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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