All posts by Peter Van Buren

What if a #MAGA Guy Ate Twitter’s Face?

undefined

More than a few people have cited the exchange below as justification for my forever trip down the Memory Hole, my ban from Twitter. I used to be there as @wemeantwell.

My bad zombie joke about #MAGA, or anything else I wrote that was flippant, is not writing I’m proud of. But ask yourself if indeed what I was doing, in the words of Twitter’s auto-response to me, “harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence someone else’s voice,” or if I was just being rude and childish. Ask yourself if whatever I did means you can never read anything I’ve written on Twitter over the past seven years, if it means I should never be allowed to write there again.

Does it justify censorship?

Before you say yes, keep in mind that Twitter allows you to block me, mute me, never see me again. That’s your decision, and good for you, and good riddance to me. But censorship takes that decision out of your hands, and allows Twitter to make it on behalf of literally the entire planet.

Though the “he called me human garbage first” excuse is pretty weak, it is useful to show the context of my allegedly game-changing Tweet. I think anyone who has dipped into the sticky waters of Twitter, or lived as an adult on earth, has heard much worse. I think also my line about a MAGA guy eating someone’s face can be seen by reasonable people as a rhetorical slap, not a literal invitation to zombie attack.

Think of it like people saying “Go kiss my ass!,” or “F*ck yourself.” I don’t think in those instances anyone expects you to contort and smooch the buttocks or to perform a unilateral sex act. There’s a difference between saying “Go jump in a lake” to end an argument and an invitation to go swimming.

But corporate censorship needs only the finest of hooks. Twitter is happy to allow calls for white genocide by New York Times editorial board member @SarahJeong, “understanding” they are not literal, while being shocked — Shocked! — to see me invoke a scene from Fear the Walking Dead.

And anyone who thinks I was banned for simply being rude on Twitter does not understand much about the point of censorship.


undefined

Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.

Diplomacy 101 Case Study: Singapore Summit

undefined

While I can say there isn’t a formal class at the American State Department called Diplomacy 101, some training offered to new hires comes pretty close. Those basic tenets of statecraft, largely unchanged from Thucydides to Bismarck to Pompeo, are important to review in light of the widespread criticism of the Singapore Summit.

You make peace by talking to your adversaries. Diplomacy is almost always a process and rarely a big-bang scale event. Steps backward are expected along with steps forward. Realizing America’s foreign policy goals often means dealing with bad people. As an American diplomat I purposely flattered and befriended gangsters in Japan to help American citizens in trouble, Irish Republican Army terrorists when a change in administration in Washington saw them eligible for visas, and militia leaders in Iraq who sought deals during the Surge. So has every diplomat, along with most intelligence officers and military officers. Many in the media have done exactly the same things to cultivate sources.

The Etruscans, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Eritreans, and Everyone else from A-Z have been conducting diplomacy with adversaries of all flavors, titles, and moral standards since before the word was even invented by the French. A leader whose family has been the sole ruler of his nation for seven some decades, who controls nuclear weapons, whose nation has a seat at the United Nations and embassies in multiple countries around the world already meets any practical test of “legitimacy.” Kim’s nuclear weapons exist whether or not he meets a sitting American president, or ex-presidents Clinton and Carter, though the only chance those weapons may someday be gone rests in such meetings.

Now protocol is always tricky. President Obama had no obligation to bow to the Emperor of Japan, but decided to convey respect; same with American male diplomats holding the hands of or exchanging kisses with their Arab counterparts; I kissed a lot of bearded men while on duty myself. Mistakes happen — Trump did not need to salute that North Korean general — but what matters most is the effect on your counterparts. No damage was done, and maybe even some additional humility was conveyed in a situation where offense could have easily derailed more important matters.

Diplomacy 101 advises you can’t control how your adversary, or even your friends, will portray events. Signals to the international community are important, but if you get too concerned about controlling them you’ll end up advising your boss she better just stay in Washington. One expert writes, “Foreign policymaking is not an omnidirectional antenna that clearly emits messages in all directions, which are correctly interpreted and acted upon by the intended audiences. Indeed, refraining from pursuing diplomatic initiatives because of how an adversary might characterize that initiative is surely a signal of weakness. And in the case of North Korea, allowing the propaganda efforts of a totalitarian government to influence United States policy making priorities is just self-crippling.”

It’s different with created messaging directed at your adversary, because nobody else matters. Much mockery was slathered on the video Trump played for Kim in Singapore, depicting him as a great leader facing a history-bending decision. The video was spiced full of symbols that resonate with Koreans, including sacred places and holiday images that mean little to outsiders. The audience was one man, and the video was designed to do one thing, speak to Kim in a visual language he understood. Diplomacy 101 suggests everyone else might stand aside, the way older folks should do when people say such-and-such a new dance song is good or bad, knowing they’re not the intended audience.

Negotiations are rarely an even exchange. But how long will you sit at the table if someone else seems to win every hand? Everyone has to at least feel they can win, so they don’t have a reason to cheat, and thus stay in the game. Even when stakes are high the good news it’s hard to give away “the store.” The store in whatever form usually isn’t something that can be irrevocably stopped, boxed up for shipment, or destroyed forever. Never mind the checks, balances, and bureaucratic brakes built into something as complex as the United States government, or even what may appear to be mostly a one-man-rule system. Diplomacy 101 encourages a thoughtful approach to score keeping, knowing the score only really matters at the end anyway.

Diplomacy 101 also reminds the most important purpose of a good first date is to make sure there’s a second. It doesn’t make sense to call it a failure if no marriage proposal follows dessert. Love at first sight is best left for the movies. A kiss goodnight is great, but international relations is a chaste process and demanding or expecting too much too early isn’t a long game strategy. Setting an artificial clock running alongside something as delicate as nuclear disarmament accomplishes nothing. Negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union sometimes spanned administrations.

Even failures are part of the process. William Johnson, a Foreign Service Officer who served as the State Department’s political advisor on special operations to the United States’ Pacific Command, explained to me “Diplomacy is often a series of failures, and in the best case, the failures become incrementally less bad, until sometimes the least spectacular failure is declared success. Diplomacy is a game where the goalposts are supposed to move, and often, to move erratically. Trump needs a plan, with specific goals, each laid out neatly in a set of talking points, not because he will attain those goals, but because he needs to figure out how short of them he can afford to fall or how far beyond them he can push his interlocutor.”

A future Diplomacy 101 class may examine the Singapore Summit alongside President Richard Nixon’s summit with Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung. That 1972 meeting ended over two decades of isolation between the two nuclear-armed countries, and is universally hailed as brilliant diplomacy. But looking back, the main takeaway, the ShanghaiCommunique, is full of vague phrases promising to meet again, to somehow make “progress toward the normalization of relations,” and “reduce the danger of international military conflict.” The status of Taiwan, which had almost brought the Americans and Chinese to war, was dealt with in almost poetic terms, able to be read with multiple meanings.

There was no timeline for anything. No specific next steps listed, though Nixon did agree to the “ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all US forces and military installations from Taiwan.” Nothing about China’s horrendous human rights situation. Few details at all, and the biggest problem was treated obliquely. It took seven more years before full diplomatic relations were restored. Yet scholars see the visit as one of the most impactful ever by an American president, to the point where the term “Nixon to China” is now shorthand for a breakthrough leaders’ meeting.

It is of course too early to fully assess the Singapore Summit, never mind to see if it will rank anywhere near the Nixon-Mao meeting. But we do know personal diplomacy has sometimes been the right strategy, and that Americans have met with dictators, nuclear-armed and not, before. Simply amending “But Trump!” to those and other realities of diplomacy does not change them. As the United States-North Korea relationship evolves, it is important to avoid valuing the sharp elbows of partisan politics over the earned lessons of Diplomacy 101. Class dismissed — for now.

Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.

The US is Playing with Fire if It Walks Away from the Iran Nuclear Deal on May 12

undefined

A foreign policy crisis is coming May 12. President Donald Trump’s likely decision on that day to not continue waiving sanctions on Iran under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will significantly increase the chances of war.

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed by China, Russia, and most of western Europe requires the American president to certify every three months Iran’s nuclear program is in compliance with the deal. In return, the next quarter’s economic sanctions are waived against the Islamic Republic. Earlier this year, Trump warned he was waiving sanctions for the final time, setting a May 12 deadline for significant changes in the agreement to be made. Failing those changes, Trump’s non-signature would trigger sanctions to snap into place.

The changes Trump is insisting on — reduce Iran’s ballistic missile capability, renegotiate the deal’s end date, and allow unrestricted inspections — are designed to force failure.

Iran’s ballistic missile program was purposefully never part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; as learned during the Cold War, trying to throw every problem into the same pot assured no agreement could ever be reached. Trump trying to add the missile program in three years after the agreement was signed is wholly outside the norms of diplomacy (and the art of dealmaking.) Ballistic missile capability lies at the heart of Iran’s defense. Sanctions have already kept the country from fielding any significant air force, and memories in Tehran of Iraqi air strikes on its cities in the 1980s when Iran lacked retaliatory capability lie deep. The missile program is the cornerstone of Iranian self-preservation and thus understood to be non-negotiable.

The 2030 agreement end date is to the Trump administration a ticking time bomb; Iran will nefariously lie in wait, springing whole into nuclear status 12 years from now. Leaving aside the original agreement was negotiated with such a deadline, and American policy has generally been for presidents to honor agreements in place as they take office, the worry over an Iran of the future going nuclear is pure drama.

Twelve years is a lifetime in the Middle East. Some 12 years ago Syria was at peace with its neighbors, and the United States happy to outsource torture to Assad as part of the War on Terror. Turkey was a democracy, Russia mostly a non-player in the region, and Iran was timidly facing the American military on two of its borders, open to broad negotiations with Washington. There is more than enough to focus on in the Middle East of 2018 than what the area might look like strategically in 2030, even assuming Iran could surreptitiously keep its nuclear development going such to pop out of the cake in 12 years with a nuclear surprise. Washington’s demand for an indefinite extension of limits on Iran’s nuclear activities is political theatre.

As for the concern Iran is not compliant with the agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations body charged with monitoring the deal, has presented no such evidence. Iran has in fact shown itself anxious to stay in compliance; in two past minor instances where the Agency noted Iran exceeded its heavy water limits, Tehran immediately disposed of the excessive amount. Trump has suggested he wants unprecedented access to any and all Iranian sites, including military sites not known to be part of any nuclear program. The United States never allowed carte blanche to the Soviets during the Cold War, no nation with the power to say no would. Following the inspections ahead of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, where intelligence officers were embedded in the process and the results politicized, American credibility for this task is low.

So these aren’t really negotiating points, they’re excuses for the United States itself to step out of compliance with an agreement. “President Trump appears to have presented the [Europeans] with a false choice: either kill the deal with me, or I’ll kill it alone,’ said Rob Malley, a senior American negotiator of the deal, and now head of the International Crisis Group.

None of this is a surprise. Trump has always wanted out of what he calls the “worst deal ever.” His new foreign policy team — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton — are also ardent opponents. While anything can happen inside a White House fueled by chaos, there is no plausible scenario that says the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will survive May 12. What happens next?

The likely effects of walking away from the agreement are global. Iran may immediately kick start its nuclear program. Tehran’s hegemonic efforts in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria would remain untouched if not intensify in retaliation. Iran’s current missiles will still be able to reach Jerusalem and Riyadh. The odds of the North Koreans agreeing to a nuclear deal decrease; imagine being the new State Department envoy sitting across from an experienced North Korean diplomat trying to answer his question “What is to say you won’t do this to us in three years?”

European allies will be reluctant to join in future diplomatic heavy lifting in the Middle East or elsewhere, shy to commit only to see the Americans turn up their noses following another election. Relations could easily sink to the level of 2003, when America’s bullheaded invasion of Iraq split the alliance. Russia and China, signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, will have a chance at being the “good guys,” seizing an opening to expand cooperation with Iran at a time when American diplomacy might instead be looking for ways to drive wedges among them.

Meanwhile, the impact of renewed sanctions may be quite limited strategically. It is unclear if American pique will be followed by all of Europe falling into line with re-imposed sanctions; there is a lot of money in doing business in Iran and absent unambiguous proof Iran violated the agreement it is hard to see them going along in earnest. It is even less clear Russia and China will follow the new sanctions regime. And even if some signatories agree to reimpose sanctions, there is little to suggest Iran’s ambitions have been severely thwarted by decades of sanctions anyway. Had they been fully effective, there’d have been no need for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in the first place.

Without the agreement, there is, to misquote Churchill, nothing left to “jaw jaw,” leaving Iran free to develop its weapons and America only the option of destroying them. It’s perhaps the dangerous scenario Washington, encouraged by an Israel who has sought the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities for years, wants. The Israeli air strikes which decimated Saddam’s nuclear program and Syria’s were small scale, directed against nearby, discrete targets, vulnerable above ground. Not so for Iran, whose nuclear facilities are far away, dispersed, underground, and protected by both a decent air defense system and a credible threat of conventional, terrorist, cyber, and/or chemical retaliation. And that’s all before the newly-emboldened Russians weigh in.

The chance of terminating Iran’s nuclear program is held against the risk of full-on war in the region. The United States is playing with real fire if it walks away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on May 12.

Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.

Review: A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership is Mostly About Making Jim Comey Rich

undefined

Despite the lofty title, in A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership James Comey comes across in turns petty, smug, sanctimonious, bitter, and most of all, pandering.

Comey feeds the rubes exactly what they paid the carnival sideshow barker in front at Barnes and Noble to hear: the pee tape, the jokes about small hands, the comparisons of Trump to a mob boss, and enough Obama-worship to fill a week’s worth of Maddow.

Where Comey could have shined — clarifying historical events from the Bush and Obama eras, shedding real light on the FBI’s interplay with the Clinton campaign, verifying or denouncing parts of the Russiagate narrative — he stops purposefully short. A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership is a quick grab at the money, something that in the old days would have been on pay-per-view cable or tucked away inside a second-tier men’s magazine.

Comey tells us Trump is obsessed with the pee tape, desperate for the FBI to investigate-to-exonerate. “I’m a germaphobe,” Comey quotes Trump, emphasizing the president claimed he only used the Russian hotel room to change clothes. The then-Director of the FBI was apparently non-committal to his boss, but in his book safely removed by a year and the publishing process Comey writes “I decided not to tell him the activity alleged did not seem to require either an overnight stay or even being in proximity to the participants. In fact, though I didn’t know for sure, I imagined the presidential suite of the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow was large enough for a germaphobe to be at a safe distance from the activity.”

Classy, and it sets the tone for the two men’s encounters over loyalty pledges, Mike Flynn, and all things Russia. Trump says something neatly packaged and impeachment-worthy, conveniently only in a conversation he and Comey are privy to. Comey, rather than seek clarification, always assumes the worst, keeps his thoughts to himself, but remembers to document every word in writing. Everything about James Comey is presented so that you get the message that everything he is — straight-arrow bureaucrat, warrior-poet of the people, apostle of law and order, defender of the Constitution — is what Trump isn’t. It’s my word against his, you know who you believe, might as well be the title of the book.

You were expecting insight? Trump never laughs, Comey writes, a clear tell to a soul-seer POTUS harbors “deep insecurity, an inability to be vulnerable or to risk himself by appreciating the humor of others.” Comey describes Trump as shorter than he expected with a “too long” tie. The eyes, by the way, are “expressionless.” Comey says the president’s hands were “smaller than mine.” Jim, we get it — Trump is short, wears his ties long to compensate, has tiny hands — brother, just represent: I’m a bigger man than the president!

The Clintons are always in the background. Comey teases there is classified but unverified info on Loretta Lynch that “casts serious doubt on the Attorney General’s independence in connection with the Clinton investigation” but unlike in the case of Trump, where classification and proprietary have the value of a paper bag in the rain, Comey reveals no details.

Elsewhere, Comey creates his own standard, well outside the law, for why the investigation into Clinton’s exposure of classified material on her personal unclassified server did not lead to prosecution: she gosh golly just didn’t intend to do anything criminally wrong, he says, taking the term “willful” in the actual law and twisting it to mean “evil intent.” Comey says prosecution would have required a specific smoking gun message from someone telling Clinton sending classified material via unclassified channels was wrong. He has nothing to say about whether that message might have been in the 30,000 emails Clinton deleted, only shrugging his shoulders to say there was nothing to justify prosecution as far as anyone looked. Why, he adds, they even asked Hillary herself.

And as long as he’s making up the law, those memos Comey wrote of conversations between two government employees, on Federal property, regarding national security-related official government business? He “regards” them as personal property, so their contents didn’t have to be classified and thus could not by definition be leaked. He did not, however, include them in his book and they remain hidden from the public.

Comey writes he felt confident reopening the Clinton email probe days before the election because he ­assumed Clinton would win, and if the new investigation was revealed after her victory it might make her seem “illegitimate.” He says the same thing about keeping Russian meddling quiet, certain it wouldn’t matter when Hillary became his boss a few months later. The irony of Comey setting out to legitimize the expected Clinton presidency ended up hurting her aside, what is disturbing is the blatant admission a partisan calculus was part of the decision making in any way at all.

It’s a heck of a thing to admit in writing, and shows how empty Comey’s constant claims to integrity lie. Should any serious prosecution emerge from the mess of the Trump presidency, Comey’s credibility as a witness is tainted, and his value to the American people he claims to serve thus diluted. Comey will see his testimony whittled down by defense lawyers even now cross-indexing statements in the book with the public record. And who knows what Seth and Trevor and Rachel will pull out of him?

Most people tangled up in Washington beheadings get around these problems by waiting until after the dust has settled to write their books. That was the case for the Watergate gang, Oliver North, and Monica Lewinsky. The problem with Comey waiting is that there’s very little new here. If your impeachment fantasy includes the pee tape, or if you believe it is made-up, Comey has nothing to enlighten you either way.

Instead, this is like reading a 13-year-old’s diary about why she hates boys, or a bunch of angry Tweets dragged out over 304 pages. Comey doesn’t appear to have any political ambitions, and he doesn’t seem to be using the book to audition for a talk show job. It’s not even good “score settling” in that it’s just mostly the same stuff you’ve heard before.

And that’s all a shame, because there is a better book Comey could have written. Comey was witness to the legal wranglings inside the Bush administration over NSA’s illegal domestic spying on Americans, and was in the hospital room when Bush White House officials tried to bully ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft into reauthorizing the Stellar Wind surveillance program. Comey was there for the debates over torture, and under Obama, the use of the Espionage Act to punish journalists and whistleblowers. None of that was morally repugnant to him at a Trump-like level, and he never resigned in protest to protect his honor. Why, Jim?

But instead of insight into all that we get a quick overview that adds little to the known facts. Comey’s narratives are designed only to show leaders in each instance acted honorably enough for Comey’s taste, as opposed to Trump. Comey’s visceral hatred of Trump as a liar and a boor prevents Comey from writing an honorable memoir of his decades inside government, and instead drives him to present a version of events where history is only of value when it can be slaved to making Trump look bad in comparison. It’s a thin shell for anyone who knows more about these events than Colbert or Meyers spoon out.

There’s a reason why circus sideshows got out of town after a few days, before the rubes figured out the “Alien from Mars” was just a rabbit with some fake teeth glued on. It’s pretty clear Comey’s higher loyalty lies only to making a quick buck for himself with a near-substance free book, before anyone realizes it’s all a fraud.

Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.

FARA: Freedom of the Press, But On the Government’s Terms

undefined

A bipartisan group of lawmakers called for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate if Al Jazeera, the news outlet connected to the Qatari government, should register with the Justice Department as an agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA.)

This has broad implications for our First Amendment, our access to dissenting opinions, and in how the rest of the world views us.

The lawmakers claim Al Jazeera “directly undermines American interests” and broadcasts “anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel” material. Al Jazeera would joinRussian outlets RT and Radio Sputnik, Japan’s Cosmomedia, the Korean Broadcasting System, and the China Daily in registering as foreign state propaganda outlets. DOJ has also been asked to look into a range of other Chinese media.

Ironically, the bipartisan request to force Al Jazeera to register comes amid a controversy over the network’s filming of a documentary critical of pro-Israel lobbying in the US The network used an undercover operative to secure footage revealing possibly illegal interactions between advocacy groups and lawmakers.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act was never intended to regulate journalism. The legislation in fact includes finely-worded exemptions for approved journalists, scholars, artists, and the like, who are not required to announce themselves as “agents of a foreign principal” regardless of what they create. The law was created in 1938 in response to German propaganda, specifically Nazi officials and those they employed to make pacifist speeches in then-neutral America and to organize sympathetic German-Americans. By requiring those working for the Nazis to register, and report their finances and spending, US counterespionage authorities could more easily keep track of their activities.

FARA law doesn’t even prohibit straight up propagandizing, though it seeks to limit the influence of foreign agents by labeling their work, apparently to help out Americans who otherwise would not be able to tell the difference on their own. The law specifically says “Disclosure of the required information facilitates evaluation by the government and the American people of the statements and activities of such persons in light of their function as foreign agents.” Indeed, the Atlantic Council claims these actions “do not suppress freedom of speech; instead, it serves the First Amendment by supplementing information available to the public.”

Here’s a use of FARA in line with the law’s original intent: the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, whose job is to lobby Americans on behalf of a foreign government, in this case, to take vacations in Abu Dhabi, is a FARA registrant. You know who is up to what when the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority says they have decent beaches you should visit. Other typical registrants might include an American lawyer hired by Saudi Arabia to lobby Congress in favor of more arms sales. Being a foreign agent is happily legal and very popular with former Congresspeople and government bureaucrats; you just need to announce your employer.

But FARA can also serve a more nefarious purpose, as a Catch-22 prosecution (a “compliance statute”) for those the US wants to declare as foreign agents but who resist; if the feds want to taint you as a foreign agent, you either agree and register, or face jail.

That is what happened in the case of RT and Radio Sputnik. Following the 2016 election, frightened officials demanded the Russian news organizations register as propaganda agents. RT’s editor-in-chief maintained her network was an independent news outlet, but chose to comply rather than face criminal proceedings, adding “we congratulate the American freedom of speech and all those who still believe in it.” Critics then swung RT’s snarky comment on free speech into “proof” it unfairly criticizes America.

The use of FARA to allow the government to declare which foreign media outlets produce “news” and which produce “fake news” and propaganda is “a shift in how the law has been applied in recent decades,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists. “We’re uncomfortable with governments’ deciding what constitutes journalism or propaganda.”

As the Justice Department wields the FARA weapon against journalists, here’s what they will face.

Designation under FARA requires a media outlet label its reporting “with a conspicuous statement that the information is disseminated by the agents on behalf of the foreign principal,” a nutritional label for journalism. It also means the outlet must open its finances to the Department of Justice. It means Americans who choose to watch that media, or participate in its talk shows, or who work legally for those outlets, open themselves to accusations of “treason” (one political staffer was fired after being interviewed by Radio Sputnik.) It adds credence to the muddy cries of “fake news” used to shut out dissenting opinions. It gives credibility to groups like PropOrNot, which lists websites it “determines” are Russian propaganda, and Hamilton 68, which does the same for Twitter.

Subjecting journalists to FARA sends a message about America. It encourages foreign governments to impose restrictions (Russia has already passed a law requiring outlets like CNN to register as foreign agents.) It uses the full authority of the American government to declare Al Jazeera, a network which reaches 310 million people in more than 160 countries, has no equal place within a free press because its broadcasts are “anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel.” In the specific case of Al Jazeera, it seemingly extends America law to cover anti-Israeli propaganda as well. As with attempts to claim Wikileaks is espionage and not journalism, this use of FARA says the US will use its laws to harass those with “un-American” opinions.

The use of FARA to restrict foreign journalists also adds to rising sense among too many already frightened Americans that our freedoms are being used against us. “The US is at a huge strategic disadvantage when it comes to the New Media Wars because our information environment is so open and rich,” said one former CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence. Perhaps too many dissenting voices isn’t a good idea. The Internet is just too much freedom for the First Amendment to responsibly allow. Maybe the government should become more involved in what we say, hear, watch, and read, as Facebook and Twitter (who banned RT from advertising) do now, you know, for our own protection. Our open society is a vulnerability, not a strength.

The roots of our most basic rights flow from the freedom of the press written into the First Amendment. The press must be unfettered in reporting so citizens can make informed decisions when voting, protesting, and petitioning their government. Government should play no role in designating good journalists from bad, licensing who can report, or otherwise interfering with access to a broad range of ideas. Sorting out the marketplace of ideas — opposing opinions, bias exposed and hidden — is supposed to be our job as an informed citizenry anyway.

Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.

Politics, Justice, and the Surveillance State

undefined

The role pervasive surveillance plays in politics today has been grossly underreported. Set aside what you think about the Trump presidency for a moment and focus instead on the new paradigm for how politics and justice work inside the surveillance state.

Incidental collection” is the claimed inadvertent or accidental monitoring of Americans’ communications under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. Incidental collection exists alongside court-approved warranted surveillance authorized on a specific individual.But for incidental collection, no probable cause is needed, no warrant is needed, and no court or judge is involved. It just gets vacuumed up.

While exactly how many Americans have their communications monitored this way is unknown, a significant number Trump staffers (no evidence of incidental surveillance of the Clinton campaign exists) were surveilled by a White House controlled by their opposition party. Election-time claims the Obama administration wasn’t “wiretapping” Trump were disingenuous. They in fact gathered an unprecedented level of inside information. How was it used?

Incidental collection nailed Michael Flynn; the NSA was ostensibly not surveilling Flynn, just listening in on the Russian ambassador as the two spoke. The intercept formed the basis of Flynn’s firing as national security advisor, his guilty plea for perjury, and very possibly his “game changing” testimony against others.

Jeff Sessions was similarly incidentally surveilled, as was former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, whose conversations were picked up as part of a FISA warrant issued against Trump associate, Carter PagePaul Manafort and Richard Gates were also subjects of FISA-warranted surveillance; they were surveilled in 2014, the case was dropped for lack of evidence, then re-surveilled after they joined the Trump team and became more interesting to the state.

Officials on the National Security Council revealed Trump himself may also have been swept up in surveillance of foreign targets. Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, claims multiple communications by Trump transition staff were inadvertently picked up. Trump officials were monitored by British GCHQ with the information shared with their NSA partners. Some reports claim after a criminal warrant was denied to look into whether or not Trump Tower servers were communicating with a Russian bank, a FISA warrant was issued.

How much information on Trump’s political strategy a Democratic White House acquired via surveillance, as well as the full story of what might have been done with that information, will never be known. We do know Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats saw enough after he took office to specify the “intelligence community may not engage in political activity, including dissemination of US person identities to the White House, for the purpose of affecting the political process of the United States.”

Coats likely had in mind the use of unmasking by the Obama administration. Identities of US persons picked up inadvertently by surveillance are supposed to be masked, hidden from most users of the data. However, a select group of officials, including political appointees in the White House, can unmask and include names if they believe it is important to understanding the intelligence, or to show evidence of a crime.

Former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice told House investigators in at least one instance she unmasked the identities of Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, and Steve Bannon. Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, also made a number of unmasking requests in her final year in office.

But no one knows who unmasked Flynn in his conversations with the Russian ambassador. That and subsequent leaking of what was said were used not only to snare Flynn in a perjury trap, but also to force him out of government. Prior to the leak which took Flynn down, Obama holdover and then-acting attorney general Sally Yates warned Trump Flynn could be blackmailed by Moscow for lying about his calls. When Trump didn’t immediately fire Flynn, the unmasked surveillance was leaked by a “senior government official” (likely Yates) to the Washington Post. The disclosure pressured the administration to dump Flynn.

Similar leaks were used to try to pressure Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign, though only resulted in him recusing himself from the Russiagate investigation. Following James Comey’s firing, that recusal ultimately opened the door for the appointment of Special Counsel Mueller.

A highly classified leak was used to help marginalize Jared Kushner. The Washington Post, based on leaked intercepts, claimed foreign officials’ from four countries spoke of exploiting Kushner’s economic vulnerabilities to push him into acting against the United States. If the story is true, the leakers passed on data revealing sources and methods; those foreign officials now know however they communicated their thoughts about Kushner, the NSA was listening. Access to that level of information and the power to expose it is not a rank and file action. One analyst described the matter as “the Deep State takes out the White House’s Dark Clown Prince.”

Pervasive surveillance has shown its power perhaps most significantly in creating perjury traps to manufacture indictments to pressure people to testify against others.

Trump associate George Papadopoulos lied to the FBI about several meetings concerning Clinton’s emails. The FBI knew about the meetings, “propelled in part by intelligence from other friendly governments, including the British and Dutch.” The feds asked him questions solely in hope Papadopoulos would lie, commit perjury, even though there was nothing shown to be criminal in the meetings themselves. Now guilty of a crime, the FBI will use the promise of light punishment to press Papadopoulos into testifying against others.

There is an element here of using surveillance to create a process crime out of a non-material lie (the FBI already knew) where no underlying crime of turpitude exists (the meetings were legal.) That that is then used to press someone to testify in an investigation that will have significant political impact seems… undemocratic… yet appears to be a primary tool Mueller is using.

This is a far cry from a traditional plea deal, giving someone a light sentence for actual crimes so that they will testify against others. Mueller should know. He famously allowed Mafia hitman Sammy the Bull to escape more serious punishment for 19 first degree murders in return for testifying against John Gotti. No need to manufacture a perjury trap; the pile of bodies who never saw justice did the trick.

Don’t be lured into thinking the ends justify the means, that whatever it takes to purge Trump is acceptable. Say what you want about Flynn, Kushner, et al, what matters most is the dark process being used. The arrival of pervasive surveillance as a political weapon is more significant than what happens to a little bug like Jared.

Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.

What Mueller Has, and What He is Missing

undefined

Each week brings a new indictment from Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller along with the same question: when will he produce evidence that the president of the United States committed treason?

Because that’s what this is really about; Some Russians somewhere may have meddled in the election. But what Mueller has to answer is whether Trump knowingly worked with a foreign adversarial government to help get himself elected in return for some quid pro quo. Mueller is tasked with proving the president, now in his 13th month in office, purposefully acts against the interests of the United States because of some debt to Russia. Here’s what Mueller has, and does not have, so far in his case.

Manafort and Gates

Last Friday saw a 32 count indictment charging Paul Manafort and Richard Gates with a variety of money laundering, tax evasion, and wire fraud crimes, going back eight years or more, all related to the men’s work Ukraine. Manafort and Gates were indicted by Mueller on similar charges in October. There’s a lot of money involved, and the details in the indictment don’t look good for Manafort.

A day after the indictment, Gates pled guilty to the very minor charges of participating in a financial conspiracy with Manafort wholly unrealted to Trump, and lying to the FBI about the details of a 2013 meeting. An associate of Gates, Alex van der Zwaan, pled guilty earlier last week to false statements about contacts with Gates regarding Ukraine.

Manafort’s case is complex, no trial date has been set, and it will likely take a year or more to conclude once started. That Mueller filed additional charges last week against Manafort all but screams he has no cooperation deal, that Manafort hasn’t “flipped” to tell all about his three months running the Trump campaign.

The Great Hope of course is Gates pleading guilty means he will testify against Manafort to pressure him to take a plea deal to testify against a Team Trump principal, all based on the overall assumption there is something to testify about of course. To date, nowhere in any of this is it shown there is any direct connection to Trump, the campaign, the DNC email hack, Wikileaks, the Russian government, Putin, or anything else Russiagate.

The Russian Trolls

Two weeks ago Mueller dropped a multi-part indictment against 13 Russian citizens connected with the so-called troll farm. The indictment alleges the group bought Facebook and Twitter ads, planned small rallies, and otherwise “meddled” in the U.S. election. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made clear there was no allegation in the indictment any American — including members of the Trump campaign — “was a knowing participant in the alleged unlawful activity.” Rosenstein added “There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”

Persons in Russia, even if some connection to the Kremlin can be shown (it hasn’t been and since Mueller will never take this case to court — his defendants all live in Russia — it is unlikely it ever will be), “meddling” have little to do with what Mueller is charged with finding out. There’s no link to Trump or anything else Russiagate. In fact, the social media campaign started years before Trump announced his candidacy, and about half its modest ad buys took place after the election was over. The troll farm itself was not much of a secret; the New York Times did a “look at this internet madness” profile on the place, which operates quite openly from an office in St. Petersburg, back in 2015.

Michael Flynn
Mueller also charged former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn with a non-material lie to the FBI (the FBI already knew the truth from surveillance, Flynn stepped into a perjury trap set up for him. The likely sentence is a fine). Flynn initially pled guilty, though is understood to be reconsidering and may withdraw that plea. Flynn’s lies and other accusations centers on his work as an unregistered foreign agent for Turkey, a NATO ally. Prosecutions for failing to register as a foreign agent are rare, and penalties generally light. Washington has played very loose with the Foreign Agents Registration Act for a long time, as many former members of Congress and executive branch employees make millions working for foreign governments lobbying DC.

Flynn also admitted he lied to the FBI about a conversation with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition period. The conversation, though not illegal, was surveilled by the NSA. Leaked information out of the Obama White House suggests the two men talked about outgoing President Obama’s executive order imposing sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its election interference. Flynn asked Russia for restraint in any planned retaliation. Critics claim this is a violation of the Logan Act, a law that has never been successfully prosecuted. Soon after the FBI interview in which Flynn falsely denied the conversation, Sally Yates, an Obama-era holdover serving as acting attorney general, warned the Trump White House Russia could blackmail Flynn over having lied. Ironically, many now believe Mueller is essentially blackmailing Flynn using that same lie, holding out a light sentence if Flynn tells all about Russiagate, again assuming there is anything to tell and that Flynn knows it.

George Papadopoulos

Another output from the Mueller team is the guilty plea of George Papadopoulos, who may or may not have been a serious part of the Trump campaign; Sarah Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, explained Papadopoulos’s role as “a volunteer member of an advisory council that literally met one time.”

Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to the relatively minor crime (his likely sentence is a fine) of a non-material lie to the FBI about a meeting he had in London with a Maltese professor named Joseph Mifsud, another perjury trap of Mueller’s based on intelligence data. Mifsud had made a pseudo-reputation for himself jetting around the world bragging about his connections. He supposedly introduced Papadopoulos to two other people with claimed ties to the Russian government, and sought to arrange a meeting between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. The professor said the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in “thousands of emails.” Much of this information is laced through the so-called Steele dossier paid for by the DNC and used by the FBI to later obtain a FISA warrant on one-time Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page. No meeting took place and no emails or dirt was handed over.

The cast of characters is interesting; one might imagine their credibility testifying at an impeachment hearing. Carter Page has not been charged with anything. He has recently claimed he is near-bankrupt, doesn’t have a lawyer, and has written manifestos comparing himself to Martin Luther King, Jr. Back in 2013, when a Russian agent made a limp try at recruiting Page, he described him as too much of an “idiot” to bother with.

Papadopoulos has in the past made big but empty claims about his connections in Russia and his role in the Trump campaign. A solid characterization, as one analyst put it, is whether the “young adviser was making plans with actual Russian officials or whether he had drifted into a fog of hucksters, tricksters, and pretenders.”

You Got What?

Mueller, as best we know, currently has very little regarding Russiagate. He has what appears to be solid evidence of non-Trump related financial crimes by Paul Manafort and others. Most of that seems to have come from FISA surveillance on Manafort dating back to 2014. The FBI’s investigation at that time was dropped, likely when the U.S. decided against war in the Ukraine, and it appears Mueller went into the files and revived it now that the same information could be repurposed essentially as blackmail against Manafort testifying.

Flynn and Papadopoulos are charged with relatively minor crimes, though the potential to stack other charges against them exists. The connections to Russiagate are, however, tenuous. Flynn’s contact with the Russia ambassador can be seen as a lot of uncomplimentary things, but it does not appear to be a crime. Page and Papadopoulos would be very weak witnesses. There may be a “conspiracy to commit something” charge in there with some shady lawyering, but it seems little more.

What Mueller’s Missing

That’s what Mueller has. Here’s what he is missing.

The full force of the U.S. intelligence community has been aimed at finding evidence of Russian government interference in the 2016 election (still largely undemonstrated) for some 18 months, and the Comey/Mueller team aimed at finding evidence of Trump’s collusion with Russia for about a year. It is reasonable to conclude they do not have intelligence that would form a smoking gun, no tape of a high-ranking Trump official cutting a deal with a Russian spy. If such information existed, there would be no need for months of investigation. Same for the Steele dossier, and its salacious accusations. If there was proof any of it was true, we’d be hearing it read aloud during impeachment hearings.

What’s left is the battle cry of Trump opponents since election day: just you wait. The recount will show Hillary won. The Electoral College won’t select Trump. The Emoluments Clause will take Trump down. Or his tax returns. Or the 25th Amendment. Mueller will flip _____. The shoe will drop. Tick tock. And anything that looks like a weak move by Mueller is only an example we don’t yet understand his keen judicial kung fu.

No one knows the future. But so far the booked charges against Flynn and Papadopoulos, and the guilty pleas of others, point toward minor sentences to bargain over (never mind the possibility of a presidential pardon if it came to that), assuming they have relevant information to share in the first place. Manafort says he’ll go to court and defend himself. Mueller has produced nothing that has touched Trump, nothing connecting any meddling to a deal between Trump and Putin.

The core task is not to prove some Russians, or even the Russian government, meddled in the election. A limping to the finish line conclusion to Mueller’s work just ahead of the midterm elections that Trump somehow technically obstructed justice without a finding of an underlying crime would tear the nation apart. Mueller is charged with nothing less than proving the president knowingly worked with a foreign adversarial government, receiving help in the election in return for some quid pro quo, an act that can be demonstrated so clearly to the American people as to overturn an election well-over a year after it was decided.

It is a very dangerous thing to see the glee so many display hoping Trump will be found to be a Russian agent. That pleasure in hoping the U.S. is controlled by a foreign power because it means Trump will leave office early is not healthy for us. Mueller can fix that, but so far the bar is still seemingly pretty high above him. Given the stakes — a Kremlin-controlled man in the Oval Office — you’d think every person in govt would be on this 24/7 to save the nation, not just a relatively small staff of prosecutors ever-so-slowly filing indictments that so far have little to do with their core charge.

Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.

Christopher Steele: The Real Foreign Influence in the 2016 Election?

undefined

Leaving aside the validity of what has become known as the “Steele dossier,” it’s important to look at how Christopher Steele was able to guarantee that the information in it would play a significant and ongoing role in American politics. 

Steele, who is British, did far more than simply provide opposition research to the Democratic National Committee. He was able to make sure it reached the most influential people possible in politics, media and government to shape and influence the growing narrative of the 2016 presidential election. In other words, as a skilled professional intelligence officer, Steele ran a full-spectrum information operation against the United States. One could even call it information warfare.

This is what separates his work creating the dossier  (which a decent journalist with friends in Russia could have done) from his work insinuating the dossier into the highest reaches of American government and political society. For that, you need a real pro, an intelligence officer with decades of experience running just that kind of operation. Looking for foreign interference in the 2016 election? Let’s take a closer look at Christopher Steele.

Steele’s skill is revealed by the now familiar Nunes and Grassley memos, which show he used the same set of information in the dossier to create a collaboration loop, every intelligence officer’s dream, which is his own planted information used to surreptitiously confirm itself, right up to the point where the target country’s own intelligence service re-purposed it as evidence in the FISA (Foreign Intelligence  Surveillance Act) court.

Steele admits he briefed journalists off-the-record starting in summer and autumn 2016. His most significant hit came when in September 2016, journalist Michael Isikoff broke the story of Trump associate Carter Page’s alleged connections to Russia. Isikoff did not cite the dossier or Steele as sources, and in fact denied they were when questioned.

Isikoff’s story didn’t just push negative information about Trump into the public consciousness. It claimed U.S. intel officials were probing ties between a Trump adviser and the Kremlin, adding credibility, suggesting the feds themselves felt the info was worthwhile. Better yet for Steele, Isikoff claimed the information came from a “well-placed Western intelligence source,” suggesting it originated from a third-party and was picked up by Western spies instead of being written by one.Steele, either as a source himself or via colleagues passing around his information, saw to it the dossier information reached journalists at Mother Jones, the BBC,Guardian and others. An article by Harold Blum in Vanity Fair laid it out in April of last year:
It wasn’t long before, as The New York Times would write, the memos by the former spy “became one of Washington’s worst-kept secrets, as reporters . . . scrambled to confirm or disprove them.”
At the same time, Steele’s info reached influential people like Sen. John McCain, who could then pick up a newspaper and believe he was seeing the “secret” info from Steele confirmed independently by an experienced journalist. And how did McCain first learn about Steele’s work? At a conference in Canada, via Andrew Wood, former British Ambassador in Moscow. Where was Wood working at the time? Orbis, Christopher Steele’s research firm.

A copy of the dossier even found its way to the State Department, an organization which normally should have been far removed from U.S. election politics. A contact within State passed information from Clinton associates Sidney Blumenthal and Cody Shearer (both men also played active roles behind in the scenes feeding Clinton dubious information on Libya) to and from Steele. The Grassley memo suggests there is was a second Steele document, in addition to the dossier, already shared with State and the FBI but not made public.

Read the rest here.

The People v. Trump: Is There a Case for the 25th Amendment?

undefined

The media is of one mind: Donald Trump is mentally incompetent and must be removed from office before he blows us all to hell. It says so on Vox, New York Review of BooksCNNThe InterceptCNBCThe NationBill MoyersSalon, and theNYT. A new book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, concludes “Trump’s mental state presents a clear and present danger to our nation and individual well-being.”

The solution is in the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. The 25A creates a mechanism aside impeachment to remove an “incapacitated” president, and Trump’s mental state, some believe, qualifies him. Is there a case?

Dr. Bandy Lee, one of the editors of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trumpsays yes. Her primary evidence is tweets Trump sent threatening Kim Jong Un. She really has no other ammunition: no doctor who says Trump is insane, including Lee, has examined him. No doctor that has examined him says he is insane. Third party anonymous accusations of incompetence are shot through with gossip. A book written by a Hollywood trash reporter is otherwise held up as critical evidence of the inner workings of the president’s mind.

So is there a case without the tweets? Not really. Lee adds while Trump has not committed violent acts against himself or others, his “verbal aggressiveness, history of boasting about sexual assault, history of inciting violence at his rallies, and history of endorsing violence in his key public speeches are the best predictors of future violence” and thus concludes he will destroy the world. Lee also weakly points to Trump “being drawn to violent videos.” Oh my.

We might instead look at the actual decisions Trump has made, and those of his predecessors. One president used nuclear weapons to decimate two cities worth of innocents, and a set of presidents squandered hundreds of thousands of American lives watering Vietnam with blood. Ronald Reagan was famously caught over an open mic saying he was going to start bombing the Soviet Union in the next few minutes. Another president lied about WMDs to launch an invasion of Iraq in part to avenge his dad. The same guy mocked North Korea’s leader as a pygmy. Obama said he “will not hesitate to use our military might” against the North, knowing that meant Armageddon. Historical psychiatrists say half of our past presidents may have suffered some sort of mental illness. If Trump is dangerous as president, he seems to have company.

But how can we know? Trump will never voluntarily undergo a mental competency exam, though courts can order people to submit. But even Lee, who met with Congressional representatives to press the case Trump is insane, admits this is unlikely to happen. “Many lawyer groups have actually volunteered to file for a court paper to ensure that the security staff will cooperate with us,” Lee said. “But we have declined, since this will really look like a coup, and while we are trying to prevent violence, we don’t wish to incite it through, say, an insurrection.”

There doesn’t seem much of a case. Still, people arguing Trump is insane and must be removed from office point to the 25th Amendment to the Constitution as just what the doctor ordered.

The Constitution did not originally lay out (Article II, Section 1, Clause 6) what happens if a president dies or becomes incapacitated. It was just assumed the Vice President would serve as “Acting President.” The 25A, passed after the Kennedy assassination, created the first set of rules for this sort of situation.

The 25A has four short subsections. If the presidency goes vacant (for example, fatal heart attack), the vice president becomes president. If the vice-presidency goes vacant, the president chooses a new VP. If the president knows he’ll be incapacitated (unable to carry out his job, for example, due to scheduled surgery), he can voluntarily and temporarily assign his duties to the vice president. If the president is truly incapacitated (unconscious after an assassination attempt) and can’t voluntarily assign away his duties, the VP and cabinet can do it for him, with a two-thirds majority confirming vote of the House and Senate.

In the minds of the “Trump is Insane” crowd what matters most is that never-used fourth subsection, the incapacitation clause. People claim because Trump is insane he is unable to carry out his duties, and so Mike Pence, et al, must step in and transfer power away from him today. Trump would legally exist in the same status as Grandpa Simpson in the nursing home, and Pence would take over. Among other problems, this thinking imagines the 25A’s legally specific term “unable” means the same thing as the vernacular “unfit.” An unconscious man is unable to drive. A man who forgot his glasses is unfit, but still able, to drive. The 25A only refers to the first case.

The use of the 25A to dethrone Trump is the kind of thing non-experts with too much Google time can convince themselves is true. But unlike much of the Constitution, where understanding original intent requires the Supreme Court and a close reading of the Federalist Papers, the 25A is modern legislation. We know the drafters’ intent was an administrative procedure, not a political thunderbolt. The 25A premises the president will almost always invoke succession himself, either by dying in office, or by anticipating he will be unable to discharge his duties, as in 2007 when George W. Bush went under anesthesia for his annual colonoscopy and signed things over to his vice president for a few hours.

The reason the 25A is not intended to be used adversarially is the Constitution already specifies impeachment as the way to force an unfit president out against his will, his unfitness specifically a result of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The people who wrote the 25A did not intend it to be an alternate method of impeachment or a do-over for an election.

It has to be so; the Constitution at its core grants ultimate power to the people to decide, deliberately, not in panic, every four years, who is president. Anything otherwise would mean the drafters of the 25A wrote a back door into the Constitution that would allow a group of government officials, many of whom in the Cabinet were elected by nobody, to overthrow an elected president who they simply think has turned out to be bad at his job.

Accusations of mental illness are subjective, unprovable in this case, and alarmist, perfect fodder to displace the grinding technicalities of Russiagate. Denouncing one’s political opponents as crazy was a tried and true Soviet and Maoist tactic, and a movie trope where the youngsters try to get the patriarch shut away to grab his fortune. We fear the mentally ill, and psychiatric name calling against Trump invokes that fear. “The 25th Amendment would require, for mental incapacity, a major psychotic break,” said one former Harvard Law School professor. “This is hope over reality. If we don’t like someone’s politics we rail against him, we campaign against him, we don’t use the psychiatric system against him. That’s just dangerous.”

People saying the president is mentally ill and the 25A is the cure know they have no rational basis for their position. They know the 25A is not a work-around for impeachment proceedings they are unlikely to see. They are aware they are unethically trying to medicalize bad leadership, damning it with the taint of mental illness. They know Mike Pence and Trump’s own cabinet will never sign off on a power transfer, and they don’t want Pence in the Oval Office anyway. They know this is all kabuki, liberal fan fiction, a shadow play. The talk of mental illness and the 25A is simply political sabotage ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections.

Trump’s time in office is finite, but what happens around him will outlast his tenure. It is dangerous to mess with the very fundamentals of our democracy, where the people choose the president, replacing that with a kabal called into session by pop psychologists. This is an attack on the process at its roots; you yokels voted for the wrong guy so somebody smarter has to clean up.

Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.

Iraq War 3.0, the War to End All Wars, is Over

undefined

America’s serial wars in Iraq are ending with a whimper, not a bang. And in the oddest of ironies, it may be President Donald Trump, feared as a war monger, the fifth president to make war in Iraq, who has more or less accidentally ended up presiding over the end.

Here’s how we ended up where we are, and how a quarter century of American conflict in Iraq created the post-Vietnam template for forever war we’ll be using in the next fight.

Iraq War 1.0+ The Good War

The end of the Soviet Union transitioned the Middle East from a Cold War battleground to an exclusive American sphere of influence. George H. W. Bush exploited the new status in 1991 by launching Iraq War 1.0, Desert Storm, reversing decades of US support for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Prior to the ‘Storm, the US supplied weapons to Iraq, including the chemicals Saddam used to gas his own people. The American goal was more to bleed the Iranians, then at war with Iraq, than anything else, but the upshot was helping Saddam stay in power. The more significant change in policy Iraq War 1.0 brought was reversing America’s post-Vietnam reluctance to make war on a large scale. “The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula. By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” the elder Bush said, in what the New York Times called “a spontaneous burst of pride.” There was even a victory parade with tanks and attack helicopters staged in Washington. America was back!

Bill Clinton took office and kept the fires burning, literally, inside Iraq, in what might be called Iraq War 1.5. Clinton, following the brush back pitch of the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia, decided maybe some Vietnam-era reluctance to send in troops wasn’t all that bad an idea, and instead embarked on an aerial campaign, with US imposed no-fly zones, over Iraq. By the time Clinton’s tenure in the White House ended, America was bombing Iraq on average three times a week. In 1999, the US dropped about $1 billion worth of ordnance, scaling up to $1.4 billion in the year ending around the time George W. Bush took office. It would be that Bush, in the hysteria following the 9/11 attacks, who would shift the previous years of war on Iraq into something that would change the balance of power in the Middle East: Iraq War 2.0, full-on regime change.

Iraq War 2.0, The Bad One

On the flimsiest excuse, non-existent weapons of mass destruction, fueled by the media and America’s own jihadistic blood thirst, George W. Bush invaded a nation to change its government to one preferred by the United States.

Though often presented as a stand-alone adventure, Bush’s invasion was consistent with the broader post-WWII American Empire policy that fueled incursions in South East Asia and coups across South America when Washington decided a government needed to be changed to something more Empire-friendly. Many believe Iraq was only the first of Bush’s planned regime changes, his war cabinet having their eye on Syria, Lebanon, perhaps even Iran. After a heady start with the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 (“shock and awe”) Bush declared victory for the first time — Mission Accomplished! — only to see the war drag on past his own time in office.

It is a type of macabre parlor game to pick the moment when things might have been turned around in Iraq, when chaos and disaster might have been averted. Over drinks in some Georgetown salon it might be agreed the tipping point was the decision to disband the Iraqi military, police, and civil service in 2003. Others might point to the 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Golden Mosque, which drove the next decade of Sunni-Shia fighting. The American military insists they had a chance right up through the Surge in 2008, the State Department imagines it almost turned the corner with reconstruction in 2010, and Republican revisionists prefer to mark the last chance to fix things as the day before Obama’s decision to withdraw American combat troops in 2011.

Iraq War 3.0, Made in America, Fought in Iraq

Who now remembers President Obama declaring pseudo-victory in Iraq in 2011, praising American troops for coming home with their “heads held high”? He seemed then to be washing his hands forever of the pile of sticky brown sand that was Bush’s Iraq, the better to concentrate on a new Surge in Afghanistan. Trillions had been spent, untold lives lost or ruined, but the U.S. was to move on and not look back. So much for Pax Americana in the Middle East, but at least it was all over.

Until Obama went back. Obama turned a purported humanitarian mission in August 2014 to save the Yazidi people few Americans had ever heard of from destruction at the hands of Islamic State into a full-scale bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq. A coalition of 73 nations and organizations (including Chad and Ireland, the vestigial list is still online) was formed to help, even though no one ever heard of them again absent a few bombing runs by the Brits. It was as if the events of 2003-2011 had never happened; Barack Obama stepped to the edge of the Iraq abyss, peered over, and shrugged his shoulders.

The Iraq of 2014 was all Made in America, and due to low oil prices, much of it was also paid for by America, via subsidies and foreign aid to replace the petroleum revenues that never came.

The gleefully corrupt Baghdad authorities of 2014 held little control over most of the nation; vast areas were occupied by Islamic State, itself more or less welcomed by Iraqi Sunnis as protection against the genocide they feared at the hands of the Iranian puppet Shia central government. That government had been installed by Iran out of the mess of the 2010 elections the US held in hopes of legitimizing its tail-tucked exit from Iraq. The Sunnis were vulnerable because the American Surge of 2008 had betrayed them, coercing the tribes into ratting out al Qaeda with the promise of a role in governing a new Iraq that never happened once the Iranian-backed Shia Prime Minister al-Maliki took power.

Initially off to the side of the 2014-era Sunni-Shia struggle but soon drawn in by Islamic State’s territorial gains were the Iraqi Kurds, forever promised a homeland whenever the U.S. needed them and then denied that homeland when the U.S. did not need them to oppose Saddam in Iraq War 1.0, help stabilize liberated Iraq in War 2.0, or defeat Islamic State in Iraq War 3.0.

We Won! Sort of.

Obama’s, and now Trump’s, Iraq War 3.0 strategy was medieval, brutal in its simplicity: kill people until there was literally no Islamic State left inside Iraq. Then allow the Iranians and Shia Iraqis to do whatever they pleased in the aftermath.

The United Nations said earlier this month it was appalled by a mass execution of Sunni prisoners in Iraq and called for an immediate halt. There was no response from the United States. As in Iraq War 1.0, when the US abandoned the Kurds and their desire for a homeland, and stood back while Saddam crushed a Shia uprising the U.S. had helped provoke, internal Iraqi affairs were just too messy to be of lasting concern; that was one of the big takeaways from Iraq War 2.0 and all that failed nation building. Do what we’re good at, killing, and then walk away.

The outcome of Iraq War 3.0 was never really in doubt, only how long it might take. With the semi-allied forces of the United States, Iran, the Kurds, and local Shia militias directed against them, Islamic State could never hold territory in what was a struggle of attrition.

This was finally a war the US knew how to fight, with none of that tricky counterinsurgency stuff. Retaking Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul were the same set-piece battle the American army first fought in Vicksburg in 1863. City after Sunni city were ground into little Stalingrads by air power and artillery (since 2014, the United States spent more than $14 billion on its air campaign against Islamic State) before being turned over to the Shia militias for the ethnic cleansing of renegade Sunni elements. There are no practical plans by the Iraqi government to rebuild what was destroyed. This time, unlike in Iraq War 2.0, there will be no billions of US tax dollars allotted to the task.

The end of War 3.0 came almost silently. There was no “Mission Accomplished” moment. No parades in Washington, no toppling of giant Saddam statues in Baghdad. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi simply on December 9, 2017 declared the war which essentially started in 1991 over. It barely made the news, and passed without comment by President Trump. What used to matter a lot in the end did not matter at all.

The Price We Paid in Iraq

Tweetable version: The last quarter century of Iraq Wars (from Desert Storm 1991 to the present) thrust the region into chaos while progressively erasing American dominance. Iran is picking up the pieces. As long as the US insists on not opening diplomatic relations with Tehran, it will have no way short of war to exert any influence, a very weak position. Other nation-states in the Middle East will move to diversify their international relationships (think Russia and China) knowing this. Regional politics, not American interests, will drive events.

After five administrations and 26 years the price the United States paid for what will have to pass as a victoryconclusion is high. Some 4,500 American dead, millions killed on the Iraqi side, and $7.9 trillion taxpayer dollars spent.

The US sacrificed long-term allies the Kurds and their dreams of a homeland to avoid a rift with Baghdad; the dead-end of the Kurdish independence referendum vote this autumn just created a handy date for historians to cite, because the Kurds were really done the day their usefulness in fighting Islamic State wrapped up. Where once pundits wondered how the U.S. would chose a side when the Turks and Kurds went to war both armed with American weapons, it appears the US could care less about what either does over the disputed borderlands they both crave.

The big winner of America’s Iraq War is Iran. In 2017, Iran has no enemies on either major border (Afghanistan, to the east, thanks again to the United States, is unlikely to reconstitute as a national-level threat in anyone’s lifetime) and Iraq is now somewhere between a vassal state and a neutered puppet of Tehran.

About their rivals in Saudi Arabia, again there is only good news for Iran. With the Sunnis in Iraq hanging on with the vitality of an abused shelter dog (and Iranian-supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apparently to remain in power), Saudi influence is on the wane. In the broader regional picture, unlike the Saudi monarchs, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one. With its victory in Iraq, stake in Syria, and friends in Lebanon, Iran has pieced together a land corridor to the Mediterranean at very low cost. If it was a stock, you’d want to buy Iran in 2018.

The War to Make All Wars

Going forward, Trump is unlikely to pull many troops out of Iraq, having seen the political price Obama paid for doing so in 2011. The troops will stay to block the worst of any really ugly Shia reprisals against the Sunnis, and to referee among the many disparate groups (Peshmerga, Yazidi, Turkmen, the Orwellian-named/Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, along with animated militias and factions of all flavors) who the U.S. armed willy-nilly to defeat ISIS.

The US put a lot of weapons on to the battlefield and a reckoning is feared. The armed groups mostly set aside differences dating from Biblical times to fight ISIS, but with that behind them, about all they still have in common is mutual distrust. There is zero chance of any national cohesion, and zero chance of any meaningful power-sharing by Baghdad. US goals include keeping a lid on things so no one back home starts looking for someone to blame in the next election cycle, wondering what went wrong, “Who lost Iraq?” and asking what we should be doing about it. How well the US will do at keeping things in line, and the long term effects of so many disparate, heavily-armed groups rocketing around greater Mesopotamia, will need to be seen.

US troops perma-stationed in Iraq will also be a handy bulwark against whatever happens next in Syria. In addition, Israel is likely to near-demand the United States garrison parts of western Iraq as a buffer against expanding Iranian power, and to keep Jordan from overreacting to the increased Iranian influence.

Iran has already passively agreed to most of this. It has little to gain from a fight over some desert real estate that it would probably lose to the Americans anyway, when their prize is the rest of Iraq. And if any of this does presage some future US conflict with an Iran that has gotten “too powerful,” then we shall have witnessed a true ironic tragedy and a historic waste of American blood and resources.

Empire

In the longer view, the Iraq Wars will be seen as a turning point in the American Empire. They began in 1991 as a war for oil, the battle to keep the pipelines in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia open to the United States’ hungry mouth. They ended in 2017 when Persian Gulf oil is no longer a centerpiece of American foreign policy. When oil no longer really mattered, Iraq no longer really mattered.

More significantly, the Iraq Wars created the template for decades of conflict to come. Iraq was the first forever war. It began in 1991 with the goal of protecting oil. The point of it all then shape-shifted effortlessly to containing Saddam via air power to removing weapons of mass destruction to freeing Iraq from an evil dictator to destroying al Qaeda to destroying Islamic State to something as a buttress against Iran. Over the years the media dutifully advised the American people what the new point of it all was, reporting the changes as it might report the new trends in fashion — for fall, it’s shorter hemlines, no more al Qaeda, and anti-ISIS, ladies!

The Iraq Wars changed the way we look at conflict. There would never again be a need for a formal declaration of war, such decisions now clearly were within the president’s whims and ordinations. He could ramp things up, or slow things down, as his mind, goals, temperament, and often domestic political needs, required. The media would play along, happily adopting neutral terms like “regime change” to replace naughty ones like “overthrow.” Americans were trained by movies and NFL halftime salutes to accept a steady but agreeably low rate of casualties on our side, heroes all, and be hardened to the point of uncaring about the millions of souls taken as “collateral damage” from the other. Everyone we kill is a terrorist, the proof being that we killed them. Play a loud noise long enough and you stop hearing it.

The mistakes of the first try at a forever war, Vietnam, were fixed: no draft, no high body counts for Americans, no combative media looking for atrocities, no anguish by the president over a dirty but necessary job, no clear statement of what victory looks like to muddle things. For all but the most special occasions the blather about democracy and freeing the oppressed was dropped.

More insidiously, killing became mechanical, nearly sterile from our point of view (remember the war porn images of missiles blasting through windows in Iraq War 1.0? The hi-tech magic of drone kills, video game death dispensed from thousands of miles away?) Our atrocities — Abu Ghraib is the best known, but there are more — were ritualistically labeled the work of a few bad apples (“This is not who we are as Americans.”) Meanwhile, the other side’s atrocities were evil genius, fanaticism, campaigns of horror. How many YouTube beheading videos were Americans shown until we all agreed the president could fight ISIS forever?

Without the Iraq Wars there would be no multi-generational war in Afghanistan, and no chance of one in Syria. The United States currently has military operations underway in Cameroon, Chad, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Uganda, and Yemen. Any one will do of course, as the answer to one last question: where will America fight its next forever war, the lessons of Iraq well-learned, the presidents ready?

Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.