Trump, McConnell, Putin, and the triumph of the will to power

Jonathan Chait writes: Of the many things that resulted in Donald Trump’s election, from Hillary Clinton’s own errors to James Comey’s extraordinary insinuations against her in the contest’s final stages, Russian hacking played a meaningful enough role to tilt a razor-tight contest. Russia successfully riled up Bernie Sanders die-hards against the Democratic Party by leaking minor intrigue that fueled their suspicions, aggravating a Clinton liability with young voters that never healed. They also dribbled out enough emails in the succeeding months to keep stories using the word “emails” in the lead of Hillary Clinton news, adding more smoke to the haze of scandal that permeated coverage of her campaign.

We now know with near-certainty that Russia did this with the goal of electing Trump president. During the campaign, this reality was not quite certain enough to be reported as fact. Trump, of course, insisted there was no evidence Russia even had a hand in the attacks, let alone with the goal of helping him. (It “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”) Elements of the left decried suspicions of Russia’s role as “neo-McCarthyism.” The Nation editorialized, “ liberal-media elites have joined with the Clinton campaign in promoting the narrative of a devious Russian cyber-attack.” Others on the left insisted that the substance of the stolen emails command far more importance than their provenance, which in any case was disputed and unknowable. On October 31, the New York Times reported that the attack was probably “aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.”

Friday, the Washington Post reported that the CIA had concluded well before November that Russia specifically sought to elect Trump. The CIA’s analysis is obviously not infallible, but it fits with a wide array of other evidence. Russia had a clear motive: chilly relations with the Democratic administration that had orchestrated sanctions against it, close ties with Donald Trump and several of his advisers, and a series of pro-Russian positions from Trump on such issues as Crimea, NATO, and Vladimir Putin’s human rights abuses. Russia also hacked the Republican National Committee but declined to release any of the contents. The disruption was intentionally one-sided. The CIA’s conclusion merely lends incrementally more confidence to a deduction that was already fairly obvious.

What is more interesting in the Post story is the response of various officials to the revelations. The Obama administration declined to publicize, wary of being seen as intervening on Clinton’s behalf. Instead, it devised a fallback plan. Concerned that Russia might attempt to hack into electronic voting machines, it gathered a bipartisan group of lawmakers to hear the CIA’s report, in the hopes that they would present a united front warning Russia not to disrupt the election. According to the Post, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.” Other Republicans refused to join the effort for reasons that can only be understood as a desire to protect the Republican ticket from any insinuation, however well-founded, that Russia was helping it.

Even the most cynical observer of McConnell — a cynical man to his bones — would have been shocked at his raw partisanship. Presented with an attack on the sanctity of his own country’s democracy by a hostile foreign power, his overriding concern was party over country. Obama’s fear of seeming partisan held him back from making a unilateral statement without partisan cover. No such fear restrained McConnell. This imbalance in will to power extended to the security agencies. The CIA could have leaked its conclusion before November, but held off. The FBI should have held off on leaking its October surprise, but plunged ahead. [Continue reading…]

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The Senate torture report must be saved

Senators Carl Levin and Jay Rockefeller write: In President Obama’s final national security speech on Tuesday, he spoke about the importance of staying true to our values, of not returning to torture, and of transparency. Now, in his remaining time in office, he has an opportunity to take action to advance these goals and to do something of great importance for the public’s understanding of our history. He has the ability to protect the Senate Intelligence Committee’s full 6,700-page report on torture from being lost, perhaps forever.

Given President-elect Donald J. Trump’s unconscionable campaign pledge to “bring back waterboarding” and “a hell of a lot worse” — acts that would be illegal if carried out — President Obama’s leadership on this issue has never been more important.

Drawing on our decades of work in the Senate and our chairmanships of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, we are calling on President Obama to preserve the full torture report as a matter of profound public interest. We are not asking him to necessarily agree with all of the report’s findings, though we certainly hope he does, but we are asking him to protect it as an important piece of history.

The president could do this simply by allowing departments and agencies that already possess the document to enter it as a federal record, making it much more difficult for a future administration to erase. [Continue reading…]

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Russia intervened in election to help Donald Trump win, CIA has concluded

The Washington Post reports: The CIA has concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system, according to officials briefed on the matter.

Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to U.S. officials. Those officials described the individuals as actors known to the intelligence community and part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton’s chances.

“It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on an intelligence presentation made to U.S. senators. “That’s the consensus view.”

The Obama administration has been debating for months how to respond to the alleged Russian intrusions, with White House officials concerned about escalating tensions with Moscow and being accused of trying to boost Clinton’s campaign. [Continue reading…]

Aaron Blake writes: The report highlights and exacerbates the increasingly fraught situation in which congressional Republicans find themselves with regard to Russia and Trump. By acknowledging and digging into the increasing evidence that Russia helped — or at least attempted to help — tip the scales in Trump’s favor, they risk raising questions about whether Trump would have won without Russian intervention.

Trump, after all, won by a margin of about 80,000 votes cast across three states, winning each of the decisive states by less than one percentage point. So even a slight influence could have plausibly made the difference, though we’ll never be able to prove it one way or another.

While saying that Russia clearly tried to help Trump doesn’t inherently call into question the legitimacy of Trump’s win —earlier Friday, the White House made sure to emphasize that it’s not making that case — it’s not hard to connect the dots. And Trump and his party know it. [Continue reading…]

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Republicans ready to launch wide-ranging probe of Russia, despite Trump’s stance; Obama orders intel review

The Washington Post reports: Leading Senate Republicans are preparing to launch a coordinated and wide-ranging probe into Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. elections and its potential cyberthreats to the military, digging deep into what they view as corrosive interference in the nation’s institutions.

Such an aggressive approach puts them on a direct collision course with President-elect Donald Trump, who downplays the possibility Russia had any role in the November elections — arguing that a hack of the Democratic National Committee emails may have been perpetrated by “some guy in his home in New Jersey.” The fracture could become more prominent after Trump is inaugurated and begins setting foreign policy. He has already indicated that the country should “get along” with Russia since the two nations have many common strategic goals.

But some of Trump’s would-be Republican allies on Capitol Hill disagree. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (Ariz.) is readying a probe of possible Russian cyber-incursions into U.S. weapons systems, and he said he has been discussing the issue with Senate Select Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (N.C.), with whom he will be “working closely” to investigate Russia’s suspected interference in the U.S. elections and cyberthreats to the military and other institutions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been apprised of the discussions. Burr did not respond to requests for comment.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) also said he intends to hold hearings next year into alleged Russian hacking. Corker is on Trump’s shortlist for secretary of state, according to the Trump transition team.

Trump transition officials could not be reached for comment.

The loudest GOP calls for a Russia probe are coming from McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Both have taken a hard line on Russia and have been highly critical of Trump, particularly his praise of President Vladimir Putin. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: President Obama has ordered a “full review” of Russian hacking during the November election, as pressure from Congress has grown for greater public understanding of exactly what Moscow did to interfere in the electoral process.

“We may have crossed into a new threshold, and it is incumbent upon us to take stock of that, to review, to conduct some after-action, to understand what has happened and to impart some lessons learned,” Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland-security adviser, Lisa Monaco, told reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

Obama wants the report before he leaves office on Jan. 20, Monaco said. [Continue reading…]

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Obama under mounting pressure to disclose Russia’s role in U.S. election

The Guardian reports: Barack Obama is facing growing pressure from congressional Democrats in both houses demanding further disclosures regarding Russia’s role in the 2016 US elections.

The White House has not responded to a week-old letter signed by every Democrat and aligned member of the Senate intelligence committee seeking declassification of “additional information concerning the Russian government and the US election”.

Now a group of senior House Democrats has also written to the president, seeking a classified briefing for colleagues on “Russian entities’ hacking of American political organizations; hacking and strategic release of emails from campaign officials; the WikiLeaks disclosures; fake news stories produced and distributed with the intent to mislead American voters; and any other Russian or Russian-related interference or involvement in our recent election.”

The letter was signed by Democratic whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, as well as the top Democrats on the House judiciary, intelligence, armed services, foreign affairs and oversight committees. [Continue reading…]

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New forms of fascism are rising east and west as a result of our collective failure in Syria

While addressing the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade in the Irish Parliament, Robin Yassin-Kassab said: Liberated Aleppo is falling. The suburbs of Damascus are falling, or have already fallen, and been cleansed of their recalcitrant population. The families of foreign militiamen are moving in. Silence is returning to a devastated and demographically-changed Syria. This presentation is therefore more a lament for the defeated Syrian revolution, and for our failure to help it, than a policy recommendation.

From spring 2011, in the context of the Arab Spring, millions from all backgrounds protested peacefully against torture, crony capitalism, corruption and poverty, and for freedom, dignity, and social justice. They called for the unity of all sects and ethnicities.

The Assad regime responded with extreme repression, shooting protestors dead, torturing many, including children, to death, and prosecuting a mass rape campaign. By summer 2012 it had provoked an armed uprising of military defectors and civilian volunteers grouped under the umbrella term ‘Free Syrian Army’.

The regime deliberately started a war because it knew a serious reform process would end in its demise. It calculated (correctly) that in a war situation it could count on strong foreign allies – unlike its opponents. And it was following the blueprint laid out by Bashaar al-Assad’s father Hafez. In the late 70s he had met a widely-based challenge with severe repression. This provoked a desperate armed uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama in 1982. The regime responded by razing the city centre, killing tens of thousands. The memory of this destruction kept Syrians silent for the next three decades. [Continue reading…]

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Jimmy Carter: America must recognize Palestine

Jimmy Carter writes: We do not yet know the policy of the next administration toward Israel and Palestine, but we do know the policy of this administration. It has been President Obama’s aim to support a negotiated end to the conflict based on two states, living side by side in peace.

That prospect is now in grave doubt. I am convinced that the United States can still shape the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before a change in presidents, but time is very short. The simple but vital step this administration must take before its term expires on Jan. 20 is to grant American diplomatic recognition to the state of Palestine, as 137 countries have already done, and help it achieve full United Nations membership.

Back in 1978, during my administration, Israel’s prime minister, Menachem Begin, and Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, signed the Camp David Accords. That agreement was based on the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which was passed in the aftermath of the 1967 war. The key words of that resolution were “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East in which every state in the area can live in security,” and the “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.”

The agreement was ratified overwhelmingly by the Parliaments of Egypt and Israel. And those two foundational concepts have been the basis for the policy of the United States government and the international community ever since.

This was why, in 2009, at the beginning of his first administration, Mr. Obama reaffirmed the crucial elements of the Camp David agreement and Resolution 242 by calling for a complete freeze on the building of settlements, constructed illegally by Israel on Palestinian territory. Later, in 2011, the president made clear that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines,” and added, “negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine.”

Today, however, 38 years after Camp David, the commitment to peace is in danger of abrogation. Israel is building more and more settlements, displacing Palestinians and entrenching its occupation of Palestinian lands. Over 4.5 million Palestinians live in these occupied territories, but are not citizens of Israel. Most live largely under Israeli military rule, and do not vote in Israel’s national elections.

Meanwhile, about 600,000 Israeli settlers in Palestine enjoy the benefits of Israeli citizenship and laws. This process is hastening a one-state reality that could destroy Israeli democracy and will result in intensifying international condemnation of Israel.

The Carter Center has continued to support a two-state solution by hosting discussions this month with Israeli and Palestinian representatives, searching for an avenue toward peace. Based on the positive feedback from those talks, I am certain that United States recognition of a Palestinian state would make it easier for other countries that have not recognized Palestine to do so, and would clear the way for a Security Council resolution on the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. [Continue reading…]

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Obama expands war with Al Qaeda and greatly extends Trump’s capabilities and authorities

The New York Times reports: The escalating American military engagement in Somalia has led the Obama administration to expand the legal scope of the war against Al Qaeda, a move that will strengthen President-elect Donald J. Trump’s authority to combat thousands of Islamist fighters in the chaotic Horn of Africa nation.

The administration has decided to deem the Shabab, the Islamist militant group in Somalia, to be part of the armed conflict that Congress authorized against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to senior American officials. The move is intended to shore up the legal basis for an intensifying campaign of airstrikes and other counterterrorism operations, carried out largely in support of African Union and Somali government forces.

The executive branch’s stretching of the 2001 war authorization against the original Al Qaeda to cover other Islamist groups in countries far from Afghanistan — even ones, like the Shabab, that did not exist at the time — has prompted recurring objections from some legal and foreign policy experts.

The Shabab decision is expected to be publicly disclosed next month in a letter to Congress listing global deployments. It is part of the Obama administration’s pattern of relaxing various self-imposed rules for airstrikes against Islamist militants as it tries to help its partner forces in several conflicts. [Continue reading…]

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Barack Obama’s contribution to the decline of U.S. democracy

John Weeks writes: The iconic slogan “Yes, we can!” inspired the wave of enthusiasm that swept up millions of Americans during the presidential election of 2008 and carried Barack Obama to the White House. If that slogan epitomized the beginning of the Obama presidency, he had an equally iconic ending: the first African-American president shaking hands with the first president-elect in at least 100 years endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

In November 2008 Barack Obama won the presidency with almost 53% on a voter turnout of 58%. The winning percentage was the highest since 1988 and the turnout the largest for 50 years. The first non-white president took office on a surge of enthusiasm exceeding any since Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 (by comparison John Kennedy went to the presidency with less than half of total votes and a winning margin of 0.2 percentage points).

The enthusiasm for Obama arose from fervent hope for specific changes: 1) a universal, affordable health system; 2) the end of two disastrous wars (Afghanistan and Iraq); 3) economic recovery from the worst collapse in 80 years; and 4) action against banks and bankers to prevent a recurrence of the collapse.

To fulfil these hopes, Obama had majorities in both houses of Congress, 58 of 100 Senators (largest majority of any party in 30 years) and 257 seats in the House (most since 1992). By any measure the new president enjoyed an overwhelming majority. Under some circumstances the Republican minority in the Senate could prevent voting, but a determined and bold president could force votes within the arcane Senate rules.

It quickly became obvious that Obama would be anything but determined and bold; on the contrary, avoiding conflict through compromise would guide his presidency. In face of a solidly right wing Republican opposition, attempting to compromise was recipe for failure, a disaster foretold and fulfilled. [Continue reading…]

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Obama reckons with a Trump presidency

David Remnick writes: The morning after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, Barack Obama summoned staff members to the Oval Office. Some were fairly junior and had never been in the room before. They were sombre, hollowed out, some fighting tears, humiliated by the defeat, fearful of autocracy’s moving vans pulling up to the door. Although Obama and his people admit that the election results caught them completely by surprise — “We had no plan for this,” one told me — the President sought to be reassuring.

“This is not the apocalypse,” Obama said. History does not move in straight lines; sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it goes backward. A couple of days later, when I asked the President about that consolation, he offered this: “I don’t believe in apocalyptic — until the apocalypse comes. I think nothing is the end of the world until the end of the world.”

Obama’s insistence on hope felt more willed than audacious. It spoke to the civic duty he felt to prevent despair not only among the young people in the West Wing but also among countless Americans across the country. At the White House, as elsewhere, dread and dejection were compounded by shock. Administration officials recalled the collective sense of confidence about the election that had persisted for many months, the sense of balloons and confetti waiting to be released. Last January, on the eve of his final State of the Union address, Obama submitted to a breezy walk-and-talk interview in the White House with the “Today” show. Wry and self-possessed, he told Matt Lauer that no matter what happened in the election he was sure that “the overwhelming majority” of Americans would never submit to Donald Trump’s appeals to their fears, that they would see through his “simplistic solutions and scapegoating.” [Continue reading…]

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The United States is giving Putin the green light for atrocities in Aleppo

In an editorial, the Washington Post says: On Monday, Vladi­mir Putin and Donald Trump spoke by phone about Syria and agreed on “the need to work together in the struggle against the No. 1 common enemy — international terrorism and extremism,” according to a Kremlin statement. Hours later, Russia and its Syrian allies launched a massive new bombing campaign against eastern Aleppo and other rebel-held territories. Just a coincidence? Not likely, given what we know about Mr. Putin.

There are no Islamic State forces in Aleppo, though Mr. Trump does not appear to be aware of that fact. There are an estimated 250,000 civilians who, according to the United Nations, received the last available food rations last week. There are also rebel forces that until now have been trained and supplied by the United States and its allies, as well as groups linked to al-Qaeda. Surrounded by Syrian, Iranian and Shiite militia forces since July, all face the same brutal ultimatum President Bashar al-Assad has delivered to other rebel-held areas: Surrender, or die through bombing or starvation.

Mr. Putin’s evident aim is to support the Assad regime in a campaign to overrun the city, and perhaps other rebel-held areas, during the 2½ months of the U.S. presidential transition. If so, the result will likely be the worst humanitarian catastrophe yet in a war that has already seen more than 400,000 people killed by bombing, chemical weapons, torture and other depravities. Yet neither the outgoing nor the incoming U.S. president appears willing to do anything to prevent this calamity.

President Obama was asked about Aleppo at his news conference Monday by a journalist who pointed out that the United States had intervened to prevent a similar assault on the Libyan city of Benghazi. “We don’t have that option easily available to us,” said Mr. Obama, who recently set aside several such options, such as grounding the Syrian air force. He added that the administration would continue to press for “humanitarian safe spaces and cease-fires” before conceding, “I recognize that that has not worked.” While the honesty was welcome, Mr. Obama’s apparent willingness to watch fecklessly as hundreds of thousands of people are starved and bombed during his final weeks in office is morally abject. It will deepen the ineradicable stain Syria will leave on his legacy.

Mr. Trump, for his part, has all but given Mr. Putin the green light for atrocities. While we don’t know the specifics of what was said in his conversation with the Russian ruler, the president-elect in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Friday repeated that “Syria is fighting ISIS and you have to get rid of ISIS. Russia is now totally aligned with Syria.”

Again, the Syrian regime is not fighting the Islamic State in Aleppo. It is bombing and besieging its own citizens, with Russian and Iranian help. In refusing to allow aid deliveries and in targeting hospitals, it is willfully committing crimes against humanity. “I don’t think anybody wants a quarter of a million people to be starving in east Aleppo,” said Jan Egeland, the head of a U.N.-backed humanitarian task force. Tragically, he is wrong. The Assad regime and Mr. Putin want it. Mr. Obama is unwilling to prevent it. And Mr. Trump is, at best, indifferent. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: In an interview broadcast Tuesday with Portugal’s state-run RTP television, Assad accused armed groups he called “terrorists” of occupying eastern Aleppo and refusing government offers to evacuate. He said his mission was to liberate civilians.

Assad also identified president-elect Trump as a possible “natural ally,” if he turned out to be “genuine” about his commitment to fight terror in Syria. Trump has indicated he would prioritize defeating the Islamic State group in Syria over regime change, saying the rebels could be “worse” than the sitting president. [Continue reading…]

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How the U.S. justifies drone strikes — targeted killing, secrecy and the law

Jameel Jaffer writes: The sun had yet to rise when missiles launched by CIA drones struck a clutch of buildings and vehicles in the lower Kurram tribal agency of Pakistan, killing four or five people and injuring another. It was February 22, 2016, and the American drone campaign had entered its second decade. Over the next weeks, officials in Washington and Rome announced that the US military would use the Sigonella air base in Sicily to launch strikes against targets in Libya. American strikes in Yemen killed four people driving on a road in the governorate of Shabwah and eight people in two small villages in the governorate of Abyan. A strike in Syria killed an Indian citizen believed to be a recruiter for the self-styled Islamic State, and another strike killed a suspected Islamic State fighter in northern Iraq. A particularly bloody series of drone strikes and airstrikes in Somalia incinerated some 150 suspected militants at what American officials described as a training camp for terrorists. In south-eastern Afghanistan, a series of drone strikes killed 12 men in a pickup truck, two men who attempted to retrieve the bodies, and another three men who approached the area when they became worried about the others.

Over just a short period in early 2016, in other words, the United States deployed remotely piloted aircraft to carry out deadly attacks in six countries across central and south Asia, north Africa, and the Middle East, and it announced that it had expanded its capacity to carry out attacks in a seventh. And yet with the possible exception of the strike in Somalia, which garnered news coverage because of the extraordinary death toll, the drone attacks did not seem to spark controversy or reflection. As the 2016 presidential primaries were getting under way, sporadic and sketchy reports of strikes in remote regions of the world provided a kind of background noise – a drone in a different sense of the word – to which Americans had become inured. [Continue reading…]

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