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Asia-Pacific

Sep 1, 2017

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It’s fair to say that no one who understands the basics of international relations believes that President Donald Trump also understands how they work. His latest statement — sorry, tweet — that “talking is not the answer“, regarding tensions with North Korea, is a glaring case in point.

Trump’s threats and “show of force” over North Korea’s missile testing, now with B-1B Stealth Bomber flights over the Korean Peninsula, only puts the world back in the position it was a few weeks ago, prior to what appeared to be a winding-back of belligerent rhetoric.

North Korea’s recent missile launch over Japan was a not an unexpected response to the US’, South Korea’s and allies’ war games, which, though annual, were intended as a “show of strength”. The war games don’t, and can’t, replicate what war on the Korean Peninsula would look like, given that South Korea’s capital, Seoul, would come under heavy artillery bombardment, and there’s a high likelihood that nuclear weapons would be quickly employed on both sides.

Apart from having been contradicted by US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, who, when asked if the US was out of diplomatic options, simply said “no”, Trump’s view that “talking is not the answer” implies that anything short of a back-down by North Korea will be answered by “kinetic” responses.

Yet short of total victory — in North Korea’s case, and possibly that of South Korea, read: total annihilation — wars are always ended by some form of negotiated settlement. That means that, at some point, talking must be the answer.

It is unlikely that Trump has the personal capacity — or now the space — to move without looking very foolish, to start addressing the drivers for North Korea’s escalation of its nuclear and missile programs. But that is what is required.

North Korea has heavily invested the leadership of Kim Jong-un and his key generals in the country’s nuclear and missile programs. Expecting they will be abandoned is tantamount to suggesting that Kim and his generals abandon their totalitarian grip on North Korea’s long-suffering population. That is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.

It seems hard to imagine now, but a decade ago North Korea actually agreed to abandon its nuclear development program, started for domestic energy purposes. This agreement came out of six-party talks with South Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia and China, in which North Korea agreed in principle to abandon nuclear development in exchange for nuclear fuel, other aid concessions and moving towards the normalisation of relations with the US and Japan.

However, the North Korean launch of a missile in 2009, which it claimed was to put a satellite into space, led to condemnation by then-president Barack Obama and the UN Security Council, and an increase in trade sanctions. North Korea responded by pulling out of the talks and, within days, had tested a nuclear device. The situation has deteriorated since.

The ascension of Kim Jong-un to the presidency of North Korea, following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011, was marked by an unusual level of insecurity. Jong-un purged more than 200 proteges of his father’s brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, who had assumed the position of vice-chairman immediately following Kim Jong-il’s death, and North Korea’s second most powerful man. Last February, Kim Jong-un had his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, murdered at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, removing potential rivals for leadership.

In this, Kim appears to have been either acting closely with or under the “guidance” of a group of hardline generals. This group of generals is now heavily invested in furthering the nuclear and missile programs, which is represented as a key means of legitimising their totalitarian rule to the North Korean people.

Coming from such a build-up of mutual mistrust and belligerence, the question now is how to re-start the six-party talks, or something like them. In this, China is central, as the only country that the North Korean leadership even vaguely listens to. This is not about getting China to threaten North Korea or impose more sanctions, but to actually start talking about a constructive way out of the current impasse.

It’s a very long way from where the situation is now, to where some form of positive dialogue could start to take place. But it is increasingly critical that process be at least started. The alternative does not bear thinking about.

So, despite Trump’s tweet that “talking is not the answer”, talking is indeed the answer. Indeed, it is the only answer.

The US needs to talk with China about engaging in some quiet diplomacy with North Korea, in effect promising North Korea to make it worth while for regime leaders to slowly move towards talks aimed at support and, ultimately, normalisation.

The Korean War began in 1950 and, despite an armistice in 1953, has never formally ended. Perhaps it’s now time to work towards that as a final goal.     

*Damien Kingsbury is Deakin University’s professor of international politics

TV & Radio

Aug 30, 2017

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In a spirited defence of the ABC, Four Corners host Sarah Ferguson told the Melbourne Writers Festival that a strong public broadcaster is necessary for protecting Australia against the rise of a fractured media and society.

“Never in our history has the institution of public broadcasting been more important,” Ferguson opened in the John Button Oration for 2017, named after the former Labor minister in the Hawke and Keating governments.

In a wide-ranging address, which also covered her experiences interviewing former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, Ferguson criticised US President Donald Trump as failing in his response to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville.

“Trump faced the first existential moment of his presidency and failed. He failed because of his refusal to condemn unambiguously the neo-Nazis and other white supremacists marching in Charlottesville.”

Ferguson linked the rise of Trump in the US with the fracturing of the media and the absence of a public broadcaster like the ABC: “Consider what might have been different in that country had it had, as a central pillar of its civil society, a well-funded national public broadcaster, an institution with the potential to bind together a country now at war with itself.”

A public broadcaster was needed to provide a space for differing views to be heard and shared without becoming hateful, Ferguson said, singling out Q&A as one such program, and referring to her work investigating the effects of domestic violence in Australia. She also recounted an experience covering a speech by Pauline Hanson in the early 2000s, when protesters made it impossible for the then MP’s speech to be heard. “Let her speak, I thought then.  You have to listen — if you can’t allow the possibility she may have points to make, the divide between us widens.”

The rise of Hanson, and her hatred of the media, mirrors that of Trump, says Ferguson. “Now in her second coming, she echoes Trumps attacks on the media and in particular the ABC  — for the moment refusing to appear on the ABC at all.”

Now Senator Pauline Hanson is trying to use cuts to the ABC as a bargaining chip with the government on media reform, with her senators claiming it is biased against the One Nation party.

While the ABC isn’t an antidote to all political or societal issues, its role in unifying the country and a place for debate was central to Ferguson’s thesis.

“We have seen some of the same fractures opening up here in Australia. The national broadcaster exists to balance them — a broadcaster that reaches into all regions, reflecting the whole country. It seems to me it plays a central unifying role. “

There was also thinly veiled reference to comments by commercial media bosses about the role of the ABC in the digital space. “Limiting the ABC in the digital world is a patent absurdity. As a national broadcaster, we must go where the public goes.”

Last month News Corp boss Michael Miller said the ABC was encroaching on the ability of commercial media companies to make a profit. “The ABC and SBS are becoming more and more aggressive commercial competitors who are determined to join the ranks of digital streaming services rather than meet the unmet needs of Australia, and particularly, regional Australia,” he said.

Ferguson made the case for both a strong public broadcaster and a digitally active one, warning that more Australians would feel “forgotten” if it is allowed to be targeted

“Donald Trump claims to speak for the forgotten Americans, there is some evidence that the statement is true. The ABCs job to make sure we hear them and see them. This has nothing to do with platform,  it doesn’t matter how you read, hear or see this material as long as you do. “

Middle East

Aug 29, 2017

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For two years between 2011 and 2013 images of protesters in Egypt were a constant feature on news channels internationally. The streets of Cairo’s downtown district transformed into huge waves of demonstrators, demanding that leaders listen to the will of Egyptians. Yet walking through the traffic-clogged streets of downtown Cairo today, there is little evidence left that such extraordinary and regular demonstrations were once the norm.  

The space for dissent has shrunk drastically in Egypt in recent years. Observers says the country is experiencing repression with a greater severity than what Egyptians experienced under the military dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in the heady and hopeful days of Egypt’s revolution in 2011 by popular protest.

Ever since the revolution seemingly ended in 2013 — after the presidency of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s first democratically elected president was prematurely cut short by the military following popular protests — Egypt has been in the throes of a brutal and wide-ranging crackdown on dissent.

It has ensnared political opponents, activists, judges and journalists. Human Rights Watch estimates that there are at least 40,000 political prisoners languishing in Egypt. And protesting — the tool through which Egyptians fought for their rights for two years — has become near impossible after a law introduced in late 2013 placed restrictions on demonstrations.

There are so few left to challenge the Egyptian regime’s authority, and those that are have had their ability to do so significantly crippled by the Egyptian regime. Yet the regime under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who was head of the army when Morsi was removed before becoming president in 2014, has this year displayed its intent to quieten the remaining dissenting voices, no matter how debilitated they already are, marking a new phase in the crackdown.

Intensifying repression of basic freedoms

“It has been a difficult phase,” one Egyptian journalist told Crikey about working for Mada Masr — an independent news website in Egypt. The journalist, who asked not to be named out of concerns for their safety, was referring to the blockade of websites including Mada Masr — known for its critical coverage of the government — which the authorities started in May.

Whilst Mada Masr is still available through use of some proxies, and the publication has also resorted to publishing its articles on social media, the journalist admits there is uncertainty over the publication’s future. “We are still not certain if there is an investigation against Mada or not, and we do not know if we will ever be back online or not,” they said.

It has turned out to be a massive assault on internet freedoms in Egypt: initially 21 news sites were blocked, including international sites like Al Jazeera and the Huffington Post Arabic, as well as Egyptian ones like Mada Masr. Since then the number of websites blocked has increased to 127, says the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and has widened in scope. It’s now expanded to rights groups like Reporters Without Borders and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information as well as VPNs — making it harder to access the blocked websites through other means.

While press freedoms have been significantly eroded the past few years and censorship has been on the rise, the CPJ says that online censorship was nevertheless rare in Egypt.

And it’s not just the media that has been targeted of late. Human Rights Watch says the internet crackdown is part of a wider effort by the regime in “intensifying repression of basic freedoms” in Egypt.

Since April the authorities have been arresting political activists including the prominent rights lawyer, Khaled Ali, who announced in February that he was considering challenging Sisi in next year’s presidential elections. As of June, 190 political activists have been arrested.

In late April Sisi strengthened his control over Egypt’s courts when he ratified reforms giving himself new power to appoint the most senior members of the judiciary. The move — which analysts say was done to prevent the promotion of two rebellious judges — has been criticised by judges and rights groups, who say it endangers the remaining semblance of independence in Egypt’s judiciary.

The following month, Sisi turned his attention to civil society. He ratified a controversial NGO law that rights groups say criminalises the work of NGOs and makes it difficult for them to operate independently. The law marks an extension on the crackdown within the NGO community to developmental organisations too, says Mohamed Zaraa, a member of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

Several human rights organisations, including Zaraa’s own, have long been targeted by this regime through a long running legal investigation on charges of using foreign funding to destabilise Egypt. “I think this law isn’t targeting human rights organisations, but civil society at large,” said Zaraa, who like many activists has been slapped with a travel ban.

The Trump effect

Analysts say that this new phase in the repression is because Sisi is looking to consolidate his position ahead of next year’s presidential elections. It’s widely believed to have also been timed to remove critics ahead of a controversial parliamentary vote in June on Sisi’s decision to cede control of two Red Sea islands to its powerful ally Saudi Arabia. The widely unpopular pact — even deemed treacherous by some — sparked rare street protests against the regime last year when it was announced.

Some observers suggest the President, who appears sensitive to criticism, has also been left feeling insecure about public criticism over cuts in food and fuel subsidies, and rising inflation, after last year’s IMF loan agreement. He has also faced criticism over his security strategy after four deadly attacks by the Islamic State group on Egypt’s Copts since December.

Sisi faces little pressure from Western leaders on human rights, as European powers like France, Germany, the UK and the EU itself have moved to strengthen ties with Egypt in recent years, deeming it a vital strategic partner.

The presidency of Donald Trump, who appeared to have quickly developed a close bond with Sisi, evidenced by Trump complimenting Sisi on his “nice shoes”, has also given him confidence at home, says Amro Ali, professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo.

“It all boils down, in large part, to the Trump effect. When Trump told Sisi ‘nice shoes’, it was a signal to Sisi, metaphorically, to use them to further trample on human rights,” Ali said.

“There is something banal about the Trump small talk and avoidance of serious issues (not that we have high expectations of Trump anyway) that has emboldened Egypt’s usual widespread crackdowns to shift gear into destroying potential, rather than actual, threats. From arresting dormant activists to blocking websites, among other things.”

But in a surprise move last week the US cut or delayed close around $300 million in aid to Egypt. The US State Department said that this was because of the NGO law and deterioration in human rights in Egypt, though the New York Times reported this could also be down to Egypt’s ties to North Korea.

This may yet provide a glimmer of hope for exhausted opponents of the Sisi regime, like activist Zaraa who says international pressure is key to alleviating their plight or at least preventing it from getting even worse. “If there is no [international] pressure” he said, “then definitely the crackdown will continue.”

Federal

Aug 23, 2017

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The exhalation of relief from the foreign policy establishment was audible. Trump would, at least when it came to military intervention, be a traditional Republican president. His address on Afghanistan — as could be predicted from previous major Trump policy pronouncements — lacked small things like detail (excused as strategic obscurity, to keep the enemy guessing) and a clear description of what indicators could be used for determining if his “policy” was a success. But it appeared to be distinguished by two key features from previous policy — more troops sent back to Afghanistan to kill terrorists, rather than build Afghanistan into anything resembling a viable self-sustaining state, and getting tough(er) on Pakistan.

Cue nods of appreciation and supportive op-ed pieces around the world. Trump would not be the dangerous maverick from his campaign who, even if entirely inconsistently, damned US foreign adventurism abroad and promised an end to it. He even acknowledged that he’d changed his position in support of withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Purity Left who damned the neocon Clinton as a blood-soaked hawk are oddly silent. Bombing Syria. Sending troops into Yemen. Threatening military intervention in Venezuela (thus accomplishing the extraordinary achievement of engendering support for the socialist thug Maduro). Now, back into Afghanistan. But her emails!

[We can be a friend to the US, but we should no longer be an ally]

There’s now debate about US expectations of increased military support from its allies, including Australia. But we’re experienced at this game: if America is invading or re-invading a country, get in early with your commitment to join. That then can cover for the fact that your contribution is relatively limited. That was the basis for John Howard’s participation in Iraq, from which thankfully Australian forces emerged without a combat casualty. In May, the Turnbull government pre-emptively announced it was sending an extra 30 troops to Afghanistan to train Afghan forces, in response to a US/NATO request. That lifts our commitment back to 300 in a country where we have already lost 41 young men since 2001 and over 260 injured — and who knows how many more with long-term mental health problems.

The justification for expanding the war in Afghanistan once again is that we cannot allow the country to be used as a base for terror attacks — which was the basis for the original invasion and occupation of Afghanistan sixteen years ago. It will be the same justification in another sixteen years. We’re still killing terrorists there, only the terrorists to be killed have expanded to include not merely al-Qaeda but Islamic State, who now compete in Afghanistan with the traditional mix of Taliban forces, local warlords and corrupt western clients. But this is a local variant of the great unspoken question about the War on Terror: why, after sixteen years, trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives are we told that we’re just as much at risks of attacks as ever, from as many terrorists as ever, representing a greater variety of terror groups than ever? Like the killing of “Al Qaeda’s No. 3” that was triumphantly reported annually throughout the 2000s, we apparently have a literally endless enemy. As a war, the War on Terror has been a spectacular failure — unless you make money from weapons, or you’re an intelligence bureaucrat who enjoys more funding and power than ever before, or media companies that can boost their flagging revenues by talking endlessly about (non-white) terrorists.

[If Trump comes a-knockin’, will we be able to tell him ‘no’?]

The answer to the unspoken question, as a succession of the world’s most senior intelligence officials have told us over the last sixteen years, is that western military intervention is a key, if by no means sole, driver of terrorism, making the War on Terror and extraordinarily expensive exercise in self-perpetuation, one in which the foreign policy establishment in academia, thinktanks, the media and governments are complicit. It’s not a matter of tactics; a premature withdrawal here, a surge there is not the point: our mere presence is. In the words of then then-head of the CIA, “our engagement and direct involvement will stimulate and spur additional threats to our national security interests.”

There is no reason whatsoever to expect we won’t still be in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or whatever other country we decide to intervene in, in another 16 years, long after the Trump presidency is a footnote to the long tale of the decline of the United States, governments still insisting that the goal is to kill yet more terrorists, new generations of them. A “decades-long struggle against terrorism”, we’ll be told, as we spend more money and waste more young lives in the very process of ensuring it continues not merely for decades, but permanently.

Crikey Worm

Aug 23, 2017

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AUSTRALIA TO FOLLOW TRUMP IN AFGHANISTAN?

Australia may once again take a combat role in Afghanistan, with sources telling Fairfax it is expected the US will request further assistance as part of its new strategy in the country. Australia currently has 300 training and advisory staff in place, but Defence Minister Marise Payne did not rule out a return to combat missions when asked.

In a much anticipated speech yesterday, President Donald Trump said the US would pivot away from its nation building mission in Afghanistan and pursue a military victory over the Taliban. While vague on details, Trump indicated this would involve putting more pressure on Pakistan and boosting the number US troops in the country, reportedly by around 4,000. The war in Afghanistan is now the longest in US history.

Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, meanwhile, has quietly departed on a mission to the Middle East.

FACEBOOK AND GOOGLE UNDER THE PUMP

Executives from Google, Facebook and other major companies have faced scrutiny at two separate public inquiries probing corporate tax avoidance and the future of public interest journalism in Australia.

Google’s Jason Pellegrino went toe-to-toe with Senator (and reluctant BritNick Xenophon, who pushed the executive on whether Google had under-reported its Australian advertising revenue. The company says its gross revenue in Australia is $1.1 billion, but some analysts believe it to be closer to $3 billion, according to The Australian.

In the other hearing it emerged that Microsoft had reached a confidential “last-minute” settlement with the ATO and that Facebook is facing an audit looking back over several years of its operations. ATO boss Chris Jordan said recent legislation had forced companies to return $7 billion in sales to Australia and that reviews had exposed $4 billion in assets.

HE REALLY SAID THAT

“I am one of the most pure Australians that you could ever find.” — That was MP Bob Katter, who faced questions over his citizenship thanks to the fact his grandfather was born in Lebanon. “There’s as much chance of my father being a citizen of Lebanon as me becoming a left Greenie,” Katter added.

READ ALL ABOUT IT

Death on the Derwent: Secret file could prove yacht killer’s innocence

Liberals’ family feud over $70m cash stash

Group linked to Soviets got GetUp! going with its David Hicks campaign

CSIRO sacks senior official for alleged fraud

WHAT’S ON TODAY

Tumut: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will reportedly join billionaire Anthony Pratt, who is announcing an expansion to his regionally based paper mill.

Canberra: Directions hearing for the High Court challenge against Liberal MP David Gillespie‘s eligibility to serve in parliament.

Canberra: AMA President Dr Michael Gannon speaks at the press club.

Sydney: Western Force will seek to appeal the Australian Rugby Union’s decision to terminate the WA team, to be heard in the NSW Supreme Court.

Brisbane: Hearing to determine whether Clive Palmer will have $200 million in assets frozen. 

THE COMMENTARIAT

Someone has to pay to make the National Broadband Network add up — Jennifer Hewett (Australian Financial Review $): “The catch for Malcolm Turnbull is that most consumers don’t know and don’t care what a connectivity virtual circuit (CVC) charge is. Just like their power, they just want their broadband to turn on and work reliably without suffering sticker shock from the bills.”

Let Cook and Macquarie stand: Grant and Taylor are wrong — Keith Windschuttle (The Australian $): “In saying Cook was the one who ‘discovered this territory’ it is perfectly accurate, if we take the word ‘territory’ to mean the eastern coast of the Australian continent. Cook was in fact the first person in history to traverse the whole of this coastline and view its 2000 miles (3200km) of shores and hinterland.”

How to respond to the worldwide upswing in racism — Tim Soutphommasane (Sydney Morning Herald): “The reality is that racism’s return also reflects a public debate where there is more accommodation of bigotry. Our multicultural society faces a paradox. For all our success on race relations in recent decades, some believe it is acceptable again to vent racial hostility openly.”

THE WORLD

One of the fours surviving suspects of the Las Ramblas terror attack has told a Spanish court that the attackers intended to detonate explosive devices at major landmarks in Barcelona, including the iconic Sagrada Familia church. — BBC

India’s top court has banned the practice of “triple talaq”, which allows Muslim men to immediately dissolve their marriages. The practice often leaves women destitute and is banned in parts of the Muslim world. Feminist campaigners hailed its demise while Indian PM Narenda Modi tweeted the ruling “grants equality to Muslim women”. — The Guardian

WHAT WE’RE READING

‘It’s a hard problem’: Inside Trump’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan (Washington Post): “One of the ways McMaster tried to persuade Trump to recommit to the effort was by convincing him that Afghanistan was not a hopeless place. He presented Trump with a black-and-white snapshot from 1972 of Afghan women in miniskirts walking through Kabul, to show him that Western norms had existed there before and could return.”

How I became fake news (Politico): “While some people in Facebook messages, tweets and comment boards were calling for my head, others were tweeting at various conservative leaders, including Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump and Sean Hannity, to open an investigation into my alleged role in the attack. On Thursday, Hannity broadcast claims on his radio show that the protesters in Charlottesville were paid.”

Nick Kyrgios continues to be hated by many Australians, but he’s never behaved as badly as some footballers (ABC): “It’s funny, because the rest of the world finds him fascinating. The New Yorker and the New York Times have both done major profiles of the Australian in the past year, while the British press loves to splash attention on him ahead of every Wimbledon.”

Imagine if the media covered alcohol like other drugs (Vox): “An ongoing drug epidemic has swept the US, killing hundreds and sickening thousands more on a daily basis. The widespread use of a substance called ‘alcohol’ — also known as ‘booze’ — has been linked to erratic and even dangerous behaviour, ranging from college students running naked down public streets to brutal attacks and robberies.”

HOLD THE FRONT PAGE

Australia

Aug 22, 2017

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It is not likely that the United States intelligence community thinks of journalist Glenn Greenwald as polite. The fact is, however, he’s been very nicely raised. In the hotel lobby, he extends a hand and says, “Helen, good to meet you” while appearing to mean it, notwithstanding a schedule more congested than the databanks of the NSA, and his very urgent need to have a question addressed.

“I have to know,” he says next, as he shows me an image of Malcolm Turnbull just captured on his smartphone, “Is this your Prime Minister?”

“That,” I say, “is a powerful specimen of our slow national collapse. Yes. It’s Mal.”

The frequent flyer had taken his legs out for a stretch that day and accidentally landed right in the middle of a doorstop. Turnbull had given over his Sunday morning to a little anti-terrorist theatre with uniformed men, while Greenwald had actively given his to criticism of such a political performance. In partnership with Greenwald’s news site The Intercept, ABC Radio’s Background Briefing had just aired investigation, based on several of the many Snowden files, of the function of Pine Gap. The reports suggest that the “mutually beneficial” relationship between Australia and the US is regularly consummated at that base. Australia is, according to the report, actively complicit in mass surveillance of other nations. The documents suggest Australia is complicit in the invasion of privacy and the maintenance of war.

“So, it was Turnbull. I am so annoyed. I would have asked him a question about the base. I should have. I nearly did. But, frankly, he looked so much like a generic centrist Western politician, I couldn’t be sure. Damn!”

As the sort of reporter who has never received documents more confidential than an employee’s handbook for a lingerie store I’m a bit overcome. What do you say to a guy whose working life has been given over these past years to the careful and fearless dissemination of evidence showing that the US hegemon retains its power by shocking means? One who regrets any missed opportunity to interrogate a political leader, and is kicking himself for failing to disturb a photo op with something like the truth. You say something dumb, of course.

“Well. Um. You can’t say that your new American president looks generic.”

As we make our way to a food hall, we speak about how Trump can be viewed in two contexts. Both as generic and very particular; as both continuous with The Washington Consensus and as a very significant break.

“There are interesting questions that arise when considering Trump as either continuity or discontinuity,” he says. “One of the benefits he’s provided to the elite class of opinion makers and policymakers is that they are, in being stubbornly opposed to everything he does, permitted the expiation of their own sins.”

All those American activities that these policymakers or pundits have themselves long done, or endorsed, are forgotten and rewritten. Press and politicians create fictitious histories for themselves in their opposition to Trump, as we can see here with “liberal” newspaper The Washington Post that, in 2003, named the US invasion of Iraq as “an operation essential to American security”. The paper is now eager to fact-check Trump’s post-hoc opposition to the war — as it should — but is fairly silent on the matter of its own support for that war, or its more recent hawkishness when it declared the invasion of Libya a success.

American liberals rewrite their own histories in the era of Trump, but also the history of a nation, says Greenwald. “The most salient example of this, I think, was when Trump invited General Sisi to the White House.” In a move described as the President’s “springtime for despots”, pundits and officials made like the US had never in its glorious history of unending peace offered support to unpleasant leaders.

“There was a very broad sense of ‘how can an American president embrace a despot and a pirate?’ Which is, in fact, an attempt to create an alternative history in which American presidents have opposed dictatorships throughout the world. When, in fact, the whole policy of the US in the post-World War II era has been to prop up the world’s worst despots, to retain hegemony over the world.”

Trump does express continuity in matters of US foreign policy. But, he does so crudely and openly. In interview with former Fox News broadcaster Bill O’Reilly, Trump defended his relatively favourable opinion of Vladimir Putin. Liberal pundits, those who are shriven for their former sin — as though good relations with Russia were ever sinful — were able to express shock at Trump’s reply to O’Reilly’s claims that Putin was a monster, “You think our country’s so innocent?” and simultaneously forget the recent amicable relationship between Hillary Clinton and the Russian leader.

“I can only say that I feel that the US is undergoing some sort of collective mania,” says Greenwald of the liberal nervous breakdown so easily seen in press. Policies that were once, and very recently, enthusiastically endorsed are now seen as abhorrent. Trump is, in much of his policy, continuous. But he must be seen at all costs as discontinuous.

“I am impatient with the pretence that all of the things that he has done are bad and are unique to him,” says Greenwald. He is also impatient with the refusal by journalists, politicians and those others who see anything that is not Trump as “resistance” to identify other forms of power.

“There are a lot of centres of power. Many of them are antithetical to Trump, opposed to Trump. Many of them are more powerful than Trump, and are proving more powerful than Trump. These need critical scrutiny as urgently as Trump does, but they’re not getting it.”

This, in my view, is true. Journalists are now inclined to scoff at the idea of the Deep State, to view all Washington bureaucrats as benign. The only deviation to American goodness and the true centre of evil is Trump. This is the neoliberal nervous breakdown, the collective mania Greenwald identifies.

“This fixation on seeing him as discontinuous, as an aberration. As though he were the only president not devoted to the promotion of freedom and democracy.”

“It is disturbing to watch the values that are being supported at the cost of opposing Trump. The idea that all you have to do is tear Trump out of the White House and everything will be back to normal is a false reading of history and of reality.”

To be gracelessly clear, Greenwald, despite many claims to the contrary, is not an advocate for Trump. It was more than a year ago that he said in interview that the simple revulsion many analysts had for Trump dangerously eclipsed a clear view. Not only is our vision of other centres of power obscured by the reflex loathing of Trump, but Trump himself as a policymaker shifts from view.

In some part, says Greenwald, “the people who are most indignant and sanctimonious about Trump actively caused him.”

Part three of this interview will describe the way in which Greenwald sees the knowledge and political classes — those who are indignant and sanctimonious — as responsible for the rise of Trump, and hopes for a post-Trumpist West.

Politics

Aug 21, 2017

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The sudden resignation of Steve Bannon, senior advisor to President Trump has come as a surprise to many. No one thought he would last the whole four years; but almost everyone who had taken a look at that blotchy, bloated, permanently hungover countenance, had presumed he would die on the job. Bannon, a former editor at the Breitbart website, and a right-wing mover and shaker for some years, seemed like the Dorian Gray portrait of Trump’s politics, a countenance only regularly exposed to the glare of day — haggard, haunted and very, very white.

Bannon’s “resignation” — it scarce needs to be said that this is a sacking by White House chief-of-staff John Kelly, and others — would appear to be the product of a brief and final power struggle resulting from the Charlottesville white supremacist demonstration and the killing of an anti-fascist protest in a car attack. Trump initially condemned violence on both sides, then, under pressure from within and without, condemned racism explicitly — and then returned to his original “even-handed” condemnation of both sides, and lamented the removal of pro-Confederate statues.

The reversal, and the specific charge that the country was forgetting its history by removing Confederate statues, was pure Bannon, for whom the Trump campaign in 2015-2016 proved a wholly unexpected opportunity to get to the heart of power in the US. Bannon is a former navy man, Goldman Sachs broker, maker of propaganda documentary films, and latterly, the editor of the website started by right-wing editor, the late Andrew Breitbart. Both Bannon and Breitbart were part of a California-based “alt-right”, their politics “evolving” from a libertarian hatred of the progressive state, to, in Bannon’s case, a melange of social Darwinism and ethno-nationalism.

Bannon’s ideas — tying the US as a white/Christian/European-descended society, to global competition for power between civilisations, and big government in matters economic — provided much of the heft for Trump’s campaign, as he began to require more than insults and gimmicks. The idea of big infrastructure funding, and repudiation of neoliberal trade deals was what swung Trump’s victories in the rust-belt. Few of them were interested in the alt-right’s more grandiose theories of civilisational rise and fall.

But these were Bannon’s obsessions; for him, the revival of the rust-belt and industrial America merely a means to the end of continued American dominance, or even survival. Nor was this a conception of American “greatness”, as embodied by the late 90s Project For a New American Century, which saw America’s continued dominance as being part of God’s plan for a global conservative-liberal order. For Bannon and others there is no abstract “humanity”; simply large civilisations embodied by states and empires, in perpetual competition. Such a conception of global politics is both more realistic — and also more threatened. It sees the growth of non-white populations within the US as the expansion of an enemy within.

Bannon’s removal marks the end of one idea of what the Trump presidency was. Bannon was the last surviving member of that crowd in the White House who had Trump’s ear; now the only people close to him are his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner. They are both more socially liberal, and more neoliberal economically. Bannon had a grand conception: that he would go to war against free-market small government politics at the heart of power, and have Trump create a $1 trillion infrastructure fund, funded in part by increased taxes on the very wealthy ($5 million plus). Bannon was a right-wing Keynsian in this respect; zero/negative interest rates represented for him, both a signal that the western economy was beset with a lack of demand, and that money was cheap enough for a major refloat to be funded. The need for an infrastructure reboot was deemed to be as much military as it was social and economic; the US could not defend itself with its creaking, “third world” airports, roads and bridges. Bannon had every intention of getting the plan through, using Democrat votes, if he could not find sufficient Republican ones.

Bannon is gone, and Trump is now so toxic that it is far more difficult for Democrats to co-operate with him on this. His taking-back of his denunciation of racism occurred at a press conference where the infrastructure push was being announced; it entirely overshadowed it. Furthermore, Trump has little of the drive and skill to get the proposal through Congress. The complexity of the proposal is phenomenal; it would take great command of detail and vast stamina to get it through. Obama had that, and that was what got through the Affordable Health Care Act. This proposal is equal to or greater than that. It’s possible Ivanka Trump and Kushner will take it over. If they don’t, then the proposal is dead, and Congress will make its own budgets, which will be unremarkable.

Bannon’s departure leaves the Trump presidency in a precarious state. Bannon is returning to Breitbart; he has intimated that he will be turning the blowtorch on the White House, and the Ivanka/Jared faction, which he sees as Clintonistas in disguise. He is being chipper about it, but it’s an obvious comedown from the White House, and returns the alt-right to their insurgent, outsider status. Other fervent pro-Trump supporters such as valkyrie commentator Ann Coulter have become increasingly impatient with Trump’s inability to get anything done. Their bewilderment is bizarre; how could such insider figures not twig that this fast-food chomping, TV-addicted Caddyshack character would not have the set of abilities required to be even a mediocre president? Did they believe his brew of narcissism, one-upmanship and melange of Reaganism, nationalism and imperial psychosis amounted to a program? Quite possibly they did. In the trauma created by Obama’s re-election in 2012, they were inspired by someone who appeared to be the anti-Obama, and they mistakenly believed that Trump shared their own view of the world: that life was politics, and politics was about defining an enemy, and imposing your will upon them. No one with any will watches much TV; Trump appears to do little else.

The situation is thus one of political contradiction, arising from the structure of the American political system. The presidency was created in 1787, because the concept of a set of United States of North America had almost immediately failed; under fear of re-invasion from Britain (which happened in 1812), a nation-state was created, with the strange office of US president, whose power overlaps a range of areas — and which has no prime minister, drawn from the assembly as an opposite number or substitute. There have been malign presidents, and there have been poor ones. There have been those who ran “executive” presidencies, delegating much of the work to cabinet and advisors.

But there does not appear to have been a president to date, who simply wanted to be a spectator to the process of government, that they themselves are meant to be leading. Bizarrely, given the fears of how authoritarian a Trump presidency might be, what is now defining it is a fatal lack of will, an absence of desire to impose any sort of order on the country he took power in, and the world it dominates. Previous contenders, such as Warren G Harding, and Ulysses Grant now look like titans of purpose and organization compared to Trump. The only real comparison is with Ronald Reagan’s last years. After 1986, he was exhausted, discredited by Iran-Contra, and possibly had the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. The presidency was more or less run by a committee of aides, with Reagan signing bills and making ceremonial appearances.

But the aides in question were a tight band of neoconservatives, anchored within the Republican party, and with a relentless and detailed agenda. Trump’s crew was an ad-hoc mix of family, chancers and ideologues, anchored in no enduring tradition. Half of them are gone, and Kelly, Trump’s chief-of-staff appears to have no strong ideology (though he is clearly of the right) other than that there be a national executive government. The nation is thus stuck with an absent centre where leadership — good or bad, radical or reactionary — should be, and no way to remove it, other than the extreme recourse of impeachment and conviction.

There is some possibility that the Trump administration will climb out of this; it’s only been in power six months, even though it seems like six years. The first Clinton administration was pretty shambolic by comparison. But their chaos was a product of wanting to do too much, all at once; the first baby boomer administration had to learn to channel their will to transform. The chaos of the Trump era is arising from the exact reverse. Whatever it is going to become, it is not what it was going to be, even a month ago. Surely the next act must be that some rival power or force will perceive this situation as one in which to make audacious moves; everything from a territorial grab (of a US client state) to revising the dollar-based global monetary system. This squalor and chaos, this has been nothing other than the opening act, one feels. What has been a crisis for the “Trump project” has not yet been a crisis for the republic. But that is coming; after it has begun, the last half-year, nerve-shredding and packed with incident, will appear in retrospect as mere prelude, to the era’s defining moment.

People & Ideas

Aug 16, 2017

5 comments

You can’t depend on much with the Trump White House, but one thing abideth: whatever has happened by the time you lay your head down to sleep in Australia, will have changed, changed utterly upon waking. There was never any doubt that Donald Trump’s second statement on the Charlottesville neo-Nazi march and lethal car attack, condemning racism and white supremacist hate groups, would not stand. Trump sounded uneasy and tentative saying it; the word “racism” seemed unnatural coming out of his mouth. His father had attended KKK rallies in Queens and Brooklyn before WW II, when the KKK was as focused on Catholics and Jews (in the north) as it was on black people; Trump’s everyday attitude appears to be functional chauvinism: get the Jews in to do the money, the blacks for heavy lifting, and have the gays decorate the hotel rooms. Most likely, he was persuaded, cajoled, yelled at to do it, by his daughter/adviser Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, both conventional New York social liberals (and Kushner is Jewish). His new chief-of-staff John Kelly might also have had a hand in it. The statement was met with some relief from the Republicans, and grudging acknowledgement (it deserved no more) from sections of middle America.

Less than a day later, this brief outbreak of the most minimal decency was rescinded with a new press conference from Trump, rambling, deranged and aggressive as any, saying there was violence on both sides, and “good people on both sides”, and apparently all but characterising the neo-Nazi attacks on the opposition protest as self-defence.

Pure Trump in phrasing and style, but the content is another matter. This notion of “faults on both sides, good people on both sides” is pure Steve Bannon, Breitbart, and white ethno-nationalism. Distinguishing itself from neo-Nazism, it is still determined to maintain a “solidarity of the last instance”, with the most vile expressions of its ideology, and will turn to defend them, rather than ally with multicultural liberalism.

This gives yet more evidence of how the White House is running: that an addled, out-of-depth President is being fought over by two dominant factions, with current policy being a product of who gets his ear last, and manages to rile him up in the right way. Bannon would have more to work with than the Ivanka/mainstream fashion: Trump, watching TV talking heads of all channels having a go at him — including right-wing ones such as FOX News and Glenn Beck’s The Blaze — would have been easily riled to show everyone that he couldn’t be dictated to by “political correctness”.

[How Trump destroyed America’s claims to ‘exceptionalism’]

The “good people on both sides” line is especially telling, because it recalls an earlier moment on the right — in 1985, when President Ronald Reagan, on a state visit to West Germany, gave a speech at a military cemetery in Bitburg, where members of the Waffen SS were buried along with Wehrmacht soldiers. The visit was part of Cold War politics; chancellor Helmut Kohl was building electoral support among “conservative” Germans, and Reagan wanted to build support so that a new range of missiles could be rolled out on German soil.

 The visit was bad enough; the remarks there and before it were appalling, with Reagan describing the Wehrmacht soldiers there as “victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camp”. The words were written for Reagan by Patrick Buchanan, his communications director, and a man labelled a “paleo-conservative”, who is essentially an intellectual godfather to the alt-right. Buchanan, from a right-wing Catholic family, followers of the isolationist, anti-Semitic Father Charles Coughlin, a lynchpin of American quasi-fascism in the 1930s and 1940s, has spent decades advocating an ethno-nationalist understanding of what the United States is. It’s an anti-liberal reading of the nation’s founding, which argues that the notion that the Declaration of Independence and the constitution — documents of abstract rights — function as a founding root for the country is poppycock. Buchanan (and other such conservatives) have some agreement with left critics of such documents, who argue that they were drafted to defend the rights of white, property- (including slave-property) owning men — and excluding rights that didn’t fit that mould.

For Buchanan and other paleo-conservatives, such documents functioned to a degree as propaganda against the British — a particular cause dressing its interests up as a fight for universal justice. Such paleos have always sought to argue that the United States should know itself as an Anglo-Celtic Christian society, later joined in (formal) full citizenship by emancipated black people, who had themselves been Christianised. On that basis, it is argued, the notion that the US is an expanding polity of rights, open to all, should be resisted. For Buchanan, such conception of what a nation is amounts to a form of “national suicide”.

Throughout his last three of four books, Buchanan has argued a modified form of this approach, a culture-war truce. Multicultural liberalism has won substantial territory, real and metaphorical, he argues; it is powered by rising new industries. What is needed is a mutual recognition of difference, and a politics based on that fact, rather than a spurious search for unity. For a time, Buchanan had a slot on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show, and that was about the best talking-head TV evah.

[Howard defends Trump, says he believes even less in climate change these days]

Buchanan’s paleo-conservative version of the US polity is what lies at the root of alt-right/white supremacist politics, and one reason why the US right is fracturing so utterly. These are not the Tea Party right, waving their pocket copies of the constitution and denouncing “King” Obama for “trashing” the constitution by using some executive wiggle room to save millions of families with children from deportation. When they put their hands to their hearts on July 4, they are not honouring the free speech, separation of church and state. They are heirs of the groups in the 1780s who never wanted a Bill of Rights at all, or even the constitution in its given form. Manifest destiny for them is the spread of white European Christianity across the ocean, and then the frontier, and then the world.

Christianity, not Judeo-Christianity. On the right, Jew-hatred/anti-Semitism is surging back at an extraordinary, but not unexpected rate. The notion that an eastern particularist religion lies at the root of the European religion that defines the white order is intolerable to them; hatred of Muslims is a recent and far less passionate addition. Right-wing anti-Semitism is an obsessive and autonomous thing, because it regrows in the mind of each hard-right conservative who hankers for a pure social order in which there is no contradiction between polity, society and ethnicity — modern non-Israeli Jews being the living embodiment of this. From the hard-right it spreads to the neurotic right: note how The Spectator Australia and The Sunday Times have recently published (and then retracted) anti-Semitic writers. Note how Mark Latham has linked with the Canadian site The Rebel, whose founder Gavin McInnes spouts the usual obsessive anti-Semitic crap. Those drawn to the political right because they are ethno-nationalist, rather than pro-capitalist liberals, won’t be able to help themselves; the more multicultural society becomes the more identity-based their politics will be  (witness the degeneration of the IPA, for example).  

The important thing to recognise, in understanding the US, and the West in general, is how deep the roots of these attitudes dig into the soil. They are not aberrations; they have a tradition they call on. We recognise that not to legitimise, but to understand how the appeal might spread. There’s no real sign that Trump is thinking strategically about this; in this instance he serves as symptom and example, and object-lesson in what one is up against.  

Asia-Pacific

Aug 16, 2017

5 comments

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has doubled down on a promise that the United States can count on Australia; in the event of military conflict between the US and North Korea, he has committed our nation to coming to the aid of the US. He might soon be called on to keep that promise, with the rhetoric between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ramping up in recent days.

The protagonists in this perhaps-not-cold-for-much-longer war are both given to grandiloquence, stomping machismo, and out-and-out threats. At the same time, the escalating war of words between two nuclear powers run by impulsive, thin-skinned egomaniacs doesn’t always make the front pages in Australia — after all, we’ve got to discuss whether gay people should allowed to marry, whether people who support that right are bullies, and just where the bloody hell our politicians are from. 

Both sides are keen to prove the size of their intercontinental ballistic missiles, so we have prepared a quiz. Can you tell which of these statements was said by Donald Trump and which by Kim Jong-un? 

To stop it getting too easy, we’ve replaced any country name with “our enemies”  or “our country”, any reference to a job title as “leader”, and any reference to the leaders themselves in the third person (pretty common, as it happens) has been replaced with “me”. Also, given that this is the first prelude to war to play out as much on social media as speeches, we’ve cleaned up some of grammar. 

  1. “Our enemy best not make any more threats to us. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
  2. “We consider our enemy no more than a lump we can beat to jelly any time.”  
  3. “The days are gone forever when our enemies could blackmail us with nuclear bombs.”
  4. “Our republic is a responsible nuclear state that, as we made clear before, will not use nuclear weapons first unless aggressive hostile forces use nuclear weapons to invade on our sovereignty.” 
  5. “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should our enemy act unwisely.”
  6. “My first order as leader was to renovate and modernise our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before”
  7. “My first second and third priority as leader will be to strengthen the military.”
  8. “This is no more than desperate efforts of those frightened at the might of our country. Our access to the strongest nukes and rockets is a legitimate step to defend the destiny of the country.” 
  9. “If our enemies persist in their extremely dangerous, reckless actions on the Korean peninsula and in its vicinity, testing the self-restraint of our country, we will make an important decision …”
  10. “He does something to our country, it will be an event the likes of which nobody has seen before. You’ll see. And he’ll see.”

— Click through to play, and find out the answers

Asia-Pacific

Aug 16, 2017

5 comments

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has doubled down on a promise that the United States can count on Australia; in the event of military conflict between the US and North Korea, he has committed our nation to coming to the aid of the US. He might soon be called on to keep that promise, with the rhetoric between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ramping up in recent days.

The protagonists in this perhaps-not-cold-for-much-longer war are both given to grandiloquence, stomping machismo, and out-and-out threats. At the same time, the escalating war of words between two nuclear powers run by impulsive, thin-skinned egomaniacs doesn’t always make the front pages in Australia — after all, we’ve got to discuss whether gay people should allowed to marry, whether people who support that right are bullies, and just where the bloody hell our politicians are from. 

Both sides are keen to prove the size of their intercontinental ballistic missiles, so we have prepared a quiz. Can you tell which of these statements was said by Donald Trump and which by Kim Jong-un? 

To stop it getting too easy, we’ve replaced any country name with “our enemies”  or “our country”, any reference to a job title as “leader”, and any reference to the leaders themselves in the third person (pretty common, as it happens) has been replaced with “me”. Also, given that this is the first prelude to war to play out as much on social media as speeches, we’ve cleaned up some of grammar. 

 

"Our enemy best not make any more threats to us. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen"

"We consider our enemy no more than a lump we can beat to jelly any time."

"The days are gone forever when our enemies could blackmail us with nuclear bombs."

"Our republic is a responsible nuclear state that, as we made clear before, will not use nuclear weapons first unless aggressive hostile forces use nuclear weapons to invade on our sovereignty."

"Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should our enemy act unwisely."

"My first order as leader was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before"

"My first second and third priority as leader, will be to strengthen the military

"This is no more than desperate efforts of those frightened at the might of our country. Our access to the strongest nukes and rockets is a legitimate step to defend the destiny of the country.”

"If our enemies persist in their extremely dangerous, reckless actions on the Korean peninsula and in its vicinity, testing the self-restraint of our country, we will make an important decision..."

“He does something to our country, it will be an event the likes of which nobody has seen before. You'll see. And he'll see.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Answers:

  1. (Trump, August 8 2017)
  2. (North Korean state news agency, August 11)
  3. (Kim Jong-Un, April 15, 2012)
  4. (Kim Jong-Un, May 8, 2016)
  5. (Trump, August 11 )
  6. (Trump, August 9)
  7. (Kim Jong-Un, April 15, 2012)
  8.  (Workers’ Party of Korea member Kim Ki-nam speaking at a rally on August 9)
  9. (Korean state news agency, August 15)
  10.  (Trump, August 11)