Thursday, 12 April 2018

TRUMP, SYRIA and RUSSIA


1.   Trump Syrian Foreign Policy and its Consequences

The off-the-cuff remarks that Trump usually makes are based partly on his own instincts, partly on intelligence briefings, and partly on the advice and input he receives from multiple sources, in and outside of government. For several years, he has been on record in opposing “regime change” and embracing a rather curious combination of stronger military build up and neo-isolationism that goes hand-in-hand with his approach to international trade and opposition to multilateral commercial relations. Isolationism of course, does not preclude US unilateral action or invoking multilateralism when the US sees it to its advantage. His own problems with the investigation by Robert Mueller, mounting pressures from the strong bipartisan support for military interventionism both at home and from NATO and some Middle East countries, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia constantly forces Trump to consider military strikes as a way of appeasing disparate ideological, political, and of course defense industry groups. Trump is well aware of defense operation costs to the US budget, as he has repeatedly stated. However, he is hardly an expert on the multi-dimensional aspects and consequences of US military action, and the people with whom he surrounds himself are not interested in long-term consequences, only short-term political and strategic advantage. The larger question for the US political and defense establishment with all the corporate-funded thinks tanks advising them is what kind of relationship do they want with Russia and what limits are they willing to place on US military solutions, just as they expect the same of Russia. Unfortunately, these questions give way to immediate expediency for Trump but also to those in his cabinet and those in the State Department and Pentagon. At the same time, the inter-agency rivalry with the CIA carrying out its own operations simply adds another complication into the mix, especially given Trump’s distaste for the CIA as an agency.
 
2. Is the US Concerned about Syria's Use of Chemical Weapons?
 
People who are honest, above all with themselves if not with the public, will readily admit that empirical evidence must be furnished by an independent, UN-led mission to ascertain who has been using chemical weapons. Without independent confirmation to prove incontrovertibly that indeed Syria is responsible for using such weapons, we are left with conspiracy theories, speculation, propaganda and inability to work for a constructive foundation for US-Russia relations and a constructive political resolution to the Syrian civil war. If indeed the goal of the US is to bypass such a constructive relationship and continue with destabilization policies, then the present course is politically acceptable. However, it has multiple consequences for all parties concerned, including the US that in the end will be left with a larger foreign debt and smaller regional influence in the Middle East. For its part, Russia wants to retain Syria as a satellite to counterbalance the US-Saudi-Israeli influence. The problem for the US is that China leans more heavily toward the Russian position than the US. Beijing does not want US-NATO monopoly in the Middle East any more than Russia or Iran. If indeed the US does bomb Syrian targets, as it may in order to save face if nothing else, the goal will be a symbolic gesture to appease militarist adventurists in the US, placate multilateral militarists in the Western Alliance and the Middle East, and for Trump to receive a much-needed applause from both Republicans and Democrats alike and the mainstream media merely for demonstrating resolve and leadership because militarism is easily equated with leadership whereas diplomacy is seen as compromise. People who analyze foreign policy in order to promote an ideology or as an advertisement for the defense industry want military adventurism. Those interested in crisis-resolution know that there is no military solution for the Syrian crisis which is complex owing to considerable foreign intervention as well as a reflection of disparate divisions within Syria that range from religious and tribal to socioeconomic and political. There is an opportunity for a solution, but the only consideration for the US political, defense and business establishment is what influence will the US have once the negotiations are finished.

3.   Russia has stated that it would shoot down US missiles fired over Syria, can this lead to a possible US-Russia confrontation? 

 Russia has spent several billions in the past seven years trying to act as a counterweight to the US and to retain the old Soviet-style influence with Syria, while also helping to defeat ISIS. It achieved the goal, but only with the help of Iran and late-in-the-game Turkish participation after Erdogan's disagreement with Saudi Arabia. The uncomfortable Moscow-Tehran-Ankara alliance to keep Syria out of US-NATO-Saudi influence could be at risk if an all-out military confrontation erupts between US and Russia even at the regional and very limited level. I believe that the Kremlin has to save face as much as Trump. However, Putin will think long and hard about how to avoid confrontation and what limits he is willing to put on the table as negotiating leverage, even if he has to return fire at a limited scope. Russia actually has a burden in Syria for it is not an easy thing carrying a satellite as the US knows – just ask the people who keep track of the costs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite those itching for war in the media, Pentagon, intelligence agencies, business circles and think tanks, the US public has no appetite for a war or destabilization that drive markets down. The problem is finding a mutually-agreed route out the crisis, and this is an enigma because there are many players and they disagree sharply. US-Russian confrontation is more frightening to Americans than a confrontation with North Korea. 

4.   US allies such as the UK, Australia and France have stated that they will consider a missile strike on Syria, what can we expect from US Western allies?

 The Syrian crisis is where the EU can play a moderating role and actually mitigate it by demanding a political solution that does not also put at risk EU-Iranian relations. Surprisingly Germany, instead of France or the UK that present themselves as more progressive, could play that role partly because Germany has more to lose but also because Berlin sees its EU economic hegemony threatened by military adventures. The US could actually use the disagreements among NATO members as cover for military restraint, even if that means dropping a few bombs as show of strength and demonstration of superpower status. The nature of the highly integrated world economy, with China pulling so many strings from behind the scenes will help to avert a crisis. This does not mean that things cannot get out of control as they did with the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the world is more integrated today in it was sixty years ago. The Western Alliance is somewhat fractured not only because of Trump’s criticism of it and his tendency to opt for unilateral diplomacy, but also because China wields so much economic power as the world’s number one economic power in PPP terms, while the US remains number one in nominal GDP. The gap between rising US military power and declining economic power, the latter which is filled by China, forces re-alignment in practice although in theory the Western Alliance remains solid. Countries economically dependent on China while military dependent on the US take into account their broader interests, considering that economic power is in itself considerable leverage on diplomacy. Because of this variable, US military power has limitations as it is not backed by economic power as it was under Truman and Eisenhower.
 
5.   Do you think it’s still likely that the US troops will withdraw from Syria in the short-term?

The US will not be withdrawing from Syria, no matter what Trump says. Of course, there could be some quid-pro-quo. Obama promised withdrawing from Afghanistan as well, but the US is still there in a highly dubious mission as a symbol of super-power status and little else. The CIA proxy war with Saudi Arabia providing financing to Syrian rebels, and Iran as a main target to be weakened as far as the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia are concerned, make it necessary for the US to remain in Syria in some fashion. If one steps back from this heated crisis and examines it from a dispassionate perspective, it may actually best serve the interests of the Syrian people to have some US-NATO influence in Syria for the intermediate term, and Putin may actually negotiate such a role. Not that Syria can become the modern model of Tito's Yugoslavia, but given the circumstances, negotiating some role for the West at least to buy time and give the people of Syria breathing room for reconstruction and development is not a bad solution that may suit all sides. Longer-term, who knows what happens in Syria? Just take a look at all the North African countries that underwent uprisings and Western interventions ostensibly to improve the lives of the people? Are the people of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, or Algeria better off today than they were before the uprisings?  The tragedy is one suffered by the people of Syria who are victims, while foreign powers position themselves to influence the regional balance of power.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

AMERICA’S CALIGULA CULTURE

The election of Donald Trump prompted a number of people, including historians, to make comparisons of Trump’s cult of personality with various historical figures from Benito Mussolini to Roman Emperor Caligula (37-41 A.D.) While such comparison’s make for entertaining reading, they place all emphasis on the individual rather than the system that permitted the individual to rise to power. Hardly an alien from outer space or an immigrant from a distant land, Trump is a product of late 20th century American culture immersed in contradictions that manifest themselves in all domains from the ideological and political arena to the multifaceted socio-cultural landscape that make up the layers of society. Rooted in individualism, the value system makes it easy for the masses to reject the concept of the system creating the environment for a Caligula culture while focusing on Caligula as the culprit for all that ails society, while preserving the system. Refraining from castigating the Caligula culture and promoting political leadership to obfuscate it permits the elites to preserve a system that serves their interests without the stigma of a Caligula in charge diluting a much-needed popular legitimacy. 

The persistence of demonizing the individual leader and obsessing with the cult of personality is itself not only a distraction from the reality of the structural order that propelled Trump to power, but in fact a reactionary response to the anachronistic political, social, and cultural milieu slowly rotting away and permitting the worst among society’s elites to undermine society and hastening the downward mobility of the working class. In this respect, there is no comparison with Caligula because the nascent Roman Empire easily withstood Caligula and thrived for another two centuries before the long road to decline following the death of Marcus Aurelius (180 A.D.), the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors’. The US is already in a ‘post-Marcus Aurelius empire phase’ of a long decline and the Caligula culture is both symptomatic of that reality and a precursor of worse things to come.

The signs are everywhere, most notably in a declining parasitic economy based on ‘financialization’ (transfer income from the real economy to speculative markets) and the strengthening of a militarized police state structure financed by incurring larger public debt. In no small measure, the US as the world’s second largest economy to China’s in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) and declining rapidly under neoliberal policies that massively concentrate capital in the top one percent has precipitated the Caligula culture of chaos and authoritarian populism. Unwilling to undergo systemic change to slow down the inevitable decline, the financial elites whose interests the political class serves is caught between even greater support for a Caligula culture or superficial attempts to conceal it as a stigma that erodes legitimacy to govern under an authoritarian model. https://scholarworks.umass.edu/peri_workingpapers/135/;https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-10-18/who-has-the-world-s-no-1-economy-not-the-u-s

It is hardly a secret that Trump openly embracing authoritarianism shocks many people not only among the masses deluding themselves about equality and democracy, but especially the elites needing a facade of a ‘democracy’ to operate over a capitalist world order with a cloak of legitimacy. Capitalists and their apologists need a neat and convincing cover of popular legitimacy. By exposing the ugly reality of authoritarianism serving the wealthy while treating the rest of the population with disdain as public policy proves, policy that benefit the elites as a class regardless of whether they embrace or castigate the Caligula culture, Trump has suddenly lifted the cloak of democracy. Beneath the very thin surface of a liberal democracy presenting itself as theoretically egalitarian and just for all people there was always a Caligula culture but without a Caligula like Trump to boldly embrace it while demonstrating contempt for democratic institutions serving as the thin veil of popular legitimacy. Just as many among the Roman masses loved that Caligula attacked the Senate and the patrician class while the Roman system served their interests, similarly a segment of the American masses love that Trump attacks the liberal elites despite the fact that his policies serve the same establishment elite.

Years before Trump emerged in the political arena too busy with real estate and reality TV, Cintra Wilson’s satirical book Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny captured the spirit of America’s Caligula culture belittling the idea that America’s leaders not only embrace tyranny at home and abroad, but they boast about it as a badge of honor for society. Not only is America’s Caligula culture apologetic about exploiting its own masses, invading countries around the world, it makes the victims feel that they deserve such treatment and it is their fault they have fallen victims to the Caligula culture. ‘Hyper-legality’, a form of authoritarianism as the executive rules by decree (executive order in the US), along with the ascendancy of the corporate welfare state and simultaneous decline of the social welfare state substituting the latter with liberal identity politics that further breaks class solidarity, the American hegemonic culture has so indoctrinated the popular culture of the broader masses that they believe only in alternatives within the same Caligula culture of lesser evils.

Even consent theory based on John Locke’s classical philosophy of Liberalism has no place in the Caligula culture of neoliberalism that is more comfortable with authoritarianism as a regime regimenting the social order. The crisis of America’s decline as a world power against the rise of China has diluted if not obviated policy-formation and consent-theory, as we knew it under Pax Americana throughout the Cold War and produced the Caligula culture, itself a distraction from the underlying causes of systemic crisis. Given that the political and financial elites have always manufactured consent, consent-theory is their domain to define and implement to preserve and advance their privileged position. Crises, however, bring out in otherwise docile-conformist citizens tendencies that range from reactionary to revolutionary, from cynicism to “apocalyptic nihilism,” which is what most people act on and understand by the term (as opposed to anarchist or existential). Against this systemic backdrop, the Caligula culture has a face to go with it, namely Trump eager to build a cult of personality and unashamedly celebrate America’s Caligula culture instead of hiding behind a liberal façade like his predecessors. (Michael Burawoy, Manufacturing Consent, 1979; Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, Manufacturing Consent, 2002)

Besides resorting to more austere laws to “contain” dissidence as it arises amid greater socioeconomic problems in a polarized society, the state along with the media, think tanks, and those with access and influence to public opinion, the Caligula culture promotes the pluralist-identity politics option that ostensibly presents itself as ‘the democratic alternative’; as proof that citizens have a choice of ruling styles and rulers. Meanwhile, public policy remains essentially in the service of the same elites responsible for the rise of the Caligula culture and values. It shocks some people to discover that Caligula culture places greater value in garbage as a marketable commodity more than in people, social justice, the environment and life if it interferes with capital accumulation. Beguiling rationalizations aside, the vacuous rhetoric about moral principles of “equality of opportunity” and meritocracy in theory, the record shows that the Caligula culture is just as hostile toward humanity today as it was during Caligula’s reign. 

The success of modern America’s elites rests with the brilliant manipulation of public opinion to the degree that a segment of the population has embraced the Caligula culture as the norm, not just conservatives and religious fundamentalists, but liberals as well who want to preserve the system as long s it is well-concealed behind a nicely-wrapped toga of institutional pluralism that translates into co-optation of diverse elements into the ranks of the elites. The contradictions between the liberal illusion’s promise and what it fails to deliver is precisely why America’s Caligula culture has become sufficiently prominent to elect its rightful Caligula in Trump.  

A product of the early Cold War, Daniel Boorstin’s A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961) argued that: “America was living in an ‘age of contrivance,’ in which illusions and fabrications had become a dominant force in society. Public life is filled with ‘pseudo-events’–staged and scripted events that were a kind of counterfeit version of actual happenings.” Seven decades later in the age of “FAKE NEWS” and the substitution of news broadcasts with propaganda, the Caligula culture has reduced relativism to the level of confusing people so they are led to believe policies detrimental to their interests are actually ‘good’ for them because they are good for the ‘national interest’ as the elites define it for the rest of society. 

As the world’s center of the market economy that has created a Caligula culture, the US created a “hyperreality” (the world of the absolute fake) as Umberto Eco labeled it. As traits of success, hollowness and superficiality over substance are not only confided to the domain of politics whether it is with right-wing Tea Party Republican of Sarah Palin that laid the groundwork for Caligula-Trump, French (Gucci) Socialists embracing neoliberal policies that strengthen Marine Le Pen’s neo-Fascist National Front, or British Labour parading reformers while hardly distinguishable from their Tory counterparts when it comes to public policy. To maintain the Caligula culture, society needs the entire superstructure supporting it and it has it. From educational institutions that have assumed the business management model to government and non-profit organizations, hollowness and superficiality have deep historical roots that reflect societal values and institutional structures that create and replicate such personality archetypes destined to float to the top largely by the incredible lightness of being that make the Caligula culture possible. 

Considering the anti-intellectualism of the Caligula culture, the ceaseless attack on the rationalism of the Enlightenment as the intellectual foundation of the Western World, hollowness and superficiality over substance reflects the reality that the mass media inculcate into human beings, a reality that in turn people internalize to cope with life in all its phases from euphoric to tragic as they see no alternative to institutional conformity. Long before Donald Trump, America’s Caligula culture was the outgrowth of a decadent social order finding itself in myriads of contradictions rooted in its goal to amass greater wealth globally while operating within the nation-state confines where the issue of national sovereignty and popular sovereignty become intertwined. 

If the media molds the pubic with images so immersed in illusions about a façade of democracy and an alternative to the Caligula culture simply by removing Caligula and not the decadent system that made Caligula possible and brought him to power to serve the elites, what hope is there for systemic change in society intended to benefit all as democracy promises? Until the illusion of choice itself is confronted by the reality that peoples’ lives are not improving and that the system continues to operate in blatant inconsistencies and contradictions between what the corporate world and political elites are promising, on the one hand, and the empirical experiences of peoples’ lives, on the other, societal change rooted in humane values cannot take place.  (Andrew Bard Schmookler, The Illusion of Choice: How the Market Economy Shapes Our Destiny, 1992)