Brexit Vote and Russia Sanctions Show Weakness of US Diplomacy

June 28, 2016 at 5:25 PM


With the media in a frenzy in the wake of the Brexit vote, one aspect of the results that has been utterly overlooked is the impact, or lack thereof, of the campaigning by US President Barack Obama for Britain to remain in the EU.  And while the results of the referendum will have far-reaching ramifications in Britain – the immigrant community has already seen a nearly 60% increase in racist attacks and abuse reported – perhaps one of the most significant in terms of international politics is the realization of just how ineffectual the US president is in swaying public opinion on the other side of the Atlantic.

But the larger implication is that the US as a political force is not the public relations superpower it once was.  Moreover, the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has demonstrated time and again that phrases such as “cooperation” and “European partnership” are merely hollow expressions of propaganda, rather than genuine descriptions of mutually respectful relations.  Indeed, what is clear is that the US establishment, regardless of which wing of the single corporate party is in power, is less interested in relationship-building than it is in dictatorship-building; accept US diktats…or else.

US Threatens Others – What Else Is New?

When Obama visited Britain in April he delivered a quite harshly worded warning to the British people: remain in the EU or suffer the consequences.  Specifically, Obama threatened that if Britain were to leave the EU it would find itself on the wrong end of trade deals, thereby negatively impacting the British economy.  Obama grandiosely proclaimed:

“I think it’s fair to say that maybe some point down the line there might be a UK-US trade agreement, but it’s not going to happen any time soon because our focus is in negotiating with a big bloc, the European Union, to get a trade agreement done…The UK is going to be in the back of the queue.”

The overt threat of the US punishing the UK for voting the wrong way is par for the course when it comes to what could loosely be described as “diplomacy” by the US political establishment. Indeed, threats seem to be one of the few means by which Washington is able to get its allies in Europe to fall in line with US policy.

This fact is perhaps best illustrated by the sanctions imposed by the European Union against Russia in the wake of the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s support for the rebels of Donetsk and Lugansk.  It is no secret that the sanctions were imposed, and subsequently extended, against Russia thanks in large part to arm-twisting by the Obama administration which sought to use the sanctions as an economic and psychological weapon against Russia in hopes of punishing Russian President Putin and his circle of advisers, and of course the Russian people more generally.

As White House spokesperson Josh Earnest explained to reporters in 2015:

My understanding is that the plan is for the President, when he goes to Europe, is to have a discussion with fellow European leaders about the need to extend the sanctions regime that’s currently in place… there are a number of steps involved in that process, and this will be part of the conversation — frankly, a wide-ranging discussion that the President will have with his G7 counterparts…the longer that the sanctions are in place, the more of an economic bite they take out of the Russian economy and the more pressure is applied to President Putin and the more President Putin and the country that he leads becomes isolated.

The obvious implication of Earnest’s wordy statement is that Obama was going to Europe to convince, coax, and cajole key European leaders of the need to sabotage their own economic cooperation with Russia as a means of punishing the country or, to put in more realist terms, to please Washington by displeasing Moscow.

And, despite talking points from the US and Europe to the contrary, the EU sanctions on Russia have indeed hurt the European economy and clearly go against its own interests.  According to an independent 2015 study carried out by the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO), and commissioned by newspapers in the Leading European Newspaper Alliance – with involvement from Tribune de Genève (Switzerland), Le Figaro (France), El Pais (Spain), and Die Welt (Germany) – the sanctions against Russia would cost Europe up to €100 billion in economic development and jeopardize up to 2.5 million jobs.

In fact, the sanctions have been so divisive in Europe that earlier this year EU foreign ministers were in sharp disagreement over the need for extending the sanctions further.  As has been the case since the sanctions were first imposed, the states closest in relations with the US were the most hawkish on the need for continued sanctions, while other influential countries were more inclined to drop the sanctions and move forward.

Of particular note has been the position of Germany which has at once supported sanctions and the reasoning behind them, and simultaneously inked contracts with Russia for the construction of a new Nord Stream pipeline to bring Russian energy to Germany’s all important industrial sector.  Naturally, a number of European leaders have mused openly about why their economies should suffer while Europe’s economic engine in Germany manages to continue humming along, reaping the benefits of economic cooperation with Russia. The answer is not hard to figure: Washington demands it.

But as the realization of Obama’s inability to impact the Brexit vote sets in, many might be left wondering why they’re still listening to the US at all.  It must be said that millions of Britons were of course in favor of remaining in the EU, though it is an open question whether the remonstrations from the US President had any impact on their decision.

Ultimately, the Brexit vote was more about British politics, nativism, the political co-location of the far right and far left, discontent among the working class, and a number of other factors.  But for those of us who yearn to see a more equitable distribution of power globally, we cannot help but notice that despite all the threats from the White House, Wall Street, and the media organs of institutional power, Britain is leaving the EU.  Maybe it’s time Washington took seriously the notion that its allies are equal partners, not junior ones.


Blame It on Rio: Politics, Propaganda, and the Weaponization of the Olympics

June 21, 2016 at 6:11 PM


The decision by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to ban the Russian track and field team from competing in the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro is as much about politics as it is about doping and fair play.  Indeed, while the International Olympic Committee (IOC) upheld the ruling with caveats that might allow some of the athletes to compete, the public relations damage has already been done.  Russia has been cast as a serial violator of doping rules, and must be a country that is dishonest and cheats routinely; those sneaky Russians just can’t be trusted.  Or so the propaganda subtext implies.

But a closer look at the manner in which the Olympics has been politicized reveals that it is, in fact, the US and its allies, not Russia, who have done the most to use this quadrennial competition of the world’s best athletes for political gain.  And in so doing, it is Washington that bears responsibility for tainting the Olympics.

While the allegations of Russian doping may or may not be true, and the country’s attempts at addressing the issue may or may not ineffectual, the fact remains that it is politics and geopolitics, not banned substances, that now befouls the games.  A quick survey of recent history shows just how serious this politicization has become.

The Olympics as a Weapon

This is not the first time (nor is it likely the last time) that the Olympics have been politicized.  And, considering the recent deep freeze in US-Russia relations thanks to Ukraine, Syria, Edward Snowden, and other key issues, one cannot help but reach the conclusion that the US has used its considerable influence behind the scenes to jab a thumb in the eye of Mr. Putin and the Russian Government.  Moreover, even if this were entirely the actions of the relevant international athletic bodies with no interference from Washington, could anyone seriously blame Moscow for concluding that the ban is politically motivated?

Consider for a moment the recent history of the Olympics, Russia, and the US. In 2014, the western media was replete with columns and television news stories calling for a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.  Literally dozens of op-eds were written with titles like Send Athletes to the Sochi Olympics, but Boycott the Games, ostensibly in an attempt to put pressure on the Kremlin in the wake of the passage of controversial legislation regarding LGBT rights in Russia.  In fact, the generally aggressive position of the West came through clearly in decisions by leaders such as Barack Obama and David Cameron not to attend the games, despite the invitations.

It should be remembered that the Sochi Olympics, which took place in February 2014, proceeded against the backdrop of intense upheaval in Ukraine, right on Russia’s border, not far from Sochi.  In fact, the coup that forced former President Yanukovich, widely seen as a key ally of the Kremlin, took place roughly 48 hours prior to the closing ceremonies in Sochi.  The general feeling in Moscow, and among many political observers internationally, was that the US-backed coup in Kiev was timed to coincide with the Olympics in the hopes that the Russian Government would fear responding too harshly given the precarious question of public opinion globally.

At the time, many had likened the series of events around Sochi 2014 to the start of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 which coincided with the launching of attacks by Georgia’s government under then President Mikhail Saakashvili against the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  Indeed, almost at the very moment that the Russian President Putin was sitting in a stadium in Beijing along with other world leaders, a key US-NATO ally and partner initiated a war of aggression.  However, as one might recall, the western corporate media, with its dutiful adherence to the war party line, endlessly droned about Russian aggression against Georgia.

But within a few months, independent investigations showed that in fact Moscow’s assertion that Saakashvili launched an unprovoked attack on Russian peacekeepers and unarmed civilians had been accurate.  Could it be mere coincidence that at the very moment that the Russian leader was in Beijing a war on Russia’s border and against Russians was launched?  Whether coincidence or not, it was not interpreted that way by Putin and his advisers.  And, of course, they had good reason to be suspect of the timing and motives behind the attack.

Undoubtedly, Russian leaders had in their minds the not too distant memory of the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.  Ostensibly a move designed to punish the Soviet Union for its intervention in Afghanistan, the US Government under then President Carter made the decision to boycott the Moscow Olympics, and attempted to get other countries to do the same.  In hindsight however, the move is remembered as a disastrous blunder by an administration seen as inept in terms of foreign policy while being dominated by Cold War ideologues such as Zbigniew Brzezinski.

In an article aptly titled Jimmy Carter’s Disastrous Olympic Boycott, which purposefully was published on February 9, 2014 (two days after the start of the Sochi Olympics), Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, associate professor in the strategy and policy department at the U.S. Naval War College, wrote that:

[Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew] Brzezinski also saw an opportunity for Carter to assert himself on matters of foreign policy. But what could the United States hope to do?… the West German ambassador to NATO suggested an Olympic boycott. The White House was intrigued. In a meeting of the National Security Council, Lloyd Cutler, the White House counsel, argued that the United States should boycott the Olympics only if it were combined with other strong action. Vice President Walter Mondale was enthusiastic…As for the president, according to White House notes of the meeting, Carter said the idea sent “cold chills” down his spine…Almost instantly, the press supported a boycott.

Two points brought out by the above excerpt bear closer scrutiny.  First is the fact that Brzezinski – a calculating strategic planner at the uppermost echelons of the political establishment, whose hatred of all things Russia is internationally renowned – saw the Olympics as a means of further undermining Russian/Soviet standing internationally at precisely the moment that the US proxy mujahideen were battling Soviet military in Afghanistan.  In effect, Brzezinski saw an Olympic boycott as war by other means.  The fact that the national security team, led by Brzezinski, was the driving force behind the decision to boycott the Moscow Olympics reinforces the perception that the boycott was less about defending Afghanistan than it was about scoring political points against the Soviet Union.

Secondly, one should pay close attention to the final sentence of the excerpt which really bears repeating: “Almost instantly, the press supported a boycott.”  In other words, the corporate media – significantly freer and more diverse in opinion in 1980 than it is in 2016 – was critical in selling the American public on the idea of a boycott.  Perhaps another way of saying it would be that the media acted as the public relations mouthpiece of the US Government, in much the same way it does now. And without that compliant media making the case for such action, it is unlikely that Americans would feel anything other than anger at being cheated out of an opportunity to watch their country’s best athletes compete against the top competition in the world.

But the politicization of sports vis-à-vis US-Russia relations is not restricted solely to the Olympics.  In fact, as recently as last year the US, UK, and other allies led an effort to discredit Russia’s hosting of the World Cup, the most watched sporting event in the world, with claims of corruption and bribery.  Never mind the fact that it was Mi6 operatives engaged in spying against Russia who created the dossier used to implicate Putin & Co. in the illegal “buying” of the World Cup.  Indeed, this scandal was the death knell for former FIFA boss Sepp Blatter who, because of seemingly friendly ties with Russia, was quickly shown the door after 17 years.

Naturally the media has stepped in with calls to strip Russia of the 2018 World Cup on every possible pretext. Witness the following headlines: FIFA should for once do the right thing and strip Russia of World Cup and Could the Litvinenko Murder Verdict See Russia Stripped of the 2018 World Cup? and The growing calls to strip Putin and Russia of the 2018 World Cup.  What was that phrase in the Politico article? “Almost instantly, the press supported a boycott.”  Again, we see today the media playing the role of US policy cheerleader, providing the necessary marketing for a clearly anti-Russian foreign policy move shrouded under the pretext of sports and fairness.

It’s the Propaganda, Stupid

But what’s the point of all this? Who cares if some Russian athletes can’t compete in Rio?  A valid question, to be sure.  To think of these moves by the US and its allies as purely designed to embarrass Russia is to completely misread the intent behind them.  Certainly, bad publicity for Putin is part of the rationale, but it is not the real goal.  Instead, the targets are the citizens of western countries whose ideas, opinions, and attitudes towards Russia will be shaped as much by sports and popular culture as by anything else.

And so, the real objective is to portray Russians as crooked cheaters whose dishonesty and insidious intentions are overshadowed only by their mindless loyalty to their country.   It is to make Americans and Brits and Europeans – already Russophobic in their outlook thanks to decades of Cold War propaganda and the current onslaught of “Putin did it!” politics – view Russian athletes as little more than a bunch of steroid-injecting Ivan Dragos whose deceit is merely a reflection of the treacherous double-dealing of their political leadership.

In short, the move to ban the Russian track and field team is part of a broader project to discredit Russia in the eyes of the public at large.  The issue is not so much about whether there is doping in Russia’s track and field program – doping is widespread in many countries, including the US – but rather about how to undermining and weakening Russia in the court of public opinion on the eve of the Olympics.  Furthermore, the negative attitudes promoted by the media will justify further aggressive policies in Ukraine, Syria, and beyond. And that is precisely the point.

Walter Lipmann, the renowned writer, commentator, and theoretician of public opinion and propaganda defined the term “stereotype” in the modern psychological sense as a “distorted picture or image in a person’s mind, not based on personal experience, but derived culturally.”  And it is just such a distorted picture which the US and its partners are cultivating against Russia, using the Olympics as the pretext.

Moreover, that the distortion is “derived culturally” rather than from personal experience demonstrates that it is the propagandists of the corporate media whose job it is to manufacture and perpetuate such distortions for political reasons who are the arbiters of truth. George Orwell would be proud.

After Orlando, Democrats and Republicans Clamor for Expanded Police State

June 16, 2016 at 7:56 PM

clinton trump

The horrific massacre in Orlando has once again thrust the specter of domestic terrorism into the limelight, and into the media space.  Pundits and politicians alike have taken the incident as yet another opportunity to thump their chests about the need for even more counter-terrorism legislation, a further increase in surveillance state activity and, of course, more war abroad.

And while such opportunists posture as defenders of the American people, none care to face the inescapable reality that since 9-11, and the introduction of numerous pieces of draconian legislation ostensibly aimed at combatting terrorism, the agencies charged with surveillance and law enforcement have not managed to prevent attacks.  Obviously, this raises the question of what exactly legislation such as the PATRIOT Act is really intended for if not to ‘keep Americans safe.’

But even more critical than retrospective criticism of the erosion of civil liberties after nearly a decade and a half of propaganda and fearmongering, is the need to oppose the further expansion of such legislation and domestic spying programs.  Indeed, while what were once considered rights are now seen as passé, the US is staring down the barrel of a presidential election where the leading candidates are calling for even more surveillance, expanded government databases, and more billions of dollars to be poured into the NSA, FBI, CIA, DIA, and the rest of the alphabet soup that comprises Police State USA.

Clinton, Trump, and Death as Political Currency

In the immediate aftermath of the heinous slaughter in Orlando, the neoconservative-neoliberal chimera known as Hillary Clinton predictably called for an expansion of surveillance and the police state. Less than 48 hours after the attack, in a speech in Cleveland, Clinton proclaimed:

We already know we need more resources for this fight. The professionals who keep us safe would be the first to say we need better intelligence to discover and disrupt terrorist plots before they can be carried out.  That’s why I’ve proposed an ‘intelligence surge’ to bolster our capabilities across the board, with appropriate safeguards here at home.

As with all things Hillary, one must carefully deconstruct the statement to unravel the distortions and empty rhetoric, and distill her actual proposal. The first part of her statement is instantly suspect as the US has already grossly inflated its intelligence budget.  According to the Federation of American Scientists, the 2017 intelligence budget will reach nearly $70 billion, with $50 billion being spent on the National Intelligence Program (NIP).  One would have to seriously question the logic in Clinton’s statement, namely the implied consensus about the need for more resources. How much more exactly will prevent incidents like the one in Orlando?  Perhaps another $50 billion would do the trick?

The second fallacy embedded in the torrent of misinformation that is a Hillary Clinton speech excerpt is the specious argument that “better intelligence” would “discover and disrupt terrorist plots before they can be carried out.” This vacuous statement must be dismissed out of hand after one considers the fact that the alleged Orlando killer, Omar Mateen, was investigated, followed, and interviewed by the FBI multiple times (he was also introduced to FBI informants whose responsibility was likely to keep tabs on him).

So, according to Clinton the US should spend tens of billions more dollars to fund the agencies and programs that already have the ability to single out a potential terrorist, do all the leg work to establish contact with him, invest human resources into his case, and yet still be unable to stop his alleged actions. To put it in terms Hillary’s Wall Street patrons would understand: sounds like a bad investment strategy.

The third unmistakably wrongheaded statement (I only selected three sentences, so she’s 3 for 3) is the absolutely odious suggestion of an “intelligence surge” to improve the capabilities of the intelligence community. In fact, what Clinton is actually suggesting is a massive increase in contracts awarded to private intelligence firms and military contractors, though veiling it as a boost to the intelligence community.  This fact is made clear by the renowned investigative journalist Tim Shorrock in his 2008 book Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing where he notes that:

In 2006… the cost of America’s spying and surveillance activities outsourced to contractors reached $42 billion, or about 70 percent of the estimated $60 billion the government spends every year on foreign and domestic intelligence. Unfortunately, we cannot know the true extent of outsourcing, for two reasons. First, in 2007, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) refused to release an internal report on contracting out of fear that its disclosure would harm U.S. national security interests. Second, most intelligence contracts are classified, allowing companies like CACI to hide their activities behind a veil of secrecy.

Think about that figure for a second: 70 percent of the intelligence budget goes to outsourcing.  In other words, government expenditure on surveillance and intelligence is an indirect subsidy to private corporations.  This should come as no surprise considering similar indirect subsidies to energy companies, private mercenaries, and even big retail corporations.

Of course, Clinton knows all this perfectly well.  So when she calls for an intelligence surge what she’s actually doing is making clear to her military-industrial-surveillance complex cronies that she will make sure to feed the goose that continues to lay the golden eggs.  Just like her speeches to Goldman Sachs served to reassure Wall Street that she was their lady, so too does Clinton use the tragic events in Orlando to give a wink and a nod to Booz Allen Hamilton, CACI International, and the rest.

As with all things Clinton, her words drip with cynicism like her hands drip with the blood of Libyans, Syrians, Iraqis, Serbians, and countless others.

It should be mentioned too that aside from just funding, Clinton undoubtedly represents a further rightward shift in terms of “anti-terror” legislation – the kinds of bills that she’d promote and sign into law as president would be, to put it bluntly, no different than the Bush era bills that she supported such as the PATRIOT Act.  As Conor Friedersdorf noted in The Atlantic in 2015:

[Clinton] served in the United States Senate from 2001 to 2009. She cast votes that enabled the very NSA spying that many now regard as a betrayal. And she knew all about what the NSA wasn’t telling the public. To say now that the NSA should’ve been more transparent raises this question: Why wasn’t Clinton among the Democrats working for more transparency?

Friedersdorf is being much too kind with his concluding rhetorical question.  Clinton is perhaps one of the most hawkish surveillance state proponents in the US.  Her total disregard for even the basic tenets of the US Constitution, let alone domestic or international law, make her not only unfit for office, but a dangerous criminal.

And then of course there’s the trainwreck made flesh, Donald Trump, who with his typically bombastic and utterly vacuous public statements has once again managed to make the criminal Hillary into the “sensible one.” In a speech on Monday June 13, Trump reverted to his usual racist demagogy that is light on actual policy prescriptions and heavy on xenophobia, racism, and outright lies. But in the midst of the Trump madness, there are indeed kernels of policy that should be worrying.

During the speech Trump called, once again, for a ban on Muslim immigration to the US, warning of “major consequences” for the Muslim community in the country.  But Trump went further saying, “We have a dysfunctional immigration system, which does not permit us to know who we let into our country, and it does not permit us to protect our citizens properly.”  Again, Trump provides no specific policy prescription, but the implication from his statement is an increase in surveillance of citizens domestically, as well as presumably the codification of a deeply racist immigration system which would discriminate based on religion and/or ethnicity.

Trump continued, saying “With these people, folks, it’s coming. We’re importing radical Islamic terrorism into the West through a failed immigration system and through an intelligence community held back by our president.”  Here again Trump aligns with Clinton.  While supposedly the two are opposed to one another, the fact is that both accept the false assumption that our problems would be solved if only we could just stop “holding back” the intelligence community.  Clinton calls for a surge while Trump calls for taking off the training wheels. Sort of like an argument about which is better Pepsi or orange juice.

The Police State Is Not the Answer

While the Demopublican-Republicrat Party continues its political posturing, the assumptions that both have internalized are what need to be excised from the body politic.  It is patently absurd to call for more surveillance in a country where, thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know the following:

  • The PRISM program allows “The National Security Agency and the FBI [to tap] directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, emails, documents, and connection logs.” According to cybersecurity experts PRISM uses obviously illegal tactics to “circumvent formal legal processes…to seek personal material such as emails, photos and videos.”
  • The BLARNEY system is utilized extensively. According to former AT&T technician Mark Klein and former Senior Advisor for Internet Technology at the FCC Scott Marcus, “Using a device called a ‘splitter’ a complete copy of the internet traffic that AT&T receives…is diverted onto a separate fiber-optic cable which is connected to a room which is controlled by the NSA.” Therefore, unlike PRISM, which the government and its apologists attempt to justify as being used to target key individuals, BLARNEY has no such capacity. Rather, it is designed solely to collect data, all internet data, to be used and likely stored.
  • The NSA has constructed enormous data storage facilities such as the Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah.As one top security official told Wired, “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.”

Naturally, there is not nearly enough space here to detail all of the myriad surveillance programs. But, taking them together with what we know of government funding to private intelligence firms, how could anyone rightly argue that surveillance should be increased?  If anything, the enormous expenditure has proven utterly useless.

Indeed, the legal framework developed in the post-9/11 era including draconian legislation such as the PATRIOT Act, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and many others, laid the foundation for the systemic and systematic stripping away of civil liberties and human rights. The technical infrastructure has been steadily evolving since 9/11 as technology continues to improve, providing the intelligence agencies with ever more tools for surveillance and intelligence gathering. The continued, unrestrained neoliberal policy of privatization has created a complex network of companies, contractors, and subcontractors, usually working independently of each other, all in the service of the security state. Finally, the political landscape in the United States has so thoroughly devolved that elected officials are more concerned about stopping the whistleblowers and leakers, than about addressing America’s continued descent into a fascist police state.

Such is the state of the union in 2016.  And while the aspiring Mass Murderer-in-Chief Clinton continues to attack the political snake-charmer Trump, and The Donald does what The Donald does, the bodies of 50 innocent people are being laid to rest. Must the values and freedoms that the US allegedly once stood for also be buried?

Japan Protests US Military in Okinawa; Obama Reasserts Japan’s Status as US Proxy

June 10, 2016 at 5:36 PM

Eric Draitser of provides his commentary (June 9, 2016) about the protests against US military bases in Okinawa, and the politics of the US-Japan relationship. Draitser argues that the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the US dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an example of US hypocrisy as Obama refused to apologize for the shameful action. Draitser takes time explaining the role of Japan in Washington’s geopolitical and geostrategic agenda.

The Great Game in South Asia: US-China Competition; Iran, Pakistan, India as Battlegrounds

June 10, 2016 at 5:30 PM

Eric Draitser of provides his analysis of the latest developments in South Asia, and the geopolitics of the region. Draitser outlines the contours of the Great Game of the 21st Century with the US trying to isolate China and deprive it of critical commercial and political relations. He examines developments in Balochistan and Iran, and connects them to broader trends in the strategic calculus of Asia.