A still uncertain election

Jack Smith writes:

Is it possible that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump will self-destruct well before the election?  It certainly looked that way, given one major blunder after another in the days after his nomination at the July 18–21 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Here’s another question: Or is it possible he can win? Both options are still on the table because despite voting polls both candidates continue to remain unpopular with the majority of Americans.

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Neocons in their death throes, increase the chances of a Trump win

Justin Raimondo, editor at Anti-War, and historian of the Conservative/Neoconservative movement, argues that the latest moves by neocon maven Bill Kristol to destroy Trump and the GOP will turn the 2016 US election into a referendum on Trump and, as a result, may well backfire:

When one thinks of the neoconservatives what comes to mind is their warmongering, and they have indeed been the War Party’s brains since their incubation inside the Democratic party and their defection to the GOP during the Vietnam era. Yet there are other aspects of the neooconservative mind – or, rather, the neoconservative personality – that are significant, and one of these is their viciousness.

These guys (and gals) fight dirty: the smear, the ad hominem argument, is their signature method. Remember the campaign against Chuck Hagel that targeted him as an “anti-Semite” They lost that one, yet they are not the type to change their ways. They tried the same tack with Donald Trump, throwing every smear in the book at him, and their reaction to his amazing victory in the primaries underscores both the primal hatred they feel for their enemies, and their obsession with control of the institutions they infiltrate.

For many months now, Bill Kristol, the neocons’ little Lenin, has been trying to gin up a fifth party candidate who will take enough votes away from Trump to deny him the White House. First there was Mitt Romney, and then was Sen. Ben Saase being floated as the chosen sacrificial lamb, and when they demurred the Kristolians turned to one David French, a scribbler for National Review – who backed out after a week.

But now, finally, the #NeverTrump movement – which was always a neocon front group – has come forth with a willing candidate: Evan McMullin, a 40-something year-old former CIA agent, former House Republican foreign policy director, and former investment banker at Goldman Sachs.

To be sure, the McMullin campaign won’t be emphasizing the Goldman Sachs connection: the candidate’s Twitter bio merely mentions that he has been a “businessman.” And with good reason: memories of the Big Bank Bailout are still fresh in the minds of the very constituency he hopes to cultivate. And McMullin’s role at Goldman Sachs was in the investment banking division, where the underwriting of foreign government bonds and some pretty dicey financial shenanigans occur mostly in the dark.

He is the archetypal neoconservative: a full-bore interventionist, who is clearly making foreign policy the centerpiece of his campaign, citing his experience in “fighting terrorism” as his chief talking point – aside, that is, from attacking Trump almost exclusively. In a speech he declared that the US role is to police the world in order to stop “genocide.” Echoing the new cold war rhetoric of the Clinton campaign, and his former boss, ex-CIA director Michael Morrell, he declares that Trump is “bought and paid for by Vladimir Putin.” And as a key player in the neocon wing of the CIA, which ginned up phony “intelligence” to drag us into the Iraq war, McMullin wants us to re-invade Iraq, overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and longs for a US confrontation with Russia in eastern Europe.

He is, in short, the perfect neocon candidate, which is why Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard back him to the hilt.

What is the purpose of the McMullin campaign? After all, as ballot access expert Richard Winger informs us, at this late date he could only petition for ballot status in less than half the states – and so his stated aim, the White House, is impossible. Yes, this piece in National Review lays out a scenario where the election is thrown into the House of Representatives and McMullin comes away with the prize – but how likely is that? I would say next to impossible.

So if McMullin in the White House isn’t going to happen, even under the most favorable circumstances, then what is the point of his candidacy?

There are three goals, and they are, in descending order of importance:

1) Deny Trump the White House – The neocons hate Trump, as their voluble participation in the Never Trump movement makes clear enough. They hate his populism; they hate his “America First” foreign policy. And they hate him personally: his “blue collar billionaire” persona offends their delicate sensibilities in the same way it offends their brothers-under-the-skin, the liberal elites of which they are a dissident faction.

2) Assert their power – The neocons have been having a very rough time of it lately. The Iraq war discredited them, and, indeed, made the word “neocon” synonymous with warmongering loser and liar par excellence. By raising their independent banner in this election, they are showing the world that they’re still around, and still a force to be reckoned with.

3) Destroy the GOP – The neocons cannot let a Trumpified Republican party stand. Trump’s “America First” foreign policy views – which are essentially “isolationist,” i.e. noninterventionist – are anathema to them. In this long rant by #NeverTrump GOP operative Rick Wilson, a key player in the “Better for America” PAC that is backing McMullin, writes:

“When it’s over, Trumpkins, remember: You’re not purging us. We’re purging you.”

This is nonsense: what the Republican primaries showed is that the power of the neocons to determine who is to be “purged” and who is to be anointed is over. Bush Republicanism is a dead as phrenology and non-Copernican theories of the solar system. In short, Republican primary voters, like most Americans, are sick and tired of endless wars, and elitist domestic policy, which is another reason why the McMullin campaign is going to go nowhere. It’s why Marco Rubio went nowhere. And it’s why any Republican candidate who takes his or her talking points from the latest issue of the Weekly Standard won’t stand a chance in the GOP primaries of the future.

Some of the neocons – the ones who value proximity to power over their ostensible commitment to the Republican party – recognize this, and moved quickly to endorse Hillary Clinton. Kristol and his followers, however, are reluctant to give up their hard-won gains in the GOP, and, in a fit of pique, are trying to organize a rearguard defense, which, even if it doesn’t succeed, gives them sufficient cover so that they don’t reveal themselves for the unprincipled power-seekers they truly are. If they can’t continue to control the Republican party, then it must be destroyed – and this is where their inherent viciousness comes into play.

“Rule or ruin” has always been the operative strategic principle of the neoconservatives. If you go back into their history, their long rightward hegira didn’t begin in the Democratic party, but on the far left fringes of American politics – in the Trotskyist movement. (I wrote about this at length in my book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement.) Their strategic vision has always been organized around the tactic of “entryism” – an old Trotskyist trick, in which they enter a larger body, infiltrate the leadership, and then either seize the reins of power or else destroy their unwilling host.

This is what happened back in the 1930s, when Trotsky urged his followers to infiltrate the old Socialist Party. The original neocons (including Bill Kristol’s father, Irving) were “anti-Stalinist socialists,” followers of Max Shachtman, who eventually wound up in the Democratic party. Centered around Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Boeing), the neocons quit the Democratic party during the Vietnam war era, and entered the GOP. This replicated the strategy of the Trotskyists in the 1930s, who abandoned their independent existence as an isolated Marxist sect and entered the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas.

The idea was to increase their ranks and, if they couldn’t take over the party, split from it greatly enhanced. They stayed in the Socialist Party about a year, until their endless factionalism caused them to be expelled. James P. Cannon, their longtime leader, summing up the Trotskyist incursion, boasted that not only had they doubled their membership, but they had also knocked out the Socialists as a viable party:

“The Socialist Party was put on the sidelines. This was a great achievement, because it was an obstacle in the path of building a revolutionary party. The problem is not merely one of building a revolutionary party, but of clearing obstacles from its path. Every other party is a rival, every other party is an obstacle.”

In summing up the results of their entry, Cannon reported that Trotsky “said that alone would have justified the entry into the organization even if we hadn’t gained a single new member.”

“Every other party is a rival, every other party is an obstacle” – and must be destroyed. And surely a Republican party that doesn’t buy into the new cold war with Russia, doesn’t want to invade Syria, and raises the banner of “America First” – the old slogan of American anti-interventionists, so hated by the neocons – is going to be targeted for destruction by Kristol & Co. And that is precisely the purpose of the McMullin campaign: the end of the GOP as a viable national party.

However, as usual, the neocons may be biting off their noses to spite their faces. Because the entry of McMullin into the race means that there are now no less than four anti-Trump candidates vying for votes. And if, like me, you see this election as a referendum on Trump, with the GOP candidate dominating and defining the election-year discourse, then that means the anti-Trump vote is going to be split four ways, with McMullin, Libertarian Gary Johnson, Green Party nominee Jill Stein, and of course Hillary divvying up the #NeverTrump electorate. Which means that Trump, in spite of his terrible poll numbers, could pull this off in spite of everything.

And I have to wonder how long before Trump, with his capacity for inventing insulting and very effective nicknames for his opponents, comes up with a good one for McMullin. If I may make a suggestion: the shaved head, and the mockery-inducing pretentious solemnity of what is clearly a spoiler candidacy, practically beg us to call him Egghead McMuffin.

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The Winds of Change In Egypt: from Britain this time

The British Home Office has issued a new document specifically addressing asylum in Britain for Egyptian Muslim Brothers, in a rejection of David Cameron’s previous antagonistic policies towards the movement.

The document is flawed, however, and reveals the mind-boggling dependence of the British Home Office on the narrow-minded mindset and contradictory stances of Washington beltway think-tanks. Although it does too little too late and finally displays some concern about the mountains of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports of human rights abuses in Egypt, really what it does is to pull the rug from under the feet of the Sisi régime, which Britain had previously been instrumental in propping up.

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New British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on Egypt Crisis

Alex MacDonald writes

Up until April, the UK has primarily focused on economic investment and issues relating to regional security when dealing with Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s government. The government has experienced an overhaul after the June EU referendum, with Theresa May installed as the new prime minister.

Her new foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, on Tuesday stated there was a “burgeoning crisis” in Egypt. Some commentators have suggested that Johnson was confusing Egypt with Turkey in its post-coup instability.

“We have very serious issues before us today we have an unfolding humanitarian crisis in Syria that is getting worse. We have a crisis in Yemen that is intractable and a burgeoning crisis on Egypt, and those are to my mind far more important than any obiter dicta you may have disinterred from 30 years of journalism,” he said in a heated exchange with an American journalist who had taken him to task over his comments referring to US President Barack Obama’s “part-Kenyan” ancestry.

According to the MailOnline, the FCO later said that Johnson had intended to say Egypt, although there was no elaboration on what “crisis” he was referring to in that case.

An FCO spokesperson told MEE that the designation of Egypt as Human Rights Priority Country came “in light of the deterioration in the human rights situation in 2015.”

“The “step-change” referred to in the report was the decision we took to raise Egypt at the UN Human Rights Council session in June,” said the spokesperson. “This decision is commensurate with our growing concern over the human rights situation in Egypt.  New funding has been approved for projects to support human rights in Egypt and work will begin soon.”

The spokesperson also confirmed that Johnson had been referring to Egypt, adding that the “challenges facing the country and the wider region are well known.”

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The Ruining of Egypt

The Economist is upset at the inability of the 2013 US/British-backed coup in Egypt to bring financial returns and writes:

IN EGYPT they are the shabab al-ahawe, “coffee-shop guys”; in Algeria they are the hittistes, “those who lean with their backs to the wall”; in Morocco they go by the French term, diplômés chômeurs, “graduate-jobless”. Across the Arab world the ranks of the young and embittered are swelling.

In most countries a youth bulge leads to an economic boom. But Arab autocrats regard young people as a threat—and with reason. Better educated than their parents, wired to the world and sceptical of political and religious authority, the young were at the forefront of the uprisings of 2011. They toppled rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and alarmed the kings and presidents of many other states.

Now, with the exception of Tunisia, those countries have either slid into civil war or seen their revolutions rolled back. The lot of young Arabs is worsening: it has become harder to find a job and easier to end up in a cell. Their options are typically poverty, emigration or, for a minority, jihad.

This is creating the conditions for the next explosion. Nowhere is the poisonous mix of demographic stress, political repression and economic incompetence more worrying than in Egypt under its strongman, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

Battle of the youth bulge

As our briefing on young Arabs sets out (see Briefing), the Middle East is where people are most pessimistic and most fearful that the next generation will fare worse than the current one. Arab populations are growing exceptionally fast. Although the proportion who are aged 15-24 peaked at 20% of the total of 357m in 2010, the absolute number of young Arabs will keep growing, from 46m in 2010 to 58m in 2025.

As the largest Arab state, Egypt is central to the region’s future. If it succeeds, the Middle East will start to look less benighted; if it fails, today’s mayhem will turn even uglier. A general who seized power in a coup in 2013, Mr Sisi has proved more repressive than Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in the Arab spring; and he is as incompetent as Muhammad Morsi, the elected Islamist president, whom Mr Sisi deposed (this is a necessary meme for The Economist.- ed.).

The regime is bust, sustained only by generous injections of cash from Gulf states (and, to a lesser degree, by military aid from America). Even with billions of petrodollars, Egypt’s budget and current-account deficits are gaping, at nearly 12% and 7% of GDP respectively. For all of Mr Sisi’s nationalist posturing, he has gone beret in hand to the IMF for a $12 billion bail-out (see article).

Youth unemployment now stands at over 40%. The government is already bloated with do-nothing civil servants; and in Egypt’s sclerotic, statist economy, the private sector is incapable of absorbing the legions of new workers who join the labour market each year. Astonishingly, in Egypt’s broken system university graduates are more likely to be jobless than the country’s near-illiterate.

Egypt’s economic woes stem partly from factors beyond the government’s control. Low oil prices affect all Arab economies, including net energy importers that depend on remittances. Wars and terrorism have kept tourists away from the Middle East. Past errors weigh heavily, too, including the legacy of Arab socialism and the army’s vast business interests.

But Mr Sisi is making things worse. He insists on defending the Egyptian pound, to avoid stoking inflation and bread riots. He thinks he can control the cost of food, much of which is imported, by propping up the currency. But capital controls have failed to prevent the emergence of a black market for dollars (the Egyptian pound trades at about two-thirds of its official value), and has also created shortages of imported spare parts and machinery. This is stoking inflation anyway (14% and rising). It is also hurting industry and scaring away investors.

Sitting astride the Suez Canal, one of the great trade arteries of the world, Egypt should be well placed to benefit from global commerce. Yet it lies in the bottom half of the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business index. Rather than slashing red tape to set loose his people’s talents, Mr Sisi pours taxpayers’ cash into grandiose projects. He has expanded the Suez Canal, yet its revenues have fallen. Plans for a new Dubai-like city in the desert lie buried in the sand. A proposed bridge to connect Egypt to Saudi Arabia sparked protests after Mr Sisi promised to hand back two Saudi islands long controlled by Egypt.

Even Mr Sisi’s Arab bankrollers appear to be losing patience. Advisers from the United Arab Emirates have gone home, frustrated by an ossified bureaucracy and a knucklehead leadership that thinks Egypt needs no advice from upstart Gulfies—mere “semi-states” that have “money like rice”, as Mr Sisi and his aides are heard to say in a leaked audio tape.

Better the general you know?

Such is Egypt’s strategic importance that the world has little choice but to deal with Mr Sisi. But the West should treat him with a mixture of pragmatism, persuasion and pressure. It should stop selling Egypt expensive weapons it neither needs nor can afford, be they American F-16 jets or French Mistral helicopter-carriers. Any economic help should come with strict conditions: the currency should ultimately be allowed to float; the civil service has to be slimmed; costly and corruption-riddled subsidy schemes should be phased out. The poorest should in time be compensated through direct payments.

All this should be done gradually. Egypt is too fragile, and the Middle East too volatile, for shock therapy. The Egyptian bureaucracy would anyway struggle to enact radical change. Yet giving a clear direction for reform would help to restore confidence in Egypt’s economy. Gulf Arabs should insist on such changes—and withhold some rice if Mr Sisi resists.

For the time being talk of another uprising, or even of another coup to get rid of Mr Sisi, has abated. Caught by surprise in 2011, the secret police are even more diligent in sniffing out and scotching dissent. But the demographic, economic and social pressures within Egypt are rising relentlessly. Mr Sisi cannot provide lasting stability. Egypt’s political system needs to be reopened. A good place to start would be for Mr Sisi to announce that he will not stand again for election in 2018 (fat chance – ed.).