Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Vladimir Putin Annual Press Conference 2019 Edition

Just before Christmas, Russian President Vladimir Putin held his annual news conference which was broadcast on several Russian television and radio stations.  In this press conference, Russia's president outlines what the government of Russia has achieved and what they have not achieved over the past year and why.  In this posting, I want to concentrate on Putin's comments about the United States, in particular, the impeachment proceedings and the growing sanctions burden being placed on Russia by Washington.

Here is the announcement of the news conference from the Kremlin's website:

Let's look at President Putin's response to a key question by Dimitri Simes of Channel One and president and CEO of the Center for National Interest:

"Mr President, two days ago the US Congress passed bills on sanctions against Russia by such an overwhelming majority that it makes it difficult for President Trump to veto the bill.

And, as you probably know, the House of Representatives passed articles of impeachment yesterday. This is the context in which he has to make foreign policy decisions, and more specifically, those in relation to Russia.

In this situation, do you think you – and Russia – have any opportunity to try to maintain or strengthen dialogue with the United States before the end of Trump’s presidency? What can you do to enhance strategic stability, and more specifically, to extend the New START?"

Let's break down President Putin's answer into three parts:

1.) Trump Impeachment:

"As for the chances to continue our dialogue until the end of Trump’s presidency, you do sound like it is actually ending. I am not so sure about that. The decision still needs to pass through the Senate, where the Republicans, as far as I know, have the majority, and they are unlikely to want to remove the representative of their party from power for something I, personally, see as far-fetched.

This is just another move in that country’s domestic political campaigning, where one party that lost the election, the Democratic Party, is trying to achieve results they want through other means, such as charging Trump with conspiracy related to Russia. When it turned out there was no conspiracy, there was no longer a sufficient reason to impeach. Now they have invented pressure on Ukraine. I do not know what this is all about. But your Congresspeople certainly know better."

2.) Increased Sanctions on Russia:

"As for the decisions that were made with respect to Russia, they are being made by people who hardly have any responsibility for these decisions. These are not executive authorities, but representative authorities, and their job is to pass laws. They are making such decisions regarding Russia.

This will certainly affect the level of interstate relations. We are aware of their general approach – the United States will work with us in areas where they have an interest and profit, while at the same time restraining Russia with decisions like this. Knowing this, we too will mirror their steps, we will do just that. I am not saying this is a good thing. These are very unfriendly acts in relation to Russia."

Let's look at the bill in question.  S.482 or the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act of 2019 (DASKA) was introduced back in February by Senator Lindsay Graham and was placed on the Senate Legislative Calendar on December 18, 2019 after it was passed by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.  Here is the announcement from the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations announcing the approval of the bill which passed by a vote of 17 to 5:

Here is a summary of S.482:

This bill contains the following "sense of Congress" which provides us with the gist of the bill:

It is the sense of Congress that—

(1) the President should immediately marshal and support a whole-of-government response by Federal agencies to address the threat posed by the Government of the Russian Federation and to work to prevent interference by that Government and other foreign state actors in United States institutions and democratic processes;

(2) the President should publicly call for the Government of the Russian Federation to return Crimea to the control of the Government of Ukraine, end its support for Russian-led forces violence in eastern Ukraine, end its occupation of and support for Russian-led forces on the territory of Georgia and Moldova, and cease enabling the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria to commit war crimes;

(3) the Russian Federation should abide by its commitments to freedom of navigation in international waters and allow for passage of Ukrainian vessels through the strait;

(4) the President should unequivocally condemn and counter the ongoing interference in United States institutions and democratic processes by the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, his government, and affiliates of his government;

(5) the conclusion of the United States intelligence community and law enforcement agencies and other United States Government officials that the Russian Federation has perpetrated, and continues to perpetrate, such interference, is correct...

(7) Congress reiterates its strong support for the Russia Sanctions Review Act of 2017 (22 U.S.C. 9511), which allows for congressional review of an action to waive the application of sanctions under the provisions of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (Public Law 115–44; 131 Stat. 886) relating to the Russian Federation or a licensing action that significantly alters United States foreign policy with regard to the Russian Federation; and

(8) sanctions imposed with respect to the Russian Federation have been most effective when developed and coordinated in close consultation with the European Union.

Under Title VI, the bill outlines an expansion of Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act as outlined here:

1.) Sanctions related to interference of the Russia Federation with democratic processes and elections.

2.) Sanctions with respect to transactions with certain Russian political figures and oligarchs as quoted here:

"“On and after the date that is 180 days after the date of the enactment of the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act of 2019, the President shall impose the sanctions described in section 224(b) with respect to—

“(1) political figures, oligarchs, and other persons that facilitate illicit and corrupt activities, directly or indirectly, on behalf of the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, and persons acting for or on behalf of such political figures, oligarchs, and persons;

“(2) Russian parastatal entities that facilitate illicit and corrupt activities, directly or indirectly, on behalf of the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin;

“(3) family members of persons described in paragraph (1) or (2) that derive significant benefits from such illicit and corrupt activities; and

“(4) persons, including financial institutions, that knowingly engage in significant transactions with persons described in paragraph (1), (2), or (3).

3.) Sanctions with respect to transactions with the cyber sector of the Russian Federation.

4.) Sanctions with respect to transactions related to investments in Russian liquified natural gas export facilities.

5.) Prohibition on transactions relative to new sovereign debt of the Russian Federation (i.e. Americans are not allowed to provide financing for or deal with Russia sovereign debt).

6.) Sanctions with respect to Russian financial institutions that support interference in democratic processes or elections.

7.) Sanctions relating to the Actions of the Russian Federation with respect to Ukraine.

8.) Sanctions with respect to transactions related to investments in energy projects supported by Russian state-owned or parastatal entities outside of the Russian Federation.

9.) Sanctions with respect to support for the development of crude oil resources in the Russian Federation.

10.) Sanctions for violations by the Russia Federation of freedom of navigation.

Sanctions will also be expanded for Russian human rights abuses, particularly related to any suspected assassination of an individual by the Government of the Russian Federation within the territory of the United States or a NATO country.

Under DASKA, the United States Department of State and the Director of National Intelligence must report to Congress every 90 days after the bill is enacted a finding and certification as to whether or not the Government of the Russian Federation has knowingly supported operations that will interfere with elections in the United States.

3.) Nuclear Arms Negotiations:

"You have mentioned global security, including the New START, as one of the foundations of our relations. We put forward our proposals, as I have already said, and will repeat: we stand ready until the end of the year to extend the existing New START as is.

They can send it to us by post, or we can sign it and send it to Washington so that their senior officials, including the President, sign it, if they are ready to do so. So far we have not received a reply to any of our proposals. Without the New START there will be nothing left in the world to contain the arms race. I believe that there is nothing good about it."

From Mr. Putin's comments on the relationship between the Russia Federation and the United States during his annual press conference, we have a very clear look at why it will be difficult for diplomatic relations between Washington and Moscow to improve.  Congress, even on the Republican side, seem to be doing whatever they can to ensure that the relationship between Americans and Russians remains cold.

Monday, December 30, 2019

How Israel Controls the Palestinian Narrative

Let's open this posting with two videos,  First, we have this one:

...followed by this one at a demonstration in support of Muath Amarneh, the Palestinian journalist who who lost his eye after being shot by Israeli security forces while covering a protest in the occupied West Bank on November 17, 2019:

While one would like to think that Mr. Amarneh's injury is the exception, a study by The Palestinian Center Development and Media Freedoms or MADA indicates that such attacks against Palestinian journalists by the Israeli Defense Force is far from rare.

According to MADA's Annual Report of Violations of Media Freedoms in Palestine for 2018, the year 2018 saw a rise in the number and seriousness of attacks against journalists in Palestine compared to the prior year.  Here is a graphic showing the violations against media freedoms in Palestine for 2018 and the party that committed the violation:

On a year-over-year basis, the number of attacks against journalists in Palestine increased by 54 or just over 10 percent.  This follows an increase of 38 percent in 2017 when measured on a year-over-year basis.  When compared to 2016, the number of attacks against journalists has increased by a total of 52 percent.  Of the attacks, 78 percent were committed by the Israelis and 22 percent were committed by various Palestinian authorities in both the West Bank and Gaza.

Here are a table and bar graph showing the annual number of attacks against journalists in Palestine over the past decade:

Over the past decade, journalists and media outlets in Palestine were exposed to an average of 1.6 attacks per day with the number of Israeli attacks rising from an average of 21 per month over the past ten years to 38 attacks per month in 2018.  Over the past decade, the monthly number of Palestinian attacks against Palestinian journalists has averaged 9.4 per month, rising slightly to 10.7 per month in 2018.  Here is a line graph showing how the Israeli attacks against Palestinian journalists has risen far more rapidly than Palestinian attacks against their own journalists over the past decade:

Here is a bar graph showing the annual number of Israeli attacks against Palestinian journalists over the last ten years:

Here is a listing of the five most commonly recorded types of Israeli violations against Palestinian journalists in 2018 and the number of those violations:

1.) Physical Attacks and Injuries - 240

2.) Prohibition of media coverage - 72

3.) Adminstrative Arrest, Detention and Transfer - 41

4.) Detention (including questioning) - 41

5.) Confiscation or damage to equipment and vehicles - 18

Here is a table showing the number of Israeli physical attacks against Palestinian journalists over the past decade:

There were 127 serious attacks in 2018 which involved the use of live ammunition, rubber bullets and gas bombs and 115 "less serious" attacks involved the use of beatings or severe suffocation with exposure to tear gas.

In a significant escalation of violence against Palestinian journalists, on April 6, 2018, Israeli snipers shot photojournalist Yasser Abdelrahman Murtaja while he was covering a peaceful march in Khuza'a located to the east of Gaza and he died of his injuries on the same day.  Journalist Ahmad Abu Hussein who was also covering the peaceful return march to Gaza was injured by an explosive round on April 13, 2018 and died of his injuries on April 26, 2018. 

Let's close with this recent example of an Israeli attempt to control the Palestinian narrative:

During the first six months of 2019, MADA has recorded 330 violations against Palestinian media freedom including 65 attacks against Facebook.  Here is a bar graph showing how it appears that this could be a record year for violations against Palestinian media freedom:

Obviously, it has long been known that the party that controls the media controls the narrative.  By attacking and otherwise threatening Palestinian journalists, Israel can, to some degree, impact the media coverage of its aggressive actions against the residents of the West Bank and Gaza.  While it is interesting to note that Palestinian authorities also attempt to control their own media, for the most part (in 2018), this involved the use of summoning and questioning and suppression of a protest held in Ramallah on June 13, 2018, demanding the end of sanctions Gaza and the payment of salaries for West Bank employees. 

"Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play."  Joseph Goebbels

Friday, December 27, 2019

The American Oligarchy

Let's open this posting with the definition of an oligarchy according to Mirriam-Webster:

Definition of oligarchy:

1 : government by the few

The corporation is ruled by oligarchy.

2 : a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes

a military oligarchy was established in the country
also : a group exercising such control
An oligarchy ruled the nation.

3 : an organization under oligarchic control

That country is an oligarchy.

It is increasingly apparent that America is no longer a true democracy, rather, it is an oligarchy where government (Washington) is controlled by a small group of people.  This is particularly apparent when one looks at who is donating to federal politics during the 2020 presidential election cycle and how much they have donated so far.  Thanks to Open Secrets, we have access to that data.

Let's look at spending on outside spending groups which are defined as political expenditures made by groups or individuals independently of, and not coordinated with, candidates' committees.  These expenditures include electioneering communications, advertising and other expenditures that are not directly controlled by the candidate.  Here is a list of the top twenty donating individuals who have funded outside spending groups thus far in the 2020 election cycle:

Please keep in mind that there are an additional seven individuals who have donated $1 million to outside spending groups; two of which are to conservative groups and five of which are to liberal groups.

Here is a list of the top twenty donating individuals who have funded Super PACs thus far in the 2020 election cycle:

Once again, please note that there are an additional five individuals who have donated $1 million to Super PACs; four of which are to conservative groups and one of which is to liberal groups.

Here is a graphic showing the portion of money that has been donated to Super PACs by the top 100 donors:

Here is a graphic showing the portion of money that has been donated to Super PACs by the top 1 percent of donors:

Here is a breakdown of the data which looks at the donations to Super PACs by 66,104 donors:

Total donations to Super PACS - $98,335,824

Top 100 individual donors total donations - $86,153,804

Top 1 percent of individual donors total donations - $94,153,439

Interestingly, the top 100 donors gave 60.1 percent of their donations to liberal Super PACs compared to only 39.4 percent for conservative Super PACs.  The top 1 percent of donors gave 60.2 percent of their donations to liberal Super PACs compared to only 39.2 percent for conservative Super PACs.

While America's current political system may be "one person, one vote" it is very clear that some of those "persons" have the financial ability to sway voters to see things their way and as we all know that, once in power, members of Congress are swayed by the donors that provided the financial means that allowed them to win. 

Let's close with this commentary on the state of democracy from former United States President Jimmy Carter:

Monday, December 23, 2019

Moving Forward with a Narrow United States - Israel Defense Pact

In late November, Senator Lindsay Graham expressed his support for the Senate ratification of a narrow United States - Israel mutual defense treaty sometime in 2020.  Before this treaty reaches the floor of the Senate, American voters should be well acquainted with the United States obligations under the terms of the treaty, the purpose of this posting. 

Let's open this posting by looking at what the Jerusalem Post had to say about this new treaty:

Here's what Donald Trump had to say:

Here is what Lindsay Graham had to say about the treaty on the website of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA):

"At a time when some question America’s support for its allies, and the Middle East is becoming ever more dangerous, a formal U.S.-Israel mutual defense treaty – more narrowly defined than those America already has with several dozen other countries – could promote regional stability.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requested such a treaty in September and President Trump committed to discuss it further.

Israel is one of America’s closest, most reliable and capable partners, defending against our common adversaries in one of the world’s most important and volatile regions.

With the United States expecting friends to shoulder their fair share of burdens for collective defense, Israel stands almost alone in the extent of its self-reliance.

Yet Iran’s growing regional aggression and revived nuclear program are driving the region toward a major war that Israel alone might be forced to struggle to deter or win – and that could even threaten Israel’s existence.

Such a conflict could draw in other regional or even global players, leading to even broader conflagration.

This heightens the incentive for American policymakers to stave off such a conflict or mitigate its scope and intensity. A U.S.-Israel mutual defense pact could do just that, as existing U.S. treaty alliances with numerous other countries have done since the 1940s.

Despite security cooperation that resembles actual treaty allies – defense planning, intelligence sharing, prepositioned weapons and regular joint exercises – Israel’s formal status as a U.S. partner is the same as Afghanistan and Tunisia."

Here is what he believes should be the key principle of the mutual defense treaty:

"Existing U.S. defense pacts with other countries state an attack on one is an attack on all. But a treaty with Israel should be strictly limited to exceptional circumstances in the Middle East.

The exceptional circumstances should be: the threat or use of weapons of mass destruction; a major attack or invasion by a regional or global power, or coalition of powers; or an attack that severely threatens Israel’s economic viability or qualitative military edge.

These exceptional circumstances would exclude involving the United States in the routine, lower-level attacks that Israel can fully handle itself. The United States already assists Israel with these threats by helping maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge” over other countries in the region.

The treaty should explicitly provide that both the U.S. and Israel retain the inherent right of self-defense and sovereign decision.

Each country should aspire to alert the other of impending actions that could impact the other, as they generally do already. However, a mutual defense pact would acknowledge that neither nation is required to provide prior notification or seek approval to act in self-defense – just like all existing U.S. treaty alliances."

Fortunately, the draft treaty is available for our perusal on the JINSA website along with JINSA's analysis.  Here is the draft treaty in its entirety:

One of the greatest dangers of this draft treaty is found in section 3.4 as quoted here:

"Neither party will allow a defense treaty to constrain its freedom of action in self-defense. While each country will endeavor to keep the other informed about developing threats and responses, as they do already, neither will be expected to provide prior notification, nor will either be obligated to have prior approval from the other, for actions it considers urgent and necessary for its defense."

In other words, Israel could unilaterally declare war or attack one of its neighbours (or any other nation in the world for that matter) and then expect American military personnel to lay down their lives for Israel whether they want to or not.

The authors of JINSA's analysis note the following:

"The primary purpose of a U.S. - Israel mutual defense pact is to add an extra layer of deterrence to Israel's strategic position, and to America's position in the Middle East, and ultimately a last line of defense. "

The treaty is considered "narrow" since it does not state unequivocally that an attack on Israel is an attack on the United States (as in the case of NATO), rather, it covered a defined set of exceptional circumstances that place either country in "extreme peril".  These include:

1.) the threat or use of weapons of mass destruction.

2.) major armed attack by a powerful regional or global power or coalition of powers.

3.) an assault threatening vital lines of air and sea communication.

4.) an attack undermining Israel's qualitative military edge.

5.) an urgent request from either government.

It certainly appears to me that the list is extremely comprehensive, covering just about every possible scenario and is particularly open-ended when it comes to using the word "threat" against Israel as the reason for a joint military operation.

When we look at the authors' reasoning behind the need for this new pact, we find the following under the strategic landscape portion of the report:

"Since its inception four decades ago the Islamic Republic of Iran has sought to dominate the Middle East, including annihilating Israel. Recently its ambitions accelerated with America’s diminishing regional presence, combined with sanctions relief and new legitimacy for Iran’s nuclear ambitions under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Sanctions relief fueled Iran’s advancing ballistic missile program and regionwide proliferation of sophisticated weaponry. The looming expiration of U.N. weapons embargoes on Iran will worsen these challenges.

Iran is consolidating its predominance over the strategic heart of Middle East, giving it a direct path through Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon and Israel’s borders. Meanwhile the Syrian regime, backed ruthlessly by Tehran and Moscow, reintroduced chemical warfare to the Middle East. Further, despite the JCPOA’s fundamental deficiencies, U.S. withdrawal from the agreement in 2018 raises the near-term prospects of a revitalized Iranian nuclear weapons program. There is no U.S.-Russia understanding on how to limit this combustible situation.

These developments threaten the security and existence of Israel and America’s Sunni Arab allies, as well as other regional U.S. interests, even as America remains reluctant to confront these rising threats. There are real prospects of a significant Iranian-Israeli clash over Syria, Iraq and/or Lebanon, which would likely involve Hezbollah and its more than 120,000 rockets and missiles that alone threaten to overwhelm Israel’s defenses and cause catastrophic damage. Syria could also try to deploy its chemical weapons against Israel. And Israel would face great danger if Turkey moved beyond hostile rhetoric to active military engagement against Israel, alone or as part of a coalition. Further, a renewed Iranian nuclear push could lead it to achieve a robust nuclear weapons capability, or prompt an Israeli preemptive strike and consequently major Iranian retaliation." (my bolds)

Basically, this "narrow" mutual defense treaty is all about Iran and the perceived threat that the Islamic Republic of Iran poses to Israel's military dominance (i.e. its qualitative military edge) in the Middle East.  This treaty would permanently mandate an American military intervention even if Israel were to start a conflict with its neighbours, a prospect that is not entirely unreasonable given Israel's repeated incursions into Syria and Lebanon over the past few years.  As well, if Israel decides that Iran is "threatening" to use weapons of mass destruction against it and requests that the United States intervene militarily, the American military apparatus will likely find itself fighting not only Iran but China and Russia, two nations that have made it very clear that they will take the side of Iran given their proposed joint military drills that you can read about in this posting.

Just in case you wondered how precedent setting this treaty would be, here is a complete list of United States collective defense treaties with other nations:

Tying America's fate to that of Israel is particularly dangerous given that the United States gets absolutely no benefit from signing this agreement.  With a hawkish leader like Benjamin Netanyahu, we can pretty much assure ourselves that an American - Israeli joint military operation in the Middle East is a given.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Political Fundraising in the Era of Impeachment

Updated February 2020

With the Trump impeachment proceedings having saturated the news cycle until early February 2020, there is a little reported metric that would suggest that the Republicans, with or without Donald Trump, are setting themselves up for a hard-fought race in November 2020.

According to Open Secrets, the repository of the election fundraising database, the Republican National Committee (RNC) has had a very successful fund-raising campaign heading into the 2020 election as shown here:

As you can see, the RNC has $61.38 million in cash on hand that can be spent to convince voters to vote Republican in 2020.  As well, according to reports in the media, the RNC brought in $25.3 million in October 2019 alone, suggesting that there could be a voter backlash against the impeachment proceedings.  

By way of comparison, here is a summary showing how much the RNC raised during the 2016 presidential election cycle:

Here is list of the top contributors to the RNC thus far in the 2020 election cycle:

Here is a list of the top industries contributing to the RNC:

Here is a list of the top contributors to the RNC by state, metropolitan area and zip code:

Here is a list of the million dollar plus recipients of the RNC's funds:

According to the Federal Election Committee, the RNC had no debts at the end of October 2019 as shown here:

Let's look at the Democratic National Committee.  According to Open Secrets, the Democrats have raised far less money than their Republican counterparts as shown here:

The RNC currently has nearly seven times as much cash on hand as the DNC.

Here is a summary showing how much the DNC raised during the 2016 presidential election cycle:

Here is list of the top contributors to the DNC thus far in the 2020 election cycle:

Here is a list of the top industries contributing to the DNC:

Here is a list of the top contributors to the DNC by state, metropolitan area and zip code:

Here is a list of the million dollar plus recipients of the DNC's funds:

According to the Federal Election Committee, in contrast to the RNC, the DNC had significant debts at the end of October 2019 as shown here:

Let's close with a look at how much Donald Trump has raised so far in the 2020 election cycle:

It is interesting to note that the Trump campaign has raised $79.376 million from small individual contributors who have contributed less than $200.  This represents at least 397,000 individual voters who are willing to back Donald Trump in spite of the recent impeachment proceedings.  In combination with the RNC, the Trump campaign has raised $378.9 million, a rather massive war chest at this point in the election cycle.

While the DNC will likely see donations to the party increase significantly once the dust settles and the party's final presidential candidate is selected, the current data suggests that the Trump campaign is in a good financial position to fight the Democrats in November 2020.  As well all know, money is all important in American politics and right now, it appears that a significant number of voters believe that Donald Trump has the "right stuff" despite what Democrats in Congress may have to say about him.