Somebody’s Going to Suffer: Greece’s New Austerity Measures

Sharmini Peries: The European Commission announced on May 2, that an agreement on Greek pension and income tax reforms would pave the way for further discussions on debt release for Greece. The European Commission described this as good news for Greece. The Greek government described the situation in similar terms. However, little attention has been given as to how the wider Greek population are experiencing the consequences of the policies of the Troika. On May Day thousands of Greeks marked International Workers Day with anti-austerity protests. One of the protester’s a 32-year-old lawyer perhaps summed the mood, the best when he said …

“The current Greek government, like all the ones before it, have implemented measures that has only one goal, the crushing of the workers, the working class and everyone who works themselves to the bone. We are fighting for the survival of the poorest who need help the most.”

To discuss the most recent negotiations underway between Greece and the TROIKA, which is a European Central Bank, the EU and the IMF, here’s Michael Hudson. Michael is a distinguished research professor of Economics at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. He is the author of many books including, “Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage the Global Economy” and most recently “J is for Junk Economics: A Survivor’s Guide to Economic Vocabulary in the Age of Deception”….Michael, let’s start with what’s being negotiated at the moment.

Michael Hudson: I wouldn’t call it a negotiation. Greece is simply being dictated to. There is no negotiation at all. It’s been told that its economy has shrunk so far by 20%, but has to shrink another 5% making it even worse than the depression. Its wages have fallen and must be cut by another 10%. Its pensions have to be cut back. Probably 5 to 10% of its population of working age will have to immigrate.

The intention is to cut the domestic tax revenues (not raise them), because labor won’t be paying taxes and businesses are going out of business. So we have to assume that the deliberate intention is to lower the government’s revenues by so much that Greece will have to sell off even more of its public domain to foreign creditors. Basically it’s a smash and grab exercise, and the role of Tsipras is not to represent the Greeks because the Troika have said, “The election doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what the people vote for. Either you do what we say or we will smash your banking system.” Tsipras’s job is to say, “Yes I will do whatever you want. I want to stay in power rather than falling in election.”

Sharmini Peries: Right. Michael you dedicated almost three chapters in your book “Killing the Host” to how the IMF jjunkeconeconomists actually knew that Greece will not be able to pay back its foreign debt, but yet it went ahead and made these huge loans to Greece. It’s starting to sound like the mortgage fraud scandal where banks were lending people money to buy houses when they knew they couldn’t pay it back. Is it similar?

Michael Hudson: The basic principle is indeed the same. If a creditor makes a loan to a country or a home buyer knowing that there’s no way in which the person can pay, who should bear the responsibility for this? Should the bad lender or irresponsible bondholder have to pay, or should the Greek people have to pay?

IMF economists said that Greece can’t pay, and under the IMF rules it is not allowed to make loans to countries that have no chance of repaying in the foreseeable future. The then-head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, introduced a new rule – the “systemic problem” rule. It said that if Greece doesn’t repay, this will cause problems for the economic system – defined as the international bankers, bondholder’s and European Union budget – then the IMF can make the loan.

This poses a question on international law. If the problem is systemic, not Greek, and if it’s the system that’s being rescued, why should Greek workers have to dismantle their economy? Why should Greece, a sovereign nation, have to dismantle its economy in order to rescue a banking system that is guaranteed to continue to cause more and more austerity, guaranteed to turn the Eurozone into a dead zone? Why should Greece be blamed for the bad malstructured European rules? That’s the moral principle that’s at stake in all this.

Sharmini Peries: Michael, The New York Times has recently published an article titled, “IMF torn over whether to bail out Greece again.” It essentially describes the IMF as being sympathetic towards Greece in spite of the fact, as you say, they knew that Greece could not pay back this money when it first lent it the money with the Troika. Right now, the IMF sounds rational and thoughtful about the Greek people. Is this the case?

Michael Hudson: Well, Yanis Varoufakis, the finance minister under Syriza, said that every time he talked to the IMF’s Christine Lagarde and others two years ago, they were sympathetic. They said, “I am terribly sorry we have to destroy your economy. I feel your pain, but we are indeed going to destroy your economy. There is nothing we can do about it. We are only following orders.” The orders were coming from Wall Street, from the Eurozone  and from investors who bought or guaranteed Greek bonds.

Being sympathetic, feeling their pain doesn’t really mean anything if the IMF says, “Oh, we know it is a disaster. We are going to screw you anyway, because that’s our job. We are the IMF, after all. Our job is to impose austerity. Our job is to shrink economies, not help them grow. Our constituency is the bondholders and banks.”

Somebody’s going to suffer. Should it the wealthy billionaires and the bankers, or should it be the Greek workers? Well, the Greek workers are not the IMF’s constituency. It says: “We feel your pain, but we’d rather you suffer than our constituency.”

So what you read is simply the usual New York Times hypocrisy, pretending that the IMF really is feeling bad about what it’s doing. If its economists felt bad, they would have done what the IMF European staff did a few years ago after the first loan: They resigned in protest. They would write about it and go public and say, “This system is corrupt. The IMF is working for the bankers against the interest of its member countries.” If they don’t do that, they are not really sympathetic at all. They are just hypocritical.

Sharmini Peries: Right. I know that the European Commission is holding up Greece as an example in order to discourage other member nations in the periphery of Europe so that they won’t default on their loans. Explain to me why Greece is being held up as an example.

Michael Hudson: It’s being made an example for the same reason the United States went into Libya and bombed Syria: It’s to show that we can destroy you if you don’t do what we say. If Spain or Italy or Portugal seeks not to pay its debts, it will meet the same fate. Its banking system will be destroyed, and its currency system will be destroyed.

The basic principle at work is that finance is the new form of warfare. You can now destroy a country’s economy not merely by invading it. You don’t even have to bomb it, as you’ve done in the Near East. All you have to do is withdraw all credit to the banking system, isolate it economically from making payments to foreign countries so that you essentially put sanctions on it. You’ll treat Greece like they’ve treated Iran or other countries.

“We have life and death power over you.” The demonstration effect is not only to stop Greece, but to stop countries from doing what Marine Le Pen is trying to do in France: withdraw from the Eurozone.

The class war is back in business – the class war of finance against labor, imposing austerity and shrinking living standards, lowering wages and cutting back social spending. It’s demonstrating who’s the winner in this economic warfare that’s taking place.

Sharmini Peries: Then why is the Greek population still supportive of Syriza in spite of all of this? I mean, literally not only have they, as a population, been cut to no social safety net, no social security, yet the Syriza government keeps getting supported, elected in referendums, and they seem to be able to maintain power in spite of these austerity measures. Why is that happening?

Michael Hudson: Well, that’s the great tragedy. They initially supported Syriza because it promised not to surrender in this economic war. They said they would fight back. The plan was not pay the debts even if this led Europe to force Greece out of the European Union.

In order to do this, however, what Yanis Varoufakis and his advisors such as James Galbraith wanted to do was say, “If we are going not to pay the debt, we are going to be expelled from the Euro Zone. We have to have our own currency. We have to have our own banking system.” But it takes almost a year to put in place your own physical currency, your own means of reprogramming the ATM machines so that people can use it, and reprogramming the banking system.

You also need a contingency plan for when the European Union wrecks the Greek banks, which basically have been the tool of the oligarchy in Greece. The government is going to have to take over these banks and socialize them, and use them for public purposes. Unfortunately, Tsipras never gave Varoufakis and his staff the go ahead. In effect, he ended up double crossing them after the referendum two years ago that said not to surrender. That lead to Varoufakis resigning from the government.

Tsipras decided that he wanted to be reelected, and turned out to be just a politician, realizing that in order to he had to represent the invader and act as a client politician. His clientele is now the European Union, the IMF and the bondholders, not the Greeks. What that means is that if there is an election in Greece, people are not going to vote for him again. He knows that. He is trying to prevent an election. But later this month the Greek parliament is going to have to vote on whether or not to shrink the economy further and cut pensions even more.

If there are defections from Tsipras’s Syriza party, there will be an election and he will be voted out of office. I won’t say out of power, because he has no power except to surrender to the Troika. But he’d be out of office. There will probably have to be a new party created if there’s going to be hope of withstanding the threats that the European Union is making to destroy Greece’s economy if it doesn’t succumb to the austerity program and step up its privatization and sell off even more assets to the bondholders.

Sharmini Peries: Finally, Michael, why did the Greek government remove the option of Grexit from the table in order to move forward?

Michael Hudson: In order to accept the Eurozone. You’re using its currency, but Greece needs to have its own currency. The reason it agreed to stay in was that it had made no preparation for withdrawing. Imagine if you are a state in the United States and you want to withdraw: you have to have your own currency. You have to have your own banking system. You have to have your own constitution. There was no attempt to put real thought behind what their political program was.

They were not prepared and still have not taken steps to prepare for what they are doing. They haven’t made any attempt to justify non-payment of the debt under International Law: the law of odious debt, or give a reason why they are not paying.

The Greek government has not said that no country should be obliged to disregard its democratic voting, dismantle its public sector and give up its sovereignty to bondholders. No country should be obliged to pay foreign creditors if the price of that is shrinking and self destruction of that economy.

They haven’t translated this political program of not paying into what this means in practice to cede sovereignty to the Brussels bureaucracy, meaning the European Central Bank on behalf of its bondholders.

Note: Wikipedia defines Odious Debt: “In international law, odious debt, also known as illegitimate debt, is a legal doctrine that holds that the national debt incurred by a regime for purposes that do not serve the best interests of the nation, should not be enforceable.”

Mothers and Children are Dying: We Need Health Care for All!

The Maine legislature is considering a proposal for single-payer health care. Representative Heidi Brooks and Senator Geoffrey Gratwick introduced LD 1274 in April.  The legislature’s Committee on Insurance and Financial Services on May 4 heard citizens’ comments on the bill.

The title of the proposed bill is “An Act to Promote Universal Health Care, Including Dental, Vision and Hearing Care.”  Maine AllCare, the Maine affiliate of Physicians for a National Health Program, had agitated for the bill’s introduction.  In conjunction with the Maine State Nurses Association and the Southern Maine Workers’ Center, the group staged a rally near the State House prior to the hearing.

The present writer, who formerly worked as a pediatrician, joined others in testifying before the Committee. The gist of his remarks follows, along with written testimony requested by the Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I worked as a pediatrician for many years in Norway, Maine and have two points to make in regard to LD 1274.

One, it’s time to put first things first. Huge numbers of  children and mothers giving birth are dying. The maternal mortality rate has doubled in recent years. And the the infant mortality rate, the number of first – year deaths for every set of one thousand births, is very high.

How high? In 2015, for every 1000 births in the United States, six babies died during their first year. There were 3,978,497 babies born that year, or 3978 sets of 1000 each. With each set yielding six deaths, there were thus 23,878 infant deaths in all.

Infant mortality rates elsewhere in the world are much lower than six, in some countries less than three. If somehow the United States had achieved an infant mortality rate of four in 2015, infant deaths would have been 14,912 in all. Being saddled with a rate of six, however, we added another 8966 infant deaths to that fantasy total. These are babies that, born in many other countries, wouldn’t have died.

Amnesty International, having recently looked at excess maternal deaths in the United States, proclaimed that human rights were being violated. That organization condemned diminished access to prenatal care.

The deaths of infants and mothers resulted in part from reduced access to health care, which harks back to poverty.  They need not have occurred. That’s clear as regards babies, because at least 50 other nations have lower infant mortality rates than the U. S. rate.

I believe that mass deaths of mothers and infants take precedence over questions like who is going to pay or what do insurance companies and hospitals want. Not even the death toll on September 11, 2001 comes close to the numbers we are dealing with.

Here’s my second point: somebody has to be responsible. I think back to when I cared for children with bacterial meningitis. Without antibiotics that disease killed half the afflicted children and left most survivors mentally handicapped. My job had demands, but really it was easy, because when children were seen early, they did fine.

I think about John. He was a young child with mental retardation when I first saw him. I reviewed his old records. As a baby, he’d been sick at home for a week. At the hospital they found he had meningitis.  His seizures continued for another week there. Who, I ask, is responsible for children like John whose care was delayed or non-existent?

I was responsible when a child was sick. But who takes prime responsibility when children or mothers don’t get care, or care is delayed?  Hospitals, doctors, the drug companies, the insurance companies can’t. You have responsibility, I think, as representatives of all the people.

Sadly, but perhaps understandably, we talk mostly about health care for individuals and not much about health care for people as a whole. I think that ought to change; we need to talk about the public’s health. That’s where legislatures and governments come in. In my view you are the ones who must deal with the great problem of people being excluded from care – and dying.

You have the tool in your hands, a plan for health care for everybody, single-payer health care. It costs too much, you may say. But no one asked about money when, after September 11, the United States launched seemingly endless war in response to that earlier calamity.  Besides, single – payer health care will cost less than our present system does, because profiteering will be restrained. Thank you.

 Written testimony:

Poor children and poor mothers are dying. Take responsibility

— Tom Whitney, former pediatrician, South Paris, Maine

Childhood Death and Poverty: A Study of All Childhood Deaths in Maine, 1976 to 1980

William S. Nersesian, Michael R. Petit, Pediatrics, January 1985

Summary: “All child deaths occurring from 1976 to 1980 in Maine were studied. All children who were participating in social welfare at the time of death were categorized as children from “low-income” families. This group of children had an overall death rate 3.1 times greater than children who were not on a social welfare program at the time of death. Children from low-income families were at higher risk for disease-related deaths (3.5:1), accidental deaths (2.6:1), and homicide deaths (5.0:1) … These data suggest that excess mortality is occurring among infants and children from low-income families in spite of Medicaid and other poverty programs.”

(Infant Deaths Tied to Poverty, Study Confirms, New York Times, December 15, 1995)

Excerpts: “A study released today by Federal health officials found that infant mortality rates were 60 percent higher for women living below the poverty line than for those above it.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a survey of 21,583 mothers found mortality during the first year was 8.3 per 1,000 infants for women with incomes above the poverty level and 13.5 for those living in poverty … The infant mortality gap linked to poverty was even more pronounced when researchers looked at the number of children who died after they were 4 weeks old but before their first birthdays. The children of women with low incomes were twice as likely to die during that period …”

(When Women’s Lives Don’t Matter, W. T. Whitney Jr., Counterpunch, September, 2016)

Excerpts: “… [i]n Texas the maternal mortality ratio (MMR) had moved from 17.7 deaths in 2000 to 35.8 deaths in 2014. (The MMR refers to the number of women per 100,000 live births who die during their pregnancy or within 42 days afterwards and who die from causes related to childbirth.) … The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) documented a rise in the MMR from 7.2 in 1987, to 14.5 in 2000, and to 17.8 in 2011. … The United States in 2015 ranked 61st in the world in maternal health generally, according to The Save the Children organization … In 2010, Amnesty International issued a report that strongly condemned U. S. governmental policies regarding maternal health. The title was “Deadly Delivery, the Maternal Health Care Crisis in the USA. … it insisted that, “Discrimination is costing lives… [W]omen face barriers to care, especially women of color, those living in poverty.” … Women are dying because they are black, or because they are poor, or both. After all, white women giving birth in the United States are much more likely to die than their counterparts in dozens of other countries..” … According to Amnesty International, ‘Health insurance companies’ primary responsibility is to shareholders and decisions about health care coverage and services may be influenced by financial concerns rather than driven by an assessment of the benefit to the public and to the individual.’”

What’s the message?

1/ Poverty is one cause of excess and preventable deaths of women and children.

2/ That’s the case in part, according to studies, because of reduced access to care.

3/ Early and easy access to care for all women and children will save lives.

4/ All industrialized nations except the United States offer equal access to care; their death rates are low.

5/ Restricted access for US babies is a cause of high death rates. (56 other countries were lower in 2010)

6/ For health and for prevention of illness and death, health care must be available to all.

7/ Universally available health care is good preventative medicine.

General considerations

1/ Preventative medicine in the US needs a boost in order to match curative medicine.

2/ Discussion on health care these days centers on money: who pays, who gets.

3/ Discussion on health care outcome– who is sick or well, who lives or dies – is weak.

4/ It would be moral, just, humane, and democratic to guarantee readily accessible health care for all.

5/ Maine and the entire United States need a plan for health care for all.

6/ Maine needs LD 1274

Trump Voters’ Message: We Exist

I think it was over Thanksgiving dinner. My mother’s best friend, a dear woman who has never been other than good to me and my mom, decided to poke some gentle fun, Dayton Ohio-style, at me.

Actually, let me be more specific. It wasn’t Dayton. The conversation took place in Kettering. It’s a suburb of Dayton. A small suburb called Oakwood separates Dayton and Kettering.

“Ted,” my mom’s friend began, “what’s with these terrible descriptions of our city? The way you write, you’d think this was some bleak post-industrial wasteland.” She motioned out the window to her manicured lawn, punctuated by a set of perfect flowers. As were those of her neighbors. As if to drive home her point, a bird chirped.

I held my ground. “What about down by Route 4? Rusted-out factories, meth houses. It’s like a war zone.”

“But that’s” — she searched for the word — “downtown. That’s not here.”

“It’s five or six miles, at most,” I pointed out. “You can walk there!”

And you can, if you don’t much care about personal safety.

Dayton is a mess. Once a booming manufacturing city, its population is plunging, having shrunk by half in 50 years. Its housing stock, including historical buildings, have been gutted. After decades of factory and corporate closures accelerated by free trade deals like NAFTA, the local economy sucks. Crime, driven by my hometown’s status as Ground Zero of the national opiod epidemic that has turned so many young men into corpses that the morgue ran out of room, has made Dayton even more dangerous than Chicago. The 2008-09 housing crisis left countless homes abandoned (but cheap! you can buy one for four figures). Fearing eviction in 2009 but receiving no help from a government who instead gave $7.77 trillion to the banks with no strings attached, one poor guy hanged himself; a kid found his mummified body five years later. He should have stuck around. The banksters never bothered to foreclose on his modest house.

So much misery, so little help from the government. Four out of five Ohioans who lost their jobs receive zero unemployment benefits.

Downtown Dayton, and its citizens, were dead to my mom’s friend. But not to me. I used to take the bus there to look at record stores and attend meetings at Democratic Headquarters. Sometimes, yes, I walked. After I left Dayton for New York, the road from the Dayton airport to my mom’s house sometimes took me through downtown. Downtown was real. Downtown existed.

If downtown Dayton was less than afterthought to suburbanites a hop, skip and jump away, it was a black hole as far as the national media and the political strategists were concerned. Daytonians didn’t donate to presidential campaigns. (They couldn’t afford to.) More than 40% black as the result of postwar “white flight” to suburbs like Kettering and Oakwood, downtown was reliably Democratic. Republicans didn’t bother; Democrats took Dayton for granted.

You’ve probably already figured out that this essay is a parable about the Rise of Trump. Downtown Dayton was far from unique. There were downtown Daytons all over the post-industrial Midwest: ignored, forgotten, taken for granted. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin — states Hillary Clinton ought to have won, and was so sure she was going to win that she hardly showed up, but went Republican in 2016.

Dayton Congressman Tony Hall (disclosure: I worked for one of his campaigns) watched the growing chasm between his working-class — and unemployed poor — constituents and the national Democratic Party, in thrall to the Clintons, free trade, and Wall Street contributors. “A lot of Democrats in the Midwest feel that they didn’t leave the Democratic Party — they feel like the Democratic Party left them,” Hall says. That was me, for sure. “As long as we had our 10 or 12 auto plants, we were pretty good, but we felt that the NAFTA deal made it a lot easier for companies to go to Mexico — and they did. They shut down our factories,” remembers Hall. Young adult voters “saw their moms and dads lose their jobs and they didn’t think anyone did anything for them.”

Day after day, the citizens of Dayton and Flint and Milwaukee opened their newspapers and flipped the cable news channels. Never, ever was there anyone talking about, much less interested in solving, their problems. As far as the elites — and that included Democratic politicians like Hillary — were considered, victims of rapacious global capitalism didn’t exist and didn’t matter.

Until Trump.

Trump didn’t offer credible solutions. He hasn’t lifted a finger to help Rust Belters as president. What he did do was acknowledge their existence.

Writing about the French election, Édouard Louis wrote that a similar cri de Coeur motivated many Marine Le Pen voters. Louis grew up poor: “In the minds of the bourgeoisie…our existence didn’t count and wasn’t real.” That was the message of many Trump voters to the op-ed writers of The New York Times: we know he isn’t perfect, but at least he knows we exist.

Despite Bernie (and Trump), the Hillary Clinton Democrats still don’t get it. When Trump mentioned “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” in his inaugural address, my liberal New York friends shook their heads. Like my mom’s friend, they had no idea what Trump was talking about.

The misery is real.

They exist — sometimes they exist five or six miles away.

“They” are us.

Syria is the Dam Against More Bloody Chaos

A decade ago I published a book, Israel and the Clash of Civilisations, that examined Israel’s desire to Balkanise the Middle East, using methods it had refined over many decades in the occupied Palestinian territories. The goal was to unleash chaos across much of the region, destabilising key enemy states: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The book further noted how Israel’s strategy had influenced the neoconservative agenda in Washington that found favour under George Bush’s administration. The neocons’ destabilisation campaign started in Iraq, with consequences that are only too apparent today.

My book was published when efforts by Israel and the neocons to move the Balkanisation campaign forward into Iran, Syria and Lebanon were stumbling, and before it was clear that other actors, such as ISIS, would emerge out of the mayhem. But I predicted – correctly – that Israel and the neocons would continue to push for more destabilisation, targeting Syria next, with disastrous consequences.

Today, Israel’s vision of the region is shared by other key actors, including Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and Turkey. The current arena for destabilisation, as I warned, is Syria. But if successful, the Balkanisation process will undoubtedly move on and intensify against Lebanon and Iran.

Although commentators tend to focus on the “evil monsters” who lead the states targeted for destruction, it is worth remembering that before their disintegration most were also oases of secularism in a region dominated by medieval sectarian ideologies, whether the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia or the Orthodox Judaism of Israel.

Syria’s Bashar Assad, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi are or were ruthless and brutal in the way all dictators are, against opponents who threaten the regime. But before their states were targeted for “intervention”, they also oversaw societies in which there were high levels of education and literacy, well-established welfare states, and low levels of sectarianism. These were not insignificant achievements (even if they are largely overlooked now) – achievements that large sections of their populations appreciated, even more so when they were destroyed through outside intervention.

These achievements were not unrelated to the fact that the regimes were or are more independent of the US than the US and Israel desired. The rulers of these states, which comprise disparate sectarian groups, had an interest in maintaining internal stability through a carrot and stick approach: benefits for those who submitted to the regime, and repression for those who resisted. They also made strong alliances with similar regimes to limit moves by Israel and the US to dominate the region.

Balkanisation has been a powerful way to isolate and weaken these states, allowing the process to be expanded to other renegade states.

This is not to excuse human rights violations by dictatorial regimes. But it is to concentrate on an even more important issue. What we have seen unfolding over the past 15 years is part of a lengthy process – often described in the West as a “war on terror” – that is not designed to “liberate” or “democratise” Middle Eastern states. If that were the case, Saudi Arabia would have been the first state targeted for “intervention”.

Rather, the “war on terror” is part of efforts to violently break apart states that reject US-Israeli hegemony in the region, so as to maintain US control over the region’s resources in an age of diminishing access to cheap oil.

Although it is tempting to prioritise human rights as the yardstick according to which the parties should be judged, by now there should be little doubt that the conflicts unfolding in the Middle East are not about the promotion of rights.

Syria offers all the clues we need.

The agents trying to overthrow Assad in Syria are no longer civil society groups and democracy activists. They were too small in number and too weak to bring about change or threaten the Assad regime. Instead, whatever civil war there may initially have been has transformed into a proxy war. (In a closed society like Syria, it is of course almost impossible to know what drove the initial opposition – was it a fight for greater human rights, or growing dissatisfaction with the regime concerning other issues, such as food shortages and population displacements that were themselves a consequence of long-term processes triggered by climate change?)

A coalition of the US, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Turkey and Israel exploited those initial challenges to the Syrian regime, seeing them as an opening. They did not do so to help democracy activists but to advance their own, largely shared agendas. They used Sunni jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS to advance their interests, which depend on the break-up of the Syrian state and its replacement by a void that empowers them while disempowering their enemies in the region.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states want Iran and its Shia allies weakened; Turkey wants a freer hand against Kurdish dissident groups in Syria and elsewhere; and Israel wants to foster the forces of sectarianism in the Middle East to undermine pan-Arab nationalism, thereby ensuring its regional hegemony will go unchallenged.

The agents trying to stabilise Syria are the regime itself, Russia, Iran and Hizbollah. Their concern is to use whatever force is necessary to repel the agents of anarchy and restore the regime’s dominance.

Neither side can be characterised as “good”. There are no “white hats” in this gunfight. But there is clearly a side to prefer if the yardstick is minimising not only the current suffering in Syria but also future suffering in the region.

The agents of stability want to rebuild Syria and strengthen it as part of a wider Shia bloc. In practice, their policy would achieve – even if it does not directly aim for – a regional balance of forces, similar to the stand-off between the US and Russia in the Cold War. It is not ideal, but it is far preferable to the alternative policy pursued by the agents of anarchy. They want key states in the Middle East to implode, as has already happened in Iraq and Libya and has been partially achieved in Syria.

We know the consequences of this policy: massive sectarian bloodspilling, huge internal population displacement and the creation of waves of refugees who head towards the relative stability of Europe, the seizure and dispersal of military arsenals that spur yet more fighting, and the inspiration of more militant and reactionary ideologies like that of ISIS.

If Syria falls, it will not become Switzerland. And if it falls, it will not be the end of the “war on terror”. Next, these agents of anarchy will move on to Lebanon and Iran, spreading yet more death and destruction.

Donald of Arabia: Trump in the Middle East

Not since Ibn Batuta, travelled the Middle East in the 14th century has anyone set out with higher ambitions that Donald Trump. Batuta, a Moroccan Muslim traveller and scholar, had a few things in common with Trump. He reached what is now Saudi Arabia. He went to Jerusalem. He even had a keen eye for nubile ladies – there were a few wives, not to mention a Greek slave girl to be groped. But there the parallels end. For Ibn Batuta was sane.

Yet now we know that Trump thinks he’s touching the three monotheistic religions because he’s going to Riyadh, Jerusalem and then the Vatican (not quite in the Middle East but what’s a hundred miles for a guy like Trump). A few problems, of course. He can’t go to Holy Mecca because Christians are banned and the old king of Saudi Arabia represents a head-chopping Wahabi autocracy some of whose citizens have paid for – and fought alongside – the dreaded Isis which Trump thinks he is fighting.

Then when he goes to Jerusalem, he will meet Benjamin Netanyahu who hardly represents world Jewry and plans to go on thieving Arab lands in the West Bank for Jews, and Jews only, whatever Trump thinks. Then he’ll turn up at the Vatican to confront a man who – great guy though he may be – only represents Roman Catholics and doesn’t much like Trump anyway. Ibn Batuta was away from home for around a quarter of a century. Thank heavens Trump’s cutting that back to three days.

Of course, he’s no more going to be talking to “Islam” in Saudi Arabia than he is “Judaism” in Jerusalem. The Sunni Saudis are going to talk about crushing the “snake” of Shia Iran – and we must remember that Trump is the crackpot who shed crocodile tears over the Sunni babies killed in Syria last month but none for the Shia babies killed in Syria a few days later – and hope they can re-establish real relations between their execution-happy kingdom with the execution-happy US. Trump might just try to read UN rapporteur Ben Emmerson’s latest report on the imprisonment of human rights defenders and the torture of “terror” suspects in Saudi Arabia. No. Forget it.

Anyway, the king is no imam. Any more than Netanyahu is a rabbi. But Jerusalem will be a great gig because Trump will be able to ask Netanyahu for help against Isis without – presumably – realising that Israel bombs only the Syrian army and the Shia Hezbollah in Syria but has never – ever – bombed Isis in Syria. In fact, the Israelis have given medical aid to fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, which is part of al-Qaeda which (maybe Trump has heard of this) attacked the United States on 9/11. So maybe the Vatican will be a relief.

Of course, Trump might have dropped by Lebanon to meet Patriarch Beshara Rai, a Christian prelate who at least lives in the Middle East and who might have been able to tell Trump a few home truths about Syria. Or, since Trump would be “honoured” to meet the Great Leader of North Korea, he might even have shocked the world by dropping by for a couple of hours with Bashar al-Assad. At least Ibn Batuta got to Damascus.

But no, Trump is searching for “friends and partners” to fight “terrorism” – something which has never, of course, been inflicted on Yemen by Saudi Arabia or on Lebanon and the Palestinians by Israel. Nor will it be mentioned by the boys and girls of CNN, ABC and all the US media titans who will – in the interest of promoting their importance by pretending that their President is not mad – grovellingly follow their crackpot President around the region with all the usual nonsense about “policies” and “key players” and “moderates” (as in “moderate Saudi Arabia”) and all the other fantastical creatures which they inject into their reports.

Oh yes, and Trump also wants to bring “peace” to the Holy Land. And so he will move from the king of head choppers to the thief of Palestinian lands and end up with the poor old Holy Father who is wisely giving the President only a few early-morning minutes before his weekly general audience. Since the Pope described Trump’s views as “not Christian” – an unsaintly thing for Pope Francis to say of a mentally ill man – and Trump called the Pope’s words “disgraceful”, this is not going to be a barrel of laughs.

But then again, the Pope shook the hand of the Sultan of Egypt only a week ago, the equally saintly Field Marshal President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, whose coup overthrew an elected president and who now “disappears” his enemies. Trump should be a piece of cake after that. Ibn Batuta, by the way, got as far as Beijing in his travels but was never “honoured” to meet the “smart cookie” who was ruling in Korea (which did actually exist in the 14th century).

But being a verbose chap, Ibn Batuta did record his homecoming in these words: “I have indeed … attained my desire in this world, which was to travel through the Earth, and I have attained this honour, which no ordinary person has attained.” That’s a real “honour” by the way. But you couldn’t fit Ibn Batuta into a tweet.

The Deep State

When a head of state who behaves impulsively, and shows little interest in filling in the gaps in his knowledge, becomes commander in chief of the world’s most powerful army, there need to be plenty of safeguards.

Yet, after President Donald Trump ordered his generals to bomb Syria and execute naval manoeuvres in Asia, he won the approval of US politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, as well as almost all the media, including Europe’s. (A French national daily described the strikes on Syria as ‘somehow liberating’ (1).)

The 59 missiles fired at an air base in the Middle East turned a president mired in unpopularity, amateurism and nepotism into a determined and sensitive man, unable to contain his humanity on seeing photographs of ‘beautiful babies … cruelly murdered in [a] very barbaric attack.’ The symphony of praise was all the more worrying in a climate of international tension, because Trump loves adulation.

In January 1961, three days before leaving office, Republican president Dwight Eisenhower warned Americans against a military-industrial complex whose ‘total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the Federal government.’

Judging by the U-turns Trump has made, the complex has not been idle over the past few weeks. On 15 January Trump said NATO was ‘obsolete’; on 13 April, it was ‘no longer obsolete’. A few months ago he was counting on Russia becoming an ally’; on 12 April he said relations with Moscow ‘may be at an all-time low.’

For Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, no sooner had ‘the last remaining election fog’ lifted than Trump was ‘broken by the existing power machine’ in Washington, back under the control of the deep state, which never allows itself to be distracted from its strategic priorities by a change of occupant at the White House. The Republicans and Democrats most nostalgic for the cold war can rejoice that, though Trump may resemble a puppet, at least it’s not a Russian one (2).

If Eisenhower were alive today, he would probably include the media in his military-industrial complex. Rolling news likes permanent tension and loves war; and pundits are all the more ready to utter bellicose statements because it is no longer conscripts, potentially their sons, who die in conflicts, but ‘volunteers’, often working-class. The major US newspapers published 47 editorials on the US strikes on Syria. Only one opposed them (3).

Translated by Charles Goulden

(1) Libération, Paris, 9 April 2017.

(2) See Serge Halimi, ‘All Russian puppets?’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, January 2017.

Global Warming Must be Addressed

There are two enormous myths about global warming. One is that dealing with it is optional. The other is that the measures needed to slow the process will devastate the economy. Neither is true.

On the first point, we are already seeing major changes in weather that are almost certainly related to global warming, both in the United States and around the world. In the United States, we are seeing rising water levels eroding beachfront property all along our coast lines.

We are also seeing extraordinary conditions like the multi-year drought that until recently had much of California rationing water.

In addition, we have seen extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy, which destroyed hundreds of homes in New Jersey and New York and made many areas uninhabitable.

The story is much worse elsewhere in the world. The Sahara Desert is rapidly moving southward in Africa, depriving millions of people of the means to support themselves.

Hundreds of millions of people in low lying areas of Bangladesh and elsewhere in East Asia face far greater risk from storms and flooding due to rising oceans.

Global warming is a reality; we can’t solve the problem by looking away any more than we can deal with a weight problem by throwing out our scale and continuing to eat unhealthy foods.

Further, the idea that addressing the problem will devastate the economy is nonsense.

The price of solar energy and wind energy has plunged in the last two decades. Both are already competitive with fossil fuel energy in many parts of the country, even without subsidies.

Modest subsidies, coupled with modest fossil fuel taxes, would go far toward reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases. And these would hardly bankrupt the economy.

Most analysts believe that a $40 per ton tax on carbon would be sufficient to allow the United States to meet the commitments it made in the Paris agreement negotiated under President Obama. A tax of this size would raise the price of a gallon of gas by roughly 40 cents, not a negligible amount but hardly one that would devastate our economy.

And there’s a big upside to clean energy. The solar industry already employs four times as many people as the coal industry.

We need to both manufacture the solar panels and have people install them on the roofs of houses and businesses. This industry can be the source of hundreds of thousands more jobs as the industry grows and the technology improves.

The same story applies to electric cars. It’s great that we still have many good-paying jobs in the auto industry, but there is no reason that we can’t employ as many people – or even more – producing electric cars. Here, technology is also improving rapidly so these cars can be more competitive.

Addressing climate change should not be a tough choice. We can both sustain a strong economy and sharply curtail our greenhouse gas emissions. There is no excuse for President Trump’s environment-threatening executive order.

This column originally appeared in the Sacramento Bee.

Wilderness Protection Reduces Risk of Wildfires

Some of the folks opposed to protecting lands as wilderness, national parks, national monuments and other designations often cite their fear of wildfire, suggesting that without “active management” (code for logging), these lands will create high-severity blazes.

But like a lot of mythology surrounding wildfires, the opposite is true. Active management actually increases the likelihood of wildfire.

A recent study published in Ecosphere gets at this issue. In their paper, “Does increased forest protection correspond to higher fire severity in frequent-fire forests of the western United States?” the researchers looked at 1,500 wildfires in ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests across the West.

What they discovered, contrary to popular opinion, is that protected areas which presumably have higher biomass and fuels loads had lower-severity fires than forests that were actively managed.

This is not surprising if you understand why and how forests burn.

First, what burns in a forest fire are primarily the fine fuels like needles, small branches, grass and shrubs. That is why in the aftermath of a fire, there are snags. The tree boles themselves seldom burn.

Logging and thinning tend to put more fuels on the ground and promotes the growth of easily combustible fuels like grasses and shrubs.

Secondly, thinning/logging opens up the forest to drying and wind penetration. These are the primary ingredients that promote fire spread. Fuels do not drive large fires, rather extreme climate/weather conditions. When you have low humidity, high temperatures and most importantly, high winds, wildfires roar through all forest stands.

Active forest management (thinning/logging) may reduce the amount of total biomass like large logs which don’t ignite and burn easily in the first place, while at the same logging increases the fine fuels and enhances the conditions for fire spread.

Plus, since most wildfires are human-caused and often occur along roads, keeping roadless lands free of logging roads, also reduces overall fire starts.

Thus, one of the additional benefits of setting aside large acreage of wilderness or national monuments is a net reduction in high severity fires and a reduction in the costs of firefighting.

 

So here it is: the Pentagon’s plan for Europe, by Manlio Dinucci

In preparation for President Trump's visit to Europe (24 May: Rome; 25 May: the Nato Summit, Brussels; 26- 27 May: the G7 Summit at Taormina), the Pentagon presented its strategic plan for the “European theatre”. Its spokesperson? General Curtis Scaparrotti who, as the head of the US's European Command, automatically becomes the head of Nato, holding the office of Supreme Allied Commander for Europe. On 2 May, in the US Senate, the General recalls that “the European theatre remains critical to (...)

The Asian Development Bank Must End Its Lethal Addiction to Coal

The Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) annual meeting in Yokohama Japan this week marks its 50th anniversary. Yet there is little to celebrate.

ADB operations around the world have left a trail of destruction; people displaced and negative impacts on farming lands, rivers, forests and the climate.

The bank claims to finance development with the aim of alleviating poverty in the Asia Pacific region. Despite this noble vision, the ADB fails to provide a better future for Asia’s poorest. Its neoliberal policies are grossly inadequate at addressing perhaps the greatest threat to Asia’s poor: climate change.

The ADB actually recognizes climate change as a fundamental threat to poverty alleviation. Climate change will hit the poorest the hardest as, to use ADB’s own words,

“they encounter more intense tropical storms, more severe and more frequent droughts and floods, accelerated melting of glaciers and rises in the sea level, higher frequency of forest fires, shortages of freshwater, threatened crop production and aquaculture, higher incidence of heat-related and infectious diseases.”

Yet despite this, the bank has repeatedly prioritised the financing of coal projects over renewable energy alternatives. Coal is the biggest single contributor to human induced global warming.

The ADB even recognises the role of coal fired power in exacerbating climate change. But in the last decade they have invested over $3 billion in coal projects. They are the world’s third largest multilateral public financier of coal infrastructure.

India: ‘damage to local communities’ health and livelihoods’

Perhaps their most controversial project to date is the $450 million investment in the 4,000-megawatt Tata Mundra Ultra Mega Coal plant in the Indian state of Gujarat.

The bank’s own compliance review panel exposed a lack of consultation with local communities and a failure to comply with waste and pollution management strategies. Shortcomings that resulted in significant harm to the local environment and damage to local communities’ health and livelihoods.

The Tata Mundra plant is estimated to be India’s third largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Coal dust from conveyor belts feeding the power station threaten human health and contaminate agriculture. Infrastructure has damaged groundwater systems, polluting local communities’ drinking water sources.

But thanks to the ‘legal immunity for investments’ the ADB enjoys, it cannot be held responsible for these crimes. So, after 50 years of getting away with this impunity Friends of the Earth Asia-Pacific joins other social movements to demand the withdrawal of ADB immunity. This would at least enable people to sue the bank for the impacts its coal funding has on local communities and climate change.

Many multilateral banks have reduced their coal funding in response to climate obligations. Sadly none have stopped funding coal altogether.

Given the danger that burning coal poses to the global climate, it’s time the ADB took some moral leadership. The bank must ban the funding of all coal projects. It should use its influence to encourage other multilateral and bilateral public lending institutions to do the same [1].

This is a particularly pertinent point, given the emergence of new lending institutions which, sadly, seem to be embracing coal. For example, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which claims to be a “green, clean, lean” bank for the region. Yet the AIIB’s draft energy strategy states that “coal-fired power plants would be considered if they replace existing less efficient capacity.”

The ADB could therefore play a crucial role in halting coal financing.

The time to stop funding coal is now!

The Asian Development Bank is facing increasing pressure from all sides; internationally, locally and from its own shareholders. The hypocrisy of their climate action public relations spin is becoming increasingly untenable as climate change becomes a daily reality for Asia’s poor.

Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific therefore call on the ADB to:

1/ Rule out funding any future coal mine or coal fired power station projects;

2/ Prioritise the development and establishment of sustainable renewable energy projects and promote community energy and energy efficiency to meet the energy needs of people in the Asia Pacific

3/ Use their profile to lobby other finance institutions in the Asia Pacific region to rule out funding of coal projects; and

4/ Urgently review the impacts of oil, gas and unconventional gas projects on local communities and the climate, and to rule out projects that exacerbate environmental degradation and climate change.

Report: ‘Stop coal financing in the Asia Pacific‘ is published by Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific.

Hemantha Withanage is a co-founder and the Executive Director of Centre for Environmental Justice, Sri Lanka. An Executive Member of Friends of the Earth International, he is also the Convenor of Sri Lankan Working Group on Trade and IFIs, and has been a member of the ELAW (Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide) since 1991.

References

1. Japan, China, South Korea – are the first, 3rd and 6th biggest shareholders within the ADB – their bilateral agencies are the world’s largest financiers for coal (source: NRDC and Oil Change, Nov. 2016)