Monday, March 26, 2018

Media Says North Korea's Nukes are Offensive. US Intel Says They're Not

The recent diplomatic breakthrough between the Trump administration and North Korea provides a hopeful opportunity for peaceful resolution to the crisis on the Korean peninsula. Immediately after the announcement, the media went into overdrive to try and undermine the development, worrying more about photographs of Kim Jung-Un than of preventing nuclear war.

This, however, is only the latest iteration in a long history of media reporting which has enabled an aggressive US foreign policy.

While the momentum during the Olympic Games was pushing towards détente, the Trump administration ramped up its “maximum pressure” campaign. Meanwhile, the media constantly reminded its audiences of the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons. A threat not only to the people of the region—but likely even the United States itself.

When faced with such a threat the bellicose posturing of the Trump administration seems perhaps to have been warranted. After all, if the US does not coerce North Korea into denuclearization, what else will protect us?

There is a problem though. This threat is not real. North Korea’s nuclear program—according to official US intelligence assessments—is defensive. Its overall military posture is designed to deter an attack – exactly the kind that Trump has threatened them with.

By falsely portraying North Korea as the aggressor, the press have functioned much in the same way that state-sponsored propaganda would, bolstering an aggressive foreign policy despite the chance that it will descend the world into a possible nuclear war.

The Threat of Deterrence

The most authoritative assessments of US military intelligence have repeatedly concluded that North Korea’s nuclear program is defensive.

The most recent report available, published by the Department of Defense in 2015, concludes that the military capabilities of the North are designed “to deter external attack.” North Korea’s “overarching national security objectives” are to develop nuclear weapons, gain recognition as a nuclear armed state, and thereby establish the “maintenance of a viable deterrent capability.” In terms of “North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” the DoD clearly explains that “DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) leaders see these programs as necessary for a credible deterrent capability essential to its survival.”

A similar assessment is given in the 2013 report. The report notes that the objectives of the North Korean regime “have not changed markedly from those pursued by Kim Jong Il,” the country’s previous leader who came to power in the 1990’s. North Korean leaders have seen “these programs, absent normalized relations with the international community, as leading to a credible deterrence capability essential its goals of survival.”

Despite the public availability of these assessments, the mainstream media continues to portray these programs as offensive.

In a New York Times report from February 13, titled “U.S. Opens Door to North Korea Talks, a Victory for South’s President”, the authors uncritically quote Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, as saying that the current leader of North Korea, Kim Jung-Un, “probably sees nuclear ICBMs as leverage to achieve his long-term strategic ambition to end Seoul’s alliance with Washington and to eventually dominate the peninsula.”

While journalists routinely cite such statements from US intelligence officials uncritically, they eschew the most exhaustive assessments produced by the officials’ own agencies. If the DoD report from 2012 had been consulted, it would have been understood that while in the 60s & 70s the North did have “reason to believe its goal of reunification on its own terms was a possibility”, ever since the 1990s “North Korea has largely abandoned unilaterally enforced reunification as a practical goal.”

On the diplomatic side, the Times article explains that “the Trump administration has long resisted” the approach of peaceful negotiation because it does not want to “be drawn into a negotiation like that of the Clinton administration in 1994, which resulted in a deal North Korea later broke.” This last point is stated plainly as fact.

The secretary of defense for President Clinton at that time, who was directly involved in negotiating that deal, says the opposite.

William Perry explains that while the agreement was “imperfectly implemented” it did in fact “effectively halt the regime’s nuclear progress for a time.” Attempts to iron-out a more permanent agreement, which “were tantalizingly close”, only collapsed when the incoming Bush administration cut-off all dialogue with the North and “abandoned Clinton’s diplomatic plan for his own more confrontational model”, thereby losing “a priceless opportunity.”

Importantly, Perry also says that “while [the North Korean leadership] is evil and sometimes reckless,” it is not “crazy or suicidal.” It knows “that if it launches a nuclear attack, the American response would bring death to the leadership and devastation to its country. … The arsenal achieves its goal only if North Korea does not use it.”

By omitting this crucial context, the Times lends undo credibility to the Trump administration’s approach, and further enables the push towards possible nuclear war.

Hyping the Threat

3 More articles from February, The New York Times’, “Seeing Bounty Abroad, Will North Koreans Change Their Homeland?”, the Washington Post’s, “Did Kim Jong Un’s ‘historic’ missile get a boost from old Soviet weapons?”, and the Washington Post’s, “South Korean president says Olympics have lowered tensions with North”, all paint a similar picture.

In the Times piece, the main explanation of North Korea’s behavior is left to a University professor of Korean studies, who echoes the mainstream consensus when he says that North Korea “remains a menacing nuclear state.” No attempt is made to ask what might explain this seemingly erratic behavior, nor what it would feel like to be in North Korea’s shoes, to have the world’s superpower threaten to “totally destroy” your country. It is simply not considered whether such things have anything to do with those “menacing” defensive nukes.

The Washington Post articles add to the paranoia.

In the first, a vivid description is depicted of “the 75-foot-tall colossus… one of two intercontinental ballistic missiles to appear abruptly on North Korean launchpads last year, and the first with sufficient range to strike cities across the continental United States.”

In the second, the authors similarly describe how “the North has made rapid nuclear progress in recent years, and some experts say the country has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead - the kind of weapon it could use to target the U.S. mainland.” These articles descend to the level of scaremongering because they make no effort to ask why these capabilities are being built. If it was understood that the only way in which these “colossus” missiles would ever threaten “to target the U.S. mainland” is if the Trump administration launches an attack against North Korea first—thus provoking a retaliation—people might have harsher things to say about the administration’s behavior.

History is also turned on its head.

The Post tells its readers that “until recently, relations with North Korea seemed at a crisis point. North Korea was testing nuclear weapons, launching missiles toward Japan, all as President Trump said the United States was ‘locked and loaded’ to respond.” Another Washington Post piece, “The leaders of both Koreas feel like they won gold medals this week”, similarly frames the situation as the US simply responding to North Korean provocations: “After a year of threats, actual and rhetorical, fired from North Korea toward the United States, the sudden burst of inter-Korean diplomacy has turned the focus away from Washington, at least temporarily.”

The most prominent academic scholars say the actual history has been the opposite. Instead, the pattern has been one where a reduction in tensions initiated by the US usually results in a North Korean reciprocation. Conversely, when the US acts aggressively the North tends to respond in kind, usually with some kind of ballistic missile test.

According to one of the most prominent scholars on the subject, Leon V. Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York, “Pyongyang in fact has been playing tit for tat-reciprocating whenever Washington cooperates and retaliating whenever Washington reneges-in an effort to end enmity.”

Indeed, if the Trump-North Korea summit breaks down and the US increases its threats and war-games we can expect to see more missile tests from North Korea in response, and for the media to depict them as aggressive and hostile provocations.

Diplomatic Cover

The way the Washington Post decided to report on the Trump administration’s recent implementation of additional sanctions against North Korea, in “Trump administration unveils sanctions aimed at starving North Korea of resources”, was not to warn against the likelihood that they might undermine the slim opportunities for peaceful negotiations, nor to denounce the negative impact they will have on the wellbeing of the North Korean population—but to help justify the decision.

The sanctions come “as the Trump administration seeks new ways to intensify pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whose increasingly advanced missile and nuclear weapon programs have made the isolated nation the most pressing foreign threat facing the United States.” For this statement to be taken seriously, the reader would have to believe that the North Korean leadership is not only brutal, but downright “crazy or suicidal.”

The article ends with Nikki Haley, the United States’ UN representative, extolling the practice of using economic suffering as diplomatic leverage, while also castigating the North Koreans for refusing to willfully curtail their attempts to defend themselves: “Even though North Korea has yet to end its nuclear and missile programs, we know the sanctions are having a real impact. The regime has less and less money to spend on its ballistic missile tests and less capacity to threaten other countries with those tests.”

The Post takes this account at face-value, offering no criticisms of its accuracy nor of its moral legitimacy. The perception that we have the right to threaten and coerce whoever we want while they do not have the right to defend against this seems to have transcended into the realm of unquestionable and accepted dogma.

The lasting consequence of this kind of reporting is to provide diplomatic cover for the aggressive policies of the US government, helping to justify actions that would likely be condemned if the population had access to the full picture.

It is precisely this type of priming of the narrative that enables pundits to throw scorn upon peaceful negotiations and to favor instead the threatening of aggression and war.

Indeed, it is only with the aid of the mass media that someone like Trump could have gotten away with threatening to “totally destroy” a country for attempting to defend itself, or for people to see military action taken against North Korea – the one thing that does threatens to send nukes into the United States – as necessary to protect the population from nukes.


Steven Chovanec is an independent journalist and analyst based in Chicago, Illinois. He has a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Sociology from Roosevelt University, and has written for numerous outlets such as The Hill, TeleSUR, Truthout, MintPress News, Consortium News, INSURGE intelligence, and others. Follow him on Twitter @stevechovanec.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Trump's Tariffs: A Reimbursement to Campaign Donors

A lot of the debate surrounding Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs misses key points.

Many who have vehemently rejected the measures have exaggerated the harms that are likely to be caused by them. The arguments mainly stem from a desire to safeguard the global economic architecture that has been pursued by decades of previous administrations, commonly referred to as "globalization."

Really, this represents one specific form of global interconnection, one that has been constructed by, and for, the interests of Western economic elites. It has been championed by US administrations because it expands US influence and control throughout the world and the primary beneficiaries are US and allied nations’ corporations. A debate that oscillates either between Trumpian nationalism or this formulation of globalization is a false dichotomy.

In terms of the effects of the tariffs, price raises are likely to be barely noticeable for consumers, while the loss of employment in other affected sectors is likely to outweigh any benefits within the steel and aluminum industries, resulting in a net loss. The main threat though lies elsewhere: that the tariffs will provoke retaliatory measures from trading partners like the EU which will harm export industries. Therefore, they “may help protect the minority of workers in the targeted industries, but at some cost to the majority in others,” as Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), has commented.

But the knee-jerk opposition to anything protectionist is also misguided.

Protecting Profits, Not People

Every major advanced industrial economy rose to its position as a result of government intervention that protected its domestic industries, including the United States. The modern innovation being that the US, after building up its industries using protections, used its global influence to break-down trade barriers worldwide once its companies were in a position to dominate and profit from global competition. This is called “kicking away the ladder” that was used to get to the top.

US-directed liberalization therefore mainly benefitted Western corporate owners at the expense of the masses of working people. It led to massive increases in inequality and consolidation of profits at the top, brutal austerity measures that have shifted costs onto vulnerable populations, and a rise in legitimate anti-establishment grievances that created the conditions for populist demagogues like Trump to win office.

Some form of protectionism might help to alleviate those disaffected by the globalized economy, but Trump is going about it in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons.

While Trump routinely employs worker-friendly language, his policies have been structured specifically to increase the profits of a small group of wealthy business owners and to exacerbate the suffering and marginalization of everybody else.

The examples are far too many to list, but nearly every proposal has followed this basic template. The latest iterations include the Department of Labor (DOL) proposal that would allow employers to take worker’s tips. The administration even tried hiding just how harmful this would be by deliberately scrubbing its own estimates showing billions would be transferred to employers if the rule was approved.

Other DOL proposals seek to allow employers to self-regulate their failures to pay their workers, the predictable results of which do not have to be stated. The infrastructure plan as well was designed to transfer money from the population to investors by funding the rebuilding process through private investment, which will seek to accrue a profit by charging the population with tolls and other user fees, subordinating the rebuilding of infrastructure to the interests of private owners at the expense of the public. Or the massive upward redistribution of wealth that is the tax-cuts, mainly geared toward enriching the already very wealthy. This has been followed up by calls from opportunistic “deficit-hawks” to cut public programs that benefit working people in the name of “budget reform.” This is exactly what Trump’s 2019 budget proposes, exemplified in its “food-box” program that is designed to drastically reduce spending on assistance that helps to feed poor people. Or the current push to deregulate Wall-Street, risking another collapse that will inevitably harm the working-class poor most of all. And the list goes on, and on.

In keeping with this, the steel and aluminum tariffs are essentially a gift to the business-owners who helped to fund Trump’s campaign.

Follow the Money

Political scientists have amassed an authoritative body of research showing that elections in the US are, above all else, competitions between competing financiers. Campaign costs are very high, and the barrier to entry is more than most can afford, therefore influence over electoral outcomes “passes by default to major investor groups” who can bear these costs. Funding is forwarded to candidates from various investor blocs who then compete with each other for control over the state. Campaign funding alone is the dominant determinant of electability. In short, elections are essentially bought.

Candidates therefore must present policy platforms that attract funding from economic elites. Because of this, only the positions that can be financed are presented to voters. This funding acts as a filter which sifts out any platform that is not amenable to the interests of the dominant investors. The innovation in 2016 was that both Sanders and Trump were able to break through this filter.

The pioneer of this research, Thomas Ferguson, has released a new study paper that systematically breaks down the 2016 elections, shedding important new light on this historical phenomenon. Astonishingly, Bernie Sanders was able to establish a genuine grass-roots movement that collectively amassed enough money through small donations from average citizens to seriously contend with the Wall-Street backed Clinton campaign. Clinton only won the Democratic primaries as a result of the DNC manipulations that stemmed this tide of genuine democracy.

In Trump’s case, he was able to act and talk the way he did because he was a billionaire who could fund his own campaign and was therefore not beholden to the traditional Republican investors. “To many spectators,” Ferguson writes, “the truncated range” of discussion amongst the establishment Republican candidates sounded “as though everyone on stage in the debates was in the iron grip of some powerful force blocking normal human speech. This, of course, was because they were.” Trump’s ability to break this spell by opening his wallet was like “throwing open a tomb that had been sealed for ages,” electrifying many Americans who harbored grievances with the status-quo.

But the research points to an influx of corporate funding as being the deciding factor that secured Trump’s victory.

Initially, Trump’s corporate-funding came from traditional Republican donors. Big Pharma, tobacco, oil, and “mining, especially coal mining”—making the push to revitalize coal easy to understand. “Money from executives at the big banks also began streaming in,” though the decisive “torrent” came from private equity and hedge funds. Combined with “oil, chemicals, mining and a handful of other industries,” large private equity firms likely accounted for a “giant wave of dark money” that rushed into the Trump campaign in the final weeks. Deregulation, therefore, has been a top priority of the administration.

The rest came from companies located within the old industrial states that have been gutted by globalization, “from firms in steel, rubber, machinery, and other industries whose impulses to protection figured to benefit from” Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric.

It is not surprising then that Trump has constructed his protectionism to benefit these industries. The likely result of the tariffs, according to Michael Hudson, professor of economics at Peking University in Beijing, will be to enable “the steel and aluminum companies to use their increased profits for share buybacks and to pay dividends,” which is how most of the proceeds from the tax cuts appear to have been utilized so far.

As well, the steel and aluminum companies will be reliant on the tariffs staying in place to maintain their newfound profits, therefore securing their support and funding for Trump’s reelection campaign.

No Alternatives?

But the hodgepodge mixture of investors that make up the Trump coalition are, in Ferguson’s words, “extremely unstable.” They have little in common besides “their intense dislike of existing forms of American government.” “The world of private equity,” for instance, “intent on gaining access to the gigantic, rapidly growing securities markets of China and the rest of Asia,” are “likely to coexist only fitfully with American industries struggling to cope with world overcapacity in steel and other products or facing twenty-first century mercantilist state targeting.” The debate within the administration between “nationalism” and “globalism” is representative of these contradictions.

These, however, are not the only options available.

An alternate possibility, as proposed by the economist Dean Baker, is to formulate a trade policy that embraces globalization in an inclusive way that reduces inequality. His recommendation is to subsidize job creation to help aid domestic industries that have been harmed by trade, therefore helping those who have been most harmed by globalization: the industrial workers. He also advocates eliminating protections for highly paid professions (like doctors) as well as those of government-granted pharmaceutical patents (both of which drastically inflate medical costs). This would help to mitigate the upward redistribution of wealth, while also drastically reducing bloated medical costs that are a major burden to Americans.

Another economist, professor Richard D. Wolff, emphasizes domestic changes that would have an international effect. As Wolff suggests, if domestic enterprises were organized democratically, they would be much less likely to engage in the kind of harmful economic activity that is prevalent today.

For example, if the decisions within the firm were made by democratic vote among all who worked there, rather than by a small group of profit-seeking owners at the top, how likely would they be to decide to shut down their factories, destroy their own jobs, and move production abroad to take advantage of cheap labor?

Indeed, the options are plenty, and not very hard to imagine. Not once the constraints of the current doctrinal orthodoxies are thrown aside, and once policies are crafted with the interests of people in mind, not profit.


Steven Chovanec is an independent journalist and analyst based in Chicago, Illinois. He has a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Sociology from Roosevelt University, and has written for numerous outlets such as The Hill, TeleSUR, Truthout, MintPress News, Consortium News, Insurge-Intelligence, and others. Follow him on Twitter @stevechovanec.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

In Venezuela, It's "Democracy" if US-Backed Candidates Are Empowered, "Tyranny" if They Are Not

The Venezuelan government recently announced its decision to hold presidential elections, which are currently scheduled for May. The Trump administration denounced the move, saying they "would not be free and fair."
Last year, the administration announced an unprecedented escalation of sanctions against the country. This, too, was justified under humanitarian pretexts. The US says its actions are a response to the government's "serious abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms."
US Sen. Marco Rubio has even advocated that "the military of Venezuela must remove [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro" under the justification that "Maduro and his inner circle have destroyed democracy and replaced it with dictatorship."
Within this context, the former CIA director, Mike Pompeo -- who has recently moved into the position of Secretary of State -- admitted in his capacity as head of the CIA that the agency would like to see Maduro overthrown, and suggested last summer that it is working with others in the region to do so. "We are very hopeful that there can be a transition in Venezuela and we, the CIA, is doing its best to understand the dynamic there," Pompeo said, adding, "I was just down in Mexico City and in Bogota [Colombia] a week before last talking about this very issue, trying to help them understand the things they might do, so that they can get a better outcome for their part of the world and our part of the world."
Such actions and statements would not be possible without the humanitarian pretext. But the labelling of the Maduro government's actions as "dictatorial" also serves another purpose.
Within Venezuela, the US has systematically branded any political action it deems unfavorable as an illegitimate and dictatorial move of the government, while labelling actions which help to empower the parties the US looks favorably on as synonymous with the will of the "Venezuelan people." In this way, the US can use its influence over public opinion to pressure Venezuela into taking actions that help to put the US-backed opposition in power.

Continue reading...