The strange new world of Trump’s foreign and military policy

The American federal budget has been in the news in the last couple of weeks. And there is one thing about it that is, I think, worth noticing. It is worth noticing because it forms part of a larger picture of the way that military policy, and thus foreign policy – and, in particular, Middle East policy – is going under Trump.

What is happening is, in some ways, not a big departure from what happened under Trump’s predecessors, and thus is not attracting much attention or comment. Most Americans don’t seem to be particularly concerned about it.

I think, however, that they should be. And so, for that matter, should non-Americans.

There are six things that have happened in the past year that I think show us what is going on.

Defence spending

This week, the White House unveiled its 2019 budget proposals. Among its suggestions is defence expenditure of $716, a proposed 13 percent increase on 2017 when the United States spent about $634 billion on defence. Putting this in perspective, this compares with a 3.76% increase in 2017. And, for the record, according to the World Bank, US GDP growth was 2.4% in 2014, 2.6% in 2015, and 1.8% in 2016. The US Defence Budget is already the world’s largest, by a considerable margin – someone recently commented that the US has 5% of the world’s population, but 50% of the world’s military spending.


Donald Trump, speaking to reporters on Monday, said:

“One of the other things I think so important to mention is that, in the budget, we took care of the military like it’s never been taken care of before. In fact, General Mattis called me; he goes, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I got everything we wanted.’ I said, that’s right, but we want no excuses. We want you to buy twice, OK?”

Trump’s generals

Along with a commitment to a huge increase in military spending, Donald Trump has got a surprisingly high number of top military men in his administration. Three high-ranking generals are his close aides in the White House: National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defence James Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly. It all gives the impression that Trump is more enthusiastic than most presidents about the military.


If Trump’s enthusiasm for military spending and military officers raise eyebrows, they are not nearly so astonishing as the fact that the U.S. recently announced that it will maintain an open-ended military presence in Syria. I’ll repeat Daniel Larison’s comment:,

To call this policy deranged would be too generous. The U.S. has no business in having a military presence in another country without its government’s permission, and it has no right to maintain that presence for the explicit purpose of preventing that government from exercising control inside its own internationally recognized borders. If another state did what the U.S. is now doing in Syria, Washington would condemn it as an egregious violation of international law and would probably impose sanctions on the government in question.

U.S. forces are in Syria without authorization from Congress and they have no international mandate to be there. A continued U.S. presence in Syria is both illegal and unwarranted.”


And, while we are on the subject of “deranged”, there is the matter of what happened to Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, in November. The Saudi government asked him to come to Saudi Arabia. When he arrived, the Saudi government basically seized him, and ordered him to go on Television and resign. They then proceeded to hold him for several days, until, apparently under pressure from France, they allowed him to leave. He returned to Lebanon, where he withdrew his resignation.

Saudi Arabia’s behaviour was not just unacceptable, but totally bizarre. It drew pretty well no public condemnation or serious criticism from any western governments.

What is significant is that not only is America a very close ally of Saudi Arabia, but Trump himself has a good relationship with the Saudi leadership, and has spoken very positively about them.


After all that, Trump’s Afghanistan strategy, as announced last August, seems pretty uncontroversial. 

In his speech, he said his original instinct was to pull US forces out, but had instead decided to stay and “fight to win” to avoid the mistakes made in Iraq. He said he wanted to shift from a time-based approach in Afghanistan to one based on conditions on the ground, adding he would not set deadlines.

But if that sounds uncontroversial, it is laughably unrealistic to think that America can “win” in any meaningful sense in Afghanistan. The policy is about as deranged as the Syria policy or the Saudi attempt to get Hariri to resign.

Trump’s Parade

As noted, Trump seems to have an enthusiasm for things military. And so last week, it was not a huge surprise when it emerged that he had asked the Pentagon to organise a large military parade in Washington DC. He made the request of top military chiefs in late January, after reportedly being impressed by a French Bastille Day parade last year. “It was one of the greatest parades I’ve ever seen,” he later said. “We’re going to have to try and top it.”

Nonetheless, it is unusual. Military parades in Washington are usually only used to mark victory at the end of a war.

And the significance of all this?

Andrew Bacevich, Professor Emeritus of International Relations and History at Boston University, and a former Colonel in the US Army was asked to comment on the proposal for the parade-without-a-victory. His remarks are well worth thinking about.

“in a weirdly ironic way, perhaps Trump’s proposed parade-without-a-victory captures something important about the present moment in American history. In former times, we organized parades to celebrate wars won. There was a common understanding that the intended outcome of war was victory. Or to put it another way: the purpose of war was to achieve the political objectives that provided the basis for the war. War was to be, as Clausewitz wrote, the continuation of politics by other means.

In the endless wars since 9/11, we have lost sight of that principle. Our wars have become purposeless, a fact that American elites and the American people appear to find acceptable. Having a parade to honor a military that does not win and that the country has consigned to endless campaigning in distant theaters seems somehow oddly appropriate.”


Russia, hysteria, and superstition

On Tuesday, something unusual happened. Two articles by Glenn Greenwald appeared in The Intercept. Any article by Greenwald is a matter of some interest, since he is one of the most perceptive and honest journalists out there. So two on one day is a little special.

Both were on the same subject: Russia – or rather, the Russia hysteria that seems to have gripped a lot of people in the west. And, as I have said before,  I think that this hysteria is one of the most significant things, in terms of politics and world affairs, that is going on at the moment.

The first article was entitled “Dutch Official Admits Lying About Meeting With Putin: Is Fake News Used by Russia or About Russia?

Basically, the story is that,

“While election campaigning two years ago, [Halbe] Zijlstra said that in 2006 he had been at Putin’s dacha when he heard the Kremlin leader speak of plans for a “greater Russia” which would include some of Russia’s neighbors.

I was tucked away back in the room, but I could clearly hear Putin’s answer to the question about what he considered greater Russia,” Zijlstra told a gathering in 2016 of his People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, which heads the new Dutch government.

He said this included Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic states, and, well, Kazakhstan would be ‘nice to have’,” he said in his speech, which was recorded on video.

But on Monday he acknowledged he had never been at the meeting with Putin and had heard of the comments second-hand.

I wasn’t present at the meeting in President Putin’s dacha,” the minister said in statement on Monday.”

(The outcome, by the way, is that Zijlstra resigned yesterday.)

Dubious stories

That is just the beginning of Greenwald’s article. He goes on to point to several other recent stories that have appeared in the western media which have turned out to be highly questionable.

1)  On January 10, 2018, we got “Russian bid to influence Brexit vote detailed in new US Senate Report” (The Guardian).

By contrast, on February 8, 2018, Reuters reported that “Britain says it has not seen any evidence that Russia interfered in British elections, though May has said it has planted fake news stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord and undermine the West. ” Fake News stories? Sowing discord? Western governments and politicians do that all the time!

2) On January 22, 2018 we got (Associated Press) “Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations are pushing a conservative meme related to the investigation of Russian election interference, researchers say.”

The following day, the Daily Beast informed us that “Despite claims the Kremlin is driving a campaign to disclose an anti-FBI memo, a source says an early in-house analysis concludes the hashtag has been mostly pushed by Americans. The online groundswell urging the release of House Republicans’ attacks on the Federal Bureau of Investigation appears thus far to be organically American—not Russian propaganda, a source familiar with Twitter’s internal analysis told The Daily Beast.”

3) On July 4th last year, we got “Germany is expecting Russia to try to influence its general election on Sept. 24, but there are no indications of which party it would seek to back, officials said on Tuesday.”

But just before the election, on the September 21, it was admitted by those who were watching eagerly for signs of Russian interference that they hadn’t managed to spot any.

4) On May 6 last year, a Telegraph headline proclaimed “Russia blamed as Macron campaign blasts ‘massive hacking attack’ ahead of French presidential election.”.

On June 1, however, “The head of the French government’s cyber security agency, which investigated leaks from President Emmanuel Macron’s election campaign, says they found no trace of a notorious Russian hacking group behind the attack.”

And that is in addition to numerous cases “when the U.S. media was forced to retract, or issue humiliating editor’s notes, about stories regarding the “Russian threat” that turned out to be false.”

The serious side of this is that despite the fact that nobody can point to any evidence that Vladimir Putin has any hostile intent toward western countries, or that Russia is any threat to our peace or safety, people in high positions keep speaking as Russia really is a threat to us.

Just last month, General Sir Nick Carter, the head of the Army, said that “Britain’s ability to respond to military threats from Russia will be “eroded” without further investment” and added that “Russian hostility could come sooner than expected and Britain must prepare to “fight the war we might have to fight.”

In my humble opinion, that is simply silly. The BBC’s Jonathan Beale comments:

“the likelihood of any direct military confrontation with Russia seems extremely remote. . . General Carter’s intervention is more driven by fears of further deep cuts to the UK’s armed forces. The Ministry of Defence has a black hole in its budget. It is rare for a military chief to make such an obvious and public appeal for more cash. But he’s doing it under the orders of the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. He has sent his generals over the top to put pressure on the chancellor.”

A couple of days later Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told the Daily Telegraph that Moscow was spying on energy supplies which, if cut, could cause “total chaos” in the country. The Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov responded that Mr Williamson had “lost his grasp on reason”, and added “The comments were worthy of a Monty Python sketch”, and he accused Mr Williamson of trying to scare the British public in an effort to get more money for the armed forces.

I don’t doubt that he is right – including the bit about it being worthy of Monty Python.

And the lesson of all this?

Greenwald’s concludes

“If there’s any lesson that should unite everyone in the West, it’s that the greatest skepticism is required when it comes to government and media claims about the nature of foreign threats. If we’re going to rejuvenate a Cold War, or submit to greater military spending and government powers in the name of stopping alleged Russian aggression, we should at least ensure that the information on which those campaigns succeed are grounded in fact. Even a casual review of the propaganda spewing forth from Western power centers over the last year leaves little doubt that the exact opposite is happening.”

That is important:  Scepticism is required because we should ensure that information on which decisions are taken is grounded in fact. But the exact opposite is happening.

The Harvard Professor

Which brings us to Greenwald’s other piece.

It concerned Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe. In the wake of the crash of a Russian airliner shortly after take-off, he posted a tweet which, in Greenwald’s words, “strongly insinuated that the Russian government may have purposely sabotaged the plane, murdering all of those on board, in order to silence one of the passengers, Sergei Millian, who has been linked to a couple of figures involved in the Trump-Russia investigation.”

What Tribe wrote was

“Among those killed in the tragic plane crash yesterday: Sergei Millian, a Papadopoulis friend who had emailed Kushner and is said to be behind one of the most salacious claims in the dossier on Trump’s involvement with Russia. Probably just coincidence.”

Greenwald writes:

“What’s wrong with Tribe’s claims? Everything. To begin with, Millian was not on that plane. . . . . Tribe apparently saw someone making this claim somewhere on the internet and then, without bothering to check if it was actually true, told his 289,000 followers that it was true, and then constructed a rabid, deranged conspiracy theory around it.”

“Even if Millian had been on the plane, casually suggesting that Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, or some combination of other villains purposely murdered everyone on the plane in order to silence one witness is deranged to the point of being a clinical pathology. That sort of baseless conspiracy-mongering ought to disqualify anyone from serious company for a long time.”

But it almost certainly will have no effect on Tribe’s standing. “

In fact, comments Greenwald,

“The more deranged he gets, the more Tribe — needless to say — becomes not just a social media star . . . , but has also become an MSNBC favorite, as they exploit his credentials and pedigree to depict his madness as some sort of insightful, investigative dot-connecting. That’s because, as I documented this morning, false claims about Russia are now a routine part of the U.S. media diet.”

The outcome of this one was rather different from the first. While the Dutch Foreign minister for forced to resign for his dishonesty, Tribe had a piece published on the opinion page of the New York Times. In other words, Greenwald turned out to be correct when he said “But it almost certainly will have no effect on Tribe’s standing.” Hence Greenwald’s tweet describing the fact that Tribe had a piece on the NYT’s opinion page: “Yesterday, Tribe spouted an utterly deranged (and factually false) conspiracy theory about the Russian jet crash. Today, he’s presented in the NYT as a Trump/Russia expert.

In other words, conspiracy theory has gone mainstream. The sources that one normally accepts as believable have ceased to be.

The three memos

Which brings us to a third recent story – that of the memos. Three memos relating to the federal inquiry into allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 election campaign have been in the news.

The first is the “Nunes Memo” (by by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes ) – which was released on February 2.

The memo makes a lot of claims (mostly alleging improper behaviour by the FBI) and we don’t yet know how true they are. We will have to wait for answers to the questions it raises.

But two things about it are interesting – two things about what was not in it.

First, there is nothing at all  in it about whether or not Vladimir Putin or the Russian government did anything unusual or improper with regard to the US Presidential election. We are still waiting for any evidence regarding that. Instead, discussion of the Mueller investigation is increasingly dominated by allegations of improper procedure by America’s intelligence agencies, Justice Department, and politicians. And remarkably few of those allegations seem to be about the Trump election campaign.

Second, according to Caitlin Johnstone, ” both the FBI and high-profile Democrats have been claiming that the memo’s unredacted release would pose a national security threat.” However, after the memo was released, it was clear that whatever the truth of the claims in it, nothing in it posed any threat at all to national security.

But how much truth was in it? Well, for that we await the second memo, the Democratic Party’s response to Nunes. But we have not seen it yet. Ironically, the reason is that on February 10, Donald Trump blocked it’s release because of “sensitive passages” that created “concerns for national security”. This seems strange, since the Nunes committee, consisting of both Democrats and Republicans, had voted unanimously to make it public.

There is a third memo, known as the Grassley memo, which was released last week and which has so far received very little coverage, but which some commentators suspect may be more significant than the Nunes Memo.  Like the Nunes memo, it makes serious allegations.

And that is what this whole thing is about. Allegations. Claims. The Dutch foreign minister was basically making allegations. Lawrence Tribe of Harvard was, if not actually making allegations, making suggestions. And then, there are all the allegations about Russian interference in various elections.

When somebody makes an allegation or a claim, and it is serious or controversial, the obvious question is “What is the evidence?”  As Greenwald wrote about Nunes memo, back in January, before its release,

Anyone who is genuinely concerned about the claims being made about eavesdropping abuses should understand why the issue of evidence is so critical. After all, the House, Senate, and FBI investigations into any Trump collusion with Russia have so far proceeded with many startling claims in the media, but to date little hard evidence for the public to judge. Nobody rational should be assuming any claims or assertions from partisan actors about the 2016 election are true without seeing evidence to substantiate those claims.

That is the point.  The issue of evidence is critical.

To date very little hard evidence has emerged. And nobody rational should simply assume that claims by people who might be biased are true – without seeing evidence to substantiate those claims.


This is about what we believe. Or, to put it another way, it is about faith. While the words “faith” and “belief” may often be used in slightly different ways in modern English, they really mean the same thing. In ancient Greek – the language the New Testament was written in – the same word is used for both.

And if one simply believes claims and allegations by politicians (or other partisan people) about their rivals or opponents, it seems to me that this does amount to “blind faith” – even superstition. And here, I come back to the words of Arthur Custance that I quoted in November:  “Faith without reason is superstition.” And by “reason”,  he means examining claims and allegations – and, in particular, looking at the evidence.

I think that the Russia hysteria that is affecting large parts of the political classes in a lot of western countries could be called superstition. There is an almost religious refusal to question it. There are some political parties where it seems to be an article of faith that Russia interfered in the 2016 US Presidential election, and so one never hears about prominent members of those parties (or possibly even any members of those parties) questioning the claim. Russian interference is simply assumed to be fact, despite the fact that has often been pointed out that there is pretty well no hard evidence for it – almost a year and half after the claims were first made. Which is astonishing, considering the fact that as of December, $6.7 million had been spent on the Mueller investigation!

A final thought

And there is a thought that strikes me.  Take two claims: the claim that the Russian government “interfered” in the presidential election (whatever the word “interfered” means, and I must confess that “interfering in an election” could be interpreted very widely) – and the claim that Jesus rose from the dead after being executed from the Romans.  If you look at the evidence for those two claims, the evidence for the latter looks a lot more impressive.

And yet, bizarrely, that is probably not what most people in the west believe today.

Think about it. The evidence for Jesus rising from the dead, basically consists of claims certain people made – claims that they saw him, met him, talked with him, ate with him, spent several days with him – after his execution.

In this case, one has to ask the question “are those claims credible?”

Yes, they are astonishing. But some astonishing things are true. Might this be one of them?

And that, it turn, leads to the question “Are those witnesses credible?” Would you trust the disciples – like James and John and Simon and Andrew?

And the answer is that I think that they are much more credible as witnesses than the politicians and figures in the intelligence community who are making the claims about Russian interference. For a start, anyone who looks at the utterances of those politicians will find that a lot of them have made wildly exaggerated statements on a fairly regular basis, and often have told outright untruths. (Remember this one?)  Similarly, many of the leaders of America’s intelligence agencies have a pretty poor record for honesty – including those making claims about Russian interference.

On other hand, the disciples of Jesus who proclaimed the resurrection, were people of honesty and integrity – and people who stressed the importance of honesty and integrity. Unlike modern politicians, they had no personal interest, nothing to gain, by the claims they were making. Indeed, making these claims got them thrown into jail, and even executed.

And those claims have been examined, and the evidence has been looked at, by hundreds of thousands of intelligent, educated people over the the past 20 centuries – as I explain here. 

They have stood the test of time.

It seems to me that there is pretty well no doubt about it. If you come to this objectively, with an open mind, and examine the evidence – I believe that you will agree that there is a much stronger case that Jesus rose from the dead, than that Vladimir Putin used illegitimate tactics to influence the result of the American election.

But how many people will look at this with an open mind?  Not many, I fear.


Donald Trump and the Holocaust: is there a connection?

This past Saturday was Holocaust Memorial Day – being the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. The Saturday before that was the first anniversary of Donald Trump taking up office as US President.

I would like to suggest that there may be a connection.

I’ll start with the Trump presidency, and four things that happened this month.

I’ll start with story that got the most press coverage. Under the headline Trump ‘in crude Oval Office outburst about migrants, the BBC reports that in a meeting member of Congress on January 11th, Donald Trump “reportedly lashed out at immigrants in a foul-mouthed Oval Office outburst that a UN spokesman later condemned as “shocking”, “shameful” and “racist”” – apparently referring to Haiti, El Salvador and African countries using a rude word. The story received a huge amount of press coverage, and Trump was widely criticised.

The second story is about Syria, but it actually comes from Turkey. The BBC reports that “Turkey has urged the US to stop backing the Kurdish YPG in Syria, as it steps up an offensive against the militia.”

This story tells us that Turkey has troops in Syria. That, in itself, is newsworthy. They are not there at the invitation of the Syrian government. What on earth are they doing there?

It also tells us that the US is backing a Kurdish militia in Syria. And it tells us that the group that Turkey are fighting in Syria are being backed by the USA. That is very significant. Two NATO allied are on opposite sides in a war. It will be very interesting to see where this goes.

America’s new Syria policy

And that brings us to our third story – something that BBC report didn’t actually mention (despite the fact that it is closely connected) – about something that happened the previous week.  On the 17th of January, Trump’s secretary of State, Rex Tillerson announced that the US will maintain an open-ended military presence in Syria. Open-ended, of course, means that they could be there 10, 20, or 30 years.

Like the Turkish troops, they are there without the permission of the Syrian government. In other words, they are there illegally. In the words of Senator Chris Murphy,

There is ZERO legal authorization to stay in Syria to fight Iran. If Administration gets away with this, there is no going back – executive branch war making power becomes absolute.

Or, to quote Daniel Larison, speaking rather more bluntly,

To call this policy deranged would be too generous. The U.S. has no business in having a military presence in another country without its government’s permission, and it has no right to maintain that presence for the explicit purpose of preventing that government from exercising control inside its own internationally recognized borders. If another state did what the U.S. is now doing in Syria, Washington would condemn it as an egregious violation of international law and would probably impose sanctions on the government in question.

U.S. forces are in Syria without authorization from Congress and they have no international mandate to be there. A continued U.S. presence in Syria is both illegal and unwarranted.

Tillerson’s reasons for this policy are included in an interview on The Real News Network of Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton.

They include the fact that America needs to have a presence in Syria to ensure that Assad does not remain in power, as well as a desire to limit the influence of Iran in Syria. In other words, this is not primarily about defeating ISIS or al-Qaeda, for though Tillerson does mention those objectives, they clearly are not the main reason America is in Syria, since the Syrian government (with the help of, among others, Iran, was already doing a pretty good job of fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda.

Tillerson’s comments are full of highly questionable assertions, but one of the things that he says that is true caused me to raise my eyebrows. He speaks of the problems arising from the fact that Syria is a “destabilized nation”. This is highly ironic, since the forces mostly responsible for the destabilization of Syria include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey – with blessing and help of the American government. Indeed, in saying that Assad had to be removed from power, Tillerson could be said to be trying to destablise Syria.

Even more ironically, Tillerson said

Ungoverned spaces, especially in conflict zones, are breeding grounds for ISIS and other terrorist organizations. The fight against ISIS is not over. There are bands of ISIS fighters who are already beginning to wage an insurgency. We and our allies will hunt them down and kill them or capture them. Similarly, we must persist in Syria to thwart al-Qaeda, which still has a substantial presence and base of operations in northwest Syria. As in the years before 9/11, al-Qaeda is eager to create a sanctuary to plan and launch attacks on the West.

The irony is that America (together with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey) was involved in supporting al-Qaeda and its allied militias during the Syrian Civil War.

As Blumenthal says in the interview:

the irony of Tillerson’s comments can’t be understated. The US is, I wouldn’t say exclusively responsible, but largely responsible for the fact that al-Qaeda and its rebranded local affiliate, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which used to be known as Jabhat al-Nusra, is in control of the Idlib Governorate. There’s a city Idlib, and then there’s a large area of land that al-Qaeda’s local affiliate substantially controls. And it’s basically gobbled up all of the other Salafi militias, including the Free Syrian Army. We ran a piece at AlterNet by Lindsey Snell, who’s one of the few American reporters who got into Idlib and reported on how heavy weapons were basically being shipped by the US into Idlib, and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, was just seizing them from the FSA, and the FSA’s fighters were basically joining Jabhat al-Nusra in droves because they shared its ideology, because they were the best fighters, because they were getting loads and loads of additional support from Qatar.

And he added

This is what enabled the offensive of 2015 to succeed and drive the Syrian Army out of Idlib. It also resulted in the destruction of Idlib’s Christian population, the destruction of its Druze population. These ethnic minorities experienced incredible, terrible, genocide-level hardships at the hands of US. proxies. And all along, Washington was denying the presence of al-Qaeda.

Note that in the Syrian Civil War, America supported the forces that targetted the Christian community for attack. Indeed, in America’s involvement in Iraq and Libya enabled Islamic extremists to gain a foothold, resulting in large number of brutal attacks on Christians, and a large scale exodus of Christians from Iraq. (Numbers of Christians in Libya were tiny.) In fact, in all three countries, America deliberately supported the removal of secular or moderate leaders, and ended up making the position of Christians far worse than it had been before. And interestingly, America worked closely with Saudi Arabia, which has the most draconian laws against Christianity in the entire Middle East.

But if that isn’t bad enough, no matter how bad things were in Syria, Iraq and Libya 20 years ago, before the American government went into action to topple their governments, things are much worse now. They have remained in a state of war ever since.

It is difficult to know how many people in those countries have died, but according to Iraq Body Count, total documented civilian deaths in Iraq since the 2003 invasion stands at around 200,000 – and total actual deaths may be closer to half a million. In Syria, it is also estimated that total deaths since the outbreak of the civil war stands at about half a million.

Indeed, in 2015, the Washington DC-based Physicians for Social Responsibility (PRS) (a Nobel Peace Prize-winning doctors’ group) released a study concluding that the death toll from 10 years of the “War on Terror” since the 9/11 attacks is at least 1.3 million, and could be as high as 2 million.

That is a lot of deaths, and it cannot be denied that a large share of the responsibility (and, if we are being honest, ‘the fault’) for that lies with successive American governments. When George W Bush announced the “war on terror” in 2001, I suspect that few Americans realised that one of the consequences would be millions of deaths in the Middle East, and civil wars that continue to rage 17 years later in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

However, it is even worse than that. Even before 2001, civilians were dying in the Middle East in large numbers because of American policy. As Ben Norton says in the interview referred to above,

“when the US pressured the United Nations to impose one of the most brutal sanctions regimes in history on Iraq in the 1990s after the Gulf War, not only did that lead to the deaths of countless people, including many, many children who needlessly died, and the Clinton administration defended it . . .

(He is, I suspect referring to the interview in 1996 in which Clinton’s Secretary of State, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, was asked “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it? ” – and repliedI think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.”)


And the matter of sanctions brings us to our fourth story from January. Actually, this is just about part of the third story, for it happened on the same occasion. On the 17th, Max Tillerson spoke about sanctions on North Korea, and said ““We are getting a lot of evidence that these sanctions are really starting to hurt.” He said Japan told a conference on North Korea in Vancouver on Tuesday that more than 100 North Korean fishing boats had drifted into its waters and two-thirds of those aboard them had died. “What they learned is that they are being sent out in the winter time because there’s food shortages and they are being sent out to fish with inadequate fuel to get back.”

Think about that for a minute. What Tillerson is saying “Our policies are working! People are going hungry and dying as a result of them.” Is there any evidence that the sanctions are helping people in North Korea? No. Is there any evidence that they are leading to more freedom? No. In fact, is there any evidence they are leading to peace? The sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of children in Iraq lead to neither freedom nor peace. They did nothing at all for the people of Iraq. All they did was hurt, destroy, and kill civilians.

In the wake of that story of the dead Korean fishermen, Patrick Cockburn of the Independent, who has been on the ground in the Middle East covering wars there for years, published an article on sanctions.

He wrote:

The fact that North Korean fishermen took greater risks and died in greater numbers last year is evidence that international sanctions imposed on North Korea are, in a certain sense, a success: the country is clearly under severe economic pressure. But, as with sanctions elsewhere in the world past and present, the pressure is not on the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who looks particularly plump and well-fed, but on the poor and the powerless.

The record of economic sanctions in forcing political change is dismal, but as a way of reducing a country to poverty and misery it is difficult to beat. UN sanctions were imposed against Iraq from 1990 until 2003. Supposedly, it was directed against Saddam Hussein and his regime, though it did nothing to dislodge or weaken them: on the contrary, the Baathist political elite took advantage of the scarcity of various items to enrich themselves by becoming the sole suppliers. Saddam’s odious elder son Uday made vast profits by controlling the import of cigarettes into Iraq.

I used to visit Iraqi hospitals in the 1990s where the oxygen had run out and there were no tyres for the ambulances. Once, I was pursued across a field in Diyala province north of Baghdad by local farmers holding up dusty X-rays of their children because they thought I might be a visiting foreign doctor.

An attraction for politicians is that sanctions can be sold to the public, though of course not to people at the receiving end, as more humane than military action. There is usually a pretence that foodstuffs and medical equipment are being allowed through freely and no mention is made of the financial and other regulatory obstacles making it impossible to deliver them.

An example of this is the draconian sanctions imposed on Syria by the US and EU which were meant to target President Bashar al-Assad and help remove him from power. They have wholly failed to do this, but a UN internal report leaked in 2016 shows all too convincingly the effect of the embargo in stopping the delivery of aid by international aid agencies.

People should be just as outraged by the impact of this sort of thing as they are by the destruction of hospitals by bombing and artillery fire. But the picture of X-ray or kidney dialysis machines lacking essential spare parts is never going to compete for impact with film of dead and wounded on the front line. And those who die because medical equipment has been disabled by sanctions are likely to do so undramatically and out of sight.

However, the most notable thing about Cockburn’s article is the headline: It’s time we saw economic sanctions for what they really are – war crimes.” 

Perhaps he is right. A form of military action that kills children and other civilians in large numbers, but does not actually take action in the field of battle against combatants does, indeed, look suspiciously like a war crime.

The Holocaust

And that brings us to the holocaust. The history of the word “holocaust” is interesting.  It comes from the Greek word for a whole burnt offering, of the kind that Jews would have offered in the Temple in Jerusalem in ancient times. Until the 20th century, it apparently always was used to mean a sacrifice. In the early 1940s, the word was occasionally used to refer to the war itself and its destruction – but in 1944, it started to be used of the destruction inflicted on Jews by the Nazis.

Today, that is the main use of the word. Wikipedia says “The Holocaust . . . was a genocide during World War II in which Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany . .. systematically murdered some six million European Jews, . . . between 1941 and 1945.

However, if you go to the Holocaust Memorial Day website, you will discover that

“The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) is the charity that promotes and supports Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD). 27 January is the day for everyone to remember the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, and the millions of people killed in Nazi Persecution and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.”

In other words, lumped in together with the Jews killed by the Nazis, are 5 other groups of people – others killed in persecution by Nazis, and people killed in genocides in “Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.”

It is an interesting group of genocides. Genocide is defined as

any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  • killing members of the group

  • causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group

  • deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part

  • imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group

  • forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

As such, I find the inclusion of what happened in Cambodia as genocide surprising. It was brutal and shocking, for, as the Holocaust Memorial Day website says “Estimates of the number of people murdered range between one and three million. ” But it was not largely about targeting any “national, ethical, racial or religious group” – it was more like wholescale slaughter of anyone that the Khmer Rouge did not like.

But I can see why it was included, for the scale of it was horrendous.

At the other end of the spectrum, what happened in Bosnia that got it included was a massacre in one town. Around 8,000 Muslim men, and boys over 13 years old, were killed in Srebrenica, by Serb forces, simply for being Muslims. By the standards of the last 100 years, that is not a huge number of deaths. There was also, of course, a large amount of “ethnic cleansing” – in which people of various ethnic groups were forced to flee by militia of other ethnic groups – but this is hardly unique in modern days to the Bosnian War.

As I say, what I find fascinating about the Holocaust Memorial Day is the way that it has selected a certain number of events and focused on them – and left others unmentioned.

The number of civilians killed in the Bosnian War is estimated at about 40,000. The number of children killed by sanctions in Iraq – which were going on at the same time – is estimated at about 500,000. If sanctions are, indeed, a war crime, that raises big questions.

Or take the Khmer Rouge. It is estimated that they killed between 1 million and 3 million people in Cambodia – about a quarter of the population. That is horrendous.

But is it that much worse than the US carpet bombing of North Korea in the 1950s, which is estimated to have killed 2 million people – about 20% of the population?

Why is mass killing of civilians so much more acceptable if it is done by foreigners in planes dropping bombs?

And if we are talking about total deaths, a headline in Middle East Eye in 2016 announced “Western wars have killed four million Muslims since 1990,” and goes on to say “Landmark research proves that the US-led ‘war on terror’ has killed as many as 2 million people, but this is a fraction of Western responsibility for deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last two decades.”

That is an estimate, of course, but the deaths that have resulted from American foreign policy in the Middle East are largely of Muslims, and there are a lot of them. Could Holocaust Memorial Day one day include, among its list of genocides, the American genocide of Muslims in the Middle East? I think the answer is “if the political climate was right, there is no reason why not.” The mass killings chosen by the people at Holocaust Memorial Day are undoubtedly influenced by political prejudice and fashion.

Donald Trump

And yet under Trump, aggressive American involvement in the Middle East goes on. In his one year in office, the Americans have dropped some 40,000 bombs on the Middle East – compared to 70,000 in George W Bush’s 8 years, and 100,000 in Obama’s 8 years.

Tillerson, like Madeline Albright before him, can explain this involvement using diplomatic language, and make it it all sound very proper and socially acceptable. But as Blumenthal and Norton point out in their interview, if you look behind the rhetoric, the truth about what America is doing in the Middle East is far darker.

Both use the word “scandal”. Norton said

the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have spent at this point nearly seven years trying to wage war against and destabilize the Syrian government unsuccessfully. They have lost. They’re trying to, in the last gasps of air, trying to get whatever they can and pull it back for them, But Turkey’s incursion in this country is not authorized and the US’s military incursion and subsequent occupation even after ISIS is defeated is also not authorized. Syria is a sovereign country and there are multiple countries who are militarily intervening without the consent of any of the people who actually live there. This should be a huge scandal but there’s very little attention to it.

And Blumenthal reinforced the point:

If we go back to last year, when the US troops, which were training a group of rebranded Salafi insurgents, “moderate rebels,” at the al-Tanf border crossing between Iraq and Syria, the US engaged in actual combat with Shia militias allied with Iran. That’s extremely dangerous and beyond US troops being killed, the prospect of an escalation with Iran should trouble everyone. As Ben pointed out, this is a huge scandal that’s gone totally unacknowledged, including by progressive media in the US.”

He’s right. The wreckers aggression and carnage in the Middle East have gone totally unacknowledged by the media, and most social commentators. Instead, what are they talking about? His tweets, and the crude and insulting vulgarity he used to describe certain countries.

I think I know why, as well. It’s politics. People like to paint their political opponents in the darkest colours possible. And they like to whitewash the politicians on their own side. And in America, and in the west in general, politicians on almost every side have supported the policies that have brought mass death and destruction to the Middle East for the past quarter of a century. So nobody says anything.  Because it would mean criticising our own side.

And Holocaust Memorial Day comes and goes and much is said and thought – but none of it about Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria or Libya or Yemen – let alone North Korea in the 1950s.

And so we feel good about ourselves.

What the Bible says

But I keep coming back to what the Bible says about human nature.

I remember the parable that Jesus told about the Pharisee and the tax-collector, and how it is introduced with the words

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” (Luke 18:9)

I remember the question that he asked in the Sermon on the Mount:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3.)

It’s a good question. Why?

And I remember what the Psalmist says

Who can discern his errors?” (Psalm 19:11).

It is difficult for us to see our own faults and failings. Which is something that I guess I need to remember as much as anyone else.

The world in 2017: a look back at the year just ended

1st January. A time for looking to the future. But since I don’t know what is going to happen in 2018, I am looking back at 2017. What, if anything, really changed?

And the answer is, not a lot.

Donald Trump is still president of America. (Technically he wasn’t at the beginning of the year, but he was just about to take office.)   Theresa May is still Prime Minister of the UK – though this turned out to be a more close run thing than most people would have guessed a year ago.   Angela Merkel is still hanging on a Chancellor of Germany.   No major wars have started.   And I am still alive.

So I went back to look at the review of 2016 that I wrote a year ago. And, again it seems that nothing has changed.   I wrote:

The last few days of 2016 have produced a few articles that particularly caught my attention, and which in many ways, summed up the year for me. They concerned two of the main stories that dominated world affairs in 2016: the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, and in particular the war in Syria; and the American presidential election, and in particular the allegation that Russian hacking had been the source of the Democratic Party emails published by Wikileaks. 

And, taking these two stories – the war in Syria, and the allegation of Russian government hacking of Democratic Party emails -I considered the roll of the media, and the question of honesty.

Twelve months later, it is uncanny how little has changed.

Russian hacking

Let’s start with the allegations of Russian government hacking and interference in the American election. Last year, I quoted Craig Murray, former British Ambassador in Uzbekistan, writing at the end of December. He says that the FBI report that had just been published,

gives no evidence at all of the alleged successful hack that transmitted these particular emails, nor any evidence of the connection between the hackers and the Russian government, let alone Putin.

Almost a year on, in December 2017, Murray wrote:

“I have enough direct knowledge of events to be aware that the entire premise of the Russophobic “election-hacking” conspiracy theory is simple nonsense. I am therefore most amused that my friend Randy Credico, who stayed with Nadira and I in Edinburgh a few months ago, has now been subpoenaed by the Senate Inquiry on Russian meddling as the alleged go-between for Roger Stone and Julian Assange, on the brilliant grounds that he knows both of them.

I can tell you from certain knowledge this is absolute nonsense. While Randy is a delightful person who hides a shrewd political mind behind a deliberate crackpot façade, he is the most indiscreet person in the world. He is not anybody’s conveyor of secrets, he would tell it all impulsively on his next radio show! Where Russia fits into this mad conspiracy theory I have no idea. If I had any belief that it was the genuine intention of Senate or Special Counsel inquiries to discover the actual truth, I would be surprised they have never made any contact with me, as opposed to my fleeting houseguests. But as I am well aware the last thing they want to know is the truth, I am not surprised in the least.”


Last year, I also quoted Glenn Greenwald, writing on the 31st December, about the FBI report. He described it as “the U.S. government’s evidence-free report.

Almost exactly a year later, Greenwald re-tweeted a link to an interview on the Real News Network:

Amid news the Mueller probe could extend through 2018, Guardian reporter Luke Harding and TRNN’s Aaron Mate discuss Russiagate and Harding’s new book “Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win.”

The interview is worth watching, and fairly entertaining. It begins:

Luke, welcome. Let’s start with the book’s title. Do you think there actually was collusion?

LUKE HARDING: I think we’re already across the line in terms of collusion. I think actually you have to go back a long way to see when it began to Donald Trump’s first trip to Soviet Moscow in 1987 paid for by the Soviet Union where he was discussing hotel deals. I think we can say — and I’m sure this is something that Robert Mueller is looking at — that there’s kind of long-term relationship. That doesn’t mean that Donald Trump is an agent or a KGB colonel, merely that there’s been a kind of transactional deal going back a very long way indeed.

AARON MATÉ: That’s also an assertion of the infamous Steele dossier, that there’s a transactional relationship between Trump and the Kremlin and that Putin has been cultivating Trump for several years now. But explain why you think that is and why you think there’s evidence of a transactional relationship.

And from there, most of the interview is basically Maté pressing Harding for what exactly the evidence is. Harding basically has three responses, which are

1) Everybody knows it:

I think that Russia played a role in last year’s election is a matter of fact. I mean it’s certainly what U.S. intelligence agencies believe.

To which Maté responded:

it’s not . . . all the intelligence agencies; it’s a handpicked group assembled under the outgoing president, Barack Obama, by James Clapper. They say something, but speaking of empirical evidence, they presented no empirical evidence and they still haven’t. I don’t understand why we’re supposed to take that on faith.

2) There are lots of allegations, so it must be true:

Well I’m a journalist. I’m a storyteller. I’m not head of the CIA or the NSA, but what I can tell you is that there have been similar operations in France most recently when President Macron was elected.”

To which Maté responded

Well actually, Luke, that’s not true…. After that election, the French cyber intelligence agency came out and said it could have been virtually anybody. 

3) The Russian government is horrible; this is the sort of thing they do, and you really need to spend more time in Russia in order to appreciate that:

I think maybe you might just go to Moscow for a couple of weeks, talk to human rights people. . . . . Just talk to people, ask them about Kremlin hacking, ask them about whether they think … I mean talk to Russians on this.

The interview ends with Maté saying

But again, well look. This gets back to the issue. The question is whether there is any evidence so far, and I don’t see it. It looks like Luke has logged off. Is that true? Well we’ve lost Luke Harding.

After Harding’s advice to “talk to Russians on this” it is interesting that a few days later, Maté interviewed Stephen F. Cohen, formerly professor of Russian Studies at Princeton, and asked

I’m curious your thoughts on how Russians are viewing this whole Russiagate so-called controversy right now. You were recently in Russia. You studied the country closely, how are Russians, the ones you speak to, looking at this national obsession here in the US and this widespread view that it was their president Putin, who got Donald Trump elected?

Cohen replied

I think most Russians who are educated and there are a lot of them, critical-minded, and who can process the evening news, even if it is Russian propaganda, think the story’s preposterous. They think it has to do with American internal politics, and nothing really to do with Russia. That’s the educated opinion in Russia today.

A year ago, Greenwald, Murray, and plenty of others pointed out that no evidence has been produced of Russian hacking or interference in the American election.

Now, a year later, a journalist publishes a book on the subject, and when asked about evidence, can’t come up with any, but simply says

I think that Russia played role in last year’s election is a matter of fact. I mean it’s certainly what U.S. intelligence agencies believe.

Twelve months later, despite a huge amount of investigation by the U.S. government, nothing has changed.


A year ago, I quoted Robert Fisk of the Independent about Syria, and while neither I, nor Fisk, used the word “evidence”, Fisk makes it clear that the media was reporting things about Syria as fact when they had no evidence of these things:

The use of social media in reporting the battle of eastern Aleppo has been extraordinary, weird, dangerous, even murderous, when not a single Western journalist could report the eastern Aleppo war at first hand. Much damage has been done to the very credibility of journalism – and to politicians – by the acceptance of one side of the story only when not a single reporter can confirm with his or her own eyes what they are reporting. . . .

Can we really shake our heads in disbelief at electoral lies when we have been lying to our readers and viewers for years?”

A year later, much has changed in Syria. But one thing that has not changed is the matter of reporting the war.

In my opinion, the most interesting story here is coverage of the incident that took place at Khan Shaykhun on the 4th April this year.

I wrote about this in August (in an article that uses the word “evidence” eleven times!) and looked at the question of evidence, and concluded

Well, every bit of evidence coming from the ground (e.g. photographs) comes from al-Qaeda affiliated groups or those approved by them. In practice, these people have proved to be thugs who have a track record of mistreating Christians and members of other religious minorities. In other words, the evidence from the ground is pretty much worthless.

Everything suggests to me that it is extremely unlikely that there is any truth at all in the White House’s account.

Well, a couple of months later, the UN put out its report. According to the BBC:

Syria’s government was responsible for a deadly chemical attack on a rebel-held town in the north-west of the country on 4 April, a UN report says. The authors say they are “confident” Damascus used sarin nerve agent in Khan Sheikhoun, killing more than 80 people. . . .

The report findings were issued by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN’s Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM). “The panel is confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017,” stated the report. . . .

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said: “Britain condemns this appalling breach of the rules of war and calls on the international community to unite to hold Assad’s regime accountable.”

The UN director at Human Rights Watch, Louis Charbonneau, said that “today’s report should lay to rest any discussion about who was responsible for the Khan Sheikhoun attack”.

However, the BBC also tells us

Speaking to the Interfax news agency, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the UN report had “many inconsistencies”. He said: “Even the first cursory read shows many inconsistencies, logical discrepancies, using doubtful witness accounts and unverified evidence.”

I guess a lot of people would say “The UN says it. That concludes the matter.” Frankly, I am sceptical.

And I am not the only one. A week after the UN report came out, Consortium News published an analysis of the UN report by American investigative journalist Rick Sterling.  It makes interesting reading:

“The report titled “Seventh report of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism” was provided to select governments and media on Oct. 26. The world’s media announced the key finding without criticism or question: the sentence that the committee is “confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin in Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017.” About 36 hours later, the report was leaked via the Internet. But the die was already cast as establishment media had “confirmed” Syrian guilt.

Sterling then proceeds to point out the key contradictions and inconsistencies in the report. There are several. And they are glaring.

And Sterling concludes

“The report of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) gives the impression of much more certainty than is actually there. Seizing on the false “confidence,” the White House has denounced the “horrifying barbarism of Bashar al Assad” and “lack of respect for international norms” by Syria’s ally Russia. International diplomacy is being steadily eroded.

Most Western “experts” were dead wrong in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Are these same “experts,” institutes, intelligence agencies and biased organizations going to take us down the road to new aggression, this time against Syria?

In contrast with the JIM report, Gareth Porter reached the opposite conclusionThe evidence now available makes it clear that the scene suggesting a sarin attack at the crater was a crudely staged deception.” That is also more logical. The armed opposition had the motive, means and opportunity.”

It’s about evidence. And on that basis, I think that Sterling’s case is pretty strong – something that cannot be said for the case made by the UN report.

One year later

A year ago, the title that I gave my look back at the year was “Are we living in a post-truth world?”     And I quoted Robert Fisk:

We do not live in a “post-truth” world, neither in the Middle East nor in the West – nor in Russia, for that matter. We live in a world of lies. And we always have lived in a world of lies. 

And I had to agree. The world had not changed. But I had. I was a little older, and (I think) a little wiser:

For me, 2016 has been the year when my confidence in the western mass media hit rock bottom. Before 2016 I believed that it was biased and often misleading – but broadly speaking honest and accurate. By the end of the year, I had come to the conclusion that it was often dishonest and sometimes completely inaccurate. Individual reporters often told the truth, but when what they said was not what the powers that be wanted to hear, it was usually buried in obscure places.

In other words, 2016 stood out as the year when my confidence in the honesty of the western media collapsed. The events of 2017 did nothing to change that. If anything, my confidence in the mainstream media declined further.

But something else became obvious in 2017: the willingness of intelligent people to simply accept stories because they come from influential sources.

For example, I have already mentioned Luke Harding saying

I think that Russia played a role in last year’s election is a matter of fact. I mean it’s certainly what U.S. intelligence agencies believe.

And perhaps even more scarily the response of some to the UN report on the Khan Sheikhoun incident:

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said: “Britain condemns this appalling breach of the rules of war and calls on the international community to unite to hold Assad’s regime accountable.”

The UN director at Human Rights Watch, Louis Charbonneau, said that “today’s report should lay to rest any discussion about who was responsible for the Khan Sheikhoun attack”.

I am not so sure.

But do I really think I know more than Boris Johnson? Well, I suspect that on some matters, I probably do.

Now, it is possible that Harding, Johnson, and Charbonneau had pretty much made up their minds before these reports came out. But I do think that a lot of people will simply believe something happened if US intelligence agencies or a UN report say that they are “confident” that it did – (and yes, the key sentence in both reports spoke about “confidence”). And that is especially true if the media report these things as if they are unquestionable facts.

We are much more influenced by powerful organisations and by the media than we think.

Nothing new

And so, a year ago, I quoted Psalm 12, in which David says

Help, LORD; for there is no longer any that is godly;
for the faithful have vanished from among the sons of men.
Every one utters lies to his neighbour;
with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
May the LORD cut off all flattering lips,
the tongue that makes great boasts,
those who say, “With our tongue we will prevail,
our lips are with us; who is our master?”

There are many who think that with their tongues, they will prevail. If enough powerful and influential people (and organisations) say something, then everyone will believe it – and will, as a result, get what they want. And a lot of the time, that is exactly what happens – which is why David called on God for help.

That’s the world we live in; and that’s the world we’ve always lived in. As the French say, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Or, as a son of David who was king in Jerusalem, put it (Ecclesiastes 1:9):

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.

So yes, a lot has changed in 2017.

Trump replaced Obama as president. He made a big announcement about changing the location of the US embassy in Israel. In Syria, ISIS suffered several major set-backs. The question of independence for Catalonia became a major issue in Spain. In Britain, the Labour Party under Corbyn saw its popularity rise markedly. Smaller parties did remarkably well in the German election, which led to serious difficulties in forming a government with a working majority. And one could go on. These things are interesting, and some could have a major impact in years to come.

And yet in terms of the way the world works, nothing has really changed.

Another King

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” (Luke 2:1)

Taken on its own, that is an astonishing statement. Even allowing for the fact that the word “taxed” actually means to be copied down in writing  – i.e. enrolled or registered – it is pretty astonishing that this man, Caesar Augustus, should have the authority to order that the whole world be registered, and the power to compel it.

Of course, what Luke meant by “all the world” was actually the Roman Empire, but the Roman Empire was so big that it felt like “all the world” to a lot of people.

All the world

The phrase “all the world” is actually used only 4 times in the Bible. In two of the others uses, the phrase also seems to have not been intended to be taken literally as “the whole world”, but as “the known world” or “the Roman Empire”. But in the fourth use, it seems quite likely that it does actually mean “the whole world”.

That use comes at the end of Mark’s gospel, after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. In fact, it is part of the final instructions Jesus leaves with his disciples before being taken into heaven:

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.

In other words, we find the phrase “all the world” only twice in the gospels. The first time it is right at the beginning of the gospels before the birth of Jesus; the second it is right at the end, after his resurrection. The first time it concerns a decree from Caesar; the second it is part of an instruction of Christ. But both times, it concerns a command, and both times, it is, if you think about it, a pretty astonishing command.

These final instructions of Jesus to go into all the world are not just found in Mark’s gospel. They are also found, with slightly different wording, in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels and the book of Acts.

In Acts (1:8), we learn that Jesus said

you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

In Luke (24:46-47) it is

Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

In Matthew (28:18-20), it is

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

But, even more astonishing than the instruction to go and proclaim to all nations are the words that come before the instruction:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

What would Augustus Caesar, the man who apparently had the authority to command that the whole world be enrolled, have thought of that?

And isn’t it curious that the gospels begin with Caesar as the one with such supreme authority that he could order that all the world be enrolled, and they end with Jesus claiming that all authority belongs to him?

Christ and Caesar

Consider the following passages from the New Testament about Jesus.

“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” (Matthew 2:1-4 )

When Jesus was born, the wise men described him as a king. And King Herod found this disturbing – so disturbing, in fact, that he attempted to have the child killed. A newborn king clearly represented a threat to the established political order.

Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.”” (Luke 23:1-2)

When he was just an infant, the fact that Jesus might be a king was enough to lead to an attempt on his life. As a grown man, the fact that he had claimed to be a king was enough to get him brought to trial. In fact, according to John’s gospel (19:12, 15), Jesus’ enemies claimed that he was a threat to the established political order as a reason to demand his execution: “ “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar,” and when Pilate, the Roman governor who was hearing the case asked “”Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” Jesus is being described as a potential rival to Caesar.

But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd. And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” (Acts 17:5-7 )

As an infant and as an adult, Jesus seemed, to some at least, as a threat to the established political order. This third quote concerns events about 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, in the city of Thessalonica. The apostles are there, following out Jesus’ final instructions to go into all the world to make disciples. And they run into opposition. Jesus is described as “another king”, who is a rival to Caesar, and whose followers act against the decrees of Caesar.

There is a consistent strand running through the New Testament about Jesus being a king, and how he was thus seen as a rival to Caesar – the supreme king at that time – and therefore a threat to the political order.

And surely it is the case that if he was a king who claimed universal authority and sent his apostles into all the world to make disciples, he was – and is – by implication, a rival to all kings, everywhere.

Not of this world

Which brings us to the question, why then did Pilate want to free Jesus? John’s gospel (8:33-38) explains:

Pilate . . . called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” . . . Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him.

In a nutshell, Jesus says “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight” – they would take up arms.

In fact, of course, what Jesus’ servants would do was to advance his kingship by proclamation – by the word, rather than the sword – as he had instructed them in his final instructions to “Go and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”.

So does that mean that Jesus is not a rival to earthly kings – i.e. rulers? Does that mean that he does not pose a potential threat to established political orders?

There are two answers to that.

A real king

The first is that disciples are described as those who are have learned (or are learning) to observe Jesus’ commands – to obey his teaching. And that, in itself, would pose a problem to established political orders. When the early Christians were told to stop telling people about Jesus, their response was consistently (Acts 5:29) “We must obey God rather than men.” That caused plenty of problems with the established political authorities in those days, and has continued to cause problems with established political authorities ever since.

For, if you think about it, and put together the fact that Jesus claims all authority in heaven and earth, and that he expects obedience from his followers, and that he is a king – then the call to follow and become a disciple is effectively calling people to allegiance, to accept him as their king. In fact, he is calling them to have him as their ultimate king – and ultimately to obey him, rather than kings, rulers, and earthly political establishments.

Herod, in other words, was (in a sense) completely correct when he saw the new born baby in Bethlehem as a threat to the established political order.

Which brings us to the second answer.

If you turn to the final book of the New Testament, the book of Revelation, you will find that it refers to Jesus as “King of kings and Lord of lords”, and “the ruler of kings of the earth” – stressing his supremacy over established political orders.

But, more than that, it consistently speaks negatively about the kings of the earth, and suggests that there is a very real rivalry between them and Christ. This rivalry culminates in a great apocalyptic battle, described in chapter 19:

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. . . . He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. . . . On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. . . .

And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army.

And, in words famously quoted in the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel’s Messiah it says (Revelation 11:15): ““The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”

The kingship of the baby born in Bethlehem ultimately overcomes and replaces the established political order of this world.  Caesar’s kingship passes away.  The gospel writers may not have intended to begin with the authority of Caesar and the unease of Herod.  However, the fact that they do so – and then end with Jesus sending the apostles out to all nations to proclaim him as king – actually fits like a hand in a glove with the New Testament’s message of his coming in weakness, and the growth of his kingdom from small, despised beginnings, until the day when he returns as king to reign for ever.

And so, to quote the prophet Isaiah:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; . . .  Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end . . .  The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Roy Moore: a sign of the times?

Much has been written about the recent election in Alabama for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he became attorney general. And stories are still appearing about it 9 days after the Doug Jones was pronounced the winner, because Roy Moore has not yet conceded defeat.

It was certainly an interesting election – in more ways than one, and there are a lot of things that I could say. However, I’m going to limit myself to just one.

On the day of the election, the BBC News website published a piece about Moore entitled “Roy Moore beliefs: Things the Republican has said“. It says

“Alabama firebrand Roy Moore dealt a huge blow to the Republican leadership by winning the party’s nomination for the Senate, despite their backing for his opponent. He is now battling Democrat Doug Jones for a place in the upper chamber of Congress. The controversial lawyer has made headlines for a series of incendiary remarks over the years. Here’s a round-up of some of his more extreme beliefs, with some analysis from the BBC’s Anthony Zurcher on why it all matters.”

What I think is significant is what views of Moore’s the BBC considers to be extreme. After all, the BBC is regarded as the epitome of respectability – at last for a media outlet – not only in the UK, but throughout the world. It’s opinions represent what currently counts as respectable opinion – at least among members of the British media establishment, and probably western culture as a whole.

So – what are his extreme views?

1. Homosexuality should be illegal

On election day, Moore’s spokesman Ted Crockett was asked whether the candidate still thought homosexuality should be outlawed. “Probably,” was his answer. Previously, Mr Moore has likened it to bestiality, and called it “abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature, and a violation of the laws of nature and of nature’s God upon which this nation and our laws are predicated”. His refusal to issue marriage certificates to gay couples cost him his place on the bench for a second time.

First, notice that the spokesman said “Probably.” In other words, the BBC does not know for certain what currently thinks. They quote something Moore said in a judgement in 2002, the full quote being “Homosexual conduct is, and has been, considered abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature, and a violation of the laws of nature and of nature’s God upon which this Nation and our laws are predicated.   Such conduct violates both the criminal and civil laws of this State and is destructive to a basic building block of society-the family.”

Moore expresses a lot of opinions in those two sentences, but the basic issue is the legality of homosexual conduct. The BBC simply declares that to believe that it should be illegal is an “extreme view”. That raises the question, “What does ‘extreme’ mean?”

What is interesting about this is that as recently as 1960, laws banning homosexual conduct were in force in every state in the USA, and in every part of the UK.

In Britain, the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised homosexual acts between two men in England and Wales (as long as they were conducted in private, and both men had attained the age of 21. Homosexual acts were decriminalised in Scotland by the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980, and in Northern Ireland by the Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1982.

In America, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of sodomy laws in Bowers v. Hardwick in 1986, but reversed that decision in 2003 with Lawrence v. Texas, invalidating the sodomy laws that remained in the 14 states.

In other words, until just a few years ago, Moore’s view on the matter was completely mainstream, and a couple of generations ago were the prevailing political orthodoxy – and had been centuries. It was the undoubtedly the view of the BBC’s first Director-General, Lord Reith. It was undoubtedly the view of most of America’s founding fathers, and the four presidents whose images adorn Mount Rushmore, and it was the view of Che Guevara.

And that is only in the west. If you look at most of Africa and Asia, Moore’s views are completely mainstream.

When the BBC speaks about “extreme views”, what does it mean by that term? It clearly doesn’t mean views that are particularly unusual. The word “extreme” simply means “far from the centre” or “not moderate” – but who is to say what a “moderate” position is, or where the centre lies?

The word “extreme” strikes me as being vague, subjective, and even loaded. It is a very small step from having extreme views to being an extremist. And since the word “extremist” usually suggests “dangerous” to most people, I suspect that the BBC actually means “views which respectable, decent, people do not hold”.

So why is the BBC using a vague, subjective, loaded phrase like “extreme views” in this article? It looks to me like it is, very subtly, telling us what views are acceptable and what views are not. In other words, this article is not just news – it is seeking to tell readers what is decent and respectable – and even what is right and what is wrong – without ever trying to tell us why those things are right or wrong.

And in doing so, it tells us as much about the BBC as it tells us about Roy Moore.

2. God’s wrath is felt on Earth

Moore has suggested that the 11 September 2001 attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were a sign of God’s divine anger. “Sounds a little bit like the Pentagon” he remarked after reading a Bible passage about “the great slaughter when the towers will fall”. He has also said that violent crimes in the US such as murder and rape are “happening because we have forgotten God”.

Is the BBC really claiming that to believe that God’s wrath is felt on earth is extreme? This is the consistent view of the Bible from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation. It would be silly to quote proof texts for this, since it is almost as basic to the Bible as the belief that God exists, and is something that Christianity has always affirmed, and that is utterly uncontroversial across all parts of the church.

Likewise, the view that the 9/11 attacks were a sign of God’s anger, does not seem to me, from a Christian point of view, to be at all controversial. Indeed, even if one doesn’t believe in God, one could argue that they were a consequence of what Americans were doing.

In an interview the month after the attacks, Osama bin Laden, who masterminded them, was asked asked about the justification for killing innocent civilians. He responded,

“Whenever we kill their civilians, the whole world yells . . . . and America starts putting pressure on its allies and puppets. . . . What about the people that have been killed in our lands for decades? . . . Who said that our blood isn’t blood and that their blood is blood? . . . More than 1,000,000 children died in Iraq, and they are still dying . . . . How is it that these people are moved when civilians die in America, and not when we are being killed everyday?” ”

He was alluding to the sanctions on Iraq, which had been imposed by the UN at the request of America. On May 12, 1996, the American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, was questioned about this on national TV: “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Albright replied, “We think the price is worth it.”

And Ron Paul, a member of Congress in America, had warned, in 1998, that America’s ongoing attacks on Iraq under the Clinton administration risked bringing terrorist attacks on America: “Matter of fact our national security is more jeopardized by permitting this to happen because we are liable to start a war. We are liable to have our military men killed. We are liable to have more attacks on us by terrorists.”

The view that violent crimes happen because people have forgotten God doesn’t strike me as that odd – I suspect that most of the people committing these crimes are not thinking about God – and that if they were remembering him, they would not be. On the other hand, it must be admitted that there are countries with lower rates of violent crime than America, that also have lower rates of church attendance and believing in God, so if Roy Moore thinks there is an easy correlation, he is simply wrong. On the other hand, I suppose that it could be said that people can completely forget about and ignore God even though they believe in him and go to church regularly . . . .

At any rate, if the BBC is saying that believing that God’s wrath is felt on earth is an “extreme view”, it is basically saying that atheism, agnosticism and deism are moderate positions, but that Christianity is extreme. Again, I think that tells us more about the BBC than about Roy Moore.


As for the BBC’s other eight Roy Moore views that are “extreme “, I don’t have much to add.

3. ‘Red and yellows’ don’t get along

He appeared to use pejorative racial terms for Asians and Native Americans at a rally this month.”We have blacks and whites fighting, reds and yellows fighting, Democrats and Republicans fighting, men and women fighting. What’s going to unite us? What’s going to bring us back together? A president? A Congress? No. It’s going to be God.”

I’m not quite sure what the BBC is describing as an “extreme view”. He is basically saying that people in America don’t get along, and that there is a lot of tribalism. Seems pretty uncontroversial, to me. In that context, I wouldn’t have assumed that he was literally saying that there was a lot of tension between “Asians and Native Americans.” As for saying that he used “pejorative racial terms” – well, in the context of speaking about blacks and whites, which are pretty normal terms, using the words “reds and yellows” is what one would expect a person to say.

It looks to me like the BBC is just being silly here in a desperate attempt to suggest that Moore is a racist. He may be, but this quote strikes me as pretty uncontroversial – unless, of course Moore’s belief that God can bring people together is seen by the BBC as controversial.

4. Darwin was wrong

“There’s no such thing as evolution,” he told the Washington Post less than a week before the election. “That we came from a snake? No I don’t believe that.”

OK. I admit that Moore’s views on evolution are outside the scientific mainstream, and as such, “far from the centre” and thus “extreme”. But they are views that are widely held by thoughtful and intelligent Christians.

Again, it looks like the BBC has a problem with Christians.

5. Islam is a ‘false religion’

It is also a threat to US laws, Moore claims. Over the summer he falsely alleged that Sharia law was already being enforced in parts of the states of Illinois and Indiana, offering no evidence.

I can’t see anything controversial with the view that Islam is a false religion. No doubt Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins would agree, as, I guess, would most practising Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists.

I will admit that to claim that “Sharia law was being enforced in parts of the states of Illinois and Indiana” without any evidence strikes me as pretty unimpressive.

But then again, Moore is an American politician, and American politicians regularly assert that the Russian government interfered in last year’s presidential election and offer no evidence, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.

6. The law comes from God

“God is the only source of our law, liberty and government,” he said from the debate stage last week.

All Christians would agree that God is the source of everything that is good, and I suppose that would include liberty, and aspects of our law and our government.

However, I might also say that it often seems to me that some aspects of America’s law and government (and indeed that of most other countries) give the impression of coming from the devil, rather than God.

7. He thinks he’s like Putin

In August he directly praised the Russian president Vladimir Putin for his gay rights stance, saying “maybe he’s more akin to me than I know”. The comment came after he described the US as “the focus of evil in the world” because “we promote a lot of bad things”.

Hmmm. Saying that America promotes a lot of bad things seems pretty uncontroversial; indeed I would expect the BBC to agree whole-heartedly. I guess it takes courage in the current climate for an American politician to say “maybe Putin is more akin to me than I know” – but maybe that’s no bad thing. When one compares Putin to some American presidents, Putin does seem to be a remarkably irenic and peaceable individual.

8. Obama might not be US-born

Trump’s predecessor was disqualified to be president, Moore claimed as far back as 2008. The so-called “birther” theory, alleging that Obama was born in Kenya, was heavily promoted by Donald Trump until very late in his campaign.

OK. I’ll admit that is controversial, wild, and extreme.

Even the BBC can get it right, occasionally.  You know what they say about stopped clocks.

9. He writes poetry

And he has occasionally been known to give live renditions. One said: “Babies piled in dumpsters, Abortion on demand/ Oh Sweet land of liberty; your house is on the sand.”

As poetry goes, it doesn’t impress me. But I suppose anyone is entitled to a hobby that they are not particularly skilful at.

Or does the BBC dislike the fact that Moore is anti-abortion?

10. A Ten Commandments sculpture is worth fighting for

He was dismissed from the Alabama Supreme Court after he refused a federal order to remove a massive stone statue of the Ten Commandments from inside his courthouse.

Personally, while I admit that Moore may have been a bit eccentric on this matter, I really wish more politicians would pay attention to the Ten Commandments.

Wouldn’t it be great if, before every vote in Parliament or Congress, someone got up and said “Now, remember everybody, ‘Thou shalt not kill and thou shalt not steal'”? And wouldn’t it be great if, before politicians opened their mouths, they would think to themselves, “Thou shalt not bear false witness”?

And why stop at politicians? What about the press and the media? Wouldn’t it be great if the BBC, before it published a story, thought to itself , “Thou shalt not bear false witness”?

Yes. I can see why it thinks that 10 Commandments sculpture is “extreme”.

And that, dear reader, is why I read what the BBC has to say.   It’s a good guide to current orthodoxy, and what beliefs are respectable these days.  And that piece did a superb job.  It may not have told us much about Roy Moore, and it didn’t really begin to deal all the reasons why one might not want to vote for him, but it told us a lot about 21st century western culture.

And as such, it is a sign of the times.

Not Roy Moore: Trump, Obama, and something much bigger

So – the new Senator from Alabama is not going to be Roy Moore.

For two days in a row, the BBC seemed to take the view that the big news coming out of America was the Alabama story: the “shock defeat” of Republican Roy Moore by Democrat Doug Jones.  Only a little behind is the ongoing conflict with North Korea.

However, I would like to suggest that there is another couple of interesting stories that came out at the same time – both covered by the BBC – which are highly significant for understanding America, as the BBC hints. But neither concerns events that actually happened in America. And that is also highly significant.

One concerns what looks like a very uninteresting story: “US helicopter part crashes on Japanese school in Okinawa.

Part of a US helicopter has crashed on a school in Okinawa, Japan, renewing tensions with the local population. The window dropped on the school grounds, slightly injuring one boy, news agency Kyodo said. The southern island of Okinawa hosts the largest US military presence in Japan. Over the past years, a number of accidents and crimes have led to growing local oppostion to the US base.”

The other concerns a meeting in Syria. The BBC headline reads “Syria war: Putin’s Russian mission accomplished.

But the BBC report begins in a rather unexpected way:

“When Russia launched its military operation in Syria in 2015, the then US President Barack Obama predicted Moscow would get “stuck in a quagmire”. His defence secretary, Ashton Carter, warned that Russia’s approach was “doomed to fail”. Two years on, Russia appears to have proved the doomsayers wrong. On a surprise trip to Syria this week, President Vladimir Putin told his troops they had fought “brilliantly” and could “return home victorious”. He ordered the withdrawal of a “significant part” of Russia’s military contingent. So, mission accomplished for Moscow? It seems so.”

There are three interesting things about this story

Militant Islam.

The first concerns the reason that “Russia launched its military operation in Syria in 2015,” – and also the reason that it is leaving. It launched it in response to an invitation, nay request, by the Syrian government, whose army was, at the time, struggling in the face of an onslaught by Islamic militants, who had seized Aleppo, the largest city in Syria.  And when they seized territory, their treatment of members of religious minority communities, such as the Christians, was brutal.

At the invitation of the Syrian government, Russia came in, and Aleppo was eventually recaptured. One could even say “liberated”. The Russians stayed on, however, and were involved in the battle with ISIS in the East of Syria. Now that ISIS have finally been defeated in Eastern Syria, most of the Russian troops will head home.


But while the Russians are withdrawing, someone else is not withdrawing. The American troops are staying. For, yes, America has troops in Syria, too – about 2000 of them. Three weeks ago, Reuters (among others) reported:

The Pentagon is likely to announce in the coming days that there are about 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, two U.S. officials said on Friday, as the military acknowledges that an accounting system for troops has under-reported the size of forces on the ground. The U.S. military had earlier publicly said it had around 500 troops in Syria, mostly supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces group of Kurdish and Arab militias fighting Islamic State in the north of the country.

Two U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Pentagon could, as early as Monday, publicly announce that there are slightly more than 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria. They said there was always a possibility that last minute changes in schedules could delay an announcement.

The report goes on:

The Pentagon said last December that it would increase the number of authorized troops in Syria to 500, but it is not clear how long the actual number has been at around 2,000. Obama periodically raised FML limits to allow more troops in Iraq and Syria as the fight against Islamic State advanced.”

In other words, both Russian troops and American troops were in Syria fighting against ISIS, who have now been largely (though not entirely) defeated in Syria. Most of the Russians are leaving, though not all, because Russia has for many years had military bases there.

What is interesting is that it looks like American troops are not leaving. Last week, just before Putin’s announcement, the Wall Street Journal reported

“The Pentagon plans to keep some U.S. forces in Syria indefinitely, even after a war against the Islamic State extremist group formally ends, to take part in what it describes as ongoing counter-terrorism operations, officials said.

There are approximately 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, along with an unspecified number of contractors supporting them. Last month, the U.S. military withdrew 400 Marines from Syria, which U.S. forces first entered in the fall of 2016.

Officials earlier this week disclosed the plans for an open-ended commitment, known as a “conditions-based” presence. That is the same approach the Trump administration is taking in Afghanistan.

The United States will sustain a conditions-based military presence in Syria to combat the threat of terrorist-led uncertainty, prevent the resurgence of ISIS, and to stabilize liberated areas,” Army Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Wednesday.”

But the WSJ also reports something very strange:

“The military says it has the legal authority to remain there. “Operating under recognized international authorities, the U.S. military will continue to support local partner forces in Syria to stabilize liberated territory.”

Really? What “recognized international authorities”? That sounds like, at best, a half truth. And exactly why are the US supporting these “local partner forces” – basically the Kurdish militia – instead of just withdrawing and leaving it to the Syrian government?

If the Russians can pull out, why can’t the Americans? Especially because (though the WSJ doesn’t mention it), while the Russians troops were invited into Syria to fight Islamic militants, the Americans were not. They simply invited themselves.

Now, just imagine for a moment that in 20 years time, Chinese power has grown significantly from what it is today, and there is trouble in Mexico, and the Chinese simply invite themselves to intervene . . .


It gets even more bizarre, however. The BBC reported “So-called Islamic State has, indeed, suffered defeat in Syria, although Western governments have criticised Moscow for also targeting the moderate Syrian opposition.”

What is weird about that is that the so-called moderate opposition that Moscow targeted, and that western governments were actually helping, were al-Qaeda and similar groups – who ruthlessly persecuted Christians and members of other religious minorities in areas they controlled. The so called moderate groups that the west directly supported were allied to al-Qaeda, and fought alongside them.

And that is not all that is odd. When the Syrian armed forces were involved in a battle with ISIS at Deir ez-Zor in September 2016, the Americans helped ISIS by bombing Syrian government positions. They later claimed it was an accident, but that story seems extremely unlikely. This was not something that happened in the heat of battle, and the Americans have the technology to know exactly what is happening on the ground.

And, as reported by the BBC in a piece entitled “Raqqa’s Dirty Secret“, a “secret deal” recently took place,

” . . . that let hundreds of IS fighters and their families escape from Raqqa, under the gaze of the US and British-led coalition and Kurdish-led forces who control the city. A convoy included some of IS’s most notorious members and – despite reassurances – dozens of foreign fighters. Some of those have spread out across Syria, even making it as far as Turkey.”

“The war against IS has a twin purpose: first to destroy the so-called caliphate by retaking territory and second, to prevent terror attacks in the world beyond Syria and Iraq. Raqqa was effectively IS’s capital but it was also a cage – fighters were trapped there. The deal to save Raqqa have been worth it. But it has also meant battle-hardened militants have spread across Syria and further afield – and many of them aren’t done fighting yet.”

America has a track record over the past 5 years of doing things in Syria that help ISIS and other Islamic extremists in their battles. They have announced that that they intend to maintain a military presence in that country, despite the fact that they have not been invited by  the Syrian government.

Apparently, they have no intention of leaving. Just like they apparently have no intention of leaving Afghanistan and little intention of leaving Iraq – because whatever America’s missions in those countries, they have little chance of being accomplished in the near future. And Obama warned the Russians about getting bogged down in a quagmire?

I am reminded of words from the Bible – like “Physician, heal thyself.” Or, as I have said before, with respect to this very situation:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a beam in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Why do American politicians not see it like this? The simple answer is that Americans simply do not see themselves as subject to the same rules as other countries. They are above the law. An American president (Richard Nixon) once said “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” Exactly the same kind of thinking applies here (as can be seen in this article by Andrew Bacevich).  Apparently, “When America does it, that means it’s not illegal.”

In an interview earlier this year, Noam Chomsky, when asked about his take on the view that Russia had interfered in the American election, responded by pointing to America’s record of

” . . . constantly overthrowing governments, invading, forcing people to follow what we call democracy. . . . As I say, if every charge [against Russia] is accurate, it’s a joke, and I’m sure half the world is collapsing in laughter about this, because people outside the United States know it.”

A lot of Americans clearly believe that America is an exceptional nation, and that it has the right to do things other nations don’t. And America is also able to do those things, because of its military power.  That is why America has troops deployed in over 170 countries around the world.

Which brings us back to Okinawa, the subject of the other BBC news item I mentioned: the part from an American military helicopter that fell off and landed in the grounds of a school. To many Americans, it seems natural, right, and proper that America has a military base in Okinawa. They don’t even question it.

Why? Because they believe that America has a duty to be everywhere, and oversee everything that happens all around the world. But if that is the way it seems to Americans, to most people in other countries, it does not. Indeed, it looks like arrogance.

Which, in a nation, is a dangerous characteristic.

As the Bible says (Proverb 16:18) “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. “

Trump and Jerusalem: good or bad?

That was the question I was asked after church on Sunday evening. What did I think of Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the American Embassy there from Tel Aviv? Was it a good or a bad thing?

To which I replied that it was complicated. And I said I would write a blog post on it. I wasn’t actually planning to write this post, but here is it – by popular demand.

On one level, this is utterly unimportant. For a start, does it really matter where America puts its embassy? If it moved it embassy in the UK to Milton Keynes, would it be a problem? It might be a little less convenient, but in the end of the day, it wouldn’t cause a storm. Even if America moved its embassy to Edinburgh, other than raising a few eyebrows, nobody would be seriously worried.

It’s  much the same story about capital cities. What does it matter which city is the capital? What is a capital, anyway? If a country moves its capital to another city, the new capital will undoubtedly get a wave of new buildings, and government employees moving there – but government buildings don’t have to be in the capital. In fact, South Africa actually has three capitals. “The branches of government are split between Cape Town (legislative), Pretoria (administrative) and Bloemfontein (judiciary), though the Constitutional Court is in Johannesburg.” 

The answer, of course, it is all symbolic. It is about what it means to people. It may be ultimately meaningless, but it clearly means a lot to a significant number of people. If enough people get excited about something that is absolutely meaningless, everybody is going to sit up and pay attention. Hence people are talking about this.

Why it matters, apparently

The BBC believes that there are five issues involved:

“Mr Trump’s announcement puts the US at odds with the rest of the international community’s view on Jerusalem’s status.

Because of its importance to both Israel and the Palestinians, its final status, according to the 1993 Israel-Palestinian peace accords, is meant to be discussed in the latter stages of peace talks.

Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem has never been recognised internationally, and all countries maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv.

Jerusalem contains sites sacred to the three major monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, was annexed by Israel after the Six Day War of 1967, but before now it has not been internationally recognised as part of Israel.”

So there you have it. In a nutshell, there are four things going on.

1) Trump is out of line with other world leaders, which is not particularly surprising. If America moves its embassy, America will be out of line with every other country.

In and of itself, these things don’t matter – but again, if other people think they do matter, then they start to matter – possibly a lot. This is about taking into account the feelings of other people – and whose feelings we are supposed to be most concerned about.

2) According to a treaty Israel signed, Jerusalem’s “final status” is meant to be discussed at some stage – and presumably this decision taken by Trump somehow undermines this.

There are questions about whether in some way the Israeli government is doing something that it promised to do. This is about keeping one’s word.

3) There are question marks over whether Jerusalem is actually part of Israel. Israel occupies it, because the Israelis captured it in a war, but many people don’t think that actually gives Israel a right to it. Which is an interesting question.

4) The fact that “Jerusalem contains sites sacred to the three major monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Islam and Christianity” is interesting. What does that have to do with anything? And what does the word “sacred” mean, anyway?

I can see the importance of Jerusalem for Jews, and I am quite prepared to accept that it has some importance for Muslims. As far a Christians go – I would say that it contains sites of historical significance for Christians – as well as church buildings that are important to some Christians – but nobody actually knows the exact location of say, the crucifixion of Christ, or the tomb he was buried in. I am not sure how sacred the site of the temple is to Christians, but I doubt that many Christians I know think of it as a site sacred to Christianity.

And the New Testament writings tell Christians to be more concerned with what they refer to as the “new Jerusalem” (Revelation 3:12, 21:2, 21:10) or the “heavenly Jerusalem” – which does not have a temple, because “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”  Indeed, in Galatians, we are told “Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. ”  And that really seems to be saying: “The present Jerusalem isn’t the important thing – it is the Jerusalem that is above that we are supposed to be focused on.”

And so there is no obligation for Christians to treat Jerusalem any differently from the way they treat Milton Keynes, and no Biblical reason for going on pilgrimages there – and ultimately, no good reason for the medieval crusades.

What it all boils down to then, is politics and power. This is basically about politics. It is about American domestic politics; but it is also about international politics and the way that different nations and peoples treat each other.

US politics

Domestically, Trump’s announcement has not hurt Trump. Indeed, Trump is completely in line with American political opinion. In 1995, the US House of Representatives and Senate passed a bill called the “Jerusalem Embassy Act,” which formally recognized the city as the country’s capital and called for the U.S. Embassy in Israel to be moved there from Tel Aviv by 1999. Support for the bill was overwhelming. It passed the Senate by a 93 to 5 vote, with four Republicans and one Democrat voting no. It passed the House 374 to 37.   And in 2008, then Democratic candidate Barack Obama called Jerusalem the ‘capital of Israel’.

And so it is hardly surprising that (as Haaretz reports) that that when Trump made his announcement, 

 . . . members of the Republican Party overwhelmingly expressed support for the move, [while] Democrats were split between those who congratulated Trump for it and those who called it a dangerous and irresponsible action. On the Republican side, even usual critics of Trump, such as Senators Bob Corker and John McCain, praised him for the speech, describing it as historically justified and important. …

On the Democratic side, some legislators, such as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, Reps. Ted Deutch of Florida and Brad Schneider of Illinois, expressed support for the President’s decision. . . .
Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii called Trump’s decision irresponsible, stating that
״moving our U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem will imperil Americans, isolate our country, and make peace less likely. It’s reckless.” A similar sentiment was expressed by other Democratic Senators, including former candidate for Vice President, Tim Kaine of Virginia. Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon stated that “Trump blows up chances for Middle East peace with announcement on Jerusalem, inflaming not just Arab neighbors but virtually the entire world.

International politics

While Trump’s announcement seems to have broad (if not unanimous) support from American politicians, things are different on the world stage. The Czech president has spoken in support of the decision, but that’s about it. In particular, America’s main allies in both Europe and (with the exception of Israel) the Middle East, have strongly opposed Trump.

And that, it seems to me, is where the long term significance of this lies.

I think Mark Perry’s assessment is correct:

“Domestically, it would seem Trump has little to worry about. . . .

Rather, it’s probable that the governments of Europe will remember the real import of this decision—that when asked to stand with our European allies and Arab friends, we chose Israel instead.

Pay attention: This is what it feels like to live in a nation whose moment has passed.”

The main impact of Trump’s announcement is likely to be a diminishing of American influence in the world – and, as a result, the continuing decline of American power in the world.

So – good or bad?

Which is why I, oddly enough, welcome Trump’s announcement. It may be a foolish decision, but I think that it is good for the world – and good for America, too.

There are two reasons for this, both of which I have covered fairly thoroughly before. Read the links if you are interested; I don’t intend to go over this again in great detail.

The first is that I believe that America is too powerful. When I wrote my response to Trump’s election, just over a year ago, I said

America is an enormously powerful nation. A quick google indicates that while American has less than 5% of the world’s population, its military spending accounts for 34% of the world’s total. America currently has troops on active duty stationed in 150 countries around the world. . . . .

This is something that most Americans think is a good thing. The fact that America is the most powerful nation on the face of the earth is a source of much pride to many Americans – and also gives them a sense of security. But whether it should be a source of pride to them, and whether it gives them real security is extremely questionable.

. . . In my opinion, the worst possible political arrangement for the world is a world with one central government exercising political control of the entire planet. It simply concentrates far too much power in one place.

I believe America is too powerful.

Secondly, I do not believe American power is a source of good in the world. Other countries, having that amount of power and influence might be worse, but I believe the better situation would be for no country to dominate the international scene in the way that America currently does. America’s track record over the past 20 years is not encouraging. American politicians speak about pursuing peace. But what they do is to take military action – resulting in death, destruction, and destablisation.

I have written about this in some detail several times – covering America’s impact Afghanistan,  Iraq, and Yemen, as well as a pieces here and here which look more broadly at American activity in the Middle East.

And so anything that lessens American power and influence in the world, it seems to me, is a good thing.

Which is why, when asked after church, whether I thought Trump’s decision was good or bad, I could have said “Good” – but preferred not to give a one word answer.

Indeed, one wonders whether, in a way, America having Donald Trump as president might be turning out to be a blessing in disguise. Is it an example of God at work – in a strange sort of way?

I am reminded of the words of that great poet (and native of Berkhamsted), William Cowper:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

Russia-gate & the Bible: A Christian perspective on the Trump-Russia saga

For the pasts 12 months, one of the long running (and, in my opinion, important) stories in the news has been the Trump-Russia saga. The story, as summed up by the BBC is that

US intelligence agencies believe Russia tried to sway the election in favour of Mr Trump and a special counsel is looking into whether anyone from his campaign colluded in the effort.

In other words, the story is about two questions:

1. Did the Russian government really try to sway the election in favour of Trump?

2. Did anyone from the Trump campaign collude in the effort?

I suppose it is technically possible that even if the answer to the first question is “no”, someone from the Trump campaign might have attempted to encourage the Russians to do so, though this possibility has not really been much discussed.

Which brings us to the fact that there is something odd about the phrasing of the BBC’s summary statement: the special counsel’s job, according to this summary, assumes that Russia did try to sway the election – which is an interesting assumption to start with.

What should Christians make of this? Since it is one of the big stories of the past year, is there a Christian perspective on it?

1. Evidence

The first thing to be said is that this is about whether certain things are true or false. This is also something that the Bible speaks about – quite often.

There are several verses in the Bible that are about looking at evidence – about believing, and the reasons why people might believe something. And they say that we should look at the evidence.

For example

Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:11)

He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. ” (Acts 17:31)

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (I John 4:1)

(I wrote more about this a few weeks ago, and if you are interested, you can read what I said.)

The real questions, therefore, are:

  • How credible and convincing is the evidence that Russia attempted to influence the election? 
  • And how credible and convincing is the evidence that members of the Trump team colluded in such efforts?

2. Witnesses

The Bible has a lot to say about the importance of witnesses in seeking to establish the truth in court cases, most famously in Deuteronomy 19:15

“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offence that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.”

We can tell that this principle was important to early Christians, because it is quoted three times in the New Testament – which is as often as it is mentioned in the Old Testament.

What that means is that one does not just need one piece of evidence, since that evidence might be misleading. One needs corroborative evidence. For, while we usually think about people when we speak about witnesses, other things can also bear witness. Hence Jesus speaks about the Scriptures bearing witness to him (John 5:39), and about his works bearing witness to him (John 10:25).

Witnesses vary in quality – Psalm 27 speaks of ‘false witnesses’ and Psalm 35 speaks of ‘malicious witnesses.’ People do lie. And since these psalms don’t just speak of “a false witness” or “a malicious witness” – but use the plural, one does not just need corroborative evidence, but fairly solid corroborative evidence. Indeed, we are told (Matthew 26:60) that at the trial of Jesus “many false witnesses came forward.”

The BBC summary that we began with says “US intelligence agencies believe Russia tried to sway the election in favour of Mr Trump.” The fact is that the US intelligence agencies have a good track record for being right. As pointed out by Ray McGovern, the three intelligence chiefs particularly associated with this story all have very questionable records, and might not be the most reliable witnesses.

3. Fair Trials

Trials exist, in theory, to look at the evidence. In practice, a lot of trials that have taken place over the course of history have simply taken place in order to convict someone that powerful forces wanted to get rid of.

You don’t have to look hard in the Bible to find evidence of that. It’s worth re-reading Mark’s account (14:55-64) of the trial of Jesus:

Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none.    For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree.   And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.'”    Yet even about this their testimony did not agree.

And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?”   But he remained silent and made no answer.

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”  And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”   And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death.

The trial of Stephen, and some of the trials of Paul, were not much better.

So – what about the Russia-gate?

Well, Robert Parry of Consortium News is concerned by what he has seen, as he details in his article on the Flynn case:

“besides the collateral damage inflicted on mid-level government officials such as retired Lt. Gen. Flynn facing personal destruction at the hands of federal prosecutors with unlimited budgets, there is this deepening pattern of using criminal law to settle political differences, a process more common in authoritarian states. “

“Using criminal law to settle political differences” sounds remarkably like some of the criminal trials that the New Testament tells us about.

If Parry is right, Christians should be seriously concerned about this.

4. What is the point of law?

When Robert Parry speaks of “Using criminal law to settle political differences,” it raises the question, “What is law for anyway?” That is not quite the same as asking “What are laws for”? Rather, it is asking “Why do we have courts and trials and verdicts and sentences?”

Let’s look at two short passages from the Bible:

Isaiah 10:1-2 “Woe to those who enact evil statutes and to those who constantly record unjust decisions, So as to deprive the needy of justice and rob the poor of my people of their right, so that widows may be their spoil and that they may plunder the orphans. “

Luke 18:1-5 “He told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterwards he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.'”

While neither of these is about what the purpose of courts and trials should be, both of them tell us. The key phrase in the Isaiah passage is “to deprive the needy of justice and rob the poor of my people of their right”; in the Luke passage it is “Give me justice.”

The key word is justice, and the underlying question is “What are people entitled to? What is it right that they should have? What is their due?”

In this case, that means the question is “What should happen to Michael Flynn?”  Or even “What should happen to Donald Trump?”

5. Playing God – without the omniscience

If one were to ask a hundred people at random those questions – especially “What should happen to Donald Trump?”, one would no doubt get a wide variety of answers. Some of those responses might be fairly objective, but a lot of them would be pretty passionate. And that is because Donald Trump stirs up a wide range of emotions and feelings. He is a controversial man.

People have a wide variety of ideas about what justice for Donald Trump would look like. And people’s preconceived ideas – one might call them prejudices – might well have an influence on what they think should happen to him.

Preconceived notions and prejudices have existed since time immemorial. And we can read about that in the Bible. Indeed, the description of the trial of Jesus in the Bible gives the distinct impression that his judges had decided what ought to happen to him before the trial began, and that made all the difference to the proceedings.

But even before that, it was a known problem. Hence, in God’s instructions to the Israelites about justice in trials (Exodus 23), he mentions the problem of prejudice:

“Do not spread false reports. Do not help a guilty person by being a malicious witness.

Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favouritism to a poor person in a lawsuit.

If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it. “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.“Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the innocent.”

It is interesting that God’s people were warned not only about denying justice to poor people, but also about showing favouritism to poor people.

Preconceived ideas about what people deserve often pervert the course of justice.

The problem is that we have ideas about what people deserve, and see it as our duty to ensure that they get it.  Occasionally, having decided what they deserve, we are prepared to use any means possible to make sure that they get it. 

The problem is that God alone knows all the facts of cases, and he alone knows the heart.

There is a danger in the Russia-Trump affair that fallible people would be tempted to play God.

6. Gnats and camels

And finally, we come to the question: Does it matter? Does it matter whether or not Vladimir Putin sought to influence the American election?

It is a common human failing to get really passionate, anxious, or angry about things that don’t really matter – and being totally unconcerned about things that were important.

And it was a failing that Jesus spoke about: Matthew 23:23-24. He called it “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel”

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

What Russia is accused of doing is trying to influence the American election by making certain facts known to American voters – facts that they are alleged to have obtained by the highly dubious means of hacking email accounts.

(Ironically, in the latest installment of the saga, in which Michael Flynn was found to have lied to the FBI about telephone conversations, the FBI got the information about what he said in those conversations . . . by the highly dubious means of tapping his telephone.)

So it all comes down to the fact that the Russian government is supposed to have tried to make certain facts known to American voters to help them make up their minds about how to vote.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. I don’t see what the problem is. If it is a problem, it is a pretty minor one. 

There is also, I suppose, the issue of Matthew 7:3 question “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” – and the matter of America’s history of being interfering in elections in other countries.

7. A final word: knowing the times

What should Christians make of this? I’ve offered my thoughts. I think they are solidly grounded in the teaching of the Bible. I think they are pretty fair.

But there is one final thing I would say about this. I have said it before, but I will say it again. It comes back to the words of Robert Parry, quoted above:

“. . . there is this deepening pattern of using criminal law to settle political differences, a process more common in authoritarian states.”

Is he right? Is there a “deepening pattern of using criminal law to settle political differences?”

If so, it shows that in America, there is an increasing tendency in the minds of many people with power, to see the law as a tool to enable them to get those that they don’t like.

If that is true, it shows that there is something wrong with our political culture; something that is getting worse. And that would almost certainly mean that not only is there something rotten in our western culture, but that the culture is becoming more rotten.

In I Chronicles, there is a list of the numbers of armed men of the different tribes of Israel who came to Hebron to join David, to make him King. The men of the tribe of Issachar are described as “men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do.

In order to know what God’s people ought to do at any given time, it is important to understand the times.

If one of the things that is happening in our times is a change in the culture, Christians need to be aware of it.

Russia-gate: it’s worse than you think

Yesterday, an article appeared in Consortium News about the latest twist in the saga about Russia and America’s election. It made for interesting reading.

The BBC covered the story in a piece entitled “Trump-Russia: Michael Flynn admits lying to FBI.”   It reports that “Ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn has pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about meetings with Russia’s ambassador weeks before Donald Trump became president,” and explains that “The charges were brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, as part of his inquiry into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US election.”

That explanation is helpful. Indeed, much explanation in news stories is helpful, because without explanation, the news often does not make sense. We need to see information in its context to see it relevance and importance.

The BBC then proceeds to tell us what happened in court (“Appearing in a federal court in Washington DC, he admitted to one count of knowingly making “false, fictitious and fraudulent statements””) adding that “The retired Army lieutenant-general is unlikely to serve more than six months in prison.”   

If you think about it, that is quite a serious punishment for making false statements. After all, public figures make “false, fictitious and fraudulent statements” quite often.  How bad were these statements that Flynn made?

The BBC article then explains exactly what the charges were, before going on to two final sections which further explain what is going on.

The first is entitled “How damaging is this for President Trump?” (Apparently, it could be very damaging.)

The second is entitled “What have we learned about Russia?”

It tells us that after the election, people involved with the incoming Trump administration  instructed Flynn to contact various foreign governments about foreign policy matters and make certain requests of them – which Flynn did.  In particular, Flynn made requests to Russia about two things.  One was about a UN security council vote on Israeli settlements; the other was a request that Russia not escalate the situation after the outgoing American administration announced sanctions on Russia for allegedly interfering in the American election.

Russia didn’t do what the incoming American administration asked with regard to the UN vote, but they did (as requested) not retaliate in response to the American sanctions.   So – what did we learn about Russia?  To be honest, nothing very interesting. In fact, it seems to me that there is, on the face of it, nothing odd or surprising about anything in that final section – either about Russia’s actions, Flynn’s actions, or the actions of the incoming administration.

That is the story, as reported by the BBC – with some explanation so that readers can understand a little better what is going on. But, if you think about it, it still seems to be something that isn’t very interesting or important – except for its wider significance, which is apparently a) what we have learned about Russia (nothing interesting), and b) how damaging it is to Trump (possibly very).

What the BBC didn’t tell us

Robert Parry’s article in Consortium News does not disagree with any of the facts or explanations in the BBC article. Rather, it provides us with a few other facts, and a lot more explanation. It points out a few things that the BBC didn’t point out. And what is says is interesting – very interesting.

To start with, we have this:

“What is arguably most disturbing about this case is that then-National Security Adviser Flynn was pushed into a perjury trap by Obama administration holdovers at the Justice Department who concocted an unorthodox legal rationale for subjecting Flynn to an FBI interrogation four days after he took office, testing Flynn’s recollection of the conversations while the FBI agents had transcripts of the calls intercepted by the National Security Agency.

In other words, the Justice Department wasn’t seeking information about what Flynn said to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak – the intelligence agencies already had that information. Instead, Flynn was being quizzed on his precise recollection of the conversations and nailed for lying when his recollections deviated from the transcripts.”

Note the words “unorthodox legal rationale”. In other words, there was something unusual about the way the law operated in this case.  The BBC explains that “it is illegal for a private US citizen, as Mr Flynn was during the transition, to conduct foreign affairs without the permission or involvement of the US government.” It also, very helpfully, has a link to a helpful piece on the law concerned (the Logan Act) that it published in February. 

But Parry’s explanation is even more helpful.

“just four days into the Trump presidency, an Obama holdover, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates, primed the Flynn perjury trap by coming up with a novel legal theory that Flynn – although the national security adviser-designate at the time of his late December phone calls with Kislyak – was violating the 1799 Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from interfering with U.S. foreign policy.

But that law – passed during President John Adams’s administration in the era of the Alien and Sedition Acts – was never intended to apply to incoming officials in the transition period between elected presidential administrations and – in the past 218 years – the law has resulted in no successful prosecution at all and thus its dubious constitutionality has never been adjudicated.”

In other words, by the standards of any reasonable person, Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong, and this law was never intended to be used in circumstances like this – but the Attorney General suggested that he had broken it.

What was really going on?

The conclusion that Parry draws (and I suspect that he is right) is that

“Basically, the Obama holdovers concocted a preposterous legal theory to do whatever they could to sabotage the Trump administration, which they held in fulsome disdain.”

And they were able to do so because

“At the time of Flynn’s interrogation, the Justice Department was under the control of Yates and the FBI was still under President Obama’s FBI Director James Comey, another official hostile to the Trump administration who later was fired by Trump.”

So Flynn was interrogated by the FBI. As Parry has already told us, Flynn’s telephone had been tapped, so the FBI knew exactly what he had said. They asked him, and in two cases, what he claimed to have said did not match up to what he had actually said.

“The first item in the complaint alleges that Flynn did not disclose that he had asked the Russian ambassador to help delay or defeat a United Nations Security Council vote censuring Israel for building settlements on Palestinian territory.

The second item. . . referenced a Dec. 29 Flynn-Kislyak conversation. . . . That phone call touched on Russia’s response to President Obama’s decision to issue new sanctions against the Kremlin for the alleged election interference.

The complaint alleges that Flynn didn’t mention to the FBI that he had urged Kislyak “to refrain from escalating the situation” and that Kislyak had subsequently told him that “Russia had chosen to moderate its response to those sanctions as a result of his request.”

The Dec. 29 phone call occurred while Flynn was vacationing in the Dominican Republic and thus he would have been without the usual support staff for memorializing or transcribing official conversations. So, the FBI agents, with the NSA’s transcripts, would have had a clearer account of what was said than Flynn likely had from memory. The content of Flynn’s request to Kislyak also appears rather uncontroversial, asking the Russians not to overreact to a punitive policy from the outgoing Obama administration.

In other words, both of the Flynn-Kislyak conversations appear rather unsurprising, if not inconsequential. One was taken at the behest of Israel (which proved ineffective) and the other urged the Kremlin to show restraint in its response to a last-minute slap from President Obama (which simply delayed Russian retaliation by a few months).”

That is putting it mildly. Flynn making these requests of the Russian government seems pretty uncontroversial, the requests were pretty much what one would have expected the new administration to say, and the details that Flynn left out were pretty minor. It really looks like much ado about nothing. It makes doing 55 mph in a zone with a 50 mph limit look like a serious crime.

And, as Parry points out,

the inclusion of [the] Israeli element shows how far afield the criminal Russia-gate investigation . . . has gone. Though the original point of the inquiry was whether the Trump team colluded with Russians to use “hacked” emails to defeat Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the criminal charge against Flynn has nothing to do with election “collusion” but rather President-elect Trump’s aides weighing in on foreign policy controversies during the transition. And, one of these initiatives was undertaken at the request of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, not Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Hence Gareth Porter’s tweet

“So it turns out Flynn, Kushner and the Trump team were colluding with a foreign government after all in their contacts with Kislyak – and it was . . . Israel! “

So, to sum up:

  • Someone ordered Flynn’s phone to be tapped and his conversations recorded, despite the fact that there was no reason to believe he was involved in terrorism or serious criminal activity.
  • Flynn was questioned in detail about his phone calls by the FBI despite the fact that they were simply the sort of normal diplomatic contact that you would expect an incoming administration to have with other countries.
  • He was was accused of criminal dishonesty despite the fact that the things he falsely told the FBI were not particularly surprising or controversial.
  • The grounds for this were a totally obscure 200 year old law that had no real relevance to what was happening.

Who comes out of this looking sordid, malicious, a danger to democracy, and having no respect for the law?

Flynn? He looks naive, and somewhat inept, albeit rather shifty.

Trump?  Well, this doesn’t really seem to tell us much about Trump.

Those evil Russians – who of course are the reason this whole investigation was launched? Well, there is as much in this to implicate the Pope of interfering in America’s election as there is Putin.

It seems to me that Flynn, Trump, and Putin come out looking pretty innocent compared to the people involved in going after Flynn.

What is going on?

The whole thing is bizarre. Remember, the BBC piece opened by explaining that “The charges were brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, as part of his inquiry into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US election.”

This, however, has nothing to do with Russian meddling in the US election.

Indeed, there is still no strong evidence that Russia did meddle in the US election.

And, as I have pointed out before, what the Russian government is alleged to have done (basically to give American voters some information about some of their politicians that they would not otherwise have had) does not seem to me to be particularly shocking – or even legally or morally wrong. Compare that with the fact that nobody in American political life seems remotely concerned that the Saudi government effectively kidnapped the prime minister of a country with democratic elections (which Saudi Arabia does not have) and then forced him to go before TV cameras and read a resignation statement.

(By the way, despite the lack of evidence of any Russian government meddling in the US election, America not only introduced sanctions against Russia in response to this alleged meddling, but the American Justice Department has now banned reporters who work for Russia Today from the US Capitol. This is despite the fact that most RT reporters in America are American citizens, many are experienced and respected journalists, and they have made it quite clear that RT management has never tried to interfere with their journalistic freedom. Basically, it is like the British government banning former MP Alex Salmond from reporting from Westminster because he now works for RT. )

So why has Flynn been charged? Robert Parry reckons it is simply using the force of the law for political point-scoring:

“While Flynn’s humiliation has brought some palpable joy to the anti-Trump “Resistance” – one more Trump aides being taken down amid renewed hope that this investigation will somehow lead to Trump’s resignation or impeachment – many of the same people would be howling about trampled civil liberties if a Republican bureaucracy were playing this game on a Democratic president and his staff. . . .

What I have heard from many Hillary Clinton supporters in recent months is that they don’t care about the unfairness of the Russia-gate process or the dangerous precedents that such politicized prosecutions might set. They simply view Trump as such a danger that he must be destroyed at whatever the cost.

Yet, besides the collateral damage inflicted on mid-level government officials such as retired Lt. Gen. Flynn facing personal destruction at the hands of federal prosecutors with unlimited budgets, there is this deepening pattern of using criminal law to settle political differences, a process more common in authoritarian states.”

Notice the way that ends: ” . . .using criminal law to settle political differences, a process more common in authoritarian states.”

In a post a couple of weeks ago, I suggested that the Russia hysteria in America was not a good sign. It showed that a lot of Americans (and this is, of course, true of people in other countries as well) were willing to believe things if they hear them repeated often enough – even if there is no serious evidence that they are true.

But the Flynn saga indicates that it is worse than that.

It shows that in America, law exists, in the minds of many people with power, to enable them to destroy those that they don’t like.

We always knew that this was the case in countries like North Korea, or Communist China, or the old Soviet Union. It now appears that it is also the case in America. And the scary thing is that this view of how the law should be used does not appear to be restricted to a fringe minority. It appears that in one of our enlightened, modern, democratic western nations, it is actually a pretty mainstream belief among members of the political elite.

If it is true in America, it seems to me quite likely that it is true throughout the enlightened, modern, democratic, west.

If so, there is something rotten in our culture.

In other words, this is not just about Flynn, Russia, and American politics.  It goes much deeper than that.