Bill Maher makes us dumber: How ignorance, fear and stupid clichés shape Americans’ view of the Middle East

Steven A Cook and Michael Brooks write: Last Sunday was the 14th anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq. Given the outcome of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the milestone passed almost completely without comment among the many who led the charge to Baghdad in 2003. There are soldiers of all ranks who went into battle carrying copies of Ibn Khaldun’s “The Muqaddimah,” Hans Wehr’s Arabic-English Dictionary and other works that might help explain the land and region to which they were ostensibly bringing liberty. Many of these honorable men and women are wiser and more in touch today with the history, politics and culture of the Middle East than when the invasion order came. The same cannot be said for America’s political leaders or Americans more generally.

Prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, and certainly before the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001, Americans lived mostly in ignorance of the Middle East. All these years later they remain ignorant but in a different way. Previously, Americans had simply been uninformed about the region. What little they knew tended to be shaped by the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the fading memory of the Iranian hostage crisis and the brief Persian Gulf War of 1991 to reverse Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait.

Today Americans remain ignorant about the Middle East not because they are unaware of the region, but because they are poorly educated about it. It was not long after the Twin Towers fell and the smoldering fire at the Pentagon was extinguished that terms like jihad, Salafi, Wahhabi, madrassa and al-Qaida became part of the American political lexicon. It seemed that anyone who had attained the rank of colonel, or could claim (legitimately or otherwise) onetime employment at the CIA, or was a columnist who had visited an Arab country once or twice was booked on television to shed light on “why they hate us.” To be fair, this reflected a surge of genuine interest in the Middle East. Suddenly, university Arabic classes were oversubscribed, and books about the region that once reached tiny audiences did very well.

As 9/11 became a distant memory and the Iraqi venture became a disaster, the laudable desire to learn more about the Middle East seemed to fall off even as the casualties returning home continued at a steady pace. Yet in ways the region continued to be an obsession — not just for policymakers and foreign policy analysts, but also for a network of groups and individuals that fostered mistrust and fear of Middle Easterners in general and Muslims in particular.

People like Frank Gaffney, Brigitte Gabriel, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer had long been fringe figures in American public discourse. But their dogged efforts to brand Islam a hostile political ideology and characterize Muslims as a fifth column in the United States paid off in a variety of ways that reinforced one another. The controversy over the “ground zero mosque” in lower Manhattan is instructive in this regard. Such people were able to inject their Islamophobic worldview into the reporting on the debate over the “mosque” — actually a community center with a prayer room — which then wended its way into political spheres where these ideas became increasingly more mainstream. While figures on the far right and the emerging alt-right may have been responsible for propagating Islamophobia, liberal punditry and pop culture also gave it wider currency. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

North Korea’s leader is a lot of things — but irrational is not one of them

Anna Fifield writes: It’s easy to write off Kim Jong Un as a madman. What with the colorful nuclear threats, the gruesome executions of family members, the fact that he’s a self-appointed marshal who’s never served in the military.

Indeed, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did it just this past week, calling Kim “this crazy, fat kid that’s running North Korea.” That came on the heels of a pronouncement from Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, that “we are not dealing with a rational person” in Kim.

It’s a relatively common view. World leaders, military chiefs and Hollywood have all painted him as an unhinged maniac.

But this is not just wrong, North Korea watchers and dictatorship experts say. It also risks dangerous miscalculation.

“North Korea has consistently been treated like a joke, but now the joke has nuclear weapons,” said John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at the Harvard Kennedy School. “If you deem Kim Jong Un to be irrational, then you’re implicitly underestimating him.”

Leaders throughout the centuries have realized it can be advantageous to have your enemies think you’re crazy. Machiavelli once wrote that it can be wise to pretend to be mad, while President Richard Nixon wanted the North Vietnamese to think he was unstable and prone to launch a nuclear attack on a whim.

Writing off Kim Jong Un as a lunatic could equally be playing into his hands. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Has Flynn made a deal with the FBI?

Facebooktwittermail

Alex Jones apologizes for promoting ‘Pizzagate’ hoax

The New York Times reports: Alex Jones, a prominent conspiracy theorist and the host of a popular right-wing radio show, has apologized for helping to spread and promote the hoax known as Pizzagate.

The admission on Friday by Mr. Jones, the host of “The Alex Jones Show” and the operator of the website Infowars, was striking. In addition to promoting the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, he has contended that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were inside jobs carried out by the United States government and that the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax concocted by those hostile to the Second Amendment.

The Pizzagate theory, which posited with no evidence that top Democratic officials were involved with a satanic child pornography ring centered around Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in Washington, grew in online forums before making its way to more visible venues, including Mr. Jones’s show.

The prominence of the hoax drew attention to the proliferation of false and misleading news, much of it politically charged, that circulated on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Information wars: A window into the alternative media ecosystem

Kate Starbird writes: For more than three years, my lab at the University of Washington has conducted research looking at how people spread rumors online during crisis events. We have looked at natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes as well as man-made events such as mass shootings and terrorist attacks. Due to the public availability of data, we focused primarily on Twitter — but we also used data collected there (tweets) to expose broader activity in the surrounding media ecosystem.

Over time, we noted that a similar kind of rumor kept showing up, over and over again, after each of the man-made crisis events — a conspiracy theory or “alternative narrative” of the event that claimed it either didn’t happen or that it was perpetrated by someone other than the current suspects.

We first encountered this type of rumor while studying the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. We noticed a large number of tweets (>4000) claiming that the bombings were a “false flag” perpetrated by U.S. Navy Seals. The initial spread of this rumor involved a “cascade” of tweets linking to an article on the InfoWars website. At the time, our researchers did not know what InfoWars was, but the significance of that connection became clear over time. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Khalid Masood: From Kent schoolboy to Westminster attacker

The Guardian reports: In an old school photograph, the smiling face of Adrian Ajao is a picture of a healthy, happy, middle class boy from Tunbridge Wells. Beaming with satisfaction after a football marathon, he stood on the cusp of a fruitful life.

What led that bright, sporty, popular teenager to become the Islamic State-inspired killer responsible for the attack on parliament this week confounds those who knew him then and is now the focus of a urgent and sprawling investigation by the security services.

“He was a smashing guy, really nice chap,” said Stuart Knight, an old classmate at Huntleys school. “The picture of us in the football team was after we did a 24-hour sponsored football match to raise money for the sports hall. We would have been about 14 years old. Everyone got on with Adrian, he was a lovely bloke.”

But there are themes running through the life of Adrian Ajao, who was born as Adrian Elms and who died as Khalid Masood that help explain what went so terribly wrong and turned that “lovely bloke” into the most murderous terrorist in Britain since 2005. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Putin picks Le Pen to rule France

The Daily Beast reports: Russian interference in the American elections last year was downright subtle compared to what we’ve seen this week in the run-up to French presidential elections.

The two-round vote on April 23 and May 7 could change politics, defense, and the economy in Europe more radically—and more in Russia’s favor—even than the chaos spawned by Donald Trump’s iffy triumph in the United States.

And on Friday, Putin endorsed his candidate: far-right-wing, anti-European-Union, anti-NATO, anti-immigrant, anti-American, pro-Trump candidate Marine Le Pen.

Of course, Putin said, “We don’t want to influence in any way the events going on [in France],” but his government received Le Pen as if she already were settled in as the head of state in Paris.

Olga Bychkova, deputy chief editor of the independent radio station Echo of Moscow, said that the reception accorded Le Pen in Russia was impressive. “She first had meetings with the leaders of the Duma [Russia’s parliament], then she was taken to an exhibit devoted to France at the Kremlin, then she met with Putin. That is a kind of program Moscow organizes for state leaders,” Bychkova said. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Why Obamacare defeated Trumpcare

Jonathan Chait writes: With the collapse of the House health-care bill, the cause of repealing Obamacare, a right-wing obsession for seven years and a day, has died. The flame will never be fully extinguished in the hearts of the true believers — after all, in right-wing think tanks and other places far removed from electoral politics, anti-government zealots still dream of phasing out Social Security or Medicare. But the political project dedicated to restoring the pre-Obamacare status quo, in which people too sick or poor to afford their own insurance without the subsidies and regulations of the Affordable Care Act could be safely ignored, is gone forever. And it is dead for the best possible reason, the reason that undergirds all social progress: because a good idea defeated a bad one.

Conservatives have already collapsed into mutual recriminations for their failure. Reporters have blamed Trump’s deal-making skills. Trump’s loyalists are loudly blaming Paul Ryan. “I think Paul Ryan did a major disservice to President Trump, I think the president was extremely courageous in taking on health care and trusted others to come through with a program he could sign off on,” Chris Ruddy, CEO of the right-wing site Newsmax and a longtime friend of Trump’s, tells Bloomberg. “The president had confidence Paul Ryan would come up with a good plan and to me, it is disappointing.” David Brooks blames both Trump and Congress. “The core Republican problem is this,” he writes. “The Republicans can’t run policy-making from the White House because they have a marketing guy in charge of the factory. But they can’t run policy from Capitol Hill because it’s visionless and internally divided.”

The American Health Care Act is a truly horrendous piece of legislation. But it did not become the vehicle for the Obamacare repeal effort because Trump, or Ryan, or anybody insisted on it over some other option. It became the repeal bill because nobody in the Republican Party had a better idea. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Following the Russian money

Tim Weiner writes: Counterintelligence is long, hard work. Investigators need time to string along suspects — seeking the who, what, when, where and why of the case. The Federal Bureau of Investigation tries to build 3-D chronologies of who did what to whom. Agents usually follow the money, the best evidence. That’s how the feds got Al Capone: for tax evasion.

The F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, is running the most explosive counterintelligence case since Soviet spies stole the secrets of the atom bomb more than 70 years ago. Some of those atomic spies didn’t speak Russian: They were Americans. We now know that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia attacked American democracy by meddling in the 2016 election. Did he enlist American mercenaries?

A tantalizing clue came at the House Intelligence Committee hearing on Monday.

First, Democrats named names: the former Trump campaign director, Paul Manafort, dismissed shortly after the F.B.I.’s investigation started in late July; then the former Trump national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, who lost his job last month. Both appear to have had pecuniary ties to Mr. Putin’s allies — in Mr. Manafort’s case, a politician and an oligarch; in Mr. Flynn’s case, RT, the news and propaganda network.

Then Mr. Comey was asked to explain the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

“Sure,” the director said.

The act, known as FARA, is intended to prevent espionage or illicit foreign influence on American public opinion, policy and laws. It requires Americans acting as agents of a foreign government to register with the Justice Department. A willful failure to register can be a crime. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump may really not know how NATO works

Ishaan Tharoor writes: More than two months into his tenure in office, Trump still doesn’t seem to understand how NATO works.

Trump’s ambivalence about the West’s preeminent military alliance is well known. Before entering the White House, he declared NATO “obsolete” and cast doubt on U.S. military commitments to its traditional partners in Europe.

In the interview with [Time magazine’s Michael] Scherer, Trump first insisted the alliance “doesn’t cover terrorism,” then took credit for having “fixed that.” This is false on both counts. Ever since the attacks on 9/11, counterterrorism operations have been NATO’s main preoccupation. The deployment of coalition forces to Afghanistan was the largest military mission in NATO’s history. The alliance had a counterterrorism desk decades before Trump started grumbling. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Rex Tillerson’s ‘new approach’ to North Korea sounds a lot like the old approach

Jeffrey Lewis writes: When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson showed up in Asia this month, he announced that the United States would take a “new approach” to North Korea. Tillerson avoided any specifics of how he planned to get a different result, but he was well armed with platitudes — he spoke of decades of failed “diplomatic and other efforts,” joined the Japanese foreign minister in calling Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs “totally unacceptable,” and urged the North’s leaders “to change your path.” Shortly after Tillerson departed, North Korea attempted yet another missile launch.

Poor Tillerson. Someone forgot to tell him that a new administration promising a new approach it can’t quite articulate is, in fact, the old approach. Previous administrations even used the same words, calling North Korea’s actions “unacceptable” and pointing to a different “path.” And yet, even though President Barack Obama pledged to “break that pattern” of North Korea getting away with belligerent behavior, and President George W. Bush compared the country’s dictatorship to a toddler who throws food on the floor, the sad truth is that promising to break the pattern is part of the pattern, and we always pick up the food. We, too, could choose a different path. But we don’t. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Calling for an independent commission to investigate Trump could be a terrible mistake

Philip Shenon writes: The drumbeat is heard—again. After every national tragedy, or in the wake of a major political scandal or economic crisis, there are calls across Washington for creation of an independent, blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission to investigate. After Pearl Harbor, there was the Roberts Commission, named for its chairman, Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts. After the Kennedy assassination, there was the Warren Commission, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren. After the 2001 terror attacks, the 9/11 Commission. After the 2008 financial meltdown, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

Now, Democratic leaders in Congress—and a handful of Republicans—are urging creation of an independent commission to investigate Russian tampering in the 2016 presidential election and, more specifically and explosively, whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow. The prospects of an independent investigation seemed to grow after this week’s announcement by FBI Director James Comey that the bureau has opened a counterintelligence investigation of Trump aides for their possible ties to the Russian hacking operation that targeted Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The calls for an outside inquiry were louder still after House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes’s stunning claim on Wednesday that some on the Trump transition team had been swept up in government surveillance of other targets.

In welcoming Comey’s disclosure, Adam Schiff of California, the House panel’s ranking Democrat, said that, beyond the inquiries in Congress and the FBI, it was time for creation of “an independent commission that can devote the staff and resources to this investigation that we do not have, and that can be completely removed from any political considerations.” Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly called for creation of a “9/11-style commission” to deal with allegations involving the Russians and the Trump campaign.

Having written histories of both the 9/11 Commission and the Warren Commission and after spending years poring over their long-secret archives, I think I speak with confidence in warning the Democrats to be careful what they wish for. Neither of those blue-ribbon investigations—especially the 9/11 Commission, most often cited by Schiff, Pelosi and their colleagues as a model for a Trump-Russia inquiry—offers much hope that an independent commission would accomplish the Democrats’ goals, at least not if those goals include getting to the bottom of this mess in a timely fashion and holding individuals accountable for their wrongdoing.

The 10-member 9/11 Commission, which was created by Congress over the initially fierce opposition of the Bush administration, is—accurately or not—held out as a gold standard for independent federal investigations. With its membership equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, it produced an elegantly written, unanimous report that documented the terrorist conspiracy behind the 2001 attacks and the larger history of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.

But it is worth remembering that the 9/11 Commission got started late and took a long time to finish—the investigation lasted 20 months, with its final report not issued until July 2004, more than two and a half years after the Twin Towers fell. The logistics of actually setting up that commission were akin to organizing a small federal agency from scratch, albeit one that required a staff of dozens of experts with the highest-level security clearances.

And the 9/11 Commission achieved bipartisan agreement only because the panel abandoned any attempt at individual accountability. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

The alt-right populists who collaborate with terrorists

John Harris writes: As proved by Paris, Berlin, Brussels, and now Westminster, it is increasingly as much a part of the awful theatre of terrorism as the acts themselves: inside an hour or two of the news starting to break, figureheads of the so-called alt-right either reaching for their smartphones or sprinting to the nearest TV studio, and dispensing messages that chime perfectly with the intentions of the killers. They want rage, uncontrollable tension and intimations of the apocalypse to begin to embed in the societies they seek to attack. And guess what? The people who brought us Brexit, Trump and a thousand verbose radio spots and newspaper columns are only too happy to oblige.

With grinding inevitability, Nigel Farage appeared on Fox News on Wednesday night, and made his case with all the manic insistence of a Dalek, assisted by a large helping of what we now know as Alternative Facts. So, from the top: “What these politicians have done in the space of just 15 years may well affect the way we live in this country over the next 100 years … We’ve made some terrible mistakes in this country, and it really started with the election of Tony Blair back in 1997, who said he wanted to build a multicultural Britain. His government even said they sent out search parties to find immigrants from all over the world to come into Britain … The problem with multiculturalism is that it leads to divided communities. It’s quite different to multiracialism … I’m sorry to say that we have now a fifth column living inside these European countries.”

The same network also included a quickfire contribution from one Walid Phares – “Fox News national security and foreign policy expert” – who reckoned that the attack had proved that “one man can stop a city”, before Katie Hopkins went even further. “Great Britain is absolutely divided, more than at any time than in its past,” she said. “We are in fact a nation of ghettoes. I think liberals think multiculturalism means we all die together.” Not long after, the Ukip donor (or ex-donor – it is never quite clear) Arron Banks weighed in on Twitter, first associating the acts of a terrorist who would soon turn out to be British-born with “illegals”, and then carrying on regardless: “We have a huge Islamic problem courtesy of mass immigration … It’s a failed policy of mass immigration without integration that has destroyed communities … we have communities who hate our country and way of life.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Russia, an alleged coup and Montenegro’s bid for NATO membership

By Vesko Garcevic, Boston University

Testifying before a congressional committee, FBI Director James Comey has confirmed that his agency is investigating links between the Donald Trump campaign and Russia. The Conversation

While this investigation continues, Americans should be reminded of the signs of Russian interference in democratic processes outside the U.S. – specifically, in the Balkans.

Small but strategic

Recently, British Prime Minister Theresa May expressed concern over Moscow’s apparent involvement in an attempted coup in my home country.

From 2010 to 2015, I was the ambassador to NATO from Montenegro, a young democracy in southeast Europe that is part of the former Yugoslavia. Montenegro was targeted by an apparent coup attempt during its last parliamentary election on Oct. 16, 2016. While Russia has denied involvement, details of the plot shared by a Serbian man arrested at the scene point to what The New York Times called “Russian efforts to sow mayhem.”

Montenegro’s chief special prosecutor has alleged the involvement of two Russian Military Intelligence Service (GRU) agents, Vladimir Popov and Eduard Shirokov. The GRU is the same organization sanctioned by the Obama administration for hacking the Democratic National Committee offices. Shirolov, who has also gone by the name Shishmakov, was posted as the assistant military attache at the Russian Embassy in Poland until 2014 – when Poland threw him out of the country for spying.

[Read more…]

Facebooktwittermail

Russian lawyer thrown from window was a witness for the U.S. government

Michael Weiss writes: Two common causes of death for contemporary Russians are heart attacks and falling to one’s end from great heights. In some cases, these fatal tendencies even have something to do with high cholesterol or tragic mishaps.

In 2008, a clothing salesman called Semyon Korobeinikov lost his footing on a balcony somehow and tumbled to his demise.

A year later, Korobeinikov was named as the purchaser of Universal Savings Bank, a dubious financial institution that had been fingered by investigators as a way-station for stolen Russian money. Only he didn’t buy the bank. It was part of a government ruse to exonerate the true owner, an ex-convict called Dmitry Klyuev, a reputed mob boss implicated in a series of massive tax frauds that cost Russian citizens $1 billion.

Korobeinikov might have therefore borne witness against Klyuev, if he wasn’t conveniently already 6 feet under.

In 2009, in a related case, Russian tax attorney Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death by eight prison guards, according to a report published by then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s own human rights commission. The Kremlin claimed he died of a coronary. Then it put him on trial posthumously for tax evasion.

The case prompted U.S. anti-corruption and human rights legislation, known as the Magnitsky Law, which put the Russian government under Vladimir Putin on notice that it could not always get away with such abuses.

Magnitsky was killed by a hybridized state-mafia organization for unearthing a $230 million tax fraud perpetrated against the Russian people. The mob had colluded with the same cops supposed to investigate the crime, tax officials who processed it, and a host of compromised judges in various jurisdictions tasked with covering it up. They were all members of the Klyuev Group, and many are now sanctioned under the Magnitsky Law.

In 2012, Alexander Perepilichny, a former member of the Klyuev Group, dropped dead while jogging in his adoptive home of Surrey, England. There was no cause of death stated, but the assumption by the British coroner’s initial finding was that nothing looked suspicious, even though Perepilichny was a healthy 44-year-old with no known chronic or debilitating ailments.

Then Monique Simmonds, a researcher at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, hired by the coroner at the behest of Perepilichny’s life insurance company, uncovered traces of a rare and toxic plant, gelsemium, in the victim’s stomach.

Gelsemium, as it turns out, does not grow in the verdant climes of Surrey. It is only found in China, where it is a favored poison of assassins. Russian hitmen, too, have been known to access the flower’s quiet, lethal capability. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Can Trump handle the truth?

Michael Scherer writes: Generations of American children have learned the apocryphal tale of young George Washington, bravely admitting to his father that he chopped down the cherry tree. The story sprang from a culture that wanted even its fables to serve the ideal of truth. By that standard, the House Intelligence Committee hearing on March 20 should have been a massive humiliation for the President, who followed Washington 228 years later. It is rare for such hearings to be unclassified–and thus televised–but FBI Director James Comey found the largest possible audience for his rebuke of the sitting President.

He had given Donald Trump nearly three weeks to walk back his incendiary tweets accusing President Obama of “wire tapping” Trump Tower during the campaign. If such surveillance had been done through legal channels, the FBI would have known; if done illegally, it was a scandal of historic proportions and the FBI should be digging into it. Either way, Trump’s accusation implicated the integrity of Comey’s bureau, which is why the former prosecutor felt compelled to push back as the cameras rolled. “I have no information that supports those tweets,” Comey said. “We have looked carefully inside the FBI. The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same.”

The statement was concise, direct and damning. The President of the United States had been marked as a fabulist by one of the top officials in government charged with finding the truth. And yet, for the man being called out, the rebuke was nothing of the sort. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail