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Trump goes on a selling spree while Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman goes on a purging spree

There is a connection between Trump’s Asia visit and the Saudi purges. The trouble is that both sides are employing their best poker faces.

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Donald Trump’s trip to Asia, has thus far gone according to plan. During his stops in Japan and South Korea, Trump has predictably angered North Korea, but has done so in a manner that appears to be more of a weapons sales pitch to Japan and South Korea, than anything else.

Like his previous visit to Saudi Arabia, Trump’a visit to Asia is amounting to little more than a sales pitch for the US arms industry, with a cheesy photo-op with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe as a meaningless souvenir to encapsulate a geo-politically irrelevant visit.

But while Trump is busy selling his country’s military hardware to Asia, media attention has rightly been focused on the far more dynamic developments in the Middle East, namely the Saudi Purge and the related forced resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minsiter Saad Hariri.

As geopolitical expert Andrew Korbyko wrote, the purges in Saudi Arabia, led by Crown Prince and de-facto ruler Muhammad bin Salman, amount to a swamp draining endeavour that vastly eclipses anything Donald Trump sought to do, let alone that which he has been able to accomplish.

Mohammed Bin Salman: The Unlikely Anti-Oligarchic Bolshevik?

The next logical question is therefore: what is Donald Trump’s position on Muhammad bin Salman’s ‘great purge’?

On the surface, Trump is blissfully ignorant of the events in Saudi, while meeting with allies, plus the Chinese leadership, on the other side of the world.

But this raises the next even more pressing question: is the timing of the great Saudi purge because of or in spite of Donald Trump’s prolonged absence from the United States, his longest to-date as President? 

In late October, Rex Tillerson visited Muhammad bin Salman and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Riyadh. The meeting was a failure by most accounts. The summit was supposed to reconcile the Shi’a leadership of Iraq with the Sunni Wahhabi Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but far from doing that, Tillerson’s admonition to Iraq demanding Baghdad “send Iranian troops home” was met with a furious response from the Iraqi government.

Iraq REJECTS US demands to expel Iranian military advisers from the country

While Tillerson had private discussions with the Saudi leadership, it is not clear what they entailed. It is well known that the CIA and many other elements of the US deep state are displeased with the behaviour of Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), favouring instead the old ‘status quo man’, former Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef.

The US administration’s view on MBS is less clear. What seems self-evident though is that many in the US take a cautious view of MBS’ penchant for rocking the boat. The fact that Wall Street darling Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has been arrested as part of the purges, has certainly led to protracted nail biting in Washington and New York.

Furthermore, MBS’ apparent orchestration of the country’s pivot towards Russia and China, while still embryonic, cannot sit well with many in the US.

Saudi Crown Price Mohammad bin Salman calls for “moderate Islam” in the Wahhabi Kingdom

In many ways, if one were to assume that the US is sceptical about the ‘MBS revolution’, this would be the best time to execute it. Donald Trump is away from his seat power and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s authority seems to be declining by the day. Meanwhile, the triumvirate of generals who many say hold the real power in Washington, Defense Secretary Mattis, National Security Advisor McMaster and Chief of White House Staff Kelly, seem poorly positioned to take a real stance on the Saudi problem. This is true for several reasons.

First of all, the generals appear more keen on making ‘yes or no’ decisions than on making highly complex diplomatic moves. Questions like ‘do we invade North Korea: yes or no?…seem to be the kinds of issue where the generals wield veto power over the civilians in the White House.

Secondly, if the US opposes the MBS led purge, what is to be done? The US could ask MBS to stop, but unless Trump can be distracted from his Asian trip to make such a make-or-break phone call, this seems unlikely, not least because the US would be showing its cards to the ‘new’ Saudi regime fairly early in the game, something which could cause MBS to pivot his diplomatic contacts even further towards China and Russia.

Of course, the CIA could get involved and put an end to the ‘revolution’ in one way or another, but this would lead to nothing short of a open calamity in America’s closet Arab ally. With Donald Trump set to visit China in the coming days, there is nothing that would show American weakness in front of China more than a fully blown, CIA led palace coup in Saudi Arabia.

Even if the US were to spin a CIA intervention into Saudi as a victory, in the style of the US military intervention in Lebanon in 1958, China would see it differently. For China, the US “losing control” of its close ally and resorting to a kind of counter-revolutionary regime change, would feed the Chinese stereotype (which happens to be true), that the US barks loudly and when it  bites, it bites unevenly, arbitrarily and most important, in an ugly fashion.

The other option is to wait and handle the Saudi crisis when Trump is back in Washington. But with Trump’s Asia visit on its second full day of a nearly 2 week trip, the Saudi purge could well be consolidated by the time the US President is back on US soil.

This leaves only two logical interpretations for the US position on the Saudi purge:

1. Muhammad bin Salman struck while the US President was on a long trip and distracted by other matters, knowing that the US would not be able to as effectively oppose the purges with Trump away. 

2. Donald Trump himself wanted to obfuscate responsibility for the matter and had Rex Tilleron secretly demonstrate America’s approval of the move, so long as it was done while Trump had a convenient excuse not to deal with it.

Conclusion: 

Many who support the second theory, tend to state that Donald Trump’s personal dislike of the Saudi regime as expressed during his campaign and his dislike of the now arrested Alwaleed bin Talal moreover, means that he is secretly pleased with the purges. This may well be true and certainly must be ruled in as a possibility. However, since becoming President, his relations with Riyadh have been hailed by both sides as incredibly good. Trump meanwhile has not radically realigned the position of the US diplomatically as expected. Apart from angering Russia and China even more than Barack Obama (in many respects), little has changed apart from the schism with the EU over Iran, something which Trump himself stated will not lead to the US and EU changing the overall nature of their relations.

Even Trump’s passive Tweets in favour of Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, read more like a passive statement of aloof approval, rather than a concerted attempt to engage in the situation. The Tweets stink of an ex-post-facto attempt to not appear to be left out the loop, even though, Trump may be more left out of the loop than he lets on. The more Trump approves, the more it means he has no option but to approve, it crucially does not mean the US government would have approved of the purges beforehand.

I happen to think that the US has merely been blind-sighted by a Saudi regime that they are still willing to placate, even at this hour. The US may only pounce on Riyadh when it is too late–after the purges have been effectively executed to their logical conclusion. How that would-be pounce manifests itself could still however, cause harm to stability in Saudi. At such a stage, it would be a matter of merely working with reality and decided whether to tempt the MBS regime with carrots or try to undermine it with sticks, knowing full well that such sticks will only cause MBS to grow more attracted to long term partnerships with Russia and China who are ready, willing and able to provide such a thing.

It’s helpful to remember that the US seemed equally blindsided by the eruption of the Qatar crisis in June of 2017, when Trump eventually Tweeted his support for Riyadh while the State Department remained neutral.

With Trump away and with Tillerson inclined towards moderation anyway, it appears that the ultimate conclusion the US has drawn at this stage can be summarised as: “when in doubt, do nothing”. This is exactly what the US has done, thus far.

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Airline wars heat up, as industry undergoes massive disruption (Video)

The Duran Quick Take: Episode 145.

Alex Christoforou

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The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris examine the global commercial airline industry, which is undergoing massive changes, as competition creeps in from Russia and China.

Reuters reports that Boeing Co’s legal troubles grew as a new lawsuit accused the company of defrauding shareholders by concealing safety deficiencies in its 737 MAX planes before two fatal crashes led to their worldwide grounding.

The proposed class action filed in Chicago federal court seeks damages for alleged securities fraud violations, after Boeing’s market value tumbled by $34 billion within two weeks of the March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX.

*****

According to the complaint, Boeing “effectively put profitability and growth ahead of airplane safety and honesty” by rushing the 737 MAX to market to compete with Airbus SE, while leaving out “extra” or “optional” features designed to prevent the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air crashes.

It also said Boeing’s statements about its growth prospects and the 737 MAX were undermined by its alleged conflict of interest from retaining broad authority from federal regulators to assess the plane’s safety.

*****

Boeing said on Tuesday that aircraft orders in the first quarter fell to 95 from 180 a year earlier, with no orders for the 737 MAX following the worldwide grounding.

On April 5, it said it planned to cut monthly 737 production to 42 planes from 52, and was making progress on a 737 MAX software update to prevent further accidents.

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Via Zerohedge…

Step aside (fading) trade war with China: there is a new aggressor – at least according to the US Trade Rep Robert Lighthizer – in town.

In a statement on the USTR’s website published late on Monday, the US fair trade agency announced that under Section 301 of the Trade Act, it was proposing a list of EU products to be covered by additional duties. And as justification for the incremental import taxes, the USTR said that it was in response to EU aircraft subsidies, specifically to Europea’s aerospace giant, Airbus, which “have caused adverse effects to the United States” and which the USTR estimates cause $11 billion in harm to the US each year

One can’t help but notice that the latest shot across the bow in the simmering trade war with Europe comes as i) Trump is reportedly preparing to fold in his trade war with China, punting enforcement to whoever is president in 2025, and ii) comes just as Boeing has found itself scrambling to preserve orders as the world has put its orderbook for Boeing 737 MAX airplanes on hold, which prompted Boeing to cut 737 production by 20% on Friday.

While the first may be purely a coincidence, the second – which is expected to not only slam Boeing’s financials for Q1 and Q2, but may also adversely impact US GDP – had at least some impact on the decision to proceed with these tariffs at this moment.

We now await Europe’s angry response to what is Trump’s latest salvo in what is once again a global trade war. And, paradoxically, we also expect this news to send stocks blasting higher as, taking a page from the US-China trade book, every day algos will price in imminent “US-European trade deal optimism.”

Below the full statement from the USTR (link):

USTR Proposes Products for Tariff Countermeasures in Response to Harm Caused by EU Aircraft Subsidies

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has found repeatedly that European Union (EU) subsidies to Airbus have caused adverse effects to the United States.  Today, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) begins its process under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 to identify products of the EU to which additional duties may be applied until the EU removes those subsidies.

USTR is releasing for public comment a preliminary list of EU products to be covered by additional duties.  USTR estimates the harm from the EU subsidies as $11 billion in trade each year.  The amount is subject to an arbitration at the WTO, the result of which is expected to be issued this summer.

“This case has been in litigation for 14 years, and the time has come for action. The Administration is preparing to respond immediately when the WTO issues its finding on the value of U.S. countermeasures,” said U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.  “Our ultimate goal is to reach an agreement with the EU to end all WTO-inconsistent subsidies to large civil aircraft.  When the EU ends these harmful subsidies, the additional U.S. duties imposed in response can be lifted.”

In line with U.S. law, the preliminary list contains a number of products in the civil aviation sector, including Airbus aircraft.  Once the WTO arbitrator issues its report on the value of countermeasures, USTR will announce a final product list covering a level of trade commensurate with the adverse effects determined to exist.

Background

After many years of seeking unsuccessfully to convince the EU and four of its member States (France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom) to cease their subsidization of Airbus, the United States brought a WTO challenge to EU subsidies in 2004. In 2011, the WTO found that the EU provided Airbus $18 billion in subsidized financing from 1968 to 2006.  In particular, the WTO found that European “launch aid” subsidies were instrumental in permitting Airbus to launch every model of its large civil aircraft, causing Boeing to lose sales of more than 300 aircraft and market share throughout the world.

In response, the EU removed two minor subsidies, but left most of them unchanged.  The EU also granted Airbus more than $5 billion in new subsidized “launch aid” financing for the A350 XWB.  The United States requested establishment of a compliance panel in March 2012 to address the EU’s failure to remove its old subsidies, as well as the new subsidies and their adverse effects.  That process came to a close with the issuance of an appellate report in May 2018 finding that EU subsidies to high-value, twin-aisle aircraft have caused serious prejudice to U.S. interests.  The report found that billions of dollars in launch aid to the A350 XWB and A380 cause significant lost sales to Boeing 787 and 747 aircraft, as well as lost market share for Boeing very large aircraft in the EU, Australia, China, Korea, Singapore, and UAE markets.

Based on the appellate report, the United States requested authority to impose countermeasures worth $11.2 billion per year, commensurate with the adverse effects caused by EU subsidies.  The EU challenged that estimate, and a WTO arbitrator is currently evaluating those claims

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Mueller report takes ‘Russian meddling’ for granted, offers no actual evidence

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Special counsel Robert Mueller’s ‘Russiagate’ report has cleared Donald Trump of ‘collusion’ charges but maintains that Russia meddled in the 2016 US presidential election. Yet concrete evidence of that is nowhere to be seen.

The report by Mueller and his team, made public on Thursday by the US Department of Justice, exonerates not just Trump but all Americans of any “collusion” with Russia, “obliterating” the Russiagate conspiracy theory, as journalist Glenn Greenwald put it.

However, it asserts that Russian “interference” in the election did happen, and says it consisted of a campaign on social media as well as Russian military intelligence (repeatedly referred to by its old, Soviet-era name, GRU) “hacking” the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the DNC, and the private email account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta.

As evidence of this, the report basically offers nothing but Mueller’s indictment of “GRU agents,” delivered on the eve of the Helsinki Summit between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in what was surely a cosmic coincidence.

Indictments are not evidence, however, but allegations. Any time it looks like the report might be bringing up proof, it ends up being redacted, ostensibly to protect sources and methods, and out of concern it might cause “harm to an ongoing matter.”

‘Active measures’ on social media

Mueller’s report leads with the claim that the Internet Research Agency (IRA) ran an “active measures” campaign of social media influence. Citing Facebook and Twitter estimates, the report says this consisted of 470 Facebook accounts that made 80,000 posts that may have been seen by up to 126 million people, between January 2015 and August 2017 (almost a year after the election), and 3,814 Twitter accounts that “may have been” in contact with about 1.4 million people.

Those numbers may seem substantial but, as investigative journalist Gareth Porter pointed out in November 2018, they should be regarded against the background of 33 trillion Facebook posts made during the same period.

According to Mueller, the IRA mind-controlled the American electorate by spending “approximately $100,000” on Facebook ads, hiring someone to walk around New York City “dressed up as Santa Claus with a Trump mask,” and getting Trump campaign affiliates to promote “dozens of tweets, posts, and other political content created by the IRA.” Dozens!

Meanwhile, the key evidence against IRA’s alleged boss Evgeny Prigozhin is that he “appeared together in public photographs” with Putin.

Alleged hacking & release

The report claims that the GRU hacked their way into 29 DCCC computers and another 30 DNC computers, and downloaded data using software called “X-Tunnel.” It is unclear how Mueller’s investigators claim to know this, as the report makes no mention of them or FBI actually examining DNC or DCCC computers. Presumably they took the word of CrowdStrike, the Democrats’ private contractor, for it.

However obtained, the documents were published first through DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 – which the report claims are “fictitious online personas” created by the GRU – and later through WikiLeaks. What is Mueller’s proof that these two entities were “GRU” cutouts? In a word, this:

That the Guccifer 2.0 persona provided reporters access to a restricted portion of the DCLeaks website tends to indicate that both personas were operated by the same or a closely-related group of people.(p. 43)

However, the report acknowledges that the “first known contact” between Guccifer 2.0 and WikiLeaks was on September 15, 2016 – months after the DNC and DCCC documents were published! Here we do get actual evidence: direct messages on Twitter obtained by investigators. Behold, these “spies” are so good, they don’t even talk – and when they do, they use unsecured channels.

Mueller notably claims “it is clear that the stolen DNC and Podesta documents were transferred from the GRU to WikiLeaks” (the rest of that sentence is redacted), but the report clearly implies the investigators do not actually know how. On page 47, the report says Mueller “cannot rule out that stolen documents were transferred to WikiLeaks through intermediaries who visited during the summer of 2016.”

Strangely, the report accuses WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange of making “public statements apparently designed to obscure the source” of the materials (p.48), notably the offer of a reward for finding the murderer of DNC staffer Seth Rich – even though this can be read as corroborating the intermediaries theory, and Assange never actually said Rich was his source.

The rest of Mueller’s report goes on to discuss the Trump campaign’s contacts with anyone even remotely Russian and to create torturous constructions that the president had “obstructed” justice by basically defending himself from charges of being a Russian agent – neither of which resulted in any indictments, however. But the central premise that the 22-month investigation, breathless media coverage, and the 448-page report are based on – that Russia somehow meddled in the 2016 election – remains unproven.

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Rumors of War: Washington Is Looking for a Fight

The bill stands up for NATO and prevents the President from pulling the US out of the Alliance without a Senate vote.

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Authored by Philip Giraldi via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


It is depressing to observe how the United States of America has become the evil empire. Having served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War and in the Central Intelligence Agency for the second half of the Cold War, I had an insider’s viewpoint of how an essentially pragmatic national security policy was being transformed bit by bit into a bipartisan doctrine that featured as a sine qua non global dominance for Washington. Unfortunately, when the Soviet Union collapsed the opportunity to end once and for all the bipolar nuclear confrontation that threatened global annihilation was squandered as President Bill Clinton chose instead to humiliate and use NATO to contain an already demoralized and effectively leaderless Russia.

American Exceptionalism became the battle cry for an increasingly clueless federal government as well as for a media-deluded public. When 9/11 arrived, the country was ready to lash out at the rest of the world. President George W. Bush growled that “There’s a new sheriff in town and you are either with us or against us.” Afghanistan followed, then Iraq, and, in a spirit of bipartisanship, the Democrats came up with Libya and the first serious engagement in Syria. In its current manifestation, one finds a United States that threatens Iran on a nearly weekly basis and tears up arms control agreements with Russia while also maintaining deployments of US forces in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and places like Mali. Scattered across the globe are 800 American military bases while Washington’s principal enemies du jour Russia and China have, respectively, only one and none.

Never before in my lifetime has the United States been so belligerent, and that in spite of the fact that there is no single enemy or combination of enemies that actually threaten either the geographical United States or a vital interest. Venezuela is being threatened with invasion primarily because it is in the western hemisphere and therefore subject to Washington’s claimed proconsular authority. Last Wednesday Vice President Mike Pence told the United Nations Security Council that the White House will remove Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro from power, preferably using diplomacy and sanctions, but “all options are on the table.” Pence warned that Russia and other friends of Maduro need to leave now or face the consequences.

The development of the United States as a hostile and somewhat unpredictable force has not gone unnoticed. Russia has accepted that war is coming no matter what it does in dealing with Trump and is upgrading its forces. By some estimates, its army is better equipped and more combat ready than is that of the United States, which spends nearly ten times as much on “defense.”

Iran is also upgrading its defensive capabilities, which are formidable. Now that Washington has withdrawn from the nuclear agreement with Iran, has placed a series of increasingly punitive sanctions on the country, and, most recently, has declared a part of the Iranian military to be a “foreign terrorist organization” and therefore subject to attack by US forces at any time, it is clear that war will be the next step. In three weeks, the United States will seek to enforce a global ban on any purchases of Iranian oil. A number of countries, including US nominal ally Turkey, have said they will ignore the ban and it will be interesting to see what the US Navy intends to do to enforce it. Or what Iran will do to break the blockade.

But even given all of the horrific decisions being made in the White House, there is one organization that is far crazier and possibly even more dangerous. That is the United States Congress, which is, not surprisingly, a legislative body that is viewed positively by only 18 per cent of the American people.

A current bill originally entitled the “Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act (DASKA) of 2019,” is numbered S-1189. It has been introduced in the Senate which will “…require the Secretary of State to determine whether the Russian Federation should be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism and whether Russian-sponsored armed entities in Ukraine should be designated as foreign terrorist organizations.” The bill is sponsored by Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado and is co-sponsored by Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

The current version of the bill was introduced on April 11th and it is by no means clear what kind of support it might actually have, but the fact that it actually has surfaced at all should be disturbing to anyone who believes it is in the world’s best interest to avoid direct military confrontation between the United States and Russia.

In a a press release by Gardner, who has long been pushing to have Russia listed as a state sponsor of terrorism, a February version of the bill is described as “…comprehensive legislation [that] seeks to increase economic, political, and diplomatic pressure on the Russian Federation in response to Russia’s interference in democratic processes abroad, malign influence in Syria, and aggression against Ukraine, including in the Kerch Strait. The legislation establishes a comprehensive policy response to better position the US government to address Kremlin aggression by creating new policy offices on cyber defenses and sanctions coordination. The bill stands up for NATO and prevents the President from pulling the US out of the Alliance without a Senate vote. It also increases sanctions pressure on Moscow for its interference in democratic processes abroad and continued aggression against Ukraine.”

The February version of the bill included Menendez, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina as co-sponsors, suggesting that provoking war is truly bipartisan in today’s Washington.

Each Senator co-sponsor contributed a personal comment to the press release. Gardner observed that “Putin’s Russia is an outlaw regime that is hell-bent on undermining international law and destroying the US-led liberal global order.” Menendez noted that “President Trump’s willful paralysis in the face of Kremlin aggression has reached a boiling point in Congress” while Graham added that “Our goal is to change the status quo and impose meaningful sanctions and measures against Putin’s Russia. He should cease and desist meddling in the US electoral process, halt cyberattacks on American infrastructure, remove Russia from Ukraine, and stop efforts to create chaos in Syria.” Cardin contributed “Congress continues to take the lead in defending US national security against continuing Russian aggression against democratic institutions at home and abroad” and Shaheen observed that “This legislation builds on previous efforts in Congress to hold Russia accountable for its bellicose behavior against the United States and its determination to destabilize our global world order.”

The Senatorial commentary is, of course, greatly exaggerated and sometimes completely false regarding what is going on in the world, but it is revealing of how ignorant American legislators can be and often are. The Senators also ignore the fact that the designation of presumed Kremlin surrogate forces as “foreign terrorist organizations” is equivalent to a declaration of war against them by the US military, while hypocritically calling Russia a state sponsor of terrorism is bad enough, as it is demonstrably untrue. But the real damage comes from the existence of the bill itself. It will solidify support for hardliners on both sides, guaranteeing that there will be no rapprochement between Washington and Moscow for the foreseeable future, a development that is bad for everyone involved. Whether it can be characterized as an unintended consequence of unwise decision making or perhaps something more sinister involving a deeply corrupted congress and administration remains to be determined.

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