Reese Erlich

Trump used a surprisingly effective trick to hide his disastrous foreign policy

President Donald Trump has convinced Republican isolationists and hawks that he supports their views. That’s a neat trick, since the two groups hold opposing positions.

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Inside the Civil War in Syria: 'Even First Graders Were Politically Motivated'

The following is an excerpt from Reese Erlich's new book, Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect (Prometheus Books, 2014).  Reprinted here with permission.

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Stopping Cuban Music at the Border

[Editor's Note: In this special AlterNet podcast, Reese Erlich takes you to the Barbados Jazz Festival to hear some great Cuban music and see how U.S. policy impacts the musicians. Reese Erlich produces Jazz Perspectives for public radio stations in the U.S. and Canada, which can be heard online at]

U.S. policy towards Cuba gets more ridiculous by the day. While the rest of the world can visit Cuba, buy its rum and cigars, and hear its musicians live -- people in the U.S. cannot. For a brief time in the late 1990s, Cuban musicians performed regularly in the U.S. But that ended as the Bush Administration sought to tighten the trade embargo of Cuba. These days Americans must travel abroad to hear their favorite Cuban artists live.

Every year Cuban musicians attract huge crowds at music festivals all over Europe, the Caribbean and South America. And these days, that's almost the only place where Americans can hear Cuban musicians live. Mary Jane Marchelewicz (maar-ka-levitz), a school teacher from Burlington, Vt., says she came to the Barbados Jazz Festival with just that in mind.

"We discussed what we were going to see here at the Jazz Festival and decided when we saw the venue for Sunday that we were more interested in hearing the Cuban band because of the kind of music, the different sound. It's very sensual. It's the feeling, the movement, the sensual music."

Protest Returns to Jazz

[Editor's Note: For this special AlterNet podcast, Reese Erlich interviewed percussionist Ray Barretto (shortly before his death in February 2006), bassist Christian McBride, trumpeter Dave Douglas and vocalist Roberta Gambarini. You'll hear lots of their great music as well. Reese Erlich produces Jazz Perspectives for public radio stations in the U.S. and Canada, which can be heard online at

Be sure to listen to Erlich's companion podcast, "Stopping Cuban Music at the Border," also posted on AlterNet today.]

Since its beginning jazz has produced radical thinkers and non conformists. Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie advocated progressive politics, as did Billy Holiday. These days some jazz artists continue that progressive tradition.

Ray Barretto has been an immensely popular Latin musician since the early 1950s. He became famous as a salsa conga player with the Fania All Stars and as a jazz percussionist. Barretto was outraged at the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

"I was born a little after WWI. I would have lived through during WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the invasion of this country and that country, Iraq. I can't have a lifetime of peace. I can't tell my son, you will live the next 30-40 years in a time of peace."

Barretto was among a growing number of jazz artists speaking out against Bush administration policies. They are also angry at the government's slowness in rescuing the mostly African American victims of Hurricane Katrina and delays in rebuilding the devastated areas. Many musicians participated in benefits to raise money for New Orleans residents.

Bassist Christian McBride says the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina indicates that far greater problems with racism exist in the U.S. Jazz artists, he says, are particularly sensitive to that issue.

"There's no way you can be in any creative endeavor and not know what's going on politically. The hypocrisy is so completely clear. I really do think the 60s is going to have to happen all over again. There will have to be people willing to put themselves at great risk to be able to get their message heard."

Ignoring Democracy in Nepal

For the past two weeks, the streets of Nepal have filled with militant demonstrators demanding democracy. A transportation stoppage halted most passenger traffic and deliveries into the capital of Kathmandu. Food and other basics are in short supply.

Travel agents and employees even held a rally in the tourist district of Kathmandu to protest the King's policies and the wrecking of the tourism industry. The government periodically shuts down all cell phone service in an effort to disrupt the planning of demonstrations.

The anger at King Gyanendra's dictatorship runs so deep, it is surprising even top opposition leaders. In numerous interviews, those leaders condemned the king's policies but few thought he could be toppled anytime soon.

Chakra Bastola, a top leader of the Nepali Congress Party who was interviewed before the general strike began, said the king will likely stay in power for a while. The king "could always be tempted to be harsher and stay put," he said.

But the general strike that has mobilized so many may just prove that Bastola and other leaders are being too pessimistic.

The general strike and transport stoppage was supported jointly by the seven major parliamentary parties and the Maoist guerrillas. The guerrillas even called a military ceasefire in the Kathmandu area so as not to give the government an excuse to shoot unarmed demonstrators by claiming they were "guerrilla infiltrators."

That didn't stop the police and army from firing on demonstrators, killing many, injuring hundreds and jailing over 3,000. For several days, the government clamped a total daytime curfew on Kathmandu. The streets were eerily empty, with military and police checkpoints posted throughout the city. Yet, at the appointed time, thousands of demonstrators came out of their homes. For the moment, all the opposition forces are united in calling for the king to give up power -- a radical shift considering that, for the past two centuries, the kings of Nepal have been considered gods. The call constitutes a major policy shift for mainstream political parties, but it is pressure from ordinary Nepalis that is fueling the movement.

"A lot of youth are for a republic," said Sujata Koirala, another top leader of the Nepali Congress, the largest parliamentary party. The interview took place inside a police station because she had just been arrested for leading a nonviolent demonstration. "If the king goes on like this, I think there will be no king in Nepal."

Nepal's kings haven't been acting very godly lately. In June 2001, according to official accounts, Crown Prince Dipendra murdered 11 members of the royal family, including the king. The crown prince then committed suicide. The murdered king's brother, Gyanendra, then took power.

Five months later King Gyanendra got rid of the parliament and appointed a cabinet. People had become disgusted with the corrupt and power-hungry parliamentary parties, so the king had some popular backing for his dissolution of parliament. But in February 2005, King Gyanendra arrested some of his handpicked ministers and seized absolute power in alliance with the military.

The government banned all news from FM radio stations, the most popular and progressive media in the country. Uniformed military officers sat in every print and broadcast newsroom to censor the news. While the officers left the newsroom after a few months, the official censorship decree remains on the books, and journalists engage in substantial self-censorship.

Ian Martin, head of the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights in Nepal, says human rights abuses are widespread. Political detainees and common criminals are regularly tortured. "I'm afraid torture is systematic, routine and widespread," he told me in an interview.

I scheduled an interview with one of Nepal's leading journalists, Kanak Dixit. When I arrived at the offices of his Himal South Asia magazine, his secretary told me he had been unavoidably detained. I was incensed but soon discovered that Dixit had a legitimate excuse. He had indeed been detained -- by the police, so I went to a downtown police station.

About 20 of Nepal's top journalists had been arrested for holding a nonviolent rally to protest the arrest of other journalists earlier that day. This is akin to having Katie Couric, Tom Brokaw and Seymour Hersh all detained in the same police courtyard.

As an indication of how the political winds are shifting, police allowed the journalists to keep their cell phones and file their stories from the police station. As Dixit told me, the police know the king may fall, and they don't want to antagonize major reporters. As if to confirm that, all the journalists were released the next day.

I pulled Dixit aside and asked him some questions about the newfound political solidarity in Nepal. Late last year the parliamentary parties and Maoist guerrillas signed a 12-point agreement calling for restoration of parliament, quick elections, and forming a constituent assembly to write a new constitution.

The Maoists went underground 10 years ago to start a people's war, modeled on the successes of Mao Zedong. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) considers present-day China as having sold out its revolution. Other Maoist parties around the world, such as the Shining Path in Peru, have failed miserably. So the Nepalese Maoists are rethinking their strategy.

Six months ago the Maoists assessed that they couldn't win immediate state power, and even if they did, they would face a hostile India and China on their borders. So they're trying to negotiate a return to legal activity, much like the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland or Basque separatists in Spain.

"They decided to come in for a safe landing," said Dixit. "They've decided to accept multiparty competitive politics."

Dixit says if the Maoists became a legal political party, they would be the third largest political force in the country. Others say they could pull as much as half the parliamentary vote. Because the party remains outlawed, it is impossible to know.

So far the king has refused to negotiate with the Maoists, and they continue their armed struggle, recently downing a military helicopter for the first time. Because they control wide swaths of the countryside, an immediate military defeat of the Maoists is unlikely.

Dixit says the entire pro-democracy movement must unite against the king as a first step towards negotiating with the Maoists to end the armed insurgency. Said Dixit, "We must dialogue with them (Maoists) and see how we can bring them in from the cold."

The Bush administration disagrees with that view and strongly condemns the 12-point agreement between the political parties and the Maoists. U.S. Ambassador to Nepal James Moriarty wrote in the Wall Street Journal-Asia, "While proclaiming themselves champions of democracy, peace and prosperity, they (the parties) find themselves in 'partnership' with a movement that settles arguments with a gun." Nepalis note the irony of the U.S.'s condemning anyone for using guns to settle arguments.

The U.S. Embassy in Nepal issued only a two-paragraph statement condemning the government human rights violations of the past few weeks, and called for the king to negotiate with the political parties. Meanwhile the United States continues to supply the Nepali Army with "non-lethal" supplies and train its soldiers.

Washington would prefer that the political parties form an alliance with the king to crush the Maoists. Nepal sits between China and India, two major strategic concerns for Washington. Certain to oppose a leftist government in Nepal -- whether it came to power through people's war or fair elections -- the United States has ramped up the anti-communist rhetoric familiar to veterans of the Cold War. "The U.S. attitude has been to scaremonger," said Dixit.

The next few weeks are critical for the democracy movement in Nepal. Some cracks are showing in his once solid backing from the army and police and the king is rapidly losing popular support -- even among the country's wealthy elite. But these last few weeks of turmoil may, in hindsight, be seen as the beginning of a massive, popular movement that finally toppled the king's power and restored democracy to Nepal.

Return to Afghanistan

Derrill Bodley was visibly nervous as he walked towards the mud-walled house on the fringes of Kabul. Would the woman remember him? Would he be able to emotionally connect with her again?

Two years ago, almost to the day, Derrill visited this home with a delegation of other Americans who had lost relatives on Sept. 11. The non-profit group Global Exchange had arranged a meeting in January, 2002, between the Americans and some of the Afghan victims of the war on Afghanistan. This time around, he is on a two-week journey to meet with dozens of aid workers, UN officials and ordinary Afghans.

Gulmaky, the woman Derrill met on his last trip, lost her 19-year-old son when a U.S. bomb flattened one room in her home and destroyed her neighbor's house. There were no military targets nearby. It was one of the so-called smart bombs advertised by the U.S. military that killed and injured thousands of Afghani civilians during the war.

"Maybe you remember me," Derrill says to Gulmaky, somewhat hesitantly. "We all came and saw your house. Now I bring you a picture of my daughter, Diora, who was killed on Sept. 11, 2001. I want you to have her picture." Gulmaky does indeed remember. The rubble from the flattened room has been cleared away, but she does not have the money to rebuild the house. "Nobody ever helped me," she says.

"The U.S. policy is not to count the damage to the civilian population," notes Derrill. While the U.S. government has established a multi-billion dollar fund to compensate families of Americans who died on September 11, it has done nothing to help the innocent victims of its war on Afghanistan. The irony isn't lost on Derrill, who gives Gulmaky $200 to help with living expenses.

But unlike Derrill, most Americans have lost track of Afghanistan. The mainstream media have forgotten the country except when U.S. soldiers are killed. "People in the U.S. are not given the opportunity to feel or see these things," he says. The $200 is part of a bigger plan to pledge a portion of his 9/11 Victim's Compensation Fund settlement to help those killed by recent U.S. military operations and to grassroots organizations working to organize civilians in this war-torn land.

The fund is also a sign of just how far Derrill has come from the man he used to be. While he came of came of age in the '60s, the political radicalism of that era passed him by. Unlike many of his peers who became anti-war protestors, he chose to serve in the Army and later became a music teacher at Sacramento City College. "I wasn't a political activist back then," said Derrill. "It's a little late, but I'm becoming one now."

But it is tough to do good in a country devastated by war and U.S. occupation. Take, for example, a small sewing school in another part of Kabul, a one room, mud-walled building that is a chilly 50 degrees inside. Thanks to $400 donated by the Share Institute in Sacramento, California, the NGO Humanitarian Services Organization for Women (HSOW) was able to buy the sewing machines, rent the room and buy material to be made into children's clothing.

Men and women sit at four, hand-cranked sewing machines. Derrill and I meet a 25-year-old war widow whose sewing supports her three children. When Derrill asks HSOW director Roya Mohabat about the presence of men, he explains, "They are for selling (the clothing). Our Afghan custom (doesn't allow) women to carry things to the bazaar." While the U.S.-backed Karzai government has opened schools to Afghan girls, and some Kabul women walk outdoors without the all-covering burka, women are far from free in post-war Afghanistan. A combination of custom, an extremely conservative interpretation of Islam and lack of action by the Karzai government severely constrains the options available to NGOs helping women.

Derrill wants to encourage this NGO, which at least gets a few women out of the house and into productive work. He quietly slides some U.S. banknotes to the widow before we depart, and promises more for HSOW.

If conditions are tough in Kabul, they are far worse everywhere else in Afghanistan.

In Kandahar, at around 11:00 p.m. one night, the doors and windows of our house shake violently. Derrill bolts out of bed, only to discover that a bomb has exploded some blocks away. He wants to check it out, but fearing the possibility of a second bomb timed to explode just when people rush to the scene, we decide it's safer to stay indoors.

Over three days, Kandahar is rocked by guerrilla attacks on a UN office and a number of military targets. They don't kill any soldiers but result in the deaths of 15 civilians and injure dozens more.

The U.S. maintains a fortified base near the Kandahar airport, but can't really protect either its own soldiers or Afghan civilians. The lack of security makes NGO work even more difficult. Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter who until recently headed a humanitarian group in Kandahar, can't even get women together for a sewing co-op because husbands won't let their wives leave the house. So they visit each home individually, bringing material and picking up the finished garments.

Local government officials have only the faintest allegiance to the government in Kabul. Local Afghan officials transport heroin and hashish, cut deals with Taliban guerrillas and generally act like warlords, says Chayes. She hopes to find international funding to modernize a local dairy co-op, the only source of fresh milk for the city. "But if we are successful," she says, "a local warlord could take it over and tell us to leave town."

Despite all the obstacles, Derrill's convinced that small NGOs can reach people that others cannot. "They're doing things that the UN can't do, the Red Cross can't do, and certainly the U.S. government and corporations can't do," he says. He hopes his contribution to these organizations will not just help undo the destruction of war, but also prevent wars of the future. "I'm interested in dealing with the front end of the war cycle," he says, "to prevent the war and violence in the first place."

Freelance journalist Reese Erlich co-authored the book 'Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You,' with Norman Solomon.

Arab Thumbs Down on Free Trade

Beirut, Lebanon -- In recent weeks the Bush administration has hyped formation of a free trade zone with Arab countries as a means to reward those that "fight terrorism." At a major economic forum held in Jordan recently, the U.S. dangled the possibility of $1 billion in economic aid to cooperating countries.

But a funny thing happened on the way back from the forum. Many Arabs are saying "no thanks" to this gesture of American munificence.

In the wake of the occupation of Iraq and shortcomings in NAFTA, the Bush administration is having a harder time selling globalization as an economic panacea for the third world. Syrian textile merchant Samir Kassem, whose business would theoretically benefit from a free trade agreement with the U.S., nonetheless strongly opposes it. "Why should the U.S. suddenly want to help Arabs with 'free trade?'" he asks. "The American administration doesn't have any interest in helping developing countries. It cares about maintaining its position as a superpower."

Jordan's Not-so-free Trade Pact

In late June, the administration trotted out its plans for a Middle East Free Trade Area (MEFTA) during the World Economic Forum held in Shuneh, Jordan. The U.S. trumpeted its free trade agreement with Jordan, signed in 2000, as a model for future deals with other Arab countries.

Thanks to that trade pact, claimed U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, Jordan had expanded exports by a factor of thirteen, attracted new foreign investment and created some 30,000 new jobs over the past three years. Secretary of State Colin Powell touted the U.S. trade deals as a road map for economic development. "We want peace in the region," he said. "With peace you need economic development of people, or people will not benefit from peace."

But critics of MEFTA say U.S. claims about the Jordanian success story are misleading. Jordan has mainly attracted South Asian textile and luggage manufacturers who assemble parts that are purchased abroad -- a economic pattern that does little to stimulate local production. Moreover, about half the workers in the country's duty-free zone aren't even Jordanian and many receive less than the official minimum wage of $3.50 a day.

Elie Yachoui, an economics professor at St. Joseph's University in Beirut, says the U.S.-Jordan agreement isn't much of a model for the rest of the Arab world. According to Yachoui, the agreement mainly benefits the Jordanian elite and was bestowed by the U.S. as a reward for political loyalty. "Everybody knows that Jordan is completely aligned with the American policy in the region," he says.

And there is one important aspect of the U.S.-Jordan deal that is unpalatable to other Arab countries. While not widely publicized, the U.S. requires that at least 7 percent of all of Jordan's duty-free exports to the U.S. originate in Israel. Jordanian manufacturers must import Israeli yarn for their textiles, or have the garments sewn in the Occupied Territories. Absent a comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, most Arab countries would reject any trade deal that included such a provision.

It's one of the reasons why, despite the rhetoric at the Shuneh forum, the U.S. is currently negotiating only one new free trade agreement in the Arab world. The deal is with Morocco, which is hardly a Middle East economic powerhouse.

Profits for the Select Few

If any country in the Middle East should welcome a free trade agreement, it's Lebanon. This country of 4 million people has a relatively open, free market economy. Goods from Europe and the Far East flood the malls and street corner stalls. And some Lebanese export industries would clearly benefit economically from a U.S. free trade agreement.

The workforce at the Laniere National textile and garment factory in Beirut has shrunk from about 400 in 1993 to a mere 80 today. Owner Sleiman Khattar says he would like to expand exports to America, but the U.S. currently charges a 17 percent import duty on all Lebanese textiles and garments. "I think this will be a great opportunity for the Lebanon textile sector to have a bigger share in the American market," he says.

But most Lebanese remain skeptical of the potential impact of such a free trade agreement. Prof. Yachoui says the U.S. would easily dominate any free trade zone. "The American economy is a giant economy," he said. "The Lebanese economy is really nothing. American products will invade our little market."

And there lies the rub. While a small number of export industries might benefit from a more liberal trade relationship with the U.S., many domestic businesses will inevitably suffer.

The U.S. was able to push through NAFTA in Mexico, largely with the support of powerful Mexican economic interests who hoped to profit from increased American business. But the U.S. has used a variety of regulations to exclude Mexican businesses and workers. Mexican shipping companies, for example, are still waiting for the U.S. to allow them to drive long-haul trucks in the U.S. as agreed under NAFTA.

The situation is even more complicated in the Middle East because the region's elites are so dependent on oil -- an industry that is already under globalized control. Oil trades freely on world markets with no significant customs barriers. Because Middle East oil executives wouldn't get any additional benefits from free trade agreements, there's less domestic support for a free trade zone.

Even more significantly, most Arab governments have little political trust in the U.S. right now. The U.S. invasion of Iraq without UN backing and its continued support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine make it suspect in Arab eyes. While the U.S. is trying to persuade the Arab world that it has changed tactics with the road map for peace, most Arab leaders remain skeptical of U.S. motives and policies.

Roy Badaro is a garment factory owner and official with the Lebanese Chamber of Commerce who supports MEFTA. But even Badaro admits that the U.S. won't sign many agreements until it shifts away from its current Israel policy. "Lebanon will not sign any agreement unless there is a full and comprehensive peace," said Badaro. "And you know this is not (going to happen) in the very short term."

Freelance foreign correspondent Reese Erlich is co-author, with Norman Solomon, of "Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You" (Context Books, 2003).

9/11 Relatives Visit Afghanistan

Kabul, Afghanistan -- Four Americans who lost relatives on Sept. 11 walk down a dusty street in Kabul and are shocked by the devastation. Years of fighting in previous wars have wrecked parts of the city, and now the Americans are witnessing the civilian destruction caused by U.S. bombing raids.

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Love in the Room Next Door

Perhaps this has happened to you. I was staying at a highly reputable hotel, trying to get some writing done when I heard some interesting sounds coming from the room next door.

A couple was in the throws of what I can only now describe as extreme passion. So extreme, in fact, that I assumed they weren't married.

The bed was creaking, the walls were banging, their voices were rising in crescendos usually reserved for movies that my wife won't let me watch. "Hold me, hold me," a female voice cried, loud enough for me to stop the important article I was writing.

Now I'm a man of the world. I have traveled to 71 countries and consider myself broad minded. Prior to my marriage to my wonderful and beautiful wife, I had been known -- on a few occasions -- to engage in such dalliances myself.

But I had work to do. Hell hath no fury like a journalist on deadline. Somewhere around the third passionate "hold me," I considered calling the front desk to make a complaint. I even toyed with the thought of phoning the room directly. But that would be too cruel even for this besotted old man.

Their passion eventually cooled, as it inevitably does in these cases. At least the delirium was no longer audible. I returned to pounding away at my laptop.

Then it started all over again. Bed creaking, walls pounding, and that incessant female crescendo begging to be held. By this point I wasn't sure whether to phone in a complaint or take a cold shower.

Since all this was occurring at 5 p.m., I began to entertain thoughts that the couple were having a secret affair. Did I mention that this highly reputable hotel was in Visalia, a thriving metropolis in the heart of central California's conservative agricultural belt?

Perhaps it was a major almond grower having an affair with his commodities broker. It could even be a high-priced call girl having an assignation with a local cotton tycoon. I could see the ads in the local yellow pages, "Vivacious Vixens of Visalia, call us at 1-800-CHOP COTTON."

But just as it had before, the passion eventually stopped. I finished writing my article and decided to go downstairs for an early dinner. I enjoyed a steak and glass of wine in an almost empty dining room.

I walked back into the lobby and waited for the elevator. A handsome young couple dressed in running shorts and Nikes came in through a side door. They caught my attention because they had just come in from a jog, which apparently hadn't cooled their ardor for one another.

They sashayed up to the elevator door. He was about 6'2", blond and buffed beyond belief. She was about 5'10", also blond, and had a body to die for. They hugged one another, despite the perspiration of their just completed run. Once in the elevator, they began a passionate kiss.

I began to wonder if there's something in the water in these small agricultural towns. I made a mental note to ask the front desk.

The couple kissed in the elevator so long that I thought they had missed their floor. They looked startled and got off with me.

They walked down the hall, however, as if this really was their floor. Not only were they on the right floor, they entered the room next to mine.

I didn't say a word.

Freelance journalist Reese Erlich now listens very closely when he writes articles in strange hotel rooms.


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