Saturday, April 22, 2017

Democracy Hacked: The Decline and Fall of the Western World

The biggest story of my generation is how a weakened Russian government used fake news, Twitter bots, the viral spiral of social media, and hackers to weaponize an international alt-right movement for its own purposes. The results of this sophisticated combination of manufactured propaganda and social media platforms; willing Western patsies like Carter Page, Wikileaks' Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden; combined with outright hacking/theft have left their mark on Western democracies.

In Britain there was the surprising BREXIT which weakened the EU and shocked the UK. In America there was the surprising election of Trump which has weakened the United States politically and militarily. In the upcoming German and French elections we have the alt-right candidates which are -surprisingly- rising in the polls while documented attacks from Russian hackers are ramping up. Even if the anti-immigrant neoconservatives don't win this election they are well-positioned and funded by Russian government to continue undermining Western democracies and media. Putin and his ilk will continue to hack and attack at the foundations of the fourth estate because his 'cyber army' has been enormously effective, costs a fraction of the military, props up his kleptocratic economic ties abroad, while shoring up his base at home around nationalism. There has never been a more naked attempt at corruption but it's not coming from strength. The Russians are lashing out and attempting to destroy Western democracies before the slow-moving effects of economic sanctions and oil prices wipe out the country's power base. Here is some back story.

After the US invasion of Iraq, Russian leader Vladimir Putin was sulking. He was surrounded by military quagmires while it appeared that the US power was surging. In America, neoconservatives were promoted the idea of 'alt facts' which is precursor to the Trump administration. In justifying the use of fake evidence for an 'oil war' conservatives were proposing the idea that the US had reached such a zenith of power that it could alter facts simply by reiterating whatever it wanted to happen until it became reality. Iraq's WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction) seemed real because everyone in the Bush administration was saying it, so they blanketed the airwaves with this fear. Despite the lack of evidence, massive international protests, and no immediate threat, one party -primarily the Republicans- combined with use of Fox News and conservative radio used the droning noise of WMD to take control of all the major levers of power: The UN, the US government, the media. Do not think Putin -a life-long KGB man- did not notice this. Former French President Nicholas Sarkozy reportedly had a conversation with Putin in which the Russian leader's expressed jealousy at Bush's naked lies and power grab.

Later at a summit Putin told Sarkozy that he was going to hang the President of Georgia 'by the balls.' Sarkozy was shocked and asked why he would threaten another country's leader like that and Putin responded like a sullen child that Bush had gotten away with hanging Saddam Hussein. Hussein has been a useful idiot for Russia and it was a shock to see a former ally being hung on TV thanks to an entirely fabricated information campaign by the United States. Putin tried to do the same thing militarily in various countries but Russia's armed forces aren't as strong as the United States. Sarkozy only won the argument by reminding Putin 'do you want to end up like President Bush?' Putin conceded the point but the wheels were already turning.

Over the next few years, Putin continued to look for his 'Iraq' power grab. He decided that soft power was the way to approach things. Russia could influence democracy by using the media and hackers to promoted comprised candidates who would be Moscow-friendly. Think tanks and Russian conferences were formed to spread Putin's tentacles of influence to all the major world capitals.  Putin was going to take advantage of the power vacuum of a weakened America that was bogged down in two wars (Afghanistan and Iraq0.

In 2010 Russian ally Viktor Yanukovych was elected president of the Ukraine. This was seen as a key victory because the EU was trying to expand its reach to the Ukraine. The new president turned down the EU offer and Western powers began using its own media campaign against Yanukovych. Granted Yanukovych was a bad leader: corrupt, clumsy, and compromised by Russian intelligence. He fit the model of compromised Russian assets, much like President Trump and former French President Nicholas Sarkozy. In his first year Yanukovych made a number of obvious attempts to hedge free debate and align with Russia. If he had been a more sophisticated politician he could have succeeded in quietly removing the Ukraine from the EU snare. Instead, he was swept out of office in 2014 thanks to Western pressures. Naturally Yanukovych fled into Putin's bosom and received political exile.

In response to Yanukovych's exile, Russian forces invaded the Ukraine under the guise of being 'liberators.' This invasion became a unwitting trial balloon for the power of Russian hackers in coordination Russian-friendly agents in the media, and think tanks connected to various world capitals. Former Trump advisor Paul Manafort and Carter Page were at the forefront of this pro-Russia cheering section during the Ukraine invasion. Manafort was paid millions to weaken American resolve in opposing Russia's invasion. Fortunately the conservative henchman had President Obama as foil, so he just went running to Fox News. It was at this time when praise of Putin started ramping up in the conservative media. He was both lauded as a 'strong leader' for his invasion of the Ukraine and someone who had struck fear in the hearts of a seemingly feckless Dem president. The GOP base ate this up because it portrayed President Obama as weak...and in return they got millions of dollars funneled to a Russian-friendly Republican party and media. The fact is that Obama was playing a smart hand. Economic sanctions against Russia were devastating. Additionally 'oil fracking' ramped up under Obama and turned the United States into the #1 oil producer in the world. When American oil hit the market -combined with economic sanctions- Russian oligarchs were crushed. Some lost half of their portfolio value in a few years. Billions of dollars were wiped out by Obama playing petro-politics combined with the EU. The next phase was supposed to be a new level of flooding the petroleum markets with even more US oil.

At the start of 2016 something that terrified many tinpot dictators and oil barons happened: America began exporting oil. After a 40 year ban, the American government was going to use its newly-fracked surplus of oil to bludgeon Putin and unfriendly Mideast dictators.  Oil prices sunk below $30. To give this some context, it had been as high as $100-a-barrel at the end of the Bush administration's Mideast clusterfuck. In 2010 oil was still $80-a-barrel. And now in 2016 it had lost over half its value. For a petroleum economy like Russia, this meant economic depression. In April 2016 the US began exporting natural gas. The US government was strategically castrating Putin and it didn't like what it saw on the horizon in the upcoming presidential election: Hilary Clinton. If gas dropped below $20 a barrel that might led to a new Russian revolution. Putin pressured OPEC but really the reality of US oil exports was a dire existential threat to both parties. Oil was drastically cut back to match the American surge and prices rose to $50-a-barrel.

The next step for Putin was to secure long-term allies to buy Russian oil. The problem is that Russian and OPEC oil comes from unstable regions filled with government corruption and/or bad equipment. The US oil comes from a relatively stable democracy with also relatively reliable production. Furthermore Russia was at a geographic disadvantage: its land mass was encircled by the Pacific Rim on its right flank and the EU on its left. Putin's hostility made an EU partnership impossible in the short-term (although very possible in the long-term if he could find a way to break up the EU power by getting nations to defect or withdraw from the EU...hence BREXIT).

Obama was pressuring Japan on its potential interest Russian economic partnership. The short message from the Obama administration was 'DO NOT DO IT.' And from Japan's vantage point there wasn't a lot of economic advantages to upsetting its most important economic ally for a corrupt, clunky petroleum kleptocracy that didn't really make anything nor have the consumer buying power to lure big countries. Then there was China, sitting in the middle and playing both sides off each other. The Obama administration decided to leverage China with TPP. The TransPacific was an initiative set up among 12 countries with ports in the Pacific. The goal of these 12 countries was simple: avoid getting swallowed by Chinese corporations. America pushed TPP to lasso in the biggest Pacific countries so that it could use that as leverage against China and Russia. The only hold-out was South Korea, but they were taking a cautiously interested look at TPP to see if it would work.

The Russian oligarchs REALLY hated TPP. Using Russian think tanks and media agents, TPP became this monstrosity that was going to destroy the American worker. It is hilarious because TPP was created as a stopgap on Chinese power and Russian attempts at leverage. The agreement was seen as a way of forcing China to crackdown on piracy, hacking, and adhere to industrial standards. These are all things that benefit the US economy, but TPP was shrouded in secrecy so it looked very fishy. Many American voters were still pissed off about NAFTA (even though NAFTA was a net-gain positive for the US economy), so demonizing TPP was easy. From the left, you had Russian-friendly socialists like Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein. From the right, you had populists like Trump. TPP was one of the few things far right-wing and left-wing ideologues could mutually hate. Thousands of Russian bots on social media kicked up the anti-TPP claims. It got to the point where Clinton said she would reverse herself and withdraw from the TPP if president, but she was probably just saying that to quell the left-wing in her own party. If elected, Clinton would have probably found some loophole or excuse to keep TPP around because it's something that offers US government enormous sway over Russia and China.

SO....this is the outlook at the start of 2016: Russia is weak, surrounded, and met on multiple fronts with hostile powers. For America there was no rush because Russia can not sustain itself. It is a one-man nation being held together by spies, oligarchs, mafias, and fear. And all roads led back to Putin.
Hilary Clinton was the enemy. It wasn't because she is a woman or promoted liberal values. Clinton was the enemy because she knew exactly what Putin wanted to do. She was for the TPP and her energy policy was going to be like Obama on steroids toward Putin. Her foreign policy called for exporting even more American oil to destroy's Putin's base.

In the presidential debates, Hillary Clinton famously referred to Trump as Putin's 'puppet.' You can see the restraint in her face in not going further. In retrospect her unwillingness to speak further on the matter, combined with Obama's silence, and the American media being distracted by her infernal emails created the perfect cover for Trump. Her restraint and belief in the inevitability of common sense was a key strategic flaw. Clinton, as well as most people in DC, underestimated the sway of the bot-infected social media platform that was microtargeting white voters in swing states through ads and links to fake news. Trump also received financial and cyber help from Russia. The DNC hacks were done to weaken Bernie Sanders supporters for the Dems, while continuing the compelling narrative of Clinton being Lady Macbeth. Fake News floated everything from Clinton having Parkinson's, to being demented, to being a mastermind serial killer with shrewd brilliance. She was a monster, a villain, brilliantly evil, and also demented...and a lesbian.

Russian hackers and bots were playing to one of the biggest weaknesses of Western democracy: white men and their hatred. Employing a mixture of racism, xenophobia, anti-immigration fever, and misogyny, Russia galvanized alt-right through the online platforms. They did this in Britain, America, and now this same strategy is spreading to France to get right-wing French people to hate immigrants. It will be spreading to Germany and every other nation in the EU. It doesn't have to succeed everywhere, but just enough to destroy the EU.

The Machiavellian shrewdness of Putin is evident in his plan because he took all the tools of Western democracy and economy and have turned them against its owner. The internet can now be manipulated by programmed bots that spread meme of propaganda to under-informed citizens. The 'free press' can be pried with the allure of 'hacked secrets' distributed through Wikileaks without really questioning the motives behind the leaks or who is benefiting. The neoconservatives philosophy of 'alt facts' fits right in line with the KGB psychological operations (known as psy-ops) in controlling public discourse through fake news. And Eurocentric cultures are now struggling with losing their white identity to the new wave of African, Arab, and Latino families that creating an identity crisis and fear throughout the US and Western Europe.

In Trump's first 100 days TPP is dead. Oil prices have started to rise again, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is busy trying to negotiate waivers for Russian oil companies to start drilling.

The hacking of western democracy is the biggest story of this decade because it combines international war and economic powers jockeying for position, along with the manipulation of TV and social media bots to micro-target low-information citizens. And it worked. No Russian troops were necessary to topple Western democracy. All Putin needed to succeed was an army of hackers, a morally corrupt alt-right, greedy American consultants and businessmen, and Western culture's fear of the brown population explosion. These factors have compel white people to destroy their own governments and unite around Putin. 

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