a deposition in the case, insisting that it would be a distraction from his duties as president and an invitation to litigants to harass any president while in office with lawsuits.

The case description on the Supreme Court website asks, “Is a serving President … entitled to absolute immunity from civil litigation arising out of events which transpired prior to his taking office?”

The court’s answer in 1997: No.

On July 9, 2020, the court gave the same response, this time to presidential claims of absolute immunity to grand jury requests for information in a criminal investigation. And it reaffirmed that, while Congress might have to provide better reasons for asking the president to produce records, it has a right to exercise strong oversight of the presidency.

Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an article originally published on May 8, 2020.The Conversation

Stanley M. Brand, Distinguished Fellow in Law and Government, Pennsylvania State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

ABC News: “Supreme Court rules president cannot block subpoenas for financial records”

]]> 0
Undercover Patriots: Trump, Tulsa, and the Rise of Military Dissent Fri, 10 Jul 2020 04:01:30 +0000 It was June 20th and we antiwar vets had traveled all the way to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the midst of a pandemic to protest President Trump’s latest folly, an election 2020 rally where he was to parade his goods and pretend all was well with this country.

We never planned to go inside the cavernous arena where that rally was to be held. I was part of our impromptu reconnaissance team that called an audible at the last moment. We suddenly decided to infiltrate not just the perimeter of that Tulsa rally, but the BOK Center itself. That meant I got a long, close look at the MAGA crowd there in what turned out to be a more than half-empty arena.

Our boots-on-the-ground coalition of two national antiwar veteran organizations — About Face and Veterans for Peace (VFP) — had thrown together a rather risky direct action event in coordination with the local activists who invited us.

We planned to climb the three main flagpoles around that center and replace an Old Glory, an Oklahoma state flag, and a Tulsa one with Black Lives-themed banners. Only on arrival, we found ourselves stymied by an eleventh-hour change in the security picture: new gates and unexpected police deployments. Hopping metal barriers and penetrating a sizable line of cops and National Guardsmen seemed to ensure a fruitless trip to jail, so into the under-attended indoor rally we went, to — successfully it turned out — find a backdoor route to those flagpoles.

Once inside, we had time to kill. While others in the group infiltrated and the flagpole climbers donned their gear, five of us — three white male ex-foot soldiers in America’s forever wars and two Native American women (one a vet herself) — took a breather in the largely empty upper deck of the rally. Nervous joking then ensued about the absurdity of wearing the Trump “camouflage” that had eased our entrance. My favorite disguise: a Hispanic ex-Marine buddy’s red-white-and-blue “BBQ, Beer, Freedom” tank top.

The music irked me instantly. Much to the concern of the rest of the team, I’d brought a notebook along and was already furtively scribbling. At one point, we listened sequentially to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” The Beatles’ “Let It Be,” and Queen’s “We Are The Champions” over the arena’s loudspeakers. I couldn’t help but wonder how that black man of, let’s say, complicated sexual orientation, four outspoken British hippies, and a gay AIDs victim (Freddie Mercury) would feel about the way the Trump campaign had co-oped their songs. We can guess though, since the late Tom Petty’s family quickly denounced the use of his rock song “I Won’t Back Down” at the rally.

I watched an older white woman in a “Joe Biden Sucks, Nancy Pelosi Swallows” T-shirt gleefully dancing to Michael Jackson’s falsetto (“But the kid is not my son!”). Given that “Billie Jean” blatantly describes an out-of-wedlock paternity battle and that odds were this woman was a pro-life proponent of “family values,” there was something obscene about her carefree shimmy.

A Contrast in Patriotism

And then, of course, there was the version of patriotism on display in the arena. I’ve never seen so many representations of the Stars and Stripes in my life, classic flags everywhere and flag designs plastered on all manner of attire. Remember, I went to West Point. No one showed the slightest concern that many of the red-white-and-blue adaptations worn or waved strictly violated the statutes colloquially known as the U.S. Flag Code (United States Code, Title 4, Chapter 1).

That said, going undercover in Trumplandia means entering a universe in which it’s exceedingly clear that one political faction holds the flag hostage. They see it as theirs — and only theirs. They define its meaning, its symbolism, and its proper use, not to speak of whom it represents. The crowd, after all, was vanilla. (There were more people of color serving beers than cheering the president.)

By a rough estimate, half of the attendees had some version of the flag on their clothing, Trump banners, or other accessories, signaling more than mere national pride. Frequently sharing space with Old Glory were images of (often military-grade) weaponry, skulls (one wearing an orange toupee), and anti-liberal slogans. Notable shirts included: the old Texas War of Independence challenge “Come And Take It!” above the sort of AK-47 assault rifle long favored by America’s enemies; a riff on a classic Nixonian line, “The Silent Majority Is Coming”; and the slanderous “Go To Your Safe Space, Snowflake!”; not to mention a sprinkling of the purely conspiratorial like “Alex Jones Did Nothing Wrong” (with a small flag design on it, too).

The banners were even more aggressive. “Trump 2020: Fuck Your Feelings” was a fan favorite. Another popular one photo-shopped The Donald’s puffy face onto Sylvester Stallone’s muscle-bound physique, a machine gun at his hip. That image, of course, had been lifted from the Reagan-era, pro-Vietnam War film Rambo: First Blood Part II, a fitting accompaniment to Trump’s classically plagiarized Reaganesque rallying cry “Make America Great Again.” Finally, a black banner with pink lettering read “L G B T.” Above the letters, also in pink, were logos depicting, respectively, the Statue of Liberty, a Gun (an M16 assault rifle), a Beer mug, and a profile bust of Donald Trump. Get it?

For our small group of multi-war/multi-tour combat veterans, it was hard not to wonder whether many of these flag-and-weaponry enthusiasts had ever seen a shot fired in anger or sported Old Glory on a right-shoulder uniform sleeve. Though we were all wearing standard black veteran ball-caps and overtly Trump-friendly shirts, several of us interlopers feared the crowd might somehow guess what we actually were. Yet tellingly, the closest we came to outing ourselves — before later pulling off our disguises to expose black “About Face: Veterans Against The War” shirts — was during the national anthem.

Nothing better exemplified the contrast between what I’ve come to think of as the “pageantry patriotism” of the crowd and the more complex “participatory patriotism” of the dissenting vets than that moment. At its first notes — we were still waiting in the arena’s encircling lobby — our whole team reflexively stood at attention, removed our hats, faced the nearest draped flags, and placed our hands upon our hearts. We were the only ones who did so — until, at mid-anthem, a few embarrassed passersby followed our example. Most of the folks, however, just continued to scamper along, often chomping on soft pretzels, and sometimes casting quizzical glances at us. Trumpian patriotism only goes so far.

Our crew was, in fact, rather diverse, but mostly such vets groups remain disproportionately white and male. In fact, one reason local black and native communities undoubtedly requested our attendance was a vague (and not unreasonable) assumption that maleness, whiteness, and veteran’s status might offer their protests some semblance of protection. Nevertheless, my old boss on West Point’s faculty, retired Colonel Gregory Daddis, summed up the limits of such protection in this phrase: “Patriotic” Veterans Only, Please. And just how accurate that was became violently apparent the moment we “unmasked” at the base of those flagpoles.

Approximately three-dozen combat tours braved between us surely didn’t save our nonviolent team from the instant, distinctly physical rancor of the police — or four members of our group from arrest as the climbers shimmied those flagpoles. Nor did deliberately visible veteran’s gear offer any salvation from the instantly jeering crowd, as the rest of us were being escorted to the nearest exit and tossed out. “Antifa!” one man yelled directly into a Marine vet’s face. Truthfully, America’s “thanks for your service” hyper-adulation culture has never been more than the thinnest of veneers. However much we veterans reputedly fought for “our freedom,” that freedom and the respect for the First Amendment rights of antiwar, anti-Trump vets that should go with it evaporates with remarkable speed in such situations.

Three Strands of Veteran or Military Dissent

Still, the intensity of the MAGA crowd’s vitriol — as suggested by the recent hate mail both About Face and I have received — is partly driven by a suspicion that Team Trump is losing the military’s loyalty. In fact, there’s evidence that something is indeed astir in both the soldier and veteran communities the likes of which this country hasn’t seen since the tail end of the Vietnam War, almost half a century ago. Today’s rising doubt and opposition has three main components: retired senior officers, younger combat veterans, and — most disturbingly for national-security elites — rank-and-file serving soldiers and National Guardsmen.

The first crew, those senior officers, have received just about the only media attention, even though they may, in the end, prove the least important of the three. Many of the 89 former defense officials who expressed “alarm” in a Washington Post op-ed over the president’s response to the nationwide George Floyd protests, as well as other retired senior military officers who decried President Trump’s martial threats at the time, had widespread name recognition. They included former Secretary of Defense and retired Marine Corps General Jim (“Mad Dog”) Mattis and that perennial latecomer, former Secretary of State and Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell. And yes, it’s remarkable that such a who’s-who of former military leaders has spoken as if with one voice against Trump’s abhorrent and inflammatory recent behavior.

Still, a little caution is in order before canonizing a crew that, lest we forget, has neither won nor opposed a generation’s worth of unethical wars that shouldn’t have been fought. Recall, for example, that Saint Mattis resigned his post not over his department’s complicity in the borderline genocide underway in Yemen or pointlessly escalatory drone strikes in Somalia, but in response to a mere presidential suggestion of pulling U.S. troops out of the quicksand of the Syrian conflict.

In fact, for all their chatter about the Constitution, oaths betrayed, and citizen rights violated, anti-Trumpism ultimately glues this star-studded crew together. If Joe Biden ever takes the helm, expect these former flag officers to go mute on this country’s forever wars waged in Baghdad and Baltimore alike.

More significant and unique is the recent wave of defiance from normally conservative low- to mid-level combat veterans, most, though not all, a generation junior to the attention-grabbing ex-Pentagon brass and suits. There were early signs of a shift among those post-9/11 boots-on-the-ground types. In the last year, credible polls showed that two-thirds of veterans believed the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria “were not worth fighting,” and 73% supported full withdrawal from the Afghan War in particular. Notably, such rates of antiwar sentiment exceed those of civilians, something for which there may be no precedent.

Furthermore, just before the president’s controversial West Point graduation speech, more than 1,000 military academy alumni signed an open letter addressed to the matriculating class and blatantly critical of Trump’s urge to militarily crack down on the Black Lives Matter protests. Mainly ex-captains and colonels who spanned graduating classes from 1948 to 2019, they briefly grabbed mainstream headlines with their missive. Robin Wright of the New Yorker even interviewed and quoted a few outspoken signatories (myself included). Then there was the powerful visual statement of Marine Corps veteran Todd Winn, twice wounded in Iraq, who stood for hours outside the Utah state capitol in the sweltering heat in full dress uniform with the message “I Can’t Breathe” taped over his mouth.

At the left end of the veterans’ community, the traditional heart of antiwar military dissent, the ranks of the organizations I belong to and with whom I “deployed” to Tulsa have also swelled. Both in that joint operation and in the recent joint Veterans for Peace (largely Vietnam alumni)and About Face decision to launch a “Stand Down for Black Lives” campaign — encouraging and supporting serving soldiers and guardsmen to refuse mobilization orders — the two groups have taken real steps toward encouraging multi-generational opposition to systemic militarism. In fact, more than 700 vets publicly signed their names (as I did) to About Face’s provocative open letter urging just such a refusal. There were even ex-service members among the far greater mass of unaffiliated veterans who joined protesters in the streets of this country’s cities and towns in significant numbers during that month or more of demonstrations.

Which brings us to the final (most fear-inducing) strand of such dissent: those in the serving military itself. Their numbers are, of course, impossible to measure, since such resistance can range from the passive to the overt and the Pentagon is loathe to publicize the slightest hint of its existence. However, About Face quickly received scores of calls from concerned soldiers and Guardsmen, while VFP reported the first mobilization refusals almost immediately. At a minimum, 10 service members are known to have taken “concrete steps” to avoid deployment to the protests and, according to a New York magazine investigation, some troops were “reconsidering their service,” or “ready to quit.”

Finally, there’s my own correspondence. Over the years, I’ve received notes from distraught service members with some regularity. However, in the month-plus since George Floyd’s death, I’ve gotten nearly 100 such messages from serving strangers — as well as from several former West Point students turned lieutenants — more, that is, than in the preceding four years. Last month, one of those former cadets of mine became the first West Point graduate in the last 15 years to be granted conscientious objector status. He will complete his service obligation as a noncombatant in the Medical Service Corps. Within 36 hours of that news spreading, a handful of other former students expressed interest in his case and wondered if I could put them in touch with him.

Intersectional Vets

In a moment of crankiness this January, using a bullhorn pointed at the University of Kansas campus, I decried the pathetic student turnout at a post-Qasem Soleimani assassination rally against a possible war with Iran. And it still remains an open question whether the array of activist groups that About Face and Veterans for Peace have so recently stood in solidarity with will show up for our future antiwar endeavors.

Still, the growth across generations of today’s antiwar veterans’ movement has, I suspect, value in itself — and part of that value lies in our recognition that the problem of American militarism isn’t restricted to the combat zones of this country’s forever wars. By standing up for Black lives, pitching tents at Standing Rock Reservation to fight a community-threatening pipeline, and similar solidarity actions, this generation of antiwar veterans is beginning to set itself apart in its opposition to America’s wars abroad and at home.

As both the Covid-19 crisis and the militarization of the police in the streets of American cities have made clear, the imperial power that we veterans fought for abroad is the same one some of us are now struggling against at home and the two couldn’t be more intimately linked. Our struggle is, at least in part, over who gets to define patriotism.

Should the sudden wave of military and veteran dissent keep rising, it will invariably crash against the pageantry patriots of Chickenhawk America who attended that Tulsa rally and we’ll all face a new and critical theater in this nation’s culture wars. I don’t pretend to know whether such protests will last or military dissent will augur real change of any sort. What I do know is what my favorite rock star, Bruce Springsteen, used to repeat before live renditions of his song “Born to Run”: Remember, in the end nobody wins, unless everybody wins.

Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a retired U.S. Army major and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now lives in Lawrence, Kansas. He has written a memoir of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His latest book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War, will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his podcast “Fortress on a Hill.”

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen


Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Kansas City Star: “Army veteran describes his arrest at recent protest”

]]> 0