Tuesday, May 29, 2012


I’ve been watching Russia’s English language channel RT on independent American television for the past month or so, wondering what motivates Moscow in its choice of stories. RT, France 24 and Al-Jazeera cumulatively provide a much more complete picture of what is going on in the world than any combination of American channels and the BBC. Like their British and American counterparts, these channels are in competition, with France 24 being more pro-European than the BBC, and Al-Jazeera striving to retain its Third World credentials while being accepted by Washington. But RT is the only one to systematically draw attention to politically significant stories that the American press ignores and to provide a regular platform for activists such as Thom Hartmann and Chris Hedges, who are absent from the mainstream American media.

The Russian government apparently believes it is more important for Americans to be well informed than Russians, since what the U.S. government does impacts the entire world, affecting decisions the Russian government has to make. Nothing better illustrates this situation than the American plan to install missiles in Europe, a replay of its nineteen-eighties installation of Pershing missiles in West Germany to counter the Soviet Union’s SS20s. During the Cold War, which began in earnest with the 1948 Soviet blockade of Berlin, to which the U.S. responded by airlifting in supplies, Europe was divided into an Eastern and a Western bloc, the arms race justified by the ‘threat’ that the Soviet Union would overrun its Western half. American missiles were removed in 1987, when Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Two years later the Berlin Wall fell and the countries of Eastern Europe regained their independence. Four years later, under Boris Yeltsin, the Soviet Union was dissolved.

Now, more than twenty years later, the American government wants to install missiles in Europe to deter Iran from building a nuclear weapons capability, while Iran defends its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium like every other country for medical and energy uses. The proposed Missile Defense System includes Aegis ships equipped with interceptor batteries, a command-and-control base in Ramstein, Germany, and a radar in Turkey. Washington initially told its NATO partners that Russia would participate in the project, but Russia has consistently refused to do so until Washington provides binding assurances that it is not aimed at them. Hence, despite official ‘agreement’ at the Chicago NATO summit, Europe remains a reluctant partner. In a recent International Herald Tribune article (www.nytimes.com/2012/05/18/opinion/yes-to-missile-defense-with-russia.html), even Germany agreed with the Russians that the U.S. could put nukes on its interceptors.

This standoff alone would justify Russian efforts to reach an American audience with anti-war messages.  But it is not the whole story.  The four-year long global financial crisis has been a wellspring for Nazi movements, never far from the surface in Europe (see recent developments in Greece and France), but also in Russia, Ukraine, and the Baltic countries. Americans who fought the Nazis in the Second World War are now in their late eighties, and their children’s memories only go as far back as Vietnam. Very differently, the ‘Great Patriotic War’ is still taught to every Russian child, and Russia continues to celebrate its victory over Nazi Germany with a full-fledged military parade. Not surprisingly, neo-Nazi movements and other signs of creeping fascism are of greater significance to Russians than to Americans.

I began writing about creeping fascism in the United States in 2009, and  I was not crying wolf. By now the United States is widely seen in decline, but that may well be irrelevant if, as is increasingly being suggested, power is rapidly shifting to world corporations. If Mitt Romney becomes the next president, he promises to lower the unemployment rate to 6% by making the Bush tax cuts permanent, cutting wages, encouraging more foreign workers to leave and more American workers to retire early, while cutting Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.  One doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to recognize that if followed globally, these steps would make the world a better place for the 1% while shrinking the 99%, increasingly seen as expendable.

America’s air of decline offers opportunities for deniers to access the limelight, but due to a lack of international literacy, few speculate on what the new power alignment might be. Discussions tend to revolve the question of whether China will fail to become the next superpower due to the impact on an ageing population of its one-child policy. Russia is rarely mentioned, but if RT is any guide, Putin is aiming for a Russia/China duopoly.

More likely, I think, is a multi-polar world run by Brazil on the Southern American hemisphere, Russia on the ‘European’ peninsula, India on the subcontinent and China in the Pacific. Unlike Washington, the four original BRIC countries, which account for over 40% of the world population, agree that dealing with the global challenge of development and climate will require cooperative rather than confrontational behavior. However different each individual country’s past, this fundamental socialist principle has survived their respective transitions to market economies. And as illustrated by the message that runs through all of RT’s programming, better informing Americans about their government and the world at large is an indispensable first step. When China and India launch their respective English language television news services, their messages, though embodied in different cultural contexts, are likely to be the same.



Sunday, May 20, 2012

Chess in the Gulf

The Gulf Emirates, or Gulf States, are a string of tiny, but very wealthy countries bordering Saudi Arabia along the Persian Gulf.  Among them, Bahrain is home to the American Sixth fleet, while Qatar is home to the U.S. Central Command’s Forward Headquarters and the Combined Air Operations Center.

The situation in both these countries is getting short shrift in the U.S. media for several reasons, the most important of which is their significance.

While the G8 mulls over what to do about a defiant Greece, Saudi Arabia proposes a merger to the Bahraini monarchy, and a French website yesterday reported that Kuwait had uncovered plans for a coup d’etat hatched by Qatar.  All during the months long unrest in Bahrain we’ve been told that Washington does not want to get involved in its internal affairs.

Why should we get involved when we can get another local client state to do the dirty work?  Saudi Arabia is beginning to look more and more like Israel - a tale waging our dog in exchange for big bones.

The American press fails to emphasize the crucial difference between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims: the first invariably represent the 1%, while the second try to defend the 99% - usually without success - which is what motivated the Iranian revolution.

The replacement of a Sunni Shah by a Shi’a theocracy resulted in Iran being ostracized by its Gulf neighbors.  These states are ruled by Sunnis, and have relatively small Shi’a minorities, except for Bahrain, whose native population is about 70% Shi’a.  In 1957, Iran claimed that Bahrain constituted an Iranian province.  The matter was laid to rest in 1970 by a Bahraini referendum in favor of independence.

But as preparations move ahead for possible war between the West and Iran, Saudi Arabia’s move to keep Bahrain resolutely in the Sunni camp, via union with its weak rulers, comes as no surprise. At a time of high anti-Iranian sentiment, the long-term objective of securing all of Middle Eastern oil for the West implies keeping the Middle East firmly in the hands of Sunni rulers.

And if you're wondering why Qatar may have tried to oust the rulers of Kuwait, it's still only a rumor. Remember Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, setting off the first Gulf War.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Charlemagne Redux?

Back in the 9th century, the Empire of Charles the Great, known as Charlemagne, included France, Northern Spain, most of Italy, Germany, and parts of modern day Yugoslavia and Hungary.  In the course of his forty-seven year reign, the French-born leader who became Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, implemented sweeping economic, educational, military and administrative reforms, which prefigure twentieth century efforts to achieve a united Europe. The division of his empire among his heir’s children returned Europe to a microcosm of relatively small, warring states.

Eight hundred years after Charlemagne’s death, the Ottoman Turks took over the eastern half of Europe, creating a multinational, multilingual empire that stretched from the southern borders of today’s Germany to the outskirts of Vienna, from modern Slovakia and Greece in the south to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in the north; from Algeria in the west to Azerbaijan and modern-day Yemen and Eritrea in the east.

The countries of Central and Eastern Europe did not retrieve their independence until 1923, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and then it was short-lived. Soviet domination after the Second World War brought modernity to an area that five hundred years of Ottoman rule had kept in a near-feudal state. After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the countries of Eastern Europe were gradually welcomed into the European Union after meeting stringent political and economic criteria.

The twenty-seven member European Union, officialized by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1993, is the culmination of decades of incremental steps to tame the nationalism of Europe’s individual states which had been the cause of so many wars.  In 2002, the union introduced a common currency, the Euro in twelve of its member states.  Today the Euro is used in seventeen countries and is the second largest reserve currency after the dollar.  But the world financial crisis of 2008 hit the countries of southern Europe with a vengeance, and now there is a very real possibility that Greece will have to abandon the common currency, causing turmoil in the rest of the Euro zone, with knock-on consequences worldwide.

There is more than one irony in this tale. The main incentive to 20th century European integration was the desire, especially on the part of France, to prevent Germany from ever attacking its neighbors again.  Subsuming Germany within a larger economic community has worked admirably until now.  But no one considered what would happen when Germany-as-economic-powerhouse would insist on dictating conditions to less disciplined neighbors.

The administrative center of the European Union is Brussels, not far from where Charlemagne is thought to have been born, but Frankfurt is its economic capital. And although France has a new European champion in Francois Hollande, when Germany calls the shots, it inevitably revives memories of its military occupation.  Regrettably, one has to wonder whether Charlemagne’s dream can no more become a permanent reality now than it could 1200 years ago.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Many Tahrir's?

At the risk of repeating myself, I want to put yesterday’s post in a wider context:

As spring makes demonstrating less uncomfortable, Europeans are taking to the streets by the tens of thousands to protest the austerity measures their leaders have come up with to combat the crisis induced by the 2008 financial debacle.

In a tribute to the movement that began more than a year ago in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and and is still on-going, yesterday, tens of thousands, fed up with 25% unemployment, gathered in Madrid’s main square, Puerta del Sol and and in 80 other cities across Spain.

In London, hundreds of protesters gathered outside St Paul's Cathedral, where an Occupy protest camp was removed in February, and marched peacefully through the financial district.

Smaller protests have taken place in the Portuguese capital Lisbon and in Germany's financial centre, Frankfurt.  German demonstrations come as the 13.2 million people eligible to vote for the state legislature in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous and industrialized state, elect a new regional government.  Not all Germans agree with Chancellor Merkel's austerity measures, which have included greater freedom to fire workers, putting about one fourth in temp positions.

1,000 marchers converged on Tel Aviv to protest the cost of living, with marches also reported in other Israeli cities. Prime Minister Netanyahu has just consolidated his power by bringing the main opposition party Kadima on board, none too soon to undertake domestic reforms. Fareed Zakaria noted today that he can no longer invoke the fragility of his support to delay making peace with the Palestinians, while Iran’s Ahmedinejad noted that this failure represents a greater danger to Israel than any military attack.

The common thread in all these situations is epitomized by the oft heard criticism of the international Occupy Movement of failing to offer concrete proposals for change. But at this point popular pressure, combined with brutal government crackdowns, may make the emphasis on reform too little, too late.

If you think this is an exaggeration, Iraq Veterans Against the War are circulating an on-line petition asking the commander of the Illinois National Guard to refrain from sending in the National guard when they gather for the NATO Summit, where they will as I wrote yesterday:

“.....ceremoniously return our NATO service medals to denounce the disastrous 11-year war in Afghanistan.

The Illinois National Guard Deputy Director of Domestic Operations recently stated publicly that he stands ready to deploy National Guard troops on peaceful NATO protesters.

Send an email to Major General L. Enyart, head of the Illinois National Guard, and urge him not to activate troops against fellow veterans.

A few minutes after I signed the petition and hit ‘send’ I received the following email:

‘Symantec Mail Security detected prohibited content in a message sent from your address. (SYM:13657982411663453303).'  

It was from the IL-ExchangeService@ng.army.mil, Recipient, MG Enyart.

When I went to look for the Vets’ email in my inbox, it had been remotely moved to the trash.

While European protesters have inherited a long tradition of solidarity, the heritage of American activists emphasizes individualism. As a result, the latter campaigned for changes to SOPA in the name of the free sharing of artistic works. It was, it seems, less motivated to prevent the Patriot Act from assimilating citizen organizing through “wire, oral and electronic communications’ to terrorism, which brings us back to the beginning of this post.





Saturday, May 12, 2012

U.S. vs. Us

Today I received the following email from Iraq Veterans Against War .

“Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will return our medals in protest of the NATO Summit May 20 in Chicago. Help us make sure that the Illinois National Guard is not deployed against us.

Iraq Veterans Against the War and our Afghanistan Veterans Against the War Committee will lead a unity march with the Coalition Against NATO/G8 War and Poverty Agenda. At the end of the march, we will ceremoniously return our NATO service medals to denounce the disastrous 11-year war in Afghanistan.

The Illinois National Guard Deputy Director of Domestic Operations recently stated publicly that he stands ready to deploy National Guard troops on peaceful NATO protesters.

Send an email to Major General L. Enyart, head of the Illinois National Guard, and urge him not to activate troops against fellow veterans.

This is going to be a peaceful demonstration to show that U.S. veterans and the American people say no more endless wars that destroy hundreds of thousands of lives, strip the humanity of all involved, and drain trillions of dollars from our communities that could be used for schools, health clinics, housing, and to create jobs.

But we are concerned that the National Guard may be used against us and other marchers. Help ensure that no service member is mobilized against fellow veterans, the people of Chicago, and peaceful people demonstrating against the failed policies of NATO's generals.

Respectfully urge him him to refuse to activate Illinois National Guard members against those exercising their first amendment right to peacefully demonstrate against NATO's war in Afghanistan.

For more information about the NATO Summit protest, read our full Call to Action and view News clip about the upcoming action.

In Solidarity,

IVAW NATO Action Team

Almost as soon as I clicked ‘send’, the following email appeared in my inbox.

Symantec Mail Security detected prohibited content in a message sent from your address (SYM:13657982411663453303)

Subject of the message: Stand with the people of Chicago and your fellow veterans.

Recipient of the message: "william.enyart@us.army.mil" <william.enyart@us.army.mil>”

Wanting to reopen the message from IVAW, I saw that it had disappeared from my inbox.  It had been remotely moved to the trash.



Monday, May 7, 2012

Hollande's Socialist Predecessor

Americans know little about French political life, and many readers may be to young to have been aware of the 1981 French Presidential election which brought the socialists to power for the first time since the the late nineteen fifties.

Francois Mitterrand’s election was greeted with the same euphoria as Francois Hollande’s, and the bouquet of red roses presented to Hollande upon his victory was a clear reference to the symbol of the Socialist Party under Mitterrand.

Although Mitterrand served two seven year terms, during which many social programs were enacted, his presidency is remembered as the caviar left.

If Francois Hollande is to garner a different reputation, he will have to continue as Mr. Normal, his chosen nickname. That shouldn't be too difficult: until now he has zipped around Paris in a three-wheeled scooter, and is reported to never have worn smart suits, even when he was a graduate student at the posh National School of Administration.

Hollande’s three degrees - administration, politics, economy - having made him a policy wonk, they should serve him well as he launches his campaign to bring Europe back from the brink, opposing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s insistence on austerity.

Francois Mitterrand was elected at the end of the growth period known as the Thirty Glorious Years. For sure, life for his socialist successor will not be a bed of roses.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

France's New President is a Socialist Insider

Francois Hollande who tonight won the French presidency seventeen years after the end of the Mitterrand presidency, has been a party insider for his entire career.  A graduate of three major post-graduate schools - political, business and administration - he has never held high elected office, but is in the words of the French English language channel a household word in France.

The fact that Hollande had four children with another French Socialist leader, Segolene Royale without marrying her, shows that at least on a personal level, he lives his convictions.  He is expected to continue his current relationship while inhabiting the Elysee Palace, something the American right will surely seize upon.

Astonishingly, the well-known Washington Post columnist and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for international commentaries confessed tonight that he has no idea who Francois Hollande really is.  For someone who spent considerable time in France, this is either shocking - or an illustration of American indifference to socialist leaders.

For the rest of the world, the most significant thing about Hollande’s election is his determination to re-roll back the center-right rollback of Francois Mitterrand’s social measures, and to work on better integration of France's Muslim population. Significantly,  the flags of France's ex-North African colonies, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, can be seen floatingat the post-election rally in Place de la Bastille, where one could hear the typical throaty celebratory cry.

With Europe in full-blown economic crisis, Hollande will confront German Chancellor Angela Merkel on her determination to impose more austerity measures than pro-growth policies.  Already, on France 24, pundits are criticizing his agenda, especially those associated with British or American institutions.

One French commentator noted that he and President Obama have similar social agendas, which isn’t doing the American President any favors.

What happens in the coming months in a country where the extreme right-wing National Front received 18% of the vote in the first round of this election should be of particular interest to the American Occupy Movement: Having finally succeeded in bringing American labor to celebrate May 1st as the internationally recognized workers’ holiday, its next task will be to make the French battle to reinstate the left’s social policies an example to its followers.


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

France's Socialist Election Agenda

The world is alive with revolts, regime change and revolutions - but also presidential elections.  Russia just had one, Egypt is trying to organize one, France will vote in a runoff this Sunday, May 6.  As America finally joins the rest of the world in celebrating the workers’ holiday on May 1st, and the Occupy movement picks up steam again, the French presidential election in which a socialist is tipped to win provides a unique occasion for voters to become aware of the benefits they can only aspire to, but which have been available to the French and other Europeans since the end of World War II.

Before reviewing Hollande's’ platform, readers need to know that there are twelve political parties represented in the French Parliament:


The existence of so many parties is considered a disadvantage. In the case of France has led to a sometimes dizzying succession of Prime Ministers, and half a dozen constitutions since the Revolution of 1789.  But it can be argued that at any given moment, the political landscape is more in synch with society than one which is hemmed in by a 200 year old constitution that has been amended only 27 times.


This year, the French Socialist Party and the Radical Party of the Left jointly held the first ever open primary, in which participants were required donate at least one Euro and sign a pledge to the values of the Left to be eligible. The audacity of commitment!

Before we look at Francois Hollande’s platform, let me mention a few of the benefits that I have been familiar with living in France for a total of 28 years, beginning in 1947 and ending in 1999, (with extended periods in several other countries):

1) Near free health care: a modest co-payment for doctors’ visits, hospital, rehab (including medical massages.  Reasonable co-pays for dental and eye care.

In 1981, I had emergency surgery.  A social workers visited me in hospital to inquire whether my two teen-age children needed to be taken care of, and offered me a three week stay in a convalescent facility at no charge.

2) Workplace benefits: Did you ever wonder how there can be so many restaurants in France? This is partly thanks to the fact that companies which do not have a cafeteria must provide restaurant vouchers so that employees can eat out at low cost.  The arrangement not only makes for a pleasant break in the daily routine, but keeps restaurants in business.

3) Family benefits: Regardless of income, all French families with school-age children receive a monthly benefit, depending on the number of children and their ages. This was instituted after the Second World War in order to boost the birthrate. The lack of an income ceiling has been the subject of fierce debate, but France’s upper classes  are determined to hang on to this benefit, which allows them to increase the percentage of the population having the ‘right’ ideas.) Families receive an extra benefit before the start of the fall term to help with supplies.  Francois Hollande promises to raise this amount by 25%.

Now to some of the highlights of the Socialist candidate’s platform:


With respect to health insurance, Hollande would again make hospitals public service institutions, reversing their assimilation to the private sector under Sarkozy. Hollande also intends to institute greater access to medical care in the provinces, with the goal of making travel to the nearest facility take no more than half an hour. Hollande promises to limit the amount doctors can charge for their services when operating outside the standard fee system, and to encourage lower prescription prices.  He will also propose that terminally ill patients suffering physical or psychological pain that cannot be alleviated be allowed to die with dignity. These are good examples of the way alternations in power between left and right affect everyday life.

The Socialist candidate also promises to create a public investment bank, and a special savings account whose assets would be used to encourage small business.

In another move that would be unheard of in the United States, Hollande promises not to privatize the electric company, trains, or post office, and to call for a European directive to protect the public sector; he promises to protect small farmers vis a vis industrial food distribution channels, and to promote the modernization of the fishing industry.

France has a large pubic sector, and Hollande intends to protect it, reversing Sarkozy’s policy of not replacing every other retiree.

In terms of income and taxes, French revenues above 150 000 Euros (about 175,000 Dollars) will be taxed at 45%. Those who have accumulated 42 years of social security taxes will again be able to retire at 60, instead of 62, as under Sarkozy.

Hollande will also propose that companies limit remuneration disparities to 1-20. He promises to combat racial profiling, and to hire 60,000 people in the education sector, for which he proposes many reforms.

If they win the election, the socialists will reinstate rent control, and promote construction of low income housing, making state-owned land available to local communities.

With respect to finance, they will forbid banks to trade with customer money and create a tax on financial transactions.  (This latter, known as the Toobin Tax, has been in discussion in France since the early nineteen eighties...) Hollande also proposes to review the value of the Euro vis a vis the dollar and the Yuan, and calls for a new international monetary policy.

The socialist presidential candidate wants to reduce French nuclear energy from 75% to 50% by 2025 and promote renewable energy solutions, as well as instituting progressive rates for electric gas and water consumption so that basic needs can be met without bankrupting low income families.

This is a typical social democratic platform, not unlike those of socialist candidates in other European countries, which come in way ahead of the United States on quality of life indices.

It’s true that most people work for the state for about half a year (as a self-employed translator I calculated that my earnings went to the state until about July 10th).  And while it is not a good idea to get behind in one’s payments, when all is said and done, most French working people feel that the security they get for their taxes is well worth the burden. That security includes the knowledge that even when the 1% are in power, they can only nibble away at long accepted benefits for the many.