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Updated: 27 min 29 sec ago

AMLO Goes Full Throttle Against Neoliberalism — But What About NAFTA?

4 hours 44 min ago

Mexicans participate in an indigenous ritual at President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s inauguration. (Shutterstock)

I had the great fortune to attend the inauguration of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (or AMLO, as he is known) as the 58th Mexican president on December 1. The atmosphere at the Legislative Palace was electric with the knowledge that Mexico would be beginning its “Fourth Transformation” — following its 1810 independence, the 1855 reformation, and the 1910 revolution — with the first left-wing presidency in its history.

It was AMLO’s third attempt at the office. In 2006 Felipe Calderón orchestrated a cyber fraud that gave him a slim advantage over AMLO. And in order to win in 2012, outgoing president Enrique Peña Nieto engaged in tricks like giving away cash-loaded bank cards.

When AMLO arrives following his 2018 victory, his supporters chanted Si se pudo: “Yes we could!”

AMLO started his speech off by going full throttle against neoliberalism and corruption in Mexico, both of which he’s fought for decades. He said the crisis in Mexico originated not only because of the failure of the neoliberal economic model, but also because of the “deep predominance during this period of the dirtiest display of public and private corruption.”

Outgoing President Peña Nieto sat stoically, looking uncomfortable at times.

The new president explained how Mexico’s economy grew from the end of the revolution in 1917 to the end of the 1970s at rates of 5 to 6 percent a year. With the neoliberal period starting in the 1980s came the debacle. It was marked by low growth, inflation, and indebtedness. Even after endless privatization schemes, the national debt reached 10 trillion pesos — the equivalent of over $500 billion, more than 42 percent of Mexico’s GDP — under Peña Nieto who sank down further in his chair when the subject came up.

AMLO rambled on against neoliberalism for quite a while. He said that another “pearl” of this model is the “privatizations and the corruption, the former being synonymous with the latter.” He explained how neoliberal policies have made Mexico a net importer of basic food staples like corn, how Mexican salaries have lost 60 percent of their purchasing power, and how Mexico became the one of the leading sources of out-migration in the world — such that 24 million Mexicans live in the United States, according to him.

“Political and economic power have fed and nurtured each other,” he concluded, “which has led to the robbery of the people’s property as well as the wealth of the nation.” Peña Nieto undoubtedly felt that at that moment all eyes were on him.

A Long Career

This was AMLO at his best. The script was completely his. Despite having created a mixed cabinet — one that includes pro-business people such as cabinet chief Alfonso Romo — for the purpose of helping him keep the trust of “the markets” during the exceedingly long six-month transition period, AMLO took the bull by its horns and made it clear what he has stood for all his political life.

As far back as 1991, he led rallies in his home state of Tabasco denouncing electoral fraud by the ruling party. Later he fought the privatization of Mexico’s oil state company PEMEX, denounced the Savings Protection Banking Fund (FOBAPROA) scheme that bailed out bankers at the expense of the Mexican people, and left the Institutional Revolution Party (that monopolized political power for decades) to form with Cuauhtémoc Cardenas the Democratic Revolution Party (that has now almost disappeared).

As mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005, he initiated social programs to help the elderly and the handicapped, improved access to free medicines and schools, and ensured the construction of new preparatory schools — and even a new university — for Mexico City’s most disadvantaged sectors of society. He even had a new hospital built after decades of inaction from previous governments.

Eventually AMLO’s own PRD became corrupted, complicit with privatization schemes and anti-union reforms. So AMLO left it and formed the MORENA (Movement of National Regeneration) party, which now has a majority in both houses of the national legislature.

Moreover, MORENA won four states (out of eight that had elections this year), and several municipalities and big cities — including the biggest local prize, Mexico City, which elected a woman for the first time: Claudia Sheinbaum. MORENA offers the most gender-balanced governments and legislatures, and AMLO’s cabinet does as well.

But What About NAFTA?

With such political favorable scenario, I have no doubt that AMLO can deliver on promises to help Mexico overcome decades of increasing inequality, rampant poverty, and forced migration.

But one thing gives me pause.

In his acceptance speech against neoliberalism, he mentioned NAFTA only once. He said he, president Trump, and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau were talking about how to go beyond NAFTA and “reach an investment agreement among companies and governments of the three countries to foster development of Central American countries and also ours,” which he pitched as a “non-forcible” way to address “the migratory phenomenon.”

However, AMLO didn’t mention the recently concluded U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), aka NAFTA 2.0. Why would AMLO not tackle NAFTA more forcefully when this agreement has been the backbone of neoliberalism, and the cause of migration of millions of Mexicans to the United States?

Now that President Trump threatens to cancel NAFTA if legislators in the United States don’t immediately ratify the “new” version, AMLO and his MORENA party have a golden opportunity to get rid of it once and for all.

That’s exactly what Mexican civil society coalitions like Mexico Better off Without FTAs have been calling for.

It wouldn’t be a disaster for Mexico. Our trade with the United States would revert to WTO rules, which are similar to NAFTA’s. But withdrawing would effectively eliminate many other rules found in NAFTA (and apparently in the USCMA) that go well beyond trade. Those rules have handcuffed the Mexican government’s capacity to promote the Mexican economy, particularly in the countryside; support the livelihoods of indigenous people; expand the provision of affordable medicines; and protect the environment.

The MORENA party and AMLO should be very vigilant. They must wait until the Mexican Senate receives the official text of the USMCA in Spanish (Peña Nieto’s government pretended to “inform” the public with a propagandistic summary while the unfinished text remained only in English), and then should carry out an official consultation with all social and economic sectors.

AMLO has promised a series of consultations for development and infrastructure projects in Mexico. Good. He also consulted about the name of the new NAFTA — Trump’s “USMCA,” rebranding that consciously put the United States first — and rechristened it T-MEC (Tratado Mexico, Estados Unidos, Canada). Not so good, because it looks more like Trump-MEC. And it was Trump who pushed this new agreement on everyone.

More importantly, consulting people merely about the name of the renewed NAFTA is a serious shortcoming. What’s needed is a much broader consultation about all aspects of Mexico’s economy and society that have been, and will be, impacted by such an agreement.

In sum, there should be no ratification of the USMCA until the public has had an opportunity to read and discuss the official text already signed by Trump, Peña Nieto, and Trudeau — on Peña Nieto’s last day in office.

AMLO and MORENA represent a great hope for Mexicans. Opening the new NAFTA, before it’s ratified, to broad and binding consultation with the Mexican people would be a bold first step. Not doing so — and ratifying with haste — would be giving in to neoliberalism and its corrupt practice of passing these agreements behind peoples’ backs.

The post AMLO Goes Full Throttle Against Neoliberalism — But What About NAFTA? appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Manuel Perez-Rocha is an associate fellow on the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

The Importance of the Latest Netflix Dystopia

Fri, 12/14/2018 - 11:56am

Popular culture is full of alternative histories. Mackinley Kantor wrote a famous article in Look magazine in 1960 about what would have happened if the Confederacy had won the Civil War. Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America imagines a world where Charles Lindbergh beats FDR in the 1940 elections and ushers fascism into the United States. And The Man in the High Castle, an Amazon series based on the Philip K. Dick novel, depicts a terrifying scenario in which the Axis powers have won World War II.

These counter-histories tackle big historical events. The stakes are huge. As we read or watch these parallel universes, we shudder as we contemplate the precariousness of our current reality.

The new Netflix series 1983 inspires comparisons to these other counter-histories. But I fear that many people outside Poland might decide not to watch the series because the “what if” might seem parochial to them. It’s not just that the alternative history involves Poland rather than the United States or Russia or even Germany. It’s that even the “what if” here would be somewhat obscure for Poles themselves.

The show is called 1983, after all, not 1981. That’s the year when most people ask the big “what if” questions. What if the Soviet Union had invaded Poland that year to suppress the Solidarity trade union movement? What if Solidarity had improbably brought down the Communist government and replaced it with something more democratic nearly a decade before this actually happened in 1989?

But this new series focuses not on 1981 but on 1983, more than a year after the Polish government declared Martial Law, suppressed Solidarity, and supposedly prevented the Soviet Union from intervening. In March 1983, according to the fictitious past of the new Netflix series, a number of explosions take place in major Polish cities. The Communist government blames the incidents on terrorists and uses them to justify a further consolidation of power. It does so also to keep the Russians at arm’s length, though in reality the risk of Soviet military intervention had effectively disappeared even before the Polish government declared Martial Law in December 1981.

Thus we have a very strange counter-history. In reality, although the Polish government remained concerned about Solidarity’s activities underground and the overall sympathies of the Polish population, it would lift Martial Law in July 1983. Meanwhile, March 1983 was no special month, no critical turning point. Which means that the new Netflix series is set in a relatively small country and takes place in a not particularly pivotal year. The stakes, it would seem, are very low indeed.

But it turns out that 1983 is not so much about what happened differently but about what didn’t happen. Because of these explosions in Poland in the parallel universe of 1983, the country doesn’t go through the transformations of 1989. The explosions give the Communist Party an opportunity not just to push the opposition underground but effectively to eliminate it and continue to hold power into the 2000s. Indeed, the present day of the series is 2003, 20 years after the incidents. The Party, with the help of the secret police, the army, and the regular police, is still well-entrenched. It has constructed a widespread surveillance regime. It distributes propaganda to a population isolated from the outside world. It delivers sufficient economic success to garner popular support while relying more on nationalism than communism to maintain its legitimacy. The underground opposition that has survived is meager. A new resistance movement called the Light Brigade attracts a younger generation, but it too is small in number.

The show toggles back and forth between 1983 and 2003. In the first episode, a young man, Kajtan, passes his oral exams in the spring of 2003 on his way to becoming a lawyer. Kajtan seems to be the golden child of the Communist elite. He’s even dating the daughter of the economics minister. He is also an orphan. His parents died in the 1983 bombings. That’s when he became imprinted on the public imagination when he appeared on the front page of the Party newspaper as the boy with a lily at the funeral of his parents. In the flashbacks, we see his parents in the months before the bombings, the father participating in the underground, the mother working at the sports ministry. The two plotlines seem to run in parallel but they actually converge, the first leading up to the bombings themselves in 1983 and the second gradually exposing the real cause of the attacks.

The world outside of Poland is full of big events, like the deployment of U.S. troops in the Middle East in preparation for what seems like another war in Iraq under orders from an administration headed by Al Gore. But these world-historical events are marginal. The series focuses claustrophobically on Poland as if we, the viewers, are as isolated as the characters in the show. And that’s what makes 1983 so interesting. The show is concerned not with abstract what-ifs. It is instead suffused with the specifics of Polish culture and history.

Take, for instance, the depiction of the opposition movement. 1983 depicts clandestine meetings and heated discussions over the use of violence, just like the conditions during Martial Law. But there is one scene in particular that stands out. One of Kajtan’s old friends brings him to a performance in an underground passage in Warsaw’s Old Town. It is a single actor reciting from the poet Adam Mickiewicz’s masterpiece Dziady. Many Poles will instantly recognize the reference to the banned performance of Dziady that precipitated the protests of 1968 that began in Warsaw.

Then there’s the role of the Vietnamese community. When I lived in Warsaw in 1989, I remember the small community of Vietnamese who’d come over as students or guest workers. They’d set up a few restaurants where you could get reasonably authentic noodle soup. There was one community in particular in Praga, across the river, and I even remember articles in the paper about Vietnamese gangs. A new wave of Vietnamese came to Poland in the 1990s as small-scale entrepreneurs, and they are now Poland’s largest non-European immigrant population.

But 1983 imagines a much larger role for the Vietnamese. The Party has brought in large numbers of Vietnamese guest workers to handle sensitive tasks. There are Vietnamese students and Vietnamese oppositionists. The community seems to have monopolized the fast-food industry. And Vietnamese are involved in the underground economy of drugs, prostitution, and gun-running. Polish cops even have to pick up some Vietnamese words to get by.

It’s the many details of 1983 that give it so much authenticity even though it’s fake history. The series showcases the Stalinist architecture that’s still scattered around Warsaw, including the famous wedding cake Palace of Culture and Science in the very center of the city. But there’s also the Old Town and some of the new glass and steel structures as well. At one point, Kajtan is sitting on a bench eating a zapiekanka, the cheap French-bread pizza that was ubiquitous in 1989 but harder to find by the early 2000s when better options were available. In the alternative reality of 1983, the zapiekanka survives just like the Party.

But perhaps the most authentic part of 1983 is its preoccupation with those twin phenomena of modern Polish political life: manipulation and collaboration. It was a constant fear among those in the opposition that the authorities were constantly manipulating people and events. Perhaps they were provoking the opposition so that it would respond with violence. The other great fear was of collaborators. Poland’s secret police – Sluzba Biezpieczenstwo (the security service known as the SB) – was not as powerful or as influential as the East German Stasi. But there were still 20,000-plus operatives who were managing, at their height, 84,000 informants. Many leading intellectuals and dissidents have been accused at one point or another of being informants, including former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.

There were no terrorist attacks in Poland in 1983. But a few months earlier in September 1982, a strange incident took place in Switzerland. A group that called itself the “Polish Revolutionary Home Army” seized control of the Polish embassy in the city of Bern and took several diplomats as hostages. The militants called for an end to Martial Law, more than a million dollars, and safe passage out of Switzerland. After 72 hours, Swiss police stormed the embassy, freed the hostages, and captured the gunmen.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. The head of the hostage-takers was Florian Kruszyk, who turned out to be a convicted Polish spy. In 1968, the Austrian authorities arrested him after determining that he was a member of the Polish secret service. So, was the whole incident cooked up by the Polish authorities to discredit the opposition and justify a crackdown on Solidarity underground? Possibly. 1983 takes this scenario and runs with it.

Jennifer Wilson criticizes the series in The New Republic for depicting an imaginary Polish dystopia instead of challenging Poland’s current dystopian reality. But that’s not fair. For many Poles and those who listen carefully, there’s a substantial connection between the imagined future of 1983 and the current reality of Poland under the Law and Justice Party or PiS. This party, of course, is right-wing, not Communist. But it espouses the kind of nationalism that Communist Party officials spout in 1983. And PiS favors the same kind of semi-isolationist politics.

Agnieszka Holland, the famous Polish director who was involved in the making of 1983, encourages such comparisons. “The Poland in the series is isolated – much more isolated than in the communist era,” she told The Guardian. “Outside influences are very rare, so the country develops its own version of modernity. Prosperity is limited, but people don’t know how it is outside so they feel safe and happy. They are manipulated by this propaganda, but they feel it is good for them. Of course, this is very close to what PiS would love to have in Poland.”

It’s not just Poland, she goes on. The support for right-wing populists and authoritarians in Russia, the United States, Turkey, the Philippines, India, and Brazil suggests that many people around the world have little interest in freedom.

For this reason, 1983’s exploration of the freedom vs. security dilemma goes beyond the Polish context of the series. It’s a show that’s well suited to the times we live in. It’s also a genuinely riveting show, with sharp dialogue, great acting, and mesmerizing atmospherics. I hope that it cultivates an audience hitherto ignorant of Poland and its history.

The post The Importance of the Latest Netflix Dystopia appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus. This essay first appeared in his podcast, The Energy of Delusion.

How the United States Kept Arms Flowing into South Sudan

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 2:25pm

Salva Kiir (Utenriksdepartementet UD via Flickr)

During the South Sudanese Civil War, which has claimed nearly 400,000 lives, the United States helped the main belligerent in the war continually acquire arms through Uganda, a close U.S. ally in the region. For years, the Ugandan government channeled arms, ammunition, and military aircraft to the regime of President Salva Kiir, according to multiple reports by Conflict Armament Research and the U.N. Panel of Experts on South Sudan.

“Uganda remains the main transit point and facilitator for arms and ammunition to the regime,” former U.S. diplomat Payton Knopf reported in September.

The constant flow of weapons into South Sudan has been devastating for the country. Not only have the weapons enabled President Kiir to maintain his military operations against his rivals, thereby perpetuating the war, but government forces have repeatedly used the weapons against civilians. “The continued influx of arms has had a devastating impact on civilians and on the overall security situation in the country,” the U.N. Panel of Experts reported in 2016.

The war began in December 2013 when Kiir launched military operations against forces loyal to his former vice president, Riek Machar. Since the start of fighting, the country has devolved into periods of horrific violence, pushing parts of the country into famine in early 2017. Currently, about two million people are internally displaced and more than 2.5 million are living as refugees in neighboring countries. About 4.4 million people, or about half the population, remain severely food insecure.

For many years, the United States has been one of the main players in South Sudan. The Bush administration played an instrumental role in the diplomacy that culminated with South Sudan’s independence from Sudan in 2011. President Kiir likes to wear the cowboy hat that he received as a gift from George W. Bush.

Once South Sudan gained its independence, the Obama administration oversaw a major effort to create a formal South Sudanese military. Before the outbreak of the civil war, the U.S. government had been providing the South Sudanese government with $40-60 million in military assistance every year.

Although the Obama administration began withholding military assistance during the civil war, it remained centrally involved in the country’s affairs, siding with President Kiir in the war. Perhaps most significant, the Obama administration spent years opposing calls for an arms embargo, making it easier for the Ugandan government to channel weapons to the Kiir regime.

“Despite what seemed like strong international consensus favoring an embargo, for several years the United States withheld support, and an embargo was not put on the UN Security Council agenda,” former Obama administration official Jon Temin acknowledged in a recent report.

In the absence of an arms embargo, the Ugandan government spent several years moving weapons and ammunition into South Sudan. Reports indicate that the Ugandan government agreed to purchase arms for the Kiir regime and transfer them into the country.

Some of the more advanced equipment that the Kiir regime received through Uganda include a military jet from the United States, a surveillance aircraft from Austria, and attack helicopters from Ukraine. According to a report by the U.N. Panel of Experts, the Kiir regime has used the attack helicopters as part of “a consistent tactical pattern” in military operations.

Having gained such significant military advantages, President Kiir continuously sought a military victory over his rivals, setting aside repeated calls for diplomacy. In early 2017, the U.N. Panel of Experts identified the Kiir regime as “the main belligerent in the war,” blaming it for escalating the war, obstructing humanitarian assistance, and placing millions at risk of famine.

President Kiir leads “a brutal regime that continues to murder and plunder its people,” former U.S. diplomat Payton Knopf told Congress.

The Trump administration, which entered office at the start of 2017, initially paid little attention to the war. Although violence was peaking and the country was cracking apart, President Trump displayed little awareness of the situation, showing no understanding of the history of U.S. involvement in the country.

Over the past year, however, the Trump administration has shown more willingness to address the war. After dispatching Ambassador Nikki Haley to tour the country and meet with President Kiir in October 2017, the administration moved to place an arms embargo on the country.

With the backing of the Trump administration, the UN Security Council voted in July to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan for nearly a year. It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration is serious about the embargo. Just after the Security Council approved the embargo, U.S. diplomat Gordon Buay spoke out against it, arguing that the embargo “will not stop South Sudan from acquiring weapons.” Buay pointed to China and Russia as possible spoilers.

Another major factor is the Trump administration’s plans for Uganda, the main transit route for arms into South Sudan. Now that President Kiir and former Vice President Machar are moving to implement a peace deal, it remains possible that the Trump administration will undermine the prospects for peace by permitting the Ugandan government to continue funneling weapons to the Kiir regime.

A recent report by Conflict Armament Research shows that the Ugandan government has spent years circumventing an EU embargo on South Sudan with little to no repercussions. Evidence indicates that Uganda “has continued to be a conduit” for arms flowing into South Sudan, the organization reported.

The South Sudanese government may already be circumventing the more recent UN embargo on South Sudan. According to the latest report of the UN Panel of Experts, there have been “a number of violations of the embargo,” including the possibility of arms being moved covertly through seaports and airports.

Earlier this year, the panel reported that the South Sudanese government had already begun working to hide arms moving into the country. Sources indicate that “weapons procurement for the security services is increasingly clandestine,” the panel noted. Sources point to “the frequent night-time flights into Juba International Airport as the most likely key entry point for weapons supply into South Sudan.”

The post How the United States Kept Arms Flowing into South Sudan appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

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

A Post-War Syria?

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 7:47am

Raqqa in 2017 (Tomas Davidov via Shutterstock)

Things are changing in Syria.

The Syrian government has won the war. Refugees are beginning to return. The creation of a constitutional committee will bring peace to Syria. Syria is safe.

Some of these statements are true, some are exaggerated, and others may never become real.

What all these statements have in common is the desire for a signal that the war is over, that the world can finally move on from the devastating and brutal violence that has marked the lives of millions of Syrians for the past eight years. Although active hostilities have decreased, very little progress has been made on the underlying causes of the conflict, many of which lie in massive and systematic human rights abuses.

Over the past year, human rights organizations documented how the Syrian-Russian military alliance has retaken population centers held by major anti-government forces following attacks that involved indiscriminate airstrikes and prohibited weapons. There was a huge diplomatic and humanitarian effort to protect civilians and prevent massive displacement in Idlib, which should remain an immediate priority. And Raqqa, which had been the headquarters of the Islamic State, is attempting to recover from the devastating impact of the U.S.-led coalition’s battle to retake it.

Airstrikes and chemical weapons, one hopes, will no longer be the daily fare of future violations in Syria. But as this year has shown, human rights violations in Syria are far from over. The government keeps using laws and policies that unlawfully confiscate and destroy the property of residents of previously anti-government areas. Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham—the non-state group in control of Idlib—has arrested and tortured dozens of people to maintain control of the region. The fate of tens of thousands of people detained by the Syrian government remains unknown. The US-led coalition and its allies on the ground are failing to adequately investigate and compensate victims of unlawful airstrikes and to deal with the thousands of foreigners who travelled to join or live under the Islamic State in a manner that ensures accountability for any crimes committed while respecting due process rights of the suspects.

With a new UN Syrian envoy soon to be in place, and an apparently strong international desire to end the war, here are three essential elements of a workable post-war Syria:

First, ensure that refugees and all other displaced Syrians have a home to return to. There are six million Syrian refugees, and five million more people displaced internally. Many say they want to return to their homes but fear that they will find that their property has been seized or demolished or that they will not be allowed in. These fears are real, with the Syrian government passing laws and carrying out policies to unlawfully appropriate houses, destroy these dwellings, or restrict access to them. Non-state actors have also confiscated houses in areas they control, particularly in Afrin, where Turkey-backed groups took control back in March.

European policymakers are well-placed to engage the Russian government to ensure that civilians who choose to return are protected from retaliation. And they should insist that the Syrian government ends unlawful property demolitions and seizures, as well as arbitrary restrictions on access, and that it adequately compensates residents whose property has been unlawfully destroyed.

Second, the Syrian government and others need to reveal what happened to the disappeared. The Syrian government, the Islamic State, and other groups have forcibly disappeared or detained tens of thousands of people. It is an open wound for any society trying to move forward, as families struggle to find answers about their loved ones. Hundreds of people live in fear that one day, the abusive state—and non-state—apparatus will find them.

Although Russia, Turkey, and Iran have created a working group on detainees as part of the Astana process, very little progress has been made. Issuing death certificates and conducting a limited prisoner exchange is not enough. Everyone should insist that all parties to the conflict allow international monitors into detention facilities, release all wrongfully held prisoners, and disclose the fates of those disappeared or kidnapped.

Finally, there needs to be progress on justice. The Syrian conflict is one of the most well-documented in history, with war crimes ranging from systematic and widespread torture and detention by the Syrian security services to the government impeding humanitarian aid from reaching starving civilians and the consistent use of indiscriminate and prohibited weapons by the Syrian-Russian military alliance. Many of the systems that allowed these crimes to happen are still operational and intact, including in the humanitarian aid, security, and justice systems. There is a risk that some crimes against humanity will continue after the conflict.

Justice means not only punishing those responsible for past atrocities but also ensuring that these violations aren’t repeated. Countries and donors looking to engage on Syria, as well as the UN special envoy and allies of the Syrian government, should insist on vetting and reforming the Syrian state apparatus, particularly the security and justice systems, to respect the rights of Syrian citizens. If the Syrian justice system is not capable of providing independent and effective prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity, justice systems in the rest of the world need to be ready and willing to prosecute these crimes.

None of these efforts will be easy to accomplish. But if the aim is to see a peaceful and prosperous Syria, then they are essential.

The post A Post-War Syria? appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Sara Kayyali is the Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency

Tue, 12/11/2018 - 5:01pm


Even popular series can hit rough spots in their second seasons.

Take The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the Amazon breakout about a young Jewish housewife in the late 1950s who improbably establishes a connection with Lenny Bruce and becomes a hilarious, foul-mouthed stand-up comedian in her own right. The first season sparkled. The second season brings together all the same elements but somehow forgot to include a plot. Mrs. Maisel herself remains marvelous; the series less so.

Trump Presidency, the reality show on Lifetime, didn’t raise the same expectations with its first season. Of course, it remained appallingly watchable: cringe TV at its finest. And the second season is ending on a cliffhanger as the revelations from the Mueller investigation have begun to crescendo. It’s still the show that we critics love to hate.

But as the second season limps to a close, even the show’s fervent fans have to admit that it didn’t break any new ground this year, except perhaps in the number of taboos smashed. When you get right down to it, nothing really happened in Season 2. It was a non-season that repeated many of the taglines and mini-dramas of the year before. The cast changed, and some new controversies emerged. But honestly, other than the episode on the mid-term elections, Season 2 lacked that essential ingredient: content.

That doesn’t bode well for Season 3, which debuts in early 2019. Who knows, maybe Trump Presidency will get cancelled halfway through. The rumors, after all, are building.

Or, to use the classic television trope, the series might jump the shark. For instance, the showrunners might decide to ramp up the trade war with China and trigger a collapse in the global economy. Or maybe they’ll choose to march the country to war with Iran. There’s nothing like patriotic gore to boost the ratings.

Sure, that’ll make for more compelling television and teach Americans a little more geography. But we viewers around the world would have to pay a steep cost. When reality TV becomes a little too real like that, I just want to put on some comfy slippers, grab a pint of Rocky Road, and change the channel to something frothy and escapist. Give me Glee or give me death!

But what if I can’t find something frothy and escapist? That’s my real nightmare: I click and I click and I click only to find Trump Presidency on all the channels. Quelle horreur!

A Really Big Show!

Okay, the pilot for Trump Presidency was irresistible. Donald Trump inspired rubbernecking on a global scale: we all tuned in every morning, noon, and night to witness the man’s self-destruction as a presidential candidate. And the twist at the end of the pilot — he actually wins! — surprised even moi, the world-weariest of critics.

We tuned in for Season 1 as if it were the latest offering of American Horror Show. It was all so disgusting. And yet entertaining. So horrifying! But transfixing. It went so far over the top that even when the real American Horror Show got around to satirizing the Trump administration in its own seventh offering, it somehow seemed pallid in comparison.

That first season of Trump Presidency offered plenty of horrors: the Muslim Travel Ban, the withdrawal from the Paris climate deal, the gutting of the State Department. We watched those episodes, as they were released in real time, because we felt compelled to know what would happen next. And, of course, the media gave the series all that free advertising (there’s no such thing as bad publicity!).

Then there was the acting! The casting director brought in some truly amazing characters that first season: Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Sebastian Gorka, Anthony Scaramucci, Omarosa Manigault. I watch a ton of reality TV, and I’ve never encountered characters as weird as those folks. It was like some bizarre marriage of Real Housewives of Foggy Bottom and Duck Dynasty Goes to Capitol Hill. Even when Trump himself was in a funk and hiding from the cameras, this supporting cast continued to draw viewers (and boost the ratings of Saturday Night Live!).

But oh, Season 2 has been a disaster.

The showrunners did their best to liven up the program with some interesting locations. In the very first episode, they sent the president to Davos, where he received an unusually warm welcome from the global elite. The summit in Singapore with Kim Jong Un was unprecedented, though critics generally gave that episode a thumb’s down, and the meeting with the Russian president in Helsinki was at least modestly interesting from the point of view of potential treason.

But the other locations — the G7 in Canada, the NATO summit in Belgium, that short visit to the UK, the World War II commemorations in France, and then the G7 again in Argentina — were just opportunities for Trump the Grump to sulk in the public eye.

Hey, guys, that’s not good television! Remember: I can always just replay episodes of West Wing and make believe that Martin Sheen is president. Or pretend that someone blew up the entire administration — talk about draining the swamp — leaving us all with Kiefer Sutherland as the designated survivor (cancelled after two seasons: let that be a lesson to you, showrunners!).

But the real problem with Season 2 is that nothing…ever…happened.

The scriptwriters planted all sorts of potential plot lines in Season 1, and they just didn’t go anywhere. Where’s the Wall? Where’s the deal with North Korea? Where’s that promised infrastructure bill and the big turnaround in manufacturing in the Rust Belt? We were promised so much winning that we’d get sick and tired of it. Instead we got the U.S. men’s national soccer team.

Oh, and then there have been the abrupt, and frankly unbelievable, plot twists. The president promised to rein in military spending. Just one episode ago, he was talking about a 5 percent cut in the Pentagon’s budget. And then, this week, he turns around and gives those boys a whopping $750 billion, which is $17 billion more than the military’s wildest dreams for 2020.

At first, I thought it was a continuity error. Is anyone keeping notes in this administration? Forget about that other Season 1 promise: to balance the budget. Hah!

But that’s just one example. Is it me or can you can really keep track of whether Russia’s a friend or an enemy, China’s a trading partner or a cheat, and Saudi Arabia’s a bunch of murderous thugs or our best friend in the Middle East? Hey, I like a good antihero just like the next guy: Tony Soprano, Walter White, The Situation. But I’m not sure how I feel about the U.S. government hooking up with nothing but antiheros. That’s just a little too dark for my tastes. And I was a big fan of Dexter.

So, in the end, Season 2 of Trump Presidency was a mess: boring, unbelievable, and (dare I say) even disgusting. I give it a big green splat.

My Predictions for Season 3

You know that a series is in trouble when it starts replacing its cast. In Season 3, Trump Presidency will have a new UN ambassador, a new chief of staff, a new attorney general. Some spots remain unfilled, like the deputy national security advisor, or temporary like the head of the EPA. Some people still call it an administration. I call it chaos.

But that’s just the beginning of the problem. I have searched and searched and searched, and I’ve dug up practically no hints of a script for next season. Okay, some of the best moments from the first two seasons were improv via Twitter. But really, no script?

Politico somehow got a copy of the notes from one of the showrunners, and it’s not pretty:

Trump has offered almost nothing in the way of a legislative vision for 2019 beyond approval of a new trade deal and vague references to infrastructure. His only clear priority is enforcing border security. The White House has even sent mixed signals about its desire to fight for a criminal justice reform bill that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, played a key role in shaping.

So, next year will be basically Season 2, warmed up and served as leftovers.

Given all the bad reviews — it’s not just me, folks — will Trump Presidency be cancelled in 2019? Maybe. But my guess is that the network is just going to let the season dribble out even as the critics pile on. After all, do you really think Pence Presidency would get better ratings?

Which leaves the jump-the-shark scenario.

Sure, a ruinous trade war with China or an apocalyptic showdown with Iran might happen. But I don’t think the showrunners will deliberately write something like that into the script. They just don’t have the imagination. Or the organizational competence to make it happen. But that doesn’t mean one or the other won’t happen accidentally.

After all, for all of its surrealistic unpredictability, Trump Presidency is reality TV. This isn’t just happening on the small screen. It’s happening out there, in an increasingly nightmarish world.

Wow, I just felt a shiver down my spine. I just realized that I can change the channel, I can even turn off the TV altogether, and Trump Presidency is still on: everywhere, all the time. Even my comfy slippers and pint of ice cream won’t save me. We’re all living in a Black Mirror episode! Ç’est une catastrophe!

Pity the country that has such reality shows. Pity the country that needs such reality shows.

The post Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

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