World

Biden's agenda on China needs a reality check

Like his immediate predecessor, Joe Biden is committed to a distinctly anti-China global strategy and has sworn that China will not "become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world… on my watch." In the topsy-turvy universe created by the Covid-19 pandemic, it was, however, Jamie Dimon, the CEO and chairman of JP Morgan Chase, a banking giant with assets of $3.4 trillion, who spoke truth to Biden on the subject.

While predicting an immediate boom in the U.S. economy "that could easily run into 2023," Dimon had grimmer news on the future as well. "China's leaders believe that America is in decline," he wrote in his annual letter to the company's shareholders. While the U.S. had faced tough times in the past, he added, today "the Chinese see an America that is losing ground in technology, infrastructure, and education — a nation torn and crippled by politics, as well as racial and income inequality — and a country unable to coordinate government policies (fiscal, monetary, industrial, regulatory) in any coherent way to accomplish national goals." He was forthright enough to say, "Unfortunately, recently, there is a lot of truth to this."

As for China, Dimon could also have added, its government possesses at least two powerful levers in areas where the United States is likely to prove vulnerable: dominant control of container ports worldwide and the supplies of rare earth metals critical not just to the information-technology sector but also to the production of electric and hybrid cars, jet fighters, and missile guidance systems. And that's only a partial list of the areas where China is poised to become dominant in the foreseeable future. Here's a likely scenario.

The Digital Yuan Versus the (Missing) Digital Dollar

Within the broad headline of the globe's "second-largest economy," China has already either surpassed the United States or is running neck-and-neck with it in certain specific sectors.

With a global smartphone market share of 20% in the second quarter of 2020, China's Huawei Technologies topped the charts, marginally exceeding South Korea's Samsung, and well ahead of Apple, according to the International Data Corporation. This happened despite a concerted drive by President Donald Trump's administration to damage Huawei that culminated, in May 2020, with Washington barring companies worldwide from using U.S.-made machinery or software to design or produce chips for that company or its entities from that September on. Nonetheless, with a 47% share of China's booming 5G smartphone market, Huawei topped the list there while it kept up its investment in future-oriented, cutting-edge technologies and basic research to the tune of a striking $3 billion to $5 billion annually.

Broadly speaking, China continues to make impressive strides when it comes to developing its information and communications technology sector. Its Fintech (Financial Technology) report, published in October 2020, showed that an estimated 87% of Chinese consumers used fintech services. With a vast mobile-payment system that hit $29 trillion (200 trillion yuan) worth of payments in 2019, China is shaping up to become the globe's first "cashless society" and its largest financial-technology ecosystem by the end of this decade.

Less than 10% of Americans use mobile payments, which means a similar scenario for the United States is nowhere on the horizon. With mobile transactions in China already accounting for at least four out of every five payments and more than half the value of all non-cash retail payments, that country is poised to leave the U.S., a comparative laggard in fintech, shackled to a cash-dominated system.

In their relentless drive for innovation, the Chinese authorities started pushing the development of a digital currency in certain regions in August 2020. Their specific goals were to make daily life easier for citizens and digital payments more secure. While non-bank payment platforms like Alipay and WeChat Pay required users to link to bank accounts, a digital wallet with an e-currency deposit could be opened with a unique personal identification — a driver's license or a mobile phone number — enabling the un-banked population of China to embrace the digital world.

As a result, the People's Bank of China became the first major central bank to issue a virtual currency. A broader roll-out is expected for the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February 2022, which will give the digital yuan international exposure.

This has alarmed the Biden administration. Officials at the Treasury Department, the State Department, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council are frantically trying to comprehend the potential implications of a virtual yuan system. They are particularly eager to understand how it would be distributed, and whether it could be used to bypass Washington's international sanctions as applied to Iran. What distresses some American officials and experts is the notion that someday China's virtual yuan could replace the U.S. dollar as the world's dominant reserve currency.

At the Federal Reserve, Chairman Jerome Powell insisted that the central bank was involved in a large-scale research and development project on a possible future digital dollar, though pointing out that such a project could only be launched via a law that would have to be passed by a deeply divided Congress. In short, irrespective of the future of China's virtual currency, a digital dollar is not likely, not in the near future anyway.

Building Infrastructure (or Not)

As for recent economic history, even a cursory look at the performances of the United States and China in combating the 2008 financial meltdown tells a striking tale.

China made an indelible mark in meeting that financial challenge. Its government sharply increased its infrastructure spending, resulting in higher imports that helped counter flagging global demand. While this move increased Beijing's debt, it also helped build a foundation to further transform the country's economy into a productivity-led growth model. A decade after that great recession, according to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report, China's infrastructure ranking jumped from 66th place to 36th place out of 152 countries.

Although infrastructure building on a large scale requires significant upfront investment, it's guaranteed to yield productivity gains in the long run. Time and cost savings for commuters, improved market access, healthier competition, increased exchange of ideas, and enlarged innovation capacity, all aided by modern infrastructure, are a springboard for economic development.

During the decade following the 2008 crisis, the number of Chinese cities with metro services jumped from 10 to 34 and 1.1 million kilometers of highways were built, raising the total to 4.8 million kilometers. The length of its high-speed rail system shot up by 52,000 kilometers to 132,000 kilometers. Introduced on the eve of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, it's now by far the world's longest system, accounting for two-thirds of the globe's high-speed rail. Its advances in information-and computer-technology were equally impressive. On average, mobile-phone subscriptions came to exceed one per person — about the same as in the United States.

High-speed rail (of which the United States has none) reduces journey times, while linking dense urban areas with less crowded cities. In doing so, it allows for a more balanced distribution of labor and business development without sacrificing the benefits of an increasingly urbanized economy. Economies of scale in turn mean that productivity rises as rail usage increases.

Little wonder, then, that President Barack Obama and his team promoted the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 as an infrastructure-building program in response to the 2008 economic crisis. In reality, however, only $80 billion, a tenth of the money Congress sanctioned, would be devoted to actual infrastructure. Of that, about a third was spent on roads and bridges, improving about 67,600 kilometers of roads and 2,700 bridges. The program also included investment in modern infrastructure like smart grids and broadband development.

In 2010, Obama announced what was to be the "largest investment in infrastructure since the Interstate Highway System," the creation of a high-speed rail network that would rival China's. More than a decade later, the only visible progress is a much-delayed and still incomplete 275-kilometer Central Valley California line from Bakersfield to Merced. And in the Trump years, when essentially no government money went into such projects, "infrastructure week" became a standing joke. President Biden seems determined to rectify this, but how successful he'll be with his $2 trillion infrastructure proposal in the face of a rigidly divided Congress remains to be seen.

For its part, the Chinese government combined its program of rapid infrastructure development with upgrading of the labor force. It did so by implementing an educational system that stressed science, technology, engineering, and math, known as STEM. By achieving higher productivity in this way, the government planned to compensate for a projected shrinkage in its work force.

To promote STEM, the government issued guidelines in 2016 to create a national development strategy aimed at advancing China to the forefront of innovative countries by 2030. In February 2017, the Ministry of Education officially added STEM education to the primary-school curriculum. Since then, encouraged by official policies, schools in both the public and private sectors have implemented such programs.

In 2019, the government allocated 100% of its research funding to top universities to the ones that concentrated on STEM disciplines. By comparison, South Korea allocated 62% of such funding that way. By contrast, U.S. universities ranked in the top 100 maintained a greater balance in funding among STEM fields, humanities, and social sciences.

In October 2019, three of China's biggest mobile-phone carriers launched advanced 5G services, giving it the world's largest 5G mobile network. A year later, the Wall Street Journal reported that China had more 5G subscribers than the U.S., not just in total but per capita.

Given the ubiquity of smartphones, the news that America seemed to be losing the tech race to China was widely noted. Mostly ignored, however, was the extent to which the U.S. had become vulnerable to Chinese pressure in international trade.

America's Vulnerabilities

In testimony before Congress in October 2019, Carolyn Bartholomew, chairwoman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, revealed that at least two-thirds of the world's top 50 maritime container ports were directly owned and managed by the Chinese or supported by that country's investments (up from roughly 20% a decade ago). These included terminals at major American container ports in Los Angeles and Seattle. When it came to such ports, it led the world with seven of the 10 largest ones.

A year earlier, officials at the state-owned China Ocean Shipping Company, one of the globe's largest container shipping lines, acknowledged that the company had connected its routes along what was officially called the Maritime Silk Road, linking regional markets in West Africa, Northern Europe, the Caribbean, and the U.S. to form a more comprehensive and balanced globalized trading network. "By owning and/or operating a network of logistical nodes across Asia, Europe, and Africa, China can control a significant portion of its inbound supply chain for essential commodities and outbound trade routes for its exports," Bartholomew explained. "In the event of conflict, China could use its control over these and other ports to hinder trade access to other countries."

In the manufacturing sector, China finds itself in a privileged position by virtue of its special mineral deposits, called rare earth elements. A group of 17 rare earth metals, including lanthanum, cerium, yttrium, europium, and gadolinium, often called "industrial gold," are critical components of such high-technology and clean-energy products as wind turbines, solar panels, and electric cars, because of their magnetism, luminescence, and strength. They are also used in a wide variety of weapons from jet fighters to nuclear submarines.

Unsurprisingly, in recent years, there has been a rapid rise in the demand for these minerals in advanced economies. They are dispersed in low concentrations and are costly to extract from ore, an industry in which China has invested a great deal since the 1970s.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, in 2020, China accounted for 58% of rare earth minerals production, down from around 90% four years earlier, as the United States and Australia boosted their own mining of them. Still, as of 2018, the United States imported 80.5% of its rare earth metals from China. In May of that year, the Trump administration added these to a list of minerals deemed critical to American economic and national security. And in July 2019, it declared them "essential to the national defense," which freed up resources for the Department of Defense to take action to secure a domestic rare earth production capability.

Even if the mining of these ores increased in the U.S., refining them requires specialist technology and trained personnel as well as high upfront investment. Due to the lack of these in the U.S. so far, China continues to enjoy a near monopoly in processing the ore, with the raw material containing the prized metal mined outside China shipped to the Chinese sites. The refining process also generates large amounts of radioactive waste and pollutes the environment. As a result, developed countries usually opt for getting the refining done in emerging economies.

All in all, when you view the globe in the throes of a once-in-a-century pandemic, you find an authoritarian state, wedded to centralized planning, initiating programs with long-term benefits for its citizens and seeing them through. You also see a politically riven democratic republic operating primarily on an ad hoc basis.

The stark truth is that an American president cannot even bet on his policies, however laudable or otherwise, surviving his four-year term. Trump's succession after the Obama era illustrated this dramatically, as has that of Trump's successor, Biden. When judged purely on the basis of final results, centralized planning clearly beats short-term programming, even if it is viewed with a mixture of derision and condemnation by the Western governments that Biden is attempting to coopt to challenge China. The reality of our moment: that country is now rising on a distinctly wounded planet.

Copyright 2021 Dilip Hiro

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

The real tragedy behind the collapse of the American empire

America's defeat in Afghanistan is one in a string of catastrophic military blunders that herald the death of the American empire. With the exception of the first Gulf War, fought largely by mechanized units in the open desert that did not—wisely—attempt to occupy Iraq, the United States political and military leadership has stumbled from one military debacle to another. Korea. Vietnam. Lebanon. Afghanistan. Iraq. Syria. Libya. The trajectory of military fiascos mirrors the sad finales of the Chinese, Ottoman, Hapsburg, Russian, French, British, Dutch, Portuguese and Soviet empires. While each of these empires decayed with their own peculiarities, they all exhibited patterns of dissolution that characterize the American experiment.

Imperial ineptitude is matched by domestic ineptitude. The collapse of good government at home, with legislative, executive and judicial systems all seized by corporate power, ensures that the incompetent and the corrupt, those dedicated not to the national interest but to swelling the profits of the oligarchic elite, lead the country into a cul-de-sac. Rulers and military leaders, driven by venal self-interest, are often buffoonish characters in a grand comic operetta. How else to think of Allen Dulles, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Donald Trump or the hapless Joe Biden? While their intellectual and moral vacuity is often darkly amusing, it is murderous and savage when directed towards their victims.

The two-decade-long wars in the Middle East, the greatest strategic blunder in American history, have only left in their wake one failed state after another. Yet, no one in the ruling class is held accountable.

There is not a single case since 1941 when the coups, political assassinations, election fraud, black propaganda, blackmail, kidnapping, brutal counter-insurgency campaigns, U.S. sanctioned massacres, torture in global black sites, proxy wars or military interventions carried out by the United States resulted in the establishment of a democratic government. The two-decade-long wars in the Middle East, the greatest strategic blunder in American history, have only left in their wake one failed state after another. Yet, no one in the ruling class is held accountable.

War, when it is waged to serve utopian absurdities, such as implanting a client government in Baghdad that will flip the region, including Iran, into U.S. protectorates, or when, as in Afghanistan, there is no vision at all, descends into a quagmire. The massive allocation of money and resources to the U.S. military, which includes Biden's request for $715 billion for the Defense Department in fiscal year 2022, a $11.3 billion, or 1.6 percent increase, over 2021, is not in the end about national defense. The bloated military budget is designed, as Seymour Melman explained in his book, "The Permanent War Economy," primarily to keep the American economy from collapsing. All we really make anymore are weapons. Once this is understood, perpetual war makes sense, at least for those who profit from it.

The idea that America is a defender of democracy, liberty and human rights would come as a huge surprise to those who saw their democratically elected governments subverted and overthrown by the United States in Panama (1941), Syria (1949), Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Congo (1960), Brazil (1964), Chile (1973), Honduras (2009) and Egypt (2013). And this list does not include a host of other governments that, however despotic, as was the case in South Vietnam, Indonesia or Iraq, were viewed as inimical to American interests and destroyed, in each case making life for the inhabitants of these countries even more miserable.

I spent two decades on the outer reaches of empire as a foreign correspondent. The flowery rhetoric used to justify the subjugation of other nations so corporations can plunder natural resources and exploit cheap labor is solely for domestic consumption. The generals, intelligence operatives, diplomats, bankers and corporate executives that manage empire find this idealistic talk risible. They despise, with good reason, naïve liberals who call for "humanitarian intervention" and believe the ideals used to justify empire are real, that empire can be a force for good. These liberal interventionists, the useful idiots of imperialism, attempt to civilize a process that was created and designed to repress, intimidate, plunder and dominate.

The liberal interventionists, because they wrap themselves in high ideals, are responsible for numerous military and foreign policy debacles. The call by liberal interventionists such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Susan Rice and Samantha Power to fund jihadists in Syria and depose Muammar Gaddafi in Libya rent these countries—as in Afghanistan and Iraq—into warring fiefdoms. The liberal interventionists are also the tip of the spear in the campaign to rachet up tensions with China and Russia.

Russia is blamed for interfering in the last two presidential elections on behalf of Donald Trump. Russia, whose economy is roughly the size of Italy's, is also attacked for destabilizing the Ukraine, supporting Bashar al-Assad in Syria, funding France's National Front party and hacking into German computers. Biden has imposed sanctions on Russia—including limits on buying newly issued sovereign debt—in response to allegations that Moscow was behind a hack on SolarWinds Corp. and worked to thwart his candidacy.

At the same time, the liberal interventionists are orchestrating a new cold war with China, justifying this cold war because the Chinese government is carrying out genocide against its Uyghur minority, repressing the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and stealing U.S. patents. As with Russia, sanctions have been imposed targeting the country's ruling elite. The U.S. is also carrying out provocative military maneuvers along the Russian border and in the South China Sea.

The core belief of imperialists, whether they come in the form of a Barack Obama or a George W. Bush, is racism and ethnic chauvinism, the notion that Americans are permitted, because of superior attributes, to impose their "values" on lesser races and peoples by force. This racism, carried out in the name of Western civilization and its corollary white supremacy, unites the rabid imperialists and liberal interventionists in the Republican and Democratic parties. It is the fatal disease of empire, captured in Graham Greene's novel "The Quiet American" and Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient."

The crimes of empire always spawn counter-violence that is then used to justify harsher forms of imperial repression. For example, the United States routinely kidnapped Islamic jihadists fighting in the Balkans between 1995 and 1998. They were sent to Egypt—many were Egyptian—where they were savagely tortured and usually executed. In 1998, the International Islamic Front for Jihad said it would carry out a strike against the United States after jihadists were kidnapped and transferred to black sites from Albania. They made good on their threat igniting massive truck bombs at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that left 224 dead. Of course, the "extraordinary renditions" by the CIA did not end and neither did the attacks by jihadists.

Our decades-long military fiascos, a feature of all late empires, are called "micro-militarism." The Athenians engaged in micro-militarism during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) when they invaded Sicily, suffering the loss of 200 ships and thousands of soldiers. The defeat triggered successful revolts throughout the Athenian empire. The Roman empire, which at its height lasted for two centuries, created a military machine that, like the Pentagon, was a state within a state. Rome's military rulers, led by Augustus, snuffed out the remnants of Rome's anemic democracy and ushered in a period of despotism that saw the empire disintegrate under the weight of extravagant military expenditures and corruption. The British empire, after the suicidal military folly of World War I, was terminated in 1956 when it attacked Egypt in a dispute over the nationalization of the Suez Canal. Britain was forced to withdraw in humiliation, empowering Arab nationalist leaders such as Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser and dooming British rule over its few remaining colonies. None of these empires recovered.

"While rising empires are often judicious, even rational in their application of armed force for conquest and control of overseas dominions, fading empires are inclined to ill-considered displays of power, dreaming of bold military masterstrokes that would somehow recoup lost prestige and power," the historian Alfred W. McCoy writes in his book "In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power": "Often irrational even from an imperial point of view, these micromilitary operations can yield hemorrhaging expenditures or humiliating defeats that only accelerate the process already under way."

The worse it gets at home the more the empire needs to fabricate enemies within and without. This is the real reason for the increase in tensions with Russia and China. The poverty of half the nation and concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny oligarchic cabal, the wanton murder of unarmed civilians by militarized police, the rage at the ruling elites, expressed with nearly half the electorate voting for a con artist and demagogue and a mob of his supporters storming the capital, are the internal signs of disintegration. The inability of the for-profit national health services to cope with the pandemic, the passage of a Covid relief bill and the proposal of an infrastructure bill that would hand the bulk of some $5 trillion dollars to corporations while tossing crumbs—one-time checks of $1,400 to a citizenry in deep financial distress—will only fuel the decline.

The façade of empire is able to mask the rot within its foundations, often for decades, until, as we saw with the Soviet Union, the empire appears to suddenly disintegrate.

Because of the loss of unionized jobs, the real decline of wages, de-industrialization, chronic underemployment and unemployment, and punishing austerity programs, the country is plagued by a plethora of diseases of despair including opioid addictions, alcoholism, suicides, gambling, depression, morbid obesity and mass shootings —since March 16 the United States has had at least 45 mass shootings, including eight people killed in an Indiana FedEx facility on Friday, three dead and three injured in a shooting in Wisconsin on Sunday, and another three dead in a shooting in Austin on Sunday. These are the consequences of a deeply troubled society.

The façade of empire is able to mask the rot within its foundations, often for decades, until, as we saw with the Soviet Union, the empire appears to suddenly disintegrate. The loss of the dollar as the global reserve currency will probably mark the final chapter of the American empire. In 2015, the dollar accounted for 90 percent of bilateral transactions between China and Russia, a percentage that has since fallen to about 50 percent. The use of sanctions as a weapon against China and Russia pushes these countries to replace the dollar with their own national currencies. Russia, as part of this move away from the dollar, has begun accumulating yuan reserves.

The loss of the dollar as the world's reserve currency will instantly raise the cost of imports. It will result in unemployment of Depression-era levels. It will force the empire to dramatically contract. It will, as the economy worsens, fuel a hyper-nationalism that will most likely be expressed through a Christianized fascism. The mechanisms, already in place, for total social control, militarized police, a suspension of civil liberties, wholesale government surveillance, enhanced "terrorism" laws that railroad people into the world's largest prison system and censorship overseen by the digital media monopolies will seamlessly cement into place a police state. Nations that descend into crises these severe seek to deflect the rage of a betrayed population on foreign scapegoats. China and Russia will be used to fill these roles.

The defeat in Afghanistan is a familiar and sad story, one all those blinded by imperial hubris endure. The tragedy, however, is not the collapse of the American empire, but that, lacking the ability to engage in self-critique and self-correction, as it dies it will lash out in a blind, inchoate fury at innocents at home and abroad.

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper. He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show On Contact. His most recent book is "America: The Farewell Tour" (2019).

Biden's bait and switch in Afghanistan

On Thursday, April 15, the New York Times posted an article headed, "How the U.S. Plans to Fight From Afar After Troops Exit Afghanistan," just in case anyone misunderstood the previous day's headline, "Biden, Setting Afghanistan Withdrawal, Says 'It Is Time to End the Forever War'" as indicating the U.S. war in Afghanistan might actually come to an end on September 11, 2021, almost 20 years after it started.

We saw this bait and switch tactic before in President Biden's earlier announcement about ending U.S support for the long, miserable war in Yemen. In his first major foreign policy address, on February 4, President Biden announced "we are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen," the war waged by Saudi Arabia and its allies since 2015, the war he called "a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe." Biden declared "This war has to end."

As with last week's announcement that the U.S. war in Afghanistan would end, "clarification" came the following day. On February 5th, the Biden administration dispelled the impression that the U.S. was getting out of the business of killing Yemenis completely and the State Department issued a statement, saying "Importantly, this does not apply to offensive operations against either ISIS or AQAP." In other words, whatever happens in regard to the war waged by the Saudis, the war that the U.S. has been waging in Yemen since 2002, under the guise of the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed by congress authorizing the use of the U.S. Armed Forces against those responsible for the September 11 attacks, will continue indefinitely, despite the fact that neither ISIS nor Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula existed in 2001. These other "offensive operations" by the U.S. that will continue unabated in Yemen include drone strikes, cruise missile attacks and special forces raids.

While what President Biden actually said regarding the war in Afghanistan last week was "We will not take our eye off the terrorist threat," and "We will reorganize our counterterrorism capabilities and the substantial assets in the region to prevent re-emergence of terrorist threat to our homeland," the New York Times could not be far off as they interpreted those words to mean, "Drones, long-range bombers and spy networks will be used in an effort to prevent Afghanistan from re-emerging as a terrorist base to threaten the United States."

It appears from his statements and actions regarding the war in Yemen in February and regarding the war in Afghanistan in April, that Biden is not so much concerned with ending the "forever wars" as he is with handing these wars over to drones armed with 500 pound bombs and Hellfire missiles operated by remote control from thousands of miles away.

In 2013, when President Obama promoted drone wars claiming that "by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life" it was already known that this was not true. By far, most victims of drone attacks are civilians, few are combatants by any definition and even those targeted as suspected terrorists are victims of assassination and extrajudicial executions.

The validity of Biden's claim that U.S. "counter terrorism capabilities" such as drones and special forces can effectively "prevent re-emergence of terrorist threat to our homeland" is taken for granted by the New York Times- "Drones, long-range bombers and spy networks will be used in an effort to prevent Afghanistan from re-emerging as a terrorist base to threaten the United States."

After the Ban Killer Drones "international grassroots campaign working to ban aerial weaponized drones and military and police drone surveillance," was launched on April 9, I was asked in an interview if there is anyone in the government, military, diplomatic or intelligence communities who supports our position that drones are no deterrent to terrorism. I do not think that there is, but there are many people formerly holding those positions who agree with us. One example of many is retired General Michael Flynn, who was President Obama's top military intelligence officer before he joined the Trump administration (and was subsequently convicted and pardoned). He said in 2015, "When you drop a bomb from a drone… you are going to cause more damage than you are going to cause good," and "The more weapons we give, the more bombs we drop, that just… fuels the conflict." Internal CIA documents published by WikiLeaks document that the agency had similar doubts about its own drone program—"The potential negative effect of HVT (high value targets) operations," the report states, "include increasing the level of insurgent support […], strengthening an armed group's bonds with the population, radicalizing an insurgent group's remaining leaders, creating a vacuum into which more radical groups can enter, and escalating or de-escalating a conflict in ways that favor the insurgents."

Speaking of the effect of drone attacks in Yemen, the young Yemeni writer Ibrahim Mothana told Congress in 2013, "Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants." The drone wars the Biden administration seems hell bent on expanding clearly damage and set back security and stability in the countries being attacked and increase the danger of attacks on Americans at home and abroad.

Long ago, both George Orwell and President Eisenhower foresaw today's "forever wars" and warned of nations' industries, economies and politics becoming so dependent on the production and consumption of armaments that wars would no longer be fought with an intention of winning them but to ensure that they never end, that they are continuous. Whatever his intentions, Joe Biden's calls for peace, in Afghanistan as in Yemen, while pursuing war by drone, ring hollow.

For a politician, "war by drone" has obvious advantages to waging war by ordering "boots on the ground." "They do keep the body bag count down," writes Conn Hallinan in his essay, Day of the Drone, "but that raises an uncomfortable moral dilemma: If war doesn't produce casualties, except among the targeted, isn't it more tempting to fight them? Drone pilots in their air-conditioned trailers in southern Nevada will never go down with their aircraft, but the people on the receiving end will eventually figure out some way to strike back. As the attack on the World Trade towers and recent terrorist attacks in France demonstrate, that is not all that hard to do, and it is almost inevitable that the targets will be civilians. Bloodless war is a dangerous illusion."

The war is never the way to peace, the war always comes home. With the exception of four known "friendly fire" casualties, every one of the many thousands of drone attack victims has been a person of color and drones are becoming another military weapon passed on from war zones to urban police departments. Technical advances and proliferation of drones as a cheaper, more politically safe way for many countries to make war on their neighbors or across the globe make forever wars more intractable.

Talk of peace in Afghanistan, Yemen, the streets of the U.S., is not coherent while waging wars with drones. We must urgently demand a ban on the production, trade and use of weaponized drones and an end to military and police drone surveillance.

Brian Terrell is an Iowa-based peace activist who has spent more than six months in prison for protesting targeted assassinations at U.S. military drone bases. Contact:brian1956terrell@gmail.com

How the Saudi lobby wields power in Washington

Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S., was on the hot seat. In early March 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic swept the world, oil prices collapsed and a price war broke out between Saudi Arabia and Russia, leaving American oil and gas companies feeling the pain. As oil prices plummeted, Republican senators from oil-producing states turned their ire directly on Saudi Arabia. Forget that civil war in Yemen — what about fossil-fuel profits here at home?

To address their concerns, Ambassador Bandar Al-Saud agreed to speak with a group of them in a March 18th conference call — and found herself instantly in the firing line, as senator after senator berated her for the Kingdom's role in slashing global oil prices. "Texas is mad," Senator Ted Cruz bluntly stated. As the ambassador tried to respond, Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan retorted, "With all due respect, I don't want to hear any talking points from you until you hear from all [of us], I think there's 11 or 12 on the call."

The Saudi lobby in Washington was similarly flailing in its reaction to the anger on Capitol Hill. Hogan Lovells, one of the Kingdom's top lobbying firms in the nation's capital, was spearheading the response, emailing staffers in the offices of more than 30 members of Congress. Its message couldn't have been clearer: "Saudi Arabia has not, and will not, seek to intentionally damage U.S. shale oil producers."

However, its efforts were apparently falling on deaf ears, as some of Washington's most-lobbied policymakers remained furious at Riyadh for slashing oil prices. Even after being personally phoned four times by Hogan Lovells lobbyists between March and April, according to a Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filing made by the firm, Senator Sullivan called for the Trump administration to place tariffs on Saudi oil imports. Other Republican senators, who had previously supported billions of dollars in arms sales to the Kingdom, now threatened to upend the entire American alliance with Saudi Arabia. North Dakota Senator Kevin Cramer, for instance, warned that the Kingdom's "next steps will determine whether our strategic partnership is salvageable."

That spring oil dispute was far from the first setback the Saudi lobby had faced in Washington in recent years. From the disastrous Saudi war in Yemen to the brutal murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, Congress had ample reason to turn its back on that country. Perhaps not so surprisingly, then, in a series of bipartisan bills that passed the House and the Senate, Congress sought to end America's military involvement in the Saudi-led coalition's brutal war in Yemen and halt arms sales to the Kingdom. Fortunately for the Saudi lobby, it had President Donald Trump, long wooed by the Kingdom's royals in the most personal of ways, as a safety net to veto those bills and protect them from punishment for their many misdeeds.

Yet, in 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged America, it became increasingly clear that Trump's reelection prospects were dimming and, with them, that guarantee of eternal protection.

And so, the question arose: What was an authoritarian government with oodles of lobbying money but dwindling influence in Washington to do as the prospect of a Joe Biden presidency and a Democratic Congress rose? The answer, it turned out, was to move its influence operation from the Beltway to the heartland.

The Saudis Shift to the States

Since becoming ambassador in February 2019, Princess Bandar Al-Saud found herself spending ever more time with people outside the Beltway, particularly in states that were reputed to have deep ties to Saudi Arabia. From Maine to Iowa to Alaska, the Saudi ambassador began a campaign of courting Main Street America.

In July 2020, she spoke at a virtual event hosted by the Greater Des Moines Partnership, the Des Moines International Trade Council, and the Iowa Economic Development Authority. In attendance were many prominent local business leaders like Craig Hill of the Iowa Farm Bureau and Jay Byers, CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. The event also included some modest star-power, featuring a speech by Hall Delano Roosevelt, the grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the CEO of the U.S.-Saudi Business Council. (He would soon after publish an op-ed in a Maine newspaper urging local lobstermen to build ties with the Kingdom.)

Not surprisingly, the main focus of Ambassador Bandar Al-Saud's speech was "the importance of the 75-year relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States." She also highlighted major changes she claimed were underway in Saudi Arabia, thanks to that country's "Vision 2030," a plan sponsored by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, also known as MBS, the son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and the power behind the throne there. At least in theory, Vision 2030 was aimed at modernizing and diversifying Saudi Arabia's oil-based economy.

Such presentations by the ambassador would soon become a pattern. She would, for instance, make a similar argument later in 2020 to Iowa's Siouxland Chamber of Commerce's Women Mentoring and Networking Committee.

And it wasn't just Iowa. She began giving similar speeches across the country. In July, she spoke at a virtual event hosted by the Maine World Affairs Council. It would be attended by more than 70 members of the Maine business community and former Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud. In early October, again virtually, she addressed the Wyoming Global Technology Summit and more than 80 business and political leaders. They included Governor Mark Gordon (whom she even gifted with two pieces of art) and Cynthia Lummis, who, the next month, would be elected to the Senate. Later in October, the princess would speak to more than 50 local business leaders at the Alaska World Affairs Council.

Ambassador Bandar Al-Saud's road show would only sweep on, right past the election and inauguration of President Joe Biden. In late January, she would be at the World Affairs Council in Dallas/Fort Worth and, in March, the Houston World Affairs Council. As always, attending would be business leaders from the area, including (you won't be surprised to learn) prominent oil executives. Whatever local issues she might focus on in such talks, the ambassador always kept the main focus on the splendors of MBS's Vision 2030 plan and just how important it was to strengthen the decades-long relationship between the two countries.

Oh yes, and each of these events had one other thing in common: they were all organized and promoted by Saudi Arabia's registered foreign agents.

Despite appearances, such events weren't the product of meticulous planning by Saudi diplomats or Ambassador Bandar Al-Saud herself. Instead, the Saudis have done what many foreign governments do here to make their message heard. They hired lobbyists and public relations firms. In this case, one firm has largely been responsible for the way the Saudis have gotten the word out so far beyond the Beltway: the Larson Shannahan Slifka Group.

Also known as LS2, Larson Shannahan Slifka describes itself as a "bipartisan public relations, government affairs, public affairs, and marketing firm headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa." It boasts an impressive collection of clients, including Walmart and the Ford Motor Company. Absent from its website, however, is any hint of the extraordinary amount of work it's done to boost the Saudis nationally since signing a contract with the Kingdom in November 2019 worth $126,500 a month. In its FARA filings, that firm has reported conducting more than 1,600 political activities on behalf of the Saudis — more, that is, than all the other firms working for the Saudis combined in 2020, according to a soon-to-be-released report on the Saudi lobby from the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, where we work.

Add in one more factor: unlike other firms that lobby for Saudi Arabia, LS2's work has taken place almost exclusively outside of Washington, D.C. They've reached a remarkably sweeping set of state and local influencers on behalf of the Saudi royals, including small businesses, local politicians, nonprofit companies, small-town media outlets, synagogues, and even high-school students.

And whether any of those Americans realized it or not, they were being swept up in a campaign to give the Saudis local clout nationally and so pave the way for a Saudi public relations rehabilitation campaign in Washington, D.C., itself.

Creating American Grassroots for a Gulf Monarchy

There's a fairly simple pattern to the way the Saudi lobby has been wooing the states to woo Washington. First, Larson Shannahan Slifka launches a local campaign, including hundreds of calls and emails to state legislators, chambers of commerce, university professors, small businesses, and just about anything or anyone you can imagine in between. Some of those ties, in turn, create opportunities for influential media moments such as, for example, when Saudi embassy spokesman Fahad Nazer — a former FARA-registered Saudi agent — conducted interviews with South Dakota Public Radio last October and Michigan's Big Show this February.

Other lobbying activities have led to crucial Saudi outreach events, filling the seats (or Zoom invites) at think-tank discussions, business forums, or even interfaith dialogues. For example, when Ambassador Bandar Al-Saud delivered a keynote "fireside chat" at the annual Wyoming Global Technology Summit, John Temte, who leads the business network that hosts the forum, introduced the princess and moderated the question-and-answer discussion, a role likely arranged in the course of LS2's six calls and emails to him over the preceding two weeks. Five days later, addressing the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce's Women Mentoring and Networking Committee, the ambassador was introduced by Linda Kalin, the director of the Iowa Poison Control center, and another frequent LS2 contact. In this way, the firm effectively continues to turn local entrepreneurs and public-health officials into community ambassadors for the Kingdom.

And understand this as well: such events aren't just a way for Saudi bureaucrats to meet local business leaders. They also provide the perfect opportunity for Saudi-backed lobbyists to begin rebuilding ties in Washington hurt by those falling oil prices, the devastating civil war in Yemen, and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Consider this the second part of the Kingdom's faux-grassroots campaign and, for this, one of the Saudis' key lobbying groups in Washington, Hogan Lovells, took over.

Its relationship with Saudi Arabia can be traced back at least to 1976 when the firm's predecessor, Hogan and Hartson, first signed a contract with the Kingdom. Now, in addition to spinning a Saudi narrative about the disastrous war in Yemen, that firm has been working to convert LS2's state and local efforts into political capital in Congress. Armed with glowing one-page summaries of such dialogues from Maine to Alaska, the firm has been promoting a vision of grassroots American support for the U.S.-Saudi relationship inside the Beltway. The event descriptions it sends around highlight many of the same people that Larson Shannahan Slifka had first contacted.

Its emails are tailored to each Congressional office it contacts, mentioning issues and local stakeholders relevant to the intended senators and House members. For example, an email to the staff of Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine touted Bandar Al-Saud's July forum at that state's World Affairs Council, described the ambassador's interest in a Saudi contemporary art exhibit displayed by local Bates College, and noted that former Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud attended the event. This February, after Bandar Al-Saud addressed the World Affairs Council of Greater Houston, Hogan Lovells emailed Republican Senator John Cornyn's office to underscore her remarks on U.S.-Saudi cooperation on energy, technology, and space exploration in his home state.

While describing audiences in such local forums as responding with "overwhelmingly positive feedback" to the Kingdom's messaging, one key fact is always omitted: that the events themselves were orchestrated by the Saudi lobby. Reading the glossy accounts of them, members of Congress and their staff normally have no idea that the meetings — and not just the press releases they're receiving — were products of that very lobby. In other words, by omitting such details, the Saudi lobby has effectively launched an astroturfing campaign to influence Congress when it comes to future relations with the Kingdom.

The Consequences

Of course, there's nothing new about such lobbyists hired by foreign countries touting trade with the U.S. or anything necessarily unethical about promoting such ties. However, even as the Saudi lobby has eagerly peddled a rose-tinted story of the Kingdom's increasingly diversified economy, expanding women's rights, and exciting tourism opportunities (despite the pandemic moment), policymakers and the media that cover them should remember that such a narrative is, at the very least (and to put the matter as politely as possible), incomplete.

While, in the context of Prince Salman's Vision 2030 plan, selling future economic opportunities to Iowa farmers, South Dakota manufacturers, and Maine lobstermen, LS2, Hogan Lovells, and other such firms ignore the most crucial aspects of the U.S-Saudi relationship in the present moment: the staggering levels of U.S. arms sales to the Kingdom, the devastating war in Yemen that Prince Salman and crew continue to fight, the targeting of Saudi dissidents and women's rights groups, and MBS's complicity in the brutal murder of Khashoggi (as laid out recently in an intelligence report released by the Biden administration). These are real-world consequences of a partnership that has often escaped serious scrutiny, shielded by past presidents of both parties more concerned with protecting access to cheap oil and combating their definition of terrorism.

By enlisting trusted community members across the U.S. to help peddle the best possible version of the Kingdom, the Saudi lobby has given its brand a homegrown, American-as-apple-pie shine. At a moment when the Biden administration and Congress are weighing the future of the U.S.-Saudi partnership, the value of such an image shouldn't be underestimated. As lawmakers look more skeptically at claims that American and Saudi security interests are still aligned, the Saudi lobby promises shared future profits in factsheets and emails that hail the historic trade ties between Michigan and Saudi Arabia or characterize the Kingdom as "South Dakota's fastest growing export partner."

In reality, however, even if a promised future economic boom between the two countries were to materialize, it would hardly ameliorate the Kingdom's many negatives, from the catastrophic famine it continues to stoke in Yemen to its blatant human rights violations. Members of Congress and local public servants alike should beware. What may seem like a spreading grassroots show of support for the Kingdom could, in fact, be just another mirage in the desert.

Copyright 2021 Brian Steiner, Leila Riazi, and Ben Freeman

Ben Freeman is the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy (CIP) and author of a report on the Saudi lobby that will be released in early May 2021.

Brian Steiner is a researcher with the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative (FITI) at the Center for International Policy.

Leila Riazi is a researcher with the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative (FITI) at the Center for International Policy.

Biden and Trump actually agree on a policy — and Lindsey Graham can't stand it

More often than not, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is likely to agree with former President Donald Trump rather than President Joe Biden. But this week, Graham vehemently disagreed with Trump for saying some nice things about Biden's decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by September 11 — which will be the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Trump planned to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1 if he was reelected, and in an official statement, the former president criticized Biden for withdrawing four months later than he would have.

"We can and we should get out earlier," Trump said in his statement. "Nineteen years is enough. In fact, far too much and way too long."

Nonetheless, he shared Biden's basic aim. Trump wrote, "Getting out of Afghanistan is a wonderful and positive thing to do."

Graham, in an official statement of his own, slammed Trump on Monday for agreeing with Biden.

"I could not disagree more with former President Trump regarding his support for President Biden's withdrawal of all forces from Afghanistan against sound military advice," the South Carolina senator wrote. "With all due respect to President Trump, there is nothing 'wonderful' or 'positive' about allowing safe havens and sanctuary for terrorists to reemerge in Afghanistan or see Afghanistan be drawn back into another civil war."

Graham went on to say, "The intelligence regarding withdrawal is ominous for U.S. interests, and no one believes the Taliban can be trusted to police al-Qaeda and ISIS as envisioned by the Trump-Biden plan. We will see if 'General' Biden and General Trump's withdrawal strategy turns out to be sound national security policy."

Unfortunately for Graham, of the three men, all have run for president. And only Biden and Trump were elected to be commander-in-chief of the U.S. military — while the senator from South Carolina never came close.

How the right wing invented a fictional 'migration crisis' — and tricked us into believing it

Most people seem to have accepted the truth about the so-called war on drugs. By that, I mean it was never about drugs. Its true target was non-white people, especially Black people. Its goal was social control. Slavery gave way to Jim Crow, which gave way to the mass incarceration of "undesirables." Illegal drugs were merely a pretext. These days, states are legalizing drugs. Some are even releasing people convicted of drug crimes. In all, we seem to be experiencing a new age of drug enlightenment.

I hope it does not take most people as long with "border security." Like the "war on drugs," it's not about security. It's about social control. It's about having a legal reason to put non-white people in jail, kicking them out or just acting barbarously toward them. Drugs did not threaten the national interest until the government said they did. Same with the southern border. People used to pass freely, wherever the seasonal work took them. It did not threaten the national interest until the government said it did.

If it isn't already, please permit me to make it clear. When the Republicans talk about "illegal immigrants," they're not talking about illegal action. They're giving voice to their real objectives. They want to punish immigrants for who they are. They can't outlaw them outright, of course. The Congress, the law, the courts and popular opinion would prevent that from happening. But they can expand the scope of political conflict so that legal behavior seems illegal, thus forcing the government to respond. The result is billions spent every year on securing a border that will never be secure. The result is billions wasted annually on punching down on the poor, the weak and the brown.

For instance, "unlawful entry." That's the offense of crossing the border without proper authorization. It's a misdemeanor. (I'm serious.) So is overstaying your work or student visa. These are crimes, to be sure, but hardly serious crimes. They don't rise to the level of a felony. They are not deserving of being ripped from one's family or community—presuming the point of the law is justice. It isn't for the Republicans. The point is dominance. So for a decade and more, they have expanded the meaning of a minor criminal offense so that it looks like a dangerous way-of-life threatening crime.

The same thing is being done to "refugees." Fact: Anyone traveling to the southern border to request political asylum is a temporary legal immigrant. Full stop. That's the law. Indeed, the statute requires US Customs and Border Protection to open a process by which the agency tries reconnecting refugees with family in the US. But what began with the Trump administration is being continued by the GOP. Anyone traveling to the southern border is being called "illegal," even if they're children. Another fact: Every one of those 22,000 migrant children in government custody is here legally.

The same thing is happening with respect to the "open border." Fact: There is no such thing. It is a complete fiction. The border is tightly regulated. The Democrats in the Congress are not trying to open it. The Biden administration wants nothing to do with the idea. What it does, however, is follow laws entitling asylum-seekers to a legal process. But because the Republicans have defined refugees as "illegal," that gives the impression the administration, which is following the law, is opening the border.

If 22,000 children are refugees, if they're entitled to ask for asylum and if the government is required by law to try connecting eligible refugees to family if possible, why is everyone talking about a "migration crisis"? Great question! There is currently no such thing as a migration crisis. Yet our national discourse is dominated by this fiction.

Partly, it's because the press corps is laundering right-wing talking points in order to get a reaction out of a Democratic administration. Partly, it's out of genuine concern about "social cohesion."1 But mostly, it's because the Republicans have expanded the scope of conflict by way of nonstop lying. It has made legal action seem illegal. Which brings us back to "border security." It's not about security. It's now about forcing a Democratic administration into acting in ways preferred by the Republican Party.

It nearly worked. The White House said last week it would cap the number of refugees allowed into the country at the same level established by the previous administration, at 15,000. This is almost certainly the result of the Republicans making it seem like the Biden administration was opening the border even as it was merely following the law. Fortunately, there was an enormous reaction from not just liberals but moderates like Dianne Feinstein. By Friday, the White House reversed course and did so in a hurry.

This seems to be the first step in a process that might bring "border security" to a similar level of awareness that the war on drugs has achieved. That first step is refusing to give liars the benefit of the doubt. Drugs were never a threat to the national interest. Immigrants will never be either. What is a national threat, however, is the harmful Republican pursuit of "border security" that just makes everyone less free.

Warren and Smith reintroduce 'critical' bill to block US from starting nuclear war

Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Adam Smith on Thursday reintroduced legislation to establish that "it is the policy of the United States to not use nuclear weapons first."

"Threatening to use nuclear weapons first makes America less safe because it increases the chances of a miscalculation or an accident," said Warren (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a statement. "There are no winners in a nuclear war, and the U.S. should never start one."

Smith (D-Wash.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, concurred, saying that "the United States should never initiate a nuclear war."

"This bill would strengthen deterrence while reducing the chance of nuclear use due to miscalculation or misunderstanding," he explained. "Codifying that deterring nuclear use is the sole purpose of our nuclear arsenal strengthens U.S. national security and would renew U.S. leadership on nuclear nonproliferation and disbarment."

In addition to Warren and Smith, the bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

Warren and Smith's ongoing push for the No First Use Act was welcomed by arms experts and advocates for the elimination of nuclear weapons, some of whom pointed out that President Joe Biden has previously expressed support for such a policy.

Stephen Young, senior Washington representative and acting co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), highlighted Biden's remarks when he served as vice president under former President Barack Obama.

Biden said in a January 2017 speech that "given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today's threats, it's hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary or would make sense in the view of the president and me."

Young said Thursday that "indeed, initiating a nuclear strike would be an enormous strategic and humanitarian disaster, most likely leading to a counterattack against the United States. The resulting mass death and destruction is why a U.S. president should never choose or be allowed to start a nuclear war."

"The legislation introduced today by Sen. Warren and Rep. Smith is strikingly short and simple," Young noted. "In 14 words, it commits the United States to never launching nuclear weapons first. These lawmakers deserve huge thanks for continuing to push for this sensible policy change."

"A no first use policy will reduce the likelihood of nuclear war in two ways," he continued. "First, no president will be able to start a nuclear war based on faulty information, like the false warnings of incoming nuclear attacks that have happened too many times in the past. Also, adversaries will be less pressured to use their nuclear weapons first during a crisis if they are confident that the United States won't attack them first and wipe out their nuclear arsenals."

Young urged Congress to urgently pass and Biden to sign the bill—a call echoed by Derek Johnson, chief executive officer of Global Zero, an international movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Johnson endorsed the "common-sense" bill "in the strongest possible terms" and called its reintroduction "an important step to enhance American and global security by helping ensure nuclear weapons are never used again."

"It is long past time for the United States to adopt a realistic policy that forgoes the possible first use of nuclear weapons," he said. "The risks that nuclear weapons will be used are unacceptably and unnecessarily high. The major risk of nuclear use today comes from the danger that a small or accidental clash or conflict will escalate quickly through confusion or fear and cross the nuclear threshold. America's decadeslong policy of threatening its own possible first use of nuclear weapons only adds to this danger."

Johnson continued:

Codifying no first use into law is the most important and immediate step the U.S. can take to lower the risk of nuclear conflict, strengthen global stability, and create new opportunities to pursue reductions in these dangerous and expensive arsenals.
There is no plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States makes sense. Threatening to do so only makes it easier for others to do the same, adding to the pressure on all to escalate quickly. Any use of nuclear weapons would be horrific and catastrophic, and we must take decisive action to make this scenario less likely in parallel with our long-term efforts to eradicate them.

He also cited Biden's 2017 speech, when the then-vice president expressed confidence that the U.S. can defend itself and its allies through non-nuclear means.

According to Johnson, "It is high time to act on that confidence, and for leaders in the U.S. and all nuclear-armed states to accept that true security cannot be built on threats of mass destruction."

There's only one way to exit the forever war honorably

The courage of President Biden's decision to bring our troops home from Afghanistan should not be underestimated. But neither should that withdrawal be mistaken for the end of the "forever war" that the United States and its NATO allies have endured there for so long. We will leave, but the Afghans aren't going anywhere -- and our responsibility for what happens there won't disappear either.

Biden surely knows there will be bad prospects for the government in Kabul when our troops go, even though we will continue to finance its army and air force. Most Americans, who devote little attention to what happens in Afghanistan, probably don't know how limited the reach of that regime is today (which is why our veterans sometimes call it #Forgotistan). After two decades, $2 trillion and the loss of more than 2,000 of our troops, it scarcely rules over more than the capital itself. The Taliban and other hostile forces control the rest.

That obviously doesn't bode too well for the future, and as Biden also knows, his Republican critics will blame him should the Kabul regime fall. They will conveniently forget that his predecessor not only insisted on an Afghan withdrawal but also set a departure date too abrupt to be met.

No doubt Donald Trump will join that chorus, turning around and shamelessly attacking Biden for "abandoning" Afghanistan, because that's what he does. So will figures like Sen. Lindsey Graham, a military strategist whose insights lured us into Iraq, a far worse disaster than Afghanistan. Graham now predicts that pulling out will result in terror attacks -- but the biggest threat to America is from white supremacists within our own borders, a menace he denies. We don't have to occupy another nation to fight extremist enemies here or abroad.

Biden's critics will also forget the most salient fact about the Afghan war, which is how it began. I will confess to supporting the initial invasion following the 9/11 attacks, because I regarded the destruction of al-Qaida and the punishment of the Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden as essential to American and world security. Like many others who endorsed the war in its earliest stages, I have long believed that the administration of former President George W. Bush -- obsessed with overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq -- ensured failure at the start.

Yet honesty compels me to say that those few who opposed the U.S. action back then may have been right all along. After such a long and costly misadventure, it isn't certain that what once seemed imperative was ever prudent, or just. What could have been done and what should have been done are no longer relevant -- except to the Afghan people, who have suffered gravely without any end in sight. More than 150,000 of them have died in the war, with almost a third of the dead civilians.

Those Afghans were innocent of the terrorist violence that struck our cities on Sept. 11, 2001, and that level of death and destruction seems like a high price compared with what happened on 9/11, a day I remember too well. While most of the Afghan dead were killed by the Taliban, that doesn't absolve our responsibility. We also owe a deep and permanent debt to the veterans who served -- the great majority of whom want us to bring their brothers and sisters home.

Discharging that debt will oblige us to rescue as many Afghans as we can from the vengeance of the Taliban, especially but not only those who served alongside our troops. For years now, Taliban assassins have murdered Afghan interpreters and others who assisted allied forces. They ought to have gained asylum here, but the Islamophobic prejudices of the Trump administration put obstacles in their way.

Now that must end. The United States should grant "immediate refugee status to all Afghan nationals that have helped us in the last 20 years," says Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat. "We can't let them be targets." Gallego, a Marine veteran of Iraq, is painfully aware of how Iraqis who worked with U.S. troops there were later hunted down by Islamic State group killers. He is right to demand that we start protecting the Afghans left behind.

We can hope that Afghanistan fares better than expected, but hope won't save any lives. Already the Taliban, which has not improved with age, is assassinating those who might dissent from its medieval ideology. If and when its mullahs regain state power, they may well kill many thousands more -- unless we welcome them to this country.

There is no other honorable exit from the forever war.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2021 CREATORS.COM

Doctors Without Borders is horrified by the 'humanitarian catastrophe' of Brazil's Covid-19 response

Doctors Without Borders on Thursday denounced what it called the Brazilian government's "failed Covid-19 response," warning of a "humanitarian catastrophe" anf t in the South American nation whose pandemic death toll is second only to the United States and calling for a "science-based reset."

"After accounting for over a quarter of global Covid-19 deaths last week, Brazil does not have an effective plan in place to deal with the pandemic," the international medical charity, known by its French acronym, MSF, charged in a blog post.

"The pandemic in the country has become politicized, and the government has not adopted science-based measures to try to bring it under control," the group said, referring to the administration of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro—who has dismissed Covid-19 as a "little flu" while refusing to follow or promote mask-wearing, quarantines, and social distancing despite having contracted the virus last year. Bolsonaro has also encouraged large gatherings and disparaged vaccines.

"The lack of political will to adequately respond to the pandemic is killing Brazilians in their thousands," said MSF. "Last week, Brazilians accounted for 11% of the world's Covid-19 infections and 26.2% global Covid-19 deaths. On 8 April, 4,249 deaths from Covid-19 were recorded in a single 24-hour period, alongside 86,652 new Covid-19 infections."

According to Johns Hopkins University's global coronavirus tracker, nearly 362,000 people have died of Covid-19 in Brazil, trailing only the United States and its more than 565,000 deaths.

"Last week, intensive care units were full in 21 out of 27 of Brazil's capitals," said MSF. "In hospitals across the country there are ongoing shortages of both oxygen, needed to treat patients who are severely and critically ill, as well as sedatives, needed to intubate critically ill patients. As a result, our teams have seen patients, who may have otherwise had a chance at survival, being left without appropriate medical care."

Pierre Van Heddegem, emergency coordinator for MSF's Covid-19 response in Brazil, said that "not only are patients dying without access to healthcare, but medical staff are exhausted and suffering from severe psychological and emotional trauma due to their working conditions."

MSF international president Dr. Christos Christou said that "public health measures have become a political battlefield in Brazil. As a result, science-based policies are associated with political opinions, rather than the need to protect individuals and their communities from Covid-19."

"The Brazilian authorities have overseen the unmitigated spread of Covid-19," Christou continued. "Their refusal to adapt evidence-based public health measures has sent too many to an early grave. The response in Brazil needs an urgent, science-based reset."

Driving home his point once again during a Thursday press conference, Christou added: "I have to be very clear in this: the Brazilian authorities' negligence is costing lives."

A ‘direct link' from the Trump campaign to the Russians — and it may have been covered up: Mueller prosecutor

It's official, the U.S. government has the information necessary to prove that President Donald Trump's campaign was coordinating with the Russian government during the 2016 campaign. It has taken five years, but former lead prosecutor for special counsel Robert Muller explained why the evidence is clear.

Speaking to MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace on Thursday, Andrew Weissmann explained that up until the recent findings, there was only the information that Paul Manafort's deputy Rick Gates gave to prosecutors. Russian political consultant Konstantin Kilimnik was given internal polling information from the Trump campaign that he handed to Russian intelligence.

"But the big unknown and our report says, we did not know what Konstantin Kilimnik did with that data," Weissmann explained. "And the defense was also saying, 'well, this was just being used in Ukraine. It was for business purposes. That never made a lot of sense to us, but we didn't have evidence. And today, what is new, Nicolle, is that the Treasury Department, certainly with the approval of the DNI, that is the highest intelligence office in the government, has said that Konstantin Kilimnik gave that material, which he repeatedly got during the 2016 campaign to Russian intelligence. So, you now have a direct link of something that went internal sensitive data that went from the Trump campaign through Paul Manafort to Konstantin Kilimnik to the Russians."

Wallace asked what information the U.S. Treasury Department had before now that prevented them from being able to officially make the declaration.

"Well, the one thing that it's clear, as you've reported, Nicolle, we did not have the piece that is what Kilimnik did with the polling data that we now know from the release today actually went, as Clint said, directly to Russian intelligence," Weissmann explained. "The interesting question that I don't know the answer to is was that information known to the intelligence community at the time of the Mueller investigation. You know, my sort of educated speculation on that would be it seems like it would have to have been known because the Biden administration has only been operational for -- I'm in New York, so I'll say a New York minute. So, it seems unlikely that they really went ahead with that deep investigation and got the information that quickly."

Without saying so, Weissmann seems to imply that these facts were known while the Trump administration was in control and not acted upon and hidden from the American people.

"So, the question is, why didn't it get to the special counsel investigation?" Weissman asked. "And you know, I spearheaded the Manafort, part of that investigation. I can tell you it certainly would have been of great interest, and we tried to turn over every rock that we could to turn up this link."

He went on to compare the new information to Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal as Republicans sought to figure out what the Democrats were doing so they could win the election.

"A good analogy of this is Watergate," Weissmann went on. "You know, in Watergate, you had the Republicans breaking into the Democratic Party because you want to know what your opponent is doing. Well, now we have the complete link of we have Russia knowing exactly what the Trump campaign polling information was and what they were seeing as strengths and weaknesses of their own and of Hillary Clinton. So, they could use that to, as Clint said, target what they were doing in both the 'hack and dump' and also the influence campaign in terms of what states were vulnerable or not. One final piece is it's important to note, that this is in the Mueller report, which is that Paul Manafort was conveying to Kilimnik what they were seeing in terms of, which states were swing states, including places like Wisconsin. And that's something that was not generally well-known. And so now we know that Kilimnik was relaying all of that information back to the GRU in Russia."

See the videos below:

Part 1:

Connection officially made between Russia and Trump campaign coordination www.youtube.com

Part 2:

Mueller prosecutor on new intelligence proving Trump and Russia link www.youtube.com

The military's failing war against Covid-19

Herd immunity? Don't count on it. Not if that "herd" is the U.S. military.

According to news reports, at least a third of active-duty military personnel or those in the National Guard have opted out of getting the coronavirus vaccine. That figure, by the way, doesn't even include American troops stationed around the world, many of whom have yet to be offered the chance to be vaccinated. As a Navy spouse whose husband has moved to five separate U.S. duty stations in the decade we've been together, one thing is hard for me to imagine: an administration pledging to do everything it can to beat this pandemic has stopped short of using its executive powers to ensure that our 2.3 million armed forces members are all vaccinated.

From the point of view of those in the military refusing the vaccine, there's a simple reality (or perhaps I mean surreality) to this situation. There's so much disinformation about Covid-19 and the vaccination programs meant to deal with it floating around, particularly in the world of social media, that no one should be surprised that a third of the military here has flatly refused the shots. Even public efforts of the armed forces to dispel myths about the vaccine have not made a dent in these figures. For example, the decision of Army commanders at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to develop a local podcast on the subject and create what they call "vaccine ambassadors" in their own ranks have still left them facing an uphill battle. (Vaccine acceptance at that base was, as of February, below 50%.)

And note as well that vaccination rates are lowest among young soldiers. Sadly enough, in the midst of this country's incipient fourth wave of the disease, it's younger people who are increasingly catching it. Keep in mind that the military is disproportionately made up of evangelical Christians, a population among whom vaccine skepticism and resistance are already rampant. And take my word for it, much of the toxic rhetoric floating around American social media on such subjects is already seeping into the military's command culture as well.

In the communities where my husband and I have worked since the pandemic hit these shores, for example, I've met one commander who believes that God, not a vaccine, will decide whether he lives or dies. Another young officer I ran into believes that the risk of side effects from such vaccines outweighs any risk from the virus itself. Such attitudes are also sweeping into the larger military community, which is why a military spouse and mother assured me that our immune system is capable of beating the virus, no vaccine needed.

Reactions like theirs suggest how hard it will be, not just in the military, but in the country at large, to achieve "herd immunity." Sadly, despite the quarantining of those who test positive for the coronavirus, there has been far less action within the military (as in American society at large) to contain those who could become vectors for the disease than would be desirable, though it's long been known that asymptomatic spread is a significant contributor to the pandemic.

What stuns me as a military spouse is how little the Pentagon — a distinctly top-down organization that operates by command, not wish — is doing about the problem of troops opting out of being vaccinated. Why isn't Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin more forcefully denouncing those within the military community who discourage vaccination and don't get vaccinated themselves? What better use of his public position than to protect the lives of those troops being offered the vaccine, as well as those military personnel and their families who, as yet, have no access to such shots, and civilians still vulnerable to the virus in military communities around the world? Why isn't every commander photographing himself or herself getting a needle in the arm?

It's true that the military can't order troops to be vaccinated (as with many other vaccines) because the Federal Drug Administration has not yet officially "approved" any of the Covid-19 vaccines except under an "emergency-use authorization." And despite calls to do so by some Democratic lawmakers, President Biden has not made such shots mandatory for all military members and seems reluctant to do so in the future.

However, as Nation journalist Andrew McCormick has explained, there are many things the military could still do (but isn't doing) until such a moment arrives. These include offering paid time off, financial bonuses, and upgrades in military healthcare plans as incentives to those willing to get vaccinated. So far, there's no evidence that the Pentagon (which I reached out to on the subject without response) is willing to move in such a direction. Sadly, it seems that the health of our military, their families, and the communities they live and serve in just isn't the foremost concern of either the high command or an administration that in other areas has been impressive in its response to the pandemic.

Vaccine Passports? Not in This Military

Under such circumstances, the U.S. military, whose members have already sustained hundreds of thousands of cases of Covid-19, poses an ongoing threat not just to its own communities or Americans more generally, but to the world. It could lend a hand elsewhere in spreading a deadly virus that has to date killed more than 560,000 Americans and 2.9 million other people around the world.

Lack of testing and contact tracing make it impossible to tell just how big a role the military already plays in spreading the virus, but hundreds of thousands of service members and those associated with them, including family members and contractors, have gotten it. By one count, despite the youth and health of the military, about 0.9% of total recorded U.S. coronavirus cases to date are among its members, its contractors, or its dependent family members — a military community that comprises roughly .7% of the population. That means it's definitely pulling its weight when it comes to contributing to recorded cases around the country.

Such cases and deaths among the troops (and those associated with them) have been due in no small part to the Department of Defense's negligence in keeping its own personnel safe from the virus. For that, you can blame, at least in part, sloppy, piecemeal safety protocols and the continued circulation of troops from one station to another around the country and the world. It's not even clear whether the 3,000 military personnel assigned to vaccinate American civilians at hundreds of sites globally have themselves received the vaccine.

Consider it an irony, then, that the military's insistence on training its troops to fill a variety of roles — in other words, on rotating them through various garrisons and jobs during their careers — is meant to prepare them for a situation in which national security threats might not allow that sort of circulation to continue. With more than half a million Americans already dead from an easy-to-spread disease (more than the dead from both world wars, Vietnam, and the 9/11 attacks combined), what better moment than this to make sure that the troops stay put for a while? Why not order that each member of the armed forces assigned to rotate among duty stations have a vaccine passport? But no such luck. Not in this military. Not now.

And that's not all. In many cases, there is no vaccine available even for service members stationed at bases overseas who actually want to be vaccinated. For example, at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where nearly 60,000 troops and their families are currently stationed, only key personnel like medical workers and food staff have received vaccinations so far. In some cases, even where first doses have been administered, second doses are simply not available. Only about 20% of the U.S. forces stationed in South Korea, a country known for its successful management of the virus, had been vaccinated by mid-March.

At a time when the United States has achieved an average rate of three million inoculations daily and more than a third of U.S. adults have already received at least one shot, lack of military access should be (but isn't) considered shameful.

And keep in mind that the dangers of a significantly unvaccinated military are high. Given their jobs and the proximity of their homes to U.S. military installations, a striking number of people have little choice but to come in contact with American military personnel. I'm thinking now of the hundreds of millions of civilians living in the many countries where the United States military now operates, often from significant-sized military bases. When it comes to the dangers of Covid-19 spreading, add in Americans living in close proximity to the 440 military bases in this country.

In nations where the virus remains uncontained, unvaccinated American troops are both threatened and threatening. Afghanistan and Iraq, where the United States has been at war for the better part of two decades, are no exceptions. As elsewhere, it's unclear how many of the approximately 6,000 U.S. troops (and thousands of American contractors attached to that military) still stationed in those countries are vaccinated.

My Life in Pandemic America

Now, let me turn to my own family. My husband is a naval officer and we're privileged. We have three graduate degrees between us and dual incomes. I can do most of my job as a clinical social worker serving people from the armed forces and war-afflicted countries at home. My husband recently transferred from a remarkably pandemic-exposed Pentagon to a civilian agency post where he can also largely work from home (except — sigh — when someone from the Pentagon must be greeted in person). We've been lucky to be able to juggle the work and childcare demands of this pandemic period largely from the safety of our rural home. We're both vaccinated as well.

And yet, we're worried. For his job, my husband has had to calculate the risk to life of countless real and potential military catastrophes. He's also focused professionally on damage control when war-traumatized troops drive drunk, beat their wives, or abuse their children. He carries with him memories and fears of violence, most of it from within the armed forces. Given the unnecessary threats to life and limb he's witnessed through his work, he's vigilant about our family not being exposed any more than necessary to the threat of Covid-19.

All of this means that we've remained relatively isolated in our new home. In this pandemic year-plus, we haven't attended events in the community, eaten in restaurants, gone to friends' houses for dinner, or traveled at all. And yes, we're lucky because we're so untypical of most of our military. With so much at stake, its leadership needs to focus on containing the virus within its ranks in a way it simply hasn't, particularly with more contagious variants of the disease spreading rapidly.

I wish that President Biden would listen to the small group of lawmakers currently pressing his administration for greater safety within the military and for him to use his executive powers to mandate vaccinations among the troops. I wish he would devote as much effort and time to ensuring that military bases carried out their vaccination efforts in a competent and accountable manner, as his administration has in so many civilian locales throughout this country.

Imagine what it would mean for troops and families to pose no more than a negligible risk when it comes to the transmission of this virus. At least that would allow us to check off one major risk to health and life on the list of our mounting human rights abuses as a country and to go back to the long project of reckoning with the costs of endless armed conflict around the world.

Copyright 2021 Andrea Mazzarino

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Andrea Mazzarino, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded Brown University's Costs of War Project. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at a Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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