Foreign Correspondent

What’s really going on in Hong Kong

The latest protests in Ing Kong filled the streets. Photo by Studio Incendo via Flickr and WikiCommons

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT For more than three months, people in Hong Kong massed in the streets to protest a proposed extradition law. Critics say it would allow China to extradite dissenting students, journalists, and business people to the mainland, where they could face prison for their views. Rallies and marches of tens of thousands grew to perhaps almost two million at their peak.

“I was very angry about the proposed law,” says Adrian Leong, a former Hong Kong resident and political activist in San Francisco. “Everyone could see themselves getting in trouble.”

But supporters of the Beijing government say the proposed law would only allow extradition of people accused of serious crimes, not political dissidents. Western governments and media use the phony extradition issue to foment rifts between Hong Kong and the mainland, they argue.

“They want China to splinter and die,” says Nathan Rich, an American YouTube blogger living in China.

To sort out these competing claims, we have to understand some Hong Kong history.

Opium Wars

Starting in the late 1700s, the British East India Company illegally sold opium to China. By the 1830s, British and American entrepreneurs became fabulously wealthy selling opium, while addicting millions of Chinese. When the Chinese government ordered the sales to stop, the British sent gunboats to Chinese ports and fought the first Opium War from 1839-1842.

The Qing dynasty lost the war and was forced to cede Hong Kong island to the British, along with parts of other port cities. The British launched the Second Opium War from 1853-1858, in which they seized more Chinese territory and forced China to legalize opium.

For centuries, China had the world’s largest economy, selling far more goods overseas than it imported. The opium wars were fought in the name of  “free trade,”—i.e., the right of British and American drug barons to open up the Chinese market.

Modern day imperialism

Selling addictive drugs to China didn’t end in the nineteenth century. During the reign of President Ronald Reagan, for example, the US forced China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to buy US made cigarettes—all in the name of opening their markets to free trade.

But by the 1980s, the People’s Republic of China was emerging as a major world power, and Britain agreed give up Hong Kong. In 1997, Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty with an agreement that it would maintain two different political and economic systems. It became known as “one country, two systems.”

One country, two systems was a bold step, something never tried before. China would keep its socialist economy; Hong Kong would remain capitalist. Hong Kong would maintain governing institutions established by the United Kingdom, including independent courts but also indirect election of top political leaders. The one country, two systems would last for 50 years.

The Communist Party of China hoped that, given time, Hong Kong residents would come to see the advantages of socialism and voluntarily join the mainland. They hoped Hong Kong could be a model for integrating Taiwan into China.

But Hong Kong had existed as a separate entity for well more than 100 years, and reunification wasn’t going to be easy. Many Hongkongers seek to maintain their capitalist institutions for as long as possible. They want direct election of political leaders and a judiciary that tilts their way in case of disputes with Beijing.

Hongkongers have developed their own identity, notes Tom Fowdy, a China analyst who attended university in Hong Kong. “On paper they are the same ethnic group, but they are culturally different.”

Extradition law

The roots of the current protests can be traced to the case of Chan Tong Kai. In February, he flew to Taiwan with his girlfriend, strangled her, stuffed her body in a suitcase, dumped her in a field, and flew back to Hong Kong. Although he confessed, he couldn’t be sent to Taiwan because Hong Kong had no extradition treaty. (Hong Kong has extradition agreements with 20 countries but not China, Macao, and Taiwan.)

Hong Kong authorities couldn’t charge Chan with a murder that took place elsewhere. So a Hong Kong court convicted him on a lesser charge and sentenced him to a few months in jail.

Outrage over the Chan case led Hong Kong legislators to draft a law that would allow extradition to any country on a case by case basis. Taiwan later indicated it would not seek Chan’s extradition, making the murder case moot. But the extradition issue remained on the table.

Critics claim the proposed law would enable China to extradite and imprison political dissidents from Hong Kong. However, the bill’s supporters point out that an extraditable offense must be a crime in both China and Hong Kong, which protects Hongkongers from arbitrary arrest. And the law specifically prohibits extradition for political crimes.

In addition, the bill granted Hong Kong’s chief executive the ability to review extradition requests and allows for two separate judicial review processes. And according to the chief executive’s office, extradition would “only cover 37 offences punishable with imprisonment for seven years or above, and none of them prohibits the exercise of the right to freedom of expression.”

But many people in Hong Kong simply don’t trust Beijing. They cite examples when China  remanded Hong Kong residents without following judicial procedures. “The Communist Party of China no longer respects the two systems,” says activist Leong. “It only respects the one country.”


On March 31, Hongkongers marched and rallied against the proposed legislation. By June, the mostly peaceful protests grew to hundreds of thousands. On June 9, organizers said two million people marched, while police put the number at 338,000.

Then, in a preplanned action on July 1, hundreds of militants smashed their way into Hong Kong’s legislative offices, where they destroyed furniture and sprayed anti-communist graffiti on the walls. They draped the union jack flag over the speaker’s podium.

Analyst Fowdy says displaying the British flag doesn’t mean protestors want a return to British rule. Rather, they want Hong Kong to “remain a special administrative region under Chinese sovereignty. They don’t want Hong Kong to be just another Chinese city.”

Whatever the militants’ intention, in my opinion, raising the British flag leaves the impression that they favor independence. That plays into the hands of Western powers who have long sought to divide China.

It’s no coincidence that most mainstream media unabashedly support the protestors and seek to excuse the violent actions. An opinion article in the Wall Street Journal urged readers to see the vandalism as “an act of desperation after years of frustration.” I’ve yet to see the Journal apply that logic to Black Lives Matters protestors in the US.

Here’s the bottom line: Hong Kong is Chinese; it’s not an independent country. Any effort towards independence angers mainland Chinese, not just the government in Beijing.

Contrary to the impression left by the mainstream media, Hong Kong opinion is divided on the extradition law. On June 30, tens of thousands gathered for a rally supporting extradition and backing the Hong Kong government. Legislators say they collected 700,000 verified signatures on a petition supporting the proposed law.

For now, however, the momentum is with the anti-government forces. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam suspended the bill from consideration and on July 9 declared it “dead.” Critics say that isn’t enough. They want her to withdraw the legislation completely and to resign.

So demonstrations are likely to continue. China and Hong Kong will be struggling for many years to determine exactly what “one country, two systems” really means.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. Follow him on  Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

The ‘Trump Doctrine’ is sinking fast

Tehran resident Dariush is exactly the kind of person that the Trump Administration claims to be supporting. He is a middle-class businessman who hates the clerical regime. The White House thinks Iranians like Dariush would welcome the overthrow of their government. But when I talked to Dariush by phone, he was more angry at President Donald Trump.

US sanctions have caused the cost of some food items to jump three times in the last year. Here, bakers in Isfahan. Photo by Reese Erlich

Dariush’s mother requires regular injections of medicine. The cost of the drug has increased threefold in the past year, and he must buy it for her on the black market. He blames inflation on the US sanctions: “They are just hurting normal people.”

I ask his reaction to Trump’s on-again, off-again threats of war against Iran. “If a war happens,” he says, “I will defend my country. I don’t like my government, but I will fight.”

Over the past several weeks, the Trump Administration has managed to infuriate ordinary Iranians, traditional US allies, and US war hawks. The emerging “Trump Doctrine” uses economic sanctions and tariffs to bully other countries, accompanied by fiery threats of military action without actual attacks. Not only is the doctrine foolhardy, it isn’t working.

Of ships and drones

Since May, six oil tankers in the Persian Gulf area have come under attack. The Trump Administration immediately blamed Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps for attaching mines to the ships, and provided grainy video as evidence. Iran denies attacking the tankers.

Then, on June 20, Iran shot down a US Global Hawk surveillance drone, which cost an estimated $130 million. The US claimed the drone was flying over international waters. Iranian officials said the drone entered Iranian airspace and displayed drone wreckage at a press conference to bolster their argument.

The next day, in a bizarre sequence of events, Trump ordered the Pentagon to attack an Iranian missile battery, and then called back the planes at the last minute. He claimed this was because he had learned the raid could cause 150 Iranian casualties, but an investigation by The Daily Beast revealed he had known the body count prior to green-lighting the attack.

Rightwing hawks in the US criticized Trump for calling off the attack. Liberal Democrats pointed out that he started the whole mess by withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Trump supporters tried to pass off the flip flop as a brilliant tactical move that threw the Iranians off balance.

In fact, the Iranian government saw Trump’s vacillation as a sign of weakness, according to a Tehran journalist with close government ties, who is not authorized to speak to the media.

“Iran was ready to retaliate on an unbelievable scale,” the journalist told me in a phone interview. “After the first US missile launch, Trump wouldn’t be able to control the consequences, not only in the Persian Gulf but from Saudi Arabia to Israel.”

So, instead of dropping bombs on Iran, Trump announced new sanctions claiming to seize financial assets of top officials such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Since the sanctioned leaders don’t have western bank accounts or other such assets, the sanctions mean nothing.

Yet they were an insult not only to Iran but to Shia Muslims, according to William Beeman, an Iran expert at the University of Minnesota.

“Ayatollah Khamenei is Iran’s spiritual leader,” he says. “Trump is attacking Shia Islam itself with this move, and that is how it will be interpreted in Iran.”

The Trump Doctrine

Now the Trump Administration is caught in a bind of its own creation. It would have great difficulty invading and occupying Iran because of the huge financial cost and potential for an astronomical death toll on both sides. So-called limited military strikes can destroy installations, but they also rally people to support their government.

Unilateral sanctions won’t work either because, among other reasons, no European or Asian country supports them. Harsh sanctions can cause a lot of human suffering, but they won’t lead Iranians to rise up and install a pro-US regime.

So Trump is stuck trying to come up with new sanctions and ever more bombastic ways to threaten military assaults without actually doing so. Trump has turned Teddy Roosevelt’s famous slogan on its head: talk loudly but carry a teensy-weensy stick.

Of course it’s possible that Trump’s ultra-right wing advisors will persuade him to launch an attack, according to Professor Foad Izadi, an expert on US-Iran relations at the University of Tehran. If he did, he told me by phone, “There would be a major military response.” Iran can’t afford to look weak, he says. “The US must understand the cost is high.”

More crises ahead

The European signers of the nuclear accord, including the United Kingdom, Germany, and France, object to the US pulling out of the 2015 nuclear accord and oppose unilateral US sanctions. But they haven’t done anything in practice to live up to the legally binding agreement.

Iran has given those countries until July 8 to lift their de facto sanctions on Iran, specifically, to facilitate trade in Iranian oil and gas. Russia and China have taken such steps, so could Europe.

If nothing changes by July 8, Izadi says, Iran will take a number of calibrated steps to increase the amount of enriched uranium used for generating electrical power, and increase the level of enrichment to as high as 60 percent. That would bring Iran closer to the 90 percent level needed to produce a nuclear bomb. Even with enough uranium for a bomb, however, experts say Iran has no ability to build one. Iran would increase production as a bargaining chip.

How Trump could end the crisis

In keeping with Trump’s doctrine of avoiding large troop commitments, I offer the following handy hints on how to resolve the Iran crisis:

— Fire National Security Adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other hawks whose bankrupt policies will lead to yet another war in the Middle East. The US now has acting heads of the Defense Department, Homeland Security and dozens of other agencies. Nobody will notice a new acting National Security Advisor or a missing Secretary of State.

— Declare that his campaign of “maximum pressure” is a great success and has forced Iran not to build nuclear weapons. Then rejoin the 2015 nuclear accord, which does exactly that.

— In further celebration of the US victory and Trump’s brilliant tactics, lift all unilateral sanctions imposed on Iran.

— In a man-to-man summit with President Hassan Rouhani, Trump should sit down for serious negotiations on a grand bargain. The comprehensive agreement could create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, pull all foreign troops out of Syria, normalize US-Iran diplomatic relations and help combat terrorist organizations such as ISIS.

You don’t think such plans would work? Hey, they have no worse chance than Trump’s current policy plans.

Remember Trump’s “plan of the century” that would solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict once and for all? Well, the White House finally revealed the plan this week at a meeting in Bahrain. The plan promises Palestinians economic improvements through $50.7 billion in foreign aid and private investments, although the US would provide no funds.

There’s no mention of the key political issues such as creating a Palestinian state, stopping settlements and returning occupied West Bank land, the status of Jerusalem or returning the Golan to Syria. The plan was denounced by all Palestinian political parties and leaders. The plan is an insult to the Palestinians and everyone else in the Middle East.

But when it comes to Trump grand plans, what else is new?

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Russia sees through Trump’s Iran bluster, but has Middle East problems of its own

MOSCOW — President Donald Trump won’t go to war with Iran. That was the prediction of Russian experts I interviewed in Moscow during the height of the US-Iran crisis in May. They were right.

To date, Trump has threatened military action against North Korea, Venezuela, and Iran. But, while he has caused tremendous damage to ordinary people with tariffs and economic sanctions, he hasn’t started any new wars. Countries around the world can now, after two years of Trump, distinguish between genuine military aggression and bluster.

Ceremonial Russian soldier. Photo by Reese Erlich

Russian analysts say an outright occupation of Iran would be a disaster for the US military because of the tremendous loss of life and treasure. Even a so-called limited attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would rally the Iranian people in support of their government, says Vladimir Sazhin, an Iran specialist at theInstitute for Oriental Studies in Moscow.

“The results will be the opposite of American intentions,” he tells me.

There is always a danger of military action. Witness the latest tanker war in the Gulf of Oman. Some powerful factions in the Trump Administration advocate war as a means to overthrow the Iranian government. National Security Advisor John Bolton personally announced  that Washington would send an aircraft carrier group to the Persian Gulf. Pentagon officials then planned to deploy Patriot missile batteries. War threats reached a peak when the Defense Department considered sending up to 120,000 troops to the region.

But US saber-rattling came under withering criticismat home and abroad, even from conservatives. Trump backed down. “Right now, I don’t think Iran wants to fight, and I certainly don’t think they want to fight with us,” he toldreporters. He then announced plans to deploy 1,500 troops to the region, which included extending the stay of 600 soldiers who are already there.

Russian officials believe such erratic swings reflect a fundamental weakness in the American empire under Trump. I humbly agree. But that doesn’t mean all is hunky-dory between Russia and Iran.

For the last several years, Russia and Iran have allied against the US as a common enemy. Both support Bashar al Assad in Syria, oppose US military action in Venezuela, and oppose US sanctions on various countries. Both have a vested interest in keeping oil prices high to benefit their major export. Russia has defendedthe lifting of sanctions on Iran as called for by  the seven-nation nuclear agreement. Trump unilaterally withdrewfrom the accord and imposed harsh new sanctions.

But Ivan Konovalov, head of the Center for Studies of Strategic Trends, notes that each country has its own political, military, and economic interests in the region.

Russia, he tells me, has three important national interests in the Middle East: “Preventing Mideast terrorists from gaining a foothold in Russia; maintaining the large Russian navy and air force bases in Syria; and keeping channels open for trade in oil and natural gas.”

Those “national interests” look suspiciously like US justifications for maintaining its hegemony in the Middle East. The people of the region don’t benefit from the presence of military bases and high oil company profits—regardless of whether they are American or Russian.

That desire for hegemony limits the level of longterm Russia-Iran cooperation. The two countries, Sazhin says, don’t have a strategic alliance but rather “a situational partnership.” Differences may emerge in the future over a number of issues.

While leaders in both Iran and Russia support Assad, they don’t agree on what kind of constitution and government should ultimately govern Syria. Iran appeals to the religious sector, including the small Shia Muslim community and the Alawite supporters of Assad. Russia has more influence among secular Syrians, particularly the military and intelligence services.

“Russia doesn’t care who the new leaders are so long as the bases stay,” Sazhin says.

More importantly, the two countries differ about Israel. Iran doesn’t recognize the existence of the Jewish state, while Russia has close ties with Israel. In the old days, the USSR sided with Arab nationalists and sought to isolate Israel. Not anymore.

Out of Israel’s total population of nine million people, some one million are former Soviet citizens or their descendants. President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have met at least eleven timessince 2015. For Netanyahu, that’s more than with any other world leader.

In practical terms, that means Russia has reached an informal compromise with Israel over its actions in Syria. Israel frequently bombs targets in Syria it claims are controlled by Lebanese Hezbollah or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. But it has not attacked Russian bases.

“We close our eyes when the Israeli Air Force attacks Syria as long as there’s no attack on Russian installations,” Sazhin says. “It’s a gentleman’s agreement.”

Russia’s alliance with Israel has also led to downplaying support for the Palestinians. Russia rarely raises the issue, while Iranian authorities provide political and economic support to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

“Palestinians have a legitimate complaint about Russian policy,” Konovalov says. “Everybody has forgotten about the Palestinians.”

For the moment, however, such differences are ignored or downplayed in light of the US threat. The Trump Administration uses harsh sanctions and tariffs in an attempt to impose its will on the region. But by trying to isolate Russia and Iran, the US is only isolating itself.


Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. Follow him onTwitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him onFacebook; and visit hiswebpage.

Foreign Correspondent: Live, from Moscow

Vladimir Pozner was well-known in the 1980s as an articulate, English-speaking defender of Kremlin policies. Then he began describing himself as a “man of the left.”

Vladimir Pozner hosts a very popular interview show, simply called Pozner, on Russian television, and he doesn’t pull his punches. When I last spoke with him 18 years ago, he described  himself as a “man of the left.” I was curious to find out if that had changed. I walked up the stairs to his fashionable apartment in Moscow to talk with him about US and Russian politics, problems in the new Russia, and President Vladimir Putin.

Photo by Reese Erlich

Born in New York in 1934, Pozner lived in the United States until he was 18, when he moved to the USSR with his family. In the 1980s, he was well-known as an articulate, English-speaking defender of Kremlin policies. He appeared frequently on ABC’s Nightline. In 1985, he and US talk show host Phil Donahue launched Spacebridge, a series of live discussions between groups of US and Soviet citizens on culture and politics.

In the 1990s, Pozner and Donahue co-hosted a CNBC talk show, fittingly titled Pozner/Donahue. After refusing to allow then-CNBC President Roger Ailes to approve or reject topics or guests, describing it as censorship, Pozner returned to Moscow, where he has hosted his own weekly television show since 2011. At age 85, Pozner, who tells me he plays tennis twice a week, looks fit and healthy.

Q: Do you think the Trump Administration, National Security Adviser John Bolton in particular, is headed towards military strikes on Iran?

Vladimir Pozner: Bolton is looking for trouble. The US administration would very much like to get rid of the current Iranian leadership. There’s always the simple way of doing it: invade, knock them out, topple them.

It could be extremely dangerous. It always is. If you look in Iraq, a disaster. Things were very bad under Saddam Hussein. Things are much worse after Hussein. Thousands died. The American invasion did nothing to help the people of Iraq. And I don’t think they can do anything good for the people of Iran who are, by and large, very supportive of their government.

Q: Russia has intervened in Syria. Even if you oppose the US being there, along with interference from the Saudis and Turks, why should the Russians be involved in Syria?

Pozner:I fully agree that Russia shouldn’t be there. Neither should anyone else be there. Let the Syrians resolve it. Let the U.N. get involved. There’s no one country, or two countries or five countries that have the right to get involved.

Q: The Russian military has now set up two military bases in Syria, with 49 year leases with possible extensions for another 25. That looks like a long-term stay.

Pozner:I quite agree with you. Putin won’t put it that way. It’s an issue of national interests. They feel that having a force in that part of the world and having influence is important for Russia. Russia has always had a relationship with those countries and should preserve it.

On his own, Pozner raised the issue of Crimea. In 2014 the government of Ukraine was overthrown and a pro-western regime came to power. In response Russia split Crimea off from Ukraine and backed ethnic Russian rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine. In Pozner’s view, Russia was protecting its borders.

Pozner: Imagine that you have a revolution in Mexico. A completely different government comes to power, and it’s a little bit afraid of Big Brother up there. So it goes to the Russians and says, “Can you send us ten divisions to protect our border?”Do you think the United States would allow that?

Now Ukraine goes West. NATO appears on this border. Russians won’t stand for that. The question is not “Did they have the political right? Is this acceptable?” No. It’s about a country worried about its own existence. It’s an existential threat.

Q: Is the disparity of wealth in Russia too great?

Pozner:It’s much too great. But it’s strange that [this issue] should be brought up by a [citizen of a] country like the US where you have even greater disparity of wealth. In the West it’s common except in the Scandinavian countries. Disparity of wealth is part of the market economy. Some people have billions and some people have very little. I’m against that. That’s why I’m in favor of socialism as an idea.

Q: In the past, you have described yourself as a man of the left. You had criticisms of the old Soviet Union, but you felt the principles of Marxism and socialism were still valid. Looking back on it now, is that still your view?

Pozner: Yes and no. I do think the ideas of socialism are wonderful, and I don’t like capitalism as a system. It’s not a fair system. It’s inhuman very often. However, I’m not sure socialism is possible, at least the socialism that Marx proposed.

I think the ideas that are more or less present in the Scandinavian countries are wonderful ideas. And the Scandinavian countries are proof of that. They live more democratically, with greater freedom and more happily than in any other country I’ve visited.

Q: I’m going to present some of the common views in the United States about Putin and let you respond. He’s a dictator. There are elections, but they’re rigged. He won’t really allow opposition, so the political situation is pretty bad in Russia.

Pozner: No, he’s not a dictator; he’s an autocrat. The elections aren’t rigged. As of today, the majority of Russians support Putin for a variety of reasons. He’s got no opposition. The opposition has not really been allowed to flourish. So there’s very little choice in that sense.

For most Russians, Putin is a kind of a national hero, someone who has stood up for Russia in very bad times, when Russia was on her knees, and has brought the country back. Whereas under (former Russian President Boris) Yeltsin, Russia was totally ignored.

Q: What form does being an autocrat take?

Pozner:You can’t criticize him publicly, except perhaps on some private media outlets. But they’re very limited.

Q: Could you criticize him on your show?

Pozner: No. No. I could say “I don’t agree with this law that Mr. Putin has signed.” I can say that, and I’ve done it. I can’t say “It’s too bad he hasn’t resigned. He’s been in power much too long.” One clever Englishman said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Well, that applies.

Bernie and Biden: A foreign policy analysis

For much of his career, Joe Biden was a liberal interventionist.

Supporters of former Vice President Joe Biden praise him as a man with extensive foreign policy experience. He’s living proof, however, that extensive doesn’t necessarily mean good.

Biden reflects the mindset of the previous generation of mainstream Democratic leaders who are out of touch with the anti-interventionist sentiments of most Americans.

“We don’t like his experience,” says Karen Bernal, the outgoing chair of the California Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus who supports Senator Bernie Sanders for President. “Biden is way too deferential to the military-industrial complex. I don’t see him changing.”

For much of his career, Joe Biden was a liberal interventionist.

Biden is a liberal interventionist, at least historically, willing to wage wars of aggression in the name of human rights or national security. He actively drummed up support for US bombing in the Balkans, supported the occupation of Afghanistan, voted for the 2003 war in Iraq, publicly backed the bombing of Libya and supported vastly intensified drone wars in Pakistan and Somalia.

Senator Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is running on an anti-military intervention platform. He offers solid criticism of the US war-making system and calls for a sharp reduction in military spending in order to fund much-needed social spending.

These are hardly abstract points of debate. The US has spent $6 trillion fighting the doomed “war on terror.” Between 480,000 and 507,000 people have been killed in the US post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, including nearly 7,000 US troops.

Biden will have a hard time convincing voters that his policies are all that different from Trump’s. A recent poll confirms that a majority of Americans oppose Trump’s foreign policy. But Biden’s baggage could actually help Trump win.

Bloody hands

In the early 1990s, Biden strongly pushed for war against Serbia and favored Bosnian independence, a war that tore apart former Yugoslavia. Some 25 years later, Bosnia, still plagued by ethnic conflict, is governed by a European-appointed high representative, and 7,000 NATO troops remain on the ground.

Similarly, Biden supported the US invasion of Kosovo in 1998 and 1999, further splintering Yugoslavia and placing power in the hands of the Kosovo Liberation Army—a group that US officials had previously described as terrorist. To this day 4,000 NATO troops, including some 700 Americans, remain stationed in Kosovo.

Biden voted to authorize President George Bush Jr. to wage war against Iraq, despite his false claims of weapons of mass destruction. Well after the anti-war movement and even some establishment politicians denounced the war, Biden still defended it, saying in 2005, “We can call it quits and withdraw from Iraq [but] I think that would be a gigantic mistake, or we can set a deadline for pulling out, which I fear will only encourage our enemies to wait us out—equally a mistake.”

Biden later criticized Bush’s handling of the Iraq war. But instead of calling for a total withdrawal of US troops, he called for decentralizing Iraq, splitting it into three parts: Kurdistan, a Shia Muslim east and Sunni west. Far from being a peace plan, Biden sought to establish a US sphere of influence in Kurdistan at a time when the US was badly losing the war.

After September 11, 2001, Biden supported the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. He initially called for maintaining US troops there to rebuild the country. Later he favored keeping a smaller number of troops there to fight a counter insurgency war, supposedly to stop terrorism. In practical terms that means keeping US troops and bases permanently in Afghanistan.

During internal White House meetings, Vice President Biden reportedly objected to various military interventions, including the 2011 bombing of Libya. But publicly, Biden supported the attack and even proclaimed it a model for future interventions.

“NATO got it right,” he said in 2011. “In this case, America spent $2 billion and didn’t lose a single life. This is more the prescription for how to deal with the world as we go forward than it has (been) in the past.”

Biden chose to ignore the thousands of Libyan civilians who were killed and injured as the US/NATO war turned Libya into a failed state. And a year later insurgents killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in the infamous Benghazi attack. Libya is hardly a “prescription” for anything.

Sanders foreign policy

Bernie Sanders offers a more systemic criticism of US militarism. He calls for a significant reduction in the $700 billion annual military budget. “Do we really need to spend more than the next ten nations combined on the military,” he asks, “when our infrastructure is collapsing and kids can’t afford to go to college?”

Progressive Caucus chair Bernal says she’s seen a lot of progress in his views since the 2016 campaign, when he tended to deemphasize foreign policy. “His base wants him to be much more progressive,” she says, and he responded.

In a 2017 speech on foreign policy, Sanders rejected the “benevolent global hegemony” promoted by some in Washington. “I would argue that the events of the past two decades—particularly the disastrous Iraq war and the instability and destruction it has brought to the region—have utterly discredited that vision.”

Sanders has opposed all the recent US wars of aggression and has said the US should take  military intervention “off the table” in Venezuela and Iran. Instead, Sanders emphasizes diplomacy and the need to root out the underlying causes of international conflict.

For sure, Sanders, as a democratic socialist, is still a captive of some Cold War myths. For example, in his 2017 speech he praises the Marshall Plan as an example of the US unselfishly helping to rebuild Japan and Germany after World War II. In fact, the Marshall Plan was aimed at tying those countries to US corporate interests and isolating the then-USSR. And it’s not clear how Sanders might react if confronted by liberals calling for military intervention on humanitarian grounds.

Trump and the presidential campaign

In 2016, Trump claimed to oppose the Mideast wars. But he kept US troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and vetoed a Congressional resolution to end US support for the disastrous war in Yemen. The drone strikes in Somalia that began under Obama have vastly increased under Trump. He’s moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, recognized Israel’s illegal annexation of the Golan and virtually eliminated the already remote possibility of a two-state solution with Palestine.

Trump also withdrew from the UN Security Council mandated nuclear accord with Iran and unilaterally re-imposed harsh sanctions. His administration declared Iran’s Revolutionary Guard to be a terrorist organization. What Democrat will move the US embassy back to Tel Aviv or acknowledge that the Revolutionary Guard is not a terrorist organization?

During the primaries, when Biden will face sharp criticism from the left, he may try to reinvent himself as a progressive on foreign policy. It’s true that he voted against the 1991 Gulf War and opposed the Reagan administration’s aid to the Nicaraguan contras. And as vice president, Biden established a dovish reputation compared to hawks such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Whatever his personal views, however, Biden publicly defended each new war. When the Obama-Biden administration took office, the US was at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. When they left the White House, the US had initiated, backed or vastly expanded additional wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia.

Will Julian Assange get a fair trial in the US?

British police dragged Wikileaks founder Julian Assange out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London on April 11, witnessed by a scrum of international media. Authorities in the United Kingdom and US then tried to drag Assange’s reputation through the mud.

The official story was that Assange wore out his welcome at the embassy. News stories reported that he skateboarded through the offices, dirtied his bathroom, and let his cat poop in the halls. The man who had exposed government wrongdoing around the world had become the Hacker Who Came to Dinner.

Whatever the truth to those accusations, in reality, Assange was the victim of regime change. In 2017, Ecuadorians elected Lenin Moreno president and, in a sharp departure from previous government policy, the new president sought closer relations with the US. Moreno decided to expel Assange as part of the bargain.

The US cares nothing about cat poop in the embassy hallways. But it does want to send a warning to the media, according to John Kiriakou, a former CIA case officer and whistleblower. He says in an interview that President Donald Trump, like Barack Obama before him, has a “Nixonian obsession with national security leaks.” But the real goal is to send “a message to all journalists that there’s a lot less freedom of press than you might think.”

How it all began

In 2010, Wikileaks published a huge cache of secret State Department documents that revealed the true nature of US foreign policy. The documents showed US diplomats focused on promoting corporate interests, brokering military deals, and controlling spheres of influence.

Soon afterward, Sweden asked Britain to extradite Assange in connection with a rape accusation. Assange said he was willing to travel to Sweden to defend himself, but feared this was a cover for shipping him off to the US. Assange was out on bail awaiting extradition to Sweden when he sought political asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in 2012.

During the 2016 US presidential election, Wikileaks published hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee revealing that high level Hillary Clinton supporters used party machinery to undermine Bernie Sanders’s campaign. The FBI claimed the hacks were carried out by Russian government operatives, who then passed them along to Wikileaks. Assange denied that the Russians were the source of these or other leaks.

But by this point, Assange had pissed off pretty much everybody with power in Washington, D.C. Mainstream Democrats accused him of working with the Russians to elect Trump. During the campaign Trump said “I love Wikileaks” because of the embarrassing Clinton emails. But once in power, Trump’s Department of Justice secretly prepared an indictment against Assange.

The Legal Case

The indictment accused Assange of conspiring with Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning to illegally access documents on a government computer. The single felony count carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. The indictment was drawn narrowly to facilitate a speedy extradition.

The British courts did indeed act rapidly when a judge immediately convicted Assange of jumping bail. Francis Boyle, a law professor at the University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana, says the judge showed animus by not allowing Assange’s defense sufficient time.

Assange could have presented a “necessity defense,” Boyle says in an interview. Assange could have argued that “extradition posed a dire threat to his physical and mental wellbeing if he were extradited to the US and that this consideration would outweigh the charge of skipping bail.”

Given the British court’s animus against Assange, however, Boyle expects the extradition to proceed rapidly through the UK appeals process. “It’s a conveyor belt straight to the US,” he says.

Assange can appeal his extradition to the European Court of Human Rights. The full appeals process might normally take two to three years.

But the looming possibility of Britain withdrawing from the European Union complicates the process, according to Howard Stoffer, an associate professor of national security at University of New Haven.

“If Britain pulls out of the E.U., it’s not legally bound by a European court decision,” Stoffer says in an interview. “Assange may ask for an expedited decision.”

And, to make matters even more complicated, if Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister after a future general election, he would likely halt the extradition altogether. Corbyn has expressed support for Wikileaks exposure of US wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The New York Times reported that, under terms of the US-U.K. Extradition Treaty, the US can’t add additional charges, possibly including espionage, after Assange is extradited. But Boyle says the US can get around that by asking permission from British authorities, a likely outcome if conservatives remain in power in London.

“This is very dangerous,” he says.

Stoffer argues that Assange will get a fair trial in the US so long as the judge keeps control of the case. He thinks the judge should impose a gag order to prevent Assange from speaking to the press.

“If it becomes a circus, all bets are off,” Stoffer says. “He can claim he was not given a fair trial. The defendant shouldn’t speak to the press or it becomes a political trial.”

But Assange supporters see any trial for him as inherently political. In national security cases the government has a built-in advantage. The judge has wide discretion to seal evidence, not allow the defense to see government documents, and even to meet in private with prosecutors without defense council present, as described by whistleblower Kiriakou in his case.

“I’m sure he’s going to get a kangaroo court,” says law professor Boyle. “I don’t see the government allowing Assange to put on a vigorous defense.”

Assange is controversial

Julian Assange has long been a controversial character. Former close associates say he’s difficult and petty. The rape allegations are serious, although were never resolved because Sweden dropped the investigation.

“Assange is arrogant and hard to get along with,” admits Kiriakou. “But that’s irrelevant to the case. Without Assange, we wouldn’t know about war crimes by US troops in Iraq or NSA spying on American citizens.”

So, will Assange get a fair trial? In recent years the US government has prosecuted record numbers of whistleblowers and threatened journalists. Britain and the US always claim to respect the rule of law. This case will give them a chance prove it. But don’t hold your breath.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

The Ukraine elections, Putin, and Trump

Ukrainians can chose a crook or a clown as their new president. So far the clown is winning.

Volodymyr Zelensky, a prominent comedian without political experience, received 30 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate election last Sunday. Incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, a corrupt oligarch, came in second with 16 percent. They face a runoff election later this month.

Like Donald Trump and comedian Beppe Grillo in Italy, Zelensky capitalized on his entertainment fame to run as an outsider staunchly opposed to corruption. Zelensky campaigned as if he was the character in his hit TV series, according to Nicolai Petro, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island.

“He’s just an average guy who runs into increased corruption,” Petro told me in a phone interview. “He maintains fundamental honesty, and that’s what he’s saying as a political candidate.”

The election comes at a crucial time. The dispute over Crimea continues, and Russian troops back armed insurrection in eastern Ukraine. The conflict has killed 13,000 people and displaced millions.

Conflict between Russia and the US is also heating up as both sides compete for profits and spheres of influence in the region. And, interestingly enough, the conflict is connected to the Russiagate scandal. More on that in a bit.

Ukraine nationalism

During a reporting trip to Kiev on a blustery winter day I saw more than 5,000 young people waving huge yellow and blue Ukrainian flags as they converged on the city’s central square. They had just forced the prime minister to resign.

“It’s a great victory,” one student told me. “It’s a day I will remember all of my life.”

The year was 1990, when Ukraine was still part of the USSR. Ukrainian nationalists were convinced that forming a separate nation would lead to democracy and economic prosperity. It didn’t work out that way.

Ordinary people in the USSR were legitimately angry at the government and Soviet-style socialism because of a lack of housing, food and quality medical care. But opportunist leaders, backed by various western countries, manipulated that anger for their own power and profit.

Ukraine had the second largest economy among the Soviet republics with abundant natural resources, industry, and a rich agricultural base. A Soviet pipeline carried natural gas through Ukraine to western Europe. Nowadays, both the US and Russia seek to dominate Ukraine for geo-political reasons, according to Lev Golinkin, a journalist and memoirist born in Ukraine.

“The US considers Ukraine to be part of Russia’s backyard,” he told me in a phone interview. “The US believes that if you can turn Ukraine into a western democracy, then Russians will want the same.”

Russian officials have the same concerns, only in mirror image. Russia doesn’t want Ukraine to join NATO and have hostile troops posted along its border. Vladimir Putin often talks about combating discrimination against Russian speakers living in Ukraine.

“Putin has positioned himself as a protector of the Russian world,” said Golinkin.

Over the past 20 years Ukraine has seen a series of mass demonstrations, elections, and coups that have brought pro-western or pro-Russian governments to power. In 2004 the so-called Orange revolution replaced a corrupt, pro-Russian government with one backed by the US.

In 2013 elected President Viktor Yanukovych angered western powers by blocking plans for Ukraine to associate with the European Union. Ukrainians returned to Kiev’s central Maidan Square to protest against Yanukovych.

These demonstrations, dubbed the Maidan Revolution, included strong participation by Svoboda (Freedom), an anti-Semitic, pro-fascist political movement, as well as oligarchs bent on installing themselves in power.

The Obama administration played an active behind the scenes role in choosing Ukraine’s new leaders, as revealed in a tapped phone conversation between two high level US diplomats.

“Talk about meddling,” said Golinkin. “They are talking like corporate managers and the country is theirs.”

Petro Poroshenko, a pro-US billionaire chocolate manufacturer, won hastily called elections in 2014, campaigning as an outsider. Three members of Svoboda joined the cabinet, and one became deputy prime minister.

Russia retaliated by instigating an independence movement in Crimea, a key region of Ukraine populated mostly by ethnic Russians.

In Russia’s view, “the Crimean parliament had the right to self determination,” said Professor Petro. Crimea voted by a 95 percent margin to leave Ukraine and join Russia.

Meanwhile, according to the government in Kiev, out of uniform Russian troops invaded eastern Ukraine, an industrialized area with a large majority of Russian speakers. Allied with local militias, Russian troops still occupy parts of eastern Ukraine.

The US denounced Russian aggression and imposed harsh sanctions. Russia has weathered the storm, however, and Ukraine continues to face a low intensity war.

Enter Trump – stage right

During the 2016 US presidential campaign, Donald Trump opposed pretty much anything Barack Obama supported. Obama had made Putin into a major US enemy. Trump promoted a right-wing isolationism that included sympathy for strongman Putin. The Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia over the issue of Ukraine. Within days of taking office, Trump explored lifting those sanctions.

The possibility of warming relations with Russia freaked out the Washington establishment. FBI Director James Comey initiated a secret investigation of the Trump presidential campaign. I think officials such as Comey and CIA Director James Clapper used the claims of Russian manipulation of the US election as a cover to prevent warming of US-Russian relations.

Mainstream Democrats jumped on the anti-Russia bandwagon and attacked Trump from the right. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi infamously said, “It seems that Putin is Trump’s puppeteer, and that House Republicans have decided to join the charade.”

That’s very dangerous indeed.

Imagine if a progressive Democrat wins the 2020 presidential election and adopts policies opposed by the Washington establishment, say withdrawing US troops from South Korea. Would the FBI investigate Bernie Sanders for colluding with North Korea?

The FBI and CIA actions are completely unconstitutional, notes Professor Petro.

“Senior political appointees can really undermine the president’s policies,” he said. “I’ll give you three words: The Deep State.”

Ukraine’s future

Presidential candidates Zelensky faces Poroshenko in a runoff election April 21. Zelensky has expressed willingness to negotiate with Russia while Poroshenko has publicly refused. Right wingers in Ukraine oppose any reconciliation with Russia and will seek to prevent talks no matter who wins.

As the world has seen, independent outsiders have a much harder time governing than campaigning. Nevertheless, a peaceful resolution of the Russia/Ukraine conflict is essential. Let’s hope that either side can make some headway.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in 48Hills. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.


How the media distort news from Venezuela

Government supporters formed a successful food co-op in 2017 in Caracas, the kind of story rarely reported in mainstream media. Photo: Reese Erlich

Whenever officials in Washington, D.C. set out to overthrow a foreign government, mainstream US media outlets are there to give a helping hand. All pretense of fairness and balance disappear in favor of outrageous distortion. For the most recent example, let’s look at Venezuela.

Both high-level Republicans and Democrats have decided it’s time for Venezuela, with the world’s largest oil reserves, to rejoin the US sphere of influence. Hawks may call for direct military intervention while doves seek punishing sanctions, but all agree that the elected government of President Nicolas Maduro has got to go.

Government supporters formed a successful food co-op in 2017 in Caracas, the kind of story rarely reported in mainstream media. Photo: Reese Erlich

Mainstream media took a particularly rightward turn in January after Juan Guaidó anointed himself as Venezuela’s president, with the blessings from the administration of President Donald Trump. Guaidó is president of the opposition-dominated National Assembly and had never even run for president. A January opinion poll showed he was unknown to 81 percent of the people. He represented an unstable alliance of opposition parties. As I’ve written before, lack of legality didn’t stop the United States and its allies from declaring Guaidó president and pretending he ran an actual government.

As if responding to a bat signal in the skies above Gotham City, the mainstream media rushed to back the Trump team’s policies. The administration, which has proven incompetent and dangerous on other issues, was suddenly a reliable source of information on Venezuela. Statements from the administration and Venezuelan opposition leaders were uncritically reproduced, no matter how untethered to reality. Allow me to offer some examples.

In February, Guaidó announced plans to deliver international aid to starving Venezuelans by mobilizing massive demonstrations at the Venezuela-Colombia border, hoping a significant number of military officers would defect. The plan was obviously flawed because military leaders continued to back Maduro. Sure enough, the aid convoy didn’t get through, and military officers didn’t defect.

Many media outlets reported that Maduro’s security forces burned an aid truck as it attempted to enter Venezuela. In reality, aerial and other photos reported in real time by the leftist website Venezuela Analysis indicated that the fire was started by an anti-government protester. Weeks later, The New York Timesgot around to reporting that Maduro’s forces didn’t start the fire.

Another example of bias: The Timesand other US media focused exclusively on the US aid, ignoring that donated by Russia and Cuba without incident.

In mid-March, Venezuela’s electric grid went out nationwide, causing huge economic dislocation and dozens of deaths. President Maduro said a US cyber attack caused the shutdown. CBS News reported this claim, but gave it no credence, dutifully saying US officials “dismissed the Venezuelan government’s accusation as absurd and an attempt to divert attention from its own chronic failings.”

The Maduro government has yet to provide proof of its assertion. But as a commentary in Forbes showed, the United States could well have launched such an attack. Remember, the US and Israel initially denied creating the Stuxnet virus that disabled Iranian nuclear facilities.

Why distortions?

I’ve been a foreign correspondent for 40 years and have reported from Venezuela since 1994. I’ve met many journalists in the mainstream media, from The New York Timesto CNN and NPR. None see themselves as government mouthpieces, and in private, many will criticize Trump. So why the distorted coverage?

Mainstream reporters and editors take their cues from Washington, D.C. Since bipartisan leaders see Venezuela as beyond the pale, so do the media. They see Maduro as “hard left,” similar to the leaders of Cuba or the old USSR. As a result, they accept US government assertions pretty much without question. They often make no effort to get Maduro’s side, or even to find academics or former government officials who can balance a story with a pro-Maduro views.

In one particularly egregious article, theThe New York TimesWashington, D.C., bureau recently quoted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at length about how Russia and Cuba are “propping up Venezuela,” an absurd claim given Cuba’s own economic problems and Russia’s distance. The article contained one perfunctory paragraph with the Venezuelan government viewpoint.

Vicious attacks

Reporters know there are few consequences for misreporting about Maduro and his allies, but that the roof can cave in is they were to report something negative about the opposition.

In 2017, I filed a series of stories on Venezuela for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s daily website. While reporting government-sponsored brutality, I also noted that the opposition engaged in violent tactics against the police. I wrote that the momentum was shifting away from the anti-government demonstrators. I came under vicious attack online in a clear effort to discredit not only the articles but me as a reporter.

To their credit, CBC editors defended my reporting. A few weeks later, the opposition demonstrations petered out as the country prepared to vote for a Constituent Assembly.

A positive exception

Of course, the mainstream media is not monolithic. Knight-Ridder, now owned by McClatchy, accurately reported that weapons of mass destruction didn’t exist in Iraq during the run up to the 2003 war.

McClatchy reporters have now uncovered covert  US arms shipments from Miami to Venezuela. Their article explored possible links between the charter airline carrying the weapons and the CIA’s program in the 2000s of kidnapping and taking civilians to black sites. I hope other reporters follow up—but am not holding my breath.

The government of Venezuela certainly deserves a lot of criticism. Inflation is skyrocketing. Venezuelans face shortages of food and medicine. Unemployment is increasing as work places shut down because of the crisis. But that doesn’t justify US efforts to overthrow Maduro and install an opposition leader.

What’s really going on in Kashmir?

Kashmir has stunning natural beauty -- and rivers that provide water to both countries.

On Feb. 14, a suicide bomber killed more than 40 Indian soldiers in Kashmir in what India claimed was a terrorist attack. India retaliated by bombing a terrorist training camp, which turned out to be an uninhabited mountain top. The Pakistani air force shot down an Indian jet fighter, and India shot down a Pakistani plane.

Kashmir has stunning natural beauty — and rivers that provide water to both countries.

Diplomats and the mainstream media focused on the danger of another war between the two nuclear armed countries. But the major media provided less information about the flashpoint for the crisis: India’s brutal occupation of Kashmir.

Assistant Professor Junaid Ahmad, director of the Center for Global Dialogue at the University of Management and Technology in Lahore, Pakistan, said in a phone interview that the conflict reflects “the bitterness and anger that remains from the British partition of the region back in 1947.”

Why the conflict?

Years ago, I reported from a farm near the Pakistani controlled part of Kashmir. It was only accessible by four-wheel drive vehicle or on foot. Kashmir is spectacularly beautiful, with rolling hills and a lush valley. In years past it was tourist destination and could be again if the conflict is ever resolved.

But if you live near the border with India these days, you’re hunkering down in bomb shelters to avoid errant Indian artillery fire. Civilians on the Indian side of the border face the same danger when Pakistani guns overshoot their targets.

I learned from my hosts that a number of major rivers flow through Kashmir, a vital source of drinking water, irrigation, and hydroelectric power for both countries. Whatever country controls the water has a major impact on the entire region.

Many years ago US water expert David Lilienthal wrote, “No army, with bombs and shellfire could devastate a land as thoroughly as Pakistan could be devastated by the simple expedient of India’s permanently shutting off the sources of water that keep the fields and the people of Pakistan alive.”

A 1960 treaty allows Pakistan to use most of the water, but India has consistently tried to take back as much as it can.

Prof. Ahmad said Kashmir also occupies an important geopolitical location in an area that borders India, Pakistan, and China. The country that dominates Kashmir has “strategic leverage” in the region, he said.

In 1947, when India took control of Jammu and Kashmir, as the Indian state is formally known, “battle lines were drawn,” he said. “Indian leaders refused to let go. It gives India an excuse to keep 800,000 troops near the border with Pakistan.” Western media sources estimate the number of troops at closer to 500,000.

Colonial rule and Kashmiri rebellion

The British colonial presence in the Indian subcontinent dates back to the 1700s. British rulers used classic divide-and-conquer tactics by inciting conflict between Hindus and Muslims.

When India gained independence in 1947, a bitter struggle broke out. India was to become a predominantly Hindu country while Pakistan was overwhelmingly Muslim. A Hindu maharaja ruled over the principality of Kashmir, which was mostly Muslim. The maharaja brought Kashmir into India. A war broke out; India took control of land containing the majority of the Kashmiri population and Pakistan took the thinly populated remainder. The countries fought two more wars over Kashmir in 1965 and 1999.

Indian leaders have continuously argued that Kashmir is legally part of India. The opposition to India’s rule is fueled by Pakistan, they claim, and is dominated by Muslim terrorist groups. They further assert that the people of Jammu and Kashmir are happy with Indian rule.

In reality, the people of Kashmir have never acceded to Indian occupation. Human rights groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, have accused the Indian military of detention without trial, torture and murder. Indian repression has resulted in 100,000 civilians deaths between 1989-2011, according to Pakistani media. The Associated Press estimates 70,000 deaths between 1989 to the present.

In 1989, Kashmiris launched an armed rebellion against Indian rule. Indian authorities claimed that the Kashmiris were armed by Pakistan and led by Muslim extremist groups. But the movement’s leading organization, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, was secular. As Ahmad explained, the movement contained both secular and religious components, much like the Arab Spring of 2011.

The key element, he said, was that the 1989 uprising “was entirely indigenous. It was a mass uprising.”

The mid-1990s saw the rise of conservative political Islamist groups sponsored by the Pakistani military and intelligence services, which sought to control the Kashmiri movement for their own interests.

The Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM), for example, has bombed civilians and engaged in plane hijacking. It took credit for the suicide explosion that killed the Indian soldiers last month. JEM adheres to a right-wing ideology based on political Islam, and an extremist interpretation of Sharia law.

India accuses the Pakistani government of supporting and giving sanctuary to the JEM. “If the Pakistani state is not supporting them,” conceded Prof. Ahmad, “it’s certainly not stopping them. That’s unfortunate because it allows India to portray the struggle as dominated by terrorists.”

Other major protests broke out in 2010 and 2016. The Kashmiri resistance includes secular and religious forces, including extremists, according to Prof. Ahmad. But the recent demonstrations indicate a unified opposition to Indian rule across ideological lines. “All of the previous divisions within the resistance have collapsed.”

For decades Kashmiris have called for a plebiscite to determine the future of their region. But India has refused. The results of an authoritative 2010 poll by the British Chatham House explained why.

The survey found that 43% of respondents in both Indian and Pakistani controlled Kashmir supported independence. Fifteen percent favored unity with Pakistan. Only 21% favored unity with India, and that was almost exclusively within the Indian/Hindu population.

US Role

I think that a resolution of the Kashmir crisis will require forceful diplomatic pressure. The US claims neutrality, but has in recent years, tilted towards India. In his second term, President Barak Obama sought a strategic shift to Asia in which he wanted to ally with India to combat China. President Donald Trump continued the tilt last year by reducing US military aid to Pakistan. Trump, like his predecessors, has never forcefully condemned Indian brutality in Kashmir.

I think the US should commit to genuine neutrality in the India-Pakistan conflict. The US could be an honest broker in arranging a referendum in Kashmir and guaranteeing that all parties adhere to its results. It would be a good step forward in replacing military conflict with diplomatic action.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in 48Hills. His book The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy is now available. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

How the war in Yemen could end — in a matter of days

A Saudi bomb made by a US contractor hit a school bus full of kids last fall.

The murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has intensified Washington’s debate over the war in Yemen. On February 13, by a 248-177 vote, the House of Representatives passed a War Powers Act resolution to end U.S. participation in the war.

But officials in Washington, D.C. don’t generally know that under terms of a little noticed U.S. law, President Donald Trump could end the Yemen War in a matter of days.

A Saudi bomb made by a US contractor hit a school bus full of kids last fall.

US arms manufacturers such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin supply 57 percent of the military aircraft used by the Royal Saudi Air Force. The U.S. corporations hire hundreds of US civilian mechanics and technicians to repair, maintain and fuel fighter jets and helicopters. The Arms Export Control Act requires Saudi Arabia to use the military equipment for legitimate self defense.

Saudi Arabia’s consistent pattern of disproportionate attacks on civilians belies any claim of self defense, according to Brittany Benowitz, an attorney and former Congressional staffer who analyzes arms control issues.

“The Trump Administration is currently not complying with the requirements of the Arms Export Control Act,“ she told me. The act requires the President to stop supplies of spare parts and maintenance of Saudi fighter planes if they violate the act.

Those measures would undermine Saudi military capability fairly quickly, much faster than banning new arms sales, according to William Hartung, a defense analyst at the Center for International Policy. “It would affect their ability to fight immediately,” he said in an interview.

Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, a co-sponsor of the War Powers resolution against the Yemen War, told me, “We would never tolerate the U.S. military having this kind of civilian casualties. The war makes us complicit.”

Operations and Maintenance

Two U.S. laws, the Arms Export Control Act and the Foreign Assistance Act are supposed to strictly control use of American-made weapons. Third country nationals are prohibited from operations and maintenance of US aircraft in Saudi Arabia. That means either Americans or Saudis must hold those jobs.

Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary of defense, explained that the laws aim to protect US military secrets.

“We have the most sophisticated weapons in the world,” he told me. The law “makes sure you don’t have someone from another country who would jeopardize our security.”

US policy is also supposed to encourage training of Saudis as mechanics and in other skilled jobs so the country can diversify its workforce. But it hasn’t worked out that way.

Saudis don’t have the desire or the educational background for those jobs, said Joel Johnson, an analyst with the Teal Group, a company that analyzes the aerospace industry.

“US contractors are heavily involved in making those things fly,” he told me.

Richard Aboulafia, a vice president at Teal Group, told me that operations and maintenance have become a very profitable niche market for US corporations. Defense contractors can make as much as 150 percent more profit from operations and maintenance than from the original arms sale, he said. In 2017 Boeing cut a $480 million deal to maintain and repair Saudi F-15 fighters.

Arms manufacturers, Aboulafia said, “use the razor blade model.” They make money from the initial plane sales, but “parts and maintenance provide the real money.”

Yemen War

In early 2015, Houthi rebels were on the verge of seizing power in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, claiming the Houthis were Iranian proxies, began a widespread bombing campaign. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent ground troops to occupy the southern part of the country.

Both the Saudis and Emiratis predicted quick victory. That was nearly four years ago.

The Trump Administration argues that the Saudis are backing the legitimate Yemeni government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and protecting Yemen from Iranian aggression. But Hadi’s term expired in 2015, and he has so little popular support that he lives in Saudi Arabia and only sporadically visits Yemen.

The Houthis, a conservative Shia political movement, control the northern part of the country. They stand accused of many human rights abuses, including recruiting child soldiers and firing missiles indiscriminately at civilian areas.

“It’s not good guys here and bad guys there,” said Korb. “The Saudis are trying to restore the government. But it’s not exactly democratic.”

US and European companies provide virtually all of the munitions used to attack both military and civilian targets. Lockheed-Martin sold the guided missile that caused the deaths of 40 children and 11 adults in the infamous school bus attack in August last year.

The Pentagon argues that its advisors play a very limited role in Yemen, and that it encourages the Saudis to avoid hitting civilian targets. The U.S. military provides about 100 technicians to maintain Saudi planes in addition to the hundreds of American civilian contractors.

Critics point out that the United States plays a bigger role in the war than the Pentagon admits. The US Army runs a classified program inside Yemen called “Operation Yukon Journey“ that helps locate Houthi missiles. The UAE has hired former U.S. special ops soldiers to assassinate members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who oppose the UAE but are not connected with the Houthis.

“The US role is quite comprehensive in Yemen,” said analyst Hartung, “from supplying the weapons, to targeting, fueling, and equipment maintenance. It’s quite extensive.”

Efforts to Stop the War

In the aftermath of the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump Administration has come under increased pressure to stop participating in the Yemen War.

Congress is considering a number of bills to reduce the US role. Senators Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, introduced legislation to end future sales of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia, but would also sanction Iran for its support of the Houthis.

Late last year, the administration stopped US mid-air refueling of Saudi planes. It could also stop selling precision munitions, as ordered by President Obama in 2016 but reversed by President Trump. The United States could also stop providing spare parts for US-made F-15s, stop the maintenance work on Saudi aircraft and even refuse to transfer classified technology, such as computer programs used to strike enemy targets.

“The Arms Export Control Act requires the suspension in sales of articles and services to all members of the coalition involved in the misuse of U.S. origin equipment,” said analyst Benowitz.

Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, and Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, reintroduced a War Powers resolution to prohibit all US support for Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthis. The resolution previously passed the Senate 56-41 and may well again in this session. However, the House and Senate bills would have to overcome a likely presidential veto.

But just taking a vote on the resolutions will help pressure the Trump Administration. Representative Khanna said there’s no excuse for the thousands of civilian deaths caused by Saudi bombing.

“We need to be clear: There should be no US support for the civil war.”

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, “Foreign Correspondent,” appears regularly at 48hills. 

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