Sunday, June 25, 2023

Speaking of Which

The Washington Post Editorial Board headline today is actually rather sensible (and hopefully sobering): Putin's humiliation means new dangers for Russia -- and the world. Still, given the dangers, maybe "humiliation" isn't the word we should be using. While the odds that Putin would resort nuclear weapons were never very high, it should be understood that they do go up with every humiliation, with every time he gets pushed back into a corner. The only way out of this trap is a negotiated settlement based not on the balance of power but on generally recognized principles, notably self-determination. And to bring that about, we still need a stable Russia. Blowing it up and replacing Putin with even crazier leaders isn't the way.

The Washington Post Editorial Board also wrote another piece that should be sobering but probably isn't: [06-24] Is there enough money to rebuild Ukraine? In it, they fantasize about getting Russia to pay for the rebuilding, which may be "an unarguable moral case" but is also a total non-starter. (Remember when LBJ promised to pay for rebuilding Vietnam?) Meanwhile, the fact that Americans are asking these questions suggests that they don't intend to pay either.

One problem is probably that the Post editors are reading their own war propagandists, like David Ignatius: [06-24] Putin looked into the abyss Saturday -- and blinked. From what I can gather, it looked like Prigozhin was the one who took the easy way out. But then the former Iraq War apologist has been writing pieces like this all along: [06-06] D-Day dawns for Ukraine.

As usual, it's impossible to get to everything. I do hope this is the last time I ever devote a whole section to Hunter Biden. Even with this much, I doubt I really got adequately into the Republican reaction, or their continuing obsession with him. Sure, he could serve as an example of why nepotism and influence-peddling are wrong, but that's not a point Republicans are going to make. Tax cheating and gun buying are things they normally celebrate.

Top story threads:


  • Adam Goldman/Traci Angel: [06-21] Former FBI analyst goes to prison for taking classified documents: "Like former President Trump, the former analyst was accused of violating the Espionage Act, taking home hundreds of classified documents and being unhelpful." Kendra Kingsbury was sentenced to 46 months jail for fewer charges than Trump is facing. Republicans like to say that if they can come for Trump, they can come for anyone. Looks like they got the order backwards.

  • Margaret Hartmann:

  • Fred Kaplan: [06-23] When Trump promises to end the Ukraine War, here's what he really means. I initially filed this under Ukraine, but Trump has no plan as such. Rather, all he has is tremendous faith in his genius as a dealmaker, which is supported by absolutely nothing from his previous term as president. Kaplan cites Iran, North Korea, Russia, and China as examples. One problem with those cases is that his closest advisers (e.g., Pompeo and Bolton) didn't want deals, so they sandbagged every prospect, leaving him with nothing. Not mentioned are a couple cases where Trump's people did negotiate deals, which Trump agreed to but really didn't have any direction over. The first is a minor revision of NAFTA, fulfilling a campaign promise. He got a new name, plus a couple of trivial concessions he could tout as a victory. The other was the deal with the Taliban for a ceasefire and withdrawal of US forces. The Taliban was still free to attack Afghan forces. More effectively, they recruited so the moment the US left, Afghanistan fell into their hands. By that point the US was helpless, having put all its faith into an army and government who by then worked for the other side. What would have been much better was to negotiate an orderly transition, with promises of future support in exchange for protections (including a right to exile) of Afghans who had worked for the US-backed regime). But no American, least of all "strongman" Trump, could admit to such a defeat, so they concocted this charade that the Afghans would be able to survive on their own.

  • Ed Kilgore: [06-20] Trump's Fox News interview exposed his real weakness: He "does not come across as a cunning predator avoiding the snares of his fearful liberal prey and plotting his revenge. He's more like a weak, confused old man worried about grubby law-enforcement personnel touching his golf clothes."

  • Eric Lipton: [06-20] Trump real estate deal in Oman underscores ethics concerns.

  • Ben Mathis-Lilley: [06-21] Donald Trump continues to twist what it means to be "conservative" into total incoherence: Good for him, too, because clear and lucid explications of "conservatism" are not just unappealing but repugnant to most people. However slipshod Trump might be on policy, he gets the appeal right: for him and his followers, conservativm is simply a matter of worshipping certain totems -- like God and country -- and hating people they deem unworthy. And while all conservatives agree with that much, no one else delivers hatred as unvarnished as Trump.

  • Greg Sargent: [06-21] Trump's confession on Fox News should prompt Democrats to step up. Contrasts this with Hunter Biden case.

  • Asawin Suebsaeng/Adam Rawnsley: [06-20] Team Trump suspects his former Chief of Staff is a 'rat': They're wondering what Mark Meadows is up to?

  • Li Zhou: [06-20] Trump's Fox News interview was a defense attorney's nightmare.

DeSantis, and other Republican lowlifes:

Hunter Biden: The president's son agreed to plead guilty to two tax misdemeanors and admitted to the facts of a rather dubious gun charge. The plea deal would give him three years of probation, plus a diversion on the gun charge, so it is expected that he will not go to jail. This should bring to a close one of the sillier outrages of the "lock her up" era, but Republicans have invested so much in it they can't bear the idea of letting go. Besides, what else to they have to run on? Certainly not policy ideas. On the other hand, it's hard to have much sympathy for him, even if you buy that he was railroaded. His influence-peddling schemes may not have been illegal, but probably should have been. (Had they been, that would wipe out a large swathe of Washington's upper crust, and good riddance to them.) And as a person, he seems to offer little to respect much less admire. But that, too, is hardly grounds for prosecution, and if it were, I can think of lots to put in line ahead of him.

Law and the courts: The Alito scandal broke last week, under Li Zhou below. It's beginning to look like Leonard Leo not only grooms conservatives for the Supreme Court, he hooks them up with billionaire patrons to keep them on the straight and narrow. And, let's face it, no one in recent history has been more narrowly partisan than Alito.


Ukraine War: High hopes for Ukraine's counteroffensive have precluded any interest in diplomacy, but so far: [06-23] Early stages of Ukrainian counteroffensive 'not meeting expectations,' Western officials tell CNN. On the other hand, the head Wagner Group, a mercenary outfit Russia has employed especially at Bakhmut, has "declared war" on Russia's military command, which may signal a rebellion or even a coup against Putin. I cited this piece last week, by Anatol Lieven and George Beebe, which now looks prophetic. This is very much a developing situation. I'm citing some articles as it develops, but (as with the "counteroffensive") note that nobody knows very much. One thing that does seem clear is that Prigozhin's beef with the Russian command (and Putin?) isn't over whether to continue the war, but how to fight it more effectively. Lieven and Beebe ended their piece with: "however bad things are in Russia, they can always get worse."

PS: As of Sunday afternoon, the key events are: Wagner occupied Rostov (Russia's "southern command" center), and started to march on Moscow; Putin condemned them harshly ("Those behind the mutiny will pay"), then Belarus president Lukashenko negotiated a stand down, which will allow Prigozhin and those who revolted with him to relocate to Belarus.

  • Connor Echols: [06-23] Diplomacy Watch: Brinksmanship on grain deal could frustrate Russia's friends.

  • Isaac Chotiner: [06-15] Ukraine's counter-offensive, and what comes after. Interview with Marina Miron, a "postdoctoral researcher at the war-studies department, in King's College London." Not much detail here, but I'm not sure that details are that important. They key thing to understand is that this year's war is different from last year's war. Last year Russia was on offense, and Ukraine defense. Russia's blitz against Kyiv and Kharkiv failed, foiling Putin's hopes for a quick coup, leading to a strategic retreat. On the other hand, Russia's offensive from Crimea was fairly successful, including the hard-fought battle for Mariupol, securing a land corridor to Crimea (which otherwise is being supplied over the Kerch Bridge). This year, all Russia has to do is to defend against the much hyped Ukrainian offensive, and in doing so they have a fairly wide buffer territory they can afford to lose before Ukrainian forces approach the ethnically Russian enclaves that broke off from Ukraine in 2014. Most Ukrainians have fled this buffer zone, so the remaining inhabitants should be more favorable to Russia, as are the Donbas and Crimean zones. And most importantly, as Ukraine showed last year, it is easier to defend and disrupt than it is to attack. The prolonged battle of Bakhmut, where Russia prevailed, offers little hope that Ukraine will make major gains elsewhere.

    Zelensky has spent the winter promising NATO that if they give him enough weapons, Ukraine will win back all of the pre-2014 territory. That seems unlikely to happen, but few in the west were willing to sound a note of caution, least of all about the capabilities of their pricey weapons. The result is that the war will continue as long as the political orders on both sides remain entrenched, which could be a long time. Miron's main contribution here is to point out that even if Ukraine recovers territory, it will be nearly impossible to rebuild as long as hostilities ensue, and Russians would likely resort to some kind of guerrilla insurgency even if regular troops are withdrawn. Once again, the only solution is negotiation.

  • Chas Danner: [06-24] Wagner's Prigozhin backs off after marching on Moscow.

  • Valerie Hopkins: [06-25] One big winner of Kremlin-Wagner clash? The dictator next door. Don't bet on that. The last thing any dictator needs is an alien army with no one else to fight. (I imagine there are numerous examples, but the Vandals are the first to leap to mind.) Of course, it's also possible that Putin orchestrated the deal, and Lukashenko is just the patsy we always figured. Either way, he has little reason to sleep soundly, much less to gloat.

  • Ellen Ioanes: [06-25] Russia's wild last 24 hours and the Wagner group's march to Moscow, explained.

  • Jen Kirby:

  • Anatol Lieven/George Beebe:

  • David Remnick: [06-24] Putin's weakness unmasked: "How Yevgeny Prigozhin's rebellion exposed the Russian President." Well, not exactly. He draws on conversations with Mikhail Zygar, who wrote the 2016 book All the Kremlin's Men ("a best-seller in Russia and a well-sourced examination of Putin's rule and the inner dynamics of his ruling circle"), and has a forthcoming book, War and Punishment: Putin, Zelensky, and the Path to Russia's Invasion of Ukraine, which is fast becoming obsolete. It's worth remembering that the word "dictator" implies much more autonomy at the top than is often the case. (Biden's recent slur on Xi Jinping and the furor it aroused should be another reminder.)

  • Anton Troianovski: [06-25] Prigozhin revolt raises searing question: Did it harm Putin's staying power? Certainly the first question on the mind of American hawks dreaming of regime change, but way too early to answer. It looks to me like it does two things: one is that it immediately reduces Russian troops in Ukraine, at a time when Ukraine's "counteroffensive" is ramping up; the other is that it should shortly bring an end to the acrominiously divided Russian forces command. Any student of war will tell you that divided command is a recipe for disaster, so Russia may emerge in better shape -- though much still depends on whether Russian command is really as bad as Prigozhin alleged. My guess is that in the short term Putin can rally support, but the stakes of losing Ukraine are growing more severe.

  • Joshua Yaffa: [06-24] The Wagner Group is a crisis of Putin's own making.

Sunday morning, Max Blumenthal tweeted: "Everything we said about Russia yesterday was an insane lie or completely wrong, now check us out on the White House ex-propaganda minister's show today." He's referring to "Inside with Jen Psaki," where the guests constitute a war council: Michael McFaul (former Ambassador to Russia), James Stavridis (Admiral), Anne Applebaum, Elissa Slotkin (Representative), and Nancy Pelosi (House Speaker Emerata). So the "we" isn't meant to include Blumenthal, but most likely it applies to him as well -- he has spent the last year attacking Ukraine and military support from US/NATO so exhaustively it's hard to draw a line between his stand against the US-led empire and his willingness to repeat Russian propaganda. But it's easy to imagine these five going gaga over the prospect of a revolution against Putin, even from the right -- something they have little conception of, despite the fact that Putin's harshest critics have always come from that direction -- then their disappointment when Prigozhin called the whole thing off. Whiplash is a risk of cheerleaders for politicians who can spin on a dime. I'm always reminded of the poor Communists who woke up one day finding they had to defend the Hitler-Stalin Pact.

[1] Blumenthal quotes Applebaum as saying: "Yet even the worst successor imaginable, even the bloodiest general or most rabid propagandist, will immediately be preferable to Putin, because he will be weaker than Putin." Weaker, but still armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons.

Around the world: Indian president Narenda Modi visited Washington last week, which occasioned much agonizing over India's human rights record, and Biden's willingness to overlook it. That actually strikes me as respect due to leader of another nation -- respect that the US, with its compulsion to divided the world up between friends and foes -- rarely shows. Which doesn't mean that the parties weren't up to no good.

  • Ben Burgis: [06-22] Israelism is a powerful indictment of pro-apartheid indoctrination. Quotes a critic of the film complaining, "There is no mention, for instance, of the UN role in the creation of Israel, Arab aggression at the birth of the state," blah, blah, blah. True that the UN passed one resolution approving of the partition of the British protectorate of Palestine, but there is no reason to treat that as some sort of immaculate conception. While Israelis lobbied for the resolution, and cited it in their Declaration of Independence, they immediately discarded its borders, and moved to claim Jerusalem (an international zone per the resolution), as well as expelling Arabs from Jaffa (a Palestinian enclave surrounded by Israel). Then Israelis murdered the UN mediator. The UN never sanctioned the explusions that Palestinians know as the Nakba. The UN Security Council passed resolutions after the 1967 and 1973 wars that Israel gave lip-service to but never honored (although Egypt and Jordan eventually did, and Syria negotiated a peace deal that Israel ultimately rejected). The "peace offers" that Palestinians supposedly rejected were never made in good faith, but the Oslo Accords, which Arafat did accept, were wrecked by Israel. Still, I doubt the film dwells on all that history, when the case against Israel's denial of basic human and civic rights to Palestinians today is so clear cut, and really so shameless.

  • Melvin Goodman: [06-23] Netanyahu takes aim at US diplomacy again: Over the last several weeks, I've seen reports that Biden is close to an agreement with Iran to restore the JCPOA deal that Obama negotiated and Trump scuttled. I haven't bothered reporting them because they're meaningless until announced, and the likelihood of that happening is slim given that Israel remains opposed -- it beggars belief why, suggesting that Israel would much rather prop up Iran as a mortal enemy (something that has never been true, either under the Shah or the Ayatollahs) than see its stated concerns actually addressed -- and Israel exerts such influence over American politics that it's unlikely that Biden would dare. The thing is, while Israel can afford pricking at Iran, the US actually does have good reason for negotiating friendlier terms. Non-proliferation matters, but more immediately pressing is Iran's ability to block oil traffic through the Straits of Hormuz. There's also the matter of Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq, which Israel periodically attacks, and could hit back at American troops there. Biden must also realize that pushing Iran into the embrace of Russia and China isn't helping. He also must realize that after the US military failed so badly in Iraq and Afghanistan, a military threat against Iran would be several steps beyond stupid. But to move forward Biden would have to reassert the importance of American interests over Israel's.

  • Jonathan Guyer: [06-23] Why the US is selling India so many weapons: "Prime Minister Modi visits the White House, and arms deals follow." It's almost like the sole determinant of US foreign policy is arms sales. India has most often bought arms from Russia, which is part of the reason India has refused to support US sanctions against Russia. But one can see the thinking as more than an immediate cash grab. But arms sales may be a lever both to divide India from Russia and to align India against China.

  • Ellen Ioanes: [06-25] Guatemala's elections can't undo years of government corruption: Not to mention coups, most directed or at least sanctioned by the US.

  • Achal Prabhala/Vitor Ido: [06-01] Next pandemic, let Cuba vaccinate the world. Uh, you think this pandemic is done yet? We're going to be taking boosters indefinitely. There's still plenty of world demand, especially if affordable. And Cuba's developments should remind us that we don't need billionaire patents to motivate people to develop life-saving pharmaceuticals. Even if the US companies shut down today, we could ride free on the rest of the world's research and development. Also the world could free ride on Cuba's investment. The embargo, which remains stupid and cruel, wouldn't stop others from manufacturing Cuban vaccines, assuming they got developed in the first place.

Other stories:

Dean Baker: [06-25] Why the RFK Jr., Rogan, Musk outrage machine doesn't bother Big Pharma. Also see Sarah Jones, below.

Tim Dickinson: [06-15] Is America already in a civil war? Interview with Bradley Onishi, author of Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism -- and What Comes Next. I have to admit that my eyes glaze over when I read these pieces about the Christian Right, given that my own faith is so lapsed that they seem to be from a completely different planet. The idea that anyone, much less than 30% of all Americans, believe in predispensationalism just boggles my mind -- even though I now realize that one of my more memorable conversations with my grandfather (1895-1965) was about exactly that. I never took him to be insane, but in that moment he was.

Andrea González-Ramirez: [06-23] One year without Roe: "All the ways abortion bans have affected pregnant people, providers, and clinics, by the numbers and in their own words." Also:

Constance Grady: [06-22] When you can't separate art from artist: Interview with Claire Dederer, author of Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma, a meditation on how to feel about art produced by people who turned out to have committed other reprehensible acts. (Michael Jackson, Woody Allen, and Bill Cosby are among the first-named, along with Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Roman Polanski.) I'm only bringing this up because my wife read the book, so it came up in conversations I never really answered. But I do have two core reactions: one is that I believe that works of art stand on their own the moment they are released (you might argue that copyrights and residuals argue differently, but I've never cared much for boycotts either); the other is that people are complicated but only turn monstrous when they take or are given power over others. So this isn't a dilemma I often engage in. I won't deny that some works of art embody their creator's damaged psyches in ways that merit little or no respect (e.g., Ayn Rand's novels). But the problem there is the art, not the artist (not that Rand, herself, wasn't quite some piece of work).

Greg Grandin: [06-21] Cormac McCarthy's unforgiving parables of American empire.

Sarah Jones: [06-24] Anti-vaxxers don't want a debate; they want a spectacle. Image here, with a mask reduced to the space of a Hitler moustache grafted onto a picture of Anthony Fauci, and the caption: "Stop! Faucism," is one way of saying, I'm so dumb, no point arguing with me! One of the most disturbing things about the Republicans (and one of the most Republican things about RFK Jr) is how completely, based on nothing but symbolism and bile, anti-vaxxers have taken over the collective consciousness of the GOP.

Naomi Klein: [05-08] AI machines aren't 'hallucinating'. But their makers are. Too broad a subject to simply endorse her take, although the core idea that AI will serve the powers that control it, which means that in a system of rapacious capitalism, that's what it will mostly be used for. The details are messier. The word "theft" gets thrown around a lot, which needs to be squared with a stiff critique of so-called "intellectual property" rights.

Eric Levitz: [06-23] The recession that didn't happen: Well, didn't happen yet -- Jerome Powell is still promising further rate increases, his pause explained by worry over failing more banks (the health and wealth of banks, after all, being the Fed's true raison d'être).

Nicole Narea: [06-22] What happens now that the Titanic submersible search has ended in tragedy. Not that you need more, but:

Joseph O'Neill: [03-21] One man's foray into the heartland of the far right: Review of Jeff Sharlet's The Undertow: Scenes From a Slow Civil War.

Alex Park: [06-16] 'Freakonomics' was neoliberal bullshit: "A look back at the bestselling book franchise that taught people to 'think like economists,' by which it meant 'think cynically and amorally.'" The bestseller was written by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner, and published in 2005, and sold over four million copies, spawning a sequel and other exploitations. I never read it, but I've read several other think-like-an-economist books (the most disturbing being Steven Landsburg's Armchair Economist, which left me haunted by "the principle of indifference"). I don't know about neoliberal, but I've been reading John Quiggin's Economics in Two Lessons, and I have little doubt that Freakonomics qualifies as what Quiggin calls "Lesson One economics": if it looks "cynical and amoral," that's because the theory doesn't allow for anything else.

Heidi Przybyla/Shia Kapos: [06-23] No Labels declines to reveal just who is funding its third party bid. I don't think I've mentioned this "centrist" group, with its plot to offer the distraction of a presidential candidate not aligned with either major party. I've had plenty of opportunities from Democrats who have been whining about third-party candidates on the left since Nader in 2000. This year their pet peeve is Cornell West -- for some reason they assume that they should pocket the votes of everyone on the left, even if they offer nothing in return. But this year, they're even more worried about No Labels siphoning away center votes they do bend over backwards to woo. After all, Biden in 2024 is the only possible protection against Trump (or some equally vicious MAGA maniac), and everyone should be willing to put up with a lot of waffling and compromise to keep that from happening. The fact that the money behind the operation is secret just adds to the air of conspiracy. As does the flirtation with conservative Democrats like Manchin and Sinema, which makes it look like they are prioritizing capturing Democratic votes. I suspect that, like most third party efforts, it won't ultimately amount to much, and is likely to serve as a protest outlet for more disaffected Republicans than Democrats, so may even help Biden. But in any case, the answer isn't to whine. It's to come up with a better campaign, and win so big the third parties are irrelevant.


Dr. David A. Lustig @drdave1999:

Ron DeSantis continues to drop in the polls, as Americans reject the chance to "make America more like Florida."

DeSantis miscalculated badly in believing that voters were looking for an authoritarian strongman with the social skills of a rabid wolverine.

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