Sunday, May 29, 2022

Speaking of Which

PS: Added section at end [05-30], originally part of Music Week.

I had a notion to write another 5-6 paragraphs to update my 23 Theses on Ukraine, but that remains a pretty accurate account of how and why Putin invaded Ukraine, and what it means. But all I really want to add at this point is a brief (and certainly incomplete) list of reasons the war in Ukraine is a colossal disaster for all concerned -- and, indeed, for many who initially felt uninvolved and disinterested.

  1. Most obviously, there's the loss of lives, the maiming, and the vast destruction of property, including critical infrastructure, in Ukraine itself. Credible numbers are hard to find. Then there is the disruption of everyday life -- about 6.7 million refugees have left Ukraine, while many more have been displaced but are still in the country. Ukraine's economy has been devastated. Every day the war continues adds to those losses, most of which will never be recovered.

  2. The economic losses both in Ukraine and in Russia (thanks to sanctions) have already impacted economies all around the world, causing shortages as exports (especially food and oil) are taken off the market, and depressing imports (except where subsidized from abroad, like arms to Ukraine). People in wealthy countries can compensate by bidding up prices, an effect felt even in the US, which is largely self-sufficient in food and oil. Poor countries are hit even harder. Less important, but capital flows are also impacted, and foreign assets (both in Russia and elsewhere) are politically vulnerable.

  3. The war has led to two booms in arms sales. The obvious one is arms sent to Ukraine for use against the invading Russians. (Russia is more self-sufficient in arms, although they could be buying more arms from China.) As many of these arms come from stockpiles, there is pressure to replenish those, so the boom will likely extend beyond the end of the war (assuming there is one). The less obvious one is that many US allies have committed to building up their own armed forces. This is especially true of Germany and Japan -- something especially disquieting for those of us old enough to recall what happened last time they embraced militarism (or who were gratified when they turned away from militarism after WWII). The war has also heightened the push to get Taiwan to buy more arms, to ward off a possible (but still very unlikely) invasion by China. The worst lesson politicians think they've learned from this war is their renewed belief in the efficacy of arms. This keeps them from understanding why the war happened, prevents them from understanding how to get beyond it, and wastes a tremendous amount of wealth while making the world a more dangerous place.

  4. Russia had a long history of respecting neutrality pacts with neighboring countries like Finland and Austria, such that one could ask the question: is Ukraine safer neutral or in NATO? Given Russia's efforts to influence elections in Ukraine, and especially given their intervention in 2014, Ukraine's status as neutral was messy. Also, the unacknowledged loss of territory to Russia (Crimea) and pro-Russian separatists (Donbas) made it hard for NATO to extend protection to Ukraine. However, Russia's invasion has made NATO membership seem more desirable, as evidenced by applications to join from Sweden and Finland. As NATO is essentially an arms bazaar, provoking Russia is paying dividends to American gun runners. Russia has long viewed the expansion of NATO as a threat, and indeed the larger NATO has become, the more pointedly anti-Russian it has become. Before, Russia might have argued for scaling back NATO as an unnecessary provocation, but having played into NATO's game by invading Ukraine, the lost ground will be nearly impossible to regain. And needless to say, those who profit by NATO have no incentive to not press their advantage.

  5. It is unclear what, if any, damage sanctions against Russia have done -- other than disrupting mutually beneficial trade relations. The ruble has effectively rebounded against initial panic. Shortages may cause pain for the Russian people, but that has rarely convinced any government to change course. Nor do the targeted oligarchs seem to have much influence over Putin. Sanctions had never been tried on such a large and self-sufficient country, so this is an experiment, and far from certain of success. Moreover, the fact that Russia was already heavily sanctioned by the US before the war doesn't offer much hope that an end to the war will free them from sanctions.

  6. To end sanctions and/or restrain NATO expansion, Russia needs to negotiate directly with the US and its security partners. Russia has very little leverage on either count. (Russian sanctions against Americans are largely regarded as a joke.) Putin has adjusted his war aims to focus on where he does have leverage, which is by capturing Ukrainian territory. Russia's military campaign hasn't impressed, but they currently hold about twice as much Ukrainian territory as they held before the invasion. Zelensky and American hawks seem to think they can take that territory back. (See Ukraine Blasts Suggestions It Should Concede Territory for Peace.) But unless Putin loses his will to fight, it's hard to see any way to force him to concede. Territorial compromise seems to be the only way out. Categorically rejecting it condemns Ukraine to indefinitely long and increasingly destructive war.

  7. Many shibboleths of security doctrine have been discredited by this war (or should have been, if adherents weren't so locked in to their belief structure). Neither the US nor Russia can afford to conduct the sort of "total war" fought in WWII, but that limitation has hardly sunk in. Russia, substantially as is, will survive the war, as will the US, unless both sides resort to the unthinkable. As survival is not in doubt, both sides should recognize the need to work together after the war, yet neither side is showing much recognition of that. Estimates of deterrence have proven absurdly wrong. It's not even clear that NATO has deterred Russian advance over the last 75 years. It's just as likely that Russia has had no interest in testing NATO's boundaries, at least until the prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia appeared -- two nations that Russia had long, complex, and confused relationships with. Without any real capacity to leverage power or fear, conflicts are left to fester.

  8. The war has taken some Russian oil and gas off the market, resulting in higher prices. Given the worldwide need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, that should be a good thing, but the sudden disruption has created a political panic, which threatens to derail climate change efforts. The longer the war lasts, the worse this effect becomes. For example, rushing through drilling permits now will add to production for decades to come. (This has also been used as an argument to shift to nuclear power, which had been in broad decline in much of the world, e.g. Germany.)

  9. There is a thin line between schadenfreude and sadism, and increasing numbers of people are crossing it. I admit to celebrating the losses of Russian troops on Ukrainian territory, where they have no legitimate business, and I have little sympathy for the plight of Russian citizens caused by sanctions, but I anticipate both ending with the war, and no further animosity (at least on my part). But I fear more and more people have crossed the line, and expect to keep punishing (some prefer to say degrading) Russia well into the future, regardless of how the war ends.

  10. Proxy forces tend to gain power and autonomy as a conflict drags on, and often turn out to be obstacles in settling conflicts. We see this with Zelensky, in his shift from begging for weapons for defense to demanding more powerful weapons that can be used to reverse Russian gains. But we also see this on the other side, as Donbas separatists demand that Russia become even more aggressive. Zelensky's refusal to discuss territorial compromise is a major stumbling block to a negotiated settlement.

  11. One big thing Americans (in particular) fail to understand is that there is no world order. Peace and commerce depend on cooperation of all the world's major countries. It may be possible to blackball a small country like North Korea, but Russia is way too big and way too powerful to be snubbed and excluded, as seems to be the intent of the US and much of Europe right now. This is even more so of China, which Blinken recently identified as the greater threat, following Obama's much touted "pivot to Asia" and Trump's fits of hostility. Climate change is only the most obvious problem where cooperation from Russia and China is necessary going forward, so we should be careful not to burn any bridges we cannot easily rebuild.

  12. We should beware that foreign policy is often rooted in domestic political conflicts. Putin has gambled heavily on military success, and would lose stature without a face-saving settlement. (We tend to discount this by exaggerating his authoritarian power, but the fact remains that his annexation of Crimea was extremely popular in Russia, which helped him cement his power.) Biden has made a comparable gamble in supporting Ukraine so vigorously. While Biden's move is very popular within the Washington security bubble ("the blob"), the costs of the war are much less popular, and will only get worse, regardless of the outcome. Thus far, Democrats have remained united behind Biden -- even ones we'd normally expect to be more dovish -- probably because Putin has been so thoroughly tarnished with his (successful?) attempt to undermine democracy in 2016. Republican opposition is more scattered, with some hoping to sabotage Biden, some simply smitten with Putin (and other "strong man" leaders around the world, especially Viktor Orban), and Rand Paul with his isolationism. I suspect that one reason Democrats hope to defend democracy in Ukraine is that they recognize democracy is under attack in America. However, the threat here isn't Putin over there; it's Republicans here, and the costs of saving Ukraine may rebound to hurt here. After all, nothing is more corrosive to freedom and democracy than war.

One could, of course, say much more about each of these, and add more points. The gist is that the sooner this war is resolved, and preferably on principles that benefit ordinary people and not just the armed powers, the better. Links to some recent Ukraine War pieces:

By the way, police in Wichita killed someone named Gregario Banuelos, who was reportedly walking "aggressively" toward police. There is little doubt that this will be ruled "justifiable homicide": he had a gun, which was technically illegal given that he had been convicted of a felony, and he had outstanding warrants for other felony charges, and most of all that he had fired shots earlier in the altercation. But police were responding to a domestic violence complaint. It only escalated because everyone was armed.

It seems like every day I read something in the local paper about an arrest or conviction, and nearly all of them involve felons possessing guns illegally. Sure, once caught for something else, they get charged, and that adds a bit of time to prison sentences, but they've made it so easy to buy guns in Kansas that you can count on every criminal being armed. Certainly, the police count on that, which is one reason they're so trigger-happy. This particular case may not bother anyone, but they add up, and poison the entire atmosphere.

PS: In another incident in Kansas, a deputy shot and killed a suspect, wanted on a felony warrant, who had a holstered handgun and didn't obey orders to the officer's satisfaction. The deputy fired wildly enough to also shoot a bystander. [Story here.] I also ran across this story: Bystander Who Intervened in Shooting of Officer Was Fatally Shot by Police. Now who, exactly, is the "good guy with a gun"?

Ben Armbruster: [05-26] Senior Israeli military official: Iran deal exit was a mistake: Easy to forget that after many years of Israel whining hysterically about the prospects of Iran developing nuclear weapons, Obama took their concerns seriously enough to actually negotiate an arrangement that would protect Israel from their worse fears, only to find that Netanyahu didn't want that. Most likely all he really wanted was to string the US along for aid at levels the US offers to no one else. Then Trump did what Netanyahu said he wanted, and tore up the deal, leaving Israel once again exposed. Of course, the retired General quoted here -- it is not unusual for Israeli security officials to change their tune after retiring -- holds a minority position in Israel. A more characteristic story comes from Trita Parsi: [05-23] Was the assassination in Iran another Israeli effort to sabotage JCPOA?

Ross Barkan: [05-25] President Mike Pence Would Be Worse Than Trump: "Beware any attempt to rehabilitate him." Strictly in policy terms, that's an argument I'm sympathetic to, but Trump really showed no interest in policy once he became president. For him, the job was a publicity platform, and that's all he really cared about. So here's the counterargument: Pence ran the transition team, selected the personnel, and had a major say in whatever policy proposals got pushed (mostly through executive orders that Trump dutifully signed), so we've already seen what a Pence presidency would be like, at least in substantive terms. Trump's value-added was how he dominated the news and cultivated his increasingly deranged followers. Surely, in that regard, he did more damage than Pence ever could have, so it's hard to say that Pence along would be worse than Trump. On the other hand, he would be very bad. We know that because he's already shown us.

Ed Kilgore: [05-24] Perdue Ends Flailing Campaign With Racist Remarks About Stacey Abrams: Specifically, "Perdue accused Abrams, who is Black, of 'demeaning her own race.' He also suggested she is not a true Georgian, though she's lived in the state since 1989: 'Hey, she ain't from here. Let her go back to where she came from. She doesn't like it here.'" Abrams moved to Georgia from Mississippi when she was still in high school, which is to say her parents moved her. I'd advise caution against overreacting to innuendo, but there's no nuance here: Perdue is simply being grossly racist. PS: Here's Charles P Pierce's take: [05-24 There's No Democrat Alive Who Makes Republicans More Nervous Than Stacey Abrams Does.

Nicholas Lemann: [05-23] Would the World Be Better Off Without Philanthropists? Reviews several books, most notably Emma Saunders-Hastings: Private Virtues, Public Vices: Philanthropology and Democratic Equality.

Nicole Narea: [05-25] What we know about the Uvalde elementary school massacre: "An 18-year-old gunman killed 19 students and at least two adults at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, just 10 days after another mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, that claimed the lives of 10 people." Those were just the two most newsworthy mass shootings of recent weeks, not just due to the number of killed but the way they were targeted. I'm afraid I didn't have much of a reaction, but if you still care, try the video in Jimmy Kimmel becomes emotional after Texas shooting. Even if you don't care, forward to about 6:15 for the video clip they assembled out of massacre headlines and Republican campaign advertisements. Some time ago, I decided that prohibiting people from owning small guns and rifles (and I really don't include AR-15s in that category, any more than I'd include other weapons of mass destruction, like automatic machine guns, bazookas, flame-throwers, RPGs, mortars, howitzers, and tanks -- which are effectively banned, to little or no public complaint) wasn't worth the trouble, for much the same reason I opposed prohibition of liquor, tobacco, drugs, gambling, or other "vices" (none of which I approve of). I can see where some people may think they need a gun for self-defense, and I've known many people who used rifles (but not hand guns, let alone machine guns) for hunting. In most cases those people don't present a real threat to other people. But guns are not just a personal vice, their whole purpose is to intimidate, injure, and often kill other people, and the more people who have them, the more likely they are to be used to harm others. I personally doubt that the legitimate uses of guns outweigh their risks and liabilities, but too many people disagree to make prohibition painless, and many of those are so single-mindedly devoted to gun proliferation that gun control has become a sure political loser in much of the country (especially where I live). So I have no desire to press the issue, except to note that most pro-gun arguments are incredibly stupid, often tinged with sociopathic malice. The culture around guns has become so toxic that the only surprise is that many more people aren't killed every day. (And yes, I know the numbers -- if you don't, see the pieces below -- but divide them by 390 million guns and even shocking numbers become vanishingly small.)

After the Uvalde shooting, Ted Cruz argued that the solution is to post an armed guard at the entrance to all schools, and lock all the other doors. Tweet from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: "40% of Uvalde's city budget goes to police. The school district had its own police force. This is what happened. After decades of mass shootings, there is 0 evidence that police have the ability to stop them from happening. Gun safety and other policies can." Also on Twitter is this graph of Mass shootings in the US. Within a week of the massacre, Repubican politicians trekked to the NRA Convention in Houston to reaffirm their allegiance to the gun culture:

  • Natasha Ishak: [05-28] Days after school shooting, Republicans defend gun rights at NRA convention: Led by Donald Trump, who "began his speech by mocking Republican officials for pulling out of the event." (Texas governor Greg Abbott suddenly decided he had more pressing matters than attending, but sent a video message.) When someone noted that the NRA banned guns for Trump's speech, a friend noted: "Banning guns is do-able, banning mentally ill people is not."

Aja Romano: [05-20] Why the Depp-Heard trial is so much worse than you realize: "Amber Heard is just the first target of a new extremist playbook." Not the sort of thing I care about, so I've ignored it to date, other than libel suits are a tool the rich use to insulate themselves not just from criticism but from scrutiny. When Trump was running for president in 2016, he seriously proposed changing the laws to make it easier for people like him to sue people like you -- it was one of the few policy proposals he seemed to be really into. I'm not aware of him trying to get that done, perhaps because someone pointed out that he'd be playing defense as much as offense -- even as it is, few people in American history have been more litigious (cf. James D Zirin's book, Plaintiff in Chief: A Portrait of Donald Trump in 3,500 Lawsuits). Besides, he was able to use the presidency (and a shockingly pliant press) as a unique platform both for libeling others and for deflecting criticism as "fake news." Compared to him, the Depp-Heard trials are small potatoes. The main point of this piece is how social media has been used to vilify Heard, and presumably to intimidate other women standing up to powerful men. Still, short on background, for which see Constance Grady: [05-04] Johnny Depp, Amber Heard, and their $50 million defamation suit, explained. Also, Romano has another background piece that ties in somehow: [2021-01-07] What we still haven't learned from Gamergate.

Jonathan Shorman: [05-27] How far will Kansas go to fight Biden? If elected AG, Kobach promises a dedicated unit: Forget about crime in Kansas. If Kobach wins his race to become Attorney General, he'll dedicated his office to filing ridiculous nuisance suits against the Biden Administration. This isn't new -- Texas and Oklahoma have broken ground here, and other Republican states have pitched in, including Kansas under Derek Schmidt (running for governor this year). Kobach's background is with ALEC, the right-wing think tank dedicated to formulating model legislation for Republican states (most famously the "stand your ground" laws; ALEC guarantees that bad ideas will propagate everywhere). With the courts increasingly stacked in favor of Republicans, lawsuits have become the cutting edge of extremism. And no one has a longer track record for getting his laws thrown out as unconstitutional as Kobach. You'd think his incompetency would mitigate the threat, but it's getting hard to believe that with this Supreme Court sanity and/or decency will win out.

Jeffrey St Clair: [05-27] Roaming Charges: The End of the Innocents. Among other insights, notes that the Assault Weapons Ban ended in 2004, just as the Iraq War was blowing up. "Violence abroad breeds violence at home." Also notes that "90% of all firearm deaths for children 0-14 years of age in high-income countries occur in the US." Republican Sen. Ron Johnson blamed "liberal indoctrination" for school shootings. "We stopped teaching values. Now we're teaching wokeness. We're indoctrinating our children with things like CRT." In Texas?

Matt Taibbi: [05-27] Shouldn't Hillary Clinton Be Banned From Twitter Now? This could have been edited down to a largely valid critique of Clinton playing up "Russiagate" as a shield for her own malfeasance and belligerence, and could even have looked further into how all the Russia-baiting that Clinton Democrats engaged in before and after the 2016 election helped poison the atmosphere that led by Putin's gamble in Ukraine. But Taibbi's chronic both-sides-ism, or maybe just his penchant for a grandiose headline, led him to equate Clinton with Trump. An even worse example of this is his recent (mostly paywalled) Bush is Biden is Bush, where Bush's recent Iraq War gaffe is turned into "his recent honesty malfunction," while he actually goes way beyond the identity of his title, adding: "Biden is just a less likable, more deranged version of Dubya, a political potted plant behind which authoritarians rule by witch hunt and moral mania, with Joe floating on a somehow even fatter cloud of media protection than Bush enjoyed after 9/11. Today's Biden is Bush, a helpless, terrified passenger dragged on a political journey beyond his comprehension, signing his name whenever told to appalling policies, like a child emperor or King George in the porphyria years. It's obvious, but no one will bring it up, but the usual reason, i.e. because Trump." Neither Bush nor Biden are what you'd call eloquent speakers or elegant thinkers, but there's little evidence that their policies are unwitting (even if occasionally ill-informed), and while some things like Bush's torture policy can be considered appalling, the president who most often crossed that line was Trump (e.g., in his child separation policy). It's fine with me to criticize Biden for lots of things, but Taibbi is making a fundamental error in not recognizing that Democrats and Republicans are fundamentally different and opposed, that the former still operate in a moral and reasonable world that the latter have totally abandoned.

Nick Turse: [05-23] Decades of US military aid has been a disaster for Nigerians. Turse has been covering AFRICOM since its inception, and seems to be just about the only one. He also wrote: [03-30] The military isn't tracking US-trained officers in Africa. Perhaps because tracking US-trained officers in South America was so embarrassing? Also on Africa: Vijay Prasad: [05-27] The Rise of NATO in Africa.

Once again, I find myself rushing to get this posted, allowing me a brief break before compiling Music Week and moving on with my life. Anyhow, as Professor Zanghi used to put it, basta per ora!

PS: Added this [05-30]:

I also wanted to beat Bill Scher: [05-16] The Deeply Flawed Narrative That Joe Biden Bought with a heavy stick. The notion that Obama was a master of practical politics is little short of risible, but using that flimsiest of arguments as a cudgeon against Biden for having attempted (and, thus far, mostly failed) something more ambitious is sinister. Many of the people who think that Obama's star has dimmed (even ones who personally admire him) do so because we realize that his legacy of failure left us with a nation that was willing to give Donald Trump a try. I wish Biden was better able to overcome the damage that Trump (and others, of both parties) did, but it's hard to see how slamming Biden for being too ambitious helps. I also wanted to take a look at another piece of less-than-friendly advice for Democrats, from Matthew Yglesias: [04-14] Moderate Democrats should be popularists. Also saying something similar is Ezra Klein: [05-29] What America Needs Is a Liberalism That Builds. Often these days one gets the impression that the only thing "moderate" Democrats want to do is to chastise us for wanting government to actually do things that help the people who they depend on for votes.

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