Foreign Correspondent

Foreign Correspondent: Will Trump Bring Peace to Afghanistan?

Heroin is Afghanistan's largest export. Here a farmer grows alternative crops but faces economic difficulties. PHOTO: Reese Erlich

Washington, DC is buzzing with talk of troop withdrawals and the impact on peace talks in  Afghanistan. The US may start withdrawing troops within months, the start of what would be a gradual withdrawal of all 14,000 US troops from the country.

President Donald Trump wants to leave the impression that he is finally ending the Afghanistan War. What could go wrong? Well, for starters, IT’S TRUMP!

Heroin is Afghanistan’s largest export. Here a farmer grows alternative crops but faces economic difficulties. PHOTO: Reese Erlich

Trump would love nothing better than to claim that he brought peace to Afghanistan sometime prior to the November 2020 presidential elections. In reality, the administration is far from ending the war, let alone providing justice for the Afghan people.

To be fair, any President would have a hard time ending what has become the longest war in US history. Washington was politically defeated in Afghanistan long ago, and no shift in US tactics will change that—whether it is a troop surge, the renewed training of local soldiers, or a focus on counterterrorism.

The US lost because most Afghans see the USA  as an occupying power. And the Taliban is winning, as seen in the increase of areas under its control and its ability to attack anywhere in the country. On August 2, while the chief US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad was on Afghan TV, the Taliban set off a massive explosion in the heavily fortified Kabul housing compound where foreign mercenaries live.

Basir Bita, a leader of Afghan Peace Volunteers in Kabul, says the level of fear is increasing in the capital. “Even outside your own home, you don’t know what will happen next,” he tells me in a phone interview. “You have no idea if you will come home alive.”

The US has spent more than $1 trillion on the war in Afghanistan since it began in 2001. Some 139,000 Afghan civilians and combatants have been killed. More than 6,300 US soldiers and contractors have died.

Latest peace talks

The Afghanistan War was a disaster from its inception. Now Washington is trying to clean up the mess by pretending we won.

US negotiators and Taliban leaders have been meeting in Doha, Qatar, since 2018. The US side insists the Taliban not participate in international terrorism and that it negotiate with the Afghan government.

The Taliban has agreed to not allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for international terrorism, but demands that all US troops be withdrawn before a ceasefire can take place, and so far has refused to negotiate with the US-installed President Ashraf Ghani.

US officials have leaked a few details of a proposed peace plan, but stress that Trump hasn’t yet signed off. Within 135 days of signing a peace accord, the US would withdraw 5,400 of its 14,000 troops now in Afghanistan. It would depart from five military bases or give them to the Afghan military. If the Taliban meets US conditions, then all US troops would be withdrawn in 16  months.

It’s not at all clear that Trump will agree with the plan, nor implement it if signed. One faction in the White House wants to leave CIA paramilitary troops in the county “to fight terrorism.” The Afghan Army and police have lost battle after battle, with two provincial capitals temporarily overrun just this week. Will any peace plan be meaningful if US and Afghan troops can’t control the country?

Popular opinion

Peace activist Bita calls the talks “complicated.” He favors the complete withdrawal of US troops. But ordinary Afghans are wary of the negotiations that leave them out of the process.

“What will happen to human rights, women’s rights, and the Afghan constitution?” Bita asks. “What will happen to the economy?”

Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, agrees that economic development is a key component to any lasting peace. “Incomes are vital to peace,” she says in a phone interview, shortly before heading back for a short trip to Kabul where she works with grassroots groups.

Right now, Kelly notes, the country’s main export is heroin. “Afghans live in a failed narco state,” she explains. “The vast bulk of US reconstruction aid has gone to counter-narcotics, building Afghan government capacity, and sustaining Afghan police and military. Most Afghans don’t want to join the security forces.”

What should the US do?

In my opinion, Washington should immediately pull out all troops, CIA operatives, and US-contracted mercenaries, and close its bases. NATO-allied troops will quickly follow suit.

Then the US and its allies should commit billions of dollars to rebuild the country by funding neutral, international organizations to provide emergency relief and development aid.

“Reparations should be paid to the Afghan people, not the government,” Kelly adds. Washington should fund only those small and medium sized aid groups who have a proven track record and are not corrupt, she says.

The dire conditions on the ground in Afghanistan are likely to force a US withdrawal from the country. It’s only a matter of when and under what circumstances. I wish I could tell you that the administration in Washington will handle the withdrawal in a way that benefits both countries. But don’t hold your breath.

Foreign Correspondent: What is the role of the US in Hong Kong demonstrations?

Hong Kong's income inequality is now the worst in the world. Wikimedia Commons photo

I first met Jason Lee when he was promoting jazz concerts in his hometown of Hong Kong. More recently, he has been sending me Facebook messages about the Hong Kong protests. You would think that a relatively prosperous, 43-year-old  Hong Konger would support the demonstrations that have rocked that city since June. Well, you may be surprised by his views.

Hong Kong’s income inequality is now the worst in the world. Wikimedia Commons photo

Lee, who spends time in both Hong Kong and mainland China, says protesters’ attacks on police and government buildings “are going too far.” Referring to how they recently closed the Hong Kong airport, he asks, “Would the USA let JFK airport be occupied for one day?”

Protestors carrying British flags and spray-painting anti-communist slogans on legislative offices don’t understand the region’s colonial history when British troops brutally occupied Hong Kong, Lee tells me in a phone interview.

“I’m Chinese from Hong Kong,” says Lee. “I love my country, China.”

The protest movement began in opposition to a proposed extradition law, which demonstrators said would allow political dissidents to be extradited to China. Hong Kong officials said the law wouldn’t be used for political repression but later withdrew it.

Some Hong Kongers, Lee included, think the protesters’ calls for “democracy” are really demands for independence from China, even a return to British colonial rule.

“They want the movement to go on and on by raising new demands,” Lee says. “And then they claim the government isn’t responding.”

Sharp class divisions

One major factor driving the protests is economic inequality. For many years, Hong Kong was a key financial and commercial outpost for the People’s Republic of China. But, as the PRC’s economy expanded, it didn’t need Hong Kong as a middle man and the territory’s economy declined relative to China’s.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong billionaires made huge profits, leading to one of the world’s highest rates of income inequality.

Housing is now in short supply and Hong Kong rents are the highest in the world. Many young adults still live with their parents or crowd into small, subdivided apartments.

“My apartment is 350 square feet,” Sean Starrs, a Hong Kong professor, told the Real News Network. “My students say, well what do you do with all that space?”

And, as always, Washington is happy to take advantage of those complaints for its own odious purposes.

In the old days, the CIA would slip wads of cash to dissidents in order to promote anti-government riots and install pro-US regimes. That method worked for Iran in 1953 and Chile in 1973.

Nowadays, the United States uses the National Endowment for Democracy to spread propaganda to accomplish the same goals. The NED is supposed to build democracy but in reality promotes dissidents who favor US-style capitalism, and it funds aspiring autocrats.

I don’t think the CIA initiated the demonstrations, but the events bear a strong resemblance to other US-manipulated “color” revolutions.

Color revolutions vs. genuine uprisings

With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, several former Soviet republics faced a series of elections, mass demonstrations and coups. In Georgia the uprising was called a “rose revolution.” In Ukraine, it was orange. During the 2013 Maidan revolt in Ukraine, the US role in manipulating the mass movement and selecting the country’s new president was revealed publically.

On the other hand, popular, mass uprisings in 2011 overthrew dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. So how do you tell the difference between genuine uprisings and the color revolts?

The key questions are who is leading the protests and what would happen if they took power? Would the country go in a progressive direction or join the reactionary camp led by the United States? While no one party or recognized coalition leads the Hong Kong protests, there are identifiable political trends.

Political trends in Hong Kong

The pan-democratic forces call for universal suffrage and direct elections of Hong Kong officials. Critics say those calls for democracy cover up their close alliance with US policy and their rejection of eventual unity with China. The pan-democrats suffered surprising losses in last year’s legislative council elections.

The umbrella protests of 2014 accelerated the rise of another trend, the localists, a xenophobic rightwing movement that calls for “self-determination” (independence) from Beijing.

“They think Hong Kongers are better than Chinese,” says Elvin Ho, a retired business consultant living in Hong Kong. Native Hong Kongers mostly speak Cantonese, he explains in a phone interview. “Localists will pick a fight with random targets during the riot, who speak Mandarin, and bully them.”

Imagine for a moment that the PRC ceased to exist. Would Hong Kong transform itself into a democratic society? I think some combination of localists and pan-democratic forces would come to power and then violently repress those who supported the PRC and the previous Hong Kong government.

Sound farfetched? That’s what has happened when the pro-western forces came back to power in Ukraine and Hungary.

But the PRC does exist, and it’s not about to allow Hong Kong independence. China has massed paramilitary police along the Hong Kong border as a clear threat against the protestors. Many Hong Kongers are getting tired of the constant disruptions and violence on both sides.

So far the Hong Kong government has bided its time, hoping the public will tire of the constant turmoil. We can only hope the current crisis ends without further violence.

China trade war not going well for Trump

China has evolved from producing food and toys to creating sophisticated AI machinery and 5G phone networks. Here a Chinese chocolate factory. Photo by Reese Erlich

 

China is coming after us! Time to steel ourselves for battle against the human-rights-violating, currency-manipulating, job-grabbing, intellectual-property-stealing, missile-launching evil doers. Or so Washington, D.C. would like us to believe.

China has evolved from producing food and toys to creating sophisticated AI machinery and 5G phone networks. Here a Chinese chocolate factory. Photo by Reese Erlich

Washington’s list of grievances is long, but they all boil down to this: China unfairly competes with the United States economically and poses an increasingly dangerous military threat. We have to stop them before the danger gets worse.

That’s the cover story. In reality, Washington is angry that China has rapidly advanced to become the world’s second-largest economic power. Capitalist ideology tells us that a socialist country led by a Communist Party is inefficient, lacks initiative, and only produces poverty. So when reality conflicts with ideology, well, reality must be wrong.

China can be criticized for many things, including its human rights record, burgeoning class divisions, and corruption. But China has flourished economically despite having to function under world trade rules set up to benefit the United States and its allies.

For the past year, the Trump Administration has, with grudging acceptance by high-level Democrats and Republicans, intensified economic warfare against China. As I predicted a year ago, the war hasn’t gone so well for the United States. In spite of tremendous Trumpian pressure, China hasn’t backed down.

In fact, Trump’s trade war has destabilized the US economy and led to a 5.5 percent drop in gross private domestic investment, according to David Kotz, economics professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an old friend.

“A trade war creates uncertainty so big business owners sit on their hands and don’t invest,” Kotz tells me. “If the economy continues on the current path, I think a recession is likely.”

Trade war begins

Last July, the Trump Administration announced plans to unilaterally impose 25 percent tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese imports, which may present a breach of World Trade Organization rules. (Reese’s Golden Rule: If China started the trade war with unilateral tariffs on US products, wouldn’t that be against the rules?) But hey, when has illegality ever stopped Trump? The tariffs have raised prices in the United States as corporations passed some of their increased costs along to consumers.

In addition, Washington stopped some US companies from doing business with Chinese companies, declared phone company Huawei to be a national security risk, stopped giving visas to some Chinese graduate students, and pressured US universities to close Chinese government-funded programs teaching Mandarin and promoting Chinese culture.

China retaliated by imposing tariffs on US agriculture and other products, causing huge economic disruption to sectors of the US economy. The tariffs haven’t brought manufacturing jobs back to the United States. Corporations like Apple are looking to shift production to Vietnam and other developing countries.

Earlier this month, the Trump Administration upped the ante by threatening to impose 10 percent tariffs on all remaining Chinese imports, some $300 billion annually. In reaction, world stock markets plunged and China devalued its currency.The devaluation allows China to sell more goods abroad and undercut the impact of US tariffs.

Winner?

So who’s winning the trade war? The tariffs on China haven’t produced US jobs, but they have helped increase the US trade deficit. China’s economic growth has slowed. Chinese consumer spending is down. Some US corporations have moved out of China. The drop in China’s currency makes it much more expensive to pay back loans made in dollars.

“Both sides are hurting from the trade war,” says economist Kotz. “But so far, China has only agreed to things that don’t affect its core economic programs.”

China is willing to negotiate new trade agreements if they are fair to both sides, says pro-Beijing internet blogger Nathan Rich. However, he says, “if China views the treaties as forced or particularly unfair, it will not sign them.”

Significant business sectors continue to get mad at Trump, including agribusiness and companies in the industrial Midwest. David French, a senior vice president at the National Retail Federation, offers this prediction: “The tariffs will cause job losses and higher prices for everybody, but especially [Trump’s] base.”

Military threat exaggerated

Ordinary Americans don’t get too worked up over arcane tariff rules, so Washington hopes to spread fear by portraying China as a major military threat. President Barack Obama tried to “pivot to Asia,” which included beefing up the US military presence near China. Now Trump’s White House continues the propaganda, criticizing China’s presence in the South China Sea and its development of ground based missiles.

Such fear-mongering always omits a few relevant details. China has only one military base outside its own territory. The United States has more than 800. China has 290 nuclear warheads, the United States has 6,185. China has pledged no first use of nuclear weapons; the United States has not. China’s military buildup is concentrated near its own borders; America’s is worldwide.

China is far weaker than the United States militarily, and that’s not likely to change for decades. However, China does pose a threat to those in Washington’s ruling elite who seek to impose their economic and military might on the world.

 

I met Sheikh Mohammed al-Habibin eastern Saudi Arabia back in 2013 while covering Arab Spring demonstrations there. He was exactly the kind of centrist religious and political leader that Washington claims to support. As a Shia Muslim he advocated allying with Sunnis; he called for reform within the monarchy, not its overthrow; and he advocated nonviolence.

So what did the religious dictatorship of Saudi Arabia do? They arrested him in 2016, subjected him to torture, convicted him on trumped up charges and sentenced him to seven years in prison.

Mohammad bin Salman, the supposedly liberal Saudi leader, has carried out arrests, torture and murder of opposition activists. On August 25, Sheik al-Habib is scheduled to face a new judicial proceeding for supporting peaceful protests.

The State Department acknowledged Sheik al-Habib’s case in its International Religious Freedom Report, but has done little to actually get him released. This month the White House threatened the Swedish government if it didn’t release American rapper A$AP Rocky, who was accused of assault in Stockholm. The State Department should do no less for Saudi political prisoners.

Elizabeth Warren on war and peace

In the last few months Senator Elizabeth Warren has gained ground in public opinion polls tracking the race for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. In some states, she’s ahead of Senator Bernie Sanders and pulling close to former Vice President Joe Biden.

In domestic politics, Warren makes a populist appeal to working people with calls for free college tuition, single-payer health care, and breaking up monopolies. In foreign policy, she takes a similar stand, calling for an end to foreign trade pacts such as Trump’s renegotiated NAFTA.

She wrote in Foreign Affairs, “While international economic policies and trade deals have worked gloriously well for elites around the world, they have left working people discouraged and disaffected.”

Warren’s main competitor among left-leaning voters is Senator Bernie Sanders, who has developed a generally progressive, anti-interventionist foreign policy. She also competes against former Vice President Joe Biden, a corporate Democrat, who voted for the 2003 Iraq War and supported all of Obama’s new wars (Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq).

Warren’s foreign policy lies somewhere in between Sanders and Biden. She has a troubling history of uncritical support of Israel, supporting sanctions on Venezuela, and vilifying Russia and China as national security threats. But her views are also evolving.

In 2014, Israel launched a horrific war on Gaza, dropping bombs on densely inhabited cities. TheUnited Nations reported that more than 2,100 Palestinians died, compared to sixty-six Israelis. When challenged by a constituent in 2014 about her support for Israel,Warren responded: “America has a very special relationship with Israel. . . . And we very much need an ally in that part of the world.” She opposed making US aid contingent on prohibiting new Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.

But in 2018, Warren condemned the Israeli military violence against Palestinians protesting peacefully at the Israel-Gaza border. The Israel lobby has pushed hard for the US Senate to oppose the movement to Boycott, Divest and Sanction Israel. To her credit, Warren voted against such a resolution in February 2019. Most recently, she joined with Sanders and others to oppose Israeli annexation of the West Bank.

While Warren is moving in the right direction, I would like to see her make a clear-cut statement opposing Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, commit to moving the US Embassy back to Tel Aviv, and call for an independent, contiguous Palestinian state, which would live peacefully next to a non-aggressive Israel.

Candidates’ views on Venezuela tell us a lot about how they will react as president when the Washington establishment bleats out that “we have to do something!” Economic conditions in Venezuela are terrible and the political situation tenuous. Trump’s solution? Apply crushing sanctions aimed at overthrowing the government of President Nicolas Maduro and replace it with one more to the US liking.

Warren co-sponsored a Senate bill proposing to bar US military intervention in Venezuela. But in February, she called for economic sanctions on Venezuela along with increased foreign aid. In this context, sanctions are part of the plan to unseat Maduro. I would like to see Warren take a firm stand against allUS intervention—economic, political or military.

When it comes to Russia, China, and North Korea, mainstream Democrats have a long history of trying to sound tough on national defense while attacking Republicans from the right. Unfortunately, Warren is no exception.

Last year, as Trump prepared to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Warren issued a bellicose statement: “A nuclear-armed North Korea is a threat to the security of the United States, our allies, and the world. . . . This administration’s success will be judged on whether it can eliminate Kim’s nuclear weapons and verify they are gone.”

While Trump can be erratic and subject to pressure from his rightwing advisors, at least he is willing to discuss denuclearization of the region. And compare Warren’s view with Sanders’s statement about the same summit: The meeting “represents a positive step in de-escalating tensions between our countries, addressing the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and moving toward a more peaceful future.”

Warren also falls into the Cold War trap of vilifying Russia and China as a danger to Americans. “China is on the rise,” she wrote in Foreign Affairs, “using its economic might to bludgeon its way onto the world stage. . . . To mask its decline, Russia is provoking the international community with opportunistic harassment and covert attacks.” She goes on to claim that both countries invest heavily in their militaries and seek “to shape spheres of influence in their own image.”

Nowhere does Warren mention that the United States spends more on its military than the next seven largest countries combined. Russia and China have limited military bases outside their borders while the United States has over 800. Unfortunately, Warren helps propagate the myths of cunning and fearsome enemies, which are used to justify ever rising defense budgets and future wars.

Yet Warren is far more progressive than mainstream Democrats like Joe Biden. She calls for withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Warren campaigns for the United State to rejoin the nuclear accord with Iran and to end trade pacts that hurt workers.

“Warren’s foreign policy positions have shifted a fair amount in recent years, particularly during the past few months,” says Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, who provides foreign policy advice to the Warren campaign. [Disclosure — Zunes and I have known each other for many years.] “Warren didn’t have a lot of foreign policy background.”

For Zunes, while Bernie Sanders has an overall better foreign policy record, “Warren is the most realistic progressive choice.”

I disagree. Bernie Sanders is running on an anti-interventionist program. I view Sanders as far more likely to resist Pentagon/CIA/State Department pressure once elected because of his strong ideological commitment. And, in terms of electability, he has far greater potential to win African American and other working class voters than the still too upper-middle-class-oriented Warren.

There’s a permanent cadre of bankers, corporate executives, generals, and government bureaucrats lurking in the Washington swamp who profit from war. They will seek to maintain their power no matter who wins the election. Progressives and the American people will have to fight like hell to keep that from happening.

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

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.”

Demonstrations

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.