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Institute for the Study of War

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Founded in 2007 by Kim Kagan, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) is a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that has supported long-term U.S. military intervention abroad, particularly in countries in the Greater Middle East.

Although closely connected to neoconservative advocacy circles, ISW considers itself “a non-partisan, non-profit, public policy research organization” devoted to advancing “an informed understanding of military affairs through reliable research, trusted analysis, and innovative education.”[1]

ISW has been critical of both the Obama and Trump administrations’ policies, particularly in Syria. A February 2018 opinion piece by Jennifer Cafarella, one of ISW’s leading analysts, typified the group’s critique, writing, “The U.S. has lost sight of the relationship between diplomacy and war. American diplomats dealing with the Syrian crisis lack the leverage and credibility necessary to conduct effective diplomacy. The U.S. has used few other tools of national power to support them and has refused to contemplate using military force beyond self-defense or tactical retaliation for the use of chemical weapons. Assad will continue to pursue all-out military victory as long the U.S. remains thus on the sidelines, and all diplomatic efforts except surrender will fail.”[2]

ISW’s work initially focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, but over the years its scope broadened, moving along with areas of conflict directly or indirectly involving the United States. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, ISW included that conflict in its list of projects, later producing reports tying Russian military activity in Ukraine and Syria into a broader view of Russia’s overall military strategy.[3]

Projects

ISW’s early work focused almost entirely on Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently, it has published reports on Iran, Syria, Libya, and the Gulf States. Today the bulk of ISW’s research is categorized under projects devoted specifically to Iraq, Afghanistan, ISIS, Syria, or “Middle East Security.” It has also included analysis of Ukraine, and a renewed focus on Russian activities both in that country and in Syria.ISW’s Ukraine Project has expanded to include a broader analysis of Russian activities. A March 2018 report, by Catherine Harris and Frederick Kagan warns that the U.S. and its NATO allies are not prepared for a military confrontation with Russia.

“The Russian military is well positioned to launch a short-notice conventional war in Ukraine and a hybrid war in the Baltic States, the opposite of what Western leaders seem to expect in each theater,” the report summary states. “NATO leaders increasingly warn of the threat of a conventional invasion of the Baltic States (or even Western Europe). But Russian ground forces are not deployed or organized to initiate a short-notice conventional war in that region. They have, however, redeployed and reorganized since 2014 in a way that would support a rapid mechanized invasion of Ukraine from both north and east, while remaining well-prepared to conduct a hybrid warfare intervention in the Baltics similar to what they did in Ukraine after the Maidan Revolution. The United States and its partners should re-evaluate the most likely Russian courses of action and reconsider the mix of military and non-military tools required to defend NATO allies and Ukraine from potential Russian aggression.”[4]

ISW’s Turkey Project became more active in 2017 and 2018 as relations between the United States and Turkey deteriorated. They adopted, once again, a critical posture. In a February 2018 article, ISW analyst Jennifer Cafarella wrote, “The U.S. has lost sight of the larger issues that American strategy towards Turkey must also address. Turkey is doing more than reacting to U.S. policy in Syria. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is becoming more authoritarian and aggressive as he campaigns to consolidate domestic power and win Turkey’s 2019 presidential election, for which he needs far-right nationalist votes. His Syrian campaign is part of an expansionist, neo-Ottoman foreign policy. The U.S. must constrain Erdogan not only to salvage anti-ISIS gains but also to dampen a global trend towards new wars that redefine state borders.”[5]

ISW figures have been vocal proponents of escalating U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war. In a 2018 article, ISW’s Lead Analyst, Jennifer Cafarella wrote, “U.S. behavior in Syria signals that we do not have the will to defend our interests or commit the resources necessary to achieve our stated goals. The American homeland, American allies and American partners are less safe as a result.”[6] This echoes views expressed about both Barack Obama’s and Donald Trump’s approach to Syria.

After Trump launched a missile strike against Syrian air bases, ISW expressed some hope for a policy in Syria that they could support, writing on their web site, “President Trump’s action could reset the terms of America’s confrontation of other hostile states, such as North Korea. President Trump may be shifting away from a narrow focus on the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) as the strategic priority in Syria and toward a new approach.”[7]

But even at that point, their enthusiasm was limited and based on the hope of more moves in the same direction. ISW Syria analyst Christopher Kozak stated, “Deterrence is a persistent condition, not a one hour strike package. President Trump has demonstrated his intent and capability to use American force if necessary. He must sustain pressure against Assad in order to set conditions to achieve vital US national security interests in Syria.”[8]

ISW has long been advocating a more robust U.S. presence in Syria, arguing that U.S. security depended on removing the Assad regime and diminishing the influence of Iran and Russia in the region.

In a 2013 article for the Hoover Institution‘s Strategika, Kim Kagan established an ISW baseline on Syria, arguing that Washington should fully arm and equip “moderate” factions in Syria’s armed opposition with the aim of overthrowing the Assad regime. Arguing that the “security of the United States and its allies would be significantly enhanced if Assad fell and Iranian influence over Syria were removed,” Kagan wrote that the “United States should fully support the secular opposition to Bashar al-Assad through the provision of funds, weapons, equipment, and training.”[9]

Elizabeth O’Bagy, a researcher who led the organization’s Syria Team for much of 2013 advocated more forceful strategies while based at ISW, including pushing direct U.S. attacks on critical regime infrastructure and supplying the rebels with heavy weaponry. O’Bagy outlined this case in a controversial August 2013 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which she also argued that reports of extremist involvement in Syria’s armed opposition were overblown—a claim that was subsequently repeated by intervention advocates like Sen. John McCain and Secretary of State John Kerry. Several observers disputed this assessment. Reuters reported that it was “at odds with estimates by U.S. and European intelligence sources and nongovernmental experts, who say Islamic extremists remain by far the fiercest and best-organized rebel elements.”[10]

More controversially, the Journal initially failed to disclose that O’Bagy had been a paid consultant—with the title “political director”—for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an interest group deeply linked to the Syrian rebels that has advocated similar position’s to O’Bagy’s. “O’Bagy seems to pass herself off as an impartial observer of the situation,” said one Center for Security Policy staffer quoted by the Daily Caller. “Her access to Congress, intelligence services and to think tanks should be regarded as what it really is, which is a reflection of the Syrian rebels’ cause and aspirations.”[11] ISW stood by O’Bagy’s impartiality, but subsequently fired her after learning that she had exaggerated her credentials in claiming that she had earned a PhD from Georgetown when in fact she was not even enrolled in a program.[12]

ISW’s Iraq Project, once a clearinghouse for reports and commentaries advocating prolonged U.S. troop presence in Iraq, is now devoted to issues of Iraqi security, internal Iraqi politics, and U.S.-Iraqi relations.

Previously, ISW played an important role promoting the 2007 “surge” in Iraq. In 2009 it released a film called “The Surge: the Untold Story,” a 34-minute documentary that favorably covered the Iraq surge and included interviews with key players in the war and the surge strategy, including Gen. Raymond Odierno and Amb. Ryan Crocker.[13]

Relations with the Military

In the past, ISW often provided a podium for military brass who advocate the escalation of U.S. military engagements.[14] In January 2010, General David Petraeus spoke at an ISW event promoting the “surge” in Iraq. He argued that “far more important than the surge of 30,000 additional U.S. troops was the surge of ideas that helped us to employ those troops, and that surge of forces enabled the employment of the new ideas that were indeed the key to making the progress that has been achieved in Iraq over the course of the last three years.” Petraeus went on to compliment his hosts, saying: “At that time, Kim was in a different location, but the founder of the ISW guided together with Fred and a number of other heroes a study and analysis that did indeed have a strategic impact unlike that of any other study or analysis that I can think of,” referring to the 2007 report that gave political traction to the surge theory in Iraq.[15]

The Kagans have long enjoyed a close relationship with Petraeus, even drawing the scrutiny of military investigators into the treatment they received as civilian advisers to the general in Afghanistan. According to a December 2012 Washington Post investigation, the Kagans visited Afghanistan repeatedly and extensively throughout Petraeus’ tenure there, during which time they received extraordinary accommodations for civilian visitors—including near round-the-clock access to military and intelligence officials, top-level security clearance, and priority travel to anywhere in the country, as well as desks and military email accounts. In return, the Kagans advised Petraeus and penned supportive op-eds about the general and the war effort when they periodically returned home.[16] More recently, in 2015, ISW hosted future National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, but has since turned away from public events to other activities.

Although the Kagans did not receive compensation from the U.S. military for their advisory work, the Post noted that they continued to receive paychecks from their respective think tanks while they were advising Petraeus. “For Kim Kagan, spending so many months away from research and advocacy work in Washington could have annoyed many donors to the Institute for the Study of War,” it observed. “But her major backers appear to have been pleased that she cultivated such close ties with Petraeus.”[17]

Many of ISW’s major contributors and fundraisers—including DynCorps International, CACI International, and General Dynamics—are military contractors with active interests in the Afghan war. At a 2011 ISW event honoring Petraeus, Kagan thanked her corporate supporters for sponsoring her “ability to have a 15-month deployment [in Afghanistan] essentially in the service of those who needed some help.”[18]

At a $10,000-a-head dinner ISW held in his honor after the end of his command in Afghanistan, Petraeus himself acknowledged his close relationship with the Kagans. “What the Kagans do is they grade my work on a daily basis,” he said to laughs from ISW donors. “There’s some suspicion that there’s a hand up my back, and it makes my lips talk, and it’s operated by one of the Doctors Kagan.”[19]

Leadership and Funding

ISW does not publicize on its website the members of its board of directors. However, they did publish a list of their directors in their annual report. The board includes ISW President, Kimberly Kagan as well as neoconservative luminaries, Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Bill Kristol. Past directors, according to tax documents, included: Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney and founder of the right-wing advocacy group Keep America Safe; Jack Keane, a retired four-star general who coauthored with Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute “Choosing Victory,” a 2007 study that served as a blueprint for the so-called “surge” in Iraq; Dennis Showalter, a military historian; Hal Hirsch; Bill Roberti; and Kim Kagan.

According to its 2016 Form 990, ISW had operating expenses of just under $1.85 million that year. They raised approximately $2.37 million in 2016.

A non-exhaustive Right Web investigation[20] of Form 990 U.S. tax records revealed nearly $700,000 in donations from charitable foundations during 2007-2009. Donations included nearly $180,000 from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a premier neoconservative advocacy group, as well as $60,000 from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a right-wing foundation that has funded other militarist outfits like the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) and Daniel PipesMiddle East Forum, earning it a spot among the top funders of the anti-Islamic discourse in the United States according to a 2011 report by the Center for American Progress.[21] The Marcus Foundation, which has also supported MEMRI, contributed another $250,000 to ISW during this period.

ISW has increasingly drawn support from military contractors with stakes in the issues that the institute studies. “According to ISW’s last annual report,”[22] noted Consortium News in December 2012, “its original supporters were mostly right-wing foundations, such as the Smith-Richardson Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, but it now is backed by national security contractors, including major ones like General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and CACI, as well as lesser-known firms such as DynCorp International, which provides training for Afghan police, and Palantir, a technology company founded with the backing of the CIA’s venture-capital arm, In-Q-Tel. Palantir supplies software to U.S. military intelligence in Afghanistan.”[23]

 

SOURCES

[1] ISW, “Who We Are,” http://www.understandingwar.org/who-we-are.

[2] Jennifer Cafarella, “US passivity in the face of Syrian atrocities is hurting our global interests,” FOX News, February 22, 2018, http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2018/02/22/us-passivity-in-face-syrian-atrocities-is-hurting-our-global-interests.html

[3] Catherine Harris and Frederick Kagan, “Russia’s Military Posture: Ground Forces Order of Battle,” ISW, March 7, 2018, http://www.understandingwar.org/report/russias-military-posture

[4] Catherine Harris and Frederick Kagan, “Russia’s Military Posture: Ground Forces, Order of Battle,” Institute for the Study of War, March 2018, http://www.understandingwar.org/report/russias-military-posture

[5] Jennifer Cafarella, “Tamping down the crisis in Turkey,” The Hill, February 16, 2018,” http://thehill.com/opinion/international/374226-tamping-down-the-crisis-in-turkey

[6] Jennifer Cafarella, “US passivity in the face of Syrian atrocities is hurting our global interests,” FOX News, February 22, 2018, http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2018/02/22/us-passivity-in-face-syrian-atrocities-is-hurting-our-global-interests.html

[7] Genevieve Casagrande, “Syria Strike Opens Door For New U.S. Strategy,” Institute for the Study of War, April 8, 2017, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/syria-strike-opens-doors-us-strategy

[8] ISW Press, “ISW Analysts React to the U.S.’ anti-Assad Strike In Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, April 6, 2017, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/isw-analysts-react-uss-anti-assad-strike-syria

[9] Kimberly Kagan, “The Smart and Right Thing in Syria,” Hoover Institution “Strategika,” 2013, https://www.hoover.org/research/smart-and-right-thing-syria

[10] Charles C. Johnson, “Woman informing Kerry, McCain’s opinions on Syria also an advocate for Syrian rebels,” Daily Caller, September 5, 2013, http://dailycaller.com/2013/09/05/woman-informing-kerry-mccains-opinions-on-syria-also-an-advocate-for-syrian-rebels/?print=1.

[11] Charles C. Johnson, “Woman informing Kerry, McCain’s opinions on Syria also an advocate for Syrian rebels,” Daily Caller, September 5, 2013, http://dailycaller.com/2013/09/05/woman-informing-kerry-mccains-opinions-on-syria-also-an-advocate-for-syrian-rebels/?print=1.

[12] Zach Beauchamp, “The Inside Story Of How A Fake PhD Hijacked The Syria Debate,” Think Progress, September 11, 2013, http://thinkprogress.org/security/2013/09/11/2601151/exclusive-mccain-kerry-cited-syria-analyst-false-credentials/.

[13] The Institute for the Study of War, “The Surge: The Untold Story,” Small Wars journal, http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/the-surge-the-untold-story

[14] For more on ISW and its relationship to the U.S. military, see Michael Flynn, “The Surge of Ideas,” Right Web, June 2010, /the_surge_of_ideas/

[15] ISW, “CENTCOM in 2010: Views from General David H. Petraeus,” January 22, 2010, http://www.understandingwar.org/press-media/webcast/centcom-2010-views-general-david-h-petraeus-video

[16] Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Civilian analysts gained Petraeus’s ear while he was commander in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, December 18, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/civilian-analysts-gained-petraeuss-ear-while-he-was-commander-in-afghanistan/2012/12/18/290c0b50-446a-11e2-8061-253bccfc7532_print.html.

[17] Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Civilian analysts gained Petraeus’s ear while he was commander in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, December 18, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/civilian-analysts-gained-petraeuss-ear-while-he-was-commander-in-afghanistan/2012/12/18/290c0b50-446a-11e2-8061-253bccfc7532_print.html.

[18] Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Civilian analysts gained Petraeus’s ear while he was commander in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, December 18, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/civilian-analysts-gained-petraeuss-ear-while-he-was-commander-in-afghanistan/2012/12/18/290c0b50-446a-11e2-8061-253bccfc7532_print.html.

[19] Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Civilian analysts gained Petraeus’s ear while he was commander in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, December 18, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/civilian-analysts-gained-petraeuss-ear-while-he-was-commander-in-afghanistan/2012/12/18/290c0b50-446a-11e2-8061-253bccfc7532_print.html.

[20] “Institute for the Study of War 501(c)3 Financing, 2007-2009,” Right Web, November 2011, /images/uploads/Right_Web_-_Nov_2011_-_ISW_Financing.pdf

[21] Faiz Shakir, “REPORT: $42 Million From Seven Foundations Helped Fuel The Rise Of Islamophobia In America,” Think Progress, August 26, 2011, https://thinkprogress.org/report-42-million-from-seven-foundations-helped-fuel-the-rise-of-islamophobia-in-america-3e55497d4455/

[22] Institute for the Study of War, 2011 Annual Report, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/2011_AnnualReport_26MAR_email.pdf

[23] Robert Parry, “Neocons Guided Petraeus on Afghan War,” Consortium News, December 19, 2012, http://consortiumnews.com/2012/12/19/neocons-guided-petraeus-on-afghan-war/.

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Please note: IPS Right Web neither represents nor endorses any of the individuals or groups profiled on this site.

Sources

[1] Kimberly Kagan, “The Smart and Right Thing in Syria,” Hoover Institution “Strategika,” 2013, http://www.hoover.org/related-materials/144816.

[2] Charles C. Johnson, “Woman informing Kerry, McCain’s opinions on Syria also an advocate for Syrian rebels,” Daily Caller, September 5, 2013, http://dailycaller.com/2013/09/05/woman-informing-kerry-mccains-opinions-on-syria-also-an-advocate-for-syrian-rebels/?print=1.

[3] Charles C. Johnson, “Woman informing Kerry, McCain’s opinions on Syria also an advocate for Syrian rebels,” Daily Caller, September 5, 2013, http://dailycaller.com/2013/09/05/woman-informing-kerry-mccains-opinions-on-syria-also-an-advocate-for-syrian-rebels/?print=1.

[4] Zach Beauchamp, “The Inside Story Of How A Fake PhD Hijacked The Syria Debate,” Think Progress, September 11, 2013, http://thinkprogress.org/security/2013/09/11/2601151/exclusive-mccain-kerry-cited-syria-analyst-false-credentials/.

[5] See, for example, Marisa Sullivan, 2013 Iraq Weekly Updat #4C: “Iraq Moves Toward Civil War,” ISW, January 31, 2013, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/2013-iraq-weekly-update-4c-iraq-moves-toward-civil-war.

[6] The Institute for the Study of War, “The Surge: The Untold Story,” http://www.understandingthesurge.org/

[7] ISW, “Afghanistan,” http://www.understandingwar.org/afghanistan.

[8] Frederick Kagan and Christopher Harmer, “How Many Troops Does the U.S. Need in Afghanistan?” ISW, January 17, 2013, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/how-many-troops-does-us-need-afghanistan,

[9] Kimberly and Frederick Kagan, “Why U.S. troops must stay in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, November 23, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-us-troops-must-stay-in-afghanistan/2012/11/23/e452bb92-3287-11e2-9cfa-e41bac906cc9_print.html.

[10] ISW, “Middle East Security,” http://www.understandingwar.org/middle-east-security.

[11] Khody Akhavi, “Report Shows New Neocon Angle on Iran,” Right Web, February 27, 2008, http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/articles/display/Report_Shows_New_Neocon_Angle_on_Iran.

[12] Jim Lobe, “Outsourcing the Case for War With Iran,” Lobelog.com, August, 29, 2007, http://www.lobelog.com/outsourcing-the-case-for-war-with-iran/

[13] ISW, “CENTCOM in 2010: Views from General David H. Petraeus,” January 22, 2010, http://www.understandingwar.org/press-media/webcast/centcom-2010-views-general-david-h-petraeus-video

[14] Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Civilian analysts gained Petraeus’s ear while he was commander in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, December 18, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/civilian-analysts-gained-petraeuss-ear-while-he-was-commander-in-afghanistan/2012/12/18/290c0b50-446a-11e2-8061-253bccfc7532_print.html.

[15] Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Civilian analysts gained Petraeus’s ear while he was commander in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, December 18, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/civilian-analysts-gained-petraeuss-ear-while-he-was-commander-in-afghanistan/2012/12/18/290c0b50-446a-11e2-8061-253bccfc7532_print.html.

[16] Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Civilian analysts gained Petraeus’s ear while he was commander in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, December 18, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/civilian-analysts-gained-petraeuss-ear-while-he-was-commander-in-afghanistan/2012/12/18/290c0b50-446a-11e2-8061-253bccfc7532_print.html.

[17] Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Civilian analysts gained Petraeus’s ear while he was commander in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, December 18, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/civilian-analysts-gained-petraeuss-ear-while-he-was-commander-in-afghanistan/2012/12/18/290c0b50-446a-11e2-8061-253bccfc7532_print.html.

[18] Robert Parry, “Neocons Guided Petraeus on Afghan War,” Consortium News, December 19, 2012, http://consortiumnews.com/2012/12/19/neocons-guided-petraeus-on-afghan-war/.

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Institute for the Study of War Résumé

Contact Information

The Institute for the Study of War
1400 16th Street NW, Suite 515
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 293-5550
isw@understandingwar.org
Founded

2007

Board of Directors (as of 2017)

  • General Jack Keane, (U.S. Army, Ret.), Chairman
  • Dr. Kimberly Kagan
  • Dr. William Kristol
  • Joseph I. Lieberman
  • Kevin Mandia
  • General David H. Petraeus (U.S. Army, Ret.)
  • Colonel William Roberti (U.S. Army, Ret.)
  • Jack D. McCarthy, Jr.

Mission (2018)

“The Institute for the Study of War advances an informed understanding of military affairs through reliable research, trusted analysis, and innovative education. We are committed to improving the nation’s ability to execute military operations and respond to emerging threats in order to achieve U.S. strategic objectives. ISW is a non-partisan, non-profit, public policy research organization.”
ISW 501c(3) Donors, 2007-2009

  • Foundation for Defense of Democracies: $178, 493
  • Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation: $60,000
  • Marcus Foundation: $250,000
  • T. Boone Pickens Foundation: $200,000

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The Right Web Mission

Right Web tracks militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy.

For media inquiries,
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