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Sunday, April 24, 2022
Speaking of Which
Having eschewed links for my 23 Theses on Ukraine piece Tuesday, I figured I should acknowledge a few other pieces sooner rather than later. I also received several questions on the article, so published my answers here.
Of course, we start off with Ukraine:
Andrew Bacevich: [04-16] Robert Kagan: American passivity led to the Russia-Ukraine crisis: "Always nimble, the pro-war raconteur is again making arguments for preventative war, just more obliquely." I wrote more about Kagan (and his wife, Victoria Nuland, a major player in the American weaponization of Ukraine) in the Q&A (link above). What Bacevich calls Kagan's "flexibility" is something far more sinister. Kagan is arguing that Putin wouldn't have attacked Ukraine if only the US had intimidated Russia sufficiently beforehand. How we could have done that short of nuclear war isn't explained, nor is why any lesser intimidation would have worked. Kagan is so wedded to the use of force, the only world he can imagine is one of masters and slaves.
Hannah Beech/Abdi Latif Dahir/Oscar Lopez: [04-24] With Us or With Them? In a New Cold War, How About Neither. It turns out that a lot of countries, especially in "the global south," want nothing to do with a pissing match between the US and Russia. I doubt this means specific approval of Russia's attack, but they recognize that the US has committed similar crimes, and that they can do little if anything about either. One thing I do give Biden some credit for is that he hasn't pulled out the either-you're-with-us-or-against-us ultimatum (which GW Bush asserted in the War on Terror). I suspect he hasn't done it because his people know it wouldn't work and could backfire.
Paul Elie: [04-21] The Long Holy War Behind Putin's Political War in Ukraine: I can't claim to understand this, but evidently since the Russian Orthodox Church was rehabilitated with the end of communism in 1991 the Russians have been plotting to control Ukraine, which gives them some kind of common cause with Putin. In 2018, a Ukrainian Orthodox Church broke off, as an alternative to Russian control.
Nicholas Grossman: [04-24]: Arming Ukraine Is the Path to Peace: Article blocked, so I'm just going from the excerpt, which mostly is an attack on Noam Chomsky, and a seriously stupid one at that. I can see an argument for arming Ukraine because you want to cripple the Russian invasion, to turn it back or simply to make it so painful Russia thinks twice before trying anything like that again, but that's no path to peace. The only way you get to peace is through negotiation, and the only viable basis for negotiation is justice, which is not determined by the relative balance of arms and terror.
Luke Harding: [04-16] How Zelenskiy's team of TV writers helps his victory message hit home.
William D Hartung/Julia Gledhill: [04-17] The New Gold Rush: How Pentagon Contractors Are Cashing in on the Ukraine Crisis. "Even before hostilities broke out, the CEOs of major weapons firms were talking about how tensions in Europe could pad their profits."
Mike Lofgren: [04-11] No, Russia's Ukraine Invasion Isn't "Our Fault": Identifying with America there, but I can accept the title. He does push his luck with the subhed: "Russia's aggression stems from its history and political culture, not NATO expansion or the post-Cold War settlement." The worthwhile part of the article is the one that explores Russia's history and political culture:
This isn't quite right. "Socialism in one country" wasn't a theory that won out so much as a tactical retrenchment after revolutions in more advanced capitalist countries failed, leaving Russia isolated in a hostile world. One unfortunate side-effect was that Communist Parties in the West were reduced to acting as Soviet agents, which undermined any possibility of local success. Also, I'm not aware of any "complete rehabilitation" of Stalin, not that there is no nostalgia for the Soviet Union -- where, unlike modern Russia, the state was (in principle, if not always in fact) for the betterment of the masses -- and Stalin has some credibility for winning WWII. Dugin, by the way, is featured in Masha Gessen's The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. As I tried to explain in my "23 Theses" piece, I think psychology has a lot to do with why Putin invaded. Someone else, for instance, with no designs beyond his borders, could have decided that NATO was a purely defensive alignment, and simply ignored expansion. But Putin was too prideful and/or paranoid to ignore NATO expansion and other measures that impacted Russia (like sanctions, and support for Ukraine vs. Russian separatist regions). No doubt the war wouldn't have happened had Putin approached his disputes with the West more constructively. On the other hand, shouldn't the US and its allies deserve some kind of reproach for not anticipating how serious the conflict might get? And for not attempting to defuse the conflict? Once Putin started amassing troops near the Ukraine border, Biden went all stick, no carrot, and since the war started, Biden has escalated repeatedly, while ignoring the obvious need for talks around a cease fire.
The early part of Lofgren's article is mostly a counter to John Mearsheimer (presumably his Economist piece John Mearsheimer on why the West is principally responsible for the Ukrainian crisis, tucked safely behind a paywall). Mearsheimer stipulates up front: "There is no question that Vladimir Putin started the war and is responsible for how it is being waged." But then he goes into why Putin did so. I haven't read what he says, but have my own theories. I will say that although Mearsheimer is often sharp on critiquing American policy, his "realist" prescriptions don't offer much improvement. The goal of US foreign policy shouldn't be a narrow focus on national interests, but a broad effort to build cooperation between nations, because there's no safe way to enforce the New World Orders stategists are so enamored with.
PS: Another headline I noticed from Economist: [04-23] Poland's prime minister says the West's appeasement of Vladimir Putin must stop. First paragraph leads off with Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938, adding "the analogies with the present situation are striking." One might argue that Putin needs NATO to keep hawks like Mateusz Morawiecki reigned in, although it's also possible that the security offered by NATO is what allows the hawks to shoot off their mouths.
Josh Marshall: [04-21] Failing at the Basics: Cites a poll that says 54% of Americans think Biden hasn't been tough enough on Russia over Ukraine. I'd draw three inferences from this number: they don't understand what Biden has done, which has been pretty aggressive within some finely calculated restraints; they don't understand how dangerous going beyond those constraints could be; and they're hung up on a totally bullshit idea of toughness. Marshall sees this (like dozens of other things) as a failure of messaging, but the message he wants Democrats to pound home is how friendly Trump and many other Republicans have been to Putin over recent years (e.g., "why just three years ago they were helping Presidents Trump and Putin conspire against Ukraine and the United States").
Kevin Martin: [04-22] With Humanity on the Brink, Should We Trust Deterrence Theory, or Disarmament? Above all else, the lesson we need to draw from Ukraine is that the shibboleths of post-WWII defense theory simply don't work. You know the clichés: peace is guaranteed by strength, we cannot negotiate with enemies so the only way we can stop them is through deterrence. I suspect the list of things that Ukraine has proven wrong is quite long -- not least, almost everything we thought about sanctions. A rethink is in order, which would lead us back to the common sense notion that the way to prevent future wars is to forego the arms races that lead to them, and understand the value of mutual respect.
Alfred McCoy: [04-19] How to End the War in Ukraine: "A Solution Beyond Sanctions." McCoy's scheme is to use the European Court to order Russia to pay reparations for damage to Ukraine, and to collect those reparations by garnishing oil and gas revenues. It's hard to see how this would work, but the 20% rate he proposes would presumably leave Russia enough profit to not just shut delivery down. Still, it feels like a tariff, which is effectively a tax on European consumers. Hard to see where anyone comes out of that deal feeling whole.
Bill Scher: [04-12] Don't Let Putin's War Break the UN: Starts with Zelensky questioning why Russia hasn't been stripped of its permanent Security Council seat (with its veto power). Doesn't mention that Russia has already been suspended from the UN Human Rights Council (by the UN General Assembly, which isn't subject to vetoes, but carries much less weight than the Security Council). Explains the history of how that arrangement came about. The more basic point is that without Russia (or for that matter China and the US) there is no United Nations. The UN would cease to be a forum for resolving international conflicts (inefficient as it is), and instead be one for advancing them.
Jeffrey St Clair: [04-22] Roaming Charges: Runaway Sons of the Nuclear A-Bomb: Bullet points, but more intuitive insight than most: "Winning wars is no longer the point, prolonging them is -- that's where the money's made and what the fog of war is meant to obscure." Way down he quotes Walter Benjamin: "Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right [to material improvement], but instead a chance to express themselves." Sounds like a lot of Republicans these days, with the proviso that now (as then) only some people are entitled to express themselves, and only in certain ways. Evidently, St Clair also wrote [04-10] The Politics of Lesser-Imperialism [behind some kind of paywall], which takes to task the segment of the "anti-imperialist left" that is rallying behind Russian war propaganda because they think it counters the "greater imperialism" of the US.
Matt Taibbi: [04-19] America's Intellectual No-Fly Zone: This starts off citing an interview, Noam Chomsky on How to Prevent World War III. Chomsky points out that the US has two options: either negotiate a settlement with Putin, which would mean unpleasant concessions to give Putin a self-respecting way out, or keep fighting until Putin submits (while hoping, presumably, he won't respond to existential threats with nuclear weapons). Biden's lack of interest in negotiation, as well as his charges of war crimes and his escalations at every turn, suggest the US has settled on the second approach, regardless of risk. It certainly is the one that plays best in the madhouse of US foreign policy rhetoric (which is full of praise for the braveness of Ukrainians, with much less concern for their lives). Taibbi enters to monitor the reaction to Chomsky, which is to judge him "a genocide-enabling, America-hating Kremlin stooge." [Would like to read more, but Substack subscription required.]
Anton Troianovski: [04-17] Atrocities in Ukraine War Have Deep Roots in Russian Military. Of course, it's not just Russians with deep roots.
Robert Wright: [04-11] The Blob has won the Ukraine framing war: I don't particularly like the term "Blob." It was coined by Obama adviser Ben Rhodes to deride other security/foreign policy mandarins he disagreed with, but it's not like he or Obama made much of a break with the main stream of thought that came out of American preëminence after WWII, navigated the Cold War, and took a turn toward increased militarism after the demise of the Soviet Union. Conservatives and liberals both took that turn, their different rationales converging on the steadfast belief that American might makes/reflects right, with so little concern for the possibility that something might go wrong that their skeptics could call themselves "realists." Not that there was never disagreement on tactics, but at critical junctures, like the invasion of Iraq, the Blob could be distinguished from everyone else. When Biden pulled out as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, we saw the Blob attempt to rise up to smite him, but all they had to work with was hindsight -- it's not like anyone could imagine invading again would work better this time. Besides, having gotten in a few blows, there would be more crises in the future, and now Ukraine has come along, fitting neatly into a story line they've been spinning ever since they got bored with the Middle East and started looking for more lucrative prey. Wright focuses on one particular framing of Ukraine: "this idea that America is fighting a global war on behalf of democracy and freedom." He points out "six big problems":
One point that I will add is that Biden may be more inclined than the average Blobster to focus on democracy vs. autocracy, because that is a struggle that is being waged domestically as Republicans (the would-be autocrats) try to undermine and rig elections, much as they have managed to rig the economy in favor of owners against workers, of companies against customers, and corporations against mere citizens. Of course, stopping Russia in Ukraine won't help most Americans at all. As a letter put it: "Democrats are anxious to seize on an issue where they are not playing defense, as they are on inflation, gas prices, identity politics in elementary school, and crime."
Wright also wrote: [04-20] The Ukraine War Speech Code. The "code" is a prohibition against considering the possibility that NATO expansion had something to do with Putin's decision to invade Ukraine. As Wright puts it: "The party line being that if your assessment of the causes of this war is much more nuanced than 'Putin is a bad man,' you're dangerously misguided." Wright argues that if you want to blame Putin solely for invading Ukraine, you should phrase it in terms of international law, where no US provocation excuses what he did. (Nor does the incontrovertible fact that the US violated the same international law in invading Iraq in 2003. But haven't we reach the point where very few of us still think that was a good idea? Maybe more respect for international law would save us future embarrassments like that.) On the other hand, we should still talk about how the US prodded and provoked Putin to the point where he made his criminal decision, and how we didn't make a serious effort to defuse the situation through diplomacy before the war was launched, because that reflects back on US decision making: specifically, on why the Blob's core beliefs keep getting us into conflicts we can't figure our way out of.
The latest installment of Wright's Nonzero Newsletter [04-22] Earthling also makes some interesting points. There's a chart based on January polling of how people in Donbas might vote between various stay-in-Ukraine vs. align-with-Russia options, which indicates that a slight majority would vote to stay, but most of those were in formerly Kyiv-controlled areas. In Russian-controlled areas, a vote would tip the other way (and the present offensive is designed to increase Russian-controlled area, while driving others away). There's also a chart on who is to blame for the war. In the US about 60% blame Russia, and 20% blame the US. That's closer than I would have expected, especially given how one-sided the news coverage is. But my guess is that at least half of those are Trumpists. The only nation polled where more people blame the US than Russia is China.
For what it's worth, while looking for some insight into the Blob concept, I ran across these historical links:
Cathy Young: [04-13] What Really Happened in Ukraine in 2014 -- and Since Then: "A close look at the lies and distortions from Russia apologists and propagandists about the roots of the Ukraine War." Fairly deep review from 2014 forward, although the subhed pretty much admits that the "no tribal prejudices" motto isn't quite right.
And here are some other timely stories:
Karen Attiah: [04-20] Why Britain's deal with Rwanda on migrants is so repulsive: Boris Johnson's solution to immigrants seeking asylum is to round them up and dump them in an already-overpopulated, land-locked country in central Africa, one with a "well-documented history of human rights abuses." Still, I wonder how many white Ukrainians he'll deport there. Attiah also wrote [03-24] William and Kate's colonial Caribbean tour was cringeworthy.
Bloomberg: [04-21] Eight-hour blackouts hit India after hottest March since 1901: Article blames a shortage of coal, but isn't the real problem too much coal?
Paul Blumenthal: [04-15] What Jared Kushner's $2 Billion Saudi Payout Says About the Post-Presidential Hustle. In the long history of presidential graft, there's never been anything remotely like this.
Kyle Chayka: [04-21] Why Would Elon Musk Want to Buy Twitter? How about: "as a means for himself and others to continue influencing vast audiences without interference"? Related: Kevin T Dugan: [04-21] Elon Musk Enters His Rupert Murdoch Phase.
Leilah Danielson: [04-17] AJ Muste Was a Prophet of the 20th-Century US Left: I've often reminded that our late friend Diane Wahto used to sign her email with a quote from Muste: "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way."
Jason Ditz: [04-22] Turkey Seeks to Bar PKK From North Iraq Border: While you've been so bothered with Russia trying to intimidate Ukraine to stop them from disrespecting Russia (or whatever it is Putin thinks his principled stand is), Turkey has been doing the same thing in Iraq: crossing the border to attack Iraqi Kurds he regards as some kind of threat. You're not so bothered there, probably because it's been so lightly reported, but it's the same principle: big country using force to intimidate small neighboring country. It should be every bit as illegal, but when you're a big country, you figure you're above all that.
Molly Fischer: [03-28] Galay Brain: On Adam Tooze.
Shane Goldmacher: [04-17] Mar-a-Lago Machine: Trump as a Modern-Day Party Boss: "Hoarding cash, doling out favors and seeking to crush rivals, the former president is dominating the GOP, preparing for another race and helping loyalists oust officials who thwarted his attempted subversion of the 2020 election."
Sean Illing: [04-24] Michael Lewis on why Americans don't trust experts: "How a society that is so good at creating knowledge can be so bad at applying it." If you've read Lewis's book The Fifth Risk, you'll have a pretty good idea what he's on about, but you'll still want to read this for more examples. But if you're one of those Republicans who believes Reagan's joke about government is gospel truth, you won't have any fucking idea.
Michael Kruse: [04-16] The One Way History Shows Trump's Personality Cult Will End: "An expert on autocracy assesses how far America as slipped away from democracy." Interview with Ruth Ben-Ghiat.
Jane Mayer: [04-16] The Slime Machine Targeting Dozens of Biden Nominees: Spelunking another dark money right-wing organization, which goes by the initials AAF.
Bill McKibben: [04-22] This Earth Day, We Could Be Helping the Environment -- and Ukraine: A hedgehog, his one big idea about climate change lets him turn every topic back into his topic. So, he figures, Russia's war on Ukraine is financed by oil. Stop using oil (especially Russian oil, but why stop there?) and the war it funds will no longer be possible. If only we had thought of this before getting into such a mess.
Dana Milbank: [04-19] DeSantis saves Florida kids from being indoctrinated with math: In a supposedly transparent but otherwise mysterious process, Florida has rejected 54 math textbooks, most for allegedly including "critical race theory" or other "prohibited topics."
Ian Millihser: [04-19] The Trump judge's opinion striking down the airplane mask mandate is a legal disaster. We're fortunate so far that the Supreme Court conservative majority (except for Alito and often Thomas) still make an effort to cast their political decisions in terms that recognize legal understanding, but this is a prime example of a lower Trump judge just inventing stuff for political reasons. Millhiser also wrote [04-23] Ron DeSantis's attack on Disney obviously violates the First Amendment.
Rick Noack/Michael Birnbaum/Elie Petit: [04-24] France's Macron wins presidency, holding off Le Pen's far-right threat to upend Europe and relations with Russia. Breaking news as I'm trying to wrap this post up. Split is 59-41 percent, which is less than 5 years ago.
Charles P Pierce: [04-18] The Republican Undead Walk Among Us. Just Look at Scott Pruitt: "The ethically challenged former EPA administrator wants to join the Senate." Replacing Jim Inhofe. Who says you can't do worse? Pierce writes a lot of short pieces worth reading. Another that stands out [04-22] Marjorie Taylor Greene Was the Most Non-Credible Person I've Seen on a Witness Stand in Decades. Also [04-20] Mallory McMorrow Had Two Options After She Was Called a 'Groomer.' She Chose to Swing Back. Seth Myers could features her speech in his segment, "The Kind of Story We Need Right Now."
Nathaniel Rakich: [04-21] The Extreme Bias of Florida's New Congressional Map. The map in question produces 18 seats that are R+5 or more, vs. 8 seats that are D+5, and 2 competitive seats between.
Matt Shuham: [04-22] Bannon's GoFundMe Border Wall Buddies Plead Guilty While He Lives Free With Trump Pardon.
Richard Silverstein: [04-18] Ramadan and the Road to War . . . and Perdition, and [04-19] Biden Sends US Diplomats to Israel on Fool's Errand: Looks like Israel is gearing up for one of their periodic "mowing the grass" onslaughts in Gaza. The parallels to Ukraine are strong. Putin only wishes he could bottle up Ukraine like Israel has done to Gaza. But perhaps Israel wouldn't be so callous and overbearing if the US and its allies applied sanctions against Israeli aggression like they're doing to Russia. I'm less certain that sending defensive weapons to Gaza, like NATO is doing for Ukraine, would help, but that's mostly because Israel is a nuclear power (like Russia).
Adam Weinstein: [04-18] Deadly Pakistan strikes in Afghanistan reflect growing cross-border tensions: Like Turkey/Iraq, another case of cross-border aggression, supposedly rationalized by Afghanistan providing a sanctuary for TPP fighters against Pakistan.
Fragment on Blob cut from above:
On the downside, it blurs the (rather narrow) range of differences among the "American foreign policy establishment" (a more generous term which still conveys some sort of self-selected clique able to exert a consistent direction in administrations of both political parties). I tend towards a finer-grained taxonomy, chiefly: neocons (idealists in love with military power and little if any concern for how that impacts others), neoliberals (same, except they do claim to care, hence they're also known as "humanitarian interventionists"), and realists (non-idealists, who try to tie policies to material interests, not caring how they impact others except as that affects the possible success of the policies). This implies a 2x2 matrix, one dimension for ideologist vs. pragmatist, the other self-centered vs. respectful of others, but the Blob excludes the fourth corner (pragmatic but respectful of others). A proper taxonomy would find more variants: e.g., is Henry Kissinger a "realist," as neocons often charge, or something different, some kind of monarchist throwback, but for all practical purposes, he always winds up well within the Blob; or Ben Rhodes, who coined the term Blob to denigrate other people, but who winds up Blob-adjacent more often than not; or Peter Navarro, who we can use as a proxy for a Trumpist "America First" mindset that for Trump himself never developed beyond the stage of "irritable mental gestures." Still, the Blob coalesces at critical intervals, especially in the decision to invade Iraq.