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writing for godot

Easter 2017: 2.5 Minutes to Midnight

Written by Anna Tolstoyevskaya   
Sunday, 21 May 2017 00:16

One feeling that I still vividly remember from my early days growing up in the USSR was this looming fear of an impending nuclear attack by the irrationally wicked Americans. The Doomsday Clock was at 3 minutes to midnight in 1984, when I was just 10 years old, as the US and Russia were cutting off all communication following the launch of Reagan’s Star Wars program, the shooting down of Korean Air Flight 007 over Sakhalin, and NATO’s Able Archer exercises in November ’83. Reading about all this years later still makes my hair stand on end. The world came literally within hours of an all-out nuclear war, when Andropov and the Soviet Politburo misread NATO’s simulation of a nuclear attack during the Able Archer DEFCON 1 exercises as a cover for an actual “first strike.” Believing their only chance of surviving a NATO attack was to pre-empt it, they readied their nuclear arsenal for a launch.


So much of our behavior is dictated by perceptions, often with so little rationality behind them. Reagan himself reminisced years later that “many of us in the administration took it for granted that the Russians, like ourselves, considered it unthinkable that the United States would launch a first strike against them. But the more experience I had with Soviet leaders and other heads of state who knew them, the more I began to realize that many Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear weapons at them in a first strike...” That fear of the wicked other side was something implanted quite deliberately into the minds of millions of people by state propaganda both east and west of the Iron Curtain.


33 years later, I wish I could say we have left all these fears behind us. The Doomsday Clock, as it stands right now, is at 2 and a half minutes to midnight. In its 70 years of existence, the Clock, maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and founded by the same people who created the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project, had nudged closer to apocalypse (midnight) only once. It was back in 1953, after the invention and test by the United States of the first hydrogen bomb, which took atomic weapons to a whole new level of destructiveness.


In case you haven’t noticed, Russia and the U.S. are cutting off all communications once again. The memorandum of understanding to prevent mid-air collisions of military aircraft over Syria and the phone hot line have been suspended, following the April 6 cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base ordered by President Trump. The two superpowers, accounting for 90% of the world’s nuclear arsenal, are once again readying for “hot” war, with Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev declaring the day after that attack that the relations were “ruined,” and the U.S. was “on the verge of a military clash with Russia.” And as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford has just named Russia as the number one existential threat among the four-plus-one challenges facing this country, one should pay close heed to the words of a long-time student of Russia, Professor Stephen Cohen, who has called it “the most dangerous moment in American-Russian relations since the Cuban Crisis.”


I don’t know about you, but I can feel my hair standing on end again, except this time not in the comfort of hindsight.


Given the role of perceptions in shaping our behavior and the profound implications for the future of our planet, a fair and thorough examination of both sides’ convictions is in order.


Russian perceptions are very much dictated by what the country experienced in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian society went through a period far worse than the Great Depression in the U.S. As Robert English writes in the Foreign Affairs magazine,


Russia’s misery during the 1990s is difficult for outsiders to comprehend. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s economy entered a sharp slide that would continue for over eight years. Although this decline is rarely referred to as a depression in Western media, in fact it was much worse than the Great Depression in the United States—between 1929 and 1932, U.S. GDP fell by some 25 percent, whereas Russia’s fell by over 40 percent between 1990 and 1998. Compared with the Great Depression, Russia’s collapse of the 1990s was nearly twice as sharp, lasted three times as long, and caused far more severe health and mortality crises. The public health disaster reflected Russia’s prolonged agony: stress-aggravated pathologies (suicide, disease caused by increased alcohol and tobacco use) and economically induced woes (poor nutrition, violent crime, a crumbling public health system) combined to cause at least three million “excess deaths” in the 1990s.


The erratic, hot-tempered drunkard Yeltsin is remembered by most Russians as the person who presided over this disaster, which transferred the ownership of most state assets into the hands of the few least scrupulous oligarchs and impoverished the vast masses. I remember first-hand the long lines for basic staples, like sugar, grains, and meat, and the general lawlessness of that period that still haunts the country with its long cast psychological shadows.


Yeltsin is also well known in Russia as someone who was propped up and supported by the U.S. Again, as English writes in his authoritative piece,


…most Russians see the United States as having abetted a decade of degradation under Yeltsin’s scandal-ridden bumbling. Washington, they believe, not only took advantage of Moscow’s weakness for geopolitical gain but also repeatedly interfered in Russia’s domestic politics to back the person—Yeltsin—who best suited U.S. interests. Americans’ ignorance of this perception creates a highly distorted picture of Russia’s first postcommunist decade.


By contrast, Putin, who replaced Yeltsin, is viewed by most Russians as someone who stopped that slide into the abyss, conducted some much-needed reforms, like land ownership, and wrestled the power away from the most obnoxious and criminal oligarchs. Admittedly, the corruption that inevitably stems from a state of lawlessness did not disappear and was replaced by other, sometimes more egregious forms of government officials’ venality, especially in the law enforcement sector.


But one thing remains without a doubt: as my father used to say in response to my arguments about Politkovskaya, Litvinenko, Shchekochikhin and others, his and my mom’s living standard and financial security, as a retired military officer and a dentist in a public clinic, respectively, were higher under Putin than during any other time in their hard-working lives. So, with Putin’s approval rating over 80%, the vast majority of the Russian public is not going to take the wide-spread mockery of their leader in the western media and public discourse lightly. Memories of the inflammatory “Empire of Evil” rhetoric of Reagan’s era are still too recent in the Russian psyche.


In addition, what the Russians saw in the international arena, was the United States breaking its promises made during the negotiations over German reunification in 1990. At the time, Reagan promised Gorbachev that NATO would not expand one step into Eastern Europe. A quarter of a century later, with NATO right on their border in the Baltics, Poland, and potentially even Georgia and Ukraine, Russians have learned not to trust what they are told by the West and generally view western leaders in the context of prior European aggression that nearly wiped out their country (first by Napoleon and later by Hitler).


They are also observing the installation of anti-ballistic missile sites in Romania and Poland, in violation of the ABM Treaty abrogated by George W. Bush and the INF Treaty, and realizing that NATO’s main goal, as Putin himself explained many times, is to undermine the strategic nuclear balance with Russia, giving the U.S. a “first strike” capability. Their objections can hardly be discounted.


This leads us directly to the American perceptions. The fundamental premise of the contemporary U.S. worldview is that, as an innocent victim of the horrendous 9/11 attacks, this chosen nation, a sole beacon of democracy, prosperity and freedom, has an obligation to root out the global evil, wherever it may be and by whatever means necessary. This strange hodgepodge of religion, nationalism and capitalism engenders an attitude of self-righteousness, exceptionalism and militarism, not dissimilar to the worst traits of its old Soviet enemy. It also comes with an aggressive posture towards the rest of the world, which has to be saved, even if sometimes from itself.


The long history of U.S. interference in other countries, which precipitated the 9/11 “blowback,” is largely ignored and generally hidden from the public view. You simply don’t hear much in the mainstream media about the 1953 overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister Mosaddegh in Iran orchestrated by Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson Kermit and the CIA. Or about the 1954 coup d’état in Guatemala (code-named CIA operation PBSUCCESS) that deposed President Arbenz. Or about the other 9/11—the overthrow of Chile’s socialist president, Salvador Allende, that was facilitated by Nixon’s administration on September 11, 1973, and ushered in the bloody reign of general Augusto Pinochet. This list of dirty CIA laundry that’s gotten rather long over the decades rarely, if ever, gets aired.


Moreover, while these covert operations were conducted on the sly during the Cold War, “regime change” became the official policy in the wake of 9/11. As Tom Engelhardt points out,


No longer would Washington set the CIA plotting in the shadows to rid it of detested governments and put in their place more malleable client states. Instead, as the “sole superpower” of Planet Earth, with a military believed to be beyond compare or challenge, the Bush administration would claim the right to dislodge governments it disdained directly, bluntly, and openly with the straightforward use of military force. Later, the Obama administration would take the same tack under the rubric of “humanitarian intervention” or R2P (“responsibility to protect”). In this sense, regime change and R2P would become shorthand for Washington’s right to topple governments in the full light of day by cruise missile, drone, and Apache helicopter, not to mention troops, if needed.


Iraq and Libya, of course, became the prime proving grounds in the application of these doctrines, but there are over a half dozen countries that have paid the price so far, from Afghanistan to Somalia, Yemen, and Syria.


According to a Brown University study, America has spent some $4.8 trillion on aggressive wars since 9/11. A 2015 investigation by Physicians for Social Responsibility, quoted by George Capaccio, concluded that the “war on terror” launched by the Bush administration “has, directly or indirectly, killed around 1 million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, i.e., a total of around 1.3 million. Not included in this figure are further war zones such as Yemen.” 8 to 10 million Iraqis, about a quarter of the country’s total population, are in need of humanitarian assistance by UNICEF estimates. Millions of refugees flooding Europe have come from the countries that U.S. had “liberated.”


Even the emergence of ISIS is rooted in the invasion of Iraq. As Eric Margolis notes in a recent article, “the backbone of ISIS leadership is made up of senior officers of Saddam Hussein’s old Iraqi army,” disbanded by the inept occupiers.


So, what we have in the U.S. public’s self-perception is this witches’ brew of high ideals and national exceptionalism as a universal force for good, along with complete disregard for the real consequences of its government’s actions. This worldview has its roots in the neoconservative philosophy of Leo Strauss, which has taken dominance over the contemporary American public opinion and mass media. In the words of Lance deHaven-Smith in his brilliant Conspiracy Theory in America:


On the basis of his study of classical political philosophy and the politics of ancient democracy, oligarchy, and tyranny, Strauss concluded that modern representative democracies could not survive domestic turmoil or wars with authoritarian foreign powers unless elites contrived to shore up patriotism, martial values, militaristic tendencies, and a certain degree of belligerence in international relations.


Accordingly, the general public is blocked, mis- or un-informed, away from the true causes of global events, as well as shielded from having to experience the true consequences of our collective actions, at least in the short term. All the attention of the corporate mass media is focused on horrendous images of the next “big thing” in a 24-hour cycle of 30-second news bites, which are extremely disturbing to the human psyche and do not provide any of the background or view of long-term consequences for calibration and context.


As a result, brutal military force is positioned as the path of least resistance and the only viable course of action to deal with this “uncivilized” world.  The black phobic hole of an external threat is certainly a useful propaganda tool for mopping up the hostile, misdirected energies of millions of people disaffected with their own deteriorating circumstances and existence.


There is a fundamental miscalculation, however, in statements like this, from Admiral Stavridis on the PBS NewsHour, that “in order to work with Russia, we have to project strength to Russia.” In this ahistorical worldview, the underlying assumption is that strength alone is sufficient.


From the Russians’ viewpoint, they have borne witness to brutal force many times in their lifetime, and it doesn’t address for many of them the fundamental question of whether the force is right. Given the apparent disconnect in the American words and deeds and the reality of what has transpired in the aftermath of the U.S. interference in Iraq, Libya and other places, in the apt words of the Saker, “the Russians have basically given up on the notion of having an adult, sober and mentally sane partner to have a dialog with” by deeming Americans “недоговороспособные”, i.e., “not-agreement-capable.”


This is why former Ambassador Chas Freeman has described the U.S. government as the “foreign relations equivalent of a sociopath – a country indifferent to the rules, the consequences for others of its ignoring them, and the reliability of its word. No nation can now comfortably entrust its prosperity or security to Washington, no matter how militarily powerful it perceives America to be.”


Force is the absolute wrong recipe for this situation, and in the ensuing nuclear game of chicken the Russians are not going to blink. Millions of their ancestors in the previous two centuries did not, when faced with similar circumstances, so they have no predisposition to change that course.


The only way this perilous situation can be resolved is through mutual dialogue and taking into careful consideration each other’s concerns.


Diplomats, rather than soldiers, must step back to the forefront.


Arming thousands of radical young men and sending them loose in Iraq, Libya, Syria or somewhere else close by is not on the Russian list of priorities for a stable and peaceful Middle East. They simply don’t want to have to deal with them anywhere near their own borders.


Physical removal of opponents and dissidents within own society cannot co-exist with the traditional Western values of human rights, however compromised lately by the “war on terror.”


Thousands of indoctrinated military men conducting threatening maneuvers, whether in Syria, the Baltics, the Ukraine, or North Korea, in close proximity to the other camp, cannot be allowed by either side, as the Able Archer exercises sufficiently demonstrated.


Furthermore, we cannot allow our elected officials to choose anything but the non-violent resolution to this conflict for the stakes are simply too high. Any policy recommendation that is not focused on de-escalation and compromise should receive the full crashing weight of public scrutiny and scorn.  Our very own survival as a species depends on it.


The use of chemical weapons in Syria, which precipitated the current crisis, deserves special attention.


Circumstances surrounding that despicable attack on innocent women and children in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017, are a manifestation of what Leo Strauss used to call “noble lies.” He borrowed the term from Plato, for whom, as Lance deHaven-Smith puts it, “noble lies included myths and stories about the society’s origins, rigged lotteries for choosing marriage partners, infanticide, and other actions to create a strong people willing and able to defend themselves in a hostile world.”


The U.S. neoconservative elites, dominated by this ideology, were and still are in need of a pretext for mobilizing the public opinion in order to get this country dragged into the Syrian conflict. This need has become dire following the election of Trump who ran and won on the opposing platform. The bombing of Khan Sheikhoun presented just such a pretext.


Without an independent investigation of the chemical attack currently under way, which is an absolute must, we can look back at the prior similar occurrences for patterns.


There was a series of chemical weapons attacks in March-April 2013 that was investigated by a special UN mission to Syria. Seymour Hersh (some Americans might remember him as the courageous journalist who exposed the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War) quotes a person with close knowledge of the UN activities in question, in whose testimony “‘It was clear that the rebels used the gas.’”


Hersh provides further evidence that American and British intelligence communities knew since the spring of 2013 about the development of chemical weapons by some rebel units in Syria, with Turkish support. When on August 21, 2013, came the ghastly attack in Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus that crossed President Obama’s “red line,” there was already plenty of information about the possible perpetrators. After the British defense laboratory at Porton Down analyzed a sample of the sarin gas used in that attack and concluded that it did not come from any of the Syrian army’s batches, Obama backed off from his decision to go into Syria under pressure from his military leaders and the public.


U.S. intelligence were also aware since the spring of 2013 that Turkey’s national intelligence agency MIT was providing both supplies and training to al-Nusra and other rebel groups to develop a chemical warfare capability. Turkey was the only channel, with funding from Saudi Arabia and Qatar and U.S. facilitation, for supplying the rebels via the “rat line,” which was created after the fall of Libya to transport old Libyan army arsenals to the Syrian opposition. Erdoğan knew very well that if the rebels were to lose the war, many of their factions that he had armed would have nowhere to go except Turkey and would turn on him. According to a former U.S. intelligence official interviewed by Hersh, “‘We now know it was a covert action planned by Erdoğan’s people to push Obama over the red line...They had to escalate to a gas attack in or near Damascus when the UN inspectors…were there’” to investigate the earlier attacks.


With the victory chances of rebel groups hanging in the balance again, after Russia and Iran joined the fight, we have no reason to believe that these facts on the ground have changed. Turkish intelligence, powerful U.S. military interests, and many others are still trying to make sure the “regime change” scenario is pushed through.


In this situation, it is imperative that we demand an immediate independent U.N. investigation into the attack, before any further provocations and reckless actions drag us all into WWIII.


Finally, since in the midst of all these calamities, Christians around the world celebrated Holy Easter, I would like to leave you with these two apposite observations on Good Friday’s Morning Edition by Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church, whose brethren community in Egypt had suffered horrific church bombings on Palm Sunday.


The political grandstanding and point-scoring that comes from people declaring that they have done this or that doesn’t really impress me, neither does it concern me. I think the important thing is to realize that we keep the focus on those who have lost their lives and those who continue to be victims rather than giving to focus to those who want this kind of coverage.


And as importantly,

I don't have to forgive the act because the act was vicious and it was evil. But we're all humans. We're all under the brokenness of sin. And we all have a possibility to repent. We are very happy to continue loving and forgiving and hoping. And I think this is the only way to break a really sinister spiral of violence that has swept across the Middle East.


Happy belated Easter, brothers and sisters!


We really shouldn’t be wasting time with this thermonuclear nonsense, as MAD as it ever was, since we need all the time we have left to palliate the impending catastrophe of global warming. your social media marketing partner
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