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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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President Putin signs law blocking fake news, but the West makes more

Western media slams President Putin and his fake news law, accusing him of censorship, but an actual look at the law reveals some wisdom.

Seraphim Hanisch

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The TASS Russian News Agency reported on March 18th that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed off on a new law intended to block distorted or untrue information being reported as news. Promptly after he did so, Western news organizations began their attempt to “spin” this event as some sort of proof of “state censorship” in the oppressive sense of the old Soviet Union. In other words, a law designed to prevent fake news was used to create more fake news.

One of the lead publications is a news site that is itself ostensibly a “fake news” site. The Moscow Times tries to portray itself as a Russian publication that is conducted from within Russian borders. However, this site and paper is really a Western publication, run by a Dutch foundation located in the Netherlands. As such, the paper and the website associated have a distinctly pro-West slant in their reporting. Even Wikipedia noted this with this comment from their entry about the publication:

In the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis, The Moscow Times was criticized by a number of journalists including Izvestia columnist Israel Shamir, who in December 2014 called it a “militant anti-Putin paper, a digest of the Western press with extreme bias in covering events in Russia”.[3] In October 2014 The Moscow Times made the decision to suspend online comments after an increase in offensive comments. The paper said it disabled comments for two reasons—it was an inconvenience for its readers as well as being a legal liability, because under Russian law websites are liable for all content, including user-generated content like comments.[14]

This bias is still notably present in what is left of the publication, which is now an online-only news source. This is some of what The Moscow Times had to say about the new fake news legislation:

The bills amending existing information laws overwhelmingly passed both chambers of Russian parliament in less than two months. Observers and some lawmakers have criticized the legislation for its vague language and potential to stifle free speech.

The legislation will establish punishments for spreading information that “exhibits blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of Russia.”

Insulting state symbols and the authorities, including Putin, will carry a fine of up to 300,000 rubles and 15 days in jail for repeat offenses.

As is the case with other Russian laws, the fines are calculated based on whether the offender is a citizen, an official or a legal entity.

More than 100 journalists and public figures, including human rights activist Zoya Svetova and popular writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya, signed a petition opposing the laws, which they labeled “direct censorship.”

This piece does give a bit of explanation from Dmitry Peskov, showing that European countries also have strict laws governing fake news distribution. However, the Times made the point of pointing out the idea of “insulting governmental bodies of Russia… including Putin” to bolster their claim that this law amounts to real censorship of the press. It developed its point of view based on a very short article from Reuters which says even less about the legislation and how it works.

However, TASS goes into rather exhaustive detail about this law, and it also gives rather precise wording on the reason for the law’s passage, as well as how it is to be enforced. We include most of this text here, with emphases added:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law on blocking untrue and distorting information (fake news). The document was posted on the government’s legal information web portal.

The document supplements the list of information, the access to which may be restricted on the demand by Russia’s Prosecutor General or his deputies. In particular, it imposes a ban on “untrue publicly significant information disseminated in the media and in the Internet under the guise of true reports, which creates a threat to the life and (or) the health of citizens, property, a threat of the mass violation of public order and (or) public security, or the threat of impeding or halting the functioning of vital infrastructural facilities, transport or social infrastructure, credit institutions, energy, industrial or communications facilities.”

Pursuant to the document, in case of finding such materials in Internet resources registered in accordance with the Russian law on the mass media as an online media resource, Russia’s Prosecutor General or his deputies will request the media watchdog Roskomnadzor to restrict access to the corresponding websites.

Based on this request, Roskomnadzor will immediately notify the editorial board of the online media resource, which is in violation of the legislation, about the need to remove untrue information and the media resource will be required to delete such materials immediately. If the editorial board fails to take the necessary measures, Roskomnadzor will send communications operators “a demand to take measures to restrict access to the online resource.”

In case of deleting such untrue information, the website owner will notify Roskomnadzor thereof, following which the media watchdog will “hold a check into the authenticity of this notice” and immediately inform the communications operator about the resumption of the access to the information resource.
The conditions for the law are very specific, as are the penalties for breaking it. TASS continued:

Liability for breaching the law

Simultaneously, the Federation Council approved the associated law with amendments to Russia’s Code of Administrative Offences, which stipulates liability in the form of penalties of up to 1.5 million rubles (around $23,000) for the spread of untrue and distorting information.

The Code’s new article, “The Abuse of the Freedom of Mass Information,” stipulates liability for disseminating “deliberately untrue publicly significant information” in the media or in the Internet. The penalty will range from 30,000 rubles ($450) to 100,000 rubles ($1,520) for citizens, from 60,000 rubles ($915) to 200,000 rubles ($3,040) for officials and from 200,000 rubles to 500,000 rubles ($7,620) for corporate entities with the possible confiscation of the subject of the administrative offence.

Another element of offence imposes tighter liability for the cases when the publication of false publicly significant information has resulted in the deaths of people, has caused damage to the health or property, prompted the mass violation of public order and security or has caused disruption to the functioning of transport or social infrastructure facilities, communications, energy and industrial facilities and banks. In such instances, the fines will range from 300,000 rubles to 400,000 rubles ($6,090) for citizens, from 600,000 rubles to 900,000 rubles ($13,720) for officials, and from 1 million rubles to 1.5 million rubles for corporate entities.

While this legislation can be spun (and is) in the West as anti-free speech, one may also consider the damage that has taken place in the American government through a relentless attack of fake news from most US news outlets against President Trump. One of the most notable effects of this barrage has been to further degrade and destroy the US’ relationship with the Russian Federation, because even the Helsinki Summit was attacked so badly that the two leaders have not been able to get a second summit together.

While it is certainly a valued right of the American press to be unfettered by Congress, and while it is also certainly vital to criticize improper practices by government officials, the American news agencies have gone far past that, to deliberately dishonest attacks, based in innuendo and everything possible that was formerly only the province of gossip tabloid publications. The effort has been to defame the President, not to give proper or due criticism to his policies, nor credit. It can be properly stated that the American press has abused its freedom of late.

This level of abuse drew a very unusual comment from the US president, who wondered on Twitter about the possibility of creating a state-run media center in the US to counter fake news:

Politically correct for US audiences? No. But an astute point?

Definitely.

Freedom in anything also presumes that those with that freedom respect it, and further, that they respect and apply the principle that slandering people and institutions for one’s own personal, business or political gain is wrong. Implied in the US Constitution’s protection of the press is the notion that the press itself, as the rest of the country, is accountable to a much Higher Authority than the State. But when that Authority is rejected, as so much present evidence suggests, then freedom becomes the freedom to misbehave and to agitate. It appears largely within this context that the Russian law exists, based on the text given.

Further, by hitting dishonest media outlets in their pocketbook, rather than prison sentences, the law appears to be very smart in its message: “Do not lie. If you do, you will suffer where it counts most.”

Considering that news media’s purpose is to make money, this may actually be a very smart piece of legislation.

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ABC’s Ted Koppel admits mainstream media bias against Trump [Video]

The mainstream news media has traded informing the public for indoctrinating them, but the change got called out by an “old-school” journo.

Seraphim Hanisch

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Fox News reported on March 19th that one of America’s most well-known TV news anchors, Ted Koppel, noted that the once-great media outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post, have indeed traded journalistic excellence for hit pieces for political purposes. While political opinions in the mainstream press are certainly within the purview of any publication, this sort of writing can hardly be classified as “news” but as “Opinion” or more widely known, “Op-Ed.”

We have two videos on this. The first is the original clip showing the full statement that Mr. Koppel gave. It is illuminating, to say the least:

Tucker Carlson and Brit Hume, a former colleague of Mr. Koppel, added their comments on this admission in this second short video piece, shown here.

There are probably a number of people who have watched this two-year onslaught of slander and wondered why there cannot be a law preventing this sort of misleading reporting. Well, Russia passed a law to stop it, hitting dishonest media outlets in their pocketbook. It is a smart law because it does not advocate imprisonment for bad actors in the media, but it does fine them.

Going to prison for reporting “the truth” looks very noble. Having to pay out of pocket for it is not so exciting.

Newsmax and Louder with Crowder both reported on this as well.

This situation of dishonest media has led to an astonishing 77% distrust rating among Americans of their news media, this statistic being reported by Politico in 2018. This represents a nearly diametric reversal in trust from the 72% trust rating the country’s news viewers gave their news outlets in 1972. These statistics come from Gallup polls taken through the years.

 

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Empire Of Absurdity: Recycled Neocons, Recycled Enemies

Despite America’s military threats, bellicose speechifying, brutal sanctions, and Cold War-style conflict-framing, the incumbent Maduro seems firmly in control. 

Antiwar

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Authored by Major Danny Sjursen (ret.) via AntiWar.com:


There are times when I wish that the United States would just drop the charade and declare itself a global empire.

As a veteran of two imperial wars, a witness to the dark underside of America’s empire-denial, I’ve grown tired of the equivocation and denials from senior policymakers. The U.S. can’t be an empire, we’re told, because – unlike the Brits and Romans – America doesn’t annex territories outright, and our school children don’t color its colonies in red-white-and-blue on cute educational maps.

But this distinction, at root, is rather superficial. Conquest, colonization, and annexation are so 19th century – Washington has moved beyond the overt and engages in the (not-so) subtle modern form of imperialism. America’s empire over the last two decades – under Democrats and Republicans – has used a range of tools: economic, military, political, to topple regimes, instigate coups, and starve “enemy” civilians. Heck, it didn’t even start with 9/11 – bullying foreigners and overturning uncooperative regimes is as American as apple pie.

Still, observing post-9/11, post-Iraq/Afghanistan defeat, Washington play imperialism these days is tragicomically absurd. The emperor has no clothes, folks. Sure, America (for a few more fleeting years) boasts the world’s dominant economy, sure its dotted the globe with a few hundred military bases, and sure it’s military still outspends the next seven competitors combined. Nonetheless, what’s remarkable, what constitutes the real story of 2019, is this: the US empire can’t seem to accomplish anything anymore, can’t seem to bend anybody to its will. It’s almost sad to watch. America, the big-hulking has-been on the block, still struts its stuff, but most of the world simply ignores it.

Make no mistake, Washington isn’t done trying; it’s happy to keep throwing good money (and blood) at bad: to the tune of a cool $6 trillion, 7,000 troop deaths, and 500,000 foreign deaths – including maybe 240,000 civilians. But what’s it all been for? The world is no safer, global terror attacks have only increased, and Uncle Sam just can’t seem to achieve any of its preferred policy goals.

Think on it for a second: Russia and Iran “won” in Syria; the Taliban and Pakistan are about ready to “win” in Afghanistan; Iran is more influential than ever in Iraq; the Houthis won’t quit in Yemen; Moscow is keeping Crimea; Libya remains unstable; North Korea ain’t giving up its nukes; and China’s power continues to grow in its version of the Caribbean – the South China Sea. No amount of American cash, no volume of our soldiers’ blood, no escalation in drone strikes or the conventional bombing of brown folks, has favorably changed the calculus in any of these regional conflicts.

What does this tell us? Quite a lot, I’d argue – but not what the neoliberal/neoconservative alliance of pundits and policymakers are selling. See for these unrepentant militarists the problem is always the same: Washington didn’t use enough force, didn’t spend enough blood and treasure. So is the solution: more defense spending, more CIA operations, more saber-rattling, and more global military interventions.

No, the inconvenient truth is as simple as it is disturbing to red-blooded patriots. To wit, the United States – or any wannabe hegemon – simply doesn’t possess the capability to shape the world in its own image. See those pesky locals – Arabs, Asians, Muslims, Slavs – don’t know what’s good for them, don’t understand that (obviously) there is a secret American zipped inside each of their very bodies, ready to burst out if given a little push!

It turns out that low-tech, cheap insurgent tactics, when combined with impassioned nationalism, can bog down the “world’s best military” indefinitely. It seems, too, that other regional heavyweights – Russia, China, Iran, North Korea – stand ready to call America’s nuclear bluff. That they know the US all-volunteer military and consumerist economy can’t ultimately absorb the potential losses a conventional war would demand. Even scarier for the military-industrial-congressional-media establishment is the logical extension of all this accumulated failure: the questionable efficacy of military force in the 21st century.

Rather than recognize the limits of American military, economic, and political power, Bush II, Obama, and now Trump, have simply dusted off the old playbook. It’s reached the level of absurdity under the unhinged regime of Mr. Trump. Proverbially blasting Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” as its foreign policy soundtrack, the Donald and company have doubled down. Heck, if Washington can’t get its way in Africa, Europe, Asia, or the Mideast, well why not clamp down in our own hemisphere, our traditional sphere of influence – South and Central America.

Enter the lunacy of the current Venezuela controversy. Trump’s team saw a golden opportunity in this socialist, backwater petrostate. Surely here, in nearby Monroe Doctrine country, Uncle Sam could get his way, topple the Maduro regime, and coronate the insurgent (though questionably legitimate) Juan Guaido. It’s early 20th century Yankee imperialism reborn. Everything seemed perfect. Trump could recall the specter of America’s tried and true enemy – “evil” socialism – cynically (and absurdly) equating Venezuelan populism with some absurd Cold-War-era existential threat to the nation. The idea that Venezuela presents a challenge on the scale of Soviet Russia is actually farcical. What’s more, and this is my favorite bit of irrationality, we were all recently treated to a game of “I know you are but what am I?” from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who (with a straight face) claimed Cuba, tiny island Cuba, was the real “imperialist” in Venezuela.

Next, in a move reminiscent of some sort of macabre 1980’s theme party, Trump resuscitated Elliot Abrams – you know, the convicted felon of Iran-Contra infamy, to serve as Washington’s special envoy to embattled Venezuela. Who better to act as “fair arbiter” in that country than a war-criminal with the blood of a few hundred thousand Central Americans (remember the Contras?!?) on his hands back in the the good old (Reagan) days.

Despite all this: America’s military threats, bellicose speechifying, brutal sanctions, and Cold War-style conflict-framing, the incumbent Maduro seems firmly in control. This isn’t to say that Venezuelans don’t have genuine grievances with the Maduro government (they do), but for now at least, it appears the military is staying loyal to the president, Russia/China are filling in the humanitarian aid gaps, and Uncle Sam is about to chalk up another loss on the world scene. Ultimately, whatever the outcome, the crisis will only end with a Venezuelan solution.

America’s impotence would almost be sad to watch, if, and only if, it wasn’t all so tragic for the Venezuelan people.

So Trump and his recycled neocons will continue to rant and rave and threaten Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba, and so on and so forth. America will still flex its aging, sagging muscles – a reflexive habit at this point.

Only now it’ll seem sad. Because no one is paying attention anymore.

The opposite of love is isn’t hate – it’s indifference.

*  *  *

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.comHe served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

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