Artificial intelligence is hurtling us toward humanity's inflection point — and we're not ready

My wife and I were recently driving in Virginia, amazed yet again that the GPS technology on our phones could guide us through a thicket of highways, around road accidents, and toward our precise destination. The artificial intelligence (AI) behind the soothing voice telling us where to turn has replaced passenger-seat navigators, maps, even traffic updates on the radio. How on earth did we survive before this technology arrived in our lives? We survived, of course, but were quite literally lost some of the time.

My reverie was interrupted by a toll booth. It was empty, as were all the other booths at this particular toll plaza. Most cars zipped through with E-Z passes, as one automated device seamlessly communicated with another. Unfortunately, our rental car didn't have one.

So I prepared to pay by credit card, but the booth lacked a credit-card reader.

Okay, I thought, as I pulled out my wallet, I'll use cash to cover the $3.25.

As it happened, that booth took only coins and who drives around with 13 quarters in his or her pocket?

I would have liked to ask someone that very question, but I was, of course, surrounded by mute machines. So, I simply drove through the electronic stile, preparing myself for the bill that would arrive in the mail once that plaza's automated system photographed and traced our license plate.

In a thoroughly mundane fashion, I'd just experienced the age-old conflict between the limiting and liberating sides of technology. The arrowhead that can get you food for dinner might ultimately end up lodged in your own skull. The car that transports you to a beachside holiday contributes to the rising tides — by way of carbon emissions and elevated temperatures — that may someday wash away that very coastal gem of a place. The laptop computer that plugs you into the cyberworld also serves as the conduit through which hackers can steal your identity and zero out your bank account.

In the previous century, technology reached a true watershed moment when humans, harnessing the power of the atom, also acquired the capacity to destroy the entire planet. Now, thanks to AI, technology is hurtling us toward a new inflection point.

Science-fiction writers and technologists have long worried about a future in which robots, achieving sentience, take over the planet. The creation of a machine with human-like intelligence that could someday fool us into believing it's one of us has often been described, with no small measure of trepidation, as the "singularity." Respectable scientists like Stephen Hawking have argued that such a singularity will, in fact, mark the "end of the human race."

This will not be some impossibly remote event like the sun blowing up in a supernova several billion years from now. According to one poll, AI researchers reckon that there's at least a 50-50 chance that the singularity will occur by 2050. In other words, if pessimists like Hawking are right, it's odds on that robots will dispatch humanity before the climate crisis does.

Neither the artificial intelligence that powers GPS nor the kind that controlled that frustrating toll plaza has yet attained anything like human-level intelligence — not even close. But in many ways, such dumb robots are already taking over the world. Automation is currently displacing millions of workers, including those former tollbooth operators. "Smart" machines like unmanned aerial vehicles have become an indispensable part of waging war. AI systems are increasingly being deployed to monitor our every move on the Internet, through our phones, and whenever we venture into public space. Algorithms are replacing teaching assistants in the classroom and influencing sentencing in courtrooms. Some of the loneliest among us have already become dependent on robot pets.

As AI capabilities continue to improve, the inescapable political question will become: to what extent can such technologies be curbed and regulated? Yes, the nuclear genie is out of the bottle as are other technologies — biological and chemical — capable of causing mass destruction of a kind previously unimaginable on this planet. With AI, however, that day of singularity is still in the future, even if a rapidly approaching one. It should still be possible, at least theoretically, to control such an outcome before there's nothing to do but play the whack-a-mole game of non-proliferation after the fact.

As long as humans continue to behave badly on a global scale — war, genocide, planet-threatening carbon emissions — it's difficult to imagine that anything we create, however intelligent, will act differently. And yet we continue to dream that some deus in machina, a god in the machine, could appear as if by magic to save us from ourselves.

Taming AI?

In the early 1940s, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov formulated his famed three laws of robotics: that robots were not to harm humans, directly or indirectly; that they must obey our commands (unless doing so violates the first law); and that they must safeguard their own existence (unless self-preservation contravenes the first two laws).

Any number of writers have attempted to update Asimov. The latest is legal scholar Frank Pasquale, who has devised four laws to replace Asimov's three. Since he's a lawyer not a futurist, Pasquale is more concerned with controlling the robots of today than hypothesizing about the machines of tomorrow. He argues that robots and AI should help professionals, not replace them; that they should not counterfeit humans; that they should never become part of any kind of arms race; and that their creators, controllers, and owners should always be transparent.

Pasquale's "laws," however, run counter to the artificial-intelligence trends of our moment. The prevailing AI ethos mirrors what could be considered the prime directive of Silicon Valley: move fast and break things. This philosophy of disruption demands, above all, that technology continuously drive down labor costs and regularly render itself obsolescent.

In the global economy, AI indeed helps certain professionals — like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon's Jeff Bezos, who just happen to be among the richest people on the planet — but it's also replacing millions of us. In the military sphere, automation is driving boots off the ground and eyes into the sky in a coming robotic world of war. And whether it's Siri, the bots that guide increasingly frustrated callers through automated phone trees, or the AI that checks out Facebook posts, the aim has been to counterfeit human beings — "machines like me," as Ian McEwan called them in his 2019 novel of that title — while concealing the strings that connect the creation to its creator.

Pasquale wants to apply the brakes on a train that has not only left the station but no longer is under the control of the engine driver. It's not difficult to imagine where such a runaway phenomenon could end up and techno-pessimists have taken a perverse delight in describing the resulting cataclysm. In his book Superintelligence, for instance, Nick Bostrom writes about a sandstorm of self-replicating nanorobots that chokes every living thing on the planet — the so-called grey goo problem — and an AI that seizes power by "hijacking political processes."

Since they would be interested only in self-preservation and replication, not protecting humanity or following its orders, such sentient machines would clearly tear up Asimov's rulebook. Futurists have leapt into the breach. For instance, Ray Kurzweil, who predicted in his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near that a robot would attain sentience by about 2045, has proposed a "ban on self-replicating physical entities that contain their own codes for self-replication." Elon Musk, another billionaire industrialist who's no enemy of innovation, has called AI humanity's "biggest existential threat" and has come out in favor of a ban on future killer robots.

To prevent the various worst-case scenarios, the European Union has proposed to control AI according to degree of risk. Some products that fall in the EU's "high risk" category would have to get a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval (the Conformité Européenne). AI systems "considered a clear threat to the safety, livelihoods, and rights of people," on the other hand, would be subject to an outright ban. Such clear-and-present dangers would include, for instance, biometric identification that captures personal data by such means as facial recognition, as well as versions of China's social credit system where AI helps track individuals and evaluate their overall trustworthiness.

Techno-optimists have predictably lambasted what they consider European overreach. Such controls on AI, they believe, will put a damper on R&D and, if the United States follows suit, allow China to secure an insuperable technological edge in the field. "If the member states of the EU — and their allies across the Atlantic — are serious about competing with China and retaining their power status (as well as the quality of life they provide to their citizens)," writes entrepreneur Sid Mohasseb in Newsweek, "they need to call for a redraft of these regulations, with growth and competition being seen as at least as important as regulation and safety."

Mohasseb's concerns are, however, misleading. The regulators he fears so much are, in fact, now playing a game of catch-up. In the economy and on the battlefield, to take just two spheres of human activity, AI has already become indispensable.

The Automation of Globalization

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of global supply chains. The world economy nearly ground to a halt in 2020 for one major reason: the health of human workers. The spread of infection, the risk of contagion, and the efforts to contain the pandemic all removed workers from the labor force, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. Factories shut down, gaps widened in transportation networks, and shops lost business to online sellers.

A desire to cut labor costs, a major contributor to a product's price tag, has driven corporations to look for cheaper workers overseas. For such cost-cutters, eliminating workers altogether is an even more beguiling prospect. Well before the pandemic hit, corporations had begun to turn to automation. By 2030, up to 45 million U.S. workers will be displaced by robots. The World Bank estimates that they will eventually replace an astounding 85% of the jobs in Ethiopia, 77% in China, and 72% in Thailand."

The pandemic not only accelerated this trend, but increased economic inequality as well because, at least for now, robots tend to replace the least skilled workers. In a survey conducted by the World Economic Forum, 43% of businesses indicated that they would reduce their workforces through the increased use of technology. "Since the pandemic hit," reports NBC News,

"food manufacturers ramped up their automation, allowing facilities to maintain output while social distancing. Factories digitized controls on their machines so they could be remotely operated by workers working from home or another location. New sensors were installed that can flag, or predict, failures, allowing teams of inspectors operating on a schedule to be reduced to an as-needed maintenance crew."

In an ideal world, robots and AI would increasingly take on all the dirty, dangerous, and demeaning jobs globally, freeing humans to do more interesting work. In the real world, however, automation is often making jobs dirtier and more dangerous by, for instance, speeding up the work done by the remaining human labor force. Meanwhile, robots are beginning to encroach on what's usually thought of as the more interesting kinds of work done by, for example, architects and product designers.

In some cases, AI has even replaced managers. A contract driver for Amazon, Stephen Normandin, discovered that the AI system that monitored his efficiency as a deliveryman also used an automated email to fire him when it decided he wasn't up to snuff. Jeff Bezos may be stepping down as chief executive of Amazon, but robots are quickly climbing its corporate ladder and could prove at least as ruthless as he's been, if not more so.

Mobilizing against such a robot replacement army could prove particularly difficult as corporate executives aren't the only ones putting out the welcome mat. Since fully automated manufacturing in "dark factories" doesn't require lighting, heating, or a workforce that commutes to the site by car, that kind of production can reduce a country's carbon footprint — a potentially enticing factor for "green growth" advocates and politicians desperate to meet their Paris climate targets.

It's possible that sentient robots won't need to devise ingenious stratagems for taking over the world. Humans may prove all too willing to give semi-intelligent machines the keys to the kingdom.

The New Fog of War

The 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan proved to be unlike any previous military conflict. The two countries had been fighting since the 1980s over a disputed mountain enclave, Nagorno-Karabakh. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia proved the clear victor in conflict that followed in the early 1990s, occupying not only the disputed territory but parts of Azerbaijan as well.

In September 2020, as tensions mounted between the two countries, Armenia was prepared to defend those occupied territories with a well-equipped army of tanks and artillery. Thanks to its fossil-fuel exports, Azerbaijan, however, had been spending considerably more than Armenia on the most modern version of military preparedness. Still, Armenian leaders often touted their army as the best in the region. Indeed, according to the 2020 Global Militarization Index, that country was second only to Israel in terms of its level of militarization.

Yet Azerbaijan was the decisive winner in the 2020 conflict, retaking possession of Nagorno-Karabkah. The reason: automation.

"Azerbaijan used its drone fleet — purchased from Israel and Turkey — to stalk and destroy Armenia's weapons systems in Nagorno-Karabakh, shattering its defenses and enabling a swift advance," reported the Washington Post's Robyn Dixon. "Armenia found that air defense systems in Nagorno-Karabakh, many of them older Soviet systems, were impossible to defend against drone attacks, and losses quickly piled up."

Armenian soldiers, notorious for their fierceness, were spooked by the semi-autonomous weapons regularly above them. "The soldiers on the ground knew they could be hit by a drone circling overhead at any time," noted Mark Sullivan in the business magazine Fast Company. "The drones are so quiet they wouldn't hear the whir of the propellers until it was too late. And even if the Armenians did manage to shoot down one of the drones, what had they really accomplished? They'd merely destroyed a piece of machinery that would be replaced."

The United States pioneered the use of drones against various non-state adversaries in its war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa. But in its 2020 campaign, Azerbaijan was using the technology to defeat a modern army. Now, every military will feel compelled not only to integrate increasingly more powerful AI into its offensive capabilities, but also to defend against the new technology.

To stay ahead of the field, the United States is predictably pouring money into the latest technologies. The new Pentagon budget includes the "largest ever" request for R&D, including a down payment of nearly a billion dollars for AI. As TomDispatch regular Michael Klare has written, the Pentagon has even taken a cue from the business world by beginning to replace its war managers — generals — with a huge, interlinked network of automated systems known as the Joint All-Domain Command-and-Control (JADC2).

The result of any such handover of greater responsibility to machines will be the creation of what mathematician Cathy O'Neill calls "weapons of math destruction." In the global economy, AI is already replacing humans up and down the chain of production. In the world of war, AI could in the end annihilate people altogether, whether thanks to human design or computer error.

After all, during the Cold War, only last-minute interventions by individuals on both sides ensured that nuclear "missile attacks" detected by Soviet and American computers — which turned out to be birds, unusual weather, or computer glitches — didn't precipitate an all-out nuclear war. Take the human being out of the chain of command and machines could carry out such a genocide all by themselves.

And the fault, dear reader, would lie not in our robots but in ourselves.

Robots of Last Resort

In my new novel Songlands, humanity faces a terrible set of choices in 2052. Having failed to control carbon emissions for several decades, the world is at the point of no return, too late for conventional policy fixes. The only thing left is a scientific Hail Mary pass, an experiment in geoengineering that could fail or, worse, have terrible unintended consequences. The AI responsible for ensuring the success of the experiment may or may not be trustworthy. My dystopia, like so many others, is really about a narrowing of options and a whittling away of hope, which is our current trajectory.

And yet, we still have choices. We could radically shift toward clean energy and marshal resources for the whole world, not just its wealthier portions, to make the leap together. We could impose sensible regulations on artificial intelligence. We could debate the details of such programs in democratic societies and in participatory multilateral venues.

Or, throwing up our hands because of our unbridgeable political differences, we could wait for a post-Trumpian savior to bail us out. Techno-optimists hold out hope that automation will set us free and save the planet. Laissez-faire enthusiasts continue to believe that the invisible hand of the market will mysteriously direct capital toward planet-saving innovations instead of SUVs and plastic trinkets.

These are illusions. As I write in Songlands, we have always hoped for someone or something to save us: "God, a dictator, technology. For better or worse, the only answer to our cries for help is an echo."

In the end, robots won't save us. That's one piece of work that can't be outsourced or automated. It's a job that only we ourselves can do.

Copyright 2021 John Feffer

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his 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.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original, is volume two of his Splinterlands series and the final novel in the trilogy, Songlands, has just been published. He has also written The Pandemic Pivot.

Here's what the allegedly leaked Kremlin documents about Trump and Putin really tell us

Joe Biden may be president, but in too many ways the Age of Trump marches on. American political and civic life continues to resemble a spy thriller, a horror movie or a science fiction dystopia that keeps spawning sequels. Most Americans want to escape the theater, but the doors are locked. Those who remain in their seats love these movies and can't get enough of their charismatic star.

The ending of this saga has been obvious since the beginning: Donald Trump is a malevolent force, with no loyalty to the United States and its people; yet his followers worship him as a god and nothing can tear them away from the cult.

Almost every day there are new plot twists. As reported last week, the highest-ranking officers and civilian leaders of the U.S. military were concerned that Trump might try to stage a military coup after his defeat in the 2020 presidential election. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, considered a plan to resist such a move through mass resignations, a last-ditch effort to save democracy.

As detailed in Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker's new book "I Alone Can Fix It," Trump became so enraged after losing to Joe Biden that some feared he would stage a "Reichstag fire" incident, in the mode of Adolf Hitler, that might allow him to seize absolute power. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi even asked Milley to ensure that Trump would not launch a nuclear attack and use the ensuing crisis as an excuse to suspend the Constitution and remain in power.

More "revelations" have followed: Last Thursday the Guardian reported that it had obtained classified documents from a 2016 meeting where the Russian government launched its secret campaign in support of Trump:

Vladimir Putin personally authorised a secret spy agency operation to support a "mentally unstable" Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election during a closed session of Russia's national security council, according to what are assessed to be leaked Kremlin documents.
The key meeting took place on 22 January 2016, the papers suggest, with the Russian president, his spy chiefs and senior ministers all present.
They agreed a Trump White House would help secure Moscow's strategic objectives, among them "social turmoil" in the US and a weakening of the American president's negotiating position.
Russia's three spy agencies were ordered to find practical ways to support Trump, in a decree appearing to bear Putin's signature.
Western intelligence agencies are understood to have been aware of the documents for some months and to have carefully examined them. The papers, seen by the Guardian, seem to represent a serious and highly unusual leak from within the Kremlin.
The Guardian has shown the documents to independent experts who say they appear to be genuine. Incidental details come across as accurate. The overall tone and thrust is said to be consistent with Kremlin security thinking.

At this purported Kremlin meeting, Putin and the Russian intelligence services concluded that Trump could be easily manipulated to serve Russia's strategic goals because he is an "impulsive, mentally unstable and unbalanced individual who suffers from an inferiority complex." This document concludes, "It is acutely necessary to use all possible force to facilitate [Trump's] election to the post of US president."

The Guardian further concludes that the Kremlin's internal report was likely the work of Vladimir Symonenko, a senior Kremlin official who "provides Putin with analytical material and reports, some of them based on foreign intelligence." He discussed various "American weaknesses" Russian agents could exploit, including "a 'deepening political gulf between left and right," the U.S. 'media-information' space, and an anti-establishment mood under President Barack Obama."

The Guardian report has been met with considerable skepticism, some of it from the usual suspects who continue to claim — despite an abundance of known and proven facts — that the scandal sometimes dubbed "Russiagate" was all a hoax, or at least grossly exaggerated. But it's also fair to say that some respected national security experts are suspicious about the timing of the Guardian story, and the authenticity and provenance of the documents in question.

But other national security and intelligence experts believe the Guardian story is true and the Kremlin documents are authentic. Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer and author of several bestselling books who serves as an intelligence and security analyst for CNN, believes the Kremlin document is legitimate and was likely leaked to the Guardian by British intelligence.

In a recent conversation with journalist Ian Masters, Baer said that Donald Trump may indeed have served as a "useful idiot" on behalf of Russian interests, sent into the heart of American democracy as a "Trojan horse to cause problems." He suggests that Russian intelligence used the technique of "framing a guilty man" to muddy the waters around Trump and make him a more effective chaos agent.

Writing at Esquire, Charles Pierce explains how he reconciles concerns about the veracity of the Kremlin papers:

Are experts within the Western intelligence agencies divided about the authenticity of the documents, and did someone who believes them to be the smoking gun leak them in order to force the action? I'd certainly want to know more about their provenance than I do now.
Frankly, my impulse is to believe what The Guardian reported. The revelations certainly seem believable given some of the otherwise inexplicable actions of the previous president* and his administration*, and they also conform to the methods of ratfcking Russia has used in other democracies in Europe. (What up, Estonia?) And they also track with what we've learned recently about the former president*'s rabid-badger attempts to stay in power after he'd clearly lost the election — and, for that matter, his continued attempts to undermine confidence in this country's electoral system.
But my innate caution against leaping to conclusions based on leaks from intelligence services of any kind makes me cautious about this being a conclusive Eureka moment. Too many shadowy people have too many shadowy agendas for me to accept anything emerging from those shadows too readily. But there is one conclusion I will stand by, based on the Guardian story and its conformity to what a lot of us suspected was true about the previous president*: We simply have got to get rid of the Electoral College. Now.

Whatever one concludes about the authenticity of these Kremlin papers, one conclusion is obvious: Their observations about Donald Trump, and about the vulnerability of American society to disinformation and subversion, are correct.

Both Robert Mueller's report and the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the 2016 election (the latter completed under Republican leadership) have conclusively shown that Russia interfered to help Donald Trump win as a way of advancing its strategic goals. Moreover, it is a matter of public record that Trump's inner circle included at least one Russian agent.

At almost every key juncture in his presidency, Trump made decisions that advanced Russia's interests to the disadvantage of the United States. In both public and private, he was strikingly submissive and deferential to Putin. Whether that reflects blackmail and control, or simply hero worship and admiration, is an unsettled question.

Even members of Trump's administration and Republican elected officials questioned his loyalty to the country, especially after the astonishing Helsinki summit of 2018.

In the end, Russia's strategy would prove to be brilliant: Trump left the White House with the U.S. a weakened world power, gripped by a plague that has killed at least 600,000 people, along with a neofascist insurgency that shows no signs of dying out. Right-wing terrorism and other violence is escalating, and the nation has become irreparably polarized by the increasing radicalism of Republicans and the right.

In recent weeks I have reflected a great deal on my 2019 conversation with the late Dr. Jerrold Post, the founding director of the CIA's Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior. In Post's long and distinguished career, he served as the CIA's head psychological profiler under five presidents of both political parties. He described Donald Trump this way:

If one were to subtract from the ranks of political leaders all those with significant narcissistic personality features, the ranks would be perilously impoverished. I see Donald Trump as representing the quintessential narcissist. Using that phrase, though, is not to make a diagnosis, but to say he has a preponderance of these traits. Someone such as Donald Trump with that trait has no capacity to empathize with others, no constraints of conscience. Donald Trump also demonstrates a paranoid orientation. Whenever anything goes wrong, there is someone to blame.
There is also unconstrained aggression. This is very important. Never apologize, never admit you're wrong. That is part of Donald Trump's political style. But negotiating foreign policy is different from negotiating how to buy a skyscraper. Donald Trump also shows through his behavior a deep underlying insecurity. His grandiosity aside, Donald Trump is extremely fragile, and that trait is associated with extreme sensitivity.

Post also warned, nearly two years before it happened, that Donald Trump was unlikely to leave office peacefully:

In the last chapter of my new book I quote one of my favorite poems, which is, "Do not go gentle into that good night, but rage, rage at the dying of the light." I do not believe that Donald Trump will go gentle into that good night. In a close election, there is a very real hazard in terms of both potential outcomes. Should Trump win, as he did in 2016, he will make it a much bigger win and talking about the fraudulent election support on the Democratic side. But should Trump lose narrowly, I think we can be assured that he will not concede early. Trump may not even recognize the legitimacy of the election.

How will the American people deal with these continuous "revelations" about Trump and his regime? To this point, the response seems to be impotent rage. Because Trump and his inner circle are almost entirely rich white men, they will face no serious punishment for their crimes and other wrongdoing. Many Americans feel justifiable rage about a system which has one set of rules and laws for the rich and powerful (who are white) and another set for everyone else.

America is not just experiencing a democracy crisis caused by the Trump movement and the Jim Crow Republicans. The problem goes much deeper: America's political and social institutions are experiencing a legitimacy crisis, in which Trumpism is one symptom of a much larger disease.

The American people must decide whether their rage can be turned to productive or regenerative possibilities, or whether they continue to live in a state of learned helplessness, shrugging their shoulders as even more of the Trump regime's crimes are revealed. On that decision rests the future of democracy.

There's a fundamental flaw in the ban on bioweapons research

by Gary Samore, Brandeis University

Scientists are making dramatic progress with techniques for “gene splicing" – modifying the genetic makeup of organisms.

This work includes bioengineering pathogens for medical research, techniques that also can be used to create deadly biological weapons. It's an overlap that's helped fuel speculation that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus was bioengineered at China's Wuhan Institute of Virology and that it subsequently “escaped" through a lab accident to produce the COVID-19 pandemic.

The world already has a legal foundation to prevent gene splicing for warfare: the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. Unfortunately, nations have been unable to agree on how to strengthen the treaty. Some countries have also pursued bioweapons research and stockpiling in violation of it.

As a member of President Bill Clinton's National Security Council from 1996 to 2001, I had a firsthand view of the failure to strengthen the convention. From 2009 to 2013, as President Barack Obama's White House coordinator for weapons of mass destruction, I led a team that grappled with the challenges of regulating potentially dangerous biological research in the absence of strong international rules and regulations.

The history of the Biological Weapons Convention reveals the limits of international attempts to control research and development of biological agents.

1960s-1970s: International negotiations to outlaw biowarfare

The United Kingdom first proposed a global biological weapons ban in 1968.

Reasoning that bioweapons had no useful military or strategic purpose given the awesome power of nuclear weapons, the U.K. had ended its offensive bioweapons program in 1956. But the risk remained that other countries might consider developing bioweapons as a poor man's atomic bomb.

In the original British proposal, countries would have to identify facilities and activities with potential bioweapons applications. They would also need to accept on-site inspections by an international agency to verify these facilities were being used for peaceful purposes.

These negotiations gained steam in 1969 when the Nixon administration ended America's offensive biological weapons program and supported the British proposal. In 1971, the Soviet Union announced its support – but only with the verification provisions stripped out. Since it was essential to get the USSR on board, the U.S. and U.K. agreed to drop those requirements.

In 1972 the treaty was finalized. After gaining the required signatures, it took effect in 1975.

Under the convention, 183 nations have agreed not to “develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain" biological materials that could be used as weapons. They also agreed not to stockpile or develop any “means of delivery" for using them. The treaty allows “prophylactic, protective or other peaceful" research and development – including medical research.

However, the treaty lacks any mechanism to verify that countries are complying with these obligations.

1990s: Revelations of treaty violations

This absence of verification was exposed as the convention's fundamental flaw two decades later, when it turned out that the Soviets had a great deal to hide.

In 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin revealed the Soviet Union's massive biological weapons program. Some of the program's reported experiments involved making viruses and bacteria more lethal and resistant to treatment. The Soviets also weaponized and mass-produced a number of dangerous naturally occurring viruses, including the anthrax and smallpox viruses, as well as the plague-causing Yersinia pestis bacterium.

Yeltsin in 1992 ordered the program's end and the destruction of all its materials. But doubts remain whether this was fully carried out.

Another treaty violation came to light after the U.S. defeat of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. United Nations inspectors discovered an Iraqi bioweapons stockpile, including 1,560 gallons (6,000 liters) of anthrax spores and 3,120 gallons (12,000 liters) of botulinum toxin. Both had been loaded into aerial bombs, rockets and missile warheads, although Iraq never used these weapons.

In the mid-1990s, during South Africa's transition to majority rule, evidence emerged of the former apartheid regime's chemical and biological weapons program. As revealed by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the program focused on assassination. Techniques included infecting cigarettes and chocolates with anthrax spores, sugar with salmonella and chocolates with botulinum toxin.

In response to these revelations, as well as suspicions that North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria were also violating the treaty, the U.S. began urging other nations to close the verification gap. But despite 24 meetings over seven years, a specially formed group of international negotiators failed to reach agreement on how to do it. The problems were both practical and political.

Monitoring biological agents

Several factors make verification of the bioweapons treaty difficult.

First, the types of facilities that research and produce biological agents, such as vaccines, antibiotics, vitamins, biological pesticides and certain foods, can also produce biological weapons. Some pathogens with legitimate medical and industrial uses can also be used for bioweapons.

Further, large quantities of certain biological weapons can be produced quickly, by few personnel and in relatively small facilities. Hence, biological weapons programs are more difficult for international inspectors to detect than nuclear or chemical programs, which typically require large facilities, numerous personnel and years of operation.

So an effective bioweapons verification process would require nations to identify a large number of civilian facilities. Inspectors would need to monitor them regularly. The monitoring would need to be intrusive, allowing inspectors to demand “challenge inspections," meaning access on short notice to both known and suspected facilities.

Finally, developing bioweapons defenses – as permitted under the treaty – typically requires working with dangerous pathogens and toxins, and even delivery systems. So distinguishing legitimate biodefense programs from illegal bioweapons activities often comes down to intent – and intent is hard to verify.

Because of these inherent difficulties, verification faced stiff opposition.

Political opposition to bioweapons verification

As the White House official responsible for coordinating the U.S. negotiating position, I often heard concerns and objections from important government agencies.

The Pentagon expressed fears that inspections of biodefense installations would compromise national security or lead to false accusations of treaty violations. The Commerce Department opposed intrusive international inspections on behalf of the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. Such inspections might compromise trade secrets, officials contended, or interfere with medical research or industrial production.

Germany and Japan, which also have large pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, raised similar objections. China, Pakistan, Russia and others opposed nearly all on-site inspections. Since the rules under which the negotiation group operated required consensus, any single country could block agreement.

[Like what you've read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation's daily newsletter.]

In January 1998, seeking to break the deadlock, the Clinton administration proposed reduced verification requirements. Nations could limit their declarations to facilities “especially suitable" for bioweapons uses, such as vaccine production facilities. Random or routine inspections of these facilities would instead be “voluntary" visits or limited challenge inspections – but only if approved by the executive council of a to-be-created international agency monitoring the bioweapons treaty.

But even this failed to achieve consensus among the international negotiators.

Finally, in July 2001, the George W. Bush administration rejected the Clinton proposal – ironically, on the grounds that it was not strong enough to detect cheating. With that, the negotiations collapsed.

Since then, nations have made no serious effort to establish a verification system for the Biological Weapons Convention.

Even with the amazing advances scientists have made in genetic engineering since the 1970s, there are few signs that countries are interested in taking up the problem again.

This is especially true in today's climate of accusations against China, and China's refusal to fully cooperate to determine the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.The Conversation

Gary Samore, Professor of the Practice of Politics and Crown Family Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The truth about evangelical Christians' support for Israel

by Walker Robins, Merrimack College

Israel's former ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, made waves in May 2021 when he publicly suggested that Israel should prioritize its relationship with American evangelicals over American Jews.

Dermer described evangelicals as the “backbone of Israel's support in the United States." By contrast, he described American Jews as “disproportionately among [Israel's] critics."

Dermer's comments seemed shocking to many because he stated them in public to a reporter. But as a historian of the evangelical-Israeli relationship, I didn't find them surprising. The Israeli right's preference for working with conservative American evangelicals over more politically variable American Jews has been evident for years. And this preference has in many ways paid off.

Christian Zionism in the Trump era

American Christian Zionists are evangelicals who believe that Christians have a duty to support the Jewish state because the Jews remain God's chosen people.

During the Trump years, Christian Zionists were crucial allies for former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government. They helped Netanyahu lobby Trump for the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, as well as the withdrawal of the U.S. from the “Iran Deal" – the international nuclear arms control agreement with Iran.

These evangelicals also backed Trump's recognition of Israel's 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights, as well as cuts of more than US$200 million to American funding for the Palestinian Authority in 2018.

Coming after this string of policy victories for the Israeli-evangelical alliance, Dermer's comments made sense.

However, the alliance's future may be in doubt. Recent polling shows dramatic declines in support for Israel among young American evangelicals. Scholars Motti Inbari and Kirill Bumin found that between 2018 and 2021, rates of support fell from 69% to 33.6% among evangelicals ages 18-29.

While these polls speak most immediately to the current context, they also underline a larger historical point: Evangelical support for Israel is neither permanent nor inevitable.

Southern Baptists and Israel

The Southern Baptist Convention – long the denominational avatar of white American evangelicalism – offers an example of how these beliefs have shifted over time, which I examine in my book “Between Dixie and Zion: Southern Baptists and Palestine before Israel."

Southern Baptists are broadly supportive of Israel, and have been for much of the past half-century. Baptist leaders like W.A. Criswell and Ed McAteer helped organize Christian Zionism in the U.S. The Southern Baptist Convention itself has passed a number of pro-Israel resolutions in recent decades.

More recently, Southern Baptist support for Israel was highlighted when the Trump administration invited Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, to lead a prayer at the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem in 2018.

However, Southern Baptists were not always so unified in support for Israel, or the Zionist movement that led to its creation. This was evident only days after the establishment of Israel in 1948, when messengers to the convention's annual meeting repeatedly and overwhelmingly voted down resolutions calling for the convention to send a congratulatory telegram to U.S. President – and fellow Southern Baptist – Harry Truman for being the first foreign leader to recognize the Jewish state.

Zionism was 'God's plan' – unless it wasn't

This seems shocking today, after years of seemingly unanimous evangelical support for Israel. However, as I document in my book, Southern Baptists had diverse views on Zionism and “the Palestine question" in the decades leading up to Israel's birth. While some did argue that support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine was a Christian duty, others defended the Arab majority's rights in the Holy Land.

During this era, the Southern Baptist Convention published books, pamphlets and other materials reflecting both sides. In 1936, its press published a work by missionary Jacob Gartenhaus, a convert from Judaism to evangelical Christianity, arguing that to be against Zionism was “to oppose God's plan." The following year, however, the press published a mission study manual by J. McKee Adams contending that “by every canon of justice and fair-play, the Arab is the man of first importance."

Adams was one among a coterie of professors at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who spoke out against what they sometimes derided as “Christian Zionism" – then an unusual term.

Even evangelicals who believed the Bible anticipated the return of Jews to Palestine disagreed on whether the Zionist movement was part of God's plan.

The influential Baptist leader J. Frank Norris of Fort Worth, Texas, who broke away from the mainstream Southern Baptist Convention in the 1920s, argued in the 1930s and 1940s that Christians had a duty to God and civilization to support the Zionists.

But there was no widespread sense that being a Baptist – or an evangelical Protestant – entailed support for Zionism. John R. Rice, a prominent disciple of Norris', rejected his mentor's arguments outright. “The Zionist movement is not a fulfillment of the prophecies about Israel being restored," Rice wrote in 1945. “Preachers who think so are mistaken."

Regarding the political question of whether Arabs or Jews should control Palestine, most evangelicals were unconcerned. The Southern Baptists focused on other priorities in the Holy Land, such as the growth of their missions in Jerusalem and Nazareth. Even those Baptists who supported the establishment of a Jewish state did not organize politically around the issue.

The future of Christian Zionism

In the decades after the establishment of Israel, however, motivated evangelical and Jewish activists – as well as the Israeli government – worked to stitch together the interfaith relationships, build the institutions and spread the ideas underpinning today's Christian Zionist movement. These efforts have been remarkably effective in making support for Israel a defining element of many evangelicals' religious and political identities.

However, as the latest polling of young evangelicals shows, there is no guarantee this will be permanent. This diverse and globally connected generation of evangelicals has its own ideas and priorities. It is more interested in social justice, less invested in the culture wars and increasingly weary of conservative politics.

Young evangelicals remain to be convinced of Christian Zionism. And they very well may not be.The Conversation

Walker Robins, Lecturer in History, Merrimack College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Data leak exposes global surveillance plot targeting journalists and dissidents

NSO Group, a private Israeli firm that sells surveillance technology to governments worldwide, insists that its Pegasus spyware is used only to "investigate terrorism and crime." Leaked data, however, reveals that the company's hacking tool "has been used to facilitate human rights violations around the world on a massive scale."

That's according to an investigative report published Sunday by the Pegasus Project, a media consortium of more than 80 journalists from 17 news outlets in 10 countries. The collaborative endeavor was coordinated by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based media nonprofit, with technical assistance from Amnesty International, which conducted "cutting-edge forensic tests" on smartphones to identify traces of the military-grade spyware.

The Guardian, one of the newspapers involved in the analysis, reported that "Pegasus is a malware that infects iPhones and Android devices to enable operators of the tool to extract messages, photos, and emails, record calls, and secretly activate microphones." The Washington Post, another partner in the investigation, noted that the tool "can infect phones without a click."

A massive data leak turned up a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers that, according to the Post, "are concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens and also known to have been clients of... NSO Group, a worldwide leader in the growing and largely unregulated private spyware industry."

More phone numbers were based in Mexico than any other country, with over 15,000 on the list, "including those belonging to politicians, union representatives, journalists, and other government critics," the Post noted.

As The Guardian reported: "The phone number of a freelance Mexican reporter, Cecilio Pineda Birto, was found in the list, apparently of interest to a Mexican client in the weeks leading up to his murder, when his killers were able to locate him at a carwash. His phone has never been found so no forensic analysis has been possible to establish whether it was infected."

Other nations that either had large shares of numbers on the list or were deemed to be potential government clients of NSO include: France, Hungary, Turkey, Morocco, Togo, Algeria, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain, Yemen, India, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan.

While "the presence of a phone number in the data does not reveal whether a device was infected with Pegasus or subject to an attempted hack," The Guardian noted, the consortium believes that "the data is indicative of the potential targets NSO's government clients identified in advance of possible surveillance attempts."

Amnesty's Security Lab analyzed a small sample of phones belonging to activists, journalists, and lawyers whose numbers appeared on the leaked list. Of the 67 phones examined, traces of Pegasus spyware were found on 37 devices, including 23 that had been successfully infected and 14 with signs of attempted hacking.

"NSO claims its spyware is undetectable and only used for legitimate criminal investigations," Etienne Maynier, a technologist at Amnesty's Security Lab, said in a statement. "We have now provided irrefutable evidence of this ludicrous falsehood."

According to the Post:

The list does not identify who put the numbers on it, or why, and it is unknown how many of the phones were targeted or surveilled. But forensic analysis of the 37 smartphones shows that many display a tight correlation between time stamps associated with a number on the list and the initiation of surveillance, in some cases as brief as a few seconds.
The numbers on the list are unattributed, but reporters were able to identify more than 1,000 people spanning more than 50 countries through research and interviews on four continents: several Arab royal family members, at least 65 business executives, 85 human rights activists, 189 journalists, and more than 600 politicians and government officials—including cabinet ministers, diplomats, and military and security officers. The numbers of several heads of state and prime ministers also appeared on the list.
Among the journalists whose numbers appear on the list, which dates to 2016, are reporters working overseas for several leading news organizations, including a small number from CNN, the Associated Press, Voice of America, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, Le Monde in France, the Financial Times in London, and Al Jazeera in Qatar.

The newspaper added that Amnesty found evidence of NSO's spyware being used by Saudi Arabia and UAE to target the phones of close associates of Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi before and after he was brutally murdered by Saudi operatives in 2018.

"The Pegasus Project lays bare how NSO's spyware is a weapon of choice for repressive governments seeking to silence journalists, attack activists, and crush dissent, placing countless lives in peril," Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, said in a statement.

"These revelations," Callamard continued, "blow apart any claims by NSO that such attacks are rare and down to rogue use of their technology. While the company claims its spyware is only used for legitimate criminal and terror investigations, it's clear its technology facilitates systemic abuse. They paint a picture of legitimacy, while profiting from widespread human rights violations."

Callamard emphasized that "[NSO's] actions pose larger questions about the wholesale lack of regulation that has created a wild west of rampant abusive targeting of activists and journalists."

"Until this company and the industry as a whole can show it is capable of respecting human rights," she added, "there must be an immediate moratorium on the export, sale, transfer, and use of surveillance technology."

NSO, for its part, issued a statement denying "false claims" in the report, including those related to Khashoggi. Attorneys for the company argued that the Pegasus Project's investigation was based on "wrong assumptions" and "uncorroborated theories." The company claimed that it is pursuing a "life-saving mission" to stamp out crime.

The Guardian noted that while the consortium "found numbers in the data belonging to suspected criminals... the broad array of numbers in the list belonging to people who seemingly have no connection to criminality suggests some NSO clients are breaching their contracts with the company, spying on pro-democracy activists and journalists investigating corruption, as well as political opponents and government critics."

According to the Post, "After the investigation began, several reporters in the consortium learned that they or their family members had been successfully attacked with Pegasus spyware."

In response, Callamard stressed that "the number of journalists identified as targets vividly illustrates how Pegasus is used as a tool to intimidate critical media. It is about controlling [the] public narrative, resisting scrutiny, and suppressing any dissenting voice."

"These revelations must act as a catalyst for change," said Callamard. "The surveillance industry must no longer be afforded a laissez-faire approach from governments with a vested interest in using this technology to commit human rights violations."

The human rights expert demanded that NSO "immediately shut down clients' systems where there is credible evidence of misuse." She added that "the Pegasus Project provides this in abundance."

NSO stated that it "will continue to investigate all credible claims of misuse and take appropriate action based on the results of these investigations."

Timothy Summers, a former cyber security engineer at a U.S. intelligence agency and now director of IT at Arizona State University, told the Post that Pegasus "is nasty software." One could use the technology, said Summers, to "spy on almost the entire world population."

The Guardian noted that the Pegasus Project "will be revealing the identities of people whose number appeared on the list in the coming days."

Amnesty's Maynier said that "our hope is the damning evidence published over the next week will lead governments to overhaul a surveillance industry that is out of control."

Migration isn't the crisis: Biden and Harris are pushing a failed policy in Central America

Earlier this month, a Honduran court found David Castillo, a U.S.-trained former Army intelligence officer and the head of an internationally financed hydroelectric company, guilty of the 2016 murder of celebrated Indigenous activist Berta Cáceres. His company was building a dam that threatened the traditional lands and water sources of the Indigenous Lenca people. For years, Cáceres and her organization, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH, had led the struggle to halt that project. It turned out, however, that Cáceres's international recognition — she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015 — couldn't protect her from becoming one of the dozens of Latin American Indigenous and environmental activists killed annually.

Yet when President Joe Biden came into office with an ambitious "Plan for Security and Prosperity in Central America," he wasn't talking about changing policies that promoted big development projects against the will of local inhabitants. Rather, he was focused on a very different goal: stopping migration. His plan, he claimed, would address its "root causes." Vice President Kamala Harris was even blunter when she visited Guatemala, instructing potential migrants: "Do not come."

As it happens, more military and private development aid of the sort Biden's plan calls for (and Harris boasted about) won't either stop migration or help Central America. It's destined, however, to spark yet more crimes like Cáceres's murder. There are other things the United States could do that would aid Central America. The first might simply be to stop talking about trying to end migration.

How Can the United States Help Central America?

Biden and Harris are only recycling policy prescriptions that have been around for decades: promote foreign investment in Central America's export economy, while building up militarized "security" in the region. In truth, it's the very economic model the United States has imposed there since the nineteenth century, which has brought neither security nor prosperity to the region (though it's brought both to U.S. investors there). It's also the model that has displaced millions of Central Americans from their homes and so is the fundamental cause of what, in this country, is so often referred to as the "crisis" of immigration.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the U.S. began imposing that very model to overcome what officials regularly described as Central American "savagery" and "banditry." The pattern continued as Washington found a new enemy, communism, to battle there in the second half of the last century. Now, Biden promises that the very same policies — foreign investment and eternal support for the export economy — will end migration by attacking its "root causes": poverty, violence, and corruption. (Or call them "savagery" and "banditry," if you will.) It's true that Central America is indeed plagued by poverty, violence, and corruption, but if Biden were willing to look at the root causes of his root causes, he might notice that his aren't the solutions to such problems, but their source.

Stopping migration from Central America is no more a legitimate policy goal than was stopping savagery, banditry, or communism in the twentieth century. In fact, what Washington policymakers called savagery (Indigenous people living autonomously on their lands), banditry (the poor trying to recover what the rich had stolen from them), and communism (land reform and support for the rights of oppressed workers and peasants) were actually potential solutions to the very poverty, violence, and corruption imposed by the US-backed ruling elites in the region. And maybe migration is likewise part of Central Americans' struggle to solve these problems. After all, migrants working in this country send back more money in remittances to their families in Central America than the United States has ever given in foreign aid.

What, then, would a constructive U.S. policy towards Central America look like?

Perhaps the most fundamental baseline of foreign policy should be that classic summary of the Hippocratic Oath: do no harm. As for doing some good, before the subject can even be discussed, there needs to be an acknowledgement that so much of what we've done to Central America over the past 200 years has been nothing but harm.

The United States could begin by assuming historical responsibility for the disasters it's created there. After the counterinsurgency wars of the 1980s, the United Nations sponsored truth commissions in El Salvador and Guatemala to uncover the crimes committed against civilian populations there. Unfortunately, those commissions didn't investigate Washington's role in funding and promoting war crimes in the region.

Maybe what's now needed is a new truth commission to investigate historic U.S. crimes in Central America. In reality, the United States owes those small, poor, violent, and corrupt countries reparations for the damages it's caused over all these years. Such an investigation might begin with Washington's long history of sponsoring coups, military "aid," armed interventions, massacres, assassinations, and genocide.

The U.S. would have to focus as well on the impacts of ongoing economic aid since the 1980s, aimed at helping U.S. corporations at the expense of the Central American poor. It could similarly examine the role of debt and the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement in fostering corporate and elite interests. And don't forget the way the outsized U.S. contribution to greenhouse gas emissions — this country is, of course, the largest such emitter in history — and climate change has contributed to the destruction of livelihoods in Central America. Finally, it could investigate how our border and immigration policies directly contribute to keeping Central America poor, violent, and corrupt, in the name of stopping migration.

Constructive Options for U.S. Policy in Central America

Providing Vaccines: Even as Washington rethinks the fundamentals of this country's policies there, it could take immediate steps on one front, the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been devastating the region. Central America is in desperate need of vaccines, syringes, testing materials, and personal protective equipment. A history of underfunding, debt, and privatization, often due directly or indirectly to U.S. policy, has left Central America's healthcare systems in shambles. While Latin America as a whole has been struggling to acquire the vaccines it needs, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua rank at the very bottom of doses administered. If the United States actually wanted to help Central America, the emergency provision of what those countries need to get vaccines into arms would be an obvious place to start.

Reversing economic exploitation: Addressing the structural and institutional bases of economic exploitation could also have a powerful impact. First, we could undo the harmful provisions of the 2005 Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Yes, Central American governments beholden to Washington did sign on to it, but that doesn't mean that the agreement benefited the majority of the inhabitants in the region. In reality, what CAFTA did was throw open Central American markets to U.S. agricultural exports, in the process undermining the livelihoods of small farmers there.

CAFTA also gave a boost to the maquiladora or export-processing businesses, lending an all-too-generous hand to textile, garment, pharmaceutical, electronics, and other industries that regularly scour the globe for the cheapest places to manufacture their goods. In the process, it created mainly the kind of low-quality jobs that corporations can easily move anytime in an ongoing global race to the bottom.

Central American social movements have also vehemently protested CAFTA provisions that undermine local regulations and social protections, while privileging foreign corporations. At this point, local governments in that region can't even enforce the most basic laws they've passed to regulate such deeply exploitative foreign investors.

Another severe restriction that prevents Central American governments from pursuing economic policies in the interest of their populations is government debt. Private banks lavished loans on dictatorial governments in the 1970s, then pumped up interest rates in the 1980s, causing those debts to balloon. The International Monetary Fund stepped in to bail out the banks, imposing debt restructuring programs on already-impoverished countries — in other words, making the poor pay for the profligacy of the wealthy.

For real economic development, governments need the resources to fund health, education, and welfare. Unsustainable and unpayable debt (compounded by ever-growing interest) make it impossible for such governments to dedicate resources where they're truly needed. A debt jubilee would be a crucial step towards restructuring the global economy and shifting the stream of global resources that currently flows so strongly from the poorest to the richest countries.

Now, add another disastrous factor to this equation: the U.S. "drug wars" that have proven to be a key factor in the spread of violence, displacement, and corruption in Central America. The focus of the drug war on Mexico in the early 2000s spurred an orgy of gang violence there, while pushing the trade south into Central America. The results have been disastrous. As drug traffickers moved in, they brought violence, land grabs, and capital for new cattle and palm-oil industries, drawing in corrupt politicians and investors. Pouring arms and aid into the drug wars that have exploded in Central America has only made trafficking even more corrupt, violent, and profitable.

Reversing climate change: In recent years, ever more extreme weather in Central America's "dry corridor," running from Guatemala through El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, has destroyed homes, farms, and livelihoods, and this climate-change-induced trend is only worsening by the year. While the news largely tends to present ongoing drought, punctuated by ever more frequent and violent hurricanes and tropical storms, as well as increasingly disastrous flooding, as so many individual occurrences, their heightened frequency is certainly a result of climate change. And about a third of Central America's migrants directly cite extreme weather as the reason they were forced to leave their homes. Climate change is, in fact, just what the U.S. Department of Defense all-too-correctly termed a "threat multiplier" that contributes to food and water scarcity, land conflicts, unemployment, violence, and other causes of migration.

The United States has, of course, played and continues to play an outsized role in contributing to climate change. And, in fact, we continue to emit far more CO2 per person than any other large country. We also produce and export large amounts of fossil fuels — the U.S., in fact, is one of the world's largest exporters as well as one of the largest consumers. And we continue to fund and promote fossil-fuel-dependent development at home and abroad. One of the best ways the United States could help Central America would be to focus time, energy, and money on stopping the burning of fossil fuels.

Migration as a Problem Solver

Isn't it finally time that the officials and citizens of the United States recognized the role migration plays in Central American economies? Where U.S. economic development recipes have failed so disastrously, migration has been the response to these failures and, for many Central Americans, the only available way to survive.

One in four Guatemalan families relies on remittances from relatives working in the United States and such monies account for about half of their income. President Biden may have promised Central America $4 billion in aid over four years, but Guatemala alone receives $9 billion a year in such remittances. And unlike government aid, much of which ends up in the pockets of U.S. corporations, local entrepreneurs, and bureaucrats of various sorts, remittances go directly to meet the needs of ordinary households.

At present, migration is a concrete way that Central Americans are trying to solve their all-too-desperate problems. Since the nineteenth century, Indigenous and peasant communities have repeatedly sought self-sufficiency and autonomy, only to be displaced by U.S. plantations in the name of progress. They've tried organizing peasant and labor movements to fight for land reform and workers' rights, only to be crushed by U.S.-trained and sponsored militaries in the name of anti-communism. With other alternatives foreclosed, migration has proven to be a twenty-first-century form of resistance and survival.

If migration can be a path to overcome economic crises, then instead of framing Washington's Central American policy as a way to stop it, the United States could reverse course and look for ways to enhance migration's ability to solve problems.

Jason DeParle aptly titled his recent book on migrant workers from the Philippines A Good Provider is One Who Leaves. "Good providers should not have to leave," responded the World Bank's Dilip Ratha, "but they should have the option." As Ratha explains,

"Migrants benefit their destination countries. They provide essential skills that may be missing and fill jobs that native-born people may not want to perform. Migrants pay taxes and are statistically less prone to commit crimes than native-born people… Migration benefits the migrant and their extended family and offers the potential to break the cycle of poverty. For women, migration elevates their standing in the family and the society. For children, it provides access to healthcare, education, and a higher standard of living. And for many countries of origin, remittances provide a lifeline in terms of external, counter-cyclical financing."

Migration can also have terrible costs. Families are separated, while many migrants face perilous conditions, including violence, detention, and potentially death on their journeys, not to speak of inadequate legal protection, housing, and working conditions once they reach their destination. This country could do a lot to mitigate such costs, many of which are under its direct control. The United States could open its borders to migrant workers and their families, grant them full legal rights and protections, and raise the minimum wage.

Would such policies lead to a large upsurge in migration from Central America? In the short run, they might, given the current state of that region under conditions created and exacerbated by Washington's policies over the past 40 years. In the longer run, however, easing the costs of migration actually could end up easing the structural conditions that cause it in the first place.

Improving the safety, rights, and working conditions of migrants would help Central America far more than any of the policies Biden and Harris are proposing. More security and higher wages would enable migrants to provide greater support for families back home. As a result, some would return home sooner. Smuggling and human trafficking rings, which take advantage of illegal migration, would wither from disuse. The enormous resources currently aimed at policing the border could be shifted to immigrant services. If migrants could come and go freely, many would go back to some version of the circular migration pattern that prevailed among Mexicans before the militarization of the border began to undercut that option in the 1990s. Long-term family separation would be reduced. Greater access to jobs, education, and opportunity has been shown to be one of the most effective anti-gang strategies.

In other words, there's plenty the United States could do to develop more constructive policies towards Central America and its inhabitants. That, however, would require thinking far more deeply about the "root causes" of the present catastrophe than Biden, Harris, and crew seem willing to do. In truth, the policies of this country bear an overwhelming responsibility for creating the very structural conditions that cause the stream of migrants that both Democrats and Republicans have decried, turning the act of simple survival into an eternal "crisis" for those very migrants and their families. A change in course is long overdue.

Copyright 2021 Aviva Chomsky

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his 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.

Aviva Chomsky, a TomDispatch regular, is professor of history and coordinator of Latin American studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts. Her new book, Central America's Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration, will be published in April.

'Because they are evil': New book uncovers a post-election plot to bomb Iran

Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley was reportedly worried that Donald Trump might declare war on Iran as part of a last-ditch attempt to overturn his election loss, according to a New Yorker report on Thursday.

Miley was "engaged in an alarmed effort to ensure that Trump did not embark on a military conflict with Iran as part of his quixotic campaign to overturn the results of the 2020 election and remain in power," journalist Susan B. Glasser wrote. "Trump had a circle of Iran hawks around him and was close with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu," she continued, "who was also urging the Administration to act against Iran after it was clear that Trump had lost the election."

The report stems from a forthcoming book by Glasser and her husband, New York Times reporter Peter Baker. It echoes bombshell allegations in another forthcoming book by two Washington Post reporters.

According to Glasser, the former president had floated the idea of engaging militarily with Iran on a number of occasions during his final months in the presidency. His proposals, the book's authors wrote, reflected Trump's seeming willingness "to do anything to stay in power."

During one meeting in which the president was not present, Milley pressed former Vice President Mike Pence on "why they were so intent on attacking [Iran]."

Pence reportedly answered: "Because they are evil."

In another episode, after weeks of the former president "pushing for a missile strike in response to various provocations against U.S. interests in the region" following his election loss, Milley told Trump point-blank: "If you do this, you're gonna have a f---ing war."

By early January, it appeared, Trump had been successfully subdued when former National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both told the former president in a White House meeting that they were against military action. Walking Trump through the potential pros and cons of a military engagement, Pompeo and O'Brien told the former president that "too late to hit them."

Last month, the New York Times revealed that in early 2020 Netanyahu had given the former president a "hit list" of Iranian targets for him to consider. One of these targets, a suspected nuclear production plant, was in fact the very factory that the U.S. attacked with a drone strike in June.

U.S. tensions with Iran – already simmering under former President Obama – were significantly exacerbated during the Trump administration. On top of withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal back in 2018, Trump applied severe sanctions on the country, which have proven to be crippling to Iran's economy. In January of 2020, Trump also ordered the assassination of Iran's top general, Qassem Soleimani – a move that nearly engaged the U.S. in a full-fledged war.

Ocasio-Cortez slams Biden administration for upholding 'absurdly cruel' Cuba embargo

Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Thursday condemned the Biden administration for upholding the United States' crippling embargo against Cuba, where people have taken to the streets in recent days to protest food and medicine shortages exacerbated by the decades-old economic restrictions.

"The embargo is absurdly cruel and, like too many other U.S. policies targeting Latin Americans, the cruelty is the point," Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y) said in a statement Thursday night. "I outright reject the Biden administration's defense of the embargo. It is never acceptable for us to use cruelty as a point of leverage against every day people."

In late June, just weeks before the protests in Cuba began, the Biden administration joined the Israeli government in voting against a United Nations resolution calling for an end to the longstanding U.S. embargo, which—according to a 2018 U.N. report—has cost the island nation's economy $130 billion since it was imposed in the 1960s. The U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly approved the nonbinding resolution by a vote of 184-2, with Colombia, Ukraine, and Brazil abstaining.

Last October, the Cuban government estimated that the U.S. embargo cost the country's economy more than $5 billion between April 2019 through March 2020, the month the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus crisis a global pandemic.

In her statement on Thursday, Ocasio-Cortez expressed solidarity with Cubans protesting for better economic conditions and criticized the Cuban government for what she described as "anti-democratic" responses to the recent street demonstrations. But the New York Democrat added that "we also must name the U.S. contribution to Cuban suffering: our 60-year-old embargo."

The Biden administration is currently in the process of reviewing the U.S. policy of economic warfare against Cuba, which the Trump administration intensified by tightening sanctions and declaring the country a "state sponsor of terror"—a designation that inflicted additional damage on the Cuban economy.

President Joe Biden has yet to reverse his predecessor's damaging policy moves toward Cuba, despite growing pressure to do so. During a press conference on Thursday, Biden said he does not intend to ease a policy barring people in the U.S. from sending money to their Cuban relatives on the island.

In recent days, Biden administration officials have downplayed the role of the U.S. embargo in causing acute food and medicine shortages in Cuba, issues that the coronavirus pandemic has made substantially worse. Speaking to reporters earlier this week, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price dismissively referred to the embargo as the "so-called embargo" and refused to say whether the ban on remittances is harming the Cuban economy.

Price went on to claim that current U.S. policy "allows humanitarian goods to reach Cuba," but The Intercept reported last month that U.S.-imposed trade restrictions have contributed to the island nation's struggle "to obtain critical foreign-made medical supplies to treat its own population" and other necessities.

William LeoGrande, professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C., wrote in a column for The Daily Beast on Thursday that the protests in Cuba "should be a decision-forcing event for the Biden administration."

"In the next few weeks, Biden will have to make a fateful choice," wrote LeoGrande. "He can slide Cuba to the back burner of his agenda once again in the hope that the crisis on the island will subside without any U.S. action. Or he can act decisively, announcing a policy aimed at reducing the suffering of the Cuban people by lifting Trump's sanctions—as he promised to do during the presidential campaign."

The sole opponent of the Afghanistan War in Congress foresaw what it would become

Sometimes, as I consider America's never-ending wars of this century, I can't help thinking of those lyrics from the Edwin Starr song, "(War, huh) Yeah! (What is it good for?) Absolutely nothing!" I mean, remind me, what good have those disastrous, failed, still largely ongoing conflicts done for this country? Or for you? Or for me?

For years and years, what came to be known as America's "war on terror" (and later just its "forever wars") enjoyed remarkable bipartisan support in Congress, not to say the country at large. Over nearly two decades, four presidents from both parties haven't hesitated to exercise their power to involve our military in all sorts of ways in at least 85 countries around the world in the name of defeating "terrorism" or "violent extremism." Such interventions have included air strikes against armed groups in seven countries, direct combat against such groups in 12 countries, military exercises in 41 countries, and training or assistance to local military, police, or border patrol units in 79 countries. And that's not even to mention the staggering number of U.S. military bases around the world where counterterrorism operations can be conducted, the massive arms sales to foreign governments, or all the additional deployments of this country's Special Operations forces.

Providing the thinnest of legal foundations for all of this have been two ancient acts of Congress. The first was the authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) that allowed the president to act against "those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons." It led, of course, to the disastrous war in Afghanistan. It was passed in the week after those attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. That bill's lone opponent in the House, Representative Barbara Lee (D–CA), faced death threats from the public for her vote, though she stood by it, fearing all too correctly that such a law would sanction endless wars abroad (as, of course, it did).

The second AUMF passed on October 15, 2002, by a 77-23 vote in the Senate. Under the false rationale that Saddam Hussein's Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction (it didn't), that AUMF gave President George W. Bush and his crew a green light to invade Iraq and topple its regime. Last month, the House finally voted 268-161 (including 49 Republican yes votes) to repeal the second of those authorizations.

Thinking back to when America's "forever wars" first began, it's hard to imagine how we could still be fighting in Iraq and Syria under the same loose justification of a war on terror almost two decades later or that the 2001 AUMF, untouched by Congress, still stands, providing the fourth president since the war on terror began with an excuse for actions of all sorts.

I remember watching in March 2003 from my home in northern California as news stations broadcast bombs going off over Baghdad. I'd previously attended protests around San Francisco, shouting my lungs out about the potentially disastrous consequences of invading a country based on what, even then, seemed like an obvious lie. Meanwhile, little did I know that the Afghan War authorization I had indeed supported, as a way to liberate the women of that country and create a democracy from an abusive state, would still be disastrously ongoing nearly 20 years later.

Nor did I imagine that, in 2011, having grasped my mistake when it came to the Afghan War, I would co-found Brown University's Costs of War Project; nor that, about a decade into that war, I would be treating war-traumatized veterans and their families as a psychotherapist, even as I became the spouse of a Navy submariner. I would spend the second decade of the war on terror shepherding my husband and our two young children through four military moves and countless deployments, our lives breathless and harried by the outlandish pace of the disastrous forever (and increasingly wherever) wars that had come to define America's global presence in the twenty-first century.

Amid all the talk about Joe Biden's Afghan withdrawal decision which came "from the gut," according to an official close to the president, it's easy to forget that this country continues to fight some of those very same wars.

What Keeps Us Safe?

Take, for example, late last month when President Biden ordered "defensive" airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against reportedly Iran-backed Iraqi militia groups. Those groups were thought to be responsible for a series of at least five drone attacks on weapons storage and operational bases used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. The June American air strikes supposedly killed four militia members, though there have been reports that one hit a housing complex, killing a child and wounding three other civilians (something that has yet to be verified). An unnamed "senior administration official" explained: "We have a responsibility to demonstrate that attacking Americans carries consequences, and that is true whether or not those attacks inflict casualties." He did not, however, explain what those American troops were doing in the first place at bases in Iraq and Syria.

Note that such an act was taken on presidential authority alone, with Congress thoroughly sidelined as it has been since it passed those AUMFs so long ago. To be sure, some Americans still argue that such preemptive attacks — and really, any military buildups whatsoever — are precisely what keep Americans safe.

My husband, a Navy officer, has served on three nuclear and ballistic submarines and one battleship. He's also built a nearly 20-year career on the philosophy that the best instrument of peace, should either of the other two great powers on this planet step out of line, is the concept of mutually-assured destruction — the possibility, that is, that a president would order not airstrikes in Syria, but nuclear strikes somewhere.

He and I argue about this regularly. How, I ask him, can any weapons, no less nuclear ones, ever be seen as instruments of safety? (Though living in the country with the most armed citizens on the planet, I know that this isn't exactly a winning argument domestically.) I mean, consider the four years we've just lived through! Consider the hands our nuclear arsenal was in from 2017 to 2020!

My husband always simply looks at me as if he knows so much more than I do about this. Yet the mere hint of a plan for "peace" based on a world-ending possibility doesn't exactly put me at ease, nor does a world in which an American president can order air strikes more or less anywhere on the planet without the backing of anyone else, Congress included.

Every time my husband leaves home to go to some bunker or office where he would be among the first to be sheltered from a nuclear attack, my gut clenches. I feel the hopelessness of what would happen if we ever reached that point of no return where the only option might be to strike back because we ourselves were about to die. It would be a "solution" in which just those in power might remain safe. Meanwhile, our more modest preemptive attacks against other militaries and armed groups in distant lands exact a seldom-recognized toll in blood and treasure.

Every time I hear about preemptive strikes like those President Biden ordered last month in countries we're not even officially at war with, attacks that were then sanctioned across most of the political spectrum in Washington from Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Oklahoma Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, I wonder: How many people died in those attacks? Whose lives in those target areas were destroyed by uncertainty, fear, and the prospect of long-term anxiety?

In addition, given my work as a therapist with vets, I always wonder how the people who carried out such strikes are feeling right now. I know from experience that just following such life-ending orders can create a sense of internal distress that changes you in ways almost as consequential as losing a limb or taking a bullet.

How Our Wars Kill at Home

For years now, my colleagues and I at the Costs of War Project have struggled to describe and quantify the human costs of America's never-ending twenty-first-century wars. All told, we've estimated that more than 801,000 people died in fighting among U.S., allied, and opposing troops and police forces. And that doesn't include indirect deaths due to wrecked healthcare systems, malnutrition, the uprooting of populations, and the violence that continues to plague traumatized families in those war zones (and here at home as well).

According to a stunning new report by Boston University's Ben Suitt, the big killer of Americans engaged in the war on terror has not, in fact, been combat, but suicide, which has so far claimed the lives of 30,177 veterans and active servicemembers. Suicide rates among post-9/11 war veterans are higher than for any cohort of veterans since before World War II. Among those aged 18 to 35 (the oldest of whom weren't even of voting age when we first started those never-ending wars and the youngest of whom weren't yet born), the rate has increased by a whopping 76% since 2005.

And if you think that those most injured from their service are the ones coming home after Iraq and Afghanistan, consider this: over the past two decades, suicide rates have increased most sharply among those who have never even been deployed to a combat zone or have been deployed just once.

It's hard to say why even those who don't fight are killing themselves so far from America's distant battlefields. As a psychotherapist who has seen my share of veterans who attempted to kill or — later — succeeded in killing themselves, I can say that two key predictors of that final, desperate act are hopelessness and a sense that you have no legitimate contribution to make to others.

As Suitt points out, about 42% of Americans are now either unaware of the fact that their country is still fighting wars in the Greater Middle East and Africa or think that the war on terror is over. Consider that for a moment. What does it mean to be fighting wars for a country in which a near majority of the population is unaware that you're even doing so?

As a military spouse whose partner has not been deployed to a combat zone, the burdens of America's forever wars are still shared by us in concrete ways: more frequent and longer deployments with shorter breaks, more abusive and all-encompassing command structures, and very little clear sense of what it is this country could possibly be fighting for anymore or what the end game might be.

If strikes like the ones President Biden authorized last month reflect anything, it's that there are few ways — certainly not Congress — of reining in our commander in chief from sending Americans to harm and be harmed.

"Are Soldiers Killers?"

I recall lying awake in 1991, at age 12, my stomach in knots, thinking about the first display of pyrotechnics I can remember, when President George H.W. Bush authorized strikes against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in what became known as the First Gulf War. I told my father then, "I can't sleep because I think that something bad is going to happen!" I didn't know what, but those balls of fire falling on Baghdad on my New Jersey TV screen seemed consequential indeed.

Where were they landing? On whom? What was going to happen to our country? My father, who used a minor college football injury to dodge the Vietnam draft and has supported every war since then, shrugged, patted me on the back, and said he didn't know, but that I shouldn't worry too much about it.

As a parent myself now, I can still remember what it was like to first consider that people might kill others. As a result, I try to keep a conversation going with my own children as they start to grapple with the existence of evil.

Recently, our six-year-old son, excited to practice his newfound reading skills, came across a World War II military history book in my husband's office and found photos of both Nazi soldiers and Jewish concentration camp prisoners. He stared at the gaunt bodies and haunted eyes of those prisoners. After a first-grade-level conversation about war and hatred, he suddenly pointed at Nazi soldiers in one photo and asked, "Are soldiers killers?" My husband and I flinched. And then he asked: "Why do people kill?"

Over and over, as such questions arise, I tell my son that people die in wars because so many of us turn our backs on what's going on in the world we live in. I'm all too aware that we stop paying attention to what elected officials do because we've decided we like them (or hate them but can't be bothered by them). I tell him that we're going to keep reading the news and talking about it, because my little family, whatever our arguments, agrees that Americans don't care enough about what war does to the bodies and minds of those who live through it.

Here's the truth of it: we shouldn't be spending this much time, money, and blood on conflicts whose end games are left to the discretion of whoever our increasingly shaky electoral system places in this country's highest office. Until we pressure lawmakers to repeal that 2001 AUMF and end the forever conflicts that have gone with it, America's wars will ensure that our democracy and the rule of law as we know it will make any promises of peace, self-defense, and justice ring hollow.

Don't doubt it for a second. War is a cancer on our democracy.

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, Songlands (the final one in his 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.

Embarrassing Trump video re-emerges after he insists the world 'didn’t laugh' at us when he was president

On Thursday, former President Donald Trump released an angry statement attacking Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker's upcoming book "I Alone Can Fix It." In particular, he took aim at the book's coverage of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) expressing fear he would use nuclear weapons after the election, calling her a "known nut job."

"I was the one that got us out of wars, not into wars," wrote Trump. "And I was the one who got respect for our Country again, not like now when the leaders of the entire World are laughing at us. They didn't laugh when I was there!"

Trump's comments prompted the recirculation of an old video of the former president giving a speech at the United Nations, where global dignitaries literally laughed at him after he said, "In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country."

Trump boast gets laugh at UN

20 years of American occupation in Afghanistan was brutal — the exit will be too

When a reporter in early July asked Joe Biden a question about the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. president sniped back, saying, "I want to talk about happy things, man." Biden revealed, perhaps unintentionally, that the situation in Afghanistan is anything but a happy topic. It might have been one of the most revealing responses from a sitting president about the longest-running war in modern United States history.

The president shifted focus, saying, "The economy is growing faster than anytime in 40 years, we've got a record number of new jobs, COVID deaths are down 90 percent, wages are up faster than any time in 15 years, we're bringing our troops home." The war's end is merely the icing on the cake he is seemingly gifting the American public: an end to a war in addition to peace, prosperity, and health at home (even if such achievements are more marketing than reality).

At the very least, one can give Biden credit for formally ending the U.S. role in the war, even if he had nothing substantive to say about the devastation we have wrought over the years. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus said they "commend President Biden for fulfilling his commitment to ending the longest war in American history" and took his withdrawal of troops to mean that "there is no military solution in Afghanistan." (They made no mention of Biden's role during the Obama presidency in prolonging the war.)

Opponents of the war have known since 2001 that there is no military solution to the U.S.-sponsored fundamentalist violence that had plagued Afghanistan at the time. More such violence—which is largely what the U.S. offered for nearly 20 years—only made things worse.

In announcing the war's end and pivoting to what he deemed were "happy" topics, Biden fed the "propaganda of silence" that my co-author James Ingalls and I referred to in the subtitle of our 2006 book Bleeding Afghanistan. There has long been a deliberate effort to downplay the U.S.'s failures and paint a rosy picture of a war whose victory has always been just around the corner.

But there is no happy ending for Afghans, and there was never meant to be.

Afghans, already weary of never-ending war in 2001, were promised democracy, women's rights, and peace. But instead, the U.S. offered elections, a theoretical liberation of women, and an absence of justice while championing corrupt armed warlords and their militias. In trying to end the debacle, American diplomats refused to involve the (admittedly flawed) Afghan government that they had helped to build as a bulwark against fundamentalism, and instead engaged in peace talks with the Taliban—the same "enemy" of democracy, women, and peace that the U.S. had spent nearly two decades fighting. Now, as the fundamentalist fighters claim more territory than they have controlled in decades, and the Taliban have predictably begun reimposing medieval-era restrictions on women, ordinary Afghans, including women, are taking up arms to fight them. Was this the liberation that the U.S. promised Afghan women?

Even the manner of withdrawing American troops was as shameful as the mess the U.S. is leaving behind. The Associated Press reported that the U.S. military abandoned Bagram Airfield in early July in the dead of night, failing to properly coordinate with the Afghan army commanders who were expecting to take over. After they left, a "small army of looters" rifled through the millions of taxpayer-funded items left behind by American troops including small weapons and ammunition. Later on, one Afghan soldier bitterly told the AP, "In one night, they lost all the goodwill of 20 years by leaving the way they did, in the night, without telling the Afghan soldiers who were outside patrolling the area."

Afghans have every reason to be cynical. "The Americans leave a legacy of failure, they've failed in containing the Taliban or corruption," said one shopkeeper in Bagram. Another auto mechanic told Reuters, "They came with bombing the Taliban and got rid of their regime—but now they have left when the Taliban are so empowered that they will take over any time soon."

Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, explained to me in an interview that there is a likelihood of civil war breaking out but warned, "I think it would be a mistake to see it as a new civil war." Bennis, who is the author of several books including Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror and Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan, added, "This would be in a sense a continuation of the existing civil war."

By that, she meant that for the past 20 years, the U.S. has essentially been inserting itself into an existing civil war between the Taliban and fundamentalist Northern Alliance warlords who had enjoyed previous U.S. support. The Taliban had won that war in 1996, "not because of the extremism of their definitions of religious law, but despite that," said Bennis. But in 2001, after the September 11 attacks, the U.S. restarted that civil war by bombing Afghanistan and bringing the Northern Alliance warlords back into power along with a puppet government in Kabul.

More than 200,000 lives and $2 trillion later, the U.S. is leaving the same basic dynamic largely in place. Most wars are a farce. But if ever there was a textbook case to be made about the futility of war, the 20 years of U.S. militarism in Afghanistan offers a shining example.

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in an opinion piece on repeated the same list of tired and empty achievements that other defenders of the war have made: "the establishment of a democratic government, expanded rights for women, improved education, and successful operations to decimate core Al Qaeda and bring Osama Bin Laden to justice." But then he went on to cite all the ways in which these seeming successes have unraveled and that the only way to prevent the Taliban from fomenting future violence is to "continue counter terrorism operations."

The narrow spectrum of actions that American elites have offered on Afghanistan ranges from Biden's idea to withdraw forces (while pretending everything is happy), to an unending military presence as per Panetta. In other words, Afghans were never meant to have their happy ending. War and militarism do not offer such a solution. One cannot bomb a nation into democracy, women's rights, and peace. Those things are built internally by civil-society-led institutions and networks free from violence, and that are engaged, supported, funded, and nurtured. Over 20 years, the U.S. cared little for such things.

To its credit, the Congressional Progressive Caucus demanded from Biden that in addition to withdrawing troops, "The U.S. must support peace and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan." In their statement, lawmakers said, "we encourage the Biden administration to quickly put in place a multilateral diplomatic strategy for an inclusive, intra-Afghan process to bring about a sustainable peace." But there appears to be little appetite for such solutions within the Biden administration. And Americans remain largely blissfully ambivalent either way.

If only Biden, Panetta, and others had the courage to admit that the war in Afghanistan was ultimately an exercise in American imperialist hubris. It was an expensive and deadly smackdown of a poor nation that dared to host a terrorist faction that attacked the U.S., a costly message to the world that an attack on the U.S. will not go unpunished. That is all it was designed to do, and when histories of the war are written, one can only hope that this stark fact is made crystal clear.

Most ordinary Afghans understand this even if Americans don't. "We have to solve our problem. We have to secure our country and once again build our country with our own hands," said Gen. Mir Asadullah Kohistani, the new commander of Bagram Airfield. Sayed Naqibullah, the shopkeeper interviewed by Reuters, echoed this claim, saying, "In a way, we're happy they've gone… We're Afghans and we'll find our way."

Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.