Thursday, December 31, 2015

Antarctica: The Future

Appropriate for a New Year's Eve is yesterday's frontpager, "Countries Rush for Upper Hand in Antarctica," by spooky Simon Romero, the Gray Lady's Brazil bureau chief and scold of any and all Latin American movement for social justice. As one would expect from Romero, he paints a word picture of a Cold Waresque land grab underway for the resource rich territory at the bottom of the world:
More than a century has passed since explorers raced to plant their flags at the bottom of the world, and for decades to come this continent is supposed to be protected as a scientific preserve, shielded from intrusions like military activities and mining.

But an array of countries are rushing to assert greater influence here, with an eye not just toward the day those protective treaties expire, but also for the strategic and commercial opportunities that exist right now.

“The newer players are stepping into what they view as a treasure house of resources,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a scholar at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who specializes in Antarctic politics.
Some of the ventures focus on the Antarctic resources that are already up for grabs, like abundant sea life. China and South Korea, both of which operate state-of-the-art bases here, are ramping up their fishing of krill, the shrimplike crustaceans found in abundance in the Southern Ocean, while Russia recently thwarted efforts to create one of the world’s largest ocean sanctuaries here.

Some scientists are examining the potential for harvesting icebergs from Antarctica, which is estimated to have the biggest reserves of fresh water on the planet. Nations are also pressing ahead with space research and satellite projects to expand their global navigation abilities.

Building on a Soviet-era foothold, Russia is expanding its monitoring stations for Glonass, its version of the Global Positioning System. At least three Russian stations are already operating in Antarctica, part of its effort to challenge the dominance of the American GPS, and new stations are planned for sites like the Russian base, in the shadow of the Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity.

Elsewhere in Antarctica, Russian researchers boast of their recent discovery of a freshwater reserve the size of Lake Ontario after drilling through miles of solid ice.

“You can see that we’re here to stay,” said Vladimir Cheberdak, 57, chief of the Bellingshausen Station, as he sipped tea under a portrait of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, an officer and later admiral in the Imperial Russian Navy who explored the Antarctic coast in 1820.
It goes on like that -- you know, the ruthless and acquisitive Russians and Chinese -- before the reader nears the end of the piece to discover -- lo and behold! -- that the gentle U.S. giant is actually by far the largest squatter on Antarctica:
As some countries expand operations in Antarctica, the United States maintains three year-round stations on the continent with more than 1,000 people during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, including those at the Amundsen-Scott station, built in 1956 at an elevation of 9,301 feet on a plateau at the South Pole. But American researchers quietly grumble about budget restraints and having far fewer icebreakers than Russia, limiting the reach of the United States in Antarctica.
This incessant good-guy-vs.-bad-guy division makes reading the daily news tiresome; it is part of my motivation for posting occasionally on comic books. The point I want to make is that there is not that much difference between the media; in fact, I would argue that depictions of good vs. evil are on average much richer and more complex in comic books than in the prestige press.

The reason why Romero's feature on Antarctica is appropriate for New Year's Eve is because it is about the future -- future mineral wealth, fish stocks, fresh water, energy resources. The continent is governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, the part of which banning mining comes up for review in 2048:
Antarctica’s mineral, oil and gas wealth are a longer-term prize. The treaty banning mining here, shielding coveted reserves of iron ore, coal and chromium, is expected to come up for review by 2048 and could be challenged before then. Researchers recently found kimberlite deposits hinting at the existence of diamonds. And while assessments vary widely, geologists estimate that Antarctica holds at least 36 billion barrels of oil and natural gas.
I have been accumulating a stockpile of books on Antarctica since I was in my twenties when I read Edgar Allan Poe's tremendous novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), which speculates that Antarctica (the book was written prior to the exploration of the South Pole) was populated by black people. At the end of the book Pym confronts a godlike white figure before disappearing in a rent in fabric of the Earth.

Another great novel where Antarctica plays a role is Robert Stone's Outerbridge Reach (1992), a fictional retelling of Donald Crowhurst's doomed and falsified single-hand, round-the-world yacht race. Antarctica is about the unknown and the unknowable, and so too is the future.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Kline-Miller Cromnibus Amendment One Year Later: Teamsters Central States Pension Fund Looking at Benefit Cuts of Up to 60%

One of the more popular posts on this page was last December's "Kline-Miller Cromnibus Amendment: The Coming Death of Defined-Benefit Pensions," which basically cribbed a post of Naked Capitalism's Lambert Strether and then tacked on my own experience about my union pension fund, soon after the Lehman Brothers meltdown, going into the red, which was followed by a host of devastating benefit cuts. It was clear to me last year that the Kline-Miller amendment was intended to free pension-fund boards of the strictures imposed by ERISA, allowing them the flexibility to cut benefits prior to going into "red" or critical status (a version of the famous quote from the Vietnam War, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it"). Well, one year on, that certainly appears to be what is happening.

In the last four months I left my job at a large, statewide union local for a position with a countywide central labor council. A lot of information -- newsletters, newspapers, magazines, email -- from various union locals, internationals and other central labor councils crosses my desk; I try to ingest as much of it as I can. The other day the winter issue of Teamster magazine arrived in the office. Front-loaded in it are two pieces, "Central States Shouldn’t Cut Pensions" and General President James P. Hoffa's "Retirees, Workers Deserve to Receive Their Pensions," about the enormous impact -- cuts of up to 60% -- of the Kline-Miller Cromnibus amendment on the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund.

Let me quote "Central States Shouldn't Cut Pensions" in its entirety:
Workers and retirees contributing to the Central States Pension Fund are having their retirement security threatened by legislation passed by Congress last fall that allows pension funds to cut active and retiree benefits. Administrators of the pension plan filed a petition with the U.S. Treasury Department in late September that would cut pensions by as much as 60 percent.
In an October letter sent to Fund Executive Director Thomas Nyhan, Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa told Nyhan that the proposed cuts are simply outrageous.
“Trying to prop up Central States by proposing draconian pension cuts that will impose significant hardships on the very people the Fund is supposed to serve makes no sense,” he said. “The benefits these workers and retirees earned were the result of their own hard work as well as that of their fellow Teamsters.”
That’s why the Teamsters have been supportive of several legislative fixes. The “Keep Our Pension Promises Act” (KOPPA) would protect workers and retirees from cuts to their earned retirement benefits. The legislation would roll back provisions that were slipped into the fiscal 2015 spending bill approved by Congress last year that made earned pension benefits vulnerable to cuts.
And new legislation by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) would guarantee thousands of retirees and workers threatened by deep cuts to their pensions a meaningful voice in deciding their own future.

The “Pension Accountability Act” shows that lawmakers across the political spectrum recognize a fix is needed. While it’s not a complete solution, Sen. Portman’s bill would be a start. 
Either way, Congress is unlikely to take action unless they hear from constituents. The Teamsters are asking workers to contact their elected officials and ask them to support both legislative bills. Central States should pull its horrific pension proposal. But if it doesn’t, the Teamsters Union is not backing down.
Teamsters Central States Pension Fund is probably the most "glamorous" pension fund in history in that it plays a central role in Martin Scorsese's 1995 film classic Casino. Instead of using the pension fund largesse to buy up Las Vegas real estate, as it once did, the fund administrators are now slashing retiree benefits. This is a sad but telling commentary of what the United States has become.

The death of defined benefit pensions goes hand in hand with the loss of capitalism's legitimacy in the United States, as well as the legitimacy of two-party democracy. Electoral, representative democracy established itself in the 19th century along with an unspoken acceptance of the Benthamite utilitarian notion of "the greatest good for the greatest number." With the collapse of pensions we no longer live in a society whose mantra is "the greatest good for the greatest number." That is why right now we are just beginning to understand that there is going to be hell to pay.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Guess What? We Don't Need to Live in a Police State

Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former Clinton and Obama administration power broker and macho-posturing one-percenter, is in trouble. As Monica Davey reported the other day, "Rahm Emanuel, Under Siege in Chicago, Shows Contrite Side":
Mr. Emanuel swept into the mayor’s office in 2011, helped in part by what black Chicagoans knew about him at the time: that Mr. Obama trusted him. Four years later, he faced a steeper climb in a city that had gotten to know him better. He was forced into a runoff with Jesus G. Garcia, a county commissioner who was seeking to become the city’s first Latino mayor, partly because of critics who said Mr. Emanuel was too brusque and more attentive to the wishes of downtown interests than the needs of residents from some poorer neighborhoods.
The mayor, whose clash with public schoolteachers helped set off the city’s first teachers’ strike in a quarter-century, drew special anger in 2013 for overseeing the closing of nearly 50 public schools, many of them in black and Latino neighborhoods. After winning the unexpectedly tense campaign in April, Mr. Emanuel promised that he had gotten the city’s message.
The start of Mr. Emanuel’s second term already was complicated by the city’s fiscal problems. Facing mounting pension payments and sinking credit ratings, Mr. Emanuel pushed through the largest property tax increase in the city’s modern history. Also, the possibility of another teachers’ strike looms.
The fatal shootings Saturday morning occurred on the city’s West Side, the police said, after officers answered a call about a domestic disturbance and were confronted by a “combative” man who relatives said was wielding a baseball bat. The man, Quintonio LeGrier, was shot dead, as was a bystander, Bettie Jones, a first-floor tenant who the police said was hit accidentally by officers’ shots. Mr. LeGrier’s relatives said that he had mental health problems and that the deaths raised questions about the Police Department’s handling of mental illness and about its use of weapons near bystanders.
Mr. Emanuel’s spokesman said the mayor was monitoring the events closely and had been in communication since early Saturday with the Police Department and his office. Mr. Emanuel spoke to the family of Ms. Jones on Sunday to offer his condolences, his spokesman said.
“Anytime an officer uses force, the public deserves answers, and regardless of the circumstances we all grieve anytime there is a loss of life in our city,” the statement from Mr. Emanuel said. “With that in mind, I have been informed that the Independent Police Review Authority has opened investigations into each shooting, and that all evidence will be shared with the Cook County state’s attorney’s office for additional review in the days ahead.”
But the focus of criticism against Mr. Emanuel has been the McDonald case. For months after Mr. McDonald, 17, was killed on the Southwest Side on Oct. 20, 2014, the city kept a police dashboard camera video of the shooting private. It showed Officer Jason Van Dyke firing at Mr. McDonald even after he lay crumpled on the ground. Mr. McDonald had been carrying a knife, but he appeared to veer slightly away from officers when Officer Van Dyke fired the fatal shots. 
Mr. Emanuel has said the city’s longstanding policy is to keep videos private until prosecutors’ investigations are complete. In Mr. McDonald’s case, the city announced in April that it would pay his family $5 million even before a lawsuit was filed. Yet the city refused to make public the video until a judge ordered it last month; only hours before the release, the Cook County state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez, charged Officer Van Dyke with murder in the shooting. 
Since then, Mr. Emanuel has fired his police superintendent, Garry F. McCarthy; replaced the head of an agency that investigates the most egregious complaints against officers; appointed a task force to recommend changes to the department; and met this month with Justice Department officials as they started a broad review of the Police Department. Mr. Emanuel, who says he did not view the McDonald video until the rest of Chicago saw it in November, made an emotional speech before the City Council apologizing for the death and pledging reforms. 
Yet demonstrators here complain that Mr. Emanuel should have released the video months ago. They question whether his stressful re-election bid played a role in the city’s quick settlement with the McDonald family and its efforts to keep the video private — claims Mr. Emanuel’s office vehemently denies. Regardless, the demonstrators say Mr. Emanuel should have demanded changes in the Police Department, with its well-documented history of mistreating black residents, long ago.
The problem for big city mayors, as New York City's Bill de Blasio discovered last year around this time, is any criticism of the "thin blue line" can lead to an open revolt. Then metropolitan citizens of the indispensable nation are confronted with the ugly realization that they actually belong to a banana republic. To question the sovereign infallibility of the police is to invite retribution. I saw it up close during the Seattle WTO when my neighborhood, home to a community college with a radical activist student body, was perceived to be a hotbed of protest and anti-police sentiment. For a week or two following the ministerial it felt like we were under quarantine.

Last week Naked Capitalism posted Matthew Haywood's helpful outline of the post-Ferguson state of affairs for American policing, "The Logic of the Police State in America," the gist of which is that police forces across the country, feeling the pressure of Black Lives Matter, are attempting to protect their "above-the-law" privileges.

The problem for the popo is in their main argument, which Haywood summarizes as follows:
If you’ve been listening to various police agencies and their supporters, then you know what the future holds: anarchy is coming — and it’s all the fault of activists.
In May, a Wall Street Journal op-ed warned of a “new nationwide crime wave” thanks to “intense agitation against American police departments” over the previous year. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie went further. Talking recently with the host of CBS’s Face the Nation, the Republican presidential hopeful asserted that the Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t about reform but something far more sinister. “They’ve been chanting in the streets for the murder of police officers,” he insisted. Even the nation’s top cop, FBI Director James Comey, weighed in at the University of Chicago Law School, speaking of “a chill wind that has blown through American law enforcement over the last year.”
According to these figures and others like them, lawlessness has been sweeping the nation as the so-called Ferguson effect spreads. Criminals have been emboldened as police officers are forced to think twice about doing their jobs for fear of the infamy of starring in the next viral video. The police have supposedly become the targets of assassins intoxicated by “anti-cop rhetoric,” just as departments are being stripped of the kind of high-powered equipment they need to protect officers and communities.  Even their funding streams have, it’s claimed, come under attack as anti-cop bias has infected Washington, D.C.  Senator Ted Cruz caught the spirit of that critique by convening a Senate subcommittee hearing to which he gave the title, “The War on Police: How the Federal Government Undermines State and Local Law Enforcement.” According to him, the federal government, including the president and attorney general, has been vilifying the police, who are now being treated as if they, not the criminals, were the enemy.
Haywood goes on to describe how violent attacks against the police are at all-time low. What is more problematic for the police state is the case of New York City, where the end of aggressive law enforcement, in the form of stop and frisk, led not to a spike in crime, as many pundits and cops predicted, but to a significant drop in crime. This from yesterday's unsigned editorial: "New York City Policing, by the Numbers":
The warnings began even before Bill de Blasio was sworn in as New York City’s mayor in January 2014. A safe New York depended on the aggressive policing tactics that began in the 1990s and flourished under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his police commissioner, Ray Kelly. Without those tactics, the doomsayers said, the city would be swamped by a 1970s-style crime wave. 
After a federal judge ruled in 2013 that the Police Department’s “stop and frisk” policy was so sweeping that it violated the Constitution, Mr. Kelly was furious. “Violent crime will go up,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “No question about it.” 
That prediction has, of course, been proved wrong, as crime in the city remains at historic lows under Mayor de Blasio and his police commissioner, William Bratton, even as arrests, stops and summonses continue to plummet after a peak in 2011. 
An illuminating new report released by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice provides the most comprehensive analysis yet of the numbers behind the rise and fall of police “enforcement actions” over the past decade. Between 2011 and 2014, the report found, the total number of these actions — defined as arrests for felonies and misdemeanors, criminal summonses, and stop-and-frisks — fell by more than 800,000, or 31 percent. 
The biggest drop was in street stops, which had skyrocketed to more than 685,000 in 2011 from 160,000 in 2003. Some officers admitted they felt constant pressure to meet arbitrary productivity quotas, but the effect was to disproportionately target young African-American men, most of whom were doing nothing wrong. By 2014, the number of stops was under 46,000 — a 93 percent decline in only three years, with stops going down most sharply in those poorer and minority neighborhoods where they grew the fastest over the previous decade.
Guess what? We don't need to live in a police state.

Monday, December 28, 2015

It Can Happen Here

One thing I noticed over the holiday, because I found myself in front of a television with cable, is that the latest CNN poll shows Donald Trump with a stable and commanding lead -- more than double -- over his nearest challenger. Yet why is it that most mainstream commentators persistently deny that Trump will win? Yesterday conservative columnist Ross Douthat, in an otherwise interesting op-ed, "Cracks in the Liberal Order," flat out says "Trump will not be the Republican nominee (yes, really)."

Do these commentators see something that we are missing or are they just singing for their supper? The easy answer is the latter. Clearly a circling of the wagons is going on. Trump is perceived as a threat by the elites who sit atop a crumbling order. No analyst or commentator wants to catch the baleful eye of his boss for trumpeting the Donald.

But maybe conservatives like Douthat and liberals like Nate Silver have the sagacity to look past the obvious. If the neoliberal order survived not only intact but with an even greater distribution of pie for the 1% after the Lehman Brothers meltdown and Obama's two progressive landslides, what real threat does a populist challenge from the right pose or really any of the myriad threats from whatever quarter? To pick up Douthat where he left off with Trump:
Bernie Sanders won’t beat Hillary. Far-left antics at Amherst and Oberlin and Claremont McKenna and Yale are not as significant as elite college graduates like to think.
In Europe, Jeremy Corbyn probably won’t be Britain’s next prime minister, Marine Le Pen probably won’t be France’s next president, Sweden probably isn’t about to turn fascist, the E.U. probably isn’t about to break apart. Houellebecq’s vision of an Islamified Europe, like ISIS’s vision of a new Islamic empire or Putin’s Stalinist nostalgia, is more a resonant fantasy than a plausible atlas of the future. 
It’s still wise to bet on the current order, in other words, and against its enemies and rivals and would-be saboteurs. 
But after liberalism’s year of living dangerously, for the first time in a long time it might make sense to hedge that bet.
Conservative Douthat is making much the same argument as Marxist Tariq Ali made in his book The Extreme Centre: A Warning (2015) -- neoliberalism still has a lot of juice left. At least Douthat allows that it might be wise to start looking for a hedge.

Next year should be very interesting. Depending on how the GOP primary unfolds, Republican power brokers will likely try to block Trump at the convention. Barring that, there will be moves made in the background to make sure a wounded Hillary wins the general election.

Either way, Trump unbowed or Trump beaten into the dust, the political system after Obama is stressed, its legitimacy in doubt.

Given that the Joint Chiefs worked against the Commander in Chief in order to prevent the Middle East from descending into even greater chaos, and recognizing the fact that the armed forces are the recipient of an enormous, ongoing public relations campaign, one can imagine a situation like that which unfolded in Egypt or Thailand happening here in the not-too-distant future.

Ghost Racers #4

Why read comic books when there is so much else to read? This is a question I constantly ask myself. When an answer is forthcoming it is not always the same. But the short and simple version is that reading comic books is a form of palliative care. Life is stressful and reading a comic book on a Saturday afternoon is a form of  re-creation.

When you go to a gallery or a museum of art you stand in front of a painting. Sometimes something happens. You feel something. You are not quite in your body. It is as if you are occupying a perceptual space that is outside yourself; you have, however momentarily, escaped the self.

This is what happens when I read comic books. A few weekends back I finished the last issue of Ghost Racers -- part of Marvel's Battleworld reboot, written by Felipe Smith, with art by Juan Gedeon -- and I found myself pleasantly dislocated. The story is a threadbare version of the threadbare Jason Statham film, Death Race (2008). Somehow I was transported by Gedeon's drawing and Tamra Bonvillain's colors.

Below are 15 scans from Ghost Racers #4.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Hersh on the Squalor that is Obama's Antinomial Syria Policy

Every six months to a year Seymour Hersh publishes a story in The London Review of Books that confirms for those of us who try to stay abreast of the daily news what we already know.

In his latest story, "Military to Military," Hersh relies on his longtime anonymous source within the Pentagon to inform us that following an exhaustive Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analysis completed in the summer of 2013 (prior to the false-flag Ghouta sarin attack), which concluded that regime change in Syria would lead to another Libya, a failed state rife with rival Salafi jihadists committing a series of escalating atrocities, the Joint Chiefs under General Martin Dempsey decided to undercut the Obama administration's covert regime-change program. Dempsey accomplished this by feeding intelligence to Russia, Israel and Germany, knowing full well that it would be passed along to Syria.

Why this is being considered a "bombshell" I don't know. It is reported in the mainstream press if not daily at least on a regular basis, and has been for years, that the Obama administration is pursuing a contradictory policy in relation to Syria. On the one hand Obama says "Assad must go"; while on the other hand, he makes sure not to grease the skids to Assad's exit. For instance, the U.S. does not supply antiaircraft weapons to the mythical "moderates" who are battling the Baathists, nor does it enforce a no-fly/no-go zone the type of which the U.S. implemented in Saddam Hussein's Iraq (what Hillary has in Strangelovian fashion been calling for from her lectern in the Democratic debates despite the presence of the Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile system). The one obvious fact for a news consumer about the U.S. policy towards Syria is that it is a contradiction.

Hersh gives us a plain-spoken insider's perspective how this contradiction has played out in the corridors of power over the last several years. In his opening paragraph, Hersh situates the U.S. contradiction on Syria within Obama's reboot of the Cold War with Russia and China, something which I believe will mark Obama in the annals as one of the worst leaders in U.S. history.
Barack Obama’s repeated insistence that Bashar al-Assad must leave office – and that there are ‘moderate’ rebel groups in Syria capable of defeating him – has in recent years provoked quiet dissent, and even overt opposition, among some of the most senior officers on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff. Their criticism has focused on what they see as the administration’s fixation on Assad’s primary ally, Vladimir Putin. In their view, Obama is captive to Cold War thinking about Russia and China, and hasn’t adjusted his stance on Syria to the fact both countries share Washington’s anxiety about the spread of terrorism in and beyond Syria; like Washington, they believe that Islamic State must be stopped.
Hersh is merciless when it comes to Obama's favorite fiction, that of a decent non-jihadist opposition that is bravely fighting the bloodthirsty Syrian state; it doesn't exist, something that the DIA figured out and which, according to Hersh, motivated the Pentagon to undercut the CIA's funneling of weapons from Libya into Syria via Turkey. Once across the border, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) would promptly unload their Western-&-GCC supplied arms to the jihadists. This has all been reported before, as has been Turkey's active and nefarious role, but it is always helpful to read it again, and in such clean, clear prose.

One of the aspects of the disinformation campaign in the mainstream press that I have been interested in is the shifting explanations of how ISIS funds itself. The whopper told right from the get-go during the dark days of the collapse of the Iraqi Army and the capture of Mosul was that ISIS funded itself by stealing the hard currency in banks in territory under its control. Never mind the absurdity of claiming the outcome of an event, the capture of Mosul, as the source of its funding. There you have it. It was regularly repeated in the mainstream press when ISIS went on its blitzkrieg in June 2014.

The next ISIS funding source du jour became black market oil. No doubt there was some truth to this, but the revenue numbers thrown around seemed ludicrously inflated to me. It made no sense that with oil prices depressed globally the caliphate jihadists could be raking in $100 a barrel.

Then suddenly, after the Friday the 13th Paris massacre, when it became inconvenient to acknowledge any connection between the West, its allies and the Islamic State, the black market oil trade had to be erased as the explanation of how the caliphate generated funds to pay the wages for its tens of thousands of fighters and to provide all the weapons and munitions in their possession. The next funding source presented by the press was extortion and ad hoc taxation. The ISIS jihadists are shakedown artists raising money by fining women for an inappropriate hijab or bakers for baking bread.

All these excuses are thrown out there to obscure the obvious: The jihadists get their principal funding from the Gulf sheikhdoms. Saudi Arabia funds the Syrian opposition. And we know that there are precious few "moderates" who remain among the opposition. So the obvious inference is that the Gulf sheikhs must fund ISIS as well. As Hersh notes,
In the early stages of the talks, the adviser said, the Joint Chiefs tried to establish what Assad needed as a sign of their good intentions. The answer was sent through one of Assad’s friends: ‘Bring him the head of Prince Bandar.’ The Joint Chiefs did not oblige. Bandar bin Sultan had served Saudi Arabia for decades in intelligence and national security affairs, and spent more than twenty years as ambassador in Washington. In recent years, he has been known as an advocate for Assad’s removal from office by any means. Reportedly in poor health, he resigned last year as director of the Saudi National Security Council, but Saudi Arabia continues to be a major provider of funds to the Syrian opposition, estimated by US intelligence last year at $700 million.
More proof along these lines is Monday's lengthy story, "Behind the Black Flag: The Recruitment of an ISIS Killer," about front-line jihadist commander Hassan Aboud. Aboud started his own local brigade after the Arab Spring uprising, the Dawood Brigade, but in 2013 he was offered $2 million by ISIS to join them:
People who know Mr. Aboud describe a series of meetings with Islamic State leaders from Iraq, including with Abu Ali al-Anbari, a former Iraqi military officer who moved outside the city of Aleppo with a security contingent and a mission to recruit local commanders. 
Abu Ameen described a “secret operational phase” by ISIS in 2013 that targeted rebel and activist networks. Its timing aligned with Mr. Aboud’s disputes, he said, “and Dawood Brigade is one of the groups that was infiltrated.” 
At one point, activists said, Abu Ali called a meeting of rebel leaders in Idlib Province to discuss relationships with ISIS. He also sent ISIS agents to Sarmin to woo Mr. Aboud, who had begun to noticeably fall under the Islamic State’s sway. 
Mr. Dugheim said he mediated between Abu Issa and Mr. Aboud at the time. ISIS, he said, was flattering the brigade with attention and gifts. 
“ISIS offered Hassan Aboud a big amount of money — $2 million — when Hassan Aboud actually had nothing in hand,” Mr. Dugheim said. “They gave him weapons and money and food.” 
This sum could not be independently confirmed.
What jumped out at me was not only the amount, $2 million for a mid-level commander, but the year, 2013. ISIS didn't claim control of Fallujah until the beginning of 2014. That much money tossed around for someone like Aboud reeks of Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

In the end, Hersh provides a lucid picture of the squalor of the Obama administration's Syria policy, which he summarizes as follows:
The four core elements of Obama’s Syria policy remain intact today: an insistence that Assad must go; that no anti-IS coalition with Russia is possible; that Turkey is a steadfast ally in the war against terrorism; and that there really are significant moderate opposition forces for the US to support.
One silver lining  is the Nobel Peace Prize winning POTUS will hasten the collapse of the radical neoliberal center. European leaders are already moving to embrace Hungary's Orbanism, as the radical left finds an electoral footing. We are seeing the sunset of the EU as NATO lackey and lickspittle to U.S. hegemony. Only good can come of this.


I'm out of town for the holiday. The next post should be this weekend.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan: The Promise of Elections Will Not Bring Peace

There is little reason to hope that anything will come of the UN-approved peace plan for Syria announced last Friday. Just look at how poorly peace talks on Yemen have gone; and with Yemen you don't have nearly the number of large-state actors with their fingers in the mix as is the case with Syria. In Yemen, like in Syria, a significant problem is how to contain the efflorescence of Salafi jihadists who are supported by Saudi Arabia. Kareem Fahim and Saleed al-Batati report in "Yemen Peace Talks End With No End to Conflict" that
In recent days, anti-Houthi fighters have mounted a broad offensive across several northern provinces, and captured new territory, including a provincial capital. [What about the ceasefire?] The anti-Houthi forces are backed by a Saudi-led military coalition that has been conducting an aerial campaign against the rebels since March. Human rights groups say that bombing by the coalition is responsible for the majority of civilian deaths during the war. 
The Saudi-led coalition carried out airstrikes in Sana and other areas on Saturday and Sunday. And the Houthis, who have been making increasingly bold military incursions across the border into Saudi Arabia, have fired ballistic missiles at the Saudi-backed forces in the past few days, according to Yemeni military officials.
It appears that the Houthis are flying the white flag, but to no avail:
Nasser Bagazgooz, who was part of the Houthi delegation, asserted that his side had made “big” concessions, including agreeing to withdraw Houthi forces from cities and from government institutions, and to hand over weapons.

The Houthis had asked for the formation of a new government “from across the political spectrum,” and elections within a year, he added.
The Houthis are basically mirroring the UN-outlined peace process for Syria. But the Saudis don't seem to find this acceptable, which should tell us how smoothly things will go in January.

Interestingly, elections are also on the mind of a nascent opposition movement within the quisling Afghan government. But first a few words on the dire military predicament in Afghanistan from this morning's "Situation Report" by Foreign Policy's Paul McLeary:
Taliban keeps pushing. NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan may have ended last December, but the deaths of six U.S. soldiers near Bagram airbase on Monday, and the rushed deployments of U.S. and British forces to Helmand province to hold back a resurgent Taliban, tell a very different story. 
The loss of six soldiers in one strike is the largest battlefield loss for the U.S. in Afghanistan in well over a year, and more than doubles American combat fatalities there in 2015, which stood at four before Monday.
Renewed Taliban offensives across the country call into question the effectiveness of the Afghan army, which continues to struggle despite years of training and billions spent on equipping the force. And now, American commandos are back in the fight in the southern province of Helmand to backstop Afghan forces, who are in danger of losing control of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah and the key town of Sangin, FP’s Paul McLeary reports.
British troops have also been sent to Helmand, though London insists they are only acting in an advisory role. It’s worth remembering that Sangin resonates deeply with the British public, “as more than 100 of their 456 fatalities in Afghanistan since the start of the war in 2001 took place in the district,” the AP notes.
Mujib Mashal reported in yesterday's paper, "Afghan Government Faces New Set of Rivals," that allies of former president Hamid Karzai are demanding that the Ghani-Abdullah government honor pledges to hold elections within nine months. There is a hardcore segment of this opposition who want a loya jirga convened immediately and a caretaker government put in place:
It was unlikely that the members of the opposition council would have much popular support, because many of them had controversial pasts, Mr. Safi said. [Wadir Safi, a lecturer of political science at Kabul University.] But the government’s abysmal record has given many of them hope that they can exercise some power anyway, he added.
“The problem is also that the government hasn’t delivered at all — the two men came together in an illegal agreement, they have talked a lot and delivered nothing, and they are trying to extend that,” Mr. Safi said.
Mr. Ghani’s government came to power through a power-sharing agreement brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry after an election stalemate last year threatened to throw the country into a civil war. The agreement’s two-year deadline expires next September, and it calls for a thorough overhaul of the election process, the holding of parliamentary and district elections, and a national assembly of elders to amend the Constitution and formalize Mr. Abdullah’s position as a prime minister.
But 15 months after coming to power, the government has struggled with even the most basic steps needed for holding the elections, including an agreement on the makeup of the commission to oversee the vote. A harsh winter, and a Taliban offensive that is expected to intensify in the spring, makes their task of holding the elections as scheduled even more difficult.
In all three battle zones -- Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan -- elections will not bring peace. In not one of the three countries does the U.S. and its Saudi ally want truly free and fair elections. The U.S. doesn't have free and fair elections in the homeland, and neither do the Saudis. So the wars will continue.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Podemos Performs Well in Spanish Elections + 50th Anniversary of U.S.-Backed Genocide in Indonesia Goes Unmentioned in Democrat Debate

Good news out of Spain this morning. Both the ruling conservative Popular Party and their mainstream opposition, the Socialists, lost seats in yesterday's parliamentary elections, setting up a situation like the one in Portugal in October where the governing conservative party won the most seats but in a diminished number and ended up being unable to piece together a majority.

As Raphael Minder reports in "Spain’s Governing Party Loses Majority in Parliamentary Election," the big loser is the mainstream duopoly -- a paradigm where there is a conservative Tweedledum and a liberal Tweedledee that both suckle from the same corrupt corporate neoliberal tit -- while the big winners are Podemos and Citizens, new party formations:
Mr. Rajoy’s Popular Party won 123 of the 350 parliamentary seats, down from 186 seats in the last elections, in 2011, according to the results with nearly all of the votes counted. The Socialists won 90 seats, compared with 110 four years ago, when they were ousted from office after an economic crisis hit Spain. The emerging parties Podemos and Citizens will enter Parliament for the first time after winning 69 and 40 seats. 
Before Sunday’s vote, the leaders of Spain’s main parties had hinted at possible coalition partnerships, without firmly committing to any.
Mr. Rajoy celebrated the results on Sunday, but gave a cautious message to his supporters, saying, “I will try to form a government, and I believe Spain needs a stable government.” 
Podemos and Citizens wanted the elections to mark the end of Spain’s bipartisan system, and they came close to achieving that goal, despite a Spanish system of proportional representation that did not favor them. 
Mr. Rajoy’s conservatives and the main opposition Socialists together won 50.7 percent of the votes, their lowest combined total and down from 73.4 percent in 2011. 
The elections showed an erosion of support for Mr. Rajoy and his party, but also for the Socialists. Even with their worst election results, they maintained their status as the largest left-leaning party in Parliament thanks to votes in their longstanding regional stronghold of Andalusia in the south. 
Podemos was formed early last year as a far-left, anti-austerity party, modeled in part on the success of Syriza, the governing party in Greece. Citizens transformed itself last year from a regional Catalan party, fiercely opposed to the Catalan secessionist movement, into a national party with a liberal economic agenda.
One of the main challenges facing Spain’s next government is Catalonia, where separatist parties are struggling to form their own regional coalition government. According to Sunday’s results, Podemos made the clearest gains in Catalonia, apparently benefiting from a promise by Mr. Iglesias to hold a referendum on Catalan independence if he became Spain’s prime minister. Mr. Rajoy’s government, with the support of Spanish courts, has repeatedly blocked any Catalan attempt to hold such a referendum. 
“Spain has voted for a change of system,” Mr. Iglesias told supporters on Sunday night. We’re very happy that the two-party system has ended.”
Mr. Rivera, the leader of Citizens, told his supporters, “Spain is starting a new political era and is doing so because millions have decided that Spain will change.”
In the United States it is much harder to change the duopoly because the barriers to third parties and independent candidacies are so enormous. But Bernie Sanders' robust challenge to the anointing of Hillary as the Democratic nominee is a sign that there is just as much voter dissatisfaction with the neoliberal two-party system in America as there is in Spain.

Watching the Democratic debate Saturday, when I wasn't remoting over to the UFC on Fox, I was struck by the left-progressive dominance of the candidates' messaging. Both Sanders and O'Malley demand the break up of the big banks and the return of Glass-Steagall. All Hillary can try to do is obscure the issue by saying that her financial prescriptions, which don't include breaking up the big banks, are actually more extensive than her rivals.

Part of this left-progressive dominance are the withering attacks Hillary absorbed because of her defense of the longstanding U.S. policy of regime change. We have come to a place in this country where the sordid, criminal nature of U.S. interventions can be discussed on national television during a presidential debate. Here is a sample of from Saturday night:
SANDERS: Look, the secretary is right. This is a terribly complicated issue. There are no simple solutions. But where we have a disagreement is that I think if you look at the history of regime changes, you go back to Mossaddegh (ph) in Iran, you go back to Salvador Allende who we overthrew in Chile, you go back to overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq, you go back to where we are today in Syria with a dictator named Assad. 
The truth is it is relatively easy for a powerful nation like America to overthrow a dictator but it is very hard to predict the unintended consequences and the turmoil and the instability that follows after you overthrow that dictator. 
So I think secretary Clinton and I have a fundamental disagreement. I'm not quite the fan of regime change that I believe she is.
Sanders has said this before. The former Sixties radical that he is, he'll mention CIA-engineered coups in Iran, Guatemala and Chile. But what about Indonesia?

It is 50th anniversary of the rise of Suharto, the fall of Sukarno, and the genocide of communists in Indonesia, something, as Sanders' coup list makes plain, that we don't really track in the United States, despite the fact that the bloodbath was carried out with extensive U.S. involvement.

The current issue of the Monthly Review is devoted to the Indonesian genocide of 1965-1966. As explained in Notes from the Editors:
In this issue we feature two articles on the 1965–1966 mass killings and imprisonments in Indonesia. The army-led bloodbath was aimed at the near-total extermination of members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), then a highly successful electoral party with a membership in the millions.… In all, an estimated 500,000 to a million (or more) people were murdered. Another 750,000 to a million-and-a-half people were imprisoned, many of whom were tortured. Untold thousands died in prison. Only around 800 people were given a trial—most brought before military tribunals that summarily condemned them to death.… The United States…was involved clandestinely in nearly every part of this mass extermination: compiling lists of individuals to be killed; dispatching military equipment specifically designated to aid the known perpetrators of the bloodletting; offering organizational and logistical help; sending covert operatives to aid in the “cleansing”; and providing political backing to the killers.… [T]he mass killings…[were carried out with the active] complicity of the U.S. media.
The duopoly is wobbling. But there is no exit, no place for citizens to turn. New party formation is basically banned in the United States. We live in an irrational, closed society based on consumption. Eventually something is going to burst.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Hippies vs. Punks: John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls (2002)

This is the last Hippies vs. Punks post of the year. Next week I'll be out of town, and the week after is New Year's Day. Continuing with the December theme of quiet, I stumbled upon my few John Adams records this past weekend.

On the Transmigration of Souls (2002) is the choral work Adams composed to memorialize the 9/11 attacks. Commissioned and premiered by the New York Philharmonic, it is the rare piece of contemporary classical music, clocking in at 25 minutes, that achieved not only broad critical acclaim, a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and multiple Grammy's in 2005, but some crossover success as well. For instance, I bought the album in my hipster neighborhood rocker record store a decade ago (back when more brick & mortar record stores existed).

On the Transmigration of Souls moves from sort of background noise musique concrete, to full on discordant earth-shattering sublimity, to harrowing emotional loss, to jarring diabolical ominous modernism.

What is effective about the record is that you can never really place yourself in a classical narrative structure or a minimalist loop. I have probably listened to On the Transmigration of Souls 20 times this past week, and each time I have difficulty locating myself within the sequence of the composition. This I believe to be Adams' intent, a sonic isomorphism of the transmigration process when the soul leaves the body to take up another form.

When I was still in the possession of my college stereo and its two big-woofered speakers and I would be listening to On the Transmigration of Souls, whenever the part where the loud pattering/splattering of the bodies that had jumped from the towers would commence, followed by a jarring/shearing thunderous collapse of the World Trade Center skyscrapers, I would become totally agitated. Since I like to take my sonic medicine, I would ride it out. But it was painful.

The fact is 9/11 really fucked things up. How badly it fucked things up is daily on display. It terrified people. We'll have to revisit this. Before signing off let's hear from the composer himself, who was quoted in The Guardian:
Adams went to Harvard in 1966, but abandoned his music studies for a factory job because he wanted to compose. His success was crowned following 9/11, when the New York Philharmonic invited him to compose an 'aural monument' to the victims of the terrorist attacks. His choral ode, On the Transmigration of Souls, was premiered by the orchestra in 2002. 
However, Adams believes that the Republican administration manipulated the memory of the attacks. '9/11 was a very glamorous event,' he said. 'I'm using the term in a very ironic sense - 3,000 people being killed; it's a terrible tragedy, but in the scale of human tragedy it's very small. 
'I think Americans went into what the novelist Philip Roth called "an orgy of narcissism" as a result of 9/11 - we kept replaying those images and kept re-reminding ourselves of what an indignation and how horrible and terrible that event was. And then, of course, we struck out by invading the wrong country.'

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Obama's Stabilization Projects in Afghanistan: The Final Nail in COIN's Coffin

When I was at the university I studied philosophy. One night, I think I was reading Plato, it dawned on me that at root what philosophers do is take one core insight, one moment of clarity, and then build a system around it; thereby transmogrifying truth into error.

After yesterday reading James Risen's "Afghans See Taliban as a Key to U.S. Aid Projects, Study Finds," and then this morning seeing the headlines about a Navy SEALs detainee abuse scandal in Kalach, Afghanistan (the SEALs were in Kalach on a training mission for the Afghan Local Police), I thought again about my college epiphany. And what I thought about was history. If philosophy is truth transmogrified into error, then history is error transmogrified into truth.

The error I am thinking about here is the recent Western love affair with counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine. COIN was known as "Hearts and Minds" in Vietnam. The idea is that a military campaign in order to be effective must compel the allegiance of the conquered population. In theory, this allegiance is won by building schools and other infrastructure and by providing excellent social services; in reality, allegiance is extracted by means of terror and propaganda.

David Petraeus managed to rehabilitate COIN after it was thoroughly discredited in Vietnam. In a spectacular feat of propaganda, COIN got wrapped in with the 2007 troop surge in Iraq and Petraeus was granted credit for defeating the insurgency in Iraq. What really happened is that the neighborhoods of Baghdad were largely ethnically cleansed, and the Shiites won the sectarian civil war.

Nonetheless, when Obama entered office he adopted Petraeus' COIN doctrine and decided to apply it to Afghanistan in a troop surge of his own. The USAID stabilization programs that Risen writes about were created to augment military objectives by providing the infrastructure that would win the hearts and minds of the Afghans in areas were the U.S. troops had beaten back the Taliban:
The stabilization projects were part of an ambitious aid program started by President Obama in December 2009 as part of the “civilian surge” he announced along with an increase in American troop levels in Afghanistan. Two of the new stabilization aid programs were created by the aid agency, which spent $304 million through one, called Stability in Key Areas, and $113.9 million through another, the Community Cohesion Initiative, relying on contractors to set up the projects.
The programs provide a case study of the kind of problems that have plagued the effort to aid Afghanistan in what is now America’s longest war. Since the United States’ invasion of the country after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it has spent nearly $110 billion on assistance programs there, for military training and equipment for the Afghan Army as well as for other security services and civilian aid projects like the construction of schools, hospitals and highways, according to a recent report by John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.
Critics say that the United States has poured so much money into Afghanistan with so little supervision that the assistance programs have distorted the Afghan economy and have had unintended consequences. Corruption has been rampant.

“We spent too much money too fast in too small a country with too little oversight,” said Mr. Sopko, who has issued a series of scathing reports about waste, fraud and abuse in aid projects. 
Like many other aid programs in Afghanistan, the stabilization programs suffered from basic problems. Many current and former aid officials and contractors had examples of those problems, but agreed to describe them only if they could remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak about them. 
For instance, several said, U.S.A.I.D. officials, who could not visit the project sites for security reasons, sometimes did not know whether the projects had even been completed. 
“U.S.A.I.D. came to us and said, ‘We can’t find our projects,’” said one person involved with the study evaluating the two stabilization programs. “And they asked us to help find them. We realized that there was a lot of ghosting in the data. We would go through the data they would give us on the location of a project and try to find where there really was a project, whether it was in a nearby village. And sometimes we couldn’t find anything.” 
Another American official who was involved with the evaluation of the aid agency’s programs said, “Oversight is really tough when you can’t get out to the project sites.”
None of this should come as any surprise. The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) publishes one report after another outlining the failed, corrupt nature of the U.S. occupation there. Yet the U.S. remains in Afghanistan despite its manifest failure. We do not live in an open society.

At least now COIN cannot be so easily peddled to a gullible press as a rationale for occupation. COIN is discredited. Now war has to be accepted for what it is: destruction.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Significant Moves Underway to Hasten Peace Deal on Syria

Serious -- seemingly serious, at least -- moves are underway by the big players in Syria's nearly five-year-old war. Kerry was in Moscow last night meeting with Lavrov and Putin. The discussion, as reported by the "newspaper of record" (in separate stories by Andrew Kramer and Ben Hubbard), centered on what opposition groups will be allowed to attend peace talks in New York at the end of this week.

Last week the Saudis convened their own conference of the opposition in Riyadh. ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra weren't invited, but neither were the Syrian Kurds, the only truly consistent anti-jihadi secular fighting force. Things basically fell apart when Ahrar al-Sham dropped out. The main non-ISIS anti-Assad fighting force is the "Army of Conquest," made up predominantly of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham units. Without the principal components of the Army of Conquest participating in the talks, it is hard to imagine a substantive peace deal emerging from the ongoing Geneva process. The Saudi conference did not help matters by reiterating the "Assad Must Go" mantra as a precondition for negotiations, which Kerry was careful to disavow in Moscow.

Something is definitely shifting. Obama appeared at the Pentagon on Monday and called out the Turks, Saudis and other members of the GCC. If the waves of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa didn't cause a change in course, Paris and San Bernardino certainly have. The French neoliberal center dodged a bullet with Le Pen's underwhelming performance in the second round of regional elections. But Trump is surging.

A once somnambulant but now stirring electorate, combined with Russian gains on the ground in Syria, have highlighted the massive failure of the West's anti-ISIS military campaign. The original promise made last year was that Mosul would be liberated by the end of 2015. When that was met with howls of derision, the time table was sped up to the spring. Now it is apparent that not even the December date will be met.

And what has to be troubling for the United States is that its New Cold War, based as it is on the February 2014 coup in Kiev, is beginning to lose its luster in the capitals of Europe. Italy delayed the renewal of the EU's economic sanctions against Russia.

The goal has always been regime change in Syria. The stakes increased when Obama pushed through the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran. In order to gain the support of his allies among the sheikhs, Obama had to recommit to taking out Assad; that is being pursued by the old routine of employing jihadist proxies. Now that the jihadist proxy war is creating destabilizing blow back in the West, Obama is hoping that once again a deal can be hatched with Russia.

It is too late probably to prevent Syria from going the way of Libya. But maybe Europe and most of Iraq can be salvaged.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Afghanistan Formula for Perpetual War

With all that has been happening in the news -- COP21 in Paris; Trump demagoguery with the Iowa caucus less than two months away; a widening international war in Iraq and Syria; terror attacks here, there and everywhere -- it is easy to lose track of Afghanistan.

But we shouldn't because the Greater Middle East is being "Talibanized." I don't mean by this to say that Mullah Mansour is exporting his fighters to other countries. What I mean is that the model par excellence of state powers using their intelligence agencies to aid various Salafi groups in order to pursue geopolitical objectives, blow back be damned, is Afghanistan. Back at the beginning of the current bankrupt neoliberal/neoconservative paradigm was the U.S./Saudi effort to dislodge the Soviet-backed Afghan leader Babrak Karmal. Thirty-five years, a couple of invasions of Iraq and one Global War on Terror later we now have a world war, not to mention a caliphate, in Syria and Iraq.

Meanwhile the Western quisling in Afghanistan, the Ralph Nader of Kabul, Ashraf Ghani continues to face mounting losses -- in territory, among his security forces and in any hope that his government has a future.

Yesterday's story by David Jolly and Taimoor Shah, "Afghan Province, Teetering to the Taliban, Draws In Extra U.S. Forces," outlines once again how U.S. Special Operations troops and air power are being rushed into theater to keep the Taliban from controlling a province. In October it was the northern Kunduz Province; now it is Helmand in the south:
KABUL, Afghanistan — Alarmed that large stretches of Helmand Province are falling to the Taliban, American Special Operations forces have secretly taken a more central role in the fighting to save crucial areas of the province, as more air power and ground troops have been committed to the battle, according to Western and Afghan officials.
A Western diplomat said last week that United States Special Operations forces had been engaged in combat in Helmand for weeks, and that there were more American forces fighting there than at any time since President Obama last year announced a formal end to combat operations in Afghanistan.
The extent of the American role has been kept largely secret, with senior Afghan officials in the area saying they are under orders not to divulge the level of cooperation, especially by Special Operations forces on the ground. The secrecy reflects the Pentagon’s concern that the involvement may suggest that the American combat role, which was supposed to have ended in December 2014, is still far beyond the official “train, advise and assist” mission.
The elite ground units in Helmand include both Special Operations troops and the United States Air Force’s Special Tactics Squadron, according to the Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering his colleagues.
The American intervention in Helmand is accelerating amid growing reports of demoralized or trapped Afghan security forces and alarm at the amount of territory the Taliban have been able to seize in Helmand this year. If the insurgents are able to sweep away the tenuous government presence in district centers and the capital, Lashkar Gah, it would be a dire setback for the Afghan government, and would give the Taliban a strong foothold in southern Afghanistan.
Asked whether American forces were taking a larger combat role in Helmand, a United States military spokesman, Col. Michael T. Lawhorn, would not reply directly. But he praised the Afghan forces’ efforts so far.
“There’s little question that Helmand is a contested area,” Colonel Lawhorn said. “But the Afghan National Security Forces have conducted no fewer than five major operations there to disrupt insurgent and Taliban activities.” 
Afghan officials in Helmand, however, gave more dire assessments about the state of the battle. 
“The security situation is really bad,” said Toofan Waziri, a Helmand politician and prominent television commentator. Without more foreign air support, he added, “the entire province would probably fall to the Taliban in three days.”
Helmand is important because it is prime poppy growing country. It was also the location of the ballyhooed Stanley McChrystal-Obama COIN troop surge, now broadly acknowledged to be a terrific failure. Parts of Helmand in the north have never been out of the Taliban's control.

The Ghani government is in dire straits. There is no doubt about it. That is why Ghani went hat in hand last week to Pakistan looking for some kind of peace deal, even while the strip adjoining U.S. air base in Kandahar was being shot up and burned to the ground by Taliban. The story to consult is last Friday's "Afghanistan and Pakistan Agree to Reopen Talks With an Absent Taliban" by Mujib Mashal and Rod Nordland. The last two paragraphs sum it up:
While many in Kandahar criticized Mr. Ghani for reaching out to Pakistan, others were sympathetic, saying he had no choice but to keep pushing for talks.

“This is a scattered, spread war in Afghanistan which also involves several countries,” said Abdul Jabar Qahraman, a member of Parliament. “The Afghan government has no other way but to engage them. The Taliban are also a fractured movement. One of them launched an attack on Kandahar, but it is possible that another faction wants to talk.”
Sounds like Syria and Iraq, doesn't it? It is the formula for perpetual war. A conclusion which is unavoidable is that this is a state of affairs that the U.S., with by far the largest military, favors.

Monday, December 14, 2015

National Front's Third-Place Finish in the Second Round of France's Regional Elections: Cautionary Tale for Trump

Well, if the National Front points the way for Donald Trump over the next few months it is going to be a rocky road for the reality TV star real estate mogul. Marine Le Pen's nativist third party failed to win control of any regional government in the second round of voting yesterday in France. According to the AP this morning, "No Real Winner in French Elections, Presidential Race Ahead":
The far-right National Front, the front-runner in the first round of the regional vote, was crushed in Sunday's second round. Despite the defeat, the leader of the anti-immigrant party still has her sights set on the French presidency. 
Marine Le Pen hopes to capitalize on fears over Islamic extremism and a surge of migrants into Europe, and on the political horse trading that went on between conservatives and Socialists in the run-up to the regional elections. 
The Socialists withdrew their candidates from two regions where Le Pen and her niece were running and asked their supporters to vote for their conservative rival to prevent the National Front from scoring symbolic wins. 
This has left the Socialists totally absent from the councils in those two regions. They have also lost the Paris region, which conservative candidate Valerie Pecresse won. 
The official results of the regional elections put the conservative party ahead with 40.2 percent of the votes nationwide. The results from Sunday's vote put the Socialist party in second with 28.9 percent and the far-right National Front in third with 27.1 percent. 
The conservatives took control of seven of France's 13 regions while the Socialist party won in five regions. The winner in Corsica wasn't affiliated with a major party. 
The National Front won its largest number of votes in an election with a total of 6.8 million, better than Le Pen's performance in the 2012 presidential race. The party has extended its influence with more than 350 councilors on regional councils.
There are two takeaways here: 1) The two main parties, liberal Socialists and conservative Republicans, collaborated with one another to make sure that the National Front would not gain control of any regional government, and 2) despite being overwhelmed in the second round the National Front won more votes than it ever has before.

Throughout the West, the mainstream political duopolies, historically representing capital and labor, have thoroughly deracinated their popular base of support. The mainstream parties in the West serve the bankers and the corporations. That is why you have the curious scenario in Britain where the popular Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is actually opposed by a majority of his own MPs.

This deracination of the mainstream parties has become so pronounced after nearly 40 years of neoliberalism that it has created an opening for formerly fascist parties like the National Front or a rhetorically savvy demagogue like Donald Trump.

But as the second round of voting in France's regional elections makes clear, the two hands of the duopoly will join together to beat back any upstart. All one need do is consult American political history from a century ago. Then, during the Age of Progressivism, when reformers and socialists were challenging the entrenched city machines of the Republican and Democrats, it was a common occurrence for the machines to coalesce, just as the Socialists and Republicans did this past week in France, in order to keep Progressives and Socialists from victory.

Trump should take note, and not just because the Republican National Committee is powwowing about how to block Trump at the convention in Cleveland this July (see Alan Rappeport's "For Republicans, Contested 1976 Convention Looms Over 2016 Race"). A greater danger for Trump, if he manages to win the primaries, will be the collaboration of GOP elders with the Dems to pitch the election to Hillary in the general. Is there any question that Hillary better represents the interests of the Republican Party and the deracinated neoliberal center than Donald Trump?

Rob Urie had an acute piece, "The Donald, Ascendent," from a left, radical perspective, on the current hand-wringing about Trump. In it Urie situates the rise of Trump firmly in the soil of Obama's "Manchurian" candidacy:
Barack Obama encountered a reformer’s circumstance when he entered office in the midst of crisis in 2009. Repudiation of the late-capitalist project that had run from the mid-1970s to crisis in 2008 in some measure explained Mr. Obama’s election. In Democrat apparatchik fashion it quickly became apparent that Mr. Obama had been properly vetted by the powers that be and that he clearly understood his role as restorer-in-chief of the predatory, dysfunctional order that had led to crisis. With the same ambition of ‘resume-enhancement’ that Donald Trump now pursues the Presidency; Mr. Obama is of the insular and well-insulated order that considers self-interest first and perceives the public interest as a public relations problem. 
Fear that Mr. Trump is a nascent fascist assumes that he has actual political interests rather than a blowhard’s interest in self-promotion. Twentieth century German fascists, Nazis, spent two decades instantiating themselves into the fabric of regional governance before rising to power. And they had a political program. As Mr. Obama and his recent predecessors have demonstrated, modern American governance is more a business to be milked by insiders. It is hardly an accident that government employment has fallen under Mr. Obama for the first time in decades under the corporate rationale of economic ‘efficiency.’ But other than restoration and perpetuation of the existing order official Washington isn’t that ambitious. This isn’t to suggest that it isn’t dangerous— the embedded government, broadly considered, is in the business of creating global chaos and destruction. But the motives are different from explicit fascism. 
Donald Trump is frightening for the place in history that his ascendance represents and not for who he is. In 2009 Democrats had the opportunity to change the course of history by redirecting political economy to support the people who comprise it. Seven years of bank bailouts, scam public interest programs, abusive ‘trade’ deals, domestic surveillance and racist / classist police repression later and they are the face of everything wrong with late-stage capitalism. And here is the kicker— this was very easy to predict. Even a few liberals made the point that inadequate economic policies would discredit the idea that governments can resolve economic crises. Left out of the liberal frame was class analysis that explained why it was unlikely that Democrats could even serve their own long-term political interests by acting in the broader public interest. 
The current political season is the grimmest in modern history. Democrats frightened by Donald Trump’s rhetoric likely don’t know much about Hillary Clinton’s actual policies— those that she has acted on in official capacities and not the empty blather that she puts forward to win votes. The danger of motivated and empowered racists and nativists is real and it precedes the rise of Donald Trump. Ms. Clinton and the Democrat establishment bear as much responsibility as Republicans for creating the economic circumstances that support manufactured social divisions. The eternal Democrat motivation of lesser-evilism is so much empty chatter in the face of actual Democrat policies over the last thirty years. Obama administration policies were intended to deliver political power to Donald Trump and his class-mates in plutocracy. To now complain about how they are using it is both pathetic and less than well-considered.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

All-New Ghost Rider #12

All-New Ghost Rider #12, the final issue in the initial run of the title with Ghost Rider Robby Reyes as the lead character, is a good example of what happens to most if not all comic books -- they run out of steam quickly. Though writer Felipe Smith shepherded the series from start to finish (in issues #11 and #12 he even supplies the art), once Tradd Moore left after issue #5, the comic book lost most of its creative pop.

What the reader is left with is a concatenation of lifeless conventions -- the Russian mobster (in a previous era, the ruthless Commie), the estranged little brother, high school bullies, a pining girlfriend -- stretching back to the beginning of the medium. Marvel wisely ended the series.

I'm sure we'll see Robby Reyes again in his own title -- Ghost Racers, the Battleworld tie-in, which succeeded All-New Ghost Rider, had a few nice moments -- the Reyes Ghost Rider is a high-school hot-rodding Latino; Marvel needs more of those characters in its bullpen.

Below are six scans from the All-New Ghost Rider #12. A Ghost Rider family squabble, noteworthy for the Xbox 360 controller that Robby Reyes takes in the face, morphs into little brother Gabe taking the form of a demonic wolf.