Russia’s Clash With the West Is About Geography, Not Ideology

The Marshall Plan recognized the limits of U.S. power in Europe. To be successful, so must diplomacy with Moscow today.

At his dacha, standing before a map of the newly expanded Soviet Union shortly after Germany’s surrender in May 1945, Josef Stalin nodded with approval. The vast buffer he’d carved out of Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe would now protect his empire against future Napoleons and Hitlers. Stalin then took the pipe from his mouth, waving it under the base of the Caucasus. He shook his head and frowned.

“I don’t like our border right here,” he said to his aides, gesturing at the area where the Soviet republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan met the hostile powers of Turkey and Iran.

Over the next year and a half, U.S.-Soviet relations would collapse as Stalin pressured Ankara and Tehran for territorial concessions and U.S. President Harry S. Truman pushed back by sending a naval flotilla to the Mediterranean. In February 1947, a penniless Britain told the State Department that it could no longer defend the Greek government in its civil war with Yugoslav-backed Communist rebels, prompting Truman to pledge U.S. economic and military aid for Athens and Ankara. Stalin, whose country was struggling to recover from Nazi devastation, fell back on defense. His aim now would be to hold the new security zone in Eastern Europe and to prevent the United States from controlling Russia’s mortal enemy: Germany.

In March 1947, the new U.S. secretary of state, George C. Marshall, embarked on six grueling weeks of negotiations in Moscow with his Soviet counterpart, Vyacheslav Molotov, over the future of occupied Germany. With neither side willing to accept the possibility of such a dangerous, strategically situated country becoming an ally of the other, the talks ended in stalemate. Yet Stalin still believed that Truman would ultimately be compelled to concede German unification on Soviet terms — massive reparations and a political structure favorable to the Communists — in order to fulfill his predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from Europe within two years after the war.

Marshall left Moscow convinced that cooperation with the Soviets was over. Germany, and much of Western Europe, was edging toward economic and social collapse, and the Leninist dictum “the worse, the better” appeared to be Stalin’s response. The time had come, Marshall decided, for unilateral U.S. action to secure democratic, capitalist government in the parts of Europe still outside Soviet control. In an iconic speech at Harvard University on June 5, 1947, he presented the outline of what would become a massive four-year U.S. aid scheme to support European reconstruction and integration: the Marshall Plan.

Stalin denounced the plan as a vicious American plot to buy political and military domination of Europe. He feared losing control not just of Germany but of Eastern Europe, too. Prior to the launch of the Marshall Plan, Stalin had never been dogmatic about the forms of socialism pursued by countries within the Soviet sphere. Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania were all allowed to form coalition governments of one sort or another. His demand had merely been fealty to Moscow on foreign policy. That would soon change. By the end of 1948, Stalin had fully co-opted or crushed the remaining non-Communist elements in the governments of Eastern Europe.

Truman had wanted to use the Marshall Plan as a tool to reduce U.S. security entanglements in Europe. But the State Department had conditioned the $13.2 billion (more than $135 billion in today’s money) in grants on the recipients integrating their economies, leaving them to object that the loss of self-sufficiency would make them more vulnerable to Soviet (and German) harassment and threats. So the president now acceded to French and British demands that Marshall aid be given a military escort. On April 4, 1949, a year and a day after signing the Marshall aid legislation, Truman signed the founding agreement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The following month, the United States, Britain, and France accepted the constitution for a new West German state. The Soviets responded by creating their own East German state in October. The dialectic of each side’s suspicions of the other having played out as far as it could without war, the European borders of the Cold War conflict would remain frozen for the next 40 years.

Four decades later, on Nov. 9, 1989, frenzied East German crowds gathered at the Berlin Wall yelling “Tor auf!” (“Open the gate!”). When a worried and confused border guard complied, tens of thousands began pouring into the West. Millions more would do so in the coming days.

In Dresden six weeks later, a crowd greeted West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl shouting “Einheit! Einheit! Einheit!” (“Unity!”). Nearby, a nervous but determined 37-year-old KGB officer had spent weeks burning mounds of documents in preparation for possible attacks on his station by angry mobs. The enormous volume of ash destroyed the building’s furnace. Years later, Russian journalists interviewed the former officer about his work in Germany. “We were interested in any information about the main opponent,” Vladimir Putin explained. That opponent, NATO, would continue to obsess Russian leaders in the years to come.

By early 1990, the East German Communists, imploding under the weight of popular revulsion and infighting, were a spent political force, and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had begun to reconcile himself to German unification. What he still demanded was that a reunified Germany not be part of the Atlantic alliance. Continued German membership of NATO, Gorbachev told German and Soviet journalists, must be “absolutely ruled out.”

Gorbachev and his Russian successors have maintained that they were misled over whether the alliance would be permitted to expand eastward. NATO, the Soviet leader said, was “an organization designed from the start to be hostile to the Soviet Union.” “Any extension of the zone of NATO,” he told then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, would therefore be “unacceptable.” Yet when Germany reunified in October, he was powerless to stop the eastern part from exiting the Warsaw Pact and entering NATO.

With the demise of Gorbachev and the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin continued to press the issue with his American counterpart. The United States, he told then-President Bill Clinton, was “sow[ing the] seeds of distrust” by dangling NATO membership in front of former Warsaw Pact states. For a Russian leader to “agree to the borders of NATO expanding toward those of Russia,” he told Clinton during a 1995 meeting at the Kremlin, “would constitute a betrayal of the Russian people.” Defense Minister Pavel Grachev warned Polish leaders that his countrymen saw the alliance as a “monster directed against Russia.” Foreign Intelligence Service head Yevgeny Primakov, who would later become foreign minister and prime minister, argued that NATO expansion would necessitate a more robust Russian defense posture. “This is not just a psychological issue for us,” he insisted to the U.S. diplomat Strobe Talbott in 1996. “It’s a security question.” Moscow’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy warned that NATO enlargement would make “the Baltic states and Ukraine … a zone of intense strategic rivalry.”

Russia’s resistance left Clinton two sensible options. He could ignore it and insist on expanding NATO in a robust way, under the logic that “Russia will always be Russia” and would harass and dominate its neighbors if not contained by the threat of military force. This was the Republican position at the time, outlined in the party’s 1994 “Contract with America.” The other was to sit tight until Russian behavior belied its pledges to respect its neighbors’ sovereignty. This was former Ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan’s position. But Clinton, being Clinton, chose a third option, which was to expand NATO on the cheap — under the logic that the alliance faced no real enemy. In 1996, Ronald Asmus, soon to become an influential Clinton administration official, argued that NATO expansion costs would be modest since the “premise [was] avoiding confrontation with Russia, not preparing for a new Russian threat.”

“Are we really going to be able to convince the East Europeans that we are protecting them,” asked an incredulous Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn in a speech to military officials, “… while we convince the Russians that NATO enlargement has nothing to do with Russia?” Talbott warned in an internal memo that “An expanded NATO that excludes Russia will not serve to contain Russia’s retrograde, expansionist impulses.” On the contrary, he argued, “it will further provoke them.” But Richard Holbrooke, then Clinton’s special envoy to the Balkans, dismissed this warning. The United States, he wrote in World Policy Journal in 1998, could “have [its] cake and eat it too … years from now … people will look back at the debate and wonder what all the fuss was about. They will notice that nothing has changed in Russia’s relationship with the West.”

Holbrooke could not have been more wrong. “We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries,” the 94-year-old Kennan told the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman in 1998, “even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way.” He would prove right. Clinton’s gambit would pit an under-resourced NATO against an ever-more embittered and authoritarian Russia.

Days after the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined NATO in March 1999, the alliance began a three-month bombing campaign against Serbia — which, like Russia, is a Slavic Orthodox state. These attacks on a brother country appalled ordinary Russians, especially since they were not carried out in defense of a NATO member, but to protect the Muslim population of Kosovo, then a Serbian province. NATO’s actions in the former Yugoslavia — in Bosnia in 1995 as well as in Serbia in 1999 — were undertaken with noble aims: to stop the slaughter of innocents. NATO expansion into the former Warsaw Pact countries, however, all but guaranteed that Russians wouldn’t see them that way. Moscow knew that its former vassals, by joining the alliance, had now bound themselves to support Western policies that challenged Russian interests. The farther east NATO expanded, the more threatening it would become.

That seemed especially clear when NATO members began taking unilateral actions hostile to Russia, actions they would never have taken outside the alliance. In 2015, for example, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet that had crossed into its airspace from Syria, where it was bombing opponents of the Bashar al-Assad regime. “Turkish airspace … is NATO airspace,” the Turkish foreign ministry pointedly told Russia after the attack. Russia took notice. “Turkey has set up not itself” as the actor, “but the North Atlantic alliance as a whole,” said Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in an interview with Time magazine. “This is extremely irresponsible.”

In trying to assure the Russians that NATO was not a threat, the Clinton administration had taken it for granted that legitimate Russian interests, in an era following glasnost and perestroika, would not clash with NATO interests. But this view presumed that the Cold War had been driven by ideology and not geography. Halford Mackinder, the father of geopolitics, would have scoffed at this view. Mackinder, who died in 1947, the year the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan were launched, drew policymakers’ attention to the strategic centrality of the vast Eurasian “Heartland,” which was dominated by Russia. “Who rules East Europe,” he famously wrote in 1919, “commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; Who rules the World-Island commands the World.” It was the ideas of Mackinder, and not Marx, that best explained the Cold War.

Russia’s eternal fear of invasion drove its foreign policy then and continues to do so now. “At bottom of [the] Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is [a] traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity,” Kennan wrote in his famous 1946 Long Telegram. Vast, sparsely populated, and with huge transport challenges, Russia had a natural tendency to fracture. Looking outward, Russia was a “land which had never known a friendly neighbor.” Its defining characteristic was its indefensibility. No mountain ranges or bodies of water protected its western borders. For centuries, it suffered repeated invasions. That landscape and history encouraged the emergence of a highly centralized and autocratic leadership obsessed with internal and external security. Communists had been just one variety of such leadership, peculiar to the age in which they emerged.

The country’s western borders have always been particularly vulnerable. The European landmass west of Russia’s borders constitutes a large peninsula surrounded by the Baltic and North Seas to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and the Black Sea to the south. Russia, in contrast, has few maritime outlets. The Arctic Ocean is remote from its population centers. The country’s few ports are largely unusable in the winter. Turkish waters to the south, like Nordic waters to the north, can be easily blocked. During the Cold War, Norwegian, British, and Icelandic airbases also hindered Russian access to the sea.

But such problems were not limited to the 20th century. In the latter half of the 19th century, Russia had been contained by France and Britain — in the Balkans, the Middle East, India, and China — well before Kennan made “containment” a household word. Its defensive options being limited, its military doctrine has historically been offensive. It has sought to dominate its neighbors as a means of preventing the borderlands from being used against it by other powers. Whereas the West sees Russia’s fear of invasion as groundless, history has shown Russian leaders that foreign intentions are typically hidden or fluid. Each age brings a new existential threat; there would always be another Napoleon or Hitler.

After World War II, the threat was, from the Kremlin’s perspective, capitalist encirclement led by Washington and its West German puppet. The incorporation of Ukraine and Belarus (1922) and the Baltic countries (1940) into the Soviet Union, and the creation of buffer states farther east, bolstered Russia’s security at the expense of the West’s. In 1949, splitting control of Germany created a stable equilibrium, one that survived four decades. Once Moscow lost control of Berlin in 1989, however, Russia’s defensive frontier collapsed, forcing it to retreat to borders farther east than they had been since the 18th century.

In his 2005 state of the nation address, Russian President Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer who had been on the front lines of Moscow’s covert efforts against NATO during the 1980s, described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Much of his long tenure as president has been devoted to restoring elements of the Soviet Union’s economic space and security frontier in the face of NATO and European Union expansion — and preventing the old Soviet empire’s constituent parts from undermining the interests of today’s Russia.

While military conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine have been attributed to aggressive Kremlin efforts to re-establish elements of the Soviet empire, it is notable that Russia has not annexed any of the breakaway regions — with the exception of Crimea, which houses the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The reason is not merely deniability, but also the fact that annexation of pro-Russian territories would have strengthened the pro-Western forces in the remaining parts of each country. Annexation would undermine Russia’s primary objective, which is keeping the countries beyond the reach of Western institutions seen to threaten Russian interests. The presence of frozen conflicts in the three nations effectively blocks them from joining NATO. The alliance has always rejected aspirants with unresolved border disputes, internal territorial conflicts, and insufficient military capacity to provide for a credible national defense.

In the cases of Georgia and Ukraine, the timing of the Russian interventions coincided with those countries’ achievement of tangible benchmarks on the path to NATO membership. The combined separatist territories, under effective Russian control, now form a valuable protective arc along Russia’s western and southwestern border. Just as Stalin strengthened the Soviet Union’s buffer zone in response to the Marshall Plan, which he expected Washington to supplement with military force, Putin has strengthened Russia’s buffer zone in response to NATO expansion.

Putin’s views are perhaps best captured by a private conversation he had with the former Israeli leader Shimon Peres shortly before the latter’s death, in 2016. “What do [the Americans] need NATO for?” Peres recalled him asking. “Which army do they want to fight? They think I didn’t know that Crimea is Russian, and that Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine as a gift? I didn’t care, until then you needed the Ukrainians in NATO. What for? I didn’t touch them.”

These are not the words of an ideologue. Nor are they a reflection of a uniquely ruthless Russian leader. After all, Gorbachev, no fan of Putin’s, also supported the annexation of Crimea, as well as Russian military action in Georgia. The West, he wrote in his memoirs, had been “blind to the kind of sentiments NATO expansion aroused” in Russia.

Western leaders do not need to sympathize with Russia, but if they wish to make effective foreign policies, they do need to understand it. Communism may have vanished from Europe, but the region’s geography has not changed. Russia is, as it has always been, too large and powerful to embed within Western institutions without fundamentally changing them and too vulnerable to Western encroachment to acquiesce in its own exclusion.

The Marshall Plan, which cemented the Cold War, is remembered as one of the great achievements of U.S. foreign policy not merely because it was visionary but also because it worked. It worked because the United States accepted the reality of a Russian sphere of influence into which it could not penetrate without sacrificing credibility and public support.

Great acts of statesmanship are grounded in realism no less than idealism. It is a lesson America needs to relearn.

The excerpt was adapted from Benn Steil’s new book The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War.

Benn Steil is director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations. (@BennSteil)


Russia and the West: A New Cold War?

Russia’s conflictual relationship with the West has been described as a Cold War-like confrontation. In reality, these powers are engaged in an asymmetric rivalry, not a Cold War.

Russia’s relations with the United States and other Western nations have been increasingly conflictual. The Kremlin has challenged the position of American hegemony globally and in regional settings. Following election of Donald Trump as the U.S. President, Russia’s military strategy, cyber activities, and media role have been under particular scrutiny although the Kremlin has acted assertively since the second half of the 2000s.

While many Western observers place responsibility for the conflict on Russia, some tend to blame the West. However, most observers agree that a Cold War-like confrontation is set to define the two sides’ relations. Today the narrative of a new Cold War commands the attention of political and scholarly circles.

The Misleading Cold War Framework

Image credit: Kremlin/Wikimedia.

As compelling as it may seem to some observers, the Cold War framework is misleading. In particular, it fails to address the global power shift and transitionary nature of the contemporary international system. In today’s world, the old ideological rivalry is no longer applicable. The new world is no longer divided by the communism-capitalism dichotomy. Instead the competition of ideas is predominantly one between liberal and nationalist principles of regulating the economy and political system. While in the eyes of many the West continues to represent liberalism, the realities of Brexit, Trump, and tightening migration regulations in the European Union demonstrate the global power of nationalist ideas. On the other hand, China, Russia, and other allegedly autocratic and nationalist polities continue to favor preservation of liberal global economy, and oppose regional autarchy and Trump-favored protectionism.

Instead of reviving old Cold War rules and principles, new rules and expectations about the international system and state behavior are being gradually formed. China, Russia, India, Turkey, Iran, and others are seeking to carve out a new space for themselves in the newly emerging international system, as the United States is struggling to redefine its place and identity in the new world.

The described changes altered position of the only superpower in the international system. Structurally, it is still the familiar world of American domination with the country’s superiority in military, political, economic and symbolic dimensions. Yet dynamically the world is moving away from its US- and West-centeredness even though the exact direction and result of the identified trajectory remained unclear.

As a result, many non-Western countries are developing their own rules and arrangements in world. Russia and other non-Western countries increasingly have international options they never had before as new global and regional institutions and areas of development outside the influence of the West gradually emerge.

This does not mean re-emergence of a new international confrontation. Most non-Western nations are not looking to challenge the superpower directly and continuing to take advantage of relations ties with the West. The U.S.-balancing coalition or a genuine alternative to the West-centered world has not yet emerged. Unlike the previous eras, the contemporary world lacks a rigid alliance structure. The so-called Russia-China-Iran axis is hardly more than a figment of the imagination by American neoconservatives and some Russia conspiracy-minded thinkers. The world remains a space in which international coalitions overlap and are mostly formed on an ad hoc basis depending on issues of interests.

Partly because of these global developments, the Cold War perspective also misunderstands Russia’s motives and power capabilities. Unlike the old era, Russia does not seek to directly confront or defeat the other side. Rather, the objective is to challenge the rival party for the purpose of gaining recognition and negotiating a greater space within the still largely West-influenced global order.

Furthermore, Russia is in no position to challenge the Western nations globally given the large – and in some areas widening – gap between the U.S. and Russian capabilities. The importance of defending Russia’s interests and status by limited means has been addressed through the idea of asymmetric capabilities applied on a limited scale and for defensive purposes. When the chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov first described the so-called hybrid war he did not mean to provide a template for an offensive military strategy. Rather, as several military analysts noted, he intended to recognize that the West had already being engaged in such war against Russia and that Russia had to be better prepared for the new type of war. While Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is not acquiescing to American pressures, he is engaged in asymmetric rivalry. The latter targets the competitor’s selected vulnerable areas and is designed to put on alert and disorient, rather than achieve a decisive victory. Asymmetric methods of Russian foreign policy include selective use of media and information technology, cyber power, hybrid military intervention, and targeted economic sanctions.

Finally, the Cold War narrative underestimates a potential for Russia’s cooperation with the West in selected areas. The described asymmetric rivalry does not exclude the possibility of Russia and Western powers cooperating in some areas (nuclear non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, cyber issues) and regions (Middle East and North Korea) while perceiving each other as competitors over preferred rules and structure of the international system. In the increasingly fragmented world, Russia and the West may move beyond viewing each other as predominantly rivals if they learn to focus on issues of common concern and find a way to reframe their values and interests in non-confrontational terms.

Future Co-operation?

Cooperation with Russia remains possible and indeed desirable. Russia’s constant attempts to engage the United States and other Western nations in cooperation, including those over Iran and Syria, demonstrate the importance to the Kremlin of being recognized in relations with the outside world. Despite its internal institutional differences from Western nations, Russia sees itself as an indispensable part of the West and will continue to reach out to Western leaders in order to demonstrate Russia’s relevance.

Although the West continues to possess the power of influence, Western leaders have not been effective in using such power. Instead of devising a strategy of selective engagement and recognition, they largely rely on containment and political confrontation in relations with Russia. The West remains fearful of Russia and wants to force the Kremlin to comply with Western demands to relieve pressures on Ukraine or conduct a more restrained foreign policy.

These pressures are not likely to work. If the West continues to challenge Russia’s perceived interests, there are indeed reasons to expect that Putin may fight back. Even with a stagnating economy, the Kremlin commands a strong domestic support and an ample range of asymmetric tools for action.

However, for reasons of psychological and economic dependence on the West, Russia, unless provoked, is not likely to engage in actions fundamentally disruptive of the existing international order. If the United States does not engage in actions that are viewed by Russia as depriving it of its great power status, the Kremlin will refrain from highly destabilizing steps such as abdication of the INF treaty or military occupation of Ukraine or other parts of Eurasia.

As difficult as it might be to accept for the West, there is hardly an alternative to engaging Russia in a joint effort to stabilize the situation globally as well in various regions including Ukraine and wider Europe. The new policy must be based on understanding that the Kremlin’s “revisionism” is partly a reaction to the West’s refusal to recognize Russia as a potential partner. The alternative to the new engagement is not a compliant Russia, but a continued degradation of regional and global security.

Andrei P. Tsygankov is professor of political science and international relations at San Francisco State University. He has published widely in the United States, Russia, Europe, and China. His books include Russia’s Foreign Policy and Russia and the West from Alexander to Putin, and he has recently edited the Routledge Handbook of Russian Foreign Policy (to be published in 2018).


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North Korea’s Capture of the USS Pueblo Still Resonates

History of U.S.-North Korean Relations

On Jan. 23, 1968, North Korea seized a U.S. Navy ship that had allegedly strayed into its territorial waters. Fifty years later, as tensions flare between Washington and Pyongyang, we are republishing this column from January 2015 that recounts a visit to the captured vessel.

On Jan. 23, 1968, North Korea boarded and captured the USS Pueblo, an intelligence gathering ship belonging to the U.S. Navy. Pyongyang claimed the vessel had strayed into North Korean territorial waters, an allegation that Washington denied. The incident, already diplomatically embarrassing, was exacerbated by a number of factors, not least of which was the clandestine nature of the ship itself and the secret documents and recordings onboard. It would take almost a year for the United States to recover the 82 alive but traumatized Pueblo crewmembers from North Korea — with the notable exception of one man who lost his life during the boarding.

Although exasperating for the United States, when seen through North Korean eyes, the Pueblo incident was a major triumph against an overbearing and threatening global power. Pyongyang was able to achieve a substantial propaganda victory, extracting maximum satisfaction by compelling Washington to release a statement admitting culpability — though the statement was heavily caveated and the U.S. government quickly renounced it. The incident was deeply uncomfortable for Washington, but it was only one of many challenges that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration faced at the time. The U.S. government was contending with an increasingly problematic war in Vietnam, domestic social unrest and the ever-looming specter of the Cold War. For Pyongyang, however, the capture of the Pueblo resonated beyond its short-term implications, inspiring feelings of pride and tenacity in the North Korean population.

Originally a light cargo ship launched toward the end of World War II, the Pueblo was redesignated AGER-2 by the U.S. Navy and equipped to conduct signals and electronic intelligence gathering and surveillance operations. Its mission at the time it was boarded was to monitor Russian activity in the Tsushima Strait and intercept radio transmissions from Soviet ships as well as from North Korea.

Around midday on Jan. 23, 1968, a North Korean submarine chaser and three torpedo boats, supported by a MiG-21 pair overhead, approached the Pueblo. Ordered to heave to, the Pueblo showed its American colors and made full steam for the open sea. Unable to outrun the faster craft, the American ship attempted to prevent boarding action by taking evasive maneuvers, vying for time to destroy sensitive materials and cryptographic equipment onboard. Eventually the North Korean boats engaged the Pueblo with cannon and machine-gun fire, forcing its compliance. It was then boarded and escorted back to North Korea; any attempt to deviate course was met with more fire. One U.S. sailor was killed in the engagement and a number were wounded. Although the Pueblo had two .50-caliber machine guns for defense, they were not used. Only a fraction of the classified materials and equipment aboard the Pueblo were destroyed before its seizure.

The capture of the Pueblo came at a difficult time for Washington. Only two days before, a B-52G Stratofortress carrying four nuclear weapons crashed near the Thule Air Base in Greenland, causing the dispersal of nuclear material and a major diplomatic incident. Vietnam was not going as planned — in fact, the Tet Offensive would commence a week after the Pueblo was taken, sparking fresh pessimism about the war. The civil rights movement was in full swing, and Martin Luther King Jr. refused to let social injustice be sidelined. The space race had stalled, with both Russia and the United States suspending manned operations in 1967 after a number of fatalities. And, providing the backdrop for all of this, the Cold War between the Soviet bloc and the West continued to grind on. At that moment in time, the capture of a U.S. Navy surveillance ship and all its sailors by North Korea was the last thing Washington needed.

Exploring the USS Pueblo in Pyongyang

Vice President of Asia-Pacific Analysis Rodger Baker shares his impressions of a visit to the USS Pueblo, now a museum in Pyongyang, during a journey to North Korea in 2005. The following excerpt is taken from his personal journal.

Our tour guide aboard the USS Pueblo, it turns out, is Kim Jung Rok, who was part of the boarding party that took the Pueblo. He stands in his dark uniform, his chest covered in campaign ribbons under his Kim Il Sung badge, his wrinkled face under a shining white hat with black brim. He exudes pride; pride in his job, pride in his place in history and pride in his privilege to share his story and view with Americans on this day. It is a moment that makes you realize, whatever your ideology, that a veteran is a veteran.

USS Pueblo TourUSS Pueblo Tour
Stratfor Vice President for Asia-Pacific Analysis Rodger Baker with Kim Jung Rok.

The tour begins with the «invasion» of the «pirate ship» General Sherman in 1866. The General Sherman, we are told, was the first ship from America to invade North Korea, but certainly not the last. It was sunk by «our people,» the guide says, and then informs us that the citizens who attacked the General Sherman in the defense of Korea were led by none other than the great-grandfather of Kim Il Sung himself.

We are sat in front of a television in the ship’s galley and watch a propaganda film, loaded with glorious images reminiscent of a 1950s Cold War movie shown in elementary school to warn us of impending war with the Soviets. The music is a match. The narrator — with an accent more reminiscent of the comic French-English of Peter Sellers than the English-speaking North Korean it actually is — draws us into the story of the «Pueblo armed spy ship of the U.S. imperialist aggression forces.» The ship had a crew of 83 when captured, including six officers. One American sailor died in the capture.

My attention wanes as a mosquito drones around my ear. There appear to be parts of the galley wall that have been rebuilt with fiberglass, but otherwise the interior is relatively well maintained. «…the brazen-faced U.S. imperialists…» It is interesting that the video credits Kim Jong Il with handling the negotiations at the time — in 1968. «…the enemy kneeled down before the Korean people and made an apology…» A flag-draped coffin flashes across the screen — the one American who died in the action. «…the U.S. imperialists who kneeled down before the Korean People are now running on down hill…»

The Pueblo was moved to Pyongyang as a trophy — and opened for tours — in 1999, after North Korea carried out its first Taepodong launch attempt. It was part of Kim Jong Il establishing himself and his bona fides as the legitimate and strong leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In 2013, the ship was moved again to a new location as part of an expansion of North Korea’s military museum.

Starting the tour in earnest, we lead off through the officer’s mess, past the damage from the boarding action — the scarred metal is marked with red circles to highlight hits from gunfire and shrapnel. We see the Pueblo’s flag, a copy of the letter to Truman, and other items of interest. When we reach the bridge, it is time for another story. When the North Koreans captured the Pueblo’s captain, we are told, neither spoke the other’s language, prompting the North Koreans to draw a picture of a big-nosed man on a piece of paper. After making questioning gestures, the captain was prompted to write the number 83 (83 members of the crew). The Koreans then drew an eagle, by which the American wrote a «6» (six officers).

Bullet holes in the captured American ship in North KoreaBullet holes in the captured American ship in North Korea
Damage taken by the USS Pueblo after being engaged by North Korean vessels. 

Again we are told that the Koreans are so proud of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il for capturing the Pueblo — the only instance that a boat of seven soldiers has captured a ship with a crew of 83. Given that our guide was part of the seven that boarded the Pueblo (from their 12 person missile boat), one would think he would remember that neither Kim Jong Il nor Kim Il Sung were actually there with him, but no.

I have mixed feelings about my tour of the Pueblo. On the one hand, it is simply a trophy of a bygone conflict. On the other, here I am standing with one of the Koreans who actually took part in the action — not exactly bygone. Here, Kim Jung Rok is a hero; in America, he is a villain and a pirate. Having met Commander Pete Bucher (the Pueblo’s captain in 1968) in the past, I stand here where he defended his ship, and smirk as I remember his story of his «admission» of guilt, and his offering to paean Kim Il Sung, paean the North Korean military… (pronunciation being «pee on,» the word being one he said he heard as a child in a radio commercial for ice cream). With our trip complete, we are escorted off the ship.

The capture of the Pueblo speaks to deeper truths about the inherent nature of North Korea. From Pyongyang’s perspective, they are a small, embattled nation, surrounded on all sides, and overtly threatened by the most powerful country on earth. From their comparative zenith in the 1960s, Pyongang has watched its economy and global status decline, almost in parallel to South Korea’s rise through the 1970s to the present day. The Pueblo, like the General Sherman before it, is part trophy and part living testament to North Korea’s ability to overcome greater odds — to still be able to deal a humiliating blow to would-be aggressors.

As outwardly resilient and standoffish as North Korea appears, the country remains deeply insecure and acutely aware of its own precarious position. Yet, as innate as its diffidence is, Pyongyang’s belief in the ability of the Korean people to endure is supreme. The country will continue to act in what the West perceives as an aggressive manner because to show weakness is an invitation to be overrun, an unacceptable outcome for a nation that harbors such intensely illustrious sentiments. Also, from Pyongyang’s perspective, the United States is a bully, and a fickle one at that. Relationships and accords can change on a whim, depending on the geopolitical riffles and eddies that influence global power politics. Iraq was a U.S. ally in the 1980s, as was Afghanistan; Washington supplied arms and support to both countries but didn’t hesitate to invade them years later. North American history is littered with examples of broken accords, fractured relationships and aggressive military action.

This is why the continued military drills and cooperation between Washington and Seoul concern Pyongyang so much. North Korea may well be willing to curtail its nuclear activities, but it needs something in return: assurances from the West that the Democratic People’s Republic is not under direct threat. The North Korean administration is acutely aware that, in the current global picture, the United States lacks a clearly defined enemy. The Iraq and Afghan campaigns are officially over, barring small-scale training and advisory tasks. The Islamic State is turning into the world’s problem, not just America’s or the Middle East’s. The rapprochement with Iran is nullifying one traditional enemy, and although Russia continues to antagonize the West, it is economically too weak and too wary of provoking NATO to return to a Cold War level of menace. North Korea, on the other hand, remains very firmly in Washington’s sights. Beneath its inherent pride and outward veneer of audacity, Pyongyang is pragmatic; it cannot compete militarily or economically against a U.S.-supported South Korea, but the Pueblo is a living reminder that North Korea is still capable of surprises.

Published Jan 25, 2015, by Strafor

Danish PM Løkke Rasmussen Cries for Istanbul Attack Victims forgets His Sponsorship of Terrorism

nsnbc : Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen responded to the terror attack on the Atatürk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey, “tweeting” that he is crying with the Turkish people who once again are witnesses to a cowardly terrorist attack. The Danish PM, conveniently, forgets his background as fundraiser and supporter of Afghanistan’s “mujahedeen”; And then there was the unexplained rape-murder of a female anthropologist who stayed at the hotel in Peshawar that Lars Løkke used.

lars-Løkke-Rasmussen_NEO_2015_DenmarkThe death toll after Tuesday night’s terrorist attack at the Atatürk Airport in Istanbul has according to announcements made by the local governor risen to 41. At least 239 have been injured.

The victims reportedly included at least 10 foreign nationals and three people with dual citizenship.

Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen not only “tweeted” that he is crying with the Turkish people.

He also conveniently forgot that he denounced a cowardly act of a terrorism that he has, indeed, helped to unleash.

The So Called War on Terror - Dansih PM Lard Løkke Rasmussen with Taleban 1988Lars Løkke Rasmussen was Denmark’s Prime Minister during NATO’s bombardment of Libya that led to the ousting and ultimately the sodomizing and murder of Libya’s head of State Muammar Qaddafi by Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda linked terrorists.

In a nonchalant fashion, the Danish PM forgets that the disaster in Libya created the foundation for the massive proliferation of weapons from Libya, via Turkey to Jabhat Al-Nusrah and ISIS in Syria.

Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s moral engagement with the victims in Turkey is only paralleled by his apparent selective moral disengagement, and his track record with regard to sponsoring terrorism and it does not stop nor did it begin with Libya.

Løkke Rasmussen has “literally” participated in laying the foundation of the very Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda linked terrorism that is terrorizing Europe, the Midle East, Asia and Africa today.

He was one of the most active fundraisers for Afghanistan’s Taliban (and by implication Al-Qaeda) during the 1980s.

Danish P.M. Lars Løkke Rasmussen Declares Holy War on Libya in ChurchIn 1988 Lars Løkke Rasmussen, proudly let himself be photographed alongside Taliban friends in Afghanistan, clinching an AK 47 assault rifle. Lars Løkke would cross the borders into Pakistan and Afghanistan on horseback and deliver 600,000 DKK to the “mujahedeen”.

The money had been raised by Afghanistan youth committees within Løkke Rasmussen’s Venstre and Pia Kjærsgaard’s Fremskridspartiet that was transformed into today’s Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party).

There is one fact, besides the fundraising for terrorists, that may be of interest.

After returning from Pakistan, the now PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen was detained by police and charged with the rape and murder of a female anthropologist who had been living at the same hotel in Peshawar that Lars Løkke Rasmussen stayed in.

Police released the then 25-year-old while the charges against him were upheld. It is noteworthy that the young female anthropologist was opposed to the “freedom fighters’” increasingly radical, fundamentalist and chauvinist policies. In 2011 Lars Løkke would use the pulpit of a Danish church to justify the war on Libya.

CH/L – nsnbc 29.06.2016


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By focusing on supporting progressive leaders and organizations of color, they could make a mark that lasts long beyond 2016.

Saudi Arabia wants US to kill 9/11 bill, threatens to dump US assets worth $750 bn – report

Saudi Arabia appears to be blackmailing the US, saying it would sell off American assets worth a 12-digit figure sum in dollars if Congress passes a bill allowing the Saudi government to be held responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The warning was delivered by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir last month during a visit to Washington, the New York Times reported. He said his country would sell up to $750 billion in US treasury securities and other assets before the bill puts them in jeopardy.

The newspaper said Riyadh’s resolve to actually deliver on the threat is dubious, since selling off those assets would be technically challenging and would damage the dollar, against which the Saudi national currency is pegged.

Under the current US law, foreign nations have a degree of immunity from being sued in American courts. The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 is one of the reasons why families of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks largely failed to bring to court the Saudi royal family and charities over suspicion of financially supporting the attacks.

The bill introduced in the Senate would waiver the immunity for cases involving terrorist attacks that kill US citizens on US soil. Introduced by Republican Senator John Cornyn and Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer, it managed to overcome partisan divisions in the US legislation and passed without dissent through the Judiciary Committee in January.

“As our nation confronts new and expanding terror networks that are targeting our citizens, stopping the funding source for terrorists becomes even more important,” Senator Cornyn said last month.

Possible links between the perpetrators of the attack and Saudi Arabia may be hiding in 28 classified pages of the 2002 congressional report on 9/11, which allegedly describe how Saudi Arabian nationals with links to the government financially assisted the 19 hijackers who flew airplanes into World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Many people, including the co-author of the redacted pages, former Florida Senator Bob Graham, have been campaigning for years to make them public.

The Obama administration is opposing the bill, saying it would make foreign nations retaliate by passing similar legislation and target American citizens and corporations in their national courts. Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate panel in February that the bill, in its current form, would “expose the United States of America to lawsuits and take away our sovereign immunity and create a terrible precedent.”

Ironically, sovereign immunity didn’t stop a US judge from last month ordering Iran to pay $10.5 billion in damages to families of the 9/11 victims. The ruling was passed because Iran didn’t defend itself against the allegations. These put the blame on Iran over its links with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which, plaintiffs argued, aided Al-Qaeda. The argument is based on the same congressional report, which also said no link between the hijackers and Iran had been found.

None of the 19 hijackers were Iranian citizens. Fifteen were citizens of Saudi Arabia, while two were from the United Arab Emirates, and one each from Egypt and Lebanon.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are bitter regional rivals, adhering to competing sects of Islam and battling for position in the Muslim world. The US had been a stalwart supporter of Saudi Arabia and opponent of Iran, which overthrew the US-backed Shah in 1979 and became an Islamic republic.

Washington’s cordial relations with Riyadh chilled somewhat as it sought a thaw with Tehran last year, participating in a deal to resolve the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program.


A Kurdish fighter surveys the border between Turkey and Iraq

Early in 2014, Isis released one of its first videos. Largely unseen in Europe, it had neither the slick, cutting-edge professionalism of its later execution tapes nor the haunting “nasheed” music that accompanies most of its propaganda. Instead, a hand-held camera showed a bulldozer pushing down a rampart of sand that had marked the border between Iraq and Syria. As the machine destroyed the dirt revetment, the camera panned down to a handwritten poster lying in the sand. “End of Sykes-Picot”, it said.

Like many hundreds of thousands of Arabs in the Middle East, for whom Sykes-Picot was an almost cancerous expression, I watched this early Isis video in Beirut. The bloody repercussions of the borders that the British and French diplomats, Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, drew in secret during the First World War – originally giving Syria, Mount Lebanon and northern Iraq to the French, and Palestine, Transjordan and the rest of Iraq to the British – are known to every Arab, Christian and Muslim and, indeed, every Jew in the region. They eviscerated the governorates of the old dying Ottoman empire and created artificial nations in which borders, watchtowers and hills of sand separated tribes, families and peoples. They were an Anglo-French colonial production.

The same night that I saw the early Isis video, I happened to be visiting the Lebanese Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt. “The end of Sykes-Picot!” he roared at me. “Rubbish,” I snorted. But of course, I was wrong and Jumblatt was right. He had spotted at once how Isis captured symbolically – but with almost breathtaking speed – what so many Arabs had sought for almost exactly 100 years: the unravelling of the fake borders with which the victors of the First World War – largely the British and the French – had divided the Arab people. It was our colonial construction – not just the frontiers we imposed upon them, but the administrations and the false democracies that we fraudulently thrust upon them, the mandates and trusteeships which allowed us to rule them – that poisoned their lives. Colin Powell claimed just such a trusteeship for Iraq’s oil prior to the illegal Anglo-American invasion of 2003.

We foisted kings upon the Arabs – we engineered a 96 per cent referendum in favour of the Hashemite King Faisal in Iraq in 1922 – and then provided them with generals and dictators. The people of Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt – which had been invaded by the British in the 19th century – were subsequently blessed with mendacious governments, brutal policemen, lying newspapers and fake elections. Mubarak even scored Faisal’s epic 96 per cent election victory all over again. For the Arabs, “democracy” did not mean freedom of speech and freedom to elect their own leaders; it referred to the “democratic” Western nations that continued to support the cruel dictators who oppressed them.

Thus the Arab revolutions that consumed the Middle East in 2011 – forget the “Arab Spring”, a creature of Hollywood origin – did not demand democracy. The posters on the streets of Cairo and Tunis and Damascus and Yemen called for dignity and justice, two commodities that we had definitely not sought for the Arabs. Justice for the Palestinians – or for the Kurds, or for that matter for the destroyed Armenians of 1915, or for all the suffering Arab peoples – was not something that commended itself to us. But I think we should have gone much further in our investigation of the titanic changes of 2011.

In my own reporting of the uprisings, I attributed them to increased education and travel by the Arab communities throughout the Middle East. While acknowledging the power of social media and the internet, something deeper was at work. The Arabs had woken from a deep sleep. They had refused any longer to be the “children” of the patriarchal father figure – the Nassers and the Sadats and the Mubaraks and the Assads and the Gaddafis and, in earlier years, the Saddams. They awoke to find that it was their own governments that were composed of children, one of whom – Mubarak – was 83 years old. The Arabs wanted to own their towns and cities. They wanted to own the place in which they lived, which comprised much of the Middle East.

But I think now that I was wrong. In retrospect, I woefully misunderstood what these revolutions represented. One clue, perhaps, lay in the importance of trade union movements. Where trade unions, with their transnational socialism and anti-colonial credentials, were strong – in Egypt and Tunisia – the revolutionary bloodshed was far less than in the nations that had either banned trade unionism altogether – Libya, for example – or concretised the trade union movement into the regime, which had long ago happened in Syria and Yemen. Socialism crossed borders. Yet even this does not account for the events of 2011.

What really manifested itself that year, I now believe, was a much more deeply held Arab conviction; that the very institutions that we in the West had built for these people 100 years ago were worthless, that the statehood which we had later awarded to artificial nations within equally artificial borders was meaningless. They were rejecting the whole construct that we had foisted upon them. That Egypt regressed back into military patriarchy – and the subsequent and utterly predictable Western acqiescence in this – after a brief period of elected Muslim Brotherhood government, does not change this equation. While the revolutions largely stayed within national boundaries – at least at the start – the borders began to lose their meaning.

Lines in the sand: The Sykes-Picot Plan, 1916

Hamas in Gaza and the Brotherhood became one, the Sinai-Gaza frontier began to crumble. Then the collapse of Libya rendered Gaddafi’s former borders open – and thus non-existent. His weapons – including chemical shells – were sold to rebels in Egypt and Syria. Tunisia, which is now supposed to be the darling of our Western hearts for its adhesion to “democracy”, is now in danger of implosion because its own borders with Libya and Algeria are open to arms transhipments to Islamist groups. Isis’s grasp of these frontierless entities means that its own transnational existence is assured, from Fallujah in Iraq to the edge of Syrian Aleppo, from Nigeria to Niger and Chad.

It can thus degrade the economy of each country it moves through, blowing up a Russian airliner leaving Sharm el-Sheikh, attacking the Bardo museum in Tunis or the beaches of Sousse. There was a time – when Islamists attacked the Jewish synagogue on Djerba island in Tunisia in 2002, for example, killing 19 people – when tourism could continue. But that was when Libya still existed. In those days, Ben Ali’s security police were able to control the internal security of Tunisia; the army was left weak so that it could not stage a coup. So today, of course, the near-impotent army of Tunisia cannot defend its frontiers.

Isis’s understanding of this new phenomenon preceded our own. But Isis’s realisation that frontiers were essentially defenceless in the modern age coincided with the popular Arab disillusion with their own invented nations. Most of the millions of Syrian and Afghan refugees who have flooded into Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan and then north into Europe do not intend to return – ever – to states that have failed them as surely as they no longer – in the minds of the refugees – exist. These are not “failed states” so much as imaginary nations that no longer have any purpose.

I only began to understand this when, back in July, covering the Greek economic crisis, I travelled to the Greek-Macedonian border with Médecins Sans Frontières. This was long before the story of Arab refugees entering Europe had seized the attention of the EU or the media, although the Mediterranean drownings had long been a regular tragedy on television screens. Aylan Kurdi, the little boy who would be washed up on a Turkish beach, still had another two months to live. But in the fields along the Macedonian border were thousands of Syrians and Afghans. They were coming in their hundreds through the cornfields, an army of tramping paupers who might have been fleeing the Hundred Years War, women with their feet burned by exploded gas cookers, men with bruises over their bodies from the blows of frontier guards. Two of them I even knew, brothers from Aleppo whom I had met two years earlier in Syria. And when they spoke, I suddenly realised they were talking of Syria in the past tense. They talked about “back there” and “what was home”. They didn’t believe in Syria any more. They didn’t believe in frontiers.

Far more important for the West, they clearly didn’t believe in our frontiers either. They just walked across European frontiers with the same indifference as they crossed from Syria to Turkey or Lebanon. We, the creators of the Middle East’s borders, found that our own historically created national borders also had no meaning to these people. They wanted to go to Germany or Sweden and intended to walk there, however many policemen were sent to beat them or smother them with tear gas in a vain attempt to guard the national sovereignty of the frontiers of the EU.

Our own shock – indeed, our indignation – that our own precious borders were not respected by these largely Muslim armies of the poor was in sharp contrast to our own blithe non-observance of Arab frontiers. Saddam was among the first to show his own detestation of such lines in the sand. He cared nothing about international law when he invaded Iran in 1980 – with intelligence help from the Americans – or Kuwait in 1990, when he tore up the old frontier of the emirate and claimed it as an Iraqi province. But the West has now launched so many air strikes across the Middle East’s borders since the 1991 liberation of Kuwait that we scarcely need to search for precedents now that Arab air forces are regularly criss-crossing the Middle East’s national boundaries – along with our own fighter-bombers.

Quite apart from our mournful Afghan adventure and our utterly illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, our aircraft have been bombing Libya, Iraq and Syria along with the aircraft of various local pseudo-democracies for so long that this state of affairs has become routine, almost normal, scarcely worthy of a front-page headline. The Saudis are bombing Iraq and Syria and Yemen. The Jordanians are bombing Syria. The Emiratis are bombing Yemen. And now the French are bombing the Syrian city of Raqqa even more than they bombed the Syrian city of Raqqa two months ago – when President François Hollande did not tell us that France was “at war”. The point, of course, is that we had grown so used to attacking Arab lands – France had become so inured to sending its soldiers and air crews to Africa and the Middle East to shoot and bomb those whom it regarded as its enemies – that only when Muslims began attacking our capital cities did we suddenly announce that we were “at war”.

A bulldozer cuts through a sand rampart at the Syrian border in the early Isis video (AFP)

There were no code reds or code oranges in Arab capitals. They existed in a permanent state of code red, their people cringing beneath “emergency laws” imposed by dictators supported by the West, legislation even more iniquitous than those our European political masters now wish to impose on us. Of course, since the Iraqi catastrophe, we like to use local militia forces to do the dying for us. So the Kurds become our foot soldiers against Isis, or the Iraqi Shia militias or the Iranians or – though we must not admit this – the Syrian army and the Lebanese Hezbollah.

Isis has weirdly replicated this gruesome policy. However many atrocities in Europe have been committed by men who have supposedly been “radicalised” in Syria, the killers have usually been local proxies; British Muslims in the UK, French Muslims who were citizens of France or residents of Belgium. The significance of this – that Isis clearly intends to provoke a civil war within Europe, especially between France’s huge Algerian-origin Muslims and the police and political elite of France – has been spoken of in whispers. Indeed, much of the media coverage of the Paris massacres has often avoided the very word Muslim.

Just as any incomprehension we express about the borderless world into which the Arabs think they are moving carries no reference to that most borderless of Middle East nations, Israel. Arthur Balfour’s declaration, which gave the UK’s support to a Jewish homeland in Palestine during the same war that Mr Sykes and M. Georges-Picot were plotting to divide up the Arab world, anticipated new frontiers within Palestine itself, borders which, to this day, are largely undefined. Israel’s internationally recognised frontiers are ignored by the Israeli government itself because it will not even say where its eastern border lies. Is it along the old Jerusalem frontline? Is it along the grotesque Israeli wall that has effectively stolen West Bank Palestinian land? Does the state of Israel include every Jewish colony built on land thieved from the Palestinians of the West Bank? Or does it run along the entire length of the Jordan river, thus destroying any Palestinian state that might ever exist? When Israelis ask their critics to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, they should be requested to state which particular Israel they are talking about: the legal one recognised by the UN – or “Israel proper” as we call it – or an Israel that includes the entire West Bank, or “Israel improper” as we assuredly do not call it?

Our support for an Israel that has not told us the location of its eastern border runs logically alongside our own refusal to recognise – unless it suits us – the frontiers of the Arab world. It is, after all, we who are allowed to draw “lines in the sand” or “red lines”. It is we Europeans who decide where civilisations begin and end. It is the Prime Minister of Hungary who decides exactly where he will draw up his forces to defend “Christian civilisation”. It is we Westerners who have the moral probity to decide whether national sovereignty in the Middle East should be obeyed or abused.

But when the Arabs themselves decide to dispense with the whole fandango and seek their future in “our” lands rather than “their” lands, this policy breaks down. Indeed, it is extraordinary how easily we forget that the greatest frontier-breaker of modern times was himself a European, who wanted to destroy the Jews of Europe but who might well – given his racist remark about Muslims in Mein Kampf – have continued his holocaust to include the Arabs. We even have the nerve to call the murderers of Paris “fascislamists”, as the great French pseudo-philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy has just written in the press. Nazis Isis undoubtedly are – but the moment we utilise the word “Islam” in this context, we are painting the swastika across the Middle East. Levy demands more assistance to “our Kurdish allies” because the alternative is that “no boots on their ground means more blood on ours”.

But that’s what George W Bush and Tony Blair told us before marching into the graveyard of Iraq in 2003. We are always declaring ourselves “at war”. We are told to be merciless. We must invade “their” territory to stop them invading ours. But the days are long gone when we can have foreign adventures and expect to be safe at home. New York, Washington, Madrid, London, Paris all tell us that. Perhaps if we spoke more of “justice” – courts, legal process for killers, however morally repugnant they may be, sentences, prisons, redemption for those who may retrieve their lost souls from the Isis midden – we would be a little safer in our sceptered continent. There should be justice not just for ourselves or our enemies, but for the peoples of the Middle East who have suffered this past century from the theatre of dictatorships and cardboard institutions we created for them – and which have helped Isis to thrive.

By Robert Fisk, published in The Independent, Thursday 19 November 2015


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Who is responsible for the Pakistan school massacre?

Nafeez Ahmed – 19 DECEMBER 2014

Depends who you ask.

The Pakistan Taliban (TTP), the breakaway group that is spearheading an insurgency against the Pakistani state, has proudly admitted to having executed the horrifying atrocity that took the lives of 148 innocents, including over 130 children.

US officials have been quick to point the finger at Pakistan, noting the role of the notorious ‘S Wing’ of state military intelligence, the ISI, in covertly sponsoring various Taliban factions inside Afghanistan.

And Prime Minister Nawar Sharif, clearly feeling the pressure, has for the first time ever conceded the ISI’s duplicitous strategy and now vows that he will no longer distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban, but will bravely fight them all “until the last terrorist is killed.”

Some in Pakistani diaspora communities in the west, however, have a different view. “Mossad did it,” I’ve heard from a surprising number of people. “To make Muslims look bad.” Others blame the CIA, or MI6, or both – indeed, all three.

This sort of pathetic, ignorant denialism is almost as bad as the pathetic official finger pointing.

The sad truth is that none of these actors are free of responsibility for the murky origins of the TTP.

The double game

It is, of course, a matter of record that the Pakistani ISI has secretly supported the Afghan Taliban for more than a decade, a matter I have tracked and documented since even before 9/11. Yet from the very inception of this policy, it has been pursued with tacit and selective US support.

In the run-up to 9/11, the idea was to use the Taliban as a proxy on behalf of two US energy companies, Unocal and Enron, to achieve sufficient stability to permit the construction of the Trans-Afghan pipeline project – the Pakistani ISI, was the chief conduit of US logistical, financial and military aid to the Taliban during this period.

Yet even after 9/11, despite US intelligence agencies being intimately familiar with ongoing Pakistani ISI support for the Afghan Taliban fighting NATO troops in the country, Pakistan has continued to receive billions of dollars of military aid in the name of counterterrorism.

Yet throughout all this US counter-terrorism assistance, the ISI’s support of the very factions NATO forces are fighting in Afghanistan has gone on, unimpeded. Two declassified US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) reports dated two weeks after 9/11, found that al-Qaeda had been “able to expand under the safe sanctuary extended by Taliban following Pakistan directives” and ISI funding.

In 2006, a leaked US Ministry of Defence report showed that the British government was fully aware of how: “Indirectly Pakistan (through the ISI) has been supporting terrorism and extremism” – including being involved in the 2005 London bombings, and insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Confidential NATO reports and US intelligence assessments circulated to White House officials in 2008 further confirmed ongoing ISI support for Taliban insurgents, tracing the complicity to senior ISI officials including Pakistan’s head of military intelligence, in providing extensive military support to Taliban camps in Balochistan and the ‘Haqqani’ network leading the insurgency around Kabul. Despite these reports being circulated around the highest levels of the White House, senior Obama administration officials went to pains to persuade US Congress to extend military assistance to Pakistan for five years, with no need for assurances that ISI assistance to the Taliban had ended.

So it continued, with US support. In 2010, the massive batch of classified US military cablesreleased via Wikileaks documented how from 2004 to 2010, US military intelligence knew full well that the ISI was supporting a wide range of militant factions in Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan affiliated to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, even while receiving billions of dollars of US counterterrorism assistance. And a NATO intelligence report leaked in 2012 similarly showed that the ISI was directly sponsoring the Taliban, providing them safe havens, and even manipulating fighters and arresting only those believed to be uncooperative with ISI orders.

So if it is, indeed, accurate to accuse Pakistan of playing a «double game» in the ‘War on Terror’, what about the United States? The US Congressional Research Service last year pointed out that after 9/11, “the United States has viewed Pakistan as a key ally, especially in the context of counterterrorism and Afghan and regional stability. Pakistan has been among the leading recipients of US foreign assistance both historically and in recent years.”

This year, Pakistan received $1.2 billion in US economic and security aid. Next year, while the civilian portion of aid is being slashed over concerns about misuse of funds, the US will still provide a total of around $1 billion. The military portion of this will help the Pakistan military “to conduct counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism (CT) operations against militants and also encourage continued US-Pakistan military-to-military engagement.”

Calibrating violence

US military aid in the name of counterterrorism assistance has in other words directly supported the ISI even while it has covertly sponsored the insurgency in Afghanistan. Why?

In 2009, I obtained a confidential report commissioned by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which provided a shocking explanation for this seemingly contradictory policy. The report, authored by respected defence consultant Prof Ola Tunander who had previously contributed to a high-level Danish government inquiry into US covert operations during the Cold War, concluded that US strategy in AfPak is to “support both sides in the conflict” so as to “calibrate the level of violence,” ironically to prolong, not end, regional conflicts. This counterintuitive strategy, the report argued, appears to be motivated by a wider geopolitical objective of maintaining global support for US interventionism to maintain regional security. By fanning the flames of war in AfPak, US forces are able to “increase and decrease the military temperature and calibrate the level of violence” with a view to permanently “mobilize other governments in support of US global policy.”

While pundits are now claiming that the TTP, which broke away from the Afghan Taliban to begin targeting the Pakistani state, is the avowed enemy of the ISI, the situation remains complicated. The TTP still maintains relations with its Afghan counterpart for some operations, members of which often flock to the TTP. And in 2009, an Independent on Sunday investigation reported that despite having burned down 200 girls’ schools and conducted 165 bomb attacks against Pakistani security forces, local politicians fleeing the attacks claimed that “elements of the military and the militants appear to be acting together… The suspicion of collusion, said a local government official in the largest town, Mingora, is based on the proximity of army and Taliban checkposts, each ‘a mile away from the other.’”

Pakistani investigative journalist Amir Mir noted that far from being staffed by mullahs, the TTP’s shura councils are filled with former Pakistani military and intelligence officials. The “large number of ex-servicemen, including retired commissioned officers, as its members,” raised disturbing questions about the extent to which disgruntled extremists inside the ISI have been using the movement to impose their brutal Islamist ideology not just in northwest Pakistan, but within the Pakistani state itself.

Silent killings

Yet as TTP violence has escalated, the Pakistani army has accelerated local military operations in response, just as Obama has accelerated indiscriminate drone strikes across the region. Both these approaches have tended to target not terrorists, but civilians. According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, Pakistani security forces have conducted major offensives in the northwest Swat Valley and neighbouring areas, killing “civilians with mortars, direct fire, and with bombs… In some years, it appears that Pakistani security forces were responsible for the majority of civilian killings,” as opposed to the TTP, which is clearly brutal enough.

Indeed, while the TTP’s latest wanton massacre of school children has captured public attention, the media has remained essentially silent on the Pakistani military’s slaughter of up to a hundred plus civilians through the first half of this year. No one knows the true scale of the casualties, but the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, analyzing public record news reports (which themselves are conservative due to being based on official government claims), found that the Pakistani airstrikes killed up to 540 people, and that as many as 112 of these could have been civilians. Not a peep of condemnation from either the mainstream media, or Pakistani diasporas in the west.

The CIA’s drone strikes are equally counterproductive. A secret CIA Directorate of Intelligencereport just released via Wikileaks, reviewing the record of drone strikes and counterinsurgency operations over the last decades, admits that these “may increase support for the insurgents, particularly if these strikes enhance insurgent leaders’ lore, if non-combatants are killed in the attacks, if legitimate or semi-legitimate politicians aligned with the insurgents are targeted, or if the government is already seen as overly repressive or violent.”

Militarisation is no solution

The rise of the TTP, which appears in some ways even more extreme than its Afghan counterpart, is a direct result of the massive, indiscriminate violence deployed by both the US and Pakistan in the region – which feeds the grievances driving locals into the TTP’s ranks. Denying that this violence radicalizes people on the ground is futile. The fact is that the TTP was spawned as an ultra-extreme reaction to the ongoing militarised approach to the region, which itself has slaughtered thousands of civilians.

Yet the frankly disgusting double-game of the US and Pakistani governments in the violence does not absolve the Taliban and its offshoots from their own responsibility for mass murder. The twisted ideology they use to justify their terrorist attacks against civilians, and children no less, must be countered and de-legitimised.

But equally, the rampant expansion of this ideology in areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan has been enabled by the comprehensive breakdown of local institutions and basic economic infrastructure, where alienation and resentment find their outlets through a violent extremism fed by a fatal cocktail of covert foreign finance and selective ISI sponsorship. The short-sighted obsession with military solutions coming from both the US and Pakistani establishments, in this context, merely throws fuel on the fire. Who will counter the entrenched ideologies behind these failed military policies?

In theory, there is a way out. The US must wind-down its self-serving obsession with military aid to Pakistan, much of which is being used to finance the very enemies we are supposedly fighting. Instead of providing billions of dollars of ‘counterterrorism’ focused aid to a hopelessly corrupt government, such billions could be used in coordination with the state to empower genuine grassroots networks like the Rural Support Programmes and others with a proven track-record in enfranchising communities in self-development and poverty alleviation. Only be empowering the Pakistani people, can the country hope to begin moving towards a genuine democracy based on a vibrant and engaged civil society.

From here, we may begin to see Pakistanis themselves further developing their own indigenous conceptions of Islam, drawing on the well-established Pakistani spiritual-cultural traditions of peace and inclusiveness represented in the musical movements of eastern classical, folk, qawwali, bhangra, Sufi and contemporary hip hop, rock and pop, and represented by nationally-acclaimed cultural icons like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Junoon, among countless others. Such Pakistani cultural icons demonstrate that truly populist approaches to Islam and spirituality are not regressive, but progressive. The militant madrassas preaching exclusionary violence and totalitarian politics in the name of Islam, are being propped up not by local traditions, but by vast inputs of foreign finance exporting an alien ideology over decades from the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia.

And there is a role in this for diaspora communities to mobilize their wealth, expertise and resources to help build the long-term capacity of Pakistani communities to resist and counter the alien ideologies represented by movements like the Taliban – but the focus here must be on crafting positive visions for the future, through meaningful institution-building. More than that, diaspora communities, indeed western citizens in general, need to recognize their fundamental responsibility to engage critically and relentlessly to pressure western government institutions and hold them to account for failed foreign policies pursued in our name that are aggravating the AfPak quagmire.

Extremists are gleefully filling a vacuum of despair cultivated by ruthless domestic corruption and callous international geopolitics. It is never too late to begin cultivating the seeds of hope.

3 Responses to Geopolitics

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