The US Defense Secretary Ash Carter has announced plans to significantly increase military spending in Europe from US$789 million to US$3.4 billion next year and place more troops and equipment in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, according to sources.
It follows reports in late 2015 that the US was planning to boost its presence in Europe. According to a defense source quoted in the New York Times : “This is a longer-term response to a changed security environment in Europe. This reflects a new situation, where Russia has become a more difficult actor.”
The US already has 65,000 troops in Europe and has been stockpiling resources in Eastern Europe and the Baltic region for more than a year. Poland has called for a permanent NATO troop presence in the country with President Andrzej Duda suggesting he will use an upcoming summit to commit to the proposal.
Cater told a morning meeting at the Economic Club of Washington Tuesday: “Another near-term investment in the budget is how we are reinforcing our posture in Europe to support our NATO allies in the face of Russia’s aggression. In Pentagon parlance this is called the ‘European Reassurance Initiative’.
“After requesting about US$800 million last year, this year we are more than quadrupling it to a total of UD$3.4 billion in 2017. That’s to fund a lot of things: more rotational US forces in Europe; more training and exercising with our allies; more pre-positioned warfighting gear; and infrastructure improvements to support all this.
“When combined with US forces already assigned to Europe — which are all substantial — all of this, by the end of 2017, will let us rapidly form a highly capable combined ground force that can respond across that theater if necessary,” Carter said.
12,000 Pieces of Equipment
The US Department of Defense announced in November 2015 that equipment from the European Activity Set (EAS) was scheduled to be delivered to Central and Eastern Europe. Approximately 1,400 pieces of equipment will be delivered to sites in Bulgaria, Lithuania and Romania.
Carter announced during a trip to Estonia earlier last year that the US will “temporarily” stage enough vehicles and associated equipment in Central and Eastern Europe to support an armored brigade combat team.
In a statement, the US Defense Department said that NATO said “the placement allows US rotational forces in the region to move more quickly and easily to participate in training and exercises.”The items are part of the European Activity Set, which includes some 12,000 pieces of equipment, including tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and artillery. The EAS equipment will be moved around the region for training and exercises as needed, he said.
Carter also announced that Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania agreed to host company to battalion-sized elements of EAS equipment. Germany already hosts EAS equipment, according to defense sources.
Delusions on Syria prevail in official Washington
Tulsi Gabbard is one brave Congresswoman. She has challenged her party and the president saying that it’s time for Washington to halt its “illegal, counter-productive war to overthrow the Syrian government of Assad. I don’t think Assad should be removed. If Assad is removed and overthrown, ISIS, al Qaeda, Al Nustra, these Islamic extremist groups will walk straight in and take over all of Syria … they will be even stronger.”
Indeed, Washington’s senseless policy in Syria has been hanging out there like overripe fruit for quite some time with the mainstream media instead marching at lockstep to the tune being whistled by a large disengaged and unaccountable White House. Gabbard might go one step further to ask why Syria is the way it is in the first place since that would question Administration priorities under Democrats as well as Republicans, both of which have emphasized eliminating al-Assad for no conceivable reason that has anything to do with actual American interests.
Much has been made of Washington groupthink, which is the concept that when a meeting of senior staffers is held everyone will veer towards a point of view that is being espoused by whoever called the meeting, be they the president or one of the cabinet secretaries. It is also reflected in the output of foundations and think tanks, which rely on government access as well as funding from beneficiaries of the war economy. Current groupthink, rejected by Gabbard, is that removing al-Assad is somehow an essential precondition for any settlement of Syria’s torment.
Another prevalent groupthink that is sometimes linked to the Syria issue is that Russia’s Vladimir Putin is somehow a reincarnation of Josef Stalin and that today’s Russia is actually the Soviet Union, ready, willing and able to expand into Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Though considerable opposition to those two viewpoints can be noted in the alternative media it is not listened to in the White House.
Yet another kind of groupthink prevails within the government bureaucracies themselves, compounding the problem. From my own experience, analysts at CIA very often were scrupulous in their judgements on developments overseas but a funny thing would happen at Agency headquarters as information made its way from the ground floor up to the seventh floor where the political appointee mandarins would preside. It would become politicized and any viewpoints diametrically opposed to what prevailed at the consumer level in Congress and in the White House would be mitigated or even excised. Such is the nature of bureaucracy, which exists to support the status quo and inter alia requires a satisfied audience to prosper.
And the press fails to do its part to correct the listing ship. The rubbish that appears in the mainstream media under the rubric of “informed opinion” bears a large part of the blame because it continues to create a mythical magical kingdom in which Americans all wear white hats and go about slaying dragons because it is good for the whole wide world, even if those heathens don’t appreciate it. That is what Americans like to think about themselves apparently, all contrary evidence notwithstanding.
A piece on Syria that appeared in the Washington Post before Christmas exemplifies precisely what is wrong with the punditry that shapes the narrative that appears to drive the national consensus on what to do about terrorism and related issues. It is “Obama and Kerry’s wishful thinking on Syria,” by Frederic C. Hof, currently a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center. Hof was an army officer who had extensive service in the Middle East. He is, somewhat uncharacteristically, an actual expert on the Arab world and speaks Arabic. He joined the State Department in 2009 after an interlude in the private sector as the President and CEO of AALC, limited company, an international business consulting and project finance firm formerly known as Armitage Associates LC. In 2012 Hof served as President Barack Obama’s Special Adviser for Transition in Syria.
Hof is a bright and highly competent guy whose professional life has been closely linked to the U.S. government version of reality, a reality in which Washington calls the shots and is empowered to “draw red lines.” Relative to the U.S., all other governments are either client states or adversaries who can be disregarded or bullied into compliance. In October he wrote: “With regard to ISIL, a professional ground combat component provided by regional powers is desperately needed to work with coalition aircraft to sweep this abomination from Syria and permit a governmental alternative to the Assad regime to take root inside Syria. With central and eastern Syria free of both the regime and ISIL, an all-Syrian national stabilization force can be built. Western desires for a negotiated end to the Syrian crisis would be based, under these circumstances, on more than a wish and a hope. The United States should neither seek nor shy away from confrontation with Russian forces in Syria. Moscow will not like it if its client’s ability to perform mass murder is impeded. Russia will not be pleased if ISIL, its false pretext for military intervention in Syria, is swept from the table. Ideally, Russia will not elect to escort regime aircraft on their mass homicide missions. And it would be difficult for even Russian President Vladimir Putin to articulate outrage if ISIL is crushed militarily. But if Russia seeks out armed confrontation with the United States in Syria, it would be a mistake for Washington to back down. People like Putin will push until they hit steel. And he will not stop in Syria.”
The op-ed is saying several things, which most likely reflect the Washington consensus on foreign policy. First, it advocates a U.S. leading role in Syria in support of a currently non-existent and unlikely to exist regional force to fight ISIS thereby creating an alternative government enabling the removal of al-Assad from power and winding up with a “Western desired” democracy. Second, it characterizes Russia as supporting “mass homicide” in Syria and urges the U.S. to confront it militarily if necessary as Moscow is intent on expansion. That means that Syria somehow has become a vital American interest, important enough to go to war with Russia.
Hof’s more recent foray in the Post makes a number of similar points. First, that the Syrian civil war cannot end as long as al-Assad remains in power is described as an “objective truth” that adversaries like Russia and Iran refuse to accept. Al-Assad is described as a “barrel bomber in chief.” Iran, in particular, should “grasp the chance to become a normal state.” Hof likens the Syrian, Iranian and Russian leadership to Hitler thirty years ago in that they are being given a pass by the West and avers that they “know that Assad is the single greatest obstacle to a united front against Islamic State.” Iran is motivated by propping up a client state while Russia is into the game desirous of “humiliating the United States by preserving Assad.” The op-ed goes on to claim that delaying action for thousands of Syrians will mean “people slaughtered, maimed, stampeded, starved, tortured and raped by Assad’s people” and reiterates the call for “professional ground forces… under U.S. command” to deal simultaneously with both al-Assad and ISIS.
Given all of the above, it is no wonder that many of us find American foreign and national security policy incomprehensible. First of all, by what Act of God does the United States have a Special Adviser for Transition in Syria? Why does that position even exist? How would the White House react if the Chinese or Russians were to create a similar bureaucracy tasked with subverting the manifestly corrupt U.S. institutions and even arming “rebels” to do the job?
One suspects that antagonism towards Damascus is rooted in the fact that the United States government have been working hard in a neoconservative driven effort supported by Israel to subvert the Syrian regime ever since President George W. Bush signed the Syria Accountability Act in 2004. Al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons on his own people is frequently cited as a justification for armed intervention, but there is considerable controversy over the incident at Ghouta in 2013, with many observers believing that the attack was staged “false flag” by the rebels possibly aided by the Turkish intelligence service to implicate the Syrian government. And it is easy to forget that before Syria under al-Assad became an enemy it was considered friendly, having participated in the U.S. led coalition that ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991 and also having supported Washington’s counter-terrorism “rendition” program post-9/11.
It is simplistic to see everything as a problem created by the Syrian government, Russia and Iran, all of whom have been described as “adversaries” of the United States even though they are actively fighting ISIS. That label would be comforting if one were a reader of the Rupert Murdoch media but Tehran’s and Moscow’s desire to stabilize the Syrian government position as a prelude to negotiations for a settlement is not exactly wrongheaded, as Congresswoman Gabbard has noted. And any narrative’s thrust more-or-less depends on where one starts. To my mind the blame for the mess in Syria and Iraq coupled with the rise of ISIS should be put squarely where it belongs: at the White House under our two most recent presidents and their advisers. The rot began in 2003 when Iraq was invaded. At that time both Baghdad and Damascus were quiet, stable and terrorist free even if they were not democracies. Neither threatened the United States and neither threatens the U.S. to this day, which makes one wonder at why al-Assad has been elevated to enemy-in-chief status by the White House and media.
The inside the beltway dismissal of Iran and Russia is classic Washington groupthink. Iran may indeed not be a “normal” nation, but that just might be due to threats against it emanating from the United States and Israel since the foundation of the Islamic Republic in 1978. We are currently witnessing the U.S. Congress and Israel cranking up the pressure to defeat implementation of the nuclear program agreement recently signed with Tehran, an effort that suggests that no matter what it does or doesn’t do Iran will never be seen as normal or even acceptable by most of the power-brokers in Washington.
And the denigration of Russia is another given, complete with the often heard but ridiculous claim that Moscow is out to “humiliate” the U.S., which often comes coupled with a reference to Hitler. Russia may have a government that is not to our liking but it has a serious and legitimate interest in preventing the spillover of Islamic insurgency into its own heavily Muslim southern federated states. Creating a cartoon image of Vladimir Putin as someone who has to be taught a lesson even though he has in fact been a largely realistic, restrained and rational player in his foreign policy, is not a serious argument. Stating that Russia is only interested in propping up a client and enabling mass murder is both sloppy and does not allow for other considerations that might actually be both sensible and legitimate while a willingness to confront major power Russia militarily over unimportant Syria is something closely akin to madness. And attributing all the mayhem in Syria to its government is similarly myopic in that it ignores the other players on the ground, to include groups supported by America’s nominal Arab and Turkish allies that the United States calls “terrorist.”
The apparent willingness among policy makers to put U.S. troops on the ground in Syria against both its government and ISIS flies against all reason given the poor track record of White House initiated military interventions over the past fifteen years. The creation of a “stabilization force” without any current Syrian government participation is laughable as even President Obama has conceded that the identification and deployment of “moderate rebels” is a bit of a fantasy. And Syria is not taking place in a vacuum. Afghanistan is rapidly sliding back under Taliban control, Iraq is chaotic and its closest friend is Iran while Libya is anarchical. Another intervention? No thanks.
For decades, America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been relying on its partner’s money in discrete and covert operations; the money of the Saudi oil-rich kingdom.
Citing several current and former US officials, the New York Times reported on Jan. 23 that from the very beginning of the US operations against the Assad government in Syria, Saudi money was largely the supporter.
The most recent example of this ‘close bond’ between the US and Saudi Arabia has came to light in the New York Times article, which reported that US President Barack Obama knew well the US could rely on Saudi money when, in 2013, he secretly gave the CIA the green light to arm militant groups in Syria that were fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Code-named Timber Sycamore, the deal stipulates that the Saudis contribute both weapons and large sums of money and the CIA takes the lead in training the rebels on AK-47 assault rifles and tank-destroying missiles.
In 2012, the US repeatedly claimed that the Timber Sycamore program was designed to deliver what it claimed to be ‘non-lethal’ aid, yet months later, Obama gave his approval for the CIA to begin directly arming and training the rebels from a base in Jordan, amending the Timber Sycamore program to allow lethal assistance.
Also, the NY Times report noticeably underlines that such a long intelligence relationship helps explain why the United States has been reluctant to openly criticize Saudi Arabia for its human rights abuses, its treatment of women and its support for the extreme ideology Wahhabism, that has inspired many of the very terrorist groups.
In the latest violation which brought uproar across the Muslim world in particular, Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, for challenging the oppression of the royal family and demanding human rights, yet the Obama administration did not publically condemn the action. Also, another form of Saudi human rights abuses to which the US has had no clear condemnation is its war on Yemen that has so far claimed the lives of more than 8,270 people including women and children.
The CIA covert operations in Syria began in 2013, in which more than 10,000 Wahhabi terrorists were armed, funded and trained. The trainings were taking place inside Jordan’s territories, and estimates have put the total cost of the ops at several billion dollars.
“They understand that they have to have us, and we understand that we have to have them,” said Mike Rogers, the former Republican congressman who was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee when the CIA operation began.
The operation was described as part of the so-called “counterterrorism” program. On this note, a former State Department counterterrorism adviser and the author of a book on the Islamic State, William McCants points out “The more that the argument becomes, ‘We need them as a counterterrorism partner,’ the less persuasive it is. If this is purely a conversation about counterterrorism cooperation, and if the Saudis are a big part of the problem in creating terrorism in the first place, then how persuasive of an argument is it?”
Even though the biggest contributor was Saudi Arabia, yet its allies also had their share in the game. According to the NY Times, when Obama signed off on arming the rebels in the spring of 2013, the Qataris, Turkish and Saudis had been funneling weapons into Syria for more than a year. The Qataris had even smuggled in shipments of Chinese-made FN-6 shoulder-fired missiles over the border from Turkey.
On Jan. 26, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held an important year-in-review press conference before an audience of about 150 journalists, including the BBC correspondent Steve Rosenberg and many other well-known representatives of mainstream Western media. The purpose of this annual event is to look back at issues faced by his Ministry over the past year and to give his appraisal of results achieved.
Lavrov’s opening remarks were concise, lasting perhaps 15 minutes, and the remaining two hours were turned over to the floor for questions. As the microphone was passed to journalists from many different countries, the discussion covered a great variety of subjects, including the likelihood of a new “re-set” with the United States, the negotiations over re-convening the Syrian peace talks in Geneva, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments on the findings of a U.K. public inquest into the Litvinenko murder, the possibilities for reestablishing diplomatic relations with Georgia, and prospects for resolving conflicting claims over the Southern Kurile islands so as to conclude a peace treaty with Japan.
To the best of my knowledge, not a single report of the event has yet appeared on major online American, French, British and German newspaper portals or television channels. This was not for lack of substance or newsworthy sound bites, including Lavrov’s headline comment that he agreed with Western leaders who said there would be “no business as usual” between Russia and the West.
As part of his opening comments, Lavrov said, “Our Western colleagues sometimes declare with passion that there can no longer be ‘business as usual with Russia.’ I am convinced that this is so and here we agree: there will be no more ‘business as usual’ when they tried to bind us with agreements which take into account above all the interests of either the European Union or the United States and they wanted to persuade us that this will do no harm to our interests. That history is over and done with. A new stage of history is dawning which can develop only on the basis of equal rights and all other principles of international law.”
Regarding a similar news blackout that followed another major Russian press briefing, the sharp-tongued Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova commented, what are all these accredited Western reporters doing in Moscow if nothing gets published abroad? Do they have some other occupation?
In keeping with custom, the Russian Foreign Ministry posted the entire video recording of Lavrov’s press conference on youtube.com and posted transcripts in Russian and English on the www.mid.ru site. The Russian version takes up 26 tightly spaced printed pages. This is what I have used, since I prefer to go to the source and do my own translations when I have the option. The English version probably takes 40 pages, given the normal expansion from Russian to English in the translation process.
What I noted first in the television broadcast on Russia’s Pervy Kanal and then in the transcript was both how well prepared Lavrov was to deal with a plethora of issues and how he gave detailed answers that went on for many minutes without making reference to any notes.
Secondly, it was obvious he spoke more “freely,” using fewer diplomatic euphemisms than I have ever seen before. I conclude that he was given a nod by his boss, President Vladimir Putin, not to hold back, to speak with perfect clarity. Given his experience as one of the longest-serving foreign ministers among the major powers and his innate intellect, Lavrov delivered what sounds at times like dictation for essays in proper written Russian.
For these reasons, I have decided to divide my treatment of the press conference into two parts. One will be Lavrov in his own words. And the other will be my conclusions about the international environment in the coming year given Russia’s basic positions, particularly the possible lifting of sanctions on Russia by the United States and the European Union and how the next U.S. administration can best prepare for relations with Russia, assuming there is no dramatic change in the thinking of American elites.
Sergey Lavrov in His Own Words
From the press briefing, I have extracted several big chunks of text that characterize the overarching views on international relations of Lavrov and the Kremlin, applying their Realpolitik prism and focused primarily on U.S.-Russian relations. This is essential if we are not to lose sight of the forest for the trees.
In questions and answers dealing with all countries but one, we hear about separate issues in various locations around the world holding interest mainly for discrete national audiences with their private concerns. With respect to one country, the U.S., Russia’s bilateral relations transcend the minister’s in-basket of contingencies.
Indeed, the whole Russian foreign policy really is about relations with the U.S. as expressed in the first two of the three passages in quotation marks below. The third passage, on sanctions, would seem to be more about relations with the E.U. I selected it because the issue of lifting sanctions will surely be a key foreign policy issue facing Russia in the first six months of this year, and behind it all looms the U.S. position on the question.
Question: Is a “re-set” possible in this final year of Barack Obama’s administration?
Lavrov: “The question should not be addressed to us. Our inter-state ties sank very low despite the excellent personal relations between former U.S. President George Bush and Russian President Putin. When U.S. President Barack Obama came to the White House and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a ‘re-set,’ this reflected the fact that Americans themselves finally saw the abnormality of the situation wherein Russia and the USA were not cooperating to solve those problems which could not be decided without them…
“We gave a rather constructive response to the ‘re-set.’ We said that we appreciate the decision of the new Administration to correct the errors of its predecessors. We achieved quite a lot: the New START Treaty, the entry of Russia into the WTO, an array of new agreements on various conflict situations. But somehow this quickly began to drop back to zero. Now everyone, including our American colleagues, is telling us: ‘Just fulfill the Minsk accords on Ukraine and immediately everything will return to normal. We will immediately cancel the sanctions and tempting prospects of cooperation will open up between Russia and the United States over much more pleasant issues, not just in the management of crises; right away a constructive partnership program will take shape.’
“We are open for cooperation with everyone on an equal, mutually advantageous basis. We, of course, do not want anyone to build their policy based on the assumption that Russia and not Ukraine must fulfill the Minsk accords. It is written there who must fulfill them. I hope that this is well known to the USA. At least, my latest contacts with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the contacts of Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland with Assistant to the Russian President Surkov indicate that the USA can sort out the essence of the Minsk accords. Grosso modo, everyone understands everything. …
“I have just mentioned that people have begun to promise a new ‘re-set.’ If we fulfill the Minsk accords, then immediately everything will become fine, with splendid and tempting prospects.
“But the cooling off of relations with the Administration of U.S. President Barack Obama and the end of the period associated with ‘re-set’ began long before the Ukraine. Let’s remember how this occurred. First, when we finally got the consent of our Western partners to terms of our joining the WTO which were acceptable to Russia, the Americans understood that it was not in their interests to keep the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Otherwise they would be deprived of those privileges and advantages which are linked to our participation in the WTO. They began to prepare for the removal of this amendment.
“But Americans would not be Americans if they simply abolished it and said ‘Enough, let’s now cooperate normally.’ They dreamed up the ‘Magnitsky Act,’ although I am certain that what happened to Magnitsky was not set up. I very much hope that the truth will become known to everyone. It is disgusting how a provocation and speculation were built up around the death of a man. Nonetheless, this was done and you know who lobbied for this ‘Magnitsky Act,’ which immediately replaced the Jackson-Vanik amendment.”
[The Magnitsky Act was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 2012 with the goal of punishing Russian officials believed responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in prison in 2009 amid accusations and counter-accusations of fraud.]
“This all began when there was still no Ukraine [crisis], although they now try to lay the blame on violations of OSCE principles. Everything that is going on between the West and Russia is explained by the fact that Russia did not fulfill its obligations, did not respect the world order which was put together in Europe after the Helsinki Act [of 1975], etc. These are all attempts to justify and find an excuse for continuing the policy of containment. But this policy never ended.
“After the ‘Magnitsky Act’ [in 2012], there was the completely inappropriate, overblown reaction to what happened to Edward Snowden, who found himself in Russia against our wishes [in 2013]. We did not know about this. He did not have a passport – his document was canceled while he was in flight. He could not go anywhere from Russia because of decisions taken in Washington. We could not help but give him the possibility to remain in Russia so as to stay safe, knowing which articles of the law they were threatening him with. The Americans made no secret about this. This was done simply as an elementary protection of a person’s right to life.
“U.S. President Barack Obama then canceled his visit to Russia. They made a huge scandal. Dozens of telephone calls came in from the FBI, from the CIA, the State Department. There were direct contacts with the President. They told us that if we do not give up Snowden, then relations will be broken off. The USA canceled the visit. It did not take place but U.S. President Obama came for the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, where we, by the way, did something useful – we reached agreement on the principles of the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons.
“Ukraine was just a pretext. The Ukrainian crisis is linked not so much with justified concern over an alleged violation by Russia of the Helsinki principles (although everything began with Kosovo, with the  bombing of Yugoslavia, etc). This was an expression of irritation that the coup d’etat did not lead to the results that were expected by those who supported it.
“I will tell you honestly that we don’t hold a grudge. We have no such traditions in relations between states. We understand that life is tougher than any ideal, romantic scheme like ‘re-set’ or similar. We also understand that this is a world in which there are harsh clashes of interests that come down to us from the age of the West’s total domination and it is in the midst of a long transition period to a more durable system in which there will not be one or even two dominant poles – there will be several. The transition period is long and painful. Old habits die slowly. We all understand this.
“We understand that the USA is interested in having fewer competitors even with regards to those comparable to it in size, influence, military power, economy. We see this in the relations between the USA and China, in how the USA works with the European Union, trying to create a ring around it via the Transatlantic Partnership, and to the east of Russia, to create a Trans-Pacific Partnership which will not include Russia and China. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke about this in detail when he analyzed the processes at work in the world economy and politics. We understand all of this.
“Surely every age brings with it new tendencies, frames of mind in one or another of the elites, especially in major countries which see in their own fashion the ways to fight for their interests. It would be very bad and ruinous for all of us if these processes moved outside the framework of generally accepted norms of international law.
“Then, simply put, everything would be topsy-turvy, and we would be drawn into a world of anarchy and chaos – something like what is going on in the Near East, perhaps without bloodshed. Each would act as he reckons necessary and nothing good would come out of this. It is very important to observe some kind of general rules of play.
“To answer your question, I would like for the USA to have a ‘re-set’ with the whole world, so that the ‘re-set’ was general, so that we could gather together and reconfirm our commitment to the UN Charter, to the principles embodied in it, including non-interference in internal affairs, respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity and the right of peoples to self-determination, the right of peoples to choose their own future without interference from outside.”
Question: At the Munich Security Conference in 2007 President Putin said to the West “you need us more than we need you.” Is that still Russia’s position?
Lavrov: “Ideally we both need one another to face the challenges and threats. But, the reality is different. The West comes to us much more often for help than we come to the West.”
(Lavrov said that in response to Western sanctions, Russia was striving to be self-sufficient and promoting import substitution, but not trying to cut itself off from the world and ready for cooperation based on equality.)
“We must do everything to ensure we do not depend on the whim of one or another group of countries, above all from our Western partners” – as happened when the West took offense at Russia for supporting ethnic Russians in Ukraine who did not recognize the 2014 coup d’etat.
“I have cited Dmitry Yarosh [leader of the radical nationalists, the Right Sector] that they wanted to destroy Russian speakers in Ukraine or deprive them of their rights. We want to insure ourselves against such situations. …
“I note that it’s not we who are running to our European colleagues and saying ‘Let’s do something to remove the sanctions.’ Not at all. We are focused on not depending on such zigzags in Western policy, not depending on Europe’s saluting the USA. But in our bilateral contacts our European colleagues, when they come to us or meet us in international forums, say: ‘Let’s think of something. Help us carry out the Minsk accords, otherwise these sanctions will do a lot of damage. We want to turn the page.’
“It turns out that in this situation we are needed more by them than they are needed by us. Including for fulfillment of the Minsk accords. … Yes, we have influence in Donbass [the ethnic Russian section of eastern Ukraine] and we support them. Surely, without our help and humanitarian deliveries Donbass would be in a pitiful state. But one also has to exert influence in Kiev. We need the West to influence the Kiev authorities, but so far this is not happening.
“Or look at the question of the Iranian nuclear program. At the decisive stages of these negotiations we were literally bombarded with requests when it was necessary to solve the questions of exporting enriched uranium in exchange for natural uranium, which was the key condition for achieving agreements; when it was necessary to resolve the question about who will convert the enrichment sites at Fordu into research for production of medical isotopes, etc.
“They came with requests to us, requests which carry a significant financial burden, or at least which do not bring any material benefit. But we fulfilled our part of the work. Now everyone is calling us and our Chinese colleagues about the North Korean problem: ‘help us do something to make North Korea observe its obligations.’ Or take the case of Syria….
“I can’t think of any requests we made to our Western colleagues recently. We don’t believe it is proper to make requests. After you sign agreements following negotiations, you now have to execute obligations, not to make requests for favors.”
Question: Will the sanctions end early?
Lavrov: “I’d say that among a large number of our partners there is the awareness that they cannot go on this way any longer, that this is harmful to them. Our justification for speaking about some possible positive changes comes down to the following: our Western partners more and more often begin to understand that they have fallen into a trap of their own making when they said that they will lift the sanctions after Russia fulfills the Minsk accords. They have now understood that, very likely, this was a ‘slip of the tongue.’
“But in Kiev this was heard very often and was interpreted as an indulgence allowing them not to carry out the Minsk accords. Their failure to perform not only means that Kiev does not have to undertake any actions and fulfill its obligations. It also means that the West will have to keep the sanctions in place against Russia. It was necessary to prove all of this to some gentlemen who are in Kiev fanning radical attitudes. …
“The West understands the hopelessness of the present situation, when everyone pretends that Russia must fulfill the Minsk accords but Ukraine can do nothing – not change its constitution, not give a special status to the Donbass, not put through an amnesty, not organize elections in consultation with Donbass. Everyone understands that no one will resolve these things for Ukraine.
“Everyone understands that this is abnormal, something pathological which emerged in turning the Ukrainian crisis, which arose as a result of an absolutely illegal, anti-constitutional coup d’etat, into a measuring stick for all relations between Russia and the West. This is absolutely abnormal, an unhealthy situation, artificially fanned from countries that are far removed from Europe. Europe no longer wants to be held hostage to this situation. For me, this is obvious.”
In presenting these three long excerpts from Lavrov’s Jan. 26 press conference, my intention was to give readers a feel for Lavrov’s method of argumentation and his somber tone in what was delivered without notes and in response to questions from journalists in the audience.
In his prepared opening remarks, Lavrov had already set out some of the key points in the overall approach to international affairs from Russia’s analytical tool of realism and national interest. The number one issue facing Russia and the world from his perspective is to arrive at a new system of managing international affairs. Russia’s relations with the West are part and parcel of this broader challenge.
This wished-for new system would be one built on full equality of relations between states, respect for their interests and non-interference in internal affairs. Lavrov was repeating Vladimir Putin’s call upon nations to re-dedicate themselves to the principles of the United Nations Charter that Putin issued in New York in September 2015 at the 70th anniversary gathering of the General Assembly. The new system of global governance will come about as a result of reforms to the basic international institutions whereby political and economic power is reallocated in ways that reflect changes in relative economic and military power of nations from the days when these institutions were established.
By itself, there is nothing particular new in this vision. It has been in the public domain for years and guided calls for readjusting the voting powers within the International Monetary Fund. The novel element, which will be shocking to many in Washington, was Sergey Lavrov’s clear and repeated identification of the United States as the power frustrating the renewal of world governance by stubbornly defending its hegemonic control of institutions and seeking to consolidate still further its control over its allies in Europe and Asia at the expense of their national interests and in furtherance of its own interests.
Hence, Lavrov’s mention of the TPP and TIPP projects. Hence, his repeated mention of forces from afar, meaning the U.S., that have imposed European sanctions on Russia against the wishes of separate E.U. member states.
At one point, in responding to a journalist from Japan, Lavrov completely abandoned veiled language. He said Russia favored in principle giving a permanent seat on the UN Security Council to Japan, but would do so only when it was clear Japan will contribute its own national views to deliberations, broadening the perspectives on the table, and not merely provide the United States with an additional voting member under its control.
It is interesting that Lavrov explicitly denied that Russia feels “offended,” or as I have written using an alternative translation, “holds a grudge” over how it has been treated by the United States in the downward spiral of relations from the high point of the 2009 “re-set” to today’s nadir.
The context for this remark is the ever-present denunciations in mainstream Western media of Vladimir Putin’s speeches on foreign affairs. Putin’s observations on how things went awry since the end of the Cold War are regularly categorized as “diatribes” and “revisionist,” by which is meant aggressive, threatening and possibly irrational.
Lavrov said Russia acknowledges it is a tough world out there and competition is harsh. That is the true sense of his headline remark that there can be no return to “business as usual” or the idealistic notions underlying the “re-set” even when the current sanctions against Russia are lifted.
Russia is nonetheless open for business on equal and mutually advantageous terms where and when possible. In this regard, Lavrov is in complete agreement with American experts like Angela Stent at Georgetown University who advise the incoming U.S. administration in 2017 against planning some new “re-set.” They come to that common conclusion from diametrically opposed premises over who is responsible for the new reality.
Lavrov speaks of our being in a long and painful transition period from a world dominated by the West, which in turn is dominated by one power, the United States, to a multipolar world with a number of key participants in global governance. But that does not exclude amelioration and he appears to share the view now spreading in Western media, that U.S. and European sanctions will be lifted in the near future.
One recent example of this expectation that generates euphoria in Western business circles appeared in Bloomberg online the day before Lavrov’s news conference: “Russian Entente Nears as Allies Hint at End of Ukraine Sanctions.”
The important message, which Sergey Lavrov delivered on Jan. 26, is that Russia has not and will not mend its ways. He told us Russia did not beg for relief from sanctions and is not trading its support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria in return for relief over Ukraine.
We may be sure that the United States and the European Union will present the lifting of sanctions as a trade-off. But the reality will be a retreat from a policy that is unsustainable because it harms Western interests far more than Russian interests. This was the sense of Lavrov’s insistence that the West needs Russia more than Russia needs the West.
The present, ongoing economic harm to European farmers and other select sectors of the economy from Russia’s tit-for-tat embargo is obvious. The harm to U.S. interests is more subtle.
It was recently highlighted in an article published in Foreign Affairs magazine by a research fellow of the Cato Institute entitled “Not-So Smart Sanctions.” There we read that the Washington establishment is finally worried over the creation by Russia and China of alternative global financial institutions to those based in Washington.
The BRICS Bank, the Asia Infrastructure Development Bank, the introduction of bank clearing centers competing with SWIFT: all are intended to end, once and for all, America’s possibilities for inflicting crippling economic pain on those falling into its latest list of enemies as was done to punish the Kremlin over annexation of Crimea and intervention in Donbass.
Lavrov spoke repeatedly about defending “national interests” as the guiding principle of foreign relations. In this connection, the shadow of Hans Morgenthau, a founder and major theorist of America’s Realist School, may be said to have shared the podium with him. But Lavrov and the Russians have taken to a new level the principles set out in Politics Among Nations, Morgenthau’s famous textbook which generations of American college students once studied in their Government 101 courses.
Lavrov’s Russia is calling upon nations to shed their chains, to stop pushing their national interests to one side while listening to instructions from Washington. Nations should compete and jostle for influence in a free market of ideas and influences, while playing by generally recognized rules.
If the rules are followed, the international environment will not collapse into chaos notwithstanding sharp contradictions between nations.
Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator, American Committee for East West Accord, Ltd. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? (August 2015) is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites. For donations to support the European activities of ACEWA, write to email@example.com. © Gilbert Doctorow, 2015
In the “free and democratic system” being pushed upon all other states in the world by the United States and its Western allies, journalists are increasingly unhappy about the repressions they’ve been facing over the last decade, along with constant surveillance and the demand to cooperate with intelligence services. That is why German-speakers have even coined a special term for the Western media – Lügenpresse or “lying press”. It’s no wonder that the credibility of the most famous Western media outlets recently has hit a new low.
Since the days of Richard Nixon no American president was as hostile to the media as Barack Obama – this was stated by the former editor-in-chief of the Washington Post, Leonard Downie in a report that he drafted on the dire situation of the freedom of speech in the United States. According to this report, the Obama Administration has been routinely spying on journalists, while punishing harshly all sorts of whistleblowers. Moreover, the members of the administration feel personally offended when a critical article about its actions appears somewhere in the media. In order to prevent such perceived slights, government officials are being accused of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 that in the first 90 years of its existence was used only three times to convict foreign spies. Yet, in the period from 2009 to 2013 eight US officials went to jail on accusations of providing journalists with the information that could lead to a major scandal. As for US journalists, Leonard Downie notes, they are living in the atmosphere of constant fear, under a sense of being monitored daily.
Despite promises to put an end to the “excessive secrecy” that was imposed by the Bush Administration, Obama has only expanded it further still. It happens so that even the documents that pose no threat to national security whatsoever are being classified today in the West as “Top Secret” to ensure that reporters never get access to them. Since October 2011, civil servants in all US government bodies are being officially encouraged to spy on their colleagues, while employees of federal departments since 2012 are forced to regularly report their contacts with the press, as well as to inform superiors about “suspicious behavior” of their colleagues. The former head of the CIA, Michael Hayden, stated that these measures were adopted to “prevent any contact.” Even the employees of media outlets obedient to Washington, such as the Associated Press and Fox News have been targeted by the Obama Administration.
There’s growing evidence that suggests that Operation Mockingbird, launched by the CIA in the 1950s, has never ceased to exist. The main objective of this operation was to influence both the US and foreign media through agents that were planted among genuine journalists. When the operation was made official, US authorities had more than three thousand permanent and contracted agents of the CIA in hundreds of Western media outlets. And it seems that nothing has changed since those days, since the Western media spreads disinformation, produces propaganda and whitewashes anything that might harm the well-being of Western elites.
But the worst part is that it’s not simply the American media that has been destroyed, since the European media has suffered a similar fate. How else can the bias of the European press be explained?
The Western media is usually tasked with targeting specific individuals who dare oppose Washington. It will suffice to recall the rigid disinformation campaign against Saddam Hussein and the so-called “weapons of mass destruction” that never existed in the first place. Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi was subjected to a similar treatment, and now we are hearing revelations made by Hillary Clinton that regime change in Libya was carried out in the best interests of Washington, since Gaddafi had considerable oil and gold reserves at his disposal. A similar propaganda campaign has been launched by the United States against Syria, and especially Russia in light of the Ukrainian crisis. Even the revelations made by the French journalist Laurent Bravard or the speech given by the Director of French Military Intelligence Christophe Gomart in front of the National Assembly of France were ignored by the absolute majority of Western media sources.
The total control of the media by Western intelligence services has become painfully obvious recently. A while ago a German journalist contributing to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Dr Udo Ulfkotte, admitted that all authors are receiving gifts in the form of expensive watches, exotic tours, or stays in luxurious hotels. One can easily live a life of the rich and famous if he’s writing good things about NATO and demonizes Russia. In his book, published under the title Gekaufte Journalisten (Corrupt Journalists), Udo Ulfkotte says that those who write as they were told to, especially those “inspired” by the CIA or other Western intelligence services, are enjoying full protection and regular promotions. The utter and complete control over the Fourth Estate (as the press is usually referred to) exercised by intelligence services and oligarchs has turned the Western press into a political fifth column. As for those people who do not agree with this state of affairs, they simply have no say in the West.
It is impossible to publish facts in the West not simply because of the rigid censorship, but due to the fact that the better part of media outlets are owned by a small group of wealthy individuals. The world’s media, as well as the leading centers of Europe are being dominated by the Wall Street and the City of London, and none of these people, even if they understand the danger of obeying the orders of the few, dare to speak up against the actions of the US. For this reason European media outlets are facing a serious crisis these days.
The extensive amount of pressure that media is forced to live under has become so distinct and apparent that some Western reporters have decided to revolt against the system. A while ago, an American economist and author Paul Craig Roberts noted that we are a witnessing a complete decomposition of Western journalism, while journalists are forced to lie or simply give up their chosen profession.
According to the data published by the Insurge Intelligence project it’s not the media alone that is being used for propaganda purposes, but also search engines like Google as well. While bypassing the democratic norms and laws, Western intelligence agencies are influencing policies and public opinions in the United States and other states, to ensure “information superiority”. It is therefore not surprising that in 2015 the US took 49th place in the World Press Freedom Index, along with El Salvador, Burkina Faso and the Republic of Niger.
Martin Berger is a Czech-based freelance journalist and analyst.
Pentagon will publish 198 photos of tortured detainees in the US prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan on Friday, a top American civil rights group said. The release comes after a decade-long lawsuit ended in the group’s favor in March.
Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU’s Center for Democracy, announced on Wednesday that the US Department of Defense (DoD) would provide public access to previously disclosed images of prisoners being tortured in US detention centers after more than 10 years of staunch resistance to do so.
The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request demanding the government to reveal records, including photos of the alleged abuse of prisoners by US officers in the American detention facilities overseas back in 2004.
Despite President Obama’s initial promise to release the requested materials back in 2009, he then urged Congress to pass a special exemption clause to block the release of photos citing security reasons, adding that the publication of the photos “would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by small number of individuals” and would “further inflame anti-American opinion and put our troops in great danger.”
After a long-running court battle, the US District Court Judge Alvin Hellerstein ruled that the government should “disclose each and all the photographs” referring to the ACLU’s lawsuit in last March.
However, only about 200 images out of some 2,100 pictures will be released on Friday. The major part of the evidence comprising approximately 1,900 photos will remain concealed after US Defense Secretary Ash Carter had invoked his authority under 2009 exemption provision last November.
“I have determined that public disclosure of any of the photographs would endanger citizens of the United States, members of the United States Armed Forces, or employees of the United States Government deployed outside the United States,” he wrote in the certification renewal in support of his decision to appeal the ruling on November 7.
Yet the Pentagon has made some minor concessions in the case with Carter refusing to extend his certification to 198 photographs which are now being processed for release. However, Carter didn’t explain the difference between this series of photos and those remain withheld from the public domain, according to Politico.
The still-classified images consist of collection of photographs taken by the DoD in the period from September 11, 2001 to January 22, 2009 and relate to the treatment of “engaged, captured or detained individuals”, according to the court documents.
The ACLU said it would insist on releasing the whole package of documents. The last major scandal in connection with the release of photos and footages depicting scenes of prisoners’ abuse and humiliation by the American soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq broke out in 2004. The exposure of horrendous human right violations in the detention center prompted authorities to launch an investigation into the matter as a result of which 11 soldiers accused of sexual abuse in martial trials were incarcerated.
The notorious prison was used for detention purposes by US-led coalition in Iraq until 2006 when the US government handed control over prison to the local authorities. The prison ceased functioning in 2014.
Thousands of US troops could remain in Afghanistan for decades to come, despite Washington’s plan to pull the majority of soldiers out by early 2017, US military commanders reportedly suggest.
The revelation comes amid concerns about the Afghan government’s vulnerability.
“What we’ve learned is that you can’t really leave,” a senior Pentagon official told the Washington Post on condition of anonymity. “The local forces need air support, intelligence and help with logistics. They are not going to be ready in three years or five years. You have to be there for a very long time.”
Senior US commanders expressed surprise at Al-Qaeda’s resilience in Afghanistan, as well as the Taliban’s continued seizure of large areas of contested territory.
Following the departure of most foreign forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban began to seize district centers and inflict sizable losses on government forces. In addition to the Taliban, US and Afghan forces are now fighting an aggressive branch of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL).
“No matter what happens in the next couple of years Afghanistan is going to have wide ungoverned spaces that violent extremist organizations can take advantage of,” said Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, a military spokesman in Afghanistan.
Commanders specifically noted that troops in Helmand province have struggled to maintain control of territory taken by US forces from the Taliban in 2011 and 2012.
“There’s a real will-to-fight issue there,” said a senior military official in Kabul.
The officials told the Post that Afghan troops in Helmand have lacked effective leaders, as well as the weapons and ammunition to hold off Taliban attacks. Some soldiers have been fighting for years without a break, which has led to poor morale and high desertion rates.
Although US officials have pointed to improvements made in the region, such as the time it takes to receive medical help on the battlefield – currently an average of four hours, down from 24 hours in 2013 – Shoffner stressed that other goals will take a long time to achieve.
“How long does it take to grow a 15-year pilot? It takes about 15 years,” he said. “We’re starting a little late with the Air Force.”
President Obama canceled Washington’s initial plan to withdraw the majority of US troops in 2014, shifting to a plan to scale back forces by early 2017. At that point, 5,500 would remain in the country to work with Afghan forces – down from the current 9,800 soldiers. Plans to completely remove all US troops have not been announced.
The decision was seen as a turn-around from Obama’s campaign promise to bring troops home, and his repeated assurance that he does not support the “idea of endless war.”
The British government, whose foreign policy is overtly hostile to their Russian counterpart, declared last week that their investigation into the killing of a former Russian intelligence agent in London nearly a decade ago concluded there is a “strong probability” the Russian FSB security agency was responsible for poisoning Alexander Litivenko with plutonium. They further declared that Russian President Vladimir Putin “probably approved” of the act. The British investigation, which was likely politically motivated, seemingly raised more questions than it answered. But American corporate media were quick to use the accusations against Putin to demonize him, casting him as a pariah brazenly flaunting his disregard for international conventions.
The Washington Post (1/23/16) editorial board wrote that “Robert Owen, a retired British judge, has carefully and comprehensively documented what can only be called an assassination… Mr. Owen found (Andrei) Lugovoi was acting ‘under the direction’ of the FSB in an operation to kill Mr. Litivenko – one that was ‘probably approved’ by the director of the FSB and by Mr. Putin.”
Actually, Owen did not find that former KGB operative Lugovoi was acting under the direction of the FSB to kill Litivenko. He found there was a “strong probability” this was the case. This means that even in Owens’s view, there is not near certainty, which would meet the legal standard of reasonable doubt that would preclude a guilty judgement. There is even more doubt that even if it were the case the FSB ordered the murder, they did so on Putin’s orders.
The New York Times editorial board (1/21/16) finds the investigation’s results “shocking.” For the Times, this confirms a pattern of Putin’s rogue behavior. They claim Putin’s “deserved reputation as an autocrat willing to flirt with lawlessness in his global ventures has taken on a startling new aspect.”
Both of the prestigious and influential American newspapers argue that the British findings impugn Putin’s respectability in international affairs. The Times says:
Mr. Putin has built a sordid record on justice and human rights, which naturally reinforces suspicion that he could easily have been involved in the murder. At the very least, the London inquiry, however much it is denied at the Kremlin, should serve as a caution to the Russian leader to repair his reputation for notorious intrigues abroad.
The more hawkish Post says: “This raises a serious question for President Obama and other world leaders whose governments do not traffic in contract murder. Should they continue to meet with Mr. Putin as if he is just another head of state?”
Putin’s alleged “sordid record on justice and human rights,” which is taken for granted without providing any examples, is seen as bolstering the case for his guilt in the case of the poisoning death of Litivenko. This, in turn, adds to his “notorious” reputation as a violator of human rights.
The Post draws a line between the lawless Putin and the respectable Western heads of state, such as Obama. Though they frame their call to treat Putin as an outcast as a question, it is clearly intended as a rhetorical question.
It is curious that The Post draws a contrast between Putin and Obama, whose government is supposedly above such criminality. The newspaper does not mention the U.S. government’s drone assassination program, which as of last year had killed nearly 2,500 people in at least three countries outside of declared military battlefields. Estimates have shown that at least 90 percent of those killed were not intended targets. None of those killed have been charged with any crimes. And at least two – Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son Abdul Rahman – were Americans.
Obama himself is personally responsible for those killed by missiles launched from unmanned aircraft over the skies of sovereign countries. Several news reports have indicated that Obama is presented in meetings each week by military and national security officials with a list of potential targets for assassination. Obama must personally approve each target, at which point they are added to the state-sanctioned “kill list.”
The British government has also assumed for itself the power to assassinate its own citizens outside a declared battlefield. Last fall, Prime Minister David Cameron ordered the deaths of two British citizens in Syria, who were subsequently disposed of in a lethal drone strike.
The Washington Post editorial board (3/24/12) claimed that Obama was justified in carrying out lethal drone strokes that kill American citizens “to protect the country against attack.” Their lone criticism was that “an extra level of review of some sort is warranted.”
After it was revealed that an American hostage was inadvertently killed in a drone strike in Pakistan, The Post (5/1/15) said that the issue of whether the American government continues to conduct drone strikes should not be up for debate. “(T)here is little question that drones are the least costly means of eliminating militants whose first aim is to kill Americans,” they wrote.
While they tacitly accept the legal rationale for Obama’s assassination program, the New York Times editorial board at least demonstrated some skepticism. In “A Thin Rationale for Drone Killings” (6/23/14), they called the memo “a slapdash pastiche of legal theories – some based on obscure interpretations of British and Israeli law – that was clearly tailored to the desired result.” They say that “the rationale provides little confidence that the lethal action was taken with real care.”
Yet they do not chastise Obama for his “intrigues abroad” nor do they condemn this as an example of his “sordid record on justice and human rights,” language they used for Putin. The idea that relying on what are transparently inadequate legal justifications for killing an American citizen without due process would merit prosecution is clearly beyond the limits of discussion for the Times.
Recently Faheem Qureshi, a victim of the first drone strike ordered by Obama in 2009 (three days after his induction as President), who lost multiple family members and his own eye, told The Guardian that Obama’s actions in his native lands are “an act of tyranny. If there is a list of tyrants in the world, to me, Obama will be put on that list by his drone program.”
Surely both The New York Times and Washington Post disagree with Qureshi, because they believe the U.S. government is inherently benevolent and its motives are beyond reproach. But based on their editorials about the British investigation of the Litivenko poisoning, if Putin was responsible and was described by Qureshi in the same way, they would wholeheartedly agree.
The U.S. government and its allies in NATO, like Great Britain, have a clear agenda in vilifying Russia and its President. The US-NATO alliance supported the government that came to power in Ukraine in 2014 through a coup. After provinces in Eastern Ukraine – the vast majority of whose population is ethnically Russian and Russian-speaking – refused to recognize the NATO-backed coup government in Kiev, the Russian government supported them.
It should be easy to see how, from Russia’s perspective, the Ukranian conflict can be understood as an extension of NATO encroachment towards Russia’s borders that has continued unabated since James Baker told Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 NATO would move “not an inch east.”
“We’re in a new Cold War,” Stephen Cohen, professor of Russian studies and politics, told Salon. “The epicenter is not in Berlin this time but in Ukraine, on Russia’s borders, within its own civilization: That’s dangerous. Over the 40-year history of the old Cold War, rules of behavior and recognition of red lines, in addition to the red hotline, were worked out. Now there are no rules.”
Additionally, Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2011 throughout that country’s civil war, and more recently its direct military intervention in the conflict that has turned the tide against US-backed rebels, has strongly rankled Washington.
The language used by top government officials to describe Russia has been astoundingly combative. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, the man in charge of the entire US military, claimed Russia is responsible for aggression and is “endangering world order.”
The U.S. government’s hyping of the Russian “threat” has been used to justify massive spending on the U.S. space program and other military expenditures, such as the $1 trillion to upgrade nuclear weapons,
One could even argue that the narrative of an aggressive and belligerent Russia is the principal justification for the continued existence of the NATO itself, two and a half decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The alliance allows the US military to be stationed in hundreds of bases throughout Europe under the guise of a purely defensive organization.
The U.S.’s most prominent media organizations should demonstrate the strongest skepticism towards the policies and actions of their own government. At the very least, they should hold their own country’s leaders to the same standards as they do others. But time and again, the media choose to act as a mouthpiece to echo and amplify Washington’s propaganda. They do the government’s bidding, creating an enemy and rallying the public towards a confrontation they would otherwise have no interest in, while allowing the government to avoid accountability for its own misdeeds.
At a time when America’s public sector is apparently too strapped financially even to provide safe drinking water for some of its residents, the Obama administration plans to commit the nation to spending at least $1 trillion over the next three decades to improve our ability to fight a nuclear war. That’s right — an almost unthinkable war that would end up destroying much of the habitable portion of the globe.
That wasn’t the message President Obama conveyed in April, 2009 when he declared in Prague, “The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War. … Generations lived with the knowledge that their world could be erased in a single flash of light. … Just as we stood for freedom in the Twentieth Century, we must stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the Twenty-first Century.
“And as . . . the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. … So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
How times change. Today, warns former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, “we are now on the verge of a new nuclear arms race” based on a return to Cold War thinking. “Moreover, I believe that the risk of a nuclear catastrophe today is greater than it was during the Cold War — and yet our public is blissfully unaware of the new nuclear dangers they face.”
Russia shares some of the blame, with its ostentatious talk of developing new weapons like a giant nuclear-tipped torpedo designed to “cause guaranteed devastating damage to the country’s territory by creating wide areas of radioactive contamination.”
But a far greater risk to global security is the Obama administration’s so-called nuclear “modernization” program, which the Pentagon is promoting at the same time U.S. policymakers are incessantly demonizing Russia as the chief threat to the United States and its allies.
In theory, the administration aims merely to ensure that America’s nuclear deterrent remains “robust” — that is, credible enough to dissuade any other nuclear power from contemplating an attack on U.S. forces, or installations, or cities.
But U.S. nuclear forces are currently sized with only one potential enemy in mind: Russia. The United States has an estimated 1,900 nuclear weapons deployed, versus 1,780 for Russia. The next largest nuclear power is France, with just 290 deployed weapons. The total U.S. nuclear stockpile of 7,200 warheads is 28 times bigger than China’s.
Apparently all that isn’t enough to let top Pentagon officials sleep at night. President Obama’s new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year that he believes Russia poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security — “an existential threat” no less. “If you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming,” he declared.
Curtis LeMay Redux
Lest Russia launch an all-out attack, for reasons unknown, the Obama administration proposes building 12 new nuclear-armed submarines, 100 long-range strategic bombers armed with a new class of bombs, 400 silo-based ballistic missiles, and 1,000 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. It’s almost as if Air Force General Curtis LeMay were still running the show.
An authoritative study by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies estimates the full cost of this program over 30 years at more than $1 trillion — with no allowance for cost overruns, delays, or clean-up and decommissioning costs.
But cost may be the least of the problems with Obama’s agenda. One common if disguised element of these “modernization” programs is their ability to make nuclear “war-fighting” more, not less, conceivable by increasing the targeting flexibility of these weapons and, in some cases, reducing their yield so they resemble very large conventional weapons rather than the all-or-nothing nukes of old.
For example, as the New York Times reported, the recently tested B61 Model 12 nuclear bomb has steerable fins that permit pin-point accuracy and configurable yields to as little as two percent of the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima. General James E. Cartwright, retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former head of the United States Strategic Command, said “what going smaller does is to make the weapon more thinkable.”
Similarly, the proposed new Long-Range Stand-Off weapon, a vastly upgraded nuclear cruise missile, “is designed for nuclear warfighting,” states Stephen Young, a senior analyst in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Unfortunately, for that very reason, deploying this weapon will actually make the United States less secure.”
Moving to a nuclear war-fighting capability violates the official U.S. policy outlined in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which called for steps to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attack, with the objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or our allies and partners the sole purpose of US nuclear weapons.”
Once policymakers start seriously considering “limited war” scenarios in which nuclear weapons might come in handy, the risk of war shoots way up. At the same time, the acquisition of war-fighting capabilities will prompt the other side to follow suit.
Easing into Nuclear War
As James Doyle, a former nonproliferation analyst at Los Alamos National Laboratory, put it, “Lowering the threshold of nuclear war poses the very real threat of rapid escalation in a conflict potentially resulting in the use of many, more destructive nuclear weapons.”
Russia certainly views the Obama administration’s current nuclear program as upsetting the stability of traditional deterrence. Following a recent test of the new B61-12 bomb, Russia’s deputy defense minister, Anatoly Antonov, denounced it as “irresponsible” and “openly provocative.”
Russia is also gravely concerned about another development that could, in theory, make the United States contemplate a “limited” nuclear war: the expansion of the U.S. ballistic missile defense network in Europe. President Vladimir Putin called that “an attempt to undermine the existing parity in strategic nuclear weapons and essentially to upset the whole system of global and regional stability.”
The biggest risk from all these developments isn’t a planned nuclear war, but an unplanned nuclear exchange triggered by a false alarm in an atmosphere of mutual paranoia. Both the United States and Russia have hundreds of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, ready to “launch on warning” lest they be destroyed in a sneak attack. Our survival thus far is thanks in part to luck; scholars have documented at least 20 accidents that might have started an accidental nuclear war in years past.
There’s no guarantee that our luck will hold out, however. Thanks to growing fears of being wiped out without warning by stealthy U.S. weapons, “Russia has shortened the launch time from what it was during the Cold War,” according to Bruce Blair, a nuclear security expert at Princeton. “Today, top military command posts in the Moscow area can bypass the entire human chain of command and directly fire by remote control rockets in silos and on trucks as far away as Siberia in only 20 seconds.”
The priority of U.S. nuclear policy today should not be investing in staggeringly expensive new technology that makes us less secure by making nuclear war more thinkable and thus more unpredictable. It should be overwhelmingly focused on nuclear risk reduction: lowering the threats perceived by each nuclear power, eliminating launch-on-warning policies, and exploring other confidence-building measures. Our greatest security task is to modernize our thinking about nuclear weapons, not our nuclear weapons technology.
Reprieve – January 23, 2016
Today marks seven years to the day since President Obama’s first drone strike in office, which he was reportedly informed afterwards had killed innocent civilians.
Faheem Qureshi, was 14 years old at the time of the strike. It killed several members of his family and left him without his left eye and severely burned.
At the time, Faheem was a high school student whose favourite subject was chemistry. Several of his cousins and uncles were killed in the strike, which Faheem survived only because he was able to drag his body far enough away that people felt it was safe to provide aid. Faheem was hospitalised for 24 days in Peshawar before he was recovered enough to leave. To this day, he still requires medical treatment for head injuries suffered in the attack.
During his time in office, President Obama has significantly expanded the CIA’s covert drone programme in Pakistan and Yemen, launching over 500 strikes in those two countries alone. He has never fully acknowledged the programme’s existence nor apologised to any of the hundreds of Yemeni and Pakistani civilians who have been killed since the drone programme began. Analysis of data by international human rights NGO Reprieve in 2014 found that 1,147 people – including women and children – were killed in attempts to target 41 men, raising serious concerns about the ‘precise’ nature of strikes.
Last year, US citizen Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto were mistakenly killed in a US drone strike. For the first and only time, President Obama admitted the US’ error and publicly apologised to the families of the two men. Attempts by Pakistani and Yemeni victims to get a similar apology have been met with silence.
Speaking about his ordeal this week to international human rights organization Reprieve, Faheem Qureshi said:
“On January 23rd 2009, a hellfire missile tore my family’s lives apart as they sat down to dinner. The drone strike – President Obama’s first – killed three members of my family. As the sole survivor, I lost my left eye and suffered serious head injuries. I was only 14 years old at the time, but I can still remember as if it was yesterday the feeling of my body burning and how I had to crawl from the rubble to get help. I am told reporting has since revealed that the President was told, almost immediately, that a mistake had been made. He had killed innocent civilians – my family – in the strike.
“In the years since, I have witnessed hundreds of drone strikes in my community that have killed many more innocent civilians. People became scared to go to funerals because drones targeted them. They became scared to remove bodies from the aftermath of a drone strike in case another strike hit. The constant threat from drones dominated every minute of our lives. And yet, seven years on, President Obama will not even fully acknowledge the existence of the covert drone program. The only ‘mistakes’ he acknowledges are an American and an Italian he accidentally killed last year.
“What about the hundreds of innocent Pakistanis who have also lost their lives in drone strikes? What about my family? President Obama knows we were innocent and yet we’ve never received an explanation for why we were targeted, much less an apology. As President Obama prepares to leave the White House, he needs to bring his drone programme out of the shadows. It is past time he face up to what his drones really do and apologise to me, to my family, and to all the other innocent people who have been killed by these terrible weapons.”
Commenting, Jennifer Gibson, staff attorney at international human rights organization Reprieve, which investigates civilian casualties from drone strikes, said: “For seven years, secret drone strikes have been President Obama’s weapon of choice in the War on Terror. Taken covertly in places where the US is not at war, these strikes have killed and injured hundreds of innocent men, women and children just like Fahim. Yet, even as is own Generals warn how counterproductive the programme is, President Obama has refused calls for even basic transparency.
This is a legacy no president should want to leave. President Obama needs to bring a halt to this illegal and counterproductive programme. He needs to open it up to scrutiny and he needs to extend the same apology to the innocent Pakistani and Yemenis he has killed, as the one he extended to the families of Warren Weinstein and Giovanni La Porto. Fahim deserves nothing less.”
Bret Stephens, the deputy editorial page editor who writes The Wall Street Journal’s weekly “Global View” column, is not really a bad prose stylist, and his logic is not always unsound. But his unexamined assumptions lead him astray.
His latest installment is typical. Entitled “Why the U.S. Should Stand by the Saudis Against Iran,” it begins with not one premise, but two. The first, as the title suggest, is that the U.S. should stand by Riyadh in its time of woes. The second is that if the kingdom stumbles, only one person is to blame – President Obama.
The article opens on a promising note: “There is so much to detest about Saudi Arabia,” Stephens writes. It bans women from driving, it shuts its doors to Syrian refugees, it promotes “a bigoted and brutal version of Sunni Islam,” and it has “increased tensions with Iran by executing … a prominent radical Shiite cleric,” i.e., Nimr al-Nimr.
So why continue siding with a kingdom “that Israeli diplomat Dore Gold once called ‘Hatred’s Kingdom,’” Stephens asks, “especially when the administration is also trying to pursue further opening [sic] with Tehran?”
It’s a question that a lot of people are asking especially now that the collapse in oil prices means that the Saudis are less economically important than they once were. But Stephens says it would be wrong to abandon the kingdom “especially when it is under increasing economic strain from falling oil prices.”
Get that? It would be wrong to abandon the kingdom when oil is scarce and prices are high — because that’s when we need the Saudis the most — and it’s wrong to abandon the monarchy when oil is plentiful and prices are low when we need them the least. Oil, in other words, has nothing to do with it. It’s wrong because it’s wrong.
But Stephens thinks it’s wrong for another reason as well: because Saudi Arabia “feels acutely threatened by a resurgent Iran.” Why is Iran resurgent? Because the nuclear deal that it recently concluded with the U.S. has set it free from punishing economic sanctions.
He then goes on to list all the bad things Iran has done thanks to the power that the Obama administration has just handed it on a silver platter. “Despite fond White House hopes that the nuclear deal would moderate Iran’s behavior,” Stephens says, “Tehran hard-liners wasted no time this week disqualifying thousands of moderate candidates from running in next month’s parliamentary elections, and an Iranian-backed militia appears to be responsible for the recent kidnapping of three Americans in Iraq.”
Scary, eh? Yes – until one considers how Stephens has loaded the dice. His statement about Iran’s hardliners is accurate as far as it goes. But he might have pointed out that while Iran’s theocratic rulers certainly hobble democracy, they at least allow some sort of parliamentary elections to take place whereas Saudi Arabia, the regime he is now leaping to defend, allows exactly none. (Sorry, but last month’s meaningless municipal-council elections don’t count.)
In the Saudi kingdom, political parties, protests, even seminars in which intellectuals get to sound off are all verboten. Since March 2014, Saudis have been expressly forbidden to do anything that might undermine the status quo, including advocating atheism, criticizing Islam, participating in any form of political protest, or even joining a political party.
Stephens’s statement about the three kidnapped Americans is equally misleading. While Iran does indeed back such militias, Reuters cited U.S. government sources saying that “Washington had no reason to believe Tehran was involved in the kidnapping and did not believe the trio were being held in Iran.”
Plus, to follow Stephens’s logic, if Iran is responsible for specific actions like these, then Saudi Arabia is responsible for specific actions of the Sunni Salafist forces that it funds in Syria, which include lopping off the heads of Shi‘ites and committing many other such atrocities.
Stephens says that the U.S.-Iranian accord “guarantees Iran a $100 billion sanctions windfall,” a figure that the Council on Foreign Relations, no slouch when it comes to Iran bashing, describes as roughly double the true amount. He says Iran now enjoys “the protection of a major nuclear power” thanks to Russia’s intervention in Syria and agreement to supply Tehran with high-tech weaponry.
As a result, “Iranian proxies are active in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, and dominate much of southern Iraq. Restive Shiite populations in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province and neighboring Bahrain provide further openings for Iranian subversion on the Arabian peninsula.”
Possibly so – except that Stephens might have noted that Saudi proxies, up to and including Al Qaeda, are active in the same countries and that Shi‘ites in Bahrain and the Eastern Province might be a little less restive if Saudi repression were a little less savage.
Then Stephens gets to his main point, which is the nefarious role of Obama:
“Add to this an American president who is ambivalent about the House of Saud the way Jimmy Carter was about the Shah of Iran, and no wonder Riyadh is acting the way it is. If the administration is now unhappy about the Saudi war in Yemen or its execution of Shiite radicals, it has only itself to blame.
“All this means that the right U.S. policy toward the Saudis is to hold them close and demonstrate serious support, lest they be tempted to continue freelancing their foreign policy in ways we might not like. It won’t happen in this administration, but a serious commitment to overthrow the Assad regime would be the place to start.”
In other words, if the Saudi monarchy chops off the heads of dissident Shi‘ites and sentences liberal blogger Raif Badawi to a thousand lashes, it’s because Obama doesn’t show enough love. Ditto Yemen. If Saudi air raids have killed some 2,800 civilians according to the latest UN estimates, including more than 500 children, it’s because Obama has allowed his affections to flag for the Saudi royals. If only he would hug the Saudi princes a little closer, they wouldn’t feel so lonely and bereft and would therefore respond more gently to their neighbors in the south. No blame should be cast on the Saudi leaders. Their behavior can’t be blamed on the contradictions between their playboy lifestyles and the ascetic extremes of Wahhabism or the baleful effects of raking in untold oil riches while doing no work in return. No, everything’s the fault of Obama and his yuppie ways.
What can one say about reasoning like this? Only that it makes Donald Trump and Ted Cruz seem like paragons of mental stability. But given that The Wall Street Journal has long filled its editorial pages with such swamp gas, why dwell on the feverish exhalations of just one right-wing columnist?
The answer is that Stephens speaks not just for himself, but for an entire neocon establishment that is beside itself over the mess in the Persian Gulf and desperate to avoid blame for the chaos (which is now spreading into Europe). So, talking points must be developed to shift responsibility.
The Lost Saudi Cause
But the Saudis may be beyond saving. With Iran preparing to put a million more barrels on the world oil market per day, prices – down better than 75 percent since mid-2014 – can only go lower. The Saudis, hemorrhaging money at the rate of $100 billion a year, know that when the foreign currency runs out, their power runs out too. Hence, they fear winding up as yet another failed Middle Eastern state like Syria.
“Islamic State and other jihadist groups would flourish,” Stephens observes, this time correctly. “Iran would seek to extend its reach in the Arabian peninsula. The kingdom’s plentiful stores of advanced Western military equipment would also fall into dangerous hands.”
It’s not a pretty picture, which is why the neocons are pointing the fingers at others, Obama first and foremost. As Jim Lobe recently observed, all the usual suspects are pitching in in behalf of their Saudi friends – Elliott Abrams, Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, and so on. All are furious at what Obama administration has done to their beloved petro-sheiks.
As neocon theorist Max Book put it at the Commentary Magazine website: “The American policy should be clear: We should stand with the Saudis – and the Egyptians, and the Jordanians, and the Emiratis, and the Turks, and the Israels [sic], and all of our other allies – to stop the new Persian Empire. But the Obama administration, morally and strategically confused, is instead coddling Iran in the vain hope that it will somehow turn Tehran from enemy into friend.”
Something else is also at work, however – the I-word. As Lobe notes, neocons have done an about-face with regard to the Saudis. Where Richard Perle once called on the Bush administration to include Riyadh on his post-9/11 hit list, the neocons are now firmly on the Saudis’ side.
Why? The reason is Israel, which has decided since tangling with Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon War that the Shi‘ites are its chief enemy and the Sunni petro-monarchies, comparatively speaking, its friend. Like Communists responding to the latest directive from Moscow, the neocons have turned on a dime as a consequence, churning out reams of propaganda in support of Arab countries they once loathed.
A Saudi Makeover
In the neocon domain, Saudi Arabia has undergone a wondrous makeover, transformed from a bastion of reaction and anti-Semitism to a country that is somehow peace-loving and progressive. Formerly an enemy of Washington – or at best a distasteful gang of business associates supplying lots of oil and buying lots of guns – Saudi Arabia has been re-invented as America’s dearest friend in the Arab world.
People like Bret Stephens have done their bit in behalf of the cause, turning out article after article whose real purpose is hidden from view. Where neocons formerly scorned anyone who spoke well of the Saudis, they now denounce anyone who speaks ill.
The funny thing is that Obama is to blame for the disaster in the Middle East, not because he disregarded the latest diktat from the Washington neocon-dominated foreign-policy establishment, but because he has accepted its priorities all too dutifully. He stood by as Qatar steered hundreds of millions of dollars to Salafist jihadis in Libya and while the Saudis, Qataris, and other Gulf states did the same to Sunni fundamentalists in Syria.
Obama’s response to Saudi Arabia’s repression of Arab Spring protests in Bahrain was muted, he refused to condemn the beheading of al-Nimr — the best the State Department could come up with was a statement declaring that the execution risked “exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced” — and Obama has even given military support to the kingdom’s air assault on Yemen.
Yet now the neocons blame him for not doing enough to keep the Saudis happy.
Reprieve – January 21, 2015
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli filed the appeal today, January 21st, just one day before the seven year anniversary of President Obama’s signing of the Executive Order to close Guantanamo. Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the tapes be released in October 2014, after sixteen major US media organizations, including the New York Times, AP, and McClatchy newspapers, asked for the tapes to be made public under the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
The tapes show the force-feeding and ‘forcible cell extraction’ of Abu Wa’el Dhiab, who has since been released. Mr Dhiab is represented by international human rights NGO Reprieve. Reprieve lawyers are virtually the only people outside government to have seen the footage and have described it as ‘disturbing’, but are forbidden under classification rules from revealing its contents.
Eric Lewis, attorney and Chair of Reprieve US, said: “It is wrong to hide behind national security concerns when the Government wants to hide its mistaken actions from public view. Our national security requires the release of these tapes, and accountability for the cruel treatment imposed on men trying to call attention to their endless and lawless detention without trial.”
Cori Crider, Reprieve attorney for Guantanamo detainees, said: Make no mistake – the force-feeding tapes would make your blood run cold. One assumes that is why they have fought so hard to keep it secret. We’ll keep pushing for the truth in the Court of Appeals.”