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Originally published in RURAL RUMINATIONS

On Sunday, July 23rd on CBS’ “Face the Nation”, Congressman  Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that the most important issue facing the country in the Russian matter was whether or not the President had some as yet unearthed vulnerability that might make him susceptible to political control from Moscow.

In this crazy world, the President is his own worst enemy.  Despite his virtually endless statements about “fake news” and this “witch hunt”, all he has managed to do with his constant tweets is keep the matter alive and on the front pages, to the detriment of his own and the Republicans’ agendas.

In what clearly was a rash initiative on the President’s part, he said recently of those states that refuse to participate in the work of his “Election Integrity Committee”, “If any state does not want to share this information, one has to wonder what they’re worried about.”  Did it not occur to him that the exact same question could be asked about his dogged refusal to release any information on his tax returns?  What then would be his reason to worry of those returns became public.  Parenthetically, it is beginning to look as if the Mueller investigation may go after that information.

There is a wealth of factual information available that reveals much of what motivates the President.  Just look at the Mueller investigation and the events that led up to it.  Start with the firing off FBI Director Comey whom he has ever since done his very best to vilify.  Move on to Attorney General Sessions who is now be castigated for having recused himself from the investigation of the Russian matter, despite the fact that that recusion was dictated by Justice Department rules.  Just now we see the President attacking the acting Director of the FBI for not vigorously pursuing Mrs. Clinton and her “wrongdoings”.

The President clearly will do or say anything to get the Russian investigation off his back.

One must ask if the vilification of Sessions is a precursor to his firing, to the appointment of a new Attorney General and to the ultimate firing of Mr. Mueller.  In the meantime, it has been widely reported that the Trump White House has ordered that Mueller and his investigators be thoroughly vetted with the goal of impugning their integrity and impartiality.  That sounds like the good old Nixon days!

It would appear that, irrespective of his success in denigrating the Mueller group, the President will have to deal with increasingly bipartisan motivated investigations in the House and Senate Committees.  And in the midst of all this, some of his closest advisors and family members are being asked to appear before those committees.

That apparently has persuaded the President to ask about his ability to pardon people, even including himself.  In this specific case, the President has reacted to outside stimuli in a way totally consistent with someone who is guilty of something.  It is certainly not the reaction of a person who has nothing relevant to hide.

Finally, and in the same context of the issue put by Congressman Schiff, we need to look at the President’s policies as reflected in his actions and statements, to see if they are  consistent with the goals of any foreign power.

Examine the moves made by President Trump during his short time in office.  Under hostile influence, every move would have to undermine American strength.  He would have to undercut NATO, weaken the European Union, causing dissention within the former East European countries, damage US foreign policy goals, weaken the international influence of the US, encourage the destabilizing flow of refugees from the Middle East to Europe.  He would move us out of international agreements (Climate, NAFTA and the Trans Pacific Partnership). Trump’s recent move to cease support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria is a specific Russian goal, now achieved.

He would get an A+ from any hostile country on all of these issues.

Putin’s underlying goal is to return Russia to the kind of “glory” and “power” that it had during the Cold War. To do that, he would have to somehow reduce the vast world-wide influence of the United States.  It really doesn’t matter whether, as suspected by Rep Schiff, the President is under Russian influence.  The President could see Russia as a power base and consider his close support of their policies to be his exploitation of the Russians, rather than their exploitation of him..

What really does matter is that Trump’s policies are clearly closely aligned with and supportive of Russian goals for the world, making our current policies a real cause for worry for Americans who recognize that Russia is not our best friend.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe, and the Middle East working primarily against Soviet and East European targets.  He was also Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff and Executive Assistant to the Deputy Director of the CIA. 

The author’s other writings can be seen on https://rural-ruminations.com

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Why Your Vote Counts

Originally published inThe Rutland Herald

 Those of us who are not highly partisan voters are faced this year with a choice between two unusually unattractive candidates. Some of us will take a deep breath, suck it up and vote for the one we believe to be less unattractive. Others say they simply will not vote at all.

The polls would seem to show that many of those who have made the decision not to vote are younger people who facing their first or second elections.

Those who plan not to vote are the voters who really need to take a second look. Why? Simple. Because there will be a number of Supreme Court justices appointed by the next president.

The Constitution gives the Supreme Court the power to overrule, if necessary, the actions of the president and Congress. In that context, the court has ruled in Citizens United that corporations and wealthy individuals may contribute, virtually without limit and at will, to political parties and candidates, in effect diluting the strength of the individual American’s vote.

Additional Roberts court rulings materially affect our lives in the areas of securities fraud, affirmative action, banking, campaign finance, wiretapping, the loss of personal freedoms, picture IDs for voters, and voting rights.

Where does the Constitution ban abortions? It bans murder, but does not tell us when abortion slides into murder. The court tells us that. What makes them more competent than medical doctors or ministers?

There is serious dissent, particularly in the law-enforcement community, about Roberts court decisions on gun rights. The Constitution protects gun ownership as follows: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” In the face of massive annual gun deaths, it’s hard for the vast majority of Americans to understand how that enables the decisions that the Roberts court has made that curtail any and all attempts, not to take handguns or semiautomatics away, but to make gun ownership safer.

Additionally, against the Jeffersonian dictum of the “separation of church and state,” a phrase accepted by virtually any American who can understand the Constitution, one now sees the current court edging into a practice of favoring one religion over other belief systems in matters of taxation, schools and monuments.

Where does all of this lead us? It leads to one extraordinarily important fact of American life that is all too often overlooked by voters. When we vote for presidential candidates, we are voting for future Supreme Court justices, almost all of whom, depending on our political and philosophical leanings, will make decisions that will make life either better or more contentious and difficult for large groups of our citizens.

What it says is that when you cast your vote for president, whether or not you like him or her, you had better be absolutely certain that your candidate shares your values and philosophy. If you truly believe that the Roberts court has improved life for all Americans, vote for a Republican, the more conservative the better.

Why? Because the president elected in 2016 will appoint up to five new justices. Four of the current members of the court are now over the age of 70. The Scalia seat is already open.

On the other hand, if you believe that wealthy individuals and organizations should not own either parties or candidates; that women should have control over their bodies; that Americans are often venal, cut legal corners and must be monitored to comply with existing laws; that we are in the process of losing our personal freedoms in the forlorn hope of gaining security; that we need to have background checks for gun purchasers and rule out those who are criminals or insane; that there is no place in the land for those who would underhandedly and illegally curtail anyone’s voting rights; that there should be more equity in the lives of all our citizens and that we need to decrease, not increase, the economic gap between the haves and the have-nots in America, then you need to pay attention to what the candidates are saying right now.

Your choice for president will be gone in four or eight years, but your vote will change the political posture of the court for decades to come, either for better or for worse. You had better make it count, for it will directly affect you, your children and grandchildren for most of your lives.

 

 

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It has become abundantly clear that the deployment of US military might to the Middle East has not served our national interests. In fact, as we increased our commitment from Afghanistan to Iraq, we saw our fight morphing from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency which brought with it problems we had not envisaged and which some of our leaders and politicians still refuse to acknowledge

 

This change came about largely as a result of our commitment of troops to the region. What the presence of those troops ultimately did was not so subtly persuade local citizens that we were not the savior that we had told them we were, but that we represented a threat to their own Islamic way of life. As soon as they made that mental adjustment, our problems with terrorism shifted into high gear.

 

Many of our politicians. having seen the horror of recent terrorist attacks here in America, say they want to fight ISIS and al Qaida overseas. How thoughtful of them! If we look at our own counterterrorism policy in the region right now, that means the commitment of US Special Forces, the continued deployment of drones and our openly acknowledged, heavy support of local military establishments in the battle against terrorism.

 

But it won’t work! We can commit limitless resources to counterterrorism in the Middle East and it will have no positive effect whatsoever. In fact, it will have a double negative effect. It will keep regional citizens and governments stirred up and angry about our activities on their turf and it will motivate terrorist organizations to take the fight to us here at home. And that doesn’t touch on the effect on self-motivated residents of America.

 

In comparison to Europe, we have one major counterterrorist advantage here in the US. That is the Atlantic Ocean. Since 9/11, the US has spent a fortune setting up a system which has enabled us to protect ourselves pretty well against terrorist operations that originate on the other side of that ocean.

 

What we have not been able to do is protect ourselves against self-starting, internet-radicalized citizens and residents of our own country. The lone wolf terrorist can, pretty much on his own, pick a target, assemble the necessary hardware and implement an attack. The Boston Marathon, Orlando, The World Trade Center, Fort Hood – The list goes on and on. In each case, there have been no readily interceptable communications between the perpetrator and terrorist organizations abroad. The perpetrators have been motivated at least partially by US military activities in the Middle East. Everything they need to know, from howto get weapons, to how to case a prospective site, to the construction of a bomb, is available in our stores or on the internet.

 

As long as we are actively involved militarily against these terrorist organizations in the Middle East, Americans will self-radicalize, get internet-educated and commit terrorist acts against American targets. Where we are pretty good at detecting and preventing plots that originate abroad, the lone wolf US resident is difficult if not impossible to detect and intercept. Our military counterterrorist activities in the Middle East, even if we were to get incredibly lucky and eliminate ISIS from its holdings in Syria and Iraq, will be feeding lone wolf motivation.

 

It’s time we took a really hard look at our present policy and figured out some other way to take on the terrorist problem. In the past, the one thing that has worked for nations suffering from terrorism has been a combination of Intelligence and Police work. Maybe we could start there, particularly with our home-grown problem.

 

 

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Originally published in the Rutland Herald on December 10,2015

There is one basic reality in the Middle East. The region contains a number of “countries” that were created out of whole cloth during the 19th and early 20th centuries by European colonial powers to suit their own purposes. The artificiality of those “countries” makes for a very unstable region.

Those “countries” are not in any sense internally cohesive, and many contain the seeds of their own disintegration. Historically, those “countries” have been governed repressively simply because the tribal, sectarian and national mixtures of residents are sufficiently volatile to require relatively strict repression for the maintenance of cohesion and public order.

The divisions that exist within those “countries” go back decades, centuries and millennia. Internal conflicts now exist where central, often repressive control has disappeared, as in Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Where open conflict has not broken out, some form of repression continues in force, as in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt (for the moment) and the Gulf States.

The American compulsion to export democracy and concomitant peace to that world has been proven incredibly naïve, largely because the only elements in the region that matter — tribal, sectarian and national — have no experience with democracy and are largely unprepared for and do not seek its introduction.

And in the midst of this instability, we find ourselves required to deal with ISIS. Some Americans believe that we are capable of “beating” ISIS and its allies and support boots on the ground. That may or may not be, but that is not the real issue. The real issue is, what comes after the defeat of that enemy?

An examination of Iraq shows that tribally, Iraq has approximately 150 groups; Nationally, 72-75 percent Arabs (Palestinians, marsh Arabs, Bedouins), 20-22 percent Kurds (Feylis, Yazidis, Shabaks and Kakais), 2 percent Assyrians, 2 percent Turkmen and 1 percent Armenians, Circassians, Persians, Sabians, Baha’is, Afro-Iraqis and Doms; and most important, the sectarian split between Sunni (35 percent) and Shia Muslims (65 percent).

An absence of conflict between all these groups has existed only when Iraq has been governed repressively, and that most emphatically includes the period, 2003-2011, when American troops supplied the muscle. Now that we have largely left, Iraq is settling into a period of internal conflicts between inimical groups.

Let’s assume that we send American troops into Syria and that those troops ultimately “beat” ISIS. What happens then? Syria is not populated by a cohesive or happy bunch. Nationalities present in Syria include Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, Circassians, Greeks, Kurds, Mandeans, Turkmen and Turks. Religions include Alawite, Christian, Druze, Mandean, Salafi, Shia, Sunni and Yazidi. There are tribes aplenty, particularly Bedouin.

On the issue of religion, it is worth noting that the Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam, who have repressively governed Syria for decades, represent about 12 percent of the population, while their rivals, the Sunnis, comprise around 75 percent. This situation is opposite to the one in Iraq where a minority of Sunnis governed repressively over a majority of Shia. The ongoing result in Iraq has been internecine warfare featuring the Shia who clearly seek retribution for decades of mistreatment by the Sunnis. It is not at all unlikely that the same would happen in Syria if the minority Alawites were to lose power to the majority Sunnis.

The way things now stand, with a majority of our 2016 presidential candidates favoring military intervention in Syria, it would seem that American boots on the ground in a struggle against ISIS, even if successful, could have some very unpleasant long-term results.

First, If we destroy ISIS, many of those “volunteers” now fighting with ISIS will more than likely go home and become self-motivated terrorists. The only likely difference between them and folks like the San Bernardino pair is that the new ones will be better trained and motivated and far harder to neutralize.

Then, assuming we are successful, who will govern? Russia, Hezbollah and Iran want Assad. We seem to want anyone but Assad. If we decide to impose a solution, it will be up to us to police it in a hostile and highly unsettled environment, which our boots on the ground will have created. The tribal, sectarian and national frictions that exist in Syria have been there and may remain forever. In short, the success of an American invasion, if we hope to change anything, will depend on our willingness to accept that there will be no predictable end to our occupation.

American boots on the ground is insanity. It’s simple: We can’t afford it. Let it be carried out by the neighbors, with our direct support, but without our direct involvement.

 

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Originally published in the Rutland Herald on October 07, 2015

Our military involvement in the Middle East began with Operation Desert Shield in 1990. At the end of that invasion, we did the only intelligent thing we have done in that area, we withdrew without ending Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq.

In the 15 years since then, we have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. We have been militarily involved in Syria, Yemen and Libya. The purpose of this involvement clearly was a desire to bring democracy to the Middle East, based on our idea of American exceptionalism.

Thus, we effectively ended the reign of the existing governments as the first step in establishing democracy. However hard it was pushed by the neoconservatives as part of a “regime change” policy during the administration of President George W. Bush, democracy was a goal we never reached. It never took because the countries and people in question had never had any exposure to democracy and had none of the prerequisites for reaching it successfully.

What we did was remove or try to remove the repressive governments in question. We succeeded in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and essentially, brought chaos to those countries, which previously had enjoyed stability brought on by repressive governance. We created that chaos by militarily removing those regimes and then not being able to install the kind of benevolent democratic governance we wanted to see in place.

Our current administration has been severely criticized by its political opponents for not having stayed on and maintained order in Afghanistan and Iraq. Theoretically, we could have done that. The problem is that there would have been no end to those occupations because the countries in question have inherent internal religious, tribal and ethnic conflicts that have never been fixed and that may never be resolved.

These are problems that have been contained over the past 14 centuries through repressive governance. Any continued successful occupation of those countries by U.S. forces would have had to have been repressive as well as open-ended. Under those circumstances, the result of our ultimate withdrawal would most likely have ended in instability as it has today.

Essentially, what we have done is destroy existing, repressive order expecting to install democracy. Democracy doesn’t take, and we end up, inevitably, with chaos.

Consider Egypt. The Arab Spring brought a revolution to Egypt. A military dictator was deposed and a new, allegedly fundamentalist government was installed. That terrified the military establishment, which engineered a coup and reinstalled a military dictatorship which in turn, reestablished stability on their own terms. Egypt went full circle from military dictatorship through free elections back to military dictatorship and imposed order.

It seemed to many that the Obama administration would have a different attitude toward the cycles described above. They would get us out of the convoluted messes that neoconservative policies had created in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the Obama administration swapped their very own “liberal interventionists” for the Bush era neoconservatives. We began hands-off wars with drones and “clean” air power. No troops on the ground. We got involved in Libya, Yemen and Syria, adding to our declining popularity in the Middle East and to the mass exodus to Europe now under way.

Where are we heading in Syria? Our government opposes both Syrian President Assad and all the fundamentalist groups aligned against him. We have supported some of the groups opposed to the government and trained a pathetically small number of others, but we have frequently said that it is too difficult to identify those who are really sympathetic to our democratic goals.

To further complicate an already complicated scene, Libya and Saudi Arabia support the rebels (most of whom are Sunni) against the Assad government, which is Alawite (a branch of Shia Islam). On the other side of the issue, Shia Iran and Russia support the Assad government. Russia’s President Putin has said, somewhat cynically, that he is interested only in stability for Syria. It is difficult to say precisely what we seek for that same country, but let’s arbitrarily stipulate that it’s some form of democracy.

You can’t get there from here. If we depose Assad, whom do we support when he is gone? What we might consider, since our real enemy is ISIS and the other fundamentalist groups, is simply turning a blind eye, for the moment, to Assad and joining in a fight, which others are now conducting against those real enemies without moaning about Assad.

What we stand to gain from this is imposed, repressive stability, an end to the killing and to the terribly dangerous migration of hundreds of thousands toward our friends in Europe. Politically, Syria will have to evolve on its own through self-determination, not imposed democracy.

 

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Originally published in the Rutland Herald

September 24,2015

It is impossible for any sentient human being to look at the flow of refugees and migrants out of the Middle East toward Europe and not be appalled by the entire situation. Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans and Syrians, who are Shia, Sunni, both moderate and radical, as well as Christians, are heading toward Europe in rapidly mounting numbers, creating unprecedented pressures on European governments.

 

Clearly the original cause of this migration is the Syrian civil war, which has now been underway for more than four years. As of January 2015, this conflict had caused somewhere between 220,000 and 310,000 deaths, enough to make any sane Syrian nervous for his and his family’s well-being. In addition to this very real fear, it is now being reported that many Syrians have left because others of their tribe, religion, neighborhood, social or professional group have left, setting an example.

 

The size of this migration is unprecedented, making the trip additionally dangerous. By now, most of the Europe-bound migrants have learned from those who preceded them that the trip is exceedingly dangerous, thanks largely to the unprincipled human smugglers into whose hands they entrust their lives. Thousands are said to have died during the journey.

 

Much of the problem, as we see it today, rests in the minds of the migrants. They expect to be welcomed by Europe with open arms and to be treated like human beings. The growing notion that this is not always true has been a shock to them.

 

And why is that not true? Europe is not used to migrants. The European countries involved are generally politically stable, having worked through ethnic, national, religious and tribal issues over the past centuries. However, they are essentially closed societies. Unlike America, Europe was not built through migration, and the result is likely to be that migrants will be horribly disappointed at what they find in Europe.

 

The European countries are not built to deal with the speed of arrival and the volume of today’s incoming migrants. In many countries, migrants will be barred from legally working, some for years, while their petitions for asylum are processed. Language problems will add to their difficulties.

 

Migrants will find themselves in marginal, squalid camps and settlements. Many will find themselves in the continent’s growing migrant ghettos. They will find few jobs in countries that have little need for cheap labor and will live on the fringes of societies that are likely to increasingly resent their presence.

 

Worst of all, despite many well-wishing welcomers, the migrants will find growing hostility, often from the radical, Muslim-hating right. Germany, for example, has been talking of taking in 800,000 migrants this year. Last year, 47 percent of all racist attacks in Germany took place in the former East Germany, where many if not most of the refugees are being settled, although it is home to only 17 percent of Germany’s population. Germany’s interior ministry has counted 202 attacks on refugee shelters in the first half of 2015, as many as in all of 2014 and there have been reports of dozens more such attacks in July and August.

 

The long and short of it is that Europe is ill-prepared to take in migrants. The result of this contemporary influx is likely to precipitate a hostile reaction across Europe, ranging from the border fences we have already seen in Hungary and elsewhere to restrictive laws, protracted delays in documenting the migrants, horrible living conditions, even physical attacks and, most sadly, hopelessness.

 

In fact, in the face of ever-rising numbers, many European countries, responding to pressures from their people, have begun the process of limiting their involvement with the migrants. Germany has reinstated border controls with Austria. Reports from Syrian migrants have been negative about the reception they have received in Belgium, Sweden and France, where one migrant said his asylum application had taken months and in the meantime he was living in misery, homeless and without the right to work.

 

The solution to the migrant problem does not lie in Europe or the Western Hemisphere. It lies in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and any other Middle Eastern country that is adding to the migrant flow. The only way to stop the flow and the misery and unhappiness that inevitably come with it is to stop the migration by fixing the problems that are forcing it. That means, quite simply, creating the conditions that lead to the end of the conflicts.

 

If we do not succeed in this, we will inevitably see the radicalization of migrants who have lost all hope and wish to strike out against the Europeans they unjustly blame for having caused it. A perfect hunting ground for ISIS.

 

 

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Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus

August 1, 2015

Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States — plus Germany) have now agreed on a document that severely limits Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon. In return for that limitation and the ability of the Western signatories to inspect existing Iranian nuclear facilities as well as suspected military/nuclear facilities, the Iranians will see the end of most of the sanctions that have plagued them since 1979.

It is important here to note that Iran’s primary foreign policy goal is to reestablish its “rightful place” within the region.

In that context, who stands to profit from this deal? Certainly Iran, for they will get access to the $100+ billion funds that have been frozen in western banks since the Iranian revolution in 1979, as well as the end to many of the non-financial sanctions imposed on them since then, including oil exports, trade, asset freezes, travel bans and weapons development.

The P5+1 will benefit primarily from seeing the end for at least 10 years of the Iranian nuclear weapons program and from increased trade possibilities. The most important benefits will come as a result of the US not having to move to a military confrontation with Iran, which would almost certainly be the result of the failure of this agreement.

Who loses? Israel loses, primarily because it will not be able to goad the US government into a preemptive strike against Iran and because Iran’s influence in the region will grow. AIPAC loses because they are totally aligned with Israel and Saudi Arabia loses because Iran, with all that new money, is likely to severely challenge Saudi hegemony in the Gulf.

The only thing missing here is the possibility that Iran has not been developing nuclear weapons since a 2003 US National Intelligence Estimate said they had stopped that program. Could they later have deluded us into believing they had restarted it if only to force protracted, believable negotiations, just now concluded, solely to get their hands on the $100+ billion and the end of sanctions? These are, after all, critical considerations in their drive to reach their historic regional goals. And all this by giving up something that never really existed? They are certainly that smart!

There are those who denigrate the agreement and harp on the notion that Iran will restart its nuclear weapons program covertly or at the conclusion of the agreement and use the bomb, probably against Israel. Of course, what they are saying is that the Iranians are a bunch of know-nothing rag heads, intent on self-destruction.

How far from the truth can that be? The ancient Persians (Iranians) were in the process of working out a viable alphabet when our European forbears were scuttling about in their caves dressed in bearskins. Organized communities first existed in Iran around 8,000 BC. The first Persian kingdom began around 2800 and in the 6th century BC, those Persians ruled from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus River. It was the first great kingdom to exist in the world and was certainly the greatest Empire of its time.

The Persian cultural contribution to the world has ranged from art through architecture, music, technology and science to literature.

The Iranians are educated (77 percent literate), thoughtful, smart, clever and nationalistic. They are anything but stupid. Despite the stupidly ugly rhetoric employed by some of their political leaders since 1979, they are anything but the wild-eyed ragheads that some in the west portray them to be. They are in no way suicidal.

Even the Iranians realize that nuclear weapons are a powerful tool only as long as they are not used. For, once they are used, deterrence is irrelevant and the aggressors are literally consumed by their own stupidity. Iran is smart enough to avoid that fate.

With a land mass of over 630,000 square miles, a military establishment over 500,000, an educated population of over 75 million, two-thirds of the world’s crude oil reserve and potential control over the Arabian Gulf, it is time we recognized that Iran has a role to play in its region and that we can help that role to be either positive or negative.

Our European partners will ratify the agreement. If we do, we will get to see how Iran responds, with unlimited future options open to us. If we do not ratify this agreement, our hawks in both parties will lead us to inevitable military action against Iran, completely unsupported in the West outside Israel, which will be a disaster for the entire world.

In many ways, Iran’s future is really up to us.

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