Sex, Lies and Incompetence: Britain’s Ruling Establishment in Crisis

CounterPunch 

Photo: BBC

Barely five months after a general election in the United Kingdom, the government of Prime Minister Theresa May looks doomed. It could fall any day, next week or next month. Within her Conservative Party and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, in other European countries and beyond, speculation is rife that Theresa May’s days in office may be numbered. Scandals involving sex, lies and incompetence unfold day after day. The rot has set in at the heart of Britain’s power centre.

As the deadline for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union (March 29, 2019) approaches, rival factions in the government and the Conservative parliamentary party are engaged in fierce battles over what kind of Brexit they want. Once a Conservative Member of Parliament and now a distinguished commentator, Matthew Parris, says, “The sooner Theresa May goes, the better.”

Ministers operate like freelance diplomats and traders, not like members of a cabinet which has collective responsibility, without reference to the protocol and the Prime Minister’s Office. Claims of sexual misconduct by politicians of various parties, but more seriously by ministers, abound. Allegations of groping have ended the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s career, after his confession that at times his behaviour had fallen short. And the First Secretary of State (in effect deputy prime minister), Damian Green, has been accused by a much younger woman activist, Kate Maltby, of making sexual advances and sending “suggestive” text messages to her. These accounts are widely reported in the media.

Further, there are claims, backed by a former senior police officer, that pornography was discovered on Damian Green’s office computer some years ago. He denies the allegations, and the Prime Minister has ordered an investigation. But, unlike Michael Fallon, Damian Green remains in his post.

Sleaze at the heart of power goes back to the time when Theresa May’s predecessor, David Cameron, was in office. A well-known television producer, Daisy Goodwin, has alleged that she was groped by a staff member in the then Prime Minister David Cameron’s official residence. According to Goodwin, when she challenged the man who was much younger than her, he dropped his hand from her breast and laughed nervously. Ex-Prime Minister Cameron now says he is “alarmed, shocked and concerned.”

Photo: Canary.co

At the same time, it emerged that another minister, the International Development Secretary Priti Patel, went on “holiday” to Israel and held 12 meetings with Israeli officials, including the Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. First, Patel said that she had informed the Foreign Office about her visit. It turned out that she had not. She apologised and was let off the hook. Then, news leaked out that she had had more meetings with Israeli officials and had not declared them. That was too much. Priti Patel was summoned back to London from a visit to Africa and left the Cabinet soon after.

Leaks also revealed that Patel had visited the occupied (Syrian) Golan Heights. She inspected an Israeli army hospital where Syrian “refugees” and anti-Assad rebels are treated. And she was in talks about ways to divert British foreign aid to the Israeli army. The United Kingdom does not recognise Israeli control in occupied Arab territories. British ministers do not visit those areas. When they do they have to maintain a strict protocol and meet Palestinian as well as Israeli officials to give the appearance of balance. The International Development Secretary broke all the rules.

Theresa May’s minority government is beset by crises of its own making. Having supported the option to stay in the European Union in the 2016 EU referendum, she has become a fervent Leaver since becoming Prime Minister. And her calculations have gone badly wrong. She called a general election in June 2017, dead certain of winning a big majority in Parliament and thereafter doing what she liked in exiting the EU and shaping the country in her own post-Brexit vision. Instead, she lost her majority in Parliament. A number of sitting MPs of her party were defeated. She snatched defeat from the jaws of victory many in her party had anticipated.

Now, she barely governs as head of a Conservative minority government. She is sustained in office by 10 MPs of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party which has promised to support her in any motion of confidence. She has bought the DUP’s support with a billion pound additional funding for Northern Ireland. But the deal has raised serious questions over the British government’s impartiality in the peace process and power-sharing between the province’s Catholic and Protestant communities that ended decades of conflict in April 1998.

In her party, Theresa May’s position is made even more precarious by about 35 hard-line MPs who would not accept any compromise in forging a new relationship with the European Union. Since triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in March 2017 to exit the European Union, she is under relentless pressure from these uncompromising anti-EU MPs to make no concessions to the other side. Whether it is about paying the exit fee to meet the UK’s commitments to current EU projects and pension liabilities etc., accepting the EU requirement of four freedoms (movement of goods, services, capital, people) in a future trade relationship or the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice for settling disputes between the UK and the EU.

A number of her MPs want the British government to simply walk away from the talks, arguing that it will be the EU that will come back to negotiate trade with the United Kingdom. Others want a soft Brexit and trading as open as possible thereafter. Still others insist that the UK must leave the EU in March 2019, and any transition arrangement must be as short as possible.

In a leaked secret letter setting out their terms of exit, the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, and the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, have written to the Prime Minister that after the UK ceases to be a member of the EU in March 2019, any transition period must end precisely on the last day of June 2021. Writing in the Guardian, the newspaper’s political columnist Rafael Behr called it ego-wrestling in the British cabinet. The Prime Minister can neither sack Boris Johnson nor Michael Gove, because by doing so she will risk bringing down her government.

The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has a history of making off-the-cough remarks, a bumbling style and public buffoonery. Currently, he is in serious trouble following his careless, and false, comments before a parliamentary select committee. Speaking about Iran and a British-Iranian dual citizen being held in jail on accusations of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government, the Foreign Secretary said that the woman was only teaching journalism there. Actually she had gone to see her elderly parents and was arrested by Revolutionary Guards as she was about to board a flight to return to Britain.

The Iranian authorities jumped on Johnson’s comments, claiming that his remarks proved that the woman was guilty, and are threatening to double her five-year jail sentence. In prison, Nazanin Zaghary-Radcliffe’s health is declining. Her daughter is being looked after by her parents while her British husband, Richard Radcliffe, battles to get them back home. For several days, Boris Johnson resisted calls to apologise for making a false statement which has caused a British family a lot of trouble. Finally, he did apologise, but the woman’s fate remains in the hands of the Iranian authorities.

So, the government of Theresa May stumbles from crisis to crisis as the United Kingdom approaches exit from the European Union, the biggest trading bloc which surrounds it.

When she succeeded David Cameron as Prime Minister in July 2016, many people had assumed that she would be a safe pair of hands. However, her actions, her dependence on a small number of advisers personally loyal to her and her inability to win the party’s and people’s confidence have proved otherwise. In the midst of scandals involving sex, lies and ineptitude at the highest level of her government, she now fights for her own political survival as Parliament scrutinises the EU Withdrawal Bill.

[END]

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Sex, Lies and Incompetence: Britain’s Ruling Establishment in Crisis

CounterPunch 

Photo: BBC

Barely five months after a general election in the United Kingdom, the government of Prime Minister Theresa May looks doomed. It could fall any day, next week or next month. Within her Conservative Party and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, in other European countries and beyond, speculation is rife that Theresa May’s days in office may be numbered. Scandals involving sex, lies and incompetence unfold day after day. The rot has set in at the heart of Britain’s power centre.

As the deadline for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union (March 29, 2019) approaches, rival factions in the government and the Conservative parliamentary party are engaged in fierce battles over what kind of Brexit they want. Once a Conservative Member of Parliament and now a distinguished commentator, Matthew Parris, says, “The sooner Theresa May goes, the better.”

Ministers operate like freelance diplomats and traders, not like members of a cabinet which has collective responsibility, without reference to the protocol and the Prime Minister’s Office. Claims of sexual misconduct by politicians of various parties, but more seriously by ministers, abound. Allegations of groping have ended the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s career, after his confession that at times his behaviour had fallen short. And the First Secretary of State (in effect deputy prime minister), Damian Green, has been accused by a much younger woman activist, Kate Maltby, of making sexual advances and sending “suggestive” text messages to her. These accounts are widely reported in the media.

Further, there are claims, backed by a former senior police officer, that pornography was discovered on Damian Green’s office computer some years ago. He denies the allegations, and the Prime Minister has ordered an investigation. But, unlike Michael Fallon, Damian Green remains in his post.

Sleaze at the heart of power goes back to the time when Theresa May’s predecessor, David Cameron, was in office. A well-known television producer, Daisy Goodwin, has alleged that she was groped by a staff member in the then Prime Minister David Cameron’s official residence. According to Goodwin, when she challenged the man who was much younger than her, he dropped his hand from her breast and laughed nervously. Ex-Prime Minister Cameron now says he is “alarmed, shocked and concerned.”

Photo: Canary.co

At the same time, it emerged that another minister, the International Development Secretary Priti Patel, went on “holiday” to Israel and held 12 meetings with Israeli officials, including the Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. First, Patel said that she had informed the Foreign Office about her visit. It turned out that she had not. She apologised and was let off the hook. Then, news leaked out that she had had more meetings with Israeli officials and had not declared them. That was too much. Priti Patel was summoned back to London from a visit to Africa and left the Cabinet soon after.

Leaks also revealed that Patel had visited the occupied (Syrian) Golan Heights. She inspected an Israeli army hospital where Syrian “refugees” and anti-Assad rebels are treated. And she was in talks about ways to divert British foreign aid to the Israeli army. The United Kingdom does not recognise Israeli control in occupied Arab territories. British ministers do not visit those areas. When they do they have to maintain a strict protocol and meet Palestinian as well as Israeli officials to give the appearance of balance. The International Development Secretary broke all the rules.

Theresa May’s minority government is beset by crises of its own making. Having supported the option to stay in the European Union in the 2016 EU referendum, she has become a fervent Leaver since becoming Prime Minister. And her calculations have gone badly wrong. She called a general election in June 2017, dead certain of winning a big majority in Parliament and thereafter doing what she liked in exiting the EU and shaping the country in her own post-Brexit vision. Instead, she lost her majority in Parliament. A number of sitting MPs of her party were defeated. She snatched defeat from the jaws of victory many in her party had anticipated.

Now, she barely governs as head of a Conservative minority government. She is sustained in office by 10 MPs of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party which has promised to support her in any motion of confidence. She has bought the DUP’s support with a billion pound additional funding for Northern Ireland. But the deal has raised serious questions over the British government’s impartiality in the peace process and power-sharing between the province’s Catholic and Protestant communities that ended decades of conflict in April 1998.

In her party, Theresa May’s position is made even more precarious by about 35 hard-line MPs who would not accept any compromise in forging a new relationship with the European Union. Since triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in March 2017 to exit the European Union, she is under relentless pressure from these uncompromising anti-EU MPs to make no concessions to the other side. Whether it is about paying the exit fee to meet the UK’s commitments to current EU projects and pension liabilities etc., accepting the EU requirement of four freedoms (movement of goods, services, capital, people) in a future trade relationship or the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice for settling disputes between the UK and the EU.

A number of her MPs want the British government to simply walk away from the talks, arguing that it will be the EU that will come back to negotiate trade with the United Kingdom. Others want a soft Brexit and trading as open as possible thereafter. Still others insist that the UK must leave the EU in March 2019, and any transition arrangement must be as short as possible.

In a leaked secret letter setting out their terms of exit, the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, and the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, have written to the Prime Minister that after the UK ceases to be a member of the EU in March 2019, any transition period must end precisely on the last day of June 2021. Writing in the Guardian, the newspaper’s political columnist Rafael Behr called it ego-wrestling in the British cabinet. The Prime Minister can neither sack Boris Johnson nor Michael Gove, because by doing so she will risk bringing down her government.

The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has a history of making off-the-cough remarks, a bumbling style and public buffoonery. Currently, he is in serious trouble following his careless, and false, comments before a parliamentary select committee. Speaking about Iran and a British-Iranian dual citizen being held in jail on accusations of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government, the Foreign Secretary said that the woman was only teaching journalism there. Actually she had gone to see her elderly parents and was arrested by Revolutionary Guards as she was about to board a flight to return to Britain.

The Iranian authorities jumped on Johnson’s comments, claiming that his remarks proved that the woman was guilty, and are threatening to double her five-year jail sentence. In prison, Nazanin Zaghary-Radcliffe’s health is declining. Her daughter is being looked after by her parents while her British husband, Richard Radcliffe, battles to get them back home. For several days, Boris Johnson resisted calls to apologise for making a false statement which has caused a British family a lot of trouble. Finally, he did apologise, but the woman’s fate remains in the hands of the Iranian authorities.

So, the government of Theresa May stumbles from crisis to crisis as the United Kingdom approaches exit from the European Union, the biggest trading bloc which surrounds it.

When she succeeded David Cameron as Prime Minister in July 2016, many people had assumed that she would be a safe pair of hands. However, her actions, her dependence on a small number of advisers personally loyal to her and her inability to win the party’s and people’s confidence have proved otherwise. In the midst of scandals involving sex, lies and ineptitude at the highest level of her government, she now fights for her own political survival as Parliament scrutinises the EU Withdrawal Bill.

[END]

Religion Does Not Mean Peace

Politics & Philosophy, Medium.com

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” — The Bible

“O You who believe! Enter absolutely into peace.” — The Qur’an

“Delusion is born in anger.” — The Bhagvad Gita

“Hatred will not cease by hatred, but love alone. This is the ancient law.” — The Dalai Lama

All religions have a message of peace and tolerance. So why are there conflicts involving followers of God? Maybe conflicts have little or nothing to do with religion, and violence by one against the other has another motive. What might it be?

Conflicts may seem driven by religious zealotry, or hatred against the other. Hatred based on one’s belief in cultural superiority over the other. Against minorities perceived to have amassed wealth. Or because one group thinks the other enjoys too much protection. It is often about privilege and wealth. However, wealth is frequently derived from privilege, so it is wealth in the end. Conflicts which are depicted as religious are actually about who controls how much in society.

Edward Said’s 1978 classic Orientalism is an overarching critique of the Christian West’s historical, cultural and political depiction of Islamic societies of the East. According to Said, Orientalism provides ways to rationalize interference by evoking self-serving history by portraying the targeted community as inferior and dangerous. Conflicts that acquire religious overtones often have economic objectives.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is about land and property; partition of British India in 1947 and Hindu-Muslim riots; Buddhist Sinhalese-led burning and looting of Muslim and Hindu Tamil businesses in the capital, Colombo, in 1983 that triggered a 26-year civil war. Lynching of Muslims by extremist Hindu vigilantes in India, ostensibly to protect cows from slaughter and to force a ban on eating meat.

Worse is happening in India’s eastern neighborhood. Since August 25, 2017, more than six hundred thousand mostly Muslim Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Their flight has halved the Rohingya population in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, and quadrupled the number of refugees in Bangladesh within two months.

The United Nations has described this as a crisis on a catastrophic scale. Women, children, old and infirm have given numerous accounts of murder, torture, rape and destruction of Rohingya villages by Myanmar’s military. Thousands, who are stranded, cannot escape. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch have said this is ethnic cleansing.

Rohingyas maintain that their indigenous heritage in Myanmar is over a thousand years old, bringing in Arab, Mughal and Portuguese influence. Despite this, they have suffered harsh persecution, first by Myanmar’s military junta, and now under a military-civilian ruling coalition under the de facto leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.”

Under the 1982 Burmese nationality law, Rohingyas are denied citizenship, because they are not recognized as one of eight “national races.” Aung San Suu Kyi’s government even refuses to allow the use of the term “Rohingya” and calls them illegal immigrants.

UN investigations have found evidence of incitement of hatred by ultra-nationalist Buddhists against Rohingyas. According to the United Nations special investigator on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, the country wants to expel the entire Rohingya population.

Amid a chorus of international criticism, Aung San Suu Kyi has very little to say. When she feels compelled to break her silence, she denies there being any refugee problem. She demands that human rights and refugee organizations not use the term “Rohingya” in their reports. In occasional conversations with foreign leaders, she has insisted that the aim of military operations in the country is to clear out terrorists. And she has claimed that the crisis is being distorted by a “huge iceberg of misinformation.

Her remarks point to government claims that a Rohingya rebel group killed a number of border guards and policemen in August. Details of those encounters are sketchy, but very different from the humanitarian crisis in the region, and the price Aung San Suu Kyi is having to pay in lost reputation.

Among those who have pleaded with Suu Kyi to intervene to stop the atrocities, or at least speak out against them, are fellow Nobel laureates, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai. Yet Aung San Suu Kyi remains in alliance with the military which kept her in detention for fifteen years, and Buddhist ultra-nationalist groups.

Sigmund Freud had a point when he said that religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.

[END]

 

A Dis-United Kingdom: Brexit and Theresa May’s Pyrrhic Victory

CounterPunch

The political landscape of the United Kingdom has gone through upheaval in the general election on 8 June 2017, and the country is to begin difficult negotiations to leave the European Union by March 2019. Despite a small majority in the last Parliament, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, called a snap general election, asking the country to give her a landslide victory, and strengthen her hand in dealing with EU negotiators. She promised that she would be a “bloody difficult woman” in the negotiation, calculating that she would charm voters by so doing.

The British electorate denied her the mandate she wanted. From a modest but clear majority, the Conservative Party was reduced to a minority party with the largest number of seats in a hung Parliament. It was a pyrrhic victory, if it could be called a victory, causing heavy loss to her reputation and ability to make judgement.

Theresa May had to sacrifice two of her closest aides, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, described by cabinet ministers and Conservative parliamentarians as abusive and authoritarian. But the problem goes much deeper. Theresa May is a shy and secretive individual, reliant on a few loyal associates. Her spell as Prime Minister, and the seven-week general election campaign, demonstrated that she had difficulty articulating her vision, and how she would make it possible, to large audiences.

She avoided debating with opponents, and was often unable to address points directly. She either followed standard responses prepared in advance, or launched personal attacks on her rivals to deflect attention. For instance, she said that if she were not re-elected, the country would be sending Jeremy Corbyn “naked and alone” to the Brexit negotiation. And Jeremy Corbyn “will sneak into 10 Downing Street”, the Prime Minister’s official residence. Such remarks raised eyebrows.

Her tactical mistakes corroded her support base. The result of the June 2016 referendum on whether to exit the European Union was 52% – 48% in favour of leaving. An EU remainer before the referendum, her conversion into a fervent leaver was rapid. She became an advocate of severing all ties from the EU, the European Single Market and the European Court of Justice. She chose to pressure the EU into negotiating a new free trade agreement which would stop the current freedom of movement between the United Kingdom and the other 27 member-countries.

She threatened the other EU members that if she did not get her way in the negotiation, the United Kingdom could stop sharing intelligence with them. The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, warned that British people would stop buying Italian wine. Several members of her cabinet warned that German car manufacturers would suffer if British customers stopped buying their automobiles. There was never a chance of that happening.

Irritated by attacks on the European Union for years, the EU’s patience seemed to be running out. A “divorce bill” as big as 100 billion euros was mentioned within EU circles. In London, some people talked of no payment at all. The status of several million European immigrants in the UK and British citizens living in the rest of the EU became a matter of contention. Threats were issued by both sides. As talks begin, the relationship between the two sides is far from congenial.

Theresa May played an overtly nationalistic card to draw the anti-immigration UK Independence Party’s supporters towards her. She told the British people: “If you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” This rhetoric repelled many cosmopolitan voters often travelling or living abroad. Young voters were attracted towards the main opposition Labour Party. Under its left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour performed much better than expected.

Theresa May’s eagerness to cosy up with the United States President, Donald Trump, also did not help. Keen to show off the United Kingdom’s “special relationship” with America, she was hasty to fly to Washington, to be the “first foreign leader” to meet Trump, where they were seen hand-in-hand in the White House. She gave the clear impression that she was ready to abandon Britain’s EU membership, and accept ever more dependence on an erratic and unreliable American President.

She invited Trump for a state visit to the United Kingdom, generating considerable opposition at home. Trump’s frequent personal attacks on London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, and Theresa May’s reluctance to express her disapproval of Trump’s remarks did not go down well in Britain. It all made her look weak. Trump’s state visit has now been put off.

Theresa May will now head a minority government, dependent on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a hard-line protestant group, to sustain her government. DUP backed leaving the European Union in the June 2016 referendum. But it does not want a hard border between Northern Ireland and the neighbouring Republic of Ireland, an EU member. With her government now reduced to a minority in Parliament, Theresa May has a very weak hand in the coming Brexit negotiation.

How her political calculations failed so spectacularly will be a matter for analysis for months or longer. Many commentators, including this one, had interpreted the narrow result to leave the EU in June 2016 primarily as a vote against immigration, and the perceived burden immigrants put on the public services – immigrants who work legally in the UK to do jobs British people would not do, and pay tax.

The reality was more complex, for it was the government’s obsession to make financial cuts that did not allow more spending to meet the extra demand on the public services. It was thought that the anti-immigration sentiment whipped up by the UKIP drove the vote to leave the EU. Less than a year after, Theresa May’s Conservative Party adopted the same anti-immigrant rhetoric in the general election campaign in the hope of wooing UKIP voters.

It did not happen. Most working class voters, traditional supporters of the Labour Party, returned to their old party. It now looks as though the referendum was actually a protest vote against deep cuts in the government spending year after year, causing hardship for ordinary people. In the general election just held, Labour came out with a manifesto that promised extra spending on public services, abolition of the University tuition fee and protection for senior citizens’ pensions, financed by an increase in the corporation tax, and income tax on high income earners.

Young people, many of whom did not vote in the past, registered in vast numbers and did vote this time. Labour captured almost 65% of all votes under 40 years of age. This turnaround is both about fact and perception. Two months ago, the focus was on the Labour Party’s infighting, the electoral unacceptability of its socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn, and the image perpetuated by the right-wing press of Theresa May as a “strong and stable” leader. The picture now is the exact opposite. The Conservative Party is in disarray, and the Prime Minister, Theresa May, is seen as the loser. Governing the country has suddenly become a lot more difficult, and the government is not sure what kind of exit from the European Union to negotiate.

[END]

Is There Rhyme or Reason in Trump’s Approach to Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea?

History News Network

In November 2016, Donald Trump swept to the White House making some bewilderingly simplistic promises, which meant keeping out of foreign wars, and concentrating on dismantling America’s internal power structures to recreate them in his own vision. Three months after taking office, he has ordered two big military attacks on Syria and Afghanistan, both within a week. And he is warning of retaliation against North Korea’s maverick leadership.

The start of the Trump administration has been chaotic. He is having to fight hard to implement his plans, especially health care and immigration. He has found that his dehumanizing anti-Hispanic and anti-Muslim rhetoric since his presidential campaign began in June 2015 will be problematic, and slow, to turn into reality.

Hence, Trump has turned his domestic frustration abroad at a dangerously early stage. It took President George W. Bush seven months, and the traumatic events of 9/11, to go on the warpath. Trump has not completed his first hundred days yet.

Donald Trump’s foremost targets are the Muslim world and North Korea. Like al-Qaida during the Bush administration (2001–2009) Trump singles out ISIS, an umbrella for many dispersed violent groups of Sunni fundamentalists, for the ills emanating from the Muslim world, and threatening civilization. He is also consumed by North Korea and its advancing nuclear weapons program. China, North Korea’s ally, has come under fierce criticism from Trump for not restraining the Pyongyang regime, and for manipulating its own currency to steal American jobs.

The Trump administration saw President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his Russian patrons as useful tools in fighting ISIS. The decision to hit the Shayrat airbase with cruise missiles three days after a chemical attack was reported in the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun was a policy reversal by Trump.

One noteworthy aspect of the American attack on Shayrat was that while other Syrian facilities were hit at the airbase, the runways which Russia had expanded in 2015, and which Russian warplanes currently use, were spared. Within hours, bombers were flying new missions against anti-Assad forces. The attack on the Syrian airbase also helped Trump counter domestic criticisms of close ties with Putin and the Kremlin lobby, though it was not enough to stop new revelations.

To say that mutual accusations of recent days between the White House and the Kremlin amount to a phony war would be an exaggeration. For domestic political reasons, some tension with America’s foremost nuclear adversary serves a useful purpose, and the Trump administration is learning about political expediency. Nonetheless, Trump’s personal esteem for Vladimir Putin is obvious, and his language about the Russian leader and government is restrained.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to Moscow was full of warnings on both sides, but they were civil to each other. And Tillerson had a two-hour meeting with Putin. The relationship between Washington and Moscow may not be what President Trump would have instinctively wanted. But to say that it is at the lowest point is way over the top. US-Soviet relations were near a catastrophically low point all along from the early 1950s to the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s.

The change in Trump’s approach to China is also intriguing. He had predicted a “very difficult” meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping (April 6-7). Yet, after their state dinner and talks, Trump announced that they had made “tremendous progress,” and that they were going to have a “great relationship.” Trump made no mention of China the currency manipulator, causing a massive trade surplus in Beijing’s favor. On North Korea, Trump said that President Xi had explained the situation, and that he was confident that China would do something.

Trump’s manner of telling the Chinese President over chocolate cake that cruise missiles were on their way to hit Syria was strange and amusing. If the idea was to deliver a shock to his guest over sweet dish, it seemed not to have worked. China gave its verdict soon after Xi had returned home, with the state news agency, Xinhua, calling it “the act of a weakened politician who needed to flex his muscles.” The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, phoned his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, offering to coordinate with the Kremlin to “cool” the escalating row. Trump had managed to push China and Russia closer.

The United States, meanwhile, sent warships to the region. Not to be left behind, North Korea showed off new missiles in a huge military parade in Pyongyang to celebrate the 105th anniversary of its founding leader Kim Il-sung. As American warships were sailing in the region, North Korea test-fired another missile. It failed, but there may well be more to follow.

As President Trump deals with Syria and North Korea, the stakes are high because of Russian and Chinese involvement. Afghanistan has no such risks. Nearly ten thousand US troops are already deployed in the country, and the Kabul government is totally dependent on American military protection and economic assistance.

Like the cruise attack on Syria, Trump’s decision to drop a 22000 pound GBU-43 bomb (called the Mother of All Bombs) on a network of caves in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan filled him with excitement. It also generated considerable enthusiasm among journalists and analysts in the media.

The instant flurry of excitement aside, the bombing deserves a critical examination of facts which are often ignored. The underground caves were built for, and by, the Mujahideen forces, who received massive support from the administration of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s – the decade in which the United States fought a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Those fractious Mujahideen groups disintegrated, and new recruits were attracted, giving rise to the Taliban. They, in turn, found common cause with al-Qaida in opposing the United States. Following the assassination of Osama bin Laden, elements of al-Qaida morphed into ISIS. The collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, meant that more fighters were free to join ISIS.

President Trump called the bombing of the cave complex in Afghanistan “another success,” which made him “very proud” of American military. His administration first claimed that 36 ISIS militants had been killed in the attack. Afghan officials later said that more than 90 people had died.

Contrary to Arab countries, ISIS has found it difficult to establish a firm foothold in Afghanistan, where Afghan nationalism comes in direct conflict with pan-Arab Islamism. Consequently, ISIS-Khorasan (Afghanistan’s old name) is a small group compared to the Taliban – estimated to be no more than a few hundred. ISIS fighters include some disgruntled former Taliban, some new recruits, even fewer Arabs.

It prompted the Economist newspaper to say that although President Trump relishes headlines about his success, the significance of bombing in Afghanistan should not be “overstated as a military game-changer.” In 2001, the predecessor of the GBU-43 bomb (BLU-83) was used against the Taliban in the Tora Bora cave network. But the Taliban survived, have since thrived, and would make it very difficult for the present Afghan government to survive without American protection.

Since the early days of the Cold War in the 1950s, we have witnessed plenty of theatrics from rival leaders with narcissistic tendencies. History tells us about Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-sung. But theatrics can go wrong, and can lead to disastrous unintended consequences.

We have entered a new era of dangerous theatrics in international politics. Donald Trump and Kim Il-sung are the two leading actors. Let us hope that the rest of the cast will exercise a restraining influence.

[END]

The Demagogue and the Rhetoric of Demagoguery

The Citizen

The rise of the far right in America, Europe and Asia is a powerful phenomenon of recent times.

The United States elections in November 2016, and the referendum on Britain’s future as a member of the European Union in June that year, were momentous events with life- changing implications for vast numbers of people.

In each case, extreme language and extraordinary claims shaped the campaign and its outcome. They radicalised popular views and expectations which might last.

Leaders who resort to this type of rhetoric are often described as populist in journalism and normal discourse. However, populist is not a satisfactory term given the context. Closeness to popular gives the term populist a favourable meaning.

Instead, demagogue is a more fitting term, and the type of rhetoric used by such a leader is demagoguery.

A list of demagogues through history would be long even if such a complex exercise were attempted. The history of demagoguery, which appeals to emotions and prejudices rather than reasonable arguments, is old. It goes back two and a half thousand years, when the comic playwright Aristophanes of ancient Athens wrote about Cleon the demagogue – a reckless mob-orator trading upon popular passions to advance his own interests.

The Columbia University professor Reinhard Luthin, in his book American Demagogues (Beacon, 1954), defines the term demagogue as a politician skilled in oratory, flattery and invective, evasive in discussing vital issues, appealing to the passions rather than the reason of the public, and arousing racial, religious and class prejudices in order to become a master of the masses.

For a demagogue to arise, particular conditions must exist. There has to be a perception of a weak and corrupt government. One group believes that unfair advantages are going to another group, usually but not always a minority, which is claimed to be at the root of wider problems in society. The in-group is seen as disadvantaged or loser – the out-group the beneficiary.

Accusations, often sweeping and libellous, that the entire community of “others” is disloyal to the country are made. It is a state of nostalgia of ethnic, cultural or religious superiority.

These conditions make a cocktail of social tension and conflict which powerful groups thrive on. They may cause low-level violence and sustained economic warfare in which the dominant group aims to capture a greater share of society’s wealth and more privileges. This trend may trigger retaliation by some in weaker groups.

At the extreme, members of the stronger group may envision a fully homogeneous society without there being other groups. Mild suggestions or direct threats may be issued against weak and vulnerable communities. Uncertainty and upheaval follow. The result is a steady decline in the productive and defensive capacity of the afflicted society.

The state of mind which interprets things in such black and white terms is called naïve realism – a belief that the world is exactly as an individual’s mental image of it. Personal viewpoint, bias, education and training make little or no difference. Problems have simple explanations. The lesser the interpretation, the purer the conclusion.

The work of Professor Patricia Roberts Miller of the University of Texas suggests that naïve realism reinforces a group’s faith in its own purity, and refutes any possibility that the group may be wrong. Dead certainty is a strong characteristic of the demagogue. They are always prone to authoritarianism and bigotry, and their reasoning goes backwards to maintain hierarchies.

Judgments are deduced from “traditional practices, values and beliefs”; from “traditional” interpretations of “authoritative” texts; from reasoning backwards from what must be true to maintain current hierarchies – whether they are religious, cultural, gender or national.

Empirical evidence is not important for the demagogue. The central point of reasoning is what “must” or “should” happen if certain premises are correct, and those premises are protected from falsification. Evidence which might falsify the demagogue’s premises is rejected outright.

Identity is fundamental to demagogues and their rhetoric. Their assumption is that people of a particular identity in a society are better, and entitled to more goods regardless of their behaviour. So members of the dominant group are held to lower standards, and can behave worse than others without social or judicial retribution. When a dominant group, assumed to consist of virtuous people, behaves badly, mistakes by its members are dismissed as not important.

Good behaviour on the dominant group’s part is depicted as a mark of its true identity. On the other hand, good conduct by members of weaker communities is explained by their inner motives (greed or a desire to curry favour), or shaped by external factors present in a virtuous society. It means that the same behaviour in different groups is explained differently. The former group is hard-working, the latter greedy and lustful.

Demagogues are highly skilled in the art of cunning projection, condemning others for the same things their own people do. Such projection distracts and confuses bystanders, who have difficulty in understanding what is the cause and what are its effects. Demagogues seek to project self-defence by others as “bad” whereas their own offensive behaviour becomes a “necessity”. The rhetoric of demagoguery often portrays the demagogue’s group as the victim.

We live in an age of unprecedented expansion of democracy since the end of World War II and dismantling of empires. But democracies can have their own perils. In Book VIII of his work The Republic, the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, worries that a “towering despot” will rise to exploit freedoms in any democracy and seize power by harnessing fear of some people. That leader will seek to represent himself as the protector of the people against that fear.

The history of two and a half thousand years since Plato has proved him right many a time, when democracy has ended in tyranny.

[END]

Theresa May: Walking the Kingdom Down a Dark Alley

CounterPunch

Things are rocky on both sides of the Atlantic. In Washington, Donald Trump’s presidency, barely a month old, has made a chaotic start, and is getting sucked into ever deeper crisis. In London, Theresa May, prime minister of the United Kingdom which looks deeply split, is about to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Thus she will begin the process of Britain leaving the European Union and its associated institutions.

In the midst of rancor between an infant presidency and its detractors, the White House meeting of May and Trump, seen hand in hand, was an extraordinary and rare demonstration of mutual love only a week after trump’s inauguration. A month on, it seems a long time ago.

Let us remind ourselves about what has happened in the past month. Donald Trump came to Washington promising to “drain the swamp.” The exodus of officials from numerous federal departments and agencies that keep the United States government functioning has been dramatic. Instead, Trump has created his own little swamp, which he has found difficult to fill.

First, the National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced out after revelations that he had held telephone conversations with the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, while President Barack Obama was still in office and Flynn was in Trump’s transition team. That in one telephone conversation Flynn discussed the sanctions President Obama had imposed on the same day was bad enough. What sealed Flynn’s fate was that he then lied to Vice President Mike Pence, who then publicly defended Flynn saying that there had been no discussion with the Russian ambassador about the sanctions.

Flynn was also interviewed by the FBI soon after Trump’s inauguration, and had given a similar account to the agency. Following leak after leak, speculation has become relentless that over the past year other Trump associates have had constant and repeated dealings with the Russians. President Trump’s plan to appoint a friendly individual as intelligence supremo to investigate and identify sources responsible for leaks shows how much the working relationship between the White House and the intelligence services has broken down. The consequences of this breakdown for Britain’s formidable intelligence headquarters GCHQ could be serious in the light of the UK’s disengagement from the European Union.

Second, Andrew Puzder, billionaire CEO of a fast-food restaurant chain, withdrew his nomination as Trump’s Labor Secretary because of intense criticism of him in the Senate prior to his confirmation hearings. Third, Trump’s choice to refill the national security adviser’s post, Robert Harward, turned down the offer despite the president’s repeated efforts to persuade him. And then, David Petraeus, once a celebrated army general, dropped out of the race for Trump’s national security adviser.

Petraeus has been on probation after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge after revelations of an extramarital affair and mishandling of classified material with his lover. It is as clear as daylight that President Trump is beleaguered and faces struggle to establish his authority like few of his predecessors.

For Prime Minister Theresa May to fly to Washington within a week of Trump’s inauguration was both an act of political expediency and perilous haste. He was mercifully courteous before television cameras. She was anxious to say, again and again, that she was there to “renew the special relationship” between the United States and Britain. She boasted in front of cameras that she had secured President Trump’s full commitment to NATO in private talks. Right up to his election, Trump had described NATO as obsolete, and threatened to reduce Washington’s commitment to defending smaller, more vulnerable countries of the alliance if they did not spend more money on defense.

Trump remained silent on the matter while his guest went ahead to announce that the American president had given a firm commitment to NATO. Barely two weeks later, Trump’s Defense Secretary, James Mattis, taking Trump’s original line, said that unless other alliance members spent more, America would “moderate” its commitment to their defense. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s blunt response was that Germany would not accelerate its existing, long-term plan to gradually increase military spending despite America’s demand to do so by the end of 2017.

Vice President Mike Pence immediately picked up where Mattis had left, making clear that he was delivering Donald Trump’s message. Apparently referring to Germany, France and Italy, the American Vice President said, “Some of our largest allies do not have a credible path. The time has come to do more.”

So, we have turmoil in Washington; unprecedented tensions between the United States and NATO; and the European Union. Nonetheless, Britain’s Prime Minister looks determined to make a clean break from the European Union and all its institutions, and follow Trump’s America. It is a dangerous path.

Less than a year ago, Theresa May advocated Britain’s continued membership of the EU that gave the country access to the world’s largest market. Now, she is a passionate leader who will lead Britain out of the European Union and its economic, social, environmental and judicial instruments. She will accept estrangement from immediate European neighbors, but much greater reliance on a superpower governed by an isolationist, unpredictable president more than three thousand miles away across the Atlantic.

She will explore the “brave new world” more than half a century after Britain lost its empire, and ceased to rule the oceans. All with a small army and naval force smaller than those of the United States, Russia, China and Japan, and only slightly bigger than the French navy. Britain has nuclear weapons, but it cannot conceivably use them without America’s consent.

A country is never more vulnerable than when there is just one guarantor and not enough room for manoeuvre.

[END]