Saturday, March 25, 2017

Reflecting on the notion of a new Cold War

Aljazeera's Listening Post compiled this report on the state of the Russia-Trump story, Wiretaps, hacks and spin in Donald Trump's America 03/05/2017:



Tony Wood surveys three recent books on Russia and its approach to foreign policy in Eat Your Spinach London Review of Books39:5 03/02/2017. He looks at the question of how post-Soviet Russian relations with the West developed, and at whether the current situation should be seen as a new Cold War.

He borrows a bit from postmodern views of narrative when he writes, "The notion of a ‘cold war’ is a kind of geopolitical speech act: if enough people in power decide they are in one, it will materialise."

This is true. Or in a slightly more realist view, we could put it that mutual perceptions and misperceptions on both sides shape how each side in a adversarial or potentially adversarial posture view the actions of the other in foreign policy. And of their own actions.

Wood observes:

The debate over whether we are or are not in a new Cold War reflects different views of what has happened over the last quarter-century. The story that is most often told in the West sees Gorbachev and Yeltsin making great strides towards democracy and free markets at home, matched by an unprecedented degree of co-operation with the West on the global stage. In this narrative, the rise of Putin meant a reversal of all these trends, resulting in a steady reassertion of Russian power after 2000 that fuelled a series of ugly confrontations. In Who Lost Russia? Peter Conradi attempts a more balanced view, providing a brisk run-through of the post-Cold War era in which both Russia and the West are faulted for a string of misguided moves. ... From Russia’s perspective, these were the steady enlargement of Nato; the interventions in Kosovo, Iraq and Libya; US support for protest-driven regime change in former Soviet states from the mid-2000s onwards; and US and EU attempts to pull Georgia and Ukraine into the West’s orbit. From the Western point of view, the charge sheet includes Russia’s suppression of internal dissent and rigging of the electoral system; attacks on the principle of private property (most notably with the dismembering of Yukos); the invasion of Georgia; the annexation of Crimea and military incursions into eastern Ukraine; as well as the more recent signs of interloping in the US elections.
And Wood stresses the importance of recognizing "the huge imbalance in power and resources between the two parties," i.e., the overwhelming advantage of the United States military and economically compared to today's Russia:

Those who point to this fact are often depicted as supporters of the Kremlin, as if to note the disparity were somehow to take the weaker side. ... But there is a huge distance, politically and ethically, between measuring how much power Russia really has and defending what Putin does with it. One of the effects of the ‘new Cold War’ rhetoric is to conflate the two, and thus to prevent any discussion of the actual international balance of power. But it’s impossible to understand the story of relations between Russia and the West without taking it into account: all other geopolitical calculations have flowed from it – including both the West’s impulse to drive home its advantage through expansion of Nato, and Russia’s growing resentment of that process, as well as its inability to halt or reverse it. [my emphasis]
Wood gives us this perspective on Russia's economic strength compared to the West:

In 1999, Putin said that it would take 15 years of rapid growth for Russia to draw level with Portugal’s current level of per capita GDP. It reached that milestone in 2011; but by then Portugal was further ahead, and even amid the deep recession sparked by the Eurozone crisis, its GDP per capita was still more than one and a half times that of Russia.

Guideposts for following the Trump-Russia scandal

James Henry explains in his long article on Trump's connections to various dubious Russian oligarchs (The Curious World of Donald Trump’s Private Russian Connections The American Interest 12/19/2016):

... the individual case-based approach to investigations employed by most investigative journalists and law enforcement often misses the big picture: the global networks of influence and finance, licit and illicit, that exist among business people, investors, kleptocrats, organized criminals, and politicians, as well as the “enablers”—banks, accounting firms, law firms, and havens. Any particular component of these networks might easily disappear without making any difference. But the networks live on. It is these shadowy transnational networks that really deserve scrutiny. [my emphasis in bold]
This is a good consideration to keep in mind. It's part of why the Russia-Trump story is popping up so quickly right now in various forms There are a lot of pieces to it.

Matthew Schofield reports on how House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes actions this past week have made it more difficult for the Republicans to avoid an independent investigation of the Trump-Russia legal issues (More signs that House panel’s Trump-Russia probe is reeling McClatchy 03/24/2017):

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, announced Friday that he’d postponed what was to have been another public hearing on Tuesday, a decision that was angrily denounced moments later by Rep. Adam Schiff, the Californian who is the highest ranking Democrat on the committee. Schiff pointedly called the postponement was a cancellation. ...

Schiff accused Nunes of canceling the hearing, which was to have heard from Obama administration officials, to “choke off public information” and avoid any more embarrassment to the White House. ...

Schiff pointed out that the three former officials scheduled to appear Tuesday – Obama-era Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan and former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates – had all agreed to testify in an open session. When they will now appear before the committee is not known, a committee spokesman said.
This followed on Nunes' stunt earlier in the week of publicly saying that he had seen evidence of individuals from the Trump campaign having been monitored in surveillance operations that were aimed at foreign nationals. That action undermined his credibility to head an investigation into the Trump-Russia scandal. It also caused a lot of confusion because it wasn't clear what Nunes had seen or what the real significance of it was.

The Young Turks describe that particular mess in Oops: Devin Nunes Backpedals Spying Claims 03/24/2017:



Here's a report on that from the Morning Joe crew, Joe: Devin Nunes Blew Up Hopes Of Independent Russia Investigation 03/23/2017:



The very capable Charlie Savage offers us Amid Trump Inquiry, a Primer on Surveillance Practices and Privacy New York Times 03/24/2017. It mainly focuses on what "incidental collection" is.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

That Russia issue

The daily news in the US has been reading like a spy series lately. I can't pretend to be keeping up with it all.

But here a few recent articles and reports I've flagged.

Two weeks is a long time in the story at the pace it's currently unfolding. But Matt Taibbi makes a a warning to Democrats and to the legitimate press (corporate and alternative) to not get giddy with the Russia-Trump story in Why the Russia Story Is a Minefield for Democrats and the Media Rolling Stone 03/08/2017 that is still not outdated.

Digby has a similar caution in Was Trump compromised by Russians? We don’t know — but we do know he adores authoritarian thugs Salon 03/09/2017.

Marcy Wheeler is consistently careful on this stuff. She's good at parsing what's being said and what's only being implied or assumed . She does that in The Feedback Loop In Christopher Steel's Dossier Emptywheel 03/06/2017.

And Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo is obviously intensely interested in the story, but is also warning about getting ahead of the evidence on the very murky Russia angles. The Center for the National Interest recently shot down a minor flap on one direct encounter that Trump really did have with the Russian Ambassador, Statement Regarding President Trump’s April 27, 2016 Foreign Policy Speech at the Center for the National Interest 03/08/2017. I haven't noticed that claim popping up lately, so maybe everyone realized there was no scandal in that particular incident.

Rachel Maddow is one who seems to be erring on the giddy side in her reporting on this lately. Here's an example of one of her recent reports, in which she basically speculates in the absence of any actual evidence that the Delay in staffing senior positions in the State Department is being done to benefit Russia, Donald Trump Weakens State Dept As Vladimir Putin Would Want MSNBC 03/08/2017:



She hasn't dialed it back in the last couple of weeks. As in this 03/21/2017 report, Russia Continues Info-War Tactics In US:



Jordan Chariton and Michael Tracy mention Maddow's reporting in this discussion of the Russia issue in US politics, Jordan and Michael Working For Russia?! TYT Politics 03/13/2017.



The Young Turks' crew have taken a wide range of approaches on this. Nomi Konst and Ryan Grim have a good discussion in this 42 minute report, Trump/Russia Hearings a "Cloud" Over White House Swamp TYT Politics 03/20/2017:



Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian harsh on Paul Manafort over this week's revelations in Russian Agent Ran Trump's Campaign The Young Turks 03/22/2017:



I would love to see a thorough and realistic investigation of this whole thing. But the Reps will do everything they can to cover it up. And the Dems have a big comparative disadvantage with this thing, even apart from not controlling either House of Congress. As we saw from Watergate to Benghazi! Benghazi! BENGHAZI!!!, the Republicans and their media network will flog a pseudoscandal without end. But the Democrats are so worried about upsetting those nice Republicans that they can barely rouse themselves to go after real scandals and make an adequate stink over them. For instance, Halliburton, Blackwater, the Cheney-Bush torture program. Maybe they can carry it out this time without running for cover if some sensational claim turns out to be a bust. (What's that saying, "hope dies last"?)

Their waffling on the Neil Gorsuch Supreme Court nomination doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in their ability to persist in such confrontations.

One of the most bizarre moments in American politics to me was when Dick Durbin made a straightforward condemnation the Senate of torturing prisoners and made a Holocaust reference. The pro-torture Reps went ballistic, as always. And Durbin responded by making a near-tearful apology to Holocaust survivors. Only an American Democrat could manage to convince themselves that Holocaust survivors would be offended by ... someone condemning torture!

The Congressional investigation is grinding into motion. If the Democrats held one House, after being defeated by Trump and hurt badly down-ticket in 2016, even they might rouse themselves to do an aggressive investigation. But the Republicans will do their very best to cover up as much as they can. I don't see any "Howard Bakers" in today's Republican Congressional representation. The Dems also have the disadvantage that the Republican have a majority in both Houses of Congress and seem strikingly disinclined to do a serious investigation.

But the Republicans have been bumbling enough that the Democrats haven't had much a chance the last couple of weeks to help Trump and the Republicans get off the hook. Morning Joe, whose participants have been pretty appalled by Trump's Presidency so far, reports in Joe: Devin Nunes Blew Up Hopes Of Independent Russia Investigation 03/23/2017:



Marc Bennetts also makes an important point in What if Donald Trump played the Kremlin? 02/28/2017:

Consider the possibility that Trump misled the Kremlin with vaguely positive statements on issues crucial to Russia, such as lifting economic sanctions and recognizing Crimea, with no intention of following through. In the process, he would have gained, without overtly asking for it, assistance in his White House bid, in the form of cyberattacks and fake news.

Entirely speculative and without watertight proof? Definitely. But so is the oft-repeated trope that Trump is a Manchurian president, his every move controlled by coded messages from Moscow. And Trump’s recent reversal on previously Kremlin-friendly positions increases the probability that Putin was the pawn in this game all along.
A different example of speculation comes in Vladmir Putin’s battle of Berlin: No country in Western Europe is more vulnerable to Russian propaganda than Germany by James Kirchick Politico EU 03/10/2017.

John Kiriakou talks in this interview talks about how he has only slowly become convinced of the seriousness of the Trump-Russia scandal, Ex-CIA Analyst: I Was Wrong on Russia. FBI Director Comey's Testimony Is Game Changer A Trump Show 03/22/2017.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Free riders on the Trump wagon

Cenk Uygur reports on a Trump voter now having second thoughts in Trump Voters Now Regretting That Decision The Young Turks 03/20/2017



There has been a lot of commentary lately on how the Mean Libruls are thinking mean thoughts about Trump voters and saying mean things about them. One of the strangest I've seen is this interview with Van Jones, conducted by saac Chotiner, Don’t Become the Thing You’re Fighting Slate 03/16/2017. He does pretty much a straight-up liberal concern-troll schtick there.

Conor Lynch weighs in taking much the same tack in The smug style in American liberalism: It’s not helping, folks — but there’s a better way Salon 03/20/2017. And while he does make at least a vague pitch for more prolabor policies and positions from the Democratic Party, he rolls out this trope that old enough that it's seriously getting long in the tooth, "It is smug, however, to disparage people for 'voting against their interests' when in reality both parties have failed to adequately address the real problems facing poor and working-class communities across America today."

I'm sure there are some very rare exceptions, but every party and every candidate in every election tries to convince potential swing voters that voting for my side is in your interest more than voting for the other side. And twentysomething Republican zealots will be more than happy to explain to you why it's in your interest to dump Social Security and just save for retirement on your own, instead. Zeal for this position does seem to diminish with age, though.

What the case of the woman in the video report brings to mind for me is the kind of free rider problem we see in protest voting. There's not much actual information from the woman in the report about the various factors that may have shaped her voting behavior. But someone who's dependent on the ACA/Obamacare for access to health insurance, or on Meals on Wheels like the woman on which Cenk's report focuses, was voting against an important interest of their own in supporting Donald Trump and the Republicans, all of whom made it clear that doing away with the ACA was a top priority for them.

But hindsight is 20-20, as they say. Trump did say he would "repeal and replace" Obamacare. And the replacement would be HUUUGELY better. And there may have been other considerations that would have made many voters go for Trump even if they new they were going to be personally disadvantaged.

Here's one way the Democrats need to make a major change in their approach and more directly defend the value of government. Lots of people probably don't realize the large role federal assistance plays in programs like Meals on Wheels or Planned Parenthood. Obama and the Democrats sold the ACA largely as an improvement to private insurance market. Which it was. But the Democrats don't do the best job of defending their own signature programs.

It was not only bad policy but serious political malpractice, for example, for Obama to push repeatedly for cuts to Social Security and Medicare as part of his concept of a Grand Bargain. His continued push for "fiscal responsibility," i.e., obsessing over the budget deficit when the economy was recovering from the crash of 2008, is also a major problem for the Democrats to continue to stress. Republicans clearly don't actually care about the deficit. So they will be happy to press for massive tax cuts for the wealthiest and an "infrastructure" program designed to be a bonanza for financial speculators. And they will turn around a demand more cuts to education and basic civilian government because the deficit explodes.

The Democrats should stop, just stop helping the Republicans play this game by promoting the idea that the deficit is something to worry about.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Racism, a close cousin to xenophobia

La Opinión recently ran this useful editorial, Racism: silence gives consent 03/14/2017:

The anti-immigrant movement’s base is founded on racism. The comments made by Congressman Steve King about the importance of “American culture” and the difficulty to “rebuild your civilization with somebody else’s babies” is telling, particularly when they come from the leader in immigration issues at the House of Representatives.

This does not mean that people sincerely questioning the presence of undocumented people on legal grounds are racist. However, such people are in really bad company.

"Andrew Jackson" and foreign policy

Seeing Donald Trump's name in the same headline with Andrew Jackson's makes me feel ill and cranky. Which is why I've been posting about it the last few days.

Jarrett Stepman in Trump Should Model His Foreign Policy After Andrew Jackson The National Interest 03/13/2017 talks about how Jackson's one-time historical image has changed in more recent years:

When the Treasury Department announced in 2015 that it was stripping Andrew Jackson’s visage from the front of the $20 bill, almost nobody cared to defend the seventh president.

Jackson was a legendary figure of the nineteenth century, the symbol of an age whose political legacy was often embraced by Americans across the political spectrum. It seemed he was doomed to be forgotten and abandoned.
I'm not impressed by the arguments I've seen from Walter Russell Mead, who Stepman cites, in his characterizations of Jackson's foreign policy.

Mead seems to have created a widespread impression that Jackson's foreign policy was notably hawkish. Quick: name all the wars the US had between 1829-1837, when Jackson was President. Yeah, hard to come up with on a moment's notice. Britannica Online's entry on the Seminole Wars tells us this (internal links omitted):

The Second Seminole War (1835–42) followed the refusal of most Seminoles to abandon the reservation that had been specifically established for them north of Lake Okeechobee and to relocate west of the Mississippi River. Whites coveted this land and sought to oust the Seminoles under the Indian Removal Act. Led by their dynamic chief Osceola, the Seminole warriors hid their families in the Everglades and fought vigorously to defend their homeland, using guerrilla tactics. As many as 2,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in this prolonged fighting, which cost the government between $40,000,000 and $60,000,000. Only after Osceola’s capture while parleying under a flag of truce did Indian resistance decline. With peace, most Seminoles agreed to emigrate.
So that operation spilled over from the Jackson Administration to those of Martin Van Buren (1839-1841), William Henry Harrison (1841) and John Tyler (1841–45).

There was a military incident during the Jackson Administration that seemed insignificant at the time but created a long-lasting issue and became the central issue in a 20th-century war. Felix Weil described it in Argentine Riddle (1944):

The Falkland islands, Las Malvinas, near the southern tip of Argentina, belonged to Spain and became Argentine territory when Argentina broke away from Spain in 1810. Whalers and traders used the islands as a base. In 1831, the governor of the islands seized the ships of some Americans, who called that an act of piracy. In retaliation, Captain Silas Duncan of the United States Navy sloop Lexington landed troops there on December 28, 1831, arrested the authorities and blew up the powder depot. His action was clearly unlawful, as was later established by a Federal court of Massachusetts. The French-Argentine jurist Paul Groussac, from whose documented study of the episode I am relating, states that it has not been proven that the American aggression was directly connected with the British occupation which followed. He means that he did not find documentary evidence, but the Argentines are convinced that, in spite of the Monroe Doctrine, an understanding must have been reached in the matter between the United States and England, since subsequent to the incident the United States government informed the Buenos Aires authorities that it recognized British sovereignty over the islands and on January 1, 1833, H.M.S. Clio took possession of them. Since then, the British have held them. The United States has ever since consistently refused to lend ear to Argentina's plea for indemnification or to let her present her titles to sovereignty · over the islands. Argentina never relinquished her claim. It is emphasized by her current one-peso postage stamp showing the islands as part of Argentina. The deep-rooted feeling about the islands' seizure is evidenced also by the fact that the quite active "Committee for the Reclamation of the Malvinas" whose posters on the subject cover many walls, is composed not only of extreme nationalists, as might be expected, but also of outspoken progressives, such as the Socialist ex-Senator Palacios. The islands themselves are of a doubtful economic value to Argentina, but of a very important strategic value as a navy base to Britain. As usual in questions of that kind, this is an argument which will not silence nationalistic claims. [my emphasis in bold]
Since the discovery in the 1990s of big oil reserves in the territorial water of the Malvinas, the economic value of the islands for Argentina (and Britain) has risen considerably.

(Fun fact: Felix Weil was the prime financial supporter in the 1920s and 1930s of the Institute for Social Research, better known as the Frankfurt School.)

Stepman describes this more constructive accomplishment of Jackson's foreign policy, though it seems to suggest the success of intelligent diplomacy more than any military blustering:

Americans stuck by Jackson through thick and thin because they believed he would always stand up for them. Old Hickory was “one of us,” and never failed to defend the nation he unquestionably knew was the greatest in the world.

One of Jackson’s biggest tests as commander in chief came over American “spoliation” claims against France that dated back to a previous conflict between the two nations. Jackson was able to secure a treaty with France to pay for property damage that had been incurred during the war. This treaty had eluded American presidents for thirty years, and it was a sign of growing respect for American strength and leadership that Jackson had secured it.

However, when France waffled on the deal and threatened to delay payment, Jackson sprang into action and demanded they follow the terms of the treaty. Taken aback by the response of an American president seemingly willing to go to war over a seemingly trivial matter, the French demanded an apology from Jackson.

Old Hickory wouldn’t back down, and delivered a message to Congress calling for immediate military preparation. Though he said he meant no offense to France they would get “no apology.”
It should go without saying, but taking such a stand against France in the 1830s when the United States was far from being a world power is quite a different thing from the world's mightiest nuclear superpower posturing this way in 2017. In Jackson's day, Stepman notes, "Through his actions, Jackson was able to secure more respect from foreign nations which had often treated the new country with contempt."

But Stepman's pitch in his column suggests that there is some kind of easy comparison with Jacksonian foreign policy and what is required for the United States today. In effect, Stepman is making a more clean-shaven pitch for "Andrew Jackson" as a political symbol than that of Steve Bannon. But it's much the same concept.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Deportees in Mexico, refugees in Hungary

AlJazeera reports on Mexicans deported from the United States, Back to reality: Waves of US-deported Mexicans struggle to survive 03/19/2017:





Aljazeera's Inside Story also reports on the ugly way in which Hungary is dealing with the refugee crisis in Europe, highlighting how badly the EU as a whole is handling this situation, Why Hungary's crackdown on refugees is being criticised 03/19/2017:






Saturday, March 18, 2017

More on the Bannon-Trump cartoon version of Andrew Jackson

Adele Stan gives us a glimpse of Trump’s Race-Baiting Bromance with Andrew Jackson The American Prospect 03/15/2017.

It's good description of how the white supremacist right uses the image of Andrew Jackson.

Sadly, it's lacking in evidence of anything more than a superficial understanding of the actual political history of the Jacksonian Era.

Which is an indication of why the right and far-right in the US dos a better job than the left or the center-left in drawing on American historical iconography of American history and using it to define true "Americanism."

But Digby Parton is right in the conclusion she draws from Adele Stan's description of Trump demogogic pseudo-Jacksonianism (It's never just the economic populism is it? Hullabaloo 03/17/2017):

This is right wing populism. And it's very potent because it pits middle and lower class whites against people they already look down upon. Left wing populism is a heavier lift because white people in America see themselves as members of the same tribe as rich white people. Their resentment and fear of the wealthy doesn't run nearly as deep. They want to identify with them --- foreigners and people of color not so much. The class identification gets subsumed by the nationalist/racial identification.
she also links to this piece by Asawin Suebsaeng on Bannon-Trump version of "Andrew Jackson," Steve Bannon Pushed Trump to Go Full Andrew Jackson Daily Beast 03/16/2017.

And he rightly says, "The parallels between Trump and Jackson are, in many ways, deeply flawed. Jackson brawled with the established elite of the era, whereas Trump has, despite his rhetoric, emboldened them. Jackson came from poverty and was known as a war hero, while Trump was born into wealth and dodged the draft. Trump is a deeply divisive and outwardly bigoted figure.

But then he goes on to say that Jackson was worse than Trump has been so far: "Jackson, however, committed mass murder and ethnic cleansing."

The best I could say about that judgment is that it's just not meaningful as a description of Jackson's Indian policy, as bad as it was.

At some point, we need to ask people who make this kind of argument at what point, if any, that American history is pure enough for liberals and the left to take any lessons at all from it.

Since we still have a Constitution that was ratified in 1789 that incorporated political and legal traditions from centuries before that, there's reason not to ignore it all. I'm just saying.

There's also reason not to careful concede the interpretation of American history to the Steve Bannon's of the world.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Jackson, that habit has become widespread on the left and center-left. Here are three examples from January:

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Donald Trump as Andrew Jackson? Not even in an alternative universe!

Okay, this makes me ill. Trump hails 'very great' Andrew Jackson in political pilgrimage AFP/Yahoo! News 03/15/2017:

The Hermitage (United States) (AFP) - Donald Trump hailed America's first populist president Wednesday, laying a wreath at the tomb of Andrew Jackson and waxing lyrical about the similarities between himself and the seventh US president.

On the 250th anniversary of Jackson's birth, Trump visited "Old Hickory's" Tennessee home, dubbed The Hermitage.

Praising "the very great" Jackson's willingness to take on "an arrogant elite," Trump broke away from prepared remarks to exclaim, "Does that sound familiar to you?"

"I wonder why they keep talking about Trump and Jackson, Jackson and Trump. Ooh, I know the feeling Andrew."

Since coming to office in January, Trump aides have sought to draw comparisons between the bareknuckle Democratic president and Trump.
Jackson is obviously trying to identify with the image of Andrew Jackson as the champion of the common man. And Trump probably means man, too, even though women can vote now. More specifically, white man. It's also a safe bet that Trump himself has never read a history book or substantive history article about Andrew Jackson.

I would call Jackson a proto-populist instead of "America's first populist president," as this article does. I'll let the Populist Party be the first populists. Even though William Jennings Bryant didn't make it to the Presidency. He did serve as Secretary of State, though.

Trump's ceremonial wreath-laying at Jackson's grave brings up one of my chronic laments about present-day left and center-left politics in the US. Conservatives may have some inherent advantage in evoking iconic historical figures, although I'm not willing to concede that it has to be that way. But Andrew Jackson actually was one of the founders of the Democratic Party. And Donald bleeping Trump has stolen the Jackson symbolism for himself and the Republicans.

Nicole Hemmer gives us a look at Steve Bannon's white nationalist narrative of Andrew Jackson in Jacksonian Republicans US News and World Report 03/14/217:

Jackson is an odd touchstone for Trump. He is, after all, one of the founders of the Democratic Party. But Jackson's belief that democracy and race were inextricably bound together, that whiteness was a prerequisite for self-governance, fits neatly with Trump's own worldview – a worldview that is coming to define not just Trump's administration, but also the Republican Party.

The rise of the Jacksonian Republicans is remarkable. For well over a century after leaving office in 1837, Jackson was seen by white Democrats not only as the father of the party but the man who breathed life into the country's democratic promise. Historians wrote paeans to the age of Jacksonian democracy, when ordinary white people tore power from the hands of white elites, when universal white manhood suffrage replaced property requirements to vote.
Unfortunately, Hemmer seems to accept too much of the underlying assumption of the white nationalist propaganda outlook when she writes, "Jackson's belief that democracy and race were inextricably bound together, that whiteness was a prerequisite for self-governance, fits neatly with Trump's own worldview – a worldview that is coming to define not just Trump's administration, but also the Republican Party."

Using historical imagery in politics is never going to be exactly the same as trying to understand history in a serious way. The two don't have to be disconnected. It's just two different approaches.

But that means we need to be careful with how one kind of view feeds the other. The view of history as a upward process of progress is very much an Enlightenment outlook. So is race as a way of claiming essential qualities of civilization for Europeans, including those in the New World that are assumed to be lacking in the "inferior, primitive" peoples. Even if we don't hold a view of inherent progress in history, if we also assume that democracy is a good thing, a desirable thing, then that viewpoint will in some way privilege the events, movements, processes and leaders that contributed to the development and advancement of democracy. And democracy - political, social and economic - is not a product of Immaculate Conception. It's product of a messy, complicated history made by human beings. The latter of whom are known for being fallible and inconsistent even in their best moments.

Historians use "anachronism" to refer not just to the colloquial meaning of old-fashioned. But also to describe projecting normative assumptions of the present onto the past. I can't entirely escape the suspicion that this gives conservatives an advantage over the left and center-left when it comes to appropriating iconic images of the past for present-day usage. Political conservatives in their most constructive mode want to "make haste slowly." Reactionaries want to restore a past era of glory, even when the image of that past era invariably turns out to be a very present-day adaptation of selective imaginings of the golden past. While the classic image of liberals (in the American sense), progressives, the left is more that of people who embrace change, who want to find innovative solutions to social problems and to create constructive adaptations to new problems. In that broad view, conservatives may just be more comfortable identifying with the past.

Yet if the famous statement from George Orwell's 1984 is true, "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past," then the converse is also partially true: that narratives of the past shape the present and future.

So I would prefer to see the left and center-left take a more nuanced view of the democratic traditions in the American past.

Jackson and his legacy became part of a public policy discussion with the idea of putting a black woman on the $20 bill. I certainly have no issue with putting Sojourner Truth on the $20 bill.

But there are still meaningful connections from 19th century political movements in America to the present day. The direct political ancestor of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon was John Calhoun, patron saint of white supremacy. Jackson became Calhoun's arch-enemy over the Nullification Controversy, one of the major milestones on the road to Southern secession. One side in that controversy defended the traditions of democracy, the Constitution and the Union (all still developing in 2017); the other side defended treason in support of the institution of slavery and white supremacy. When he was literally on his deathbed there just inside the house from where Trump laid a wreath at his grave, Jackson said the only regret of his life was that he hadn't hanged John Calhoun for treason over his nullification stunt.

Since I've been especially bugged by neo-Confederate nonsense since the 1990s, I've grown very fond of the image of the slaveowner Jackson taking the right side against Calhoun when events forced him to choose between Constitutional democracy, on the one hand, and the democracy-hating "Slave Power," on the other.

Yes, Jackson's Indian policy was bad. So has every other President's been from Washington to Trump. And, no, that's not an excuse for Jackson or any of the rest of them. But Democrats and progressives today don't have much trouble still seeing the New Deal and FDR's pro-union policies as important democratic moments in American history. While at the same time criticizing his questionable compromises with segregation and flat-out condemning his order to intern Japanese-Americans. The same two-steps-forward-one-step-back process was at work in the Age of Jackson, too.

There's more of a "usable past" in that era than most Dems and progressives today seem to realize. It's of some interest to me that Jackson helped the pioneering American feminist Frances "Fanny" Wright set up a Utopian community called Nashoba in Tennesse in 1825. Among other things, the project was a biracial community with an abolitionist bent. He may have assisted her more because she was a friend of General Lafayette. But he did it. But we won't hear Donald Trump or Steve Bannon praising Andrew Jackson for assisting Fanny Wright to set up an abolitionist Utopian community.

Donald Trump trying to identify himself with the image of Andrew Jackson reminds me of the pictures from the infamous German-American Bund rally in Madison Square Garden featuring a giant image of George Washington. Rare Historical Photos provides this image from that rally (American Nazi organization rally at Madison Square Garden, 1939 02/19/2014):


The article makes this observation on why the we-love-Hitler crowd might pick George Washington as a mascot (emphasis in original):

There is a reason George Washington is up there and not Thomas Jefferson or James Madison Jr. Fascism was an ideology that emphasized action and heroism over intellectualism and philosophy. This is why Hitler’s ideal Aryan concept was a strong, handsome, and physically fit person rather than someone with a mind for civics. Men of action were the ideal example figures. The other part of fascism was extreme patriotism, which is why each nation/group had its own fascist symbolism and mythology. It wasn’t like communism where concepts were supposed to transcend ethnic boundaries, but an ideology where each nation had its own flavor. Washington, as a military leader, patriotic father, and someone whom a legend of heroism and virtue has grown up around, was the ideal figure for fascist groups looking to pull a symbol out of American history.
But anti-New Deal conservatives at that time did re-imagine Thomas Jefferson as a prophet of "free enterprise" Herbert Hoover economics. But liberals and leftists in those days were at least willing to contest the historical symbolism. Today, not so much.

I don't recall ever finding a reference to Andrew Jackson as a hero of the Radical Right in the 1930s, although there may well have been.

This is a big topic. But I'll make these observations about why I think the left and left-center have trouble with defending major democratic figures in the United States prior to the Civil War.

Anachronism: I think some of it is just that people on the left are likely to make moral and political judgments about history based on cherished standards of today. And to judge them harshly because the progress of those standards was much less developed than they are now. It's not only a lazy and unrealistic way to look at history. It's also a small step from saying that we don't like any political figure before 1860 because they didn't have the prevalent 21st standards on race and women's rights to saying they discriminated against blacks and Indians and women and there's no point in criticizing it. And much more realistic approach is to look at the actual debates over issues and the positions people actually took in those debates. Northern states in 1860 were free (non-slave) states because they had abolished slavery in their states. So opposition to slavery was very much a contemporary value in 1820, or in 1776, for that matter. And there is a lot to be learned from why people - and of course we're talking here mostly about white people, and in particular white men who could vote - lined up on different sides of that issue. It wasn't only white people, though. One of the arguments against Jackson's infamous Indian Removal Act was that some Indians in the Southeastern regions affected were slaveowners, and having examples of Indian slaveowners strengthened in institution of slavery. Real history is complicated.

Superficial understanding of social change: When Nicole Hemmer writes, "Jackson's belief that democracy and race were inextricably bound together, that whiteness was a prerequisite for self-governance," a lot of readers will assume that this is a common assumption on the left. And not without reason. But the same Enlightenment worldview that promoted chauvinistic notions of European civilization and white racial superiority also promoted ideas of democracy and equality and civil liberties that wound up presenting major challenges to the restriction of the vote to white property-owning men and to white supremacy in its various forms. And with widespread segregationist voter-suppression schemes in effect and Trump Muslim ban - to take only two examples - those conflicting notions are still in contention in the United States in 2017. The varying positions people take today on such issues matters, and it mattered in the past, too. The fact that most voters in the 1932 elections were white men who assumed "that whiteness was a prerequisite for self-governance" doesn't mean that there were no meaningful differences in the positions that took on, say, the vote in the Virginia legislature in 1831-32 over abolishing slavery in that state.

Insufficient historical literacy: The fact that Donald Trump can even try to pass himself off as the Andrew Jackson of the 21st century is prima facie evidence of this problem.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Al Gore: "We are seeing every night on the television news now a nature hike through the Book of Revelation"

"We are seeing every night on the television news now a nature hike through the Book of Revelation," says Al Gore in the PBS Newshour interview that aired Monday, Al Gore: We need to restore American democracy's immunity to blatant falsehoods 03/13/2017:



The contexct of that comment was this:

And that’s a perfect example of the problem that I’m describing in “The Assault on Reason.” Again, at some point, a false belief collides with physical reality.

We are seeing every night on the television news now a nature hike through the Book of Revelation. These climate-related extreme weather events have convinced the vast majority of people that the scientists have been right for a long time. We have to address this.

But putting someone in the EPA who denies even the most basic scientific truth about this, you know, it’s — the old cliches are, you can say the Earth is flat, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to fall off the edge.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Monday against mass deportation

A Senator in the Irish Parliament, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, calls for celebrating St. Patrick's Day this year as a day of solidarity with immigrants and refugees. Viral, Irish Senator Standing Up To President Donald Trump AM Joy MSNBC 03/12/2017:



Andrés Oppenheimer writes about the Trump Family Business Administration's information campaign against immigrants in Trump’s office of anti-immigrant propaganda will hurt all immigrants Miami Herald 03/08/2017:

Trouble is, virtually all serious studies show that undocumented immigrants tend to commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans. And there are good reasons for that: undocumented immigrants — the maids, gardeners, waiters and fruit pickers who do jobs few Americans want to do — fear being caught by police and being deported.

According to a study by the American Immigration Council , or AIC, a non-partisan Washington, D.C., think tank, U.S. Census data show that only 1.6 percent of immigrant males — both legal and illegally in the country — between the ages of 18 and 39 are incarcerated in U.S. prisons, compared to 3.3 percent of the native-born.

The AIC study reached the same conclusion when it looked specifically at young Mexican, Salvadoran and Guatemalan men without high school education, who make the bulk of undocumented migrants. They have significantly lower incarceration rates than U.S. born men without high school degrees, it said.

“Innumerable studies have confirmed two simple yet powerful truths about the relationship between immigration and crime: immigrants are less likely to commit serious crimes or be behind bars than the native born, and high rates of immigration are associated with lower rates of violent crime,” the report says.
Recitation of facts won't convert xenophobes from their hatred in itself. But it's important for the rest of us to keep a grip on reality.

Pilar Marrero reports that Latino leaders are warning that the Trump mass deportations are causing real damage to the entire Latino community, La comunidad latina en pleno sufrirá con Donald Trump, no sólo los inmigrantes, dicen líderes La Opinión 03/13/2017

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Mexican politics and the Trump mass deportation program

The left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolución Democrática; PRD) is positioning itself by calling for “Solidaridad con México ante las agresiones del gobierno de los Estados Unidos” ("solidarity with Mexico before the aggressions of the government of the United States.") (Jesús Zambrano se integra a la Alianza Progresista y presenta resolutivo perredista contra políticas de Trump Proceso 12.03.2017)

But the PRD itself may be flaming out as a political force. Elected officials and party activists have been leaving the party. Their high point electorally was 2006, when their Presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador won 36% of the vote and nearly 30% in the election for deputies to the Congress. Their percentage has notably declined since then. (Jesús Cantú, El PRD, con cáncer terminal Proceso 09.03.2016)

The next Mexican national election is coming in July 2018, including the Presidency.

López Obrador himself (also known by his initials AMLO) is coming to New York this week to support Mexicans living in the US against Trump's mass deportation. He also plans to visit Washington, Laredo and San Francisco. These days, I guess the State Department has to learn about a major opposition politician from Mexico visiting the United States from the news like the rest of us.

Since Trump's election, AMLO has also visited Chicago, El Paso, Los Ángeles and Phoenix. (David Brooks [not Bobo!], AMLO llegará a NY para promover defensa de inmigrantes La Journada 09.03.2017)

Daniel González and Rafael Carranza, Mexican populist Andrés Manual López Obrador calls Trump border wall 'criminal act' in Phoenix visit Arizona Republic 03/06/2017:

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the Mexican presidential hopeful, brought his populist message to Phoenix on Tuesday, denouncing President Donald Trump's "criminal" border wall and immigration policies.

"The U.S. economy can not be sustained without the labor of immigrants, and he knows it," López Obrador said in a rousing speech in a Phoenix ballroom packed with hundreds of cheering supporters, mostly immigrants from Mexico.

"The wall is not going to stop the flow of workers. It's just going to make it more dangerous," he said. "That is why I believe it is a criminal act."

The leftist Mexican politician and former mayor of Mexico City also attacked corrupt governments in Mexico that he said force Mexicans to seek better economic opportunities in the U.S.
AMLO has a new electoral vehicle after breaking with the PRD. "López Obrador, founder of the left-wing National Regeneration Movement, or MORENA, in Mexico, has not officially announced his candidacy for the 2018 Mexican presidential race. But he is campaigning like a candidate, having already held rallies in several U.S. cities with large Mexican immigrant communities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and El Paso, where he spoke Monday."

Campaigning against Trump is a promising posture for the 2018 election:

"What the Trump administration is doing is really inflaming nationalist attitudes in Mexico," said Francisco Lara-Valencia, a professor at Arizona State University's School of Transborder Studies. ...

"He is coming here because he recognizes that (Mexican migrants) are a source of economic stability" through the billions of dollars in remittances they send home to relatives each year, Lara-Valencia said.

López Obrador also understands that Mexican migrants in the U.S. have the power to influence how friends and family members back home may vote in the Mexican presidential election, he said.

Ramirez said López Obredor has a better chance of delivering his message directly to migrants in the U.S. because the media in Mexico favors the Mexican establishment and unfairly paints López Obrador as a radical socialist. ...

During his speech in Phoenix, López Obrador said he is touring U.S. cities to offer his "unconditional support for our immigrant community" and to confront "the campaign of hate, and the campaign against Mexicans who come to look for a better life and an honorable life" not available to them in Mexico.
Univision interviewed AMLO in February, López Obrador: “México no ha entendido cuál es la estrategia de Donald Trump” 02/08/2017:



Daniel Borunda reported on his El Paso visit (Mexico's Obrador talks of Trump in El Paso visit El Paso Times 03/06/2017

The fiery leftist candidate is a fixture in Mexico politics and has run twice before for the presidency. The third time is the charm, he said on stage to loud cheers.

"We are going to end the principal problem of Mexico, which is corruption," López Obrador said.

He said Mexico's problems stem from government policies that harmed farmers, fostered low wages and forced people to leave their homes and migrate.

He pledged to cut taxes, lower gas prices and increase development with the building of roads, schools, hospitals and other public works.

He would create a free zone along the U.S.-Mexico border to spur investment, lower prices and raise wages. He pointed out that Mexican factory workers earn pennies compared to workers doing the same job in the United States.

Immigrants aren't the only victims, López Obrador said adding that drug violence in Juárez was the result of "absurd security strategies" and government policies.

"In recent years, we saw how a police problem escalated until it converted into a war that cost thousands of lives and resolved nothing. The price was tragic," he said.
On AMLO leaving the PRD, see Mexico's Lopez Obrador leaves coalition to form new movement BBC News 09/10/2012. MORENO was set up as a political party in 2014.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Russia, Ukraine and parsing politicians' positions on foreign affairs

Wolfgang Münchau's Eurointelligence (How to think about Russia 03/10/2017) links to a nearly three-year-old article by Karl-Heinz Kamp at the Carnegie Europe center, Bad Idea, Vladimir! 04/04/2014, that looks at the standoff between Russia and NATO over Ukraine and Russia's annexation of the Crimea that year. He argues that from the Russian viewpoint, re-annexing the Crimea (which was part of Russia from 1783 until 1954), may have taken on more of a burden than a blessing:

In the context of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal to reestablish at least parts of Russia’s bygone empire, the annexation of Crimea looks like a smart move. Yet so far, the cost-benefit analysis of this illegal step seems to leave Russia in the red.

Before the Anschluss, Moscow controlled the whole of Ukraine through the compliant regime of former president Viktor Yanukovych. In the future, Russia will be able to sway only parts of a country that is on a slippery slope toward disintegration. Unwittingly, Putin added another source of instability to his already shaky Russian empire.
The downsides, of course, have a lot to do with the reaction of NATO countries. Kamp describes the lines of confrontation:

However, what looks like a negative cost-benefit analysis for Russia raises concerns in many NATO member states. Since Putin appears too smart to strike a bad deal, it is fair to assume that Moscow assesses costs and benefits differently from the West. If that is the case, Russia might be ready to take even bigger risks than just occupying Crimea to score points at home. The long-standing axiom that Russia would never dare commit an act of aggression against a NATO member because the repercussions would be too dangerous for Moscow could prove hollow.

Baltic governments anxiously ponder the scenario of Russia stirring up unrest among ethnic Russians in their countries to have a pretense to “protect” its citizens abroad. For instance, how would NATO react if Russian forces occupied a 30-mile-wide strip of Estonian border territory as a “safe haven” for ethnic Russians and provided them with Russian passports? Would it send in the NATO Response Force and start a major war over 30 miles of land? Doing nothing would mean the end of NATO as a functioning alliance. [my emphasis]
This is a real dilemma, even if our neocons and "humanitarian hawks" see it as an opportunity, adding the Baltic states to the NATO alliance in 2004 was a reckless move. Or at minimum, not well considered.

Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia were also added to the alliance in 2004. Albania and Croatia followed in 2009. But unlike former Warsaw Pact members Albania, Bulgaria and Romania, the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were directly incorporated into the old Soviet Union. It's not hard to understand that, whatever the moral or legal claims may be, the closer NATO's borders get to the border of Russia, the more concerned any Russian policymaker would be about it.

The post-World War II Western decisions about policy toward Russia are still debated today in the historical sub-field of Cold War Studies. The post-1989 Western policies toward Russia will no doubt be debated for a long time, as well. But in 2017, we are where we are.

Kamp links to a Reuters report from 2014 that discusses the position of three former German Chancellors on Russia and the Ukraine/Crimea crisis (Erik Kirschbaum, Putin's apologist? Germany's Schroeder says they're just friends 03/27/2014):

[Gerhard] Schroeder is hardly alone with his criticism of the West. Two other former chancellors, Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, have also questioned the treatment of Putin and Russia.

Schmidt, a Social Democrat like Schroeder, has called sanctions against Russia "dumb", saying in the latest edition of Die Zeit: "It would be better, in the interest of peace, to sit down and talk instead of threatening sanctions."

Kohl, a Christian Democrat (CDU) like Merkel, told Bild newspaper in mid-March: "The upheaval in Ukraine was not handled intelligently. There's also been a lack of sensitivity with our Russian neighbours, especially with President Putin."
Schröder does have an obvious financial interest in defending Russian foreign policy positions. But that doesn't necessarily mean his advice is bad on the topic. Especially since two other former Chancellors were expressing similar concerns in 2014. It's worth noting that Schröder's Foreign Minister, former Green leader Joschka Fischer, also worked for Russian energy interests after he left office. But he was far more critical of the Russians' actions in Ukraine in 2014. In fact, he leans toward the hawkish side on NATO affairs in general. (See: Ralf Neukirch,
The Eternal Rivalry of Joschka Fischer and Gerhard Schröder Spiegel International 02/15/2010)

The following also notable, in light of current news in the US. A green Member of Parliament is quoting as calling the former Chancellor as basically a Russian stooge:

"Schroeder is spreading the Kremlin's propaganda and everyone should understand that he's now a paid spokesman for Russia," said Manuel Sarrazin, who sits on the European affairs committee of the German parliament for the opposition Greens.

"He's in the service of Russia with a big conflict of interest," Sarrazin told Reuters.
Kirschbaum's report also refers to a TV report, "An ARD TV investigation, called 'The dubious activities of the ex-chancellor on Putin's behalf', said Schroeder took part in a secret meeting at the Russian embassy in Berlin on March 4, three days after Putin announced his right to invade Ukraine."

It's worth mentioning here that Chancellor Willy Brandt had to resign in 1974 after it was discovered that one of his closest staff, Günter Guillaume, was exposed as an East German spy. But he really was a spy. It wasn't a matter of him having some undisclosed meeting with an East German diplomat during a political campaign.

My point here is that we need to take conflicts of interest into account in the position officials or major public figures take on foreign policy. For instance, our ExxonMobil Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was previously the CEO of a company that once had a deal for $500 billion worth of business with Russia, a deal that was put on indefinite hold by the Obama Administration's sanctions on Russia over Crimea. It would be foolish to disregard that aspect of his experience.

But having political positions that match up to those of a foreign government or political group isn't a sign of corruption or treason. Though either could lead to that result. Foreign policy is largely about deciding which countries to favor and which to oppose. And on which issues.

And Germany has its own particular national interests with Russia: "Berlin's economic links with Moscow are much stronger than those of other big Western powers. Germany is the biggest buyer of Russian natural gas exports, and its government has tended to tread more carefully than the United States, Britain or France."

The Trump image of immigrants as a terrorist threat

Kate Brannen at Just Security (More Info Needed on Travel Ban’s Claim that 300 Refugees Under Counterterrorism Investigations 03/06/2017) has an update on the demagogic claims that the Trump Family Business Administration is making about "criminal aliens" to justify their mass deportation program that is primarily aimed at Latinos residents in the US.

A key point is that being investigated for something at all terrorism-related is not at all the same as being charged, much less convicted. And as Brannon writes, "It goes without saying that just because there is an investigation, that does not mean terrorist activity has been established."

... Faiza [Patel] notes that it’s important to know whether the word “investigation” is actually referring to an “assessment” or a full investigation. “An assessment is an early stage investigation which does not require suspicion of criminal activity, but rather can be started by an agent with an ‘authorized purpose,'” Faiza says. “The overwhelming majority of assessments do not result in full investigations — not surprising because they are not based on facts.”

This New York Times article from 2011 shows that from December 2008 to March 2009, only 3.7 percent of 11,667 assessments led to full investigations.

The number of investigations leading to successful prosecutions is even smaller. According to Justice Department statistics, there were 580 terrorism and terrorism-related convictions from Sept 11, 2001 through the end 2014. That’s roughly 41 to 42 per year, so about 10 percent of full investigations lead to a conviction (assuming the numbers obtained by the NYT are representative of the rate at which investigations lead to convictions).

Also of note is the fact that terrorism-related suspicions can cover a broad category of offenses, including immigration violations, according to Faiza. “These may have started as terrorism investigations, but we cannot know whether they actually have anything to do with terrorism.”


Andrew Lindsay analyzed the information on immigrants and terrorism last month for the Brennan Center in What the Data Tells Us About Immigration and Terrorism 02/17/2017, reminding us that many of the actual "terrorism" convictions since 2001 have been FBI stings, some of very dubious quality:

For example, Laguerre Payen is one of four convicted in a Newburgh, NY sting operation made infamous by an HBO documentary. An FBI informant recruited James Cromite, a low-level drug dealer and offered him $250,000 to recruit three other Muslims and carry out an attack. The informant recruited Payen, a homeless crack addict and paranoid schizophrenic. When told of a trip to Florida as reward, Payen said he could not go because he had no passport. He hardly posed the type of threat on which the government should expend resources.

Another example is Patrick Abraham, one of five convicted in a Miami sting operation. An FBI informant targeted a group of poor African-American and Haitian men, offering them $50,000 to join a terror plot. Subsequently, the informant recorded Abraham and the other men pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda. The group, dubbed the Liberty City 7, was not even Muslim, but a sect of the Moorish Science Temple that called itself the “Seas of David.” According to Mother Jones, the men were financially strapped misfits who operated out of a warehouse, where they had no weapons save a ceremonial sword. They were clearly misguided in seeking support from a purported member of a terrorist group but not, as the government asserts, domestic al-Qaeda operatives intent on, much less capable of, committing harm to the United States.
"Relying on raw and undifferentiated data," he writes, "serves to obfuscate rather than assist the development of an effective response" to terrorism.

And there's this: Fahgim Abeb and Rod Nordland, Afghans Who Worked for U.S. Are Told Not to Apply for Visas, Advocates Say New York Times 03/10/2017.

Officials at the International Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York said they had learned that as of Thursday, Afghans were being told that applications were no longer being accepted, though the suspension had taken place on March 1. “Our worst fears are proving true,” said Betsy Fisher, the group’s policy director.

Mac McEachin, another official at the organization, said the decision could affect the 2,500 soldiers of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division who might be deployed to Syria. “Now that the world has seen how we turn our backs on our Afghan allies, there is almost no chance that local allies in Syria will be inclined to work with us,” he said.

American military officials are also requesting an increase in troops deployed to Afghanistan.
Does anyone in this Administration know what they're doing except for hustling sweetheart deals for the family business?

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Need for a good investigation and clear thinking on the Trump-Russia scandal

George Beebe did a piece during the Presidential transition on Russia’s Role in the US Elections: The Case for Caution The National Interest 12/16/2017 that was a useful call for realism on the Trump-Russia story. It's still relevant even after all the development in the last two-and-a-half months.

The author bio at the end of the article reads, "George Beebe is the President of BehaviorMatrix LLC, a text analytics company. He formerly served as chief of Russia analysis at the CIA, and as special advisor to Vice President Cheney on Russia and the Former Soviet Union."

Obama during the transition called for "a bipartisan, independent, process" to investigate the story, which then we were still usually calling the Russia hacking story. When he said that, I couldn't help but wonder how those two qualities can fit together given the state of the Republican Party. But I do want to see a real independent investigation of it, if that's not a totally Utopian concept these days.

At the same time, I'm trying to keep the various implications of the story in view along with the various motives different players have. So it seems to me there are likely to be substantial reasons to think the Russian government tried to intervene in a the American election by hacking and/or other means in such a way that some substantive American response is required.

But it also seems to me that with Hillary's 3-million-or-so popular vote margin, it's difficult to conclude that Russian intervention was decisive to the outcome, unless evidence turns up of Russian sleeper agents running pro-Trump get-out-the-vote drives in Michigan and Wisconsin.

It's very clear to me that various rightwing groups here and in Europe admire Putin's authoritarian governing style, including our President. And that it's still the case that Russia and the US have common interests in some things and substantial conflicts on others, whether or not we like their governing practices.

I'm sure Trump's foreign policy will be a disaster and that all aspects of his Presidency will be mired in conflicts of interest and old-fashioned corruption.

But even for mega-billion deals for ExxonMobil, I'm not at all sure that the new administration will be able to have a cozy partnership with Russia; for instance, hardcore Islamophobes may see Putin as an ally against Islam, or "Radical Islamic Terrorism," but Putin's government is way more concerned about *Sunni* militants than Shi'a ones and therefore may not be so cooperative in starting a war with Iran. And in general, I'm really fond of the "don't do stupid stuff" rule for foreign policy.

Beebe's article is calling for careful public scrutiny of intelligence claims. And it's still good advice. This whole scandal is a reminder of how important it is for intelligence findings to have public credibility. Because by the nature of much of their work, they can't always make the full evidence public so that it could be independently verified. So while the basic claim that the Russian government was behind the hacks of the Democratic National Committee is widely accepted, it is still for most people based on the publicly expressed consensus of the "intelligence community." As well as on the general acceptance of it by Members of Congress who have access to more details of the intelligence findings than we do.

Much of the story now is being driven by anonymous leaks to major press outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post. And they have earned the skepticism of reality-based observers, especially since the Times ran their first Watergate story in 1992.

Scandals like this inevitably have political aspects since they involve elections and public officials. One particular political twist to this one is that Democratic interpretations of Hillary Clinton's Electoral College loss. To make my own perspective more clear, I was a Bernie supporter in the primary and a Clinton backer in the general. Many Clinton partisans have claimed that "the election was hacked," i.e., that Russian interference was decisive in Trump's win.

And as I mentioned above, Hillary clearly won the popular vote. And the decisive margins that threw the Electoral votes of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin was less than 100,000 for all three together. That is a tiny margin of votes on a national scale. And almost any significant issue or facotr could have made such a difference: poor Rust Belt employment prospects, James Comey's late (and very sleazy) intervention, the type of ads the Clinton campaign ran there, inadequate planning for get-out-the-vote operations.

Hillary won the election in the popular vote. So it would be hard to make the case that her approach to the issues and campaign were fundamentally flawed. The magnitude of the Democratic losses in local elections does indicate some real problems for the Democratic Party general prospects, as even establishment Democrats have had to recognize.

But the temptation for more conservative Democrats and Hillary hardliners to blame "Russia, Russia, Russia" for the loss would be a destructive one for Democrats to adopt in practice.

This is a report from the Center for the National Interest (founded by Richard Nixon in 1994) on a 01/27/2017 discussion that also included Beebe, Russian and the U.S. Election: Assessing Moscow's Actions and America's Responses:

Center Executive Director Paul Saunders addressed U.S. policy responses to the hacking and the current political climate. Saunders stated that the U.S. must ask itself what it is responding to, what it is trying to accomplish with the response, and the cost/benefit of each particular response. According to Saunders, it is a fair conclusion that the hacking was perpetrated by Russia, though the intent behind the attack is not yet fully understood, as there is very little relevant information in the public domain. The first step before the U.S. reacts, according to Saunders, is a thorough investigation into the hacking incident. Mr. Saunders emphasized that this event must be placed in the context of 25 years of troubled and complex U.S.-Russia relations.

Regarding the United States’ objectives in responding to Russia, Saunders argued that the Obama administration’s puzzling response in December — expelling 35 Russian diplomats, sanctioning officials at Russian intelligence agencies, and closing two Russian recreation facilities in New York and Maryland — had a very limited impact on Moscow. If the Obama administration had compelling evidence of serious Russian interference, it should have done more. If not, he said, it should have waited until the facts were clearer.

Citing the importance of a thorough and impartial investigation, Saunders stated that there is as much a danger in responding before an investigation takes place as in failing to respond adequately. The response must be proportional, urged Saunders, stating that the Obama administration had acknowledged that hacking of actual election voting machines did not take place. While the leaked information from the hacks and coverage by Russian state-owned media channel RT may have influenced U.S. public opinion, Saunders pointed out, such efforts are not uncommon in international affairs. [my emphasis]
Paul Pillar describes why we badly we need a good investigation of the Russia-Trump scandal while he warns us that dodgy intelligence can cut in more than one direction (Leak-Shopping and the Politicization of Intelligence The National Interest 02/28/2017):

Amid the White House’s further fulmination about leaks, it has become apparent that what concerns Trump and his circle is not leaking but rather the public disclosure and dissemination of any information that contradicts administration assertions. In this respect, this administration’s sounding off about leaks stems from the same motives as the president’s attempts to discredit mainstream media as an “enemy of the people.” ...

This kind of effort by the White House is similar to leaking in that it involves people with an agenda endeavoring to tell a partial story of, or impart spin to, some subject that is more complicated than that, involves information gaps, and in which the available information is subject to differing interpretations. These characteristics certainly apply to the Russian connections of Trump associates, which is why a thorough and impartial investigation of the subject is necessary. In each case, something is divulged to the press not to inform, but to support a political or policy position.

Just five weeks in power, this administration already has gone even farther, and in an even more corrupting way, down this road, and not just regarding the issue of Russian connections. The White House is reported to have reached into the intelligence and security services, including the intelligence and analysis arm of the Department of Homeland Security, to try to extract interpretations of data about terrorism that would support the decisions the administration made, and subsequently were struck down in the courts, about limiting travel from specified Muslim-majority states. This is a classic case of politicization of intelligence: using intelligence not to inform a policy decision yet to be made, but instead to try to muster public support for a decision already made. This is the opposite of how a healthy intelligence-policy relationship ought to work. [my emphasis]
New material and/or perspective are cascading into the media in great volume right now. For another perspective, here are two segments from Democracy Now! featuring Scott Horton and Robert Perry, both taking a left-leaning perspective on the Trump-Russia scandal but with distinctions. Debate: Are Trump’s Ties to Russia a Dangerous Security Issue or Critics’ Fodder for New Red Scare? 03/06/2017 (Transcript):



Web Extra: Are Trump-Russia Ties a Dangerous Security Issue or Critics’ Fodder for New Red Scare? 03/07/2017 (Transcript):



Perry is particularly focused on how careless evaluations of the Russia situation could lead to foreign policy mistakes, and worse. A couple of his recent pieces at Consortium News: The Politics Behind ‘Russia-gate’ 03/04/2017; Official Washington Tips into Madness 03/06/2017. I worry that Perry is conflating the situation in which an investigative journalist pursues a story with the very explicit allegations made by the "intelligence community" about the Russian hacking. The public needs to know more specifics from an independent investigation about those. If they are true, we need confirmation and a good sense of what needs to be done about it. (Starting wars over Georgia or Ukraine would not be an appropriate response.) If they are really off-base, we need to know that, too.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo is trying to parse what the evidence in the public record is really telling us, and what it's not yet telling us:

Fighting the mass deportation

A press release from the National Immigration Law Center describes legal efforts on behalf of Daniela Vargas, the Argentine Dreamer arrested in Jackson MS by ICE in an obvious retaliation for her having spoken out publicly against the Trump Family Business Administration for arrested her father and brother as part of their mass deporation operation (Civil and Immigrants’ Rights Groups Work to Win Release for Dreamer Daniela Vargas and Prevent Deportation 03/07/2017):

Civil and immigrant rights groups have taken legal action to stop the deportation of Daniela Vargas, a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient who was detained by immigration agents immediately after she spoke at a March 1 press conference protesting recent U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids in Mississippi. Vargas spoke of her hope that she and other Dreamers could remain in and contribute to this country.

The National Immigration Law Center (NILC), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the law firm of Elmore & Peterson, and the Law Office of William Most filed a habeas petition on Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, Alexandria Division.

“Detaining Dany just minutes after she spoke publicly about immigrants’ rights appears to be nothing short of ICE retaliating against somebody who dared assert their First Amendment rights,” said Naomi Tsu, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “Dany, an aspiring math teacher and active community member, is not a threat to her community. Her detention only serves to chill free speech and stoke fear throughout immigrant communities.”
BBC Mundo reports on the 23 countries that ICE describes as uncooperative or outright refusing to take deportees that the US claims are from their countries. (Los 23 países que rechazan recibir a sus nacionales deportados desde Estados Unidos 03/07/2017) Cuba is the only one from Latin America on the list of 23. Canada is also not one of the 23. And Canada is seeing an increase in the number of Mexicans requesting refuge there. Aumenta en Canadá el número de peticionarios mexicanos por refugio

Just Security 03/08/2017 provides A Line-by-Line Comparison Between Trump’s Original Muslim Ban and Today’s 03/08/2017.

Faiza Patel evaluates the new order in A Muslim Ban By Any Other Name Smells Just the Same Brennan Center 03/06/2017: "The revised executive order President Trump signed Monday morning is still a Muslim ban and it is still unconstitutional."

I'm guessing that the Trump Family Business Administration will try to protect at least one business from being much disturbed: the small arms proliferation business, which relies heavily on its own form of undocumented activity, Estados Unidos, principal vendedor de armas a México Proceso TV 03/07/2017:



Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Wikileaks and the Trump-Russia scandal

A new Wikileaks document drop happened this week. And it provides yet another example of how US news and politics right now is a bizarre mixture of intrigue, espionage and conspiracy theories.

Noting a new set of documents being released by Wikileaks, Josh Marshall posts You Probably Can't Be Both (TPM 03/07/2017), which reads in full, "According to Wikileaks, the new tranche of CIA documents was provided by a government contractor or ex-government operative concerned at the overreach of various CIA hacking capabilities. But Wikileaks role as a de facto arm of Russian cyber-warfare and disruption operations against the United States certainly complicates its role as a purported or former whistleblower organization."

Marcy Wheeler has a less dismissive take on the sourcing in Wikileaks Dumps CIA'S Hacking Tools Emptywheel 03/07/2017:

We will no doubt have further debate about whether Wikileaks was responsible or not with this dump. But consider: various contractors (and to a much lesser degree, the US intelligence community) have been releasing details about Russian hacking for months. That is deemed to be in the common interest, because it permits targets to prevent being hacked by a state actor.

Any hacking CIA does comes on top of the simplified spying the US can do thanks to the presence of most tech companies in the US.

So why should CIA hacking be treated any differently than FSB or GRU hacking, at least by the non-American part of the world?

This leak may well be what Wikileaks claims it to be — a concerned insider exposing the CIA’s excesses. Or perhaps it’s part of a larger Russian op. (Those two things could even both be true.) But as we talk about cybersecurity, we would do well to remember that all nation-state hackers pose a threat to the digital commons.
The Guardian's story on the leaks if by-lined to Ewen MacAskill, Sam Thielman and Philip Oltermann, WikiLeaks publishes 'biggest ever leak of secret CIA documents' 03/07/2017. They address the documents' credibility this way:

The documents appear to be from the CIA’s 200-strong Center for Cyber Intelligence and show in detail how the agency’s digital specialists engage in hacking. ...

The CIA declined to comment on the leaks beyond the agency’s now-stock refusal to verify their contents. “We do not comment on the authenticity or content of purported intelligence documents,” wrote CIA spokesperson Heather Fritz Horniak.

But it is understood the documents are genuine and a hunt is under way for the leakers or hackers responsible for the leak. [my emphasis]
That's an unusually vague reference to sourcing, although the placement suggests that they mean that the CIA understands the docs to be genuine.

A Guardian report by Julian Borger focuses on the intrigue aspect, To security establishment, WikiLeaks' CIA dump is part of US-Russia battle 03/07/2017:

In the Washington security establishment ... the leaks are being viewed more as the latest battle in a struggle between US and Russian intelligence services being played out in the US political arena – a fight in which WikiLeaks is widely seen as sitting firmly in Moscow’s corner.

The latest leaks land amid an ongoing and very public feud between the US president and the country’s intelligence agencies over Kremlin efforts to influence the election in Donald Trump’s favour. In recent months, the president has repeatedly denigrated US intelligence agencies – going as far as comparing them to the Nazi regime – while openly cheering on WikiLeaks activities. He has also alleged, so far without any evidence, that the Obama administration spied on him and his election campaign.

The apparent CIA hacking tools published by WikiLeaks feed directly into that struggle. Some Trump supporters have claimed that the apparent Russian hacking attacks could be a “false-flag” operation, hinting it was carried out by the new president’s domestic foes, and the “Vault 7” documents published on Tuesday give them potential ammunition.
The PBS Newshour reports on the latest Wikileaks revelations here, WikiLeaks publishes purported CIA cyber tools for hacking phones, TVs 03/07/2017:


Separating refugee kids from their parents on the southern US border

Mexican Chancellor Luis Vedegaray made an official statement of concern to the US government over the leak and/or trial balloon of a proposal to separate mothers caught crossing the US border without proper papers from any of their children they might be bringing in. (Angélica Mercado y Sivia Arellano, Preocupa a México que EU separe a madres de hijos: Vedgaray Milenio 07.03.2017)

The current government of President Peña Nieto is trying to avoid confrontational postures with the Trump Family Business Administration. But both the immigration and trade policies of the Trump family will make confrontations difficult to avoid.

Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! discusses the latest version of the Muslim ban, This is Still a Muslim Ban: Trump's New Executive Order Decried for Discriminating Based on Religion 03/07/2017



Aljazeera's Empire Files reports on the new Muslim ban, Will Donald Trumps' travel bans serve any purpose? 03/07/2017:



The PBS Newshour presented these two reports on the new ban. Trump administration announces new travel ban 03/06/2017:



This second one features the notorious xenophobe and segregationist Kris Kobach, Is Trump’s revised travel ban constitutional? 03/07/2017: