Did Moscow Really Poison the Skripals?

The Trump administration confidently asserts that the Kremlin poisoned Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, on a public bench in Salisbury, England, at the beginning of March. The actual evidence appears inconclusive, though; as of Tuesday, investigating scientists at the Porton Down research laboratory had not uncovered any proof of Russian involvement.

Are our leaders making up “facts” again?

Particularly strange is how much they emphasize that “Novichok,” the poison reportedly used at Salisbury, first emerged in the Soviet Union. True enough, the Russians invented it during the Cold War – but the chemist Vil Mirzayanov later published the formula for Novichok in State Secrets, a widely available book about Moscow’s chemical weapons program. According to Mirzayanov himself, anyone with the book and requisite components could have concocted the nerve agent allegedly unleashed on the Skripals. How does that incriminate Russia?

The official narrative is questionable on other grounds, too. The Russians vehemently deny committing this crime, meaning that if they did it, they probably did not want the world to know. Why, then, use a nerve agent that everybody associates with Moscow? Are the Russians really that harebrained?

Maybe the Trump administration theorizes that the Kremlin’s master plan was to insist upon Russia’s innocence while still scaring the bejeebers out of Moscow’s detractors by using an obviously Russian poison that – in spite of Vladimir Putin’s face-saving denial – would inevitably trigger unease among Russian dissidents. According to this theory, Moscow was striving for a delicate balance, seeking to inspire fear of the Kremlin without jeopardizing Russia’s plausible deniability.

This “balancing act” theory is not ridiculous, but surely the Russians realize that any mysterious crime against a Russian ex-spy – conducted with or without a recognizable Russian poison – is enough to provoke suspicion (and therefore fear) of Russia. If the Russians wanted to intimidate their critics without sparking a huge Western backlash, then, they probably would have had reservations about choosing a poison that screams “Russia!” for the entire Western world to hear.

Okay, but who other than the Russians would have wanted to poison the Skripals? Gee, I don’t know – maybe someone keen to frame the Kremlin by engineering an attack that the impetuous “Confront Russia” crowd would happily blame on Moscow? In case it is not yet clear, there are bellicose people on both sides of the Atlantic eager to portray the Kremlin as a dire threat to Western civilization. Is it really so absurd to wonder whether some group of them, perhaps with the connivance of high-ranking U.S. or British officials, perpetrated this attack as a pretext for “retaliation” against Russia?

Of course, as time has passed and the government-peddled falsehoods about Saddam Hussein have faded from public view, it has become increasingly taboo again to acknowledge the mere possibility that Western officials lie. And yet they do lie, and some have indeed gone to the extraordinary lengths of hatching criminal plots to pin on their adversaries. The CIA’s Operation WASHTUB, for example, had operatives plant Soviet materiel in Nicaragua in 1954 in order to “prove” that Moscow was supporting Guatemalan Prime Minister Jacobo Árbenz. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lyman Lemnitzer followed that up in 1962 with Operation Northwoods, a proposal to overthrow Fidel Castro “in response” to a series of “Cuban” terrorist attacks to be conducted clandestinely by the U.S. government. It never came to fruition, though not for a lack of commitment on Lemnitzer’s part.

If it could happen during the Cold War, then why not today? Human nature hasn’t disappeared since then, and neither has the fraught U.S.-Russian relationship. The Cold War era’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization is still alive and kicking, and proxy wars between the U.S. and Russia have returned with a vengeance, accompanied by frenetic suggestions that we “need” to confront our dreaded enemies overseas. Admitting it may be uncomfortable, but the environment is ripe for U.S. and British chicanery.

To be sure, we may discover some day that this particular act of chicanery was Russian after all. But with the New Cold War fully on, it would be foolish just to take the Trump administration’s word for it. As we know by now, there are power brokers in Washington who, if given a free pass, will use even the most dubious accusations of Russian misconduct to intensify the drumbeats of war. We cannot let them get away with anything, lest the worst come to pass.

This article originally appeared at Antiwar.com.

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Congratulatory Calls and Cold War II

Donald Trump congratulated Vladimir Putin on his recent reelection to a fourth term, and the mimetic Russia pundits are outraged again. And their outrage is again more outrageous than the actual sin.

True, a U.S. president should not be praising an authoritarian like Putin. But the fact that Trump’s utterance has ignited such a fury – while more serious offenses have not – reveals just how far our country’s Russia obsession has removed us from reality. For some sense of the problem, consider the MSNBC guest who, with no apparent objection from the show’s host, claimed last week that the congratulatory phone call to Putin may mark the “lowest point” in Trump’s presidency so far. Oh, sure, it may be “low” of Trump to enable the wholesale starvation of Yemen, but not as low as this!

Of course, such a warped sense of proportion is by now de rigueur. For more than a year, we have been expected to believe that the alleged “bromance” between Trump and Putin warrants greater concern than the threat of U.S. imperial aggression against a whole host of countries, Russia most certainly among them. Meanwhile, Cold War II has expanded apace, with U.S. agents inching ever closer to large-scale shooting matches against Russian forces on two continents. But again, let us not lose sight of the real crisis: Trump is so darn nice to Putin!

This hankering for some grand confrontation between Trump and Putin is definitely absurd, but it is no laughing matter. By insinuating that the two leaders are joined at the hip, our Russia pundits indeed make it easier for Americans to overlook the ever-growing list of Trumpian maneuvers that should be troubling all of us more: the closure of Moscow’s consulate in San Francisco, the deployment of troops to Poland and the Baltics, the provision of lethal assistance to Ukraine’s anti-Russian government, to name just a few. Heck, Trump is even expelling 60 Russian diplomats over Moscow’s alleged role in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal – an attack that Trump was condemned for not mentioning in his phone call to Putin last week. Will that be enough to satisfy the New Cold Warriors and their friends in the media?

I wouldn’t bet on it.

As painful as it is to acknowledge, there are influential Americans whose thirst for a fight with Russia is not even close to slaked. One of them is John Bolton, Trump’s incoming National Security Advisor who calls economic sanctions nowhere “near sufficient” and advocates a “decidedly disproportionate” campaign of cyber sabotage to put the fear of God into our Russian enemies. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense James Mattis are no Russia doves either, what with their documented appetite for “low-yield” nuclear weapons and their assorted threats against Russian allies in Syria. Such militarists have our president’s ear, and we shouldn’t much doubt they’re screaming into it.

Now, is it possible that this administration – perhaps because of some “dirt” that the Kremlin has on Trump – is deliberately refraining from getting even tougher on Russia? Anything is possible at this point, but we shouldn’t let the conjectural distract us from the verifiable: hawks in Washington are bolstering Moscow’s enemies, ejecting its diplomats, stationing troops near Russia’s border, and likely gearing up for more. If that worries us less than some ceremonial remarks to Putin do, then the worst of Cold War II may be yet to come.

This article originally appeared at Antiwar.com

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The United States and Wahhabism

A quick review…

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Syrian Quicksand

When will we learn? War is quicksand. The destruction of one evildoer usually gives way to a second evildoer, the latter of which we find ourselves “obligated” to fight for the same reasons we were “obligated” to fight the former.

Look at Syria, where ISIL’s downfall has left the region’s other competitors squabbling for control. Tehran and Tel Aviv are feuding after an Iranian drone allegedly drifted into Israel’s airspace and triggered a confrontation with Syrian troops that brought down an Israeli F-16 on Saturday. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proceeded with Operation Olive Branch, an offensive he began in January to counter the Kurds in Afrin before his probable incursion into the Kurdish territory of Manbij.

Atop it all, Bashar al-Assad has continued fighting anti-government holdouts—and his Russian patrons have continued supporting him—as civilians in the Idlib war zone find themselves caught in what The Washington Post on Wednesday characterized as a “death trap.”

Still hankering for war after ISIL’s defeat, the United States military apparatus has stuck around for this slugfest as well. The ostensible purpose of our government’s continued involvement, beyond engaging in general “counter-terrorism,” is to bolster the Kurds’ Syrian Democratic Forces, even though that puts the U.S. on a direct collision course with the Syrian, Russian, and Turkish governments. For its part, the Syria-Russia tandem wants to rout the Kurdish fighters so that Assad can tighten his grip on the country, while Erdogan continues to view any Kurdish stronghold in Syria as a potential breeding ground for attacks on Ankara.

Neither Assad loyalists nor Turkish leaders have hesitated to make these feelings known, by the way; Syrian troops have already battled the Kurds’ U.S. allies, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu demanded last month that U.S. personnel evacuate Manbij so the Turks can overrun it.

Against that backdrop, with the U.S. sticking to its guns, it is difficult not to wonder what the point of all of this is. Our leaders (in this century, anyway) first dragged us to the region to oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq; when ISIL replaced him, our leaders decided to stay for more. Now that ISIL is greatly weakened, they want more still, perhaps in order to defeat Assad, the Kurds’ Turkish adversaries, and pockets of Islamist stragglers in Syria. But new rogues will crop up after them, and then what? Will this game ever end?

Our only hope is to abandon the logic of a Pax Americana, which holds that malefactors abroad—through an apparently permanent US war footing—generally can and should be eliminated. It is a tempting system of thought, not least for its simplicity, but history suggests that it is more likely to produce carnage than to bring peace.

If it is peace we want for the people of Syria, then we should heed the advice of libertariansprogressives, and certain conservatives who advocate opening the United States to innocent refugees. Save for that, let us leave the Syrian matter alone.

This piece originally appeared at CounterPunch.org the morning of February 16, 2018. 

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My Performance at the 2017 Compassion Over Killing Winter Celebration

Thank you to the amazing Leona Amosah for recording it.

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Pushing Russia’s Buttons

Assume for a moment that the popular allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election are all true. How should the US government retaliate?

Short answer: it shouldn’t (any more than it already has). If the Kremlin sneakily helped Donald Trump to victory, then it is likely that our government’s longstanding and unnecessary “punishment” of Russia largely motivated the interference. To reduce the chances of something so appalling from happening in future elections, we should therefore move to relieve the dangerously high tensions that have been mounting between the US and Russia for decades.

For détente to succeed, leaders in the US must try to understand and allay Russia’s legitimate security concerns. That begins with acknowledging the profound Russian trauma caused by World War II, a tragedy to which the Soviet Union lost hundreds of towns and more than 20 million people in less than a decade. Given the depth of that horror, the US should appreciate why Russians today get squeamish when foreign powers start flexing their muscles on Russia’s western border.

Russian statesmen have explained their fears before, but to seemingly little effect. Strong evidence suggests that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, scared of Western encroachment, agreed to NATO’s incorporation of a reunified Germany in 1990 only because the US in turn agreed not to expand the alliance any further east than that. But in flagrant disregard for the objections that the Russians had previously articulated, NATO exploited its newfound strength in post-Soviet Europe by subsuming Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland under President Bill Clinton in 1999.

Tasked with ushering Russia into the new century, President Vladimir Putin established some rapport with the incoming US President George W. Bush in 2001. However, relations chilled in 2002 when the US officially abandoned the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and thereby opened the door to a US defense system capable of stopping Russia from effectively using its own nuclear arsenal in response to a US nuclear attack. Against that backdrop, Russia grew even more worried about US recklessness when Bush defied Putin by beginning a protracted and bloody occupation of Iraq in 2003.

Meanwhile, US activity in Europe continued to drive the two governments further apart. In 2004, NATO reignited the Kremlin’s unease about Western military expansion by admitting another set of European countries, this time bringing the alliance all the way up to Russia’s border. Then, shortly before Bush left office, the friction became even more palpable when the United States’ Georgian clients fought Russian troops in the brief but devastating Russo-Georgian War of 2008.

Although President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried initiating a so-called “reset” in US-Russia relations upon taking office, the new Cold War raged on. In the wake of Russia’s 2011 parliamentary election, Clinton proclaimed that Russian leaders should be “accountable” and requested a “full investigation” into allegations of election “fraud and intimidation.” These thinly veiled jabs at Putin, combined with Clinton’s role in the then-recent ouster and killing of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, increased Moscow’s disquiet about Clinton’s aggressively meddlesome tendencies.

Clinton resigned before Obama levied sanctions in response to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, but she continued to promote militarism from the sidelines. Notably, she advocated a no-fly zone to check the power of Kremlin-backed President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, endorsed sanctions against Russia itself, and criticized European leaders for their generally weak response to the authoritarian, pugnacious Putin. Of course, Assad’s Islamist enemies and Putin’s various fascist enemies in Ukraine were not exactly peaceniks either, but Clinton didn’t seem to mind much. Even if it meant strengthening a few terrorist rebels and neo-Nazis along the way, the aspiring Democratic president was apparently intent on putting Russia in its place.

What happened next is still unclear, but let us again consider what it would mean if Russia—likely in hopes of keeping a proven warmonger out of the White House—then executed the alleged plans to undermine Clinton’s campaign. For one, it would mean that the Kremlin behaved despicably, especially because vulnerable Americans who played no role in our government’s provocation of Russia may now be paying the price for it under the rule of an erratic President Trump. However, it would not mean that the US should heighten its attacks on Russia. In fact, any conceivable Russian interference in the 2016 election would give Washington an additional reason to reduce tensions with Moscow today, to try to keep the Kremlin from destabilizing our country again.

Although conventional wisdom may suggest otherwise, the US can pursue this type of détente without sacrificing its national assertiveness. It is no contradiction for the US to promote de-escalation—by lifting sanctions, refusing lethal assistance to Ukraine, and generally scaling down military involvement in Europe—while retaining the option of strongly penalizing Russia if the Kremlin later proves to be the incorrigible, chaos-craving, empire-enhancing government that so many in Washington seem to imagine. At this point, though, it seems likely that Russia is more interested in softening the United States’ aggressive geopolitical posture than in triggering American chaos for the sheer heck of it. That is why peace with Russia is probably still achievable through diplomacy, but we will have to seize the moment before the new Cold War spirals even further out of control.

This article originally appeared at CounterPunch.

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Why Must We Sanction Russia?

Donald Trump is no peacenik. In the footsteps of Barack Obama, he has worsened the man-made famine in Yemen, now the epicenter of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since 1945. He has decertified Iranian compliance with the JCPOA, even though the IAEA, U.S. intelligence agencies, and Israeli intelligence agencies all agree that Iran is respecting the agreement. On top of that, he has killed civilians in Iraq, extended the 16-year occupation of Afghanistan, and issued terrifying verbal threats to the North Korean government. But just as a broken clock is right twice a day, an otherwise dependable militarist sometimes falls into a peaceful position. For Trump, who earlier this month seemed to lament that “Russia has been very, very heavily sanctioned,” now might be one of those times.

Criticizing sanctions against Russia, even in the implicit way that Trump does, means questioning the widespread assumption that our government has a moral obligation to punish Russia’s crimes. But this mainstream wisdom, which sometimes construes Russian President Vladimir Putin as an almost uniquely evil and implacable Hitlerian, dangerously misrepresents the nature and context of the Kremlin’s misbehavior. In reality, many of Putin’s battlefield opponents are just as illiberal as he is, and nonviolent engagement with Putin—the sort that Trump pursued earlier this week—is probably adequate to improve Putin’s treatment of the United States. Even if we disregard the general failure of sanctions to achieve their supporters’ stated objectives, then, we have good reason to oppose our government’s provocative, lopsided, and civilian-harming sanctions against Russia.

For a glimpse of the misguided anti-Russia fervor currently motivating U.S. action, consider the sanctions bill that Congress passed in July to punish Putin for supporting nefarious activities in such places as Syria. Proponents of that legislation certainly have great reasons to despise Russia’s allies in the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, but exactly which of the real-world alternatives to Assad would our pro-sanctions compatriots prefer? Having struck out for Syria’s “moderate” rebels, a good many of whom joined forces with Islamists, the U.S. should realize that Assad is quite possibly the least atrocious figure capable of maintaining some semblance of Syrian stability through these final (or simply newest) stages of the Syrian Civil War. Putin’s aid to Assad is still condemnable, of course, but it does not justify the United States’ sweeping retaliatory sanctions and the resulting deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations.

The same is true of Russia’s interventions in Ukraine, where Putin is not the only criminal and maybe not even the most malevolent one. Although our government endlessly criticizes the Kremlin for annexing the once-Ukrainian Crimea, many Crimeansprobably most—actually prefer Russian rule. Their lives under Moscow are far from perfect, but the majority of them are ethnic Russians who tend to consider Kiev the greater enemy for its attacks on Russian culture. By trying to force a Russian withdrawal, the U.S. is therefore working to undermine many Crimeans’ pursuit of self-determination.

Russian violence in the Donbas does not justify sanctions either. Put simply, the region’s Russian separatists align with Moscow’s villains, while the Ukrainian counterinsurgents align with Kiev’s villains, some of whom are genuine fascists and even more of whom routinely overlook fascist hooliganism in their country. Neither warring party is particularly attractive, in other words, so the U.S. should stay out of the melee and eliminate sanctions that increase hardship in Russia without decreasing it in Ukraine.

As for Putin’s interference in the U.S. presidential election? We still do not know precisely what happened, but it seems likely that any Russian intrusion was largely defensive. Putin was understandably discomfited by the West’s illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the killing of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the former of which Hilary Clinton endorsed as a voting U.S. senator and the latter of which she helped facilitate as secretary of state. It is no far stretch to suppose that when Clinton then joked about the grisly assassination of Gaddafi, questioned the legitimacy of Russia’s 2011 parliamentary elections, and called Putin’s militarism “reminiscent” of Hitler’s, the Kremlin resolved to prevent this tried-and-true militaristic busybody from antagonizing Russia as the United States’ next president.

We should take comfort in the fact that Russia has not always been this confrontational towards the U.S. Although his authoritarian sympathies and skepticism of the West probably date back to the Cold War, Putin actually managed to maintain an amicable relationship with President George W. Bush before the Bush administration’s headlong march to Baghdad. It was only after more than a decade of Western mischief overseas that Putin may have decided to defend himself by striking back in such a significant way. That being the case, it might not be too late for Trump to reverse our course by talking to Putin, removing sanctions, and promoting a more nuanced understanding of the Kremlin’s foreign policy. If he does not, peace will slip further away.

This article originally appeared at CounterPunch.

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