Chosen the Wrong Horse 6/21/17

Disengaging with Cuba – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

President Obama’s engagement with Cuba was one of his administration’s success stories. The policy shift was based on the entirely realistic as well as humanitarian assessment that permanent estrangement deepens enmity, isolates two peoples and separates families, reduces opportunities for improvement in the quality of life in Cuba, inhibits the two-way flow of information, and prevents cooperation on common problems. But the Trump administration, pressed by Senators Marco Rubio and Robert Menendez, is still fighting the Cold War, as evidenced by Trump’s disengagement order this week.

Let’s recall how Obama, in defiance of right-wing critics, reinforced his policy direction and personal visit to Cuba by issuing a legally binding order—Presidential Policy Directive 43—on October 14, 2016, just months before leaving office. PPD-43 makes the case for normalization of relations with Cuba, recites the extensive diplomatic exchanges that have occurred, outlines cooperation in areas of mutual interest, and expresses the hope of improvement in Cuba’s human rights, economy, and regional integration—all while reassuring Cuba that regime change is not US policy. Department by department, the document recites the numerous collaborative ventures ongoing and possible, such as on public health, food security, private investment, environment and ecology protection, immigration, travel, counter-narcotics, and joint scientific projects. One specific step taken by the administration at this time was to remove the ceiling on imports of Cuban rum and cigars. But the one thing Obama could not do was end the embargo, where right-wing members of Congress have always had their best chance to limit engagement.

Obama left Donald Trump with a substantial list of new interactions with Cuba, some of them—such as money transfers to Cuba, and a major increase in tourism—designed to support small businesses and civil society. Obama also left Trump with some unresolved issues with Cuba, such as a sharp increase in Cuban immigration to the United States (in part thanks to the upward pressure on prices due to US tourism), regulatory blockages, and the slow pace of Cuban economic reform. Such problems normally would be resolved over time. Under Trump, however, progress made with Cuba was bound to be set back, just as it was with Iran.

Fidel Castro’s death prior to Trump’s inauguration ordinarily might have been a time for a sympathetic note to Havana and an opportunity to deepen the accords already reached. Instead, Trump tweeted: “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.” The implication was that the US would demand changes in Cuba’s human rights and political system in return for continued engagement and a softening of the embargo.

Trump’s partial reversal of Obama’s engagement with Cuba in June 2017—partial because diplomatic relations and most types of tourism remain in place—is more likely to undermine than promote the slow improvements in Cuban civil society that engagement has produced. Independent journalism and private entrepreneurship are reemerging there. Trump’s limits on general US tourism greatly reduce interactions between ordinary citizens of the two countries, and restrictions on how US dollars may be spent undercuts small Cuban businesses. (Surely coincidental is that new American hotels that might compete with future Trump hotels are prohibited from opening in Cuba.) Maintaining the US embargo is also highly unlikely to ease Cuban restrictions on human rights, and making the latter a condition for easing the former is sure to arouse official Cuban anger. As one expert in US-Cuba relations (William LeoGrande) observed, negotiating economic and travel arrangements is one thing, sovereignty is another. Cuba’s memory of US interference is long, and Cuba will not countenance another such era.

The Trump administration’s abandonment of full-fledged engagement with Cuba leaves untouched reassessments of policy toward other, and far more destructive, authoritarian regimes, including the Saudi monarchy, Putin and the Russian oligarchy, al-Sisi’s military regime in Egypt, and Duterte and his henchmen in the Philippines. Once again, a US leader has chosen to ride the wrong horses.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Drink of Water 6/21/17

“Would you like a drink of water?” Please ask a Yemeni Child.
by Kathy Kelly

Kathy Kelly

This week, in New York City, representatives from more than 100 countries will begin collaborating on an international treaty, first proposed in 2016, to ban nuclear weapons forever. It makes sense for every country in the world to seek a legally binding ban on nuclear weapons. It would make even more sense to immediately deactivate all nuclear weapons.

But, by boycotting and disparaging the process now underway, the U.S. and other nuclear armed nations have sent a chilling signal. They have no intention of giving up the power to explode, burn and annihilate planetary life. “The United States is spending $1 trillion USD over the next thirty years to modernize its nuclear weapon arsenals and triple the killing power of these weapons,” says Ray Acheson, programme director at Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Acheson also notes that the excessive spending for nuclear weapons contrasts with U.S. cuts to vital anti-poverty programs. On June 19th, more than a dozen people blocked the U.S. Mission to the UN entrance to protest Washington’s boycott of the negotiations. They were arrested for disorderly conduct, but I believe it’s incomparably more disorderly to plan for nuclear war.

During the past weekend, to support the negotiations for a treaty banning nuclear weapons, WILPF called for “Women’s March to Ban the Bomb” actions in cities across the U.S. and around the world. Jane Addams, who helped found the League in 1919, was a Chicago woman who understood the crucial need to put an end to war, all war, and instead care for the neediest people. She dedicated herself to assuring that many new immigrants in her city were treated with respect, given assistance to meet basic needs and encouraged to live and work together, peaceably. Addams worked passionately to prevent nations from sleepwalking into the horrors of World War I, and she vigorously campaigned to stop the United States’ entry into it.

Upon return from visiting soldiers who had been maimed while fighting in the trenches of World War I, she spoke of how the young men couldn’t have carried on the war without mind-altering substances -sometimes absinthe, sometimes extra rations of rum. Families were sending laudanum and even heroin to the front lines in hampers. The soldiers couldn’t kill, she concluded, if left in their right minds.

The WILPF gatherings help us ask hard questions about our capacity to prepare for massive obliteration of entire cities, through nuclear weapon buildup, while failing to meet the needs of children, like those in Yemen, whose survival is jeopardized by war and indifference. Can we persist in perfecting our nuclear arsenals, indifferent to millions of children at risk of starving to death or dying because they lack clean water — and because U.S.-supported Saudi airstrikes decimate the infrastructure that might have supplied food and water, –can we do so and claim to be in our right minds?

WILPF gathered us in Chicago where we took time to remember a remarkably brave former Chicagoan, Jean Gump, a mother of 12 whose altruism led her to help dismantle an intercontinental ballistic missile. On March 28, 1986, Jean and her companions in the Plowshares movement enacted the biblical call to turn swords into plowshares. Picture it in the words of Lila Sarick’s article, “The Crime of Ms. Jean Gump:”

The early morning sun was beginning to glow red over the horizon as a trio ran through the dew-soaked Missouri field.

Silently, a young, bearded man cut the chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, while his two companions, another man and a woman, hung banners beside the scarlet sign that warned them not to enter.

Beside the warning sign, the pair hung a photo collage of the woman’s 12 children and 2 grandchildren. Alongside it, they hung a pennant that bore the group’s logo: “Swords into plowshares — an act of healing.”

The trio then clambered through the hole in the fence and entered M-10, a Minuteman II missile site at Whiteman Air Force Base, Knob Noster, Missouri.

The missile site resembled an abandoned railway yard. Rust-colored tracks ended abruptly in the middle of the site. Tall signal arms and white concrete bunkers dotted the landscape.

Wordlessly, the three set to work. Ken Rippetoe, 23, swung a sledgehammer at the railway tracks, designed to launch a nuclear missile with the punch of one million tons of TNT.

Larry Morlan, 26, snipped the wires on the signal arms, which pointed blindly toward the sky.

And Jean Gump uncapped a baby bottle filled with the trio’s blood and poured it in the shape of a cross on the gleaming hatch from which a missile could emerge. Underneath, she painted the words “Disarm and live.”

For this action, Jean Gump was sentenced to 4½ years in prison. The following year, her husband, Joe Gump, performed a similar action, believing Jean was right about assuming personal responsibility to deactivate nuclear weapons. The couple galvanized a group of Midwesterners to form a 1988 campaign, the “Missouri Peace Planting,” which involved dozens of people climbing over barbed wire fences onto the grounds of nuclear weapon silos in Missouri, and planting corn on top of the missile silos. I remember entering a nuclear weapon site in Missouri’s Whiteman Air Force Base, planting corn, and shortly thereafter finding myself kneeling in the grass, handcuffed, as a soldier stood behind me with his weapon pointed toward me. I lasted about two minutes in silence, and then started talking about why we did what we did and how we hoped the action would benefit children that he loved as well. And then I asked him, “Do you think the corn will grow?”

“I don’t know,” he responded, “but I sure hope so.” And then he asked me, “Ma’am, would you like a drink of water?” I nodded eagerly. “Ma’am,” said the soldier, “would you please tip your head back.” I did so, and he poured water down my throat. Recalling his kind offer to give me water jolts me into awareness about the relationship between the nuclear weapon below us, that day, and massive numbers of people, then and now, who acutely need clean water.

Imagine if his question, “Would you like a drink of water?” were asked, today, to people living in Yemen. Now, as the U.S. insists on having an exceptional right to dominate the planet, insists on being armed with enough explosive fire power to obliterate entire cities, suppose we were to ask people in Yemen, millions of whom now face cholera and starvation, if they would like a drink of clean, pure water?

Or, let’s bring the question closer to home and ask people in Flint, MI, whose water is contaminated, “Would you like clean, pure water?”

And as we grope for solutions to the signs of climate change, including severe droughts and the rush to privatize dwindling resources of potable water, imagine asking the children of future generations, “Would you like a drink of water?”

President Eisenhower was right to equate possession of nuclear weapons with commission of crime.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.

It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

It’s a big “ask”: get rid of nuclear weapons. Along with planning and joining protests, another way to remain awake and focused on preventing nuclear annihilation involves recognizing how interconnected we are with others, so much so that the suffering and death of another person diminishes our own lives.

This wakefulness entails abiding care for others. Jean Gump and Jane Addams practiced such care throughout most of their lives. We, likewise, can work toward justice for those who live in communities like Flint, MI; we can seek sane approaches to the climate crisis; and we can insist that those who are targets of war, like the cholera-ridden, desperately hungry children of Yemen, be spared from aerial terrorism and given full access to clean, life-saving waters.

Kathy Kelly, syndicated by PeaceVoice, co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

Brutal Detention 6/21/17

When the detainee is American . . .  by Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler

The corpses pile up like sandbags along the planet’s geopolitical borders.

“Perhaps his condition deteriorated and the authorities decided it was better to release him in a coma than as a corpse.”

So said an expert on North Korea recently, quoted in the New York Times following the death of 22-year-old Otto Warmbier, six days after he had been released in a comatose state from a North Korean prison. He had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor a year and a half ago because he had taken a propaganda poster off the wall in his hotel. He had been with a tour group.

Oh Lord. The shocking wrongness and horror of this young man’s death — the absurdity of his arrest, the razor slash of his tears — is all over the news. Of course. Who couldn’t identify — with him, with his parents? He had been dehumanized. He had a future, but it got pulled away from him by uniformed lunatics, or so the news presents this tragedy: in the context of America and its enemies.

And there’s no enemy out there with less legitimacy than North Korea. Any time the country and its supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, show up in the news, they look, you might say, like evil cartoon characters. But they possess, as the Times story informed us, “nuclear arms and missiles capable of striking the United States.”

And this is the context of the news and the limit, apparently, of the consciousness of the U.S. media. But the arrest, abuse and death of Otto Warmbier took place in a context more complex than good vs. evil. It’s still a horrific tragedy, a wrong that should never have occurred, but the devaluing of human life isn’t simply a game played by the so-called bad guys.

International politics is mostly a game of “interests” and war. It’s a game of winning and losing, and human beings be damned. And the fact that the United States plays this game as aggressively as anyone, at home and abroad, belittles the death of American citizens who wind up innocently caught in the game themselves.

The day the young man died, for instance, a 15-year-old lawsuit on behalf of another group of wrongful-arrest victims wound up being dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2002, the Center for Constitutional Rights had brought the suit against a number of officials in the George W. Bush administration — including former Attorney General John Ashcroft and, ironically, Robert Mueller, former FBI director who is currently heading up the Trump-Russia investigation — on behalf of several hundred South Asian and Arab non-citizens who were rounded up and jailed after 9/11.

“Based solely on their race, religion, ethnicity, and immigration status,” according to the CCR, “hundreds of men were detained as ‘terrorism suspects’ and held in brutal detention conditions for the many months it took the FBI and CIA to clear them of any connection to terrorism. They were then deported. . . .

“Our clients were held in a specially-created Administrative Maximum Special Housing Unit . . . in solitary confinement. They were purposefully deprived of sleep, denied contact with the outside world, beaten and verbally abused, and denied the ability to practice their religion.”

That kept us safe.

And people outside our borders had even less security and fewer rights. Some years ago the New York Times ran a rare account of one man’s experience as a Gitmo detainee and U.S. torture victim. Lakhdar Boumediene, who in 2001 was living in Bosnia with his wife and daughters and working for the Red Crescent Society of the United Arab Emirates, was accused of being a terrorist and arrested one morning, shortly after the 9/11 attack, when he showed up for work in Sarajevo. He wound up imprisoned at Guantanamo for seven years. In 2009, a federal district judge, after reviewing the U.S. case against Boumediene and four others arrested with him, found them innocent and ordered them released.

During his imprisonment, he wrote, “my daughters grew up without me. They were toddlers when I was imprisoned, and were never allowed to visit or speak to me by phone. Most of their letters were returned as ‘undeliverable,’ and the few that I received were so thoroughly and thoughtlessly censored that their messages of love and support were lost.”

Regarding his treatment at Gitmo: “I was kept awake for many days straight. I was forced to remain in painful positions for hours at a time. These are things I do not want to write about; I want only to forget.

“I went on a hunger strike for two years because no one would tell me why I was being imprisoned. Twice each day my captors would shove a tube up my nose, down my throat and into my stomach so they could pour food into me. It was excruciating, but I was innocent and so I kept up my protest.”

The more you read about American torture practices, the worse it gets. The mostly classified 6,000-page Senate report on this topic, released in 2014, contains almost unbearable data about CIA “enhanced interrogation” methodology, including “rectal rehydration,” threats against the detainees’ children and parents, quasi-drowning, mock executions and “revved power drills” held near their heads. And many detainees died and many remain imprisoned without cause.

Reading about all this in the context of North Korea’s imprisonment and apparent murder of Otto Warmbier doesn’t lessen the hell he went through as a victim of “hostage diplomacy,” but it does, I think, change one’s sense of who the enemy is.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

Clung To Illusion 6/14/17

National Illusions and Global Realities – by Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

For as long as they have existed, nations have clung to the illusion that their military strength guarantees their security.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that the military power that one nation considers vital to its security fosters other nations’ sense of insecurity. In this climate of suspicion, an arms race ensues, often culminating in military conflict. Also, sometimes the very military strength that a nation intended for protection ends up emboldening it to engage in reckless, aggressive behavior, leading to war.

By the twentieth century, the devastation caused by wars among nations had grown so great that the general public and even many government officials began to recognize that a world left to the mercies of national military power was a dangerous world, indeed. As a result, after the mass slaughter of World War I, they organized the League of Nations to foster international security. When this proved insufficient to stop the march of nations toward World War II and its even greater devastation, they organized a new and stronger global entity: the United Nations.

Unfortunately, however, bad habits die hard, and relying on military force to solve problems is one of the oldest and most destructive habits in human history. Therefore, even as they paid lip service to the United Nations and its attempts to create international security, many nations slipped back into the familiar pattern of building up their armed forces and weaponry. This included nuclear weapons, the most effective instruments of mass slaughter yet devised.

Not surprisingly, then, although the leaders of highly militarized nations talked about building “peace through strength,” their countries often underwent many years of war. Indeed, the United States, the most heavily-armed nation since 1945, has been at war with other countries most of that time. Other nations whose post-World War II military might has helped embroil them in wars include Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran.

Given this sorry record, it is alarming to find that the nine nuclear-armed nations (the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea) have ignored the obligation under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to divest themselves of nuclear weapons and, instead, recently embarked on a new round in the nuclear arms race. The U.S. government, for example, has begun a massive, 30-year program to build a new generation of U.S. nuclear weapons and nuclear production facilities to last the United States well into the second half of the twenty-first century. This program, slated to cost $1 trillion, includes redesigned nuclear warheads, as well as new nuclear bombers, submarines, land-based missiles, weapons labs, and production plants.

However, as the nuclear powers renew their race to catastrophe, the non-nuclear powers are beginning to revolt. Constituting most nations of the world, they have considerable clout in the UN General Assembly. In late 2016, they brought to this body a resolution to launch negotiations on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. Critics of the resolution maintained that such a treaty was ridiculous, for, ultimately, only the nine nuclear powers could negotiate their disarmament―not an assembly of other nations. But supporters of the resolution argued that, if the overwhelming majority of nations voted to ban nuclear weapons―that is, make them illegal under international law―this would put substantial pressure on the nuclear powers to comply with the world community by acting to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

To avoid this embarrassment, the nuclear powers and their allies fought back vigorously against passage of this UN resolution. But, on December 23, 2016, the resolution sailed through the UN General Assembly by an overwhelming vote: 113 nations in favor and 35 opposed, with 13 abstentions.

And so, on March 27, 2017, a diplomatic conference convened, at the UN headquarters in New York City, with the goal of crafting what the UN called a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” Some 130 countries participated in the first round of these negotiations that included discussions with leaders of peace and disarmament groups and a range of experts on nuclear weapons. But the nuclear powers and most of their allies boycotted the gathering. In fact, at a press conference conducted as the conclave began, Nikki Haley, the U.S. representative to the United Nations, and representatives of other nuclear powers denounced the proceedings.

Perhaps because of the boycott by the nuclear powers, the UN negotiations went forward smoothly. On May 22, Ambassador Elayne Whyte of Costa Rica, president of the conference, released a first draft of the UN treaty, which would prohibit nations from developing, producing, manufacturing, possessing, or stockpiling nuclear weapons. The UN conferees plan to adopt necessary revisions and, then, produce a final treaty for a vote in early July.

To publicize and support the treaty, peace and disarmament groups have organized a June 17 march in New York City. Although dubbed a Women’s Ban the Bomb March, it is open to people of different genders, ages, races, nationalities, and faiths. It will assemble in midtown Manhattan, at Bryant Park, at noon, after which the marchers will head for Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, near the UN headquarters, for a rally.

As this treaty directly challenges the long-time faith in the value of national military power, typified by the scramble for nuclear weapons, it might not get very far. But who really knows? Facing the unprecedented danger of nuclear war, the world community might finally be ready to dispense with this national illusion.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. He is the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).

Justice Be Allowed 6/14/17

Keeping Trump Alive: A Strange Consensus – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

The leaders of both parties are divided on numerous matters, but on one critical piece of business they seem united: keep Donald Trump in office. That rather extraordinary, and by no means welcome conclusion, stems from this simple observation: Republicans want to squeeze as much advantage as possible from Trump’s presidency to pursue and complete their domestic agenda, while Democrats want to squeeze the same advantage from Trump’s constant missteps and failure to push through his agenda. Thus, while Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan make excuses for every Trump excess and idiocy, they still value his continuation in office more than his removal—even for a tweet-less Pence presidency. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, on the other hand, attack every Trump move that undermines democracy and world order, but insist that impeachment is premature and that investigations of collusion and obstruction of justice must be allowed to proceed.

Republicans are hoping against hope that Trump’s agenda can somehow survive. Obamacare will finally be replaced, a big tax cut for the wealthy will be enacted, a Muslim ban will pass court muster, and employment and economic growth figures will start looking good. The emperor’s political health is failing, but they need to keep him alive, at least through 2018. Democratic leaders in Congress will do everything they can to frustrate the Republicans’ agenda so they can underscore Trump’s failures. But while Trump’s defeats may be worth celebrating, they do not equate to Democratic success. We should not underestimate how Republican legislative failures play in red states and Congressional districts.

Let’s face it: Republicans have the odds on their side. The chances are slim to none that Trump will be indicted, impeached, or forced to resign. Even in the best of circumstances, Robert Mueller’s investigation will probably take well over a year to reach a conclusion, and it is by no means certain that the conclusion will be so strongly against Trump as to force a Republican-dominated Congress to take action. And at worst the Republicans have Mike Pence waiting in the wings.

Democrats may think that every day Trump is in office buys votes for them, but the jury (literally) is out on that one. Plenty of analyses have appeared lately to show that Democrats remain deeply divided on strategy for 2018 and 2020—in a nutshell, whether to go for the jugular, as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren et al. prefer, and press for a truly progressive list of domestic reforms, or adopt a modestly liberal approach à la Hillary Clinton (and reflected in the Jon Ossoff campaign in Georgia) that is tailored to particular districts in each state.

Writing in the op-ed section of the New York Times on June 12, Charles M. Blow offers a reasonable guide to the road ahead: “In the end, the Resistance must be bigger than impeachment; it must be about political realignment. It must be built upon solid rock of principle and not hang solely on the slender hope of expulsion. This is a long game and will not come to an abrupt conclusion. Perseverance must be the precept; lifelong commitment must be the motto.”

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Jared Center Stage 6/14/17

Jared’s Secrets – by Mel Gurtov

On May 30 President Trump tweeted that Russia is “laughing at the U.S.” If so, it is because the ordinary social and economic agenda of the US government is being sidetracked by the Russiagate investigation, causing the kind of divisiveness and dysfunction that Vladimir Putin presumably wants. But with the fate of the Trump presidency now clearly imperiled, Putin may not be laughing at all: His favorite American family may have a limited future.

“There was a cancer growing on the presidency,” John Dean put it to Richard Nixon. Today, that cancer is back, and it now threatens Trump’s son-in-law. Jared Kushner is front and center in the FBI’s investigation, reports say. He had a number of exchanges with Russian officials prior to January 20, among them the infamous effort, with General Michael Flynn alongside, to set up a secret back channel to Moscow within the Russian embassy in Washington. Kushner also had contact with the head of the state-owned Vnesheconombank (VEB), whose job seems to include projecting Russian influence. It has ties to Wall Street investors and New York banks; it also has had convicted spies among its employees. The Obama administration sanctioned VEB last year, and the banker with whom Kushner spoke has close ties to Putin and a past history with Russian intelligence.

The question with Kushner is the purpose of these contacts. Was he simply wanting to set up a direct communication line to Putin? Was he wanting to open discussion about US-Russia cooperation in Syria? When he talked with the Russian banker, was he wearing his real estate business suit (the bank’s explanation) or simply offering diplomatic niceties (the White House version)?

Here’s a different explanation: Kushner’s purpose, supported by Donald Trump, was to begin redrawing US policy on Russia with the aim of easing sanctions in exchange for certain Russian “services.” The back channel to Putin was no innocent “let’s get together” effort; it amounted to “play for pay.” Removing sanctions on Russia, including those on VEB, would help promote the Trump brand there, a longtime Trump ambition. Talking with Vnesheconombank would facilitate Russian financing of Trump and Kushner business ventures in the US and elsewhere at a time when VEB is in serious financial straits.

Here’s where Deutsche Bank enters the picture: It has made large loans to the Trump Organization, anywhere from $300 million to more than $400 million. Deutsche Bank is the one big bank that has been willing to give Trump loans when all the others have turned him down because of his poor financial record. Vnesheconombank may have been a necessary partner in the deal as guarantor of those loans. (Deutsche Bank has already been penalized $630 million for laundering $10 billion in rubles; US authorities are investigating whose Russian money that is and whether or not the US dollars that the bank converted are tied to Trump). And Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee have written Deutsche Bank with a request for any documents that bear on Russian loans to Trump real estate interests.

While none these contacts were illegal, they created Russian leverage on the Trump administration. Neither Kushner, Flynn, or anyone else in the Trump transition team should have contacted Russians with known intelligence connections and the capacity to put them in a compromising situation. We already know that Flynn’s contact with the Russia ambassador specifically promised a softening of US sanctions on Russia. We also know that soon after taking office, so far unnamed Trump associates—very possibly including Kushner—tried to persuade State Department officials to lift sanctions. But the State officials pushed back, and alerted members of Congress who then sought to insulate the sanctions from Trump pressure.

There was nothing accidental about these secret contacts. Trump surely knew what he was doing: His long delay in firing Flynn, his defense of Flynn since then, and deployment of his son-in-law, suggest as much—all the more so in the case of Flynn, who may have damaging information about his former boss that Trump finds worrisome. Trump’s exchanges of laudatory comments with Putin; his refusal to believe US intelligence conclusions about Russian meddling in the 2016 election; his undermining of US ties with NATO and the European Union; his longstanding efforts to promote Trump’s business interests in Russia; and Trump’s money problems—all these provide a foundation for explaining Kushner’s and Flynn’s mission, which was to curry favor with Putin’s circle by dangling the carrot of ending sanctions.

Some former US intelligence officials have gone beyond calling these contacts stupid or naïve. They are compromising, and border on treachery. They feed directly into the investigations of the Trump team’s collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign. And they move Jared Kushner to center stage as Trump’s key operative.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Culture of Better Angels 6/7/17

Will “nones” make America more liberal? – by James A. Haught

James Haught

The steady retreat of religion in America may shift politics to the left. Surveys find that young Americans who say their faith is “none” generally hold humane progressive values, supporting women’s equality, gay rights, universal healthcare, legal marijuana, free college and other liberal goals.

Unfortunately, many “nones” don’t vote. They failed to keep Donald Trump out of the White House and Republicans out of control in most states. Nonetheless, the rising tide of churchless young people eventually may sway the culture toward its “better angels.”

Decline of religion is perhaps the most profound sociological phenomenon of the 21st century. Here’s an example:

A stately United Methodist church in my town is being razed for a parking lot. Old-time members are sad. Loss of once-thriving churches is common nowadays for Methodism and other parts of mainline Protestantism. They’ve suffered a half-century of relentless shrinkage.

Back in the 1960s, when U.S. Methodists merged with Evangelical United Brethren, the faith had 11 million adherents. At that time, the U.S. population was 180 million. Now the United Methodist Church has dropped to just 7 million American members, while the nation’s population almost doubled.

The same downsizing hit other mainline branches. America’s two chief Presbyterian denominations (later merged) had 4.2 million members in the 1960s — but now the combined Presbyterian Church USA is down to 1.5 million. The Episcopal Church had 3.6 million in the 1960s, but only 1.8 million today. The Disciples of Christ fell from 1.9 million to 600,000. Etc.

When I came of age in 1950s, so-called mainline Protestantism — respected, “tall-steeple” churches with seminary-educated pastors — was the very essence of America. Catholicism and fundamentalism seemed like fringes.

But U.S. culture shifted. The mainline went into decline, while Catholics and evangelicals climbed, at least for a while. Megachurches featuring dynamic preachers blossomed. Pentecostalism, in which members “speak in tongues,” grew rapidly.

Then secularism — which soared in Europe and other democracies after World War II — hit America. Starting in the 1990s, the number of churchless people rose with surprising swiftness. Now, the Public Religion Research institute says “nones” have become America’s largest category at 25 percent, surpassing Catholics (21 percent) and white evangelicals (16 percent). Mainliners have fallen to around 15 percent, followed by Mormons at perhaps 7 percent or less.

Significantly, while Christianity declines in America, it is booming in southern, tropical, Third World nations. Pentecostalism has surged so much in the south that almost one-fourth of all the world’s Christians now follow this emotional faith.

At Easter, the director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College wrote in the Washington Post that America’s mainline Protestants have “just 23 Easters left” if current decline rates continue. Ed Stetzer said:

“Now, less than one of 33 people you meet on the street regularly attends a mainline Protestant church…. Trend lines are showing a trajectory toward zero in both those who attend a mainline church regularly and those who identify with a mainline denomination 23 years from now. While the sky isn’t falling, the floor is dropping out.”

Of course, trends on charts rarely reach zero. But demographics show clearly that U.S. religion has faded with remarkable speed. Secular young people will dominate the future. Will they give America more compassionate values? I certainly hope so.

James Haught, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Nothing New Still Repulsive 6/7/17

Using miners for political gain is nothing new, still repulsive – by Rob Byers

Rob Byers

Earlier this spring, I was asked a question about my late father, who had been a coal miner in the 1970s and ’80s. It had to do with a familiar romantic storyline:

Did he feel at home underground? Was it a calling that tugged at him during the layoffs, a longing to get back to the job he loved?

Short answer: No. Long answer: Hell, no.

Best I could tell as a kid, he hated it. It was back-breaking, dangerous, cold, dusty, dirty. He did it for the same reason miners do it today – because it was the best-paying job around for a man with a high-school education.

As a coal miner’s son, you might think I would be proud of all the attention miners are getting nowadays from President Trump and the media. You’d be wrong, though. Actually, I find the whole thing pretty demeaning, as the coal miner is used as a political pawn and an excuse to trash the planet.

Then again, maybe I should be used to it by now. The miner-as-economic-victim thing has been hanging around for quite a while.

After the first Obama election in November 2008, Republican lawmakers, industry groups and political strategists needed a human face for their cause, which was eliminating environmental regulations and ignoring climate change. The noble miner, toiling away underground to power America, was perfect.

Never mind that the cause was much more about making money for political donors and industry partners than it was about any miner’s paycheck.

Now, how about a nice, sound-bite slogan? One that mining families and local politicos could easily spout. Enter the “war on coal” — a purely fictitious battle, of course, but nobody ever said politics was about honesty. And talk about effective marketing. So catchy.

The villain? Well, that was really too easy. Everybody was blaming Obama for everything anyway. Plus, it was a two-for-one deal: They could bash the union at the same time after the UMWA backed Obama in 2008.

Fast forward to 2016 and an out-of-context Hillary Clinton quote later (“we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”) and it was time to trot out the “war on coal” political machine once more.

Trump plays dress-up in a hard hat at a rally at the Charleston Civic Center, feigns what he thinks it must be like to hold a shovel and fakes his way to the White House.

And so, at long last, the Republicans – and many West Virginia Democrats — are getting what they want as Trump rolls back Obama environmental laws and ignores climate change.

By backing out of the Paris climate agreement, Trump gets to act like he’s helping out his base in West Virginia, while really doing nothing – except, of course, forfeiting America’s well-earned perch as the world’s problem solver. And all the while, our congressional delegation dutifully stands back and applauds.

True help for unemployed miners and other West Virginians would mean tackling climate change head-on, embracing renewable energy and re-training people to work in the emerging industries.

But Trump is a champion only for himself … and his golf courses and hotels.

After all, we’ve watched him propose gutting the Appalachian Regional Commission, Legal Aid, low-income heating aid, college tuition assistance and other programs that benefit West Virginians.

I find no value in the argument that West Virginians, miners and other working-class communities across the nation are getting what they deserve. It’s precisely that kind of divisiveness that landed us in this mess.

It’s not foolish for someone to vote for a candidate who promises to represent their specific interests. It’s not surprising for someone to pine for an earlier time, a time they perceive to have been better. That’s been going on since the first time anyone referred to the “good ol’ days.”

In a place where drug abuse and unemployment are rampant, it can be easy to look back instead of ahead. It’s simpler to think back fondly to the busy, bustling mines — and conveniently forget about the slag heaps and polluted streams. The men, women and children buried alive by coal waste at Buffalo Creek. The dust that turns lungs black and slowly chokes lives away.

It’s even simpler when the powerful spend lavishly to make damn sure it happens.

Coal mining can be a dirty business. But so is toying with West Virginia’s hope.

Rob Byers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the executive editor of the Charleston Gazette-Mail in Charleston, West Virginia.

Accept the Reality 6/7/17

Evil and the Paris Accords  – by Winslow Myer

Winslow Myers

Much ink was spilled in the year leading up to the election of the president on the subject of incipient fascism. We turned to prophets to discern the shape of our future as it loomed out of the unknowable. People went back to Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, and even more to Orwell’s 1984. We examined the conditions surrounding the rise of figures like Hitler and Mussolini, searching for parallels. Though we found mostly differences, there remained the unavoidable lesson of how much absolute evil a sociopathic and insecure strongman could cause.

But historians such as Daniel Goldhagen, the author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners, also underlined the complicity of ordinary Germans in the Jewish catastrophe. Uncomfortable as it may be to acknowledge, this suggests an all-too-valid parallel with our own moment.

As we, the biggest carbon polluter in history, blithely began the process of withdrawing from an accord that had taken countless hours of dialogue on the part of thousands of officials trying to build a delicate global consensus, frustration and cringing embarrassment has naturally focused upon the Decider, a man who demonstrates few convictions and who thereby seems submissive to ignorant and greedy forces that are making use of him as a pawn for short-term gain.

Too many Americans, stuck in an obsolete conception of economic self-interest, far from thinking of Trump’s move as evil, applauded his abandonment of a hard-won global agreement. We seem to be masters at working against our authentic self-interest, which is the possibility of both new jobs and clean air if we could lead the world in the production of solar panels, storage batteries, wind generators, and other innovations yet to emerge from robustly supported research programs.

When it comes to climate, we cannot avoid the reality that we as individuals play just as determinative a role in shaping our future as the supposed leader of the free world. And this can become what Emerson called “the good of evil born.”

There is something bracing and activating about having to accept the reality, preached through millennia by spiritual leaders, that we are all in this together. As the new president of France said, let’s make the planet great again.

Two core values, one often associated with conservative political philosophy and another with progressive, will help us rise to this challenge of change, through which we can bypass Mr. Trump’s abdication of moral and economic leadership.

The conservative value is self-reliance. We are free to examine the minutiae of our individual lives and make creative initiatives, the small, and sometimes not so small, incremental changes that will ensure a climatically stable world for those who come after us. Mindfully switching off lights that don’t need to be on. Consolidating errands to cut trips into town. Choosing to purchase a car that gets high mileage, even if gas prices are, for now, falling. Looking into solar, either panels on our own roofs or enrolling with a power company that supplies electricity from renewable sources—not only because it is good for the planet but because it is rapidly becoming less expensive than forms of energy that raise aggregate global temperature. It is rich with irony that the fossil fuel interests that have many of our representatives in their pockets could be left in the dust by the same free market self-reliance to which they pay lip service.

The progressive value is compassion, a “feeling with” that applies on all levels. My choices affect sea level in Bangladesh, just as the number of coal plants in any nation anywhere affects the capacity of my own lungs. Cynicism and fatal resignation is not an option. We are all so interconnected that there is no way not to make a difference. Inevitably we take up space and use up limited resources while we’re here. Can we do this more mindfully, “feeling with” all the billions with whom we share a common fate?

Does Trump’s gesture of withdrawal rise to the level of genuine evil? I’m not sure. I’m more certain that the extent to which the fates of everyone in the world have become intertwined is going to change the way we define evil, and equally change how we resist evil. As always there will be many ways to resist, but maybe the best way going forward will be to build new models of good that are more alluring—to be the change, as Gandhi said, we want to see in the world.

Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” serves on the Boards of Beyond War and the War Prevention Initiative.

Meaning of Wall 5/31/17

The Meaning of Trump’s Wall  – by Andrew Moss

Andrew Moss

Though Donald Trump failed to get his wall funded when Congress passed a recent $1.1 trillion federal spending package, he did succeed in creating a wall of sorts. Fashioned partly out of words and partly out of existing physical structures and technologies, Trump’s wall has effectively cast a shadow of fear over the 11.1 million people living in the U.S. without the requisite papers signifying citizenship or legal residence. This shadow accompanies them wherever they go in their daily lives. But this metaphoric wall not only serves to incite fear; it also helps to exacerbate inequality.

Trump initially began shaping his discursive wall when, as a candidate, he embarked on a racialized course of scapegoating last year. After his inauguration, the discourse took on a new form as a dehumanizing bureaucratic language, casting people without papers as “illegal aliens” who “present a significant threat to national security and public safety” (Trump’s January 25 executive order on “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements”). In this executive order and in various Homeland Security memos, the Trump administration set aside a previous emphasis on targeting violent offenders and instead cast a wide net of enforcement, subjecting anyone to arrest and deportation who resides in the country without acceptable documentation.

Trump’s discursive wall has inspired fear because his administration hasn’t hesitated to carry out its threats. In its first three months, the Trump administration arrested 38 percent more people than the Obama administration arrested in a comparable period last year (i.e. 41,318 versus 30,028). Half the people apprehended this year had committed no crime other than living here without documentation. And the results have been predictable, as an eroding trust in law enforcement caused crime reporting to decline in immigrant communities across the country. It’s not surprising that Trump’s wall of fear has undermined public safety, as many local law enforcement officials have attested.

But the wall’s role in furthering inequality must also be accounted for. When candidate Trump vaunted his success in helping negotiate a deal with Carrier Corporation to keep an Indianapolis based furnace plant (about 800 jobs) from moving to Mexico, it was not surprising to learn that the company was still going ahead with plans to move another Indiana facility, in rural Huntington, to Monterrey, Mexico, terminating jobs for about 700 American workers. The move was unsurprising in that it was consonant with the free flow of investment, manufacturing, and jobs moving across our borders for decades. This flow was abetted and facilitated by American corporate leaders seeking to maximize profit and minimize labor costs while stretching supply chains around the globe.

Capital, and the elites who manage it, have been free to cross boundaries for years, while workers have been increasingly restricted at the border. This asymmetry has made migrant workers highly vulnerable to exploitation as their attempts to resist wage theft, poor working conditions, and other abuses have often been met with threatened exposure and deportation. Meanwhile, it is no coincidence that, over the past decades, the growing inequality in wealth and political power has taken place while the border has become increasingly militarized and while discussions of immigration policy have been frequently linked to the war on terror. All of this has predated Trump.

But this president and his billionaires’ cabinet plan to take inequality to new heights by giving massive tax cuts to the wealthy and by deregulating the financial industry. There is a kind of desperate contradiction between candidate Trump’s populist promises and President Trump’s goal of delivering to the one percent. It is difficult to maintain this contradiction without drowning out criticism in the noisy drumbeat of race baiting, scapegoating, and xenophobia.

Certainly the sanctuary movement has helped to counter the rhetoric of dehumanization by keeping in focus the narratives of people struggling to make a living, struggling to keep their families together in the face of threatened detention and deportation. The movement has also kept in focus pathways to citizenship as a necessary piece of any immigration policy reform. But even this isn’t enough. Working people across borders must find new ways of building solidarity and of resisting the forces that keep expanding inequalities of wealth, opportunity, and mobility. And they must call out Trump’s wall for what it really is: the ultimate symbol of an ultimate con.

Andrew Moss, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is an emeritus professor at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught in Nonviolence Studies for 10 years.

Being a Woman 5/31/17

A Feminist Perspective on Trumpcare  – Laura Finley

Laura Finley

Although the American Health Care Act (AHCA) of 2017 is rife with problems, one of the most disturbing is its shocking gender bias. But why should we be shocked that the AHCA, or “Trumpcare,” privileges males, as it was crafted by a group of privileged males and is being championed by the most privileged of all, Donald Trump himself?

The House bill now goes to the Senate, where majority leader Mitch McConnell initially convened a healthcare working group composed of 13 men. Amidst criticism, they invited Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia) to join, although it is not clear that she will be a regular contributor.

The fact that 13 men, and a woman who may or may not be a regular contributor, are crafting this bill is not the issue, but rather that the architects of the AHCA are treating women as second-class citizens while taking care of their own interests.

While the AHCA maintains the federal provision requiring that insurance companies provide coverage to people regardless of their medical history, states will be allowed to seek a waiver from the federal law. An amendment to the bill appears to allow insurers to charge people more if they have certain pre-existing conditions or even to deny them coverage entirely.

The exhaustive list that penalizes women

Rape and sexual assault themselves are not listed as pre-existing conditions in the proposed bill, yet the most common physical and emotional effects can be used to deny health insurance coverage to women under the proposed law. Research is clear that victims of sexual assault suffer higher rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and sleep disorders—all on the proposed list of pre-existing conditions. Victims of domestic violence often struggle with these same things. Given that approximately one in six women are sexually assaulted and 30 percent experience domestic violence, the potential impact is huge.

If you have troublesome periods or menstrual irregularities, expect your premiums to go up. Pregnancy and the need for a C-section are also on the list of pre-existing conditions, and premiums for women who have given birth might be as much as four times higher than for men. In case it’s not yet clear – only women menstruate and get pregnant.

The bill would also allow insurers to opt-out of what Obamacare considered the 10 essential health benefits, or services that all insurance plans must cover. These include maternity and newborn care, preventive care like mammograms, cervical cancer screenings, birth control, and access to free or low-cost breast pumps. Before Obamacare, 62 percent of healthcare insurance plans available on the individual market did not cover maternity care, and only nine states mandated maternity coverage.

The AHCA will defund Planned Parenthood for one year and blocks that agency from receiving Medicaid reimbursements. That essentially eliminates birth control access and sexually transmitted infection screenings for an estimated 390,000 low-income women. About half of the 2.5 million patients who visit Planned Parenthood centers every year rely on Medicaid for their health coverage.

It shouldn’t be that hard

The champions of Trumpcare really don’t seem to get it. Or maybe they do, and just don’t care. Representative John Shimkus questioned why men have to pay for prenatal care, while White House press secretary Sean Spicer even joked that older men didn’t need maternity care. Funny? Not so much.

At the same time, the architects of the bill deliberately left erectile dysfunction off the list of pre-existing conditions. So, being a woman is a chronic medical condition that must be controlled by men but getting hard (or not) is protected. If we ever needed more proof that men think with one head more than the other, look no further. This healthcare bill will continue to entrench male superiority, to the detriment of more than half of the country’s population.

Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.

Diffusion of Knowledge 5/31/17

How Business “Partnerships” Flopped at America’s Largest University

by Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

The State University of New York (SUNY)―the largest university in the United States, with nearly 600,000 students located in 64 publicly-funded higher education institutions―has served an important educational function for the people of New York and of the United States. But its recent “partnerships” with private businesses have been far less productive.

In the spring of 2013, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, joined by businessmen, politicians, and top SUNY administrators, embarked upon a widely-publicized barnstorming campaign to get the state legislature to adopt a plan he called Tax-Free NY. Under its provisions, most of the SUNY campuses, portions of the City University of New York, and zones adjacent to SUNY campuses would be thrown open to private, profit-making companies that would be exempt from state and local taxes on sales, property, the income of their owners, and the income of their employees for a period of 10 years.

Tax-Free NY, Cuomo announced, was “a game-changing initiative” that would “transform SUNY campuses and university communities across the state.” According to the governor, this program would “supercharge” the state’s economy and bring job creation to an unprecedented level. Conceding that these tax-free zones wouldn’t work without a dramatic “culture shift” in the SUNY system, Cuomo argued that the faculty should “get interested and participate in entrepreneurial activities.”

Despite criticism of the program by educators, unions, and even some conservatives, SUNY administrators and local officials fell into line. Reluctant to challenge the governor and oppose this widely-touted jobs creation measure, the state legislature established the program, renamed Start-Up NY and including some private colleges, in June 2013.

Start-Up NY quickly acquired considerable momentum. Hundreds of tax-free zones were established at New York colleges and universities, most of them on SUNY campuses, with numerous administrators hired to oversee the development of the new commercial programs. New York State launched a very expensive Start-Up NY television advertising campaign around the nation, with ads focused on the theme: “New York: Open for Business.” SUNY’s chancellor, Nancy Zimpher, proclaimed: “Nowhere in the country do new businesses . . . stand to benefit more by partnering with higher education than in New York State, thanks to the widespread success of Governor Cuomo’s Start-Up NY program. With interest and investment coming in from around the globe and new jobs being created in every region, Start-Up NY has provided a spark for our economy and for SUNY.” This was, she declared, a “transformative initiative.”

Although no one seems to know―or at least has revealed―just how much Start-Up NY has actually cost New York State, it has certainly been quite expensive. Back in 2013, the governor’s budget office estimated that it would cost $323 million over the next three years. That figure did not include the lost tax revenue to localities.

And what has it produced for the state? After three years of operation―2014, 2015, and 2016―that question is answered by the official reports of Empire State Development (New York’s official economic development agency). In 2014, Start-Up NY produced 76 jobs. In 2015, it produced 332 jobs. And, in 2016, it produced 757 jobs. Deducting 30 jobs apparently lost somewhere along the way, Empire State Development claimed a grand total of 1,135 jobs were developed by Start-Up NY.

Although 1,135 jobs might strike the observer as a remarkably small increase in the state’s total workforce of over 9 million people, it’s actually an inflated figure. According to Empire State Development, only 722 of these jobs could be considered “net new jobs.” Many of the participating companies did not really create new jobs at all, but simply moved their operations to another region of the state to avail themselves of Start-Up NY’s tax breaks.

Moreover, it’s far from clear that Start-Up NY’s tax breaks were necessary for businesses to hire these 722 workers. After all, 2014, 2015, and 2016 were years of recovery from the Great Recession, during which employment in New York State grew by 168,401 jobs.

What about the benefit of the program to SUNY? According to the SUNY administration, at the beginning of 2017, half of all SUNY schools had become sponsors of Start-Up NY businesses, with 201 campus “partnerships.” Although Chancellor Zimpher has spoken enthusiastically about the program’s “academic benefits for our faculty and students,” her examples are less than convincing. Yes, the participating companies paid SUNY a modest rental for their use of campus facilities. But this business use deprived SUNY faculty and students of their ability to avail themselves of these same facilities―including buildings, classroom space, labs, and advanced machinery and equipment. The chancellor also pointed to 134 students who had interned at Start-Up businesses and 121 who had gone to work for Start-Up firms. But these figures are not impressive when set against SUNY’s student enrollment of nearly 600,000.

Perhaps most significant, what is the academic merit of devoting university teaching or education to producing or marketing corporate projects? Shouldn’t the role of higher education be the advancement and diffusion of knowledge?

Of course, creating jobs is a laudable goal. But using public funds and facilities to subsidize private, profit-making businesses is not the only way to do it. For example, state governments could simply hire teachers, firefighters, construction workers, home health aides, social workers, health and safety inspectors, and thousands of other workers to do work that need to be done.

Overall, several questions arise from this history of SUNY-corporate collaboration. Does this “partnership” produce enough economic benefit to be worth the cost? Is assisting private business research, development, and sales an appropriate role for higher education? Finally, is using public funds to subsidize profit-making corporations an appropriate role for government? They questions are certainly worth considering before states rush into promoting further ill-fated university-corporate “partnerships.”

Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark?

Lukewarm Promise 5/31/17

All Is Not Quiet on the Western Front – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Donald Trump’s visit to NATO headquarters last week was consistent with two of his foreign-policy views: the need to pursue close relations with Russia, and skepticism about NATO’s utility. Despite affirmative comments about NATO from his secretary of state and Vice President Mike Pence, Trump persists in accusing NATO members of failing to pay the “massive amounts of money” he says they owe. Rather than reaffirm the US commitment to NATO’s collective-security principle, as its ministers had expected, Trump offered a lukewarm promise “never to forsake” America’s friends. Forgive them if they feel forsaken, or at least undercut, in favor of Putin’s Russia.

Besides Russia, the US sticking points with Europe are the trade deficit (the Germans are “very bad” on that score) and climate change. Trump’s appearance did nothing to reduce differences on those issues. In fact, it’s not clear that any of those topics even came up. His interest is mainly in saving money, counter-terrorism, and, evidently, faster ways to set up golf clubs in Europe. NATO has previously pledged in 2014 to gradually meet the goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on the military by 2024, though at present only four members besides the US have reached that target. (The European Union average is 1.34 percent spending on defense. US military spending is 3.6 percent of GDP.)

Trump’s criticism of NATO’s military spending is hardly new—previous administrations have said the same—but it ignores four points. First, NATO members have made important troop commitments in support of US policy—in the Balkans, for instance, and in Afghanistan—and are active in intelligence gathering and sharing on terrorism. Second, merely jacking up military spending, particularly in order to buy US-made weapons or justify further US contributions to NATO, may be welcome to the US military-industrial complex, but it doesn’t by itself strengthen the organization.

Third, NATO’s 28 European members need to reevaluate the strategic purposes of greater spending. For example, occasional military deployments in the Baltic states and Poland to show solidarity may be in order, but hemming Russia in, which the Pentagon has pushed under Obama and now Trump, and which the Europeans enthusiastically endorse, is needlessly provocative. These troop rotations and exercises exacerbate tensions with Moscow, lead to Russian counteractions, and raise the risk of accidental war.

Fourth, and most fundamentally: Does more military spending buy more security? The European members of NATO have every right to consider their own domestic agendas when deciding on how and when to meet the 2-percent goal. For them, terrorism, employment, immigration, and environmental protection count importantly in national security. Germany and France, for instance, fall well short on NATO spending; but the success of their economies is critical to the European Union’s future. Greece, on the other hand, is one of the four EU countries that meets the 2-percent mark. But why should Greece devote 2 percent of GDP to the military when it still is in a financial crisis, is deeply in debt to the EU, and does not face an external threat?

Trump’s qualified embrace of NATO and his persistent refusal to criticize Russia’s behavior may eventuate in some kind of distancing between the US and Europe. Reflecting German exasperation with Trump, Der Spiegel, in a blistering critique of Trump’s moral and intellectual deficiencies, offers five ways to deal with him. The last one is relevant to NATO: “the international community wakes up and finds a way to circumvent the White House and free itself of its dependence on the U.S.” In light of Russian intervention in Ukraine, Crimea, and Syria, a rift in the alliance could not come at a worse time. And how bizarre, that Trump should be so solicitous of Saudi Arabia and Israel, yet so brusque with the Europeans.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Imperiled Democracy 5/24/17

Our Imperiled Democracy – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Ambitious national political leaders invariably face a problem: how to get things done in the face of competing interests and institutional rules. Democratic leaders generally learn how to accommodate those interests, respect the rules, and understand that accountability is the essence of democracy. They work within the system because for all its flaws, the system works. Autocrats regard competing interests and rules of operation with disdain. Impatient to achieve their ends, they bully opponents, limit accountability and transparency, and seek to become the sole source of authority. Donald Trump seems to be leaning toward the latter approach.

Trump’s problem, as is now obvious, is that he can’t move his agenda as he had hoped. Being president, he recently said, isn’t so easy. His critics keep reminding him that he hasn’t done much in his first 100 days. He thought he could run the American empire the way he runs the Trump empire—in other words, without backtalk, transparency, or accountability. What is so worrisome is Trump’s notion of where the problem lies. For him, it’s democracy under a constitutional system, which he lately is describing as “archaic.” In an interview with Fox News, Trump expressed disappointment with congressional Republicans, but blamed the constitutional checks and balances for his legislative failures. “It’s a very rough system,” he said. “It’s an archaic system. . . . It’s really a bad thing for the country.” He assails judges who countermand his orders. Imagine, said Jeff Sessions: one judge “sitting on an island in the Pacific” can obstruct the chief executive!

The simple fact for Trump is that he can’t automatically get what he wants. The Democrats, the judges, and the press keep standing in his way. And they’re able to do that by relying on “archaic” rules and principles, such as the independence of the judiciary, a free and obstreperous press, and the filibuster. As Trump’s agenda continues to fail, we can expect that he will attack all these institutions even more often and vigorously than before. The theme of the press as “enemy of the people” and publisher of “fake news” will be repeated many times more. Judges in the Ninth Circuit Court and elsewhere who turn back Trump’s assault on immigration will have to be changed, perhaps along with the organization of the court system. The mainstream press will have to be sidelined and when possible silenced. Reince Priebus mentioned the possibility of using libel laws to do so—and even said the administration is “looking at” changing the First Amendment to legitimize suing the media. The other day, Trump’s reelection committee demanded that its video for showing on CNN display “fake news” when the video came to CNN and other mainstream media. CNN refused, with support from NBC, CBS, and ABC, and the campaign committee shouted “censorship.”

These are the sorts of things autocrats do. Trump’s praise (and envy?) of Putin, Xi, el-Sisi, Erdogan, Duterte, and other authoritarian leaders is well known. He may not like certain of their policies, but he admires strongman rule—the way these men “manage” dissent, push through policies, intimidate legislatures and courts. Even Kim Jong-un draws admiration—a “smart cookie” whom he would be “honored” to meet, Trump says, because Kim was able to fend off challenges to his power. It’s a moment ripe for Steve Bannon, who has been out of sight of late but is still lurking around. Some observers see his continuing influence on specific policies, such as immigration and trade. But the bigger threat Bannon poses is to the American way of governing by power sharing and competing interests. Trump’s frustrations are fodder for Bannon, who would like nothing better than to dismantle the state and concentrate enormous power in the White House.

All the above words were written before Trump fired James Comey, the FBI director—a brutal and alarming way to try to scuttle the FBI’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Trump and Sessions will now be able to appoint a fellow traveler, so to speak, and while that act will not end Senate and House investigations of Russiagate, it will seriously limit what they can hope to accomplish. Unless the Democrats can find several Republicans who are willing to put full-court pressure on the justice department, there will be no independent prosecutor or special panel. So much for checks and balances.

Here’s the bottom line: the presidency of Donald J. Trump is repugnant and damaging to the proper functioning of democratic processes. Although we progressives can mock Trump all we want (for now), he continues to undermine our system of government and brings us closer to the pure demagoguery he so admires. We citizens must find ways to stop his grasp for greater power. We need profiles in courage.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Not the Disease 5/24/17

Hostage to the rules of espionage – by Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler

“Trump emphasized the need to work together to end the conflict in Syria” . . . and “emphasized his desire to build a better relationship between the United States and Russia.”

Welcome to the last paragraph of a Washington Post story the other day, a loose fragment of news, a homeless child, a cynical trigger. This is the story in which we learn that “President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week” and the let’s-be-friends comment was part of the official White House statement about the meeting, the point of which was to dismiss the Post’s allegations as false.

And indeed, the statement comes wrapped in cynicism, as though our proto-fascist, race-baiting, bomb-happy president carries the world’s hope for peace in his heart. Nonetheless, I feel the need to rescue this paragraph from the rest of the Post’s story, which details the latest manifestation of Russiagate in Trumpville.

The president, apparently in a moment of reckless, “off-script” conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, allegedly tossed some classified data — which came to us via an ally (Israel, according to the New York Times) and so was supposed to be handled with ultra-secrecy — into the evening’s festivities: “I get great intel,” he said to the Russians, an unnamed official who was present told the Post. “I have people brief me on great intel every day.”

And another Trumpboast dominates the news for several days. The story amounted to this, as the Post explains: “Under the rules of espionage, governments — and even individual agencies — are given significant control over whether and how the information they gather is disseminated, even after it has been shared. Violating that practice undercuts trust considered essential to sharing secrets.”

So, OK, the president was boasting like a college sophomore after his fourth beer and, in the process, he violated “the rules of espionage.” That’s the story. For several days, it came blasting at us with the intensity of a firehose. It was reported with the urgency of Armageddon, which is how every Trump story is reported. And then it passes and we move on to the next one.

My point is that there’s a lot more urgency here than there is news. The story is about the rules of the national and global security state — which, please be clear, is not the same thing as national and global security. The story does not penetrate into the world of secrets those rules guard, or address the crucial need to resolve the planet’s hemorrhaging military conflicts. Rather, it stays on the surface of the matter, yammering that a rule has been violated. And the rule is presented as objective reality.

And suddenly I find myself careening backwards in time: The Bush administration has launched its war on terror and is preparing to invade Iraq and the mainstream coverage of this is sheer public relations for the invasion, completely dismissing the global opposition that has erupted across the planet. Fifteen years later, nothing has changed. The war and its subsequent ebb and flow of surges, the rise of terrorism, the collapse of the Middle East, the global flood of refugees — all of this is covered with a shrug, in a contextual void. And the planners and supporters of the invasion — the war-on-terrorists — remain securely in power, alarmed, apparently, about only one recent occurrence: the election of Donald Trump.

In the Post story, the only window on the larger reality in which we live is in that last paragraph, when a White House statement talks about “building a better relationship” between the United States and Russia. Such a statement has potentially world-changing consequences . . . except, alas, it’s not reported as news.

I’m not saying I believe Trump has the will or intelligence to advance the cause of global peace — or even much of an interest in anything beyond his own ego — but I am saying, if the media want to hold him accountable, they should do so in relation to the cause of peace, not the rules of espionage.

But, of course, neither George Bush nor Barack Obama — nor any American president — have ever been held accountable to the cause of peace, which is a remarkable fact to contemplate.

Another memory comes to mind. In the summer of 2004, I got a fundraising call from a member of the John Kerry presidential campaign; when I pushed him on where Kerry stood on the occupation of Iraq — needing to hear some indication he was against it — the caller eventually hung up on me in frustration. I was so troubled by this I called Kerry’s central campaign headquarters, where a spokesman expounded a point of view that I called at the time “Wolfowitz lite.”

“The antiwar voice, the soul of John Kerry’s support and a prime source of his funding . . . is totally shut out of this campaign,” I wrote.

And this voice is still shut out, but as a consolation prize we get to be spectators in our own democracy. As Chris Hedges writes:

“Forget the firing of James Comey. Forget the paralysis in Congress. Forget the idiocy of a press that covers our descent into tyranny as if it were a sports contest between corporate Republicans and corporate Democrats or a reality show starring our maniacal president and the idiots that surround him. Forget the noise. The crisis we face is not embodied in the public images of the politicians that run our dysfunctional government. The crisis we face is the result of a four-decade-long, slow-motion corporate coup that has rendered the citizen impotent. . . . Trump is the symptom, not the disease.”

So far the media have shown little curiosity beyond the symptom. I fear it’s because their benefactor is the disease.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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