Speaking of * [0 - 9]

Saturday, November 27, 2021


Speaking of Which

I saw a meme today which pictured Dwight Eisenhower and quoted a number of seemingly progressive planks in the 1956 Republican platform:

  • Federal assistance to low-income communities
  • Extension of Social Security
  • Asylum for thousands of refugees, expellees and displaced persons
  • Extending minimum-wage protections "to as many more workers as is possible and practicable."
  • improving the unemployment benefit system
  • Protection of the right of workers to organize into unions and to bargain collectively
  • assure equal pay for equal work regardless of sex.

While figureheads like Eisenhower and Nixon saw little benefit in attacking the overwhelmingly popular platforms of the New Deal, rank and file Republicans were often still as adamantly opposed as they had been under Coolidge and Hoover (two of the three presidents who famously "served under [Treasury Secretary] Andrew Mellon"). This was posted by a distinguished historian who also mentioned Wendell Wilkie, but way overshoots the mark in arguing that "there were days when being Republican was a mark of intelligence and integrity" -- consider Joseph McCarthy for one, and Barry Goldwater for another. But rather than nitpick, my comment tried to show a broader context:

From 1932-80 and 1980-2020 we've seen eras where one party dominated and the other tried to cope by largely adopting the dominant party's rhetoric and agenda. Only two Republicans were elected president in the former period: Eisenhower and Nixon. Both basically accepted the New Deal/Great Society framework, although their commitment to it was negligible, and the core of the party was often resistant and destructive, as when Republicans joined with Southern Democrats to pass Taft-Hartley, which eventually crippled the labor movement. Similarly, from 1980-2020 only two Democrats were elected President: Clinton & Obama. Both accepted major tenets of Reagan's anti-big-government conservatism, both actively courted business interests, and limited their reform proposals (e.g., in health care) to ones that would favor business interests. That slide to the right was halted by the abject failure of Republicanism to do anything but make the rich richer, by the failure of New Democrats to actually reform anything, and by the gross embarrassment of Trump. On the other hand, Biden doesn't look like an era-founding leader on the order of Roosevelt and Reagan (or looking back further, you can play this game with Jefferson and Lincoln, who inaugurated similarly dominant eras), and there are still Democrats stuck in the Reagan-era mindset (most famously Manchin and Sinema), so we're in a bit of a muddle right now. On the other hand, the only way you're going to see Republicans start trying to be reasonable is if the party gets beat so bad they have no other alternative.

One notable thing about this these eras is that the first three start with dramatic breaks toward more equitable and inclusive polities, but the Reagan one is anomalous, attempting to impose a more stratified, hierarchical power. It is also by far the least popular, secured beyond Reagan himself only through chicanery and corruption. Moving forward, we can draw on the progressivism of the past, but need a new understanding of how the word works, and what our place within it should be.


David Edward Burke: Has the Antiracist Movement Become a Counterproductive Religion? I don't know anything more about John McWhorter's book Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America than what I've read in this review, but I have a couple of kneejerk reactions. First is the inclusion of "Racism" in the title. Call it Wokism if you must, and try to show how a religious (he specifically rejects that it is merely religion-like) devotation to Wokism is counterproductive in various ways. But as written, Wokism is a subset of, and therefore more or less equivalent to, racism. That is not true, and muddies our understanding of racism. Sure, the word by itself can be confusing, but it's hard to grow up in America without understanding that racism refers to white-over-black or white-over-non-white discrimination. Second, the implication is that racism is simply a matter of belief. I know Critical Race Theory isn't often taught in America, but isn't it obvious that racism in America is not just opinion but systemic in law, custom, and culture? If you don't know that, you deserve to be harrangued by the consciously woke. There is much more we can quibble with, like when it's useful or counterproductive to accuse someone of being racist, or whether a phrase like "white privilege" even means anything significant. But that's because I jumped to the end of the review, only to read: "Democrats will be motivated to think carefully about whether to wholeheartedly embrace or distance themselves from the more extreme and tyrannical elements of the far left." What the fuck? I get that some people "on the left" (not unlike "on the right" or "in the middle") care so much about seemingly minor slights that they react harshly (whether about racism or sexism or snobbery or pollution or food or satire or all sorts of things) but that doesn't make them tyrants. In order to be a tyrant, you have to have power, including the ability to punish people who offend you. Maybe someday some people on the left will have that kind of power, and we should work to ensure they wield it responsibly, with charity and forbearance, such as would be consistent with a belief system based on equity, justice, mutual respect and tolerance -- i.e., on the very principles that separate left from right. But for now, virtually all tyrants and would-be tyrants are on the right.

James M Bush: Author, activist and contributor Dan Georgakas has died aged 83: Probably best known for his book about his home town, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying.

Clay Cockrell: I'm a therapist to the super-rich: they are as miserable as Succession makes out: We're taking it slow through Succession's 3rd season. I can't think of a single show ever more devoid of sympathetic characters -- even Billions, where comparably rich wastrels at least on occasion get to show off their cleverness and accomplishments, or Breaking Bad, another triumph of technical skill over any shred of decency. Perhaps we are meant to admire people who get rich through lack of scruples. Popular culture started lionizing criminals in the 1960s with The Dirty Dozen and It Takes a Thief -- they broke the ice by toiling for legitimate institutional powers, but as such groups and causes became increasingly suspect, and as the notion of a public good gave way to individual greed, the rationalizations soon broke down. Succession differs in that it focuses more on the idiot heirs than on the conquering founder, although in this case whatever skill Logan Roy may once have wielded seems every bit as atrophied as his offspring. No one in the show seems even remotely competent to run the company, including Roy's lackeys and the featured outside investors (from Sandy and Stewie to Roy's estranged brother). One might suspect the whole concoction is intended as a stereotyped assault on contemporary capitalism, but our limited view of reality isn't all that different. This article's testimony about the miserable rich feels right. Of course, the rich feel trapped. They live in a world where getting rich is sold as the solution to every problem, yet also a world where one can never be too rich. For more on the show, see Emily VanDerWerff: The four F's of trauma response and the four Roy kids of Succession.

Matthew Cooper: Biden Was Right to Pick Powell to Chair the Federal Reserve. I don't agree, but I'm not terribly bothered either. I thought Obama made a serious mistake in reappointing Ben Bernanke instead of picking someone more in sync with Democratic interests, and Clinton's double-reappointment of Alan Greenspan was an even bigger mistake. If you're going to get blamed politically for the economy -- and Democrats have a knack for getting blamed even when all conventional indicators are bully (see Clinton, Obama, and especially Biden) -- you really should get your own person into the slot, especially since you lose the power to fire that person as soon as he's confirmed. Of course, Clinton and Obama were badly compromised here: the Fed Chair nominally works for the people, but really works for the banks, and both had a lot of big donors in the banking industry, with this one spot they're especially serious about IOU's. Biden too, most likely. Powell has done a decent job so far, and has some fairly progressive economists in his corner (e.g., Dean Baker). But he's been on his best behavior pending reappointment, and even so he's promising interest rate hikes. He could easily turn into Biden's worst nightmare.

Garrett Epps: Are the Courts Getting Ready to Crack Down on Reporters? Good question. The right-wing Veritas Project, which is designed to produce defamatory videos about what they regard as the left, is suing the New York Times not just for defamation but for an order to prevent the Times from further reporting about Project Veritas. Normally, such a lawsuit would be a joke. Epps has also written a big piece on How the Trump Era Changed the Supreme Court.

Paul Krugman: Wonking Out: How Global Is Inflation: Very, which means it has little to do with US federal policies; and Going Beyond the Inflation Headlines. For many people, pandemic subsidies and extra support for the safety net, like the extra money added to usually-miserly unemployment compensation, was a lifesaver, but for other people it just added to savings, helping to fuel the recovery even before the pandemic has really ended. Where this demand got ahead of supply (which is still impacted by various dislocations caused by the pandemic), companies have been able to jack up prices, reducing buying power. I'm not sure it's helpful or even accurate to describe this as inflation -- an old-fashioned but more apt term is price gouging. What one calls it matters, not least because different solutions appear depending on whether one calls it inflation or price gouging. We're accustomed to thinking of inflation as something that can be controlled by government austerity and central bank fiscal policy, even though the effects of both are precisely equal to the long-discredited medical practice of bleeding. To limit prices, we reduce demand by putting people out of work, so they can't spend. However, the method -- increasing interest rates -- is perverse, as interest rates are often a component in costs, so you'd think they'd prices further up. Moreover, higher interest rates are a windfall for lenders -- especially those debts that are indexed to the interest rate (like credit card debt). (There is also a perversity on the side of lowering interest rates: it makes money cheaper for banks, and the easiest -- and therefore the first -- thing they do with it is to fuel speculation, creating asset bubbles.)

On the other hand, the main ways for attacking price gouging are to increase supply, reduce monopoly, and tax away windfall profits. Also: the old-fashioned approach of price controls and rationing, which can be effective in the short run, while raising fears of shortages and bureaucratic hassle -- not that the famously efficient market doesn't have comparable problems. Also: a lot of price gouging is predicated on fraud, so oversight and review can help.

Much more to be be said about this than I can manage now. Some more links:

Chris Lehmann: We All Live in the John Birch Society's World Now: A review of Edward H. Miller's book, A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism, noting: "It's clear today that figures like Welch were much closer to the emerging ideological mainstream than any Cold War liberal could have imagined."

Susan Lustbader: What the Arbery and Rittenhouse Verdicts Couldn't Tell Us: Writer is a public defender in New York City. She provides a judicious, tightly reasoned analysis of this month's two high-profile murder trials: the acquittal in Wisconsin of a teenager, Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot three and killed two at an anti-racism march in Kenosha, and the conviction of three self-appointed vigilantes for the murder of an unarmed black man in Georgia. Good description here of why each trial went its own way, but the bigger point is how exceptional such trials are compared to the everyday workings of the mass incarceration system. "To get a sense of the way racism pervades our criminal justice system, I would recommend paying less attention to blockbuster cases and instead visiting a local criminal court on a random day and witnessing the parade of low-income people of color shuffled before the court, most of them accused of minor, victimless offenses. Pay attention as a judge decides, within minutes, how much money will be required for each person to get out of a cage." More pieces relevant here:

Gail Pellett: Why Care About the Rise of Fascism? The legacy of Sophie Scholl and White Rose, and their resistance against the Nazi regime in Germany, in 1942. The segue to its contemporary relevance starts with the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville in 2017, and includes a smiley, armed picture of Kyle Rittenhouse. If you doubt the relevance of fascism to right-wing political "thought" in America, check out where Chuck Rufo is heading in Zack Beauchamp: The intellectual right's war on America's institutions.

Bill Scher: Youngkin's Win Proves That Republicans Shouldn't Fear Expanded Voting Rights: When Republicans swept the 2010 elections, it occurred to me that most of the shift could be explained by the dropoff in votes following the peak 2008 presidential election. Evidently, Republicans came to the same conclusion, as they've become obsessed with erecting obstacles against voting ever since. Of course, they've worked even harder at obstacles that discriminate against likely Democratic voters, but a lot of restrictions, like limiting early voting, cut across party lines. One thing I didn't realize until later was that the dropoff in 2010 was almost identical to the dropoff from 2004 (which Bush won, barely) to 2006 (which was a major Democratic wave). What I now think happens is that when voter turnout increases, a lot of low information voters show up, and those are precisely the ones that are most gullible for Republican propaganda. Both in 2016 and 2020, Trump ran significantly better than the polls. There is a theory which tries to explain this: that Republican-leaners are intimidated by pollsters and are too shy to disclose their true feelings. Given how many Republicans are proud of being assholes, I rather doubt this. Same basic thing happened in Virginia, where Republican overshot the polls. Scher thinks this means that Republicans shouldn't fear higher voter turnout. I'd counter that Democrats shouldn't fear lower voter turnout. Indeed, as long as you keep your people committed, the total turnout doesn't matter much. I'm not saying that Democratic efforts to expand the electorate and get more people to vote are wasted. They underscore the Democrats commitment to democracy, which is something Republicans have given up on, so this helps to underscore the danger of giving Republicans more power to abuse. On the other hand, Democrats need to understand that the real threat to democracy in America isn't gerrymandering or the other scams Republicans use to leverage their power. The real threat is money. And while Democrats complain about money interests when running for office, they have yet to try to do something about it when they do have power. The result is to make them look corrupt -- something Republicans harp on even though they're even more complicit in giving moneyed interests inordinate power in federal and state governments.

Zachary Siegel: Give People Safe Drugs: "Over 100,000 overdose deaths happened last year, driven by volatile and lethal fentanyl." I think this is clearly right, although I'd add that it should be under the rubric of a general health care reform such that people can both get the painkillers they think they need and also the medical supervision and social workers they really do need. The main thing holding us back, aside from the myriad profits many interested parties (both legit and criminal) reap, is a stubborn idiotic belief in the persuasive power of hypocrisy. If anything, the effect is the opposite.

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Friday, September 24, 2021


Speaking of Which

I wasn't planning on posting anything this week, but I tweeted after reading the Dougherty article below, and felt like I should expand on that a bit more.

I don't want to get into the weeds over Biden's approval poll dip, or into its associated (all too predictable) politics, but I was rather taken aback by a piece of email I got from something calling itself National Democratic Training Committee. Omitting the poll solicitation and the garish background colors, it looked rather like this:

BAD NEWS: REPUBLICANS CALL FOR PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN TO BE IMPEACHED

President Biden is UNDER ATTACK. Unless we can prove good Democrats are still standing by him, this could spell the END of Joe Biden's presidency.


Republicans are OVER-THE-MOON.

Their baseless calls for Biden's impeachment are working, and now his presidency is on the verge of COLLAPSE.


This is a C-A-T-A-S-T-R-O-P-H-E!!!


But without MASSIVE support from Democrats, Biden's presidency will be doomed.

Biden is working day and night to END the pandemic and SAVE our voting rights . . . while Republicans try to sabotage his presidency???

We must act quickly! Respond before 11:59 PM to give Joe Biden a fighting chance >>

I realize all they're really doing is phishing for donations for their organization (National Democratic Training Committee), which may (or may not) be worthy, but this level of hysteria is totally uncalled for, and counterproductive. Impeachment is a press release, not a practical threat. (Marjorie Taylor Greene filed impeachment articles the day after Biden was inaugurated. Four more Republicans filed articles last week, trying to make political hay out of Afghanistan. Two Texas Republicans added their articles over border policy. Also: Greene's impeachment rant goes off the rails.)

Impeachment cannot possibly proceed, let alone succeed, without significant Democratic defections. Even if the House acted, the Senate would fail to convict, the process would be viewed as purely political, and consequences would be few and far between. Assuming Biden's health holds up, his presidency is secure through 2024, and the only real threat is if Democrats lose Congress in 2022 (which is something that happened to the last two Democratic presidents). But that's still more than a year away, and unless you're running for office then, there's very little you can do about it now, so please chill, and save your energy for when it's needed. Above all, don't panic and back down. Republicans are unhinged, and their devotion to fringe insanity will ultimately undermine them. Don't help them by going insane yourself.


On my Facebook feed, a right-wing relative forwarded this meme:

In the 60s, the KGB did some fascinating psychological experiments.

They learned that if you bombard human subjects with fear messages nonstop, in two months or less most of the subjects are completely brainwashed to believe the false message.

To the point that no amount of clear information they are shown, to the contrary, can change their mind.

My first thought was to respond, "so you're working for the KGB now?" Her personal posts are harmless enough, but in spurts as much as 10-20 times a day she forwards right-wing troll memes, many designed to inculcate fear, others aimed to flatter totems of the right, and all massively mendacious and mean. I've replied to a few, like the one that tried to illustrate the evils of socialism by offering Facebook as an example (as I pointed out, "I think the word you're looking for is capitalism"). But I may have learned something from this one: namely, that the reason Russia's trolls favor the Republicans has less to do with currying favor with their fellow oligarchs than because they've both embraced the same model of psychological manipulation.

Further down, my relative forwarded another meme, which shows a donkey in a chemical protection suit, carrying a tank marked "Center for Democrat Control" and spraying "FEAR" all over. I didn't recognize the donkey at first, so my initial reading was that "FEAR" was being used to control Democrats. No Democrat would label it that; not that they would use "Center for Democratic Control" either, as democracies are opposed to control, but using "Democrat" as an adjective breaks the association of the Party with democracy -- something at least until recently that Republicans had to give lip service to. The donkey spoils the malaproprism, but it underscores how Republicans' worst fears are that Democrats will act just like they do.

It seems like Republicans are flipping on a lot of rhetoric these days, whatever it takes to make their side sound plausible. The big recent one is how vaccine refusal rests simply on "free choice" -- something they deny in their efforts to criminalize abortion.

Another meme: "Right now, TODAY . . . We have the very government our Founding Fathers warned us about." Only thing I can think of there -- at least it's one that was widely discussed at the time -- is the peril of having a standing army.


Carter Dougherty: Senate Democrats Have a Big New Corporate Tax Idea: Democrats want to pass a fairly major public works bill -- top line is advertised as $3.5 trillion over 10 years, which works out to a measly $350 billion/year, well less than half of what the Defense Department costs, but for things that are actually useful and valuable. (For more context, see: Peter Coy: It's Not Really a '$3.5 Trillion' Bill; also: Eric Levitz: $3.5 Trillion Is Not a Lot of Money; and Michael Tomasky: How the Media's Framing of the Budget Debate Favor the Right.) But to get it through the Senate reconciliation process (i.e., around the filibuster), they have to offset that cost with revenue increases. Reversing Trump's corporate income tax giveaway is an obvious candidate, but swing voter Joe Manchin has been balking at anything over 25% (up from 21%, or down from 35%, depending on your perspective). So Bernie Sanders has proposed a compromise, which "would impose a surcharge on corporate income tax if the company paid its CEO 50 times more than what its median employee earns." Dougherty applauds this as "a wildly popular idea just waiting for them." Sounds like a real dumb idea to me. Sure, CEO compensation is ridiculous, but there are more straightforward ways to deal with it: income tax, and you can also limit the deductibility of the corporate expense (since executive bonuses are basically profit-sharing, why not tax them twice, first as profits, then as income?). To raise any significant revenues, the surtax would have to be steep, which puts a lot of emphasis on the pivot point: why 50 times? Doesn't that suggest that CEO pay 40-49 times is OK? You don't have to go back very far to find years when that ratio was not just exceptional but unheard of. This also raises questions about what is CEO compensation (base salary, obviously, but CEOs also routinely get "performance" bonus, stock options, and all sorts of non-salary perks, treated variously). And why just CEOs? Aren't their also issues with COOs, CFOs, CTOs, board members, and others? The whole proposal is simply perverse.

All the more so because there is a simple alternative, one so obvious I'm shocked no one seems to be discussing it: make corporate income tax progressive. It should be easy to pick out brackets and a range of tax rates -- say, from 21% (or less) to 35% (or more). Given the concentration of profits in large companies, one could even lower the tax rate for a majority of corporations while increasing total revenue. Seems like that would be good political messaging. One might object that a progressive profits tax would discriminate against companies that are simply large and/or successful (have high profit margins). That sounds to me like a feature. High profit margins are almost always due to monopoly effects. It's very difficult to break up or even regulate monopolies, especially in marginal cases. Taxing them will make them more tolerable. And if the prospect of higher taxes leads some corporations to spin off parts to tax them separately, that too sounds like a benefit.

There are cases where flat taxes are appropriate, but income/profit taxes aren't one. It's OK to have flat taxes on consumption (sales and excise taxes), because that saves having to identify and qualify the spenders. But income/profit taxes are always identified, and the level is an intrinsic part of what's being taxed. Elsewhere I've proposed a scheme where unearned income (interest, dividends, capital gains, gifts, inheritance, prizes) should be taxed at a rate which is progressive over the lifetime sum (see: here and here and here and here). Admittedly, it's fun to tinker with tax schemes, but the real questions are harder, as they turn on what income and what can be deducted. The big problem with corporate income/profit taxes is that many corporations are able to avoid/evade them -- in which case the marginal rate may be moot. On the other hand, it's just those questions that are least transparent and most subject to interest group lobbying. It's very hard to develop a fair tax system when every political office is up for auction, as is the case now.

[PS: A related story: House Bill Would Blow Up the Massive IRAs of the Superwealthy: The rationale behind IRAs is to allow people to postpone paying tax on retirement savings until they need them, at which point their incomes will probably come down, so they'll save a bit when they have to pay tax on their withdrawals. However, Peter Thiel (to take just one example) has used this loophole to shelter $5 billion. The proposal is to limit tax-sheltered savings to $20 million, which is still pretty generous.]

Anne Kim: A Case for a Smaller Reconciliation Bill: Of all the sources I read regularly, Washington Monthly has been consistently defending the more conservative Democrats in their efforts to go slow and small (if they have to go at all). I don't particularly agree with them, but I'm not especially bothered as well. I'd like to pocket a few real (even if ultimately inadequate) gains as soon as possible, like the "bipartisan" infrastructure bill and the whittled-down Manchin-approved fragment of the $3.5 trillion reconstruction package. Pass those and you can go into 2022 with a message that you've already produced important, tangible gains -- things that were never even attempted when Trump was president -- and all you need to do more is get more Democrats elected. As this piece advises: "Take a longer view, with a strategy and tactics geared toward building a sustainable governing majority." On the other hand, while I can see the centrists' impulse to take things gradually, they need to decide which side they're on, and act accordingly. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "we must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

PS: Seth Myers recently pointed out that Democrats in Congress are divided into three groups: progressives, moderates, and "Republicans" -- cue picture of Manchin (Follow the Money Into Joe Manchin's Pockets) and Sinema (Kyrsten Sinema Is Corporate Lobbies' Million-Dollar Woman). By the way, Steve M. has a theory about conservative/corrupt Democrats like Manchin and Sinema: No, Mr. Bond, They Expect the Democratic Party to Die:

I don't think she cares. She's being sweet-talked by corporate interests who've undoubtedly made it clear that whatever happens to her in the future, she'll never go hungry. She'll be taken care of if she carries out a hit on Biden and the rest of the Democrats. So she knows she has nothing to fear. She'll be fine.

This country is in deep trouble because even people who should know better can't grasp how dangerous the Republican Party is -- and it's also in deep trouble because of a failure to understand the stranglehold corporate America has on our politics. We need to see Republicans and the rich as the enemies of ordinary Americans. And we need to recognize that the damage the rich do isn't always done by means of the GOP.

By the way, I noticed that the former right-wing of the Democratic Senate, Claire McCaskill and Heidi Heitkamp, have been in the news recently, appearing as paid corporate lobbyists against the Biden bill, so the notion that Manchin and Sinema will, in cue course, dutifully lose their seats and wind up making more money lobbying, isn't at all far-fetched.

For more on this, see Krugman, below.

Ezra Klein: The Economic Mistake the Left Is Finally Confronting: Interesting article, although the title doesn't do it any favors. The "Left" is Biden's economic team, and the "Economic Mistake" is, well, what? Arthur Laffer-style "supply side" gimmickry? Opposition to same? Does it matter? The point is that they're looking not only at increasing demand (by government spending, plus putting more money into the hands of workers and the poor) but also at supply-side bottlenecks, hoping to limit friction that could produce inflation. Of course, one big item there (infrastructure) works both ways, which is why investments in infrastructure and education have such big returns. Klein cites two papers, one on the problem: Cost Disease Socialism (an even worse title) from the "center-right" Niskanen Center; and one on the solution: An Antidote for Inflationary Pressure by Biden advisers Jared Bernstein and Ernie Tedeschi. I'd add a few more points. Antitrust enforcement would help eliminate supply bottlenecks, by encouraging more companies to exist and add capacity. Eliminating patents and limiting other forms of "intellectual property" would prevent many monopolies from forming. And while government can encourage private companies to form and invest by guaranteeing future purchases, it could be more efficient to directly fund new ventures.

Paul Krugman: Are Centrists in the Thrall of Right-Wing Propaganda? Republicans are predictably acting out as nihilists, but:

More surprising, at least to me, has been the self-destructive behavior of Democratic centrists -- a term I prefer to "moderates," because it's hard to see what's moderate about demanding that Biden abandon highly popular policies like taxing corporations and reducing drug prices. At this point it seems all too possible that a handful of recalcitrant Democrats will blow up the whole Biden agenda -- and yes, it's the centrists who are throwing a tantrum, while the party's progressives are acting like adults.

So what's motivating the sabotage squad? Part of the answer, I'd argue, is that they have internalized decades of right-wing economic propaganda, that their gut reaction to any proposal to improve Americans' lives is that it must be unworkable and unaffordable.

Well, right-wing propaganda for sure, which includes the occasional nod to economists like Hayek and Friedman, although these days they rarely bother with rationalizations for their political preferences when shouting them louder will do. Keynes, who like Krugman held his occupation in exceptionally high regard, famously derided political opponents as "slaves of some defunct economist," but the less-quoted continuation is more true today: "Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back." Or for every stupid idea in circulation today, you can find some past "thinker" who articulated it first. (Sure, this is just a variation on one of my old aperçus: that every bad idea in Western thought can be traced back to some Greek.)

It's mind-boggling to recall this now, but back in the 1990s Reagan Republicans were widely regarded not just as crafty politicians but as serious thinkers. Not that the "Laffer curve" survived much more than the few months when it was useful for selling the Reagan tax cuts, but the idea was propagated so widely that some Democrats started buying into it, which is how we got Clinton and Obama -- Democrats who raked in huge donations on the promise that they could do more for the wealthy than even the Republicans could. That idea lost its lustre during the Obama years, and especially with Hillary Clinton's loss to Trump. But it's recent enough that it's no surprise that there are still Democrats trying to make the "Reagan Era" Clinton-Obama model working -- the one they've been fairly successful at for their own political careers. Besides, nothing has been done to reform the system that allows the rich to dominate elections and smother elected officials with lobby interests.

Indeed, the real surprise is that Biden, who followed the Reagan Era's zeitgeist as uncritically as anyone, and who was the overwhelming choice of the Clinton-Obama legacy minders in 2020 (at least once every other right-center candidate had been eliminated), should have broken the mold as definitively as he has. I attribute that to two things: one is that politics has ceased to be simply a vehicle for office-seekers to advance their careers on -- voters have started to demand services and representation, which means that Democrats have to consider more than their donors; and the other is that most serious thinking about practical solutions to increasingly dire real problems is concentrated on the left these days.

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Sunday, September 12, 2021


Speaking of Which

The real deluge of 9/11 anniversary/memorabilia articles didn't hit until Saturday, a day after I published my Speaking of Which roundup, so I missed a few that were worthy of reference and/or argument. Plus, I always have second thoughts the day or two after a post. A comment forum might be a good place for them, but that hasn't been practical. Sometimes I add a "PS" section, or a bit more often I might sneak a few extra comments into the next Monday's Music Week, but the former is rarely noticed, and the latter often missed. But this seems worthy of its own post.

I have one key point to make here, so let's make it bold: We've gotten used to living in a world where rhetoric routinely wins over facts and logic. If that's still true, Joe Biden has just walked into a trap which will destroy his presidency and his party. Unless, that is, people accord the Republicans no credibility and see through the trap. One hint that they might comes from Jennifer Rubin's column: Biden delivers straight talk -- and wins kudos.

Republicans are up in arms over vaccine mandates everywhere, and Biden has just taken ownership of that political issue, which only makes them more furious and frenzied. Why exactly Republicans have chosen to get so worked up over this issue -- defending the "right" of individuals to infect and possibly kill their fellow citizens -- strains credulity, especially given their relentless attack on so many other fundamental rights (like the right to decide when and if to become parents). Maybe they've become risk junkies? (That would be consistent with their guns fetish.) Or maybe it's just that having crafted so much of their political rhetoric to appeal to the dumbest and most gullible citizens, they are not being led by their patsies. (No one illustrates this better than Donald Trump.)

Rubin also praises Biden for fighting back against the Texas SB 8 law, which attempts to ban abortion by deputizing vigilantes to sue "offenders" for bounties. (By the way, that law got me wondering, why don't blue states pass a law which lays the basis for people who got Covid-19 to sue any unvaccinated people they came in contact with during the incubation period. That would be a bad law, for many of the same reasons SB 8 is, but at least those who got sick have a valid case for standing. The change is that instead of having to prove transmission and intent, you'd be able to base the suit on simple negligence.)

But I had a second "trap" in mind. This is the bald assertion that in withdrawing US troops, Biden "surrendered to the Taliban," and is usually accompanied by intimations of treason. I first ran across this in a column by the odious Marc Thiessen: Biden has no business setting foot at Ground Zero on the anniversary of 9/11, and I've seen it a bunch of times since. Thiessen's political agenda is obvious from his recent run of columns: Greenlighting the Taliban's takeover of Kabul is a national disgrace; Our military's sacrifice in Afghanistan was not in vain; and Biden's Afghan retreat has done irreparable damage to our alliances. The middle one of this series is the most repugnant, not least because it's the most dishonest. It is a line that every apologist for every war utters sooner or later as the toll mounts while the fantasies of glory fade. Even if the only things you ever read about the war are by shameless propagandists like Thiessen, all a sane person can deduce is that the cause is lost, if indeed there ever was a cause at all.

Of course, it's a bare-faced lie to say that Biden "surrendered" to the Taliban, or even that he passively "greenlighted the Taliban takeover." The negotiations spared the US from fighting the Taliban for over a year (during which US casualties in Afghanistan dropped to zero), while the Kabul government and military appeared to be holding its own. I always hated those "training wheels" metaphors, but at some point the US had to let go and see if the Kabul army could stand on its own. We now know that it couldn't, and that the collapse came from within, as most of a mercenary army hired by the US had no principled will to fight against the Taliban.

If Biden made a mistake, it was in not withdrawing sooner. The Kabul government was supposed to negotiate some kind of power-sharing framework with the Taliban, but cynically figured the Americans would be stuck as long as they held out, but they didn't really any other angle: just steal as much as they could, then clear out. Meanwhile, the Taliban did negotiate, with everyone else, allowing them to isolate and ignore Ghani, who wound up fleeing even before the last Americans left. Even if Biden was willing to side with the hawks and send troops back in, it's inconceivable the US could recover from this setback. More likely, the US would eventually have to fight its way back out, like the British in 1842.

The US war effort in Afghanistan has long survived on the fumes of denialism and magical thinking. It was the height of arrogance and vanity to think that a mission conceived as revenge and meant to be so horrifying it would deter further terrorist acts would ultimately be embraced by the Afghan people as a great venture in humanitarianism. Those fumes continue to intoxicate the hawks, whose last refuge is to blame their systemic failures on politicians like Biden, who finally found the courage to stand up to their delusions.

What remain to be seen is whether Biden and the hawkish elements of his own party -- forget the Republicans, who are proving themselves to be terminably stupid on this count -- can learn the lesson of failure in Afghanistan and back out of the entire "forever war" posture. The first indications are not promising, as Biden seems to have embraced an "over-the-horizon" strategy for killing "terror suspects" without having local bases. The problem here is not simply that bombing remote locations recruits more "terrorists" than it kills (partly because most of the people killed aren't terrorists by any sane definition). (How many of you remember that Clinton ordered cruise missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan three years before 9/11?) The other problem is that by disrespecting the sovereignty of the Taliban, the US will preclude any possibility of enjoying a normal relationship with Afghanistan, or of the Afghan people interacting constructively with the world. If the great fear is that Afghanistan may someday harbor a group that tries to attack the US -- as it did with Al-Qaeda -- the dumbest thing we could do is to use sanctions and subversion to turn them into more desperate enemies.

Yet this is exactly what we are seeing the foundation being laid for. For instance, the Washington Post editorial (i.e., not just the rantings of its token right-wingers like Thiessen and George Will): The Taliban shows what it means by 'inclusive.' The time for American wishful thinking is over. It's frightfully easy for Americans of all political stripes to malign the Taliban -- after all, that's been the official US propaganda line for close to 25 years. The Post also published Hamid Mir's I met Osama bin Laden three times. I'm sorry to say his story isn't over. The concrete recommendations in these pieces are actually pretty lame, which makes me wonder why try to be hostile just to make yourself feel better about losing?

The Post also published 6 former secretaries of defense: We must memorialize the fallen in the global war on terrorism. The only thing I want to hear from this sextet is their guilty pleas before a war crimes tribunal. This doesn't quite qualify as something more to charge them with, but it does say something about their character. In particular, their term "sacred war dead" strips humanity from the unfortunate souls whose lives were so cynically squandered by political opportunists and turns them into war fetishes -- really just a gilting of Thiessen's "not in vain" con. But also, it attempts to merge and sanctify the whole Global War on Terror schemata. I might be more sympathetic if I thought said war was over and done with, but it was designed to run forever, and so its monument is something that we'd bound to feed indefinitely.

I've long been stuck by the wisdom of a quote from Henry Stimson (FDR's Secretary of War during WWII, a period when the US depended on a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union): "The chief lesson I have learned in a long life is that the only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him." We might argue about whether the Taliban deserves our trust (or whether they should trust us), but the only way this situation ever gets better is if we bury the hatchet. We don't need to flatter them, nor them us. But we do need to recognize that it isn't our right or duty to pick their leaders or dictate their policies. And we also need to admit that we've believed in and tried to enforce that sort of interference for way too long. The US doesn't need to disengage from the world, but Americans do need to give up thinking they have a right to tell everyone else how to live. As recent history has shown, we don't even have the good sense to direct our own affairs.

I've digressed, but just to underscore how profoundly malignant this week's Republican talking points have become. The question, again, is will people fall for them. No doubt the Republican base will, as they've proven they'll fall for anything. But why should anyone else believe anything Republicans say? As one who doesn't, I can't answer that. But our future depends on the answer.


Notes on a few more scattered pieces. I don't have much to say about vaccine mandates, other than that the extreme communicability and relative peril of Covid-19 means that those who refuse to get vaccinated are recklessly endangering more lives than their own, and are showing utter disregard for the lives and well-being of others (as well as doubtful intelligence). I see no reason to credit such people with an ounce of the patriotism many see as their natural claim (nor is that the only political stance I see discredited by their refusal). I'm not in favor of forcing people to do things they find abhorrent, and I'm inclined to go light on enforcement, but I have no respect or sympathy for them.

Andrew J Bacevich: A modest proposal: Fire all of the post 9/11 generals; also Don't let the generals dictate the war's legacy, make them answer for it [July 23]. If you think he may be being harsh, consider this interview with Petraeus: "Q: How do you think the situation in Afghanistan ended up where it is today? A: It started with the Trump Administration . . . I just think it was premature to leave."

Jason Bailey: '25th Hour': The Best 9/11 Movie Was Always About New York. I mention this because I know Bailey (and felt like giving him a link) -- he moved to New York from my home town, Wichita -- and I listened to his podcast on 9/11 and the film (where Mike Hull, who also moved from Wichita to New York, has a good disquisition on what New York was like immediately after 9/11). But I barely recall seeing the Spike Lee movie.

Dartagnan: Republicans vow to prolong the COVID-19 pandemic as long as possible: A Daily Kos contributor, sums up the Republican reaction to Biden's mask mandate without mincing words. Much like Mitch McConnell strove to extend the recession Obama inherited in hopes voters would blame Obama, it isn't too far fetched that Republicans see Covid-19 as something they can ultimately get away blaming Biden for. (As I recall, a big part of the rationale for recalling Gavin Newsom in California was his handling of the pandemic.) Indeed, Biden's approval polls have fallen as Covid-19 has surged back and dampened the economic recovery, but will people really give the Republicans a free pass when they're working so hard to be spoilers? Here's a related story: Alabama Man has Heart Attack, 43 Full Hospitals Turn Him Down, Finds One 200 Miles Away, Dies There.

Ezra Klein: Gavin Newsom Is Much More Than the Lesser of Two Evils: The California recall election is Tuesday, September 14. I'm sick of hearing about it, but here you go.

Jim Lobe: How 9/11 enabled a preconceived vision of an imperial US foreign policy: Starts with the blueprint, a Defense Planning Guidance draft document written in 1992 ("literally a 'Pax Americana'") written by a couple of Defense Departments underlings who later became architects of the Global War on Terror: Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby. This document has been pretty well known for a long time, even if little discussed. I see Lobe also has a [04-30] piece that is news to me: Hawks seek revival with new group: they're calling it the Vandenberg Coalition, after the Republican Senator who advised Harry Truman that if he wanted to raise funds to counter Soviet influence he'd have to "scare the hell out of the American people" -- in other words, the driving force behind the Red Scare and the Cold War.

Julian Mark: Marine vet 'tortured' 11-year-old after killing her family, sheriff says. The girl 'played dead' and 'prayed.' This sort of thing never enters into those "cost of war" calculations. I don't know how to valuate it, but I am certain that the cost is real.

Dylan Matthews: 20 years, $6 trillion, 900,000 lives: "The enormous costs and elusive benefits of the war on terror." The value, but also the limits, of this piece is its relentless effort to quantify everything. I'm increasingly convinced that the real cost is much more psychic, and that takes its toll often far away from the obvious points. Also note that "elusive benefits" was just there to suggest balance. I wasn't able to find any benefits in the text, even elusive ones.

Kathleen Parker: 9/11 broke us. And we are far from healed. This is what happens when someone with no discernible principles or insight is assigned to write something to commemorate an arbitrary event date: she writes the same column she always writes, about how partisan division has torn us apart, so "division became an end in itself, a self-righteous vision that culminated in the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol." I'm glad she was bothered by Jan. 6, but that was the work of one faction on one side of the partisan divide. Sure, it's tempting to bookend the two dates, as Spencer Ackerman does in his Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump (links in previous post, but add this dissenting view: Blame the Kochs, the Murdochs, and The Turner Diaries for January 6, Not 9/11). Pace Parker, there is something real and substantial that has divided Americans: economic (and political) inequality. From 1945 (or 1933) to 1980, America became more equal, with a dominant middle class and serious efforts to improve the lot of the marginal poor. During this time, for instance, wages rose in lockstep with productivity. But then business revolted, and used their money to buy political favors, like tax breaks, deregulation, union busting, undermining the safety net, neglecting infrastructure, promoting monopoly, and routinizing war. The result was that wages have stagnated, and all productivity gains have been captured by the owners. Division was part of the sales pitch for this vicious political agenda. Many pundits like to cite 9/11 as a brief, glorious moment of unity in this polarized 40-year stretch. Parker laments its briefness, but the real lesson is the collective damage is even graver in the rare periods when both parties and most of the media agree. People like to say that "9/11 changed everything," but what really changed America was the Bush decision to go to war, which went unexplained, unexamined, and unquestioned because the opposition party failed to check assumptions built into the war mentality.

Robin Wright: The anguish over what America left behind -- and Afghanistan's future: It pains me how bad she's gotten. Consider this: "For the U.S., the forever war is over, but American military missions are not." Ergo, the "forever war" is not over. It's still very much on track to last forever, because it doesn't have any defined terminal goals. Or as she quotes Biden, "To those who wish us harm, know this: the United States will never rest. We will track you down to the ends of the earth, and we will make you pay the ultimate price." What ended in Afghanistan was the pretense that we could enter a country, occupy it, and get the people to love us because we set them free. No more "speaking softly" for America. From now on it's all "big stick." The thing is, the US is fighting "over-the-horizon" wars in another dozen countries, like Somalia (which we withdrew from in 1993) and Libya (since 2011, although we first bombed them in 1986), so there's not a shred of evidence of that being anything other than forever war. Nor is that the only howler here: "The reality of America's exit -- its mission unaccomplished in multiple ways -- would have been unimaginable when Bush spoke two decades ago." The real question is how could anyone not have imagined such an exit?

Ask a question, or send a comment.

Friday, September 10, 2021


Speaking of Which

As you probably know, this week is the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and hence of the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (although more like the 42nd anniversary if you count the "covert" action initiated by the CIA in 1979). There's been a fair amount of press on that, some noted below. And while the number of people who realize what a bad idea that war was has significantly increased in recent years, there are still a lot of important people who want to crank the war up again.

I was in Brooklyn that morning, with Laura Tillem for a visit with Liz Fink. From her apartment, we could see the streak of black smoke drifting east from the burning towers, against a bright blue sky, and we could look down on Grand Army Plaza and watch people trudging home from jobs in Manhattan. That's about three miles in from the bridges, so one of the first things I was struck by is that the adrenaline of pedestrians fleeing the scene had worn off. New Yorkers are used to difficulties, and this was worse than usual, but no need to panic -- unlike the politicians and media who quickly whipped up their "America under attack" chyrons.

Liz and Laura were glued to the TV, which I could hear from the other room, where I was thumbing through a book called Century, with often gory pictures covering the whole of the 20th century, from the Boxer Rebellion and Boer War to the bombing of the USS Cole. Liz predicted the TV would become unbearable in a couple days, but the bad ideas had yet to harden into even worse policies. Even before the second plane hit, Liz intuited who was doing it, and why. My reaction was that this was a moment for introspection: a wake-up call for Americans to reflect on and get right with God. Alas, there was little evidence of that. Even friends who were trusty leftists with long histories opposed to American militarism lost their minds.

Early afternoon we walked into Park Slope and ate in a Middle Eastern restaurant, doing brisk business -- probably the last day it was possible to do so without encountering American flags. We came back, and watched more TV. I remember John Major and Shimon Peres cackling about how at last Americans will understand what terrorism means, and will appreciate how much they can learn from British and Israeli expertise in such matters. Then there was Senator Hillary Clinton, on the Capitol steps, complaining about closing the session and daring the terrorists to take her out. It was already getting weirder. That evening, the media got some grainy video of a missile attack in Kabul, so they started celebrating "America strikes back."

We were locked down for most of a week. When the subways were clear, we rode into Grand Central Station to eat in the Oyster Bar. No sooner had we entered the Station than we saw a phalanx of firefighters marching to busses for the trip downtown. When the planes started flying again, Laura left for Wichita, and my sister-in-law flew into New York, having been stuck in Las Vegas. She brought horrible news: her daughter-in-law, my niece, was working in WTC and was one of those killed. I rushed down to my nephew's house, where everyone was stunned. A few days later Liz took a planned trip to California, leaving me alone in the apartment for another week or two (with the television never on, so I was sort of cocooned from the madness developing across the nation. In fact, I had never heard of "9/11" until a friend picked me up and drove me to where I had parked my car in New Jersey. But I can say that I attended an antiwar demonstration in Union Square Park, much like many I had been to (and many more to come). I had a project to do in New York -- that's when I built Robert Christgau's website -- and spent spare time prowling around bookstores looking for something to read to help me make sense of the world. I didn't find much at the time, and wound up reading a book on British "hill stations" in India. Intuitively, I knew this had something to do with colonialism.

This week is also the 50th anniversary of the Attica Prison massacre. I don't recall any discussion of its 30th anniversary 20 years ago, most likely because the civil case still hadn't been settled. Liz Fink joined the Attica Brothers defense team straight out of law school, shortly after the event, and stayed with the case until it was finally settled in 2005. There was some sort of a 40th anniversary, and this year there are more remembrances organized around the 50th anniversary. I watched the first two panels of Attica Is All of Us on the 9th, with two more coming up on the 13th. But what I really recommend you watch is the HBO Max documentary Betrayal at Attica, which draws a line from the lynchings and labor wars of the 19th century to recent killings by police, and finds Attica in the center, featuring narration by Liz Fink.

I had a rather troubled adolescence, but in 1971 I started to take control of my life. I got a GED, and entered college at Wichita State. I took a philosophy class, and when Attica happened my professor was so disturbed by the events that he put aside his plan and spent a whole session delving into what happened. That stuck with me, and various things caused it to reverberate over time. I have a cousin who taught political science at SUNY Buffalo, and she and her friends got involved in the Attica Brothers defense, so I followed the case more closely than I otherwise would have. Later I met and fell in love with Laura, and it turned out that her closest friend from college was Liz Fink. I got to know Liz fairly well over the years, and met several of her clients and fellow lawyers. When my nephew (Mike Hull) moved to New York in 2000, I introduced him to Liz. It took a while for them to click, but he's done several films and a lot of video editing, and offered to take Liz's Attica files and digitize and archive them. The film is derived from the archive, but the archive is public and will be a resource for anyone else who wants to find out what happened 50 years ago. But others will be hard-pressed to match the narrative power of Mike's film (or the economy and insight of Liz Fink). I should also mention that Mike has continued to interview participants, which will add to amount of information on Attica.

Robert Christgau wrote a terrific review of Mike's film, Out of the Box. I'm not finding many more reviews, but there are several reviews of Stanley Nelson's new Attica documentary (here and here and here). The latter is scheduled for the Toronto Film Festival, then later on Showtime (don't know when). Nelson is a famous documentarian (26 previous films, MacArthur Fellow, three Primetime Emmy Awards, etc.).


Afghanistan:

Matthieu Aikins, et al.: Times Investigation: In US Drone Strike, Evidence Suggests No ISIS Bomb: "It was the last known missile fired by the United States in its 20-year war in Afghanistan, and the military called it a 'righteous strike'" -- it killed 10, including "a longtime worker for a US aid group" and seven children. A little something for the Afghans to remember us by. Also see Ben Armbruster: New report: Post-9/11 US airstrikes killed upwards of 48,000 civilians: so the last airstrike wasn't exactly an exception to the rule.

Emran Feroz: The Enemies We Made: "Haunted by Predator drones in the sky and death squads on the ground." This is a big part of the US legacy in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and despite all the democracy propaganda, this is the part the imperial mandarins want to keep going with their "over-the-horizon" plans. Feroz also wrote: The Whitewashing of the Afghan War.

Anand Gopal: The Other Afghan Women: "In the countryside, the endless killing of civilians turned women against the occupiers who claimed to be helping them." Gopal's 2014 book No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes was one of the few I was tempted by, as it was one of the few to try to represent how a variety of Afghans saw the US occupation. He focused on three figures: a Taliban commander, a member of the US-backed government, and a village housewife. This article focuses on the latter. While he's critical of the Taliban, it's hard to read this and see anything the US was able to do right.

Meredith McGraw: Trump wanted out of Afghanistan. Now he wants to bomb it. This long and rather confusing article tries to round up what Trump and his people are saying these days on Afghanistan. As for Trump himself, all you need to know is that he viewed troops-on-the-ground as separate and independent of bombing. He saw that keeping troops in war zones was a liability, but had no qualms about bombing, even after the troops were gone. He liked blowing things up, and was happy to go along with anything the Pentagon offered. He wasn't what you'd call a deep thinker, and he was easily steered by subordinates who had their own agendas (like McMaster, Bolton, and Pompeo).

Paul R Pillar: The biggest problems in how the Afghanistan story has been told: "Not considering the alternative, or whether there was one"; "believing an exact scenario can be predicted"; "focusing more on the dramatic than on the important."

Storer H Rowley: An "Over-the-Horizon" Strategy for Afghanistan: There are no words to express how bad this idea is. The overwhelming evidence is that drone strikes are counter-productive: they almost inevitably kill bystanders, generating more anti-American sentiment than any conceivable practical value; they alienate the host country, not least by mocking sovereignty; they tempt target groups to embrace their own "far enemy" strategy (as Al-Qaeda did in 2001). The US actually has considerable experience with "over-the-horizon" targeting, especially in Pakistan, as well as Yemen, Libya, and Somalia. The result in the latter cases has been to further destabilize their political systems, increasing the jihadist tendency. As for Pakistan, resentment against US drone strikes have been routinely dismissed, but ISI support for the Taliban has proven decisive. Syria is another case, showing how the US predilection for bombing has drawn the US into internal political strife, making peace even harder to find. The only other nation which behaves so arrogantly toward other nations is Israel, especially in Syria, which Israel bombs periodically, with seeming impunity. America's neocons have always suffered from a severe case of Israel-envy. At this point they would like nothing better than to treat Afghanistan like Israel treats Gaza: as an arbitrary punching bag. This is bullying on a national (or for the US global) scale. It is an assault on humanity, even our own.

Adela Suliman: Lindsey Graham says United States 'will be going back' into Afghanistan: "The Republican senator predicts a clash between the Taliban and Islamic State will force Washington to re-engage." Shows how little he knows: ISIS was able to take over a quarter of Iraq because Sunnis were excluded from the Shiite-Kurdish ruling alliance the US left in power, a crisis which led the latter to invite the US back, temporarily; ISIS-K, on the other hand, is a minor faction competing for the Taliban's own ethnic and religious turf, which should be easy enough to control as long as the Taliban doesn't ally with the US. In the unlikely event that the Taliban needs foreign assistance, their obvious ally is Pakistan, which has its own reasons for suppressing the "Pakistani Taliban." The bigger question is why Graham would entertain, much less fantasize about, such a request. Is he really that hard up for countries to invade?


Everything Else:

Brian Alexander: The GOP's War on Public Health Officials: Not among the examples here -- suggesting there are too many to enumerate -- Republicans in Kansas passed a law which strips our Democratic governor from being able to declare health emergencies, and another which allows counties to overrule state mandates. The former was quickly ruled unconstitutional, but the intent is that governments will never in the future be anywhere near as effective as they were in 2020. That's a gross error on the wrong side of history -- most of us who lived through it weren't all that impressed, but it takes a special kind of myopia to think that if only we hadn't had those lockdowns the economy would have boomed and we'd be so much better off now. As I recall, one country did try that strategy (Sweden), and had to admit it was a complete failure. It's bad enough that Republicans insist on doing stupid things here and now. It's even more insidious when they use their temporary power to future governments from ever correcting their errors. Nor is this a new strategy on their part. It's the key idea behind their obsession with packing the Supreme Court.

David Atkins: Donald Trump May Still Destroy the GOP, After All: You would think that the unique combination of toxicity and incompetence Republicans have embraced, especially given how vividly Trump exemplifies both, would have already sunk the GOP to levels beneath what Republicans suffered in the 1930s, but it hasn't happened. Atkins may be right that the longer Trump pushes his luck, but harder the party will eventually fall. But Trump's continued popularity within the party rests on two foundations: blind faith that he is a winner (even when he isn't), and dumb belief that it was Trump who finally saved the party from the insipidity of the Romneys, McCains, Ryans, and Bushes who have repeatedly failed the faithful, and who proved their treason by doubting their fearless leader.

Matthew Cooper: Democrats Are Better at Running FEMA. They Just Are. That's probably true of all branches of government, even ones that Republicans supposedly approve of (like the Defense Department), even ones that do nothing useful at all (like, uh, the Defense Department). After all, Republicans start with the assumption that government is bad, so it's easy for them to fall for self-fulfilling prophecies. In many cases, they even see that as a plus: if people see that government doesn't work well for them, they'll become doubters, which inclines them to fall for Republican propaganda. That's pretty obvious, but if government is really worthless, why do Republicans connive so to control it? Two answers: one is that it's a huge and potentially corrupt patronage machine, and that can be used to reward donors and even some followers, and that can be used to grip power ever more tightly; the other is that it keeps the Democrats from power, and using the patronage machine for their own purposes (or worse still, for public good). Still, FEMA is a special case, because its failures are so glaringly public -- partly because the media loves a good disaster, so this is a rare case where they are paying attention, and partly because the transition from planning to action is so abrupt (generously assuming that when you aren't in crisis you're preparing for future crisis, which doesn't seem to be the case when Republicans have been in charge). Cooper's data here could hardly be more clearcut, so why don't more people realize this? It's a point that's always been true, but as we're coming to recognize the link between global warming and increasingly intense disasters, it needs to be reiterated at every opportunity. Sure, we need to do something long term to limit and even reverse climate change, but even the most optimistic scenario (which I don't have any faith in, but still) is way out, ensuring that we'll have a lot of disasters in the meantime. And in those disasters, competent, honest government matters. To have any chance of that, we need to keep Republicans far from the levers of power.

Liz Featherstone: The Severe Weather Event We Routinely Ignore: Poor Air Quality: "Air pollution is just as fatal as hurricanes, and it profoundly affects our well-being. Yet we no longer treat it as a crisis." Also: How to Live in a Burning World Without Losing Your Mind.

Garrett M Graff: After 9/11, the US Got Almost Everything Wrong: "The nation's failures began in the first hours of the attacks and continue to the present day. Seeing how and when we went wrong is easy in hindsight. What's much harder to understand is how -- if at all -- we can make things right." Isn't the first step toward "making it right" to stop making it worse? I could write a whole book on this. While I would shade things a bit differently, Graff's article could work as my outline. Section heads:

  • As a society, we succumbed to fear.
  • We chose the wrong way to seek justice.
  • At home, we reorganized the government the wrong way.
  • Abroad, we squandered the world's goodwill.
  • We picked the wrong enemies.

Some more 9/11 anniversary comments:

  • Spencer Ackerman: How Sept. 11 Gave Us Jan. 6: Author of Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. I'm not especially comfortable with this tendency to view Trump as a malady that must have some external cause, but he's so reflexive it's hard to ascribe agency to him. But I do think it's true that decades of war have sorely distorted the American political system, in ways much more profound than the usual tally of lives and treasure wasted. Also see the interviews: Transcript: Ezra Klein Interviews Spencer Ackerman; and America is still stuck in the world 9/11 built.
  • Tariq Ali: The War on Terror: 20 Years of Bloodshed and Delusion. Notes that Chalmers Johnson published his critically important book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire a little more than a year before the 9/11 attacks. The term "blowback" was one that Chalmers had learned as a CIA analyst, but I doubt if it ever appeared in the CIA's daily briefings for the president, either as an explanation for the attack, or as a prediction for the planned American rampage.
  • Zack Beauchamp: The war on terror and the long death of liberal interventionism. Whenever the powers that be decide to invade some country, you can count on the warmongers to deploy a few liberals to claim the high moral ground and provide camouflage for those out to kill and maim, conquer and plunder. Even if their aims are sincere, the means inevitably redefine the ends: the only reason for projecting violence is intimidation and subjugation. Sooner or later said liberals realize they've been had -- sooner when the real power brokers, like Bush-Cheney, are sworn enemies of liberalism at home.
  • Matthew Cooper: The Lost Journalistic World of 9/11: "The terrorists maimed out cathedrals, as she [Nancy Gibbs] wrote in Time. But two decades later, we've done a pretty good job of defacing our institutions all by ourselves."
  • Michelle Goldberg: How 9/11 Turned America Into a Half-Crazed, Fading Power: "We launched hubristic wars to remake the world and let ourselves be remade instead, spending an estimated $8 trillion in the process. We midwifed worse terrorists than those we set out to fight." You know, one of my early insights into 9/11 was that it wasn't the airplanes that brought the towers crashing down; it was gravity. All the planes and fuel did was weaken the structure a bit; dead weight did the rest. The problem with the title is that America was already "a half-crazed, fading power" before 9/11. It's taken decades for some commentators to realize that, but the structural flaws were there from way back. If you recall Clinton's periodic bombing of Iraq, you should recognize a fading superpower which had become petty and vindictive. That's also a pretty apt description of the logic behind the Carter-Reagan support for the Afghan jihadis, or for that matter the blockades of Cuba and North Korea.
  • Suzanne Gordon: A September 11 Reckoning: Calculating the Full Cost of War: Despite numerous efforts, I fear that the full costs of the 9/11 wars will never be known, and will certainly never be agreed on. Focus here is on the staggering costs of health care for veterans -- a big chunk of the Stiglitz-Bilmes calculations -- but other costs are no less real for the difficulties in establishing baselines. For instance, 20 years of war correlate well with increasing gun violence and fetishism in the US, which accounts for more than 50,000 deaths per year. Worse still may be the wars' contribution to the rightward drift in US politics, which added to economic woes, infrastructure weakness, more inequality, the climate crisis and its attendant disasters, and much more.
  • Theodore B Olson: The tragic price of forgetting 9/11: I'm too much of a student of history to let anything be forgotten, but some people need to give it a break. Olson's screed is insane: "Twenty years ago, 19 savages commandeered four commercial airliners carrying unsuspecting civilian passengers and used them to take down New York's World Trade Center towers and crash into the Pentagon. . . . For years prior to 9/11, our people, institutions and military had been victims of terrorist attacks at home and abroad. Our responses had been, to put it charitably, tepid and ineffectual. . . . But the 9/11 attacks were too horrible, too shocking and too audacious for the shop-worn, mostly symbolic responses of the past. This time, we had to do something; we had to mean it. . . . But the Taliban and the terrorists with whom they collaborate do not forget. They are driven by a cruel, rigid, harsh and unrelenting religious zealotry. They dominate and oppress their own people, subjugate their women, and torture and behead anyone who dissents or departs from their barbaric regime. . . . Yet it takes immense resources, tenacity and, sadly, loss of lives to fight them. The effort and cost can be enervating. We grow tired; we want to wish them away. We start to forget. . . . We fantasize that if we just put our arms around them, they will be nice, civilized, decent. . . . So we talked ourselves into believing in a kinder, gentler Taliban. . . . Remember how well that worked with Hitler. . . . We will sadly soon realize: We can fool ourselves into thinking that we have made peace with terrorists. But terrorism has not made peace with us." What I couldn't forget was the myriad other uses of that "savages": a word that kicked off innumerable massacres. (For a refresher, check out Sven Lindqvist's "Exterminate All the Brutes".) Olson may cling to one memory, but he's stripped it of all context, and shown us how oblivious a person can be to the memories and perceptions of others.

Harvey J Graff: There Is No Debate About Critical Race Theory: Sen. Tom Cotton managed to pass an ammendment to the $3.5 billion infrastructure bill which "bans federal funds from going to K-12 schools that teach critical race theory. It passed 50-49." So while there may be no substantive debate about the theory itself, there is the matter of "bad-faith arguments from Republicans to sow dissension and fear."

Joanna L Grossman: The Texas Abortion Law Is a Nightmare for Pregnant Teens. I could link to a lot of articles on why SB 8 is a nightmare, but this does a particularly good job of describing the practical impact.

Adam Tooze: What if the Coronavirus Crisis Is Just a Trial Run? Economic historian, adapted this piece from his forthcoming book, Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World's Economy. He cautions us: "The challenges won't go away, and they won't get smaller. The coronavirus was a shock, but a pandemic was long predicted. Thee is every reason to think this one will not be a one-off." But he also points out (and Republicans will gag on this): "We can afford anything we can actually do. The problem is agreeing on what to do and how to do it. In giving us a glimpse of financial freedom, 2020 also robbed us of pretenses and excuses. . . . Now if you hear someone arguing that we cannot afford to bring billions of people out of poverty or we cannot afford to transition the energy system away from fossil fuels, we know how to respond: Either you are invoking technological obstacles, in which case we need a suitably scaled, Warp Speed-style program to overcome them, or it is simply a matter of priorities." Also see Zack Beauchamp's interview with Tooze, "Neoliberalism has really ruptured": Adam Tooze on the legacy of 2020.

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Friday, September 3, 2021


Speaking of Which

Joe Biden completed the US withdrawal from Afghanistan Sunday night, and delivered a forceful address defending the evacuation and reiterating his commitment to end the war. Here are some articles I noticed and felt like commenting on. The Matthew Cooper piece has more on the speech.

David Atkins: Wars Can Be Won. Permanent Occupations Cannot. What he means is that the US military can devastate other military units, effectively allowing them to run roughshod over most other countries. On the other hand, the US is incapable of establishing viable, legitimate governance in lands they have overrun militarily. I'm tempted to point out some possible exceptions, but they don't apply to the US in Afghanistan -- never stood a chance, given the military mindset, and also given that the US has always been comfortable with paying off elites to obtain a shallow level of deference. But when you get down to it, the US (most especially the Republicans) aren't much good at governing their own country, let alone a foreign one, half way around the world, whose people they have nothing but contempt for. The basic principles here were worked out by Jonathan Schell in his 2003 book The Unconquerable World, but the epic failure of western colonialism was clear by the mid-1960s, when the French and British gave up on the last remnants of empire. I do have a quibble with the title: I insist that wars cannot be won, but only lost in varying degrees.

Ben Armbruster: New post-9/11 wars cost estimate: $8 trillion: "The US military role in Afghanistan is over, but the costs will continue to mount as the forever wars rage on" -- much of the future cost will be health care for US veterans. Direct spending for Afghanistan is $2.313 trillion. I don't know of any estimates for total cost to the world, although the article has found that "between 897,000 and 929,000 have been 'directly killed,' so at least considers that way the US military has impacted others.

Joe Cirincione: The dangerous rise of a new stab-in-the-back myth: "The foreign policy elite are focused on defending their reputations and privileges, not in confronting failure in Afghanistan." As noted, there was concerted effort to blame the US military failure in Vietnam on failing popular support -- Andrew Bacevich's 2005 book, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War has a fair amount on this. [PS: Useless idiot Marc Thiessen has already jumped on this bandwagon, ending today's column: "Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines didn't fail. Their leaders did."]

Eli Clifton: Top defense firms spend $1B on lobbying during Afghan war, see $2T return. I doubt that includes the cost of the "revolving door" between the military and defense contractors, which is probably as critical a factor as direct lobbying.

Matthew Cooper: After Afghanistan Withdrawal, Biden Lashes Out at Critics. He had the courage of his convictions, stuck to his guns, and led his country out of a fruitless, pointless, and ultimately self-damaging twenty-year war. He should be proud. I'm proud of him (which is something I don't often, if ever, say about US presidents). If the early days of the evacuation looked chaotic, maybe that's because the US military plans to invade countries, but not to exit them. Americans compliment themselves on taking in over 100,000 refugees from Vietnam and Southeast Asia, but the US hardly flew any of them out of the country. Most cast off in boats, and were eventually rescued at sea. Biden flew 115,000 out in two weeks. Biden "ended a war more decisively than any president since Harry Truman accepted the Japanese surrender 76 years ago this week. . . . The president ended this war on his own terms. The University of Delaware grad thought he had more common sense than 'the best and the brightest' who deluded themselves into thinking that one more surge, one more drone assault, and we could stay forever. Joe Biden stood them down and didn't blink. His defiance counts as a victory."

Ross Douthat: Joe Biden's Critics Lost Afghanistan: Not someone I normally read, but Kathleen Geier was struck by how pointed this was as a critique of America's misadventure in Afghanistan, and she's right. No doubt his vitriol was encouraged by the opportunity to heap much of the blame on Obama, and (less justifiably) add "Biden deserves plenty of criticism" while extolling "the Trump administration in its wiser moments" (sorry, I must have blinked). Still, this is about right: "Our botched withdrawal is the punctuation mark on a general catastrophe, a failure so broad that it should demand purges in the Pentagon, the shamed retirement of innumerable hawkish talking heads, the razing of various NGOs and international-studies programs and the dissolution of countless consultancies and military contractors."

Michelle Goldberg: The Afghanistan War Was Lost Before Biden Ended It. You get the feeling that despite knowing better she still wishes it had all worked out. She attacks Biden for "not clearing bureaucratic obstacles that kept Afghan allies waiting for visas," but exonerates him from the charge of "losing the war." But she could have made a more persuasive case for the deep origins of US failure in Afghanistan.

Jeff Greenfield: The Hidden Message in Joe Biden's Afghanistan Speech: "Biden's caution about the limits of U.S. power could launch a debate that many Americans have wanted for decades." I don't see a general debate breaking out, but admission that the Afghanistan War was a costly failure will certainly raise doubts about similar ventures. We've already seen some of that with Syria and Libya, although US involvement in Africa seems to escape scrutiny. What is needed now is an alternative to US military power projection. One approach would be to offer to scale back the US military, including bases ab road, as part of a deal for arms reductions elsewhere (e.g., in China and Russia).

Ezra Klein: Let's Not Pretend That the Way We Withdrew From Afghanistan Was the Problem. After noting the prevalence of groupthink in American foreign policy -- and admitting he got suckered into supporting the invasion of Iraq because he trusted that consensus -- he notes: "It is telling that it is Biden who is taking the blame for America's defeat in Afghanistan. The consequences come for those who admit America's foreign policy failures and try to change course, not for those who instigate or perpetuate them." He also notes: "America's pretensions of humanitarian motivation were always suspect. . . . It is callous to suggest that the only suffering we bear responsibility for is the suffering inflicted by our withdrawal. Our wars and drone strikes and tactical raids and the resulting geopolitical chaos directly led tot he deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis."

Anita Kumar: As Biden ends mission in Afghanistan, a refugee backlash looms at home: I expect the Republican Party to split on welcoming Afghan refugees. On the one hand, Republicans have generally done well with immigrants from countries the US devastated with war and sanctions -- especially Cubans (think Senators Cruz and Rubio), but they've generally done well with any immigrants they could get a super-patriotic rise from. On the other hand, Trump cultivated an anti-muslim backlash which I expect to kick in here. And Trump's nominal (if practically meaningless) opposition to US wars in the Middle East offers an out from the "moral commitments" owed to US collaborators in the region, backed by the group's Christianist and racist prejudices. Xenophobia is a core tenet, and likely to remain a key one among Republicans.

Josh Marshall: Taking Stock of the Great and Cowardly Press Freakout of August 2021:

Three Presidents understood the futility of the mission. Only one had the determination to end it even at the cost of real political damage to himself. . . . But as many have argued this was a reality baked into the futility and failure of the mission itself. There was no pretty exit. That is what kept the US there for two decades. As has been the case for weeks, this is the crux of the 'there had to be a better way' crowd's argument: wanting out of a failed endeavor but unwilling to stomach let alone embrace the reality of that failure and eager to pass that messiness off on someone else.

Sandi Sidhu, et al.: Ten family members, including children, dead after US strike in Kabul. Leaving Afghanistan a little something to remember us for. Also see Dave DeCamp: Victims of US Drone Strike in Kabul Want Answers; e.g.:

The slaughter of the Ahmadi family is not an anomaly for US drone strikes. In 2015, documents leaked by Daniel Hale, who was recently sentenced to 45 months in prison, revealed that during a five-month period between 2012 and 2013, 90 percent of the people killed by US drones were civilians.

Matthew Warshauer: 9/11 wasn't the Pearl Harbor of our generation: "But it was a trap laid by Osama bin Laden only Washington could spring. And it did." Bin Laden may have "declared war" on the United States, but he didn't have any resources to fight a war, and he didn't risk any territory (or many of his own people) in his recklessness. Indeed, that's why when GW Bush decided to respond with war, he had to pick a real country, Afghanistan, as a proxy for the non-state Al-Qaeda, in order to have something the US military could beat. By the way, the big difference between 1941 and 2001 was America. I wouldn't say that the US was innocent in the lead up to WWII, but Roosevelt did wait until Japan and Germany declared war to respond in kind, which is one reason Japanese and Germans acknowledge their responsibility for the war, and tolerated an American occupation force that was nearly as clueless as the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq. On the other hand, Afghans and Iraqis felt like victims of America's global hubris, even before the 2001-03 invasions.

One last thing I want to add that I've seen hints at but don't have a solid article to point at is that it's quite possible that Biden will fall into the rut of America's previous botched wars and insist on ostracizing and isolating the Taliban, to the detriment of the Afghan people, and to the greater risk to world peace. North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and Iran are all examples of America clinging to its grudges, forcing countries to continue to dig in and rally their people to defend against American imperiousness. We're seeing evidence of this as Biden freezes Afghan foreign funds, imposes sanctions on Taliban, and vows to continue drone attacks on ISIS-K targets (see Samuel Moyn: America Is Giving the World a Disturbing New Kind of War; on sanctions: US Wrestles With Taliban Sanctions as Afghan Crisis Looms). It is worth reiterating that Communist nations that the US had never directly fought almost universally reformed themselves along lines favorable to liberal democracy or at least capitalism. The US should give the Taliban a chance for peace and prosperity -- at least stop mucking up any possibility.


Finally, a few links and comments on other stories of note this week. I didn't flag a piece on Covid this week, but you can get the latest stats here. One of the articles I skipped over had a dire prediction that daily deaths could top 1,500 again. On September 2, the daily avg. was 1,521 (+67% over 14 days).

Benji Jones: Fires in the Amazon are out of control. Again. "Hundreds of wildfires have already scorched the rainforest this year, and the worst is likely yet to come." Thought I'd include an apocalyptic climate story that hasn't gotten much press attention.

Ezra Klein: The Way the Senate Melted Down Over Crypto Is Very Revealing: I've never understood cryptocurrency, and I don't understand it much better after reading this article. Part of it is that it's always seemed like something I could ignore. Indeed, for the most part all it seems to be is a self-involved betting game, like fantasy football, or derivatives. The political question is whether the government should consider regulating and/or taxing it, which seems like a fair question, especially if the answer isn't assumed. Some Senators care about that question, but they don't divide along left/right political lines, so that doesn't help much. One thing I really don't understand is why it takes so much compute power -- enough that some people consider it a factor in global warming (a point which will presumably be moot once we get to all non-carbon electricity, but wouldn't that point come sooner if we didn't waste it on things nobody needs?). The other thing that this article touches on is the potential for crypto to transform the internet. The idea here is that crypto can be used to enforce property rights on data (e.g., through NFTs), which in theory could make it easier to pay content producers for their wares. It does this by making data, which can be copied for zero marginal cost, scarce, and therefore expensive. That sounds to me like a terrible idea.

Carlos Lozado: 9/11 was a test. The books of the last two decades show how America failed. Washington Post book review editor, wrote a whole book on 150 books about Trump (What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era), offers a shorter digest of books on 9/11 and the wars that followed. Seems like I could write more on this, and possibly offer some alternatives, but for now here's the list ([x] are ones I've read, loosely graded for insight and utility; I cut back on my reading after 2008, while Lozado's list favors new books):

  • Steve Coll: Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004) [A-]
  • Lawrence Wright: The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006) [A-]
  • Peter Bergen: The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden (2021)
  • Richard A Clarke: Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror (2004)
  • Jim Dwyer/Kevin Flynn: 102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers (2004)
  • Garrett M Graff: The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 (2019)
  • Bob Woodward: Bush at War (2002)
  • Jane Mayer: The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals (2008) [A-]
  • David Cole, ed: The Torture Memos: Rationalizing the Unthinkable (2009)
  • The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture (2014)
  • Robert Draper: To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq (2020)
  • Anthony Shadid: Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War (2005) [A]
  • Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone (2006) [B+]
  • Dexter Filkins: The Forever War (2008) [B]
  • Craig Whitlock: The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War (2021)
  • The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (2007)
  • David Finkel: Thank You for Your Service (2013)
  • The Iraq Study Group Report (2006)
  • Spencer Ackerman: Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump (2021)
  • Karen J Greenberg: Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy From the War on Terror to Donald Trump (2021)
  • The 9/11 Commission Report (2004)

The list of books I've read since 2001 or so is here. The last few years have understandably been preoccupied with Trump and his Klan, but two books I'm surprised not to find here are Andrew Bacevich's America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, and Steven Coll's Directorate S: The CIA and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The recent books by Ackerman and Watkins look promising, and Draper's book probably sums up a lot of detail I mostly sussed out in real time on the selling of the Iraq War.

Rick Perlstein: When America Had a Moral Panic Over Inflation. A historian who has written well over 1,000 pages on the 1970s takes a look at one of the decade's signature issues, and some of the many dumb things said about it, and about Paul Volcker, who usually gets credit for slaying the inflation dragon. One thing that's always bothered me is that while inflation is supposedly defined by the cost of goods, the measures used to suppress it are almost always aimed at wages. Another is that the way the Fed uses to "cool off" the economy is by raising interest rates (isn't that some kind of inflation?). I hadn't heard the Robert Solow quote on Volcker's recession, but it strikes me as right: "It's burning down the house to roast the pig."

Janet Reitman: 'I Helped Destroy People': "Terry Albury, an idealistic F.B.I. agent, grew so disillusioned by the war o terror that he was willing to leak classified documents -- and go to prison for doing it." I could have slotted this under the Afghanistan section, but the article is big and important enough to get its own heading. This point is pretty obvious, but should be spelled out: for every foreign war a country fights, there is a mirror war fought at home against one's own people. I suppose this goes back to the Crusades, when soldiers marching toward the Holy Land got some practice sacking Jewish villages along the way. No American war has ever been fought more viciously at home than WWI, with local committees to police anti-war dissidents, incarceration for anti-war leaders like Eugene Debs, censorship, and widespread attacks against German-Americans. In WWII, Japanese-Americans were picked up and carted off to concentration camps. (German and Italian nationals were also interned, but not US citizens of German or Italian descent.) Both World Wars ended in Red Scares, the Second kicking off the Cold War. After 9/11, the war rush was accompanied by pre-emptive attacks against anyone with a peaceful disposition. As the targets of those wars were Muslims, Americans became all the more Islamophobic, with the FBI both following and leading the prejudices. This article has a lot of detail on how and why that happened.

Bill Scher: It's Time to Raise Hell in Texas Over the Insane Abortion Law: I hope I don't have to explain why the law is insane. It seems unlikely to me that the Supreme Court will tolerate the free-for-all of citizen suits in cases where they have no conceivable standing, even if the majority is inclined to reverse Roe v. Wade, so the 5-4 vote against a stay seems very reckless. I said a while back that it was premature to start talking about reforming (or re-packing) the Supreme Court, as I thought it would be impossible to get a consensus until it became clear how deranged the current right-wing Court is. This is one of the rulings that will help build the case that we need a reformed Supreme Court with a majority of Justices respecting constitutional rights and freedoms. By the way, this isn't the only insane law to come out of the Texas Lege (as Molly Ivans put it) recently. They also passed a law to get rid of all gun registration requirements. They also finally passed their anti-voting law. Texas can't turn blue too soon. Also see:

Nick Shay: Hurricane Ida Turned Into a Monster Thanks to a Giant Warm Patch in the Gulf of Mexico: Fairly technical explanation of the "warm eddy" that Ida passed over, leading to extreme intensification. My impression is that most hurricanes that enter the Gulf of Mexico strengthen due to the warm surface waters (which I would expect to be warmer in shallower areas close to land), but I hadn't previously read about warm eddies, where the warm water can be as deep as 500 feet. As we've seen, Ida's damage to Louisiana has been extensive. More surprisingly is the amount of rain it has continued to dump all the way to Philadelphia and New York, which have experienced severe flooding. Also see:

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Friday, August 27, 2021


Speaking of Which

My interest in writing something this week has waxed and waned. At first I wanted to point out how pleased and proud I am that Biden has stuck to his guns on troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, despite the barrage of sniping not just from the usual quarters (Republicans for partisan purposes, warmongers of all stripes) but from a mainstream media that loves to add fuel to whatever panic is taking hold at the moment. Then an anti-US, anti-Taliban fringe group [also see: Anatol Lieven: Who are the Islamic State in Afghanistan] dispatched a suicide bomber near the Kabul airport, killing 170 civilians and 13 US troops, and Biden vowed revenge (while still defending withdrawal). Someone should take him aside and remind him that "revenge is a dish best served cold," lest he throw out a brave and conscientious stand in a fit of anger. ISIS wants the US there, in range as targets, driving more and more people into their desperate ranks. It was stupid to let Osama Bin Laden bait us into "the graveyard of empires" in 2001, and it would be even stupider to repeat that mistake now. [PS: Biden did order a drone strike in Nangahar Province, allegedly on an ISIS target.]

While Biden hasn't (yet) back-peddled from the August 31 withdrawal date, it's coming on Tuesday, so we'll know more then -- one reason I wanted to hold off writing. Meanwhile, pressure to do something stupid is building: e.g., Leon Panetta, a CIA Director and Secretary of Defense under Obama, says "Bottom line is that our work is not done in Afghanistan. We're going to have to go back in to get ISIS." I don't know how he could possibly imagine that could work. The US is tied up just now trying to get the few Afghans willing to help the US out of the country. How can they possibly support a new infusion of troops without any kind of local support? The only chance I see to hunt down "those responsible" for the attack is to subcontract it to the Taliban. I have no idea whether they would be amenable to that, but from a practical point of view, it's more important to get them to disband terror groups than to satisfy America's revenge cravings.

Speaking of irrational revenge fits, Josh Marshall has another good piece on the origins of the US invasion of Afghanistan: Remembering the Origins of the United States' 20 Year War in Afghanistan, in turn keying off an opinion piece by persistent warmonger Robert Kagan: It wasn't hubris that drove America into Afghanistan. It was fear. While it may be true that fear was the big selling point, I remember a lot of hubris. I also remember Arthur Vandenberg telling Harry Truman that if he wants to arm to confront Russia in what became the Cold War, he'd first have to "scare the hell out of the American people." That's what he did, aided by Republicans who had their own reasons for trumping up the Red Scare. But after the Gulf War of 1990-91, America's leading hawks (including Kagan) were convinced that the US military could have done so much more to clear out Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but were held back by cowardly politicians. The hawks stylized themselves as Vulcans (see James Mann's book, The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet), and organized their Project for a New American Century (PNAC). (By the way, the first thing they did was to prepare a plan for Netanyahu to undermine the Oslo Accords, which promised to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their most fervent dream was that the US should be free to attack its enemies with the same impunity Israel had gotten away with.)

Marshall corrects a lot of things Kagan glosses over. Along the way, he quotes Max Boot as writing: "Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets." That sounds a lot more like hubris than fear, but it also sounds incredibly stupid and racist. British rule reduced India from about 20% of world GDP to less than 5% -- meanwhile, the English working class weren't exactly wallowing in luxury. Imperialism may have benefited someone, but claiming it advanced humanity is ridiculous.

As it happens, I've been thinking about Boot's 2002 book, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. The book was an important part of the neocon argument, specifically meant to overthrow the Powell Doctrine (which argued that wars should only be fought if you had: overwhelming force, clear objectives, and an exit plan; the 1990-91 Gulf War was Powell's triumph, but the aftertaste was bitter). Boot offered thumbnail histories of several dozen US military adventures that he classified as "small," excluding wars fought on home ground (including the many Indian wars), the two World Wars, and the ones in Korea and Vietnam that got big and ugly. From his subset, he argued that the US doesn't need to worry about small wars (resources, objectives, exit plan), because they all work out OK in the end. Within 2-3 years, Afghanistan and Iraq destroyed what little plausibility his argument ever had, but a more critical eye on the wars he touted should have raised doubts.

Take, for instance, Pershing's long march through Mexico following a border raid by Pancho Villa in New Mexico (it was originally called the "Punitive Expedition"). This lasted about a year, needlessly provoked the Mexicans, and in the end accomplished absolutely nothing (other than that it convinced a young officer named Dwight Eisenhower that the US needed better highways). It's a pretty close analog to the effort to catch Bin Laden (or Panetta's proposed punishment of ISIS-K), except that it was much closer, and didn't bother trying to over throw the Mexican government, or getting stuck with rebuilding the ruins it created. But sure, it could have been worse. They could still be looking for Villa, while turning millions of Mexicans into refugees.

By the way, amidst all of the articles about Afghans trying to flee the Taliban, I haven't seen a single piece about the more than two million Afghan refugees that the US wasn't able to settle and protect during the last 20 years. Most are in Pakistan or Iran, so it will be interesting to see whether the net number of refugees rises or drops once the Taliban settles in.

Marshall's article includes a graph of US troop levels in Afghanistan over time. Offhand, it appears as though the security situation deteriorated as US troop levels increased, at least up to 2009, when the military panicked and Obama ordered a "surge" up to 100,000 troops. The model there was the supposedly successful "surge" in Iraq, although what little success could be found there had more to do with turning Sunni leaders against an increasingly erratic Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq, partly through bribe and partly because the US offered some protection against Shiite death squads (also encouraged by the US). No such magic switch was found in Afghanistan, so while the "surge" may have checked a Taliban offensive, it made no headway.

Beyond that, McChrystall's counterinsurgency program was defeated not by the Taliban but by American soldiers, who refused to accept the added risk of limiting civilian casualties. While Petraeus had supported McChrystall in theory, he quietly scuttled the program when he took over. After that, the only hope was "Afghanization," which worked even worse than "Vietnamization" had done to provide camouflage for a US withdrawal.

Some more Afghanistan links:

Also, a quote from Jeffrey St. Clair: Roaming Charges: Hour of the Goat, which says much of what I originally wanted to say:

One of the reasons Biden is having such a hard time making the case for the US's exit from Afghanistan is that he is congenitally inarticulate and he has no one around him who can make the case for him. Nearly everyone in both parties has been corrupted by this war: voted for it, funded it, planned it, rationalized it, stood silent as it started, very early on, to go bad, closed their eyes to drone killings, torture, and an occupation with no end. Even Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul. They own this war and the war ended up owning them. Aside from Barbara Lee, there aren't any heroes in this 40-year-long fiasco. But if Biden can stand firm as he's ambushed from all sides, not retreat from his retreat, and finally bring the occupation to an end, he'll go down in the history books a lot more credibly than the jackals who are assailing him.

St. Clair also notes a tweet from a @toddstarnes: "For every American who is killed, a city in Afghanistan should be wiped off the face of the Earth." The Romans used to talk about "decimating" villages. Hitler proclaimed bounties like this, up to 100-to-1. Morally Starnes is no better; mathematically, he's even worse.


A couple more brief notes on recent pieces:

Robert Christgau: Out of the Box: A substantial and very favorable review of the HBO Max documentary Betrayal at Attica. I should probably write more about this piece and the movie itself, which I watched again yesterday, but want to get this out without further delay. By all means, do watch the movie.

Luisa S Deprez: How Republicans Stoke Anti-Government Hatred: Refers to a new book by Amy Fried/Douglas B Harris: At War With Government: How Conservatives Weaponized Distrust from Goldwater to Trump. Needless to say, it's a lot easier to break trust than it is to restore it. Trust in government matters because it's the one institution that is capable of helping people without having a side angle or ulterior motive (mostly based on money, something obviously biased to them that has). The main reason many people don't vote their economic interests is that they don't trust politicians to deliver, ergo distrust in government favors those with money, especially those whose money buys them personal connections to politicians. Adolph Reed extends this argument: The Whole Country is the Reichstag.

Henry Giroux: For Stanley Aronowitz: Radical labor historian, died a week or two ago. I read and admired his 1973 book False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness, and met him around then, when Paul Piccone brought him to Washington University for a lecture.

Hugh Iglarsh: The New Ozymandias: Twilight Reflections on the Obama Presidential Center. From this angle, the photo of the model of the "Great Tower of Nothing" looks especially garish.

David Klion: The 9/11 Museum and Its Discontents: "A new documentary goes inside the battles that have riven the institution." I'm not sure I even knew it existed, let alone had sold a half billion dollars worth of tickets since 2014. I find the whole thing rather creepy. "This is the story of 9/11 a visitor is left with: They attacked us for no good reason, we mourned, we rallied, and eventually we got the bastards [i.e., Bin Laden]."

Robert Kuttner: Biden Should Retire Fed Chair Jay Powell. When Trump replaced Janet Yellen (and I don't recall any Republicans suggesting he shouldn't pick his own Fed Chair), he was given a list of two candidates, and picked Powell. On paper, he looked like much the better candidate, and turned out to be better than expected, at least on monetary policy. (Not that he was loose enough for an inveterate debt-hog like Trump.) I always felt that Obama made a big mistake in renominating Ben Bernanke instead of picking a Democrat, but there was a big campaign to boost Bernanke, and Obama was a born sucker. There's another campaign this year to give Powell another term, and some economists I like (like Mike Konczal and Dean Baker) seem to be behind it, so I was interested to see Kuttner argue otherwise. He does so mostly on regulatory issues, and he's probably right there. One of the big problems with the Fed is that, while hawks on interest rates can choke the economy and put lots of people out of work, low interest rates mostly get sucked up by speculators and used to inflate the price of assets.

Ian Millhiser: A new Supreme Court case could blow up decades of US diplomacy: This is the case where a Texas judge ordered Biden to reinstate a Trump-declared "Remain in Mexico" immigration policy. Millhiser argues that "Kacsmaryk's decision is dead wrong," then gets even more upset.

Timothy Noah: The Blueprint for Corporate Power Turns 50: On Lewis Powell's famous letter to the US Chamber of Commerce, which urged corporate leaders to corrupt politics in favor of their class interests.

Aaron Rupar: How Ron DeSantis's Covid response became the model of what not to do.

Ask a question, or send a comment.

Friday, August 20, 2021


Speaking of Afghanistan

I didn't expect the Taliban to take over Kabul so quickly. In retrospect, I can come up with three reasons, and one more point which is nothing but a hunch:

  1. The Taliban never was very popular in Afghanistan, at least outside of the Pashtun regions in the south and east. It took three years for the warlords to overthrow the Soviet-backed regime once the Russians left. (The Communist government in Kabul lasted longer than the one in Moscow.) The Taliban emerged several years later, took over the Pashtun regions, then struggled elsewhere. When the US entered in 2001, there were still parts of the country not under Taliban control, and the Taliban government quickly collapsed as the US invasion began.

  2. Most of the warnings of an imminent Taliban takeover came from hawks trying to reverse the American withdrawal. It was natural to assume they were exaggerating given their ulterior motives.

  3. Ultimately, all Americans turned out to be poor estimators of what most Afghans thought and wanted. This turned out to be true, not just for those blinded by hubris and/or propaganda, but also for those of us who thought we knew better.

  4. And this is the hunch: given that the Taliban wasn't going to give up the fight, the easiest way to end the constant killing and mass destruction was to surrender. Americans, so steeped in "live free or die" bluster (and centuries of military triumphalism, not that there's much evidence of that since I was born in 1950), may find this hard to swallow, but history offers lots of examples where terms matter much less than peace.

There had been a lot of strange talk over the last couple months about how, with US troops finally withdrawing (but threats of US air support for the still-US-backed Afghan government) about the advent of a new (and potentially lengthy) civil war. But for most Afghhans, war has been a constant plague for 42 years (dating from the Soviet "invasion," although resistance to the Communist regime had started earlier, only escalating in 1979 when the US took advantage of the situation), driven by foreign designs which inevitably provoked local resistance.

While the Taliban shared in responsibility for the violence, the US withdrawal gave them an opportunity to promise an end to the war. Afghan President Ghani refused to negotiate, but many lower officials and clan figures were willing to deal, ceding political power to the Taliban in exchange for security -- something the US and its proxies never could provide. The resulting change of power is more like a coup than a revolution, let alone a pitched battle. And while media and politicians in America are all "hair on fire" with their dashed expectations, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic about the way things have turned out. In particular:

  1. Even if Biden wanted to (and he clearly does not), there is no way the US can return to Afghanistan, conquer the land, and stand up a new proxy government. They did that once, and the best they could do (over 20 years and several trillion dollars) fell apart the instant they left. All the US can hope to do at this point is damage control, and to do that they have to work with the Taliban.

  2. The great fear is that the Taliban will try to settle old scores by taking reprisals against the population. There is reason to think this will not happen, or at least will be limited. First, they've gained most of their territory by negotiating for security. Their credibility depends on honoring those agreements, as do their hopes of extending their power to parts of the country that have historically been opposed to the Taliban. Also, reprisals will fuel more refugees, which in turn will detract from their legitimacy.

  3. The late-1990s Taliban suffered greatly for two reasons: they proved incompetent at running the government; and they never managed to gain international recognition as a legitimate government. Their recent diplomatic efforts suggest they are likely to avoid the isolation of the late 1990s. Regardless of what happens with the US and Europe, they are likely to gain recognition early on by China and Russia, by Iran and Turkey, and (of course) by their former allies in Pakistan and the Arabian states.

  4. The 20 years of US occupation produced some tangible progress for at least some Afghans, even if not enough to legitimize the proxy government. I expect that the Taliban will want to build on those gains -- e.g., in education and public health -- which means that they will need to come to some sort of accommodation with the urban professional class. Their statements thus far are ambiguous, but it seems unlikely (especially if they continue to consolidate power without having to resort to violence) that they will return to the extreme Deobandi/Salafist postures of the 1990s Taliban.

  5. The fact that the US has already begun negotiations with the Taliban suggests that the US is not fated to repeat the die-hard grudges held against North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and Iran. Still, US policymakers have a long ways to go to realize that they can work productively with parts of the world they cannot control.


Let's start off with a long quote. I was pretty critical of Matt Taibbi last week, but his piece this week makes some good points, especially the last line here:

Every image coming out of Afghanistan this past weekend was an advertisement for the incompetence, arrogance, and double-dealing nature of American foreign policy leaders. . . .

The pattern is always the same. We go to places we're not welcome, tell the public a confounding political problem can be solved militarily, and lie about our motives in occupying the country to boot. Then we pick a local civilian political authority to back that inevitably proves to be corrupt and repressive, increasing local antagonism toward the American presence.

In response to those increasing levels of antagonism, we then ramp up our financial, political, and military commitment to the mission, which in turn heightens the level of resistance, leading to greater losses in lives and treasure. As the cycle worsens, the government systematically accelerates the lies to the public about our level of "progress."

Throughout, we make false assurances of security that are believed by significant numbers of local civilians, guaranteeing they will later either become refugees or targets for retribution as collaborators. Meanwhile, financial incentives for contractors, along with political disincentives to admission of failure, prolong the mission.

This all goes on for so long that the lies become institutionalized, believed not only by press contracted to deliver the propaganda (CBS's David Martin this weekend saying with a straight face, "Everybody is surprised by the speed of this collapse" was typical), but even by the bureaucrats who concocted the deceptions in the first place.

The look of genuine shock on the face of Tony Blinken this weekend as he jousted with Jake Tapper about Biden's comments from July should tell people around the world something important about the United States: in addition to all the other things about us that are dangerous, we lack self-knowledge.

That's a pretty succinct sketch of America in Afghanistan, but written generically so it also has obvious parallels with Vietnam (and Iraq -- a bit less of an embarrassment given that they wound up with a government we consider some kind of ally, but one which ultimately asked us to leave). Still, the coups, incursions, and occupations which didn't descend into quagmires exhibited many of the same traits: the main difference was that resistance there wasn't organized sufficiently to provoke Americans into showing true colors. In every case Americans see themselves as benign, although they're mostly self-interested and self-absorbed, oblivious to the harms they import on friend and foe alike.

Even though this week's events show clearly that Americans totally misjudged Afghanistan, you still see commentators clinging to the same conceits and delusions, especially in the sudden concern to evacuate as many Afghans as possible, saving them from the terrifying clutches of the Taliban. I don't doubt that there are people in need of saving, but let's be clear: this is a story which reflects the core story line we told ourselves: Taliban = bad, America = good. I'm not saying the US shouldn't take in refugees, but I'm not saying we should either. I understand the sense of obligation -- everyone should clean up after themselves -- but the greater moral lapse was launching the war in the first place. Accepting refugees is part of the price of colonialism, which is only made possible because there are always locals willing to trade old masters for new ones, to serve the invaders, to flatter and enable them. And, of ocurse, when they fail, they expect to be saved. They may be right, but they're still apologists for bad policy in the first place.

One thing I've always been critical of is how the US made no effort to negotiate a transfer of power in Vietnam that would have offered guarantees against reprisals for Vietnamese who supported the US, but were willing to stay. It's possible that the US will do better this time: the collapse of the provisional government was so fast that the US is having to negotiate with the Taliban just to get Americans out of the country. What would be better than carting off as many Afghans as one feels responsible for would be an agreement where the Taliban promises not to engage in reprisals, but the US (and other countries) have the right to offer exile to anyone who gets prosecuted by the Taliban.

I've talked about this idea before: an international treaty which establishes a "right to exile," where people who are jailed in one country can be claimed by another country, allowing them to continue their lives in exile. There would, of course, be much resistance to this from the United States, where we insist on the right not just to punish our own citizens for political crimes but to kidnap and imprison foreign nationals (or to just assassinate them -- note that for a "right to exile" to work, one would also have to outlaw capital punishment and extrajudicial killings).


Someone should write a book that carefully and critically sifts through the media hour-by-hour and day-by-day reporting on 9/11. I was in Brooklyn at the time, with Laura Tillem and Liz Fink, and they were glued to the TV while the towers fell, and the immediate human tragedy metamorphosed into a national (and international) political crisis. I spent most of the day loosely connected, one ear picking up the broadcasts, while I thumbed through a picture book called Century, which in my mind put the day's events into the context of the very bloody 20th century. I remember bits and pieces from the news. Most relevant here were the chyrons: by mid-day they were announcing "America under attack"; that evening, they came up with some grainy video from Kabul, showing a rocket explosion, so they changed the chyron to read "America strikes back." By the time the Kabul video appeared, it was widely reported that Al-Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Still, it was the media that assumed that the American response would be war, and they wasted no time cheering it on.

It took Bush-Cheney a month to launch its war, but the media blitz had answered one question: would launching a war be a popular move? There was no need for war, and every reason to expect that war would be ineffective and would cause longer-term repercussions that could easily spiral out of control. The number of people involved in 9/11 numbered in the dozens, with all the actual bombers already dead. Pakistan readily agreed to help find and prosecute the others. The Taliban balked, which hardly meant that negotiation was impossible. But Bush-Cheney, secure in the knowledge that the political media was gung-ho for war, rejected negotiation and plunged right in.

They knew that the Taliban was weak and unpopular, and that its hold on Afghanistan was fragile. The Northern Alliance still ruled the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, and still drew on international support to fight the Taliban. Just days before 9/11 Bush-Cheney decided to side with them, which made the subsequent decision to invade all but automatic. It didn't exactly go smoothly -- Alliance leader Mahmoud Shah Massoud was killed, as was US favorite Abdul Haq. But the CIA entered with buckets of cash and hired a bevy of mercenary warlords, while the Taliban and Al-Qaeda slipped away, to regroup and fight another day, leaving the US stuck with the rump of a failed state and a lot of jaded, war-weary people.

I referred to the rapid advance of US-backed forces as the "feel good days of the war." They didn't last long, but the high sufficed to get Bush-Cheney looking for bigger and richer game in Iraq. Meanwhile, the initial goal of mopping up Al-Qaeda had failed, and the exit of the Taliban left a vacuum filled by the warlords -- the same people whose mismanagement had made the Taliban possible -- plus some slapdash political veneer, and finally the US military. After that, it all went wrong, for more reasons than I can count. But one was certainly that Bush-Cheney were too committed to stripping public resources and undermining democracy at home to be bothered with building a competent, popular government half way around the world.


Some more recent pieces on Afghanistan (no attempt to be comprehensive or representative here):

  • Tariq Ali: Debacle in Afghanistan. Author previously (in 2008) wrote Afghanistan: Mirage of the Good War: "The problem was . . . the Western state-building project itself, by its nature an exogenous process -- aiming to construct an army able to suppress its own population but incapable of defending the nation from outside powers; a civil administration with no control over planing or social infrastructure, which are in the hands of Western NGOs; and a government whose foreign policy marches in step with Washington's. It bore no relation to the realities on the ground." Given how circumscribed the project was, is it any wonder that the anointed Afghans did little but help themselves to the spoils, planning to skip out as soon as the gig is up?

  • Eric Alterman: Altercation: How Low Can They Go? The Media's Afghan Coverage.

  • Zhou Bo: In Afghanistan, China Is Ready to Step Into the Void: And why not? There's little the US can do that China cannot, and little the US can do to China to express displeasure. And Chinese investments come with fewer strings, and less greed for returns (key line here: "China has patience"), than Americans or Europeans expect. And if the Taliban turn out to be really repressive, China won't mind. China might even give them some pointers. By the way, don't expect Pakistan to bow to US pressure now the way it did in 2001. China has become a more reliable anti-India ally than the US ever was, and that's the main thing Pakistan cares about. I also expect that US hostility will drive Russia, Iran, and Turkey into becoming friends of Taliban.

  • Patrick Cockburn: The Choice Facing Afghans: Do a Deal With the Taliban or Flee; also It is Government Weakness, Not Taliban Strength, That Condemns Afghanistan.

  • Laura Jedeed: Afghanistan Meant Nothing: Veteran, did two tours in the country, "all I feel is grim relief."

  • Fred Kaplan: America's Failure in Afghanistan Started 20 Years Ago: "It started in November 2001 . . . when an international conference decided the new Afghanistan would be led by a centralized government in Kabul following the principles of democracy and a civil society." Oh, that's what it was supposed to be? He makes it sound like the Afghans weren't ready for democracy, but perhaps the problem was that its centralized design was preferred by the US to install and control Hamid Karzai, viewed at the time as a friendly and pliant leader. I've long thought that a federal system would have worked better in that it would allow power to be more evenly distributed to localized ethnic groups. But that was only the start of the problems. The division of spoils among warlords fixed not democracy but feudalism as an operating principle. And excluding the Taliban from the political process made it possible for them to regroup outside the system, free from the taint of American-financed corruption, with no obligation to practice the democracy they were denied. Kaplan winds up quoting Michèle Flournoy, who admits that "the United States and its allies got it really wrong from the very beginning," and adds: "The bar was set based on our democratic ideals, not on what was sustainable and workable in an Afghan context." She doesn't explain what the latter might be, but the US tried rigged elections, bribery, and sheer force, and they didn't work any better. Kaplan also wrote: The One Big Thing Biden Got Right About Afghanistan: That it never stood a chance of working. A week ago, he also wrote: Trump's New Big Lie: Afghanistan. I don't get the point of saying "Biden has handled the situation badly." Even if one had anticipated the accelerated timetable for withdrawing not just troops but nationals and allies, it was very difficult to admit as much. It may even be the case that panic has let the military focus.

  • Jen Kirby: Who are the Taliban now? One of the few pieces I've seen that at least considers the possibility that the Taliban have evolved over their 20 years out of power, although the author (like most Americans) is clearly predisposed to cling to "but they're still the Taliban." That's certainly possible, but one thing I've learned in reading about Islam is that the religion can be flexible and tolerant when it suits its practitioners. The two big questions in weeks to come will be how tolerant the Taliban is of diversity internally, and how much legitimacy the Taliban will seek and achieve internationally. I think the two are related, with the key being how much resistance they encounter, both among Afghans and around the world.

  • Eric Levitz: Afghan Refugee Crisis Will Test the Strength of GOP Nativism: Not really. As long as they think it makes Biden look bad, Republicans may give him some guff over his failures, but anti-immigrant wing (well, more like the body) of the party won't want to welcome Afghan refugees, no matter how much they sacrificed to help America's stupid war aims (and not just because they're Muslims, although that's part of it). You're starting to see some of this, especially with Tucker Carlson. Expect more. At some point Trump will chime in, with "I like immigrants who aren't losers."

  • Anatol Lieven: The general lied and the fantasy died: "H.R. McMaster and other apologists for the failed policy in Afghanistan would like us to focus on anything but their complicity in it today." Also: Why Afghan Forces So Quickly Laid Down Their Arms: "Opposing Afghan factions have long negotiated arrangements to stop fighting -- something the U.S. either failed to understand or chose to ignore."

  • Ezzatullah Mehrdad/Sudarsan Raghavan: Anti-Taliban fighters claim victories as first stirrings of armed resistance emerge: "Claims that could not be independently verified," but a reminder that although the Taliban have taken all of Afghanistan's major cities, there are still pockets where they're not in control. I expect that the more violent resistance there is to the Taliban takeover, the more repressive the regime will become, the more unpopular, and the less successful. No doubt anti-Taliban guerrillas will attract sympathy from many Americans, but US government support would consign Afghanistan to many more years of futile war.

  • MME staff: President Ashraf Ghani in UAE on 'humanitarian grounds': I was going to make a joke about how fleeing gives him a chance to reunite with his foreign bank accounts, but the reports are more prosaic; e.g.: "Ghani had escaped with $169m in cash in bags before Kabul fell to the Taliban." [PS: Ghani denies taking cash: Ashraf Ghani says he fled Afghanistan to avoid being lynched.]

  • Viet Thanh Nguyen: I Can't Forget the Lessons of Vietnam. Neither Should You. One of America's finest novelists and critics, fled Saigon with his family when he was 4 years old, so not surprising that his lessons are not the same ones I drew from that same war.

  • Andrew Prokop: Why Biden was so set on withdrawing from Afghanistan: "Even in 2009, he didn't believe the military had a strategy for victory." As I recall, Biden was pushing a strategy he called "counterterrorism," while the military (especially General Petraeus and McChrystal) had come up with an ambitious "counterinsurgency" strategy, which would focus on building trust and winning hearts and minds. Obama went with McChrystal, then fired him after Michael Hastings' book (The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan) came out: not, as was often written, because McChrystal had made disrespectful remarks about Obama, but because the military had revolted, deeming the new strategy too risky to their security. (Note that McChrystal's second, Michael Flynn, was even more insolent, but Obama went on to promote him to run DIA.) Obama appointed Petraeus to take over McChrystal's command, but by then Petraeus had given up on counterinsurgency. It's doubtful that Biden's alternative approach would have done any good, other than by reducing the American footprint, which was what was really driving Afghans to embrace the Taliban.

  • Aaron Rupar: The dark irony of who TV news talks to about Afghanistan: "Cable news is dominated by the same Afghanistan hawks who created this mess." No surprise here: "Fox News has been by far the worst offender in this regard."

  • Grace Segers: Biden Finally Unifies Congress -- Against His Afghanistan Withdrawal Debacle: This just goes to show that politics in America has nothing to do with policy but is totally subject to rhetoric. If it sounds good, it must be right. It makes you wonder why politicians even try to win. After all, if you do, you're stuck defending yourself in the real world, while the losers get to second guess you every which way.

  • Liz Sly: Afghanistan's collapse leaves allies questioning U.S. resolve on other fronts: Sure, why not pile on? I wish I could chalk this up to lack of resolve. That might suggest that US security mandarins are developing a sense of limits. But really, they made a bet that failed, and has left them with no other options (OK, Steve Coll suggests "bombing Afghanistan to smithereens," but he doesn't explain how that might help). They did everything they knew how to do to stand up a friendly government with a well-equipped army. And, frankly, neither would have been viewed as more legitimate had the US continued to prop them up. As I've seen written several times recently, time was on the Taliban's side, not the Americans'. Either it works, or it doesn't, and it didn't.

  • Jeffrey St. Clair: Roaming Charges: When the Empire of Graveyards Falls in the Graveyard of Empires.

  • David Wood: "If Killing People Would Win This, We'd Have Won a Long Time Ago". Quote comes from Marine Colonel. Also quoted is an infantryman: "Those targets in Afghanistan will never end, because there's an infinite supply of enemy and a finite supply of us."

  • Robin Wright: Does the Great Retreat From Afghanistan Mark the End of the American Era? More likely the era ended when America got suckered into entering and taking over Afghanistan. After all, that was Bin Laden's plan all around. 9/11 was just bait, an audacious challenge to those "world's sole hyperpower" boasts. (By the way, I expected something better from Wright than this lament, but after she details all the times she went there with this or that general, you can see where her prejudices lie.)

  • Matthew Yglesias: Biden (and Trump) did the right thing on Afghanistan: "The war was lost long ago -- if it was ever winnable." No, it never was, but reading this shows more superficial reasons than the truism that wars only have losers, even if you can distinguish relative degrees. What's clear is that the US had no idea what "winning the war" might mean. I'm not even sure that they wanted to catch Bin Laden. (When Obama finally did, it changed nothing.) All they really wanted to do was to throw a gigantic temper tantrum -- to show the world that this is what you get for 9/11. How else do you explain the rejection of the Taliban's surrender offer? Omar's culpability was far less than Hirohito's, but the swelled heads in Washington couldn't see that. One more link jumps out at me here: "Afghan Pedophiles Get Free Pass From U.S. Military": I guess Rumsfeld was right: you go with the Army you have, not the Army you want or need.


Finally, here's a list of books I've read on Afghanistan and Pakistan, including a few more general "war on terror" books, but not ones specifically on Iraq or other Arab countries (which would more than double the list) or Israel or American militarism (which would double it again). These are probably longer on background, with a relative shortfall of books on the Afghan government (and its corruption) and the evolution of the Taliban.

  • Robert D Kaplan: Soldiers of God: With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan (1990; paperback, 2001, Vintage)
  • Gilles Kepel: Jihad: The Trail of Politican Islam (2000, Belknap Press)
  • Ahmed Rashid: Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (paperback, 2000, IB Tauris) -- updated 2010.
  • Tariq Ali: The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity (2002, Verso)
  • Steve Coll: Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004, Penguin Books)
  • Anonymous [Michael Scheuer]: Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror (2004, Potomac Books)
  • Rory Stewart: The Places in Between (paperback, 2006, Harvest Books)
  • Lawrence Wright: The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006; paperback, 2007, Vintage Books)
  • Tariq Ali: The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (2008; paperback, 2009, Scribner)
  • Ahmed Rashid: Descent Into Chaos: The US and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (2008, Viking)
  • Gregory Feifer: The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan (2009, Harper)
  • Seth G Jones: In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan (2009, WW Norton)
  • Jon Krakauer: Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman (2009, Doubleday)
  • Gretchen Peters: Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda (2009, Thomas Dunne)
  • Nicholas Schmidle: To Live or to Perish: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan (2009; paperback, 2010, Henry Holt)
  • Nir Rosen: Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World (2011, Nation Books)
  • Michael Hastings: The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Story of America's War in Afghanistan (2012, Blue Rider Press)
  • Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan (2012, Knopf)
  • Andrew Bacevich: America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (2016; paperback, 2017, Random House)
  • Steve Coll: Directorate S: The CIA and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan (2018, Penguin Press)
  • Matt Farwell/Michael Ames: American Cipher: Bowe Bergdahl and the US Tragedy in Afghanistan (2019, Penguin Books)

I probably have 100 books on Afghanistan in my Book Notes file. I started to pull out a select list of books that struck me as interesting, but they're pretty uneven, and not many are recent. Anand Gopal's No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes is one of the most promising, but I kind of gave up reading about Afghanistan after the Hastings and Chandrasekaran books in 2012. I expect there will be a rush to write up what's happening now, as most recent books have fallen behind. Meanwhile, Craig Whitlock's The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War (Simon & Schuster) is due Aug. 31, and Spencer Ackerman's more general Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump (Viking) came out last week. Also on the schedule for November 30 is Tariq Ali's The Forty Year War in Afghanistan and Its Predictable Outcome (Verso), probably undergoing some minor touch up right now (it's an essay collection, no doubt including the articles linked to above).

One last thought: I found it pretty gratifying a few days back when Seth Meyers repeatedly referred to "the disastrous war on terror," as if that's not just established fact but common wisdom. He even posted a picture of Barbara Lee, the only member of Congress to vote against the Afghanistan War authorization. On the other hand, I was dismayed in this article search to see another piece talking about how "9/11 brought us all together." I've rarely felt more separated and divided from other Americans than after 9/11 as war fever swept the nation. Still, not totally separated, as I was able to find a demonstration against the madness. (I was in New York at the time, but my wife had returned to Wichita, and she, too, found a friendly demonstration -- the beginning of our circle of friends after moving here in 1999.) There was nothing nostalgic about launching the war in Afghanistan. It was a recipe for disaster, and nearly everyone can see that today.

Ask a question, or send a comment.

Friday, August 13, 2021


Speaking of Which

Wasn't going to write anything this week, but I got ticked off by Twitter today, and couldn't fit the depths of my outrage into a measly 280 chars.

Matt Taibbi: The Vanishing Legacy of Barack Obama: I've only read the "excerpt from today's subscriber-only post" -- not a great look for a guy who's accusing other people of selling out -- and probably wouldn't have gone that far had I not been irritated by seeing him plug the piece seven straight times in his Twitter feed, to his 542.7K followers (of which I am, with increasing regret, one). (I don't think I've ever tweeted about one of my posts more than once, not wanting to impose on my modest but growing 542 followers.) And I still probably wouldn't have mentioned it except for this line:

Obama was set up to be the greatest of American heroes, but proved to be a common swindler and one of the great political liars of all time -- he fooled us all. . . . He sold us out, and it's time to start talking about the role he played in bringing about the hopeless cynical mess that is modern America.

So, six months after Donald Trump left office, after four years of presiding over the most corrupt, mendacious, inept, and cruel administration in American history, Obama is the one remembered as "a common swindler" and "one of the great political liars of all time"? These statements defy history and logic by a mind-boggling degree. But they depend not just on overlooking most of what Trump did in the last four years, but also on blaming Obama for the rest of Trump's malign legacy.

Look, I've been pretty critical of Obama not just in retrospect but from the early days of his presidential campaign. You can read what I wrote in two large compilations of my notebook blog for the years 2009-2012 and 2013-2016 -- with bits on the campaign in the 2001-2009 volume, as well as an accounting of the Trump years 2017-2020 (these files are in Open Office format, a free word processor program, but you should also be able to import then into Microsoft Word, if that's the tool you prefer or are stuck with; they are pretty long). In assembling those files, I was a bit surprised at how critical I was of Obama (and how early), because I don't remember bearing him any ill will -- indeed, I had no qualms voting for him over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries, nor did I have any doubt when he ran against the war-monger John McCain in 2008 or the vulture capitalist Mitt Romney in 2012, so I think I can claim a fair and reasoned appreciation of him.

Early on I criticized him for his lack of critical insight and vision. Later on I faulted him for not recognizing Republicans for the lethal madness they had embraced, and for not doing enough to build up a Democratic Party capable of defending against them. At all times, he remained a staunch and naive believer in American dreams and fantasies. That may have contributed to the "hopeless cynical mess that is modern America," but wasn't it Trump who made fun of Obama for ending every speech with "God bless America"? Sure, Obama's platitudes failed to solve America's problems, but America didn't have to respond with his antithesis.

In the long run, Obama's legacy comes down to two things. He will be remembered for running a relatively competent and legal administration, at least compared to Republicans fore and aft. And we'll lament the opportunity costs, eight years desperately in need of solutions that never came, and that ended in vicious recoil. If Biden seems radical today, it's because so many years of inaction and folly have made sensible policies that much more urgent now.

Still, even though Biden's agenda and tactics today are rooted in a sharp critique of Obama's agenda and tactics, no one makes a big deal out of that. Obama, Clinton, and for that matter Carter, are respected but obsolete former Democrats, carrying on with their lives while they still have them. Carter, perhaps because he grew up in a more public-minded era, or maybe just because he got rich before he got into politics, has had a very honorable post-presidential career, while the others come off looking like grifters, even though their actual tenure in office was respectably free of corruption. Even Taibbi gives them a bullshit out ("getting rich and not giving a shit anymore is the birthright of every American"; most Americans, including many of us whose roots in this country go back centuries, have nothing resembling that birthright). I'm inclined to be less generous: I hate the tendency to equate "American dream" with becoming rich and famous, and have serious doubts about the moral virtue of such a quest.

Still, why single Obama out for approbation that should apply to his entire class? If for hypocrisy, why assume that Democrats should eschew the material riches Republicans are expected to aspire to? Just because Obama's Democratic Party had a modicum of respect for workers, a whit of care for the poor, and a modest aspiration to opening up opportunities, doesn't contradict the warm support they habitually doled out to business. (It's the zero-sum Republicans who believe they're getting ahead by hurting others.) Obama may have been the last politician in America to truly believe in trickle-down: the silly notion that when you help the rich (e.g., by bailing out bankers), you're helping everyone. In one way Obama was exemplary: his failures are directly attributable to his faulty convictions.

Still, Taibbi's dumbest mistake is in using Obama to excuse Donald Trump. There's no excuse for that. Only shame.


Reminder: if you haven't already, go to HBO Max to see Betrayal at Attica. Brilliant film, featuring interviews with the indomitable Elizabeth Fink, and testimony from the resilient Frank Smith. I'm proud to have known both of them. And by the way, if you think "black lives matter" and "blue lives matter" are antithetical, you weren't in the courtyard at Attica that day, or in the courts thereafter.

Also, just found Amy Rigby's song released on Jan. 19, 2021, remembering Four Years of U. Webpage proclaims "We made it! (except for those who didn't)." Let me dedicate this to Diane Wahto, who once bravely proclaimed "we survived one George Bush; we can survive another." She did, but didn't make it through four years of Trump. Also to Kal Tillem, who didn't quite make it through the second Bush.

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Friday, August 6, 2021


Speaking of Which

I've been reading Steve Benen's The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics, because it seemed likely to establish one of my own themes of late: that Trump is a mere reflection of the longer term moral and intellectual rot of the Republican Party. Of course, he couldn't resist illustrating this theme with Trump examples -- no one else has ever merged so succinctly thoughts that are fact-free, reason-free, careless, and mean-spirited. But Trump became the leader of the Republicans not because he paved the way, but he followed their Geist so flamboyantly. (Sorry for the German, but the usual translation of "spirit" doesn't quite do the concept justice; also it loses the sense of personification, the common root of "ghost," although in this case "zombie" would be more to the point. English speakers more often see the derivative Zeitgeist, the "spirit of the times," although the Republican Geist doesn't belong to the times so much as it attempts to defeat them.)

The thing that Benen doesn't make clear enough is that while the Republicans have been evil for quite some time -- from Goldwater they learned that extremism in defense of the rich is no vice; from Nixon they learned that winning justifies all manner of lying, stealing, and cheating; from Reagan they learned to live in a dream world of their own vanities; from the Bushes they learned that war is the ultimate form of self-glorification -- they didn't become shameless about it until the loss to Obama blew their minds. That was when Fox metamorphosed from being dutiful apologists for Republican politics and became raging agitators, spewing whatever rhetoric they could use to leverage their followers emotions, with no consideration for where that rhetoric might lead. They orchestrated an insurrection, and branded and sold it as the Tea Party. Having plunged the nation into an endless, hopeless series of wars, and having wrecked the economy on a bubble of deceit and fraud, they were voted out, and miraculously freed of responsibility for the disasters they had created.

Benen's formulation isn't quite right. Repubicans didn't "quit governing." They were fired, but since they weren't held accountable for the many things they had done wrong, the lesson that they learned was that they could get away with anything -- all it would take is the sort of confident bluster Trump excelled in. Yet to say they "seized American politics" gives them too much credit for deliberate plotting. They crippled political discourse, reducing it to their level of trash talk and gutter sniping. Their relentless attack media, combined with the deference showed by the mainstream media, gave them a huge advantage. They were also helped by Democrats playing into their hands.

Benen's favorite term for today's Republicans is "post-policy." Like "post-truth," it takes a glaring failure and refashions it as a clever novelty. But there's nothing new here: all "post-" means is we take no responsibility for failures, be they bad policies or mistruths. For Republicans, the key to unaccountability is their core belief: that government is incapable of doing things that help most citizens. You can trace that back to Reagan's joke ("The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help"), although the idea is older -- cf. Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand, among other cult favorites. Once you buy into that joke, the only reason you need for electing Republicans is to deny Democrats the opportunity to prove you wrong. On the other hand, when Republicans botch governance, they're simply proving themselves right. Trump did that so completely he ranks in their minds as "the greatest president of all time."


This is my second draft note on Benen's book. I started a few days ago just wanting to comment on one little quote:

In the days leading up to [Trump's] inauguration, the president-elect boasted, "We're going to have insurance for everybody. "He added that Americans "can expect to have great health care. . . . Much less expensive and much better."

The president-elect even went so far as to establish specific benchmarks: universal coverage, "much lower deductibles," and a simpler and less expensive system in which all Americans are "beautifully covered."

Trump's oft-promised replacement plan never materialized, which suggests either that he was never serious about coming up with one, or that he belatedly discovered "health care is hard" (didn't look it up, but I think that's an actual quote from him, followed by "who knew?"). Unlikely the latter, as there's no evidence that he could discern good from bad policies, unless one was labeled by party: Democratic policies are guaranteed to be "bad," because even if they work as defined, that would make Democrats look good, and that would be bad. On the other hand, Republican policies are always good, because they supplant bad Democratic policies, and even if they fail no one will blame Republicans, because, you know, government never works anyway.

But what I wanted to point out was that Trump could have offered a health care plan to replace ACA that would have met his pie-in-the-sky policy goals: a single-payer "Medicare-for-All" scheme. Sure, a lot of well-heeled business forces would have been upset, but if Republicans rallied to his plan, it could have been passed (even attracting some Democrat votes). Admittedly, it wouldn't exactly be the plan Bernie Sanders has been campaigning for. Once Republicans accepted the key concept of universal coverage, and the necessity of limiting some of the greediest, most predatory companies anywhere, they could still do much to tailor the program to their prejudices. Bill Clinton described the "end of welfare as we know it" deal he made with Newt Gingrich as "a good welfare bill wrapped in a sack of shit." One thing Republicans can still be trusted to deliver is a sack of shit.

A Republican version of single-payer would keep open a role for private insurance companies, but they would be selling supplemental policies, like they currently do for people who have Medicare. The universal health care policy would just cover the basics, including vaccinations, regular check ups, emergency room visits, a standard menu of surgeries, and the risk of catastrophic care -- just enough to keep the system viable, and save patients from bankruptcy. These services could be riddled with co-payments and deductibles, for which you could either have to buy supplemental insurance, or find providers willing to waive fees. In other words, the system would be stratified by class, with the well-to-do having lots of options, others less so. Private insurance would be cheaper, because the insurance companies are protected against serious risks, and could offer lots of choices. Also, political control of the system could be delegated to the states (or multi-state compacts), which would avoid the "federal takeover" charge.

There are lots of ways the system could be made more efficient. One big one would be to phase out patent monopolies, which would make the supply chain and pharmaceuticals much more competitive. One that appeals especially to Republicans would be to end (or at least cap) malpractice awards. (Supposedly this risk drives a lot of "defensive medicine" waste, but it's certainly true that malpractice insurance takes a but chunk of doctor income, and hospitals and drug companies have huge exposure.) The big question will be how to rearrange current health care spending to support such a system, but with modest cost savings it could be done without raising more net taxes -- a key requirement for Republicans.

Of course, Republicans won't propose anything like this. The greed of the health care system hurts all other businesses, but Republicans are committed to defending every existing profit-seeking scheme, no matter how dubious or dangerous. They believe in self-responsibility, which means everyone should take what they can, with the winners free to enjoy their spoils. They don't care that health care is a classic market failure, even given its cancerous growth, as it's expanded from negligible to over 20% of GDP. And, as noted above, they believe that government intervention would only cause more harm, even though no other alternative is up to the task. But also, Republicans don't care whether working people have health care, so they have no motivation to do anything to help people.

Every now and then, someone tries to point out that we'd be in even worse shape if Republicans had elected someone competent, instead of an incompetent moron like Trump. That underestimates the real damage that was done by four years of Republican rule, mostly by the minions given free range to implement their neuroses and fantasies. But it also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Trump's role in all of this. He was the front man, the media magnet. When people paid him so much the attention, they overlooked everyone around him. He had built-in deniability: after all, he was a moron. No one even tried to reason with him. He attracted an intense and impervious personal cult. When he won in 2016, I figured Republican regular would flock to him, if for no reason other than that he was their winner, and winning was the only thing that Republicans really cared about. And that's exactly what happened, but even now, as a loser-in-denial, he remains a powerful symbol for his party. He remains their leader, because he is them, and vice versa. They're all morons. They're all assholes. And they're proud of it. They think anyone who isn't with them isn't a real American, and they hate your guts.

If you could reason with them, they'd be able to see the advantages of backing a "radical" proposal like single-payer. But you can't, and they won't figure it out on their own. That's what makes this a good example of how limited they are.


A few recent articles I noticed:

Jonathan Chait: Tucker Carlson Has Seen the Future, and It Is Fascist: "Orban's Hungary is the road map for American authoritarianism." Only the headline writer uses the F-word here, but that's a bit of a trend regarding Viktor Orban's Hungary -- Chait prefers "authoritarian" but also offers "kleptocracy." It's probably easier to call fascist the leader of a country with a history of fascism, but there isn't much political daylight between Orban and Trump (or Carlson). But the disturbing thing about Orban as a model isn't his reactionary view but the way he's rejiggered Hungary's political system to ensure his party will rule even when the voters turn against him. His innovations read like a road map for the Republican Party, which studies and envies him. For more, see Zack Beauchamp: Why it matters that Tucker Carlson is broadcasting from Hungary this week.

Thomas Frank: US liberals' hysteria outlives Trump. We should be so lucky, and not just because Frank's tombstone for Trump seems premature. While it may be peculiar that it took a clod as outrageous as Trump to finally "induce such fear and loathing among the nation's highly educated elite" when a long string of precursors should have tripped warning signs, I say better late than never. The lack of "hysteria" in response to Reagan and the Bushes was no shortage of provocation, but it's not just frogs and lobsters who realize too late that they're being cooked. (One can't quite say the same about Nixon. While some of his crimes took a while to be uncovered, and some have never been given the scrutiny they deserved, the media did a better job of paying attention at the time, probably because so many people were marching in the streets in protest -- a big part, uncredited by Frank, of the "downpour of denunciation" that has dogged Trump.) I just found this piece, and don't have time to give it the fine-toothed reading it deserves, but I will offer a couple notes. No doubt there have always been liberal intellectual snobs -- Thomas Jefferson qualifies, and he owned slaves; while his pen pal John Adams didn't, you'd be pressed to find a contemporary with a lower opinion of the unwashed masses -- the line Frank draws between the elite opponents of William Jennings Bryan, Franklin Roosevelt, and Trump blurs what really matters: Trump is feared and loathed not because he's a populist (which, as Frank knows as well as anyone, he isn't even remotely), but because he represents a monstrous threat, not to their elitism but to the very foundation of principles they hold dear: liberal democracy, and the belief that America's exceptional wealth and success is based on principles of freedom, fairness, and justice for all. Frank's heroes have always been populists, so he's extra-sensitive to intimations of snobbery from elites he's never trusted. And so he has little trouble finding dubious examples of "hysteria" that have thrown up at Trump, such as the Russia "scandals," the "attack on norms," the lectures on the "authoritarian" threats to democracy itself. I've been critical on that front as well, not out of any desire to give Trump a fair break, but because I doubt the efficacy of those charges. In particular, I don't think the two impeachments did any good, and I don't see the January 6 investigation as leading to anything worthwhile. On the other hand, I don't know how to convey to people just how disastrous the 40-year Reagan-Bush-Trump era has been. So I'm inclined to cut people who are basically on my side a little slack. They don't have to reason correctly, as long as they get to the right answer. [PS: h/t to Matt Taibbi for the link, even though he did it for the wrong reasons, to make the wrong point.]

Gregg Herkin: Five myths about the atomic bomb: Well, let's list them:

  1. The bomb ended the war.
  2. The bomb saved half a million lives.
  3. The only alternative to the bomb was an invasion of Japan.
  4. The Japanese were warned before the bomb was dropped.
  5. The bomb was timed to gain a diplomatic advantage over Russia and proved a "master card" in early Cold War politics.

The first four are adequately explained in the text. Most importantly, Herken emphasizes the fear in Japan of the Soviet Union's entry into the war. Japanese leadership had realized that they had lost the war well before August, 1945, and had actually approached Russia over possible surrender terms, which was one reason Stalin advanced the schedule for entering the war. (Another reason may have been the impending use of nuclear weapons, which Stalin was vaguely informed of by Truman in Potsdam, and knew more of through espionage.) The fifth point comes from Gar Alperovitz's 1965 book Atomic Diplomacy. I read the book shortly after it came out, and thought it had merit, but I've had doubts since. There certainly were factions within the American military and foreign policy apparatus that saw Russia and Communism as postwar rivals, and did what they could to pivot to confrontation, but they didn't become dominant until 1947-48, with the Berlin airlift, and more so in 1950, with the "fall" of China and the opening of the Korean War. I'd go so far as to count Leslie Groves, the general in charge of the Manhattan Project, as one of those factions. And there was a broader consensus that the US should become the dominant world power after the war, which would inevitably (not necessarily consciously) lead to conflict with the Soviet Union. George Kennan, who became the architect of the "containment policy," was one of them. On the other hand, Truman had not bought into any kind of containment policy, at least by Potsdam, where he lobbied Stalin to enter the war against Japan. For one thing, I doubt Truman (or anyone, except maybe Groves) had any real understanding about the power of nuclear weapons. Truman didn't even know about the Manhattan Project until FDR died and he became president. A lot of factors converged to create the Cold War, and no one was smart enough to figure them out ahead of time (not even Kennan, who thought he was). Meanwhile, for all its moral conceit, it was the United States (alone) who committed the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That should humble us. But it hasn't.

Michael Kazin: The Revolution That Wasn't: "Do we give the activist groups of the 1960s more credit than they deserve?" Well, yes and no, it all depends. As I've said many times, the fundamental arguments advanced by the New Left won broad acceptance and came to permeate American culture, but they didn't get organized into effective political power, which allowed the right to make gains, especially in the 1980s. There are lots of reasons for this. Arguably, we were too critical of establishment liberals, and too naive about the growing conservative movement. We were too indifferent to unions, and they -- especially after the Cold War purge of communist-sympathizers -- had become too reactionary. Or maybe it was just the corruptibility of a political system where both parties work full time to court donors. This is a review of a new book by David Talbot and Margaret Talbot: By the Light of Burning Dreams: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second American Revolution, which naturally focuses overmuch on marginal groups that were attracted by the idea of countering violence with violence. Such groups burned out fast, with little to show for their wasted lives.

Ian Millhiser: Georgia Republicans didn't waste any time in using their new voter suppression law. This lays out the mechanics of how the law could work. The first step is to challenge the election board in Atlanta, in hopes of replacing it with a state-appointed supervisor (i.e., a Republican), who could disqualify challenged voters (e.g., Democrats). Georgia is close enough that it wouldn't take a lot of cheating to tip the state back to the Republicans. If there is any saving grace in this, it's that this particular method will be hard to hide, and will raise a storm of protest. I generally think that voter suppression attempts are likely to backfire, as they motivate the targets to work that much harder to vote. Still, the Republicans are waging a full court press all across the country to steal elections. For more on who's behind all this, see Jane Mayer: The Big Money Behind the Big Lie: "Donald Trump's attacks on democracy are being promoted by rich and powerful conservative groups that are determined to win at all costs." Also: Richard L Hasen: Trump Is Planning a Much More Respectable Coup Next Time.

Kim Phillips-Fein: The Liberals Who Weakened Trust in Government: "How public interest groups inadvertently aided the right's ascendency." Review of Paul Sabin: Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism. Focuses on "public interest groups" in the 1970s (especially consumers and environmentalists), who often found liberal governments in league with corporations, undermining popular faith in government as an agent for the people. How much this ultimately helped conservatives as they rose to political power in 1980 is hard to say. A major problem for Democrats was that as unions started to lose power, they gave up on trying to represent the broad working class and came to be viewed as just another special interest, leaving them to compete with other public and private interest groups. What is true is that Democrats undercut themselves with a series of fiascos (like Vietnam), and wound up turning to business to make up for waning union support. The result was long-term loss of credibility, not that they didn't try to blame that, too, on Ralph Nader.

Aaron Rupar: Why Newsmax is failing: Interview with Jason Campbell. Viewership of the "Trumpier-than-Fox" channel is down more than 50 percent from January (average 300,000 to 114,000).

Alex Shephard: The Media Is Too Clueless and Sensationalistic to Properly Explain Breakthrough Covid: Or, well, really, anything else. Maybe they're right that most people don't want to understand, but it's not like they give them a chance. The same basic complaint is aired in Kate Aronoff: Why Mainstream Media Struggles to Explain the Infrastructure Plan's Climate Spending.

David Wallace-Wells: 'We Could Have Prevented This': "The scientist Eric Topol on the Delta variant and its dangerous impact." According to the New York Times, new cases peaked on Jan. 8 at 259,616 (all figures 7-day averages), then declined more or less steadily to 10,608 on July 5), before increasing again to 96,036 on Aug. 4 (+131% 14-day change). There has, however, been a considerable drop in mortality (although deaths are up 65% over the last 14-days, still below any point after the initial spike in 2020). Key line here: "the age skew of the disease and the age skew of vaccine penetration, taken together, mean that the country as a whole has probably had at least 90 percent of its collective mortality risk eliminated through vaccines." Lots more info here. [Oh, by the way, in headlines that need no further comment: Matt Stieb: GOP Representative Suing Nancy Pelosi Over House Mask Mandate Gets COVID.]

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Friday, July 30, 2021


Speaking of Which

I finished reading Michael Lewis's book, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, where he follows a circle of public health officials and researchers who figured out what was happening with Covid-19 early enough they could come up with a plan for fighting it before it got out of hand, then failed to implement that plan -- because, well, that part isn't so clear. Partly, the people who mucked up the response weren't nearly as interesting as the brilliant weirdos he found. Partly, the institutional biases run much deeper than he has patience for.

You get a hint of this when he talks about the "swine flu fiasco" of 1976, when the CDC's mass vaccination program had to be halted due to side-effects, while the flu itself petered out into something far short of the threatened pandemic. That's when the tables turned and the CDC was taken over by political appointees, and, well, you can see where that went. Lewis's previous book, The Fifth Risk, was effectively a bravo defense of public servants who work in (and sometimes in spite of) government bureaucracy, but this book feels more like The Empire Strikes Back, with the Empire as faceless and sinister as ever, and the heroes regrouping in the shadows of the private sector. Well, at least one hero, Charity Dean, who resigned from her post near the top of California's public health office to raise venture capital for a startup competing for scarce public health dollars. The last few pages read like her prospectus. (Although, it should be noted, that much of what Lewis has to say about private companies during the pandemic, including most hospitals and the big testing labs, is pretty damning. He does cite some companies that stepped up to the challenge civic-mindedly, but they were mostly exceptions.)

So I came away feeling I've read the wrong book on the pandemic. There will in due course be dozens or hundreds of them, and I don't been any great urgency. I can do a preliminary sort next time I do a Book Roundup. Meanwhile, I have a couple of books on Trump and the Republicans that may help me gauge what is and isn't understood about the current political climate: Steve Benen's The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics, and Adam Serwer's The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump's America. I'm starting with Benen, because I'm more deeply disturbed by the Republican Party than I am by Trump himself, and not just by the former's slavish devotion to the latter. (By the way, Serwer's book starts with a great truth: "Many people woke up on November 9, 2016, feeling like their country hated them.")

While reading the Lewis book, I came up with simple formulation that goes far toward explaining the central truth of US politics:

  1. Republicans have decided that the only thing that matters is who controls the levers of power. Therefore, every issue matters only insofar as it can help or hurt you in the pursuit of power. They are more likely to describe this in terms of fear than greed.

  2. Republicans view the world as a zero-sum game, where you can only win at someone else's expense, and no one else can improve their stakes except to your detriment. This makes them desperate and paranoid.

Maybe the points should be reversed, or merged into one. Everything Republicans say or do fits into this mold, which is why everything they say or do is wrong, and ultimately damaging. A reasonable person may think of natural disasters, especially the pandemic, as events that transcend political party, where smart people of good will can devise solutions that reduce harm and possibly even benefit nearly all people. That's how Democrats think, but it's not how Republicans think -- and our political system makes it harder to make things than to break them (indeed, you can view it as a special case of entropy).

This is not to say that there is no substance to conservative values. Republicans have been pretty flexible about their principles, but they've also locked themselves into some positions that are unpopular now and likely to hurt them even more in the future. And I don't just mean that they've aligned themselves with losing interests, like war and coal. Suspecting enemy preferences, they've turned against most civil servants, especially teachers, and their subject matter, including education in general and science in particular. Benen seems to focus on the party's "post-policy" shallowness, but other keys to their inability to govern include their contempt for knowledge and skill, their willingness to indulge predatory businesses, and their utter indifference to the fate of most Americans, including much of what they call their "base."


No idea how often I'll do this, but a few things came to my attention recently, prompting these notes.

I'm not trying to cover everything here, or even very much. I don't have any interest in the January 6 hearings -- I'm not even reading those reports. I don't care a whit about the Olympics, although I will note that it seems like once every four years we suddenly warm up to the great diversity of the American people. I care more about the infrastructure bill (or two), but not in sweating the details. While I've read a fair amount about Covid-19 recently, I'm not up to trying to sort it out here -- other than to say that the map looks significantly worse.


Paul Campos: The Truman Show: "How the 33rd president finagled his way to a post-White House fortune -- and created a damaging precedent." This caught my eye because Wikipedia has a List of presidents of the United States by net worth, which I consulted when I was thinking about writing a book on political eras. One contrast I wanted to make was between Donald Trump, supposedly the richest US president ever, and the previous list-topper, George Washington (now number two on the list, after everything was converted into recent dollar values). Despite their great wealth -- relative to their peers, Washington may have ranked even higher than Trump -- the two could hardly have been more different: Washington famously tried to appear disinterested (avoiding any suspicion that his wealth was a consideration for his actions), while Trump was the exact opposite. I noted then that Harry Truman was dead last on the list. The list has changed since the last time I looked at it: Trump was added at the top, as was Biden a bit below median (in 25th, between Eisenhower and Ford); recent presidents have climbed fast up the list (Clinton to 9, Obama 12, GW Bush 13); and the nine sub-millionaires were sorted by years (which left Truman last). Even if you accept Campos' valuations, Truman would only rise about 15 spots. And if you look at the various pleas and ploys Truman employed, it's interesting that he looked more to the public for graft than to "the malefactors of great wealth," which is where more savvy politicians like Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton turned, much more lucratively. While the absolute ranking on the list doesn't seem to matter much, it would be interesting to see wealth broken out in three columns: at inauguration time; when departing the White House; and peak before death (or now). One thing that's notable here is that presidents who died in office skew way down the list.

Jonathan Chait: Leftists and Liberals Are Still Fighting Over the Cold War. The occasion for this seems to be the protests in Cuba and Florida, which the latter claim to be aligned. The US left is expected to condemn Cuba, Venezuela, and other outposts of the "illiberal left," which has largely been forced by US sanctions to retrench into a repressive, defensive crouch. This is reminiscent of the posture of many liberal intellectuals during the Cold War era. This position was wrong then, and wrong now, but persists because it continues to sucker people of good will into bad politics. (I'm inclined to count Joe Biden and his foreign policy team in that group, although I know people who wouldn't give them the benefit of doubt.) It's bad politics because it doesn't help most of your fellow Americans, and because it doesn't help the foreign people you're trying to sympathize with either. There's nothing wrong with wishing other people brighter futures. Indeed, every time I see a news article about an election between left and right parties in another country, I root for the left -- even if I don't fully approve, because fairer and more just societies can only come from the left, and I believe that politicians who identify with the people are more likely to help them (in the long run, even if not soon). But best wishes is all I can muster, because I know that I have no say in how other countries are governed. (Hell, I hardly have any say in how my own is run.) People who want to do more are overreaching, probably out of some deep-seated hubris. I'm not saying that you shouldn't speak out when you see injustices elsewhere, but nations should accept other nations as they are -- at least as long as they don't pose existential threats to other nations (as the US has done a few dozen times in my lifetime, so we're more in need of correction than most countries).

To understand why this attitude hurts most Americans, it helps to recall the most basic principles behind the Cold War. At the end of WWII, the European colonial system was bankrupt, and the US was the only viable capitalist power. The threat was that people all around the world, including in the broken states of Europe, might rise up (either democratically or through revolution) and take popular control of their own nations. The idea was to replace colonial power with corporate dominance in a system linked together by American financial and military might. The Soviet reaction was passive-aggressive: most often they retreated, but they fought back on occasion, enough that they could be characterized as a threat to democracy and freedom (even if most American client regimes had neither). But this wasn't just a struggle to extend the viability of imperialism (by cutting a few local elites in on a share of the loot). As capitalists gained power around the world, they gained political power at home. Starting with the "red scare," they purged unions of their most dedicated and principled leaders. The tamed unions could then be used to undermine the left in "allied" countries, but more importantly they became ever more impotent, until they in turn could be broken. The Cold War was as much a war against the working class at home as it was abroad. Throughout this period, a number of liberal politicians and intellectuals regularly sided with the Cold Warriors. For a long while doing so was obligatory to avoid the "red" smear.

The irony is that as communist regimes reformed, especially around 1990, the last holdouts were the nations the US imposed the strictest and most debilitating sanctions on: Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, China. Some became liberal democracies with mixed economies, some fell into chaos or got snatched up by functionaries-turned-kleptocrats. China and Vietnam reformed their economies without surrendering party control. I was thinking no one predicted this, but it turns out that David Ben-Gurion predicted as much back in the 1950s. By then he was trying to align Israel with America, and his reputation as a socialist was in tatters, but he seems to have understood that equality and democracy were always at the heart of the left. Indeed, that's what the left struggles for even today, with (or without) the help of self-identified liberals. One thing is clear: the demonstrations in Cuba and in Florida are different and opposed things. If you do wish to help the Cuban people determine their own future, you should oppose the "sympathy" protests in Florida, which are meant to rally Americans into attacking and visiting great harm on Cuba. And you should support efforts to normalize US-Cuban relations.

Alex Dalton: The Former Harvard Law Dean Who Wants Government to Save the News Business: Martha Minow, the book is Saving the News: Why the Constitutino Calls for Government Action to Preserve Freedom of Speech. We're a million miles away from entertaining such notions, but good to see that someone is articulating them, especially on the basis of constitutional rights, including the chartering of government to "form a more perfect union" and "promote the general welfare." As I recall, Thomas Jefferson once argued for pubic support of higher education not because we needed skilled workers (although nowadays we do) but because education makes for better citizens (something we seem to be in even more desperate shortage of). Republicans will be up in arms, because they see news and education as domains for thought control (which is why they finance their own). Capitalists will worry that government support will reduce their ability to profit from their news monopolies. And any time government gets involved, people will gripe about how their taxes are being spent -- whether to promote socialism or practice racism, everyone will be offended until no one is satisfied. Still, we desperately need fair and objective news, freely available to everyone. Why can't we figure out how to do that?

German Lopez: The opioid epidemic isn't unsolvable: The death count due to opioid overdoses shot up significantly last year, so much so that it became (actually remained) a major factor in declining life expectancy. Yet this is one public health crisis I have little interest in. Part of that may be that the victims are discrete (unlike the pandemic, where they infect others). But it's also because the way "experts" define the problem is so misleading. What we really have is a pain problem. Opioids are in many cases the simplest, most effective solution to pain, but only if they are administered with much more care than our profit-seeking health care system is capable of. Lopez is smart and knowledgeable, but look how he frames the "solutions":

  1. Restricting the drug supply
  2. More and better addiction treatment
  3. Harm reduction
  4. Address root causes

In other words, start with prohibition, then give lip service to a few other mantras that will be forgotten almost immediately. The obvious problem with the first is that it's already being done quite seriously, and it hasn't worked. On the one hand, people with serious pain are hard-pressed to work the system to get relief. On the other hand, the black market has grown to take advantage of the shortfall, often with faulty product as well as no useful support or service. The other points are increasingly hard, expensive, and/or nebulous. Moreover, the right, despite occasional libertarian pretensions, is fond of prohibition -- it furthers the police state they hold so dear -- they haven't the slightest interest or desire in the other three (i.e., they don't like care, they don't care about risk reduction, and they reject any charge that the system might be at fault). But the system is broken -- so deep you're never going to be able to isolate opioid overdoses as something that can be fixed without overhauling the whole system. That's basically why I have so little patience for people who single out this problem. Give us a health care system that serves everybody, one that treats pain in all its complexity, because we as a people care about each and every one of us. Even so, you're not going to make pain vanish. The best you can hope for is that more people will be able to live with it, because it will be viewed within the context of life, not just as some racket to make money off of.

Kerry Howley: Call Me a Traitor: "Daniel Hale exposed the machinery of America's clandestine warfare. Why did no one seem to care?" Long story, lots about drone warfare. For an update, see Josh Gerstein: Leaker of drone secrets gets 45 months in prison. Howley previously wrote 'The World's Biggest Terrorist Has a Pikachu Bedspread': all about Reality Winter.

Ed Kilgore: Democrats Can't Out-Organize a Gerrymander -- or Outflank Joe Manchin: Argues that Democrats "have to play the cards dealt to them by the system as it currently exists." With razor-thin majorities, that means you can't get lots of things done that are needed. That shouldn't mean giving up. If anything, it means it's all the more important to focus on popular measures and show that you're trying. And make it clear that it's the Republicans who are blocking the government help that the people want and need. Take that into the 2022 election, and use that message to elect many more Democrats. Sure, the cards are stacked against Democrats, but they should have a popular program, especially versus the Republican legacy of doom. By the way, although it never hurts to point out how the Republicans are trying to rig elections, I'm not sure that reducing the number of voters works against Democrats. It mostly gets rid of a lot of low-information, low-commitment voters, who as 2020 showed are as likely to fall for crackpot theories as not. The idea that low turnout favors Republicans became cemented in 2010, when it was possible to explain Democratic losses by voter indifference after the Democrats achieved very little with pretty large majorities. But the 2010 dropoff from 2008 was almost exactly the same as the 2006 dropoff from 2004, except it cut the opposite way.

Paola Rosa-Aquino: New CDC Data Shows the Pandemic Crushed U.S. Life Expectancy. Note that the drop exceeds what can be directly blamed on the pandemic -- although demographic studies suggest that "excess deaths" were up some 50% more than the official Covid-19 body count. Next article I looked at after this one was Zak Cheney-Rice: The GOP's 2024 Strategy Has a High Body Count.

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