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Peter Van Buren

Christopher Steele: The Real Foreign Influence in the 2016 Election?

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Leaving aside the validity of what has become known as the “Steele dossier,” it’s important to look at how Christopher Steele was able to guarantee that the information in it would play a significant and ongoing role in American politics. 

Steele, who is British, did far more than simply provide opposition research to the Democratic National Committee. He was able to make sure it reached the most influential people possible in politics, media and government to shape and influence the growing narrative of the 2016 presidential election. In other words, as a skilled professional intelligence officer, Steele ran a full-spectrum information operation against the United States. One could even call it information warfare.

This is what separates his work creating the dossier  (which a decent journalist with friends in Russia could have done) from his work insinuating the dossier into the highest reaches of American government and political society. For that, you need a real pro, an intelligence officer with decades of experience running just that kind of operation. Looking for foreign interference in the 2016 election? Let’s take a closer look at Christopher Steele.

Steele’s skill is revealed by the now familiar Nunes and Grassley memos, which show he used the same set of information in the dossier to create a collaboration loop, every intelligence officer’s dream, which is his own planted information used to surreptitiously confirm itself, right up to the point where the target country’s own intelligence service re-purposed it as evidence in the FISA (Foreign Intelligence  Surveillance Act) court.
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The People v. Trump: Is There a Case for the 25th Amendment?

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The media is of one mind: Donald Trump is mentally incompetent and must be removed from office before he blows us all to hell. It says so on Vox, New York Review of BooksCNNThe InterceptCNBCThe NationBill MoyersSalon, and theNYT. A new book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, concludes “Trump’s mental state presents a clear and present danger to our nation and individual well-being.”

The solution is in the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. The 25A creates a mechanism aside impeachment to remove an “incapacitated” president, and Trump’s mental state, some believe, qualifies him. Is there a case?

Dr. Bandy Lee, one of the editors of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trumpsays yes. Her primary evidence is tweets Trump sent threatening Kim Jong Un. She really has no other ammunition: no doctor who says Trump is insane, including Lee, has examined him. No doctor that has examined him says he is insane. Third party anonymous accusations of incompetence are shot through with gossip. A book written by a Hollywood trash reporter is otherwise held up as critical evidence of the inner workings of the president’s mind.

So is there a case without the tweets? Not really. Lee adds while Trump has not committed violent acts against himself or others, his “verbal aggressiveness, history of boasting about sexual assault, history of inciting violence at his rallies, and history of endorsing violence in his key public speeches are the best predictors of future violence” and thus concludes he will destroy the world. Lee also weakly points to Trump “being drawn to violent videos.” Oh my.
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Iraq War 3.0, the War to End All Wars, is Over

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America’s serial wars in Iraq are ending with a whimper, not a bang. And in the oddest of ironies, it may be President Donald Trump, feared as a war monger, the fifth president to make war in Iraq, who has more or less accidentally ended up presiding over the end.

Here’s how we ended up where we are, and how a quarter century of American conflict in Iraq created the post-Vietnam template for forever war we’ll be using in the next fight.

Iraq War 1.0+ The Good War

The end of the Soviet Union transitioned the Middle East from a Cold War battleground to an exclusive American sphere of influence. George H. W. Bush exploited the new status in 1991 by launching Iraq War 1.0, Desert Storm, reversing decades of U.S. support for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
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State Department, Meet the New Boss, Same/Worse as the Old Boss?

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The rumors of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s demise may finally not be greatly exaggerated.

A marked man, it was only about a month ago the media speculated on how soon United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley would replace Tillerson. Two weeks ago a trial balloon floated up with Mike Pompeo’s name in trail. But a burst of nearly-identical stories over the last few days,spearheaded by the New York Times, signals the end for Tillerson and names Pompeo, currently Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as his successor. What lies ahead?

The unique interplay between the Civil Service (non-diplomats largely stationed in Washington DC) and the Foreign Service (who have primary responsibility in Washington and who staff the embassies and consulates abroad) complicates Secretary of State transitions. Engaging both sides, with their different vested interests, can be tough. And unlike the military, where chains of command and internal procedures are written on checklists, State is a hybrid, half foreign and half domestic, with a structure that either conforms to a new Secretary or is conformed by a new Secretary. State is a vertically-oriented bureaucracy, with layers below the boss’ office waiting for bits of policy to fall so as to inform them of what their own opinions are. One academic referred to this as “neckless government,” a head and a body in need of an active connection.

A huge part of Tillerson’s failure was in missing that last point. The traditional way of engaging the bureaucracy is for a new Secretary to fill key positions with political appointees, who will shape the rank and file below them. Bonus points to the Secretary who can pluck out career Foreign Service people with the approved ideological bent to act as a virtual political appointees, a strong point of Hillary Clinton’s. Tillerson left too many slots vacant too long, and now finds himself without allies inside Foggy Bottom.
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The Trump Era and Weaponization of the Media

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Donald Trump's victory was so loathsome to many journalists that instead of acknowledging their cultural and partisan blindness lead to them misreport the election, they doubled down, growing two overlapping myths to delegitimize a presidency they never wanted to happen. Psychiatrists call this denial; political scientists may call it a kill shot to democracy.
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Sour Grapes: Iran Wins the Iraq War, and I Scooped the NYT by Six Years on the Story

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The New York Times is featuring a piece stating Iran is the big winner of the US-Iraq wars, 1991-2017.

So what does winning in Iraq look like, asks the Times? About like this:

A Shia-dominated government is in Baghdad, beholden to Tehran for its security post-ISIS. Shia thug militias, an anti-Sunni and Kurd force in waiting, are fully integrated into the otherwise-failed national Iraqi military. There are robust and growing economic ties between the two nations. An Iraqi security structure will never threaten Iran again. A corridor between Iran and Syria will allow arms and fighters to flow westward in support of greater Iranian geopolitical aims in the Middle East. And after one trillion in US taxpayer dollars spent, and 4,500 Americans killed in hopes of making Iraq the cornerstone of a Western-facing Middle East, American influence in Iraq is limited.

It seems the Times is surprised by the conclusion; it’s “news” for some apparently. The newspaper ran the story on its hometown edition front page.

But sorry, it wasn’t news to me. I tried writing basically the same story in 2010 as a formal reporting cable for the State Department. Nobody wanted to hear it.

At the time I was assigned to Iraq as an American diplomat, with some 20 years of field experience, embedded at a rural forward operating base. All the things that took until 2017 to become obvious to the New York Times were available to anyone on the ground back then with the eyes to see.


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How to Sustain Perpetual War (It’s Easy!)

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Sustaining America’s state of post-9/11 perpetual war requires skillful manipulation of the public at home. The key tool used for this purpose is the bloodless narrative, a combination of policy, falsehoods and media manipulation that creates the impression that America’s wars have few consequences, at least for Americans.

How can the American government sustain its wars in the face of dead soldiers coming home? Why is there no outcry among the American people over these losses? The answer is the narrative of bloodless war.

The Dead

The bloodless war narrative’s solution to the dead is a policy of don’t look, don’t tell.

Dick Cheney, as Secretary of Defense for George H. W. Bush, helped decide in 1991 the first Iraq War would play better if Americans did not see their fallen return home. He recalled the images of coffins from the 1989 invasion of Panama on television, transposed against the president speaking of victory, and banned media from Dover Air Force Base, where deceased American personnel would arrive from the Persian Gulf.
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How Accidental are America’s Accidental Civilian Killings Across the Middle East?

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US Secretary of Defense James Mattis has said“civilian casualties are a fact of life in this sort of situation,” referring to America’s war against Islamic State.

How can America in clear conscience continue to kill civilians across the Middle East? It’s easy; ask Grandpa what he did in the Good War. Civilian deaths in WWII weren’t dressed up as collateral damage, they were policy.
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Groundhog Day in Iraq? Nope, Worse

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It’s a helluva question: “Tell me how this ends.”

It was a good question in 2003 when then Major General David Petraeus asked it as the United States invaded Iraq, an ironic one in 2011 when the US withdrew, worth revisiting in 2014 when the US reinvaded Iraq, and again in 2017 as Islamic State appears to be on its way out. Problem is we still don’t have a good answer. It could be Groundhog Day all over again in Iraq, or it could be worse.

Groundhog Day

The Groundhog Day argument, that little has changed from 2003 until now, is quite persuasive. Just look at the headlines. A massive Ramadan car bomb exploded not just in Baghdad, but in Karada, its wealthiest neighborhood, during a holiday period of heightened security, and all just outside the Green Zone were the American Embassy remains hunkered down like a medieval castle. Islamic State, like al Qaeda before it, can penetrate the heart of the capital city, even after the fall of their home base in Fallujah (2004, 2016.) Meanwhile, Mosul is under siege (2004, 2017.) Iranian forces are on the ground supporting the Baghdad central government. The Kurds seek their own state. American troops are deep in the fighting and taking casualties. The Iraqi Prime Minister seems in control at best only of the Shia areas of his country. Groundhog Day.

But maybe this time around, in what some call Iraq War 3.0, we do know how it ends.
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