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New Middle East For Old

With financial troubles in many countries, an armed conflict between Iran and the West would be inopportune. President Barack Obama, who seeks re-election this year, hopes for an agreement with Iran. At present, Obama is bending over backward to accommodate the Iranians. He knows what a war in the Middle East might do to gasoline prices, and he knows what gasoline prices might do to his hopes for re-election. Besides Iran, there is also a crisis in Syria where up to 20,000 have been killed in the course of a bloody civil war. The West would like to facilitate an end to the Assad regime, over the objections of Russia and Iran.

As everyone knows, the Iranians are refusing to give up their nuclear program. From all appearances, the six power talks, to be held in Moscow (June 18-19), will probably not achieve much. Iranian officials say their nuclear program is peaceful, and they insist that everyone accept and believe in this peacefulness. Those that know the regime best, like former Revolutionary Guardsman Reza Kahlili, say the regime in Tehran is the opposite of peaceful. According to Kahlili, Iran’s leaders want to ignite a nuclear war in order to facilitate an Islamic apocalypse. “The only true avenue to lasting peace in the Middle East,” says Kahlili, is to “help bring about a free and democratic Iran.” Of course, this is not going to happen. The West isn’t positioned for such a gamble. The Iranian government knows this, and that’s why they are becoming increasingly difficult to deal with. Last April the Iranian newspaper Kayhan, which is under the direct supervision of the Office of the Supreme Leader threatened: “If the U.S. strikes Iran with nuclear weapons, there are elements which will respond with nuclear blasts in the centers of America’s main cities.”

Tehran’s threat implies an Iranian nuclear capability. It also implies the possibility of nuclear terrorism, relying on Islamic terror networks. Of course, the statement is defensive in nature, and must be understood as such. Yet it acknowledges a nuclear capability. This is exactly the kind of capability the West would not like Iran to have. The Israeli’s, especially, are growing desperate about the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. Many are frightened by the prospect.

In a recent interview, Israeli vice premier and former IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon said during an interview with Haaretz, “Let me say one thing to you in English, because it is very important for English speakers to understand it: We are not bluffing. If the political-economic pressure is played out … and Iran continues to hurtle toward a bomb, decisions will have to be made.” Ya’alon is under no illusion about Iran’s readiness to retaliate, especially against Isreal: “If anyone, no matter who, decides to take military action against Iran’s nuclear project, there is a high probability that Iran will react against us, too, and will fire missiles at Israel.” And those missiles might be armed with chemical or biological warheads. If Israel and Iran begin exchanging missiles, nobody knows how it would end – but we can guess. According to Jane’s Information Group, Israel has between 100 and 300 nuclear warheads. Some of these can be mounted on cruise missiles carried by Dolphin-class submarines. Israel’s land-based delivery system, the Jericho 3 missile, has a range of nearly 8,000 kilometers. If Iran started a biological/chemical missile war with Israel, the retaliation would be withering. One may doubt, indeed, the clerics’ readiness for martyrdom. Yet there is a crisis more immediate, which may soon eclipse the Iran crisis.

According to a June 16 DEBKAfile report, U.S. military intervention in the Syrian Civil War may be inevitable. The Americans want President Bashar al-Assad to step down. That happens to be a big problem for President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Putin favors the Assad government, a longtime client of Moscow and ally of Iran. As the chief arms supplier to Syria, the Russians have recently sent attack helicopters to the Assad regime. The United States strongly objected with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issuing a statement. “We have confronted the Russians about stopping their arms shipments to Syria,” said Clinton, who thinks the conflict could escalate “dramatically.”

Perhaps the most alarming report comes from Aaron Klein, who reports that the Russians are warning the Assad regime that if “the coming counterinsurgency … is not successful in the next 4-6 weeks, Syria should be prepared for war.” Although Klein admits confusion regarding the meaning of Russia’s warning, the language is clear enough. The DEBKAfile report (above) provides the answer: “The intervention [by Americans] will happen. It is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when.’” Market watchers should take note. Intervention in Syria may be coming, and it isn’t likely to be a picnic. It has long been suspected that Syria manufactures Sarin, Tabun, VX and mustard gas. According to businessinsider.com, Syria is “loaded up on all kinds of missiles, weapons of mass destruction, a solid air force, and enough Cold War relics to fill a dozen Air-and-Space museums.” Then there is the question of what kind of support the Iranians or Russians might provide Syria.

It is surprising to hear Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling on Moscow to cut ties with Assad. Clinton probably does not sympathize with Russia’s loyalty to a longtime ally. After all, Obama ditched Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Why shouldn’t Putin ditch Assad? It should be obvious by now that the Kremlin does not pick allies on the basis of their human rights records. Russia plays a strategic game, and if it suits Russia to defend Assad then Assad will be defended. In all probability, however, Assad is not important enough for Russia to risk a war on unfavorable terms. Russia’s game is a long game, requiring patience. Let the Americans squander their political capital and military resources on an Arab Spring that may bring radical Islamic regimes to power across the Middle East. If the Russians simply wait, together with their Chinese and Iranian friends, the regimes that come to power in Syria, Egypt and Libya might be more anti-Western than the regimes they replaced.

Jeffrey Nyquist is the President of the Strategic Crisis Center and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Political Science at the Inter-American Institute for Philosophy, Government, and Social Thought.

This article was originally published on Financial Sense on June 16, 2012. The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute.

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A Serious Threat to Western Nations

On 21 September 1999 Richard L. Palmer, President of Cachet International, Inc. testified on “the infiltration of the Western financial system by elements of Russian organized crime before the House Committee on Banking and Financial Services….” His full testimony can be read at the Web site for the Committee on Financial Services – Democrats. Palmer’s testimony, like that of many experts, has never been placed in proper context.

Palmer warned the House Committee of “serious threats to Western nations.” He had worked as an Army intelligence officer in Europe, and served 20 years in the Operations Directorate of the CIA. His final assignment was as Chief of Station in the former Soviet Union from 1992 to 1994. For several years he monitored criminal activities related to the Russian mafia. Palmer told the Committee he had direct experience working with former Soviet security and police services, “as well as members of Russian banking, business, Organized Crime and corrupt officials.”

According to Palmer, Russia’s “market mechanism” was being suppressed by organized crime. But this was no ordinary organized crime. It was, in fact, a hybrid of totalitarian officialdom and criminal networks aligned with security and police agencies. Anyone who has debriefed former Soviet police or special services officials knows the story. A KGB colonel may be asked to join a “business”; a GRU general is given an “opportunity”; a Communist Party official is instructed to start a corporation with Party money – all done on orders from the top, from the Central Committee of the Communist Party Soviet Union. “[M]ost informed observers agree that the criminal Mafiya groups account for only about 10 to 15 percent of the makeup of [Russian] Organized Crime,” noted Palmer, “with Russian officials, former officials and their ‘newly created entrepreneurs’ accounting for the other 85 to 90 percent.”

In other words, 85 to 90 percent of Russian organized crime is the work of former Communist officials. Palmer spoke of the possibility, if proven true, that Russian bank officials may have been involved in Western bank scandals. “I would like to note,” said Palmer, “that while examining eleven cases of US and other Western firms defrauded by Russian Organized Crime (ROC) elements, I was able to identify nine cases where US/Western executives clearly had been suborned by ROC groups to assist in looting their employers.”

Palmer went on to say that “Russia is not governed by the ‘rule of law’ but functions under the rule of understandings.” In other words, property rights – and all other rights recognized by law – are not the basis of the Russian system. It would appear that post-Communist Russia operates according to Proudhon’s dictum that “property is theft.” All that occurred with the fall of Communism was a transition from one system of plunder to another. The Communists did not become capitalists, in fact, because they were incapable of embracing the fundamental moral, political and legal concepts underpinning capitalism.

The Communist Party leadership knew what was coming in the 1980s. In preparation for the coming changes in Russia, plans for moving Communist Party money to the West, said Palmer, “were first discussed in 1984 by specific sections of the Soviet Politburo, the top officials of the Communist government.” By 1986 an informal planning committee had acquired the “services of two KGB First Chief Directorate (FCD – foreign espionage) officers who were experienced in moving funds overseas both for the Party Central Committee” and for operational purposes. The Communists took pains to hide any paper trail related to their planning. According to Palmer, “No written records existed of their meetings or proceedings, except one copy to the Chairman of the KGB and one copy to the Central Committee official responsible for the Administrative Organs of the Politburo: Viktor Chebrikov. The Chairman of this planning group was CC [Central Committee] Treasurer Nikolai Kruchina.”

If you study Palmer’s statements in detail – especially where he writes about “the creation of … apparently private, commercial firms” by the KGB – you may miss the forest for the trees. Palmer appears to believe, like most analysts, that he is describing some kind of organic, spontaneous change in the Soviet system which the elite wisely foresaw. Even when he says this change was initiated from the top, and orchestrated by “an informal planning committee,” he avoids any mention of a larger Soviet strategy to deceive the West. But changes initiated from the top, by the Politburo, are anything but organic. Such changes must be understood as implemented in accordance with Soviet strategy.

Of course, writing about Soviet strategy is like wearing a tin foil hat. Western officials and strategists have always denied Soviet deception. The highest level Soviet Bloc official to defect, Jan Sejna, wrote about the West’s denial in the following terms: “One of the basic problems of the West is its frequent failure to recognize the existence of any Soviet ‘grand design’ at all.” When another defector, KGB Major Anatoliy Golitsyn, wrote about the Soviet long-range plan in a book titled New Lies for Old, he was roundly dismissed by almost everyone. Yet evidence of a plan abounds on every side, from Russia’s continuing support for Communist fronts and parties abroad, to the ongoing modernization of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces.

Richard Palmer believed there was a threat. He fretted about “the return of totalitarian regimes which may not necessarily be Communist.” Of course, labels don’t matter. Criminals are criminals, and a country without rule of law is invariably run by criminals. What we saw in the twentieth century, with the Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany, was an explosion of political crime. In the twenty-first century the political criminal has become, also, a financial criminal. Here empires are made and unmade. In this context, ask yourself the following question: Was it wise to allow Russia (and China) access to America’s financial system?

Come now, the answer should be obvious.

Jeffrey Nyquist is the President of the Strategic Crisis Center and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Political Science at the Inter-American Institute for Philosophy, Government, and Social Thought.

This article was originally published on Financial Sense on April 9, 2012. The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute.

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Communism Still Alive in Romania: An Interview With Anca-Maria Cernea. Part II.

Icontinue my interview with Anca-Maria Cernea, a citizen of Romania who knows what it means to live under Communism. Both Cernea’s parents were imprisoned by the Communists. Her father served 17 years as a political prisoner. After 1989, she was active in the National Peasant Christian Democratic Party. She and her friends left this party in 1995 when they realized it had been “colonized” by the post-Communists. Under the government of the Democratic Convention she served as head of the Foreign Affairs Division of the Department for Local Administration from 1998 to 2000. She also helped create the Ioan Bărbuș Foundation, which was named after her father and is dedicated to upholding liberty, traditional values and capitalism. She is a physician and currently works for a private clinic in Bucharest.

According to Cernea, there was no satisfactory justice for the victims of Communism in Romania. “Huge numbers of people have been killed, imprisoned, tortured, deported, deprived of their property, suffering all kinds of persecution,” she explained. “The number of people arrested or deported is estimated around 2 million, and the number of people killed by the Communists is around 200,000.” Particularly scandalous, she says, “is the fact that … former torturers still receive some of the highest pensions in Romania, as retired military servicemen, policemen, judges, etc. This is just one of the privileges they enjoy in post-1989 Romania as members of the post-Communist establishment. In other words, it is correct to say that the evil-doers are still being rewarded for the harm they have caused.”

The old Communist elite protect their privileged positions to this day. When threatened they strike back, even at the country’s president. According to Cernea, “The criminal networks that were once the institutions of the Communist state are the origin of all important networks of corruption, organized crime, political manipulation and influence from undemocratic and rather hostile foreign powers, like Russia. They constitute a serious threat … to the rule of law and to our country’s independence.” As it stands, the Romanian people need the moral support and protection of the West – of NATO and America. The same can be said of other former Communist countries.

But how can the West provide moral support when it has been so profoundly demoralized in its own turn? Whether this demoralization is due to socially destructive aspects of market hedonism, or to the cultural warfare waged by Marxists in accordance with the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, I put the following question to Cernea:  Did Romania elude demoralization because it was not among the capitalist countries targeted for cultural sabotage by the Left, or simply because Communism insulated Romania from corrosive Western influences? And further, now that Romania is relatively free, does the country begin to show symptoms similar to those found in the West?

“My answer is yes to all of your three questions,” replied Cernea. She went on to explain the “incredible surprise we had in 1989 to see so many young people being ready to risk their lives to fight Communism. It was difficult to explain after 40 years of Communist rule. There is however an explanation. Apart from the private universe of family and close friends, which managed to secretly counteract in many cases the official communist education and propaganda, and to educate their youth according to real values, in spite of all risks, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Radio Free Europe … [which] has actually shaped generations of young people…. I am insisting on this, not only because it is a moral obligation we Romanians have to acknowledge what we owe to Radio Free Europe. It is important also for current-day issues. Once an American friend asked me how I saw the explanation for anti-American feelings spreading more and more in the whole world, if I thought the cause was something the Americans were doing wrong. I said that definitely it had nothing to do with anything you guys did or didn’t do. It’s the result of systematic propaganda. It’s not a spontaneous response of the world to American actions.”

According to Cernea, the West thinks of conflict in military terms. America has not realized that pro-U.S. propaganda is required to counter anti-U.S. propaganda. “The West is able to conceive war only in military terms,” Cernea explained; “for them, peace is the lack of military conflict. Now that they decided the Cold War is over, there is no way to make them understand that things like propaganda warfare and cultural war – which are quite familiar concepts for Marxists – really exist and are still, right now, efficiently working against them.”

Radio Free Europe, says Cernea, “could still be an inspiring model … [showing] that with a minimal investment, with some people’s talent and commitment, truth can be made to prevail against the most diabolical propaganda. Communist propaganda isn’t better or stronger than the truth – not even now, when it is more subtle and better disguised than it was before. It has no chance when confronted with reality. But somebody has to do something. At least to expose it, that would be enough.”

According to Cernea, the Romanian language broadcast of Radio Free Europe was put together by “a team of excellent and extraordinary brave journalists and cultural personalities” living in exile. Over the years, noted Cernea, “many of them were murdered or survived brutal attacks organized by the Securitate [Romanian secret police] to make them shut up.”

Radio Free Europe was important for all the Iron Curtain countries, noted Cernea, “but for Romania it was vital, as every other resource in our country was destroyed or controlled by the regime. Radio Free Europe was of course financially supported by the U.S. Congress, but the Americans didn’t interfere with the content of the broadcasts – sometimes they even tried to moderate a little bit some anti-Communist accents, but weren’t successful. Through decades, Radio Free Europe was for us the only source of trustworthy information about what was going on in Romania and in the rest of the world; it was also a kind of alternative school, we may even say university; their broadcasts about Romanian and world history, literature, cultural and political debates in the West managed to replace the total lack of access to those things in Romania. The people who were teaching us about cultural developments in the West were bright erudite intellectuals, who could discern the Communist infiltrations in Western culture … and were able to describe those things to us.”

In her last comments to me, Cernea said: “So far, the Communists have a plan, and they are acting. The West has no plan, no action, and no idea that the others have a plan. If nothing is done, there is of course a risk for the current pro-American mindset in Eastern Europe to be reversed….”

Jeffrey Nyquist is the President of the Strategic Crisis Center and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Political Science at the Inter-American Institute for Philosophy, Government, and Social Thought.

This article was originally published on Financial Sense on April 2, 2012. The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute.

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Enemies in the East: An Interview with Anca-Maria Cernea. Part I.

Romanian analyst and writer Anca-Maria Cernea says that Communism wasn’t altogether defeated in her country. What Cernea has to say about Romania can be said for most of the former Communist countries of Europe. There is an ongoing struggle in Eastern Europe and Americans seem oblivious– especially American politicians.  A Polish journalist recently wrote to me: “I think many U.S. politicians do not have knowledge about the nature of Bolshevism. They may be historians, strategists or even experts, but it does not mean they understand Russian methods. ”

The Russian methods referred to include (1) control of the political opposition through secret agents; (2) strategic deception and disinformation to mislead and disorient; (3) political violence or the threat of political violence; (4) and monopoly control of the media, big business and the government bureaucracy. Such methods are still used in Eastern Europe, for the benefit of Russia and the former Communist elite. Sadly, the old Communist system was not completely eradicated. There was no trial of Communism, no justice for millions of innocent victims. If you want to understand what happened, read carefully the words of Anca-Maria Cernea. When I asked her if Romania is a free country she replied: “I can’t answer that question by yes or no. I would say Romania is a relatively free country.”

She is thankful, of course, that Romania enjoys more freedom than it had before 1989. “On the other hand,” she added, “I can’t say that we are really free, according to classical Western democratic standards, because our society has too many features of an oligarchic system.” This oligarchic system is partly a continuation of the old system. The democratic, pro-Western forces, she says, “never completely managed (or didn’t try hard enough) to deliver our society from oligarchic and Eastern-leaning influences, like during the terms of President Constantinescu, with the government of the Democratic Convention, and now, under President Băsescu, currently serving his second term, along with the government supported mainly by the PDL [Liberal Democratic Party, center-Right].”

Romania had one of the most repressive Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The Communist Party and the secret police had almost total control over the population. According to Cernea, “The people who were serving the Communist regime and the almighty political police enjoyed privileged positions, socially and economically; they were connected among themselves through common interests, complicity in very serious crimes and, last but not least, fear of each other, which was meant to prevent any defections from the system. The rest of the Romanian people lived in misery and terror, cut away from the civilized world. Additionally, our society was devastated by the general distrust; everybody suspected their colleagues, neighbors and even family members of collaborating….”

Cernea explained that the Communist elite “were not ready to give up the privileges they had obtained by murder, treason and theft…. On the contrary, they and their offspring became prosperous businessmen, media tycoons and successful politicians. They constituted some kind of a privileged cast, an establishment, enjoying an enormous power, no matter who was officially governing the country.”

This establishment, Cernea says, “is the most important obstacle” keeping the country from being truly free. This establishment, made up of former Communist officials and the children of Communists, “hinders the institutions of the democratic State from functioning properly [and] it is the source of large-scale corruption….” Pro-Western forces, she explained, have always operated at a disadvantage. The post-Communist structures are dominated by the former functionaries of the Communist regime. These former Communists are also a source of what Cernea calls “serious, organized political violence.”

“Politically, we are relatively free, in the sense that we have elections, we have different parties and there is some political competition,” Cernea noted. “But the competition, however real, is far from being fair. And that can be said about other aspects of freedom, like the freedom of the press or the rule of law. To a certain extent, normal Romanian citizens can nowadays make use of their freedom of speech or they can obtain justice in a court of law. However, it is very difficult for a normal citizen to win if his/her interests collide with the interests of the post-Communist establishment.”

No longer exercising totalitarian control over the press, the former Communists nonetheless rule the media. “They own most of the media companies and they don’t hesitate to make use of them according to their convenience,” says Cernea; “they practice character assassination, slander and intimidation campaigns, against anybody who attacks the establishment – currently their target is mostly President Băsescu.” As for the rule of law, most of Romania’s judges were part of the old structures. According to Cernea, “they refuse to enforce the law if it is against the interests of the establishment. There are huge corruption networks involving politicians and judges, for instance as it was revealed recently, in the Voicu-Costiniu case, when a number of such people were arrested or indicted.”

But how could this be? The 1989 Revolution supposedly brought down the Communist system. How could the Communist elite continue to keep control of the country’s key assets? Cernea explained that there was a genuine anti-Communist revolution: “But there was also a coup d’état organized by people of the regime who were taking their orders from Moscow. The Soviets had their agents in the Romanian Communist Party and in Securitate [the secret police]; Ceausescu was aware of their existence, he was keeping them under control, but his position towards the USSR didn’t allow him to eliminate those people.”

Cernea believes the Soviets helped prepare some of the changes in Eastern Europe in 1989, with the following stipulation: “When I say ‘the Soviets were preparing’ I don’t mean that all of the changes that took place in 1989 were 100 percent KGB manipulation. I mean that the Soviets were aware of the failure of their system long before 1989, and were working on projects that would allow them to keep, or even increase their power by changing their appearance through glasnost/perestroika and by giving up certain less important aspects of their control over the region – like Marxist ideology and centralized economy. I think their plans succeeded in great part, but not completely.”

The national security implications of Cernea’s analysis should not be passed over, especially considering the present rulers of Russia, the ongoing modernization of the Russian armed forces, and Russia’s alliance with Iran. One might be tempted to ask if Romania is a reliable NATO partner. According to Cernea, “As long as Băsescu is president of Romania, I am sure there is no doubt about our commitment to the alliance with the U.S. and Israel. On the contrary, as I see the situation now, it’s rather a problem for us and for Băsescu that the United States are less and less interested in Eastern Europe and that we can’t count on our American allies to protect us against the Russians. It’s rather you Americans that will decide if Romania will stay in the Free World or will be taken back under Russian domination – if let’s say Băsescu has an accident, or is removed from power by some other means.”

Is Cernea suggesting that Russia could retake Romania?  “Romanian people are traditionally hostile to Russians,” she explained. “This is a thing deeply rooted in our culture and mentalities and it’s much older than Communism. The Communist experience has only strengthened this hostility to an unprecedented degree. Iliescu himself had to disguise his attachment to Russia, however difficult it was for him to do so.” It is not a question of the Romanian people going over to Russia. It is a question of whether the Romanian people can retain their freedom under an oligarchy that doesn’t believe in rule of law, and secretly supports Moscow.

“In my opinion,” Cernea concluded, “NATO is indeed undermined, by many things. The fact that former Communist countries, with their former Communist armies and secret services are now members of NATO is just one of the risks; it’s a real risk, but it’s not the most important, and it can be dealt with – and should be, of course. But the Western armies and secret services are probably infiltrated too. The most serious problem is not even that; it’s the fact that NATO seems to have no real political will, no realistic plan, no effective decision-making, no leadership. NATO looks more and more like OSCE, or the UN; it is just another place for debate, similar to so many other international organizations. It doesn’t act like a military alliance, committed to defend its values against real, clearly defined enemies.”

Cernea is correct, and there is more that could be said. The West has lost its way. We no longer properly identify our enemies. We no longer prepare for war with Russia – our main enemy. It seems that America’s armaments exist only to deal with weak threats – like the Taliban, Iran or North Korea. A large and powerful foe, like Russia, cannot be spoken of as a threat. Such an admission would be a scandal. We seek amelioration and peace at every turn. America’s policy is a strange combination of appeasement and presumption. Sad to say, everything may be lost if we ignore words of warning from those who are fighting against Russian tyranny – in Romania, Poland, Ukraine, and other countries.

Communism is not dead. We only have to look at American politics to see this.

Jeffrey Nyquist is the President of the Strategic Crisis Center and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Political Science at the Inter-American Institute for Philosophy, Government, and Social Thought.

This article was originally published on Financial Sense on March 26, 2012. The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute.

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The Incompetent Many

Years ago a friend posed the following question: “How does a lower intelligence relate to a higher intelligence?” The answer, he said, was that the lesser intelligence could not relate to the higher intelligence. Then he asked: “What do you get when you empower an idiot?” The answer, of course, is a powerful idiot. From what we learned in the previous paragraph, under democracy the powerful idiot uses his vote to elect someone who is slightly less idiotic (but far more powerful).

Professor Dunning and his colleague Justin Kruger suggest that people do not possess the wisdom needed to sustain democracy. But this isn’t news. Socrates indirectly suggested the same thing in ancient Athens when he taught that the democracy of his day was riddled with ignorance and self-delusion. What Socrates found in ancient Athens can be found in modern America. The Athenians believed they were wise, and believed they had found the best system. It wasn’t long before they were ruined, their country defeated by foreign enemies and convulsed by civil war.

What happened to Athenian democracy? The conservative way was overthrown by rampant innovation. Old structures were replaced with fluid, mobile opinions (i.e., democracy). Aristocratic leaders were replaced by demagogues. A similar transformation has occurred in American life, only on a more massive scale, with innovation threatening the most basic social structures.  Everything has been transformed today, and nothing is what it once was. If we have conservatives in today’s society, they have almost nothing left to conserve. The licentiousness of the multitude is the supreme law, so that freedom no longer means freedom from an oppressive government. Rather, it is the freedom to behave in a manner that requires greater and greater government involvement; more and more government intervention – from family courts to health care.

In ancient Athens the licentiousness of the people was more narrowly focused in terms of lust for power. The Athenians built an empire and extracted money from other states. The desire for more power, more wealth and more conquest led to the fatal invasion of Sicily in which the cream of the Athenian Army was destroyed. This is not surprising, since mediocre men rose to generalship. Some Athenian leaders were demagogues, some proved to be traitors, but most were overmatched by circumstances. Compare now the situation of American democracy. Here the licentiousness of the people is more hedonistically focused. The Americans have built an empire by defending the free world against totalitarian threats (Nazism, Communism, radical Islam, etc.). Instead of extracting money from other states, the Americans have worked out an arrangement whereby they export their inflation. This allows a high standard of living on the basis of a “service economy,” with manufacturing jobs disappearing year to year. Under this arrangement, mediocre men have been elected to the U.S. presidency. Some have been demagogues. None are equal to the crisis.

The gadfly who sticks a pin into the overinflated saviors of the hour, who openly assails the prevailing notions as false, makes little headway. Socrates was condemned to death by his fellow Athenians because he had questioned and tested the best men of his day, and found they were deluded. The story of how he came to this path is rather interesting. The Delphic Oracle had said there was no one wiser than Socrates, and because of this Socrates set out to prove the Oracle wrong. He went in search of someone wiser than himself. “I went to one who had the reputation for wisdom, and observed him,” said Socrates at his trial. It was a prominent politician, with many friends. “When I began to talk with him,” Socrates continued, “I could not help thinking that he wasn’t really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise, the consequence was that he hated me.” Such was the unfortunate outcome for Socrates.

Today we have researchers confirming what Socrates discovered 2500 years ago. Professor David Dunning (mentioned above) and his colleague Justin Kruger have discovered something called the Dunning-Kruger effect. As it happens, there is “a cognitive bias in which the unskilled suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average.” Even more interesting, “Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding.” The example of Socrates adds a further dimension:  being competent, he could not believe he was the wisest man. After all, he knew himself to be ignorant. Yet the wisdom of all others he encountered proved to be nonsense. If he was wiser than others, it was only because he was not deluded by false wisdom.

The modesty of intelligent men is of this type. The more they know, the more they are humbled by their ignorance. The ancient Athenian politicians and voters, like the modern American politicians and voters, rarely notice their own ignorance. Today’s politicians present their ideas and the ignorant multitude sits in judgment. “Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few,” said George Bernard Shaw. Sadly, it would be more correct to say that democracy more and more signifies the appointment of the corrupt few by the incompetent many.

After Socrates received his death sentence, he asked for a favor which we should take to heart:

 When my sons are grown up, I would ask you, O my friends, to punish them; and would have you trouble them, as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything more than about virtue, or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing – then reprove them, as I have reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought to care, and for thinking they are something when they are really nothing.

Jeffrey Nyquist is the President of the Strategic Crisis Center and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Political Science at the Inter-American Institute for Philosophy, Government, and Social Thought.

This article was originally published on Financial Sense on March 5, 2012. The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute.

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What Does the Ayatollah Want?

My previous analysis of the Iranian crisis focused on whether Israel or the United States will preemptively attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. This question does not require us to investigate which course of action is right or wrong, strategically sound or unsound. The question is whether a certain military action will be taken or not. Today’s column will leave this question and focus on the Iranian side. What does the Iranian leadership want? What are they trying to achieve? What unintended consequences are likely to follow?

On Saturday President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran is about to unveil “major achievements in the nuclear domain.” He said an announcement would follow in a matter of days. More than a week ago, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Iran would never give up. “We will respond to threats of war and oil sanctions.” Indeed, Iran is suffering from sanctions and the freezing of assets.

UN Security Council Resolution 1696 calls on Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment and related activities. Several other UN Security Council Resolutions have been passed, basically restricting Iranian access to technology and equipment. The European Union has passed sanctions against Iran, as well as several nations – including Canada, Australia, Switzerland, India, the United States and South Korea.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad does not hide the fact that Iran is attempting “major achievements in the nuclear domain.” Undoubtedly, a country that is floating on oil, and has a plentiful supply of domestic energy, does not need nuclear power. Furthermore, why should Iran defy the international community in pursuit of this power? Nuclear power is more expensive than energy from fossil fuels. Add to this the cost of an embargo and sanctions. Is it not madness to persist?

What could the Iranian leaders be thinking? There is only one path to discovery. You have to ask someone who has been inside the Iranian system. Iranian defector and former Revolutionary Guardsman Reza Kahlili has written a book about the inner workings of the Iranian regime, titled A Time To Betray. It describes a leadership that believes in the coming of the Mahdi (or twelfth Imam), a figure from Islamic eschatology who will annihilate the unbelievers worldwide. According to Kahlili, Ahmadinejad “believes that many of the signs of the Madhi’s return have emerged. Known as Hadiths, these signs include the invasion of Afghanistan, the bloodshed in Iraq, and the global economic meltdown.”

Islamic prophecy says chaos and war, famine and mass death will set the stage for the appearance of the Mahdi. What could such a prophecy signify, if not the aftermath of a nuclear war? “People like Ahmadinejad so completely believe that these conditions would hasten the return of the twelfth Imam [Madhi], that they were willing to foment universal war, chaos, and famine to bring it about.” What the Iranian regime wants, according to Kahlili, is to immanentize the Islamic eschaton. Kahlili claims that the Iranian regime plans to unleash a nuclear war – a thousand suitcase nukes detonated in Europe and America at one time (or some such terrorist fantasy).

There is little doubt that Kahlili is accurately describing the openly professed beliefs of the Iranian leaders. What is unclear is whether the pragmatic business of statecraft can be entirely given over to a religious enthusiasm. Do the Iranian leaders govern with the idea of triggering the appearance of the Mahdi?

Last 7 November Joel C. Rosenberg wrote a piece for Fox News with the title Why Iran’s Top Leaders Believe That the End of Days Has Come. In this piece Rosenberg refers to a July 2010 claim by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that he personally met the Mahdi (or twelfth Imam). Furthermore, the Ayatollah claims to be the Madhi’s representative. And there is more.

Last year a CD was widely distributed within Iran, titled The Appearance Is Imminent. From this CD we learn that the Mahdi is soon to appear. The CD also suggests that the Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad are the Mahdi’s helpers. Atousa Bayan, writing on balatarin.com, tells us the CD was “widely criticized” and that Iranian clerics and officials admonished the people who produced it, “and distanced themselves from the program.” However, wrote Bayan, “[T]wo important people did not react to the whole debacle – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.” Bayan went on to site a prominent Qom cleric who insisted on “the story of a miracle in which witnesses said that at the time of his birth, Ayatollah Khamenei uttered the name of Imam Ali.” Such claims, according to Bayan, show “the deteriorating image of clerics who would resort to telling unfathomable stories in order to create an air of sanctity around Iran’s Supreme Leader, a man bestowed with unlimited and unchecked power….”

In 2008 The Middle East Quarterly offered an article by Mohebat Ahdiyyih, titled Ahmadinejad and the Mahdi. According to Ahdiyyih, “After the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic incorporated the idea of Mahdism into its complex system of governance.” In this concept, the government of Iran and its top leaders are, by definition, “representatives of the Madhi in the ‘first government of God’ on earth.” In fact, the Iranian parliament is allowed to exist only insofar as its deputies offer their “services to [the] Lord of the Age [the Mahdi], may God speed his blessed appearance.” Since the first days of Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime, officials of the Iranian government paid lip service to the Madhi. Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are not the first Iranian leaders to pose as harbingers of the messiah. They have merely brought this belief front and center.

Reza Kahlili worked inside the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. He witnessed atrocities. He saw how crazy the regime’s beliefs were; so he decided to work for the CIA – to become a spy. In Kahlili’s account the Iranian regime plans to inflict massive destruction on Israel, the United States and Europe. If Iran becomes a nuclear power, he says, it will be too late for the world. Unprecedented destruction and suffering will follow.

How do we analyze Kahlili’s claim? First, we do not wish to believe such a claim. If we accept what he says, then we must invade Iran with ground forces. This would be expensive and unpopular. No American politician would publicly advocate such a plan. As the Iranian regime has total control over its own population, an internal uprising is unlikely. What is more likely, then, is that Iran will eventually attack the United States. Unfortunately for Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, the chaos unleashed in this attack will not bring forth the Mahdi. Instead, the chaos will bring forth the ascendancy of the undamaged powers (those not hit by Iran’s planned nuclear assault).

Jeffrey Nyquist is the President of the Strategic Crisis Center and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Political Science at the Inter-American Institute for Philosophy, Government, and Social Thought.

This article was originally published on Financial Sense on February 13, 2012. The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute.

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Iran Crisis Heats Up

The U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that Iran is probably one year away from having a nuclear device, indicating “a red line for us, and … for the Israelis.” Then Panetta said, “If we have to do it, we will do it.” This is one of the strongest statements from a U.S. official to date. In recent days Israeli officials have talked openly of striking Iran’s nuclear facilities. It seems there is something of an American-Israeli chorus in this regard. Can we take it seriously?

The Los Angeles Times ran a piece titled “Israel’s intentions toward Iran remain unclear.” According to this article, recent Israeli threats may be “a bluff to spur tougher sanctions.” Observing the statements of U.S. and Israeli officials, this seems probable. If you are planning a preemptive attack there is no point discussing it publicly. But if your strategy is to compel other nations to carry out sanctions, trusting they are frightened by the prospect of war, then you will talk openly about the possibility of war.

Yet, there is room enough for worry. Before the Israelis bombed Iraq’s nuclear facility on 7 June 1981 there was public talk. Of special interest is the role that Iran played at the time.  As it happened, Iran and Iraq were at war. When this war began the director of Israeli Military Intelligence publicly urged the Iranians to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor. And here is the punch line: On 30 September 1980 the Iranians attacked and damaged the Iraqi nuclear reactor with two F-4 Phantoms. (Please note: this was the first instance in history of a preemptive military attack against a nuclear reactor. The attack did not destroy the reactor. As noted above, the Israelis destroyed the reactor on 7 June 1981.)

According to the founder of the National Iranian American Council, Trita Parsi, the Israelis sent an official before the 7 June attack to secretly meet with a representative of the Iranian regime in France. At this meeting the Iranians agreed to allow Israeli warplanes to use an Iranian airfield if such usage became necessary during Operation Babylon (Israel’s preemptive strike against Iraq’s nuclear reactor). A preemptive attack on the Iraqi nuclear facility was strategically desirable for both Israel and Iran.

Today the Iranians have a nuclear program, and Iranian officials have talked publicly of wiping Israel off the map. Whatever Iran’s actual intentions, the Jewish people look back to the Holocaust and say to themselves, “Never again.” Some Iranian officials no doubt realize how frightened the Israelis are of a second Holocaust. They also know that the Israelis are willing to launch preventive strikes against the nuclear facilities of a hostile country. Knowing all this, the Iranian government does not rely – as did Saddam Hussein – on the deception that they are merely developing “peaceful” nuclear power. Nobody should doubt that the Iranian nuclear program is heavily protected, with critical facilities located underground. In addition to this, Iran has prepared its armed forces to close the Strait of Hormuz in the event of an Israeli or American attack. This is, perhaps, the most serious threat of all; for such a closure would cut the world’s main oil artery.

Rethinking the situation today, we must ask whether the Israelis will launch an attack. Israeli officials have at least three criteria with regard to an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites: (1) Are sanctions working? (2) Can Israel successfully destroy Iran’s nuclear capability? And (3) will America give the green light to an Israeli strike?

It is difficult to say whether sanctions are working. Iran has not abandoned its nuclear program, and is probably receiving under-the-table assistance from China and/or North Korea.  In all probability sanctions will not work. As for the feasibility of an Israeli strike, in terms of distance to the target and Iranian defenses, there is plenty of uncertainty. Nobody knows whether a strike of this kind would succeed or not. Given the international condemnation of Israel that would result, and the possible loss of U.S. support, the Iranians might secretly wish for an attack (provided it fails).

Given the consequences to the world economy (if the Strait of Hormuz is closed, even for a short time), it is not in the U.S. national interest for Israel to bomb Iran. While an Iranian nuclear arsenal would pose a potential threat to the United States, it would not be the only such threat. Russia and China already have nuclear arsenals aimed at America. What is more frightening to the Americans is a war in the Persian Gulf with a constricted flow of oil. In light of this, it is not surprising that President Obama and Defense Secretary Panetta have both warned the Israelis against a preventive strike in the past. This makes more recent statements by Panetta suspect, adding weight to the theory that U.S. and Israeli officials are attempting to intimidate Iran with tough talk.

Some Israeli strategists believe there is no choice. Israel will have to accept the reality of Iranian nuclear power. Therefore, they argue, Israel must rely on deterrence. Besides this, there is only one country that would profit by an Israeli attack on Iran. That country is Russia. First, because a closure of the Strait of Hormuz would mean that Russian oil exports would generate vast profits for the Kremlin. Yet the Russian government does not enjoy popular support at the moment. If Putin is replaced in the upcoming elections, Russia might be in a stronger position (or maybe not). But for now, massive anti-government protests in Moscow makes Iran unsure of Russia’s help.  All these factors may lead the Iranians to short-term concessions.

Of course, there are no certainties here.  We should not dismiss the possibility of a Third World War originating in a conflict with Iran. That much being admitted, the tough-talk of American and Israeli officials should not be taken at face value.

Jeffrey Nyquist is the President of the Strategic Crisis Center and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Political Science at the Inter-American Institute for Philosophy, Government, and Social Thought.

This article was originally published on Financial Sense on February 6, 2012. The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute.

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The Battle for Russia

The year 2012 is going to be an exciting one. There will be a presidential election in the United States. There may be a military clash in the Strait of Hormuz. But the most important changes may occur in Russia, where the Russian people are preparing to challenge the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.  During the street protests in Moscow and other cities last month, a new feeling swept the country. This feeling has its roots in the development of an authentic Russian middle class. It is not a wealthy middle class by Western standards, but it nonetheless bears the mark of self-sufficiency and decency. Either this decency will prevail, or it will be checked. Either Putin will be swept from power or the Russian middle class will be smashed.

On one side of the struggle is the surviving machinery of old Soviet state: the secret police, the Interior Ministry, the large corporations, and Putin’s controlled media.  On the other side we see millions of people who are fed up with arbitrary government power, gangster methods, and who want to see the rule of law. Each side has its own rhetoric, its own philosophy.

Exemplifying the rhetoric of the Russian state, consider a recent Pravda.ru opinion piece titled Nuclear War on the horizon. Here is a view sometimes expressed by operatives of the Kremlin. In fact, something akin to this view was put forward by Vladimir Putin when he spoke to the Russian nation following the Beslan massacre of September 2004. At that time he blamed America for conspiring to murder Russian children, claiming that “someone” wanted to break up Russia and finish off what remained of the Soviet state because Moscow still had nuclear weapons.

In the Pravda.ru column, America is depicted as threatening the entire world with nuclear annihilation. The United States is accused of leading a bloody “genocidal campaign against Libya” and of threatening the same against Iran. No credit is given to U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta for publicly speaking out against a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. In fact, the United States is embarking upon a program of spontaneous disarmament. As Congress has been unable to pass the necessary deficit reduction package, the U.S. Defense Department will face what Panetta says are “devastating, automatic, across-the-board cuts that will tear a seam in the nation’s defense.”

The real policy of the United States and the real objectives of the U.S. military are never acknowledged by Putin’s spokesmen. In the Pravda.ru column we read: “The forces of demonic evil now have come nose to nose with the forces of reason.” This was a reference to the Russian fleet stationed near Syria, and the potential for a confrontation with NATO warships. Here the old rhetoric of the Soviet Union appears once more. The war drums are thundering, and the “imperialist aggressor” is called to account. But we cannot take it seriously. For something else has appeared on the horizon, which Putin says was inspired by the CIA: a popular opposition movement against his KGB regime.

Exemplifying this opposition we find Danila Galperovich’s interview with Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, translated for Frontpagemag.com [2] by Yelena Glazova. Here we find a frank discussion of Moscow’s police state methods. Here we learn that the KGB has “lost much of their qualitative acumen and sharpness in the last twenty years.” And why wouldn’t they? According to KGB defector Anatoliy Golitsyn, the post-Soviet regime of pretended democracy was not supposed to last twenty years. It was designed to overpower the West in ten years. So the plan didn’t work. So Russia’s hidden totalitarian structures have begun to decay. They have remained under fake bourgeois auspices too long; and besides, there is no Stalin to lead them. In this matter we should remember what Stalin said to his henchmen during his last days: “You are like blind kittens; what will happen without me? The country will perish because you do not know how to recognize enemies.”

What Bukovsky goes on to describe is the fate of these blind kittens, caught up in the crisis of Russia’s false democracy. One might say it is the crisis of a deception gone too long, carried too far by structures that can no longer bear the load. A world war might have once saved the current Russian regime, granting it renewed legitimacy in the midst of crisis. But now it is too late. According to Bukovsky, the incompetence of the regime is such that if Stalin were alive today he would have them all shot. “They cannot even blow up the buildings in their capital city without exposing themselves and leaving traces,” Bukovsky added, referring to the 1999 apartment bombings that were used to justify the KGB’s return to power. “Nothing [in the KGB/FSB] works as it should,” says Bukovsky.

So how will this Kremlin, with its third generation blind kittens, survive the growing groundswell of popular opposition? Bukovsky says that the KGB understands how to manipulate mass movements with its network of double agents. But in the end, this method will not work. “The social atmosphere in due course becomes ever more politicized, radicalized,” Bukovsky explained. In the end, the KGB cannot join the protests against itself without damaging its own position. And so, Russia faces a serious political crisis in March or April. This crisis will likely grow, and spiral out of control.

Such is the hopeful, optimistic language of Putin’s opposition – represented by Vladimir Bukovsky. It does not entail fear-mongering or anti-Western propaganda. It simply describes a regime that has lost touch with its people. Such a regime may accuse the United States of fostering a revolution in Russia, or threatening the whole world with nuclear destruction; but the game of deflecting criticism in the wake of fraudulent elections does not appear to be working.

The year 2012 should prove decisive for Russia. Will the anti-Americanism take Russia by the throat? Or will the KGB regime lose its grip? One year from today we should know the answer.

Jeffrey Nyquist is the President of the Strategic Crisis Center and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Political Science at the Inter-American Institute for Philosophy, Government, and Social Thought.

This article was originally published on Financial Sense on January 9, 2012. The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute.