Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Relentless Push for War


By Reginald Johnson

    Visiting the Pentagon shortly after the Sept. 11th terror attacks in 2001,  retired 4-star General Wesley Clark was shocked to learn from a former colleague that plans were being drawn up to invade Iraq.

   “We’re going to war with Iraq? Why?” Clark asked.

“I don’t know,” said his friend, another general. “I guess they don’t know what else to do,” Clark recounted, in an interview on Democracy Now.

  The general then told Clark that even though the U.S. had no information linking Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to the 911 attacks, top officials were still bent on making war.

  “I guess it’s like we don’t know what to do about terrorists, but we’ve got a good military and we can take down governments,” he said, adding, “I guess if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem has to look like a nail.”

   Clark came back to see the same officer in November, and by that time the U.S. had already started bombing Afghanistan, the home base of the al-Qaeda terrorists who allegedly carried out the 911 attacks.

   “Are we still going to war with Iraq?” Clark asked.

  “Oh, it’s worse than that,” the general replied. Pulling up a piece of paper, he said, “I just got this down from upstairs --- the Secretary of Defense’s office --- today. This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.”

 The document, of course, was classified. A year later when Clark saw the same individual, he reminded him of the memo. The man replied, “Sir, I didn’t show you that memo! I didn’t show it to you!”

  In the 15 years since former General Clark heard the sweeping plan for regime-change abroad, the scenario has in large part become reality.

 Iraq’s government was removed by force by an American invasion and a brutal multi-year war. Libya’s government was also changed at the point of a gun in 2011  after American and NATO forces bombed the country and gave support to a group of insurgents. Long-time leader Mohamed Ghadafi was murdered and a new government formed.

  In Syria, the U.S. and its allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been working for five years to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. and the other nations have been funneling lethal aid to the insurgent coalition, which includes al-Nusra, an Qaeda spin-off, and other jihadists. U.S. planes at the same time are bombing parts of Syria, purportedly to knock out the terrorist group ISIS.

  Making the situation potentially very dangerous, is the fact that Russia is actively involved in assisting Assad, with Russian planes conducting bombing raids against rebel targets.

   The U.S. is also either engaging in or sponsoring military activity in Somalia and Sudan, in order to shape the direction of those countries.

  The effect of this succession of wars and interventions has been staggering. In the Iraq War alone, 4,400 U.S service members were killed. Another 32,000 were injured, with many military personnel having lost legs or arms, making everyday life a struggle.

 Iraqi casualties in the conflict were immense. While estimates vary, several organizations put the Iraqi death toll at over 500,000.

  According to the UN, more than 3 million Iraqis were displaced internally just in the first 3 years of the war. The infrastructure in Iraq --- prior to the war one of the mid-east’s most advanced nations --- has been decimated.

   The dollar cost of the war for the U.S. is astronomical --- $1.6 trillion --- and the figure keeps rising, as on-going costs such as veterans’ medical care, are factored in.

The war in Syria is still not over, but consider the human toll so far: between 300,000 and 500,000 Syrians killed, depending on estimates; 7 million people internally displaced; and 4 million people forced to flee the country, desperately trying to find safety in Europe and the United States.

  Considering the terrible impacts of wars and interventions perpetrated by the United States, you would think that there might be a growing consensus here that there’s been enough war, enough conflict, enough foreign “crises” and it’s time to start building bridges.

  But that’s not the case.

 While polling does show that a majority of the American people are weary of war and oppose sending more troops into hot spots like the Middle East, political and media elites and officials of the State and Defense Departments have other ideas.
 While Obama administration officials have talked of making a cease-fire work in Syria and finally bringing peace to that country, the reality is that they keep providing aid to the anti-government groups, and in some cases are advocating direct U.S. air attacks on the Assad forces.
 Recently, a so-called “dissent cable” was circulated in the State Department calling for U.S. strikes against the Syrian military as a means of ending the conflict and forcing Assad out. Signed by 51 diplomats, it was called a dissent memo since it didn’t reflect the  publicly-stated views of Secretary of State John Kerry.

  However, as national security writer Gareth Porter noted in an article in Consortium on June 26 entitled “The Dissent Memo that Isn’t,”  the signers of the memo knew that Kerry --- the one-time Vietnam War critic --- has been privately advocating open military strikes against Assad’s forces since 2013. His plan for air attacks has been rejected so far by Obama.

  But should Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president, win the November election, direct American attacks against Syria may become reality. Robert Parry, the editor of Consortium News who’s covered American foreign policy for 30 years, said that a Hillary Clinton administration “is expected to authorize an illegal invasion of Syria --- under the guise of establishing ‘no-fly zones’ and ‘safe zones’ which will mean the slaughter of young Syrian soldiers.”

  The publication of the memo by The New York Times coincided with the release of a report by a Washington think tank with close ties to Hillary Clinton, Porter said. The Center for New American Security (CNAS) report called for a U.S. policy to ‘threaten and execute limited strikes against the Assad regime’ and for dispatching ‘several thousand’ U.S. troops to Syria.

  The CNAS study group that wrote the report was co-chaired by CNAS co-founder Michele Flournoy, a former high-ranking Defense Department official. According to Porter, Fournoy  “is now regarded as the most likely choice for Defense Secretary in a Hillary Clinton administration.”

   Any further involvement by the U.S. in terms of bombing Assad’s forces carries the obvious risk of touching off a confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia.

 But the possibility of creating a wider war with Russia --- possibly a nuclear war which could end life on the planet --- doesn’t seem to faze many foreign policy officials in Washington.

  Parry said of State Department officers: “These hawks are so eager for more war that they don’t mind risking a direct conflict with Russia, breezily dismissing the possibility of a clash with the nuclear power by saying that they are ‘not advocating for a slippery slope that ends in a military confrontation with Russia.’ That’s reassuring to hear.”

  The possibility for more war also exists in another theatre --- in the  Ukraine and the Baltics.

  American leaders and their colleagues in NATO --- the anachronistic military alliance dating from the years of the Iron Curtain --- seem to be itching for a fight with Russia.

  Declaring that Russia represents some new kind of menace in Europe based on cooked-up charges of “aggression” in Crimea, U.S. and NATO military leaders have taken some unusual and highly provocative actions this year. In June, NATO undertook its largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War, with tens of thousands of soldiers from 24 countries taking part in war games in northern Poland. NATO officials said member countries had to prepare for a possible attack by Russia.

  In Romania, the U.S. and NATO recently set up an $800 million missile defense shield, which could intercept incoming missiles. NATO officials claimed the system was designed as protection against missiles from “rogue states” like Iran, but the system is really aimed at Russia, and the Russians took it as such. Russian officials said that NATO was trying to achieve “military and political containment” of their nation.

   Romania is a particularly sensitive area for Russia, since it borders the Black Sea, where the Russian naval fleet is based.


 Many of the people who are driving the current foreign policy related to the Middle East, Russia and China as well are neo-conservatives. This group believes that the U.S. must use its power aggressively to protect its interests around the world and maintain U.S. dominance. This may include the use of  “preventive” force, to overthrow a regime deems as a problem. Such was the case with the invasion of Iraq, where Saddam Hussein was seen as an unstable and uncontrollable leader who threatened U.S. and Israeli interests in the region.

  Neo-conservatives appear to view both Russia and China as “threats” --- even though there is little hard evidence of this --- and are backing  confrontational tactics in dealing with both those nations.

   There are a number of “neo-cons,” as they are known, in the Obama administration, both in the State Department and Defense Department. There are also many neo-con voices in the media, particularly at The New York Times and Washington Post.

  The Times and the Post have run numerous editorials criticizing Russia for “aggression” in taking over Crimea in 2014 --- even though a huge majority of Crimeans voted in a referendum, understandably, to break away from the neo-fascist coup government in Ukraine and rejoin Russia. The papers have also run a number of hit pieces demonizing Russian President Vladimir Putin.

  With her Senate vote in favor of the Iraq War, her push as Secretary of State for the illegal Libya intervention and now as a presidential candidate supporting a possible military intervention in Syria, Hillary Clinton is considered closely aligned with neo-con views.

  Clinton’s pro-war views have gotten far too little attention during the election campaign. The media for the most part has steered away from asking tough questions about foreign policy and exactly what she advocates going forward.

   Her opponent, Republican Donald Trump, has raised some valid points about the failures of U.S. foreign policy and suggested we should extend an olive branch to Vladimir Putin and try to work with Russia. He’s also said we should now pull back from overseas interventions. This is a welcome approach, and should be taken seriously.

  But Trump has gotten little traction with his comments on foreign policy, due to anger over the numerous backwards positions he’s taken on domestic issues, such as immigration and the rights of Muslims.

  Trump has also undermined his case for a less confrontational foreign policy by advocating a “stronger military.” The U.S. military is already far and away the strongest on earth. The U.S. spends $600 billion a year on the military --- we don’t need to spend more or enlarge our forces.

  As the presidential election campaign proceeds, it is crucial that the media ask the hard questions of both Clinton and Trump about exactly what their foreign policy is, where they stand with respect to both Syria and Russia, and whether they would consider new military interventions.

  The stakes couldn’t be higher.

 The United States and the world can ill afford more war.



Monday, May 16, 2016

Media Bias on Syria


 By Reginald Johnson

    Over the past several years, traditional rules of journalistic fairness and objectivity seem to have disappeared on the subject of Syria.

  American reporters and commentators repeatedly present just one side of the conflict --- the American side --- and little else. Syrian leader Bashar al—Assad is portrayed as a demon, carrying out a brutal campaign to retain power in a fight with rebel forces, who are being aided by the United States.

  When terrible things happen in this conflict, such as civilians getting bombed or poisoned, the blame is always laid at the doorstep of the Syrian government. Claims of misdeeds by Assad’s forces are spit out almost word for word from State Department releases. There’s rarely any attempt to seek comment or get the Syrian side of the story.

  In these reports or commentaries, there’s rarely any mention of the fact that the United States has been involved in Syria for five years, first covertly aiding the anti-Assad forces, some of whom are al-Qaeda spinoffs, and now bombing areas held by the terrorist group, ISIS. There’s no mention in the reporting that the American presence is completely illegal under international law, since Syria never attacked the U.S., the United Nations never authorized any intervention, and Syria never gave permission to the Americans to conduct bombing raids against ISIS in its sovereign territory.

  The United States is simply there in Syria, along with its “NATO allies” because it thinks it has the automatic right to be there, and the terrible Mr. Assad and ISIS, must be removed.

  The New York Times on April 29 ran a piece entitled “Divided Syrian City Plunges Back Into War as Hospital Is Destroyed,” which was an example of the one-sided reporting. The story described the carnage that resulted from an air attack on the al-Quds hospital in Aleppo, which resulted in 27 deaths, including children and staff. The article, written by a reporter in Beirut, simply said that “government forces” had carried out the attack, according to “witnesses and health workers.” There was no comment from the government.

  The bombing of a hospital is certainly a terrible crime, and it is in fact a war crime. It may well be true that Assad’s forces are guilty of this horrendous attack. But isn’t it incumbent on the newspaper reporting this information to get a response from the alleged perpetrator? Just because they are likely to deny the claim doesn’t mean you don’t try to get their side.

  The article later said that “groups such as Physicians for Human Rights” maintain that they had tracked “a deliberate targeting of health services by government forces.”

   Now this is a sweeping claim, that the government is deliberately bombing health facilities, committing multiple war crimes. It cries out for additional verification, statements from other named sources, any witnesses or corroboration by an independent journalist who investigated the charges. It also demands a response from the government. But none of that was in the Times’ story.

  Also left out of this article was context. There should have been some background given --- that this is a five-year-old conflict, with rebels aided by the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, attempting to overthrow Assad, and the government, aided by Russia (whose help Assad requested) and Hezbollah and Iran trying to keep Assad in power.

   Another one-sided report came surprisingly in a piece by Chris Hayes of MSNBC, on May 5.  Taking the word of the State Department that the Syrian government was responsible for the al-Quds hospital attack, Hayes blasted the Assad regime for what he said were repeated human rights violations.

   Hayes said the Syrian leader had “engaged in one of the most ghastly campaigns of slaughter and war crimes in this century and there is no just solution or any solution for the horror of Syria that does not hold him accountable.”

  Hayes' statement seemed to mirror the Obama administration's position that there could be no settlement in Syria unless Assad is removed.

   Hayes, like the Times, didn’t provide any response from a Syrian representative and failed to mention that the United States was deeply involved in the Syrian conflict, funneling arms to anti-government forces, and prolonging the war.

The MSNBC commentator noted with disgust that the Syrian government had been responsible for 183,827 deaths since the conflict began, without breaking that number down between combatants and civilians, and without giving a source.

 But a lot of other people have been killed in this conflict, also. According to the UN, about 100,000 government or pro-government fighters have been killed by the U.S.-backed forces, but that fact apparently wasn’t worth mentioning in Hayes’ report. Are members of the government military not people too?

  CNN has often presented a slanted view on foreign affairs, and their Syrian coverage has fit the pattern. The network has consistently aired reports giving a pro-America, rebel perspective, while casting Assad and his allies, like Russia, in a negative light.
  Just last week Wolf Blitzer ran a segment on Russia’s continuing involvement in Syria, months after Russian President Vladimir Putin said his nation was going to withdraw some of its forces. While showing a video captioned “Russia still has a strong military presence in Syria,” a reporter said that “Violence still rages in most of the countryside. Conciliation seems nowhere in sight and neither is an end to Russia's involvement in the conflict.”
   Neither the reporter nor Blitzer bothered to note America’s continuing involvement in Syria --- that U.S. planes have been bombing the Syrian countryside since last fall, that 250 special forces were recently sent to Syria allegedly to fight ISIS, and that U.S. proxies Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been giving weaponry to the anti-Assad forces for years.
  I’m wondering if CNN will ever run a news video with the caption “America still bombing Syria.”
   I don’t think so.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Freedom of Speech and Donald Trump



By Reginald Johnson

   Does Donald Trump have freedom of speech like all other Americans?

  Yes, unfortunately he does.

 Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our system, stemming from the very first amendment to the Constitution, which bars Congress from passing any law which would abridge that right.

  In the U.S., you can pretty much say or write anything, unless you’re advocating something illegal.

This separates our system from a lot of other places, where if you criticize the government or some high official too much, you could wind up in jail or worse.

  It’s very important to protect the first amendment. Without it, our constitutional system is shot.

  That’s why it’s a bit concerning that some protesters have gotten it into their heads that the best way to combat Trump and his offensive views is by showing up at his rallies and either shouting him down or interrupting him so many times that he can’t effectively communicate.

   The New York Times reported that at a recent event in New Orleans, Trump’s speech was interrupted repeatedly. The Times wrote “an almost continual stream of protesters interrupted a Trump event, sometimes dropping to the ground to make guards drag them out, or heckling back at Mr. Trump’s supporters with their own crude language and gestures.”

  Other campaign events by Trump have also been interrupted on multiple occasions.

  Some protesters said after the aborted Trump rally in Chicago that they had successfully “shut down” Trump’s appearance, set for an arena at the University of Illinois. The rally had drawn hundreds of protesters inside the arena, and the Trump campaign cancelled the event just after the candidate was scheduled to speak. The event descended into chaos after the announcement, with Trump supporters and protesters yelling at each other and exchanging punches.

  “Shutting down” free speech is not a good thing, no matter what you think of the person doing the speaking.

  Anyone running for office has a right to make their case. People who don’t like their views don’t have the right to prevent that.

  Let me say right here I do not like Donald Trump. He's shown himself to be bigoted, denigrating Mexican and Muslim immigrants and hesitating at one point to repudiate KKK leader David Duke. Except for a few remarks he’s made about the need to avoid overseas interventions and his opposition to trade treaties (not expressed very coherently), I have no use for this man.

   He’s also made irresponsible remarks about protesters, saying he wouldn’t care if they got punched out or remarking that “in the old days” they’d take demonstrators “out on a stretcher.”

  He also said he would pay the legal fees for anyone who beat up a protester who was “getting ready to throw a tomato.”

  These inflammatory remarks may well have fueled some incidents of violence, notably the sucker-punching of a demonstrator by a Trump supporter as the protester was being removed from a rally. Trump said last weekend that he didn’t want to see any violence at his events, but he refused to criticize the man who threw the punch.

  For his views and his incendiary remarks, Trump deserves to be condemned. The question is where and when.

 If a candidate from any party has obtained a hall or space to hold a campaign rally and make his or her pitch on why they should be elected, that person and his supporters should not be subjected to protests in the same area.

 However, it is entirely appropriate to hold demonstrations or protests outside the hall or space. Opponents of Trump should hold mass demonstrations outside the venues where Trump is going to speak. Protest rallies with hundreds or thousands of people will get press attention.  Critics can set up soft picket lines outside Trump events, carry placards, hand out leaflets and try to buttonhole event-goers and tell them why Trump is not a good candidate.

 Opponents can also take out ads in the paper, write letters, and write op-eds criticizing Trump.

  There’s plenty of ways to show opposition to candidates besides engaging in blocking tactics at campaign rallies.

  Should anti-Trump protesters continue their efforts at interrupting speeches, it is likely that opponents of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders will decide to return the favor and show up at rallies for those candidates and disrupt their speeches. Campaign rallies could degenerate into circuses, which is not fair to either to the candidates trying to make their case or the people who came to hear what they have to say.




Saturday, February 27, 2016

Raise Taxes on Corporations and the Wealthy


By Reginald Johnson

  There’s a sorry spectacle going on right now in Connecticut, the wealthiest state in the nation.

   The state’s governor and some mayors are going around like paupers, hat in hand, saying they’re broke and can’t pay the bills.

  Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told the legislature that revenues are down this year, and as a result there needs to be $570 million cut in the state’s two-budget. Malloy is proposing to lay off 1,000 people from the state workforce, and has told agency heads to come up with ways to cut their budgets by over 5 percent.  The governor also said higher education has to be cut by $40 million.

   In the state’s largest city, Bridgeport, Mayor Joseph P. Ganim said the city is facing a $20 million budget deficit. Ganim is hinting that union contracts may have to be “restructured” --- meaning wages and benefits will have to slashed.

   Bridgeport schools --- which are funded with both city and state money --- are also facing a financial crisis. Schools Superintendent Fran Rabinowitz said the system has a $15 million budget deficit.

  You would think that in a state like Connecticut, you wouldn’t hear these cries of poverty. Connecticut has a lot of wealth.  The state is number one among all states in per capita income. It is ranked one of the highest in median household income. It is the home of many billionaires, some multi-billionaires.

  The state is home to many Fortune 500 corporations which enjoy substantial profits.

   All that personal and corporate wealth could be taxed a lot more, but it's not.

   Right now, corporations pay at a modest 9 percent rate on their income. Taxes from corporations account for just 4.6 percent of the state's revenue.

   For wealthy residents of the state, Connecticut's income tax is really not much of a worry. The top income tax rate for the state's highest earners is 6.7 percent.

A mansion in Southport. Connecticut has the highest per capita income in the nation.

  Politics has a lot to do with why the rich and big corporations aren’t taxed more. Large companies and the wealthy spread their money around for political candidates, and those who benefit are averse to raising taxes on their donors. The attitude is, don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

   Corporations and wealthy individuals also scare state officials by talking about leaving Connecticut if taxes are raised.

   Citing the decision by General Electric to pull its headquarters out of Fairfield and relocate to Boston --- a decision company officials said was driven in part by the lure of a better tax deal in Massachusetts --- Gov. Malloy said the state must avoid raising corporate taxes and keep Connecticut ‘business friendly.’

  It is true that in some cases big corporations and a few very wealthy people will leave Connecticut if their taxes go up. There’s no question that corporations around the country for years have played the game of “hopscotch” --- jumping from one state to another, or even leaving the U.S. altogether, to go where there’s a better tax deal, or where wages are lower.  Corporations hold states hostage with their threats to leave if taxes are raised.

  It’s going to take some changes on the federal level to start restricting the ability of corporations ---  those that are profitable and employ a lot of people --- to just up and leave a state and go somewhere else simply to make more money. What’s needed is a law that provides for a stiff financial penalty to be levied on a corporation that wants to leave. One idea is to pass a law which requires corporations to pay a 40 percent charge on profits to the states they're exiting.

   Such a penalty would make some corporations think twice about leaving, or if they still wanted to move, it would at least give the state they were leaving some compensation for the economic hardship the company was causing

  Unfortunately, that type of penalty is not in place yet. Hopefully, penalties or other restrictions on corporate activity will be put into effect as more and more people see the harm that corporations cause through relocations.

  But right now Connecticut has to deal with the cards it’s been dealt. Even though it’s a risk, I believe corporations should be made to pay more. Surely, it would not be that onerous that companies pay another 1 percent, boosting the corporate income tax rate to 10 percent.

  And wealthy individuals can certainly pay more than 6.7 percent on their state income tax bill. A 10 percent rate would be appropriate. A person making say $5 million in a year, and there’s plenty of those here, would pay $500,000 to the state. I think that person would still have a lot left over, even after paying federal taxes.

 The need to raise additional revenue from corporations and the wealthy is a moral issue as well as a practical one. Those who are able to pay more should pay more, simply because there’s less hardship for them to do so.

People waiting for food donations in Bridgeport. The city has high social service costs and a weak tax base.

  Ideas being tossed around now like raising the sales tax rate, bringing tolls back, or increasing various use taxes to close the budget deficit only penalize the middle class and poor --- those least able to pay.

   Another key step has to be taken to raise more money for government operations, particularly on the local level. Tax exemptions have to be ended for private universities or colleges that are financially well-off.  The tax exempt status for churches and houses of worship also has to end.

   Cities like Bridgeport and New Haven are losing huge amounts of money due to tax exemptions. Yale University in New Haven, which is very well endowed, is a prime example of a tax exempt institution that is getting nearly a free ride in terms of paying for both local and state services.

   Yale has an endowment of $25.6 billion. The college also has.$2.5 billion worth of properties throughout New Haven, according to city officials. But the university doesn’t pay a dime in local property tax.

  While Yale does make voluntary payments to the city for police and fire services, that amount is far less than what they would pay in property taxes if the college was not tax exempt. (Educational institutions are tax exempt under state law).

  All in all, Connecticut has the potential to garner a lot more revenue to fund needed government operations. The political will has to be summoned to make the needed legal changes to do this.

  The mantra you hear from leaders like Gov. Malloy that somehow a well-off state like Connecticut "can't afford" to pay for higher ed and needed social services is completely wrong.

  People should not stand for it.