Washington in Wonderland: Down the Iraqi Rabbit Hole (Again)

American leadership in the world, writes Bacevich, “ought to mean something other than simply repeating and compounding past mistakes. It should require more than clinging to policies that have manifestly failed. To remain willfully blind to those failures is not leadership, it’s madness.” (Photo: via Pentagon Watch)

By Andrew Bacevich

There is a peculiar form of insanity in which a veneer of rationality distracts attention from the madness lurking just beneath the surface. When Alice dove down her rabbit hole to enter a place where smirking cats offered directions, ill-mannered caterpillars dispensed advice, and Mock Turtles constituted the principal ingredient in Mock Turtle soup, she experienced something of the sort.

Yet, as the old adage goes, truth can be even stranger than fiction. For a real-life illustration of this phenomenon, one need look no further than Washington and its approach to national security policy. Viewed up close, it all seems to hang together. Peer out of the rabbit hole and the sheer lunacy quickly becomes apparent.

Consider this recent headline: “U.S. to Ship 2,000 Anti-Tank Missiles To Iraq To Help Fight ISIS.” The accompanying article describes a Pentagon initiative to reinforce Iraq’s battered army with a rush order of AT-4s. A souped-up version of the old bazooka, the AT-4 is designed to punch holes through armored vehicles.

Taken on its own terms, the decision makes considerable sense. Iraqi forces need something to counter a fearsome new tactic of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS): suicide bombers mounted in heavily armored wheeled vehicles. Improved antitank capabilities certainly could help Iraqi troops take out such bombers before they reach their intended targets. The logic is airtight. The sooner these weapons get into the hands of Iraqi personnel, the better for them — and so the better for us. (more…)

Plan B: Ditch Help For Workers, Just Get Corporations What They Want

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) have hatched a plan to muscle through Fast Track for President Obama. But there is no guarantee their plan will work.

As a new GOP-led approach to approving Fast Track authority on behalf of the Obama administration materializes, the process itself signals just how noxious the contents of deals like the TPP must be

By Jon Queally

Legislative maneuvering around Trade Promotion Authority (TPA or Fast Track) continued late Tuesday, as GOP leaders in Congress, the Obama administration, and a handful of anti-democracy Democrats hatched a plan to hold a straight vote on Fast Track—handing the White House the authority it wants to pass the Trans Pacific Partnership and other pending corporate-friendly agreements—while separating out a provision offering assistance to workers displaced by future trade deals.

It’s not a simple or guaranteed path forward for Fast Track, but Politico explained the GOP leadership’s latest approach this way:

Under the emerging plan, the House would vote on a bill that would give Obama fast-track authority to negotiate a sweeping trade deal with Pacific Rim countries, sending it to the Senate for final approval. To alleviate Democratic concerns, the Senate then would amend a separate bill on trade preferences to include Trade Adjustment Assistance, a worker aid program that Republicans oppose but that House Democrats have blocked to gain leverage in the negotiations over fast-track.

The leaders’ behind-the-scenes machinations are an attempt to allow both bills — TAA and the fast-track measure known as Trade Promotion Authority — to move to Obama’s desk separately, sidestepping the objections of House Democrats that stalled the package last week. The idea, which has been discussed among top congressional leaders and the White House, would be tantamount to a dare to pro-trade Democrats in both chambers to vote it down.

The plans are fluid and could change. But multiple congressional leaders, speaking anonymously to candidly describe their strategy, said they felt this was the only hope to reverse the trade package’s flagging fortunes.

The big question in the House remains how many of the 28 House Democrats who voted for Fast Track when the worker assistance program, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), was on the table would do so now that it’s been taken off. But even if the GOP-controlled House does pass a clean Fast Track bill, the path in the Senate is not likely to be smooth sailing. As The Hill notes, when the Senate approved Fast Track it included “both programs, and the support from 14 Democrats in the upper chamber hinged in part on that fact.”

And according to the Huffington Post:

As rumors swirled about Boehner being ready to move forward with a stand-alone TPA bill, House Democrats called for an emergency caucus meeting on Wednesday morning, where pro-TPA Democrats were expected to try to garner support for the Republican strategy. That meeting was abruptly canceled late Tuesday, after the House Rules Committee opted not to line up a floor vote on a clean fast-track bill. A committee aide said the panel had no plans to meet again this week to take up TPA.

Despite the committee’s punt on Tuesday, House Republican leaders appear ready to push through a clean TPA bill. Their latest strategy, according to Democratic and Republican aides, is to pass the clean bill and send it to the Senate, where lawmakers would then attach TAA to a separate trade bill for African countries, the African Growth and Opportunity Act. The strategy behind that approach would be to convince members of the Congressional Black Caucus to support TAA this time around, since the controversial funding would then be tied to AGOA.

If House Republicans do pursue a stand-alone TPA bill, it won’t necessarily make matters better for the president’s agenda. Passing a clean bill would be far more difficult in the Senate. Obama has vowed to veto a fast-track bill unless TAA is also passed or attached, and passing a clean bill would be far more difficult in the Senate.

Sen. McConnell, President Obama, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) have been discussing their options since the defeat last Friday, but it was McConnell on Tuesday who expressed the most optimism that Fast Track could still become law in the coming weeks.

“The Speaker and I have spoken with the president about the way forward on trade,” McConnell told reporters. “It’s still my hope that we can achieve what we’ve set out to achieve together, which is to get a six-year trade promotion authority bill in place that will advantage the next occupant of the White House as well as this one.”

Critics of both the TPP and Fast Track point out that machinations necessary to get them passed through Congress bodes poorly for the contents of the corporate-friendly agreements themselves. As David Morris, executive director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, argued in a piece at Common Dreams on Tuesday, the whole process stinks of an anti-democratic culture in which the contents of so-called “free trade” deals are being actively kept secret from the people—even as lawmakers jump through procedural hoop after procedural hoop in order for multinational corporations to get what they want. Moving forward, hope opponents, Congress should consider how the process has eclipsed substantive debate over the trade agenda’s wide-ranging implications for public health, the environment, and workers’ rights. According to Morris:

We the people would like it to be as transparent and democratic as possible. Public opinion consistently favors trade but just as consistently solidly opposes fast track. We oppose the remarkable, indeed unprecedented secrecy in which the trade pact has been drafted and the inability of the average citizen, unlike giant corporations, to play a part in that drafting. We condemn the prohibition against changing the document in any way after submission.

And perhaps most of all we are furious about fast track’s foreclosure of extensive and intensive debate on a complex document of far reaching consequence.

Morris noted that the existing system ostensibly allows for such debate, explaining that Obama, as president, can always submit a trade agreement—which historically were considered treaties and required approval of the Senate for passage. “If fast track fails the President can still submit a trade bill,” Morris explained. “And we can then launch a much needed and long overdue national conversation about the benefits and limitations of trade and the dangers of ceding sovereignty to a new international constitution whose goal is to limit democracy and expand corpocracy.”

Though the White House, according to the Huffington Post, has been “coy about what efforts are being made behind the scenes to get the trade package passed,” previous reporting by Common Dreams makes it clear that the political “arm-twisting” is happening at the highest levels.

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Could Anti-Climate Amendment Torpedo Fast Track?

Last-minute anti-climate effort led by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) slammed by green groups and some lawmakers

By Sarah Lazare

Environmental groups have long (warned) of the dangers Fast Track poses to the environment. Now they have solid proof.

With the controversial House Fast Track vote expected to take place Friday, an 11th-hour GOP effort to forbid U.S. trade officials from taking action on climate change has raised the fury of environmental groups and lawmakers, as well as hopes that the unpopular legislation could be torpedoed altogether.

Sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chair of the Ways and Means Committee, an amendment was inserted late Tuesday into a customs and trade bill currently being weighed alongside Fast Track legislation, known as Trade Promotion Authority.

The language is designed “to ensure that trade agreements do not require changes to U.S. law or obligate the United States with respect to global warming or climate change.”

But political observers see it as a last-ditch attempt to get reticent Republicans on-board.

As the National Journal reports, Ryan is “working hard to win Republican support for the trade bill. Doug Andres, a spokesman for the House Committee on Ways and Means, said that the climate-change amendment acts as an olive branch for House Republicans fearful that the president might use his trade negotiating power to take action on climate change.”

Critics say, in the midst of a climate crisis, it is outrageous that Ryan would seek to tie a trade representative’s hands, especially given the broad scope of the multiple corporate-friendly deals currently under negotiation: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and Trade in Services Agreement.

“President Obama needs to make it clear that ‘21st century trade deals’ cannot block climate action,” said Luísa Abbott Galvão of Friends of the Earth. “The president should start by telling Republican leadership and the public that the provision in the customs amendment is unacceptable.”

“President Obama cannot credibly claim that trade deals will force other countries to raise their environmental standards if he allows the same deals to secure a pass for the U.S. to keep dumping carbon into the planet’s atmosphere,” Galvão added.

The Fast Track legislation was already opposed by civil society and social movement groups around the U.S. and world—who criticize it as a tool for ramming through secret corporate-friendly deals, at the expense of people and the planet.

Karthik Ganapathy of 350.org said that this latest move could jeopardize Fast Track altogether: “Forbidding U.S. negotiators from ever addressing climate change in trade deals might might win over a couple of votes on the far right, but it’ll lose many more in the center and on the left because the new language is a disaster for our climate.”

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) derided the maneuver, declaring, “Now Republicans want to use [Fast Track] to prevent any new climate change standards in our trade deals.”

All eyes are on the vote, expected to take place Friday, with many high-profile politicians, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), remaining mum on how they will vote.

Patrick Woodall of Food & Water Watch declared in a press statement Thursday, “With Fast Track for the Trans-Pacific Partnership now on its way to the House floor, it’s time for our Representatives to stand up to the so-called free trade attacks on common sense protections for public health, the environment and consumers.”

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Furthering a Failed Strategy, Obama To Send More Ground Troops to Iraq

Critics say that everything the administration is doing in Middle East is making things worse, not better.

By Jon Queally

In a move anti-war critics and foreign policy experts are certain to call simply an extension of a policy that has proved a failure, the New York Times reports the Obama administration is planning to build a new military base in the western part of Iraq and send additional ground troops in an attempt to turn the tide against Islamic State (ISIS) forces who have continued to take and hold ground on sides of the Syrian border in recent weeks.

After recent advances by ISIS that allowed them to capture the city of Ramadi in Iraq’s Anbar Province, the Pentagon is talking openly about sending what it calls “additional trainers” to bolster the Iraqi army in the Sunni-dominated region that skirts Syria.

As the Times reports:

In a major shift of focus in the battle against the Islamic State, the Obama administration is planning to establish a new military base in Anbar Province, Iraq, and to send 400 more American military trainers to help Iraqi forces retake the city of Ramadi. […]

The additional American troops will arrive as early as this summer, a United States official said, and will focus on training Sunni fighters with the Iraqi Army. The official called the coming announcement “an adjustment to try to get the right training to the right folks.”

Though there are already approximately 3,000 U.S. soldiers on the ground in Iraq, President Obama made headlines on Monday when he spoke from the G7 summit in Germany and admitted that the U.S. did not yet have a “complete strategy” for dealing with ISIS.

However, as Jason Ditz writes at Anti-War.com, the idea to send additional U.S. troops to Iraq was not entirely unexpected,

as President Obama had previously indicated this his primary goal at this point was to speed up the training of Iraqi troops. The new troops are being labeled “trainers,” but are likely to be among those that Pentagon officials are openly talking about “embedding” on the front lines, meaning they’d be sent into direct combat.

As losses have mounted in Iraq and Syria, with ISIS taking more and more cities, the Pentagon has repeatedly rejected the idea that the strategy was at all flawed, and has tried to blame Iraqi troops for not winning more. The US appears to be doubling down on this narrative by adding troops.

But according to critics of Obama’s foreign policy and war strategy in Syria and Iraq, everything the administration is doing “right now is making the situation worse” – not better. (more…)

Putin Says US Imperial Footprint Unmatched: ‘Draw a Map and See’

Despite US military dominance, Obama accuses Russian leader of attempting to ‘recreate Soviet empire’

By Lauren McCauley

Responding to ongoing brinkmanship between the United States and his country, Russian President Vladimir Putin dared reporters to publish a map of the two nations’ global military footprints and then “see the difference.”

The comments came over the weekend as G7 leaders assembled in Bavaria, Germany—a meeting which, prior to the recent upheaval in Ukraine, would have also included Russia. On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama closed the summit by saying that the Russian leader was aiming to “recreate the Soviet empire.”

G7 leaders stood united in their threat to increase sanctions against Russia if the conflict in Ukraine escalates.

“Does he continue to wreck his country’s economy and continue Russia’s isolation in pursuit of a wrong-headed desire to recreate the glories of the Soviet empire?” Obama asked in his closing remarks. “Or does he recognize that Russia’s greatness does not depend on violating the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other countries?”

However, Obama’s accusations of Russia violating the “sovereignty of other countries” are striking in light of the United States’ own military strategy, which Putin highlighted days earlier in a Saturday interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

“U.S. military spending is higher than that of all countries in the world taken together,” Putin said. “The aggregate military spending of NATO countries is 10 times, note—10 times higher than that of the Russian Federation.”

Outside of what he described as the “remnants” of Soviet-era armed forces in Tajikistan, Armenia, and zones with high terrorist threat such as the Afghanistan border and Kyrgyzstan, Putin said that “Russia has virtually no bases abroad.”

“We have dismantled our bases in various regions of the world, including Cuba, Vietnam, and so on,” he said.

And despite statements about Russian aggression, this draw-down highlights a policy that “in this respect is not global, offensive or aggressive.”

“I invite you to publish the world map in your newspaper and to mark all the U.S. military bases on it,” Putin continued. “You will see the difference.”

Amid the verbal sparring match, the U.S. military also took steps to increase pressure on the ground.

On Friday, U.S. Strategic Command announced that three nuclear-capable B52 bombers were being deployed in addition to two B2 bombers to the United Kingdom for exercises to demonstrate “the United States’ ability to project its flexible, long-range global strike capability” in training missions over the Baltic states and Poland.

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The Bomb Iran Lobby Gears Up for 2016

The billionaire gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson is among those bankrolling a scare campaign against U.S. diplomacy with Iran. (Image: DonkeyHotey/flickr/cc)

A tight-knit group of neocon dead-enders is pushing Iran to the forefront of the GOP’s foreign policy agenda.

By Sina Toossi

In a recent TV ad, a van snakes its way through an American city. As the driver fiddles with the radio dial, dire warnings about the perils of a “nuclear Iran” spill out of the speaker from Senator Lindsey Graham and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The driver then steers the vehicle into a parking garage, drives to the top level, and blows it up in a blinding flash of white light. Words shimmer across the screen: “No Iran Nuclear Treaty Without Congressional Approval.”

While diplomats from Iran and the “P5+1″ world powers work to forge a peaceful resolution to the decade-long standoff over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, a well-financed network of “experts” — like the “American Security Initiative” that produced the above “Special Delivery” ad — is dedicating enormous amounts of time and energy to weakening public support for the talks in the United States.

These think-tank gurus, special interest groups, and media pundits have peddled a plethora of alarmist narratives aimed at scuttling the diplomatic process — and they’ve relied far more on fear mongering than facts.

So who are these people?

A Close-Knit Network

Despite their bipartisan façade, these reflexively anti-Iran ideologues are in reality a tight-knit group. Many were also prominent supporters of the Iraq War and other foreign policy debacles from the last 15 years. They work in close coordination with one another and are often bankrolled by similar funders.

Four GOP super-donors alone — the billionaires Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer, Bernard Marcus, and Seth Klarman — keep afloat an array of groups that ceaselessly advocate confrontation with Iran, like the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Other groups forming the core of this network include the neoconservative Hudson Institute and the Foreign Policy Initiative, as well as more explicitly hardline “pro-Israel” groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Emergency Committee for Israel, The Israel Project, and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

Several of these outfits also rely on right-wing grant-making foundations such as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Scaife Foundations, which together funnel millions into hardline policy shops.

Hardline Senators

Together these groups have established what amounts to their own echo chamber. They’ve built an anti-Iran communications and lobbying infrastructure that enjoys substantial influence in Washington’s corridors of power, particularly in Congress.

One of this network’s more prominent beneficiaries has been Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), a through-and-through neocon disciple whose truculent opposition to the Iran talks has given pause to even conservative figures like Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, who asked him what the “point” was of his infamous open letter to Iran last March that was signed by 47 Senate Republicans. Other prominent senators with close ties to this network include Cotton’s Republican colleagues Lindsey Graham, Mark Kirk, Kelly Ayotte, and John McCain.

Cotton’s successful run for Senate last year came on the heels of massive financial contributions he received from key members of the anti-Iran lobby, including Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel, which spent roughly $1 million to get Cotton elected. Adelson, Singer, and Klarman, as well as the PAC run by former UN ambassador and avowed militarist John Bolton, also contributed significantly to Cotton’s campaign.

While some pundits and politicians say they’re looking for a “better deal” with Iran than the one the Obama administration has negotiated, Cotton has explicitly said that he’s looking for no deal at all. He’s called an end to the nuclear negotiations an “intended consequence” of legislation he’s supported to impose new sanctions on Iran and give Congress an up-or-down vote on the agreement.

Think Tank Warriors (more…)

With Deadline in Sight, Senate Scrambles on Patriot Act

Sen. Dianne Feinstein pushes new legislation that would criminalize whistleblower activity on national security

By Nadia Prupis

As public outcry against government spying reaches a fever pitch, the U.S. Senate is scrambling to address the USA Patriot Act, key sections of which are currently speeding toward expiration.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday warned the Senate—which is on a weeklong Memorial Day recess—to pass legislation that would renew those provisions, such as Section 215, which are scheduled to sunset on June 1.

“The problem we have now is that those authorities run out at midnight on Sunday,” Obama said. “So I strongly urge the Senate to work through this recess and make sure that they identify a way to get this done.”

The Senate on Friday rejected the legislation, known as the USA Freedom Act, which would have ended the National Security Agency’s (NSA) authority to collect domestic phone records in bulk, but would have renewed Section 215 and other controversial provisions of the Patriot Act which are set to expire next week. The U.S. House passed the USA Freedom Act on May 14.

On Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s watch, lawmakers are set to reconvene on Sunday, May 31 to vote again on the USA Freedom Act, as well as on another deal proposed—and rejected—last week that would have temporarily extended the Patriot Act.

The Senate will also consider legislation introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), which would prohibit “unauthorized disclosures” by an “officer, employee, contractor, or consultant of the United States” or any “recipient of an order” issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), who “knowingly comes into possession of classified information or documents or materials containing classified information” of the U.S.

As Kevin Gosztola writes at Firedoglake, Feinstein’s bill—modeled after the Espionage Act—”would not only save spying powers but also codify into law a provision that would expressly enable the government to criminalize any national security whistleblower who may choose to follow the footsteps of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.”

Observers say that the chances are slim that the Senate will embrace any of those bills after overwhelmingly rejecting two of them so recently—and that’s just what privacy advocates are hoping for.

The USA Freedom Act has gotten a lukewarm reception by digital rights organizations like Fight for the Future and the Electronic Frontier Foundation over what they say are insufficient reforms of the NSA’s spying powers.

Fight for the Future called the Senate’s rejection of the bill on Friday a “historic tactical win against surveillance.”

“Sunsetting the Patriot Act is the biggest win for ending mass surveillance programs,” Tiffiniy Cheng, co-founder of Fight for the Future, a coalition of civil liberties and privacy rights organizations, said at the time. “We are seeing history in the making and it was because the public stood up for our rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association—and there’s no turning back now.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation explained the setup succinctly last week, with senior staff attorney Lee Tien writing in a blog post that the gridlock is “good news: if the Senate stalemate continues, the mass surveillance of everyone’s phone records will simply expire on June 1.”

“We commend every Senator who voted against reauthorizing the unconstitutional surveillance of millions of law-abiding Americans,” Tien wrote.

Congress should again reject renewing Section 215 on Sunday and instead “turn to addressing other surveillance abuses by the US government, including mass surveillance of the Internet, the secretive and one-sided FISA Court, and the problems of secrecy and over-classification that have created the environment that allowed such spying overreach to flourish,” he continued.

As ACLU legislative counsel Michelle Richardson wrote in an op-ed last Friday, “The question before Congress and the American people now is whether that provision should be renewed. The answer is a clear and resounding no.

“Voting for reauthorization of Section 215 now would not just be a missed opportunity for a serious debate about the role of government surveillance in our democracy; it would be an endorsement of the unconstitutional surveillance programs we already know exist, and a tacit endorsement of those we’re still in the dark about.”

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Remember This on Memorial Day: They Didn’t Fall, They Were Pushed

Of all the world’s holidays commemorating wars, Memorial Day should be one of sober reflection on war’s horrible costs, surely not a moment to glorify warfare or lust for more wars.

By Ray McGovern

How best to show respect for the U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and for their families on Memorial Day? Simple: Avoid euphemisms like “the fallen” and expose the lies about what a great idea it was to start those wars and then to “surge” tens of thousands of more troops into those fools’ errands.

First, let’s be clear on at least this much: the 4,500 U.S. troops killed in Iraq – so far – and the 2,350 killed in Afghanistan – so far – did not “fall.” They were wasted on no-win battlefields by politicians and generals – cheered on by neocon pundits and mainstream “journalists” – almost none of whom gave a rat’s patootie about the real-life-and-death troops. They were throwaway soldiers.

And, as for the “successful surges,” they were just P.R. devices to buy some “decent intervals” for the architects of these wars and their boosters to get space between themselves and the disastrous endings while pretending that those defeats were really “victories squandered” – all at the “acceptable” price of about 1,000 dead U.S. soldiers each and many times that in dead Iraqis and Afghans.

Memorial Day should be a time for honesty about what enabled the killing and maiming of so many U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and the senior military brass simply took full advantage of a poverty draft that gives upper-class sons and daughters the equivalent of exemptions, vaccinating them against the disease of war.

What drives me up the wall is the oft-heard, dismissive comment about troop casualties from well-heeled Americans: “Well, they volunteered, didn’t they?” Under the universal draft in effect during Vietnam, far fewer were immune from service, even though the well-connected could still game the system to avoid serving. Vice Presidents Dick Cheney and Joe Biden, for example, each managed to pile up five exemptions. This means, of course, that they brought zero military experience to the job; and this, in turn, may explain a whole lot — particularly given their bosses’ own lack of military experience.

The grim truth is that many of the crème de la crème of today’s Official Washington don’t know many military grunts, at least not intimately as close family or friends. They may bump into some on the campaign trail or in an airport and mumble something like, “thank you for your service.” But these sons and daughters of working-class communities from America’s cities and heartland are mostly abstractions to the powerful, exclamation points at the end of some ideological debate demonstrating which speaker is “tougher,” who’s more ready to use military force, who will come out on top during a talk show appearance or at a think-tank conference or on the floor of Congress.

Sharing the Burden? (more…)

The West and ISIS

By Jim Wight

Far from the boasts made by the US, British, and French governments that IS would be destroyed, they have been unable to even contain the extremist jihadi group as it marches from city to city and town to town in Syria and Iraq, seemingly without constraint, sowing chaos and carnage in the process.

There are a number of reasons why the West has made a virtue of failure and disaster in the region. The first, of course, is the determination to prosecute a hegemonic strategy regardless of the consequences. We can trace the modern incarnation of this strategy to the 2003 war in Iraq, which only succeeded in destabilizing the country preparatory to it descending into the abyss of sectarian violence and schism, where it exists today, 12 years later.

The short-lived Arab Spring of 2011/12, which after decades spent living under corrupt dictatorships gave millions of people across the region reason to hope for a better future, gave way to an Arab Winter in the form of a counter-revolutionary process driven by Western intervention – first in Libya with the air war unleashed against the Gaddafi regime, and then in Syria with its support for the opposition against Assad. The resulting chaos laid the ground for the emergence of various al-Qaeda affiliated groups, followed by ISIL/ISIS, later morphing into IS (or Daesh in Arabic).

Despite carrying out airstrikes against the organization both in Syria and Iraq, it has taken Ramadi in western Iraq and the ancient city of Palmyra in the district of Homs in central Syria with alarming ease. After failing to take the Kurdish town of Kobane in northern Syria, next to the Turkish border, and losing Tikrit to Iraq government forces earlier this year, its butchery and barbarism is once again resurgent.

The loss of Ramadi in particular, a mere 80 miles from Baghdad, is a major embarrassment for Washington, despite Obama’s incredulous statement that it merely constitutes a “setback.” The billions of dollars funnelled into Iraq by the US to finance the reconstitution of the Iraqi Army has proved akin to pouring money down a drain. The elite Golden Division, for example, stationed in Ramadi, tucked tail and fled almost on first contact with IS forces, leaving in its wake a significant amount of US-supplied hardware and equipment.

What’s clear by now is that a full-blown Sunni-Shia conflict is underway across the region, pitting Sunni-supported IS against an Iranian-supported Shia militia that has already proved its mettle with the taking back of Tikrit. The context of this struggle is the deep enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia, informing a series of proxy local conflicts in Yemen and most prominently in Iraq and Syria.

Further, when it comes to this conflict, the West is on the wrong side – friendly with those it has no business being friends with, and enemies of those it has no business being enemies with. The Saudis, Qataris, and Turkey have been guilty of fomenting the chaos and carnage with both the active or passive support for IS, without which it could not sustain its existence and enjoyed the success it has.

In particular the Saudi gang of corrupt potentates, sitting in gilded palaces in Riyadh, have long been dredging a deep well of hypocrisy as part of the US-led grand coalition against IS and its medieval barbarism. A state that beheads almost as many people in public as IS, the oil-rich kingdom’s status as a close Western ally is beyond reprehensible. Money talks, but in Riyadh it flows alongside a river of blood spilled in the name of Wahhabism, the perverse and extreme Sunni ideology that underpins the obscene luxury and ostentation of the nation’s ruling clan.

Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, supported by Russia, are currently leading the ‘real’ struggle against the savagery of IS. Yet each of them is regarded as a threat to regional stability and Western interests, and scorned as such.

The need for a major reorientation of the West’s entire Middle East policy is glaringly obvious. Instead of lurching from one disaster to another – all in the name of ‘democratism’, which is not to be confused with democracy – a coherent strategy to defeat IS and its butchery rather than make it stronger would entail the formation of a coalition of the willing, comprising Iran and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

Syria’s survival as a secular state, in which the rights of minorities are upheld, is from guaranteed as the conflict that has ripped the country apart enters its fourth year. Its people have suffered immeasurable harm over the course of this brutal conflict, suffering that evinces no sign of letting up soon.

The Assad government and the Syrian army, which has bled like no other army has in recent times, have proved unbelievably resolute in resisting both Syria’s invasion by thousands of foreign jihadis, and the enormous pressure levelled against the regime by US and its allies, both within and without the region.

As for Iraq, the damage wrought by the sectarianism of the Maliki government, prior to it being ousted in August 2014, is even worse than most thought. The Iraqi Army is unfit for purpose, riven with corruption and a lack of morale. The fact that 200 IS militants were able to rout the 2000 Iraqi troops defending Ramadi tells its own story. It is also evident that IS has been able to exploit the disaffection of the Sunni population throughout Anbar Province – otherwise known as the Sunni Triangle – without whose either active or passive support they would not have been able to take first Fallujah and now Ramadi.

Iraq’s permanent schism along sectarian lines is closer now than it has ever been. This rather than a Western-style democracy is the end result of Bush and Blair’s war of 2003.

The spreading destabilization of the Middle East is a threat to stability and security everywhere. With every gain made by IS more disaffected young Muslims throughout the West are attracted to its ideology. As Malcolm X said, “You can’t understand what’s going on in Mississippi if you don’t understand what’s going on in the Congo.”

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John Wight is the author of a politically incorrect and irreverent Hollywood memoir – Dreams That Die – published by Zero Books. He’s also written five novels, which are available as Kindle eBooks. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnWight1

As Patriot Act Expiration Looms, Critics Hope for Sunset on Mass Surveillance

With a deadline for the USA Patriot Act fast approaching, Congress has little time to decide how to proceed—but the call to ‘sunset’ the law is growing. (Photo: Dan Cook/flickr/cc/with overlay)

‘Together we will end the Patriot Act, and the sun can rise on a new day filled with freedom and privacy for all.’

By Nadia Prupis and Deirdre Fulton

With the fate of the USA Patriot Act still hanging in the balance late afternoon Friday—and lawmakers eager to leave Washington, D.C., for Memorial Day barbecues and campaign stops in their home states—the chance to see the sun go down on the controversial spying bill is still on the table.

The debate over the Patriot Act is centered around one of its key provisions, Section 215, which is set to expire on June 1 absent congressional action. The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) previously relied on Section 215 to justify its mass phone data collection operation, but its expiration would force an end to that program.

With that “sunset” approaching, lawmakers have the chance to reform the Patriot Act, end it altogether, or pass a clean re-authorization that renews all the provisions set to expire in mere days.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is the most outspoken supporter of a clean re-authorization, arguing that the Patriot Act in its current form is a crucial tool in the so-called “War on Terror.” FBI director James Comey also said this week that it would be a “big problem” to lose the authority that the law bestows on the intelligence agencies.

Adding to the urgency is the Obama administration’s warning that Congress only has until Friday to act on the law, because the government will need time to scale down its phone data program if it is not re-authorized. The House of Representatives has already left for the Memorial Day weekend.

The White House, along with the U.S. House, supports reform legislation called the USA Freedom Act, and warned that “there is no Plan B, these are authorities Congress must legislate.”

Should the Senate fail to pass the reform bill, said White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Friday, there is nothing the president can do to stop the Patriot Act provisions from lapsing.

Of course, that would be just fine with privacy activists and advocacy groups who oppose intrusive government surveillance. At protests held in dozens of cities on Thursday, demonstrators called on Congress to oppose any re-authorization of the Patriot Act and instead let its spying provisions sunset as scheduled on June 1.

“It’s time we came together and let the sun go down on this dark age of government surveillance,” said Fight for the Future campaign director Evan Greer. “Together we will end the Patriot Act, and the sun can rise on a new day filled with freedom and privacy for all.”

Free Press Action Fund government relations manager Sandra Fulton added, “The nationwide sunset vigils have sent a signal to Washington: It’s time we closed this chapter on mass surveillance and restored everyone’s rights to connect and communicate in private.”

However, The Hill reported Friday that “momentum appeared to be on the side of reformers, whose hopes were buoyed by the near certainty that the Senate will either need to pass [the House version of] the USA Freedom Act, or allow three parts of the post-9/11 law to sunset.”

The report went on to say the USA Freedom Act “has the backing of the majority of the Senate—including all Democrats—but it remains unclear whether it has the 60 votes necessary to overcome procedural hurdles during what increasingly looks like a rare Memorial Day weekend session.”

The USA Freedom Act passed the House on May 14 with an overwhelming 338-88 vote. But according to advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the USA Freedom Act is a “small step instead of a giant leap,” particularly in comparison with previous iterations of the bill, introduced in 2013 and 2014, which offered stronger reforms but failed to progress through Congress.

The Act grants a five-year extension to Section 215.

After the bill passed the House, Tiffiniy Cheng, co-founder of Fight for the Future, warned that the USA Freedom Act would actually “expand the scope of surveillance” by the NSA and others.

“This is a fake privacy bill,” Cheng said. “Corrupt members of Congress and their funders in the defense industry are attempting to package up their surveillance-powers wishlist and misleadingly brand it as ‘USA Freedom.’ This is disappointing and offensive, and we will continue to work to kill this bill and any other attempt to legitimize unconstitutional surveillance systems.”

Opposition to the Patriot Act has grown steadily since whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed Section 215’s role in the NSA spying program. The call to let the provision expire only grew after a federal appeals court ruled earlier this month that the agency’s phone surveillance operation is illegal. And as Mike Masnick at Techdirt points out, a Justice Department investigation into the FBI’s use of Section 215, released Thursday, found that the provision has never been particularly useful in anti-terrorism efforts.

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