The FBI says it caught a terrorist trying to blow up a synagogue on the outskirts of Miami.

But the FBI supplied the bomb.

The device was fake, part of an undercover FBI sting operation that, like hundreds of controversial investigations before it, used an undercover informant to target an alleged terrorist.

In the Miami case, federal authorities accuse 40-year-old James Medina of planning to bomb the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center north of the city.

The FBI started their investigation of Medina in March 2015 “based on his suspected desire to attack” the Jewish center, according to an affidavit filed in federal court and a statement released by the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Florida.

Medina, who said he converted to Islam four years ago and referred to his alias “James Muhammad” in court, has been charged with “attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.” He pleaded not guilty on Monday morning.

Related: The FBI Suspected an Army Vet Was Plotting Attacks in the US — So They Gave Him Guns

Apart from the fact that the FBI supplied Medina with the weapon that he intended to use against the Jewish center, rights activists and legal experts are troubled by the facts presented by the FBI and Justice Department. Their concern includes instances where the informant, or “confidential human source” in bureau parlance, offered to assist Medina in attacking the center, and even suggested that he link the attack to the Islamic State.

The FBI’s affidavit — which reveals only enough information to justify the criminal complaint against Medina, and does not include all of the evidence against him — says that an informant met with Medina in March and secretly recorded conversations with him after he expressed a desire to attack the Jewish center.

But the affidavit does not say how the FBI learned of Medina’s “suspected desire” to attack the Jewish center, or what initial remarks or actions led agents to believe that Medina was willing to use violence before he devised his plans with the informant.

David Shapiro, a former New Jersey prosecutor and FBI special agent who is now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the affidavit makes it appear that the FBI did more than a little pushing to get Medina to develop the synagogue bombing plan.

“It seems this desire was developed,” he said. “It was watered with very potent fertilizer.”

A mugshot from 2014 shows James Medina, who is charged with plotting to bomb a Jewish synagogue and school in Florida. (Photo via Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department/AP)

The affidavit lays out how the FBI informant took an active part in helping Medina cook up the bombing plot. It recounts how the informant drove Medina to the Jewish center and suggested that he launch the attack on a Jewish holiday.

When the two later discussed a claim of responsibility, the affidavit says that the informant “indicated that they should leave a ‘clue’ as to who was responsible and Medina concurred.” It’s the informant, rather than Medina, who suggests linking the bombing to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, or the East African al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab.

“You can, you can do all that,” the affidavit quotes Medina as saying. “Yeah, we can print up or something and make it look like it’s ISIS here in America. Just like that.”

‘Today is gonna be a day where Muslims attack America. I’m going to set a bomb in Aventura.’

The informant later suggested that Medina could use “untraceable” firearms instead of AK-47s that an acquaintance of Medina’s said he could provide. At another meeting, the informant “addressed the concerns of entering the synagogue with firearms and then getting shot and instead proposed leaving an unspecified object behind and leaving the scene.” The informant suggested that Medina could use a bomb with a timer, and then introduced Medina to a man described as having “explosives expertise and access.” The bomb expert was really an undercover FBI agent.

Related: Ex-FBI Agent Admits He Stole Drug Money to Buy Cars, Plastic Surgery, and More

Medina didn’t do himself any favors by repeatedly telling both the FBI informant and undercover agent that he was willing to leave the bomb at the synagogue, then escape with the informant and watch as they remotely detonated it. He also repeatedly assured the undercover agent that he was willing to go forward with the plot, according to the affidavit.

When asked why, Medina answers, “Because I realize that I have a lot of love for Allah. And I know that all these, all these wars that are going on, it hurts me, too. You know? It’s my call of duty. I gotta get back, when I’m doing this, I feel that I’m doing it for a good cause for Allah.”

In a subsequent conversation, the agent asked Medina if he was okay with killing women and children. Medina appeared to say yes, but he also seemed hesitant.

Medina: I think so. I think I’m fine, Urn hmm.

Agent: You need to be sure brother.

Medina: I am pretty sure. I think so. I believe so. I’m ready bro!

Agent: Ok. Cause you know you don’t have to do any of this.

Medina: What do you mean doing it?

Agent: No, you don’t have to do it if you’re not comfortable with it.

Medina: What? I’m ready.

Agent: It’s Allah’s will but you know…

Medina: I’m up for it. I really am. This is no joke. This is serious dog. If I have the equipment, believe me, in the time is, is that day and we doin’ it, I’m up for it bro. Just like I said.

The FBI says Medina and the undercover agent decided to bomb the synagogue on Friday, April 29. Medina made three videos on the informant’s phone: One as a goodbye to his family in case he was killed, and the other two to explain why he conducted the attack.

“I am a Muslim and I don’t like what is going on in this world. I’m going to handle business here in America. Aventura, watch your back. ISIS is in the house,” he said in one video. In another, he said, “Today is gonna be a day where Muslims attack America. I’m going to set a bomb in Aventura.”

On the appointed day, the agent met with Medina, gave him the fake bomb, instructed him how to use it, and then drove him to the synagogue. Medina exited the vehicle and began to walk toward the synagogue, at which point the authorities arrested him.

Related: This Guy Allegedly Sold Fake CIA and FBI Badges Online. Now Interpol Is After Him.

The US government has convicted more than 200 people on terrorism-related charges using similar methods, according to Trevor Aaronson, executive director of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and author of The FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism. He said that the FBI “isn’t finding people with a bomb in their garage. They’re finding people who are loudmouths and they say, “Oh, we can help you in the name of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State.”

“These are sting operations where the FBI provides the means and opportunities for people to commit crimes,” Aaronson said. “And the most disturbing part is that most of these people seem to be mentally ill and do not have connections to overseas terrorists on their own.”

Medina fits this profile. The 40-year-old is divorced, single, and unemployed. He was arrested previously for behavior consistent with mental illness, including sending more than 50 text messages, some threatening violence, to his estranged family and then telling a cop about it.

Karen J. Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, said the quoted conversations in the affidavit that are supposed to damn Medina instead make it look like he can “barely seem to string a sentence together.”

And while it appears to be clear that Medina is a bigot who harbors anti-Jewish feelings, neither of those two things is illegal. Of course, plotting to blow up a synagogue is illegal. Retired FBI counterterrorism executive David Gomez says the FBI’s investigative techniques were legitimate, even if Medina does have mental or cognitive issues.

“Just because you’re dumb doesn’t mean you’re not dangerous,” he said. “Just because you have some mental incapacitation doesn’t mean you’re not capable of murder.”

‘These are sting operations where the FBI provides the means and opportunities for people to commit crimes. And the most disturbing part is that most of these people seem to be mentally ill.’

Gomez said he’s seen other cases where lonely, fringe suspects join gangs or right-wing extremist groups to gain approval, and then peer pressure or other factors leads them to commit violent acts. In cases such as Medina’s, he argued, the FBI is just getting to these suspects before other malicious actors.

“Let’s say we didn’t get a source on this person, and somebody else talks to them and says, ‘Wanna blow up some Jews?’ It doesn’t matter if you blow them up for the KKK or ISIS. Some guy says, ‘I’ll drive you there,’ and there are plenty of people out there who would do that,” Gomez said. “The FBI and others are worried about a guy who gets in with the wrong crowd.”

Greenberg questioned where the rationale for this type of investigation ends.

“If you want to look for individuals who are susceptible to some kind of inducement to violence, and who have to be told whose name the violence is in, there are countless people and countless extremist groups you could identify them with,” she said.

Gomez said that the FBI’s informants and undercover agents set up the suspect for the “next proactive move,” but don’t make them take it.

“At some point he has to have an overt act,” he said — such as taking what he thinks is a bomb onto the grounds of a synagogue with the intent to detonate it.

Under the law, this act essentially closes the door to an entrapment defense.

“Those are hard to assert in this situation,” said Hugh Handeyside, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project. “That’s the situation that the FBI and DOJ are taking advantage of.”

According to Greenberg, the FBI has been using these types of investigations to send a message: “If someone approaches you and asks you if want help with a terrorist attack, you’re supposed to say no.”

Gomez notes that since 9/11, the bureau has been tasked with preventing another terrorist attack on US soil.

“The attitude is, do what you have to legally do to prevent a Paris-style attack in the US,” he said, “and I think there are a lot of prosecutors out there who would say, ‘I would rather prosecute a case and take the chance on losing on technicality or jury nullification than take a chance to not prosecute on terrorism charges.”

But most terrorism cases do not go to trial, meaning prosecutors rarely lose. Most defense lawyers encourage their clients to enter into a plea agreement in order to avoid a lengthy prison sentence.

“The threat of long-term incarceration compels people to cut their losses,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent who worked on undercover domestic terrorism investigations. “Part of reason they’re encouraged to cut losses is that when these cases go to trial, despite the judges expressing concerns about FBI methodology, the political and social climate is such that fear actually compels them to not acquit people based on entrapment or other government misconduct.”

The FBI declined to comment on the Medina case or other counterterrorism investigations like it, but said in a statement that there are “strict guidelines governing the use of undercover operations which involve extensive legal reviews and senior-level approvals.”

Related: US Strategy Is Draining the Islamic State’s Health, but There’s Still No Finishing Move

The bureau’s director, James B. Comey, told Congress in February that “preventing terrorist attacks remains the FBI’s top priority” as he requested more than $9 billion to fund the bureau’s operations in 2017.

Nearly half of the FBI’s 2016 budget was committed to “counterterrorism and counterintelligence” operations, along with more than 13,000 members of the bureau’s 35,000 employees.

According to German, the funding means the FBI is under pressure to show Congress that it’s using its resources to stop terror attacks.

“Is there actually a threat being resolved, or is the FBI manufacturing these terrorism cases to make its counterterrorism efforts look worthwhile?” he asked. “Knowing that there are real threats out there, are they wasting resources when the people they’re targeting don’t present an immediate threat?”

Handeyside said counterterrorism cases like Medina’s are not only a waste of resources, they might actually be making America less safe.

“It’s not only that they’re manufacturing terror plots, but also sowing fear and distrust within minority communities in ways that I think are damaging to counterterrorism efforts,” he said. “So there are not only constitutional issues, but also effectiveness issues.”

By Benjamin Gilbert

Follow Benjamin Gilbert on Twitter: @benrgilbert

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Call Seen as Retaliation for US Seizing Iranian Assets

Iran’s parliament today voted on a bill requiring the government to request compensation from the United States for damages caused by the CIA’s 1953 imposition of a coup d’etat against Iran’s democratically elected government.

In August 1953, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh sought to Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP) and change the terms of the existing oil monopoly of the British company in Iran. The British government “invited” the CIA to force Mosaddegh from office, and they did so, restoring the monarchy which ruled Iran until the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Though at the time it was a “covert” action, albeit a poorly kept secret, US officials have publicly conceded that the coup was carried out, and the CIA has released some of the documents related to it, though they insist most were destroyed.

The move is unlikely to seriously secure money for Iran, but is rather a retaliatory talking point after the US Supreme Court approved seizing some $2 billion in Iranian central bank assets to pay for the 1983 Beirut bombing, an act which Iran insists they didn’t do.
The Iranian parliament also passed a bill calling for a complaint to be filed with the International Court of Justice over the US seizing those assets, arguing it violates international norms on sovereign immunity.

by Jason Ditz

The roots of the immigration crisis

Tens of thousands of Central Americans, many of them unaccompanied children and teenagers, have flooded into the US illegally in recent years: they are a growing part of a human tsunami that has hit the southern border and caused what many refer to as a humanitarian crisis, overwhelming the local and federal authorities – and becoming a major political issue.

On the one hand, we have immigration restrictionists like Donald Trump, who say that “we cannot be a country and have no borders,” and who vow to build a Wall – “and make Mexico pay for it.” On the other hand, we have Hillary Clinton, who says we should be “knocking down barriers, not building walls,” and claims that Trump and his supporters are motivated by “bigotry.”

Like most partisan political debates, this one gives off plenty of heat without shedding much light. Because the real question is: why are hundreds of thousands of people suddenly abandoning their homes, their families, and their countries to make the long and dangerous trek through Mexico and into the United States? And where are these people coming from?

Contrary to what the Trumpistas seem to believe, the influx of Mexican illegal immigrants has tapered off. Increasingly, the floodtide consists of Central Americans, who are coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. And while the circumstances surrounding the Great Migration have particular causes in each of these countries, in general the causes are the same: a wave of criminality and chaos, which has its origins in decades of misgovernment and repression. Grinding poverty, the rule of a landed oligarchy, and the de facto dominance of brutal militaries – supported by the US – have stunted and deformed these resource-rich countries, forcing their citizens into what is surely one of the largest population transfers in recent history.

The history of US-Honduran relations is the story of endless meddling by Washington on behalf of crony capitalists, notably United Fruit, now known as Chiquita. A series of invasions and military occupations in the early part of the twentieth century – seven between 1903 and 1925 – ensured that American investors would get good returns on their investments, while keeping the restless natives under the boot of local oligarchs. During the cold war era, the Jeanne Kirkpatrick doctrine of preferring “pro-American” dictators to left-wing democrats prevailed, and the Reagan administration used the country as a base for undermining the leftist Sandinista regime: the contras, funded by Washington, were based in the country, from which they regularly launched terrorist raids targeting civilians.

Ruled by a series of military dictators and juntas since 1955, Honduras returned to civilian rule in 1981, but the military – trained in the US and superbly equipped due to generous aid from Washington – retained its dominance over the political landscape and much of the economy. “Recruiting” consisted of forays into the slum areas and countryside by military patrols, who would then kidnap young men and forcibly conscript them. In this way, the Honduran military resembled a criminal gang, engaging in wholesale extortion, as well as murder and torture of political dissidents. Whatever party occupied the presidency and controlled the legislative branch, the same landed oligarchy, backed by the military, called the shots.

In 2006, however, change was in the air. Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales, the scion of a wealthy family and head of the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise, was elected President. Although he campaigned on a conservative platform, Zelaya soon turned to social reform, including the institution of free public education, free meals for poor students, government aid to small farmers, and other measures aimed at reducing poverty, with some 80% of the population living on a subsistence level.

This turn to the left enraged the oligarchs and the final straw was the entry of Honduras into the ALBA alliance, founded by Venezuela’s leftist caudillo Hugo Chavez. When Zelaya put a constitutional reform measure on the ballot, which would have overturned articles of that document deemed unchangeable, the military used this as a pretext to make their move: they invaded the presidential palace, and bundled Zelaya into exile while he was still in his pajamas. (Coup leaders and their American cheerleaders accused Zelaya of wanting to extend his term in office, limited by the constitution to one term, and set up a dictatorship: today, however, their narrative has undergone a curious reversal: the same people who supported the coup have changed the constitution to allow their candidate to extend his term.)

The role of the US State Department, with Hillary Clinton in charge, was to lurk in the background, quietly supporting the coup leaders while making ambiguous noises in public about the need for “reconciliation.” Meanwhile, behind the scenes, longtime Clinton confidante Lanny Davis, who served as Bill Clinton’s lawyer during the impeachment proceedings against him, was hired by the coup leaders to curry favor in Washington. Mrs. Clinton’s emails, released by the State Department as part of the investigation into her private server, reveal that Davis succeeded.

Instead of cutting off all aid to the Honduran government, as required by law, Clinton’s State Department continued it, albeit at a slightly reduced rate. And while publicly deploring the coup, behind the scenes the Secretary of State utilized her old friend Lanny to open up a back channel to the coup leaders, a process that culminated in a proposed “deal” that would keep Zelaya out of office, while supposedly allowing for his return. The coup leaders, however, broke their part of the bargain, pressuring the legislature to keep Zelaya out of the country. They then held “free” elections characterized by widespread violence, the shutdown of opposition media outlets, kidnappings, and intimidation. Unsurprisingly, the coup leaders won the “election,” and have retained control to this day.

The Clinton State Department rushed to give their imprimatur to the fraudulent election, and Lanny Davis made a pot of money.

In her memoir, Hard Choices, Hillary wrote about her efforts to make the return of Zelaya “moot” by brokering a phony deal, openly admitting her key role in legitimizing the coup. This section was deleted from the paperback edition.

She defends her actions to this day, but the reality is that Honduras descended into chaos and criminality. The drug cartels – who have strong links to the military and the coup leaders (the son of the ex-president and coup leader Porfirio Lobo recently pled guilty to drug trafficking) – instituted a reign of terror, motivating tens of thousands to flee the country. They wound up in the US, where they are welcomed by a woman who shares a large part of the blame for their predicament.

Create a problem – and then pose as the great humanitarian with a solution. That’s the Clinton method, in all its hypocritical sleaziness. Maybe we should send the tens of thousands of Hondurans victimized by her ruthlessly cynical policy straight to Chappaqua, where they can stand outside the gates of her palatial estate chanting “Crooked Hillary!”


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You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Last week the House Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act requiring women to register with Selective Service. This means that if Congress ever brings back the draft, women will be forcibly sent to war.

The amendment is a response to the Pentagon’s decision to allow women to serve in combat. Supporters of drafting women point out that the ban on women in combat was the reason the Supreme Court upheld a male-only draft. Therefore, they argue, it is only logical to now force women to register for Selective Service. Besides, supporters of extending the draft point out, not all draftees are sent into combat.

Most of those who opposed drafting women did so because they disagreed with women being eligible for combat positions, not because they opposed the military draft. Few, if any, in Congress are questioning the morality, constitutionality, and necessity of Selective Service registration. Thus, this debate is just another example of how few of our so-called “representatives” actually care about our liberty.

Some proponents of a military draft justify it as “payback” for the freedom the government provides its citizens. Those who make this argument are embracing the collectivist premise that since our rights come from government, the government can take away those rights whether it suits their purposes. Thus supporters of the draft are turning their backs on the Declaration of Independence.

While opposition to the draft is seen as a progressive or libertarian position, many conservatives, including Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and Robert Taft, where outspoken opponents of conscription. Unfortunately, the militarism that has led so many conservatives astray in foreign policy has also turned many of them into supporters of mandatory Selective Service registration. Yet many of these same conservatives strongly and correctly oppose mandatory gun registration. In a free society you should never have to register your child or your gun.

Sadly, some opponents of the warfare state, including some libertarians, support the draft on the grounds that a draft would cause a mass uprising against the warfare state. Proponents of this view point to the draft’s role in galvanizing opposition to the Vietnam War. This argument ignores that fact that it took several years and the deaths of thousands of American draftees for the anti-Vietnam War movement to succeed.

A variation on this argument is that drafting women will cause an antiwar backlash as Americans recoil form the idea of forcing mothers into combat. But does anyone think the government would draft mothers with young children?

Reinstating the draft will not diminish the war party’s influence as long as the people continue to believe the war propaganda fed to them by the military-industrial complex’s media echo chamber. Changing the people’s attitude toward the warfare state and its propaganda organs is the only way to return to a foreign policy of peace and commerce with all.

Even if the draft could serve as a check on the warfare state, those who support individual liberty should still oppose it. Libertarians who support violating individual rights to achieve a political goal, even a goal as noble as peace, undermine their arguments against non-aggression and thus discredit both our movement, and, more importantly, our philosophy.

A military draft is one of – if not the – worst violations of individual rights committed by modern governments. The draft can also facilitate the growth of the warfare state by lowing the cost of militarism. All those who value peace, prosperity, and liberty must place opposition to the draft at the top of their agenda.

Reprinted with permission from

I’m here to talk about the end of the American empire. But before I do I want to note that one of our most charming characteristics as Americans is our amnesia. I mean, we are so good at forgetting what we’ve done and where we did it that we can hide our own Easter eggs.

I’m reminded of the geezer—someone about my age—who was sitting in his living room having a drink with his friend while his wife made dinner.

He said to his friend, “you know, we went to a really terrific restaurant last week. You’d like it. Great atmosphere. Delicious food. Wonderful service.”

“What’s the name of it?” his friend asked.

He scratched his head. “Ah, ah. Ah. What do you call those red flowers you give to women you love?”

His friend hesitated. “A rose?”

“Right. Um, hey, Rose! What was the name of that restaurant we went to last week?”

Americans like to forget we ever had an empire or to claim that, if we did, we never really wanted one. But the momentum of Manifest Destiny made us an imperial power. It carried us well beyond the shores of the continent we seized from its original aboriginal and Mexican owners. The Monroe Doctrine proclaimed an American sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere. But the American empire was never limited to that sphere.

In 1854, the United States deployed U.S. Marines to China and Japan, where they imposed our first treaty ports. Somewhat like Guantánamo, these were places in foreign countries where our law, not theirs, prevailed, whether they liked it or not. Also in 1854, U.S. gunboats began to sail up and down the Yangtze River (the jugular vein of China), a practice that ended only in 1941, when Japan as well as the Chinese went after us.

In 1893, the United States engineered regime change in Hawaii. In 1898, we annexed the islands outright. In that same year, we helped Cuba win its independence from Spain, while confiscating the Spanish Empire’s remaining holdings in Asia and the Americas: Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. Beginning in 1897, the U.S. Navy contested Samoa with Germany. In 1899, we took Samoa’s eastern islands for ourselves, establishing a naval base at Pago Pago.

From 1899 to 1902, Americans killed an estimated 200,000 or more Filipinos who tried to gain independence for their country from ours. In 1903, we forced Cuba to cede a base at Guantánamo to us and detached Panamá from Colombia. In later years, we occupied Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, parts of Mexico, and Haiti.

Blatant American empire-building of this sort ended with World War II, when it was replaced by a duel between us and those in our sphere of influence on one side and the Soviet Union and countries in its sphere on the other. But the antipathies our earlier empire-building created remain potent. They played a significant role in Cuba’s decision to seek Soviet protection after its revolution in 1959. They inspired the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua. (Augusto César Sandino, whose name the movement took, was the charismatic leader of the resistance to the 1922 – 1934 U.S. occupation of Nicaragua.) In 1991, as soon as the Cold War ended, the Philippines evicted U.S. bases and forces on its territory.

Spheres of influence are a more subtle form of dominance than empires per se. They subordinate other states to a great power informally, without the necessity of treaties or agreements. In the Cold War, we ruled the roost in a sphere of influence called “the free world”—free only in the sense that it included every country outside the competing Soviet sphere of influence, whether democratic or aligned with the United States or not. With the end of the Cold War, we incorporated most of the former Soviet sphere into our own, pushing our self-proclaimed responsibility to manage everything within it right up to the borders of Russia and China. Russia’s unwillingness to accept that everything beyond its territory is ours to regulate is the root cause of the crises in Georgia and Ukraine. China’s unwillingness to acquiesce in perpetual U.S. dominance of its near seas is the origin of the current tensions in the South China Sea.

The notion of a sphere of influence that is global except for a few no-go zones in Russia and China is now so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that our politicians think it entirely natural to make a number of far-reaching assertions, like these:

(1) The world is desperate for Americans to lead it by making the rules, regulating global public goods, policing the global commons, and doing in “bad guys” everywhere by whatever means our president considers most expedient.

(2) America is losing influence by not putting more boots on the ground in more places.

(3) The United States is the indispensable arbiter of what the world’s international financial institutions should do and how they should do it.

(4) Even if they change, American values always represent universal norms, from which other cultures deviate at their peril. Thus, profanity, sacrilege, and blasphemy—all of which were not so long ago anathema to Americans—are now basic human rights to be insisted upon internationally. So are indulgence in homosexuality, climate change denial, the sale of GM foodstuffs, and the consumption of alcohol.

And so forth.

These American conceits are, of course, delusional. They are all the more unpersuasive to foreigners because everyone can see that America is now in a schizophrenic muddle—able to open fire at perceived enemies but delusional, distracted, and internally divided to the point of political paralysis. The ongoing “sequester” is a national decision not to make decisions about national priorities or how to pay for them. Congress has walked off the job, leaving decisions about war and peace to the president and turning economic policy over to the Fed, which has now run out of options. Almost half of our senators had time to write to America’s adversaries in Tehran to disavow the authority of the president to represent us internationally as the Constitution and the laws prescribe. But they won’t make time to consider treaties, nominees for public office, or budget proposals. Politicians who long asserted that “Washington is broken” appear to take pride in themselves for finally having broken it. The run-up to the 2016 presidential election is providing ongoing evidence that the United States is currently suffering from the political equivalent of a nervous breakdown.

Congress may be on strike against the rest of the government, but our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines remain hard at work. Since the turn of the century, they have been kept busy fighting a series of ill-conceived wars—all of which they have lost or are losing. The major achievement of multiple interventions in the Muslim world has been to demonstrate that the use of force is not the answer to very many problems but that there are few problems it cannot aggravate. Our repeated inability to win and end our wars has damaged our prestige with our allies and adversaries alike. Still, with the Congress engaged in a walkout from its legislative responsibilities and the public in revolt against the mess in Washington, American global leadership is not much in evidence except on the battlefield, where its results are not impressive.

Diplomacy-free foreign policy blows up enough things to liven up the TV news but it generates terrorist blowback and it’s expensive. There is a direct line of causation between European and American interventions in the Middle East and the bombings in Boston, Paris, and Brussels as well as the flood of refugees now inundating Europe. And so far this century, we’ve racked up over $6 trillion in outlays and future financial obligations in wars that fail to achieve much, if anything, other than breeding anti-American terrorists with global reach.

We borrowed the money to conduct these military activities abroad at the expense of investing in our homeland. What we have to show for staggering additions to our national debt is falling living standards for all but the “one percent,” a shrinking middle class, a rising fear of terrorism, rotting infrastructure, unattended forest fires, and eroding civil liberties. Yet, with the notable exception of Bernie Sanders, every major party candidate for president promises not just to continue—but to double down on—the policies that produced this mess.

Small wonder that both U.S. allies and adversaries now consider the United States the most erratic and unpredictable element in the current world disorder. You can’t retain the respect of either citizens or foreigners when you refuse to learn from experience. You can’t lead when no one, including you yourself, knows what you’re up to or why. You won’t have the respect of allies and they won’t follow you if, as in the case of Iraq, you insist that they join you in entering an obvious ambush on the basis of falsified intelligence. You can’t retain the loyalty of protégés and partners when you abandon them when they’re in trouble, as we did with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. You can’t continue to control the global monetary system when, as in the case of the IMF and World Bank, you renege on promises to reform and fund them.

And you can’t expect to accomplish much by launching wars and then asking your military commanders to figure out what their objectives should be, and what might constitute sufficient success to make peace. But that’s what we’ve been doing. Our generals and admirals have long been taught that they are to implement, not make policy. But what if the civilian leadership is clueless or deluded? What if there is no feasible policy objective attached to military campaigns?

We went into Afghanistan to take out the perpetrators of 9/11 and punish the Taliban regime that had sheltered them. We did that, but we’re still there. Why? Because we can be? To promote girls’ education? Against Islamic government? To protect the world’s heroin supply? No one can provide a clear answer.

We went into Iraq to ensure that weapons of mass destruction that did not exist did not fall into the hands of terrorists who did not exist until our arrival created them. We’re still there. Why? Is it to ensure the rule of the Sh`ia majority in Iraq? To secure Iraq for Iranian influence? To divide Iraq between Kurds and Sunni and Sh`ia Arabs? To protect China’s access to Iraqi oil? To combat the terrorists our presence creates? Or what? No one can provide a clear answer.

Amidst this inexcusable confusion, our Congress now routinely asks combatant commanders to make policy recommendations independent of those proposed by their civilian commander-in-chief or the secretary of state. Our generals not only provide such advice; they openly advocate actions in places like Ukraine and the South China Sea that undercut White House guidance while appeasing hawkish congressional opinion. We must add the erosion of civilian control of the military to the lengthening list of constitutional crises our imperial adventurism is brewing up. In a land of bewildered civilians, the military offer can-do attitudes and discipline that are comparatively appealing. But American militarism now has a well-attested record of failure to deliver anything but escalating violence and debt.

This brings me to the sources of civilian incompetence. As President Obama recently said, there’s a Washington playbook that dictates military action as the first response to international challenges. This is the game we’ve been playing—and losing—all around the world. The cause of our misadventures is homemade, not foreign. And it is structural, not a consequence of the party in power or who’s in the Oval Office. The evolution of the National Security Council Staff helps understand why.

The National Security Council is a cabinet body established in 1947 as the Cold War began to discuss and coordinate policy as directed by the president. It originally had no staff or policy role independent of the cabinet. The modern NSC staff began with President Kennedy. He wanted a few assistants to help him run a hands-on, activist foreign policy. So far, so good. But the staff he created has grown over decades to replace the cabinet as the center of gravity in Washington’s decisions on foreign affairs. And, as it has evolved, its main task has become to make sure that foreign relations don’t get the president in trouble in Washington.

Kennedy’s initial NSC staff numbered six men, some of whom, like McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow, achieved infamy as the authors of the Vietnam War. Twenty years later, when Ronald Reagan took office, the NSC staff had grown to around 50. By the time Barack Obama became president in 2009, it numbered about 370, plus another 230 or so people off the books and on temporary duty, for a total of around 600. The bloat has not abated. If anyone knows how many men and women now man the NSC, he or she is not talking. The NSC staff, like the department of defense, has never been audited.

What was once a personal staff for the president has long since become an independent agency whose official and temporary employees duplicate the subject expertise of executive branch departments. This relieves the president of the need to draw on the insights, resources, and checks and balances of the government as a whole, while enabling the centralization of power in the White House. The NSC staff has achieved critical mass. It has become a bureaucracy whose officers look mainly to each other for affirmation, not to the civil, military, foreign, or intelligence services. Their focus is on protecting or enhancing the president’s domestic political reputation by trimming foreign policy to the parameters of the Washington bubble. Results abroad are important mainly to the extent they serve this objective.

From the National Security Adviser on down, NSC staff members are not confirmed by the Senate. They are immune from congressional or public oversight on grounds of executive privilege. Recent cabinet secretaries—especially secretaries of defense—have consistently complained that NSC staffers no longer coordinate and monitor policy formulation and implementation but seek to direct policy and to carry out diplomatic and military policy functions on their own. This leaves the cabinet departments to clean up after them as well as cover for them in congressional testimony. Remember Oliver North, the Iran-Contra fiasco, and the key-shaped cake? That episode suggested that the Keystone Cops might have seized control of our foreign policy. That was a glimpse of a future that has now arrived.

Size and numbers matter. Among other things, they foster overspecialization. This creates what the Chinese call the “jing di zhi wa” phenomenon—the narrow vision of a frog at the bottom of a well. The frog looks up and sees a tiny circle of light that it imagines is the entire universe outside its habitat. With so many people now on the NSC staff, there are now a hundred frogs in a hundred wells, each evaluating what is happening in the world by the little bit of reality it perceives. There is no effective process that synergizes a comprehensive appreciation of trends, events, and their causes from these fragmentary views.

This decision-making structure makes strategic reasoning next to impossible. It all but guarantees that the response to any stimulus will be narrowly tactical. It focuses the government on the buzz du jour in Washington, not what is important to the long-term wellbeing of the United States. And it makes its decisions mainly by reference to their impact at home, not abroad. Not incidentally, this system also removes foreign policy from the congressional oversight that the Constitution prescribes. As such, it adds to the rancor in relations between the executive and legislative branches of the federal establishment.

In many ways too, the NSC staff has evolved to resemble the machinery in a planetarium. It turns this way and that and, to those within its ambit, the heavens appear to turn with it. But this is an apparatus that projects illusions. Inside its event horizon, everything is comfortingly predictable. Outside—who knows?—there may be a hurricane brewing. This is a system that creates and implements foreign policies suited to Washington narratives but detached from external realities, often to the point of delusion, as America’s misadventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria illustrate. And the system never admits mistakes. To do so would be a political gaffe, even if it might be a learning experience.

We have come up with a hell of a way to run a government, let alone an informal empire manifested as a sphere of influence. In case you haven’t noticed, it isn’t effective at either task. At home, the American people feel that they have been reduced to the status of the chorus in a Greek tragedy. They can see the blind self-destructiveness of what the actors on the political stage are doing and can moan out loud about it. But they cannot stop the actors from proceeding toward their (and our) doom.

Abroad, our allies watch and are disheartened by what they see. Our client states and partners are dismayed. Our adversaries are simply dumbfounded. And our influence is ebbing away.

Whatever the cure for our foul mood and foreigners’ doubts about us may be, it is not spending more money on our armed forces, piling up more debt with military Keynesianism, or pretending that the world yearns for us to make all its decisions for it or to be its policeman. But that’s what almost all our politicians now urge as the cure to our sense that our nation has lost its groove. Doing what they propose will not reduce the threat of foreign attack or restore the domestic tranquility that terrorist blowback has disturbed. It will not rebuild our broken roads, rickety bridges, or underperforming educational system. It will not reindustrialize America or modernize our infrastructure. It will not enable us to cope with the geo-economic challenge of China, to compete effectively with Russian diplomacy, or to halt the metastasis of Islamist fanaticism. And it will not eliminate the losses of international credibility that foolish and poorly executed policies have incubated. The cause of those losses is not any weakness on the part of the U.S. military.

Americans will not regain our national composure and the respect of our allies, friends, and adversaries abroad until we recognize their interests and perspectives as well as our own, stop lecturing them about what they need to do, and concentrate on fixing the shambles we’ve made here at home. There’s a long list of self-destructive behavior to correct and an equally long list of to-dos before us. Americans need both to focus on getting our act together domestically and to rediscover diplomacy as an alternative to the use of force.

Both the president and the Congress now honor the Constitution ever more in the breach. In our system, money talks to such an extent that the Supreme Court has equated it to speech. Our politicians are prepared to prostitute themselves to both domestic and foreign causes for cash.

Policy dialogue has become tendentiously representative of special interests, uncivil, uninformed, and inconclusive. American political campaigns are interminable, uncouth, and full of deliberately deceptive advertising. We are showing the world how great republics and empires die, not how they make sound decisions or defend spheres of influence.

Spheres of influence entail liabilities for those who manage them but not necessarily for the countries they incorporate. Take the Philippines, for example. Secure in the American sphere, it did not bother to acquire a navy or an air force before suddenly—in the mid-1970s—asserting ownership of islands long claimed by China in the nearby South China Sea and seizing and settling them. China has belatedly reacted. The Philippines still has no air and naval power to speak of. Now it wants the United States to return in sufficient force to defend its claims against those of China. Military confrontations are us! So we’re dutifully doing so.

It’s gratifying to be wanted. Other than that, what’s in this for us? A possible American war with China? Even if such a war were wise, who would go to war with China with us on behalf of Filipino claims to worthless sandbars, rocks, and reefs? Surely it would be better to promote a diplomatic resolution of competing claims than to help ramp up a military confrontation.

The conflicts in the South China Sea are first and foremost about the control of territory—sovereignty over islets and rocks that generate rights over adjacent seas and seabeds. Our arguments with China are often described by U.S. officials as about “freedom of navigation.” If by this they mean assuring the unobstructed passage of commercial shipping through the area, the challenge is entirely conjectural. This sort of freedom of navigation has never been threatened or compromised there. It is not irrelevant that its most self-interested champion is China. A plurality of goods in the South China Sea are in transit to and from Chinese ports or transported in Chinese ships.

But what we mean by freedom of navigation is the right of the U.S. Navy to continue unilaterally to police the global commons off Asia, as it has been for seventy years, and the right of our navy to lurk at China’s twelve-mile limit while preparing and practicing to cross it in the event of a US-China conflict over Taiwan or some other casus belli. Not surprisingly, the Chinese object to both propositions, as we would if the People’s Liberation Army Navy were to attempt to do the same twelve miles off Block Island or a dozen miles from Pearl Harbor, Norfolk, or San Diego.

We persist, not just because China is the current enemy of choice of our military planners and armaments industry, but because we are determined to perpetuate our unilateral dominance of the world’s seas. But such dominance does not reflect current power balances, let alone those of the future. Unilateral dominance is a possibility whose time is passing or may already have passed. What is needed now is a turn toward partnership.

This might include trying to build a framework for sharing the burdens of assuring freedom of navigation with China, Japan, the European Union and other major economic powers who fear its disruption. As the world’s largest trading nation, about to overtake Greece and Japan as the owner of the world’s largest shipping fleet, China has more at stake in the continuation of untrammeled international commerce than any other country. Why not leverage that interest to the advantage of a recrafted world and Asian-Pacific order that protects our interests at lower cost and lessened risk of conflict with a nuclear power?

We might try a little diplomacy elsewhere as well. In practice, we have aided and abetted those who prefer a Syria in endless, agonized turmoil to one allied with Iran. Our policy has consisted of funneling weapons to Syrian and foreign opponents of the Assad government, some of whom rival our worst enemies in their fanaticism and savagery. Five years on, with at least 350,000 dead and over ten million Syrians driven from their homes, the Assad government has not fallen. Perhaps it’s time to admit that we didn’t just ignore international law but seriously miscalculated political realities in our effort to overthrow the Syrian government.

Russia’s deft empowerment of diplomacy through its recent, limited use of force in Syria has now opened an apparent path to peace. Perhaps it’s time to set aside Cold War antipathies and explore that path. This appears to be what Secretary of State John Kerry is finally doing with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. Peace in Syria is the key to putting down Da`esh (the so-called “caliphate” that straddles the vanished border between Syria and Iraq). Only peace can end the refugee flows that are destabilizing Europe as well as the Levant. It is good that we seem at last to be recognizing that bombing and strafing are pointless unless tied to feasible diplomatic objectives.

There is also some reason to hope that we may be moving toward greater realism and a more purposive approach to Ukraine. Ukraine needs political and economic reform more than it needs weapons and military training. Only if Ukraine is at peace with its internal differences can it be secured as a neutral bridge and buffer between Russia and the rest of Europe. Demonizing Mr. Putin will not achieve this. Doing so will require embarking on a search for common ground with Russia.

Unfortunately, as the moronic Islamophobia that has characterized the so-called debates between presidential candidates illustrates, there is at present no comparable trend toward realism in our approach to Muslim terrorism. We need to face up to the fact that U.S. interventions and other coercive measures have killed as many as two million Muslims in recent decades. One does not need an elaborate review of the history of European Christian and Jewish colonialism in the Middle East or American collusion with both to understand the sources of Arab rage or the zeal of some Muslims for revenge. Reciprocating Islamist murderousness with our own is no way to end terrorist violence.

Twenty-two percent of the world’s people are Muslim. Allowing bombing campaigns and drone warfare to define our relationship with them is a recipe for endless terrorist backlash against us. In the Middle East, the United States is now locked in a death-filled dance with fanatic enemies, ungrateful client states, alienated allies, and resurgent adversaries. Terrorists are over here because we are over there. We’d be better off standing down from our efforts to sort out the problems of the Islamic world. Muslims are more likely to be able to cure their own ills than we are to do this for them.

The next administration needs to begin with the realization that unilateralism in the defense of a global sphere of influence does not and cannot work. The pursuit of partnership with the world beyond our borders has a much better chance of success. Americans need to bring our ambitions into balance with our interests and the resources we are prepared to devote to them.

We need a peaceful international environment to rebuild our country. To achieve this, we must erase our strategy deficit. To do that, the next administration must fix the broken policymaking apparatus in Washington. It must rediscover the merits of measures short of war, learn how to use military power sparingly to support rather than supplant diplomacy, and cultivate the habit of asking “and then what?” before beginning military campaigns.

When he was asked in 1787 what system he and our other founding fathers had given Americans, Benjamin Franklin famously replied, “a republic, if you can keep it.” For two centuries, we kept it. Now, if we cannot repair the incivility, dysfunction, and corruption of our politics, we will lose our republic as well as our imperium. America’s problems were made in the USA, by Americans, not by refugees, immigrants, or foreigners. They cry out for Americans to fix them.

Remarks to East Bay Citizens for Peace, the Barrington Congregational Church, and the American Friends Service Committee on April 2, 2016 in Barrington, Rhode Island. Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.) is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

by Chas W. Freeman, Jr.

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