Monthly Archives: June 2016

The Debasing Spectacle of US elections

The US election cycle is a way of absorbing the political energies of the American people in a brief and pointless exercise in showmanship to the detriment of consistent and long-term political action.

Paul Street writes:

I spoke last April at San Diego State University about what two clever Left political scientists there rightly called “the debasing spectacle” of the 2016 presidential election. I was asked to address four and excellent, thought-provoking questions, each of which are highlighted in boldface in the essay below, followed by my latest and best answers (updated for subsequent developments) in somewhat extensive written form. The questions: (1) What is the state of American democracy today? (2) What is the role of the two major U.S. parties? (3) What impact are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders having on the party system? (4) What is the way forward?

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U.N. Chief Admits He Removed Saudi Arabia From Child-Killer List Due to Extortion

Alex Emmons and Zaid Jilani write

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon publicly acknowledged Thursday that he removed the Saudi-led coalition currently bombing Yemen from a blacklist of child killers — 72 hours after it was published — due to a financial threat to defund United Nations programs.

The secretary-general didn’t name the source of the threat, but news reports have indicated it came directly from the Saudi government.

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As Israel destroys EU projects, both camps in Brexit debate stay quiet

Daud Abdulla writes

The upcoming referendum on whether Britain should remain in or leave the European Union (EU) is, undoubtedly, one of the defining political moments of this generation. With less than two weeks to go before the historic poll, though, the standard of debate has failed to rise to a level that matches the occasion. Instead, it has been overshadowed by bitter personality rows and rivalries. The result is that issues are, at best, discussed glibly or, even worse, ignored altogether.

One of the main arguments made by the Vote Leave – “Brexit” – campaign is that membership of the EU is a waste of public finances. Leading pro-Brexit campaigners like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove claim that Britain sends about £50 million per day to Brussels. A poster on the Vote Leave battle-bus sums up the grievance thus: “We send the EU £350m a week, let’s fund the National Health Service (NHS) instead.”

At first glance the figures seem compelling enough. However, the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Andrew Dilnott, has warned that they are not only suspect but “potentially misleading.” If they were inflated, as the Remain camp argues, it would not be the first time that politicians have “sexed up” data to force the nation to adopt a certain position. In 2003, the government of Tony Blair did it, scandalously so, with an intelligence dossier to make the case for war against Iraq, claiming that Saddam Hussain had the capability to use weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of the order being given.

To the same degree that campaigners do not hesitate to deploy misinformation in order to sway public opinion, they are never keen to discuss issues beyond their comfort zones. Israel’s destruction of EU-funded projects in Palestine is a case in point. Why, it is fair to ask, should British taxpayers support the EU when it cannot safeguard its own aid projects? And why do Gove and Johnson not highlight this as an example of EU waste? They are both pro-Israel, of course, and unable to bring themselves to criticise the Zionist state.

A report published this week by the Euro-Mediterranean Monitor for Human Rights revealed that since the 2015 EU decision to label products from Israel’s illegal settlements, the Israeli security forces have increased dramatically their demolition and confiscation of EU-funded projects in occupied Palestine. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (UN OCHA) there were 120 demolitions of EU-financed buildings during the first three months of 2016 alone.

The Euro-Med report – Squandered Aid – estimates that between 2001 and 2016 the EU has lost about €58 million as a result of Israel’s destruction and damage of property. Some may argue that this figure is too little to merit a place in the referendum debate as it might risk a diplomatic spat with a special ally.

What is at stake here, however, is much more than finance. It is the principle of due diligence in the use of EU funds and accountability for what happens to them. Sadly, neither the EU, the Remain campaign nor “Brexiteers” are prepared to discuss the issue because they are too embarrassed by it all.

The fact is that they all view Israel as an exception; it is seen as a member of their exclusive club. Former EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, gloated famously in 2009 that Israel is a member of the European Union without being a member of the institutions; that it is “a member of all the EU programmes, including the research and technology programmes.”

On principle alone, surely membership of the EU does not come with a licence for a state to act with impunity or commit grave violations of international law. Israel’s wilful and indiscriminate destruction of Palestinian homes and livelihoods falls within this category. It is inexcusable and unacceptable and it sets a very worrying and dangerous precedent. If one member of the club — in this case, Israel — can get away with “squandering” EU funds, who or what is going to stop other members from doing the same in future?

As it stands, neither of the opposing camps on Britain’s EU membership have the moral upper hand for neither have had the courage or audacity to step out of their comfort zones. While the Brexiteers have focussed much of their campaign on the “threat” of unlimited immigration, the In Campaign has chosen to highlight the economic benefits of EU membership.

The narrative from the two camps provides only half of the story. The fact is that a lot of EU funds accrued from hard-working taxpayers are being wasted knowingly and, it seems, willingly, in order to assuage European consciences on one hand while not upsetting Israel on the other. If the leaders of the Vote Leave campaign and the Remain camp are too scared to challenge Israel about its destruction of EU-funded projects in Palestine, what hope is there that they would do any better when faced with similar challenges elsewhere, either as a member of the union or not? There is, frankly, no hope at all. The attitude towards Israel’s wanton destruction is both shameful and dangerous no matter which way the British public vote on 23 June.

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Saudi Arabia gambling on taxation without representation

Andrew Scott Cooper writes

The Saudi royal family has gambled its prestige on a bold economic reform plan, meant to revive an economy battered by sharply lower oil revenues. But the prescriptions of “Saudi Vision 2030” are fraught with risk, not least because it threatens to dissolve the social contract that binds the House of Saud to the Saudi people.

Vision 2030, formally ratified this week by the Saudi cabinet as the National Transformation Program, provides a blueprint for a kingdom that offers less charity and more austerity. It calls for Saudi Arabia to reduce its dependence on the energy sector, privatize state-owned enterprises, and cut state largesse. The long-term objective is to prepare Saudi society for life in the twilight of the oil age.

We have an addiction to oil,” admitted Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who leads the pro-reform camp within the ruling House of Saud. “This is dangerous. It has delayed the development of other sectors.” He hopes that, within two decades, the world’s greatest petro-state will derive most of its revenues from global investments and a diverse range of industries rather than energy.

The initiative amounts to future shock for a conservative society. Specific targets include tripling non-oil revenue by 2020, to roughly $141 billion, and the creation of 450,000 jobs outside the government sector. In a country where two-thirds of workers are on the state payroll, public sector wages will be reduced to 40 percent of the budget, down from the current level of 45 percent, over the same time frame. To finance these changes, public debt is expected to substantially rise by $200 billion over the next five years. No explanation was offered as to how any of these targets could be realistically achieved within their timeframe.

Saudi Arabia is adopting Vision 2030 for the very simple reason that its current economic model is unsustainable. In the two years since oil prices tanked, wreaking havoc on the economies of major energy exporters, the kingdom finds itself trapped by the rising waters of a liquidity crisis. Last year, the country’s gross domestic product shrank 13 percent and net foreign assets plunged $115 billion as the government burned through cash to plug a $100 billion budget deficit. Though oil prices have rebounded to around $50 per barrel, the national budget calls for a break-even price of $66.70 this year — sharply down from last year’s $94.80 and a sign of the urgency to bring spending under control.

In an effort to stem the hemorrhaging, the Saudi government in March signaled its willingness to take out billions in bank loans. Even so, the IMF issued a dire prediction of national bankruptcy in four years if current patterns of spending continued.

Saudi Arabia’s fiscal woes date back to its ill-fated decision in the fall of 2014 to pump surplus crude into a buyer’s market. Though oil prices were set to tumble anyway — the market was oversupplied and consumer demand had slowed — Saudi intervention accelerated and intensified the collapse, driving prices down to levels not seen since the early years of the century. The Saudis insisted their action was motivated by the need to defend market share, but never hid their glee that lower prices would hurt the economies of geopolitical foes Iran and Russia (not to mention production rivals, especially the United States). But prices tumbled much lower and for far longer than they predicted, blowing a hole in state finances.

The situation was made worse by the fact that Saudi coffers had already been drained by a raft of new social and defense expenditures. Three years earlier, fearing the spread of the Arab Spring revolts against authoritarian rule, the Saudi royal family had announced lavish new subsidies and welfare programs estimated to cost $130 billion. The U.S. decision to not rescue traditional allies, like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, prompted Riyadh to launch a conservative counter-revolution — pouring tens of billions of dollars in aid and arms to allies threatened by social, political, and religious unrest.

The kingdom committed billions more to defense expenditures meant to counter its archrival, Iran. This year, Saudi Arabia replaced Russia as the world’s third-biggest military spender, with $56 billion allocated to equip its armed forces.

Saudi Arabia’s spending binge coincided with the emergence of the ailing King Salman’s young son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed, as the pre-eminent voice dictating policy in the kingdom. In less than a year, and to the obvious distaste of older members of the royal house, the ambitious, voluble 30-year-old prince has pushed for changes on issues ranging from the economy and defense to women’s rights and political reform. Germany’s intelligence service warned in a leaked report of the “latent risk that in seeking to establish himself in the line of succession in his father’s lifetime, [Mohammed] may overreach.”

Some say he already has. In addition to his role as second in line to the throne and chief of the royal court, Prince Mohammed’s decisive interventions in military and economic affairs have earned him the moniker “the prince of war and oil.” With no apparent experience in military affairs, foreign policy, or strategy, his decision to take over the defense portfolio placed his family’s prestige and reputation squarely on the outcome of two open-ended wars in Syria and Yemen. It was a remarkable gamble: He did this knowing that the kingdom ranked well down the global pecking order in terms of military effectiveness.

In Yemen, the Saudi Air Force — a sort of flying club for princes — has earned a reputation for brutal incompetence as it bombs and strafes residential areas and civilian targets. One of the most notorious incidents, among many others, are two Saudi-led coalition airstrikes on March 15 that struck a crowded market in the village of Mastaba, leaving 97 dead. To the intense embarrassment of the government and its Western arms suppliers, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have charged the Saudis with committing war crimes resulting in thousands of deaths and the displacement of 2.5 million people. “There is barely a single corner of Yemen or a single soul that hasn’t in some way been touched and scarred by this war,” reported Foreign Policy.

But it’s in the economic realm where Prince Mohammed’s influence has been felt most acutely. With a bachelor’s degree in law under his belt, the prince decided that he should not only lead the effort to restore short-term fiscal solvency but embark on the monumental task of transforming Saudi Arabia from a rentier state to an industrialized economy freed from the constraints of the commodity markets. And his goal couldn’t be more ambitious: Saudi Arabia, he predicted, will be weaned off oil revenues within a generation.

The Saudi template for reform titled “Vision 2030” mirrors an earlier report that appeared in December on the website of McKinsey & Co., a global consulting company that provides neoliberal solutions for real-world problems. Salman has admitted that the Saudi government works closely with the company. Saudi critics — and there are many — sneer that the Planning Ministry should be renamed the “McKinsey Ministry.”

In recent years, McKinsey has cultivated a generation of young Arab princelings enamored with Western-style economic reforms, and with thoroughly mixed results. As one of the company’s more trenchant critics recently pointed out, “Many of the countries who drank the McKinsey Kool-Aid became epicenters of the Arab Spring. Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Yemen — each was convulsed by demonstrations, often animated by economic grievances.”

 McKinsey’s approach to reforming foreign governments is dangerously flawed. The company’s school-lunch approach to economic reform — one size fits all, regardless of appetite and culture — makes no effort to consider each country’s unique history or social background. It also fails to consider whether the recipient’s political structures are robust enough to withstand the unrest that often emanates from job losses, privatization of state-owned enterprises and social services, subsidy cuts, and increases in the cost of living.

Authoritarian regimes — and absolutist monarchies in particular — appear more formidable than they really are. With power concentrated in one or a few hands, and with few if any independent outlets available for popular expression, the buildup of pressure from below has the potential to be explosive. The social contracts that trade state largesse for popular loyalty are fragile yet essential for maintaining stability.

The shah of Iran learned this the hard way in the late 1970s, when he encouraged his ill-fated austerity program to stave off a fiscal crisis, ironically caused by an unexpected shortfall in oil revenues. His fatal mistake was to pursue wide-ranging economic reforms without putting in place the sort of independent, autonomous judicial and political framework that could shoulder the load in the event of a sudden internal crisis.

The shah’s downfall haunts the older generation of Saudi princes. They understand the fragility of a monarchy whose brittle pillars rest on the quiescence of conservative clerics and a merchant class hostile to the free-market reforms that will undercut their privileges. They recall the traumas of 1964, when the spendthrift King Saud was ousted by his brothers, the assassination in 1975 of his successor King Faisal, the violent takeover of Mecca’s Holy Mosque in 1979 by religious extremists, and Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

In an interview with the Economist, Salman declared himself an admirer of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But unlike Britain in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia today has no free press, no elected parliament, and no right to assembly. It lacks flexible political structures that might absorb and channel explosive social energies away from the center. Was the prince aware that even with these systems in place, his idol was eventually deposed? He did not say.

Nor did the prince offer a convincing answer when asked if the Saudi people would continue to accept taxation without representation. “This is not a decision from the government against the people,” he insisted. “This is the decision of Saudi Arabia. With the government that represents the people.”

Boiled down to its essence, that amounts to the classic autocrat’s response: L’état, c’est moi.”

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What happening in the Democratic California primary?

In the past week, three separate polls attempting to predict the results of the California primary have been released. All of them lean slightly Clinton, but by just two percentage points — well within the margin of error of each poll.

In this vital final stage of the Democratic Primary, there surprisingly seems to be a shortage of ballot papers.

The presumptive win of the nomination by Clinton is based on an erroneous understanding of the role of superdelegates. according to Sanders.

 

Muhammad Ali gave David Frost a vision of his legacy

About his legacy Muhammad Ali says that

He took a few cups of love.
He took one tablespoon of patience,
One teaspoon of generosity,
One pint of kindness.
He took one quart of laughter,
One pinch of concern.
And then, he mixed willingness with happiness.
He added lots of faith,
And he stirred it up well.
Then he spread it over a span of a lifetime,
And he served it to each and every deserving person he met

In 1971, Muhammad Ali Helped Undermine the FBI’s Illegal Spying on Americans

ali-frazier-1971

Betty Medsger writes

SINCE HIS DEATH a few days ago, countless tributes to Muhammad Ali have brought to life the memories of his extraordinary accomplishments inside and outside boxing. But one thing has gotten little attention: Ali provided cover for a burglary that changed history.

It was March 8, 1971, the night of Ali’s first fight with Joe Frazier, and the noise from that epic battle provided cover for the break-in of an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. The burglary, by eight activists who stole every file in the office, revealed the illegal spying operations that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had organized against a broad swathe of Americans, including Martin Luther King, Jr. The revelations led to congressional investigations and major reforms of all intelligence agencies.

In the annals of break-ins, this may be the only time the perpetrators purposely chose the night of a boxing match. During their planning, one of the Media burglars remembered that a boxing match that was predicted to be – as it was – the fight of the century would take place March 8 at Madison Square Garden. The burglars thought the buzz of radios and televisions tuned to the fight might serve as a distraction from noises they would make while breaking into the FBI office in Media, a small town near Philadelphia. They also thought that every police officer in the area, not to mention FBI agents, might be totally absorbed in the fight that night.

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Hard Times Ahead for the Israel Lobby (Thank Sanders and Trump)

Andrew Levine writes

Nobody knows yet what will become of the Republican Party after Donald Trump is through with it. He probably doesn’t know himself what he would like to happen. In any case, it isn’t entirely up to him.

It depends too on what real Republicans do once Trump becomes their standard bearer. Will some or all of the Party’s blue bloods, theocrats, and libertarians bolt or will they buck up and go along? We will find out soon enough.

No one knows either what effect the Sanders insurgency will have on the Democratic Party.

This will depend a lot, though not entirely, on what Sanders does: on whether he caves into the Clintonites (neoliberals, liberal imperialists, BFFs of the military-industrial complex); leads his followers out of the party altogether, perhaps by making common cause with the Greens; or, more likely, encourages them somehow to disengage from Clintonism without opposing Hillary Clinton.

The idea, then, might be to lay the groundwork for taking the party over in much the way that the Tea Party took over the GOP in the years between 2010 and 2015. But with the party poised to squeeze all the benefits it can from the Trump takeover of the GOP, and with Clinton as its nominee and Clintonites calling the shots, this would not be easy to do.

Would it be the wisest way to go? I, for one, don’t think so; but, for the time being, it may be the only feasible way forward – inasmuch as indications now are that Sanders and many of his most ardent supporters will not go for a clean break, not with the Trump menace in the offing.

At this point, though, it is anybody’s guess what will happen.

***

However, on matters of interest to the Israel lobby, some things are already clear.

For one, on the Republican side, it is plain that, thanks to Trump, the neocons have suffered a serious defeat. They have no time for the Republicans’ “presumptive” nominee, and neither does he have time for them. For the Israel lobby, this is bad news indeed.

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