Saturday 16 January 2021

Capitolgate: Trump made into the A. Q. Khan of US ( Sunday Guardian)


The flames of hate were fanned by the 45th President of the US. However, other players may be active as well, including a few countries that look upon the US as an impediment to their goals.

NEW DELHI: By concentrating all their attention on Donald J. Trump and his more unruly supporters, law enforcement agencies may be missing out on some of the deadly players who encouraged the toxicity which caused the mayhem that erupted inside the US Capitol in Washington DC on 6 January. Certainly President Trump showed by his reaction to the victory of Joseph Robinette Biden Jr, that niece Mary Trump’s analysis of his personality traits was accurate. The flames of hate and the unreasonable, often uncontrollable, rage that often accompanies it was indeed fanned by the 45th President of the US, and recent manifestations are partly the consequence of his refusal to accept defeat in the Presidential election. However, other players may be active as well, including a few countries that look upon the US as an impediment to their goals. The role played by them especially since 2013 in using social media, much as it has been used by US administrations against suspect targets, appears to have been given hardly any priority in the investigations into the violence that was on display on 6 January. The effort is to make Donald J. Trump bear the full responsibility for an armed effort by an irregular militia to overawe, if not overthrow, the elected legislature of the United States by coercion. A narrow focus on a single individual as the perpetrator resembles the conclusion that GHQ Rawalpindi’s nuclear and missile bazaar was the sole creation of a scientist gone rogue, A.Q. Khan. A host of “Cold War 2.0 deniers” has sprung up that refuse to acknowledge that the US and some other major democracies (including India) are under attack by a group of countries that are sophisticated enough to utilise more than obviously kinetic methods (such as those seen in conventional warfare) in their special operations against countries they have made their targets, such as India and the US. Unless the Biden-Harris administration rids itself of the complacency that such a refusal to face facts brings, the security of the US is in danger. While the dagger striking at stability in the US may be the hordes of rioters seen in several US cities recently (both from the Left and from the Right), the hands wielding the weapon or sharpening and aiming it may be much farther away.


John McCain had his faults, including total faith in some of the nostrums of those generals who were unable to comprehend the chemistry of the shadowy foes that they were battling against in theatres such as Iraq or Afghanistan. But he was an “officer and a gentleman”, an example not all his peers within the Republican Party have emulated. Although there were shows of bad temper by the opposition party during the Clinton period, it was during the Obama presidency that the brakes were removed on behaviour towards a sitting President. Ugly untruths were manufactured and repeated about President Obama, especially through social media platforms. The use of such platforms and methods in like fashion is what select countries that are not at all in synchronisation with US or allied interests have learnt to master and have begun to use. This has especially been the case from around 2013 onwards, when the effect of manipulation of messaging in social media on mass sentiment and mobilisation became apparent in the Middle East and in parts of Europe. Cold War 2.0 involves hardly any conventional battlefields (although this is likely in coming years). Rather, it involves the use of social media platforms to multiply the cacophony of hate and prejudice across different extremes of the ideological spectrum. It involves the nibbling away of the dominant position of the US dollar in global commercial exchanges. The harvesting of immense amounts of metadata about the social habits and personality traits of millions of individuals, so as to identify the buttons that need to be pressed to motivate their anxieties and prejudices. Those who look at war in conventional terms are out of date. Chinese civilisation, for example, has for millennia regarded war as the domination of the enemy, preferably by methods that are non-kinetic, but if need be, ruthlessly kinetic and that too in overwhelming force. It has been argued that the PRC will turn from its “communist with Peoples Chinese characteristics” governance system into a social democracy on the European model. That this is inevitable once a certain level of growth of per capita income takes place. When the growth of gross national product and hence income is dependent on the authoritarian nature of the system, such an expectation is unreal. While for most economies the price of a product hinges on the cost of the factors of production, in the PRC the governance system ensures that such costs generate the price that is most likely to overcome competition in foreign markets for products of the PR.


The battle between the USSR and the US was a contest between dissimilar systems. So is that between the US and the PRC. Cold War 2.0 is an ongoing conflict long understood in Beijing but still regarded as fanciful and alarmist in some of the key elements of the incoming Biden administration. However, predictions of Biden turning out to be a disappointment where standing up to US and allied interests is concerned may prove to be as erroneous as were predictions that the mild-mannered, hesitant, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao of India would be a failure. It was Rao who put the country on a faster track to growth. The splitting of the Congress Party by the instrumentality of Sonia Gandhi and the vicious diatribe peddled about him from acolytes of hers succeeded in defeating Narasimha Rao during the 1996 Lok Sabha polls, but before that, the PM had not just placed the country on a track towards faster growth but had dealt skilfully with challenges in Kashmir and Punjab. Incoming President Biden has already made history by being joined by the first woman to become Vice-President of the world’s most powerful democracy, Kamala Devi Harris. The incoming President served two terms by the side of the first black President of the US, Barack H. Obama. He owes his victory to the surge in confidence in communities in which too many had resigned themselves to a lowly role and a miserable fate. Once Obama carried the almost completely white state of Iowa in the Democratic primaries and after he went on to win the nomination for the Presidency from the Democratic Party and actually succeed in the polls, it was impossible for any African-American citizen of the US to argue that the system in that country was so rigged against them that efforts at upward mobility were futile. Had Mahatma Gandhi (after having offered the job more than once to M.A. Jinnah in the period before Partition) chosen Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar rather than Jawaharlal Nehru to be the first Prime Minister of the Republic of India, the community that Ambedkar was born in would have from the start of freedom got the encouragement, hope and impetus for improving their lot, instead of such a mass awakening occurring much later, partly as a consequence of the rise to power in UP of the BSP. In the month prior to the 1989 parliamentary elections, Kanshi Ram spent several hours in the wee hours of a cold morning at 7 Race Course Road. He had gone there with a long-time friend. Had Rajiv Gandhi not spurned the offer of an alliance with the BSP in UP and perhaps elsewhere, not only would the Congress Party almost certainly have emerged from the 1989 polls elections with a seat tally that either crossed the majority mark or was close enough to it to enable a second innings for Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The Union Cabinet would then probably have included a representative of the BSP, an induction that would have energized a vibrant and talented community in need of a booster dose of belief in its own capabilities and in its future. Had Hillary Clinton, and not Obama, won the Democratic Party nomination, the historicity and impact of the Obama presidency would have been lost for perhaps decades to come. That Kamala Harris is not just the first woman Vice-President but also the first non-white to take over that job is testimony to the revolution in US society that brought the Obamas to the White House. It is such a transformation as will almost surely ensure that the (ideological) fringes of society will not succeed in melting down the US in the manner so many other countries have, including in the present century. The election of Biden and Harris ought to succeed in reversing the damage caused by another fringe, that of the mega rich, who have gained exponential wealth at the expense of those who are less even than millionaires. The poor, in particular, have been hardest hit, and it is expected that Senators Warren and Sanders will, among others, ensure that societal “justice for all” returns to reality from being a catchphrase ignored by policymakers.

William Jefferson Clinton has long been advertised as supportive of the African-American community, despite the penal laws introduced by him as well as the dismantling of guardrails to prevent the epidemic of risky decisions that led to the 2008 crash after his successor George W. Bush dismantled such barriers to greed by speculators rather than re-instating them. Barack Obama, who was often tentative in his approach to the errors perpetrated in the past, failed to perform this necessary function, and well-wishers of the Biden-Harris team expect that they will at least try to go back to the pre-Clinton matrix of guardrails against greed by asking a US Congress heavily influenced by money to pass the necessary laws.


What took place at the US Capitol on 6 January had its proximate origins not during the Trump administration (as it has now become convenient to claim) but from the start of the tenure of Barack Obama in the White House. Easily identifiable mega donors spent hundreds of millions of dollars in boosting organisations and individuals whose sole purpose was to harass, intimidate and discredit the previous Democratic administration in the US. Just as those donors in the Middle East who funded ISIS in Iraq so that the terror organisation could purchase the loyalty of Iraqi commanders and give them a walkover have remained not just unpunished but unknown to the general public, the same may happen to those who fuelled a network of organisations and individuals who combined to create a toxic climate of hate within the United States. They succeeded in that those who believed the worst that they were told about a country run by an African-American President turned out in force to get Donald J. Trump elected in 2016. Trump was part of this climate of hate against those who sought some curbs on greed and on righting or at the least ameliorating some of the wrongs done to those who for more than a century after the Civil War had been given second-hand or even lower grades of justice by the US establishment. Trump was not so much the cause of the epidemic of hate that was ravaging the US, as much as he was a beneficiary. Both before and after he entered the White House, Trump was a fellow traveller of those who sought to subvert the Idea of America in the manner that they (at substantial financial cost) did.

Such a climate has assisted in changing the complexion of the US Supreme Court, which seems in danger of becoming almost the polar opposite of what it was under Earl Warren, who began a process of using the Supreme Court to try and ensure some justice and balance in US business and society. Guardrail after guardrail (that prevented the pursuit of wealth by a few suffused with greed from subverting the interests of the people as a whole) has been removed by the White House and the courts, such that the American Dream now will remain inaccessible that for any citizen not born to millionaire parents. Opportunities have become concentrated in fewer and fewer people as has wealth. Social stability is provided by an expanding middle class that takes in those moving up from lower income groups, and this has stagnated in the US for much too long. Such a situation has caused the clouds of toxicity to affect the standing of those seen as responsible for the skewing of the system in a manner contrary to earlier Supreme Court directives or to path-breaking domestic policies such as those carried out during the shortened tenure of Lyndon Johnson. The holdovers from the Kennedy period saw to it that the tenure of Johnson (1963-69) was cut short of another term thanks to the policy errors they made on Vietnam to a graduate of a Texas state teachers’ college who lacked the confidence to challenge the verdicts of those who had graduated from Yale or Harvard in the manner that Kennedy almost certainly would have.


As was written about even during the time of Alfred Marshall, who in “Principles of Economics” called for the “Residuum” to be taken care of through measures such as a minimum wage, an underclass that is not deprived of proper education, housing and healthcare is as important as a middle class growing in number through accretions of the less privileged classes in ensuring societal stability. From President Reagan onwards, US Presidents have believed that shovelling gains to the upper echelons of the income chain would ensure that enough flows downwards to meet the (naturally rising) needs of the middle and lower classes. Were money to make goods and services, this may to an extent have been true, but not  when the biggest financial gains accrue to those who use money only to make more money, without the intermediation of providing goods and services. The consequence of the domination of Wall Street over politicians and the consequent smothering of Main Street created tensions that were fed in many by the toxic hate fuelled paradoxically by those who were responsible for the steady de-greening of the US. In the process, lightning rods were created to divert anger away from themselves and towards the politicians who may in future seek to champion Main Street over Wall Street. Ethno-centrism was whipped up as a component of the hate whipped up against an administration run by an African-American, who ironically did far less for Main Street during his stint in the White House than for Wall Street. The primary political beneficiary of this was Donald J. Trump, who rode the waves of prejudice and discontent to win the Presidency in 2016. It ought to have been clear that the billionaire’s barbs at Wall Street would endear him to much of Main Street, but was not. Once he became President of the US, had Trump understood that he needed to feed his base with something more substantial than hate for his predecessor and his policies. This did not happen. The gestures towards Main Street were cosmetic, those towards Wall Street real. This is what caused the backlash that led to the defeat of Trump by Biden last year.


There has been over several decades a systemic lack of balance and justice in the manner in which several institutions have functioned in the US, and unless President Biden acts to remedy the situation, he will have a difficult time in office. Although the focus of the Democratic Party remains Trump and those who believe in him, the reality is that the insurrection against US lawmakers that took place on 6 January may have had a cathartic effect. This could change the trajectory of street violence in the future, for broad swathes of society have understood the danger to themselves of the fanning of ethno-fuelled hate in the manner that has been done by motivated groups since the start of the Obama presidency. Rather than discouraging such elements as ought to have happened, the 45th President of the US, Donald Trump sought to legitimize them. The furies he nurtured throughout his term has come back to ensure that the coming years will witness substantial interaction between Trump and lawyers and prosecutors, much of it caused by his obsession with getting a second term and what he regarded as needed for such an outcome. The faultlines expanded during the term in office of President Trump have provided a fertile field for external foes of the US to intervene through social media to make the polarisation greater and greater, such that societal turmoil becomes the norm. It will take considerable action by President Biden to ensure that policies reflecting the need for a government for the people get actualised in practice, so as to heal societal pain and rifts which cause eruptions such as what has been seen across the past year in the US, again not entirely because of domestic reasons.


Hillary Clinton had once warned that those who nurtured snakes may find themselves bitten by them. This sage advice seems to have been forgotten by her when interventions took place in multiple locations to affect the fortunes of regimes with which the Obama administration had serious differences. Those assisted to challenge such regimes, usually through violence, were extremists who did not bother to cover up their views, including in social media posts and in other literature churned out by them before they were discovered and put to work on regime change by Secretary of State Clinton. Several of the interventions were against governments close to the PRC or Russia or both. The two countries have a level of sophistication in the use and manipulation of social media that is approaching that of the US. Because of the manner in which social media posts have the potential to alter public opinion in a manner adverse to those in power, the PRC and Russia have placed substantial restrictions on platforms hosted in countries which are on the other side in this era of Cold War 2.0, the PRC having banned such platforms from its own territory and Russia monitoring their usage and where necessary, inflicting consequences. If it occurred to the former Secretary of State that countries that have far greater capabilities than Libya or Syria may decide to give the US a taste of its own medicine by (mis)using social media, that has not been made public. What is clear is that there has been an acceleration since 2017 and an even steeper rise since 2019 of posts that target both extremes of the political divide, seeking to turn them white-hot in fury against each other. The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the CIA seems to have been caught unawares of the consequences of such polarisation, possibly because rants on the right were certified as kosher by the White House, and those in charge of the agencies quickly passed word down the line not to look upon such activities as strenuously was what was needed. In the case of the Democratic Party, its leadership appears to have convinced itself that the entire cauldron is home grown, and is the consequence of the social media and other public interventions of the 45th President of the US. Those investigating the 9/11 debacle in security avoided placing responsibility on state structures in the Middle East that fed terror groups with funds, making believe that only a handful of small-time facilitators and perpetrators of the attack on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers. In the case of the 6 January outrage against the US Congress and the Vice-President, the focus of attention has been on the home front, without as yet any serious effort at ascertaining outside actors who have a vested interest in causing further societal discord and a law and order crisis in the US, particularly at a time when the US Congress has been active in calling out such external threats. It is a given that such interventions will only rise during the term in office of Joe Biden, given that a situation of constant crisis would distract the incoming administration enough to pay far less attention to the steadily developing external threat. Given the chemistry and mechanics of politics in the US. During the past four years, the Democrats confined the blame game to the Republicans, primarily the President, with only Russia and Iran being identified out of a list of likely suspects in this destructive mode of irregular conflict. It is likely that they too will not spend time looking outwards but focus only on the Democratic Party and its standard bearers, incoming President Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris. Just as warnings had been given that the Arab Spring that was being cheered on and fanned by Hillary Clinton, caution was expressed by a few that the manner in which social media was utilised in several such efforts at regime change through the instrumentality of making the streets seethe, may prompt equally sophisticated powers to giving the US a taste of its own medicine, and this is what seems to have been happening since at least the second term of Barack Obama.


The question uppermost in the minds of those within key chancelleries is whether the Cold War 2.0 deniers are set to prevail over those who recognize reality in the Biden administration. India in the 1950s is an example of a country that ignored external reality and paid a heavy price. It remains to be seen if Joe Biden will go the same way. In Kamala Harris and in several of his other key personnel picks, there are a comforting number who understand that the US is at war of a nature that it has not experienced before, and compared to which Cold War 1.0 was a walk in the park. Whether they can prevail over the Cold War 2.0 deniers within the Biden administration remains to be seen, as the last word will be with the 46th President of the US, assisted by Vice-President Kamala Harris and strengthened in his resolve by First Lady Jill Biden.

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