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Obama’s Syria policy and the illusion of US power in the Middle East

Gareth Porter

By Gareth Porter. This article was first published on Middle East Eye.

With the collapse of the US-Russian ceasefire agreement and the resumption and escalation of the massive Russian bombing campaign in Aleppo, the frustration of hawks in Washington over the failure of the Obama administration to use American military power in Syria has risen to new heights.

But the administration’s inability to do anything about Russian military escalation in Aleppo is the logical result of the role the Obama administration has been playing in Syria over the past five years.

The problem is that the administration has pursued policy objectives that it lacked the means to achieve. When Obama called on President Bashar al-Assad to step down in September 2011, the administration believed, incredibly, that he would do so of his own accord. As former Hillary Clinton aide and Pentagon official Derek Chollet reveals in his new book, The Long Game, “[E]arly in the crisis, most officials believed Assad lacked the necessary cunning and fortitude to stay in power.”

Administration policymakers began using the phrase “managed transition” in regard to US policy toward the government, according to Chollet. The phrase reflected perfectly the vaulting ambitions of policymakers who were eager to participate in a regime change that they saw as a big win for the United States and Israel and a big loss for Iran.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be out front pushing for a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a “transition” in Syria.

But US regional Sunni allies - Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia - would provide the arms to Syrian fighters. The only US role in the war would be a covert operation devised by then CIA director David Petraeus to provide intelligence and logistical assistance to those allies, to get arms to the groups chosen by the Sunni regimes that would pay for them.

Of course there were those, led by Clinton herself, who wanted to go further and create a “no-fly zone” where the insurgents could be trained and operate freely. But Obama, supported by the US military leadership, would not support that invitation to war. The US was going to play the great power role in Syria without getting its hands dirty with the arming of an opposition force.

But within a few months it was already clear that the administration’s “managed transition” had gone terribly wrong. Al-Qaeda, firmly ensconced in Iraq, had begun to show its hand in a series of attacks in Damascus and elsewhere in Syria. By August 2012, it was widely recognised that the jihadists were rapidly taking over the anti-Assad war.

Ed Hussein of the Council on Foreign Relations observed in the Christian Science Monitor that Syria was becoming “a magnet for jihadis globally,” just as Iraq had become after the US invasion. The Defense Intelligence Agency identified al-Qaeda, the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood as the three major strains in the rapidly growing anti-Assad war.

Within a few months it was already clear that the administration’s “managed transition” had gone terribly wrong.

Furthermore the administration knew that Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were sending weapons, including shoulder-launched anti-tank RPGs not to secular groups but to Islamic extremist groups in Syria, who were bound to work with al-Qaeda and other jihadists. Chollet, who was working on Syria for Clinton’s policy planning office and later moved to the Pentagon, recalls that the administration was “concerned” that “the wrong elements of the oppositions – the extremists, some affiliated with al-Qaeda were being strengthened".

'Skin in the game'

One might expect an administration then to call a halt to the whole thing and clamp down on its allies, especially Turkey, which was the main entry point for arms pouring into Syria. Instead, as Chollet recounts, Clinton and the then CIA director, Leon Panetta, were pushing for a major CIA programme to create, train and arm a Syrian opposition force – not because it would prove decisive to the outcome but because it would give the United States “leverage” with its Sunni allies by acquiring “skin in the game”.

Obama rejected that argument about “leverage” in 2012, but then reversed himself in 2013 under the pressure of the allegations of use of chemical weapons by the government. Like so much of what passes for justification of aggressive US military and paramilitary activities around the world, the argument made no sense. The leverage the United States has with Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia is the range of political-military and economic benefits that each of them derives from an formal or de facto alliance with the United States.

I asked Chollet recently why the CIA’s ginning up our own anti-Assad forces in Syria would give the United States more “leverage” over Sunni allies? His reply was: “Because then the whole thing would collapse around us!”

But of course the growing US “skin in the game” didn’t give the administration leverage over the Sunni allies’ policies in Syria; it did exactly the opposite, making the US complicit in the Sunni project of using the jihadists and salafists to maximise the pressure for the overthrow of the Syrian regime. Not a shred of evidence has ever surfaced suggesting that the US has done anything to pressure its allies to cut off the channels of arms that were strengthening the al-Qaeda-linked militant group, al-Nusra Front.

As a result, the Sunni arms-to-jihadists strategy and the US support for “moderates” were two parts of a broader political-diplomatic strategy of pressure on Assad to step down. As former US ambassador Robert Ford observed in February 2015, “For a long time” the administration had “looked the other way” while the US-supported forces were coordinating with Nusra Front.

Russian intervention

That strategy was upended when the Russians intervened forcefully in September 2015. Obama, who was firmly committed to avoiding any direct conflict with Russia over Syria, vetoed any threat to use force in Syria in response to the Russian intervention. For almost a year, Obama relied on cooperation with the Russians as its primary political-diplomatic strategy for managing the conflict, producing two ceasefires that ultimately failed.

The fate of those two ceasefires has revealed more fully the illusory nature of the great power role the US has pretended to play this past year. Kerry committed the United States to two ceasefire agreements based on the premise that the United States could separate the armed groups that the CIA had armed and trained from the Nusra Front-led military command. The reality was that the United States had no real power over those groups because they were more heavily dependent on their jihadist allies than on the United States for their continued viability.

But underlying that failure is the larger reality that the Obama administration has allowed its policy in Syria to be determined primarily by the ambitions of its Sunni allies to overthrow Assad. The administration has claimed that it never favored the destruction of Syrian institutions, but that claim is contradicted by its acquiescence in the Sunni allies’ support of Nusra Front.

US complicity in the hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Syrian War, and now in the massive civilian casualties in the Russian bombing of Aleppo, does not consist in its refusal to go to war in Syria but in its providing the political-diplomatic cover for the buildup of the al-Nusra Front and its larger interlocking system of military commands.

A US administration that played a true superpower role would have told its allies not to start a war in Syria by arming jihadists, using the fundamentals of the alliance as the leverage. But that would have meant threatening to end the alliance itself if necessary – something no US administration is willing to do. Hence the paradox of US power in the Middle East: in order to play at the role of hegemon in the region, with all those military bases, the United States must allow itself to be manipulated by its weaker allies.

- Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

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What Hillary Clinton Privately Told Goldman Sachs

David Swanson

By David Swanson. This article was first published on

At first glance, Hillary Clinton's speeches to Goldman Sachs, which she refused to show us but WikiLeaks claims to have now produced the texts of, reveal less blatant hypocrisy or abuse than do the texts of various emails also recently revealed. But take a closer look.

Clinton has famously said that she believes in maintaining a public position on each issue that differs from her private position. Which did she provide to Goldman Sachs?

Yes, Clinton does profess her loyalty to corporate trade agreements, but at the time of her remarks she hadn't yet started (publicly) claiming otherwise.

I think, in fact, that Clinton maintains numerous positions on various issues, and that those she provided to Goldman Sachs were in part her public stances, in part her confidences to co-conspirators, and in part her partisan Democratic case to a room of Republicans as to why they should donate more to her and less to the GOP. This was not the sort of talk she'd have given to labor union executives or human rights professionals or Bernie Sanders delegates. She has a position for every audience.

In the speech transcripts from June 4, 2013, October 29, 2013, and October 19, 2015, Clinton was apparently paid sufficiently to do something she denies most audiences. That is, she took questions that it appears likely she was not secretly briefed on or engaged in negotiations over ahead of time. In part this appears to be the case because some of the questions were lengthy speeches, and in part because her answers were not all the sort of meaningless platitudes that she produces if given time to prepare.

Much of the content of these speeches to U.S. bankers dealt with foreign policy, and virtually all of that with warfare, potential warfare, and opportunities for military-led domination of various regions of the globe. This stuff is more interesting and less insultingly presented than the idiocies spewed out at the public presidential debates. But it also fits an image of U.S. policy that Clinton might have preferred to keep private. Just as nobody advertised that, as emails now show, Wall Street bankers helped pick President Obama's cabinet, we're generally discouraged from thinking that wars and foreign bases are intended as services to financial overlords. "I'm representing all of you," Clinton says to the bankers in reference to her efforts at a meeting in Asia. Sub-Saharan Africa has great potential for U.S. "businesses and entrepreneurs," she says in reference to U.S. militarism there.

Yet, in these speeches, Clinton projects exactly that approach, accurately or not, on other nations and accuses China of just the sort of thing that her "far left" critics accuse her of all the time, albeit outside the censorship of U.S. corporate media. China, Clinton says, may use hatred of Japan as a means of distracting Chinese people from unpopular and harmful economic policies. China, Clinton says, struggles to maintain civilian control over its military. Hmm. Where else have we seen these problems?

"We're going to ring China with missile 'defense,'" Clinton tells Goldman Sachs. "We're going to put more of our fleet in the area."

On Syria, Clinton says it's hard to figure out whom to arm -- completely oblivious to any options other than arming somebody. It's hard, she says, to predict at all what will happen. So, her advice, which she blurts out to a room of bankers, is to wage war in Syria very "covertly."

In public debates, Clinton demands a "no fly zone" or "no bombing zone" or "safe zone" in Syria, from which to organize a war to overthrow the government. In a speech to Goldman Sachs, however, she blurts out that creating such a zone would require bombing a lot more populated areas than was required in Libya. "You're going to kill a lot of Syrians," she admits. She even tries to distance herself from the proposal by referring to "this intervention that people talk about so glibly" -- although she, before and at the time of that speech and ever since has been the leading such person.

Clinton also makes clear that Syrian "jihadists" are being funded by Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar. In October 2013, as the U.S. public had rejected bombing Syria, Blankfein asked if the public was now opposed to "interventions" -- that clearly being understood as a hurdle to be overcome. Clinton said not to fear. "We're in a time in Syria," she said, "where they're not finished killing each other . . . and maybe you just have to wait and watch it."

That's the view of many ill-meaning and many well-meaning people who have been persuaded that the only two choices in foreign policy are bombing people and doing nothing. That clearly is the understanding of the former Secretary of State, whose positions were more hawkish than those of her counterpart at the Pentagon. It's also reminiscent of Harry Truman's comment that if the Germans were winning you should help the Russians and vice versa, so that more people would die. That's not exactly what Clinton said here, but it's pretty close, and it's something she would not say in a scripted joint-media-appearance masquerading as a debate. The possibility of disarmament, nonviolent peacework, actual aid on a massive scale, and respectful diplomacy that leaves U.S. influence out of the resulting states is just not on Clinton's radar no matter who is in her audience.

On Iran, Clinton repeatedly hypes false claims about nuclear weapons and terrorism, even while admitting far more openly than we're used to that Iran's religious leader denounces and opposes nuclear weapons. She also admits that Saudi Arabia is already pursuing nuclear weapons and that UAE and Egypt are likely to do so, at least if Iran does. She also admits that the Saudi government is far from stable.

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein asks Clinton at one point how a good war against Iran might go -- he suggesting that an occupation (yes, they use that forbidden word) might not be the best move. Clinton replies that Iran can just be bombed. Blankfein, rather shockingly, appeals to reality -- something Clinton goes on at obnoxious length about elsewhere in these speeches. Has bombing a population into submission ever worked, Blankfein asks. Clinton admits that it has not but suggests that it just might work on Iranians because they are not democratic.

Regarding Egypt, Clinton makes clear her opposition to popular change.

Regarding China again, Clinton claims to have told the Chinese that the United States could claim ownership of the entire Pacific as a result of having "liberated it." She goes on to claim to have told them that "We discovered Japan for heaven's sake." And: "We have proof of having bought [Hawaii]." Really? From whom?

This is ugly stuff, at least as damaging to human lives as the filth coming from Donald Trump. Yet it's fascinating that even the bankers in whom Clinton confides her militarist mania ask her identical questions to those I get asked by peace activists at speaking events: "Is the U.S. political system completely broken?" "Should we scrap this and go with a parliamentary system?" Et cetera. In part their concern is the supposed gridlock created by differences between the two big parties, whereas my biggest concern is the militarized destruction of people and the environment that never seems to encounter even a slight traffic slowdown in Congress. But if you imagine that the people Bernie Sanders always denounces as taking home all the profits are happy with the status quo, think again. They benefit in certain ways, but they don't control their monster and it doesn't make them feel fulfilled.


David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of and campaign coordinator for Swanson's books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at and He hosts Talk Nation Radio. He is a 2015 and 2016 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee.


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The Future of the Euro Area

Frederic Heine and Thomas Sablowski

By Frederic Heine and Thomas Sablowski. This article was first published on Socialist Project.

The unequal development of the countries of the euro area since the outbreak of the crisis is causing increasing friction that threatens to tear the monetary union apart. Contrary to what many critics of the monetary union suggest, responsibility for this development lies not alone with its internal structure, but is rather a general feature of capitalist development. It is illusory to believe that under the dominance of the capitalist mode of production a spatially even development would ever be possible. Rather, the current monetary regime reinforces the cycles of capitalist crisis.

Unequal development in the EU.

During the boom phase of the economy before the crisis, the economic and social gap between the centre and the periphery within the EU decreased due to a strong growth of capital flows toward the periphery. Because inflation rates in Europe's periphery were higher than in the centre, the ECB's key interest rate led to lower actual interest rates in the periphery and this provided an incentive to borrow and hence to greater growth than in the centre (Heine/Herr 2006: 367). However, this financialized form of development was not sustainable.

Since the outbreak of the crisis, financial integration has begun to unravel, and the differences in structures of production are again gaining greater importance. Austerity policies underpin this unequal development. Currency devaluations, typically used by less competitive nations as a mechanism to adapt to changing world market conditions, are not an option within the euro area, pressure is therefore chiefly on wages and working conditions. Furthermore, the monetary union has no adequate fiscal clearing mechanism. The budget of the European Commission is negligible compared to the budgets of individual member states. This form of integration, however, is not a product of chance; it was intended. Historically, it was imposed by the dominant groups in Germany and is in the interests of capital in as far as it puts pressure on and disciplines wage earners across Europe (see Stützle 2013; Milios/Sotiropoulos 2013).

Two Options for the Future, and Four Scenarios

The unequal development of the euro area increases the pressure to reform or abandon monetary union. The current monetary regime, therefore, has no longterm future. There are two options for the future: a deepening of European integration that removes the shortcomings of the monetary regime and increases opportunities for political intervention to compensate for unequal development, or the break-up of monetary union. The question of whether to deepen or reverse European integration is increasingly leading to divisions across the political landscape (see Nölke 2015). Depending on how the relations of power develop within the EU, a deepening of ties or a break-up of the euro area could take very different forms and imply very different situations for the subjugated classes in the EU.

For the future development of the monetary union, we distinguish between four broad scenarios:

1. Deepening of European integration under the hegemony of
the globally oriented fractions of capital.

The European banking union and the attempts to increase the control of national fiscal policies by changing European treaties or by developing additional treaties (European semester, six-pack, two-pack, fiscal compact), already point in this direction, as do Chancellor Angela Merkel's plan for a “compact for competitiveness,”[1] Juncker's plans to ‘complete’ economic and monetary union[2] and the European Commission's action plan to create a ‘capital market union’.[3] The final form of deepened integration is relatively unclear, because numerous differences between the central actors remain unsolved.

The French government emphasises the need to strengthen supranational institutions and the fiscal capacities of the EU, whilst the German government would prefer a permanent institutionalization of a restrictive fiscal policy and intergovernmental control of the EU administration. Whether the German or the French version of deeper integration prevails, will depend greatly on developments within the resistance against austerity policies, the future orientation of social democrats within the EU and on whether an alliance of social democratic governments in the crisis countries headed by France establishes itself.

Despite the differences between neoliberal-conservative and social-liberal forces, this scenario would imply the continuation of the authoritarian neoliberal form of integration that has dominated development in the EU over the past years; notwithstanding the various possible modifications that would have to be made in the case of a compromise between the German and the French approach. The current plans are not yet suited to counter effectively unequal development. Depending on which version of the authoritarian neoliberal deepening of European integration wins the upper hand, the EU could plunge into an even deeper crisis.

The EU's blatant democracy deficits would increase in an economic union designed foremost to block expansive economic policies in individual countries and curtail the budgetary competencies of national parliaments. This would not solve the crises of the EU and the monetary union but rather provide them with a form of movement and muddling through would continue for some time. This scenario would require progressive as well as reactionary nationalist forces to be fenced in or integrated as subalterns. Both sides however are becoming stronger with their criticism of the EU. Despite the growing strength of opposition, this scenario is currently the most likely because it is supported by the hegemonic fractions of capital in Germany and the EU that are focused on the world market (see Heine/Sablowski 2013, Georgi/Kannankulam 2015). Nonetheless, a possible conflict between German and French economic interests could block this scenario and open the door for another scenario.

2. Breakup of the monetary union under the hegemony of  right-wing populist and nationalist forces.

If right-wing populist forces continue to grow stronger and form governments in individual euro area countries, it is possible that these countries would exit the monetary union. Currently, this scenario does not seem particularly likely. Even if parties such as the Front National were to form the government in France, they would probably have to make concessions to their policy stance toward Europe, under the pressure of the globally oriented fractions of capital, and renounce their plans to exit the monetary union. This is however far from certain.

In the case of an ‘exit’ under the hegemony of right-wing populist and nationalist forces, the process of ‘internal devaluation’ would not necessarily be brought to a halt. Rather, it would be combined with a devaluation of the country's currency, with the goal of enhancing the competitiveness of domestic capital at the cost of others.

Like the first scenario, this would have multiple negative implications for subordinated classes. Particularly, it would lead to the devaluation of work, wages and benefits compared to other currencies; rising costs of imported goods, loss of purchasing power, acceleration of social inequality between those possessing assets in foreign currencies and those who own nothing, and an accelerated sell-out of the country's wealth to international investors etc. This of course would occur alongside the nationalism, racism, sexism and the suppression of minorities that characterizes the politics of the extreme right.

The first two scenarios do not mutually exclude each other, as remarks by German Federal Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble clearly demonstrate. Individual countries could even exit the euro area (or be de facto excluded, as proposed in the case of Greece), whilst other countries deepen integration.

3. Exit of individual states under an anti-neoliberal or socialist hegemony.

The experiences of the first Alexis Tsipras government in Greece demonstrate that it is impossible for individual countries to block austerity policies inside the euro area as long as a conservative neoliberal majority controls the ECB and can use its power as an instrument to extort a left-leaning government. The left in the EU is therefore increasingly discussing a ‘plan B’, the possibility of left-wing governments exiting the euro area. If left-wing governments were to form again in the euro area and if they decided not to bow to the demands of the conservative-neoliberal block, a ‘lexit’ (left-wing exit) would be an important element of self-assertion.

Of course, this would require overcoming the left's ‘sacralization’ (Wahl 2015) of the euro and the EU, and that there are majorities in the concerned countries in favour of an exit from the monetary union and the EU treaties. As is well-known, the polls in Greece showed a lack of support for this aspect. A unilateral exit from the monetary union would be very hard to achieve under conditions of sabotage against left-wing governments, and this needs to be reckoned with. The introduction of a new currency would require several months of preparation (see Sapir 2011), whereas the ECB could wreak havoc in a matter of days by denying cash to banks.

Furthermore, even introducing a new currency would not prevent the possibility of an economic war against a left-wing government. A left-wing government would not only face the hazards of devaluation, but also of capital outflow and other acts of sabotage, because the ruling classes would not ‘trust’ a left-wing government. To cushion the negative effects of currency devaluation and the economic war waged against it, a left-wing government would have to take drastic measures. Banks would have to be nationalized, and controls on capital and foreign trade would have to be imposed etc.

Countering social inequality and ending mass unemployment would require large-scale investment programmes, radical measures to redistribute wealth and imposing strict controls over key economic sectors even beyond the banks. Only in combination with such measures would exiting the monetary union make sense from a left-wing perspective; this is what differentiates a ‘lexit’ from an ‘exit’ guided by a conservative-nationalist block. However, a ‘lexit’ would also imply a break with the European treaties, in particular with the free movement of goods and capital.

Whether and for how long such a left-wing government would remain in power in an environment characterized by dependency on the international division of labour and faced by an economic blockade is difficult to say. The example of the left-wing French government at the beginning of the 1980s under François Mitterrand shows that even when a country has its own currency, serious external economic restrictions remain that limit a left-wing government's scope for action – not to mention the option of taking military action against a left-wing government, such as happened with the Unidad Popular government in Chile. Even for countries with a weak industrial structure, however, taking an alternative developmental path is not completely impossible, although it would be very precarious, as developments in Cuba show.

4. Re-foundation of Europe under an
anti-neoliberal and socialist hegemony.

Neoliberal principles are so deeply ingrained into the EU treaties and the monetary union that a rupture with neoliberalism automatically implies a rupture with the EU treaties and monetary union in its current form. When more countries break away, the easier it becomes for further countries to do so. Asynchronic national political developments, however, pose the greatest difficulty here. If a number of countries were to break with the neoliberal EU treaties, this would not necessarily lead to nationalist isolation and competitive devaluation, but could instead create the space for the re-foundation of Europe.

A re-foundation of Europe would be hard to implement in the current EU framework, because changes to the EU treaties require consensus among all EU member states. A single country can veto progressive changes to the treaties. This would obviously find the support of the ruling classes of all countries. It is therefore illusory to believe that a left-wing government in Germany or even left-wing governments in the central EU countries would have the power to enforce such treaty changes.

The German government's current power in the EU is based on the support of German capital. This would no longer be the case, if Germany had a left-wing government. Changing the EU treaties in a progressive direction would require a simultaneous revolt and switch of government in all countries, which is a highly unrealistic scenario. More likely are successive ruptures in a number of countries and subsequent alliances between the left-wing governments of these countries and social movements. These alliances could lay the foundations for a new solidarity-based form of European integration. In our view, this is the most desirable scenario, yet also the hardest to achieve. It would require a hegemony of anti-neoliberal and/or socialist forces in each country.

Whether the left can become hegemonic also depends on the degree to which it can prevent divisions, such as the division between the so-called eurosceptics and the pro-European left. Whilst the question over whether it is necessary to exit the monetary union and/or the EU currently divides the left, there is general agreement in the criticism of austerity policies, the EU's refugee policy and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Emancipatory forces should therefore explore the possibilities for joint action, even if their approaches to European policy goals and strategies differ. Initially this would require further struggles against the crises strategies of the German government and of the fractions of capital that are focused on the world market, i.e. against austerity policies, privatization, the dismantlement of workers’ rights, and the planned free trade agreements. These struggles will need to be coordinated more strongly at the European level than they have been before. To the extent that these struggles are successful, it will also become possible to develop and to implement from below a joint programme for a different Europe. •

Frederic Heine is a political scientist and activist, and researcher with the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in Berlin.

Thomas Sablowski works at the Institute for Critical Social Analysis of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. He is also a member of editorial board of the journal PROKLA and a member of the scientific advisory board of ATTAC Germany.

This article is excerpted from “Monetary Union Unravelling?.”


1. See Merkel 2013.

2. See Juncker et al. 2015.

3. See European Commission 2015.


  • European Commission (2015): “Action plan on building a capital markets union,” COM(2015) 468 final. Brüssel, 30.9.2015, accessed on: 15.2.2016.
  • Heine, Michael/Herr, Hansjörg (2006): Die Europäische Währungsunion im Treibsand. In: PROKLA 36(3): 361–379.
  • Juncker, Jean-Claude et al. (2015): “Completing Europe’s economic and monetary union,” accessed on: 15.2.2016.
  • Merkel, Angela (2013): “Rede von Bundeskanzlerin Merkel beim Jahrestreffen 2013 des World Economic Forum,” Davos, 24.1.2013, accessed on: 15.10.2015.
  • Milios, John/Sotiropoulos, Dimitris P. (2013): Eurozone: die Krise als Chance für die kapitalistische Offensive. In: PROKLA 43(2): 317–334.
  • Nölke, Andreas (2015): Abschied vom Euro? Europas Linke nach der Griechen-landkrise. In: Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, 60(9): 68–78.
  • Sapir, Jacques (2011): “S’il faut sortir de l’Euro... Document de travail,” CEMI/EHESS, 6.4.2011, accessed on: 15.10.2015.
  • Stützle, Ingo (2013): Austerität als politisches Projekt. Von der monetären Integration Europas zur Eurokrise. Münster.
  • Wahl, Peter (2015): Linke Sakralisierung von Euro und EU. In: Sozialismus 42(10): 32–35.
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Hope in times of crisis

Vijay Prashad

By Vijay Prashad. This article was first published on Frontline.

The inheritance of Portugal’s 1974 revolution was squandered in the 30 years of neoliberal policies and the past decade of austerity. With the Socialists at the wheel and the Left at their shoulder, a brief window is now open to restore public trust in the country’s institutions.

Europe is in crisis. Southern Europe —from Greece to Portugal—faces monumental economic challenges. The problem in Greece is well known, with pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Union brought to bear on the depleted Greek treasury. These three institutions, the IMF, the ECB and the E.U., are known as the Troika. Even ordinary people call it that. The jargon of the bankers has become part of the vocabulary of the streets. Lack of options—such as its own currency—forced the Greek government to follow the proposals of the Troika. Despite a mandate from the people to fight against the austerity proposals, the Syriza-led government in Greece capitulated to the Troika. Yanis Varofakis, the Finance Minister who resigned after the surrender, said that in these times coups did not come with “tanks but through banks”. Two in five Greeks live in poverty, and the gross domestic product (GDP) of the country has shrunk by 25 cent. Greece’s plight is not different from what has hit the rest of southern Europe. A derogatory name, PIGS, signals out the countries—Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain—that are now in the shadow of acute economic and social crises.

In Lisbon’s Cais de Sodre station, I met a group of Nepali boys. Their parents work in small shops or in the restaurant trade, whereas they work in odd jobs here and there. School is not part of their agenda. It is work that they seek. As we talked, two men and a woman drifted into our conversation. These three people, in the second decade of their lives, were also unemployed. “Finding work is difficult,” the woman said. The statistics bear her out. Official unemployment figures show that over a third of the young people in Portugal cannot find a job. There is fatalism here, but also resentment. Fingers point to Germany, the anchor of the E.U. and its banking system. Not far from us was a poster from the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). It read: Basta de submissão à União Europeia e ao Euro—enough submission to the European Union and the euro.

At the PCP office, I met Jose Angelo Alves, one of the leaders of the party. Alves, who was in his mid 40s, was familiar with India, having met the late Harkrishen Singh Surjeet, Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He had also travelled to India. Aquino Noronha, a PCP member of Goan ancestry and an elected councillor in Lisbon, also joined us. Since so many of the people I met turned their attention towards Germany and the euro to explain Portugal’s dilemmas, I thought I would ask Alves to provide a detailed account of the crisis. After all, Portugal had suffered a fascist dictatorship from 1926 to 1974, had overthrown this dictatorship in a popular revolution on April 25, 1974, with the PCP in a leading role, and then had drifted into the eurozone, where it fell into a pit of stagnation and dismay.

For Alves, the revolution of 1974 was not a distant memory. That event lingered in every conversation. Popular sentiment against the suffocation of the dictatorship and its colonial wars in Africa and Asia led to mass protests for a different kind of Portugal. What came after, thanks in part to the PCP’s role, was a new compact between the state and the people, anchored in the Constitution. “Even though it was not a socialist revolution,” Alves said, “it enabled nationalisation of a section of the economy and it guaranteed social rights for the people.” Pressure from popular sentiment and the Left drove the counter-revolutionary bloc—the parties of the conservatives and the social democrats—to associate itself with the new state of mind. These parties had to “appear as socialist or social democratic”, despite the fact that they opposed those parts of the Constitution.

Portugal’s revolution came at a difficult time in world history. By the 1970s, the idea of “national development” came under pressure from the neoliberal policy preferences of the powerful Western states. The IMF and the eurozone drove an agenda that Portugal could not withstand. For 30 years, such right-wing policies of privatisation and cutbacks in wages and social rights became commonplace. Integration into the eurozone network was the instrument to marginalise the legacy of the 1974 revolution. Sectors of the Portuguese economy “were almost decimated”, Alves said. Portugal, like Greece, became subordinate to global bankers, with German banks as the symbol of the oppressor. Weaknesses in Portugal’s economy left it vulnerable to the credit crisis of 2008.

Progressive nationalism

Portugal, a country of only 10 million, was struck hard by the crisis of 2008. Its main banks had indulged in widespread fraud over past decades and could not withstand the turbulence in the global economy. Bond traders and speculators ransacked what remained of Portugal’s economy, sending its government to its creditors and to the E.U. for a bailout. Harsh austerity policies created political instability for the government and social pressure on the people. Poverty, unemployment and even hunger became part of the condition of Portugal. Between 2012 and 2013, mass protests flooded its cities and towns. The Movimento 12 de Março (March 12 Movement), the Geração à Rasca (The Desperate Generation) and Que Se Lixe a Troika (Screw the Troika) drew crowds as large as had been seen during the 1974 revolution. The general sentiment among the people was drawn from Portugal’s Nobel Prize-winning novelist Jose Saramago: “Make every citizen a politician”. “We saw in these protests the temporary movement of the expression of the anger of the people,” Alves said. The PCP and the trade union movement decided to get involved but not to try and control the movement in any way. The manifestations or protests made an impact on the mood of Portuguese society, but they did not themselves produce an alternative. It was left to the unions and the various left parties to develop these struggles further.

One important distinction between Greece and Portugal has been the absence of fascist parties in the latter. During the worst period of austerity and crisis, Greece’s political climate allowed for the appearance of Golden Dawn, an authentically fascist party. Golden Dawn’s racism and xenophobia inflamed the narrowest Greek nationalism. Portugal was under fascist rule under the Estado Novo from 1926 to 1974. The appetite for fascism had not only been squelched by the 1974 revolution, but also, Alves said, by the creation of a progressive vision of nationalism by the communists. The idea of national sovereignty had been part of the vocabulary of the left, which did not allow a fascist strand to reappear in Portugal. This is perhaps the greatest gift of the 1974 revolution and the politics of progressive nationalism pushed by the Portuguese Left.

Elections of 2015

When the Portuguese people went to the polls in October 2015, the choices before them were clear. On the one side were the parties of austerity, the centre-right and the conservatives. They had pledged themselves to the Troika’s programme and had little distance between their policies and those of Brussels and the IMF. On the other side were the parties of the Left, the PCP, the Ecologist Party, the Left Bloc and the Socialist Party. The Left had positioned itself against austerity, whereas the Socialists had an ambiguous position vis-a-vis the Troika. The election results were inconclusive. The ruling elites in Portugal wanted the austerity parties to come back to power, but the popular mood signalled the opposite. The Left was in a dilemma. It could either allow the austerity parties to return as a minority government or it could provide support to the Socialist Party to enter government. “It was necessary to regain hope,” Alves told me. To allow the austerity parties to govern would have been catastrophic for the people in terms of policy and confidence. An alternative was necessary. “We know what the Socialist Party is about,” said Alves. There were no illusions when the Left decided to help the Socialists create a government.

The PCP, the Ecologists and the Left Bloc created separate bilateral agreements with the Socialist Party. Each of these agreements laid down the basis for parliamentary support. The PCP agreement with the Socialists had three parts. The first part detailed the agreements between the two parties and laid out a time frame for these policies to be put in place. The second had more points of agreement but set aside a time frame. The third part of the document listed the disagreements between the PCP and the Socialists. This last part is a public declaration of the issues on which the PCP and the Socialists will clash.

“A clash is inevitable,” said Alves. “We know where we stand and where they stand. When the clash comes, we don’t know the choice that the Socialists will make.” The integrity of the agreement, Alves points out, means that the Portuguese people know the positions of the various parties. There is no dissimulation of their views. The main area of disagreement is over Portugal’s position on Europe, which is why across Portugal I saw posters from the PCP announcing events or protests against the Troika. In the university town of Coimbra, for instance, a PCP leader, Vasco Cardoso, gave a talk on September 21 on the “Euro, Bank Debt and the Development of Our Country”. It is the kind of event that signals the gap between the Communists and the Socialists. Alves told me that there was now a section of the Socialist Party that had begun to lean towards the PCP view. Such developments would pressure the Socialists not to move into the camp of austerity.

The Socialists are now in power. Prime Minister Antonio Costa is the son of a Portuguese Goan writer, Osvaldo Costa, a member of the PCP and a celebrated poet and novelist. Costa’s government has very limited space for manoeuvre, constrained as it is by the E.U.’s rules and the Troika’s surveillance. Nonetheless, Costa’s government, under Left pressure, has pushed the minimum wage up, restored public sector wages and pensions and attempted to boost domestic demand.

Alves looked forward to the PCP’s Congress to be held in early December. Here, the Communists will discuss the year-long experience of offering support, along with the Ecologists and the Left Bloc, to the Socialists. But the deeper issue will be to increase the independent strength of the PCP. The people “might not vote for our party”, Alves told me, “but they trust our party”. With declining trade union membership and the crisis of social life, the reservoirs of the Left have been depleted. “We need non-classical solutions for the organisation of workers in the informal sector,” said Alves. The PCP youth have “made an effort to reach out to precarious workers, in call centres for example. It is a long process, but we need to be persistent. Precarious labour has been a sector to which we have given great importance in the past few months. The party has gone to places where it has never gone before.” The PCP, Alves said, was not a “social island”. It had to be among the people.

Noronha, the councillor from Lisbon, walked me out of the PCP office. He told me about his long history of work in the party and for the progressive movement. The evening in Lisbon was beautiful, warm and busy. There were signs everywhere of the distress that had taken hold of this country, the first amongst the European colonial powers. Old buildings of colonial glory looked exhausted. Their days were long gone. Portugal reinvented itself in the 1974 revolution. It was that popular struggle which allowed the country to set aside its long colonial history of plunder and violence. The inheritance of that revolution was almost squandered in the 30 years of neoliberal policies and the past decade of austerity. A brief window is now open to glance back at 1974 to restore public trust in the country’s institutions. The Socialists are now at the wheel, with the Left at their shoulder. Whether they can find a way around the roadblocks placed by the Troika is the real question. “I’m hopeful,” said Noronha, with a great big smile on his face.

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Needed Now: a Peace Movement Against the Clinton Wars to Come

Andrew Levine

By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.

Photo by Nathania Johnson | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Nathania Johnson | CC BY 2.0


Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize –for not being George W. Bush. This seemed unseemly at the time, but not outrageous. Seven years later, it seems grotesque.

As the steward-in-chief of the American empire, Obama continued Bush’s Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, and extended his “War on Terror” into Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East.

He also became a terrorist himself and a serial killer, weaponized drones and special ops assassins being his weapons of choice.

Much of this has taken place under a veil of secrecy. A great deal of effort has gone into keeping news of the murder and mayhem Obama let loose upon the world out of public view; so far out that, to this day, Obama, is still widely thought of as a man of peace.

He kept that illusion intact the way that Bill Clinton kept a similar illusion alive in the nineties– by keeping war talk to a minimum and by keeping American combatants out of harm’s way.

Along with his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, Clinton saw to it that sanctions would kill hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.   And when sanctions weren’t enough to complete the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, he unleashed death and destruction from the skies.

With his drones, Obama has surpassed Clinton in that one respect; if they gave a Nobel Prize for killing from afar, he’d win hands down.

Sometimes, though, there is no avoiding “boots on the ground.” When this is the case, the Clinton-Obama way is to rely as much as possible on proxy armies or militias to do the fighting, using the empire’s own troops only as a last resort.

Also, like Clinton, Obama relies on “humanitarian” interveners to make his depredations seem kosher. Nobody can sell killing and maiming to a gullible public as well as they.

Now that old horn dog must be smarting inside – because he showed the way, and Obama got the prize.

The sad part is that, compared to several other Nobel laureates — Henry Kissinger and Menachem Begin come immediately to mind –Obama’s prize doesn’t even seem particularly absurd.

And credit where credit is due: an important accomplishment of Obama’s has been to restrain the more bellicose underlings he empowered. Hillary Clinton, his first Secretary of State and inevitable successor, for example.

This is why, when Obama goes off to do whatever he will do with the rest of his life, he will actually be missed.

It must be said, though, that the more noxious laureates at least did something to earn the honor bestowed upon them. What they did was often of dubious value, but it was something nevertheless.

For example, the late Shimon Peres also got a lot of people killed and maimed; and, remarkably, he too is widely thought to be a man of peace. But he won his Nobel Prize, along with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, for his role in negotiating the now defunct – and always doomed — Oslo accords. The Nobel Committee could at least justify giving the prize to him on that account.

Obama won his with no peace-making accomplishments at all, dubious or otherwise, to his credit. What he had going for him was just that “hope and change thing,” as Sarah Palin aptly called it.

This was before those words came to stick in the craws of progressives throughout the United States. Obamamania was already on the wane in America by the time Obama won his Nobel; evidently, it took a while for the news to reach Norway.

With Hillary it will be different. Candidate Obama was a magnet for illusions; Hillary is anything but. She is not about to get peace prizes just for being there.

Even the people who give out Nobels know better than that. She regards the (unindicted) war criminal Kissinger as a mentor, and, when she abases herself before AIPAC, she might as well be channeling Peres or even Begin, but it makes no difference to them. Her fondness for all things military is too well known.

Needless to say, while running for President, she would as soon not call attention to her bellicose and imperialist side. She and her handlers would rather people think that a vote for her is a vote against Donald Trump – period, full stop.

In a sense, it is; it is also a vote against Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, and Jill Stein of the Greens.

Trump will get more votes than either of them, but his chances of being elected President are not much better than theirs.

This is why, despite all the anti-Trump hysteria mongering, what a vote for Clinton really is is a vote for war — for intensifying the wars Obama inherited or initiated, for starting others, and for provoking Russia, and its vilified leader enough to advance the Doomsday Clock by a significant amount.

And since, time and again, Hillary has proven herself too inept to properly execute her ill-conceived initiatives – the assault on Libya is only the most egregious example – the risk of nuclear war, once momentum for it gets going, will be a lot harder to contain than it has been under other Presidents.

Most Americans understand how dangerous it would be were Trump in charge of America’s nuclear arsenal – not so much because of his views, which, to the extent that they can be determined, seem generally saner than Hillary’s, at least in this respect, but because of his temperament. If he had a decent chance of winning, the idea that he might become the Commander-in-Chief would be worrisome indeed.

But his chances of winning are negligible. Hillary’s, on the other hand, are excellent, notwithstanding the fact that she is as charismatic as a turnip, and is widely despised for both good reasons and bad.

This makes her the one to worry about. Hillary’s impulse control is better than the Donald’s and she is a lot less inclined to act out, but she is, by sympathy and conviction, an ardent proponent of military “solutions,” even for problems that don’t exist.

Lesser evil voting is problematic in its own right; among other things, for fostering a race to the bottom. But, in this case, lesser evil considerations are, or ought to be, moot, because Trump, the evil lesser evilists want to avoid, is on track for suffering a major defeat.   Lesser evilists who might prefer a turnip to Hillary or who realize how great an evil she is are therefore wasting their votes.

Nevertheless, Hillary is slouching towards victory, and nothing except an act of God can stop her.

Now is therefore the time to start planning for life after November 8.


The first order of business is to build a peace movement, large enough and militant enough to impose political costs on Hillary’s war making.

To be sure, a large, militant and global peace movement failed to keep George Bush and Dick Cheney from invading Iraq and going on to break much of the rest of the Middle East. But, after a decade and a half of their wars and Obama’s, conditions are different.

Bush and Cheney were determined to go forward with their schemes, no matter what. They were not about to be dissuaded by pesky demonstrators.

Also, their (continuing) war against Afghanistan was already on; they had gotten away with that. And, thanks to the relentless media campaign that continued unabated long after the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, public opinion was primed for war.

Decades ago, opposition to the Vietnam War was even more extensive and intense, and, thanks to conscription, the country was coming apart at the seams. Nevertheless, the War Party was able to hold its ground.

It was not until the futility of the war became glaringly evident throughout the entire American power structure, and the social and military costs became too great for the country to bear, that Kissinger and Nixon decided that it was time to bring the troops home.

There is a lesson in this: that there is a limit to how much even very large and very militant peace movements can achieve.

They are necessary, though – and because winning over hearts and minds is essential, every little bit helps. But, in the face of determined opposition from secure political elites, peace movements can never be more than part of the story.

What will be unusual when Hillary assumes office is that much of the work that peace movements must do to win over hearts and minds doesn’t need to be done. On matters of war and peace, the hearts and minds of many, maybe most, Americans, including some that Hillary deems “deplorable,” are already in a good place.

Public opinion has largely turned against the wars of the past decade and a half. Indeed, at some less than fully conscious level, people now realize that the War on Terror has been counter-productive, and that it has changed America for the worse. The spirit of revenge is also largely played out.

The task therefore is a lot easier now than in was in the early days of the Vietnam War, or as it was fifteen years ago when the Bush-Obama War on Terror was getting underway.

There is much less need to counter mistaken ideas or, as after 9/11, primitive and unfocused calls for vengeance. The burden now is overcoming the acquiescence of a disempowered population.

This too may not be as hard as it sometimes seems. Obama was good at keeping America’s wars out of Americans’ minds. In this, as in nearly everything else, Hillary will be less adept.

She should also be more amenable to changing course than Bush and Cheney were in 2003.

When an idea found its way into George W. Bush’s head, it tended to stay there. Bush didn’t have it in him to deal with complexity or to react flexibly to changing circumstances.

The Clintons, on the other hand, will turn on a dime, if they think there is a percentage in it for them.

Other things being equal, they will do what their donors want them to do; and, because it is good for their bottom lines, many of those donors do like military spending. But with Hillary it isn’t just a matter of Bush-Obama style perpetual war. There is also the specter of nuclear war.

This is why the money interests behind Hillary are not likely to impede efforts to force her off the warpath – especially if the warpath takes a turn towards Russia or China. Even billionaires can’t take it with them.

Therefore, if there is a will to hold Hillary back, there is a way. That wasn’t the case with Bush and Cheney in 2003, but it is the case now.

And now is the time to start working on it. Now is emphatically not the time to subordinate everything to stopping Trump. He should be left to stop himself.

Nearly all liberals and distressingly many leftists disagree. Lately, they have been making their views known – self-righteously, condescendingly, but nevertheless effectively. The Sanders excuse for caving in to everything he ostensibly opposed is now the general line.

But the general line is wrong-headed.

Because voters aren’t always irredeemably stupid, and because demography is destiny, Trump is, and always has been, already effectively stopped.

Liberals should therefore get over it: Hillary is the problem; the Donald is just a buffoon, who will end up losing big time, and, let’s hope, destroying his brand in the process. His decline and fall will be wonderful to watch, but fixating on it is a waste of effort and time; time and effort that would be better spent laying foundations for the anti-Hillary struggles ahead.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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