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    The Contradictory Musings of Biden’s Speculator of State

    In the world of both journalism and diplomacy, words often take on a meaning that turns out to be close to the opposite of their official definition in the dictionary.

    In an article published on the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, CBS News summed up journalist Norah O’Donnell’s conversation with the top foreign policy official in the US in these words: “Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it is obvious Russian President Vladimir Putin has goals beyond Ukraine and may have other countries in his sights.”

    Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:


    Possibly true, maybe even unlikely, but what the speaker hopes people will believe is true

    Contextual note

    With everyone in government and the media speculating about — rather than thinking through — the real reasons behind the Russian assault on Ukraine, CBS News, like most of US legacy media, wants its readers to focus on the most extreme hypothesis. That is the gift any war offers to the media: the possibility of not just imagining but supposing the worst.

    An Expert Explains Why We Need a New Cold War With China


    It works because the idea that Vladimir Putin has designs that go beyond Ukraine is certainly credible. But it has no basis in fact. In wartime, the media, even more than politicians, will always do their damnedest to damn beyond redemption the party designated as the enemy. One crime is never enough. The public must be encouraged to believe that other, more serious crimes are in the offing. That will incite the audience to return for more.

    The article is about Antony Blinken’s understanding of the conflict, but he never used the word “obvious.” Instead, he speculated out loud about what an evil dictator might be thinking. “He’s made clear,” Blinken asserted without citing evidence, “that he’d like to reconstitute the Soviet empire.” He then shifts to a less extreme interpretation. “Short of that,” Blinken continues, “he’d like to reassert a sphere of influence around neighboring countries that were once part of the Soviet bloc.” And he ends with what is a perfectly reasonable assumption: “And short of that, he’d like to make sure that all of these countries are somehow neutral.”      

    Embed from Getty Images

    Blinken’s contention that Putin’s “made clear” his intention to restore the Soviet empire undoubtedly prompted CBS’ choice of the word “obvious,” which is a bold exaggeration. But Blinken is exaggerating when he claims it’s “clear.” Something is clear if it is visible, with no obstacle that prevents us from seeing it. In this case, clarity would exist if Putin had ever expressed that intention. But that has never happened. So, what Blinken claims to be clear is mere suspicion.

    Blinken cleverly evokes “the Soviet empire” that he is convinced Putin wants to restore. The Soviet Union was a communist dictatorship, the ideological enemy of the United States. But Putin is an oligarchic capitalist who inherited a Russia whose economy was transformed by American consultants after the fall of the Soviet Union. Blinken knows that Americans are horrified by any association with communism and quasi-religiously “believe in” capitalism, even oligarchic capitalism, since the US has produced its own version of that. Blinken’s statement can therefore be read as clever State Department propaganda. He designed it to evoke emotions that are inappropriate to the actual context.

    Things become linguistically more interesting when Blinken goes on to offer a softer reading of Putin’s intention, introduced by “short of that.” He descends the ladder of horror by moving from “empire” to “sphere of influence.” It is far less fear-inspiring, but he continues to evoke the communist threat by alluding to “countries that were once part of the Soviet bloc.” 

    The next step down the ladder, again introduced by “short of that,” reads like a puzzling anti-climax. “And short of that,” Blinken says, “he’d like to make sure that all of these countries are somehow neutral.” Is he suggesting that the neutrality of surrounding nations is the equivalent of reconstituting the Soviet Union? If they are truly neutral, like Switzerland or Finland, they belong to no bloc. Blinken apparently wants the undiscerning listener to assume that being neutral is just a lighter, perhaps less constraining version of being part of a new Soviet empire.

    This kind of speculation based on mental reflexes acquired during the Cold War may seem odd for another reason. Blinken was speaking at the very moment when actual hostilities were breaking out. In the previous weeks, discussions between the two sides had taken place, which meant they could continue. Things changed, of course, at the beginning of last week when Putin declared, “I deem it necessary to make a decision that should have been made a long time ago — to immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic.”

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    That statement on February 21 should have created a new sense of urgency in Washington to prevent the worst from happening by precipitating new negotiations. The opposite happened. Russia’s overtures calling for a summit were refused and Blinken’s planned meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was canceled.

    The West and indeed the world were legitimately shocked by Putin’s move. It violated a basic principle of international law and contradicted the terms of the Minsk agreement that looked forward to defining the future autonomy of Donetsk and Luhansk. On that score, Putin was not wrong when he noted that the definition and application of that autonomy should have taken place much earlier, indeed, “a long time ago.”

    What Blinken described corresponds to an imaginary negotiation with Putin, who may have adopted a strategy of beginning with an extreme position by demanding a return to a post-Yalta order in Eastern Europe. Negotiators typically exaggerate at the beginning, proposing what they never expect to achieve, to arrive at something that will be deemed acceptable. It’s called giving ground. Blinken’s first “short of that” anticipates what Putin might do once the extreme position is rejected. His second “short of that” tells us what Blinken imagines Putin’s next concession might be. That takes him to the neutrality hypothesis, which in fact, as everyone knows, was Putin’s red line. 

    If Blinken can imagine that kind of negotiating process, why didn’t he choose to engage in it? The answer lies in his implicit assessment of the idea of neutrality. Neutrality is not an option. It confirms what many suspect: the US adheres to a confrontational model of international relations. It is the George W. Bush doctrine: if you are not with us, you are against us. That applies even to neutral countries.

    The CBS article contains some other interesting curiosities. After explaining exactly what Putin is secretly thinking, at one point, Blinken objects: “I can’t begin to get into his head.” When queried about what the intelligence community has provided to Blinken to justify what he says he thinks is in Putin’s head, he replies, “You don’t need intelligence to tell you that that’s exactly what President Putin wants.” Blinken wants us to believe that he understands everything but knows nothing.

    Historical Note

    Could it be that in this age of social media, where everyone lives comfortably in their silo, we have heard the death knell of even the idea of negotiation, a practice that has been respected in international relations throughout human history? Or is it an effect of historically informed cynicism due to the fact that, in many cases, negotiations have failed to prevent the unthinkable? Everyone remembers Neville Chamberlain’s negotiation with Adolf Hitler in 1938 that seemed to succeed until it became clear that it had failed.

    Or is it just a US phenomenon? Emmanuel Macron of France and Olaf Scholz of Germany made last-minute attempts to negotiate with Vladimir Putin, but they lacked the authority of the US. 

    Embed from Getty Images

    In recent decades, US culture appears to have created a kind of reflex that consists of refusing to enter into dialogue whenever one has the feeling that the other party doesn’t share the same ideas or opinions. This aversion to sitting down and sorting out major problems may be an indirect consequence of the wokeness wars, which inevitably lead to the conclusion that the other side will always be unenlightened and incorrigible. Discussion serves no purpose, especially since those committed to a fixed position live in fear of hearing something that might modulate their enthusiasm.

    Today’s confrontational culture in the US reveals that Americans are now more interested in making a display of their moral indignation at people who look, think or act differently than they are in trying to understand, let alone iron out their differences. In the past, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev solved major problems through dialogue. Ronald Reagan and Leonid Brezhnev talked constructively, as did Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. And then there was the extraordinary case of Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong.

    We are now in the age of Karens. Even our political leaders have identified with that culture.

    *[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    Beware of Dying Empires, an African Warns

    Our regularly updated feature Language and the News will continue in the form of separate articles rather than as a single newsfeed. Click here to read yesterday’s edition.

    We invite readers to join us by submitting their suggestions of words and expressions that deserve exploring, with or without original commentary. To submit a citation from the news and/or provide your own short commentary, send us an email.

    February 25: Dead Empires

    Perhaps the most lucid commentary on the Ukraine crisis came from the Kenyan ambassador to the United Nations, Martin Kimani. Addressing the UN Security Council earlier this week, Kenya joined the chorus of nations categorically condemning Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity as a prelude to a military assault. But unlike other nations, which have been framing their judgment only in terms of international law, Kimani proposed a measured reflection drawing on a much wider historical perspective than that of disputed territories in Eastern Europe. The experience of African nation-states, “birthed” as he reminds us in the past century, helps to clarify the crisis in Eastern Europe as just one more symptom of a pathology spawned by the Western colonial tradition.

    From Repeated Mistakes to an Unmistakable Message


    The New York Times didn’t bother to mention Kimani’s speech. After all, who cares about Kenya or the historical insight of Africans? The Washington Post offered two minutes of video excerpted from the ambassador’s six-minute speech. It was accompanied by a single sentence of commentary that gives no hint of the substance of his remarks: “Kenyan Ambassador to the U.N. Martin Kimani evoked Kenyan‘s colonial history while rebuking Russia’s move into eastern Ukraine at the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 21.”

    Carlos Mureithi at Quartz Africa penned a fuller commentary that doesn’t quite get Kimani’s real point. He begins by describing the speech as “a scathing condemnation of the Russia–Ukraine crisis, comparing it to colonialism in Africa.” But it was much more than that.

    [embedded content]

    Kimani invited the Security Council to consider how the nation-states we have today were crafted by European colonial masters focused on perpetuating their own interests and indifferent to the needs and even identities of the peoples who lived in those lands and who woke up one morning to find themselves contained within newly drawn national borders. Kimani makes the surprising case for respecting those borders. However arbitrary in their design, they may serve to reign in the ethnic rivalries and tribal tendencies that exist in all regions of the globe, inevitably spawning local conflicts. But even while arguing in favor of the integrity of modern nation-states, he showed little respect for those who drew the borders and even less for the self-interested logic that guided them.

    “We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires,” Kimani urges, “in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.” The populations on the receiving end of colonial logic know that even dead empires, chopped down to size, can be sources of contamination. They have left a lot of dead wood on the path of their colonial conquests. Not only does dead wood tend to rot, but, if the vestiges of the past are not cleared away, those who must continue to tread on the path frequently risk tripping over it.

    Kimani evokes the specter of “nations that looked ever backward into history with a dangerous nostalgia.” He sees a bright side in the fact that an incoherently drawn map may have helped Africa avoid the worst effects of nostalgia. The real paradox, however, is that his description of dead empires applies to the two still breathing opponents who are facing off in the current struggle: Russia and the United States.

    In an article on the Russia–Ukraine crisis published on Fair Observer in December, Atul Singh and Glenn Carle highlighted Vladimir Putin’s obsession with a form of nostalgic traditionalism. They described it as “a reaction to and rejection of the cosmopolitan, international, modernizing forces of Western liberalism and capitalism.” Though Putin’s wealth is as legendary as it is secret and the Russian president appears to be as greedy as a Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, he seems possessed by a pathological nostalgia for the enforced order of the Soviet Union and perhaps even for the Tsarist Russia the Bolsheviks overturned a century ago. At the same time, Donald Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” reveals a similar pathology affecting the population of the US. It’s equally a part of President Joe Biden’s political culture. The “back” that appears in Biden’s slogan “America is back” and even in “Build Back Better” confirms that orientation.

    In declining empires, the mindset of a former conqueror remains present even when conquest is no longer possible. Kimani alludes to this when he affirms that Kenya “strongly condemn[s] the trend in the last decades of powerful states, including members of this Security Council, breaching international law with little regard.” He accuses those states of betraying the ideals of the United Nations. “Multilateralism lies on its deathbed tonight,” Kimani intones. “It has been assaulted today as it has been by other powerful states in the recent past.” In other words, Putin is not an isolated case.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Kimani politely names no names. But the message is clear: There is blame to go all around and it is endemic. That is perhaps the saddest aspect of the current crisis. Sad because in wartime situations, the participating actors will always claim to act virtuously and build their propaganda around the idea of pursuing a noble cause. Putin has provocatively — and almost comically — dared to call his military operations a campaign of “demilitarization,” which most people would agree to be a virtuous act. We have already seen Biden call the various severe measures intended to cripple Russia’s economy “totally defensive.”

    Empires assumed to be dead are often still able to breathe and, even with reduced liberty of movement, follow their worst habitual instincts. The two empires that squared off against each other during the Cold War to different degrees are shadows of what they once were. But their embers are still capable of producing a lot of destructive heat.

    Why Monitoring Language Is Important

    Language allows people to express thoughts, theories, ideas, experiences and opinions. But even while doing so, it also serves to obscure what is essential for understanding the complex nature of reality. When people use language to hide essential meaning, it is not only because they cynically seek to prevaricate or spread misinformation. It is because they strive to tell the part or the angle of the story that correlates with their needs and interests.

    In the age of social media, many of our institutions and pundits proclaim their intent to root out “misinformation.” But often, in so doing, they are literally seeking to miss information.

    Is there a solution? It will never be perfect, but critical thinking begins by being attentive to two things: the full context of any issue we are trying to understand and the operation of language itself. In our schools, we are taught to read and write, but, unless we bring rhetoric back into the standard curriculum, we are never taught how the power of language to both convey and distort the truth functions. There is a largely unconscious but observable historical reason for that negligence. Teaching establishments and cultural authorities fear the power of linguistic critique may be used against their authority.

    Remember, Fair Observer’s Language and the News seeks to sensitize our readers to the importance of digging deeper when assimilating the wisdom of our authorities, pundits and the media that transmit their knowledge and wisdom.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    From Repeated Mistakes to an Unmistakable Message

    Our regularly updated feature Language and the News will continue in the form of separate articles rather than as a single newsfeed. Click here to read yesterday’s edition.

    We invite readers to join us by submitting their suggestions of words and expressions that deserve exploring, with or without original commentary. To submit a citation from the news and/or provide your own short commentary, send us an email.

    February 24: Unmistakable

    Our regular examination of language in the news cycle has been bringing us back to the major international story thus far of 2022. The Russia–Ukraine crisis keeps generating examples of the deliberately twisted and sometimes directly inverted semantics, a trend that will probably continue and perhaps become amplified in the coming weeks and months.

    As a general rule, when politicians claim to be “clear,” the observer can be certain that what they are clear about is at best half the story. Clarity imperceptibly fades into obscurity. It gets worse when the speaker claims that the message is “unmistakable.” Quoted by the New York Times, US President Joe Biden offered a wonderful example of such rhetoric while explaining the measures he is taking to counter Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.

    Ukraine’s Tug of War and the Implications for Europe


    “Let me be clear: These are totally defensive moves on our part,” Biden proclaimed. “We have no intention of fighting Russia. We want to send an unmistakable message, though, that the United States, together with our allies, will defend every inch of NATO territory and abide by the commitments we made to NATO.”

    This is the standard mantra in Washington. Economic sanctions are always intended to punish civilian populations in the hope that they will revolt against their government. They should never be thought of as aggressive or offensive, not even partially. Perish the thought. Biden makes that “clear” when he claims they are “totally” defensive, like a soldier in the field raising a shield before his face to deflect an enemy’s arrow. 

    Embed from Getty Images

    As for the “unmistakable message,” it may simply mean that the White House has made so many mistaken guesses in recent weeks about the date of a Russian invasion, it is now necessary to inform people that the latest message, for a change, is not just one more in an endless series of mistakes.

    Biden also called Vladimir Putin’s move “the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.” For the moment, it is an aggressive incursion into contested Ukrainian territory, but it isn’t an invasion. It can only be deemed the beginning of an invasion if there actually is an invasion that follows from it. There is no question that President Putin’s initiative violates international law, but that alone doesn’t make it a military invasion.

    Biden should know something about what invasions look like. He was, after all, the key Democrat, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to champion US President George W. Bush’s tragically planned and utterly unjustified invasion of Iraq in 2003, a well-documented episode Biden persistently denied during his election campaign.

    Putin’s move may be a prelude to an invasion, but preludes only become real when the event they are preparing becomes real. The real reason Biden calls it “the beginning of an invasion” is to save face in an attempt to maintain a modicum of credibility regarding his administration’s warnings in recent weeks. He may well be hoping it turns into a Russian invasion just to prove his repeated predictions were somewhat correct.

    Then there’s Biden’s promise to defend “every inch of NATO territory.” Everyone knows Ukraine is not NATO territory. So why offer such a justification? Perhaps Biden’s reason for saying this on record is that, when Republicans and the more bellicose Democrats begin castigating him for failing to support Ukraine militarily, he will be able to use Ukraine’s non-NATO status to defend his policy. At the same time, he is getting the best of both worlds. He may thus safely stand back and watch a bloody proxy war proceed, much as Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Biden have done for the past seven years with Yemen.

    Finally, Biden made the important decision to call off the proposed summit meeting with Putin. At the same time, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a planned meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that should have taken place on February 24. “Now that we see the invasion is beginning,” Blinken explained, “and Russia has made clear its wholesale rejection of diplomacy, it does not make sense to go forward with that meeting at this time.” 

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    That statement on Blinken’s part is literally a “wholesale rejection.” He even used the expression “pretense of diplomacy,” disparaging the very idea of trying to solve the problem rather than let it get worse. Lavrov had made no attempt to scotch the meeting. In its coverage, Reuters added that “Blinken said he was still committed to diplomacy.” Except, apparently, when he’s committed to preventing it from happening. In former times, diplomacy consisted of getting a conversation going whenever a serious problem arose. It certainly did not consist of explaining why there was no need for a dialogue.

    In the light of this new style of diplomacy, historians may now find it an interesting counterfactual exercise to wonder what might have happened during the Cuban missile crisis had either John F. Kennedy or Nikita Khrushchev objected that diplomacy was a waste of time. 

    Why Monitoring Language Is Important

    Language allows people to express thoughts, theories, ideas, experiences and opinions. But even while doing so, it also serves to obscure what is essential for understanding the complex nature of reality. When people use language to hide essential meaning, it is not only because they cynically seek to prevaricate or spread misinformation. It is because they strive to tell the part or the angle of the story that correlates with their needs and interests.

    In the age of social media, many of our institutions and pundits proclaim their intent to root out “misinformation.” But often, in so doing, they are literally seeking to miss information.

    Is there a solution? It will never be perfect, but critical thinking begins by being attentive to two things: the full context of any issue we are trying to understand and the operation of language itself. In our schools, we are taught to read and write, but, unless we bring rhetoric back into the standard curriculum, we are never taught how the power of language to both convey and distort the truth functions. There is a largely unconscious but observable historical reason for that negligence. Teaching establishments and cultural authorities fear the power of linguistic critique may be used against their authority.

    Remember, Fair Observer’s Language and the News seeks to sensitize our readers to the importance of digging deeper when assimilating the wisdom of our authorities, pundits and the media that transmit their knowledge and wisdom.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    An Expert Explains Why We Need a New Cold War With China

    Michael Beckley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower.” He has no time for the commonly held thesis that America’s hegemonic power is in decline. He even claims that “it is now wealthier, more innovative, and more militarily powerful compared to China than it was in 1991.” If the regular expansion of the US defense budget is any indication, he may be right. President Joe Biden has just promised to increase it yet again, this time to $770 billion.

    In a new article for Foreign Affairs bearing the title, “Enemies of My Enemy: How Fear of China Is Forging a New World Order,” Beckley makes the case that having and sharing an easily identified enemy is the key to effective world government. The Cold War taught him that “the liberal order” has nothing to do with good intentions and being a force for good. Instead, it thrives on a strong dose of irrational fear that can be spread among friends.

    Ukraine’s Tug of War and the Implications for Europe (Language and the News)


    As the Republican presidential candidate in 2000, George W. Bush produced these immortal words: “When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who they were. It was us vs. them, and it was clear who them was. Today, we are not so sure who the they are, but we know they’re there.” Probably unwittingly, Beckley echoes Bush’s wisdom. “Today, the liberal order is fraying for many reasons,” Beckley writes, “but the underlying cause is that the threat it was originally designed to defeat—Soviet communism—disappeared three decades ago.”  Unlike the clueless Bush, Beckley now knows who the “they” is. It’s China.

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    History has moved on. China can now replace the Soviet Union as the star performer. Bush proposed Islamist terrorism as his coveted “them,” but that ultimately failed. The terrorists are still lurking in numerous shadows, but when President Biden withdrew the last American troops from Afghanistan in August 2021, he definitively delegitimized it as a threat worthy of spawning a new Cold War. And now, even while Russia is being touted as the best supporting actor, the stage is finally clear to push China into the limelight.

    Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

    Shared enemy:

    A powerful nation whose negative image can be modeled by another powerful nation in such a way that its name alone inspires fear, to the point that it may be generously offered to governments of weaker nations on the pretext of forming a profitable alliance

    Contextual Note

    For Beckley, US hegemony needs China’s help. Now that the Middle Kingdom has now achieved the status of a high-profile enemy to be generously shared with obedient allies, the liberal order may thrive again, as it did during the Cold War. For Beckley, it is China, not Donald Trump, that will “make America great again.”

    Some may find Beckley’s historical logic slightly skewed. He explains that the modern liberal order was “designed to defeat … Soviet communism.” If it was “designed,” what does he have to say about the designer? Who indeed could that have been, and what were their real motives? Could it have been the Dulles brothers, whose combined clout in the Dwight Eisenhower years allowed them to dictate US foreign policy? More alarmingly, Beckley seems to be suggesting that without a pretext for paranoia, the liberal order would not or could not exist.  

    Beckley is probably right but for reasons he might not appreciate. The idea of needing an identifiable enemy stands as a purely negative justification of the liberal order. But Beckley has already dismissed the idea that it is all about bettering the world. He seems to underestimate the need ordinary Americans have to think of their country as a shining city on a hill, endowed with the most powerful military in the history of the world whose mission is not to maraud, destroy, displace populations and kill, but to intervene as a “force for good.”

    It’s not as if social harmony was the norm in the United States. The one thing that prevents the country from descending into a chaos of consumer individualism, or from becoming a nation populated by angry Hobbesian egos intolerant of the behavior of other egos, is the ideology that Beckley denigrates but which politicians continue to celebrate: the “enlightened call to make the world a better place.” Americans would fall into a state of despair if they no longer believed that their exceptional and indispensable nation exists as an ideal for humanity.

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    But recent events have begun to shake their faith in what now appears to be a manifestly not very egalitarian democracy. Increasingly oligarchic, if not plutocratic, American society remains “liberal” (i.e., free) for those who control the growing mountains of cash that visibly circulate among the elite but rarely trickle down to meet any real human needs.

    As the defender of an idealized liberal order, Beckley is right to assume that, with so many factors undermining the American consensus, the cultivation of a shared enemy may be the necessary key to maintaining that order. Fear has always had the unique virtue of diverting attention from serious and worsening problems. Between income inequality, climate change and an enduring pandemic punctuated by contestable government mandates, people’s attention definitely needs to be diverted.

    Historical Note

    Michael Beckley is certainly very knowledgeable about China. He admires Chinese civilization and many of its accomplishments. He also believes a war between the United States and China is far from inevitable. Moreover, he is a realist. He admits that, as many people across the globe affirm, the US represents the biggest threat to world peace. At the same time, he believes “that the United States has the most potential to be the biggest contributor to peace.” He lucidly notes that “when the United States puts its weight behind something the world gets remade, for better or for worse.” But, having said this, he eludes the implicit moral question. If both the better and worse are possible, the rest of the world should be the ones to decide every time its reality is “remade” whether that remaking was for the better or the worse.

    As Pew studies show, most people outside the US appear to believe that American initiatives across the globe over at least the past half-century have been predominantly for the worse. Beckley himself cites Iraq and Vietnam as egregious examples. But, ever the optimist, he sees in what he calls the ability of the “system of US alliances” to create “zones of peace” the proof that the worse isn’t as bad as some might think.

    Beckley recognizes that alliances are not created out of generosity and goodwill alone. In his influential book, “Super-Imperialism,” the economist Michael Hudson describes the workings of what is known as the “Washington Consensus,” a system of economic and military control that, in the decades after World War II, managed, somewhat perversely, to miraculously transfer the immense burden of its own debt, generated by its military adventurism, to the rest of the world. The “Treasury-bill Standard,” an innovation President Richard Nixon called into being to replace the gold standard in 1971, played a major role. With the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, Hudson notes that “foreign governments were obliged to invest their surplus dollars in U.S. Treasury securities.” It was part of a complex financial, diplomatic and military system that forced US allies to finance American debt.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Beckley’s  “zones of peace” are zones of dependence. Every country that participated in the system found itself forced to hold US Treasury bonds, including China. They thus had an interest in maintaining the stability of a system that dictated the flow of money across the globe. To a large extent, that is still the case. It explains why attempts to dethrone the dollar are systemically countered, sometimes violently through military action (as in Libya, to scotch Muammar Gaddafi’s plans for a pan-African currency).

    None of that worries the eternal optimist Beckley, clearly a disciple of Voltaire’s Pangloss. He believes that — even while admitting the US has “wrecked the world in various ways” — its “potential” for peace trumps the reality of persistent war and that its “capability to make the world much more peaceful and prosperous” absolves it from the wreckage it has already produced. 

    From a cultural point of view, Beckley is right. Americans always believe that what is “potential” trumps what is real and that “capability” effaces past examples of incapable behavior. That describes a central feature of American hyperreality.

    *[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    Elimination of IS Leader Is a Positive, But Not a Final, Step

    On January 3, the United States announced the elimination of Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the leader of the so-called Islamic State (IS) during a counterterrorism raid in Atmeh, a town in Syria’s Idlib province close to the Turkish border. In an address to the nation, US President Joe Biden said that the operation had taken “a major terrorist leader off the battlefield,” adding that special forces were used in the operation in an attempt to reduce civilian casualties.

    Why Now?

    The raid comes after IS conducted an attack on al-Sinaa prison in the northeastern city of Hasakah in January in an attempt to break free its fighters. In the assault, several Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters were killed. According to SDF officials, IS was planning the attack for six months. Nevertheless, the US-backed SDF recaptured the prison about a week later. 

    Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona suspects that the attack on the prison “was the catalyst that led to the decision to act on what was obviously already known location intelligence on … al-Qurayshi.” Francona, who served as the US military attaché in Syria from 1992 to 1995, notes that “Over the past few months, there has been an increase in ISIS activity — more widespread and bolder in nature. This also comes at a time when Iranian-backed militias have also stepped up attacks on US forces in Syria and Iraq.”

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    Both Qurayshi and his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, were eliminated in Idlib province, in areas under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Previously, HTS was known as Jabhat al-Nusra, affiliated with al-Qaeda and initially aligned with IS. In 2013, however, it split from IS and has been at war with the group since 2014. In 2016, it also broke relations with al-Qaeda and rebranded itself as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS). The following year, JFS assumed its current iteration as it merged with other groups. 

    During much of the past decade, Idlib served as a hideout for extremists. In 2017, then-US envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, stated that “Idlib Province is the largest Al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11.” Following Baghdadi’s elimination in 2019, former US President Donald Trump suggested Baghdadi was in Idlib as part of a plan to rebuild IS. Indeed, it was surprising to see Qurayshi hiding in Idlib as well. 

    According to David Lesch, professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in Texas and author of “Syria: A Modern History,” “it seems strange that al-Baghdadi and al-Qurayshi were killed in [a] province largely controlled by its rival HTS and overseen by Turkey, but on the other hand it is the only area not under the control of the Syrian government and its allies or the US-supported SDF, all of whom are opposed to ISIS.”

    “Idlib is now home to thousands of IDPs, therefore it was easier for the two to blend in, live secretively, and not be identified as outsiders since most everyone in certain areas of the province are outsiders,” Lesch explains. “Yet they were still found because despite all this they lived in an area still teaming with enemies who were obviously directly or indirectly assets to US intelligence.”

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    The recent US operation in Idlib, which was reportedly planned over several months, has been the largest of its kind in the country since the 2019 raid that eliminated Baghdadi. Although Qurayshi was less charismatic than Baghdadi, the fact that he was targeted in the US raid confirms his importance.

    It is worth noting that Qurayshi was named as the leader of IS in 2019, following the death of Baghdadi. While IS called on all Muslims to pledge allegiance to Qurayshi as the new “caliph,” it did not provide much information about his bona fides. The use of the name “Qurayshi” seemed to be an attempt to trace his lineage to the Prophet Muhammad. This is a tactic that was also used vis-à-vis Baghdadi with the aim of legitimizing his leadership role. Qurayshi’s real name is Amir Muhammad Said Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla but he is also known as Hajji Abdullah and Abdullah Qaradash.  

    As the US continues to create an impression that it is minimizing its presence in the region, especially following its withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, the raid seems to have been used to demonstrate US reliability to reassure Washington’s partners. It also comes as a needed win for Biden at a time when the Ukraine crisis remains unsolved. 

    However, while Qurayshi’s elimination is a positive development, it may simply be a “symbolic victory,” as Sean Carberry suggests in The Hill. While the operation against Qurayshi may create internal chaos within IS, ultimately, the terror group is likely to name a new leader and move on, which is what took place following Baghdadi’s assassination. Although IS was militarily defeated, the group has not been eliminated and remains a threat. In fact, there have been increased indications, such as the attack on al-Sinaa prison, suggesting that the group is in a state of resurgence. The militants might also seek to use the recent US raid to encourage revenge attacks. 

    US Policy in Syria

    The Biden administration’s policy vis-à-vis Syria seems to indicate that the official approach will be “markedly timid,” as Abdulrahman al-Masri and Reem Salahi suggest. It should not be surprising to learn that Syria does not constitute a top diplomatic priority for President Biden. Yet while the US does not want to remain engaged in endless regional wars, it seems to believe that a political settlement in war-torn Syria would only empower President Bashar al-Assad, whom Washington would never back. 

    Moreover, the US and the Kurds are partners, and Washington would not want to portray an image that it has abandoned those who have shouldered the fight against the Islamic State. This was the overall perception when Trump announced the withdrawal of US forces from Syria in 2019, and Biden seems keen to remedy that controversial decision. 

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    It is worth noting that during President Barack Obama’s tenure, Vice President Biden was one of the skeptics when it came to what the US could achieve in Syria. Nevertheless, it should not be taken as a given that as president, Biden may be in favor of removing all US forces from the country. For instance, he criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw forces from Syria, saying it granted IS “a new lease on life.” In the same year, Biden also said he supports keeping some forces in eastern Syria for the foreseeable future. 

    Middle East expert and former US State Department analyst, Gregory Aftandilian doesn’t see the US leaving Syria anytime soon. Aftandilian, who is also a non-resident fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, thinks “It is doubtful [Biden] will do more than the anti-ISIS campaign and humanitarian aid. In light of the attempted prison break in northeastern Syria he may put pressure on some countries to take back ISIS prisoners.”

    For the US to play a role in stabilizing Syria, there needs to be a clear strategy. Unfortunately, at the moment, that strategy is largely lacking. While the elimination of Qurayshi is a positive step, much more work needs to be done to stabilize the country.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    On the Road in a Divided and Delusional America

    “Democracy” is the currency of hypocrisy in today’s America. No politician or pundit seems able to get enough of it. Most of the babble is about “our precious democracy” and the threats to its institutional survival. But amid all the talk, there is so little critical analysis of that “precious democracy” and hardly a moment to reflect on what the word “democracy” itself actually means.

    Further, after decades of pushing some stylized version of democracy on the rest of the world, often at the point of a gun or spurred on by lucrative defense contracts and arms sales, it has finally occurred to some in America that we are far short of a common understanding of the fundamental elements of democratic governance. Often, those on whom we loudly thrust the largesse of democracy are little more than ruling oligarchs in a rigged system. If that sounds familiar, it should.

    Is the Decline of Democracy Inevitable?


    Democracy is generally defined as “government by the people, especially rule of the majority.” In fuller terms, it has been defined as “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.”

    Finding an institutional fit for this definition of democracy is at best elusive. Unfortunately, almost all of the loose talk of a precious “democracy” in peril is utterly devoid of context and content.

    Democracy in America

    In the United States, rule of the majority is a delusional joke starkly playing itself out in the procedural charade that is the Senate. The entire Republican Party is committed to drive free elections and truly representational government even further into the fictional realm that it has historically occupied. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has legalized corporate and special interest influence peddling that openly overwhelms and corrupts any pretense at truly representational government and makes a mockery of the legislative process.

    Even today, as America engages in a frenzied response to Russian provocation on the Ukrainian border, we loudly and uncritically assert that there is an actual Ukrainian “democracy” that must be defended. This is only America’s latest chapter in the arrogant advocacy for “democracy” around the world at the point of a gun. What remains uncritically defined at home is doomed to failure when uncritically asserted to justify intervention, arms sales and hostile action elsewhere.

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    On American soil, democracy has an equally abused cousin in public discourse: “freedom.” It is hard to overestimate the impact of whatever “freedom” means individually and collectively on the perception of “democracy.” One need look no further than the role that perceptions of “freedom” play in the carnage resulting from gun violence in a country in which foundational rule of law should result in a constructive institutional response to that carnage. Or, reflect for a moment on all of the Christian prayers floating about in the public forum in a country whose institutions are supposedly committed to “freedom” of religion that should include “freedom” from religion.

    The national response to gun violence is a wonderful gateway issue to examine the health of America’s “democratic” institutions. What happens when your idea of your “freedom” steps all over my idea of my “freedom”? Imagine an America in which everybody agreed that gun carnage was an unacceptable intrusion on a collective freedom. Imagine an America in which that precious handgun gave way to that precious life. Imagine an America in which its “democratic” institutions responded to the 84% of American voters who support universal gun purchase background checks by actually enacting legislation to meet that overwhelming majority goal.

    It has been noted above that “democracy” at the point of a gun takes the shine off of the pristine concept. Democratic institutions that cannot respond to majority sentiment with something more than the universal thoughts and prayers that litter our public discourse in response to gun carnage are not, in fact, democratic institutions. Believing otherwise is yet another round of self-delusion on America’s magical mystery tour. In America, Americans die. Elsewhere, the devastation is no less traumatic for those caught in the grip of America’s addiction to violence without meaningful consent of the governed.

    Money and Politics

    Yet another confounding feature of America’s “democracy” is the incredible amounts of cash needed to even begin to compete for political office. So, on a stage already tilted by voter suppression measures, fundraising becomes the essential component of gaining political power for both the anxious candidate and those seeking to peddle their own influence.

    In today’s politically and socially divided America, creating political theater is the surest way to attract the cash needed for electoral success. Think about that for a moment. Since the press and social media networks cannot seem to get enough of the lying, cheating, stealing and fraud at the heart of one outrageous public claim after another, infamy can be turned into instant cash. Tell the public that school libraries are awash in critical race theory, send out a message telling the faithful that you are their champion in the fight for the souls of their children and, most importantly, to be their champion you will need their financial support. The money rolls in and the beat goes on.

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    This is not how any constitutional democracy was designed to work. Democratic institutions cannot survive in a sea of public ignorance and indifference. Truly democratic institutions cannot be bought and sold like a used car. So, come one, come all, this US senator is for sale. Listen to his chatter, believe his message, fill his coffers and watch him perform. Get 41 of these elected clunkers in the 100-member Senate at the same time, and gun control is an illusion, environmental protection is eroded and social justice is denied. All filibustered to legislative death by an institutional minority.

    It is the hypocrisy of it all that should be apparent to anyone actually paying attention. So, the next time that you see the stars and stripes flying or hear the glorious strains of “God Bless America,” stop for just a moment and think about the meaning of democracy, how precious it could be and how utterly absent it is from America’s shores. The nation is not now, nor has it ever been, a democracy. And loudly declaring it as such should ring hollow every time, because the evidence overwhelmingly suggests otherwise.

    Then, stop for just another moment and think about how truly democratic institutions might be able to provide the essential platform for shaping a more perfect union. The success of the struggle to make that happen should be the most significant measure of a great nation.

    *[This article was co-published on the author’s blog, Hard Left Turn.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    Language Paranoia and the Binary Exclusion Syndrome

    In the olden days, which some of us remember as the 20th century, news stories and commentary tended to focus on people and their actions. The news would sometimes highlight and even debate current ideas circulating about society and politics. New stories quite often sought to weigh the arguments surrounding serious projects intended to improve things. The general tendency was to prefer substance over form.

    Things have radically changed since the turn of the century. It may be related to a growing sentiment of fatalism that defines our Zeitgeist. Outside of the billionaire class, people feel powerless, a feeling that is already wreaking havoc in the world of politics. After banks that were “too big to fail,” we have inherited problems that appear too big to solve. Climate change and COVID-19 have contributed powerfully to the trend, but a series of chaotic elections in several of our most stable democracies, accompanied by newer wars or prospects of war called upon to replace the old ones all serve to comfort the trend.

    Language and the News


    In the United States, this feeling of helplessness has had the unfortunate effect of turning people’s attention away from the issues and the facts that matter to focus on the language individuals use to describe them. Words that inspire aggressive emotional reactions now dominate the news cycle, eclipsing the people, events and ideas that should be at the core of the news cycle.

    One reason we have launched Fair Observer’s new feature, Language and the News, and are continuing with a weekly dictionary of what was formerly The Daily Devil’s Dictionary is that, increasingly, the meaning of the words people use has been obscured and replaced by the emotions different groups of combative people attach to words.

    What explains this drift into a state of permanent combat over words? Addressing the issues — any issues — apparently demands too much effort, too much wrestling with nuance and perspective. It is much easier to reduce complex political and moral problems to a single word and load that word with an emotional charge that disperses even the possibility of nuance. This was already the case when political correctness emerged decades ago. But the binary logic that underlies such oppositional thinking has now taken root in the culture and goes well beyond the simple identification of words to use or not use in polite society.

    The Problem of Celebrities Who Say Things Out Loud

    Last week, US podcast host Joe Rogan and actress Whoopi Goldberg submitted to concerted public ostracism (now graced with the trendy word “canceled”) over the words and thoughts they happened to express in contexts that used to be perceived as informal, exploratory conversations. Neither was attempting to make a formal pronouncement about the state of the world. They were guilty of thinking out loud, sharing thoughts that emerged spontaneously.

    It wasn’t James Joyce (who was at one time canceled by the courts), but it was still a stream of consciousness. Human beings have been interacting in that way ever since the dawn of language, at least 50,000 years. The exchange of random and sometimes focused thoughts about the world has been an essential part of building and regulating every human institution we know, from family life to nation-states.

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    During these centuries of exchanges, many of the thoughts uttered were poorly or only partially reasoned. Dialogue with others helped them to evolve and become the constructs of culture. Some were mistaken and bad. Others permitted moments of self-enlightenment. Only popes have ever had the privilege of making ex cathedra pronouncement deemed infallible, at least to the faithful. The rest of us have the messy obligation of debating among ourselves what we want to understand as the truth.

    Dialogue never establishes the truth. It permits us to approach it. That doesn’t preclude the fact that multiple groups have acquired the habit of thinking themselves endowed with papal certainty allowing them to close the debate before it even begins. Everyone has noticed the severe loss of trust in the institutions once counted upon to guide the mass of humanity: governments, churches and the media.

    That general loss of trust means that many groups with like-minded tastes, interests or factors of identity have been tempted to impose on the rest of society the levels of certainty they feel they have attained. Paradoxically, internationally established churches, once dominant across vast swaths of the globe, have come to adopt an attitude of humble dialogue just as governments, the media and various interest groups have become ensconced in promulgating the certainty of their truth while displaying an intolerance of dialogue.

    Dialogue permits us to refine our perceptions, insights and intuitions and put them into some kind of perspective. That perspective is always likely to shift as new insights (good) and social pressures (not always so good) emerge. The sane attitude consists of accepting that no linguistically formulated belief — even the idea that the sun rises in the east — should be deemed to be a statement of absolute truth. (After all, despite everyone’s daily experience, the sun doesn’t rise — the Earth turns.) Perspective implies that, however stable any of our ideas may appear to us at a particular time, we can never be absolutely sure they are right and even less sure that the words we have chosen to frame such truths sum up their meaning.

    Truth and the US State Department

    A quick glance at the media over the past week demonstrates the complexity of the problem. Theoretically, a democratic society will always encourage dialogue, since voting itself, though highly imperfect, is presented as a means for the people to express their intentions concerning real world issues. In a democracy, a plurality of perspectives is not only desirable, but inevitable and should be viewed as an asset. But those who are convinced of their truth and have the power to impose their truth see it as a liability.

    On February 3, State Department spokesman Ned Price spent nearly four minutes trying to affirm, in response to a journalist’s persistent objections, that his announced warning about a Russian false flag operation wasn’t, as the journalist suspected, itself a false flag. The journalist, Matt Lee of the Associated Press, asked for the slightest glimpse of the substance of the operation before accepting to report that there actually was something to report on. What he got were words.

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    Price, a former CIA officer, believed that the term was self-explanatory. He clearly expected members of the press to be grateful for receiving “information that is present in the US government.” Price sees Lee’s doubt as a case of a reporter seeking “solace in information that the Russians are putting out.” In other words, either a traitor or a useful idiot. Maggie Haberman of The New York Times reacted by tweeting, “ This is really something as an answer. Questioning the US government does not = supporting what Russia is saying.”

    Haberman is right, though she might want to instruct some of her fellow journalists at The Times, who have acquired the habit of unquestioningly echoing anything the State Department, the Defense Department or the intelligence community shares with them. Especially when for more than five years, The Times’ specialized in promoting alarmism about Russia’s agency in the “Havana syndrome” saga. Because the CIA suspected, all the cases were the result of “hostile acts.” Acts, by the way, for which the only physically identified perpetrator was a species of Cuban crickets.

    The back and forth concerning Russia’s false flag operation, like the Havana syndrome itself, illustrates a deeper trend that has seriously eroded the quality of basic communication in the United States. It takes the form of an increasingly binary, even Manichean type of reasoning. For Price, it’s the certainty of the existence of evil acts by Russians before needing any proof and even before those acts take place. But it also appears in the war of obstinate aggression waged by those who seek to silence anyone who suggests that the government’s vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions may not be justified.

    This binary syndrome now permeates all levels of US culture, and not only the political sphere. The constraining force of the law is one thing, which people can accept. The refusal of dialogue is literally anti-human, especially in a democracy. But it also takes the form of moral rage when someone expresses an idea calling into question some aspect of authority or, worse, pronounces a word whose sound alone provokes a violent reaction. There is a residual vigilante culture that still infects US individualism. The willingness, or rather the need people feel, to apply summary justice helps to explain the horrendous homicide rate in the United States. Vigilantism has gradually contaminated the world of politics, entertainment and even education, where parents and school boards go to battle over words and ideas.

    George W. Bush’s contribution

    US culture has always privileged binary oppositions and shied away from nuance because nuance is seen as an obstacle to efficiency in a world where “time is money.” But a major shift began to take place at the outset of the 21st century that seriously amplified the phenomenon. The 1990s were a decade in which Americans believed their liberal values had triumphed globally following the collapse of the Soviet Union. For many people, it turned out to be boring. The spice of having an enemy was missing.

    In 2001, the Manichean thinking that dominated the Cold War period was thus programmed for a remake. Although the American people tend to prefer both comfort and variety (at least tolerance of variety in their lifestyles), politicians find it useful to identify with an abstract mission consisting of defending the incontestable good against the threat posed by inveterate evil. The updated Cold War was inaugurated by George W. Bush in September 2001 when the US president famously proclaimed, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make: either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

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    The cultural attitude underlying this statement is now applied to multiple contexts, not just military ones. I like to call it the standard American binary exclusionist worldview. It starts from the conviction that one belongs to a camp and that camp represents either what is right or a group that has been unjustly wronged. Other camps may exist. Some may even be well-intentioned. But they are all guilty of entertaining false beliefs, like Price’s characterization of journalists who he imagines promote Russian talking points. That has long been standard fare in politics, but the same pattern applies in conflicts concerning what are called “culture issues,” from abortion to gender issues, religion or teaching Critical Race Theory.

    In the political realm, the exclusionist worldview describes the dark side of what many people like to celebrate as “American exceptionalism,” the famous “shining city on a hill.” The idea it promotes supposes that others — those who don’t agree, accept and obey the stated rules and principles — are allied with evil, either because they haven’t yet understood the force of truth, justice and democracy and the American way, or because they have committed to undermining it. That is why Bush claimed they had “a decision to make.” Ned Price seems to be saying something similar to Matt Lee.

    A General Cultural Phenomenon

    But the exclusionist mentality is not just political. It now plays out in less straightforward ways across the entire culture. Nuance is suspected of being a form of either cowardice or hypocrisy. Whatever the question, debate will be cut short by one side or the other because they have taken the position that, if you are not for what I say, you are against it. This is dangerous, especially in a democracy. It implies an assumption of moral authority that is increasingly perceived by others to be unfounded, whether it is expressed by government officials or random interest groups.

    The example of Price’s false flag and Lee’s request for substance — at least something to debate — reveals how risky the exclusionist mentality can be. Anyone familiar with the way intelligence has worked over the past century knows that false flags are a very real item in any intelligence network’s toolbox. The CIA’s Operation Northwoods spelled out clearly what the agency intended to carry out. “We could blow up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba,” a Pentagon official wrote, adding that “casualty lists in U.S. newspapers would cause a helpful wave of national indignation.”

    There is strong evidence that the 2001 anthrax attacks in the US, designed to incriminate Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and justify a war in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, was an attempted false flag operation that failed miserably when it was quickly discovered that the strain of anthrax could only have been produced in America. Lacking this proof, which also would have had the merit of linking Hussein to the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration had to struggle for another 18 months to build (i.e., fabricate) the evidence of Iraq’s (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction.

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    This enabled the operation “shock and awe” that brought down Hussein’s regime in 2003. It took the FBI nearly seven years to complete the coverup of the anthrax attacks designed to be attributed to Iraq. They did so by pushing the scientist Bruce Ivins to commit suicide and bury any evidence that may have elucidated a false flag operation that, by the way, killed five Americans.

    But false flags have become a kind of sick joke. In a 2018 article on false flags, Vox invokes the conventional take that false flag reports tend to be the elements of the tawdry conspiracy theories that have made it possible for people like Alex Jones to earn a living.  “So ‘false flag’ attacks have happened,” Vox admits, “but not often. In the world of conspiracy theorists, though, ‘false flags’ are seemingly everywhere.” If this is true, Lee would have been on the right track if he were to suspect the intelligence community and the State Department of fabricating a conspiracy theory.

    Although democracy is theoretically open to a diversity of competing viewpoints, the trend in the political realm has always pointed toward a binary contrast rather than the development of multiple perspectives. The founding fathers of the republic warned against parties, which they called factions. But it didn’t take long to realize that the growing cultural diversity of the young nation, already divided into states that were theoretically autonomous, risked creating a hopelessly fragmented political system. The nation needed to construct some standard ideological poles to attract and crystallize the population’s political energies. In the course of the 19th century, a two-party system emerged, following the pattern of the Whigs and Tories in England, something the founders initially hoped to avoid.

    It took some time for the two political parties to settle into a stable binary system with the labels: Democrat and Republican. Their names reflected the two pillars of the nation’s founding ideology. Everyone accepted the idea that the United States was a democratic republic, if only because it wasn’t a monarchy. It was democratic because people could vote on who would represent them.

    It took nearly 200 years to realize that because the two fundamental ideas that constituted an ideology had become monopolized by two parties, there was no room for a third, fourth or fifth party to challenge them. The two parties owned the playing field. At some point in the late 20th century, the parties became competitors only in name. They morphed into an ideological duopoly that had little to do with the idea of being either a democracy or a republic. As James Carville insisted in his advice to candidate Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid.” He was right. As it had evolved, the political system represented the economy and no longer the people.

    Nevertheless, the culture created by a two-century-long rivalry contributed mightily to the triumph of the binary exclusionist worldview. In the 20th century, the standard distinction between Democrats and Republicans turned around the belief that the former believed in an active, interventionist government stimulating collective behavior on behalf of the people, and the latter in a minimalist barebones government committed to reinforcing private enterprise and protecting individualism.

    Where, as a duopoly, the two parties ended up agreeing is that interventionism was good when directed elsewhere, in the form of a military presence across the globe intended to demonstrate aggressive potential. Not because either party believed in the domination of foreign lands, but because they realized that the defense industry was the one thing that Republicans could accept as a legitimate highly constraining collective, national enterprise and that the Democrats, following Carville’s dictum, realized underpinned a thriving economy in which ordinary people could find employment.

    The Crimes of Joe Rogan and Whoopi Goldberg

    Politics, therefore, set in place a more general phenomenon: the binary exclusionist worldview that would soon spread to the rest of the culture. Exclusionism is a common way of thinking about what people consider to be issues that matter. It has fueled the deep animosity between opposing sides around the so-called cultural issues that, in reality, have nothing to do with culture but increasingly dominate the news cycle.

    Until the launch of the culture wars around issues such as abortion, gay marriage, identity and gender, many Americans had felt comfortable as members of two distinct camps. As Democrats and Republicans, they functioned like two rival teams in sport. Presidential elections were always Super Bowls of a sort at which the people would come for the spectacle. The purpose of the politicians that composed the parties was not to govern, but to win elections. But, for most of the 20th century, the acrimony they felt and generated focused on issues of public policy, which once implemented the people would accept, albeit grudgingly if the other party was victorious. After the storm, the calm. In contrast, cultural issues generate bitterness, resentment and ultimately enmity. After the storm, the tempest.

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    The force of the raging cultural winds became apparent last week in two entirely different celebrity incidents, concerning Joe Rogan and Whoopi Goldberg. Both were treated to the new style of excommunication that the various churches of correct thinking and exclusionary practices now mete out on a regular basis. In an oddly symmetrical twist, the incriminating words were what is now referred to as “the N-word” spoken by a white person and the word “race” spoken by a black person. Later in the week, a debate arose about yet another word with racial implications — apartheid — when Amnesty International formally accused the state of Israel of practicing it against Palestinians.

    The N-word has become the locus classicus of isolating an item of language that — while muddled historically and linguistically — is so definitively framed that, even while trying to come to grips with it informally as an admittedly strange and fascinating phenomenon in US culture, any white person who utters the reprehensible term will be considered as having delivered a direct insult to a real person or an entire population. Years ago, Joe Rogan made a very real mistake that he now publicly regrets. While examining the intricate rules surrounding the word and its interdiction, he allowed himself the freedom to actually pronounce the word.

    In his apology, Rogan claimed that he hasn’t said the word in years, which in itself is an interesting historical point. He recognizes that the social space for even talking about the word has become exaggeratedly restricted. Branding Rogan as a racist just on that basis may represent a legitimate suspicion about the man’s character, worth examining, but it is simply an erroneous procedure. Using random examples from nearly 10 years ago may raise some questions about the man’s culture, but it makes no valid case for proving Rogan is or even was at the time a racist.

    The Whoopi Goldberg case is less straightforward because it wasn’t about a word but an idea. She said the Holocaust “was not about race.” Proposing the hypothesis that Nazi persecution of Jews may be a case of something other than simple racism is the kind of thought any legitimate historian might entertain and seek to examine. It raises some serious questions not only about what motivated the Nazis, but about what our civilization means by the words “race” and “racism.” There is considerable ambiguity to deal with in such a discussion, but any statement seeking to clarify the nature of what is recognized as evil behavior should be seen as potentially constructive.

    Once some kind of perspective can be established about the terms and formulations that legitimately apply to the historical case, it could be possible to conclude, as many think, that either Goldberg’s particular formulation is legitimate, inaccurate or inappropriate. Clearly, Goldberg’s critics found her formulation inappropriate, but, objectively speaking, they were in no position to prove it inaccurate without engaging in the meaning of “race.”

    The problem is complex because history is complex, both the history of the time and the historical moment today. One of the factors of complexity appeared in another controversy created by Amnesty International’s publication of a study that accuses Israel of being an apartheid state, which considered in international law is to be a crime against humanity.

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    Interestingly, The Times of Israel gives a fair and very complete hearing to Amnesty International’s spokespersons, whereas American media largely ignored the report. When they did cover it, US media focused on the dismissive Israeli reaction. PBS News Hour quoted Ned Price, who in another exchange with Matt Lee stated that the department rejects “the view that Israel‘s actions constitute apartheid.”

    Once again, the debate is over a word, the difference in this case being that the word is specifically defined in international law. The debate predictably sparked, among some commentators, another word, whose definition has often been stretched in extreme directions in the interest of provoking strong emotions: anti-Semitism. Goldberg’s incriminating sentence itself was branded by some as anti-Semitism.

    At the end of the day, the words used in any language can be understood in a variety of ways. Within a culture that has adopted the worldview of binary exclusionism, the recourse to constructive dialogue is rapidly disappearing. Instead, we are all saddled with the task of trying to memorize the lists of words one can and cannot say and the ideas it will be dangerous to express.

    What this means is that addressing and solving real problems is likely to become more and more difficult. It also means that the media will become increasingly less trustworthy than it already is today. For one person, a “false flag” corresponds to a fact, and for another, it can only be the component of a conspiracy theory. The N-word is a sound white people must never utter, even if reading Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn aloud. And the word “race” — a concept that has no biological reality — now may apply to any group of people who have been oppressed by another group and who choose to be thought of as a race.

    The topics these words refer to are all serious. For differing reasons, they are all uncomfortable to talk about. But so are issues spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic, related to health and prevention, especially when death and oppressive administrative constraints happen to be involved. The real problem is that as soon as the dialogue begins to stumble over a specific word or ill-defined concept or the feeling of injustice, reasoning is no longer possible. Obedient acceptance of what becomes imposed itself as the “norm” is the only possible survival strategy, especially for anyone visible to the public. But that kind of obedience may not be the best way to practice democracy.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    The Art of Prince Andrew’s Lawyers

    With everything that has been going on as the world seeks to weigh the chances of a nuclear war and a realignment of nations across the globe, fans of the media may have failed to tune into the real news that broke in recent weeks. Forget Ukraine, there is another drama whose suspense is building. It obviously concerns the fate of the battered Prince Andrew because of his role in the Jeffrey Epstein/Ghislaine Maxwell saga that has already produced an officially (and conveniently) declared “suicide” (Epstein’s) and a celebrity criminal trial (Maxwell’s). 

    Since a US judge has now agreed to bring Virginia Giuffre’s civil lawsuit to trial, it means that for the first time, a prince of England, a member of the royal family, will be officially put on the hot seat in an American courtroom. The rebelling colonists couldn’t get King George III to answer for his crimes, but they now appear to have a son of Elizabeth II in their grasp.

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    For weeks, the media have been running updates specifically on speculation about the legal strategy Andrew’s attorneys are likely to adopt. Though for the moment it remains mere speculation, it does have the power for attentive observers to provoke a few comic effects. The latest hypothesis has the lawyers seeking to turn the tables on Giuffre by accusing her of sex trafficking. They aren’t claiming Andrew is innocent, but they want her to appear guilty. Business Insider considers that ploy “risky” because the tactic consists of getting a witness — another of Epstein’s victims — to make that claim about Giuffre. It risks backfiring because the witness could actually contradict Andrew’s adamant claim that he never had sex with Giuffre.

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    Actually, the legal team appears already to have prepared a strategy for that eventuality. On January 26, NPR reported that Andrew’s lawyers addressed a message to the court saying, “that if any sexual activity did occur between the prince and Virginia Giuffre, it was consensual.” This may sound odd because the accused’s lawyers should know if he did or didn’t, but the law is never about knowledge, only the impression a good attorney can make on a judge or a jury.

    NPR continues its description of the lawyers’ position: “The court filing made clear that Andrew wasn’t admitting sexual contact with Giuffre. But it said if the case wasn’t dismissed, the defense wants a trial in which it would argue that her abuse claims ‘are barred by the doctrine of consent.’”

    Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:


    Agreement on something perceived as illicit between two or more people, including, in some extreme cases, a member of the British royal family and a 17-year-old American girl turned into a sex slave by the royal’s best American friend

    Contextual Note

    Since lawyers live in a world of hypotheticals, evoking the idea that “if” a judge and jury were to decide sexual contact between the two was real, it should enable the legal team to make a claim they expect the court to understand as: She was asking for it. In civil cases, all lawyers know that attack is the best defense.

    Thus, Andrew’s legal team is now being paid, not to prove the prince’s innocence, but to establish the guilt of the victim. They are seeking to create the impression that the Virginia Roberts of two decades ago was already a wolf in sheep’s clothing when she consented to consorting with a prince. And, of course, continues to be one as she seeks to profit from the civil trial today.

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    Most commentators doubt that Andrew has a case. This has permitted the media to revel in the humiliation of a man who has always been perceived as supercilious and deserving of no one’s attention apart from being the queen’s “favourite son.” That is why this has been nothing but bad news for Buckingham Palace. 

    And it looks to get worse. So stay tuned.

    Historical Note

    Legal experts tell us that what the prince’s lawyers refer to as the “doctrine of consent” is officially described as the “doctrine of informed consent.” More pertinently, the consent referred to focuses entirely on cases in the realm of medical treatment. It is all about a patient’s agreement to a medical procedure that may be risky. It defines the physician’s duty to inform the patient of all the risks associated with a recommended procedure. If consent is obtained, the physician will be clear of responsibility should any of the risks be realized.

    It may seem odd that Prince Andrew’s lawyers are appealing to a doctrine established specifically for medical practice. But while many will not think of lawyers themselves as appealing, whenever they lose a case, you can be sure that they will be appealing it. But that isn’t the only kind of appealing they do. When preparing a case, they will appeal to any random principle or odd fact that appears to serve their purpose. This should surprise no one because, just like politicians who focus on winning elections rather than governing, lawyers focus on winning cases for their clients rather than on justice.

    The sad truth, however, for those who believe that justice is a fine thing to have as a feature of an advanced civilization is that the lawyers are not only right to follow that logic; the best of their lot are also very skillful in making it work. Which is why what we call the justice system will always be more “just” for those who can afford to pay for the most skillful lawyers.

    The final irony of this story lies in the fact that, in their diligence, the lawyers have borrowed the idea behind the doctrine of consent, not from the world of sexual predation, but from the realm of therapy and medical practice. They need to be careful at this point. Even Andrew and his lawyers should know that if you insert a space in the word “therapist,” it points to the image Prince Andrew has in some people’s minds: “the rapist.” The mountains of testimony from Jeffrey Epstein’s countless victims reveal that, though they were undoubtedly consenting in some sense to the masterful manipulation of the deceased billionaire and friend to the famous and wealthy (as well as possibly a spy), all of them have been to some degree traumatized for life by the experience.

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    As Bill Gates explained when questioned about the problem of his own (he claims ill-informed) consent to whatever he was up to with Epstein, for him there could be no serious regrets. The problem no longer exists because, well, “he’s dead” (referring to his pal, Jeffrey). Prince Andrew is still alive, though this whole business has deprived him of all his royal privileges, making him something of a dead branch on the royal family tree. Virginia Giuffre is also still alive, though undoubtedly disturbed by her experience as a tool in the hands of Jeffrey Epstein, Ghislaine Maxwell and Prince Andrew.

    So, unless a nuclear war intervenes in the coming weeks between the US and Russia making everything else redundant (including the collapse of Meta’s stock), the interesting news will turn around the legal fate in the US of two prominent Brits. The first is a socialite (and possibly also a spy) as well as a high-profile heiress, Ghislaine Maxwell. She is expected to have a retrial sometime in the future. The second is none other than the queen’s favorite son.

    *[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More