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Updated: 49 min 3 sec ago

‘RussiaGate’ Alone Isn’t Going to Put Progressives Back in Power

5 hours 40 min ago

(Photo: Mike Maguire / Flickr)

Donald Trump’s approval ratings remain dismal, yet the Democrats are 0 for 4 in congressional elections in 2017.

Not only do a majority of Americans believe that the president has tried to obstruct investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 elections but, by a 2 to 1 margin, Americans believe former FBI chief James Comey’s account of his firing over Trump’s version. And yet, 64 percent of Americans think that the RussiaGate investigations are hurting the country, and a majority wants Congress to focus on other issues, like the economy.

These polls tell you what you already know: The country is deeply divided, the Democrats haven’t been able to come up with a convincing way of bridging the divide, and the RussiaGate investigations are no substitute for a political platform.

It’s a long way until the mid-term elections in November 2018 and the RussiaGate investigation is still in its infancy, but already the Democratic Party is in the midst of a second round of soul-searching about its strategy.

The first round took place after Donald Trump swept to a narrow Electoral College victory last November and largely hinged on whether the Sanders focus on economic inequality would have done better at the polls against Trump than Hillary Clinton’s more cautious centrism. This second round continues the debate on this question, but also throws in the wild cards of Russia and Trump’s potential wrongdoing.

Shortly after Democrat Jon Ossoff lost a close race in Georgia this month, Democrats began to speak up about the electoral implications of RussiaGate. Reports The Hill:

In the wake of a string of special-election defeats, an increasing number of Democrats are calling for an adjustment in party messaging, one that swings the focus from Russia to the economy. The outcome of the 2018 elections, they say, hinges on how well the Democrats manage that shift. 

“We can’t just talk about Russia because people back in Ohio aren’t really talking that much about Russia, about Putin, about Michael Flynn,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) told MSNBC Thursday. “They’re trying to figure out how they’re going to make the mortgage payment, how they’re going to pay for their kids to go to college, what their energy bill looks like.”

At one level, this same debate recurs every election cycle — do people care more about foreign policy questions or pocketbook issues? The answer is almost always: the economy. At another level, the debate is about whether Trump’s unpopularity can be used against him. It’s another enduring debate: take advantage of the incumbent’s negatives or field a positive alternative? As the 2004 and 2012 election results suggest, the opposition has to offer something intrinsically appealing or risk defeat.

The four recent by-elections don’t provide much to go on in terms of any serious reevaluation of strategy. They all took place in Republican-friendly areas that have yet to feel any real impact from Trump administration policies. Ossoff, in particular, did much better than his district’s partisan preferences should have dictated (6 percent better, according to the Cook Political Report). Nor did Ossoff spend a lot of time focused on Russia. He was no Sanderista, but he didn’t make Donald Trump and his transgressions a central part of his campaign. It’s hard to come to any definitive conclusions from this race or the other three.

Still, the by-elections have stimulated an important discussion. Where one comes down on the Russia vs. jobs question depends in large part on on how one assesses the reasons for Trump’s victory and whether RussiaGate can or should function as a club to beat back the Republicans in future elections.

This debate is not just about electoral strategy. It’s also about how the United States should address the current global crisis of liberalism.

Interpreting Trump’s Victory

There are two ways of understanding how Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election: the triple backlash versus the triple hack.

According to the triple backlash argument, Trump benefited from a worldwide rejection of liberalism: economically, politically, and culturally. Large sections of the United States that didn’t benefit from economic globalization watched the disappearance of well-paying jobs from the Rust Belt, rural areas and small towns, and certain big cities.

These residents of America B blamed politicians from both parties for pushing economic reforms that shifted wealth upward and out of their communities. And they also blamed a range of “others” for what was wrong with the country: immigrants, people of color, social liberals. This economic-political-cultural backlash prepared the ground for a political outsider with an anti-immigrant agenda and a promise to revive America’s sunset industries.

The triple hack argument is much more focused. Trump “hacked” the system in three important ways, exploiting vulnerabilities to gain his narrow win.

The first hack was of the Electoral College. Trump didn’t care about the popular vote. He knew that he could write off large swathes of the American electorate and concentrate his forces in a few swing states. So, for instance, the campaign pulled resources out of Virginia, an otherwise important state for Republicans to win, to focus on the Midwest.

The second hack was the news media. The Trump campaign exploited the mainstream media’s fascination with the outrageous by constantly feeding it new outrages. It also generated a spate of “fake news” about Hillary Clinton that it distributed on the margins, in places like Breitbart News and through social media like Facebook and Trump’s own Twitter account. Here, Russian journalists and trolls played a role, though probably not a pivotal one.

Finally, the campaign hacked Facebook in two critical ways. It poured money into an advertising campaign tailored to the preferences of over 200 million Americans contained in three separate databases to which the campaign maintained access. And it created a “dark posts” campaign to dissuade three groups of potential Democratic voters — Sanders supporters, young women, and African Americans in urban areas — from going to the polls.

On top of the official voter suppression efforts run by the Republican Party — reducing early voting, implementing onerous voter ID laws — this “keep out the vote” campaign was remarkably effective. In Detroit, a Democratic stronghold, Clinton received 70,000 fewer votes than Obama got in his last outing. She lost the state of Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes.

If you believe in the triple backlash argument, you’re more inclined to push for a political program that focuses on economic inequality and job creation, particularly in depressed parts of the country. If you lean more toward the triple hack argument, you’re more likely to focus on counter-hack tactics — a better media strategy, a better way of getting out the vote, a better way of using oppositional research to undermine the opponent (even to the point of impeachment).

Because the debate over the triple backlash opens up rifts within the party, the Democrats will likely focus on technical “fixes” to recapture Congress in 2018 and regain the 80,000 votes that Clinton lost by in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in order to win the presidency in 2020. Such an approach would be wise tactically. But it would be disastrous in the long term.

Responding to RussiaGate

The investigation into Russian meddling in the American election has inevitably acquired a partisan taint. The Democrats have used it to question the legitimacy of the election and of the Trump administration more generally. Trump and the Republicans have accused their detractors of conducting a witch-hunt.

It may come out in the investigation that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government. It may also come out that Trump, as president, obstructed justice by firing Comey and covering up elements of collaboration. RussiaGate might bring down Donald Trump and some of his advisers. Or it might turn out to be a series of murky, unprovable assertions.

Regardless of the Trump team’s actual involvement in the scandal, Russia tampered with the U.S. political system. Russian hackers acquired information from both major parties but decided only to weaponize the material from the Democrats to compromise its chances in the election. Hackers tried to break into 21 state electoral systems, stole nearly 90,000 voter records, and even altered voter information in at least one case. And a Russian disinformation campaign spread rumors, fake stories, and outrageous claims through a variety of media.

There is no concrete evidence that any of this interference tipped the election in favor of Trump. But it is a strange irony that American interest in RussiaGate is declining just as Congress and the media are providing revelations on a weekly basis.

For those who still don’t acknowledge Vladimir Putin’s fingerprints on this electoral intrusion, consider that the United States has not been the only country targeted in this fashion. The same pattern was evident in France, where Russian hackers and disinformation specialists attempted to discredit Emmanuel Macron in an effort to boost the chances of pro-Kremlin candidate Marine Le Pen. The Washington Post reports:

In Lithuania, 100 citizen cyber-sleuths dubbed “elves” link up digitally to identify and beat back the people employed on social media to spread Russian disinformation. They call the daily skirmishes “Elves vs. Trolls.”

In Brussels, the European Union’s East Stratcom Task Force has 14 staffers and hundreds of volunteer academics, researchers and journalists who have researched and published 2,000 examples of false or twisted ­stories in 18 languages in a weekly digest that began two years ago.

There is a peculiar tendency by some on the left to dismiss Russian activities because some of the media coverage has been inaccurate or over-hyped or because of a supposed effort to “demonize” Vladimir Putin as part of a campaign to revive Cold War tensions between Washington and Moscow.

Sure, some coverage has relied unwisely on single sources, but there’s plenty of evidence of Russian malfeasance that can’t be so easily dismissed, from Ukraine to Europe to the United States.

Moreover, Russian interference in the political process in the West has nothing to do with old Cold War dynamics. Vladimir Putin wants to build an alliance of far-right forces — from white power activists in the United States and the National Front in France to Viktor Orban in Hungary and Euroskeptics throughout the continent — with the Kremlin as the beacon of a new post-Western right-wing nationalist order.

This is no secret plan. Putin has been very open about his worldview.

Russia poses a challenge that goes far beyond the U.S. electoral system. RussiaGate isn’t just a threat to the Democratic Party. It’s a threat to democratic politics — everywhere. And it requires not just a bipartisan response. It requires a transatlantic response.

Responding to the Crisis of Liberalism

Donald Trump has an answer for the crisis of liberalism and the triple backlash that produced his electoral victory.

He’s challenged the existing global economy by pulling the United States out of the Trans Pacific Partnership and has promised to tear up — or significantly renegotiate — a number of other trade deals. He’s challenged the liberal administrative state by attempting to gut social welfare and the government regulatory apparatus across the board. He’s challenged liberal norms of inclusion with his travel ban, an anti-immigrant crusade, and other policies that will adversely affect women, people of color, and the LGBT community.

Vladimir Putin also has an answer for the crisis of liberalism that brought Russia to its knees in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. He believes — at least instrumentally — in the three Cs: Christianity, conservativism, and Caucasians. He wants to create a reactionary, religious, and racist axis that unifies the Global North. But this is not about international cooperation. Putin thinks only in terms of Russian interests, which actually boil down to the economic interests of the oligarchs aligned with his regime.

Employing “elves” to battle Russian trolls isn’t enough. Creating commissions to track and neutralize cyberattacks is not enough. Piling revelation upon revelation about RussiaGate is not enough. These tactics are necessary but not sufficient.

Instead of talking back to the TV, we should change the channel. Progressives need to come up with our own answer to the crisis of liberalism. We can borrow from progressive economic ideas of the past (government work programs, for example, to create jobs). We can borrow from populist political tactics (which worked so well for Bernie Sanders, for example). We can even borrow from liberalism itself (the notion of an open, inclusive society). But we must also come up with bold new programs around renewable energy, the revival of community, and international cooperation.

Russia versus jobs is in some ways a false dichotomy. Progressives have to devise a comprehensive alternative that responds to both the challenge of Russia and the failures of liberalism. If we don’t, we’ll not only lose the mid-terms and the next presidential election in the United States. We’ll lose the planet.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands.

The Supreme Court’s ‘Muslim Ban’ Decision Is Terrifying

10 hours 53 min ago

(Photo: Aldas Kirvaitis / Flickr)

I’m a U.S. citizen. I’m also Muslim. And the Supreme Court decision on the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban scares me.

In a June 26 ruling, the court decided to leave in place parts of the Muslim ban while the merits of the case are debated, effectively barring individuals from six Muslim-majority countries without a “bona fide” relationship in the U.S. — say, with family members, an employer, or an educational institution — into the country. This decision may also prevent entry for all refugees for 120 days.

The ruling has been hailed as a victory for the Trump administration — not just on the legal end, but also in the degree to which it instills fear in Muslims. The fear is real, and not just for those who may be directly impacted, but for the larger community, too. After all, what the travel ban is ultimately meant to do is to hold all Muslims collectively responsible for the actions of a (miniscule) few.

As a Muslim American of Egyptian descent, will I be legally impacted by the decision? In theory, no. But will I think twice about leaving the country, knowing that I could return to the possibility of being harassed, interrogated, and/or denied entry back into the U.S.? Absolutely. Because after almost 16 years of the war on terror, you come to learn — or become conditioned to fear — that one day you could be next.

The distinction between citizen and non-citizen becomes ever more perilous when you “look Muslim,” have a Muslim sounding name, or work on issues relating to Muslims. This doesn’t mean I’ll experience the same consequences as Muslim non-citizens, but neither does my citizenship reassure me that my fellow Muslim Americans and I will be protected, especially in light of this administration’s history over the last few months alone.

And that’s exactly the intent of policies like these — they target some while causing others to reel back in fear that they too will be impacted. They generate enough fear to make anyone with any relationship with a targeted group censor themselves and modify their behavior. The government wins not only because of whom it targets directly, but because of who else becomes an indirect target.

These are precarious times for Muslims. And while we’re told to trust in our democracy and our judicial system, decisions like these — which come on the heels of a long history of discriminatory, racist, and Islamophobic policies under several administrations — magnify the legitimate fear that one will either be targeted by state violence or become a target of societal violence.

Worryingly, not a single judge dissented from the unsigned Supreme Court ruling — and in fact, three conservative judges, including the newly seated Neil Gorsuch, concurred that they would’ve gone even further and implemented the ban in full. So we know to expect that yet again, the highest law of the land is in favor of institutionalizing Islamophobia. Where then do Muslims turn for reprieve?

As a Muslim American, I’m tired of explaining my fear. I’m tired of pointing out how negatively the war on terror has impacted by community, and I’m tired of being treated as a means to a security end.

I’m tired of explaining the legacy of the war on terror and the fact that under the Bush administration, security policies that began by targeting non-citizens ended up, through a long and thoroughly calculated process, targeting citizens as well — something that also continued under Obama, who spied broadly on ordinary people’s communications and even ordered lethal drone strikes on U.S. citizens.

I’m tired because I know this isn’t the end, but the beginning of a new war on terror — one whose thinly veiled racist manifestations have become explicit.

The Muslim ban means that Muslims will be in the spotlight even more and viewed almost exclusively as national security pawns. Non-citizens, of course, stand to lose the most. But let’s remember what the war on terror has always been designed to do: demonize all Muslims — citizens or not — to justify the most egregious, abusive, and racist laws and policies.

I don’t know what’s yet to come, and I’m afraid to find out.

Maha Hilal, Ph.D., is the Michael Ratner Middle East fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She’s also a steering committee member of DC Justice for Muslims Coalition, an organizer with Witness Against Torture and a board member of the DC chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

Trump May Already Be Blundering into the Next Middle East War

Mon, 06/26/2017 - 4:27pm

UNICEF signs warn parents about unexploded bombs and how to help their children avoid them. Sadah, Yemen. (Photo: Julien Harneis / Flickr)

The Washington elite is waking up to the increasingly real possibility that the Trump administration may be moving the country into yet another Middle East war. And much more quickly than anyone had anticipated. And through sheer incompetence and incoherence rather than by design.

At the moment, attention is focused on the situation in eastern Syrian, the details of which are spelled out well in a growing number of accounts such as Mohamad Bazzi’s piece in the Atlantic as well as a recent action alert by the National Iranian American Council. In addition, the New Republic’s Jeet Heer posted an excellent piece that quotes former key Obama policymakers (Colin Kahl and Ilan Goldenberg), as well as Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who have been well ahead of other national-security analysts in warning about the gathering storm clouds.

Eastern Syria is indeed the focus of the moment, particularly since a U.S. fighter jet shot down a Syrian warplane in Syrian territory and Iran launched a mid-range missile attack on an Islamic State (ISIS or IS) target. Russia subsequently warned that it will target U.S.-led coalition aircraft flying in Syrian territory west of the Euphrates. Then, on June 20, an Iranian-made drone was shot down close to the border with Iraq and Jordan where the various rival proxy forces are all converging to fill the vacuum in anticipation of the IS collapse.

No doubt the Pentagon is gaming out the various scenarios in which a wider war could soon break out, but it certainly sees Iran and its allies in the area as the main post-ISIS threat to Washington’s interests in and around Syria. See, for example, this little memo published recently by a senior policy adviser to the U.S. Central Command and, remarkably, a visiting fellow at the staunchly pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (hat tip to Barbara Slavin). Or this helpful new contribution by WINEP’s long-time counselor and “Israel’s lawyer,” Dennis Ross.

Although the fireworks in eastern Syrian have rightfully captured our immediate concern, they shouldn’t distract too much from the highly volatile situation in the Persian Gulf following both the stunning ISIS terrorist attack in Tehran on June 7 — which senior Iranian officials blamed on Saudi Arabia — and the weeks-old crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain on the one hand and Qatar (backed by Turkey and Iran) on the other. Although Tehran justified its unprecedented missile strike by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in eastern Syria as retaliation for the terrorist attacks, it was also widely interpreted as a shot across the bow of the most anti-Iranian GCC states to remind them of their own vulnerability if war breaks out either in the Gulf or elsewhere.

In this context, the recent announcement by Riyadh that its navy had seized an explosives-laden boat and three members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) allegedly planning to blow up a Saudi offshore oil drilling rig does not bode well. According to The New York Times, the incident occurred when Iran’s state media reported that Saudi border guards fired on boats belonging to “simple fishermen,” killing one of the occupants. The Saudis reported some details of the incident over that weekend, but only on the following Monday did it come out with its new and far more sensational account.

That incident may of course be relegated to less than a footnote in the region’s history. But it nonetheless suggests that things are not moving in a favorable direction and that whatever behind-the-scenes attempts at defusing tensions — whether between Saudi Arabia and Iran or, for that matter, Qatar — are not bearing much fruit. Of course, charges by Bahrain and the Saudis that Iran is constantly shipping weapons and terrorists to Yemen and other Gulf Arab destinations are nothing new. But, in the current atmosphere, the risks of an incident escalating out of control seem higher than ever.

Moreover — and this is the main point — the possibilities for catastrophic miscalculation are skyrocketing. It’s not just the proximity of rival armed forces in both eastern Syria and the Gulf. It’s also the lack of direct communication among key parties and the lack of clarity as to their actual policies.

That applies in spades to what passes for the Trump “administration.”

The Blockade

Take, for example, the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, which came just two weeks after the president’s visit to Riyadh — and which Trump not only applauded but initially appeared to claim credit for in his tweets.

Clearly, the Saudis, the Emiratis, and the Bahrainis had come to believe that Trump — even if he had not explicitly greenlighted such a drastic action during or after Riyadh summit — would support them against Doha. How shocked they must have been when the Pentagon and the State Department immediately voiced their reservations (not to say, their opposition)!

Almost as shocked as Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson and National Security Adviser McMaster must have been when they first heard about Trump’s tweets. Here’s what the State Department spokesperson — to the extent you believe she speaks for the “administration” — said about Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s action:

Now that it has been more than two weeks since the embargo started, we are mystified that the Gulf States have not released to the public, nor to the Qataris, the details about the claims that they are making toward Qatar. The more that time goes by the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

At this point we are left with one simple question: were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism or were they about the long, simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries?

(Oh, snap.)

Assuming the State Department really speaks for the US government, this rather stunning statement begs a host of rather critical questions. How exactly did the Saudis and their allies come to think that Washington would support them? Who exactly gave them that impression and under what circumstances? Or are Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and UAE Crown Prince (and apparent MbS mentor) Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan (MbZ) so deluded or hubristic that they just assumed that Washington, including the Pentagon, was on board with this?

And, if so, how prone to miscalculation are they in this moment of sky-high regional tensions?

After all, MbS has risen in influence in Saudi Arabia largely because of his pet foreign policy project, the war in Yemen, which, according to the latest reports, hasn’t been going particularly well (unless his original idea was to completely destroy the Arab world’s poorest country). He now finds himself in a very difficult spot.

Moreover, the Saudi king just elevated the hyper-ambitious MbS to crown prince overnight, placing him next in line in the royal succession. Like Trump, the 31-year-old is falling upward more through sheer audacity than palpable successes. Unless in his new exalted position he can somehow still impose his will on Qatar — an increasingly doubtful prospect in the absence of U.S. and Western diplomatic support — MbS looks ever more like a two-time loser (in Trumpspeak), and an extremely reckless one at that. And that perception makes him even more dangerous under the circumstances.

Meanwhile in Iran

How is all this perceived in Tehran, where various competing factions may also be prone to miscalculation? What do they think U.S. policy is?

They know the Trump “administration” is united in its conviction that the Islamic Republic is irredeemably hostile to the U.S., but they also know there are degrees of difference among senior officials. Some White House officials reportedly favor “regime change” via covert action, and it was just a few days before the ISIS attack in Iran that it was disclosed that the CIA had picked Michael D’Andrea (aka The Dark Prince or Ayatollah Mike), a particularly aggressive covert operator, to run the agency’s Iran program.

Tehran was also deeply offended by Trump’s shocking reaction to the June 7 terrorist attack and further taken aback by Tillerson’s statement of support for a “peaceful transition” of government in Iran one week later. These statements no doubt served to strengthen hardliners in Tehran who already believe the worst about U.S. intentions as well as those of its regional allies.

At the same time, Tehran knows that top officials — notably Mattis (who appears to have been granted virtually unprecedented discretion in military decision-making) and McMaster — are keenly aware of the risks of getting dragged into a war with Iran (or becoming bogged down in Syria) even as they believe Washington should “push back” against Tehran’s “malign” behavior in the region.

And then there’s the commander-in-chief’s own impulsiveness, ignorance, and macho pose. At a moment of crisis a half a world away, Trump may actually welcome some serious fireworks as a useful diversion from his deepening political and legal problems at home. After all, those missiles strikes in Syria back in April gave him something of a reprieve, at least for a few days.

Given the latest head-spinning twist in Washington’s reaction to the KSA/UAE-led Qatar quarantine, it seems quite reasonable to ask how key Iranian policymakers will know who’s running policy in the White House when it’s faced with an incident that escalates quickly, and the Saudis, Emiratis, and Sheldon Adelson are on the phone insisting that Trump’s manhood is on the line? The likelihood of miscalculation by one or more of the major players is virtually certain.

It’s a very scary — but increasingly imaginable — prospect.

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington, D.C. bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement. Giulia McDonnell Nieto Del Rio is a rising senior at Williams College in Massachusetts. She has written and worked for the human rights NGO Cultural Survival in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is currently an intern for LobeLog at the Institute for Policy Studies.

The U.S. Gives Refuge to Torture Victims from All Over — Except from Guantanamo

Mon, 06/26/2017 - 11:21am

(Photo: Shrieking Tree / Flickr)

June 26th marks the UN Day in Support of Victims of Torture. This day was declared in 1997 and is celebrated every year to honor the struggles of torture survivors.

In the U.S., it’s estimated that there are half-a-million torture survivors who’ve fled other countries in search of a safe haven. While survivors of torture who end up in the U.S. come from all over the globe, there’s a noticeable absence of a particular group of survivors: those tortured by the U.S. itself — and specifically those tortured at Guantanamo Bay.

Since it opened on January 11th, 2002, the prison at Guantanamo Bay has been one of the world’s most notorious. Housed at a U.S. military base on illegally occupied Cuban territory, the prison has held 779 Muslim men behind its bars over the years. For many, the experience has been devastating — not just for those who remain imprisoned, but for those who’ve been freed as well.

The prison currently houses 41 prisoners. Of those who remain, five men have been cleared for release, and 26 haven’t been either charged or cleared. Only seven have been charged in military commissions, and just three others have been convicted. The farcical semblance of justice that the military commissions have been designed to uphold includes a lack of due process rights, admission of hearsay evidence, and surveillance of attorney-client discussions. A fair trial for those detained is pretty much impossible.

However, this isn’t even the worst of Guantanamo, where at least nine men have died in U.S. custody, seven of those by suicide. Adnan Latif, one of the men who died, was a 32-year-old Yemeni citizen who’d spent 11 years behind bars at Guantanamo, even though he was cleared for release three times. Though questions remain about the government’s claim that he committed suicide, Latif suffered from serious mental health conditions. “Anybody who is able to die will be able to achieve happiness for himself,” he wrote in a parting letter to his attorney. “He has no other hope except that.”

But those who are released often fare no better than those still detained.

Take the case of Lutfi Bin Ali, a Tunisian citizen who spent 13 years in Guantanamo only to be released to Kazakhstan. Despite the fact that Bin Ali was subjected to egregious torture at the hands of the U.S. government, he’s expressed an eagerness to return to Guantanamo rather than face the isolation in his host country, where he knows no one. “At least in Guántanamo there were people to talk to,” he told the Guardian last September. “Here I have nobody.”

Bin Ali was told he’d be able to leave Kazakhstan after two years — a period that came up late last year. But similar to those made while he languished in Guantanamo Bay, where he was dubbed a “low risk” in 2004 but not released for another decade, those promises now look flimsy.

Guantanamo has become synonymous with the torture program orchestrated under the Bush administration. Many of the prisoners who ended up in Guantanamo were first subjected to torture in CIA black sites, the details of which can be found in the Senate Select Intelligence’s Committee report on CIA torture. Some of the worst findings include rectal feeding, eye removal, freezing conditions leading to death, and drowning simulations.

Fifteen years later, the security rationale for Guantanamo appears vaguer than ever. What do we win by housing Muslim men in a prison on illegally occupied land, subverting the rule of law to implement outrageous measures of “justice” and condoning and committing torture?

The rule of law in any democracy is built on the premise of accountability — yet, save for a pending civil suit against two psychologists who helped the CIA design its torture program, there’s been none for the torture that prisoners and former prisoners have experienced. Nor has the U.S. agreed to resettle any of those freed from Guantanamo, a move which symbolically cements their guilt despite their release without charge.

The prison’s future remains unclear, though President Trump has stated that no prisoners should be released. He’s even hinted at plans to “load it up with some bad dudes.”

On the UN Day in Support of Victims of Torture, we have a moral and ethical imperative to execute justice — not justice conceived in the height of a national security panic, but justice that is fair, legitimate, and transparent. Nothing short of this will rectify the harm that’s been done to these prisoners — and our democracy.

Maha Hilal, Ph.D., is the Michael Ratner Middle East fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She’s also a steering committee member of DC Justice for Muslims Coalition, an organizer with Witness Against Torture and a board member of the DC chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

Excessive and Avoidable Harm in Yemen

Mon, 06/26/2017 - 10:43am

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (US Embassy Seoul)

Over the past few months, the Trump administration has settled on a strategy for the ongoing conflict in Yemen that it knows will lead to more suffering and violence in the country. Rather than trying to bring an immediate end to the war, which has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 civilians, administration officials have decided to help the Saudi-led coalition continue its efforts to pressure Houthi-led rebels into surrendering on Saudi terms, even if it means more violence.

Previous U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition has already had devastating consequences for the people of Yemen. Since the conflict began in early 2015, the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition has killed countless civilians in airstrikes on homes, schools, factories, markets, hospitals, and even a funeral. “The strike on the funeral was really, really hard to swallow,” a senior official in the Obama administration said.

In recent months, the situation has grown worse. Cholera has begun spreading throughout the country, killing hundreds of people. Millions of Yemenis are also facing the risk of famine because ongoing fighting has made it impossible for people to get access to food. There are “millions of people on the brink of starvation, because of the impact of the fighting,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has acknowledged.

Given these circumstances, some dissension has emerged in Washington about the U.S. role in the war. Some former officials say that the time has come to reduce U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition and begin final negotiations with the Houthi-led rebels. Others argue that it is necessary to maintain U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign.

As the discussion continues, the Trump administration, which has said little publicly about the war, has begun taking a series of steps that indicate that it is going to continue U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition. Although officials in the Trump administration are well aware of the terrible risks that continued fighting poses to the people of Yemen, they have begun moving to resupply the Saudi-led coalition with weapons and help it continue its military campaign against the Houthis.

The Debate in Washington

The emerging dissension in Washington has largely played out in Congress. In March, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing in which two former U.S. officials debated different ways for the Trump administration to proceed with the war.

Former State Department official Dafna Rand argued that it no longer made sense to help the Saudi-led coalition launch offensive military operations against the Houthis. “Helping the coalition launch new assaults on Houthi-controlled territory may allow for the capture of new cities, but it will result in even more bloodshed and is unlikely to change the negotiation calculus of either side,” Rand said. Convinced that more fighting would lead to more suffering, Rand called for a negotiated settlement. “The Houthis are looking for guarantees of political inclusion in the formal government process,” she said. “These issues would be worked out whether or not the coalition retakes a few more cities.”

Taking a different position, former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein argued that the Saudi-led coalition needed to maintain military pressure on the Houthis. Although he agreed with Rand that the ultimate resolution would come in the form of a negotiated settlement, Feierstein insisted that the Saudis needed to ensure that they would be negotiating from a position of power. The final outcome, he said, must be one in which the Saudis achieve the installation of “a friendly government” in Yemen.

Notably, the two former officials agreed that the fighting had reached a stalemate and that the people of Yemen were facing tremendous hardships, including the risk of starvation. But they could not agree on whether the time had come for the Saudi-led coalition to hold final negotiations with the Houthis to end the war.

Rand, for her part, remained convinced that it was time to stop launching offensive military operations against the Houthis, believing that they would only prolong needless suffering. “We’ve already tried for two years this strategy of offenses to retake areas to allow for the political dynamics to change and there are significant costs to our relationships, to the civilians of Yemen, to our reputation,” she said. “We’ve tried that approach for two years and I just don’t believe that the risks are worth it anymore.”

Tactical Concerns

The discussion in Congress has also extended into more specific aspects of the Saudi-led military campaign. In particular, various observers have disagreed over the extent to which U.S. officials should support military tactics that will significantly harm civilians.

One of the key issues concerns the port of Hodeidah, a major commercial hub located in Houthi-controlled territory along the Red Sea. About 70 percent of Yemen’s food imports and 90 percent of U.N food assistance pass through the city, making it a vital lifeline for the Yemeni people.

During the congressional hearing last March, Feierstein argued that the Saudi-led coalition should launch an offensive to seize the port. “The U.S. should back Government/Coalition efforts to capture the port,” as long as the Saudis agree to certain conditions, Feierstein argued.

Rand disagreed, saying that any attempt to take the city through force “would be a serious mistake.” She warned that “the fighting itself will just make it difficult for the humanitarian access that’s needed.” In addition, Rand suggested that the Saudi-led coalition might use the port to punish people living in Houthi-controlled territory by blocking their access to food. “Even in the long term,” Rand said, “we would be banking on the Saudis being able to reestablish port access and distribution networks in a better way than the current system which is not 100 percent but is working – working, it’s not ideal but it’s working.”

Another key issue concerns precision-guided munitions (PGMs), which the Saudi government has used in Yemen. In December 2016, the Obama administration announced that it was temporarily halting a planned sale of the weapons to the Saudi government because the Saudi-led coalition kept striking targets on a no-strike list.

During a congressional hearing earlier this month, Feierstein argued that the Trump administration should reverse the Obama administration’s decision and begin resupplying the Saudi government with the weapons. “I believe that we should move forward on the PGM sale,” he said, before adding that he still wanted to see the Saudis fulfill certain conditions.

Former State Department official Tom Malinowski disagreed, saying that it made no sense to move forward with the sale.

In his written statement to the congressional committee, Malinowski provided his reasons for his opposition. First, Malinowski explained that “the Saudis have used US-provided weapons in ways that have caused excessive and avoidable harm to civilians, and exacerbated a terrible humanitarian crisis.” During military operations, “the Saudis continued to hit targets on a humanitarian no-strike list,” he said. In addition, Malinowski insisted that the sale of precision-guided munitions would do nothing to alleviate the suffering of civilians. “While precision weapons are often helpful in avoiding civilian casualties, this was not the case in Yemen – precision does not protect civilians when one is deliberately aiming at the wrong targets,” he said.

In short, there has emerged some significant dissension among former U.S. officials about various aspects of the U.S. role in the war. Although some want to see the Trump administration take a more aggressive stance, there is growing awareness that a more aggressive military policy will cause more needless harm to the people of Yemen.

The Decision

In spite of the growing awareness, the Trump administration has begun taking the more aggressive position on the various matters under discussion.

In the first place, the Trump administration has decided to support new efforts to capture the port of Hodeidah. As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained to a congressional committee earlier this month, “we’re working with both the Emirates and the Saudis to gain agreement over how we might gain control of that port.” Although administration officials appear to have backed away from a military plan in favor of a new diplomatic strategy, they have decided to help the Saudi government gain control of the port. “We believe we can gain control of the port under some other third authority’s control,” Tillerson said.

Second, the Trump administration has decided to provide the Saudi government with the precision-guided munitions. It most clearly revealed its decision earlier this month, when it made a major effort to get the U.S. Senate to approve a future sale of the weapons to the Saudi government. “Trump administration officials spent the hours before the vote frantically making phone calls and holding briefings with lawmakers to stave off a defeat,” The New York Times reported. In the process, the Trump administration informed congressional officials that it would soon begin providing the weapons to the Saudi government by adhering to the previous weapons deal.

More broadly, the Trump administration has also decided to continue helping the Saudi-led coalition maintain its military operations against the Houthis. Although administration officials know perfectly well that they are increasing the risk of famine in Yemen, they have decided that military operations are necessary to keep pressure on the Houthis. The rebels in Yemen “have to know that they will never – they will never prevail militarily,” Tillerson explained. “But they’re only going to feel that when they feel the resistance militarily, so it’s important we keep the pressure on them.”

Indeed, the Trump administration has decided to take the hardline position on many key aspects of the war. Rather than trying to minimize civilian casualties by blocking the sale of munitions, keeping food distribution networks open by backing off of Hodeidah, and trying to prevent famine by ending its support of the the Saudi-led military operations, the Trump administration has adopted some of the most extreme positions in Washington, ensuring that the people of Yemen will continue to suffer.

Edward Hunt writes about war and empire. He has a PhD in American Studies from the College of William & Mary.