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Updated: 7 min 54 sec ago

Dispatches from North Korea’s Secret Journalists

11 hours 51 min ago


Lee Sang Yong is the editor-in-chief of Daily NK. Founded in 2004, the South Korea-based online newspaper has been frequently cited by international media hungry for news from the reclusive North Korean state. Staffed by a team of dedicated activists, including a number of North Korean defectors, Daily NK runs on a shoestring budget while managing a secret network of citizen journalists living in North Korea.

I interviewed Lee before Donald Trump’s and Kim Jong Un’s personal rapprochement, when relations between the U.S. and North Korea were in a high state of tension. But Lee is more interested in the flow of information to and from ordinary North Koreans, rather than between leaders.

Is one of the aims of your paper to dispel the myth that North Korea is a country full of people who monolithically support Kim Jong Un?

One of the primary aims is to improve access to outside information for all North Koreans, to encourage independent critical thinking, and encourage them to form their own opinions and conclusions about what is happening in the world around them. The second, but equally important aim, is to obtain accurate, credible information about North Korea for dissemination to the international community.

These two aims enable the international community to get a proper understanding of the facts, and therefore consider more effective approaches to North Korean issues, while strengthening the connections between North Korea’s population and the outside world. Based on access to balanced information, the people of North Korea can then determine the future they want for their country on their own terms.

Do you worry that the threatening rhetoric between Kim and President Trump will divert attention away from the North Korean people?

The North Korean regime has achieved its nuclear development goals and now wants to focus on the country’s economy. To that end, while making attempts to hint at the country’s commitment to denuclearization, the regime is trying to spur economic development. For his part, President Trump sees talks with North Korea as a necessary first step toward it becoming a normal nation.

These developments are not necessarily bad for the North Korean people. In the process many could realize the nuclear program’s role in keeping the regime in power. So, as these events unfold, we must double down on our efforts to send credible, unbiased, and accurate information about these developments to the North Korean people.

Donald Trump told the amazing story of a North Korean defector, Ji Seong-ho, in his 2018 State of the Union speech. What was the reaction of the defector community to Trump highlighting Ji’s story?

In general, many felt it was encouraging that the president of the United States met with a North Korean defector, and the meeting gave many victims of human rights abuses renewed encouragement in their work as human rights advocates. The message seemed to be then that the United States would continue to call out North Korea’s human rights abuses and support related work, which is surely a pressure point for the North Korean government.

Certainly, many share the view that the meeting was used for political purposes, but there continues to be interest and attention toward North Korean human rights issues.

Has the amount of foreign materials getting into North Korea slowed at all because of Kim Jong Un’s increased crackdown on outside information and communication with foreigners?

The flow of foreign goods into North Korea has slowed down. The North Korean authorities have launched a spirited campaign to boost domestic manufacturing and encourage North Korean people to focus on domestic consumption. The belief in “self-reliance and self-development” underpins continued calls to “fight sanctions from the United States.”

However, most North Koreans still prefer South Korean and other foreign-made goods due to their superior quality. Labels on foreign goods are often removed to hide their manufacturing origin and they are sometimes repackaged to look like North Korean products. The North Korean authorities continue to try to crack down on such actions, but many people remain unfazed and continue to find ways to evade the restrictions.

Is there growing dissent against the North Korean regime inside the country?

Using the term “anti-regime dissent” as commonly understood would be difficult to translate to what we know about life inside North Korea. “Dissent” and “opposition forces” as concepts are also ill-defined and difficult to apply to specific contexts.

However, through our citizen journalists we know of disparate incidents that continue to occur. Reports of anti-regime graffiti have come to light over the years, including a more recent example in Pyongyang criticizing Kim Jong Un. More research is needed to determine whether this was a rogue actor or is representative of a broader, organized movement, but the fact that it took place in the country’s tightly controlled capital means that such an act would have required careful planning, which is significant in its own right.

There are grassroots changes at play too. Residents have demanded that law enforcement present a warrant when conducting domicile searches, and elections are taking place at the very lowest level of administration in the country (neighborhood watch leaders). The selection of People’s Unit leaders by their constituents represents at least a small step towards raising democratic awareness among North Koreans.

In addition, the head of the Ministry of State Security was ousted due to alleged “human rights abuses.” Whether or not this was the real reason, the mention of a term previously non-existent in the North Korean vernacular is significant. It is increasingly appearing in political lectures and North Korean state media as well, though usually in the State’s defense of its own practices. Outside information and international pressure are driving these shifts in perception, and the government finds itself ceding ground, albeit marginally.

Can you talk more about the information revolution? Who is behind outside information getting into North Korea? Is this mostly being done by defectors who are trying to expose citizens to the outside world?

Defectors share information with relatives still in the country (via smuggled Chinese phones), and North Koreans who have traveled to China on visas and returned are sharing their experiences. Traders and merchants share information about the market, which quickly spreads. This is occurring because information is a commodity. Information helps to maximize profits.

The introduction of media devices has also contributed to the trend. Radio was once the sole means of connecting with the outside world, but these days people use an array of portable audio and video players, including MP3 players, MP4 players, and portable DVD players. USBs and SD cards are also pervasive and used to share content.

The North Korean authorities continue to crack down and punish those consuming and sharing foreign media, but it does little to impact the demand for such information, and technology is helping to circumvent the state surveillance apparatus.

What percentage of the North Korean people have had to rely for their survival on the market economies that sprang up during the human-made famine of the 1990s? What parts of this economy does the North Korean regime allow, and what parts is it trying to ban?

Technically speaking only women are allowed to participate in the market sphere, but in practice almost every North Korean resident, male or female, is involved in the market economy in one way or another. For example, in one family, the husband of a female market vendor may deal with the logistics and transportation side of things rather than clocking in at his state-run enterprise (such workers pay a fee to do so). Meanwhile, the children may help out with odds and ends, and even older generations get involved.

The fallout from the botched currency redenomination in 2009 resulted in a loosening of restrictions in February 2010, and by May of the same year the policies constraining activities at general markets were effectively withdrawn. Market-friendly development has increased under Kim Jong Un, and there has been a subsequent flourishing of the market space. As a result, residents’ livelihoods are inextricably linked to the markets, which continue to proliferate.

As more individuals leave the State socialist framework to engage in market activities, the societal and economic changes are shifting attitudes further from State ideology. The regime closely monitors such shifts and increases oppressive countermeasures to keep things in check, like harsher punishments for those caught with South Korean media, which is prohibited under North Korean law.

Do you worry that the North Korean regime used the 2108 Pyeongchang Olympics as a means of promoting false propaganda?

There is already evidence pointing to the regime’s use of the Pyeongchang Olympics for domestic propaganda. The authorities portrayed a theme of international appeasement and joint participation with the South as “South Korea carrying a white flag” and “proof of the success” of the regime’s policies.

But residents are finding themselves increasingly at odds with the State narrative, especially due to their exposure to South Korean culture, which in turn engenders more support for unification with the South. The North Korean authorities see this as a threat to their control, which is why efforts to advance the free flow of information throughout North Korea are paramount.

How did North Koreans react to the meetings between the South Korean and North Korean governments, where they agreed to pursue a peace treaty and work towards the denuclearization of the peninsula?

Opinions on the inter-Korean summit among North Koreans are quite varied. Many ordinary North Koreans believe that, as they are told in political lectures, the country’s nuclear weapons program is complete and now the focus will be on economic development to improve people’s lives. On the other hand, intellectuals and other elites see it as capitulation, and due to a lack of national power.

But almost every North Korean is supportive of the Panmunjom Declaration, particularly due to the potential for economic exchange and to improve livelihoods. There is less interest in the political details and issues.

Generally speaking, North Koreans are positive about increased inter-Korean exchanges. There is a strong belief that inter-Korean railway and roadways projects will move ahead, as these would be extremely beneficial to the North. Likewise, for the Kaesong Industrial Complex and tourism to the Kumgang Mountain Resort area.

The post Dispatches from North Korea’s Secret Journalists appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Andy Heintz is a freelance writer whose work has been published in Balkan Witness, Secularism is a Women’s Issue, Europe Solidaire, CounterVortex, and Culture Project. He’s the author of the book  Dissidents of the International Left.

What the UK’s Labour Party Can Teach Democrats About Internationalism

12 hours 18 min ago


One year ago, the UK Labour party released its guiding manifesto on international development.

Written by then Shadow Secretary of State for International Development Kate Osamor, the brief, accessible manifesto overturns the dominant neoliberal development model and replaces it with a bold, progressive vision of “A World For The Many, Not The Few.”

Though far from perfect, A World For The Many is an extraordinary document to come from the largest political party in western Europe. As Democratic presidential hopefuls stake out their own policy positions and fight to prove their progressive credentials, they would do well to consult the Labour manifesto.

There has long been a bipartisan consensus on international development. Development policy is about stimulating private sector-led economic growth. This is achieved through private investment, charitable aid, and pressure to adopt “Washington Consensus” policies of austerity, privatization, and market fundamentalism.

While conservatives and liberals may debate the extent of “pro-market” reforms, the ideal size of the aid budget, or which new fad is the development magic bullet, they widely agree on the basic premise.

A World For The Many offers a different approach. Global poverty exists not because some countries simply failed to grow, but because unequal global political structures systematically hold the vast majority down to the benefit of the few. Properly considered, development — if it is even to be called that — should be about replacing these structures for a fairer world.

Well-being, not growth for growth’s sake, is the goal. In fact, with climate change upon us, the growth of total economic activity would be ruinous.

The Labour manifesto also recognizes the hypocrisy of a system in which one department of government claims to be supporting “development” while the others promote fossil fuels, design trade deals to empower corporations, and sell weapons that will be used to massacre Yemenis and other conflict victims. A World For The Many is not just about aid policy; it’s a fundamental rethinking of the UK’s role in the world.

The following are just a few highlights from the manifesto’s many laudable proposals:

  • Make inequality, not just poverty, the official target of development assistance.
  • Reform the global trade system to better benefit labor and developing countries.
  • End the UK’s complicity in systems of tax avoidance and illicit financial flows that enable corruption and syphon wealth out of developing countries.
  • Support a global financial transactions tax.
  • Strengthen measures for global corporate accountability.
  • Lobby “for the most ambitious and progressive global agreements” on refugees.
  • Establish mechanisms to facilitate debt cancellation.
  • Commit to a multilateral, human rights-based foreign policy, including ending the sale of weapons to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
  • Push to democratize the World Bank, IMF, and WTO.
  • Reverse the global trend toward privatization and help developing countries strengthen their public services.
  • Promote “fairer international patent regimes that do not prevent developing countries from accessing essential public health medicines.”
  • Triple funding for grassroots women’s organizations.
  • “Promote inclusive local ownership of international development projects and interventions.”
  • Establish “a permanent mechanism for civil society and activists from across the British public and global South countries to be consulted on government policy.”
  • Ensure that the UK meets its commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement.
  • End UK aid for fossil fuel projects and push multilateral institutions to do the same.
  • Develop “an alternative measure of wellbeing and economic success instead of GDP growth.”
  • Work to “decarbonise economic activity… and test alternative economic models such as the circular economy.”

These are not new ideas. Their inclusion in the Labour manifesto speaks more to the decades of work of grassroots activists than it does to the sudden enlightenment of political leadership. But it’s telling of a monumental political shift that they should be found in the official platform of a Western political party on the brink of power.

Of course, there’s much to be desired. A model progressive treatise on global inequality would be explicitly rooted in anti-imperialism, which A World For The Many doesn’t even mention by name. The manifesto isn’t bold enough to propose a New Bretton Woods or Global Green New Deal. Foreshadowing Labour’s inexcusable recent decision to turn against freedom of movement, the manifesto makes no mention of non-refugee immigrants, much less commitments to open borders. Its call for democratization of multilateral institutions doesn’t extend to the UN, in which the UK has disproportionate power. And much of the language remains vague and malleable.

But despite the policy space to its left, A World For The Many is not just a lesser evil — it is, in both specific recommendations and broad framing, a categorical improvement from the neoliberal consensus. As scholar-activist and member of Osamor’s expert task force Jason Hickel put it: “Labour’s new [manifesto] marks something of a revolution in development policy and narrative.  It captures the zeitgeist of a movement that is hungry for a fresh, radical approach.”

This is a far cry from the Democratic Party’s development platform, which remains mired in neoliberalism, and, tellingly, begins: “We believe that development assistance is an essential instrument of American power.”

Of the 2020 presidential candidates, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders come closest to the Labour approach.

In her defining foreign policy speech, Warren centered global economic justice, calling for greater financial transparency, an end to tax havens, curtailment of multinational corporate power, and stronger regulatory standards in trade deals. Sanders made similar remarks in 2017, declaring that “there is no justification for the incredible power and dominance that Wall Street, giant multinational corporations, and international financial institutions have over the affairs of sovereign countries throughout the world.”

But neither their rhetoric nor their voting records are quite as expansive, as detailed, or as radical in upending the development consensus as the Labour manifesto.

In the fight for the future of the Democratic Party, progressives must not let their critique of the status quo end at the nation’s borders. When the next president of the United States crafts their development platform, they should take a page out of Labour’s book and envision A World For The Many, Not The Few.

The post What the UK’s Labour Party Can Teach Democrats About Internationalism appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Michael Galant is a recent graduate of the Master of Public Policy program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is interested in building global solidarity for left alternatives to neoliberal models of globalization and “development,” and can be found on Twitter at @michael_galant.

Mueller Can’t Unrig the System, But Movements Can

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 12:41pm


Once upon a time, the Mueller report was supposed to mark the end of the “Russiagate” mystery.

This yearning now looks naive. Now the report itself is the subject of ongoing battles over redactions and interpretation between Democrats and Trump’s attorney general.

Even more naive, however, was the faith that evidence of foul play with Russia would put things to right in our political system after an aberration in 2016.

It’s not that there was nothing “there.”

Russia and its online troll farms plainly wanted Trump to win. Members of Trump World lied extensively about contacts with Russians, and about projects like the proposed Trump tower in Moscow. Top-level campaign staff, even Trump’s own son, actually met with Russians promising government-sponsored dirt on Hillary Clinton.

More revelations may follow as reporters dig through the redacted Mueller report. Seems likely enough, even if collusion is never definitively proved to a legal standard.

The naive part is the belief that our political system is healthy enough to correct itself, if only the right piece of evidence falls into the hands of an elite prosecutor looking for collusion.

Plainly, it’s not. Because evidence of much more thorough collusion has always been perfectly out in the open — with corporations. While Russiagate gobbled up all the cable news hours, this sort of collusion has had a far more catastrophic material impact on real people.

For instance, an authoritative U.N. climate report gave the world just 12 terrifyingly short years to avert the worst impacts of climate change. Since Trump was elected hurricanes have put Houston, America’s fourth-largest city, underwater, and killed as many Americans in Puerto Rico as died on 9/11. California, our most populous state, seems like it’s always on fire.

How has Trump responded? He pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, put first an oil-backed politician and then a coal lobbyist in charge of the EPA, and handed the Departments of State and Interior over to oil men.

What about health care? We spend more on it than any developed country. It’s our leading cause of bankruptcy, yet we live shorter lives than people in our peer countries.

Still, Trump openly partnered with health care profiteers in a bid to throw up to 30 million Americans off even the modest coverage offered by the Affordable Care Act. His administration is trying to kill the law to this day.

On taxes, Trump and his party rammed through an enormous, $2 trillion tax cut for the rich and corporations — and immediately proposed cutting Social Security and Medicare to cover the damage.

This is much deadlier “collusion” than anything Trump could’ve arranged with the Russians, and Robert Mueller can’t do a thing about it.

You know who can? Activists like the Sunrise Movement pushing for a Green New Deal. The democratic socialists who made Medicare for All a litmus test in the Democratic primary. And the majority of Americans who want the Trump tax cuts overturned.

Support for all these ideas is growing in Congress, thanks to cheerleading by progressive members like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Pramila Jayapal of Washington. Yet by and large they’ve enjoyed nothing like the protection offered to narrower undertakings like the Mueller investigation.

To the contrary, leading Democrats have at times scoffed at them. Nancy Pelosi dismissed the Green New Deal — the most comprehensive progressive vision that actually saves the planet yet devised — as a “green dream or whatever.” And a top Pelosi aide privately comforted pharmaceutical executives that the Democratic leadership wasn’t serious about Medicare for All.

Rather than confront these interests, they treated Russia as Trump’s most egregious crime. Even worse, a few even sprinkled in neo-Cold War calls to confront Russia geopolitically, raising the stakes dramatically.

It’s not that Trump’s possible collusion or obstruction don’t deserve scrutiny. But the other Republicans who collude openly with these industries plainly have no intention of holding Trump accountable for Russia or anything else. Leading Democrats, too, are constrained by their accommodations with big money.

This arrangement, in short, isn’t going to correct itself. But real-life movements, organized around real-life issues like health care and the planet, really could.

Maybe they are already.

The post Mueller Can’t Unrig the System, But Movements Can appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Peter Certo is the editorial manager of the Institute for Policy Studies and the editor of Foreign Policy In Focus.

The Next Ebola Epidemic

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 12:10pm


The Ebola epidemic in West Africa from 2013 to 2016  left more than 11,000 dead and panicked the American public when a few isolated cases turned up on U.S. soil. By the time the outbreak was contained, the international community had learned valuable lessons about how to combat the virus.

Now, a new outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is testing that knowledge — and the political will of the global community to mount a robust response.

With more than 830 deaths since August 2018, the epidemic in northeastern DRC is the second-largest recorded, behind the multi-country epidemic in West Africa. The DRC outbreak has not yet crossed international borders. Moreover, responders are applying new solutions, including a vaccine that has proved effective.

But many health experts argue that the threat is underestimated, leading to a dangerously inadequate global response.

As of late March, the World Health Organization (WHO) had received less than half of its $148 million funding request for Ebola over the next six months. The WHO bureaucracy, moreover, appears hesitant. On April 12, the agency again declined to declare the epidemic a “public health emergency of international concern” — a designation that could unlock critical resources needed to bring the outbreak under control.

One reason for the tepid response may be the remote location. The DRC epidemic is centered more than 1,000 miles from the capital, Kinshasa. In West Africa, by contrast, three coastal countries were affected, including capital cities with direct air links to Europe and North America.

Nonetheless, the threat of spread beyond the DRC worries health experts. Tens of thousands of people a day cross the borders from the area into Rwanda, Uganda, and South Sudan. Indeed, WHO’s statement expressed “deep concern” about the “potential risk of spread to neighboring countries.”

The response to the epidemic does show that important lessons have been learned from West Africa and from other previous outbreaks. The DRC Health Ministry has gained experience from nine outbreaks in that country since 1976, all of which were contained relatively quickly.

There is also new leadership at WHO: Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, the agency’s first African director, took office in 2017. Researchers, notably at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have honed containment procedures and developed a new vaccine that is being used in the DRC. The CDC has worked with other international agencies and with national health ministries in training and preparing for a rapid response.

At a March 14 hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield laid out the measures being taken. Essential steps to contain further spread include tracing the personal contacts of Ebola cases and checking the health of border crossers. Multiple actors are collaborating, including local health workers, WHO and CDC personnel, and nongovernmental organizations such as the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders. Nonetheless, the outbreak has not yet been contained.

One obstacle, which also existed in West Africa, is lack of trust by local people whose cooperation is essential for timely identification of victims and their contacts. Medical procedures required to treat those infected with Ebola, and for handling the dead, frighten and alienate many people.

In West Africa, health workers and community mobilizers gradually won people’s confidence. The situation in eastern Congo is more difficult, in part because of ongoing conflict that’s displaced almost 1.5 million people from their homes. Health teams face the threat of attack by multiple armed groups and by local people who fear outsiders.

Doctors without Borders (MSF), which saw one of its health centers destroyed in February, has criticized WHO’s failure to declare a global health emergency. In an April 12 press release, an MSF spokesperson emphasized that “the outbreak is not under control.” The group called for a change of strategy: “We need to adapt our intervention to the needs and expectations of the population, to integrate Ebola activities in the local healthcare system, [and] to engage effectively with the communities.”

The other major obstacle is inadequate funding—for national health systems in the most vulnerable countries, but also for the global institutions that provide technical support and resources.

Although this underfunding is longstanding, the Trump administration’s policies are making it worse. If Trump’s budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year were to be enacted, global health funding would be slashed. That budget zeroes out U.S. funding for UNICEF, cuts U.S. contributions to WHO by 47 percent, and proposes a $1.3 billion (20 percent) cut from the $6.6 billion current budget of the CDC.

Fortunately, there’s bipartisan support in Congress for sustaining, and even increasing, funding for global health. “I consider this every bit as much of a defense budget as anything at [the U.S. Department of Defense],” said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, ranking Republican on the Labor and Health Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. “We’re much more likely to die in pandemics than in terrorist attacks.”

As in the case of climate change, action on global health is increasingly recognized not just as a moral obligation, but as a matter of national self-interest. The scientific and public consensus is illustrated by a March 4 letter from 225 professional organizations endorsing a $1.2 billion increase over current funding levels for the CDC.

On this front, at least, Congress seems inclined to heed science rather than the administration’s indifference.

The post The Next Ebola Epidemic appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

William Minter is the editor of AfricaFocus Bulletin. The April 15 issue of AfricaFocus Bulletin includes additional background links and excerpts from the testimony by CDC director Redfield.

Trump Is Expanding America’s Wars, Not Ending Them

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 2:49pm


Here’s a statement it might be hard to disagree with: American war is off the charts.

Still, I’d like to explain — but I’m nervous about doing so. I know perfectly well that the next word I plan to write will send most of you tumbling elsewhere in a universe in which “news” is the latest grotesque mass shooting; the craziest tweet from you-know-who; celebrities marching into court over college-admissions scandals; or even a boy, missing for years, who suddenly turns up only to morph into a 23-year-old impostor with a criminal record.

How can America’s wars in distant lands compete with that? Which is why I just can’t bring myself to write the next word. So promise me that, after you read it, you’ll hang in there for just a minute and give me a chance to explain.

Okay, here goes: Somalia.

A country in the horn of Africa, it once glued American eyeballs, but that was so last century, right? I mean, there was that bestselling book and that hit Hollywood movie directed by Ridley Scott (Blade RunnerAlien!) about the disaster early in Bill Clinton’s presidency that came to be known as Black Hawk Down (aka the battle of Mogadishu).

In the age of Donald Trump, wasn’t that a million presidencies ago? Honestly, can you even tell me anymore what in the world it was all about? I couldn’t have, not without looking it up again. A warlord, starvation, U.S. intervention, 18 dead American soldiers (and hundreds of dead Somalis, but that hardly mattered) in a country that was shattering. President Clinton did, however, pull out those troops and end the disastrous mission — and that was that, right? I mean, lessons learned. Somalia? Africa? What in the world did it all have to do with us? So Washington washed its hands of the whole thing.

And now, on a planet of outrageous tweets and murderously angry white men, you probably didn’t even notice, but more than two years into the era of Donald Trump, a quarter-century after that incident, American air strikes in… yep, Somalia, are precipitously on the rise.

Last year’s 47 strikes, aimed at the leaders and fighters of al-Shabaab, an Islamist terror outfit, more than tripled the ones carried out by the Obama administration in 2016 (themselves a modest increase from previous years). And in 2019, they’re already on pace to double again, while Somali civilians — not that anyone (other than Somali civilians) notices or cares — are dying in significant and rising numbers.

And with 500 troops back on the ground there and Pentagon estimates that they will remain for at least another seven years, the U.S. military is increasingly Somalia-bound, Congress hasn’t uttered a peep on the subject, and few in this country are paying the slightest attention.

So consider this a simple fact of the never-ending Global War on Terror (as it was once called): the U.S. military just can’t get enough of Somalia. And if that isn’t off the charts, what is? Maybe it’s even worth a future book (with a very small print run) called not Black Hawk Down II but U.S. Down Forever and a Day.

And now that I’ve started on the subject (if you still happen to be reading), when it comes to the U.S. military, it’s not faintly just Somalia. It’s all of Africa.

After all, this country’s military uniquely has a continent-wide Africa Command (aka AFRICOM), founded in 2007. As Nick Turse has often written for TomDispatch, that command now has its troops, thousands of them, its planes, and other equipment spread across the continent, north to south, east to west — air bases, drone bases, garrisons, outposts, staging areas, you name it. Meanwhile, AFRICOM’s outgoing commanding general, Thomas Waldhauser, only recently told Congress why it’s bound to be a forever outfit — because, shades of the Cold War, the Ruskies are coming! (“Russia is also a growing challenge and has taken a more militaristic approach in Africa.”)

And honestly, 600-odd words in, this wasn’t meant to be a piece about either Somalia or Africa. It was meant to be about those U.S. wars being off the charts, about how the Pentagon now feeds eternally at the terror trough, al-Shabaab being only a tiny part of the slop it regularly digests. So, for the seven of you still reading, let me change the subject to something a little more appealingly — to quote a well-known authority — “ridiculous” when it comes to American war.

A “Ridiculous” War

Maybe you won’t be surprised to learn that what I have in mind is the war in Afghanistan, another of Washington’s off-the-charts affairs.

It might even qualify as the original one (if you don’t count Vietnam, which would take you back to the Neolithic Age of the U.S. military’s infinite wars). Lest you think I only mean the war that began in Afghanistan after the terror attacks of 9/11, think again. I’m talking about the American war in that distant land that started in 1979, the decade-long conflict in which the U.S. supported extreme Islamists (including a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden) — they were our guys, then — to successfully force the Red Army out of Afghanistan.

That was in 1989, 30 years ago, and a triumphant Washington promptly took more than a decade-long holiday, while a brutal set of civil wars continued in already devastated Afghanistan and the Taliban rose to power in most of the country.

Then, as in Somalia, having learned their lesson (the wrong one, of course), George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and crew decided after 9/11 to emulate… well, the Red Army (even though the Soviet Union had imploded a decade earlier) and occupy the Afghan capital, Kabul. For the only great power left on the planet, facing a lightly armed extremist group, what could possibly go wrong?

Seventeen and a half years later, Congress has rarely focused on the war (not) to end all wars and there are still 14,000 American troops (and the usual set of private contractors) there, along with enough U.S. air power to… well, blow up a lot but not change anything decisively. Of course, the Taliban was long ago sent to hell in a hand basket…Whoops!  The Taliban in 2019 is stronger and in control of more territory than at any moment since it was driven from power in November 2001.

Staggering billions of American taxpayer dollars have gone into the “reconstruction” of that land to little effect (while the domestic infrastructure of the United States has begun to crumble without significant new federal investment). Meanwhile, the security forces of the American-backed Afghan government have been taking casualties at a reportedly unsustainable rate.

After not paying much attention to all of this for something like a decade and a half, the American people did, however inadvertently, vote into the White House a presidential candidate who had long had dissident thoughts about the Afghan War. Typical was this 2012 tweet of his: “Why are we continuing to train these Afghanis who then shoot our soldiers in the back? Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home!”

And it’s not a set of thoughts Donald Trump tossed overboard once he entered the Oval Office either. Only the other day, he ludicrously praised the “great strides in Afghanistan” that the U.S. military and NATO are(n’t) making in an awkward meeting with that alliance’s secretary general (in which he also managed to claim that his father — distinctly from the Bronx, New York — had been born and raised in Germany).

He then doubled back and termed the Afghan War “ridiculous” and “unfortunate.” And last December, soon after he announced that he was pulling all U.S. troops out of Syria (on which more in a moment), he essentially demanded that the U.S. military cut its forces in Afghanistan from 14,000 to 7,000 as part of its route (not rout!) out. That number was assumedly meant to include the 3,000 troops he had been persuaded to add to U.S. forces there in his first year in office.

As it happened, however, the Pentagon had its own forward-looking ideas on how to “withdraw” from Afghanistan. Having already turned that war into the longest in American history, the high command was now evidently vying for another awe-inspiring record: the longest withdrawal of American forces from a war zone ever — a three-to-five-year span of time with perhaps an initial cut of 7,000 somewhere in the months to come (though I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting). In that way, they were working to produce an American war of at least 21 years (USA! USA!), while perhaps also hoping to outlast this president and get one willing to commit to forever war forever.

Admittedly, the Trump administration has also launched peace talks with the Taliban and who knows where they might lead sooner or later. Still, when it comes to the “ridiculous” war the president continues to belittle, give credit where it’s due. It remains robustly, even disastrously, ongoing and off the charts.

The Trump Surge

And none of that compares to Trump’s Syrian debacle. In December, the president publicly overruled his advisers and ordered that the 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in that country be withdrawn within 30 days. “We have won against ISIS,” he declared in a video posted on Twitter. “Our boys, our young women, our men — they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now.”

I think of what followed as “the Trump surge,” the third of the era.

The first, of course, was General David Petraeus’s 2007 surge into Iraq with more than 20,000 American troops. Its aim: to turn the disastrous occupation of that country that followed George W. Bush’s May 2003 “mission accomplished” moment into a raging success. Petraeus, in fact, made his reputation on that turn-around of a surge… until, of course, it wasn’t, and by then he had moved on.

The second surge was President Obama’s decision to send more than 30,000 new U.S. troops into Afghanistan in 2009 — and, of course, you know how that turned out. (See above.)

Now, appropriately enough, we’ve had an upside down, inside-out surge in Syria. Honestly, it could have been a Saturday Night Live routine, complete with Alec Baldwin.

In response to Trump’s withdrawal decision, Secretary of Defense James Mattis promptly resigned and was almost instantly lauded as an all-American hero by a Congress and a media in an uproar over the decision. We’re talking, of course, about “Mad Dog” Mattis, the former Marine general who so classically said of fighting the Taliban, “It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up there with you. I like brawling.”

And then, in February, as the pressure on the president ramped up, there was the first partial retreat.  Think of it as the beginning of a withdrawal from the withdrawal.

The news leaked out that, in a “concession” to Pentagon officials, 200 U.S. troops would be left in Syria “for a period of time.” It only took another day for that number to rise to 400. Then, in mid-March, the Wall Street Journal reported that, in reality, 1,000 troops would be left in that country, a figure promptly and definitively denied (“factually incorrect”) by no less a personage than the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford. By month’s end, however, that factually incorrect figure had been confirmed — 1,000 U.S. personnel would indeed remain indefinitely, or at least until the fall of 2020.

Where the Trump surge will go from here we simply don’t know, as the subject has largely dropped from the news.

The President From Riyadh?

Meanwhile, don’t forget the war that, unlike Afghanistan and Syria, Donald Trump may not be able to imagine ending, the only one on which, since 2001, Congress has taken a stand. I’m thinking, of course, about the grim U.S.-backed Saudi and Emirati war in Yemen.

As April began, Congress passed a resolution calling on the president to “remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting” Yemen within 30 days. (Of course, you already know how well such 30-day deadlines work when it comes to America’s wars.) In the single most obvious situation in which a war (or at least American involvement in it) might possibly be ended, in which the president with the help of Congress might actually override the national security state’s urge to fight on anywhere and everywhere, President Trump then signed second veto of his term in office and nixed the congressional resolution.

Who could be surprised? It’s obviously the wrong off-the-charts war for the president from Riyadh to end — or have I, like the president himself, gotten confused about which Trump was born where?

Oh yes, and talking about learning one’s lessons, as well as truly going off the charts…

As the 2020 elections approach, watch out. There’s one possible American war still to come in the Greater Middle East. You know, the one that won’t be off the charts, that’s bound to turn out well given the deep pool of experience and reflection on American war making that will have preceded it.

I’m thinking, of course, about a potential war with Iran (the one the Bush administration’s top officials wished for before they bogged down so disastrously in Iraq and Afghanistan). President Trump’s foreign-policy team — National Security Advisor John Bolton (a relic of the Bush years) and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — are visibly dying (if that’s the right word) for just such a war and the president who ripped up the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal, recently declared Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a terror group, and has been threatening Iran ever since, seems all too open to it as well.

So, for the last few of us still here thinking about American wars, I would say that when it comes to off the charts, it’s possible that you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The post Trump Is Expanding America’s Wars, Not Ending Them appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).

The Dictator and the Nihilist

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 1:22pm


Two major public figures lost their protected status last week.

British authorities dragged Julian Assange, the co-founder of Wikileaks, out of the Ecuadorian consulate and into custody. Meanwhile, months of public protests finally dislodged Omar al-Bashir, the long-serving authoritarian leader of Sudan.

On the face of it, Assange and Bashir couldn’t be more different. Bashir presided over a tyrannical state that waged genocidal war and kept tight control over information. Assange, on the other hand, used the medium of the Internet to leak information that exposed abuses of power and challenged official versions of war.

Yet the two shared an underlying commonality: lack of accountability. This trait proved to be their ultimate undoing.

The Little Tyrant

Julian Assange stands accused of two separate types of crime. He originally took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced charges of sexual assault and rape. During his stay in the embassy, one charge ran out because of the statute of limitations. Now that Assange is extraditable, the Swedish authorities can revive the second charge, which doesn’t expire until 2020.

But Assange has also been in the crosshairs of the U.S. authorities ever since he released a trove of information in 2010, courtesy of whistleblower Chelsea Manning, about U.S. military conduct in Afghanistan and Iraq. The specific charge for which Washington wants Assange extradited to stand trial is connected to this whistleblowing, but only peripherally. The indictment reads:

On or about March 8, 2010, Assange agreed to assist Manning in cracking a password stored on United States Department of Defense Computers connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network, a United States government network used for classified documents and communications.

To get around the five-year statute of limitations on hacking, which expired some time ago, the United States is charging Assange with an act of terrorism.

So, Assange stands accused of a criminal act: hacking, not publishing. This isn’t, in other words, a First Amendment issue. On the other hand, the U.S. case is very thin indeed. Terrorism? Hardly. And there’s no evidence that Assange actually engaged in the alleged hacking, though hacking certainly played an instrumental role in his earlier life in Australia.

Assange shouldn’t be extradited to the United States where the government might expand the inquiry and turn the man into a First Amendment martyr. He should, however, face his accusers in Sweden.

By most standards, Assange is a thoroughly unpleasant fellow. “He was an unstable figure who was an unfortunate avatar for press freedom,” observes Alex Gibney, the director of the documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. “I think instinctively, he was always kind of a renegade and also a narcissist, and self-serving and mendacious.”

Paranoid and domineering, Assange once told his erstwhile Wikileaks partner, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, “If you fuck up, I’ll hunt you down and kill you.” Sequestered inside the Ecuadorian embassy for nearly seven years, Assange was, to the say the least, a boorish guest: fighting with his hosts, treating the place as if he owned it, and breaking the rules of his stay by continuing to run his political operations (including his interventions on behalf of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential elections).

A jerk, a hacker, possibly a rapist: these all suggest that Julian Assange believes that the normal rules of society don’t apply to him. It’s hard to understand why he became a hero of the left simply because he published materials that put the U.S. military in the worst light possible. It’s even harder to understand why he remains a hero for a diminishing sliver of the left after his hatred of Hillary Clinton pushed him to do whatever he could to support Trump’s political ambitions.

Assange doesn’t care about politics. He doesn’t even care about transparency. He’ll align with the most non-transparent state and individuals (Russia, Trump) to pursue his own personal grudges. In the case of his work on behalf of Trump, his motives were even more opportunistic: a potential pardon.

But what makes Assange particularly detestable is his complete lack of accountability. He is an anarchist — not in the precise political sense of a follower of Bakunin or Bookchin, but in his preference for the destruction of the established order. He will do whatever he can to undermine order, whether that order is legitimate or illegitimate. He is sometimes described as a libertarian because of his defense of civil liberties and admiration for Ron and Rand Paul. But, frankly, Assange is just interested in his own liberty, his own freedom to do what he wants. He’s even more of a nihilist than Trump, for he has no idea of what should replace the status quo he so despises.

When Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden made the decision to declassify government documents, they did so with the help, support, and counsel of journalists. In other words, they submitted to the accountability mechanisms of the newspaper world — fact-checkers, lawyers, national security experts.

Assange did no such thing. He dumped everything into the public realm uncurated. The material could be wrong. It could be weaponized. It could hurt ongoing peace negotiations. Assange didn’t care. Wikileaks, with its disregard for normal journalism practices, has contributed greatly to the spread of “fake news,” of conspiracy theories, of contempt for media outlets like CNN. In some cases, as with the allegation that DNC staffer Seth Rich was the source of the Democratic Party hacks, Assange directly provided grist for the rumor mill that has increasingly replaced journalism.

This, then, is Assange’s greatest sin. He acts like a tyrant, though he controls no state and no territory. Perhaps he will be found guilty in a court of law in Sweden and go to jail. Otherwise, being an unaccountable jerk is not a crime. For his sins, I’d just be happy to see Assange consigned to obscurity.

The Big Tyrant

Omar al-Bashir had a nearly 30-year reign over Sudan. He aspired to exert totalitarian control over this North African country by banishing civil society and eradicating rival political forces. He continued a devastating civil war with the southern part of the country and started a genocidal conflict with the Darfur region. In a desperate bid to win favor with the United States, he cooperated with George W. Bush’s global war on terrorism.

None of this prevented a final reckoning at the hands of the Sudanese people themselves.

There are many reasons why the Sudanese rose up against their ruler. The economy, for instance, is in terrible shape. This is the result of mismanagement, corruption, and the loss of significant oil revenues when South Sudan became independent and took control of the vast majority of oil production.

Even the lifting in 2017 of most U.S. sanctions against Khartoum — in an effort to enlist Sudan’s help in further isolating North Korea — didn’t seem to help, as the inflation rate rose to 70 percent in 2018. Another round of price increases for food sparked protests last December. Meanwhile, as was the case in all of the Arab Spring countries, the youth unemployment rate in Sudan has been inordinately high, hovering around 27 percent for years.

Sudan has also been at war for much of its post-colonial existence: two civil wars, an internal conflict in Darfur, and, for the last few years, participation in the Saudi-led war in Yemen where Sudan has sent as many as 14,000 soldiers. Most of these fighters have come from Darfur where, as part of the Janjaweed militia, they were largely responsible for the genocide there. Hundreds of these soldiers have died in Yemen. Given the high costs and the minimal benefits of this military campaign, members of the Sudanese parliament last year began questioning the country’s participation.

Bashir’s lack of accountability plays a major part in all this. Although Sudan has held multi-party elections since 2010, the ruling party has used the machinery of the state to maintain its grip on power, freezing out the opposition and ensuring that the Sudanese people have little to no say in political affairs.

Even in the face of gross human rights violations in Darfur, Bashir managed to evade the mechanisms of international accountability. Until recently, Bashir was the only sitting world leader wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Under some circumstances, a population might be expected to rally around a leader stigmatized by the international community, as Russians have maintained their support for Vladimir Putin. But Bashir’s crimes were against his own people. No surprise they wanted him out.

The protesters in Sudan hold more than just Bashir accountable. The actual force behind Bashir’s ouster was the military, a least a portion of which squared off against the security police in defense of the protesters.

But the protesters have not wanted a military dictatorship to replace Bashir’s personal dictatorship. They’ve called for the “full dissolution of the deep state.” Whether because of public pressure or internal division, the leader of the transitional military council resigned after only one day on the job. The head of the security forces, Salah Gosh, was next to step down.

Meanwhile, negotiations between the military and the protesters have resulted in the release of political prisoners, the barring of the former ruling party from any transitional government, and a pledge that civilians will serve as prime minister and the head of all ministries aside from the ministries of defense and interior.

Just as Assange should head to Sweden, Bashir should travel to the Hague to face justice. The transitional council has insisted on putting Bashir on trial in Sudan, though a civilian government might overrule that decision. The former dictator is now sitting in Kobar prison, where he once sent those who opposed his reign.

The Consequences of Accountability

The aging leaders of Algeria and Sudan are now deposed. There is talk of another Arab Spring in the region. But a repeat of 2011 is not likely given the hold on power that Mohammed bin Salman has in Saudi Arabia, the victory of Benjamin Netanyahu in the recent Israel elections, the way Bashar al-Assad has clung to his position in Syria, and the brutality with which Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has enforced his reign in Egypt. The United States stands firmly behind Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt. Russia and Iran back Assad. In the short term, let’s hope that both Algeria and Sudan simply avoid the fate of Libya, namely horrific civil war.

If the United States changes its Middle East policy and stops supporting dictatorships and right-wing leaders, then a real wave of accountability could sweep through the region. But that depends on what happens in the 2020 elections.

In other words, American voters not only can hold the Trump administration accountable in 2020 by voting it out and even putting some of its top officials on trial. They can lay the groundwork for a rehabilitation of the national mechanisms of accountability (like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that Trump is dismantling) as well as the international mechanisms (like the International Criminal Court that Trump has attacked). And they can elect politicians who have zero tolerance for unaccountable leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world.

Whistleblowers and protesters play a key role in ensuring accountability. But ultimately, democratic systems should be built to ensure institutional accountability. That’s what the protesters in Sudan so desperately want in the wake of Omar Bashir. That’s what nihilists like Julian Assange, in their hatred of government, so cavalierly dismiss.

Perhaps the departure of Bashir and Assange will signal a new wave of accountability that will eventually reach the shores of the United States as well — in time to drain the swamp in 2020.

The post The Dictator and the Nihilist appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

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