Review of 2018, Part 1 (January–March): Unloading the American Empire

In memory of James Laxer, n. December 22, 1941, d. February 23, 2018, prolific author, and an inspiration to all Canadian academics to think for ourselves.


JANUARY

A US-dominated World Order in Decline

At first it seemed as if the start of 2018 proved the existence of a deep continuity between Trump, Obama, and Bush in foreign policy. Others instead disagreed, insisting that Trump was breaking the old order of US-dominated alliances. That the EU began to diverge significantly from the US, on Cuba, Iran, Jerusalem, and the Middle East in general, was apparent and offered some support for the thesis of the demise of a US-dominated world order. Former US secretaries of state gathered to discuss the “systemic failure” of the current “world order,” emphasizing the onset of deglobalization and the unquestionable rise of China and Russia as major world powers. As US Defense Secretary James Mattis unveiled Trump’s new National Defense Strategy, it became clearer that Trump would remain committed to military imperialism, focusing on China and Russia as potential targets. Some explanations for Trump breaking his anti-interventionist promises, is that the Pentagon had become the dominant force in his administration—however, if true, this in fact happened only with Trump’s approval.

Weakening the Force Multipliers

The new year began with a rampage of abrasive and punitive speech from US president Donald Trump, suggesting he understood little or agreed little with US diplomats and military strategists and their years of work in developing “force multipliers”. Falling back on the old American myth that all US aid is disinterested charity, he wrote:

“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”.

This was not the usual bluster either, as a National Security Council official said the White House does not plan to send $255 million in aid to Pakistan “at this time,” after already delaying an August 2017 payment. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry responded:

“We do not need any financial assistance from the United States. We do not care about it. If America wants to stop it, we will loudly say go ahead”.

Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN, and the Prime Minister’s national security committee, amplified this rejection of US pressure. Trump publicly backed Senator Rand Paul’s plan to end all aid to Pakistan. Pakistan was apparently too ungrateful for the 3 million Afghan refugees it housed, produced by the US war in Afghanistan.

Threatening Iran

In addition to targeting Pakistan, a US ally, Trump gleefully exploited street protests in Iran, as if the protesters were doing his personal bidding, as if he was in solidarity with them (regardless of sanctions, a travel ban against all Iranians, calling the country a nation of terrorists, yet taunting Iran after a large ISIS terrorist attack there). He ignored the kind of advice that seasoned regime changers in the US might have given—see “How Can Trump Help Iran’s Protesters? Be Quiet”. Of course Trump would also ignore the constructive advice of Iran’s Foreign Minister: “‘Stop wasting time on posting useless and insulting tweets’”. Further underscoring the growing divide between Turkey and the US, the Turkish leader came out in support of Iran’s government against violent protesters. Trump’s newest expressions of aggression against Iran, which ranged from the promise of new sanctions to regime change, met with the applause of the gallery of neoconservative imperialists, including many who sided with the “Never Trump” movement in 2016. Attempts by the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, to have the Security Council arbitrate on the domestic political affairs of Iran, were decisively shot down by Russia, China, and France. Haley was criticized for attempting to disperse the energies of the Security Council; to distract from US interventions in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and North Korea; and, trying to exploit events deceitfully to create a pretext for the US violating the Iran nuclear agreement, and to promote regime change in Iran. In criticizing Haley, the Russian ambassador stated:

“If we follow your logic, then we should have meetings of the Security Council after the events in Ferguson or after the dispersal by force of the Occupy Wall Street movement in Manhattan”.

Trump once more threatened to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal if the US Congress failed to come up with ways of altering the agreement (which would mean the US was deliberately violating the agreement). As the matter reverted to Trump, he too failed to act on his previous threats. Instead, Trump chose to issue a new round of threats against Iran, a new call for the parties to the deal to renegotiate the agreement to suit Trump, and imposed new sanctions against Iran, all while extending his promise to withdraw the US at some point before May if there was no action to change the deal. Iran immediately rejected all of the US’ positions, correctly asserting that the deal was not open to renegotiation, and declaring the US to be in non-compliance. Trump’s escalating threats against Iran, however, are built on a series of strategic and geopolitical weaknesses that could end very badly for the US.

Punishing Palestinians

Trump also turned his attention to the Palestinians, effectively threatening them with punitive sanctions, even targeting Palestinian refugees, for denouncing the US’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on December 6, 2017, which violated international law and was condemned by an overwhelming majority of the world. On the other hand, when even Jordan’s King, ever dependent on the US, publicly criticized Trump’s policy when vice-president Mike Pence visited—at the same as the Palestinian leader openly snubbed him in Jordan—then the tide seemed to turn even more against US dominance in the region. In response, sitting next to Israel’s Netanyahu in Davos, Switzerland, Trump threatened to suspend aid to the Palestinian Authority, in an apparent attempt to coerce the Palestinians into surrender talks dressed up as “peace talks,” where Israeli occupation of Jerusalem would no longer be negotiable. (On a separate matter, Trump would continue to confuse extortion with diplomacy: later in the year he would issue threats in an attempt to coerce “allies” to support the US bid to host the World Cup in 2026.)

Turkey, Syria, and Imperial Decline

Turkey continued to drift away from its past alliance with the US, on a number of fronts. Further underlining divergence among NATO allies, Turkey announced it would strike Syrian Kurds allied to the US. As Turkey actually began bombing proxies of the US, which the US intended to further train and equip to form a “border security force,” all the US government could say is that it had been consulted by Turkey. The bombing continued. As RT put it, in just nine days the US made several stunning reversals, showing its lack of depth in the region. Indeed, Turkey went as far as directly threatening the US with military confrontation in Syria.

Turning to US intervention in Syria and what appeared to have become a basis for permanent US occupation of a territorial enclave, remarks by the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, suggested that the US was imposing itself as a “paper tiger” empire. What was certain was the US continued to ignore the consequences of its intervention in prolonging the war in Syria, increasing the refugee outflow, and destabilizing allies in Europe.

Threatening North Korea

As if to complete the picture of a resentful US, turning in on itself and verbally assaulting country after country, Trump then indulged in what even by his low standards would have to be exceptionally juvenile threats against North Korea. Instead, in a counter move against US threats to escalate aggression, South Korea initiated talks with North Korea, with the support of China. More than that, both North and South Korea decided to temporarily unite in their participation in the winter Olympics, under a common banner and song. Nevertheless, a ballistic missile scare in Hawaii on January 13, that sent many scrambling, should have underlined the need for serious diplomacy and peace talks. If the danger of threatening North Korea had suddenly awakened the senses of many Americans who had idly ignored the issue, or supported war and regime change without considering the consequences, we did not see any immediate fruits of this realization. What remained was an urgent need for direct talks, a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, a non-aggression pact, withdrawal of US forces from South Korea, and an end to US military “exercises” on the Korean peninsula. As for diplomacy, all the US had to offer was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gloating about human suffering in North Korea, as a direct result of sanctions. Unification of Korea was dismissed by Tillerson as a “wedge” strategy—as if the topic had just been invented recently—but it was the kind of talk that was gobbled up like red meat by Trump’s imperialist supporters who were irritated by North Korea’s attempts to stall its virtuous annihilation by the US.

Intervention in Venezuela

On Venezuela, the Trump administration made it clear that it intended to involve itself in Venezuela’s upcoming presidential election. In particular, the US government objected to the election being held at all. Further sanctions were promised if the elections went ahead, as well as a promise to not recognize the results.

“Shit Holes”: When Hating the Third World became Official

Continuing with his anti-Third World verbal rampage, Trump besmirched entire nations for the sin of being poor, and for the sin of being past victims of US imperialism and world capitalist inequality. Trump distinguished himself by referring to a number of them as “shithole countries”. This demonstrated the limits of an illusory American populism: it deploys some thin symbols of populism at home, but on the international plane it reproduces the talk of billionaires and unvarnished imperialists. On the other hand, Trump’s comment seemed to be representative of the nature of much of US political commentary on other countries: it was standard fare, especially when it came to “describing” Russia. Given Hillary Clinton’s remarks about domestic “deplorables,” Trump added elitist slander against foreign “shitholes”—making the two a matched pair. Liberal critiques of Trump continued to backfire. There was, however, a considerable amount of intelligent humour that provided answers to Trump’s question as to why the US cannot get more Norwegian immigrants. It has to be noted that for his part, Trump denied ever making the statement.

NAFTA

The month ended with NAFTA talks moving to Montreal, and showing signs of an imminent collapse. On the Canadian side, there seemed to be a determination at the highest levels that the trade agreement would survive, in some form. Canada’s prime minister Trudeau was even expressing optimism in media interviews. Meanwhile, the attempt by Boeing to lock out aircraft sales from Quebec’s Bombardier, failed to hold up in court and the tariffs were reversed. It seemed like a straight victory for Canada and Bombardier, and a defeat for Trump’s administration which imposed protections to aid Boeing. Reality, however, turned out to be more complicated, and it seemed as if Trump successfully created a trap that would still ensure foreign capital inflows into the US. As a safeguard against any future protectionist measures, Bombardier agreed to produce more of its aircraft in the US, rather than in Canada. Bombardier already invested more in the US than Boeing did in Canada. Trump is thus not just actively seeking the repatriation of US capital from abroad, he is also seeking to appropriate foreign capital from other countries, by effectively blackmailing them into setting up shop in the US to skirt potential tariffs. One sees what he meant during his speech in Davos, Switzerland, when he said, “America First, not America alone”: it might be a euphemism for international plunder.

The White House: Chaos, Criminality, Conspiracy

Just days into the new year, another factionalist bomb exploded in the White House. The media were consumed with the vicious public brawl that erupted between Trump and his former campaign manager and White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon. What sparked the fight were some very controversial statements from a new book, by Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury. The Trump administration’s attempts to silence publication, backfired and seemed to drive up the early popularity of the book—a book that was largely forgotten a few months later. Nevertheless, contrary to expectations, everything seemed to backfire on Bannon more than Trump: Bannon found himself without funding for his “insurgent” campaigns, and then found himself out of a job altogether. The tide also seemed to turn back on those pushing “Russiagate,” with the Dept. of Justice announcing two new investigations into Hillary Clinton’s secret emails and the Clinton Foundation, while Congress issued a criminal referral against the author of the infamous Fusion GPS dossier on Trump. By the end of the month, there was hardly any mention of Fire and Fury.

Top Articles for January

On Zero Anthropology this month:

  1. Privilege: White, American, or Imperial?” January 4
  2. What Happened to the American Empire?” January 11
  3. This Does Not Represent the Views of the University,” January 20

Top articles of the month:


FEBRUARY

The New Cold War: A Panoramic View of Intervention and Competition

Venezuela was on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s mind at the start of February, as he publicly aired what sounded like a wishful prayer that the military would overthrow President Nicolas Maduro, which assumes that the military as a whole is opposed to Chavismo. Continuing talks on NAFTA led to rumours that Mexico was preparing to concede sovereignty just to keep the agreement alive. At the same time, ironically, Tillerson warned Latin American states that China and Russia were a nefarious presence in the Americas, whose influence was growing considerably. Worried about the decline of US hegemony in the western hemisphere, and the rise of a Chinese-led international order, Tillerson fearfully branded Russia and China as new imperial powers in the Americas—having invaded and occupied not a single nation. Within his own State Department however, there was further evidence of a foreign policy establishment that was unravelling under Tillerson’s feet. Meanwhile, Trump could not manage to even arrange a meeting with his Mexican counterpart, after a phone call caused plans to be shelved yet again.

The realization that we have arrived at a new Cold War finally seemed to gain greater traction in the US media. By the end of the month there was concern in the US about what ostensibly seemed like a domestic political rearrangement in China, which was read as a sign of a growing direct threat to US dominance. Trump seemed to be preparing for a global trade war, where both China and the EU would figure as prominent targets. Some saw Trump being determined to launch a new Cold War, but worried that he had destroyed the US’ soft power capabilities, leaving only hard power. Far from supposedly colluding with or appeasing Russia, others instead unveiled a pattern of deliberate hardening on Trump’s part, in directly antagonizing Russia. Russia responded, announcing the development of a new nuclear missile and numerous other advanced weapons systems that could defeat a range of US defences.

North Korea Triumphs at the Olympics

The US was apparently outraged at the successful diplomatic advances made by North Korea and South Korea in the lead up to the Olympics. Landing with an ugly thud, US vice-president Mike Pence went to the Olympics, armed with threats. Pence vowed the US would soon impose the “toughest and most aggressive” economic sanctions against North Korea—which was curious because it suggested the US had been holding something back until then. If the US had been holding something back, then what provoked this escalation? The only events which transpired were the peace overtures made by the two Koreas. Clearly the US wanted to turn the direction back toward war. Also, who knew that sanctions could be infinite in number? However, events would instead turn around and slap Pence in the face, who went to South Korea with a propaganda plan to counter North Korea. Earning scorn across the world however, vice-president Mike Pence made quite the scene at the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on February 9. After being forced to sit just a couple of feet away from Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and a senior member of the politburo (also on the US sanctions list)—thereby ensuring she would be in every photograph of Pence—Pence not only refused to stand when the host country’s team entered the stadium (because it entered as a unified team with North Korea, flying a unified flag), he only stood to applaud US athletes, and no others. Kim Yo-jong immediately became the star of the show. Widely described as “boorish,” “tactless,” and “flat-footed,” Pence appeared to isolate the US as the only belligerent rogue regime in the arena (in acknowledging this error, Ivanka Trump would instead do the opposite of Pence at the closing ceremony). The initiative was thus handed to Kim Yo-jong who delivered an invitation to South Korea’s president to visit the North on a rare state visit. North Korea was teaching the US a lesson about how “soft power” is really done, by expert diplomats. So badly did Pence’s approach backfire, that Kim Yo-jong seemed to convert even establishment outlets in the US. The two Koreas thus sent a clear signal that they would prefer to solve their own affairs, in spite of US threats and the low grumbling that came from Pence’s quarters. As TIME magazine put it, “with the two Koreas celebrating a moment of unity, the United States was left outmaneuvered by an adversary and out of step with an ally”. South Korea obviously understood that the US was ready and willing to sacrifice it for the sake of a first military strike on North Korea (thus also eliminating a key economic competitor). Peace at PyeongChang was thus a direct threat to US plans.

The growing international isolation of the US meant that, more and more, regional actors would take the lead in writing their own history. Many were amazed to see the political humiliation of the US by the diplomatic expertise of North Korea, making the US stand out as the lone belligerent, the isolated rogue state of the moment. At the end of it all, a US member of the International Olympic Committee proposed that the two Koreas’ joint hockey team be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Then we learned that Pence had actually prepared to meet with North Korea’s two representatives the day after the opening ceremony, but was snubbed by them. Meanwhile South Korea proclaimed that its diplomatic approach was proving a successful alternative to US belligerence.

The immediate fruits of North Korea’s soft power successes during the Olympics were, first, that Mike Pence declared en route back to the US, immediately following the humiliation of the spectacle he made, that the US would now be ready for direct talks with North Korea, without preconditions—later, North Korea said it was open to the idea of talks with the US…until Trump yet again reversed the US position and insisted that “conditions” for talks had to be met first. Previously Trump chastised Secretary of State Tillerson for “wasting his time” trying to talk to North Koreans. In addition, South Korea took seriously its invitation to a summit with the North, and began to talk about preparations. The US instead imposed additional sanctions, and threats of impending military action; the sanctions themselves were tantamount to US-led piracy on the high seas, with threats of boarding ships in international waters in what started to amount to a naval blockade of North Korea. If the new, unilateral US sanctions were meant to “maximize international pressure” and induce other countries to work with the US, then they failed immediately: China slammed the new US sanctions as illegal, indicating no intention of supporting them. Trump’s threats of aggression were reiterated, with an emphasis on grim outcomes for the world. South Korea pleaded for talks to get started, with a lower threshold of demands.

The Olympics did not just occasion events that seemed to separate the US and South Korea, it also seemed as if South Korea and its former colonial occupier, Japan, were becoming more hostile. The historical legacy of distrust and antipathy were even reflected in the US’ NBC firing one of its commentators who praised Japan as a model for South Korea. In addition, Japan’s Shinzo Abe earned the public ire of his South Korean hosts when he interfered in their internal affairs by urging an immediate resumption of US-South Korean military exercises as soon as the Olympics ended, clearly irritated by North Korea’s successful diplomacy.

The US War in Syria Escalates

Showing what permanent, illegal occupation of Syria means, the US attacked and killed roughly 100 “pro-government forces” in Syria—that is Syrians, defending Syria, and then launched yet another attack. What then emerged was the shocking likelihood that the US had killed as few as five or as many as 300 Russian soldiers-for-hire, which could have escalated into wider confrontation between Russia and the US in Syria. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis began to make baseless accusations against Russia and Syria, on using chemical weapons. When pressed on the evidence, Mattis folded:

“No, I have not got the evidence, not specifically.  I don’t have the evidence. What I’m saying is that other—that groups on the ground, NGOs, fighters on the ground have said that sarin has been used. So we are looking for evidence. I don’t have evidence, credible or uncredible [sic]”.

In ganging up on Syria, to erode its dominance on the battlefield and counter the unravelling of Washington’s plans, Israel launched an air raid inside Syria that cost it a F-16, the first time Israel lost a plane to anti-aircraft fire in three decades. Israel continued to escalate its attacks on Syria, somehow managing to claim that Syria’s self-defense was aggression against Israeli sovereignty. While Trump immediately backed Israel, it was a telephone call from Putin to Netanyanhu that appeared to put a stop to any further escalation. US plans that were apparently aimed at the partition of Syria and the creation of a Kurdish quasi-state, besides illegally undermining Syrian sovereignty and escalating tension with Russia, also drove Turkey into a conflict with the US and NATO (of which it is a key member), with the Turkish president renewing the threat of violence against US forces. Though not rock-solid, this month brought to light further cooperation and coordination between Russia, Turkey, and Iran in Syria, with more evidence of Turkey moving away from the US/NATO orbit. Finally, Trump seemed to introduce yet another reversal of US policy, insisting that US intervention in Syria was not about regime change, it was about stopping ISIS, and that goal had largely been achieved.

Israel–Palestine

Russia began to reap the diplomatic rewards of Washington cutting off aid to the Palestinians. While initially the Palestinian leadership vowed that the US could no longer play any role in Israel-Palestine peace talks, having flagrantly abandoned any pretence of being a fair arbiter, that position seemed to soften. However, what was now being proposed by the Palestinians was that Russia should play the role of mediator in future dialogues with Israel. At the UN Security Council, an ostensibly unanimous resolution on Syria, masked considerable tension between the US and Russia, with Russia once again implying that the US sought the protective cover of a “humanitarian ceasefire” in order to provide a cushion for its nearly defeated jihadist allies who are affiliated with Al Qaeda.

On Israel, in one of Trump’s instances of making casual remarks that he often retracts when it results in negative “reviews,” he claimed that Israel might not be all that interested in seeking peace with the Palestinians. Critics might argue this makes Trump the last person to become aware of this. How this sudden realization might change the US’ posture was left undefined, and the remark was soon forgotten.

Iran and Central Asia

On Iran, Trump appeared to reluctantly acknowledge the range of international opposition against his plans to undo the Iran nuclear agreement, by asking European allies to simply consider making changes to the agreement in the future—a step down from issuing commands and ultimatums. After slandering Pakistan at the start of the new year and cutting off “aid,” the Trump administration was back at trying to win a “new relationship,” that seemed identical to the old one. The minimal diplomatic effort with Pakistan was conducted with little apparent acknowledgment of the damage that had already been done by the US.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the suggestion was aired that US forces were effectively being rented out as mercenaries for China—the push was on for even greater US military spending at the same time. Former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, gave a frank interview in which he stated that the US was in Afghanistan, not because of ISIS (which he said the US allowed to flourish), nor was it building so many bases to fight a few Taliban, but because Russia and China are in the neighbourhood. Karzai accused the US of trying to keep Afghanistan weak and unstable, so that Trump—who had previously denounced the Afghan war as “Obama’s war”—could justify a permanent occupation.

The White House: Conspiracy Theory and the New Cold War

In the US, one of the most attention-grabbing events at the start of February was the release of the House Intelligence Committee’s long awaited memo exposing FBI practices in spying on the Trump campaign, as part of a covert effort to delegitimize it and to destabilize his administration, and ramping up the new Cold War with Russia. Elsewhere, this would be known as an attempted coup.

It showed the dramatic depths to which US democracy had been plungedplunging so far, that many on the anti-Trump side readily believed that 13 Russian nationals had the power to swing the 2016 election, a testament to their own gullibility even as they accused Trump supporters of being gullible and ignorant. Later in the month, the Democrats released a much longer, counter-memo: an immense amount of fog, which only confirmed key details in the Republican memo. Trump pounced, and dismissed the Democrats’ memo as a total political and legal “bust”.

Separately, what was alleged in an overblown indictment from the Justice Department in mid-February amounted to a paltry, low-level, social media “campaign”. In response to Mueller’s indictments, some in the US Congress and media hysterically likened it to the attack on Pearl Harbour, with Max Boot foremost among them. Non-alarmist readings in the mainstream media, were few. Compare the allegations, in a document that will never be tested in any court, with even a cursory review of the history of US interventions in other nations’ elections. Nevertheless, a former US ambassador to Russia did in fact defend US interventions abroad, and a former CIA director had a good laugh about ongoing US interventions in other nations’ elections. Most glossed over or forgot the extent to which the US intervened in post-Soviet Russian politics, to the extreme detriment of the lives of most Russians, not to mention the state of their political system. As much as US officials played at being angered by Russian “meddling,” others tried to remind the mad crowd that Russia was essential in addressing a range of critical geopolitical problems. However, the madness seemed to really take hold of both the media and social media, with a profusion of wild conspiracy theories and collusion-mongering. Bernie Sanders, also accused of being backed by Russian trolls, apparently felt a higher calling to Hillary Clinton, omitting mention of rigged DNC primaries, and he even fabricated a story on this topic.

The increasing level of censorship on US-owned and operated “social media” represented a new McCarthyist impulse in US politics, where yet again the public was being sold propaganda masked as “intelligence”. From Iraq’s “incubator babies” and WMDs, to the “African mercenaries”, “Viagra-fuelled rape”, and “Benghazi massacre” myths about Libya, to “Russian bots” accused of “meddling” in US elections (by sharing opinions)—it seems that one tall tale or another would stand as official reasoning. In Twitter, thousands of conservative, populist, and libertarian accounts were purged literally overnight in late February, which was the final straw that prompted Zero Anthropology to delete its accounts in Twitter and Facebook. Fake news about “bot” campaigns still dominated the mainstream media. And while US officials and their media proxies rehearsed their lamentations about Russian “meddling,” they stoutly defended far worse, done far longer by the US itself. While always pretending innocence—a cornerstone of US official culture—the “Russian meddling” story was immediately used to justify reinforcing what the US had done for decades: the State Department announced it was spending $40 million in a bolstered program of information warfare.

Top Articles for February

On Zero Anthropology this month:

  1. Risk, Trust, and Fulfilment: Reality Tourism, Continued,” February 1.
  2. Deactivism: The Pleasures of Life without Social Media,” February 22.

Top articles of the month:


MARCH

Cold War, Trade War, Deglobalization, and Imperial Decline

The world seemed to become a far more dangerous place at the dawn of this month. Immediately there were serious prospects of a full-fledged new Cold War, with a new nuclear arms race, along the proliferation of US sanctions (seemingly against one and all), and the onset of a global trade war. Economic deglobalization continued to deepen, even in the eyes of those who denied it could happen. The prospect of a recession in the US was not unthinkable, and Trump—who had previously touted every day’s stock market gains in 2017—now went silent as the stock exchanges plunged for a second straight month (they would finish negative overall for the year). Then came news that Donald Trump was willing to meet with Kim Jong-un by May, in unprecedented negotiations between leaders of the two governments—and the risk of failure seemed to accentuate the prospects for war. March became dominated by two issues: a global trade war and talks with North Korea.

Russia’s New Weapons

“Nobody wanted to talk with us on the core of the problem. Nobody listened to us. Now you listen!…To those who for the last 15 years have been trying to fan an arms race, achieve unilateral advantage against Russia, impose sanctions, which are illegal from the standpoint of international law and are aimed at holding back the development of our country, including in the military area, I have this to say: All the things you were trying to prevent through your policies have already happened. You have failed to hold Russia back….You now have to acknowledge this reality, confirm that everything I said is no bluff—which it isn’t— think for some time, send into retirement the people stuck in the past and incapable of looking into the future, [and] stop rocking the boat that we all ride in and which is called planet Earth” ~ Vladimir Putin, March 1, 2018

On Thursday, March 1, 2018, Russian president Vladimir Putin delivered a speech, accompanied by the following video presentations, which seemed to stun the US media and political establishment. Putin unveiled a new arsenal of a range of advanced nuclear weapons that would defeat all attempts by the US to achieve unilateral advantage through ballistic missile defence systems (which were already largely unworthy). Russia responded to repeated rounds of US sanctions, provocations on its borders, and the expansion of NATO, with a new arms race, clearly indicating it was reaching the end of its patience with US belligerence. Stephen Cohen argued that the US may have already lost the new arms race, which it had itself provoked. At least some legislators in the US reacted by calling for urgent engagement with Russia, to prevent any further escalation of tensions.

Revealing the extent to which US sanctions are meant to privilege US industries, the US threatened to impose sanctions on Iraq, if it dared to acquire anti-aircraft missile defence systems from Russia. The US invoked its Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 (CAATSA). Iraq was supposedly an ally of the US—now it appeared that Russia had been successful in manoeuvring the US even out of its patronage over the post-2003 Iraqi state.

The New Cold War: Manufacturing the Skripal Controversy

By the middle of the month, in what appeared to be an increasingly desperate effort by the West to diminish Russia’s influence, the now famous Skripal controversy erupted, with the UK blaming Russia for a chemical nerve agent attack on a former Russian double agent and his daughter, residing in the UK. The government of Theresa May immediately issued an ultimatum to Russia, despite acknowledgment from the EU that anti-Russia sanctions were already proving to be a strain on the EU economy, and that “attributing the nerve attack to Moscow was difficult”. Russia refused to obey any ultimatum, and demanded the right to inspect samples in order to verify the UK’s charges—which the UK refused to do. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was quick to echo Theresa May in assigning blame to Russia—only to be contradicted by Trump himself, and the White House press secretary, who refused to jump to that conclusion…and soon after, Tillerson was fired. A great deal of contrived mystery surrounded this case, which was used to launch an international isolation campaign against Russia mere months before the start of the World Cup of football. First, how is it that the Skripals were able to recover? Why did the daughter want to return to Russia? What was the role played by the UK’s own chemical weapons facility at Porton Down, a mere eight kilometres from the sight of the alleged attack? Why did the UK say it had evidence of the Russian origin for the attack, when its own government scientists attested to no such knowledge? Members of Parliament called for banning RT in the UK, censorship against an entity not even charged with the attack, that at the very least spoke of the broader, Cold War aims of the manufactured controversy.

Predictably, before any firm conclusions could be reached about the evidence, the government of Theresa May announced a raft of anti-Russian actions and expelled 23 Russian diplomats from the UK, while also cancelling an invitation to the Russian foreign minister to visit the UK, having members of the royal family stay away from the World Cup in Russia, and there was vague talk about sanctions for “human rights abusers”. Some in the British parliament went as far as pushing to expel or limit the rights of Russia on the UN Security Council. There was no talk by May however about repelling the billions of dollars invested by Russians in London’s property and financial markets. Even without firm evidence, Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau almost immediately sided with the UK, and blamed Russia.

Russia, for its part, threatened retaliation against the UK, calling its action a provocation. In fact, so said, so done—Russia expelled not just an identical number of UK diplomats, but it also cancelled plans for a UK consulate in St. Petersburg, and it shut down the operations of the British Council in Russia.

The US then expelled 60 Russian diplomats from the US, including diplomats posted to the UN. The action was coordinated with the EU, so that over 100 Russian diplomats were expelled from dozens of nations, and even Canada (sustaining its “monkey see, monkey do” behaviour) joined in. Russia’s ambassador the UN accused the US of abusing its privileges as the host country. UN officials refused to comment. Trump seemed determined to prove that he could be “tougher on Russia” not just more than any one predecessor, but more than all of his predecessors combined, with “America First” seemingly succumbing to “entangling alliances”. Russia promised retaliation against the US.

Something about the overreaction, before any evidence had been solidly established, strongly suggested a premeditated confrontation with Russia to alter the geopolitical balance.

Trade War

On the same day that Putin made his speech that showcased Russia’s advanced weaponry, Donald Trump announced the US would impose tariffs against steel and aluminum imports. One of the arguments Trump would use is that the steel and aluminum industries were vital to US national security and its weapons industries—his administration cited Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. I predicted this would be the justification in 2016, when the media floated arguments dismissing the prospect of Trump’s protectionism, insisting Trump would need congressional approval. Others instead advanced the murky argument that the deep state would prevent him. Some tried to cover their lack of insight by saying Trump invoked “a rarely used law”. The constant refrain—inexplicably maintained despite its obvious contradiction—was that Trump was a threat and yet Trump would also have no real power. Almost all instantly forgot the meaning of executive power, and how it has increased under the imperial presidency. Trump proved he could take such action, especially when the action is declared an “emergency” and a “threat to national security”. The only “mystery” here was why Trump suddenly decided to return to a nationalist posture, after a full year of reversals that favoured the continuation of neoliberal globalization. Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser and former president of Goldman Sachs, promptly resigned from the administration after Trump announced the tariffs. Some thus saw economic nationalists regaining the upper hand in the Trump administration.

The prospects of international retaliation, and the launch of a global trade war, became quite real. Dumping US debt was one of the available options for states to retaliate against the US. The tariffs, it was feared, would adversely affect Canada, and this had an immediate impact on NAFTA negotiations taking place at the same time. The EU promised to retaliate by targeting a range of industries vital to key states that supported Trump—and heightening fears of a real trade war, Trump promised to retaliate against any EU retaliation. Though ostensibly a separate matter, China quickly became openly “uncooperative” on backing a new round of US sanctions on North Korea, which would have targeted dozens of shipping companies across Asia. After all, Trump had relented in his anti-China trade threats from 2016, in return for China’s support in pressuring North Korea. However, now that the US renewed its trade pressures on China, and had even sanctioned select companies and banks in China that allegedly violated sanctions on North Korea, all bets were now off. In addition to credible threats of retaliation, the Chinese government issued the interesting argument that the US was responsible for its own trade deficit.

While Trump’s team initially asserted that there would be no exemptions for select countries from the tariff regime, particularly NAFTA partners like Mexico and Canada, that quickly changed and the measures were further weakened a mere day after they were announced. Instead, it seemed Trump was trying to use the promise of an exemption to pressure Canada and Mexico to surrender to US demands in the NAFTA renegotiation process, which the US tried to rush to a close. In related news, Trump admitted to not knowing what he was talking about when he insisted with Justin Trudeau that the US ran a trade deficit with Canada—in fact, the opposite is true, as Trump confessed (meaning he spread “fake news”): Canada suffers from a trade deficit with the US. As for other ironies: Canada also practiced protectionism against US sales, even as it defended “free trade”. In response to Trump’s pressure on NAFTA, the former trade representative for Canada who negotiated the initial deal, declared: “Canadians should understand that we are under attack”. What received less attention among the flurry of reports of US steel and aluminum tariffs, was that the US was imposing new duties on Canadian newsprint. Also noteworthy—though it was buried in a marginal corner—was Moody’s report that the end of NAFTA would only have a marginal impact on Canada overall, quite contrary to how it has been sold to the Canadian public as vital and crucial to the country’s wellbeing in spite of Canada continually running deficits under NAFTA.

In response to fears of increased global chaos, Trump cheerfully declared that “trade wars are good, and easy to win”. Trump had zero experience with any trade issues, but US economic history suggested tariffs could be beneficial. Stock exchanges, however, which had ample historical experience with managing the fallout of past trade wars—did not share Trump’s optimism. Ironically, some steelworkers objected to Trump’s plans, saying it would jeopardize their jobs as processors of imported steel. Trump’s secondary justification for the tariffs was that they were needed to protect US jobs. Some saw the tariffs as futile and predicted they would be struck down (they never were), while some in the anti-Trump camp thought that the alarms raised about the tariffs were overblown and argued that the tariffs were necessary. Wall Street immediately witnessed a sharp decline, as investors worried about the impacts on the US economy. Asian stock markets also fell. Some economists condemned Trump’s plans, and saw in them an eventual victory for China. Some US geopolitical strategists argued that if this was Trump’s way of securing US hegemony, he was coming to the battle largely ill-equipped and unprepared. Congressional neoliberals and their lobbyist patrons vowed to oppose TrumpTrump remained undaunted. In support of Trump, his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, mocked the hysteria around the tariffs, especially the argument that they would be a major tax on the working class; he presented figures that challenged this belief. Others also argued in support of a possible trade war, from a national security perspective and an economic nationalist viewpoint.

China’s Continued Ascent to Global Hegemony

Interestingly, in response to China’s announcement that its leader would no longer be subject to term limits, and that Xi Jinping had effectively become president for life, Trump seemed to admire the move. Few if anyone in the US media commented on the obvious disparity in Trump’s stances: condemning Venezuela, imposing sanctions, and prolonging the designation of the country as a “national security threat” to the US over changes to its political system (Maduro was not named “president for life”) vs. China, applauded and praised by Trump. It was also announced that China was significantly increasing its military spending and developing advanced capabilities on all military fronts. At least one US economist explained that Trump’s tariffs, ostensibly about steel, were a means of challenging China’s alleged “extortion” (technology transfer) of US firms, passing the newly acquired technologies to Chinese manufacturers while delaying US market access. To the extent that Trump’s tariffs achieve their ulterior aim, China’s global ascent may be delayed.

The Return of Trump the Nationalist?

If it was correct that economic nationalists were regaining the upper hand in the White House (and, if so, why?), then it was less obvious that anti-interventionists were gaining any ground. Judd Gregg, a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire, instead called for the US to pull back from its interventionism in every corner of the globe, withdraw from Afghanistan and the Middle East, and leave North Korea to China. Afghanistan, site of America’s longest war in history, attracted further criticism even from conservative writers like George Will—and Defense Secretary James Mattis also repeated past realizations that a US military victory over the Taliban was improbable, with the Taliban showing clear signs of advancing. Ron Paul condemned the US refusal to leave Iraq, against the expressed desire voted on by the Iraqi parliament. On the other hand, there was news that the Trump administration was gutting the US’ “democracy promotion” racket.

Trump Agrees to Meet Kim Jong-un

As always, North Korea remained undaunted by a new round of US threats, and the now repetitive US waffling about starting direct talks, which by itself had dangerously implied that the US favoured war. In fact, Trump signalled he was interested in direct talks in the context of a joke-filled dinner. A USA Today/Suffolk University poll found a majority of Americans favoured diplomacy and opposed any sort of preemptive military attack on North Korea. South Korea tried an implausible way between the US and North Korea: not renouncing upcoming military drills with the US, to which North Korea strongly objected, while naming envoys to meet their North Korean counterparts in new talks. Capitalizing on the diplomatic momentum generated by the two Korean sides during the Olympics, high level talks occurred in the North in the early days of the month, which were reported to be productive, with promises of a significant announcement to come. North Korea further enhanced its diplomatic image.

Then there was the amazing announcement that Donald Trump agreed to meet with Kim Jong-un for direct talks, conveyed by the South Korean national security advisor on the White House lawn (again showing which side was leading the peace initiative). China immediately endorsed the meeting, as did Russia. From early on, there were media reports that Mike Pompeo was leading behind-the-scenes talks with North Korea to prepare for the summit. In the US, reactions from politicians were confused, apprehensive, with some making the usual unrealistic unilateral demands that would have prevented talks in the first place. There was debate as to whether the talks were the result of US sanctions, or was an inter-Korean initiative; in addition, historians noted that, contrary to US propaganda, it was the US which was the first to violate previous agreements with North Korea. Trump stated that he felt positive and believed the North Koreans were sincere in their offers to halt testing so that talks could proceed. News of impending direct talks did not stop the US from imposing further sanctions on North Korea, based on allegations of events that did not even impact the US. Trump seemed to suffer from dangerously premature optimism, mixed with renewed threats of war if talks failed. Trump assumed too much of North Korea which had itself promised nothing in public, and not officially. Mike Pence meanwhile renewed the US hard-line against North Korea, in a manner that flew in the face of Trump’s cheerful stance—Pence essentially repeated his earlier hard-line statements that threw cold water on peace talks. Other administration officials rushed in to offer apologetic imperial cover for Trump’s obviously enthusiastic lunge at the chance for direct talks and the prospect of being monumentalized in world history. While North Korea continued to remain publicly silent on the meeting, South Korean news agencies laid out an early demand from the North, which was for a security guarantee in exchange for denuclearization—surprising (and unlikely), since North Korea had learned the lessons of Libya and there was little reason to trust the US’ commitment to international agreements. North Korea’s official silence on the meetings persisted for the entirety of the month—with Trump alone doing all the talking and boasting, which should have already signalled weakness and miscalculation in the US position. Repetition of the news that North Korea was committed to denuclearization, came from China, following the first visit by Kim Jong-un to China which came at the end of the month. If this was all a ruse for North Korea to buy time for completing its weapons development, then the tactic worked, as what seemed like an unstoppable march toward war on the part of the US was halted. Others instead saw the summit as a US tactic, ultimately aimed at unsettling China’s dominance in the region. What was lurking behind all of this was a widely unexamined and frequently misunderstood North Korean conception of “denuclearization”—Trump, hearing the word alone, might have jumped to certain unviable conclusions, which could be a recipe for disaster.

There was considerable pessimism in the US media concerning the talks with North Korea, with some fear that any failure could increase the chances of war. In other cases, the apparent worry could have been motivated by a desire not to let diplomacy take the lead over war, and that Trump is always quick to reward flattery. Trump’s administration was cast as unprepared, while North Korea had already won a victory by securing the talks. Part of the problem was the history of prior failed agreements, which the US was directly responsible for abrogating (as under George W. Bush), contrary to the usual propaganda in the US media and political circles. Another problem was that it would be impossible to simply make North Korea forget it had developed nuclear weapons technologies, thus rendering the aim of “denuclearization” illusory from the outset. Another argument was that from the outset, even in advance of talks, North Korea was already in a commanding position and with little to lose—unlike the US. One of the better critiques of the criticisms of the proposed meetings came from a State Department veteran, who carefully picked apart most of the mass mediated objections to the talks, backed by another former senior State Department official who articulated his support for the summit.

That Trump might terminate the Iran nuclear agreement in May, was something that weighed on the prospects for a successful outcome in reaching an agreement with North Korea. If anything, Trump damaged his own credibility and thus weakened his negotiating stance. North Korea, for its part, made none of the promises Trump claimed they had, and continued its public silence.

The Firings of Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster

Adding to the pessimism of some critics of the summit with North Korea, Trump abruptly fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson almost at the same time as he agreed to a meeting with Kim Jong-un, forcing Tillerson to cut short his trip to Africa (Trump apparently cared little about losing face with African states). The firing was done publicly by Trump, via Twitter, adding a sense of humiliation to the episode—one of many resignations and firings that cast a shadow on the Trump’s White House as a site of turmoil and dysfunction. (By the end of the year Trump would be calling Tillerson “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell”.) Tillerson’s under secretary was also immediately fired by Trump, for publicly contradicting the White House. Tillerson was visibly shaken when speaking to the press. With so many recent firings and departures, some predicted the impending collapse of the Trump presidency—but no collapse materialized. The firing of Tillerson happened after Trump had called the many media rumours of the impending firing “fake news”—suggesting that leaks were coming from a source with reliable knowledge, and within the White House. The same routine would be repeated with the national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, whose impending firing Trump would also call “fake news”—McMaster was replaced by John Bolton, an arch war monger popular with Fox News’ directorate. Tillerson had never properly or directly denied having called Trump a “fucking moron,” and Trump was publicly irritated by praises of Tillerson’s intellect, suggesting a degree of personal jealousy and pettiness driving Trump’s decision-making. However, Tillerson was the establishment’s Trojan Horse for the status quo ante Trump—hired on the recommendations of Robert Gates and Condoleeza Rice. Trump’s own remarks to the press stated it was all about the two having a different mindset, especially when it came to Iran, also admitting he did not consult Tillerson before agreeing to the North Korean summit. The immediate consequence of the firing was that now two people who promoted torture and other human rights abuses, would be rewarded: Mike Pompeo would leave the CIA and assume Tillerson’s job, while Pompeo’s replacement at the CIA, Gina Haspel, played a direct role in the waterboarding of detainees (in April 109 US generals would publicly denounce her role in torture and demand her nomination be withdrawn). Reactions to the Tillerson firing, even when not sympathetic to Tillerson, were marked by a high degree of contempt or distrust of Trump’s White House, though close allies of Tillerson offered predictably anodyne statements.

The left-liberal media continued to nourish the myth that Trump’s advisers—which Trump himself picked—had formed a “protective cordon,” which can only mean that their notion of “protection” defaults to the war-mongering interventionist positions of McMaster and Mattis. The entry of John Bolton, replacing Gen. H.R. McMaster as the president’s national security adviser, gave rise to wildly mixed interpretations, ranging from fear to reassurance, sometimes within the same article. While the consensus was that Bolton favoured an aggressive stance toward Iran and North Korea—he would immediately be frustrated on the latter front by Trump himself. Bolton was deemed not to be a neoconservative, and that he had no interest in multilaterialism and democracy promotion. Bolton was, however, a leading advocate for the war in Iraq, which Trump claimed to oppose.

Predicting New US Airstrikes against Syria

It was quite prescient on the part of both Iran’s government and RT, to perceive from as early as mid-March that the firing of Tillerson increased the likelihood of new US military action in Syria, which was predicted a month in advance of it happening, on RT:

“Tillerson was regarded as less of a hawk than many others in the Trump administration when it comes to foreign policy, and, since his departure, some foreign policy experts have speculated that the White House is preparing to take new military action against Syrian government forces.”

At the same time as the prediction above, Russian Army General Army General Valery Gerasimov publicly warned that, according to RT, “Washington was preparing to launch airstrikes against Syria using alleged chemical attacks as a pretext”. As predicted, those very events would transpire just a month later.

Russiagate: Official U.S. Policy

The Republicans voted to end the House Intelligence Committee’s Russiagate probe this month, having found no evidence of any “collusion, coordination, or conspiracy” between Russia and the Trump campaign, while simultaneously downgrading the so-called “intelligence community assessment” used to prop up these allegations. However, by this point the damage had already been done: anti-Russian hysteria had reached such a fevered pitch, that it reached to the highest levels of the White House, where Trump was now determined to prove to the world that nobody could be more anti-Russian than him. The New Cold War is now a fact, and it is largely thanks to the Democrats and a vain, ratings-obsessed showman posing as a president, one who can clearly be easily suckered into any position.

By the end of the year there were still no indictments and no evidence concerning “Trump–Russia collusion”. Instead the focus turned to “campaign finance violations” over payments to some women—in other words, an increasingly fogged-up blurring of legalisms and pettiness.

Iran Nuclear Agreement

Iran made it very clear that any plan by EU members to impose new sanctions on Iran, would have a direct effect on the maintenance of the nuclear agreement. After all, Iran had signed this agreement with the understanding that it would free it from sanctions—to have to put up with new sanctions, just to keep the US happy with the deal, is too much to expect any state to reasonably tolerate. According to Iran’s deputy foreign minister:

“In case some European countries are following steps to put non-nuclear sanctions against Iran in order to please the American president, they will be making a big mistake and they will see the direct result of that on the nuclear deal. It’s better that European countries continue their current action to persuade America to keep its promises in the nuclear deal and for that country to effectively execute the deal in all its parts with good will and in a productive atmosphere”.

Britain, France, and Germany, were working on a proposal for the EU to impose new sanctions on Iran. Did Iran violate the nuclear agreement? No, instead the sanctions were meant simply to appease Donald Trump so he would keep the agreement alive. In the end, no such EU sanctions came to happen.

Using Iranian covert involvement in the war in Yemen as a pretext, the US Senate voted to terminate an effort to halt US involvement in Saudi military operations that have caused massive civilian casualties and displacement. Taking us back to the prison of euphemisms, advocates for US intervention offered the notion that US participation in backing Saudi military operations did not constitute engagement in hostilities. Had the US applied this same logic to terrorism, it would not have found a single person to place in Guantanamo.

Top Articles for March

One thought on “Review of 2018, Part 1 (January–March): Unloading the American Empire

  1. Pingback: The Thickest Review of 2018: An Overview – ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY

Comments are closed