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    Iraq Still Feels the Consequences of US Assassinations

    The assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) elite Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi militia commander, head of Kataib Hezbollah and de facto leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), by a US drone strike outside Baghdad International Airport in January 2020 continues to reverberate across Iraq.

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    The killings, ordered by then US President Donald Trump, have served to exacerbate the severe security challenges the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi already faces. The PMF, without al-Muhandis’ leadership, is becoming increasingly splintered, threatening even more insecurity for ordinary Iraqis who are trying to recover from nearly two decades of war and terrorism.

    Growing Security Challenges

    Security is a prerequisite for the prosperity, welfare and economic development of any society. However, as long as Iran continues its extensive influence over Iraq and uses Iraqi territory as a venue to play out its conflict with the United States, security cannot be achieved.

    After the assassinations of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, the PMF appeared to be even more aggressively pursuing Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s strategic goal, namely the withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq. The US Embassy, the Baghdad Green Zone and US military bases have been repeatedly targeted by PMF militias. The US responded in kind and bombed PMF positions in various parts of the country, further escalating an already fragile security situation.

    Meanwhile, al-Kadhimi, viewed by his critics as catering to Washington, blamed the US for violating Iraqi sovereignty by launching unilateral operations inside the country. At the same time, he faced strenuous demands from the Americans for his government to do more to stop PMF attacks on US targets.

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    The withdrawal of foreign military forces had been approved by the Iraqi parliament just two days after the high-profile assassinations. Following the US-Iraqi strategic dialogue that launched in June 2020, the US evacuated some of its bases that have been in place since 2003, handing them over to the Iraqi army. But a final withdrawal agreed to be completed by the end of last year has stalled, and the remaining 2,500 US troops have stayed on, no longer in a combat role but rather to “advise, assist and enable” the Iraqi military.

    This quasi-exit was met with a stern reaction from the PMF, who threatened to treat the US forces as aggressors if they did not withdraw completely from Iraq. “Targeting the US occupation in Iraq is a great honor, and we support the factions that target it,” was how a spokesperson for one of the PMF militias put it. Such threats underline the risk of further confrontations between the militias and the US and the potential for more insecurity for ordinary Iraqis.

    The targeting of Baghdad’s airport on January 28, with at least six rockets landing on the runway and areas close to the non-military side, causing damage to parked passenger planes, underlines just how fragile the security situation remains.

    The PM and the PMF

    The conflicts over differences between the PMF and the government are another reason for growing insecurity in the post-assassination period. The PMF has a competitive relationship with the prime minister’s government, and this competition has only intensified over the past two years. PMF groups consider al-Kadhimi to be pro-US, seeking to reduce the influence of Shia militant groups in Iraq.

    Initially, in March 2020, major Shia factions rejected his nomination, accusing him of being inordinately close to the US. The Fatah Coalition, composed of significant Shia groups close to Iran, later accepted his candidacy. Still, tensions remain as al-Kadhimi strives to strike a balance between Iran on the one hand and the US and its allies on the other.

    The prime minister believes that the PMF should exit the political stage. He also believes that the PMF should be freed from party affiliation and be fully controlled by the government. This would mean that their budget would come from the federal government and not from private sources or other states. In this regard, al-Kadhimi is seeking to strengthen government control over border crossings to fight corruption and smuggling.

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    The crossings are used by militias, including those reportedly active at Diyala’s border crossing into Iran. If the government effectively controls these vital channels, financial inflows from smuggling, which strengthens the militias, will decrease in the long term while federal coffers will directly benefit.

    The dispute between the PMF and the prime minister escalated in May of last year when police arrested Qasem Mosleh, the PMF commander in Anbar province, over the assassination of a prominent Iraqi activist. In response, the PMF stormed and took control of the Green Zone. Al-Kadhimi, not wanting to escalate the conflict, found no evidence against Mosleh and released him after 14 days.

    In November 2021, al-Kadhimi himself was targeted in an assassination attempt following clashes between various Iraqi parties during protests against the results of the parliamentary elections. Despite its failure, an armed drone attack on the prime minister’s Baghdad residence presented a disturbing development for contemporary Iraq and was attributed to a PMF militia loyal to Iran.

    Internal Struggles

    The assassination of al-Muhandis had a huge impact on the PMF. He was a charismatic figure able to mediate more effectively than anyone else between various Iraqi groups, from Shia clerics in Najaf to Iraqi government politicians and Iranian officials. After his death, the militia groups in the PMF face internal division.

    The PMF’s political leadership, including its chairman, Falih Al-Fayyadh, has tried to present itself as committed to the law and accepting the authority of the prime minister. In contrast, two powerful PMF factions, Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, have taken a hardline stance, emphasizing armed resistance against US forces. Tehran’s efforts to mediate between the leaders of the two factions and the Iraqi government have yielded few results.

    Meanwhile, internal disagreements over the degree of Iranian control caused four PMF brigades to split off and form a new structure called Hashd al-Atabat, or Shrine Units. Their avowed intention is to repudiate Iranian influence while supporting the Iraqi state and the rule of law.

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    Another divide in the PMF has opened up between groups such as Kataib Hezbollah on the one hand, and Badr, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Saraya al-Salam on the other, due to poor relationship management by Kataib Hezbollah in the PMF Commission after Muhandis’ death. While it is unsurprising that a number of critical PMF functions like internal affairs and intelligence are controlled by Kataib Hezbollah given that Muhandis founded the group before assuming the PMF’s leadership, he managed to exercise control in a manner that kept other factions onboard.

    But Kataib Hezbollah’s imposition, in February 2020, of another one of its commanders, Abu Fadak al Mohammadawi, to succeed al-Muhandis on the PMF Commission alienated key groups such as Badr and Asaib. Clearly, a severely factionalized and heavily armed PMF continues to pose a significant security threat in the country.

    Announcing the assassinations on January 3, 2020, Donald Trump said of Soleimani that “we take comfort knowing his reign of terror is over.” Two years on from the killing of the IRGC general and the PMF boss, ordinary Iraqis beset by violence and insecurity take no such comfort.

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

    *[This article was originally published by Arab Digest, a partner of Fair Observer.] More

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    Is the Decline of Democracy Inevitable?

    Perhaps the most critical immediate question facing the world in 2022 is whether the decline and eventual destruction of democracy are inevitable in the next decade. Thousands of words have been directed to this question over recent years, intensifying after the ascendency of Donald Trump to the presidency in the United States, the propagation of “the big lie” after his defeat in the 2020 election, and the subsequent insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

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    In the same period, Great Britain moved to the right under Prime Minister Boris Johnson while autocratic regimes in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines and Brazil tightened their grip on governance structures.

    What does the future hold for liberal democracies around the world in the next decade? Are current trends an aberration, or is Marc Plattner prophetic in noting in “Democracy in Decline?” that authoritarianism seems to have the “wind at its back even if it has not yet spread to many more countries”?

    Inevitable Decline Scenario

    Current trends produce compelling evidence that seems to suggest that the decline of democracies is an inevitability. In the United States, daily columns appear pronouncing that democracy is in peril and under siege, and asking whether another civil war is possible. The January 6 assault on the Capitol continues to be a flashpoint in what was already a very volatile political environment. Voting restrictions targeted at likely Democratic voters have been instituted in many pro-Republican states. Given the prominence of America as a symbol of liberal democracy, countries around the world are now thinking the unthinkable about the future of democratic governance.

    Last year’s Freedom House report, “Freedom in the World for 2021,” carries the subheading “Democracy under Siege.” It suggests that the aggregate decline in freedom has exceeded gains for the past 15 years. While much of the deterioration in 2020 was associated with regimes in Africa and the Middle East, European nations — Poland, Hungary and Turkey — recorded reductions in freedom. Moreover, the United States has seen a 10-year decline in freedom equivalent to that experienced in 25 other nations.

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    Meanwhile, as the left-wing populist party headed by Nicolas Maduro has captured the headlines because of his dismantling of democratic institutions in Venezuela, right-wing populist movements are increasing across Latin America — Brazil, Bolivia and Peru are examples. More recently, following Jair Bolsonaro’s playbook in Brazil, the leader of the right-wing populist Christian Social Front in Chile, José Antonio Kast, forced a run-off in a recent election after voicing a desire to return to the autocratic regime of Augusto Pinochet.  

    Kast eventually lost in a landslide, which bodes well for the stability of democracy in Chile for the near future, but still raises the disconcerting issue of the popularity of authoritarianism among a sizeable minority of Chile’s polity. 

    Predisposition to Authoritarianism

    All of these recent events would seem to posit an argument that many citizens are susceptible to an authoritarian appeal. However, forecasting trends from recent events is always hazardous. Yet there is a more ominous source for predicting inevitability than the recent accounts and actions of political leaders and pundits. The writings of a number of social psychologists, historians and political scientists are extremely relevant to the question at hand.

    Karen Skinner argues in her book “The Authoritarian Dynamic” that autocratic tendencies are baked into the psychic of citizens of liberal democracies. Fear of change and diversity is easily transformed into a call by a politician for a return to the status quo of the past, like “Make American Great Again.” Long before the ascent of Trump, Skinner estimated that as many as one-third of the population in liberal democracies have a predisposition to authoritarianism.

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    Given that democracies encourage diversity, alternative interpretations of history and open dialogue on difficult issues, these strengths may exceed people’s capacity to tolerate difficult issues. A growing lack of tolerance toward immigrants, people of color or bureaucrats provides a platform for opportunistic leaders to activate that “authoritarian dynamic.”

    Roger Griffin offers a similar argument when he attributes modernity as a force for fascism. With the unfolding of modernity, populist interpretations of an idealized national past arise in response to the anxiety that citizens feel about a future where the only certainty is that it will be different than the past. Leaders with autocratic ambitions use “restorative nostalgia” — Svetlana Boym’s concept introduced in her book “The Future of Nostalgia” to describe a hereafter that replicates the past — to rally citizens to a populist political movement, a revolt against democratic institutions and their advocates, “the bureaucratic elites.”

    The arguments offered by Skinner, Griffin and others provide an important understanding of how the internal vulnerabilities of liberal democracies can nurture their own demise. However, despite the presence of an authoritarian dynamic within liberal democracies, a political leadership factor is part of the calculus for predicting the future of democracies. The past decade has witnessed the emergence of Plutarchian leaders who have learned to navigate the pathway that enables populist sentiments to be integrated with autocratic predispositions.

    While their hold on the masses is important, what is required to secure power is their ability to bewitch a small key group of capable and principled people in leadership roles and convince them to submit to the autocratic impulses of a prophetic leader as a means of achieving limited policy goals.  

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    A cadre of Von Papenites — those who have no autocratic predisposition but are willing to align with anti-democratic politics as a means of achieving specific policy goals or to ensure their own power base in the governance structure — is required. The important and notorious role that Franz von Papen had in enabling the rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930s must not be duplicated if democracy is to be resilient in countries experiencing populist movements. The dangerous combination of a charismatic populist leader and a sizable component of politicians willing to compromise their political ideals for transitory political goals would make the downward spiral of democracy inevitable.

    Yet in the United States, a contingent of politicians did defy the urges of the Trump administration to decertify the election results and preserve democratic rule. In Chile, citizens and political leaders rejected the call to return to the autocratic governance model of Pinochet’s dictatorship. In Europe, despite the political uncertainties created by the pandemic, right-wing populist movements have not established themselves as viable alternatives to current regimes. 

    Democracy will be resilient and survive the current wave of right-wing authoritarianism if leaders and institutions demonstrate their ability to solve critical social and economic problems, reverse the erosion of trust between themselves and the public, and put the safeguarding of democracy at the forefront of their political agenda.

    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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    Washington’s Tawdry Victory Over Julian Assange

    Last week witnessed the 80th anniversary of a moment in history qualified by Franklin D. Roosevelt as “a date which will live in infamy.” On December 8, 1941, the president announced that the United States was declaring war after Japan’s unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor a day earlier. A nation that had spent two decades wallowing in isolationism instantly became one of the principal and most powerful actors in a new world war. Victory on two fronts, against Germany and Japan, would be achieved successively in 1944 and 1945.

    Last week ended with its own day of infamy when a British court overturned an earlier judgment banning the extradition to the US of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Following in the footsteps of the Trump administration, President Joe Biden’s Justice Department successfully appealed the ban in its relentless effort to judge Assange for violating the 1917 Espionage Act, itself a relic of the history of the First World War.

    Guns and the Wrong Side of Rights


    Back then, President Woodrow Wilson’s government pulled no jingoistic punches when promoting America’s participation in Europe’s war. It actively incited the population to indulge in xenophobia. Public paranoia targeting Germany, the nation’s enemy, reached such a pitch that Beethoven was banned from the concert stage, sauerkraut was officially renamed “liberty cabbage” and hamburger “liberty steak.”

    The manifestly paranoid Espionage Act sought to punish anyone who “communicates, delivers, or transmits, or attempts to communicate, deliver or transmit to any foreign government … any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, etc.” The law, specifically for a state of war, was so extreme it was rarely used until Barack Obama unearthed it as the elegant solution for suppressing the whistleblowers he had vowed to defend in his first presidential campaign.

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    Despite overindulging his taste for punishing whistleblowers, Obama refrained from seeking to extradite Assange. He feared it might appear as an assault on freedom of the press and might even incriminate The New York Times, which had published the WikiLeaks documents in 2010. In the meantime, Democrats found a stronger reason to blame Assange. He had leaked the Democratic National Committee’s emails during the 2016 presidential primary campaign. Democrats blamed the Australian for electing Donald Trump.

    During his 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly praised WikiLeaks for its willingness to expose the undemocratic practices of the Clinton campaign. But once in power, Trump’s administration vindictively demanded Assange’s extradition from the UK for having revealed war crimes that deserved being hidden for eternity from the prying eyes of journalists and historians. 

    Many observers expected Biden to return to the prudent wisdom of Obama and break with Trump’s vindictive initiative. He could have quietly accepted the British judge’s decision pronounced in January. Instead, his Justice Department appealed. Unlike Trump, who sought to undermine everything Obama had achieved, Biden has surprisingly revealed a deep, largely passive respect for his predecessor’s most dangerous innovations — not challenging corporate tax cuts, the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and Trump’s aggressive support for Israel’s most oppressive policies with regard to Palestinians.

    Biden’s eagerness to follow Trump’s gambit aimed at subjecting Assange to the US brand of military-style justice allowed New York Times journalists Megan Specia and Charlie Savage to describe Friday’s decision by the British court as a success for the administration. “The ruling was a victory,” they wrote, “at least for now, for the Biden administration, which has pursued an effort to prosecute Mr. Assange begun under the Trump administration.”

    Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:


    Triumph in combat, including, at two extremes, cases marked by heroic action and others prompted by malicious self-serving motives and driven by the perpetrator’s confusion of the idea of justice with sadistic, vindictive pleasure

    Contextual Note

    The Times journalists quote Wyn Hornbuckle, a Justice Department spokesman, who “said the government was ‘pleased by the ruling’ and would have no further comment.” At no point in the article do the authors evoke the hypothesis that Biden might have sought to overturn Trump’s policy. Nor do they analyze the reasons that could undermine the government’s case. They do quote several of Assange’s supporters, including one who called “on the Biden administration again to withdraw” the charge. Serious observers of the media might expect that a pillar of the press in a liberal democracy might be tempted to express its own concern with laws and policies that risk threatening its own freedom. Not The New York Times. This story didn’t even make its front page. None of its columnists deemed it deserving of comment.

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    Journalist Kalinga Seneviratne, writing for The Manila Times, offered a radical contrast. “If this year’s Nobel Peace Prize is about promoting ‘press freedom,’” he speculates, “the Norwegian Nobel Committee missed a golden opportunity to make a powerful statement at a time when such freedom is under threat in the very countries that have traditionally claimed a patent on it.” He quotes the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, who claims that “what has been done to Julian Assange is not to punish or coerce him, but to silence him and to do so in broad daylight, making visible to the entire world that those who expose the misconduct of the powerful no longer enjoy the protection of the law.” 

    Deutsche Welle’s Matthias von Hein noted the interesting coincidence that three converging events took place on the same day. “In a bitter twist of irony,” he writes, “a court in London has essentially paved the way for Assange’s prosecution on Human Rights Day — of all days. And how ironic that it happened on the day two journalists were honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. Last, but not least, it coincided with the second day of the Summit on Democracy organized by US President Joe Biden.”

    Von Hein added this observation: “We’re constantly hearing how Western democracies are in competition with autocratic systems. If Biden is serious about that, he should strive to be better than the world’s dictators.” But, as the saying goes, you can’t teach a 79-year old dog new tricks.

    Historical Note

    The coincidences do not end there. On the same day the news of Julian Assange’s fate emerged, Yahoo’s investigative reporter Michael Isikoff recounted the story of another man “brought to justice” by US authorities: Mohamedou Ould Slahi. The Mauritanian citizen had the privilege of spending 14 years in the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba without ever being charged with a crime, even after confessing to the crimes imagined by his torturers.

    It turns out to be a touching moral tale. Even after years of imprisonment and gruesome torture, Slahi “holds no personal animus against his interrogators.” According to Isikoff, “he has even met and bonded with some of those interrogators,” years after the event. “I took it upon myself,” Slahi explained, “to be a nice person and took a vow of kindness no matter what. And you cannot have a vow of kindness without forgiving people.”

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    It wasn’t the Prophet Muhammad who said, “turn the other cheek” or “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Those words were spoken by the man George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld claimed to revere and whom Bush considered his “favorite philosopher.” The Quran did continue the original Christian insight, pronouncing that “retribution for an evil act is an evil one like it,” and that reconciliation and forgiveness will be rewarded by Allah.

    There has clearly been no forgiveness in Washington for the “evil” committed by Assange: exposing war crimes conducted in secret with American taxpayers’ money. Slahi’s torture was conducted by the declared proponents of “Judeo-Christian” culture. Shahi’s forgiveness stands as an example of what that culture claims as a virtue but fails to embrace in its own actions.

    Shahi is reconciled with his interrogators. But does he also feel reconciled with those who gave them their orders? In 2019, he said, “I accept that the United States should follow and put to trial all the people who are harming their citizens. I agree with that. But I disagree with them that if they suspect you, they kidnap you, they torture you, and let you rot in prison for 15 or 16 years. And then they dump you in your country and they say you cannot have your passport because you have already seen so many things that we don’t want you to travel around the world to talk about.”

    Despite appearances, Mohamedou Ould Shahi’s case is not all that different from Julian Assange’s.

    *[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 Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

    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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    How 9/11 and the War on Terror Shaped the World

    On September 11, 2001, 19 militants associated with the Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda hijacked four planes and launched suicide attacks on iconic symbols of America, first striking the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and then the Pentagon. It would be the deadliest act of terrorism on American soil, claiming nearly 3,000 lives.

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    The attacks not only shocked the world, but the images of planes crashing into the World Trade Center came to define a generation. In a speech on October 11, 2001, then-President George W. Bush spoke of “an attack on the heart and soul of the civilized world” and declared “war against all those who seek to export terror, and a war against those governments that support or shelter them.” This was the start of the global war on terror.

    The Story of the 9/11 Attacks and Retaliation

    Osama bin Laden, the Saudi leader of al-Qaeda, inspired the 9/11 attacks. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Pakistani Islamist terrorist and the nephew of the truck driver convicted for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, masterminded the operation. The 9/11 Commission Report described al-Qaeda as “sophisticated, patient, disciplined and lethal.” It held that the enemy rallied “broad support in the Arab and Muslim world.” The report concluded that al-Qaeda’s hostility to the US and its values was limitless.

    The report went on to say that the enemy aimed “to rid the world of religious and political pluralism, the plebiscite, and equal rights for women,” and observed that it made no distinction between military and civilian targets. The goal going forward was “to attack terrorists and prevent their ranks from swelling while at the same time protecting [the US] against future attacks.”

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    To prosecute the war on terror, the US built a worldwide coalition: 136 countries offered military assistance, and 46 multilateral organizations declared support. Washington began by launching a financial war on terror, freezing assets and disrupting fundraising pipelines. In the first 100 days, the Bush administration set aside $20 billion for homeland security.

    On October 7, 2001, the US inaugurated the war on terror with Operation Enduring Freedom. An international coalition that included Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Japan, the UK and other countries, with the help of the Northern Alliance comprising various mujahedeen militias, overthrew the Taliban, which was sheltering al-Qaeda fighters, and took over Afghanistan.

    The war on terror that began in Afghanistan soon took on a global focus. In 2003, the Bush administration invaded Iraq despite the lack of a UN mandate. Washington made the argument that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, represented a threat to world peace, and harbored and succored al-Qaeda and other Islamic jihadists. None of this proved to be true. Hussein’s regime fell as speedily as Mullah Omar’s Taliban.

    Victory, however, was short-lived. Soon, insurgency returned. In Afghanistan, suicide attacks quintupled from 27 in 2005 to 139 in 2006. Globally, the war on terror saw a “stunning” rise in jihadist activity, with just over 32,000 fighters split among 13 Islamist groups in 2001 burgeoning to 100,000 across 44 outfits in 2015. Terrorist attacks went up from an estimated 1,880 in 2001 to 14,806 in 2015, claiming 38,422 lives that year alone — a 397% increase on 2001.

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    Boosted by the US invasion of Iraq, al-Qaeda spawned affiliates across Asia, Africa and the Middle East, a decentralized structure that remained intact even after the US assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011 dealt al-Qaeda a severe blow. One of its Iraqi offshoots morphed into what became the Islamic State (IS) group following the withdrawal of most US from Iraq under President Barack Obama in 2011.

    After declaring a caliphate in 2014, IS launched a global terrorist campaign that, within a year, conducted and inspired over 140 attacks in 29 countries beyond Syria and Iraq, according to one estimate. Islamic State acolytes went on to claim nearly 30,000 lives across the Middle East, Europe, the United States, Asia and Africa, controlling vast amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria, before suffering defeat by internationally-backed local forces in 2019.

    In Afghanistan, despite the war’s estimated trillion-dollar price tag, on August 15 the Taliban have taken control of the capital Kabul amid a chaotic US withdrawal, raising fears of al-Qaeda’s comeback. Last year, the Global Terrorism Index concluded that deaths from terrorism were still double the number recorded in 2001, with Afghanistan claiming a disproportionately large share of over 40% in 2019.

    Why Do 9/11 and the War on Terror Matter?

    While the failures and successes of the war on terror will remain subject to heated debate for years to come, what remains uncontested is the fact that the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing war on terror have forged the world we live in today.

    First, they have caused tremendous loss of blood and treasure. Brown University’s Costs of War project places an $8-trillion price tag on the US war on terror. It estimates that about 900,000 people “were killed as a direct result of war, whether by bombs, bullets or fire,” a number that does not include indirect deaths “caused by way of disease, displacement and loss of access to food or clean drinking water.”

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    Second, numerous countries, including liberal democracies such as the US and the UK, have eroded their own civil liberties and democratic institutions with the avowed goal of improving security. Boarding airplanes or entering public buildings now invariably involves elaborate security checks. Mass surveillance has become par for the course. The US continues to keep alleged terror suspects in indefinite detention without trial in Guantanamo Bay.

    Third, many analysts argue that the attacks and the response have coarsened the US. After World War II, Americans drew a line in the sand against torture. They put Germans and Japanese on trial for war crimes that included waterboarding. In the post-9/11 world, torture became part of the American toolkit. Airstrikes and drone strikes have caused high collateral casualties, killing a disputed number of innocents and losing the battle for the hearts and minds of local populations.

    These strikes raise significant issues of legality and the changing nature of warfare. There is a question as to the standing of “counterterrorism” operations in international and national law. However, such issues have garnered relatively little public attention. 

    Fourth, the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing war on terror have coincided with the spectacular rise of China. On December 11, 2001, the Middle Kingdom joined the World Trade Organization, which enabled the Chinese economy to grow at a speed and scale unprecedented in history. Analysts believe that distraction with the war on terror hindered the US response to the revolution occurring in global international relations and power dynamics. 

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    Under Barack Obama, the US initiated an explicit pivot to Asia policy that sought to shift focus from the war on terror and manage the rise of China. Under Donald Trump, Washington unleashed a trade war on Beijing and concluded a peace deal with the Taliban. Joe Biden has believed that, since the early days of the war on terror, US priorities have been too skewed toward terrorism and that Afghanistan is a secondary strategic issue, leading to a decision to withdraw troops to mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

    Biden has argued that the US has degraded al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and eliminated bin Laden. Despite worrying echoes of George W. Bush declaring the “mission accomplished” in Iraq in 2003, from now on, Biden wants the US to remain “narrowly focused on counterterrorism — not counterinsurgency or nation building.”

    While the terrorist threat still consumes US resources, Washington is now shifting its strategic attention and resources to China, Russia and Iran. The Biden administration has deemed these three authoritarian powers to be the biggest challenge for the postwar liberal and democratic order. The 20-year war on terror seems to be over — at least for now.

    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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    After Afghanistan, How Probable Is Peace?

    As the world speculates about the future of Afghanistan, some key figures in the West — with a vested interest in how things evolve militarily — are today claiming to show the clairvoyance that has consistently failed them in the past. Many have criticized President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw from the battlefield. Even more have complained about how it was managed.

    Republicans feel duty-bound to denounce a policy that only Lynn Cheney objected to when the Republican President Donald Trump promoted it. One “highly decorated British Army officer” complained that “6,500 people died, including 3,000 deaths at Twin Towers, and we didn’t achieve a single thing.” Special Operations Staff Sergeant Trevor Coult went further, claiming that Biden “is a danger while he is president.”

    Numerous Democrats attached to the military-industrial funding machine have objected to the very idea of abandoning the costly struggle. Representative Jim Langevin, of Rhode Island, penned an op-ed in Foreign Policy portraying the decision as a betrayal of a moral commitment to “our Afghan allies of 20 years” and “to our military service members and their families … who gave the ultimate sacrifice.” And, of course, he couldn’t forget “the women and girls of Afghanistan who are now experiencing a devastating new reality.”

    Will the Taliban End Up Under the Influence?


    He seemed less concerned when for 20 years the majority of Afghan women and girls experienced another form of devastating reality: receiving bombs delivered by surgical drones, seeing their doors kicked in by well-armed soldiers, listening to drones buzzing overhead and wondering where they might strike, failing to understand which local warlord in the pay of the CIA might protect them or aggress them, or simply watching unutterable chaos unfold day after day.

    AFP reports on the opinion General Mark Milley expressed in an interview with Fox News: Now that the US troops are no longer there to enforce the law and maintain order, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff predicts further chaos, worse than ever before. After questioning the ability of the Taliban, even before they have formed a government, “to consolidate power and establish effective governance,” Milley offers his assessment of what’s to come. “I think there’s at least a very good probability of a broader civil war,” he asserts.

    Making certain his audience will understand the degree of fear his warnings should inspire, he adds that it “will then in turn lead to conditions that could, in fact, lead to a reconstitution of Al-Qaeda or a growth of ISIS or other … terrorist groups.”

    Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

    Good probability:

    A dire likelihood to be ardently wished for by anyone associated with the military-industrial complex or dependent on it for current or future employment

    Contextual note

    Military officers, including generals, may hide the truth about reality on the ground. As the Afghanistan Papers revealed, that happened consistently for over two decades. But even when painting a rosy picture of success or an assessment of troop performance, a soldier’s choice of language leaves some room for the truth. That is why most governments usually prefer that the military not engage too directly with the media.

    General Milley made clear what he means when he described the chaos to come as “at least a very good probability.” Both of his chosen expressions — “at least” and “very good” — reveal less about reality on the ground and more about how he hopes to see the situation evolve, calling for preparedness and possibly new operations. He wants Fox’s audience to understand that this is only a pause in the mission of the US to help other nations achieve the serenity of the global superpower that will always be a model for the rest of the world and lead by its example.

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    A totally neutral and objective observer who happened to be equally convinced of the likelihood of a civil war in Afghanistan would have formulated it differently, most likely asserting something along the lines that “a strong possibility of a broader civil war cannot be discounted.” Proverbial wisdom tells us that “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” but the authorities of a nation defined by its military clout tend to improve on that by suggesting that “where there’s a will, there’s a way of framing it in such a manner as to convince people of the way we have decided must be followed.”

    General Milley is no warmonger. No reasonable person would compare him to the legendary Curtis Lemay who summed up his philosophy about conflict — in this case with Russia during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis — with these words: “We should go in and wipe ’em out today.”

    Fortunately, no senior officer in the military would be tempted to think or act that way now. In contrast with the Cold War mentality, one of the lessons of all recent wars is that the US military is less motivated by the idea of winning wars than simply instilling the idea in the average American taxpayer’s mind that the nation needs a powerful, well-funded, technologically advanced military establishment to comfort the belief in American exceptionalism.

    In his interview with Fox News, General Milley shows no inclination to criticize Biden’s decision. He defends the way the withdrawal was conducted, laying all the blame on the Afghan government and its troops while claiming that everything was conducted according to plan. He cites the “corruption in the government” and its lack of legitimacy, “a fundamental issue that stretches back 20 years.”

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    Concerning the collapse of the army and the police force, he makes a truly interesting remark: “We created and developed forces that looked like Western forces,” adding significantly that “maybe those forces were not designed appropriately for the type mission.” 

    General Milley follows up that last observation with what almost sounds like a resolution for action in the future: “That was something that needs to be looked at.” Many commentators have remarked that at the core of the 20-year fiasco lay a persistent form of cultural ignorance. By referring to this question as “something that needs to be looked at,” Milley appears to be placing it on some unequivocally remote back burner. In military parlance, “what needs to be looked at” is what will never be looked at unless someone at the highest level of authority suddenly wakes up to acknowledge the necessity.

    Historical Note 

    In short, an episode of history has just come to an end. In the coming weeks and months, reflection on it will be mired in wild speculation about what might have been done differently, accompanied by accusations of irresponsibility and failure of accountability. And if recent history is any guide, accountability will be successfully evaded, if only because holding one identifiable person accountable opens the floodgate to calling into question the entire system of which they were a part.

    In 2009, voters for Barack Obama expected to see some form of accountability for nearly everyone in the Bush administration, guilty of multiple sins that included war crimes, the criminal transfer of wealth to the 1% and the gutting of the middle-class economy. There were zero prosecutions and instead a message about looking forward rather than backward and letting bygones be bygones.   

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    There are many lessons to be learned from the debacle in Afghanistan and a need for accountability that extends backward to the Bush administration. But none of the lessons can compete with the only essential idea the leaders and actors of the military-industrial complex will continue to put forward in the months to come: that we must be ready to repeat the patterns of the past and respond to the inevitable emergence of the equivalent of al-Qaeda again. We must be afraid of the next wave of terrorism, and we must be ready to respond. The logic of 2021 is the same as the logic of 2001 — and will undoubtedly lead to similar scenarios.

    And why should the logic be different? Military budgets have never been higher, and every new Congress is ready to raise the stakes. Many of us who grew up during the Vietnam War assumed that, once it was over, nothing like that 10-year nightmare could ever occur again. Instead, we have just sat through the equivalent of a Hollywood remake that lasted twice as long.

    *[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 Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

    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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    When Truth No Longer Matters

    An effective communicator with a questionable past builds a successful campaign as an outsider disinterested in everyday, run-of-the-mill politics. He smartly taps into the fears and anxieties of voters and projects himself as the only person who can fix the supposedly broken system.

    Despite warnings from ex-associates and journalists regarding his sociopathic behavior, he decries the media and political opponents as unpatriotic. Policy wonks and veterans in his party are sidelined to create a personality cult unmoored from any ideology. Social media is used daily for dog-whistle rhetoric to promote the cultural supremacy of his ilk.

    Donald Trump Proves That It’s the System, Stupid


    By blaming all the socio-economic ills on outsiders, previous administrations and “others,” he builds a narrative of victimhood. His devoted followers start living in an alternate universe. Once in power, he uses his bully’s pulpit to undermine all democratic institutions.

    Riding Out the Storm

    You would be forgiven for thinking that this was about Donald Trump. But this is the story of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. The similarities end there, however. While the United States managed to pull back from the brink after the Capitol Hill insurrection of January 6, Indian democracy is in a dangerous downward spiral.

    To understand these divergent trajectories of the oldest and the largest democracies in the world, it is instructive to examine the key differences between Trump’s and Modi’s personalities, the maturity of democratic institutions in the United States and India, and the histories of these two republics.

    In the US, Trump’s effort to subvert democratic institutions has been well documented, with commentators still writing about how close the country had come to a constitutional crisis in his final days in office. Trump tried his best to manipulate all the American institutions, but there was rarely any method to his madness. Unlike Modi, he was more interested in vanity than power.

    On a given day, he could draw lines on a map for petty reasons and undermine the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association or brazenly call the officials in Georgia and ask them to “find” enough votes in Trump’s favor to reverse the election result in the state. As much as Trump and his partner-in-crime, Attorney General William Barr, tried, they could not corrode the integrity of the system beyond a certain point.

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

    Despite Trump’s vilification, the media stayed strong and kept hammering home the truth. While Trump tried to use the judiciary to run down the clock on several grave constitutional issues, scores of judges, including several appointed by the president, stood up to him when it mattered the most. The legislature impeached but failed to convict him twice. However, when push came to shove, it certified the votes and declared Joe Biden as the legitimate winner of the 2020 election.

    Barring a few minor missteps, the FBI withstood a concerted pressure campaign from Trump and his allies. The Federal Reserve, the Federal Election Commission, the intelligence agencies, vast bureaucracies and diplomats around the world kept their heads down and rode out the storm. With more than two centuries of experience, most American institutions have learned the importance of guarding their turf.

    Taming the Bureaucracy

    In India, on the other hand, while running his home state of Gujarat before becoming prime minister, Modi had perfected the art of taming the bureaucracy to his will, manipulating or marginalizing the media and polarizing the electorate for his narrow purposes. While he did deliver on a few key infrastructure promises, he also carefully crafted a larger-than-life persona around himself. As soon as he became prime minister, he stopped interacting with the media.

    Well before facing reelection in 2019, he enacted an anonymous political funding system and used it to build a formidable social media propaganda machine to fabricate an alternate universe for his voters. Behind the scenes, he methodically started dismantling the democratic checks and balances. While Trump’s Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might not have been intent on destroying American institutions, Modi proved to be more like McConnell than Trump — someone playing the long power game.

    While previous governments of opposing parties were often guilty of undermining democracy, the brazenness and the cold, calculating manner in which Modi has approached it are astonishing. By using obscure parliamentary maneuvers, the prime minister has repeatedly sidelined or manipulated the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament, to pass laws that have long-term and far-reaching social consequences.

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    In addition to passing questionable constitutional amendments to enact his anonymous political funding scheme, the Right to Information Act (the equivalent of the American Freedom of Information Act) was amended so that those ensuring public access to non-classified government records lost their independence. As a consequence, it became increasingly difficult to shed light on the government’s opaque decision-making.

    The enormous war chest built through anonymous political donations, the government’s sizable advertising budget and the threat of central investigative agencies were used to browbeat most of the media outlets into submission. A top Election Commission official who took a stand against Modi’s incendiary rhetoric in the run-up to his reelection was reassigned to the Asian Development Bank, headquartered in the Philippines.

    The Reserve Bank of India, in charge of the country’s monetary policy, has been repeatedly coerced into taking unsound policy decisions and covering up for the government’s fiscal and economic policy failures. Policymaking powers of at least two states, Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi, have been curtailed through potentially unconstitutional means, disturbing India’s federal structure. The military has been repeatedly co-opted for Modi’s photo-ops to promote phony nationalism. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has been a mute spectator, keeping on hold the hearing of cases related to some of the most pressing constitutional issues.

    As the unfolding global Pegasus spyware scandal indicates, Modi has probably compromised the judiciary’s independence as well. By allegedly hacking the phones of everyone from political rivals, constitutional authorities, judges, their staffers to activists, journalists and even his own ministers and friends in the private sector, Modi seems to have established an Orwellian surveillance-coercion state in which it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to challenge the power of his executive branch.

    Opposite Paths

    Why have India and the US embarked on such opposite paths? One reason is the difference between the two leading men themselves. A devoted foot soldier of right-wing Hindu majoritarian ideology, Modi rose through the political ranks and served more than two terms at the helm of the state of Gujarat before running for the highest office in the land. He had carefully studied all levers of executive and bureaucratic power and, along with his deputy, Amit Shah, had already gained notoriety as one of the country’s most ruthless politicians.

    While both ran their campaigns as outsiders, Trump’s understanding of the government machinery was limited. As former National Security Adviser John Bolton recently pointed out, Trump is incapable of staging a coup because he lacks the attention span required for it. With no discernible political acumen, Trump was incapable of looking beyond the next news cycle or his narrow self-interest.

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    The American system dodging the Trump bullet and the Indian system crumbling under Modi also reflect the wide gulf in their socio-cultural values. By insisting on universal adult suffrage from its inception, the founding fathers of the Republic of India expressed tremendous faith in the citizenry and future leaders despite a severe resource crunch, a moribund economy and near-total absence of infrastructure for health, education or even basic transportation.

    While giving every adult the right to vote is hailed as a quintessentially Indian revolution, and rightly so, it has been a double-edged sword. On one hand, it has dismantled the centuries-old feudal social structures and slowly empowered historically oppressed castes. On the other, limited institutional capacity and lack of appreciation for their independence among voters have made the Indian system susceptible to demagoguery in the short run. This will change as India becomes more prosperous and internalizes the benefits of decentralizing power, but that brings into sharp relief Modi’s betrayal of his mandate.

    Fledgling Democracy

    At 75, India is still a fledgling democracy. It has already gone through one emergency under former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, when all institutions, state and national elections, and fundamental rights were suspended amid near-total media censorship. While the Supreme Court took corrective action after the emergency, widespread poverty and, until recently, low levels of literacy have hampered rapid institutional capacity building in India. Corruption is endemic to all branches of government, making them easy targets for manipulation.

    In its short history as a republic, the socialist economic model adopted by India’s pre-1990 governments has also created a new feudal system in the form of political patronage. With the government tightly controlling the economy, politicians became the new overlords picking winners and losers. As the initial euphoria and idealism following independence faded, criminals came to dominate politics. Corruption became the mainstay of political life.

    While these might be birth pangs of any new republic — and might find parallels in the early decades of the existence of the United States — complacency and arrogance of the Indian National Congress (INC), India’s GOP, has fueled the rise of Modi.

    A Modi-fied India Has Weakened on the World Stage


    In the 1970s and 1980s, a 21-month-long national emergency, followed by legislative action favoring minorities to protect the INC’s own vote banks, had led to resentment among the Hindu majority. Instead of correcting some of these historic wrongs to move the discourse to a liberal center, Modi has swung it to the extreme right. He has not taken any overt steps that resemble the emergency that Indira Gandhi declared in 1975. Instead, he has chosen covert means to slowly and deliberately dismantle the Indian system of governance.

    More importantly, while Gandhi’s methods were largely populist, Modi has added toxic majoritarianism to it, making this movement more dangerous, with potentially longer-lasting consequences. For someone who claims that he developed his political consciousness during the emergency, Modi’s assault on the liberal system that enabled his rise from humble beginnings is truly ironic.

    A leader who promised to decentralize power and dismantle India’s new feudal system of political patronage now presides over one of the most centralized decision-making structures. When the framers of the Indian Constitution chose universal adult suffrage, they also expected elected leaders to nurture democratic institutions until they can stand on their own feet. Modi’s betrayal of that mandate, more so than Gandhi’s, will affect India for a generation, if not longer.

    Dark Phase

    Lastly, while the American system was built on an ethos of “don’t tread on me” and a desire to keep government out of people’s lives, historical factors like entrenched feudalism and extreme cultural diversity made India choose a cradle-to-the-grave approach to governance with a strong central executive.  

    Americans instinctively question authority and are suspicious of the government, whereas Indians, by and large, have tremendous faith in the government as a source of good and are still coming out of the shadows of colonialism. American society values individual liberty, privacy and agency, while Indians gravitate toward collectivism and fatalism.

    Perhaps the most telling indicator of this difference was the fact that Trump’s approval rating never crossed 45% while Modi commands favor among 60% to 70% of Indians despite his mismanagement of the pandemic, a series of foreign policy failures and the economic destruction under his watch.

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    Indian democracy is going through a dark phase, and all eyes are on the Indian Supreme Court to see if it will push back against Modi’s draconian executive branch. Even if the courts start asserting their independence again, India will pay a steeper price than the US did under Trump before it becomes a healthy democracy again. For the sake of their own democratic future, one can only hope that Indians start questioning their government more, hold it accountable and insist on securing privacy and liberty.

    While fast, centralized decision-making might seem seductive in the short run, India will reap long-term benefits if it can turn its latent admiration of developed Western countries into a deeper appreciation for the checks and balances that enable their stability. Against all odds, India has stared down some of the toughest challenges so far. With some more patience, if it can focus on building institutional capacity and spreading awareness about their importance through rapid upgrades in the quality of education, it will live up to its potential of becoming a liberal, democratic counterweight to China.

    Meanwhile, supporters of republican values in the United States will do well to learn from the goings on in India and count their blessings, or institutions, that helped the union survive Trump. In early August, as members of the House committee investigating the failed insurrection of January 6 heard gut-wrenching testimonies from Capitol Police, some of their Republican colleagues held press conferences blaming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the tragic events.

    As the January 6 commission has reconvened and subpoenaed scores of records from the government and private phone companies, Trump and his congressional supporters are back at it again, claiming executive privilege and threatening private companies with consequences if they cooperate with the commission to prevent it from shedding light on the truth.

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    The GOP leadership is keen on winning back both the houses of Congress in 2022 and knows the damage this fact-finding mission will do to electoral prospects. Some pushback or false equivalence is par for the course in this political game. However, the brazenness of the lies and fealty to Donald Trump more than six months after his ignominious While House exit is mind-boggling. Without condoning the messy last days of the US war in Afghanistan, they can take a leaf out of President Biden’s book to square with Americans about the systemic risk Trumpism poses to the system.

    As national attention shifts from the Afghanistan war to other domestic and foreign policies, insisting on the truth by supporting the January 6 investigation, even at the cost of losing one election cycle, would be a small price to pay for the conservatives to preserve the republic.

    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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    COVID-19: The Lab Leak Theory Makes a Comeback

    The sudden reemergence of the lab leak theory earlier this year — that COVID-19 was made in and escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology — has hit international media and occasioned nervous reactions from the Biden administration, which demanded a conclusive report on the origins of the pandemic within 90 days. That deadline has just expired, with little result. As the head of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) emergencies program, Michael Ryan, stated last week, “The current situation is that all of the hypotheses regarding to the origins of the virus are still on the table.”

    The New American Art of Inconclusive Conclusions


    The radical right has, in the meantime, become obsessed with the lab leak idea. Those of us who have experienced — and survived — coordinated campaigns of abuse on social media recognize the signs: Suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, people you have never heard of begin to spam your email or social media accounts. Someone has pointed the trolls in your direction, and you start to wonder, who and why?

    Someone’s Errands

    In the final days of May, “Mikael” emailed me: “So the most likely truth about Corona is a conspiracy idea that is a threat against democracy? What kind of nut are you that is so wrong? Who’s errands do you run?”

    The background to his kind email, followed up by another a few days later, was an article published a week earlier in the right-leaning Swedish journal Kvartal. Here, journalist Ola Wong suggested that a report — I happen to be its author — published by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) aims to serve the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In a gross simplification of what the report actually stated, Wong alleged that it “cautions against blaming China” and “goes so far as to claim that searching for an answer to the origin of the virus and the responsibility for its spread basically amounts to a desire to find a ‘scapegoat’. MSB says that this is the hallmark of conspiracy theories and a threat to democracy.”

    What I did in my report was provide an overview of how conspiracy theories around COVID-19 are part of what the WHO has branded the “infodemic” — an infected infoscape in which different actors spread disinformation for various purposes, such as to denigrate their political opponents and attack expert knowledge. I distinguish between six areas of conspiratorial imagination in relation to the pandemic: origins, dissemination, morbidity and mortality, countermeasures in politics and public health, vaccination and metatheories.

    Both separately or in various combinations, all these six categories have fueled conspiratorial meaning-making. In some cases, they have driven processes of radicalization toward violent extremism, such as attacks against 5G technology, mass demonstrations leading to political violence or disgusting displays of racist stereotypes.

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    Moreover, as a historian of ideas, I don’t study the root causes of or treatments for a contagious virus that has killed millions across the globe but rather the conceptions and discourses connected to it. In that sense, I am less interested in what really caused the pandemic and more invested in studying how different concepts — for instance about its origins — are used in (conspiratorial) rhetoric around the subject. It is also not my ambition or task to investigate the likeliness of a lab leak or the possibility that the COVID-19 vaccine contains a microchip. So, first of all, Wong — and, as we will see, others alongside him — has failed to capture the basic premises of the report. Just to make my case, the passage Wong reacted to (the MSB report will soon be available in an English translation), reads:

    “The question about the origin of the virus and the disease is infected because there is an underlying accusation of guilt. Could anyone who might have known about the existence of the virus also have stopped its dissemination? Was the outbreak of the virus covered up? Was the virus created in a lab or by transmission from animal to human? Questions like these are of course reasonable to ask, but already early on they were connected to what is an attribute of conspiracy theories: to place blame on someone and point out scapegoats. … By calling COVID-19 ‘the China-virus’ a narrative was established in which China was made responsible for the pathogen, disease and in extension its dissemination. In the trail of imposing guilt, racist Sino/Asiaphobic stereotypes were expressed against people with Asian appearance across the globe.”

    I then made a parallel to the famous claim made by former President Donald Trump and his followers that climate change is a “Chinese hoax to bring down the American economy” and that, in continuation of this line of thought, COVID-19 now is inserted into the narrative with the twist that it would benefit the Democrats in the 2020 election. I concluded that “in both conspiratorial narratives, scientific expertise is rejected.” Furthermore, I quoted an expert from Yale Medical School (Wong wrongly frames it as my opinion) stating that it is both incorrect and xenophobic to “attach locations or ethnicity to the disease.” I also mentioned that the spread of the virus was blamed on a cabal between the CCP and the Democrats.

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    Nowhere in the entire report is it ever claimed or even hinted at that it somehow would be wrong or illegitimate to investigate the origins of the virus as a lab leak. It is true that conspiracy theories typically use scapegoating as one of many rhetoric strategies, and that they are, by extension, threatening democracy for multiple reasons. But it is utterly wrong to suggest, as Wong does, that the report somehow alleges that it would be a threat to democracy to investigate the origins of the pandemic as a lab leak or that the report dismissed such claims as a conspiracy theory.

    Wong writes: “But if you mention China, you risk being labeled as a racist or accused of spreading conspiracy theories. Why has the origin of the virus become such a contentious issue?” But anyway, “MSB’s message benefits the CCP” and its narrative “that the pandemic is a global problem” (well, isn’t it?) and “not a problem originating from China to which the world has the right to demand answers.”

    Chinese Propaganda Machine

    Wong identifies such deflection as an outcome of a cunning Chinese propaganda machine, quoting an article that remembers how the US was blamed for the origin of AIDS/HIV in the 1980s in a similar conspiracy mode. Well, had Wong turned a page of the MSB report, he would have found a passage with the heading “The US-virus,” which exactly explains that another conspiratorial narrative about the origin of the virus also exists. Consequently, it would have similarly been completely absurd to state that the report “serves the interests of the US” since it treats the narrative about the “US virus” as a typical conspiracy theory.

    But such inconsistencies are of no interest to Wong. Instead, he now delves into the by now well-established “new evidence” (it was always suggested as a possibility) that he claims to have “disappeared from the global agenda” (did it really?) about the lab leak theory. The reason why the theory was suppressed, he argues, was because “The media’s aversion to Trump created a fear of association,” and “Because of the general derision for Trump, the established media chose to trust virologists such as [Dr. Peter] Daszak rather than investigating the laboratory hypothesis.”

    Divide and Rule: What Drives Anti-Asian Resentment in America?


    Wong then extensively quotes from science journalist Nicholas Wade pushing for the explanation that “gain-of-function” experiments were carried out in Wuhan and that zoonotic transmission seems unlikely: “What Wade describes is not a conspiracy, but rather an accident for which no one has wanted to assume responsibility.” Wong is obsessed with responsibility and “the day of reckoning” that yet is to come, when China’s guilt finally will be revealed to the global audience. As much as he seems to long for this day when justice will prevail, he implores at the very end of his article to not “let sweeping allegations of conspiracy theories and racism undermine the work to trace the origins of the virus.”

    Wong’s article left me puzzled in many ways, almost unimpressed. I did not state anything in my report that Wong purports I did, so it is difficult to understand why a journalist would find it worthwhile challenging the Swedish Civil Contingency Agency with an argument that has no basis whatsoever.

    Lab Leak Whispers

    Just two days later, Swedish public service radio P1 invited both myself a Wong to come on its morning program to address the question of “What are you allowed to say about the origin of COVID-19?” — stipulating that there is some sort of censorship around the subject. Wong was unable to produce any credible evidence that the CCP ever has called the lab leak theory a conspiracy. There might be, and I am interested to read more about this attribution and its rhetorical function; the Chinese embassy in Washington later used such terminology.

    By then, the fringes of the Swedish radical right had already sniffed out the potential of the story, propelled by the tabloid Expressen, which in bold letters ran the story, “MSB dismisses the lab-leak entirely: follows the line of China.” The article reiterates Wong’s one, but manipulates the content of the MSB report further, alleging that accusations of racism and conspiracy theories stifle the investigation of the origins of COVID-19.

    Radical-right agitator Christian Palme posted Wong’s article on one of Sweden’s Facebook pages for academics, Universitetsläckan, which kicked off a wave of conspiratorial debate. Per Gudmundsson, of the right-wing online news outlet Bulletin, stated in an op-ed that the MSB report made him suspicious. Hailing Hunter S. Thompson’s paranoid style of reporting, Gudmundsson alleges that the Swedish Civil Contingency Agency wants to pacify the people with calming messages. He ridiculed attempts to discuss what is reasonable to do when planning interventions and designing counternarratives to toxic disinformation that can act as drivers of radicalization while at the same time exercating Islamist extremism, without any interest in countering it.

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    Finally, the gross simplifications of Wong’s article had reached the outer orbits of the alternative radical-right media in Sweden, Fria Tider and Samnytt. Fria Tider referenced the controversial Swedish virologist Fredrik Elgh, stating that it is “senseless” that MSB had dismissed the lab leak hypothesis as a conspiracy theory (it did not). Samnytt, in turn, amplified the Chinese whispers started in Kvartal to a completely new level. In its own version of reality, the MSB report was allegedly released in order to prevent any investigation of China (not true). Under the heading “Prohibited to ask questions,” Samnytt states: “the message of the report is that it is not allowed to ask questions about the origin of the virus” (also not true).

    Moreover, referring to and quoting Gudmundsson’s article on Bulletin, it goes on to state that “instead of questioning the established truths, the report recommends ‘to be in the present and to plant a tree’” — right quote but wrong context — “or to use other methods to calm your thoughts.” The author of the article is Egor Putilov, a pseudonym of a prolific character in the Swedish radical-right alternative media.

    And now back to Mikael. Curious to drag out trolls from under their stones (they might explode in daylight), I answered the first email he sent to me; he replied. Mikael characterized himself as a disabled pensioner (Asperger’s) living in a Swedish suburb among “ISIS-fans, clans, psychopath-criminals and addicts etc. which you most likely have taken part in to create/import.” He asserted to have insights about what is happening behind the scenes related to COVID-19 and that the recent reemergence of the lab leak theory only demonstrated his superiority in analyzing world matters: “If I think something controversial, the rest of Sweden frequently thinks the same twenty years later.”

    He recommended I look for knowledge outside the small circle of disinformed and obedient yes-people within the “system.” I must admit that Mikael’s email was one of the friendlier online abuses I have experienced. On the same day, I also received a message from “Sten” titled “C*ck” and containing a short yet threatening line, “beware of conspiracy theories and viruses… .”

    What If the Scientists Were Wrong?

    As historian and political analyst Thomas Frank eloquently has pointed out, we should expect a political earthquake if a lab leak is indeed confirmed. Frank claims that what is under attack is science itself. Science, we were told, held the answers on how to combat the pandemic. Experts in public health provided scientific evidence for political countermeasures, despised by those who routinely reject science or feel that their liberties have been infringed upon.

    If it is proven that “science has failed the global population,” either by accident, by gain-of-function research getting out of control or, worse, by deliberately creating a bioweapon, both scientists and those who rely on their expertise will come under attack and their authority will be seriously undermined, with unpredictable consequences. Why would people have reasons to believe that climate change is real, that 5G technology is harmless or that cancer might be cured with rDNA treatment? Frank posits that what is at stake is a liberal “sort of cult” of science that was developed against the “fool Trump.” Should it turn out that scientists and experts were wrong, “we may very well see the expert-worshiping values of modern liberalism go up in a fireball of public anger.”

    Embed from Getty Images

    Frank and others, such as Wade and his Swedish apologist Wong, allege that it somehow was the media’s fault to cement the lab leak origin as a crazy conspiracy theory just because it was peddled by a president who made more than 30,000 false or misleading claims while in office. When the “common people of the world” find out that they might “have been forced into a real-life lab experiment,” a moral earthquake will be on its way since they will come to the ultimate realization “that here is no such thing as absolute expertise.”

    In the end, this will imply that populism was right all along about the existence of an existential dualism between “the people” and the well-to-do, well-educated ruling “elite” minority that creates and manages an eternal cycle of disasters affecting the majority. I tend to agree: This dualism is in fact a strong driver of populist mobilization and one that reoccurs in most conspiracy theories: we, the suffering people, the victims, against them, the plotting elite, the perpetrators.

    But I would like to add to Frank’s conclusions, that the (social) media outlets as much as the radical-right propagandists were immediately able to smell out the potential of the lab leak as a typical frame by which “the people” like Mikael, Sten, Martin and Per (more and more of them — all male — have started contacting me directly) could be pitched against “fake science,” government agencies and politicians.

    I would say that this, in fact, is the real purpose. In reality, the radical right does not care one bit about the origins of the virus but has discovered a perfect trope with which public distrust in authority can be deepened further. This is the reason why Wong needed to unleash an unsubstantiated attack against the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency. He, as much as Gudmundsson, despises any attempt to provide citizens with tools to decode disinformation and conspiracy theories as to allow informed members of society to judge the accuracy of various claims beyond populist apocalypticism. If media literacy and the ability to detect conspiratorial messages increase, sensationalist media outlets will lose their power.

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    One of the three key elements of populism as defined by Benjamin Moffit is a permanent invocation of crisis, breakdown or threat. If this perpetuum mobile is disrupted, the source of populist power is dismantled, which is why Wong and others have to target the firefighters, and why Gudmundsson doesn’t want to hear about how to counter radicalization. The eternal flame of catastrophe is the campfire of populist socialization. Right now, the lab leak theory is a giant burning log providing heat for all these gratifying marshmallows to be grilled and fed to “the people.”

    But there might also be other reasons. By pushing the lab leak hypothesis, the radical right makes the case that “Trump was right” about the “China virus” and, if so, he might also be right about the “stolen” election and all other 29,998 lies uttered during his presidency. Moreover, it was the liberal mainstream media’s fault that the lab leak was “buried” (which it never was) because they are all agents of Chinese disinformation (and communism, as we all know, is the great evil of the 20th century), classical guilt by association. So, in the bigger picture, the lab leak is needed as proof of the infallibility of the great leader in his quest to “drain the swamp.” QAnon will celebrate on the ruins of Capitol Hill.

    However, what worries me most is that the lab leak theory is used by the radical right as an attempt to minimize the danger of anti-Asian racism or any other racist attribution and abuse in case of earlier or later crises and catastrophes. Somehow, not only will science be proven wrong and the great leader right, but racism will be defended as a rational and normal reaction to pandemics. Wait, didn’t the Jews poison our wells at one point?

    *[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]

    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 New American Art of Inconclusive Conclusions

    In early 2020, as soon as the epidemic caused by a novel coronavirus began turning into a global pandemic, everyone, from scientists to politicians and media pundits, was eager to understand where it came from. Conveniently for US President Donald Trump, it came from China. That enabled him to suggest that if it originated in a nation now perceived to be America’s enemy, it was probably a malicious plot designed to weaken his electoral chances.

    But the scientific community, relayed by the media, calmly explained that, like earlier examples of the coronavirus, it was transmitted to humans by animals and originated with bats. The essential message could be boiled down to: Trust the scientists, who know what they’re talking about.

    A year later, with Trump no longer in the White House, suspicion arose even among many scientists that, well, accidents happen, even among all-knowing scientists. But this accident, if that’s what it was, turned out to be particularly embarrassing, with millions of people dying, the global economy thrown into a tailspin and all the rituals of daily life upended, including such things as children’s education and, more drastically (in terms of loss of income), professional sports.

    Do Americans Still Trust Their Public Health Agencies? 


    When the stakes are so high, suspicion about who and what is to blame takes on a new dimension. The dominant take of 2020 was that it was all about wild animals. The dominant take in the spring of 2021 was that, no, it was people, and specifically scientists, who were the unwitting culprits. Back in 2020, the logic of US politics meant that reasonable people could assume that any assertion by the incumbent president, Donald Trump, known for his addiction to “alternative facts,” was a self-interested lie. Moreover, if a scientist provided a version that contradicted Trump, it was likely to be the truth.

    A year later, Trump was gone. The path was cleared for rational public discussions. It became possible to begin weighing evidence before asserting a possibly unfounded opinion. That is when some medically-informed journalists and an increasing number of scientists admitted that human error as the source of COVID-19 was not only possible, but highly credible. 

    The confusion spawned by this reversal of public discourse led the presumably level-headed President Joe Biden to commission a report from the intelligence community on the true origin of the pandemic. Last week, The Washington Post reported on the initial result of that study. The article stated that “President Biden on Tuesday received a classified report from the intelligence community that was inconclusive about the origins of the novel coronavirus, including whether the pathogen jumped from an animal to a human as part of a natural process, or escaped from a lab in central China, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter.”

    Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:


    Not quite certain enough yet to be codified and promulgated as an official lie

    Contextual Note

    If Trump could be counted on to produce any version of the “facts” that suited his agenda, Biden came into office with a confirmed capacity for lying about the facts of his own life — including his educational honors and his stance on the Iraq War — but also with a reputation for largely respecting publicly acknowledged truth. He did, however, out of ordinary political opportunism, give credence to the easily debunked reports about Russians paying bounty to Afghans willing to kill Americans. That was because he knew his fellow Democrats were fond of blaming Russians for all the nation’s ills. 

    One difference between the two presidents is that Trump was always ready to jump to a conclusion, rejecting the temptation to call anything inconclusive. He painted the world in black and white, from which nuance was excluded. There was, however, one exception. He opposed the CIA’s largely conclusive assessment that Trump’s buddy, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had commanded the bone-saw crew who dismembered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. On that issue, Trump claimed that the evidence was inconclusive.

    Most theories that lead to blaming someone other than the initially designated culprit are routinely deemed inconclusive or labeled as conspiracies to the extent that no smoking gun has been found. Those who cling to the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin of John F. Kennedy and the soon-to-be-paroled Sirhan Sirhan for the death of Robert Kennedy continue to claim that the mountain of countervailing evidence is inconclusive. In both Kennedy assassinations, the smoke eventually became visible, but the smell of the gunfire had faded. Any forensic traces of actual smoke were of course branded conspiracy theories.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Concerning the report on the origins of COVID-19, the inconclusive assessment appears justified. The case for a lab leak has grown stronger in recent months, but apart from suspicion generated by the fact that the Chinese government has been obstructive, there is no serious evidence to justify it. The Chinese government is by definition obstructive in everything it does, so this could hardly be confused with the kind of exceptional behavior that credibly points toward a coverup. 

    The Post offers an interesting explanation of another apparent anomaly: “Proponents of that theory point to classified information, first disclosed in the waning days of the Trump administration, that three unidentified workers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology — one of the world’s preeminent research institutions studying coronaviruses — went to the hospital in November 2019 with flu-like symptoms.”

    Americans would of course find this suspect, since, given the crippling price of medical treatment in the US, people avoid going to the hospital except in an emergency. The Post helpfully adds: “In China, people visit the hospital for routine and mild illnesses.” Cultural assumptions can always intervene to skew the perception of the meaning of the evidence.

    Historical Note

    Since COVID-19 is still mutating and raging nearly two years after its outbreak, no one knows when the definitive history of the COVID-19 pandemic will be written. The current wisdom says that, unlike the Spanish flu of a century ago, it will end up not as a chapter of history, with a beginning, a middle and an end, but as an endemic feature of humanity’s pathological landscape.

    In contrast, the history of the deep psychological mutations taking place as a result of the pandemic, especially in Western society, is beginning to take shape. Democracy has always lent itself to contestation. Protest has traditionally served to help define the positive dynamics of democracy, where voices could be heard that might influence what Thomas Jefferson once called “the course of human events.” But the pandemic has accelerated a different, far less positive trend, not of constructive protest but of an utter loss of faith not only in civic authority, but also in every other form of authority. Science itself may be the victim. 

    The secular order imposed by modern formally democratic governments depends to a large extent on the belief in the beneficent authority of science and the sincerity of its representatives, the scientists. In recent decades that authority has been shaken by the role powerful economic actors and complicit politicians have played in manipulating science to serve their purposes. The managers of the economy have become accustomed to using their clout to promote comforting lies about science itself, in the name of “national interest” and the “needs of the economy,” which means the health, not of the planet or its population, but of the mighty enterprises that create (and also destroy) jobs.

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

    It is a well-known fact that in US culture, uncertainty and inconclusiveness are unpopular. That aversion was one of the keys to Trump’s electoral success. Not having a decided opinion on something is often seen as an excuse for not getting things done, which means committing the cardinal sin of wasting time. Americans tend to see having and expressing a strong opinion — the art of being assertive — even when poorly informed, as a fundamental right that should never be compromised by the rituals of dialogue and debate.

    Nearly 60 years after the JFK assassination, an event that still contributes to undermining Americans’ faith in political authority, an accumulation of more crises has added powerfully to the confusion. The latest Afghan debacle, an unresolved pandemic and mounting evidence of the tragedy of climate change have combined to undermine every American’s hope for establishing the kind of certainty Americans believe to be their birthright.

    *[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 Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

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