Sunday, August 28, 2016

Legal corruption, systemic corruption and pseudoscandals

Meet the Press this morning was the usual hour of gossip and horse-race chatter. The both-sides-do-it hook for the morning was, on the one hand, Trump's radical right campaign and his obscure taxes and business deals, and on the other, tacky appearances around the Clinton Foundation.

There's an important distinction to be made between breaking the law, which is normally what's implied by "corruption."

But our system in the United States is also shot through with systemic corruption, as well. And the Citizens United decision in 2010 increased that corruption by several orders of magnitude.

This does not mean that individual politicians participating in the system are bad people. Some of them are. Most are not. But even the most conscientious public officials have to be fully aware of what their major donors want on particular issues. That's why campaign finance laws need to evolve with the times. Because donors will constantly look for new ways to evade existing laws without violating them.

President Obama very often speaks in a notably more progressive mode than he has governed. What he said about the ruling just after the Supreme Court handed it down was impressive (President Obama Vows to Continue Standing Up to the Special Interests on Behalf of the American People 01/23/2010:

One of the reasons I ran for President was because I believed so strongly that the voices of everyday Americans, hardworking folks doing everything they can to stay afloat, just weren’t being heard over the powerful voices of the special interests in Washington. And the result was a national agenda too often skewed in favor of those with the power to tilt the tables.

In my first year in office, we pushed back on that power by implementing historic reforms to get rid of the influence of those special interests. On my first day in office, we closed the revolving door between lobbying firms and the government so that no one in my administration would make decisions based on the interests of former or future employers. We barred gifts from federal lobbyists to executive branch officials. We imposed tough restrictions to prevent funds for our recovery from lining the pockets of the well-connected, instead of creating jobs for Americans. And for the first time in history, we have publicly disclosed the names of lobbyists and non-lobbyists alike who visit the White House every day, so that you know what’s going on in the White House – the people’s house.

We’ve been making steady progress. But this week, the United States Supreme Court handed a huge victory to the special interests and their lobbyists – and a powerful blow to our efforts to rein in corporate influence. This ruling strikes at our democracy itself. By a 5-4 vote, the Court overturned more than a century of law – including a bipartisan campaign finance law written by Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold that had barred corporations from using their financial clout to directly interfere with elections by running advertisements for or against candidates in the crucial closing weeks. [my emphasis]

The reforms Obama brags about there were far from solving the problem, although McCain-Feingold did make some significant progress. But Obama felt the need to demonstrate that he had been trying to reduce the role of private money in politics. He certainly recognized in that speech that excessive power to financial donors was in conflict with democratic principles.

And he recognized how radical a decision Citizens United is: "This ruling strikes at our democracy itself."

He continues directly to emphasize the point:

This ruling opens the floodgates for an unlimited amount of special interest money into our democracy. It gives the special interest lobbyists new leverage to spend millions on advertising to persuade elected officials to vote their way – or to punish those who don’t. That means that any public servant who has the courage to stand up to the special interests and stand up for the American people can find himself or herself under assault come election time. Even foreign corporations may now get into the act.

I can’t think of anything more devastating to the public interest. The last thing we need to do is hand more influence to the lobbyists in Washington, or more power to the special interests to tip the outcome of elections. [my emphasis]
Obama's actions to try to reverse Citizens United can be generously described as tepid in comparison to his words on that January 23.

Which is why progressives inside and outside the Democratic Party need to be able to walk and talk at the same time on the money-in-politics issue. It's certainly legitimate and necessary to defend Hillary Clinton against false charges or implications that she violated the law around donations to the Clinton Foundation. Clinton pseudoscandals ginned up by Republican ratf**kers and then magnified by the mainstream press have been one of the most pernicious features of American politics since 1992. Sean Wilentz did a memorable analysis of this phenomenon in Will Pseudo-Scandals Decide the Election? The American Prospect 12/19/2001. And that wasn't even at the halfway point of where we are now in the history of Clinton pseudoscandals. Wilentz makes an important distinction there about the qualitative turn that had occurred in the dubious American tradition of political dirt-slinging:

Of course, negative propaganda stories have been a staple of American politics from the early years of the republic, when Federalist editors denounced the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson as a Jacobin atheist and traitor. Today's pseudo-scandal retains traits of classic mudslinging; above all, it involves distortion of an opponent's record and public statements. As in the past, many of today's partisan peddlers of pseudo-scandals spread them around through friendly journalists and pundits--modern equivalents of press lords like William Randolph Hearst and vicious columnists like Westbrook Pegler.

But there are also crucial differences. Recent pseudo-scandals have relied on the manipulation of the courts, congressional committees, and the now-defunct Independent Counsel Act in order to harass elected and appointed officials with flimsy accusations. And the pseudo-scandal masters have managed to gain the subtle and often unwitting but crucial complicity of the independent mainstream news media. Without the credibility provided by law and journalism, the new style of pseudo-scandal might simply be dismissed as partisan maneuvering. Coated with a gloss of objectivity, however, pseudoscandals gain a respectful hearing, vastly reinforcing the blatant tub-thumpers, fake inside-dopesters, and latter-day Peglers who appear on the cable networks and talk-radio shows as well as in the newspapers. [my emphasis]
This is also an interesting point about continuity, "Although the focus of today's pseudo-scandals is primarily political money, the direct historical antecedent is the media-friendly demagoguery pioneered by Senator Joseph McCarthy."

And the ghost of Tailgunner Joe is still with us. Charlie Pierce adopted the name Tailgunner Ted for Ted Cruz during the Republican Presidential primaries because of his slimy public persona and his fanatical hardline rightwing politics.

And Donald Trump is at only two degrees of separation from Tailgunner Joe himself. He learned much of what he knows about politics from McCarthy's notorious protege, Roy Cohn. (Olivia Nuzzi, Trump’s Mobbed Up, McCarthyite Mentor Roy Cohn Daily Beast 07/23/2015; Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Shawn Boburg, The man who showed Donald Trump how to exploit power and instill fear Washington Post 06/17/2016; Jonathan Mahler and Matt Flegenheimer, What Donald Trump Learned From Joseph McCarthy’s Right-Hand Man 06/20/2016; Michael Kruse, ‘He Brutalized For You’: How Joseph McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn became Donald Trump’s mentor Politico 04/08/2016; Trudy Ring, Roy Cohn and Donald Trump: Mentor and Protégé Advocate 08/16/2016)

Eliza Newling Carney takes a look at Hillary's Clinton's current wrestling with accusaions, Controversy Versus Corruption The American Prospect 08/205/2016. On one part of the endless e-mail controversies, she writes:

“These new emails confirm that Hillary Clinton abused her office by selling favors to Clinton Foundation donors,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton in a statement. Donald Trump has dubbed the Clinton Foundation a “pay-for-play” operation, called for it to shut down, and said he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate it.

These claims of corruption, however, have yet to be substantiated—despite microscopic scrutiny by the throngs of journalists, watchdogs, and political opponents poring over more than 30,000 Clinton emails. While the Kingdom of Bahrain did reportedly give $50,000 to $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation, the Crown Prince would likely have obtained a meeting with Clinton regardless—as would such foundation donors as rock star Bono and philanthropist Melinda Gates.

Clinton aide Huma Abedin made a point of setting up Clinton’s meeting with the Crown Prince through official channels, not via foundation officials. And, not unlike DNC donors, Clinton Foundation contributors often walked away unsatisfied. When Band asked for help obtaining a visa for a British soccer player who had a criminal past, Abedin’s response was that it made her “nervous to get involved,” to which Band replied, “Then don’t.” The visa was not granted, nor was Bono’s request for help streaming a U2 concert through the International Space Station.
Hillary's official dealings with major Clinton Foundation donors are a legitimate object for press and public scrutiny. So are those of Republican politicians:

This caution applies not just to Clinton but to Donald Trump, who runs his own foundation, and to the many politicians on both sides of the aisle who have courted controversy by raising big, undisclosed contributions for their personal nonprofits. These include Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and unsuccessful GOP presidential hopeful, who raised large corporate donations for a Florida education nonprofit, and who was one of more than a half-dozen Republican White House candidates involved this year in secretive charitable fundraising.
Politicians' involvement with charitable contributions is something that deserves to be regulated better. It's one of those areas in which campaign-finance laws need to be continuously improved.

Friday, August 26, 2016

More on Clinton's alt-right speech

As I mentioned in the previous post, I have a mixed reaction to Hillary's "alt-right" speech yesterday. I like that she goes after specific individual nasties associated with Trump and even repeatedly calls them "white supremacists" and "white nationalists." With no "Sister Souljah moment" to toss in a both-sides-do-it element. After eight years of Obama's fudging and endless "bipartisan" talk, it's a relief to see.

But she also sticks to the framing that somehow this is a problem of Trump and a clique around him, not the way the Republican Party has been functioning for a long time. Trump may be ruder than nasty Ted Cruz or John Kasich, the hardline rightwinger who passed himself off to the press this year as the Last Republican Moderate. But his racial and xenophobic politics are not outliers in today's Christian Republican White Man's Party.

Trying to draw a sharp distinction between Trump and some imagined more responsible conservatives in today's Republican Party reminds me of how white Mississippians in the 1960s made a conventional distinction between their "courtly" hardline segregationist Senator John Stennis and the meaner image of their other hardline segregationist Senator Jim Eastland.

I was also struck at how she recycled boilerplate rhetoric from 1964 and 1980, "Of course there has always been a paranoid fringe in our politics, a lot of it rising from racial resentment. But it’s never had the nominee of a major party stoking it, encouraging it, and giving it a national megaphone." And, "A fringe element has effectively taken over the Republican Party." There was much more reason to frame things this way in 1964, when there actually were liberals in the Republicans Party. And in 1980, when there was a recognizable moderate faction of people like John Anderson.

Also, "all of this adds up to something we’ve never seen before." I guess that's okay if she's referring to an orange-haired Republican candidate for President. It was Hillary herself who famously referred to the "vast rightwing conspiracy" going after Bill, and the Gingrich "Revolution" (that word that so panics Democrats) was every bit as nasty as Goldwater in 1964. There was that little impeachment business going on, too. John Kasich was one of the lead players in the impeachment drive. The fact that Kasich counts as the Last Republican Moderate is a sign of how the rudeness of the rhetoric, rather than substantive policy ideas, is now the main distinguishing public feature of the various Republican factions.

Jeet Heer at the New Republic argues that Hillary "is trying to heighten the contradictions in the Republican Party." (In Her Alt-Right Speech, Hillary Gave the GOP a Mafia Kiss 8/26/2016)

I think that may be the first time I've ever seen anyone actually use that "heighten the contradictions" phrase without sneering at the concept as a bad idea. Heer argues that Hillary is warning people like Paul Ryan that they will suffer from the judgment of history if they don't renounce Trump. I think that's too imaginative a reading of Hillary's speech. And I doubt seriously that Paul Ryan and most other Republican in Congress actually give a rip about the judgment of history. They're worried about keeping their corporate sponsors happy.

I just think the ideological conformity of today's Republican Party is so strong that this is a long shot, especially for the woman who has been the right's most hated Harpy Demon for 25 years. Or to put it in the quasi-Hegelian terminology, Republicans see their enmity to Hillary as the "primary contradiction" here; any embarrassment over Trump's nasty mouth is taken as a "secondary contradiction."

(As an aside here, the "primary contradiction" thing made me wonder if Hegel actually used the concepts of primary and secondary contradictions. I know that at some point between Hegel's passing in 1831 and now, those concepts were taken up in Marxist political theory and left propaganda. But I don't know where it originated. Note to self for a geeking-out research project.)

The PBS Newshour had this report on Hillary's alt-right speech, Why the ‘alt-right’ is coming out of online chat rooms to support Trump 08/25/2016:

Sleepy Mark Shields and Bobo Brooks took up the alt-right speech today, Shields and Brooks on the alt-right and a general lack of trust in Clinton 08/26/2016:

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Hillary vs. Republican radicalism - oh, make that Trump radicalism

Earlier this week, I linked to a good article by Rick Perlstein that illustrated the intensity gap between Democrats and Republicans, in which the Republicans are more than happy to smear the Democratic Party in general and all its candidates, while the Democrats are hesitant to hang Donald Trump's radicalism around the necks of all his Party's candidates. Or even the Party itself!

Hillary Clinton provided a good illustration of this on Thursday when she took on Trump and his "alt-right" allies in a speech that was presumably well-received by her strongest supporters. But it's also obvious that she was giving down-ballot Republicans an alibi rather than lumping them together with Trump. Maria La Ganga reports for the Guardian (Clinton slams Trump's 'racist ideology' that ushers hate groups into mainstream 08/25/2016):

The speech, a kind of throwing down of the patriotic gauntlet, came eight days after Trump named Steve Bannon as the new chief of his struggling campaign. Bannon is a Breitbart News executive and a key figure in the anti-establishment revolt that has captured the Republican party.

“The de facto merger between Breitbart and the Trump campaign represents a landmark achievement for the ‘alt-right’,” Clinton declared. “A fringe element has effectively taken over the Republican party. All of this adds up to something we’ve never seen before.

“Of course, there’s always been a paranoid fringe in our politics, steeped in racial resentment,” she continued. “But it’s never had the nominee of a major party stoking it, encouraging it, and giving it a national megaphone. Until now.” ...

“This is not conservatism as we have known it,” she continued. “This is not Republicanism as we have known it. These are racist ideas, race-baiting ideas, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-women, all key tenets making up the emerging racist ideology known as the alt-right.”
Aside from trying to make this a Trump issue and not a Republican Party issue, it also strikes me as lazy speech writing. The Democrats in 1964 rightly charged that the Goldwater movement represented a "fringe element" that had "effectively taken over the Republican party," to use Hillary's words, a "paranoid fringe" whose 1964 version inspired Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics, which all the star reporters seem to have at least heard of, though it's doubtful if many of them have actually read it.

Richard Nixon made the "Southern Strategy" into a permanent feature of Republican politics, encouraging and exploiting white racial hatred against blacks and other minorities. When Reagan emerged in 1976 as a strong Presidential contender and then became the Republican nominee in 1980, Democrats were making similar arguments about how Reagan represented a "fringe element."

And all the while, the bounds of respectability in Republican politics kept being pushed further and further to the right. Now rightwingers like Ted Cruz and John Kasich appear responsible and sensible in contrast to Trump because they aren't quite so crass in their rhetoric. Kasich even got to position himself as the Last Moderate Republican during the Republican primaries.

But Hillary's rhetoric positions herself as though she's closer to the Real Republicans than Trump is. Letting a radical, obstructionist party largely off the hook for building the radicalism that resulted in Donald Trump as their nominee.

Adn there's this: "On Thursday, Reno’s mayor, Hillary Schieve, who describes herself as an independent, introduced Clinton to the crowd and endorsed the woman she described as 'a true consensus builder'." But those nice, reasonable Real Republicans Clinton's rhetoric assumes are phantoms. And the problem is not just rhetorical, though failing to frame major issues in Democratic terms is a genuine problem in itself. If Hillary Clinton is serious about having a chance to enact the things she's been promising, she's going to need Democratic majorities. And that means aggressively contesting Republican-held Congressional seats, not just now but in 2018, as well.

President Obama chased the legendary Moderate Republicans for his entire Presidency. After 7 1/2 years of dedicated obstructionism on their part, he still can barely give a speech without putting things a conservative framing, as thought those Moderate Republicans are still out there somewhere waiting to finally emerge. When they are actually about as much in evidence as the fabled "Syrian Moderates."

The Washington Post has made the entire prepared text of Clinton's speech available, Hillary Clinton’s ‘alt-right’ speech, annotated 08/25/2016.

Just to be clear, I do like the fact that she named names and called out some of the specific hysterical rightwing memes flying around. That part of it sounds like the Hillary that is willing to fight Republicans.

But she didn't frame the speech as an attack on the Republican Party, only on Donald Trump.

But then how can she also say, "This is not conservatism as we have known it." Yes, this is conservatism as we've known it since 1978-80. Even if the messaging coming from Trump is tackier than most. But is Trump's rhetoric very similar to, say, Sarah Palin's? You bet'cha!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Jamie Galbraith on the left and center-left in Europe

Jamie Galbraith has been writing about the state of politics in Europe, The Future of the Left in Europe The American Prospect 08/17/2016 and From the destruction of Greece to democracy in Europe Boston Globe 08/22/2016.

In his Prospect piece, he notes that there are varying patterns in whether voters that have been heavily disadvantaged by neoliberal economic and social policies tend to left parties or rightwing ones:

Stymied for now, the radical left faces a strategic choice. One option is to break up the European Union, hoping that the voters in the newly exited states will move to the Left, once the heavy thumb of austerity imposed from Brussels and Frankfurt comes off. This strategy is known as Lexit. Its advantage lies in the disillusion of many working-class voters with the European institutions, a fact clearly seen in the turn of traditional Labour Party districts across England and Wales to the Leave column in the referendum.

But Lexit faces the difficulty that the dominant anti-European forces are not left-wing at all. They are the extreme parties of the radical Right—from the frankly Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece to UKIP and France's National Front. Lexit forces are therefore allied, distastefully, with nativists, xenophobes, and neo-fascists. Once out of Europe, there is reason to fear that the far Right would come to power first, and would undermine the democratic guarantees, which flow partly from European law, that preserve the possibility of progressive victories later on. This process is already advanced, even within Europe, in Poland and Hungary; it is a potential threat to democratic stability even in France.
And he describes how drastically the situation of the center-left parties has been changing:

The rise of radical-left parties just a quarter-century after “the end of history” has put the mainstream into a spiritual crisis. Several decades back, leaders like Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder, and (more recently) George Papandreou could plausibly claim to be the modern generation. There were framed and forged by the economic and ideological transformations of the Thatcher-Reagan era and by Western triumph in the Cold War. They rejected old-style socialism and trimmed the welfare state. They advanced the European project, accepted the leadership of the United States, and deferred to the free market. In parallel, they also advanced a broad liberalization of social life, including reproductive choice, gay rights, racial and ethnic and religious diversity, and freedom of movement. These were what (largely) defined the mainstream as progressive: They imparted a veneer of social equalization over rapidly rising economic inequality. [my emphasis]
In the Globe column, he gives this picture of the current political moment:

Greece was given collective punishment as a lesson [for its attempt in 2015 to stop radical austerity policies]. It was done to show that “there is no alternative.” It was done to stop any other attempt to develop, articulate, and defend a more rational policy. It was done to protect the power of the European Central Bank, the German government in Europe, and the policy-making authority, in face of a long record of failure, of the IMF.

Greece is now a colony — the polite say “protectorate.” Elsewhere in Europe the left — Podemos in Spain, the Left Bloc in Portugal, Die Linke in Germany — has stalled out, for now. In France the Socialists are destroying themselves. Italy alone is interesting: It is in the midst of a banking crisis whose only solution is stronger growth; this requires the government to defy Eurozone doctrine or it may lose power to the radical Five Star movement soon. But, apart from that one case, progressive Europe is blocked.

Next up will be the far right, especially the National Front in France, which if it came to power would blow the European Union apart. Similar pressures are building in Poland and Hungary, which have governments already outside of European democratic norms. In Britain, right-wing Tories and the UK Independence Party have combined to vote the UK out of the European Union — although with surprisingly moderate political results so far.

Identity politics and class among Trump supporters

Josh Marshall makes a really good analysis on the effect of economic conditions on generating support for Donald Trump. He manages not to get tangled up in the dilemma that's been with the left and center-left since forever, the priority to be given to "identity" issues vs. "class" issues: Trumpism is a Politics of Loss and Revenge TPM 08/21/2016:

It's obvious that white racism and "traditional family" (i.e., anti-feminist) ideas have an appeal that's not tied directly or obviously to economic status.

On the other hand, economic status and opportunity aren't totally unrelated to the emphasis people put on identity and civil rights issues. Discouraging economic conditions make people more open to demagogic appeals on race and gender as well as on economic issues.

Josh's emphasis on looking at the community context as well as the individual's own status is a very realistic approach to take in looking at this:

I tend to come down on seeing Trumpism more through a racial prism. But seeing the above evidence as ruling out 'economic anxiety' is a naive way of thinking about how societies and social groups work.

It actually reminds me of an equally insipid debate about the roots of terrorism. Liberals say that the breeding ground for terrorism is joblessness, economic stagnation, lack of hope about the future, etc. - whether in the suburbs of Paris, Cairo or Riyadh. Conservatives point out that many of the top jihadists actually - many of the 9/11 hijackers, for instance - cAme [sic] from affluent or at least middle class families and have good educations. Ergo, sorry liberals, your argument falls apart.

Again, that's not how it works.

It is almost a cliche of historical and sociological literature that the people with their noses closest to the grind stone tend not to be activists or revolutionary figures. It's people in social proximity to great penury and suffering but often not experiencing it so directly or sometimes not experiencing at all who turn out to be the big political actors.

Trumpism is about loss. And that loss is real. It's not just about being haters or uneducated or stupid. The fact that what's being lost is in most respects something that wasn't legitimate to have in the first place - status, centrality and racial privilege - should not blind us to the fact that the loss is real and that it will have political consequences. [my emphasis]
People on the left tend to believe - with good reason! - that our favored economic policies would benefit working class men and women of all ethnic backgrounds more than the dominant neoliberal ideology practiced in drastic form by Republicans and with a smiling face in the corporate-Democratic version.

But it's also the case that some significant portion of people who stand to benefit economically from left-leaning policies are not convinced that such is the case. They may find Republican/neoliberal arguments more persuasive. The Democrats who don't adhere to the neoliberal gospel have some convincing to do on that front, as well.

The Democratic-Republican intensity gap

Rick Perlstein has a great piece on the intensity gap between the Democratic establishment, on the one hand, and the entire Republican Party, on the other, when it comes to "down ballot" elections. Hillary's GOP Sympathies Washington Spectator 08/22/2016.

The version at the National Memo is titled Don’t Save The Speaker—Let Him Go Down With The Trump Ship.

This section makes Perlstein's point dramatically with this series of flashbacksd:

You see the mid-1990s, when President Bill Clinton, kneecapped by his botched initiative to welcome gays into the military, the defeat of his healthcare plan in 1994, and the Republican takeover of Congress the same year, responded by taking Dick Morris’s advice and defining his administration via the neologism of “triangulation”—living halfway between the screaming lunacy of Newt Gingrich on the one side, and the Congressional liberals in his own party on the other, thus enshrining a false equivalency that Democrats fighting to preserve the social safety net and perhaps to even expand it must be, well, just as extreme as the guy who said, “I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.”

There was 2004, when John Kerry’s Democratic National Convention team—at the height of the Iraq debacle, a faltering economy, and a series of corporate scandals capped by the collapse of a fraudulent company called Enron, run by one of George Bush’s old pals - vetted all speeches to make sure they didn’t criticize George Bush. (“Bush will come up this week,” explained Kerry spokesman Stephanie Cutter, “but we don’t have to tell the story of George Bush because the American people are living it every day. What we’re talking about is the future.” Only old man Jimmy Carter, God bless him, exercising a former president’s prerogative, dared defy the ukase.)

Then there was 2008 when, waking up to the smoking ruins all around them, the American people repudiated conservatism so thoroughly that Republican pundits like David Brooks began opining that their party’s “stale, government-is-the-problem, you can’t trust the government” rhetoric was “a disaster for the Republican Party.”

And when, instead of throwing ’em anvils, our new president made Kerry’s 2004 mistake all-but-official party policy. As he put it of our friends on the other side of the aisle in 2010, “no person, no party, has a monopoly on wisdom,” and it was time to find “common ground.”
No wonder that so many Democratic base voters and activists are so tired of this "bipartisan" posturing by Democratic leaders.

A cynic might even suggest that this approach might have something to do with the preferences of the Democratic Party's corporate sponsors. It's convenient for them for a Democratic President to be able to say, gee, I'd like to do Democratic things, but I have to support all this conservative stuff because the Republicans control the House, or the Senate, or both, whatever.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Plenty of complications in Syria

Turkey's role is one of the chronic complications in considerations of expanding the US military role in the Syrian civil war.

Bashar al-Assad's government in Damascus recently opened up a front against the YPG, the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdish PKK. (Konflikt zwischen Assad-Regime und Kurden: In Syrien droht eine neue Front Spiegel Online 20.08.2016; Kurdish militia launches assault to evict Syrian army from key city of Hasaka Reuters 08/21/2016) Turkey's President Tayyip Erdoğan's government has been a foe of the Assad regime. But Turkey is more concerned about the PKK becoming strong enough to mount an effective secessionist movement inside Turkey.

As Robert Fisk notes in Turkey's hit list of enemies is growing as Erdogan prepares to buddy up with Putin in Syria Independent 08/21/2016, this could presage better relations between his government and Assad's. Not least because of Turkey's current efforts to improve relations with Assad's ally and sponsor, Russia:

Syrian opposition figures in Turkey have been alarmed at reports of secret talks between Damascus and Ankara – through what the French used to call “interlocuteurs valables”, or people trusted by both sides – and an apparently stray remark by the Turkish Prime Minister just before the attempted coup (and before the St Petersburg meeting) to the effect that relations will one day have to be restored with Syria.

Clearly Erdogan’s new love for Mother Russia comes at a price. The Tsar will surely have discussed his own affection for Bashar – and Turkey’s role in trying to crush the Government which Moscow supports with its armed forces – at their mutual summit. Could it be, therefore, that the Sultan is thinking of renewing his old friendship with the Lion of Damascus? Be sure he is.

The Obama Administration has been providing assistance to the PKK as a fighting force opposed to both the Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus and the Islamic State.

For public consumption, the Obama Administration has always claimed to be developing a fighting force of Syrian Moderates. Such people seem to be hard to find. That tends to happen in civil wars, I hear.

The closest thing we've been able to claim as Syrian Moderates the last few months has been the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition headed up by the Kurdish YPF. (Kurdish-led SDF launches offensive on Syria's Raqqa Aljazeera 05/24/2016) Also awkward given the interests of our NATO ally Turkey.

The US has "embedded" American troops with the Kurds. It's a small commitment of US forces. But it's likely to escalate, especially if Hillary Clinton continues her hawkish stance on Syria when she becomes President. Juan Cole writes (Near-War: US Planes almost tangle with Syrian MiGs, which bombed area of US troop Embeds Informed Comment 08/20/25016):

Since the YPG is the only really reliable ground force willing and able to take on Daesh [the Islamic State], the US has allied with it (over the objections of Turkey). Washington has embedded some 200 US troops with YPG units (some were even caught wearing YPG insignia). ...

if you bomb the YPG, you might well hit an American special operations soldier.

Washington minded, and flew its own jets over Hasaka on Friday, apparently scaring off the Syrian pilots (the Pentagon tried to play this confrontation down).

But this US and coalition intervention could have a long tail. Is the US committing itself to a no-fly-zone over Rojava, the area of Syria on which the YPG wants to erect a mini-state? Arguably, the US no-fly-zone over Iraq helped get us into the Iraq War.

So not only are US troops in danger of being killed by al-Assad’s mad bombers (as tens of thousands of innocent civilians have been) but US pilots are in danger at any moment of going to war in the skies against the Syrian air force.

Me, I think this is a dangerous flashpoint.
Another group that the US is supporting is the Nusra Front, which is also opposed to both the Syrian government and the Islamic state. The Nusra Front has some rather embarrassing connections, though: "The al-Nusra Front's pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda has ended speculation over the suspected ties between the Syrian jihadist group and the Islamist militant network." (Profile: Syria's al-Nusra Front BBC News 04/10/20136) This has been an embarrassment for a while. (Robert Perry, Should US Ally with Al Qaeda in Syria? Consortium News 10/01/2015)

The Nusra Front has recently made a show of renouncing it's Al Qaeda affiliation. Though the sincerity and meaning of that nominal disavowal is quite dubious. (Gareth Porter, Al Qaeda’s Name Game in Syria Consortium News 08/06/2016; Robert Fisk, Don't be fooled by reports that al-Qaeda and Nusra have split for the good of the suffering Syrian people Independent 07/29/2016)

Ray McGovern gives us a sense of the kind of disregard for international law that the Obama Administration too often has in its military policies, not a promising sign for Syria policy (A Lawless Plan to Target Syria’s Allies Consortium News 08/20/2016):

Remember, after the U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine in February 2014, when Russia intervened to allow Crimea to hold a referendum on splitting away from the new regime in Kiev and rejoining Russia, the U.S. government insisted that there was no excuse for President Vladimir Putin not respecting the sovereignty of the coup regime even if it had illegally ousted an elected president.

However, regarding Syria, the United States and its various “allies,” including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel, have intervened directly and indirectly in supporting various armed groups, including Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, seeking the violent overthrow of Syria’s government.

Without any legal authorization from the United Nations, President Barack Obama has ordered the arming and training of anti-government rebels (including some who have fought under Nusra’s command structure), has carried out airstrikes inside Syria (aimed at Islamic State militants), and has deployed U.S. Special Forces inside Syria with Kurdish rebels.
And there is no shortage of actors in the Syrian civil war who would love to see the United States become more deeply involved militarily. Patrick Cockburn reports (There are so many foreign backers in the Syrian war that nothing is changing – rebels hope that Hillary Clinton could change that Independent 08/12/2016):

Each side [in the civil war] responds to any setback on the battlefield by asking and getting greater support from foreign backers. In this case, the Syrian government is looking to Russia, Iran and Shia militias from Lebanon and Iraq for reinforcements and air strikes. As they have shown repeatedly since 2011, none of these allies can afford to see Assad defeated and have a great deal riding on his staying in power. They were caught by surprise on 1 August when the rebel umbrella group Jaish al-Fatah, of which the main fighting component is the salafi-jihadi al-Nusra Front, broke through government lines in south west Aleppo. Rebel fighters, numbering between 5,000 and 10,000 men, are supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. The Syrian army, battered by suicide bombers, retreated and their commander has been sacked. ...

Pro-Assad forces are reported to have been reinforced by 2,000 fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shia militias – their military experience, training and morale often making them superior to the regular army. ...

A further factor reinforcing the stalemate in the war is that much of the fighting in Iraq and Syria is conducted on all aides by criminalised warlords with no interest in the well-being or even survival of the civilian population. But such cynicism, while usually realistic, can also be deceptive because it fosters a belief that nobody has a core of firm believers who will fight to the end.

Every fight in Syria takes place in political, sectarian, ethnic and social landscapes so distinct that they falsify generalisations about the course of the conflict. ...

Indigenous factions in Syria are not going to bring an end to the war except by victory on the battlefield and this is a long way off. But the conflict has become progressively internationalised with the US starting its air campaign against Islamic State in September 2014 and Russia doing the same in defence of Assad a year later. ...

... the Syrian Kurds are the main military ally of the US in Syria. ...

It may be ... that Turkish capacity and willingness to help the anti-Assad rebels will be more limited in future. The rebels will hope this does not happen and wait to see if they will be rescued by a Hillary Clinton Presidency. More hawkish towards Assad than President Obama, she might shift from giving priority to destroying Islamic State, but more likely she will stick with his policies. [my emphasis]

Being realistic about combating terrorism and "naming" the enemy

Paul Pillar cautions against conceiving combatting terrorism in the framework of a War on Terror or the like (The Cold War Mindset and Counterterrorism The National Interest 08/20/2016):

We have seen this with references to “World War IV” (the idea being that the Cold War was number III) and “Islamofascism”. The same pattern crops up in numerous other ways. The recent memoir of a former deputy director of the CIA, for example, is grandiosely titled The Great War of Our Time.

Several things are fundamentally wrong with framing counterterrorism this way. One is that this badly misrepresents the nature of the threat from international terrorism in suggesting a foe with a degree of unity and organization comparable to the enemy powers in the twentieth century world wars or to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. If terrorism is what we are worried about, then we need to remember that terrorism is not a foe or an organization or an ideology but instead a tactic used by many different perpetrators with many different ideologies. Even focusing just on the radical Islamist variety of terrorism, there is neither this kind of organizational unity (as indicated by several of the very attacks Trump mentions in his speech, in which the perpetrators had no organizational ties to any larger group) or even ideological unity (as reflected in the Sunni-vs.-Shia conflicts that dominate much of the current strife in the Middle East).
He also makes this observation about one of the Republicans' favorite rhetorical obsessions of the day: "Particularly stupid is the insistence on 'naming' Islamic terrorism. Not only President Obama but also President George W. Bush understood that such 'naming' has nothing to do with understanding threats and instead only alienates more Muslims."

There's also something downright superstitious about the notion. It's as though they think saying the name of someone gives them some magical power over the person.

There actually is a concept in some varieties of Christian fundamentalism called "name it and claim it." Particularly in the "prosperity gospel" trend. Essentially the idea is that if you ask God for some specific thing in prayer and have true faith that He will provide it, then you will get it.

Viewed in a less theological way, it's a mind-over-matter belief.

Pillar is also concerned about the neo-Cold War approach that has, unfortunately, bipartisan support:

The Cold War mindset that is involved here wasn't even an entirely appropriate way of looking at the Cold War itself. It saw global communism as more monolithic than it really was, a misconception that led to such misdirections as the Vietnam War. But at least there really was a USSR, which was a nuclear power and had a global policy of expanding its influence. Applying the mindset to current policy challenges is even less appropriate than it was during the Cold War. And it's not only Donald Trump we have to blame for corruption of public thinking about such challenges.
Grandiose, Manichean Christian fundamentalist thinking is also analogous to overblown Cold War notions.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Progressives' worries about a new Clinton Administration

I always try to be cautious about the proverbial unhatched chickens.

But Donald Trump's Presidential campaign has been such a disaster so far that I'm going on the assumption that President Hillary Clinton will be inaugurated in January 2017.

And that means that the most consequential debates over practical policy have already taken place. In the context of the Sanders/Clinton nomination contest.

For progressives, there's good reason to assume we'll have plenty to criticize about a new Clinton Administration.

Memories of the Clinton I Administration

Jake Johnson recalls some the policies of the first 8-year Clinton Administration that were definitely not on the progressive political agenda in Leftists Against Clintonism Common Dreams 08/11/2016:

With their championing of welfare reform, NAFTA, and the omnibus crime bill in the 1990's, along with their continued support for interventionist wars abroad and pro-business "trade" agreements, Democrats have moved rightward along with the Republicans, who, as Noam Chomsky often observes, have gone completely off the political spectrum.

But one need not look back in time to find reasons to reject Clintonism: In 2016, Hillary is actively courting the favor of conservative billionaires and, according to recent reports, the contemptible Henry Kissinger, who she touts as a personal friend. Despite purporting to be in favor of campaign finance reform, she has accepted millions in donations from Wall Street and hedge funds. And, having also received a significant sum of campaign cash from the insurance industry, she has turned her back on what was previously a key plank of the Democratic agenda, single-payer health care.

Her decision to choose a running mate who has in the past been hostile to labor and whose most notable claim to fame is his ability to woo corporate donors is just icing.

Clinton's record, in short, betrays a series of rightward sprints on matters of extreme consequence, sprints that were often accompanied by the crass, reactionary, and hostile rhetoric that has come to characterize the anti-poor, fanatically pro-business Republican Party. And though in 2016 Clinton has put forward a new image, the substance of her politics remains fundamentally unaltered.
In a separate article, Johnson reminds us of how hostile the Democratic establishment actually is to progressive reforms, and to the people who advocate them (Liberal Elites Hate the Left Common Dreams 06/23/2016):

Liberalism has become a political framework that, as Emmett Rensin has written, "insists it has no ideology at all, only facts. No moral convictions, only charts, the kind that keep them from 'imposing their morals' like the bad guys do."

Since the presidency of Bill Clinton, Democrats have become increasingly anti-ideological (in word), opting instead for an approach cloaked in the garb of objectivity and pragmatism: No longer, for instance, would liberals favor, in principle, labor over business.

Simultaneously, however, despite liberals' professed disdain for political doctrines, a new ideology arose in the place of the New Deal tradition, an ideology that would ultimately come to infect both of America's major political parties: Neoliberalism.

And with the rise of neoliberalism came an aversion to the politics and projects of the left, including its persistent support for the working class, its focus on rising income inequality, and its opposition to the entrenched free market consensus.
Foreign policy and war

Hillary Clinton's well-known hawkish inclinations are a huge worry for progressives.

Elizabeth Schulte writes in Hillary Clinton, Secretary of War Jacobin Aug 2016 (accessed 08/19/2016):

On most foreign policy decisions — including Libya, after the US turned against sometime-ally, sometime-enemy Muammar Qaddafi — Clinton was in favor of equally aggressive action, if not more so, than former Bush appointee [and Obama's Republican Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates. But Clinton and Obama got away with hawkish policies Bush never would have because they stuck to the language of “humanitarian intervention” and “liberation.”

In Libya, Clinton argued for intervention against the backdrop of a popular uprising against a dictator. But the end game for the US was little different from the Bush Doctrine of unilateral regime change across the Middle East. Clinton helped assert the “right” of the US government to intervene in any country of its choosing, using the most brutal means possible to achieve its ends.
I'm not sure I would agree that the Bush Administration would not have gotten away with such things. Since, you know, it got away with invading Iraq - with Sen. Hillary Clinton's support.

Campaign Marketing and the Chance for a Mandate

Alex Wagner writes about the Clinton-Kaine campaign's worries about turnout in How Scared Do Clinton Voters Really Need to Be? The Atlantic 08/18/2016:

But behind closed doors, there is a shared, quiet paranoia among Democratic strategists and voters alike: don’t get too publicly confident… or voters won’t show up in November. The thinking is that if too many Democrats believe the Trump threat has been neutralized, they won’t turnout for Clinton. Democratic voters, after all, are not as reliable as Republicans — a point proven every mid-term election.

And the importance of oppositional threat as motivating factor would seem to be historic this year in particular, given how much of this season’s Democratic enthusiasm is built on the indignation, fear, and shame around a Trump administration, rather than a particular enthusiasm for a Clinton presidency.
The reference to "every mid-term election" can only apply to a period shorter than ten years. Because in 2006, as a result of the Cheney-Bush Administration unpopularity and, very importantly, DNC Chair Howard Dean's aggressive "50 state strategy" in recruiting Congressional candidates and focusing on midterm turnout.

Unfortunately, those "behind closed doors" concerns about turnout carry another message. I'm not current on the details of the get-out-the-vote and voter-registration campaigns going on. But if the Clinton campaign is worried about turnout, it suggests that their view of voter registration is more Vote Against Trump than Vote Against the Republican Party Down The Line. What we don't hear about in Wagner's article is any plan by the campaign or the Democratic Party to mount a massive get-out-the-vote campaign comparable to the Obama For America mobilization in 2008.

Which in turn means that Clinton's campaign is not trying to build a Democratic mandate but is rather sticking to her At Least She's Not Trump emphasis. This has consequences for how fights over policy starting in 2017 could play out. Very high on the list of those consequences is likely to be that such an approach will not maximize the potential of reducing the Republicans majorities in the House and the Senate.

And the more Clinton campaign argues that Trump is not a real Republicans, that he's somehow hijacked a Party whose values and policies are drastically different from his, it could cripple the campaign's ability to frame issues like campaign financing, bank regulation and minimum wage increases in specifically Democratic terms.

Molly Ball in The Republican Party in Exile The Atlantic 08/18/2016 promotes the more than dubious notion that somehow the real Republican Party is teeming with diversity and moderation.

... Republicans don’t have anything they agree on anymore, as the conservative columnist Matt Continetti recently noted. There are Republicans who favor more foreign adventurism and those who favor less of it; those who would drastically shrink the government and those who would consider raising taxes; those who favor gay marriage and those who oppose it. (President Hoover’s great-granddaughter, Margaret Hoover, is a pro-gay-marriage activist.) Nonpartisan analyses of Trump’s tax proposals say it would explode the deficit, something of great concern to budget hawks like Cogan. "But, judging by the candidates’ proposals, I’m not sure there’s agreement that a problem exists," he said mournfully.
Be that as it may, I see no reason to assume at this point that the Republicans in the House and Senate in 2017 are going to be any less obstructionist to a Clinton Administration than they have been with an Obama Administration.

At least one Clinton primary supporter, Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog, seems to be pooh-poohing the whole idea that there can be any such thing as a Democratic mandate (Democrats Don't Get Mandates 08/15/2016):

I'm not going to worry about whether the strategy is going to deprive her of a mandate. I know Democrats don't get to have mandates ...

Republicans faced with a Democratic president invariably find a reason to be the Party of No. It's always something.
This scans to me as a way of saying: It's silly to expect that a Democratic President can actually get anything done; the best we can hope for is some decent Supreme Court appointees and a few decent Executive orders. I suppose it sets the bar for a Hillary Clinton Administration so low that, in those terms, it's virtually guaranteed to be a Success!

But I'm on the same page with Steve M on this, "As president, she's going to be a mix of centrist and progressive, and we have to influence the mix."

Clinton's Transition Team

Policy concerns are not just a concern for campaign marketing. Clinton's recently-announced transition team doesn't point toward a new New Deal, to put it mildly. (Amanda Becker and Luciana Lopez, Clinton names close confidants, Obama veterans to transition team Reuters 08/17/2016)

Bill Black discusses it in Few (If Any) Progressives on Clinton's Transition Team The Real News 08/17/2016:

Fortunately, the news is not all bad for progressives on the transition team. Jennifer Granholm, for instance, is part of the transition team. Clinton Campaign Announces Heads of Transition Team NBC News 08/16/2016.

The Young Turks also take a dim view of the transition team, headed by ConservaDem Ken Salazar, Hillary’s New Hire Reveals Her Pro-Corporate Priorities 08/17/2016:

That report also talks about the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) corporate-deregulation "trade" treaty.

Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP)

Corporate-dergulation treaties like TPP are now so unpopular with so much of the public and the Democratic base than even a corporate Democrat like Clinton would prefer not to have to go to bat for it. But corporate Democrat Barack Obama is willing to do so. (Adam Behsudi, Obama puts Congress on notice: TPP is coming Politico 08/12/2016)

Joe Stiglitz earlier this year explained how damaging the deregulation provisions of the TPP would be to democratic government and to health-and-safety and environmental regulations (In 2016, let's hope for better trade agreements - and the death of TPP Guardian 01/10/2016):

The problem is not so much with the agreement’s trade provisions, but with the “investment” chapter, which severely constrains environmental, health, and safety regulation, and even financial regulations with significant macroeconomic impacts.

In particular, the chapter gives foreign investors the right to sue governments in private international tribunals when they believe government regulations contravene the TPP’s terms (inscribed on more than 6,000 pages). In the past, such tribunals have interpreted the requirement that foreign investors receive “fair and equitable treatment” as grounds for striking down new government regulations – even if they are non-discriminatory and are adopted simply to protect citizens from newly discovered egregious harms.

While the language is complex – inviting costly lawsuits pitting powerful corporations against poorly financed governments – even regulations protecting the planet from greenhouse gas emissions are vulnerable. The only regulations that appear safe are those involving cigarettes (lawsuits filed against Uruguay and Australia for requiring modest labeling about health hazards had drawn too much negative attention). But there remain a host of questions about the possibility of lawsuits in myriad other areas.

Furthermore, a “most favoured nation” provision ensures that corporations can claim the best treatment offered in any of a host country’s treaties. That sets up a race to the bottom – exactly the opposite of what US President Barack Obama promised.
Cenk Uygur looks at this move, Obama Pushing TPP So Hillary Won’t Have To The Young Turks 08/18/2016:

Robert Reich broke down why TPP is a bad thing for the American people in Robert Reich takes on the Trans-Pacific Partnership MoveOn 01/29/2015:

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Aleppo and the very messy Syrian civil war

This Los Angeles Times story gives us a glimpse at how messy and complicated the Syrian civil war is (Soldiers on both sides see the fight for Aleppo as a battle between jihadists 08/17/2016):

Opposition groups announced the “Ibrahim al-Yousef” offensive earlier this month to break the government’s siege on rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

It was another sign of the cataclysmic sectarian confrontation the battle of Aleppo has become for the rebels arrayed against Assad, not to mention the growing integration of hardcore jihadists in rebel ranks despite U.S. efforts to wean the opposition of them.

Although the five-year civil war in Syria began as anti-government protests, it has devolved into a sectarian bloodbath that has pitted the largely Sunni opposition against forces loyal to Assad, which include Shiites, Druze, Sunnis and Christians. Shiites in Syria, including Assad’s Alawite sect, comprise roughly 13% of the population but long have had an outsized role in state affairs.

The battle has drawn Shiite militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan on the side of Assad, even as Sunni would-be jihadists from around the world have filled the ranks of the many Islamist groups fighting his rule, including the Islamic State extremist group.

That would be the Syrian civil war in which presumptive President-to-be Hillary Clinton wants to see more extensive direct military intervention.

Dan Wright reminds us in With Libya, US Now Has Ground Forces in Four Wars Shadowproof 08/11/2016:

While it is impossible to know all the dirty deeds of America’s sprawling global empire, news that US ground forces are now fighting in Libya means that US troops are involved in at least four active wars:

Afghanistan: A planned draw-down of troops in 2015 was curtailed by President Obama to leave more troops for combat and advisory missions. This week, US forces were forced to abandon military equipment that then fell into the hands of ISIS.

Iraq: After a removal of major combat forces in 2011, Iraq has become a battleground once again. President Obama has sent 4,600 troops roughly in for combat and advisory roles and built a new base in northern Iraq called “Firebase Bell.”

Syria: Though the US had been supporting Syrian rebel groups, including jihadists, since 2013, US troops have entered the fighting in the country. In January of this year, US special forces took control of a military base in northern Syria.

Libya: In 2011, the US assisted in the overthrow of the Gaddafi government in Libya. In the aftermath, Libya has fallen into total chaos, making it ripe for ISIS to establish a significant presence. Now, according to the Pentagon, US forces are fighting on the ground to drive ISIS out.
Paul Pillar also notes the US ground combat forces in Syria and suggests the US could learn something constructive from Russian conduct in the Middle East (Russian Realism in the Middle East National Interest 08/17/2016):

The United States is conducting airstrikes in Syria, too, and, although it seems to escape our notice sometimes, a limited ground war against ISIS as well. The United States has more of a military presence in the Middle East, and is doing more with that presence, than anything Russia is doing there. If we are worrying about Russia one-upping us in the Middle East, it is not because the Russians are doing more militarily in the region than we are.

The lesson we should draw from the Putin government's policy in the region is how an outside power is able to pursue its objectives and interests more fully and freely because it is willing to do business with anyone, not limiting itself to business only with states it considers allies and not letting old animosities or current differences get in the way of diplomatic initiatives and practical cooperation.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Need for some Niebuhr

Oliver Turner and Chengxin Pan write about the state of neoconservative foreign policy (How Neocons Are Still Winning in 2016 The National Interest 08/15/2016):

... at its core, neoconservatism is a broad and powerful discourse which is closely underpinned by two widely held and enduring ideas about the United States and the world around it: American virtue and American power. What defines neoconservatism is a largely unchallenged belief that the United States is a virtuous nation with a moral entitlement to superior power for the global good. Thus defined, neoconservatism gave rise to the Bush Doctrine, but the doctrine, which for many epitomizes the very essence of neoconservatism, was not the definitive neoconservatism. Making this distinction helps explain the longer and more mundane lineage of the present neoconservatism. Emerging from the extreme events of 9/11, it was an extreme articulation of long-ingrained ideas about American virtue and power.
The also call attention to Hillary's words in a speech aimed at veterans, in which she called the US "the greatest country that has ever been created on the face of the earth for all of history." This sounds like boilerplate talk in American politics now. Bizarrely immodest as it is. And it's in formulations like this where neocon cynicism meets the liberal "humanitarian hawk" interventionist inclination. A heavy dose of Reinhold Niebuhr's brand of realism would do our foreign policy a lot of good, I'm thinking.

Andrew Bacevich did an introduction to a new edition of Niebuhr's The Irony of American History a few years ago. He talks about Niebuhr in this lecture, Illusions of Managing History: The Enduring Relevance of Reinhold Niebuhr Bill Moyers Journal 08/15/2007:

... to read Niebuhr today to avail oneself to a prophetic voice, speaking from the past about the past, but offering truths of enormous relevance to the present. As prophet, Niebuhr warned that what he called "our dreams of managing history" — dreams borne out of a peculiar combination of arrogance, hypocrisy, and self-delusion — posed a large and potentially mortal threat to the United States. Today we ignore that warning at our peril.

As a prophet, Niebuhr thought deeply about the dilemmas confronting the United States as a consequence of its emergence as a global superpower. The truths he spoke are uncomfortable ones. They do not easily translate into sound-bites suitable for the Sunday morning talk shows. Nor do they offer material from which to weave the sort of stump speech likely to boost the poll numbers of your favorite candidate in Iowa or New Hampshire.

Four of those truths merit particular attention at present. They are the persistent sin of American Exceptionalism; the indecipherability of history; and the false allure of simple solutions ...
Luca Castellin looks at Niebuhr's legacy in Reinhold Niebuhr and the Irony of American History in and after the Cold War Telos 168 (Fall 2014):

Niebuhr tried to judge reality and to offer sound criteria for political action. In the confrontation with the Soviet Union, it was once again “Christian realism” to engage in biting and constructive criticism of U.S. international politics and to manifest “patriotic dissent.”7 The main purpose that the protestant theologian wanted to achieve was to interpret the American position in the world from the point of view of Christian faith. ...

Although acceptable by all, an ironic interpretation of history — which always accompanies Niebuhr’s analysis on the international role of his country12—becomes crucial and “normative” in Christianity.13 And this, he claims, occurs for two main reasons. First, Christian faith recognizes both the creative power of human freedom and its misuse and corruption. Second, this faith affirms a source of meaning that is outside of history and can give it rationality.14 On the other hand, from Niebuhr’s perspective, Christianity and irony are closely knit, because both dwell upon the contradictions and the duplicities of human life and history. ...

As Niebuhr points out: “the more uncritically a civilization or culture, a nation or empire boasts of its disinterested virtue, the more certainly does it corrupt that virtue by self-delusion.” ...

The everlasting temptation to believe in a divine justification of a state’s behavior is considered by Niebuhr to be a kind of sin. ...

its original aspirations to global responsibilities and frustrations. It is particularly after World War II that the country is, in his view, even more dipped in irony, for the very reason that many of the dreams that America nurtured were cruelly deluded by history. If the ambition to practice a pure virtue fades into the responsibility that comes with the nuclear dilemma,26 then the feverish attempts to escape from a bitter reality through the constitution of an ideal world order cannot but prove to be useless in front of ever-increasing dangers and duties. ...

In Niebuhr’s political theory, irony has a clear and basic origin. It derives, as we have discussed, from human pretension, which corrupts the gift of freedom. The consequence of a misuse of freedom is the misrecognition of the limits of power, wisdom, and virtue. Hence, the meaning of irony lies in the necessary call

Monday, August 15, 2016

Hillary Clinton and the risks of incrementalism

Scott Eric Kaufmann reads Paul Krugman's latest New York Times column as not only a warning against cautious incrementalism as a strategy for a Hillary Clinton Administration, but also as drawing a lesson from the failure of the first Clinton Administration's effort at comprehensive health insurance reform. (Krugman: Kaufmann: Wisdom, Courage and the Economy The time for liberal pundits to push Clinton’s economic policy to the left is now Salon 08/15/2016)

Krugman writes:

Is the modesty of the Clinton economic agenda too much of a good thing? Should accelerating U.S. economic growth be a bigger priority?

For while the U.S. has done reasonably well at recovering from the 2007-2009 financial crisis, longer-term economic growth is looking very disappointing. Some of this is just demography, as baby boomers retire and growth in the working-age population slows down. But there has also been a somewhat mysterious decline in labor force participation among prime-age adults and a sharp drop in productivity growth.

... I’d argue, in particular, for substantially more infrastructure spending than Mrs. Clinton is currently proposing, and more borrowing to pay for it.
Kaufmann notes:

Though Krugman never openly states it, the clear comparison is her failed attempt establish HillaryCare in the ’90s and President Obama’s successfully pushing ObamaCare into law through any and all means necessary.

Of course, Clinton has acquired quite a bit more political savvy during the intervening decades, so perhaps Krugman’s point is simply not to forget the lessons learned, but to remember what is known and knowable and what, at this point, simply isn’t ...
Another way to think about the political risks is that Republicans will continue their radical obstructionism on domestic policy when Clinton becomes President. The economy could weaken and go into another recession, which the Republicans and their media networks will cheerfully blame on Clinton and the Democrats. Clinton is also talking about setting up a protected zone in Syria, which would be a qualitative jump into a guaranteed disaster. Throw in a spectacular terrorist attack or two in the United States by Muslim extremists, and the next Trump could be in a strong position in 2020. And then there's the 2018 midterms, which will go to the Republicans by default if the Democratic National Committee doesn't make a drastic change in the practice of neglecting Congressional elections, we could be looking at four more years of domestic policy paralysis capped by a Republican resurgence in the 2020 Presidential election.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Karl Popper's falsifiability criterion

Massimo Pigliucci writes about the philosopher Sir Karl Popper (1902-1994) and the "demarcation problem" in Must science be testable? AEON 08/10/25016.

He talks about the way theoretical physics challenges the relentlessly positivist assumption of Popper's philosophy, in particular the “falsifiability" criterion for scientific claims, the idea that for a scientific claim to be valid it has to be formulated in such a way that it can be clearly proven true or false by experimentation.

Pigliucci discusses the argument Popper made in his essay, Science as Falsification (1963).

Stephen Thornton describes Popper's outlook this way (Karl Popper Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2013):

As Popper represents it, the central problem in the philosophy of science is that of demarcation, i.e., of distinguishing between science and what he terms ‘non-science’, under which heading he ranks, amongst others, logic, metaphysics, psychoanalysis, and Adler's individual psychology. Popper is unusual amongst contemporary philosophers in that he accepts the validity of the Humean critique of induction, and indeed, goes beyond it in arguing that induction is never actually used in science. However, he does not concede that this entails the scepticism which is associated with Hume, and argues that the Baconian/Newtonian insistence on the primacy of ‘pure’ observation, as the initial step in the formation of theories, is completely misguided: all observation is selective and theory-laden—there are no pure or theory-free observations. In this way he destabilises the traditional view that science can be distinguished from non-science on the basis of its inductive methodology; in contradistinction to this, Popper holds that there is no unique methodology specific to science. Science, like virtually every other human, and indeed organic, activity, Popper believes, consists largely of problem-solving.

Popper accordingly repudiates induction and rejects the view that it is the characteristic method of scientific investigation and inference, substituting falsifiability in its place. It is easy, he argues, to obtain evidence in favour of virtually any theory, and he consequently holds that such ‘corroboration’, as he terms it, should count scientifically only if it is the positive result of a genuinely ‘risky’ prediction, which might conceivably have been false. For Popper, a theory is scientific only if it is refutable by a conceivable event. Every genuine test of a scientific theory, then, is logically an attempt to refute or to falsify it, and one genuine counter-instance falsifies the whole theory. In a critical sense, Popper's theory of demarcation is based upon his perception of the logical asymmetry which holds between verification and falsification: it is logically impossible to conclusively verify a universal proposition by reference to experience (as Hume saw clearly), but a single counter-instance conclusively falsifies the corresponding universal law. In a word, an exception, far from ‘proving’ a rule, conclusively refutes it.
Popper is also known for his positivist and conservative political work, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). Among others, the Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse analyzed the problems of that work in his Studies in Critical Philosophy (1972), "Karl Popper and the Problem of Historical Laws," which originally appeared in Partisan Review 26:1 (1959).

But Popper's falsifiability criterion is a much more solid concept and is widely cited in the philosophy of science. And in popular treatments of pseudoscience like Skeptical Inquirer, to which Massimo Pigliucci frequently contributes, it is often cited. For example, Keay Davidson in "The Universe and Karl Sagan" SI 23:6 (1999):

How does one distinguish a bona fide scientific hypothesis from a pseudoscientific one? The classic response is d1ar of philosopher Karl Popper, that no hypothesis can be considered ~scientific" (which is nor necessarily the same thing as saying it is "rrue~) unless ir generates predicrions rhar are conceivably disprovable ("falsifiable," in Popper's term).
Mary Frances McKenna observes, "Academic work that does not utilize the scientific method, as Karl Popper noted, is not 'insignificant' or 'meaningless,' but it is not based on empirical evidence even if it is the result of 'observation.'" ("The Role of the Judeo-Christian Tradition in the Development and Continuing Evolution of the Western Synthesis" Telos 168:2014)

It's that latter issue that Pigliucci addresses in the context of string theory in physics. When established theories come into conflict, which has been the cases for decades with quantum mechanics and Einstein's relativity, scientists elaborate alternative theories that might provide a solution to the discrepancies and seek to find observations or set up experiments to validate or invalidate the theories.

But some kinds of science are more amenable to controlled experiments than others. Investigating a particular reaction of a small number of chemicals together can be done by controlled experiments in which the quantities involved and the conditions under which they are combined are defined. And different sets of scientists can replicate the experiment and see if they get the same results.

The more variables involved, though, the more difficult it is to interpret the results of such testing. The protocols for testing new medicines to be used on people involve testing and confirmation based on the general principle of Popper's falsifiability criterion. But treating diseases in the human body involve a huge number of variables. There are well-established methods for determining levels of probability of a new medicine's effectiveness. But even the best medicines may be ineffective for some patients. And even the most effective ones can involve major side effects. And the exact reasons a medicine is effective may also not be 100% clearly established.

For sciences like paleontology or astronomy, falsifiable experiments are more problematic. Paleontologists can make detailed observations and comparisons of physical evidence on the development of various species. But controlled trials on natural selection are more difficult. Setting up multiple parallels trials of how a species develops over millions of years is obviously not feasible. Much less setting up such experiments on the development of galaxies. They have to rely much more heavily on observation.

And this is a hazard of a too narrow and dogmatic application of the falsifiability principle can also play into the hands of pseudoscience. Creationists, for instance, have been known to cite the lack of experimental viability are a reason to reject the Darwininian theory of evolution by natural selection.

Pigliucci argues that Popper himself was quite so dogmatically Popperian in this sense:

Popper himself changed his mind throughout his career about a number of issues related to falsification and demarcation, as any thoughtful thinker would do when exposed to criticisms and counterexamples from his colleagues. For instance, he initially rejected any role for verification in establishing scientific theories, thinking that it was far too easy to ‘verify’ a notion if one were actively looking for confirmatory evidence. Sure enough, modern psychologists have a name for this tendency, common to laypeople as well as scientists: confirmation bias.

Nonetheless, later on Popper conceded that verification – especially of very daring and novel predictions – is part of a sound scientific approach. After all, the reason Einstein became a scientific celebrity overnight after the 1919 total eclipse is precisely because astronomers had verified the predictions of his theory all over the planet and found them in satisfactory agreement with the empirical data. For Popper this did not mean that the theory of general relativity was ‘true,’ but only that it survived to fight another day. Indeed, nowadays we don’t think the theory is true, because of the above mentioned conflicts, in certain domains, with quantum mechanics. But it has withstood a very good number of high stakes challenges over the intervening century, and its most recent confirmation came just a few months ago, with the first detection of gravitational waves.

Popper also changed his mind about the potential, at the least, for a viable Marxist theory of history (and about the status of the Darwinian theory of evolution, concerning which he was initially skeptical, thinking – erroneously – that the idea was based on a tautology). He conceded that even the best scientific theories are often somewhat shielded from falsification because of their connection to ancillary hypotheses and background assumptions. When one tests Einstein’s theory using telescopes and photographic plates directed at the Sun, one is really simultaneously putting to the test the focal theory, plus the theory of optics that goes into designing the telescopes, plus the assumptions behind the mathematical calculations needed to analyse the data, plus a lot of other things that scientists simply take for granted and assume to be true in the background, while their attention is trained on the main theory. But if something goes wrong and there is a mismatch between the theory of interest and the pertinent observations, this isn’t enough to immediately rule out the theory, since a failure in one of the ancillary assumptions might be to blame instead. That is why scientific hypotheses need to be tested repeatedly and under a variety of conditions before we can be reasonably confident of the results. [my emphasis in bold]

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Russia-Turkey complication in the Syrian civil war

Despite Hillary Clinton's apparent eagerness to get the US more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war, there are lots of complications. One of the latest being a seeming momentary improvement of relations between Russia and Syria.

John Helmer argues in this interview that Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan's visit to Russian President Vladmir Putin was actually a failure for Erdoğan, Putin and Erdogan Meeting Leaves All Fronts of Policy Unresolved The Real News 08/11/2016:

Helmer argues that Russia opposed the July coup attempt because of its concerns about stability in Turkey, not because it is looking for a new strategic relationship with Turkey. He notes that Turkey is supporting Muslim extremist groups in numerous places that are inconvenient to Russia.

Dimitar Bechev writes in What's behind the Turkey-Russia reset? Aljazeera 08/09/2016:

It appears that the current rift with the West pushes Turkey closer to Russia. The US is blamed for failing to cooperate with the Turkish authorities for the extradition of Gulen - the alleged mastermind of the coup attempt.

Many in Turkey see the US as the chief culprit. The majority of Turks also berate the EU's reluctance to stand by Erdogan as he faced a life-threatening situation, and criticise Europe's exclusive focus on the clampdown that followed , ostensibly targeted against the "parallel state".

The historical record shows that any time relations with Western allies are strained, Ankara tilts to Moscow. This happened after the 2003 war in Iraq; between 1997 and 1999 when the EU refused to invite Turkey for membership talks; following the invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and so forth.
But, as Helmer's discussion of the public diplomacy this week shows, it''s too early to assume that any drastic change in Turkish-Russian relations.

But Turkish relations with the US and the EU has definitely been disturbed by the July coup attempt and its aftermath. Atilla Yesilada reports (Could Turkey turn its back to the West? Aljazeera 08/08/2016):

A danger lurks around the corner. The Justice and Development Party's (AKP) effort to cleanse the society of Gulenists is causing a deterioration in relations with the United States and the European Union, which might lead to a confidence crisis among investors and creditors.

There is little doubt among Turkish citizens that the Gulenists organised and largely executed the putsch. ...

The EU is deeply concerned about the human rights violations that are occurring with increasing frequency in the process of the purge, such as the arrest of journalists and the alleged mistreatment of coup-plotting officers under custody.

The EU authorities also told Ankara in no uncertain terms that the reintroduction of capital punishment of putschists would trigger immediate suspension of accession talks.
The Gulenists are the Hizmet network composed of followers of the currently US-based Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen.

Juan Cole warns against the catastrophe of direct US intervention in Syria

The more it looks like Hillary Clinton will win the Presidential election against the stark, raving Trump, the more immediate the question becomes of how strongly will the Democrats in Congress and the grassroots will resist foolish, reckless or destructive foreign policies attempted by a new Clinton Administration.

Juan Cole warns in Monsters to Destroy: Top 7 Reasons the US could not have forestalled Syrian Civil War 08/12/2016:

The interventionist temptation, muted since the Iraq imbroglio, is now returning. Sec. Clinton’s team are already talking about taking steps to remove Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from office as soon as they get into the White House. An excellent and principled NYT columnist called the non-intervention in Syria President Obama’s worst mistake.

I understand the impulse. Who can watch the carnage in Syria and not wish for Someone to Do Something? But I beg to differ with regard to US intervention. We forget now how idealistic the rhetoric around the US intervention in Vietnam was. Johnson wanted to save a whole society from the Communist yoke. Our idealist rhetoric can blind us to the destruction we do (the US probably killed 1 to 2 million Vietnamese peasants, recalling Tacitus’ (d. after 117 CE) remark about the Pax Romana, “and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”–atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.) [my emp0hasis]
And he points to the experience of the Iraq War as something that should reasonably make American policymakers extremely reluctant to become more directly involved in the Syrian civil war. And the no-fly zone that Clinton is saying she will establish in Syria would be just such a qualitative escalation of US involvement. As Cole writes, "a ‘no-fly-zone’ [in Syria] is not a minor intervention but a very major one. Now that the Russian air force is flying in Syria, a no-fly zone for regime planes is completely impractical."

And he writes:

Civil wars like that in Syria are forms of micro-aggression. Fighting happens in back alleys and neighborhoods where no outsider understands the terrain. The US had 160,000 troops in Iraq in 2006-2007 when Iraqis fought a civil war that ethnically cleansed hundreds of thousands of Sunnis from Baghdad and turned it into a Shiite city. So many thousands of people were killed each month that Baghdad police had to establish a morning corpse patrol. If Iraq was occupied and run by Americans but it still had excess mortality of hundreds of thousands, why does anyone think that a much more limited US intervention in Syria could forestall death on this scale? I am a little afraid that the widespread underestimation of civilian excess mortality in Iraq is producing the wrong impression here. Its death toll was similar to that of Syria. I also think it isn’t realized that US troops don’t know the language and can’t tell one player from another unless they are specially trained small special forces units. And, they are targets for suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices. When the US troops stopped patrolling major Iraqi cities in summer of 2009 the number of bombings and civilian casualties actually went down, because their patrols had been a target. [my emphasis]
But Cole supported the Obama Administration's military intervention in Syria, which Hillary Clinton apparently sees as a success to be repeated. Cole makes some self-criticism of his own position on Libya:

I supported the UNSC no-fly zone in Libya in 2011, but was dismayed to find that it soon became a NATO mission and then it soon became replaced by another policy entirely– bombing Tripoli and trying to change the regime. Critics forget that the initial resolution just wanted to protect civilians in places like Zintan from Gaddafi’s helicopter gunships. I perceived that once the no-fly zone was implemented, there were enormous political pressures on NATO generals to achieve a tangible victory– hence the bombing of Tripoli (which isn’t exactly the same as a no-fly zone). Then because the mission was transmogrified into regime change from above, the militias never demobilized. That there were no foreign ground troops was a plus in some ways, but it did also mean that no one was responsible for training a new army and incorporating the militias into it. Despite promising democratic elections, militia demands gradually undermined the civilian government, taking the members of parliament more or less hostage and leading to Libya having two or three governments, each with its own militia backers. And then some fighters declared for Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). So the intervention in Libya went from being a humanitarian one to a method of regime change to having a legacy of civil war. Why exactly would Syria be different? [my emphasis]
He notes in conclusion, "The most effective thing anyone has done to tamp down violence in Syria was the Kerry-Lavrov ceasefire of the past spring and early summer. If someone wants an intervention, let’s try to get that one back on track."

Thursday, August 11, 2016

GOP: Not moderate yet

Josh Marshall gives us another warning about assuming that Trump is somehow and outlier and that once the Presidential election is past the GOP will somehow become more cooperative, less obstructionist and somehow even less fanatical: The Gathering Storm TPM 08/11/2016:

I've noted several times recently that for all that we've seen from Donald Trump - Curiel, Khan, wink wink calls for murdering political opponents - Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, John McCain, the institutional apparatus of the RNC all remain as active endorsers of his candidacy and say they believe he should be the next President. That is an astounding fact. We can say that it shows a bracing lack of principle or political courage. And that may all be true. But again, it's not the most important point. What's really most important is that each of these people believe that the center of gravity in the GOP is pro-Trump and that their political futures would be damaged by turning against him. That is the big deal, far more important than this or that single person being admirable by bucking the tide.

Earlier this week I asked the question whether Trumpism would outlive Trump's campaign. What I've just described above tells us pretty clearly that it will and that the GOP is now a Trumpite party and will remain a Trumpite party. To get a little more specific, this means that the white ethno-nationalist party which Trump has brought out of the shadows and mobilized is now and will continue to be the Republican party. You can see that future in Stephen Miller, the Sessions staffer who was first seconded to the campaign and now appears the genuine ideologue articulating the policy agenda of white nationalism, apart from the occasional shopping list of GOP talking points that we heard in the most recent economic speech. Notably, it was Miller, working at Sessions' behest, who organized the defeat of immigration reform in 2013 - a critical harbinger of Trumpism. This is no aberration that will snap back into the pre-2016 place after November. [my emphasis in bold]
Dave Weigel writes about signs that Hillary Clinton is leaning Republican-lite, at least on foreign policy in Clinton’s Republican outreach a step too far for already suspicious liberals Washington Post 08/10/2016:

In 2015, when it appeared that Clinton would have a lazy stroll to the nomination, neoconservatives such as Robert Kagan suggested that she would be acceptable to Republicans and hawks. The Sanders campaign put a freeze on that talk, and of Clinton’s acceptance of it. At a February 2016 debate in Milwaukee, Sanders shamed Clinton for writing that Kissinger was a friend who “checked in with me regularly, sharing astute observations about foreign leaders and sending me written reports on his travels.”

“I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country,” Sanders said. “I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger.”

Although Trump’s romp through the Republican primaries rattled some supporters loose, the Clinton team hesitated to publicize the endorsements until Sanders’s campaign was over.
Phyllis Bennis looks at the foreign policy concerns over Hillary neocon sympathies in Clinton Vs. Trump: Treacherous Foreign Policy The Real News 08/11/2016:

This, of course, does not mean that Trump would be better: John Feffer, The Myth of Trump’s Alternative Worldview Foreign Policy in Focus 08/03/2016.

Bill Black in this video describes the Establishment pressure that Hillary is also getting to embrace her inner neoliberal on economic policy, as well: Thomas Friedman’s Advice to Clinton: Shift Right The Real News 08/11/2016. Embedding on this video is not available for some reason.