Bernie Sanders Loyalists Are Taking Over the Democratic Party One County Office at a Time

The followers of Sen. Bernie Sanders, shown above last week, are aiming to transform the Democratic Party’s power structure, starting with the lowest-level state and county committee posts.

In fight to define party in age of Donald Trump, Sanders followers want to transform it from the bottom up by taking control of low-level state and county posts

 

The followers of Sen. Bernie Sanders, shown above last week, are aiming to transform the Democratic Party’s power structure, starting with the lowest-level state and county committee posts. Photo: mandel ngan/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

By Reid J. Epstein and Janet Hook

Wall St Journal

Feb. 22, 2017  – In Washington, Democrats are grappling with what it means to be a minority party in the age of Donald Trump. In the rest of the country, populist followers of Sen. Bernie Sanders are mounting a sustained effort to answer the question from the bottom up.

In California, supporters of the 2016 presidential contender packed the obscure party meetings that chose delegates to the state Democratic convention, with Sanders backers grabbing more than half the slots available.

In Washington state, they swept to power at the Democratic state central committee, ousting a party chairman and installing one of their own in his place. Sanders acolytes have seized control of state parties in Hawaii and Nebraska and won posts throughout the party structure from coast to coast.

Those gains come from an under-the-radar blitz in a debate over the future of the party following its bruising 2016 losses. While Democrats nationwide have put the focus on President Trump, the Sanders wing of the party has engaged in an intramural fight to remake the party in a more populist, liberal mold.

“It is absolutely imperative that we see a major transformation of the Democratic Party,” Mr. Sanders said in an interview last week. The party has “to do what has to be done in this country, to bring new energy, new blood.”

The party will choose its new chairman on Saturday at a meeting in Atlanta. Some in the Democratic old guard harbor concerns that a sharp turn to the left could alienate centrist voters, jeopardize the party’s position in the next presidential election and, before then, lead to primary challenges to incumbent Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections.

The Brevard County, Fla., Democratic Party’s executive committee meeting in Rockledge drew a full house last week.

The Brevard County, Fla., Democratic Party’s executive committee meeting in Rockledge drew a full house last week. Photo: Jacob Langston for The Wall Street Journal

“Is the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing of the party going to push us too far to the left?” asked former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who also served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “Only if they start going after incumbent moderate Democrats in primaries like the tea party did.”

Last week, a group of former Sanders campaign aides launched a super PAC with the explicit goal of mounting primary challenges to Democratic incumbents. Party leaders are urging Democrats to focus on fighting Mr. Trump and his GOP allies instead of turning their fire inward.

For now, the strategy of Mr. Sanders’s followers is to infiltrate and transform the Democratic Party’s power structure, starting with the lowest-level state and county committee posts that typically draw scant attention.

Brevard County Democratic Executive Committee chair Stacey Patel, standing, spoke at the meeting last week in Rockledge.

Brevard County Democratic Executive Committee chair Stacey Patel, standing, spoke at the meeting last week in Rockledge. Photo: Jacob Langston for The Wall Street Journal

“From where I come from in the Bernie movement, people believe that there are permanent obstacles to change,” said Larry Cohen, the board chairman of Our Revolution, the political organization that grew from the 2016 Sanders presidential campaign.

Resisting Trump Is Not Enough

 

Progressives also need to advance a concrete agenda, and that means taking on Democrats-In-Name-Only.

By Robert L. Borosage

The Nation

Feb 16, 2017 – Keith Ellison, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, attends a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center where he and other members criticized many of President-elect Trump’s choices for cabinet positions, December 08, 2016. (AP / Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call)

Donald Trump’s provocations have stirred a resistance that is ferocious, diverse, and growing, shaking Republicans and stiffening Democratic spines. Raucous town-hall meetings targeting members of Congress in their home districts are making the fabled Tea Party protests of old look like, well, tea parties. This resistance is vital but not sufficient. While it dramatizes what we are against, our challenge is to integrate it into a demand for all the progressive changes we are for.

The danger here is that the default position of resistance is reversion, a return to what was. As Trump assails all things Obama, Obama’s agenda becomes what we have to protect. Trump postures about repealing the Affordable Care Act; Democrats defend it. Trump attacks the Dodd-Frank banking regulations; Democrats protect them. But this can easily descend into the ridiculous: The Trans-Pacific Partnership isn’t suddenly a good trade deal simply because Trump opposes it. Better relations with Russia aren’t a bad thing simply because Trump proposes it.

Democrats need to fight, but they need to fight for something.

This reflexive defense of the recent status quo is bolstered by inertia, especially at the top of the party. The House Democratic leaders—all septuagenarians—were easily re-elected to their party posts. In the Senate, New York’s Chuck Schumer took over from Harry Reid as minority leader, as long planned. The big outside money is flowing to the same operators (Guy Cecil and David Brock) and the same big institutions (the Center for American Progress, Priorities USA) as before. If Representative Keith Ellison’s effort to head the DNC is defeated, the party structure itself will remain largely in the hands of those who eviscerated it (or their designees). Not surprisingly, these longtime party leaders are invested in what was accomplished under Obama, eager to defend it against Trump’s calumnies, and intent on returning to power under similar terms.

DSA Erupts in the Media Nationwide

Compiled by Bob Roman

New Ground / Chicao DSA

DSA’s Taylor Jones was among the scheduled speakers at an anti-inaugural Human Rights rally, according to Sloane Smith at The Austin Chronicle. Nancy Benac at the Associated Press included DSA in a pre-inaugural report, as carried by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, for example. A pre-inaugural political report by David Weigel at The Washington Post included DSA. Kristin Toussaint at Metro – Boston also mentioned DSA in coverage of upcoming Boston anti-Trump demonstrations.

DSA made Rachel Miller’s list of anti-inaugural to-do’s at Brooklyn Magazine, as we did in Madina Toure’s list at New York Observer, as we did in Eddie Pamintuan’s list at Sactown Magazine, as we did in Brenden Gallagher’s list at Merryjane, as we did in the editors’ list at Blunderbuss Magazine. Since Joseph Schwartz was included among Philadelphia’s 19 face of resistance at BillyPenn, so was DSA. DSA also made Talia Ergas’ list at Us Weekly. Now, will DSA become a fashion statement? Commodify your dissent with this decorative DSA membership! But Sarah Slamen at Texas Observer urged people to get active, and mentioned DSA, oh yes, as one of the possible alternatives.

Danielle DeCourcey included advice from DSA (among others) for first time protesters at attn:.

University of Oklahoma YDS staged an anti-inaugural demonstration, according to Hannah Pike at OUDaily. Adam Troxtell covered the same demonstration at The Norman Transcript. DSA was mentioned in Cynthia Moreno’s coverage of an anti-Trump demonstration at the California State Capitol at Vida en el Valle. John Ferrannini covered the same Sacramento demonstration and included DSA, at The State Hornet. DSA was part of the coalition of groups organizing 144 hours of protests in Sacramento, according to Dan Bacher at San Diego Free Press. Frank Torres’ coverage of an anti-Trump demonstration in Orlando, Florida, included DSA at The Orlando Political Observer. Alex Eng and Ryan Grewal included a quote from DSA’s Spencer Brown in their coverage of Boston anti-Trump protests at The Huntington News. Mass Live’s Gintautas Dumcius’ coverage of the Boston Commons protest also included DSA. The anti-Trump demonstration in New York was covered by Jake Offehartz for Gothamist, and mentioned DSA, as did Zach Williams at Chelsea Now. Sputnik News gave DSA full credit for organizing the anti-Trump demonstration in New York City, as did Jake Sigal at Pacific Press Agency. Is this the foundation for a conspiracy narrative? Well, funny you should mention it! None of this (including DSA) would be happening without George Soros, according to William Jasper at the John Birch Society’s The New American. A large contingent from DSA participated in the anti-Trump demonstrations in Philadelphia, according to Martha Woodall at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Layla A. Jones also included DSA in coverage of the Philadelphia anti-Trump demonstration at The Philadelphia Tribune. DSA was included Paul Schwartzman’s and David Weigel’s coverage of anti-Trump demonstrations in DC at The Washington Post. In India, Ruchir Ferroro Sharma mentioned DSA in connection with anti-Trump demonstrations at Swarajya magazine. The Young Democratic Socialists were involved in inaugural anti-Trump activities in Eugene, Oregon, according to Eric Howanietz at The Torch, likewise in downtown Kansas City, according to Emily Park at University News.

Gabby Bess’ interview with Winnie Wong about the Women’s March on Washington mentioned DSA, at Broadly. DSA made the photo gallery (#125 of 139) covering the Women’s March on Montana at Great Falls Tribune. Roqayah Chamseddine discussed some of the feminist politics surrounding the Women’s March on Washington at Shadow Proof, wherein DSA was mentioned. Art Forum provided several accounts of Women’s Marchs around the country, including an account from the DSA delegation in DC by Ed Halter. Paul Kengor managed to link Kim Il Sung, the Women’s March on Washington and DSA together at The American Spectator. An editorial at the Houston Chronicle mentioned DSA in connection with the Women’s March and opposition to Trump. At Case Western Reserve University’s The Observer, Eamon Sheehan and Christopher Nguyen mentioned YDS in their account of the Women’s March on Cleveland and on Washington. Nassau Weekly published a series of first person accounts of the Women’s March that mentioned YDS. Medill Reports Chicago posted an article and a photo gallery by Derek Robertson of DSA at the Women’s March on Washington. Robertson includes quotes from Clara Alcott and Peg Strobel.

Full Transcript Of Angela Davis’s Women’s March Speech

Women's March on Washington

By Lyndsey Matthews

Elle.com

Jan 21, 2017 – Civil rights activist Angela Davis spoke at the Women’s March on Washington on Saturday in front of a crowd of hundreds of thousands who gathered in the nation’s capital to protest the Trump administration. Davis, who is known for writing such books as Women, Race, and Class, made a passionate call for resistance and asked the audience to become more militant in their demands for social justice over the next four years of Trump’s presidency.

Read the transcript of the speech in its entirety here:

"At a challenging moment in our history, let us remind ourselves that we the hundreds of thousands, the millions of women, trans-people, men and youth who are here at the Women’s March, we represent the powerful forces of change that are determined to prevent the dying cultures of racism, hetero-patriarchy from rising again.

"We recognize that we are collective agents of history and that history cannot be deleted like web pages. We know that we gather this afternoon on indigenous land and we follow the lead of the first peoples who despite massive genocidal violence have never relinquished the struggle for land, water, culture, their people. We especially salute today the Standing Rock Sioux.

"The freedom struggles of black people that have shaped the very nature of this country’s history cannot be deleted with the sweep of a hand. We cannot be made to forget that black lives do matter. This is a country anchored in slavery and colonialism, which means for better or for worse the very history of the United States is a history of immigration and enslavement. Spreading xenophobia, hurling accusations of murder and rape and building walls will not erase history.

"No human being is illegal.

"The struggle to save the planet, to stop climate change, to guarantee the accessibility of water from the lands of the Standing Rock Sioux, to Flint, Michigan, to the West Bank and Gaza. The struggle to save our flora and fauna, to save the air—this is ground zero of the struggle for social justice.

"This is a women’s march and this women’s march represents the promise of feminism as against the pernicious powers of state violence. And inclusive and intersectional feminism that calls upon all of us to join the resistance to racism, to Islamophobia, to anti-Semitism, to misogyny, to capitalist exploitation.

"Yes, we salute the fight for 15. We dedicate ourselves to collective resistance. Resistance to the billionaire mortgage profiteers and gentrifiers. Resistance to the health care privateers. Resistance to the attacks on Muslims and on immigrants. Resistance to attacks on disabled people. Resistance to state violence perpetrated by the police and through the prison industrial complex. Resistance to institutional and intimate gender violence, especially against trans women of color.

"Women’s rights are human rights all over the planet and that is why we say freedom and justice for Palestine. We celebrate the impending release of Chelsea Manning. And Oscar López Rivera. But we also say free Leonard Peltier. Free Mumia Abu-Jamal. Free Assata Shakur.

"Over the next months and years we will be called upon to intensify our demands for social justice to become more militant in our defense of vulnerable populations. Those who still defend the supremacy of white male hetero-patriarchy had better watch out.

"The next 1,459 days of the Trump administration will be 1,459 days of resistance: Resistance on the ground, resistance in the classrooms, resistance on the job, resistance in our art and in our music.

"This is just the beginning and in the words of the inimitable Ella Baker, ‘We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.’ Thank you."

Statement of the Committees of Correspondence on the 2016 elections

Reflect, Revitalize and Resist

The movement for justice and progress in the U.S. has suffered a great setback. And the depth of the reactionary movement that led to this setback was underestimated by most on the left. It’s necessary to reflect on what it has taught us and about our shortcomings but it’s also vital to assess our strength to meet this great challenge.

The majority of Americans – whether through their votes or by sitting out the election – displayed a repudiation of business as usual in Washington. We believe that Bernie Sander’s campaign channeled the anger behind this sentiment in a progressive direction. It galvanized a new generation of voters and activists. We call on progressives to continue to support such true progressive elected officials – there are a few – but also to organize around the principles of that movement and not solely around these individuals.

Unprecedented marches are happening around the country. We unite with these and encourage participation by all. We call for unity of the great progressive movement that has been disorganized.  There is an urgent need of unity. We now must be humble enough to recognize that our sum is greater than our parts. We must renew our efforts at building this unity.

But perhaps most importantly, it is necessary to resist this immoral but effective minority in government and on the streets. We must repudiate the corrupt political system that has brought this about, fight the regressive efforts of that system and show that there is yet a passionate progressive majority that only needs unity to show effective strength.

The Committees of Correspondence stands prepared to join in this great task before us. We stand in solidarity with all those who are ready to fight the forces of reaction and project a future of equality of all people and justice for the many, over the enrichment of a few.

Millenial Power: Bernie Sanders Is Running a Shadow Campaign

By Leonid Bershidsky

Bloomberg View

Oct 21, 2016 – In Colorado, Bernie Sanders isn’t just acting as a surrogate for Hillary Clinton. He’s also holding separate events to keep his movement and its issues alive in a state he won handily in the June Democratic primary. Now he is urging his followers to support a ballot measure to establish the nation’s first universal health care system. It will probably be defeated, yet his backers, who have settled for a bird in the hand this year, are certain they own the future.

Changing demographics may be on on their side, and what happens in Colorado could be a model for the rest of the U.S. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the European-style changes Sanders has passionately advocated for the U.S. will take place anytime soon.

On Oct. 17, about 2,000 people — few of them older than 25 — gathered on a football field at the University of Colorado Boulder to hear Sanders make an impassioned plea for Amendment 69, which would move the state to a health care system much like the one in Germany, where I live. The students shifted impatiently and made disappointed noises every time a local speaker took the microphone: They’d come to hear Bernie. They did a “Feel the Bern” chant, like the old days, and they surged forward when he appeared. They booed when he did a Donald Trump imitation, ripping into pharmaceutical companies’ “yuuuuge” profits, and they clapped when he said health care is a basic human right.

The Sanders cause is very much alive in a state where, less than eight months ago, I saw caucus organizers attempt to deal with the unprecedented crowds of millennials that turned out for their 74-year-old hero. In the Denver high school I visited, votes were held in parking lots and stairwells. Clinton lost to the Vermont senator by a 19-point margin.

Colorado was expected to be a battleground state this year. It hasn’t been. Most of the time, Clinton has enjoyed a big lead over Trump in the polls. The same people who ensured Sanders’s primary victory could do the same for her in the general election.

Millennial Power

JoyAnn Ruscha, who was political director for the Sanders campaign in Colorado and a Sanders delegate at the Democratic National Convention, recalls bursting into tears when the senator moved that Clinton be nominated by acclamation.

“I’d known for weeks, months, that she would win,” Ruscha says. “But it’s like being in a relationship, breaking up and then seeing that person again. You think you’re OK, but you’re not.”

Now Ruscha is helping the Clinton campaign, though not as a staffer. She says that much of the grassroots activity that took Clinton by surprise during the caucus season has now shifted to her. “Many former staff and big volunteers are building in the Latino community what they did for Sanders,” Ruscha says.

Trump is an important reason why these young people, who mocked Clinton and called her corrupt last winter and spring, are now working for her. Trump has never missed a chance to appeal to Sanders supporters, telling them Clinton hadn’t won fairly — but he hasn’t made inroads with the idealistic young people who turned out in force for Bernie. (Continued)

Jobs and the Future: Advancing the Next System with Advanced Manufacturing

Isthus Engineering, Madison WI, a robotics and advanced tool manufacturing coop with 50+ workers

By Max Ogden, Nina Gregg et al

The Next System via Portside

Oct 17, 2016 – This essay is a polemic. As such, we argue with broad strokes. We welcome debate on the broad strokes as well as the details, knowing that such an exchange will refine and improve the discussion.1

We are thinkers and practitioners from the United States and Australia. Our views principally reflect where we come from, but we are confident that our themes are an important part of a global discussion.

We are arguing here for the singular importance of advanced manufacturing. Our emphasis on advanced manufacturing is not because we love advanced manufacturing, but because we think it is necessary to achieve a next system that is democratic, equitable, sustainable, and restorative. If we thought free beer would be as important or as necessary, we would be advocating for free beer instead of for advanced manufacturing.

Advanced manufacturing is very different from the popular image of industrial production.

Advanced manufacturing is very different from the popular image of industrial production.  Most modern plants are clean, generate few emissions, and are critical to industries as varied as food processing, sustainable technology in solar and wind energy, and transportation.

Advanced manufacturing requires high skills and continuing education and pays better wages than low-skill work.

Our argument for a key role for advanced manufacturing in the next system is grounded in opposition to three currents of thought:

  • We oppose the current of thought that does not see the need for systemic change in order to build a productive, inclusive, and sustainable society;
  • We oppose the current of thought that sees the “market,” “market forces,” and corporate structures as inherently corrupting
  • And we oppose the current of thought that sees the state as the only vehicle for progressive change.

We believe, on the contrary, that the movement for the next system must institutionalize its values and achieve its objectives within the market, the state, and civil society.

First among those values and objectives, support for social inclusion must be the basis of decisions about building the next system. The world’s poor and marginalized people must be able to achieve their self-interested objectives. To that end, we must make available to everyone the ability to take advantage of local and global opportunities, to participate in community and society, and to contribute to social and cultural life. We recognize that the capitalist economy and its primary institutions have been and continue to be based on the exploitation of workers from whom have been stripped ownership and control of their work activity and their product. Moreover, our current global economy has been constructed around race, gender, and empire in ways that have systematically disadvantaged people of color, women, and nations outside the core. Signs of this living legacy are everywhere, and they must be addressed with conscious intention if we hope to reach a next system that is constructed differently—one that is democratic, equitable, sustainable, and restorative.

Our current global economy has been constructed around race, gender, and empire in ways that have systematically disadvantaged people of color, women, and nations outside the core. (continued)

22 US House Democrats Press Obama to Adopt ‘No-First-Use’ Nuclear Weapons Policy

Barbara Lee, PDA and the Congressional Progressive Caucus Took the Initiative

By: Joe Gould

Defense News

Oct 13, 2016 – WASHINGTON — Twenty-two more US House lawmakers are calling on President Barack Obama to adopt a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons, part of a tide of Democratic lawmakers pushing for restraint on atomic arms as the sun sets on the current administration.

With relations between Washington and Moscow historically tense and unpredictable this week, the lawmakers in a letter to Obama on Thursday expressed worry over the two nations’ launch-under-attack postures and “the risk of catastrophic miscalculation and full-scale nuclear war.”

“As you know, were the United States to exercise its contingency plans to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict against a nuclear-armed adversary, a full-scale nuclear exchange could ensue, killing thousands of civilians,” the letter reads. “For the security and safety of the world, military options that can spiral towards mutually assured destruction should not be on the table.”

Thursday’s letter was led by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., the Peace and Security Task Force chair for the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Another signatory was Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. Ellison is the caucus’ co-chair and his party’s chief deputy whip in the House.

A no-first-use policy would minimize the need for "first strike” weapons, they argue in the letter, including the next-generation nuclear-armed cruise missile and intercontinental ballistic missiles, "which could generate significant cost savings and lead other nuclear-armed states to make similar calculations."

Why We Are Protesting in Charlotte

By WILLIAM BARBER II

New York Times Opinion

SEPT. 23, 2016 – Charlotte, N.C. — Since a police officer shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday afternoon, the ensuing protests have dominated national news. Provocateurs who attacked police officers and looted stores made headlines. Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency, and the National Guard joined police officers in riot gear, making the Queen City look like a war zone.

Speaking on the campaign trail in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Donald J. Trump offered a grave assessment: “Our country looks bad to the world, especially when we are supposed to be the world’s leader. How can we lead when we can’t even control our own cities?” Mr. Trump seems to want Americans to believe, as Representative Robert Pittenger, a Republican whose district includes areas in Charlotte, told the BBC, that black protesters in the city “hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.”

But Charlotte’s protests are not black people versus white people. They are not black people versus the police. The protesters are black, white and brown people, crying out against police brutality and systemic violence. If we can see them through the tear gas, they show us a way forward to peace with justice.

On Thursday, I joined 50 Charlotte-area clergy members who were on the streets this week. Yes, a few dozen provocateurs did damage property and throw objects at the police, after being provoked by the officers’ tear gas, rubber bullets and military-style maneuvers. But as we saw, thousands more have peacefully demonstrated against the institutional violence in their communities.

That systemic violence, which rarely makes headlines, creates the daily traumatic stress that puts our communities on edge, affecting both those of us who live there and outside observers who often denounce “black-on-black” crime. We cannot have a grown-up conversation about race in America until we acknowledges the violent conditions engendered by government policy and police practice.

Anyone who is concerned about violence in Charlotte should note that no one declared a state of emergency when the city’s schools were resegregated, creating a school-to-prison pipeline for thousands of poor African-American children. Few voiced outrage over the damage caused when half a million North Carolinians were denied health insurance because the Legislature refused to expand Medicaid.

When Charlotte’s poor black neighborhoods were afflicted with disproportionate law enforcement during the war on drugs, condemning a whole generation to bad credit and a lack of job opportunities, our elected representatives didn’t call it violence. When immigration officers raid homes and snatch undocumented children from bus stops, they don’t call it violence. But all of these policies and practices do violence to the lives of thousands of Charlotte residents.

As a pastor and an organizer, I do not condone violent protest. But I must join the Charlotte demonstrators in condemning the systemic violence that threatened Mr. Scott’s body long before an officer decided to use lethal force against him. And I must condemn the militarization of Charlotte by the authorities who do not want to address the fundamental concerns of protesters. For black lives to matter in encounters with the police, they must also matter in public policy.

The North Carolina NAACP called for full transparency in the Scott case, including a Justice Department investigation. There are still many unanswered questions, which is why we demand that the governor release video from body cameras recording the shooting. And we want accountability for officers who did not have their body cameras on when they confronted Mr. Scott while he was waiting for his son to get off the school bus.

Our protests are about more than the Scott case. Every child on that bus — every person in Mr. Scott’s neighborhood — is subject to systemic violence every day, violence that will only increase if Mr. Trump and others continue to exploit the specter of violent protests for political gain.

We have seen this before. After the civil rights movement pushed this nation to face its institutionalized racism, we made significant efforts to address inequality through the war on poverty. We did not lose that war because we lacked resources or met insurmountable obstacles. We lost it because Richard M. Nixon’s “Southern strategy” played on white fears about black power by promising to “restore order” without addressing the root causes of unrest.

In the Scriptures, the prophet Jeremiah denounces false prophets for crying “peace, peace when there is no peace.” We cannot condemn the violence of a small minority of protesters without also condemning the overwhelming violence that millions suffer every day.

Instead, let’s look again at the vast, diverse majority of the protesters. This is what democracy looks like. We cannot let politicians use the protests as an excuse to back reactionary “law and order” measures. Instead, we must march and vote together for policies that will lift up the whole and ensure the justice that makes true peace possible.

William Barber II, president of the North Carolina N.A.A.C.P., is a founder of the “Moral Monday” movement and the author of “The Third Reconstruction.”

Sleepwalking into a Big War

Soldiers rehearsing for this year’s 9 May Victory Day parade in Moscow Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency / Getty

West fearful as it loses military advantage

The major powers are planning for war and claim that’s the best way to defend against war. Will this mutual hawkishness lead to armed conflict?

by Michael T Klare

Le Monde Diplomatique

September, 2016

As the US presidential race approaches its climax and European officials ponder the implications of the UK’s Brexit vote, public discussion of security affairs is largely confined to strategies for combating international terrorism. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are trying to persuade voters of their superior qualifications to lead this battle, while European leaders scramble to bolster their countries’ defences against homegrown extremists. But though talk of terrorism fills the news media and the political space, it is secondary in the conversations of generals, admirals and defence ministers: it’s not low-level conflict that commands their attention but rather what they call ‘big wars’ — large-scale, high-level conflict with great-power adversaries like Russia and China. Such major conflicts, long considered most unlikely, are now deemed ‘plausible’ by western military strategists, who claim that urgent steps are needed to deter and, if necessary, prevail in such engagements.

This development, overlooked by the media, has serious consequences, starting with heightened tension between Russia and the West, each eyeing the other in the expectation of a confrontation. More worrying is the fact that many politicians believe that war is not only possible, but may break out at any moment — a view that historically has tended to precipitate military responses where diplomatic solutions might have been possible.

The origins of this thinking can be found in the reports and comments of senior military officials (typically at professional meetings and conferences). ‘In both Brussels and Washington, it has been many years since Russia was a focus of defence planning’ but that ‘has now changed for the foreseeable future,’ states one such report, summarising the views at a workshop organised in 2015 by the Institute of National Strategic Studies (INSS), a branch of the US National Defence University. The report says that as a result of Russian aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, many defence experts ‘can now envision a plausible pathway to war’ and this, in turn, ‘has led defence planners to recognise the need for renewed focus of the possibility of confrontation and conflict with Moscow’ (1).

‘A return to great power competition’

Such a conflict would be most likely to occur on NATO’s eastern front, encompassing Poland and the Baltic states, and would be fought with high-tech conventional weapons. But these planners also postulate that it could encompass Scandinavia and the Black Sea region, and might escalate into the nuclear realm. So US and European strategists are calling for a build-up of western military capabilities in all of these regions and for moves to enhance the credibility of NATO’s tactical nuclear options (2). A recent article in the NATO Review calls for the increased inclusion of nuclear-capable aircraft in future NATO military exercises, to create uncertainty in Russian minds about the point at which NATO commanders might order nuclear strikes to counter any Russian breakthrough on the eastern front (and presumably deter such an assault) (3).

This way of thinking, though confined until recently to military academies and thinktanks, has begun to shape government policy in significant and alarming ways. We see this in the new US defence budget, in decisions adopted at the NATO summit in July, and in the UK’s July decision to renew the Trident nuclear missile programme.

US defence secretary Ash Carter said the new budget ‘marks a major inflection point for the Department of Defence.’ Whereas the department had been focused in recent years ‘on large-scale counter-insurgency operations,’ it must now prepare for ‘a return to great power competition,’ possibly involving all-out conflict with a ‘high-end enemy’ such as Russia or China. These countries, Carter declared, ‘are our most stressing competitors,’ possessing advanced weapons that could neutralise some US advantages. To overcome this challenge, ‘we must have — and be seen to have — the ability to impose unacceptable costs on an advanced aggressor that will either dissuade them from taking provocative action or make them deeply regret it if they do’ (4).

In the short term, this will require urgent action to bolster US capacity to counter a potential Russian assault on NATO positions in eastern Europe. Under its European Reassurance Initiative, the Pentagon will spend $3.4bn in fiscal 2017 to deploy an extra armoured combat brigade in Europe and to pre-position the arms and equipment for yet another brigade. To bolster US strength over the long term, there would be greater US spending on high-tech conventional weapons needed to defeat a high-end enemy, such as advanced combat aircraft, surface ships and submarines. Carter noted that, on top of this, ‘the budget also invests in modernising our nuclear deterrent’ (5). It’s hard not to be struck by echoes of the cold war.