Once called the “contemporary art world’s most powerful player,” Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei has turned his focus onto the most urgent humanitarian issue of our time: the global refugee crisis. In a new documentary called “Human Flow,” the artist—who has made political statements the core of his art—explores how war, violence and climate change have made refugees of 65 million people.
Ai, who traveled with his camera crew to 23 countries over the course of a year, captured intimate moments of desperation that have driven refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Palestine, Myanmar and elsewhere, risking their lives to escape violence. The film is sweeping and vast, with drone-camera shots utilizing aerial views to showcase the extent of the crisis, combined with intimate iPhone footage taken by Ai.
“Human Flow” is essential viewing for Americans, whose government has not only had a hand in creating many of the crises that drive migration, but is also actively closing the door to refugees. “The U.S. does have a responsibility,” Ai told me in an interview about his film. “Very often people in the United States think that something happening in different continents doesn’t really affect the U.S.” But, he says, “Look at U.S. policy and what’s happening today: the travel ban, or the building of this ‘beautiful’ fence or wall between the U.S. and Mexico. It all shows that the leadership has a very, very questionable position in dealing with migration and refugees.”
Indeed, President Donald Trump—with the help of the Supreme Court—has kept in place a de facto blanket ban on refugees entering the country. It is perhaps easy for most Americans, who live so far from where this misery is unfolding, to ignore the global refugee crisis, especially given the near-daily assaults on the Constitution and good sense emanating from the White House these days.
But by embedding himself for months in the flow of refugee life while making his film, Ai developed an understanding of what it is like to flee violence and danger. Through “Human Flow,” he takes viewers into intimate spaces: the heart-rending decisions as families weigh whether to stay or leave, the pain they feel from losing their loved ones in the choppy seas of the Mediterranean, and the frustration and rage that emerges from being blocked from reaching their destinations by barbed wire and armed police.
One moment in “Human Flow” is seared in my memory—a moment no Hollywood studio could reproduce. Two young brothers are sitting on the muddy ground outside their meager tent in the semi-darkness of a refugee camp. One is crying, promising to follow his brother anywhere, no matter what. Ai added context to that remarkable scene, which he and his crew witnessed. “They had no idea where they would be accepted,” he told me. “They had been refused. They had been stopped at the border and had spent all their money on the dangerous journey to come to a place which will block them and maybe send them back.”
In another harrowing scene, an Afghan woman agrees to speak with Ai, but only if her face is not on screen. She sits with her back to the camera and begins answering questions about her family’s torturous journey from Afghanistan. Minutes later, she loses control and throws up.
One middle-aged man takes the film crew to a makeshift graveyard, where multiple members of his family were buried after they drowned while trying to flee. He breaks down in tears as he sifts through the identity cards of the dead—all he has left of his kin.
At a time when Europe and the U.S. are rewriting their rules for entry in direct response to the massive demand by people looking for safe haven, Ai’s film puts faces to the numbers. “You see people really feel betrayed,” Ai says. “They think [of] Europe as a land that protects basic humanity.” The cruelty of European anti-refugee policies emerges as a central theme, as Ai explores the abandonment of lofty ideals of humanity on a continent that promised never again to turn away refugees after World War II (ironically, tens of thousands of European refugees fled the violence of World War II and found refuge in camps in the Middle East, including in Syria). It was, perhaps, easy to make pronouncements like “Never Again” in hindsight, but when the opportunity arises to prevent another human disaster, all the familiar political reasons re-emerge, like zombies from the grave.
Not content to showcase the fleeing refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Eritrea, the film also includes the stories of refugees who are less popular in mainstream media: Palestinians displaced from their homes and languishing under Israeli siege in Gaza, Rohingya Muslims fleeing Buddhist Myanmar’s persecution, climate refugees from various African countries, and even Latin American migrants desperate to enter the United States.
Bizarrely, it is the story of a wild animal that best expresses Europe and America’s abandonment of humans. A tiger, having entered Gaza through an underground tunnel, is housed and fed by a local organization. “Human Flow” shows the extraordinary lengths to which local, regional and state authorities cooperate with one another to ensure the safe passage and relocation of the tiger—a privilege not afforded to the refugees stranded on the same lands. Unlike the “flow” of humans seen throughout the film, Palestinians living in Gaza are “stuck,” according to Ai. “It’s like jail for millions of people living in such unbelievable conditions,” he says of the unending Israeli siege of Gaza.
The artist-turned-filmmaker has broken a number of barriers in his film by focusing on the humanity of tens of millions of people that the world would rather forget about. But he has also broken some rules of filmmaking. There are few talking heads in the film and little discussion of politics and policy. News headlines from media outlets scroll along the bottom of the screen, filling in the blanks in terse text. And really, do we need any more films about the well-documented causes of human suffering in the global refugee crisis?
What Ai’s film offers is what is missing most from our discussions of the refugee crisis: the fact that those who are fleeing are real people who bleed when they are injured, who cry when they are hurt, among whom are innocent children and tired elders, who are all being abandoned in a moment we will collectively look back on in shame.
“Human Flow” opens in theaters nationwide in October. Learn more online at www.humanflow.com.
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV,…
Fifty-six years ago, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered a farewell address in which he warned about the threat to democracy in the United States posed by the growing convergence between military and corporate power.
The outgoing president cautioned against the expanding and “total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government” of the “military-industrial complex.”
Eisenhower, himself a five-star general and commander of allied expeditionary forces in the Second World War, had firsthand knowledge of the operations of the military. But even at the height of the Cold War, the influence of the military over political life paled in comparison to what exists today. With each passing month, the military consolidates more power over civilian authority, while democratic forms of rule are increasingly hollowed out and rendered meaningless.
This was exemplified by Trump’s speech Monday announcing an open-ended expansion of the US war in Afghanistan. The setting itself was significant. Trump spoke at Fort Meyer Army Base in Virginia to an audience of troops decked out in combat fatigues. He made clear that the military leadership, without any civilian oversight or the fig-leaf of Congressional authorization, would determine how many additional troops would be sent to fight in Afghanistan, and how long they would stay there.
Over the past week, the Army and Marine officials in Trump’s cabinet—retired Gen. John Kelly, retired Gen. James Mattis and active duty Gen. H.R. McMaster—have used the crisis surrounding Trump’s endorsement of the neo-fascist rampage in Charlottesville, Virginia to strengthen the grip of the military over the government.
But these developments, which in any genuinely democratic society would be treated with profound apprehension, have been welcomed by the “opposition” Democratic Party and its media mouthpieces.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post ran a lead article, “Military leaders consolidate power in Trump administration,” which noted that Trump’s elevation of a “cadre of current and retired generals” is “a striking departure for a country that for generations has positioned civilian leaders above and apart from the military.”
The Post, owned by billionaire Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and speaking for a substantial section of the US political establishment, presents the growing power of the military in the Trump administration as a positive development. It calls the generals “voices for moderation,” and presents them as “moral authorities” working to “guide” Trump away from “moves that they fear could have catastrophic consequences.”
It cites uncritically a member of a leading conservative think tank who declares, “The only chance we have of trying to keep this thing from blowing apart is some military discipline… It’s not military rule or a military coup.”
Along the same lines, Wednesday’s New York Times carried a column by Roger Cohen declaring that the generals are acting as the “adults in the room,” serving to “tether” Trump and “curtail his wilder instincts.” The military, Cohen writes, provides “something Trump will never have: a center of gravity.”
These pronouncements by the Post and the Times represent the consensus view of the ruling elite, and most particularly that of the Democratic Party, which has opposed Trump almost entirely on issues of foreign policy, criticizing his insufficient deference to the military and intelligence apparatus and his unwillingness to carry out a military escalation against Russia.
McMaster, Kelly and Mattis “are standouts of dependability in the face of rash and impulsive conduct” on the part of Trump, Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal told the Post. “There certainly has been a feeling among many of my colleagues that they are a steadying hand on the rudder.”
Another example of the convergence between the press and the military/intelligence establishment is an op-ed published Wednesday by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times ’ chief foreign policy columnist. Friedman boasts of having “spent eight days traveling with the Air Force to all of its key forward bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates,” including a trip to a “strike cell” carrying out airstrikes in Iraq.
Friedman describes US air strikes in an urban area with undisguised enthusiasm. “Quickly, the smoke cleared and the 30-foot-wide building was smoldering rubble—but the two buildings to the sides were totally intact, so any civilians inside should be unhurt,” exults the Times columnist, without pondering the fate of any civilians who were in the building that was vaporized.
“This is the war in Iraq today in a nutshell,” he writes, suggesting that the American military as a true liberator focuses its energies on preventing civilian casualties. This criminal lie is, of course, contradicted by the reality of millions killed, wounded and uprooted by more than a quarter century of US wars in Iraq and surrounding countries in the oil-rich Middle East, including the recent leveling of Mosul. Unfortunately for Friedman and the Times, this panegyric to the moral purity of the American military appeared two days after a US air strike in Syria killed more than 40 civilians.
Friedman’s whitewashing of the homicidal activities of the US Air Force exemplifies the role of the press, led by the New York Times and Washington Post, as shameless cheerleaders for US military intervention, together with the major TV networks, which routinely present retired military officials as authorities on all questions of policy.
The prostitution of the press to the military is just one expression of the massive political influence of the US armed forces. The United States spends more on its military than the next 10 countries combined, and military spending soaks up more than half of discretionary spending by the federal government. There are some two million active and reserve military personnel, and millions more employed either directly or indirectly by the intelligence agencies.
Local and state police across the country are being ever more tightly integrated with the military, in what Defense Department strategists call the “total army,” consisting of the military, police and intelligence forces. Police departments are being outfitted with military hardware and trained for urban warfare.
This “total army” has at its disposal the massive surveillance capabilities of the US intelligence apparatus, which can spy on nearly every phone call, text message or email all over the world.
The growth of the power of the military has been accompanied by its integration into the financial oligarchy, with hundreds of leading military figures receiving seven-figure incomes in the revolving door between the Pentagon, Wall Street and the defense industry.
The increasing power of the military over political life in the United States and its merging with the corporate/financial elite are the product of the protracted decay of American capitalism. A quarter century of unending war and decades of soaring social inequality have thoroughly eroded the social foundations of democratic forms of rule. Beyond the oligarchy itself, a privileged layer of the upper-middle class that forms the broader base of the Democratic Party has accrued significant wealth through the meteoric rise of stock prices, itself fueled by the destruction of working class living standards and imperialist aggression overseas.
America’s financial elite, increasingly unable to reconcile its domination of social life with democratic forms of government, feels that the ultimate backstop to its rule is military force. Despite the assurances of the Post, what is emerging is in fact direct rule by the military, allied with Wall Street and the CIA, with the civilian government functioning as a mere facade.
Videos published by the Amaq news agency show artillery exploding over Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria that analysts believe could be white phosphorus rounds. Amaq, which often publishes information provided by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) sources, claims that the areas which are shown being bombarded are ISIS-held sectors of the cities still populated by large numbers of civilians.
One video was posted on June 4, showing a daytime barrage on what is said to be the Zanjiji district of western Mosul. An ISIS flag is flying at the top of one of some multistory buildings in the foreground of the area being bombarded. The artillery shells explode in the fashion of white phosphorus munitions, igniting fires.
A second video, dated June 8, shows several explosions, again consistent with white phosphorus shells, over the surrounded ISIS “capital” of Raqqa. The artillery also appears to immediately trigger intense fires.
Many militaries around the world still use white phosphorus munitions, ostensibly as a means of rapidly creating a dense smoke screen. It can, however, be used as an incendiary weapon. The “smoke” it produces sets alight combustible materials and causes horrific burns to human flesh. It was used extensively during World War II by US and allied forces to attack enemy troop concentrations and set areas ablaze. It was widely used during the American wars in Korea and Vietnam.
In 1980, the use of white phosphorus as an incendiary weapon to target civilians was ruled a war crime under international law.
It has continued, however, to be used to set ablaze urban areas and terrorize civilian populations. Documented or alleged cases include: the 1994 Russian assault on Grozny in Chechnya; the April and November 2004 US attacks on the Iraqi city of Fallujah; the 2006 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon; the 2008-2009 Israeli assault on the Palestinian city of Gaza; and by American forces in Afghanistan during the so-called “surge” ordered by the Obama administration in 2009.
There is overwhelming evidence that the US Marines—commanded by now secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis—used white phosphorus as an incendiary, not smoke-creating, weapon over civilian-populated areas of Fallujah. The Bush administration and Pentagon dismissed allegations of criminality, asserting that it was legitimate as American forces were seeking to force armed insurgents out of their defensive positions.
In a widely cited statement in November 2005, Lieutenant Colonel Barry Venable explained US military tactics regarding its use as an antipersonnel weapon: “When you have enemy forces that are in covered positions that your high explosive artillery rounds are not having an impact on, and you wish to get them out of those positions, one technique is to fire a white phosphorus round into the position because the combined effects of the fire and smoke—and in some case the terror brought about by the explosion on the ground—will drive them out of the holes so that you can kill them with high explosives.”
US Marine artillery batteries, fielding 155mm howitzers and equipped with white phosphorus rounds, are participating in the assaults on both Mosul and Raqqa. An estimated 200,000 civilians are trapped in the ISIS-held areas of both cities.
Upon taking office in January, the new administration of President Donald Trump signaled that it had ordered the lifting of “restrictions” on American forces fighting ISIS that were purportedly limiting civilian casualties. Over the months since, the number and intensity of US air strikes on Mosul and Raqqa have dramatically increased, along with the toll of civilian deaths and injuries.
Secretary of Defense Mattis has stated on several occasions that the US and its local Iraqi and Syrian proxies are now implementing “annihilation tactics” against ISIS.
Prior to the allegations of war crimes relating to the use of white phosphorus, evidence had already emerged in Mosul of the torture and extrajudicial murder of alleged ISIS fighters by US-backed forces.
Why are we focusing on who leaked what to whom, when our democracy is under siege?
It was a breezy, surprisingly pleasant summer week in Washington as the frenzy around potential Trump-Russia revelations reached near-carnival levels. On Thursday, brightly clad groups scattered across the lawns of Capitol Hill could almost have been picnickers — if not for the mounds of cable leashing them to nearby satellite trucks. Every news studio in D.C. seemed to have spilled forth into the jarring sunlight, eager for the best live backdrop to the spectacle that awaited. Bars opened early for live viewing of former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. Political ads against Comey — who isn’t running for anything — aired during coverage of the hearing, often back-to-back with vibrant ads praising President Trump’s first foreign trip, where he “[united] forces for good against evil.”
Only D.C.’s usually opportunistic T-shirt printers seemed to have missed the cue, forced to display the usual tourist “FBI” fare in rainbow spectrum but offering no specialty knitwear for the occasion. The conversion of America’s political arena into a hybrid sporting event/reality show was nonetheless near complete.
Russian state media — eagerly throwing peanuts into the three-ring circus in the days before by endlessly looping Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin’s mockery of America’s “hysteria” on all things Russia, and on the day after by running headlines of American “collusion” with ISIS — was dead silent on either of this week’s Senate hearings, during both of which intelligence leaders offered bleak and candid assessments of the cascading Russian threat against America.
And this is perhaps the banner flying over the investigations circus: Missing from the investigation of the supposed Russia scandal is any real discussion of Russia.
The starkest aspect of Comey’s prepared statement was the president’s lack of curiosity about the long-running, deep-reaching, well-executed and terrifyingly effective Russian attack on American democracy. This was raised more than once in the hearing — that after Trump was briefed in January on the intelligence community’s report, which emphasized ongoing activity directed by the Kremlin against the United States, he has not subsequently evinced any interest in what can be done to protect us from another Russian assault. The president is interested in his own innocence, or the potential guilt of others around him — but not at all in the culpability of a foreign adversary, or what it meant. This is utterly astonishing.
Since the January intelligence report, the public’s understanding of the threat has not expanded. OK, Russia meddled in the election — but so what? Increasingly, responsibility for this is born by the White House, which in seeking to minimize the political damage of “Trump/Russia” is failing to craft a response to the greatest threat the United States and its allies have ever faced.
Even if the president and his team were correct, and the Comey testimony definitively cleared the president of potential obstruction of justice or collusion charges — even if that were true, that does not also exonerate Russia. Nonetheless, this is a line the president seems to want drawn.
So here are the real issues — about Russia; about the brutal facts we have yet to face; and about some hard questions we need to ask ourselves, and our political leaders, and our president.
1. No matter what is true or not, we have moved toward the fractured, inward-looking, weakened America that President Putin wants to see.
An honest assessment of where we are reads like the setting of a dystopian spy novel. Paid advertising is defaming private American citizens viewed as opponents of the president, while political ads praise our glorious leader. The policy process is paralyzed while both party caucuses, once well-oiled legislative and messaging machines, have factionalized into guerrilla-like cells. The same can be said of many government agencies, whose halls remain quiet, awaiting political appointees who may never arrive. Policies are floated and tweeted and drafted and retracted. There are uneasy relationships between the White House and the intelligence community, and between the White House and Congress, and between the White House and other parts of the White House — which is bleeding over into how the intelligence community interacts with the Congress, as well.
This factionalization mirrors a deep and deepening public divide, which has been greatly accelerated by a war on truth. The Russian narrative is increasingly being echoed by far right media, and finding its way into mainstream conservative media. Episodes of violent unrest, and the potential for wider chaos, don’t seem far off.
Meanwhile, no one seems to be watching what Russia is still doing to us. No one is systematically speaking about the tactics of Russian hybrid warfare, and that these go beyond “fake news” and “hacking” into far-reaching intelligence operations and initiatives to destabilize Western countries, economies and societies. No one is talking about how Russia provides training for militants and terrorists in Europe, even as U.S. generals say it is supporting the Taliban as it attacks American forces in Afghanistan. No one is leading a unified effort to roll back Russian influence in Europe or Asia or the Middle East. No one is commenting on Russia’s new efforts to entrench its presence near eastern Ukraine, escalate the fighting there and destabilize the government in Kyiv.
No one is commenting on how Russia is sparking and fueling Middle Eastern wars — first a physical one spiraling out from Syria, and now a diplomatic one that sweeps across the region. In a very real sense, if you want a glimpse of the world that Putin’s “grey Cardinal” Vladislav Surkov imagined when he described nonlinear warfare — “all against all” — the current churn throughout the Middle East, the Gulf states and North Africa is a pretty good example. This is a massive realignment that deeply affects U.S. interests, and which will cost us, in blood and treasure, in immeasurable ways.
But no one is commenting on the new hardware and manpower that Russia has deployed to the eastern and southern Mediterranean, or to its eastern and western borders. Our trenches will draw nearer again after the summer exercise season, but who will man them on the Western side is more uncertain. Europe’s newfound fortitude is absolutely critical — but their military capabilities will lag their ambitions for years to come.
Our relationships with our truest allies are frayed and fraying — and not just in headlines, but in trust and intelligence sharing and functionality, even as critical ambassadorships and administration jobs gape open. Those who remain, especially from the Pentagon and military commands — Defense Secretary James Mattis and the EUCOM and SOCOM commanders, notably — have been patrolling Europe with trips and reassurances, good work that was undone when the president removed mention of Article 5 from his speech at NATO headquarters. Though he committed to the principle of collective defense on Friday during a news conference with the president of Romania, that one act of petulance is devastating to years of NATO’s strategic planning.
Even behind closed doors, Trump reportedly did not once mention Russia to the NATO heads of state — not to discuss Russian attacks against our allies, and not to discuss Russia’s menacing of NATO skies, seas and borders. Instead, he browbeat our allies. Maybe it’s news to the White House — but it was Russia’s aggression, not Trump’s hectoring, that inspired the alliance to boost national military spending. Days later, the sting still on the slap, Trump lashed out at the mayor of London following a terror attack. These words and images, next to those of the president yukking it up in the Oval Office with the Russian foreign minister, add a dangerous element of fragility to the greatest military alliance in history.
It leaves us to wonder — who does President Trump imagine will come to our aid after the next attack on our soil? Who does he imagine will stand next to our troops and ease the burden at the front lines in the many wars he is fighting?
For while our attention is on the center ring and who may next find their head inside the lion’s mouth, we are engaged in expanding special warfare in Africa, a tense standoff on the Korean peninsula, expanding operations in the Middle East. The president has requested a military budget to match this operational appetite — even if his inability to manage Congress makes it near-certain this will be trapped behind a continuing budget resolution until after the midterm elections. The Pentagon is clear on the purpose and direction of these operations, but the president’s tirades against countries hosting our men and military assets — Qatar, South Korea, Germany, etc. — complicate our ability to execute on-task.
Even Putin admits that “patriotic” Russian hackers were behind the attack on America — a fact the president will still not mention without caveat. Trump is isolated, manages those around him with Stalinesque puppeteering, and rightly views himself as under attack. But even if given every benefit of the doubt about the election, it is clear he does not think Russia is a threat.
2. Russia has altered American policies, our relationships with our allies and our view of our place in the world.
To be clear: I am not saying Trump did not win the election, or that he didn’t have considerable momentum toward the end of the campaign. Candidate Trump had a narrative that captured many hearts and minds — but this did not happen in a vacuum, but rather a landscape awash in Russian active measures.
A constantly misunderstood narrative was revisited during the Comey hearing — questions about whether Russian actions “changed” the vote. The focus on whether this means Russia physically changed votes is the greatest diversion tactic of all. Ironically, D.C.’s political class — whose existence is based upon the ability to deploy narratives that get some people to vote, and others not to — refuses to admit that outside interests could change a small percentage of votes in the Rust Belt.
If the Trump campaign itself has openly discussed its use of data-backed information operations to conduct targeted voter-suppression campaigns, possibly at the individual level — why would we believe the Russians wouldn’t be experimenting with the same tools and tactics? Do we really think Russian-friendly parties, oligarchs and state-owned interests hire U.S. political consultants and pollsters and technology firms merely to run ad campaigns, rather than to learn how to use these things against us?
These tools and tactics in the information space work better against America than anywhere else because there are a lot of us, and because English is the language of internet — and the amplification factor because of these things is staggering, especially when one of our presidential candidates was borrowing and repeating Russian narrative and disinformation. What possible claim could any sensible American politician make that these factors had no impact in the decisionmaking process of the American voter?
In fact, you can track the radical changes in the belief of certain narratives during the time period Comey identified as when the most intensive Kremlin-led activities were underway (beginning in summer 2015 through present day). During this time frame, Republican views on free trade agreements dropped 30 points, from roughly the same as Democrats to radically divergent (Democratic views remained relatively steady). Putin’s favorability rating increased, even while unfavorable views remained constant, fueled by a 20-point increase among Republicans and an 11-point increase among Independents. Between early 2016 and now, Republican views of whether media criticism can help keep political leaders in line — which for the previous five years was almost identical to Democratic views — dropped by 35 points.
An isolationist America that is softer on Russia and more in favor of authoritarian traits in leaders fits right into the narratives that the Kremlin nurtures and spends billions to promote. And if views changed so dramatically on these aspects of Russian narratives — why is it we believe their efforts didn’t change any votes?
In many ways, the trust-based, state-based U.S. voting system is surprisingly resilient to basichacking or meddling. Every state, sometimes every county, runs its own elections with its own rules with its own machines (or not) serviced by their own vendors. Certainly, there are easy ways to hack this infrastructure — technicians servicing software, unsecured machines, etc. — but the decentralized system makes it a complicated affair. It’s uncertain and it’s messy and it would leave a trail of money and evidence that can be found and exposed.
Far simpler, it turns out, is just hacking people — getting them to change their views over time without realizing that they are doing so on the basis of deliberately coercive and false information that is targeted at them because they exhibit certain traits and habits that “data scientists” have profiled. And no one can prove anyone did anything.
And yes, this is indeed terrifying. So yes, it would be great if everyone would move on from denying the existence of the “hacked votes” no one is looking for to looking instead at the far more important issue: that Russian information warfare has come of age thanks to social media. Perhaps then, the tens of thousands of “programmers” working for Russia’s three largest data companies will make a lot more sense.
3. It will happen again; it is still happening now.
One final point, on the tactical weaponization of discrete pieces of information. Ours was not the only case where hacking introduced info or disinfo that came to dominate specific parts of the information space (particularly when massively amplified by botnets that know how to game the algorithms).
Just this week, the planting of a single false report, allegedly by Russian hackers, was used to justify a diplomatic rift that will fuel the realignment of the Middle East. Russia has been working to accelerate this process since 2011, when it used the Syrian civil war as a pretext to deploy to the region. It is no accident that this realignment has meant a proxy war that has empowered Iran — which has been helping kill Americans in Iraq since at least 2004 — and special efforts targeting countries that the U.S. has relied on for regional basing and power projection — including Turkey, Egypt, Qatar and Iraqi Kurdistan.
This tactic works because it prays on doubts and grievances that are already present — as the best information warfare does. Truth doesn’t matter. Once we know how we feel about something, who cares what the truth is? And information is just one act of Russia’s shadow war.
So this is where we are, six months after first taking stock of what Russia did to America. We are paralyzed and divided, watching a salacious sideshow of an investigation while Russian initiatives are underway in countless places, completely unchecked. The American president, eager to be rid of this “cloud,” has equated dismissing Russia’s global imperialist insurgency with loyalty to him.
As I wrote for Politico in January, Russia is clear about what its objectives are. When I said then that Russia was at war with the United States, this was an edgy, controversial view. Now, it is regularly repeated by senators and TV commentators. But our societal understanding of the war we face has not expanded fast enough.
Even looking only at the advance of Russian military assets — men, materiel, supporting infrastructure — the picture is grim. And yet the most concise encapsulation of the Russian concept of hybrid warfare — the chart depicting the “Gerasimov doctrine,” developed by the Russian chief of the general staff — shows that information warfare is the constant through all phases, and that the ideal ratio of nonmilitary to military activities is 4:1. The more important war is, by far, the shadow war. And yet we still refuse to accept what’s happening.
I don’t know why we just choose not to believe what Russia says, when they have repeatedly outlined what their strategic goals are and then moved to achieve them by force and guile. But it’s a bridge of disbelief we need to be willing to cross.
The war is in the shadows. And right now, Russia is winning. There is only one question that we should be asking: What are we going to do to protect the American people from Russian acts of war — and why doesn’t the president want to talk about it?
The latest in a long series of bloody terrorist attacks attributed to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) unfolded in Iran early Wednesday with coordinated armed assaults on the Iranian Parliament (Majlis) and the mausoleum of the late supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, Imam Khomeini. At least 12 people were killed and 43 wounded.
The reactions of the US government and the Western media to the attacks in Tehran stand in stark contrast to their response to the May 22 bombing that killed 22 people at the Manchester Arena and the London Bridge attacks that claimed nine lives last Saturday.
The Trump White House released a vicious statement that effectively justified the killings in Iran, declaring, “We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote,” an attitude that found its reflection in the relative indifference of the media to the loss of Iranian lives. It is clearly understood that terrorism against Iran serves definite political aims that are in sync with those of US imperialism and its regional allies.
For its part, Tehran’s reaction to the attacks was unambiguous. It laid the responsibility at the door of the US and its principal regional ally, Saudi Arabia. “This terrorist attack happened only a week after the meeting between the US president (Donald Trump) and the (Saudi) backward leaders who support terrorists,” Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said in a statement, published by Iranian media. The attack was understood in Tehran as a political act carried out in conjunction with identifiable state actors and aimed at furthering definite geostrategic objectives.
The same can be said of the earlier acts of terrorism carried out in Manchester and London, as well as those in Paris, Brussels and elsewhere before them.
The Western media routinely treats each of these atrocities as isolated manifestations of “evil” or religious hatred, irrational acts carried out by madmen. In reality, they are part of an internationally coordinated campaign in pursuit of definite political objectives.
Underlying the violence on the streets of Europe is the far greater violence inflicted upon the Middle East by US, British and French imperialism, working in conjunction with right-wing bourgeois regimes and the Islamist forces they promote, finance and arm.
ISIS is itself the direct product of a series of imperialist wars, emerging as a split-off from Al Qaeda, which got its start in the CIA-orchestrated war by Islamist fundamentalists against the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan. It was forged in the US war of aggression against Iraq that killed close to a million Iraqis, and then utilized in the 2011 war to topple Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi. Fighters and arms were then funneled with the aid of the CIA into the war for regime change in Syria.
The latest round of terror has its source in growing dissatisfaction among Washington’s Middle Eastern allies and its Islamist proxy forces over the slow pace of the US intervention in Syria and Washington’s failure to bring the six-year war for regime change to a victorious conclusion.
The people giving the orders for these attacks live in upper-class neighborhoods in London, Paris and elsewhere, enjoying close connections with intelligence agencies and government officials. Far from being unknown, they will be found among the top ministers and government officials in Damascus if the US-backed war in Syria achieves its objectives.
Those who carry out the terrorist atrocities are expendable assets, foot soldiers who are easily replaced from among the broad layers enraged by the slaughter carried out by imperialism in the Middle East.
The mass media always presents the failure to prevent these attacks as a matter of the security forces failing to “connect the dots,” a phrase that should by now be permanently banned. In virtually every case, those involved are well known to the authorities.
In the latest attacks in the UK, the connections are astonishing, even given the similar facts that have emerged in previous terrorist actions. One of the attackers in the London Bridge killings, Yousseff Zaghba, was stopped at an Italian airport while attempting to travel to Syria, freely admitting that he “wanted to be a terrorist” and carrying ISIS literature. Another was featured in a British television documentary that chronicled his confrontation with and detention by police after he unfurled an ISIS flag in Regent’s Park.
The Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, was likewise well known to British authorities. His parents were members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), who were allowed to return to Libya in 2011 to participate in the US-NATO regime-change operation against Muammar Gaddafi. He himself met with Libyan Islamic State operatives in Libya, veterans of the Syrian civil war, and maintained close connections with them while in Manchester.
What has become clear after 16 years of the so-called “war on terrorism”—going all the way back to the hijackers of 9/11—is that these elements move in and out of the Middle East, Europe and the US itself not only without hindrance, but under what amounts to state protection.
When they arrive at passport control, their names come up with definite instructions that they are not to be stopped. “Welcome home, sir, enjoy your vacation in Libya?” “Bit of tourism in Syria?”
Why have they enjoyed this carte blanche? Because they are auxiliaries of US and European intelligence, necessary proxies in wars for regime change from Libya to Syria and beyond that are being waged to further imperialist interests.
If from time to time these elements turn against their sponsors, with innocent civilians paying with their lives, that is part of the price of doing business.
In the aftermath of terrorist actions, governments respond with stepped-up measures of repression and surveillance. Troops are deployed in the streets, democratic rights are suspended, and, as in France, a state of emergency is made the overriding law of the land. All of these measures are useless in terms of preventing future attacks, but serve very well to control the domestic population and suppress social unrest.
If the mass media refuses to state what has become obvious after more than a decade and a half of these incidents, it is a measure of how fully the linkage between terrorism, the Western intelligence agencies and the unending wars in the Middle East has become institutionalized.
Innocent men, women and children, whether in London, Manchester, Paris, Tehran, Baghdad or Kabul, are paying the terrible price for these imperialist operations, which leave a trail of blood and destruction everywhere.
Putting a stop to terrorist attacks begins with a fight to put an end to the so-called “war on terrorism,” the fraudulent pretext for predatory wars in which Al Qaeda and its offshoots are employed as proxy ground forces, operating in intimate collaboration with imperialist intelligence services and military commands.
Less than a week after US President Donald Trump returned to the United States from his overseas tour of the Middle East and Europe, it is clear that a shift in world politics with vast implications is underway. Global relationships and institutions that for decades set the framework for international economy and public life are rapidly unraveling.
The rising threat of trade war and the resurgence of the military ambitions of all the imperialist powers are signs of the advanced state of collapse of the international institutions created after the United States emerged from World War II as the dominant imperialist power.
This collapse is the product of processes that have matured over decades. In 1991, when the Stalinist dissolution of the Soviet Union deprived the NATO alliance of a common enemy, tensions between the imperialist powers were already surging. As US strategists declared a “unipolar moment,” in which the disappearance of the Soviet Union eliminated any immediate military rival, they aimed to use this military advantage to counterbalance the declining economic position of the United States.
A 1992 Pentagon strategy paper asserted that Washington had to convince “potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture,” and to “discourage them from challenging our leadership or seeking to overturn the established political and economic order.”
A quarter century later, this policy has failed. It led to a series of imperialist wars and interventions by the NATO powers, led by the United States, that shattered Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, and other countries. While costing millions of lives, destroying entire societies, and creating the greatest refugee crisis since World War II, these acts of militarism have produced debacles and failed to reverse US imperialism’s fortunes. Now, a new stage of the crisis has been reached: The United States’ imperialist rivals are preparing direct, far-reaching challenges to US imperialism’s global primacy.
Trump’s attempts at the G7 and NATO summits to secure better economic terms for the United States from Europe have backfired. He had blamed the Europeans for “not paying what they should be paying” for military spending in the NATO alliance, and denounced Germany as “terrible,” adding, “We will stop” German car exports to the US. Europe’s response was not sympathy and financial aid, however, but a series of actions indicating that the continental European powers are preparing for a political and military break with America.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking at a Munich beer tent rally Sunday, referred to both Trump’s performance at the summits and Britain’s vote to exit the European Union (EU): “The times when we could fully rely on others are to some extent over—I experienced that in the last few days. We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.” Going forward, she added, “we have to fight for our own future ourselves.”
Events in Europe over the past week confirmed that Merkel’s statement reflected a deep crisis in the NATO military alliance founded in 1949 between America and Europe. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel declared that under Trump, Washington had cast itself outside the “Western community of values.” He added that this signaled “a shift in global power relations.”
Then newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron, a close ally of Berlin, invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to a high-profile summit at Versailles. Standing next to Putin in a joint press conference, Macron criticized all the main US-EU foreign interventions in recent years. He called for an end to the conflict in Ukraine provoked by the 2014 US- and German-backed coup in Kiev, called for closer economic and intelligence cooperation with Russia and even floated the possibility of re-opening France’s embassy in Damascus, Syria.
Also this week, a new EU military headquarters in Brussels went into operation. Britain, which had blocked it in line with US fears that the EU would become a rival to NATO, could no longer veto it due to its exit from the EU.
Among US foreign policy strategists, it is widely acknowledged that these events mark a historic setback for Washington. “Every American administration since 1945 has tried to work closely with Germany and NATO,” Jacob Heilbrunn wrote in The National Interest, but America under Trump is “pushing Merkel to create a German superpower.”
Heilbrunn added, “Now that France has elected Emanuel Macron president, Merkel is moving to fashion a Franco-German axis that will pursue a common economic and military path. This will signal a significant diminution in American prestige and influence abroad. Imagine, for example, that Merkel decided to defy Trump’s push for sanctions and isolating Iran by establishing trade ties with North Korea, including selling it weapons.”
These tensions are not simply the product of the extreme nationalist policies of the current occupant of the White House, however. Indeed, as the Democratic Party relentlessly demonizes Russia and accuses it of subverting American democracy, it is ever clearer that a victory of Hillary Clinton in last year’s US presidential election would not have resolved the conflicts with Europe. Rather, the tensions are rooted in deep contradictions between the interests of the major imperialist powers, which twice in the last century led to world war.
This is underscored by the escalating rivalries between the imperialist powers in Asia. Last month, as China inaugurated its so-called Belt and Road Initiative—designed to build a web of energy and transport infrastructure integrating China, the Middle East, and Europe—Washington was reduced to a role on the sidelines, as China and the EU developed their ties. The response of Japan and India, Washington’s allies in its “pivot to Asia” aimed at isolating China, is not, however, fundamentally friendlier to US imperialist interests than that of the EU powers.
Last week, Tokyo and New Delhi released a “vision document” for an “Asia Africa Growth Corridor,” aiming to present an alternative to China’s Belt and Road that would develop India as a production-chain hub and military counterweight to China. The goal of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his supporters in the ultra-nationalist Nippon Kaigi organization is not only to outstrip China, but also to rearm Japan and supplant America as Asia’s dominant power.
Abe, whose government is pushing aggressively for the elimination of the constitutional ban on Japanese overseas wars imposed after its defeat in World War II, has repeatedly declared that an Indo-Japanese alliance has “the most potential” of any “in the world.”
The events surrounding Trump’s trip to Europe reflect a crisis not only of American imperialism, but of the entire world capitalist system. None of Washington’s rivals—neither the EU, despised at home for its austerity policies, nor the economically moribund, right-wing regime in Japan, nor the post-Maoist capitalist oligarchy in China—offer a progressive alternative.
Anyone who asserted that a coalition of these powers will emerge to stabilize world capitalism, and block the emergence of large-scale trade war and military conflict, would be placing heavy bets against history. As Trump demands trade war against Germany, Berlin and Tokyo re-militarize their foreign policy, and a new French president comes to power who supports restoring the draft, everything indicates that the ruling elites are tobogganing eyes closed towards a new global conflagration on the same—or an even greater—scale as the world wars of the last century.
The force that will emerge as the alternative to the collapse of bourgeois politics is the international working class. It is being driven into action by intolerable conditions of life, mass unemployment, and social misery after decades of austerity and war. And as corporations like Amazon and Apple, with vast workforces spread over dozens of countries, predominate in a globalized world economy, the working class is increasingly conscious of its character as an international class, whose interests are fundamentally separate and opposed to those of the financial aristocracies that rule in every country.
The collapse of international capitalist relations goes hand in hand with the discrediting of the various social democratic and liberal parties and trade union bureaucracies that emerged to contain the class struggle in the post-World War II era. The surprise vote for Brexit, the election of Trump and the disintegration of France’s two-party system in the recent presidential election testify to the collapse of the old ruling establishments. A global eruption of the class struggle is being prepared.
The crisis that has emerged has vindicated the International Committee of the Fourth International’s (ICFI) insistence that the Stalinists’ dissolution of the Soviet Union did not signify the end of the struggle of the international working class for socialism. Capitalism had not overcome the fundamental conflicts identified by the great Marxists of the 20th century—the contradictions between global economy and the nation-state system, and between socialized economic production and the private appropriation of profit—that led to war and to social revolution.
The way forward for the working class is revolutionary struggle on an internationalist and socialist program in the tradition of the October Revolution a century ago. Workers cannot support the militarist policies of any of the contending imperialist powers. The necessary response to the deepening crisis of global capitalism is the unification of the working class in struggle against imperialism through the building of a world socialist anti-war movement.
The political noose is tightening around Trump’s neck, and he’s got only one way out: war. The U.S. involvement in the Syrian war is accelerating as Trump’s talons dig deeper into the conflict. If he successfully clutches his prey he stands a chance of clinging to the presidency.
The Democrats, now circling a wounded Trump, will happily feast instead on a rotting Syria: the only thing that can keep the Democrats from destroying Trump is if Trump destroys Syria.
Trump’s strategy is based on how Democrats reacted after his first attack on the Syrian government on April 6th: they paused their toothless “resistance” to celebrate his bombing. Trump, at his most dangerous, exposed the Democrats at their weakest.
Now Trump has struck the Syrian government again: on May 18th U.S. fighter jets attacked the Syrian military in Eastern Syria, from a new U.S. military base functioning inside Syrian territory controlled by the Syrian Kurds, where there are at least 1,000 U.S. active troops.
Although the U.S. media underplayed Trump’s recent attack —— or ignored it completely — legendary U.K. Middle East journalist Robert Fisk explained the significance:
“…what was described by the Americans as a minor action was part of a far more important struggle between the US and the Syrian regime for control of the south-eastern frontier of Syria…”
Yes, the U.S. is already at war with the Syrian government for control of Syrian territory. The U.S. war on ISIS in Syria was never about ISIS, but about gaining a foothold directly inside Syria. Many pundits dismissed Trump’s initial attack on the Syrian government as “symbolic,” when in fact it began a new war. The New York Times confirms the motive of Trump’s war:
“Two competing coalitions that aim to defeat the Islamic State — one [Kurdish and U.S. fighters] backed by American air power, the other [the Syrian government] by Russian warplanes — are racing to the same goal.”
What is this goal?
“…[there is an] urgency among the competing coalitions fighting the Islamic State to be the first in southeast Syria to defeat the group [ISIS] and to occupy the power vacuum that its defeat would leave….Eastern Syria and the area around Deir al-Zour are mostly unpopulated desert, but they have Syria’s modest oil reserves…The area is strategically important to the United States, which wants to stabilize Iraq where it has a long-term military and political investment, and to Russia, which wants to strengthen the Syrian government’s control of as much territory as possible.”
In summary: the U.S. military wants to “occupy” the “power vacuum” left by ISIS, because Syrian territory is “strategically important” to the United States.
The war isn’t about ISIS because the U.S. military isn’t needed to defeat ISIS in Syria, since the group was doomed the day that Turkey decided to close ranks against them — by sealing their border with Syria — instead of openly supporting them as they had for several years.
Consequently, the Syrian government — with Russian and Iranian support — has no problem mopping up ISIS in Syria, and they’re racing to do it first before the U.S.-Kurdish alliance claims the territory for itself.
Establishment Democrats are cheer-leading Trump’s war goals in private, which is why they’re not denouncing them in public. The Democrat-friendly New York Times published a revealing op-ed entitled “A Trump Doctrine for the Middle East?” In it the writer applauds Trump’s war aims:
“Despite the controversies at home, Mr. Trump may come away with a legacy-cementing achievement: a Trump Doctrine for the Middle East…it is false that American ‘soft power’ is the key to stabilizing the [middle east] region. Our ideals, such as promoting democracy, will work to our advantage only if we first restore order — a project that rests on American hard power [military intervention]. What’s more, the use of force is not inherently counterproductive…”
The article explains that Obama’s “soft power” (the Syrian proxy war) failed and that Trump aims to “restore order” with “hard power” (direct military intervention). As Trump’s bombs fall heavier Democrats will scramble to support a wider war that, crazily, increasingly threatens direct confrontation with Russia. The Russian government loudly denounced Trump’s most recent bombing against the Syrian government, and sent more Russian troops to the region in response.
The U.S. war against ISIS in Syria has always been a pretext to undermine the Syrian and Iranian governments. Robert Fisk explains:
“Cutting Syria off from Iraq – and thus from Iran – appears to be a far more immediate operational aim of US forces in Syria than the elimination of the [ISIS] Sunni ‘Caliphate’ cult that Washington claims to be its principal enemy in the Middle East.”
How might this “race to defeat ISIS” end? Trump’s ominous trip to Saudi Arabia gives some insight into the Trump Doctrine. Trump made an enormous arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth $350 billion over 10 years, and wants the Saudis to use the money to co-lead an “Arab NATO” [military alliance]. Who will this alliance be aimed against? The Trump administration made it known that Iran was the main target, and thus Syria is the appetizer.
In a separate article Robert Fisk discussed Trump’s Saudi visit:
“The aim, however, is simple: to prepare the Sunni Muslims [the gulf monarchy U.S. allies and others] of the Middle East for war against the Shia Muslims [Iran, Syria, Hezbollah]. With help from Israel, of course.”
This is the real reason Trump prioritized Saudi Arabia as the always-important first stop on his initial trip abroad: Trump is clearly stating his commitment to the totalitarian monarchies, who main priorities are the destruction of its regional enemies: Yemen, Syria, and Iran.
This “Arab NATO” is meant to act as a U.S. puppet army in the way that ‘official’ NATO does in Europe, and the African Union’s “Standby Force” does in Africa, where U.S. allies share the responsibility of repressing neighbor states who defy U.S. interests, i.e. they refuse to abandon their political-economic self determination.
A U.S.-led “Arab NATO” wasn’t previously impossible because the U.S. is universally hated across the Middle East, for its longstanding alliance with Israel combined with its recent annihilation of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. The openness in which the Gulf monarchies are trying to form this alliance shows just how distanced from and hated by their own residents, who are prevented from expressing their hatred through elections or public protest.
The Trump-led alliance is especially foreboding because U.S. allies in the region feel deeply betrayed by Obama’s Middle East approach; they want concrete assurances the betrayal won’t be repeated, since U.S. allies risked a lot in regime change in Syria after Obama ensured them that regime change would be a safe bet. Trump’s visit means, in practice, a fresh commitment to Assad’s downfall and renewed hostilities with Iran, nuclear deal be damned.
Trump’s current war strategy in Syria is similar to President Bush Sr.’s experiment in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War: he used a no-fly zone in Kurdish-majority northern Iraq that de-facto partitioned the country, allowing the Kurds to take power where they remain in power today, as an important U.S. puppet. The partitioning of Iraq helped weaken the country prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion.
The Syrian Kurds are now being armed with U.S. weaponry and given similar promises as their Iraqi counterparts received, but the Syrian Kurds are rightfully nervous about their new alliance.
In their desperate fight against ISIS the Kurds have accepted an alliance with the world’s military superpower: the Kurdish homeland is infested with rats and they invited a tiger to deal with the problem; but once the rats are dead the tiger will stay hungry. The Kurds also live next to another starving Tiger, the Turkish Government.
“…[President Trump] give us your word that even after Raqqa’s liberation [in Syria] you will prevent attempts by Turkey to destroy what we’ve built here.”
Of course Trump’s “word” is meaningless (and even this he won’t give publicly). The Kurds are being used as battlefield pawns in a greater game. As Trump aligns with the Kurds in Syria, he simultaneously calls the Turkish Kurds “terrorists,” even though the Turkish and Syrian Kurds are closely aligned ideologically and militarily.
Like all “boots on the ground,” the Kurds are most useful to the U.S. as cannon fodder, while more powerful people profit from the fighting. The political power of the Kurds pales in comparison to their enemy Turkey, whose government has long-term interests (the destruction of the Kurds) that will outlast the short-term military objectives Trump.
The above contradictions are sharpening across the Middle East, nearing the point of yet another explosion. The Trump Doctrine is a flamethrower at a gas station that can instantly spark an even greater conflagration, beyond the horrors we’ve already witnessed across the Middle East. If the Trump resistance movement in the United States doesn’t quickly prioritize a real anti war strategy, there will be little resistance left to speak of as we descend into war.
Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org