Foreign Correspondent

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. 

Read more by Reese Erlich

Venezuela: Democratic uprising or US coup?


Tens of thousands of angry people march in the streets to protest lack of democracy. Women bang on pots to raise alarm over the economic crisis brought on by a socialist president. The United States denounces the leftist government and promises to help bring democracy to the country.

Venezuela in 2019? No, it was Chile in 1973.

Venezuelan activists who support President Maduro formed food co-ops to deal with high cost of groceries. Photo: Reese Erlich

Chileans had elected a Marxist president, Salvador Allende, and the US government was seeking to oust him. Allende’s platform rejected the anti-communist foreign policy of the United States and threatened the profits of US corporations. So, in a time-honored tactic of course, the Nixon Administration claimed Allende was an autocrat allied with the USSR.

With National Security Council director  Henry Kissinger as point man, the United States squeezed Chile economically, sponsored trucker strikes, fomented opposition demonstrations, and ultimately supported the coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power. The people of Chile would suffer under a brutal dictatorship for the next 16 years.

Perhaps the Trump Administration is hoping history will repeat itself, but so far Venezuelans aren’t going for it. Elected President Nicolas Maduro, while politically weakened by recent US maneuvering, still retains a measure of popular support. Unlike the Chilean army, much of the Venezuelan military remains loyal to the government.

As I reported from Caracas two years ago, Maduro survived violent attacks by upper-class opposition leaders on his government. His supporters hope he will do so again, despite massive economic chaos promoted by the United States.

Trump coup attempt

In January the Trump Administration intensified a brutal economic and political campaign to overthrow Maduro. It blocked the state owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, known as  PDVSA, from receiving payment for oil shipments to the United States.  The administration also orchestrateddenunciations of Maduro by US allies in Latin America and Europe.

Venezuela depends on oil exports to earn hard currency. The  Wall Street Journal reported that oil production has dropped10 percent since December. That means the government will have a harder time importing essential goods, like pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and food.

While the US has sanctioned PDVSA, it has also granted waivers allowing Chevron Corporation and two US oil service providers, Halliburton and Schlumberger,to continue operating and making profits in Venezuela. Hmmmm. The US promotion of democracy in Latin America seems, once again, to be attached to corporate interests.

“The Trump Administration is trying to asphyxiate Venezuela,” Carolina Morales, a Venezuelan immigrant rights activist living in San Francisco, told me. “The US claims it favors humanitarian aid to Venezuela, but the best aid is a functioning economy. The sanctions hurt ordinary people.”

US supports democracy – really?

Trump and the Venezuelan opposition claim that Maduro orchestrated fraudulent presidential elections in May 2018 and has become an autocrat. The Venezuelan constitution provides that if the presidency is “abandoned,” the president of the National Assembly can assume that office. On January 23, National Assembly head Juan Guaidó swore himself in as president, claiming that Maduro had abandoned his office by conducting fraudulent elections.

However, the major opposition parties had boycotted the 2018 elections because they were badly divided. They made no claims that Maduro had “abandoned” the presidency. The argument—a thin legal thread created to justify a coup—arose months later.

Guido, until last month, was a virtual unknown. He had never run for national office, and was head of the National Assembly only as part of a rotation system among the opposition parties. Guido’s party, Popular Will, is self-described as a social democratic party. The United States will certainly pressure Popular Will to adopt neo-liberal economic policies such as tax benefits for the rich, taking on onerous loans from international banks and privatizing state owned companies, particularly PDVSA.

Venezuelans have been down that path before. Neoliberal economic policies caused a massive economic crisis in the 1990s, leading to the election of Hugo Chávez, according to Luis Salas, a former minister of economy under Maduro. I interviewed him during my last trip to Caracas.

“That era only produced increased poverty and high inflation,” Salas told me.

Venezuelans will likely be worse off under opposition rule than under Maduro, as admitted by Fernando Cruz, a former White House official who worked on Venezuela policy.

“Things probably will get worse for the people of Venezuela before they get better when you actually start doing things for the greater good,” Cutz told The New York Times.

Serious economic problems

Surely, the opposition owes much of its support to the country’s deteriorating economy. Inflation hit a staggering 80,000 percent last year and is expected to go even higher in 2019.

That means workers’ wages are almost worthless. “It’s difficult to get enough money to buy food,” admitted immigration activist Morales.

Stringent US sanctions and fluctuating oil prices have impacted the Venezuelan economy. But the government also made serious errors, according to Rodulfo Perez, a former minister of education in Maduro’s cabinet.

“We should have invested our oil money in the domestic economy,” Perez told me during my last trip. “Such a policy would have strengthened the bolívar fuerte [Venezuelan currency] and reduced the need for imports.”

What lies ahead?

Trump’s Latin American policy is now spearheaded by John Bolton, Elliott Abrams, and a group of neocons determined to reassert US control of Venezuela’s oil. And, as Bolton has admitted, “It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.”

From a geopolitical standpoint, the neocons see overthrowing the government in Venezuela as a first step towards doing the same in Cuba and Nicaragua.

A US coup is by no means a done deal. “I am optimistic and hoping the government will survive,” said activist Morales. She then added, “I’m also worried. The US could send troops to Venezuela, which would provoke a civil war. There could be thousands of deaths in the streets. That’s why I’m speaking up against this coup.”

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 onTwitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Does Cuba censor the Internet? Think again

These farmers in rural Cuba have Internet access, as do many other Cubans. Photo by Reese Erlich

HAVANA — A group of Cubans stared intently at the screens of their smart phones here in Old Havana, checking emails and Googling news stories. They and millions of other Cubans got access to Internet upgrades last month that defy the image of Cuba as a totalitarian state whose citizens face Internet censorship.

Cubans can now subscribe to monthly plans providing roaming internet connections for as little as $7 a month. Others access the Internet from wifi hotspots for even less.

These farmers in rural Cuba have Internet access, as do many other Cubans. Photo by Reese Erlich

The Cuban government blocks access to the US propaganda station TV Marti and the sites of pro-US bloggers, but doesn’t block US media such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journaland even the ultra conservative Spanish edition of the Miami Herald. Twitter, Facebook and phone apps such as IMO are also easily accessible.

“There’s virtually no internet censorship in Cuba,” a US journalist based in Havana told me during a recent trip.

While Cuba has vastly improved internet connectivity over the past 15 years, usage remains well behind that of the US or even other Latin American countries. About 40% of Cubans have Internet access compared to 61% projected for the rest of Latin America in 2019.

All smart phones must be imported and remain expensive for the average Cuban, who earns about $30/month. I saw older model Samsung phones costing $60 at one Havana store. A monthly plan providing 1 gig of broadband with roaming costs $10.

Conservatives in the US argue that the high cost of connectivity serves as de facto censorship. The high Internet cost is allegedly part of a Cuban government plot to keep Cubans unaware of the benefits of US-style democracy.

As usual, US critics omit any context for Cuba’s problems, nor do they acknowledge internet progress.

The real Internet story

When I first began reporting on the issue in the early 1990s, the US claimed Cuba was intentionally making connectivity difficult and expensive in order to keep Cubans isolated from developments in the rest of the world. In those days connecting to the Internet meant paying $12 an hour at a tourist hotel. Later, Cubans could use a computer at a local post office at the rate of $5 an hour for an extremely slow connection.

Cuban government officials told me that the high costs resulted from the US embargo, the unilateral US policy that prohibits most business dealings between the US and Cuba. The US government stopped US phone companies from laying new cables from Florida to Cuba, forcing the island to rely on far more expensive satellite connections.

Juan Fernández, a professor at the University of Information Science and advisor to Communications Ministry on Internet issues, told me during a previous trip that US companies control a lot of the computer hardware used for modern Internet connections.

“The US is very close and could sell everything very cheap,” he said. “Yes, we can buy it in Asia, but it’s more expensive.”

Internet access improved after 2012 when Venezuela laid a new fiber-optic cable to Cuba. More Cubans were then able to use home dial-up connections along with wifi hotspots in parks, cyber cafes and other public spaces. Students at the University of Havana and other colleges have free, but slow, wifi access.

Cuban officials have legitimate concerns about US efforts to use technology to undermine the government.

“Cuba isn’t a normal country,” said Fernandez. “We face great pressure, practically an economic war, from the most powerful country in the world. Every day the US tries to make our system disappear. For 50 years the US has been trying regime change in Cuba.”

The Office of Cuba Broadcasting, the US government agency in charge of propaganda broadcasts to Cuba, has admitted to promoting mobile phone apps aimed at disrupting Cuba. It distributed free smartphones loaded with programs called ZunZeneo and Piramedio. The apps allowed users to quickly communicate with one another, which the US hoped would foment discontent with the government.

During a previous reporting trip, I interviewed Nestor Garcia, a former Cuban diplomat at the UN.

“My students started getting text messages on their cell phones with news reports about demonstrations that never happened,” Garcia said. “The US is trying to create a climate to protest against the Cuban government.”

In 2009 the Cuban government arrested Alan Gross, a USAID contractor, for distributing satellite phones aimed at establishing wifi hotspots to be used by Cuba’s small Jewish community. He was convicted of spying and sentenced to 15 years. He was released in 2014 when the US and Cuba established full diplomatic relations under President Obama.

So far US government attempts to use the Internet have failed to undermine the Cuban system. Cubans are certainly unhappy with their economic conditions. A drop in US tourism and severe economic problems in Venezuela have contributed to a shrinking economy. Cubans currently face shortages of flour and powdered milk.

But that doesn’t mean Cubans are planning a Twitter revolution. In addition to internet access, many buy the “Paquete” (Packet), a weekly download of massive amounts of news and entertainment. A customer brings a thumb drive to a Paquete distributor, pays as little as 50 cents and can get the latest foreign newspapers, magazines, TV shows, movies, and even US propaganda broadcasts.

But the most frequently downloaded choices, according to many Cubans I interviewed, are soap operas

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.



Trump: The sudden anti-war champion?

Trump confounds everyone with his latest foreign policy -- but the US should never have been in Syria or Afghanistan in the first place. Photo Antiwarcom

Last week President Donald Trump surprised the world, and much of his own staff, by announcing plans to pull more than 2,000 US troops out of Syria. Then he said he would cut the number of US troops in Afghanistan in half.

Trump confounds everyone with his latest foreign policy — but the US should never have been in Syria or Afghanistan in the first place. Photo Antiwarcom

In response, Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis and special envoy to Syria Brett McGurk resigned. Conservative Republicans denounced Trump. The foreign policy establishment in general went bonkers, claiming Trump was endangering national security.

Some liberals and progressives were confused. They want to see a withdrawal of troops from unjust wars but were concerned with Trump’s impetuous and unilateral methods.

So let’s set the record straight. The US never should have invaded Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan in the first place. The US is not bringing democracy to the region. It wages wars of occupation to further Washington’s rapacious economic and geopolitical designs.

Yes, Trump failed to consult with allies, ignored his closest advisors, and left the Kurds in the lurch.

But have no illusions. Even if future President Bernie Sanders negotiated a phased troop withdrawal from the region, he would come under vicious attack by big business Democrats and Republicans. That’s what President Barak Obama faced when he pulled US troops out of Iraq in 2011 even though he was implementing a legally binding agreement reached between President George W. Bush and the Iraqi government.

For the ruling elite in Washington, there’s never a good time to end a war. They voluntarily pull out combat troops only with the installation of permanent, pro-US regimes, and that isn’t about to happen in Syria or Afghanistan.

Trump’s policy, however mangled, actually reflects a popular American consensus against the never-ending wars of aggression.

Monica Toft, a professor of international politics and director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, told me Trump is playing to his political base.

“People would like the troops to come home,” she said. “But you don’t do it in such a rash manner.”

Will the US really pull out?

Pentagon officials, caught off guard by Trump’s tweet on the Syria withdrawal, quickly announced contingency plans to continue the Syria war through other means. It may launch commando raids and missile strikes into Syria from bases in neighboring Iraq. Trump endorsed this policy during a surprise visit to Iraq on Dec. 26. So we’ll have to see what the administration’s policy will be in practice.

Winding down the 17-year-old Afghanistan war is even more complicated. Trump said he would cut the troops to 7,000, but that was only after he increased the troop strength to 15,000 in 2017. So, the announced withdrawal will leave only about 1,500 fewer troops than the 8500 stationed there when Trump took office.

I think the US lost the war in Afghanistan long ago. The country is ruled by corrupt, drug-dealing warlords. The Taliban controls much of the country outside the major cities, and can carry out armed assaults at will on the capital Kabul.

When the Obama administration surged100,000 troops into Afghanistan in 2009, it couldn’t win the war. So 7,000 soldiers certainly can’t. The only question is which US president will be in office when foreign troops are forced out. It remains to be seen if Trump will accept being blamed for “losing Afghanistan.” In reality the country was never his to lose.

What happens to Rojava?

Trump’s decision to pull troops from Syria apparently began with a phone call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Dec. 14. Erdogan promised his troops would eliminate the remnants of the Islamic State that still hold territory along the Syrian-Iraqi border. But first he would wipe out the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led armed movement allied with the US fighting in northern Syria (Rojava).

Several days after the phone call, the Pentagon agreed to sell Patriot Missiles to Turkey in a $3.5 billion deal that profits US arms manufacturers.

Turkey characterizes the SDF and its allied political movements as separatists and terrorists affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey. In reality the SDF calls for a decentralized federal state with autonomy for Rojava within a Syrian state.

Turkey has its own political agenda in Syria. It cobbled together an armed militia called the Free Syrian Army that consists of some 2,000 castoffs from various right-wing political Islamist groups. These Sunni groups are closer ideologically to the Islamic State than to any version of civil society.

So Erdogan is unlikely to pursue the Islamic State with the same vigor as his war on the Kurds. Turkey hopes to defeat the Kurds and use its control of northern Syria as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the government of President Bashar al Assad. Syria has a long-standing territorial dispute with Turkey and fears Erdogan will annex part of northern Syria.

Turkish control of Rojava would be a disaster, according to Brace Belden, a San Francisco resident who fought with the Kurdish forces. He was surprised by Trump’s tweet.

He doesn’t call for US troops to remain, however. “From the beginning I opposed an alliance with the US. The timing surprised me, but the betrayal was inevitable.”

He said the US should pressure Turkey through diplomatic means not to invade Rojava. Instead of selling a new missile system to Turkey, Trump should cut off all arms sales if Turkey attacks Rojava, he said. The US also has a responsibility to provide money to rebuild areas of Syria flattened by US bombs.

The SDF faces a serious crisis but has a number of options. Their leaders traveled recently to Paris seeking support from the French government.

SDF leaders said they might have to release some 3,200 Islamic State prisoners and 2,080 of their family members now being held in SDF detention. It was a thinly veiled threat to Trump and the Europeans that they can’t take the SDF for granted.

SDF leaders are also holding negotiations with the Assad government. Belden said they discussed relinquishing control of oil fields near Deir Ezzor, a part of Syria controlled by the SDF but not part of Rojava.  

“There are some indications that the PYD [Democratic Union Party, the political leadership of the SDF] is dropping its demands for federalism because that’s unacceptable to Assad,” said Belden.

The SDF is also urging the Russians to prevent a Turkish attack. Deterring such an offensive would benefit both Russia and Syria, according to Prof. Toft.

“A Turkish attack would open another front in this war,” she said. “Stopping a Turkish incursion is in Russia’s interest as well.”

Best Case/Worst Case Scenarios

Assuming the US actually pulls troops out of Syria, it will set off a complicated set of reactions. The SDF could reach an agreement with Russia and Assad that blocks a Turkish invasion and allows Syrian government troops back into northern Syria.

The worst-case scenario would be a Turkish occupation of Rojava and a continued splintering of the Syrian nation.

As for Afghanistan, the Trump administration could learn from its mistakes in Syria and plan a quick but phased withdrawal. As Rep. Ro Khanna (Dem-California) wrote, “There should be a short timeline for bringing home our troops to allow for a smooth transition. We should engage in direct talks with the Taliban and seek a negotiated settlement, involving regional actors such as Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, and India.”

Trump learning from his mistakes and acting diplomatically? Fat chance. But, hey, the US will have to withdraw from the region sooner or later. It may just start on Trump’s watch.

The US empire is learning that the only thing harder than starting a war is ending it. 

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears regularly 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 onTwitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.


Sex, Russia, and impeachment

There are plenty of reasons to impeach Trump; Russia may not be one of them.

NEW YORK –America’s largest city is abuzz over the latest revelations about Donald Trump’s crimes. I’m here on A book tour discussing Iran, but audiences want to know if Trump will be impeached.

Court documents filed in the case of Trump’s long-time personal lawyer Michael Cohen show The Donald paid off two women with whom he had sexual relations. Prosecutors consider the payments, totaling several hundred thousand dollars, to be illegal campaign contributions because they were explicitly used to prevent scandal during the 2016 presidential race.

There are plenty of reasons to impeach Trump; Russia may not be one of them.

Top Democratic Party leaders admit those payments constitute impeachable offenses, but have so far not called for impeachment. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (Dem-NY), who will head the House Judiciary Committee in January, has become the master of equivocation.

“Well, they would be impeachable offenses,” he told CNN. “Whether they are important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question.”

Case for impeachment

In my opinion, Trump is guilty of a number of high crimes and misdemeanors. He has escalated the undeclared wars in Syria and Yemen. He obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James Comey and lied about meetings his advisors had with Russians.

Norman Solomon, co-founder of RootsAction, has been building a grass-roots movement for impeachment over the past two years. (Solomon is also co-author with me of the book Target Iraq.) He said Trump regularly violates the Constitution’s emoluments clause. The Trump family directly benefits from foreign governments renting rooms in Trump hotels in Washington DC., among other shading business dealings.

“Trump has been violating these clauses since his first day as president,” Solomon told me.

I think pursuing impeachment is one legitimate tactic by what is emerging as a broad anti-Trump movement. For now, the Republican-dominated Senate is not likely to convict Trump. By voting for impeachment in the House, but losing in the Senate, the Democrats could end up strengthening Trump. But new evidence may yet emerge. And even a House vote to impeach would force Trump to focus on defending himself, and potentially reduce his ability to wreak havoc on the government.

Last year 58 members of the House voted to debate impeachment. Democrats now hold a majority and the party base remains very angry at Trump’s corruption and despotism. The House could start impeachment hearings at anytime and enjoy considerable popular support.

Russia Connection?

You noticed that I didn’t mention Trump’s collusion/conspiracy with Putin as one of the impeachable offenses. I think liberals have overplayed that connection, and it’s likely to backfire.

To date, there’s no evidence that Trump cooperated with Russia to illegally influence the 2016 elections or adopt pro-Russian policies as a quid pro quo for favorable business dealings.

Yes, the Russians spent a few hundred thousand dollars to set up fake social media sites to attack Hillary Clinton and support Trump. But, despite the liberal outcry, it had relatively small impact.

Trump won by less than 80,000 votes in three key states. The Democrats lost because Trump appealed to alienated white voters and the Clinton campaign tilted right rather than mobilizing new voters with a progressive program.

Yes, high level Trump officials met with Russians in hopes of getting dirt on Clinton. And Trump’s campaign advocated easing Russian sanctions and establishing better relations with Putin.

But those activities are just as easily explained as political maneuvers rather than conspiracies. Trump was looking for whatever support he could get. During the campaign he sometimes professed an isolationist foreign policy that included improving relations with Russia. For their part, Russian leaders hoped for an end to Hillary Clinton’s liberal interventionism.

If Putin and Trump had a secret deal, why did Trump immediately appoint ultra-conservative interventionists to key cabinet posts, who then cranked up hostility with Russia?

For too many Democrats, Putin bashing also serves a convenient political purpose, according to Alan MacLeod, a researcher at Glasgow Media Group.

“If Russia is to blame, there is no need for introspection, nor to cede political ground to progressives,” he told me. “Instead it can be business as usual. There is no need to change policies, reflect upon a poorly run campaign, … or to understand why their policies failed to inspire the American public.”

Attacking Trump from the right

Insisting on a Putin-Trump conspiracy also promotes Russia as a dangerous enemy, and allows Democrats to attack Trump from the right on national security issues.

Nancy Pelosi, who will become speaker of the House, summed up the mainstream Democratic Party view succinctly earlier this year.

 “It seems that Putin is Trump’s puppeteer,” she said. 

The new Russian boogie man not only challenges the United States in eastern Europe and the Middle East, it threatens our democratic elections, according to leading liberals.

Earlier this year Rep. Nadler and other Democratic House leaders called for increased sanctions against Russia. Nadler proclaimed, “If we do not take any action, the American people may not trust the outcome of the next election.”

 As it turns out, Russian midterm election interference never materialized.

In reality Russia is a lesser imperialist power compared to the United States, or even Britain and France. It seeks hegemony in a limited number of places, such as the former USSR and Eastern Europe, and more recently, in parts of the Middle East. Putin heads an authoritarian government that oppresses the Russian people. But Russia is no more threat to the people of United States than any other lesser imperialist power. We face far greater threats from the neocons currently occupying the White House.

I view Russian interference in US elections the same way I see its espionage. Both countries carry out illegal spying on one another. Occasionally a spy is caught. One side self righteously denounces the other, but no one believes espionage will topple either government.

A recent Gallup poll showed that 58% of the American people favor improving relations with Russia while only 38% want more sanctions. So in both factual and practical terms, the Democrats should stop braying about the Trump-Putin conspiracy and focus on the White House’s real crimes.

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