“mission creep” in the Ukraine or emerging NATO “sphere of influence”?

US ‘Trainers’ Arrive in Ukraine for Operation Fearless Guardian

Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a statement Friday rebuking the troops’ arrival.

“The participation of instructors and specialists from a third country on the territory of Ukraine, where an unresolved intra-Ukrainian conflict remains, where problems persist in carrying out the Minsk agreement, is far from helping resolve the conflict. To the contrary, it enables destabilizing the situation,” spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated.

The Kremlin isn’t alone in criticizing the operation, as the Ottawa Citizen reported this week:

But some foreign affairs experts say the decision to send Canadian, British and U.S. training troops to Ukraine could worsen matters with nuclear-armed Russia.

“Canada’s decision is not only provocative to Russia but it’s dangerous,” said retired Canadian diplomat James Bissett. “We are poking at them unnecessarily.”

And Columnist and author Eric Margolis wrote earlier this year that the sending of the purported trainers was part of “the march to folly in Ukraine”:

The US soldiers will just be for training, and the number of GI’s will be modest, claim US military sources. Of course. Just like those small numbers of American “advisors” and “trainers” in Vietnam that eventually grew to 550,000. Just as there are now US special forces in over 100 countries. We call it “mission creep.”

The UN Human Rights Office and the World Health Organization estimate that over 6,100 people have been killed and over 15,000 wounded in the conflict since April 2014.

The New York Times “basically rewrites whatever the Kiev authorities say”: Stephen F. Cohen on the U.S./Russia/Ukraine history the media won’t tell you

The problem is that by taking the view, as the American media and political establishment do, that this crisis is entirely the fault of “Putin’s aggression,” there’s no rethinking of American policy over the last 20 years. I have yet to see a single influential person say, “Hey, maybe we did something wrong, maybe we ought to rethink something.” That’s a recipe for more of the same, of course, and more of the same could mean war with Russia….

Let me give you one example. It’s the hardest thing for the American foreign policy elite and the media elite to cope with.

Our position is that nobody is entitled to a sphere of influence in the 21st century. Russia wants a sphere of influence in the sense that it doesn’t want American military bases in Ukraine or in the Baltics or in Georgia. But what is the expansion of NATO other than the expansion of the American zone or sphere of influence? It’s not just military. It’s financial, it’s economic, it’s cultural, it’s intermarriage—soldiers, infrastructure. It’s probably the most dramatic expansion of a great sphere of influence in such a short time and in peacetime in the history of the world.

So you have Vice President Biden constantly saying, “Russia wants a sphere of influence and we won’t allow it.” Well, we are shoving our sphere of influence down Russia’s throat, on the assumption that it won’t push back. Obviously, the discussion might well begin: “Is Russia entitled to a zone or sphere in its neighborhood free of foreign military bases?” Just that, nothing more. If the answer is yes, NATO expansion should’ve ended in Eastern Germany, as the Russians were promised. But we’ve crept closer and closer. Ukraine is about NATO-expansion-no-matter-what. Washington can go on about democracy and sovereignty and all the rest, but it’s about that. And we can’t re-open this question…. The hypocrisy, or the inability to connect the dots in America, is astonishing.

US-NATO Antics in the Nuclear Playground

The commander of US-NATO forces, the vigorously vocal General Breedlove, stated on April 7 that the military alliance’s planners “have been working tirelessly to enhance NATO’s Response Force and implement the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, and today our progress is manifested in the rapid deployments we see happening in locations across the Alliance.”

Breedlove is the man who declared on March 5 that Russia had sent combat troops and massive quantities of military equipment into Ukraine. He said that President Putin had “upped the ante” in eastern Ukraine by deploying “well over a thousand combat vehicles, Russian combat forces, some of their most sophisticated air defense, battalions of artillery.” His military opinion was that “What is clear is that right now, it is not getting better. It is getting worse every day.”

He spoke absolute drivel, because the ceasefire between Ukrainian forces and separatists in the east of the country was working, albeit shakily, and things were quietening down. The last thing that was needed was provocation. Silence and, or at the most, calm, reasoned comments were essential if both sides were to be encouraged to cool it.

But this man, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, the man who has the trust of the American president, the prime nuclear button-shover, told a deliberate lie intended to increase tension.

The manufactured tension built up and on April 7 Breedlove’s HQ announced that the militaries of “11 Allied nations, Germany, Poland, Norway, Denmark, Hungary, Lithuania, Croatia, Portugal, and Slovenia tested their Headquarters’ response to alert procedures,” while “in the afternoon of 7 April, the 11th Air Mobile Brigade in The Netherlands and the 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade in the Czech Republic were given orders to rapidly prepare to deploy their troops and equipment” in a maneuver called “Noble Jump” which conjured up an image of a missile-wielding April bunny leaping into the fray against a coyly unnamed enemy who could be no other than Russia. (Although perhaps Russia need not be too troubled about some of NATO’s war preparations. My sources told me that the practice mobilization of the Dutch brigade was a shambles.)

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“To publish Eduardo Galeano is to publish the enemy: the enemy of lies, indifference, above all of forgetfulness.”

Remembering Eduardo Galeano, Champion of Social Justice & Chronicler of Latin America’s Open Veins

The writer John Berger said of Eduardo Galeano, quote, “To publish Eduardo Galeano is to publish the enemy: the enemy of lies, indifference, above all of forgetfulness. Thanks to him, our crimes will be remembered. His tenderness is devastating, his truthfulness furious.”

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Why would tea party Republicans want to demolish the estate tax?

Republicans push for a permanent aristocracy

They’ve discovered, belatedly, that income inequality is a problem, and they’re no longer proposing to give tax breaks to the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. Now they are proposing to give tax breaks to the wealthiest two-tenths of 1 percent of Americans.

On Tuesday afternoon, the House Rules Committee took up H.R. 1105, the “Death Tax Repeal Act of 2015,” with plans to bring it to a vote on the chamber floor Wednesday — Tax Day. It is an extraordinarily candid expression of the majority’s priorities: A tax cut costing the treasury $269 billion over a decade that would exclusively benefit individuals with wealth of more than $5.4 million and couples with wealth of more than $10.9 million.

That’s a tax break for only the 5,500 wealthiest households in the country each year, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. Of those, the 318 wealthiest estates each year — those worth $50 million or more — would see an average windfall of $20 million each, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

And this at a time when the gap between rich and poor is already worse than it has been since the Great Depression? Never in the history of plutocracy has so much been given away to so few who need it so little.

This is the ultimate perversion of the tea party movement, which began as a populist revolt in 2009 but has since been hijacked by wealthy and corporate interests. The estate tax has been part of American law in some form since 1797, according to the advocacy group Americans for Tax Fairness, a shield against the sort of permanent aristocracy our founders fought to rid themselves of.

As House Conservatives Peddle Falsehoods to Justify Repealing the Estate Tax This Week, GOP Leaders Dishonestly Claim to Be Concerned About Income Inequality

1. The Repeal of the Estate Tax is Not About the Wealthy.

“[T]his tax doesn’t just hit the big guy. It hits the little guy—like the small business and the family farm. It is both unwise and unfair, and it needs to go.” – Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), March 25, 2015 House Committee on Ways and Means hearing

FACT: Estates worth less than $5.4 million for an individual and nearly $11 million for a
married couple are exempt from paying any tax. That means 99.8% of estates would not be
affected, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT).The wealthy heirs who benefit
from repeal are slated to get a $3 million tax cut, on average, in 2016, according to JCT data.

The 318 estates worth at least $50 million would receive tax windfalls averaging more than
$20 million each.

2. The Estate Tax is Killing Family Farms.

“The Death Tax is still the number one reason family-owned farms and businesses in America
aren’t passed down to the next generation.” – Lead estate tax repeal bill sponsor Rep. Kevin
Brady (R-TX), March 26, 2015 press conference

FACT: No family farm has ever been lost as a result of the estate tax. David Cay Johnston
won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing this fabrication in 2001 at a time when the estate tax was
significantly more robust.

3. A Significant Portion of Farmers and Small Businesses Pay the Estate Tax.

“If you…make the argument that only rich and wealthy people pay this tax,that is not true. It’s not true for almost every farmer and rancher in this country, it’s not true for every small business owner out there.” – Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD), March 25, 2015 House Committee on Ways and Means hearing

“I am committed to repealing this unjust – and frankly, immoral – tax that hurts small
businesses and family farms most.” – Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD), March 25, 2015 press release

FACT: Of the millions of small businesses and small family farms in America, only 20 paid
any estate tax in 2013, according to the Tax Policy Center. If large farms are included, the
number is still only 120 estates (Table 3), the average net worth of which is over $20 million.

Protections exist for farms and small businesses that do owe estate tax.

4. The Estate Tax Disproportionately Hurts People of Color.

“The Death Tax is especially destructive to women and minority-owned small businesses in
America who are building wealth often for the first time. … A study by Boston College professors estimates the Death Tax could rob African-American households of up to a quarter-trillion dollars of wealth over the first half of this century.” – Lead estate tax repeal bill sponsor Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), March 25, 2015 House Committee on Ways and Means hearing

FACT: A recent study by the Pew Research Center shows the net worth of white households
is 13 times more than African-American households. The 2004 report from Boston College
(Table 5) that Rep. Brady cites shows that 0.00% of African-Americans have a household net
worth above $5 million; the current exemption for the federal estate tax is $5.4 million for
an individual and nearly $11 million for married couples.

5. The Estate Tax is a Double Tax.

“For too long the federal government has forced grieving families to pay a tax on their loved one’s life savings that has been built from income already taxed when originally earned.”

– Lead estate tax repeal bill sponsor Sen. John Thune (R-SD), March 25, 2015 press release

FACT: On average, 55% of the value of estates worth more than $100 million is made up of
unrealized capital gains that have never faced income or capital gains tax, according to
Federal Reserve Board data. For estates worth between $5 million and $10 million, the
unrealized capital gains that have never been taxed are 32% of the estate’s value. If the
estate tax were repealed, those capital gains would face no tax of any kind whatsoever. The
reason is that a giant loophole allows capital gains to escape taxation by exempting
inherited assets from being subject to capital gains taxes. What’s more, with no estate tax,
heirs could never face tax on those gains either – over generations, wealthy families can
arrange their affairs to avoid ever paying taxes on massive amounts of wealth.

WALMART ON TAX DAY: How Taxpayers Subsidize America’s Biggest Employer and Richest Family

The annual subsidies and tax breaks to Walmart and the Waltons include the following:

• Walmart receives an estimated $6.2 billion annually in mostly federal taxpayer
subsidies. The reason: Walmart pays its employees so little that many of them rely
on food stamps, health care and other taxpayer-funded programs.

• Walmart avoids an estimated $1 billion in federal taxes each year. The reason:
Walmart uses tax breaks and loopholes, including a strategy known as accelerated
depreciation that allows it to write off capital investments considerably faster than
the assets actually wear out.

Walmart on Tax Day
• The Waltons avoid an estimated $607 million in federal taxes on their Walmart
dividends. The reason: income from investments is taxed at a much lower tax rate
than income from salaries and wages.

In addition to the $7.8 billion in annual subsidies and tax breaks, the Walton family is
avoiding an estimated $3 billion in taxes by using specialized trusts to dodge estate
taxes – and this number could increase by tens of billions of dollars.

Walmart also benefits significantly from taxpayer-funded public assistance programs that
pump up the retailer’s sales. For example, Walmart had an estimated $13.5 billion in
food stamp sales last year. [See Table 3 for state breakdown]

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“If you see something, say something”…

The Nasty Blowback from America’s Wars

Rowley warned Mueller that launching unjustified war would prove counterproductive in various ways. One blowback she highlighted was that the rationale being applied to allow preemptive strikes abroad could migrate back home, “fostering a more permissive attitude toward shootings by law enforcement officers in this country.” Tragically, the recent spate of murders by police has proved Rowley right.

And not only killing. Police brutality toward the citizenry, some of it by former soldiers who themselves were brutalized by war, has soared. Yet, the dark side of what was done by U.S. troops abroad as well as the damage that was done to their psyches and sense of morality is rarely shown in the U.S. mainstream media, which prefers to veer between romanticizing the adventure of war and lamenting the physical harm done to America’s maimed warriors.

One has to go to foreign media for real-life examples of the brutalization of, as well as by, the young soldiers we send off to battle. (See, for example, this segment from Germany’s “60 Minutes”-type TV program, Panorama.)

The glib, implicit approval of violence (embedded, for instance, in the customary “Thank you for your service”) simply adds to the widespread acceptance of brutality as somehow okay.

Cases of police beating citizens who are detained or taken into custody have multiplied, with police offenders frequently held to the same unconscionable let’s-not-look-back “accountability” that has let George W. Bush and Dick Cheney walk free – so far – for launching the “war of aggression” on Iraq.

The post-World War II Nuremberg Tribunal carefully defined such a war as “the supreme international crime, differing from other war crimes only in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Accumulated evil? Having just emerged from the nightmare of world conflagration, the jurists on the Tribunal understood that it was the unleashing of the dogs of war – launching an aggressive war – that also loosed all the other atrocities and barbarities associated with warfare.

Looking back on the last decade, think of crimes like kidnapping, black prisons and torture as well as the slaughter of so many civilians as the Bush/Cheney war of choice has spread violence and death – now in the form of the brutal Islamic State and America’s endless “drone wars” – across almost the entire Middle East.

But part of that accumulated evil is also playing out at home – on the streets of American cities and in even in our deserts. On April 9, San Bernardino’s “sheriff’s deputies” were caught on video viciously brutalizing a man who had already prostrated himself on the desert floor with his hands behind his back.

Full Text of F.B.I. Agent’s Letter to Director Mueller

6) The vast majority of the one thousand plus persons “detained” in the wake of 9-11 did not turn out to be terrorists. They were mostly illegal aliens. We have every right, of course, to deport those identified as illegal aliens during the course of any investigation. But after 9-11, Headquarters encouraged more and more detentions for what seem to be essentially PR purposes. Field offices were required to report daily the number of detentions in order to supply grist for statements on our progress in fighting terrorism. The balance between individuals’ civil liberties and the need for effective investigation is hard to maintain even during so-called normal times, let alone times of increased terrorist threat or war. It is, admittedly, a difficult balancing act. But from what I have observed, particular vigilance may be required to head off undue pressure (including subtle encouragement) to detain or “round up” suspectsparticularly those of Arabic origin.

7) As I believe you know, I have a reputation for being quite “conservative” on legal and policy issues regarding law enforcement. I have complained loudly on occasions when some of our laws and procedures have-unnecessarily, in my view, hindered our ability to move boldly against crime. At the same time, I know from experience that the FBI’s policy on permissible use of deadly force has served the FBI and the country well. It should be noted, however, that the Administration’s new policy of “preemptive strikes” abroad is not consistent with the Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) “deadly force policy” for law enforcement officers. DOJ policy restricts federal agents to using deadly force only when presented with an imminent threat of death or serious injury (essentially in self-defense or defense of an innocent third party). I believe it would be prudent to be on guard against the possibility that the looser “preemptive strike” rationale being applied to situations abroad could migrate back home, fostering a more permissive attitude towards shootings by law enforcement officers in this country.

8) I believe the FBI, by drawing on the perspective gained from its recent history, can make a unique contribution to the discussion on Iraq. The misadventure in Waco took place well before your time as Director, but you will probably recall that David Koresh exerted the same kind of oppressive control over members of his Branch Davidian followers, as Saddam Hussein does over the Iraqis. The parallel does not stop there.

Shooters walk free, whistleblower jailed

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revisiting the Commons…

The Tragedy of Capitalism

The book opens with a mention of the Occupy movement of 2011. Recalling that popular upsurge involving people collectively occupying space in cities across the globe (especially in the United States and Europe), Linebaugh suggests that the movement was a contradiction. The city, he writes, is a place of consumption, whereas the countryside is where food and other materials required for life are produced. It is in the latter where the commons have been historically maintained and fought over. Yet, the Occupy movement existed and flourished in urban spaces. He counters this perception by providing a history that shows the city to be originally the result of the enclosure of the commons. From this point on, Stop Thief! takes the reader on a ride through revolutions and reactions, colonialism and imperialism, Karl Marx and Tom Paine.

Over the course of that ride, the reader is presented with a reasoned and reasonable look at the phenomena that encroach on one’s life and liberty. He first introduces these culprits in an essay titled “The City and the Commons: A Story for Our Times.” The culprits are not only named by their mode of operation—land privatization, population control, criminalization of custom, and imprisonment—they are also named by those their parents gave them. This gang of four’s names are Jeremy Bentham, Arthur Young, Thomas Malthus, and Patrick Colquhoun and their mark on history and humanity remains. It is the story of this reality that fills the rest of Linebaugh’s text.

Summoning Marx’s discussion of what the landowners called the “theft of wood” from the forests they had their armies enclose; Linebaugh begins a fascinating discussion of capitalist accumulation and its ongoing role in today’s mechanics of neoliberalism. In his essay on the fictional hero Ned Ludd, the Luddites and Percy Bysshe Shelley, one is reminded that class suicide existed well before Amilcar Cabral or the Weather Underground. In later chapters that include the French revolution and the American War for Independence, Linebaugh challenges the official narrative and asks why the Native Americans and African slaves are not included. In one chapter, the resistance to the enclosure of the Otmoor commons in Oxfordshire is described. This enclosure involved the privatization of the moor and the exclusion of sheep and cattle from grazing there. Peasants resisted with force and creative takeovers of the lands.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Capitalism

We could take Slavoj Zizek’s Trouble in Paradise, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and Arundhati Roy’s Capitalism: A Ghost Story to be indicative of anti-capitalist discourse at the moment. In these books we see an examination of thought, elites and activists as well as get a view of ideologies like Communism, Socialism and Anarchism. In regarding Slavoj Zizek, Naomi Klein and Arundhati Roy together though one gets closer to what is happening at the level of Leftist ideas taken as a whole. However, despite inspiring examples, we do not necessarily get a practical handbook of how to act. We are then at a different moment, or in a different space, than when Saul Alinsky wrote Rules for Radicals in 1971. Since that time a lot has changed, including, in particular and to which these three writers respond, the rise of: neo-liberalism and global capitalism, mediated false consciousness; as well as the decline of the traditional Left in much of the developed world. What is compelling about Zizek, Klein and Roy though is how they offer a part of what may be a more cohesive imagination and vision for future directions. If we have a portrait of the world as it currently stands in these works, or a sense of different parts of the world, perhaps we need a corollary that suggests what an ethical life is now within a literary style that challenges our ideas of practical action.

It should be noted that in reading these books we must situate them in historical and contemporary context. For that I would recommend James Otteson’s What Adam Smith Knew. Ottseon has compiled extracts of famous writing about capitalism and its opponents with emphasis on Adam Smith and Karl Marx. This work is about presenting important texts to which a modern reader can refer for important historical debates about capitalism. It is suitable for general reading and will appeal to those with an interest in economics, politics, society and history. What I think is important about Otteson’s contribution is that it allows the other three books under consideration here to be read with some sort of lineage. Zizek, Klein and Roy are all original to some degree: Zizek for his combination of the philosophy of history and psychoanalysis; Klein for her thorough discussion of the contemporary issue of climate change; and Roy for her position as a post-colonial novelist who is a critic of mainstream India. But they are also part of a longer tradition that has seen capitalism as a hegemonic and oppressive material and ideational structure. Otteson enables us to think through some of history’s lasting and important debates, into which we can place the other three.

Through an analysis of popular and scholarly cultural artefacts Zizek presents a critique of capitalist ideology today as well as intimates what a different world could be in Trouble in Paradise. Indeed, the subtitle – ‘From the End of History to the End of Capitalism’ – invokes what may be said to be the aim of the book. In this work we see what Zizek is known for – a hyperactive, eclectic, funny, infuriating, dense discussion that goes up hill and down dale covering everything from psytrance to psychoanalysis. It is clear, entertaining and challenging. Zizek is not an ivory tower philosopher alone, well versed though he is in Jacques Lacan and George Hegel and employed as a European Graduate School staff member, or a pop philosopher intellectual lite. Between a dialectic of serious and fluff, his work has an inestimable, unmistakeable and inimitable frisson. As Terry Eagleton has noted, it is surprising that one of the most prominent zizektroubleintellectuals working today is a stated Communist. Perhaps Zizek proves to be the exception to the Capitalist rule and has merely found a niche Marxist angle in a market hungry for spectacle. At the level of thought though, Zizek is not a misty eyed Romantic, aiming to reinstate a particular set of circumstances. He thinks we need to take Communism seriously and critique and change it to burnish our critique of Capitalism. In Trouble of Paradise though we are short on the traditional Historical aspect of this, rather than the theoretical or the cultural. Zizek should not be faulted for this, but for readers intending to dive into Zizek for the first time they should be forewarned that this is a work of philosophy and cultural studies first and foremost rather than a work of history or a handbook of practical action. For practical advice you need to read it ‘slant’ in Emily Dickinson’s phrase. As an introduction to Zizek it is indicative of the whole, but I would look elsewhere too. One might find The Parallax View a better, if not easier, place to start. Or there is also the film The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema.

Capitalism’s Disastrous Trajectory

Far too many Americans have bought into the notion that capitalism comes at little or no cost, and thus the expenses of the many continue to benefit the few. Today’s privileged fraction—i.e., the global 1%—has the great fortune of experiencing life without the encumbrances of dire poverty, hunger, lack of rights, alienation, persecution, repression, etc., which plague billions of others crushed by capitalism and the global capitalist system. Moreover, if the plutocracy fancies that it can enjoy capitalism at little personal cost, then why should its privileged ranks consider alternatives that give credence to a communist thinker, like Karl Marx, or to his conception of a “new type of human being who needs his fellow-men,” for example? Why should the ruling elites fashion any “real constructive effort to create the social texture of future human relations,” as Marx states? The fact is that, if capitalism’s overseers ably exact a profit from capitalism at seemingly little expense to themselves (whilst growing ever richer in the process), then rationally they should have no plans for undoing the economic system that empowers them thusly.

In the West, a reigning few trump universal equality, and the freedom of ownership is at war with the common good. In fact, this problem is centuries old. Noam Chomsky’s recent treatment of the Magna Carta, whose 800th anniversary is this year, also contains some very relevant thoughts on the Charter of the Forest—the companion to the Great Charter that calls for the “protection of the commons from external power.” The commons provided a spring from which the general population might sustain itself. This includes “food, fuel, construction, materials, a form of welfare, whatever was essential for life,” says Chomsky, who recalls that by the 13th century the English forest “was not primitive wilderness,” but “carefully nurtured” by generations of users. All had access to the riches therein. People without access to cultivable land used the commons, and they maintained what British social historian R.H. Tawney identifies as an “open field system of agriculture…reposed upon a common custom and traditions,” which exist in addition to other elements of traditional societies that yet stipple today’s world.

As an outgrowth of British economic history, Americans today are unlikely to find any such commons despite their looking, and some may have no clue why. Late historian Howard Zinn recounts a moment in North Carolina history (1766-1771), for example, when agitation against the British left little room for class issues—but one reminder of the fact that America’s experience with the side effects of unfettered capitalism is clearly centuries old. One movement, dubbed the Regulator movement, involved what Marvin L. Michael Kay calls “class-conscious white farmers in the west who attempted to democratize local government in their respective counties,” and who called themselves “poor Industrious peasants,” “labourers,” “the wretched poor,” and “oppressed,” by “rich and powerful … designing Monsters.” The movement decried the knockout combination of wealth and political power as the ruling force in North Carolina, and it denounced officials “whose highest Study [was] the promotion of their wealth.” The Regulators indeed organized and occupied in protest of many things, petitioning the government, citing “the unequal chances the poor and the weak have in contentions with the rich and powerful.”

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