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America First? Enter the über-hawks: Pompeo and Bolton

Change of foreign policy team points to increased US belligerence

Alexander Mercouris

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Even as Britain and parts of Europe – though not it should be stressed the rest of the world – have been distracted by the hysteria about the Skripal case flooding out of London, far more important events have been happening across the Atlantic.

President Trump’s position becoming stronger

Firstly, President Trump’s political position is beginning to look significantly stronger with the decision of the House Intelligence Committee to close down its Russiagate investigation and to report that there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

It is expected that the Senate Intelligence Committee will shortly report the same finding.

The Mueller inquiry has yet to report, but none of its indictments suggest that any evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign has been found.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Russiagate scandal – at least so far as it concerns the position of Donald Trump as President of the United States – is finally drawing to a close.

A politically much strengthened President is now therefore using the increasing political space available to him to reshuffle his foreign policy team.

The reshuffle

Rex Tillerson, his former Secretary of State, is gone, replaced by former CIA chief Mike Pompeo.

General H.R. McMaster, his former National Security Adviser, is also gone, replaced by the notorious veteran hardliner John Bolton.

Tillerson and McMaster: a weak team

Neither Tillerson nor McMaster should be missed.

Tillerson is a person of great ability and experience who had the makings to be an outstanding Secretary of State.  However the task the President intended for him – to be along with his first National Security Adviser General Flynn the point-man in the restoration of good relations with Russia – proved impossible to execute because of the Russiagate scandal.

In consequence Tillerson has drifted, and over the last year his lack of empathy with the President has become increasingly obvious, with increasingly public disagreements between the two men about the conduct of relations with North Korea and Iran.

The fact that Tillerson is reported to have called the President (his boss) a “f…g moron” cannot have helped, even though the story has been denied.

As for General H.R. McMaster, opinions about him differ, but the President cannot have been happy at the way he was effectively forced on him following the forced resignation of General Flynn.

General McMaster, as a former protégé of General Petraeus, war historian and military planner, is often spoken of as some sort of neocon intellectual.

In my opinion his views are the conventional views of a US military officer, and he is overrated.

His approach to his task as head of the National Security Council’s bureaucracy has been essentially managerial, neglecting the job’s key function, which is to act as the President’s principal adviser on foreign and security policy.  To the extent that he has sought to perform this role at all, he has acted like a kind of gatekeeper, trying to box the President into following his own conventional thinking.

The President, who was elected with his own distinctive views on foreign policy has, understandably enough, become increasingly resentful of this tutelage.

It seems the breaking point may have been the President’s decision to ignore McMaster’s advice by telephoning Russian President Putin to congratulate him on his election.  McMaster apparently advised against it.  The President did it anyway, moreover refusing even to bring up Russiagate or the Skripal case with Putin.

Though tensions between the President and McMaster have been building up for some time and the two were apparently already in discussion about McMaster going, the President’s decision to ignore McMaster’s advice by calling Putin, and the subsequent leak to the media that he had acted contrary to McMaster’s advice, appears to have been the final straw, and within days McMaster was gone.

Pompeo and Bolton: disciples of America First?

What then of the two men – Pompeo and Bolton – the President has picked to replace Tillerson and McMaster with?

The first thing to say is that Donald Trump now has had a year of being President during which time he has become far more experienced in Washington politics, and has a much better idea of the sort of people he likes to work with and who share his views.

Whilst Tillerson and McMaster were people who were picked for him – Tillerson was apparently chosen at the suggestion of George W. Bush’s former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, not at the Russian government’s suggestion as the Trump Dossier’s compiler Christopher Steele has preposterously claimed – Pompeo and Bolton look to be Trump’s own choices.

In the case of Pompeo, Trump has now worked closely with Pompeo for a whole year, and it is clear that the two men get on with each other and share many of the same views.

In the case of John Bolton, the position is more complicated.

The Moon of Alabama describes John Bolton well

John Bolton is not a neo-conservative. He does not dream of ‘spreading democracy’ or ‘nation building’. He is a ‘smash, burn and leave’ libertarian hawk. He is also an exceptionally avid bureaucrat who knows how to get the things he wants done. That quality is what makes him truly dangerous. Bolton is known for sweet-talking to his superiors, being ruthless against competitors and for kicking down on everyone below him.

Another way of putting it is that John Bolton is an American nationalist and an apostle of US power.

He prefers to see this exercised with all constraints thrown off.  Moreover he does so with none of the pretences about “democracy promotion”, “human rights” etc with which the US – and neocon officials especially – habitually mask the US’s actions.

Thus whilst representing the US in the United Nations as its ambassador Bolton made no attempt conceal his total contempt for the United Nations and for the whole system of international law which it represents.

As to his attitudes to US interventionist wars, they were summed up for me in a television interview I saw him give some time after the start of the Iraq war as it was becoming clear that Iraq following the US invasion (which he supported) far from becoming a thriving democracy as had been promised was instead descending into chaos and sectarian civil war.

Bolton’s response was both clear and chilling: he didn’t care.  The US’s objective was to overthrow Saddam Hussein, who had been challenging the US position in the Middle East.  With that objective achieved what happened after – Iraq’s descent into chaos and civil war – was of no concern to the US.  If Iraq went to pieces and millions of Iraqis died or were killed, it didn’t bother him, and it did not concern the United States.

Not surprisingly most people find this attitude disturbing, which it is.  However I would point out its intellectual clarity and honesty.

Perhaps I am alone in thinking this but on balance I prefer Bolton’s tough minded way of speaking to the endless sermonising of people like Nikki Haley, Samantha Power and the neocons, who support all the same wars John Bolton has supported, but who also insist that they serve some higher moral purpose even as they spread death and disaster all around them.

Why Pompeo and Bolton appeal to Trump

It is easy to see how this sort of frank ‘no-nonsense’ thinking would appeal to someone like Donald Trump, who is every bit as much of an American nationalist as John Bolton, and who has never made any secret of the fact that he also despises the moralising language with which US policy is typically conducted, and has little time for international law.

Whilst Mike Pompeo, the new Secretary of State, has never expressed himself in quite such  blunt terms, he too seems to take the same strong line on vigorously defending US national interests and everyone else be damned that John Bolton does.

Since Pompeo and Bolton hold views about how the US should conduct itself in the world which look to be in accord with Trump’s, and since unlike Tillerson and McMaster they are clearly Trump’s own picks, I expect them to have a much better relationship with Trump than Tillerson and McMaster did, and to last much longer than Tillerson and McMaster did.

I do not share the widely expressed view that they will soon be gone, like Tillerson and McMaster.

Re-establishing civilian control of the US government

There is one important positive aspect of the coming of Pompeo and Bolton which has gone largely unremarked.

This is that the appointment of Pompeo and Bolton and the resignation of McMaster break the ring of generals who have been in effective control of the US government ever since Steve Bannon was ousted in August.

Though the other two generals that make up this ring – Defense Secretary Mattis and White House Chief of Staff Kelly – are still there, the coming of Pompeo and Bolton finally provides a civilian balance to them.

Soldiers tend to be more effective as executors of policy than as policy makers.  Ever since the military took charge of the US government in the summer the US has a result been drifting into ever deeper confrontation with Russia, China and Iran, without much thought of why it is doing so, and what the consequences of confrontation with any one of these powers might be.

I explained all this in an article I wrote for The Duran on 24th August 2017

General Mattis is not prepared to risk a head-on clash with the Russian military in Syria, but is willing to act in the most provocative way imaginable against Russia in Europe,…. General Mattis is not prepared to risk a head-on clash with China in the Korean Peninsula, but is willing to act in the most provocative way imaginable against China in the South China Sea.

As is the case in Europe, this is because General Mattis presumably doesn’t believe that the risk of an armed clash with China in the South China Sea is a real one.

This strange mix of policies – backing off from confronting the Russian and Chinese militaries in Syria and Korea where the risks are real, but aggressively seeking confrontation with Russia and China in Europe and the South China Sea where no risks are thought to exist, is exactly what one would expect of a US soldier.

They combine the extreme risk-aversion characteristic of today’s US military, with its longstanding habit of aggressive posturing where the risks of doing it appear to be minimal.

What is wholly absent is any sense of a larger strategy.

In no sense does General Mattis seem to have a policy either for Russia or China or for dealing with the separate crises in Afghanistan, Korea or the Middle East.

Instead he improvises reactively – as might be expected of a soldier – in each case doing so without any sense of the interconnections between the various crises which confront him, or of the paradox of the US seeking Russia and Chinese help in the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula whilst simultaneously striking against Russian and Chinese interests in Europe and the South China Sea.

Needless to say, in respect to Grand Strategy – thinking about the Chinese-Russian alliance and looking for ways to respond to it – General Mattis can come up with nothing at all.  So far as he is concerned, it is enough that China and Russia are adversaries of the US, so he sets out in each case to confront them where he feels he can, without giving any thought to how this may make them work more closely together against US interests.

Though Mattis and McMaster did not get on, and though Mattis and General Kelly both wanted McMaster gone, the same criticisms I made of General Mattis apply equally to General McMaster.

General McMaster’s entire period as head of the National Security Council has been marked by the same sort of conventional thinking and absence of strategic vision as is true of General Mattis.

By contrast John Bolton – if he is nothing else – is at least someone who takes strategy seriously, and since he is driven exclusively by his conception of US national interests, he is someone who might conceivably act in an unconventional way.

Given the multiple challenges the US is facing some new thinking is essential, and if Bolton can provide it that might not in itself be bad thing.

The problem however is in the nature of the ‘new thinking’ Bolton might offer.

Renewed drive for a rapprochement with Russia?

The possibility that Pompeo and Bolton might decide that some sort of rapprochement with Russia is in the US’s interests, and that they might therefore go along with Donald Trump’s repeatedly expressed wish for better relations with Russia, might seem unlikely but it is a possibility which should not be completely discounted.

Pompeo and Bolton are in no sense friends of Russia.  On the contrary they see Russia as an adversary and rival.

However if the two were to decide that US interests would be served by temporarily mending fences with Russia, for example in order to avoid the US becoming over-extended as it pursues conflicts elsewhere, then they are not the sort of people who would let ideology or sentiment stand in their way.

Already Pompeo as CIA chief has shown an element of flexibility when he surprised many people by inviting to Washington the leaders of the Russian intelligence community for a bilateral intelligence summit.

However if Pompeo and Bolton do decide to seek some sort of rapprochement with Russia, it will only be of a temporary nature, and they will want it to be on the US’s terms.

That already makes the prospects for such a rapprochement problematic.

I suspect the Russians understand this fully, so that whilst some temporary easing of tension may occur, a genuine rapprochement is extremely unlikely, and any such easing as does take place will be short term.

War against North Korea?

Some are saying that Pompeo’s and Bolton’s appointment sharply increases the danger of the US attacking North Korea.

John Bolton is known to see the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme as a threat to the US, and he has publicly advocated an attack on North Korea as a way of bringing that threat to an end.

Mike Pompeo has spoken out in favour of regime change in North Korea.

Neither Bolton nor Pompeo are the sort of people to be deterred from a war against North Korea because it threatens casualties in faraway countries like South Korea and Japan.  John Bolton treats such casualties as no more than collateral damage (see above).

Of course questions of international law do not concern them either.

On balance, I however still think that an attack on North Korea is unlikely.  The risks of such an attack on a nuclear armed North Korea backed by China look altogether too great.

General McMaster is known to have called for a “limited strike” against North Korea.  General Mattis and the US military were however strongly opposed.  It seems that it was McMaster’s call for a “limited strike” against North Korea which turned General Mattis against him.

I expect the US military to be as opposed to a military strike against North Korea now that Bolton has taken McMaster’s place as they were when McMaster was around.

Ultimately I cannot believe an attack on North Korea will happen which the US military opposes, and for that reason I do not expect such an attack to happen.

However whilst I continue to believe that an attack on North Korea is unlikely, there has to be doubt about whether the proposed summit meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un will now take place.

John Bolton has history of sabotaging negotiations between the US and its enemies.  He worked for example to sabotage talks between the George W. Bush administration and the Libyan government of Muammar Gaddafi.

Already there has been intense opposition to the proposed Trump-Kim summit in Washington, and given their known opinions about North Korea and about North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme, it is difficult to imagine Pompeo and Bolton allowing a genuine understanding with North Korea to happen.

On the contrary it is far more likely that they will press for a more aggressive US military posture against North Korea.

That will translate into more troops and more ships deployed to the Korean Peninsula and to the north east Pacific, more demands for more sanctions against North Korea, more pressure on China and Russia to agree to those sanctions, and more pressure on South Korea to break off its current talks with North Korea.

Frankly the prospect of any understanding between the US and North Korea looks bleak.

China

Though US President Donald Trump seems to have established – at least in his own mind – a cordial relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, it is clear that his administration considers China a strategic competitor and long term adversary of the US.

The recent US move to impose tariffs on Chinese goods is at least in part driven by this belief, as are the increasing US naval deployments to the South China Sea.

I will here state my view that Donald Trump’s desire for a rapprochement with Russia as well as being driven by a genuine personal liking for the country is principally intended to divide Russia from China, with Donald Trump and his former adviser Steve Bannon being two of the few people in the US who seem to have noticed that the two countries have become allies.

I have no doubt that Pompeo and Bolton share this anti-Chinese outlook.  Bolton especially has form in supporting an independent Taiwan, which crosses a red line for China.

I expect relations between the US and China to continue to deteriorate, with China responding to the US’s increasing belligerence by challenging US moves in the South China Sea and by stepping up its cooperation with Russia.

Iran 

Mike Pompeo and John Bolton like Donald Trump are outspoken opponents of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”) with Iran.

By ditching Rex Tillerson Donald Trump has removed from his administration the last major figure who supported the JCOPA, though General McMaster is also believed to have supported it.

The appointment of Pompeo and Bolton strengthens even further the already strong anti-Iran tilt of the Trump administration, which reflects Donald Trump’s own strong anti-Iran feelings.

Not only will this result in US hostility to Iran increasing even further, but outright cancellation of the JCPOA must now be on the cards.

A US military strike on Iran – something Bolton is known to have advocated during the Presidency of George W. Bush, has now become a distinct possibility.

Senior Iranian officials are already responding by talking of Iran’s need to strengthen even further its relations with the two Great Eurasian Powers: China and Russia.

The chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy Alaeddin Boroujerdi is for example reported by Iran’s Press TV to have said this on 25th March 2018

We must strengthen our relations with important countries like China and Russia, which have also been subjected to US sanctions and face serious challenges from that country.  China and Russia are two important and influential members of the [UN] Security Council and the expansion of relations will help neutralize and reduce the impact of US pressure.

The extent of any future realignment of Iran with China and Russia remains to be seen.  However tensions in the Gulf region are certain to increase.

Arab-Israeli conflict and the Middle East

I expect Bolton especially to push hard for the restoration of US primacy in the Middle East, which has become severely eroded since the debacle of the Iraq war.

The Middle East happens to be the area of Bolton’s greatest interest, and I am sure he will devote much of his time and energy to it.

Though I suspect Bolton cares little about regime change in Syria, the fact that the US has suffered a strategic defeat there at Russia’s and Iran’s hands will undoubtedly rankle with him, and there must also be a fear that he will do all he can to reverse it.  A renewed push for regime change in Syria, risking a confrontation with Russia, is a distinct possibility.

At the same time I expect there to be a renewed effort to bring Erdogan and Turkey back on side.

Pompeo in particular has already shown a clear understanding of the importance of Turkey in securing the US’s position in the eastern Mediterranean and in the Middle East.  Only last month he visited Turkey to try to mend fences with Erdogan.

Whether Pompeo and Bolton are prepared to sacrifice the Kurds in Syria to win Turkey back however remains to be seen.

Of one thing however there cannot be any doubt: US support for Israel will remain unconditional and may if anything become even more strident.

Bolton for example has spoken against establishing a Palestinian state and against the two states solution, which is internationally widely regarded as the route to achieving broader Middle East peace.

Venezuela and Cuba

Much like Donald Trump himself, Pompeo and Bolton are implacable enemies of Venezuela and Cuba.

Whatever hopes the Cuban leadership may have had of a normalisation of relations with the US following Barack Obama’s decision to re-establish diplomatic relations have been dashed.

The result is that both Venezuela and Cuba are becoming increasingly dependent on Russia.

In Venezuela’s case this is leading to Russia establishing increasing control over Venezuela’s oil industry and over Venezuela’s erratic economic decision making.

In Cuba’s case steps to re-establish the economic and politic links which existed between Cuba and the USSR also seem to be underway.

Europe

The coming of John Bolton especially will not be welcomed in the major European capitals, where he is disliked for his belligerence and abrasiveness.  However that is unlikely to have any significant impact on the state of US-Europe relations.

Summary

With Pompeo and Bolton Donald Trump has what looks like the foreign policy team that he wants.

It is indeed an “America First’ team, committed to preserving and extending the paramount position of the US, and indifferent to the methods used to achieve it.

It is fair to say however that this is not the conception of ‘America First’ which many people expected when Donald Trump was elected.

Most people then assumed that ‘America First’ meant retrenchment: the US abandoning in its neo-imperial adventures so that it could refocus on its own needs.

Instead we look more likely to get a repeat of the administration of George W. Bush, but this time on steroids.

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Ukraine’s Cult of Stepan Bandera: Not a Detail, but a Cornerstone

Unlike Poroshenko with his aerial bombings of the Russian-speaking Donbass in 2014 and 2015, Bandera killed the “wrong” victims, the representatives of those nations that are valued even by the modern Western media.

Dmitry Babich

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Authored by Dmitry Babich via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


During the recent years of the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, there has been one issue where the Western mainstream press simply cannot fully ignore or reject the Russian arguments. This issue concerns the life and actions of Stepan Bandera (1909-1959) and his followers from what is known as the “Banderite” faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN, a far-right organization that took terrorist actions against Polish and Soviet officials from the 1920s to the 1950s and which is now legally protected from any criticism in Ukraine).

THE “WRONG” AND “RIGHT” VICTIMS

Because Bandera was born on January 1, 1909, celebrations of his birthday have become disgusting New Year’s rituals in Ukraine in recent years, with thousands participating in Nazi-style torch-lit marches that include shouted protests against “Putin’s Russia” and rants such as, “Jews out!” which are heard by everyone except the police. This New Year was no exception, since the current Ukrainian government under President Petro Poroshenko (who publicly identified himself as a Banderite after taking office in 2014) officially added Bandera’s 110th birthday to the list of Ukraine’s most important anniversaries. This time, there were several quiet voices of condemnation heard in Poland, Israel, and even the US. Why? In truth, torches, masks, political murders, and mob attacks against “pro-Russian” public figures are nothing new in post-Maidan Ukraine. And these things usually pose no problem for the mainstream press of the US and its allies. So, why is Bandera an exception?

The answer is ethnic, as awful as that may sound. Unlike Poroshenko with his aerial bombings of the Russian-speaking Donbass in 2014 and 2015, Bandera killed the “wrong” victims, the representatives of those nations that are valued even by the modern Western media, with its double and triple standards. In the 1930s Bandera killed Polish officials, in the 1940s his people killed civilian Jews and Polish peasants, and these are groups whose plight even the New York Times cannot ignore today. If Bandera’s infamous slogan “Death to enemies!” had been directed only against “disloyal” Russians and anti-Banderite Ukrainians (the groups currently persecuted by Poroshenko), Bandera would have been no different from his modern admirers in the Ukrainian government. But Bandera’s followers from the OUN decimated the Jewish population of Lvov and Kiev in 1941, trying to curry favor with the advancing Germans. And between 1943 and 1944, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), taking its orders from Bandera’s OUN officers, ethnically cleansed his native Western Ukraine of ethnic Poles, killing from 70,000-100,000 of them (the infamous “slaughter of Volhynia”). The aim was to create an “ethnically pure” Ukraine before the arrival of the Red Army in late 1944. Documents published by the Polish historian Grzegorz Motyka indicate that Bandera and the OUN hoped that the Red Army would soon be replaced by Anglo-American domination. “His strategy was to clean up the house before the arrival of the real master,” Motyka concludes in his book.

THE LADY OF THE RADA VS. ISRAEL’S PRESIDENT

The American domination took another 70 years, but it did come. And now the Banderites’ (and Poroshenko’s) only historic disagreement with the West is over the infamous “ethnic cleansing,” to which Bandera’s “glorious heroes” subjected Ukraine in 1941-1944. When Israeli President Reuven Rivlin dared to raise the issue during his visit to Ukraine in 2016, he got a scolding from the vice speaker of the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada), Irina Gerashchenko: “The Israeli president allowed himself some incorrect and undiplomatic words about the OUN’s tragic history,” Gerashchenko said at the time. “It was highly inappropriate, especially now, when Ukraine is fighting for its independence.” Gerashchenko forgot to mention the fact that Babi Yar, the burial site of some 30,000 Jews killed by German and Ukrainian Nazis in Kiev in 1941, was vandalized nine times between 2015 and 2016, according to data provided by the Ukrainian Jewish Committee.

WHY THE WEST WANTS TO FORGET, BUT CANNOT

In the immediate aftermath of the Maidan coup in 2014, the mainstream press was ready to forget even that, since an honest account of Bandera’s activities between 1939 and 1959 could rekindle memories of the undesirable parallels to the “resistance to Russian occupation” by Poroshenko’s army in the Donbass in 2014 and 2015. Between the summer of 2014 and the winter of 2015, about 10,000 people died there, victims of the aircraft and tanks sent by Poroshenko (just months earlier, the US and the EU had been unable to abide the use of truncheons by the police of the ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych). At the time, the NYT called Bandera the “Ukrainian nationalists’ hero.” Obviously, the NYT’s authors were taking their cues from the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum, with her Banderite headline, “Nationalism is exactly what Ukraine Needs” in the once-glorious New Republic.

But here the mainstream press tried to kill off a memory that will never die — the memory of how Hitler’s East European Nazi allies participated in the destruction of the region’s Jewish population in the early 1940s. This was something not even Anne Applebaum could make people forget.

In his articles in the American press, the director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, Eduard Dolinsky, tried to explain to the American public that Bandera’s cult is not an isolated, unpleasant phenomenon: Stepan Bandera never acted alone, he represented a crudely nationalist ideology. Unfortunately, this ideology reigns triumphant in modern Ukraine behind the “liberal” façade displayed for the West. For example, Dolinsky notes that Poroshenko’s hypocritical speeches memorializing Jewish victims can be heard next to, say, a memorial to OUN activist Ivan Rogach, whose newspaper called Jews “the greatest enemy of the people” in 1941. “The Ukrainian leadership set itself on the course of rehabilitating anti-Semitism and introducing censorship of history,” concludes the official statement of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human-rights group, famous for its work to bring Nazi criminals to justice.

THE RUSSIAN QUESTION BEHIND THE JEWISH ONE

If the West cannot afford to be completely silent about Bandera’s participation in the Holocaust, it is willingly ignoring another huge injustice that is inseparable from Bandera’s cult in modern Ukraine — the erasure of the Russian and anti-Banderite component of Ukraine’s historic memory. In 2017, Kiev’s Vatutin Avenue was renamed Bandera Avenue, resulting in an outcry in Russia and complete silence in the West. This avenue, a major thoroughfare in the Ukrainian capital, had originally been named in honor of General Nikolai Vatutin, who liberated Kiev from Nazi occupation in 1943 and died in a shootout with the OUN’s guerillas in 1944. At the time, there was no question about where America’s sympathies lay: the fight against Hitler was not yet over, and Vatutin, born in 1901 to a peasant family living immediately adjacent to the future Russian-Ukrainian border, was a useful ally for the United States. Will Bandera and his modern followers be a good replacement? Only someone with Poroshenko’s plans for Ukraine or with Anne Applebaum’s views on history could agree.

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Entering a Major Regional Re-set – The Syria Outcome Will Haunt Those Who Started This War

It should be obvious now that we are entering a major regional re-set.

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Authored by Alastair Crooke via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


The Middle East is metamorphosing. New fault-lines are emerging, yet Trump’s foreign policy ‘hawks’ still try to stage ‘old movies’ in a new ‘theatre’.

The ‘old movie’ is for the US to ‘stand up’ Sunni, Arab states, and lead them towards confronting ‘bad actor’ Iran. ‘Team Bolton’ is reverting back to the old 1996 Clean Break script – as if nothing has changed. State Department officials have been briefing that Secretary Pompeo’s address in Cairo on Thursday was “ slated to tell his audience (although he may not name the former president), that Obama misled the people of the Middle East about the true source of terrorism, including what contributed to the rise of the Islamic State. Pompeo will insist that Iran, a country Obama tried to engage, is the real terrorist culprit. The speech’s drafts also have Pompeo suggesting that Iran could learn from the Saudis about human rights, and the rule of law.”

Well, at least that speech should raise a chuckle around the region. In practice however, the regional fault-line has moved on: It is no longer so much Iran. GCC States have a new agenda, and are now far more concerned to contain Turkey, and to put a halt to Turkish influence spreading throughout the Levant. GCC states fear that President Erdogan, given the emotional and psychological wave of antipathy unleashed by the Khashoggi murder, may be mobilising newly re-energised Muslim Brotherhood, Gulf networks. The aim being to leverage present Gulf economic woes, and the general hollowing out of any broader GCC ‘vision’, in order to undercut the rigid Gulf ‘Arab system’ (tribal monarchy). The Brotherhood favours a soft Islamist reform of the Gulf monarchies – along lines, such as that once advocated by Jamal Khashoggi .

Turkey’s leadership in any case is convinced that it was the UAE (MbZ specifically) that was the author behind the Kurdish buffer being constructed, and mini-state ‘plot’ against Turkey – in conjunction with Israel and the US. Understandably, Gulf states now fear possible Turkish retribution for their weaponising of Kurdish aspirations in this way.

And Turkey is seen (by GCC States) as already working in close co-ordination with fellow Muslim Brotherhood patron and GCC member, Qatar, to divide the collapsing Council. This prefigures a new round to the MB versus Saudi Wahhabism spat for the soul of Sunni Islam.

GGC states therefore, are hoping to stand-up a ‘front’ to balance Turkey in the Levant. And to this end, they are trying to recruit President Assad back into the Arab fold (which is to say, into the Arab League), and to have him act, jointly with them, as an Arab counter to Turkey.

The point here is obvious: President Assad is closely allied to Iran – and so is Moscow and Turkey. To be fashionably Iranophobic – as Pompeo might wish the GCC to be – simply would spoil the GCC’s anti-Turkey ‘play’. Syria indeed may be (justly) skeptical of Turkey’s actions and intent in Syria, but from President Assad’s perspective, Iran and Russia are absolutely crucial to the managing of an erratic Turkey. Turkey does represent an existential Syrian concern. And trying to lever President Assad – or Lebanon or Turkey – away from Iran, would be absurd. It won’t happen. And the GCC states have enough nous to understand this now (after their stinging defeat in Syria). The Gulf anti-Iranian stance has had ‘the burner’ turned sharply down, (except when their need is to stroke US feathers).

They can see clearly that the Master of Ceremonies in the Levant – putting together the new regional ‘order’ – is not Mr Bolton, but Moscow, with Tehran (and occasionally Ankara), playing their equal part ‘from behind the curtain’.

Presumably, America’s intelligence services know, (and Gulf states certainly are aware), that in any case, Iranian forces are almost all gone from Syria (though of course Syria’s ‘Iranian connection’ remains as firm, as ever) – even as Pompeo and Israel say the precisely the opposite: that they are pushing-back hard at the ‘threatening’ Iranian military ‘footprint’ in Syria. Few in the region will believe it.

The second notable emerging regional fault line then, evidently is the one that is opening between Turkey and the US and Israel. Turkey ‘gets it’: Erdogan ‘gets it’ very clearly: that Washington now deeply distrusts him, suspects that Turkey is accelerating into Moscow and Beijing’s orbit, and that DC would be happy to see him gone – and a more NATO-friendly leader installed in his stead.

And it must be clear to Washington too ‘why’ Turkey would be heading ‘East’. Erdogan precisely needs Russia and Iran to act as MCs to moderate his difficult relations with Damascus for the future. Erdogan needs Russia and Iran even more, to broker a suitable political solution to the Kurds in Syria. He needs China too, to support his economy.

And Erdogan is fully aware that Israel (more than Gulf States) still hankers after the old Ben Gurion ideal of an ethnic Kurdish state – allied with Israel, and sitting atop major oil resources – to be inserted at the very pivot to south-west and central Asia: And at Turkey’s vulnerable underbelly.

The Israeli’s articulated their support for a Kurdish state quite plainly at the time of Barzani’s failed independence initiative in Iraq. But Erdogan simply, unmistakably, has said to this ‘never’ (to Bolton, this week). Nonetheless, Ankara still needs Russian and Iranian collaboration to allow Bolton to ‘climb down his tree’ of a Kurdish mini-state in Syria. He needs Russia to broker a Syrian-led buffer, vice an American-Kurdish tourniquet, strapped around his southern border.

It is unlikely however, that despite the real threat that America’s arming of the Kurds poses to Turkey, that Erdogan really wants to invade Syria – though he threatens it – and though John Bolton’s ‘conditions’ may end by leaving Turkey no option, but to do it. Since, for sure, Erdogan understands that a messy Turkish invasion of Syria would send the delicately balanced Turkish Lire into free-fall.

Still … Turkey, Syria, Iran and Russia now all want America gone from Syria. And for a moment, it seemed it might proceed smoothly after Trump had acquiesced to Erdogan’s arguments, during their celebrated telephone call. But then – Senator Lindsay Graham demurred (against the backdrop of massed howls of anguish issuing from the Beltway foreign policy think-tanks). Bolton did the walk-back, by making US withdrawal from Syria contingent on conditions (ones seemingly designed not to be met) and not tied any specific timeline. President Erdogan was not amused.

It should be obvious now that we are entering a major regional re-set: The US is leaving Syria. Bolton’s attempted withdrawal-reversal has been rebuffed. And the US, in any event, forfeited the confidence of the Kurds in consequence to the original Trump statement. The Kurds now are orientated toward Damascus and Russia is mediating a settlement.

It may take a while, but the US is going. Kurdish forces (other than those linked with the PKK) are likely to be assimilated into the Syrian army, and the ‘buffer’ will not be directed against Turkey, but will be a mix of Syrian army and Kurdish elements – under Syrian command – but whose overall conduct towards Turkey will be invigilated by Russia. And the Syrian army will, in due time, clear Idlib from a resurgent al-Qaida (HTS).

The Arab states are returning to their embassies in Damascus – partly out of fear that the whipsaw of American policy, its radical polarisation, and its proclivity to be wholly or partially ‘walked-back’ by the Deep State – might leave the Gulf unexpectedly ‘orphaned’ at any time. In effect, the GCC states are ‘hedging’ against this risk by trying to reconnect a bifurcated Arab sphere, and to give it a new ‘purpose’ and credibility – as a balance against Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood (Syria’s old nemesis).

And yet – there remains still another layer to this calculus, as described by veteran Middle East journalist, Elijah Magnier:

“Indeed the Levant is returning to the centre of Middle East and world attention in a stronger position than in 2011. Syria has advanced precision missiles that can hit any building in Israel. Assad also has an air defence system he would have never dreamed of before 2011 – thanks to Israel’s continuous violation of its airspace, and its defiance of Russian authority. Hezbollah has constructed bases for its long and medium range precision missiles in the mountains and has created a bond with Syria that it could never have established – if not for the war. Iran has established a strategic brotherhood with Syria, thanks to its role in defeating the regime change plan.

NATO’s support for the growth of ISIS has created a bond between Syria and Iraq that no Muslim or Baathist link could ever have created: Iraq has a “carte blanche” to bomb ISIS locations in Syria without the consent of the Syrian leadership, and the Iraqi security forces can walk into Syria anytime they see fit to fight ISIS. The anti-Israel axis has never been stronger than it is today. That is the result of 2011-2018 war imposed on Syria”.

Yes. This is the third of the newly emergent fault-lines: that of Israel on the one hand, and the emerging reality in the Syrian north, on the other – a shadow that has returned to haunt the original instigators of the ‘war’ to undermine Syria. PM Netanyahu since has put all the Israeli eggs into the Trump family ‘basket’. It was Netanyahu’s relationship with Trump which was presented in Israel as being the true ‘Deal of the Century’ (and not the Palestinian one). Yet when Bibi complained forcefully about US withdrawal from Syria (leaving Syria vulnerable, Netanyahu asserts, to an Iranian insertion of smart missiles), Trump nonchalantly replied that the US gives Israel $ 4.5 billion per year – “You’ll be all right”, Trump riposted.

It was seen in Israel as an extraordinary slap to the PM’s face. But Israelis cannot avoid, but to acknowledge, some responsibility for creating precisely the circumstances of which they now loudly complain.

Bottom line: Things have not gone according to plan: America is not shaping the new Levantine ‘order’ – Moscow is. And Israel’s continual, blatant disregard of Russia’s own interests in the Levant, firstly infuriated, and finally has provoked the Russian high command into declaring the northern Middle East a putative no-fly zone for Israel. This represents a major strategic reversal for Netanyahu (and the US).

And finally, it is this repeating pattern of statements being made by the US President on foreign policy that are then almost casually contradicted, or ‘conditioned’, by some or other part of the US bureaucracy, that poses to the region (and beyond) the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question. The pattern clearly is one of an isolated President, with officials emptying his statements of executive authority (until subsequently endorsed, or denied, by the US bureaucracy). It is making Trump almost irrelevant (in terms of the setting of foreign policy).

Is this then a stealth process – knowingly contrived – incrementally to remove Trump from power? A hollowing out of his Presidential prerogatives (leaving him only as a disruptive Twitterer) – achieved, without all the disruption and mess, of formally removing him from office? We shall see.

And what next? Well, as Simon Henderson observes, no one is sure – everyone is left wondering:

“What’s up with Secretary Pompeo’s extended tour of the Middle East? The short answer is that he is trying to sell/explain President Trump’s “we are leaving Syria” policy to America’s friends … Amman, Jordan; Cairo, Egypt; Manama, Bahrain; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE); Doha, Qatar; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Muscat, Oman; Kuwait City, Kuwait. Wow, even with his own jet and no immigration hassles, that’s an exhausting itinerary … The fact that there now are eight stops in eight days, probably reflects the amount of explaining that needs to be done.”

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Kaspersky Lab snags former NSA contractor stealing hacking tools

Semi-buried article did see publication on Politico and Fox News, but Kaspersky Lab was not vindicated for its help in solving this case.

Seraphim Hanisch

Published

on

In a time known for Smear Campaigns of the Strangest Kind, we have seen Russia blamed for being there, for interfering and preventing the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Presidency, putting Donald Trump in the White House instead. One of Russia’s companies, Kaspersky Lab, has a particularly notable history of late; that is to say, this computer security company has found itself on the receiving end of quite frankly, illegal levels of slander and punishment without cause from the US government. Kaspersky Lab owner and CEO tried very hard to come to the US to discuss these matters with a Congressional committee, only to have the meeting shelved into limbo.

However, the truth made itself manifest when it became known that Kaspersky Lab actually helped the American FBI catch Harold T. Martin III, who was found to be attempting to steal some of the American government’s most sensitive hacking tools. This fact emerged on Wednesday, January 9, 2019, when sources familiar with this investigation spoke to The Politico magazine. Politico says the following in its report:

[Kaspersky Lab’s] role in exposing Martin is a remarkable twist in an increasingly bizarre case that is believed to be the largest breach of classified material in U.S. history.

It indicates that the government’s own internal monitoring systems and investigators had little to do with catching Martin, who prosecutors say took home an estimated 50 terabytes of data from the NSA and other government offices over a two-decade period, including some of the NSA’s most sophisticated and sensitive hacking tools.

The revelation also introduces an ironic turn in the negative narrative the U.S. government has woven about the Russian company in recent years.

Under both the Obama and Trump administrations, officials have accused the company of colluding with Russian intelligence to steal and expose classified NSA tools, and in 2016 the FBI engaged in an aggressive behind-the-scenes campaign to discredit the company and get its software banned from U.S. government computers on national security grounds. But even while the FBI was doing this, the Russian firm was tipping off the bureau to an alleged intelligence thief in the government’s own midst.

“It’s irony piled on irony that people who worked at Kaspersky, who were already in the sights of the U.S. intelligence community, disclosed to them that they had this problem,” said Stewart Baker, general counsel for the NSA in the 1990s and a current partner at Steptoe and Johnson. It’s also discouraging, he noted, that the NSA apparently still hasn’t “figured out a good way to find unreliable employees who are mishandling some of their most sensitive stuff.”

The Politico piece as well as Fox News’ variant still seem somewhat determined to keep that negative narrative in place, with Fox assessing that the FBI had a “strange bedfellow” in the investigation, and what appears to be an absolutely enormous presumption in Politico’s piece:

The first message sent on Aug. 13, 2016, asked one of the researchers to arrange a conversation with “Yevgeny” — presumably Kaspersky Lab CEO Eugene Kaspersky, whose given name is Yevgeny Kaspersky. The message didn’t indicate the reason for the conversation or the topic, but a second message following right afterward said, “Shelf life, three weeks,” suggesting the request, or the reason for it, would be relevant for a limited time.

However, there are many people in the world named “Yevgeny” (Evgeny, or Eugene) in Russia, and presumably many Evgenys in Kaspersky Lab itself. The notion that the CEO of the company would be involved in this appears to be an absolutely enormous leap of logic.

The maintenance of a negative narrative about Kaspersky Lab has been one of the most frustratingly effective examples of American propaganda in use since Russia overall became increasingly used as America’s newest scapegoat.

This is also not the first time that Kaspersky Lab saved the day for an American intelligence agency. In 2017 the same company’s services found 122 viruses on an NSA employee’s computer.

Kaspersky Lab itself is a highly sophisticated company based in Moscow, Russia, specializing in securing computers against malware, viruses, ransomware and all manner of invasive efforts by the bad guys out on the ‘Net, and among the providers of such services it consistently rates among the best in the industry, including in US surveys. While US retailers Best Buy, Office Depot and the US government have banned selling or running Kaspersky Lab software, European allies of the US have not even breathed the slightest bit of discontent with the AV provider. The narrative is the only thing that is actually wrong, and since Evgeny Kaspersky’s education was largely at the Academy that trained former KGB personnel, (now called FSB), the anti-Russia narrative in the US the acronym “KGB” is usually enough to alarm most low-information American news readers and watchers. 

However, logic and awareness of life in modern Russia, point to the fact that getting an education on security at the FSB Academy ought to be equivalent to the same education at the CIA. Who would know better about how to create security than those people specially trained to compromise it? However the propaganda vantage point that Kaspersky afforded the US government in its drive to get rid of President Donald Trump made the Russian company too juicy a target to ignore.

Over the last year or two, however, this narrative has slowly been falling apart, with this Politico article being a significant, though still small vindication of the company’s prowess and abilities.

That a Russian Internet Security company could succeed where American enterprises failed, and especially where it helped the Americans catch a man who was stealing very powerful hacking tools, is a significant story, indeed.

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