An occasional blog about populist politics and popular music, not necessarily at the same time.
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Sunday, September 25, 2022
Speaking of Which
I'm pleased with nearly everything Joe Biden has done as President, but the last couple weeks suggest that his understanding of foreign policy is fundamentally flawed, and that his grip on the tiller is slippery and gaffe-prone. Biden's comment about how US soldiers would fight on Taiwan to beat back a Chinese invasion is easily the worst gaffe: not only could it not possibly happen, the mere threat could precipitate the invasion the comment was meant to deter. Such blunders are possible because Biden, like every US president since (let's say) Eisenhower, vastly overrates the efficacy of the US military. But also because he doesn't understand, and doesn't respect, China (or, let's get real, Taiwan).
There are stories of similar cluelessness everywhere the US sticks its toe in. One minor example concerns Venezuela: Trump (who knows a thing or two about stealing elections) decided to back a pretender to head the government, then tried to force his choice through sanctions and seizure of Venezuelan assets, which had no effect other than to break relations, boost oil prices, and cause thousands of Venezuelans to become refugees (including the ones DeSantis kidnapped and sent to Martha's Vineyard). This made the news last week when an American fled bail, was arrested in Venezuela, but cannot be extradited due to this stupid political spat (see 'Fat Leonard' caught in Venezuela after fleeing Navy bribery sentencing). I don't much care whether he gets away or not, but America has been known to invade countries just to arrest people. I doubt Biden will do anything that stupid, but this is one more cost to his failure to reverse Trump's (or was it really just Marco Rubio's?) policy.
Another example is Iran, where Biden is reported to actually want to reverse Trump's withdrawal from the Obama-negotiated JCPOA, where Iran agreed to close monitoring of its nuclear energy program, in exchange for lifting of sanctions that have hampered the welfare of the Iranian people. Supposedly there is a new agreement ready to go, but it keeps getting kicked down the road, mostly because Biden isn't willing to stand up to pressure from Israel and Saudi Arabia, who whipped up hysteria about Iran's "nuclear threat" in the first place. (Back in the 1990s, Israel predicted Iran would have bombs as soon as a couple years. Agreed-to monitoring is the only way to make sure that doesn't happen, so Israel's continued opposition to any sort of agreement suggests their original alarms were really part of some other scam.) Then last week, when Iran erupted in protests that were very similar to the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, Biden's administration took its eye off the JCPOA objective to throw its full-throated support behind the protesters, who neither needed nor wanted friends like the US.
But by far the most perilous arena for Biden is the growing abyss in Ukraine. I go into this at some length below, but it's worth stressing here that the proximate trigger for Putin's "escalation" last week -- calling up reserves and drafting soldiers (including, evidently, some Ukrainians), accelerating referenda in occupied territories requesting annexation by Russia, and some awkward nuclear sabre rattling -- was Russia's loss of territory east of Kharkhiv, and the renewed vows of Zelensky and his supporters to keep fighting until they take back all of Ukraine. This is Putin's way of saying that he will do everything in his power to prevent defeat on the battlefield, including destroying it all. Still, no one seems to have grasped the obvious next sentence: so now is the time to finally negotiate a settlement, before this gets much, much uglier.
Obviously, one reason this lesson hasn't sunk in is Biden's (or more often his administration's) abiding faith in the efficacy of military power. Ukraine's limited successes to date have intoxicated long-time believers in American military power, while the costs of fighting never seem to register. Accurate information is hard to come by, but here's a six-month assessment: [08-24] Thousands of Civilian Deaths and 6.6 Million Refugees: Calculating the Costs of War. While the material costs are immense, the most striking number is the 6.6 million refugees who have left the country, another 7 million internally displaced, and perhaps 13 million "stranded or unable to escape contested ground." Also missing here are the more distant economic impacts -- I don't think anyone really has a handle on this, but this six-month review outlines the issues [08-21] Russia's war at 6 months: A global economy in growing danger. Of course, even these costs can be reduced to footnote status should the conflict escalate to nuclear arms. However right one thinks one side is, and however wrong the other, the overriding concern has to be how to end the war as soon as possible. That means negotiating, and that means recognizing and respecting differences. And that means the US needs to fundamentally rethink its attitudes toward the world: both its high-minded moralizing and its indifference to human suffering.
Naema Ahmed/John Muyskens/Anna Phillips: [09-23] Summer in Sedgwick County, Kan. was 2.2°F warmer this year than the average of the last 50 years. I had to pick a county to get into this page, so I picked mine. By some research I did a while back, this year was the 4th hottest in the last 23 since we moved back here in 1999. This summer was also dryer than usual. The average across America was 1.8°F hotter than usual. Very few spots were cooler than usual (northern Alaska, some counties near the upper Great Lakes).
Ryan Bort: [09-20] Fentanyl Halloween Candy Will Kill Your Kids, RNC Chair Says After Being Accused of Fear Mongering.
Nate Cohn: [09-24] Lost Hope of Lasting Democratic Majority: Revisits the 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority, by Ruy Teixeira and John Judis, which hasn't proved to be particularly prescient -- unlike Kevin Phillips' The Emerging Republican Majority (1969). I read the Phillips book when it came out, with a mixture of love and hate: love because his research methods dovetailed closely with mine, and hate because his conclusions predicted a much worse America than the one I grew up in. I never looked at the Teixeira/Judis book, but have wondered about it recently -- turns out it is out of print, and nearly forgotten. I don't have time to expand on my thoughts here, but flagging the article will make it easier to find.
Connor Echols: [09-23] Diplomacy Watch: Is AMLO's peace plan really that ridiculous? No. It doesn't come with a lot of detail, but starts with a cease fire, which stays Ukraine's offensive and Putin's latest escalation threats. What is ridiculous is thinking on either side that military victory is possible. Indeed, Russia's threats (more on those below) sound to me more like a plea for negotiation, which makes Ukrainian (and implicitly US) insistence on driving Russia completely out of pre-2014 Ukraine the real ridiculous. Even if this were possible -- something I seriously doubt -- I have to question the desirability of leaving Putin and Russia so humiliated. (Sure, there have been a rash of pieces recently suggesting Putin's perch atop the Kremlin has become less secure, but even if he's pushed out, that would be for tactical failures, not because he misrepresents the goals and intents of Russia's ruling class. On the other hand, odds are not good that Putin will be removed, and he only becomes more dangerous as his existence is undermined.) Americans don't want to admit it, but the world needs a stable Russia going forward, not one seething with the recriminations of defeat.
Note the item where Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister "disclosed that Russian officials have attempted to reach out for talks but said Ukraine is not ready to negotiate." Also note the item where China called for a ceasefire. It's possible they did that without Russian approval, but if Putin wants to negotiate, China offers one way to communicate that. Earlier in the week, Echols wrote [09-21] Putin mobilizes 300,000 reservists in significant escalation. More pieces on Ukraine:
Robin Givhan: [09-20] King Charles III: The epitome of inherited everything.
Jonathan Guyer: [09-19] Biden's promise to defend Taiwan says a lot about America's view of China. I don't have time (or at present enough of a sense of urgency) to pick this apart, but we're seeing the convergence of a lot of unexamined myths Americans hold about their role in the world and the power of military force projection to enforce order, along with vastly changed economic factors, along with utter disregard for Chinese views of how the world of power has shifted. It doesn't help that the "strategic ambiguity" doctrine never made much sense: at the time it was a way to "agree to disagree" and thereby put that issue aside, hopefully to be forgotten about -- as it was for a long time, but it's recently been revived, as China regards any change as hostile, while the US arms lobby -- that that's who has really driven US foreign policy since the 1990s -- sees Taiwan as a lucrative customer. But also: Biden got a little sloppy here. He should always preface his remarks with the admission that it's totally up to the people of Taiwan, through their democratically-elected government, to decide whether they want to unite with China. The US is not going to pressure Taiwan to join China, or to stay independent. If the latter, the US may honor Taiwan's requests for arms and/or economic support, which may include the imposition of severe sanctions on China if the latter attempts to coerce union -- much like the US has done for Ukraine to fend off Russia's invasion. But the notion that US troops will fight alongside Taiwanese troops to fend off such an invasion is sheer folly, not a notion Biden or anyone else should entertain.
Derek Hawkins: [09-20] U.S. can't ban gun sales to people indicted on felony charges, judge says.
Alex Henderson: [09-23] Privatizing Social Security is 'a loser' for Republicans -- but they keep proposing it anyway: The thing that gets me about their campaign isn't how unpopular it is, or how cruel, but how the very suggestion shows they don't understand the first fucking thing about how Social Security works. You can starve it, kill it even, but you can't save it by replacing it with a less efficient system, especially one that is endemically corrupt. But it's been a Republican talking point since 1936, so some people are dumb enough to assume it makes sense.
Arelis R Hernández: [09-20] They were still rebuilding 5 years after Hurricane Maria. Then Fiona hit. In more hurricane news:
Sean Illing: [09-20] The profound pessimism of Clarence Thomas: Interview with Corey Robin, who wrote the 2019 book The Enigma of Clarence Thomas. Interesting sidelight here is Robin citing Albert Hirschman's The Rhetoric of Reaction, with its typology of reactionary arguments: perversity ("if you try to make things better, you're gonna make them the opposite"), jeopardy ("you try to do one thing, you may achieve it, but you're gonna jeopardize something else"), and futility ("in the end, you can't do a damn thing . . . because politics is really not a sphere that can either transform or ameliorate the human condition").
Ed Kilgore: [09-23] House Republicans Release Their Vague 'Agenda' for 2023: Talking points for the apocalypse, which makes them less alarming (and less forthcoming) than Rick Scott's Senate Campaign Manifesto.
Jen Kirby: [09-24] The far right is having a moment in Europe. Actually, everywhere. Interview with Pietro Castelli Gattinara. I don't know how to quantify the effect of the Ukraine War on this, but my guess is that it is substantial. Some examples:
Daniel Larison: [09-23] Grover Cleveland: One of the great anti-imperialist presidents: More accurate to say "one of the last," but why fudge with "one of": unless you want to try to argue that NATO, the World Wars, or Gunboat Diplomacy weren't imperialist. You could also argue that he was the first -- unless for some reason you want to exempt Indian wars, "from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli," Manifest Destiny, Seward's Folly, much more. As for "great," that rests on a rather slim foundation: he rejected annexation of Hawaii after American planters overthrew the Queen. He was possibly the most conservative president the US has ever had, at least in the sense of not wanting to change anything. Nor is he all that forgotten. I've run across him several times in my recent reading, mostly for his role in using the army to break the Pullman strike. Brad DeLong describes him rather generously as "always triangulating." And you'll hear a lot more about Cleveland if Trump's nominated in 2024, giving him a shot at matching Cleveland's two non-consecutive terms. (By the way, Larison commits another sad hedge in describing Cleveland as "one of a few men to win the popular vote three times" -- the only other one is Franklin Roosevelt, who won four times, and no one else even tried; on the other hand, Trump could join William Jennings Bryan as the only major party candidate to lose the popular vote three times.)
Louis Menand: [09-19] Was Rudy Giuliani Always So Awful: Reviews Andrew Kirtzman's new book Giuliani: The Rise and Tragic Fall of America's Mayor. Tragic? I knew the name, and knew that most of my friends in New York City couldn't stand him, but I didn't have any direct experience with him until 9/11. I was in Brooklyn at the time, staying in our friend Liz Fink's apartment. Liz and my wife had the TV on constantly, so we saw a lot of Giuliani's daily press conferences. At one point, I was moved to point out that he was actually doing a pretty good job: he managed to project the right combination of concern and competency, something very few politicians did at the time (certainly not GW Bush, nor NY's new junior senator, Hillary Clinton, both mostly concerned with appearing tough and eager to fight). I chalked it up mostly to having real work to do. Giuliani was a lame duck at the time -- the primary to pick his successor was held on 9/11, and had to be redone a month later. By that time, Giuliani got a chance to look at his polls, and decided he was such a hero he should have been accorded another term -- but by then he was too late, and he was well on his way to becoming insufferable again. But at least he made a lot of money out of the good will his momentary character lapse elicited. The book figures he made $8 million in speaking fees in 2002 alone. He became the early favorite in the 2008 Republican presidential primaries, but he couldn't find any he could actually compete in. (He skipped Iowa and New Hampshire, settled on Florida, and dropped out after finishing 3rd, with 14.68% of the vote and no delegates.) It probably didn't help his campaign to find his crony Bernie Kerik going to jail. But scandal followed Giuliani everywhere he went, especially once he hitched his wagon to his fellow New York bigot, Donald Trump. But tragic? You'd have to find something noble to him first.
Jack Meserve: [09-24] The Mississippi welfare fraud involving Bret Favre, explained.
Ian Millhiser: [09-19] Two Republican judges just let Texas seize control of Twitter and Facebook.
Trita Parsi: [09-22] Iranian regime's allergy to reform breeds violence for change: Iran is again faced with mass demonstrations, this time protesting the death of a woman (Mahsa Amini) who was arrested and detained by the regime's "morality police" -- a unit set out to enforce submission to the Ayatollah's religious dictates.
Jennifer Rubin: [09-19] Trump's frightening rally in Ohio shows the media still doesn't get it.
Alex Shephard: [09-19] Donald Trump Is More Deranged Than Ever. So much shit on Trump every week that I always have to hang a list off a lead article, which can be hard to single out (especially early). But while Trump is in more legal trouble this week than last, or for that matter ever, it might be better to start out not with what the world is doing to Trump but with what Trump is doing to himself: a profile of character under stress, if you like. Interesting tidbit here is "J.D. Vance didn't invite Donald Trump to Ohio, where the president gave a lengthy, rant-filled speech at a rally on Saturday -- and it's easy to see why." So one thing unprecedented about these "midterms" is how a former president is imposing himself on the narrative. He's making a big bet that if Republicans win in November, he can take the credit and slingshot himself into front runner status in 2024. On the other hand, if Republicans get creamed -- especially after all those articles early in the year about how the election was a lock -- he'll make a convenient scapegoat for failure. In a sane world, that should send him into hiding (as GW Bush did in 2009). Unfortunately, Trump is incapable of realizing when he's lost, as are most of his fan base.
Amy B Wang: [09-20] Migrants flown to Martha's Vineyard file class-action lawsuit against DeSantis.
Edward Wong: [09-06] Biden Puts Defense of Democracy at Center of Agenda, at Home and Abroad. Robert Wright drew my attention to this piece: see [09-20] Biden's grand and dangerous vision. This was his Philadelphia "soul of a nation" speech, where he depicted "MAGA Republicans" as a threat to American democracy. He is, of course, right to note their threat, which manifests across a broad spectrum of areas, from unlimited campaign donations to gerrymandering to voter suppression to efforts to deny election losses and to use whatever power levers they can find (the Supreme Court is the big one) to unilaterally impose their reactionary policies and worldview on people. His stand for democracy at home is both necessary and laudable. However, that doesn't mean that defense or promotion of democracy should be the mission of US foreign policy. That mission should be getting along with the rest of the world. And that's something the US has done very poorly ever since Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Program fell into disrepair (or more accurately, was gutted by the Cold War).
Sure, Americans have a long history of talking up democracy -- even before Woodrow Wilson promised World War would "make the world safe for democracy." During the Cold War, America like to tout the moral virtue of democracy, but was quick to settle for friendly dictators, and often worked to subvert elections where it feared the left might win. This tendency to regard democracy as a team sport tied not to popular support but to US interests persisted after the fall of the Soviet Union. Nowadays, we are quick to condemn regimes we don't like as undemocratic, even if their leaders won office in elections at least as free as our own (Iran, Russia, and Venezuela are favorite examples, with Turkey coming and going -- at least in those countries the winner was the one who got the most votes, unlike our GW Bush and Trump).
But before Biden, this was just self-serving hypocrisy. With Biden, the enemy seems to have become more unified and nefarious. The roots of this go back to Russian interference in the 2016 election, which left many Democrats with a mental link between Putin and Trump -- one the latter never did much to dispel. Democrats have also noticed how Steve Bannon has been working to turn a cast of international rogues (including Putin, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Modi, Orban, and Trump) into a mutual admiration society. The problem here isn't that we shouldn't sympathize with victims of fascism everywhere, but that US foreign policy should not interfere in the internal affairs of other regimes, no matter how abhorrent we find them. We're not that perfect ourselves, and we're also not very good at it.
Biden made a comment about the pandemic being over, so I thought I'd take a look at Latest Map and Case Count. New cases are down from about 125,000 per day around July 24 to 54,239, with 432 deaths, which is still 156,680 per year. When I first heard the quote, I thought maybe the toll had dropped to the ignorable level of gun deaths, car deaths, and opioid overdoses, but it's still more than all three combined.
I wish I could ask the late Liz Fink about how much help Dershowitz was on the many constitutional rights cases she worked so tirelessly on.