Selling Drones, Exporting War

predator
Exporting Drones: What could go wrong?

W.J. Astore

The business of America is weapons sales.  That much is true when you consider the following snippet today from FP: Foreign Policy:

Drone sales. The United States is looking to make changes to a major international arms control treaty that would open the door for wider exports of military drones, Defense News reports. The proposed change to the Missile Technology Control Regime would make it easier for nations to sell drones.

Proliferation of drones: What could go wrong?

America is the world’s leader in drone technology, and the companies that have developed them see even bigger profits on the horizon if they can sell them to America’s allies around the globe.  The nature of drones is that they make killing easier — usually bloodless — for those countries that possess the technology.  They promise results, but the American use of drones in places like Iraq and Afghanistan has not led to any resolution of those conflicts.  Only the body count has increased.

As I wrote in 2012:

famous utterance attributed to General Robert E. Lee during the U.S. Civil War is, “It is well that war is so terrible – lest we should grow too fond of it.” His words capture the idea that war is an elemental thing – and also a seductive one. Much like a storm-tossed ocean, war is relentless, implacable, and unsparing. It is chaotic, arbitrary, and deadly. It is not to be bargained with; only to be endured.

Given its ferocity, its rapacity, the enormity of its waste and devastation, war is best to be avoided, especially since war itself has its appeals, especially since war itself can be intoxicating, as the quotation from Lee suggests, and as the title of Anthony Loyd’s fine book on the war in Bosnia, My War Gone By, I Miss It So (1999), indicates.

What happens when we decouple war’s terrible nature from its intoxicating force? What happens when one side can kill with impunity in complete safety? Lee’s words suggest that a nation that decouples war from its terrors will likely grow too fond of it. The temptation to use deadly force will no longer be restrained by knowledge of the horrors unleashed by the same.

Such thoughts darken the reality of America’s growing fondness for drone warfare. Our land-based drone pilots patrol the skies of foreign lands like Afghanistan in complete safety. They unleash appropriately named Hellfire missiles to smite our enemies. The pilots see a video feed of the carnage they inflict; the American people see and experience nothing. In rare cases when ordinary Americans see drone footage on television, what they witness is something akin to a “Call of Duty” video game combined with a snuff film. War porn, if you will.

Many Americans seem happy that we can smite foreign “militants” at no risk to ourselves. They trust that our military (and the CIA) rarely misidentifies a terrorist, and that “collateral damage,” that mind-numbing euphemism that obscures the reality of innocent men, women, and children obliterated by missiles, is the regrettable price of keeping America safe.

But the reality is that sloppy intelligence and the fog and friction of war combine to make seemingly antiseptic drone warfare much like all other forms of war: bloody, wasteful, and terrible. Terrible, that is, for those on the receiving end of American firepower. Not terrible for us.

There is a real danger that today’s drone warfare has become the equivalent to the Dark Side of the Force as described by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back: a quicker, easier, more seductive form of terror. It is indeed seductive to deploy the technological equivalent of Darth Vader’s throat-constricting powers at a safe distance. We may even applaud ourselves for our prowess while doing so. We tell ourselves that we are killing only the bad people, and that the few innocents caught in the crosshairs constitute an accidental but nonetheless unavoidable price of keeping America safe.

In light of America’s growing affection for drone warfare combined with a disassociation from its terrible results, I submit to you a modified version of General Lee’s sentiment:

It is not well that war grows less terrible for us – for we are growing much too fond of it.

The USA Is Number One — In Weapons Sales

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Arms Sales and Profits: Up, Up, and Away!

W.J. Astore

Once again, the USA leads the world in weapons sales, notes SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.  The 100 biggest arms producers accounted for $375 billion in weapons sales in 2016, with US firms having by far the largest share at $217 billion.  That’s right: the US accounts for roughly 58% of the global arms trade. We’re #1!  We’re #1!

Not only do we arm our friends but our foes as well, notes FP: Foreign Policy, which has the following SitRep (situation report) for today:

U.S. weapons used by ISIS. A new report from Conflict Armament Research, a U.K.-based weapons tracking group, outlines in fascinating detail the industrial-scale weapons manufacturing capabilities the Islamic State boasted of in its prime… But what might be most notable are the American-supplied weapons found amid the ruins — the aftermath of secretive American efforts to provide small rebel groups with anti-tank rockets and other guided munitions. The transfer of the rockets, purchased from European countries, violated end-user agreements signed by the United States pledging not to transfer the weapons to third parties. In some cases, it took only a few weeks for the weapons to end up in the hands of Islamic State fighters after being delivered to allegedly friendly forces.  

Let’s face it: $217 billion is an enormous amount of money, and the weapons trade is enormously profitable to the US.  America’s wars are not coming to an end anytime soon: there’s simply too much money being made on manufacturing and selling war.

This puts me to mind of observations made by Father Daniel Berrigan, who served prison time for protesting the Vietnam War.  Berrigan wrote with eloquence against war, and his words from a half-century ago are as timely today as they were during the Vietnam protests:

“we are powerless to inquire why it is easier to continue to slaughter than to stop it, why the historical cult of violence has become the mainstay of policy–both foreign and domestic, or why our economy so requires warmaking that perpetual war has united with expanding profits as the chief national purpose.”

And that was when the US still had a manufacturing base for consumer goods that hadn’t withered from “free” trade deals like NAFTA and other globalization efforts.  The global market the US dominates today is not for consumer goods but for wares of destruction.

When you sow the winds of weaponry and war, and profit mightily from it, do you not eventually have to reap the whirlwind of destruction?

Are We the New “Evil Empire”?

russian bear
A common depiction of Russia as a hyper-aggressive bear.  But what is the United States?

W.J. Astore

In a recent article at TomDispatch.com, I argued that the United States, after defeating the former Soviet Union in the Cold War, seized upon its moment of “victory” and, in a fit of hubris, embraced an increasingly imperial and authoritarian destiny that echoed in many ways the worst attributes of the USSR.  You can read the entire article here.  What follows is an excerpt that details some of the ways the U.S. has come to echo or mirror certain features associated with the USSR, the “Evil Empire” of the Reagan years.

Also, for a podcast in which I discuss my article with Burt Cohen, follow this link or this address: http://keepingdemocracyalive.com/just-hacking-weve-become-like-soviets/

When I was a young lieutenant in the Air Force, in 1986 if memory serves, I attended a secret briefing on the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan was president, and we had no clue that we were living through the waning years of the Cold War. Back then, believing that I should know my enemy, I was reading a lot about the Soviets in “open sources,” you know, books, magazines and newspapers.

The “secret” briefing I attended revealed little that was new to me. (Classified information is often overhyped.) I certainly heard no audacious predictions of a Soviet collapse in five years, though the Soviet Union would indeed implode in 1991. Like nearly everyone at the time, the briefers assumed the USSR would be our arch enemy for decades to come and it went without saying that the Berlin Wall was a permanent fixture in a divided Europe, a forever symbol of ruthless communist oppression.

Little did we know that, three years later, the Soviet military would stand aside as East Germans tore down that wall. And who then would have believed that a man might be elected president of the United States a generation later on the promise of building a “big, fat, beautiful wall” on our shared border with Mexico?

I wasn’t allowed to take notes during that briefing, but I remember the impression I was left with—that the USSR was deeply authoritarian, a grim surveillance state with an economy dependent on global weapons sales; that it was intent on nuclear domination; that it was imperialist and expansionist; that it persecuted its critics and dissidents; and that it had serious internal problems carefully suppressed in the cause of world mastery, including rampant alcohol and drug abuse, bad health care and declining longevity (notably for men), a poisoned environment, and an extensive prison system featuring gulags.

All of this was exacerbated by festering sores overseas, especially a costly and stalemated war in Afghanistan and client-states that absorbed its resources (think: Cuba) while offering little in return.

This list of Soviet problems, vintage 1986, should have a familiar ring to it, since it sounds uncannily like a description of what’s wrong with the United States today.

In case you think that’s an over-the-top statement, let’s take that list from the briefing—eight points in all—one item at a time.

1. An authoritarian, surveillance state. The last time the U.S. Congress formally declared war was in 1941. Since then, American presidents have embarked on foreign wars and interventions ever more often with ever less oversight from Congress. Power continues to grow and coalesce in the executive branch, strengthening an imperial presidency enhanced by staggering technologies of surveillance, greatly expanded in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Indeed, America now has 17 intelligence agencies with a combined yearly budget of $80 billion. Unsurprisingly, Americans are surveilled more than ever, allegedly for our safety even if such a system breeds meekness and stifles dissent.

2. An economy dependent on global weapons sales. The United States continues to dominate the global arms trade in a striking fashion. It was no mistake that a centerpiece of Pres. Trump’s recent trip was a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. On the same trip, he told the Emir of Qatar that he was in the Middle East to facilitate “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.” Now more than ever, beautiful weaponry made in the U.S.A. is a significant driver of domestic economic growth as well as of the country’s foreign policy.

3. Bent on nuclear domination. Continuing the policies of Pres. Barack Obama, the Trump administration envisions a massive modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal, to the tune of at least a trillion dollars over the next generation. Much like an old-guard Soviet premier, Trump has boasted that America will always remain at “the top of the pack” when it comes to nuclear weapons.

4. Imperialist and expansionist. Historians speak of America’s “informal” empire, by which they mean the U.S. is less hands-on than past imperial powers like the Romans and the British. But there’s nothing informal or hands-off about America’s 800 overseas military bases or the fact that its Special Operations forces are being deployed in 130 or more countries yearly.

When the U.S. military speaks of global reach, global power, and full-spectrum dominance, this is traditional imperialism cloaked in banal catchphrases. Put differently, Soviet imperialism, which American leaders always professed to fear, never had a reach of this sort.

 5. Persecutes critics and dissidents. Whether it’s been the use of the Patriot Act under George W. Bush’s presidency, the persecution of whistleblowers using the World War I-era Espionage Act under the Obama administration, or the vilification of the media by the new Trump administration, the United States is far less tolerant of dissent today than it was prior to the Soviet collapse.

As Homeland Security Secretary and retired four-star Marine Gen. John Kelly recently put it, speaking of news stories about the Trump administration based on anonymous intelligence sources, such leaks are “darn close to treason.” Add to such an atmosphere Trump’s attacks on the media as the “enemy” of the people and on critical news stories as “fake” and you have an environment ripe for the future suppression of dissent.

In the Soviet Union, political opponents were often threatened with jail or worse, and those threats were regularly enforced by men wearing military or secret police uniforms. In that context, let’s not forget the “lock her up!” chants led by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn at the Republican National Convention and aimed at Donald Trump’s political opponent of that moment, Hillary Clinton.

Gary, Indiana. Lotzman/Flickr photo

6. Internal problems like drug abuse, inadequate health care and a poisoned environment. Alcoholism is still rife in Russia and environmental damage widespread, but consider the United States today. An opioid crisis is killing more than 30,000 people a year. Lead poisoning in places like Flint, Michigan, and New Orleans is causing irreparable harm to the young. The disposal of wastewater from fracking operations is generating earthquakes in Ohio and Oklahoma.

Even as environmental hazards proliferate, the Trump administration is gutting the Environmental Protection Agency. As health crises grow more serious, the Trump administration, abetted by a Republican-led Congress, is attempting to cut health-care coverage and benefits, as well as the funding that might protect Americans from deadly pathogens. Disturbingly, as with the Soviet Union in the era of its collapse, life expectancy among white men is declining, mainly due to drug abuse, suicide and other despair-driven problems.

7. Extensive prison systems. As a percentage of its population, no country imprisons more of its own people than the United States. While more than two million of their fellow citizens languish in prisons, Americans continue to see their nation as a beacon of freedom, ignoring Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In addition, the country now has a president who believes in torture, who has called for the murder of terrorists’ families, and who wants to refill Guantánamo with prisoners. It also has an attorney general who wants to make prison terms for low-level drug offenders ever more draconian.

8. Stalemated wars. You have to hand it to the Soviets. They did at least exhibit a learning curve in their disastrous war in Afghanistan and so the Red Army finally left that country in 1989 after a decade of high casualties and frustration, even if its troops returned to a land on the verge of implosion. U.S. forces, on the other hand, have been in Afghanistan for 16 years, with the Taliban growing ever stronger, yet its military’s response has once again been to call for investing more money and sending in more troops to reverse the “stalemate” there.

Meanwhile, after 14 years, Iraq War 3.0 festers, bringing devastation to places like Mosul, even as its destabilizing results continue to manifest themselves in Syria and indeed throughout the greater Middle East. Despite or rather because of these disastrous results, U.S. leaders continue to over-deploy U.S. Special Operations forces, contributing to exhaustion and higher suicide rates in the ranks.

In light of these eight points, that lighthearted Beatles tune and relic of the Cold War, “Back in the USSR,” takes on a new, and far harsher, meaning.

To read the rest of this article, go to TomDispatch.com.  Thank you.

America’s “Beautiful” Weapons

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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

W.J. Astore

President Trump is hawking weapons in the Middle East.  After concluding a deal with the Saudis for $110 billion in weaponry, he sought out the Emir of Qatar and said their discussions would focus on “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.”

Trump’s reference to American weapons as “beautiful” echoed the recent words of Brian Williams at MSNBC, who characterized images from the Tomahawk missile attack on Syria as “beautiful,” not once but three times.

We can vilify Trump and Williams for seeing beauty in weapons that kill, but we must also recognize Americans love their technology of death.  It’s one big reason why we have more than 300 million guns in America, enough to arm virtually every American, from cradle to grave.

Why do we place so much faith in weapons?  Why do we love them so?

In military affairs, America is especially prone to putting its faith in weapons.  The problem is that often weaponry is either less important than one thinks, or seductive in its promise.  Think of U.S. aerial drones, for example.  They’ve killed a lot of people without showing any decisiveness.

Technology is a rational and orderly endeavor, but war is irrational and chaotic.  Countries develop technology for war, thinking they are adding order and predictability, when they are usually adding just another element of unpredictability while expanding death.

U.S. air power is a great example — death everywhere, but no decisiveness.  Look at Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia).  The U.S. obliterated vast areas with high explosive and napalm and Agent Orange, killing millions without winning the war.  The technological image of America today is not stunning cars or clever consumer inventions but rather Predator and Reaper drones and giant bombs like MOAB.

Profligate expenditures on weapons and their export obviously feed America’s military-industrial complex.  Such weapons are sold by our politicians as job-creators, but they’re really widow-makers and life-takers.   Americans used to describe armament makers as “merchants of death,” until, that is, we became the number one producer and exporter of these armaments.  Now they’re “beautiful” to our president and to our media mouthpieces.

We have a strange love affair with weapons that borders on a fetish.  I’ve been to a few military re-enactments, in which well-intended re-enactors play at war.  The guys I’ve talked to are often experts on the nuts and bolts of the military weaponry they carry, but of course the guns aren’t loaded.  It’s all bloodless fun, a “war game,” if you will.

Nowadays real war is often much like a video game, at least to U.S. “pilots” sitting in trailers in Nevada.  It’s not a game to an Afghan or Yemeni getting blown to bits by a Hellfire missile fired by a drone.  For some reason, foreigners on the receiving end of U.S. weaponry don’t think of it as “beautiful.”  Nor do we, when our weapons are turned against us.

Enough with the “beautiful” weapons, America.  Let’s stick to the beauty of spacious skies and amber waves of grain.

Icons of American Militarism

W.J. Astore

At this moment, it’s hard to think of a better symbol of American militarism than a giant bomb with a U.S. flag on it.  President Donald Trump touted the use of the “mother of all bombs” (MOAB) in Afghanistan as a “very, very successful mission” even though evidence of that success is scant.  He further cited MOAB as evidence of the “tremendous difference, tremendous difference” between his administration’s willingness to use force and Obama’s.  In short, Trump loved MOAB precisely because Obama didn’t use it.  To Trump, MOAB was a sort of penis extender and a big middle finger all-in-one.  Virility and vulgarity.

moab

MOAB is an icon of U.S. militarism, as are other weapons in the American arsenal.  Weapons like our warplanes, aircraft carriers, Predator and Reaper drones, and Tomahawk and Hellfire missiles.  U.S. foreign policy often hinges on or pivots about the deployment of these icons of power, whether it’s aircraft carriers and anti-missile systems being sent to Korea or more bombs and missiles being used in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, among other countries.

Weapons sales further define U.S. foreign policy.  Witness the recent announcement of $100 billion in arms for the Saudis, soon to be confirmed by Trump in his forthcoming trip to Saudi Arabia.  This sale sets up even more military aid for Israel, in that Washington insists Israel must always maintain a qualitative edge in weaponry over its Arab rivals.

Unlike, say, Wilhelmine Germany, which elevated Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg to iconic status during and after World War I, America today is lacking in winning generals.  Sure, there have been a few pretenders.  William Westmoreland in Vietnam, H. Norman Schwarzkopf in Desert Storm, Tommy Franks in Iraqi Freedom, and David Petraeus of “Surge” fame come to mind, but their “victories” were either illusory or lacking in staying power.  Since we can’t idolize our generals, we celebrate our weapons instead.

These weapons are indeed iconic symbols.  They capture an ideology of destruction.  A predilection for spreading misery worldwide, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest must-read article at TomDispatch.com.  As Engelhardt notes in his “send-out” message to his piece:

The first part of my latest post focuses on the now seven month-long U.S.-backed Iraqi military offensive against the city of Mosul, which shows little sign of ending and has reduced that city, like so many other places in the region, to ruins, if not rubble.  Mosul, in other words, has been on my mind, but perhaps not completely for the reason you might expect.  Its destruction (and the generation of yet more uprooted people and refugees) has led me to wonder what ever happened to the globalizers who for so many years told us about the wonders of tying the planet ever more tightly together and leveling all playing fields.  It seems obvious to me that war, American-style, these last 15 years, has played a distinctly globalizing role on this ever smaller planet of ours — just globalizing misery, not happy news.  In this piece I use the destruction of Mosul to lay out my thoughts on just what globalization really means in 2017, why the Trump presidency is linked to such grim events, and just why the globalizers have stopped talking about the phenomenon.

When I read Tom’s note above about the “leveling” of “playing fields,” my first thought was that America is indeed working to level the world — just not in the figurative sense of promoting economic equality, but in the literal sense of leveling areas with bombs, cities like Mosul, for example, or alleged training areas for terrorists in Afghanistan.  As Engelhardt himself notes in his article, U.S. military action isn’t making the world flatter in the sense of equitable globalization; it’s simply flattening areas with overwhelming explosive force.

Most Americans simply don’t know or care much about foreign cities being leveled/flattened by America’s icons of power.  You might say it’s not on our radar screens.  The media and our leaders do a very good job of keeping us divided, distracted, and downtrodden.  What American has time to worry about Mosul or some obscure region of Afghanistan?  Unless or until the leveling and flattening come our way, to our cities and valleys, but by that point it will be far too late to act.

With all our talk of MOAB and aircraft carriers and missiles and their “beauty” and “tremendous success,” are we that far away from the lost souls in the movie “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” who elevated the atomic bomb as their false idol, their version of the Biblical golden calf?

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Ready for War with Iran?

W.J. Astore

General Joseph Votel, U.S. Centcom commander, testified to the House Armed Services Committee this week that the greatest destabilizing force in the Middle East is Iran, and that the U.S. must be prepared to use “military means” to confront and defeat the Iranian threat to the region.

No doubt Iran is a pest to U.S. designs in the Middle East.  No doubt Iran has its own agenda. No doubt Iran is no friend to Israel.  But the greatest destabilizing force in the Greater Middle East?  That’s the USA.  We’re the ones who toppled Iraq in 2003, along with the legitimate government of Iran 50 years earlier.

Iran/Persia has lived in, and sometimes dominated, the Greater Middle East for 2500 years.  By comparison, the USA is a newcomer on the block. Yet it’s the Iranians who are the destabilizers, the ones operating in a nefarious “grey zone” between peace and war, at least according to U.S. generals.

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According to General Mattis, the Iranians are the greatest threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.  The U.S., with its massive military and extensive weapons sales, only safeguards peace and stability. 

Besides the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which accidentally helped Iran, the U.S. continues to sell massive amounts of weaponry to Iran’s rivals, most especially Saudi Arabia. U.S. military operations in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East have both destabilized the region and created marketplaces for U.S. weaponry and opportunities for economic exploitation by multinational corporations.

I’m no fan of Iran and its leaders, but can one blame them for resisting U.S. military and economic incursions into their sphere of influence? Recall how we reacted when the Russians put missiles into Cuba. Look at all the hostile rhetoric directed today against Mexico and its allegedly unfair trade practices vis-a-vis the U.S.

Let’s not forget that for 25 years (1953-78), the Shah of Iran was an American ally.  The U.S. military loved to sell him our most advanced weaponry, which at that time included F-14 Tomcat fighters and HAWK missile systems. That cozy relationship died with the Iranian Revolution (1979); ally turned to enemy as the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein and Iraq during the bloody Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.

Yet, despite all this history, despite all the U.S. meddling, all the weapons sales, all the invasions and sanctions, somehow it’s the Iranians who are the destabilizing force, the ones deserving of more “disruptive” U.S. military action.

As America’s designs are frustrated in the Middle East, American generals never look in the mirror to see their own faults and failings. Instead, they cast about for new countries to blame — and to attack. Iran is seemingly next on the list, a country that General Mattis, America’s Secretary of Defense, said is “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.”

Anyone for war with Iran?  U.S. generals are ready.

The USA in Iraq: Putting Out the Fire with Gasoline

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Surely, HIMARS will bring peace to Iraq

W.J. Astore

Today brings yet another announcement of more U.S. troops to Iraq.  This time 600 are being sent as logistics support, advisers, and enablers (that term, “enabler,” is fuzzy indeed: enabler of what?  More failure?).  That brings the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to more than 5200, but of course this figure seriously under-represents the American presence in the region.  Nowadays, most “troops” are provided by private contractors, and many of these are U.S. military veterans who discovered they could make a lot more money wearing mufti than in Uncle Sam’s uniforms.  At the same time, the U.S. continues to provide heavy-duty weaponry to the Iraqi military, including Apache attack helicopters and the HIMARS rocket system.  All of this is intended to help the Iraqi military retake the city of Mosul.

That the U.S. is yet again providing more troops as well as heavy weapons as “force multipliers” highlights the failure of U.S. military efforts to “stand up” an effective Iraqi military. The enemy, after all, has no Apache helicopters, no HIMARS system, and no U.S. advisers, although we certainly “enable” them with all the U.S. weaponry they’ve been able to capture or steal.  Despite a lack of U.S. military training and aid, ISIS and crew have proven to be remarkably resilient.  What gives?

Two years ago, I wrote an article at TomDispatch.com on “America’s Hollow Foreign Legions.”  Back then, I said this:

Military training, no matter how intensive, and weaponry, no matter how sophisticated and powerful, is no substitute for belief in a cause.  Such belief nurtures cohesion and feeds fighting spirit.  ISIS has fought with conviction.  The expensively trained and equipped Iraqi army hasn’t.  The latter lacks a compelling cause held in common.  This is not to suggest that ISIS has a cause that’s pure or just. Indeed, it appears to be a complex mélange of religious fundamentalism, sectarian revenge, political ambition, and old-fashioned opportunism (including loot, plain and simple). But so far the combination has proven compelling to its fighters, while Iraq’s security forces appear centered on little more than self-preservation. 

Despite an ongoing record of failure, pulling out of Iraq is never an option that’s considered by the Pentagon.  The only option our leaders know is more: more troops, more weapons, more money.  As I wrote for TomDispatch back in October 2014:

pulling out is never an option, even though it would remove the “American Satan” card from the IS propaganda deck.  To pull out means to leave behind much bloodshed and many grim acts.  Harsh, I know, but is it any harsher than incessant American-led bombing, the commitment of more American “advisers” and money and weapons, and yet more American generals posturing as the conductors of Iraqi affairs?  With, of course, the usual results.

Here we are, two years later, and nothing has changed.  The war song remains the same, as discordant as ever, with a refrain as simple as it is harsh: putting out the fire with gasoline.