Speaking of * [0 - 9]

Sunday, May 22, 2022


Speaking of Which

No desire, or even special reason, for doing this again this week, but Sunday afternoon I decided to jot down a somewhat humorous link (I think it was the Nia Prater, below), and it just snowballed from there. I may have been predisposed to work on this, because I work up with the thought that if Zelensky is Churchill, would there be a Clement Attlee coming around to put Ukraine back together again -- assuming there's ever an end to the war, which doesn't seem to be on Zelensky's agenda (or Biden's, or Putin's). Actually, Attlee was part of Churchill's coalition government during WWII, and probably had more to do with holding the country together than Churchill's big speeches. When forced to choose between leaders in 1945, they overwhelmingly picked Attlee, and that's how they got the welfare state that Thatcher worked so hard to destroy.

I also woke up with some thoughts on inflation, but didn't find a framework to elaborate them. (I considered Robert Shapiro's The Truth About Inflation, and wanted to work in something Paul Krugman said dismissing the impact of monopolies -- I think the point went something like: if companies really had monopoly pricing power, they would have already used it, so that can't be causing new inflation; but isn't exploiting your pricing power to its limit inherently risky, given that customers will push back even if they don't have good alternatives? On the other hand, if everyone else is raising prices, monopolies get some camouflage, and therefore less blame.

[PS: Added a couple items after initially posting. In particular, I wanted to respond to Mitt Romney's apocalyptic op-ed piece.]


Chas Danner: [05-22] Welcome to the Next COVID Wave. For more stats, look here. New case counts have risen steadily since dropping under 30,000 on March 21. Two months later, they're up to 108,610 (+54% 14-day). The hospitalized count is +34% (to 24,681). Deaths are still down (-15% to 312), but the total US death count topped 1,000,000 a couple days ago (and as they note, "many cases go uncounted in official reports, the true toll is likely even higher than these figures suggest"). Danner also notes: "But this wave of new infections is also significantly larger than official case counts suggest, since many cases are either being detected using at-home tests that are never reported, or are asymptomatic and not being detected at all." Also on COVID-19:

Liza Featherstone: [05-21] There Was a Lot of Good News in This Week's Primaries. No mention of the Republican primaries that totally dominated national news.

Chip Gibbons: [05-21] It's Always the Right Time to Call George W Bush a War Criminal. Well, even he's doing it.

Paul Glastris: [05-13] Memo to Democrats: Bust the Credit Card Cartel. Visa and Mastercard control over 80% of the market. Limiting their "spiraling fees" is presented as a win for small merchants, and that's who the big winners would be, but the effects could trickle down. Democrats might also take a look at usury laws (if they can find any). It's easy to figure out that payment systems (and for that matter all forms of retail banking) can be made a lot less expensive than they currently are. The only loser would be the big bank monopolies, which sounds to me like a plus. As I recall, the most intensely lobbied bill in ages was one between banks and retailers over ATM purchase fees. Billions of dollars rode on that law, and none of it was offered to customers.

Ed Kilgore: [05-19] Oklahoma Outdoes Itself in Race to Wipe Out Abortion Rights: You can check the article for the details. The one point I want to add is that this shows what can and will happen if/when Republicans are allowed to govern/rule without checks and balances. I used to think that the only thing that kept Reagan popular was that when he said popular-but-stupid things (which he did all the time) was that they had no immediate impact, so seemed harmless at the time. (We are still paying for many things the Reagan administration did, from undermining labor unions to ending the "fairness doctrine" to subsidizing jihadis in Afghanistan. The seeds of today's inflation crisis were planted by Reagan and the early-1980s Fed.) Republicans are very adept at telling [some] people what they want to hear, but are clueless about the disastrous consequences of turning their rants and cant into policy. (At least one assumes ignorance, since the only alternative explanation is misanthropy.)

Anne Kim: [05-20] Don't Laugh Off Rick Scott's Nutty Plan for America. The Florida Senator is in charge of the GOP's Senate campaign slush fund, so he wrote up a manifesto on what a Republican majority would like to do to America -- he called it his "11 point plan to rescue America." I wrote about this at some length here, a piece worth reviewing, especially if you still think that Donald Trump (or Ron DeSantis or Matt Gaetz) is the most deranged Republican in Florida. The point most folk have seized on is Scott's proposal to raise income taxes on everyone below the current income threshold, to make sure they "have some skin in the game." Of course, nearly all of those people already pay payroll taxes (a form of income tax the rich are exempt from), but even those who don't, who merely live here, have plenty of bare skin exposed to the malfeasances of the state.

Ian Millhiser: [05-19] A wild new court decision would blow up much of the government's ability to operate: "The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit's decision in Jarkesy v. SEC would dismantle much of the system the federal government uses to enforce longstanding laws." As it happens, I spent a lot of time last week complaining about government not doing more to confront the rising tide of fraud[*] in America -- ranging from the constant harassment of unsolicited phone calls to friends who got scammed out of most of their retirement savings and virtually everything involving cryptocurrency. This ruling basically says the government can't do anything pro-active to stop fraud. Robert Kuttner also wrote about this ruling [05-20]: Another Sweeping Far-Right Court Ruling.

[*] I've been complaining about this since the Reagan 1980s, when I identified fraud as America's only boom industry.

Alex Pareene: [05-16] The Disastrous Legacy of the New Democrats: "Clintonites taught their party how to talk about helping people without actually doing it." Review of Lily Geismer's Left Behind: The Democrats' Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality. This is more up-to-date, but Thomas Frank hit most of the points in his 2016 book, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People. Unfortunately, Frank's timing was off: appearing when it did, the book helped paint Hillary as crooked without considering the alternative. Frank's 2004 book (What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America) also backfired: he made a big deal about how Republicans talked up culture war issues but in the end only passed tax cuts and deregulation bills; the effect was that the culture war hawks started holding Republicans responsible for delivering, and they have (e.g., on abortion and guns).

We can now see that the New Democrats were intellectual captives of the Reagan right. They echoed the same free market/small government, which helped make them seem more sensible than they were. What Clinton, Gore, et al. thought they could do was run government in such a way that it would be more profitable for business, raising donations from the rich while making it seem benign enough they wouldn't lose too many of the people they depended on for votes. In many ways, what they did worked out exactly as planned. Economic growth was much stronger in the Clinton and Obama years than under any Republican president, and somewhat more widely distributed, but the rich did so well that inequality continued to spread. And Clinton and Obama managed to lose Congress after two years (while getting re-elected to a second term without regaining Congress), so they had excuses not to pass much-needed programs. And Republicans kept moving ever further right, not just economically but more ominously adopting culture war reaction, which helped to scare the Democratic base into staying loyal. Biden won the 2020 nomination on a tsunami of anti-Trump fear, but also because he was rooted in the Old Democrats, his flexibility made him acceptable beyond the still-powerful New Democrat elites.

Catherine Porter/Constant Méheut/Matt Apuzzo/Salam Gebrekidan: [05-21] The Ransom: The Roots of Haiti's Misery: Reparations to Enslavers: This goes some way to explaining why Haiti has remained one of the world's poorest countries.

Nia Prater: [05-18] Trump Wants Dr. Oz to Copy Him and Declare Victory Before the Race Is Called. Oz hasn't, at least so far, because he hasn't lost yet, and nothing says "loser" louder than emulating Trump's loss rant.

David Remnick: [05-20] Remembering Roger Angell, Hall of Famer: Author of many a New Yorker essay on opening baseball seasons, died at 101 on Friday. I read a couple of his books (long ago). Article includes select links.

Claudia Sahm: [05-22] Unemployment affects everybody too: "Inflation is high, and unemployment is low. What does that mean for Americans? If you listen to the talking heads, you'd think it's all about inflation. But that's wrong."

Alex Shephard: [05-20] Madison Cawthorn's Defeat Isn't Going to Change the GOP: Some people would like to think that even Republicans have enough sense of decency to turn on "an embarrassing extremist." Cawthorn easily qualified, but what did him in was that he ran up against other established power interests in the party. This reminds me of how Kansas Republicans turned on Tim Huelskamp. They didn't care when he emerged as a Tea Party firebrand, but he did cross a line when his libertarianism led him to vote against the subsidies that the farmers he represented. They replaced him with "moderate" Roger Marshall, who has since gone on to become one of the Trumpiest members of the US Senate. [PS: Charles P Pierce also understands this point [05-18]: Republicans in Disarray? Well, They Certainly Aren't Trying to Root Out the Crazy.]

Jeffrey St Clair: [05-20] Roaming Charges: Search, Destroy and Replace. Usual wealth of nuggets here, including a slam on Bernie Sanders for career-long support of the military-industrial complex. (Still, calling him a hawk is a bit unfair. Also unfair: "Biden was a pre-Clinton Clintonite without any of Bubba's political skills.") But this one is quote no one else seems to have noticed:

Alito: "the domestic supply of infants relinquished at birth or within the first month of life . . . had become virtually nonexistent."

So, he's trying to use his judicial power to create a more viable market for babies? And that's constitutional? Sounds more like trafficking.

Simon Tisdall: [05-21] Apocalypse now? The alarming effects of the global food crisis. Supply and demand for food is delicately balanced in the best of times. War in Ukraine has disrupted this balance. Those with enough money can adjust by paying higher prices. All those without enough money can do is to do without (although historically war is another common response). Climate change is another vector of disruption -- potentially much more severe, intractable even. George Monbiot [05-19] wrote essentially the same article: The banks collapsed in 2008 -- and our food system is about to do the same.

Mary L Trump: ]05-20] Mark Esper's Fascinating Revelations Would Have Been Far More So in Real Time: Also notes similarly belated testimony by John Bolton and Bill Barr ("had [they] spoken up when it mattered, history could be different"). But their decision not to speak up then was strategic: each entered the Trump administration with personal agendas, which they were free to pursue only as long as they obsequiously catered to Trump's vanity. Crossing that line would have risked aborting their agenda -- easy to come up with another dozen names who got nixed for sharing instances of or comments about Trump's gross incompetence. What's lost in all this is how truly horrible the private agendas of Esper, Bolton, and Barr really were.

Zeynep Tufecki: [05-19] We Need to Take Back Our Privacy: If/when the Republican-packed Supreme Court takes away the individual right to terminate pregnancy, where does that leave the constitutional right to privacy that Roe v. Wade was based on?

Ukraine: I'm still pleased with every report of Russia getting knocked back, but in real terms, Russia has gained significant ground in the south (including Kherson and Mariupol, important seaports, leaving only Odesa under Ukrainian control), and they haven't lost any ground in Donetsk or Luhansk -- if anything they've picked up a bit -- while over 20% of the people have fled abroad, and the rest of the country has been bombed. It's hard to see how this will ever end except through some kind of negotiated treaty. While the war is certainly costing Putin, Russia can afford to continue much longer than Ukraine or even the US can.

  • Masha Gessen: [05-18] Inside Putin's Propaganda Machine.
  • Fred Kaplan: [05-16] Why Finland Joining NATO Is More Shocking Than Anyone Realizes.
  • Mitt Romney: [05-21] We Must Prepare for Putin's Worst Weapons: There is so much deranged thinking here you have to pinch yourself to remember that this is a guy who nearly half of America wanted to control the nuclear arsenal -- an option he is only too eager to employ given the slightest provocation. He opposes any restraint in arming Ukraine, arguing: "Failing to continue to support Ukraine would be like paying the cannibal to eat us last." He wants NATO to intervene directly in Ukraine, and he's willing to expand the conflict to World War: "Further, we could confront China and every other nation with a choice much like that George W. Bush gave the world after Sept. 11: You are either with us, or you are with Russia -- you cannot be with both." So who's the cannibal now? By the way, why does anyone think that Putin calling the collapse of the Soviet Union the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century" implies "his life's ambition" is to restore Russian power over the territories of the former Soviet Union? (And given his nationalism, isn't the Tsardom the more obvious goal?) Putin has done a lot of despicable, underhanded things in 20+ years of power, but if his goal was empire restoration, he's been awfully coy about it. Maybe the "catastrophe" was just an explanation of the adversity his predecessors left him with.
  • Tom Stevenson: [05-11] America and Its Allies Want to Bleed Russia. They Really Shouldn't. Details how the US has escalated its support for Ukraine, while shying away from negotiations, gambling that a longer war will weaken Russia, and that somehow that will be a good thing. This argument is basically what I was trying to say above, except that I think that boxing Russia into a corner is not just impractical, it's likely to blow up.
  • Lorenzo Tondo: [05-22] Ukraine rules out any ceasefire deal that involves ceding territory to Russia. I've long felt that loss of Russian-controlled territory in Donbas and Crimea would be a plus for the rest of Ukraine, both ending the conflict and giving them a free hand to reorient to Europe. In the best scenario, you could allow fair votes on alignment in each of the regions (possibly in more than Russia actually holds). The war, with all the refugees, makes such votes messier, but it's a small price to pay for ending a conflict which has hampered Ukraine since 2014. On the other hand, Putin has no need to cease fire without some face-saving concession. (Merely dealing on sanctions, which the US has little if any motivation to do, seems much less likely to work.) Zelensky (and his backers in Washington?) may feel like he's winning, but the war is destroying his country, while the sanctions are no more than inconveniences for most Russians.)
  • Edward Wong/Michael Crowley: [05-19] US Aims to Cripple Russian Oil Industry, Officials Say: The thing about this is that it's a pretty long-term project, suggesting that the US is looking to prolong the war, and to never really settle it, so that Russia (at least under Putin, or anyone else like him, which is to say any prospective Russian leader) can never hope for normal relations with the West. We should find that kind of thinking really disturbing. But then we should already be disturbed, as the article notes that Trump imposed sanctions on China, Vietnam, and UAE for purchasing or transporting Iranian oil.

Ask a question, or send a comment.

Sunday, May 15, 2022


Speaking of Which

I started yesterday with two pieces that I thought I'd like to file for future reference, then suddenly found myself with enough of a mass to want to push it out immediately. Nothing systematic below, just a few things that grabbed my eye.


Abortion: [05-14] With fear and fury, thousands across US rally for abortion rights.

  • Rebecca Gordon: [05-15] I Had an Abortion and Now I'm Not Ashamed: Repost from 2019. A big part of the anti-abortion crusade has been to shame women who have had abortions, playing up any possible regrets. My first wife had an abortion (or possibly several, but one I was responsible for). I wasn't in any mental state to care for a child, but more pressing at the time was her chronic illness -- one that killed her 3-4 years later. My late sister had an abortion when she was very young, and unprepared to raise a child. I know of several other similar cases, including women who (like my sister) later had much wanted and loved children. I'm also old enough to have known women who were forced to give birth, only to have their babies trafficked to strangers. I also grew up knowing families with children with severe birth defects -- most of those families shouldered their burdens courageously, but the tragic consequences often took a severe toll. I find it shocking how successful the right has been at overturning this fundamental right. But a good part of that success is due to our reluctance to talk about it.
  • Sarah Jones: [05-13] The Abortion Converts: We used to be anti-abortion. Why did we change out minds? "The anti-abortion movement had to erase what it could not explain, minimize whatever challenged it, in order for the fetus to take precedence over the person who carried it. A perspective as rigid as ours was doomed to conflict with reality. Conversion is not the loss of belief, but rather its transference. Like myself, other converts found the anti-abortion view is incompatible with the mess and the pain of real life."

Karin Brulliard: [05-14] The Colorado River Is in Crisis, and It's Getting Worse Every Day.

Chas Danner: [05-15] Ten Dead After White-Supremacist Gunman Attacks Buffalo Supermarket. Also note: [05-15] The Slight Difference Between Payton Gendron's Radicalization and the Radicalization of the Average Fox Viewer. Of course, Gendron was not the only shooter in the news: [05-15] Shooter kills one and injures five at California church.

Jonathan Guyer: [05-13] The killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, explained. She was reporting for Al Jazeera, and wearing a vest that clearly marked her as "PRESS." There is little chance that she was killed by anyone other than an Israeli sniper, just as there is little chance that Israel will officially admit it, even less that the killer will be punished. Adding insult to injury, Israeli police attacked the funeral procession with batons and stun grenades. Oh, by the way, White House says it "regrets the intrusion" into Shireen Abu Akleh's funeral, but it doesn't condemn Israeli police actions. Also, Richard Silverstein wrote about this [05-11] here and [05-13] here and [05-13] here: "If you are Palestinian, you can't even die in peace." As Silverstein notes, "55 Palestinian journalists [Israel] murdered since 2000."

Margaret Hartmann: [05-09] The Drama-Lover's Guide to the New Trump Books: Useful compendium of some of the dumber and more outrageous revelations of the latest spate of insider Trump books, although one still suspects they're leaving most of the really bad shit out. Indeed, the really bad shit was rarely the embarrassing bloopers the Clown-in-Chief blurted out. The real problem was the behavior from underlings that Trump enabled, but which often went unseen because all journalists' eyes were glued on Trump.

  • Ben Jacobs: [05-14]: The Insurrection That Didn't Happen: Review of a book by New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, This Will Not Pass, following three key Republican leaders after Jan. 6 (Kevin McCarthy, Liz Cheney, and Mitch McConnell), detailing how critical all three were of Trump at the time, and how two of them crawled back into Trump's good graces.

Ian Millhiser: [05-12] Two GOP judges just stripped social media companies of basic First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court will ultimately decide which crackpot theories they think they can get away with, but Republican judges in lower courts will test them.

Charles P Pierce: [05-13] I'm Not Convinced We'll Ever Get Back to Normal, Regulated Capitalism in This Country: Mostly about how the meatpacking industry defied lockdowns despite extremely high Covid rates early in the pandemic. What caught my attention was the subhed: "That disappeared into the depth of a business-school syllabus sometime in the 1980s." It's long been clear to me that the main purpose of BS education (especially MBA programs) is disabuse students of the notion that ethics has any role in business. Pierce's conclusion: "The intellectual rot afflicting our business communities and the economics professions in general is deep and well-established. Something has gone bad in a very big way."

Nathan J Robinson: [05-13] Why This Computer Scientist Says All Cryptocurrency Should "Die in a Fire": Interview with Nicholas Weaver.

Alex Shephard: [05-09] Donald Trump's Brazen Bid to Control MAGA Minds: Mostly about TRUTH Social ("a mess . . . but it still could work out to be a killer grift"). "There has never been an ex-presidency quite like this, in which a former president simultaneously lays the groundwork for another campaign while also attempting to make as much money as possible. The result is an ethical minefield."

Jeffrey St. Clair: [05-13] Roaming Charges: Caught in a Classic Trap.

Ukraine: Nothing very significant has changed in Ukraine since I wrote my 23 Theses on Ukraine, so I don't have a lot more to add. What has happened has been a lot more of the same: devastation and tragedy. The US and its "allies" have continued to pump more arms into Ukraine, and the Ukrainians appear to be using them effectively, not that much has changed along the battle lines. Both sides keep digging in, not least to their prejudices. The sanctions that were supposed to punish Russia have had little if any effect on Putin's will. Meanwhile, no progress has been made at negotiating an end to the conflict, or at least none is evident. And there is a very real risk that hawks both in the US and Ukraine think they can win something, so they have no interest in realistic negotiations. Thus far, Biden has been able to draw a fine line between firm resistance and reckless escalation. If his latest $33 billion (now $40 billion) aid package leads to talks that achieve something, it will be worthwhile. Of course, it could just as well adds fuel to a neverending conflagration. What I am sure of is that this whole war could have been avoided with a more sensible foreign policy, built around the need for cooperation and peace, and not on the now-discredited doctrine that "might makes right."

  • Richard Falk: [05-13] Ideological Silos of Left and Right: Missing the Point in Ukraine.
  • Paul Kane: [05-15] The list of anti-Ukraine Republican lawmakers is quickly growing: "Two months ago, three voted against the first pro-Ukraine bill. This week, 57 opposed a request for weapons and humanitarian aid." Meanwhile, Rand Paul is leading the opposition in the Senate, which won't stop the $40 billion bill, but has already slowed it down. They don't yet have a coherent critique of the war, but Democrats should worry that they'll get blamed as the "pro-war" party, as they did in 1968.
  • Anatol Lieven: [05-13] Finland and Sweden will join NATO at the expense of everything: I'm not as alarmed at this as Lieven is, but I don't see it as in any way helpful either: supporting anti-Russian sanctions might help apply economic pressure on Russia, but expanding NATO when the pressing need is to negotiate an end to the war in Ukraine isn't helpful. NATO is predicated on raising the spectre of Russia as a threat, which is why Russia is so sensitive to NATO. Whether their fear is rational or not is beside the point: as Ukraine shows, the fear can lead to war. So we don't need more fear; we need less. (Fortunately, Turkey is muddying the issue for now.) I should also point out Lieven's [04-27] piece: The horrible dangers of pushing a US proxy war in Ukraine. The more Ukraine is able to militarily resist Russian aggression, the more American hawks want to pile on, to degrade and further humiliate Russia. The dangers of that approach should be obvious.
  • Matti Maasikas: [] When Reality Bites: Author, the EU Ambassador to Ukraine, is right that "it is not too soon to start thinking about what comes next," but we could use some better thinking. He starts with "Too soft a reaction to the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas was just one of the mistakes the EU (and the West in general) made." Too soft? Instead of working out an arrangement where the disaffected regions could go their own way, Ukraine (supported by escalating US sanctions) locked in a civil war opposed by Russia, which eventually deteriorated to the point Putin decided to intervene militarily. Even now, the author insists, "first, we must help Ukraine win this war." Win? The damage so far goes way beyond anyone ever winning anything.
  • Casey Michael: [05-12] Ukraine's Corrupt Oligarchs Are Looking Toward the West to Rehab Their Reputations: "Some of the grifters who paved the way for the Russian invasion of Ukraine want to be seen as being on the right side of the war."
  • John Quigley: [05-09] I led talks on Donbas and Crimea in the 90s. Here's how the war should end. Key factoid here I wasn't aware of was that in the early 1990s there was a movement for independence for Crimea, even without any real support from Moscow.
  • David Wood: [05-10] The Trauma of Ukraine's Civilians Will Haunt Them, and Us, for Generations.

Ask a question, or send a comment.

Sunday, May 8, 2022


Speaking of Which

I had little desire to open this up, and don't expect anything thorough, but there were a couple things I wanted to take note of.

I finally finished Louis Menand's The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, with mixed feelings about what was included and what got skipped or skimmed over, but it did bring back a lot of memories of the world I was born into. Appropriate that it ended with Vietnam. He notes:

Vietnam not only shattered the image of American invincibility. It meant that a whole generation grew up looking on the United States as an imperialist, militarist, and racist power. The political capital the nation accumulated by leading the alliance against fascism in the Second World War and helping rebuild Japan and Western Europe it burned through in Southeast Asia.

Unfortunately, he doesn't end there. He ends with two paragraphs about an English journalist named James Fenton, bemoaning how after the Americans left the Communists took over in 1975 they turned the country into a Stalinist hellhole. I couldn't help but think that maybe if they hadn't had to fight for 30+ years against Japan, France, and the United States, they wouldn't have turned out so hard.

That chapter starts out with the 1960s student movement, with Tom Hayden and Mario Savio even before the war became a galvanizing issue. That led to the revelations that the CIA had been funding student groups for propaganda purposes. Many people involved didn't know or care. Diversity of opinion even worked to advantage, as an illustration of freedom vs. the thought control practiced on the other side of the Iron Curtain. (The walls helped make the West look free, which is part of the reason Eastern Europe, and later Ukraine, turned so hard against Russia.) But how free are you when on critical matters the things you believe are on the approved list? Menand picks out an interesting quote from Christopher Lasch:

Both as symptom and as source, the campaign for 'cultural freedom' revealed the degree to which the values held by intellectuals had become indistinguishable from the interests of the modern state -- interests which the intellectuals now served even while they maintained the illusion of detachment. . . . The American press is free, but it censors itself. The University is free, but it has purged itself of ideas. The literary intellectuals are free, but they use their freedom to propagandize for the state. The freedom of American intellectuals as a professional class blinds them to their un-freedom.

I came along at a time when we were starting to see through the haze of ideology and the deceit of power. The workings of the CIA, and how they led to the disaster in Vietnam, were partly exposed, and efforts were made to reform, but the old culture returned, more devious and deluded than ever. It's impossible to dismiss US schemes to influence Ukraine, because that's exactly what the US has always done, or tried to do, at least since WWII. And when you hear people parrot US talking points, you can't tell whether they're paid to shill or just conditioned to go along with them. This leads to the massive irony that democracy is permitted to exist in countries where people can be trusted not to use it, and denied in countries where the leaders actually fear public opinion.

America is becoming like the world in that respect. We are divided between Democratic and Anti-Democratic parties. The latter is the one preoccupied with repression and thought-control, the one obsessed with purging schools of any hint of free thinking, the one that still hopes to cling onto power by training pious, obedient cadres. The former, or at least the nostalgic Cold War faction which still controls the levers of power, knows they don't have to be that controlling. They understand that diverse people can be trusted with a little freedom, because in the end most of them will agree on the right things anyway. And if, say, some strange idea takes root and becomes popular, they're flexible enough to absorb it and carry on.


The war in Ukraine has largely deadlocked, but there's still enough to note to give them their own section:

Edward Alvarez: [05-07] Why We Should Not Admire Zelensky: I suspect someone could write a critique which takes the Ukrainian leader to task on at least two points: his intransigence in the runup to the war, and his reticence to negotiate a cease fire leading to an agreement to partition Ukraine (preferably through plebiscites). This doesn't dig deep enough to be that article. Moreover, you'd have to raise the question of what (if any) options Putin offered. Even now, while it's possible to imagine a deal that both sides should be willing to accept, it's not obvious which side is dragging this out. It could be that Zelensky's success at begging for arms will swell his head, leading to demands that only prolong the war, I worry more about the donors, with much less risk, seeing continued war as a bonanza.

George Beebe: [04-29] Tell us how this war in Ukraine ends.

Stephen Kinzer: [05-02] These countries are willing to risk US ire over Russia-Ukraine: "The Global South is not intimidated and has increasingly refused to ally with the West on sanctions and condemnations."

Jen Kirby: [05-04] Are sanctions against Russia working? Hard to tell. Clearly, the sanctions put in place after Russia annexed Crimea didn't deter this war. If anything, they promoted it. Will more sanctions bring Russia to sue for peace? Litte evidence of that so far. Otherwise, it's mostly an exercise in arrogance (the belief that we are entitled to judge and punish malefactors) and gratuitous sadism (the actual effect of sanctions on most people).

Paul Krugman: [04-28] America, Again the Arsenal of Democracy: I like FDR more than most Americans, both because and in spite of knowing a good deal about him. Still, this is wrong on more levels than I can count, word for word in any permutation. Maybe not as wrong as Wilson's "war to make the world safe for democracy," when the US went to war to support the Tsar of Russia and the world's two largest colonial empires. But the bigger problem is that supplying arms to Britain and the Soviet Union didn't help end the war. Rather, it sucked the US in, by giving reason to Japan to attack Pearl Harbor, and to Hitler to declare war on the US. It may be that Germany and Japan were so hell-bent on empire that we would have had to fight them sooner or later regardless, but sooner was what we got for feigning peace while feeding war. Given the way WWII turned out, many people applauded FDR for his vision and bold leadership. Krugman ends his piece wondering whether Biden will get due credit for his staunch defense of democracy in Ukraine. Depends a lot on how much escalation he provokes from Putin, who under no conceivable scenario is going to capitulate as gracefully as Hitler. Also depends on whether Biden manages to save democracy in America, which at the moment seems like the taller order. [Also see Tooze, below.]

Anatol Lieven: [05-03] Reckless and ruthless? Yes. But is Putin insane? No. A distinction that doesn't offer much comfort. Putin's decision to start the war was based on several severe misconceptions: about what Russia could do, what the US couldn't, how welcoming Ukrainians would be, and why small bits of land and people mattered. And even if he admits he was wrong on those counts, his decision to double down rather than suing for peace is yet another hint he's not fully grounded.

Dave Lindorff: [05-03] War Secretary Austin Wants a Long War in Ukraine, Not a Quick Peace.

Paul McLeary/Lara Seligman: [05-05] 'There is no going back': How the war in Ukraine has pushed Biden to rearm Europe. Loose lips at NATO and the Pentagon. We have to ask, is this really something we want to be doing? St. Clair [see below] cites this bit:

"We think it's time to move on from this forward presence concept based on the tripwire approach," the NATO diplomat said, where a small number of NATO troops are stationed in Eastern Europe, to a larger footprint that could actually halt any Russian incursion. The idea is to move from "deterrence by punishment to deterrence by denial," the official said.

How is it possible to install a "deterrence by denial" force in such a way that it won't be interpreted by Russia as a first strike force? For that matter, isn't is stupid now to talk about deterrence of any stripe so soon after such theories failed to deter Russia from invading Ukraine? Here's another quote from a Pentagon "International Security Affairs" head: "The U.S. government's objective in this crisis relative to Russia . . . is that Russia ends this crisis as a strategic failure." But massive strategic failures on both sides hasn't ended the war yet. And if the US can't admit as much, why are they waiting for Russia to throw in the towel.

Rajan Menon: [05-05] Human catastrophe, flowing from Ukraine and across the globe. Most obviously, 12.8 million Ukrainians have been displaced, with 5.4 million leaving the country. Economic damages fans out from there: the displaced need to be fed and sheltered, even those who stayed are unable to go about their normal business; one-third of Ukraine's infrastructure has been damaged or demolished; sanctions against Russia affect costs elsewhere, and inflation spreads the pain even farther.

Adam Tooze: [04-18] Azovstal - Mariupol's final battlefield. History of the big steel plant in the news. Tooze also wrote a pretty detailed history of the conflict before it blew up: [01-12] Putin's Challenge to Western hegemony - the 2022 edition. More recently: [05-04] Is escalation in Ukraine part of the US strategy? Subhed: "The aim of the billions committed through the Lend-Lease plan could tip the geopolitical balance. History may be about to repeat itself." More pointed is this line: "It is a calculation so cold-blooded that it is little wonder that we want to dress it up in half-remembered histories of the second world war, in which the happy ending is assumed without the necessary sacrifices ever being spelled out."


Some other links and comments. Again, I'm not making any attempt to be thorough or systematic:

Rachael Bedard: [05-07] The Radical Life of Kathy Boudin: "She became infamous for her involvement in acts of political violence. Then she found her way out of the abyss."

Fabiola Cineas: [05-03] Florida's new election police unit is the scariest voter suppression effort yet.

David Dayen: [04-26] Will Inflation Break the News? "The greatest threat to democracy from media isn't disinformation, it's the paywall." I'm sorry for all you "content providers" out there who want to make a living off your earnest thinking and writing, but the marginal value of information is very thin, unless you're in a position to profit from it. But who makes a living from good citizenship? Dayen imagines people will cut back on their subscriptions as inflation eats into their income, and it's hard to argue otherwise. That's already true of entertainment (like Netflix), and most people get a lot more there than they will ever get from subscribing to Matt Taibbi or Matthew Yglesias or many others. I can imagine a day coming when I feel the crunch and give up most or all of my subscriptions (with the side bonus of never writing this column again). But is this any way to run a democracy? By the way, Dayen also wrote (no paywall, but you have to beat down a pop-up): [05-05] Means-Testing Student Debt Relief: Big Hassle, No Results.

Sean Illing: [04-24] Michael Lewis on why Americans don't trust experts. More reason to plug his book, The Fifth Risk. Who knew that the government employs competent people looking out for you?

Sarah Jones: [05-04] Why Are Conservative Men So Scared of Cat Ladies? Jones also weighs in on the Supreme Court: [05-04] The Supreme Court Is a Tool for Tyrants.

Robert Kuttner: [05-04] The Fed's Dilemma: They hiked short-term interest rates half a point, because that's the only hammer they have to attack inflation, even when it's not caused by low interest rates, when the main effect of an interest rate is to slow business down and put people out of work (at a time when the economy is already shrinking due to war and supply chain issues). Oh, and this is Jay Powell (Trump's Fed Chair) doing this. You know, the guy Biden was talked into renominating because he finally understood that the Fed's job wasn't limited to fighting inflation: growing the economy and increasing employment also matters. Until, evidently, you get that second term.

Jamie Martin: [04-28] The US Wants to Tackle Inflation. Here's Why That Should Worry the Rest of the World.

Ian Millhiser: [05-03] 4 things we know, and one big thing we don't, on the draft opinion overruling Roe v. Wade. Millhiser covers the Supreme Court as comprehensively as anyone, so he's the obvious reporter/critic to look to. The "big thing" is whether a majority will continue to stand behind Alito's "maximalist" opinion. One option might be to concur with Alito's judgment but with a less sweeping opinion. One thing I've gotten from reading Millhiser is how sloppy and contorted the reasoning of right-wing judges has become lately as they try to invent legal theories to support their agenda. Another is that right-wingers seem to have unlimited resources to file ridiculous suits to harass others. Indeed, the recent avalanche of laws that depend on right-wing vigilantes for enforcement show their confidence in this tactic. Millhiser followed this piece up with:

  • Ian Millhiser/Li Zhou/Nicole Narea: [05-03] What happens next if the Supreme Court strikes down Roe.
  • Ian Millhiser: [05-03] The case against the Supreme Court of the United States: "The Court was the midwife of Jim Crow, the right hand of union busters, and the dead hand of the Confederacy, and is now one of the chief architects of America's democratic decline." The way I've often put it: we've been fortunate to have lived during a rare period where the Supreme Court sought to broaden our constitutional rights. Of course, by "we" I mean people more or less my age (71). The Court's been leaning back rightward at least since the 1980s, when Scalia and Thomas were installed with an explicit political agenda. But for much of US history the Court has had a malign influence, and the current majority is likely to become one of the worst ever.
  • Ian Millhiser: [05-06] If Roe v Wade falls, are LGBTQ rights next?

A few more links on Alito v. Roe v. Wade:

Jason Samenow: [05-08] Texas toast: Heat crushed records Saturday and will swell northward: Wichita hit 90F today for the first day this year, and forecast calls for 4-5 more 90+ days, so this is too close for comfort.

Jeffrey St Clair: [05-06] Roaming Charges: Playing for Keeps: Opens with a sizable section on abortion politics, so I could have filed it there, but also includes significant points on Ukraine, and more. Includes this Trump quote (per Mark Esper): "We could just shoot some Patriot missiles [into Mexico) and take out the [drug] labs, quietly. No one would know it was us." Come on, no one would even suspect it was anyone else. Charles Pierce [05-02] has more from the Esper book: Mark Esper Didn't Think Voters Deserved to Know That Trump Wanted to Turn DC Streets Into My Lai? ("The Secretary of Defense thought this information would better serve his bank account two years later.")

Ask a question, or send a comment.

Sunday, April 24, 2022


Speaking of Which

Having eschewed links for my 23 Theses on Ukraine piece Tuesday, I figured I should acknowledge a few other pieces sooner rather than later. I also received several questions on the article, so published my answers here.

Of course, we start off with Ukraine:

Andrew Bacevich: [04-16] Robert Kagan: American passivity led to the Russia-Ukraine crisis: "Always nimble, the pro-war raconteur is again making arguments for preventative war, just more obliquely." I wrote more about Kagan (and his wife, Victoria Nuland, a major player in the American weaponization of Ukraine) in the Q&A (link above). What Bacevich calls Kagan's "flexibility" is something far more sinister. Kagan is arguing that Putin wouldn't have attacked Ukraine if only the US had intimidated Russia sufficiently beforehand. How we could have done that short of nuclear war isn't explained, nor is why any lesser intimidation would have worked. Kagan is so wedded to the use of force, the only world he can imagine is one of masters and slaves.

Hannah Beech/Abdi Latif Dahir/Oscar Lopez: [04-24] With Us or With Them? In a New Cold War, How About Neither. It turns out that a lot of countries, especially in "the global south," want nothing to do with a pissing match between the US and Russia. I doubt this means specific approval of Russia's attack, but they recognize that the US has committed similar crimes, and that they can do little if anything about either. One thing I do give Biden some credit for is that he hasn't pulled out the either-you're-with-us-or-against-us ultimatum (which GW Bush asserted in the War on Terror). I suspect he hasn't done it because his people know it wouldn't work and could backfire.

Paul Elie: [04-21] The Long Holy War Behind Putin's Political War in Ukraine: I can't claim to understand this, but evidently since the Russian Orthodox Church was rehabilitated with the end of communism in 1991 the Russians have been plotting to control Ukraine, which gives them some kind of common cause with Putin. In 2018, a Ukrainian Orthodox Church broke off, as an alternative to Russian control.

Nicholas Grossman: [04-24]: Arming Ukraine Is the Path to Peace: Article blocked, so I'm just going from the excerpt, which mostly is an attack on Noam Chomsky, and a seriously stupid one at that. I can see an argument for arming Ukraine because you want to cripple the Russian invasion, to turn it back or simply to make it so painful Russia thinks twice before trying anything like that again, but that's no path to peace. The only way you get to peace is through negotiation, and the only viable basis for negotiation is justice, which is not determined by the relative balance of arms and terror.

Luke Harding: [04-16] How Zelenskiy's team of TV writers helps his victory message hit home.

William D Hartung/Julia Gledhill: [04-17] The New Gold Rush: How Pentagon Contractors Are Cashing in on the Ukraine Crisis. "Even before hostilities broke out, the CEOs of major weapons firms were talking about how tensions in Europe could pad their profits."

Mike Lofgren: [04-11] No, Russia's Ukraine Invasion Isn't "Our Fault": Identifying with America there, but I can accept the title. He does push his luck with the subhed: "Russia's aggression stems from its history and political culture, not NATO expansion or the post-Cold War settlement." The worthwhile part of the article is the one that explores Russia's history and political culture:

Since Peter the Great, Russia has presented itself as a great power and as sophisticated as western Europe. . . . This facade has never quite concealed deep-seated cultural insecurity, the feeling that poor Russia will forever remain backward and disrespected. This dichotomy animated debate among the 19th-century intelligentsia, dividing between Westernizers embracing Europe and Slavophiles who rationalized Russia's intractable differences with the West as the mark of spiritual superiority.

This schism carried into the Soviet era in the guise of a debate between the merits of world revolution versus socialism in one country, a difference of opinion brought violently to a halt by Stalin's xenophobia and denunciation of "rootless cosmopolitanism" (a largely anti-Semitic euphemism).

Today, Putin still benefits from the cultural backlash against the extreme economic insecurity of the post-Soviet 1990s. His rehabilitation of Stalin is complete, and those who document Stalin's crimes are persecuted. An inward-looking, defensive Slavophilia flourishes under the rubric of Eurasianism, a hodgepodge of geopolitical ramblings whose chief proponent is Putin's Rasputin-like court philosopher, Alexander Dugin.

This isn't quite right. "Socialism in one country" wasn't a theory that won out so much as a tactical retrenchment after revolutions in more advanced capitalist countries failed, leaving Russia isolated in a hostile world. One unfortunate side-effect was that Communist Parties in the West were reduced to acting as Soviet agents, which undermined any possibility of local success. Also, I'm not aware of any "complete rehabilitation" of Stalin, not that there is no nostalgia for the Soviet Union -- where, unlike modern Russia, the state was (in principle, if not always in fact) for the betterment of the masses -- and Stalin has some credibility for winning WWII. Dugin, by the way, is featured in Masha Gessen's The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. As I tried to explain in my "23 Theses" piece, I think psychology has a lot to do with why Putin invaded. Someone else, for instance, with no designs beyond his borders, could have decided that NATO was a purely defensive alignment, and simply ignored expansion. But Putin was too prideful and/or paranoid to ignore NATO expansion and other measures that impacted Russia (like sanctions, and support for Ukraine vs. Russian separatist regions). No doubt the war wouldn't have happened had Putin approached his disputes with the West more constructively. On the other hand, shouldn't the US and its allies deserve some kind of reproach for not anticipating how serious the conflict might get? And for not attempting to defuse the conflict? Once Putin started amassing troops near the Ukraine border, Biden went all stick, no carrot, and since the war started, Biden has escalated repeatedly, while ignoring the obvious need for talks around a cease fire.

The early part of Lofgren's article is mostly a counter to John Mearsheimer (presumably his Economist piece John Mearsheimer on why the West is principally responsible for the Ukrainian crisis, tucked safely behind a paywall). Mearsheimer stipulates up front: "There is no question that Vladimir Putin started the war and is responsible for how it is being waged." But then he goes into why Putin did so. I haven't read what he says, but have my own theories. I will say that although Mearsheimer is often sharp on critiquing American policy, his "realist" prescriptions don't offer much improvement. The goal of US foreign policy shouldn't be a narrow focus on national interests, but a broad effort to build cooperation between nations, because there's no safe way to enforce the New World Orders stategists are so enamored with.

PS: Another headline I noticed from Economist: [04-23] Poland's prime minister says the West's appeasement of Vladimir Putin must stop. First paragraph leads off with Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938, adding "the analogies with the present situation are striking." One might argue that Putin needs NATO to keep hawks like Mateusz Morawiecki reigned in, although it's also possible that the security offered by NATO is what allows the hawks to shoot off their mouths.

Josh Marshall: [04-21] Failing at the Basics: Cites a poll that says 54% of Americans think Biden hasn't been tough enough on Russia over Ukraine. I'd draw three inferences from this number: they don't understand what Biden has done, which has been pretty aggressive within some finely calculated restraints; they don't understand how dangerous going beyond those constraints could be; and they're hung up on a totally bullshit idea of toughness. Marshall sees this (like dozens of other things) as a failure of messaging, but the message he wants Democrats to pound home is how friendly Trump and many other Republicans have been to Putin over recent years (e.g., "why just three years ago they were helping Presidents Trump and Putin conspire against Ukraine and the United States").

Kevin Martin: [04-22] With Humanity on the Brink, Should We Trust Deterrence Theory, or Disarmament? Above all else, the lesson we need to draw from Ukraine is that the shibboleths of post-WWII defense theory simply don't work. You know the clichés: peace is guaranteed by strength, we cannot negotiate with enemies so the only way we can stop them is through deterrence. I suspect the list of things that Ukraine has proven wrong is quite long -- not least, almost everything we thought about sanctions. A rethink is in order, which would lead us back to the common sense notion that the way to prevent future wars is to forego the arms races that lead to them, and understand the value of mutual respect.

Alfred McCoy: [04-19] How to End the War in Ukraine: "A Solution Beyond Sanctions." McCoy's scheme is to use the European Court to order Russia to pay reparations for damage to Ukraine, and to collect those reparations by garnishing oil and gas revenues. It's hard to see how this would work, but the 20% rate he proposes would presumably leave Russia enough profit to not just shut delivery down. Still, it feels like a tariff, which is effectively a tax on European consumers. Hard to see where anyone comes out of that deal feeling whole.

Bill Scher: [04-12] Don't Let Putin's War Break the UN: Starts with Zelensky questioning why Russia hasn't been stripped of its permanent Security Council seat (with its veto power). Doesn't mention that Russia has already been suspended from the UN Human Rights Council (by the UN General Assembly, which isn't subject to vetoes, but carries much less weight than the Security Council). Explains the history of how that arrangement came about. The more basic point is that without Russia (or for that matter China and the US) there is no United Nations. The UN would cease to be a forum for resolving international conflicts (inefficient as it is), and instead be one for advancing them.

Jeffrey St Clair: [04-22] Roaming Charges: Runaway Sons of the Nuclear A-Bomb: Bullet points, but more intuitive insight than most: "Winning wars is no longer the point, prolonging them is -- that's where the money's made and what the fog of war is meant to obscure." Way down he quotes Walter Benjamin: "Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right [to material improvement], but instead a chance to express themselves." Sounds like a lot of Republicans these days, with the proviso that now (as then) only some people are entitled to express themselves, and only in certain ways. Evidently, St Clair also wrote [04-10] The Politics of Lesser-Imperialism [behind some kind of paywall], which takes to task the segment of the "anti-imperialist left" that is rallying behind Russian war propaganda because they think it counters the "greater imperialism" of the US.

It's a weird kind of anti-imperialism that writes amicus briefs for a regime that Lenin and Trotsky would have been toiling night and day to overthrow. Of course, the briefs themselves never dig too deep before hitting the bedrock of their own absurdity. Instead, they function as a kind of meme factory, endlessly the shallow tropes of the day, such as "false flags over Ukraine." In a month, the Ukraine war has yielded up so many allegations of "false flags" that the assertions themselves begin to seem like false flags: the bodies on the streets of Bucha were staged; the bombed Mariupol theater was being used by the Azov battalion; the Kramatorsk train station was hit by Ukrainian rockets. And on and on . . .

The US bears responsibility for all of the carnage now unfolding. All right. Likely true. To a degree. Now what? Overthrow the US? Godspeed. . . . The Left -- especially the international Left -- used to see capitalism as the unifying threat, the systemic enemy. But you rarely hear it talked about these days, even though its fangs are sharper than ever. Perhaps that's because the old socialist powers have cashed it in and joined the mad scramble to commodify all that remains. Communist China now boasts 1002 billionaires, 400 more than the cutthroat capitalists in the US. To paraphrase Mao: who's running with the imperialist dogs now?

Yes, we know NATO is bad news. I've been writing about NATO's belligerent and criminal actions for nearly 40 years now, including weekly dispatches on its wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. I've written about NATO's provocative creep ever-eastward. Its remorseless campaign to bully, bleed and isolate Russia at any cost. And yet. While the war in Ukraine had many co-authors, it only had one agent.

Putin may have been tempted, lured, baited or even duped into invading Ukraine. He may have been lied to by his own generals and spymasters. He may not be the grand strategists so many thought. But he alone pulled the trigger. His tanks crossed the border. His bombs destroyed city blocks, hospitals, train depots. His army is occupying foreign ground. . . .

But here's what's worse. In rationalizing Putin's crimes in Syria and Ukraine, the anti-imperialist left in effect validates America's own in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

Matt Taibbi: [04-19] America's Intellectual No-Fly Zone: This starts off citing an interview, Noam Chomsky on How to Prevent World War III. Chomsky points out that the US has two options: either negotiate a settlement with Putin, which would mean unpleasant concessions to give Putin a self-respecting way out, or keep fighting until Putin submits (while hoping, presumably, he won't respond to existential threats with nuclear weapons). Biden's lack of interest in negotiation, as well as his charges of war crimes and his escalations at every turn, suggest the US has settled on the second approach, regardless of risk. It certainly is the one that plays best in the madhouse of US foreign policy rhetoric (which is full of praise for the braveness of Ukrainians, with much less concern for their lives). Taibbi enters to monitor the reaction to Chomsky, which is to judge him "a genocide-enabling, America-hating Kremlin stooge." [Would like to read more, but Substack subscription required.]

Anton Troianovski: [04-17] Atrocities in Ukraine War Have Deep Roots in Russian Military. Of course, it's not just Russians with deep roots.

Robert Wright: [04-11] The Blob has won the Ukraine framing war: I don't particularly like the term "Blob." It was coined by Obama adviser Ben Rhodes to deride other security/foreign policy mandarins he disagreed with, but it's not like he or Obama made much of a break with the main stream of thought that came out of American preëminence after WWII, navigated the Cold War, and took a turn toward increased militarism after the demise of the Soviet Union. Conservatives and liberals both took that turn, their different rationales converging on the steadfast belief that American might makes/reflects right, with so little concern for the possibility that something might go wrong that their skeptics could call themselves "realists." Not that there was never disagreement on tactics, but at critical junctures, like the invasion of Iraq, the Blob could be distinguished from everyone else. When Biden pulled out as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, we saw the Blob attempt to rise up to smite him, but all they had to work with was hindsight -- it's not like anyone could imagine invading again would work better this time. Besides, having gotten in a few blows, there would be more crises in the future, and now Ukraine has come along, fitting neatly into a story line they've been spinning ever since they got bored with the Middle East and started looking for more lucrative prey. Wright focuses on one particular framing of Ukraine: "this idea that America is fighting a global war on behalf of democracy and freedom." He points out "six big problems":

  1. It's a lie. The US has a long history of subverting democracy abroad, as well as arming autocrats to attack their own people (and in some cases, like Saudi Arabia now, or Iraq in the 1980s, to attack others).
  2. It warps our view of the world, sometimes blinding us to the very problems we claim to want to solve. Ukraine is not exactly the poster-child for democracy.
  3. It short circuits critical self-examination. "The more you make authoritarianism the crime, and the less you make invasion the crime," the more excuse you claim for America's own invasions.
  4. It undermines respect for international law. Which the Blob has long denigrated, partly out of fear of prosecution, but mostly because they can't stand the idea that their own operations could be limited by mere rules.
  5. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we're defending democracy in Ukraine, why not elsewhere? Sure, you can point to other cases where the Blob has stylized conflicts as being democracy vs. autocracy (Venezuela, Nicaragua, Iran, Russia, to pick four cases where there are elections that are little if any more compromised as elections are in the US).
  6. It could doom the world to a future of chaos and suffering. "Regular readers of this newsletter know what's coming." Regular readers of my blog, too, so we'll let this one go at that.

One point that I will add is that Biden may be more inclined than the average Blobster to focus on democracy vs. autocracy, because that is a struggle that is being waged domestically as Republicans (the would-be autocrats) try to undermine and rig elections, much as they have managed to rig the economy in favor of owners against workers, of companies against customers, and corporations against mere citizens. Of course, stopping Russia in Ukraine won't help most Americans at all. As a letter put it: "Democrats are anxious to seize on an issue where they are not playing defense, as they are on inflation, gas prices, identity politics in elementary school, and crime."

Wright also wrote: [04-20] The Ukraine War Speech Code. The "code" is a prohibition against considering the possibility that NATO expansion had something to do with Putin's decision to invade Ukraine. As Wright puts it: "The party line being that if your assessment of the causes of this war is much more nuanced than 'Putin is a bad man,' you're dangerously misguided." Wright argues that if you want to blame Putin solely for invading Ukraine, you should phrase it in terms of international law, where no US provocation excuses what he did. (Nor does the incontrovertible fact that the US violated the same international law in invading Iraq in 2003. But haven't we reach the point where very few of us still think that was a good idea? Maybe more respect for international law would save us future embarrassments like that.) On the other hand, we should still talk about how the US prodded and provoked Putin to the point where he made his criminal decision, and how we didn't make a serious effort to defuse the situation through diplomacy before the war was launched, because that reflects back on US decision making: specifically, on why the Blob's core beliefs keep getting us into conflicts we can't figure our way out of.

The latest installment of Wright's Nonzero Newsletter [04-22] Earthling also makes some interesting points. There's a chart based on January polling of how people in Donbas might vote between various stay-in-Ukraine vs. align-with-Russia options, which indicates that a slight majority would vote to stay, but most of those were in formerly Kyiv-controlled areas. In Russian-controlled areas, a vote would tip the other way (and the present offensive is designed to increase Russian-controlled area, while driving others away). There's also a chart on who is to blame for the war. In the US about 60% blame Russia, and 20% blame the US. That's closer than I would have expected, especially given how one-sided the news coverage is. But my guess is that at least half of those are Trumpists. The only nation polled where more people blame the US than Russia is China.

For what it's worth, while looking for some insight into the Blob concept, I ran across these historical links:

  • David Samuels: [2016-05-05] The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama's Foreign-Policy Guru: A profile of Ben Rhodes, at the time Obama's "deputy national security adviser for strategic communications." He is credited with coining the term Blob for figures in the "American foreign policy establishment," including: "Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East."
  • Alex Ward: [2010-12-08] The revenge of the blob: "Presidents Obama and Trump kept the nation's foreign policy establishment at arm's length. President-elect Biden has warmly embraced it."

  • Sarah Lyall: [2021-09-16] For Some, Afghanistan Outcome Affirms a Warning: Beware the Blob: "The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan exposed the shortcomings of views within the foreign policy establishment, also known as 'The Blob.'"
  • Robert Wright: [2021-10-11] Toward a Unified Theory of Blob-dom: This is where Wright lays out his Blob definitions.

Cathy Young: [04-13] What Really Happened in Ukraine in 2014 -- and Since Then: "A close look at the lies and distortions from Russia apologists and propagandists about the roots of the Ukraine War." Fairly deep review from 2014 forward, although the subhed pretty much admits that the "no tribal prejudices" motto isn't quite right.


And here are some other timely stories:

Karen Attiah: [04-20] Why Britain's deal with Rwanda on migrants is so repulsive: Boris Johnson's solution to immigrants seeking asylum is to round them up and dump them in an already-overpopulated, land-locked country in central Africa, one with a "well-documented history of human rights abuses." Still, I wonder how many white Ukrainians he'll deport there. Attiah also wrote [03-24] William and Kate's colonial Caribbean tour was cringeworthy.

Bloomberg: [04-21] Eight-hour blackouts hit India after hottest March since 1901: Article blames a shortage of coal, but isn't the real problem too much coal?

Paul Blumenthal: [04-15] What Jared Kushner's $2 Billion Saudi Payout Says About the Post-Presidential Hustle. In the long history of presidential graft, there's never been anything remotely like this.

Kyle Chayka: [04-21] Why Would Elon Musk Want to Buy Twitter? How about: "as a means for himself and others to continue influencing vast audiences without interference"? Related: Kevin T Dugan: [04-21] Elon Musk Enters His Rupert Murdoch Phase.

Leilah Danielson: [04-17] AJ Muste Was a Prophet of the 20th-Century US Left: I've often reminded that our late friend Diane Wahto used to sign her email with a quote from Muste: "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way."

Jason Ditz: [04-22] Turkey Seeks to Bar PKK From North Iraq Border: While you've been so bothered with Russia trying to intimidate Ukraine to stop them from disrespecting Russia (or whatever it is Putin thinks his principled stand is), Turkey has been doing the same thing in Iraq: crossing the border to attack Iraqi Kurds he regards as some kind of threat. You're not so bothered there, probably because it's been so lightly reported, but it's the same principle: big country using force to intimidate small neighboring country. It should be every bit as illegal, but when you're a big country, you figure you're above all that.

Molly Fischer: [03-28] Galay Brain: On Adam Tooze.

Shane Goldmacher: [04-17] Mar-a-Lago Machine: Trump as a Modern-Day Party Boss: "Hoarding cash, doling out favors and seeking to crush rivals, the former president is dominating the GOP, preparing for another race and helping loyalists oust officials who thwarted his attempted subversion of the 2020 election."

Sean Illing: [04-24] Michael Lewis on why Americans don't trust experts: "How a society that is so good at creating knowledge can be so bad at applying it." If you've read Lewis's book The Fifth Risk, you'll have a pretty good idea what he's on about, but you'll still want to read this for more examples. But if you're one of those Republicans who believes Reagan's joke about government is gospel truth, you won't have any fucking idea.

Michael Kruse: [04-16] The One Way History Shows Trump's Personality Cult Will End: "An expert on autocracy assesses how far America as slipped away from democracy." Interview with Ruth Ben-Ghiat.

Jane Mayer: [04-16] The Slime Machine Targeting Dozens of Biden Nominees: Spelunking another dark money right-wing organization, which goes by the initials AAF.

Bill McKibben: [04-22] This Earth Day, We Could Be Helping the Environment -- and Ukraine: A hedgehog, his one big idea about climate change lets him turn every topic back into his topic. So, he figures, Russia's war on Ukraine is financed by oil. Stop using oil (especially Russian oil, but why stop there?) and the war it funds will no longer be possible. If only we had thought of this before getting into such a mess.

Dana Milbank: [04-19] DeSantis saves Florida kids from being indoctrinated with math: In a supposedly transparent but otherwise mysterious process, Florida has rejected 54 math textbooks, most for allegedly including "critical race theory" or other "prohibited topics."

Ian Millihser: [04-19] The Trump judge's opinion striking down the airplane mask mandate is a legal disaster. We're fortunate so far that the Supreme Court conservative majority (except for Alito and often Thomas) still make an effort to cast their political decisions in terms that recognize legal understanding, but this is a prime example of a lower Trump judge just inventing stuff for political reasons. Millhiser also wrote [04-23] Ron DeSantis's attack on Disney obviously violates the First Amendment.

Rick Noack/Michael Birnbaum/Elie Petit: [04-24] France's Macron wins presidency, holding off Le Pen's far-right threat to upend Europe and relations with Russia. Breaking news as I'm trying to wrap this post up. Split is 59-41 percent, which is less than 5 years ago.

Charles P Pierce: [04-18] The Republican Undead Walk Among Us. Just Look at Scott Pruitt: "The ethically challenged former EPA administrator wants to join the Senate." Replacing Jim Inhofe. Who says you can't do worse? Pierce writes a lot of short pieces worth reading. Another that stands out [04-22] Marjorie Taylor Greene Was the Most Non-Credible Person I've Seen on a Witness Stand in Decades. Also [04-20] Mallory McMorrow Had Two Options After She Was Called a 'Groomer.' She Chose to Swing Back. Seth Myers could features her speech in his segment, "The Kind of Story We Need Right Now."

Nathaniel Rakich: [04-21] The Extreme Bias of Florida's New Congressional Map. The map in question produces 18 seats that are R+5 or more, vs. 8 seats that are D+5, and 2 competitive seats between.

Matt Shuham: [04-22] Bannon's GoFundMe Border Wall Buddies Plead Guilty While He Lives Free With Trump Pardon.

Richard Silverstein: [04-18] Ramadan and the Road to War . . . and Perdition, and [04-19] Biden Sends US Diplomats to Israel on Fool's Errand: Looks like Israel is gearing up for one of their periodic "mowing the grass" onslaughts in Gaza. The parallels to Ukraine are strong. Putin only wishes he could bottle up Ukraine like Israel has done to Gaza. But perhaps Israel wouldn't be so callous and overbearing if the US and its allies applied sanctions against Israeli aggression like they're doing to Russia. I'm less certain that sending defensive weapons to Gaza, like NATO is doing for Ukraine, would help, but that's mostly because Israel is a nuclear power (like Russia).

Adam Weinstein: [04-18] Deadly Pakistan strikes in Afghanistan reflect growing cross-border tensions: Like Turkey/Iraq, another case of cross-border aggression, supposedly rationalized by Afghanistan providing a sanctuary for TPP fighters against Pakistan.

Daily Log

Fragment on Blob cut from above:

On the downside, it blurs the (rather narrow) range of differences among the "American foreign policy establishment" (a more generous term which still conveys some sort of self-selected clique able to exert a consistent direction in administrations of both political parties). I tend towards a finer-grained taxonomy, chiefly: neocons (idealists in love with military power and little if any concern for how that impacts others), neoliberals (same, except they do claim to care, hence they're also known as "humanitarian interventionists"), and realists (non-idealists, who try to tie policies to material interests, not caring how they impact others except as that affects the possible success of the policies). This implies a 2x2 matrix, one dimension for ideologist vs. pragmatist, the other self-centered vs. respectful of others, but the Blob excludes the fourth corner (pragmatic but respectful of others). A proper taxonomy would find more variants: e.g., is Henry Kissinger a "realist," as neocons often charge, or something different, some kind of monarchist throwback, but for all practical purposes, he always winds up well within the Blob; or Ben Rhodes, who coined the term Blob to denigrate other people, but who winds up Blob-adjacent more often than not; or Peter Navarro, who we can use as a proxy for a Trumpist "America First" mindset that for Trump himself never developed beyond the stage of "irritable mental gestures." Still, the Blob coalesces at critical intervals, especially in the decision to invade Iraq.

Ask a question, or send a comment.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022


Speaking of Which: 23 Theses on Ukraine

I started working on this last week, hoping to sum up much of what we know about the Russia-Ukraine War: the context, including a look back at history; what the conflict tells us about military thinking and international institutions; and how I imagine the crisis can be resolved, and further crises averted. I originally thought of doing a set of numbered theses, but the paragraphs are probably too long to be so considered. Still, they feel rather schematic to me, as I touch on a lot of points.

  1. Three great betrayals contributed to Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine on February 24. The bad faith from breaking these promises snowballed into future recriminations and fears. These were:

    • The US promise not to expand NATO beyond Germany when East and West merged in 1989. Bill Clinton broke this when he accepted NATO membership for Poland and other former Soviet satellites in 1997.
    • Russia's promise to respect Ukraine's borders and security in 1993, when Ukraine transferred its portion of the Soviet nuclear weapons to Russia. Putin broke this in 2014 when Russia seized and annexed Crimea, and armed a separatist militia in Donbas.
    • The Minsk Protocol was signed in September 2014 to settle the Donbas dispute, but soon failed, as did the subsequent Minsk II agreement. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, elected in 2017, renounced the treaty in 2021.

  2. Perhaps the most important betrayal of all was the informal agreement no one dared write down. On December 8, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus met secretly and agreed to dissolve the Soviet Union, leaving all 15 SSRs as independent states. This was a second coup attempt, after the reactionary "old guard" coup by elements in the military and party failed to depose Gorbachev in August 1991. By that point, the central government was weakened, and independence movements were rapidly advancing in many SSRs, including Ukraine. The coup dissolved the Soviet Union, with a "Commonwealth of Independent States" serving as a clearing house until the military and other shared resources could be divided. The unwritten part was the Yeltsin's assumption that once the dust cleared, nothing much would change: Russia would continue to dominate the periphery, as it had in the Soviet Union and before that in the old Empire. For a while, it seemed to work that way, but then Ukraine started to stray. The definitive break came in 2014, when the Ukrainian parliament impeached "pro-Russian" president Yanukovych, in an effort to realign Ukraine with the more prosperous EU. That's when Putin panicked and went to war.

  3. The Russian Empire grew out of the Duchy of Moscow, founded in 1263 as a vassal state of the Golden Horde. It was initially ruled by the Rurik Dynasty, who before the Mongols interrupted had held power in Kyiv, in a state the Russians later called Kievan Rus (879-1240). Given this history, it's little surprise that Russians have come to think of Kyiv as theirs. The Duchy of Moscow broke free of the Mongols and expanded, in 1480 recasting themselves as the Russian Empire. But Moscow didn't conquer Kyiv until 1667, and it was not until the late 18th century when Russia extended control over most of modern Ukraine, and started a campaign to move Russians into Ukraine (which, to use a term Putin recently reiterated, they called Novorussiya; those Russians mostly moved to the south, which had been ruled by Turks -- the Crimean Khanate fell in 1783 -- and the southeast, a major coal area). Western Ukraine, including Lviv, was ruled by Austria-Hungary up to 1918, then by Poland until borders were redrawn after WWII. Ukraine was briefly independent 1917-20, with revolutions and civil war alongside Russia, before joining the Soviet Union in 1922.

  4. Russian political culture shares a trait with most other declining empires: an exaggerated sense of their own wisdom and benevolence, which convinces them they are entitled to intervene in the affairs of their former subjects. We see this in France's recent interventions into former colonies like Mali, and in the UK returning (under US direction) to Afghanistan and Iraq. We even see this conceit in such long-gone empires as Turkey and Iran. We see a variant of this in the US, which given the global dominance the US has sought since WWII can be applied to countries with only tenuous or imagined relationships. In Russia, this is especially strong, perhaps because the former empire was compact and contiguous -- although Russians have also claimed a pan-slavic identity (such as their bond with Serbia). Their sense of bonds is further shored up by the Russian diaspora: as the Empire expanded (and as the Soviet Union recapitulated the Russian Empire), ethnic Russians colonized their subject territories, sometimes achieving majority status (as in Crimea and Donbas). They became a special focus for Russia's post-imperial chauvinism, in a way that has few parallels elsewhere (although Reagan sending the Marines to Grenada to "protect American medical students" was a supremely Putinesque move).

  5. Americans tend to date the Russia-Ukraine War from February 24, when Putin commenced his "special operations," sending troops into Ukraine from both north (some via Belarus) and south (through Crimea). The invasion had been predicted by US "intelligence" leaks, accompanied by threats of escalated sanctions should Russia follow through on their threats. Ukrainians, on the other hand, date the war from February 2014, when Russia took advantage of widespread protests against the impeachment of Yanukovych to execute a coup in Crimea and an uprising in Donbas. Those regions had Russian majorities, and had reliably voted for "pro-Russian" candidates since 1991. The Crimean operation was over in an instant, and ratified in a referendum on March 16. The Soviet Union had its main naval base in Sevastopol (it retained base rights there until 2017, per an agreement following the independence), and quickly moved operatives in to orchestrate the transfer. Protests in other heavily Russian cities, like Odessa, fizzled out, but the Donbas area broke out into an armed revolt, which Russia backed (and to some extent led). The Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts declared their independence from Ukraine, and Ukraine's military moved to suppress the revolts, clawing back a little more than half of their territory. A cease fire agreement in 2015 effectively froze the conflict, but eight years some 14,000 people were killed. Both sides dragged their feet on implementing the 2015 Minsk Agreement, which called for Ukraine to repeal laws thought to discriminate against Russians, and offered Donetsk and Luhansk autonomy within Ukraine. Zelensky, who was elected in 2019 on a vague promise to resolve the conflict, felt that Minsk would give Russia greater power to meddle in Ukrainian affairs, making it harder to join EU and/or NATO. Meanwhile, from 2014 on, the US and its allies imposed increasingly strict sanctions on Russia's economy, and on individuals believed to have influence on Putin. The impact of the sanctions is unclear, but they were part of a more general American-led effort to marginalize Russia, which included expanding NATO and its armory.

  6. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, a number of conflicts arose over borders between the newly independent SSRs that hadn't been problems under strong central rule. Transnistria broke away from Moldova in 1991. Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia in 1993. Russia supported those independence movements, so its support for Donetsk and Luhansk wasn't unprecedented. On the other hand, when Chechnya tried to break away from the Russian Federation, the Russian Army was sent in to quash the uprising. The Chechen War (1994-96) failed, but when Putin rose to power in 1999, he launched the Second Chechen War, which ended independence, leaving 50-80,000 total dead. There is a theory, popularized by David Satter, that Putin orchestrated apartment bombings in suburban Moscow, killing more than 300, as a pretext for reopening the war against Chechnya. (As crazed conspiracy theories go, this one doesn't seem especially out of character.) Chechnya provided Putin with his first taste of war, and it felt good. The war lifted him from unknown to Russian hero.

  7. The bigger problem with the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the economic catastrophe which followed. In Russia, the economy contracted by 40% between 1991 and 1998, and life expectancy dropped, as mortality for men rose by 60%. Similar problems beset the other former SSRs, although the Baltic states did better, by reorienting their economies to trade with Europe. Going back to Tsarist times, the Russian economy was designed to take advantage of the Empire's periphery. The bigger problem was rampant corruption, which fueled the rise of a class of oligarchs, and led many to classify the governments as kleptocracies. But Russians like Putin were easily alarmed when former SSRs pivoted away from Russia, and especially in 2014 when Ukraine signed a memorandum to join the EU. That was when Putin put pressure on Yanukovych to cancel the move, and mass protests emerged, leading to the impeachment of Yanukovych and the Russian operations in Crimea and Donbas. This wasn't the first time Russia perceived the threat of outside (especially American) political operations within their former sphere: the so-called Colour Revolutions of 2003-05 had overthrown pro-Russian cronies in Ukraine (Orange), Georgia (Rose), and Kyrgyzstan (Tulip, or Rose).

  8. The most consequential of the Color Revolutions was the one in Georgia, as it brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power. He was outspoken in his desire to join NATO and the EU, while also plotting to retake the Russian-backed breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin responded to the threat by sending troops into Georgia, where they quickly won several battles, before withdrawing to new military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The war started on August 1, 2008, and was over by the 12th. American super-hawks John McCain (at the time the Republican candidate for president) and Lindsay Graham were livid, insisting the US should fight to defend Georgia, but cooler heads prevailed, and Condoleezza Rice oversaw the cease fire agreement. This was Putin's second brush with war, and it, too, felt good. The operations in Ukraine in 2014 would be his third.

  9. Russia's operations in Ukraine in 2014 feel improvised, like Putin was trying various things, with a cautious eye toward figuring out just what he could get away with. The best solution for Russia would have been to undo the impeachment and return Yanukovych or some other pliant crony to power, but even if some in parliament were bribed to impeach, much popular opinion had swayed to the side of the Maidan protesters. And then Crimea fell right into his lap, and that was too rich a prize to let go. Crimea had originally belonged to the RSFSR, and was only turned over to Ukraine in 1954. The population was about 65% Russian (vs. 15% Ukrainian, and 11% Crimean Tatar). Russia had a naval base and troops stationed in Crimea. (Annexing Crimea saved Russia from having to build a new Black Sea naval port by 2017.) The land connection was very narrow, and easily severed. And in the east, the Kerch Peninsula came close enough to the Russian mainland that Russia has since been able to span it with a bridge. (The main drawback was that Crimea depended on a canal from Ukraine for water. After annexation, Ukraine dammed the canal. The first thing Russia did after invading this year was to destroy that dam.) Donbas also proved to be relatively easy to infiltrate and supply. There were repercussions for their operations, chiefly in the form of sanctions, which presumably have been a drag on Russia's economy (and oligarchs), but it's hard to say how much.

  10. NATO was originally founded in 1949, not to fight a war with the Soviet Union but to deter one, while uniting western Europe under consistent American command. Deterrence was straightforward, because Eastern Europe had already been ceded as a Soviet sphere of influence at Yalta. Both the US and Russia were war weary, and the US had (and the USSR would soon have) nuclear weapons. NATO saved most European nations (especially Germany and Italy) from the burden of rebuilding their militaries. France and the UK still had foreign empires to lose, so the US cut them some slack. Russia allowed Austria and Finland to carry on as neutral nations. The US worked to suppress Communist movements in its sphere (most violently in Greece, clandestinely in Italy), but didn't lift a finger when the Russians put down rebellions in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). The Cold War was an arms race, but the hot spots were in the so-called Third World. When Russia let go of its Warsaw Pact allies, the only cause for concern was East Germany, which wanted to unify with the West. Gorbachev reluctantly agreed that a unified Germany would be safer in NATO than as neutral. For one thing, Germany had all the tech it would need to build a nuclear arsenal, but as long as it was covered by NATO had no reason to do so. This concern to "keep Germany down" was the main reason for maintaining NATO after the Warsaw Pact disbanded. But as the 1990s progressed, NATO started finding more reasons to exist. They contributed to America's 1990-91 Gulf War. They reluctantly intervened in Yugoslavia, which had splintered into warring factions in 1991. In 2001 they voted to support America's war in Afghanistan. France, Germany, and Turkey sat out Bush's Iraq War, but in the search for "a coalition of the willing," the US sought allies from Eastern Europe, leading to a second wave of NATO expansion. (The first, in the late 1990s, was sold as a path for Eastern European countries to join the EU, but it could just as well be seen as an arms cartel scam. It's unclear whether fears of an increasingly nationalist Russia drove or were caused by NATO membership.) During the 1990s, Russia had objected to NATO expansion but hadn't seen it as a big threat. However, around 2010, as Obama was getting out of Iraq and winding down Afghanistan, the US military was looking for new budget opportunities, and remembering the Cold War fondly. They were originally talking about a "pivot to Asia," but after Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 it got easier to sell Putin as evil wizard -- and as Putin clamped down on dissent in Russia, to present him as a treacherous foe of democracy. With that, conjuring up ancient fears of Russia, especially in Eastern Europe, which had long felt the stifling force of Russian power, was easy. Why the US should go out of its way to antagonize Russia is hard to fathom. Could it be as simple as that expanding NATO created a new market for politically influential US arms merchants? Conversely, it took market away from Russian arms -- one of the few manufactures Russia could sell competitively. This had the effect of limiting Russian arms sales to countries barred from US arms, like Syria and Venezuela, effectively reproducing the Cold War division without any hint of ideological coherence.

  11. Russians have long been attracted to the idea that a buffer zone of friendly or at least neutral nations around them provides a measure of security against foreign attack. This was tested early in WWII, and turned out to be worthless. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 allowed Germany to expand east without provoking Stalin, and encouraged Stalin to move west to the new German border, occupying territory that had been stripped from Russia after WWI. The additional territory proved to be useless in defense of the Soviet Union after Hitler broke the Pact and invaded in 1941. The Soviet gains of 1939 were wiped out almost instantly, and the Nazis found collaborators who were more anti-Russian than pro-German. Moreover, Russia attempted to recapture Finland in a fruitless war that only detracted from their defense against Hitler. Nonetheless, Stalin returned to the idea of a buffer zone when laying out the Warsaw Pact sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Russian dominance of Eastern Europe generated enough resentment the arrangement collapsed as soon as Gorbachev decided to let it go. Putin seems to have nostalgia for past empire, even when he allows that reconstituting it is impossible. This is clearest in his equation of anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine with Nazis -- hence his vow to "de-Nazify" Ukraine. The history of anti-semitism and Nazi collaboration in Ukraine makes it a bit too easy to charge Ukrainian nationalists with Nazism.

  12. Then, in 2016, Putin did a very dumb thing: he deployed his hackers to try to tilt the US presidential election to Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton was tied to Obama's turn against Russia, and was clearly the more hawkish candidate, more committed to America's domineering role in world affairs. Trump, on the other hand, was the kind of guy Russian oligarchs were used to doing business with. And Trump seemed to admire Putin, while they shared many of the same prejudices and tastes. Unfortunately, Trump won, and Clinton used Putin's role as a scapegoat, encouraging her fans to become rabid Russophobes. Trump was as obsequious as expected, but he did Russia few real favors, mostly because he handed foreign policy over to neocons who grew up in the Cold War and only became more wedded to raw power in later years. Trump added to Russia's sanctions burden. He figured that a big part of his job was to sell arms abroad, and he tried to cajole NATO into buying more, and deploying closer to Russia. He tore up several treaties, the intent being to stimulate a greater arms race. He had little concern for Putin's affronts to democracy, but that didn't stop others from harping on them. His term corresponds to four years of frozen conflict in Ukraine, where he gave neither side reason to hope or to settle. He likes to boast now that Putin wouldn't have invaded if he were still president. He is probably right, but not for the reasons he offers. Trump likes to think of himself as a tough guy no one else would dare to cross. He isn't, but that doesn't matter. There is a limited number of things the US can do in a conflict with a nuclear power like Russia: sanctions are easy, cyber is iffy, arms are business, propaganda is a given. In such a conflict, both sides calculate carefully what they can get away with, and what they dare not try. Trump makes such calculation harder, because he's so unbalanced and unstable, or to put it more succinctly, stupid and crazy. That may have been enough to get Putin to err on the side of caution. But beyond that, Zelensky is also busy calculating what he can and cannot get away with, and he was able to play Biden for more support than had been possible with Trump (who famously withheld aid when Ukraine didn't dish up the dirt Trump wanted on Biden). So do the math: Zelensky is getting stronger, the US under Biden is more committed in supporting Ukraine, and Putin is getting nervous that his big play in Ukraine might collapse. That needn't have pushed Putin over the edge, but it certainly made it more likely that Putin would panic. While I suspect that Biden's warnings and threats were meant to deter Putin, they also felt like taunts. It's not at all clear that the Biden administration (or its more hawkish allies, like the UK) regards the invasion as the tragedy it plainly is. Rather, they'd like to take it as vindicating their long process of painting Putin into a corner.

  13. All states implement a regimen of laws and rights to govern behavior, and enforce it through police and courts. In nations where the system is widely regarded as just, conflicts are rare and usually resolved without resort to violence. This creates a measure of safety and stability which allows commerce and culture to develop and flower. No such system exists to govern the behavior of states, although many have been proposed, treaties have been signed, and some toothless institutions created (like the League of Nations after WWI, and the UN after WWII). Powerful states refuse to submit even to normative rules, and no one (even collectively) can force them. After the UN was created, the US and USSR tried to use it to protect and advance their foreign policies, and failing that gradually withdrew, in favor of pressing their own local power advantages, or practicing subversion where that seemed the more advantageous path. After the Soviet Union dissolved, there was much glib talk about a "New World Order" with the US as the world's sole hyperpower presiding over a world of unfettered capitalism. But despite having the world's largest economy, with bases around the globe and enough firepower to destroy all life on earth, Americans failed to grasp the first principle of anarchy: when no one has the power, the only viable approach is to seek mutually satisfactory understanding. Even during the Cold War, the US was much more successful in offering generosity -- think of the Marshall Plan, or the deficits the US ran to build up the economies of its allies -- than by bullying. After all, no one likes to be pushed around, and over time the offenses add up into deep resentments: Russia is a seething bed of persecution and paranoia, where each sanction further exacerbates open wounds. US affronts to Russia go back as far as the Civil War, when the US sent troops into Siberia to try to overturn the Revolution. After WWII, they became increasingly regular. The US jihad in Afghanistan was expressly meant to kill Russian soldiers -- the only way they could have been more explicit is if they offered bounties for scalps. Even after Gorbachev and Yeltsin bent over backwards to appease Reagan-Bush-Clinton, the insults kept coming: the "Star Wars" system, which had it worked (not that it ever could) would have allowed the US to launch a "first strike" with no fear of reprisal; the indifference to the Russian collapse in the 1990s; the advance of NATO, playing up anti-Russian fears, not least by separating former trading partners from Russia; then came sanctions as the US felt entitled to judge and punish every Russian infraction.

  14. The triumph of capitalism wasn't very satisfactory either. The elections of Reagan and Thatcher ushered in a meaner and greedier cult, where exploitation became even more predatory. As Communists, Russians already have suspected that capitalism was a criminal enterprise, so when they tried their hand it, it's not so surprising that their new class of oligarchs rose out of the old class of black marketeers. The easiest way to get rich was to steal, and the way that worked in Russia was only slightly more thuggish than in America. (One might be tempted to blame this on the authoritarian bias the Communists inherited from the Tsardom, but capitalism in America's Gilded Age was pretty thuggish too.) Corruption aligned the forces of government with predation, and in a society embracing "greed is good" corruption is rife. Even America, with all the high-minded talk of democracy and women's rights, was easily satisfied with "allies" as autocratic as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Given how doggedly the American right fought against the moderating effect of democracy, they were all the more determined to make sure that no international agreements and institutions would emerge to regulate their game. And in that they had a shared interest with the world's other oligarchs. They even sought to rig trade agreements to prevent governments from putting "public interest" above private profits.

  15. Despite all the provocations, Putin alone bears responsibility for the invasion, and for all the deaths, disruptions, and destruction his army has produced, and also for the damage elicited as Ukrainians have tried to defend themselves. He could have chosen differently. He could have negotiated a reasonable solution. Or he could have simply kept the status quo, more or less indefinitely. NATO was never going to attack Russia. It's unlikely Ukraine would have mounted a serious offensive against his Donbas position, but defending Donbas would have been much easier than attacking Kyiv, and even if Donbas surrendered, he'd still have influence within a democratic Ukraine. And while losing Donbas might have been a blow to his ego, it's effect on Russia's balance sheet would have been negligible. He took a big, unnecessary gamble, and even if he persists and eventually ekes out some concessions, he'll never regain the good will he's lost.

  16. I'm not a big believer in a "right to self-defense," and not just because it's often claimed to justify counter-offense (often going beyond any sense of proportionality). But self-defense is an understandable reaction, and in response to such a calculated and systematic invasion as Putin has launched, it is hard to see any other way to repel the invader. I could even go so far as to assert that military aggressors never learn necessary lessons except in abject defeat -- as, for instance, Germany and Japan did in WWII (a second essential requirement is that they recognize and accept their own nation's responsibility for the war they lost). Given this, I understand Zelensky's desire for arms to help beat back the invaders, and as long as he's not the one responsible for prolonging the war, I wish him success. But I do worry that the US and NATO have their own selfish reasons for prolonging and escalating the war. One must recognize that the only way this ends is through an agreement with Russia. Russia is too big to be bled to death by their losses in Ukraine, and there's no way Ukraine could effectively take the war onto Russian soil (after all, Napoleon and Hitler tried that and failed, even before Russia built a nuclear arsenal).

  17. There is much talk in high places about war crimes, and even the word "genocide" is bandied about. I suspect this is tied to the rather dubious legal theory that when a party is guilty of genocide, other nations are obligated to intervene to protect those being killed. I say this is dubious because any military intervention will result in more people being killed, compounding the original crime. That's just how militaries go about doing their business. Zelensky may think he wants the US to join him, to implement a "no-fly zone" and add to his offensive capabilities, but everywhere the US military enters, atrocities are sure to follow. "War crimes" may seem like a simpler case to make. Indeed, I'd be happy to posit that all acts of war should be considered crimes, but given the anarchy that prevails between nations, there is no practical way to prosecute a side that is not utterly defeated (as Germany and Japan were in WWII, but as Russia will not be here). As such, loose talk of war crimes only muddies the issue, which is reaching an agreement both sides can live with.

  18. It's long been clear what a settlement would look like. It could have been negotiated years ago. The war makes negotiations more difficult, because wars open wounds that confound reason, but the relative balance of "wins" and "losses" in the war barely affects what needs to be done. The disputed territories need to be decided by a fair vote of the people who live there. Before the war, it seemed likely that the separatist-held parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, and even more so Crimea, would have voted to join Russia. How the war might shift such a vote is anyone's guess (the Mariupol seems to be meant to expand Russian control of Donetsk, especially along the Sea of Azov). Exactly how one organizes such a vote will be a tricky thing to negotiate, but I think Ukraine -- at least those who want closer integration into Europe -- should be happy to let go of any regions that would rather rejoin Russia. The second bit is to remove Russian troops from those parts of Ukraine that don't want to join Russia, with credible security guarantees that Russia will not attack or threaten again. Before the war, one might have taken Putin's word for this, but that is harder now. The third part is to unwind the sanctions against Russia. This is where the US and EU need to negotiate, since they're the ones responsible for the sanctions. It's important here that they offer clear criteria for removing all sanctions, allowing a better-behaving Russia to rejoin the community of nations. It's also important that the criteria not require regime change, reparations, and/or prosecutions (even though under any reasonable system of justice, that is exactly what would be required). Moreover, Russia should not be prohibited from anything the US and EU are not also prohibited from. Finally, there should be further negotiations on reducing armed threats worldwide, but nothing specific to Ukraine should depend on such negotiations.

  19. One thing that should be obvious is that prevailing security theories have been proven false, much to our peril. A show of strength does not guarantee the other side will submit. It is just as likely that strength will elicit cunning resistance. This is partly because strength is complex and fallible. This is especially true in the case of nuclear weapons, where the potential danger is so great that the power becomes practically impossible to use. Russia's nuclear weapons effectively took the options of US troops and/or air power off the table (which the US had resorted to several times when facing non-nuclear foes), yet Russia was able to operate conventionally without fear of US nuclear weapons. So-called economic weapons are also problematic. We are running a massive experiment in the efficacy of sanctions, with no real understanding of how they work, what the impacts are, how they might be circumvented, etc. Past experience with sanctions shows that they often backfire, precipitating the escalation they're meant to deter, or that they will prove ineffective beyond polarizing the conflict. I expect that a reasonable analysis of the threats and weapons deployed in this war will show them to be severely wanting. The way forward is not to double down on arms -- the lesson those most invested in NATO would like you to take away -- but to work to rebuild cooperative bonds between nations: an important step there would be to starve conflicts of arms by negotiating mutual arms reduction treaties.

  20. Focus now should be on a cease fire, to limit further harm and encourage negotiations. The lack of emphasis on this by the US and EU, as well as major "neutral" powers like China and India, is not just disconcerting, it's evidence of bad faith. Critics of US policy have accused the hawks of being so obsessed with knocking Russia down, they're willing to fight to "the last dead Ukrainian." Russia and Ukraine, at least, are paying for their intransigence: the former thinking they can still win something worthwhile, the latter unwilling to make concessions that appear inevitable. But the longer the war goes on, the more sunk costs add up, the nastier and more brutal it gets. Warring parties may start with different principles and concerns, but in short course they find themselves in the same rut of terror and vengeance. It is possible that when they first invaded, Russians expected to be greeted as liberators -- much as Americans expected in Iraq and Afghanistan. They certainly didn't plan on committing atrocities against people they hoped to reorganize as allies, but they did, because that's what armies do. Americans, having aspired to "make the world safe for democracy," entered WWII with a moral critique of indiscriminate slaughter, but wound up fire-bombing whole cities, and obliterating two with atomic bombs. Every day without a cease fire continues to propel all sides down that moral slope.

  21. When Yugoslavia started to break up, US Secretary of State James Baker explained American indifference with the line, "we don't have a dog in that fight." Baker clearly had no reticence about fights the US did have dogs in, like Panama, Kuwait, and Somalia (a parting poison pill Bush left for Clinton to throw up). Such benign neglect didn't last: taunted by hawks like Madeline Albright ("what's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?"), NATO took on Bosnia as a make-work project, and secured a treaty ending the war rapidly enough it looked to many like some kind of good deed. The contrast between their "success:" in Yugoslavia and the tragedy in Rwanda the US had neglected created a storm of "humanitarian interventionism" scouring the earth for wars they could stroke their sense of moral superiority by joining. They never really had enough clout to get into a war the neocons didn't already want (Haiti may be the exception here), but they were always ready to add their high-minded propaganda to other war projects (Afghanistan and Iraq, obviously, but they were more prominent in Libya and Syria, which the neocons were happy with but couldn't really explain; Syria was especially a mess, because the US had several dogs in that one, and they were mostly fighting each other). Benign neglect made a comeback under Trump, who couldn't be bothered with "shithole countries," nor did he care what US clients like Israel and Saudi Arabia did with American weapons. Biden has brought ideology back into the mix, but one thing no American foreign policy wonk has considered for decades is the notion that war itself is unbearable in the modern world, and that foreign policy should be dedicated above all else to preventing war. This is an especially difficult concept for a nation that prizes the cult of profit-seeking (capitalism) above all else. It's hard to find anyone in American foreign policy that isn't pursuing or advancing some kind of greedy algorithm. Yet in the anarchy of international affairs, the only thing that works is cooperation, which necessarily starts with a willingness to see others do better.

  22. Robert Wright quotes a very disturbing Biden tweet:

    We are engaged anew in a great battle for freedom. A battle between democracy and autocracy. Between liberty and repression. This battle will not be won in days or months either. We need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead.

    Recasting this war as one between competing worldviews allows no room for compromise. In claiming higher principles, Biden is setting out on a crusade to destroy not some idea of "autocracy" but Russia itself -- a nuclear-armed state with extraordinary depth and reach, and by his own reckoning a callous disregard for human life. If his goal isn't to get us all killed, he should dampen down the hyperbole. On the other hand, one can sympathize with Biden's sense of the need to defend democracy. But his (and our) enemy there isn't Putin, but the majority of Republican politicians, their financiers and media flacks. Putin's only role in this is as an example of what can happen when right-wingers -- and despite all the ex-KGB nonsense, Putin is pure right-winger on any scale that matters -- get too much power. Nor should we be surprised that he would use that power to start a tragic waste of a war. There are many precedents, like GW Bush.

  23. Which leads me to a final point (for now): American foreign policy needs to stop trying to interfere in domestic political affairs elsewhere, except perhaps to make it clear that we would welcome more progressive, more pacific, more democratic governments everywhere. The reasons for this are myriad, well beyond what I can enumerate here. The world currently faces problems that can only be addressed through cooperation, and that starts with social justice at home.


Apologies for not even trying to provide links. The Robert Wright post is here, and it includes a link to the actual tweet. It's in the free part of the post -- I haven't read the rest because it's subscriber-only (my wife pays him but I don't seem to have the password; there must be a better way than keeping useful reporting and analysis exclusive to the few people who can manage to pay for it -- especially given how ubiquitous misleading propaganda is). Many other sources were consulted in writing this (at one point I had more than 50 Wikipedia tabs open). Recent Speaking of Which posts include numerous links on Ukraine. I imagine I'll do another in the next week or two to follow up on themes here. But there's something nice about keepign this uncluttered.

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Sunday, March 27, 2022


Speaking of Which

I started this a couple days ago, with a few piece I wanted to point out, and (as usual) it grew and grew, without ever feeling like I was getting the whole story straight. Rather, a lot of things that have been bugging me. Gradually, I grew disgusted with the whole project, and decided to arbitrarily cut it off, post what I had, and forget about it. Then I found more shit to include, but the cutoff is still pretty arbitrary.


Memorable tweets:

  • ryan cooper: Republicans keep getting more and more deranged and Democrats keep thinking that if they hide under the bed it will all go away.
  • Matt Blair: The funniest thing about Ted Cruz yelling "Do you know who I am?" at the airport is the very idea that the average person would treat him better after learning that he is Ted Cruz.


The week's top story remains the war in Ukraine:

[03-18] Zack Beauchamp: Is Russia losing? The maps have been relatively stable for a couple weeks, even as the amount of rubble (and dead bodies) around the stalled lines has grown steadily. Beauchamp talks to Olga Oliker about morale, which seems to be very low on the Russian side, and impressive on the Ukrainian.

[03-20] Eric Levitz: The Left Has Half-Baked Answers on Ukraine: This occurred the same day as a Jonathan Chait rant about the Left's views on education, so I wonder what was in the coffee that morning. As I've pointed out many times, the left-right divide is over the question of equality, which mostly means politics but isn't far removed from economics, and doesn't include any number of other issues, which don't cleanly divide along left-right lines. So I'm a little chafed at arbitrarily singling out "the Left" for views that are more blurred. Then there's the added innuendo of "Many on the American left were ideologically unprepared for Putin's invasion," and "When reality turned against left-wing orthodoxy, some leftists turned against reality." I would grant that leftists have certain precepts that help frame our understanding of events, but "ideology" is a straitjacket, and "orthodoxy" is quite explicitly a right-wing concept, while "many" and "some" are weasel words. Same could be said about the right, or any other segment you might are to carve out. (Try replacing "Left" in those subheds with "Trump" or "Tucker Carlson.") On the other hand, anti-war people (both on the left and on the libertarian right) have been quick to identify how US indifference to Russia during the "shock treatment" phase, NATO expansion, the proliferation of sanctions, and the new arms race have contributed to conditions where Putin has acted out so badly. The real test has never been whether you're up to fight when someone gives you no choice, but whether you could have found a way to avoid that fight ever coming. PS: For a response to Levitz, see Branko Marcetic: What the Left's Critics Ignore About Military Solutions to Ukraine.

[03-20] Masha Gessen: The Russians fleeing Putin's wartime crackdown. I'm not sure they count as refugees, but most wars are fought on two fronts: one abroad against supposed enemies, and one at home against dissenters. Putin is struggling in Ukraine, but he still seems to have the upper hand against his own people. Fleeing is one form of resistance, especially where there are few alternatives.

[03-21] William J Astore: Russia invasion is a boon for the post-GWOT war machine. One of those stories that's so obvious it hardly needs mentioning, but so important it cannot be ignored. Donald Trump only understood one thing about NATO: it's basically an arms buying club, where the prime arms merchant is the US. (He didn't buy into the ostensible excuse, that it provides collective defense against Russia, because he regarded Russia not as a threat but as a handful of rich suckers willing to buy into his real estate scam.) So he tried to do the arms industry a solid and shake down Europe to buy more fear, and he did a really lousy job of it (not unlike he does a really lousy job of everything). However, Putin's invasion is driving the rest of Europe into buying American -- even Germany is promising 2% of GDP for "defense." This may seem to make sense given the fear and outrage most of us feel over Putin's attack on Ukraine, but in the long run it is likely to do more harm than good. Weapons and armies legitimize themselves, leading to arms races, and eventually to use. One of the founding lies of the post-WWII era is the notion that strength is necessary to preserve peace. What we need after the war is the realization that war was horrible for all sides, and that the only future lies in incremental disarmament, normalization of relations, and respect for other nations' wishes. Eventually that means no NATO, and no sanctions. Because after this war no one can honestly say that they kept us safe.

[03-24] Day 5, Day 9, Day 16: Responses to the Invasion of Ukraine: Various comments by London Review of Books writers. Pankaj Mishra isn't one to mince words:

As Russian troops attacked a nuclear reactor, George Packer wrote in the Atlantic that 'for the first time in decades, an American president is showing that he, and only he, can lead the free world.' The New York Times exulted over the new-found resolve of the free world: 'Nato has been revitalised, the United States has reclaimed a mantle of leadership that some feared had vanished in Iraq and Afghanistan.' Boris Johnson claimed that he had never seen such a stark 'dividing line between right and wrong.' More remarkably, Hillary Clinton called on MSNBC for a rerun in Ukraine of the 'very motivated' and 'armed insurgency' that 'basically drove the Russians out of Afghanistan.'

[03-24] Sean Illing: How Putin became the victim of his own lies: Interview with Brian Klaas, a University College London professor and author of Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us. I wasn't going to bother with this standard critique of the tendency of autocrats to surround themselves with "yes men" (he calls it "the dictator trap," but the same affliction is common regardless of how one rose to power, or whatever checks and balances constrain it). But the pull quotes are worth noting: "The longer people are in positions of power, the more they start to believe that they can control outcomes that they can't actually control." I think it's more like they lose their fear of things they poorly understand. The other one: "When a significant chunk of people in your society no longer inhabit reality, you're in trouble." Not sure why he switched to "society" here, but it rings all the more true about America.

[03-24] Sophie Pinkham/Nick Mulder: Why Did Putin Decide to Invade Ukraine? Fairly long and wide-ranging interview -- Pinkham wrote Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine, and Mulder wrote The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War -- not that it answers the title question definitively.

[03-25] Patrick Cockburn: Ukraine Could Turn Into Another Endless War, Especially if NATO Decides More Than Just Peace Is Needed. I think most people assume that the war must end soon, because the consequences and risks are already so severe it's hard to contemplate what more might happen. On the other hand, it's not unusual for recent wars to slog on, especially where decisions are being made far from the conflict. Moscow and Washington may well decide that suffering in Ukraine is a tolerable price compared to backing away from their symbolic game (the biggest beneficiary so far is NATO and its arms cartel). Before the war, Zelensky was becoming more ambitious at recovering Donbas and even Crimea, and is likely feeling an adrenaline rush over inflicting surprising losses on Russia, which could encourage him to hold out. Meanwhile the country is being destroyed, and millions of refugees have fled. At some point, one would expect concern over the long-term business losses, which are likely to be huge on both sides, would overcome the interests of the short-term winners (mostly arms merchants and oil companies thus far), and start to pressure both sides to compromise -- but the short-termers have the inside political track. On negotiation considerations, consider [03-25] Matthew Stevenson: Putin Is Not Dealin', which also offers some insight into why Biden and Zelinsky aren't dealin' either.

[03-25] Benjamin Wallace-Wells: The Biden official who pierced Putin's "sanction-proof" economy: The maps and damage surveys make it relatively easy to assess Russia's invasion, although the human suffering is hard to quantify, and what few stats are available are far from reliable. But the effect of the economic war is even harder to get a handle on. (Sure, there are lots of press releases, but what do they really mean?) This article helps a bit in explaining how the sanctions are designed, and what their intended targets are. Still, they're likely to play out slowly, and the lack of good metrics means they could miss their target entirely. We're running an experiment here, one that has almost never worked in the past, hoping once more that louder will make the difference.

[03-26] Michael D Shear/Zolan Kanno-Youngs: Biden denounces Russian invasion, casting it as part of a decades-long attempt to crush democracies: On Biden's big speech in Warsaw, an ideal stage for political posturing and a little sabre-rattling. One thing we cannot credit Biden with is a historically nuanced understanding of the complexities of international relations. His slip-up assertion that Putin cannot remain in power got walked back quick enough: one should understand that it's only Russia's business who their leaders are, and that it's wholly improper for Biden (or any prominent American leader) to interject an opinion (which could easily be misconstrued as a threat, or even an ultimatum -- as Obama did regarding Assad in Syria, one of his biggest blunders as president). I even think that the whole portrayal of Putin as the nemesis of democracy is overwrought. He clearly isn't a big believer, least of all for his own people, but it's hard to see his foreign policy as directed at opposing an idea (or ideal) -- as Bush, for instance, took aim at "terror." On the other hand, as Democrats have been backed into a corner where they're our only hope of defending democracy at home, maybe they're entitled to pose as defenders of democracy abroad.

[03-27] Greg Jaffe/Dan Lamothe: Russia's failures in Ukraine imbue Pentagon with newfound confidence: More evidence that we're unlikely to learn anything from Russia's debacle in Ukraine. "One month into Russia's invasion of Ukraine, senior Pentagon officials are brimming with newfound confidence in American power, spurred by the surprising effectiveness of US-backed Ukrainian forces, Russia's heavy battlefield losses and the cautionary lessons they believe China is taking from the war." So they think US backing makes the difference? Have they already forgotten that the US, with all of its advantages in tech and logistics and morale (at least compared to Russia), wasn't able to hold Afghanistan (or Vietnam). Maybe, as Jonathan Schell put it, the world has become unconquerable? One hopes Russia will learn that lesson. One doubts the US, with its narcissistic doctrine of exceptionalism, ever will.


Other stories of note:

[03-14] Jill Lepore: Why the school wars still rage: "From evolution to anti-racism, parents and progressives have clashed for a century over who gets to tell our origin stories." Starts with the Scopes Trial, which I most likely learned about in Robert Wine's 8th Grade American History class: seems like I learned everything there, as he was one of the very few teachers I had who made learning fun, and was so successful at it (his secret was open-book tests where 3-4 students could share resources) that nearly everyone got an A. His kind of teaching was rare in Wichita (or anywhere else) in the 1960s (or any other time), but then was a time when the Scopes Trial was remembered as a case where reason triumphed over dogma, one small step toward becoming a more enlightened and progressive nation. We seem to have lost ground since then, although there have always been people who saw schooling as useful for indoctrinating children in conservative virtues, and they've often had the upper hand. Much of the Republican campaign agenda is devoted to thought control, of all ages but especially of children, while even many Democrats take a narrowly instrumentalist view of education as a pat.

[03-18] Dean Baker: We Don't Need a Cold War With China: Unlike Bush when he launched his War on Terror, Biden hasn't tried to crack down on neutral countries by insisting that "either you're with us or you're against us." China is the obvious case in point, although there is a fair list of abstainers from the UN condemnation of Russia, including India and Israel (our closest ally, some would sometimes have you believe). Baker explains some of the problems with trying to push China around.

[03-20] Natasha Ishak: State-level Republicans are going all in on extreme anti-trans, anti-abortion laws.

[03-21] Jonathan Chait: Democrats Must Defeat the Left's War on Educational Achievement: "School closing are over, but the fight over learning loss isn't." I don't begin to understand why Chait has a bug up his ass on this issue, if indeed it really is one. He includes a link in his line: "The progressive attack on academic achievement is a small but potent movement that has gained a foothold on the left and poses a serious threat to both American public education and the Democratic Party." The link is to his own piece from March 2021, "Just Reopen the Schools Now," but the article doesn't mention "the left" at all. Rather, he asserts: "It is entirely possible that when we look back at the coronavirus pandemic decades from now, we may see the gravest catastrophe as a generation of schoolchildren whose formative years were irrevocably stunted." Looking at his pieces and cited sources, I think he's confusing a number of issues, and don't have time or patience to try to unravel them. One thing I will say is that I think people on the left need to try to generate questions and ideas that need not be constrained to what is politically possible, so I see diverging ideas as being healthy. I don't, for example, think Democrats (even progressives) need to accept something like "defund the police" or "end borders," although proposals like that suggest concerns we should entertain. I personally had a horrific experience with public school, so I have some very idiosyncratic views about education, but at least I'm not under the assumption that my experiences are typical. (The only stunting I'm aware of was from the time I attended school, but fortunately for me that time was brief enough I could recover -- not without scars, but enough to become a functional member of society.)

[03-22] Ian Millhiser: The GOP's attacks on Ketanji Brown Jackson are nasty even by Republican standards: "Republicans turned the hearing into a blizzard of misleading attacks, many of which seem designed to appeal to QAnon supporters." Public hearings encourages politicians to "play to the crowds," which for Republicans means feeding "red meat" to Fox News in hopes of getting air time. And given that crowd, the nastier you appear, the more "authentic" you'll seem. And for good measure, they're still playing up the victimhood of Brett Kavanaugh for having to face serious questions about his character. As hearings continue, more on this:

[03-22] Jacob S Hacker/Amy Kapczynski: The Great Disconnect: "Why are Americans so unhappy about the economy?" Best advice here is: "Democrats should continue to say that the status quo is unacceptable and that effective responses exist." Obama's big mistake was buying into the idea that projecting confidence in the economy would help fix it. It was not just a bad idea, it was one that let Republicans blame him for an economy that had collapsed on their own watch, largely as result of their promotion of banking fraud and credit instead of real gains in income. It's tempting for Democrats to point to a few key figures and brag about how well we're doing, but inequality is baked so deeply into the mix that few people actually benefit from those numbers.

[03-23] David Atkins: Refusing to Prosecute Trump Is a Political Act: It certainly is. And if Trump didn't have the political standing he has, prosecution would have been likely. But it's less clear to me that the politics of not prosecuting Trump is bad politics. It's not clear that he's likely to be convicted, while it's a given that vast numbers of his fans will him as a victim for purely political purposes, and the nature of his crimes isn't likely to move many people from their preconceptions. Nor does letting him off the hook add much to the general sense that justice in America is seriously flawed.

[03-24] Aviva Chomsky: The United States Is Exceptional: "Just Not in the Way Any of Us Should Want."

[03-24] Daniel Larison: How Albright's 'Munich mindset' turned into uninhibited interventionism: Madeline Albright, Bill Clinton's first-term UN Ambassador and second-term Secretary of State, died on Wednesday, at 84. She was born in Prague (Jana Marie Korbelova), the daughter of a high-ranking Czech diplomat, who continued to work for "the government in exile" after Germany invaded in 1938. The family returned after WWII, only to flee again after the Communist coup in 1948, this time to the US. She married "media scion" Joseph Albright, and they moved to DC in 1962, where she got graduate degrees in Political Science and Russian, and studied under Zbigniew Brzezinski, who later hired her for Jimmy Carter's National Security Council. She was, by birth and grooming, an inveterate Cold Warrior, and she never lost her taste for violence, or her callousness. I don't know whether she was involved in Brzezinski's campaign to bankroll a jihadist uprising against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, but that was perfectly in keeping with her projects from 1993 on. She famously defended sanctions against Iraq as worth the price of starving Iraqi children. She taunted the military to act more aggressively, asking "what's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?" Thus urged on, Clinton used it to bomb Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and most of all in the former Yugoslavia. She went on to lay the foundation for future wars, especially in her expansion of NATO beyond the old borders of the Soviet Union, all the way to an increasingly marginalized and ostracized Russia. Her warmongering was coincident with the single-superpower theories of PNAC (the ad hoc, mostly Republican "defense intelligentsia" group, stands for Project for a New American Century), including most of the neocons who rose to power in the GW Bush Administration, where they "took the gloves off" and launched their "Global War on Terror," while plotting further salvos against Iran and North Korea, and ultimately Russia and China. After leaving office, she combined academia with a consulting business, continuing to advise belligerent Democrats, most prominently Hillary Clinton in 2016. Her death comes at the best and worst of times, with Russia finally boxed in so severely Putin chose to lash out with a risky invasion of Ukraine -- in essence, the showdown Albright has spent her entire life plotting. Perhaps it ends in further disgrace for Russia, or perhaps in WWIII. Either way, we no longer have her around to reassure us that it's worth the cost.

Larison brings up another famous Albright quote (from 1998, by way of rationalizing yet another bombing of Iraq): "But if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us." Yet Americans have proved incapable of seeing the future, because such hubris keeps us from seeing ourselves as we really are. So we wind up bumbling from one crisis to another, understanding little and learning nothing.

[03-25] Jeffrey St Clair: Roaming Charges: Both Ends Burning: Leads off with Madeline Albright and, well, he's not a fan. "But her policy of 'hands-off' killing through sanctions continues to function as the most lethal weapon in the US arsenal. Look no further than Afghanistan, where upwards of 175 newborns are dying every day as a consequence of crippling sanctions." He also acknowledged her pathbreaking role as the first female US Secretary of State: "In our identity-obsessed political culture, Madeline Albright finally proved that American woman (the Israelis and Brits had demonstrated this quality decades earlier) are fully capable of supervising mass death without flinching or showing the tiniest twinge of regret or remose." Much more, of course, including the collapse of the entire Conger Ice Shelf in Antarctica, and 175 wildfires in Texas burning more than 100,000 acres, Arctic land loss, gas leaks, oil spills, micro-plastics, famines, drought, deforestation. Also a link to a video of "Both Sides Burning."

[03-25] Nick Cleveland-Stout/Taylor Giorno/Hayden Schmidt: Saudi bombs drop on Yemen, DC lobbyists whitewash the damage: "The Kingdom has spent $100 million dollars over the course of the 7-year war to make you think they are all about 'peace.'" When Putin invaded Ukraine, I saw a number of "what about" complaints about ignoring Saudi Arabia's relentless bombing of Yemen. I've been aware of the war in Yemen since its inception, and while I have no particular fondness for any local faction(s), it's been clear all along that Saudi Arabia and UAE have been engaged in a campaign of random punishment with no constructive aims. Perhaps there is something to the notion that Yemen is some kind of proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but even if that is the conflict, why is it so hard to negotiate some form of peaceful coexistence? Even knowing about this, the opening paragraph is sobering: "March 26 marks the seventh anniversary of the disastrous war in Yemen, which has resulted in almost half a million dead." While we're already weary of three weeks of war in Ukraine, which has been marked by an unprecedented worldwide effort to counter Putin's aggression with small arms and massive economic sanctions, the world response on Yemen has been moot -- mostly, one suspects, because the war there has been profitable for the US arms cartel, and that seems to be all Americans care about (as long as the right palms are greased).

[03-25] Jane Mayer: Legal scholars are shocked by Ginni Thomas's "stop the steal" texts: Asks whether Clarence Thomas will recuse himself in Jan. 6 cases. More:

[03-26] Andrew Cockburn: 'The worst' defense program of all. And it's not the F-35: It's the KC-46 tanker program, which just from a political standpoint is called "the dirtiest deal ever." I've been following the "tanker deal" since its inception, when it was originally planned not to meet any Air Force need (the KC-135 tankers were old on paper, but had been refurbished regularly -- my father spent much of his 38 years at Boeing working on them and the similarly refurbished B-52s the Air Force still uses when they want to deliver bombs indiscriminately over long distances), but to extend the life of the 767 production line, and was originally packaged with a very shady private-public financing scheme. Todd Tiahrt, a Kansas congressman wholly owned by Boeing, was so obsessed with the deal that GW Bush nicknamed him Tanker Todd. We were repeated promised thousands of jobs, then a thousand, then Boeing shut down their Wichita plant because it became too unionized. There's lots more on the graft side of the equation (including a Boeing VP who went to jail), but there's also good reason to ask what tankers are actually good for. The short answer is global reach: the fighters and bombers that lead the assault on distant targets can't make it on their own gas tanks, so need periodic refueling. On the other hand, tankers can't be used in a contested air space, where they'd be sitting ducks (and bright, shiny new ones make no difference whatsoever). Tankers were necessary to implement the "no-fly" zones over Iraq and Libya, but the US doesn't have (and realistically cannot create) that kind of dominance over Ukraine, so the idea of a "no-fly" zone there is pure fantasy (even if there were no risk of trying to establish one escalating the war, which of course it would).

[03-26] David Owen: A Freelancer's Forty-Three Years in the American Health Care System: A long-time New Yorker staff writer, which is a plum job for a freelancer but not exactly real employment, Owen's written several books I've enjoyed (mostly on old houses), and others I probably would could I ever find the time. He finally made it to Medicare age, but not without a few tough spots along the way.

[03-26] Nick Cleveland-Stout/Taylor Giorno/William Hartung: Washington should think twice before launching a new cold war: I would have used past tense in the headline, because the New Cold War can actually be seen to have been started in the late 1990s, with the expansion of NATO and its first-ever action in Yugoslavia, especially in the bombing campaign against Serbia over Kosovo. It's true that it took Russia a few years to recognize the American threat, but they finally got the point, especially after the effort to flip Ukraine out of the Russian orbit succeeded in 2014. The article, however, focuses on the Old Cold War: lots there everyone should know, even if it's not immediately relevant -- except to raise questions about the geniuses in Washington who dictate American foreign policy.

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Thursday, March 17, 2022


Speaking of Which

In started to do a "Speaking of Which" back on March 6 (or a bit earlier), so that provides the first pieces below. I picked it up again on Tuesday, March 15. As I was trying to wrap it up on Thursday, March 17, I noticed a new piece by Eric Levitz: The Emerging Path to Peace in Ukraine. Levitz has provided some of the most useful reporting on the conflict, so I've cited him below, and in previous pieces. His comments on a possible security agreement are closely aligned with what Phyllis Bennis has discussed (also see Fred Kaplan, below). Disappointing to me is the seeming Ukraine intransigence on parting with Donbas and even Crimea. I'm convinced that Ukraine would be better off disowning them. (A more proper decision would be to allow them to vote, which would almost certainly give Crimea to Russia, but it's harder to be sure about Donbas -- which certainly leaned Russian up to 2014, but haven't fared so well since.)


The following are some pieces that I read on Ukraine and care to note and/or comment on. I'm providing the dates because events are changing fast, although my selection of the piece implies continuing relevance.

[02-28] Ted Galen Carpenter: Many Predicted NATO Expansion Would Lead to War. Those Warnings Were Ignored: Collects the more famous quotes, like Strobe Talbott ("Many Russians see Nato as a vestige of the cold war, inherently directed against their country") and George Kennan ("it is the beginning of a new cold war . . . Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake"). Carpenter concludes: "History will show that Washington's treatment of Russia in the decades following the demise of the Soviet Union was a policy blunder of epic proportions."

[02-28] Fred Kaplan: No, You're Not Imagining It: Russia's Army Is Inept. I'm not seeing much detailed reporting on the actual fighting, and don't really have the perverse interest anyway, but links to and sums up a fair amount. What is clear from looking at the maps almost daily over three weeks is that the Russian offensive stalled at the big cities of Kharkiv and Kyiv (and even bypassed the much smaller Chernihiv), which probably reflects a fear of getting stuck in an urban guerrilla trap. You may recall that the US sent heavily armored convoys into Baghdad to gauge the resistance before they claimed the city. Russia hasn't got that close yet. Kaplan also speculates that as its ineptitude sinks in, Russia will try to compensate by increased bombing "for destruction's sake," as Russia did in Chechnya "when its officers feel frustrated." That we've seen. Kaplan has continued to report and offer thoughtful comments:

[03-02] Moustafa Bayoumi: They are 'civilised' and 'look like us': the racist coverage of Ukraine: I can't deny that racial prejudice has an effect on how Europeans and Americans respond to the atrocities of war, but the main reason the US and EU are responding so attentively to Ukraine is that Russian aggression fits our preferred political narrative, one that is readily and happily repeated by our political and military figures. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was very similar to Russia in Ukraine now, yet there was little outpouring of support for Iraqi refugees, let alone efforts to financially cripple the US war machine. The one place where race may be having a big impact is that far-right parties haven't yet rallied to exclude Ukrainian refugees, despite directing a great deal of bigotry against East Europeans in the past.

[03-02] John Feffer: No Pasaran: Ukraine 2022: I've resisted linking to Feffer, less because I disagree than because he seems so predictable. Still, I found this analogy amusing: "Vladimir Putin is the Franco of today, and Ukraine must become the graveyard of Putinism." Sure, it's cliché, but he makes a fairly good case for Putin as "the contemporary face of fascism," and for you "antifa" types Ukraine offers a venue to get your feet wet and your hands bloody, without much more than the usual risk. And while I don't regard Putin as anywhere near the threat that Hitler was -- if you want an apples-to-apples comparison, compare the two invasions of Ukraine -- no doubt Putin's a bad dude who deserves to be taken down a notch or two. Still, I don't see his call for a "new internationalism" working elsewhere. Feffer also wrote [03-09]: Why Ukraine Matters.

[03-02] Eric Levitz: The War in Ukraine Looks Unwinnable (for Everyone). I didn't ever think it looked winnable. Russia can wreak a lot of destruction, but doing so only drives most Ukrainians more implacably against them. At most they can conquer a wasteland, at immeasurable cost not just to Ukraine but to their own souls. Why Putin ever thought otherwise is hard to grasp. It may just be that he had been lucky in war before (in Chechnya, in Georgia, in Syria) so he figured his run will last. As Napoleon and Hitler can attest, luck lasts only until it runs out. And surely Putin knows enough Russian history to realize that those defeats weren't because Russian were inherently superior fighters, but because they were defending their home turf. Putin's not doing that in Ukraine (even if he's trying to convince himself otherwise).

The bigger problem is likely to be that once Russia withdraws and Putin is humiliated, the assholes in and around NATO that did so much to pave the way for this war will start taking victory laps, claiming credit for the people who suffered and resisted this madness -- the very people they so callously put in harm's way. And as they do so, they'll make sure we forget the true lessons of this war -- as they have done in all the other wars (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq) they've botched and left as open sores. Levitz returned to this in [03-04]: Putin's War Looks Increasingly Insane. I wouldn't put much stock in the armchair psychiatry, but the piece recaps the list of Putin's previous military "successes" and how they fall short here.

[03-02] Ezra Klein: Biden Has the Right Idea, but the Wrong Words: On the State of the Union speech, with his resolution to fight (up to a point) for Ukraine.

[03-03] Eric Levitz: Is America to Blame for Russia's War in Ukraine? Yes, in three ways. The first is that after 1945 the US developed an arrogant conceit that this was "our century" and that as the biggest economy and richest nation in the world were were entitled to set the rules by which everyone else would have to live. This conceit was relatively tolerable back when we were a progressive, relatively equitable and generous country, but that image became increasingly tarnished over the years. Still, with the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, America's ego got a shot of adrenaline that made us increasingly insufferable (for examples, see Global War on Terrorism). Second, we made no effort to ameliorate the immense suffering caused by economic collapse as Russia and its former clients attempted to transition to capitalist economies. This was largely because we had forgotten the great truth learned so hard from the Great Depression: that capitalism only works within regulation by a state that has the public welfare in mind. Third, instead of developing international institutions that could be used to build broad consensus on problems like arms and climate, the US only went with organizations that it could run to its own taste, like NATO -- organizations that were design to divide and exclude parts of the world beyond our control. Still, it took about 20 years before NATO and Russia were irreconciliably at loggerheads, and the US made scant effort to repair the damage. None of this excuses Putin from the specific decision to send troops into Ukraine. While it's not clear how Putin could have changed the historical context, he certainly could have opted for some other diplomatic approach, and claimed some measure of moral high ground in doing so. So, yeah, he is the culpable party. But we shouldn't allow his guilt to distract from the deeper critique.

[03-03] Sarah Jones: Russia Tests the American Left. "What's so hard about condemning Vladimir Putin?" Nothing, really. Even leftists who still feel a strong sense of international solidarity (which certainly isn't as prevalent as it used to be) will, if they know anything but US propaganda attacks on Putin, recognize him as a nationalist, right-wing foe, not just of America but of the working class in Russia and around the world. What is hard is backing down from a principled critique of US foreign policy which has only been proven more prescient by recent events. Expansion of NATO and the increasing sanction of Russia, both of the state and of its prominent (and presumably influential) oligarchs, must be regarded as proximate causes of the crisis that led to the invasion. Same for the propaganda war and the often clandestine efforts by any number of western parties to realign Ukraine against Russia's economic interests. On the other hand, Russia did make its own clandestine moves to foment civil war in Ukraine, leading to the annexation of Crimea and the "illegal" but de facto separation of the Donbas region -- which have done as much or more than western entreaties to drive a wedge between Russia and Ukraine. And most importantly, Russia did invade, a decision that is impossible to defend, or even rationalize. And in invading, Putin has done something that US propaganda has never been able to do, which is to grant NATO a justification, one that we will be stuck with well into the future. Still, the left's anti-NATO stance was never predicated on allowing Russia to build up arms and threaten and subvert others. It was always tied to multilateral disarmament and the development of international institutions and laws that would peaceably resolve conflicts. Once this crisis abates, that we'll need to recognize that left critique as the path forward.

[03-03] Ben Jacobs: Was Ted Cruz Right About Russia? "He spent years fighting Putin's prized pipeline." Let's face it, Ted Cruz is never right about anything. He's been a loyal servant of the Texas oil industry, which is all you need to know about his efforts to exclude Russian gas from European markets, securing more profits for his sponsors. I doing so, all he has done is increase Russia's paranoia about American intentions, while preventing an economic trade bond that might have helped integrate Russia more peaceably into the world trade system.

[03-04] Jeffrey St. Clair: Roaming Charges: Hate and War, It's the Currency: Cue Clash video for the title. Usual set of ramblings, some memorable:

  • At some point, our oligarchs & their oligarchs are going to decide that sanctions on oligarchs are "counterproductive" and return to tried-and-true sanctions on the poor, the sick, the old, and the young.
  • [Richard] Engel and [Rachel] Maddow wanted the US to go to war over RussiaGate, a non-scandal their network pushed more aggressively than William Randolph Hearst did the Spanish American War.

[03-04] Jack Watling: Russia's callousness towards its own soldiers is undermining its combat power. I'm not sure this is right. Stalin's callousness was off the charts, yet Russians fought bravely and tenaciously against Nazi Germany, even though they suffered immensely. On the other hand, they had reason to fight, whereas Russian soldiers in Afghanistan and Chechnya (at least in the First Chechen War) found little reason to risk their lives. The US gave up on trying to field a conscript army after Vietnam, but Russia still has a lot of conscripts in Ukraine.

[03-04] Masha Gessen: The War That Russians Do Not See: As is usually the case, Putin is fighting his war on two fronts: in Ukraine, as you know, and at home, for the support of his own people. State-controlled media is key to that effort.

[03-04] Glenn S Gerstell: I've Dealt With Foreign Cyberattacks. America Isn't Ready for What's Coming. I'm not sure I'm right on this, but two weeks later we don't seem to have seen much cyberwarfare, on either side, so maybe there is a sense of deterrence, or maybe the stakes just aren't all that promising. For an update, see [03-14] Matt Stieb: Why Have Russian Hackers Been So Quiet?

[03-05] Ellen Ioanes: Russia is deploying brutal siege tactics in Ukraine: I'm not sure the narrow definition of siege applies here: back in the Middle Ages and before, cities were often fortified, and sieges aimed at breaking down those fortifications, so the attacking army could invade cities and take over. At least that's what I think of when I hear the word, and Russia isn't doing that. I suspect that the reason is that the psychological plus of capturing a city isn't worth the risk of getting stuck in a hostile confinement. On the other hand, I've used a broader definition of siege myself; e.g., to describe Israel's wanton shelling and bombing of Gaza. I suppose the fact that Gaza is surrounded by walls legitimizes the word, but the walls of Gaza weren't meant to defend against invasion. They were built by Israel to keep the Gazans penned in. The only real historical precedent for this is the Warsaw Ghetto, constructed by Nazi Germany in 1939 to detain Jews until the Nazis got around to slaughtering them later. What Russia is doing is different, but not much: they're camping outside of cities, then shelling and bombing them. Unclear whether they mean to kill them all, drive most away, or just see it as sport. Any way you slice it, the "brutal" is an understatement.

[03-07] Branko Marcetic: The Orwellian Attacks on Critics of NATO Policy Must Stop. Every time someone gins up a war, their first target isn't the other party; it's dissenters at home. Many people would like to think that war is above politics, but there's very little about war that isn't political -- perhaps the distribution of pain and tragedy. Marcetic recalls the days after 9/11, as do I. If I'm less bothered now, it's probably because the history of NATO provocation seems to be better understood than the "chickens come home to roost" critique of US's Cold War sponsorship of Al-Qaeda and other mujaheddin. But also, we all take heart in Russia's fledgling antiwar movement. Moreover, if you look at serious proposals for a negotiated end to the war -- and given Russia's nuclear depth that's the only thinkable option (note word choice) -- they all start with an understanding of how this all started with NATO expansion (e.g., see Kaplan, below, and Lieven, op. cit.). So while the kneejerk option is to double down on NATO, we need to resist that temptation. A good start would be to tamper down on the crazy talk. Putin is way too crazy already.

[03-09] Phyllis Bennis: Diplomacy, not war, is the way to help.

[03-09] Ben Walsh: The unprecedented American sanctions on Russia, explained: One estimate here is that "Russia's economy will shrink 35 percent in the second quarter of 2022 and 7 percent for the entire year." You can view that as a lot, or as not so much. My takeaway from this is that sanctions, even if imposed urgently, work slowly and gradually, which gives target countries time and reason to adjust. The track record of sanctions in past conflicts is decidedly mixed, and only rarely effective. (Perhaps the worst case example so far is the US ban on oil and metal sales to Japan, which the Japanese responded to at Pearl Harbor.) Also see: [03-07] Robin Wright: Why Sanctions Too Often Fail.

[03-11] Keith Gessen: Was it inevitable? A Short history of Russia's war on Ukraine. Pretty good background piece on the conflict.

[03-11] Alec MacGillis: How Putin's Invasion of Ukraine Upended Germany: "In the wake of Russia's attack, Germany has reoriented its energy policy and committed to dramatic military expansion for the first time since the Cold War." I'm old enough that any hint of German re-armament brings a twinge, but I suspect their pledge to spend an extra 100 billion Euros is mostly their way of saluting the Americans and NATO, in a way that doesn't really hurt all that much. And if they spend much of that, as promised, on the F-35 albatross, they will have made friends with Lockheed without really threatening anyone. The bigger issue is what to do about losing access to Russian gas. It probably means they will stick with nuclear longer than they wanted to.

[03-13] Ellen Ioanes: Why the US scrapped Polish plans to give Ukraine fighter jets.

[03-13] Zack Beauchamp: Could Putin actually fall? A lot of poorly grounded speculation here, largely based on mere wishes, like this from David Rothkopf: "Vladimir Putin's attack on Ukraine will result in the downfall of him and his friends." If history is just, of course, but how can you count on that? Worse still is when the wish turns into a threat, as when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) says: "The only way this ends is for somebody in Russia to take this guy out." Almost makes you think he doesn't want it to end. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it's about a million times easier to get Putin to agree to a deal that leaves Putin in power without further disgrace than it is to insist that Russia also give us his head on a platter. That's why I worry when Americans try to paint him as a fount of evil. It's not because it might hurt his feelings (for all I know, he might take it as a compliment). It's because those terms lock us into a mindset that makes it harder to find compromises and seal the deal. As for speculating about odds, Graham's plea to the military to act is almost certain not to work. Much more likely is that Kremlin insiders will quietly usher him into retirement, as he did Yeltsin. They may even let him serve out his term, and thank him for his service. One thing we should know by now is that totalitarianism is never as total as it's cracked up to be. A "strong man" like Putin needs a lot of hench men and cronies, and when he fucks up, as Putin has done, he starts to lose that aura of invincibility. But that's longer term. Right now, you need to cut a deal with him.

[03-13] Stephen Kinzer: Assassinating Putin Won't Work. It Never Has for America. Includes the line before the Lindsey Graham line I made fund of above, and it's even more insane: "Is there a Brutus in Russia? Is there a more successful Colonel Stauffenberg in the Russian military?" Kinzer has written about these plots in the past, and includes a few here I was unfamiliar with, as well as many I've heard about. Some (not many) hit their target. None accomplished their erstwhile goal.

[03-14] Kevin T Dugan: Goldman Sachs CEO Says Ostracizing Russia Isn't the Finance Industry's Job: There's a guy who puts his mouth where his money is. Dana Milbank has a list of companies that are dragging their feet on disengaging from Russia: Zelensky says 'peace is more important than profit.' Koch Industries disagrees.

[03-15] Ariel Petrovics: NATO's restraint has made things worse for Russia in Ukraine: "The absence of US and allied forces in the conflict has highlighted that Putin is his own worst enemy."

[03-15] Patrick Cockburn: Demonizing Russia Risks Making Compromise Impossible, and Prolonging the War: Same thing can be said for demonizing Putin, which is the more prominent focus at the moment. "The problem is that the hatreds generated by war gain momentum during the conflict and do not have a reverse emotional gear." Cockburn also wrote [03-14]: Putin Has Grossly Overplayed His HAnd, but NATO Could Be Making the Same Mistake as It Senses It's Winning.

[03-15] David Ignatius: The best peace plan for Ukraine is military support: Link above is to Paul Woodward's Attention to the Unseen, which includes links to a couple more pieces. Besides, Ignatius is one of the geniuses who brought you the War on Terror. I don't know why anyone invites him to write in public anymore, but here he is, eager as ever to defend freedom by fighting to the last dead Ukrainian (or Iraqi or Afghan or fill in the blank). AJ Muste is still right that the way to peace is peace. The notion that peace comes from strength, that we have to always stand our gound and never show compassion or anything that could be interpreted as weakness, that mindset is a big part of why we find ourselves in this predicament. That said, if Americans want to send anti-tank, anti-aircraft, and small arms to Ukraine -- weapons that can be used to make Putin's troops feel some of the pain they're inflicting -- that's far from the worst thing they could do. Maybe it even nudges Putin a bit toward a settlement, but the only viable ending will come not from who holds the upper hand on the battlefield, but when both sides give up their fantasies and try to agree on the right thing. There's scant evidence of that realization in Ignatius or the others here. Their preferred scenario is to fuel a long-term guerrilla war against Russian occupation. They'd be quite happy to turn Ukraine into a multi-generational wasteland, like they did to Afghanistan.

By the way, Ignatius's [03-17] piece suggests that he's beginning to get cold feet: Watching Russia's military failures is exhilarating. But a cornered Putin is dangerous. One thing he finally realizes is that no matter how much he enjoys kicking Putin when he's down, "Zelensky's allies should also be thinking about how to put the pieces back together when this war ends." I'll add that while the US did a half way decent job of rehabilitating Germany and Japan after WWII, the US has an absolutely dismal record of addressing postwar reconciliation ever since. (Two more recent examples: the US claimed most Afghan foreign reserves for possible payout to 9/11 victims; Afghanistan is being forced to close its US embassy and consulates, for lack of expense money. Nobody's saying we have to like the Taliban, but we do owe the Afghan people a certain measure of respect, and to do that you have to go through their de facto leaders.)

[03-15] Anatol Lieven: What Zelensky will say to Congress and how the US should respond: The Ukraine president is schedule to address Congress on Wednesday. Presumably he'll say much of what he's been saying in public over the last 2-3 weeks, ranging from "give us more arms" to "impose a no-fly zone." Congress, as usual, will be sympathetically hawkish, so he'll get a lot of applause. Or maybe he'll trim his message back a bit to stay within Biden's guildelines (yes on some weapons, but no on others, including that no-fly zone). Just because Netanyahu can speak to Congress over and against the President doesn't mean it's a good idea. The article makes a reference to "a shameful history going back to Georgia in 2008 of Americans making quasi-promises of military aid that they had no real intention of ever fulfilling," which feels tacked on but was scooped up for the subhed. It really needs to be qualified carefully, because the implication here is to turn it into a Munich appeasement lesson. The underlying dynamic is similar -- Russia encouraging former SSRs to break up into smaller ethnic enclaves, some of which would turn to Russia for help -- but the conflicts themselves are vastly different. In 2008, Russia intervened in Georgia to stop a Georgian military operation to take back two breakaway provinces. Russia stopped the advance, then withdrew, leaving Abkhazia and South Ossetia quasi-independent. The Russian invasion of Ukraine also involves breakaway provinces (Donetsk and Luhansk, and one might add Crimea), but the focus of the Russian invasion is the rest of Ukraine. Lieven has generally been a good, level-headed reporter, but I'm confused here. Some other recent pieces:

[03-16] Benjamin Hart: Zelenskyy Invokes Pearl Harbor and 9/11 in Impassioned Speech to Congress. Much as he parrotted Churchill in his address to the UK Parliament, you gotta admit he knows how to read a room, and play into its prejudices. He repeated his plea for a "no-fly zone," which he knew Biden and the rest of NATO had pointedly ruled out, but how better to fish for other concessions? The US response was: Pentagon dials up size, scope of Ukrainian military aid. Now, the Washington Post is marveling: Outmatched in military might, Ukraine has excelled in the information war.

[03-16] Barbara Garson: Volodymyr Zelensky Is Not a Comedian -- and That's No Joke: A "belated review" of his TV show, Servant of the People. Life may imitate art, but it was funnier when it was just art.


Some other pieces of interest, way short of a systematic survey:

[01-31] John McPhee: Tabula Rasa: Volume Three: working toward a book on the books he never got around to writing.

[02-24] Jane Mayer: Why Does New York's Criminal Investigation of Donald Trump Appear All but Over? Two prosecutors resigned when not allowed to proceed further. On the other hand, others are more convinced than ever that a case should go forward: [03-16] Laurence H Tribe/Dennis Aftergut: The evidence is clear: it's time to prosecute Donald Trump.

[02-28] David Dayen: Larry Summers Shares the Blame for Inflation: And not for "warning that government spending could increase inflation" (which is a standard bugaboo against all spending you don't like; funny how stuff you want, like a war or a Wall Street bailout, never raises any red flags).

[03-08] James North: What the New Democrats' Mistakes Taught Us About Fighting Inequality: Review of Lily Geismer's book Left Behind: The Democrats' Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality. I noticed this book in my recent trawling, and thought: "what attempt?" So now I know a bit more, especially about the Clintons' fascination with "microfinance" -- you may recall that Muhammad Yunus won a Nobel Prize for his work on this in Bangladesh. Not so much that it was a bad idea, but it never raised enough money to work, and the pilot projects got wiped out in the recession that followed Clinton's repeal of Carter-Glass. Some other stories here were also attempt to use market dynamics for the public good: charter schools, public/private partnerships, welfare "reform." On the other hand, Clinton's schemes to help make the rich worked fabulously. The result was a huge inequality.

[03-09] Zach Montellaro: GOP pushes for an 'earthquake in American electoral power': "Conservatives are promoting the "independent legislature" theory, which would hand vast election powers to GOP legislators in battleground states."

[03-09] Jessica J Lee: Hawkish Yoon wins in Seoul, posing challenges for Taiwan, North Korea policy. Always bad news when a country shifts politically to the right, although this piece doesn't bother explaining why. We had an opportunity to finally end the Korean War with Moon Jae-in in office, but it was wasted by saboteurs John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, while a befuddled Donald Trump looked on.

[03-10] Peter Beinart: The US supports illegal annexations by Israel and Morocco. Why the hypocrisy? Pace the subhed, America has long felt free to "pick and choose when to follow international law." The recent resolution calling on the ICC -- an organization the US has pointed refused to join and has repeatedly condemned for investigating Israel -- to investigate Russian war crimes couldn't be clearer on that point. Double standards are the prerogative of the self-anointed "essential nation" (you know, "the last best hope"). Beinart also notes: Russia dehumanizes Ukrainians in strikingly similar ways that Israel dehumanizes Palestinians.

[03-10] Eli Clifton: Mike Pence flies to Israel on Miriam Adelson's private jet. Sheldon Adelson's widow continues her late husband's role as a major financial kingpin in the Republican and Likud parties, a game Pence is only too willing to play.

[03-12] Nathan J Robinson: The Great American World War II Story: One of the great tragedies of American history is that, after struggling through the Great Depression, most Americans came out of WWII feeling really good about the war and themselves. Sure, mostly those were Americans who never got close to the front lines (which was true of most Americans), but it left the country with an overweening sense of its own superiority. And thanks to the gift of selective memory, that sense only grew over the next half-century, peaking with Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation in 1998. When Bush was plotting the invasion of Iraq in 2003, pundits fell all over themselves to make analogies not to Vietnam (a people who fought to free itself from the empires of France and Japan, then America) but to the war we won, WWII. (John Dower's dissent from back then is still worth reading: Occupations and Empires: Why Iraq Is Not Japan.) Robinson's piece offers a tour of the US National WWII Museum, but speaks more about how our selective memory of past wars condemns us to repeat them.

[03-13] Teresa Ghilarducci: Inflation Stings Most If You Earn Less Than $300K. Here's How to Deal. Today's prize for the most gallingly obvious headline. Goes on: "Coping with inflation could mean drastic actions or small ones." Points out that those making $19K or less spend 15% of their income on food, a share which drops significantly with increasing income.

[03-13] Eric Levitz: Here's How Biden Can Lower Gas Prices. Fairly good explanation of how the Ukraine war is driving oil prices up (although I wouldn't be surprised to find that financial speculation is playing a much larger role). Ideas to bring prices down seem reasonable, although they don't include the obvious one of allowing Iranian and Venezuelan oil back on the world market -- something I approve of not so much because I'm all that keen on lowering prices as because doing so would correct some major problems with US foreign policy. By the way, explaining gas prices, here's Paul Krugman: Lies, Damned Lies and Gasoline Prices. [PS: Also see the chart accompanying this tweet, which shows gas prices rising with the price of crude oil, then staying high as crude oil prices have since dropped. With the war in the news every day, people think gas is in short supply, and the oil companies are taking advantage of that.]

[03-13] Ed Kilgore: Tom Cotton's Idea of Law and Order: Andrew Jackson Massacring Fugitive Slaves. A prime example of how Republicans abuse history to reinforce their own myths, rather than trying to understand what actually happened. By the way, I also don't care for how some people, concerned with the need to oppose racism, try to dishonor and reject Jackson and Jefferson, while lionizing elitists like the Adamses and a martinet like Hamilton, just because they held less embarrassing views of slavery. I've found that looking for saints in history is a fool's mission. But there's no reason you can't acknowledge a good idea or a noble sentiment when you find one, even in an unexpected place.

[03-14] Stephanie McCrummen: 'Gutted': What happened when a Georgia elections office was targeted for takeover by those who claim the 2020 election was a fraud.

[03-14] Jason Ditz: 49 Republican Senators Will Oppose Iran Nuclear Deal: This came shortly after Russia blocked the JCPOA, which had been reported as close to settled, by insisting on exemptions from sanctions. (See [03-11] Trita Parsi: Already fragile JCPOA talks 'paused' over Russian demands.) More recent news reports are unclear on the prospects. Israel, of course, is opposed to the any, which is good enough for Republicans (who don't dare criticize their "ally" for abstaining from condemning the Russian invasion at the UN). You may recall that the deal was negotiated by Obama after years of Israel hysterically complaining about the threat of Iran developing nuclear weapons (complete with 20 years of 5-to-1 year schedule predictions). Obama realized that the only way to actually keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons (assuming they wanted to) was to get an agreement that would put inspectors on site, which is what he did. Israel, in turn, opposed the deal: not clear what they did want, but they certainly weren't worried about Iranian nuclear weapons.

[03-15] Nitish Pahwa: Why Absolutely Nothing Republicans Are Saying About Gas Prices Makes Sense: That's a section head, catchier than the "Joe Biden Didn't Do This" title. Next section: "Oil Companies Are Actually Just Trying to Pad Their Profits." At this point I'm more suspicious of financial speculators, who jumped out ahead of whatever shortages may be coming.

[03-15] David Dayen: A Windfall Profits Tax Would Be an Inflation Rebate: When the global price of oil increases, those people already pumping and selling oil get the extra profit of the price rise, with no additional work or value added. We recognized this in the oil crunch of 1973, and passed a windfall tax. Why not now?

[03-15] Ian Millhiser: The constitutional problem with Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill. Looks to me like there are several. One has to do with vagueness, which forces teachers to guess what wording is and is not allowed. Another has to do with allowing parents to enforce it through civil suits (an approach pioneered by the recent Texas anti-abortion bill). This deputizes the "most prudish parents" (also the craziest), virtually guaranteeing a tsunami of frivolous lawsuits teachers and school boards will have to defend against. This law is typical of the thought control planks in Rick Scott's campaign platform, showing how they are meant to terrify teachers. A Supreme Court that respected basic constitutional rights would never let this law stand, but a 6-3 majority of Federalist Society hacks just might.

[03-15] Jane Mayer: Sarah Bloom Raskin Withdraws Her Nomination to the Federal Reserve Board: Score one for the oil, gas, and coal industries, with their magic bullet, Joe Manchin. I don't know that she's any good (she "had wide support from the banking industry"), or what she might have been able to do at the Fed, but this does show you who has power. Mayer previously wrote: [03-02] How Fossil-Fuel Companies Are Stonewalling Sarah Bloom Raskin's Nomination to the Fed. Also see: Kate Aronoff: Why Joe Manchin Sank Sarah Bloom Raskin's Nomination.

[03-15] Bess Levin: Idaho's Uniquely Evil Abortion Bill Gives Rapists Families a Say.

[03-15] Third Way: The Red State Murder Problem: What do you suppose could account for "Trump-voting states account for 8 out of the 10 highest murder rates in 2020"? Guns? Poverty? Kulturkampf assholes?

[03-15] Eric Levitz: Modern Capitalism Is Weirder Than You Think: "Three asset managers [BlackRock, Vanguard Group, and State Street] now collectively own a big chunk of nearly every corporation. As a result, capitalism no longer works as advertised." This leads to several points:

  1. Market competition is becoming impossible under capitalism -- or else increasingly plausible under socialism.
  2. There may now actually be a "committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie."
  3. The dominant theory of corporate governance no longer makes sense.
  4. Wall Street and organized labor are now aligned on monetary policy. I.e., they both want low interest rates, albeit for different reasons.

Ask a question, or send a comment.

Sunday, March 13, 2022


Speaking of Rick Scott

Florida Senator Rick Scott is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. A couple weeks ago he released a manifesto -- a policy agenda and an ideological justification -- defining what Republicans want to accomplish if they can win control of the Senate in 2022. Of perhaps I should say what they'd do if they had the power to do it, which will take more than a mere Senate majority. You can read about it here. (The full plan is here, hyperbolically titled An 11 Point Plan to Rescue America: What Americans Must Do to Save This Country.) I'm especially struck by the deep paranoia in the preamble:

The militant left now controls the entire federal government, the news media, academia, Hollywood, and most corporate boardrooms -- but they want more. They are redefining America and silencing their opponents.

Among the things they plan to change or destroy are: American history, patriotism, border security, the nuclear family, gender, traditional morality, capitalism, fiscal responsibility, opportunity, rugged individualism, Judeo-Christian values, dissent, free speech, color blindness, law enforcement, religious liberty, parental involvement in public schools, and private ownership of firearms.

Let's start by returning to basics. The political terms Left and Right came from the early days of the French Revolution. In the assembly, supporters of the monarchy and aristocracy sat on the right, while opponents -- the people who coined the slogan "liberty, equality, fraternity" -- sat on the left. Those labels stuck with us, because while titled aristocracy is pretty much a relic of the past, the right has adapted to defend hierarchy in whatever form (usually wealth), while the left, having liberated us from many forms of hierarchy (aristocracy, slavery, and to a large extent discrimination based on sex and/or race) continues to champion greater equality.

Left and right is one of many axes that can be used to plot political tendencies, but it is especially important in times of great inequality, like ours. Politics is, after all, the practice of power, and power tends to follow (and in the hands of the right reinforce) inequities in wealth. There is some disagreement as to what equality means to the left: most agree on equal rights and treatment under laws that are decided in a democracy where every person has an equal vote, but not everyone would extend democracy to the workplace (aside from certain rights, like a minimum wage, and a right to join unions). And while most on the left support progressive taxation, only a few think it's possible to level incomes and savings.

However, those differences rarely matter to those on the right, who see any limits on wealth or the prerogatives of the rich as an attack on all they hold dear (i.e., their perch in the hierarchy). And when you're as far to the right as Scott is, that puts most of America on the left. And while Scott is an outlier by historical standards, it should be recognized that he speaks for the majority of Senate Republicans, and as such for the majority of the Party.

Sure, Scott makes a further qualification when he charges "the militant left," but that's an oxymoron -- in America at least, the left is profoundly anti-violence, action limited to dissenting speech, the occasional demonstration, and campaigning for votes -- using a term that is most often used posthumously to describe people killed by occupying forces (e.g., in Israel/Palestine, or by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan; I expect the Russians to follow suite in Ukraine).

Scott's trying to add an air of menace to "the left," but his examples only show how far out he's perched on the right. Most corporations are well to the right of center -- they do, after all, control most of the nation's wealth. Sure, some marketers try to present themselves as anti-racist, which drives far-right culture warriors (like Scott) crazy -- cf. Vivek Ramaswamy's recent book, Woke, Inc., or Glenn Beck's hysterical The Great Reset: Joe Biden and the Rise of Twenty-First Century Fascism (sure, pun intended). And news media and Hollywood are companies too, their owners well up the wealth hierarchy. Academia is nominally non-profit, but easily swayed by rich donors, as is a government which reports more to donors and lobbyists than to the public.

Also note that those supposedly left-controlled institutions all have pockets that are totally aligned with the far right, like Fox News, the Koch Network academies and "think tanks," the Federalist Society-selected 6-3 Supreme Court majority. But it's never enough, because the more they get, the more extreme they become.

How extreme is indicated by the list of things they claim the left wants to "change or destroy" -- the implication is always destroy, as they dogmatically insist that any change is intent on destruction. As someone who's pretty far out on the left -- for a crude estimate of how far, I voted for Nader in 2000, so if the left is all D+G voters, I am at least in the leftmost 4.7%; I voted for Kerry over Nader (and several other leftist candidates) in 2004, so I'm not in the leftmost 1.0%; I explained that decision here -- I thought I'd go down this laundry list and see how menacing my own views are:

  • American history: It is what it is, and no one can change or destroy it -- although the right (not the left) wants to sanitize it so Americans can feel better about themselves, and especially not notice the disgraceful history of conservatism, especially on race.

  • Patriotism: Let me start by noting that the people who opposed to aristocracy in and after 1776 (at least through the writing of the US Constitution, which banned issuing titles) were the same ones who called themselves patriots. They were the original American left, and were opposed to the right, which called themselves "loyalists" out of deference to the British crown. The left has held closer to the nation's founding ideals than the right ever has, and the left has demonstrated more concern for and solidarity with the majority of the US population than the right ever has. On the other hand, the right has appropriated the symbols and jargon of patriotism so crassly and jingoistically, often in the celebration of militarism and the pursuit of imperial adventures abroad, that many leftists naturally recoil from their posturing. So, sure, let's change patriotism back to its original ideal, extended to support equal rights for all.

  • Border security: As a leftist, I can imagine national solidarity extending to international, but I also recognize that each nation has its own laws, which are delimited by borders, which therefore need to be secure. So there seems to be no disagreement, but for years nativists (mostly Republicans, therefore often but not necessarily on the right) have used "border security" as a code word for railing against immigration, often in bad-faith negotiations which never delivered on promised reforms. (The most important is that the US has several million undocumented immigrants, a situation that needs to be cleared up in order to restore due process.) I don't particularly care about immigration as an issue, so wouldn't mind expanding or contracting legal immigration. The points I would insist on are: that the "undocumented" problem be cleared up, with due respect to the immigrants; that future policies be flexible enough to minimize additional "undocumented" immigrants; that immigrants have rights and protection to keep businesses from taking advantage of them; and that the cruelty and lack of due process evident in recent "border control" end. It's worth noting that some leftists are much more pro-immigration than I am. Also, that I put a lot more emphasis on improving standards of living elsewhere, mostly by supporting progressive democratic governments elsewhere and not rigging the world economic system against them, so people have less incentive to emigrate. Also, put an end to the wars that produce so many refugees.

  • The nuclear family: I have no problem with the nuclear family. Unfortunately, some people have trouble, and they may need help and understanding. However, policies cannot provide people with a nuclear family. The best we can do is to remove or limit some of the obstacles in the way. Doing so will only increase the strength of nuclear families. I don't see why this is a left-right issue. However, as with patriotism, the right has sought to anoint itself as the protector of "family values," eventually coming to believe its own delusions of grandeur.

  • Gender: Another non-issue, except when politicians (almost always on the right) attempt to legislate discrimination. Can they possibly believe that if we aren't cruel enough to LGBTs all children will want to grow up that way?

  • Traditional morality: Is usually the right morality, and is generally a good guide to living one's life, as it has been for hundreds or thousands of years. Except that we live in a world where many people have divergent views on personal morality, in which case law should only enforce moral views where acts impinge on others' rights. We have many cases where prohibitions were justified by a reading of "traditional morality," and those prohibitions have turned out to be cruel and unnecessary. Again, this is not strictly a left-right issue, but it is most often the right that wants to divide people up and persecute or discriminate against those they disapprove of. Leftists tend to be more wary of power, and more respectful of diversity.

  • Capitalism: Is a system that allows individuals (and groups) to take independent initiative and produce goods and services that ultimately benefit society. That is a laudable endeavor, one we should broadly support. However, it is a process which is fundamentally flawed, but the flaws are such that they can be mitigated with fairly painless regulation and tax and public spending policies which solve most of the attendant problems. It would take a huge book to detail all of these, but for present purposes let's note simply that the right chafes at any regulations or policies not strictly in favor of business, and assumes that any limits imposed on business are aimed at destroying all business. (Unlike right-wing ideologues, actual businesses often lobby for regulations, especially to guarantee minimal quality standards and eliminate unscrupulous competitors. And while no business likes to pay taxes, they do want to have a viable government to protect property rights, enforce contracts, and provide sound money.) One problem is that as right-wingers have increasingly swallowed their own propaganda, they've lost grip on reality, including any sense of their own very real flaws.

  • Fiscal responsibility: I accept that government has a responsibility to provide sound money, and that doing so imposes fiscal restraints on government. The Keynesian maxim that government should spend more than it takes in during recessions and run a modest surplus during boom times seems like a fair starting point -- and was practiced in the US between WWII and the Vietnam War. However, starting with Reagan in 1981, Republicans have repeatedly run up record deficits while in power, while turning into deficit scolds when Clinton and Obama were in office -- both sacrificed programs to reduce deficits, with Clinton turning the only surpluses since 1969. This shouldn't be a left-right issue, but Republican deficits go to tax breaks for the rich, increasing inequality, and to build up the military (an important profits program for their donors). All Scott's plank proves is that Republicans expect to never get called out for their hypocrisy.

  • Opportunity: Big difference here. The left supports free public education, allowing people to develop their skills as far as they can go. The right wants to make education rare and expensive, a rung in their hierarchy reserved for their own kind. America was once touted as a land of equal opportunity, but with Republican hegemony over the last 40 years has become one of the world's most inequal societies, and opportunities for all but the rich have suffered. Education is not the only factor here. Unions are also important. So is finance that all people can use, to buy homes and start businesses. These aren't novel ideas. They were (far from perfectly) incorporated into the GI Bill, which led to 20+ years of record economic growth. Since the Republican-driven turn to predatory finance and "winner-take-all" oligarchy, with virtually all productivity gains claimed by the rich, opportunity and hope have suffered. Republicans like Scott only offer more stagnation and decay.

  • Rugged individualism: A queer, macho-infused term, meant to celebrate the rare few who beat the odds as opportunity for most people diminishes, while denying the fundamental truth that nearly all significant developments are group efforts, facilitated by a society and culture that encourages initiative. The more opportunity, the more people will turn into self-styled "rugged individuals," so I don't see how the left can be accused of wanting to destroy them. Taming them, maybe. After all, what good does it do to for someone to achieve great success only to turn into a flaming asshole?

  • Judeo-Christian values: Not a left-right issue, although both sides can easily pick values they approve of. Like "traditional morality," most such values have stood the test of time, and few are uniquely Judeo and/or Christian. By the way, I always trip over that phrase, knowing that it is almost always used by Christians who know naught about Jews and care even less for Judaism, but somehow like the ecumenical ring of it (without going overboard and acknowledging related religions like Islam and Baha'i). I often hear people saying that we could solve all our problems if only people would "open their hearts" and turn to God and/or Jesus. I appreciate the sentiment, but have no idea what they are talking about, let alone how it would work. Turning politically to the left, on the other hand, would express the values that matter, in a program that is sensible here and now, with no divine intervention required).

  • Dissent: This one is pretty rich. Sometimes I think the only thing the left has ever been able to do is to dissent. Sometimes dissent triggers a conscience in people with more power, and that leads to change -- as when civil rights were restored in the 1960s -- but that always starts with a minority expressing dissent. You know who doesn't like dissent? The right. They're the ones passing "gag rules" and bans, and threatening demonstrators. Sometimes -- not often in the US recently, but famously elsewhere -- they form goon squads to attack demonstrators. Often they let the state do their dirty work for them. The left will never take away your right to dissent, because we recognize that dissent is a necessary check against abuse of power -- even, if we ever get any, our own.

  • Free speech: See "dissent," which I read as extending to the right to assembly and petition, but really starts here. I will add one thing: the right to free speech has been extended by the right-wing-dominated Supreme Court to apply to corporations, and that money they expend on political campaigns is protected as free speech. This in effect legalizes bribery, making it an assault on the integrity of democracy. Money has many pernicious effects on speech. It amplifies some speech at the loss to other, giving more power to influence to those willing to spend the most (you can see why the right likes the idea). Advertising is perhaps the least free speech of all. It would be in the public interest to curtail it as much as possible: not to prevent the flow of the ideas expressed, but to limit the distortions introduced by money.

    While most efforts to ban free speech come from the right, the left is often charged with one of its own, against "hate speech." It seems to me that one should be able to oppose something without passing laws against it and prosecuting offenders -- an instinct that strikes me as much more prevalent on the right. Analogously, one shouldn't assume that legalizing something (drugs is a major example) implies endorsement.

  • Color blindness: This is a recent complaint from the right, a weird one given their long support for racial (and many other forms of) discrimination. The logic is fair, and in the long run the point is well taken: if we don't officially recognize race, it should cease to matter, and the scourge of racism will have left us. However, there are several problems with this, starting with the bad faith of the people on the right pushing this line. On the one hand, they seem to want to sweep all evidence of the legacy of racial discrimination, which was mandated by law over 350 years and in many cases continued less formally over the last 50 years. On the other, the complaint about tracking people by race often comes from people who are complaining about discrimination against white people, something they wish to prohibit. This is just one of many categories where the right's capacity to imagine themselves as victims of discrimination and injustice they regularly practice on others is simply galling.

  • Law enforcement: We all agree that we need just and reasonable laws, and we need them enforced, simply and fairly. But we have difficulty doing this: some laws are bad (especially against drugs), and enforcement is often arbitrary and capricious, with some people largely exempt from scrutiny, while others are singled out for attention, sometimes to the point of harassment. The task is greatly complicated by the millions of guns in civilian hands, and that increases the likelihood of police using their own guns: one result of this is that over 1,000 Americans are killed by police each year. The criminal justice system has problems beyond police: the courts are slow and often prejudiced; the quality of legal defense is ridiculously variable; the prisons are badly run, and there is little effort made to equip convicts for their return to society. And all this takes place in a broader context that often includes poverty, miseducation, lack of housing and public health, and much more. The right has this psychology that insists that crime can be fixed by passing harsher laws, hiring more police, and allowing them to act more impulsively, especially because they are unwilling to consider any of the other aspects of the problem (especially inequality, lack of social services, and guns). Given their repeated failures, some people on the left suggested that instead we might redirect some of the money going to police to other social services that might be more effective. They came up with a slogan ("defund the police"), and Republicans seized on that as a threat to terrify their base. It's highly unlikely that anyone is going to cut police funding anytime soon. Indeed, it's likely that the reforms needed to improve policing will take more money, not less. But the real problem is much more systemic, and that's where we need to turn left for answers. What the right's been doing just doesn't work.

  • Religious liberty: Another quaint turn of phrase, one that sounds like something no one objects to -- freedom of religion, which for many of us means freedom from religion -- yet means something very different. Republicans have lately been pushing a line that if someone can claim that their objections to a law are rooted in their religion, they shouldn't have to follow the law. Moreover, if one owns a business, one's religious exemption can be used to set policy that governs employee benefits (e.g., a Catholic business owner opposed to birth control can deny employees health insurance which pays for birth control, even though the federal government requires that all insurance policies provide that benefit). In practice, so far at least, this "religious liberty" doctrine has mostly been used to permit certain people to act as bigots, which is a big part of why Republicans are so enthusiastic about this novel form of legal reasoning.

  • Parental involvement in public schools: Another piece of weasel wording, inoffensive on its surface but designed to allow a few politically-active right-wing parents to harangue school boards and educators over policies like masks and banning books and other matter that for whatever reason offends them. Such people have always been around, but they've become even more of a plague recently, as Trump and Fox have riled up the would-be culture warriors to an ever higher sense of righteousness and persecution, while the right's estimation of education has shifted from suspicious to downright bothered. In theory, politically-active left-wing parents could do the same thing, but they generally have too much respect for education and knowledge and understanding to stoop so low. (I use "they" instead of "we" because I've never been a parent. Besides, I still bear scars from my own horrifying experience of school, which I understand is the exception rather than the rule for people on the left.)

  • Private ownership of firearms: Not an issue I care much about: I think guns are dangerous, wasteful, and stupid, and I think they cause more problems than they solve, but I'm not keen on prohibiting things that people crave (e.g., drugs). That said, the right's obsession with guns is unhealthy, bordering on insanity. Their paranoia about regulation ensures that many guns will wind up in the hands of criminals, incompetents, and the mentally ill. Their "stand your ground" laws turn a reasonable argument for self-defense into a license to kill. Their embrace of assault weapons makes mass shootings much more likely. The flood of guns threatens police, and makes them more likely to shoot unnecessarily. It's only a matter of time before their rhetoric inspires right-wing militias and "lone wolves" to attack their imagined enemies. (Oh yeah, that's already happened, but could get much worse.) And they've made it hard to do any sort of research on the actual impact of guns in America, so it's hard to rationally debate even modest reforms.

It bears repeating that Scott's list consists of a bunch of buzz phrases that have been tuned to elicit emotional responses from their followers, and possibly befuddlement from anyone not in on their jargon. Most are so anodyne you might think we have more common ground than is commonly supposed. On the other hand, Scott omits a long list of things we do want to change (or even, rarely, destroy -- one I can think of is the patent system, but most Democrats haven't figured that out yet, as they look for band-aid solutions to exorbitant drug prices). I wouldn't trust him to list them anyway, as he clearly has no grasp of who we are or what we believe.


The introduction is followed by a page of bullet points meant to illustrate the dire threats facing America. They're short enough I can quote them (in bold, followed by my notes -- if missing, just assume I'm laughing, or aghast):

  • Our government has created the highest debt in human history

  • Americans are afraid to speak their minds for fear of being silenced and canceled by the woke elitists -- which is why folks on the right are so timid and circumspect.

  • Our children are being poisoned by a false political agenda in their schools

  • Inflation is a tax placed on us by politicians who waste our money -- this shows zero understanding of inflation, or of tax.

  • Our inept withdrawal from Afghanistan dishonored the sacrifices of thousands of Americans and encouraged our enemies -- so we should sacrifice more, to deny our folly further?

  • Our porous southern border is a national crisis

  • Our cities are overrun by theft, violence, and a 30% increase in murder

  • Our government is making us less energy independent and killing jobs -- and that's why we blocked the Green New Deal?

  • American war fighters are being indoctrinated with left-wing woke foolishness and kicked out of the military because of the 'Big Brother' vax mandate

  • Our government is eroding our work ethic by paying people not to work

  • We are allowing biological males to destroy women's sports

  • Our kids are taught to hate America and divide each other by skin color

  • The FBI is spying on concerned parents who speak out at school board meetings

  • Washington's economy is growing, America's economy is shrinking

  • Lethal drugs are pouring into our country from China and our southern border

Remember, this is a list of what Republicans regard as the worst problems facing America: nothing about inequality, climate disasters, a globe-straddling military that constantly sucks us into wars and other conflicts, environmental degradation, predatory and monopolistic businesses, loss of labor rights, loss of privacy (including the right to make reproductive decisions), mass incarceration, racism (except as affects white people), inadequate health care, rising personal debt (mostly due to shortchanging education and health care), the growing assault on public health laws and workers, declining life expectancy.

But if it sounds like all Scott is doing is complaining, read on to the "11 Points": Republicans have bad ideas too (some staggeringly so). In the following, the bold is quoted from the top-line summary, followed by brief comments, usually referring to the following details.

  1. Our kids will say the pledge of allegiance, salute the Flag, learn that America is a great country, and choose the school that best fits them. Public schools will be required to indoctrinate students in the core pieties of Republicans. Teachers can be fired if they fail to tow the line. Given this degree of thought control, one wonders why they'll continue to tout private schools, but they help divert resources and political support from public schools, and further their stock line that government is bad and business is good.

  2. Government will never again ask American citizens to disclose their race, ethnicity, or skin color on any government forms. Two lines later they have the chutzpah to quote MLK (you know which quote), but don't dare attribute it (lest you credit an authority who had less pleasant things to say about America and race). I suppose it's a measure of progress that they're ducking the issue, but you still know what they mean.

  3. The soft-on-crime days of coddling criminal behavior will end. We will re-fund and respect the police because they, not the criminals, are the good guys. They want to rub salt into the wounds caused by police abuse of power, giving police more immunity, encouraging police to clamp down on "mostly peaceful protests," and directing prosecutors to prosecute more cases (except "based on political ideology," which almost certainly means their supporters can't be charged. They're not yet running on pardons for Jan. 6 insurrectionists, but that's where they're heading.

  4. We will secure our border, finish building the wall, and name it after President Donald Trump. This is their anti-immigration plank. Enforcement will be more draconian than ever, including using the military. Reform will never happen. Dissent will be quelled by "strip[ping] all federal funding from 'sanctuary cities' and prosecut[ing] any elected officials who flour our immigration laws."

  5. We will grow America's economy, starve Washington's economy, and stop Socialism. Their plan to "stop Socialism" is to simply outlaw it. ("Socialism will be treated as a foreign combatant which aims to destroy our prosperity and freedom.") The Washington/America dichotomy is pure fantasy, but serves their purposes: slash government, push functions down to the states, or (better still) privatize them). This is also the place where they promise to force everyone to pay at least some income tax, regardless of how little income they make, so they will "have some skin in the game" -- a tax increase on the poor that I've seen estimated up to $1 trillion over 10 years. They also want a prohibition on debt ceiling increases ("absent a declaration of war"), to force balanced budgets on pain of destroying the federal credit -- something which has never been in doubt despite the record deficits Republicans have routinely run up.

  6. We will eliminate all federal programs that can be done locally, and enact term limits for federal bureaucrats and Congress. This expands on their desire to inhibit and eviscerate federal government. They present a number of bizarre planks. The worst is probably their extension of the 12-year term limits nostrum to government civil service employees, making it more difficult to hire and retain knowledgeable workers. (They make an exception "for national security reasons," possibly a sign that they realize the CIA and the military doesn't do anything useful.) Or maybe the most bizarre is "sell off all non-essential government assets, buildings, and land, and use the proceeds to pay down our national debt." There's also an only slightly veiled threat against Social Security and Medicare, which they assume will go bankrupt. And these are people who are asking voters to entrust the everyday workings of the federal government?

  7. We will protect the integrity of American Democracy and stop left-wing efforts to rig elections. After all, rigging elections is their job. Still, they're kind of cagey on how they do it.

  8. We will protect, defend, and promote the American Family at all costs. This includes most of their planks on abortion ("a tragedy") but they talk much more about adoption, including promises that the crop of unwanted babies will be trafficked through "faith-based groups." They're also against porn and "deadbeat dads," and want effective federal laws against obscenity.

  9. Men are men, women are women, and unborn babies are babies. They continue, "to say otherwise is to deny science," although this seems to be the only place where they claim science supports their bigotry.

  10. Americans will be free to welcome God into all aspects of our lives, and we will stop all government efforts to deny our religious freedom and freedom of speech. The operative word here is "our"; yours may be treated differently. A clue on how to tell the difference is "No tax dollars will be used to pay for any diversity training or other woke indoctrination that is hostile to faith." You see here how what they like about religion isn't the "golden rule" or commandments on forgiveness and charity, but how convenient it is as a justification for bigotry and cruelty. They throw in a few planks on social media, like "all social media platforms that censor speech and cancel people will be treated like publishers and subject to legal action." Unclear how they square this with federal laws against obscenity and their plan to treat socialists as "enemy combatants."

  11. We are Americans, not globalists. A set of insane foreign policy planks, starting with "A world without American leadership would be a very dark world," illustrated by the complete abdication of American leadership that follows: withdrawal from the UN, extortion against allies that "don't pay their fair share for their own defense," a "New Monroe Doctrine" which lays claim to all of the Western Hemisphere, threats against Russia and China, a promise of punishing wars followed by no help rebuilding, a vow to "end all imports from Communist China until a new regime honors basic human rights and freedoms," a return to autarky, and total supplication to Israel (ironically, the one "ally" that doesn't begin to "pay its fair share"). Also a plank about taking "climate change seriously, but not hysterically," adding "we will not adopt nutty policies that harm our economy or our jobs."

The preamble to the U.S. Constitution starts with a number of good reasons why the Founders felt that we needed a strong and honest federal government:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Given the vagaries of politics, that promise hasn't always been realized, but we have never before seen as systematic an assault on the founding principles of this nation as we see in Scott's 11 Steps. They're seeking to impose a thought control regime, from pre-school on, including the explicit banning of anything socialist or "woke." This will be enforced by police, who will not be held to account for any abuses of power or even lapses of judgment. They will undermine the ability of the government to regulate business and markets, destabilizing an economy that will shrink substantially as they eviscerate government, which will be hampered by shrinking trade, and which will likely collapse completely when the government is forced to default on its debts. The foreign policy planks are likely to plunge the US into further wars abroad, and while having a nation of morons armed to the gills may deter anyone else from invading here, it's likely to deteriorate into an even more gruesome civil war. And in all this "doom and gloom" I'm sure I'm skipping over other calamities (e.g., natural and manmade disasters caused by neglect to critical infrastructure and the hubristic ignorance over climate change). And somehow Scott thinks his plan is what it takes to "rescue America." More like finish it off.

I used to joke that Newt Gingrich's famous 1994 publicist stunt should have been called "The Contract on America." But what Gingrich aimed for was pretty placid compared to the wrath and fury Scott seeks to unleash. And it's not that the Republican Party is all that much crazier now than it was back then. It's sobering to read how deranged its leading "thinkers" were in 1994, or even in 1980 when Reagan ran, or even in 1964 when Goldwater was nominated. What's changed isn't so much the Republicans as the ability of the nation to keep chugging along as they did their worst. That's harder to do now because the wounds and scars are mounting up. Yet somehow, Republicans seem to be able to escape scrutiny, let alone blame, for their many mistakes over the last 40+ years, and having gotten away with their act so far, they see no reason to change. They claim to have exclusive claim to patriotism and religion, even though there is no lack of Democrats with equal claims. They claim to represent business, even though business invariably grows more under Democrats. They claim to represent aggrieved workers, even though most of the problems workers have were brought on by Republicans. They talk about things like deficits and energy independence, even though the numbers are strictly opposed. They claim to be "color blind," but where's the evidence for that? They lie, they cheat, and they steal, yet the monied media never holds them accountable. So what's to stop them from doubling down and doing even worse? At least back when GW Bush was president (and Karl Rove was his "brain"), they tried to disguise their sinister plots (remember Healthy Forests?).

Yet during the 40-year era from Reagan to Trump, they managed to change America a lot, in ways almost always for the worse, but in ways they wanted. Inequality is greater now than ever before. In the world, America is more loathed but also more feared than ever before. And even when they crashed the economy, it bounced back more profitable than ever for the very rich. And even when they blew trillions on wars that accomplished nothing, they kept building back their arsenal. So why are soldiers like Scott so miserable? Why do they sound so desperate? Won't they ever be satisfied? It seems: no. They're in it for the fight, so they're going to keep kicking no matter how badly they got you down. Like the scorpion, it's their nature. Reminds me of an old Mort Sahl joke. He explained that Charlton Heston once said he hopes that his children will some day live in a fascist America. Sahl added: "if he were more perceptive, he'd be a happy man."

Ask a question, or send a comment.

Saturday, February 26, 2022


Speaking of Ukraine

[PS: Added some further thoughts on sanctions to the Bennis comment.]

A couple days ago I thought I had figured a way out of the Ukraine crisis that should satisfy all but a handful of inveterate hawks and neo-nazis. The solution was so obvious I was wondering how I could get a prestige op-ed slot to change the course of history. Of course, it's practically impossible for someone with no credentials and barely 500 Twitter followers to get an airing. But without the benefit of my idea, history shifted the opposite direction, as Russia attacked Ukraine, transforming a threat of war into a cold fact. Or did it? All sides are so preoccupied with propagating their political stances that it's hard to find credible reports of what's actually happening. Nonetheless, while even limited war leaves wounds that are more anguishing and scars that linger longer than mere threats, short of total annihilation the only way this ends is in some sort of agreement. And while war may alter "facts on the ground," the only possible viable solutions are ones that are rooted in justice, and that hasn't changed.

For what it's worth, I didn't see Putin's recognition of the breakaway Ukraine oblasts of Donetsk and Lughansk as much of a problem. All that move did was signal that revival of the 2015 Minsk II Agreement, which neither side had implemented to the other's satisfaction, was not going to work. The idea behind Minsk was troublesome in the first place: the Donbas would in theory remain part of Ukraine but "autonomous," giving Russia a potentially subversive base inside Ukraine. A much simpler and cleaner solution would be to cut Donbas and Crimea free of Ukraine, and accept their annexation by Russia. That would leave Ukraine free both of Russian claims and of a substantial Russophile political base, allowing the rest of the country to align itself with Europe -- presumably what the rest of the country wants.

Of course, one shouldn't simply hand over territory because an aggressive neighboring regime demands it. That would justify charges of appeasement, and encourage further encroachments. However, the principle should be respect for self-determination: the people in a contested area should have the right to decide which nation to align with, or independence, by a fair and internationally supervised election. Moreover, people on the losing side of any such ballot should be able to move, on relatively favorable terms. Such disputes happen often enough that this mechanism should be established as a basic principle of international law, where nations which respect these procedures are recognized as law-abiding, and those who do not should be subject to sanctions.

Russia's motivation for acceding to such procedures would include the expectation that US-imposed sanctions would be lifted. It seems very likely that such a vote in Crimea and Donbass would favor annexation by Russia, while similar votes in other parts of Ukraine would not. It should be hard for anyone to argue against such an expression of popular will. Beyond that, the US, Russia, NATO, and Ukraine need to meet and work toward reducing threats, including nuclear and cyber. The US, as by far the world's most exorbitantly armed nation, has a lot to offer in terms of threat reduction, and all people and nations would benefit from such diplomacy. Of course, such talks should extend to other sectors, including US-China, India-Pakistan, Israel-Iran, Korea, etc., but substantial progress can be made in regional agreements. One can, for example, imagine NATO freezing its membership, unwinding deployments, and reducing exercises in tandem with Russia reducing its threats.

The principle of self-determination can be applied elsewhere: Georgia also has Russian-backed breakaway provinces; the former Yugoslavia still has issues over Kosovo and the Bosnian Serb enclave; Northern Ireland might wish to join Ireland to undo the effects of Brexit. The most dangerous territorial dispute is probably China's claim to Taiwan. This would give China a non-violent way of pursuing reunification, encouraging it to make itself more appealing, rather than more threatening.

Admittedly, all along I assumed that Putin was a rational leader pursuing limited goals in the face of increasingly virulent hostility from the US, whose foreign policy is largely driven by a huge arms industry and monstrous ideological conceits -- most conspicuously a desire to indulge Israel's settler-colonial project, with its roots resonating with America's own 19th century project. While I still reject blanket statements that Putin is evil, that he's engaged in a crusade to destroy democracy, and that he has designs on restoring and extending Russia's empire of yore, I must admit that he has some glaring flaws and blind spots, which have led him to overestimate the value of force and fail to appreciate how badly his use of force makes him look.

I've been critical of the Biden administration in the run up here: their unwillingness to consider limiting NATO and pressing Ukraine on Minsk II implementation, their use of scare tactics to rally public opinion (in Ukraine, Europe, and US), especially their "intelligence" leaks predicting imminent invasion that sounded more like taunts, their use of character assassination making eventual settlement even harder to achieve. Smart negotiators leave one with an honorable exit path, but they've boxed Putin into a corner where he had no choice but to strike back or admit defeat, so they've effectively provoked his bad behavior. On the other hand, the fault is ultimately his, and I suspect it will eventually topple him from power. I don't see that as a plus -- "the devil you know" and all that -- but I also don't see it as tragic either. Putin has done terrible things as leader of Russia, which is a big part of why he's gotten into this mess. The real question is whether the US can come out of this with a generous, constructive approach to world order -- something far removed from the arrogance that developed after the Cold War, that drove us into the manifest failures of the Global War on Terror. Looking around Washington it's hard to identify anyone with the good sense to change direction.

[Note that the area held by separatists is only about half of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, although it does contain the main cities. Delineating areas for such elections is bound to remain controversial.]

The following are some Ukraine links (note dates, as events move fast and people have a hard time separating fact from fiction from pure fantasy).

[2/14] David K Shipler: How America's Broken Promises May Lead to a New Cold War: What's with the future tense? It now appears that the US never stopped its scheming around the old Cold War: it only briefly shifted tactics to appear less threatening around 1990 when Gorbachev was desperately trying to reform the Soviet Union. The US didn't orchestrate everything that followed, but did repeatedly take advantage of disconnects and mishaps to isolate and impoverish Russia, not least by promoting anti-Russian sentiment in territories that been subservient and still had reason to be friendly. Expansion of NATO was a big part of the schema, not because NATO wanted to take advantage and finish Russia off but because NATO needed an enemy to justify itself (and all those purchases of American arms), and Russia was the easiest enemy to paint. It helps here to realize that NATO is basically a scheme for the US to assume control of Europe's armies (somewhat less than formally). The only way Russia can escape the NATO vise would be to give up its army, which means its independence -- a humiliation no Russian leader could survive. On [2/25], Shipler followed up with: A Russian Tragedy, noting that "Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine is also an assault on his own people." Shipler notes how a "sense of persecution echoes into Putin's current remarks." It may be impossible to imagine the world as seen through someone else's eyes, but it might help to try.

[2/15] Masha Gessen: How the Kosovo Air War Foreshadowed the Crisis in Ukraine: Sees 1999 as a turning point in post-Cold War US-Russia relations, one still remembered in Moscow as an affront, as well as a model for how one nation (or coalition, as the bombing was nominally the work of NATO) can terrorize another into submission. As the war started in earnest, Gessen followed up with: The Crushing Loss of Hope in Ukraine [2/23], and also: Russia's Last Independent TV Channel Covers the Invasion of Ukraine.

[2/21] David Remnick: Putin's Preparations for Ukraine: "The autocrat has been trying for decades to end what he sees as a prolonged period of Russian humiliation." Follows up Gessen's note on Belgrade, 1999, with a broader historical accounting. Putin's original motive may indeed have been the humiliation Russia faced following the breakup of the Soviet Union, but note how US politicians and media have striven to humiliate Putin personally, under Obama since 2009, and both for and against Trump since 2016. On [2/26] Remnick also published the more polemical Putin's Bloody Folly in Ukraine.

[2/21] Nonzero Newsletter: Why Biden didn't negotiate seriously with Putin. This is a good idea for an article, and his two major points are reasonable, but I think he messes up on some details. First is the Munich "appeasement" charge. It's been used hundreds of times since 1938 to derail negotiations, without examining what actually happened then and why, let alone what else could have been done about it. The author offers two differences between 1938 and now, which may be true but aren't the ones that matter (that Hitler was crazy but Putin is not, and that Hitler's demand was territorial, but Putin was more concerned with Ukraine's possible NATO membership). The more important difference is that in 1938 the world was dominated by global empires (which the UK, France, and effectively the US, had, with Japan gaining ground, and Germany shut out), whereas today such empires are politically and economically untenable. The consequence of that was that Hitler didn't just want the Sudetenland, he wanted a whole domino chain of additional territories. Sure, maybe Putin wants more than just the Donbas, but his appetite is necessarily limited in ways that Hitler's wasn't. Just because "appeasing" Hitler didn't work doesn't mean that a similar concession to Putin would only make him more voracious. It might not only have avoided this week's war, it would have given the world time to work on reducing the humiliation Russia has been subjected to since the end of the Soviet Union (a defeat in some minds as serious as Germany's war-and-empire loss). The counterfactual also fails: had Chamberlain held firm, would Hitler not have invaded Czechoslovakia? Or Poland? Or Russia? The UK had no troops that could defend Eastern Europe from Hitler. All they could have done was threatened to declare war, which in fact Chamberlain did after Poland. The only effect that declaration had was to move France up Hitler's checklist, force the evacuation of British forces at Dunkirk, and open Britain up to bombing. Yet, somehow the myth of Munich persists: that all it takes to stop an aggressor is a resolute show of strength. Thus the US showed its mettle by refusing to concede anything in negotiations, daring Putin to put his own strength on display. The second reason for not negotiating seriously is the "Putin can't be reasoned with" meme. Some people have psychological theories to support this, while others just rely on facile analogies (like Putin = Hitler, or Putin = Evil). But more likely is the arrogant notion that the US holds all the trump cards, so the only thing Russia can do is back down. After all, they've backed down at each NATO expansion. They've demurred at not implementing the Minsk II agreement. They've watched as the US has wooed Zelensky into becoming a puppet. And if ever they do object, just slap more sanctions on them, and they'll come begging for mercy. Diplomacy may be a lost art, but who needs it when you can get away with extortionate demands? Besides, isn't it comforting to know that when appeasement or its opposite doesn't work, it will be someone else suffering the costs?

[2/22] Patrick Cockburn: Russia-Ukraine is an Information War, So Government Intelligence Needs More Scrutiny Than Ever: More lessons from Iraq than current reporting on Ukraine, but lessons are advised -- and the full extent of deceits from all sides over Ukraine will take some time to work out. Another lesson from Iraq: Putin's Advance Into Ukraine Compares with Saddam Hussein's Invasion of Kuwait . . . a Disaster for Russia. This is a point I sympathize with, but needs to be taken with a couple caveats. First, Saddam was able to put down both popular uprisings and internal division to keep control over Iraq, and there is no reason to think that Putin is less skilled or ruthless in his exercise of power. Second, Saddam ultimately succumbed to a much greater foreign threat, but not even the US is at all ready to invade and occupy (or just blow to kingdom come) Russia. One more Cockburn piece: Russophobia Leads Us to Assume the Worst of Russians -- and Assuming They're Demonic Could be Dangerous.

[2/22] John Judis: A Dissenting View on US Policy toward Russia: He was right to worry that Ukraine "could signal the beginning of a Cold War II," but it would be more accurate to say that Cold War II brought us to the war in Ukraine, a pretty vivid reminder of why such Cold Wars should be avoided as assiduously as hot wars. Even during Cold War I, the Soviet Union sent troops into Hungary and Czechoslovakia to quash rebellion and shore up their control over their frontier provinces. What's different here is that it took Putin eight years to conclude that he had to act, making the final decision more unexpected. But after decades of painting him as an unreformed KGB agent, as a ruthless political dictator who kills his opponents, is it really so surprising that he would rise to the part?

[2/23] Ken Klippenstein: Saudi-Russia Collusion is driving up gas prices -- and worsening Ukraine crisis. Russia and Saudi Arabia are two of the world's three largest oil and gas producers, and unlike the US (the other one), their finances are strictly dependent on keeping prices high. So while the US has been cranking up anti-Russian propaganda, Russia has been ingratiating itself to the oil barons of the Persian Gulf. While Europe as fallen in line behind the US on Ukraine, support has been less forthcoming from supposed allies in the Middle East: see, [2/25] Matthew Petti: US-backed Middle East states cozy up to Russia during Ukraine invasion. Nor is it just the Saudis looking for a windfall. See Kate Aronoff: Vultures Are Circling the Ukraine Crisis.

[2/23] Eric Levitz: Which Russia-Ukraine Take Is Right for You?:] Useful primariy as a compendium of many of the dumb things people are saying as they try to fit events into their preconceived agendas. Note that none of these positions match mine, although I'm not so far from the "anti-war realist" position represented by Anatol Lieven (see articles below). He also refers to what he calls a "far left yet objectively pro-imperial oligarchy" position, and links to a 2014 piece on something called World Socialist Web Site which, well, I don't know who the hell they are, but it should be possible to be very critical of US/NATO foreign policy without supporting or defending Russia. For example, see [2/25] David Broder: Stop Pretending the Left Is on Putin's Side. Also [2/23] Branko Mercetic: With Putin's Ukraine Incursion, Hawks in Washington Got Exactly What They Wanted. Levitz has more on Trumpy-Right posturing, but also see Alex Shephard: Trump and His Putin Apologists Blame "Woke" Democrats for Invasion of Ukraine.

It wouldn't actually be hard for the right to construct a critique of how Biden's handling of Ukraine and Russia has cornered Russia into lashing out irrationally -- especially to link the conflict back to Obama's (and Hillary Clinton's) pivot against Russia, especially to the Democrats' anti-Russia scapegoating for the 2016 election and their subsequent impeachment of Trump. They could even try to argue that Trump tried to restore an element of respect and balance to the relationship, but that he was heckled at every turn by warmongering Democrats and their media allies. But that would require a modicum of critical thought, but their brain rot (and their reflexive demonology) prevents them from even approximating coherence.

[2/24] Zack Beauchamp: Putin's "Nazi" rhetoric reveals his terrifying war aims in Ukraine: As you know, Nazis are pure evil, so we can't have any of that. -- even though of late the term gets bandied about so often, over such trivial concerns as mask mandates, that it's on the verge of losing all meaning. But students of Ukraine recall that there were once real Nazis there -- at least, Ukrainian who hated Russians (and Jews) enough to collaborate with German invaders. One can't say how many Ukrainian nationalists are neo-Nazis these days, but it's an easy charge to hurl, and one invading Russians are likely to apply indiscriminately. Worse, it implies that they have designs not just on the rulers of Ukraine but on the people. Beauchamp also wrote [2/25]: Why the US won't send troops to Ukraine. Something about nuclear weapons, but one could also argue that US troops are incapable of not making any situation worse, even without resorting to WMD.

[2/24] Jen Kirby/Jonathan Guyer: Putin's invasion of Ukraine, explained. Not every point I would make, but a good general backgrounder, noting the confusion sowed by breakup of the Soviet Union, the renascent Cold War driven largely by the expansion of NATO, and the eight years of tensions following the anti-Russian coup in Ukraine and the subsequent pro-Russian revolt. Kirby also wrote [2/25]: US sanctions will squeeze Russia -- but they're unlikely to stop war in Ukraine. As many people have pointed out, Russia has considerable experience with US sanctions by now, and the new sanctions have been widely broadcast as threats, so they've had time to prepare and plan. Also, while sanctions have a "trickle down" effect hurting everyday lives, states that have largely insulated themselves from democratic control just tend to hunker down and redouble their convictions. In the great wave of anti-communist reform from 1989-91, the only regimes that didn't fall were the ones the the US had fought hot wars with and/or subjected to crippling sanctions and blockades -- something also true of non-communist states that had run afoul of US grudges, like Iraq and Iran. On the other hand, the mere threat of sanctions can unnerve countries with a large, globally-connected private sector, such as Apartheid South Africa. That's also why Israel is so agitated over the BDS movement, even though it has virtually no state support in the US and Europe, and even though it's a much more civil way to oppose the injustices of Israel's Apartheid regime than any others.

Sanctions against Russia right now are certainly preferable to more military options, but the US has a bad track record of understanding both what they are useful for and what their limitations are. One can only hope to achieve limited reforms -- which certainly do not include regime change -- with them, and they only have a chance of working if they can be repealed and lifted. But Americans tend to view them more as a way of expressing disapproval without risking military reprisal, and as such as a safe form of aggression (hence the threat rhetoric well in advance of Russia's "special operations"). And since disapproval is usually located in leaders (like Putin) and political systems, it's hard for Americans to rewind them. Hence they remain irritants, leading to future hostilities.

[2/24] Robin Wright: Putin's Historic Miscalculation May Make Him a War Criminal: Sure, as far as I'm concerned it does. I'd say pretty much every time any national leader starts shooting or bombing across borders they're committing war crimes or some sort. However, wouldn't that also apply to Saudi Arabia (bombing Yemen), the US (Somalia), and Israel (Syria), just to pick examples from the last few days I saw in a meme? But in the real world, nobody gets prosecuted for war crimes, unless they've been totally defeated, in which case the trials are regarded as mere "victor's justice." Even then, it's often more constructive to have some kind of "truth and reconciliation process" than something that simply looks like revenge. And in the case of Putin, it's possible that his own people might sack him, but until then the only way to bring this war to a close is to negotiate with him, and that is hardly helped by calling him names. This article has a bunch of examples, including the inevitable "others compared him to Hitler" -- lead example there is professional anti-Russia agitator Michael McFaul -- and an even more fanciful comparison to Stalin and Mao ("ruthless megalomaniac with a giant imperialist agenda" -- that from Nina Krushcheva, who really should know better).

[2/25] Anatol Lieven: Ukraine: What Russia wants, what the West can do: "For those who understand Moscow's establishment and view of their country's vital interests, none of this should be a surprise." Lieven has written numerous pieces on Russian/Ukraine over the last weeks and months: you can reach many of them through this link (and the "Load More" buttons). As he points out, Putin's appetite only grows with apparent victories on the ground, but prospects for occupying Ukraine beyond the Russian-speaking regions are fraught with danger, and there is little way to maintain a pliant government without enforcing troops. Hence, Ukraine is a trap for Russia, much like Afghanistan and Iraq were traps for the US, so the only way to secure gains is to negotiate for them. I've linked to this before, but Lieven's long paper from Jan. 4 remains immensely useful: Ending the Threat of War in Ukraine: A Negotiated Solution to the Donbass Conflict and the Crimean Dispute. Also see American Prospect's interview with Lieven: Worse Than a Crime; It's a Blunder.

[2/25] Phyllis Bennis: Respond to Putin's Illegal Invasion of Ukraine with Diplomacy, Not War. And remember that sanctions may be war by other means, but are acts of war nonetheless. Still, this is one instance where I don't mind them, and am even a bit hopeful that they might work. They give the US and other concerned nations a means of responding without adding to the conflagration, making matters even worse. I'm also curious to see effective they might be, given the extraordinary globalization of finance in the world. It may even be the case that Russia is especially vulnerable to sanctions on individual oligarchs, precisely because they've exported so much of their wealth. Also note [2/25] Marcus Stanley: Why sanctions on Russia are necessary.

[2/25] Ilya Matveev: The Putin Regime Is Straining Under Its Own Contradictions: Interview by Rafael Khachaturian with the editor of Openleft.ru. Not much on the war per sé, but quite a bit on the economic stagnation that has afflicted Russia since 2010 (after a decade of strong growth under Putin, following the disastrous Yeltsin 1990s). Matveev and Ilya Budraitskis also wrote: Ordinary Russians Don't Want This War.

[2/25] Jeffrey St. Clair: Roaming Charges: Insane in the Ukraine. Usual batch of scattered bullet points, many worth reading, as well as unrelenting scorn for American hypocrisy over other nations bombing and pillaging. He also cautions against reading too much into Putin's vow to "de-Nazify" Ukraine ("after all, he hasn't done much to de-Nazify Russia").

[2/26] Jason Horowitz: Putin's Aggression Leaves His Right-Wing Fan Club Squirming: A quick survey of world luminaries on the far right, folk like Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Jair Bolsonaro, and Silvio Berlusconi, although Donald Trump only appears in a picture with Putin. Reminds you that despite the infantile red-baiting Americans habitually lapse into, Putin's international appeal has always been on the right, both for his "strong man" persona and for his knee-jerk conservatism. Also that when push comes to shove, nationalists tend to drift apart, as they discover that being from different nations matters. This is, by the way, one place where comparisons to Hitler are apt. People forget how widely the right admired Hitler in the first years after seizing power, before he launched the genocidal wars that he's now remembered for.

The New York Times has a piece Maps: Tracking the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. As of 11:55 pm ET, 2/26, Russian forces are shows as pushing close to Kyiv and Kharkiv and not quite in either. Unclear whether this is due to restraint or resistance. Russia appears to have moved faster in their breakout from Crimea, but the largest city they appeared to have captured is Kherson, an Oblast capital with less than 300,000 people. (At least that's the only one I recognized. Melitopol has a population of about 150,000.) There doesn't appear to have been any advance from the breakaway areas of Luhansk and Donetsk, although Russian troops have entered north of Luhansk.

I don't have much to report on antiwar protests within Russia, but there is a Wikipedia page on the subject, with extensive footnotes, and a box there with links to other pages on the conflict and war.


Normally, I'd follow this up with scattered links of interest, but the above has taken quite enough of my time, and the other stories can wait. Needless to say, events here are changing very rapidly. For instance, initial sanctions did not include barring Russia from the SWIFT financial system, but there are now reports of this happening.

Ask a question, or send a comment.

Saturday, February 12, 2022


Speaking of Which

PS: Added a further note on Ukraine, in response to a reader comment. It was written on Sunday, 2/13, and posted on Monday, to continued US hysterical warnings about imminent invasion, Ukrainian please to not panic, and Russian denials that it has any such plans.

I had no desire whatsoever to post anything today, even though my morning perusal of the Wichita Eagle has been a growing source of consternation. I started to write a Notes on Everyday Life piece yesterday on an extremely offensive op-ed from the Heritage Foundation, but stalled after two paragraphs. Today brought several more outrageous pieces, including a strong prediction that this will be the week Russia finally invades Ukraine. Reason and sanity says they won't, but the time framework -- which you may remember simply repeats what they said a week ago -- but it's clearly meant less as prophecy than as a taunt.

But what finally provoked me to start writing was a tweet: possibly the most dishonest and provocative I've ever seen, made worse (and brought to my attention) by being retweeted by a friend who should know better. It is by Michael McFaul, whose credentials I will get to in a minute. Here's what he said:

Completely unprovoked and with no justification, Putin is threatening to launch the largest invasion in Europe since 1939. Please stop treating this moment in history like some Twitter parlor game. If he invades, your snide, snarky tweets will not age well.

McFaul is an academic, a professor at Stanford and a fellow at the Hoover Institution, the Cold War think tank that gave us George Schultz and Condoleezza Rice. He spent 2012-14 as Obama's Ambassador to Russia, and is widely credited as "the architect of the Russia Reset." Which, regardless of intentions, left the relationship much more antagonistic than ever since the Soviet Union ended. In short, no one should know better than to claim that Putin is "completely unprovoked" and "with no justification" behind his threats -- not that he's ever actually said he intends to invade Ukraine.

I'm not saying I agree with Putin's complaints or think he's in any significant way justified, but it's foolish to deny that he has his reasons. It's also disingenuous to pretend that the US and its NATO/EU allies haven't done anything provocative. Admission of that much, and a willingness to acknowledge interests one can compromise on, are key to negotiating a solution, which is the only way this ever ends (with or without bloodletting, which would be far worse). As a diplomat, McFaul must realize that, but here he's clearly decided to be no more than a cheerleader and propagandist.

The "largest invasion in Europe since 1939" line is hyperbole, probably meant to pattern Putin on Hitler, while skipping over the later German invasions of Benelux, France, Norway, and the really big one in 1941, when the Germans marched through Ukraine and deep into Russia. It also skips over details like D-Day, and pertinently the Soviet interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, as well as NATO's various forays into Yugoslavia. But it's also meant to imply that any Russian move into Ukraine will be massive. That's possible, but isn't necessarily true, and hasn't happened. I'm not one to minimize threats, but it would be smarter not to precipitate them.

The rest is psych warfare over Twitter, which should be beneath him. He's already dismissing disagreements as "snide and snarky," and his "may not age well" is a rather strange curse for something as perishable as tweets. As for "parlor games," he's the one trying to play it out on Twitter. What else could he mean?

I'm also disturbed by the stat line: 33.6K likes, 6,833 retreats, 1,177 responses. Those are large numbers I almost never see. Of course, the replies include some people pointing out his arrogance and recklessness and deceit, but they also include many further variations, like: "It's quite terrifying, especially when one considers that the aggressor has vast nuclear powers" (presumably Russia, but you can read it otherwise); and "We need to have the US military use brutal force if the Russian army crosses the border. No appeasement." (Probably means "no mercy," but stuck on one of the propaganda words.)

One story that has been underreported is here: Ben Freeman: Army of Ukraine lobbyists behind unprecedented Washington blitz. Ukrainian agents, some paid by oligarch Victor Pinchuk, have been flooding Washington with money to grease the skids for various deals, mostly involving sending arms to Ukraine. And this doesn't even touch on the money being spent in Europe and in Kyiv, where Zelensky was elected on a reconciliation platform but has since turned into some kind of anti-Russia hard-liner. Of course, no Washington politician is more committed to lobbyist aims than Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who says: I want all Russians to feel the pain. Perhaps it's deterrence to promise sanctions after a Russian invasion, but Menendez wants to do it now, in a peculiar mixture of provocation and sadism.

Some other Ukraine pieces that are helpful:


Since I'm here, a few more brief links:

Jacqueline Alemany: Some Trump records taken to Mar-a-Lago clearly marked as classified, including documents at 'top secret' level.

Zach Beauchamp: The Canadian trucker convoy is an unpopular uprising. In Canada, anyway, where the obvious involvement of right-wing Americans isn't winning any friends. On the other hand, it's very popular with the American right: Eric Levitz: Why conservatives celebrate the Canadian truckers. Side burn on Fox: "Few willing to recognize the network's bad faith remain unaware of it." Also: Alex Shephard: Fox News Can't Get Enough of Canada's Freedom-Loving Truckers. And then there's: Timothy Bella: Rand Paul urges truckers to disrupt Super Bowl and come to D.C.: 'I hope they clog up cities'. And dozens of them get shot in "road rage" incidents?

Garrett Epps: Donald Trump Promised He Wouldn't Nominate a Black Woman to the Supreme Court: I initially misread the title, as I wanted to note that I thought Biden's campaign promise to nominate a black woman was an unforced tactical mistake. I have no problem with him doing so, and there are clearly some much more qualified than the Federalist Society hacks Trump nominated. But why give Republicans a talking point, as opposed to their usual practice of inventing them from scratch? I'd also note that Republicans are every bit as inclined toward quota systems as Democrats, as was shown by their eagerness to appoint a black man to replace Thurgood Marshall, and a white (but not Jewish) woman to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But evidently the title was right: Trump made his own unforced tactical mistake. But as is so often the case, wasn't called for it.

Michael Hudson: America's Real Adversaries are Its European and Other Allies: "The US aim is to keep them from trading with China and Russia." I could have filed this under Ukraine, as it has a lot to do with the confrontation there. I suspect that China is already a lost cause: if forced to choose between trading with China and the US, a lot of countries would opt for China, and that number is likely to increase. Trade with Russia is much less diverse, but its concentration in oil and arms suggests why the US is agitated. Turkey is considering Russian arms. Germany wants a gas pipeline. Ukraine is a wedge for disrupting deal like that. But the more there are, the harder the bonds will be to break. As readers of Gabriel Kolko will recall, a big driver of the post-1945 Cold War was American desire to supplant British and French colonial regimes. We called them allies, but the main point was that they were under our thumb. Along these lines, see: Eve Ottenberg: Bigotry Unbound: The US Media's Anti-China Propaganda Blitz.

Fred Kaplan: Why Every President Is Terrible at Foreign Policy Now: Explains that foreign affairs have "become too chaotic for any White House to master," but I think the crux of the problem is that the US doesn't have any sense of the need to balance other people's interests, that the US is saddled with a military that is spread all around the world but isn't competent to do anything but blow shit up, and its heads are still stuck in the mindset that says they're "the indispensable nation" -- the one that should be able to tell everyone else what to do. This has produced all sorts of contradictions: e.g., the US is for democracy and human rights, but not when the violators are "allies" like Israel or Saudi Arabia; the US wants to limit climate change, but not at the expense of any profits; the list can go on practically forever.

Eric Levitz: The Democratic Party's "Mask Off" Moment. "The American people are sick of the pandemic and the public-health mandates. Unable to end the former, Democrats are now moving to roll back the latter." I'm not applauding this, but I'm not terribly bothered either. Personally, I'm one of the worst people in the world when it comes to following orders, so I generally hate mandates (though not on masks, and even less so on vaccines, which I've never had a problem with, going all the way back to Salk and Sabine). I suspect one problem with mandates is that they seem to push responsibility for a public crisis back on individuals, which is rarely effective let alone fair. The backlash against mandates is taking aim not just at coercion but at the whole concept of public health, and that's a collateral casualty I don't want to risk. One good thing about this piece is that it mentions a number of public policy changes that could help instead of taking it all out on recalcitrant people. Another problem is political vibes: Democrats are easily associated with an overweening "nanny state" -- a vast generalization on the trope of scolding you for not eating your broccoli. I don't think that's as bad as incarcerating, beating, and/or reducing people to penury, which are approaches Republicans seem inordinately fond of, but I generally don't like it either, and don't expect others to.

Liam Stack: A Jewish Teacher Criticized Israel. She Was Fired.


And here's the Heritage Foundation op-ed I was going to write about:

Kevin Roberts: It's Time to Win the War Against Big Tech: It may seem strange to see America's premier right-wing think tank, that bastion of capitalist cant, attacking America's most profitable business sector, but never underestimate right-winger's ability to get peeved over slights to their political omniscience. They liken the big tech companies to the Chinese Communist Party, repeatedly call them totalitarian, and even offer that antitrust laws should be enforced against them. But when you get down to details, the real rub seems to be:

There is Twitter and Facebook's selective enforcement of "standards" that has censored Republican members of Congress at a rate of 53-to-1 compared to Democrats, and suspended Trump supporters 21 times as often as Clinton supporters.

Those suspensions almost all have to do with disinformation about Covid and vaccines, a form of mental illness that indeed seems to afflict Republicans much more than Democrats. They go on to complain about Amazon banning a book and a video, and add that Spotify and others "have now joined their trillion-dollar industry leaders in discriminating against customers and entrepreneurs who insist on thinking for themselves. Just ask Joe Rogan." I'm not sure which is worst, the suggestion that Rogan "thinks for himself," or the ignorance of not knowing that Spotify is still paying Rogan millions to air his stupidity. Even more priceless is their characterization of their true enemies, the ones who have hoodwinked these companies through their "bullying abuses or totalitarian impulses": "the bigoted, bellicose progressivism now ascendant on the elite left." That's so wrong on so many levels you could emblazon it on a tee-shirt and wear it for a joke. I haven't heard anything so fatuous since Spiro Agnew slunk off in disgrace.

Heritage's solutions start with some reasonable antitrust planks, but don't go far enough, and wander off on tangents. Stripping the Section 230 liability protection would do nothing but allow rich people with political grudges to sue the companies, possibly creating enough of an annoyance to curtail reasonable free speech. What they don't suggest is the obvious real solution, which is to create free software and services for social media, which are prohibited from collecting and profiting from user data, and as such actually serve their users instead of nefarious entrepreneurs. For a while I thought I was the only person thinking along those lines, but such a scheme features in Kim Stanley Robinson's novel, The Ministry for the Future. Another important idea there is the shift to employee-owned companies. It seems like conservatives were right about one thing, anyway: the only solution to the world's major problems is a sharp political move to the left. Of course, they're against that. Much as they're against public health services protecting us from pandemics. When they exclaim "give me liberty or death," they aren't kidding.


PS: Regarding the McFaul tweet in the intro and my following digression, a reader wrote:

First, your 1939 point is silly. Obviously the 1939 invasions that began World War II were the first in a long series that includes those you name. Second, I regard Putin as the single most dangerous human in the world without whose support the almost equally odious but far more inept Trump would never have been elected. There do seem to be second- and third-generation leftists whose soft spot for Russia blinds them to this self-evident fact.

Perhaps my examples of post-1939 invasions were "silly," but we should understand that the only reason McFaul mentioned 1939 was to make Putin look like Hitler, implying that Putin has designs beyond Ukraine, as Hitler did beyond Poland -- and therefore, with Chamberlain's "appeasement" at Munich as the ever-present cautionary lesson, we had better stop him sooner than have no choice later.

The "completely unprovoked and with no justification" line dismisses any other possible interpretation: for instance, that Ukraine's pivot to Europe might hurt Russia's economy (Ukraine has long been a major trading partner, on terms that have tended to favor Russia), or that the increasing imposition of sanctions and trading limits aren't an even greater threat to Russia's security and welfare.

The line also absolves the US, its NATO allies, and various private sector entities engaged in Ukraine from any consideration let alone responsibility. I don't blame Ukrainians for looking to Europe for a more prosperous future, and I don't have a problem with businesses trying to exploit opportunities -- aside from arms industries with their political ties -- but one should consider how this looks to Russia, especially given past antipathy (which has proven remarkably easy for US propagandists to exploit).

I don't disagree with your assessment of Putin, although I have a more nuanced view of how to deal with him. Stalin was one of the worst actors in the 20th century, but Roosevelt managed to keep him happy enough to do most of the heavy lifting in defeating Germany. There's a Henry Stimson quote I'd have to look up about the importance of extending trust, which distinguished him as the wisest of Washington's famous "wise men." Later Americans consistently misunderstood and misjudged Russia, which led to wrecking the careers of reformers (Krushchev and Gorbachev) while, when they finally got the chance, installing a grossly incompetent (Yeltsin), resulting in a horrific decade (among other measures, life expectancy declined 10 years). Putin's main claim to fame was to have stabilized Russia after that debacle, which has included keeping even more reactionary politicians out of power. There are people in Russia who want to restore the borders of the Empire, but Putin is not one. And as right-wing authoritarians go, Putin has managed to keep a formal democracy intact, even though he has jealously guarded his power base, using tactics that I in no way condone much less approve.

What makes Putin dangerous is not his contempt for democracy, or his association with oligarchs, or his alliances with America's outcasts. It's that his rather limited indulgences in military power have thus far been relatively successful, making him all the more likely to bite off more conflict than he can handle. The most despicable thing he did was re-igniting the Chechen War, which was his ticket to power. I suspect that the charges that he was responsible for terrorist attacks on Moscow apartment buildings are credible. He certainly used those attacks as a pretext for going to war, much as McKinley, Wilson, LBJ, and GW Bush seized upon similar events as pretexts for wars they were already leaning into. (The difference being there was no reason to think the Americans had plotted the pretexts, although they often misrepresented them -- the "sinking of the Maine" was a self-inflicted accident, and the Tonkin Gulf "attacks" were nothing such.) After a year, Chechnya was demolished, with 20-0 thousand killed, but reintegrated into Russia.

Putin's interventions in Georgia and Crimea could also be counted as wins. Russia repelled Georgian efforts to re-capture the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Osetia, but made no further efforts to occupy Georgia, leaving the status quo ante. They did annex Crimea after a local revolt seceded from Ukraine, but they didn't move to annex the breakaway Donbass region. It's not clear whether they simply took advantage of local disruptions or had a hand in orchestrating them, but their efforts in Ukraine have thus far been limited to territories with Russian ethnic majorities. One may question both their motives and scruples in these situations, but Putin's ambitions are limited and circumspect (unlike, say, Stalin's efforts to subdue Finland following the 1939 Pact with Hitler). As Hitler, Saddam Hussein and GW Bush have shown, nothing predicts future war disasters more than believing that past wars have been successful.

Meanwhile, the US and its agents and allies have been relentless with their anti-Putin propaganda, including sanctions mean to incur economic harm, both on select oligarchs and on the Russian people as a whole. This, in turn, has been helpful in expanding the US arms cartel, aka NATO.

Perhaps most disturbing to me has been the explosion of cyberwarfare, which both Russia and the US (and China and Iran and North Korea and Israel and others) seem to regard as carte blanche to fuck with each other -- the only risk seems to be more of the same, which they're already doing anyway. I don't much credit Putin for the US election of Donald Trump, which can be blamed on any number of factors (the dark money of the Koch network and the brazen lies of Fox are the most obvious, although I'm still most critical of the Democratic Party and their poor choice of candidate; what I am disgusted by is the latter's incessant whining, less because it's dishonest and evasive than because it helps the hawks drum up sentiment for more hostilities). As usual, consequences rarely match expectations. Putin got few favors from Trump, and much ill will from across the US political spectrum, which is one reason Democrats (like McFaul and Menendez) are leading the charge. Whether Putin's been chastised by the experience isn't clear, which is one reason he's so dangerous.

On the other hand, he doesn't become less dangerous by repeatedly kicking him and Russia while they're down. The US needs to fundamentally rethink how we do foreign policy. We need to find ways to work constructively with other nations -- in particular on problems like climate change, which we can't solve by partitioning the world -- which means we need to become less confrontational and more respectful.

I don't know of anyone with a soft spot for Putin. I do know people who consider him less of a threat to world peace than the leaders of the country that spends more than 50% of the world's total military expenditures, the country that has troops and 800+ bases scattered around the world, the country that has (or works for people who have) business interests everywhere, a country that does a piss poor job of taking care of its own people and has no conception of the welfare of others, a leadership that so stuck in its own head that it can't tell real threats from imaginary ones, that projects its own most rabid fears onto others and insists on its sole right to dictate terms to the world.

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