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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Distractions

For many in the US and Europe, a cynical call for violence posturing as the wrath of the righteous will readily produce a distraction from the urgent issues of our time. Judging by the initial protests of last Friday’s Trump/May/Macron aggression against Syria, far too many have fallen for this hypocritical, dishonest maneuver.

For Theresa May, Conservative UK prime minister, an attack on Syria promises to add to her effort to claw back from the disastrous Brexit vote that wounded her party. Anti-Russia hysteria, unprincipled charges of anti-Semitism lodged against Labour opponent Jeremy Corbyn, and now a missile-administered scolding of Syria’s president, Assad, help her in the polls or, at least, that’s her calculation.

Early in March, Emmanuel Macron’s poll numbers sank to the lowest level since his election. His ongoing attack on French workers and his enthusiasm for bombing Syria are meant to bolster his “tough guy” image. Like May, Macron has little else but austerity to offer workers; hence, manufacturing threats promises to distract.

Trump’s approval rate has taken a nose dive in recent weeks as well. Battered from all sides, Trump needed some love from the war hawks populating both parties. A muscular move against Assad would also signal Trump’s defiance of Putin, the alleged “devil’s handmaiden.”

Of course that didn’t win over the MSNBC/NPR/CNN crowd, the Democrats’ ├╝ber alles. Schumer and Pelosi saw the trap: the choice between praising Trump for his attack on Syria or rejecting aggression. They, along with most other elected Democrats, performed an exercise of Clintonian triangulation: ‘we want to hit Assad more than anyone, but Trump should have allowed us to call for military action.’

For MSNBC’s Trump-reviling star, Rachel Maddow, Trump bombed Syria for the wrong reasons-- a case of “wagging the dog”-- hoping to distract critics from his domestic problems. She badgers her war-hawk guests to agree that Trump’s war on Assad was not authentic. Implicit is the notion that Trump could have established more credibility by raining greater death and destruction and further baiting the Russian bear.

Easy distraction has led apparently sober, morally-grounded people to overlook the telling coincidence of an alleged outrageous gas attack with the imminent defeat of the so-called rebels in Douma. They see no suspicious connection between Trump’s surprising announcement of US troop withdrawals and a provocation to revoke that decision. And they see no distraction from the contemporaneous cross-border slaughter of unarmed Palestinians by the Israeli military.

They see no calculation in scheduling the bombardment of Syria on Friday, the day before the arrival of the investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) who might bring some light to the charges of chemical weapons’ use. And they are too distracted to be puzzled by the US military plan to destroy the facilities alleged to contain deadly gases and consequently risk harming innocent Syrian civilians.

Never mind that the US and its allies could rely upon no more than cell phone pictures and telephone interviews (so called “public source” information) to evidence the claims of a gas attack. It’s an astonishing fact that even though the “rebels” are supposedly democratically-minded allies who welcome CIA aid, no Western news service dares to actively cover their side by employing reporters on the ground. This has been the case with the US’s Islamic fundamentalist allies since CBS’s Dan Rather faked a visit to Afghanistan decades ago. The commitment of “freedom fighters” to “freedom of the press” seems to be wanting.

Oddly enough, the “authoritarian” Assad government welcomes Western journalists, though they-- excepting a CBS news reporter-- prefer the friendly confines of hotels in Beirut, Ankara, and Amman where they have easy access to press releases from the US embassy.

An affinity for distraction leads very many major media corporations to place complete, unthinking trust in UK-based reportage from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It goes unnoted that the Observatory is a one-man show performed by an Assad-hating shopkeeper in Coventry who refuses to share his methodology, but admits to relying on his friends and acquaintances in Syria. Amnesty International, with its usual smug casuistry, judges the Observatory to be reliable, though it bases its evaluation on the same indirect, patchy evidence.

Anywhere but in Syria, these claims, based on second- and third-hand reports, anecdotes, and social media, would fail any and all journalistic smell tests. Imagine NBC News basing coverage of violence in Chicago on the network of contacts of an amateur sleuth in San Francisco.

Film critic Louis Proyect interjects, in an oddly timed article on Counterpunch, that a website dubbed Bellingcat “is perhaps the only place where you can find fact-based reporting on chemical attacks in Syria.” A quick look at the website will reveal some more UK-based amateur sleuths assembling second- and third-hand accounts and social media reports.

True to his film critic credentials, he likens the Syrian “rebels” to “the Arab version of John Steinbeck’s Joad family,” a bizarre innocuousness for the Douma-based, brutal Jaysh al-Islam that former Secretary of State John Kerry once characterized as a sub-group of ISIL. Promptly, the Obama administration was forced to “correct” Kerry, who was ignorant of the head-choppers’ rehabilitation.

Proyect chose the exact moment-- when the honest left was scrambling to mount some public opposition to war on Syria-- to attack the left for its skepticism of the official account, an historically justifiable skepticism given such devastatingly consequential deceptions as the Tonkin Gulf resolution and the 2003 weapons-of-mass-destruction fiasco. The military and the security services lie. Skepticism is the only antidote to gullibility.

The one NGO that actually claims direct reportage in Syria, the opposition-based Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC) has had its Douma office attacked numerous times by Jaysh al-Islam, forcing its active reporters out of the area.

Unmentioned by the tunnel-vision media, strong circumstantial evidence, Red Crescent confirmation, Kurdish accusations, and a near self-confession has pointed to Jaysh al-Islam employing chlorine gas in April of 2016.

In our era of Entertainment-Tonight-style distractions, of Trump’s sex life, of twitter-duels, of anonymous sources and calculated leaks, a principled, wise statement is a rare and welcome event. Tulsi Gabbard, the Representative from Hawaii addressed Trump with the following:
The people of Syria want peace more than anything else in the world. Attacking Syria will not bring their war-torn country any closer to peace. U.S. military action against Syria will simply escalate and prolong the war, resulting in more senseless death, destruction, and suffering...

If you are truly concerned about the suffering of the Syrian people, then you must do all you can to bring about peace. A US military attack against Syria will expand and escalate this war, increasing their suffering and causing more death, more refugees, and fewer resources to invest in rebuilding our own communities right here at home…

I call upon you to resist the loud calls of war and instead wield the power of the Presidency to help bring peace to the people of Syria, their devastated country, and the region.

Gabbard’s appeal is a stroke of sanity and maturity in a frightening rush to war lubricated by an unprecedented campaign of mass distraction, by the marketing of a Marvel-comic foreign policy.

Greg Godels 

zzsblogml@gmail.com



Friday, April 6, 2018

Stirring the Energy Pot

Since February of 2017, I have written frequently about changes in the global political economy of energy and the effects of those changes on imperialist rivalries and accompanying political trends: New Developments in Political Economy: The Politics of Oil (2-6-17), US Imperialism: Changing Direction (6-25-17), More on Energy Imperialism (7-26-17), Economic Nationalism: What It Means (12-28-17).

The broad gist of these articles was that (1) the era of global economic integration was severely challenged by the 2007-2008 shock; (2) a technological revolution in energy extraction moved the US-- the leading imperialist power-- towards energy independence; (3) the failure of OPEC and others to rein in US energy production and the continuing sluggishness of growth and trade prodded the US towards a further goal of energy dominance through competition in energy markets; (4) without the burden of dependence on stable, secure international energy sources, US imperialism stepped back from its role as the primary promoter and guarantor of global integration and stability; (5) intensifying competition in the context of stagnant growth fostered the politics of economic nationalism and the promotion of national self-interest in contrast to the politics of globalism.

Since the British navy and other navies converted from coal to oil-burning vessels in the early 1900s and with the burgeoning dependence of modern militaries on oil, securing energy sources has been a strategic centerpiece of imperialist strategy.

It is not too great of an exaggeration to see German expansion in World War II as accelerated by a thirst for reliable energy supplies (Romania, Soviet Union). And the denial of energy resources to the Japanese militarists similarly prodded aggression in Southeast Asia.

For the US, declining domestic production and increasing reliance on foreign oil, particularly from the Middle East, led to greater attention to security and stability in the Middle East. The US established a powerful gendarmerie to police the region: the Shah’s Iran, Israel, and the Arabian petrostates. Billions of dollars of military hardware bolstered these watchdogs at various times in an effort to guarantee stable supplies of oil. US security services worked overtime to install stable regimes in all of the petrostates and their neighbors. US dominance was sealed with the establishment of the dollar as the petroleum-trading currency. The dominance was so complete that the US was able to use low petroleum prices as a weapon against the Soviets during the Cold War.

But matters have changed radically with the technology-enabled explosion of oil and natural gas production in the US.

The New

Writing in The Washington Post (The US is about to be the world’s top crude oil producer. Guess who didn’t see it coming, 3-7-18), Charles Lane reminds us of how matters were before: “During his 2006 ‘addicted to oil’ State of the Union address, President George W. Bush bemoaned imports from unstable parts of the world and called for replacing 75% of Middle East oil imports by 2025.” Bush, like his father, spent great efforts-- lives and wealth-- policing and bullying those “unstable” oil producers.  

Energy writer James Blas explains in Bloomberg Businessweek (The New World Order of Energy Will Be American, 1-29-18) how matters are now, how the US no longer has to “tiptoe around oil supplying nations” whether they are “friends” (Saudi Arabia) or “adversaries” (Venezuela). Instead, “energy dominance” is on the agenda.

Blas notes that the US won the battle for dominance started by Saudi Arabia in 2014 when the Saudis drove the price of West Texas crude oil down to as low as $26 a barrel through massive overproduction, expecting to cripple US shale production. Thanks to huge investments, the shale oil companies survived the attack, cut costs, and roared back. Today growth is faster than pre-2014 when prices for oil were actually much higher. And imports are now below 2.5 million barrels a day, the lowest level since record-keeping began in 1973 (imports were 12 million barrels per day in 2008).

Thanks to geo-political “flare-ups” (generally US-instigated instability), US exports at one point in 2017 hit 2 million barrels a day, mainly to Canada and the People's Republic of China (PRC). Exports are fully expected to grow even more in the future.

Venezuela is Illustrative of the US’s growing interest in disrupting oil markets to its advantage. Through disinvestment and sanctions, Venezuelan oil production dropped nearly 30% last year. Similarly, the US-NATO destruction of Libya has succeeded in disabling its oil industry. The wreckage of the Libyan energy industry means that oil prices would have to reach $78.10 per barrel for the industry to break even. With prices trending well below that number, there clearly is little chance for the Libyan industry to recover, invest, or add to the country’s sovereign wealth.

With massive corruption and an expensive war to finance, Saudi Arabia now needs $70 a barrel to merely break even. Hoping to escape from dependency on an oil regimen, the Saudis had planned a public offering (a sell-off to private interests) of its national oil company, ARAMCO. In the current unfavorable competitive environment, that move has been postponed time and time again.

Formerly a price dove-- the world’s advocate for low oil prices-- the Saudis are now desperate to achieve higher prices. Their escape plan from their losing hand in oil competition-- Vision 2030-- is endangered by modest prices. To reduce supply and increase both demand and prices, the Saudis are a strong advocate for sanctions against Iran, as are powerful energy interests within the US ruling class.

The new, competitive environment has brought forth new, unexpected alliances. Russia-- a frequent foe of Saudi foreign policy-- has recently signed a comprehensive energy agreement with Saudi Arabia. For its part, Russia is offering to take a substantial position in any future IPO of ARAMCO, boosting its prospects (along with a similar offer from the PRC). Saudi Arabia, in return has agreed to invest in Russian LNG projects and Eurasian drilling. It appears that Russia and the PRC are looking to guarantee security, stability, and cooperation among the energy-producing states, a role that the US has now abandoned with its pursuit of energy dominance and a role that is a necessary condition for peace in the region.

Because emerging US oil dominance (and sanctions: war by other means) threatens to disrupt the reliability and stability of existing petro-suppliers, the PRC has begun to negotiate crude-oil futures contracts in renminbis rather than petro-dollars.

Natural Gas

Much of the growing US animosity that is so apparent in US-Russia-PRC relations revolves around competition in the natural gas market. Through political fantasies, sanctions, threats, saber-rattling, and contrived affronts, the US has made every effort to wean Europe away from Russian natural gas, especially the expansion of pipelines to Europe promising consistent supply and favorable prices.

Some Eastern European countries, mired in historic anti-Russia enmity, have welcomed US liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments, constructing new receiving facilities. They accept inconvenience, inefficiency, and higher prices as the cost of the politically motivated anti-Russia campaign. The US is trying to browbeat the rest of Europe into giving preference to US LNG.

But the big prize is the PRC, the fastest growing natural gas market in the world. Both Russia and the US are fighting to supply natural gas: Russia has a pipeline project (GAZPROM) sales agreement to supply 1.3 trillion cubic feet a year, while the US (Cheniere Energy) has contracts to supply 1.2 million tons of LNG per year.

The recently announced selective, very selective US tariffs-- apparently really only against PRC-- likely have a covert motive. US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross suggested that increased Chinese purchases of LNG might have a happy consequence for tariffs by reducing the US-PRC trade deficit-- another shot fired in the energy wars.

Trade Tariffs

The sharpest edge of US economic nationalism is the emerging establishment and threats of trade tariffs. Short of embargo or out-and-out war, establishing disruptive trade barriers is the most hostile posture towards other nations. In the case of a powerful country like the US, tariffs constitute unabashed arrogance. As perceptive left commentators have noted, the US has always pressed its problems unto its weaker “friends,” but not with this hubris.

Lest anyone think this is a ‘Trump’ problem and not shared by fellow Republicans and Democrats, attention should be paid to what others are saying. When Trump announced the first round of tariffs directed at the PRC, Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer was quoted in The Wall Street Journal: “I don’t agree with President Trump on a whole lot, but today I want to give him a big pat on the back.”

And Reuters reported on April 1 that Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, speaking in Beijing:

The Massachusetts Democrat and Trump foe, who has been touted as a potential 2020 presidential candidate despite rejecting such speculation, has said U.S. trade policy needs a rethink and that she is not afraid of tariffs.

After years of mistakenly assuming economic engagement would lead to a more open China, the U.S. government was waking up to Chinese demands for U.S. companies to give up their know-how in exchange for access to its market, Warren said.

“The whole policy was misdirected. We told ourselves a happy-face story that never fit with the facts,” Warren told reporters on Saturday, during a three-day visit to China that began on Friday.

Clearly, broad sections of the US ruling class have joined the trend towards economic nationalism.

The implications for peace or war are stark.

Greg Godels
zzsblogml@gmail.com