The Dangerous Trend Threatening the Future of the Nation-State


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When the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., published his bestseller The Disuniting of America in 1991, he didn’t seriously entertain the worst-case scenario suggested by the title. At the time, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were imploding, while separatist movements in Quebec, East Timor, Spain’s Basque country, and elsewhere were already clamoring for their own states.

But when it came to the United States, Schlesinger’s worries were principally focused on the far smaller battlefield of the American classroom and what he saw as multiculturalism’s threat to the mythic “melting pot.” Although he took those teacup tempests seriously, the worst future Schlesinger could imagine was what he called the “tribalization of American life.” He didn’t contemplate the actual dismemberment of the country.

Today, controversies over hate speech and gender politics continue to roil American campuses. These, however, are probably the least important conflicts in the country right now, considering the almost daily evidence of disintegrative pressures of every sort: demonstrations by white supremacistsmass shootings and police killings, the current dismantling of the federal government. Not to speak of the way cities and states are defying Washington’s dictates on immigration, the environment, and health care. The nation’s motto of e pluribus unum — out of many, one —is in serious danger of being turned inside out.

A country that hasn’t had a civil war in more than 150 years, where secessionist movements from Texas to Vermont have generally caused merriment rather than concern, now faces divisions so serious and a civilian arsenal of weapons so huge, that the possibility of national disintegration has become part of mainstream conversation. Indeed, after the 2016 elections, predicting a second civil war in the United States — a real, bloody, no-holds-barred military conflict — has become all the rage among journalists, historians, and foreign policy pundits across the political spectrum.

Particularly after Charlottesville, the left is convinced that President Trump and his extremist allies are intent on inciting the “alt-right” toward violence against a broad swath of his administration’s opponents. The right is convinced, particularly after the shooting of Louisiana Republican Congressman Steve Scalise, that the “alt-left” is armed and ready to revolt alongside “Mexican murderers and rapists.” Foreign Policy columnist Thomas Ricks has been taking the temperature of national security analysts on the likelihood of a future civil war.  In March, their responses averaged out to a 35 percent chance — and that number’s been climbing ever since. A sign of the times: Omar El Akkad’s American War, a novel about a second civil war, has been widely reviewed and has sold well. Whether readers are taking it as a warning or a how-to manual is not yet clear.

Sure, most Americans don’t yet fall into irreconcilable factions. But if you consider the transformation of Yugoslavia from vacation spot to killing field in two short years after 1989, it’s easier to imagine how a few demagogues, with their militant supporters, could use minority passions in this country to neutralize majority sentiments. All of which suggests why the “American carnage” that Trump invoked in his inaugural address could turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Of course, it’s not just Donald Trump. Globally speaking, the fledgling American president is more symptom than cause. The United States is just now catching up to much of the rest of the world as President Trump, from his bullying pulpit, does whatever he can to make America first in fractiousness.

When it comes to demagogues and divisiveness, however, he has plenty of competition — in Europe, the Middle East, indeed all over our splintering planet.

The Multiplication of Division

The recent referendum on independence in Catalonia is a reminder that a single well-timed blow can break apart the unitary states of Europe as if they were nothing but poorly made piñatas. True, it’s not clear how many Catalans genuinely want independence from Spain. Those who participated in the referendum there opted overwhelmingly in favor of secession, but only 42 percent of voters even bothered to register their preference. In addition, the announced relocation of 531 companies to other parts of the country is a sobering reminder of the potential economic consequences of secession. However the standoff may be resolved, though, separatist sentiments are not about to vanish in Catalonia, particularly given the Spanish government’s heavy-handed attempts to stop the vote.

Such splittism is potentially contagious. After Britons narrowly supported Brexiting the European Union (EU) in a referendum in 2016, the Scots again began talking about independence — about, that is, separating from their southern cousins while remaining within the EU. Catalans have a different dilemma. A declaration of independence would promptly sever the new country from the European Union, even as the move might spread independence fever to other groups in Spain, particularly the Basques.

The British and the Catalans have delivered something like a prolonged one-two punch to the EU, which until recently had been in continuous expansion: from six member states in 1957 to 28 today. Losing both Great Britain and Catalonia would mean kissing goodbye to more than one-fifth of that organization’s economic output. (According to 2016 numbers, the United Kingdom contributes 2.7 trillion euros and Catalonia 223 billion euros to the EU’s 14.8 trillion euro gross domestic product.) That’s the economic equivalent of California and Florida peeling off from the United States.

The question is whether the British and Catalan votes are the culmination of a mini-trend or the beginning of the end. Although Brexit actually gave a boost to the EU’s popularity across its member states (including England), Brussels continues to experience pushback from those states on immigration, financial bailouts, and the process of decision-making.

Euroskeptic movements like the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany and the Freedom Party in Austria have met with growing success and rising voter support, even in Euro-friendly countries. In that continent’s future lie: a possible Czexit as a right-wing billionaire takes over as prime minister of the Czech Republic and looks to create a governing coalition with a vehemently anti-immigrant and anti-EU partner; a Nexit if Euroskeptic Geert Wilders succeeds in expanding his political base further in the Netherlands; and even an Italexit as voters there have bucked the “Brexit effect,” with 57 percent now favoring a referendum on membership.

Outside actors, too, have been hard at work. The Kremlin under Vladimir Putin relishes a weaker EU, if only so that its own immediate neighbors — Ukraine and Georgia — will stop leaning westward. Donald Trump has similarly embraced the Euroskeptics in a bid to spread what former top adviser Steve Bannon has termed the “deconstruction of the administrative state” to Europe.

Those who might enjoy an EU-style frisson of schadenfreude look at Europe’s ills as a case of the chickens coming home to roost. Many European governments supported the American-led conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria that have shattered the Greater Middle East, sending refugees by the hundreds of thousands toward the EU. One crucial result: anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamophobia have fueled far-right “populist” parties across Europe.  In the process, the continent is threatened with being torn apart at the seams in an echo of the developments in the countries from which the refugees are streaming. Think of it as the war on terror transposed to a different key.

This parallel could be seen in a particularly poignant fashion in the independence referendum in Kurdistan that was held just before the Catalan vote. Iraq has been at risk of disintegration ever since the United States invaded in 2003 and removed the tyrannical but unifying hand of Saddam Hussein from the tiller of state. Proposals to divide the country into three autonomous parts presided over by Kurds, Sunnis, and Shia began circulating in Washington within years of the invasion, then-Senator Joe Biden’s “soft-partition plan” being perhaps the best known of them.

The Kurds made Biden’s proposal a reality by carving out their own autonomous region in the northern part of Iraq. Now, after a referendum that secured overwhelming support (with a turnout of more than 70 percent), the Kurds, with their peshmerga forces, are trying to make the divorce official. The Iraqi military has been on the move to stop them and now two American-trained and armed militaries face off against each other in that explosive region.

The Turks and Iranians similarly eye the effort to secede with considerable wariness in light of Kurdish autonomy movements in their own countries. Syria too, despite the recent military victories of the Russian-backed government in Damascus, remains divided with a defacto Kurdish state of Rojava in its north. And it’s not just the Kurds. Libya is in the midst of a civil war. In devastated Yemen, various conflicts continue, all aggravated by an intervention and brutal air campaign sponsored by the Saudis and other Gulf States with the assistance of Washington. And Saudi Arabia and Bahrain face significant Shia challenges within their borders.

Elsewhere in the world, too, the center is anything but holding, as things threaten to fall apart. Around Russia, frozen conflicts — in Ukraine and Georgia — have paralyzed states that otherwise might make a bid to join the EU or NATO. In China, separatist movements burn on a low flame in Xinjiang and Tibet. The ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya is just one of many problems of fragmentation in Myanmar. Secessionist movements are gaining momentum in Cameroon and Nigeria. In Brazil, three southern states are mobilizing to secede from the rest of the country. In the Philippines, a Muslim terror insurgency in southern Mindanao took and held much of a major city for months on end.

In the past, secession was all about creating new, smaller nation-states. The most recent wave of division, however, may not stop with the breakdown of states into smaller pieces.

Three Great Shatterings

Nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to the consolidation of the French nation in the nineteenth century, for instance, the inhabitants of the country thought of themselves as Bretons, Provençals, Parisians, and the like. Contrary to various founding myths, the nation didn’t exist from time immemorial. It had to be conjured into existence — and for a reason.

The nineteenth century witnessed the first great modern shattering as people weaponized the new concept of “nation” and companion notions of ethnic solidarity and popular sovereignty in their struggles against empires. The revolutions of 1825 in Greece and Russia, the 1848 “spring of nations” throughout Europe, the subsequent unification of Germany and Italy — all were blows against the empires presided over by the Habsburgs, the Romanovs, and the Ottoman sultans.

World War I then dispatched those weakened empires to their graves in one huge conflagration. After the war ended, a Middle East of heterogeneous nation-states and a new group of independent Balkan countries emerged from the defunct Ottoman Empire. Imperial Russia briefly fragmented into dozens of smaller states until the Soviet Union glued them back together by force. The house of the Habsburgs fell and the Central European countries of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary crawled out from under the wreckage.

The second great shattering, which stretched across the middle span of the twentieth century, accompanied the collapse of the colonial empires. The British, French, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, and German overseas colonies all achieved independence, and a new global map of nation-states emerged in Africa, Asia, and to a lesser extent Latin America where decolonization had largely occurred a century earlier.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism in Europe in the early 1990s precipitated the third great shattering. Gone suddenly was the subordination of national priorities to larger ideological structures. The countries of Eastern Europe voted their way out of the Soviet bloc. The Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia all collapsed with varying degrees of violence and suffering, producing more than 20 new U.N. members. Further afield, Eritrea, East Timor, and South Sudan were able to secure their independence in part because the end of the Cold War meant that the international community could permit a freer exercise of self-determination. (During the nearly half-century of the Cold War, the only new splinter state welcomed into the United Nations was Bangladesh.)

The end of empire, of colonialism, and of the Cold War thrice shattered and remade the map of the world. You could certainly argue that the fracturing taking place today is nothing but the continuation of those three transformations. The Cold War demanded the unity of Europe (and the unity of its component parts), so only in the post-Cold War era could Catalans and Scots explore the option of independence with any hope of success. The emergence of Kurdistan had been made possible by the breakdown of the arbitrary Middle East borders created in the aftermath of World War I, and so on.

Historical change isn’t ever going to wash over the world in one even wave. That’s a hard reality to which North Koreans, who still live in a semi-feudal, putatively Communist, and fiercely nationalist state, can attest.

The Fourth Great Shattering

Yet the most recent events undoubtedly represent not just a fourth great shattering, but one that falls into a new category entirely. The current divisions in the United States have nothing to do with empires or colonialism or possibly even the Cold War. The debates over the EU’s viability center on the obligations Europeans have to each other and to those arriving as refugees from distant conflicts. The forces threatening to tear apart nation-states elsewhere suggest that this elemental unit of the international system may be nearing the end of its shelf life.

Consider, for instance, the impact of economic globalization. The expansion of trade, investment, and corporate activity has long had the effect of drawing nations together — into cartels like OPEC, trade communities like the European Union, and international institutions like the International Monetary Fund. By the 1970s, however, economic globalization was eating away at the exclusive prerogative of the nation-state to control trade or national currencies or implement policies regulating the environment, health and safety, and labor.

At the same time, particularly in industrialized countries like the United Kingdom and the United States, income inequality increased dramatically. The wealth gap is now worse in the United States than in Iran or the Philippines. Among the top industrialized countries, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the gap between the richest 10 percent of the population and the poorest 10 percent has grown appreciably larger.

Even among countries where inequality has dropped because of government efforts to redistribute income, the perception has grown that globalization favors the rich, not the poor. Fewer than half of French respondents to a 2016 YouGov poll believed that globalization was a force for good — even though income inequality has fallen in that country since the 1970s. Having once reduced tensions among countries and strengthened the nation-state, economic globalization increasingly pits peoples against one another within countries and among countries.

Other forms of globalization have had a similar effect. Facebook and Twitter, for instance, have connected people in unprecedented ways and provided a mechanism to mobilize against a variety of societal ills, including dictators, trigger-happy police, and sexual harassers. But the other side of the ability to focus organizing efforts within digital affinity groups is the way such platforms Balkanize their users, not by ethnicity as much as by political perspective. Information or opinions challenging one’s worldview that once appeared in the newspaper or occasionally on the evening news get weeded out in the Facebook newsfeed or the Twitter stream of one’s favorite amplifiers.

Ethnic cleansing by decree has been largely overtaken by ideological cleansing by consent. What’s the point of making the necessary compromises to function in a diverse nation-state when you can effectively secede from society and hang with your homies in a virtual community?

Given the polarizing impact of economic and technological globalization, it’s no surprise that the politics of the middle has either disappeared or, because of a weak left, drifted further to the right. Donald Trump is the supreme expression of this stunning loss of faith in centrist politicians as well as such pillars of the institutional center as the mainstream media.

Since these figures and institutions delivered an economics of inequality and a foreign policy of war over the last three decades, the flight from the center is certainly understandable. What’s new, however, is the way Trump and other right-wing populists have stretched this disaffection, which might ordinarily have powered a new left, to encompass what might be called the three angers over: immigration, the expansion of civil rights, and middle-class entitlement programs. Fueled by a revulsion for the center, Trump is not simply interested in undermining his political opponents and America’s adversaries. He has a twin project, promoted for decades by the extreme right, of destroying the federal government and the international community.

That’s why the fourth great shattering is different. In the past, people opposed empires, colonial powers, and the ideological requirements of the Cold War by banding together in more compact nation-states. They were still willing to sacrifice on behalf of their unknown compatriots — to redistribute tax revenues or follow rules and regulations — just on a smaller scale.

Nationalism hasn’t gone away. Those who want to preserve a unitary state (Spain) as well as those who want out of the same state (Catalonia) appeal to similarly nationalist sentiments. But today, the very notion of acting in solidarity with people in a territorial unit presided over by a state is fast becoming passé. Citizens are in flight from taxes, multiculturalism, public education, and even the guarantee of basic human rights for all. The fourth great shattering seems to be affecting the very bonds that constitute the nation-state, any nation-state, no matter how big or small.

The Future of Dystopia

In 2015, before the Brexit vote and before Donald Trump emerged as the frontrunner in the Republican Party primary, I published an “essay” at TomDispatch in which a geo-paleontologist (a field I made up) looked backward from 2050 at the splintering of the international community.

“The movements that came to the fore in 2015 championed a historic turn inward: the erection of walls, the enforcement of homogeneity, and the trumpeting of exclusively national virtues,” he observed with the benefit of history I hadn’t yet experienced. “The fracturing of the so-called international community did not happen with one momentous crack. Rather, it proceeded much like the calving of Arctic ice masses under the pressure of global warming, leaving behind only a herd of modest ice floes.”

That piece later became my dystopian novel, Splinterlandswhich spelled out in more detail how I imagined those fracture lines would widen over time until geopolitics became micro-politics and only the very smallest units of community were able to weather the global storm (including, of course, the literal storm of climate change). Dystopian novels are supposed to be warnings, but let me assure you of this: dystopian novelists rarely want their predictions to come true. I’ve watched, horrified, as the words of Splinterlands seemed to leap off my pages and into the real world in 2017.

I’m no Cassandra. I don’t believe that this fourth great shattering is inevitable. Empires, colonialism, and the Cold War are largely things of the past. But the fracturing of that hitherto indivisible unit of the world community — the nation-state — could still be arrested.

It’s not particularly popular to defend the state these days in the United States. Even before Trump came to power, the American state was radically expanding its surveillance capabilities, its war-making capacities, and — among other grim developments — its punitive policies toward the poor. No surprise then that Trump’s promise to deconstruct the federal government struck such a chord among voters, even some on the left.

But the alternative to the current state should not be the non-state. The real alternative is a different state, one that is more democratic, more economically just and sustainable, and less aggressive. For all of its institutional violence and bureaucratic flaws, the state is still the best bet we have for protecting the environment, stretching out a safety net for all, and providing equitable education opportunities to everyone. Not to mention its ability to band together with other states to tackle global problems like climate change and pandemics.

French king Louis XIV famously said, “L’État, c’est moi.” Today, thanks to the first three shatterings, across much of the globe the state is no longer Louis XIV or a colonial administration or a superpower overlord. The state is — or at least should be — us. If we lose the state in a fourth great shattering, we will lose an important part of ourselves as well: our very humanity.

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Who Will Stop Stephen Miller, the Man Behind America’s Anti-Refugee Policy?

(Image: Freedom House / Flickr)

President Trump isn’t one to let a little cognitive dissonance get in the way of a nice dinner. So he didn’t miss Thursday’s gala fundraiser at the Kuwaiti embassy for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), held at a time when his administration is barring a record number of refugees from entering the US.

Since 1980, presidents have set a ceiling on how many refugees the US may admit each year. That cap ranged from over 100,000 under Bush Sr and Clinton to around 80,000 for most of Bush Jr and Obama’s administrations. Trump recently lowered the ceiling to 45,000, the lowest it’s ever been, over the objections of the Pentagon, joint chiefs of staff, state department, and Vice-President Pence, all of whom wanted it higher. Trump is also seeking to enact new rules designed to block refugees from reuniting with family members and grind the resettlement process to a halt.

Why is the US turning its back on refugees who are fleeing humanitarian disaster and a group we consider a mortal enemy? As a recent New Yorker report details, this is largely the doing of Stephen Miller, Trump’s hardline anti-immigration immigration adviser.

In a White House characterized by organizational chaos, paranoia and general incompetence, a 32-year-old ex-Hill staffer with basic knowledge of the policy process can emerge as a one-eyed king in an administration of the blind.

Thus Miller has usurped the power of the National Security Council, state and defense departments to set refugee policy by himself, beyond the bounds of his formal authority, which is domestic, not foreign policy. Out of his depth as he is, his arguments are also unbounded by things like evidence and reason.

Miller’s, and thus Trump’s, fears are threefold: refugees are an economic, security, and cultural threat to the US.

Read the full article on the Guardian.

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If There’s a War on Coal, Coal Already Lost



“The war on coal is over,” according to Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Pruitt spoke these words in a speech to coal miners in Hazard, Kentucky, where he announced the formal repeal of Obama’s Clean Power Plan. What he failed to mention is that if this is a war, coal has already lost.

The demand for coal has collapsed in recent years. More than half of all U.S. electricity was produced from coal just a decade ago. Today’s figure is just over 30 percent, and continues to fall. Twelve coal-fired power stations have already closed since Trump took office.

recent survey by the Union of Concern Scientists found that around a quarter of the remaining coal units will soon be retired or converted to gas, and a further 17 percent are “uneconomic” and could also be retired soon.

Even new coal subsidies proposed by Energy Secretary Rick Perry are unlikely to reverse the downward trend. Utilities think long-term when they make investments, and would be foolish to assume that the Trump administration’s willingness to ignore the pollution caused by coal will outlast its term of office.

The decline of coal power is excellent news for the planet. Burning coal is one of the main ways we put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, causing climate change. It also damages the health and environment of anyone who lives near mines and power stations, polluting the air we breathe while using vast amounts of fresh water.

The real challenge now is not how to save coal, but how to ensure that new, green energy jobs are created, and support is given to communities that have long relied on mining.

Energy companies and lawmakers should also ensure that coal is not simply replaced by shale gas — which pollutes drinking water and continues to damage the climate — but by renewable energy instead.

Luckily, the economics of renewable energy are getting better all the time. Residential solar power is expected to out-compete fossil fuels in over 40 states by 2020, while huge advances are also being made in energy storage and the development of electric vehicles.

The cost of wind power is also falling rapidly. A recent Energy Department report found that electricity produced by wind turbines is already considerably cheaper over the long-term than running gas turbines. Improvements in technology means that will continue to be the case even after current wind subsidies are cut.

Expanding renewable energy is good for jobs, too.

People with “green jobs” in energy efficiency, renewables, and public transportation already outnumber those employed by oil, gas, and coal companies, according to Energy Department figures. The benefits are spread widely, too: Renewable jobs already outnumber fossil fuel jobs in 41 states.

The contrast between coal and solar power is even stronger. Coal now employs just 160,000 Americans, a third of whom are miners. Solar energy, by contrast, now employs over 370,000 people and is one of the fastest growing parts of our economy.

Instead of pretending that coal jobs could return, politicians should be promoting renewable energy and the jobs that come with it. There’s little chance that Pruitt, who has close ties to coal lobbyists, would endorse such an approach.

That’s all the more reason for states to step up, putting in place transition plans that encourage a shift to renewable energy that helps workers while protecting our air and climate.

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10 Trumped Up Halloween Terrors

The scariest thing this Halloween isn’t any horror movie. It’s real-life policies that are affecting our most vulnerable communities. Here are ten to watch and hints about how we might combat them.

The U.S. is bombing at least six countries and supporting wars in others. The U.S. war in Afghanistan is now 16 years old, civilian deaths are on the rise in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, and the Senate passed a $ 700 billion military spending bill — tens of billions more than even Trump asked for. If there was ever a time for the anti-war movement to step up, it’s now. But in order to be successful, it needs to focus on linking the issues of militarism to our domestic crises: military spending that strips funds from the social safety net, excess Pentagon equipment used to militarize local law enforcement, and our military’s outsized carbon footprint, to name a few.

Our immigrant communities are under attack. They face the fear of deportation now more than ever. Trump is using DACA as a bargaining chip for a border wall that would create far more problems than it solves. ICE is targeting sanctuary cities and calling it “Operation Safe City,” even though local law enforcement has said these raids put communities in more danger. Trump pardoned former Sheriff Joe Arpaio who racially targeted Latinos, tortured inmates, and denied them their constitutional rights. The Justice Department has proposed quotas for immigration judges. All the while, this administration has tried to stoke fears that immigrants are dangerous criminals, even though the numbers just don’t add up — in fact, immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans. Despite these attacks, immigrant communities — a powerful contingent of them youth — are leading the fights to stand up for their human rights.

From Franklin to Ophelia, hurricane season rages on. Despite these more obvious consequences of climate change, the Trump administration is rolling back the Obama administration’s clean power plan, appointing former coal industry lobbyists to help dismantle the EPA, pulling out of the Paris agreement, and moving forward with the Dakota Access Pipeline. The destruction of our environmental protections hurts all of us, but as we saw in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, it hits poor people of color first and worst. The good news is that states are fighting back, with some implementing policies that could help the U.S. meet its Paris emissions reduction targets even with Trump pulling the U.S. out of the deal.

Trump’s tax plan is an even more regressive form of Reagan’s trickle-down-economics. He’s straight up lying on his nationwide tour when he won’t admit that his plan cuts taxes for the wealthiest Americans and leaves the rest of us out to dry. And you can forget the falsehood that corporate tax cuts create jobs. In reality, they only boost CEO pay. If we really want to reverse inequality and bolster our middle class, we need to bust these myths and address the root causes of inequality in the U.S., like our legacy of racism and discrimination in wages and wealth-building.

We’re moving closer to war with Iran and North Korea. This month Trump decertified the Iran deal, even as every expert says the Iranians are in compliance. That kind of rogue-state behavior only serves to torch U.S. credibility on the international stage, even as Trump continues to provoke North Korea with “fire and fury.” It’s diplomacy-centered policies like the Iran deal that keep us out of reckless, never-ending wars.

The FBI and Department of Justice are going after the Black Lives Matter movement. The FBI is calling them violent “Black Identity Extremists.” Republican lawmakers are introducing bills to curb protesting in 18 states. Trump has advocated for the firing of NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality. And the Jeff Sessions-run DOJ has tried to cancel consent decrees with law enforcement that were meant to institute policing reforms. As we continue to support BLM, we must continue to push for system changes like restorative justice and closing the racial wealth gap in addition to curbing police brutality and mass incarceration.

Trump single-handedly put the health care of millions at risk by destabilizing insurance markets and undermining the ACA with an executive order this month. Again it’s our most vulnerable populations at risk here — low-income folks, older people, and people with disabilities. While we get sick, a “free market” health care system helps make CEOs rich. But a bill like Medicare for All could help guarantee health care as a basic right to all its citizens.

We’re deregulating industries from transportation to coal in order to reward corporations at the expense of job growth and protecting the environment. At the same time, the fossil fuel industry and its backers in the Trump administration are waging a quiet war on the renewable energy industry. But as people learn the truth about fossil fuel-funded misinformation, states from Florida to Nevada to Hawaii are fighting back.

There’s been a systematic rollback of LGBTQ rights. A recent push for religious exemptions is threatening to permit churches and even some corporations to discriminate against people based on their gender or sexual orientation (think: marriage, adoption, birth control). And Betsy DeVos at the Department of Education has been working to remove protections for our transgender kids in schools. But it’s the very kids this administration is targeting who are leading the fight for their own rights.

This administration has now attempted three renditions of a Muslim ban. The third was the most sophisticated from a legal standpoint, and if we’re not vigilant, future bans could be enforced. But the immediate danger is the Islamophobic sentiment fueling these bans. Public opposition to this attempted discrimination has helped strengthen the backbone of judges and lawyers standing up to the executive branch. We should be expanding the number of refugees and immigrants we take in, especially as the U.S. helps create the conditions that leave them seeking asylum in the first place.

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The Fall of the House of ISIS


Flickr / Karl-Ludwig Poggemann

The Middle East today is enduring a replay of World War II — with the Islamic State in the role of Nazi Germany.

Having seized much of Europe and parts of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany reached the peak of its expansion by the fall of 1942. Then, stopped at Stalingrad and unable to overwhelm Britain, the Nazis began to fall back, and the war turned into a race between the Soviet troops marching from the east and the Allied soldiers surging from the west. After the war, as a result of the competition between these two sets of armed forces, Europe would remain divided for the next half century.

The Islamic State likewise reached its peak expansion in mid-2014 when it controlled large chunks of Iraq and Syria. It has experienced a rise and fall even more precipitous than the Nazis’. By mid-2016, a mere two years later, it had already lost 45 percent of its territory in Syria and 20 percent of its territory in Iraq.

Today, with the fall of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, the Islamic State has dwindled to a swath of land around the border of the two countries. Once a “state” of 11 million people with an economy worth about $ 1 billion a year — the size of Great Britain, the population of Greece, the economic output of Gambia — ISIS is now little more than the several thousand fighters desperately fending off attacks from all sides. From the west, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad is attempting to retake as much of Syria as it can. From the east, Iraqi forces and Kurdish peshmerga operating under the cover of U.S. air support have been steadily ejecting the would-be caliphate from Iraqi territory.

In both Iraq and Syria, significant divisions exist among the anti-ISIS fighters. Indeed, the lands encompassing Iraq and Syria would be lucky to experience the frozen hatreds of a Cold War in the wake of the fall of the house of ISIS. The shrinking of the caliphate will more likely lead to a new level of fighting — over the future structure of both Iraq and Syria and, more ominously, the dispensation of the region as a whole.

In Syria

It not only feels like 1945 in Syria, it looks that way as well. After months of saturation bombing, the cities that ISIS once controlled look like Germany after it had been reduced to rubble in the final months of World War II, as the Allies and the Soviets tightened their vise grip on the Nazis.

Thanks to the help of both Russia and Iran and to its ruthless aerial campaign, the Syrian government has managed to regain 60 percent of the country. Syrian forces have continuously bombed civilian targets, such as hospitals. Of the 1,373 attacks on civilian infrastructure in 2016, for instance, Syrian and Russian forces were responsible for 1,198. Last month, September, registered the largest number of casualties for 2017, with nearly 1,000 civilians killed, including over 200 children, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Assad regime has specialized in the comparatively low-tech barrel bombs, which maximize civilian casualties, dropping nearly 13,000 of them in 2016.

The U.S.-led coalition, meanwhile, has been equally brutal in its effort to dislodge the Islamic State from its capital of Raqqa. The city now looks like Dresden after the firebombing of World War II, as the Russian government has rightly pointed out. According to Syrian activists, over 1,000 civilians died in the bombing.

The third leg of brutality in Syria is Sunni extremism. True, ISIS is on the decline. But other militant forces aspire to kick Assad aside, keep the Kurds down, and beat back the Americans, Russians, and Iranians. After several name changes, the latest collection of al-Qaeda-like factions in Syria — which may or may not maintain a link to al-Qaeda itself — is the Levant Liberation Committee (Tahrir al-Sham or HTS). With its ISIS rival shrinking daily, HTS could emerge as the insurgency of choice for those who hate Assad as well as anything associated with the Americans.

Large tracts of ISIS territory in Syria were thinly populated desert, but the caliphate possessed some jewels in their crown. This weekend, on the heels of the liberation of Raqqa, U.S.-backed militias took over the Islamic State’s largest oil field. Syrian government forces were reportedly within a few miles of the strategic asset, but were pushed back by ISIS fighters. The Syrian Democratic Forces that took over the Omar oil field are led by Kurds, but some of the soldiers are also Arab. Although the SDF as a whole is putatively fighting for a secular democratic Syria, the Kurds are more pragmatically trying to gain leverage to safeguard their gains in the north where they have established the de facto autonomous region of Rojava.

Hatred of ISIS has been the lowest common denominator for a broad range of actors in Syria, from American neocons and Syrian generals to Kurdish militias and al-Qaeda sympathizers to Kremlin geopoliticians and Hezbollah. ISIS has been a knife stuck deep into Syria. There’s no argument that the knife is life threatening. But remove it, and Syria risks bleeding out.

In Iraq

On his recent swing through the Persian Gulf, where he failed to get Qatar and Saudi Arabia to kiss and make up, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also made some especially ill-conceived comments about Iraq.

“Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home,” he said.

There aren’t any Iranian militias in Iraq. The Popular Mobilization Forces that have played a major role in pushing the Islamic State out of Iraq are largely Shiite, but they also containSunnis and Christians. Many of the brigades in this coalition force have links to Iran, but at least one major unit so far has been incorporated into the Iraqi army. In other words, the so-called “Iranian militias” are already home. They’re Iraqis, after all.

Tillerson also said, “Any foreign fighters in Iraq need to go home, and allow the Iraqi people to rebuild their lives with the help of their neighbors.” Was Tillerson announcing that all U.S. soldiers currently in Iraq — 5,262 according to the Pentagon, but possibly as high as 7,000 — are about to go home? If so, everyone in the media and the U.S. government seems to have missed this second “mission accomplished” announcement.

Thanks largely to the United States and its earlier decision to invade and occupy the country, Iraq faces the same kind of fragmentation problem as Syria. Iraqis have divided loyalties. Now that the acute threat of ISIS has passed, the fissures in Iraqi society are once again widening.

Consider the ongoing conflict between Kurdistan and the central government in Baghdad. The residents of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq went to the polls last month and overwhelmingly endorsed independence. The central government immediately went on the offensive, putting economic pressure on the wayward province and sending army units to seize the disputed oil-rich region around the city of Kirkuk. With ISIS on the decline, anti-Kurdish sentiment can unite the rest of Iraq. As Juan Cole points out, the Kurdish move brought out Iraqi nationalism even in the Shiite militias that helped the Iraqi army retake Kirkuk.

In retrospect, Kurdistan President Mahmoud Barzani’s bid to use the independence referendum to boost his own political fortunes was, according to veteran Kurdish politician Mahmoud Osman, a “miscalculation.” It may revive Iraqi nationalism and thwart Kurdish aspirations. Or it could trigger more centrifugal forces. With ISIS on its way out and the U.S. military presence relatively modest, Iraqis may well turn back to their post-invasion preoccupation of fighting each other to the point of the country’s dissolution.

After ISIS

The war against ISIS is like a matryoshka “nesting doll” from hell. The campaign against the caliphate is inset in the larger Syrian civil war and the Iraqi federal conflict. These are in turn nested within a larger confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And this regional tug-of-war is itself part of an even larger competition for influence between the United States and Russia.

Now, imagine giving this matryoshka doll to a six-year-old child prone to tantrums. Enter Donald Trump. He has done just about everything he can to make a bad situation worse short of destroying the doll with nuclear weapons. He has antagonized the Iranians at every turn, encouraged the worst tendencies of the Saudis, done little to keep Iraq together, made no effort to push the warring sides in Syria back to the negotiating table, and pursued a woefully inconsistent policy toward Russia.

Yes, the looming defeat of ISIS is to be cheered, but the costs have been huge. There’s the enormous loss of civilian life and the destruction of ancient cities. There’s the uptick in ISIS attacks abroad. Iraq remains fragile, though the Kurds have offered to freeze their independence vote. Syria is no closer to an end to its civil war, though more rounds of peace talks are set to begin shortly. Human rights violations by the Assad government continue, though the first trials have taken place in Europe to hold those responsible for those violations.

Most importantly, no one is tackling the nested conflicts in the region. The first step is to take the matryoshka doll out of Donald Trump’s hands. Give him something else to play with, perhaps another tour of his favorite campaign stops in the United States. Then let some real adults — the UN, the EU, Jimmy Carter? — grapple with the post-ISIS realities of the Middle East.

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‘De-certifying’ the Iran Deal May Be Trump’s Most Reckless Decision Yet


(Image: SS&SS / Flickr)

Despite heavy competition, Trump’s latest Iran move ranks near the top of the list of the most reckless actions of this ever-so-reckless presidency. The president announced recently that he was refusing to certify Iran’s compliance with the landmark nuclear agreement it reached with the U.S. and several other world powers during the Obama administration.

This dangerous move won’t scuttle the deal entirely — at least not yet — but it undermines the strength of the international agreement and ultimately increases the threat of war. While Trump has said he’s not pulling out of the deal just yet, he’s threatening to do so if Congress doesn’t pass new sanctions .

With virtually every Iran expert on the planet in agreement that Tehran is keeping its end of the nuclear deal, it’s clear that Trump’s motives are purely political. That makes his decision only more dangerous.

Outright Lies

The Iran nuclear deal — officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — is widely recognized as one of President Obama’s most important diplomatic successes, and it’s working exactly as it was designed to do.

The UN nuclear inspection agency, the U.S. intelligence community, and every serious expert on Iran’s nuclear program from across the globe, all agree that Iran is complying with the requirements of the deal. That means, among other things, that Iran’s supply of low enriched uranium is now about 1 percent of what it used to be, it has no highly enriched uranium, and its nuclear program is under tight international inspection.

Trump scorned pleas from key U.S. allies, members of Congress from both parties, and his own top security advisers, all of whom urged him to maintain the deal.

In withdrawing from a deal that Iran was keeping in good faith, Trump abandoned any pretense of maintaining U.S. credibility as a reliable negotiating partner. Instead, he justified decertifying Iranian compliance with a combination of exaggerations, complaints about actions that have nothing to do with the actual terms of the deal, and outright lies.

In remarks announcing his action, Trump claimed that “the Iranian regime has committed multiple violations of the agreement — for example, they exceeded the 130 metric ton limit of heavy water.” As the Guardian pointed out, that statement was “misleading at best. On two occasions, Iran’s stockpile of heavy water flowed over the ceiling imposed by the deal, but the situation was quickly rectified and Iran’s reserve is now below the limit. Nor is heavy water a direct proliferation threat.”

He also tossed out the line, without a shred of evidence, that “many people believe Iran is dealing with North Korea.”

He lied about Iran getting “paid up front” when the deal was signed, “rather than at the end of the deal when they have shown they’ve played by the rules.” Trump implied this was a payout from the West to Iran, but didn’t mention this was Iran’s own money, long frozen by the United States and its allies. And in point of fact, those funds weren’t released until the UN nuclear inspectors had determined that Tehran was indeed complying with the rules.

Finally, Trump lied about conditions inside Iran, claiming that the deal resulted in sanctions being lifted “just before what would have been the total collapse of the Iranian regime.” Despite U.S. threats and crippling sanctions (which had far more impact on Iran’s civilian population than on the government), the Iranian regime was and remains very far from “total collapse.”

Trump also refused to acknowledge that Iran and the United States are actually fighting on the same side across the region. Washington and Tehran support the same governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both have deployed troops and planes to fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. (Of course, this isn’t particularly good news — both the Afghan and Iraqi governments are deeply corrupt, and the U.S. and Iran have each been responsible for war crimes in Syria — but it shows the hypocrisy in Trump’s deeply oppositional view of Iran.)

Furthermore, while they support different sides in the Syrian civil war, U.S. and Iranian military forces are often close together, and remain in constant communication to prevent any friendly fire attacks on each other. Indeed, while Trump announced new sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps for their alleged support for terrorism, he was careful not to add the IRGC to Washington’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, because that would threaten U.S. soldiers fighting near IRGC troops in Syria.

Because Trump couldn’t point to any actual violations of the terms of JCPOA by Iran, he claimed instead that Tehran “is not living up to the spirit of the deal.” He condemned Iran’s missile developments, bemoaning the deal’s “failure” to deal with them. But of course, it wasn’t a deal about missile technology — it was a deal about nuclear enrichment. That was the only way to get all sides on board, and scuttling it when Iran’s in compliance will inevitably make it more difficult to strike a deal on missiles or anything else in the future.

Rogue State Behavior

Trump’s new Iran position doesn’t end the multi-party Iran deal; it doesn’t even pull the United States out of the deal or end U.S. obligations under the deal — yet.

Instead, it tosses the decision back to Congress. The JCPOA is a multi-lateral agreement, not a treaty, and didn’t have to be ratified by the Senate. In order to prevent political problems, Obama negotiated a separate deal with Congress, which requires the president to certify every 90 days that Iran is still in compliance with the deal.

If the president refuses to do so, as Trump just did, Congress then has 60 days to decide whether or not to re-impose nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. That decision would indeed violate Washington’s obligations (which included ending nuclear sanctions), and Iran and the other signatories would rightly blame the U.S. for wrecking the deal.

Trump’s “America First” actions have seriously damaged Washington’s already-dubious standing in the world. This latest move goes further, gravely weakening international cooperation, concern for civilian populations, efforts towards non-proliferation and disarmament, respect for international law, and the credibility of the United Nations, which endorsed the deal.

It’s dangerous because it tells Iran, Washington’s negotiating partners, and the world that the United States isn’t committed to the deal it signed, and is looking for a way out. It’s dangerous because it tells North Korea that they might as well not bother negotiating with Washington, because the United States can’t be counted on to abide by its agreements.

It’s dangerous because there’s already strong anti-Iran and anti-JCPOA sentiment in Congress, as well as strong outside pressure (from Israel’s supporters, among others) on legislators to follow Trump’s reckless decision with an equally reckless move of their own. If Congress imposes new nuclear sanctions on Iran, that would threaten the real collapse of the deal — unless, as has happened before, the Iranian government shows more restraint and more political maturity than its U.S. counterpart.

Abandoning the nuclear deal shows utter disdain for our negotiating partners in China, France, Germany, Russia, and the UK, which together helped craft the deal, as well as for Iran itself. It also slaps the unanimous UN Security Council Resolution 2231 endorsing the deal, which reminded signatories that they were obligated under international law “to accept and carry out the Security Council’s decisions,” including by carrying out the “full implementation” of the JCPOA.

As Iran’s UN Ambassador Javad Zarif told CBS:

“You know, the United States is a permanent member of the Security Council. And if it’s not going to uphold a resolution, that not only it voted for but it sponsored, then the credibility of the institution that the United States considers to be very important would be at stake. Nobody else will trust any U.S. administration to engage in any long-term negotiation because the length of any commitment, the duration of any commitment from now on with any U.S. administration would be the remainder of the term of that president.”

Trump’s cascading recklessness in his Iran policy continues to put the United States, Iran, the Middle East, and indeed the world at great peril. His actions make the threat of war far more likely. And if Congress doesn’t fall into Trump’s trap, and instead rejects his demand to impose new nuclear sanctions, Trump will come face-to-face with his promise to cancel the agreement himself.

Such an act would indeed prove, to anyone not yet convinced, that the United States is a rogue state.

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An Independent Thinker’s Guide to the Tax Debate


(Photo: 401(k) 2012/Flickr)

For 40 years, tax cutters in Congress have told us, “we have a tax cut for you.” And each time, they count on us to suspend all judgment.

In exchange, we’ve gotten staggering inequality, collapsing public infrastructure, a fraying safety net, and exploding deficits. Meanwhile, a small segment of the richest one tenth of 1 percent have become fabulously wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

Ready for more?

Now, Trump and congressional Republicans have rolled out a tax plan that the independent Tax Policy Center estimates will give 80 percent of the benefits to the richest 1 percent of taxpayers.

The good news is the majority aren’t falling for it this time around. Recent polls indicate that over 62 percent of the public oppose additional tax cuts for the wealthy and 65 percent are against additional tax cuts to large corporations.

Here’s the independent thinker’s guide to the tax debate for people who aspire to be guided by facts, not magical thinking. When you hear congressional leaders utter these claims, take a closer look.

“Corporate tax cuts create jobs.”

You’ll hear that the U.S. has the “highest corporate taxes in the world.” While the legal rate is 35 percent, the effective rate — the percentage of income actually paid — is closer to 15 percent, thanks to loopholes and other deductions.

The Wall Street corporations pulling out their big lobbying guns have a lot of experience with lowering their tax bills this way, but they don’t use the extra cash to create jobs.

The evidence, as my Institute for Policy Studies colleague Sarah Anderson found, is that they more often buy back their stock, give their CEOs a massive bonus, pay their shareholders a dividend, and lay off workers.

“Bringing back offshore profits will create jobs.”

Enormously profitable corporations like Apple, Pfizer, and General Electric have an estimated $ 2.64 trillion in taxable income stashed offshore. Republicans like to say that if we give them a tax amnesty, they’ll bring this money home and create jobs.

Any parent understands the folly of rewarding bad behavior. Yet that’s what we’re being asked to do.

When Congress passed a “repatriation tax holiday” in 2004, these same companies gave raises to their CEOs, raised dividends, bought back their stock, and — you guessed it — laid off workers. The biggest 15 corporations that got the amnesty brought back $ 150 billion while cutting their U.S. workforces by 21,000 between 2004 and 2007.

For decades now, those big corporations have made middle class taxpayers and small businesses pick up the slack for funding care for veterans, public infrastructure, cyber security, and hurricane mop-ups. Let’s not give them another tax break for their trouble.

“Tax cuts pay for themselves.”

Members of Congress who consider themselves hard-nosed deficit hawks when it comes to helping hurricane victims or increasing college aid for middle class families are quick to suspend basic principles of math when it comes to tax cuts for the rich.

The long discredited theory of “trickledown economics” — the idea that tax cuts for the 1 percent will create sufficient economic growth to pay for themselves — is rising up like zombies at Halloween. As the economist Ha Joon Chang observed, “Once you realize that trickle-down economics does not work, you will see the excessive tax cuts for the rich as what they are — a simple upward redistribution of income.”

“Abolishing the estate tax will help ordinary people.”

This is the biggest whopper of them all. The estate tax is only paid by families with wealth starting at $ 11 million and individuals with $ 5.5 million and up. There is no credible economic argument that this will have any positive impact on the economy, but it would be a huge boon for billionaire families like the Trumps.

This tax cut plan is an unprecedented money grab. Whether the heist happens, is entirely up to the rest of us.

The post An Independent Thinker’s Guide to the Tax Debate appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.


There’s No Defending Founding Fathers Who Practiced Slavery


(Photo: Shutterstock)

This summer, on the very day that white supremacists rioted in Charlottesville, Virginia, I was down the road visiting Montpelier — the home of James Madison, our fourth president.

On the house tour, we stopped in Madison’s upstairs library, where he spent hundreds of hours reading about earlier attempts at self-governance.

There, he imagined the previously unimaginable: freedom of religion, freedom of expression, the right to a jury of one’s peers. Madison would go on to write those amendments into the Constitution, earning him the name “Father of the Bill of Rights.”

As we stepped outside to Montpelier’s beautiful grounds, we learned something else: To keep his small family of four white people in the height of 18th century luxury, James Madison enslaved 100 black people.

Indeed, Montpelier now has an Enslaved Community Exhibit and tour. I was eager to see how these two Madisons were being interpreted: the man who conceived  unimaginable freedoms for himself and his kind, while simultaneously denying freedom to countless others.

The Enslaved Community Exhibit is powerful: historians, archeologists, and descendants have worked hard to document the lives of the hundreds of African Americans enslaved at Montpelier over the years.

Artifacts of their lives are on display, and hundreds of their names are painted on the exhibit walls. Videos recreate the story of enslaved people who tried to escape and were recaptured and imprisoned.

Then I took the tour.

The white guide began to explain why James Madison didn’t free any of the people he enslaved when he died. “James Madison was a practical man,” the guide said. “He knew that they would not be welcomed into the deeply prejudiced society of the time.”

I tried to give the man a way out. “Perhaps this is what Madison told himself so he could sleep at night. But if he’d asked any of the people he enslaved, I’m sure they would’ve preferred freedom.”

“No, no,” the guide continued, “slave states required that freed men and women leave the state within a year. Even the North wasn’t welcoming. … They would’ve had to go all the way to Canada.”

Canada? Would that really have been worse than slavery?

When I wrote to the Montpelier administration afterward expressing my outrage that their staff would justify slavery on any grounds, the reply included this information: “A visitor to Montpelier in 1835 noted that [Madison] ‘talked more on the subject of slavery than on any other, acknowledging, without limitation or hesitation, all the evils with which it has ever been charged.’”

My correspondent then explained that Madison’s solution was support for the American Colonization Society, which proposed — and implemented — the outrageous scheme of sending African Americans to West Africa, to what’s now Liberia.

In other words, though Madison could imagine a brand new form of government, he couldn’t imagine living a more modest lifestyle, side by side with people whose skin was a different color from his own.

Let’s pause a moment and consider the possibility: What if James Madison — and the other most powerful men of his time — had declared publicly, as apparently they did at home, the evils of slavery? What if the original Bill of Rights had ended slavery outright?

It seems shocking, I know. But in 1789, so did freedom of religion.

What if we were the new revolutionaries, and dedicated ourselves to building a society that truly enacted the promise James Madison imagined — for all our people?

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Luxury Jets Are Getting Cheaper. That Means More Air Pollution and Traffic Jams For the Rest of Us.

(Flickr/ Richard Moss)

What a great time to be alive — if you’re sitting on a couple hundred million and have a hankering for your own private jet. Buying a pair of luxury wings has never been more of a bargain. Prices for new and “pre-owned” jets have simply gone “insane,” as aviation analyst Barry Justice puts it.

Gulfstream, for instance, has slashed the $ 43-million sticker price on the company’s G450 model by 35 percent. Bombardier has discounted the $ 26-million Challenger 350 by $ 7 million.

Prices for used jets, meanwhile, have plummeted 16 percent over the past year.

For deep pockets worldwide, says analyst Justice, the bargains have become too good to pass up.

So what should the rest of us think about all this? Should we be paying attention? Should we be at all concerned about how accessible — for the super rich — luxury private jets are becoming?

Actually, we probably ought to be much more than concerned. We ought to be horrified — on two levels.

The first: Luxury private jets may well be the most environmentally destructive means of transportation in the world today.

Aviation overall is degrading the atmosphere at a fearsome rate. If we counted the aviation industry as a nation, the industry would rate as one of our globe’s 10 biggest polluters. Within this polluting industry, private jets — pound for pound — do by far the most polluting. A mere hour’s flight on a private jet, notes science writer Fred Pearce, can “emit more carbon dioxide than most Africans do in a whole year.”

All this has been clear for some time now. Nearly a decade ago, one look at the private jet phenomenon — a report from the Institute for Policy Studies and Essential Action — concluded that private jets rank as one of the world’s “most powerful symbols of extreme inequality.”

For the general public, the report pointed out, flying has become “costly, uncomfortable, and degrading.” For the rich, private jets provide an oasis of luxury — at the expense of the environment and the rest of the flying public.

That oasis keeps expanding. The United States had about 1,000 private jets in service in 1970. That number passed 10,000 in 2006, right before the Great Recession, and is now hovering near 13,000. How ingrained into the daily life of America’s rich — and those who do their bidding — have private jets become? Deep pockets today simply can’t imagine getting in anything but a private aircraft, as we’ve seen in the growing private-jet travel scandal that’s already ensnared three top officials in the Donald Trump administration.

But we have another, perhaps deeper reason to feel horrified by private jets. These luxury aircraft remind us how high a price we pay, as a society, for tolerating grand concentrations of private wealth.

Consider, for instance, the reality of transportation in the contemporary United States. We have a terrible mess on our hands. Overcrowded roads and long commutes. Crumbling bridges. Unsafe subway systems.

Rich people don’t have to grapple with these problems. They can fly over them — in plush Gulfstreams. Soaring in the skies, these affluents feel no particular pressure to contribute to systemic solutions. Indeed, the private jets they’ve chosen as their personal “solutions” make our overall transportation problems worse.

These private jets divert resources and talent that could be delivering more sustainable approaches to moving the general public to the production and marketing of ever more luxurious transports designed exclusively for deep pockets.

Can we ground these jets? Sure. We just have to beat inequality first.

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Trump Plans to Make It Easier to Kill Civilians with Drones. Sadly, We Can Thank Obama for That.


(Photo: Debra Sweet / Flickr)

Barely a month after President Donald Trump announced plans to deepen and extend the now 16-year-old U.S. war in Afghanistan, reports surfaced of plans to expand another signature Obama-era policy: the drone war.

Specifically, The New York Times reported in late September that the administration is relaxing Obama-era restrictions on who can be targeted and removing a requirement that strikes receive high-level vetting before they’re carried out. According to the paper, the new rules would also “ease the way to expanding such gray-zone acts of sporadic warfare” into new countries, expanding the program’s already global footprint.

Across administrations, the use of drones has increased exponentially throughout the course of the war on terror. Even before the rule change, Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations estimated that the pace of drone strikes and special forces raids had increased from one every 5.4 days under President Obama to one every 1.25 days under President Trump.

In addition to increasing the pace of these operations, the Trump administration has also loosened guidelines designed to protect civilians in areas like Yemen and Somalia, and overseen a notable increase in civilian casualties in war zones like Iraq and Syria.

In this environment, rescinding the Obama administration’s already lax restrictions on drone attacks — coupled with Trump’s overt and express disregard for human rights and the rule of law — is clearly cause for concern. But that also shouldn’t be a pathway toward normalizing the Obama administration’s own use of drones.

Instead, we need to understand the excesses of the war on terror as a trajectory: The abuse of power under one administration leads to the abuse of power under another. Trump may be driving it more recklessly, but he’s still operating a machine the Obama administration built.

Licensed to Kill

The controversy over drones during the Obama administration reached an early flashpoint in 2011, when a drone pilot assassinated a U.S. citizen in Yemen by the name of Anwar Al-Awlaki — followed, two weeks later, by the U.S. killing of his 16-year-old son.

It was another two years before Obama’s Department of Justice released a white paper that detailed its legal argument sanctioning Al-Awlaki’s murder. As the ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer explained, the paper said the government would only target “imminent” threats, and only when “capture was infeasible.” But in practice, Jaffer noted, the administration used an extremely expansive definition of “imminent” that “deprives the word of its ordinary meaning.”

“Without saying so explicitly,” Jaffer worried, the government was effectively claiming “the authority to kill American terrorism suspects in secret,” virtually anywhere in the world.

That same year, responding to increasing criticism, Obama himself gave a speech attempting to clarify the boundaries of this particular tactic. “America’s actions are legal,” the president asserted of the drone war, which he claimed was being “waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.”

So it was perfectly legal, in the Obama administration’s view, to launch 10 times more strikes than the Bush administration, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in a vast arc extending from Libya to the Philippines.

Meaningless Standards

But if the war on terror has taught us anything, it’s that legality is malleable — and never transparent. It’s taught us that accountability is impossible when the laws obscure the crime.

In his 2013 speech, for instance, Obama referenced a set of presidential policy guidelines on drone strikes. Yet these weren’t released until August 2016, more than three years after Obama’s attempt at “transparency.” Two of those guidelines stated that there must be “near certainty” that a lawful target is present before a strike is approved, as well as a “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.”

Yet it was never clear what this meant. “The [United States] has never described what post-strike standards, protocols, and mechanisms exist to systematically verify compliance with this policy standard,” Amnesty International noted in a critical 2013 report.

Indeed, the Obama administration seemed to take an expansive view of who counts as a “lawful target.” It embraced a practice of launching “signature strikes” where the targets were unknown altogether to the people who approved them. Such targeting was based on behaviors deemed to be indicative of terrorist activity, though what exactly that means was never clear either.

In fact, the White House apparently didn’t designate many victims as “lawful targets” until after they’d been killed. “It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants,” the Times reported in 2012, “unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

That’s why government estimates of civilian causalities have been routinely lower than counts by NGOs. For example, the U.S. government estimated civilian deaths at between 64 and 116 in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya combined between January 2009 and December 2015. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s estimate was substantially higher — between 380 and 801, using relatively conservative criteria.

Worse still, there’s been no accountability for the government officials responsible for civilian deaths. “[N]o such amends exist for civilians harmed by US drones in Pakistan,” the Center for Civilians in Conflict reported in 2012. And no one in Pakistan or Yemen had received “apologies, explanations or monetary payments as amends from the U.S. government.”

In other words, not only was the White House’s commitment to avoiding civilian deaths a largely symbolic gesture, there was in fact no apparatus for justice at all. If legality is an assertion, and if breaches of the law have no consequences, what could ever make the drone war illegal?

Underlying Violence

These are a mere handful of the serious moral, ethical, and legal problems surrounding Obama’s use of drones. They point to inconsistencies, performative justice, and a wholesale lack of accountability — all of which characterized the modest restrictions Trump is now rolling back on the global killing program.

Across all administrations, the logic that maintains a seemingly insignificant line between legal and illegal tactics in the war on terror has a great deal to do with Islamophobia. The victims are all Muslims, or those racialized as Muslims, and are mostly out of sight and out of mind.

Most Americans don’t see the violence and can’t comprehend it — a fact that’s abetted not only the escalation of drone warfare, but also the endless wars in the greater Middle East and the erosion of civil liberties at home under the war on terror more generally. And it’s why Muslim victims have few prospects for accountability.

It is this system of oppression that ultimately underlies drone warfare, whether under Bush, Obama, or Trump. It’s what allows the violence to escalate each year as the war on terror continues — and October 7 marked the start of its 17th year.

Human rights safeguards are meant to be absolute, not relative. Obama’s Democratic Party affiliation doesn’t make his drone warfare program any less illegal than Trump’s brutish brand of Republican politics. It was Obama’s skirting of these standards, in fact, that enables Trump to be all the more brutal.

We must demand standards for the war on terror that are based on international human rights and humanitarian law. As Trump’s abuses become increasingly clear, let’s re-imagine what the protection and preservation of human rights looks like and work to ensure that it’s our standard regardless of who’s in power.

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