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From Bad to Worse: An Open Letter to Two Presidents

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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January 20th is unique … unique in that it has been inauguration day in the U.S. since 1937. Thus it is on this day the people have two presidents, one before noon and the incoming one after. This letter then is addressed to two presidents starting with President Barack H. Obama who ends his term of office.

I

Mr. President Obama: First, let me wish you a happy and productive retirement. Yet when you flew off to the balmy breezes of Palm Springs, you left your followers and party contemplating the stygian darkness of an alt-right future.

It also has to be said your time in office did not manifest significant changes of any kind. Sir, you commanded the ship of state with such a light hand that no one was really aware of where it was going, the crew fought among themselves to set a course, and it never really reached port.

The Democratic party is in disarray having failed to win either the House or the Senate. Worse still, the Republicans now dominate state governments with 33 governors and 32 legislatures in our 50 states, leaving open the possibility of redistricting to improve further their electoral chances. To call it a disaster is no exaggeration and your legacy, such as it is, is almost certain to be undone.

Except of course the wars … because wars develop a momentum of their own. You, of all people, know that well. U.S. troops are back in Iraq in the form of Special Forces, the latter deployed in a surprising 138 countries or more than two-thirds of this world. Troops are also in Afghanistan although substantially less than the numbers after your surge — a surge that did not defeat the Taliban.

It is indeed an irony that a Nobel Peace Prize recipient is the first president in our history to have kept this country at war for the full eight years of his two terms in office. He also initiated five more wars causing destruction, desolation and millions of refugees. It was therefore quite astonishing at your final news conference to hear from you, in the context of sanctions against Russia, that “big countries don’t go around and bully small countries.”

The unintended consequences of refugees have been a strain in European unity as countries like Greece bear the brunt of the influx, and some claim have led also to the Brexit win in the U.K. referendum.

Your economic claims of restoring the economy are more than a trifle overblown for the bureaucratic infrastructure responded as it would have done. Little initiative was shown to rein in the banks. In May 2012, J. P. Morgan reported losses of more than $2 billion due to speculative bets. How long before another real disaster ravages the world economy?

Thanks to I-feel-your-pain Bill Clinton and his doctored Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA), the actual purchasing power of Social Security Pensions is down 22 percent since 2000 (Harper’s, January 2017, p.15). He, of course, has felt our pain into a personal fortune, as has Hillary. Their charitable foundation was closed this week.

Nothing was done to restore an accurate COLA. Needless to say, one measure of a civilized society is how it treats its most vulnerable. The much touted economic gains of the past eight years have disproportionately favored the rich worsening income inequality. An Oxfam report released this week, (Oxfam, January 16, 2017), a day prior to the opening of the Davos World Economic Forum, makes the shocking claim that eight world billionaires, including six Americans, now own greater wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the world’s population. What a sad end to the presidency of a so-called progressive president.

II

Mr. President Trump: “But I, being poor, have only my dreams: I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” This quote from W. B. Yeats represents all too well the charge to you from your supporters and now also the rest of the populace.

One is reminded of a few more of Yeats’ enchanting words serving unintended notice to populists reaching for the flag and patriotism, ” … nor dazzled by the embroidery, nor lost in the confusion of its night dark folds.” Lest the pomp and exclusion begin to seep its insidious effects one might add …

Let me at the same time congratulate you on a concise speech making exactly the points you made during the campaign and promising phenomenal change. However, one unfortunate aspect of being president is that it is very different from running a business or being a senior officer in the military. In both you give an order and it is carried out. As Harry Truman consoled himself when General Eisenhower defeated his party’s candidate to win the presidency. Ike, he said as he laughed, is used to giving orders and seeing them carried out immediately. He will come to Washington, give an order, and (he laughed some more) … nothing will happen.

While I cannot agree with you on climate change and a host of other issues, we are on the same side can when you say, “trillions spent on wars while infrastructure rots …”. Good luck then with shutting down the wars and the work on infrastructure — both of which I have been calling for now for more years than I can remember. It is a well-nigh impossible task.

You want to spend a trillion on infrastructure — hardly enough for the ‘beautiful’ roads bridges and airports you talk about frequently. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, $3.62 trillion will be the likely bill to restore infrastructure. What the country really needs in addition is something akin to Eisenhower’s start on the Interstate Highway system. In the 21st century, the U.S. is far behind other large industrial economies in high-speed rail. A coast to coast line and three north-south branches down the central spine from Chicago and along the east and west coasts would transform the country economically. The cost: about $1.5 trillion. It adds up to a jaw-dropping $5.12 trillion entailing a national joint public/private effort. Jawboning Congress on something as colossal would require the support of the people, a prospect looking less and less likely.

A half-million women marched in Washington on Saturday, a half-million plus in Los Angeles according to the LAPD, another 250,000 in Chicago, 200,000 in New York, 100,000 in Boston, Atlanta, Denver, and numerous cities across the country. Will Hispanics, African-Americans and Muslim-Americans be next? At the Washington rally, Linda Sarsour, an award-winning Brooklyn-born Palestinian-American-Muslim addressed the crowd — much larger by photos and estimates than at the inauguration — putting this administration on notice for its attitude towards Muslims, black people, Mexicans, the undocumented, and the disabled.

And across the world women marched: vast numbers in cities across the U.K. and Canada, Paris, Tokyo, Oslo, Berlin, Barcelona, even Tiblisi, to name just a few. Estimates of the numbers worldwide are around 5 million. Yes, there have been marches before notably during the Vietnam war, but not in immediate response to a president’s inauguration. Worth remembering, the women have families.

Not too many cards to play for an isolated president. Soon, the people’s elected representatives will begin to anticipate the next election and keep their distance. In such a scenario, the U.S. president (a weak office in comparison with a parliamentary system) can do little that is permanent.

The last isolated president was Richard M. Nixon.

Dr. Arshad M. Khan is a former Professor based in the US. Educated at King's College London, OSU and The University of Chicago, he has a multidisciplinary background that has frequently informed his research. Thus he headed the analysis of an innovation survey of Norway, and his work on SMEs published in major journals has been widely cited. He has for several decades also written for the press: These articles and occasional comments have appeared in print media such as The Dallas Morning News, Dawn (Pakistan), The Fort Worth Star Telegram, The Monitor, The Wall Street Journal and others. On the internet, he has written for Antiwar.com, Asia Times, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, Eurasia Review and Modern Diplomacy among many. His work has been quoted in the U.S. Congress and published in its Congressional Record.

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Americas

Nancy Pelosi and her dual approaches

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In her remarks, the United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, asserted that Trump’s border wall campaign has nothing to do with border security. She said it’s one of the US President’s plans for energizing his conservative base, and in this way, he aims to distract the country from the various scandals dogging his administration.

“I don’t even know if the president wants the wall. I think he just wants a debate on the wall. And he’s having some difficulty with it,” Pelosi said during a press briefing at the Capitol.

“He keeps increasing the amount of money; increasing the amount of beds; increasing the obstacles to finding a solution — because I don’t think he really wants a solution,” Pelosi said. “I think he loves the distraction that this is from his other problems,” She added.

Pelosi, along with Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, noted that they disagree with Trump over building a physical border wall, which according to them, would be expensive and ineffective.

“Democrats and the president both want stronger border security. However, we sharply disagree with the president about the most effective way to do it … Most presidents have used Oval Office addresses for noble purposes. This president just used the backdrop of the Oval Office to manufacture a crisis, stoke fear, and divert attention from the turmoil in his administration,” said Schumer in answer to Trump’s recent remarks.

On the other hand, Pelosi is among those who are seriously standing against Trump’s impeachment. This dual approach taken by Pelosi towards the White House, and the fact that the House speaker and other Democrat leaders have argued against the serious consideration of Trump’s impeachment, may lead to conflicts inside the Democratic Party in the future.

“We have to wait and see what happens with the Mueller report. We shouldn’t be impeaching for a political reason, and we shouldn’t avoid impeachment for a political reason. So we’ll just have to see how it comes,” Said Pelosi.

However, Pelosi’s remarks were not unprecedented! When Pelosi was the House Minority Leader in the years between 2016 and 2018, she opposed the idea of impeaching Trump. Nancy Pelosi has made it clear that she has a conservative approach towards Trump. This is while with a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, Democrats can initiate impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump. The fact that some Democrat leaders have opposed Nancy Pelosi’s Minority leadership in the US House of Representatives is rooted in the same reason. In any case, it seems that Pelosi prefers scenarios such as “making a political deal with Trump” to “Confrontation with the President”. Nancy Pelosi argues that Democrats’ direct confrontation with Trump, and in particular the impeachment of the President of the United States, will lead to the anger of some American citizens, and the Democrats will be accused of posing a blow to the American political and social equations. However, it seems that some Democrats do not agree with Nancy Pelosi’s opinion! Politicians such as Bernie Sanders believe that Trump is not politically negotiable. They believe that any compromise reached between Democrats and Trump will hold a bad result for them in the US 2020 presidential election.

At any rate, there’s plenty at stake: Amid this crisis, Trump has come with the idea of declaring a national emergency at the border, a move that could free up wall funding without the Congress approval.

“If this doesn’t work out, probably I will do it. I would almost say definitely,” said Trump.

The US government shutdown, which is resulted from the disagreements over border wall funding, is still ongoing. Trump is demanding $5.7 billion for new wall construction; Pelosi and the Democrats have offered $1.3 billion for border security measures, but have opposed construction of any new physical barriers. In spite of this, Trump has previously claimed that he’s ready to hold the shutdown for months and even years! If Pelosi surrenders in the face of Trump’s demands, she would be regarded as a defeated figure inside the US political circles.

First published in our partner MNA

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Trump is mocking Biden

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News sources in the United States announced that Joe Biden, the U.S. former Vice-President (from 2009 to 2017), and a prominent figure in the Democratic Party will soon announce his run for the president in 2020. Biden has previously said that he’s “the most qualified person in the country” for being president.

Biden mentioned these words in a controversial interview which has attracted the attention of many American analysts. However, Biden’s final decision for participating in the presidential campaigns wasn’t clear. Eventually, a number of Biden’s followers, including his brother Frank Biden, announced his final decision to run for the general elections. Polls conducted in the United States indicate that Biden is currently more popular than other potential candidates of the Democratic Party in the upcoming elections.

Meanwhile, Biden is probably to face rivals such as Bernie Sanders, Senator from Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, and even Hillary Clinton. During the 2016 presidential competitions, Biden was also scheduled to attend the in-party election competitions, but he changed his mind due to his son’s death and Hillary Clinton’s insistence on attending the presidential campaign. Biden’s remarks, however, show that he’s greatly interested in defeating Trump in the 2020 election.

However, we shouldn’t forget that Biden can’t really count on the current polls conducted among Democrat supporters! We can all remember that during the 2008 presidential elections and inside the Democratic Party, Obama had far less chance of reaching the final round of the elections than those like Hillary Clinton. But his successful speeches in states like Iowa and South Carolina led to Clinton’s final defeat and Obama’s victory.

Hence, the success of Biden’s rival candidates in states like Iowa and New Hampshire (where American in-party elections begin with them) can completely change the equations, and that won’t be to Biden’s advantage.

Accordingly, Trump’s position on Biden’s participation in the presidential competitions are noteworthy. In a phone interview with Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro, Trump called Joe Biden “weak”. He also claimed that he’s not worried about a potential challenge from the former vice president in the 2020 presidential race; “You know, a lot of people say Biden’s doing OK, but he was always a 1-percenter. He was a 1 percent guy. He ran two or three times, he never got above 1%, and then, Obama came along and took him off the trash heap, and he became the vice president. He’s weak. So, we’ll see what happens with him.”

Trump’s words came on the same day that Biden had told some top Democrats that he was definitely running for president. “If I’m walking, I’m running,” said Biden.

Trump’s literature on Biden’s presence in the U.S. presidential race, reflects the U.S. President’s dissatisfaction and anger with the country’s former Vice President and his candidacy. Obviously, Trump preferred figures such as Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren to be his potential rivals in the next general elections.

However, Trump knows well that Biden can challenge his position at the White House by maneuvering again on issues such as public medical health insurance plan. On the other hand, Trump attempts to turn the game into an emotional rivalry through using ugly words against Biden, and this is very much like Trump’s populist personality and approach. However, Biden now has his main focus on Democrats’ inner-party race, and he doesn’t consider direct competition with Trump until he has won his victory in the competition.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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John Bolton’s Hawkish Flight

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The American edition of The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), citing former and currently serving politicians who wished not to be named, reported a few days ago that the US National Security Council (NSC), led by presidential adviser John Bolton, turned to the Pentagon last autumn with a request to devise several variants of striking Iran.

The reason for such a request was a mortar attack carried out in September 2018 by a pro-Iranian group against the diplomatic quarter of Baghdad, where the US embassy is located. Two days later, a similar attack was reported to have occurred in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where the American consulate is based. No casualties or damage were reported. However, former deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel described the shelling as an “act of hostilities” and made it clear that the United States should have responded with a “similar act.”

As a result, the US national security team held a series of meetings to discuss how the American side should respond. After that, Mr. Bolton urged the Pentagon to provide options for attacking Iran.

Officials neither confirmed nor denied the WSJ reports. NSC press secretary Garrett Marquis did not provide a clear answer to the question of whether the Council had been considering a military strike against Iran. “We are considering a  full range of measures to ensure security and guarantee our interests,” he said.

It should be noted here that the general staffs of the armed forces of any self-respecting country plan variants of both offensive and defensive operations against a potential adversary in advance. This work is carried out with a constant analysis of the changes taking place in the camp of the enemy, and in their own country. Therefore, undoubtedly, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (US General Staff) has in its secret vaults a variety of options for a war with Iran – the main potential opponent of the United States, as Washington has called it on more than one occasion.

Another matter is the case of John Bolton, when his personal request, even through the channels of the National Security Council, was carried out, according to observers, bypassing President Trump. Such a request took the Pentagon by surprise and put defense department officials who were used to everything “in a shock.” However, the request was accepted for consideration.

According to the WSJ, the Pentagon provided a complete layout proposing some general options for the operation, including a cross-border air strike on an Iranian military facility, which would be mostly symbolic. But the then Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and other senior military officials strongly opposed retaliatory actions, arguing that the damage from the shelling of the US diplomatic missions was insignificant. And this basically logical viewpoint eventually prevailed.

But how will acting Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, act?

Any blow on Iran may lead to a full-blown armed conflict. Hypothetically,  considering the possibility of an airstrike on an Iranian military facility, it will undoubtedly trigger a return missile strike by the Iranian armed forces on any US military base in the Middle East. The Iranian missile forces have every potential to do so. And this means a war.

Is the United States ready for such a scenario?

It has to be pointed out that even massive missile and air strikes against Iran will not force Tehran to surrender. As in any war, the winner must march over the conquered territory. This calls for a ground operation.

Is the United States ready for this?

As the Field Service Regulations the US Army recommends, in order to achieve the goal of an offensive in the direction of the main blow it is necessary to create at least 6-fold superiority over the defensive forces and facilities. The question arises whether the US Armed Forces are capable of building such a superiority at least in one direction of the Iranian theater of war?

The number of regular armed forces of Iran ranges, according to various sources, between 540 and 900 thousand. The defense doctrine of the IRI puts a major emphasis on the Basij Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps resistance forces, a paramilitary, irregular militia and a reserve force of the regular armed forces whose main task is to participate in the defense of the country’s territory. The main combat units of “Basij” are “Ashura” battalions, which consist of men, and “Al-Zohra” female battalions, numbering an average of 400 each. Currently, 2500 such battalions are formed in Iran, consisting of 1 million volunteers, well trained both militarily and ideologically. In total, Iran’s “Basij” system embraces more than 12 million Iranians.

Is it possible for the United States and their allies to outnumber, if not 6-fold, then at least by 2-fold, the regular and irregular forces of Iran in the Iranian theater of military operations on the ground (without using nuclear weapons)? The answer is clear – no. And the Pentagon is fully aware of this.

For this reason, the likelihood that the United States will venture into an armed conflict with Iran is small.

John Bolton’s actions can be described as dangerous amid the current situation in the top echelons of power in the United States, which is controversial, to put it mildly. The opposition Democrats are exerting a serious and effective pressure on President Trump, while the State Department (and other as significant structures) is trying, as journalists say, to prevent the president’s “reckless” decisions from being put into effect.

In turn, US National Security Advisor John Bolton is making the most of the current state of affairs putting an end to internal strategic debates and discussions that could reveal the controversies within the Donald Trump administration. Mr. Bolton does not want to hear conflicting points of view, hates leaks, and wants to control the entire flow of information that is sent to the US President. This is a sure way towards excessive consolidation of power in the hands of one individual. Moreover, sometimes he acts without notifying President Trump, like in the recent case in which he appeals to the Pentagon.

John Bolton is one of the irreconcilable hardliners on the issue of Iran. Having assumed  his current position, Bolton stepped up the administration’s policy of isolating and exerting pressure on Iran, thereby demonstrating his hostile attitude toward Iranian leaders, which dates back to the days when he served as an official for the administration of George W. Bush. As a private individual, he called for military strikes on Iran, as well as a change of regime. In March 2015 – three and a half months before the signing of a nuclear deal, when it became clear to everyone that the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) was ready and its authors were busy putting the final touches to it, – Mr. Bolton published an article in The New York Times under a provocative headline “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran”. From the very beginning, John Bolton was against the JCPOA and fully backed President Trump in his efforts to pull out of the nuclear deal.

Bolton summed up his political credo in one phrase: “There is no such thing as the UN. There is the international community that can be headed by the world’s only superpower, which is the United States of America. ”  This he says despite the fact that in 2005-2006, he was the US representative to the UN.

Defense department officials, The New York Times writes, express growing concerns that John Bolton may indeed provoke a serious conflict with Tehran at a time when President Trump is losing influence in the Middle East.

Concern is being voiced not only by US military and politicians but throughout the world. After all, the main danger lies in the unpredictability of actions of President Trump and his hawkish employees, like John Bolton.

first published in our partner International Affairs

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