An occasional blog about populist politics and popular music, not necessarily at the same time.
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Sunday, October 9, 2022
Speaking of Which
I thought the war in Ukraine took a nasty turn a week ago, but it got even nastier this week, and seems only likely to get worse next week. (The latest is that Russia has resumed taking pot-shots at Kyiv, even though it's nowhere near the front lines.)
Connor Echols: [10-07] Diplomacy Watch: Calls for negotiations grow as Russia threatens nuclear use. Still very little constructive response from Russia, Ukraine, or the latter's sponsors.
Julian E Barnes/Adam Goldman/Adam Entous/Michael Schwirtz: [10-05] US Believes Ukrainians Were Behind an Assassination in Russia: This was the car bomb that killed Daria Dugina in a Moscow suburb, an attack believed to have targeted her father, Aleksandr Dugin, a pro-Putin ideologue who sees Russia as increasingly embattled by a decadent West, and is very hawkish on the war in Ukraine. The US has denied any advance knowledge of the attack, and the disclosure suggests that the US wants some distance from its client's "special operations." If Ukraine is organizing terrorism within Russia, this suggests they may also be responsible for other unconventional attacks, like the sabotage of the Nordstream gas lines and the Crimea bridge. Robert Wright commented: [10-07] Moscow murder mystery solved.
Musk's tweet has been dismissed as a total surrender to Russia, but the first point isn't that at all. It is the only solution that would allow either side to back down with what passes for dignity. It won't be easy to get both sides to agree on fair -- especially as that's something neither side particularly wants -- but no matter how the war grinds on, it will be necessary. There's no need to treat Crimea as a separate issue, since the only difference in its annexation was the timing. I'd expect Russia to win in Crimea, and we should accept that, but a new vote would make that easier. The other two issues may have been listed to sweeten the deal for Russia, but water can be dealt with later (if would be a moot point if Zaporizhzhia votes to joint Russia, and wouldn't be a proper obligation if it doesn't). The real question the fourth point tries to address is how do we keep this war from restarting? If neutrality means that Russia is never going again going to attack or extort Ukraine, fine, but it didn't stop Russia from subversion in 2014, arming separatists since then, and invasion this year. Arguably, NATO membership would have inhibited Russia from such imperious aggression, sparing us from this war. In any case, postwar Ukraine (minus any parts ceded to Russia) is pretty clearly intent on aligning with the EU and NATO, even if it is not technically a member of NATO. After the war, the US and Russia need to come to some kind of agreement that reduces the hostility and risks of war. Before the war, I imagined that a general disarmament could have led to the dismantling of NATO, but Putin has made it hard to trust Russia's peaceful intentions. Of course, Musk has no standing to tell us what to do. But when he's right, give him credit. The only way out of this nightmare is to do what's right.
Fred Kaplan has a comment on the Musk tweet: [10-04] Elon Musk Stole My Old Plan for Peace in Ukraine. Too Bad It Doesn't Make Sense Anymore. I've often cited Kaplan in the past, and generally respect his erudition on all defense matters -- even when he is much more in league with them than I am (which, needless to say, is not at all). But he's basically saying that it's too late for a deal that concedes anything to Putin, or leaves him in a tenable position to remain president of Russia. I don't begin to understand such thinking. Even if Ukraine can claw back every inch of territory Russia occupies, there is still a need for some kind of agreement that normalizes the border and other relations. And however much one might wish Putin to get sacked by his Kremlin comrades, there is no known mechanism for doing so, and his successors will be people with a similar view of Russia's interests -- the only plus is that they may not have the stain of Putin's folly on them personally. And in the broader picture, there needs to be some sort of rapprochement between the US, Europe, and Russia (and probably China, India, and others) that assures all that Russia will not repeat its invasion of Ukraine, yet allows Russia to function otherwise as a normal nation. All these things say there has to be negotiation, reaching some sort of compromise, one that is not to onerous to any party. I don't see why that should not be possible, unless you start from the assumption that it's not. Granted, the actual terms Musk proposed are a bit dated, but the need for something along those lines remains.
Kaplan, who has written a whole book on the subject (The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War) has also written a highly speculative essay war-gaming a possible US response to Russian use of a tactical nuclear weapon: [10-07] Why the US Might Not Use a Nuke, Even if Russia Does. Even if it is technically possible -- and the US military has a long history of overestimating their capabilities -- it isn't very convincing, as it leaves Russia with only two further options: surrender or annihilate America. If the former was so unpalatable as to allow for the use of a "tactical" nuclear weapon, what's to stop Putin from taking the next logical step? A sudden recovery of sanity?
Jonathan Chait: [10-06] Illiberal Chic Deserves to Die on the Battlefield of Putin's Failed War: "Authoritarianism doesn't make your country smart or strong." Kind of a strange take because we live in a sea so full of anti-Putin propaganda that it's hard to identify people who think he's smart let alone cool.
Julia Davis: [10-09] Team Putin Wakes Up: We Never Should've Laughed at Ukraine: I'm not inclined to credit this article much as a significant sample, but this does suggest the range of thoughts that must be going through the heads of people close to the Kremlin. The fears of defeat are especially vivid (and ridiculous), meant to rally the troops, but to me they just underscore the need to negotiate on the basis of respect for what's right.
Masha Gessen: [10-05] Putin's draft order has inspired a Russian exodus. Stories like this make for good propaganda, and therefore are suspect, but the draft order itself smells of desperation, and the verifiable exodus is just one measure of the problem. Putin may be able to suppress overt dissent, but getting people willing to kill and die for his cause is much harder. Sure, Russians fought valiantly and steadfastly in WWII, but their record in Afghanistan and Chechnya hasn't been very impressive. The US gave up on the draft not due to resistance -- though there was quite a bit of that -- but because drafted soldiers lacked the skills and discipline the army needed, and sometimes turned on their officers. Putin should be wary.
Jonathan Guyer: [10-07] Just how worried should you be about nuclear war? Biden says very. As the article notes, "Diplomacy is the only way out."
Mary Ilyushina/Natalia Abbakumova: [10-08] Kremlin, shifting blame for war failures, axes military commanders: Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, much touted for his successes in Chechnya and Syria, was ousted as "overall operational commander" after seven weeks. Several other generals are being rotated out.
Anatol Lieven: [10-03] No blob, we are not 'already fighting' World War III: "These Washington foreign policy elites are recklessly suggesting that Russia is a universal threat that requires absolute victory over evil." We need to radically dial down our fears about what Putin is trying to do in Ukraine, and elsewhere around the periphery of Russia. Not only do those fears cause us to misunderstand Putin, they suggest to other countries (above all, to China) that we do not respect their own interests and integrity.
Casey Michel: [10-04] Alexei Navalny Has a Crimea Problem: Turns out the much-hyped liberal critic of Putinism doesn't favor returning Crimea to Ukraine. Which makes it pretty hard to imagine a regime change scenario in Russia that will satisfy the maximalists in Kyiv and Washington.
Nicole Narea: [10-08] The Crimea-Kerch bridge explosion is a devastating blow to Putin and Russian morale. The article is pretty cagey about what caused the explosion, but comes with a pretty graphic picture. One suggestion is that it was caused by a truck bomb driven from the Russian side. The bridge established a very tangible link between Russia and Crimea, so has been an obvious target since the war started. For another picture, see: Chas Danner: [10-08] Ukraine Bombs Russia's Bridge to Crimea.
William Saletan: [10-05] Fox News: Putin Propaganda Primetime: "Here are the top 20 anti-Ukraine, pro-Russia claims and arguments that Fox views are hearing." The most telling one is "19. Ukraine is an arm of the Democratic party." There may be aspects to Putin that right-wingers at Fox admire, but what really gets them ginned up is hatred for Biden and the Democrats. And while they're quite happy to promote Republican wars ("12. Ukraine is just like Iraq" is understood as justifying both invasions, not as equating their futility), the real danger of their arguments isn't that they'll give aide and comfort to the Russian enemy but that they will lead Americans to decide that the Democrats are the pro-war party. If you look at this piece in a mirror, it certainly suggests that Saletan is all in on Ukrainian propaganda in favor of Zelensky's maximum aims, regardless of the considerable risks. Meanwhile, Democrats hear Fox and Trump spouting their Putinisms and figure that validates a war that costs and risks much, to validate a global posture that ultimately hurts us as much as it does the world.
J Peter Scoblic: [10-05] The Russian nuclear threat, explained: Author has written a book on nuclear strategy (U.S. vs. Them: Conservatism in the Age of Nuclear Terror), but still doesn't offer much that makes sense. Sure, both the U.S. and Russia can obliterate the other, a threat that should make each eschew any existential threat to the other, which effectively makes them useless. Still, a lot of thought has gone into possible ways of using nukes as "tactical" weapons, but it's hard to see how that might work: the targets are too small and too scattered, and the fallout is self-defeating. Not mentioned here is Richard Nixon's "madman theory," but that's always been predicated on the other side being sane enough to back down. If Putin (or Biden) is sane enough to back off, why isn't some less destructive (and less humiliating) solution possible?
Jim Sleeper: [10-08] Putin really could fall -- but will that help the West as much as we think? This is a good question, which the article doesn't do much to answer. But we should prepare ourselves for the near certainty that if Putin is replaced as president of Russia, he'll be replaced with someone with the same basic interests and attitudes.
A few brief items on other subjects:
Matthew Cappucci/Samantha Schmidt: [10-09] Julia strikes Nicaragua as hurricane with 'life-threatening' flooding.
Zachary D Carter:  A Dose of Rational Optimism: A review of J Bradford DeLong's book, Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century. I'm flagging this piece because: (a) I've been reading the book for a couple weeks now (it's pretty long, 624 pp); and (b) I've read and greatly admired Carter's comparable but somewhat more narrowly scoped The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes. I've only barely gotten into the part of the book that Carter likes least (the "neoliberal" era that ended the 30-year post-WWII boom, a school DeLong initially identified with until it proved untenable). In the early part, DeLong's scheme to reduce economic progress to simple numbers is ingenious, as is his framework of explaining economic thinking as a yin-yang contest of Hayek and Polanyi (although this tends to slight Keynes, who had a clearer idea both of utopia and of the dismal science).
Chas Danner: [10-09] Has Another Iranian Revolution Begun? "An unprecedented uprising is underway, with no end in sight." The demonstrations after the murder of Mahsa Amini by Iran's "morality police" struck me as analogous to the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted after George Floyd was killed by police in 2020. As with BLM, the subtext go back further, at least as far as the 1979 revolution, which few people aimed at establishing a theocracy: opposition to the Shah was nearly universal, but in the end was commandeered by Ayatollah Khomeini and turned into a different kind of prison. On the other hand, through its numerous bad faith acts from 1953 to the present, the US has lost any credibility to help the people of Iran deal with their just grievances against their government. As soon as Biden and other started celebrating the demonstrations, the government was able to blame them on the US, and ratcheted up repression in the name of self-defense. Lots of Americans would like to think they could offer helpful advice, but they cannot. The only advice I have is to restore JCPOA, end the sanctions, and work to lessen border tensions and complaints about "Iran-supported proxy groups" elsewhere. The less embattled Iran feels, and the less threatened by the US, the more open they are likely to be to internal reforms.
More on Iran:
Connor Echols: [10-05] 'We impose these things and then that's it': McGovern tears into US sanctions policy: Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) complains that Congress never reviews "whether U.S. sanctions are really having their intended effect." If they did, I have no doubt that the answer would be they do not. I didn't particularly object to the post-invasion sanctions against Russia, because they were a relatively safe way to react to an extreme provocation, but I didn't expect they'd have much effect, and there is little evidence that they have. On the other hand, sanctions against Russia before the invasion only served to provoke further hostility, and the same can be said about US sanctions pretty much everywhere. The policy is a dead end, not just because it fails to elicit the desired behavior, but because it arrogates to Americans the claim to be the judge and jury of the rest of the world.
Matt Ford: [10-06] Trump's Defamation Lawsuit Against CNN May Be Ridiculous, but It's Not Doomed. When Trump ran in 2016 he wanted to change the laws to allow thin-skinned rich blowhards like himself to sue anyone who criticized them. He failed to change the law, but did something else, potentially worse: he changed the judges.
Jeff Goodell: [10-06] Hurricane Ian Is Florida's 'Oh Shit' Climate Moment.
Penelope Green: [10-06] Meredith Tax, Feminist Author, Historian and Activist, Dies at 80.
Jonathan Guyer: [10-07] OPEC was always going to mess with oil prices. Was Biden's team naive? Several points here. First is that if Republicans weren't making hay complaining about gas prices, Biden wouldn't have any reason to work the issue. In general, higher gas prices help persuade people to switch to alternative or at least more efficient energy sources, which would be better for the climate, and ultimately for all of us. Republicans have no alternatives that would lower prices: their own wars and political vendettas (e.g., against Iran and Venezuela) have pushed up prices (and profits), while their offers to "drill, baby, drill" aren't even wanted by the industry. Second is that Saudi Arabia is an embarrassing ally, if indeed you can call them an ally at all. (They buy American arms, and used them in wars which bring the US into disrepute. Israel, by the way, is no better. Both have severe human rights problems, and are poor representatives of the democracy he claims to champion -- both in their countries and in their obvious preference for Republicans in Washington.) So yeah, Biden's trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia does appear to have been a mistake, especially as he seems to have let them veto an important American interest in distancing Iran from Russia.
Adam Hochschild: [10-06] The Crushing of American Socialism: Excerpt from his new book, American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy's Forgotten Crisis.
Ed Kilgore: [10-04] The Supreme Court Is Back and Ready to Do More Damage. For more specifics:
Eric Levitz: [10-06] The Fed Might Just Break the Global Economy: Interview with Adam Tooze. One thing Tooze notes is that the belief that inflation should be fought by high interest rates isn't based on much more than the 1979-82 Volcker model, and that many of the dynamics at play there aren't in play now. (The Volcker recession combined with Reagan to crush a labor movement that in the 1970s still had enough clout to keep up with inflation. While the unions are starting to regain some traction now, they have nowhere near enough strength to keep up with, much less drive, an inflationary spiral.)
There is, by the way, more interesting stuff on the economy than I can do justice to. For example:
Sophia A McClennen: [10-08] Stop obsessing over election polls -- the less attention voters and the media give them, the better. Good advice. I think at one point people took pains to get polls as accurate as possible, and worried when they missed the mark, but lately everyone's got a polling theory, and they're all over the place. They make for lazy news, and feed a neverending supply of stories meant to terrify one side or the other. The only risk I see is that they may make you think it doesn't matter if you vote, but if you're going to vote anyway, why make your life miserable by paying them any attention? You don't need billions of dollars of advertising to understand what this election is about. If you want public servants in Washington to try to understand problems and make constructive efforts to help most Americans, vote Democratic. If all you want to do is vent your spleen about how crooked the world is but don't care if it gets even worse, the Republicans are the party for you. Even if you don't think the Democrats will deliver for you, you should consider voting for them as a way to shut the Republicans up. It may not have worked on Trump, but Floridians can save us a lot of agita by putting Marco Rubio and Ron DeSantis out to pasture. Sure, some Democrats are better than others, and some Republicans are worse than the rest, but those distinctions have been rendered marginal. Stick to the basics and you should be OK.
PS: I didn't want to say anything about any candidates, least of all Herschel Walker, but Republican loyalty to him despite everything is so strong it makes my party loyalty point: see Alex Shephard: [10-05] Of Course Republicans Are Sticking With Herschel Walker. And, OK, I should probably mention:
Nancy McLean: [10-05] The War for Democracy in America Will Be Lost -- or Won -- in the States: Review of Jacob M Grumbach: Laboritories Against Democracy: How National Parties Transformed State Politics.
Timothy Noah: [10-06] You Won't Believe How Crazy CEO Pay Has Gotten Now. Since 1978, CEO pay "has outperformed by stock market by 37 percent."
Olivia Nuzzi: [10-06] Maggie Haberman on How She Covers Trump Without Losing Her Mind: Interview with the New York Times reporter, whose big new book, Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America, goes back further than her own reporting (which goes back further than most, although St Clair chides her below for not giving Wayne Barrett enough credit). I've long gotten the impression that she was pretty superficial, but from interviews recently, the task of putting her observations into book form seems to have led to the realization that Trump really is nothing but a shallow, venal jerk. (Or perhaps in writing a book she's finally out from under the thumb of the New York Times's both-sides-balancers?)
More on Haberman's book:
Toluse Olorunnipa/Yasmeen Abutaleb: [10-06] Biden to pardon all federal offenses of simple marijuana possession: There he goes, doing something popular again. When will the American people learn that they can't actually have things that they think they want? As with student loan debt, Biden only reached for the low fruit -- see CT Jones: [10-07] President Biden's Weed Pardons Leave Thousands of People Behind -- but in picking a fight with the Republicans, it makes sense to stick with the simplest and most defensible reforms.
Andrew Prokop: [10-07] Why Hunter Biden's legal troubles are back in the news: Once again, the FBI helps the Republicans with a timely leak.
Nathan J Robinson:
Michelle R Smith/Richard Lardner: [10-07] Michael Flynn's ReAwaken roadshow recruits 'Army of God': Long article, shows how Flynn has capitalized on Trump's rallies to create his own revival circus, including photos of Eric Trump and Roger Stone at his rallies. If Trump doesn't run for president in 2024, Flynn will, as the truest of all true believers.
Amy Davidson Sorkin: [10-03] Has the C.I.A. done more harm than good? "In the agency's seventh-five years of existence, a lack of accountability has sustained dysfunction, ineptitude, and lawlessness." Of course, this barely scratches the surface, but the further you look, the worse the picture gets. Back in 2007, I read Tim Weiner's 702-page history of the CIA, which amply justified his title: Legacy of Ashes. No reason to think they've gotten any better since.
Jeffrey St Clair: [10-07] Roaming Charges: Up in Smoke, Down in Mirrors.
Alexander Stille: [10-04] Why Fascism Isn't Italy's Biggest Problem: "The American press has overhyped Giorgia Meloni's fascist ties -- and underhyped what a wreck the country has become under a series of populist 'saviors.'" Stille wrote an important book on Berlusconi (The Sack of Rome), so is familiar with the right-wing coalitions long dominated by Berlusconi (who has become a minor partner to Meloni). He argues that Meloni's rise is due to her move toward the center, but that her right-wing partners only promise more of the same failing policies.
James D Zirin: [10-06] Great Britain's Conservatives Are Screwing Up the Economy: "Prime Minister Liz Truss and her chancellor of the exchequer are to blame. It could be a preview of what happens if Republicans take over in the U.S."
Just found this piece from 2015, so not fair to include above, but worth keeping a record of: Rick Perlstein: [2015-09-30] Donald Trump and the "F-Word": "An unsettling symbiosis between man and mob." Of course, the question is only interesting if you already know a fair amount about fascism. If you don't know anything, or only know that "fascist" is something bad, it's more useful to ask whether Trump is something else that does mean something to you, like liar or bigot or asshole or, if your vocabulary goes a bit farther, narcissist. But if you do know about the dynamics of how Mussolini and Hitler came to power, and not just what they did with that power, it's an interesting question. Actually, it's two questions: whether a politician like Trump (or Francisco Franco, or Huey Long, or Juan Peron, or Silvio Berlusconi, or Vladimir Putin) is a fascist leader type (an Il Duce or Der Führer), and (more interesting) whether a mass group of people are inclined to follow a fascist leader (like any so identified). Actual fascism depends on the confluence of a leader, a mass of followers, and historical and economic factors. The puzzle comes in figuring out how those factors interact. And it matters because actual fascism is a very destructive process, even unto itself. Just look at what happened to and because of the models (Hitler, Mussolini).
Of course, the valuable thing about this point isn't the verdict. It's that understanding fascism provides a lens for analyzing much of the everyday noise Trump emits.