Big Tech and Amazon.

Too Powerful to Break Up?

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Amazon executives will not be present on Tuesday when three other major internet companies endure a grilling before Congress. But it may just be a matter of time before Washington’s new appetite for regulating the digital economy reaches the e-commerce giant.

Lawyers for Google, Facebook, and Twitter will occupy this week’s spotlight in front of the Senate intelligence and judiciary committees, which are probing the companies’ unwitting role in Russia’s 2016 election meddling. Already, there is talk of legislation requiring them to disclose more about their operations.

The controversy over the industry’s dissemination of Russian “fake news” highlights a broader souring of attitudes toward the online platforms, triggered by unease over their sheer size and power, which spans the political spectrum. From progressives like Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts senator, to Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, who runs the nationalist media site Breitbart, there is growing support for reining in, or even breaking up, the digital groups that dominate the US economy.

“The worm has turned”, says Scott Galloway, a marketing professor at New York University and author of The Four: the Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google (2017). “No doubt about it”.

Though unaffected by the Russia allegations Amazon – whose $136 billion in revenues last year topped the combined sales of Google parent Alphabet and Facebook – is a target of demands for more assertive antitrust enforcement. Its dominance has also raised questions about whether existing legislation needs to be rewritten for the internet age.

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Jeff Bezos in 1999, introducing what became the Amazon marketplace

The online retailer’s relentless expansion into new businesses, including groceries and small business lending, and its control of data on the millions of third-party vendors that use its sales platform, warehouses and delivery services, have some analysts likening it to a 21st century version of the corporate trusts such as Standard Oil that throttled American competition a century ago.

“Amazon has big antitrust problems in its future”, says Scott Cleland, a technology policy official in the George H W Bush administration and president of Precursor, a research consultancy. “If there is a minimally interested, fair-minded antitrust effort in the Trump administration, Amazon’s got trouble”.

For now, Mr Cleland remains a minority view. Most experts say the company has yet to engage in the classic anti-competitive behaviour that the antitrust laws are designed to prevent. Under the prevailing interpretation of this doctrine, which prizes consumer welfare above all else, champion price-cutter Amazon has little reason to worry. Indeed, US regulators this summer performed only a brief review before approving Amazon’s nearly $14 billion acquisition of the upmarket grocer Whole Foods.

Amazon and the other platforms remain popular with consumers, thanks to their low prices or “free” services. But companies that were once seen as avatars of American innovation and achievement are now increasingly treated with scepticism. Mr Bannon has said that companies such as Google and Facebook are so essential to daily life that they should be regulated as public utilities.

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The digital platforms “dominate the economy and their respective markets like few businesses in the modern era”, says the bipartisan New Center project of Republican William Kristol and Democrat Bill Galston. It notes that nearly half of all e-commerce passes through Amazon while Facebook controls 77 per cent of mobile social traffic and Google has 81 per cent of the search engine market.

The online retailer stands alone in its cross-market reach, dominating product search, hardware, and cloud computing while also serving as an indispensable conduit for other vendors to reach consumers, says Mr Galloway. Last year, 55 per cent of product searches began on Amazon, topping Google.

“They’re winning at everything”, he says. “This company is firing on all 12,000 cylinders”.

Yet even as calls to break up the nation’s big banks after the global financial crisis have faded, talk that the digital giants have grown too large gets ever louder. The downside of economic concentration features prominently in the Democratic party’s “Better Deal” programme for the 2018 Congressional elections. It calls for an intensification in antitrust enforcement and blames stagnant wages, rising prices, and disappointing growth on insufficient competition.

An anti-monopoly push will “almost certainly” be a major part of the 2020 presidential campaign, predicts Barry Lynn of the Open Markets initiative.

Silicon Valley’s tradition of funding the party could complicate the Democrats’ anti-monopoly push. In the 2016 election, the internet industry gave 74 per cent of its $12.3 million in congressional campaign contributions to Democrats. Internet company executives and their corporate political action committees (“PACs”), which pool individual contributions in accord with the federal prohibition on direct corporate political spending, also gave Hillary Clinton’s campaign more than $6.3 million while Mr Trump pulled in less than $100,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Individuals and the PACs associated with Google parent Alphabet topped the industry’s list of total political contributors with $8.1 million while Amazon ranked fourth with about $1.4 million.

Amazon in numbers
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542,000 – The number of Amazon employees

17,000 – The number of those who worked for the group in 2007

$2.4 billion – Third-quarter revenues from subscription services including Amazon Prime

$1.4 million – Amazon’s political contribution to the 2016 US congressional campaigns. Overall the internet industry donated $12.2 million – 74 per cent went to Democrats

$13 million – The amount Amazon is on track to spend on political lobbying this year. Up from $2.5 million five years ago

Amazon has moved a long way from its roots since launching two decades ago to sell books and nothing but books. Now, it sells just about everything to everybody: nearly 400 million products including its own batteries, shirts, and baby wipes. It operates a media studio and provides cloud computing space to customers such as the Central Intelligence Agency while running the Marketplace sales platform for other vendors, a delivery and logistics network and a payment service. The company Jeff Bezos launched in 1994 also now makes popular electronics, including the Kindle ereader and the Alexa voice-activated device.

Its growth has been astronomical. Amazon expects to record at least $173 billion in annual sales this year – that would nearly double its 2014 figure. It employs 542,000 workers, more than twice its mid-2016 payroll, thanks in part to the Whole Foods deal, and its $1,100 share price has roughly doubled in just twenty months.

By almost any measure, Amazon is a fantastically successful company. Maybe too successful, its detractors say. Mr Trump has periodically suggested antitrust action against the online giant, saying of Mr Bezos last year: “He’s got a huge antitrust problem because he’s controlling so much; Amazon is controlling so much”.

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Donald Trump has frequently targeted The Washington Post, bought by Jeff Bezos in 2013. He called out Amazon on taxation in several 2015 tweets:

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Donald Trump continued his broadside against Amazon in an August 2017 tweet.

In August, the president returned to the subject, taking aim at the company’s impact on bricks-and-mortar retailers. “Towns, cities and states throughout the US are being hurt – many jobs being lost!” he tweeted.

Still, most politicians regard Amazon as a potential economic boon. Some 238 communities answered the company’s request to identify sites for its planned second headquarters. It is not hard to see why: the $5 billion project will directly create work for 50,000 people, plus “tens of thousands of additional jobs and tens of billions of dollars in additional investment in the surrounding community”, Amazon says.

Even critics of the company’s size, such as Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, overcame their concerns. “Amazon would make the right business choice by coming here”, Mr Booker told a press conference last month in Newark.

Amazon, which declined to comment for this story, recognises its potential political problem. The company is on track to spend nearly $13 million this year on lobbying the federal government compared with just $2.5 million five years ago. In 2016 it added an antitrust lawyer, Seth Bloom, with experience on Capitol Hill and in the justice department.

Though the Trump administration approved the Whole Foods purchase, Amazon’s antitrust concerns have not evaporated. Congressman Keith Ellison, deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who favours a break-up of all the digital players, says the online retailer should spin off its $12 billion-a-year cloud computing business known as Amazon Web Services.

“I do think they should be forced to sell off huge parts”, he says. “They’re too big”.

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William Kristol, a prominent conservative, has criticised the concentration of power gathered by Amazon (c) Getty Images

The view is echoed by Mr Kristol, a prominent former official in the Reagan and George H W Bush administrations, who says the tech giants’ dominance hurts workers, consumers, and the overall economy. His New Centre project, aimed at overcoming political polarisation, supports tougher antitrust enforcement to address “monopolistic behaviour” in the technology sector.

Even among pro-market conservatives, sentiment is shifting on the need for greater government intervention. “People are at least open to the argument that concentration of power is a problem even if there’s no immediate cost paid by consumers”, Mr Kristol says.

US law does not prohibit monopolies so long as they arise through legitimate means. But companies are not permitted to exploit their dominance in one market to control another.

Competition authorities in the EU have moved more aggressively to corral the internet groups. Earlier this month the EU ordered Amazon to pay $290 million in back taxes to Luxembourg after Margrethe Vestager, the EU competition chief, said the online retailer had benefited from special treatment.

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Ms Vestager has also gone after American internet companies on antitrust grounds, levying a 2.4 billion euros fine on Google in June and reaching a negotiated settlement with Amazon over its ebook distribution contracts. In May, Amazon agreed to scrap contract clauses requiring publishers to offer it terms that were as good or better than those offered to its competitors.

Amazon’s critics say that its role as an essential e-commerce platform for more than two million other vendors and its control of data on their sales warrant government action. Last year, in a speech that ignited the Democrats’ renewed interest in anti-monopoly efforts, Ms Warren said companies like Amazon provide a platform “that lots of other companies depend on for survival”, adding, “the platform can become a tool to snuff out competition”. For its part, Amazon says it faces “intense competition”.

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Senator Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie lobbying for the new Amazon HQ to be in their home state, New Jersey (c) AP

Critics remain unconvinced. Its control over a vast cache of customer data gives it “unprecedented … advantages in penetrating new industries and new markets”, according to Amir Konigsberg, chief executive and co-founder of Twiggle, which sells search and analytics software to Amazon competitors.

There’s no question that the company has grown through innovation and by meeting customer needs. But gobbling up rivals and would-be rivals has also been part of the equation. Since 2005, Amazon has acquired more than sixty companies including some that were at first reluctant to sell, such as Zappos, the online shoe retailer.

“It’s a dominant platform and a vertically integrated dominant platform”, says Lina Khan, author of an influential Yale Law Journal article earlier this year that ignited the debate. “It acts as a gatekeeper … It’s closing off the market to new entrants”.

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Ms Khan says Amazon also has priced goods and services – such as its unlimited two-day Amazon Prime delivery service – below cost. By prioritising growth over profits, the company has unfairly squeezed competitors, she says.

Though Mr Cleland says antitrust enforcers could make a case against Amazon under the prevailing interpretation of US law, most analysts say a genuine push to break up or constrain the tech giants requires rethinking the antitrust orthodoxy of the past forty years. The so-called Chicago School of antitrust theory, which focuses on consumer prices and innovation, is ill-equipped to cope with the internet world’s structural tendency to produce winner-takes-all outcomes.

“The rhetoric around consumer prices can disable antitrust law”, says Ms Khan. “These platforms present new issues”.

Additional reporting by Leslie Hook in San Francisco

Antitrust: “Consumer First” Laws Favour Amazon

It is almost four decades since Robert Bork, a one-time Supreme Court nominee, wrote the book that defines US competition policy to this day.

Mr Bork, a Yale University law professor, relied on Chicago school economics to argue in The Antitrust Paradox (1978) that safeguarding “consumer welfare”, not preventing excessive corporate size, should be the goal of antitrust enforcement. Ever since, US antitrust enforcers have concentrated on businesses’ impact on prices and choice – unlike in Europe, where regulators seek to preserve robust competition.

But some analysts say that the Chicago school approach is outdated in a data-rich internet age which encourages natural monopolies. The consumer-welfare standard has facilitated the emergence of companies like Amazon, which use economies of scale and remorseless efficiency to drive down prices, and Google and Facebook, which benefit from “network effects” that promote low-cost expansion.

The rise of the online retailer is an “almost poetic illustration of the shortcomings of current antitrust law”, says Lina Khan, who countered Mr Bork earlier this year in an influential law journal article entitled “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox”.

The prevailing antitrust approach does not recognise Amazon’s ability to crush competitors by pricing goods below cost and to exploit its power in one sector to gain market share in another, Ms Khan argues.

Amazon has used its heft to extract discounts of up to seventy percent from delivery companies such as UPS, which in turn makes its own fulfilment service all but irresistible to other retailers, Ms Khan says. Its rivals can “either try to compete with Amazon at a disadvantage or become reliant on a competitor to handle delivery and logistics”, she wrote.

But Amazon’s critics have so far been more persuasive politically than legally, says Diana Moss of the non-profit American Antitrust Institute. “They have not yet articulated a coherent case that would gain traction with enforcers and the courts”, she says. “That’s a heavy lift”.

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Human Rights Watch:Russia’s Growing Intolerance for Dissent

Tanya Lokshina
Russia Program Director

Today, at Moscow’s eminent House of Cinematography, aggressive individuals among pro-Kremlin protestors attacked the award ceremony of an annual student competition, “Man in History. Russia – XX Century.” The attackers threw eggs and green antiseptic solution at the teenage winners of the competition, their teachers, and other participants at the gathering. Ludmilla Ulitskaya, a prominent Russian novelist and chair of the competition’s jury, was among those splashed with the bright green liquid.
Memorial, a leading civil society group, holds this competition annually for students, aged 14 to 18. The competition aims to “motivate young people to carry out independent research into the history of the past century and awaken their interest in the fates and lives of ordinary people, which make the founding blocs of the country’s history.”
Many of the protestors were those who wore black and orange ribbons – symbolism particularly popular among supporters of Russia’s actions in Crimea. They waved red flags, roared patriotic songs, called the participants “national traitors” and other degrading and offensive names, and shouted, “We won’t let [you] re-write [our] history.” Police at the scene did little to tackle those amongst them who engaged in physical violence.
Just a few weeks earlier, on March 21, Russian nationwide television ran a malicious story about the exhibition “Different Wars” co-organized and hosted by Memorial. “Different Wars” is an international project that examines how schoolbooks from various countries interpret World War II history. It features quotes and photographs from books used in Russian, Polish, Czech, German, Italian, and Lithuanian schools. While the organizers of the exhibition specifically aimed to promote tolerance and mutual understanding in different societies that had lived through the war, the state television news program accused Memorial activists of being “foreign agents” and defiling Russia by “re-writing” its history in the interests of their foreign funders.
In contemporary Russia, more and more, no public dissent from the “official line” on Russia’s contemporary history is tolerated by the authorities, and those who publicly express divergent viewpoints are increasingly subject to attacks, ranging from defamation to physical violence. Even children are apparently not exempt. Today’s attack at the Moscow House of Cinematography and other similar incidents send a chilling, and non-subtle signal to the public at large: unless you’re looking for trouble, keep quiet, don’t engage in any activism, stay away from civil society groups, and don’t look for interpretations and ideas that aren’t approved by the government. Over the past few years, this message, alarmingly reminiscent of the Soviet past, has been getting stronger and stronger.

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What is the Stae of Dissent in Vladimir Putin’s Russia ?

FRONTLINE

Jason M.Breslow
Digital Editor

Russia has never been the friendliest environment for political dissent, and beginning with Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, the situation has only grown more challenging. Since that time, Russia has raised fines for taking part in unauthorized protests, tightened state control over the media and non-governmental organizations and cracked down on opposition websites.
For Garry Kasparov, actions like these are all too familiar. Kasparov is best known as arguably the best chess player of all-time, but since retiring from the game in 2005, he has been jailed and beaten for organizing against the Russian president. Today, Kasparov, who now lives in exile, is one of the Kremlin’s most vocal critics. As chairman of the Human Rights Foundation’s International Council in New York, he works to prevent the return of totalitarianism in Russia.
FRONTLINE spoke with Kasparov on Jan. 12, 2015 about his experience as one of Russia’s most well-known political dissidents. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
How would you characterize the state of dissent in Vladimir Putin’s Russia?
It’s very hard to imagine a strong opposition movement in a country ruled by Vladimir Putin, which is a one-man dictatorship … There’s no room for opposition that could challenge the government. You use the word “dissent.” Yes, there’s plenty of dissent, but the dissent has yet to reach political forms. …
There are many dissenters, people who disagree with regime for one reason or another. A lot of people recognize that this regime has brought the country to the dead end, but like in the previous eras of the Soviet Union, many of the people who could see the deadly consequences [of] Putin’s rule prefer to leave the country rather than to fight inside.
How has the situation evolved over the course of his time in power?
I think that with Putin’s official return to the Kremlin [in 2012], he didn’t have much of a choice but to sort of turn outward, because … [the] first half of his rule was based very much on the economic factors. … High oil prices created wealth, and a sense of stability for the Russian middle class, and Putin and his team played their cards quite impressively, because Putin avoided any identification with a political trend. So he could be a nationalist. He could be a liberal. He could be a populist. He wore so many hats.
It was all about illusions and making sure that the political opposition will never unite against him. Official opposition played by the rules imposed by Kremlin. It was all about creating some form of political capital, and then exchanging it with the Kremlin for some benefit within the system.
“A lot of people recognize that this regime has brought the country to the dead end, but like in the previous eras of the Soviet Union, many of the people who could see the deadly consequences [of] Putin’s rule prefer to leave the country rather than to fight inside.”
So it was a fairly comfortable rule, and Putin didn’t need to use sort of drastic measures against opposition, or he didn’t need to look for some foreign policy adventures.
When he came back, the economy looked different. … And also, for the Russian middle class, especially for young people, Putin’s return was kind of a shock. People were happy to trade their freedom, or part of their freedom, for a better economy, for stable life. But I don’t think anybody thought about Putin staying forever. …
There was a clear understanding that Putin’s comeback meant nothing else but a lifetime tenure in Kremlin. And that created discontent in the Russian middle class, especially in Moscow, and it led to the massive demonstrations … So Putin had not much choice. He needed to show his strength domestically, he needed to put pressure on the opposition. …
Are there particular policies that you would point to as emblematic of this shift?
Every year he has been gradually reducing the space of political freedom in Russia. [In] 2001, attacks on the free press. Next two years, he replaced independent or semi-independent central key stations with cronies. Then the limitations for the election process in 2004, he cancelled the direct elections of the governors. It was a steady process, and then gradually limitations in the Russian legislation, and then in the penal code, measures to prevent the open demonstrations and criticism of the government. There’s no one milestone. It was a steady process … And eventually, when you look at the results of Putin’s rule today, almost everything that aims at criticizing the government is a criminal offense.
You obviously have first-hand experience with some of this. Based on your own history, what is it like to even be a political activist in Russia these days?
Right now, for me, going back to Russia would be one-way ticket. I think that with my political views and my open statements, I wouldn’t stay free for long in Russia. So that’s why people sharing the same views and being as loud as myself, they are either behind bars or out of the country.
I was arrested for the first time in 2007, but at that time you could end up with five or 10 days in prison. It was like, you know, just a warning. Today, for the same things we did in 2007, you’ll end up in prison for five years. Again, it was just sort of a gradual change. …
When you look at opinion polls in Russia, Putin is still wildly popular across much of the country. Why?
I would be very cautious in accepting the results of these polls … We have to admit that today, the propaganda machine is also very effective. I would not be surprised if a lot of people, they truly believe what they’re hearing on Russian television. …
“For me, going back to Russia would be one-way ticket. … I wouldn’t stay free for long in Russia.”
But also still, I would be cautious, as I said already, because today when you talk about opinion polls, you rely on people responding to questions asked anonymously on the telephone. Now, even if people are concerned about the situation in the country, or dislike Putin, it’s still very hard to confess about their true feelings. Because they remember the Soviet Union, and many of them were born in Soviet Union, and they know what is KGB.
So what is truly amazing, my point is that when you have 80 percent supporting Putin, these 20 percent are capable of saying to an unknown person, to somebody who is questioning them, that they are not happy, they are not supporting Putin, which is quite amazing. …
So what would it take to turn that type of discontent into an open and healthy debate?
The answer is I don’t know. And nobody knows. So I cannot tell you that if Putin goes down today — and I believe that he will never leave the Kremlin by his own will. So he dies there whether from biological factors or from outside intervention. It will lead to unpredictable consequences, because the one-man dictatorship means that the whole system of checks and balances is connected to one person. It’s like a spine. You take out the spine, the whole system collapses.
I believe that we can learn from the history. It’s a simple rule. The longer the dictator stays in power, worse are the consequences following his death or his removal from power

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The Brexit Believers’ trade fantasies are crashing down around their ears .

Molly Scott Cato

The Guardian

October 11, 2017

Nowhere did the slogan “take back control” resound more enthusiastically than in the ears of Tory free marketeers, who imagined themselves as modernist privateers, latter-day descendants of the proud tradition of Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh. During the referendum campaign you could almost hear them slapping their leather-clad thighs and looking eagerly ahead to a world where bluster and bravado replace the musty domain of the rule book and the bureaucrat.
Sadly, for these modern-day pirates of the high seas, trade in the 21st century is hedged by rules and restrictions, tariffs and quotas. Ruling the waves is going to require at least as much negotiation as finding our way out of the EU labyrinth. The events of the past few weeks have started to burst the Ripping Yarns bubble and brought the discussion down to Earth.
The first myth was that German manufacturers would put pressure on Angela Merkel to allow the UK to cherry-pick access to the single market without accepting freedom of movement. This has been demolished in a series of steps beginning with the German Employers’ Federation who made clear that the integrity of the single market came ahead of business deals with the UK. Now the Federation of German Industries is warning that German companies with a presence in Britain must “make provisions for a very hard exit”, because the British government doesn’t know what it wants. Perhaps we can turn the 95 production sites of German cars in the UK to innovative jam and biscuit factories. It is clear that Germany industry stands with the German government in placing political stability above narrow economic self-interest.
Before the shock and magnitude of the leave vote had really sunk in, Theresa May was jetting off to the US to hold hands with Donald Trump to beg him for a trade deal. He agreed, apparently with great enthusiasm. “We could have a really, really good trade deal,” he confirmed by Twitter. Great news to Brexiteers still euphoric at the result they had just pulled off. The problem is that Trump didn’t say who this deal would be good for, although the clue is in his campaign slogan: America First. Further information can be found in his book The Art of the Deal, wherein he explains that you always make a deal with your opposite number when they are vulnerable because this allows you to win by making them lose.
What this means in practice was made clear by the US’s decision to impose a 219% import tariff on Bombardier aircraft parts, jeopardising thousands of jobs on this side of the pond. These punitive tariffs are in response to what the US considers anti-competitive subsidies, an argument that we are likely to hear a lot more of in connection with our farmers in the competitive world of global trade.
While Liam Fox may be seeking to Make Britain Great Again, Trump is seeking to Make America Great Again. It is precisely because we learned that nationalistic competition on trade tended to make everybody poorer that we became engaged in trade negotiations in the first place.
This last week has also burst the bubble of the idea that the Commonwealth will be our salvation, a fantasy arising from too much public school education. A rare early agreement between the UK and EU was over the terms of our solo entry into the World Trade Organisation. This body is the dread of a free trader, with its complex system of tariffs, quotas and schedules, all of which have to be unanimously agreed by 164 member states.
The EU’s suggestion that the UK simply inherits its fair share of EU quota on the same terms was instantly rejected by a group of WTO members including Canada and New Zealand. Predictably, Commonwealth countries will be fighting for national interest rather than helping out the former colonial power in distress. Their economies were severely damaged by our shift in trade focus to the EU 40 years ago and they have moved on to find trade partnerships within their own regions.
This leaves only one strategy still available: the ignominious role as the world’s leading arms exporter, which helps to explain why half the secondments to Fox’s trade department are from arms manufacturers. It also helps to explain recent visits by May or Fox to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Philippines.
Then there is the proposal that we might join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal with 12 countries bordering the Pacific Ocean. Our only geographical tie to TPP countries now is Pitcairn island, famous as the refuge of the Bounty mutineers. The symbolism of a bunch of renegades who reject existing rules and norms and find themselves isolated on a barren island could not be more appropriate.
• Molly Scott Cato MEP is Green MEP for the South West and Green party speaker on Brexit

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Why the U.S. won’t leave Afghanistan

by Peter LaVenia

CounterPunch (September 04 2017)

Trump’s recent decision to add troops in Afghanistan has nothing to do with combating terrorism (or mining mineral resources, or confusing militants as to when the US military might finally leave), no matter what the endless stream of pundits and think-pieces have argued since it was announced. After sixteen years of occupation the Taliban control 48 of nearly 400 administrative units, the Islamic State has established a foothold, the United States supplies almost the entirety of the military and civilian budget, the Afghan military is incapable of functioning without US support, opium production has increased so that Afghanistan supplies 77% of the world’s heroin, and by the end of the next fiscal year the total cost of the sixteen-year Afghan war alone will be $1 trillion. Afghanistan and Pakistan have engaged in their worst border clashes in years as militants shift back and forth between both countries at will. Chinese troops operate openly in the country and conduct join t security exercises with Afghan forces. Russia is now debating a military intervention, ostensibly to counter the growing Taliban threat.

Trump, like Obama, had promised on the campaign trail to end the war. The war itself is deeply unpopular, and his stance on ending the war (like Obama’s before it) may have helped secure his victory in crucial states with high casualty rates. Now less than a year into his term Trump has decided to increase troop levels by 3,900, which his generals had requested earlier this summer. Since it is unlikely to help his dismal popularity ratings, what rationale would he have to do so? The usual suspects – combating terrorism and stabilizing the Afghan state – collapse quickly with even cursory investigation. After sixteen years the Afghan government is little more than a puppet state, and after spending nearly a trillion dollars the United States clearly has no desire to build an economy and social programs that would modernize the country and loosen the reactionary social relations that give the Taliban and IS strength. The plan itself is one simply recycled from the early Obama era w hen Joe Biden was its pitchman.

No doubt this is, in good part, due to the inertia of the American empire. Representatives of the military-industrial complex have done very well selling the War on Terror; the ruling class – or the Power Elite if you prefer – seem to have a consensus that the war must continue not only to aid their own pockets and to give the military a place to test its new toys but also because the empire should not voluntarily leave a place once it has been conquered. While it is true that Trump has staffed his administration at higher levels with generals, the national-security state’s apparatus seems to be able to control policy much like previous regimes. It is merely more visible because Trump’s unpredictable nature has caused the apparatus to show its face more often than it likes, and the generals have been more willing to accept roles with overt policy-making implications that in previous eras would have been done behind closed doors.

The real reason is that Afghanistan is a forward operating base for the US military in Asia in its attempts to counter China’s inevitable rise, whatever the official justifications for maintaining troops there are. China’s $900 billion Belt and Road Initiative aims to lay the trans-continental infrastructure to allow its transition from great power to world-hegemon. Its projected land routes go north around Afghanistan and south through Pakistan. Given that the United States recently began a “Pivot to Asia” strategy aimed at building an economic and military partnership with Asian states to balance China, and that the economic side of that – the Transpacific Partnership – was temporarily defeated, there has been an increased emphasis on its military part by the national security state.

In addition, India, alarmed at China’s rise and open provocation on its eastern flank, has already signed a historic agreement to allow US warships and aircraft to use Indian bases for “refuelling, repair, and other logistical purposes”. The United States conducted joint naval war games with India and Japan this summer. It is clear that the United States is turning towards India at the same time as Pakistan moves closer to China’s sphere of influence. China has signaled its displeasure at these containment efforts, even as it expands its military footprint into the South China Sea and Africa. Given that Afghanistan borders the northern and southern route of China’s New Silk Road, and India has openly aligned itself with the United States, what is the likelihood of American troops leaving Afghanistan?

Because of this, it is more likely we will see an open-ended presence of the US military in Afghanistan than troops leaving for good at any point in the short or medium-term. Indeed, there is no domestic political group that will force the war to end. The anti-war Left in the United States is virtually nonexistent outside of a small fraction of consistently anti-imperialist groups. Bush and Obama’s presidencies proved the bulk of protesters over the last decade to be anti-Republican Wars, but quite happy to ignore the imperial actions of a Democrat. The litmus test for any leftist movement going forward has to be its stance on foreign policy and consistent, unwavering anti-imperialism. Until then the rationale for keeping troops in Afghanistan is just too great for the American empire as it looks to balance the rise of China and to shore up alliances with regional powers like India. America’s longest war will get that much longer, and unfortunately, there’s not much yet we are likely to do about it.

https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/09/04/afghanistan-why-we-wont-leave/

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More Media Silence !

North Korea Has Repeatedly Offered to Give up Their Nukes

by Darius Shahtahmasebi

The Anti-Media Op-ed (September 07 2017)

As the mass media {1} and the establishment figures {2} who keep mainstream outlets afloat {3} continue to beat the drums of war against North Korea, little attention is being paid to one crucial detail regarding the current crisis engulfing the Korean peninsula.

You wouldn’t know it if you were to turn on your television every day or simply skim the media’s headlines {4}, but North Korea has continuously offered {5} to freeze its nuclear program. The very threat we are continuously told to fear could be immediately neutralized but is instead repeatedly rejected by the United States.

However, prominent media outlets such as The Washington Post continue {6} to tell a different story, namely that:

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un] has shown no interest in talks – he won’t even set foot in China, his biggest patron. Even if negotiations took place, the current regime has made clear that ‘it will never place its self-defensive nuclear deterrence on the negotiating table, as one envoy recently put it {7}.

As The Intercept explains {8}, this is a false assertion:

There’s, of course, a significant difference between North Korea saying it will never negotiate to halt or eliminate its nuclear weapons program, and that it will never negotiate as long as the US continues to threaten it … The reality is that North Korea is saying that, under certain conditions, it will put its nuclear weapons on the table. [emphasis added]

Not only does the media continue to misinform the public on this issue, but as Noam Chomsky explained in an interview {9} with Democracy! Now, the United States continues to categorically reject North Korea’s proposal:

There is one proposal that’s ignored. You see a mention of it now and then. It’s a pretty simple proposal. Remember the goal is to get North Korea to freeze its weapons systems – weapons and missile systems. One proposal is to accept their offer to do that. Sounds simple, they’ve made a proposal – China and North Korea – proposed to freeze the North Korean missile and nuclear weapons systems and the US instantly rejected it. And you can’t blame that on Trump, Obama did the same thing, a couple of years ago. Same offer was presented – I think it was 2015 – the Obama administration instantly rejected it.

Why would they do that? Why fear North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities but then reject a proposal to freeze their production? As Chomsky explains further:

The reason is that it calls for a quid pro quo. It says in return the United States should put an end to threatening military maneuvers on North Korea’s borders, which happen to include under Trump, sending of nuclear-capable B-52s flying right near the border. Maybe Americans don’t remember very well but North Koreans have a memory of not too long ago when North Korea was absolutely flattened – literally – by American bombing. There were literally no targets left. [emphasis added]

In the early 1950s, the US relentlessly bombed North Korea, destroying {10} over 8,700 factories, 5,000 schools, 1,000 hospitals, 600,000 homes, and eventually killing {11} off as much as twenty percent of the country’s population. As the Asia Pacific Journal has noted, the US did, indeed, drop so many bombs that they eventually ran out of targets to hit and bombed the irrigation systems, instead:

By the fall of 1952, there were no effective targets left for US planes to hit. Every significant town, city and industrial area in North Korea had already been bombed. In the spring of 1953, the Air Force targeted irrigation dams on the Yalu River, both to destroy the North Korean rice crop and to pressure the Chinese, who would have to supply more food aid to the North. Five reservoirs were hit, flooding thousands of acres of farmland, inundating whole towns and laying waste to the essential food source for millions of North Koreans. [emphasis added]

Despite the people and leadership of North Korea knowing this history {12} and the history of other like-minded states {13} who became easy targets for the US military upon dismantling their weapons programs, North Korea is still to this day offering this proposal to freeze its program.

As The Intercept explained {14} at the end of August:

North Korea’s proclamations have been closely tracked {15} by Robert Carlin, currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and formerly head of the Northeast Asia Division in the State Department’s intelligence arm. Carlin has visited North Korea over thirty times.

Via email, Carlin described how it is difficult but critical to accurately decode North Korean communications. “Observers dismiss as unimportant what the North Koreans say”, Carlin writes, and “therefore don’t read it carefully, except of course if it is colorful, fiery language that makes for lovely headlines. Some of what the North says is simply propaganda and can be read with one eye closed. Other things are written and edited very carefully, and need to be read very carefully. And then, having been read, they need to be compared with past statements, and put in context.”

The media’s insistence {16} that North Korea will never give up its weapons systems is completely disingenuous when one reads the entire context of the statements offered by Kim Jong-un’s government. On July 4, Kim’s statement read as follows:

The DPRK would neither put its nukes and ballistic rockets on the table of negotiations in any case nor flinch even an inch from the road of bolstering the nuclear force chosen by itself unless the US hostile policy and nuclear threat to the DPRK are definitely terminated. [emphasis added]

Quid pro quo.

This is a deal-breaker for the US even though it would undoubtedly diffuse the entire situation and provide the region with at least a brief period of stability.

The US, together with South Korea, simulates {17} an invasion of North Korea every year. In Donald Trump’s first six months in office, he dropped {18} over 20,650 bombs in approximately seven countries, which killed thousands of civilians {19}. By comparison, Kim Jong-un bombs {20} the ocean.

No matter how objectively you look at it, North Korea has a genuine reason to want to be prepared in the face of American aggression. But a military strike option to counter any potential North Korean threat is not the only option and, further, is almost certainly the worst option on the table {21}.

After the failures and crimes of US politicians and the military in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan – to name a few – we should be demanding that our world leaders try the diplomatic option advanced by the North Korean regime to the fullest extent in order to avoid a potential nuclear holocaust and the deaths of millions of innocent civilians.

Links:

{1} http://edition.cnn.com/2017/09/04/asia/north-korea-what-to-know/index.html

{2} http://edition.cnn.com/2017/09/04/politics/haley-north-korea-united-nations/index.html

{3} http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-cnn-russia-retraction_us_5952442de4b0da2c731e6661

{4} http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41150291

{5} https://theintercept.com/2017/09/05/north-korea-says-it-might-negotiate-on-nuclear-weapons-but-the-washington-post-isnt-reporting-that/

{6} https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/why-arent-we-talking-about-regime-change-in-north-korea/2017/08/31/d36b0b00-8d9e-11e7-91d5-ab4e4bb76a3a_story.html?utm_term=.e084844a97b0

{7} https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/north-korea-warns-it-wont-negotiate-nukes-if-us-is-hostile/2017/08/17/512f743e-8397-11e7-9e7a-20fa8d7a0db6_story.html?utm_term=.70d3e3e2e579

{8} https://theintercept.com/2017/09/05/north-korea-says-it-might-negotiate-on-nuclear-weapons-but-the-washington-post-isnt-reporting-that/

{9} https://twitter.com/robn1980/status/895205737756012545?lang=en

{10} http://apjjf.org/-Charles-K.-Armstrong/3460/article.html

{11} https://theintercept.com/2017/05/03/why-do-north-koreans-hate-us-one-reason-they-remember-the-korean-war/

{12} https://theintercept.com/2017/05/03/why-do-north-koreans-hate-us-one-reason-they-remember-the-korean-war/

{13} http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/25/world/asia/25korea.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=North%20Korea%20Libya%20nuclear&st=cse

{14} https://theintercept.com/2017/08/25/north-korea-keeps-saying-it-might-give-up-its-nuclear-weapons-but-most-news-outlets-wont-tell-you-that/

{15} http://www.38north.org/2017/08/rcarlin080817/

{16} https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/north-korea-under-no-circumstances-will-give-up-its-nuclear-weapons/2017/08/07/33b8d319-fbb2-4559-8f7d-25e968913712_story.html?utm_term=.bdea7a459b9e

{17} https://www.cnbc.com/2017/08/10/us-south-korean-war-game-exercises-could-heat-up-tensions-on-peninsula.html

{18} https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/08/09/donald-trump-is-dropping-bombs-at-unprecedented-levels/

{19} https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jun/06/us-syria-iraq-isis-islamic-state-strikes-death-toll

{20} http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/north-korea-missile-test-japan-kim-jong-un-guam-a7919306.html

{21} http://edition.cnn.com/2017/09/05/asia/north-korea-putin/index.html

http://theantimedia.org/north-korea-give-up-nukes/

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International Law ?

The Americans Don’t Give a Damn

by Christopher Black

New Eastern Outlook (September 09 2017)

The United States of America has sunk to a new low in diplomacy and civilized relations between nation states with its demand that Russia close its consular missions in San Francisco, Washington, and New York, quickly followed by its order that the consular staff leave the premises while the FBI conducted a search of the premises and staffers personal apartments. To order the closure of a mission, or to order the withdrawal of a member of diplomatic staff, is within its right but a search of consular property is not. It is a flagrant violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961.

Article 22 of the Convention states:

1. The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.

2. The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.

3. The premises of the mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution.

Article 45 states that even

If diplomatic relations are broken off between two States, or if a mission is permanently or temporarily recalled:

(a) The receiving State must, even in case of armed conflict, respect and protect the premises of the mission, together with its property and archives;

(b) The sending State may entrust the custody of the premises of the mission, together with its property and archives, to a third State acceptable to the receiving State;

The Vienna Convention is one of the foundations of international relations. Without it, and the ancient customs enshrined in it, international relations cannot exist. The United States of America is a state party to the Convention and so is bound by it as part of international law and as part of American law.

The Russian Foreign Ministry correctly stated that “the occupation of Russian diplomatic properties in the US is a blunt act of hostility and in violation of international law”. The Russians also expressed their logical concern that the only reason for such a search to be conducted, aside from bullying and intimidation of the Russian people, is to use it as an opportunity for the Americans to plant items, which they will then use in their propaganda war against Russia. This concern is valid and strong since there can be no valid reason to insist on the staff leaving the premises so a “search” can be made except that the US government does not want its FBI agents observed.

This action by the USA is not just a crime against Russia. It is a crime against all the nations of the world who depend on the articles of the Vienna Convention to protect their diplomats and properties in host nations without which international diplomacy cannot be conducted. For if the USA will do this to Russia it will do it to anyone it chooses. No nation can now regard its diplomatic missions in the United States as protected, as the Convention requires. The ramifications will take a while to sink in but in effect, the United States has now declared itself to be a rogue state that has no respect for its own or international law and the rights of other nations.

It is also a profoundly stupid action that can only damage the United States itself since, by its own example, it can no longer expect other nations to respect the diplomatic immunity of its diplomatic missions around the world.

So, why has the United States undertaken such a reckless and provocative action? There is no doubt that it is part of the bizarre and clumsy propaganda theme that Russia interfered in the American elections and so the “search” is meant to raise in the minds of Americans that there is something to be searched for, some evidence of a “crime”. Why this would be found in San Francisco is a mystery but the American government and media never seem to bother about logical plot lines in their propaganda stories.

The other reason is to provoke Russia. The provocations against Russia from Ukraine, to Latvia, from Crimea to Syria, continue to escalate. The provocations on the diplomatic front have been many, but it was Obama that expelled 35 Russian diplomats just before he left office and ordered the seizure of two Russian compounds. The Russia government held off responding to that for several months, hoping that the new US administration would be more reasonable, but in vain. Things just got worse and so the Russians ordered America to cut its diplomatic presence in Russia. The American seizure of more Russian properties and the search of the San Francisco mission are in line with the American logic of hostility towards Russia.

The provocative nature of this action is revealed in the statement of Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, quoted by Tass, on Sunday the 3rd of September,

“By the way, do you know, what they were looking for – as we were told before the searches? You would not believe it – they were looking for explosives”, she said, adding ironically that it can be easily imagined how Russian diplomats are carrying explosive substances in their elegant cases”.

And,

According to Zakharova, the US security services obviously hoped Russian diplomats would lose their nerves and here there will be “an image of an aggressive Russian. Just try to imagine that you are being brainwashed for a year that an enemy is living overseas and this enemy is impacting your life and everything bad that might happen – the election of a president you don’t like – has been done by the Russians”, she said.

There we have it, The American government has become completely unhinged. They appear to have lost all sense of reality and can be said to be suffering from a type of psychosis and for all that are becoming more dangerous. A US government spokesperson stated that President Trump ordered this latest action, once again proving that Trump, for all his narcissism and arrogance, simply follows the long line of American presidents who have stirred up trouble in the world.

So far as I can determine, no other country has conducted itself like this before, not even the United States. Even the Japanese were not treated this way after Pearl Harbor. The Japanese embassy was locked down, put under the control of a neutral country and the Japanese diplomats allowed to leave the country. That is, the United States then, even in the face of a direct military attack against it by Japan, still adhered to international law and respected diplomatic customs. So far has the United States declined into barbarity that it does not now afford to Russia, a fellow member of the United Nations, and with whom war has not broken out, the same courtesies that were applied to Japan, a nation that attacked it. In fact, by its action, it negates Russia as a sovereign nation, since it denies Russia is entitled to the respect and courtesy due to all sovereign nations.

So far the Russian response has been muted, simply calling in the American deputy ambassador to hand him a note of protest. The First deputy chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Duma stated, “The US authorities may rest assured that the searches will not go unanswered”. But how? It is clear the Americans don’t give a tinker’s dam about law or custom or civilized behavior and are intent on provoking Russia. So what can an appropriate response be? I can only recall, once again, something my friend, Harold Pinter, the Nobel Laureate for Literature said in his acceptance speech. He stated,

The United States quite simply doesn’t give a damn about the United Nations, international law or critical dissent, which it regards as impotent and irrelevant.

“How to make them give a damn”, he once asked me, “before they kill us all?”

How indeed? I do not know but I do know that the nations of the world, including Russia, should pay heed to what Harold Pinter said, to think about it, to understand what the American action means at a deep level, and only then to respond accordingly.

_____

Christopher Black is an international criminal lawyer based in Toronto. He is known for a number of high-profile war crimes cases and recently published his novel Beneath the Clouds: The Struggle for Truth and Justice Can Turn Deadly (2016). He writes essays on international law, politics and world events, especially for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook.

https://journal-neo.org/2017/09/06/international-law-the-americans-don-t-give-a-damn/

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