Encircling Empire: Report #29—A Review of 2018

Numbering 100 printed pages, at about 50,000 words, the thickest review of 2018 published here with all four parts combined below. A year in the making, and more than just a chronicle, this work is based on a wide range of very different sources, including official documents, with a consistent dose of source criticism. The total number of sources is nearly 1,700. The review covers the period from January 1 to December 20, 2018, with some periods of interruption due to other research commitments (meaning that some topics would not be covered as much as others).

The purpose of the review, despite the apparent thickness, was quite precise: the idea was based on the assumption that events since Trump’s election in 2016 would begin to unleash disparate forces that would collide in striking ways in 2018. This year had to be a focal year for Trump: the next two would increasingly be occupied by a domestic re-election campaign, and save for part of 2019 it would be the primary year for Trump to achieve any of his more substantive goals. The assumption was proven correct as 2018 arguably turned into the most important year for international relations since the ascent of nationalist movements in Europe and the US in 2016.

The focus of the review, despite the length of the publication, is also fairly narrow: the geopolitical impact of US foreign policy and the transformation of international relations away from a unipolar world. Significant in all this was also what was changing at home, in the US, and thus at the end of each month there is a list of key articles that also deal with domestic conflict and division, primarily around identity politics and the culture wars, as well as articles that deal with the decline of imperial unipolarity.

Given how the purpose and focus were defined, Donald Trump inevitably stands out as one of the central actors in this review, but without indulging in hagiography. There is no doubt his words and actions dominated international media coverage throughout the year, as millions around the world continue to be fascinated, amused, or horrified, each to a degree not seen with any US president in generations. The other key actors in the international arena that drove many of the developments making headlines were Xi Jinping (China), Kim Jong-un (North Korea), and Vladimir Putin (Russia). Not as prominent but still significant in terms of regional changes, were Viktor Orban (Hungary) and Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines). Latin American politics continued to produce stunning outcomes, with the two giants—Mexico and Brazil—electing a leftist populist (Andrés Manuel López Obrador) and a right-wing populist (Jair Bolsonaro) respectively. Arguably generating the least impact were assemblies that were previously prominent affairs in international relations, such as the G7 meeting and the World Economic Forum at Davos. Even NATO gatherings of heads of state/government have become displays of disaffection, and the July meeting was especially tense.

Some Highlights of 2018

We thus follow Trump as he opens the year by allegedly referring to African and Caribbean nations as “shit holes,” and accompany him to Davos on his first major foreign trip of the year. At Davos, during his meeting with Israel’s Netanyahu, Trump decided to impose sanctions on the Palestinian Authority, even targeting Palestinian refugees. Later we followed Trump as he visited Quebec for the acrimonious G7 summit, then Singapore for the summit with North Korea, and later the explosive NATO meeting in Brussels and Trump’s visit to the UK, followed by the Helsinki summit with Russia, and later in the year trips to France and then Argentina for the G20.

Russia and China both made significant military and economic advances, and strengthened their coordination. For his part Trump acted on threats of a trade war with China, expanded into a trade war with almost all of the US’ allies. Trump could only produce the weakest of overtures to Russia given domestic pressures arising from the orchestration of Russiagate hysteria and conspiracy theories, popular with the media and the opposition. In fact, Trump dramatically escalated and expanded sanctions against Russia, to an extent never seen even during the first Cold War.

We then saw the Trump administration react, at first with great hostility, as the two Koreas (backed by China) made dramatic diplomatic moves toward peace—on striking display at the Winter Olympics in February. Trump had publicly humiliated Rex Tillerson for “wasting time” speaking to North Korea, only to then fire him, then insult him, and then turn around and court North Korea’s Kim Jong-un with some exceptionally flattering statements. This was not the only whiplash-inducing twist and turn on the part of Trump: after making a speech vowing to withdraw US forces from Syria, he rapidly turned around and bombed Syria, and promised what sounded like permanent war, and permanent occupation—until he sounded like he was reversing himself, yet again, near the end of the year. The US’ “longest war,” in Afghanistan, also became the focus of criticisms—even in conservative publications—with several key military and foreign policy officials arguing for a US withdrawal. In some ways Trump seemed stuck, in others he appeared to be unpredictable and dynamic, as did his competitors overseas.

As usual in situations of heightened international conflict, major sporting events became major political events—this was true in the cases of both the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, and the World Cup of Football in Russia.

Trump’s trade war went global, with the US imposing general steel and aluminum tariffs on a wide range of trading partners. In the process, Mexico and Canada felt enough pressure to concede to replacing NAFTA with the new USMCA, which has yet to be ratified in either the US or Canada. Trump, who in 2017 declared himself both a nationalist and a globalist, dropped the globalist label altogether in 2018. This was reflected in some of the notable White House firings and resignations: gone were Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn, H.R. Mcmaster, Jeff Session, John Kelly, Nikki Haley, and then James Mattis at the end of the year. Gone were thus some of the stalwarts of neoliberal imperialism in the Trump administration.

In the context of this review the most memorable aspects of 2018 and perhaps its most important were, in no particular order:

  • Cold War II
  • Russiagate conspiracy theories and their impact on US foreign policy
  • The Skripal Affair
  • The Trade War
  • The Kim–Trump Summit in Singapore
  • The Putin–Trump Summit in Helsinki
  • The termination of the Iran nuclear agreement
  • The US bombing of Syria
  • The rupture between Turkey and the US
  • Increased divisions in NATO
  • Tensions between the US and Canada
  • The “Migrant Caravan” from Central America at the US border
  • The “Yellow Vests” in France
  • The fallout of the Khashoggi murder for US–Saudi relations
  • Spotlights on censorship by US Internet corporations, particularly Twitter, Facebook, and Google
  • Journalists’ production of “fake news” to promote regime change

To What Ends? Three Outcomes

What appears as the result of this swirl of events and contradictions? First is that regional actors are increasingly taking the initiative in mastering their own affairs, independent of the US. The neoliberal establishment’s fears of a “new world order” in decline were thus justified. Funerals for John McCain and George H.W. Bush were thus turned by the media, and the old establishment, into sanctimonious salutes for virtual saints or popes of all that was deemed true, pure, and holy. (Even Canada’s own CBC, at the service of the ruling Liberal Party, offered nearly uninterrupted coverage of these events as if they should hold a special, very dear meaning for Canadians.) Second, with the year ending with the eruption of massive nationwide protests in France by the gilets jaunes (Yellow Vests), provoked by carbon pricing that deepened austerity and once again passed the costs of social transformation to workers—another major change was in the offing: neoliberal “climate change” policies, like immigration/refugee policies, were guaranteed no safe passage in a changing world “order”. Implausibly divorced from considerations of environmental damage were discussions of the increased potential for nuclear war—though arguably unlikely, the prospects for nuclear war are still dramatically less unlikely than they have ever been since the Cold War. Thus the third possible outcome was that trade wars, sanctions, military buildups, and broken international agreements might fuse together to produce a dramatic escalation in 2019. Those with the least ability to resist US plans, could be targeted first (as usual): thus one of the things we must all look out for then are the prospects of a new war in 2019, with those at greatest risk being Iran and Venezuela. On the other hand, thus far Trump shows no signs of wanting to be yet another president who starts a new war—in fact, he has shown the opposite tendency. As for the Trump presidency, its political fortunes will be increasingly (not solely) determined by developments overseas, primarily the economic consequences of the trade war with China, and the failure to achieve anything resembling the “total denuclearization” of North Korea. One mistake however would be to underestimate Trump’s ability to manoeuvre, the way his critics have done to their own disadvantage.

Some Memorable Statements from 2018

“What worries me most, however, is the fact that the rules-based international order is being challenged. Quite surprisingly, not by the usual suspects, but by its main architect and guarantor: the US”.—Donald Tusk

“Looking at latest decisions of @realDonaldTrump someone could even think: with friends like that who needs enemies. But frankly, EU should be grateful. Thanks to him we got rid of all illusions. We realise that if you need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of your arm”.—Donald Tusk

“The biggest danger to the national security of the United States is the president of the United States, who is single-handedly, before our eyes, blowing up the international architecture that the United States has relied upon for our own security for 70 years”.—Ben Rhodes

“We’re sure as heck supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers.
How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad”.—Barack Obama. And here is where Obama actually stood:

refusing to support a UN declaration against the glorification of Nazis
.

“Sometimes our friends, when it comes to trade, are treating us worse than the enemies”—Donald Trump

“I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace than to risk peace in pursuit of politics”.—Donald Trump

“[Peter Thiel] is pure symbol: less a person than a shell company for a diversified portfolio of anxieties about the future”.—Mark O’Connell


Review of 2018, Part 1 (January–March): Unloading the American Empire

In memory of James Laxer, n. December 22, 1941, d. February 23, 2018, prolific author, and an inspiration to all Canadian academics to think for ourselves.

JANUARY

A US-dominated World Order in Decline

At first it seemed as if the start of 2018 proved the existence of a deep continuity between Trump, Obama, and Bush in foreign policy. Others instead disagreed, insisting that Trump was breaking the old order of US-dominated alliances. That the EU began to diverge significantly from the US, on Cuba, Iran, Jerusalem, and the Middle East in general, was apparent and offered some support for the thesis of the demise of a US-dominated world order. Former US secretaries of state gathered to discuss the “systemic failure” of the current “world order,” emphasizing the onset of deglobalization and the unquestionable rise of China and Russia as major world powers. As US Defense Secretary James Mattis unveiled Trump’s new National Defense Strategy, it became clearer that Trump would remain committed to military imperialism, focusing on China and Russia as potential targets. Some explanations for Trump breaking his anti-interventionist promises, is that the Pentagon had become the dominant force in his administration—however, if true, this in fact happened only with Trump’s approval.

Weakening the Force Multipliers

The new year began with a rampage of abrasive and punitive speech from US president Donald Trump, suggesting he understood little or agreed little with US diplomats and military strategists and their years of work in developing “force multipliers”. Falling back on the old American myth that all US aid is disinterested charity, he wrote:

“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”.

This was not the usual bluster either, as a National Security Council official said the White House does not plan to send $255 million in aid to Pakistan “at this time,” after already delaying an August 2017 payment. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry responded:

“We do not need any financial assistance from the United States. We do not care about it. If America wants to stop it, we will loudly say go ahead”.

Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN, and the Prime Minister’s national security committee, amplified this rejection of US pressure. Trump publicly backed Senator Rand Paul’s plan to end all aid to Pakistan. Pakistan was apparently too ungrateful for the 3 million Afghan refugees it housed, produced by the US war in Afghanistan.

Threatening Iran

In addition to targeting Pakistan, a US ally, Trump gleefully exploited street protests in Iran, as if the protesters were doing his personal bidding, as if he was in solidarity with them (regardless of sanctions, a travel ban against all Iranians, calling the country a nation of terrorists, yet taunting Iran after a large ISIS terrorist attack there). He ignored the kind of advice that seasoned regime changers in the US might have given—see “How Can Trump Help Iran’s Protesters? Be Quiet”. Of course Trump would also ignore the constructive advice of Iran’s Foreign Minister: “‘Stop wasting time on posting useless and insulting tweets’”. Further underscoring the growing divide between Turkey and the US, the Turkish leader came out in support of Iran’s government against violent protesters. Trump’s newest expressions of aggression against Iran, which ranged from the promise of new sanctions to regime change, met with the applause of the gallery of neoconservative imperialists, including many who sided with the “Never Trump” movement in 2016. Attempts by the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, to have the Security Council arbitrate on the domestic political affairs of Iran, were decisively shot down by Russia, China, and France. Haley was criticized for attempting to disperse the energies of the Security Council; to distract from US interventions in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and North Korea; and, trying to exploit events deceitfully to create a pretext for the US violating the Iran nuclear agreement, and to promote regime change in Iran. In criticizing Haley, the Russian ambassador stated:

“If we follow your logic, then we should have meetings of the Security Council after the events in Ferguson or after the dispersal by force of the Occupy Wall Street movement in Manhattan”.

Trump once more threatened to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal if the US Congress failed to come up with ways of altering the agreement (which would mean the US was deliberately violating the agreement). As the matter reverted to Trump, he too failed to act on his previous threats. Instead, Trump chose to issue a new round of threats against Iran, a new call for the parties to the deal to renegotiate the agreement to suit Trump, and imposed new sanctions against Iran, all while extending his promise to withdraw the US at some point before May if there was no action to change the deal. Iran immediately rejected all of the US’ positions, correctly asserting that the deal was not open to renegotiation, and declaring the US to be in non-compliance. Trump’s escalating threats against Iran, however, are built on a series of strategic and geopolitical weaknesses that could end very badly for the US.

Punishing Palestinians

Trump also turned his attention to the Palestinians, effectively threatening them with punitive sanctions, even targeting Palestinian refugees, for denouncing the US’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on December 6, 2017, which violated international law and was condemned by an overwhelming majority of the world. On the other hand, when even Jordan’s King, ever dependent on the US, publicly criticized Trump’s policy when vice-president Mike Pence visited—at the same as the Palestinian leader openly snubbed him in Jordan—then the tide seemed to turn even more against US dominance in the region. In response, sitting next to Israel’s Netanyahu in Davos, Switzerland, Trump threatened to suspend aid to the Palestinian Authority, in an apparent attempt to coerce the Palestinians into surrender talks dressed up as “peace talks,” where Israeli occupation of Jerusalem would no longer be negotiable. (On a separate matter, Trump would continue to confuse extortion with diplomacy: later in the year he would issue threats in an attempt to coerce “allies” to support the US bid to host the World Cup in 2026.)

Turkey, Syria, and Imperial Decline

Turkey continued to drift away from its past alliance with the US, on a number of fronts. Further underlining divergence among NATO allies, Turkey announced it would strike Syrian Kurds allied to the US. As Turkey actually began bombing proxies of the US, which the US intended to further train and equip to form a “border security force,” all the US government could say is that it had been consulted by Turkey. The bombing continued. As RT put it, in just nine days the US made several stunning reversals, showing its lack of depth in the region. Indeed, Turkey went as far as directly threatening the US with military confrontation in Syria.

Turning to US intervention in Syria and what appeared to have become a basis for permanent US occupation of a territorial enclave, remarks by the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, suggested that the US was imposing itself as a “paper tiger” empire. What was certain was the US continued to ignore the consequences of its intervention in prolonging the war in Syria, increasing the refugee outflow, and destabilizing allies in Europe.

Threatening North Korea

As if to complete the picture of a resentful US, turning in on itself and verbally assaulting country after country, Trump then indulged in what even by his low standards would have to be exceptionally juvenile threats against North Korea. Instead, in a counter move against US threats to escalate aggression, South Korea initiated talks with North Korea, with the support of China. More than that, both North and South Korea decided to temporarily unite in their participation in the winter Olympics, under a common banner and song. Nevertheless, a ballistic missile scare in Hawaii on January 13, that sent many scrambling, should have underlined the need for serious diplomacy and peace talks. If the danger of threatening North Korea had suddenly awakened the senses of many Americans who had idly ignored the issue, or supported war and regime change without considering the consequences, we did not see any immediate fruits of this realization. What remained was an urgent need for direct talks, a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, a non-aggression pact, withdrawal of US forces from South Korea, and an end to US military “exercises” on the Korean peninsula. As for diplomacy, all the US had to offer was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gloating about human suffering in North Korea, as a direct result of sanctions. Unification of Korea was dismissed by Tillerson as a “wedge” strategy—as if the topic had just been invented recently—but it was the kind of talk that was gobbled up like red meat by Trump’s imperialist supporters who were irritated by North Korea’s attempts to stall its virtuous annihilation by the US.

Intervention in Venezuela

On Venezuela, the Trump administration made it clear that it intended to involve itself in Venezuela’s upcoming presidential election. In particular, the US government objected to the election being held at all. Further sanctions were promised if the elections went ahead, as well as a promise to not recognize the results.

“Shit Holes”: When Hating the Third World became Official

Continuing with his anti-Third World verbal rampage, Trump besmirched entire nations for the sin of being poor, and for the sin of being past victims of US imperialism and world capitalist inequality. Trump distinguished himself by referring to a number of them as “shithole countries”. This demonstrated the limits of an illusory American populism: it deploys some thin symbols of populism at home, but on the international plane it reproduces the talk of billionaires and unvarnished imperialists. On the other hand, Trump’s comment seemed to be representative of the nature of much of US political commentary on other countries: it was standard fare, especially when it came to “describing” Russia. Given Hillary Clinton’s remarks about domestic “deplorables,” Trump added elitist slander against foreign “shitholes”—making the two a matched pair. Liberal critiques of Trump continued to backfire. There was, however, a considerable amount of intelligent humour that provided answers to Trump’s question as to why the US cannot get more Norwegian immigrants. It has to be noted that for his part, Trump denied ever making the statement.

NAFTA

The month ended with NAFTA talks moving to Montreal, and showing signs of an imminent collapse. On the Canadian side, there seemed to be a determination at the highest levels that the trade agreement would survive, in some form. Canada’s prime minister Trudeau was even expressing optimism in media interviews. Meanwhile, the attempt by Boeing to lock out aircraft sales from Quebec’s Bombardier, failed to hold up in court and the tariffs were reversed. It seemed like a straight victory for Canada and Bombardier, and a defeat for Trump’s administration which imposed protections to aid Boeing. Reality, however, turned out to be more complicated, and it seemed as if Trump successfully created a trap that would still ensure foreign capital inflows into the US. As a safeguard against any future protectionist measures, Bombardier agreed to produce more of its aircraft in the US, rather than in Canada. Bombardier already invested more in the US than Boeing did in Canada. Trump is thus not just actively seeking the repatriation of US capital from abroad, he is also seeking to appropriate foreign capital from other countries, by effectively blackmailing them into setting up shop in the US to skirt potential tariffs. One sees what he meant during his speech in Davos, Switzerland, when he said, “America First, not America alone”: it might be a euphemism for international plunder.

The White House: Chaos, Criminality, Conspiracy

Just days into the new year, another factionalist bomb exploded in the White House. The media were consumed with the vicious public brawl that erupted between Trump and his former campaign manager and White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon. What sparked the fight were some very controversial statements from a new book, by Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury. The Trump administration’s attempts to silence publication, backfired and seemed to drive up the early popularity of the book—a book that was largely forgotten a few months later. Nevertheless, contrary to expectations, everything seemed to backfire on Bannon more than Trump: Bannon found himself without funding for his “insurgent” campaigns, and then found himself out of a job altogether. The tide also seemed to turn back on those pushing “Russiagate,” with the Dept. of Justice announcing two new investigations into Hillary Clinton’s secret emails and the Clinton Foundation, while Congress issued a criminal referral against the author of the infamous Fusion GPS dossier on Trump. By the end of the month, there was hardly any mention of Fire and Fury.

Top Articles for January

On Zero Anthropology this month:

  1. Privilege: White, American, or Imperial?” January 4
  2. What Happened to the American Empire?” January 11
  3. This Does Not Represent the Views of the University,” January 20

Top articles of the month:


FEBRUARY

The New Cold War: A Panoramic View of Intervention and Competition

Venezuela was on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s mind at the start of February, as he publicly aired what sounded like a wishful prayer that the military would overthrow President Nicolas Maduro, which assumes that the military as a whole is opposed to Chavismo. Continuing talks on NAFTA led to rumours that Mexico was preparing to concede sovereignty just to keep the agreement alive. At the same time, ironically, Tillerson warned Latin American states that China and Russia were a nefarious presence in the Americas, whose influence was growing considerably. Worried about the decline of US hegemony in the western hemisphere, and the rise of a Chinese-led international order, Tillerson fearfully branded Russia and China as new imperial powers in the Americas—having invaded and occupied not a single nation. Within his own State Department however, there was further evidence of a foreign policy establishment that was unravelling under Tillerson’s feet. Meanwhile, Trump could not manage to even arrange a meeting with his Mexican counterpart, after a phone call caused plans to be shelved yet again.

The realization that we have arrived at a new Cold War finally seemed to gain greater traction in the US media. By the end of the month there was concern in the US about what ostensibly seemed like a domestic political rearrangement in China, which was read as a sign of a growing direct threat to US dominance. Trump seemed to be preparing for a global trade war, where both China and the EU would figure as prominent targets. Some saw Trump being determined to launch a new Cold War, but worried that he had destroyed the US’ soft power capabilities, leaving only hard power. Far from supposedly colluding with or appeasing Russia, others instead unveiled a pattern of deliberate hardening on Trump’s part, in directly antagonizing Russia. Russia responded, announcing the development of a new nuclear missile and numerous other advanced weapons systems that could defeat a range of US defences.

North Korea Triumphs at the Olympics

The US was apparently outraged at the successful diplomatic advances made by North Korea and South Korea in the lead up to the Olympics. Landing with an ugly thud, US vice-president Mike Pence went to the Olympics, armed with threats. Pence vowed the US would soon impose the “toughest and most aggressive” economic sanctions against North Korea—which was curious because it suggested the US had been holding something back until then. If the US had been holding something back, then what provoked this escalation? The only events which transpired were the peace overtures made by the two Koreas. Clearly the US wanted to turn the direction back toward war. Also, who knew that sanctions could be infinite in number? However, events would instead turn around and slap Pence in the face, who went to South Korea with a propaganda plan to counter North Korea. Earning scorn across the world however, vice-president Mike Pence made quite the scene at the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on February 9. After being forced to sit just a couple of feet away from Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and a senior member of the politburo (also on the US sanctions list)—thereby ensuring she would be in every photograph of Pence—Pence not only refused to stand when the host country’s team entered the stadium (because it entered as a unified team with North Korea, flying a unified flag), he only stood to applaud US athletes, and no others. Kim Yo-jong immediately became the star of the show. Widely described as “boorish,” “tactless,” and “flat-footed,” Pence appeared to isolate the US as the only belligerent rogue regime in the arena (in acknowledging this error, Ivanka Trump would instead do the opposite of Pence at the closing ceremony). The initiative was thus handed to Kim Yo-jong who delivered an invitation to South Korea’s president to visit the North on a rare state visit. North Korea was teaching the US a lesson about how “soft power” is really done, by expert diplomats. So badly did Pence’s approach backfire, that Kim Yo-jong seemed to convert even establishment outlets in the US. The two Koreas thus sent a clear signal that they would prefer to solve their own affairs, in spite of US threats and the low grumbling that came from Pence’s quarters. As TIME magazine put it, “with the two Koreas celebrating a moment of unity, the United States was left outmaneuvered by an adversary and out of step with an ally”. South Korea obviously understood that the US was ready and willing to sacrifice it for the sake of a first military strike on North Korea (thus also eliminating a key economic competitor). Peace at PyeongChang was thus a direct threat to US plans.

The growing international isolation of the US meant that, more and more, regional actors would take the lead in writing their own history. Many were amazed to see the political humiliation of the US by the diplomatic expertise of North Korea, making the US stand out as the lone belligerent, the isolated rogue state of the moment. At the end of it all, a US member of the International Olympic Committee proposed that the two Koreas’ joint hockey team be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Then we learned that Pence had actually prepared to meet with North Korea’s two representatives the day after the opening ceremony, but was snubbed by them. Meanwhile South Korea proclaimed that its diplomatic approach was proving a successful alternative to US belligerence.

The immediate fruits of North Korea’s soft power successes during the Olympics were, first, that Mike Pence declared en route back to the US, immediately following the humiliation of the spectacle he made, that the US would now be ready for direct talks with North Korea, without preconditions—later, North Korea said it was open to the idea of talks with the US…until Trump yet again reversed the US position and insisted that “conditions” for talks had to be met first. Previously Trump chastised Secretary of State Tillerson for “wasting his time” trying to talk to North Koreans. In addition, South Korea took seriously its invitation to a summit with the North, and began to talk about preparations. The US instead imposed additional sanctions, and threats of impending military action; the sanctions themselves were tantamount to US-led piracy on the high seas, with threats of boarding ships in international waters in what started to amount to a naval blockade of North Korea. If the new, unilateral US sanctions were meant to “maximize international pressure” and induce other countries to work with the US, then they failed immediately: China slammed the new US sanctions as illegal, indicating no intention of supporting them. Trump’s threats of aggression were reiterated, with an emphasis on grim outcomes for the world. South Korea pleaded for talks to get started, with a lower threshold of demands.

The Olympics did not just occasion events that seemed to separate the US and South Korea, it also seemed as if South Korea and its former colonial occupier, Japan, were becoming more hostile. The historical legacy of distrust and antipathy were even reflected in the US’ NBC firing one of its commentators who praised Japan as a model for South Korea. In addition, Japan’s Shinzo Abe earned the public ire of his South Korean hosts when he interfered in their internal affairs by urging an immediate resumption of US-South Korean military exercises as soon as the Olympics ended, clearly irritated by North Korea’s successful diplomacy.

The US War in Syria Escalates

Showing what permanent, illegal occupation of Syria means, the US attacked and killed roughly 100 “pro-government forces” in Syria—that is Syrians, defending Syria, and then launched yet another attack. What then emerged was the shocking likelihood that the US had killed as few as five or as many as 300 Russian soldiers-for-hire, which could have escalated into wider confrontation between Russia and the US in Syria. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis began to make baseless accusations against Russia and Syria, on using chemical weapons. When pressed on the evidence, Mattis folded:

“No, I have not got the evidence, not specifically.  I don’t have the evidence. What I’m saying is that other—that groups on the ground, NGOs, fighters on the ground have said that sarin has been used. So we are looking for evidence. I don’t have evidence, credible or uncredible [sic]”.

In ganging up on Syria, to erode its dominance on the battlefield and counter the unravelling of Washington’s plans, Israel launched an air raid inside Syria that cost it a F-16, the first time Israel lost a plane to anti-aircraft fire in three decades. Israel continued to escalate its attacks on Syria, somehow managing to claim that Syria’s self-defense was aggression against Israeli sovereignty. While Trump immediately backed Israel, it was a telephone call from Putin to Netanyanhu that appeared to put a stop to any further escalation. US plans that were apparently aimed at the partition of Syria and the creation of a Kurdish quasi-state, besides illegally undermining Syrian sovereignty and escalating tension with Russia, also drove Turkey into a conflict with the US and NATO (of which it is a key member), with the Turkish president renewing the threat of violence against US forces. Though not rock-solid, this month brought to light further cooperation and coordination between Russia, Turkey, and Iran in Syria, with more evidence of Turkey moving away from the US/NATO orbit. Finally, Trump seemed to introduce yet another reversal of US policy, insisting that US intervention in Syria was not about regime change, it was about stopping ISIS, and that goal had largely been achieved.

Israel–Palestine

Russia began to reap the diplomatic rewards of Washington cutting off aid to the Palestinians. While initially the Palestinian leadership vowed that the US could no longer play any role in Israel-Palestine peace talks, having flagrantly abandoned any pretence of being a fair arbiter, that position seemed to soften. However, what was now being proposed by the Palestinians was that Russia should play the role of mediator in future dialogues with Israel. At the UN Security Council, an ostensibly unanimous resolution on Syria, masked considerable tension between the US and Russia, with Russia once again implying that the US sought the protective cover of a “humanitarian ceasefire” in order to provide a cushion for its nearly defeated jihadist allies who are affiliated with Al Qaeda.

On Israel, in one of Trump’s instances of making casual remarks that he often retracts when it results in negative “reviews,” he claimed that Israel might not be all that interested in seeking peace with the Palestinians. Critics might argue this makes Trump the last person to become aware of this. How this sudden realization might change the US’ posture was left undefined, and the remark was soon forgotten.

Iran and Central Asia

On Iran, Trump appeared to reluctantly acknowledge the range of international opposition against his plans to undo the Iran nuclear agreement, by asking European allies to simply consider making changes to the agreement in the future—a step down from issuing commands and ultimatums. After slandering Pakistan at the start of the new year and cutting off “aid,” the Trump administration was back at trying to win a “new relationship,” that seemed identical to the old one. The minimal diplomatic effort with Pakistan was conducted with little apparent acknowledgment of the damage that had already been done by the US.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the suggestion was aired that US forces were effectively being rented out as mercenaries for China—the push was on for even greater US military spending at the same time. Former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, gave a frank interview in which he stated that the US was in Afghanistan, not because of ISIS (which he said the US allowed to flourish), nor was it building so many bases to fight a few Taliban, but because Russia and China are in the neighbourhood. Karzai accused the US of trying to keep Afghanistan weak and unstable, so that Trump—who had previously denounced the Afghan war as “Obama’s war”—could justify a permanent occupation.

The White House: Conspiracy Theory and the New Cold War

In the US, one of the most attention-grabbing events at the start of February was the release of the House Intelligence Committee’s long awaited memo exposing FBI practices in spying on the Trump campaign, as part of a covert effort to delegitimize it and to destabilize his administration, and ramping up the new Cold War with Russia. Elsewhere, this would be known as an attempted coup.

It showed the dramatic depths to which US democracy had been plungedplunging so far, that many on the anti-Trump side readily believed that 13 Russian nationals had the power to swing the 2016 election, a testament to their own gullibility even as they accused Trump supporters of being gullible and ignorant. Later in the month, the Democrats released a much longer, counter-memo: an immense amount of fog, which only confirmed key details in the Republican memo. Trump pounced, and dismissed the Democrats’ memo as a total political and legal “bust”.

Separately, what was alleged in an overblown indictment from the Justice Department in mid-February amounted to a paltry, low-level, social media “campaign”. In response to Mueller’s indictments, some in the US Congress and media hysterically likened it to the attack on Pearl Harbour, with Max Boot foremost among them. Non-alarmist readings in the mainstream media, were few. Compare the allegations, in a document that will never be tested in any court, with even a cursory review of the history of US interventions in other nations’ elections. Nevertheless, a former US ambassador to Russia did in fact defend US interventions abroad, and a former CIA director had a good laugh about ongoing US interventions in other nations’ elections. Most glossed over or forgot the extent to which the US intervened in post-Soviet Russian politics, to the extreme detriment of the lives of most Russians, not to mention the state of their political system. As much as US officials played at being angered by Russian “meddling,” others tried to remind the mad crowd that Russia was essential in addressing a range of critical geopolitical problems. However, the madness seemed to really take hold of both the media and social media, with a profusion of wild conspiracy theories and collusion-mongering. Bernie Sanders, also accused of being backed by Russian trolls, apparently felt a higher calling to Hillary Clinton, omitting mention of rigged DNC primaries, and he even fabricated a story on this topic.

The increasing level of censorship on US-owned and operated “social media” represented a new McCarthyist impulse in US politics, where yet again the public was being sold propaganda masked as “intelligence”. From Iraq’s “incubator babies” and WMDs, to the “African mercenaries”, “Viagra-fuelled rape”, and “Benghazi massacre” myths about Libya, to “Russian bots” accused of “meddling” in US elections (by sharing opinions)—it seems that one tall tale or another would stand as official reasoning. In Twitter, thousands of conservative, populist, and libertarian accounts were purged literally overnight in late February, which was the final straw that prompted Zero Anthropology to delete its accounts in Twitter and Facebook. Fake news about “bot” campaigns still dominated the mainstream media. And while US officials and their media proxies rehearsed their lamentations about Russian “meddling,” they stoutly defended far worse, done far longer by the US itself. While always pretending innocence—a cornerstone of US official culture—the “Russian meddling” story was immediately used to justify reinforcing what the US had done for decades: the State Department announced it was spending $40 million in a bolstered program of information warfare.

Top Articles for February

On Zero Anthropology this month:

  1. Risk, Trust, and Fulfilment: Reality Tourism, Continued,” February 1.
  2. Deactivism: The Pleasures of Life without Social Media,” February 22.

Top articles of the month:


MARCH

Cold War, Trade War, Deglobalization, and Imperial Decline

The world seemed to become a far more dangerous place at the dawn of this month. Immediately there were serious prospects of a full-fledged new Cold War, with a new nuclear arms race, along the proliferation of US sanctions (seemingly against one and all), and the onset of a global trade war. Economic deglobalization continued to deepen, even in the eyes of those who denied it could happen. The prospect of a recession in the US was not unthinkable, and Trump—who had previously touted every day’s stock market gains in 2017—now went silent as the stock exchanges plunged for a second straight month (they would finish negative overall for the year). Then came news that Donald Trump was willing to meet with Kim Jong-un by May, in unprecedented negotiations between leaders of the two governments—and the risk of failure seemed to accentuate the prospects for war. March became dominated by two issues: a global trade war and talks with North Korea.

Russia’s New Weapons

“Nobody wanted to talk with us on the core of the problem. Nobody listened to us. Now you listen!…To those who for the last 15 years have been trying to fan an arms race, achieve unilateral advantage against Russia, impose sanctions, which are illegal from the standpoint of international law and are aimed at holding back the development of our country, including in the military area, I have this to say: All the things you were trying to prevent through your policies have already happened. You have failed to hold Russia back….You now have to acknowledge this reality, confirm that everything I said is no bluff—which it isn’t— think for some time, send into retirement the people stuck in the past and incapable of looking into the future, [and] stop rocking the boat that we all ride in and which is called planet Earth” ~ Vladimir Putin, March 1, 2018

On Thursday, March 1, 2018, Russian president Vladimir Putin delivered a speech, accompanied by the following video presentations, which seemed to stun the US media and political establishment. Putin unveiled a new arsenal of a range of advanced nuclear weapons that would defeat all attempts by the US to achieve unilateral advantage through ballistic missile defence systems (which were already largely unworthy). Russia responded to repeated rounds of US sanctions, provocations on its borders, and the expansion of NATO, with a new arms race, clearly indicating it was reaching the end of its patience with US belligerence. Stephen Cohen argued that the US may have already lost the new arms race, which it had itself provoked. At least some legislators in the US reacted by calling for urgent engagement with Russia, to prevent any further escalation of tensions.

Revealing the extent to which US sanctions are meant to privilege US industries, the US threatened to impose sanctions on Iraq, if it dared to acquire anti-aircraft missile defence systems from Russia. The US invoked its Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 (CAATSA). Iraq was supposedly an ally of the US—now it appeared that Russia had been successful in manoeuvring the US even out of its patronage over the post-2003 Iraqi state.

The New Cold War: Manufacturing the Skripal Controversy

By the middle of the month, in what appeared to be an increasingly desperate effort by the West to diminish Russia’s influence, the now famous Skripal controversy erupted, with the UK blaming Russia for a chemical nerve agent attack on a former Russian double agent and his daughter, residing in the UK. The government of Theresa May immediately issued an ultimatum to Russia, despite acknowledgment from the EU that anti-Russia sanctions were already proving to be a strain on the EU economy, and that “attributing the nerve attack to Moscow was difficult”. Russia refused to obey any ultimatum, and demanded the right to inspect samples in order to verify the UK’s charges—which the UK refused to do. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was quick to echo Theresa May in assigning blame to Russia—only to be contradicted by Trump himself, and the White House press secretary, who refused to jump to that conclusion…and soon after, Tillerson was fired. A great deal of contrived mystery surrounded this case, which was used to launch an international isolation campaign against Russia mere months before the start of the World Cup of football. First, how is it that the Skripals were able to recover? Why did the daughter want to return to Russia? What was the role played by the UK’s own chemical weapons facility at Porton Down, a mere eight kilometres from the sight of the alleged attack? Why did the UK say it had evidence of the Russian origin for the attack, when its own government scientists attested to no such knowledge? Members of Parliament called for banning RT in the UK, censorship against an entity not even charged with the attack, that at the very least spoke of the broader, Cold War aims of the manufactured controversy.

Predictably, before any firm conclusions could be reached about the evidence, the government of Theresa May announced a raft of anti-Russian actions and expelled 23 Russian diplomats from the UK, while also cancelling an invitation to the Russian foreign minister to visit the UK, having members of the royal family stay away from the World Cup in Russia, and there was vague talk about sanctions for “human rights abusers”. Some in the British parliament went as far as pushing to expel or limit the rights of Russia on the UN Security Council. There was no talk by May however about repelling the billions of dollars invested by Russians in London’s property and financial markets. Even without firm evidence, Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau almost immediately sided with the UK, and blamed Russia.

Russia, for its part, threatened retaliation against the UK, calling its action a provocation. In fact, so said, so done—Russia expelled not just an identical number of UK diplomats, but it also cancelled plans for a UK consulate in St. Petersburg, and it shut down the operations of the British Council in Russia.

The US then expelled 60 Russian diplomats from the US, including diplomats posted to the UN. The action was coordinated with the EU, so that over 100 Russian diplomats were expelled from dozens of nations, and even Canada (sustaining its “monkey see, monkey do” behaviour) joined in. Russia’s ambassador the UN accused the US of abusing its privileges as the host country. UN officials refused to comment. Trump seemed determined to prove that he could be “tougher on Russia” not just more than any one predecessor, but more than all of his predecessors combined, with “America First” seemingly succumbing to “entangling alliances”. Russia promised retaliation against the US.

Something about the overreaction, before any evidence had been solidly established, strongly suggested a premeditated confrontation with Russia to alter the geopolitical balance.

Trade War

On the same day that Putin made his speech that showcased Russia’s advanced weaponry, Donald Trump announced the US would impose tariffs against steel and aluminum imports. One of the arguments Trump would use is that the steel and aluminum industries were vital to US national security and its weapons industries—his administration cited Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. I predicted this would be the justification in 2016, when the media floated arguments dismissing the prospect of Trump’s protectionism, insisting Trump would need congressional approval. Others instead advanced the murky argument that the deep state would prevent him. Some tried to cover their lack of insight by saying Trump invoked “a rarely used law”. The constant refrain—inexplicably maintained despite its obvious contradiction—was that Trump was a threat and yet Trump would also have no real power. Almost all instantly forgot the meaning of executive power, and how it has increased under the imperial presidency. Trump proved he could take such action, especially when the action is declared an “emergency” and a “threat to national security”. The only “mystery” here was why Trump suddenly decided to return to a nationalist posture, after a full year of reversals that favoured the continuation of neoliberal globalization. Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser and former president of Goldman Sachs, promptly resigned from the administration after Trump announced the tariffs. Some thus saw economic nationalists regaining the upper hand in the Trump administration.

The prospects of international retaliation, and the launch of a global trade war, became quite real. Dumping US debt was one of the available options for states to retaliate against the US. The tariffs, it was feared, would adversely affect Canada, and this had an immediate impact on NAFTA negotiations taking place at the same time. The EU promised to retaliate by targeting a range of industries vital to key states that supported Trump—and heightening fears of a real trade war, Trump promised to retaliate against any EU retaliation. Though ostensibly a separate matter, China quickly became openly “uncooperative” on backing a new round of US sanctions on North Korea, which would have targeted dozens of shipping companies across Asia. After all, Trump had relented in his anti-China trade threats from 2016, in return for China’s support in pressuring North Korea. However, now that the US renewed its trade pressures on China, and had even sanctioned select companies and banks in China that allegedly violated sanctions on North Korea, all bets were now off. In addition to credible threats of retaliation, the Chinese government issued the interesting argument that the US was responsible for its own trade deficit.

While Trump’s team initially asserted that there would be no exemptions for select countries from the tariff regime, particularly NAFTA partners like Mexico and Canada, that quickly changed and the measures were further weakened a mere day after they were announced. Instead, it seemed Trump was trying to use the promise of an exemption to pressure Canada and Mexico to surrender to US demands in the NAFTA renegotiation process, which the US tried to rush to a close. In related news, Trump admitted to not knowing what he was talking about when he insisted with Justin Trudeau that the US ran a trade deficit with Canada—in fact, the opposite is true, as Trump confessed (meaning he spread “fake news”): Canada suffers from a trade deficit with the US. As for other ironies: Canada also practiced protectionism against US sales, even as it defended “free trade”. In response to Trump’s pressure on NAFTA, the former trade representative for Canada who negotiated the initial deal, declared: “Canadians should understand that we are under attack”. What received less attention among the flurry of reports of US steel and aluminum tariffs, was that the US was imposing new duties on Canadian newsprint. Also noteworthy—though it was buried in a marginal corner—was Moody’s report that the end of NAFTA would only have a marginal impact on Canada overall, quite contrary to how it has been sold to the Canadian public as vital and crucial to the country’s wellbeing in spite of Canada continually running deficits under NAFTA.

In response to fears of increased global chaos, Trump cheerfully declared that “trade wars are good, and easy to win”. Trump had zero experience with any trade issues, but US economic history suggested tariffs could be beneficial. Stock exchanges, however, which had ample historical experience with managing the fallout of past trade wars—did not share Trump’s optimism. Ironically, some steelworkers objected to Trump’s plans, saying it would jeopardize their jobs as processors of imported steel. Trump’s secondary justification for the tariffs was that they were needed to protect US jobs. Some saw the tariffs as futile and predicted they would be struck down (they never were), while some in the anti-Trump camp thought that the alarms raised about the tariffs were overblown and argued that the tariffs were necessary. Wall Street immediately witnessed a sharp decline, as investors worried about the impacts on the US economy. Asian stock markets also fell. Some economists condemned Trump’s plans, and saw in them an eventual victory for China. Some US geopolitical strategists argued that if this was Trump’s way of securing US hegemony, he was coming to the battle largely ill-equipped and unprepared. Congressional neoliberals and their lobbyist patrons vowed to oppose TrumpTrump remained undaunted. In support of Trump, his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, mocked the hysteria around the tariffs, especially the argument that they would be a major tax on the working class; he presented figures that challenged this belief. Others also argued in support of a possible trade war, from a national security perspective and an economic nationalist viewpoint.

China’s Continued Ascent to Global Hegemony

Interestingly, in response to China’s announcement that its leader would no longer be subject to term limits, and that Xi Jinping had effectively become president for life, Trump seemed to admire the move. Few if anyone in the US media commented on the obvious disparity in Trump’s stances: condemning Venezuela, imposing sanctions, and prolonging the designation of the country as a “national security threat” to the US over changes to its political system (Maduro was not named “president for life”) vs. China, applauded and praised by Trump. It was also announced that China was significantly increasing its military spending and developing advanced capabilities on all military fronts. At least one US economist explained that Trump’s tariffs, ostensibly about steel, were a means of challenging China’s alleged “extortion” (technology transfer) of US firms, passing the newly acquired technologies to Chinese manufacturers while delaying US market access. To the extent that Trump’s tariffs achieve their ulterior aim, China’s global ascent may be delayed.

The Return of Trump the Nationalist?

If it was correct that economic nationalists were regaining the upper hand in the White House (and, if so, why?), then it was less obvious that anti-interventionists were gaining any ground. Judd Gregg, a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire, instead called for the US to pull back from its interventionism in every corner of the globe, withdraw from Afghanistan and the Middle East, and leave North Korea to China. Afghanistan, site of America’s longest war in history, attracted further criticism even from conservative writers like George Will—and Defense Secretary James Mattis also repeated past realizations that a US military victory over the Taliban was improbable, with the Taliban showing clear signs of advancing. Ron Paul condemned the US refusal to leave Iraq, against the expressed desire voted on by the Iraqi parliament. On the other hand, there was news that the Trump administration was gutting the US’ “democracy promotion” racket.

Trump Agrees to Meet Kim Jong-un

As always, North Korea remained undaunted by a new round of US threats, and the now repetitive US waffling about starting direct talks, which by itself had dangerously implied that the US favoured war. In fact, Trump signalled he was interested in direct talks in the context of a joke-filled dinner. A USA Today/Suffolk University poll found a majority of Americans favoured diplomacy and opposed any sort of preemptive military attack on North Korea. South Korea tried an implausible way between the US and North Korea: not renouncing upcoming military drills with the US, to which North Korea strongly objected, while naming envoys to meet their North Korean counterparts in new talks. Capitalizing on the diplomatic momentum generated by the two Korean sides during the Olympics, high level talks occurred in the North in the early days of the month, which were reported to be productive, with promises of a significant announcement to come. North Korea further enhanced its diplomatic image.

Then there was the amazing announcement that Donald Trump agreed to meet with Kim Jong-un for direct talks, conveyed by the South Korean national security advisor on the White House lawn (again showing which side was leading the peace initiative). China immediately endorsed the meeting, as did Russia. From early on, there were media reports that Mike Pompeo was leading behind-the-scenes talks with North Korea to prepare for the summit. In the US, reactions from politicians were confused, apprehensive, with some making the usual unrealistic unilateral demands that would have prevented talks in the first place. There was debate as to whether the talks were the result of US sanctions, or was an inter-Korean initiative; in addition, historians noted that, contrary to US propaganda, it was the US which was the first to violate previous agreements with North Korea. Trump stated that he felt positive and believed the North Koreans were sincere in their offers to halt testing so that talks could proceed. News of impending direct talks did not stop the US from imposing further sanctions on North Korea, based on allegations of events that did not even impact the US. Trump seemed to suffer from dangerously premature optimism, mixed with renewed threats of war if talks failed. Trump assumed too much of North Korea which had itself promised nothing in public, and not officially. Mike Pence meanwhile renewed the US hard-line against North Korea, in a manner that flew in the face of Trump’s cheerful stance—Pence essentially repeated his earlier hard-line statements that threw cold water on peace talks. Other administration officials rushed in to offer apologetic imperial cover for Trump’s obviously enthusiastic lunge at the chance for direct talks and the prospect of being monumentalized in world history. While North Korea continued to remain publicly silent on the meeting, South Korean news agencies laid out an early demand from the North, which was for a security guarantee in exchange for denuclearization—surprising (and unlikely), since North Korea had learned the lessons of Libya and there was little reason to trust the US’ commitment to international agreements. North Korea’s official silence on the meetings persisted for the entirety of the month—with Trump alone doing all the talking and boasting, which should have already signalled weakness and miscalculation in the US position. Repetition of the news that North Korea was committed to denuclearization, came from China, following the first visit by Kim Jong-un to China which came at the end of the month. If this was all a ruse for North Korea to buy time for completing its weapons development, then the tactic worked, as what seemed like an unstoppable march toward war on the part of the US was halted. Others instead saw the summit as a US tactic, ultimately aimed at unsettling China’s dominance in the region. What was lurking behind all of this was a widely unexamined and frequently misunderstood North Korean conception of “denuclearization”—Trump, hearing the word alone, might have jumped to certain unviable conclusions, which could be a recipe for disaster.

There was considerable pessimism in the US media concerning the talks with North Korea, with some fear that any failure could increase the chances of war. In other cases, the apparent worry could have been motivated by a desire not to let diplomacy take the lead over war, and that Trump is always quick to reward flattery. Trump’s administration was cast as unprepared, while North Korea had already won a victory by securing the talks. Part of the problem was the history of prior failed agreements, which the US was directly responsible for abrogating (as under George W. Bush), contrary to the usual propaganda in the US media and political circles. Another problem was that it would be impossible to simply make North Korea forget it had developed nuclear weapons technologies, thus rendering the aim of “denuclearization” illusory from the outset. Another argument was that from the outset, even in advance of talks, North Korea was already in a commanding position and with little to lose—unlike the US. One of the better critiques of the criticisms of the proposed meetings came from a State Department veteran, who carefully picked apart most of the mass mediated objections to the talks, backed by another former senior State Department official who articulated his support for the summit.

That Trump might terminate the Iran nuclear agreement in May, was something that weighed on the prospects for a successful outcome in reaching an agreement with North Korea. If anything, Trump damaged his own credibility and thus weakened his negotiating stance. North Korea, for its part, made none of the promises Trump claimed they had, and continued its public silence.

The Firings of Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster

Adding to the pessimism of some critics of the summit with North Korea, Trump abruptly fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson almost at the same time as he agreed to a meeting with Kim Jong-un, forcing Tillerson to cut short his trip to Africa (Trump apparently cared little about losing face with African states). The firing was done publicly by Trump, via Twitter, adding a sense of humiliation to the episode—one of many resignations and firings that cast a shadow on the Trump’s White House as a site of turmoil and dysfunction. (By the end of the year Trump would be calling Tillerson “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell”.) Tillerson’s under secretary was also immediately fired by Trump, for publicly contradicting the White House. Tillerson was visibly shaken when speaking to the press. With so many recent firings and departures, some predicted the impending collapse of the Trump presidency—but no collapse materialized. The firing of Tillerson happened after Trump had called the many media rumours of the impending firing “fake news”—suggesting that leaks were coming from a source with reliable knowledge, and within the White House. The same routine would be repeated with the national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, whose impending firing Trump would also call “fake news”—McMaster was replaced by John Bolton, an arch war monger popular with Fox News’ directorate. Tillerson had never properly or directly denied having called Trump a “fucking moron,” and Trump was publicly irritated by praises of Tillerson’s intellect, suggesting a degree of personal jealousy and pettiness driving Trump’s decision-making. However, Tillerson was the establishment’s Trojan Horse for the status quo ante Trump—hired on the recommendations of Robert Gates and Condoleeza Rice. Trump’s own remarks to the press stated it was all about the two having a different mindset, especially when it came to Iran, also admitting he did not consult Tillerson before agreeing to the North Korean summit. The immediate consequence of the firing was that now two people who promoted torture and other human rights abuses, would be rewarded: Mike Pompeo would leave the CIA and assume Tillerson’s job, while Pompeo’s replacement at the CIA, Gina Haspel, played a direct role in the waterboarding of detainees (in April 109 US generals would publicly denounce her role in torture and demand her nomination be withdrawn). Reactions to the Tillerson firing, even when not sympathetic to Tillerson, were marked by a high degree of contempt or distrust of Trump’s White House, though close allies of Tillerson offered predictably anodyne statements.

The left-liberal media continued to nourish the myth that Trump’s advisers—which Trump himself picked—had formed a “protective cordon,” which can only mean that their notion of “protection” defaults to the war-mongering interventionist positions of McMaster and Mattis. The entry of John Bolton, replacing Gen. H.R. McMaster as the president’s national security adviser, gave rise to wildly mixed interpretations, ranging from fear to reassurance, sometimes within the same article. While the consensus was that Bolton favoured an aggressive stance toward Iran and North Korea—he would immediately be frustrated on the latter front by Trump himself. Bolton was deemed not to be a neoconservative, and that he had no interest in multilaterialism and democracy promotion. Bolton was, however, a leading advocate for the war in Iraq, which Trump claimed to oppose.

Predicting New US Airstrikes against Syria

It was quite prescient on the part of both Iran’s government and RT, to perceive from as early as mid-March that the firing of Tillerson increased the likelihood of new US military action in Syria, which was predicted a month in advance of it happening, on RT:

“Tillerson was regarded as less of a hawk than many others in the Trump administration when it comes to foreign policy, and, since his departure, some foreign policy experts have speculated that the White House is preparing to take new military action against Syrian government forces.”

At the same time as the prediction above, Russian Army General Army General Valery Gerasimov publicly warned that, according to RT, “Washington was preparing to launch airstrikes against Syria using alleged chemical attacks as a pretext”. As predicted, those very events would transpire just a month later.

Russiagate: Official U.S. Policy

The Republicans voted to end the House Intelligence Committee’s Russiagate probe this month, having found no evidence of any “collusion, coordination, or conspiracy” between Russia and the Trump campaign, while simultaneously downgrading the so-called “intelligence community assessment” used to prop up these allegations. However, by this point the damage had already been done: anti-Russian hysteria had reached such a fevered pitch, that it reached to the highest levels of the White House, where Trump was now determined to prove to the world that nobody could be more anti-Russian than him. The New Cold War is now a fact, and it is largely thanks to the Democrats and a vain, ratings-obsessed showman posing as a president, one who can clearly be easily suckered into any position.

By the end of the year there were still no indictments and no evidence concerning “Trump–Russia collusion”. Instead the focus turned to “campaign finance violations” over payments to some women—in other words, an increasingly fogged-up blurring of legalisms and pettiness.

Iran Nuclear Agreement

Iran made it very clear that any plan by EU members to impose new sanctions on Iran, would have a direct effect on the maintenance of the nuclear agreement. After all, Iran had signed this agreement with the understanding that it would free it from sanctions—to have to put up with new sanctions, just to keep the US happy with the deal, is too much to expect any state to reasonably tolerate. According to Iran’s deputy foreign minister:

“In case some European countries are following steps to put non-nuclear sanctions against Iran in order to please the American president, they will be making a big mistake and they will see the direct result of that on the nuclear deal. It’s better that European countries continue their current action to persuade America to keep its promises in the nuclear deal and for that country to effectively execute the deal in all its parts with good will and in a productive atmosphere”.

Britain, France, and Germany, were working on a proposal for the EU to impose new sanctions on Iran. Did Iran violate the nuclear agreement? No, instead the sanctions were meant simply to appease Donald Trump so he would keep the agreement alive. In the end, no such EU sanctions came to happen.

Using Iranian covert involvement in the war in Yemen as a pretext, the US Senate voted to terminate an effort to halt US involvement in Saudi military operations that have caused massive civilian casualties and displacement. Taking us back to the prison of euphemisms, advocates for US intervention offered the notion that US participation in backing Saudi military operations did not constitute engagement in hostilities. Had the US applied this same logic to terrorism, it would not have found a single person to place in Guantanamo.

Top Articles for March


Review of 2018, Part 2 (April–June): Dealing in Danger and Diplomacy

APRIL

The Trade War Begins?

April continued many of the same themes from March, beginning with the apparent start of a trade war between China and the US as China made good on its threats of retaliation in a major way. China expanded its list of tariffs, targeting 128 US exports with up to 25% in increased tariffs. China’s Global Times newspaper ran an editorial saying that if anyone thought China would restrict itself to symbolic reactions, “say goodbye to that delusion,” and that countermeasures taken would be more than just those minimally required to satisfy a domestic audience. The immediate consequence of China’s countermeasures was a drop in the dollar and a plunge in US stock market values. The Trump administration responded however by further increasing the scope of tariffs on China, designed to target a range of Chinese technology exports produced under the “Made in China 2025” program, as a means of pressuring China on its technology transfer policies. By the end of the month, Trump’s policy on China (which some analysts in the media saw as a pressure tactic that formed part of an effort to negotiate new trade arrangements with China), began to produce ironic results, with Trump suggesting at one point he would consider rejoining the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Withdrawal from the TPP was one of Trump’s very first acts in assuming office. (Note that while it was reported that Trump had changed his mind and was considering rejoining the TPP, he then changed his mind again and decided against it.)

While the notion of a “global trade war” appeared to be the product of overblown, fear-filled representations in the US and international corporate media, it became clearer that the focus of Trump’s concerns was specifically China. What appeared then to be a growing move toward an economic Cold War with China (precisely at the same time as the US relied on China to pressure North Korea—a counterintuitive strategy), began to produce a series of interesting ramifications. One such ramification was felt in US universities. “Globalization has transformed American universities into a front line for espionage,” argued Daniel Golden, author of the recently published book, Spy Schools. Ironically, The New York Times, having energetically fanned the flames of anti-Russian hysteria and xenophobic paranoia, it now accused the Trump administration of doing just that, only with reference to China and Chinese researchers on US campuses who may soon face tighter restrictions in gaining access. What media elites obfuscate, of course, is that deglobalization is increasingly a fact. Whether the favourite target is Russia (for Democrats) or China (for Trump’s Republicans), either way the logic, means, and outcomes are the same: diminished international cooperation at the heart of the globalist ethos.

Professor Peter Navarro, Donald Trump’s adviser on international trade, had this to say about the president’s plan for tariffs against China:

“the Chinese have refused to end their unfair trade practices; and the US trade deficit in goods with China has grown from $347bn in 2016 to $375bn during Mr Trump’s first year in office. While the trade deficit balloons, China continues to steal US intellectual property and force American companies operating there to surrender their leading edge technologies in exchange for access to the Chinese market. Today, Chinese sovereign wealth funds and other state actors are scouring Silicon Valley trying to buy up the crown jewels of the American high-tech industry”.

Added to that, the administration released an explanation of the impending crack down on China, in which the following was pointed out:

“Year after year, China continues to distort global markets and harm U.S. businesses and consumers with unfair trade practices.  For example, China’s unfair industrial policies, like their ‘Made in China 2025’ policy initiative, clearly state China’s goal of taking away domestic and international market share from foreigners.  Members of all political parties, the U.S. business community, and workers around the world are concerned about China’s behavior”.

The New Cold War

In what initially seemed like an attempt to begin repairing a relationship with Russia that US actions had plunged to its worst state since the Cold War, Trump reportedly invited Vladimir Putin to a meeting at the White House. The invitation came during Trump’s telephone call to congratulate Putin on his election victory, which itself provoked the ire of the liberal imperialist media (that is, the majority of the US media). Such talk would not continue even to the end of the month, and the suggestion was quickly dropped and never mentioned again in April. With the US’ mass expulsion of Russian diplomats in late March, a Kremlin aide basically discounted the chances for any meeting. Immediately following that, in the first week of April Trump announced a further round of sanctions against Russia. The Russian ambassador to the US attested to never having seen such anti-Russian hysteria being mass orchestrated in the US. Even early in the month, the White House spokesperson boasted at a press briefing: “the President is absolutely correct when he says no one has been tougher on Russia”—then made the unilateral demand that for relations with Russia to improve, it was up to the Russian side alone to “improve its behaviour”. Amplifying the “no one has been tougher” theme, the Trump administration catalogued for the public all of its actions against Russia, along with a litany of accusations against Russia (even some media detailed Trump’s “tough on Russia” actions). A long Cold War 2 is assured when all of the dominant parties in the US now agree that the best way to prove one’s patriotism is by bashing Russia. Reaching the height of absurdity, by the end of the month the Democrats launched a lawsuit against Russia, WikiLeaks, and the Trump campaign, in another desperate attempt to justify their election defeat as the result of external forces—the worst of conspiracy theories fuelling the new Cold War agenda. The lawsuit would later rightly be thrown out of court.

Regarding the Skripal controversy that was launched by the UK in March, the UK laboratory responsible for tracing the chemical agent could not in fact confirm that Russia had made the substance, in a direct contradiction to the absolute, categorical assertions by Boris Johnson, the UK’s foreign secretary ( a position he would occupy only for a few more months). Meanwhile, considering that the Novichok nerve agent was reputed to be extremely deadly, the Skripals continued their amazing recovery in private, while the immediate area of the alleged attack was never evacuated. Russia raised interesting questions about the close proximity of the UK’s chemical weapons laboratory, Porton Down, to the site of the attack. Readers should keep in mind that this supposed attack, allegedly by Russia, was used to rally NATO and the EU in mass expulsions of Russian diplomats, sanctions, and an extreme heightening in Cold War tensions with Russia. In May, Czech president Milos Zeman confirmed the following about the Czech Republic’s production and testing of Novichok, which liquidated the assertion that it could only have come from Russia: “Novichok was produced and stored. It was a small quantity, though. But we know where and how it was done. Let’s not be hypocritical. There’s no need to lie about this”.

Challenging Imperial Hegemony

In what sounded like a direct rebuffing of US dominance, China’s Defence Minister visited Moscow and declared, “The Chinese side came to let the Americans know about the close ties between the Russian and Chinese armed forces”. Then there were rumours of Chinese plans for military bases in various Pacific locations. This sort of challenge, and the broader challenges to imperial dominance by the US that are posed by Russia and China combined (when previously the dream was to have the US and China combined in a “G2” to rule the world), has to produce consequences. One consequence, as pointed out by Putin, is that the US is willing to construct a new world disorder that makes cooperation with Russia impossible.

The Promise of Peace on the Korean Peninsula

April saw a striking increase in peace efforts on the Korean peninsula, in a dramatic reversal of the state of affairs of the past year since Trump took office. The month began with South Korean performers, visiting the North, in a concert titled “Spring is Coming,” which was attended by Kim Jong-un and his wife. China praised North Korea for its commitment to diplomacy and peace. On April 27, an historic summit occurred between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in. The two Korean leaders signed a declaration “vowing the halt of hostile acts, denuclearization, and a push for joint talks with US and China”. Then it was revealed that Trump had sent then CIA director Mike Pompeo on a secret mission to North Korea to begin talks about preparing for a summit (with the The New York Times in obvious distress over Trump endorsing the idea of a peace treaty finally ending the Korean War, and that Trump was acting far too independently of Japan). President Trump in the meantime could not stop talking about “what ifs” imagined about the upcoming meeting with Kim Jong-un. Statements from North Korea were comparatively fewer in number, but arguably of greater substance when they came, such as the announcement in late April that North Korea was suspending nuclear testing, and promised to destroy a test site—the reason being that it had completed its nuclear weapons development and would no longer need such tests. Kim Jong-un was seen as entering negotiations from a position of strength. Few US commentators, if any, observed that Trump’s enthusiasm for talks with North Korea simply validated the continuous and long-established Russian emphasis on dialogue. At a meeting with France’s Emmanuel Macron at the end of the month, President Trump declared that he thought Kim Jong-un was “very honourable” and “very open,” reversing himself on previous months of atrocious insults.

On the sidelines, the family of Otto Warmbier, understandably consumed by grief, kept up their media campaign about their son being tortured to death into what amounted to a dead-end lawsuit against North Korea. Unfortunately the Warmbier family bought into one imperial presumption: that the jurisdiction of US courts is the entire planet.

The US: A Permanent Occupation of Syria?

The return of “Trump 2016”—Trump the nationalist—seemed to gain weight when Trump suddenly announced in early April that he had ordered his generals to begin planning the US’ withdrawal from Syria, much to the consternation of the neoconservative-dominated Fox News, and its CIA-affiliated liberal imperialist twin on foreign policy, The Washington Post. On April 3, Trump declared:

“As far as Syria is concerned, our primary mission in terms of that was getting rid of ISIS….We’ve completed that task and we’ll be making a decision very quickly, in coordination with others in the area, as to what we will do”.

He added that “the mission” is “very costly for our country and it helps other countries a helluva lot more than it helps us”. Trump was accused by the media, including his “friends” at Fox, of telegraphing US military intentions (for which Trump had excoriated Obama), creating a vacuum which ISIS and/or Al Qaeda would fill, and of ceding ground to Russia and Iran—with the only acceptable alternative apparently being the permanent occupation of Syria or an effort dedicated to recolonization via regime change. Syria was apparently forbidden from occupying its own national territory.

Meanwhile those around Trump kept coy with any questions about a US withdrawal from Syria, even though his advisers reportedly had known for months before Trump’s announcement about his desire to get out of Syria soon. Apparently the Pentagon had developed plans for what elsewhere was called “nation building” except in Syria’s case it would be about building a state within a state. While it’s true that Tillerson and McMaster were both advocates for a long-term US intervention in Syria, and both were fired by Trump, the entry of Bolton would seem to simply continue the theme of unrestrained US intervention. The media panic about a diminished imperialist US stature was palpable, even if contrived. Meanwhile, reports of the numbers of US forces in Syria concealed the thousands of “private contractors” the US had also deployed.

Not even a week after Trump’s announced desire to withdraw from Syria, and almost a year to the exact date of the last US airstrike on Syrian government targets, suddenly there was yet another dubious chemical weapons atrocity—it would never be proven to have happened. On April 9, Trump now stated that a US military strike was likely, calling Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad an “animal” (Nikki Haley called him a “monster” and invoked “civilization”). Nikki Haley meanwhile announced at the UN that there would be no withdrawal of US forces from Syria. Trump vowed that US power would be used to “stop” atrocities (how this would be done after the fact of an attack made as much sense as anything else). Yet again Trump invoked “humanitarianism”. Once more there was a dangerous rush to judgment. Repeating the pattern from a year before, Trump seemed eager to follow a media-driven “do something” imperative.

Both the Russian and Syrian governments denounced the social media reports of a chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma as fake news, propagated by the White Helmets who have known working ties with Al Qaeda. Russian forces could find no trace of any chemical agent in Douma. Russia’s UN ambassador asserted that the attack had been staged, and that there should be an impartial investigation before any rush, yet again, to take armed action. Early in March, Russia had publicly warned of a likely staged chemical attack designed to provoke foreign military aggression against Syria.

Russia’s UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, in statements that are rarely carried by US media (which tend to feature only Nikki Haley, as if the UN was merely a stage for her soliloquies), offered a visceral condemnation of the US’ domineering attitude and belittled its supposed international friendships. After Haley announced—on what authority is not known—that the US and Russia “will never be friends”, Nebenzia responded:

“We’re not particularly keen to be friends with you. We’re not begging you for friendship. We want normal, civilized relations—which you arrogantly refuse, disregarding basic courtesy. You are misguided to think you have friends. Your so-called friends are just those who can’t say no to you. This is your only criteria for friendship”.

Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, also tore apart the now fashionable “logic” of asserting that alleged attacks are “highly likely” to have been perpetrated by X or Y. Before the US military strike on Syria, the US, UK, and France made their case at the UN Security Council—but there was widespread opposition in Europe and Latin America against any further foreign intervention and military escalation. Even among NATO members, Germany refused to take part in any strikes, while Italy banned use of its territory for conducting the strikes.

In the usual rush to action before evidence was verified, reprising the still recent Skripal controversy, the UK’s Theresa May called an urgent cabinet meeting to plan joining a US strike on Syria, without seeking the approval of parliament. More on this below.

To date, neither the attack nor the perpetrators have been corroborated. In what is now the standard routine in selling fiction as fact, the US claimed to have evidence (“very high confidence”) but would not share it since it was “classified”. In the first of a series of empirical rebuttals by Russia, its Ministry of Defense presented proof that the chemical attack was staged, which was ignored and thus unchallenged in Western media. Some analysts rightly condemned the rush to military action as “madness” in the rich tradition of many other false flag attacks, with the latest one predicted accurately by Russian sources, while the Syrian government publicly revealed its discovery of a chemical weapons factory run by rebels. Indeed, a report from February not only confirmed, according to US Defense Secretary James Mattis, that the US had never found any evidence of sarin gas being used in prior alleged talks—but that the US was anyway preparing to “act” against Syria for any future chemical weapons use. Added to this is the history of known US false flag attacks.

Ironically, in the name of “the international community,” the US committed itself to act unilaterally, in violation of the UN Charter, in an act of aggression against a sovereign member of the UN. Israel was quick to take advantage and lead the way in striking targets in Syria with missiles. The only thing that the US attack on Syria actually stopped was any further talk from Trump about withdrawing from Syria. Trump appeared, as some said, to be “bipolar,” first beating his chest to Russia about the impending US missile strike, which heightened a sense of international terror of the prospects of a nuclear war, then suddenly striking a conciliatory tone, bemoaning the current state of US–Russian relations. Once again this year, Trump would publicly boast that no one had been tougher on Russia than him, making this a recurring theme of his foreign policy. Russia warned Trump not to engage in Twitter diplomacy, and to avoid doing damage in Syria to cover up the lack of evidence on the ground (not that the US ever suggested it would launch strikes at the very same spot which had already suffered from an alleged chemical attack). In addition, Russia seemed to publish open warnings to the US that it would militarily oppose any US strikes on Syrian soil, along with direct statements warning the US of unspecified consequences. The result was that US, British and French forces took great care not to attack Russian forces, but otherwise there was zero response from Russia when the attack on Syria (below) actually came.

One question is whether Trump was ever really sincere about withdrawal from Syria. John McCain, who next to Lindsey Graham is one of two senators posing as de facto Secretaries of State in the welcoming US media, spared no time in blaming Trump for provoking the crisis by first announcing his intention to withdraw US forces from Syria—aiming at Trump’s intentions seemed to be the whole point of this episode. In response to the constant criticism at home, some thought that Trump ordered the strike on Syria in order to boost his approval ratings and gain positive mileage in a media landscape that is almost uniform in its rejection of him—in fact some evidence suggested there was a surge in support for Trump after the strike. Mainstream, that is, corporate imperial media in the US was rife with accusations and counter-accusations by liberals keen to promote military intervention, while denigrating those asking the most basic questions about evidence. The US media, along with Muslim American organizations, were unanimous in their demands for regime change in Syria. Though on the right, and generally supportive of Trump, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson was astoundingly one of the very few who objected to the conformist, pro-war command in the media to just “shut up and obey”. If that is in any way an accurate reflection of reality, then the anti-Trump opposition is doing the rest of the world a great deal of harm, and not by accident. (Indeed, “Antifa” protesters would mob Carlson’s home later in the year—this was the only person at Fox that they targeted.)

As was now too customary to be ironic, it was a range of right-wing alternative media personalities—Trump supporters—who came out to denounce Trump’s decision to attack Syria, showing once again how far the left has ceded the anti-war territory to the right. Sebastian Gorka came out in an attempt to quell internal opposition—“Donald Trump is not a neoconservative and never will be”—in what was a tortured, twisted justification for military intervention, but somehow also in the name of non-intervention at the same time. Others emphasized that this was merely a limited action, and that Trump has no intention of getting stuck in Syria.

Two things were missing from the debate. One was an answer to the basic question of why the Syrian government would launch such an attack, when it was winning. The Commander of US Central Command, Army General Joseph Votel, publicly confirmed that the Syrian government had won the war. Second, there was still no rational explanation of why, even if true, deaths from chemical weapons attacks were less acceptable than deaths during the ordinary course of war in Syria. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis made the astounding statement that belief´justified the US military attack, and confirmed the US had no actual evidence of the so-called chemical weapons attack (see also here). The belief was based, of all things, on “social media reports” by unspecified NGOs and “open source outlets”. In fact, the US attack took place before the “Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) team was scheduled to arrive in Douma to determine whether chemical weapons had indeed been used there”. As Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergey Ryabkov, put it: there has been an “endless, primitive and unsubstantiated bogus stories, which are made up—sometimes by high-ranking US officials,” that “Russia didn’t fulfill its obligations” in ensuring the removal of chemical weapons from Syria, when the US had previously certified that all such weapons had indeed been removed.

The anticipated US attack began on Saturday, April 14, as announced by Trump in a televised address. The US claimed—and this amazing statement was not queried by the media—that it struck a chemical weapons storage facility (if true, then that alone would have caused a catastrophe on the ground, dwarfing any one alleged Syrian government chemical attack), as well as a research and development facilities, or three targets in total. Syria claimed that its air defenses intercepted a third of the 30 missiles fired by the US—while the US claimed to have fired roughly 120 missiles (which would seem extreme given that only three small targets were selected)—elsewhere the number claimed was either 103 or 105, with other claims being that Syria intercepted 71 of the missiles. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that all countries were required to act in accordance with the UN Charter, which bars any member state from launching an attack on another, without any provocation or immediate threat to its security—especially when there is no UN Security Council approval. If anything, justifications used for the attack proved that it violated international law. Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman observed how it was seemingly impossible for Syria to entertain ideas of a peaceful future, even for a moment, without instantly being subjected to the threat of foreign terror. Vladmir Putin argued that the unilateral attack would have, “a devastating impact on the whole system of international relations,” reminding everyone that, “Washington already bears the heavy responsibility for the bloody carnage in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya”. The former vice-chair of the Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Willy Wimmer, a former state secretary to Germany’s Minister of Defense, offered some cutting insights:

“Since the illegal war against Yugoslavia in 1999, they [the US, the UK and France] want to have their own international structure. They want to destroy the Charter of the UN. They are no longer interested in having an international organization, which can work. And, therefore, they do their utmost to create their own world where they can do what they want to do. The attitude of the French, British and Americans is the same attitude, which was used by Adolf Hitler in 1939 to enter into World War Two. Since 2011, when the war in Syria started, it was, from the very beginning, a common effort of the US, British and French to destroy, by force, the Syrian state… for their own purpose. Now they have to face reality, and the reality is that Syria survived as an independent state by the help of Russia and Iran, mainly, and the support of both of these countries was in strict accordance to
international law”.

The US claimed the action was not designed to overthrow the Syrian government, or intervene in the civil war. Of course, the US was already involved in the so-called “civil war” (it is an international war), on the side of anti-government forces. Initial claims by the US that this was (another) “one off” action were, as usual, almost immediately contradicted by other factions in government, such as Nikki Haley who, in her usual bellicose manner, declared the US remained “locked and loaded”. As usual, US media virtually ignored anyone else speaking at the UN Security Council, usually framing Haley as if she sat alone and was speaking only to herself (which is perhaps more reflective of reality than media propagandists intended). Thus the poignant statement by Syria’s UN ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, revealing that US forces illegally occupied a third of Syrian territory, went mostly unnoticed.

Both the UK and France took part in the missile strikes, in both cases without the consent of their respective parliaments, further showing how much executive power is inflated and distorts “liberal democracy” in Western nations engaged in seemingly permanent warfare. British Opposition Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, disputed the legal authority for Britain’s participation in the attack, refuting the “humanitarian intervention” angle. Corbyn denounced the government’s violation of international law, and that it appeared to answer to Donald Trump rather than the parliament. Reactions from the British public against prime minister Theresa May participating in the air strikes on Syria were almost uniform for being particularly scathing. One British opinion poll showed more opposed the air strikes than supported it, with the number of opposed growing if such action could risk conflict with Russia. Another British opinion poll showed that only 22% of the public would support a missile strike on Syria, on the eve of the attack itself. In both France and Britain, parliamentary opposition to the apparent US takeover of those nations’ foreign policies was acute, where memories of the disastrous interventions in Iraq and Libya remained alive. Theresa May’s defensive gainsaying did little to assuage opponents. In the US Congress, an array of representatives on both sides of the partisan divide denounced the US attack as a violation of US laws. In all three cases—the US, UK, and France—what became evident is that the airstrikes, ordered unilaterally by the executives, damaged democracy in those nations. By avoiding debate in parliament, those who ordered the air strikes were relieved of the responsibility of presenting convincing evidence of the Syrian government’s alleged culpability in the alleged chemical attack.

As for evidence, witnesses of the alleged chemical attack in Douma told the press, at a gathering organized by Russia’s mission at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, completely contradicted the reports published in the West. Their memorable statements cast, at the very least, enormous doubt on the veracity of videos and what they were purported to show. This event was mostly ignored by Western media. Summing up their testimonies: no attack, no victims, no chemical weapons. Poking enormous holes in the so-called “evidence” of the attack, Russia’s delegation to the OPCW asserted that Russia would not tolerate another false flag attack on Syria. In a report that was widely ignored by Western media—one whose implications placed the “chemical attack” in Syria in the same rank as Iraq’s fabled WMDs—the OPCW itself concluded in July that “no organophosphorous nerve agents or their degradation products were detected in the environmental samples or in the plasma samples taken from alleged casualties”.

Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, jumped at the opportunity to push events in Syria in an anti-Russia direction, and without the permission of President Trump—and reportedly to his great annoyance—decided that she would announce that the US was about to apply additional sanctions against Russia, for its support of Syria (or “Assad” as she likes to say). Except she was wrong—the administration quickly hung Haley out to dry, and completely contradicted her. Trump seemed late in understanding that Haley and her team were part of an internal, “Never Trump” neoconservative element. There would be no further sanctions on Russia over this issue. In the end, Haley looked like a fool, and the White House appeared confused and divided. Predictably, The New York Times published moaning articles like this one, replete with the usual Russiagate fake news and conspiracy theory (see the correction at the bottom of their article), where the main theme is that Trump is not enough of a war-monger and needed to escalate tensions with Russia. Other liberal imperialist organs were similarly convinced that in not razing Syria with total US war against the country, Trump was somehow showing “restraint,” and this was taken to be evidence of some sort of “Trump doctrine”.

By the end of April, Trump repeated his claim to want withdrawal from Syria:

“We want to come home. We’ll be coming home. But we want to leave a strong and lasting footprint…. do want to come home, but I want to come home also with having accomplished what we have to accomplish”.

Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, countered that the US had no intention to leave Syria.

The US can Occupy Syria Forever, but is Forbidden to Occupy its Own Country?

The nationalist immigration policies spearheaded by the Trump administration were to come under a direct challenge by a slow-moving “caravan” of migrants headed for the US border via Mexico. The caravan was supported by a NGO calling itself “People without Borders” and its journey was seemingly abetted by Mexican authorities. One of the responses of the Trump administration was to sign an order sending National Guard units to the border with Mexico. President Trump pointed to a situation of “lawlessness” on the US–Mexican border and described it as “fundamentally incompatible with the safety, security, and sovereignty of the American people”. But while the US had to debate whether to send troops, to the US’ own border, there was to be no debate about whether to send US troops all the way to Syria. The jarring juxtaposition of the two contrasting stances came out in a single question by a reporter at a White House press briefing—a reporter who nevertheless failed to note the contrast:

“there seems to be a perception that, at times, the President makes announcements and then the White House has to come up with policy to match what the President said. Like with the talk about the military at the border, there weren’t really a lot of details about that at first. And with the issue with Syria, and him saying he wanted to, kind of, pull all the troops back”.

In another White House press briefing, reporters once again failed to notice the bizarre contradiction between their thinly veiled criticisms of Trump’s desire to pull US troops back from Syria, while apparently complaining about the decision to send troops to the US border.

Prelude to Withdrawal: Trump and the Iran Nuclear Agreement

Amid cherry blossoms, champagne, and displays of haute couture, Emmanuel Macron met with Donald Trump for a three-day visit, in a lavish display of what many of us understood to be an absolutely phoney friendship (the problem for Macron is that Trump also understood that). It seemed then that Trump might be open to remaining in the agreement (the JCPOA), if “new ways” of “containing” Iran were found, as Macron intimated. Trump also threatened Iran with unspecified retaliation should it restart its nuclear development, if the US withdrew from the JCPOA. In spite of the display of mutual affection, Macron proceeded to address a joint session of Congress, in which he took apart major planks of Trump’s America First policy. If Macron thought that this insult to Trump was smart diplomacy, then he was very poorly advised—and he would reap the appropriate benefits of his decision very shortly.

Top Articles for April


MAY

The US B-phase Meets China’s A-phase

At the intersection of imperial decline for the US (the B-phase marking its descent) and the rise of China (A-phase), a meeting between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, ostensibly about tariffs and trade, was instead interpreted by some as a meeting to discuss the future of the world. Others warned that China and the US might be falling into the “Thucydides trap” (see especially Graham Allison’s Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?) China had become too big for the US to contain, and China’s entry into world capitalism did not just change China, it changed the world. At a high-level trade meeting between the governments of the US and China—that deserved at least as much if not more media attention than the upcoming summit with North Korea, but received barely a mention in most cases—China made it very clear that it would not bow to the US, and would be willing to fight to the end. One Chinese official said, “We will not offer concessions on anything we consider to be a core interest”. China would not succumb to any threats from the US, nor offer concessions as preconditions for talks, especially where the issues of “Made in China 2025” and a reduction in its trade surplus with the US were concerned. In the event of a trade war, Chinese officials pointed out that China’s economy is more resilient than the US’, and that was a good point. Days after the meeting began, there was no progress towards any sort of resolution; if anything, China toughened its stance by punishing US hotels and airlines for listing Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan as separate territories on their websites, while companies in other countries complied with China. During the course of the days of meetings, Trump called Chinese president Xi Jinping, though the anodyne “readout” of the phone call masked any and all disagreement. Meanwhile Democrats united with Republicans in the Senate in classing China as a threat to US security and values. Some rather insightful analysis unmasked the frailty of Trump’s stance on China.

By the end of May, the Trump administration seemed for a moment to be caving in to China. Steve Mnuchin told the media on May 20 that the prospective “trade war” had been “put on hold”. China called the US’ bluff, and won—or so it seemed. All China had to do was to make some vague promises to reduce some trade barriers and buy some more products from the US, when or for how long was not clear. Nothing more was said about the “Made in China 2025” campaign, and Trump himself intervened to save China’s ZTE telecom corporation from facing bankruptcy. That the US had not emerged victorious from the trade talks with China was confirmed by Trump himself. In response to a question about if he was pleased with how the trade talks with China went, Trump responded: “No, not really. I think that they’re a start…. So, no, I’m not satisfied, but we’ll see what happens. We have a long way to go”. (In June, however, Trump would reverse Mnuchin altogether. This momentary pause, however, would be resurrected at the end of the year in the form of a 90-day trade war truce.)

The only signs of a trade war appeared at the very end of the month—but not between the US and China. Instead, Donald Trump decided to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from allies: the EU, Mexico, and Canada. In a sign of a true trade war in the offing, Canada retaliated immediately and massively.

*Update on Trump’s steel tariffs: there was in fact some evidence that jobs were returning to the US steel industry, thanks primarily to Trump’s protective tariffs. Later, it was reported that a UK investor would reopen its steel plant in the US, to avoid the impact of US tariffs, thus creating new jobs. Less noticed was the impact of US sanctions on Russia: a decline in Russian investment in the US steel industry, and the potential layoffs of thousands of workers in Russian-owned steel plants in the US.

How to Lose Friends and Make Enemies: The Art of the Deal

Turkey continued its slide out of the US orbit (more on this below), with US help: Turkey announced it would retaliate against any attempted de facto sanctions by the US, such as the plan to block sales of major weapons to Turkey. Prospective losers: NATO, the US. Prospective winners: Turkey, Russia.

Elsewhere, Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte urged leaders at a meeting of the Asia-Pacific region to adopt a foreign policy that is independent of the US and that pursues Asian interests. Importantly, Duterte pointed out that the development experience proved it was futile to try to mimic the US.

Pakistan for its part was determined to show Trump some of the consequences of alienating it, as he had done at the opening of the year. The government of Pakistan detained a US diplomat and barred him from leaving the country after he was involved in a fatal traffic accident. A US plane sent to retrieve him was forced to leave without him. In addition, all US diplomatic staff would be placed under new travel restrictions within Pakistan.

While not losing friends it never really had, the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem, juxtaposed with Israel killing at least 60 Palestinian protesters in Gaza, hardly won the US any acclaim outside of Israel. Media in fact depicted the glaring contrast between a smiling and applauding Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, sent to Israel for the opening, and scenes of deadly mayhem in Gaza. Amazingly, in the midst of ongoing carnage, Kushner proclaimed that the event marked an advance for the cause of peace. The Israeli government in the meantime claimed it was acting in self-defense against the protesters, claiming the right to protect its sovereignty—the kinds of actions that would get Syria’s Assad labeled a “monster” and an “animal” by the Trump administration, when faced with armed local and foreign fighters.

US–North Korea Negotiations

A bad sign that cast a dark cloud over impending talks between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un: predictably, Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, chilled the prospects for peace by invoking—with a straight face—“the Libya model” for handling North Korean denuclearization, again continuing with the attitude that the US would unilaterally decide what was to be done. Numerous analysts were, fortunately, quick to notice Bolton’s paradigm, and lambasted him for it. Weeks later, Trump seemed to at first contradict Bolton (though there was a general misunderstanding of what specifically Bolton meant by the Libyan model), but then Trump actually came out with worse, threatening precisely the kind of homicidal regime change that Libya suffered should North Korea fail to accept a deal—which is an unacceptable way of negotiating since it suggests an ultimatum, to be accepted under duress.

Bolton was not the only one undermining Trump’s upcoming peace talks: the climactic and dramatic confrontation with special counsel Robert Mueller took an even darker and nastier turn, threatening to badly distract Trump during a very sensitive time. By the end of the month revelations were coming out of the extent of the FBI’s role in spying on the Trump electoral campaign in 2016, during the rule of the Obama administration, in what looks like the build-up to an attempted coup.

What was potentially more serious were the possible consequences of Trump’s facile assertion, following Bolton, that the question of the US troop presence on the border with North Korea was “off the table”. He made this remark on May 4, to reporters on the tarmac, during a trip to Dallas. Then why would North Korea want to negotiate? What is the point of a peace treaty, and a non-aggression pact, if a foreign superpower stations tens of thousands of troops on your border? How would Kim Jong-un sell that to the people of North Korea, and to its powerful military establishment? Trump appeared to think that North Korea was prepared to give up everything, just for the promise of an eventual easing of sanctions. What is also vital to note is that objections to the presence of US troops in South Korea, is a dominant demand in South Korea itself, where the prospect of peace immediately opened the doors to new demands that US troops exit the country. Here Trump’s argument seems to be with South Korea, at least as much as North Korea. Moreover, a peace treaty would abolish the need for the THAAD missile “defense” system, which Russia and China always felt was ultimately aimed at them. “Maintaining the power balance in East Asia”—a broad, generic and euphemistic way for US officials to insist on asserting dominance—remained the dominant, underlying concern.

John Bolton would again threaten to mess up negotiations, when in an interview with Laura Ingraham on Fox News, on May 8—the day Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal—he indicated that North Korea would not be allowed to engage in any activities to provide itself with nuclear energy. Though few noticed, it was hardly a suggestion that North Korea ever volunteered, or would agree with.

Throwing cold water on Trump’s incessant triumphalist narrative at home, a classic case of counting one’s chickens before the eggs hatch, Kim Jong-un warned Trump to stop portraying the North’s openness to peace as a declaration of surrender. Much of what Trump had been boasting made it seem that North Korea was simply caving in—which would hardly encourage North Korean participation in dialogue, if dialogue was reduced to discussing terms of surrender. If Trump thought he had a green light to impose a 21st-century equivalent of the Versailles treaty on North Korea, he had another thing coming. China meanwhile continued to play a significant role in the negotiations, mostly behind the scenes, with two China–North Korea summits happening: the second happened soon after the first and was not publicly announced beforehand. This second meeting would become significant for what was suspected about its significance.

On the same day that Trump announced termination of US participation in the Iran nuclear deal, the new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, arrived in Pyongyang for preparatory discussions concerning the upcoming summit. Pompeo returned with three Korean-American prisoners freed by the North, which most of the US media falsely called “hostages” (a label slapped on carelessly whenever American spies are legitimately imprisoned abroad). Defense Secretary Mattis said there was good reason to be optimistic about talks with North Korea. Meanwhile, the media continued the barrage of expert opinions criticizing the very idea of holding a summit, claiming that in having one, Kim Jong-un was already winning.

Soon after the prisoner release, the DPRK–US summit was announced, to be held in Singapore on June 12.

However, various bellicose statements and acts from Washington placed the talks in jeopardy, beyond the public remarks made by John Bolton on the “Libya Model”. North Korea threatened to not show up for the summit if it was being pushed into “unilateral nuclear abandonment”; North Korea condemned the US­–South Korean military exercises then taking place; and, the North immediately called off talks with the South. Trump had in fact rendered the outcome of a summit unworkable, by essentially turning it into an act of coercion: either agree with the US, or face annihilation. In a rare item, from March, we were given some insight into what North Korea is talking about when it speaks of “denuclearization”. In May, we were given a little additional insight into what North Korea means by “denuclearization”. What events of this month showed was that previous second-hand filtering of what North Korea allegedly promised, as spoken by South Korean counterparts, were not to be taken at face value—we were told that North Korea would accept continued US military exercises with South Korea before the summit, and then the exact opposite turned out to be true.

As predicted, by foolishly pursuing China over trade issues, at the very same time as the US was relying on Chinese support to pressure North Korea, it instead seemed that China might have given North Korea incentives for hardening their stance. By the end of the month, Trump was alleging much the same about this now famous, tightly guarded second meeting between the leaders of China and North Korea. In a memorable meeting with South Korean president Moon and the press in the Oval Office, Trump stated:

“I will say I’m a little disappointed, because when Kim Jong-un had the meeting with President Xi, in China, the second meeting—the first meeting we knew about—the second meeting—I think there was a little change in attitude from Kim Jong-un. So I don’t like that. I don’t like that. I don’t like it from the standpoint of China. Now, I hope that’s not true, because we have—I have a great relationship with President Xi. He’s a friend of mine. He likes me. I like him. We have—I mean, that was two of the great days of my life being in China. It was—I don’t think anybody has ever been treated better in China—ever in their history. And I just think it was—many of you were there—it was an incredible thing to witness and see. And we built a very good relationship. We speak a lot. But there was a difference when Kim Jong-un left China the second time. And I think they were dedicating an aircraft carrier that the United States paid for. Okay? Because we paid for it”.

Trump ended the month on a note of pessismism, thinking aloud to the press that the summit with North Korea might not even happen, or not happen on June 12: “There’s a chance; there’s a very substantial chance it won’t work out. I don’t want to waste a lot of time, and I’m sure he doesn’t want to waste a lot of time. So there’s a very substantial chance that it won’t work out, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean it won’t work out over a period of time. But it may not work out for June 12th”.

Indeed, things fell apart for June 12. Trump withdrew the US from the summit, which he announced on May 24, both at a press briefing and in a letter to Kim Jong-un. The US, which had done nothing in the way of diplomacy to secure the summit, which had engaged in premature boasting about Nobel prizes and was running victory laps, which issued demands for unilateral and total surrender, and then even invoked the image of a destroyed Libya as the only other future North Korea could envision, did everything that was required to scuttle any talks. Anticipation was maximized, South Korea did its best to flatter Trump’s ego, and talk was of North Korea completely surrendering any nuclear development (see John Bolton on Fox News Sunday, for April 29, and Trump’s rally in Washington, Michigan, on April 28). No head of state could ever meet another under such terms and conditions. North Korea had freed US prisoners, destroyed a nuclear test site, and held talks with South Korea—and the response was zero concessions plus continued military exercises with South Korea, and then threats from John Bolton and Mike Pence, who both invoked Libya. North Korea, which officially had been silent much of the time since the prospect of talks was first announced, now began to make itself heard very clearly—denouncing comments by Bolton, Pence, and condemning South Korea for taking part in military exercises with the US.

Interestingly the North Korean response to Trump’s announcement was quite conciliatory and amicable, and by the next day Defense Secretary Mattis was already suggesting that the summit might be back on. Early fears about escalating conflict seemed premature. Nonetheless, the media reaction in the US was scathing towards Donald Trump (example1, example2), and many of the essays were generally fairly well reasoned. South Korea’s government was embarrassed by the fact that Trump had not even bothered to either consult or notify it in advance of announcing the decision to cancel/postpone the summit. Some saw this as further evidence that North Korea was succeeding in its aim of driving a wedge between South Korea and the US.

South Korea soon returned to its role as an intermediary, and began to oversell North Korean commitments in advance of the delayed summit—at least where US reporting was involved. In other media, we would hear South Korean president Moon Jae-in stating that Kim Jong-un was in fact highly sceptical of US trustworthiness when it came to a security pact, upon which denuclearization would depend. Kim and Moon had met for their second summit on May 26 (the first was on April 27), and they planned a third summit for June 1. US and North Korean officials continued to meet, still with the idea of having a summit on June 12, if possible, with Kim Jong-un sending Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, to the US (which compelled the US to go against its own sanctions to allow him in).

The US, the JCPOA, and Iran

As we approached Trump’s supposed May 12 deadline for either renewing the sanctions waivers on Iran, or unilaterally terminating the JCPOA, more analyses showed just what a strategic blunder the US violation of the Iran nuclear agreement would be. Peter Harrell outlined the various problems in a comprehensive article in Foreign Affairs, describing the extents to which the EU, the UN, Russia, and Turkey would not only essentially nullify the impact of any new US sanctions (and there would be domestic political and commercial hurdles to face in re-imposing sanctions), but Iran would essentially be in a “win-win” situation. Without the JCPOA, Iran could manage with US sanctions, since the US isolated itself, while also being free to resume and expand its nuclear development. Here is Harrell’s concluding paragraph:

“Even taking all these steps, however, would not change the fact that withdrawing from the JCPOA would be a strategic mistake for Washington. It would allow Iran to resume its nuclear program and raise the risk of a future military conflict with Tehran. And in all likelihood it would not even fully impose the kind of economic pressure that forced Iran to agree to the JCPOA in the first place. The result would be a major setback for U.S. strategic interests”.

One possibility not explored in Harrell’s article is that Iran, and the other signatories (minus the US), could continue with the deal in place. Iran’s leaders suggested they could live with the deal, without the US, as long as it served Iran’s financial and economic interests, and no attempt was made to undermine or coercively restrict Iran’s international influence. Iran saw the US withdrawal from the deal as representing no significant obstacle to the development of Iran’s oil sector. Furthermore, Germany and France indicated they too would continue with the deal in place, even if the US withdrew; Britain indicated the same. It thus seemed as if the worst that could happen is that the US would be giving up its place at the table. That, at least, was one of the outcomes envisioned. Far worse was also envisioned. Europe thus continued to lobby Trump against pulling out of the JCPOA. UK foreign minister Boris Johnson went on a media tour in the US, in advance of meeting with Trump, warning that the alternatives to the deal could be far worse, up to and including outright war with Iran. France’s Emmanuel Macron, treated as a star during a visit to Washington, called US withdrawal from the JCPOA opening “Pandora’s Box” and said it could lead to war. As for war, and specifically war-mongering, a corresponding attempt to rewrite history unfolded in a US court which, astoundingly opposed to logic, reason, and facts, found Iran shared responsibility for the 9/11 attacks and ordered it to pay $6 billion to victims, a ruling that was laughed off by Iran which did not participate in the proceedings. This kind of active myth-making reminds one of the ugly lies told in support of war with Iraq before 2003. The irony is that the US is actively collaborating with Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria, as it did in Libya. Yet in Trump’s speech (see below) he repeated the lie that Iran backed Al Qaeda and the Taliban, covering up for their known Saudi and Gulf state sponsors.

Then on May 8, the much anticipated announcement came. In a televised address to the nation, Donald Trump announced the US was unilaterally withdrawing from the JCPOA. While feigning concern for the welfare of the Iranian people—already subject to a blanket travel ban—Trumped vowed to impose massive economic sanctions over 180 days. These were meant to be the “highest level” of US economic sanctions to date, although many sanctions had remained in place despite the JCPOA and direct trade between the two countries was already prohibited. At one point, it even seemed that Trump threatened Iran with war. Israel cheered the deal by immediately ordering a missile strike on Syrian targets (Syria intercepted its missiles). The Israel lobby in Washington clearly had success. This was as Trump’s speech ended. Israel then raised its alarms fearing a response—on Fox News, the Israeli ambassador to the US then proceeded to make it appear as if Iran was being belligerent. Allegedly unrelated, Iranian backed Houthi rebels fired several ballistic missiles at the Saudi capital, hitting various targets. A mere two days later, Israel undertook its biggest airstrike on Syria since the early 1970s, firing dozens of missiles on alleged Iranian targets, also allegedly in response to an Iranian missile volley. Israel boasted that it had set back Iran considerably in Syria, which if true was news no doubt welcomed by Al Qaeda and remnants of ISIS.

In describing the new sanctions regime and list of US demands at the end of the month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed a good deal of the Trump administration’s underlying assumptions and unrealistic expectations of what an agreement on Iran should look like: it would be an agreement of Washington with itself and against Iran. Essentially, the Trump administration could accept nothing short of Iran’s complete and total surrender, its reduction to being a vassal of the US once again, to have no independent foreign policy, to have no influence beyond its borders, and to have no allies outside of the US. The basic thrust was a purely neocolonial one, to a degree not seen since the 1960s at the latest. As Iranian president Rouhani said to the US: “Who are you to decide for Iran and the world? The world today does not accept America to decide for the world, as countries are independent…that [colonial] era is over”. Moreover, the means chosen could never achieve such ends—while the US can sanction European companies doing business in Iran, and block US companies, it cannot stop either Russia or China from investing in Iran, nor can it stop Iranian companies from doing business in Europe, nor can the US block Iranian oil sales, simply because this time the US lacks the backing of the EU and the UN. The US is the only “rogue state” in the picture, having turned its back on an international agreement. Pompeo threatening “the strongest sanctions in history” could be little more than noise: precisely given the isolation of the US, just by default the sanctions regime could not be greater than it was when it had full international backing. Iran would not experience what either Iraq or North Korea suffered from international sanctions. Pompeo was simply trying to cover up for Trump’s impetuous miscalculation. Even more bizarre was Pompeo blaming the lack of rain on the Iranian government, a foolish statement that was lost among all the other foolishness.

If Trump thought he would win votes at home, a new poll found that an overwhelming majority of Americans opposed the US withdrawal from the agreement. On a separate matter, had Obama not relied so heavily on executive authority, it would not have been so easy for Trump to undo his agreement: “As Tom Cotton warned the Iranians years ago, an agreement entered into by a president and not submitted to the Senate as a treaty can be abrogated by the next man who holds the office”.

Much of the decision made little obvious sense, not even in terms of narrow self-interest. The US Navy sounded more nervous now about the safety of its ships in the Gulf. Both political allies and enemies of Trump appeared united in their criticism. As one writer adequately summed up,

“President Trump is withdrawing the United States from an Iran nuclear deal that has worked, in the name of unrelated demands that are unworkable, at very high cost to America’s alliances and the value of its word, with no viable alternative policy in place and at the risk of igniting the Middle East”.

Just
how questionable was Trump’s reasoning was indexed by the degree to which someone like Susan Rice could come across as rational and logical by contrast. Inevitably, companies such as Boeing, already struggling against international competitors, would find themselves locked out of the lucrative Iranian market, leaving the door wide open to Airbus and others by default. In fact, one of the very first announcements after Trump’s speech ended was that the
US Treasury would terminate civil aviation companies’ export licenses. The US was scoring an own goal. Civilian passenger jets have nothing at all to do with nuclear weapons development, in case it needed to be said. When the speaker of Iran’s parliament responded that “Trump does not have the mental capacity to deal with issues,” he may have been making a reasonable and valid point. It is more likely that Trump has an abundance of the “wrong kind” of mental capacity. The Iranian speaker made an excellent point however:
Iran would no longer be obligated to honour its commitments to the JCPOA. Having freed Iran’s hand, there was nothing the US could say about it either, if Iran resumed its nuclear development. All the US could do is add sanctions to sanctions and pray that it amounted to something—the other option was a war of such massive consequences that Iraq would look like a fairy tale by contrast.

Analysis of the aftermath of Trump’s decision is ongoing, especially as the new realities it created continue to develop. One early assessment was that the withdrawal isolated the US diplomatically, from its own allies:

“Under Donald Trump, America has proved itself to be unreliable—untrustworthy to its negotiating partners, and unfaithful to those who made sacrifices and took risks at our behest”.

That statement was echoed by Austria’s chancellor. This kind of loss of credibility the US could ill afford on the eve of negotiations with North Korea. Another analysis, in language that was perfectly warranted, noted that “a parade of warmongers, cretins, and outright liars” had only affirmed Trump’s decision to cancel US participation, as he promised in the 2016 campaign—not least of whom was John Bolton, who in a memo to Trump discussed ways of engineering an Iranian breach of the agreement to justify its abrogation. Meanwhile John Bolton appeared on Laura Ingraham’s show on Fox News the night of the withdrawal to do what appeared to be an undignified victory lap.

As some had anticipated, Iran’s first response was to indicate it would continue abiding by the JCPOA, for the time being. Iranian anti-imperialists would have their hand strengthened, having warned against the futility of negotiating with the US. This would not be the only time that the US blundered into strengthening Iran’s hand. Given how the US was now engineering a situation where Iran would return to its previous stance, Trump repeated his threats of war against Iran, the type of outcome which the JCPOA had successfully avoided. Yet, if Trump’s ultimate aim is regime change in Iran, then his move would likely end in costly failure. Trump’s decision guaranteed that damage done would travel in several directions, each harming the geopolitical dominance of the US.

There was also a distinct question about the role of domestic opposition to Trump, and specifically the Democratic establishment, in provoking and/or pushing Trump to antagonize Europe and re-target Iran. First there was former Secretary of State John Kerry’s admission to engaging in “shadow diplomacy” to preserve the Iran deal, without the knowledge or approval of the Trump administration and which engaged in the kind of “multilateralism” that directly contradicted “America First”. Barack Obama, rarely heard from, also condemned Trump’s withdrawal, in a posting to Facebook—and it was Obama’s legacy that Trump had been steadily dismantling. There was also the solidarity between the leadership of the EU and the Democrats, not lost on Trump who kept score and whose hackles must have risen at the speech given by French president Emmanuel Macron to a joint session of Congress, which directly challenged Trump’s political agenda (more on this below). Then two of Obama’s Middle East policy advisers published an article in The New York Times that seemed to advise Europe on how to fight back against Trump, which included suggestions that European states withdraw their ambassadors from Washington, expel US diplomats from Europe, as well as sanctioning US companies. Trump made it clear, at least to some, that Europe no longer matters to the US. Further European responses, as with the cover of Der Spiegel, ranged from the vulgar, accompanied by pointless calls to “join the Resistance” against Trump, and of course for further strengthening the EU just as it came under widespread local challenges among member nations. It is doubtful that such responses will do anything except confirm in Trump’s mind that he made the right decision. The EU was badly weakened as a bloc, however, as would become more apparent by the end of the month with the political crisis in Italy with the attempted blocking of a new government coming to power after the recent elections (it eventually did take power).

European leaders joined Iran in saying they would also maintain the JCPOA, without the US. European leaders also criticized Trump’s decision. May, Macron, and Merkel issued a joint statement condemning the move and urging the US against doing anything to prevent the remaining parties to the agreement from upholding the agreement. However, since US sanctions would also be applied to European companies doing business with Iran, it seemed that right from the outset the US was impeding Europe from maintaining the JCPOA, trying to return Iran to international sanctions (this time minus Russia and China, however), and pushing it to revive its nuclear program. The new US ambassador to Germany was schooled by his hosts when just a few hours into his job he issued an ultimatum to German companies to begin “winding down” business in Iran immediately—such that US sanctions on Iran, now effectively also applied to Germany, which is decidedly illegal. A German industry group immediately denounced this extraterritoriality of US sanctions. Such US sanctions functioned as protectionism for US companies and violated WTO rules—opening up a new front in a potential global trade war. On the other hand, some analysts found great weakness in the European position and doubted the power of the EU to stand up to Trump’s sanctions, which would thus truly end the JCPOA for Iran. Europe meanwhile tried to reassure Iran, even as its biggest corporate investors were already pulling out. European companies lobbied to have their interests in Iran protected.

That Trump’s move had almost instantaneously driven a huge wedge between the US and EU, seemed to be one of the immediate achievements, reminiscent of the situation before the US invaded Iraq in 2003. This was perhaps the most striking outcome of Trump’s decision: that instead of the major line of conflict being between the US and Iran, it was the growing “Atlantic crisis” and the EU’s “open rebellion” against the US which emerged as the new line of conflict. This widening rift spread to NATO’s ranks, with Trump specifically singling out Germany for criticism, just three weeks after hosting Merkel—Merkel’s desire for greater independence from the US only furthered Trump’s original anti-NATO leanings in 2016. If Trump had not blundered, then the EU had to be his primary target all along, and NATO would serve as his lever. Much of this was symbolized by how Trump entertained visiting European leaders who tried to dissuade him, all charm and smiles, and then stabbed them in the back as they left—though Macron was foolish enough stab Trump in the face in his address to the US Congress. The outrage from Europe was unmistakable in the days that followed, with public denunciations from the highest levels of the US as an actor that needed to be replaced, that the US was not the world’s economic policeman, that European nations would not be treated as vassals, and that the US had no right to arrogate power over European foreign policy. Turkey was not only not fazed in the least by Trump, it saw great opportunity in economic ties with Iran, furthering Turkey’s drifting apart from NATO and the US. (Later in the month, US legislators sought to block sales of F-35 fighters to Turkey, citing its “thuggish” and “hostile” behaviour, and that it was out of line with NATO.)

The fallout from Trump’s JCOA decision was thus one of the more memorable moments in 2018, since it hardly had any precedent in well over half a century.

Top Articles for May

On Zero Anthropology this month:

  1. Documentary Review: ‘The China Hustle’ is a Problematic Cautionary Tale” May 3.
  2. Book Review: Washington’s Long War on Syria, by Stephen Gowans” May 10.
  3. North Korea: The Undaunted State Tests the Limits of Empire” May 25.
  4. Documentary Review: ‘Inside Job’ is Still Relevant” May 25.

Top articles of the month:


JUNE

In what was an unusually remarkable year already, June seemed like it would be the most memorable of all turning points: a trade war erupted between the US and Canada, Mexico, the EU, and then China too; and, Donald Trump had a successful peace summit with Kim Jong-un in Singapore, which further highlighted the pro-imperialist positions of his domestic opposition. Also this month, the US was announcing that it was withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council. The end of the month was swallowed by media coverage, in the US, concerning the so-called “crisis at the border,” during which we witnessed the basic precepts and methods the US has deployed in its “humanitarian intervention” abroad, coming home. Nevertheless, the Trump administration tooted its own horn mid-way through the month, proclaiming that President Trump had “restored American leadership on the world stage”.

The US and North Korea: The Kim–Trump Summit in Singapore

The month began with an unprecedented meeting in the White House between a US president and the second-in-command of North Korea. Trump met for two hours with Vice Chairman Kim Yong Chol, then walked him to his vehicle and waved as he pulled off. In remarks to the press immediately after, Trump confirmed that there would indeed be a summit with North Korea, in Singapore, on June 12. He sounded unusually diplomatic and pleasant toward the North Korean side, even claiming that the relationship between the two countries were probably better than they had ever been. On the other hand, Rudy Giuliani, the president’s legal adviser, mouthed off in Tel Aviv about North Korea getting “on its hands and knees” to allegedly “beg” for the talks after Trump called them off a few days before—repeating the same kinds of mistakes of bravado, loose talk, and insults that derailed the talks previously. On the other hand, the mainstream media continued the barrage of pieces throwing doubt on Trump’s preparedness for the encounter—yet it would end up being Trump himself who confirmed that he did not prepare for the meeting, trusting his “intuition”.

Trump went to Singapore after tearing up US participation in a range of international agreements, after a particular flop of a G7 meeting with unprecedented hostility between supposed allies, and this is how he presented himself to Kim Jong-un. Heaping insults on Justin Trudeau was somehow meant to impress Kim Jong-un.

Both leaders arrived in Singapore, with significant excitement greeting them. Trump, arriving from a bitter G7 meeting, after which he attacked Justin Trudeau personally, flew into Singapore on Sunday, June 10, as did Kim Jong-un, who took serious precautions in his travel arrangements. By this point Trump had already significantly lowered expectations, saying that it would just be a meeting where the two leaders got to start dialogue:

“at least we’ll have met each other, we’ll have seen each other; hopefully, we’ll have liked each other. We’ll start that process … But I think it will take a little bit of time”.

The lowered expectations might have been well advised. The usual appeal to authority that is the now customary wail of panic-stricken, discredited elites, was evidenced by the scorn heaped on the work of Dennis Rodman, for not being a “professional”—when his work was fundamental to laying the groundwork for the peace talks. Others, with a longer and more considered view of history, pointed out that, “The history of U.S. foreign policy is littered with unsuccessful presidential summits, even when they have been preceded by months of careful preparation and infused by a coherent strategy and clear objectives set by a well-informed and experienced president”.

Just the fact of meeting and talking was significant enough: already there was evidence that the campaign of “maximum pressure” was over and not likely to come back. Sanctions on North Korea were already being loosened, tested, and plans made for a future after the talks. In the meantime, clearly in a deep, quiet panic over the summit, Fox News saturated its coverage with talking heads offering Trump advice from a distance, hoping to pressure him—including advising flatly undiplomatic and plainly rude tactics such as not shaking Kim Jong-un’s hand, or preventing photographs of the two leaders together.

The Summit, televised live around the planet, began with an encounter between the two leaders, with a few remarks to the public, and it wrapped up in the afternoon on Tuesday, June 12 (Singapore time), with the final event being an extended press conference by Donald Trump, and the release of the text of the agreement jointly signed by Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. There were brief remarks by the two leaders. Also released was the video, “A Story of Opportunity,” prepared by the US side and shown in person to Kim Jong-un, which offered the progressivist American vision of the future. Though often decrying the nature of media coverage, the Trump White House released a statement featuring clips from a range of news media that offered positive assessments of the Summit, hailing it as a success.

Initial lists of Summit outcomes did not seem to be particularly compelling in terms of either side offering real change. North Korean state media reported that the Summit had been a great success. North Korea’s government would even go as far as removing anti-imperialist paraphernalia from the capital, and cancelled the annual anti-imperialist rally. Trump went quickly from lauding the move toward eventual denuclearization, into a full blown cheer for what he said had now been achieved: “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” and “The World has taken a big step back from potential Nuclear catastrophe!”. Trump seemed ready to conclude a process that, at best, would take years and many more significant concessions. Trump also vowed to stop US war games on the Korean peninsula, admitting that they are “very provocative”. Not among the naysayers was the UN Secretary General, who immediately issued a statement of support on behalf of the UN. Regional experts called the Summit a “beginning,” and thus noted an absence of details on denuclearization. But there was also confusion, thanks to vice-president Mike Pence, about whether the US was stopping war games, or not. Also, 10 days after the summit, Trump signed an order extending all extant executive orders pertaining to North Korea as a “national emergency,” citing North Korea as a continuing threat to the national security of the US.

Early reactions, including one from a former CIA expert, was that “denuclearization,” the way the US envisaged, is not what the Summit agreement affirmed. Others held that at the very least the Summit was a real turning point, that averted war and began a peace process; also set to rest was the trope that Kim and Trump are “madmen”.

One interesting assessment was that the summit had been a significant success for North Korea:

“The joint declaration specifies no timeline for denuclearization nor it does have steps to verify disarmament. It also refers to denuclearization on the entire Korean Peninsula—Pyongyang’s preferred phrasing—and does not include the words ‘verifiable’ and ‘irreversible’ despite months of U.S. statements. Trump also agreed to something North Korea has sought for years: the suspension of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises”.

In some key respects, Trump’s concessions matched what had long been the position of Russia and China (both of which were keen to formally rejoin negotiations on Korea): that the US freeze war games in return for North Korea suspending testing nuclear weapons. The double-freeze approach finally won. In addition, one outcome of the Summit is that China was now pressing for sanctions to be eased, almost immediately, with Trump acknowledging—without criticism—that China had already eroded sanctions enforcement over the last few months. Kim and Trump also promised to personally visit each other’s capitals in the near future.

Another assessment saw the Summit as a victory for all of Korea, and the signed document as simply an aspirational declaration and not an agreement on denuclearization as such:

“The North Korean side played its cards exceptionally well. It built its capabilities under enormous pressure and used it to elevate the country to a real player on the international stage. The ‘maximum pressure’ sanction campaign against it is now defused. China, Russia and South Korea will again trade with North Korea. In pressing for an early summit Trump defused a conflict that otherwise might have ruined his presidency. The losers, for now, are the hawks in Japan, South Korea and Washington who tried their best to prevent this to happen. The winners are the people of Korea, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. Special prizes go to President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and to Dennis Rodman who did their best to make this happen”.

Others offered well-informed analysis by individuals who were intimately involved in negotiations with North Korea and who argue that North Korea is not intending to “get away” with keeping its nuclear weapons, but that the North instead has real reasons for wanting to denuclearize. The argument here is that North Korea developed nuclear weapons to entice the US to the negotiating table, in order to end the Korean War, remove all sanctions, offer diplomatic recognition, and end the US military threat to North Korea. In addition, a rapprochement with the US would allow North Korea to diversify its foreign relations, not remaining exclusively dependent on China, when North Korea has traditionally preferred independence. Another view is that the Summit simply resulted in a momentary stabilization. Yet, as Pepe Escobar noted, “by reaffirming the Panmunjom Declaration, the US President has committed to bringing its military back from South Korea and thus a complete denuclearization of the South as well as the North”. The accusation by liberal media was that, somehow, Trump managed to get nothing at all from the summit with Kim Jong-un—though even within this line of attack, there were some thoughtful pieces that at least addressed the facts of the summit in detail, with some showing how one could still take a Democratic, anti-Trump line and yet concede the significant value of the Summit.

For more, please read: “Which Door Has Opened? Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump, and the Singapore Summit”.

After the Summit ended, South Korea and the Pentagon confirmed that war games scheduled for August had indeed been cancelled. The US media continued to react with apparent horror, even choosing to lie with statistics: the argument was that US war games actually cost “little”—just some $10-20 million or so each time—and were thus but a small portion of an absolutely gigantic, record-breaking military budget. North Korea continued its coordination with China, as Kim Jong-un flew to Beijing for his third state visit so far this year.

Canada and the Trade War with the US

Though the Canadian response to US tariffs was proportional in dollar terms, it was massive in the range of goods covered. Yet one of the more interesting proposals floated in the Canadian media was the idea to target Trump, his family, and his companies directly:

“This could take the form of special taxation on their current operations, freezing of assets, or even sanctions against senior staff. Canada could add a tax to Trump properties equal to any tariff unilaterally imposed by Washington. The European Union could revoke any travel visas for senior staff in the Trump organization. And the United Kingdom could temporarily close his golf course”.

We also learned that Mike Pence tried to strong-arm Canada into agreeing to a five-year sunset clause on NAFTA, as a precondition for Trudeau visiting Trump in attempt to finally bring current negotiations to their intended close (they were to be over by June 1). Trudeau of course flatly rejected that, cancelled the trip, and thus NAFTA negotiations remained suspended—which was then used as an excuse by the US side to lift the exemption from tariffs for both Mexico and Canada. A number of analysts presented reasoned articles indicating why a trade war with Canada would be disastrous for both sides, just as it would be with Mexico. Canadians looked back in history to the 1930s trade war between Canada and the US, after the passage of the Smoot-Hawley Act, and found support for the argument that such a conflict would be economically counterproductive. Few, if any, articles in the Canadian media discussed the potentially positive effects of a trade war, in terms of protection of domestic industries, the development of new domestic industries, lessened dependency on the US and restrained capital outflow from Canada to the US. Of course, once a free trade system has been in place for decades, any abrupt change, for which a country has not prepared, is bound to cause serious damage at least in the short term.

On his way to the G7 summit in Quebec, where small protests had already occurred in anticipation of the event, President Trump was in trouble. Rumours, possibly baseless ones, circulated about Trump not wanting to attend the G7 meeting. That Trump reasonably criticized the absence of Russia from what a few years before was the G8, suggested his opinion of the value of the meeting was not as high as it could have been. Informally dubbed “G6 + 1” by members of the EU, and Canada, and competitively renamed “G1 + 6” by Larry Kudlow, either way the facts spoke to US isolation at the gathering. Trump, in remarks at that White House before leaving for Canada, insisted that Canada had treated the US unfairly, repeating his complaint about a 270% tariff on US milk, but not the facts about the US trade surpluses with Canada, which include a dairy trade surplus for the US. On his way to the summit, Trump mocked Trudeau’s indignation over the trade tariffs. In fact, conversations between Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau, and between Trump and Emmanuel Macron, became strikingly acrimonious in the days before the summit—with Trump reminding Trudeau that the White House was burnt down in the War of 1812, in reply to Trudeau’s disbelief that Canada could be seen as a security threat. As for Macron, he managed to maintain a façade of pleasantries with Trump at the G7 meeting, but the camaraderie appeared strained. It thus seemed strange that G7 leaders, and the uncritical media, at first painted a rosy picture of positivity and differences being ironed out, only to have to then abruptly reverse course and show that the summit had ended in a fracas. Trump’s “ill-mannered” performance meant he arrived late for a breakfast, skipped two other events, berated the press, leaked some ugly remarks, then made new threats, all against supposed allies.

The G7 summit ended with unprecedented acrimony, with Trump going as far as threatening to cut all trade with Canada, Mexico, and the EU—which prompted Emmanuel Macron to make this striking remark:

“The six countries of the G7 without the United States, are a bigger market taken together than the American market. There will be no world hegemony if we know how to organize ourselves. And we don’t want there to be one”.

Macron essentially described the US as a rogue state. Angela Merkel’s response, that Trump’s behaviour was “depressing,” also spoke of Germany and the EU carving out greater independence from the US. On his way to Singapore for the summit with North Korea’s leader, Trump took the time to tweet the following about Justin Trudeau and Canada:

“Based on Justin’s false statements at his news conference, and the fact that Canada is charging massive Tariffs to our U.S. farmers, workers and companies, I have instructed our U.S. Reps not to endorse the Communique as we look at Tariffs on automobiles flooding the U.S. Market!”—Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump),
June 9, 2018.

Followed by:

“PM Justin Trudeau of Canada acted so meek and mild during our @G7 meetings only to give a news conference after I left saying that, ‘US Tariffs were kind of insulting’ and he ‘will not be pushed around.’ Very dishonest & weak. Our Tariffs are in response to his of 270% on dairy!” —Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump),
June 9, 2018.

What Trump made clear is that his tariffs had little to do with “national security,” and were mainly punitive measures. Trudeau pushed back politely but strongly, which seemed to provoke Trump’s ire. Adding fuel to the fire, Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade assistant, appeared on Fox News to declare that there is “a special place in hell” for leaders like Trudeau who “betray” Trump. Both the French and German governments condemned Trump’s poor diplomacy—Emmanuel Macron’s office issued a statement saying, “International cooperation cannot be dictated by fits of anger and throwaway remarks,” while the German foreign minister remarked, “In a matter of seconds, you can destroy trust with 280 twitter characters”. In the US media, editorials such as this one in USA Today condemned Trump’s strategy, showing how it would achieve outcomes opposite to those that were intended.

Once in Singapore, when he should have been focusing on talks with North Korea, Trump continued his Twitter tirade against Trudeau and Canada, showing just how personal the conflict had become. In Canada, there was unified political support across all parties for stiff Canadian retaliation against US tariffs. Indeed, there was also talk of an anti-US consumer boycott in Canada, though it was mocked by US media in ways that showed how long overdue Canadian nationalism had been. On the other hand, the way the proposed boycott was framed by Canadian media, almost seemed to invite dismissal or ridicule, as a trivial, petty, unlikely movement fuelled by social media. The most striking act was a ludicrous death threat against the US ambassador in Ottawa.

Trump’s position, which would simply never fly in Canada, is that Canada’s long-established domestic supply management should be completely eradicated—however, the US then explicitly denied this was its position. It is that system which prevents Canada from experiencing shortages and the crises of overproduction now plaguing US dairy production, where the state of Wisconsin, all by itself, produces more milk and cheese than all of Canada. Having overproduced, the US wants to break into the Canadian market, and flood it, realizing a profit that sustains US producers, while killing off Canadian producers. That Trump thought this classically imperialist position was somehow reasonable, says a lot, and Trudeau (to his credit) made it very clear that it was absolutely not open for negotiation. That fact, plus Canada, Mexico, and the EU standing by their intention to retaliate against US tariffs—against Trump’s “warnings”—seemed to drive Trump over the edge. Trump’s warnings against any retaliation against the US also suggested vulnerability on the US side, that Trump feared the outcome of a backlash but did not want to back down.

However, deciphering Trump’s position is not without its challenges, especially given the notorious chaos and factionalism in the White House on trade issues. Trump’s assistant on trade and manufacturing, Prof. Peter Navarro, in a fairly reasonable piece, articulated a position of maximum free trade—that is not economic nationalism, as much as it is unvarnished neoliberalism. It’s unknown if this is merely a tactic: to call out the hypocrisy of free traders given the lack of actually free trade, in order to permanently shut down any more talk of free trade. Trump would later proclaim himself as a loyal supporter of tariffs, not free trade.

The problem at this point seemed to be that Trump got himself into a jam, resulting potentially in a lose-lose situation. His warnings/threats against allies, not to retaliate against US tariffs (preposterously arrogant and guaranteed to augment the backlash against the US), betrayed the fact that now Trump realized that trade wars were neither “good” nor “easy to win”—he was now afraid that the costs for workers, consumers, and companies in key states needed to win elections would be in jeopardy (the Republicans in fact lost Wisconsin itself, plus Pennsylvania and Michigan, in the mid-term elections later in the year). Thus on the one hand, Trump risked losing a section of his limited political support base, hurt from a trade war he caused (hence Navarro complaining that retaliation is “an attack on our political system”); on the other hand, if Trump backed down, he would look weak, and possibly lose support. Just as Trump was trying to address the US conflict with North Korea, with the hope of pacifying the situation, he created an altogether new rift elsewhere.

Back in Canada, the earliest evidence of any real economic impact of the US tariffs was confused and mild at best. Some outlets claimed that the mere fear of a trade war was already “putting a strain on the world economy”. There was also news, framed in mysterious terms, about a sudden and unexpected drop in Canadian manufacturing sales. Yet, for the CBC, the really big news was that well off Canadian vacationers would see the prices of their private boats rise. However, there may be a political reason determining CBC’s slanted coverage.

As predicted, Canada would now face the challenge of instantly arriving at nationalist solutions to a neoliberal problem, and under the leadership of neoliberal elites. Since bowing to Trump would prove costly in terms of domestic politics, with the Liberals already losing key provinces at the heart of Canadian industry, with national elections to follow soon, the federal government sounded off as “tough”. Privately, however, it clearly wanted a way out. The CBC seemed to have been tasked with preparing Canadians for a soft landing, by pushing a stream of stories that made bowing to US demands more palatable. Thus the CBC began to publish a series of articles with a common theme: take all the US’ blows, pay the tariffs (effectively a “Trump tax,” that would subsidize the US and transfer even more capital into US hands), and maintain “free trade” in name only—that is, do anything not to jeopardize the neoliberal order, no matter how much in retreat it already was, and do anything possible not to fan the flames of a growing Canadian nationalism. In that vein, the CBC would push stories about how US auto tariffs would destroy the Canadian auto industry—but they would not explain why companies like Bombardier could not now be protected by a closed Canadian market, and manufacture a 100% Canadian-made car, that car dealers would be forced to sell. If anything, the end of free trade should have meant that industry came back to Canada, but this kind of worker empowerment is precisely what the ruling elites wanted to avoid, or were conditioned and trained to not even envision. So the CBC continued, with sob stories about an imperilled gin maker, and comments from Saputo Inc. that unnecessarily condemned Canada’s dairy supply management.

Nonetheless, Canada was projected to be the number one country to be hit hardest by US tariffs. In the meantime, Canadians are routinely misled by the Liberal government, the “defence” industry, think tanks and associated academics, which would have citizens believe—as an article of faith—that Russia is the biggest threat.

The US Trade War with China

Seemingly “put on hold” mere weeks before, the US trade war with China was definitely back on: President Trump announced over $50 billion in tariffs on a list of roughly 1,102 Chinese imports, including several hundred identified as “strategically important”. Only two weeks into June, and Trump managed to achieve multiple trade wars with all of the US’ major trading partners worldwide. China immediately retaliated, and Trump then instructed officials to devise more tariffs to retaliate against China’s retaliation. Wall Street meanwhile developed an apparent immunity to the prospects of a trade war; now that there was certainty of a trade war, investor uncertainty was no longer as much of an issue as before—but the stock market remained volatile, so the value of such “snapshot” observations was limited.

The key fact to note here is that the world’s two largest economies were now in a full blown trade war. One question was: why would China assist the US on North Korea from this point onwards? As one observer noted, Trump had crossed the river with North Korea, and burnt the bridge with China.

As China prepared for massive retaliation, the US vowed to impose further tariffs in response. President Trump threatened to impose an additional 10% tariff on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods, with China promising to match that in response—however, since China imported much less from the US than vice versa, it faced the prospect of soon running out of US goods to target with tariffs. Interestingly, the Trump administration released a statement making the US appear as a victim of an unjust China, accusing China of “threatening United States companies, workers, and farmers who have done nothing wrong”—i.e., the US as a victim, of responses it itself had provoked. Stocks across Asia plunged on the news of an expanded trade war.

The US also released a report purporting to detail China’s threat to US intellectual property. China was accused of “cheating” on multiple levels. The report took particular aim at China’s “Made in China 2025” policy. Following the report’s release, the Trump administration announced plans for new curbs on technological exports and investments in China.

Mixed Results

Just as there was confusion about what impact US tariffs would have on Canada, there were mixed results for the US as well, which suggested that any benefits from protectionism might be offset by losses, effectively neutralizing the potency of the measures.

In order to avoid the impact of tariffs, a UK firm decided to invest in the US and reopen a steel plant, creating new jobs. On the other hand, to avoid the EU’s counter-tariffs, Harley-Davidson planned to move some of its production into Europe itself, creating new jobs there and not in the US.

Surprised that Harley-Davidson, of all companies, would be the first to wave the White Flag. I fought hard for them and ultimately they will not pay tariffs selling into the E.U., which has hurt us badly on trade, down $151 Billion. Taxes just a Harley excuse – be patient!  #MAGA
Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump), June 25, 2018.

In addition, the prospects for the US’ position in front of the WTO appeared to be grim. On the other hand, that might spell the end of the WTO. There was already discussion on Fox News that Trump went into this prepared to dismiss the WTO, which he saw as consistently unfair to American workers (he is partly right too, except for the national particularism—the WTO is arguably unfair to all workers, American or not).

Economist Robert Samuelson predicted Trump’s trade war would result in failure, but did not specify how he measures success or failure. At the same time, Samuelson agreed with Trump’s intention to limit the transfer of high technology to China, even calling for what amounts to a global boycott of China in terms of technology transfer (he did not indicate how this could be done, under international law). Meanwhile, RT boasting of the hi-tech nature of China’s new advanced weapons systems, can only add fuel to the fire. If anything such revelations would appear to validate and reinforce Trump framing trade issues as national security issues.

Looking Forward to July and the Helsinki Summit

As June came to a close, we already had an outline of the “big events” to take place in July, chief among those being the summit between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in Helsinki on July 16, as well as the meeting of NATO heads of government, and President Trump’s visit to the UK. With the Democratic Party pushing its “Russiagate” conspiracy theories at all costs, even to the point of threatening the national security of the US by unnecessarily inflaming tensions with Russia, July appeared set for more shrill, partisan opportunism in the US. Not even positive assessments of the World Cup festivities in Russia—where liberal Western media practically confessed to having produced only wall-to-wall negative coverage until then—could stop themselves from reproducing loose, insulting insinuations to conclude their articles.

Well before the summit with Putin even happened, some were already opining that “Trump was handing Putin a victory in Syria”—yet at the same time making some important observations about the nature and extent of Russia’s power and its influence among contending Middle East actors. Other rumours circulating in advance involved the NATO meeting, with the spectacular speculation being that Trump was considering withdrawing, or diminishing, US military forces in Germany.

Top Articles for June

On Zero Anthropology this month:

  1. Trade War and the Nationalist Exchange: Trudeau Trails Trump,” June 1.
  2. Better Off Without NAFTA, Part 1: Introduction—the US, Trump, and Facts and Fictions about Winners and Losers,” June 7.
  3. Better Off Without NAFTA, Part 2: Canada—Localized Profit, but a Net Outflow of Capital,” June 7.
  4. Better Off Without NAFTA, Part 3: Mexico—Armed Rebellion, Mass Migration, Flat GDP,” June 7.
  5. ‘One Day This Door is Going to Open’: A Review of ‘Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang’ (Documentary),” June 10.
  6. Which Door Has Opened? Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump, and the Singapore Summit,” June 17.

Top articles of the month:


Review of 2018, Part 3 (July–September): The Trade War plus Cold War II

JULY

June was a month so heavily saturated with key turning point events, that it seemed like the longest month of the year—but then July came. Already, on the first day, we were treated to a very unusual sight: an obviously chastened and tamed John Bolton, just back from his visit with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, sounding unusually diplomatic, cautious, and productive. But what really opened the month with fireworks was the coming to life of an international trade war. Added to that was another series of key international trips for Donald Trump, with visits to the NATO summit, the UK, and then the Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin. July 2018 might be recorded as one of the key months in the history of the Trump administration.

The Trade War is Finally Here

July opened with the complete start of a trade war, as Canada’s retaliatory tariffs went effect, joining those of Mexico, the EU, and China, which had already gone into effect or would soon go into effect. In addition, Mexico elected Andrés Manuel López Obrador a populist and nationalist left-wing president, who was reputed to not be open to making concessions to the US on NAFTA, a deal which he criticized. NAFTA seemed certain to die at this point. On the other hand, the first contacts between Trump and Obrador seemed amiable and conciliatory, suggesting that an impending “showdown” between the two was not in the works (and indeed, it never happened).

Obrador’s landslide victory also meant that the apparent recession in the rise of left-wing governments across Latin America was momentarily halted. Obrador was immediately congratulated by Latin America’s top leftist politicians. It seemed likely that Mexico would now return to a foreign policy independent of the US, after decades of electing presidents who spoke English and had lived and studied at the top Ivy League universities in the US. (Countering the development in Mexico, in October Brazil’s newly elected president, Jair Bolsonaro, would take the country’s leadership to the far right—a figure whose views are far more extreme than anything uttered by Trump.)

Meanwhile, Donald Trump had clearly succeeded in provoking the replication of his populist nationalism worldwide, as neoliberal governments in the immediate neighbourhood either fell or crumbled, and with major players in the world economy responding with protectionist tariffs. Trump also made another veiled threat about US participation in the WTO. At home, a leading US business group openly opposed Trump’s protectionism—in return, Trump ignored their lobbying.

Yet it would be the EU which would end up making the best case for Trump’s argument. Towards the end of the month, the EU imposed a massive $5 billion fine on Google, which was seen by some in the US as a form of protectionism. The championing of free trade abroad, while pursuing protectionism at home, underscored the hypocrisy built into the international system, which Trump was vigorously challenging. The EU ended up validating Trump’s argument, and he was quick to notice: “I told you so!”.

(In the face of all this, Fox News clearly had trouble digesting it all. As this first full day of Canada’s retaliation passed, its news anchors continued to speak of a “potential” trade war, indicating some disbelief at what was happening, or an inability to comprehend it, or the usual wishful thinking that masked facts. On Obrador’s win, Fox hosts commented about a possible visit to the White House, and rumours that Obrador might refuse to shake Trump’s hand, and laughed at the idea—when the network had itself been the one to push opinions urging Trump not to shake Kim Jong-un’s hand just over two weeks earlier.)

On July 6, China entered the trade war, making it what China called the “largest-scale trade war in history,” while Chinese state media accused the Trump administration of being a “gang of hoodlums” for trying to “shake down” the world economy. An editorial in the official China Daily expanded on the last point:

“The U.S. has maintained hegemony in the military and financial fields for many decades.
Now it is pursuing economic hegemony. It has frequently waged wars against other sovereign countries and made use of the dominant influence of the U.S. dollar in the international markets to fleece other countries. Now it is attempting to resort to an all-out trade and economic war to hold back China’s normal development”.

Another editorial, in the supposedly Communist daily, lauded the virtues of free trade. Sounding a level of panic, yet another editorial accused Trump and his “cabal” of “plunder”. One memorable editorial in the China Daily lambasted Trump’s government as a “gang of hoodlums”. Claiming that China would “emerge stronger from the test,” readers were left to figure out why China was denouncing the trade war, since it would allegedly benefit China. The alarm that was palpable in Chinese state media was backed by Chinese stock markets losing a fifth of their value. Echoing arguments one can find on Zero Anthropology, Vladimir Putin likened trade tariffs to economic sanctions.

The opening round of tariffs covered $34 billion worth of goods, a minimal amount, but the likelihood was that the list would grow to cover virtually all of China’s exports to the US. The opening round of US tariffs could then be expanded in three further rounds, covering $16 billion, then $200 billion, and finally $300 billion. Interestingly, while Chinese government officials promoted the idea that China and the European Union were “natural partners” in the trade struggle with the US, Europe rejected China’s offer of an alliance for the purposes of joint action in the WTO. The likely direct impact, at least of the opening round of tariffs, was projected to be minimal in terms of economic growth; the indirect impact could be far greater, affecting US firms with investments in China, plus some of the key economies of Southeast Asia. The US also blocked key Chinese investments in the US, specifically in automobiles and information technology.

A few days later, the US went into its second and far bigger round of tariffs, imposing duties on $200 million worth of Chinese imports. This was retaliation in response to China’s retaliation—a move that showed Trump was not bluffing about punishing any Chinese response. The next and only remaining step would be tariffs on virtually the total amount of all imports from China. News that China expanded its trade surplus with the US this year, would only inflame calls for protectionism.

Sometimes our friends, when it comes to trade, are treating us worse than the enemies”—Trump made this statement, almost an exact riposte to Donald Tusk, when justifying the international trade war that would soon be underway.

One of the more interesting interpretations of current events came from RT’s Max Keiser, who tied the trade war with Trump’s signalled intentions to withdraw forces from South Korea, Germany, and the Middle East, and tied these withdrawals, as cost-cutting measures, to the effort to protect the US given its heavy foreign debt exposure. Keiser’s conclusion is that the US would win the trade war, either way, and that any initial shocks, though sharp, would be short-lived. Keiser’s thesis went against previous opinions pushed by RT, which cast a global trade war as dangerous, possibly leading to military conflict, and ultimately very damaging to the world economy. Other articles began to come out arguing that Trump was winning the trade war with China, because China had much more to lose and the impacts were already showing.

By the end of the month there were signs that Trump’s trade strategy was working—but the ramifications could prove to be considerable in terms of unintended consequences and ironic outcomes. On July 24, Trump was the first to mention that a trade delegation from the EU was due to arrive in Washington, then he added: “Tariffs are the greatest!”. Tariffs would indeed help further deglobalization, and protect and revitalize domestic industries that Trump himself had identified as critical to national security—so any removal of tariffs might produce an example of an ironic outcome. On the other hand, any EU agreement to totally free trade would mean exposing the agricultural sector, ardently protected by France for example, to open competition—a situation that might not sit well with EU members, and could impel already strong centrifugal forces that challenge the existence of the EU as such. Both the US and EU were playing a dangerous game here by calling each other’s bluff. If the tariffs had already produced domestic successes in revitalizing the US steel industry, as Peter Navarro maintained at the same time as Trump met with the EU chief, then how could one defend their removal? It’s also possible that mere talk of an agreement to do things in the future, was intended as a momentary truce. On the other hand, Trump’s hand against China, not to mention the US’ NAFTA partners, would be significantly strengthened, because where the US lost markets in the trade war, it could make up with the EU.

The EU “blinked,” as a number of US media commentators put it. On July 25, after a meeting with the EU’s Jean-Claude Juncker, Trump announced: “we agreed today, first of all, to work together toward zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers, and zero subsidies on non-auto industrial goods” and that the two sides would also work to “reduce barriers and increase trade in services, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, medical products, as well as soybeans”. Trump also announced that the “European Union wants to import more liquefied natural gas—LNG—from the United States, and they’re going to be a very, very big buyer”. Trump further hinted that the EU was joining the US in an anti-China alliance, to put it bluntly, though the speech was slightly more subtle:

“We will therefore work closely together with like-minded partners to reform the WTO and to address unfair trading practices, including intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, industrial subsidies, distortions created by state-owned enterprises, and overcapacity”.

US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross summed up this agreement as, “zero tariffs, zero non-tariff trade barriers, zero subsidies, and zero barriers to our market access, so
four big zeroes”. However, by the end of the following month, Trump appeared to express complete disinterest in the EU offer to eliminate all tariffs on US automobile imports, claiming that
the real problem was that Europeans preferred their own cars while European cars attracted US consumers.

However, it was the US Senate that “blinked”: like a house of addicts, the Senate “quietly” passed legislation that lowered trade barriers on hundreds of Chinese imports. The legislation essentially rewarded US-based corporations that relocated all of their manufacturing abroad, and who now use the excuse that existing tariffs do not protect domestic manufacturers, because these same companies put an end to US manufacturing. In fact, though the legislation has yet to be signed into law by Trump, mere news of it caused some small US companies to shelve plans to produce products on the import list. In addition, the version passed by the House of Representatives offers tariff reductions on imports competing with at least 146 products made in the US.

The NATO Summit

Allegations that “Trump trashed NATO” at the previous month’s G7 meeting, saying it was as bad as NAFTA, plus news circulating about a letter the Trump administration sent to all NATO heads of government, pointedly pressing them on military spending, seemed to prepare the stage for a tense summit. The Atlantic Council called the letters “disturbing,” even though its own sidebar to the article reproduced quotes from numerous Obama administration officials who had made the exact same points.

When others were saying they were plainly “scared shitless” by Trump, Canadian media such as the CBC upheld the liberal tradition of being mealy-mouthed in saying that Canadian officials expected a “lively debate” would ensue at the NATO summit. The reality is that matters could not have been worse for Canada: a trade war, increased military spending (unpopular) that was still insufficient by US standards, a migrant crisis, and personal conflict between Trudeau and Trump.

Added to their worries about the Helsinki Summit (see below), NATO officials were worried that Trump would reduce US military commitments in Europe. Leon Panetta claimed that the Europeans were “scared to death” that Trump would seriously act on his “America First” strategy. Being “absolutely worried” seemed justified, as NATO members had no good arguments for maintaining NATO and for perpetuating what some astute analyses saw as an obsolete and abusive relationship.

Predictably, The Economist voiced the outcry of liberal imperialist elites for the waning NATO alliance, touting it as an anchor for democracy—despite all evidence to the contrary, particularly its disastrous intervention in Libya, and the corrupt and rigged elections which it supervised in Afghanistan. The one argument one could not credibly make, is the one about NATO as a support system for democracy. Moreover, the manner in which NATO is upheld, against the wishes of citizens in its member states, who are tired of NATO’s incessant war agenda, and the way NATO leaders try to delegitimize democratically-elected leaders, blasts more holes into the democracy illusion advanced by NATO’s elitist apologists. Indeed, democracy is in decline even among NATO members themselves, albeit according to some questionable analyses. Democracy is the last argument one should ever make in defence of NATO, and is easily one of the worst arguments.

It is also quite possible that outlets such as The Economist wanted to raise alarms about Trump’s impact on NATO, to instil fear that he is erratic, unpredictable, destructive, and a “disaster” waiting to happen. Few of the fears expressed by the elites of the old liberal imperialist order were actually borne out.

As if intended to exemplify how the relationship had become abusive, Donald Tusk, the European Council president, continued his two-year barrage of criticisms against Trump, now stating: “Dear America, appreciate your allies. After all, you don’t have that many”. This was the same Tusk who two months before stated in Twitter, that with “friends like” the US, “who needs enemies”. This would have seemed to any rational person as precisely the wrong way to approach Trump, and to spoil for a fight would guarantee that he would eventually get what he asked for.

On his way to the NATO gathering in Belgium, President Trump said this about the alliance and its benefits: “Frankly it helps them a lot more than it helps us”. The fact of the matter, one that even Fox News finally admitted, is that unlike NATO and G7 summits of the past two decades, this one would not be nearly as boring. The divisions dominating NATO, since Trump took office, were now apparent to everyone.

Trump expressed acute condemnation of Germany, going as far as calling it a “captive” of Russia. For those who would use Russiagate conspiracy theories against Trump, provoking a new Cold War, Trump seized on their contrived fears and turned them against the fear-mongers. Some argued that NATO itself has helped to cause a new Cold War. Trump’s harangue against Germany’s agreement to be connected via a gas pipeline to Russia, had two sides to it. On the one hand, it blatantly challenged Germany’s sovereignty. On the other hand, it also pointed to the German government’s hypocrisy—in demanding the US remain committed to the defence of Germany, presumably against Russia, while doing business with Russia. Implausibly, the German response was that the two matters were separate. For his part, Trump also risked hypocrisy, for complaining about Germany’s relationship with Russia while Trump himself said this: “I am meeting with President Putin next week and getting along—let me tell you, getting along with Russia and getting along with China and getting along with other countries is a good thing. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing”. (How Trump imagines he is “getting along” with either is a bit of mystery, with increased sanctions against Russia and a trade war against both China and Russia, among many others.) Indeed, Trump later altered his message, saying the pipeline deal would not be so bad, if NATO states improved their relations with Russia—which seems to have been his larger point, which both undermined the new Cold War and NATO’s reason for being. How Trump used the new Cold War and its Russiagate conspiracy theory rhetoric against its own purveyors, calling out their hypocrisy and then attaching a price to it, seems to have been missed in most analyses. It was a particularly deft move, similar to his holding neoliberals hostage to their own free trade rhetoric (while they practiced less than free trade).

Trump’s stance received some support in the US media, likely because his policy favoured more transfers of public wealth to the military-industrial complex—while others, such as The Washington Post, could not stop feigning fainting spells because a US president had dared to criticize precious NATO allies. Not getting the full picture of Trump’s strategy, neocon think tanks predictably seized on the anti-Russian element of Trump’s message, and then amplified it according to the rhetoric of the new Cold War which the US has single-handedly provoked. Rare was the more intelligent analysis, which argued that the US needed to lower its military spending, not have Europeans increase theirs, thus disagreeing with the liberal media that supported the call for increased military spending: “the fact that some of America’s most prominent progressive politicians and journalists think they should underscores just how detached liberal foreign policy has become from the values liberals supposedly prize”. The only problem with that statement—and it’s not a small one—is that it fails to recognize liberal imperialism for what it is. Otherwise, by the end of the NATO meeting it seemed that NATO would inevitably face a crisis challenging its existence at some point.

As if understanding nothing at all and completely missing Trump’s point, German and British leaders decided to pose as obdurate blockheads. Thus with the meeting with Vladmir Putin just a day away, German leaders actually warned Trump not to make any “unilateral” deals with Russia—like they had, and for which Trump had just finished upbraiding them. If making deals with Russia was so bad, why did Germany get to do so? On top of that, they warned against any peace deal. How one can dare to warn anyone not to make peace, and still keep office? In their view, a peace treaty would not check “Russian aggression,” which tells us two things: either they have not even a basic understanding of what a peace treaty means, or they give us insight into how they themselves abide by peace treaties. What the “warnings” made abundantly clear, and they were useful only for that, was that NATO’s existence is contrived to support an elite foreign policy establishment, and is then forced onto citizens—and is all based on a fabricated Russian threat which Europeans themselves ignore whenever it is convenient. Of course NATO will have its day of reckoning, and thanks to Trump it might come sooner than some expect.

Trump, Brexit, and the UK: Between NATO and Helsinki

After leaving the NATO summit on July 12, President Trump arrived in the UK. Immediately he made waves, on the very same day that the FBI’s Peter Strzok received a sustained grilling over his corrupt, biased, and bigoted “investigations”. In the UK, in an exact reversal of Obama’s stance—when Obama had threatened that the UK might lose its “special relationship” status as a trade partner if it voted for Brexit—Trump also interfered in the UK’s domestic politics. Trump argued that if the UK failed to opt for “hard Brexit” and remained too tied to the European Union, which Trump was penalizing with his trade war, that then the UK might lose out on a special trade deal with the US. In a wide-ranging, “explosive” interview with The Sun, Trump blasted London’s mayor, praised Boris Johnson (who had resigned as Foreign Secretary in a row over Brexit not being implemented according to voters’ wishes), and criticized the EU for allowing in millions of immigrants, among other things.

The Helsinki Summit

Added to Bolton’s sudden calmness toward Russia and Vladimir Putin, President Trump sounded open to the idea of finally recognizing reality, contra the US foreign policy establishment: that Crimea is indeed a part of Russia. In addition, NATO members such as Germany began to publicly express “worries” about what sort of agreement Trump might reach with Putin, that could affect German and NATO interests but without consulting either one—Germany’s official in charge of transatlantic relations said openly that he thought Putin would “put one over” on Trump. Meanwhile, as one of only six countries to meet its defence spending targets under NATO, the US intended to pressure NATO members—who were thus in a weakened position to place any demands or expectations on the US before the summit with Russia.

The US’ foreign policy establishment, and specifically the military-industrial-complex, had been alarmed at least since 2016 that Trump, in improving relations with Russia, would yank the rug out from underneath their lucrative anti-Russia scare-mongering. True to form, just three days before Trump would meet with Putin and in an obvious attempt to “pressure” Trump, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein issued an indictment alleging 12 Russian operatives had attempted to interfere with the US election of 2016. Not facing a realistic prospect that these 12 individuals would ever appear in a US court, the alleged evidence against them would never be tested—the easiest indictment to make. Of course an onslaught of alarmist, anti-Russia and anti-Trump hyperbole vented from the US media once more, as if oblivious not only to popular distrust of the same media, but the incredible fatigue over everything constantly being likened to Pearl Harbour. Absurdly irrational contradictions continued—the Russians apparently stole DNC emails, and then spread “fake news”…except both of those statements cannot be true. Either the news was fake, or the emails were real and thus dissemination of their contents was real. Clearly Rosenstein, with the aid of the FBI’s Bob Mueller, was intent on destabilizing Trump’s government and specifically its authority to conduct foreign policy. (The move backfired somewhat: almost immediately it was announced that Rosenstein would face impeachment, while Trump pointed out that the alleged Russian interference occurred under Obama, which did nothing to stop it.) The indictment also came just one day after a scandalous performance by the FBI’s Peter Strzok in front of cameras in an open Congressional hearing, revealing the level of corruption, bigotry and bias permeating the highest levels of the FBI. Strzok successfully caricatured himself as the classic fascist secret policeman. Meanwhile, Rosentein’s opportunistic and futile indictment not only failed to present any new information, it left out a great deal about how Republicans were also allegedly targeted.

If the Democrats and the media only suggested opposition to Donald Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-un a month before, they both came out openly against any meeting with Vladimir Putin. In the two days leading up to the event, there were shrill demands that the meeting be cancelled outright. As such, the Democrats and their media were sealing their fate as the party of imperialism, the party of the Cold War, and the party of the past. Their denunciations of diplomacy served as a reminder of how they earned the outcome of the 2016 elections.

In an interview with Larry King, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, outlined the issues of importance to Russia—these ranged from a strong critique of the West’s humanitarian imperialism, to its double-standards on the popular referendum in Crimea that saw its Russian majority choose to join Russia (there was no “invasion”), to the continued threat of NATO expansion. Lavrov specifically cited NATO as an “atavism of Cold War times” and criticized the “inertia of Cold War thinking” that dominates the West. As for the much touted “rules based international order,” Lavrov correctly pointed out that it was built on Western double-standards that allowed the US to flout international law with impunity and live by a separate set of norms. Separately, the Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitri Peskov, pointed out that it was not Russia that was responsible for initiating the deterioration in relations, and that the US seemed to particularly resent that Russia would not simply bend to its will like a dependent puppet state. In advance of the summit, Peskov made some very reasonable and basic observations on the need for peaceful cooperation, while each state should safeguard the interests of its own citizens. There was nothing here indicative of the fabled Russian “aggression” that seems to preoccupy the shrill, imperialist “resistance” in the US.

Finally, on Monday, July 16, 2018, the Helsinki Summit bringing together Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump took place, despite alarmist demands that it be stopped, cancelled, or turned into a platform for more aggression. For example, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said:

“President Trump should cancel his meeting with Vladimir Putin until Russia takes demonstrable and transparent steps to prove that they won’t interfere in future elections. Glad-handing with Vladimir Putin on the heels of these indictments would be an insult to our democracy”.

There could never be any “proof” of not doing something in the future, and to implement the conditions for it would require turning off all the electricity in Russia and seizing all computers everywhere on its territory. It was thus simply an absurd, irrational, and unrealistic statement that was meant to satisfy partisan emotional needs. Otherwise, as a recipe for international relations, it would be a disaster of a policy. In a desperate effort to maintain the interests vested in the new Cold War, Democrats tried to elbow their way into the summit, to no avail. Thus days before the event, President Trump pointed critically at the shrill media and Democrats firing up the new Cold War:

“Heading to Helsinki, Finland – looking forward to meeting with President Putin tomorrow. Unfortunately, no matter how well I do at the Summit, if I was given the great city of Moscow as retribution for all of the sins and evils committed by Russia… …over the years, I would return to criticism that it wasn’t good enough – that I should have gotten Saint Petersburg in addition! Much of our news media is indeed the enemy of the people and all the Dems… …know how to do is resist and obstruct! This is why there is such hatred and dissension in our country – but at some point, it will heal!” (Twitter 1,
Twitter 2,
Twitter 3).

What united all of the US media, from Fox News to CNN and right across to MSNBC, was the dominance of the America-the-innocent-victim narrative. Joining them was an established band of encrusted “neocons” such as Senator John McCain who asserted, in the usual evidence-free fashion that brought the US to Iraq, that Putin was guilty of “ongoing aggression towards the United States”. McCain himself would not be around for much longer at this point, though he remained nasty until the end.

However, in an amazing press conference featuring Putin and Trump at the close of the summit, virtually everything the Democrats, their neocon associates, the media, and the military-intelligence establishment did not want to hear, is what they were instead forced to hear. Allegations of “collusion” between Trump and Russia faced thorough embarrassment as utter idiocy. Putin tossed back allegations of Russian interference in US elections, and essentially laughed at the bogus “assessment” that has been treated as if it were sacrosanct truth in the US media, such that Trump was expected to perform an auto da fé in front of the new Cold War media’s Grand Inquisition. There was no hint of Russia withdrawing from Syria—though Trump reiterated the near total defeat of ISIS that had been achieved, which also eliminates the US’ rationale for its illegal intervention in Syria (a point made by Trump himself at the end of the year). Russia refused to accept that Crimea did not legally, peacefully, and democratically choose to join Russia, to which it belonged for the majority of its history. On these and other issues, it was as if a stake had been driven through the heart of the new Cold War. Of course, it was also just a beginning, and not an end.

Trump returned home to a massive hysteria surrounding his remarks at the press conference, provoking some to call for a military coup, for impeachment, for protests in the street, and branding him a traitor—there was no awareness of any irony in their use of nationalist precepts to condemn Trump. The Democrats were now making themselves vulnerable on issues of trade with China and border control—any effort to block these could be used against them as signs of their treason, and they would have helped to validate the accusations. Indeed, Democrats supporting calls to abolish ICE, plus San Francisco allowing illegal immigrants to vote in local school board elections, did in fact open them precisely to charges of betraying the nation and allowing foreigners to interfere in elections.

There was also no awareness of history on the Democrats’ side, with the many instances where Obama called for precisely what Trump had done in meeting with Putin, forgetting when Putin praised Obama and said he wanted Obama to win in 2012, to Obama’s own deference to Russia in seeking to improve relations. Instances of “collusion” by the Clintons with Russia, raking in millions of dollars in donations and oversized fees for speeches, were also conveniently forgotten. Both sides of the partisan divide share blame of course, since the Republicans had often made suggestions of Obama’s treasonous nature regarding his relations with Muslim nations.

What became inescapable was the dangerous, destabilizing extent of the neoliberal imperial elites’ excuse for losing the 2016 election. Seeking exogenous factors, they externalized their defeat by deflecting blame onto a mysterious foreign “enemy,” Russia. The Democrats would seemingly prefer outright war with Russia to admitting that they lost the elections through their own fault. At one point the hysteria reached a point where some in Congress demanded that the translator present in the private meeting between Trump and Putin be summoned to testify, a move which, had it succeeded, would have permanently ended the ability of the US to conduct diplomacy. In fact, many of the Democrats’ own dealings with Russia would have to also be labelled “treason” if one wanted to be consistent.

Also cemented was this notion that while it would be impeachable for a president to command the loyalty of his FBI director, it was mandatory that the president show absolute loyalty to the intelligence agencies—this places the secret police and spy agencies at the top of the political pyramid. Trump was required to bend his knee to the very people who sought to prevent and/or ruin his presidency. Securitization has thus resulted in a virtual coup against constitutional order in the US. At the same time Trump was mobbed for criticizing highly criticisable “intelligence assessments,” the same authors of those initiatives were publicly militating for Trump’s removal. Where the overthrow of the duly elected president is predetermined as “justice,” then anything Trump did in his own defence could be construed as “obstruction of justice” and, following circular logic, furnish reason for his impeachment.

As for the media, while figures like CNN’s Jim Acosta (himself an actual creator of fake news) could complain that Fox News is a case of “state-supported media” (he is quite mistaken, and his analysis is exceptionally flawed), the reality is that as instruments of power the media see themselves as entitled to determine and drive executive power—i.e., a media-supported state. That too is tantamount to a coup. Media hysteria was symbolized by the TIME magazine cover showing Trump and Putin as the same person.

For a more complete analysis of what transpired, please see “The Helsinki Summit: Trying to Turn the Page on the New Cold War”. In addition, the following links point to key resources on the summit:

For more, please see the top articles for July, below.

Trump’s statement at the Helsinki press conference was already a bit muddled, and there was some confusion about even what Putin said. It’s therefore not clear that there was much of a reversal on Trump’s part. In addition, given both the full context of the remarks, and the remarks he made in the days that followed in Twitter—none of which were in any way apologetic about the summit with Putin—Trump was in no way reversing course on improving relations with Russia at this point. On the contrary, Trump announced that it was full steam ahead for a second summit, in the fall, in Washington—or so it seemed. By the end of the month the White House announced that it was postponing the second summit with Putin to 2019—after the fall midterm elections, and with the hope that Mueller’s investigation would be concluded by then. Clearly domestic political conflict was doing damage to the US’ foreign relations.

In the meantime, the indictment of 12 Russian officials went exactly nowhere. Trump, at the height of the Democrat/neocon wave of hysteria, openly announced his intentions for a second summit, in short order too, clearly defiant of the entrenced establishment in the media and in Washington, DC. That was eventually postponed, and then Trump accepted Putin’s invitation to a summit in Moscow, clearly to the displeasure of the media acting as lobbyists for Cold War II. Meanwhile US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he was considering holding the first talks in years with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu. US media barely touched that topic, maintaining deferential silence toward the military which, according to Trump, had actually forged much better relations with the Russian military than politicians.

The week after the summit generally saw the tide turn once again in Trump’s favour. This happened in spite of “the greatest hysteria in American history,” as one writer put it. As Trump withstood the onslaught, even moving forward with improving relations with Russia, the adversarial commentariat was left confused and outraged. How could this be happening? One said it must be because the “Trump regime” really is authoritarian, and declared the current state a “consitutional crisis”; another took a different approach to the same end: Trump equals tyranny. Both opinions came out a week after the Helsinki Summit—having “cried wolf” about Russia, the “experts” needed to find some excuse for their side’s renewed failure. Others instead wrote about the facts of “Trump’s resilience” and about the deep nature of Trump’s support. In addition, we would have to consider the following:

  1. Rather than losing popular support, Trump gained it: a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that in the days of the Helsinki Summit and thereafter, during the worst organized outcry against Trump, his approval rating went up to the highest it had ever been for that poll.
  2. In another poll, a majority of Americans expressed their support for a second Trump-Putin summit. The poll found that 54% of Americans support a second summit, and 61% want to see improved relations with Russia. The narrative pushed as “bipartisan, bicameral, from coast to coast” about opposition to Trump’s meetings with Putin, is in fact the narrative of a closed, self-reinforcing virtual community—an establishment echo chamber that is apparently divorced from the actual positions of US voters.
  3. The release of FBI documents concerning the warrant presented to the FISA court, validated the Trump team’s claims that his campaign was spied upon illegally on the basis of fabrications paid for by the Democrats. To put this in bold relief, and in language that Americans normally use when speaking of others: the ruling party fabricated lurid tales about the opposition candidate, which were then sent to the secret police to place the opposition campaign under surveillance with the aim of delegitimizing that campaign, during an election. If not worse than the Watergate scandal, it is at the very least just as grave. This news also put the “Russia collusion” allegations back in their proper frame of reference. Thus suddenly the FBI and the “deep state” fell back into disrepute, after a week of being hailed as sacred by Trump’s opponents in both parties and the media. As a result, Carter Page, a member of the Trump campaign spied on by the FBI because of supposedly criminal ties with Russia, was vindicated.
  4. As punishment for the extreme hyperbole of the week before, the Trump administration moved to strip a select group of former intelligence and Obama administration officials of their security clearances—if the aim had been to intimidate Trump the week before, it had clearly resulted in failure.
  5. Donald Trump, in a visceral and menacing response to a warning issued by Iran’s president, clearly showed his intent to tackle a Russian partner in the Middle East—not the kind of thing one would expect of a “puppet” of Russia.
  6. A week of accusations of “treason” passed without producing any results, and once more Trump moved on. The out party elite had nothing to show its supporters for their maximum opposition, and voters were either unmoved or gravitated towards Trump. For the Democrats, the Helsinki Summit would thus prove to be a major setback. Nancy Pelosi sent out a petition, that immediately raised questions about its legality: through the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), Pelosi promised that if 100,000 signed the petition, she would be able to block Putin’s visit to Washington in the fall—and then asked for contributions. This appeared to be fraudulent, as neither Pelosi nor any number of petitions can block the president’s authority to invite a foreign leader on a state visit. It’s not the first such bizarre email from Pelosi. Meanwhile Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer’s statement—“Until we know what happened at that two hour meeting in Helsinki, the president should have no more one-on-one interactions with Putin. In the United States, in Russia, or anywhere else”—produced no result. In the Senate, Schumer’s motion—calling for formal hearings to learn what happened behind closed doors at the Helsinki Summit, demanding testimony from President Trump’s national security team, a demand that Republicans stop “attacking” the FBI’s Mueller probe, a call that Trump insist on Russia extraditing the 12 indicted officials, and another call for more election security—never made its way to a vote. In the House of Representatives, a call to subpoena Trump’s interpreter at the Helsinki Summit, was shot down. Likewise in the Senate, a Republican motion to impose new sanctions on Russia, never materialized. The only thing that the Senate managed to pass was a non-binding resolution asking the Trump administration to reject Russia’s proposal that, in return for US officials interviewing the 12 indicted Russians (in Russia), Russia would be given access to 11 US officials in the US. The resolution was largely pointless since by then Trump had already refused the Russian offer. Senator Rand Paul denounced opponents’ “crazy hatred for the President,” a hatred that failed to achieve any actual results in the US Congress.

Finally, a series of articles that had been appearing since 2016 described how former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was active behind the scenes (as in liaising with Steve Bannon) in persuading Trump to undo the China-US pact that had been achieved when he worked with Nixon, and to reverse it by now favouring Russia and moving Russia away from China. The argument was that a China-Russia alliance, as has been taking shape, would produce a monumental bloc that by itself would challenge US hegemony on all fronts.

North Korea’s Negotiations with the US

At the beginning of July, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepared to start his third visit to North Korea, reports were that the US was backing down from its insistence on “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” (CVID), opting for a “softer” approach, at South Korea’s urging, that instead emphasized either “final, verified denuclearization” or simply “mutual threat reduction”. In addition, claims were being made in the US press, based on alleged intelligence leaks, that North Korea was maintaining its nuclear weapons development—this claim would be renewed later in the year. The problem over the definition of “denuclearization” continued to be unresolved, and the question of timelines for completion was supposedly no longer a prime concern. What became even clearer was just how unsettled was the two sides’ conception of “denuclearization” plus the limited knowledge the US possessed about the amount of nuclear warheads North Korea had stockpiled, and where they were located. Of course Democrats, and not without any justification, would be able to point to all of this as a failure on Donald Trump’s part, especially in light of his abrogation of the strict and precise regulations of the JCPOA with Iran only to produce a weaker and watered-down version with North Korea.

As Pompeo departed, North Korean officials surprised Western media by calling the just concluded talks with the US Secretary of State “regrettable” and “gangster-like”. Pompeo did not deny any of it, he merely brushed off the remarks.

Later in the month, as North Korean dismantled another test site, President Trump denounced fake news reports that alleged he was angry with the slow pace of North Korean efforts to denuclearize.

Iran, the EU, and US Sanctions

Continuing fallout from Trump’s abrogation of the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear agreement), began to put a strain on negotiations between Iran and the EU. The EU promised buffers and relief for Iran, to keep it in the agreement, and to safeguard its oil exports against US promises to impose financial penalties on any nations importing Iranian oil—but the EU was moving too slowly. Iran began to threaten abandonment of the JCPOA altogether, reducing cooperation with the IAEA, and ominously threatened to block all oil shipments passing through the Strait of Hormuz if its own oil was blockaded. That would essentially set up the right conditions for US war with Iran.

Late in July, a virtual shouting match erupted when Iran’s president issued a stern warning to the US, and President Trump immediately responded with a blazing threat against Russia’s partner in the region. It was nothing more than a rhetorical skirmish in the end, but it still made a mockery of anti-Trump hysteria that maintained the illusion of Trump as a pawn of Russia. More serious was the effort by the US to orchestrate global pressure on Iran, with the aim of reducing foreign trade with Iran down to zero.

In addition to Trump’s threat (which would be slightly moderated at the end of the month by his apparent willingness to meet with President Rouhani), rumours circulated that the US was preparing for a military strike against Iran in August, which did not transpire.

Fake News

After the US, France, and the UK used a “chemical attack” as a justification for attacking Syria, Western media largely ignored the facts that were revealed by the OPCW. In a July report, the OPCW stated that it had found “no organophosphorous nerve agents or their degradation products were detected in the environmental samples or in the plasma samples taken from alleged casualties”. That it called the casualties “alleged,” meant it also found none. Like the Iraq WMD myth, once again Western governments and media perpetrated fictions against their own citizens, to justify acts of unlawful military aggression.

In what became an all too obvious and predictable pattern, shortly before Donald Trump was to finally meet with Vladimir Putin—worrying the globalists and interventionist establishment—another chemical hoax emerged, this time involving a random couple being poisoned not far from the site of the Skripal attack in the UK. The only thing that was apparent about this attack, and this is according to The Guardian which has lusted after any anti-Russia conspiracy theory, is that “someone is out to embarrass Vladmir Putin”:

“all we can see are the devious tools of the new international politics. We see the rush to judgment at the bidding of the news agenda. We see murders and terrorist incidents hijacked for political gain or military advantage. Ministers plunge into Cobra bunkers. Social media and false news are weaponised. So too are sporting events”.

Late in the month, fake news reports in the mainstream media, alleged without verifiable evidence that President Trump was upset about the slow pace of North Korean denuclearization. Proving the reports to be untrue, Trump directly contradicted them.

Top Articles for July

On Zero Anthropology this month:

  1. The Trade War is Here: Some of the New ‘Facts of Life’,” July 2.
  2. Book Review: Patriots, Traitors and Empires—The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom, by Stephen Gowans,” July 4.
  3. The Helsinki Summit: Trying to Turn the Page on the New Cold War,” July 17.
  4. Robert Reich’s ‘Inequality for All’: A Documentary Review,” July 29.

Top articles of the month:


AUGUST

While August opened with the possibility that Trump would focus more on the upcoming mid-term elections, and sideline major foreign policy actions for a while, that proved illusory. Iran, North Korea, Turkey, and Russia, all quickly returned to centre stage. Whatever was gained from the Singapore and Helsinki summits began to evaporate.

Cold War II, the Russia Election “Meddling” Scare, and Still More Sanctions

August began with a stupendous press briefing: the heads of the US’ top intelligence agencies appeared to essentially complain about the Internet, and all the foreigners voicing their opinions online, specifically Russian foreigners—that is all that was really involved in their charges of “election meddling”. Apparently, without the influence of nasty foreigners and their incredibly persuasive messaging skills, the US would be a land of total unity and harmony. One cannot write about such events with polite respect, because they are such an insult to the intelligence of the public. Later in the month, the US intelligence apparatus would apply even more pressure on Google, Facebook, and Twitter, to engage in even further censorship that would underscore what we should already know: “social media” are another form of US imperial media. What was delegitimized in all of this was any notion of a truly “world wide web”. The world was moving ever closer to the realization of national “Internets”.

In the bipartisan continuation of July’s Helsinki Hysteria, senators introduced legislation to impose more sanctions on Russia, over its alleged “election meddling”. The entrenched foreign policy establishment, speaking through the senators, wanted to couple the proposed new sanctions with measures to make US withdrawal from NATO more difficult (suddenly, this option has become thinkable), and try to force Trump’s hand to become even more aggressive toward Russia. It seemed like another effort engineered to fail, as it seemed unlikely Trump would sign such a thing into law at a time when he was pursuing greater diplomacy with Russia.

The conspiracy theories involving imagined “Russian meddling” reached new extremes, when it seemed like there could be nothing more extreme. One was that Russia had something to do with last year’s violence in Charlottesville, a claim so bizarre that it found a home on CNN, from the mouth of a disgraced Republican congressman who had given up on running for re-election. Of course, no evidence was put forth as usual. The other fabrication came from Florida Democrat Senator Bill Nelson (soon to lose re-election), who claimed to have information about Russian hacking of the election systems of a number of unspecified counties—however, he refused to provide any evidence to the Governor of the state, or the media, claiming it was “classified” (even the names of the counties were “classified”), while neither Homeland Security nor the FBI, nor anyone else, would corroborate Nelson’s tale. To top it off, actress has-been Alyssa Milano claimed that Russia was behind voters choosing the Green Party in a recent Ohio by-election. The only claims that thus appeared to receive even further corroboration, were that the out-party elites had left sanity behind—meanwhile, the media would not condemn the banning of “conspiracy theorist” Alex Jones, while these proven conspiracy theorists were given wide room for manoeuvre online.

As if to pander to the Russiagate conspiracy theory popular with the crowd of hysterics, and totally undoing whatever was gained in Helsinki, Trump almost inexplicably imposed a new round of extreme sanctions on Russia, for something that was still alleged, still not proved—the revived Skripal controversy—and for which the US had already imposed excessive sanctions this year. The first round of sanctions banned the sale of “sensitive national security goods” to Russia. What was truly alarming was the US threat of a second round of sanctions in November, “which includes downgrading diplomatic relations, banning the Russian airline Aeroflot from flying to the US and cutting off nearly all exports and imports…unless Russian authorities provide ‘reliable assurances’ that they won’t use chemical weapons in the future and agree to ‘on-site inspections’ by independent monitors”. Russia was getting the Iraq treatment, which was also applied to Iran and North Korea, with the danger being that Russia has a wide array of weapons to fight back against what appears to be a full-scale economic war. Russia began planning significant retaliation for the second round of sanctions, while adopting retaliatory measures for the first round, which could cripple the US space industry. November came and went without the US implementing the second round.

Even some of the neocon talking heads on Fox News had difficulty justifying the new actions. Trump was doing damage to his own foreign policy, adding to the bizarre nature of the US as if it were stuck on a merry-go-round of madness, where things seemed not so much unpredictable as almost deranged. That the US would be seen internationally as untrustworthy, unreliable, likely to ignore international agreements it had demanded, with policies not stable from one day to the next, is now inevitable.

Adding to the perception of chaos, of confusion balanced only by illusion, was a report suggesting that John Bolton, James Mattis, and Mike Pompeo, worked behind Trump’s back on establishing a NATO closing communiqué, before Trump had even left for the summit. It was alleged that they did this without Trump’s knowledge or approval. Is it really a “deep state” when the commander-in-chief is the one responsible for planting it squarely in his own administration? This of course assumes that there is any validity to The New York Times’ report, and that it is not another deliberate act of propaganda designed to destabilize the Trump administration.

Turkey vs. the US

Increasing the widening gap between Turkey and the US, both NATO members, in August a row erupted between the two countries over Turkey’s detention of the US pastor, Andrew Brunson. In response to a US asset freeze, Turkey announced its own asset freeze directed at US officials. Added to the sanctions and counter-sanctions, was an unprecedented level of acrimony in the rhetoric traded between the two governments, added to the irritation of Turkey purchasing an advanced missile defence system from Russia, plus working against US interests in Syria.

The rupture reached unprecedented extremes in early August. In an early morning tweet, Trump declared:

“I have just authorized a doubling of Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum with respect to Turkey as their currency, the Turkish Lira, slides rapidly downward against our very strong Dollar! Aluminum will now be 20% and Steel 50%. Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time!”— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump, 5:47 AM – 10 Aug 2018)

In an understandably angry response, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed that Turkey would find “new friends and allies,” namely Russia and China, further underlining Turkey’s drift away from the US geopolitical orbit. President Erdogan published a strong denunciation and critique of Trump’s policy toward Turkey, in an op-ed in The New York Times. In addition to this, a group of Turkish lawyers called for US soldiers at Incirlik Air Base to be arrested, alleging they had ties to the movement behind the 2016 coup attempt. Turkey also adopted financial counter-sanctions, and imposed its own tariffs on US imports.

US tariffs sent Turkey’s currency, the Lira, into a deep nosedive, provoking a financial crisis in Turkey. Note the tweet above from Donald Trump, taking credit for the financial collapse—yet, when questioned, the State Department’s Heather Nauert ignored the evidence of Trump claiming credit for the financial plunge, and she blamed Turkey instead—the US had nothing to do with the collapse of the lira, in her view. As always now, the Trump administration spoke with multiple, mutually incompatible voices. The financial crisis, which began to spread to Europe, was seen as most likely leading to a final and total rupture in relations between the US and Turkey, posing severe risks for both. At this point it seemed like the Turkish situation might become the most important development of the year, along with the US’ global trade war. Turkey’s president directly blamed Trump for the attack on Turkey’s financial system and the fall of the lira, which declined in value by 40%. Qatar came to the aid of Turkey, which caused the value of the lira to rebound, while the US hardened its line by announcing that even the release of Andrew Brunson would not result in US tariffs being lifted. Without any hint of irony, the US condemned Turkey’s counter-tariffs.

Ironically, though Trump seemed triumphant about currencies weakened by US sanctions/tariffs, in an interview he bemoaned a strong US dollar: it made selling US goods overseas much more difficult, thus heightening the US trade deficit.

Trump also made it clear that at this point, for the US, sanctions and tariffs were one and the same thing. Still speaking with the forked tongue of “tariffs + free trade,” Trump praised the role of tariffs, suggesting more to come:

“Our Country was built on Tariffs, and Tariffs are now leading us to great new Trade Deals – as opposed to the horrible and unfair Trade Deals that I inherited as your President. Other Countries should not be allowed to come in and steal the wealth of our great U.S.A. No longer!”—Donald J. Trump‏, @realDonaldTrump,
August 15, 2018.

Venezuela: Regime Change, the CIA, and Nikki Haley

After barking for regime change in Nicaragua the previous month, and renewing hopes for regime change in Iran (see below), the US seemed to pursue some lethal options where Venezuela was concerned. After Mike Pompeo spoke at the Aspen Security Forum about working with Colombia, the Venezuelan opposition, and the CIA in developing “options” for regime change, and just a month after Colombia joined NATO as a “Global Partner”—an attempted assassination against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro took place on August 5. Soon after that, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN and a dedicated neocon, went on a tour to Colombia’s border with Venezuela, covered exclusively by Fox News, in which she advocated for the illegal overthrow of Venezuela’s government.

Fox News has consistently bolstered Haley as if preparing her for a presidential campaign—giving her the soap box to announce sanctions on Russia that had not been approved, then praising her for making the summit in North Korea happen (she played no such role), and now foisting her to the forefront of regime change in Venezuela.

That the mainstream media in the US, Canada, the UK, to name a few, are in favour of regime change is an established fact, going as far as backing conspiracy theories akin to those of 9/11 Truthers in insinuating that “alleged” anti-government violence in Venezuela is staged by the government. However, this pattern of censorship (see below for more on this topic), has recently been bolstered by US social media—banning “conspiracy theorists” like Alex Jones, while promoting conspiracy theories like Russiagate and allegations of staged assassination attempts in Venezuela. The irony was lost on many, if they were even aware of these events. Facebook thus suspended the page for Venezuelanalysis.com, which the news site observed was part of a wider censorship spree in the US that stems from the orchestrated elite hysteria around Russiagate (which, fortunately, fails to infect most Americans who have learned to be sceptical). Facebook also deleted the page for Venezuela’s Telesur just a few days later, in what began to appear as a concerted campaign of censorship against sites supporting the legitimate government of Venezuela. Then, Telesur’s page was reinstated a few days later, without an explanation as to why it had been deleted.

While Nikki Haley, other US politicians, and the US media were encouraged by the attempted murder of President Maduro, the assassination attempt was widely condemned everywhere from Moscow to the UN Secretary General, and several Latin American and Caribbean states which immediately condemned it, along with key regional blocs, unions, and political parties of the Latin American and Palestinian left.

Threatening Iran, Threatening US Allies

New US sanctions against Iran went into effect in early August, which officially marked the US’ direction violation of the JCPOA, or so-called Iran nuclear agreement. In addition, the US threatened all foreign companies doing business in Iran, regardless of their nationality, with being blocked from doing business with the US. This amounts to placing sanctions on third parties. With oil sanctions due to begin in November, the US was essentially declaring an all-out economic war against the entirety of the Iranian population. Did Trump assume that Iran’s leaders would just roll over and die? It seemed that Trump’s officials approached Iran with the suggestion of holding talks, which Iran rejected while the illegal sanctions remained in place. China was helping Iran to evade US sanctions, using a method where oil imports from Iran would continue, transported by Iranian freighters.

North Korea and the US: Continued Sanctions, Continued Tensions

Nearly two months after the historic summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, little seemed to have actually improved for North Korea. There was the exchange of minor pleasantries in the form of letters between the two leaders, and the return of US soldiers’ remains from the Korean War. However, at an ASEAN Regional Forum in Singapore in early August, North Korean and US representatives “sparred” over what the US called the slow pace of change in North Korea (with the development of more ICBMs also alleged by the US), while North Korea denounced continued US sanctions and a US retreat from declaring an end to the Korean War. The US also accused Russia of violating international sanctions against North Korea. North Korea demanded that at least some sanctions be lifted or eased, as a sign of US reciprocity—to this point, all concrete steps toward peace had been taken by the North Korean side alone. Fortunately, both Russia and China halted US efforts to add a Russian bank, a Moscow-based North Korean banker, and two other entities to a UN Security Council blacklist.

Showing the extent to which relations between the US and North Korea were still subject to confrontation, US Defense Secretary James Mattis announced that future US–South Korean joint military exercises would no longer be suspended—though previously scheduled exercises for August had indeed been cancelled. A trip to North Korea, by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was also abruptly cancelled (it would have been his fourth). The US also hinted that additional sanctions were likely.

On a separate front, relations between North and South Korea continued to improve: 534 elderly South Koreans crossed into the North to be temporarily reunited with their families, after decades of separation, adding to past rounds that have seen thousands participate in such reunions.

In a wide-ranging foreign policy interview with Reuters, Trump claimed that a second summit with Kim Jong-un was most likely.

Encircling China: US Expansionism Mounts

Also at the ASEAN forum, the US announced it was spending a further $300 million US to reinforce “security cooperation” in the Asia-Pacific region (or what US diplomats now prefer to call the “Indo-Pacific”). This reflected an expansion of US militarization of the region, aimed at China. The US also said it would invest $113 million in technology, energy and infrastructure initiatives in what was billed as “a downpayment on a new era of US economic commitment to the region”.

In terms of the growing trade war between the US and China, which the US initiated, a very strong counter-argument came from a Chinese scholar, that sought to debunk the top myths advanced by US anti-China protectionists. It was a very persuasive attempt to balance the story most often told by Donald Trump, that showed all of the (growing) gains made by US investors and exporters. To the extent that the counter-argument is correct, or even partially correct, it would cast legitimate doubt on the stated economic motives of Trump’s trade war—which would then raise the question: so why launch a trade war? As the paragraph above suggests, the real aim would be that of maintaining the national hegemony of the US, even if it comes (momentarily) at the expense of the transnational capitalist class that has both rented US military power when convenient while also favouring China’s lucrative economic expansion.

More suggestions came out in August that the trade war would be tougher on China than the US, contrary to some initial expectations by some that China would prove politically and economically more resilient. Instead, China’s leadership was increasingly finding itself in a no-win situation—but one had to wonder whether the same might not apply to the US. In addition, in a context such as a trade war, one would need to be careful about media reports that serve as propaganda designed to “demoralize the enemy,” especially in this period where journalism’s role in psychological operations seems to be even more acute than during the first Cold War. On the other hand, there were apparent rifts in the Chinese Communist Party that came out in the open, with doubts expressed about whether China had taken a stance that was too hard-line in response to Trump. Yet economist Robert Samuelson continued to articulate reasons why Donald Trump would lose the trade war—his focus is on the fact that the US dollar serves as the key world reserve currency, which inflates its value, making US exports costlier and imports cheaper as a result, which results in trade deficits, and these deficits are the price of the US maintaining the dollar’s central position in global finance. In advance of a possible new round of US tariffs covering $200 billion worth of imports from China, numerous US corporations warned that Americans would face increased prices on a wide range of everyday products—which might be their way of engaging in price gouging while using tariffs as an excuse.

China, accusing the US of acting with a “mobster mentality,” imposed additional tariffs of 25% on $16 billion worth of US imports, which was in retaliation for US plans to apply 25% extra in tariffs on $16 billion of Chinese goods from August 23.

Canada and the US: NAFTA and the Dependency Problem

In terms of the broader US trade war, the Trump administration attempted—perhaps too transparently—to play divide and rule between Canada and Mexico in NAFTA negotiations that dragged on, but which seemed to accelerate on a bilateral level between the US and Mexico. According to some reports, Canada was barred by the US from participating in NAFTA talks with Mexico. Trump claimed to be nearing an agreement with Mexico, and was full of cheer and praise for his Mexican counterpart, while stern and threatening toward Canada:

“Deal with Mexico is coming along nicely. Autoworkers and farmers must be taken care of or there will be no deal. New President of Mexico has been an absolute gentleman. Canada must wait. Their Tariffs and Trade Barriers are far too high. Will tax cars if we can’t make a deal!”— Donald J. Trump‏ (@realDonaldTrump, 4:12 PM – 10 Aug 2018)

When in the closing days of Obama’s second term
Canadian parliamentarians erupted in cheers of “four more years!” at Obama’s address to parliament, just as Trump was campaigning for the presidency, they might have considered what the fallout could be if Trump won. Trump has no love for Ottawa or its Liberals. Canada is increasingly finding itself in the
lonely position
of the isolated globalist, with a growing record of
foreign policy failures under Justin Trudeau. Likewise, the imperial order of “human rights” interventionism is being struck down, just as Canada continues to defend it. A pattern of reality-denying triumphalism and virtue-signalling that could not be backed up
with substance continues to persist as official ideology.

By the final week of August, matters between the US and Canada seemed to turn even more dramatic. Trump triumphantly announced that his government had reached a bilateral agreement with Mexico, in place of NAFTA, and that Canada’s participation was not really needed. As an apparent pressure tactic designed to press Canada to make major concessions, the strategy seemed to work, and it appeared to cause a level of panic at least in the Canadian media. While it seemed possible in August that Trump would terminate NAFTA and slam Canada with tariffs against its automobile manufacturing industries, by early September matters appeared to once again cool off, especially as domestic opposition to Trump’s trade strategy broadened. What seemed like immediate deadlines for Canada to meet, or else face an end to NAFTA, were gradually replaced by longer and longer extensions that prolonged negotiations well into September. Nonetheless, on August 31 Trump notified Congress that the US had entered a bilateral trade deal with Mexico, excluding Canada (at least for the time being).

Particularly abrasive were comments by Donald Trump, which he confirmed making, when he declared that Canadians “ultimately…have no choice” but to make a deal that would be “totally on our terms”. Trump seemed to take pride in owning these and other remarks, which he admitted were insulting, and he relished recounting attempts to threaten and intimidate the Canadian side by brandishing the weapon of auto tariffs. As far as Trump was concerned, though the “leak” was to be condemned (even if some thought he was behind the leaking), he was glad that the Canadian side would know how he really felt. What that also meant is that it would be harder for Canadian negotiators to sell any deal to the public without suspicion that the Canadian side had bent its knee to Trump—compromise, in other words, would be that much more difficult to achieve, or to sell. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s publicly stated position, running counter to Trump’s expectation of a Canadian surrender, was: “no deal is better than a bad deal for Canada”. In the end, Trudeau opted for a deal many said was bad.

Censorship: US “Social Media” Monopolies and Sanctions on Dissent

In February, Zero Anthropology withdrew from Twitter and Facebook in contempt for the steadily increasing censorship which had suppressed the number of its subscribers. Our YouTube account remains inactive after several years, over active censorship of one of our videos which was banned and the account was temporarily blocked. It is thus with great interest that we followed the growing censorship by US social media monopolies, which seemed to reach new heights in August. Despite the ignorance and complicity among many US liberals and some on the left, who celebrated the banning of Alex Jones, there was growing evidence that social media censorship targeted both websites of the left and right.

The course of events was as follows:

  1. Twitter suspended the account of Candace Owens, which merely replicated the tweets of the New York Times’ Sarah Jeong, replacing the word “white” with “Jews” precisely to query whether the racism would be tolerated when directed at another group. The answer was no. This raised the question, effectively addressed by Reiham Salam in The Atlantic, about why white-bashing had become the norm among certain elites. Twitter reaffirmed that norm, in a comically ironic fashion, before reversing itself without an intelligent explanation other than it was a “mistake”. Meanwhile, Candace Owens claimed that The Huffington Post had incited violence against her, in what has now become a documented pattern of media-approved violence against Trump supporters.
  2. The biggest story was the complete banning of Alex Jones’ InfoWars from platforms operated by Facebook, Apple, Spotify, and Google/YouTube, in a concerted purge that the companies jointly conducted simultaneously. Key questions about what led these virtual monopolies to conspire in such a manner, went unanswered, apart from some generic statements about “hate speech,” a concept which Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was personally unable to define.
  3. CNN distinguished itself by openly lobbying for the further purge of InfoWars when it discovered that the InfoWars app, still available via iTunes, had surged ahead of CNN in popularity. Meanwhile, Democrat Senator Chris Murphy publicly advocated for sweeping censorship against all dissenting sites.
  4. Almost at the same time as the banning of InfoWars, Daniel McAdams, the executive director of the Ron Paul Institute, and Scott Horton, the editor of AntiWar.com, were suspended from Twitter on extremely dubious grounds that made little sense.
  5. As if to confirm what was expected, that the censorship campaign would expand, Facebook suspended the page for com, without a credible explanation, targeting a news site that showcases articles sidelined by the mainstream media about Venezuela, with the intent of challenging the regime change bias in such media.
  6. Journalists Byron York, Mark Hemingway, and Benjamin Weingarten, all had their messages flagged by Twitter and were investigated for possibly violating its rules against abusive speech—for links to their reports on the activities of Christopher Steele, and Senator Diane Feinstein’s links to China. The clear pattern was an attempt to suppress any news that was unflattering to Democratic Party interests, while indicating a fear of the truth being made public.
  7. Universities joined in the act of surveillance and censorship, holding social media posts against student applicants: “Merely following Alex Jones on Twitter almost cost one teen a college admission. Another lost his scholarship over a Facebook message about the 2016 election”.
  8. Coming back to Venezuela and Facebook, a few days after taking action against com Facebook deleted the page for Telesur, Venezuela’s international television and news channel. It was the second time for 2018 that Facebook had done this to Telesur. The move appears part of a Facebook purge, advised by the “Digital Forensic Lab,” which is associated with the Atlantic Council which is a political extension of NATO. Two days after the controversial move, Facebook reinstated Telesur’s page with no explanation as to why it had been deleted.
  9. Twitter suspended an Australian writer merely because she believes that the world will be a better place after John McCain dies. McCain was in fact dying, so the writer was saying she felt no grief over his alleged loss. Nonetheless, that was enough for Twitter to suspend her account, temporarily, since apparently all deference was due to unstable neocons like McCain.
  10. Facebook prevented the three million followers of a conservative educational site from seeing several of its posts and videos, and banned some of its videos for alleged “hate speech” (i.e., offering a positive view of masculinity).
  11. Facebook also (temporarily) banned the page of Occupy London, followed by more than 150,000 persons. Yet again, the company offered no explanation for the interference.

President Trump also entered the debate on social media censorship, denouncing all censorship, but also misleading his followers into believing that only conservatives were being targeted—clearly, as shown above, that was not the case. Nonetheless, it was an important warning shot that was being fired by Trump, in a series of three tweets:

“Social Media is totally discriminating against Republican/Conservative voices. Speaking loudly and clearly for the Trump Administration, we won’t let that happen. They are closing down the opinions of many people on the RIGHT, while at the same time doing nothing to others…….”—Donald J. Trump, @realDonaldTrump,
August 18, 2018

“…..Censorship is a very dangerous thing & absolutely impossible to police. If you are weeding out Fake News, there is nothing so Fake as CNN & MSNBC, & yet I do not ask that their sick behavior be removed. I get used to it and watch with a grain of salt, or don’t watch at all..”—Donald J. Trump, @realDonaldTrump,
August 18, 2018

“….Too many voices are being destroyed, some good & some bad, and that cannot be allowed to happen. Who is making the choices, because I can already tell you that too many mistakes are being made. Let everybody participate, good & bad, and we will all just have to figure it out!”—Donald J. Trump, @realDonaldTrump,
August 18, 2018

It seems that the new normal in the US now is either sanctions and/or censorship, as both the state and sectors of the society attempt to cut others off in order to beat them into submission—the logic is murky. What is usually the result is that, after some time, others learn to make do without you. The central operating principle behind censorship and sanctions is the myth of indispensability. The only good that will come out of this, at the very least, is the gradual deglobalization of the world, increased national self-reliance, and the growth of solidarity within regions.

However, what is almost baffling is the slew of Twitter account holders who huddle together as if they were screaming hostages, wondering if they are the next ones to be censored. Absolutely nobody and nothing is forcing them to be dependent on Twitter. The way monopolies are made, and empires built—and this seems to be a dirty secret, since so few speak it—is in large part thanks to the work of collaborators, clients, and the creation of an artificial dependency on a contrived centre. If Twitter has the power it does, it is to a good measure the result of those who behave as if it were absolutely essential. If the myth of indispensability lives on, it is at least partly due to those who function as if indispensability were real.

Aside from these issues, one of the most fundamental problems that was neither raised nor addressed by most journalists or analysts, was the glaring problem of placing public information (as in statements by heads of government, ministers, parliamentarians, officials, and other staff) into the hands of a private, US-owned corporation. This is an especially glaring problem when it comes to the accounts of non-US governments. The second and closely related problem, which is almost never examined, is the fact that employees of Twitter, for example, can read the private “direct messages” exchanged between government leaders, or between officials, and this can be sensitive information that could be valuable to traders on various stock exchanges. This is not to mention the work of possible hackers working for governments or corporations also being able to access such information.

Top Articles for August

On Zero Anthropology this month:

  1. Canada Imports the White Helmets from Syria: A Dangerous, Criminal Decision,” (by Eva Bartlett), August 11.

Top articles of the month:


SEPTEMBER

Note: for two weeks, between the end of August and the start of September, a separate period of research introduced a pause in coverage of daily events. As a result, there may be important gaps in the review that follows below.

September did not open in a way that suggested any new break from the flow of developments that took shape over the summer, especially where NAFTA, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Iran were concerned. What became clearer, perhaps, is the imperial nationalism pursued by Trump, whose unilateralism is often mistaken for “isolationism”. The Trump administration apparently prefers the “hard power” mode, even when it comes to diplomacy, which is arguably even more abrasive than US diplomacy has typically been.

Canada and NAFTA

Continuing directly from August, which ended with a storm between the US and Canada over ongoing talks to revise NAFTA, President Trump threatened the US Congress to “stay out” of negotiations or he would terminate NAFTA outright. A deadline to reach a deal passed when it became clear to the Canadian side that Trump would not make any compromise whatsoever. Speaking of the US’ newest trade deal with Mexico, Trump claimed that “there is no political necessity to keep Canada in the new NAFTA deal”. Yet, any new trade deals require congressional approval, so it seemed that Trump was setting forces against himself, especially as many in Congress insisted that Canada be included in any new deal. Trump, some argued, had next to no authority to terminate NAFTA, or sign a new deal with Mexico that excluded Canada. Meanwhile a wide spectrum of political, business, and labour organizations spoke up against Trump’s stance on Canada, reminding everyone that Canada is a market of critical importance to the US. It became clearer that, in spite of Trump’s fierce bluster, Trump lacked political leverage at home that would facilitate extracting major concessions from the Canadian side. Trump faced growing domestic pressure to preserve the trade relationship with Canada, especially as it had been particularly beneficial to the US.

As shown in articles on Zero Anthropology, the US has benefited from NAFTA at Canada’s expense: “U.S. exports in goods and services have soared since NAFTA was signed. The U.S. Trade Representative’s Office says that U.S. exports to Canada are up 181 per cent from 1993 and U.S. exports of services to Canada are up from pre-NAFTA levels by some 243 per cent”. What was particularly positive about the US-Mexico negotiations, which the Canadian side also praised, was the provision that Mexican auto workers be paid more, thus reducing the likelihood of jobs flowing to Mexico. Whatever the outcome, some expected that US-Canadian relations would be permanently damaged by the NAFTA renegotiations.

Rumours began to circulate that the Canadian government would concede in some areas that were of particular concern to Trump, specifically access to the Canadian diary market. Two other areas of special concern to Trump were the dispute resolution system, and protections for Canadian culture industries. Nonetheless, talks dragged on well into the middle of September—rather than feeling pressured by Trump to hurry up and reach a resolution, the Canadian side vowed to take as much time as needed.

In the final days of the month, with the September 30 deadline looming, there was still no mention about any breakthrough in US–Canada trade negotiations. Some analysts saw it as highly unlikely that the Canadian side could ever concede on trade dispute resolutions, which were vital to selling the original Canada–US free trade deal. The current mechanism means that when Canada has a complaint, it is not confined to the domestic authority of US courts, which means there is a greater chance of getting a fairer hearing. The US wants to do away with that provision, allowing US courts to have the only say in any trade dispute. Mexico’s president-elect, for his part, insisted that Mexico wanted Canada to be included in any new trade deal.

Amazingly, Donald Trump admitted to refusing to meet with Justin Trudeau at the UN, saying: “His tariffs are too high and he doesn’t seem to want to move, so I told him, ‘forget about it’”. The trade tensions had obviously taken a personal turn, and now it became a matter of Trump dominating Trudeau—which as we saw at the start of October, he largely achieved. The Canadian side dismissed the claim, saying it never requested a meeting with Trump.

The US’ Trade War against China

As promised, President Trump escalated the US trade war against China in September, by moving to apply a 10% tariff on $200 billion worth of imports, covering over 1,000 Chinese products, with that tariff due to rise to 25% in January. In response, besides promising further retaliation, China cancelled trade talks with the US.

Trump warned all other countries: “If countries will not make fair deals with us, they will be ‘Tariffed!’”. Indeed, the list of countries embroiled in Trump’s trade wars was already considerable.

One policy adviser tied to the Trump campaign explained how it was that the costs of US tariffs to US consumers themselves would be negligible, but more significant for producers. However, in return the US federal government is also collecting little or nothing in terms of revenue from tariffs. On the other hand, the tariffs are hurting investment in China, and are thus proving to be successful.

North Korea: Continued Struggle with the US?

On September 9, North Korea marked the historic 70th anniversary of its founding. A large military parade took place in Pyongyang, but without any intercontinental ballistic missiles on display; instead, the parade this year focused heavily on economic development, with nearly half of the parade consisting of civilian workers, such as nurses, students, and construction workers. Attempts by US President Trump to cheer the change in the composition of the military parade were met with a stinging rebuke from a North Korea expert.

The third inter-Korean summit between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, which began on September 17 in Pyongyang, was perceived by the US media as particularly problematic, given the tensions once again increasing between the US and North Korea. There was still, remarkably, continued doubt and debate about what North Korea understood by “denuclearization”. In addition, the US had not made any steps toward the promised end-of-war declaration to which Trump agreed during his summit with Kim. The ongoing presence of US military forces in South Korea also continued to be a serious issue for North Korea. In addition, there was the problem that South Korea had previously indicated that the North would take radical new stances to appease the US, except that Kim Jong-un never repeated any of them either in speech or in writing—it almost appeared as if these positions had been invented by the South. Nonetheless, the two Koreas petitioned the UN to accept the “Panmunjom Declaration on Peace, Prosperity and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula” as an official UN document. In addition the two countries established their first-ever liaison office to handle continuous communication between the two sides.

Frustrated that US efforts to starve North Korea into submission were dissipating, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, criticized Russia and China for alleged violations of the international sanctions against North Korea. China is the target of a US trade war, and the US recently increased already drastic sanctions against Russia—yet somehow the US continues to be perplexed that Russia and China would not serve as willing proxies of US foreign policy. According to US allegations: “From coal shipments to revived construction projects to planes ferrying Chinese tourists to Pyongyang, China has reopened the door to both legal and illegal trade with the North, throwing the North Korean government a vital lifeline while derailing U.S. diplomacy”. North Korea was also accused of smuggling refined petroleum products into the country, transferring coal at sea, and not halting work on its missile and nuclear programs. Haley called for an emergency Security Council meeting, but it seemed as if the tide was turning against the US and the action would result in nothing. Further damaging diplomatic efforts, the US charged an alleged North Korean hacker supposedly responsible for the 2014 attack on Sony (a Japanese corporation, for which Trump was apparently taking responsibility). North Korea not only called the allegations “preposterous falsehoods” and a “smear campaign,” but also that the named person did not exist. Nevertheless, the US and North Korea were reportedly planning for a second Kim-Trump summit.

North Korea’s Foreign Minister, Ri Yong-ho, gave a sharp speech at the UN on September 29 which clearly sounded as if North Korea was neither succumbing to US pressure nor was it being swayed by any of Trump’s self-proclaimed charm. In his speech, Yong-ho criticized the US for not doing enough to build trust with North Korea, and cited mistrust as the number one reason for the failure of past agreements. Yong-ho complained that in return for several trust-building measures carried out by North Korea, as reported in the US media and hailed by Trump, there was nonetheless little in the way of a corresponding response from the US. As he made clear:

“On the contrary, instead of addressing our concern for the absence of peace regime in the Korean peninsula, the U.S. insists on the ‘denuclearization-first’ and increases the level of pressure by sanctions to achieve their purpose in a coercive manner, and even objecting the ‘declaration of the end of war’. The perception that sanctions can bring us on our knees is a pipe-dream of the people who are ignorant about us. But the problem is that the continued sanctions are deepening our mistrust. The reason behind the recent deadlock is because the U.S. relies on coercive methods which are lethal to trust-building”.

While denouncing the US, the North Korean Foreign Minister praised South Korea and stated that if the party to the agreement had been South Korea and not the US, there would be no such deadlock. Yong-ho rejected the idea that North Korea would unilaterally disarm first, and reminded listeners that the North needed to have confidence in its national security. Yong-ho also slammed Donald Trump’s domestic opposition which, as he observed, was so driven to delegitimize anything done by Trump that it was insisting that unreasonable unilateral demands be imposed on North Korea, replacing trust-building with coercion, and threatening the realization of the joint agreement:

“Those in the political opposition in the U.S. make it their daily business to slander the DPRK claiming that we cannot be trusted with the sole purpose of attacking their political opponent and they are enforcing the administration to make unreasonable unilateral demand to our side thereby impeding the smooth progress of the dialogue and negotiations”.

Yong-ho also rightly condemned the UN Security Council, which was always quick to impose sanctions and pass resolutions over any “concerns” about North Korea’s defence measures, but had not said one word about either a whole year passing without any tests, nor was there any statement welcoming the DPRK–US summit in Singapore.

Trump Escalates US Aggression against Iran

In September Donald Trump sounded gleeful at the prospect of chairing a UN Security Council meeting on Iran, as he described it. The widely held view was that Trump would use the UNSC as a bully pulpit to sound off about Iran—except there was a problem with that assumption. If the meeting was about Iran, then Iran had the right to be at the same meeting and this opened the possibility of Iran’s president engaging in a direct verbal confrontation with Trump. In addition, the US was politically and diplomatically isolated on the UNSC: France, the UK, Russia, and China—the other permanent members—all vowed to uphold the Iran nuclear deal which the US violated. China and Russia, both being the targets of US tariffs and/or sanctions themselves, have invested further in Iran. Trump chairing the session, if about Iran, sounded like a recipe for a disastrous humiliation of the US, and US officials (late to sense this) began to back pedal: they now claimed the meeting would be about “non-proliferation issues” and a “broader” agenda. Yet it was after this promised broadening of the agenda, that Trump exclaimed he would be chairing a meeting on Iran, suggesting continued chaos, factionalism, and indecision in the White House. Iran’s Foreign Minister also denied any possibility of a meeting between the US and Iranian presidents at the UN, something which the US side had floated. The fact that what the US really aimed at was regime change in Iran, guaranteed that it would have few if any allies in its continued aggression against Iran. Even former US administration officials appeared to be working against Trump’s policy: a war of words erupted between Trump and former Secretary of State John Kerry over the latter’s repeated private meetings with Iranian officials after Trump took office.

Notions that Trump was actually working towards a new deal, a treaty, with Iran made no sense to independent and well-informed analysts:

“Even if the U.S. had not reneged on the nuclear deal and proven that it can’t be trusted to honor its commitments, it would be extremely unlikely that Iran would be open to making more concessions than it has already made on the nuclear issue. Once the U.S. reneged on the deal, that made it politically impossible for any Iranian leader to negotiate with Washington. Once the U.S. started reimposing sanctions without justification, it became clear that the administration’s real goal was not a ‘new deal’ but the destabilization and toppling of the regime”.

Iran faced increased US sanctions on November 4, designed to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero and to crush the Iranian economy, and thus inflict punishment on all Iranians. To achieve that aim, the US promised to apply sanctions to any foreign companies doing business with Iran—though this had little impact on Russia and China, others such as India felt menaced as Trump signed an executive order to enforce sanctions on entities violating the US’ Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

Meanwhile the European Union set itself the task of creating a “special payments channel” to Iran to evade any impact of US restrictions. Turkey was emphatic about continuing to import oil from Iran, in spite of US sanctions (though there is some early evidence that US sanctions are working, in that China, India, and Japan have either reduced or ceased imports of Iranian oil). Belgium’s Prime Minster, Charles Michel, also condemned the US for presuming to tell companies of other countries that they cannot do business with Iran.

It is clear not just to independent analysts that regime change is the actual goal of US policy on Iran—this was confirmed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo himself. In response to a speech given in May by Pompeo, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards made threats that were outright gory. The official US hope that protests in Iran would achieve regime change from within, have repeatedly proven to be illusory. Both Iran and the US suffered some consequences of the US decision to renew its hostility toward Iran.

For the US, Syria is Terra Nullius

Early in September, the Trump administration threatened Syria not to engage in a military assault to retake territory from terrorists allied to Al Qaeda based in Idlib, the last remaining rebel stronghold and the final step to the termination of the war on Syria. The US also warned Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran, not to participate in a military attack on Idlib, and a for a brief while it seemed like the US had created the opportunity for a direct confrontation between Russian and US forces. The US was quite explicit about asserting “US interests” in Syria, and of using Syria to “create quagmires” for the Russians and Iranians. Nikki Haley also seemed to be inventing a chemical weapons pretext for justifying further illegal US aggression against Syria. (As usual, Fox News which champions Nikki Haley and war-mongering, could not refrain from putting the appropriate propagandistic spin into articles it produced and which instructed readers on the correct way to think.)

Selectively outraged by civilian deaths, the US continued to play a part in the ongoing slaughter of civilians in Yemen by its partners, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

What seemed to eventually impede the combined Syrian-Russian-Iranian campaign in Idlib were disagreements between Turkey, Russia, and Iran on achieving a ceasefire and demilitarization of the zone. Pressure to avoid creating an outflow of refugees also seemed to be the main issue behind the scenes, as Turkey could not host any more and the refugees would likely stream north into Europe. US threats seemed to be of less importance, with analysts noting the US had few or no options for influencing events on the ground in Syria. By the middle of the month, instead of the promised assault on Idlib, the leaders of Russia, Iran, and Turkey agreed to create a demilitarized zone in Idlib. Though the momentary conclusion of the last-minute diplomacy seemed ambiguous (especially on the practicalities of demilitarization), the government of Syria welcomed the Idlib agreement.

At the end of the month, there was news of continued debate within the Trump administration about US plans for a prolonged “presence” in Syria, ranging from troops to some unspecified option not involving ground forces. The argument, as presented by John Bolton, was now that the US would have to stay until Iranian forces—present at the invitation of the Syrian government—were withdrawn. Trump had said that after ISIS was defeated (a mission that has largely been accomplished), US forces would be withdrawn from Syria. That goal now seemed to become a distant hope once more.

Donald Trump at the United Nations: Act II

In the final week of September, President Trump returned to the UN. Though not making as much of an impact as with his first appearance a year ago, this visit combined a number of the themes under review for this month: focusing in particular on Iran, Syria, and North Korea. At a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Monday, September 24, Trump announced that a second summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un was likely to come soon. The next day, on September 25, Trump made his second address to the UN General Assembly. Though language promising the total destruction of a member state was absent this time, the speech presented the usual grab-bag of contradictory and inconsistent elements. On the one hand, Trump spoke out against globalism, and for patriotism. He emphasized sovereignty, and the values and traditions that constitute every nation. Trump preached the values of patriotism as valid for all nations. He reiterated his pledge that the US would not interfere by telling other nations what model they should follow. On the other hand, he denounced nations that chose socialism, and specifically pledged to interfere in Iran, Syria, and Venezuela. The combination seemed like a recipe for imperial nationalism. The real departure was with the neoliberal alliance of the recent past: Trump condemned the International Criminal Court as lacking in legitimacy, authority, or the jurisdiction to prosecute, denouncing it as another body of unelected and unaccountable officials; he also condemned the UN Human Rights Council, and the “global compact on migration”. Contrary to the trend to resettle asylum seekers from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia in places as far away as Europe and North America, Trump emphasized that refugees should be temporarily settled in nations closest to their homes, to facilitate an easy and speedy return when conditions permitted. Critics noted that Trump failed to criticize Russia, yet he made time to blast Germany for its reliance on energy imports from Russia. (Trump would prefer Germany relied exclusively on the US—dependency is far from his genuine concern. The idea of Germany replacing cheap and easily accessible Russian gas, with costlier and more distant US sources, is a complete non-starter.) Trump also denounced OPEC and blamed it for the rise in oil prices (rather than his attempt to choke off Iran’s oil exports, US sanctions on Venezuela, and the aftermath of the US/NATO war on Libya), even as he boasted that the US was the number one energy supplier in the world, and would thus stand to benefit from increased oil prices. OPEC ignored Trump’s demands, and refused to raise oil production. Short on logic, and sometimes lacking credibility, this year Trump was apparently laughed at by some members of his international audience after boasting of his successes.

Trump’s anti-globalism brought out all the usual defence of a bankrupt and broken system, one that Trump helped prove was indeed breakable. Robert Kagan, apparently preaching to the choir of orthodox elites, thus bemoaned the fall of an international liberal rules-based-order (an unwieldy euphemism for US imperialism). A has-been who still calls herself “ambassador” in Twitter, Susan Rice thought she might please a few with an entirely forgettable critique of Trump’s speech, published in friendly territory. Whoever was laughing at Trump, they were now doing so from increasingly distant margins.

Whatever was noteworthy about Rice’s screed was the repetition of the Washington foreign policy divide: Democrats feel free to stoke a new Cold War with Russia (China’s close ally) while trying to please China, while Republicans switch the two countries around—a new Cold War with China (Russia’s close ally). If anything Trump’s position comes closer to making sense than Rice’s incoherent scramble: thinking of eventually improving relations with Russia in the increasingly vain hope that it can prevent the further formation of a Russia-China superpower bloc, with immense combined economic and military resources, and stretching across a vast part of the globe.

Menacing Venezuela

Also at the UN on September 26, in remarks to the press Trump claimed to be interested in “helping people” and “saving lives” in Venezuela. Trump added, “we’re going to fix Venezuela” and that “all options are on the table” including “strong options”. He told the journalists that they should understand what he means by “strong options”. Though inarticulate, it seemed as if Trump was rehashing the “responsibility to protect” idea or that of “humanitarian interventionism” to justify US intervention in Venezuela. This was a mere day after Trump touted sovereignty and not imposing American values on other nations. Trump appeared to be completely unaware of any contradiction.

Following completely in line with US foreign policy, US-owned “social media” continued their campaign of censorship against Venezuelan government accounts and those supporting the Venezuelan government. Twitter, without explanation, blocked the account of the Presidential Press of Venezuela.

Outside of the UN building in New York, US ambassador Nikki Haley chose to display her deliberate misunderstanding of the UN Charter, by openly advocating for the overthrow of a foreign government and hinting loudly that it would happen thanks to strong US intervention. On Thursday, September 27, Haley shouted into a megaphone in front of demonstrators: “We are going to fight for Venezuela and we are going to continue doing it until Maduro is gone!… We need your voices to be loud, and I will tell you, the US voice is going to be loud”.

Deep State

September opened with a splash, that like previous episodes would soon fade away—this time it was the simultaneous release of a controversial new book by Bob Woodward, citing White House inside sources with the most pejorative opinions about Trump, and an op-ed in The New York Times that spoke of an internal cell in the Trump administration that set for itself the mission of undermining Trump, specifically the policies on which he campaigned and which voters supported. The events that followed suggested heightened paranoia within the administration, with dozens of officials coming forward and swearing they were not the author of the anonymous op-ed.

Rather than have an actual crime that merited a special investigation, former FBI lawyer Lisa Page confirmed that the FBI had no evidence whatsoever about any “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia—not that it would be a crime under the law—but nonetheless a special counsel was called. On this point, President Trump appeared to have been vindicated: the Mueller investigation should never have been started. As the lead attorney in the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign, Page’s unearthed text messages showed an intent to do anything possible to harm Trump’s election chances.

In a long-overdue move, Trump decided to strike back against the Russiagate conspiracy theorists by ordering the declassification of “key documents related to the FBI investigation of Russian actions during the 2016 presidential election, including 21 pages of an application for a renewed surveillance warrant against former campaign aide Carter Page, and text messages from disgraced FBI figures Peter Strzok and Lisa Page”. Opposition politicians and journalists (a formalistic distinction can still be made between the two), were almost unanimous in protesting against government transparency—which rather looked like they had something to hide. On the other hand, true to form, Trump soon reversed himself: the documents would not be declassified after all.

In a bit of hypocrisy that conveniently escaped commentary from the US media, at the start of the month ex-president Obama engaged in defamatory speeches that alleged Trump had a soft spot for neo-Nazis. Obama exclaimed: “we’re sure as heck supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers. How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad”. Obama should have answered his own question, having backed actual neo-Nazis in Ukraine and refusing to support a UN declaration against the glorification of Nazis. Apparently, it’s very hard to say that Nazis are bad.

Top Articles for September

On Zero Anthropology this month:

  1. Book Review: Afghanistan Post–2014—Misreading Afghanistan’s Crypto-coloniality,” M. Jamil Hanifi, September 27.

Top articles of the month:


Review of 2018, Part 4 (October–December): Nationalism, Borders, Trade, and Sanctions

OCTOBER

Where US–Canada relations were concerned, as well as Trump’s trade strategy, NAFTA was the leading event opening the month of October.

The US–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA)

On Monday, October 1st, came the striking news that at the last minute the US and Canada signed a new agreement which, together with Mexico, would replace NAFTA.

While Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared that it was “a good deal for Canada,” he certainly sounded little like a winner, looking sombre, sounding toned down, the impression was of one who had just been humiliated. Canadian dairy farmers openly disagreed with Trudeau, and condemned the deal. Also not a “good deal” for Canadians were the increased healthcare costs that would result from higher drug prices, thanks to new provisions of the deal. The Canadian strategy was a conservative one to begin with—it was mainly aimed at preserving the status quo. As a result, part of the status quo was preserved, but the Canadian government had to concede other parts, which means a net loss for Canada. Quebec’s leading politicians denounced the deal as a disgrace and harmful to Quebec. In particular, the dairy industry in Quebec was expected to suffer. The government of Ontario also announced it would exert pressure on the federal government to compensate Ontario for the industries thrown “under the bus” in the new agreement. That Trudeau’s government was already speaking about compensation, on the first day, indicated it was by definition a negative deal. Editorials that tried to put a happy face on the deal, grudgingly admitted it was not the “win-win-win deal” that had been promised for 13 months. Driven by fear of new US tariffs, that were apparently “averted,” it was realized that Canada caved in significantly. It would now be up to provincial legislatures to ratify the trade deal, and with opposition coming from the two giants—Ontario and Quebec—things looked murky. In the US, there would be no congressional vote on the USMCA until the new year. Also, Canadian opinions of the US fell to a record low, unsurprisingly.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, sounded victorious as he hailed the outcome. He now called Trudeau a “good person” who was doing a “good job”—when just a few days earlier he claimed that he refused to meet with Trudeau. Much of what Trump wanted, Trump got. There were also some US concessions, especially on trade dispute resolutions (US courts would not have the first and last say on matters) and on protecting Canadian cultural industries. On the other hand, Canadian copyright law would now match US law which is exceedingly restrictive in what it allows to enter the public domain and when. Thus only the US side won anything new from the deal, which appeared a net loss for Canada. The deal also allows the US (and Mexico) to review any Canadian free trade deal with a “non-market economy” (i.e., China)—which could terminate Canada’s membership in the USMCA. This is interpreted as a way for the US to lock Canada and Mexico into the US orbit. In one particular case (infant formula), the USMCA appeared to block Canada from increasing exports to China.

Tariffs, and counter-tariffs, on steel and aluminum products remained in place. Canadian media such as the state-owned CBC, had little to share in the way of concrete details about the agreement.

In some respects, the deal contained advances as it annulled the infamous investor-state dispute settlement chapter that permitted corporations to sue governments in special tribunals. Auto workers would also benefit from higher wages, and more business would be generated in North America by increasing the North American content of automobiles manufactured by the three nations. In other, more complicated respects, it was a win for Canadian wine producers, seeking to market their products in Canada itself. Also, while Canadians were lectured at about the virtues of free trade, online shoppers experienced little of it directly—now, they will no longer pay duties on their online purchases, up to $150. Fortunately, the deal is not permanent: it is open to review in six years’ time, and can expire in 16 years. In addition, any of the members can walk away from the USMCA at any time, for any reason, with just six months’ notice.

Further on in October, Canada announced new steel tariffs, directed against countries seeking to dump steel in Canada for re-export to the US. This was apparently done to placate the US which accused Canada of serving as a backdoor to the US market. Nevertheless, tariffs between the US and Canada remained intact, despite the USMCA, and seemed likely to continue. The Canadian government also promised to pay refunds to Canadian corporations that paid tariffs on imported steel or aluminum products from the US. Separately, Canadian dairy farmers blasted Trump for massively distorting the facts about US–Canada dairy trade, and said the problem for the US was rooted in its overproduction of milk which caused it to become desperate to find foreign markets to dump its products, while also charging exorbitant tariffs on Canadian dairy products. The US has a massive $600 million surplus in its dairy trade with Canada (the number is closer to $650 million), despite Trump’s cries of injury.

Was China Really Losing the Trade War?

Defying predictions that China would feel a big bite from the US trade war, China instead expanded its exports to the US by more than 13% over a year earlier (before the trade war). September, which saw a Chinese surplus of $34.1 billion, “marked the second straight record Chinese monthly trade surplus with the United States after August’s $31 billion”. Meanwhile, China’s imports from the US slowed down. China’s currency also fell in value, making its exports much more competitive, and it experienced accelerated growth in its exports overall. Just after these facts were reported, Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, gave a hair-raising interview in which he listed a range of US responses that bordered on war with China. The latter possibility seemed to become more real as it was reported that just a month before, a Chinese and US warship came within 45 yards of each other in a near collision.

Seemingly in response to US actions, China sold a mere $3 billion in sovereign dollar bonds, “only the third such move by Beijing in the last 14 years, and the first involving bonds with a 30-year maturity”. Some news media tried to spin this as a “warning shot,” a kind of preview of greater actions China might take—and though China may be the single largest owner of US debt, it is quite far from owning a majority of US debt by itself. In actuality, it is unlikely that this was a sign of things to come, and even if China tried to unload all of its holdings of US securities, it’s not clear how much of a negative effect that would have on the US, or China itself.

On the other hand, offering support for Trump’s claims to be having an impact on China, other reports painted a different picture of China by looking at different numbers—such as the biggest drop in China’s economic growth since the global financial crisis. Even China’s growth in exports was explained as a momentary response, where firms were front-loading their shipments in advance of stronger US tariffs. It would be in the new year when we might see the actual impact of US tariffs on China’s rate of exports.

Meanwhile there were reports suggesting that countries like Russia, China, and members of the European Union, were working to create an alternative world reserve currency, that would seriously challenge US financial hegemony.

On the political and military sides, the US’ Cold War with China seemed to be entering a new and more dangerous phase. The US accused China of interfering in US elections, ramping up the new Cold War with China. As for continuing US wars, such as the US in Afghanistan, retired Army Colonel Larry Wilkerson warned of the dangers of such perpetual wars. He asked if the US military was really in Afghanistan just to apply pressure on China, and if so, then level with American citizens and especially those who serve in battle.

The New Cold War with Russia

The Russian government claimed that the US side repeatedly rejected a Russian offer of a pact of mutual non-interference in the internal affairs of either country.

In addition to working on the creation of an alternative world reserve currency (see above), Russia also announced that it had liquidated nearly all of its holdings of US debt, and invested the money in gold instead. Russia thus announced that it was making efforts to “de-dollarize” its economy, as a matter of national security. Russia was also working on an agreement to de-dollarize trade with China.

President Trump announced that the US would unilaterally withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Trump complained that Russia was in breach of the treaty, which Russia denied, and he then complained that China was not part of the treaty. In fact, Trump made any revival of the agreement contingent upon China becoming a signatory, which lent weight to interpretations that Trump’s move was really meant to target China, since it had developed a range of intermediate nuclear-capable weapons that were not subject to any treaty. This move of course sent relations with Russia into another, more dangerous downward spiral, with Russia promising an “immediate and mirror-like” response. Russia promised to target all European nations hosting any US intermediate range missiles. Russia also accused the US of violating the INF treaty, and explained how. Former Trump adviser, Carter Page, warned that the end of the INF should be something that scares Americans. The clock had seemingly been turned back to the early 1980s, with the threat of a new arms race as part of this new Cold War. It did not help that Trump himself boasted to the media that the US had a lot of money and was willing to launch a new arms race.

Turkey–Saudi Arabia–US: A Realignment?

Strange events unfolded in October involving what had become an increasingly bellicose relationship between the US and Turkey (with tariffs and sanctions, and counter-tariffs and counter-sanctions) and what had been a continued long-standing alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy. The turning point appeared to be the torture and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi resident in the US as an exile, who wrote for The Washington Post and was fairly critical of the Saudi rulers—but was not the liberal democrat that some made him out to be. Saudi “explanations” changed dramatically and rapidly, from total denial and asserting that Khashoggi had left the consulate, to saying that Khashoggi got into a fist fight with consular staff and was overpowered and died accidentally, to then confirming that it was a deliberate murder (by supposedly “rogue” elements).

As was seen in the skirmish between Saudi Arabia and Canada, the Saudis—though claiming to be “reformist”—would at first not accept even a hint of criticism, and lashed out when they felt they had the upper hand, and probably felt empowered by Trump’s glowing praise for the Saudi monarchy. It seems that now they had gone too far—while Saudi forces were slaughtering thousands of civilians in Yemen, and had abducted and beaten the Prime Minister of Lebanon forcing him to resign, it took the murder of just one US resident to galvanize US legislators into demanding the severest possible punishment, short of direct military confrontation with Saudi Arabia. Some critiqued the “moralistic BS” of the foreign policy establishment and the media, that had long glanced past the charnel house which Yemen had become under the Saudis, and fixated on one man instead (who happened to be a colleague).

US weapons manufacturers were alarmed by the outcry, and tried to pressure Trump not to halt what was reported as over $100 billion in US arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Trump himself seemed little interested in the option of halting arms sales, claiming this would hurt the US more than the Saudis, and benefit Russia and China.

While initially reluctant to accept that Saudi Arabia was guilty of any wrongdoing, and willing to buy Saudi denials, Trump soon admitted that he thought Khashoggi had indeed been killed, as was later confirmed by the Saudis themselves. Trump then found the Saudi explanation for the killing, once the Saudis admitted to it, to be “inadequate”. Turkey provided evidence that Khashoggi had been detained in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, never left, and was tortured and murdered, and claimed to have video evidence of a Saudi hit squad that had arrived in Turkey. The Saudis initially denied the claims but could not prove that Khashoggi ever left the consulate—they claimed he left, but his fiancé, waiting outside, never saw him leave. More information came out that showed the Saudis tried to cover up the murder, by having a body double in Khashoggi’s clothes leave the consulate through the back entrance, and disposing of the body in a forest. Another account detailed how the Saudi who ran social media for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmanfor, Saud al-Qahtani, supervised the killing of Khashoggi live via Skype, giving orders for the brutal acts that were committed.

At the same time as these events unfolded, Turkey decided to release US evangelist Andrew Brunson, which had itself become a “last straw” that had apparently broken US–Turkish relations. Brunson appeared next to Trump within a day. While it seemed likely that the US would now repair its ties with Turkey (in fact, that seemed to be part of the deal to release Brunson), it was the alliance with Saudi Arabia that was in extreme jeopardy.

Turkey appeared to be making the most of this event to embarrass both the US and its Saudi ally, and the relationship between them. Turkish authorities kept speaking of audio or other recorded evidence, without actually releasing it, and prolonging the suspense and the inevitable discussion even further. In addition, it was obvious that Turkey was spying on the diplomatic missions of close US allies, even while it is a NATO member itself.

Trump was obviously dragging his feet on taking any action—though he had instantly slammed Russia with sanctions, and expelled several dozen Russian diplomats, with far less evidence of a crime, not even committed against a US citizen or resident. However, when it came to Saudi Arabia, Trump was suddenly quite open to accepting denials at face value, reminding Americans that the person affected was a Saudi citizen. The Skripals were Russian citizens, and Sergei Skripal was a spy, but none of that mattered to Trump. Saudi Arabia was being held to a very different standard. In fact, despite Trump’s vague promises to somehow punish or penalize Saudi Arabia, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin met with the Crown Prince in Riyadh, at the opening of an investment conference that Mnuchin previously said he would no longer attend. Mnuchin had not even announced the Saudi stop as part of his Middle East tour.

For once, it seemed that the US (apart from Trump) might cease to operate with convenient double standards, and selective, opportunistic outrage, by applying similar measures to Saudi Arabia. The effort, however, was driven more by Senators than the reluctant White House. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are rivals in the Middle East, and Turkey was manoeuvring skilfully in driving a wedge between the Saudis and the US. The US is relying on Saudi Arabia as a bulwark against Iran, which is itself allied with Turkey. Any significant realignment of relations on this front would introduce a major change in US foreign policy. It therefore seemed unlikely that Trump would take any serious steps to punish the Saudis at this point. Indeed, none materialized in 2018.

Iran: The Costs of Trump’s Policy

As October opened, everyone noticed the surging price of oil. Prices were set to skyrocket as Saudi Arabia was unable to offset the drop in the world supply of oil, thanks to US sanctions on Iran, with the sanctions only set to become even more severe in November.

Iran scored a major legal victory against the US in early October, through a ruling by the International Court of Justice—which the US once again promptly dismissed, and derided, then moved to cancel a consular and economic relations treaty that the US has had with Iran since 1955. The ICJ demanded that the US lift sanctions which were affecting “humanitarian goods” and civil aviation. The ICJ considered that US sanctions were in fact a “danger to health and life” of Iranians. (The US also withdrew from the “Optional Protocol” of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, in order to counter a separate challenge, from the Palestinian government.)

Liberal Imperialists Lose their Champions: First, Nikki Haley, then Dina Powell

Long championed by Fox News, and earning the praise of liberal media like The New York Times, it was a refreshing change for Trump’s anti-interventionist supporters to see the sudden departure of Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN. Long a pro-war hawk, Haley was closely affiliated with the branch of liberal imperialists dubbed “neoconservatives”. Soon after the announcement, Fox News (with the sole exception of Tucker Carlson), rushed to push the name of Dina Powell to the forefront, one who was employed by Goldman Sachs, and had significant ties with Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation, and was likely to continue Haley’s counter-Trump parallel foreign policy. Powell apparently dropped out, or was dropped, as a frontrunner to replace Haley. Among Haley’s most notoriously belligerent statements, was her expression of certainty that Russia had “absolutely” meddled in the elections in Binomo—the only problem being that Binomo does not exist. Falling prey to prank callers, Haley revealed that the US’ top ambassador, to the UN no less, was not familiar with world geography and the names of the member states of the UN. This fact seemed to escape any significant commentary in the US media.

The Migrant Caravan

President Trump threatened to terminate US aid to Honduras if the Honduran government failed to stop a caravan of migrants leaving for the US. On the one hand, the demand was as illogical as it was illegal: the Honduran government cannot transform the country into a giant prison camp at the behest of the US, and prevent citizens from exercising their right to travel. It is up to the US to prevent entry; it is not up to Honduras to illegally arrest and indefinitely detain all citizens. On the other hand, seeing matters from a slightly different perspective more in line with Trump’s sentiments, if US aid does not actually do anything to better the lives of Honduras’ people, then it is hard to justify continuing it. However, one response to that position might be that the aid is either insufficient in amount, poorly managed or targeted, or all of these, in addition to arguments that explain that aid itself is ineffective as a method of poverty alleviation. (This last point could itself be used to advance the end-the-aid argument.)

Apart from this, it would seem that Guatemala and Mexico would be under increased pressure to serve as US buffer states, preventing or otherwise impeding entry to Hondurans, which would in turn work against Central American integration and create regional tensions. As Trump ordered the military to the southern border, the US also announced that it had reached a deal with Mexico designed to impede the caravan, which involved the UN High Commission for Refugees to process all refugee claims within Mexico itself. The Honduran organizer of the caravan was detained by Guatemalan authorities. While at one point it seemed that half of the migrants had turned home, the caravan later grew in size even as it stalled on the border between Guatemala and Mexico. However, as Mexican authorities felt overwhelmed by the numbers, and potential for violent confrontations, Mexico reversed course and began to allow the Central American migrants to travel to the US border, which Trump threatened to “shut down”.

Politically, there were dubious arguments that deserved further critique. Even the migrants would have needed to explain how it was that the US, under Trump, was so attractive to them rather than a neighbouring country. If Trump was really ruining the nation the way his opponents frequently claim, were the migrants not instead giving the US their vote of confidence? As for the Democrats in the US, in preparation for the mid-term elections consultants and think tanks aligned with the party advised candidates to say as little as possible about immigration. This is presumably because the Democrats’ ostensible pro-open borders approach to illegal immigration is not a winning proposition with most Americans, and particularly not with “swing voters” in key electoral “battleground” states.

“Social” Media are US Media: Waking Up to Contemporary Cultural Imperialism

Further events transpired in October that one might hope would awaken more people to the fact that they had voluntarily made themselves into artificial hostages of US social media companies, developing a relationship of forced dependency on entities that have now become quite brazen in practicing political censorship. What is being created in the US are “social” media bubbles, with a regulated uniformity in the range of authorized expressions and permissible perspectives.

By mid-October, Facebook went as far as purging around 800 pages and accounts, associated with elements of both the political right and left. The “authoritarian censorship” that US activists routinely complained about when it occurred overseas, had finally come home. Facebook targeted entities that had millions of followers, who will now have to use other means for distributing their content (not a difficult chore). In the end, all that Facebook really achieved was to cement the fact that liberalism is in practice very illiberal, intolerant, and anti-democratic, and in place of a multiplicity of perspectives that occur in reality, Facebook would rather offer users a virtual world of pretend hegemony.

Google also discussed its own censorship practices, in what it frankly acknowledges as censorship. Google has decided that free speech on the Internet is “no longer viable”. Google executives, in leaked internal discussions, also made it clear that they were guided by an anti-Trump, anti-populist political bias. Google has also developed a censored search engine for China, just to underline where it stands on free speech. The Google leak also attested to the fact that US social media such as Facebook and Twitter, plus Google, control the majority of online conversations.

In an apparent celebration of the kind of censorship that upholds the status quo and the dominance of discredited mainstream media, the CBC ran a story about a very green journalist working as a “fact checker” for Facebook, writing articles that “debunked” stories that did not meet the official standard of permissible truth. The article consisted of bland generalities and statements of the obvious, with little explored beyond the surface and few of the terms ever being defined, not to mention the most inane “tips” for “spotting fake news”—a clear sign of the kind of “journalistic quality” that is being defended, and the infant brigade leading the charge. What the CBC did not uncover was the fact that many of these same “fact checkers” were abandoning Facebook, especially since it became a purveyor of “fake news” in its own right.

Top Articles for October

On Zero Anthropology this month:

  1. Syria: The New Terra Nullius,” October 6.
  2. ‘Cocaine Cowboys: Reloaded’ (2014): Reversing Empire and the 1980s’ Drug War,” October 28.

Top articles of the month:


NOVEMBER

Coverage for November is once again uneven and partial, since this was another research period and attention was inevitably concentrated on other matters.

Trump Consolidates Power

As the month progressed, it seemed like little new would be happening on the US foreign relations front, especially as the US became consumed with its mid-term elections. Those elections saw little of the much touted Democratic “blue wave,” even after two years of the most consistent, uniform, anti-Trump hysteria in the mainstream media added to an FBI investigation of imagined “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia. That all of the hyperbole, conspiracy theories, and incessant fear-mongering led the Democrats to only gain control of one-half of one-third of the US government, would seem to be an indictment of their strategies and inchoate narratives. Trump, allegedly very unpopular, did not witness the worst loss for an incumbent party, and the Republicans increased their lead in the Senate, which also increases their ease in confirming any (likely) new nominee to the Supreme Court. No wonder then that Trump sounded victorious—it was with some justification, and that fact seemed to drive the media quite mad. On the other hand, others read the results quite differently, and noted that Republicans lost key battleground states that were vital to Trump’s 2016 victory: in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, with three senate races and three gubernatorial races, Democrats won all six.

Nevertheless, with a divided Congress, any failure by Trump to achieve his legislative aims will be blamed squarely on the Democrats, giving a perfect alibi as he runs for re-election. In addition, the Democrats’ in-fighting over who would be the Speaker of the House of Representatives meant that for a while their supposed gain would divide them. Trump further consolidated his position by firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from matters dealing with the Russia conspiracy allegations, and replacing him with a stalwart critic of the investigations. What all of this amounts to on the foreign policy front, is the gradual dissolution of the Russiagate hoax. Whether that will amount to improved relations with Russia remains to be seen. However, by the end of the year all of the talk was about alleged “campaign finance violations,” not “Russia collusion”.

The US and Saudi Arabia: No Realignment in Sight

If the Khashoggi murder by Saudi Arabia, and the role played by Turkey in highlighting it, suggested a possible change in the power dynamics between the US and Saudi Arabia, Trump put an absolute end to any such possibility with some remarkably deceptive hyperbole that vastly inflated the importance of the Saudi kingdom to the US and world economy. Remarkably, Trump thanked Saudi Arabia for lower oil prices—but if anything, Saudi Arabia prevented oil prices from dropping further since it decided to cut oil supply, along with other OPEC members. Decreased demand from a slowing world economy was primarily responsible for the momentary fall in prices, not Saudi generosity toward Americans.

Trump’s position effectively granted the Saudis impunity, and it cast a shadow on Trump’s claims to be a nationalist who defended “America First”. Commenting on Trump’s published statement, affirming that the relationship with Saudi Arabia was unshakeable and essential, and that the real enemy was Iran, Senator Rand Paul said the statement spoke of “Saudi Arabia First, not America First,” and that he heard John Bolton in Trump’s words. Rand called Bolton, “the king of the swamp”. In the Congress, even allies of Trump vowed to take actions to sanction Saudi Arabia and halt arms sales. In this episode, Trump came across as a puppet of US military contractors and the Saudi kingdom, rather than a fearless and dominant actor. Trump also diverged from the CIA, saying that he instead believed that the Saudi royal family played absolutely no role in ordering the killing of Khashoggi. In what was ostensibly a move meant to dampen US Congressional criticism, the Saudis released the US from aiding with refuelling Saudi jets engaged in bombing Yemen.

On the other hand, there were those who were critical of the criticisms of Trump, arguing that any serious move over Khashoggi would have been hypocritical. Some reminded their readers that Khashoggi had defended the Saudi kingdom and its repressive policies in the past, and had been a promoter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and had personally entertained warm relations with Osama Bin Laden. Moreover, not only had Khashoggi initially supported the Saudi invasion of Yemen, “Khashoggi also remained steadfast in his support of the ‘moderate’ Islamist rebels in Syria, who did to thousands of innocents precisely what the Saudi regime did to him”.

Turkey—hardly a neutral and disinterested party in this affair, having much to gain from diminished Saudi influence—dismissed Trump’s comments on Saudi Arabia as “comic”. Turkey also accused Trump of turning a blind eye to the Saudi’s atrocities.

Iran: Preparing for War?

Turkey also criticized US sanctions on Iran, calling them dangerous and counter-productive. Turkey, though a NATO member and US ally, imported a third of its gas from Iran.

Since at least May, Iran’s leadership had been sounding the alarm about the heightened bellicosity of the Trump administration. In November, they reminded the Americans that several key US bases stretching from the Gulf to central Asia, were in the reach of Iranian missiles. Iran said the same about US aircraft carriers in the region, and sounded as if they were ready for any escalation.

That Iran’s leaders should perceive the situation in such stark terms is at least partly explained by the nature of the threats coming from the Trump administration. Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, opted for blood-thirsty language that relished imposing collective punishment on all Iranians, saying that US sanctions would “squeeze” Iran “until the pips squeak”. Bolton predicted that the Europeans would eventually fall in line with US policy—which is not unlikely. In addition, the thrust of US policy, impacting on Iranians’ ability to even eat, is clearly designed to push for regime change, and this is an almost certain recipe for war. However, the reality is likely to be one where Iran suffers a recession, but nothing like collapse. Iran’s leaders know this, and this partly explains why they remain loudly defiant.

Iran has given no sign of bending to the US’ capricious attitude. The Iranian foreign minister pointedly asked, “Why should we resume another talk just because somebody doesn’t like it? Just because somebody hates his predecessor? That’s not the reason you engage in diplomacy”. Iran’s foreign minister also reassured his listeners that Iranians knew how to survive sanctions, and would do so again. Certainly, without the backing of international law, and in clear violation of an international agreement, the US would find it difficult to convince states and companies that relations with Iran, even surreptitious ones, were beyond thinkable. The US was already aware that numerous countries were preparing alternatives for dealing with US sanctions on Iran. The failure of sanctions, and the polarization of disagreement between the US and Iran, might thus become yet another force pushing towards war. While it is unlikely that Trump will start a new war just before the presidential elections, it seems more likely that he will do so if he wins a second term.

The US and North Korea

The US Defense Department confirmed that military exercises planned for the following year in South Korea would be scaled back in order not to harm the diplomatic initiative with North Korea. It was also revealed that the US and South Korea were in a disagreement about the pace of improved ties between the South and the North. It sounded as if the US was worried that peace would get out of hand, as it tried to maintain international sanctions that now had diminished support.

Early in the month, analysts reported that North Korea was continuing development of its nuclear weapons program, which would make sense in the absence of any substantive change on the Americans’ part. In addition, North Korea postponed new talks with the US Secretary of State. Meanwhile Russia formally protested to the UN that international sanctions were causing humanitarian damage to North Koreans, while the US accused Russia of trying to lift banking restrictions.

The US Trade War with China

Reports were still coming in that China had experienced continued growth in both exports and imports, seemingly defying predictions of a negative impact of Trump’s trade war. However, these reports now suggested that the numbers were deceptive, in that they reflected increased orders before the US tariffs hit, and that the coming months would be the ones in which a decline in China’s trade growth would become apparent. Even now China’s trade surplus was smaller than expected.

After the Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives, some reports suggested that this would not diminish Trump’s trade war against China—instead, it was likely to amplify it.

The Continued Trade War with Canada

Showing just how much Canada had surrendered, in return for signing the USMCA (NAFTA’s replacement), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed that Canada would still sign the deal though US tariffs on steel and aluminum remain in place. In other words, in return for a free trade deal Canada was prepared to let go of free trade. On the other hand, some would argue that none of these agreements are about really “free” trade, given the extent of regulations, limits, and controls that they prescribe.

GM Plant Closures in Canada and the US

In the closing week of November stunning news came out that General Motors was shutting down five of its plants (four in the US, one in Canada). On the first day of the news there was some media speculation that perhaps Trump’s steel tariffs had cost Americans their jobs—indeed, while steel tariffs may have accounted for a billon dollar loss for GM, the company was cutting about $6 billion in production and 15% of its workforce, far in excess of any effect of the tariffs. Instead a wide variety of other factors explain GM’s decision to cut plants and jobs. Those jobs were being cut despite GM’s profits. Labour unions and politicians on both sides of the Canada–US border strongly criticized GM’s decision, and President Trump sounded as if he was exercising direct pressure on GM to remedy the situation, even making threats to punish GM. To a certain extent, GM’s plant closures directly went against Trump’s many boasts about jobs retained in the US, and the resurgence of US manufacturing—and some of the plants being closed are situated in key electoral battlegrounds vital to Trump’s re-election, two in Michigan and one in Ohio. In both Canada and the US, GM had benefited from massive taxpayer-funded bailouts during the 2008 financial crisis, and from unions making concessions, so this hardly seemed like a fitting return on investment, an “investment” in GM that was forced on the public and extracted from GM workers. In addition, as highlighted by the union representing GM’s workers, the company was maintaining production at full output in Mexico, with no announced reductions there—instead, GM production has been rising significantly in Mexico. The problem with the partisan spin on the plant closures is that their arguments focus exclusively on blaming Trump, forgetting that the largest plant to be closed, in terms of number of workers, is in Justin Trudeau’s Canada. It makes little sense to blame politicians for corporate decisions made autonomously of party politics. However, one thing that can be said is that clearly the renegotiation of NAFTA, and agreement on the USMCA, has not put an end to the kinds of flows of jobs out of both Canada and the US and into Mexico.

Reinforcing the US Border with Mexico

Bolstering previous decisions to send US troops to defend the border with Mexico against what the US government saw as an illegal incursion of thousands of migrants organized in a march on the border, the Defense Department indicated it would take actions to defend border agents, up to and including the use of lethal force. Already at least 5,800 troops had been deployed, with occasional talk of several thousand more waiting to be sent. Some US engineering troops had already erected fences across parts of the border, and this opened an opportunity for the Trump administration to use US troops, and the defense budget, to launch the building of his border wall—an opportunity which remained open at least to the end of the year.

In exceptionally hard language, even for Trump, the US president announced that if necessary the entire border with Mexico would be shut down to prevent the illegal entry of the migrant caravan. Trump reiterated the position that US troops could use lethal force, primarily to defend themselves. Trump also lambasted the migrants as irrational, volatile criminals who are prone to fistfights without provocation. The threat to close the border, which would mean shutting down overland trade with Mexico, would effectively kick the ball into the Mexican court, leaving Mexican authorities to decide whether to support the migrants or support their trade revenues from the US.

Early in the month, Trump signed an executive order denying asylum to those entering the country illegally. Later in the month, this order was challenged by a judge, forcing Trump to escalate the legal battle possibly as far as the Supreme Court (which the Republicans control). As with the failure to stop Trump’s travel ban in the past, this would likely delay rather than end Trump’s order. In addition, Trump challenged the principle of citizenship by birthright, which threatened to open a constitutional battle.

In light of these events, it was interesting to hear Hillary Clinton advise European politicians to “get a handle” on immigration in order to stem the rise of populist parties, not that she nor any of the other eminent participants in interviews with The Guardian were able to explain the rise of such movements and their electoral successes. What is interesting is that Clinton is partly going back on her pro-immigration narrative of 2016, as brief as that lasted, a pro-immigration narrative that had ample contradiction from both her past statements and the policies pursued by the Obama administration which in fact differed little from Trump’s.

In an ill-advised attempt to crash the US border, a group of migrants attempted to storm the border crossing from Mexico into San Diego on November 25, resulting in US customs and border patrol firing tear gas in self-defense against volleys of stones and bottles thrown at them by the migrants. In response, Mexico deported 100 of the migrants who were involved. The liberal media persisted in its failure to explain a glaring contradiction: why would so many people be so desperate to migrate to Trump’s America, when so many liberal celebrities had themselves promised to move to Canada after Trump won the 2016 election? Liberal journalists, such as CNN’s Jim Acosta, were clearly also wrong in denying—presumably on the basis of some special clairvoyance—that the migrant caravan was “not an invasion” and that the migrants would not be climbing over the border fence nor engaging in violence. Clearly the media were once again proven to be wrong, which helps to explain why Trump has a higher trust rating than the media. While the media were generally filled with outrage over the tear gassing at the border, the same media had little to say back in 2013 when under the Obama administration a similar crowd was repelled from the border by agents using pepper spray.

Nationalism or Patriotism?

Few are the academics who would notice much of the “intellectual heavyweight” in either Emmanuel Macron or Angela Merkel, who are not known for their scholarly dissertations on abstract concepts. They are technocrats. They speak the language of policy, not philosophy, and they trade in partisanship. Yet these were the people who led the neoliberal corporate media in rousing chants that “nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism,” “the exact opposite of patriotism,” and even that “nationalism is treason”—leaving the rest of us to wonder if these people had ever heard of synonyms, or understood what a synonym was, or had ever familiarized themselves with the meaning of nationalism. In most dictionary definitions, such as this one, patriotism is a defining element of nationalism:

nationalism
noun

  1. spirit or aspirations common to the whole of a nation.
  2. devotion and loyalty to one’s own country; patriotism.
  3. excessive patriotism; chauvinism.

It works in the reverse direction too of course, where patriotism is logically defined as loyalty to one’s country, i.e., nationalism:

patriotism
noun

  1. devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country; national loyalty.

Yet media from CNN to the New York Times and Der Zeit could not stop crowing about this imaginary point that was scored, this fatal blow, this towering insight that nationalism is somehow a betrayal of patriotism. Re-examine the definitions above, and one can honestly judge whether the media, and the politicians they echoed, were not producing “fake news”. If it is not deception, it is certainly a failure to inform and educate the public, and an assault on language.

At the very least, this is an instructive example of what happens to knowledge when one lets partisan ideological combat take the lead. In an effort to be “opposed to everything that is Trump,” Macron, Merkel, and their media amplifiers thought they could steal Trump’s ball, and run with it. Instead they tripped over their long tongues and tied themselves up as purveyors of meaningless gibberish.

Blaming “America First isolationism” as the “root” of WWI and WWII, has to be one of the most egregious examples of historical revisionism to be aired in recent times. Macron likewise failed to understand that what he calls “patriotism” is instead liberal cosmopolitanism.

Beyond all of this, this was a glimpse into the kind of chasm that has opened up between the US and western Europe. This became especially evident after Trump developed cheerful relations with Macron, praising the latter warmly, only to rebuff him abruptly when Macron lobbied Trump to remain in the Iran nuclear agreement and to also avoid a trade war with Europe. Obviously, relations between the two had to sour. Just a few weeks later, Trump would repay the favour, in obvious public gloating over the massive protests that shook France and were aimed at Macron and his policies. Trump declared:

“Maybe it’s time to end the ridiculous and extremely expensive Paris Agreement and return money back to the people in the form of lower taxes? The U.S. was way ahead of the curve on that and the only major country where emissions went down last year!”

Even before that, Trump made the following comment:

“The Paris Agreement isn’t working out so well for Paris. Protests and riots all over France. People do not want to pay large sums of money, much to third world countries (that are questionably run), in order to maybe protect the environment. Chanting ‘We Want Trump!’ Love France”.

In response, France’s foreign minister would suddenly rediscover nationalism and demanded that Trump “leave our nation be”.

Russia, Ukraine, and the G20

After Russia seized three Ukrainian navy vessels which entered its territorial waters without permission, in what the Russians legitimately perceived as a provocative act of aggression, Trump left it unclear as to whether he would meet with Putin at the upcoming G20 meeting in Argentina (November 30–December 1, 2018). Leaders speaking to each other, a key element of diplomacy, was apparently open to sacrifice in order to make a symbolic protest of no consequence. The Ukrainian provocation, which resulted in Russian aircraft firing on the vessels and wounding several crew members, was conveniently timed right before the start of the G20 summit, and for the start of election campaigning in Ukraine, thus the president imposed martial law allegedly in response to Russia seizing Ukrainian vessels. Mere moments after a new plea agreement between Trump’s former lawyer and the Mueller investigation, Trump reversed course: earlier in the morning of his departure to the G20 he affirmed he would meet with Putin, but once on the plane he tweeted that no meeting was possible until Russia returned the Ukrainian vessels. Once again it appeared that domestic politics played a dangerous role in undermining diplomacy with a key international actor that exerts considerable influence in areas the US has defined as being of strategic interest.

Fake News and the Russiagate Conspiracy Theory

A particularly striking example of “fake news” was presented courtesy of The Guardian, which falsely alleged that Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, held three secret talks with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, in his place of asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Contacted by the author of the article for comment, Assange flatly denied the rumour as false—his response was not included in the article. The article has no known sources and has not been corroborated. On top of that, after Assange’s bet—$1 million and the editor’s job—The Guardian has made repeated edits to the article, softening and diluting the piece, written by a particularly discredited “reporter”. WikiLeaks is now raising money to sue The Guardian for libel. Manafort also absolutely denied the story, and called it libelous. Manafort’s own passports show he could not have met Assange in the years alleged by The Guardian’s Luke Harding, since his passport stamps reveal no visit to the UK. There was some speculation that, in conjunction with events surrounding the Mueller investigation in the US, this might be a means for the US to indict Assange. This episode further underscores the reality that the media are purveying ludicrous conspiracy theories in support of Russiagate, continuing to erode any remaining public’s confidence in their willingness to report the news fairly and accurately. It’s an own goal.

Top Articles for November


DECEMBER

Pausing the US–China Trade War?

By the end of the G20 summit in Argentina that began on November 30, China and the US announced a 90-day “truce” during which China promised to purchase more US goods and remove some tariffs on US automobiles, while the US would not impose new tariffs of 25% on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods. Some news media, not those usually supportive of Trump, congratulated Trump on important gains. As a truce, however, there is no resolution to the basic lines of conflict between the US and Chinese governments. Also, statements released by China and the US, when placed side by side, showed significant differences of interpretation of the truce. This is likely to be an issue that will continue to feature prominently in 2019.

Perhaps the most important feature of this G20 was increased recognition of the fact that both the G20 and the WTO, have essentially ceased to play a decisive role in international affairs. In fact, at Trump’s insistence, the final communiqué of the G20 called for “reform” of the WTO, while none of the positions that most irk Trump were mentioned. A former director general of the WTO, Pascal Lamy, had many serious criticisms of Trump’s trade war strategy, his understanding of the roots of the US trade deficit, his approach to the WTO, and the US’ illegal imposition of extraterritorial sanctions.

Just a day after the announcement of a US–China truce, President Trump tweeted that he was still a “tariff man”: he claimed that the tariffs maximized US economic power, generating billions in revenues, and that in any case trade with the US is a privilege. Seemingly in response, at least the way liberal media constructed it, stock markets went into a deep nosedive. There was little to no discussion of the many other factors that could have induced the sell-off. Among those was that it became even foggier as to what China and the US had agreed on at the G20, with Chinese media making no mention of any reduction in Chinese tariffs, or even that the truce would last 90 days.

Exacerbating tensions between the US and Chinese governments was the arrest (in Canada) of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei. She was to be expatriated to the US, for Huawei’s alleged violation of US sanctions against Iran, sanctions that prohibit the export of US technologies (such as those purchased by Huawei) from being re-exported to Iran. China’s government was angered, and demanded her immediate release. The CFO was arrested at the same time as Trump and Xi Jinping were meeting in Buenos Aires, and China was likely to see this as an act of bad faith on the Americans’ part. Then the US accused China of orchestrating the years-long hack of the Starwood hotel chain, in what looked like the conversion of a trade war into a cold war. Responding to growing US alarm about China, the South China Morning Post advised Americans to look in the mirror, and stop seeing shadows of imaginary empires elsewhere.

While some saw China as suffering the costs of its own tariffs on US soy beans, Trump seemed to grow more sensitive to the possible short-term economic damage of a trade war with China, and he sounded increasingly eager to boast of his excellence in negotiating deals. As one writer saw it, if Trump failed to negotiate a new deal with China, a recession would set in and likely damage Trump’s chances for re-election, putting Trump’s electoral chances in the hands of China. The same argument could be made with reference to North Korea, placing Trump in a possible lose-lose situation there.

Against the US’ Forever War in Afghanistan

Whether by design or coincidence, articles appeared in December (as they had appeared throughout the year) that criticized continued US warfare in Afghanistan. Most saw it as a fool’s errand, and had praise for Trump’s “instincts” on withdrawing US troops from combat in Afghanistan. While these articles tended to acknowledge that Trump had said that he deferred to “the experts” in the military on continuing US intervention, they also suggested that actual experts were coming to a very different consensus, and they criticized the advice given to Trump. An article in The National Interest by Jerrod A. Laber noted how “intervention begets more intervention” (as argued, and demonstrated, in Slouching Towards Sirte). Such interventionism generated hubris, and continued US intervention in Afghanistan was now more about saving face, according to Laber. Another pointed out the long list of US failures in Afghanistan, that in some ways made it a quagmire worse than Vietnam.

For strong arguments against what seemed like another permanent occupation in the making, in Syria, see: “When Will Trump Bring Home U.S. Forces from Syria?

North Korea and the US: Who is on Top Now?

There was news in early December that presented evidence of North Korea’s expansion of a key missile site, one that would house precisely the sorts of missiles capable of striking the US mainland. If correct, this would show that North Korea is not as terrified by sanctions as imagined. More than that, it might reflect a very shrewd political calculation on the North Koreans’ part: either Trump eases or eliminates sanctions, or he faces major embarrassment when he goes up for re-election. Trump boasted of the success of his summit with Kim Jong-un, and even praised the North Korean leader—it would be a major loss of face for Trump to now admit failure, and that maybe he is not the master of the “art of the deal” as he likes to claim. Having done so much to turn North Korea into a focal point of his foreign policy, Trump is inevitably married to the outcomes of this relationship. On the other hand, reports that the Trump administration insisted that negotiations with North Korea were “working,” despite evidence of North Korea ramping up its defence program, were credible in the sense that continued talks were happening, a fact more reported in South Korean than US media. Both sides are adjusting their positions in an ongoing process, so it need not be the case that North Korea is a landmine in the path of Trump’s re-election.

It’s also correct that North Korea never agreed to cease missile production and development. There is no signed agreement to that effect, so the US cannot hold North Korea to any such commitment right now. In order to achieve such an outcome, the US would have to make concessions as well. As one report summarized, North Korea “has suspended all nuclear and long-range missile tests, released three U.S. citizens imprisoned in North Korea, demolished [its] only known nuclear test site and razed a missile test stand at one of [its] main testing facilities….the U.S. has refused to lift sanctions or upgrade the 1953 ceasefire agreement to a full-fledged peace treaty”.

It would be one of the most striking of ironies if Trump, who campaigned against globalism, were to lose his next electoral campaign thanks to the impact of foreign forces, regardless of whether they are China, North Korea, Iran, or others. On the other hand, it should serve as a reminder that as long as US presidents style themselves as “war presidents” or “foreign policy presidents,” then it should be expected that they will be vulnerable to the influences of developments beyond their borders. And it’s a fitting outcome, given the extent to which the US interferes in other nations, and even presumes to tell economic giants with whom they can and cannot trade.

Globalists Take a Hammering: Canada, France

In Canada, where the Liberal Party suffered major defeats in two successive provincial elections, in the provincial giants Ontario and Quebec, the federal government under Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced a serious backlash on two fronts: tariffs and immigration. On the latter, Trudeau’s government is planning to sign the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, an agreement that is loaded with serious implications for Canadian sovereignty and a free media. Trudeau seems to have underestimated the degree of public opposition on this issue. Recently however, Trudeau has been forced to make concessions to Quebec in acknowledgment of the high costs produced by the recent influx of asylum claimants entering via the US—and Trudeau’s meeting with the leaders of the provinces failed to produce agreement on issues pertaining to climate change and illegal immigration. Already the new government of Quebec has followed through on its campaign promise to reduce immigration into Quebec by 20%. Unemployment persists, as do low wages for service workers, yet Quebec employers claim there is a “labour shortage,” and have asked for more temporary foreign workers. What they mean is that there is a shortage of labourers willing to accept wages that do not allow them to subsist above the poverty line. On the question of Trudeau’s failure to win an end to steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by the US, as a condition for signing the agreement to replace NAFTA, opposition parties in parliament are uniting in their condemnation and demanding answers. The CBC as usual worked to provide what little cover it could to Trudeau, suggesting Canada had ways of maybe getting around Trump (why had it not done so yet?). Trump may not want Trudeau in office, and getting Trudeau to sign the USMCA without any US concessions on tariffs makes Trudeau look exceptionally ineffective as a national leader (which he does not want to be), with general elections around the corner.

Meanwhile in France, the massive revolt of the “Yellow Vests” was provoked by Emmanuel Macron’s imposition of a new carbon tax on fuel as a supposed way of addressing “climate change”. The days of burning revolt, by hundreds of thousands of mostly working-class protesters over five consecutive weekends (at the time of writing), helped to put the spotlight on growing popular outrage over the transfer of tax burdens to workers, who have already suffered enough from “austerity”. In a weak response, Macron’s government promised a six-month moratorium on the imposition of the new tax—thereby admitting there is a problem with the tax, but doing nothing to resolve the problems that provoked weeks of revolt. Far from over, the revolt has attracted anywhere from 68% to 84% support of all French citizens, depending on the poll. Macron has been completely exposed as a representative of arrogant, distant, disconnected, “cosmopolitan” elites (with more financial backing for his election coming from British sources [likely bankers], than France’s regions combined). On the other hand, all the talk of Macron’s arrogance is what permitted some, such as The Economist, to opine that in the end Macron’s problem was more one of presentation than policy thus allowing it to praise exactly the kinds of policies at the root of France’s protests.

That Macron’s policies were problematic was admitted to by none other than Macron himself, in a televised speech to the nation on December 10. Nevertheless, what Macron promised were small-scale or temporary measures, while his reforms were meant to be long-term, large-scale, even permanent—all this while claiming that France was in a state of “economic emergency”. The problem was not just with presentation (which itself was not too credible), but with inherently flawed policy. Judging by the reaction in France to Macron’s speech, the speech generally appeared to fall well short of quieting protest.

Macron has entertained ambitions of becoming globalism’s world champion, only to repeatedly fail to produce results. Macron went as far as criticizing Trump’s policies and nationalism, in front of the US Congress and in November at an international gathering in France. While Macron was winning the applause of the liberal US media and politicians, he was clearly losing any leg to stand on at home. Right now Macron is behind Marine Le Pen’s National Rally as France gets ready for the May 2019 European elections. Macron is such an unpopular leader at home that, by comparison, he has less than half of the approval rating of Trump, whose positions on the Paris climate agreement Macron has unwillingly helped to validate. Even three years after 175 states signed the Paris climate agreement, global CO2 emissions are increasing, and China, India, and some African nations are building new coal plants—not even the signatories seem to take the agreement seriously.

Yellow Vest protests spread across France, and beyond. There were Yellow Vest protests in Belgium, and as far away as Canada, with protests in Edmonton and Calgary (Alberta) and Ottawa. Donald Trump also relished the prospects of a populist revolt in France, saluting the protesters in a series of Twitter messages—in response the French foreign minister suddenly found his nationalism and demanded that Trump “leave our nation be”. Beyond this, organized opposition to carbon pricing plans have spread internationally as well.

There appeared to be a mix of arrogance and indifference on the part of globalist elites such as Macron and Trudeau, combined with a strange new determination to proceed with the same sorts of policies, defended with the same attitudes, that helped to propel the populist movement in both Europe and all of North America. As one columnist put it, France witnessed a “politics of gestures” at the expense of people who can least afford such gestures.

The media for their part, particularly in North America, did their best to hide or obscure the fact that the “fuel tax” was tied to government plans to address climate change through carbon pricing. There were rare exceptions at first.

Frustrating Brexit

Ever since UK citizens, exercising the right to determine their own affairs, voted in support of Brexit, it seems that almost everything conceivable has been done to frustrate its realization, either by political leaders at home and certainly by the leading technocrats of the EU. In December matters seemed to reach a climax when UK Prime Minister Theresa May, fresh from the final negotiations with the EU over the terms of the UK’s exit, faced such opposition in parliament that she herself refused to put the deal to a vote. Then came a vote of no confidence in her government, badly fractured as it was with many key Brexit supporters having departed her cabinet. May had also suffered a drubbing at the polls, transforming the Conservatives hold over parliament from a majority to a minority government. However, May survived the no-confidence vote. May also promised to put the deal before a vote in parliament on or by January 21, 2019. The EU refused to renegotiate the deal, and it now seemed likelier that Britain would exit without a deal in place, which would be very costly for the UK.

Farewell Terra Nullius? The Withdrawal from Syria and Imperial Grief

“This, then, is one of those moments those of us not fond of death and destruction can once again celebrate that Hillary Clinton – who championed the Libya campaign, wickedly joked about Gaddafi’s murder and supported regime change in Syria – never made it to the White House.”—John R. Bradley

In late December it was interesting to note how one of the analytical connections made in “Syria: The New Terra Nullius,” received what looked like validation from the White House itself. On the very same day that the Republicans forced Trump’s hand into accepting defeat on his demand for funding for the border wall, Trump turned around and announced the US withdrawal from Syria. If the US cannot occupy its own border, then it won’t be occupying Syria either.

We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2018

This time, Trump was not bluffing, as the actual withdrawal of forces had begun and Trump gave his generals 30 days to complete the withdrawal. It’s not clear that he was bluffing back in March, as much as giving the military a six-month extension, which has now expired. Those claiming to be “surprised” do so as part of their oppositional rhetoric, for what little it’s worth. (Reuters repeats the word “surprise” four times in a short article—in case you missed the point that what Trump signalled years ago, and again this past March, is a “surprise”. Then Reuters added another article, all about the “surprise” of it all.)

It was amusing to see Trump’s “friends” at Fox News easily breeze through news that there would be no government shutdown over “the wall”, and then slow down, grow visibly concerned, voices lowering, as they called in their “experts” to “talk to us” about the Syria withdrawal—the “experts” of course were the usual retired military officials working as lobbyists for defence industries and militarist think tanks. The next day Fox News kept up its attempt to pressure the president, by hosting a series of pointed lectures from neocons some of whom had once belonged to the “Never Trump” camp. Fox also allowed time for military supporters of Trump’s order of withdrawal, a cornerstone of his campaign (it was Obama who put US forces in Syria)—at the same time, Fox interviewers often used these opportunities to reinsert their pro-interventionist narrative, identical to the one found on CNN where Jake Tapper endorsed the view that it was a victory for Russia. Vladimir Putin, for his part, was sceptical that the US would actually withdraw. US forces would in fact remain in neighbouring Iraq, where their numbers have been much larger. France asserted its (very few) forces would remain in Syria, though clearly without US protection, and at the mercy of much larger Syrian and Turkish forces. Elsewhere the French confirmed as much, noting how “the coalition doesn’t work without the US”.

One of the main complaints was that a US withdrawal would create a mythical “vacuum”—in the absence of US forces, nature apparently defaults to vacuums. It’s bad physics but it’s even worse as a continuation of colonial ethnocentrism and racism. This is basic terra nullius logic. Imagine your country being called a “void” when you live in it. In the absence of Americans, there is “no there, there”. Reuters was plainly just as guilty as the rest in repeating these imperial fictions.

In the US it’s still politically correct to be imperialist, even when it was imperialism that gave birth to racism, which itself is selectively deemed politically incorrect (but at home only).

Just as grief-stricken as Fox was, The New York Times in language that was almost identical bemoaned what it chose to characterize as an “abrupt” and “chaotic” move that “rattled” allies and caused “disarray”—these were not observations, just their own subjective assessments, and they reveal far more about the writers.

Yet this withdrawal was a longstanding promise on Trump’s part, and his failure to deliver thus far never won any of the opposite praises from the NYT, which never described any of Trump’s policies as “calm,” “systematic,” that “assured” allies and enforced “order”. Had Trump remained stuck in Syria, was the NYT prepared to endorse Trump as calm, orderly, and rational? As for allowing opposing views to be heard, the NYT permitted only two short paragraphs at the very end, from one single source.

Palpable thus was the grief expressed by “warmongers on the left and right,” the liberal imperialists that dominate the Washington establishment. Fox and CNN were not alone as even The Hill ironically seemed to complain that Trump’s decision was made “without consulting Congress”—forgetting that the intervention in Syria began without Congressional approval. What some in the US media would have is a president who requires no approval for war, but only for peace—classic warmongering. The media’s de facto Secretary of State, Senator Lindsey Graham, accused Trump of making an “Obama-like mistake,” which also ironically erased the fact that it was precisely Obama’s mistake to intervene in Syria in the first place. David Ignatius complained of the end of “successful wars”—because apparently the successful wars are the ones that should continue forever (like in Afghanistan?).

Finally, here are some of Trump’s other statements on the US withdrawal from Syria:

“I’m proud of the President today to hear that he is declaring victory in Syria.” Senator Rand Paul. “I couldn’t agree more with the presidents decision. By definition, this is the opposite of an Obama decision. Senator Mike Lee— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 20, 2018

Getting out of Syria was no surprise. I’ve been campaigning on it for years, and six months ago, when I very publicly wanted to do it, I agreed to stay longer. Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there work. Time to come home & rebuild. #MAGA— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 20, 2018

Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight…..— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 20, 2018

….Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us. I am building by far the most powerful military in the world. ISIS hits us they are doomed!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 20, 2018

There was also video from Donald Trump at the White House, which indirectly could remind viewers that the lives of US troops are not to be freely expended to satisfy ideological whims on foreign adventures.

As the news unfolded, US Defense Secretary James Mattis confirmed that he too would be leaving the Trump administration, and it seemed to some that the withdrawal from Syria played a part in his justification (though his resignation made no mention of Syria).

Top Articles for December

On Zero Anthropology this month:

  1. The War of the Public Intellectuals: A Review of ‘Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal’ (2015),” December 2.
  2. Publicity or Marginality? On the Question of Academic ‘Silencing’ in Anthropology,” December 14.

Top articles of the month:

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