Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Guardians of Orthodoxy: Maintaining the Syria Fiction

Monbiot Still Burying his Head in Sands of Syria

by Jonathan Cook - Dissident Voice

November 21st, 2017

Investigative journalist Gareth Porter has published two exclusives whose import is far greater than may be immediately apparent. They concern Israel’s bombing in 2007 of a supposed nuclear plant secretly built, according to a self-serving US and Israeli narrative, by Syrian leader Bashar Assad.

Although the attack on the “nuclear reactor” occurred a decade ago, there are pressing lessons to be learnt for those analysing current events in Syria.

Porter’s research indicates very strongly that the building that was bombed could not have been a nuclear reactor – and that was clear to experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) even as the story was being promoted uncritically across the western media.

But – and this is the critical information Porter conveys – the IAEA failed to disclose the fact that it was certain the building was not a nuclear plant, allowing the fabricated narrative to be spread unchallenged. It abandoned science to bow instead to political expediency.

The promotion of the bogus story of a nuclear reactor by Israel and key figures in the Bush administration was designed to provide the pretext for an attack on Assad. That, it was hoped, would bring an end to his presidency and drag into the fray the main target – Iran. The Syrian “nuclear reactor” was supposed to be a re-run of the WMD deception, used in 2003 to oust another enemy of the US and Israel’s – Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

It is noteworthy that the fabricated evidence for a nuclear reactor occurred in 2007, a year after Israel’s failure to defeat Hizbullah in Lebanon. The 2006 Lebanon war was itself intended to spread to Syria and lead to Assad’s overthrow, as I explained in my book Israel and the Clash of Civilisations.

It is important to remember that this Israeli-neocon plot against Syria long predated – in fact, in many ways prefigured – the civil war in 2011 that quickly morphed into a proxy war in which the US became a key, if mostly covert, actor.

The left’s Witchfinder General

The relevance of the nuclear reactor deception can be understood in relation to the latest efforts by Guardian columnist George Monbiot (and many others) to discredit prominent figures on the left, including Noam Chomsky and John Pilger, for their caution in making assessments of much more recent events in Syria. Monbiot has attacked them for not joining him in simply assuming that Assad was responsible for a sarin gas attack last April on Khan Sheikhoun, an al-Qaeda stronghold in Idlib province.

Understandably, many on the left have been instinctively wary of rushing to judgment about individual incidents in the Syrian war, and the narratives presented in the western media. The claim that Assad’s government used chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, and earlier in Ghouta, was an obvious boon to those who have spent more than a decade trying to achieve regime change in Syria.

In what has become an ugly habit with Monbiot, and one I have noted before, he has enthusiastically adopted the role of Witchfinder General. Any questioning of evidence, scepticism or simply signs of open-mindedness are enough apparently to justify accusations that one is an Assadist or conspiracy theorist.

Giving house room to the doubts of a ballistics expert like Ted Postol of MIT, or an experienced international arms expert like Scott Ritter, or a famous investigative journalist like Seymour Hersh, or a former CIA analyst like Ray McGovern, is apparently proof that one is an atrocity denier or worse.

Inconvenient facts buried

Monbiot’s latest attack was launched at a moment when he obviously felt he was on solid ground.

A UN agency, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), issued a report last month concluding that the 100 people killed and 200 injured in Khan Sheikhoun last April were exposed to sarin.

Monbiot argues that the proof is now incontrovertible that Assad was responsible – a position that he, of course, adopted at the outset – and that all other theories have now been decisively discounted by the OPCW.

There are reasons to think that Monbiot is seriously misrepresenting the strength of the OPCW’s findings, as several commentators have observed. Most notably, Robert Parry, another leading investigative journalist, points out that evidence in the report’s annex – the place where inconvenient facts are often buried – appears to blow a large hole in the official story.

Parry notes that the time recorded by the UN of the photo of the chemical weapons attack is more than half an hour *after* some 100 victims had already been admitted to five different hospitals, some of them lengthy drives from the alleged impact site.

But potentially more significant than such troubling inconsistencies are the conclusions of Gareth Porter’s separate investigation into Israel’s bombing of the non-existent Syrian nuclear reactor. That gets to the heart of where Monbiot and many others have gone badly wrong in their certainty about events in Syria.

Extreme naivety

Monbiot has been only too willing to promote as indisputable fact claims made both by highly compromised and unreliable western sources and by supposedly reputable and independent organisations, such as international human rights groups and UN agencies. He, like many others, assumes that the latter can always be relied upon to stand apart from western interests and can therefore be implicitly trusted.

That indicates an extreme naivety or possibly the lack of any experience covering on the ground highly charged conflicts in which western interests are paramount.

I have been based in Israel for nearly two decades and have on several occasions taken to task Human Rights Watch (HRW), one of the world’s most esteemed human rights organisations. I have shown that assessments it has made were patently not rooted in evidence or even credible interpretations of international law but in geopolitical considerations. That was especially true in the case of the month-long fighting between Israel and Hizbullah in 2006. (See here and here.) My concerns about HRW’s work, I later learnt from insiders, were shared in its New York head office, but were silenced by the organisation’s most senior staff.

Nuclear plant deception

But Porter helps shine a light on how even the most reputable international agencies can end up similarly following a script written in Washington and one that rides roughshod over evidence, especially when the interests of the world’s only superpower are at stake. In this case, the deceptions were perpetuated by one of the world’s leading scientific organisations: the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors states’ nuclear activities.

Porter reveals that Yousry Abushady, the IAEA’s foremost expert on North Korean nuclear reactors, was able immediately to discount the aerial photographic evidence that the building Israel bombed in 2007 was a nuclear reactor. (Most likely it was a disused missile storage depot.)

The Syrian “nuclear plant”, he noted, could not have been built using North Korean know-how, as was claimed by the US. It lacked all the main features of a North Korean gas-cooled reactor. The photos produced by the Israelis showed a building that, among other things, covered too small an area and was not anywhere near high enough, it had none of the necessary supporting structures, and there was no cooling tower.

Abushady’s assessment was buried by the IAEA, which preferred to let the CIA and the Israelis promote their narrative unchallenged.

Atomic agency’s silence

This was not a one-off failure. In summer 2008, the IAEA visited the area to collect samples. Had the site been a nuclear plant, they could have expected to find nuclear-grade graphite particles everywhere. They found none.

Nonetheless, the IAEA again perpetrated a deception to try to prop up the fictitious US-Israeli narrative.

As was routine, they sent the samples to a variety of laboratories for analysis. None found evidence of any nuclear contamination – apart from one. It identified particles of man-made uranium. The IAEA issued a report giving prominence to this anomalous sample, even though in doing so it violated its own protocols, reports Parry.

It could draw such a conclusion only if the results of all the samples matched.

In fact, as one of the three IAEA inspectors who had been present at the site later reported, the sample of uranium did not come from the plant itself, which was clean, but from a changing room nearby. A former IAEA senior inspector, Robert Kelley, told Parry that a “very likely explanation” was that the uranium particles derived from “cross contamination” from clothing worn by the inspectors. This is a problem that had been previously noted by the IAEA in other contexts.

Meanwhile, the IAEA remained silent about its failure to find nuclear-grade graphite in a further nine reports over two years. It referred to this critical issue for the first time in 2011.

Chance for war with Iran

In other words, the IAEA knowingly conspired in a fictitious, entirely non-scientific assessment of the Syrian “nuclear reactor” story, one that neatly served US-Israeli geopolitical interests.

Porter notes that vice-president Dick Cheney “hoped to use the alleged reactor to get President George W Bush to initiate US airstrikes in Syria in the hope of shaking the Syrian-Iranian alliance”.

In fact, Cheney wanted far more sites in Syria hit than the bogus nuclear plant. In his memoirs, the then-secretary of defence, Robert Gates, observed that Cheney was “looking for an opportunity to provoke a war with Iran”.

The Bush administration wanted to find a way to unseat Assad, crush Hizbullah in Lebanon, and isolate and weaken Iran as a way to destroy the so-called “Shia crescent”.

That goal is being actively pursued again by the US today, with Israel and Saudi Arabia leading the way. A former US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, recently warned that, after their failure to bring down Assad, the Saudis have been trying to switch battlefields to Lebanon, hoping to foment a confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah that would drag in Iran.

Abandoning science

Back in 2007, the IAEA, an agency of scientists, did its bit to assist – or at least not obstruct – US efforts to foster a political case, an entirely unjustified one, for military action against Syria and, very possibly by extension, Iran.

If the IAEA could so abandon its remit and the cause of science to help play politics on behalf of the US, what leads Monbiot to assume that the OPCW, an even more politicised body, is doing any better today?

That is not to say Assad, or at least sections of the Syrian government, could not have carried out the attack on Khan Sheikhoun. But it is to argue that in a matter like this one, where so much is at stake, the evidence must be subjected to rigorous scrutiny, and that critics, especially experts who offer counter-evidence, must be given a fair hearing by the left. It is to argue that, when the case against Assad fits so neatly a long-standing and self-serving western narrative, a default position of scepticism is fully justified. It is to argue that facts, strong as they may seem, can be manipulated even by expert bodies, and therefore due weight needs also to be given to context – including an assessment of motives.

This is not “denialism”, as Monbiot claims. It is a rational strategy adopted by those who object to being railroaded once again – as they were in Iraq and Libya – into catastrophic regime change operations.

Meanwhile, the decision by Monbiot and others to bury their heads in the sands of an official narrative, all the while denouncing anyone who seeks to lift theirs out for a better view, should be understood for what it is: an abnegation of intellectual and moral responsibility for those around the globe who continue to be the victims of western military supremacism.

Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books).
Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.

Fighting Words on the Fight for a Free, Fair and Open Internet

The Fight for a Free, Fair and Open Internet

by Cory Doctorow - Bioneers 2017

According to journalist, blogger, “creative commons” advocate, Electronic Frontier Foundation Fellow, and award-winning science fiction author Cory Doctorow, the fight for a free, fair and open Internet isn’t the most important fight on the planet, but you can’t win any of the other major battles without it.

Although the Net is the nervous system of the 21st century, so far we have misunderstood and mismanaged it and made it susceptible to capture by the powerful and corrupt. Cory will share his strategies to reclaim the global lifeline that should belong to all of us.

Introduction by Joshua Fouts, Bioneers Executive Director.

This speech was given at the 2017 National Bioneers Conference

After Roundup: Monsanto's Next Hatching

With Roundup On The Rocks, Monsanto Hatches New Seeds And A Dangerous New Plan

by Whitney Webb - MintPress News

November 3, 2017

Monsanto’s promises of a safe, “drift-free” dicamba have failed to materialize, as complaints have flooded into state agricultural departments across the country. So far this year, regulators have received nearly four years’ worth of complaints regarding dicamba-related crop damage.

So far, this year has not been very kind to Monsanto. First, collusion between Monsanto and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was revealed, whereby the company worked in tandem with the federal agency to discredit independent research conducted by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The IARC, in 2015, found that glyphosate – the key ingredient in Monsanto’s best-known product, Roundup — most likely causes cancer, a reality that Monsanto had secretly known for decades.

Furthermore, Monsanto’s own head toxicologist, Donna Farmer, admitted that she “cannot say that Roundup does not cause cancer” as “we [Monsanto] have not done the carcinogenicity studies with Roundup.” With their lobbyists now banned from the EU parliament amid the body’s deliberations over whether to ban glyphosate entirely, Monsanto seems to be betting on the chemical it hopes will solve its glyphosate troubles — a herbicide known as dicamba.

While dicamba has existed for decades, Monsanto has been busy retooling the herbicide, hoping to use it to replace glyphosate – not in response to concerns about glyphosate’s dangerous effects on human health but in order to tackle the development of widespread resistance to glyphosate among weeds in the United States and elsewhere.

Monsanto has aggressively marketed its genetically modified, dicamba-tolerant seeds along with its associated herbicide, hoping to capture half of the entire U.S. soybean market by 2019. Monsanto even began pushing dicamba-tolerant seeds on farmers before its new dicamba herbicide was approved by the U.S. government, forcing farmers who bought the seeds to use older and illegal dicamba-based herbicides. Growing dicamba-tolerant seeds would preclude farmers from using any other but the dicamba-based herbicide during growing season, and create the risk of having their crops overrun by weeds, including so-called “superweeds.” 

Many farmers who bought the dicamba-tolerant seeds, however, were unaware that the herbicide’s use was illegal or problematic — as Monsanto, in addition to other aggressive marketing tactics, only offered a warning regarding dicamba’s use slipped in well below its advertisement for dicamba-tolerant seeds.

These out-of-date herbicides were banned years ago for use during the growing season due to their propensity to “drift,” or contaminate areas miles away from where they are sprayed. Given that dicamba is highly toxic to all plant life, the result was widespread crop damage. Last year, in Missouri alone, over 40,000 acres of farmland were damaged by dicamba drift. Despite the obvious problem, Monsanto’s newly reformulated dicamba herbicide was approved by the EPA last year, as the new product was ostensibly not as drift-prone as its predecessors. However, due to lingering concern over the drift, the EPA’s approval is set to expire in November of next year, when it will be subject to reapproval.

Dicamba-drift, mounting crop damage, and overflowing gov’t complaint boxes 


Aerial photo shows drift damage on non-dicamba resistant soybean field 
next to a dicamba resistant soybean field. (Kade McBroom via EcoWatch)

Less than a year in, however, Monsanto’s promises of a “drift-free” dicamba have failed to materialize, as complaints have flooded into state agricultural departments across the country. So far this year, regulators in major soybean-growing states in the U.S. have received nearly four years’ worth of complaints regarding dicamba-related crop damage. The issue has been especially pronounced in Arkansas, where 985 complaints have been filed over dicamba-related damage, representing the vast majority of the approximately 1,200 total cases currently being handled by the state.

The situation is so bad that Arkansas and Missouri, another hard-hit state, agreed on a 120-day ban on dicamba use within each state earlier this year in July. Arkansas is currently considering banning the herbicide entirely, effective April of next year. Monsanto, of course, is fighting back against the proposed ban.

Though the most drastically affected, Arkansas is hardly alone. As of mid-October, the number of state investigations nationwide examining dicamba-related complaints totaled 2,708.

Many state agricultural agencies are unable to cope with the increased load and have delayed other functions in attempts to address as many complaints as possible. “We don’t have the staff to be able to handle 400 investigations in a year plus do all the other required work,” Paul Bailey, director of the Plant Industries division of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, told Reuters.

Despite the clear problem presented by the herbicide, Monsanto’s net sales have suffered no decline — climbing 8 percent, or $1.1 billion, in 2017, in part due to increased sales of dicamba products. However, Monsanto has failed to address the issue, only hazily acknowledging the existence of farmer complaints.

“With significant adoption and a lot of interest in this new technology, we recognize that many states have received a number of reports of potential off-target application of dicamba in 2017,” Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord said last month, according to Reuters.

Monsanto bet big on paired herbicide and seeds

East Arkansas soybean farmer Reed Storey said half of his soybean crop has shown damage from dicamba, an herbicide that has drifted onto unprotected fields and spawned hundreds of complaints from farmers.
Given Monsanto’s lack of response to the growing problem of dicamba drift, and its aggressive marketing approach prior to the herbicide’s approval, critics have asserted that Monsanto likely released the dicamba-tolerant seeds ahead of time in order to increase the chances of the herbicide’s approval by artificially creating an urgent need for the weed killer.

Monsanto’s $1 billion investment in dicamba production before it was federally approved has also been cited as further evidence that the corporation sought to create dependency on its newest herbicide. Indeed now, with dicamba drift a major problem following the herbicide’s approval, some soybean farmers have chosen to purchase the dicamba-tolerant seeds from Monsanto as opposed to facing the risk of losing their entire crop to dicamba drift.

Monsanto is gambling on dicamba for several reasons, partly because there exists little scientific evidence linking it to adverse health effects in humans, though weak correlations between its use and increased incidence of lung and colon cancer have been found.

While it is set to replace the now increasingly ineffective and controversial glyphosate, the massive amount of damage dicamba has allegedly caused in just its first year may present an even greater problem to Monsanto’s profits than glyphosate ever did. It is already drastically affecting the bottom line of the national agricultural industry and pushing state regulators to their limits. Yet, if history is any indication, Monsanto will not part ways with its newly approved product without a fight.

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Is the Arab Plan to Liquidate Palestine?

Will Palestine be liquidated with Arab complicity?

by Mazin Qumsiyeh - Popular Resistance

November 21, 2017

Zionism is a colonial movement invented in the 19th century to transform a multi-religious Palestine to the apartheid “Jewish state of Israel”. It was to be “a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism” (Herzl in the Jews’ State).

This colonial racist idea remained unchanged since founding of the “Jewish Colonization Association” in 1891 and the World Zionist Congress in 1897.

Like all colonial movements, it focuses on the dual task of destroying native life and creating new exclusivist racist regimes and it gets support from empires and from complicity.

Britain put the Al-Saud family in charge of the area of Hijaz (which was to become the kleptocracy of “Saudi Arabia”).

Abdul Aziz Al-Saud responded in 1915 to British requests by writing in his own hand:

“I the Sultan Abdel Aziz Bin Abdel Alrahman Al-Faysal Al-Saud decide and acknowledge a thousand times to Sir Percy Cox the representative of Great Britain that I have no objection to give Palestine to the poor Jews or to others as seen [fit] by Britain that I would not go outside [disobey] its opinion until the hour of calling [end of the world].” 

The good relations at the expense of Palestinians by the Saud ruling family remained to this day with a brief period when Arab nationalism was strong and the Royal family suspended oil shipments to the US in the October 1973 war.

The PLO began its long process of “compromise” with colonizers in 1974. Israel then signed a “peace treaty” with Egypt in and had good working relations including cooperation in crimes against humanity in isolating and besieging the Gaza strip. There was a brief period when Morsi was elected President of Egypt when there was the potential of relieving the blockade but that soon ended when the military retook power in Egypt. Egypt is however trying to play a role in mediation between Hamas and Fatah now which could help end the blockade and may help reclaim a liberation struggle.

Israel has maintained efforts to break-up the (already fragmented) Arab world for example in developing proxy militias and aligning with extremist right wing Christian leaders in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s. Working through proxies or directly, Israel and its Arab stooges committed massacres such as at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982.

“Israel” maintained good relations with separatist movements in Northern Iraq and in South Sudan and helped arm the South Sudanese army. Israel’s relationship to Barazani and attempts to break-up Iraq is now well known. In the 1990s at the behest of the Israel lobby, Iraq was subjected to sanctions led by the US and Arab regimes that resulted in the death of one million Iraqis half of them children. At the same behest, the US attacked Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen (see http://qumsiyeh.org/connectingthedotsiraqpalestine/).

In 1986, King Hassan II of Morocco invited the Israeli Prime Minister for talks and following the Oslo disastrous accords, Morocco accelerated its economic ties and political contacts with Israel opening of bilateral liaison offices in 1994. As the late Edward Said showed eloquently that the Oslo Accords were a second Nakba for the Palestinian creating a Palestinian authority whose task was designated as protecting the occupiers from resistance and normalizing the occupation.

After Arafat and Abbas signed these surrender treaties, Israel’s economy and its foreign recognition grew rapidly. The agreements also gave the occupying power the green light to grow its illegal activities in the occupied areas not turned over to the Palestinian authority (area C is the majority of the land).

Economic relations existed between Qatar and “Israel” between 1996 and 2000. In 2005, Saudi Arabia announced the end of its ban on Israeli goods and services. Diplomatic and other ties between Tunisia and Israel fluctuated between strong ones in the 1990s to weaker ones during 2000-2005 to pick up again until the Tunisian revolution. In 1919 King Faisal Al-Hussain (Hashemite leader) signed an agreement with Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann but one of his sons was later removed (by France) from power in Syria because of his opposition to Zionism.

Israel signed a “peace treaty” with Jordan in 1994. However public sentiment in Jordan (among Jordanians of Palestinian or of Trans-Jordan heritage) remains strongly opposed to normalization efforts including in saddling Jordan with huge debts that serve Israeli interests (e.g. of the Red Sea-Dead Sea canal).

The CIA and the British intelligence services toppled the elected Mosaddaq government in Iran in 1953 to bring a more Israel friendly regime. This lasted until the Iranian revolution ended the Pahlavi criminal regime in 1979. Israel had good working and cooperation with Turkey from 1949 to 2011 when Israeli leaders engaged in a series of affronts and blunders including murdering Turkish citizens on the Mavi Marmara ship in International waters.

In 2015 Israel opened a diplomatic mission with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and has helped Saudi Arabia and the UAE launch the war on Yemen in order to control the strategic Bab Al Mandeb strait (Red Sea to Indian Ocean). Egypt has also agreed to give two of its Islands in the Strait of Tiran to Saudi Arabia on Israel’s behest.

The above is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of Zionist collusion with Arab leaders to destroy Palestine. Much remains hidden. Yet, understanding this history helps understand why rulers of “Saudi Arabia” and the UAE and others are colluding with Israel and the USA in a feverish attack on resistance forces in the Arab and Islamic world. While such collusion with colonialism is common in all parts of the world, the collaborators fail to read history to understand the fate of all tools of colonialism. They will face the same fate as other collaborators. As tools of colonialism, they are discarded as soon as they fulfil their designated roles.

Much of the developments after 1973 would not have happened had the PLO remained true to its principles. This is indeed a historic moment in our part of the world. Zionists feel emboldened like never before and intend on ending the Palestine question once and for all with collusion especially the key issue of refugees (would be forced to settle outside of Palestine). Developments in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and the rest of our region need to be watched in the context of this struggle and with the centrality of the issue of Palestine since it is the reason for all this. It is a struggle between those who think they can guarantee their thrones and positions by doing Zionist bidding and those who challenge colonialism.

The choice is between mayhem that will spare no one (including those who collaborate) or rejection of division and then unity to fight imperialism, colonialism, and Zionism. Palestine remains the litmus test, the Achilles heel of imperialism, and the key to peace. Each of us should take a clear stand. I am optimistic because 12.7 million Palestinians and hundreds of millions of others who follow their conscience will not let Zionism (and its complicit Arab and American rulers) liquidate the most just cause in human history. It is wise of complicity leaders to rethink their positions if for nothing else than for their own interests since colonial powers use tools and discard them and are never true to their words to those that do not belong to their “tribe”.

This is amply illustrated with history of Israel itself and its collaborators (e.g. in Lebanon in the 1980s). Now we need to all work together towards a peace with justice, the inevitable outcome.

Using Iran Animus to Lean on Palestine

The Anti-Iran Axis Tries to 'Blackmail' Palestine 


November 21, 2017

The Trump administration's threat to close the PLO mission in Washington, DC is part of a wider US-Israel-Saudi effort to assert regional dominance, says Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies 

The Trump administration is threatening to close the Palestine Authority's mission in Washington DC. The reason the White House says, is that the Palestine Authority, President Mahmoud Abbas recently called on the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel for war crimes. A 2015 law says Palestine efforts to hold Israel to account at the ICC could lead to punitive action. The US now says the mission could close unless Palestinians back down. But the Palestinian leadership says they will not be blackmailed. This move coincides with Israel and Saudi Arabia speaking openly of cooperation. And there's reason to believe that that could be a factor here.

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. She is the author of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer, Before and After: US Foreign Policy and the September 11 Crisis, Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer and Understanding the US-Iran Crisis: A Primer. Her most recent book is Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Impeachment for Mugabe As Elites Jockey for Power Succession in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe Witnessing an Elite Transition as Economic Meltdown Looms

by Patrick Bond - CounterPunch

November 20, 2017
The palace coup, Mugabe’s demise and ‘nightmare’ versus ‘national unity’ scenarios

In Harare, Bulawayo and smaller Zimbabwean cities, hundreds of thousands joyfully took to the streets November 18, approving a Zimbabwe Defence Force (ZDF) military semi-coup that resolves a long-simmering faction fight within the ruling party and ends the extraordinary career of Robert Mugabe at age 93. Initially refusing to resign, his rambling speech the following evening revealed a man either out of touch with reality, or attempting to compel from his enemies a full-fledged coup, or – as CNN speculated – delaying to ensure legal immunity and protection of his property from confiscation.

Still, he faces a parliamentary impeachment process on November 21.

After more than 37 years in power in the Southern African country he led to liberation in 1980, Mugabe is being replaced by his long-standing Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) comrade, Emmerson Mnangagwa (aged 75). On Sunday at Zanu-PF’s emergency central committee meeting, Mnangagwa was made president. To ease his departure, Mugabe might be offered exile in South Africa where his family and cronies also possess abundant luxury real estate, such as a seaside mansion near Durban’s airport.

But concerns immediately arise that celebration of the coup and at least momentary popular adoration of the army will relegitimise Mnangagwa’s brutal Zanu-PF network and thus slow a more durable transition to democracy and economic justice. Aside from a mass-based uprising to carry on Saturday’s momentum, the only other safeguard would be the (highly unlikely) appointment of a genuine, all-in national unity government, one that would acquire desperately-needed cash from both China and the main Western donors in Washington and the European Union.

A coup de Grace by ‘Crocodile’ Mnangagwa

In the context of a worsening financial liquidity crunch, the November 15 coup was catalyzed by Mugabe’s political over-reach: attempting to elevate his shopaholic wife “Gucci Grace” (aged 52) to the vice-presidency with the obvious intention of succession. Marching through the capital city Harare three days later, anti-Mugabe protesters carried professionally-produced signs including the message,

“Leadership is not sexually transmitted.”

Widely despised for a role akin to Lady Macbeth’s, Grace Mugabe’s faction of Zanu-PF is known as “Generation 40” (G40), implying the readiness of a younger replacement team within the ruling party. Mugabe himself was most closely aligned to this group. In contrast, Mnangagwa leads the older “Team Lacoste” faction, whose logo-based signifier is his revealing nickname, “The Crocodile.”

Mnangagwa is widely mistrusted due to his responsibility for (and refusal to acknowledge) 1982-85 “Gukhurahundi” massacres of more than 20,000 people in the country’s western provinces (mostly members of the minority Ndebele ethnic group, whose handful of armed dissidents he termed “cockroaches” needing a dose of military “DDT”); his subversion of the 2008 presidential election which Mugabe initially lost; his subsequent heading of the Joint Operations Committee secretly running the country, sabotaging democratic initiatives; as well as for his close proximity – as then Defence Minister – to widespread diamond looting from 2008-16. Mugabe himself last year complained of revenue shortfalls from diamond mining in eastern Zimbabwe’s Marange fields:

“I don’t think we’ve exceeded US$2 billion or so, and yet we think that well over US$15 billion or more has been earned in that area.”

Not only was this vast scale of theft confirmed by local anti-corruption campaigner Farai Maguwu. In order for Mnangagwa to establish the main Marange joint venture – Sino Zimbabwe – with the notorious (and now apparently jailed) Chinese investor, Sam Pa, the army under Mnangagwa’s rule forcibly occupied the Marange fields. In November 2008, troops murdered several hundred small-scale artisanal miners there. (At a massacre solidarity visit to Marange on November 10, two dozen progressive activists – including Maguwu and 21 foreigners from a People’s Dialogue network that includes Brazil’s Movement of Landless Workers – were arrested for trespassing, though they were later released after each paid a $100 fine.)

Mnangagwa had fought Rhodesian colonialism in the 1970s, and soon became one of Mugabe’s leading henchmen, rising to the vice presidency in 2014. But Mugabe fired him on November 6, signaling Grace’s ruthless ascent in spite of Chiwenga’s repeated warnings since early 2016. Three years ago, with Grace egging him on, Mugabe sacked another close revolutionary-era ally, vice president Joice Mujuru (62). (Mujuru subsequently launched a new party which subsequently showed no capacity to influence events, but she was expected to eventually forge an alliance with democratic opposition forces to contest the scheduled 2018 election.)

What with both economic and political degeneration accelerating, Mnangagwa’s firing was the catalyst for an emergency Beijing trip by his ally, army leader Constantino Chiwenga (61), for consultations with the Chinese army command. Mnangagwa received military training in China during Mao’s days, and China today has substantial assets in Zimbabwe, including repeated weapon sales and stakes in tobacco, infrastructure and mining, as well as its retail imports that continue to deindustrialize Zimbabwean manufacturing.

Beijing’s Global Times, which often parrots official wisdom, was increasingly wary of Mugabe. According to a contributor, Wang Hongwi of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, “Mnangagwa, a reformist, will abolish Mugabe’s faulty investment policy. In a country with a bankrupt economy, whoever takes office needs to launch economic reforms and open up to foreign investment… Chinese investment in Zimbabwe has also fallen victim to Mugabe’s policy and some projects were forced to close down or move to other countries in recent years, bringing huge losses.” (Hongwi did not mention whether Sam Pa represents the ethos of such Chinese investors.)

The sense that Mnangagwa could be a Zimbabwean version of market-liberaliser Deng Xiaoping – following Mugabe’s Mao routine – prevails in such circuits. The big question is whether, if Mnangagwa refuses to consider a unity government scenario, China will make available hard currency of a few hundred million dollars (it has more than $3 trillion in reserves) to stem the liquidity crisis.

A sense of such new benefactors’ potential generosity must have played a role in the coup plotters’ calculations. For Mnangagwa is not only being toasted in Beijing, but also by Tory geopolitical opportunists in London. Although many Britons object, their ambassador to Zimbabwe Catriona Laing has for three years attempted to “rebuild bridges and ensure that re-engagement succeeds to facilitate Mnangagwa’s rise to power” with a reported “$2 billion economic bail-out.”

The coup calculus

Chiwenga avoided an attempted police arrest at the Harare airport upon his return from Beijing. As the coup plan – initially scheduled for December prior to Zanu-PF’s next congress – was pushed forward, on November 13 he cautioned against “reckless utterances by politicians from the ruling party denigrating the military” – whom he termed “counter-revolutionary infiltrators” – and he insisted that Mugabe’s “targeting members of the party with a liberation background must stop.” Snubbing this warning the next day, the G40 maintained control of Zanu-PF’s machinery and issued a provocative statement highly critical of Mnangagwa and Chiwenga.

For such purposes, Mugabe’s erratic spin-doctor for most of the last two decades was Jonathan Moyo, a former US-trained academic. Moyo was responsible for some of Zanu-PF’s most extreme rhetorical attacks on political opponents, including media crackdowns a decade ago. But his prolific twitter feed suddenly went quiet on November 14 once ZDF tanks rolled into the city. The army rapidly occupied Mugabe’s main office and the national broadcaster, announcing to the country that the ZDF was in command and would ‘protect’ Mugabe while searching out the ‘criminals’ surrounding him. Moyo had repeatedly angered Chiwenga, even alleging several times that his 2015 doctoral thesis in ethics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal was authored by someone else.

The only armed resistance apparently came from a few Mugabe loyalists in the police force and Central Intelligence Organisation, and from Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo’s bodyguards, one of whom was murdered by army troops during Chombo’s arrest. Moyo and another G40 leader once considered potential presidential material, Saviour Kasukuwere, were apparently picked up early on November 15 and taken to the army barracks. According to an insider interviewed by journalist Sipho Masondo, “People are romanticising the coup and saying it was not bloody. It was damn bloody. People are being beaten badly.”

On November 16, the society’s nervousness was expressed in a tweet by Tendai Biti (aged 51), a social democrat who in 2014 split from leading opposition figure Morgan Tsvangirai (65 and undergoing cancer treatment), after having served as finance minister in the 2009-13 government of national unity:

“Over the years in making the case for a National Transitional Authority, have written a lot about the possibility of an implosion in Zim. However nothing I have written or read prepared me for the surreal reality of the last two days. It has simply been a nightmare, a period of uncertainty, anxiety and doubt.”

But after the dust began to settle and a mass march was called for November 18, Biti was ecstatic:

“Today the wananchi [citizenry] bathed in freedom. She was on the street in her thousands. Today the citizen was let loose and not a single stone was thrown. Not a single window was broken. Love and solidarity were palpable. You could cut the citizens’ happiness with a hack saw. Today the tank was an instrument of resistance and not of power retention. Tomorrow might be a nightmare but today we breathe freely.”

That nightmare – Mnangagwa’s new-found ability to relegitimise Zanu-PF with army support – is now unfolding, with only an economic meltdown to compel him to negotiate.

Economic meltdown or government of national unity?

That nightmare scenario reflects the dangers of post-Mugabe Zanu-PF rulers maintaining old habits, combining state asset stripping and dictatorial repression. This is most likely, given the traditions Mnangagwa and Chiwenga represent. Explained one pro-Mnangagwa Zanu-PF leader, Patrick Chinamasa, “We have the majority in Parliament, we can expel the President alone and we are the ruling party, so where does a coalition come in? We don’t need them.” (In fact, to impeach Mugabe, as scheduled on November 21, a two-thirds majority will be required – so technically he is wrong, but it is the ruling party’s go-it-alone attitude that worries Zimbabweans.)

If donor aid to the new regime is not forthcoming, a desperation mentality will rapidly emerge, for economic barriers to bureaucratic looting are periodically reached in Zimbabwe. For example, when the world’s worst hyperinflation (500 billion percent) wiped out the former currency in 2008, new arrangements were required: in that case, the turn to the US dollar and rand. The only other option is recovering looted wealth by Mugabe and his cronies – but such an asset search might prove highly embarrassing to Mnangagwa and Chiwenga, too.

Late last year, $200 million worth of a dubious new currency (the ‘Bond note’) was introduced by the Zimbabwe Reserve Bank. The reason was that officially-accepted US dollars and South African rands, which most Zimbabweans have used since 2009, fell into increasingly short supply, causing payment-system blockages and renewing fear of hyper-inflation.

The elites and masses alike are withdrawing cash from the banks as fast as possible. They are now limited to as little as $20 daily withdrawals from their accounts, and regulations are periodically imposed to compel electronic purchases and incentivise cash savings. Instead, hoarding scarce hard currency under the matrass represents one form of storing value during crisis, since placing such funds in formal bank accounts risks Reserve Bank seizure. Other survival strategies include rapid purchases of consumer durables each pay day. There is also raging speculation in Bitcoin, real estate and the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange, which was the world’s fastest-rising bourse in 2017 despite the economic decline, until last week when the market crashed.

If fresh financial liquidity is not provided in coming weeks, the formal economy and vast informal sector will suffer worse payments freezes and the black market will flourish to the point of panic, just as in late 2008. For nearly two decades, the Zimbabwe government has been in default on more than $9 billion of international debt and today is failing to pay foreign corporations the profit remittances they are due. Even the state’s strict restriction against importing those basic goods that should instead be manufactured within Zimbabwe has failed to ease the hard-currency shortage.

It appears that in this context, only the Zimbabwe government’s full-fledged relegitimation can attract sufficient foreign aid to avoid an economic meltdown. For this purpose, an ideal-type ‘national unity’ scenario – which appears unlikely, but nevertheless worth contemplating – would have Chiwenga quickly return his troops to the barracks and Interim President Mnangagwa appoint two Zanu-PF vice presidents: Mujuru and, for ethnic balance, Dumisa Dabengwa (77) from the Zimbabwe African People’s Union party. The latter party is a revival of one Mugabe had crushed and coopted in 1987, when he unsuccessfully attempted to establish one-party rule. Another Mnangagwa ally anticipated to rise to the top tier is Sydney Sekeramayi (73).

But most importantly, the unity regime would need to include at least three recently-reunited Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leaders: Tsvangirai as prime minister (his 2009-13 role), Biti in the finance ministry to raise support from Western donors, and Welshman Ncube (56) who enjoys widespread support among the Ndebele people.

If elections are indeed held as scheduled before mid-2018, the MDC could well defeat Zanu-PF in a free-and-fair vote. But whether and how quickly a ‘fresh start’ vote can be scheduled depends upon MDC negotiating power and the sense by Mnangagwa and his military stalwarts that in such a poll, they could repeat their decisive 2013 win (due largely to army mobilisation funded by the diamond theft), or steal it, as occurred in 2008 when Tsvangirai initially defeated Mugabe by more than 10% of the vote.

Not only are donors required, international tolerance will be needed on the country’s foreign debt and profit-repatriation arrears. In addition, there must be buy-in from regional neighbours in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), led this year by South Africa’s Jacob Zuma. Unlike earlier election controversies when – aside from Botswana’s leader – all of SADC and most of the African Union’s (AU’s) leaders supported Mugabe (leading Biti to term the larger grouping a ‘trade union of dictators’), no one has objected to the coup.

Indeed, following Chiwenga’s word play, African rulers won’t even term it a “coup” since that would lead to Zimbabwe’s automatic suspension from the AU plus new sanctions. Zuma and Mugabe have historically been very close allies but tellingly, neither the South African president nor his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma – the former AU chairperson, now campaigning to succeed Jacob as ruling party leader in next month’s internal election – stepped in to defend Mugabe from Chiwenga.

Still, a widespread sentiment evident in urban Zimbabwe is that Zuma and SADC should stay out of the negotiations, given those historic ties – reflected in Zuma’s approval of Grace’s flight from justice after she beat up a Johannesburg model in August – as well as sub-imperialist power regularly wielded by Pretoria in the region. In any event, South Africa’s fiscal crisis is rapidly worsening as further junk ratings are anticipated from credit rating agencies in coming days, so it is far less likely that Zuma can chip in financial aid.

Zuma is also criticised for not halting periodic upsurges of anti-Zimbabwean xenophobic violence in South Africa, which in 2015 led to angry protests at South Africa’s High Commission in Harare. Meanwhile on November 18 at the Zimbabwe Embassy in Pretoria and High Commissions in Johannesburg and Cape Town (as well in London), thousands of protesters marched in solidarity with the Harare and Bulawayo rallies.

Bankruptcy for capitalism – and also for democracy and social justice?

Even before a new aid package is negotiated, two of the most crucial economic decisions a national unity government will face are whether to continue introducing $300 million worth of fast-devaluing Reserve Bank currency into the banking system this month, and whether to pay a massive fine to the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin (formerly of Goldman Sachs), is demanding immediate payment of $385 million – down from an initial $3.8 billion – by the country’s largest bank, Commercial Bank of Zimbabwe, following more than 15,000 separate cases of sanctions busting that date from the Bush and Obama regimes’ punishment of Mugabe for human rights violations.

In a third financial controversy, Biti suspects that his 2013-17 successor, Patrick Chinamasa (who was reshuffled from finance last month, into a new cybersecurity portfolio), fraudulently issued Treasury Bills and backed up the new currency with illegitimate African Export-Import Bank loans. Biti is calling for a full debt audit. To make matters worse, those whose savings were in the Harare stock market discovered that the coup week’s uncertainty left them 18% poorer, as the shares’ capital value fell from $15.1 billion to $12.4 billion, caused mainly by international investor panic selling.

Meanwhile, democratic activists are concerned that what once had been a formidable set of progressive civil society organisations – trade unions, urban community groups, women and youth – back in 1999 when their “Working People’s Convention” launched the MDC, can no longer influence this transition. The last attempt in 2016, a “This Flag” meme launched by local pastor Evan Mawarire, soon ran out of steam.

Moreover, warns Maguwu in a new essay, “Dawn of a New Error!,” the MDC is a “weak, bankrupt and defeated opposition” and if it enters a national unity government, will be co-opted just as from 2009-13. He begs his readers to recall that “Zimbabweans have struggled to replace Mugabe with a popular democratically elected leader since 2000. These efforts have been dashed by the military and the entire security establishment.”

But now that celebratory citizens have given the palace coup far more legitimacy than it deserves, it becomes s even more vital for progressives committed to democracy and social justice to redouble grassroots organising and generate crystal-clear demands, especially in the urban areas. (The rural peasantry suffers far tighter systems of socio-political control by Zanu-PF, so have never been reliable allies.)

If not, says International Socialist Organisation of Zimbabwe leader Munyaradzi Gwisai, “There’s a potential that the Mnangagwa, MDC elites and the military could be part of a national unity government. Ultimately they are also scared of the working class, because austerity could lead to revolts.”

As Harare activist Tom Gumede wrote me privately on November 17 just before the masses hit the streets,

“This is the time for workers, students and the poor of Zimbabwe to build a formidable unity for the future beyond Mugabe. A fractured population will lose the battles of the future… Another Zimbabwe is Possible. Through mass action the resistant Mugabe will finally be dislodged. His current cover under the Constitution will be blown up when people have spoken beyond the military takeover… Viva People Power and No to Elitist Transitions.” 

Patrick Bond (pbond@mail.ngo.za) is professor of political economy at the University of the Witwatersrand School of Governance in Johannesburg. He is co-editor (with Ana Garcia) of BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique, published by Pluto (London), Haymarket (Chicago), Jacana (Joburg) and Aakar (Delhi).
More articles by:Patrick Bond

Passing: Father of "Fake News" Debunking, Edward S. Herman

'Manufacturing Consent' Co-Author and Media Critic Ed Herman Dead at 92 - His critique of US media still resonates

by Dave Lindorff - This Can't Be Happening  

November 20, 2017

Edward Samuel Herman, who died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 92 on Nov. 11, didn’t just cry out “fake news” like so many politicians and media pundits do today referring to stories that they object to.

Rather, he explained why so much of the news in the US is and has long been fake and how the seemingly independent system of news organizations go about creating it, almost as if they were operating under the direction of some government of propaganda.

Ed Herman, 1925-2017 RIP

The co-author (actually the primary author, as his non-alphabetical top billing on the cover makes clear) with Noam Chomsky of the ground-breaking 1988 book Manufacturing Consent, Herman, a professor of economics in the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, devoted much of his career to exposing the lies and distortions of the US media.

But unlike most media critics, he took his critiques much deeper, explaining how the US media, especially since the end of World War II, have actually come to function as an unofficial Ministry of Truth, creating a false narrative of the US as a benevolent, democratic promoter and defender of freedom around the world, even as it has actually become the world’s greatest purveyor of violence, defender of tyrants and transgressor of international law. 

I first got to know about Ed through his writings in publications like Lies of Our Times and Extra!, but especially because of Manufacturing Consent, a touchstone of any serious modern media criticism. After reading that book for the first time 15 years after I had begun my career as a journalist, I suddenly understood exactly why I had become alienated from my employers — both in newspapers and television — that I had to quit working as a staff journalist and become a freelancer after just seven years in the business.

When I would find my best stories killed by editors, or buried on inside pages, I used to blame it on the gutlessness or idiocy of individual editors, not realizing that it was a systemic problem, bigger than individual editors or even individual news corporations.

Herman and Chomsky explained what I had, before reading their book, never quite realized: that what I was doing in reporting and writing news articles, was not at all the product of the industry I worked for. I was merely a cog in the machine helping them to harvest the real product, which is “eyeballs” — the readers or viewers of my work — which they could then sell to advertisers.

Viewed in that light it became clear why our employers wanted us journalistic workers to focus on stories that had drama and controversy but that didn’t make readers feel overly angry or depressed, and they certainly didn’t want stories that offended major advertisers or, god forbid, entire industries or government regulators.

Realizing that, like a scythe or a threshing machine on a farm harvesting wheat, as a staff journalist I was just a tool, a cog, part of a machine on the media plantation harvesting eyeballs, and not a creator and a crusading tribune of truth, was a profound awakening.

It was only years later that I got to know Ed Herman personally as a friend. It was after I had moved to Philadelphia, following six years of living and working as a journalist in China and Hong Kong. Ed contacted me because of Killing Time, a book I’d written investigating the controversial death penalty case of Black Philadelphia journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, who had been convicted at a particularly corrupt trial in 1981 of the murder of a white police officer, and sentenced to death.

Ed liked the book and had read some of my other articles and invited me to write critical pieces for a blog he had founded and continued to run for a few years called Inkywatch, to critique one of his bêtes noire, the local Philadelphia Inquirer.

He later became an enthusiastic reader and generous supporter of the collectively run alternative news site I founded in 2010, ThisCantBeHappening.net, though I never managed to get him to contribute a piece to our publication. He said he was kept busy enough contributing pieces to Z Magazine.

Ed kept writing his incisive articles right into the last year of his life, even contributing a chapter to the latest edition of Project Censored’s just released Top Censored Stories of 2018. He also, only weeks before his death, contributed an article to Monthly Review titled “Fake News on Russia and Other Official Enemies,” which directly spoke to the current sorry state of US journalism, particularly in the case of his other bête noire, the New York Times. As he wrote:

“It has been amusing to watch the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets express their dismay over the rise and spread of ‘fake news.’ These publications take it as an obvious truth that what they provide is straightforward, unbiased, fact-based reporting. They do offer such news, but they also provide a steady flow of their own varied forms of fake news, often by disseminating false or misleading information supplied to them by the national security state, other branches of government, and sites of corporate power.”

He added,

“Fake news on Russia is a Times tradition that can be traced back at least as far as the 1917 revolution.”

Ed grew frail in recent years but remained as full of a passion for life as ever. Last year he had my wife Joyce and me come over for lunch at his beautiful if terribly in need of repair house perched on a steep, wooded hillside in Penn Valley, PA, because he wanted Joyce, an early keyboard player, to take a beautiful multi-volume edition of keyboard music by Domenico Scarlatti off his hands, as well as any of his huge classical record collection that she wanted.

It turned out that in addition to being a brilliant economist and an incisive media critic, Ed was an amateur pianist and a lover of classical music —especially keyboard music. He even managed earlier this year to attend a fair portion of a day-long Scarlatti marathon Joyce organized for herself and her harpsichord students as well as other members of the Temple University Boyer School of Music’s keyboard faculty, presented by the Temple Library.

Fortunately he didn’t attempt to drive to the campus himself. (To my horror, Ed kept driving his battered old early ‘90s Lexus into his 90s. When I inquired about the broken front and rear bumpers, the dented doors, the stoved-in headlight and the two precariously broken and dangling side mirrors, he said, dismissively,

“Oh, the drivers in Philadelphia are terrible. I keep getting run into.” 

I got him a replacement right-side mirror from a local scrapyard and urged him to go to his mechanic and have it installed, but I don’t know whether he ever did it. Somehow he managed to avoid for years having some cop stop him and force him to get his treacherous wreck of a vehicle repaired or off the road.)

Ed remained as undaunted by the slings and arrows of his many conservative and liberal critics as he was by the aggressive Philly drivers he claimed were mauling his poor car from left and right, and while some of those liberal critics argued that his and Chomsky’s devastating characterization of US corporate media as propaganda vehicles could be demoralizing to opposition movements, Ed never seemed demoralized himself, but rather appeared energized by the battle. He was also not shy about tackling that taboo topic of Israel and the power of the Israel lobby in the US to influence US media coverage, particularly of Middle East issues, or about clearly characterizing Israeli policy towards Palestinians as “ethnic cleansing.”

Ed’s more than 20 books and his prodigious output of articles and essays on media issues remain as relevant today as when they were written. As Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi wrote in a short obituary, not only is Ed’s work still relevant today, but “It's a shame he never wrote a sequel” to Manufacturing Consent, which we need “now more than ever.”

All of us concerned about the seemingly terminal decline of the Fourth Estate and of growing pressures on the alternative media from both government and the giant corporations that control the internet will sorely miss this warrior for truth and defender or dissent.

Ed, who lost his first wife of 67 years Mary Woody in 2013, is survived by Christine Abbott, a long-time friend whom he married in 2015, as well as by a brother.

To date, neither the New York Times nor the Philadelphia Inquirer has published an obituary acknowledging the death of this critic of their work. This though the Inquirer diligently publishes obituaries about every professor of the city’s universities who dies. (The Times did deign to run a very brief notice of Ed’s death sent out by the Associated Press.)

Ed, I’m sure, would not be surprised that his passing appears to be being studiously ignored by these two media outfits.

Trump's Bid for Middle East Peacemaker

Trump's 'ultimate deal' only offers hard choices for Abbas 

by Jonathan Cook - The National AE

November 20, 2017

It is in Donald Trump’s nature to bargain ruthlessly and then cut a quick-and-easy deal, and in this environment, something has to give, writes Jonathan Cook

The long wait appears to be coming to an end on Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal”, one supposedly capable of unlocking the impasse between Israel and the Palestinians.

The United States peace initiative may be unveiled as soon as January, marking the first anniversary of Mr Trump’s arrival in office. Other reports suggest it may be delayed until March. But all seem sure it will be upon us soon.

Neither Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, appear keen to enter another round of fruitless dialogue.

But for good reason, Mr Abbas is far more reticent.

This month, in statements presumably directed at Washington, he insisted he would not agree to a Palestinian state without Gaza, or one restricted to Gaza. He also warned again that, in the absence of a two-state solution, Israel would face demands from Palestinians for equal rights in one state.

Strong-arming Mr Abbas was doubtless the motive behind US threats at the weekend to shut down what is effectively the Palestinians’ embassy in Washington – unless the Palestinian leader agrees to peace talks.

Outrage from Palestinian officials, who referred to the White House move as “extortion”, was an indication of their mounting exasperation.

Given that Mr Abbas is invested exclusively in diplomacy, his resistance to this round of US-led peacemaking should serve as warning enough of how bad a Trump peace is likely to be.

At the weekend Israeli media offered the first substantive clues of what might be on offer.

The headline news is not entirely bad – so long as one ignores the small print. Most significantly, if reports are accurate – and Washington and Israel say they are not – the US is said to be ready to recognise a Palestinian state.

It is a move characterised by the kind of bullishness that is Mr Trump’s trademark and has left Mr Netanyahu anxious. But everything else should reassure him.

The US will apparently agree that no one will be forcibly moved from their home. That may prove the answer to Israel’s prayers. It will finally have US blessing for all its illegal settlements, which have eaten into the bulk of the West Bank, turning it into a patchwork of Palestinian enclaves.

After five decades of Israel clearing most of the Palestinian population from the same area, penning them up in cities, the reported Trump deal will offer no restitution.

The most intractable issue, Jerusalem, will supposedly be kept off the table for now. But reports say Israel will be allowed to continue its military chokehold on the large agricultural spine of the West Bank, the Jordan Valley.

Everything else will be up from grabs – or as a US official noted, its role would be “not to impose anything” on the two parties. In practice, that means the strongest side, Israel, can impose its will by force.

All of this suggests that the “state” the US recognises will be a demilitarised archipelago of mini-Palestines. This Trumpian version of statehood could be the weirdest one ever conceived.

That should not surprise us. At a meeting in London this month to mark 100 years since the signing of the Balfour Declaration, Mr Netanyahu suggested that the Palestinians were an example of a people unsuited to “sovereignty”.

It is striking how little the prospect of a Trump peace process has ruffled the feathers of Israel’s far-right government.

That is in part because they have put in place measures to tie Mr Netanyahu’s hand. He is precluded from negotiating with a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas, and he would have to refer any peace proposal to a referendum. And if he tests his colleagues’ loyalty too far, they can always bring down the coalition.

But their best hope is that the Trump deal will be so outrageously divorced from reality that Mr Abbas could never sign up to it, even if Washington secures Arab money to pay for its implementation.

The biggest danger may turn out to be the US president himself. Previous efforts at peacemaking, however skewed to Israeli interests, were at least premised on reaching a consensual agreement.

It is in Mr Trump’s nature to bargain ruthlessly and then cut a quick-and-easy deal. In this environment, something has to give.

In one scenario, that could be the US president’s interest in solving the Israel-Palestine issue. But it could also be Mr Abbas and his increasingly authoritarian Palestinian Authority.

Forced into the corner by a bull-headed Trump administration, Mr Abbas may be faced with a hard choice: either he agrees to a series of non-viable statelets under Israel’s thumb, or he steps down and dismantles the Palestinians’ government-in-waiting.

In these circumstances, bringing down the house of cards that is the Palestinian Authority may be the best option, even if it delights many in Mr Netanyahu’s cabinet. It will leave a void, and one that will be filled by a new generation of Palestinians no longer distracted by empty promises of statehood.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Uncredible: When They Stop Believing in Us

When Russians Stopped Believing in the Western Media

by  Oleg Kashin - Meduza

13 November 2017

Journalist Oleg Kashin says American journalism has lost his compatriots' faith.

Earlier this month, leaked documents known as the Paradise Papers revealed new details about how the Russian investor Yuri Milner (right) once poured millions of dollars into Facebook and Twitter, where America’s “Russia investigation” has raised questions about Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. A headline published by The New York Times read “Kremlin Cash Behind Billionaire’s Twitter and Facebook Investments”; a story by the Guardian began, “Two Russian state institutions with close ties to Vladimir Putin funded substantial stakes in Twitter and Facebook”; and according to the LA Times, Milner’s investments “had Kremlin ties.” Russian journalist Oleg Kashin, perhaps best known in the West for surviving a near fatal assault by thugs in November 2010, is a prolific columnist whose work has appeared repeatedly in The New York Times and the Russian edition of Deutsche Welle. On November 8, in an op-ed at the news site Republic, Kashin responded to the Western media’s coverage of Russia over the past year and a half. With permission, Meduza is making Kashin’s text available in English.

The Western press has learned that businesses close to the Kremlin were buying up shares in Facebook and Twitter (obviously, with far-reaching political aims). If it were just five years ago, it doesn’t seem so crazy to assume that this story would have become a sensation in Russia. At the very least, we would have discussed it seriously, like we once discussed Alexander Mamut’s purchase of LiveJournal.

Today, years later, the political significance of that deal seems indisputable: it was precisely under Mamut’s influence that LiveJournal ceased to be a space for free expression, transforming into one of the lesser parts of Mamut’s unequivocally loyalist media empire. When Mamut bought LiveJournal, the only people who worried publicly that the Kremlin would put the blogosphere under its control were Russia’s most alarmist ultra-oppositionists, but clearly it’s these individuals who turned out to be right. Maybe five years ago, this experience could have mattered, if the Western press had then accused the Kremlin of buying up social networks. Five years ago, it would have at least been taken seriously.

Today, that’s not possible.

The problem isn’t even that it’s rather difficult to call Yuri Milner a businessman who’s “close to the Kremlin.” The man has lived in the public eye for many years, and even the most radical conspiracy theorists and investigators trained in finding the secret “pocketbooks” of Russia’s highest-ranking officials have never tied Milner to any of these people.

The problem isn’t that a loan from VTB Bank or the word “Gazprom” in the name of Alisher Usmanov’s “Gazprominvestholding” doesn’t prove in the slightest that this was all some political machination.

The problem isn’t that the Kremlin — between 2009 and 2011, when Milner bought the shares — was in the era of Dmitry Medvedev, who was captivated not only by a “reset” with the United States, but also all sorts of young people’s trends, including various gadgets and social networks. Back then, it wasn’t the Kremlin that influenced Twitter and Facebook, but the other way around: these networks influenced Russia’s young president, who took to social media like an excited teenager, not some Dr. Evil.

And the problem isn’t that Russian businessmen’s investments in Western companies (at least since Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea) have been seen not as the Kremlin’s expansion, but — on the contrary — as the desire of the wealthy to invest in places where the Kremlin can’t climb into their pockets. Throughout the 2000s, almost every Russian state official — no one louder than Vladimir Putin — railed against the irresponsibility of the nation’s elites and their unwillingness to invest their money in Russia.

All this is important, of course, but it’s nothing compared to the main reason today’s allegations against Milner can’t be taken seriously. There’s no name for this reason, and it’s considerably hard to articulate the logic without slipping into the same rhetoric that someone like RT chief editor Margarita Simonyan and many others have used to build their careers.

In Russia, we’ve repeated too often and for too long that the Western mainstream media is wrong most of the time

When it comes to this subject, it’s become difficult to find the right words, without becoming a voluntary accomplice to Russia’s propagandists and counter-propagandists. And yet the main problem with the allegations against Milner are his very accusers. Those writing that the Kremlin acted through him are the same outlets and individuals that have already demonstrated convincingly that anything they publish about Russia is, as a general rule, total garbage. The image of Putin’s Russia constructed by Western and, above all, American media outlets over the past 18 months shocks even the most anti-Putin reader in Russia.

Maybe separately all the stories about Russia wouldn’t trigger this response, but it’s different when looking at the coverage combined: Moscow suburban “power broker” Natalia Veselniktskaya playing the part of Putin’s agent, Dr. Rodchenkov’s tales of test tubes for doped urine, singer Emin Agalarov acting in the Kremlin’s interests, and Russian ads on social media — bought for pennies compared to the millions spent by the Clinton and Trump campaigns — that supposedly influenced American voters. There’s more, of course, and in this context the claims that Milner was working on behalf of the Kremlin become a joke by default — where there’s no need to refute or dispute anything, and the only thing Russians can do is laugh.

But what we ought to do is cry, of course, because for Russians everything that’s happening is a serious tragedy that has nothing to do with Yuri Milner or the other stars of Western investigative reporting, much less with America’s political infighting, which strictly speaking isn’t any of our business. Something else that’s important here is that Russia, compared to the United States, is a backward, small, and young country. Our political culture isn’t yet 30 years old, and what we’ve got is trampled by years of authoritarianism. Someday, someone will have to create it again.

It’s the same story with our media culture, which emerged on the ruins of Soviet propaganda. It’s endured so many mutations and external influences that there aren’t any pleasant words to describe its current state. It’s not even a crisis, but something worse, and someone at some point will have to deal with the consequences. Generally speaking, we’re nobody to scold the Americans for what’s happening to them now, and this is just another one of our problems, because what’s happening in the U.S. is important for Russians, too.

You don’t have to watch CNN or read The New York Times to have them constantly in mind as an achievable or unachievable standard in journalistic professionalism, responsibility, and influence. Every time a Russian television network or pro-Kremlin newspaper reaches a new low, it was once commonplace among independent thinkers to say that the Western media giants never allowed themselves such mistakes. Throughout Russian journalism’s post-Soviet history, faith in CNN as a kind of celestial constellation has been an essential factor. The archetype has been necessary as a model to strive toward or turn away from, and it will remain a key element in Russian journalism’s coordinate system.

There’s a thoroughly naive misperception that the people working for propaganda outlets are all hard-nose cynics ready to say that black is white just so they can make their mortgage payments. In fact, anyone who’s talked with just one of these people knows that any cynicism that might guide them is something entirely different: it’s not “I lie because of my mortgage,” but “I say what serves the state’s interests because that’s how it works everywhere — we serve Russia, CNN serves the U.S., and the BBC is itself a state organization.”

Hearing this kind of talk, Russians from the independent media of course always laughed, but time has shown that the ones who said “it’s like this everywhere” were right. At the very least, over the past year and a half, the Western press with its highest standards has gifted us too many outrageous stories to ignore. When Russian network television aired a story about the public crucifixion of a three-year-old boy by Ukrainian soldiers, it was clearly nonsense from the start and no one actually believed it.

When it comes to the wild conspiracy theories about Russia now circulated by the Western media, Russians are also able to grasp that it’s all drivel, but their understanding has no effect on the irreproachable reputation of these newspapers and TV stations, whose standing remains unchanged no matter how many Russians stop believing in them. And we truly have no right, moral or otherwise, to criticize the Western news giants. We are too small, provincial, and backward, and this isn’t a case where someone needs to hand back a corrected celestial map. Instead, it’s probably time to treat the map like a fake, and to realize that nobody really knows what the hell is up there in the sky.

All this sounds a bit like “there are no hipsters in America,” but if they’re really aren’t any hipsters then it would be important news for us. The Western press has already reported so many inaccurate, exaggerated, knowingly untrue things about Russia that today the Russian reader who seriously starts talking about Yuri Milner as an agent of the Kremlin is either a very naive person or a cynical hypocrite. Until now, this characterization has applied mainly to the audience of Russia’s state television networks. Today, it also works with those who look for truth about Russia in the Western media. It’s probably still too soon to call this a tectonic shift, but it’s nonetheless important to note this potentially important factor: the crisis of faith (the faith of us provincial Russians) in the Western news media will inevitably affect Russia’s public atmosphere.

Read the original Russian text of Oleg Kashin’s op-ed at Republic.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock.