Trump’s Infrastructure Boondoggle

by Mike Whitney

CounterPunch (March 15 2017)

We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals … And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.

– President Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan is not an infrastructure plan and it won’t put $1 trillion of fiscal stimulus into the economy. It’s basically a scheme for handing over public assets to private corporations that will extract maximum profits via user fees and tolls. Because the plan is essentially a boondoggle, it will not lift the economy out of the doldrums, increase activity or boost growth. Quite the contrary. When the details of how the program is going to be implemented are announced, public confidence in the Trump administration is going to wither and stock prices are going to plunge. This scenario cannot be avoided because the penny-pinching conservatives in the House and Senate have already said that they won’t support any plan that is not “revenue neutral” which means that any real $1 trillion spending package is a dead letter. Thus, it’s only a matter of time before the Trump’s plan is exposed as a fraud and the sh** hits the fan.

Here are more of the details from an article at Slate:

Under Trump’s plan … the federal government would offer tax credits to private investors interested in funding large infrastructure projects, who would put down some of their own money up front, then borrow the rest on the private bond markets. They would eventually earn their profits on the back end from usage fees, such as highway and bridge tolls (if they built a highway or bridge) or higher water rates (if they fixed up some water mains). So instead of paying for their new roads at tax time, Americans would pay for them during their daily commute. And of course, all these private developers would earn a nice return at the end of the day. {1}

Normally, fiscal stimulus is financed by increasing the budget deficits, but Maestro Trump has something else up his sleeve. He wants the big construction companies and private equity firms to stump up the seed money and start the work with the understanding that they’ll be able to impose user fees and tolls on roads and bridges when the work is completed. For every dollar that corporations spend on rebuilding US infrastructure, they’ll get a dollar back via tax credits, which means that they’ll end up controlling valuable, revenue-generating assets for nothing. The whole thing is a flagrant ripoff that stinks to high heaven. The corporations rake in hefty profits on sweetheart deals, while the American people get bupkis. Welcome to Trumpworld. Here’s more background from Trump’s campaign website:

American Energy and Infrastructure Act Leverages public-private partnerships, and private investments through tax incentives, to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over ten years. It is revenue neutral.

– Donald Trump’s Contract with the American Voter

In practical terms, “revenue neutral” means that every dollar of new spending has to be matched by cuts to other government programs. So, if there are hidden costs to Trump’s plan, then they’ll have to be paid for by slashing funds for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps et cetera. But, keep in mind, these other programs are much more effective sources of stimulus since the money goes directly to the people who spend it immediately and help grow the economy. Trump’s infrastructure plan doesn’t work like that. A lot of the money will go towards management fees and operational costs leaving fewer dollars to trickle down to low-paid construction workers whose personal consumption drives the economy. Less money for workers means less spending, less activity and weaker growth. Here’s more on the topic from The Washington Post:

Trump’s plan is not really an infrastructure plan. It’s a tax-cut plan for utility-industry and construction-sector investors, and a massive corporate welfare plan for contractors. The Trump plan doesn’t directly fund new roads, bridges, water systems or airports … Instead, Trump’s plan provides tax breaks to private-sector investors who back profitable construction projects … There’s no requirement that the tax breaks be used for … expanded construction efforts; they could all go just to fatten the pockets of investors in previously planned projects …

Second, as a result of the above, Trump’s plan isn’t really a jobs plan, either. Because the plan subsidizes investors, not projects; because it funds tax breaks, not bridges; because there’s no requirement that the projects be otherwise unfunded, there is simply no guarantee that the plan will produce any net new hiring …

Buried inside the plan will be provisions to weaken prevailing wage protections on construction projects, undermining unions and ultimately eroding workers’ earnings. Environmental rules are almost certain to be gutted in the name of accelerating projects. {2}

Let’s summarize: “Trump’s plan” is “massive corporate welfare plan for contractors” and the “tax breaks” … “could all go just to fatten the pockets of investors in previously planned projects”.

Check.

“Trump’s plan isn’t really a jobs plan, either” … (and) “there is simply no guarantee that the plan will produce any net new hiring”.

Check.

Trump’s plan will probably “weaken prevailing wage protections … undermining unions and ultimately eroding workers’ earnings”.

Check.

What part of this plan looks like it will have a positive impact on the economy?

None. If Trump was serious about raising GDP to four percent (another one of his promises), he’d increase Social Security payments, beef up the food stamps program, or hire more government workers. Any one of these would trigger an immediate uptick in activity spurring more growth and a stronger economy. And while America’s ramshackle bridges and roads may be in dire need of a facelift, infrastructure is actually a poor way to inject fiscal stimulus which can be more easily distributed by simply hiring government agents to stand on street corners and hand out 100 dollar bills to passersby. That might not fill the pothole-strewn streets in downtown Duluth, but it would sure as hell would light a fire under GDP.

So what’s the gameplan here? What’s Trump really up to? If his infrastructure plan isn’t going to work, then what’s the real objective?

The objective is to allow wealthy corporations to buy public assets at firesale prices so they can turn them into profit-generating enterprises. That’s it in a nutshell. That’s why the emphasis is on “unconventional financing programs”, “public-private partnerships”, and “Build America Bonds” instead of plain-old fiscal stimulus, jobs programs and deficit spending. Trump is signaling to his pirate friends in Corporate America that he’ll use his power as executive to find new outlets for profitable investment so they have some place to stick their mountain of money.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with rebuilding America’s dilapidated infrastructure or even revving up GDP. That’s just public relations bunkum. What’s really going on is a massive looting operation organized and executed under the watchful eye of Donald Trump, Robber Baron-in-Chief.

And Infrastructure is just the tip of the iceberg. Once these kleptomaniacs hit their stride, they’re going to cut through Washington like locusts through a corn field. Bet on it.

Links:

{1] Donald Trump’s Plan to Privatize America’s Roads and Bridge

{2} https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trumps-big-infrastructure-plan-its-a-trap/2016/11/18/5b1d109c-adae-11e6-8b45-f8e493f06fcd_story.html

http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/03/15/trumps-infrastructure-boondoggle/

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Americans Refuge in “Matrix Of Rackets” is Failing

by Howard Kunstler via Kunstler.com

Clusterfuck Nation – Blog (March 20 2017)

Zero Hedge (March 20 2017)

You might not know it, given all the ambient noise of the moment, but beyond the torments of news and propaganda there is still something called the nation. It’s more than just a political compact. Until not long ago it was also a culture, an agreed-upon set of values, practices, and customs that amounted to an identity: I’m an American. If you canvassed the crowd in Yankee Stadium one summer afternoon in 1947, I imagine each person would answer that way rather than saying I’m a wounded war veteran, I’m a WASP, I’m an oppressed housewife, I’m a negro, I’m Italian, I’m a Jew, I’m a union member, I’m a communist, I’m queer, I’m a rape victim …

These days, the hardships of history are shattering the nation and our response politically has been to take refuge in a matrix of rackets. Most of these rackets are economic, because it’s the essence of racketeering to extract the greatest benefit possible from the object of your racket at the least cost to the racketeer. In plain English, it’s an organized way of getting something for nothing. The identity politics of our time is another form of racketeering – extracting current maximum benefits on claims of mistreatment, often bygone, specious, or only imagined.

And so one of the truly existential questions of the moment is whether we’ll continue to be a nation, even geographically, and a lot of sentient observers aren’t too sure. Apparently we’re not too sure we even want to be. This is why the campaign slogan of Hillary Clinton, “Stronger Together”, rang so false when the Democratic Party worked so diligently in 2016 to construct separate identity fortifications and then declared culture war on the dwindling majority outside the ramparts. And you’re surprised that Donald Trump won the election?

Trump won by making promises that he’ll never be able to keep under the current circumstances. The main promise was to restore the standard of living enjoyed in bygone decades by former industrial workers and clerks. His promise was based on a misunderstanding of history: the notion that the industrial organization of daily life was a permanent part of the human condition. You could detect by the early 21st century that this was not so anymore. That was exactly why we tried to replace it with an economy of rackets. When there’s nothing left, a lot of people are going to try to get something for nothing, because there’s nothing else to do.

Hence, the financialization of the economy. In the 1950s, finance made up about five percent of the economy. It’s mission then was pretty simple and straightforward: to manage the accumulated wealth of the nation (capital) and then allocate it to those who proposed to generate greater wealth via new productive activities, mostly industrial, ad infinitum. It turned out that ad infinitum doesn’t work in a world of finite resources – but the ride had been so intoxicating that we couldn’t bring ourselves to believe it, and still can’t.

With industry expiring, or moving elsewhere (also temporarily), we inflated finance to nearly forty percent of the economy. The new financialization was, in effect, setting a matrix of rackets in motion. What had worked as capital management before was allowed to mutate into various forms of swindling and fraud – such as the bundling of dishonestly acquired mortgages into giant bonds and then selling them to pension funds desperate for “yield”, or the orgy of merger and acquisition in health care that turned hospitals into cash registers, or the revenue streams on derivative “plays” that amounted to bets with no possibility of ever being paid off, or the three-card-monte games of interest rate arbitrage played by central banks and their “primary dealer” concubines.

Some of what I’ve listed above may be incomprehensible to the blog reader, and that is because these rackets were crafted to be opaque and recondite. The rackets continue without regulation or prosecution because there is an unstated appreciation in government, and in the corporate board rooms, that it’s all we’ve got left. What remains of the accustomed standard of living in America is supported by wishing and fakery and all that is now coming to a climax as we steam full speed ahead into Murphy’s law: if something can go wrong, it will.

When all of America comes to realize that President Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing, it will make last November’s national nervous breakdown look like a momentary case of the vapors. What can go wrong awaits in markets, banks, currencies, and the immense dark pools of counterparty obligations that amount to black holes where notions of value are sucked out of the universe. There is so much that can go wrong. And then it will. And then maybe that will prompt us back to consider being a nation again.

http://kunstler.com/clusterfuck-nation/full-speed-ahead-murphys-law/

http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2017-03-20/americans-refuge-matrix-rackets-failing

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What You Can’t Be Told

Turkey and the Deep State

by Gordon Duff

New Eastern Outlook (March 18 2017)

The idea that Russia has rigged an American presidential election and that Donald Trump is a Russian spy is an interesting story but it is just that, a wild story. Problem is, that story has an author, who paid millions to blame Russia and throw America and the world into turmoil and chaos.

We will now tell that story.

Putting highly classified and actionable intelligence “out there” is high risk for a variety of reasons. To the casual reader, non-internet reality challenges the fabricated narratives so many have tied their emotional lives to, stories scripted for them to enfeeble and deter.

Without wasting time, I will tell a tale of Turkey and, in the process, pretend I am clever and disguise highly classified intelligence in hopes that understanding of what “deep state politics” really is, almost the direct opposite of what most are told, will “make a difference”. We proceed.

A few years ago we were all talking about Turkey and Erdogan as being the “New Ottoman Empire.” We were right then but stopped, we burned out the idea, ran to something else, and forgot what we had learned through hard lessons of observing Erdogan’s betrayals.

Turkey is back to the its old Ottoman self, and Ottoman Turkey had one enemy above all, that was Imperial Russia. Now the new Czar is Putin, the Imperial Russian flag is back, the Russian people are back and “in the game” and the old rivalries are alive and well.

The story all really begins, or at least this part of it, with the conquest of Ukraine by ultra-nationalists, part of the now obvious populist revolt in both America and Europe. When we look at Gert Wilders in Netherlands, or the junta in Poland or Nigel Farage’s Britain, we are seeing intelligence agencies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, orchestrating the collapse of Nato and the EU, and the creation of a disinterested America.

This is buying power on the cheap, cheap politicians, cheap populist ideas, all on the make, on the take, long personal histories of looking out for “number one”, corruption, selfishness and lying.

Yes, we have described Donald Trump as well.

First we need to understand the real power of lobbying in Washington. Turkey went into Washington in a big way in 1915, yes a century ago, when the slaughter of the Armenian people threatened to bring an America ready to fight Germany into a war with Ottoman Turkey as well.

Turkey bought newspapers, politicians and anyone with a price tag on them in Washington DC, and has kept that up until even now. Activist and author Sibel Edmonds knows this well as a former FBI translator. She stumbled on the massive Turkish spy rings in Washington and was silenced by the Bush administration for years.

Similarly, Vermont’s Gwyneth Todd, former National Security Council member and White House advisor on Turkey tells a similar tale. Turkey is powerful in Washington and when many talk about “the lobby”, it isn’t Israel but Turkey or maybe Saudi Arabia.

This is where we enter new “high risk” territory. We now have reason to believe that the overthrow of Ukraine, combined with the populist or “neo-Nazi” movements across Europe were funded by Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

What we have learned is this: those attempts to blame George Soros or Hillary Clinton for the Kiev military coup were financed by Turkish and Saudi intelligence, working through their network of agents, some within government, some within security agencies and the “owned” fake news media. Working with Turkey on this project was Fox News, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp aided by Breitbart and a bevy of Washington think tanks, all paid by the Turkish spy agencies as well.

During the second week of March 2016, TV personality Sean Hannity made an “emergency appeal” to President Trump on the Fox network. He demanded that Trump fire all US attorney’s left over from the Obama presidency even those such as Preet Bharara, who Trump had asked to stay on.

We now learn that Bharara was investigating Fox News and was ready to issue an indictment against Sean Hannity for working for the Turkish government as a foreign agent.

It goes further, dangerously further. This is what we learned. We have been told by high level informants within the Washington intelligence community that, under President Obama, Turkey “bought their way into” America’s intelligence system.

Only two weeks ago, we learned that former National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn, fired for “talking to Russia and lying about it”, had actually been working for Turkey. Flynn and his son, just registered as Turkish agents, admitting they worked for Turkey all along, and were paid $530,000.

We now learn more. Flynn and his son were responsible, working with Sean Hannity of Fox News, for a vast plan of deception and propaganda on behalf of Turkey to blame the Russian government for rigging the American presidential election.

We now know that much of the corruption accusations against Hillary Clinton were created as part of a subterfuge for two reasons:

1. To blame Hillary Clinton and George Soros for Turkey’s destabilization of Ukraine and their role in staging the coup, aided by Saudi Arabia and ultra-nationalist forces in Poland that hate Russia. They were going to take Crimea, cut Russia out of the Black Sea and cripple Russia’s defense industries, dependent on Ukrainian components.

2. To put Donald Trump in office with his long partnership with anti-Russian oligarchs and his participation in Turkish run sexual blackmail schemes run by Jeffrey Epstein, which yielded a wealth of power and influence over governments, media and financial institutions.

 

 

Background

 

 

Turkey saw its opening after 9/11. The Bush administration, partnering with oil barons like Tillerson at Exxon, now Secretary of State under Trump, if you can believe it, sought to not just control Middle East oil but steal billions in oil and, combined with their newfound heroin franchise in Afghanistan and $3 trillion stolen from the US Department of Defense, to finance a “new world order”.

While the Bush amateurs stumbled around, getting advice from Israel’s Netanyahu, who played them like a cheap fiddle, Turkey moved in. Turkey made billions on their cut from stolen Kirkuk oil from Iraq and billions more on Afghan opium as well. Turkey had always been the heroin processing center of the world. Afghanistan took that over for a while, though Turkey had grown fat in the interim processing CIA opium from Afghanistan. Now Turkey is back in the saddle, while heroin processors in Afghanistan are being dismembered, a failed CIA franchise, now back home in Turkey.

This money and power brought Turkey to the forefront, their membership in Nato gave them position, their denial of membership in the EU made them resentful and made them want revenge.

Turkey had long been allied with Israel, enjoying Israel’s military technology and a common interest that dated back to as early as 1376, when Jews fled Hungary long prior to the Turks taking Constantinople.

Ottoman Turkey was always run by Jews and was important to the survival of the Jewish people. That friendship continues covertly as does the Israeli partnership with Saudi Arabia, but no longer tied to survival for the Jewish people but rather to promote chaos, support terrorism and, above all, destroy Russia.

Where Bolshevik Russia was a home to Jews, despite Western propaganda to the contrary, the new Russia is a strongly Christian state and though Jews are not persecuted, the Christian religion is the official religion of Russia and is promoted by the state and its leaders. Above all, President Putin is a devout Christian.

Thus, we have Turkey now active in Kosovo, training their newly “Nato authorized” standing army, Turkey is in Macedonia, practically running that nation as well and using it to destabilize Greece and Turkey is in Ukraine, working with ultra-nationalists, planning war on Crimea and Donbass.

Turkey is also busy in the French and Dutch elections, funding ultra-nationalists or “populists” there while preparing to unleash a new mass exodus of refugees.

All the while carefully orchestrated terror attacks go on and we can only guess who is behind those attacks at shopping malls, school shootings, suicide bombings, the telltale story of Saudi Wahhbists beliefs and their participation in Turkey’s move into Europe.

Back in the US, we take the clock to 2013. General Michael Flynn took over the Defense Intelligence Agency (“DIA”) in 2012 under President Obama. By 2014, Director of National Intelligence James R Clapper Jr asked for Flynn’s resignation. At the time few knew why.

We believe Flynn was discovered to be working for Turkey even then. It wasn’t just the DIA, the Turks had bought their way into the CIA as well and just perhaps everyplace else as well. This is Washington where the only honest workers are the prostitutes.

The huge covert program to arm Ukraine turned into something else. Partners in Ukraine grew rich transshipping new American weapons systems to ISIS and al Nusra in Syria, offloading from Romania or at Poti, in Georgia, and trucking across Turkey into Syria.

The reverse trade brought oil into Turkey, truckloads of antiquities for the auction houses of Europe and thousands of trafficked women and children. Turkey looted Syria; factories, banks, everything they could move or unbolt, everything they could dig up or harvest, all was stolen and all is still being stolen.

Helping them then, helping ISIS, helping al Nusra, aided by Saudi cash and the Turkish state was the CIA, and the Defense Intelligence Agency, aided by rogue officers in the Pentagon.

When Iraq tells of US helicopters supplying ISIS or of ISIS leaders being evacuated, is it the CIA or General Flynn’s organizations doing it? Was Flynn on the Turkish payroll in 2012 and if they bought Flynn, who else did they get as well?

When Flynn visited Moscow in 2015 and attended the Russia Today gala, where Flynn told his hosts how he would stand by Russia, how he supported them in Syria, how many knew that he was on the payroll of Turkish intelligence?

How many understand history is repeating itself?

_____

Gordon Duff is a Marine combat veteran of the Vietnam War who has worked on veterans and POW issues for decades and consulted with governments challenged by security issues. He’s a senior editor and chairman of the board of Veterans Today, especially for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook.

http://journal-neo.org/2017/03/18/what-you-can-t-be-told-turkey-and-the-deep-state/

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Asian Collision Course

Too late for Trump to try to contain China

Donald Trump challenged the One China policy, but soon backed off. He wants concessions from China on trade and security, and he might even attempt to impede China’s global ascent.

by Philip S Golub

Le Monde diplomatique (March 2017)


Fishermen near the Scarborough Shoal, in waters assigned to the Philippines, with a Chinese coastguard ship on the horizon
Asahi Shimbun · Getty

Since the end of the US presidential campaign, Donald Trump and his team of advisers have made statements showing they seek to alter world politics in significant ways. None are quite as important, for world peace and global stability, as the adversarial pronouncements about the People’s Republic of China (“PRC”) that are now upsetting bilateral relations and generating turbulence in East Asia. While not yet formalised in a coherent policy framework, official and semi-official discourses point to sharpening rivalry, and possibly to an unfolding, and risky, containment effort.

At the economic level, the new administration is considering designating China a “currency manipulator” for the first time since 1994, and is proposing punitive tariffs of up to 45% on Chinese-sourced imports. At the strategic level, prominent figures in or close to the new administration have been sending unusually unambiguous messages that the US will use force if necessary to curb China’s growing power and reach in East Asia and the Pacific. In confirmation hearings on 11 January, secretary of state designate Rex Tillerson warned that the US would interdict Chinese naval forces in the South China Seas: “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to these islands also is not going to be allowed”. It would be a “danger to the global economy” if China were to “dictate access to the waterway” {1}. A few days later, Newt Gingrich, former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives (1995~1999) and confidant of Donald Trump, told the German weekly Der Spiegel, “Well, frankly, on the South China Sea, I suspect we will try to communicate with the Chinese that they are not going to become the leading naval power in our lifetime” {2}.

Concerns about the “China Threat”

On 11 December, Trump had threatened to overturn the basic framework of Sino-American relations since the late 1970s by publicly questioning the One China policy: “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade” {3}. He has since reversed on this crucially sensitive issue, which the PRC sees as a core question of sovereignty, telling Chinese president Xi Jinping on 9 February that he would “honour our One China policy”.

Even so, this cluster of statements cannot be taken lightly: they reflect widely shared views in nationalist power circles about the “China threat”. At best, they can be interpreted as opening moves in a coercive diplomatic effort to extract concessions from China on trade and security; at worst, as the first articulation of an emerging strategic programme to inhibit China’s ascent. In either case, implementation would mark a significant and destabilising policy shift.

Since the late 1970s, when the US recognised the PRC, US behaviour towards China has been fairly consistent. Despite frictions over monetary and trade policy, and one symbolic, potentially serious, test of strength during the 1995~1996 “Taiwan Strait crisis”, the primary thrust of US policy has been to incorporate China into the systems of the US-led international order, and the institutional and market disciplines of the world capitalist economy. Successive US administrations thought that they could do this from a position of strength, creating the frameworks for China’s economic and political paths.

Conversely, the PRC demonstrated restraint, seen in cautious voting behaviour at the UN Security Council (from 1971 to 2006 the PRC used its veto power only twice) and in the subordination of strategic issues to the paramount aim of state capitalist transformation and global economic integration. More aggressive Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea in recent years suggests this might not last: rising nationalism, which has gone hand in hand with growing wealth and power, could prevail in China, as in the US. Nonetheless, current Chinese discourse – notably Xi Jinping’s Davos speech to the World Economic Forum on 17 January, which stressed the importance of global economic interdependence – points to continuity, at least for the moment.

The main change has come from the US. The nationalist ideologues and economic neo-mercantilists now in charge in Washington read world politics as a zero-sum game in which states seek relative gains in a competitive struggle for power, prestige and profit. They consider the PRC a major economic threat and a formidable strategic challenge. They aim to “aggressively and comprehensively address the China problem”, according to Peter Navarro, head of the new National Trade Council and author of inflammatory books {4}.

China Cannot Rise Peacefully

International relations theorist John Mearsheimer has offered the clearest argument in favour of containment. Starting from the assumption that interstate anarchy generates inescapable pressures for conflict, he argues that “China cannot rise peacefully” since it would “fundamentally alter the architecture of the international system”. “If China continues to grow economically”, he wrote in 2001, “it will attempt to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the western hemisphere”. In response, the “United States … will go to enormous lengths to prevent China from achieving regional hegemony”, leading to an “intense security competition … with considerable potential for war” {5}.

There is a thin, porous line between analysis and prescription in Mearsheimer’s work. He expressed astonishment not long ago about “Americans and people in allied states who profess wanting to see China grow economically”. At a small gathering in Washington DC in 2014, he said he hoped the Chinese economy would “falter or collapse”, thus removing “a potentially enormous threat to the US and its allies”. Were China to “reach a GDP per capita that is comparable to Taiwan or Hong Kong today, it would be a greater potential threat to the United States than anything America has previously dealt with” {6}.

Most recently, he has urged the Trump administration “to go to great lengths to prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon” by actively leading a containment effort:

 

 

Ideally, Washington would rely on countries in Asia to contain China, but that strategy will not work. Not only is China likely to be far more powerful than its neighbours, but also they are located far from each other, making it difficult for them to coordinate those efforts to form an effective balancing coalition. The United States will have to coordinate these efforts and throw its considerable weight behind them … The fact that no country threatens to dominate Europe or the Gulf is a blessing, as it not only allows Washington to concentrate its military forces in Asia, but also allows American policy makers to concentrate their strategic thinking on how to prevent China from becoming a peer competitor. That mission should be of paramount importance for the United States in the years ahead. {7}

 

 


In harm’s way: Chinese aircraft carrier fleet on training exercises in the South China Sea
VCG · Getty

Short of war, however, that mission seems unattainable. The regional and global conditions for containment are not in place. First, it would not be acceptable to most East Asian states. Many countries in the region do fear an overbearing China and have expressed serious concerns in recent years over the PRC’s suzerainty claims in the South China Sea. However, being fated to live forever in the PRC’s neighbourhood, they do not want to be enmeshed in a great power rivalry that would threaten regional stability. All regional states have enormous stakes in China’s “peaceful rise”. The PRC has become the gravitational centre of regional economic integration and currently accounts for nearly forty percent of Taiwanese trade, 21% of South Korean trade (more than Korean trade with the US and Japan combined), fourteen percent of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) trade, and even twenty percent of Japanese trade.

In private, ASEAN diplomats now express greater concern about US intentions than about China’s. Some have been working behind the scenes to get the PRC to sign a “code of conduct” over the South China Sea. They include states that have their own territorial claims, such as Vietnam, which retains close if sometimes tense relations with the Chinese party-state, and the Philippines.

If China does not severely overreach in Southeast Asia in the near future, a regional anti-PRC coalition will not come into being. A Chinese official noted in 2012 that some Asian countries “share the same bed [as the US] but have different dreams”. A pro-Chinese coalition is not very likely either. Few East Asian states that now share China’s bed also share Xi Jinping’s China dream: the PRC’s appeals to “Asianness”, based on cultural proximities and shared historical experiences of European empire, have limited purchase in the region – despite a common allergy to universalising western discourses. Most East Asian states are seeking balance – as weaker states in the uncomfortable proximity of great powers are wont to do – to preserve some autonomy in the face of both Asian-Pacific giants. The last thing they want is to be forced to choose sides.

Also, containment would run counter to the interests of a constellation of transnational economic actors, including parts of US capital; these are deeply invested in China, and dependent on its role as a platform of production and assembly in the global production and value chains that make the world economy work [8]. Until Trump, the geopolitical logic of state power had not come into contradiction with transnational economic interests, which now weigh heavily in overall strategic calculations.

The Hot Cold War

That has now changed, at least for the moment. Containment of the Soviet Union worked during the cold war (which was often hot in East Asia and other colonial and postcolonial peripheries), insofar as the US built tight alliances and interdependencies – belts of security and prosperity that surrounded the USSR and were characterised by the convergence of public and private actors around a relatively unified agenda.

After the second world war the US aimed to restore the world capitalist economy, to contain the USSR and inhibit revolution in colonial and postcolonial world regions, as well as in Europe where communist parties claimed mass support. These aims were shared overall by dominant European and East Asian anti-communist social forces, which developed deep and lasting economic and security links with the US.

In Europe, this led to institutionalised cooperation based on converging general interests (see https://mondediplo.com/2017/03/02brexit). Nato was underpinned by an expanding and increasingly interdependent transatlantic economy. In East Asia, bilateral security alliances went along with US support for strong (read authoritarian), successful capitalist developing states, which were initially given unrestricted US market access and became subordinate but willing partners in the global containment effort.

The major business actors had powerful vested interests in this global system, which kept the Soviet Union caged in a closed economic area (Comecon) and limited international economic relationships. New York and Washington became the gravitational centre for the constellation of private economic actors that, over time, became the transnational constituency of Pax Americana.

Where China is concerned, there is no such common purpose today among public or private actors, either in East Asia or in Europe, which is now anxiously looking at the authoritarian Far East to moderate the newly bellicose Far West. Transnational capital paradoxically and unexpectedly has become more aligned with China than with the current purposes of the US state. Unlike the Soviet Union, China has become an indispensable hub of the world capitalist economy.

Chinese State is not about to Collapse

The last reason why containment cannot work is that China is not in the same political or economic position as the Soviet Union in the late 1970s or 1980s, when industrial decline, overall economic stagnation and a failed overseas war combined to generate a systemic crisis. China has seventeen percent of world GDP today in purchasing power parity (“PPP”), and while economic and social strains could well generate setbacks, the state is not about to collapse. There are serious questions about the longer-range sustainability of the current sociopolitical order, and of its environmentally damaging, externally driven growth logic. But the state has proved resilient over long periods.

Ironically, by threatening trade sanctions and pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (“TPP”), the US administration may ultimately help the PRC gain greater autonomy. While higher tariffs would hurt its economy in the short run, they will spur the turn to endogenous growth that the Chinese leadership has been aiming for since the 2000s, reducing reliance on exports and helping to build more cohesive national and regional markets.

It is too late for the US to contain China, if indeed containment was ever possible. In 1965, when China was in a far weaker economic and strategic position, the scholar Hans Morgenthau argued that containment would fail, leaving US policymakers only two options, accommodation or general war:

 

 

Even if China were threatening her neighbours primarily by military means, it would be impossible to contain her by erecting a military wall at the periphery of her empire. For China is, even in her present underdeveloped state, the dominant power in Asia. The United States can no more contain Chinese influence in Asia … than China could contain American influence in the western hemisphere … If we are convinced that we cannot live with a China predominant in the heartland of Asia, then we must strike at the heart of Chinese power … To be defeated China has to be conquered … If we do not want to set ourselves goals which cannot be attained with the means we are willing to employ, we must learn to accommodate ourselves to the predominance of China on the Asian mainland. {9}

 

 

“Strategic Arrogance beyond America’s Strength”

International politics is reflexive. US sovereignists read China as a revisionist emerging power, purposefully aiming, beneath a deceptive discourse of interdependence, to alter the regional and global status quo. And many Chinese analysts view the US as an “aggressive, ambitious, self-righteous and highly militarised Rome” {10}. The Chinese leadership, which had already manifested concerns over the Obama administration’s announced pivot towards East Asia, has reacted cautiously to Trump administration pronouncements. But publications thought to reflect the power centres in Beijing have been quick to denounce Trump as showing “strategic arrogance that is beyond America’s strength”.

On 16 January the Global Times wrote that “China (had) to be quick in preparing for sharp provocations from the Trump administration” by improving its “ties with other countries so as to have more leverage in its game with the US”, and also by “preparing for the worst-case scenario” {11}. A few days earlier, China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, sailed through the first island chain in the East China Sea, accompanied for the first time by six H-6 long range bombers, signalling in the words of another Global Times piece, that the “PLA’s navy exercises in the West Pacific Ocean are entering into a normalisation state … The breakthrough, however, is considered as just the beginning stage of the PLA navy’s sea operation in the region as more fleets of battleships led by carriers will sail into waters near and far in the future” {12}.

The US and China seem set to test each other, with the growing risk of a clash between US or PRC naval and air forces in the South China or East China Seas, and the possibility of chain reactions leading to a major historical accident. There are other pathways. The PRC could choose a policy of strategic restraint and use the widespread aversion caused by Trump administration behaviour to make political gains in Asia and beyond. Or the US could back off from its confrontational course. Events and actor choices will inform us soon whether we are experiencing a historic reversal from limited but real transnational interdependence back to 19th century national power politics.

Notes:

(1) Michael Forsythe, “Rex Tillerson’s South China Sea Remarks Foreshadow Possible Foreign Policy Crisis”, The New York Times (January 12 2017).

(2) Interview of Newt Gingrich by Gordon Repinksi in Der Spiegel International (January 16 2017).

(3) Donald Trump interview on Fox News (December 11 2016).

(4) Peter Navarro, The Coming China Wars (2006); Death by China: Confronting the Dragon (2011); and Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World (2015).

(5) John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001).

(6) Quoted in Zachary Keck, “US-China rivalry more dangerous than Cold War”, The Diplomat (January 28 2014).

(7) John Mearsheimer,”‘Donald Trump should Embrace a Realist Foreign Policy”, The National Interest (November 27 2016).

(8) For an analysis of China’s insertion in global value chains see Philip Golub, East Asia’s Reemergence (2016), Chapter 5.

(9) Quoted in Philip Golub, op cit, page 146.

(10) Lanxin Xiang, quoted in Golub, op cit, page 142.

(11) “Will Trump Rewrite US’ Europe Policy?”, Global Times (January 16 2017).

(12) “China’s aircraft carrier poised to sail further”, Global Times (January 15 2017).

_____

Philip S Golub is professor of international relations at the American University of Paris (“AUP”) and the author of East Asia’s Reemergence (2016).

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Categories: Uncategorized

The Necessity of Credibility

Ridding ourselves of fake news requires having media outlets that are actually worth listening to …

by Nathan J Robinson

Current Affairs (December 06 2016)

Despite having decisively won the presidential election by the only measure that counts, the Electoral College, Donald Trump recently decided to call the legitimacy of the entire process into question. “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally”, Trump tweeted.

There was instant widespread condemnation of Trump. The New York Times ran a headline declaring that Trump’s claim had “no evidence”. ABC News declared it “baseless”, NPR went with “unfounded”. Politico called it a “fringe conspiracy theory”. Those news outlets whose headlines about the tweet did not contain the word “false” were criticized for failing their responsibility to exercise journalistic scrutiny.

The Washington Post swiftly sicced its top fact-checker on Trump. Glenn Kessler denounced Trump’s “bogus claim”. Kessler gave Trump a lecture on the importance of credibility, writing that since Trump was now “on the verge of becoming president, he needs to be more careful about making wild allegations with little basis in fact, especially if the claim emerged from a handful of tweets and conspiracy-minded websites”. Should Trump persist in wildly distorting the truth, he “will quickly find that such statements will undermine his authority on other matters”.

The media demanded to know where Trump had come up with such a ridiculous notion. The day after the tweet, Trump spokesman Jason Miller was asked by NPR whether there was any evidence to support the idea that millions of people had voted illegally. But surprisingly enough, Miller did have a source: The Washington Post.

In 2014, under the headline “Could non-citizens decide the November election?” the Post had run a piece from two social scientists, Jesse Richman and David Earnest, suggesting that illegal voting by non-citizens could be regularly occurring, and could even be prevalent enough to tip elections. As they wrote:

 

 

How many non-citizens participate in US elections? More than fourteen percent of non-citizens in both the 2008 and 2010 samples indicated that they were registered to vote. Furthermore, some of these non-citizens voted. Our best guess, based upon extrapolations from the portion of the sample with a verified vote, is that 6.4 percent of non-citizens voted in 2008 and 2.2 percent of non-citizens voted in 2010.

 

 

Richman and Earnest’s thesis was extremely controversial, and was so heavily criticized that the Post ultimately published a note preceding the article, pointing out that many objections to the work had been made. But the Post never actually retracted or withdrew the piece. It was ironic, then, that when Trump tweeted about millions of illegal voters, The Washington Post‘s fact-checker chastised him for relying on “conspiracy-minded websites”. After all, the conspiracy-minded website in question was the Post itself.

After Trump’s spokesman pointed out that the tweet was consistent with assertions from The Washington Post‘s own website, the newspaper’s fact-checking department became extremely defensive. They awarded Miller’s statement an additional “four Pinnochios”. Without actually linking to the Post‘s original article about voting by non-citizens, fact-checker Michelle Yee Hee Lee tried to claim that the study wasn’t really in The Washington Post. Instead, she said, it:

 

 

was published two years ago in the Monkey Cage, a political-science blog hosted by The Washington Post. (Note to Trump’s staff members: This means you can’t say The Washington Post reported this information; you have to cite the Monkey Cage blog.)

 

 

It was an embarrassing defense. The writers had explicitly said that a reasonable extrapolation from existing data was that 6.4 percent of non-citizens voted in the 2008 election. They had said so in an article that appeared on The Washington Post‘s website, displayed in exactly the same manner as every single other piece of reportage. And the Post had never taken the article down or retracted the claim, and had only noted that the piece was highly controversial. Yet instead of apologizing for the Post‘s role in spreading a dubious claim, Lee relied on ridiculous distinctions. She insisted that the Post had “hosted” rather than “published” the article. She attempted to enforce a made-up rule, that people aren’t allowed to cite the article as coming from the Post, but must instead cite it as coming from something called the “Monkey Cage”, which sounds far less credible. Yet on the article page itself, there is no such disclaimer to indicate a distinction between non-Post-endorsed “blog posts” and actual Post writing, and the words “Monkey Cage” appear in tiny letters beneath the ordinary full-sized Washington Post logo. There is nothing to make ordinary readers aware that the Post is not responsible for any claims made in these corners of its website.

This is not to say that Trump’s claim of massive voter fraud is correct. It is false, or at least totally unsubstantiated. We don’t have any reason to conclude that millions of people voted illegally. The original study that appeared in the Post was criticized for good reason. Attempts to conclude that millions of people voted illegally voted rest on shaky extrapolations, rather than actual positive proof. But it’s noteworthy that The Washington Post so blithely joined the chorus of those treating Trump’s claim as self-evidently bizarre and deranged, while refusing to acknowledge they had themselves helped to give legitimacy to the idea. Of course, it’s understandable that the paper would be reluctant to make such a concession. While it doesn’t make Trump any less wrong, it does undermine the idea that Trump is entirely reliant on conspiratorial and discredited sources – unless such sources include The Washington Post. But however embarrassing it may be to admit, the imperatives of professional integrity require one to concede that Trump wasn’t just making things up out of whole cloth.

The voter fraud story is indicative of a much wider problem with US political media: its attempts to point out Trump’s falsehoods are consistently undermined by the media’s own lack of credibility on matters of fact. Especially with the rise of “fact-checking” websites, whose analysis is frequently shoddy and dubious, the political media contribute to the exact kind of “post-truth” atmosphere that journalists criticize Trump for furthering.

An interesting and illuminating example of this can be found in the controversy over so-called “fake news”. A few weeks after the election, a series of critics lamented the role of “fake” stories during the election cycle. A study by BuzzFeed reported that “the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets”. A number of commentators saw this as a bad sign for the future democratic governance. Andrew Smith of The Guardian suggested that the proliferation of false stories on social media was eroding the very foundations of reality. In The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof solemnly concluded that “fake news is gaining ground, empowering nuts and undermining our democracy”.

One of the most ominous and sinister warnings about the threat of fake news was found in (again) The Washington Post. In late November, the Post‘s Craig Timberg produced a detailed report alleging that much of the “fake news” on the internet was, in fact, a carefully-crafted Russian propaganda effort designed to erode Western governments through the spread of damaging disinformation. The Post cited a “nonpartisan group of researchers” known as “PropOrNot”, who had “identifie[d] more than 200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season, with combined audiences of at least fifteen million Americans”. Many news stories on the internet, the Post suggested, were not news at all, but lies propagated by Russia in order to further its own state interests. The Post concluded that while there “is no way to know whether the Russian campaign proved decisive in electing Trump … researchers portray it as part of a broadly effective strategy of sowing distrust in US democracy and its leaders”.

The report landed like a bombshell. It was soon the most-read piece on the Post‘s website, was covered by NPR, and was being promoted by prominent journalists and commentators as a crucial investigation. But subsequent scrutiny of the Post‘s reportage revealed that its evidence for a Russian conspiracy was thin. PropOrNot’s “list” of “Russian propaganda” websites targeted a number of totally innocuous independent media outlets, including left-wing outlet Truthdig and popular financial blog Naked Capitalism. It turned out that to be classified as a “Russian propaganda outlet”, one needn’t actually be associated with Vladimir Putin or the Russian government. For the purposes of making the PropOrNot blacklist, it was sufficient that a media organization be “useful” to the Russian state. By that expansive criterion, plenty of ordinary political criticism and analysis (such as that found on Truthdig) could be classified as “propaganda”. After all, anything critical of the US government could be considered helpful to the Russian government. The Post‘s allegations therefore rested on a dangerous premise: the idea that if one can’t prove one isn’t helping the Russian government, then one is helping the Russian government.

Furthermore, the PropOrNot organization itself was highly mysterious and of dubious reliability. Its Twitter feed regularly accused its critics of being “fascists” and “Putinists”. All of its “researchers” were anonymous, and it was unclear what credentials or expertise they had, or who they themselves might be funded by. Thus The Washington Post tarred a series of legitimate independent media outlets as tools of the Russian state, based on the word of an unknown anonymous source.

The Post quickly received intensive criticism over the report. The Nation said it had “smeared working journalists as agents of the Kremlin” by offering up a “McCarthyite blacklist”. Adrian Chen of The New Yorker called it “propaganda”. Glenn Greewnald and Ben Norton of The Intercept said the Post had offered “obviously reckless and unproven allegations … fundamentally shaped by shoddy, slothful journalistic tactics”. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi called it an “astonishingly lazy report” and said that “most high school papers wouldn’t touch sources like these”. (Though Rolling Stone may not have been the optimal venue for launching a denunciation of substandard reporting using unreliable sources.) Yet confronted with evidence that it may have reported a story riddled with falsehoods, the Post (again) refused to admit error. “I’m sorry, I can’t comment about stories I’ve written for the Post“, replied reporter Craig Timberg. (“Can’t”, as is so often the case, meaning “won’t”.)

The irony here was that in writing about the spread of so-called “fake news”, the Post had itself produced a classic example of fake news. After all, wasn’t this entirely the sort of story about which journalists were panicking? A poorly-sourced series of outlandish allegations, that brought harm to people’s reputations without actually providing proof of wrongdoing?

The Post‘s catastrophically bad reporting on “fake news” illustrated an unfortunate tendency of the American political press. When it comes to news about Russia or Vladimir Putin, all the usual standards of skepticism and caution (as one might apply to claims made by Donald Trump) seem to disappear. In October, Franklin Foer of Slate wrote a story alleging that a Trump Organization computer server was sending secret communications to Russia. (Amusingly, it turned out that the server was routinely sending the Russians spam promotional flyers advertising Trump hotels.) Mother Jones published quotes from an anonymous former intelligence official, claiming Donald Trump was a secret Russian agent. After Hillary Clinton’s loss, Paul Krugman became especially paranoid and unhinged, tweeting that James Comey and Vladimir Putin had “installed” Trump as president, and declaring that the FBI was essentially in “alliance” with Putin.

Such language almost seems a throwback to the 1950s, likewise a time when sinister Russian conspirators lurked around every corner and beneath every bed. Most of the “Russians are coming” stories were thinly sourced or based on unsupported quotes from anonymous government insiders. Consider this one from (… again) The Washington Post entitled “If you’re even asking if Russia hacked the election, Russia got what it wanted”. The writer argued that the Russian government had a conscious strategy to disrupt Americans’ faith in their systems of governance, and that:

 

 

… [the] strategy manifested itself in the Russians’ strongly alleged involvement in promoting “fake news” and disseminating hacked emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee. These emails hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign and weakened Americans’ trust in the Democratic primary.

 

 

Note the key phrase: strongly alleged. When it comes to Russian meddling, it doesn’t matter whether the proof is strong. It matters whether the allegation is strong. Once we have a strong allegation that Russia is doing something nefarious, we can treat it as fact. The press’s treatment of Trump/Putin stories was little short of deranged. One can ponder how much of this was driven by loyalty to Hillary Clinton among certain journalists, versus how much was the sensationalistic pursuit of eye-catching stories. Either way, whenever the subject of Russia comes up, the press has a tendency to blow even the flimsiest rumor into the stuff of airport espionage thrillers. “Vladimir Putin has a plan for destroying the West – and that plan looks a lot like Donald Trump”, wrote Foer in Slate. Headlines like “The secret to Trump: He’s really a Russian oligarch” and “The Kremlin’s candidate” abounded.

But the mainstream media’s looseness with facts goes well beyond stories about Russia and Trump. It’s also furthered by “explainer” websites like Vox.com, which blur the distinction between (liberal) commentary and neutral empirical analysis. Particularly pernicious is the rise of “fact-checking” websites, which are ostensibly dedicated to promoting objective truth over eye-of-the-beholder lies, but which often simply serve as mouthpieces for centrist orthodoxies, thereby further delegitimizing the entire notion of “fact” itself. As Current Affairs has previously argued at length, websites like PolitiFact frequently disguise opinion and/or bullshit as neutral, data-based inquiry.

This happens in a couple of ways. First, such websites frequently produce meaningless statistics, such as trying to measure the percentage of a candidate’s statements that are false. PolitiFact constantly spreads its statistics about how X percent of Trump or Clinton’s statements are rated false, declining to mention the fact that this statistic is empty of any content, since the statements that are evaluated haven’t been randomly selected. The centrist biases of fact-checkers also affect their decisionmaking. Fact-checkers have, for example, insisted that it was wrong to say Hillary Clinton wanted to get rid of the 2nd Amendment. But this isn’t a “factual” dispute at all. It depends on one’s interpretation of the 2nd Amendment’s essential meaning, something that varies based on one’s personal political values.

Efforts to soften critiques of the Clintons were persistent features of fact-checks during the election. For example, fact-checkers have insisted that a factory in Haiti that the Clintons helped build was not a sweatshop, despite the fact that wages in Haitian factories are under a dollar per hour and workers have complained regularly of exploitative and abusive treatment. Conservative writer Sean Davis similarly encountered the topsy-turvy world of Clinton Foundation “fact checking”. When Davis wrote an article about the small percentage of its funding the Clinton Foundation spends on charitable grants (as opposed to its own in-house programming), PunditFact argued that the claim, “while technically true” was nevertheless “mostly false”. Davis was understandably puzzled by the idea that something could be rated false despite “technically” being true.

But this happens frequently on fact-checking websites. Fact-checkers claim that while claims may literally be true, they are nevertheless false for giving “misleading” impressions or missing crucial context. For example, when Carly Fiorina claimed that she had gone from being a secretary to being a CEO, her claim was given “Three Pinnochios” by The Washington Post, even though Fiorina had indeed (by the Post‘s own admission) been a secretary before she was a CEO. The Post reasoned that while Fiorina was literally telling the truth, her statement was nevertheless false since she had advantages in life that other secretaries did not have.

The fact-checkers might think that by going beyond the literal meaning of statements, and evaluating the impressions they leave, they are in fact doing a greater service to truth and reality. In fact, they are opening the door to a far more subjective kind of work, because evaluating perceptions requires a lot more interpretation than evaluating the basic truth or falsity of a statement. It thereby creates far more room for bias and error to work their way into the analysis.

A good example of the perils of fact-checking is seen in Donald Trump’s claims over birds and wind turbines. Trump doesn’t like wind turbines, and frequently rails against them on Twitter and in speeches. One of his favorite points to make is that wind turbines kill birds, specifically eagles. At one point, Trump said the following:

 

 

There are places for wind but if you go to various places in California, wind is killing all of the eagles … You know if you shoot an eagle, if you kill an eagle, they want to put you in jail for five years. And yet the windmills are killing hundreds and hundreds of eagles … They”re killing them by the hundreds.

 

 

This invited a vigorous fact-check from PolitiFact, who rated the claim “Mostly False” and said that Trump was “inflating” wind turbine deaths. Yet wind turbines do kill over 100 eagles per year in California, as PolitiFact admitted. Furthermore, eagle deaths from turbines are such a serious concern to animal welfare advocates. Save The Eagles International has reported “millions” of wind turbine deaths and the Audubon Society has warned that wind turbines, while good for the environment, come with “hundreds of thousands” of unnecessary bird deaths.

Here we see how bias can affect fact-checks. Trump was clearly correct that wind turbines are a serious threat to birds, including endangered birds. Rating him “mostly false” depends on giving the least charitable possible interpretation to his words, suggesting that he meant hundreds were dying within California per year (which he did not say). And since it’s actually about 116 eagles within California per year, this would be a slight exaggeration. But note: Trump’s underlying point is still clearly valid. Wind turbines kill lots of birds. The Audubon Society is concerned. Trump isn’t making this issue up, it exists and it’s serious, and his sources are perfectly sound. The context and implications of Trump’s remarks make them true, even if his statistic is marginally off. But while context matters if it can help prove Carly Fiorina’s point is invalid, it doesn’t matter if it can help prove Trump’s point is valid.

 

 

This is a story about glass houses and stones: in order to convince people not to believe in disreputable sources, you must first give them reason to believe that you yourself are reputable.

 

It’s clear why the fact-checkers wouldn’t want to admit Trump’s point about birds and wind turbines is a good one. First, it sounds ridiculous, even though it happens to be true. Second, it’s Trump, and sober-minded Democratic centrists don’t like admitting that Trump is right about anything. Third, it unsettles Democratic centrist political convictions, because it seems to undermine the case for green energy. (It actually doesn’t. One can argue that wind turbines are worth the cost in bird-lives. Or one can argue that wind turbines should both exist and be made safer, as the Audubon Society does. There is no reason to be afraid of the facts.) But by refusing to admit that Trump is ever right, or at least has something resembling a point, fact-checkers render themselves untrustworthy.

When recently asked about Trump’s claims of voter fraud, Trump surrogate Scottie Hughes gave a statement about the nature of truth that shocked many people:

 

 

One thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts – they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way – it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts. And so Mr Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd – a large part of the population – are truth.

 

 

Politico reporter Glenn Thrush called Hughes’ remark “absolutely outrageous”. After all, Hughes was suggesting that there was no such thing as objective reality, that Trump’s claims of voter fraud were just as legitimate as the claims of those who had “reason” and “evidence” on their side.

Indeed, Hughes’ remark is somewhat terrifying. (Although it doesn’t sound particularly conservative. In fact, it rather resembles a mainstream liberal belief: that ideas of “truth” and “facts” are matters of interpretation, shaped by our personal identities rather than any “objective” reality. Hughes almost sounds as if she has been reading Foucault, and is on the verge of concluding that truth is little more than a series of differing narratives reflecting existing power relations.) If Hughes’ perspective were taken to its logical extreme, it would mean that every form of bigotry and error was just as legitimate as its opposite. Such a world is nightmarish.

But before getting too sanctimonious, journalists should question their own role in giving this perspective a boost. The garbage churned out regularly by CNN and Slate may be better than Trump’s tweets, but it is not that much better. And by failing to show humility about their own ability to generate truth, and themselves being highly detached from the real world, talking-head pundits and biased “data-based” journalists may be helping to create the “post-truth” environment, by robbing words like “true”, “false”, and “fact” of their meaning. By conjuring phony statistics (like “percentage of false statements”) and treating highly subjective and interpretive judgments as if they are Just The Facts, the press steadily erodes the credibility it will need in order to effectively hold Trump accountable. Kellyanne Conway is correct to point out that the single biggest piece of “fake news” was the story that Trump couldn’t win. It’s very difficult for places like, say, BuzzFeed to hold forth on the necessity of accuracy in journalism, when BuzzFeed itself had reported that Trump “plainly has no interest in actually running for office”. Trump has actually established some formidable credentials as a truth-teller against his critics in the press. After all, they were the ones telling him that his confidence of victory was a delusion.

In fact, BuzzFeed even published a lengthy profile mocking Trump-supporting commentator Bill Mitchell for being “post-truth” and “post-math”. To BuzzFeed, Mitchell was laughably divorced from reality for his belief that “enthusiasm” was a far more reliable predictor of electoral success than polls. Mitchell was treated with open contempt by data obsessives like Nate Silver, for his failure to understand “basic math”. But Mitchell turned out to be right. This raises an important question: if Trump and his supporters were labeled “post-truth” or “anti-facts” for the act of ignoring polls, but they turned out to be correct, then why should allegations of being “post-truth” or “anti-facts” be taken seriously? By using these phrases with overconfident abandon against Trump supporters, even when they don’t necessarily apply, members of the press diminish the currency of words like “truth”.

None of this is to suggest that the mainstream media is somehow “just as bad” as fake news from conspiracy theory websites. What’s reported in The New York Times frequently does bear a general resemblance to the truth. (Though not always, and one should never forget the Times‘ uncritical repetition of government claims about weapons of mass destruction in the lead-up to the Iraq War.) The point is, rather, that even a single falsehood or misrepresentation can permanently destroy one’s credibility, and being trustworthy requires always being honest and self-critical. If phrases like “post-truth” are used cavalierly, they can become insignificant. If “fact-checks” are not really fact-checks, but are centrist opinion pieces, the word “fact” comes to connote “the highly contentious views of people who call themselves fact-checkers” rather than anything about reality or the world as it actually exists.

Those who say Donald Trump dwells in a “post-truth” realm are not wrong. He lies a hell of a lot, and misrepresents a hell of a lot more. But in order for the “post-truth” charge to be taken seriously, one must be careful and reliable in calling out “lies”. And one must be serious in understanding why people become conspiracy theorists in the first place. If the press is unaccountable, condescending, and secretive, it won’t be believed, even if it’s right. (Similarly, one of the reasons that so many wild conspiracy theories develop around Hillary Clinton is that – as even her supporters admit – she is extremely secretive. As a purely practical matter, if you act like you’ve got something to hide, people will assume you do. And they’re not irrational to make that inference.) If people are heading for fake news, then it is urgently necessary to figure out how to get them back. One won’t do that by continuing to do the same thing, such as continuing to spew biased and speculative punditry. This is a story about glass houses and stones: in order to convince people not to believe in disreputable sources, you must first give them reason to believe that you yourself are reputable.

For progressives, having a reliable and trustworthy media means not being afraid of uncomfortable truths. If wind turbines kill a bunch of eagles, let’s have the guts to admit it. If the Clintons are actually pretty noxious, let’s be perfectly honest about their failings. If Trump is right about something, then he’s right. And if he is wrong about something, but he read it in The Washington Post, then let’s admit that this reflects worse on The Washington Post than on Trump. The truth is a precious thing, and it should never, ever be distorted for partisan reasons. Being credible means being self-critical, and trying to build a press that people can depend on to help them sort truth from lies.

Having a media people can actually trust should be a fundamental goal of Trump opponents. Currently, people don’t trust the mainstream media. And the first thing the media must do is acknowledge that part of that mistrust is entirely rational and reasonable. After that, building true credibility will at the very least require a major rethink of how ordinary political media do business. They will have to interrogate their assumptions more, defend or revise their work in response to criticisms, and get serious about truth, fairness, and accountability. They will need to abandon the assumption, commonly held, that if people on “both sides” are mad at you, you must be doing your job well. And they will need to be extremely cautious in their factual assertions. If I go around asserting that Trump’s attitude toward polls is “post-truth”, then report that Trump is a possible Russian spy, I will have few grounds to complain when Trump’s supporters decide to get their news from alt-right conspiracy websites instead.

Yet it is telling that after the election, the people who were most wrong during the campaign are still producing voluminous commentary. No outlet that wanted to regain trust and build audiences would be keeping such people on its staff. But “pundit tenure” is powerful. Thus is also likely that the quest for credible media will necessitate the creation of new media. CNN and The Washington Post have never shown a particularly encouraging capacity for introspection and self-improvement, and it’s unlikely that they’re contemplating major internal overhauls in their mission and accountability practices. Their institutional imperatives consist, after all, largely of seeking views and clicks. For them, the 2016 election was a success rather than a failure. A lot of people, after all, tuned in. Why should they do things any differently? Thus it would be useful to have fresh, truly independent outlets, ones that disclose their biases, are transparent in their methods, and are constantly trying to improve themselves rather than simply pursuing the same useless sensationalism and empty horse-race punditry. If one’s only options are Breitbart on the one hand, and The Washington Post on the other, readers lose no matter what.

Credibility is extremely difficult to achieve, and extremely easy to destroy. At the moment, the press doesn’t have it. They need to acknowledge that they don’t have it. They need to figure out why they don’t have it. And then they need to begin the long, agonizing, humbling process of trying to get it. The only way to counter fake news is with real news. Not fake real news, or news that merely looks like news but is actually opinion or allegation. Actual real news. Substantive and serious reporting. A commitment to avoiding innuendo and anonymous sources. Transparency and a willingness to atone for mistakes.

Every one of the three major candidates in this election (Trump, Clinton, and Sanders) was hounded by fake or exaggerated news stories. Trump was accused of being a secret Russian agent. Clinton’s email scandal was blown out of all reasonable proportion. And Bernie Sanders was hounded by malicious and unrepresentative stereotypes about “BernieBros”. Yet none of these stories were from fringe blogs and conspiracy sites. They were all produced by the mainstream press, which gave this nonsense primacy over stories about climate change, nuclear proliferation, Syria, health care, poverty, and every other conceivable issue of consequence.

Concerns about fake news are justified. But instead of begging our Silicon Valley overlords to crack down on the free sharing of information, we might start by building a mainstream press that has credibility of its own.

—–

This article is adapted from the forthcoming book Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity, now available for pre-order. Ships January 20th.

Nathan J Robinson is the editor of Current Affairs.

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https://www.currentaffairs.org/2016/12/the-necessity-of-credibility

Categories: Uncategorized

North Korea

The Grand Deception Revealed

by Christopher Black

New Eastern Outlook (March 13 2017)

In 2003 I had, along with some American lawyers, members of the National Lawyers Guild, the good fortune to be able to travel to North Korea, that is the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, in order to experience first hand that nation, its socialist system and its people. The joint report issued on our return was titled “The Grand Deception Revealed”. That title was chosen because we discovered that the negative western propaganda myth about North Korea is a grand deception designed to blind the peoples of the world to the accomplishments of the Korean people in the north who have successfully created their own circumstances, their own independent socio-economic system, based on socialist principles, free of the domination of the western powers.

At one of our first dinners in Pyongyang our host, Ri Myong Kuk, a lawyer, stated, on behalf of the government, and in passionate terms, that the DPRK’s Nuclear Deterrent Force was necessary in light of US world actions and threats against the DPRK. He stated, and this was repeated to me in a high level meeting with DPRK government officials later on in the trip, that if the Americans would sign a peace treaty and non-aggression agreement with the DPRK, it would de-legitimize the American occupation and lead to reunification. Consequently there would be no need for nuclear weapons. He stated sincerely that, “It’s important that lawyers are gathering to talk about this as lawyers regulate the social interactions within society and within the world”, and added just as sincerely that, “the path to peace requires an open heart”.

It appeared to us then and it is apparent now, in absolute contradiction to the claims of the western media, that the people of the DPRK want peace more than anything else so they can get on with their lives and endeavours without the constant threat of nuclear annihilation by the United States. But annihilation is what they in fact face and whose fault is that? Not theirs.

We were shown American documents captured in the Korean War that are compelling evidence that the US planned an attack on North Korea in 1950. The attack was carried out using American and South Korean forces with the assistance of Japanese Army officers who had invaded and occupied Korea decades before. The North Korean defence and counter-attack was then claimed by the US to be “aggression” which the United States manipulated in the media to get the UN to support a “police operation”, the euphemism they chose to use to carry on what was in fact their war of aggression against North Korea. Three years of war and 3.5 million Korean deaths followed and the US has threatened them with imminent war and annihilation ever since.

The UN vote in favour of a “police action” in 1950 was itself illegal since Russia was absent for the vote in the Security Council. The quorum required for the Security Council under its Rules of Procedure, is all member delegations so that all members must be present or a session cannot proceed. The Americans used a Russian boycott of the Security Council as their opportunity. The Russian boycott took place in defence of the position of the Peoples Republic of China that it should have the China seat at the Security Council table, not the defeated Kuomintang government. The Americans refused to do the right thing, so the Russians refused to sit at the table until the legitimate Chinese government could.

The Americans used this opportunity to carry out a type of coup in the UN, to take over its machinery for its own interests by arranging with the British, French and Kuomintang Chinese to back their actions in Korea by a vote in the absence of the Russians. The allies did as the Americans asked and voted for war with Korea, but the vote was invalid, and the “police action” was not a peace-keeping operation nor justified under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, since article 51 states that all nations have the right of self defence against an armed attack, which is what the North Koreans faced and had reacted to. But the Americans have never cared much about legalities and they did not then for the American plan in its entirety was to conquer and occupy North Korea as a step towards the invasions of Manchuria and Siberia and the law was not going to get in their way.

Many in the west have little idea of the destruction carried out in Korea by the Americans and their allies; that Pyongyang was carpet bombed into oblivion, that civilians fleeing the carnage were strafed by American planes. The New York Times stated at the time that 17,000,000 pounds of napalm were used in Korea just in the first twenty months of the war. More bomb tonnage was dropped on Korea by the US than the US dropped on Japan in World War Two. American forces hunted down and murdered not only communist party members but also their families. At Sinchon we saw the evidence that American soldiers forced 500 civilians into a ditch, doused them with gasoline and set them on fire. We stood in an air raid shelter with walls still blackened with the burnt flesh of 900 civilians, including women and children who had sought safety during an American attack. American soldiers were seen pouring gasoline down the air vents of the shelter and burning them all to death. This is the reality of the American occupation for Koreans. This is the reality they fear still and never want to repeat. Can we blame them?

But even with this history, Koreans are willing to open their hearts to former enemies. Major Kim Myong Hwan, who was then the main negotiator at Panmunjom on the DMZ line, told us that his dream was to be a writer, a poet, a journalist, but said in sombre tones, that he and his five brothers “walk the line” at the DMZ as soldiers because of what happened to his family. He said their struggle was not against the American people but their government. He was lonely for his family lost at Sinchon; his grandfather strung up a pole and tortured, his grandmother bayoneted in the stomach and left to die. He said,

 

 

You see, we have to do it. We have to defend ourselves. We do not oppose the American people. We oppose the American policy of hostility and its efforts to exercise control over the whole world and inflict calamity on people.

 

 

It was the opinion of the delegation that by maintaining instability in Asia, the US can maintain a massive military presence and keep China at bay in its relations with South and North Korea and Japan and use it as a lever against China and Russia.

With the continuing pressure within Japan to remove the US bases in Okinawa, the Korean military operations and war exercises remain a central point of American efforts to dominate the region.

The question is not whether the DPRK has nuclear weapons which it is legally entitled to have, but whether the United States, which has nuclear arms capability on the Korean peninsula, and which is now installing its THADD missile defence system there, a system that threatens the security of Russia and China, is willing to work with the North toward a peace treaty. We found North Koreans avid for peace and not attached to having nuclear weapons if peace can be established. But the American position remains as arrogant, aggressive, threatening and dangerous as ever. In this age of American “regime change”, “pre-emptive war” doctrines, and American efforts to develop low yield nuclear weapons as well as their abandonment and manipulation of international law it was not surprising that the DPRK plays the nuclear card. What choice do the Koreans have since United States threatens nuclear war on a daily basis and the two countries that logic dictates would support them against American aggression, Russia and China, join with the Americans in condemning the Koreans for arming themselves with the only weapon that can act as a deterrent against attack.

The reason for this is unclear since the Russians and Chinese have nuclear weapons and built them to act as a deterrent to an attack by the United States just as North Korea is doing. Some of their government statements indicate that they fear not being in control of the situation and that if North Korea’s acts of defence draw a US attack, they will be attacked as well. One can understand that anxiety. But it begs the question why they cannot support North Korea’s right to self-defence and put more pressure on the Americans to conclude a peace treaty, a non-aggression agreement, and to withdraw their nuclear and armed forces from the Korean peninsula. But the great tragedy is the clear inability of the American people to think for themselves, in the face of continual deceptions, and to demand that their leaders exhaust all avenues of dialogue and peacemaking before even contemplating aggression on the Korean Peninsula.

The fundamental foundation of North Korean policy is to achieve a non-aggression pact and peace treaty with the United States. The North Koreans repeatedly stated that they did not want to attack anyone, hurt anyone or be at war with anyone. But they have seen what has happened to Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and countless other countries and they have no intention of having that happen to them. It is clear that any US invasion would be defended vigorously and that the nation can endure a long, arduous struggle.

At another location on the DMZ we met a colonel who set up field glasses through which we could see across the divide between north and south. We could see a concrete wall built on the South side, a violation of truce agreements. The major described such a permanent structure as a “disgrace for the Korean people who are a homogenous people”. A loud speaker continuously blared propaganda and music from speakers on the south side. The irritating noise goes on for 22 hours a day, he said. Suddenly, in another surreal moment, the bunker’s loudspeakers began belting out the William Tell overture, better known in America as the theme from the Lone Ranger. The colonel urged us to help people see what is really going on in the DPRK, instead of basing their opinions on misinformation. He told us “We know that like us the peace loving people in America have children, parents and families”. We told him of our mission to return with a message for peace and that we hope to return someday and “walk with him together freely in these beautiful hills”. He paused and said, “I too believe it is possible”.

So while the people of the DPRK hope for peace and security the United States and its puppet regime in the south of the Korean peninsular wage war, carrying out for the next three months the largest war games ever conducted there, involving air craft carriers, nuclear armed submarines and stealth bombers, aircraft and large numbers of troops, artillery and armour.

The propaganda campaign has been taken to dangerous levels in the media with accusations that the North murdered a relative of the leader of the DPRK in Malaysia, though there is no proof of this, and no motive for the north to do it. The only ones to benefit from the murder are the Americans and their controlled media using it to whip up hysteria about the North and now allegations of the North having chemical weapons of mass destruction. Yes, friends, they think we were all born yesterday and that we haven’t learned a thing or two about the character of the American leadership and the nature of their propaganda. Is it any wonder that the North Koreans fear that any day these on-going war “games” can be switched to the real thing, that these “games” are just a cover for an attack, and in the meantime to create an atmosphere of terror for the Korean people?

There is a lot than can be said about the real nature of the DPRK, its people and socio-economic system, its culture. But there is no space for that here. I hope people can visit as our group did and experience for themselves what we experienced. Instead I will close with the concluding paragraph of the joint report made on our return from the DPRK and hope that people take it in, think about it, and act to bring on its call for peace:

 

 

The people of the world have to be told the complete story about Korea and our government’s role in fostering imbalance and conflict. Action must be taken by lawyers, community groups, peace activists, and all citizens of the planet, to prevent the US government from successfully generating a propaganda campaign to support aggression in North Korea. The American people have been subjected to a grand deception. There is too much at stake to get fooled again. This peace delegation learned in the DPRK a significant piece of truth essential in international relations. It’s how broader communication, negotiation followed by maintained promises, and a deep commitment to peace can save the world – literally – from a dark nuclear future. Experience and truth free us from the threat of war. Our foray into North Korea, this report and our on-going project are small efforts to make and set us free.

 

 

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Christopher Black is an international criminal lawyer based in Toronto. He is known for a number of high-profile war crimes cases and recently published his novel Beneath the Clouds (2016). He writes essays on international law, politics and world events, especially for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook.

http://journal-neo.org/2017/03/13/north-korea-the-grand-deception-revealed/

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US Sends Drones, …

… Assassination Squad to South Korea

by Peter Symonds

World Socialist Web Site wsws.org (March 14 2017)

The Trump administration has further exacerbated the extremely tense standoff on the Korean Peninsula by dispatching attack drones to South Korea and sending special forces units to participate in massive war games already underway. The military build-up takes place as the White House considers launching strikes on North Korean nuclear and military sites.

US Forces Korea announced on Monday that the company of Gray Eagle Unmanned Aerial Systems (“UAS”) will be permanently stationed at Kunsan Air Base, south of Seoul. “The UAS adds significant intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability to US Forces Korea and our [South Korean] partners”, it stated.

While the US announcement emphasized reconnaissance, the Grey Eagle drones can also carry up to four Hellfire missiles that have been used to carry out assassinations and strike military targets. The lethal drones can stay aloft for up to 24 hours.

The South Korean military was in no doubt as to the purpose of the deployment. An unnamed official told the Yonhap news agency: “In case of a war on the Korean Peninsula, the unmanned aircraft could infiltrate into the skies of North Korea and make a precision strike on the war command and other major military facilities”.

The dispatch of attack drones to South Korea coincides with the involvement of US special forces in annual Foal Eagle war games, including SEAL Team 6, the highly-trained assassination squad that killed Osama bin Laden. The SEAL team will take part in the joint exercises in South Korea along with US Army Rangers, Delta Force and Green Berets, according to Yonhap.

A military official told the news agency that bigger numbers and more diverse US special operations forces were taking part, in order “to practice missions to infiltrate into the North, remove the North’s war command and demolition of its key military facilities”. The joint Foal Eagle drills are the biggest ever, involving more than 320,000 troops backed by a US aircraft carrier strike group, stealth fighters and strategic bombers.

Commenting on US secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s trip to Japan, South Korea and China later this week, State Department spokesman Mark Toner absurdly claimed that the US military was taking “defensive measures” against “an increasingly worrying, concerning threat from North Korea”.

Neither the drones nor the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (“THAAD”) anti-ballistic missile system to which Toner was referring are “defensive” in character. The drones, along with the special forces units, are rehearsing for “pre-emptive” attacks on North Korean military sites and “decapitation raids” to kill North Korean leaders. This is in line with an aggressive new joint operational plan, OPLAN 5015, agreed to between the US and South Korea in late 2015.

The THAAD deployment is part of the Pentagon’s broader build-up of anti-ballistic missile systems and military forces in Asia, primarily for war against China. Beijing has repeatedly voiced strenuous objections to the THAAD installation in South Korea, which has a powerful radar system capable of peering deep into the Chinese mainland and giving the US military much greater advance warning of Chinese missile launches in the event of war.

The Trump administration, which is currently reviewing US strategy towards North Korea, is exploiting its test launch of four ballistic missiles last week to advance longstanding military preparations on the Korean Peninsula. According to The Wall Street Journal, the White House is actively considering “regime change” in Pyongyang and military strikes on North Korea.

“We have to look at new ideas, new ways of dealing with North Korea”, US State Department spokesman Toner blandly declared. “China understands that threat. They’re not oblivious to what’s happening in North Korea”.

The reference to China underscores the aims of Tillerson’s upcoming trip. Firstly, he intends to brief Washington’s Japanese and South Korean allies on US plans and to encourage closer military cooperation in the event of conflict. Then he will fly to Beijing, where he will attempt to bully the Chinese government into taking tougher punitive action against Pyongyang.

The mounting US threats towards North Korea are also directed against China, which the Trump administration is targeting as the chief obstacle to maintaining US dominance in Asia and internationally. Tillerson has provocatively declared that the US should block Chinese access to islets under Beijing’s administration in the South China Sea. The only way to carry out such a reckless plan would be through a US military blockade – an act of war that could provoke conflict between the two nuclear-armed powers.

Tensions in the South China Sea have been further strained by the decision of the Japanese military to dispatch its largest warship, the JS Izumo, for three months of operations including in disputed waters. According to Reuters, the Izumo will make stops in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, before joining the Malabar joint naval exercise with Indian and US naval vessels in the Indian Ocean in July. It will also train with the US navy in the South China Sea.

Over the eight years of the Obama administration and its “pivot to Asia”, the US has engaged in a systematic military expansion throughout the Asia Pacific, strengthened alliances and strategic partnerships and greatly aggravated dangerous regional flashpoints, including the Korean peninsula and the South China Sea. The Trump administration, which has been critical of the “pivot” for not being aggressive enough, is now embarking on a course that greatly heightens the danger of war.

The response of the North Korean regime to Washington’s actions is reactionary through and through. Its nuclear and missile tests, along with its bloodcurdling threats and Korean chauvinism, in no way defend the Korean people, but do provide the US with a pretext for its military build-up in North East Asia. According to the 38north.org web site, affiliated with John Hopkins University, commercial satellite imagery indicates that Pyongyang could be preparing for another nuclear test.

Confronted with an intense political crisis in Washington, the Trump administration is not simply considering, but actively preparing for, reckless provocations and military moves against North Korea that have the potential to trigger a cataclysmic war that draws in the entire world.

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https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/03/14/kore-m14.html

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