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[update below]

What a way to ring in the new decade. I’ve been reading about the Qasem Soleimani assassination for a good part of the day, plus discussing it with dear friend Adam Shatz, who has an instant commentary up on the LRB website, “Trump declares war.” Soleimani was certainly a “bad guy”—in a world where bad guys are a dime a dozen—but terminating him with extreme prejudice was a colossally stupid thing to do and for a number of reasons. E.g. one reads in a must-read portrait of Soleimani in The Daily Beast, dated August 7, 2018, by the well-known Middle East correspondant Borzou Daragahi, “Is the Iranian general taunting Trump on a U.S. hit list?”:

Many described the idea of targeting Suleimani as counterproductive, entailing untold risks without any guaranteed benefits. In 2008, Suleimani, famously approached then U.S. General David Petraeus to inform him that he was the guy who could stop the rocket attacks hitting U.S. bases in Iraq. Since then the U.S. has managed to communicate indirectly with Suleimani through Iraq’s Kurds and other officials. The senior Obama administration national security official said the U.S. contemplated directly reaching out to Suleimani to ask him to rein in militias bombing American troops as they were attempting to withdraw from the country in 2011.

In the pantheon of rogues, troublemakers and warlords playing the Middle East’s games of infiltration and subterfuge, Suleimani’s a guy you can at least talk to.

Andrew Exum, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East policy in the Obama administration, writes in The Atlantic that Soleimani was Iran’s “indispensable man,” thus irreplaceable. I’m dubious that anyone in a large organization is indispensable and, as Daniel W. Drezner reminds us, ‘[s]tandard international relations theory suggests that decapitating a key leader would not fundamentally affect that state’s capacity to act.” And political science MENA specialist Marc Lynch tersely tweeted, “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.” Borzou Daragahi continues:

“There’s a verified public history of the U.S. making outreach efforts,” said a former CIA official who served in Iraq and worked on Iran. “[Suleimani is] still an asshole. But we know his mentality. We know him. It’s not a secret what he does.”

There’s another consideration. Some former officials liken Suleimani to a sort of Ho Chi Minh, overseeing a cabal of brasher, bolder and more ruthless young men eager for action and recognition. Get rid of Hajj Qasem, as he is known by his supporters in the Shiite world, and power might pass into the hands of a more reckless young tough eager to make a name for himself. ”If there’s a younger, more ruthless generation waiting in the wings, I’d rather stick to granddad,” said the former CIA official.

N.B. The Israelis have had plenty of experience assassinating top bad guys in Hizbullah and Hamas, with both now stronger than ever.

If one missed it at the time, Dexter Filkins had a lengthy portrait of Soleimani, “The shadow commander,” in the September 30, 2013, issue of The New Yorker.

Gary Sick has a particularly excellent analysis, “Trump lit a fire by exiting the Iran deal & poured gasoline on it by assassinating Soleimani,” posted on the Responsible Statecraft blog.

Also see the irate post by The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan, “Four years ago, Trump had no clue who Iran’s Suleimani was. Now, he may have kicked off WWIII.” Money quote:

This is not a column, however, about the consequences of the United States government assassinating the second-most powerful man in Iran… Rather, this is a column that allows me to express my ongoing astonishment that Donald Trump is president of the United States; my ongoing bewilderment with a world in which an unhinged, know-nothing former reality TV star and property developer, with zero background in foreign affairs or national security, may have just kicked off World War III. (From his golf course, no less.)

Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment has a tweet storm on Soleimani (here) that is worth reading. Likewise with Politico Europe’s Rym Momtaz (here). Both are dubious that we’re looking at WWIII.

Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution writes in The Washington Post that Iran will “bide its time” and that we should not “expect immediate retaliation for Soleimani,” though concludes that “[n]either Trump nor Tehran may really want a war, but each side has proved unwilling or incapable of detouring from a path that will almost inexorably precipitate a much wider and more costly conflict.” Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative writes in the NY Times that “Qassim Suleimani’s killing will unleash chaos.” Robin Wright, who has been writing about the Islamic Republic of Iran forever, and Fred Kaplan are very much on the same wavelength.

As for “The Democrats’ gutless response to Trump’s airstrike,” maybe more on that another time.

À suivre.

UPDATE: Julia Ioffe, who is normally a first-rate journalist, has a piece in GQ arguing that a war with Iran would all but guarantee Trump’s reelection (people rallying around the flag, etc). Arguing the opposite is UC-Irvine political scientist Michael Tesler, writing in Monkey Cage, who posits that “[a]ttacking Iran won’t help Trump win reelection.” A key initial factor in public opinion supporting a war and thus the president, he says, is a bipartisan elite consensus, which was the case in past major wars (Iraq, Vietnam, etc). This is not likely to obtain if Trump launches a war with the Islamic Republic.

À propos, Bernie Sanders gave a speech (excellent) last night (Jan. 3rd) at a town hall in Iowa strongly condemning Trump’s Iran action and talk of war (watch here, from 46:00). And Elizabeth Warren had a strongly-worded series of tweets (here) in the same vein. Andrew Yang is also on this wavelength. If Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and other candidates occupying the moderate lane—plus Nancy Pelosi and the congressional leadership—were to acquiesce in a Trump war with Iran—or even tone down the critique—this would blow the Democratic Party apart, a consequence being that Trump would indeed win in November. For this reason, I will wager that in the ghastly eventuality that a war happens, Biden, Pelosi & Co will align themselves with the Sanders-Warren-Yang position.

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Australia had a parliamentary election on Saturday, if one didn’t know, with the outcome a shocker, as the incumbent conservative coalition led by PM Scott Morrison won against all expectations, the polls having unanimously pointed to a decisive Labor Party victory. One does not have to care one way or another about Australian politics to regret this result, as the very conservative Morrison—who’s a Pentecostal (already one strike against him)—is not good on the climate change issue—which is particularly important there (Great Barrier Reef, etc)—and is downright execrable on immigration, which he was in charge of as a government minister in 2013-14, putting in place Australia’s cruel policy of sending asylum seekers (principally from Iran and Afghanistan) to Christmas Island, Nauru, and Papua New Guinea, where they are kept in what are in effect prison camps for years on end, their asylum applications rejected but with repatriation manifestly inadvisable (if one wishes to read about this—and be indignant—see the reportages by Roger Cohen here and here). Scott Morrison is not a good man.

One of the news articles I read about the Australian election referred to “the cut-throat world of politics in Canberra.” As it so happens, I just watched in the past month—on the recommendation of a political science friend—the full two seasons (six episodes each) of the riveting Australian Netflix series Secret City, which is entirely set in and around Canberra (with a few brief scenes in Adelaide in season 2). It’s all about espionage, geopolitics, and just Australian politics, and boy, it sure is cut-throat, both figuratively and [spoiler alert!] literally. Here’s a brief description from IMDb:

Beneath the placid facade of Canberra, amidst rising tension between China and America, senior political journalist Harriet Dunkley uncovers a secret city of interlocked conspiracies, putting innocent lives in danger including her own.

That’s as much as one needs to know. The screenplay is sophisticated—it’s very well written—the pacing impeccable, and the acting first rate. It’s an Aussie answer to the brilliant French series The Bureau (and is, needless to say, on a far higher level than ‘Homeland’). It’s just all around excellent. In the first season the bad guys appear to be China but that’s somewhat of a ruse, as in season 2 [spoiler alert!], a Deep State theme is developed (yes, there is indeed one Down Under). The message, and which holds everywhere: if you want to know where the real threat to your homeland comes from—to your security and freedoms—look at your own state. The threat is at home.

A sub-theme in season 2 [spoiler alert!] is drone warfare, of Australian military drones in action over Afghanistan and Pakistan, as part of the international coalition in that conflict—and of the PTSD-suffering drone pilot having notched 448 kills, so we learn, not all of whom were Taliban and other bad guys. This reminded me of the 2015 Hollywood movie, Good Kill, by director Andrew Niccol, which, to my knowledge, was the first one of its sort to focus on the ethical dilemmas of military drones, here via the états d’âme of the protag drone pilot, played by Ethan Hawke, who kills people in Af-Pak daily—who may or may not be combattants—whom he sees on his console screen at a base in Nevada, after which he goes home to wife and children in his sub-division. The film deals ably with its subject, though is somewhat marred by a Hollywoodish sub-plot about the protag’s marital problems. Reviews were middling, including in France, but the pic may certainly be seen (and Allociné spectateurs liked it more than did the critics).

On drone warfare and the effects it has on the soldiers who wage it via remote control, see the excellent New York Times Magazine article (June 13, 2018) by Eyal Press, “The wounds of the drone warrior.” And going back a few years: “Confessions of a drone warrior,” by Matthew Power, in GQ; “Everything we know so far about drone strikes,” by Cora Currier, in ProPublica; and Jane Mayer’s “The predator war: What are the risks of the C.I.A.’s covert drone program?,” in The New Yorker.

Back to ‘Secret City’, as much as I liked it I hope it doesn’t go to a third season. It achieved closure at the end of season 2. Nothing is left hanging and it said what it needed to say.

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This just opened in France. The reviews are good to very good—better than in the US—and with friends asking what I think of it (as I saw it in the US last month). My succinct take: the film is brilliantly cast and acted—particularly Christian Bale, whose performance is exceptional—the politics are impeccable—Dick Cheney was/is a right-wing reactionary de la pire espèce, not to mention a despicable human being—and is well-done overall and entertaining, but it’s just a little too un-nuanced and heavy-handed. The pic is a red meat crowd-pleaser for liberals and lefties: agitprop for that very sizable portion of America’s citizenry—of which I am a part—who despised and loathed the Bush-Cheney administration, indeed the Republican Party tout court (don’t even talk about the Trump regime).

Journalist-writer James Mann—who authored the most important book on the war cabinet of Bush-Cheney’s first term—had a spot-on critique of the film, dated December 28th, in The Washington Post, “The Dick Cheney of ‘Vice’ just craves power. The reality was worse.” The lede: “The former veep’s ideological agenda did far more damage than his quest for clout.” The film does indeed focus mainly on personality and gives short-shrift to key historical moments, e.g. the 1990-91 Gulf War—which is barely mentioned—as well as to Cheney’s ideological motivations, which, as we know, were deep, and on domestic policy as well as foreign.

I also had a problem with the implicit suggestion that the Iraq war was driven by oil and Halliburton contracts, which was not only nonsense but stupid, boneheaded nonsense (for my own view of the Iraq war, go here). In short, while Adam McKay’s film may certainly be seen, my assessment of it is mixed.

Another movie about US politics I’ve seen of late is Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner, about the sudden demise of Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in May 1987. The film opened in France in mid-January, vanishing from the salles obscures after two weeks (I caught it in the nick of time). Hollywood movies on subjects of little interest to the French public (e.g. baseball, US politicos almost no one has heard of or remembers) usually linger a little longer. The film is based on journalist Matt Bai’s 2014 book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, which chronicles what was the first-ever media-fabricated sex scandal (or “scandal”) that felled a presidential candidate. Bai’s book—which the NYT’s reviewer called “a miniclassic of political history”—is also an indictment of the behavior of the media—the Miami Herald and Washington Post in particular—during the miserable episode. Bai is still indignant three decades later at the media feeding frenzy that ended the political career of the Democratic Party’s most promising politician of the time—and certainly one of the smartest—and its strongest candidate by far going into the 1988 presidential campaign. Hart’s downfall, as Bai wrote in the NYT Magazine, forever changed American politics. And not for the better.

Bai is not the first author to take on the media for its role in Hart’s fall. John Judis published an enquête, “The Hart Affair,” in the July-August 1987 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review—unfortunately not online—which begins:

Sooner or later Gary Hart would probably have destroyed his own candidacy. Hart, the Washington Post‘s Meg Greenfield wrote in retrospect, was “living a life he could not justify or reveal.” But the inevitability of Hart’s political demise does not justify the press’s singular role in precipitating it. In reporting about Hart, the mainstream press departed from its past standards in covering a candidate’s private life and displayed unwonted recklessness in reporting what it had discovered.

We’ll obviously never know if Hart would have self-destructed if he had never crossed paths with Donna Rice in Florida. Perhaps, but perhaps not.

Before the 1984 presidential campaign I was aware that Hart was a senator from Colorado but didn’t know much about him until he emerged as a serious candidate, unexpectedly winning the New Hampshire primary and giving Walter Mondale a run for his money. I wished Hart well at the time—though voted for Jesse Jackson in the Illinois primary in March—as I didn’t find Mondale—a good man and decent liberal—too inspiring, and doubted his chances against Reagan. I was an enthusiastic Hart supporter from the summer of 1986, as he prepared his candidacy for ’88, though was pretty much alone in this among my lefty friends in Chicago, where I was living at the time, who thought of him as a neoliberal (which was absolutely not the case). The one time I saw Hart speak was at a Citizen Action convention in September ’86, at a hotel near O’Hare airport. The reception was indifferent. I remember him speaking, getting no questions, and leaving unnoticed. And needless to say, I was stunned and incensed by the media feeding frenzy over the Donna Rice/Monkey Business business and its denouement, as there was no evidence that Hart had done anything wrong or unethical, let alone illegal. Quel gâchis.

I was reminded of the Hart debacle last November, before hearing about ‘The Front Runner’, in reading an article in that month’s issue of The Atlantic by James Fallows, “Was Gary Hart set up? What are we to make of the deathbed confession of the political operative Lee Atwater, newly revealed, that he staged the events that brought down the Democratic candidate in 1987?” Now James Fallows is quite simply one of America’s best journalists—and has been for decades—whose signature is a mark of quality, and whom I will read on any subject. And while I am allergic to conspiracy theories of any sort, if Fallows is speculating that Hart was indeed a victim of a plot in 1987—that the Monkey Business was a Republican dirty tricks operation and with there being no evidence that anything happened with Donna Rice—then I need to take that seriously. And John Judis, who was a Hart supporter when the thing happened, informs me that a number of level-headed observers have indeed suspected all along that it was a set-up.

I would certainly like to believe the theory but in reviewing the affair after seeing the movie, I don’t know. Hart was, after all, a reputed coureur and there was no reason for the comely Ms. Rice, who had no known political convictions at the time (nowadays she’s a conservative evangelical and Trump supporter), to have paid him a visit at his Capitol Hill townhouse except for we know what. But whatever. It was their private business and no one else’s. In point of fact, the biggest mistake Hart made during the media frenzy was to have abandoned his candidacy, particularly as public opinion was with him. If he had stonewalled the reporters and continued campaigning, he would have likely survived intact—as did Bill Clinton five years later after the Gennifer Flowers eruption.

As for the movie, which covers the final three weeks of the ill-fated campaign, it’s not bad. Hugh Jackman is well-cast as Hart, as is Vera Farmiga as his wife, Lee (portrayed by the media at the time as a silently suffering martyr). Leaving the theater I wondered what the point was in making the film, particularly today. Perhaps as a reminder to the Fourth Estate that it is not exempted from critique—for its herd mentality, obsession with ratings, etc—while we’re all celebrating it—and rightly so—in this age of Trump? Whatever the reason, one thing we do know—and do not regret—is that it is no longer conceivable that an American presidential candidate could be driven from a race for having had a sexual relationship with someone who was not his (or her) spouse. Good for that.

Another Hollywood movie with a US politics theme I’ve seen of late is the biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, On the Basis of Sex, directed by Mimi Leder. This one has had more success at the box office in France than ‘The Front Runner’, perhaps in part because of its title, Une femme d’exception (which is superior to the English one), even though not too many here know who RBG is. The reviews have also been positive, including among Allociné spectateurs, whereas they were mixed in the US. It’s a perfectly serviceable biopic, beginning with RBG—ably played by Felicity Jones—at Harvard Law School in the 1950s as one of the tiny handful of female students, and who had a baby to boot; then the sexism she had to confront in the 1960s, being rejected by major law firms despite her brilliant law school record; career as a professor at Rutgers Law School, where she pioneered the study of gender discrimination; and which ends with her victory in the SCOTUS’s 1975 landmark ruling in the Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld case, for which she wrote the brief. It’s a feel-good movie about a remarkable person, and which, entre autres, shows that women can indeed “have it all”—how I hate that expression—of leading an exceptional career and doing great things, and while raising a family (having a loving, supportive husband certainly helped).

Someone on Twitter last month made a tongue-in-cheek comment about how nice it would be if we could all subtract one day from our respective lives and add it to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s (which would certainly prolong it into the next millennium). We’re all crossing our fingers that she remains in good health to at least January 2021…

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[updates below]

Far from me to speak positively of a Republican president but of the six in my politically conscious lifetime, he was the least bad. And unlike the others (Gerald Ford excepted), I never actively disliked him, let alone despised. I naturally voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988—who was my candidate from the outset of that primary season—and was thrilled with Bill Clinton’s victory in ’92. On that 1988 campaign, Bush carries the stain of the Willie Horton ad—and of having hired his racist campaign manager, Lee Atwater, in the first place, who hatched the ad—and demagoguing the ACLU, entre autres. But when it came to domestic policy during his administration, he was pretty good for a Republican, as Matthew Yglesias reminds us, e.g. signing the Americans With Disabilities Act, a law expanding legal immigration, amendments to the Clean Air Act that tightened regulation of air pollution, running afoul of the NRA (and whose membership he renounced in 1995), and, of course, approving a tax increase when this needed to happen. Utterly inconceivable for a GOPer after his presidency, not to mention today. Bush was a moderate Republican, an honorable political species that is now all but extinct. Like many moderate Republicans he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, which, for a lifelong Republican, was an honorable thing to do.

It was, of course, in foreign policy where Bush stood out. Borrowing from Georges Marchais (albeit in a different context), le bilan était globalement positif, i.e. the record was largely positive. I personally supported the 1989 Panama invasion at the time, though felt differently about it later in view of the civilian casualties. I did not, however, feel differently later on about the 1990-91 Gulf intervention, during which I entirely, 100% supported the Bush 41 administration. As I’ve already written about this I won’t elaborate here, except to recount how, in October ’90, I informed a group of Saddam Hussein-supporting youths on an Algiers street, who were trying to get my goat (they were from my neighborhood, so knew me), that Bush would squash Saddam like a bug, and then stomped my foot on the ground like I was squashing a bug, specifying that I was Bush and the imaginary bug was Saddam. Not an adult-like reaction but, hey, it made me feel good. I did change my mind later—in 1998, to be precise—on the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq, i.e. that it should be unilaterally ended, in view of the catastrophic effects it was having on the Iraqi people, but that was under the Clinton administration’s watch.

Bush père is also to be commended for his even-handed policy toward Israel, in opposing settlement construction in the occupied territories and refusing to be intimidated by the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. Above all, though, was the role he played at the end of the Cold War, specifically the fall of the Berlin wall and inevitable reunification of Germany. Bush’s leadership on this—on unequivocally endorsing reunification—was critical, and contrasted with the, shall we say, unhelpful attitudes of François Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher. In foreign policy, Bush was, in Walter Russell Mead’s four school schema, a Hamiltonian, befitting his elite East Coast pedigree: internationalist, Europe-oriented, and strongly adhering to a free trade regime, American participation in multilateral institutions, and close relationships with longstanding allies. In the Hamilton world-view, the prosperity of Europe and the world is in the interest of America, as it contributes to the prosperity of America and, concomitantly, to peace and stability. It is the opposite of zero-sum, which is to say, the world-view of the present occupant of the White House. Bush was indeed the kind of American president most appreciated in chancelleries in Western Europe, and most definitely in Paris. George H.W. Bush was the last Hamiltonian president of the Republican Party we are likely to see.

Stephen Walt summed it up in this tweet:

Tim Naftali, a clinical associate professor of history and public service at NYU, has an obituary in Slate that is worth the read, “The overlooked president: We should thank George H.W. Bush for many of the successes attributed to Reagan and Clinton.” And see the seven-minute video from Vox, “The George H.W. Bush promise that changed the Republican Party.”

Conclusion: GHW Bush was the kind of Republican whose election we would be disappointed by though without fearing catastrophe. Or worse.

And, needless to say, he was far better than his son.

UPDATE: David Greenberg—who teaches history, journalism, and media studies at Rutgers University—has a critical article in Politico, “Is history being too kind to George H.W. Bush? The 41st president put self-interest over principle time and time again,” that views Bush differently from Tim Naftali, linked to above.

2nd UPDATE: Voilà Bruce Bartlett, writing in The Baffler, “Death and taxes: George H. W. Bush was right about taxes, but he broke the Republican Party.”

3rd UPDATE: Andrew Nagorski writes in The Daily Beast that “Reagan brought down the Berlin Wall, but it was George H.W. Bush who unified Germany.” The lede: “A united Germany might not have emerged at all without the consummate skill that the late president displayed.”

4th UPDATE: Here’s a critical assessment by Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch, “George H.W. Bush was a family man and war hero who gave America its horribly destructive politics.”

5th UPDATE: Never Trumper ex-neocon Max Boot calls George H.W. Bush “the anti-Trump.”

6th UPDATE: The New Republic’s Jeet Heer writes on “The whitewashing of George H. W. Bush: Elite nostalgia and anti-Trump sentiment are leading to one-sided reminiscences.”

7th UPDATE: John Judis has a post in TPM on “George H.W. Bush and the quest for a realistic foreign policy.”

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[update below] [2nd update below]

Subtitle: “The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia.” This is the latest book by journalist and writer Craig Unger, whose previous ones include the 2004 House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties. I’ve been following the Trump-Putin/Russia link like everyone, though haven’t been as riveted to the story as have others. Reading the recent enquêtes by Jonathan Chait, Julia Ioffe, and Blake Hounshell was more than enough to convince me that Trump’s engagement with the Russians is deep and long-standing, and that Vladimir Putin does indeed have the goods on him.

Unger seems to push the story to a whole new level, though. Now I have admittedly not yet seen the book, though did read the article (August 28th) in The Times of Israel, by founding editor David Horovitz, and which is followed by an interview with Unger, “Bestselling US author: ‘Russian asset’ Trump doesn’t truly care for Israel, Jews.” The lede: “Craig Unger, author of ‘House of Trump, House of Putin,’ urges Israel to be wary of dangerous, unprincipled US president, and even more so of Russian leader who helped install him.” It’s an amazing piece, an absolute must-read. Unger details the deep relationship of Trump with the Russian Mafia, whose oligarchs have laundered billions of dollars in Trump’s real estate empire—the American real estate industry being “virtually unregulated,” in Unger’s words. There is, in addition, an important Israel link. Quoting Horovitz:

Unger’s revelations directly impact Israel as well. About half of those 59 named “Russia Connections” are Jewish, and about a dozen of the 59 are Israeli citizens and/or have deep connections to Israel. (Several of those he names, such as Lev Leviev, Alexander Mashkevich and Mikhail Chernoy, are very wealthy and prominent businessmen with direct access to the highest levels of Israel’s elected leadership.)

Those numbers necessarily raise questions about whether Israel too is being compromised by Putin’s Russia — about whether unsavory characters are exploiting Israel’s Law of Return to gain Israeli citizenship and by extension access to the West; about whether Israel, with its own lax financial regulations and inadequate law enforcement, is serving as a conduit for money laundering by Moscow-linked individuals and companies; and about whether Moscow is building strategic relationships with Israeli politicians — as Unger charges it has done to such phenomenal effect with the president of the United States — in order to influence and if necessary subvert Israeli policies in its interest.

Israel is not the focus of the book and Unger says he doesn’t have all the answers, but it’s pretty clear that Bibi Netanyahu is knee-deep—if not higher—in the muck and that Israel is a pretty corrupt place. As is the United States—except that in the US, corruption, a.k.a. K Street, is mainly legal. Also, Vladimir Putin is indeed a danger, and particularly to Europe. Just read the piece, right now.

UPDATE: Specifically on the “House of Trump,” lots of people have been (rhetorically) asking over the past three years if the S.O.B. is a fascist. The real thing. The most recent are journalists Talia Lavin—presently a researcher of far-right extremism and the alt-right at Media Matters—and Andrew Stuttaford—a contributing editor at the National Review—who debated the question, “Is it right to call Trump a fascist?,” in the September issue of Prospect magazine, with Lavin saying ‘yes’, the branleur is indeed one (small f), and Stuttaford ‘no’, that El Caudillo del Mar-a-Lago may be a lot of things but he’s not that. I agree wholeheartedly with Lavin, ça va de soi, as would, I am sure, my favorite “neocon” intellectual Robert Kagan, whose column from May 2016, “This is how fascism comes to America,” may be reread with profit.

2nd UPDATE: NYT contributor Thomas B. Edsall has a must-read column (Sep. 6th), “Trump and the Koch brothers are working in concert.” The lede: “They disagree about trade, tariffs and immigration, but don’t be fooled. Neither side can get what it really wants without help from the other.”

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Credit: Getty Images

Like everyone I read all about last Tuesday’s grotesque farce in Singapore, though as it was so manifestly a publicity stunt, indeed a con job, by the White House dotard—the DPRK regime is to be eternally commended for informing us native speaking Anglophones of the existence of this word in the English language—I avoided watching the TV coverage. It goes without saying that the summit was a clear win for the DPRK and with the US coming away with nothing in particular; this is the consensus among objective observers and commentators (so much so that no references are necessary). How could it be otherwise with an ignorant idiot like Trump, whose sole sources of information are what he sees on television and whatever may be whispered in his ear by one of the lackeys, lickspittles, or whackadoodles in his entourage? He reads nothing, as we know, not even short memos or abbreviated intelligence briefings. The fact that Trump was winging it in Singapore—that the preparatory work of his staff was minimal and that he had no idea what he was doing or talking about—was confirmed—if confirmation were necessary—by his own words at the press conference after the event.

While the reviews of Trump’s performance have been heavily negative, I did note a couple of gauchiste friends on social media who put a positive spin on it, taking liberals and lefties to task while they were at it for not giving Trump credit where credit was due. One of their arguments was that South Koreans in their majority were delighted by what happened in Singapore. Well, of course they would be: when a mentally deranged US dotard president threatens to rain “fire and fury” on the Korean peninsula and then, for reasons known only to himself—and even then—suddenly does a 180° and starts talking peace, then obviously people south of the 38th parallel will be relieved. So no, Trump gets zero credit. None whatever.

One friend who has weighed in publicly on Singapore is Stephen Zunes, a smart engagé political scientist well-known among lefties and peace activists, who posted his take on social media, and on which he invited me to comment. So here’s his commentary followed by my response:

Some thoughts on the Singapore Summit between Trump and Kim:

1) The joint statement is vague and doesn’t amount to much, so I’m dubious it will amount to any treaty or denuclearization or lasting peace, at least while Trump is president

2) Nevertheless, they are talking with each other instead of threatening each other and are at least pretending to move in the right direction, and that is very positive

3) US-South Korean military exercises, while largely defensive in nature, are not really necessary and are seen as provocative by the North Koreans, so their unilateral suspension by Trump as a confidence-building measure is a good thing

4) If Obama had done the same thing Trump has done in recent days regarding North Korea, Democrats would be defending him and Republicans would be mercilessly attacking him. Since it’s Trump, however, it’s largely been the other way around. The summit and the joint statement should be judged on its own merits, not by partisan politics

5) Trump is being totally hypocritical to walk away from a detailed verifiable nuclear agreement with Iran while praising a vague unverifiable set of principles with North Korea.

6) North Korea would be naïve to sign any binding agreement with Trump, since he clearly does not feel obliged to keep the United States’ international commitments

7) The joint statement was NOT one-sided in North Korea’s favor. It was one-sided in the United States’
favor, since it said nothing about the U.S. eventually getting rid of or even reducing its vast nuclear arsenal

8) North Korea is a horrific dictatorship, but that doesn’t mean that the United States shouldn’t engage in respectful diplomatic negotiations in areas of mutual concern. Indeed, the Trump administration provides arms and security assistance to Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes with bipartisan support in Congress, so it’s ridiculous to claim that meeting with Kim means the United States is suddenly coddling dictators

9) Trump probably took his far more moderate and conciliatory position than many expected because the South Koreans had so strongly objected to his earlier belligerent approach and he realized it would be difficult for a country on the far side of the world to take a more hardline position than the country most affected by North Korea

10) Despite these positive developments, the world should still be concerned about having an unstable impulsive militaristic narcissist with nuclear weapons; we should also be concerned about Kim Jong-un.

I agree with all of these points except 3, 7 and 9, and with a comment on 2. On the latter, jaw-jaw is always better than war-war but in this case, the only serious threat of war—and nuclear at that—has come from Trump. The DPRK may act crazy from time to time but, as I think we understand, it is not actually crazy, and certainly not enough to launch a bolt-out-of-the-blue attack on South Korea or Japan, let alone the US. Sure, it’s a totalitarian regime and behaves horribly toward its own people, plus to unfortunate foreigners who get into trouble there, but it does not behave irrationally in its foreign dealings. And while we have no idea about Kim Jong-un’s mental health state, we do about that of the malignant narcissistic megalomaniac in the White House, who is entirely capable of doing another 180°, tearing up what was signed at Singapore, and once again threatening to rain fire and fury if it dawns on him that he’s being played by Kim. As Emmanuel Macron and countless others have learned, Trump keeps no commitments, respects no rules, and has no friends. So one can only look at what happened in Singapore with a jaundiced eye.

On point 3: the US-South Korea military exercises are entirely legitimate and normal in view of the defense treaty between the two countries, the heavy militarization of the DPRK, and the formal state of war that still exists. Trump’s unilateral suspension was not only gratuitous—he did not need to offer Kim any more confidence-building measures than he did by simply meeting with and flattering him—but also a slap in the face to South Korea and president Moon Jae-in, who was not informed about it beforehand. This is the sort of concession to be made as part of a negotiating process, in which the US and South Korea receive something concrete and comparable in return. But such was not the case with the famous deal-maker Trump.

Point 7: The size, let alone existence, of the US nuclear arsenal is not on the table in negotiations with the DPRK. Only the latter’s is. The objection here is irrelevant.

Point 9: This assumes a logic and rationality to Trump’s thinking on foreign policy—indeed his thinking on anything—but also that he cares a whit about what other countries—here, South Korea—think or desire. Trump acts on impulse and follows his gut instinct. He cares about no one and nothing but himself. As for why he took his more moderate and conciliatory position toward the DPRK, again, we have no idea. For all we know, someone in his entourage told him that if he sought a meeting with Kim and talked peace, that he would win the Nobel Peace Prize. And Trump thought: “Great idea! And if Obama can have a Nobel Prize, why not me?” Such would also up his poll numbers and thrill the base to no end. If doesn’t get the Nobel—and he won’t—he may well walk away from his peace process, if he hasn’t already by then.

The fact of the matter is, there will be no deal with the DPRK, at least not one in which the latter denuclearizes and allows foreign inspectors unfettered access to verify that such is taking place. The DPRK would be crazy to sign such an agreement after what happened in Singapore. And they would be doubly crazy to sign any such deal with Trump.

À propos of all this, Slate staff writer Lili Loofbourow has a pertinent essay, dated June 14th, “We are in a linguistic emergency when it comes to Trump: He is getting exactly what he wants.” For those too lazy to click on the link, here’s the whole thing:

In the wake of the horrors currently being done to children in America’s name, here’s one thing we can do: Recognize we’re in a linguistic emergency. We have a president whose single-minded praise for macho might is wearing down even those who refuse to overlook his incompetence. Trump, the only presidential candidate to refer to his penis size during a national debate, wants nothing more than to be seen as powerful and manly, and to align himself with those who project the characteristics he desires. And he’s gotten help—from us. If you’ve ever called Trump “tough” on immigration, note that he just called a dictator “tough” for murdering his citizens. (And “very smart” for staying in power.) That should be a wake-up call to journalists responsible for telling the story of this moment: Stop using the words he routinely chooses to describe himself. And think hard about whether you’re accidentally reinforcing the model of power he’s trying to sell.

That change is task one: Sidestep every attempt he and his allies make to equate treating people badly with being strong, because their efforts to link those concepts are working. Neutral outlets are defaulting to his language for what he does—he’s “cracking down” on unions! He’s taking a “hard line” on the G-7! Driving “hard bargains”! These all position him as powerful, which he loves. The trouble is, it’s wrong. In practice, Trump’s positions slip and slide all over the place. He never got that “hard bargain” he allegedly drove (though he sure got credit for driving it). His deals fall through, his policy shifts depending on whomever he spoke to last. It would be the height of irony if the weakest president on record managed to rebrand himself as the strongman he so badly wants to be.

So: Infectious though his formulations can be, it’s time to break the habit. Don’t use his language outside quotation marks. Take particular care to avoid words that confuse cruelty with strength. Avoid warlike metaphors. No taking aim, no battles, no doubling down. No punching metaphors. No deals. Deny him the framing he wants. There are, after all, other words. Arbitrary. Confused. Crabby. Ignorant.

This is an extraordinarily weak president. Narrate him that way. It’s the truth.

Language reshapes relations; even the famous Stanford prison experiment—which ostensibly demonstrated that people with perceived power devolve to treating each other brutally—was recently exposed as having some of its more horrifying results engineered. The “brutal” guards were told to be brutal and how to be brutal. George Lakoff has argued that the metaphors underpinning language do at least as much messaging work as the words themselves do. He’s right. And Trump is good at using hoary old frames about mighty men, of calling losses wins. It doesn’t matter if he lies—the only goal is to convey strength. And it works.

His presidency has not, so far, been described faithfully and consistently for what it is. Take this December Bloomberg story, which describes a speech in which Trump makes it clear he has no idea how the immigration system he’s promised to change works. This is what he said: “They give us their worst people, they put them in a bin, but in his hand when he’s picking him are really the worst of the worst.” That is not, in any way, how America’s immigration functions.

In any other climate, the newsworthy element of the story would be obvious: a president claiming he can fix immigration doesn’t understand, at the most basic level, how the current system works. That’s a scandal. But rather than center that fact, the headline is “Trump Calls Immigrants With Lottery Visas ‘Worst of the Worst.’ ” That Trump got everything wrong doesn’t show up until the seventh paragraph. Not only does this marginalize what really matters—i.e., that the man in charge is so incompetent he can’t even describe the thing he plans to fix—it also concentrates the power of the story on Trump. It suggests that the important takeaway from this speech is what he calls a group of people that he just demonstrated he knows nothing about.

A president’s lack of basic competence is worth accurately reporting on. And it must be reported on when there is nothing else of value worth reporting.

So why doesn’t this happen more? Two reasons: For one, I sense in much of the reporting on Trump a secret fear that maybe we’re missing something. He won, after all. And he keeps insisting that he’s strong despite all the evidence, so maybe there’s something we’re not seeing. This, as many have pointed out, is gaslighting. It’s why he always says he has a plan he won’t describe.

The second reason is that many news organizations still confuse neutrality with accuracy. Better to just report what he says and let the people decide, the thinking goes.

But that’s wrong. And that’s due to the power of language: Simply repeating his fantastical claims makes them seem less fantastical. What a president says usually matters a great deal. But because what Trump says usually bears no relation to the truth (or to what his own policies end up being) it therefore fails to inform the public, and is not worth repeating. He wants to propagate the story of a power he doesn’t have. We shouldn’t help him.

Instead, repeat the valuable news that emanates from this White House: Usually, that will involve showing all the ways this president is wrong, weak, and reactive.

And if you’re stumped on finding the words to do that with, look to misogyny. I’m serious. Just imagine how the past week would have been framed had Trump been a woman—weakness would be the constant subtext. “A shaken Trump tries to shift blame for broken families on nonexistent ‘Democrat bill.’” “At Singapore summit, Trump makes nervous joke over weight.” “Trump catty with Trudeau.”

And then there’s this “Memo to the press, after 18 months of Trump,” posted June 15th by Robert Reich on his Facebook page:

1. Stop treating Trump’s tweets as news.

2. Never believe a single word that comes out of his mouth.

3. Don’t fall for the reality-TV spectacles he creates. (For example, his meeting with Kim Jong-un.) They’re not news, either.

4. Don’t let his churlish thin-skinned vindictive narcissistic rants divert attention from what he’s really doing.

5. Focus on what he’s really doing, and put stories into this context. He’s: (1) undermining democratic institutions, (2) using his office for personal gain, (3) sowing division and hate, (4) cozying up to dictators while antagonizing our democratic allies around the world, (5) violating the rule of law, and (6) enriching America’s wealthy while harming the middle class and the poor. He may also be (7) colluding with Putin.

6. Keep track of what his Cabinet is doing — Sessions’s attacks on civil rights, civil liberties, voting rights, and immigrants; DeVos’s efforts to undermine public education, Pruitt’s and Zinke’s efforts to gut the environment; all their conflicts of interest, and the industry lobbyists they’ve put in high positions.

7. Don’t try to “balance” your coverage of the truth with quotes and arguments from Trump’s enablers and followers. This is not a contest between right and left, Republicans and Democrats. This is between democracy and demagogic authoritarianism.

8. Don’t let him rattle you. Maintain your dignity, confidence, and courage.

À suivre.

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I’ve been travelling the past couple of weeks—mainly in Egypt (Cairo), a little in Turkey (Istanbul)—so have been off AWAV. So as to get something up—and in the same vein as the last post, on Trumpian America being a rogue state (and with the latest declaration of trade war on the country’s closest allies, can anyone seriously deny that it is?)—I offer this recent article by Andrew J. Bacevich in The American Conservative that carries the title of the post, in which it is rhetorically asked “How can you trust an establishment that so easily succumbs to fantasies of global hegemony and go-it-alone militarism?”

Bacevich aims his fire at the Washington neocon/liberal hawk think tank swamp and punditocracy, which is in permanent agitation for America to militarily intervene in some country or countries, but the main takeaway from his piece is that at this point—and given its imperialist history—America has no moral authority to be intervening just about anywhere. This was driven home to me in a review essay I just read by Max Hastings, “The Wrath of the Centurions,” in the London Review of Books, in which he reviews Howard Jones’ My Lai: Vietnam, 1968 and the Descent into Darkness. As Hastings recounts, My Lai was only the biggest massacre of non-combattants committed by American soldiers during the Vietnam War, who, in fact, murdered civilians regularly and with impunity. The number of Vietnamese villagers raped and/or killed in cold blood by American soldiers will likely never be known but it was significant. In point of fact, American soldiers have behaved thusly in every war they’ve ever participated in. Every army does likewise, of course, and a good number have been far worse, but we’re talking about America here.

On that note, here’s a thought by my friend Claire Berlinski, who has believed all her life in America as a force for good but is having second thoughts nowadays.

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