Sunday, April 29, 2018


Weekend Roundup

Big story of the week is the optimistic meet up between Korea's two leaders, or at least it would be if we actually knew the story. Most American foreign policy pundits have been working overtime to diminish our hopes, and Trump's glib sunniness (with ominous "we'll see" asides) isn't very reassuring. Fred Kaplan tries to sort this out (see What Is Denuclearization Anyway?:

As has been clear from the moment the subject came up, one obstacle to a successful summit is that both leaders are going into it with conflicting premises. Kim thinks Trump is caving to the reality of a North Korean nuclear arsenal; Trump thinks Kim is caving to the pressure of U.S. sanctions and threats. Both are probably right to some degree, but it's hard to see how the talks can produce a lasting peace if each man thinks that he has the upper hand at the outset and that, therefore, any deal must be struck on his terms.

Trump seems glued to this delusion. On Sunday, after watching MSNBC's Chuck Todd question whether Trump had received anything in return after handing Kim "the huge gift" of agreeing to meet with him in the first place, Trump tweeted: "Wow, we haven't given up anything & they have agreed to denuclearization (so great for World), site closure, & no more testing!"

Trump was referring to news reports of a speech that Kim had given the day before. But an official record of the speech, delivered at a plenary meeting of the Workers' Party of Korea, reveals that Kim agreed to no such thing.

Rather, Kim said that no further tests of nuclear weapons or medium-to-long-range ballistic missiles "are necessary" (italics added), given that North Korea has "successfully concluded" the process of building a nuclear arsenal. And because of this completion, Kim went on, "the overall situation is rapidly changing in favor of the Korean revolution" -- i.e., in favor of North Korea's triumph.

This is very different from a conciliatory gesture to stop testing. As for closing his nuclear test site, it appears that the site was slated for a shutdown already, having been gutted by the spate of recent weapons tests.

Finally, contrary to the early news reports about the speech, Kim said nothing in the speech about denuclearization. In fact, he described his nuclear arsenal as "a powerful treasured sword for defending peace."

Kaplan also notes that Kim has little reason to trust US pledges on denuclearization: both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi shut down their nuclear programs to appease the US and got toppled anyway. Iran did the same, and while they haven't been overthrown Trump and Pompeo are now saying they will scotch the deal while encouraging Israel and Saudi Arabia to attack Iranians in Syria and supposed proxies in Syria and Yemen. He didn't mention the agreement Jimmy Carter negotiated with North Korea in the 1990s, which Clinton and Bush reneged on, leading North Korea to resume its since-completed work on nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, it's just possible this time that Trump and co. will be pushed out of the driver's seat on negotiations. South Korea has the power to make its own deal, and the US would find it impossible to keep troops in South Korea without permission. South Korea could also blow a huge hole in the US sanctions regime, and those are the two main issues for North Korea -- probably enough to get the North to mothball (but not totally dismantle) its rockets and nuclear warheads, to open up trade and normalize diplomatic relations. Given how gloomy the "military option" is -- a point I'm sure Mattis and DOD have made many times -- that may not even be such a bitter pill for Trump.

America's ability to dictate to its allies has been slipping for decades, but Trump's "America first" agenda accelerates the decline. For instance, one reason South Korea has long been a willing client was that the US was willing to run large trade deficits to help build up the South Korean economy. Trump, before he got so excited with his "fire & fury" and "little Rocket Man" tweets, started by pulling the US out of TPP, criticizing bilateral trade agreements with South Korea, and demanding the South (and everyone from NATO to Japan) to pick up more of their own defense tabs. All these signs point out that the US is becoming a less reliable and cost-effective ally, and as such will continue to lose influence.

More links on Korea:


Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias: The 4 biggest stories of the week, explained: Kim Jong Un crossed the DMZ; Bill Cosby is guilty; Ronny Jackson will not be VA secretary; Mike Pompeo was confirmed as secretary of state. Other Yglesias posts:

  • Peter Beinart: American Jews Have Abandoned Gaza -- and the Truth. Also: Eric Levitz: Natalie Portman and the Crisis of Liberal Zionism.

  • Walker Bragman/Michael Sainato: The Democratic Party is paying millions for Hillary Clinton's email list, FEC documents show.

  • Masha Gessen: What James Comey and Donald Trump Have in Common: Title forces a point that isn't really born out in the article. True enough, both have a single-minded focus -- Comey on truth and Trump on loyalty -- to which they sacrifice any shred of human compassion.

    Part of Comey's zeal is prosecutorial: he headed an agency that loves to punish people for the coverup rather than the crime. For Comey, this is principle rather than method. As a U.S. attorney, he writes, he made sure that Martha Stewart went to jail -- not, he stresses, because she engaged in insider trading of a kind that would have warranted but a warning, but because she lied about it. As the F.B.I. director, he hoped that his agents would catch Hillary Clinton in a lie about her e-mail servers. By this time, investigators had concluded that the use of Clinton's private server had caused no damage, but Comey makes it clear that his primary concern and objective was to catch the former Secretary of State in a lie. The pursuit of the prosecutable lie has been a cornerstone of F.B.I. strategy, especially in its post-2001 incarnation as an anti-terrorism agency, and Comey wastes no time reflecting on its tenuous relationship to actual crime, or actual justice.

  • Jonathan Greenberg: Trump lied to me about his wealth to get onto the Forbes 400. Here are the tapes. One of Trump's earliest scams: his campaign to get his name on the Forbes 400 list, including a guest appearance by Trump's "personal lawyer" Roy Cohn (you surely didn't think that Michael Cohen was the sleaziest lawyer in Trump's stable?). For more on Cohn, see: Frank Rich: The Original Donald Trump:

    For years it's been a parlor game for Americans to wonder how history might have turned out if someone had stopped Lee Harvey Oswald before he shot JFK. One might be tempted -- just as fruitlessly -- to speculate on what might have happened if more of New York's elites had intervened back then, nonviolently, to block or seriously challenge Trump's path to power. They had plenty of provocation and opportunities to do so. Trump practiced bigotry on a grand scale, was a world-class liar, and ripped off customers, investors, and the city itself. Yet for many among New York's upper register, there was no horror he could commit that would merit his excommunication. As with Cohn before him, the more outrageously and reprehensibly Trump behaved, the more the top rungs of society were titillated by him. They could cop out of any moral judgments or actions by rationalizing him as an entertaining con man: a cheesy, cynical, dumbed-down Gatsby who fit the city's tacky 1980s Gilded Age much as F. Scott Fitzgerald's more romantic prototype had the soigné Jazz Age of the 1920s. And so most of those who might have stopped Trump gawked like the rest of us as he scrambled up the city's ladder, grabbing anything that wasn't nailed down.

  • Mike Konczal: Actually, Guns Do Kill People: "The research is now clear: Right-to-carry laws increase the rate of violent crime."

  • Paul Krugman: We Don't Need No Education: Trying to explain the wave of teacher strikes in Red States, he focuses on money:

    So what happens when hard-line conservatives take over a state, as they did in much of the country after the 2010 Tea Party wave? They almost invariably push through big tax cuts. Usually these tax cuts are sold with the promise that lower taxes will provide a huge boost to the state economy.

    This promise is, however, never -- and I mean never -- fulfilled; the right's continuing belief in the magical payoff from tax cuts represents the triumph of ideology over overwhelming negative evidence.

    What tax cuts do, instead, is sharply reduce revenue, wreaking havoc with state finances. For a great majority of states are required by law to balance their budgets. This means that when tax receipts plunge, the conservatives running many states can't do what Trump and his allies in Congress are doing at the federal level -- simply let the budget deficit balloon. Instead, they have to cut spending.

    And given the centrality of education to state and local budgets, that puts schoolteachers in the cross hairs.

    How, after all, can governments save money on education? They can reduce the number of teachers, but that means larger class sizes, which will outrage parents. They can and have cut programs for students with special needs, but cruelty aside, that can only save a bit of money at the margin. The same is true of cost-saving measures like neglecting school maintenance and scrimping on school supplies to the point that many teachers end up supplementing inadequate school budgets out of their own pockets.

    That's all true enough, and probably most of the story, but leaves out some particularly nasty partisan calculations. Republicans have long viewed teachers' unions as a political liability, and as such have wanted to hurt them. Indeed, much of their fondness for charter schools (and vouchers for private schools) is rooted in union-busting. More recently, some Republicans (Rick Santorum was an early adopter) have started to question the value of education at all -- pointing out that liberal arts education tends toward liberal politics, playing into a tradition of anti-intellectualism that was history when Richard Hofstadter wrote about it fifty years ago, yet seems to reinvent every time elites need to find political suckers. At the same time, elite (and later public) colleges have shifted from scholarships -- which helped smart-but-poor students like Clinton and Obama find comfortable homes in the ruling class -- to debt, trying to preserve elite jobs for the scions of the upper class.

    When mass education first became a popular idea among elites, back in the mid-19th century, it was seen as a way to socialize immigrants, to fold them into American society and its growing economy, but it also represented opportunity and upward mobility and justice. We no longer live in a world which looks forward to its future. Rather, the rich are entrenching themselves in fortresses (both literally and figuratively), hoping to blight out everyone else.

  • Nomi Prins: The Return of the Great Meltdown? Wrote one of the better books about the 2008 crash (It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses, and Backroom Deals From Washington to Wall Street), but looking at Trump's recent Fed appointees and the Republican effort to unwind Dodd-Frank, she's anticipating a rerun in her new book, Collusion: How Central Bankers Rigged the World. Also on TomDispatch, Todd Miller: An Unsustainable World Managed With an Iron Fist, on the militarization of the border with Mexico. Miller, too, has a book: Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security.

  • Alex Ross: How American Racism Influenced Hitler: Takes off from James Q. Whitman's recent book, Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. What could be made clearer is that there were two American models (not unrelated but distinct in our minds) for Hitler: the "Jim Crow" laws which codified a racial hierarchy, which South Africa adapted for Apartheid and could easily be adapted to discriminate against Jews; and "Manifest Destiny," the umbrella for driving Native Americans off their lands and into tiny, impoverished reservations, while killing off enough to constitute a cumulative genocide. As Ian Kershaw describes Hitler:

    His two abiding obsessions were violent anti-Semitism and Lebensraum. As early as 1921, he spoke of confining Jews to concentration camps, and in 1923 he contemplated -- and, for the moment, rejected -- the idea of killing the entire Jewish population. The Holocaust was the result of a hideous syllogism: if Germany were to expand into the East, where millions of Jews lived, those Jews would have to vanish, because Germans could not coexist with them.

    I have often thought that Hitler's quotes about how America dealt with its native population should be pursued at great length. Ross cites two books that do this: Carroll Kakel's The American West and the Nazi East: A Comparative and Interpretive Perspective (2011, Palgrave Macmillan), and Edward B. Westermann's Hitler's Ostkrieg and the Indian Wars: Comparing Genocide and Conquest (2016, University of Oklahoma Press).

    America's knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death struck Hitler as an example to be emulated. He made frequent mention of the American West in the early months of the Soviet invasion. The Volga would be "our Mississippi," he said. "Europe -- and not America -- will be the land of unlimited possibilities." Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine would be populated by pioneer farmer-soldier families. Autobahns would cut through fields of grain. The present occupants of those lands -- tens of millions of them -- would be starved to death. At the same time, and with no sense of contradiction, the Nazis partook of a long-standing German romanticization of Native Americans. One of Goebbels's less propitious schemes was to confer honorary Aryan status on Native American tribes, in the hope that they would rise up against their oppressors.

    Jim Crow laws in the American South served as a precedent in a stricter legal sense. Scholars have long been aware that Hitler's regime expressed admiration for American race law, but they have tended to see this as a public-relations strategy -- an "everybody does it" justification for Nazi policies.

  • Micah Zenko: America's First Reality TV War: "The Trump administration's latest missile strikes in Syria were never going to accomplish anything. But the show must go on."

  • Neri Zilber: Israel and Iran's escalating shadow war in Syria, explained: Not really explained, in that the author fails to emphasize that Israel is the one provoking further escalations. Also, there is no real chance of this developing into a conventional ground war. Sure, both sides have missiles that can reach the other, but Israel has a distinct advantage there: nuclear warheads. There's no reason to doubt that Iran has any reason for stationing military forces in Syria other than for supporting the Assad regime, which Israel has never regarded as a serious threat (at least since 1979, when Israel signed a separate peace deal with Egypt, precluding any future alliance). Israel, on the other hand, has periodically bombed Syria even before the Civil War gave them cover. They regard Iranian troops as an unacceptable provocation because they might inconvenience Israeli air strikes. And also, quite significantly, because Israel recognizes it can take advantage of American prejudices against Iran to push its alliance militarily. For evidence this is working, see Carol Morello: Pompeo says U.S. is with Israel in fight against Iran. Pompeo is also anxious for the US to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, which is up for renewal on May 12. Among other preposterous things, he claims that North Korea won't be bothered if the US breaks its word on a similar deal. In the past, North Koreans have often pointed to Libya, which agreed to dismantle its nuclear program only to have the US bomb the country and kill its leader, leaving chaos in its wake, so there only seem to be two possible explanations for Pompeo's indifference: either he has totally unreasonable expectations about North Korea's willingness to disarm themselves, or he's looking to undermine any possible Korea deal. Given his neocon credentials, one suspects the latter. Meanwhile, the purpose of the Israel trip (with side trips to Riyadh and Amman) seems to be to stoke anti-Iran feeling before Trump drops out of the Iran deal.