As Scientists March, Will Trump give away US Science Lead to China?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The marches for science in the United States and around the world are an expression of alarm about the Trump administration’s budget proposals, which slash public funding for science, medical and technology research and seek to increase the Pentagon budget by $54 bn.

Federal funding for certain kinds of research is absolutely crucial. There are diseases, for instance, that private companies don’t see as a priority because they strike a small number of people or the cure for which is unlikely to produce big profits because most victims are poor and live in the global south.

If you live in Florida or other semi-tropical parts of the US, and your family is expecting a child, you may be alarmed at the rise of the Zika virus. It is the National Institute of Health that is funding the search for a vaccine. Perhaps you remember the deep public concern about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. Who is working on a vaccine? The US government and Merck. In the US system, vaccine development is a government-private-public partnership: “Of the $1.4 billion that fund US vaccine research and development annually, 46% comes from vaccine sales, 36% from taxpayers, and 18% from risk capital.”

As for technology, entrepreneurs most often build on government-funding. Of a ten-mile journey toward innovation, 9 of the miles are often traversed by government-backed research, and the entrepreneurs come in for the last mile. Forbes admits, “the basic technologies that Apple AAPL -0.13% products are built on (and those of all tech firms), from the chips, to the Internet, to GPS, to the software protocols, were all supported or wholly developed by government programs.”

Trump’s cuts will not only make us sick and retard the technological advances that make our lives more convenient, he will harm us in precisely the area he imagines himself to champion– US competitiveness.

You don’t compete with the rest of the world by giving an extra $54 billion to the military and deeply cutting research and development (R&D) funding.

The National Science Foundation observes that China, South Korea and India are putting enormous government money into R&D, as well as investing in science education and the production of skilled science and engineering students. Trump, in contrast, gave away US education to Betsy DeVos, who ruined Michigan K-12 education and wants Americans brought up in fundamentalist charter schools. The NSF writes,

“Indicators 2016 makes it clear that while the United States continues to lead in a variety of metrics, it exists in an increasingly multi-polar world for S&E that revolves around the creation and use of knowledge and technology. According to Indicators 2016, China is now the second-largest performer of R&D, accounting for 20 percent of global R&D as compared to the United States, which accounts for 27 percent.

China is already increasing its annual outlay far more than the United States, growing R&D spending nearly 20 percent a year every year from 2003 to 2013. That rate of increase far outstripped that of the US in those years, and now Trump actually wants us to slash spending, while the Chinese go on investing in technological innovation.

The day when China outspends the US on research and development annually is just around the corner, and Trump’s budget would bring it even more quickly.

In some areas, China is nipping at our heels. The global share of the US in high-tech manufacturing? 29%.

The global share of China in high-tech manufacturing? 27%!

Almost half of all the bachelor’s degrees awarded very year in China are in Science and Engineering.

In the US it is only 1/3.

While China and South Korea massively ramp up government R&D investments, the Tea Party Congress in the US has been deeply cutting ours.

“In 2013, government funded R&D accounted for 27 percent of total U.S. R&D and was the largest supporter (47 percent) of all U.S. basic research”. . . “Indicators shows that Federal investment in both academic and business sector R&D has declined in recent years. . . Since the Great Recession, substantial, real R&D growth annually — ahead of the pace of U.S. GDP — has not returned. Inflation-adjusted growth in total U.S. R&D averaged only 0.8 percent annually over the 2008-13 period, behind the 1.2 percent annual average for U.S. GDP.

The world will not stand still while Trump walks the nation’s science and technology into mere clay.

In fact, if Trump gets his way on the science budget, my advice to Americans is to start studying Chinese.

Ooops. Trump is cutting money for that, too.

Related video added by Juan Cole:

The National: Global March for Science raises concern over Trump policies

ISIL Terror-Trolls French Election, Supporting far Right; Will French Fall for It?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Thursday’s shooting at the Champs Elysee, left one policeman dead, another gravely injured, a third lightly wounded along with a German tourist shot in the heel. It was carried out by Karim Cheurfi, a French national aged 39, born at Livry-Gargan in Seine-Saint-Denis. He had opened fire with a Kalashnikov machine gun and was killed by police at the scene.

The site of the attack was politically symbolic in French terms, near the Arch of Triumph and the presidential palace. It clearly was intended to help elect the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen. The question is whether the French electorate, which is pretty canny, will fall for this transparent terror-trolling.

Cheurfi had a record as a petty criminal, having been jailed four times in the past 10 years for theft, assault and attempted murder. While in prison he showed no interest in Muslim radicalism, and only began talking like that from last December, when he said he was angered by deaths of Syrians. (France joined the US coalition bombing Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) in Raqqa, Syria, from late summer of 2015, on learning of Daesh plots to hit France, which it did several times thereafter).

There are some twists on this story that raise question marks. Daesh very quickly announced on Thursday that they were behind this shooting. They made a significant mistake, however, in announcing that the terrorist’s name was Abou Youssouf Al-Beljiki. I.e. their operative was supposed to be Belgian. But Cheurfi is an ordinary Frenchman.

Le Monde reports that a piece of paper fell out of Cheurfi’s pocket that had the word “Daesh” on it. If this is true, it is even more suspicious, because while authorities and the press in the Arab world and France call ISIL ‘Daesh,’ the Arabic acronym, the group does not call itself that and resents the use of the acronym. They call themselves the “Islamic State” (which is a kind of terminological propaganda and terrorism, a way of trying to make journalists write that “today the Islamic State took over x city.”)

So ISIL did not know who Cheurfi was, and Cheurfi or his handler did not know to say “Islamic State” rather than Daesh.

Such incidents are murky, but I conclude that this attack was not a centrally directed Daesh operation. Cheurfi was until very recently just a petty criminal with no radical discourse, and he likely had never attended a meeting of the terrorist organization. He was happy to make his individual action look big and scary by attributing it to Daesh (without knowing enough to realize that this diction marked him as an outsider). Daesh itself was happy to claim responsibility unusually quickly.

Whatever is going on here, it seems obvious that the shooting was an attempt to intervene in the first round of the French presidential election.

In the first round, there are five major candidates. The two top vote-getters will then have a run-off.

The question if neo-Fascist Marine Le Pen will be one of the two. Whoever plotted out the Champs Elysees shooting was trying to throw the election to LePen. As a white supremacist, she has taken a hard line against Muslims and immigrants as well as against minorities like the Jews. The recruiter who ran Cheurfi knew that an act of terrorism near the election could well shore up her numbers and make her look more credible.

So you have the Republican Party candidate . Francois Fillon on the Gaullist, conventional right. He’s polling at 20 percent despite being implicated in a nepotism scandal.

Then you have left wing Socialist Emmanuel Macron, who is the front runner in the polls, just ahead of Le Pen.

And there is Jean-Luc Mélenchon at 19%, who is to the left of Macron and outpolling

the regular Socialist Party candidate – Benoît Hamon, who is polling well below 10%.

The race is fluid and dynamic, so any of the candidates could pull ahead. Obviously, if Mélenchon starts doing slightly better, LePen could slip to third place and be out of the race.

So I conclude Thursday’s shooting was intended to put Le Pen over the top and make sure she got into the run-off.

The French public has seen a lot of this kind of thing and they are much more sophisticated than an American public would be over the difference between the vast majority of Muslims and the small fringe of radicals.

The Daesh radicals want Le Pen to win because they know she will be mean to the French Muslims (5% of the population). They are hoping the French Muslims will be driven into the arms of Daesh.

So the question is whether the French public will fall for the Trap of Daesh.


Related video:

France 24: “Paris Attack: Overview of Champs-Élysées shooting claimed by Islamic state group”

Top 5 Ways Bill O’Reilly gave us Trump and cheapened America

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Bill O’Reilly is off the airwaves, but it doesn’t really matter. The despicable strategy of presslord Rupert Murdoch of orienting his Fox Cable “news” toward the nativist far right in the United States will continue. They’ll just find another O’Reilly. Worse, there is more or less an O’Reilly in the White House now, with the nuclear codes. Murdoch and O’Reilly in many ways gave us the Trump presidency, running the Republic into a brick wall.

1. Trump’s ridiculous and very expensive plan to build a wall between the United States and Mexico? That was an O’Reilly idea. I remember seeing O’Reilly trot it out in an interview with the late thriller writer Tom Clancy after 9/11:

O’REILLY: Now, I’ve been banging this drum for more than a year, and I did a “Talking Points” tonight on it, is that the borders are so chaotic and they’re not secured, and we’re very vulnerable from both Canada and Mexico for people who want to bring stuff in and come in here, and the INS can’t control it. Am I wrong there?

CLANCY: No, it’s one of the problems of, you know, one of the consequences of living in a free and open society. You know, the Statue of Liberty invites people in. She’s not holding a machine gun to keep people away.

Clancy wasn’t exactly left wing. But he tried to warn O’Reilly that crackpot plans like the Wall were a long step toward the US becoming a new Soviet Union. The latter, he said, had failed. Now we have a president with squirrels running around in his cranium, who saw O’Reilly push this nonsense and wants to charge us billions in taxes to build it.

It all comes out of a wounded white nationalism, buffeted by globalization, where African-Americans and immigrants are allegedly stealing jobs (they aren’t).

2. O’Reilly beat the drum nightly for George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. He repeatedly alleged that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was behind al-Qaeda, with the implication that Iraq blew up New York and Washington, D.C. He repeatedly alleged that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction” and that he was training al-Qaeda operatives in chemical weapons use at Salman Pak. There is no evidence that that was the case. Iraq had nothing to do with al-Qaeda and was clearly afraid of it. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

O’Reilly had said that if there turned out to be no WMD in Iraq, he would become more skeptical of the Bush white house. But despite the collapse of the case against Iraq, O’Reilly went on cheerleading for Bush/ Cheney.

3. O’Reilly said on “The View” that “Muslims hit us” on 9/11. Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg walked off the set when O’Reilly doubled down on his hate speech and gross generalization. When Trump said last fall “Islam hates us,” he was just echoing O’Reilly.

David Pakman: “Bill O’Reilly Gets Whoopi Goldberg & Joy Behar to Walk Off The View”

4. O’Reilly has repeatedly said racist things, and his current troubles began when he said of senior Congresswoman Maxine Waters that he could not get past her “James Brown wig.” In a famous incident on his now-defunct radio show, O’Reilly had professed himself shocked, on eating at a restaurant owned by African-Americans, that the patrons seemed perfectly respectable. He had recently said that Trump won’t be able to help African-Americans because “ill-educated and have tattoos on their foreheads.”

Then there was all the other bigotry, as when he compared gay marriage to Goat Marriage.

5. O’Reilly’s denial that any practical measures need to be taken to limit CO2 emissions, because they would disadvantage American corporations. Climate denialism is the original fake news, and O’Reilly & Fox were one major source that Trump scans for news like this.

He’s a mean, mean man. And a bad historian, which yours truly holds against him, hard. He managed to cheapen my America and then he made millions writing “fake history.”

The O’Reilly Factor is dead. But Fox will just go on polluting the airwaves.

The Coming Muslim Century: Bad news for President Bannon

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Demographically, the 21st century will be the Muslim Century, as the Pew Research Center on Religion in Public Life has shown. Muslims will go from 24% of the world’s population today to 31% by 2060. I.e. they will equal the Christian population of the world by that date. And then they will outstrip the Christians by 2100.

Pew writes:

“Between 2015 and 2060, the world’s population is expected to increase by 32%, to 9.6 billion. Over that same period, the number of Muslims – the major religious group with the youngest population and the highest fertility – is projected to increase by 70%. The number of Christians is projected to rise by 34%, slightly faster than the global population overall yet far more slowly than Muslims.”

PF_17.04.05_projectionsUpdate_GRL310px h/t Pew Research Center.

Most of the increase will occur because of population growth where people live. Africans will be a larger proportion of the world’s population in 2060 they they are now. In fact, over the next century, the African population could quadruple, and 40% of the human population could be African by 2100. Muslims in Africa will form a larger proportion of the world Muslim population, while the Middle East will remain stable with about a fifth of the world’s Muslims. Nigeria could go to 900 million over the century, coming to dwarf the European Union and equaling a shrinking China by 2100.

Some countries will be deeply affected by these changes. The Russian Federation will go from 11% Muslim in 2010 to at least 33% Muslim in 2060. The future of Muslims in Europe depends in part on immigration policy (most of Western Europe is not reproducing itself, and so Europe will get old and less dynamic if it decides against immigration). The European Union could remain steady at about 500 million, but I suspect that projection takes immigration into account.

The publisher of Time magazine, Henry Luce, called the twentieth century “The American Century.” It was an apt description. The US had half the world’s GDP just after WW II and even in 1999 it had nearly a quarter. It was the main world center of technological innovation, and has an enormous military-industrial establishment probably costing $1 trillion a year, dwarfing that of all the other countries of the world.

It isn’t clear whether the Muslim world will have that kind of economic clout. China and Hindu-majority India will be the two largest countries and may well have the two largest economies. But China’s population may fall and age, which could be an economic challenge.

Prejudice against Muslims has grown by leaps and bounds in the United States, and hatred of Muslims played a role in Trump’s campaign and in the policies he tried to enact once elected. Not all Americans are bigoted toward Muslims, and most understand that you can’t blame 1.8 billion Muslims for the violence and extremism of a tiny fringe. The Neo-Nazis and their slightly less illiterate fellow travelers over at Breitbart froth at the mouth on this issue. I am sorry to say that Evangelical Christians are according to opinion polls pretty hateful in this regard, much moreso than the general population (they are also the most enthusiastic supporters of Trump, which makes me think a lot of them are dressing up white supremacy as Christianity). The Zionist right wing seems to think if only you can badmouth Muslims enough, no one will mind if you steal all the remaining land owned by Palestinians in the West Bank. And, a small sliver of the US left, exemplified by Bill Maher, hates Muslims almost as much as they hate Evangelicals and Republicans.

Despite White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s impractical dreams, there is no prospect that government policy or other measures can kickstart population growth among the “white” population, whatever that is. Middle class people tend to have smaller families. They want to enjoy some leisure, and be sure to be able to send their children to college.

The only proven antidote to shrinking populations is immigration. Countries like Japan that are allergic to letting a lot of immigrants in will simply shrink, that is all, and will have a very large number of old people. Countries that welcome immigrants, as France traditionally has, will grow and be economically vibrant.

So to sum up, Muslims will go from a fourth of humankind to a third just in the next 43 years. They will then likely go on up to 38% or 40% during the rest of the century. That is, a plurality of human beings in 2100 could well be Muslim. Since growing populations will be increasingly rare, countries will prize young, dynamic Muslim immigrants and will compete for them. Those countries that lose out and just can’t get Muslims to move there will get small and old and stagnant. Islamophobia may have a future. Islamophobes do not.

Don’t want to lose the Next Mideast War? Don’t Fight One

Danny Sjursen | ( ) | – –

Make no mistake: after 15 years of losing wars, spreading terror movements, and multiplying failed states across the Greater Middle East, America will fight the next versions of our ongoing wars. Not that we ever really stopped.  Sure, Washington traded in George W. Bush’s expansive, almost messianic attitude toward his Global War on Terror for Barack Obama’s more precise, deliberate, even cautious approach to an unnamed version of the same war for hegemony in the Greater Middle East.  Sure, in the process kitted-up 19 year-olds from Iowa became less ubiquitous features on Baghdad’s and Kabul’s busy boulevards, even if that distinction was lost on the real-life targets of America’s wars — and the bystanders (call them “collateral damage”) scurrying across digital drone display screens. 

It’s hardly a brilliant observation to point out that, more than 15 years later, the entire region is a remarkable mess.  So much worse off than Washington found it, even if all of that mess can’t simply be blamed on the United States — at least not directly.  It’s too late now, as the Trump administration is discovering, to retreat behind two oceans and cover our collective eyes.  And yet, acts that might still do some modest amount of good (resettling refugees, sending aid, brokering truces, anything within reason to limit suffering) don’t seem to be on any American agenda.

So, after 16 years of inconclusive or catastrophic regional campaigns, maybe it’s time to stop dreaming about how to make things better in the Greater Middle East and try instead to imagine how to make things worse (since that’s the path we often seem to take anyway). Here, then, is a little thought experiment for you: what if Washington actually wanted to lose? How might the U.S. government go about accomplishing that? Let me offer a quick (and inevitably incomplete) to-do list on the subject:

As a start, you would drop an enlarged, conventional army into Iraq and/or Syria. This would offer a giant red, white, and blue target for all those angry, young radicalized men just dying (pardon the pun) to extinguish some new “crusader” force.  It would serve as an effective religious-nationalist rallying cry (and target) throughout the region.

Then you would create a news-magnet of a ban (or at least the appearance of one) on immigrants and visitors of every sort from predominantly Muslim countries coming to the United States.  It’s hardly an accident that ISIS has taken to calling the president’s proposed executive order to do just that “the blessed ban” and praising Donald Trump as the “best caller to Islam.”  Such actions only confirm the extremist narrative: that Muslims are unwelcome in and incompatible with the West, that liberal plurality is a neo-imperial scam.

Finally, you would feed the common perception in the region that Washington’s support for Israel and assorted Arab autocrats is unconditional.  To do so, you would go out of your way to hold fawning public meetings with military strongmen like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and suggest that, when it came to Israel, you were considering changing American policy when it comes to a two-state solution and the illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine.  Such policies would feed another ISIS narrative: U.S. support for illiberal despots and the failure of the Arab Spring is proof that practicing Muslims and peaceful Islamists will never successfully gain power through the democratic process.

Key to such a losing strategy would be doing anything you could to reinforce ISIS’s twisted narrative of an end-of-days battle between Islam and Christendom, a virtuous East versus a depraved West, an authentic Caliphate against hypocritical democracies.  In what amounts to a war of ideas, pursuing such policies would all but hand victory to ISIS and other jihadi extremist groups.  And so you would have successfully created a strategy for losing eternally in the Greater Middle East.  And if that was the desired outcome in Washington, well, congratulations all around, but of course we all know that it wasn’t.

Let’s take these three points in such a losing strategy one by one. (Of course “losing” is itself a contested term, but for our purposes, consider the U.S. to have lost as long as its military spins its wheels in a never-ending quagmire, while gradually empowering various local “adversaries.”)

Just a Few Thousand More Troops Will Get It Done…

There are already thousands of American soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Syria, to say nothing of the even more numerous troops and sailors stationed on bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey, and other states ringing America’s Middle Eastern battlefields.  Still, if you want to mainline into the fastest way to lose the next phase of the war on terror, just blindly acquiesce in the inevitable requests of your commanders for yet more troops and planes needed to finish the job in Syria ( and Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Yemen, and so on).

Let’s play this out.  First, the worst (and most plausible) case: U.S. ground forces get sucked into an ever more complex, multi-faceted civil war — deeper and deeper still, until one day they wake up in a world that looks like Baghdad, 2007, all over again.

Or, lest we be accused of defeatism, consider the best case: those endlessly fortified and reinforced American forces wipe the floor with ISIS and just maybe manage to engineer the toppling of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime as well.  It’s V-Day in the Middle East!  And then what?  What happens the day after? When and to whom do American troops turn over power? 

* The Kurds? That’s a nonstarter for Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, all countries with significant Kurdish minorities.

* The Saudis? Don’t count on it.  They’re busy bombing Houthi Shias in Yemen (with U.S.-supplied ordnance) and grappling with the diversification of their oil-based economy in a world in which fossil fuels are struggling.

* Russia? Fat chance. Bombing “terrorists”? Yes. Propping up an autocratic client to secure basing rights? Sure. Temporary transactional alliances of convenience in the region? Absolutely. But long-term nation-building in the heart of the Middle East? It’s just not the style of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a country with its own shaky petro-economy.

* So maybe leave Assad in power and turn the country back over to what’s left of his minority, Alawite-dominated regime? That, undoubtedly, is the road to hell.  After all, it was his murderous, barrel-bombing, child-gassing acts that all but caused the civil war in the first place.  You can be sure that, sooner or later, Syria’s majority Sunni population and its separatist Kurds would simply rebel again, while (as the last 15 years should have taught us) an even uglier set of extremists rose to the surface.

Keep in mind as well that, when it comes to the U.S. military, the Iraqi and Afghan “surges” of 2007 and 2009 offered proof positive that more ground troops aren’t a cure-all in such situations.  They are a formula for expending prodigious amounts of money and significant amounts of blood, while only further alienating local populations.  Meanwhile, unleashing manned and drone aircraft strikes, which occasionally kill large numbers of civilians, only add to the ISIS narrative.

Every mass casualty civilian bombing or drone strike incident just detracts further from American regional credibility.  While both air strikes and artillery barrages may hasten the offensive progress of America’s Kurdish, Iraqi, and Syrian allies, that benefit needs to be weighed against the moral and propaganda costs of those dead women and children.  For proof, see the errant bombing strike on an apartment building in Mosul last month.  After all, those hundred-plus civilians are just as dead as Assad’s recent victims and just as many angry, grieving family members and friends have been left behind.

In other words, any of the familiar U.S. strategies, including focusing all efforts on ISIS or toppling Assad, or a bit of both, won’t add up to a real policy for the region.  No matter how the Syrian civil war shakes out, Washington will need a genuine “what next” plan.  Unfortunately, if the chosen course predictably relies heavily on the military lever to shape Syria’s shattered society, America’s presence and actions will only (as in the past) aggravate the crisis and help rejuvenate its many adversaries.

“The Blessed Ban”

The Trump administration’s proposed “travel ban” quickly became fodder for left-versus-right vitriol in the U.S.  Here’s a rundown on what it’s likely to mean when it comes to foreign policy and the “next” war.  First, soaring domestic fears over jihadi terror attacks in this country and the possible role of migrants and refugees in stoking them represent a potentially catastrophic over-reaction to a modest threat.  Annually, from 2005 to 2015, terrorists killed an average of just seven Americans on U.S. soil.  You are approximately 18,000 times more likely to die in some sort of accident than from such an attack.  In addition, according to a study by the conservative Cato Institute, from 1975 to 2015 citizens of the countries included in Trump’s first ban (including Iraq and Syria) killed precisely zero people in the United States.  Nor has any refugee conducted a fatal domestic attack here.  Finally, despite candidate and President Trump’s calls for “extreme vetting” of Muslim refugees, the government already has a complex, two-year vetting process for such refugees which is remarkably “extreme.” 

Those are the facts.  What truly matters, however, is the effect of such a ban on the war of ideas in the Middle East.  In short, it’s manna from heaven for ISIS’s storyline in which Americans are alleged to hate all Muslims. It tells you everything you need to know that, within days of the administration’s announcement of its first ban, ISIS had taken to labeling it “blessed,” just as al-Qaeda once extolled George W. Bush’s 2003 “blessed invasion” of Iraq. Even Senator John McCain, a well-known hawk, worried that Trump’s executive order would “probably give ISIS some more propaganda.” 

Remember, while ISIS loves to claim responsibility for every attack in the West perpetrated by lost, disenfranchised, identity-seeking extremist youths, that doesn’t mean the organization actually directs them. The vast majority of these killers are self-radicalized citizens, not refugees or immigrants. One of the most effective — and tragic — ways to lose this war is to prove the jihadis right. 

The Hypocrisy Trap

Another way to feed the ISIS narrative is to bolster perceptions of diplomatic insincerity. Americans tend to be some of the least self-aware citizens on the planet. (Is it a coincidence that ours is about the only population left still questioning the existence of climate change?) Among the rare things that Democrats and Republicans agree on, however, is that America is a perennial force for good, in fact the force for good on Earth. As it happens, the rest of the world begs to differ. In Gallup global polls, the United States has, in fact, been identified as the number one threat to world peace!  However uncomfortable that may be, it matters.

One reason many Middle Easterners, in particular, believe this to be so stems from Washington’s longstanding support for regional autocrats.  In fiscal year 2017, Egypt’s military dictator and Jordan’s king will receive $1.46 and $1 billion respectively in U.S. foreign aid — nearly 7% of its total assistance budget.  After leading a coup to overturn Egypt’s elected government, General Sisi was officially persona non grata in the White House (though President Obama reinstated $1.3 billion in military aid in 2015).  Sisi’s recent visit to the Trump White House changed all that as, in a joint press conference, the president swore that he was “very much behind” Egypt and that Sisi himself had “done a fantastic job.”  In another indicator of future policy, the State Department dropped existing human rights conditions for the multibillion-dollar sale of F-16s to Bahrain’s monarchy.  All of this might be of mild interest, if it weren’t for the way it bolstered ISIS claims that democracy is just an “idol,” and the democratic process a fraud that American presidents simply ignore.

Then there’s Israel, already the object of deep hatred in the region, and now clearly about to receive a blank check of support from the Trump administration.  The role that Israeli leaders already play in American domestic politics is certainly striking to Arab audiences. Consider how unprecedented it was in 2015 to see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticize a sitting president before a joint session of Congress in an Israeli election year and receive multiple, bipartisan standing ovations.  Even so, none of this prevented the Obama administration, domestically labeled “weak on Israel,” from negotiating a record $38 billion military aid deal with that country. 

While violent Palestinian fighters are far from blameless, for 40 years Israel has increasingly created facts on the ground meant to preclude a viable Palestinian state.  Netanyahu and his predecessors increased illegal settlements in the Palestinian territories, built an exclusion wall, and further divided the West Bank by constructing a network of roads meant only for the Israeli military and Jewish settlers.

Although most world leaders, publics, and the United Nations see the Jewish settlements on the West Bank as a major impediment to peace, the current U.S. ambassador to Israel was once the president of a fundraising group supporting just such an Israeli settlement.  The notion that he could be an honest broker in peace talks borders on the farcical.

All of this, of course, matters when it comes to Washington’s unending wars in the region.  Even Secretary of Defense James Mattis, soon after leaving the helm of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), recognized that he “paid a military security price every day as a commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel.”  So, you want to lose?  Keep feeding the ISIS narrative on democracy and Israel just as the Trump administration is doing, even as it sends more troops into the region and heightens bombing and drone raids from Syria to Yemen.

Send in the Cavalry…

If the next phase of the generational struggle for the Middle East is once again to be essentially a military one, while the Trump administration feeds every negative American stereotype in the region, then it’s hard to see a future of anything but defeat. A combination of widespread American ignorance and the intellectual solace of simplistic models lead many here to ascribe jihadist terrorism to some grand, ethereal hatred of “Christendom.” 

The reality is far more discomfiting. Consider, for instance, a document from “ancient” history: Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa against the United States.  At that time, he described three tangible motives for jihad: U.S. occupation of Islam’s holiest lands in the Middle East, U.S. attacks on and sanctions against Iraq, and American support for Israel’s “occupation” of Jerusalem.  If ISIS and al-Qaeda’s center of gravity is not their fighting force but their ideology (as I believe it is), then the last thing Washington should want to do is substantiate any of these three visions of American motivation — unless, of course, the goal is to lose the war on terror across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa. 

In that case, the solution is obvious: Washington should indeed insert more troops and set up yet more bases in the region, maintain unqualified support for right-wing Israeli governments and assorted Arab autocrats, and do its best to ban Muslim refugees from America.  That, after all, represents the royal road to affirming al-Qaeda’s, and now ISIS’s, overarching narratives. It’s a formula — already well used in the last 15 years — for playing directly into the enemy’s hands and adhering to its playbook, for creating yet more failed states and terror groups throughout the region.

When it comes to Syria in particular, there are some shockingly unexamined contradictions at the heart of Washington’s reactions to its war there.  President Trump, for instance, recently spoke emotionally about the “beautiful babies cruelly murdered” in Idlib, Syria.  Yet, the administration’s executive order on travel bans any Syrian refugees — including beautiful babies — from entering this country.  If few Americans recognize the incongruity or hypocrisy of this, you can bet that isn’t true in the Arab world.

For ISIS, today’s struggle in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere is part of an unremitting, apocalyptic holy war between Islam and the West.  That narrative is demonstrably false.  The current generation of jihadis sprang from tangible grievances and perceived humiliations perpetrated by recent Western policies.  There was nothing “eternal” about it.  The first recorded suicide bombings in the Middle East didn’t erupt until the early 1980s.  So forget the thousand-year struggle or even, in Western terms, the “clash of civilizations.”  It took America’s military-first policies in the region to generate what has now become perpetual war with spreading terror insurgencies. 

Want a formula for forever war? Send in the cavalry… again.

Major Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He lives with his wife and four sons near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, as well as John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Danny Sjursen


As Leftist Turks Protest, Trump congratulates Erdogan on Authoritarian Turn

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Several hundred Turks demonstrated in Istanbul on Monday in protest at the referendum result on Sunday transforming Turkey into a presidential system and handing vast powers to right wing politician Tayyip Erdogan.

In contrast, US president Donald J. Trump called Erdogan to congratulate him on his victory. Social media is saying that Trump only wishes he could get the kind of power Erdogan just did.

Trump confidant Lt Gen. (ret) Mike Flynn was hired last summer and fall by a firm close to Erdogan and he appears to have hidden or under-reported his substantial income from Turkish graft. Had he not been forced out, Erdogan would have had a mole in the National Security Council.

In Istanbul, demonstrators shouted “Shoulder to Shoulder against Fascism!” as the marched on the HQ of the High Electoral Commission.

Another rally was held in Istanbul’s Besiktas neighborhood, known as a bastion of secularism.

Leaders of the People’s Republican Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the two opposition parties in parliament who hold about a third of the seats, hastened to reject the outcome of the referendum. They maintained that the High Electoral Commission decided after voting was already underway to count contested ballots, and that it was unfair to change the rules abruptly.

Scattered, smaller demonstrations took place throughout Turkey. Some 13 persons were arrested in Antalya.

France 24 reports that

“However, Tana de Zulueta, head of the observer mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe specifically criticised a decision by Turkey’s electoral board to accept ballots that did not have official stamps, saying it removed key safeguards and undermined the fight against fraud. The system is designed to ensure that only one vote is cast per registered person and to avoid the possibility of ballot box-stuffing.”

Also on Monday, Erdogan extended the state of emergency declared after the failed coup of July 15, 2016, for the third time. Under this law, basic civil liberties such as habeas corpus are suspended. Over 100,000 government employees have been fired in the past 8 months, with professors fired or chased out of the country along with journalists.


Related video:

The Young Turks: “Was Turkey’s Election Rigged? (Spoiler: Probably)”

Turkish Democracy in Trouble, but not Because of Presidential System

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Turkey’s historic referendum on Sunday will move the country from a parliamentary to a presidential system. Many observers are sounding a death knell for Turkish democracy as a result, but the move to presidentialism in and of itself isn’t the problem.

Interestingly, Erdogan won with a similar demographic profile to that of the 2016 US presidential election. Erdogan’s constitutional change largely triumphed on the basis of rural and provincial voters but was rejected by the big cities. Turkey’s equivalent of the Red States drove the change.

Turkey is in essence moving from a British parliamentary system to a French presidential one.

In a parliamentary system, there is no strong separation of powers, since the prime minister represents the executive but he is elected by and functions within the legislature.

In a presidential system, the is a separation of powers and parliament is not so beholden to the executive.

Although some political scientists have argued that parliamentary systems are more stable than presidential ones, others have complained that his generalization is skewed (most presidents were in Latin America, e.g.).

The 18-point referendum even has a few areas where it is more democratic. The age at which candidates can serve in parliament was lowered from 25 to 18!

The real problem with Turkish democracy is not that it is parliamentary or presidential. It is that it isn’t functioning very well and that the executive is grabbing extra-constitutional powers.

The July 15, 2016, failed coup, gave Erdogan the pretext to declare a state of emergency suspending civil liberties. (National states of emergency have always struck me as fairly stupid. The nation never needs its rights more than when there is an emergency). He has by decree just fired over 100,000 people from government jobs, has fired large numbers of university professors, has dissolved entire universities. In most instances there has been no judicial procedure.

There apparently hasn’t ever been any real freedom of the press in Turkey. This sad state of affairs was revealed with the Gezi Park protests in 2013, when it became obvious that the press was afraid to cover them or to offer a point of view on the protests differing from that of the government.

Since the failed coup, things have of course gotten dramatically worse, with many journalists jailed or chased out of the country. But these steps were taken in a parliamentary system, after all.

Then there is a tyranny of the majority. Tayyip Erdogan doesn’t believe in minority rights and Turkey has no Connecticut Compromise. Erdogan’s center-right, religiously-inflected Justice and Development Party (AKP) appears to have the reliable support of a bare simple majority of the population. But he is typically also supported by the rightwing nationalist party, the MHP. Between the two of them he typically has had about 2/3s of parliament behind him.

As long as that configuration remained stable (and it has been true since 2002), Erdogan and other AKP leaders have had virtually no checks, even in a parliamentary system.

Actually, in this referendum Erdogan’s typical coalition broke down slightly, so that he was not able to get 2/3s but only a simple majority. The larger cities all defected (Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir), even though Ankara and Istanbul had in the past been strongholds of AKP. So Erdogan won his referendum almost entirely on the basis of the rural Sunni Turkish vote. Rural Kurds in the southwest (many of whom had been in his parliamentary majority) also defected.

So Turkey’s system has been changed by provincial Turkish Sunnis, over the objection of urban people and of rural Kurds and Alevis.

Map-d2017. h/t Hurriyet

There are, of course, anti-democratic implications of some of these changes. Under the old system, the president was symbolic and could not remain head of a political party, so that Erdogan faced the possibility of losing control of the AKP. Now he can be president and party head at the same time (as the US president is). In essence, Erdogan has gained a potential political longevity under the new system that was not assured to him under the old. Since Erdogan’s actual aim is to move Turkey to a dictatorship Lite, what some call “illiberal democracy,” his new shot at remaining in power for a decade or more gives him plenty of time to implement that project. (I say this as someone who argued since the early 2000s that the AKP and Erdogan should be given a chance to build a pluralist society. You could say I was always wrong. Or you could say Erdogan abruptly changed on me. Either way, I haven’t come to this conclusion glibly).

He also can now shape the judiciary unilaterally, which bodes ill for the future. He will almost certainly pack the courts with, if not fundamentalists, then very conservative judges who lean toward religion.

In that sense, sure. Turkey’s brief experiment with pluralistic democracy is definitively over with. But probably it has been dead for a while, and some at the funeral were too polite to say so.


Related video:

Turkey referendum: Erdogan wins vote to expand presidential powers – BBC News

Why Population Exchange Fails: Over 100 Dead as Buses Bombed

by Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Someone detonated a car bomb in the (rebel-held) Rashideen district of Aleppo Province Friday night, killing over 100 and wounding over 500. It targeted lead buses that had brought in evacuees from two Shiite villages being evacuated because their sectarian complexion makes them sitting ducks in the civil war. Sunni extremists are being sent north to Idlib and Shiites will be sent south to take over the evacuated formerly Sunni lands.

The Shiites from Kefraya and al-Foua, then, were on their way down south, having been swapped out for Sunni villages on Lebanon’s border (Madaya and Zabadani) where Salafi Jihadi extremists– Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate and its close ally the Freemen of Syria– had been starved by the regime (along with women, children and other noncombatants.) The population exchange is controversial because it seems to involve acquiescing in a logic of ethnic cleansing contrary to the values of the nation.

The Saudi press and pro-rebel outlets are trying to blame the bombing on the regime. But since the regime of Bashar al-Assad negotiated this swap with the Qatari government, it is difficult to see the motive for reneging. The people who regularly blow things up with suicide bombings are the al-Qaeda affiliate and its close allies. That is not a government m.o.

Population transfer, like partitioning countries, always occurs to dictatorial or colonial regimes in the midst of civil wars.

Partition seldom works. India and Pakistan were partitioned but went on fighting one another, resulting in 3 major conventional wars and then almost a nuclear exchange in 2002.

As for population transfer, it can save individual lives but no one should doubt that it is hugely disruptive, and creates long-term enmities that do more harm than good. Ben Gurion’s population exchange beginning in 1948 has left millions of Palestinians stateless and homeless, without rights or even the right to have rights.

Syria would do better to foster political compromise. Then you would not have to move anyone around. The sanguinary bombings this weekend clearly demonstrate that top-down ethnic cleaning does not produce peace.


Related video:

Al Jazeera English: “Syria: Many killed as blast hits evacuation convoy in Aleppo”

Posted in Featured,Syria | 9 Responses | Print |

40% of California Grid Power from Solar, Sometimes Costs less than Nothing

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

For the first time, on the day of March 23, 40% of Californian grid power between 11 am and 2 pm was generated by utility-scale solar plants.

This proportion was a seasonal effect but not a fluke, and it certainly points to what will be routine in the very near future.

California has so much solar power now that sometimes the price of electricity turns negative. Natural gas plant owners actually have to pay the state to take their electricity when that happens. But they make up for it during high-demand periods.

The negative prices were not passed on to consumers because they get charged for the whole mix, and California electricity rates are among the highest in the country.

If you count in the electricity generated by rooftop solar panels, then on that day at that time, California was actually getting fifty percent of its electricity from solar.

This level of solar electricity generation is new in California. During the past year, there has been a 50% increase in utility-scale solar generation.

California now has nearly 10 gigawatts of solar power. That is more than the entire country of Britain. It is more than the entire country of France. Even more than the entire country of India.

If you looked at all the electricity generated in California on the day of March 23, you’d find that 56.7 percent of it was generated by renewewables– in addition to solar there are wind turbines, hydroelectric from dams, geothermal and biomass.

Jobs in solar energy in California expanded by 67% year on year.

California wants a third of its grid energy to come from renewables in only 3 years, in 2020. It wants the proportion to rise to 50% by 2030.

Related video:

Wochit: ” Solar Power Continues to Grow in California”

In 3 months, Trump has Charged into 4 Mideast Wars, to no Avail

Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

In his less than three months in office, Donald Trump has escalated four wars, and all of his escalations have been failures.

To be fair, Trump inherited all 4 wars from Barack Obama– Afghanistan, Iraq v. ISIL, Leftist Kurds v ISIL in Syria, and targeting support and tactical advice to Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

Trump campaigned on reducing such foreign entanglements and focusing on the US and its needs. But in office he has declined to rethink any of these commitments and indeed has escalated in each theater.

Trump’s first escalation was in Yemen, in late January. He sent in a team of navy Seals to attack an alleged al-Qaeda compound. But the man he was targeting had switched sides and was supporting the Yemeni government. The raid produced no useful intelligence and the target disappeared. A navy Seal was killed along with some 30 civilians, including children. The raid did not further the Saudi war aim of defeating the Houthi militia– it was aimed at al-Qaeda in Yemen, which has taken advantage of the Saudi intervention to grab territory.

In Iraq in late March, once Trump came in, the restrictive rules of operation for the military insisted on by Obama were loosened by the US miltitary. A bombing by a US aircraft caused the collapse of a civilian apartment complex, killing at least 200 innocent civilians.

In Syria’s Northeastern Front, Trump doubled the number of US special ops troops embeded with the leftist Kurdish militia, the YPG. These forces are intended to attack ISIL in its Syrian capital, Raqqa, but despite promises by Trump, no such concerted new campaign has begun. Then when it appeared last week that the Syrian regime used poison gas in its struggle against the al-Qaeda affiliate and its allies in the Northwestern Front at Idlib, Trump dropped 59 Tomahawk missiles on a small airbase. No significant damage was done and Syria was flying missions again the next day.

On Thursday, Trump hit with an 11 ton bomb some caves in Nangarhar, Afghanistan, said to be being used by Taliban rebels who had joined ISIL. The US has lost 1/3 of Afghanistan to fundamentalist rebels, mostly Taliban, in a 16-year war that is going worse now than than at any time since spring, 2002. There is no prospect of defeating guerrillas with air power, no matter how massive. The US carpet-bombed Vietnam and still lost. The desperation of the Trump administration is demonstrated by the use of old Saddam Hussein hyperbole, calling the missile ‘The Mother of all Bombs.’ Trump is actually translating his propaganda directly from Dictator Arabic! Saddam had called the Gulf War ‘the Mother of all Battles’ (Umm al-Ma’arik), though this was a literal press translation. The phrase means the ‘essence of all battles.’ Saddam’s hyperbole did not serve him well.

What all four Trump interventions in his ongoing US wars in the Middle East have in common is that they were splashy, produced headlines for a day, and altered the course of the conflict not a jot or a tittle.

Trump is gradually inducting his Four Wars into his Reality-Show universe, where everything is done for ratings and just for show.


Related video:

CBS – “Mother of all bombs” dropped in Afghanistan, targeting ISIS-