Donald Trump’s most outrageous statement

There has been no shortage of outrageous statements by Republican candidate Donald Trump in the US presidential election campaign. However, the one that shocked me most was this boast about the loyalty of his supporters:

“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters, ok? It’s, like, incredible.” (Donald Trump, 23-Jan-2016)

The statement says something about both Trump and his supporters.

It would never occur to most people to even think about murdering someone, let alone boasting about the hypothetical ability to get away with murder — not because murder is illegal, but because killing is wrong. It’s one of the most basic moral rules in any society. That this doesn’t apply to Trump is revealing. He doesn’t have this moral compass that most people at any layer of society have. He’s the ultimate narcissist who would do anything that he thinks benefits him, from stiffing his contractors to “grabbing (women) by the pussy”. That makes him totally unsuitable for the most powerful position on the planet.

Trump has said many things that would have sunk the campaigns of ordinary politicians, but this is not politics as usual any more. For a certain segment of voters, the fact that he does not behave like a regular politician is the very reason they vote for him. Decades of rabid propaganda and conspiracy theories on talk radio by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and on Fox News have established an alternate reality for them where the system is totally broken and has to be trashed before it can be rebuilt from scratch. In this alternate reality crime is at an all-time high, rather than 50% below what it was under President Reagan as it actually is. Facts don’t matter.

These people are scared and prepared take their chances, almost regardless of the evidence. In reality, Trump has no solution for them. He will not bring back the lost industrial jobs that largely went to computers rather than to Mexico. His anti-trade policies would send the economy into a tail spin and his budget proposals would drown the country in debt. His victory would have foreign dictators cheering and would encourage imitators in other countries.

When Hitler came to power in my homeland in 1933, he did not win a majority in free elections, but he managed to get enough support from other parties and politicians who feared a communist revolution more than they disliked the Nazis. Most of Hitler’s plans that he executed so brutally once firmly in power, from “Lebensraum im Osten” (living space to the east, i.e. the invasion of Poland and the Soviet Union) to the mass murder of Jews had already been openly announced in “Mein Kampf” a decade before the Nazi takeover, but people on the right did not care too much about that. They were happy as long as Hitler was going to smash the communists.

Likewise, most of what Trump says doesn’t really matter to his followers, as long as he is the anti-Obama. No other Republican candidate was as different from Obama as Trump is. People voting for Trump despite his glaringly obvious character flaws are willing to write him a blank check, the same way the German Reichstag gave Hitler a blank check when it signed the Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz) that effectively gave him unlimited powers and put parliament out of business.

Even if, as most of the world hopes, voters will manage to stop Trump this coming Tuesday, this alone will not end the problem. His voters and their alternate reality views will still be there. They will impact the political culture for years to come. The Republican party and its media circus has nurtured an ever more toxic political base that it now has trouble controlling. In some ways it reminds me of the jihadists the US supported in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1970s/80s against the Soviet Union, which now have become the West’s enemy #1.

Unfortunately, even if the most unqualified US presidential candidate ever is defeated at the polls it will take a long time for the US to recover from the political poison the Republicans have been brewing for decades in order to secure power to further the interests of the top 1%.

Syria and the war against IS

The situation in Syria is getting ever more complex, with the Turkish air force shooting down a Russian SU-24 bomber on November 24, 2015. Several foreign countries are taking sides in the Syrian civil war and their declared objectives do not necessarily match up with their actions or those of their supposed allies.

The US is divided over its involvement in the war. President Obama made his name in national politics through his opposition to his predecessor’s war in Iraq. Sending US ground troops into Syria would carry many of the same risks encountered in Iraq. Therefore the US has restricted itself to air strikes and support of local proxies, including the Kurds.

Initially the US was aiming for regime change in Damascus, but more recently the fight against the “Islamic State” (IS) seems to have taken top priority. If the government in Damascus was defeated before an acceptable political alternative was ready to take over, the risk is that IS would acquire a huge amount of weapons, ammunition, territory and infrastructure from the collapsed regime.

Trying to step up its air warfare against IS, the US struck a bargain with next door Turkey, a NATO member, to use its Incirlik Air Base for attacks in Syria, a request that Turkey had denied them for a long time. No sooner had the US launched the first attacks from Turkish soil that Turkish airplanes started bombing Kurdish forces in Syria. According to President Erdogan, Turkey’s goal is “fighting terrorists”, and by that it mostly means the Kurdish PKK in Turkey and the Kurdish YPG in Syria.

It soon became obvious that the Turkish government sees the Kurds and not IS as enemy #1 within Syria. This had already transpired a year earlier in the siege of Kobani, when Turkey delayed and restricted reinforcements for the Kurdish defenders of the city against IS and asked the US not to make any air drops in their support.

Most foreign fighters joining IS arrive via Turkey and exports of fuel to Turkey are a major source of hard currency for IS. Turkey seems to have done little to stop either the flow of recruits or cash to IS, the Kurds’ worst enemy in Syria. Right now, the Kurds are America’s closest ally in Syria and Turkey’s worst enemy, even though the US and Turkey — as fellow NATO members — are supposed to be allies.

President Assad of Syria is fighting a war on several fronts, against the Al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, the western-supported Free Syrian Army (FSA), IS and the Kurds. It is supported by Iran, by Hezbollah from Lebanon and by Russia. Assad and many members of the government and military are Alawites, a religious minority that is part of Shia Islam. The Alawites mostly live in the mountainous coastal region between Lebanon to the south and Turkish Hatay province in the north. Russia has its only naval base in the Mediterranean in Tartus, in the Alawite region. Regardless of whether the Assad family will remain in power or if the government can hold on to the capital of Damascus, the Alawites as an ethnic group have nowhere to go. Fear of Sunni Islamists taking revenge and maybe even committing genocide against the ethnic group of the current rulers ensures that Alawite forces will fight tenaciously to not lose control of their homeland in the west. Most observers agree that Syria is likely to end up divided, with a de-facto independent Alawite region established along the coast even if Sunni opposition forces conquer Damascus and set up a new national government.

Russia’s objective in supporting Assad is to remain relevant as a geo-political player. It has little to gain militarily, politically or economically by propping up the current bankrupt regime. But as long as Russia can be a thorn in the side of the US, Putin can demonstrate to Russians that their country is still a force to be reckoned with. In some ways Putin benefits domestically the same way as Erdogan, both burnishing their image as the local tough guy. That makes the Turkish-Russian clash even more dangerous. Just like Turkey, Russia got involved militarily to “fight terrorism”, only in its case the main target have been anti-government forces operating to the West of the IS-controlled territory, as opposed to the Kurds to the east. This also includes Turkmen, ethnic Turks in northern Syria, who were the target of the bombing run before the SU-24 was shot down by Turkish jets.

Neither Assad nor Russia place a high priority on fighting IS: If they were to defeat the barbaric hordes of IS, achieving regime change in Damascus would instantly rise to become the top priority of the US in this war again. Keeping IS in the mix is like a life insurance policy for Assad.

Shiite militia Hezbollah in Lebanon is supporting Assad with fighters. Shiites in Lebanon feel threatened by the prospect of militant Sunnis taking over next door. Lebanon suffered through a long period of civil war starting in the 1970s and is host to more than a million Syrian refugees now.

Talks have been ongoing for negotiating a cease-fire towards a political settlement. The idea is that all parties but IS would stop fighting each other, then gang up on IS and wipe it out. Finally they would agree to a new government, presumably led by the Sunni majority with some kind of autonomy for the Alawites and the Kurds. The shooting down of the Russian bomber has made this even less likely to happen any time soon. Erdogan is not particularly keen on any settlement that will create an autonomous or independent Kurdish entity south of the border, or linked up with Iraqi Kurdistan. As long as IS is there the Kurds will keep bleeding as a proxy for US ground troops that won’t get deployed.

IS will keep fighting as long as it can keep up the stream of recruits from outside the region and money from whatever sources they can lay their hands on. The more the west and Russia retaliate with military strikes and troops for acts of terrorism such as the ones in Paris or against the Russian tourists in Sinai, the easier it is for IS to sell its story as defending the “caliphate” against western “crusaders”. The war in Syria is still young compared to the jihad that has been going on in Afghanistan since the Russian invasion in 1979 and the US invasion in 2001.

I haven’t said much about Saudi Arabia and Qatar yet, two countries that would like to see a Sunni victory in Syria but are denying that they support Islamist extremists such as IS and al-Nusra Front. What mostly differentiates Saudi-Arabia from IS is not its ideology, but its oil wealth and its royal family. Ideologically they are actually quite close, for example both the Saudis and IS still practice crucifixion and neither tolerates other religions. The Saudi government opposes the likes of IS and Al-Qaeda not because they had different values, but because those militants regard the Saudi royals as corrupt and don’t recognize their authority. Saudi Arabia’s major rival in the Middle East is Iran, Syria’s main supporter. Supporting Sunni Islamists against Assad is a way of hurting Iran.

So, what will the outcome? Frankly, I am not hopeful. When next door neighbour Lebanon erupted into civil war in 1975, it took 15 years before the country could return to a fragile peace again. There are too many external powers involved in a proxy war in Syria and so much blood has been shed already, that a political settlement is unlikely any time soon. The conflict between the Saudis and Iran has recently escalated, following the execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, while Turkey has escalated its conflict with the Kurds and Russia. Even if Assad lost control of the capital, Russia is likely to keep supporting an Alawite rump state on the coast to keep its naval base and a seat at the table.

I would not be surprised if the war in Syria lasts another 10 years or more, if not for the sectarian and ethnic divisions within the country then because of the countries running the Syrian war as a regional proxy war, turning Syria into a burnt-out graveyard.

Turkey attacks Kurds while supporting bombing of IS

I’m a bit puzzled about the timing of Turkey’s recent attacks on Kurdish bases in northern Iraq, right after finally permitting the US to fly attacks against IS from Turkish bases. That sounds like playing both sides of the war to me… Weaken IS and its major enemy at the same time.

Does Erdoğan think the US will have to shut up about Turkish attacks on Kurdish forces if they don’t want to lose the long demanded use of Turkish bases against IS? Use of Turkish bases for the war in Syria will allow the US to step up attacks against IS, which might strengthen the position of Kurdish forces. During the siege of Kobanî, Turkey seemed determined to block Kurdish reinforcements against IS, as if it saw genocidal IS as the lesser of two evils.

Or is it simply payback time for the parliamentary triumph of the (Kurdish) People’s Democratic party (HDP), which deprived Erdoğan’s AKP of a majority in the general elections in June? Ending the peace process with Kurds may be an attempt to drive a wedge between the HDP and non-Kurdish voters, to split the opposition.

Abenomics and the Pension Bubble

Last week it was reported that the Japanese Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF) had made a record annual return of over 12 percent last year. Considering the rapidly aging population in Japan and the related problem of how to finance pensions for large numbers of retirees with a shrinking active workforce, this may have seemed very welcome news. However, if you look a bit closer, it isn’t all what it seems.

The GPIF owes the record return mainly to increasing share prices of Japanese companies, of which it is holding stocks. The Nikkei 225 recently reached its highest level in about 15 years and it wasn’t all because Japanese exporters profited from the weakening yen. Another big factor was the decision of the Abe government to have the GPIF shift its asset allocation from government bonds to stocks. It reduced the bond target from 60% to 35% while increasing the stock target from 9% to 25%. Most of the above-target bonds have since been sold to the Bank of Japan (BoJ), which under “Abenomics” will buy up any volume of government bonds.

With the money from the bond sales the GPIF could go on a buying spree, while individual investors have actually been selling more shares than they bought. The GPIF has been sucking up shares like a vacuum cleaner with money basically printed by the Bank of Japan and this extra demand has inflated market values for shares, whether held by the GPIF or by banks, insurance companies or private investors. Beating deflation was a major declared goal of Abenomics, but so far the stock market is the only part of the economy where the government has succeeded in that goal (albeit only by some impressive stage magic by the Bank of Japan and the GPIF).

Will this recent on-paper gain shore up public finances for pension payments and health care for the elderly? Not really. The stock market can be a tricky beast. Just ask the Chinese, who had experienced an even more impressive stock market bull run until their bubble burst!

If the GPIF holds 25% of its assets in shares and it needs to pay pensions, it can only do so by selling shares at whatever the market rate happens to be at the time, which will directly influence those market rates. And if it needs a lot of cash because there aren’t many workers relative to pensioners it will need to sell a lot of shares. Share prices went up because the GPIF was a huge buyer; if it were to become a huge seller, the opposite would happen. This is even true if the GPIF were to reduce its share allocation before the pension problem will reach its peak.

If the real economy tanks, it will hit tax revenues and the stock market at the same time: With the GPIF heavily invested there, the government finances and the pensioners will be doubly exposed.

For the GPIF to do well out of stock sales it will need a huge number of individual buyers, as it keeps liquidating its portfolio. But who is going to invest in stocks when they know the market will keep on getting flooded with sell orders for years to come?

Instead of addressing the real problems, the government of Shinzo Abe has been using smoke and mirrors to con the public. While pensions are no more secure than before, a lot of stock market investors have made a mint out of the BoJ-financed buying binge, enriching wealthy Abe supporters.

There are no easy answers to the pension problem. As the age pyramid changes and inverts itself, lots of things will have to change. For one, the retirement age needs to increase to re-balance the number of workers vs. pensioners. Japan will need to open its doors more for immigration. We’ll all have to work more years and the sooner the changes are made, the less painful it will be later. More emphasis will have to be put on covering the minimum needs of retirees vs. tying payments to previous income levels and contributions. Wealthier pensioners will have to make bigger sacrifices. The necessary steps will be painful and controversial, but they are unavoidable. Smoke and mirror “Abenomics” are no way around that.

The End of Prohibition

At the beginning of 2014, sales of cannabis (marijuana) to adults became legal again in Colorado. It was legal there until 1927. Personal possession and cultivation have already been legal again for one year in both Colorado and Washington, following referendums in which a majority of voters supported ending prohibition in both states. In late December, Uruguay become the first sovereign country to officially permit regulated sales of Cannabis to adults again.

What I find remarkable about these legislative changes is how relatively little fuss they caused. Unlike the 1980s, where political crusades led to increasingly harsh drug laws in many countries, with little regard for human rights, the cost of enforcement and lack of effectiveness, the responses this time have been largely dispassionate and rational. In the US the federal government has adopted a wait and see attitude, deciding to give the states space to enforce their laws as they see fit, as long as cannabis does not cross state lines. Other states are likely to follow in the next couple of years.

America has experimented with Prohibition before, as production and sales of alcohol were illegal from 1919-1933. As we know, alcohol prohibition was an abysmal failure, handing organized crime a huge business opportunity. The US then repeated that mistake with the 1937 “Marihuana Tax Act”. When the US Supreme Court finally declared it unconstitutional in 1969, President Nixon soon replaced it with the Controlled Substances Act. He ignored the recommendations of the Shafer Commission that he had tasked with investigating its harmfulness and the best way to regulate it. The Shafer commission had recommended to decriminalize it.

Over the last decades several countries and states (including the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal) have decriminalized cannabis without legalising sales. Retail sales in Dutch coffee shops are only tolerated, but technically still illegal. Suppliers of coffee shops still operate in a Black Market and can be prosecuted. Spain chose a different model, permitting personal cultivation at home as well as within cannabis social clubs. The model in Uruguay and Colorado goes one step further and is similar to how production and sale of alcohol is handled in many countries.

While there are still international conventions, such as the 1961 Single Convention that restrict national drugs laws of signatory states, they will ultimately have no permanent effect, as they permit member states to withdraw and rejoin with reservations. Bolivia did that a few years ago, to be able to legalise its traditional use of the coca plant. Any other country can do the same for cannabis.

The legal changes in Uruguay, Washington and Colorado reflect a generational change. As people who gathered personal experience with cannabis and had found it less harmful than alcohol gradually aged into their 40s, 50s and 60s, cannabis is less associated with a particular generation. It became increasingly difficult to demonize this herb. Medical use of cannabis further contributed to changes in attitudes.

It makes no sense to use heavy handed criminal law to try to deny adults the use of a less harmful alternative to alcohol. Even if we acknowledge that cannabis use is not entirely benign, laws that would be harsh enough to have a deterrent effect will almost certainly cause more harm to individuals when enforced than use of the substance itself might have. This realization will take longer in some countries than in others, but it will come. Legal discrimination against users of cannabis for recreational, spiritual and medicinal purposes will one day go the way of racial discrimination and homophobia. It took a century from the US civil war to the end of formal segregation in southern states. It has taken decades to dismantle discrimination against homosexual couples. One day we will look back on the war on cannabis users the same way and wonder how come it lasted for so long.

Time has come for marriage equality

As the United States Supreme Courts starts considering the issue of same sex marriage, I can’t help thinking of the fact that as recently as 1967 my wife and I could not have got married in some US states because of racist laws. That was when the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that the state’s anti-miscegenation laws violated the constitutional rights of interracial couples. I think I can empathize with same-sex couples who are still denied the right to marry by unjust state laws today.

Today the historic reality of those racist laws is shocking to us. To our children and grandchildren, discrimination against gays and lesbians will be equally offensive. Same sex marriage takes nothing away from marriage between man and woman, it adds to it. If formally recognized long term commitments are beneficial between men and women, why deny them to other loving couples? I am confident that equality for same sex couples will come.

Google privacy and account cancellations

After Google announced its new privacy policy to take in effect on March 1, 2012, some people announced their intention to cancel their Google accounts. In a Washington Post online poll almost 2/3 of readers said they would cancel their accounts due to privacy changes. My answer to that is: Oh, really?

Despite what the self-selecting samples of voters on that straw poll suggests, I doubt we’ll hardly see any significant response to the new policy. It won’t even be a blip on Google’s radar screen. I think it is safe to bet that most users of the Google+ service also have Facebook accounts, whether they use them much or not. Facebook and its history of data privacy (or lack thereof) is not exactly a benign alternative to anything Google offers. I can not see people stop using Youtube, cut themselves off from their Gmail accounts and switching to what, Yahoo or Bing for web searches? The fact remains, Google may not live up to its “do no evil” credo at all times or forever, but most of us have even less confidence in companies like Facebook or Microsoft.

Google’s move is all about more clicks, i.e. more advertising revenue, which is their life blood. If they can show better targeted ads on web searches based on what you write about in Gmail or watch on Youtube, that’s more clicks that their advertisers pay for.

What worries me is if their data gets opened to the NSA, police, etc especially under the loose rules of something like the Patriot’s Act. Inside the US the constitution has been eroded further and further over the years, while its protections have never applied to most fellow humans who do not happen to be US citizens, as far as the US government is concerned. That is not a problem specific to Google latest move though. It’s something that ultimately only US voters can solve.

Al Qaeda, the public domain franchise

Millions of people will have cheered today when they heard the news of Osama bin Laden’s death. The leader of Al Qaeda had been on the FBI’s most wanted list since the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and became even even more infamous after the 9/11 attacks.

Bin Ladin’s death is by no means “Mission accomplished” in the struggle against terrorism in countries around the world. More likely his death will make little difference.

For the last ten years he’s been little more than a figurehead for the movement he founded. “Al Qaeda in Iraq” picked up the brand name for its guaranteed headline value, but had different roots. Likewise the terrorist attacks in London and Madrid were organised independently. Bin Laden needed the Taliban and their paymasters at the ISI in Pakistan more than they needed him.

Other than its name recognition value, there was little in Bin Laden’s “brand” that couldn’t be found elsewhere by those who shared his world view and goals. Al Qaeda’s franchise manual is not proprietary information, it has been in the public domain for years.

To me the most hopeful news this year came not through the death of this evil man but through the courage of young men and women in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, who boldly stood up against corrupt despots in their own countries. When young people in the Middle East have a stake in running their own countries, when they no longer feel powerless and abused then the likes of Al Qaeda will find it much harder to find new recruits amongst them.

Today I am an Egyptian

Since the exciting events in Tunisia stirred activists and the masses in Egypt into action, I have been following the news with anticipation. Finally 82 year old dictator Hosni Mubarak has ceded power, opening the door to a more democratic future for over 80 million Egyptians.

At times Mubarak reminded me of a stubborn elderly relative refusing to give up driving even after multiple accidents. The amounts of money stolen by him and his family during his rule, even if it were just a fraction of the figures reported, are shocking. Hundreds lost their lives in recent weeks and thousands were arrested and tortured over many years.

Echoes of 1989

I felt reminded of the events of 1989 in central and eastern Europe, when in a matter of months and weeks regime after regime collapsed that once seemed cast in concrete for decades to come.

When the regimes in Eastern Europe fell it took months for free elections for a representative parliament and government and for comprehensive reforms of the apparatus of government. A lot of hard work still lies ahead and it will take patience and a lot of skill to solve the problems left behind by decades of violent oppression and mismanagement.

The Islamist bogeyman

Despite some understandable anxiety by some, Egypt 2011 is not Iran 1979. The Egyptian revolution was the work of a broad coalition of unionists, leftists, students, young people and other secular forces as well as Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood was never at the forefront. This was a revolution about democracy and social justice, not Islamism.

Those stoking the fear of an Islamist takeover in Cairo do so for political purposes, but it is up to the Egyptians to decide how to run their country now. I hope they will do it as responsibly and maturely as they have shown themselves in the past weeks.

Democrats need not fear democracy

Israel, until now recognized by Freedom House as the only fully free country in the Middle East, should feel uplifted, not panicked at the prospect of living next door to another democracy. History has proven that in the long term democracies do make for much safer neighbours than dictatorships. Egyptians deserve freedom and justice as much as Israelis do, or Palestinians for that matter.

Supporting a brutal kleptocrat was never going to a stable basis for peace, because peace needs justice. My hope is that one day a future government of Israel will offer an outstretched hand towards a democratic Egypt and recognize it as a much better partner to do business with than Mubarak could ever be, and (I know this will take time) even as a friend.

Speech by US president Barack Obama on 11 February 2011

Good afternoon, everybody. There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place. This is one of those moments. This is one of those times. The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same.

By stepping down, President Mubarak responded to the Egyptian people’s hunger for change. But this is not the end of Egypt’s transition. It’s a beginning. I’m sure there will be difficult days ahead, and many questions remain unanswered. But I am confident that the people of Egypt can find the answers, and do so peacefully, constructively, and in the spirit of unity that has defined these last few weeks. For Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day.

The military has served patriotically and responsibly as a caretaker to the state, and will now have to ensure a transition that is credible in the eyes of the Egyptian people. That means protecting the rights of Egypt’s citizens, lifting the emergency law, revising the constitution and other laws to make this change irreversible, and laying out a clear path to elections that are fair and free. Above all, this transition must bring all of Egypt’s voices to the table. For the spirit of peaceful protest and perseverance that the Egyptian people have shown can serve as a powerful wind at the back of this change.

The United States will continue to be a friend and partner to Egypt. We stand ready to provide whatever assistance is necessary — and asked for — to pursue a credible transition to a democracy. I’m also confident that the same ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit that the young people of Egypt have shown in recent days can be harnessed to create new opportunity — jobs and businesses that allow the extraordinary potential of this generation to take flight. And I know that a democratic Egypt can advance its role of responsible leadership not only in the region but around the world.

Egypt has played a pivotal role in human history for over 6,000 years. But over the last few weeks, the wheel of history turned at a blinding pace as the Egyptian people demanded their universal rights.

We saw mothers and fathers carrying their children on their shoulders to show them what true freedom might look like.

We saw a young Egyptian say, “For the first time in my life, I really count. My voice is heard. Even though I’m only one person, this is the way real democracy works.”

We saw protesters chant “Selmiyya, selmiyya” — “We are peaceful” — again and again.

We saw a military that would not fire bullets at the people they were sworn to protect.

And we saw doctors and nurses rushing into the streets to care for those who were wounded, volunteers checking protesters to ensure that they were unarmed.

We saw people of faith praying together and chanting – “Muslims, Christians, We are one.” And though we know that the strains between faiths still divide too many in this world and no single event will close that chasm immediately, these scenes remind us that we need not be defined by our differences. We can be defined by the common humanity that we share.

And above all, we saw a new generation emerge — a generation that uses their own creativity and talent and technology to call for a government that represented their hopes and not their fears; a government that is responsive to their boundless aspirations. One Egyptian put it simply: Most people have discovered in the last few days … that they are worth something, and this cannot be taken away from them anymore, ever.

This is the power of human dignity, and it can never be denied. Egyptians have inspired us, and they’ve done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice is best gained through violence. For in Egypt, it was the moral force of nonviolence — not terrorism, not mindless killing — but nonviolence, moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.

And while the sights and sounds that we heard were entirely Egyptian, we can’t help but hear the echoes of history — echoes from Germans tearing down a wall, Indonesian students taking to the streets, Gandhi leading his people down the path of justice.

As Martin Luther King said in celebrating the birth of a new nation in Ghana while trying to perfect his own, “There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom.” Those were the cries that came from Tahrir Square, and the entire world has taken note.

Today belongs to the people of Egypt, and the American people are moved by these scenes in Cairo and across Egypt because of who we are as a people and the kind of world that we want our children to grow up in.

The word Tahrir means liberation. It is a word that speaks to that something in our souls that cries out for freedom. And forevermore it will remind us of the Egyptian people — of what they did, of the things that they stood for, and how they changed their country, and in doing so changed the world.

Thank you.

Afghanistan 30 years after the Soviet invasion

I spent Christmas of 1979 with friends of mine in Czechoslovakia, then behind the “iron curtain”. It was there that I heard about a massive Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that started on Christmas eve, 24 December 1979. It was the beginning of a war that cost 15,000 Russian lives and countless Afghan ones, driving millions abroad as refugees.

When my friends heard the official report on Czech TV news, that the USSR had been asked for “brotherly assistance” by the Afghan government under a Peace and Friendship Treaty between Afghanistan and Russia, they immediately felt reminded of a similar announcement during the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. The fact that Afghan president Hafizullah Amin was killed three days later did not exactly help to make it look like the Soviet army did come with an invitation.

The invasion was a watershed event for the Soviet Union, which it demoralized and effectively bankrupted. It has often been called “Russia’s Vietnam” and there were indeed many similarities. Each war was costly to the respective superpower which lost out against insurgents supported by the opposing superpower. Like the US client regime in South Vietnam that survived for another two years after the withdrawal of US troops following the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul under Najibullah managed to hang on to power for another three years, until post-Soviet Russia dropped support for it. Civilian casualties in both wars were huge and vastly outnumbered military casualties by the superpower. About 3,500,000 North and South Vietnamese (about two thirds of them civilians) and between 700,000 and 2,000,000 Afghan civilians were killed.

The pro-Soviet government in Kabul that was overthrown by US-sponsored mujahideen did have a poor human rights record, but at least, unlike the later Taliban regime, it worked to support the rights of women, who could go to work and weren’t forced to go veiled then. Under the Taliban girls could not go to school nor could women see a doctor.

While in 1979 the Soviet invasion was portrayed as an unprovoked aggressive move, as the first invasion outside the direct Soviet sphere of influence since 1945, the picture that has since emerged looks quite different. In an interview with “Le Nouvel Observateur” (Paris), 15-21 January 1998, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski revealed that Carter authorized support for Afghan insurgents almost six months before the Soviet invasion, which came as a response to the US-sponsored insurgency:

According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.

In an Interview with Mother Jones (23 July 2009), US journalists Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald explain that stepped up US aid to militant Islamic insurgents had the opposite effect of the declared intention: Instead of driving out the Russians from Afghanistan, it kept them trapped there:

Gould: [Texas congressman] Charlie Wilson came online around 1984 with the idea that the Soviets were never going to leave Afghanistan, so Congress had to increase the supply of arms to insurgents to drive them out. In 1983, a little more than two years after the Soviets had invaded, we took Roger Fisher of the Harvard Negotiation Project to Afghanistan for Nightline to assess the possibility of negotiating the Soviets out of the country. We came back with the story that the Soviets were actually desperate to get out and really wanted to save face, effectively.

MJ: Why was that?

Gould: The big issue really was the insurgency. The Soviets were in Afghanistan primarily because of the insurgency that was flowing from Pakistan and was basically burning schools and burning down power lines and disrupting the ability of the Afghan government to function. When Charlie Wilson actually did in fact get his budget going, and increase the insurgency, it actually held the Soviets there as opposed to driving them out. Charlie Wilson kept the Soviets in Afghanistan for another six years. He didn’t drive them out.

MJ: So if the U.S. hadn’t funneled arms to the insurgency, the Marxist government that was in power in Afghanistan would continue and at that point the Soviets wouldn’t need to be there?

Fitzgerald: The Soviets even prior to their invasion had been trying to convince the Marxists that they should step down from running the country. They told them point blank, you are not capable, you are not diverse enough, your party isn’t broad enough to run the country. And they were letting the United States know. In the summer of 1979, through their emissaries, the Soviet Union let the US know that they wanted the Marxist government of Hafizullah Amin and Nur Mohammed Taraki, to step down. According to the declassified cables the U.S was fully aware of the Soviet’s desire for a political solution. The Soviets expected that they would get cooperation from the United States in setting up a coalition government.

It becomes clear then that liberating Afghanistan was not the primary objective, but hurting the Soviet Union. Zbigniew Brzezinski appeared to have no regrets about having lured the Soviets into the conflict, which not only wrecked the Soviet empire but also left Afghanistan into the hands of the Taliban:

What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

Now the US is sending tens of thousands of its sons and daughters, with billions of dollars for funding this war, to counter some of these “stirred-up Moslems” mentioned by Brzezinski.

The Frankenstein’s monster created by the US to bring down the Soviet Union is now going after its own creator, except of course that the men and women dispatched to fight and die in Afghanistan today are not the same individuals who conspired to launch this never ending war some 30 years ago.

Wars are rarely ever by necessity, despite what politicians may say at the time and what may first seem like an effective solution to a political problem often comes back to haunt those who chose the path of violence even though there were better alternatives.