World Affairs

The Plot to Kill President George H.W. Bush


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Source: New Yorker

THE ROAD TO THE IRAQ WAR began not with 9/11, nor with Bush’s election, nor even with the Project for the New American Century. It began instead with the capitulation of the Soviet Union.

Once it became clear that the Cold War adversary was going to knuckle under, the US military became extremely worried about the political sustainability of the military budget and the forward deployment of US forces around the world. For without the Communist threat, how was the US taxpayer to be persuaded to pay for garrisoning the planet? The solution that was hit upon—as early as 1988—was to inflate the threat posed by confrontation states. The idea began with talk about the “military sophistication of Third World dictators,” later morphing into the need to confront “outlaw states,” “backlash states,” and the one that really stuck: “rogue states.” The rogues’ gallery included Iran, Syria, Libya, Cuba, and North Korea. But the poster child was unambiguously Iraq, in light of Saddam’s impressive record of military aggression, chemical weapons use, and human rights abuses.

For twelve years between the two wars, a considerable portion of US diplomatic and military muscle was deployed towards the containment of Iraq; featuring not only the most brutal trade embargo in history, but also the imposition of no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq and the de facto partition of the country; thousands of airstrikes and cruise missile strikes; and covert operations to topple Saddam Hussein. This low-intensity war on Iraq was supported by a bipartisan consensus in the United States on the threat posed by Saddam to US security interests. So when W looked to reconfigure the Middle East by force after 9/11, Iraq under Saddam offered the path of least resistance.

But the consensus did not emerge overnight. In fact, early in the Clinton administration there were significant moves towards a thaw in US-Iraq relations. The week before he took office, Clinton gave a wide-ranging interview on foreign policy in which he mused that he was not “obsessed” with Saddam.

REPORTER: But you don’t take the view that there can be no normal relations with this man or with Iraq as long as he is in power?

CLINTON: Based on the evidence that we have, the people of Iraq would be better off if they had a different leader. But my job is not to pick their rulers for them. I always tell everybody, “I’m a Baptist; I believe in deathbed conversions.” If he wants a different relationship with the United States and with the United Nations, all he has to do is change his behavior.

It was, of course, politically trecherous for a Democrat in the White House to back-off from confronting a brutal dictator that the men and women in uniform had fought not too long ago. The administration was not on the verge of bringing in Saddam from the cold, “if for no other reason,” opined Leslie H. Gleb in New York Times, than that “they know this would mean political suicide.” Still, signs of hope continued to flicker. The Pentagon said on February 3 that the Iraqis “had changed their behavior.” In mid-February, Saddam reached out to Clinton for a reset, and went out of his way to cooperate with UN inspectors. By the end of March, Clinton was saying he wanted to “depersonalize” the conflict with Iraq. New York Times reported on March 29, 1993, that

The United States and Britain have begun to move away from their insistence that the trade embargo against Iraq cannot be lifted while President Saddam Hussein remains in power.

But these early moves towards bringing Saddam back in from the cold came to naught when a plot to kill President George H.W. Bush, allegedly masterminded by Iraqi intelligence, came to light in May. The break in diplomatic momentum towards a thaw in relations was immediate and permanent. The plot therefore marked a decisive moment in the long road to the Iraq War.

THE ALLEGED IRAQI PLOT against Bush was in reality a fraud perpetrated by the Kuwaitis, who had been watching the emerging thaw in US-Iraq relations with increasing panic. Kuwait had arrested 17 drunk bootleggers near the Iraqi border for smuggling whiskey; a serious crime in Kuwait but a common enough practice along the Saudi-Iraqi-Kuwaiti border.

Four days later, one of the bootleggers suddenly confessed to a conspiracy to kill President H.W. Bush during the former president’s visit to Kuwait that was underway. The confession was later retracted in court and the defendant alleged that it was extracted under duress. As a consequence of the confession, the Kuwaiti police said they were able to locate a two-hundred-pound bomb in the suspect’s vehicle that had been in their custody for four days. The Kuwaiti foreign minister alleged that the defendant was a Iraqi intelligence officer and had been ordered by Saddam to assassinate President Bush.

But the Kuwaitis were not exactly known to be reliable. Kuwait had earlier moved the UNSC alleging a territorial violation by Saddam that turned out upon investigation to have been a violent dispute between smugglers. As for the foreign minister himself: His daughter had given an eloquent testimony to Iraqi crimes involving the killing of babies during the Iraqi occupation that later turned out to be fraudulent.

Still, in light of the serious nature of the allegations, the White House tasked the FBI and the CIA to investigate the matter. While some hawks in the White House, including Sandy Berger and Martin Indyk, were claiming that there was highly reliable evidence tying Iraq to the plot against Bush, official White House policy was to wait for the investigations to reach a conclusion. “We’re still in the middle of the investigation,” said George Stephanopoulos, the White House Communications Director. President Clinton himself was skeptical of the case; as was the Attorney General, Janet Reno.

But in May and June, a number of reports in the Washington Post and the New York Times, citing anonymous officials (probably Indyk), claimed that there was strong evidence pointing to Iraqi sponsorship of the assassination attempt. By late June, the President had lost all control of the media narrative. Finally, on June 24, the FBI report came out and provided what the White House considered to be sufficient evidence of Iraqi complicity. Clinton ordered a barrage of 23 cruise missile strikes on the headquarters of Iraqi intelligence—to near-universal applause in the media. On that day, any possibility of bringing Saddam in from the cold vanished into thin air.

Seymour Hersh’s report debunking the government’s evidence appeared in the November 1, 1993 issue of the New Yorker. A big part of the forensic evidence tying the bomb to those known to have been put together by Iraqi intelligence, outlined by Madeline Albright, was that the remote-control firing device found in the Kuwaiti car bomb has the same “signature” as previously recovered Iraqi bombs. Hersh spoke to a number of forensic bomb experts.

[All seven experts] told me essentially the same thing: The remote-control devices shown in the White House photographs were mass-produced items…

 The fact that the two devices were similar is simply not that significant, I was told by Donald L. Hansen, a twenty-eight-year veteran of the bomb squad of the San Francisco Police Department, who has served as the director of the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators… and is widely considered to be one of the top forensics experts in the field. “They’re very generic devices… If these circuit boards are what they’re hanging their signature issue on, they’re really stretching the envelope.”

The FBI also concluded that the defendants were not coerced after their arrest, despite their testimony in court that they were indeed beaten and forced to confess. The only American reporter at the Kuwaiti trial, Miriam Amie, reporting for the German news agency DPA, told Hersh that the main suspect, Wali al-Ghazali, showed up on the first day of the trial with “a fresh scar on his forehead and a blackened nail on his thumb.” James E. Akins, former US Ambassador to the Saudi Arabia, told Hersh:

Either the investigators were idiots or they were lying. It boggles the imagination. There’s no way the Kuwaitis would not have tortured them. That’s the way the Kuwaitis are, as anyone who knows the Kuwaitis or the Middle East can tell you.

Meanwhile, back on May 23, 1993, Boston Globe reported that it had obtained a copy of the CIA Counter Terrorism Center’s report concluding that the alleged plot was a Kuwaiti fraud.

Kuwait, the report says, “has a clear incentive to play up the continuing Iraqi threat” to Western interests, and hence may have “cooked the books.”

To support this contention, it cites US diplomatic reports earlier this year that the Kuwaiti government was expressing “frustration” that the Western coalition was not taking a tougher line against Saddam Hussein and concern that the Clinton administration might abandon Kuwait in favor of better relations with Iraq.

Usually rabbit holes have a way of ending with Seymour Hersh’s reporting. Not this time. The FBI’s forensic investigation in the alleged Iraqi bomb plot was led by Frederic Whitehurst, a forensic chemist specializing in explosive residue analysis, described by the New York Times as the agency’s “top bomb-residue expert,” who provided expert testimony in the O.J. Simpson trial among many other high profile cases. He later became America’s first FBI whistleblower exposing extensive forensic fraud at the FBI crime lab.

During the investigation into alleged misconduct at the FBI crime lab it emerged that Whitehurst’s superior, J. Christopher Ronay, had misreported Whitehurst’s findings in the alleged Iraqi plot to kill Bush. The 1997 DOJ enquiry reported that,

Whitehurst alleges that he compared the explosive material in the main charge of the Bush device to explosive materials in known Iraqi devices and told Explosives Unit Chief J. Christopher Ronay that the explosives were different. Whitehurst claims that Ronay purposely misinterpreted these results in order to link the explosive material to Iraqi agents. Whitehurst further asserts that very possibly his results were changed to support the retaliatory missile strike by the United States.

Neil Gallagher, Chief of the FBI Counter Intelligence Section, told the DOJ that

The FBI could not connect these explosives chemically or say that they came from the same shipment, sources, or country.

Yet, the DOJ enquiry continues,

Subsequent reports on the matter tended to ignore such chemical differences. Moreover, even after the missile strike, the FBI and CIA continued to report simply that PE-4A plastic explosive had been identified in the Bush device and other Iraqi explosive devices, including those from Southeast Asia.

Thus: The FBI misreported the findings of the agency’s top bomb residue expert, mistook the congruence of mass-produced remote-control firing devices as the signature of a common Iraqi source, and took confessions extracted from suspects using torture at face value. Meanwhile, the CIA’s accurate conclusion that the plot was a Kuwaiti fraud was simply ignored. Hersh again:

When Clinton finally acted, on the afternoon of Saturday, June 26th, he was not leading the nation, as was widely assumed and reported, but merely following the path of least bureaucratic and political resistance.



State, Market, and Civil Society


ONE USEFUL WAY of thinking about modernity is to think of it as the historical period of validity of a certain tripartite division of society—State, Market, and Civil Society—the domains of politics, economics, and sociology. This tripartite division was originally understood to apply only to the West. Non-Western high civilizations (Islam, Far East, India) had to be studied in their totality; this was the domain of Orientalism. Regions of the non-West lacking in high culture—lacking especially in cannons of great antiquity—were also to be studied in their totality; the domain of anthropology. This denial of modernity to the non-West could be sustained rather effortlessly through the nineteenth century, but become increasingly problematic in the twentieth century until it was throughly discredited by the postmodernist revolt from the sixties onwards. Nevertheless, the disciplinary division survived surprisingly unscathed.

There are two unrelated sets of uses of this tripartite division. One set is internal to the disciplines: Isolating relatively coherent domains of investigation allows for the development of analytical tools, organizing principles, theories, and so on, tailored to the specific fields of investigation. The other set is external to the disciplines. It consists of the now de facto forbidden, indeed almost unthinkable, task of characterizing national development. Whether or not it is acceptable in polite conversation, this is an important task. For the absolute and relative strengths of State, Market, and Civil Society inform overall national capabilities; tell us a great deal about societies’ exposure to various national pathologies and the attendant risk of societal failure; and offer insights into their historical and future evolution.

Roughly speaking, the most benign form of modernity obtains when all three are well-developed and in rough balance. Unbalanced development—especially when the State or the Market overshadows Civil Society—is a recipe for stagnation at best and national catastrophe at worst. It exposes societies to pathologies of political instability, extremism, dictatorship, ultranationalism, and militarism. And if an umbalanced society is lucky enough to escape such pathological fates, it is likely to end up in the cul-de-sac of arrested development.

DURING THE EARLY MODERN PERIOD, the Spanish State was stronger than the Market while Civil Society was nonexistent. Italy had the opposite configuration: The State barely existed while Civil Society was strong but not quite as strong as the Market. In Holland, Civil Society and especially the Market were considerably more developed than the State. Civil Society was equally strong in England and France, but the State was stronger in France whereas the Market was stronger in England—despite the great absolute strength of the English State. The State was relatively strongest in the garrison states of Prussia and Russia. In Austria, the State and Civil Society were strong relative to the Market. Outside the two great powers in the great checkerboard of Germany, the State was exceptionally weak—consisting of Grand Dutchies and so on—whereas Civil Society and the Market were well-developed. In sum, we find the European powers at the turn of the century with very different internal balances. These differential configurations played a decisive role in determining their fates as the trials of the early twentieth century fell on the Continent.

With German unification, the garrison state of Prussia had been grafted onto a flourishing German Civil Society and Market that had hitherto been largely unshepherded. The German statelets in the north and the west were, of course, no match for the formidable German Civil Society unparalleled elsewhere in Europe including England; and they no match either for the great German capitalist combines of great antiquity from the Fuggers down. The conquering Prussian State—with its independent social base in the Prussian nobility—maintained its institutional, social and cultural distance from the otherwise extraordinarily well-developed German Civil Society and Market; leaving them unmolested; and in turn, jealously guarding its absolute autonomy in high politics.

The basic observation here, which is not really up for debate, is that the German Imperial State (i.e., Prussia) on the one hand, and German Civil Society and the Market on the other (both based far away from Prussian power in the East), grew up entirely disconnected and independent of each other. This novel configuration—Germany’s “special path”— had no counterpart anywhere else in the world. It did not entirely survive the crushing defeat of 1918. But it played a decisive role in the unraveling of the Weimar Republic when, in the midst of the escalating crises of 1927-1933 and panicked by the communist threat, the deep state, i.e., the Prussian nobility, threw its weight behind one Adolf Hitler.

In Russia, defeat in war resulted in the takeover of the extraordinarily-strong Moscovite State by radicals who set about destroying whatever rudimentary Market and Civil Society that still existed. Spain too predictably succumbed to dictatorship. Having never regained their former military primacy on the Continent, the French continued to indulge in fantasies of military and imperial glory, until they too surrendered to the Nazis. Only England, with its exquisite balance of forces, survived the extraordinary trials of the early twentieth century relatively unscathed.

IN THE UNITED STATES, the Market has always been stronger than the State and Civil Society. This was certainly the case in the Early Republic when the State was essentially premodern. With the Civil War the State caught up with Civil Society, but the Market continued to dominate both. Around 1890, the US could still be characterized simultaneously as an economic and industrial giant and a military, intellectual and cultural midget. After the turn of the century, the Market continued to develop almost continuously; whereas the State and Civil Society developed rather discontinuously; in quantum jumps that can be dated quite precisely.

America had been an intellectual, scientific and cultural backwater until World War I. American mass culture first gained global currency in the 1920s. But it was really from 1933 onwards—with the mass influx of German intellectuals—that the United States became an intellectual, scientific, and artistic superpower. The United States has, of course, remained a magnet for foreign talent ever since.

The great leaps forward for the State can be dated even more precisely. In 1898, the United States suddenly emerged as the hegemon of the Western Hemisphere and a great power on the international stage. Even after the turn of the century however, the State remained relatively underdeveloped; both with respect to the development of the Market as well as internationally. Indeed, the administrative, fiscal, and military capabilities of the United States lagged behind those of the European powers all the way to the Second World War. It was only during the course of that war that the State, with an unprecedented expansion in capabilities, closed the gap with both the Market and Civil Society. By 1945, a rough balance of forces had obtained in the United States.

The strength of the State, Civil Society and the Market grew rapidly and roughly proportionately during the early postwar period. This precarious balance of forces was fatally undermined by the neoliberal counter-revolution which elevated the Market over Civil Society; and to a lesser extent, over the State as well. The ascendancy of the Market over the State and Civil Society has continued unabated since; despite the impressive acquisition of capacities by the State after 9/11. The current political instability—evident in the crisis of the GOP—is in this sense an artifact of unbalanced development.

IN THE GLOBAL SOUTH the State has been, as a general rule but with important exceptions, either ultrastrong or ultraweak. The former usually led to dictatorship and/or mass terror; the latter to chronic instability. In sub-Saharan Africa, with few exceptions, the extraordinary weakness of the State has thwarted the development of both the Market and Civil Society. In the Middle East, the State is everywhere stronger than the Market and Civil Society; with the obvious exception of Israel, a colonial society with European roots. In the oil monarchies of the Arabian peninsula, Civil Society simply does not exist; whereas the strength of the Civil Society in Iran and Egypt continues to offer hope that they will one day be able to escape from their predicament. Iraq, Syria, and Libya have paid the highest price for their imbalance of forces: With the unraveling of the State, Civil Society and the Market have also been destroyed. The imbalance was least marked in Tunisia. Not surprisingly, Tunisia is the only Arab state to have experienced a somewhat successful transition during what used to be called the “Arab Spring.”

The Korean peninsula offers an instructive natural experiment. The State was strong in both North and South Korea. In North Korea, the world’s last totalitarian regime condemned its society to permanent arrested development. But whereas the Market was crushed in the North, the American presence allowed its full development in the South. It is this that allowed South Korea to eventually escape from authoritarianism and revive its Civil Society. And despite the impressive recent gains by Civil Society, South Korea remains at risk of recidivism. The same configuration and historical trajectory obtained in the other Asian Tigers: Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The most threatening case of unbalanced development is, of course, China. After going through the cycle of mass terror, Chinese communism escaped the traditional fate of totalitarian states by successfully engineering an unprecendented development of the Market. Meanwhile, the repression and underdevelopment of Chinese Civil Society continued unabated. An interesting comparison is with the other Asian giant, India, where the State and Market are much weaker than their Chinese counterparts but Civil Society is considerably more developed. And it is the strength of Indian Civil Society that allowed the nation to shrug off its brief experiment with dictatorship and continue on its balanced path. Pakistan and Bangladesh too, unlike Burma, have vibrant Civil Societies that have survived intermittent reigns of military juntas relatively unscathed.

These cases underline the need to look beyond democracy and dictatorship; beyond economic development; beyond indices for human development, economic freedom, ease of doing business, corruption, and so on and so forth. Long term outcomes and societies’ resistance to national pathologies depend on balanced development; especially the strength of Civil Society. The problem, of course, is that while it is relatively easy to quantify the strength of the State and the Market, it is fiendishly hard to do that for Civil Society. But that may be just as well. More often than not, numerical metrics are unlikely to provide anything more than an illusion of precision.

IN LIEU OF A CONCLUSION, I’d like to offer some meta-observations. This frame of reference is only one of many reference frames through which modernity and national development can be analyzed. It leaves out large and relevant parts of reality by necessity, since, in order to bring some aspects into sharp relief others must be left out of focus. There is after all much more to modernity than the bureaucratic state, the market, and civil society. For instance, can we really talk about modernity without ever mentioning the death of God?

The issue is not whether this is the correct frame of reference—there is no such thing. The issue is whether this framework is useful. I believe it has the virtue of being parsimonious enough not to be unwieldy, yet superior in its flexibility to its discredited one-dimensional predecessor.

World Affairs

Brexit and the Fundamental Trilemma of the European Union

The explanations are coming thick and fast. Writing in the New York Times, Tony Blair blamed Brexit on hostility to globalization. There can be little doubt that the dire straits of provincial England can be blamed on finance-led neoliberal globalization. The addition of Asian labor pools to the effective global labor market has suppressed wages in rich countries, but it does not follow that Brexiters were motivated by hostility to globalization.  Globalization cannot be blamed for either the bankers getting away with murder or the counterproductive self-imposed austerity. Globalization also did not discredit the elites. It was the financial crisis that delegitimized the City as thoroughly as the Iraq debacle delegitimized Tony Blair’s leadership. And the seemingly neverending stagnation since the recession—exacerbated by neoliberal austerity—undermined whatever prestige and authority still accrued to policy elites. As Michael Gove quipped, “people in this country have had enough of experts.”

In poll after poll, Brexiters instead cited immigration as their principal concern. England is, of course, famous for its hostility to its South Asian immigrants.[1] What is novel is the hostility to immigrants from Eastern Europe; mainly Poland and Romania; whence the decision to leave the European Union. Migration from the accession countries started in earnest in 2003, and then really took off in 2013. In 2014, half of all migrants into the UK came from countries that joined the EU after 2003. These healthy, young migrants were quite obviously net contributors to the UK economy and welfare system. But facts don’t vote; people do. And the English people beg to disagree with the facts.

Provincial England is quite possibly the most xenophobic region in Western Europe. Any lingering doubts about this matter have now been put to rest. For what the distribution of the vote in the British plebiscite revealed first and foremost is the chasm between cosmopolitan and provincial England. That Scotland and Northern Ireland would vote Remain was never in doubt. In England, the only region to vote Remain was London. Beyond London, outward-looking counties voted overwhelmingly to stay (e.g., Oxford and Cambridge), while the rest of England voted to go. A second important cleavage was between the young and the old. Actuarially speaking, those who have to live with the consequences the longest got screwed over by those with one foot in the grave.


In the aftermath of the Second World War, the impetus for the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) came from a confluence of interests in key Western European states. Back then, coal accounted for 90 percent of Western Europe’s primary energy consumption and steel was the backbone of industry. France imported most of its coal from Germany but was wary of a bilateral commitment with a state that had attacked it thrice in living memory. The Germans were desperate for economic and political rehabilitation—which meant forging close ties with the French. The Dutch on their part needed the German market to recover.

At first, the French sought British participation to balance the weight of Germany, but Britain was not interested. However, as the Cold War started in earnest and it became clear that the Americans were not going to retreat from Europe, British security guarantees and participation in the trade agreement became unnecessary. A Continental solution thus emerged with six founding states (West Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg) coming together to form the ECSC in 1951. British engagement with the community was thus, from the get go, conditional and uncertain.

And when in 1963 Britain applied to join the EEC, de Gaulle vetoed it as part of his general resistance to Anglo-American hegemony. But when the great postwar Western European economic miracle ran out of steam ten years later, and with de Gaulle out of the way, France dropped its opposition to Britain’s entry into the community. Despite the onset of the stagflation crisis, the decision to include Britain, Denmark, Norway and Ireland in 1973 made sense. They were Western European states at roughly the same level of economic development as the member states. The enlargement to the Mediterranean countries (Greece, Spain and Portugal) during the 1980s may have been ill-advised—and indeed, Mitterrand thought they weren’t ready—but they could be digested without much pain given their minor weight in the union.

By the end of the Cold War then, almost all of Western Europe had been absorbed into the union. With the sudden capitulation of the Soviet Union, the post-Communist states of Eastern Europe demanded inclusion, while the United States sought to expand Nato and the EU almost all the way to the border of their former superpower adversary. Faced with these external pressures and blinded by post-Cold War triumphalism, Western European elites failed to see the fundamental trilemma of the European Union: You could have at most two of democracy, enlargement, and ever-closer union.

More precisely, national sovereignty over membership, inclusion of Eastern European countries, and unrestricted migration between members of the union were fundamentally incompatible. What Tony Judt called the ‘grand illusion’ was the idea that you could have all three simultaneously. He predicted that labor market disruption due to unrestricted migration from the East would sooner or later prompt an exit by the most xenophobic rich member of the union. This is indeed what has obtained.

The Brexit debacle is far from being the only Western crisis that owes its origins to the hubris of the early post-Cold War era. The humiliation in Ukraine, the Never-Ending Greek Debt-Slavery Saga, and now Brexit, all stem from hubristic decisions taken at the peak of Western triumphalism in the 1990s. Perhaps it is time for Western elites to take some responsibility for what they have wrought.


[1] Here’s a sample racist English joke.

Q. What do you do if you have a gun with two bullets, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and a Paki in a room?

Ans: Shoot the Paki twice. Make sure he is dead.

World Affairs

Bombing Assad Will Not Secure Any US Strategic Interest

The Syria Conundrum

The State Department has a long-standing reputation as the most dovish institution involved in US foreign policymaking; especially when it comes to the Middle East. When contemplating military action overseas, administrations always expect to find resistance from State. The underlying institutional reason is that Arabists and other area specialists have a deep understanding of their regions. They can therefore more easily detect the hubris involved in US militarism. Political appointees and policy experts in the White House and the National Security Council, and Senators in the Foreign Relations Committee, have little or no field experience. Senior military and intelligence officials sometimes do, but their area of expertise is security, not foreign policy; so that when they resist the White House on foreign adventures, it is usually on strategic grounds (e.g., absence of an exit strategy).

Career diplomats also acquire a certain empathy for the inhabitants of the land. Whence, State is usually the institutional actor to bring up humanitarian concerns to the top table. The publication of the internal memo by 51 dissenting diplomats calling for strikes against Assad is therefore not altogether surprising given that for five years and counting, the Butcher of Damascus has rained chemical weapons and barrel bombs on his own people; systematically tortured and murdered tens of thousands; killed hundreds of thousands; and displaced more than half the populace of Syria. Indeed, there is already enough documentary evidence to convict him for war crimes.

So the humanitarian case against the Assad regime is extraordinarily strong. And the diplomats are quite right to make a moral case for US military action. But it is unfortunate that they felt the need to oversell their case by claiming that such a strategy would be in the United States’ strategic interest. Unfortunately for all concerned, that is decidedly not the case. Here’s why.

Syria itself is of little strategic value to the United States. It is not a pivot state (e.g., Egypt, Germany). It does not sit astride a strategic sea-lane (e.g., Singapore). It is not a major source of a strategically important commodity (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Iraq). And it is not a gatekeeper to a strategically significant region (e.g., Japan, UK). The political orientation of Syria is not terribly relevant to the United States. The US does have an important national security interest at stake in the Syrian War and that is to prevent Syria from falling under the influence of Salafist Jihadists.

Therefore, it is not in the US interest to see Assad fall. Were Assad to go and in the absence of foreign ground forces, the sway of Salafist Jihadist groups would almost certainly increase. Together they already control most of rebel-held Syria. In the baseline scenario, almost all of Syria would fall into the hands of competing Salafist Jihadist groups. Indeed, the goal of the advocated military action is to force Assad back to the table, not to get rid of him.

Moreover, Assad knows that the US cannot afford to see him fall, so that US threats to escalate would not be credible. The United States could carry out symbolic strikes, but it cannot degrade Assad’s military capabilities to any significant degree without running the risk of undermining the regime. And such symbolic strikes are unlikely to persuade him to do anything other than cease military operations temporarily.

Imposing a no-fly zone would require Russian cooperation. The United States could probably persuade Putin to exchange Syria for Ukraine, and the US airforce can certainly achieve command of the air over Syria. But command of the air would not give the United States sufficient control over the course of the Syrian war. Even if a no-fly zone could be imposed, there is no way to ensure that the ground beneath would not be conquered by Salafist Jihadist groups—the moderate Syrian opposition ceased to be militarily viable years ago.

The Policy Tensor is deeply sympathetic to the cause of the diplomats. And there is indeed a military solution to the problem posed by Syria. But that solution requires boots on the ground. For unless the United States sends a land army to conquer Syria, there is no way to forestall even worse scenarios. The problem for the humanitarian hawks is that in the clear absence of strategic interests at stake, the humanitarian case alone is not compelling enough for the United States to bear the costs of a major land war and an extended occupation.


Call It What It Is: Salafist Jihadism


The Donald (echoing others in the GOP) insists that it is important to “call it what it is.” And what It is, he insists, is “radical Islamism” or “Islamic radicalism.” Clinton took his bait, saying “radical jihadism or radical Islamism, I’m happy to say either. I think they mean the same thing.” Both the Donald and the next president are wrong: Neither of these terms is accurate. Here’s why.

For starters, “radical Islamism” is the ideology of the Iranian revolution. When the ayatollahs seized power in 1979, they explicitly called for a mass-based Islamic revolution throughout the region (earning them the enduring enemity of Saddam and the Al Saud). The Islamic Republic continues to espouse the ideology of revolutionary Islamism. And far from being allied with global jihadists, Iran has always been at the receiving end of their violence.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology may also be faithfully described as “Islamic radicalism.” More generally, there are plenty of radical Islamist movements that are not in the business of jihad—some of whom are indeed progressive, at least by Islamic standards (e.g., the Gülen movement).

Even “global jihadism” hides more than it reveals. It does not capture the character of the threat we are facing at all. Neither the victims nor the perpetrators are dispersed globally. The victims are located in unstable Muslim countries, their neighbors, and Western powers (in that order). The dispersion of the pepetrators is far from uniform as well, either across the globe or in the Islamic world, nor is it even vaguely proportional to the size of Muslim populations. No, the dispersion is dictated by one variable and one variable alone: The penetration of salafi ideology—an ideology that is not radical but reactionary.

Beyond the geographical dispersion, the timing of salafist jihadism is also explained by the accumulation and deployment of salafi petrodollars. Had the Soviets occupied Afghanistan in the sixties, the Saudis would’ve been in no position to bankroll the Mujahideen War, and Al Qaeda would never have come into existence. It was only the oil price revolution of the seventies that filled up the coffers of the oil monarchies and made jihad financially viable. (Although perhaps the Americans in their infinite wisdom would’ve bankrolled the jihad against the Russians all by themselves—as such, the CIA split the cost evenly with the Al Saud.)

Let me be clear. There is no evidence to suggest that the oil monarchies officially bankroll jihad. What they’ve been doing is promoting salafism. And salafism is the manure that makes the soil fertile for jihadism.

The implications of these observations for US foreign policy are clear. Instead of seeing the Al Saud as a partner in the fight against jihad, the United States should aim to contain Saudi influence. In particular, the US should be working with other Muslim powers to thwart the advance of salafi ideology. Neither candidate seems to grasp this. But at least Clinton is not hell-bent on antagonizing the world’s entire Muslim population.

PIIGS vs Core
World Affairs

Surprising Role Reversals in the Never-Ending Greek Debt-Slavery Saga

The Never-Ending Greek Debt-Slavery Saga has yielded three remarkable role reversals among core, agenda-setting Western institutions.

If you remember the glory days of the Washington Consensus, the baddest of bad guys in the global neoliberal capitalist order was the International Monetary Fund. It was the star of the currency and sovereign debt crises of the 1980s and 1990s; all of whom had the same basic script:

Step 1. Globally-mobile capital from rich countries would flow into emerging markets (EM), buoying up thinly-traded asset markets and currencies.

Step 2. Shocks to risk aversion back home in the center of the world economy would prompt a dramatic reversal of said capital flows.

Step 3. Rapid capital outflows would lead to a crash in EM assets and of EM currency against the dollar; and therefore, a sharp increase in the dollar-denominated debt of the unfortunate state caught naked when the tide went out.

Step 4. The IMF would step in with a bailout package in exchange for harsh austerity measures and painful reforms that usually included a wholesale privatization of the state’s assets.

Most poor and developing nations wised up around the time of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. All of them, almost without exception, resorted to building up hard currency reserves (mostly dollars) for national insurance during good times. This was the financial equivalent of nuclear proliferation prompted by US aggression. Just as a nuclear deterrent guaranteed insurance against a US invasion, a big enough pile of US dollars ensured freedom from IMF-imposed debt slavery.

One consequence of this international politico-financial interaction was a secular rise in the global savings rate–that Ben Bernanke called the “global savings glut.” (See Figure 1.) In turn, the higher savings rate pushed down global interest rates and powered a credit boom in the United States; with well-known results.



In light of this history it is extremely interesting to watch the IMF play the nice guy through the Greek debt crisis. The IMF has been urging debt relief for years. Northern Europeans in general and Berlin in particular, used to play the good guys back in the 1990s. But since the beginning of the eurozone crisis, Berlin has led northern European creditors on a self-defeating Shylock’s quest. The humanitarian and economic costs of the austerity imposed on debtor countries of the Mediterranean have been substantial across the board. For Greece, they have been nothing short of a catastrophe. (See Figure 2.)


Figure 2. Greek GDP and Prime Age Unemployment (Source: FRED)

Ahead of the negotiations this week, the Fund released an official debt sustainability analysis calling for substantial debt relief, saying that it would only participate if the Europeans could prove that the “numbers add up.” (See panel.)

The Fund proposed 24-year payment deferrals, 40-year maturity extensions, and 1.5 percent caps on interest rates. The only thing that it did not ask for was an outright debt writedown. But it might as well have. The difference is semantic; even if politically potent for the Germans. The fundamental fact is that Greece cannot pay back all the money that it owes. And the Germans know it too.

The Germans were insisting that Greece maintain a 3.5 percent primary surplus, while the IMF has been arguing that no more than 1.5 percent is sustainable. (The primary surplus, receipts less spending before interest payments and debt repayments, is a basic measure of fiscal austerity: 1.5 percent is medium austerity; 3.5 percent is draconian.) The Germans have yielded on this front.

More fundamentally, as with previous deals the current deal amounts to kicking the can (further) down the road. The Europeans will pay the Greeks to repay the Europeans. It’s not even two different institutions! They are literally giving with one hand and taking from the other. German economists Stahmer and Rocholl showed that more than 95 percent of the 216 billion euro Greek bailout has found its way back to the coffers of banks and creditors.

And so the charade of the Never-Ending Greek Debt-Slavery Saga continues.


Now for the third and last role reversal. Remember how the New York Times used to be more progressive and, yes, leftist, than the business press? Not any more. Reading this report by James Kanter, I had to go up twice to make sure I was not reading an opinion piece.

In the very first paragraph, we are told that the IMF is “threatening to create more political and economic uncertainty at an already tumultuous time for Europe.” Later we learn that,

The fund is playing the role of the financial police, adamant that Greece will never return to growth if its debt burden is not sustainable. And Germany is the political pragmatist, leaning on Greece to stick with its austerity commitments lest it set a bad precedent for future bailouts and provoke unrest at home.

One could perhaps forgive this sort of nonsense on the pages of the Grey Lady if it were an Op-Ed by Paul Ryan or another ultraconservative idiot. But on page B2? What the hell is going on at this newspaper? Contrast that to the premier newspaper of global finance (sinister music), Financial Times:

As has now been the pattern for several years, the pressure to recognise reality has come from the IMF. The fund realised much earlier than the eurozone authorities that the programmes of fiscal tightening and microeconomic change being pushed on Greece would not provide a sustainable exit from the country’s recession and sovereign debt burden…

…the eurozone must confront the reality that some form of relief from official creditors is a non-negotiable part of giving the country a chance of returning to economic sustainability.

One way or another, these operations will represent a transfer of resources from the eurozone creditors to Greece, whether or not they are labelled as such and even if they avoid a politically explosive writedown in face value. So be it. The eurozone must shoulder some blame for its predicament.

What is going on with all these role reversals? Next thing you know, the GOP will start ranting against globalization! Oh, wait.


Riding The Great White Beast


I decided to read Hoffer’s book after reading Andrew Sullivan’s excellent article on Donald Trump. Sullivan grapples with Trump’s astonishing rise and within that context he brings Hoffer to bear at strategic points of the argument. In the present essay, I will follow a strategy that is the mirror opposite of Sullivan’s; by sketching a skeletal version of Hoffer’s theory and illustrating it with key aspects of the rise of Donald Trump. The reason I want to proceed in this manner is because I mostly agree with Sullivan’s thesis.[*] And therefore, instead of regurgitating his argument, I hope to complement it.

Eric Hoffer (1898-1983) was a member of the now extinct species of American blue-collar intellectuals. He was a longshoremen (another extinct species) in San Francisco and an autodidact (merely threatened). Reading his treatise on the nature of mass-movements, The True Believer (1953), it quickly becomes obvious that Hoffer is a remarkably original thinker. What he lacks in rigor, he makes up for in profound insight. His style is old school—mid-century modern, as it were. He is plain-spoken to a fault, and writes without a trace of sophistry. He assumes that words and notions have their commonsensical meanings and he just sort of plows on. It makes for decidedly refreshing reading.

That being said, there are too many moving parts in his thesis. In the interests of parsimony, we will throw out everything unnecessary and strip his thesis down to its bare bones structure. Also, Hoffer’s too ambitious in his claim that his observations apply to all mass-movements, be they religious, social, or nationalist—and that they apply throughout history. He may or may not be right, but we shall claim far less. More precisely, we shall extract a theory of modern political massmovements. By modern I mean after the advent of mass politics in the eighteenth century.[†] In what follows, I will use “mass-movement” with the understanding that what I am saying applies strictly only to modern political mass-movements.

Mass-movements arise endogenously from decaying political orders. Hoffer’s theory explains how and why they arise, and why they take the form they do.

What happens in a mass-movement is that differentiated individuals are marshalled by a demagogue into an undifferentiated, solid mass of identical particles, that is then deployed as a bludgeon to demolish a decaying political order.[‡]

The mechanics of mass-movements is brilliantly illustrated in the film “Fight Club.” Evil-genius Tyler Durden builds his army by annihilating the individuality of converts:

You have two black shirts?  Two pair black trousers?  One pair black boots?  Two pair black socks?  One black coat?  Three hundred dollars personal burial money?  Go inside…

You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.  You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We are all part of the same compost heap.

In an inversion of the normal order of things, the physics of mass-movements rests on mass psychology. The weakness of a decaying order swells the ranks of the frustrated who are willing, and indeed desperate, to submit. Who are the frustrated and why are they willing to submit? The frustrated are not the oppressed or the hungry. Those who are truly struggling to survive are too busy trying to put food on the table. Minorities of all sorts—religious, racial, ethnic—don’t feel entitled and are therefore not frustrated. In any event, desperate circumstances reinforce the compactness of the minority group.

No, one of Hoffer’s key insights is that the ranks of the frustrated come from those who feel entitled to a certain level of achievement and status, are almost within reach of it, but fall just short. In present day United States, the frustrated are blue-collar whites who have been screwed-over by the neoliberal order.[§] In and out of minimum wage jobs, low-income whites have watched their home—small town USA—devastated by deindustrialization, the hopes of their parents dashed, and their culture ridiculed on prime time television (“Honey Boo Boo”). They feel acutely the condensation of elites who see them as bigots and uncouth rednecks. Their despair is evident in the epidemic of self-destruction rampaging through the US hinterland uncovered by Case and Deaton.

But even dashed inter-generational expectations are not enough to generate a large cadre of frustrated individuals. The second critical ingredient is the condition of freedom which comes with individual responsibility. Modern market society differentiates individuals and isolates them for reward and punishment. The fairer the system the more acute the burden of failure. In a perfectly fair system, failure immediately reveals intrinsic inferiority. Astonishingly, three-quarters of those who do not finish high school think that “people get ahead by their own hard work,” compared to less than two-thirds of the college educated. (See Figure 1.)


Figure 1. Percent that thinks people get ahead by hard work.

The man who would become a true believer is one who cannot tolerate his individual station in life. More importantly, he cannot take responsibility for the verdict of the market on his differentiated individuality. He must suppress that knowledge. He therefore looks around to cast blame on the elite, foreigners, and traditional scapegoats. He sees the entire political order as rotten to the core. He is ready to burn it to the ground and start from scratch.

Hoffer notes that ideologies are remarkably interchangeable. But for an ideology to be suitable for a mass-movement it must provide a number of goods. First, a self-less goal that the potential true believer can righteously proclaim with pride. (“Make America Great Again.”) Second, an undifferentiated whole—party, nation, race, and so on—that annihilates his individuality and allows him to be a part of history in the making. (“Real Americans.”) Third, a corporate body of the like-minded united by shared delusions that offers an immediate sense of belonging. (The Trump rally “experience.”) Fourth, objects of hate. (Mexicans, Muslims, elites.)

That many of the claims of the ideology are delusional and nonsensical is the key to the whole thing: It is precisely the unreasonableness of the claims that makes them a potent glue. Agreeing on a reasonable set of claims provides no evidence of the annihilation of differentiated individuality. It is only the suspension of individuals’ faculty for reason that can flatten a differentiated set of individuals into an undifferentiated mass characterized by absolutely equality. (“They are rapists, murderers.” “Mexico will pay for the wall.” “There were Muslims celebrating in New Jersey on 9/11.” “Ban all Muslims from entering the USA.” “We’re going to start winning again!”)

No political mass-movement can exist without a demagogue. He is absolutely essential. But he does not conjure the movement into existence. His role is to articulate the mass frustration already manifest in the body-politic. Most critically, the demagouge’s role is to expose the weakness of the decaying political order. In order to do so, the demagogue bullies, insults, intimidates (“Knock the hell out of them. I promise you I will pay for the legal fees.”), and ridicules all political opposition (“Lyin’ Ted,” “Liddle Marco,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Pocahontas”). The threat of violence; and indeed, real violence, is very much part of the same strategy of delegitimization.

Could Trump ride the Great White Beast all the way to the Oval Office? Absolutely. Of the 125 million households in the United States, 100 million are white, roughly 80 percent of whom have seen no income gains in a generation. That’s 64 percent of US voters right there. Of course, not all of them can be persuaded to vote for Trump. But the 2016 election will be about turnout. And the candidate of the elites cannot compete on this turf with the leader of a mass-movement. We should all be very, very worried.


[*] Sullivan makes a grave mistake in calling Sanders a demagogue. That’s inaccurate because the Sanders diagnosis of what ails working America—the failure of the neoliberal model—is not that far off the mark.

[†] Mass politics began with the proliferation of newspapers and the emergence of a public sphere in the eighteenth century. The political revolutions of the late-eighteenth century and after were qualitatively different from all political upheavals that came before.

[‡] There is remarkable affinity between Hoffer’s thesis and that of René Girard’s in Violence and the Sacred. Both involve annihilation of all difference. Both require an attack on a defenseless victim. The slaughter of the sacrificial victim restores the unnanimity that had disappeared with the sacrifical crisis. The slaughter restores consensus because everyone partakes in the violence.

[§] The neoliberal counter-revolution began during the late-1970s’ stagflation crisis and was consolidated under Reagan. The neoliberal consensus spans deregulation, privatization, labor market flexibility, balanced budgets, stringent intellectual property rights and absence of financial repression. The Western financial crisis and the balance-sheet recessions that followed have dealt a potentially terminal blow to the neoliberal order. Much depends on this election.