Speaking of * [10 - 19]

Monday, February 20, 2023


Speaking of Which

I'm pretty upset at Twitter and Facebook. My initial tweet on yesterday's Speaking of Iraq didn't even show up in my feed. On closer examination, it appears it has only been seen by 75 of my 589 followers. It looks like my Music Week announcements usually get close to 300 views, but Speaking of Which rarely (and then only barely) tops 200. I complain about Matt Taibbi flooding the feed with multiple links to his Substack pieces, but maybe he's just fighting the algorithm. I decided to try again:

Why is it that what's remembered of Bush's war on Iraq is the lies, which were obviously lies at the time? Deeper question is why did anyone buy the logic that the lies supported going to war. I look back at 2003 here. If I knew better, why didn't you?

I also tacked a comment onto a Rick Perlstein response to a gripe about "2000s progressive blogs" messing up. Clearly, I didn't, but while there were a few putative leftists backing the war (Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman; less known at the time was Peter Beinart), they were few in number. The real test of principles and understanding was Afghanistan, one that was failed by a lot of people who should have known better (including Bernie Sanders; Barbara Lee was the only one in Congress to object).

I rarely post notices to Facebook (aside from Music Week, which I send to the Expert Witness group), but I put a lot of work into this one, and thought this was important enough to share. So I posted this. It, too, hasn't showed up in my feed, nor do I see any evidence (comments, likes) that anyone else has seen it. I was less pressured for space, so I wrote a bit more there:

For the 20th anniversary of Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq, I thought I'd dust off my old blog posts and see how they've held up. I cut the blog posts off on the 1st anniversary, but you can follow links to the rest. I also added a new introduction and some notes on later events, to check how much I got wrong (very little -- even without all the info, my gut reaction that Bush didn't know what he was doing, and would screw even that up, was pretty sound. I also went through the book notes file and pulled out a reading list for Iraq, so you'll find more there, both background and direction.

By the way, in looking through my old notes, I found this quote from Patrick Cockburn's 2006 book, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq:

Much of this book has been about the peculiarities of Iraq and the mistakes made by Americans when occupying it. But not all the reasons which led Washington to invade were unique to the US. For the two years before 9/11 I lived in Moscow. I had seen how Vladimir Putin had risen from obscurity in 1999 in the weeks after four apartment buildings were mysteriously bombed in Moscow killing 300 people. Putin had presented himself as Russia's no-nonsense defender against terrorism. He used this threat to launch his own small victorious war against Chechnya and manipulated a minor threat tot he state to win and hold the presidency. He speedily demolished the free press. George W. Bush followed almost exactly in Putin's footsteps two years later in the wake of the September 11 destruction of the World Trade Center. Civil liberties were curtailed. The same authoritarian rhetoric was employed. War was declared on terrorism. The American and Russian governments, the two former protagonists in the Cold War, latched on to the same limited 'terrorist' threat to justify and expand their authority. Putin and Bush, though neither were ever in the army, started to walk with the same military swagger.

Bush, of course, was retired by term limits, not that his 21% approval rating at the end of his second term would have gotten him a Rooseveltian third term. Putin escaped that fate, mostly because Chechnya was better contained (although the war wasn't without its embarrassments, including some terror incidents). In short, Putin lived to fight another day, which he did in Georgia, in Syria, and now in Ukraine. The first two worked out OK, for reasons I won't go into. What matters, of course, is once a leader gets a taste for war, that will be favored as an option until it leads to disaster.

The problem we've seen both in Bush and Putin is that both had trouble recognizing disaster when it struck, which has only led to further pointless suffering. There's a story about when they met, when Bush claimed to look into Putin's soul. He seemed to like what he saw. As far as I know, Putin isn't on record about Bush's soul, so one can only speculate.

Given the amount of time I spent on Iraq, I skipped over economic issues (including bank bailouts) completely. Also Israel, train wrecks, and I barely noted the big climate disaster (bad as Iraq is now, I hate to imagine it in 2030).


Top story threads:

Climate: This should be the week's top story, but I've only barely seen it reported:

Trump, DeSantis, et al: Trump's getting most of the press this time, in anticipation of his first indictment. But also I skipped a bunch of DeSantis links, because they seemed too lame. It's clearer than ever that he's running, and straight up the Trump lane.

Iraq: 20 Years In: Scattered topics then and now, the past much better reported than the present, although there are still big gaps in our understanding of the past.

  • Ben Burgis: [03-20] The Invasion of Iraq Wasn't a "Mistake." It Was a Crime.

  • Robert Draper: [03-20] Iraq, 20 Years Later: A Changed Washington and a Terrible Toll on America: This always worried me more than the terrible things that war would do to the Iraqi people, partly because it's hard to discern and evaluate. Could be a long subject, and I'm not sure this even scratches the surface.

  • Connor Echols: [03-17] A requiem for a lost Iraq: "Two decades after the invasion, the Iraqi people are still struggling to pick up the pieces."

  • Max Fisher: [03-18] 20 Years On, a Question Lingers About Iraq: Why Did the U.S. Invade? Huh? His "Searching for Motive" parades a lot of crap which has been thoroughly debunked. He quotes Wolfowitz as admitting WMD was picked as "the one issue that everyone could agree on." Yet he has no clue why that should matter. There is a simple reason that nobody talks about: Saddam Hussein's very existence was an insult to American power. Bush's mob saw the US as the world's supreme superpower, and expected everyone to kowtow to their wishes. Perhaps elsewhere (say, North Korea) they could have ignored him, but past history, as well as oil and Israel, precluded that. So they felt they had to destroy him, to reassert the natural order of American world power. And the people who still defend that decision, who take pride in it, do so because they can claim a measure of victory in destroying Hussein. Sure, it shows they cared not a whit about anything else, least of all the cost and waste of their hubris. But the original goal says as much. If you didn't hear that at the time, it just shows how sheltered you were from the idea that these guys were pure evil.

  • Nicholas Guyatt: [03-20] Twitter thread: "For those too young to have lived through what happened twenty years ago, a thread of the self-styled left/liberal types endorsing the invasion of Iraq." Image is The New York Times Magazine cover story by Michael Ignatieff, called "The American Empire (Get Used to It.)." Additional entries include snaps of key quotes from Ignatieff, David Remnick, Bill Keller, Leon Wieseltier, Lawrence F Kaplan, Elie Wiesel, Paul Berman, Joseph Nye, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Thomas Friedman endorsing the war. He also shows book covers of: Noah Freedman: After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Diplomacy; and Kenneth Pollack: The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. And an additional quote from Jonah Goldberg. One of the commenters also nominated: Dan Savage, Peter Beinart, Sam Harris, George Packer, Christopher Hitchens, and Jonathan Chait. Many more good comments.

  • John B Judis: [03-19] Iraq, the U.S., and The New Republic: 20 Years Later, Lessons Not Learned: "I was one of the few TNR staffers in 2003 who opposed the invasion. The magazine's case for war has not aged well."

  • Louisa Loveluck/Mustafa Salim: [03-18] U.S. veterans won justice for burn pit exposure. Iraqis were forgotten. Link title was: "How a cancer-causing environmental debacle looms over the U.S. legacy in Iraq." But somehow the actual title put the Americans first.

  • Ray McGovern: [03-20] The Uses and Abuses of National Intelligence Estimates: Cites Robert Draper from 2020: Colin Powell Still Wants Answers.

  • Alissa J Rubin: [03-20] 20 Years After U.S. Invasion, Iraq Is a Freer Place, but Not a Hopeful One.

  • Nadine Talaat: [03-20] The Bloodbath in Iraq Shows the US Can Never Be a "Global Policeman": Not the way I'd put it, but the phrase "global policeman" has always been a source of confusion. The problem is that American soldiers are rigorously trained to kill people and blow things up, and really aren't much good for anything else. Put them in a situation the don't understand, and threaten them, and they'll kill people and blow things up. That's their nature. A subhed here is "International Law in Ruins": That should be elaborated on more. International law was never in very good shape, but suffered a massive setback when Bush gave up on the UN and decided to form his "coalition of the willing."

  • Ishaan Tharoor: [03-20] How the U.S. broke Iraq.

  • Peter Van Vuren: [03-16] How I spent a year losing hearts and minds in Iraq.

  • Robert Wright: [03-17] Bush's lies weren't the problem: We now know that WMD was never the reason Bush wanted to invade Iraq. It just seemed like the easiest (which is to say scariest) story to spin to the masses. But it required a mountain of lies, which were unraveling almost as fast as they could be concocted. But also, invasion was the worst possible way of keeping Iraq from using WMDs (which really only ever meant chemical weapons, as that was all Iraq had the technology for). Much better to have an agreement to dispose of them (which had been in place since 1990) and inspectors on the ground to verify conformance (which had happened for several years, and again for several months under threat of war). The problem is that the inspectors didn't find any. If eliminating WMDs was the goal, inspections already had that covered. So clearly that wasn't the reason for launching an invasion.

  • Responsible Statecraft: [03-20] Symposium: Aside from Bush & Cheney who is at fault for the Iraq War? They asked twenty-some notables, who singled out (some named two, which I've generally split): Joe Biden (2), Laura Bush, Douglas Feith, Thomas Friedman, Michael R Gordon and The New York Times, Jacob Heilbrunn, Christopher Hitchens, Saddam Hussein, Robert Kagan (2), William Kristol, Bill Luti, Richard Perle (2), Ken Pollack, Colin Powell (2), Abram Shulsky, Woodrow Wilson, Paul Wolfowitz, James Woolsey, David Wurmser, unknown mastermind behind the Niger memo forgery, the Israel lobby.

    Before I comment on the list, my pick would have been Bill Clinton, who failed to solve the problem with Iraq, and who made it worse with his capricious bombing runs and his support for the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998. I also blame Clinton for his pro-war stance in 1989, which once he was elected in 1992 politically vindicated the hawk wing of the Democratic Party, notably Al Gore Jr. and Joe Lieberman (who share significant blame for the later war, and legitimized those who voted for the war in 2003, including Biden, Richard Gephardt, Hillary Clinton, and most egregiously John Kerry).

    As for the rest: I blame Wilson for lots of things, but his attempt to turn America away from isolationism is only loosely relevant here. Moreover, Wilson pointedly refused to join the war against the Ottoman Empire, or to participate in the colonial carve up of the Middle East. If you want someone from that vintage, Winston Churchill is your man. The British invaded Iraq, used poison gas, and installed a puppet king, a dynasty that controlled the country until 1959. The Baath was largely a reaction against British misrule, and Americans never forgave them for breaking the Baghdad Pact (CENTO). Blaming Hussein because Americans never figured out how to deal with him is also silly. After GHW Bush likened him to Hitler, no American dared deal with him. The failure to get rid of "Hitler" in 1990 did more than anything to make a second war inevitable.

    There are three other non-choices: Why pick Laura Bush, who had very little public profile (other than allowing herself to be trotted out to promote women's rights in Afghanistan)? Why pick some anonymous CIA functionary for the instantly discredited Niger memo when George Tenet was still waiting on the sidelines? And why the Israel Lobby? Well, there, at least, Israel had singled Hussein out as public enemy number one, and practically everyone else was carrying their water.

    The rest are a conspicuous but incomplete rogues gallery of neocon functionaries and media supplicants (Hitchens is an outlier, but tried so very hard to get in). All contributed, as did many others (Donald Rumsfeld is the most glaring omission). It strikes me that this list is light on generals (other than Powell; although I've seen reference that some prominent ones, like Anthony Zinni, Norman Schwarzkopf, and Barry McCaffrey, had misgivings; the current brass went along, although some of them got out quick after the "mission accomplished" banner). Also politicians: the aforementioned Democrats (who should have known better), but also the even more hawkish Republicans, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Oh, and let's not forget Tony Blair. Without him there wouldn't have been a "coalition of the willing." And Ahmed Chalabi, who did so much to seduce Washington? I also recall writers like Fouad Ajami, Bernard Lewis, and Samuel Huntington -- hacks who were taken seriously as "experts."

  • Matt Taibbi: [2016-03-22] 16 Years Later, How the Press That Sold the Iraq War Got Away With It: Four-year-old excerpt from his book, Hate, Inc. And why there were no consequences for getting it wrong, as long as they erred on the side of the official line.

Ukraine War: Continues, of course, with intransigence on both sides.

Abortion: The "pro-life" terror continues. I skipped over a link about a South Carolina bill that wants to establish the death penalty for women who have abortions. There's no limit to what they'll demand.


Other stories:

Daniel Bessner: [03-06] Does American Fascism Exist? Review of Bruce Kuklick: Fascism Comes to America: A Century of Obsession in Politics and Culture. After noting various definitions and their discontents, asks the question: "Should we on the left use the term 'fascism'?" As someone who knows a fair amount about the history of fascist movements in Europe between the wars, I find it helps with comparisons, but as a label for organizing against the far right, I doubt it's all that useful. And sure, part of the problem is that the right has been extremely sloppy in using the term, which at least they have the decency to regard as a negative (mostly using it on the left). Also see the comment on this review by Jonathan Chait: [03-13] The Republican Party May Not Be Fascist, but It's Definitely Getting Fasci-er, subhed: "The left-wing case for downplaying authoritarianism is not convincing." More proof that Chait never misses a chance to disparage the left, apparently complaining that we're the ones who don't call Republicans fascists enough.

By the way, there's a link here to a 2020 piece by Bessner: America Has No Duty to Rule the World This is a review of Steven Wertheim: Tomorrow the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy. I've read that book, which shows how quickly influential Americans came upon the idea of American global supremacy as soon as the US declared war on Germany and Japan. For details of how those ideas played out, you'll need to turn to later histories, like the works of Gabriel and Joyce Kolko: The Politics of War and The Limits of Power.

Jonathan Chait: [03-20] Why Joe Biden's Honeymoon With Progressives Is Coming to an End: "Expect a lot more Democratic infighting." It's true that Biden has disappointed on several issues lately. Maybe this has something to do with Jeffrey Zients replacing Ron Klain as chief of staff. If so, it might get worse, but unless a serious challenger emerges -- like Teddy Kennedy going after Jimmy Carter -- I expect the disputes will be strictly over issues. And the democratic wing of the party has issues that are too popular for Biden to ignore.

Matthew Cooper: [03-15] Let's Retire the Word "Woke": Fine with me. I doubt I've ever used the word, except when quoting right-wingers ritualistically decrying it (which, to be sure, is often absurd enough to be amusing). As I understand it, the word was meant to convert a negative (not sounding or acting racist) into a positive (being anti-racist). While that seems laudable, the proof is often in pointing out how other people are racist, sometimes subtly or even subconsciously. I don't doubt that there are times when that is called for, but these days I'm more inclined to let minor slights slide (unless, of course, they are embedded in power, as with cops and judges). White people don't have to become woke. As long as they can avoid public displays and/or respond positive to shaming when they don't, racism will continue to fade into the past (as it's been doing for decades now, even if not fast enough).

For more on woke, see:

  • Nathan J Robinson: [03-17] Time to End the Use of "Woke" as a Pejorative: Starts with a bit of interview between Briahna Gray and Bethany Mandel ("the editor of a series of right-wing children's books"), where the latter couldn't define "woke," then follows that up with various other clueless right-wing definitions of "woke." The advice is to the right, but they're unlikely to take it.

Whizy Kim: [03-17] Prices at the supermarket keep rising. So do corporate profits. "Is it really inflation? Or something else?" Every sector of industry has been concentrating for years, but were restrained from raising prices because no one wants to look too greedy (except to stockholders). However, once word got out that we were in for a round of inflation, companies moved fast to reap their monopoly gains, a self-fulfilling prophecy. At least that's what I see happening, and that's most the consistent explanation for profits increasing along with prices. Of course, rising prices also mean costs, but big monopoly retailers have more leverage to cap their costs.

Mike Konczal: [03-17] A Better AEI Graphic of Inflation Over the Past 20 Years.

Nathan J Robinson: [03-20] The French Understand That Work Sucks: French president Macron is trying to push through a bill that raises the retirement age from 62 to 64, and it's very unpopular. It's worth remembering that you don't have to stop working when you retire, but you do gain the freedom to work as you want, without having to work for a living, and without having to work under someone else's control.

Dylan Scott: [03-17] Medicare is being privatized right before our eyes: "The enormous success of Medicare Advantage -- and the potential risks -- explained." The program costs more than regular Medicare, and delivers less. Why is enrollment growing? For one thing, the extra costs are largely hidden from the public. The advantage is that while the plans are more restrictive, they often offer relief from the co-payments and limits built into Medicare (supplemental insurance can eliminate those, but costs quite a bit extra).

Ian Ward: [03-19] The fringe group that broke the GOP's brain -- and helped the party win elections: Interview about the John Birch Society with Matthew Dallek, author of Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the Far Right.

Ask a question, or send a comment.

Sunday, March 19, 2023


Speaking of Iraq

On the 20th anniversary of Bush's invasion of Iraq, I thought I'd dust off some writings from the time, written for my online notebook before I got around to organizing a formal blog. (Not sure when that was, but I found a note about "new blog software" in January, 2005.) I later collected all of the political writings of the Bush years under the title of Last Days of the American Empire, and followed that up with three more volumes: on Obama's first and second terms, then an even longer one on Trump; I haven't gotten around to opening a file on the Biden years, partly because I briefly hoped I might be able to move on).

This starts with a couple earlier posts, but picks up on March 18, 2003, the day of the ultimatum that kicked off the war. I've picked out more pieces up to March 20, 2004: the one-year anniversary of the actual invasion. As history, this leaves something to be desired: I wasn't trying to document the war, just to register my reactions and thoughts as the war unfolded. So I missed lots of important things -- there's very little here on the WMD debate, nothing on "shock and awe" or "mission accomplished," just one passing reference to Paul Bremer and his ill-fated administration, lots of other things. I did write on the Jessica Lynch affair, but didn't think it was worth keeping here.

I skipped over entries on 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan -- which I've always regarded as the cardinal sin, the first gross error of many -- and the initial formulation of a Global War on Terror, all of which is essential background. The delusion that Afghanistan had been handled gave the war planners confidence to move on to Iraq. What they hadn't anticipated was that most people would see Iraq as disconnected from 9/11, which turned the hard sell of the war into an uphill fight.

The Feb. 2, 2004 entry starts to sketch out a "history of the U.S.-Iraq conflict," which I divided into "three major stages." I should have included a "stage 0" for the pre-1990 period. GHW Bush's decision to launch "a splendid little war" was not an arbitrary whim (although Thatcher's phrase was). Rather, it has been brewing since first Iraq and then Iran dropped out of the Baghdad Pact (CENTO), leaving the "regional defense pact" without any regional members. As I've stressed many times, wars don't just erupt: they are the result of repeated and cumulative failures. American contempt for Iraq dates back to the 1959 coup that split Iraq off from the American side in the Cold War.

Similarly, one cannot make sense out of the 2001 Bush invasion of Afghanistan (and its subsequent troubles, up to the Taliban sweeping into power before the US could fully withdraw) without looking back at history, especially the Carter-Zbigniew decision in 1979 to fund a jihadist insurrection against a communist-led coup: as boneheaded a decision as any American president has ever made, one that makes no sense unless you look back to the Vietnam War debacle for context, which itself looks back to Harry Truman's decision to turn against his WWII ally, the Soviet Union.

In all these cases, the common denominator is the notion that the preferred way of dealing with conflicts is to project greater force. Sure, there have been occasions where both sides have opted for some kind of diplomacy, or at least the mutual respect of détente. But after the Soviet Union dissolved, a significant faction of America's security "thinkers" organized to push the limits of power projection. The Global War on Terror was their baby, especially the invasion and occupation of Iraq. There was plenty of evidence of what they were up to in the 1990s. Although I wrote little at the time, I was very critical of Clinton's handling of Iraq during that period, regarding it as the signal failure of his administration. Ironically, the Republican favored by most of these neocons (or "new vulcans") in 2000 was John McCain, but nearly all of them got jobs under Bush (or Cheney), allowing them to plot wars that were in the works well before Al Qaeda gave them a ready-made carte blanche. (Bush ordered a bombing run on Iraq in his first days, and seems to have decided to support the Northern Front in Afghanistan before 9/11 -- stories that were poorly reported, because they had become second nature.)

Although the writings below display much foreboding about the fate of Bush's misadventure in Iraq, the really serious problems emerged in the months just after the one-year anniversary (my cutoff date). Fallujah exploded, and initial American efforts to recapture it failed. More ominously, America's alliance with the Shiite clerics teetered, as the Sadr faction threatened to link up with the Sunnis in Fallujah. With the 2004 presidential campaign in full swing, Bush's agents dialed their punitive impulses back a bit, and concentrated in driving a wedge between the Shiite and Sunni faction, the old divide-and-conquer strategem that poisoned any chance of reconciliation and peace for years to come.

After Bush managed to win a second term, he sent the military in to level Fallujah, only to find the Sunni revolt explode all over the west and north of Iraq, with a newly-created Al Qaeda taking a staring role. Bush escalated, sending additional troops into the fight, something they billed as "the surge," which is now remembered as some kind of success, although for most of its intended duration produced nothing but more casualties. What did finally turn the tide was a diplomatic maneuver that turned the Sunni tribal leaders against the Al Qaeda militants, allowing the latter to be picked off. While bribe money had much to do with the turn, the real driver was the civil war the US had fomented, which allowed the US to offer protection to Sunnis not just from itself but from the Shiite majority.

While the hawks could spin this as some sort of victory, few if any Americans recognized it as such. The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government eventually insisted that the US remove all of its troops, so Obama finally complied. A year later, most of northwest Iraq had revolted against Baghdad, joining northeast Syria in a self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS). US troops were invited back by Iraq to fight ISIS, which they did, but under terms which gave Iraq's independent government effective control. Bush's dream of creating a new Texas-like petrostate had failed completely.

Then, of course, Afghanistan turned out even worse for the neocons. They had, by then, grown weary of losing battles over nations of minor importance. Without admitting any culpability, they harkened back to the fat days of the Cold War, and plotted to pivot to opposing traditional rival powers like Russia and China. You hear less about "hyperpower" and "unipolar moments" these days, but the same basic ideas hold sway: to stay safe, America has to impose its will and (certain parts of) its way of life in as much of the world as possible, while cordoning the rest into untouchable ghettoes (e.g., North Korea since 1953). You would think that their dismal track record -- aside from the big wars, we could talk about Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and much more -- would have forced a rethinking by now, but administrations of both parties are stuck in their mental rut. Even the Ukraine war is being touted as a major victory, although it still looks like a complete disaster to me.

I've done some light editing, mostly dropping bits that seem redundant and/or tangential (not indicated by ellipses, which strike me as clutter, although you're welcome to follow the links to the unadulterated pieces). New introductory and comment text is in italics, and inline expansions in brackets. Finally, I'm adding a selection of book roundup notes, which cover more history, both before and after.

February 14, 2002

We now know that Bush was looking for an excuse to attack Iraq the day of the 9/11 attacks. The evidence may have steered him toward Afghanistan, but the instinctive response to address the attacks by lashing out militarily was his -- not his alone, to be sure, but he alone was responsible for the decision to go to war in Afghanistan. Obama later tried to make a distinction between Afghanistan as "the right war" and Iraq as "the wrong war," but they were really the same war, the same instinct and decision for war, for the same reason: to punish anyone who refuses to roll over for American power. In that regard, Saddam Hussein was as culpable as the Taliban. Iraq, however, was a harder sell, because it had nothing whatsoever to do with the 9/11 attacks.


I'm still surprised that so little attention was paid to this piece when it came out. This was largely forgotten until September, 2002, when the Bush administration launched its campaign to promote the war. That's when Bush spokesman Andrew Card admitted, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."

The main headline in yesterday's paper announced that Bush has decided to go to war against Iraq: that the US would commit 200,000 ground troops, and that Cheney was out of his foxhole and touring the Middle East to tell whoever needs to know what the US is going to do. Today there was not a single mention of it, no follow-up, no comments. I don't know which is more striking: the casualness with which one nation decides to destroy another, or the indifference of the people presumably represented by the first party.

December 9, 2002

Oddly enough, while I noticed the February piece, I wrote very little about the propaganda campaign until December, when I wrote quite a bit, starting with a lengthy, point-by-point critique of George Packer's piece, "The Liberal Quandary Over Iraq." Toward the end:

Arguably the worst thing the U.S. has done in the Arab world has been the containment policy against Iraq, which despite imposing great hardships on the Iraqi people has utterly failed to dislodge Saddam Hussein, and given the fact that the U.S. and its allies consciously chose to leave Saddam in power in 1991, this vicious policy appears to be little more than a cynical ploy in the run of American domestic politics. That this cruelty is condoned by the American populace is not something that the Arab populace can be expected to ignore.

The ultimate problem that liberals have in being hawks is not merely that their ideas are ill conceived but that they depend on people who are not liberals to carry them out. Bush's program to invade Iraq does not offer a shred of hope that anything positive might come out of it for the Iraqi people. It seems clear that Bush couldn't care less; that for him this is just about the U.S.'s prerogatives as the last great world power, and that it would be nifty if he could strut into his reëlection campaign with Saddam's shrunken head on his spear.

January 8, 2003

This begins with another long list of reasons war with Iraq is a bad idea. The Bush administration did notoriously little planning for a postwar Iraq, but I sniffed out one such leaked piece, before they tried to brighten it up with a coat of liberal democracy. One forgets, but at the time there was a lot of hype on how successful the US was at building democracies in Germany and Japan (more recent examples not offering much optimism, but even if you look back to Germany and Japan, you find much more luck than design).

After doing this I found a New York Times article with some details on U.S. plans for post-war Iraq, which sort of answers some of these questions. The plan is for something like an 18-month military occupation, with a two-headed military/civilian administration, and the whole thing (at least financially) dependent on securing the oil production areas so that the occupation and reconstruction can be paid for out of Iraqi oil production. There was nothing that I could see in the plan about democracy, there was an emphasis on keeping Iraq whole, and there was a plan to limit trials or executions of whatever to high government officials, so the game plan appears to be to try to keep the Baathist military dictatorship largely intact, while lopping off Saddam's head.

The scary thing about this plan is not that it's crazy but that it makes [just enough] sense. This more than anything else convinces me that they'll convince themselves that they can pull it off. That, of course, puts a lot more faith in Rumsfeld, the military, and the CIA than they've ever earned. (The article itself admitted that they'd have to do a lot better job than they did in Afghanistan.) It also depends a lot on whether the Iraqis wind up blaming Saddam for their defeat. Reading [John W] Dower's book on Japan [Embracing Defeat], it seems clear to me that the success of democratization there had less to do with what the U.S. did than with the changing consciousness of the Japanese -- the fact that a long period of war, with extreme sacrifices, led to utter defeat. Until Iraq falls it will be hard to gauge that, but I am very skeptical that most Iraqis will make that shift, and if I'm right, that means that every little thing that the U.S. fucks up (and you know that's going to happen, a lot) will just ratchet up the resistance. Which also leads us to how long the American public, mired in recession and war-hype and mounting debt will put up with Bush's kind of adventurism.

March 14, 2003

John W Dower has me thinking further about the question of how reproducible the post-WWII reconstruction of Japan is in Iraq. As he notes somewhere, Iraq isn't Japan, and for that matter Bush's US isn't FDR's 1945 New Deal.

One key element of Japan was its isolation. No other nation was remotely like it: none shared its language or religion or history. Iraq, on the other hand, is one of a dozen or so independent Arab nations, one of several dozen predominantly Muslim nations. The U.S. was able to control the media in Japan, and few outside of Japan had any real interest in the occupation there. Isolation was a function of the times: the world is much more closely, instantly in fact, connected today. This is also in large part a matter of means: the U.S. economic capacity to occupy and reconstruct a defeated country is now much reduced compared to post-WWII, regardless of the political will to do so. Also, note that Japan was required to pay the U.S. for seven years of occupation, a fact that they largely hid from their own people -- instead of making it a political issue, like the Germans after WWI. Even if U.S. occupation and reconstruction of Iraq can be paid for with Iraqi oil, that is one fact that cannot be kept secret, and will inevitably garner resentment and opposition.

March 18, 2003

This is the day the war started in earnest. I knew all along that when the day came, I'd use FDR's opening line. The analogy doesn't have to be perfect for the word to fit the bill. Neither attack was unprovoked, and neither was excusable. But the key line was the one that starts, "As I write this, we cannot even remotely predict how this war will play out . . . " Yet while the numbers may have been unpredictable, that the results would be disastrous for all concerned was pretty obvious at the time.

Yesterday, March 17, 2003, is another date that will live in infamy. On this date, U.S. President George W. Bush rejected the efforts and council of the United Nations, and the expressed concerns of overwhelming numbers of people throughout the U.S. and all around the world, and committed the U.S. to attack, invade, and occupy Iraq, to prosecute or kill Iraq's government leaders, and to install a new government favorable to U.S. interests.

That Bush has given Iraq's Saddam Hussein 48 hours to surrender in order to spare Iraq inestimable destruction is clearly intended to shift blame for this war to Saddam. While this particular ploy may have been intended cynically, we must be clear that this war would not be looming were it not for numerous acts that Saddam and Iraq have committed, including aggressive wars against Iran and Kuwait, use of poison gas both against Iran and against the Kurdish minority within Iraq, and long-term efforts to obtain horrific weapons. We should also be clear that after a broad U.N. coalition drove Iraq out of Kuwait and brokered a cease-fire that left Saddam in power, his government failed to show good faith in implementing the disarmament specified in the cease-fire and U.N. mandates. Even now, Saddam's character is put to severe test, where he has within his power one last chance to put his country's welfare about his own. If he fails to do so, we must conclude not only that he is a long-standing war criminal, but that he is the essential cause for this war.

However, the proximate cause for this war lies squarely with the Bush administration, aided and abetted by the so-called "coalition of the willing." They are the ones who rejected concerted efforts by Iraq and the U.N. to complete and verify Iraq's mandated disarmament, who pushed the new agenda of regime change, and who locked this agenda into a final ultimatum. In pushing for regime change, Bush continued and escalated policies of previous U.S. presidents, especially Bill Clinton, during whose administration the U.S. worked deliberately to sabotage the inspections process, to promote Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein, to prolong sanctions which inflicted great hardships on the Iraqi people, to engender much ill will. Especially complicit in this war is the Republican-led U.S. Congress, which passed a law in 1998 directing that U.S. policy toward Iraq work toward regime change, and Democrat President Bill Clinton, who signed that law, and who repeatedly ordered air strikes against Iraq. But the actual push to war, the setting of the time table and the issuing of the ultimatum, was squarely the responsibility of George W. Bush. In this act, which he was completely free not to do, Bush has placed his name high on the list of notable war criminals of the last century.

As I write this, we cannot even remotely predict how this war will play out, how many people will die or have their lives tragically transfigured, how much property will be destroyed, how much damage will be done to the environment, what the long-term effects of this war will be on the economy and civilization, both regionally and throughout the world. In launching his war, Bush is marching blithely into the unknown, and dragging the world with him. It is generally believed that U.S. military might is such that it will quickly be able to subdue resistance from Iraq's depleted and mostly disarmed military, and that the U.S. will quickly dispose of Saddam Hussein and his top people. However, it is widely speculated that over the course of U.S. occupation there will be continuing resistance and guerrilla warfare to burden the expense of occupation, in the hope of sending an exasperated occupation army packing. It is expected that the fury over the war will lead to new acts of terrorism directed against U.S. citizens and interests elsewhere in the world, possibly including the U.S. homeland. It is already the case that Bush's insistence on going to war, along with many other aspects of his foreign policy, has soured relations between the U.S. and a great many nations and people of the world, including many traditional allies, and that this situation will get progressively worse the longer and nastier the war and occupation goes on.

There is, I think, one hope to minimize the damage that inevitably comes with this war. This is for the Iraqi people, at least those who survive the initial onslaught, to roll over and play dead, to not oppose or resist invasion and occupation, and to play on the U.S.'s much bruited "good intentions" -- the dubious argument that the U.S. is invading Iraq to liberate the Iraqi people. To do this they must not only not resist, they must collaborate to prevent others from resisting. Moreover, they must adopt the highest principles of their occupiers: embrace democracy and respect the civil rights of minorities. They should in fact go further: to denounce war, to refuse to support a military, to depend on the U.N. for secure borders, and not to engage in any hostile foreign relations. The reasons for this are twofold: in the long-run, these are all good things to do; in the short-run, they remove any real excuse for the U.S. to continue its occupation, and will hasten the exit of U.S. forces.

It is, of course, possible that the U.S.'s "good intentions" are cynical and fraudulent. Over the last fifty years, the U.S. has a very poor record of promoting democracy, and has a very aggressive record of promoting U.S. business interests. (And in this regard, Bush has proven to run the most right-wing administration in U.S. history.) Many of the same people who in the U.S. government promoted war on Iraq clearly have further names on their lists of enemies -- Syria, Iran, even Saudi Arabia -- and a number of fantastic scenarios have been talked up. But the aggressive projection of U.S. military force depends on having enemies that can only be kept at bay by such force. An Iraq, with no Saddam Hussein, with no military, with no way to threaten its neighbors, with its own people organized into a stable, respectful democracy, provides no excuse for occupation. If those conditions prevail, which is within the power of the Iraqi people to make happen, even the Bush administration would have to pull out.

There are, of course, other things that will be necessary to overcome the inevitable damage of this war. Presumably the war and occupation will at least get rid of one set of war criminals: Saddam Hussein and his crew. The other set of war criminals, the Bush administration in particular, need to be voted out of office. The consequences of Bush's foreign policy, even if they luck out and yield a democratic Iraq, bear extraordinary costs and engender international distrust at the same time Bush's tax policy bankrupts the U.S. government and undermines the U.S. dollar while Bush's domestic policies lay workers off and degrade the environment. But also the world community needs to come to grips with conflicts in ways that look beyond self-interest to provide systematic means to peacefully resolve conflicts that might otherwise turn into injustice and war. That Saddam Hussein was allowed to turn into a monster, the essential cause of Bush's Iraq war, was the consequence of a great many failures along the way -- serious mistakes on the part of nations, including the U.S., who promoted him politically, who armed him, who encouraged him to wage war with Iran, and so forth. The U.S. must recognize that it cannot alone solve conflicts such as these; the many nations of the world must in turn step up to the responsibility.

I believe that this is in fact the way the world is, unfortunately too slowly, moving: despite the immense amount of terrorism and war of the past few years, people all around the world are, in their hearts, actually moving to a much firmer realization of the need for peace, order, respect, fairness, and opportunity for all. The worldwide reaction of shock and horror at the toppling of the World Trade Center was one expression of this; the worldwide protest against Bush's Iraq war was another. The only way to have peace is to be peaceable.

If I were to write this today, I'd tone down the blame laid on Saddam Hussein, not because it was wrong but because it detracts from Bush's total responsibility for launching the war (and perhaps because the consequences of his decision have been even worse than I anticipated). I'd also be aware the the massive protests against the Bush war haven't been repeated since.

March 19, 2003

The one section I've sometimes regretted was the "play dead" suggestion. I double down on it here, but it's still just a thought experiment. As it turned out, most Iraqis did surrender peacefully, but it was inevitable that some would not, and when they resisted, Americans would prove incapable of isolating them, thus fomenting ever deeper resentment.

After writing yesterday's entry, I didn't know what to do with it. In this particular rush, it makes one feel very helpless trying to communicate with anybody. The notion that one's opinion matters in any way is sorely tested. But rather than try to polish what I wrote into something publishable -- again, what's the point? -- today I'll just add some explanatory notes. One thing that I find in my polemical writing is that the need I feel to compress very complex issues and to carefully balance the arguments tends to run cryptic. This (I promise) will be looser.

The only news report of significance since yesterday is Saddam Hussein's rejection of the ultimatum. That is no surprise; it is, in fact, what you'd expect of someone who thinks of himself as a warrior, which clearly Saddam does, and just as clearly is his great flaw as a politician. That he is putting his nation and his people at great risk, and to do so is part and parcel of his immorality, is both obviously true and is a judgment based on a standard of morality that is foreign to him. It should also be noted that almost all of our political and military folklore runs against that same standard of morality. Where yesterday I suggested that Iraq should roll over and play dead, and that Saddam should abdicate, it is easy to imagine how difficult and how unlikely that is by reversing the roles, by asking what we as Americans would do if some alien power (from outer space, no doubt; at least there are a lot of movies that we can reference as case examples) were to issue such an ultimatum to us.

Consider this, though: in rejecting the ultimatum, Saddam Hussein passed up a golden opportunity to remake himself as Neville Chamberlain, to assure "peace for our time" by caving in. Chamberlain is, of course, reviled for capitulating to Hitler at Munich, which was no doubt easier for him to do given that all he gave up was Czechoslovakia. Saddam would have had to put his own hide onto the silver platter.

I also read a report by Robert Fisk in Baghdad, noting that everyday life continues with little regard and very little imagination of the imminent war. I don't have any idea what this report beholds. On TV tonight Baghdad was described as eerily quiet, with more defenses in place.

It should be obvious that the main point of yesterday's writing is that both Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush are enemies of peace, that they are and should be viewed as criminals, and that neither one in any way justifies the other. It is, of course, Bush's view that his actions are justified by Saddam Hussein's past and present behavior, and it is important that we reject this claim.

The second point is that the best way out of this mess is still peace, and the more firmly and resolutely the people involved practice peace, the better. Unfortunately, with the U.S. on the warpath, the brunt of this responsibility falls on the Iraqi people. Admittedly, there is little reason to be optimistic at this stage. We know for certain that there will be resistance. We know that Saddam Hussein and his party do not believe in or practice peace. We know that jihadists like Osama Bin Laden do not believe in or practice peace. We also know that when faced with danger, military forces all the world over, all throughout history, kill and destroy unnecessarily, often deliberately, sometimes just inadvertently, which feeds a vicious cycle of resistance and retribution. We also know that alien occupation armies misunderstand things, communicate poorly, grow impatient and resentful, get spooked easily, and often with little provocation resort to force, sometimes viciously. Even if we accept the proposition that the U.S. has nothing but good intentions toward the Iraqi people, remaining peaceable is going to be a tall order. So while it's what I prescribe, it's not what I expect to happen.

As for the intentions, you tell me. One thing I've noticed is that over the last 2-3 weeks we hear more and more about how the U.S. will liberate the Iraqi people. Part of this seems to just be an attempt to push the argument for war over the top: to set some sort of requirement that only war can fulfill, as opposed to disarmament which was clearly being implemented by inspections. But it does set up some at least rhetorical expectations that can be tested by peaceable acceptance of occupation, embracing democracy, etc., which is part of the rationale for my prescription. If the rhetoric was different -- e.g., colonial exploitation, settlement -- it would be much harder to urge acquiescence. But I think that even Bush recognizes that long-term U.S. occupation of Iraq is not in the cards: that it is not something that the U.S. can even sustain the costs to maintain. Given this, it is expected that sooner or later Iraq and its natural resources will return to local control. Given this it is better that this happen within the framework of a democracy which can serve the broad interests of the people instead of through another exploitative strongman arrangement. Again, regardless of actual U.S. intentions, the rhetoric du jour provides an opportunity.

The point about peaceful acquiescence to occupation is also derived from my reading of the U.S. occupation of Japan, described in John Dower's book. It's clear to me that the key to the "success" of the reformation of Japan was that the Japanese people deeply wanted much of this reformation. I've written several skeptical accounts about why Iraq is much less likely to embrace similar reform, but the advantages of doing so are still clear. Iraq has pretty good prospects to develop if its substantial oil resources cannot be diverted to war and/or corruption, and the key to doing that is adopting peace and democracy (i.e., democratic socialism). One thing we really have no idea about is what the true feelings of the Iraqi people, but even if we did, the real question is more like how will they break when the effects of the war and invasion become manifest. In the case of Japan, the Japanese people up to the day of surrender would, if polled, no doubt have remained resolute, but once the Emperor surrendered, their exhaustion and resignation became manifest, as did their assignation of fault for the debacle to Japan's militarists. It is likely that some such effect will appear in Iraq as well -- eight years of war with Iran, followed by defeat in Kuwait and twelve years of crippling sanctions, the Iraqi people have much to blame on Saddam Hussein. Whether they in fact do so is the short-term question; not clear that they will do so, given that the U.S. is also responsible. Then there is the longer-term question, whether U.S. occupation will itself generate resentment to the extent of lengthy guerrilla resistance, and the answer there may largely depend on how the short-term question is answered. Which we'll only know once Iraq sees the destruction of the war and feels the sense of defeat or liberation as the U.S. occupation moves into place.

March 20, 2003

I guess the war is under way now. Life in Wichita is not affected in any serious way. This is, of course, most Americans' experience of war: as news, as entertainment, as something that happens far away, something that you can bemoan or cheer but which doesn't directly affect you. The immediacy of the media somehow makes us feel personally involved in events that happen on the far side of the world, like we have a vital interest there, yet the distance insulates us from the consequences of actions done in our name.

March 21, 2003

I guess the war is coming along swimmingly: people killed on both sides, buildings blown up, oil wells set afire, Saddam still smiling on TV. Numerous antiwar protests yesterday, including a small one in Wichita, which as much as anything else was an opportunity to blow off a little steam. This is going to be a long haul. There is no chance right now that the U.S. will change course, and little need to convince anyone else. On the other hand, it is important to remember that George W. Bush is responsible for this war, that this war was not in any way necessary for the safety or security of American citizens, and that it was done in utter contempt of the United Nations and most people around the globe. But then we all know that, right?

March 22, 2003

Read the "Letter from Baghad" piece in The New Yorker, which only reinforces the point that the U.S. invasion of Iraq is going to be resisted and resisted and resisted, and that eventually the U.S. will get tired of it and leave. At least unless it provokes terrorism elsewhere, which gives the U.S. excuse to make war on Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and whoever else is on Ariel Sharon's (err, George W. Bush's) enemies list.

Another thing that occurs to me is that all this talk about how the U.S. is liberating Iraq, with nicely posed pictures of happy Iraqis, etc., has us entering a wormhole where the other end is Vietnam. During the Johnson administration, all we heard about was how we had to stand by our friends in Vietnam, save them from communism, etc. Nothing but moral high ground, when in fact -- a fact that became naked with Henry Kissinger -- the war was about projecting American power. That's exactly what the war against Iraq is about too, and trying to wrap it up and palm it off as something else is disingenuous to say the least. More important, it's a trap: all these friends the U.S. is recruiting now are going to be liabilities in the future, people who will wind up wondering why the U.S. double crossed them when the U.S. never really gave a shit about them anyway.

March 25, 2003

The war grinds on. The fantasy that expected the Iraqis to roll out the red carpet for their American liberators has been dashed. Nobody expects that Iraq will be able to repulse the U.S. invasion, but the level and form of resistance pretty much guarantees that eventually the U.S. will leave Iraq without having accomplished anything more notable than the perverse satisfaction of serving up Saddam's head on some platter.

As I said earlier, the level of resistance will be telling. If you want a rule of thumb for neocolonialist wars of occupation, it's that once you can't tell your friends from your enemies in the native population, you're fucked. At its simplest level, that's because the occupiers get nervous and make mistakes. The mistakes, in turn, compound, pushing more and more people from the friendly side to the hostile side. That in turn reinforces the nervousness, the mistakes, the alienation. In turn, the resistance gets bolder; as this happens, the occupation digs in, becoming more brutal, vicious, capricious. The high-minded rhetoric is exposed as pure hypocrisy, and the occupation becomes more nakedly about nothing more than power. Such wars become vastly unpopular, and eventually the occupier has to cut its losses and go home. This is what happened in Vietnam, and we're going to be hearing a lot more about the similarity as this war bogs down.

So, let's face it, the U.S. war against Iraq is a colossal failure. The only question remaining is how long it will take the U.S. to give up and get out, and how much destruction the U.S. will leave in its wake. So remember this: This war did not have to happen. No one who has died, been injured, been captured, been terrorized by this war had to suffer. This only happened because of one mad tyrant: George W. Bush. Even today, if sanity were to suddenly overcome him, all he'd have to do is cease fire and order the troops home. Every day, every minute that he does not do this just adds to the grossness of his crime.


The press, unable to recognize a quagmire before they're stuck a couple years, or perhaps afraid to jinx the occupation, never warmed up to the Vietnam analogy. Perhaps because the neocons spent the last couple decades lecturing us that reason the US was forced to withdraw wasn't because the war was going badly, but because the hippies back home didn't have the will to see it through.

March 28, 2003

There hasn't been much to say lately about the war. The notion that Iraq would just lie back and enjoy it, of course, is no longer in play. But once you get past the fantasies, the evidence seems to favor both pro-war and anti-war interpretations. The basic difference is not the evidence -- it's how much war you can stand. Those of us who oppose the war can point to overwhelming, damning evidence of irreversible damage to all sides, and can assert with certainty that if the war continues and most likely escalates we can only expect more and more irreversible destruction. We can also argue with compelling logic that the cycle of aggression, resistance, and escalation is a hopeless whorl that will suck all sides into one hell or another, regardless of whether the aggression ultimately fails, as in Vietnam, or even if it "succeeds" -- the only U.S. example I can think of here is the conquest of the many Native American tribes.

I can't speak for the pro-war interpretation, but the media does plenty of that. I don't doubt that the U.S. is making significant progress toward completing its conquest of Iraq. I don't doubt that the U.S. will prevail, at least in the limited sense of securing the ability to go anywhere and do anything they want in the country. But I also don't have any idea how much firepower and manpower will ultimately be required to do so, how many Iraqis will die in the process, or how much of the country will be viable afterwards. And I don't have any idea how many Iraqis will flock to support their new U.S. masters. The latter is especially important, because without significant active Iraqi cooperation U.S. occupation will be a nightmare. And even then, such cooperation will force a schism within the Iraqi populace that will long tear at Iraq's social fabric, and which, if/when Iraq reverts to form, may result in many of our Iraqi "friends" seeking asylum in the U.S. (Which is where most of our Vietnamese and Cuban "friends" wound up living.)

Pretty much everyone agrees that one of the side-effects of the Iraq war will be more terrorism in the U.S. Few people take the time to recall that, until 9/11 [2001], the most destructive terrorist to come out of the Gulf War was Timothy McVeigh. (Now, of course, the answer to that quiz is George W. Bush.) I've often said that I think the threat of Al Qaeda/Arab terrorism is much overrated -- not that there is no risk, but that the real risk doesn't warrant such desperate measures as the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that in fact the risk could be significantly lessened if the U.S. were to start to act decently, especially regarding Israel/Palestine. But one thing I do worry about is how these wars work to generate domestic right-wing terrorists, and even more so how they reinforce right-wing tendencies toward racism, militarism, and plain old viciousness. One thing we see throughout U.S. history is one war leading to another, often with pronounced swings to the right in the postwar period, such as the Red Scare after WWI and McCarthyism after WWII. (It took a few years for the sting of defeat in Vietnam to wear off and let Reagan in, but in many ways that was the worst.)


The fears of Iraq generating future terrorism have mostly faded, aside from a few ISIS-related incidents much later, and (of course) the occasional war-damaged U.S soldier going berserk.

April 9, 2003

It turned out that the video reacted to here was staged, to imply that Iraqis were welcoming American troops as liberators, which wasn't the case at all.

I have to admit that I found myself enjoying the video of Iraqis dancing on Saddam Hussein's statues. The rest of the day's news is harder to evaluate, and nothing that's happened gives me any second thoughts about the fundamental evilness of the Bush War. In particular, I don't think that any American opponent of this war expected Saddam Hussein's government to hold out against the American war machine. Nor do we feel any sympathy or remorse for Saddam Hussein himself or his government. On the other hand, the practice and effects of this war have proven to be as horrible as expected -- of course, it feels even worse, since no matter how well you may have conceived of it, the actual events hit you far more viscerally.

Still, even though much has happened, we still have very little real understanding of what has happened, let alone what it will all mean. Another thing that we predicted was that this would be a nest of lies and blatant propaganda, and while that much is certainly true, it will take quite a while for honest people to sort this out. It is, of course, clear that the lens that we are looking through in the US is far different from what people in other countries are seeing.

April 11, 2003

There was a period back in the Afghanistan war when the Northern Alliance started reeling off a quick series of victories -- not so much that they were defeating the Taliban in confrontations as that the Taliban was high-tailing it out of the cities, allowing Herat, Kabul, and Kandahar to fall in quick succession. The hawks then made haste to trumpet their victory and to dump on anyone who had doubted the US in this war. Back then, I referred to those few weeks as "the feel good days of the war." Well, we had something like that in Iraq, too, except that use of the plural now seems unwarranted. So mark it on your calendar, Wednesday, April 9, 2003, was the feel good day of the Iraq war. The collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime has proceeded apace, but there seems to be much less to feel good about. One big thing was the killing of the bigwig shia collaborators that the US started to promote, combined with the unwillingness of other shia bigwigs to collaborate. One of the problems with this is that it suggests that the US, as always, is looking for religious leaders to control the people -- which in turn threatens to roll back the one thing Saddam had going for his regime, which was that it was strongly secular. The fact is, if you want to introduce something resembling liberal democracy in Iraq, you have to promote secularism. (Of course, given the contempt that Bush has for liberal democracy in the US, it's hard to believe that he really wants that.)

Bigger still is the whole looting thing, as well as mob reprisals against Baath leaders, which threaten to turn into the much predicted Iraqi-on-Iraqi warfare. The looting itself basically means that what infrastructure the US somehow managed not to destroy will be taken down by Iraqi mobs. The likelihood that those mobs are anything other than just isolated hoodlums is small, but collectively the damage that they inflict is likely to be huge. And given how unlikely it is that the US, its allies, and the rest of the world who were so blatantly disregarded in this whole affair, are to actually pay for anything resembling real reconstruction, this is just digging an ever deeper hole. While right now, given that there is still armed (if not necessarily organized [this is where Rumsfeld said, "stuff happens"]) resistance to the US, it's hard to see how the US could keep order even if it wants to (a mixed proposition), but failure to do so is already setting the US up as responsible for the looting, and adding to the already huge responsibility that the US bears for the current and future misery of the Iraqi people. And when the US does start to enforce order, what is bound to happen? More dead Iraqis. And who's responsible for that? The US. If this had just happened out of the blue, I might be a bit sympathetic, but this is exactly what we had predicted as the inevitable given the US course of action.

So happy last Wednesday. That's very likely to be the last one for a long time now.

April 14, 2003

Watching some Iraqi politicos on TV the other day, it occurs to me that one difference between Afghanistan and Iraq is that Iraqi political figures are much more sophisticated. By this, I may just mean that the US will be dealing with people who know better how to deal with Americans. It may be as simple as that they speak better English, but in general there's a bit of hope for shared knowledge and understanding. How much of a difference that will make is hard to say, but it's something. The other advantage that Iraq has is that it has the raw and human resources to, theoretically, build a viable economy. On the other hand, between Iraq's wars against Iran and Kuwait, the long period of economic sanctions and other depredations by the Baath party leaders and their predecessors, an astonishing amount of improverishment has been inflicted on Iraq, and overcoming that will be a huge task. There is also the question of Iraq's debts, which with interest are large enough to be unmeetable. (It's been proposed that much or all of the debts incurred by Sadaam Hussein should be written off as "odious" debts -- the idea there is that anyone who loaned Saddam money deserves to lose it.) The question of whether the US is going to hand Iraq some sort of bill for the costs of destroying it, to the best of my knowledge, hasn't even been raised, but that's often been the case (e.g., for the US occupation of Japan).

On the other hand, watching Iraqi mobs looting, and hearing reports of revenge killings and accidental killings and all that, it sure doesn't look good. I don't know what the extent of looting damage actually is, but it merely adds to the considerable damage inflicted by the warfare, primarily by the US military. And again, since the US has no business being there, this all goes on the US tab. The sacking of the museums is particularly appalling, but when you look at what has happened to government offices, the palaces, etc., it becomes clear that a vast amount of our ability to ever understand and eventually manage Iraq has vanished with it. It's already being admitted now that we will never get an accurate death toll -- among other things this means that there will always be disputes over numbers, which will make it all the harder to reconcile anything in the future, but it also means that we will never fully be able to map out this destruction in human terms. One thing I would dearly like to see is a systematic international (neutral) attempt to assess the physical and human damage that this war has inflicted.

August 19, 2003

I haven't written much about the US in Iraq, probably because it has all unfolded so predictably. Iraq is caught between two pincers: one is the inevitability of Iraqi resistance, the other the arrogance and ineptness of the American occupation. The former was presaged by the 1991 war, and by the long, cruel regime of sanctions that followed, punctuated by further bombing attacks, which only had the effect of punishing the Iraqi people for leaders who in turn were able to use the siege to oppressively tighten their control. Those policies, pursued by three US presidents for more than a decade, implemented with indifference, indeed total contempt, for the Iraq people, have specifically destroyed any possible credibility that the US might have claimed to be seen as a liberator or benefactor of the Iraqi people. But even beyond the history of specific US policies dealing with Iraq, US policies elsewhere in the Arab world and throughout the third world have made it seem highly implausible that the US can be trusted to do anything of long-term benefit to the Iraqi people.

What's happened since Iraqi resistance emerged has only served to make it appear stronger and more viable -- not, of course, in the sense that they can hope to drive the US out but in anticipation that they can make it painful enough that the US will eventually choose to quit the struggle. The US has managed over the last 20+ years to fight wars with so few casualties that now none are expected, which gives them a very low pain threshold. The response is both to button up and to lash out, both of which make US forces appear to be more alien and more hostile, while at the same time making them less effective as security forces and less responsible as administrative forces. Recent sabotage of oil and water pipelines are something we can expect to see regularly, especially as long as the Iraqi people hold the US responsible for infrastructure failures.

On the other hand, the US appears to be nearly clueless in its occupation. There are many reasons for this: most obviously that the US military's core competency doesn't extend far beyond the art of blowing things up. Even logistical support of US troops seems to be a strain -- the death of a US soldier due to heatstroke is a particularly poignant sign of failure and incompetence. Language (the need to mediate virtually every communication through translators) is obviously a huge problem, which burdens every effort to work with and through the population. And the lack of security makes it all but impossible to bring in civilian help to repair critical infrastructure. But these are the sort of problems that any occupier would face, even one that could reasonably be viewed as benign.

The US faces far deeper problems, which are rooted in the delusions that the Bush administration entertained in selling the war and in conceiving of its solution. As an MBA, Bush should be aware that the single most effective prerequisite for selling anything is the ability to project conviction. The rationales for the Iraq war never had much merit, and the risks associated with the war have always loomed large, but Bush et al. somehow managed to convince first themselves and then key parts of the power structure that their rationales were sound and that the risks were manageable. In doing so they have become trapped in their own lies and delusions. Most obviously, this is why they didn't plan for contingencies that they had to discount in order to sell their case. And now, given the actual level of Iraqi resistance, and given the collapse of their delusions about popular and international support for their war and occupation, about all that Iraqi oil that was supposed to pay for the venture, they find themselves swamped in a mess that offers no way out.

But this gets worse for Bush, because Iraq isn't the only thing he and his posse are deluded about: Bush's handling of crises in America has faired little better. After all, the stories about blackouts and water shortages and snipers aren't all postmarked Baghdad. Bush's ideological straightjacket not only doesn't work in Iraq -- it doesn't even work here. The examples are numerous -- far too numerous to go into here. But some idea of the enormity of the problem, and how clueless Bush is regarding it, can be gleaned from a fairly simple and self-evident rule of thumb: that the only viable direction for change is toward greater equality and freedom. Freedom alone he might be able to handle, since freedom suggests the right to do what one wants, and Bush definitely likes the idea of doing what one wants -- so long as "one" is Bush or at least a big campaign donor. But that sort of freedom inevitably tramples on the freedom of everyone else; it's only in moving toward greater equality that more people benefit from the system and thereby become part of the system. The core fact is that without the earnest participation of workers nothing really works in complex technological economies, and that everyone who inhabits those societies depends on their ability to trust those workers. What we're seeing in Iraq is a society where trust has been completely undermined by the presence of a foreign, hostile military culture. In the US we rarely see such active hostility, but the indifference and contempt of those who hold power toward those who merely work (in contrast to those who move capital) is spreading rot more slowly, but just as surely.

The bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad today, and last week's bombing of the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, are especially troubling acts. Both are attacks on groups that might have worked to mediate and ameliorate the US occupation. Consequently, they serve to make it all the harder for the US to withdraw at all gracefully. It's hard to tell what the intent might be in selecting such targets, and it's far from clear that there is any real coordination between these bombings and other more clearly targeted forms of resistance. But the suggestion is certainly raised that if/when the US withdraws there will be a bloody civil war in Iraq. (That shouldn't come as a surprise; indeed, that's always been a potential risk in this conflict, which to my mind was one of those worst case scenarios where the sheer magnitude of the downside swamps out its improbability. Not that it ever was all that improbable: in effect there pre-existed a civil war truce between the Kurds and the Baathist regime, which could be destabilized at any time; it's also worth noting that Afghanistan is already in a state of civil war, only marginally realigned with the US intervention.)

August 20, 2003

The bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad came as a surprise, but the post facto comments by Bush and Ashcroft couldn't have been more rote. We are hopelessly mired in ruts of rhetoric, and nothing is likely to change unless one can start to recognize real changes in the world around us. That the UN bombing came as a surprise may just be an illusion based on the recent war debate, where Bush and Powell failed to secure UN blessing for the US invasion of Iraq. From that, and the fact that the US and UK went ahead and invaded anyway, we tend to think that the UN is a different, broader, fairer, more reasonable force than the US/UK "coalition" -- and we tend to see it as a much better alternative: that handing the occupation over to the UN would be more welcome to the Iraqis, and would permit a more stable, less poisoned reconstruction effort. Still, try to imagine how the UN is viewed by Iraqis: the UN supported the 1991 war; the UN imposed the sanctions that have gone so far to strangle the Iraqi economy; the UN weapons inspection teams never certified that Iraq had eliminated its WMD, thereby prolonging the sanctions and providing excuses for the US to further punish and ultimately to invade and occupy Iraq. How wrong might ordinary Iraqis be to view the UN as US stooges? In the US, we find it easy to dismiss this argument because we're aware of the long-running right-wing political critique of the UN, which has basically become dominant with the ascendancy of the neocon hawks.

November 1, 2003

Most of this long post is a thought-experiment on how a more thoughtful occupation of Iraq might work out, not least by permitting its own dissolution. Before getting into that, I wrote:

It is impossible to know what is really going on in Iraq, at least in terms of assessing the "progress" and prospects for the U.S. occupation. Most news reports depict a level of resistance that is sufficient to seriously disrupt American plans. Moreover, it seems likely that this level of resistance can be sustained indefinitely -- at least as long as the U.S. is a convenient target. On the other hand, U.S. officialdom is strenuously trying to paint a rosier picture. But, then, the credibility of U.S. officialdom has been strained so severely that even mainstream media, which usually devours whatever is fed them, is looking askance. Or maybe they just smell blood; they are, after all, good at that.

To some extent this is one of those half-empty/half-full divisions. What is generally agreed on is that the current state -- the "half" if you will -- is unstable and transitional. The disagreement is on where it is going. Your half-fulls here figure that when the occupation is able to get Iraq into some sort of functional state -- once the infrastructure works and the oil flows and the economy starts moving and ordinary Iraqis start to see some tangible improvement in their lives -- the resistance will fade away. On the other hand, your half-empties will argue that the resistance will keep most or all of those things from happening, and that by doing so it will harvest enough resentment against the occupation that it will sustain itself, until eventually the U.S. gives up and leaves.

This division has less to do with the available facts than with a pair of perceptions. The half-fulls believe that the resistance is the work of a small and finite number of intractable evil-doers, who merely need to be drawn out and dispatched; the half-empties believe that the resistance is the inevitable fruit of occupation, and that any efforts to suppress the resistance will only deepen it. The half-fulls also believe that the U.S. has the skills and good will and generosity to make the occupation work for the betterment of the Iraqi people; the half-empties have grave doubts about those very skills, not to mention what all that American good will and generosity did for ordinary Iraqi people even before the invasion. The half-fulls, of course, believe that even if their optimism has been a bit excessive, there is no choice but for America to "stay the course" until a better Iraq emerges, and see withdrawal as not only callous but ultimately as tragic for the Iraqi people. The half-empties, on the other hand, figure that even as bad as the occupation has already proved itself to be, continuing it is only going to make it worse, and that even though immediate U.S. withdrawal would probably lead to short-term chaos and possibly to long-term tyranny, those risks are preferable to the certain failure of occupation.

December 16, 2003

Sunday, Dec. 14, 2003, with the capture of Saddam Hussein, was the second feel good day of the Iraq war. The first, of course, was the day the US entered Baghdad, resulting in the staged toppling of Saddam's statue. Both were days when Saddam's tyranny fell; both were days when the fall of Saddam at least temporarily eclipsed the tragedy of Bush's war. Of course, that says as much about the media as it does history: we focus so much on immediate tangible events that the broader context, "the big picture," gets lost, much as the moon doesn't actually set each morning -- it just gets overwhelmed by the relative brightness of the sun. Still, the sun does inevitably set, returning us to the dim light of the moon. What's left for Saddam Hussein is just to pick over the bones, of which there are plenty. Removing Saddam Hussein from power is the one positive accomplishment of the Bush War. It's not a justification, just a welcome respite.

The local paper had several pieces, plus one of Randy Schofield's me-too editorials and even a Crowson cartoon, on how best to bring Saddam to justice. Or more precisely, who gets to execute him. One of the pieces was a chart of possible courts, which were mainly distinguished by which have the option of capital punishment. That seems to disqualify the World Court. (One option missing from the list is turning him over to Iran, which can safely be counted in the pro-capital punishment camp.) I don't care much one way or the other. After some twists and turns, I finally came to the opinion that I'm opposed to capital punishment -- ultimately because I don't want to give governments the option of killing citizens, and I don't want to deny citizens the right not to be killed by their government, even when they have seriously transgressed against their fellow citizens. Abuse is obviously a worry here, but even if somehow abuse could be guaranteed against, the mere option of capital punishment distorts discussion over how to punish and how to secure against further crimes.

But that's just the general principle. In the matter of Saddam Hussein, I don't care much one way or the other. In defense of not executing him, I'll point out that there are many other people who have committed comparable crimes without even getting prosecuted -- Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger are good examplesr. (George W. Bush is another, and his father wasn't much better -- merely less foolish.) Stalin was another, and the list goes on and on. For such people, the most critical thing we can hope for is exposure -- and ironically, keeping Saddam alive is more likely to facilitate exposure than summarily killing him. On the other hand, Saddam has been pretty much exposed already, and he is pretty much history at this point. Killing him is not likely to make much difference one way or the other. Maybe it would make him a martyr, but it's hard to make much of a martyr out of such an unprincipled lout. Certainly it would close one door on history -- the finalitude that argues against most capital executions is a plus here.

Back when I was kicking the principle around in my mind, I conceded that there was one case where I did approve of capital punishment: when Romania revolted against Ceausescu, they executed the dictator and his wife (a bad figure in her own right), then outlawed capital punishment. That put a stake in the heart of Ceausescu's cult of personality, depriving his diehard supporters of any reason to continue the war, and no doubt saving many lives. It also put an end to any temptation to further purge Romania's communist leadership. And it set a clear standard that separated the true monsters from even their rank and file supporters. I'm willing to accept that Saddam was such a monster that he should be singled out for execution. But it is a sobering thought that the ultimate price he might pay is no more than that paid by thousands of ordinary Iraqis mowed down in Bush's quixotic effort to remake the Middle East in the image of West Texas. And whereas killing Ceausescu brought Romania's revolution to a definitive close, killing Saddam will have no real effect on Iraq's resistance to US occupation -- the killing will continue there, even though the prime reason why the US started this war is no longer in play. The only hope we have for a third feel good day in Iraq is if Bush decides that Saddam's skull is victory enough.


The Americans soon handed Saddam over to a Shiite-controlled court to be tried for crimes against their fellow sectarians. They made quick work of him.

February 2, 2004

Last week I saw a clip on TV where Howard Dean criticized John Kerry for voting for the 2002 Iraq War resolution and voting against the 1990 Iraq War resolution. Dean argued that Kerry had gotten it backwards. I don't know what Kerry's reply (if any) was. Lately, Kerry has been arguing that he voted in favor of the 2002 resolution because he wanted to help make George W. Bush's threat of force against Iraq more credible to Saddam Hussein. That seems naive, at least as regards Bush, who has turned out to be the much graver threat to world peace. But the more interesting question is whether Kerry still defends his 1990 vote. He could plausibly contend that had he prevailed in 1990 none of the following events would have transpired. However, he's unlikely to do so, because the 1990 war is now conventionally viewed as a right cause. [Or at least it's viewed as the politically savvy choice for a Democrat, as both Clinton and Gore supported the war, and won the nomination in 1992. Nearly all of the serious 2004 Democratic candidates voted as Kerry did, as did the junior senator from New York, waiting her turn to run in 2008.] Dean, for instance, seems to view it as a triumph of measured, multilateral defense of international law, even though it left a festering scar. The Neocon hawks, in turn, saw it as a mere half-victory, demanding a second round of war. Only the Pragmatists, which would include the ruling Saudi and Kuwaiti families, saw it as wholly satisfactory: an extension of their license to rule and exploit.

It's unsettling that the two more prominent opposition party critics of Bush's conduct of the Iraq War -- and Wesley Clark would certainly make it three -- can't even settle on what went wrong, or why. Indeed, the more theories you read about why the U.S. undertook this war, the more confusing their stories get. A big part of this is due, of course, to the current Bush administration: the reasons they give -- the WMD threat, the war on terrorism, the liberation of Iraq -- are far and away the easiest to discard. But the bigger problem is that, at least in the U.S., the search for reasons has shown a blind eye both to history and to structure and dynamics of domestic political debate in the U.S. I want to propose a framework here to help us sort out the real causes of this war.

The history of the U.S.-Iraq conflict should be broken down into three major stages:

  1. The 1990 War (U.S. Operation Desert Storm): This starts not with Iraq's 1989 invasion of Kuwait, which was done in the context of official U.S. indifference (at least as expressed by the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq at the time), but with the U.S./U.K. decision to wage war against Iraq to forcibly expel them from Kuwait. This stage was completed when Kuwait was returned to its previous rulers, and Iraq agreed to cease fire terms.

  2. The Containment Period: This continues up to the ultimatum preceding the U.S.-led "coalition" invasion of Iraq in 2003. This could be subdivided, but the whole period is marked by consistent efforts by the U.S. to destabilize the Iraqi regime, especially by impoverishing the Iraqi people.

  3. Invasion and Current Occupation: From the ultimatum and invasion through the "end of major hostilities" and the subsequent occupation and resistance. During this period, almost all of the prewar claims by U.S. hawks have been discredited.

The build-up to the 1990 war was critical to everything that followed. It is important to remember that this debate occurred in the wake of the collapse of the Cold War, at a time when significant disarmament was on the table -- this was a time when even politicians could be heard talking about a "peace dividend." The net effect of the decision to go to war was that the U.S. military saved itself by discovering a new enemy. The antiwar debate at the time was centered not on what Iraq had done, but on what role the U.S., weary and battered by the long and brutal battle against Communism, should take in the coming, undivided world. The Bush administration was tactically split -- the "pragmatists" happy to act as mercenaries as long as their Saudi buddies footed the bill, the "neocons" itching for the U.S. to take advantage of its victors' spoils in the Cold War. The pragmatists won the war, but it was George H.W. Bush himself who ceded the post-war to the neocons, by his hard sell of Saddam Hussein as "another Hitler." In doing so, his "failure" to prosecute the war all the way to Baghdad -- the logical end expected by an American public who grew up on WWII and Roosevelt's insistence on Hitler's unconditional surrender -- cast him as the new Neville Chamberlain. Republican etiquette, of course, didn't dwell on such comparisons, but Democrats like Al Gore didn't feel compelled to be so delicate.

Given that the 1990 war left the villainized Saddam Hussein in power, containment of Iraq and eventual "regime change" remained on the agenda -- a "make work" program for the U.S. military and spook agencies. Bush, having hung the Hitler tag on Saddam, didn't dare try to negotiate a resolution that would have left Saddam in power. Clinton soon found that he could always score safe points by bombing or badgering Iraq: the containment and impoverishment of Iraq cost him nothing politically, either viz. the Republicans or viz. America's sordid allies in the region. The irresistible impulse of Republican rhetoric, in turn, moved them ever more under the neocon spell. This is the period when it became commonplace to talk about the U.S. as "the world's only superpower" -- and what's the good of being a superpower if you can't boss other countries around?

Having failed to stop the march to war in 1990, the antiwar movement lost its opportunity to demilitarize America. A big part of the problem that they ran into was that much of the argument against war was based on fear of a Vietnam-redux quagmire. The ease of the initial military triumph over Iraq seemed to put those fears to rest, even though the triumph was partial, and portended a long war of containment. The latter was largely unchallenged in American political discourse: the universal acceptance of Saddam's pariah status precluded any resolution that would have left him in power, while the war took place largely out of sight, costing nothing in U.S. casualties, and largely tolerated by the U.N. and all other world and regional powers.

The net effect of the villainization of Saddam Hussein, the build-up of U.S. military forces aimed at his containment, the indifference of the American citizenry to the human tragedy caused by sanctions, and the increasingly desperate desire to assert America's superpower status -- challenged and inflamed by Al Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- led directly to the second Bush administration's resolve to invade and occupy Iraq. Bush was also much impressed by how easily the U.S. military had achieved apparent victory in Afghanistan -- an assessment which now seems to have been premature and at risk.


Note that nowhere in this was any consideration given to the difficulty of building stable economies and popular governments, other than to keep the whole question out of the public eye. During the 2000 campaign, Bush had developed a critique of "nation building," and had talked quite a bit about how the military should only be used to destroy the enemy, and not for rebuilding. Bush changed his mind when success looked easy, but his crew (especially Rumsfeld) didn't, and they tripped each other up. Still, there was nothing in the Republican view of the world that could have worked. (Peter Beinart tried flipping this, arguing that liberals could do the job, but he, too, was wrong. See his book, below.)

March 21, 2004

This is my summary at the end of year one, with another ten or twenty to come, depending on where you want to slice the cake. (As of today, there are still American troops in Iraq, as advisers in case the ISIS revolt flares up again, and in Syria, presumably for the same reason but it's hard to tell as the US is also still opposed to the Syrian government.) One thing I should stress is that when I wrote "it could have been a lot worse," within three months it did in fact get a lot worse: Fallujah was lost to Sunni insurgents, and East Baghdad, controlled by the Sadr faction of Shiites, was also in revolt, and threatening to ally with Fallujah. That crisis was narrowly averted by turning the two factions against each other, so for the next several year civil war became a more pressing problem for most Iraqis than the inept US occupation, increasingly isolated in the Green Zone and operating opaquely through Iraqi intermediaries. Also on the near horizon was the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.

Demonstrations yesterday marked the first anniversary of the Bush War in Iraq. Many observers and pundits have marked this anniversary by trying to sum up what the war has accomplished or wrought. This is, of course, difficult to do, not least of all because the war is nowhere near over, but also because we have so little reliable information about what has happened, or why. We are still deluged with spin: the hawks are as hawkish as ever, the doves are as dovish as ever, and an awful lot of what has happened can be taken to vindicate whatever predispositions you have. That's certainly true from where I peer out at the world. And you've no doubt already heard what Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Bremer and Richard Perle and their ilk are saying about the subject.

We have some answers to those questions now, but even though we can cite precise figures for Americans sacrificed and much rougher figures for Iraqis, the only thing that we can really be sure of is that today's figures will be short tomorrow. The fact is that Bush is still marching blithely into the unknown, and he's dragging us with him. I don't have anything approaching a comprehensive analysis of the state of the war and its impact on the world today. But I will jot down a few quick observations:

  1. However bad what's happened is, it comes up far short of the worst case projections. This doesn't mean that the war isn't so bad; it just means that it could have been a lot worse. And it doesn't mean that the people who worried about worst case scenarios were misguided; it mostly means that the perpetrators of this war have had some good luck. Iraq's total lack of WMD has proven embarrassing for the war planners, but it would have been worse had they actually existed and been used, and especially had they been redeployed through international terrorist networks -- the danger being not merely the damage that WMD can do, but also the inevitable escalation of retaliation. Iraq was in fact completely incapable of extending the war outside its own borders, so the scenario where Iraq might try to recast the war by lobbing a few WMD-filled missiles at an apoplectic, nuclear-armed Israel never came close to materializing. Iraq's defense was very undisciplined, making virtually no use of sabotage to amplify the damage attributable to the invaders or to deny them resources. The post-occupation resistance has also been less extensive and less popular than it might have been, while more Iraqis than might have been expected have been supportive or at least tolerant of US occupation. (This observation is relative to expectations: the proposition that the US liberators would be welcomed with flowers was at least as far off base, and while the resistance could have been much worse, it's thus far been sufficient to isolate and destabilize the occupation.) About the only thing that did follow a worst case scenario was the post-liberation looting, which severely tarnished the US occupation from the very start. The main reason that things didn't turn out worse than they did is that Saddam Hussein's regime has proven to be much weaker and much more inept than anyone expected.

  2. It appears likely that the standard of living of many of the Iraqi may have improved slightly over pre-invasion, at least as measured by consumer goods spending. (How much improvement, for how many people, is an open question.) This is primarily attributable to the ending of the sanctions imposed on Iraq. Other pluses are the elimination of taxes effectively imposed by Saddam Hussein's regime, and an influx of money for reconstruction, but these are more than offset by the destruction of the war itself (which continues) and massive unemployment. It goes without saying (and in fact I've never heard this said) that a greater improvement in the Iraqi standard of living would have occurred simply by relaxing the sanctions while leaving Saddam Hussein in power. So this doesn't amount to a very good reason for going to war.

  3. It is clear now that the US/UK case for going to war against Iraq was founded on little more than arrogance and ignorance, and presented as nothing more than a blatant list of lies. It is clear that this happened because the US/UK had decided on a course of war for other reasons, and that they single-mindedly marshalled their case to support their predispositions. Especially revealing here is the Bush administration's unwillingness to credit the UN WMD inspections process or to consider any of the efforts to resolve the crisis diplomatically. (It is less clear what those other reasons were, in large part because the suppositions make so little sense. I'm almost inclined to think that the real reason is that the US likes instability and poverty in the region, which are the main things that this war has accomplished -- although it's still more credible to believe that the Bush administration is simply run by evil idiots.)

  4. The US occupation of Iraq has been remarkably incompetent. Planning for the occupation was somewhere between non-existent and delusional. The initial chaos that allowed extensive looting shattered any prospect that the US might be powerful enough to conduct an orderly transformation of Iraq's political economy. For political reasons, the US also chose not to do the obvious thing, which was to keep existing Iraqi governmental agencies intact and rule through them. Abolishing the army and police forces fed the resistance, while belatedly forcing the US to reconstruct its own Iraqi army and police forces. The resistance itself soon attained a sufficient level of activity to force the US occupiers to hide behind their security barricades, disconnecting from the people they allegedly came to liberate. By failing to hold elections, the US never made an effort to establish a legitimate Iraqi political presence. (Presumably this was because they realized that such a political body would soon ask them to leave.)

  5. I suspect that if you go back and look at the figures, you'll find that there have been more significant terrorism events outside of Iraq in the past year (especially the past six months) than in the year before the Iraq invasion. It is at least arguable that US preoccupation with Iraq has allowed Al Qaeda to regroup. It also seems likely that the US invasion of Iraq has been a boon to Jihadist recruiting. And this is just looking at events outside of Iraq. Obviously, the amount of terror in Iraq has increased substantially. It's not clear how much of that is attributable to non-Iraqi Arabs flocking to the new opportunity to kill Americans on home turf. Nowadays Bush administration mouthpieces usually defend the invasion and occupation of Iraq as the "front line in the war against terrorism." They created a "front line" where none existed before, and what they've created is totally additional to what exists elsewhere.

  6. It is arguable that Bush's eagerness to savage Iraq over suspected WMD proliferation has contributed to diplomatic agreements with Libya and Iran to dismantle their nuclear weapons programs. It's also possible that diplomatic efforts that didn't involve the threat of invasion may have had the same effect. No such deal has been forthcoming with North Korea, perhaps because Bush likes to keep Japan feeling like a hostage. (Or perhaps because Bush is a dolt. One thing that is clear though is that the US military doesn't relish the prospect of invading North Korea, regardless of the Bush doctrine on preëmptive wars.) [A deal was cut with Libya, but the US overthrew the Libyan government a decade later, leaving chaos and insurgent Islamists in its wake. Iran didn't have a program, and didn't get a deal. Urged by Israel, Obama did finally sign a deal with Iran, but giving into Israeli demands, Trump trashed it. The US continues to treat Iran as an enemy. Negotiations with North Korea fell apart, and North Korea went on to test nuclear weapons and missiles capable of delivering them to the continental US. North Korea sees Libya and Iran as further proof that the US cannot be trusted.]

  7. The idea that building a vibrant Iraqi Democracy would revolutionize the Middle East is still pretty much in the wings, since no such thing exists. And it's likely to stay there, given that Democracy is not one of Bush's stronger subjects. The idea that US military success in Iraq will embolden us to tackle terrorist-friendly rogue states like Syria and Iran is also in the wings, since even with Saddam Hussein's evident decrepitude the US military has already bit off more than it can chew.

  8. The prewar powwow in the Azores between the US, UK, and Spain, where they made their joint declaration against Iraq, also promised renewed efforts at a peace settlement between Israel and Palestine along the lines of the "Road Map." Aside from some early photo-ops, this has led exactly nowhere, not least of all because the Bush administration has done exactly nothing to prod Sharon toward a settlement.

  9. Although the polls offer somewhat confused and contradictory data, overall the Iraq War has not played well in the US politically. Despite constant media trumpeting of administration story lines and "feel good" stories, most Americans seem to feel that something is fundamentally wrong with this war. The WMD issue has become fair game, and it clearly exposes how cynically the Bush administration sold this war. The body count continues to inch upward. The cost continues to climb, at a time when the economy is at best stagnant and for many people has tanked, while the deficit mushrooms. The elections in Spain have defied the common assumption that terror attacks = right-wing victories, but one reason for that is that so many people see Iraq as a totally separate issue from Al Qaeda-style terrorism. The one political bump that Bush got was from the capture of Saddam Hussein, but that's old news now. At this point even the Bush administration seems to want to shift the focus back to Afghanistan and Al Qaeda to get away from Iraq, hoping no doubt that they can pull Osama Bin Laden out of a hat just in time for the election. To which, I'm sure, Kerry will respond, "What took you so long? Could it have been Iraq?"

  10. Conversely to the first point, almost nothing that has happened in Iraq during the past year has happened according to the plans of the perpetrators of the war. It is not unusual for people to guess wrong about the future, but it is rare for so many people to be so totally off base. The principals in the Bush administration cling to a set of assumptions -- above all the invincibility and rectitude of American power -- that are simply invalid, and consequently they find themselves constantly struggling against the real trends in the world today. Not least of which is that few people outside of the US's imperial theorists have much taste these days for war as a method of resolving conflicts. (Even within the US military the prospect of getting shot at seems to be more than most people think they've signed up for.)

Still, one year is a short time, and only a tiny percentage of all of the ultimate consequences of Bush's wars have emerged. Just to take one example, in the 1990 Iraq war far fewer US soldiers were killed than this year, but the set of longer term illnesses and maladies that ultimately afflicted US soldiers in that war has now taken its toll on something in excess of 20%, and we've also seen huge increases in the cancer rate among Iraqis. We have no comparable data on that now, but the same depleted uranium munitions were used this time, and as the years go by we will be hearing more and more about such things. For another example, we now know that most of the fighters for the Taliban, which we now hate so much [and who increasingly have reason to hate us], started off as young children in refugee camps that were created as a result of our proxy war against the Soviet Union, which ravaged Afghanistan for ten years, and continued for thirteen more before we jumped back in and are still fighting there. We have no idea now what will eventually happen to the children of the US occupation in Iraq, but the likelihood that some will come back to haunt us sooner or later is fairly strong.

Given all that the US has done in the Islamic world, the thing that I find most remarkable is that there is so little anti-US activism (as opposed to sentiment or mere opinion). There are, I'm sure, lots of reasons for that, not least of which is that Jihadism isn't a very attractive use of one's life. Any political movement that depends on its adherents being willing to undertake suicide missions is bound to burn itself out, unless by some colossal act of stupidity some force continuously drives more and more people to extreme desperation. We've seen that especially with Israel, and it's clear that the US is doing the same thing in Iraq.

But, and again we can look to Israel for plentiful examples, what we do in Iraq also affects who we are in the US. We are now a country so drunk with our own power that we have become insensitive to how we lash out and hurt others. And this will grow worse before it can possibly get better, in large part because Bush is now facing an increasingly desperate political campaign to gain a second term despite the cauldron of lies and cruelties that his administration has brewed. He will pursue this with the largest advertising budget ever assembled for a political election, and more dangerously he will pursue it with the full power of the US presidency -- with his ability to take action and create news. Moreover, he has a near-fanatic cadre of supporters, who have established that they have little respect for the freedom or rights or others, or for democracy in general, and they will only become more militant as this election unfolds. So, of course, will his opponents. This promises to be the most divisive election in the US since 1860. There's much more at stake, of course, but the wedge that drives this division is Iraq. And it raises a question which still isn't really part of the political dialogue in America, which is whether we are really capable of being a benevolent superpower -- indeed, of whether we are really benevolent, or even a superpower. I think that the answer to that is obvious. What's not clear is when, and how, the day of reckoning comes.


After the early Summer crisis, Bush managed to cool Iraq down enough that he could run for reëlection on clichés like "stay the course," and Kerry was so busy primping to become "commander in chief" that he let Bush off the hook. Meanwhile, Karl Rove cooked up a massive campaign of gay bashing, which motivated the Republican base vote. The result was a narrow win -- the most disappointing election for me since the first one I voted in, 1972, again because it failed to remove one of the worst war criminals in modern history.

Bush then ordered the total flattening of Fallujah, which kicked the Sunni revolt up to ever higher levels. Shiite militias, with US backing, then purged all mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad, locking in a vicious civil war. Meanwhile, Bush squandered the political capital his reëlection supposedly gained him with a stupid scheme to cripple Social Security. A bit later, his administration grossly mishandled Hurricane Katrina, and by the end of his term, major banks had gone bankrupt, and many more had to be bailed out.

The Valerie Plame affair ended with Scooter Libby convicted for obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to jail, and pardoned by Bush before he could follow through on threats to expose more wrongdoing. Oddly enough, Cheney became much less effective after Libby was forced out. Colin Powell quit, Rumsfeld was forced out, and Paul Wolfowitz was dispatched to the World Bank, so the swagger of the first term all but vanished. Meanwhile, Afghanistan went from bad to worse. At least Iraq allowed an exit that wouldn't be totally embarrassing (although after the ISIS revolt, US troops returned in a more limited role, where they remain to this day.

Book Roundup

This is a selected bibliography, largely cribbed from my reading list and book roundups, although I've had to rewrite a bunch of them (especially earlier books). I've actually read the overwhelming majority of these books (aside from the "Long List" at the end; aside from the section on the surge and ISIS, where I felt like I knew enough to skip the books, the only items I haven't read are Robert Draper (came out in 2020), Aram Roston (I had no illusions about Ahmad Chalabi), and the second Riverbend (noted for completeness).

Post-Cold War Militarism:

Of course, it helps to know a lot about American history before this period. I got a fast start by reading William Appleman Williams and Gabriel Kolko (among many others), and I know a fair amount about world history as well. Americans have long had a soft spot for their generals (e.g., presidents Washington, Jackson, Harrison, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower), although the wannabes have often proved more gung ho (Madison, Polk, and both Roosevelts). It was only after WWII that Americans realized they had an unquenched taste for war, so re-armed to search out "monsters to destroy." After the Cold War, which left the Soviet Union in ruins without gaining America much of anything, the question of demobilizing was barely raised.

Andrew Bacevich: The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005; paperback, 2006; updated, paperback, 2013, Oxford University Press): Colonel-turned scholar, explains how the US military got its mojo back after Vietnam. Bacevich went on to write a number of critical books about American military or foreign policy, including: American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy (2004); The Long War: A New History of U.S. National Security Policy Since World War II (2007); The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008); Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War (2010); America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (2016); The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory (2020); and After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed (2021). The 2016 book is a good overview of the War on Terror.

Max Boot: The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (2002; paperback, 2003, Basic Books): A useful synopsis of dozens of "small wars," including the ones that added "Tripoli" and "Montezuma" to the Marines anthem, but skipping ones like Korea and Vietnam that got out of hand. The thesis is that we shouldn't fear even ill-conceived, poorly understood wars because they work out fine in the end anyway. As such, this was meant as a brief against the Powell Doctrine, which held that we should never enter a war without a clear understanding of aims, complete dominance of force, and an exit strategy. Panama and Persian Gulf were examples of Powell wars. At the time this was published, Afghanistan was arguably an example of a successful small war, and Iraq was next up.

Rosa Brooks: How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales From the Pentagon (2016, Simon & Schuster): Daughter of Barbara Ehrenreich went to law school, married a Green Beret, and got sucked into the State and Defense Departments, winding up with this insufficiently critical but rather perceptive analysis of the all-too-true title.

James Carroll: House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power (2006, Houghton Mifflin): The big building was built during WWII, and has housed American military command ever since, providing a framework for exploring its lore and insular culture through the ages. Although Carroll is critical of militarism and war, he has a personal connection in that his father was a general, who worked there and gave his son tours. Carroll also published a valuable collection of columns, Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War (2004, Metropolitan).

John W Dower: Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq (2010, WW Norton): Historian of Japan (WWII, post-war occupation), got involved in the Iraq debate when hawks tried to invoke WWII as a model of how America rebuilds countries it destroys. This collects the pieces I cite above. Later wrote The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II (paperback, 2017, Haymarket Books).

Tom Engelhardt: The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (1995; second edition, paperback, 2007, University of Massachusetts Press): The "victory" was in WWII, which seeped into every poor of popular culture, and fueled the subsequent Cold War -- which disillusioned many of us, but not enough to dismantle the permanent war machine and its deep political influence. Engelhardt responded to 9/11 by creating his TomDispatch blog, which has published many of the writers I mention here. Early posts there, which put Iraq in the broader context of American empire, were collected as Mission Unaccomplished: TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts & Dissenters (paperback, 2006, Nation Books), and The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (2008, Verso). Engelhardt's later books were compiled from his posts: The American Way of War: How the Empire Brought Itself to Ruin (2010, Haymarket); The United States of Fear (2011, Haymarket); Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (2014, Haymarket); and A Nation Unmade by War (2018, Haymarket).

Chalmers Johnson: The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (2004, Metropolitan): Former CIA officer, popularized the term "blowback" in his 2000 book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (revised, paperback, 2004, Holt). One of the most perceptive books ever about the downsides of trying to control an empire. He wrote two more valuable books: Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (2010, Metropolitan); and Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope (2010, Metropolitan Books).

Fred Kaplan: Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power (2008; paperback, 2008, Wiley): A history of the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs, which gripped the Pentagon in the 1990s and convinced them that they fight wars faster and more decisively than ever before, encouraging a degree of recklessness that veterans of the Vietnam debacle (like Colin Powell) had struggled to contain. When Bush campaigned in 2000, he was almost giddy in anticipation about what this new military could do. After 9/11, he could put it to the test. It failed. Or perhaps I should say, it failed to solve the problems he wanted it to solve.

Anatol Lieven: America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (2004, Oxford University Press): A journalist who specializes in Russia's foreign affairs takes an outsider view of American nationalism, informed by Europe's own disastrous affair with nationalism (what Arnold Mayer refers to as "the thirty years war of the 20th century").

James Mann: Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet (2004; paperback, 2004, Penguin): Group biography of Bush's top warmongers: former Defense Secretaries Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, former Joint Chiefs Chair Colin Powell, and others (pictured on cover: Condoleeza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Armitage). Not all are proper neocons, but all have a long history of wargaming, and all believe in strengthening the military for projection of power.

On 9/11, Before and After:

Some basic books on the emergence of salafist-jihadist Islam, its particular manifestation in Al Qaeda -- where Bin Laden's concept of a "far enemy" is distinctive -- and America's knee-jerk reaction (anticipated by Bin Laden, who like many others saw Afghanistan as a "graveyard of empires"). There is a lot more on the subject, as well as important background on colonialism (back to the Crusades, but mostly British -- David Fromkin: A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Middle East (1989. Henry Holt) remains a standard history) and Cold War politics.

Also, nothing on Israel, which was a persistent thorn in the side of the Arab world (which I've read close to 100 books on). By the way, I read a number of books on Islam and older Arab history, including Albert Hourani's A History of the Arab Peoples, but they're not especially relevant here. Also note that while jihadism led to 9/11, and later to ISIS, the reasoning that drove Bush to invade Iraq had virtually nothing (other than perhaps deep-seated prejudice) to do with Islam. Oddly enough, I can't think of a single book that manages to balance out the Cold War residue, oil politics, and peculiar schizophrenia when torn between their supposed allies (Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey) and those allies' enemies (Iran, but also each other).

Ira Chernus: Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin (paperback, 2006, Paradigm): This is a powerful critique of the neoconservative mindset -- not a term I would normally employ, but it really does appear to be set deep in the psyche, unlike most political ideologies, which are easily reduced to perceived interests.

Steve Coll: Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004; paperback, 2004, Penguin Books): The standard work on the CIA intervention in Afghanistan, going back before the Russian invasion in 1979.

Dilip Hiro: The Essential Middle East: A Comprehensive Guide (second edition, paperback, 2003, Carroll & Graf): A veritable encyclopedia on the whole region, one I still keep in arm's reach on my closest reference shelf. Hiro's books specifically on Iraq are included in my "Long List" below (including one written before the invasion), but he's also written extensively on Iran, Pakistan, and central Asia, and the broader impacts of Jihadism and the American War on Terror, including After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World (2010, Nation Books).

Gilles Kepel: Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (2000, Belknap Press): The definitive book on the various threads of political Islam as they developed from the 1970, when they were cultured as useful tools by Islamist governments in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, into the 1980s when they were weaponized by the CIA, and through the 1990s, when they got a bit out of hand and turned on their previous masters. Kepel felt they were in eclipse when he wrote his big book, and that 9/11 was an act of desperation, a last effort to get noticed. Thanks to Bush and Putin, they succeeded, which kept Kepel writing his sober and sensible books, from The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West (2004, Belknap Press), to Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West (2017, Princeton University Press).

Michael Scheuer [Anonymous]: Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror (2004, Potomac Books): CIA agent (actual name revealed much later), specifically involved in tracking Al Qaeda, which he deals with matter-of-factly. After he made his name, he continued to churn out books like Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq (2008, Free Press), which (of course) wasn't really "after Iraq."

Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006; paperback, 2007, Knopf): Easily the most readable background history on where Al Qaeda came from and how they provoked the US into the gargantuan act of self-harm known as the Global War on Terror.

On Iraq: Up to Invasion

This period is poorly represented in books. Many journalists just copied what they were told, leaving them little that wasn't embarrassing to compile -- the most notorious, Judith Miller, waited until 2015 to write her book, by then about herself: The Story: A Reporter's Journey (2015, Thorndike Press). Others were too busy chasing new lies on top of old lies. By then the war had been launched, and the lies were overwhelmed by further atrocities (like Abu Ghraib). Draper's book, written to plug this hole, only came out in 2020.

Tariq Ali: Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq (2003, Verso): Quickie review of US-Iraqi history, not forgetting Britain's original colonial project there. Ali, a Pakistani who moved to England and became an editor of New Left Review, previously wrote The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity (2002, Verso), which peeled back the layers of conflicting interests on all sides, and has since written many more useful books, including: Rough Music: Blair Bombs Baghdad London Terror (2006, Verso).

Larry Beinhart: Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin (2005; paperback, 2006, Nation Books): Only partly on Iraq, which looms large among many other examples of propaganda spin from the period. Beinhart previously wrote the screenplay for Wag the Dog, a speculative movie about a president faking a war for political opportunism (and distraction). Bush's presidency was widely viewed as a disaster until 9/11 rallied public support for his bellicosity.

Robert Draper: To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq (2020, Penguin): Written so long after the fact that I haven't bothered to read it, but this is probably the most definitive accounting we have of the runup to Bush's war. Draper previously wrote one of the most insightful books on Bush: Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W Bush (2007, Free Press).

Rashid Khalidi: Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance of the Middle East (2009; paperback, 2010, Beacon Press): Shows how the US imposed its neuroses onto the Middle East -- a paranoia over communism that put us in bed with Islamic jihadists, a messianic embrace of Israeli and apocalypse that put us on the outs, an obsession with oil and money, and with our own military's conceit of omnipotence, no matter how often it failed. Khalidi mostly writes on Israel/Palestine, which is the main (but not the only) subject of Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (2013, Beacon Press).

Scott Ritter: Iraq Confidential: The Untold Story of the Intelligence Conspiracy to Undermine the UN and Overthrow Saddam Hussein (2005, Nation Books): UN weapons inspector, made it clear before the war that Iraq had no active WMD programs, and that the Bush administration claims were pure propaganda.

Aram Roston: The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi (2008, Nation Books): The much-hyped public face of anti-Saddam Iraq, he was already known as a crook and charlatan, but there were war planners who wanted to install him as puppet dictator (like Syngman Rhee, who also campaigned in the salons of America to run his home country). For a few brief months he was everywhere, but Americans started having second thoughts as soon as they got to Baghdad, finding no one there in favor of Chalabi, and evidence that he might be too friendly with Iran.

Nicholas von Hoffman: Hoax: Why Americans Are Suckered by White House Lies (paperback, 2004, Nation Books): One of the best books at unpacking the Bush marketing campaign for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

On Iraq: The Invasion and Early Occupation

The invasion was well publicized, with many reporters embedded in military units all the way up to top command, bonding with troops and faithfully jotting down the stories they were fed. The Bremer period was also very friendly to reporters, while back at the Pentagon Rumsfeld gave daily press conferences to his swooning admirers. It took a couple years to sort reports into books, and by then many reporters had become skeptical if not downright critical.

But at least for this period, information was available. After Bremer got kicked out, the Iraqi frontmen (mostly Iyad Allawi) and the Americans behind the scenes (John Negroponte and Zalmay Khalilzad) became inaccessible, and the news dried up.

Ali A Allawi: The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace (2007, Yale University Press): Report from a member of Iraq's political class, one who advised UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to push for a provisional government of apolitical technocrats. The US didn't want any such thing.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone (2006; paperback, 2007, Vintage): Journalist who covered the war cheerfully for PBS, but who realized, when he got around to cashing in with a book, discovered the picture all along had been pretty grim. Ends when Bremer departs, after which it became much harder for journalists to collect stories of such gross ineptitude. He moved on to write a similar book about Afghanistan: Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan (2012, Knopf).

Patrick Cockburn: The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (2006, Verso): British journalist well-versed, in Iraqi history and politics, having co-written (with Andrew Cockburn) the 1999 book Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein (British title in 2002: Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession). He had previously covered Russia, so noted the similarities between Bush's War on Terror and Putin's rise from obscurity to fight terror in Chechnya, thus consolidating his hold on power. Cockburn went on to write Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq (2008, Scribner), and several books on ISIS (below).

Michael R Gordon/Bernard E Trainor: Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq (2006, Pantheon): New York Times correspondend "embedded" in command headquarters, guided here a Marine General, so this gives you an insider account of the initial invasion and its military and political objectives. The latter are of most interest, as they show the extent to which Bush's delusions permeated the supposedly more sober thinking of the generals. At the end of the war, the duo followed up with Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq From George W Bush to Barack Obama (2012, Pantheon; paperback, 2013, Vintage), referencing "still-classified documents."

Seymour Hersh: Chain of Command: The Road From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib (2004, Harper Collins; paperback, 2005, Harper Perennial): Journalist, broke the story of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, then looks back at Guantanamo, then further back to "how America's spies missed September 11th," and forward again through "the intelligence stovepipe" to the invasion.

Dahr Jamail: Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq (2007, Haymarket): As the title indicates, one of the few American journalists in Iraq who wasn't confined to the Green Zone, and one of the few who kept reporting well after the Americans calling the shots stopped meeting with the press.

Thomas E Ricks: Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (2006; paperback, 2007, Penguin Press): Washington Post Pentagon reporter, embedded during the invasion, usually a reliable spokesman for his subjects but dawdled enough on this account that he started to recognize that things weren't going quite as hoped.

Riverbend: Baghdad Burning (2005, paperback, Feminist Press at CUNY); and Baghdad Burning II: More Girl Blog From Iraq (2006, paperback, Feminist Press at CUNY): Collection of remarkable reports on the occupation, as experienced by a fairly privileged young woman in Baghdad. As I understand it, the posts ended when she left the country, initially for Syria.

Nir Rosen: In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq (2006, Free Press). Freelance journalist, fluent in Arabic, one of the few able to see both sides of the growing insurrection.

Anthony Shadid: Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War (2005, Henry Holt): Washington Post writer, one of the few who spoke Arabic, which helped to make him one of the first to have a clue how the occupation was failing.

Evan Wright: Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War (2004; paperback, 2005, Berkley Trade): Rolling Stone correspondent, embedded with Marines for their initial push to Baghdad, probably the best such account, mostly because it's the most irreverent, making him one of the few embeds to notice the absurdity as well as the random violence of the invasion. HBO made a series out of it.

Later Iraq, From the "Surge" to ISIS

I've only read a few books in this section (Michael Hastings, Thomas E Ricks, Nir Rosen). At this time, even before Obama took over, there was a shift to increasingly dire Afghanistan, with a corresponding wave of books. I've only included Hastings here because it tells you as much about late military thinking in Iraq. I've included books on the formation of ISIS, but there doesn't seem to be much on the US return to Iraq to fight ISIS, including the ongoing intervention in Syria.

Phyllis Bennis: Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer (paperback, 2015, Olive Branch Press): A short, succinct introduction, from the author of a number of these primers, including Ending the Iraq War and Ending the US War in Afghanistan, viewing these wars from a firm understanding of history and a strong commitment to the idea of international law.

Patrick Cockburn: The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (paperback, 2015, Verso): Expanded edition of a 2014 book, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, the first of several books he wrote on ISIS: Chaos and Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East (paperback, 2016, OR Books); The Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East (2016, Verso); and War in the Age of Trump: The Defeat of ISIS, the Fall of the Kurds, the Conflict With Iran (2020, Verso).

Michael Hastings: The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan (2012, Blue Rider Press): Not specifically on Iraq, but this is where the counterinsurgency ideas of Petraeus and McChrystal hit the fan, failing spectacularly, less because their approach to the Afghans didn't make sense than because American soldiers proved incapable of implementing them. Book is famous for getting Obama to fire McChrystal for badmouthing him, but that's unfair to Obama: the guy with the really bad mouth was Michael Flynn, who Obama promoted to head of Defense Intelligence Agency (before having to fire him too).

Fred Kaplan: The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War (2013; paperback, 2014, Simon & Schuster): Through luck and PR skills, Petraeus came out of the Iraq "surge" as the best-known, most-esteemed general in the Army. He then used his prominence to recycle a set of tired platitudes on counterinsurgency as the doctrine that would save the mission in Afghanistan. The guy who got stuck with that task was Stanley McChrystal, who failed miserably: so bad that when Obama brought Petraeus back to take over, he ditched the theory completely.

Thomas E Ricks: The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 (2009, Penguin Press): He surprised me with his candor in Fiasco, but it was clear there that he was a Petraeus fan, so this may have come out too early to be properly recognized as Fiasco II.

Nir Rosen: Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World (2010, Nation Books): Includes reporting from Lebanon and Afghanistan as well as from Iraq: the "surge," the "awakening," the emergence of ISIS.

Joseph E Stiglitz/Linda J Bilmes: The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict (2008; paperback, 2008, WW Norton): Economists attempt to provide a full accounting, including future health care for veterans, and macroeconomic costs (interest on deficit, etc.). Abid Amiri wrote a similar book with same title: The Trillion Dollar War: The US Effort to Rebuild Afghanistan, 1999-2021 (paperback, 2021, Marine Corps University Press). Recent cost estimates top $7 trillion.

Bing West: The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq (2008, Random House): This is what "the surge" brought: America as just another warlord, albeit the one with the most firepower, ergo the one that can regulate the balance in the Sunni-Shiite civil war, and thus perpetuate it, but not end it. That extended the war, which for the Americans was better than flat-out losing it.

On Iraq: The Long List

Other books from the file, by no means complete (e.g., I collected long lists of soldier memoirs, but didn't bother breaking them out). I've read a few of these: Juan Cole, Aaron Glantz (first), Chris Hedges/Laila Al-Arian, Dexter Filkins, Barton Gellman, Dilip Hiro (first), Eugene Jarecki, Jane Mayer, George Packer, William R Polk (first), Paul William Roberts, Robert Scheer, and the last-mentioned Noam Chomsky (and possibly others). They are all generally good books, although sometimes you want to hit Packer.

John Agresto, Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions (2007, Encounter Books).

Fouad Ajami: The Foreigner's Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq (2006, Simon & Schuster).

Nadje Al-Ali/Nicola Pratt: What Kind of Liberation?: Women and the Occupation of Iraq (2009, University of California Press).

Matthew Alexander/John Bruning: How to Break a Terrorist: The US Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq (2008, Free Press): Zarqawi.

Christian Alfonsi, Circle in the Sand: Why We Went Back to Iraq (2006, Doubleday).

Anthony Arnove, Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal (2007, paperback, Henry Holt).

Raymond W Baker/Shereen T Ismael/Tareq Y Ismael, eds: Cultural Cleansing in Iraq: Why Museums Were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered (2010, Pluto Press).

James Bamford: A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies (2004, Doubleday; paperback, 2005, Anchor). [*]

Peter Beinart: The Good Fight: Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again (2006, Harper; paperback, 2008, Harper Perennial).

Peter Beinart: The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris (2010, Harper; paperback, 2011, Harper Perennial).

David Bellavia: House to House: An Epic Memoir of War (2007, Free Press): Guilt-free soldier memoir of razing Fallujah.

Daniel P Bolger: Why We Lost: A General's Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (2014, Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): Three-star general concedes, "we never really understood our enemy."

L Paul Bremer III: My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope (2006, Simon & Schuster): Public head of the early occupation government in Iraq.

Susan A Brewer: Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq (2009; paperback, 2011, Oxford University Press).

Christopher Cerf/Victor Navasky: Mission Accomplished! Or How We Won the War in Iraq: The Experts Speak (paperback, 2008, Simon & Schuster): A compendium of quotes from those who launched the war, and those who cheered them on.

Noam Chomsky/Vijay Prashad: The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power (2022, New Press): Of course, many of Chomsky's many books touch on Iraq, as well as explore the general mentality that led to Iraq. E.g.: Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance (2003, Metropolitan); Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (2007, Henry Holt); Who Rules the World? (2016; paperback, 2017, Metropolitan).

Andrew Cockburn: Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (2015, Henry Holt).

Andrew Cockburn: The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine (2021, Verso).

Juan Cole: Engaging the Muslim World (2009; paperback, 2010, Palgrave Macmillan): Historian -- Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East (2007, Palgrave Macmillan) -- turned blogger, not limited to Iraq.

John Crawford, The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier's Account of the War in Iraq (2005, Riverhead; paperback, 2006, Penguin).

Mark Danner, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror (paperback, 2004, New York Review Books).

John Diamond: The CIA and the Culture of Failure: US Intelligence from the End of the Cold War to the Invasion of Iraq (2008, Stanford Security Studies).

Larry Diamond: Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq (2005, Times Books).

Charles Duelfer: Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq (2009, Public Affairs): Head of UNSCOM 1993-2000, and post-invasion of Iraq Survey Group search for WMD.

John Ehrenberg/J Patrice McSherry/José Ramón Sánchez/Caroleen Marji Sayej: The Iraq Papers (paperback, 2010, Oxford University Press): 656 pp of primary sources on the WMD scam.

Kurt Eichenwald: 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars (2012; paperback, 2013, Touchstone): Covers 18 months from 9/11 to invasion of Iraq.

Peter Eisner, The Italian Letter: How the Bush Administration Used a Fake Letter to Build the Case for War in Iraq (2007, Rodale Press).

Richard Engel: A Fist in the Hornet's Nest: On the Ground in Baghdad Before, During & After the War (2004; paperback, 2005, Hachette): NBC correspondent.

Richard Engel: War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq (2008; paperback, 2011, Simon & Schuster).

Sam Faddis: The CIA War in Kurdistan: The Untold Story of the Northern Front in the Iraq War (2020, Casemate).

Richard Falk/Irene Gendzier/Robert Jay Lifton: Crimes of War: Iraq (2006, Nation Books).

James Fallows, Blind Into Baghdad: America's War in Iraq (paperback, 2006, Vintage): Atlantic Monthly correspondent.

Noah Feldman: What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building (2004; paperback, 2006, Princeton University Press).

Noah Feldman: The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State (2008, Princeton University Press).

Charles Ferguson: No End in Sight: Iraq's Descent Into Chaos (paperback, 2008, Public Affairs): Tie-in to a fairly good documentary.

Nathaniel Fick: One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer (paperback, 2006, Mariner). [*]

Dexter Filkins: The Forever War (2008, Knopf): New York Times correspondent.

Robert Fisk: The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East (2005; paperback, 2007, Knopf): British journalist, covers the whole Middle East, his Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon (1990) is definitive.

Robert Fisk: The Age of the Warrior: Selected Essays (2008, Nation Books; paperback, 2011, Bold Type): An early one is titled: "Be very afraid: Bush Productions is preparing to go into action."

Tommy Franks: American Soldier (2004, Regan Books): Commander in Chief (CENTCOM), got out fast and wrote this book. [*]

Peter W Galbraith, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End (2006, Simon & Schuster): Advocated partitioning Iraq into separate Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite states.

Peter W Galbraith: Unintended Consequences: How War in Iraq Strengthened America's Enemies (2008, Simon & Schuster).

Lloyd C Gardner/Marilyn B Young, eds.: Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam: Or, How Not to Learn From the Past (2007, New Press).

Lloyd C Gardner: The Long Road to Baghdad: A History of US Foreign Policy From the 1970s to the Present (2008, New Press).

Anne Garrels: Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War and the Aftermath as Seen by NPR's Correspondent (2003, Farrar Straus and Giroux; paperback, 2004, Picador).

Barton Gellman: Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency (2009, Penguin).

Marc Gerstein/Michael Ellsberg: Flirting With Disaster: Why Accidents Are Rarely Accidental (2008, Union Square Press): Iraq among widely scattered examples, like Chernobyl and Katrina.

Aaron Glantz: How America Lost Iraq (2005, Jeremy P Tarcher/Penguin).

Aaron Glantz: Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations (paperback, 2008, Haymarket Books): Reports from Iraq Veterans Against the War. Glantz followed up with: The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans (2009, University of California Press).

Philip H Gordon: Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East (2020, St Martin's Press): Obama's Coordinator for the Middle East (2013-15).

Philip Gourevitch/Errol Morris: Standard Operating Procedure (2008, Penguin): Companion book to Morris's documentary, focusing on the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Richard N Haass: War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars (2009, Simon & Schuster): Functionary in both Bush administrations, unable to see the connection.

Haider Ala Hamoudi: Howling in Mesopotamia: An Iraqi-American Memoir (2008, Beaufort Books): A cousin of Ahmed Chalabi.

Chris Hedges/Laila Al-Arian: Collateral Damage: America's War Against Iraqi Civilians (2008; paperback, 2009, Nation Books).

Dilip Hiro: Iraq: In the Eye of the Storm (paperback, 2002, Thunder's Mouth Press).

Dilip Hiro: Secrets and Lies: Operation "Iraqi Freedom" and After: A Prelude to the Fall of US Power in the Middle East? (paperback, 2003, Nation Books).

Russ Hoyle: Going to War: How Misinformation, Disinformation, and Arrogance Led America Into Iraq (2008, Thomas Dunne).

William Hughes: Saying "No" to the War Party: A Collection of Essays and Photos in Opposition to Iraq War No. 2 (paperback, 2003, iUniverse).

Michael Isikoff and David Corn, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War (2006; paperback, 2007, Crown).

Eugene Jarecki: The American Way of War and How It Lost Its Way: Guided Missiles, Misguided Men, and a Republic in Peril (2008, Free Press): Director of documentary, Why We Fight.

Robert D Kaplan: Imperial Grunts: On the Ground With the American Military, From Mongolia to the Philippines to Iraq (2005, Random House; paperback, 2006, Vintage).

Tony Lagouranis/Allen Mikaelian: Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator's Dark Journey Through Iraq (2007, NAL).

Frank Ledwidge: Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan (2011, Yale University Press).

Carter Malkasian: Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State (2017, Oxford University Press). [*]

Jane Mayer: The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals (2008, Doubleday).

Michael J Mazarr: Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America's Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy (2019, PublicAffairs).

George McGovern/William R. Polk, Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now (paperback, 2006, Simon & Schuster).

T Christian Miller, Blood Money: A Story of Wasted Billions, Lost Lives and Corporate Greed in Iraq (2006; paperback, 2007, Little Brown).

Greg Mitchell: So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed in Iraq (paperback, 2008, Union Square Press): Sorts the details out in good form for reference.

Greg Muttitt: Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq (2012, Free Press).

Richard North: Ministry of Defeat: The British in Iraq 2003-2009 (2009, Continuum).

George Packer: The Assassins Gate: America in Iraq (2005, Farrar Straus Giroux): One of the more prominent liberal hawks, turned out to be profoundly disappointed by the way the war went.

Paul R Pillar: Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform (2011, Columbia University Press): Ex-CIA.

William Rivers Pitt/Scott Ritter: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know (paperback, 2002, Context): 92 pp.

William R Polk: Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War, from the American Revolution to Iraq (2007, Harper): Ten case studies.

William R Polk: Understanding Iraq: The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History, from Genghis Khan's Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation (paperback, 2006, Palgrave Macmillan).

Kenneth M Pollack: The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq (2002, Random House): Ex-CIA, DOD, think tanker, this book was very influential at the time. Followed up with Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy (2013; paperback, 2014, Simon & Schuster), where he belatedly advised us not to make the same mistake with Iran.

Kenneth Pollack: A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East (2008, Random House): Major promoter of Iraq WMD hysteria, tries to make amends.

Samantha Power: Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World (2008, Penguin Press): Profile of the UN mediator who was killed in one of the first big terror attacks in post-invasion Iraq.

Sheldon Rampton/John Stauber: Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq (paperback, 2003, Tarcher Perigee): Editors of PR Watch, also wrote books like Toxic Sludge Is Good for You! and Trust Us, We're Experts!.

Sheldon Rampton/John Stauber, The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies, and the Mess in Iraq (paperback, 2006, Tarcher).

Joel Rayburn: Iraq After America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance (2014, Hoover Institution Press).

Jeffrey Record: Wanting War: Why the Bush Administration Invaded Iraq (2010, Potomac Books). [*]

Paul William Roberts: A War Against Truth: An Intimate Account of the Invasion of Iraq (2005, Raincoast).

Linda Robinson: Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq (2008, Public Affairs): Part of the Petraeus press blitz.

Aram Roston: The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi (2008, Nation Books).

Timothy Andrews Sayle/Jeffrey A Engel/Hal Brands/William Inboden, eds: The Last Card: Inside George W Bush's Decision to Surge in Iraq (2019, Cornell University Press).

Jeremy Scahill: Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army (2007, Nation Books).

Robert Scheer: The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America (2008, Twelve).

Michael Schwartz: War Without End: The Iraq War in Context (paperback, 2008, Haymarket Books).

Jim Sheeler: Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives (2008, Penguin Press): Short bios, stories, and/or obits of dead US soldiers from the Iraq war.

Nancy Sherman: The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of Our Soldiers (2010, WW Norton): Taught ethics at US Naval Academy.

Nancy Sherman: Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers (2015, Oxford University Press).

Kevin Sites: The Things They Cannot Say: Stories Soldiers Won't Tell You About What They've Seen, Done or Failed to Do in War (paperback, 2013, Harper Perennial).

Emma Sky: The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (2015, Public Affairs): British, worked in occupation, e.g., as political adviser to US Gen. Odierno.

Peter Sluglett: Britain in Iraq: Contriving King and Country (2007, Columbia University Press): History of British Mandate in Iraq.

Jonathan Steele: Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq (2008, Counterpoint): British author. Most American authors just ignore Britain's contribution.

Rory Stewart, The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq (2006, Harcourt; paperback, 2007, Mariner): British diplomat, later Conservative MP, "did his bit," as they like to say.

Steven Strasser, ed, The Abu Ghraib Investigations: The Official Independent Panel and Pentagon Reports on the Shocking Prisoner Abuse in Iraq (paperback, 2004, Public Affairs).

Craig Unger: The Fall of the House of Bush: The Untold Story of How a Band of True Believers Seized the Executive Branch, Started the Iraq War, and Still Imperils America's Future (2007, Scribner).

Peter Van Buren: We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (2011, Metropolitan Books).

HC von Sponeck: A Different Kind of War: The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq (2006, Berghahn): Former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, oversaw sanctions program from 1990 to 2003.

Bing West: No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah (2005; paperback, 2006, Bantam). [*]

J Kael Weston: The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan (2016, Knopf).

Marcy Wheeler: Anatomy of Deceit: How the Bush Administration Used the Media to Sell the Iraq War and Out a Spy (paperback, 2007, Vaster Books): The spy was Valerie Plame.

Bob Woodward: Bush at War (2002; paperback, 2003, Simon & Schuster).

Bob Woodward: Plan of Attack (2004; paperback, 2004, Simon & Schuster).

Bob Woodward, State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III (2006; paperback, 2007, Simon & Schuster).

Bob Woodward: The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008 (2008; paperback, 2009, Simon & Schuster).

Bob Woodward: Obama's Wars (2010; paperback, 2011, Simon & Schuster).

Ask a question, or send a comment.

Sunday, March 12, 2023


Speaking of Which

I opened this file on Thursday, feeling very bad about my inability to get any meaningful writing done, but having a couple of links I figured I'd note just for continuity's sake. I was feeling even worse on Saturday morning when I wrote the long comment on China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, then as I found further links wrote more and more. The Saudis, like the Israelis, have been throwing wild punches at Iran for more than a decade, and the US (especially under Trump) had so little sense of its own interests that it just let others call the shots. The agreement promises to defuse one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints. And, needless to say, America had nothing to do with resolving the problem, after spending decades of trying to bully Iran into some kind of submission it couldn't recognize even when it was possible. So, tell me again, who's the world's "indispensable nation"?

And while you're at it, tell me why we have to spend $900 billion or more a year to beef up a containment barrier around China, when the latter is doing nothing beyond normal business and diplomacy to ingratiate itself with trading partners around the world? The dumbest words in the English language are: "peace through strength." Wikipedia credits the phrase to Hadrian, and I can see some merit there, in an age when wars were about nothing more than loot and plunder, to building a strong defensive barrier. However, the other examples, which are exclusively American, are hard to vouch for as defensive (e.g., the motto of Eighth Air Force in 1944, or the motto of the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier).

Strength of that sort is meant to intimidate (the sophisticated term is deter), but can just as well be read as a taunt. Wars for quick spoils largely went out of fashion by 1900, if not well before: they became too expensive to fight just for the loot one could carry off. Wars for imperial glory continued until 1945, when Germany and Japan expired, although it took a few more decades for the existing store of colonies to be unwound. As Jonathan Schell put it, the world had become unconquerable.

But if that's the case, if people recognize that there's nothing to be gained by going to war, why do we need all this "strength" to intimidate or deter? Sure, there have been some cases where rulers (like Saddam Hussein) thought they could defy the odds. Israel has held onto land they seized in 1967, despite the UN finding their act "inadmissible." Some nations have claimed to be rescuing their own fellows (Turkey in Cyprus, the US in Grenada, Russia in Ukraine). And some tried to pass themselves off as liberators (the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither remotely credible). For the most part, these ventures have failed. And while some may have started off with the perception that their targets were weak, there is little reason to believe that strength would have deterred them. The US was pretty clear what the consequences of Russia invading Ukraine would be, yet that didn't stop Putin. If anything, it provoked him to overreach.

It amazes me how little Americans have learned from their many military debacles since 1945. Time and again, failure after failure, you hear the same hackneyed clichés (like "peace through strength") again. The doublespeak is befuddling: changing the War Department name to Defense Department has only resulted in more offensive wars, not less. We should be wondering what we did to get into the war in Ukraine. (I'm not excusing Putin, but he wasn't the sole author of the context in which he decided Russia would be better off fighting than backing down.) And we should be wondering where the saber-rattling with China is taking us.


Top story threads:

China, Iran, Saudi Arabia: I had this as a second section piece when I wrote the Baker comment, but then I found more links and had to promote it.

  • Peter Baker: [03-11] Chinese-Brokered Deal Upends Mideast Diplomacy and Challenges US: "The agreement negotiated in Beijing to restore relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran signaled at least a temporary reordering of the usual alliances and rivalries, with Washington left on the sidelines." Isn't this what China should be doing? (Especially given that the US has abandoned the role it could have had as a peacemaker, in favor of being the world's leading arms supplier.) Revolutionaries often imagine exporting their values, as France did after 1789, and Russia after 1917. In 1979, Iran's dominant Shiite clerics saw an opportunity to extend their influence among Shiite minorities throughout the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia offered two obvious targets: a substantial Shiite minority in the east, which has long chafed under Wahhabi rule, and the symbolic importance of the "holy cities" of Mecca and Medina, which the Saudis had long exploited to assert their moral leadership over the Muslim world.

    Since then, the Saudis and their Gulf despot allies have been uremittingly hostile to Iran, especially in the 1980s when they helped finance Saddam Hussein's war against Iran. Hostilities have heated up again in the last decade, as Saudis have intervened in Yemen against a local Shiite faction in one of the world's most brutally pointless wars. Israel has its own reasons (completely bogus, in my opinion) for implacable hostility to Iran, and the American arms industry profits from stoking both Arab and Israeli fears of Iran, so the US has had little (if any) interest in reducing hostilities. (Obama and Kerry did make an effort to work out a deal with Iran answering Israel's oft-stated fear that Iran could develop nuclear weapons, but Israel killed the deal through Trump, as much as admitting that they never had any such worry.)

    One problem is that the Saudis never got much out of fighting Iran, especially when doing so looked to make them a pawn in an American-Israeli plot they had no control over. Similarly, Iran's so-called proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen were more of a drain than a resource, and exercising them (to the extent they did, which isn't clear) just isolated them further. So it should be easy to see why China offers an exit ramp from a conflict that hurts both sides. And why is China doing this? Well, it's obviously good for business. China's a net oil importer, and has lots it can trade. While the Saudis are cash-rich, Iran is hard-strapped for finance, which China can provide. And China is a big enough market that Iran can finally see a way around US sanctions.

    As for sidelining Washington (and Israel), none of the parties are likely to shed any tears. Still, when you think of what a superpower should be doing, either on its own or through the UN, it is smoothing over conflicts and stabilizing the world market. Immediately after WWII, the US considered assuming that role, but soon got distracted by the ever-polarizing Cold War, and never extricated itself from that mentality, even after the Soviet Union dissolved itself -- partly because the arms industry had become so politically influential, and because the mass military needed threats to keep the funding going (and, of course, turning the US into a threat that stimulates more arms races, including one with China).

  • David Pierson: [03-11] China's Role in Iran-Saudi Arabia Deal Shows Xi's Global Goals: "Brokering a rapprochement between the Middle Eastern rivals underscores the Chinese leader's ambition of offering an alternative to a U.S.-led world order." Why shouldn't they? The US does two things that should bother China greatly: one is that the US divides the world into hostile camps, mostly based on whether countries buy arms (and pay other forms of tribute, like patent rents) to the US and/or its preferred companies, which almost by definition precludes countries with their own legacy arms manufactures, like Russia and China; the other is that the US is given to making arrogant moral judgments about how other countries run their business, with China a common target. (While the US likes to regard itself as a guardian of democracy and human rights, its track record shows many convenient exceptions.)

    China is far less judgmental, willing to do business with pretty much anyone (except for a rather glaring blind spot regarding Taiwan, although even that's mostly cosmetic: they actually do a lot of business with Taiwan). That clearly gave them an opening to Iran, which the US regards as treif (not just forbidden but an object of disgust). And while the Saudis have done enough business with the US (including buying arms) to grant them official wavers, they must have noticed that most Americans look down on them as well. Aside from the Khashoggi murder and the Yemen War and residual anti-Islamic bias (17 of 21, you know what I mean?), Biden got directly into their business when he pressured them to turn on their OPEC ally Russia to help keep gas prices cheap. With friends like US, maybe they should consider other options?

    It's notable that China is also floating a proposal to end the Ukraine War, which is more than the US and its European allies can say, but is more in line with what other nonaligned states (like Brazil and South Africa) are proposing. (The Ukraine War has drawn Europe closer to the US, but has estranged the US from virtually every other nation, thus opening doors for China.) It's less likely to fly because China has less to offer either side, but it's there if/when the belligerents realize they need to stanch the bleeding.

    Especially since WWII, a favorite term is Pax Americana. Like its Pax Romana and Pax Britannica predecessors, peace only resides within the imperium; the margins are still likely to flare into war, and the controlling empires had to deploy huge armed forces, even if they characterized them as defensive. If such empires were truly benign, you'd expect the margins to melt away as others sought safety from war, but they never were, and America's isn't. Rather, they are constantly engaged in border wars -- and not infrequently wars against their own people -- which they fight, like most warriors fight, for the spoils. They would have you think that a global hegemon is necessary to keep the peace, and that you're lucky it's us this time. They would also have you think that anyone who challenges Pax Americana is only out to establish their own imperium. (Hence you hear absurdities like we have to fight Iraq over there so we won't have to fight them here.)

    Such people find China alarming: they refuse to submit, then they build up defenses, then they imagine they might stave off attack through deterrence. But most alarming is when they undermine the whole game by showing that it isn't necessary, by showing that unaligned nations can cooperate and prosper without paying tribute to Pax Americana.

  • Michael Crowley/Vivian Nereim/Patrick Kingsley: [03-11] Saudi Arabia Offers Its Price to Normalize Relations With Israel: "The Saudi crown prince is seeking a civilian nuclear program and security assurances from President Biden, a steep price for an agreement long sought by Israel." If nuclear power is what Saudi Arabia is after, Iran and China offer an alternative to having to deal with an increasingly difficult Israel (and its puppet US).

  • Jonathan Guyer: [03-10] Why Iran and Saudi Arabia making nice is a very big deal: Among other things, introduces the phrase: "post-American Middle East."

  • Daniel Larison: [03-10] Why the Iran-Saudi agreement to restore ties is so big.

  • Richard Silverstein: [03-11] Iran, Saudi Arabia Renew Relations Under Chinese Auspices. This doesn't seem to preclude better relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, although just a week ago, Silverstein wrote: [03-08] US Ambassador Tells Israel "We've Got Your Back" If You Attack Iran.

  • Robert Wright: [03-10] Trading places with Xi Jinping. Wright has been pushing something he calls "cognitive empathy" -- basically, it means trying to understand someone else's viewpoint -- as a way of unlocking many of the thornier problems in American foreign policy. Xi complains that the West, led by the US, has "implemented all-around containment, encirclement and suppression against us, bringing unprecedentedly severe challenges to our country's development." Wright gives examples, including "odd and gratuitous anti-Xi rhetoric." While you can argue that he's being a bit paranoid, you can't say there's no substance to the charges, or no menace behind them. Wright quotes Noah Smith: "What's scary to me is that we heard similar rhetoric from Germany before WWI and Japan before WW2." Wright follows up on the German case, but I've been more struck by how US sanctions against Japan provoked the Pearl Harbor attack (presumably the opposite of their intent). In both cases, fears of eventual war led to the calculation that one should attack first, while the enemy was still relatively weak. Both aggressions were unwarranted and catastrophic, which China should take as a cautionary tale, but the US should also learn a thing or two from such past misunderstandings.

  • Blaise Malley: [01-27] Can China and America Live and Let Live? Review of Van Jackson: Pacific Power Paradox: American Statecraft and the Fate of Asian Peace. I'm starting to grow tired of the word "détente," as it implies a continuing adversary relationship even if a less hostile one. While one should be able to coexist peacefully with others you are nonetheless critical of, it would be better to minimize threats than to reserve your right to oppose. I think a big problem with the JCPOA with Iran was that Obama/Kerry refused to do anything beyond the treaty's narrow aims to normalize relations with Iran. (By contrast, the Saudi-Iran agreement starts with normalization, leaving many details to be resolved in that new context.)

Trump, DeSantis, et al: Trump not indicted yet, but lots of rumors, and even more revelations that should be embarrassing. Meanwhile, DeSantis has his campaign book out.

On DeSantis's campaign book, I wrote a note for an upcoming Book Roundup:

Ron DeSantis: The Courage to Be Free: Florida's Blueprint for America's Revival (2023, Broadside Books): "He played baseball for Yale [while most were studying?], graduated with honors from Harvard Law School, and served in Iraq and the halls of Congress [not just Congress? he was a hall monitor?]. But in all these places, Ron DeSantis learned the same lesson: He didn't want to be part of the leftist elite." Nah, he wanted to be part of the far-right elite (although between Yale, Harvard, Iraq, and Congress, I doubt he met very many actual leftists. This, of course, is his campaign brief. (Amazon's "frequently bought together" offer adds Mike Pompeo's Never Give an Inch and Mike Pence's So Help Me God), so one would normally expect it to be long on homilies and short on details. Of course, his homilies are pretty dark, like "The United States has been increasingly captive to an arrogant, stale, and failed ruling class." And also: "Florida has stood as an antidote to America's failed ruling class." The table of contents not only includes chapters on "For God, for Country, and for Yale" and "Honor, Courage, and Commitment," but also "The Magic Kingdom of Woke Corporatism" and "The Liberal Elite's Praetorian Guard." And if you have any doubt that he's running, the books ends with "Make America Florida." All this in a succinct 286 pages. He's every bit as seductive as Satan.

Biden: Headline in Eagle on Biden's budget plan is: "Biden calls for trillions in tax hikes and new spending." That leaves out that the tax hikes are on the rich, the beneficiaries of Republican tax cuts, with few making up for lost revenues. Also that the spending, aside from more fodder for the military, offers net gains to the very people who need help most. Omitted from the headline is the deficit question, which Republicans use as a cudgel to attack any government spending that helps people, while conveniently forgetting to mention any time they get a chance to cut taxes on the rich.

Fox and Company: I'm not a fan of defamation suits, but the Dominion Voting case is prying open some secrets, as the dissembling and pandering sometimes catches them up:

A Bank Collapses: Silicon Valley Bank, in, well, you know where.

Derailing: We're not done with the toxic train derailment in Ohio. But also note a horrific train collision in Greece that killed 57.

Israel:

Ukraine War:

  • Connor Echols: [03-10] Diplomacy Watch: Tensions grow in West as brutal war drags on. Lots of posturing on all sides, little if any indication that any are ready to negotiate. One hint is that both US and Zelensky are insisting on Russia being tried for war crimes, which however just in the abstract (the entire war should be considered criminal) is an indication that you're not (yet) thinking clearly about the real world.

  • Fred Kaplan: [03-06] Why the Russian Army Isn't Learning From Its Mistakes. No idea whether this is true or not (it certainly relies on a selection of reports), but I noted early on that superior numbers of tanks didn't seem to be helping Russia much, and I've wondered whether more tanks would help Ukraine much either. I can't help but think this war matters less to Russian conscripts than to Ukrainians, at least at present. Perhaps the tables will flip as Ukraine approaches territory where ethnic Russians voted to break away from Ukraine.

  • Jen Kirby: [03-09] A Ukrainian city is on the verge of falling to Russia: "If Moscow takes Bakhmut, it may be a hollow victory." Having lost territory to Ukraine southeast of Kharkiv and around Kherson, Russian forces have made Bakhmut -- formerly Artyomovsk, a city of 75,000 (70-29% Ukrainian-to-Russian) well inside breakaway Donetsk Oblast) the focus of their counteroffensive, effectively depopulating and destroying the city.

  • Anatol Lieven: [03-07] A looming crisis in Moldova's breakaway state: This is about a sliver of land called Transdniestria (i.e., the east bank of the Dniester River), The region broke off from Moldova almost immediately after independence. It has been stabilized by Russian "peacekeepers," whose position has been made more precarious by war in Ukraine.

  • Choe Sang-Hun: [03-05] They're Exporting Billions in Arms. Just Not to Ukraine. "As traditional weapons suppliers like the U.S. face wartime production shortages, South Korea has stepped in to fill the gap, while trying not to provoke Moscow."

  • Artin DeSimonian: [03-09] Ukraine war unleashed similar West-Russia divide in Georgia: Like Moldova and Ukraine, Georgia has breakaway provinces (Abkhazia, South Ossetia) that have appealed to Russia for protection. In 2008, Georgia tried to move military to recover those provinces, provoking a Russian intervention. You may recall that in the midst of his 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain wanted to go to war with Russia to back Georgia -- one of many needles leading to Ukraine. The conflict persists, although for now it's dormant. It would be smart for negotiations over Ukraine to provide a peaceful model for resolving the Georgia dispute. Author has written more on the region, where Azerbaijan is trying to take back control over the Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region: [01-11] How great power conflict is affecting the looming Caucasus crisis.

  • Juan Cole: [03-09] When We Were Vladimir Putin: "How Washington Lost Its Moral Compass in Iraq," 20 years ago. It lost its moral compass long before, but few cases are more easily comparable to Putin's invasion of Ukraine than Bush's invasion of Iraq. Both start with the arrogant supposition that one is entitled to dictate to another country, and with the belief that overwhelming force can mold others to your liking.

  • Yves Smith: [03-07] Wall Street Journal: "US Is Not Yet Ready for Great Power Conflict" Yet Still Plots Against China. Pretty much pure speculation viz China, followed by a report on the Ukraine War that is significantly at odds with official American thinking: Smith is unimpressed with Ukraine's US-backed performance, and concludes "it's hard to see any reason for Russia to end the war before its aims are met." What aims? I don't know, and I doubt Putin knows either. My view is that both sides can look forward to nothing but losses from here on out, so the only sane thing to do is to ceasefire and negotiate. Americans (and Zelensky) are deluded if they think victory is just a few tank advances away. But they're even more deluded if they think that a big win in Ukraine is going to intimidate China and back it down to an acceptable sphere of influence. Wins only breed more arrogance, until someone else knocks you down to size.


Other stories:

Ryan Cooper: [03-09] Might We See a Bipartisan Agreement to Scale Back the Bush-Obama Security State?: "Segments of both parties want to do it. But obstacles are high."

Dave DeCamp: [03-08] Sen. Lindsey Graham Says He Will Introduce Legislation for Military Intervention in Mexico. Who was it who said, "poor Mexico; so far from God, so close to the United States"? Max Boot, in The Savage Wars for Peace (2002), tried to make the case that America's "gunboat diplomacy" of the first third of the 20th century was all good, but his description of Pershing's posse chasing Pancho Villa shows both how futile his quest was and how lucky he was that it didn't turn much worse. Since the 1930s, the US has generally preferred to hire local goons to do its dirty work, but it's hard to imagine how that could play out in Mexico. Graham may be right that if you want a job done, you have to do it yourself. But he is surely wrong that the US military has the skills and resources to do it.

Jeannie Suk Gersen: [03-12] The Expanding Battle Over the Abortion Pill: "Republican state attorneys are threatening actions against pharmacies that dispense it, as a federal lawsuit challenges the F.D.A.'s authority to approve it."

Rae Hodge: [03-08] Biden's FCC nominee backs out after Joe Manchin says no: Gigi Sohn, whose nomination has been held up for 18 months. And it's not personal with Manchin: industry lobbyists hate Sohn, and he's just doing their bidding.

Ed Kilgore: [03-08] No Labels Has a Genius 2024 Plan That Would Kneecap Biden: That assumes that anyone beyond the organizers would fall for it. Their plan is to nominate a "centrist" third-party ticket for the 2024 presidential election, and put them on the ballot in "at least 23 states" (focusing on competitive ones). While approximately a third of the electorate likes to identify as independent, the actual middle ground between a rabid Republican and a relatively sane Democrat is pretty slim. For more on No Labels, see [03-08] Could these hacks really put Trump back in the White House? For one thing, this piece puts some names on the group, like Nancy Jacobson, whose husband (Mark Penn) did more damage to Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign than Steve Bannon and Vladimir Putin put together.

Ezra Klein: [03-12] This Changes Everything: Bad title for a piece about AI. In many respects, it changes nothing, but it presents an image of change that can be pitched to the desires and fantasies of those in power, usually by promising them more power. Will it deliver on those promises? Or will it just expose their quest for more power to be in vain? Klein writes: "I cannot emphasize this enough: We do not understand these systems, and it's not clear we even can." I'd amend that to say: "it's clear that we cannot." I've spent 30 years struggling with the problem of how do you write computer code that works as intended. What I've found is that proving code scales with complexity by some large order of magnitude.

Given how complex AI has to be to appear intelligent, it can never be known, and can only be programmed through layers of abstraction that themselves are imperfectly known. Nor is this mere theory. We've already run the empirical test, and conclusively shown that billions of intelligent automatons create all sorts of problems beyond our capacity to understand let alone remedy. (Before I got into programming, I studied sociology.)

It's not clear how AI will change things, but unless we are very deliberate, its initial application will be to intensify relationships of power, both commercial and political. I rather doubt that AI will produce much in the way of genius breakthroughs, but what it should be able to do much better than humans is to muddle through data. For instance, it could be used to solve the surveilance problem: there are never enough people to surveil everyone, but collect the data and let computers sift through it. Is this something we really want? And who decides? (China seems to be heading that direction.) Perhaps what we should really be asking isn't what AI will change, but what we want it to be used for, and what not?

Klein is inching his way toward these same questions, even if he phrases it in one dimension ("accelerate its adaptation to these technologies or a collective, enforceable decision must be made to slow the development of these technologies").

[PS: I noticed this piece by mathbabe, which says much of what I just tried to say, and a few things I was just thinking (like if you're worried about ChatGPT-written papers, try oral exams). Final line: "Galactica can do all the easy stuff but none of the hard stuff, and so why should we be impressed?"]

Andy Kroll/Andrea Bernstein/Nick Surgey: [03-09] Inside the "Private and Confidential" Conservative Group That Promises to "Crush Liberal Dominance": "Leonard Leo, a key architect of the Supreme Court's conservative supermajority, is now the chairman of Teneo Network, a group that aims to influence all aspects of American politics and culture."

Ian Millhiser: [03-12] No one knows when it is legal to perform medically necessary abortions in Texas.

Nicole Narea/Fabiola Cineas: [03-10] The GOP's coordinated national campaign against trans rights, explained: "Republicans are unleashing a torrent of anti-trans bills at the state level ahead of 2024." Any excuse for haters to hate, and this seems to be the one Republican strategists think they can still get the most mileage out of -- not least because it takes so damn much effort to resist, especially when they are other threats that also need defense (e.g., see the child labor stories, and what the anti-abortion fanatics are doing).

Timothy Noah: [02-28] The Shocking, Sickening Reality of Child Labor in America: "Large corporations have made the enforcement of labor protections for frontline, low-wage workers other people's problem." Needless to say, Republicans are in the forefront of bringing child labor back (including one Wisconsin bill that seeks to ban the term).

Julia Shapero: [03-08] Most in new poll view 'woke' as positive term. Divide was 56-39, but the partisan split is pronounced. It's often said that Americans of all stripes live in their own bubbles, but the Republican one is pretty extreme. How else do you explain major efforts within the GOP to gain political traction by defending Jan. 6 rioters, or to vilify public health officials and make sure they can never respond to any future pandemic? Marjorie Taylor Greene tipped her hand when she revealed that "everyone I talk to" wants a "national divorce." That can't be many people.

Quinn Slobodian: [03-12] What Really Controls Our Global Economy: "After decades of giddy globalization, the pendulum is swinging back to the nation. . . . But what if globalization has progressed so far that it exists even within national borders, and we just haven't had the right lenses to see it?" Slobodian introduces us to the "zone": an enclave with rules and other perks tailored to serve businesses, one so ubiquitous that no company would even conceive of opening a plant or office without shopping it around to politicians to bid on. I see this happen with appalling regularity even in poor, backwards Kansas. Slobodian has a new book about this: Crack-Up Capitalism: Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy. After all, that's what your politicos are really sacrificing.

Jeffrey St Clair: [03-10] Roaming Charges: The Man Who Came Out of the Darkness. Opens with long-term Guantanamo detainee Majid Khan. Then he points to articles meant to provide a counternarrative to Seymour Hersch's piece on how the US Navy blew up the NordStream pipelines: the obliging publishers being the New York Times and the Washington Post (of course they were). Among many other items, there is a chart on "How much governments spend on child care for toddlers." The US is dead last. Even neo-fascist states like Israel and Hungary spend much more per child (6 times for Israel, 14 times for Hungary).

Joseph Stiglitz: [01-10] Milton Friedman Set Us Up for a 21st Century Version of Fascism: Aside from the dates, I'm not sure what's new about 21st century fascism; that is, what distinguishes it from the 20th century fascism of Pinochet in Chile that Friedman inspired and consulted in.

Katy Waldman: [03-10] What are we protecting children from by banning books? As far as I can tell, a growing interest in reading. When I was young, I had very little sense of what I was prohibited from reading, but I did quickly and thoroughly learn to hate pretty much everything I was directed to read. Fortunately, I dropped out of high school, and started reading on my own. Or unfortunately, depending on your point of view. But one thing I was left with was an intense distaste for the viewpoint that the purpose of education is to train people to follow directions and mind their manners.

Craig Whitlock/Nate Jones: [03-07] Former top U.S. admiral cashes in on nuclear sub deal with Australia.

Robert Wright: [03-09] Skeptical of the lab leak theory? Here's why you should take it seriously. Not an issue I have any particular interest in -- least of all when a Chinese and/or American origin story is presented as evidence for escalating military tensions -- but it seems pretty obvious that secret labs researching pathogens are inherently dangerous, and if justified at all should be subject to public scrutiny. Also:

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Sunday, March 5, 2023


Speaking of Which

I made some comments about a couple of these pieces back in Monday's Music Week, so I'm revisiting them below (Linker on DeSantis, Babbage on China, neither piece recommended but they expose thinking that needs to be shot down. One piece I do recommend you check out is Spencer Ackerman's.

So I got an early start, but still found myself running out of time and patience. Plus ça change, plus c'est le même chose.


Top story threads:

CPAC: Initials stand for Conservative Political Action Conference, which used to be an annual meeting of the luminaries of the political right, but is increasingly seen as a circus side show -- a transformation which suits Trump fine. But also note that the Koch network's Club for Growth is holding their own confab at the same time, and is easily the bigger draw for Republicans looking for big donor money.

DeSantis, Trump, etc.: Trump went to CPAC, so his speech there tends to land above, while his general inanity (much in evidence in the speech) belongs here.

Inflation: Fed chairman Jerome Powell may or may not be looking at the mixed bag of inflation stats, but seeing employment remain robust still believes we haven't suffered enough.

  • Dean Baker: [02-25] Is Inflation Out of Control, Again?

  • Mike Konczal: [02-28] How the US can stick the landing, beat inflation, and avoid a recession.

  • Paul Krugman: [03-03] Peering Through the Fog of Inflation: And not seeing very much, I'm afraid. He argues that the picture is so unsettled that all the Fed can do is keep raising interest rates. But short of inducing a recession (and causing widespread misery), how does raising interest rates lower inflation?

  • Seth Ackerman: [02-27] Why Joan Robinson Blamed Unions for Inflation While Milton Friedman Did Not: Interesting article on economic theory in a past world -- one where unions exerted significant power over wages and prices, in part because corporations were every bit as concentrated -- although the irony isn't especially important. The residue is that central bankers from Volcker to Powell are stuck in a mindset that blames wages for inflation. The real problem may be that everyone has their own distinct hammer: for unions it is the power to raise wages; for companies, to increase prices; and for bankers, the tool manipulates interest rates, allowing it to suppress employment. In this framework, it is impossible for workers to achieve real wage gains, because each step up will be undercut by the pricing power of firms and interest controls of the bankers.

Israel: Benjamin Netanyahu has presided over right-wing governments in the late 1990s and for most of the last 15 years, but we need a new term for this one, so how about ultra-right? (After the peculiarly Israeli ultra-orthodox, who provide much of the ultra-right's support.) Back during the height of the Sharon anti-intifada, someone asked me what I thought the likelihood of Israel committing genocide was. I thought chances were very small then, but they've obviously increased considerably in the last 20 years (let's say 2% then, more like 20% now, but those are the sort of numbers I'd assign to Germany in 1923 and 1932; and the word "genocide" is a very high bar: the atrocities of the last few weeks are roughly comparable to the first wave of Nazi assaults on Jews, so admitting that it's not genocide yet in no way excuses what's happening).

Of course, whatever Israel does will wind up being different from what Nazi Germany did, or from any of the other well known cases. It's become commonplace to liken Israel's caste system to Apartheid, but one difference stands out: both regimes brutally suppresses any sign of political dissent, but South Africa (like the "Jim Crow" South) still depended on cheap black labor, so there was an economic brake that kept state-sanctioned violence from escalating to genocide. On the other hand, Israel's doctrine of "Hebrew Labor" (which dates back to Ben Gurion in the 1930s) makes Palestinian labor dispensible. For an increasing number of Israelis, the final solution is to drive all Palestinians into exile (as many were in 1947-49, in 1967, and in smaller numbers ever since). A major focus of the new ultra-right government is to strip Israeli Arabs of their citizenship rights and force them into exile, so the mechanisms for massive "ethnic cleansing" are quickly being put into place.

The fundamental logic of expulsion and/or extermination has been baked into Zionism from the beginning, but it's always been tempered by the understanding that Israel is a small country, dependent on the US and Europe for good will and protection, so Israelis took pains to cushion and minimize their frequent atrocities and affronts to public opinion. However, a series of US administrations (you can start with Clinton, who was chummy with the Labor governments, or Bush, who gave it all up to Sharon) have abdicated any possible oversight role, leaving Israelis free to indulge their worst impulses. Ironically, Biden seems even more completely under Israel's thumb than Trump, even as many Democrats are horrified by the ultra-right regime. (Republicans were quicker to recognize Israel as racist, militarist, and fanatically fundamentalist, because those are traits they want America to embrace.)

Of course, the real problem with genocide as a final solution in Israel isn't that the world will object and recognize Israel as a pariah state (although there's a movement to do that), or that the Israelis themselves will develop a conscience (although some have), but that there are just too damn many Palestinians. That's always been the problem. Settler colonies have succeeded only in places where the numbers favored them (America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina). They failed where the settlers weren't able to muster majorities (South Africa, Algeria, lots more). Israel has always been the borderline test case, and while sometimes they appear to have won, their refusal to grant Palestinians rights to coinhabit their territory keeps their project in peril. In recent years, Palestinians have put their faith in mobilizing international sentiment to their cause, and as such have avoided returning to the violence of the second intifada. Israel, on the other hand, appears convinced that the best way to sway the world is to provoke an armed uprising. As the final solution approaches, that will surely happen. We should prepare ourselves for that eventuality, and make sure that blame is accorded properly.

Ukraine War: The St Clair piece, above, includes excerpts from the Biden and Putin war anniversary speech, which are highly revelatory.

  • Blaise Malley: [03-01] Diplomacy Watch: Is this India's moment on the world stage -- as mediator? Grasping at straws, as neither side feels they can admit they did anything wrong, or compromise in any way.

  • Ellen Ioanes: [02-26] Here's what arming Ukraine could look like in the future: "France, Germany, and the UK proposed a new defense plan -- that might be a subtle bid for peace negotiations." Russia's invasion of Ukraine has made it practically impossible to consider dismantling NATO. However, the NATO-backed defense of Ukraine suggests a reform posture that could be better than NATO: the Western nations promise to provide very substantial arms and economic support to repel a Russian invasion, as has happened in Ukraine, but don't require key elements of NATO membership that make the organization appear provocative: no NATO troops would be stationed in the client country (as is the case with Ukraine), the client's troops would not be deployed in other NATO members, and would not be obligated to come to the common defense. This isn't exactly what the troika are proposing, but represents an intermediate position between full NATO membership and neutrality.

  • Tamar Jacoby: [02-22] After Biden's Visit to Kyiv, Ukrainians Welcome US Aid but Plead for More: Zelensky's appetite for arms seems insatiable. After Russia's strategic retreats southeast of Kharkiv and around Kherson, Zelensky seems to have concluded that the only thing holding Ukraine back from driving Russia back to their pre-2014 borders is the need for more arms. At least that's an argument that appeals to Washington, but it's probably unrealistic. Russian defense is likely to become more committed (and desperate) as Ukrainian forces approach pre-2022 borders, where they'd be fighting on home ground (assuming Russian majorities in Crimea and Donbas haven't had a change of heart, which seems like a safe assumption). Moreover, while the supply of arms from the west can well continue indefinitely (assuming US/Europe are still interested in protracting the fight), Ukrainian soldiers are a finite resource, one likely to be depleted faster than the much larger Russia. Moreover, motivation, which was so critical in the defense of Kyiv and Kharkiv, shifts the closer the lines get to Russia. There is also a whole meta-level to the arms requests, not least the excuses they offer for failures. If Ukraine stalls, they can always blame the west for holding back. As failure is by far the most likely outcome of any war, one can view the interchanges as an elaborate blame-shifting operation. In the end, that's all there will be.

  • Christopher Mott: [03-03] Tell me how this ends: If recent history is a guide, not with a knockout blow: "Maximalists look at WWII and think the Ukraine war can take a similar path." It's hard to see how anyone can even imagine such a thing. The insistence on "unconditional surrender" was a consequence of fighting "total wars." The Ukraine War is devastating, but it is also contained within the pre-2014 border of Ukraine (aside from minor, deniable sabotage within Russia; I'm not aware of any similar sabotage in NATO countries). Total war became unthinkable with the advent of nuclear weapons. What I think the maximalists are aiming for here is more like the endings of WWI, when first Russia and then Germany capitulated not so much due to battlefield losses as to popular upheavals against the war governments. (The only similar case in WWII was in Italy, but Germany moved quickly to keep Italy from surrender.) There are certainly Americans who imagine the Russians removing Putin from office, then surrendering. That strikes me as unlikely, but I also have to caution against the lop-sided surrender terms of Russia and Germany in WWI, which may have seemed like a good deal at the time, but led fairly directly to further wars.

    As for Mott's other examples, one fact that stands out in my mind is that neither the US nor the USSR felt they could allow client-state conflicts to fester (especially the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, which were ended -- if not exactly resolved -- within 1-3 weeks). On the other hand, we don't have a superpower (even China) who can bully the US and/or Russia into seeing sense, so we're stuck waiting for Biden and Putin to chill out. That wait has already been a long one.


Other stories:

Spencer Ackerman: [03-05] The Iraq War Unleashed an Age of Grift. We're Still Living in It: "This month marks the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, a giant con that heralded a thousand more." Jim Mattis and Elizabeth Holmes are threads in a broad mosaic:

Obviously, fraud in America didn't begin with the invasion of Iraq. The country that gave the world P.T. Barnum, Ivan Boesky, junk-bond king Michael Milken, and Trump (who pardoned Milken) is no innocent babe constantly committing well-meaning blunders. Iraq belongs in a lineage of wars, American and otherwise, waged on false pretexts, from President Polk's 1846 lie that "American blood has been shed on American soil" to invade Mexico . . . to the inciting Gulf of Tonkin non-event in Vietnam.

Ross Babbage: [02-27] A War With China Would Be Unlike Anything Americans Faced Before: Unfortunately, this article doesn't do a very good job of explaining why -- although he has some fanciful ideas of how China might fight, he misses lots of things, including basic strategy. Worse, he insists "building a stronger deterrence by addressing such weaknesses is the best means of averting war." Deterrence is a fine theory if neither side has any desire to fight the other, as was the case in the Cold War, but it's just daring otherwise, and mistake-prone. Israel, for instance, has used its nuclear deterrence as a shield for low-grade offensive operations against Syria and Iran, confident that isolated, infrequent acts of war won't be reciprocated. Deterrence has limited the war in Ukraine, but didn't keep Russia from invading, and won't force it to withdraw. And if deterrence has worked so poorly against Russia, what about a far stronger opponent like China, where the theory cuts both ways? That's unknown, unfathomable territory?

Liza Featherstone: [02-27] Here's Proof That Gas Stoves Are Overrated: "As the end of a study that gave people induction stoves to try, not a single person wanted their gas stove back." I grew up with a gas stove, but have lived in several places with electrics, and managed to cook some pretty good dinners on the latter -- including Chinese, which really demands the ability to raise and lower the heat dramatically (something electrics cannot do, although induction electrics are better in that regard). So when we remodeled the kitchen in 2008, I shopped around seriously. At the time there was a trend in high-end stoves for gas burners on top and an electric oven -- they were called "dual-fuel ranges." I also read a bit about induction ranges, which had just came out, but I gave them little consideration, partly because I understood that I'd have to buy new cookware (and I was very happy with what I had). So I wound up spending $5,000 on a 36-inch, 6-burner Capital, plus a couple thousand more on a range hood and a second oven (an LG electric -- I was originally considering a warming oven, but got a good deal on a full-size wall unit).

It turns out that I mostly use the electric oven, although the gas is good for large roasts, and the broiler is better. No complaints about the gas range top, other than that it takes a fair amount of work to keep it clean. If there's an air pollution problem, that's never been evident -- although since this controversy flared up, I'm more conscientious about running the hood fan. Since then, I've read good things about induction stoves, and can well see this article's claims being true. If I was redoing the kitchen now, I may wind up making the same choices, but I'd certainly consider induction. (That clean glass top is attractive.) If I were building new houses or apartments, I probably would go electric. But it's no big deal being a bit out of step with the world. Some years back, there was a big push to get people to switch from incandescent to compact fluorescent light bulbs, and there was an idiot backlash against the change. Still, it wasn't long before LED bulbs made compact fluorescents obsolete, and there was hardly any controversy about that. As it happens, we have all three types around the house. The world may change fast, but most of us tend to lag behind.

Kurt Hackbarth: [03-04] No, AMLO Is Not Undermining Mexican Democracy. The last couple weeks have seen a sudden propaganda tirade to scratch Mexico off the list of the world's democracies. Similar broadsides have occurred whenever America's self-appointed guardians of democracy have taken offense at a world leader who has proven insufficiently pliable for global business interests. So it's not easy to get some straight reporting on the subject. For another case where the propaganda got way ahead of the horse:

Richard Heinberg: [03-03] Why News of Population Decline and Economic Slowdown Isn't Necessarily a Bad Thing. Long ago, I read Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, and it's had a long impact on my thinking, even as I came to realize that much of his argument was wrong. The thing he's most often faulted for is not realizing that technology (especially the "green revolution") would create resources that could support much more population. But a bigger error was in his assumption that resource usage would scale with population increase, or conversely that people would all get relatively equal shares of resources. Even then it should have been obvious that resource distribution was extremely inequal, so he was depending on a liberal political reform that never happened. But what brought this home to me was a chart that showed China's population approaching a plateau, while Chinese use of materials and energy continued a steep rise. What happened was that Chinese got richer, and that effect was all the more dramatic because they didn't have all those extra people to support. The most interesting part of this piece is that virtually every nation with a declining population "is seeing stable or rising wages and historic lows in unemployment." Brad DeLong's Slouching Towards Utopia makes this same point, even more globally. Heinberg sees this as a shift to a post-growth economy, and wonders whether China will handle it better than the rest of us.

Jake Johnson: [03-02] 'Time to End the Greed': Sanders Vows Bill to Cap Price of Insulin at $20 Per Vial: After having raised insulin prices "up by over 1000% since 1996," Eli Lilly got a lot of good press last week for pledging to "cut the list prices of its most commonly used insulin products by 70%." This explains why, and why that isn't enough.

Dylan Matthews: [03-01] Joe Biden is pretty good at being president. He should run again. Well, he's been better than I expected (although I'm not very happy with his foreign policy, where he seems to have married the blob, while gently applying the brakes against its worst excesses). He's supported generally progressive legislation. He's avoided appointing some of the Party's worst neoliberal hacks (especially economists who did so much damage to Obama's administration). Still, it doesn't automatically follow that he should run for a second term. Age is the obvious problem: he was gaffe-prone in his 30s, but past 80 every slip up is going to pounced on as a sign of dementia. The Democratic Party could use a leader who can articulate a vision, and he's not really up to that. On the other hand, the question isn't whether he can hang on for another 4-5 years -- that's what the VP and cabinet are for.

The real question is: can he win in 2024? I'm not particularly worried about the election itself -- any Republican will be a fat target that any Democrat should be able to overcome. The real problem is that an open primary will pit the progressives against the neoliberals, and the latter (e.g., Mike Bloomberg and whoever he tabs as his billion-dollar proxy) hate the left even more than they fear Republicans. Biden bridges that gap better than I imagined he could. Still, someone needs to solve his crisis-prone foreign policy. Democrats will be easily preferable on the economy, on rights, on freedom, but they can't afford to be viewed as the globalist war party. Biden needs to settle the Ukraine War, and to reach some accommodation with China. And fixing easily solvable standoffs with North Korea and Iran would be a plus. Some balance on Israel is probably too much to ask for, especially as the current regime seems to be intent on provoking a third intifada, confident that will provide a pretext for massive collective punishment.

Ian Millhiser:

Kim Phillips-Fein: [02-27] The Betrayal of Adam Smith: "How conservatives made him their icon and distorted his ideas." Review of Glory M Liu: Adam Smith's America: How a Scottish Philosopher Became an Icon of American Capitalism.

Brittany Shammas/Maham Javaid: [03-05] Another Norfolk Southern train details in Ohio.

Maxwell Strachan: [02-21] Companies Can't Ask You to Shut Up to Receive Severance, NLRB Rules: This is good news, but you have to wonder that companies ever thought they had the authority to enforce it. If "freedom of speech" is to mean anything, it has to cover the right to dis a company that did you wrong.

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Sunday, February 26, 2023


Speaking of Which

Started early, with the Bobert tweet at the bottom, then the Wirestone piece I picked up from Facebook, because I doubted I'd be able to find them come weekend. Then found Responsible Statecraft's anniversary series on Ukraine (starting with the Kinzer piece), and I was off and running. Also note the mini-essay following the MJT nonsense. I've contemplated collecting a few dozen such ideas under an old Paul Goodman title, Utopian Essays & Practical Proposals. Although it would take a constitutional amendment, this is one of the practical ones.

[PS: Added a couple minor notes on Feb. 27. I should add that the Wichita Eagle's top front page story today was Josef Federman: Israeli settlers rampage after Palestinian gunman kills 2 in West Bank. It's important to stress that this is not a single event, occasioned by a single event. Israeli settlers have been attacking Palestinians with more/less impunity for years now, including in the days leading up to the two settlers being killed. The change since the last election is that settlers who have gotten away with crimes against Palestinians in the past have now been elected to the government, and are using their position to encourage further attacks. For another report, see: Israeli settlers rampage through Palestinian towns in revenge for shooting. When officials incited Russian mobs to attack Jews in Tsarist Russia, the massacres were called Pogroms. The same word is completely appropriate here. The only thing new about the "new government" is that they're making no effort to hide or to sanitize their virulence. Hence, even in Wichita people who once admired and supported Israel are now getting a glimpse of just what the cult of Zionism has become.]


Top story threads:

Trump, DeSantis, et al.: Slow week for Trump, while he's awaiting the Georgia indictments. Meanwhile, DeSantis is pranking as usual, and a couple minor figures have entered the 2024 race.

Marjorie Taylor Greene's National Divorce: Her terminology may have been influenced by having just divorced her husband of 29 years. While I wouldn't presume that her divorce was amicable, it was certainly a lot simpler and cleaner than dividing the Federal Government between Red and Blue States -- especially given that said government has a trillion dollar military operating all around the world, with enough firepower to destroy the world many times over. Given that virtually every nation that has/has been divided has done so in war (including the US in the 1860s), the risk is off the charts.

Greene defends her proposal by saying, "Everyone I talk to says this." Obviously, her circle of acquaintances doesn't amount to much. It clearly excludes the 40% or so Democrats in Red States who would be stranded, including majorities in nearly every actual city. It also ignores Republicans who realize that they're much better off in the United States than they would be in the third-world dystopia that Republican policies lead to -- a contrast that will only grow as Democrats gain effective power in the Blue States, finally free of the dead weight of the Red. (Even now, the Federal government sends considerably more money to Red States than it collects in taxes, a net transfer that presumably would end with division.)

So the first thing that needs to be said about her proposal is that there's no reason to take it seriously. It has no political support beyond the small and delusional right-wing faction that Greene has become the public voice of, and a similarly small faction of the left who are sick and tired of Republican obstruction when we are faced with problems that require bold and imaginative action.

Speaking of which, I've had this idea kicking around for a while, on how to restructure Congress so it actually represents virtually all of the American people (instead of a bare majority, mostly selected by a tiny slice of donors). The idea is that within any congressional district, the top two (or possibly more) vote getters would be elected, with the district's vote a fraction, according to how many votes each candidate received. You could sweeten the pot a bit and round the winner up to a percentage point, and the second (and lesser) votegetters down, so the winner of a close race might get 0.51 votes, and the loser 0.49. But the first big advantage of this system would be that 100% of voters would have an elected representative, whereas under the current system, as many as 49% might not.

There are other advantages. Gerrymanders would cease to matter, because all they would do is shift fractional votes from one district to another. This also significantly reduces the importance (payback) of money in elections. Third parties would complicate things, but not that much. It would matter little whether districts got larger or smaller than at present. You could also calculate vote weights based not on percentages but on actual votes, so districts with high turnout would be better served than ones with low turnout. You could also use actual votes to deal with grossly unequal districts, such as states represented in the Senate. (Which would solve that problem, although eliminating the Senate would also work.)

Israel: I wanted to comment on the Parsi article, then found Beinart, then created a section, which (as usual) snowballed. Elsewhere I offer two definitions of "forever war," but Israel suggests a third: a war that you protract endlessly because you're less interested in the goal than the process. This is practicable only when your enemy is incapable of hitting back effectively. As such, this process resembles hunting more than it does war:

Ukraine War: The one-year anniversary of Russia's Feb. 24, 2022 invasion is bringing out a lot of rear-view mirror gazing, as well as fresh rounds of bluster from Messrs. Biden, Putin, and Zelensky. I pretty much said my piece on this war, or at least its historical context, in my 23 Theses piece back on April 19, but I add to a few of those points below, and reiterate most of them. It is important to stress that one year ago, despite a vast history fraught with errors and atrocities on every side, one person could have prevented this war from happening: Vladimir Putin. But a year later, responsibility for continuing the war largely rests on his opposite counterpart, Joe Biden. I fear he isn't up to the task (although I worry more about the company he keeps).

  • Connor Echols: [02-24] Diplomacy Watch: China's peace plan draws mixed reactions: China presented a proposal, which Zelensky at least had the good sense not to reject out of hand (unlike the US). Echols also wrote: [02-21] How the Ukraine war helped the arms trade go boom.

  • Gregory Afinogenov: [02-24] Peace in Ukraine Isn't Coming Soon: Something here that you rarely (if ever) read elsewhere concerns the internal restructuring of Ukraine to make it more neoliberal, i.e., a better investment for Europe and America. On the other hand, limiting speech and banning parties isn't a particularly good look for Team Democracy. Better known is how Russia has become more repressive.

  • Daniel Bessner: [02-23] How the war in Ukraine has challenged left-wing restrainers. One of the more problematic pieces this week from the Quincy Institute's Responsible Statecraft, where the idea that the US should exercise considerable restraint in dealing with the world is foundational -- while the website appeals to both left and right, the focus on restraint is intrinsically conservative (even when mouthed by Obama as "don't do stupid shit"). To refer to "left restrainers" is not only infelicitous, it also shortchanges the diversity of opinion on the left. Aside from left-rooted converts to massive armed support for Ukraine (like Bernie Sanders aide Matt Duss, who figures so large in this article -- partly because Bessner's definition of the left is tied to the Sanders campaign -- that if lefties had to have licenses, his would be suspended), I can count at least four left-oriented position groups: the pacifists (Medea Benjamin might be an example), who see all warring sides as wrong, even if they have trouble figuring out how to disengage them; the international law visionaries (Phyllis Bennis is prominent here); advocates of international solidarity (deriving from the old communist left, where the solution to war is revolution by workers on both sides; I don't have a prominent current example); and the anti-imperialists, who see Zelensky as a tool of the same old imperialism, and therefore hope that Putin can thwart the west (Max Blumenthal is an example; if I could, I'd suspend the licenses of this group as well). And, of course, there are hybrids and in-betweeners as well. I draw on all four, but I don't see how the first three allow one any measure of sympathy or support for Putin.

  • Eli Clifton: [02-24] Ukraine War is great for the portfolio, as defense stocks enjoy a banner year: "The top five US weapons firms outperformed major Wall Street indexes in the last year, mostly on the backs of American taxpayers."

  • Andrew Cockburn: [02-22] We were promised 'economic shock and awe' against Russia: "But one year after its brutal invasion of Ukraine, Moscow looks poised to weather the worst of Western sanctions." Just last week Biden was talking about new, even more crippling sanctions. But one clear lesson from the last year is that sanctions have had minimal impact on Russia. Nor is there any reason to expect that further sanctions will make any difference. I was skeptical a year ago, and even more so now. But while sanctions have a miserably poor record of motivating desired political behavior, the one thing they really do is express the desire to hurt a country. So not only did they fail to end the war; they continue to give Russians a reason to fight on.

  • Jonathan Guyer: [02-21] Biden and Putin's dueling speeches show why the end of the Ukraine war is a long way off. Both sides feel the need to show strength and determination, without betraying any doubt as to the rightness of their cause, or allowing the possibility of compromise. Guyer thought about this a bit more, and wrote: [02-24] How Ukraine could become America's next forever war. "Next" is something of a misnomer, given that it's already happening. However, the phrase is telling. It could mean one of two things: one is that you're fighting against a foe that cannot be defeated and will never give up, in which case your only out is to find some accommodation; the other is that you're really confused about your goals, so it's easier to keep fighting than to reconsider. Vietnam is an example of the former; the Global War on Terror the latter. Russia in Ukraine has elements of both: neither side can be defeated, so the war has turned into a game of chicken; meanwhile both sides have gotten so wrapped up in their own propaganda neither can see a way to back down.

  • Ellen Ioanes: [02-26] Here's what arming Ukraine could look like in the future: France, Germany, and the UK have floated a proposal to arm Ukraine on their own, independent of American control.

  • Fred Kaplan: [02-21] The Game Putin Is Really Playing by Threatening a Nuclear Weapons Treaty, on Putin's declaration that Russia is suspending its participation in the New START nuclear arms treaty; and [02-24] How the Ukraine War Is Likely to End. As he rules out a "total war solution," "end" can only mean some sort of agreement, for which he offers little grounds for hope.

  • Stephen Kinzer: [02-21] Putin & Zelensky: Sinners and saints who fit our historic narrative: "Think about why the West wants to invoke WWII and the Cold War here, and then ask whether it's been productive." Actually, the "West" started invoking WWII in the runup to Bush's Iraq War, probably because Vietnam didn't poll so well. I doubt it's a coincidence that two of the loudest anti-Russia hawks in academia (Anne Applebaum and Timothy Snyder) have books to sell you about Stalin's atrocities in Ukraine, while others (like Michael McFaul) have careers in think tanks subsidized by the war machine. Meanwhile, recycling Cold War propaganda against Putin works because he's Russian and no one who matters cares about the differences. Zelensky's Churchill act also works, because he knows it's just a role, so he can ignore most of Churchill's career, and not get called on it. As Kinzer points out: "As far back as 1873, an American cartoonist depicted Russia as a hairy monster vying with a handsome Uncle Sam for control of the world. That archetype resonates across generations. Like most populations, Americans are easily mobilized to hate whatever country we are told to hate. If that country is Russia, we have generations of psychic preparation."

  • Charles A Kupchan: [02-24] US-West must prepare for a diplomatic endgame in Ukraine: The only possible endgame is diplomatic, but that means offering Putin some kind of graceful exit -- something the armchair generals in Washington and Brussels seem to be having too much fun to contemplate.

  • Marlene Laruelle: [02-25] This is far from over: Sobering lessons from Ukraine. These aren't organized very nicely, so let me offer my own:

    • Russia has totally burnt its bridges to the West. NATO is stronger than ever, and while it's not a real threat to Russia, it is an insult, and won't be going away. Russia is presumably still popular in the separatist regions, but they've totally lost the rest of Ukraine. Even if they negotiate an end to sanctions, it will be a long time before they recover lost business with Europe.
    • Ukraine, minus any parts that vote to stay with Russia, will be tightly integrated into the EU.
    • Militarily, there has been a huge home-field advantage, which doesn't bode well for Ukrainian hopes to retake Russian ethnic areas. The big Russian advantages (air power, strategic depth) haven't been very effective, while discipline, morale, and logistic support have been weaknesses. Western arms have allowed Ukraine to move from a guerrilla defensive operation to more conventional operations, but territorial gains have been minor. The result is unwinnable for both sides.
    • The US has so little credibility in the Global South that it has failed to isolate Russia and strangle it economically. The utility of sanctions as a weapon is seriously in doubt.
    • The costs of continued military operations on both sides are high and growing. While the West is better able to afford them, there is no reason to expect that Russia will be starved out of the war any time soon.
    • The toll on the Ukrainian people is, of course, immense, with millions of refugees in Europe and Russia. Much of Ukraine is being turned into a complete wasteland.
    • While the risk of nuclear war is small, it demands respect, and that means that both sides need to curtail their ambitions. We have seen little indication of that in this anniversary's rhetoric.
  • Anatol Lieven: [02-20] Russia was defeated in the first three weeks: Basically true, both militarily and politically. Russia's offensive in the south from Crimea was actually pretty effective, although short of capturing Odesa it made little difference. But their blitzkrieg toward Kyiv and Kharkiv stalled, turning into a "40-mile-long traffic jam" that became easy pickings for Ukraine. I'm skeptical that even had Russia troops captured Kyiv, the west half of Ukraine would have folded, so it was just a matter of time before Putin realized he bit off more than he could chew. And politically, Putin gave NATO something it hadn't had since 1992: a reason to exist. There was never a chance that western hawks who had kept the organization on life support wouldn't jump on the opportunity to fight (especially as they could do so through proxies). The problem since then is that the Russian defeat, which Putin would be hard-pressed not to admit, still hasn't been as total as the victory the resurgent NATO powers crave. If only the warmongers understood that there is no such thing as victory in war. The only decision is when do you cut your losses? And the only answer is the sooner the better.

  • Aryeh Neier: [02-24] Will the West Be Serious About Crimes Against Humanity This Time? "In the 1990s, the Western powers were slow to move against Serbian butcher Slobodan Milosevic. We can't make that mistake again." Yes we can, and sure we will. Milosevic and several of his henchmen are the only ones who had to face the ICC, because they were the only ones who fell out of power with no one to protect them. Putin may be worse, but he'll never face the ICC, because even if Russia puts him out to pasture, he won't be vulnerable like that, and no one else is going to be able to touch him. Same, I might add, for Henry Kissinger, and a long list of others. I came to grips with this with Richard Nixon, who never got anything like the punishment he deserved, but once he was driven from power and shamed, anything more ceased to matter. Besides, if you want to get serious about "crimes against humanity," you have to catch them much sooner than when they get mixed up in war. The time to stop Hitler wasn't when he crossed some line at Wannsee or even Kristallnacht but when (or before) he came to power.

  • Vijay Prashad: [02-26] The global South refuses pressure to side with the West on Russia: Actually, most have voted to condemn Russia's invasion, but very few have agreed to enforce economic sanctions against Russia.

  • William Ruger: [02-23] 'Ukraine maximalists' on the Right still dominate. But for how long? Ever since Arthur Vandenberg in 1948, Democrats could always count on overwhelming Republican support for foreign wars, with some Republicans (like Barry Goldwater and John McCain) reliably overexcited. Meanwhile, the Democratic rank-and-file tended to become more dovish, encouraging Republicans to pile on, painting Democrats as spineless appeasers even as their leaders overcompensated with macho posturing (none more than Hillary Clinton). The prowar consensus has held up on Ukraine, with Democrats especially reluctant to break ranks -- part loyalty to Biden, part because they've been sold the line that Putin (not unlike Trump) is a sworn enemy of democracy. On the other hand, a few Republicans (most notably Trump) are wavering, for various reasons -- the worst being that some (e.g., Josh Hawley) would rather go to war with China, followed closely by the ones who like Putin as a fellow fascist. What worries me is that unless Biden can steer this war toward a diplomatic conclusion, the Democratic Party will be so mired in the war machinery that they'll never be able to deliver on their core promises, and Republican do-nothingism will seem like the saner course.

  • Alex Shephard: [02-23] Republicans Are Ready to Abandon Ukraine: "The GOP is turning against continued support for Ukrainians fighting off a Russian invasion." As I noted above, some are hedging their bets, but most Republicans love the arms merchants too much to throw cold water on their party. Republicans will, of course, abandon Ukraine as soon as the war is over and the US is called on to rebuild a country which sacrificed everything so our war gamers could think they were "degrading" the Russian military threat.

  • Robert Wright: [02-23] The Ukraine Archives: Summaries and links to a remarkable series of pieces on the war, going back to Jan 24, 2022: "How cognitive empathy could have prevented the Ukraine crisis" -- did you know there was a crisis a full month before invasion?

  • Joe Lauria: [02-24] More Evidence Emerges That US Wanted Russia to Invade: Slant here is anti-American (some evidence for that) and pro-Russian (more of a stretch). It is, of course, likely that some American deep state-types decided early on that Putin was less pliant than Yeltsin and should be viewed as a threat (or could be propped up as one), so they came up with a scheme to flip Ukraine and use that as leverage to entrap Putin. I've always thought that pro-western lobbying in Ukraine had less to do with US strategic interests than with European business, as the rewards there were much closer to home, but sure, Victoria Nuland, and all that. Whether 2014 counts as a coup or a popular uprising is open to debate: the presence of plotters (including Nuland) doesn't preclude the latter. One may also debate the extent to which the 2014 separatist uprisings in Crimea and Donbas were spontaneous or orchestrated from Moscow, although it didn't take long before Putin was calling the shots.

    In any case, subsequent elections legitimated the shift in power (no doubt more than would have been the case had Crimea and Donbas not split off). What's much murkier is the political machinations after Zelensky ran on a peace platform, then ultimately emerged as Ukraine's top warrior. In particular, no one that I'm aware of has written up a thorough diplomatic history from Zelensky's election to the invasion, but it's safe to say that the Biden administration encouraged Zelinsky to demand more, and that Putin grew increasingly alarmed. I doubt this was meant to provoke an invasion (as Lauria claims), but it was certainly meant to corner Russia. We've seen some evidence (not provided here) that Putin tried diplomacy before resorting to force: there are reports of the US and UK lobbying Zelensky to reject Russian overtures. The US also went to great lengths to publicize the Russian troop buildup, and to threaten sanctions and other retaliation. At the time, I noted that the US risked goading Putin to attack. I don't know that to have been their intent, but they were surprisingly well prepared when Putin made his move.

    Still, regardless of any American designs -- something one should always be skeptical of, given how poorly past designs have played out -- it was Putin, for reasons wholly of his own, who deliberately walked into this "trap." Lauria concludes, "the question is whether Russia can extricate itself from the U.S. strategy of insurgency and economic war." I doubt that he can, and not because he's ideologically wedded to KGB-recidivism, to atavistic dreams of reviving imperial glory, or the sheer nihilism of ending western civilization, but because bullies can't stand to back-peddle, and because politicians -- and that's what he really is -- get so easily trapped in the rhetoric that initially gained them success. He needs to find a new game, but I doubt he has the imagination for that.

    The real question going forward is whether Biden and/or Zelensky can see clear to let Russia loose. No one can afford a "forever war," no matter how much pleasure you take in making your enemy squirm.


Other stories:

Christine Ahn: [02-22] When Jimmy Carter went to North Korea: "Ever the peacemaker, he met with Kim Il Sung in 1994 and helped freeze Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program for over a decade." The secret of Carter's success was that he met with them personally, and he agreed to reasonable proposals. The Clinton administration was shamed into accepting his fait accompli, but in due course reneged on its promises and sabotaged the deal, which was finally buried by Bush, and in due course by North Korea testing nuclear bombs and missiles. Trump's brief flirtation with Kim Jong Un produced a lull in the testing, which might have been formalized into an end to hostilities, but Trump's underlings (e.g., John Bolton and Mike Pompeo) made sure that didn't happen either.

For more on Korea, see:

Brooks Barnes: [02-23] The Billionaire's Daughter Knows What You're Thinking: Elizabeth Koch, daughter of Charles Koch, the second generation feudal lord of Wichita. Cited because it may be interesting, but I haven't invested the time to tell you why. So I'll pass this over to Ian Millhiser: "A fascinating window into what becomes of a useless person who never had to worry about anything important her entire life. And a strong policy argument for higher estate taxes."

Thomas Floyd/Michael Cavna: [02-25] 'Dilbert' dropped by The Post, other papers, after cartoonist's racist rant. Noted because I've read "Dilbert" for a long time, but only because it was there in the paper. Long ago, it was occasionally clever or observant about office culture, but it started to lose its moorings when Adams quit his day job, leaving him to recycle his clichés. My wife quit reading it years ago, and I doubt I'll miss it much. Should the strip be canceled? That's something I'd almost never do, not least because he doesn't deserve to martyr himself (which may well have been his intent, as he no doubt believes the "woke mob" is out to get him). Besides, his statements, at least as quoted in the article, are more stupid than inflammatory (not that I'm not much of a stickler on either count). How could anyone construct a poll with a question like "are you ok with white people" and expect straight, meaningful answers? On the other hand, how could anyone jump to his conclusions without being a dangerously deranged racist?

[PS: The Wichita Eagle ran "Dilbert" on Sunday, but canceled the strip as of Monday. They replaced it with something called "Pooch Café," which, yes, is marginally funnier. On the other hand, has any comic strip in the last 10-20 years done more than "Dilbert" to make white guys look clueless and/or stupid?]

I didn't go looking for anything to tack onto this, but then there was this:

Shirin Ghaffary: [02-21] Social media used to be free. Not anymore. As Facebook joints Twitter in trying to squeeze more money out of their users, as if they weren't imposing enough already. Granted, the push is mostly aimed at businesses, which are already used to paying for publicity, but at some point the platforms will start to bleed users, and that the value of that publicity will depreciate. Thing is, it would be possible to publicly fund social media platforms that provide the desired connectivity without harvesting data and trying to monetize it through advertising. And they would be less of a drain on society than the current monopolistic rackets.

Clare Malone: [02-25] Watching Tucker Carlson for work: "You don't know Fox News until you are watching it for a job."

Ian Millhiser:

Timothy Noah: [02-21] How the GOP Lost Its Brain: "Today's Republican Party is driven by egos and power rivalries, not ideas. The GOP once had ideas -- lots of them. The problem was that they were unpopular and bad." Isn't the answer obvious? At some point, unpopular and bad ideas become liabilities. And besides, they never were anything but props for hitting on some irrationally emotional point -- one they've since found they can jump to with hysterics endlessly repeated by their propaganda machine. Turns out all those brains were merely atavistic.

Evan Osnos: [02-26] Sliding toward a new Cold War: Russia and Ukraine come up, but this is mostly about China, which is by far the more serious force. Still, this is remarkably short on reasons why China might be considered a threat. They just, you know, are, mostly because we understand so very little about them, or for that matter ourselves. Osnos turns to George Kennan for guidance, quoting a new biography that Kennan "spent the four years from 1944 to 1948 promoting the Cold War, he devoted the subsequent forty to undoing what he and others had wrought." The point should be obvious: starting wars is much easier than ending them.

Nathan J Robinson: [02-23] Why the Right Hates Social Security (And How They Plan to Destroy It): Interview with Alex Lawson, of Social Security Works.

Derek Willis: [02-24] After a Decade of Tracking Politicians' Deleted Tweets, Politwoops Is No More: "Service changers after Elon Musk's acquisition of Twitter have rendered it impossible for us to continue tracking these tweets."

Clay Wirestone: [02-09] 'No future!' If Rep. Kristey Williams has her way, there won't be a next generation of Kansans: "Destroying public education will drive parents, students and teachers out of the Sunflower State for good." First, let's dial the hyperbole back a bit, and dispense with the Johnny Rotten analogies. The Republican chair of K-12 Education is pushing a voucher bill, designed to siphon public education money into private schools, with "little or no oversight on expenditures, little to no oversight for student achievement." Choice sounds like a good thing, and one can argue that having to compete for students should make schools work harder to satisfy students and parents. But does it really work like that? For starters, it's the rule rather than the exception that privatization of public services leads to more cost while returning less value. This is part profit-seeking (which includes a strong impulse toward fraud, unless it is checked by regulation, which itself adds to the overhead), and part due to the lost efficiencies of scale (including more specialized teachers, less administrative overhead, shared technology, lots of things, but not necessarily larger classroom size). Second, vouchers divide public support for public schools, worsening current underfunding. Third, if vouchers don't cover the whole cost of private schooling (which isn't likely, given its inefficiency), they increase religious isolation and class-stratification (which has always been a selling point for elite private schools; but they're not the ones driving this agenda, as their clients always have been able to afford paying their own way).

Still, the advocates of voucher programs are remarkably myopic. In looking to exempt their children from the taint of public schooling (be it secular and/or non-elitist), they blithely ignore the others, who they consign to run-down, under-resourced schools that teach little and increasingly resemble detainment centers -- until their inmates escape and struggle to survive in a world that has shown them nothing but disdain. If, then, they turn to crime, they can finally look forward to the public finally spending serious money on them, in the guise of punishment. Even if they don't, most will never gain the skills that we need to run an increasingly complex and fragile economy. What a waste.

By the way, there are specific Kansas angles here, some mentioned in the article. In recent years, Johnson County has grown largely based on the reputation of its public school system (compared to the Missouri suburbs around Kansas City). The author is worried that wrecking public schools in Kansas will reverse that trend, resulting in a mass exodus (although having once fled Missouri, I'm not so sure they want to head back). A possibly bigger problem is rural Kansas, which has already lost so many people that school districts are struggling just to hold on, let alone to adapt to times that require more and better education.


James Thompson forwarded this Twitter interchange:

Lauren Bobert: One thing you can be sure of - I'll never go woke.

Leslieoo7: I'm sure of that. To be woke requires awareness, an enlightened mind, exposure to different cultures and different types of people. It requires maturity to realize that not everyone looks like you or thinks like you and that's okay.

Woke is the antonym of ignorance.

Michael Thrower offered a list of "10 Great Very Short Econ Books" (≤ 200 pages) [thread]:

  1. Diane Coyle: GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History
  2. Albert O Hirschman: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States -- how consumers influence firms
  3. Jesper Roine: Pocket Piketty: A Handy Guide to Capital in the Twenty-First Century
  4. Eric Lonergan/Mark Blyth: Angrynomics
  5. Joan Robinson: An Essay in Marxian Economics
  6. Avner Offer: Understanding the Private-Public Divide: Markets, Governments, and Time Horizons -- argues that state can plan long-term where markets can't.
  7. Alex Cobham: The Uncounted -- how statistics can be distorted by power relations.
  8. Richard A Easterlin: An Economist's Lessons on Happiness: Farewell Dismal Science.
  9. Dean Baker: The Conservative Nanny State
  10. Lee Elliot Major/Stephen Machin: Social Mobility: What Do We Know and What Should We Do About . . . ?

Ask a question, or send a comment.

Sunday, February 19, 2023


Speaking of Which

As usual, this is assembled piecewise as I find the pieces, kind of like an Easter egg hunt. As such, the bits accumulate somewhat randomly, although given the present political situation some topics inevitably recur.

PS [02-20]: I added a comment on the Washington Post Ukraine editorial.

Top story threads:

Top stories for the week:

DeSantis and Trump: For a primer on these two asshole clowns, consider how they interact: [02-18] Inside the collapse of the Trump-DeSantis 'alliance of convenience'.

Other Republicans:

Flying Objects: It's open season, although it's gotten so silly that even Biden wants 'sharper rules' on unknown aerial objects.

  • Ellen Nakashima/Shane Harris/Jason Samenow: [02-14] US tracked China spy balloon from launch on Hainan Island along unusual path: This report says the balloon "may have been diverted on an errant path caused by atypical weather conditions." It also suggests that, given the balloon was tracked from its launch on Hainan (a large island in the South China Sea) that the panic that ensued once the balloon was seen by civilians in Montana was unwarranted. Biden could have simply announced that we knew about the balloon, had tracked it since its launch, and considered it harmless.

  • Chas Danner: [02-18] Did an F-22 Blow Up an Illinois Club's Hobby Balloon? Perhaps the doubt is because when a $150 million F-22 shoots a $472,000 AIM-9X Sidewinder at a $100 "pico" balloon there isn't much debris left to analyze.

  • Jonathan Guyer: [02-13] Why the balloon and UFO affairs are a Sputnik moment: "As all these objects fall, a new space race is rising." The problem starts with the phrase "Sputnik moment": the original event was turned into fodder to fuel an arms race that resolve nothing; do the same thing here and you'll get the same stupid results (or worse).

  • Fred Kaplan: [02-15] The Very Serious Lessons We Should Learn From the Balloon Fiasco: Starts by citing the Nakashima post (above), then adds that both China and the US blew this incident up into something ridiculous, with their instinctive claims of innocence, macho posturing, and faux rage. The net effect was to add fuel to a conflict that neither side really wants. Not that there aren't factions in the US stupidly spoiling for a fight (most conspicuously among Congressional Republicans, not that Democrats, some, following Obama's "pivot to Asia," aren't also encouraging).

Hot Rails to Hell: Mostly on the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Also see Jeffrey St Clair's latest "Roaming Charges" (below) for a pretty detailed summary.

Ukraine War: The war is approaching its first anniversary, with a minor Russian offensive near Bakhmut, and not much more news to report, other than a lot of posturing about how both sides are resolved to fight on indefinitely, regardless of the costs.

  • Blaise Malley: [02-17] Diplomacy Watch: Is the Biden team laying the groundwork for talks? They still seem to be under the delusion that pre-negotiation posturing will make a real difference when the only thing that will work is finding a mutually tolerable agreement -- one that all that posturing, with the suggestion of bending the enemy to your will, only makes less likely.

  • Luke Cooper: [01-30] Ukraine's Neoliberal War Mobilization: "Low taxes, privatization, and pared-back labor protections could undermine Ukraine's fight against Russian aggression." One fact that's rarely been mentioned is that Ukraine's economic performance since independence has been worse than Russia's. That's a big part of the reason it can make sense that some parts of Ukraine -- especially ones where Russian is the first language -- might prefer reunification with Moscow to continued rule from Kiev. Since the war started, Zelensky has been pulled toward the US and Europe, mostly by his insatiable demand for weapons, but nothing comes with no strings attached. He may be hoping that after spending so much, the west will help Ukraine rebuild, but in Washington the redevelopment choices are neoliberal and even worse.

  • Francesca Ebel/Mary Ilyushina: [02-13] Russians abandon wartime Russia in historic exodus. "Initial data shows that at least 500,000, and perhaps nearly 1 million, have left in the year since the invasion began."

  • Nicholas Kristof: [02-18] Biden Should Give Ukraine What It Needs to Win: Some rather huge hidden assumptions here, starting with the notion that the war can be won, that Ukraine can win it, that there is a finite recipe of weapons (and other aid, although Zelensky mostly just wants to talk about weapons) that can do the trick, and that Biden has it within his power to deliver them. Also that winning would be a good thing.

  • Anatol Lieven: [02-14] Austria should buck the West and welcome Russia to key security meeting.

  • Anton Troianovski/Valerie Hopkins: [02-19] One Year Into War, Putin Is Crafting the Russia He Craves: I don't know whether that's an accurate headline, but the images and descriptions of the propaganda barrage Russia is mounting to bolster support for the war are unsettling. It's hard to tell how effective this is, but the idea that defeating Russia in Ukraine will cause Putin's house of cards to crumble is far from certain. It's just as likely that, having been brought up on such propaganda, Putin's successors will be even more gung ho than he is.

  • Erin Banco/Sarah Anne Aarup/Anastasiia Carrier: [02-18] Inside the stunning gnrowth of Russia's Wagner Group: The obvious question this raises is how does Wagner compare with the mercenary outfits the US uses, like Blackstone?

  • Kelley Beaucar Vlahos: [02-16] The Sy Hersh effect: killing the messenger, ignoring the message. Remember: means, opportunity, motive. Hersh may not have every detail right, but can you spin a more plausible story? The main argument against the US having blown up the pipeline is that it would have been a really stupid thing to do (if you ever get caught). Again, I may spend too much time watching crime fiction, but the maxim at work here is: "criminals do stupid stuff." Ergo, stupidity is not a defense. It's practically a necessity.

  • Timothy Snyder: [01-23] Why the world needs Ukrainian victory: The author, an historian of the conflicts in 20th century eastern Europe, the study of which has left him with an outsized hatred of Russia (although at least he never was a Nazi symp; he started out as a protégé of Tony Judt, who was perhaps overly excited by the emergence of democratic movements following the Cold War). I can't imagine what a "Ukrainian victory" might look like, but I'd be happy to see Russian troops pushed back to pre-2014 borders (probably what he has in mind), or even to the separatist borders before last March. Still, the cost of doing so has already been huge, and will only get worse, so one has to doubt the value is of protracting the war, especially given the stalemate of the last six or so months.

    Perhaps I might agree that "the world needs a Russian defeat," but hasn't that already happened? And hasn't history taught us that defeats (and for that matter "victories") are often poor predictors of future peace? Perhaps "an utterly defeated people" (to cite a phrase Israelis have used to describe the goal of their plot against the Palestinians) isn't the best answer? Still, Snyder is not just claiming that defeating Russia will be a good thing in itself. He's arguing that Ukrainian victory will save and redeem European civilization. And without having the slightest wish to defend Putin, he's wrong on nearly every point. Quotes are from his piece (answers to "why does the world need a Ukrainian victory?"), followed by my brief notes:

    1. "To halt atrocity. Russia's occupation is genocidal." Not true. Brutal? Impossible to justify? Sure.
    2. "To preserve the international legal order." There is no such thing. Maybe there should be, but there are too many counterexamples, including the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
    3. "To end an era of empire." Does this presume that the US, UK, etc., will dismantle their empires (remember that the US has over 800 military bases abroad) if Russia fails in Ukraine? How does one cause the other? I don't doubt that some Russians harbor nostalgia for lost empire, and I don't approve, but fighting to defend fellow Russians who accidentally found themselves on the wrong side of an arbitrary border from threats they regarded as existential (one might say "genocidal," but let's not), is rather limited compared to, say, the European partition of Africa.
    4. "To defend the peace project of the European Union." Ukraine is not part of the EU, so this seems out of bounds. The notion that Russia is really fighting "against the larger idea that European states can peacefully cooperate" is specious.
    5. "To give the rule of law a chance in Russia." Russia has no shortage of "rule of law," nor is this likely to change regardless of the outcome of the war. It is true that states at war tend to become more repressive and less free (as Americans should know, from our own experience), but what helps is ending the war, not whether it is counted as a victory or defeat.
    6. "To weaken the prestige of tyrants." We're so gullible that we need a war for this? "Fascism is about force, and is discredited by defeat." Us so-called "premature antifascists" think fascism is discredited by its acts. Are you suggesting that fascism would be vindicated by victory?
    7. "To remind us that democracy is the better system." This assumes that Russia isn't a democracy, which is the stock propaganda line, but by most measures it's not much different from Ukraine: both have elections and multiple parties, with both significantly corrupted by oligarchs. Ukraine has been more volatile, partly because US and EU interests have lobbied more there. But unless the war is settled by some kind of referendum, there is no reason to think that its outcome will be determined by differences in political system. [*]
    8. "To lift the threat of major war in Europe." The only reason the threat exists in the first place is the exclusion of Russia from Europe, which is defined by NATO and the EU. Defeating Russia in Ukraine may make Russians meeker, or may make them more bitter and vengeful. Only cooperation lifts the threat.
    9. "To lift the threat of major war in Asia." He means "a Chinese invasion of Taiwan." This would take a long explanation, but in short that doesn't follow.
    10. "To prevent the spread of nuclear weapons." More faulty reasoning. He plays fast and loose here, drawing a conclusion from "if Ukraine loses," whereas supposedly he's arguing for "Ukrainian victory," as if there is no middle ground.
    11. "To reduce the risk of nuclear war." Partly derived from previous, but also depends on a tautology: a Ukraine victory only happens if Russia accepts defeat without resorting to nuclear arms, hence the risk removal is defined into the proposition. Real problem is that the proposition is the risk. Perhaps reasonable people might conclude that if the use of nuclear weapons is worse than accepting defeat, possessing nuclear weapons has no value. But are we dealing with reasonable people, on either side? And if, perchance, the taboo against using nuclear weapons is broken, the long-term risk of nuclear war elsewhere will most likely increase.
    12. "To head off future resource wars." There is no reason to think that frustrating this kind of war in one place will dissuade others from trying it elsewhere. More often than not, the failure of one war just encourages warriors to try harder next time.
    13. "To guarantee food supplies and prevent future starvation." Another case of overgeneralization. Ukraine may be a powerhouse granary, but pales compared to the threats posed by climate change.
    14. "To accelerate the shift from fossil fuels." To some extent the war has already done this, but it is tangential to the outcome, and in any case is something that should be decided on its own merits, rather than as a side-effect of war gaming.
    15. "To affirm the value of freedom." So why not end with something totally vacuous? Seems par for the course.

    [*] When comparing democracies, you might want to consider Julia Conley: [02-17] Due to Wars and Climate Destruction, US Ranks Worse Than Peers on 'Impunity' Index: "A democratic system of government is insufficient to fend off impunity." If you're unfamiliar with the concept: "Impunity is the growing instinct of choice in the global order. It represents a dangerous world view that laws and norms are for suckers." As best I can tell, Russia ranks worse than China, which ranks worse than the US, which is somewhere close to the median on a list of 160 countries.

  • Washington Post Editorial Board: [02-18] How to break the stalemate in Ukraine: On reading the title, my first thought was the way must be to press harder for a ceasefire and a sensible settlement, since that's the only way the war can possibly end. But no, they insist that "the West's overarching goal must be ensuring that the Russian tyrant gains nothing by his aggression. To allow an outcome that rewards the Kremlin in any way would be a moral travesty." As opposed to their alternative, which prolongs and intensifies the destruction and slaughter. They then go into a long shopping list of weapons systems they want to send Ukraine. And they insist the US should throw caution to the wind: "But a principal lesson from the past year is that the risk of escalation is overblown."

    Nuclear weapons? "As for the Russian autocrat, he has nothing left to escalate with other than manpower and nuclear weapons. If the West adequately arms Ukraine, he cannot win with the former and is very unlikely to resort to the latter, which would alienate his most important ally, China. A tactical strike by Russia would be one of history's greatest acts of self-immolation, cementing Russia's pariah status for decades." The logic here is hard to fathom, especially given that nuclear deterrence depends on the mutual understanding of logic and nothing more. If the West doesn't respect Russia's nuclear threat, and no longer shows that respect by limiting its military response, why shouldn't Russia follow through on its threat? If Russia is rational enough not to use nuclear weapons, why isn't it rational enough to negotiate? After all, it will only be "self-immolation" if the US decides to retalliate massively -- a separate decision which should make the US even more of a world pariah than Russia. After all, wouldn't a US strategic nuclear attack on Russia also be self-immolation?

    Thus far, both Biden and Putin have been sane enough not to paint themselves into a corner where they have to follow through on the dismal logic of their war strategists. Still, they have to endure insanity like this editorial.

Other stories:

Peter Beinart: [02-19] You Can't Save Democracy in a Jewish State. Of course, it's only ever been a slogan. From 1949-67, Palestinians within the Green line were able to vote, but subject to martial law, and Palestinians who fled the atrocities (like the mass murder at Deir Yassin) were denied re-entry as their homes and land was confiscated. After 1967, martial law was relieved, but reinstated in the occupied territories, where Palestinians were denied even the vote. As settlements encroached on Palestinian lands, a two-tier system of (in)justice was implemented. Now the right-wing wants to be able to strip citizenship and force into exile those few Palestinians who still have it, and they want to prevent the courts from reviewing whatever they do. Yet still zionists liked to brag that Israel was "the only democracy" in the region. Given that "democracy" is one of those slogans the US is supposedly fighting for in Ukraine and elsewhere, you'd think the loss of it in Israel might matter, but to the folks to direct US foreign policy, it doesn't.

Ryan Cooper: [02-17] Elon Musk Shows How Oligarchy Poisons the Speech Commons: "Free speech is not when one rich guy gets to shout 1,000 times louder than anyone else." And not just any rich guy: the one who now owns the platform had Twitter tweak its algorithms to promote Musk's own tweets. By the way, the least free speech in America is still advertising, where the volume is simply scaled by money, and the motives are always suspect, and often downright fraudulent. For an example, see: Christian Downie/Robert Brulle [02-19] Research Finds Big Oil's Trade Group Allies Outspent Clean Energy by a Whopping 27x.

David Dayen: [02-03] Amazon's Endgame: "The company is transitioning to become an unavoidable gatekeeper in all commerce." It's really hard to get a handle on how many angles a company like Amazon is playing to get control over virtually all consumer spending. ("The real danger from Amazon is that is invisibly takes a cut from everybody: consumers, businesses, even governments.") The other thing that's hard to get a grip on is that while this works mostly due to proximate monopoly power, it's based on network effects and efficiencies of scale that are impossible to compete with, so traditional antimonopoly remedies (divestments, standing up competitors) won't work. What might help would be to treat those parts of the business as natural monopolies and strictly regulate them. Or one could create public utilities to compete with them while eliminating many of the most onerous aspects of the business (like the capture and sale of personal data). Of course, a regulatory regime that would expose Amazon's side-dealing would help make alternatives more competitive.

Huntger DeRensis: [02-15] How a Super Bowl whitewash of Tillman cover-up was a helpful reminder. I've long felt that the only reasons people join the military are delusion and desperation. NFL star Tillman wasn't desperate. There is some evidence that his delusions were lifting before he was killed by other American soldiers, but that fact itself should disabuse one of some of the most common delusions, including the notion that the military serves the nation in any substantive way, and that joining it is somehow heroic. much of what I know about Tillman specifically comes from Jon Krakauer's book, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, who takes the whole macho/hero thing very seriously.

Lauren Fadiman: [02-13] How a For-Profit Healthcare System Generates Mistrust of Medicine. I haven't been looking for support on such an obvious point, but did stumble across this:

Steve Fraser: [02-16] The Spectre of "Woke Communism". Explains that DeSantis's rant about "woke corporations" isn't a particularly novel idea: irate right-wingers have a long history of conflating "Bankers and Bolsheviks." Also at TomDispatch:

  • Andrew Bacevich: [02-12] Tanks for Nuttin': Or "Giving Whataboutism a Chance." Tipped me off to the silly Snyder piece above. As for "whataboutism": "When the Russian president embarked on his war in 2022, he had no idea what he was getting into, any more than George W. Bush did in 2003." Also: "Classifying Russia as a de facto enemy of the civilized world has effectively diminished the urgency of examining out own culture and values."

  • Julia Gledhill/William D Hartung: [02-14] Merger Mania in the Military-Industrial Complex: Hartung is a long-term critic of Defense spending, with several books on the subject, going back to And Weapons for All (1994), and How Much Are You Making on the War, Daddy? A Quick and Dirty Guide to War Profiteering in the Bush Administration (2003). So I'm a bit surprised that in looking at the latest scandals, they don't mention the wave of defense contractor mergers in the 1990s (like Boeing-Douglas and Lockheed-Martin). Those were supposedly guided by the Defense Department on the theory that post-Cold War they wanted to reduce the number of competitors for a shrinking pie. (Given the infamous "revolving door" take that assertion with a grain of salt.) Of course, thanks to the CIA's backing of Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan, and the neocon plot to "garrison the world," the pie actually expanded, and the megacorporations spawned by the mergers became even more politically influential than ever -- leading to this latest round of mergers.

    While it made sense during WWII to temporarily convert industry to war production by guaranteeing high, low-risk profits (contracts were typically "cost + 10%"), it was foolish to build a permanent arms industry on that basis, specifically because it created a huge independent political force lobbying for more war. The result is that US foreign policy is now largely subordinate to the continued profit of the arms manufacturers. Absent this corrupt influence, a sensible foreign policy would focus on the need for peace, fairness, and cooperation between all nations, instead of splitting the world into permanent conflict zones. One example is the Abraham Accords, where Israel and its former Arab enemies puy aside their differences so that both can freely buy American arms to use against their own people. Another is the expansion of NATO with its vilification of Russia, eventually prodding Putin into creating the current Ukraine bonanza. And then there's the militarization of what are basically trade disputes with China. The latter hasn't blown up like Russia, but if/when it does the consequences could be far worse.

    Also relevant here is Stephen F Eisenman: [02-17] The Insecure Superpower.

Amy Goldstein/Mary Jordan/Kevin Sullivan: [02-19] Former president opts for home hospice care for final days: Jimmy Carter, 98. I've listed him among the short list of era-ending one-term presidents, along with Buchanan, Hoover, and Trump (a slightly looser definition of era might also pick up John Adams, and maybe even John Quincy Adams). Of those, Carter most resembled Hoover: an extremely talented technocrat who faced bad times and made them worse through dumb choices. When I look back now, the thing I'm most struck by is how many of his choices anticipated turns toward disaster that we now associate mostly with his successor, Ronald Reagan. He appointed Paul Volcker, who crashed and burned the economy to smash unions and slay inflation. He kicked off the fashion for deregulation. He exacerbated the Cold War with his Olympics shenanigans, and more seriously by arming jihadis in Afghanistan. He misplayed Iran, leaving a conflict that festers to this day. He paved the way for the neoliberal turn in the Democratic Party, a dead weight that still exercises undue influence.

On the other hand, give him credit for actually doing something constructive about Israel (even if he mostly rationalized it as countering Soviet influence in Egypt). He negotiated the Begin-Sadat accord that guaranteed that Israel would never again have to face a united front of Arab enemies. Less known is how he backed Israel down from intervening in Lebanon in 1978. Four years later, Reagan gave Begin the green light, leading to a 17-year occupation that failed in every respect, leaving Hezbollah as the dominant power. Carter has often been maligned for being critical of Israel (especially for his 2006 book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, which is worth scanning through, even though the reality now is worse than apartheid), but he was a truer friend to Israel in 1978-79 than any of his more popularly obsequious successors.

Also give Carter credit for a remarkable post-presidency, a record of public service unique in American history, one that worked on many levels, ranging from the mudane (Habitat for Humanity) to high diplomacy. (His mission to North Korea, which Clinton's people subsequently bungled, could well have nipped that conflict in the bud.) I had hopes that Clinton and/or Obama might have followed suit, but they opted instead to hobnob with the rich and grow their fortunes (with the bad faith effectively killing Hillary Clinton's political ambitions). At root, that's because Carter was a fundamentally different kind of person -- one rarely seen in American politics. As one recent piece put it, The un-celebrity president: Shunning riches, living modestly in Georgia.

Laurie Hertzel: [02-15] Is owning a lot of books a mark of middle-class smugness? This popped up in the wasteland of bits that is my morning newspaper, and rubbed me bad enough I decided to save the link. Smug? Sounds like someone is insecure.

Ian Millhiser:

Ashley Parker/Justine McDaniel: [02-17] From Freddie Gray to Tyre Nichols, early police claims often misleading: "Misleading" is putting it mildly.

Andrew Prokop:

  • [02-19] Can the Republican establishment finally stop Trump this time? As someone who regards the "Republican establishment" as even more malevolent than Trump, this is not a contest that interests me, but you're welcome to consider it. Sure, based on the four years when Trump was president, you could counter that Trump = the Republican establishment (for policy, admin, and judges) + a media-obsessed dose of crazy and extra risk of volatility, and that combination of risk probably makes him worse. But don't lose sight of how bad the other blokes are (or their handlers and donors).

  • [02-18] A juicy new legal filing reveals who really controls Fox News: "As Trump spread his stolen election lies, Fox was terrified of alienating its own audience, emails and texts show." This comes from Fox internal email collected by the Dominion Voting vs. Fox lawsuit. Also: Erik Wemple: [02-17] Fox News is worse than you thought; and Matt Ford: [02-18] The Fox News Text Messages Prove the Hosts All Know They're Craven Liars; and Ben Beckett: [02-18] Fox News Knew Donald Trump's Election Fraud Claims Were False. They Broadcast Them Anyway. Texts uncovered in the Dominion Voting lawsuit against Fox.

  • [02-15] The rise of the Trump-Russia revisionists: Latest summary of the latest analyses of the public reporting of Trump-Russia entanglement, if you still give a whit. I've said my bit many times over. For this one, note the chart comparing pre-2016 election search interest in "Trump Russia" with the alleged Clinton scandals (email, foundation, wikileaks). Even if Trump was maligned unfairly, the effect was much less than the insinuation of scandal re Clinton -- something both the FBI and mainstream media should be ashamed of (and not just because it tipped the election to Trump, a more disastrous outcome than the mainstream media, despite all their hyperventilation on Russia, prepared us for). The other thing that should be noted is that if reporters had a realistic concept of how political actors work, they could have dismissed 80% of the bullshit out of hand, instead of breathlessly repeating it for amusement.

Nathan J Robinson: [02-16] The Apocalyptic Delusions of the Silicon Valley Elite: Interview with Douglas Rushkoff on "how the super-rich plan to escape the world after they've destroyed it." Rushkoff is what you'd call a social critic, with a dozen-plus nonfiction books (plus some novels) since 1994, most related to tech. His latest is germane here: Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires. By the way, I've picked up a copy of Robinson's new book Responding to the Right. You can read an overview here.

Jeffrey St Clair: [02-17] Roaming Charges: Train in Vain: Leads off with a lengthy report on the East Palestine, Ohio train disaster -- probably the best piece to read on the subject. Also includes significant sections on the Seymour Hersh pipeline piece, which he doesn't accept at face value but also doesn't reject out of hand ("the lack of any follow-up reporting from the New York Times or Washington Post, to either confirm or discredit Hersh's story, is one of the more shameful episodes in a dismal couple of decades for American journalism"). And some pertinent comments on the art of shooting things down, as well as more statistics and details about prisoning America. One stat I basically knew is that we're running more than one mass shooting per day in 2023. One I didn't realize is that there have been over 1,000 train derailments (basically, 3 per day) for many year running. Also includes a link to L7, about assholes and their wars.

Ask a question, or send a comment.

Sunday, February 12, 2023


Speaking of Which

Started Friday, but various things distracted me along the way, and this feels exceptionally jumbled at the moment. For what it's worth, I started with the Jonathan Chait pieces, and only decided to include the bit on the Turkey/Syria earthquake very late. Also appearing late was the Thomas Friedman Biden-to-Israel column. You'd have to look back at past weeks to get the context.


Top story threads:

Biden's State-of-the-Union Address: I never watch speeches like this (or like anything, actually), but I've seen bits since, and for once the coverage helped. The Sanders quotes in the Kilgore piece are especially jaw-dropping.

  • Bill Scher: [02-08] Biden Concedes Nothing in His State of the Union Address: "A deft, defiant Democratic president outfoxes the Republicans in front of the nation and smartly stresses antitrust and consumer rights." Scher contrasts this with Clinton in 1995 and Obama in 2011, who proposed spending cuts to placate new Republican majorities in the House. Part of the reason may be that the Republicans' narrow win has been widely spun as a failure, so Biden feels less need to triangulate. But also Democrats are sick and tired of the imperious demands of the right, and have resolved to fight back, not least because they have started to have confidence in their own plans, rather than thinking all they have to do is offer something slightly more palatable than what the nihilist Republicans are demanding.

  • Jonathan Chait: [02-10] Joe Biden Is a Mediocre Liberal: "But he's proved to be a successful president anyway." This is kind of a silly article, but at least is less pretentious than another one that I can imagine: that someone slipped Biden a book on the New Deal, and he decided to adopt FDR's penchant for just trying things, going whichever direction seemed to work best. Of course, his options have been limited, given lack of majority support in Congress. The fault there is in thinking that he's acting according to some plan. Nothing in his history suggests anything but opportunism, but that's left him flexible enough to adapt to the times.

  • David Dayen: [02-10] The Twilight of the Deficit Hawks: "Democrats have stopped being the willing partner in a great conspiracy to slash social insurance." Looks at a deficit hawk group called Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, where the board is amply stacked with has-been Democrats who've long been willing pawns in schemes to cut social welfare. "The problem for Republicans is that they have always wanted Democrats as willing partners, in no small part because then they could try to pin the blame on Democrats. In terms of actual principles, of course, the GOP doesn't care about deficits; under every Republican president for the last 40 years, it has happily supported giant deficit-busting tax cuts. Democratic rejection of deficit politics leaves Republicans politically exposed."

  • Ed Kilgore: [02-08] Sarah Huckabee Sanders Showed That the GOP Is Truly Not 'Normal'. The quotes from Sanders' rebuttal speech are so disconnected from reality it's hard to decipher them as anything but a catechism: words repeated from memory as a testimony to a faith that is way beyond experience or perception. She says "the dividing line in America is no longer between left and right. The choice is between normal or crazy." She came down clearly on the side of crazy.

  • Paul Krugman: [02-09] War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, Democrats Are Radicals: "Delivering the Republican response, Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed that the United States is divided between two parties, one of which is mainly focused on bread-and-butter issues that matter to regular people, while the other is obsessed with waging culture war. This is also true. But she got her parties mixed up."

  • Frank Bruni: [02-07] Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the Queen of Having It Both Ways.

  • Paul Waldman/Greg Sargent: [02-08] Sarah Huckabee Sanders's strange "woke" rant reveals a big GOP problem: Republicans like to rant about "woke," but how many people have any idea what it means? (I mean, other than bad people? Ones true patriots should fear and loathe?)

  • Eric Levitz: [02-08] The GOP's Heckles Were a Gift to Biden's Reelection Campaign.

  • Harold Meyerson: [02-08] Biden Forges a New Democratic Paradigm: "The president repudiates the neoliberal ideologies of the past and puts the party on solid economic and political ground."

  • Timothy Noah: [02-09] And Now, the Republicans Are the Party of Defending Businesses That Rip People Off: "Biden was right to talk about junk fees in his SOTU. And Republicans are playing into his hand." Nor is it just junk fees. Once Republicans disposed of the idea of there even being such a thing as a public interest, they opened the door to all kinds of profit-seeking, even fraud. Their push to deregulation basically encourages companies to take all sorts of profitable liberties. And their efforts to cripple enforcement, not least by the IRS, appear designed to promote financial crime even in cases they're not able to explicitly legitimize.

  • Paul Waldman: [02-10] Sorry, Republicans, no one should trust your word on Social Security. Democrats have long accused Republicans of wanting to kill Social Security and Medicare, and they've always been able to produce evidence to support their case, but somehow the charge has rarely had much impact. The charges don't stick because most people doubt that Republicans would be so foolish as to dismantle such popular programs. But while there are cranks who want nothing less, serious Republican efforts aim to merely knick, cripple, and ultimately eviscerate the program. And often, as with Bush's 2005 privatization ploy, they are hyped as plans not to kill but to save the programs. That one failed not just because it was unpopular but because there was no way to make it work. But many other ploys have slipped into law: higher eligibility ages, reduced cost-of-living adjustments, increased co-payments on Medicare -- each designed to make the program less appealing, and therefore less popular. And no less ominous are the scams like Medicare Advantage, which add cost to the program, making it less efficient, and presumably untenable in the long run. What Democrats finally seem to be wising up to is that to protect Social Security and Medicare, they need to improve the benefits -- and watch Republicans squirm to resist, instead of just issuing denials and carrying on as usual.

    By the way, one thing that helps Republican denials of intent to destroy Social Security and Medicare is their ability to get the "liberal press" to editorialize on their behalf. See Dean Baker: [02-05] The Washington Post Wants to Cut Social Security and Medicare (Yeah, What Else Is New?).

  • Kelley Beaucar Vlahos: [02-07] Biden speeds through Ukraine, China in soaring State of the Union: "Just 200 words out of a 7300-word speech devoted to a war consuming our attention -- and $113 billion in resources -- for the last year." What's the opposite of "wag the dog"? Arthur Vandenberg's prescription was that in order to sell a massive military outlay, you first have to scare the hell out of the people. But for Washington today, it's so reflexive you scarcely have to mention it.

The Republican House: And elsewhere, basically anywhere they are given license to plunder and a voice to spew their nonsense.

Trump and DeSantis: We might as well combine their latest stunts and blunders, as the differences rarely matter.

Death to Flying Things: That was the nickname of a 19th century infielder, Bob Ferguson (1845-94), supposedly for his skill at catching pop ups and line drives, but before long Joe Biden will be laying claim to it. [PS: And then Biden and Justin Trudeau ordered a third object shot down over Canadian airspace.]

Ukraine War: Both sides appear to be planning offensives, confident enough they can ignore the dire need for ceasefire and a negotiated settlement. Meanwhile, big story was Seymour Hersh's article on the NordStream pipeline sabotage. Beyond the White House issuing the expected denial, I haven't seen much commentary, particularly from the Europeans most directly affected.

  • Connor Echols: [02-10] Diplomacy Watch: Lavrov shores up support for Russia in Africa.

  • Luke Cooper: [01-30] Ukraine's Neoliberal War Mobilization: "You can't fight wars with neoliberal economics," but austerity programs have led to fracturing and war elsewhere (e.g., Yugoslavia). While Ukraine is fighting for its independence from Russia, it is increasingly indebted to the US and Europe, whose future generosity is by no means assured: in fact, the economic regimes long pushed by the US and Germany have more often led to stagnation and impoverishment.

  • Dave DeCamp: [02-09] GOP Resolution to End Support for Ukraine War: Actually, it's just Matt Gaetz and ten of his cohort, so no one but Kevin McCarthy is likely to get bent out of shape over this threat. They call it "The Ukraine Fatigue Resolution," which should make for amusing op-ads. Blaise Malley [02-09] also has the story: Gaetz introduces 'Ukraine Fatigue' resolution.

  • Chris Hedges: [01-29] Ukraine: The War That Went Wrong. I'm merely noting this, not having read much by him recently. While his railing against US imperial hubris is well-founded, it's not clear to me that his detailed understanding of Ukraine is. I also glanced at Hedges' [02-05] Woke Imperialism, which reveals him to be a strange bedfellow in the anti-woke pile on. I'd say that the ability to recognize and the desire to oppose one form of discrimination (racial) would make one more likely to identify and oppose others (even class).

  • Seymour Hersh: [02-08] How America Took Out the Nord Stream Pipeline. Detective stories have drummed into us the critical trinity of means, opportunity, and motive. People were quick to point the finger at Russia, but they could have produced the same effect by closing the valve, without the enormous future cost of repairs, so that never made any sense. Ukraine probably had the most motive, but means? Only the US checks all three boxes (especially with Norway's collusion), but you'd think exposure would be awfully embarrassing, especially in Germany. Jeffrey St Clair addresses this in this week's "Roaming Charges" (link below).

  • Anatol Lieven: [02-10] Crimea Is a Powder Keg. I've been saying all along that there needs to be an honest referendum on where the people of Crimea want to align (with Russia or Ukraine). Same for other contested oblasts, although refugees complicate things, especially in areas which have seen the most intense fighting. (There are also border issues: do you hold a referendum over all of Donetsk, or just the portion -- either now or before the 2022 invasion -- controlled by Russia?) I've also been saying that Ukraine would be better off without the breakaway territories. That doesn't sit easily with those who want to inflict the maximum defeat on Russia, but haven't they been indulged enough already? Lieven's review of Crimean history just underscores my position.

  • Eve Ottenberg: [02-10] The Leopard's Tale: US Weapons Makers on a Marketing Spree.

  • Kelley Beaucar Vlahos: [02-10] Pentagon wants to revive top secret commando program in Ukraine. Much unexplained here, including the word "restart." It's hard to see how US control of missile targeting intelligence falls short of US direction of Ukrainian forces.


Other stories:

Dean Baker: [02-05] Ending the Cesspool in Pharmaceuticals by Taking Away Patent Monopolies, and [02-07] The NYT Tells Us that Drugs Are Cheap, Government-Granted Monopolies Make Them Expensive. Baker has been almost alone in flogging this horse, but it's an important point, and even more important than he seems to recognize. The problem with patents isn't just that they grant companies legal power to fleece the public. (One's tempted to say "tax," given the word's arbitrary overtones.) They also reflect a worldview where all wealth derives from property, as they create new classes of property the wealthy can exploit. But they also have the exact opposite effect of what their proponents claim: they stifle innovation, by hacking up public knowledge and assigning exclusive control to companies motivated by mere profit-seeking. The elect claim them, then exclude others from developing them further. In a patent-free world, anyone could take an idea, develop it, making it public for others to develop further, as the knowledge developed would be gratis everywhere. Perhaps nowhere do we see the corrosive effects of patents than in world trade talks, where rich countries insist others submit to their market discipline and pay tribute to their arbitrary property grants. Pharmaceuticals are simply one of the most morally hazardous products: patents give companies the power to demand: "your money or your life." The Covid-19 pandemic shows how short-sighted this is.

Jonathan Chait:

  • [02-06] Michael Lind, Case Study in the Perils of Discourse-Poisoning: "How an intellectual talks himself into believing the GOP is the left-wing party." What occasioned this was a piece by Lind called The Power-Mad Utopians, which argues "America needs a broad popular front to stop the revolution from above that is transforming the country." Chait summarizes Lind's complaints about what he calls "the 'Green Project' (support for clean energy), the 'Quota Project' (affirmative action), and the 'Androgyny Project' (transgender rights)." Chait points out that while there are factions on the left pushing such arguments, the actual policies Democrats push fall far short. And he wonders why Lind seems to have abandoned his earlier focus on class to embrace culture war reaction. Those of us who have followed Lind know that he occasionally has solid insights -- he pointed out that libertarianism has indeed been tried, as what we now call feudalism; his 2004 book on Bush, Made in Texas, was one of the period's sharpest critiques, building as it did on his disillusionment with neoconservatism -- he has also on occasion proved remarkably stupid (as in his 1999 book, Vietnam: The Necessary War). For what it's worth, I think there is some value in critiquing utopian tendencies on the left (as on the right). But I'd say that the way to do that is to elect sensible Democrats who focus on real problems and how to mitigate or even solve them, as opposed to naysayers and outrage merchants who have nothing to offer but force and collateral damage. And I have to point out that sometimes Lind's cleverness gets the better of him (e.g., what can "The Trump presidency was the Thermidorian Reaction to the radical Bush revolution" possibly mean?).

  • [02-09] Columbia Journalism Review Had a Different Russiagate Story -- and Spiked It: Chait complains that Jeff Gerth's CJR essay "worked backward from the conclusion that Trump had been vindicated and used a parallel to the media's coverage of Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. . . . Proceeding from the premise that Trump had been smeared by the press, Gerth attacked the media's coverage of the issue." He then impugns CJR's motives by citing "a very different Russia story" they "commissioned, and killed": one that looked into The Nation's "pro-Russian stance" (attributed largely to editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and her late husband, Stephen F. Cohen). I'll leave it to you to sort out the conflict in Chait's mind.

    But I will note that I've always been sympathetic to Cohen's opposition to efforts to gin up a new cold war against Russia, which was always central to his critique of the "Russiagate" hysteria. True, I thought he sometimes tried too hard to sympathize with Putin, who I've long regarded as a very repellant political figure -- my worries about regenerating cold war hysteria have more to do with the damage such attitudes cause to American domestic and foreign policy, not least the risk of prodding Russia into war, as has now happened. (While I blame Putin for intervening in Ukraine both in 2014 and invading in 2022, I seriously doubt that would have happened absent the long drum-roll of American arms propagandists.)

    What bothered me about Russiagate was never the truth or falsity of the charges -- a mixed record, as far as I can tell -- but the subtexts: the desire to reconstruct Russia as an enemy worthy of massive defense budgets (as noted above), and the lame excuse it provided for Hillary Clinton's 2016 political loss, to which we may now add the effective submission of the Democratic Party to the anti-Russia hawks (and in most cases to the anti-China hawks).

    On the other hand, I should note that I turned off the Russiagate hysteria almost as soon as it got cranked up. There was never any shortage of legitimate reasons to despise Trump, and even he soon got boring, as focus on his personal outrageousness distracted from the many horrible things his administration did (and the even worse things they clearly wanted to do). Perhaps if journalism was my profession, I might have felt more like Matt Taibbi (or maybe not, as he's always compensated for his independence with a veneer of both-sidesism). But on balance I'd say the media has been far more solicitous of and generous to Trump, and much less critical, than is objectively merited.

Thomas L Friedman: [02-12] In 46 Words, Biden Sends a Clear Message to Israel: I doubt the statement is either as clear or as weighty as Friedman thinks, but let's start with it:

The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary. Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.

This misses two key points to focus in on the narrow point of the value of having an independent judiciary (which is arguably the least democratic part of US government). The first is that the real genius of American democracy is that it trends toward equal rights for all people (imperfectly, fitfully, but each expansion is ultimately one that we are proud of). On the other hand, Israeli democracy is built on the systematic exclusion of a large class of people, who are denied political rights within Israel and human rights in general. And this has gone on for 75 years, with the full blessing of the "independent judiciary" Friedman and Biden are so concerned over.

Bob Hennelly: [02-08] "Cover-up": Workers "know the truth" about the derailment disaster -- why are they being ignored? In Ohio, a train with 150 cars (20 carrying "hazardous materials") derailed and caught fire.

John Herrman: [01-30] The Junkification of Amazon: "Why does it feel like the company is making itself worse?" It is. And it's not alone. It's tempting to attribute this to monopoly leverage, but it's working at smaller granularity with greater speed than ever before. Google is another example: they started out offering a fast, relatively high quality search engine. Now they're basically sucking you into a maze of insider deals of marginal utility. Amazon started out as a place where you could buy discounted books your local retailer couldn't bother stocking. Now it's, well, some kind of insidious racket.

Ed Kilgore: [02-12] What Would 2024 Look Like for Democrats If Biden Retired? Not a subject that particularly interests me, but since his SOTU address helped unify all factions of the Democratic Party behind his presidency, I suppose one could offer a few observations. Clearly, his age will be an issue. Health past 80 is always a worry, but also he's always been prone to gaffes, and from here on they'll all be attributed to his age. He's never been an especially persuasive speaker, but it would be nice if Democrats had one for that role. On the other hand, administrations are team efforts, and a charismatic leader is hardly needed to micromanage. The key question won't be who can run government better, but who can win in 2024.

Biden has one big advantage in that regard. He has proven willing to work with the democratic wing of the Party, but he is still acceptable to the neoliberals who, like the Gold Democrats of 1896 and the Democratic Hawks of 1972 would rather throw the election than see their party move toward the left. You no doubt recall that when Sanders took the lead in 2020, Bloomberg put $500 million into the primaries, making an ass of himself but stampeding Democrats away from Sanders and Warren to . . . well, Biden was their sensible compromise choice, one that despite his many weaknesses kept the party united enough to defeat Trump. If he can do that again (or whoever the Trump-wannabe du jour is), I'll be happy.

Of course, Democrats should be developing a deep bench of potential leaders. Republicans are able to do that because they are all interchangeable ciphers with agendas set by their donors. Democrats have a tougher time, because the money people who ran the Clinton-Obama period did such a poor job of delivering gains to the party base that the people revolted (Sanders was a catalyst, and by no means the only one, but he proved that small donations could compete with the PACs). Consequently, there is a great deal of unresolved distrust among Democrats, which tends to get papered over with the more pervasive fear of Republicans.

Kilgore is mostly responding to a piece by Michelle Goldberg: [02-06] Biden's a Great President. He Should Not Run Again.

David Lat/Zachary B Shemtob: [02-12] Trump's Supreme Court Picks Are Not Quite What You Think. Marginal distinctions, but they know better than anyone that they never have to answer to his sorry ass again. It's possible that what kept Scalia and Thomas so tightly bound to right-wing lobbies is keeping their kin on the payroll.

Louisa Loveluck: [02-10] In earthquake-battered Syria, a desperate wait for help that never came. The worst-hit part of Syria is in territory that isn't under control of the government in Damascus, and while the US and others have pumped arms into the area, it's not really stable enough for outside aide to get in, either. Nothing constructive can happen in a war zone. People need to realize that's a good reason to settle conflicts, even if not optimally. Also note that even in Turkey, which is much more stable, politics still gets in the way: see Jenna Krajeski: [02-09 Turkey's earthquake response is as political as the conditions that increased the devastation. [PS: Death toll from the 7.8 earthquake has topped 33,000.]

Stephen Prager: [02-09] Republicans Are Starting to Discuss Which Groups to Cast Out of Democratic Society. Sounds like something they'd do, but most of the article is still on voter suppression, which is not a surefire method (not least because it stinks).

Nathan J Robinson:

  • [02-06] AI Is About to Bring Us Into a Very Creepy New World: "The ability to defraud and deceive is about to massively escalate." I think that trust is going to become extremely important in future politics, and that it's going to be impossible to achieve in a world that puts the profit motive above all else.

  • [02-11] I Have Now Destroyed All of the Right-Wing Arguments at Once: Robinson has a new book out, Responding to the Right: Brief Replies to 25 Conservative Arguments. I probably know all of this already, but ordered a copy for future reference. Also ordered his 2018 essay collection, The Current Affairs Rules for Life: On Social Justice & Its Critics, which covers similar ground, calling out a number of right-wing intellectuals. I skipped over his Why You Should Be a Socialist, initially because Amazon didn't offer a paperback (they were too busy pushing Audible and Kindle). Turns out there is a paperback, for a couple bucks less than the hardcover, but I don't see much practical value in calling yourself a socialist, and I see lots of worthwhile things that can be done short of the label (although not short of getting called names by Republicans and other fascists).

    Robinson notes that right-wingers have their own primers on how to argue their talking points, like Gregg Jackson's Conservative Comebacks to Liberal Lies (2006), and Larry Schweikart's 48 Liberal Lies About American History (2008). Looking at the latter list, roughly one-third are certainly true (like "The Reagan Tax Cuts Caused Massive Deficits and the National Debt"), one-third are worded vaguely enough to be debatable (like "The Early Colonies Were Intolerant and Racist" -- well, they did execute women for witchcraft, and they did practice race-based slavery, but there were occasional exceptions), and one-third are things no liberal has seriously argued (like "John F. Kennedy Was Killed by LBJ and a Secret Team to Prevent Him from Getting Us Out of Vietnam").

Walter Shapiro: [02-09] The Democrats Lost the House by Just 6,675 Votes. What Went Wrong? Some case studies, if you want details.

Jeffrey St Clair: [02-10] Roaming Charges: Killing in the Name Of . . . : "The US is home to less than 5 percent of the world's population, but holds 20 percent of the planet's prisoners." Also: "Through the first week of February, police in the US had killed at least 133 people -- a 20% increase over the same period last year." Further notes on ICE border jails, and an in-depth review of the Seymour Hersh article and reservations.

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Sunday, February 5, 2023


Speaking of Which

One of the big stories this week was the saga of a Chinese weather balloon that at 60,000 feet got caught up in the jet stream and drifted across Alaska and western Canada, dipping into Montana and cutting a path through North Carolina and into the Atlantic. There, having completed its spy mission (if that's what it was), Biden ordered it blown up -- an act of pure spite and bloody-mindedness. Reports say he didn't act earlier because he was worried about debris landing on Americans, but odds of that happening in eastern Montana were pretty slim. Rather, he gave Republicans and the press three days to play up their China loathing -- fueled in part by Blinken canceling a visit to Peking in protest -- then jumped to the head of the line.

As you may recall, this incident comes about a week after Air Force General Mike Minihan predicted war with China in 2025, a prospect he (and therefore the United States) is currently planning for -- a plan that House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul heartily endorses. With so much sabre-rattling in the background, you'd think that Biden would work harder at smoothing over the tensions, but having been taunted into action, he scarcely had the resolve to resist.

Some further reading:


Top story threads:

Sometimes it's hard to find the right lead-in piece for what you know will be a cluster of links.

Debt Limit: Stealing a page from 2011, Kevin McCarthy (or whoever's pulling his strings) is willing to crash and burn the economy just to watch Biden squirm. So far, Biden's not falling for it:

  • Paul Krugman: [02-02] Republicans and Debt: Blackmailers Without a Cause.

  • Eric Levitz: [02-02] The GOP Can't Remember Why It Took the Debt Ceiling Hostage.

  • Li Zhou: [02-01] The lessons of the 2011 debt ceiling crisis, explained by the negotiators who were there: "Democrats and Republicans took different, sometimes contradictory, lessons from the last standoff." Democrats realized that Republicans couldn't be trusted, and didn't care how much damage they'd do, confident that the media would blame Obama. Republicans thought they had won a victory, not so much in imposing their will as in turning the discussion in their favor, by making debt and spending seem like bigger problems than the sluggish economy they were helping to stall. Pretty much the same calculation this time, except that in the meantime Trump's tax cuts blew a hole in the budget, and Biden is less inclined to give debt reduction the oxygen it needs to derail every other issue he has campaigned for.

    As it happens, right after linking to this piece, I read this from Ryan Cooper's How Are You Going to Pay for That?, where he minces fewer words on the 2011 doomsday negotiations:

    All told, this gruesome incident was a world-historical episode of moronic policy incompetence. It's as if your house were on fire, and the mayor and the fire department were arguing furiously about which grade of gasoline should be sprayed on the blaze.

    Cooper's book is very good, but I don't care for his coinage of the term "propertarianism" as a substitute for terms commonly used on the new left ("neoliberalism") and old left ("capitalism"). All of these terms refer to the notion of putting property rights ahead of human needs, but the problem is not so much property itself as a particular form of property: capital (as opposed to personal property, which means something you have exclusive use of, but not necessarily that produces income or rent). Neoliberalism is slightly different: an ideology aligned with capital, but couched in the idea of individual freedom, with contempt for notions of labor and society. Also note that neoliberalism was another neologism, designed at cross purposes: its advocates wanted to lay claim to tenets of classical liberalism, yet dispose of elements like New Deal support for unions (same tactic used by New Democrats and New Labour).

Trump: I'm sorry to inform you that as the only declared candidate so far for president in 2024, he's back in the news, and already stimulating horserace coverage for primaries that supposedly face him off with this year's favorite media goon, Ron DeSantis.

Other Toxic Republicans:

Ukraine War (Continued):

  • Blaise Malley: [02-03] Diplomacy Watch: Second thoughts on Ukraine retaking Crimea? Very little to report here. Elsewhere, there is a story that Biden Offered Putin 20% of Ukraine to End War, but all sides deny that (no one wants to look reasonable).

  • Helene Cooper/Eric Schmitt/Thomas Gibbons-Neff: [02-02] Soaring Death Toll Gives Grim Insight Into Russian Tactics. "The number of Russian troops killed and wounded in Ukraine is approaching 200,000, a stark symbol of just how badly President Vladimir V. Putin's invasion has gone, according to American and other Western officials." These figures are clearly wild guesses, exaggerated for propaganda purposes. I referred back to these number after reading much smaller figures cited by Jeffrey St Clair below. The difference is that to St Clair, the numbers (which focused more on civilians) demanded a ceasefire and negotiated settlement; here they're just another excuse for further punishing Russia, even when suggesting that Ukrainian losses are comparable.

  • Bruno Marcetic: [02-03] Diplomatic Cables Prove Top US Officials Knew They Were Crossing Russia's Red Lines on NATO Expansion. Of course, one could argue that the "red lines" were stupid. One could also argue that the US was daring Russia to do something stupid. The one thing that's inarguable is what Putin finally did was profoundly stupid.

Israel: As the Palestinian Authority, despite its legendary corruption, has found it impossible to do business with the new fascist government, Biden sent Secretary of State Blinken to kiss the ring, to reassure Netanyahu that nothing he can do will shake American fealty to the Zionist regime. Meanwhile, efforts in the US and UK are heating up to police any discussion of Israel's crimes. One of the few sources still reporting on Israel is Mondoweiss.


Other Stories:

Kate Aronoff: [02-03] The Biden Administration Has Been Very Good for Big Oil: "Despite climate legislation passed by Democrats last year, oil companies are securing loads of drilling deals and posting huge profits."

Rachel DuBose: [01-31] What can the world learn from China's "zero-Covid" lockdown?

Constance Grady: [02-03] The mounting, undeniable Me Too backlash: This has less to do with the ebbing of the "Me Too" moment a few years back than with the long reaction against the women's liberation movement in the 1970s, which has scored some recent purely political wins recently, like overturning Roe v. Wade. Hence, re-reading Susan Faludi's 1991 book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. I will note that while this reaction is inflicting real damage, it is not especially popular. So perhaps instead of relitigating points that have sense become common sense and embedded in popular culture, we should look at the political anomaly that has given such power to, well, Republicans -- one can add adjectives to reinforce one's sense of disgust, but doing so suggests that there are other, more decent Republicans, and there's little to no practical evidence of that.

Ezra Klein: [02-05] The Story Construction Tells About America's Economy Is Disturbing: Declining productivity, ever since the 1970s.

Paul Krugman: [01-30] Will Americans Even Notice an Improving Economy? That's a good question. Part of the problem is statistics: few people are aware of them, and fewer still have any idea how they relate to their own lives. (Statistics are the only way to make sense of massive amounts of data, but we'd prefer anecdotes we can relate to. But also there is the problem of gauging the significance of variations that are smaller than we normally perceive. This is a big problem with climate change: each degree warmer is a really big deal, but every day we experience temperature swings 10-20 times as great.) Part of the problem is the political bubbles we all live in: as far as I'm concerned, the Bush and Trump economies were disasters, even if the nature varied from time to time; Republicans, with far greater experience at denying reality, thought those times were peachy keen, only to be devastated by Obama and Biden (despite much higher top line statistics). But one other source of confusion is that under both parties, fortune favors the already rich. This is especially true with the Fed, which supposedly tries to manage employment and inflation, but actually implements its policy decisions to giving rich people (via bankers) more or less money at any given point. So it's quite possible that the economy is going gangbusters, but none of it is trickling down to you. Conversely, the vacuuming up, whether through inflation or taxes, is something everyone feels personally, which makes it relatively easy to exploit politically.

Eric Levitz: [02-03] The Fed Can Stop Choking the Economy Now: But they keep missing Powell's target figures for unemployment (er, reducing inflation).

Megan McArdle: [01-29] The $400K conundrum: Why America's urban rich don't feel that way: Refers back to the Todd Henderson case, the guy who in 2010 claimed that it's hard to get by on a meager $450,000 per year. I wrote a bit about this back then. The thing that struck me about Henderson's budget was that most of the money went for things that a decent modern social democracy would provide for most people: health insurance, schooling, retirement. Of course, for his extra money, he's also getting exclusivity: private instead of public schools. And maybe his children need the extra leg up his high income provides. McArdle refers to such people as "broke 2-percenter" -- so close to the 1-percent, yet they keep coming up just short.

Louis Menand: [01-30] When Americans Lost Faith in the News. "The press wasn't silenced in the Trump years. The press was discredited, at least among Trump supporters, and that worked just as well. It was censorship by other means." Menand tries to sketch out the origins of public distrust in the press. Those origins weren't in the 1950s, when journalists were all too happy to shill for the CIA, but the more "bad news" -- riots and anti-war protests -- they reported, the more suspect they became. Nixon may not have coined the phrase "fake news," but as so often in arts Trump perfected, Nixon was the originator, his practice of shooting the messenger only ending when the messengers shot back. Menand wades through various books, finally Margaret Sullivan's "memoir slash manifesto" Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) From an Ink-Stained Life.

Ian Millhiser:

Eve Ottenberg: [02-03] Egalitarian Paradise Lost: David Graeber and the Pirates of Madagascar. Review of the late anarchist anthropologist's second posthumous book, Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia.

Eric Reinhart: [02-05] Doctors Aren't Burned Out From Overwork. We're Demoralized by Our Health System. It's a big slide from the heyday of the AMA, when doctors organized as a business racket, to today, when doctors are talking about the need for unions.

Dylan Scott:

Jeffrey St Clair: [02-03] Roaming Charges: See No Evil: "There have been at least 52 people killed by police in the US since the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols on January 7th. In 2021, there were 1055 people killed by police in the US. In the same year, 31 people were killed by police in all of Europe. . . . Most of the people killed by police in 2022 were killed by officers responding to mental health calls, traffic violations, disturbances, other *non-violent* issues and situations where no crime was alleged." Examples follow. Behind a paywall, St Clair also wrote: [01-29] The Murder of Tyre Nichols and the Death of Police Reform.

Zeynep Tufecki: [02-03] An Even Deadlier Pandemic Could Soon Be Here: Actually, H5N1 avian flu is already here. It just hasn't broken out as a pandemic in humans yet. In 2005, Mike Davis took the threat seriously enough to write a book: The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu. We should have learned from our Covid-19 experience how better to face such threats, but a powerful bloc of nihilists (aka Republicans) drew the opposite lessons, and are working hard to make sure public health officials never again have the tools to protect public health. Note that David Quammen, who has followed these threats for decades and recently wrote Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus, wrote a piece about this back on [2022-10-31]: A Dolphin, a Porpoise and Two Men Got Bird Flu. That's a Warning to the Rest of Us.

David Wallace-Wells:

  • [02-02] Why Are So Many Americans Dying Right Now? Covid, but that only explains about half of "excess deaths" since April 2022. The author, by the way, has written extensively about the pandemic: e.g., [01-04] 9 Pandemic Narratives We're Getting Wrong (although it's not always clear what he's debunking, let alone whether he's right -- my takeaway from the Operation Warp Speed narrative is that the economic incentives that motivated Pfizer and Moderna aren't very trustworthy, and probably aren't the best approach in the long run), and [2022-12-01] China Has an Extraordinary Covid-19 Dilemma (China is often viewed through strange political blinders; I'm not sure this piece is immune, but it's far from the worst).

  • [01-25] Britain's Cautionary Tale of Self-Destruction: Starts off talking about the death toll from Covid-19, then noting how the entire post-Brexit economy and political system are ailing. For instance, economists were asked whether the slowdown in productivity was unprecedented. They did manage to find a worse case, but that was 250 years ago. Then there's: "Liz Truss failed to survive longer as head of government than the shelf life of a head of lettuce." Part of this problem was touched on by Eshe Nelson [01-09]: Britain's Economic Health Is Withering With Sick Workers on the Sidelines. Also: Ellen Ioanes: [02-04] The labor strikes in Britain are years in the making: "Austerity, Brexit, wage stagnation and a cost of living crisis have pushed British workers to the brink."


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Sunday, January 29, 2023


Speaking of Which

I thought I'd spend this last week of January wrapping up my music review of 2022, and indeed I'm giving myself an extra day, so don't expect Music Week until Tuesday, probably late. But I had a few tabs open, and made the usual rounds, and this is what I came up with.


Maggie Astor: [01-25] G.O.P. State Lawmakers Push a Growing Wave of Anti-Transgender Bills: Subhed describes this as "part of a long-term plan," but I don't see much planning. Rather, it feels like a combination of latching onto any sort of bigotry that still seems credible, and using that to hype up fears that have no basis in reality. I also suspect they've gotten a boost by overly aggressive transgender supporters -- clever of them to latch onto the much more popular LGB bandwagon -- where both sides get blown out of proportion. True, I am surprised at how often I run into trans or non-binary performers in music, but I've never even heard of an actual case the "save women's sports" might apply to.

Jelani Cobb: [01-29] Ron DeSantis Battles the African-American A.P. Course -- and History: "The state's intent seems to be to provide white Floridians, from a young age, with a version of history that they can be comfortable with, regardless of whether it's true." More DeSantis:

Dave DeCamp: [01-29] Air Force General Predicts the US Will Be at War With China in 2025. This is pretty chilling. I don't see it happening, but this sort of planning can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Also on China:

Connor Echols: [01-27] Diplomacy Watch: Switzerland weighs break with policy of neutrality. Germany and US agreed to send tanks to Ukraine. Switzerland agreed to allow re-export of Swiss-made weapons to Ukraine. Estonia and Latvia withdrew their Moscow ambassadors. None of these moves offer hope of a ceasefire and negotiated peace. Echols also wrote: [01-26] US weapons makers report 'all-time record orders' since Russian invasion: Just in case you've wondered, cui bono? More on the ongoing war:

  • Hrair Balian: [01-28] Will the war in Ukraine inevitably freeze? "With the conflict more likely than not headed for stalemate, how long can the US maintain support in the absence of negotiations?" Proposes four scenarios that could push the US into suing for peace, but I don't see any of them as more than remotely likely (Russian battlefield gains; nuclear war becomes imminent; China moves against Taiwan; Republicans defund the war to spite Biden). No one around Putin will admit it, but Russia is much more likely to find the war insupportable, if not this year than somewhere down the road. What the US needs to realize is not that the war isn't affordable but that it is hopeless and unnecessary. Still, that realization needs to sit in on both sides before much progress can be made. Meanwhile, both sides desperately try to impress the other with their stubborn determination.

  • Dave DeCamp: [11-25] Lockheed Says It's Ready With F-16s If US and Allies Choose to Send Them to Ukraine. And now that Ukraine is getting US and German tanks, Zelensky has already moved on to requesting F-16s. Cheering him on: [01-28] At the Pentagon, push to send F-16s to Ukraine picks up steam.

  • Charles W Dunne: [01-29] Arab, Israeli positions on Ukraine continue to frustrate US: Turns out America's "closest ally" isn't much help here. Similarly, America's closest Arab allies have business interests more closely aligned with Russia. I wouldn't say that support on Ukraine should be a litmus test of alliance, but non-support should tone down the hyperbole.

  • Jen Kirby:

  • Anatol Lieven:

  • Blaise Malley: [01-27] New senator JD Vance leads GOP effort to put Ukraine aid under a microscope: Given the amount of money the US is putting into Ukraine, and given that the organizations involved have never been very good at accounting, I doubt they'll need much of a microscope' to find evidence of waste and corruption. Of course, had they paid attention to Afghanistan and Iraq, they would have found plenty, but those wars didn't break along partisan lines, and the waste and corruption was easily written off as cost of doing business. That's harder to do once it gets mentioned, which is the point of this notice.

  • Branko Marcetic: [01-29] Ukraine's Postwar Reconstruction Has Big Business Licking Its Lips: Good. Maybe we've finally found a business lobby that can compete with the arms merchants, to at least make the idea of negotiating an end to the war more palatable. After all, if we've learned one thing from Iraq and Afghanistan, it's that it's impossible to rebuild a country while it's still wracked by war.

Eric Foner: [01-23] The Constitution Has a 155-Year-Old Answer to the Debt Ceiling. The 14th Amendment specifies that: "The validity of the public debt of the United States shall not be questioned." Republican efforts to force the government to default on its debt are, therefore, illegal under the Constitution. By the way, there is more in the 14th Amendment that Republicans should study up on. Also:

Lawrence B Glickman: [01-21] The Real Origins of the "Democrat Party" Troll. It first sounds like a verbal tic, but you hear it so often, it finally registers as an easy way to identify that the speaker is under the spell of the Republican Party. "Perhaps the answer lies in the face that many critics of the New Deal were also critics of democracy." And perhaps that's why the slur has become ever more common: Republicans have given up on even giving lip service to democracy.

Jonathan Guyer: [01-27] Why violence in Israel and Palestine has spiked in the last 48 hours. Only thing surprising here is that it's not just Israelis on the warpath. More on Israel:

Robert Hunziker: [01-27] Doomsday Clock Jitters and "How to Fix a Broken Planet": The latest update of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' "doomsday clock" was played for laughs on late night shows. There are fundamental problems with it, which you'd expect atomic scientists, of all people, to figure out. The first is that "doomsday" is not very well defined. Even in its original context -- nuclear war -- does it mean total annihation, or would more localized outbreaks suffice? If the latter, did Chernobyl or Fukushima cross that threshold? If not, why not? They are comparable to nuclear bombs: in some ways less destructive, in others worse, but on the same qualitative scale. They do have the advantage of looking like accidents, so are unlikely to cascade like the actual use of nuclear weapons could, or like war between nuclear-armed powers with conventional weapons might. The main reason they advanced the clock to its most alarming level ever is that we're experiencing such a war between NATO and Russia -- albeit, for now, with Ukraine as a buffer. Still, the closer you get to "midnight," the more dubious the scale seems. The unveilers as much as admitted this point by pausing in silence for more than the 90 seconds they allowed us to survive -- looking ridiculous when we were still here. All this proved was that the clock mataphor, with its linear gradations, wasn't the right model for the risk they wanted to represent.

I'd be more inclined to come up with some kind of wave function or probability matrix, which you could then reduce to a single number only at the expense of missing the point. Wouldn't it be nice to come up with some way of calculating how the likelihood of various bad events happening varies as you alter input today? There's no standard method, but we've been doing something like that with climate change models for quite some time now: what's lacking is the ability to get people in policy positions to understand how they work and what they mean. The doomsday clock folks thought they might help by trying to factor climate change into their calculation, but that turned out not to help: the scales and probabilities are fundamentally different, and the disaster-point is very ill-defined (and worse, many definitions would throw the clock on the wrong side of midnight).

By the way, Hunziker's piece is actually a review of a book by Julian Cribb, How to Fix a Broken Planet. It outlines all the usual threats not to the planet itself but to human life and culture on the planet, so it's probably good as far as it goes, until it starts scolding individuals for the failures of states and organization that claim to be acting in our best interests.

Ben Jacobs: [01-28] Trump struggled with identity at his first public campaign stop: "Trump tried to cast himself as both a great Republican leader and the ultimate outsider." He may think he can play it both ways, but to be a serious contender, he has to win back the outsider rail, because his opponents are so vulnerable to that kind of attack. Still, it will demand a lot of credulity from his voters, although he can blame many failures of his administration on Pence and the people Pence installed. More Trump trivia:

Mike Konczal: [01-27] Do We Need a Recession Because Wages Are Too High? 5 Responses Answering No.

Dylan Matthews: [01-26] FairTax, the GOP plan for a 30 percent national sales tax, explained. Not noted here, but worth pondering, is the extent to which Sam Brownback's budget-busting tax "reforms" incorporated FairTax principles: he raised sales taxes, while exempting business income from income taxation. True, nobody got a rebate to soften the blow. And while Kansas sales tax became one of the nation's highest, Kansas income tax was never more than a small fraction of federal, so the biggest beneficiaries still complained a lot.

Ian Millhiser: [01-25] Trump's worst judge is now a dangerous threat to press freedom: "An unhinged case brought by anti-vaxxers will be heard by one of the biggest reactionaries in the federal judiciary."

Sara Morrison: [01-24] Google's bad year is getting worse.

Nicole Narea: [01-27] The brutal, politically motivated attack on Nancy Pelosi's husband, explained.

Nicole Narea/Sean Collins/Ellen Ioanes: [01-28] The fatal beating of Tyre Nichols, explained: "Five Memphis police officers are facing murder charges over Nichols's death." Related:

Tori Otten: [01-27] Marjorie Taylor Greene Says Biden "Abused His Power" by Lowering Gas Prices: "Do Republicans even want lower gas prices or not?" Nothing in their administrative history suggests that they do, which shouldn't be much of a surprise given how skewed donations from oil companies are in their favor. Nor is this just Greene saying something stupid. See: [01-27] House GOP passes bill to curb Biden's use of oil reserve. After ranting nonstop about gas prices, they're upset that Biden released oil from the US Strategic Reserve to reduce prices (and undercut their campaign messaging). A normal person, concerned first and foremost about solving the problem, would have applauded Biden's move. But there's nothing normal about Republicans any more. Even worse are Republican efforts to make sure public health officers can't order lockdowns or mask requirements when the next pandemic hits.

Kim Phillips-Fein: [01-24] The Change We Want: "What does it take to build a political majority?" Review of Timothy Shenk's Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy. The book appears to be a sweeping history of American politics told through a dozen or so individuals regarded as uniquely influential (Madison and Hamilton lead off; I'm more suspicious of Barack Obama at the end, but not every example need be successful to make a point).

Christopher Reeves: [01-21] Voters told them no, but Kansas Republicans are advancing wild new anti-abortion legislation anyway. Normal people would think that the referendum, where nearly 60% of Kansans voted to protect abortion rights, would have settled the issue, but Republicans aren't normal. They stick to their demented principles and pursue their obsessions with no concern about public opinion, using whatever power than can usurp.

Rebecca Robbins: [01-28] How a Drug Company Made $114 Billion by Gaming the U.S. Patent System.

Nathan Robinson: [01-23] Rush Limbaugh's Toxic Legacy: A review of the late right-wing icon's "new book" -- actually, as the title (Radio's Greatest of All Time) makes way too obvious, a tribute assembled by family of his most outrageous rants (a 500-page "timeless collection of Rush's brilliant words" and "authoritative body of Rush's best work"), larded with photos of Limbaugh hobnobbing with his politician fans, who provide their own tributes. Nor do the paeans end there: "Many of the transcripts printed in the book are from callers who claim that Limbaugh changed their lives in one way or another."

Jeffrey St Clair: [01-27] Roaming Charges: The Ugliest Thing in America. "Mass shootings are an unimpeachable proof of American exceptionalism."

Joseph Stiglitz: [01-10] Milton Friedman Set Us Up for a 21st Century Version of Fascism: "In 2023, market fundamentalism is fostering authoritarianism -- in the United States and abroad."

Michael Stavola: [01-25] Authorities name Wichita man killed in hunting accident when dog stepped on gun.

Asawin Suebsaeng/Patrick Reis: [01-27] Trump's Killing Spree: The Inside Story of His Race to Execute Every Prisoner He Could: "Before 2020, there had been three federal executions in 60 years. Then Trump put 13 people to death in six months."

Gary Younge: [01-23] Heavy Is the Head: "The British Royals in the age of streaming." A review of The Crown, which is an interesting and entertaining, albeit somewhat peculiar, chronicle of the long reign of Queen Elizabeth II, starting with her wedding in 1947, before her coronation in 1952. The recently concluded 5th Season covers 1991-97, ending just after Tony Blair succeeded John Major as Prime Minister, and just before the recently divorced and deposed Princess Diana perished in a Paris car wreck. Showrunner Peter Morgan clearly wants to refocus England's history around a public-service monarchy he sees as deeply interwoven into the fabric of national life (its imperial conceits conveniently ignored after the first two episodes), yet their self-centeredness and irrelevance can help but rise to the surface. By season five they've become such a disgrace that the series is largely given over to Prince Charles' Trust and his vain blatherings about how as King he would make the monarchy relevant again. You can say that he's trying to humanize the monarchy, except that the monarchy doesn't make for very good humans. As Younge notes, "History has already delivered its verdict on those who inherit power and remain unaccountable; The Crown merely illustrates the degree to which the institution doesn't even work for the people who run it."

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Sunday, January 22, 2023


Speaking of Which

Plenty below. No need to pad it out with an introduction. I do want to note that so far I'm very impressed with Ryan Cooper's book, How Are You Going to Pay for That? Smart Answers to the Dumbest Questions in Politics.


House Republicans: Expect this to be the main story for the next year or two, as Republicans use their five-seat margin in the House to repeatedly remind us why they should never again be trusted with any power whatsoever in Washington. This week's stories:

  • Robert Kuttner: [01-17] Turning the Debt Ceiling Crisis Against McCarthy's Republicans: "Biden needs to play serious hardball, or he will get rolled." I could cite a dozen pieces on this issue, but it really comes down to a political test of will: a question of whether the Republican faction which McCarthy surrendered to can intimidate Biden and the Democrats into agreeing to the first tranche of insatiable demands. Control of the House gives Republicans a lot of leverage if they really want to cut the budget going forward, but that's not what they're demanding here: they want to undo already passed budgets, and they want to force Biden to do their dirty work for them. Do they have the power to do this? Not really, given that there are workaround solutions (e.g., the platinum coin, "a silly solution to a silly problem"). More importantly, will this brinkmanship help or hurt them politically? Past experience says it will hurt them. So why are they doing it? Mostly because they don't care. They believe they'll never be held responsible for the mischief they wreak.

  • Eric Alterman: [01-20] Deal-Making Republican 'Pragmatists'? Like, Who? The eternal search for the "adult" Republicans who are willing to break from the crazies when nothing sort of disaster looms. (One of the hopeful scenarios in Kuttner, above.)

  • David Dayen: [01-20] McCarthy's 21 Republican Defectors Didn't Get Much: "That's because the party already agreed with them."

  • Pablo Manriquez: [01-10] Here's the First Salvo in House Republicans' War on Transgender People: "They're reversing a rule Democrats passed in 2021 calling for gender-neutral pronouns."

  • Timothy Noah: [01-20] Go Ahead, Republicans, Pass a National Sales Tax. How many people really want to pay a 30% sales tax just so rich people can escape being taxed on income, dividends, capital gains, and estates? True that many people are poor judges of self-interest, but this one will be hard to swallow.

  • Areeba Shan: [01-18] GOP rages at McCarthy over committee as MAGA extremists score key assignments.

  • Peter M Shane: [01-20] Jim Jordan's Reckless New Committee: He's actually calling it the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. It is, of course, the weaponization of congressional investigative authority for purely political ends. "It will start with overheated demands for information. . . . The Biden administration will comply with some requests while resisting others. Republicans will denounce recalcitrance as a coverup. Fox News, for its part, will condemn any lack of transparency as Democratic hypocrisy." Yes, you can write it all up now, not least because we've seen it all before (remember Benghazi!?).

  • Alex Shephard: [01-20] Actually, George Santos Has Been Pretty Good for the Republican Party: "It may not last forever, but the scandal-plagued congressman is helpfully distracting attention from the House's bona fide extremists and their weird ideas."

  • Abby Zimet: [01-21] Mogadishu Redux: Bring in the Malignant Clowns.

And beyond the House, Republicans don't get any brighter (or saner, let alone more civil):

William Astore: [01-15] Imperial Dominance Disguised as Democratic Deterrence: Reading the Pentagon's latest NDS (National Defense Strategy) paper, which identifies five threats, prioritized: 1. China; 2. Russia; 3. the War on Terror; 4. North Korea and Iran; 5. climate change -- and proposes that the only way to deal with these problems is to spend more money on arms and bases straddling the world. Astore goes on to list seven things "you'll never see mentioned in this NDS":

  1. Any suggestion that the Pentagon budget might be reduced. Ever.
  2. Any suggestion that the U.S. military's mission or "footprint" should be downsized in any way at all.
  3. Any acknowledgement that the U.S. and its allies spend far more on their militaries than "pacing challengers" like China or "acute threats" like Russia.
  4. Any acknowledgment that the Pentagon's budget is based not on deterrence but on dominance.
  5. Any acknowledgement that the U.S. military has been far less than dominant despite endless decades of massive military spending that produced lost or stalemated wars from Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq.
  6. Any suggestion that skilled diplomacy and common security could lead to greater cooperation or decreased tensions.
  7. Any serious talk of peace.

For more, see:

Dean Baker: [01-21] Biden has earned a solid 'A' halfway through his term. A bit of boosterism from an economist who's normally quite critical, but compared to whom? Baker argues that Biden managed to wring more positive legislation out of Congress than any president since LBJ, with a razor-thin margin in Congress (unlike Clinton or Obama in their first two years, which brought us NAFTA and ACA/Dodd-Frank). He doesn't dwell much on the executive orders, which reversed much (though by no means all) of the damage Trump wrought. He also doesn't have anything to say about Biden's foreign policy, which allows many newspapers to pair his piece with Meaghan Mobbs: Joe Biden deserves a 'D' for his administration's foreign policy. I don't know her political affiliation, but she's a West Point grad, former Army captain, and well established in the pro-military think tank racket. She blames Biden for getting out of Afghanistan (that alone should bump the grade to 'B'), and more generally for not being militant enough everywhere: "President Joe Biden and his administration speak harshly against our adversaries while failing to follow through with the necessary hard actions." I'm critical too, but for opposite reasons. Biden has pretty much everywhere focused on rebuilding military alliances -- which he saw Trump as undermining -- while failing to mitigate tensions and pursue diplomatic breakthroughs, including some that were obviously there for the taking. I'm uncertain how much to grade him down for those shortcomings -- and sure, there have been some of those on the domestic side as well, but the foreign policy ones are more glaring because he supposedly has more autonomy there -- but on a curve that goes back at least to Reagan, he looks pretty good.

Baker also wrote:

Irin Carmon: [01-20] What the Supreme Court Left Out of Its Dobbs-Leak Report: After Roberts' huffing and puffing when the leak occurred, the report didn't find the culprit, suggesting that the real answer was one that Roberts didn't want to hear.

Chas Danner: [01-22] 10 Dead in Lunar New Year Shooting in California: What We Know. Third mass shooting in California so far this year, 33rd nationwide (that's about 1.5 per day).

Lawrence B Glickman: [01-21] The Real Origins of the "Democrat Party" Troll.

Jonathan Guyer: [01-20] Israel's new right-wing government is even more extreme than protests would have you think: "It's also not a huge departure from previous ones."

Margaret Hartmann: [01-20] Did a $1 Million Fine Teach Trump a Lesson About 'Frivolous' Lawsuits? Remember the one he filed in March "accusing Hillary Clinton, former FBI director James Comey, the Democratic National Committee, and many others of orchestrating 'a malicious conspiracy'"? Well, it's not only been thrown out. Trump and his attorneys have been sanctioned for filing it. And one day later, Trump prudently dropped another "similarly dubious lawsuit": see Samaa Khullar: [01-20] Trump rushes to withdraw frivolous lawsuit against NY AG after a stark warning from judge. Speaking of frivolous lawsuits by thin-skinned billionaires meant to stifle criticism, see Jordan Uhl: [01-20] A Texas Billionaire Is Suing to Stop Free Speech Against Billionaires.

More Trump trivia:

Jeet Heer: [01-17] Why Biden and Trump Are Both Trapped in Secret-Document Scandals: "The real problem is the national security state's love of classification." Also:

  • Jason Linkins: [01-21] Biden's Document Screwup Is an Ethical Opportunity: "Rather than follow the Beltway's cynical damage-control playbook, the president should put on a master class in how to take responsibility for a mistake." Not that doing so will get noticed with the Republicans and their media idiots demanding blood.

Heather Souvaine Horn: [01-19] Davos Still Sucks: "How can the World Economic Forum earnestly pretend to address global crises while being funded by the corporations that fuel these crises?" I skipped over a bunch of articles on Davos, as none seemed to convey the true story. This one merely sums it up briefly. Also includes a picture which shows their logo, which reads "Committed to improving the state of the world." One article I skipped was about a high-five between attendees (of course they are) Kirsten Sinema and Joe Manchin. They proved their commitment by repeatedly torpedoing Democratic bills over the last two years. But most likely what they're actually doing in Davos is prospecting for their post-Senate payouts.

Jill Lepore: [01-09] What the January 6th Report Is Missing: "The investigative committee singles out Trump for his role in the Capitol attack. As prosecution, the report is thorough. But as historical explanation it's a mess." Point taken, but the report's antecedents are hardly better. Part of the blame may be that to get the cooperation of Cheney and Kinzinger the Committee spared any Republican who wasn't directly tied to Trump. Beyond that, one thing the Committee didn't want to do was to offer any sort of mitigating circumstances, which is what a history of Republican voting schemes would have provided. Sure, Trump was not the only one, but he went farther than anyone else ever, so it's not such a surprise that he got singled out.

Blaise Malley: [01-20] Diplomacy Watch: White House signals that retaking Crimea is in the cards: "Officials say it has been US policy all along." One thing that all sides have managed to do is to hold fast to their maximalist demands without suggesting that they might be willing to settle for anything less. That makes some sense as a public stand, but it makes negotiation, and therefore any chance of ending the war, hopeless. I suppose it's possible that somewhere there's a secret channel where some kind of compromise can be negotiated, but the harder the public proclamations, the less credible that is. Key quote here is: "the Biden administration does not think that Ukraine can take Crimea militarily . . . but, officials said, their assessment now is that Russia needs to believe that Crimea is at risk." The fuller quote suggests that the US is angling toward eventual negotiations, which is to say they recognize that no military solution is possible, but in trying to psych out Russia, aren't they also building up false hopes for Zelensky? The recent rush to give Ukraine tanks seems to promise a spring offensive to drive Russia back toward the pre-2014 borders. But Russia's big tank advantage back in March soon turned into a liability. Is there any reason to think Ukraine can better defend their tanks?

More on Ukraine:

  • Chas Danner: [01-20] Ukraine's Latest Arms Haul: Thanks but No Tanks. Germany is balking at sending tanks, at least unless the US agrees to send some, which hasn't happened yet.

  • Fred Kaplan: [01-21] The Clash Over Whether to Send German Tanks to Ukraine Is a Pretty Big Deal. One point here is that US reluctance to send its M1 Abrams tanks partly technical, as the M1 is a "maintenance nightmare; it runs on jet fuel and sucks up three gallons per mile (not the other way around); a separate, massive supply line would have to be set up, manned, and defended, just for these tanks."

  • Anatol Lieven: [01-19] Six questions Western defense chief never seem to raise but should today. Lieven followed this up with: [01-20] Germans remain adamantly opposed to sending any Leopard tanks to Ukraine. [PS: Later: [01-22] Germany won't object if Poland sends tanks to Ukraine, foreign minister says.]

  • Suzanne Loftus: [01-21] No one will win a protracted war in Ukraine.

  • Trita Parsi: [01-20] No, Weakening Russia Is Not "Costing Peanuts" for the U.S. "Some analysts argue that America is getting a great deal for its money. But there are a lot of strategic costs that don't show up on the balance sheet." The Pentagon is notoriously incompetent at accounting for the money it spends directly, and everyone involved is extremely myopic (often plain blind) to the indirect costs occurred by others. (Economists have since estimated that the total costs of the Iraq War exceed $3 trillion. You may recall that when it was launched, some sales pitches estimated that it would pay for itself.) But I would start by questioning the premise: that degrading Russia's military forces, and embarrassing its political leaders, thus destabilizing the state, is a positive outcome. I'm not talking about who deserves what: that Putin should fail in his invasion is proper and just, but once the war ends, so should the further hostilities with Russia. (The failure of the elder Bush to accept the end of the Gulf War, leaving Saddam Hussein in power, almost guaranteed that the younger Bush would return to "finish the job," and make the situation even worse.) Anyone who doubts that this war is a massive tragedy for all sides has no business anywhere near power.

  • Jordan Michael Smith: [10-17] The Neocons Are Losing. Why Aren't We Happy? This chronicles a factional shift in the Republican Party that unlike the neocons who dominated the GW Bush administration, are less inclined to threaten the world with devastation, and who tend to see American interests as focused within the nation's borders. Still, there is considerable variation among the people profiled here -- few are antiwar where the enemy threatens American business class interests, and some (not least Donald Trump) are so full of bluster they could stumble into a war backwards. To group them together as Jacksonian seems wrong -- although I suppose it allows for the bluster and bigotry, but it strays a bit from the Quincy Institute watchwords of realism and restraint.

Ian Millhiser: [01-22] The coming legal showdown over abortion pills.

Madeleine Ngo: [01-19] The US just hit the debt limit. What happens now?

Kelsey Piper: [01-18] Operation Warp Speed was a huge success. So why is the US turning away from it? Rather than simply proclaiming Operation Warp Speed as "one of the biggest accomplishments of the Trump administration," perhaps a little critical distance is in order. It was Congress that put up the money, and the federal bureaucracy that implemented the program -- both subject to the usual corruption and political wiles, which were hardly unmitigated blessings. At best, Trump -- and, let's face it, he was rarely at best -- was a cheerleader. In the end, he was ambivalent about taking credit, because the anti-vax culture war cut deep into his base, leaving its leaders to catch up (something Ron DeSantis has done far more energetically than Trump). The problem isn't that "Democrats are loath to admit Trump did anything right" -- they just don't see any mileage when Trump himself is reluctant to take credit.

There are legitimate questions one could ask: Did this need to cost so much (e.g., elevating drug company moguls to billionaires). Why wasn't it more effective? Why wasn't it better distributed beyond the US? How can you speed up the process even more? Unfortunately, the Republican political thrust isn't how to do a better job, but how to avoid even being this effective ever again?

Luke Savage: [01-21] If America Had Fair Laws, 60 Million Workers Would Join a Union Tomorrow.

Dylan Scott: [01-20] When hospitals merge, patients suffer. Study is in the UK, but the profit motive amplifies the effect in the US.

More on health care:

Jeffrey St Clair: [01-20] Roaming Charges: The Specter of Equity and Other Evils.

George Tyler: [01-20] Ron DeSantis symbolizes that it's Richard Nixon's Republican Party now. Although, in a sign of the times, he admits that "in contrast to Nixon, DeSantis' cruel streak is already evident to voters." It took a while to realize that Nixon's malice wasn't just opportunism -- and many people continue to be shocked at Republican cruelty, even as evidenced by someone as sociopathic as Trump. I'm old enough to still regard Nixon as the most loathsome creature in American political history. In his calculated efforts to out-Trump Trump, DeSantis is aiming for Nixonian notoriety.

More DeSantis:

Dan Zak: [01-11] The boring journey of Matt Yglesias: "The Washington ur-blogger's slightly contrarian, mildly annoying, somewhat influential, very lucrative path toward the political center." During his time at Vox, Yglesias was the first person I checked every week, and most often provided the structure for my own blog posts. I had followed him as he maneuvered the blogosphere, but his paywall at Substack was one step too many. Still, by then I was beginning to have doubts. He got entered in, and won, a poll for "neoliberal shill of the year," and took unseemly pride in the fact. He never was as bad as most of the people friends on the left castigate as neoliberals, but he did seem to get up on a few ideas I found obnoxious, like "congestion pricing." (Even if you wanted to, how would that work? And what does it say about our values?) Then he wrote a big book called One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger, which looked and smelled like a bid for the Thomas Friedman market. Nowadays, the only time I read him is when one of his Bloomberg columns gets syndicated in my local paper. Few are memorable, but he has enough command of his subject he's not useless. And while he seems politically more centrist than ever, the bigger problem may be that he's just not very deep. Consider this:

Perhaps it's instructive to think about two topics that bookend his public life. At age 21, Yglesias was laying out the logician's case for the invasion of Iraq, because how could the most powerful, informed men on Earth be so stupid? In May of this year, Yglesias declared that Bankman-Fried "is for real," because why else would wealthy people risk their money? . . .

This is Matt Yglesias coddling the powerful, his critics would say, and exposing a gullible dilettantism. And yet plenty of people view him as an early, sensible and stalwart voice for incremental progress on key issues of the 21st century, such as marijuana reform and same-sex marriage.

I wouldn't call those "key issues of the 21st century" -- they fall far short of war, inequality, labor rights, a very distorted system of justice, climate, sustainability, etc. Even his strong pro-immigration stance is based on his romanticism around growth.


Memorable tweets:

Connie Schultz:

Word of warning for parents supporting these book bans: As a child, I found a way to read every book someone told me I could not read. You see how I turned out. Think this through.

Context is notice that "Virginia's Madison County School Board approved banning 21 books from its high school library." The list includes four books by Toni Morrison, three by Stephen King (including 11/22/63), and The Handmaid's Tale.

I could offer myself as another example: I instinctively hated (and in some cases refused to read) required literature, and sought out pretty much everything that was banned or condemned. And yes, see how I turned out. My brother followed suit, and got kicked out of school for turning in a poetry notebook which opened with "Howl." Both of us were sent to see a shrink (who, by the way, thought the whole affair was hilarious).

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