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Biden Administration May Shield Bank Linked To Russian Oligarchs

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 02/03/2022 - 10:31pm in

Biden Administration May Shield Bank Linked To Russian Oligarchs

As Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine has sparked demands for a financial crackdown on dictators and their oligarch networks, the Biden administration is proposing to waive punishments for a scandal-ridden bank amid revelations that it had been providing resources to autocrats and their financial cronies — reportedly including Russian oligarchs that the Biden administration is promising to target.

The administration’s proposed waiver for the global investment bank Credit Suisse — whose donors delivered more than $100,000 to President Biden’s campaign — could shield a bank linked to those oligarchs as the war in Ukraine rages, after Biden last night used his State of the Union address to promise a crackdown.

“We are joining with our European allies to find and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets,” he declared. “We are coming for your ill-begotten gains.”

Lawmakers in the European Parliament are considering adding Switzerland’s financial sector to a dirty money blacklist in response to the new revelations about Credit Suisse.

Two Senate Democrats have asked the Biden administration to withdraw its waiver proposal. Whether or not the administration now heeds that call will test whether the Ukraine conflict is prompting a more antagonistic regulatory posture toward financial institutions that have enabled oligarchs from rogue nations.

A Scandal-Plagued Bank

At issue is a January proposal from Biden’s Labor Department to waive punishments against Credit Suisse for defrauding investors who financed a fishing project in Mozambique, which the bank pleaded guilty to last year, as well as for “knowingly and willfully” aiding wealthy clients in tax evasion for multiple decades through 2009.

In light of the convictions, the bank is required to obtain a waiver in order to retain an investment classification that allows it to continue managing — and profiting from — American workers’ retirement savings.

Since then, new reporting has alleged that Credit Suisse has aided criminals and financed the luxury assets of oligarchs, raising additional questions about the Biden administration’s proposal to let the bank off the hook.

One month after the Labor Department proposed such a waiver, the Financial Times reported that “Credit Suisse has securitised a portfolio of loans linked to its wealthiest customers’ yachts and private jets, in an unusual use of derivatives to offload risks associated with lending to ultra-rich oligarchs and entrepreneurs.”

The newspaper reported that the bank had reported losses on its yacht- and jet-related loans because of sanctions against Russian oligarchs. After a first round of sanctions in 2018, Credit Suisse declared its commitment to “remain highly committed to Russia,” and Reuters reported that it had been extending financing to two Putin-linked oligarchs. In recent days, many Russian oligarchs have continued to roam free on yachts and jets, escaping American authorities and moving towards countries that don’t have extradition agreements with the U.S.

On March 1, as the U.S. and E.U. were rolling out new sanctions on Russian oligarchs, the Financial Times reported that Credit Suisse had told investors to “destroy documents relating to its richest clients’ yachts and private jets, in an attempt to stop information leaking about a unit of the bank that has made loans to oligarchs who were later sanctioned.”

Meanwhile, in late February, a leak of the account information of more than 18,000 Credit Suisse clients revealed that the bank had been managing money for “clients involved in torture, drug trafficking, money laundering, corruption and other serious crimes,” according to reporting by The Guardian.

“Credit Suisse’s misconduct prosecuted over the years should have disqualified it from pension and investment management privileges supposedly reserved only for good actors,” said Bartlett Naylor of the watchdog group Public Citizen, which criticized the bank’s first waiver in 2015. “Now, details of its rogues list of tax evaders sharpens the case.”

Credit Suisse declined The Daily Poster’s request for comment.

In response to the most recent leaks, the bank has denied any wrongdoing. After Russia invaded Ukraine, Credit Suisse also announced that it will stop accepting some Russian bonds as collateral for debt, and will stop financing commodities trades involving Russia.

Previously Let Off The Hook

When Credit Suisse pleaded guilty to fraud last year, it risked losing its status as a Qualified Professional Asset Manager (QPAM), a required classification for banks to manage — and profit from — the lucrative retirement fund industry.

When QPAM was originally created 40 years ago, lawmakers included a major stipulation for banks seeking the designation: They must avoid felony convictions.

While that isn’t an especially high bar, Credit Suisse has struggled to meet it.

In 2014, when the Justice Department found that Credit Suisse had aided its clients in dodging tax enforcement, by falsifying documents for them or helping them hide assets in offshore accounts, Credit Suisse found itself on the verge of losing its QPAM status.

But the Obama Labor Department let the bank off the hook. Despite protests from financial watchdogs and lawmakers, including Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the Obama administration granted Credit Suisse a waiver, allowing the bank to retain its QPAM status.

Credit Suisse wasn’t the only bank to receive such a waiver from the Obama administration. Under Labor Secretary Tom Perez, many major banks received such waivers.

In December 2016, a group of lawmakers sent a letter to Perez asking for a hearing on “recent proposals to let five megabanks with a history of criminal misconduct to continue managing assets of U.S. pension funds.” The letter noted that in 2015, the department had granted waivers to four of those banks without convening a public hearing.

After Perez issued the original waiver for Credit Suisse and then became chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the bank’s donors delivered more than $1 million worth of donations to Democratic politicians and groups. Perez is now running for Maryland governor, and has vacuumed in more than $200,000 of campaign donations from the financial sector, according to data compiled by the National Institute for Money in Politics.

The Labor Department under Obama did deny a handful of requested waivers, but those denials were the exception rather than the rule. Between 1997 and 2014, the department granted waivers to all 23 firms that sought them, according to reporting from Pensions and Investments.

Tip Jar

“You Have The Opportunity To Send A Clear Message”

Now, a familiar battle is playing out — but the focus on oligarchs during Russia’s invasion and the recent revelations about Credit Suisse’s business practices have raised the stakes. In effect, Biden must now choose between his tough-on-oligarchs Ukraine policy and his Wall Street donors.

According to data from OpenSecrets, Credit Suisse employees gave more than $117,000 to Biden’s 2020 campaign, and employees of the law firm representing Credit Suisse, Steptoe and Johnson, contributed nearly $140,000 to Biden in the 2020 cycle.

Credit Suisse was already operating under a QPAM waiver for its 2014 tax crimes when it pleaded guilty to fraud in the Mozambique case. In the newer case, the bank arranged loans for the Mozambique government to invest in a new tuna fishery. Law enforcement officials said a contractor spent a substantial portion of the money on kickbacks, including to Credit Suisse bankers to secure better deals on the loans, and bribes to government officials. The bank was charged with defrauding the investors who had financed the loans, and pled guilty.

Both the 2014 and 2021 convictions are being considered for the current waiver, since both occurred in the past decade — the time frame in which QPAM institutions cannot commit felonies.

Last month, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) sent a letter demanding the Biden administration rescind its QPAM waiver proposal for Credit Suisse.

“The Department of Labor exists to protect American workers and their retirement savings from greed, corruption, and mismanagement. Exempting corporations from consequences for misconduct and allowing Wall Street’s most powerful bad actors to continue business as usual flies in the face of that obligation to the public,” they wrote. “You have the opportunity to send a clear message that the federal government holds corporate criminals accountable for their misdeeds rather than shower them with special regulatory favors. We ask that you review and rescind this proposal.”

For its part, Credit Suisse has argued that the parts of the bank found to be involved in fraud and conspiracy are separate from those managing worker retirement funds — and that regulators should not punish one part of the bank for the crimes of another part of the bank.

"The granting of the exemption should not depend upon public allegations of wrongdoing, regardless of where in the world it occurred, including outside the separate asset management division and not involving the CS Affiliated QPAMs,” the bank’s lawyers wrote in its comment on the proposed waiver.

The 1982 QPAM rule explicitly stated that regulators are supposed to judge the criminal record of an entire financial institution and its affiliates.

“A QPAM, and those who may be in a position to influence its policies, are expected to maintain a high standard of integrity,” the Labor Department’s original rule states. “Accordingly, the proposed exemption does not cover transactions if the QPAM or various ‘affiliates’ have been convicted of various crimes that involve abuse or misuse of a position of trust.”

Echoing the same argument it made back in 2015, Credit Suisse has also insisted that punishing the bank right now could harm retirees.

“The decision to propose an exemption granting relief will avoid significant harm to plan clients,” the comment letter said, adding: “An adverse decision on the exemption is seen as the Department’s vote of no confidence in a manager, and thus effectively denies plans their preferred manager, which in itself is harmful to plans.”

That rationale echoes the financial crisis-era notion that punishing banks should be avoided because it can cause “collateral consequences” — and it has become a rationale for many banks seeking aa QPAM exemption. Indeed, in a recent case in which the Labor Department granted a QPAM exemption to Goldman Sachs, the department told Warren and Smith that the bank insisted it should receive the waiver “because it was concerned that harm may arise to American workers” if it was denied.

In their letter to the Biden administration, Warren and Smith noted that if it is indeed true that these financial institutions are “too big to fail,” then “the agency must develop rules that mitigate these types of risks for workers if their QPAM is involved in illegal activity, not simply repeatedly refuse to enforce the law against large financial institutions that continually break financial laws.”

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Ukraine war product of imperialism of both Putin and the West

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 02/03/2022 - 11:06am in

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a brutal piece of imperialism. Already hundreds are dead, with rockets fired into civilian areas. Refugees are streaming over the border with at least 500,000 people displaced.

We have to oppose this barbarism and demand that Russia withdraw all its troops and end the war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has always been a ruthless, violent ruler. Among his first acts after gaining power was a barbaric war against the Chechen independence movement in 1999. Russia’s military onslaught left between 50,000 and 250,000 civilians dead and saw the capital, Grozny, bombed into ruins.

Putin’s aim is to increase the power and wealth of the Russian state through recovering its influence among the former Russian-controlled areas of Eastern Europe and central Asia.

But it is not just Putin playing this imperialist game. The fundamental cause of the war in Ukraine is a clash between two rival imperialisms.

NATO and the US also share the blame for the conflict.

Ukraine has been treated as a pawn, stuck between Russia and the West in a struggle for influence.

Calling for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone, which would mean shooting down Russian planes, or to send troops against Russia and escalate the conflict, would be a disaster. This would drastically expand the slaughter, and mean open war between two nuclear-armed states, Russia and the US.

Western governments, including the US, its NATO allies, and Australia, like to present themselves as the defenders of freedom and democracy around the world. They want us to take their side against authoritarian states like Putin’s Russia or China.

But despite their democratic trappings, the governments of the US and other NATO member states are every bit as imperialist as Putin’s Russia, with the US playing an aggressive role worldwide.

NATO was established as a Cold War alliance against the Soviet Union and its empire in 1949. After the end of the Cold War in 1991, its reason for existence seemed to vanish.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia lost almost half of its population, with 14 republics breaking away along its borders, including Ukraine. This was in addition to the loss of its satellite states in Eastern Europe.

Its economy was left shattered, with economic output falling by 45 per cent. In 1998 there was another crash when Russia defaulted on its debts and the rouble fell by 60 per cent.

But the US pursued a policy that American academic and adviser on Russia Stephen F Cohen described as, “a relentless, winner-take-all exploitation of Russia’s post-1991 weakness”.

The US and NATO took advantage of the situation and attempted to militarily encircle Russia.

Instead of dissolving, NATO was expanded into Eastern Europe, with the establishment of new US military bases right up to Russia’s borders in Lithuania and Estonia. This violated the undertaking given to Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, in return for accepting that a newly reunified Germany would join NATO, that NATO would not expand any further east into former Russian territories.

These efforts could only inflame tensions between Russia and the West and encourage Russia’s military build-up.

In 2008, the US proposed that Georgia and Ukraine join NATO too, although the plan was blocked by Germany and France. But the US was already building up Georgia’s army through arms shipments and Pentagon training. The country sits along Russia’s southern border along the Black Sea.

This led to a war between Russia and Georgia that year, with Putin setting out to send a message to the West and demonstrate Russia’s continued military power.

The US also took a hard line over Ukraine. Biden refused to consider Putin’s demand for a guarantee that it would never join NATO.

An imperialist alliance

NATO is a military alliance designed as a means of pulling the large European states including Britain, Germany and France behind US aims and projecting US military power into Europe.

This has been a key aim of US imperialist policy, spelled out by Zbigniew Brzezinski, a key national security adviser to a series of Democratic US Presidents. In a famous book he called Europe and Asia “the grand chessboard” where the US had to maintain control to ensure its global “preeminence” through preventing any rival state from dominating it.

The European states are still completely reliant on the US militarily, with 70,000 US troops permanently stationed in Europe. When France and Britain began the military intervention against Libya in 2011, they quickly ran out of bombs and had to ask the US to take over.

Despite their claims to support democracy, Britain and France initially joined NATO at the end of the Second World War in an effort to hang on to their colonial empires. NATO declared its full backing for France’s colonial war in the 1950s and 1960s to preserve its rule over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

More recently, NATO was responsible for running the war in Afghanistan for almost two decades, propping up a corrupt puppet government that collapsed the moment foreign troops left.

Both NATO and the US have been happy to support dictatorial regimes where it suited their interests, including in NATO member states such as Portugal, a founding member under authoritarian rule until 1974, and Greece under its military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974.

The US backs up dictatorships worldwide including Egypt, one of the top recipients of US military aid, and the autocratic monarchy of Saudi Arabia, currently waging a brutal war in Yemen with the support of US weapons and military logistics.

It remains the sole superpower, with military spending greater than the next 11 countries combined and about 800 military bases worldwide.

As it showed when it invaded Iraq in 2003, it is willing to wage bloody wars to advance its own wealth and power, in defiance of global rules or international law. At least one million people died and a whole country was left devastated.

Since 1945, “the US has attempted to overthrow more than fifty governments, most of which were democratically elected, and grossly interfered in democratic elections in at least thirty countries”, as author William Blum documented.


Imperialism is an outgrowth of the economic competition built into capitalism and its drive for profit. It is not simply about military power and control of territory. Rival states also compete to secure markets, investment and raw materials to boost their economies and the profits of local companies.

The Western expansion into Eastern Europe is a case in point. Alongside NATO expansion went European and American efforts to dominate Russia’s old sphere of influence economically.

The US imposed a program of neo-liberal “shock therapy” on Russia and Eastern Europe after 1991. The aim was to prise open the economies of former Eastern bloc countries and allow US and European companies to secure new markets and investments. This involved widespread privatisation and cuts to social spending.

Much of Eastern Europe has been incorporated into the EU, with Germany in particular, its leading economic power, taking over new markets, manufacturing plants, and resources.

The history of the 20th century saw this economic competition spilling over into war again and again.

Since the Second World War, the US’s military and economic power has allowed it to write the rules on global trade and investment to its own benefit.

Faced with the challenge from China’s rise as an economic and military power, the US is trying to use all the levers of its military, diplomatic and financial power to maintain its global supremacy.

The US invasion of Iraq was an attempt to use its military power to seize control over oil resources.

The threat of new wars is growing as the world becomes a more unstable place. The decline in US global power has encouraged competitors like Russia and China to become more assertive.

The US’s weakness was on display again last August when it was forced to admit defeat and withdraw troops from Afghanistan after 20 years of war.

Backing the West against Russia or China is no solution. The Australian government has been particularly aggressive in our region, warning that the “drums of war” against China are beating and pouring billions into buying new weapons, including at least $100 billion on nuclear submarines through the AUKUS pact.

Our government is determined to maintain US dominance globally in order to maintain its own clout at a regional level. This will only encourage the regional arms race and feed military aggression, making the outbreak of war more likely.

Military competition and war benefits only the billionaires and the ruling class who control the major corporations. It is always working class people who pay the price through fighting their wars and through sacrifices to wages and living standards at home.

The alternative is to build a mass anti-war movement capable of resisting the drive to war. Mass movements in the past have put an end to wars—from the workers’ revolts inside Germany and Russia that helped end the First World War to the movement against the war in Vietnam.

The brave anti-war demonstrators inside Russia, who have come out onto the streets against the invasion of Ukraine, risking arrest, are showing the way.

Instead of backing one of the major imperialist powers against another, our priority should be opposing our own government’s militarism and warmongering, where we can have the most impact. Our main enemy is at home.

By James Supple

The post Ukraine war product of imperialism of both Putin and the West appeared first on Solidarity Online.

Joint statement by international Pirate movement on Putin’s aggression against Ukraine

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 28/02/2022 - 1:33pm in

Early on Saturday morning, Pirate Parties International issued the following statement: “The Pirates of Europe and the world strongly condemn the actions taken by Vladimir Putin. It’s with deep sorrow that we watch the events in Ukraine unfold, and our thoughts are with the people of Ukraine, those suffering the consequences of this conflict, and […]

Russian troops out of Ukraine: Don’t look to NATO for peace

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 27/02/2022 - 7:02pm in

This is the text of a leaflet distributed today at a rally in Melbourne against war in Ukraine.

Solidarity supports the struggle of the Ukrainian people against Putin’s invasion. The ongoing war does not benefit the workers of any nation and has already killed hundreds of innocent civilians and displaced thousands. The imperialist powers that are tearing Ukraine apart have blood on their hands.

Solidarity says:

• Russia out of Ukraine now
• Withdraw NATO troops from Eastern Europe
• Send aid, not weapons
• Australia: Welcome all refugees

Russia plays an imperialist game

Russia has entered Ukraine to assert its interests as an imperial power. Putin wants to use the war to secure his economic interests, such as continuing to export gas to Europe, while also whipping up Russian nationalism to bolster his popularity.

After America’s defeat in Afghanistan, Russia is also looking to challenge US dominance in Eastern Europe and stop Ukraine getting closer to NATO.

In the past, Russia has used separatist movements as military leverage against neighbours who drift too close to the West, such as in its war with Georgia.

It invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to install a puppet regime and instead got bogged down in a proxy war with the West that tore that country apart.

Living under Russia’s thumb is of no benefit to ordinary people. We only need to look at the brutal crackdowns on anti-government protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan to see the lengths that Putin will go to prevent struggle from spreading.

Western imperialism offers nothing to Ukrainians

However, it is a mistake to look to the West as an alternative. The Western ruling classes also have no interest in the welfare of ordinary Ukrainians.

What is the true attitude of the West to the economic welfare of Ukrainians? After former president Yanukovych was kicked out by protests in 2014, Ukraine accepted a bailout from the US- and EU-dominated International Monetary Fund.

The IMF imposed brutal austerity conditions such as cutting fuel subsidies, gutting the civil service and healthcare system, raising taxes on the working poor, and slashing public programs. Today Ukraine is the poorest country per capita in Europe, even poorer than in 1993. The West will not improve living standards in Ukraine.

What is the true attitude of the West to the people of Ukraine? For decades, the EU has treated the people of Eastern Europe as disposable buffer states, pools of cheap labour, and places to outsource their brutal anti-refugee border regimes. Oil companies in the West are already talking up the potential profits of oil sales in Europe if Russian pipelines are cut.

Recent Western-aligned Ukrainian governments have been well-aware that Russia uses Ukraine’s mistreatment of minorities as a talking point, but they continue to trample on minority rights anyway. The West is sending weapons to Ukraine and troops to the surrounding countries to strengthen its position against Russia, not to help Ukrainians.

Now the West is lining up to apply sanctions onto Russia. The same sort that destroyed economies and living standards in Iran, Iraq, Cuba and elsewhere.

The effect of sanctions will be to punish ordinary Russians for Putin’s actions. Sanctions also give Putin an excuse to further whip up nationalism. They are weapons of economic warfare, meant to hurt ordinary Russians just like any bullet.

If the anti-war movement truly supports our comrades on the other side of the conflict, we must oppose sanctions.

Western militarism is no alternative

The West paints the Russian invasion as simply a matter of Putin’s ambition to rebuild a Russian empire. This obscures their role in this terrible crisis.

Russia may have fired the first shots in Ukraine but the origins of the military clash lie in the much deeper rivalry between competing imperialist blocs.

When the Soviet Union fell in 1991 the US promised that in return for allowing the reunification of Germany, NATO would not expand eastwards. NATO broke that promise and incorporated almost all former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe.

Ukrainians will never have peace if NATO and Russia are constantly pointing guns over their heads. This would only intensify the anxiety and anger in Russia towards NATO and Ukraine and increase the likelihood of a far more horrific war.

It is not a question of whether Russia’s agenda or the West’s is justified; neither is. They are the major powers in a world of imperial rivalry that threatens the entire world with destruction.

Anti-war demos in Russia show the way forward

There have been rallies of tens of thousands in Russia against the war. 780,000 people have signed petitions. Entertainers, academics, teachers, municipal workers and journalists have spoken out.

Rallies like this are the way forward. We want more protests and especially strikes in Russia, so that support for Putin and his invasion will continue to fall, and Russian workers can force a withdrawal.

But no matter who wins this war, the build-up of weapons around Ukraine will threaten the people of the region for decades to come. Wherever we are, our fight is against the militarism of our rulers.

Here in the West, we must ensure that NATO withdraw their weapons and troops from Eastern Europe and eventually dissolve NATO completely.

We must prevent Australia from ratcheting up the same war tensions against China in our region.

We say money for health, climate, and education, not war

No foreign intervention can achieve peace and decent standards of living on behalf of the people of Ukraine. They should not be forced to choose between two bands of imperialist butchers.

It is up to us in the international anti-war movement to force the imperialists to back off.
This will allow the workers of Ukraine, through socialist struggle from below, to get rid of their corrupt government. Only then will there be real peace, a decent standard of living, and equality for everybody in that country.

The post Russian troops out of Ukraine: Don’t look to NATO for peace appeared first on Solidarity Online.

No war in Ukraine: Russian troops out, NATO out

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 25/02/2022 - 5:44pm in

The Russian invasion of Ukraine could herald the biggest land war in Europe since 1945. If the invasion escalates, millions are at risk of death, injury and losing their homes.

By Friday morning, little more than 24 hours after the invasion started, 137 Ukrainians had died with 316 wounded. Tens of thousands of internal refugees were streaming west to avoid the fighting.

Missiles and shells were hitting the capital Kyiv and major cities including Kharkiv and Odesa, many kilometres from the two south-eastern provinces in the Donbas which Russian president Putin claims to be “defending”.

Solidarity says that Russia should withdraw its troops and halt the attacks.

The western powers, operating through the military alliance of NATO, must pull back, too.

The Australian government should stop fanning the flames of war by providing Ukraine “non-lethal” military equipment.

Ukraine is a pawn in an imperialist struggle between the US and its allies, including Australia, on the one side and Russia and China on the other.

Workers have no interest in the victory of one imperialist power over the other. Instead we need to encourage a united fightback against our rulers.

In standing against the war, we can take inspiration from the thousands who have taken to the streets of Russian cities in the teeth of vicious state repression.

The Guardian reported: “Police had made at least 1702 arrests in 53 Russian cities as of Thursday evening … Most of the arrests were made in Moscow and St Petersburg, where the crowds were largest.”

It added that a poll by the independent Levada Centre released on Thursday showed that only 45 per cent of Russians supported Putin’s recognition of the independence of the two mostly Russian-speaking Donbas regions.

Al Jazeera reported that an anti-war petition started by a prominent Russian human rights advocate attracted more than 150,000 signatures within several hours and 289,000 by the end of the day.

“More than 250 journalists put their names on an open letter decrying the aggression. Another one was signed by some 250 scientists, while by 194 municipal council members in Moscow and other cities signed a third,” it said.

Our task in Australia is to stand in solidarity with those in Russia opposing war by speaking out and organising against our own warmongers—Morrison, Biden and Johnson.

No to sanctions

Many people pin their hopes of stopping the war on sanctions on Russia. But sanctions are a weapon of war in their own right.

When the United Nations imposed sanctions on Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait in 1990 it led to massive civilian suffering.

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was later asked if sanctions were justified given estimates that half a million Iraqi children had died. She replied: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it.”

The sanctions had other damaging effects. They bought time for the US and its allies including Australia to prepare to invade Iraq in 2003.

And they undermined anti-war arguments. The right were able to argue that if sanctions were justified but did not force Iraq to retreat, then escalating to war was a logical and necessary step.

The sanctions announced by Morrison, Biden and others have not prevented Putin’s invasion.

Anti-war activists must not fall into the trap of arguing that the response must be even tougher sanctions. That would be a slippery slope risking even greater confrontation.

Western hypocrisy

Sanctions are being imposed by the same states that are themselves guilty of invasion and war.

In 2001, the US, Australia and Britain invaded Afghanistan because it had harboured the leaders of Al Qaida, the organisation behind the 9/11 attacks on the US—even though the attackers themselves were Saudi.

The bloody occupation came to an end only last year with the flight of US forces, leaving behind a society wracked by sectarian divisions and poverty.

In 2003, the same allies invaded Iraq on the basis of a “dodgy dossier” claiming that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction—the same kind of “false flag” operation that Biden now denounces.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians died during and after the invasion, which laid the basis for the emergence of ISIS.

In 2004, Australia bugged the offices of the government of newly independent Timor Leste, to gain an advantage in negotiations over oil supplies in the Timor Sea.

Morrison said in relation to Ukraine that Russia was guilty of bullying and coercion. But his words carry no weight unless he is prepared to apologise to the people of Afghanistan, Iraq and Timor Leste.

Imperialist rivalry

Russia may have fired the first shots in Ukraine but the origins of the military clash lie in the much deeper rivalry between competing imperialist blocs.

The US is losing economic ground to China and the European Union. But in military terms it is still far and away the most powerful global player, with almost 800 overseas bases and a military budget bigger than those of its closest nine competitors combined.

It has tried to compensate for its relative economic decline by using its military might. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the West has broken promises to Russia and incorporated almost all former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe into the US-led NATO military alliance.

Only Belarus, under the dictator Lukashenko, has remained loyal to Russia. Since an uprising in 2014 destroyed a pro-Russian government in Ukraine, the country has sought to join NATO and the European Union.

If that were to happen, NATO forces could be stationed just 535 kilometres from Moscow.

NATO and Russia are like two tectonic plates—when they push against each other it can create earthquakes. That is what we are seeing now.

But the imperialist rivalry has other dimensions. In taking a hard line with Russia, Biden and Morrison are trying to send a message to their biggest strategic rival, China, that it should think twice before challenging US dominance in the region, including by invading Taiwan.

But as the tragic events under way now show, imperialist posturing can lead to horrific real-world results.

Workers everywhere need to stand against this system of competition, nationalism and war. That starts in Australia with rejecting the AUKUS and Quad military alliances with the US and other powers.

We need to campaign against grotesque military spending, including the $100 billion-plus purchase of nuclear-powered submarines, and to fight for military dollars to be spent on health, renewable energy, public housing and ending poverty.

The great Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg warned more than a century ago that we face a choice between socialism and barbarism. Barbarism is now hailing down on the people of Ukraine. Fight back and join the socialists.

By David Glanz

Further reading

Russian socialists on Ukraine anti-war protests and turning resistance into class war. Socialists have to oppose their own ruling class and imperialism as a whole.

Russian socialist speaks out against Putin’s war. Alexey, a member of the Russian socialist group aligned with Solidarity, gave this interview to the Ukrainian website Black Banner. It is a shining example of courageous anti-war agitation.

No war on Ukraine: Ukrainians must decide their fate. Clare Lemlich from Solidarity’s US sister group, Marx21, summarises the issues.

Ukraine’s taste of freedom. Ukraine has been a pawn in the imperial games of more powerful nations for centuries—but the 1917 Russian revolution offered a glimpse of hope, writes Ken Olende.

The post No war in Ukraine: Russian troops out, NATO out appeared first on Solidarity Online.

Biden’s Ukraine Plans Face Wall Street Roadblock

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 25/02/2022 - 4:50am in

Click to share this on FacebookBiden’s Ukraine Plans Face Wall Street Roadblock

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Joe Biden is expected to soon announce more sanctions aimed at Vladimir Putin and his cadre of oligarchs. The theory is that unlike sectoral sanctions that could harm the broader Russian population, inflicting financial pain on Putin and his wealthy cronies could force the Russian government to the negotiating table.

But while such a move might help deter further Russian incursions, Biden faces a significant obstacle: corporate lobbyists’ success in shrouding the American finance industry in secrecy, which makes it far easier for Russian oligarchs and their business empires to evade economic sanctions.

The situation spotlights how America’s money-drenched political process can create national security challenges. In effect, Wall Street’s overwhelming power to shape U.S. regulatory policy — fueled by massive campaign contributions and an army of lobbyists — may defang some of the White House’s most potent economic weapons against an international adversary.

More than two decades ago, federal investigators warned Congress of potentially illicit streams of cash flowing from Russia into the opaque American financial system — and leaks of the so-called Panama Papers and Pandora Papers over the past few years suggest those flows have only increased, as have oligarchs’ attempts to evade sanctions.

Of late, law enforcement officials and sanctions experts have been sounding ever-louder alarms about weak transparency and disclosure requirements specifically in the most opaque corners of the economy: private equity firms, hedge funds, shell companies, and investment vehicles such as real estate funds and art assets. And because such entities target high-net-worth individuals as clients, disclosure loopholes for them could particularly undermine oligarch-focused sanctions.

Biden doesn’t need Congress to crack down on money laundering through such shadowy conduits. His Treasury Department could revive a rule proposed during the Obama era under the half-century-old Bank Secrecy Act to extend existing disclosure rules to private funds and pooled investment vehicles. But he has so far declined to do so.

The department also recently backed off tightening such rules for the art industry, even after a bipartisan Senate report spotlighted that industry’s role in helping Russian oligarchs evade existing sanctions, such as by laundering money through auction houses.

The Treasury Department refusal to act came as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, real estate titans, the legal industry, and art dealers lobby the agency on issues related to the bank secrecy statute, according to federal records reviewed by The Daily Poster.

Despite the warnings, corporate efforts to further weaken anti-money laundering laws continue — even now, as the threat of war looms.

In December, the Biden administration proposed a rule to implement a 2021 law requiring corporations and shell companies to more thoroughly disclose their actual owners. Experts say the initiative is necessary to strengthen the effect of any sanctions aimed at Russian financial institutions and oligarchs. But that bipartisan transparency legislation had already been watered down by a corporate lobbying blitz that included pressure from Wall Street’s private investment firms.

The result: Vast swaths of the financial, accounting and insurance industries were exempted from new transparency mandates.

Now, even as a military conflict unfolds and tougher sanctions are being sculpted, lobbying groups like the National Association of Manufacturers, which represents big corporations, and the Private Investor Coalition, which represents wealthy investors, are pressuring federal regulators to add more exemptions to the loophole-laden statute. Meanwhile, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), a lobbying group that calls itself the “the voice of small business,” has been pledging to do everything it can to repeal the law.

“I’m confident we can hit Putin and his oligarchs hard, and President Biden is already ramping up sanctions pressure,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who has advocated for anti-money laundering laws to apply to private investment advisers, said in a statement to The Daily Poster. “But shining the light of transparency on the dark channels through which kleptocrats move their money will make applying that pressure much easier… Private equity and hedge funds manage trillions of dollars without any anti-money-laundering safeguards — that’s an obvious problem to address.”

“Huge Volumes Of Russia’s Dark Money Are Being Held In The West”

While the United States has improved its anti-money laundering legal regime over the past few decades, the private investment industry has used its political power to carve out exceptions for itself, effectively avoiding the basic transparency laws that banks, public companies, and soon shell companies must follow.

As a result, about $11 trillion worth of assets and nearly 13,000 investment advisers are subject to few anti-money laundering regulations, according to a recent report by Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency Coalition, Global Financial Integrity, and Transparency International.

That report — which included examples of private equity funds and hedge funds laundering money for organized crime rings and sanctioned individuals and companies in countries including Russia — was one of four such reports warning that the opacity of the U.S. financial system has made it harder to enforce sanctions.

The first of those analyses emerged in 2020 from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which warned in a bulletin that existing anti-money laundering programs to track owners and sources of capital were failing to keep pace with the exponential growth of the private investment industry.

“The FBI assumes [anti-money laundering] programs are not adequately designed to monitor and detect threat actors’ use of private investment funds to launder money,” said the bulletin, part of the “BlueLeaks” trove of leaked law enforcement documents. “If greater regulatory scrutiny compelled private investment funds to identify and disclose to financial institutions the underlying beneficial owners of investments, this would reduce the appeal of these investment firms to threat actors.”

The bulletin referenced four cases where private investment firms “have been used to facilitate transactions in support of fraud, transnational organized crime, and sanctions evasion,” according to reporting by Reuters.

Soon after the FBI warning, scholars at the Atlantic Council — a Washington think tank funded by foreign governments, defense contractors, oil companies, and banks — published studies evaluating why sanctions against Putin and his business allies have not been more effective.

Among their conclusions: Wall Street’s success in blocking stronger financial transparency laws in the United States have helped Putin and his associates keep control of hundreds of billions of dollars stashed outside of Russia.

“Huge volumes of Russia’s dark money are being held in the West,” wrote the council’s economists Maria Snegovaya and Anders Åslund, the latter of whom advised the Russian government under Boris Yeltsin. “Traditionally, Russian dark money goes through several offshore havens in its laundering, but it predominantly stops in anonymous companies in two major economies that allow anonymous ownership — the United States and the United Kingdom.”

Spotlighting why the private equity disclosure issue is so significant for sanctions policy, the Atlantic Council noted: “There has been little work done in the public sector to monitor the activity of Russian firms and individuals in U.S. private equity and securities markets, largely due to privacy obligations between brokers and their clients. Russian participants are likely to be high-net-worth individuals with broad international connections and employ a network of financial intermediaries.”

Wall Street’s enormous power over elections and policymaking, and capture of financial regulatory institutions, has created an American legal regime which stands out among industrialized nations for how freely it allows opaque streams of money to flow in and out of its economy, according to a subsequent Alliance For Securing Democracy report by Josh Rudolph, who now advises the U.S. Agency for International Development under Biden.

“The United States is among the less than 10 percent of countries that do not require non-bank enablers to establish anti-money laundering programs,” he wrote. “Unlike enablers based in more than 90 percent of the world, U.S. non-bank enablers do not need to have compliance officers, trainings, audits, and controls reasonably designed to spot potential money laundering by identifying customers, scrutinizing transactions, keeping records, and reporting suspicious activity to the government.”

Rudolph noted that “Kremlin-connected oligarchs have repeatedly used private investment funds and their managers as conduits to secretly funnel money into Western political systems.”

All of this could make enforcement of new sanctions against Putin’s regime far more difficult.

“The ability to enforce sanctions comes from visibility,” said Lakshmi Kumar, Policy Director at Global Financial Integrity, whose sanctions evasion report included examples linked to Russian power brokers. “With investment vehicles, you immediately have layers of convenient opacity that the law enables… As long as someone brings a lot of money to the table, nobody’s going to ask, where did you get this money from? Are you on a list somewhere? No one’s going to poke further because there's no legal requirement to do so. Which makes it really easy to get around sanctions.”

A Battle Over A 52-Year Old Secrecy Law

Amid these periodic warnings, some regulators have sought to expand the Bank Secrecy Act to cover private investment advisers, and legislators recently passed a new statute designed to require more disclosure of the owners of shell companies.

But in both cases, officials have run up against sophisticated opposition campaigns by Wall Street lobbyists.

In 2015, President Barack Obama’s Treasury Department proposed using existing executive authority to expand the Bank Secrecy Act to cover private investment funds. The administration argued that an expansion was necessary because “as long as investment advisers are not subject to [anti-money laundering] program and suspicious activity reporting requirements, money launderers may see them as a low-risk way to enter the U.S. financial system.”

In response, a slew of private investment trade groups issued public comments arguing the rule wasn’t necessary or was overly burdensome.

“The [Bank Secrecy Act] does not need to be extended to all investment advisers with respect to all of their activities in order to have a comprehensive anti-money laundering regime in the United States,” wrote the Investment Adviser Association, which says it represents more than 550 financial firms that collectively manage approximately $16 trillion.

The Financial Services Roundtable (now known as the Bank Policy Institute), which lobbies on behalf of large banks, argued that “certain investment advisory activities are in fact so low-risk that a blanket exclusion from the final rule is warranted.”

Such low-risk investment advisory activities, the group argued, included those where investors could not easily retrieve their money, or illiquid investments.

That’s a common refrain used by private equity firms arguing against their inclusion in anti-money laundering law frameworks: Essentially, they say, criminals and sanctions evaders are not likely to enter into the longer-term investments that private equity demands.

Kumar of Global Financial Integrity disputes that point.

“If you are running a criminal enterprise or engaging in criminal activity, you treat it as a business,” she explained. “For a sophisticated kleptocrat or oligarch, it makes financial sense because you’re looking at long-term returns on how to legitimize your illicit money to legitimate money. If equity investments provide you with that, why wouldn’t you do it?”

But President Donald Trump took office before the proposed rule, slowed down by industry opposition, was enacted, and never implemented it.

Now, six years later, the Biden administration has not used its executive authority to resurrect the stalled Obama administration initiative, nor has it even revoked a Bush administration measure that expanded disclosure exemptions for private funds.

In December the White House published its “Strategy on Countering Corruption,” which implied that the Treasury Department might revive the 2015 rule. The document said that “prescribing minimum reporting standards for investment advisors and other types of equity funds” was a necessary part of an anti-corruption strategy.

Another Lobbying Blitz

A similar saga may now be unfolding after Congress last year passed the Corporate Transparency Act, which the Atlantic Council said is the “key” to a more deterrent sanctions system against Putin and his financial network.

However, that law was also written with significant exemptions, thanks to lobbying from the financial services industry and the NFIB.

The exemption for private investment was included to get the bill through Congress, wrote Forbes columnist and tax lawyer Robert Goulder at the time of the law’s passage.

“The scope of the Corporate Transparency Act has a notable exclusion that lets some types of entities off the hook,” he wrote. “That was a practical accommodation to private equity and hedge funds. Otherwise, the act would never have gotten off the ground. There’s no point in making foes of Wall Street if you don’t have to.”

Reporting by the Washington Post confirmed that narrative: The exemption for private investment advisers was included in the law thanks to “lobbying by the private-equity and hedge-fund sectors.” Indeed, federal lobbying records show the American Investment Council — the trade association representing the private equity industry — lobbied on the bill.

The NFIB, meanwhile, lobbied furiously against the law because it subjects private corporations and limited liability companies to transparency measures they hadn’t faced before.

“NFIB and small business owners have been advocating against this new paperwork mandate since it surfaced three years ago,” the group said in a statement after the law passed. “Even with the improvements NFIB was able to secure on behalf of small businesses, NFIB strongly opposes the legislation that was ultimately passed. We will work to repeal the mandate.”

A year after that watered-down legislation passed, Senate Democrats lauded news that regulators were beginning to implement the law with a detailed new rule. But regulators implementing the law now face renewed opposition.

Last year, as the rule was being developed, the Alternative Investment Management Association (AIMA) reported lobbying regulators on the Corporate Transparency Act. The political power of that group is illustrated by its self-description: AIMA says it is “the alternative investment fund industry organization that represents the interests of the whole industry — including hedge fund managers, fund of hedge fund managers, private credit managers, prime brokers, legal and accounting firms, investors, fund administrators and independent fund directors.”

AIMA recently told its members that it has been pressing regulators “to widen the scope of exempt reporting entities, which currently does not include certain private funds and commodity pools.”

In a letter to regulators, the group complained that under the proposed rule, “companies could be required to provide information with respect to a large number of beneficial owners” — and then demanded regulators limit the number of corporate owners that must be disclosed.

The American Investment Council similarly demanded exemptions for pooled investment vehicles in its own separate letter.

Meanwhile, the Private Investor Coalition requested a new exemption for so-called family offices — which are large pools of capital invested solely for the benefit of a single family. Powerful law firms representing wealthy clients chimed in with support for that exemption.

The National Association of Manufacturers is also now demanding new exemptions for part-owners of corporate subsidiaries.

But even if the Corporate Transparency Act is robustly implemented, in spite of this opposition, carveouts for private investment will continue to undermine the U.S. government’s anti-money laundering authority.

“As doors close on other financial secrecy vehicles — namely, anonymous U.S. shell companies, which are now subject to reporting under the Corporate Transparency Act — criminals will likely increase demand for opaque private investment funds,” according to the December report by global finance watchdogs. “And that demand will increasingly target U.S. markets, as other countries toughen [anti-money laundering] controls on investment advisers and investment companies operating within their borders.”

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Austrian socialists: ‘We are against compulsory vaccination’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 21/02/2022 - 7:38pm in

Austrian socialists Manfred Ecker and David Reisinger from Linkswende Jetzt spoke to Solidarity about vaccination measures and COVID protests there led by the right

Austria is the first developed country that has effectively made vaccination compulsory for everyone. Can you explain what the measures involve?

The measures will be introduced in phases. Until 15 March people have time to start their vaccination.

After that, police can check your vaccination status and report you. In the third phase, you will be fined. [The initial fine is $950]. This is quite high for poor people, more than a month’s salary.

We are completely against compulsory vaccination.

There’s nothing done by the government to convince people of how helpful vaccination can be, how the illness is less severe [after vaccination] and so on. In the cities, we have big groups of immigrants and they are not doing anything [to explain it] in their language. They’re not going to the neighbourhoods and trying to convince people there.

Especially if they are from Eastern Europe, people often are against the vaccination because they’ve been cheated so much in the last 20 or 30 years. They feel that everybody has been lying to them, so this is probably a lie too.

But there’s so much pressure from the right and from the [hospitality and] tourism companies, I doubt this will ever really [go into effect].

Inside the police union, the most influential faction is the FPO section. They announced to the government that they will not obey orders to control people’s vaccination status, and the social democratic faction followed suit.

At the same time [they are] relaxing measures. You are [now] not a contact person anymore if you already recovered from Omicron. Also if you had a contact at work who got COVID, you have to continue working and [at schools] children are not sent home from class. Tests are not compulsory anymore.

Austria has a large far right, with the fascist Freedom Party (FPO) previously part of government. They have been part of large protests against COVID measures. How is the right capitalising on the situation?

There is a huge problem that there hasn’t really [been] a left-wing answer to the problems of coronavirus. A lot of people see the left as just part of the government. So the right exploited the gap and put themselves forward as the only anti-establishment [voice].

This gave them the opportunity to pull a lot of people onto the protests, who are not previously right-wing.

Gottfried Küssel, a central figure in the Austrian neo-Nazi movement, also joined in. At first there weren’t open racist or fascist symbols at the demonstrations. A lot of people just went because it was a protest against coronavirus [measures] and didn’t really care about the organisations [behind] the protests.

There were a lot of migrants from Turkey and other countries, and [Muslim] women with headscarves. From a lot of the people, there was complete denial that they were on demonstrations alongside such right-wing people.

At the beginning of 2021 they started to grow among wide layers of society, with 50,000 or 60,000 people every week. The FPO then really tried to mobilise for these protests [and organise contingents].

It’s hard to say how successful the far right is in recruiting from this movement. We’ve had other protests from right-wing organisations against immigrants and they were as small as the normal protests from right-wing circles in Austria.

The radical left has tried to have counter-rallies but you have had Nazis attacking the left while the police encircled the left for hours in the cold, tear gassing them. The police are being very openly friendly to the fascists.

The best we could do was hold a demonstration in another part of the city to protect the Jewish areas from Nazis marching in. At most we had 2000 or 3000 against the right wing’s marches of 50,000.

What should be happening to address COVID?

The government can’t do anything anymore because they’ve lost all credibility. It should be the trade unions and other forces who step in.

We have workplaces that for months, did not even have masks or other measures to protect workers, and the trade unions were silent about it. The unions fear that their rank and file is split into left and right.

One exception is schools and kindergartens. For example, my workplace is a kindergarten and we say we won’t do what the government wants. They say Omicron is not so dangerous so let’s have all children infected and after that, we can reopen.

So we have children PCR tested three times a week. We wear a mask all the time as staff and we are tested five times a week. We had a warning strike on October 30, and we will have the next warning strike on the 29 March throughout private Viennese kindergartens.

We are striking because we want safety measures for the children and for the staff.

The post Austrian socialists: ‘We are against compulsory vaccination’ appeared first on Solidarity Online.

‘Arum Arum Araaaaaagh’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 17/12/2021 - 9:21am in

Boris JohnsonBoris Johnson; illustration by Tom Bachtell

In his opening address to the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow at the beginning of November, Boris Johnson evoked the end of a James Bond movie in which the hero is “strapped to a doomsday device, desperately trying to work out which colored wire to pull to turn it off, while a red digital clock ticks down remorselessly to a detonation.” His audience of politicians and diplomats from around the world responded to the analogy with the same excruciating silence that met all his bad jokes. But Johnson’s domestic allies in the Conservative Party surely appreciated its ironic humor. It was they who strapped their country to the doomsday device that is Boris Johnson. Like anyone who has even the most cursory knowledge of his career, they have been waiting for the big red clock to tick down to his inevitable detonation.

One way to get a flavor of Johnson’s current situation is to consider two meanings of the word “knowing.” It suggests, at its simplest level, comprehension, understanding, recognition. But in another guise it hints at a kind of private collusion, a shared agreement to pretend not to be aware of what is really going on. In Johnson’s case, both of these meanings have long worked together. Everyone recognized that he was never remotely fit to be prime minister. But a very wide group of people—those most strongly in favor of Brexit—enjoyed that feeling of complicity, of being in on the Boris joke.

In the last two months, however, these two meanings have gradually drifted away from each other. The subtle game of knowingness doesn’t work anymore. There is only the flat knowledge that England chose to be governed by a man who lies about everything, who has no principles and no care for other people, and who cannot govern himself, let alone a large and complex country.

I remember watching a film on Britain’s Channel 4 of a focus group made up of former supporters of the Labour Party in so-called Red Wall constituencies, in the Midlands, shortly before the general election of December 2019. Those taking part were asked what they thought of Johnson. They said things like “If he can lie to the queen, he can lie to anybody,” and called him “a buffoon to some extent, but…a lovable buffoon.” And they all said they were going to vote for him. The election results would suggest that they did—Johnson’s victory was won largely in these working-class areas. It would be misleading, and falsely comforting, to say the voters were fooled by him, that they thought he was a man of steely integrity and cool competence. The knowingness was not just an elite indulgence. It went deep.

When and why did it vanish? How does a lovable buffoon become merely a buffoon? Johnson’s discombobulation in recent weeks is not unreasonable—the change has come quickly and, from his point of view, without warning. There is a song, “Station Approach” by the British rock band Elbow, about wanting to “be in the town where they know what I’m like and don’t mind.” Johnson has always lived in that town, always had newspaper editors and magazine owners who know he lies to their readers but pay him a lavish salary anyway, lovers who know he is serially unfaithful but choose to believe his protestations of devotion, political allies who know that he is wildly incompetent but don’t mind so long as he can win elections. Why should all this change now?

Consider the things that did not seem to damage Johnson very much, if at all. In mid-October two House of Commons all-party committees issued a joint report describing Johnson’s slow and muddled response to the beginnings of the pandemic in March 2020 as “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced.” That did him no harm. Nor did the revelations that hugely expensive contracts for the procurement of medical devices and personal protective equipment for the National Health Service were awarded to Tory cronies who had no experience in supplying them. Nor the direct evidence of his former lover Jennifer Arcuri that Johnson, when he was mayor of London, offered to advance her business interests. Nor his flagrant abuse of patronage in appointing more cronies, including his own brother and the son of a Russian oligarch, to the House of Lords. He shrugged these things off, as he has always done, with the tacit, and perfectly reasonable, question: Well, what did you expect?

It’s actually quite funny that it all started to unravel for Johnson when he tried his hand at something that is patently out of character for him: loyalty. Johnson betrays people, causes, and allies whenever it suits him. For some strange reason, however, he decided to be faithful to Owen Paterson, a Tory member of Parliament, former cabinet minister, and fervent Brexiteer. While continuing to work as an MP, Paterson was receiving large payments from two private companies. This, remarkably enough, was within the rules. But the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, found that he had directly lobbied ministers on behalf of these companies, which is not. The commissioner recommended that Paterson be suspended from Parliament for thirty days.

Johnson, however, decided to come to Paterson’s rescue by instructing all Tory MPs to vote to overturn this finding and to weaken the whole system of ethical oversight by allowing MPs to appeal adverse rulings. This provoked a large-scale backlash from many of those MPs, forcing Johnson into ignominious retreat. Many of them were baffled that Johnson had squandered so much political capital merely to protect an ally from the consequences of his own breach of the most basic ethical standards. But the strong probability is that Johnson was also thinking of himself. There is an expectation that Stone will investigate the strange saga of the lavish refurbishment, by Johnson and his wife Carrie, of their private flat in Downing Street. Overturning Stone’s ruling on Paterson would, conveniently, have rendered her patently powerless or even forced her to resign.

The reason Johnson wanted to do this became obvious in mid-December when the Electoral Commission published a report on the failure of the Conservative Party to declare a donation from the Tory peer Lord Brownlow toward the cost of the designer upgrade. The report made it pretty clear that Johnson had lied about this too. Back in May, Johnson’s independent adviser on standards, Lord Geidt, cleared him of a conflict of interest over the donation from Brownlow, on the grounds that he appeared not to be aware of the arrangement. But the new report cites a WhatsApp message from Johnson to Brownlow in November 2020 asking directly for extra money for the redecoration.

Another lie—so what? Yet there’s something in this whole business that is particularly dangerous for Johnson. It touches the raw nerve of English society: social class. Johnson’s great strength, and the reason he was so crucial to Brexit, is that he managed somehow to transcend class. As a journalist in the 1990s, he drew snobbish caricatures of British working-class men as (to quote one of his Spectator columns) “likely to be drunk, criminal, aimless, feckless and hopeless.” But as a politician, he has had an extraordinary ability to project himself as both a toff (and thus to engage the old instincts of class deference) and an honorary member of the proletariat, a bit of a lad whose carefully arranged dishevelment could be interpreted as “not putting on airs and graces.”

The problem with spending £200,000 on rattan chairs and Lulu Lytle sofa covers for the Downing Street flat is that it pulls this fusion apart from both ends. The expenditure exceeds the average price of an entire house in a Red Wall area like Stoke-on-Trent, which reminds working-class voters that Johnson really is not one of them. But that might be okay if he did not have to beg donors for the money; that makes him not a toff, either. (True toffs don’t buy furniture—they inherit it.) It makes Johnson seem what he actually is—a middle-class opportunist on the make, very much putting on airs and graces. It negates the impulse toward deference among his voters while simultaneously scraping off the carapace of authenticity that Johnson built around himself by seeming not to care about appearances.

There’s another trick of language at work here. Playing fast and loose with money can be regarded as an aristocratic virtue, an expression of devil-may-care insouciance. But an invisible line divides devil-may-care and its dark and politically dangerous twin, sleaze. That word has a peculiar potency in British politics. It is a six-letter corrosive that strips the sheen of glamour from bad-boy antics. In recent years it seemed to have lost its currency, perhaps because it had sexual connotations that have been complicated by shifting attitudes. A search of Hansard, the record of parliamentary debates at Westminster, shows that it was used just five times in 2016, not at all in 2017, once each year in 2018 and 2019, and five times in 2020. But it has been uttered 131 times in 2021.

Those who deploy the word are, of course, Johnson’s political enemies, mostly in the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party, but it is telling that opponents feel suddenly emboldened to use it so often. Sleaze is a great reducer. It deflates sprezzatura into squalor and sordidness. And it retains something of its etymological origins: thin or flimsy in texture; having little substance. Neither of these meanings is good for Johnson, who is peculiarly vulnerable to both.

This is why it was especially idiotic for Johnson to identify himself so closely with Paterson’s moonlighting and greed. Anyone with any sense of British political history knows that the word “sleaze” acted like a curse on John Major’s Tory government of the 1990s, a malediction that, once uttered, cast a spell of doom that could never be broken. This was in spite of the fact that Major’s personal integrity was never questioned. Even more pertinent, though, is the scandal of 2009, when the details of expenses paid to MPs from the public purse (most memorably Sir Peter Viggers’s claim for the cost of installing a house for the ducks in his garden pond) were leaked, deepening an existing sense of disgust with the political system.

That sense of alienation from “the elites” in Westminster fed into the great rebellion of 2016: Brexit. If anyone should understand this, it is the embodiment and beneficiary of that project, Johnson himself. It is a mark of his strategic, as opposed to merely managerial, incompetence that he invited the casting upon himself of the hex of sleaze. Under the influence of that dis-enchantment, telling lies about how you begged for money to fund your dream interior does not look roguish. It looks slimy.

All of this still had, however, some degree of abstraction. It was Westminster business: donors, lobbyists, funny money. What made Johnson’s personality disorder explosive was the way it became, for most voters, personal, through two things that almost everyone in Britain cares deeply about: Covid-19 and Christmas. For most people in 2020, the most important family holiday of the year was a time of sadness, because many of their familiar gatherings and visits had to be canceled in the interest of public health. Johnson himself summed it up on December 19, 2020, when he warned people against the usual seasonal socializing: “We’re sacrificing the chance to see loved ones so we have a better chance of protecting their lives.”

The government-issued rules were clear: “You must not socialize with anyone you do not live with or who is not in your support bubble in any indoor setting.” There was an exception for work that was “reasonably necessary.” That did not mean office parties. Yet there were parties, lots of parties: in the fabulously refurbished Downing Street flat on November 13 (apparently to celebrate the departure of Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings), a small gathering with drinks in Downing Street at which Johnson made a short speech on November 27, a Christmas quiz for staff at which Johnson appeared virtually on December 15, and a larger and more raucous party downstairs in Downing Street on December 18 that Johnson did not attend but of which he must have been aware. In the unfolding of this story, two of Johnson’s most potent weapons—the power of the joke and his ability to hover between the real and the unreal—have turned against him.

There is, firstly, something almost too neat in the fact that what has accelerated Johnson’s appointment with doomsday is a laugh. It is, to be more precise, a leaked video of Allegra Stratton, the journalist brought into Johnson’s inner circle in October 2020 to impose some order on its chaotic communications. In the video, shot on December 22, 2020, she is rehearsing for Downing Street’s planned daily televised briefings (a plan soon abandoned). Other staffers are playing the roles of journalists. Johnson’s adviser Ed Oldfield asks her, “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night. Do you recognize those reports?” And she laughs, the first of three warm, charming chuckles. The third comes when she says, “This fictional party was a business meeting, and it was not socially distanced.” These are not evil cackles or villainous guffaws. They are friendly laughs of knowingness, the signals that we here are all in on the joke. The problem is that considering the real sorrows that ordinary people were enduring, this idea too has crossed the invisible line between being in on the joke and being the butt of the joke, between having a laugh and feeling that you are being laughed at.

Johnson has always walked that line like a political Philippe Petit. His high wire has been strung between the poles of outrageous insult (almost always of people weaker and more vulnerable than him) and “Oh, for heaven’s sake, it was only a joke.” The idea of humor has been utterly essential to his success—it is the solvent in which a lie is merely an exaggeration, and a racist slur is merely a merry jape. Emmanuel Macron has reportedly described Johnson as “a clown,” and he was by no means the first to use the term. But successful clowns are very smart people, acutely aware that if they do not stay within the fuzzy boundaries of what the audience is finding funny, they become embarrassing and even frightening.

This fate was already creeping up on Johnson before the Stratton video emerged in December. The style that worked in front of already drunk corporate audiences when he was practicing his lucrative sideline as an after-dinner speaker does not impress when his listeners are sober and serious. The meltdown in November when he lost his place in a speech to the Confederation of British Industry, rambled into a long diversion about Peppa Pig World, a theme park based on the children’s cartoon character, and imitated the sound of an accelerating car with grunts that the official Downing Street press release transcribed as “arum arum araaaaaagh,” dramatized the moment at which the clown became both mortifyingly infantile and, for those who have to live in the pandemic-stricken country he governs, quite scary. When that happens, the collusive atmosphere that Johnson has been so good at creating—what does it matter so long as we’re all having fun?—rapidly evaporates. Johnson keeps playacting but his public (both within and outside of Westminster) stops playing along.

The other skill that Johnson wielded so deftly and effectively was the conjuring of what we might call nonreality. His career was built on his talent, as Brussels correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, for inventing stories about the madness of the European Union. These were not mere lies—Johnson had the ability to keep them suspended somewhere between existence and nonexistence, real enough to help shape his country’s fate yet always held up in the air by invisible quotation marks of knowing irony.

This way of shaping stories has now come back to haunt him. His tale about the Christmas bash is a classic Johnson narrative: the party, he claims, was not a party because all the Covid-related rules were obeyed, and since the rules said there could be no party, it wasn’t a party. This fits perfectly into Johnson’s familiar mode in which the relationship between the signifier and the signified is always fluid, always up for grabs. But his past success at pulling off this trick has entirely misled him this time. The right answer for his own survival was the simple one: there was a party, I wasn’t at it but I should have stopped it, and I’m very sorry. Instead he could only make things worse by offering people who were hurt and angry a stale rehash from his old repertoire of absurdities.

Shaping these responses to specific scandals is the slow waning of the glow from Brexit. Johnson’s little lies were folded into a bigger lie: that Britain could leave the EU without any real consequences. So long as he could hold that great deception aloft, Johnson’s petty deceptions were, for those who support Brexit, of minor account. Getting Brexit done—the slogan that won him the 2019 election—was a great test of honesty. As Brexit supporters saw it, they had made a contract in that referendum, and Johnson was the only man who would honor it. This made him, oddly, an honest man, even one they knew with certainty would “lie to anyone.” The problem, though, is that the contract was bogus. The pain-free Brexit it promised could not be delivered. The clearer this becomes, the more naked Johnson must appear.

Johnson’s behavior has made a mockery of his ability to tell the English public how they should behave in the face of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. His dithering and posturing cost many lives in 2020, and his undercutting of official advice and rules will undoubtedly do the same in 2022. His loss of authority on the management of the pandemic was evident on December 14, when almost a hundred of his own Tory MPs voted against his proposals for Covid passports for entry into nightclubs and other venues. (The proposal passed only with votes from the Labour opposition.) As Covid fatigue deepens, the evidence that their leader does not himself believe anything he says will make it ever more difficult for people in England to separate the vital messages from the wildly implausible messenger.

Johnson’s last hope lies in the paradox that he is a liar but no deceiver. Those who have the ability to bring him down—the powers that be in the Conservative Party—are those who raised him up, in full consciousness of what that meant for their country. It was they who set the big red digital clock ticking down toward the chaotic finale. Only their reluctance to acknowledge this responsibility is delaying the approach of zero hour for Boris Johnson.

—December 16, 2021

The post ‘Arum Arum Araaaaaagh’ appeared first on The New York Review of Books.

The Lie of Nation Building

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 13/09/2021 - 4:00am in

Residents of Marja returning to their village after it was retaken from the Taliban by US and Afghan forces, 2010Residents of Marja returning to their village after it was retaken from the Taliban by US and Afghan forces, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, February 2010

The great question of America’s twenty-year war in Afghanistan was not whether the Afghans were fit for democracy. It was whether democratic values were strong enough in the US to be projected onto a traumatized society seven thousand miles away. Those values include the accountability of the people in power, the consistent and universal application of human rights, a clear understanding of what policies are trying to achieve, the prevention of corrupt financial influence over political decisions, and the fundamental truthfulness of public utterances. In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the American republic was fighting, and often losing, a domestic battle to uphold those values for its own citizens.

It is grimly unsurprising that the US could not infuse them into a very foreign country. While the political system of the US was approaching the crisis that culminated in the presidency of Donald Trump and the Capitol riots, its most enduring external adventure could not avoid moving in tandem toward the grim climax of the flight from Kabul. Afghanistan became a dark mirror held up to the travails of American democracy. It reflected back, sometimes in exaggerated forms, the weaknesses of the homeland’s political culture. Critics of the war argued that the US could not create a polity in its own image on the far side of the world. The tragic truth is that in many ways it did exactly that.

The easiest way to cope with the reality that the longest war in US history (longer than World War I, World War II, and Vietnam put together) has ended in defeat and an ignominious and deadly evacuation is to fall back on the belief that the Afghans were never capable of creating or sustaining a modern nation-state. The US, after all, spent $143 billion on “nation building” in Afghanistan. Adjusted for inflation, that is more than it spent on the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe after World War II. Why did it not achieve similar results? The problem, it is comforting to conclude, must lie with the Afghans themselves: too backward, too poor, too inextricably entangled in medieval tribalism and obscurantist religion.

But even five years after the US-led invasion overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001, it was clear to those Americans who were paying close attention that the dichotomy between a regressive and recalcitrant people on the one hand and a progressive Western project of liberation and development on the other was entirely false. Sarah Chayes, who went to Afghanistan as an NPR correspondent covering the invasion and then stayed to live among Afghans in Kandahar, wrote in her brilliant 2006 book The Punishment of Virtue:

I have often been asked whether we in the West have the right to “impose democracy” on people who “just might not want it,” or might not be “ready for it.” I think, concerning Afghanistan at least, this question is exactly backward…. I have found that Afghans know precisely what democracy is—even if they might not be able to define the term. And they are crying out for it. They want from their government what most Americans and Europeans want from theirs: roads they can drive on, schools for their kids, doctors with certified qualifications…, a minimum of public accountability, and security…. And they want to participate in some real way in the fashioning of their nation’s destiny….

But Afghans were getting precious little of any of that…. American policy in Afghanistan was not imposing or even encouraging democracy, as the US government claimed it was. Instead, it was standing in the way of democracy. It was institutionalizing violence.

From the very beginning, the problem with the US involvement in Afghanistan lay essentially in the deficits in American democracy. A well-functioning republic makes decisions—especially those as serious as starting a war—by an open process of rational deliberation. It asks the obvious questions: What are we doing? Why are we doing it? What is the human and financial cost? What are the benefits? How and when does it end? The original sin of the Afghan war—one that would never be expiated—was the failure of American political institutions to meet these most basic standards of scrutiny.

The congressional mandate for the war was an “authorization for use of military force” that allowed the president to attack any entity “he determines” to have some connection with the September 11 attacks on the US. Just one member of Congress, Barbara Lee, voted against it. Her plea—“Some of us must say, ‘Let’s step back for a moment…and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control”—was dismissed as verging on the treasonous. The aim of the US intervention in Afghanistan was, as President George W. Bush put it in October 2001, “to bring al-Qaeda to justice.” Whether this necessitated the defeat and banishment of the Taliban regime that had allowed Osama bin Laden’s network to plan the attacks on Afghan soil, and what government might take its place, were questions never even asked.

How could a project to create an Afghan democracy be founded on such a patent failure of democratic process? Without scrutiny, there could be no clarity of purpose. As Craig Whitlock puts it in The Afghanistan Papers—a gripping chronicle based on his own tenacious gathering for The Washington Post of hundreds of accounts given privately by American participants to the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and on other official testimonies—after the initial phase the war was “waged against people who had nothing to do with 9/11.”

US troops entered Afghanistan on October 19, 2001, in alliance with the indigenous warlords whose chaotic misrule had been ended by the triumph of the Taliban in the late 1990s. By the time the Taliban was overthrown in December 2001, there were only 2,500 Americans serving in all of Afghanistan. When the last US soldiers left Kabul on August 30, 2021, 775,000 of them had served there and 2,300 had been killed. Throughout this time, Congress allowed the mission to become unmoored from its stated purpose of rooting out Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and to drift into waters that the administrations of neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama even managed to chart.

There was almost no understanding that the US was inaugurating what would turn out to be the second half of a civil war that has now lasted for more than forty years. On September 11, 2001, Richard Armitage, then the deputy secretary of state, by his own account cut off General Mahmood Ahmed, the head of the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence, who was trying to explain to him who the Taliban were: “I said, ‘No, the history begins today.’”

This was the US version of Year Zero. There were two blank slates: Afghanistan and the official American mind. The SIGAR testimonies are remarkably frank in their admissions of near-total ignorance. “We did not know what we were doing,” says Richard Boucher, the Bush administration’s chief diplomat for the region, as assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia with responsibility for Afghanistan policy between 2006 and 2009. “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking,” says Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, the White House “war czar” in both the Bush and Obama administrations.

To grasp the depth of the institutional ignorance from which this undertaking sprang, it is necessary merely to recall that not much more than a year before the US-led invasion of 2001, President Bill Clinton had decided that it would be a good idea to encourage Russia, whose occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 had turned it into a failed state riven by civil wars and drowned in blood, to launch a bombing campaign against the Taliban. As Roy Gutman wrote in How We Missed the Story (2008), a study of US Afghan policy in the years immediately before the invasion, “for the United States to endorse another Russian-led armed intervention barely a decade after the debacle that caused such suffering begged credulity.” But in a mindset in which “history begins today,” even the very recent Afghan past could be wiped from official American consciousness.

When the US took control of the country, the literal terms of engagement—the language used to define the entire project—were fuzzy and shifting. Was it a war? The answer would seem to be obvious, but the word itself was slippery. Some of the NATO armies involved in the mission were authorized only to take part in peacekeeping operations, so they were anxious that the idea of war be avoided. (It was not until 2010 that the German chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that her country’s troops were indeed at war in Afghanistan.) Whitlock quotes a senior NATO commander: “We checked with the legal team and they agree it’s not a war.” To bridge the semantic divide, the US commander of Afghan operations Stanley McChrystal added a line in an official report to describe the conflict as “not a war in the conventional sense.”

Was it then “nation building”? No and yes. Ryan Crocker, who briefly served as the US ambassador in Kabul after the defeat of the Taliban, explained to SIGAR that the mindset of Donald Rumsfeld and the other neoconservatives in the Bush administration was that “our job is about killing bad guys, so…we’re not going to get involved in nation-building.” As early as June 2002, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joe Biden (who has recently claimed that nation building “never made any sense to me” even though he consistently supported it) reported that an aide to Bush had asked him, after a meeting with the president, “You are not going to mention nation-building, are you?”

Biden insisted at the time that the administration’s reluctance to use the phrase was “an incredible hang-up.” Yet in 2009 Barack Obama, whom Biden was then serving as vice-president, stressed that he opposed a drawn-out nation-building project while announcing the surge of US troop numbers to 100,000. And six months after that, when the then US head of Central Command David Petraeus was asked by the House Armed Services Committee whether the US was engaged in nation building, he replied, “We are indeed.” He added that “I’m just not going to evade [the question] and play rhetorical games.” This was an implicit acknowledgment that rhetorical games had become almost compulsory in official parlance. The US was spending hundreds of billions of dollars on a project that dared not speak its name.

This linguistic obfuscation attained the zenith of sinister absurdity in 2015 when Obama changed the name of the Afghanistan mission from Operation Enduring Freedom (the Bush administration’s term) to Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. Behind this shift lay what Whitlock calls “among the most egregious deceptions and lies that US leaders spread during two decades of warfare”—the illusion that American combat operations were ending when in fact they were carrying on pretty much as before.

The degradation of language hollowed out one of the most important words in the lexicon of the Western mission in Afghanistan: progress. The nation-building exercise was cast above all as progressive, and in certain respects—the rights of women and girls, rising life expectancy, improved levels of education, the flourishing of independent media and urban civil society—it was. But “progress” was also the word that, after the first flush of triumph, replaced the idea of military victory. The resumed war against the Taliban, which quickly regrouped in Pakistan before infiltrating rural Afghanistan again, was never being won; it was always “making good progress.” In 2003 Rumsfeld boasted that “signs of progress are everywhere.” Three years later Major General Robert Durbin, the commander in charge of training the Afghan security forces, told reporters that they “continue to show great progress each day.”

In 2007 Bush reassured Americans that “over the past five years, we’ve made real progress.” John Walters, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under Bush, boasted of the “enormous progress” being made in the elimination of opium poppy cultivation. “We’ve made a lot of progress,” said Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in 2011. And so ever onward in a progress that was going nowhere except around in a circle. There was in this a contagion of meaninglessness: when the same word was used to disguise military failure as to hail real and tangible improvements in the lives of many Afghans, even justified claims about the latter could come to seem doubtful.

But progress was America’s party line, and it was rigorously enforced. Just one of the fifteen US generals who commanded in Afghanistan (that number itself a mark of the inconsistency of leadership) crossed that line. In May 2009, at a press conference in Kabul, General David McKiernan said, truthfully, that the war was “stalemated” in the south and a “very tough fight” in the east. Hours later, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told him that he was being fired. McKiernan had earlier remarked dryly to one of his regional commanders that “we may have done too good a job explaining how bad it is over here.” His mistake, according to Whitlock, was that “unlike other commanding officers, he did not deceive the public with specious language.” His sacking made it clear to other US officials, both military and civilian, that mastery of speciousness was part of the job description. The mobilization of “alternative facts” that came to be associated with the era of Trump was already well underway in US statecraft, and it was heavily deployed in Afghanistan.

The misadventure may have begun in ignorance, but it morphed into something more complex—a deliberate unknowing. It is commonplace to characterize US policy in Afghanistan as self-deception. But whoever was being deceived, it was not those who were running the war. The Afghanistan Papers shows that, certainly after the first two years, very few of those at the top of the military and diplomatic establishments were deluded. They knew well that the Taliban was not defeated; that the Afghan national and local governments, police, and army were deeply corrupt; that military gains were fragile and often temporary; and that vast amounts of American money were being wasted and stolen. They knew that the Afghan state they were supporting was never any closer to being able to sustain itself independently.

But for two decades they all carried on regardless. In his SIGAR interview Crocker, who returned to Kabul as US ambassador in 2011, said of a vastly expensive dam project outside Kandahar that “I made the decision to go ahead with it, but I was sure it was never going to work.” The statement could stand for the entire US project in Afghanistan. Cognitive dissonance was not pathology—it was policy.

Afghanistan was not, of course, a blank slate. Nor, however, was it a timeless world of ancient and unchanging tribal allegiances. As a polity, it had in fact undergone radical and traumatic change since the Communist coup of 1978, the invasion by the Soviets, and the hideous civil war among the mujahideen that defeated them. Under all that pressure, traditional structures of authority had largely been replaced by the mandate of the gun.

In his rueful and melancholy The American War in Afghanistan: A History, Carter Malkasian, who worked closely with General Joseph Dunsford when he was US commander in Afghanistan and then, from 2015 to 2019, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, points out that the new tribalism was not at all the same as the old version. The tribal and religious leaders who came to power during and after the war against the Soviets were “not the old nobility or revered scholars,” but rather

commanders who had gained their position through military prowess, guns, and money…. Within the religious leaders, younger scholars trained in Pakistani madrasas or militarized in the war, filled the role of older scholars who had fled or died.

Chayes, writing in 2006, eloquently evoked the results of this process:

All the invisible bonds that weave a country together into a single polity had been dissolved. All the renunciations of personal sovereignty in exchange for the comforts and protections of a joint destiny had been retracted. Anyone claiming the allegiance of a few armed men felt entitled to strike out for himself. Scores of petty commanders fell to preying on their countrymen. This version of [Afghanistan] was a metastasized cancer; it had grown beyond the capacity of traditional tribal structures to contain it.

The recreation of a functioning state out of this implosion of nationhood was thus not primarily a matter of rooting out ancient and backward traditions. What it demanded, rather, was a confrontation with this new system of gangster fiefdoms. The Taliban, ironically, did this job very well. It created a state—albeit a viciously repressive and misogynistic one—that could take power back from the predatory warlords. It established a powerful notion of a “joint destiny” based on resistance to foreign invaders, the violent repression of internal ethnic minorities (especially the Hazara people, who allegedly descend from the Mongols), and an extremist version of Islam.

If the US was to succeed in creating for Afghans a similarly powerful idea of shared national enterprise, it had to do what the Taliban had done, except with democratic values as its binding force. It had to show that it was at least as capable as the Taliban had been at fending off the predators. That it utterly failed to do. This was, in a sense, a failure of faith. The Taliban believes passionately in its own worldview. The US did not really believe in the democratic virtues it espoused. It did not tell the truth. It was not committed to preventing corruption. Instead of breaking the power of the warlords, it restored them to power.

As Chayes pointed out, just five years after the US-led invasion there was already a contrast in the minds of ordinary Afghans between life as it had been under the Taliban and as it then was under the new regime. The Taliban was seen, undoubtedly, as more oppressive, but also more predictable. Its rules were outlandish and stultifying—everything from playing chess to cheering at sporting events to flying kites was banned—but everyone knew what they were. Under the American-backed government, by contrast, everything seemed arbitrary. A governor might be a decent public servant, or a thief and a thug.

An army checkpoint might be a genuine security operation, or it might be merely a shakedown in which anyone who wished to pass had to pay a bribe. In 2010 the United Nations estimated that Afghans were paying $2.5 billion every year in bribes—almost a quarter of the country’s official GDP—to soldiers and militia, to judges and government officials, even to doctors, nurses, and teachers. For Afghans, arbitrary government—by definition the opposite of republican democracy—was not a theoretical evil. It was a daily experience of random rapacity.

The US enabled this sense of the unpredictability of power by giving wildly different answers to the question at the center of the whole modernizing project. That question was wrapped up in another slippery word: culture. Was it or was it not okay for powerful Afghan men to own the bodies of others on the grounds that this was “their culture”? In relation to the rights of women, the Western powers decreed that it was not. The moral case for the occupation rested largely on the insistence that organized misogyny could not be tolerated just because it was deeply rooted in indigenous cultural practice.

The Taliban’s assault on women’s autonomy had been an all-out war. In her 2002 memoir The Sewing Circles of Herat, Christina Lamb has a long list of the laws that erased women as public beings, including: any woman showing her ankles must be whipped; no woman is allowed outside the home unless accompanied by a close male relative; women must be fully covered by the burqa; windows must be painted over so women cannot be seen from the outside; any woman with painted nails should have her fingers cut off. There was a “ban on laughing in public. No stranger should hear a woman’s voice.” Girls were prevented from attending even elementary school. Women were removed from all jobs outside the home.

To free women from this brutal gender apartheid—and to prevent the return to power of those who had imposed it—was undoubtedly a noble aim. But it always stood on shaky ground. Firstly, it was, as Malkasian acknowledges, a “moral cause for Americans” but “not an explicit strategic goal.” This goes to the heart of the difficulty: the moral argument for an open-ended American presence was never the same as the strategic purpose of the mission. Indeed, it is well to remember that, under the Clinton presidency, the US was prepared to recognize and work with the Taliban, vicious misogyny and all. When the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, the US drew up seventeen “talking points” for negotiations. As Gutman laconically noted, “The talking points omitted any mention of the sudden loss of women’s rights.” The establishment and defense of those rights were collateral effects of a counterterrorism operation. They were never defined as the primary goal of long-term American engagement.

Equally shaky was the American commitment to the principle underlying its insistence on equal dignity for Afghan women. That principle had to be instituted against the traditions of the rural Pashtun heartlands: men could not do what they pleased to women merely because that was part of an established way of life. But organized pedophilia was also a traditional practice, and the Americans tolerated and enabled it.

It is striking that in his history of the war, Malkasian mentions this issue in passing as one of the reasons why many Afghans welcomed Taliban rule, but returns to it as a post-2001 problem only in a single footnote, explaining local hostility to Dad Mohammed Khan, the warlord who was appointed chief of police in the town of Sangin: “The police chief and his men were also rumored to kidnap little boys out of the bazaar.” In fact, as The Afghanistan Papers confirms, the kidnapping and rape of boys by senior Afghan army and police officers was not a rumor. It was well known to American officials as an institutionalized practice. Whitlock summarizes the evidence from the official records:

Afghan military officers, warlords and other power brokers proclaimed their status by keeping tea boys or other adolescent male servants as sex slaves. US troops referred to the practice as “man-love Thursday” because Afghan pederasts would force boys to dress up or dance on Thursday evenings before the start of the Afghan weekend. Although American soldiers were sickened by the abuse, their commanders instructed them to look the other way because they didn’t want to alienate allies in the fight against the Taliban.

In 2015 Joseph Goldstein reported in The New York Times that US soldiers were instructed not to intervene in the kidnapping and rape of boys, even when the crimes were being committed on their own military bases. He interviewed a former Special Forces captain, Dan Quinn, who beat up a US-backed militia commander who had a boy chained to his bed. Quinn was relieved of his own command and sent home from Afghanistan. In response to the story, an army spokesman blithely confirmed that “there would be no express requirement that US military personnel in Afghanistan report” child sexual abuse by allied forces.

Apart from being morally abhorrent, the facilitation of these crimes exposed deep fault lines. One was the idea that it was best not to “alienate allies in the fight against the Taliban.” It suggests that these allies were not seen as the ordinary people of Afghanistan, the families whose children were kidnapped or the villagers who lived under this terror. As early as 2002, Jon Lee Anderson, in The Lion’s Grave, perhaps the most widely read American book about the US-led invasion, wrote that “one of the first things the Taliban did—a popular move—was to punish mujahideen commanders who were accused of rape or pederasty.” If this was known to be a popular move by the Taliban, did it not occur to American policymakers that taking the opposite approach might be unpopular and indeed alienating?

More broadly, the arbitrariness of the decision to disregard child rape undermined the principle of the universality of human rights on which US support for female equality was based. One US officer is recorded in The Afghanistan Papers explaining American tolerance of child abuse by saying, “You have to accept what they do and don’t interject your personal feelings about their culture.” But if this was so, why object to the Taliban’s confining women to their homes or banning music or destroying ancient images? The US, which has never managed to consistently apply human rights and the rule of law to its own citizens, could not do so for Afghans either.

The overlap between the failures of America’s own democracy and of its mission in Afghanistan is nowhere clearer than in the creation of a kleptocracy. One of the most basic functions of a democratic system is ensuring accountability for the use of public money. The Americans knew when they entered Afghanistan that corruption was already widespread. Their main response was to feed it with billions of taxpayers’ dollars. This was not naive or innocent. It too was policy. It was based on an article of faith for conservative Americans: trickle-down economics. If, in the US, you believed that it did not matter if some people became filthy rich by dubious means because some of their wealth would leak out to ordinary folk, why not apply that to Afghanistan?

In his SIGAR interview, Boucher said that it was better to funnel the vast sums of US aid to Afghan power brokers who “would probably take 20 percent for personal use” than to give it to “a bunch of expensive American experts.” He said, “I want it to disappear in Afghanistan, rather than in the Beltway. Probably in the end it is going to make sure that more of the money gets to some villager, maybe through five layers of corrupt officials, but still gets to some villager.”

Particularly striking here is Boucher’s assumption that genteel corruption is as endemic in Washington as the more flagrant kind is in Afghanistan. A democracy that cannot create accountability for the use of public money at home could not do so in a faraway society. This was also, for the entire project of building an Afghan democracy, ruinous. The villager who gets the last drops of aid after most of it has been filtered through five layers of corrupt officials knows all too well that he or she is not an equal citizen.

What was corrupted in all of this was the sense of an ending. “What,” as Major Joseph Claburn rather plaintively asked in 2011, “does it look like when it comes time for us to leave?” Because the ends being pursued were so ill-defined, the idea of an ending could not be fixed either. Twice—in 2003 and in 2014—the US officially declared an “end to combat operations” in Afghanistan. On neither occasion was this real or truthful or reflected on the ground. Finality, for the US, was something to be declared, not to be accomplished. Those who do not know what the last stage of their mission is will be outlasted, as America has been by the Taliban. It is an iron law that what cannot be concluded will be abandoned. That has been Afghanistan’s bitter fate.

Biden’s fate is to be the one who gave up the pretense of endless progress. It fell to the mournful man of compassion and empathy to deliver a heartless coup de grace. And even that parting shot was botched. It is a bleak commentary on the whole twenty-year episode that the US, on its departure, was almost as much in the dark as it had been on arrival, and no less concerned to keep up appearances. On July 23 Biden told his Afghan counterpart Ashraf Ghani that the critical question was the “perception” that “things are not going well in terms of the fight against the Taliban.” He suggested that “there is a need, whether it is true or not, there is a need to project a different picture.”

Less than a month before Ghani fled from Kabul, the US could not break the long-established habit of valuing a positive story more than the realities revealed by its own intelligence reports. This attitude extended even to the plight of Afghans whose lives were known to be in danger because they had worked with the Americans. The White House delayed for months the process of getting them to safety because it wanted to maintain the fiction that Afghan government forces would hold out against the Taliban. The great cloud of unknowing enveloped even the obvious truth that the circular progression of the war was about to close in on itself, forming a great hollow 0.

What is also unknown is how much this failure of American democracy will recoil on the politics of the homeland. Defeat in war has been, for some nations, the beginning of radical political change. It prompts reflection on the nature of the political order that has failed so badly. But the problem with the defeat in Afghanistan may be that, for America, it does not matter enough to make such self-examination imperative. Malkasian concludes that “the bigger story is probably how little the war featured in national life. Failure or success, Afghanistan was unimportant. Less than 0.3 percent of the population, including diplomats and contractors, served there.”

This is not a national trauma like Vietnam. There will be no great Maya Lin memorial to the Americans who gave their lives, still less to the 200,000 or so Afghans and Pakistanis who died. (Whitlock writes that the US started to count Afghan civilian deaths only in 2005, but then abandoned the database “for unspecified reasons.”) The shame and terror of the botched withdrawal has already become mere fodder for the tribal warfare of American politics, with Donald Trump recasting his own abject surrender to the Taliban—when he went over the heads of the supposedly sovereign Afghan government to negotiate an unhindered withdrawal—as Biden’s fault, and moreover as the “dumbest move ever made in US history.”

When it has served its partisan purpose, the collective impulse will be to write the whole thing off as an embarrassment. Since the US was so successful at not paying attention when the war was actually going on, it is hard to be optimistic about its capacity to do so in the long, dark aftermath.

Yet it should reflect, if only for its own sake. The war was not just a projection of American power into a troubled part of Asia. It was a test of the nature of that power. It showed that if war is the continuation of politics by other means, what was continued over twenty years in Afghanistan was a dangerous American nonchalance about the difficulty and fragility of democracy. The prevailing assumption over those years was that a stable democracy could be created and sustained without a commitment to telling the truth, without controlling the distorting effects of money, without standing up to the avidity of the rich, without proper mechanisms for open scrutiny and rational deliberation, without a commitment to moral standards that apply as much to our allies as to our enemies. Democracy without those values and systems has no substance. It will fall—and not just in Afghanistan.

The Americans running the show there were never convinced by the performance. They just could not stir themselves to do much about it. They watched the notion of a democratic republic they had conjured for a suffering people slip away bit by bit until it collapsed catastrophically. They settled into a strange pattern of dazed powerlessness. Successive American administrations, Republican and Democratic, became spectators at a drama in which the follies and dangers of their own domestic polity were played out in exotic foreign costumes. They failed to see that this story was also about themselves.

—September 8, 2021

The post The Lie of Nation Building appeared first on The New York Review of Books.

Yet More Dumb University Rankings

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 19/09/2017 - 9:07am in



Paul Greatrix returns to the subject of dumb university rankings, taking in everything from the effect of "dry" campus policies on the crime rate to the proximity to campus of popular cut-price chains of public houses.

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