Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Donald Trump's Law and Order Campaign

Donald Trump’s supporters often cite their candidate’s respect for “law and order” as a key feature of his appeal.  Trump centered his dark convention speech around the same theme.  And his criticism of Hillary Clinton is based on her administrative malfeasance, which the contract-breaking, bankruptcy-declaring, charity-cheating, fraudulent university-opening Republican tries to spin into a narrative of serial corruption and impunity.

However, unless you have crawled out from beneath a rock within the last five minutes, portraying Trump as the “law and order” candidate takes extraordinary delusion or dishonesty.  
Donald Trump has pledged to commit war crimes in violation of international law by carpet bombing cities, murdering civilians, reinstituting torture, and waging aggressive war (one of the criminal charges levelled at Nazis at Nuremberg).  Rudy Giuliani, a leading Trump surrogate, recently went so far as to claim that “until the war is over, anything is legal,” echoing Trump’s own suggestions that the U.S. should invade Iraq, “take the oil...declare victory and leave.”
Most U.S. administrations have broken international law in one fashion or another, as have virtually all global powers.  But Trump would mark the first time since the 1930s that the leadership of a major world power has openly advocated aggressive war and the casual conquest of other states for their resources.
Lest we think this is Trump’s only point of similarity to the fascists who won power in Europe during the 1930s, we should remember that at the core of Trump’s campaign is an effort to ruthlessly exploit racial and religious differences between people in the United States.
In Trump’s case, this takes the form of upending the Constitution by denying U.S. citizens rights--civil liberties, their equality before the law, the right to serve in certain capacities--on the basis of their ethnicity and faith.  
Like all authoritarians, Trump is troubled by the free press, and has mused openly about how best to abuse other sections of the Constitution that protect the rights of journalists, and citizens more broadly, to write and speak freely.
Trump has on multiple occasions suggested that he will not be bound by the results of an election.  He has made a habit of suggesting that his opponent should be assassinated.  Supporters have outlined a specific pattern of behavior for their candidate to stoke uncertainty in the democratic process to lay the groundwork for post-election sabotage.
His campaign has suggested that Trump and his supporters could engineer either a “constitutional crisis” or a “bloodbath” if he loses the election.
The celebrated “law and order” candidate is not only threatening to tear up the consensus around international laws and norms that has made the world a better place since the 1940s.  He is taking aim at fundamental components of the Constitution, offending any tenable interpretation of the document.
For those who think the Constitution’s primary function should be to shackle us to the cultural and political mentality of the late-eighteenth century, its most fundamental significance is often overlooked.  “Nationalism,” the stuff that binds a nation together, comes in two broad forms.  Ethno-linguistic nationalism defines membership in a state and the rights associated with that membership in terms of race and language.  Expressions of this sort of nationalism exploded in fascist Europe, and have enabled genocides on multiple continents.
Civic nationalism, in contrast, defines membership in a national community by dint of shared values and institutions, specifically repudiating the notion that the most binding forms of solidarity must be race or language.  
Donald Trump’s assault on the Constitution, and his threats to overturn laws and norms that protect people domestically and globally from indiscriminate violence, mark a turn to ethno-linguistic nationalism.
Our country, with its inescapable diversity, can literally not function if we adopt Trump’s version of nationalism.  But Trump is telling people that it is okay to discuss stripping people of their rights based on language, religion, and race.  His entire campaign is premised on unleashing violence: by the predatory capitalism that made him rich absent any discernable talents; by our military against civilians around the world; by the state and his supporters against his political opponents and journalistic critics; and by the perversion of the law against non-white, non-Christian citizens of our country.
Don’t pretend that you can support Trump just to secure conservative justices on the Supreme Court.  That Court will have precious little salience if Trump launches his constitutional crisis or bloodbath.  And in no way is that an excuse for backing a candidate whose signature policies involve stripping people of their rights and unleashing violence around the world.  Trump would presumably look for justices who would be sympathetic to the most horrific components of his agenda.
Don’t pretend that you can support Trump because he “tells it like it is.”  Otherwise, you and your fellow Trump supporters wouldn’t have to spend so much time interpreting your candidate’s words and explaining why the fundamentals of sentence structure and verbiage don’t pertain when he speaks.
Don’t pretend that you can support Trump because he’s “anti-establishment.”  He made his career due to his proximity to the “establishment”, political and economic alike.  And he’s not going to so much “shake things up” as upend the laws and norms that his supporters like to claim “make our country great.”
There’s a saying, “You are what you eat.”  I think you are also who or what you vote for.  And be very clear that if you support Donald Trump, you are more than deplorable.  You are taking part in a campaign that is committing to slaughter innocents abroad and rob countries of their resources in clear violation of laws the U.S. has signed and enforced on others.  You are taking part in a campaign that has committed to single people out for modification or denial of their rights and abilities to participate in civic life based on their religion and race.  You are taking part in a campaign that is already complicit in fostering post-election violence, and has threatened to launch what amounts to a coup if it loses.

Think long and hard about whether these are mindsets, policies, and enterprises with which you want to associate.  Because you can’t vote for Donald Trump and keep these things clear of your conscience.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Election Talk about Russia Could Reshape International Policy in Troubling Ways

Regular readers will know that I’m no fan of many facets of President Obama’s foreign policy.  But the past eight years have seen serious circumstances capable of dragging the U.S. into dangerous conflicts with other global actors, including Russia.  The president’s measured approach to international policy is one factor that has helped the U.S. to steer clear of turning local conflicts in Ukraine and Syria in wider, global war.
But we are not out of the woods yet.
We are seeing the reemergence of rhetoric in the United States that seems intent on placing our country on a collision course with Russia.  Traditionally, it was the Republican Party that was home to those advocating a hardline approach to relations with Russia.  Now, thanks to Donald Trump’s bizarre embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin, it is Democrats who are rushing to castigate Russia and its leader as the source of every global ill.
Vladimir Putin presides over an authoritarian regime that enriches an oligarchy while foreclosing opportunities for dissent.  Democrats are right to observe that Donald Trump shares many of these characteristics or aspirations.  Trump advocates an economic policy designed to shift wealth towards those who are already extraordinarily wealthy.  Trump has mused about supporters shooting his opponent, his ability to persecute journalists, and the bloodbath that his advisors think should ensue if he can’t triumph in a democratic election.  His convention speech was defined by its draconian “law and order” drumbeat.
My own worry is that the way in which Democrats are capitalizing on this moment—which has the benefit of highlighting Trump’s authoritarian leanings—might wind up creating a set of narratives and conditions from which we find it difficult to retreat.
One feature of the global Cold War that influenced developments around the world from the 1940s to the 1990s was the constant effort on the part of the United States to overstate the threat posed by the Soviet Union in military, propaganda, and economic terms.  Doing so led policymakers in the United States to see every action, anywhere in the world, that seemed to work at cross-purposes with U.S. interests, as being propelled by the hand of Moscow.
Whether in Chile, Congo, South Africa, Vietnam, Guatemala, or Iran, no local figure could speak an unkind word about capitalism, colonialism, or U.S. meddling without allegedly being prompted by sinister figures in the Kremlin.  New states in Africa and Asia, and older states attempting to reinvigorate their democracies in the Americas and elsewhere, were seen as incapable of thinking for themselves, and so foreign policy “experts” assumed that any time such states expressed independent thoughts those represented the work of Soviet propagandists.
The almost cartoonish view of politics and society, and of human agency aside, this had serious consequences for our world.
Because the United States cast Russia as an omnipotent evil empire responsible for all the world’s evils, it consistently misattributed motives to other states, misdiagnosed the source of global challenges and changes, and acted in ways that ultimately proved contrary to the public interest in the U.S. and which caused great and entirely needless instability and suffering for people in other countries around the world.
A recent article in the Guardian suggested that “almost everyone gets Russia wrong—apart from Obama.”  The author’s thesis was that there is a growing, bipartisan consensus about the need to confront Russia, which is portrayed by the Clinton campaign, the national security state, and the Republican Party alike as being run by an “11th dimensional chess grandmaster, who is behind every world event.”  The President, in contrast, stays calm.
However wrongheaded Donald Trump is in his admiration of Putin and everything the authoritarian leader represents, we should be careful about how much we allow this moment to run away with how we deal with reality.
It might be convenient for election season to bash Trump, Putin, and the pernicious nature of Russian influence, but if we go too far with this—as we did during the Cold War—we will create a public fear and a public narrative that will seize control of our policymaking, distort our analysis of causation and consequence in global events, and will prevent us from using diplomatic tools that can yield better and safer results.
Many Democrats might feel it is worthwhile to stir up anti-Russian sentiment if it means denying Trump the White House.  But they should be careful, because even if Hillary Clinton becomes president in January, which seems likely to be the case, we have to deal with the consequences of the extent to which their narrative has developed the ability to drive policy.
Where President Obama has been able and willing to resist the blandishments of the national security establishment (including those populating his cabinet), he has done a respectable job of managing a dangerous world, even if he has shown a disinclination to change the terms of global engagement or to come to grips with the ramifications of decades of bad international policymaking.
I think that in very different ways, Obama and Clinton’s struggle with foreign policy has to do with their capacity to understand other actors’ perspectives.  In the President’s case, he can clearly appreciate how history and culture shape other state’s interests, but occasionally fails to understand that not everyone shares his commitment to measured, careful debate and decision-making.
Nor do all actors—both those from smaller states or those from beleaguered civil society as with the Arab Spring—have the leisure of his approach to international policy.  Virtually every negotiation the President undertakes is asymmetrical, with weaker actors with less leverage, and he seems to struggle to see how this can shape the expression of interests and the process of negotiation.
In Clinton’s case, the difficulty seems to stem from a broadly well-meaning but fatal arrogance that has long defined much U.S. policymaking, along with the multicultural illiteracy that plagues a nation isolated by its hubris and sense of exceptionalism.  Exceptional nations, the idea goes, stand apart from the norms and historical processes that affect other states and people.
In spite of this, I appreciate the President’s measured approach to international policy, and his disinclination to bluster.  Clinton doesn’t share those characteristics—partly because she is under more pressure than most male politicians to prove her ‘toughness’ and ability to do and say stupid and short-sighted things.  And if an experienced diplomat who knows the consequences of such actions can be drawn back into a kind of Cold War framing, that doesn’t bode well for our international policy.
Clinton’s preferred practice of policy, combined with the temptation to use the threat from a resurgent Russia to whack Donald Trump, could have serious ramifications.  We should recognize the nature of Putin’s regime and criticize its aggression and human rights violations.  But we shouldn’t allow that to govern our policy, to overstate Russia’s influence on global events, or to recuse ourselves from the introspection about our own behavior that is necessary to reshape our international relations.  

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Donald Trump and Iraq

If you’ve followed Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency, you will undoubtedly be aware that a significant piece of his campaign pitch revolves around his claim that President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have presided over a shambolic international policy that has left the United States weak and powerless in the world.  
It is undoubtedly the case that Hillary Clinton has been on the wrong side of a great many debates on international and national security policy.  Her predilection for aggression and for ill-conceived intervention is shared by most of the national security establishment, and particularly by the Republican Party.  She was a poor choice to bear the Democratic Party’s standard, but represents less of a danger than the alternative, as the analysis below illustrates.
President Obama has steered the U.S. through one of the most dangerous periods of its recent history, avoiding the first very real possibilities of entanglements in wars with major global and regional powers that the U.S. has faced since the end of the Cold War.
That the U.S. is not involved in a shooting war with Russia in Ukraine, and in a full-fledged war involving Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Britain in Syria is a testament to the President’s cool head and refusal to embrace the jingoistic hysteria of neo-conservatives.  This is hardly a blanket endorsement of the foreign policy of a president who has embraced barbaric tools offered him by an overmighty security state.  
But the fact is, his Republican predecessor launched a war of aggression against the advice of Western intelligence experts who warned that such a war in Iraq would lead to the proliferation of international terrorism and lead to a sectarian civil war in the country.  
Not only was the war undertaken on the basis of lies told by the Vice President, distortions rammed through the UN by the Secretary of State, and blithe dismissals of critics by the President.  It was undertaken without any notion that the exercise of massive, violent, destructive military power needed to be accompanied by planning for the post-war.  It was a war that was morally wrong, strategically stupid, and abysmally executed.
Just to be very clear: a Republican administration lied about connections between a dictator and terrorists, cooked up intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, and ignored warnings that a war would make Americans less safe rather than more safe.  
The result was a lengthy conflict that plunged our country into debt, led to the deaths and woundings of thousands of American soldiers, and sparked a sectarian war.  The institutional void this war created led to the empowerment and spread of international terrorists who threaten the existence of states in the region and the lives of citizens in the U.S. and Europe.  The conflict critically weakened the U.S. in the international sphere, and threatened in recent years to draw in the U.S. into wars involving regional powers (Iran) and global powers (Russia).
We should be grateful that the President avoided such conflicts, and resisted efforts for the U.S. to take a more inflammatory position in both Ukraine and Syria.  I can well imagine that a President Trump, who flies off the handle over unfavorable media coverage, might have failed to resist efforts to draw the U.S. into war.
But back to Trump’s claims about the disastrous nature of recent U.S. foreign policy.  If we can accept the reality that the President has avoided some potentially disastrous moments in trying to clean up after the damage wrought our country and the world by the Bush administration, we should acknowledge that one real test of Trump’s judgment--in the total absence of policymaking on his resume--is evaluating the kind of decision he might have made in 2002-3.
This takes us to Trump’s central big claim about foreign policy: namely, that he consistently opposed the war in Iraq.  This is meant to create a contrast with Hillary Clinton, and Trump repeats this claim at every opportunity.
The problem with this claim, as with so much of what Trump says, is that it is untrue.
It is true that as things began to go sour with out war on Iraq, Trump joined a host of other opportunists--Hillary Clinton among them--in criticizing the conduct if not always the rationale for the war.  But at key moments in the run-up to the war--i.e. at those moments when as President, Trump would have been making big calls--Trump is on record having supported it.
But let us be far more generous toward Trump than evidence demands or than he is to his opponents.  Let’s say that we acknowledge his mangled claim to have opposed a disastrous war with its disastrous consequences.  In order to assess whether this half-hearted opposition after the fact is really indicative of good judgment, we would then have to see how Trump behaves when confronted with other, similar situations.
When it comes to the decision to intervene in Libya--another intervention that caused the proliferation of terrorism, destabilization, and crises in neighboring states--Trump once again claims to have opposed intervention.  This is a bald-faced lie.
At a recent forum that featured both Clinton and Trump, the former committed not to embroiling U.S. soldiers in a new war in Iraq, whereas Trump suggested he would be prepared to launch a conflict using small numbers of ground troops to secure and hold access to oil sources in Iraq.
This demonstrates that even if we take the wriggling fascist at his weasel-like word and believe that he opposed the war in Iraq in 2003, he is still demonstrating his inability to learn from that conflict.  Not only in a military sense--Rumsfeld and the neo-cons also sent an absurdly small and under-equipped force into a maelstrom of their own making.  Also in a geopolitical sense--regime-change, aggressive war, and historical and political ignorance seldom yield good results.
In summary:
-Donald Trump did not really oppose the war in Iraq at the crucial point when it was being debated, but instead piled on the band-wagon of opposition as it became clear to even obtuse believers that the ill-conceived war was going wrong.
-Donald Trump did not oppose the war in Libya, undertaken in a more limited fashion but in a broadly similar set of circumstances (from an American perspective).
-Now Donald Trump proposes to embroil the U.S. in a new war in Iraq, and suggests that we undertake the war in question in a manner calculated to fail and with the full knowledge that such a unilateral invasion to extract resources is guaranteed to backfire spectacularly.  
Even leaving aside Trump’s fascism, he is a candidate who supported the disastrous war that our President opposed and sought to extricate us from.  He now supports renewing the war in question.  Trump is someone who possesses little knowledge of the world and--perhaps because of his patrician, insulated upbringing--little idea about the consequences of his actions.  

Anyone who thinks that this man has what it takes to navigate the geopolitical challenges of our era needs to reacquaint themselves with reality, and with the big stakes associated with it.  

Friday, September 9, 2016

Can the U.S. even do international policy?

In his book Unfinished Empire: the Global Expansion of Britain (Bloomsbury, 2012), historian John Darwin tackles the complex beast that was the British Empire.  Darwin’s book is one of those where the whole is less than the sum of its parts.  But those parts—chapters that deal thematically with trade, exploration, rebellion, administration, religion, and security—offer valuable interpretations of the workings of an empire that continues to shape our world fifty years after its formal dissolution.
I was particularly struck by a passage in Darwin’s chapter on “Defending Empire,” subtitled “the Gouty Giant.”  In describing the challenges that beset the British state, Darwin writes of the period following the Seven Years’ War: “From then on [British] thinking was forced to be global.  It was not just the case that their restless expansion multiplied the list of their enemies…This global dimension contained a new threat.  For it was now all too likely that a frontier war in South Asia or an American rebellion would suck British troops and divert British sea power just at the moment when they were needed elsewhere to foil the designs of their European foes, or repel an invasion at home.
“The price of empire on a global scale was not just the means to contain an endless succession of crises in different parts of the world, but also the resources to cope when a chain reaction occurred, when danger in one zone exposed weakness in others.  From that point of view, the imperial triumph of 1763 was merely the prelude to a fifty-year lesson in what could go wrong” (304).
If this sounds familiar, it might be because the United States faces a similar conundrum.  For the last hundred years, the United States has possessed and pursued some version of global empire.  In the opening years of the twentieth century, that included a territorial empire in the Americas and the Pacific.
Today it takes the form of a chain of bases encircling the globe, representing careworn commitments whose logic looks increasingly creaky, new ones that we are only beginning to understand, and future points and provocations of crisis, some of which will be sparked by the very presence of the bases in question.  This is an informal empire, but one that is no less real for its small territorial footprint.
Accompanying this infrastructure of empire, designed to allow the United States to launch interventions against offending autocrats, rogue democrats, and transnational terrorists, is an attitude that shapes not just how the public processes news and events, but how policymakers behave.
Like liberal Britons in the nineteenth century, many Americans possess a conviction that their country has both the right and the ability to re-shape the world in its own image or in whatever image is convenient for the immediate demands of our political economy, using whatever force might be necessary.
But as Darwin suggests, our violent, freewheeling, and arrogant engagement with the world in which we tolerate no rivals means that our leaders and strategists are unable to keep up with the latest crisis or threat.  Policymakers are perhaps singularly blind to many of these threats because they are of their own making.
We not only lack what Darwin identified as the economic resources needed to manage our international commitments.  We are sorely lacking in the resources of intellect and imagination needed to develop more productive and predictable, and less costly and violent relations with other nations and peoples.
Our inclination to see responses to climate change, national security, and post-industrial economics in zero-sum terms means that we have put little effort into either long-term thinking or developing international institutions and networks capable of tackling problems of ecology, terrorism, or human welfare and security.  Each national security crisis—even the name helps to misdirect diagnoses and mangle policy responses—is treated either in a vacuum or with reference to existing military and security policy kits built for the Cold War or the disastrous post-9/11 interventions that continue to bedevil our political economy and global security.
This is sad because in political terms international policy is the arena which affords the executive the most freedom of movement and around which it might be easiest to develop an action-oriented consensus.  But part of the problem is that there is already a very wide and deep consensus in Washington, D.C., among people from both political parties, about the nature of the U.S. role in the world and the place of armed force in that role.
Today, Democrats are gloating over Donald Trump’s ignorance of the world, and reassuring themselves that their party has ascended to a position of unchallenged preeminence when it comes to shaping U.S. foreign policy.  But that just makes them a bigger party to a dysfunctional consensus, and keeps them—or the public at large—from asking their nominee serious questions about how to seriously address tremendous global challenges: climate change; international terrorism; rogue states who flaunt international law (ranging from the U.S. to North Korea); free trade and the still elusive freedom of movement; intense nationalism; and many others.
Critics mocked President Obama’s “less is more” approach to certain features of foreign policy.  But reality is, no empire of any sort is capable of addressing global challenges of the sort that confront us today.  Such empires are too driven by their own jingoism and paranoia.  Global problem solving will have to involve the U.S. stepping back from demanding the right to define the terms of every discussion, and stepping up to embrace membership of a law-abiding international community.
It is in neither the public interest nor the global interest that our policy be driven by chants of “USA! USA!” at party conventions, and the constant reiterations of American exceptionalism that propel too many of our decisions.
I hope that moderators in some of the coming presidential debates will work to remind us that “international policy” is a realm that should occupy the minds of Americans, and that constantly defining challenges in terms of “national security” does no justice to our symbiotic relationship with the other states and people of the world.  But I suspect we have a much longer and more worrying wait.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Nevada's Cortez Masto Must Do Better on International Policy

Nevada matters in this presidential election cycle not just because it is a swing state and will help to determine our country’s next president.  It is also critical because Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is retiring, putting a senate seat up for grabs.  The composition of Congress will determine the extent to which the next president can pursue his or her ambitions.
Congressman Joe Heck, the Republican candidate for Senate, shares his party’s economic fundamentalism, its knee-jerk and half-witted opposition to “government,” and its fealty to the corporate interests who would poison our water, soil, and air if they could get away with it.  He has participated in the Republican effort to sabotage the functioning of the federal government to bring to life their self-evidently absurd claim that “government doesn’t work.”
Former state attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto is the Democrat hoping to replace Reid in the senate.  While the state is losing clout either way, Masto is clearly a more reasonable candidate with a worldview that is simultaneously more humane and closer to reality.
However, I have major misgivings about her international policy outlook.  For many Americans, international policy is almost inconsequential when compared to cultural and domestic policy.  But as the Iraq war demonstrated--and continues to demonstrate--so vividly, a single bad foreign policy decision can contribute massively to a deficit (sidelining or derailing other policy priorities), create ‘blowback’ that imperils American citizens, diminish U.S. influence in the world, and create violence and instability that affects our global family.
Senators should offer coherent thoughts about international policy and demonstrate understanding of the consequences that U.S. actions have around the world.  They should understand the risks of war and have views about how to sustain and develop peace.
Our next president is likely to be Hillary Clinton.  As Senator and Secretary of State, Clinton came down on the wrong side of virtually every major decision involving questions of war and peace.  She supported the ruinous invasion of Iraq that led to the predictable proliferaiton of international terror.  She advocated for a surge in Afghanistan without offering concrete objectives.  She beat the war drums to intervene in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.  And she has supported the engorgement of the national security state, absent proper mechanisms for oversight and accountability.
In short, Clinton has supported aggressive war, advocated intervention, and acted as a proponent of the idea that the U.S. has the right and responsibility to transform the states and peoples world according to its own desires, using force.  
Based on this dangerous and destructive record, a Clinton presidency promise great peril for the U.S. and other global citizens.  Although international policy affords presidents greater leeway than domestic policy, responsible members of the House and Senate in particular should use every tool at their disposal to reduce the recklessness and short-sightedness that has defined U.S. foreign policy.  They should provide sharp oversight, and they should seek to ensure that the U.S. conducts international policy in the most moral, farsighted, clear, accountable, and logical fashion possible.
Cortez Masto’s “issues” page does little to inspire confidence that she is up to this challenge as yet.
In the first instance, her only commentary on international policy is framed as “national security.”  The two are certainly linked, but this particular blinkered vantage point is responsible for much of the myopia infecting policymaking, and for the inability to understand how U.S. actions have ramifications elsewhere in the world that at least in the last several decades have been more and more likely to create new and worse threats to our country.
One of the few substantial pieces of policy Cortez Masto mentions is backing for using the “no fly” list to restrict gun ownership.  It is certainly important to introduce serious and restrictive gun laws.  But using a list and mechanism--the ‘no fly’ list--that has been proven time and again to violate liberties, mis-identify people, and provide no justification for its actions is wrong, and a good example of abusing national security law to reach a desired end as the lazy escape from developing consensus and writing good public policy.  Instead of strengthening a flawed list and using it as the basis for more policy, senators should craft careful, logical, and pointed policy to make Americans safer.  Nevada and the country need better than the approach Cortez Masto advocates here.
More consequential are Cortez Masto’s comments on international terrorism.  “ISIS is determined to continue to attack us,” she writes, “and we must destroy them before innocent lives are taken.  This starts by Congress declaring war on ISIS.  We also need to directly arm and train the Iraqi Kurds to help combat ISIS, as well as increase targeted air strikes and continue supporting our allies in the region to root out terrorism.”
This statement is one part vapid homily and one part incredibly dangerous commitment.
A U.S. war to defeat ISIS is a dangerous proposition that requires serious thought.  A war on ISIS will not be won by air strikes.  It would involve ground operations in multiple states with which we have very different current and historical relations.  We would have to define whether this would be a unilateral, or coalition-based endeavor, or a serious multilateral effort backed by legitimate international organizations (i.e. the United Nations).  It would require intense negotiations with states with their own interests in the region (ranging from Turkey and Jordan to Russia and Iran).  And if it had any prospect of actual success, it would require a level of commitment (including post-conflict commitment) that Americans need to be alerted to and clear about.
Some of our allies in the region--Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, for example--are ruthless in their opposition to democratic politics.  Their authoritarianism is directly responsible for the rise of international terror before 9/11, and for the ability of terror groups to replace civil society organizations in the aftermath of the Arab Spring as the core agents of regional change.  Our backing of these states is directly responsible for the terrorism that has affected many of our own citizens.
Cortez Masto’s statements might come in part from a place of ignorance, which would hopefully be rectified by some time in office.  But they might also be defined by a desire to say something that is popular, without being either practical or responsible.
The latter suggests a willingness to latch on to policy prescriptions associated with the kind of groupthink that has dominated U.S. foreign policymaking for ill.  It suggests that the senator has not reached out to people with a variety of viewpoints, and is disinclined to ask the kinds of probing questions that--if asked by senators like Hillary Clinton in 2002-3--might have prevented a rush to catastrophic war in Iraq.
Or it might be that Cortez Masto has no interest in foreign policy.
But a lack of interest and a concomitant willingness to go along with conventional wisdom is what opens the door to executive abuse of power when it comes to international policy.  It is that attitude which lengthens and frays the leash we have on a national security apparatus that has shown itself to be prone to abusing its powers out of keeping with the public interest.
There is time before November for Cortez Masto to reach out to Nevadans and convince them that she is willing to take seriously the part of her prospective job that involves thinking about a complicated world, checking the excesses of the national security state, and moderating the extreme and dangerous foreign policy views of her party’s presidential nominee.

Until then, at least some of us will maintain qualms about supporting an otherwise good candidate.  

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Clinton's Kissinger Problem

Henry Kissinger with General Pinochet*
Watching the glitzy Democratic gather earlier in the summer was a surreal experience.  The party put together a convention that featured retired generals literally screaming about all the people we are going to obliterate, abundant chants of “USA! USA!” (as though that constitutes an argument of some kind), and a nominee who has been on the wrong side of almost every debate about matters of war and peace for the past decade and a half.
In some respects, Hillary Clinton’s disturbing foreign policy record and prescriptions are encapsulated by her relationship with Henry Kissinger, foreign policy grandee from the Nixon and Ford years, famous both for aiding rapprochement with China and for leaving a bloody wake and high body count behind U.S. perambulations through Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Southern Africa.  
Critics of Clinton’s foreign policy have assailed her for the attention she has paid Kissinger, and for her admiration of his tenure.  Her relationship with Kissinger goes well beyond one-time consulting, and she has cited his diplomacy as an inspiration.  From her first days in the State Department, Clinton made a point of consulting with Kissinger, and she and her campaign (both de facto and de jure versions) have gone to great pains to call attention to the praise that has passed between the two former diplomats.  
Clinton and her defenders argue that Clinton is meeting with a wide array of experts who represent a variety of schools of thought when it comes to the misconduct of American diplomacy.  Kissinger, we are told, maintains useful contacts and “backchannels”, and apparently knows things that the world’s superpower and its overmighty national security apparatus don’t know.  They argue that while we may not all agree with Kissinger, the fact that he should be behind bars doesn’t negate his deep expertise and profound intelligence, and that Clinton would be foolish not to solicit his advice about the workings of the modern world.  
The flaws with this argument are onion-like, and best dealt with in layers.
As a diplomat, Clinton naturally knows that given actions can yield both costs and benefits.  She obviously assumes that more is to be gained by meeting with Kissinger than is to be lost by the message her meetings send to people in all the parts of the world disfigured by what sociopaths call “realpolitik”, but which would be better described as mass murder dressed up in threadbare realist cloth.  
In the first place, I’m not sure that argument is sound.  And in the second, if it was really Kissinger’s advice Clinton was after, she could have met privately.  Instead, in her various public iterations, she has made it clear that consorting with the ageing representation of blunt-force U.S. imperialism is about the “optics” rather than substantive advice.  It is about trying to draw broken-toothed but still-ravenous Cold Warriors and deranged neoconservatives into the big tent Clinton is erecting to keep Trump out of office.  Such people would be better shackled in cells in the Hague for their crimes against peace, but Clinton inexplicably wants them on side.
The other flaw with this defence of Clinton’s consultation with Kissinger is the idea that he represents some kind of foreign policy genius.  The realists of the Nixon administration certainly broke ground in establishing relations with China.  But Kissinger and his national security apparatus had no long term view of policy, saw every event in the world through the myopic lens of the Cold War, and were ill-informed about much of the world.
This was a feature of U.S. foreign policymaking for much of the post-war.  Western diplomatic “experts” travelling to “solve” what they thought of as a Cold War Congo crisis in the 1960s admitted to not knowing on which side of the continent the country was located, making it clear that they didn’t possess elementary knowledge about history and political economy that would obviously be central to addressing the region’s ills.
Kissinger was appallingly ignorant--grandly self-admitted--of basic contours of life, politics, history, and economics of huge swathes of the world.  He told the Chilean ambassador to the United States that he was “not interested in, nor do I know anything about, the southern portion of the world from the Pyrenees down” (Kinzer, Overthrow:177).  While no top diplomat should have to know the ins and outs of all the world’s states, this level of disinterest and ignorance, with the flippant attitude that accompanied it, had devastating consequences for the world.
In part, this was because Kissinger’s ignorance made him easily swayed by his primary interlocutors in the region: a handful of immensely wealthy, powerful, and predatory American businesses.  The influence of these businesses was all the worse because of the revolving door between public and corporate life that existed then as now in Washington.  Not only were these business interests able to persuade Kissinger to act in their own interests; they viewed the world from inside the comically-paranoid and equally-ignorant straitjacket that Cold War thinking imposed on national security “experts.”
This relationship ensured that Kissinger acted not to serve any widely defined public interest, but rather a strikingly narrow subset of private interest.  
This was in turn exacerbated by Kissinger’s naive and cartoonish diplomacy.  For a “realist,” his grasp on how the world works resembles less a wise statesman than a teenager who is up far too late playing a game of Risk.  Kissinger’s world consisted of states that were either allies or enemies, capitalists or communists.  Whole parts of the world were either “ours” or not, and if they were, they should stay that way.  Non-state actors did not enter the picture, and while such a framework might have got him successfully through many an international coup and conference, we are paying the price for it today.  
By demonstrating little interest in people’s histories, circumstances, or motives, and by positioning the U.S. at the center of the world in such a way as to only understand other state’s behaviors with reference to the United States rather than those countries’ realities, Kissinger won some small short-term victories, but unleashed chaos over the long term by dismantling democracies, creating dictatorships, and refusing to acknowledge the catastrophic consequences of “small wars.”
He and his handlers--and his mentees--treated powerful countries with careful diplomacy, and directed barbarian violence toward weaker countries.  Those states that had the power to threaten the United States were received at conferences, and received hand-shakes and photo ops.  Small states that posed not the slightest threat to the U.S. public and which were deemed threatening to U.S. corporate interests or a Dr Strangelove-version of national security were bombed or ravaged by “friendly”, U.S.-installed regimes.  Kissinger sponsored carefully orchestrated coups, and aided rogue generals in creating chaos as a pretext for coups.
Kissinger’s actions led directly to the destruction of democratic institutions and economies.  They led to the murder and disappearance of millions of people.  They installed frightful regimes.  They have poisoned relations between the U.S. and other parts of the world down to the present, leaving our politicians gaping stupidly, unable to process why other states have little trust of our government.  
Clinton is no Kissinger.  The world today is far less forgiving of that level of ignorance.  She knows more of the world and its interconnectedness.  But her cultivation of a man who is evil incarnate to those whose families his hand-picked dictators slaughtered without a second thought tells us something about what she values.  Kissinger may have insights, but as a private citizen whose contacts are more than ever through the private sector, the “interests” he represents and worldview he stakes out are horrifyingly distorted.
Her cultivation of Kissinger is in line with her failure to understand the long-term ramifications of propping up friendly regimes who savage their people.  It fits with her lack of understanding that the non-state actors who bear the brunt of our violent foreign policy are the people who will one day wield power, and who thanks to technological advances have more abilities to act in asymmetrical conflicts against our public interest.  It fits with the culture of impunity in our national security sector which protects people who torture, disappear, murder, and violate the safety and security of our fellow human beings.
Clinton, her defenders rightly say, is unlikely to start a “shooting war” with Russia or China, or to launch nukes at someone who tweets rudely about the size of her hands.  But like her grand mentor, she is likely to fan the flames of the “small wars” that define life for many of our fellow global citizens, and to plant the seeds for another generation’s horrific conflicts.  I for one am less worried about a shooting war than the way in which these “small wars” have managed to transform the global economy, instil fear in democracies, and bring people around the world to their knees.
Clinton’s decision to go cap in hand to a putrid war criminal in his dotage is astonishing.
And the fact that Clinton and some of her supporters can’t understand why it is wrong demonstrates the deep empathy problem that defines many of our country’s foreign policy ills, as they did in Kissinger’s time.  We know and care far less about the world than the world knows about us.  This impairs our ability to understand just how devastating some of our actions are.  It encourages people like Clinton to reach for blunt instruments.  It allows her to focus on a horizon defined by a fatally short horizon.  And it permits her to focus on actions that are more about our egos than about doing good.

Doing good, the faux realists tell us, is weak and naive.  But their hubris has blinded them to the lesson, imparted again and again by events if we would but read them carefully, that the easy, violent answers are seldom based on the world as it is.  

Friday, August 19, 2016

Will UC Learn from its Chancellors' Fates?

Within the past two weeks, the University of California has lost two campus chancellors to incompetence and scandal.  The reasons for and nature of their departure illustrate what hurdles the University faces in regaining public trust, but also some of ills that came about when the public forsook its responsibilities toward the world’s preeminent public university system, now significantly privatized
First out the door was UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, whose ignonimous departure has been five years in the making.  In 2011, Katehi bungled the campus’ response to peaceful protest.  In her role as custodian of students’ welfare and interest, she unleashed campus police, who famously pepper-sprayed students.  
Understandably, that and Katehi’s mangled response did some damage to her reputation.  Undeterred, she spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to scrub the internet of negative references to her tenure as Chancellor.
Apparently bored by her day job, for which she was paid over $400,000, Katehi joined the DeVry Education Group as a paid board member, lied about the timing of doing so, and added a position on the board of King Abdulaziz University to her docket to round things out.  
Although she has lost her job, Katehi will be paid $424,360 in the coming year for not serving as UC Davis Chancellor.  [Full disclosure: I wrote to the UC President offering my services as non-UC Davis Chancellor for a paltry $50,000, but received no answer.]
Next down was UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.  Unlike his predecessor, the notoriously bone-headed and tone-deaf Robert Birgeneau, Dirks did not have to deal with massive student protests, and demonstrated greater humanity and dexterity in dealing with the protests he did encounter.
But the decision to offer a pay cut rather than discipline to faculty accused of serial sexual harassment (which his boss, UC President Janet Napolitano first heard about through the news) stunk of a noxious cover-up.  Similarly, the sudden “discovery” of a $150 million per year budget deficit smacked of incompetence.  
Dirks too paid consultants (hundreds of thousands of dollars) to improve his image, and skated close to the edge with his family’s use of a campus fitness instructor.
Nor did Dirks seem entirely at ease with the students in his care.  Berkeley spent $700,000 erecting a fence around his campus residence, and the Chancellor was accused of installing an escape hatch in his office.  [To be fair, I once saw students take a makeshift battering ram to the door of California Hall.  To be fair, campus police had previously shot said students with rubber bullets and beat them with truncheons for standing peacefully with arms linked in front of a building.]
There was no word on whether Dirks, like Katehi would be paid (in his case over $500,000) to not do his job for the coming year.
The absurdity of the administrative mind--effectively walled off from the political-economy that governs the lives of students and faculty, never mind the state’s wider public--is on full display in Dirks’ and Katehi’s mishaps.  But their graceless descents from positions of power and responsibility in California’s most important state institution offer wider lessons.
Californians’ refusal to properly fund their public institutions--a trend initiated during the Reagan era and intensified from the 1990s on--led to the de facto part-privatization of UC.  With that came the prevailing private sector ethos that good leadership means obscenely compensated leadership.  This ushered in the era of sky-high pay for chancellors, the proliferation of administrators at the expense of people who do the actual work of running units and departments, and the use of bonuses.
This has made Californians less likely to contemplate increased public funding, UC’s leadership having made it clear that it has odd priorities about where that funding should be directed.  The secrecy surrounding the handling of sexual assault, the fences, escape hatches, and pepper spray do not help.
The high-powered leadership that was supposed to rescue UC from hard times has repeatedly confused the health of its reputation with the welfare of its institution.  Katehi--whether or not she violated her contract--showed a marked disinterest in her job, and demonstrated by moonlighting for DeVry and its for-profits that she has little commitment to the values of a public institution.  
Far from bringing either fiscal probity or visionary leadership to institutions, these administrators have harmed their campuses and the system by making bad judgements that increased public mistrust of public institutions.  
But they should not bear full responsibility for the harm they have done UC.  The UC Regents, who appear alongside the dictionary definition of “out of touch,” have tried to introduce corporate values to a public institution with disastrous results for UC’s relationship with the state and for relationship on campuses.  
California’s Governor, Jerry Brown, a historic UC sceptic and foe, has sought to discipline the University while dazzling slack-jawed media with a stream of mind-numbing psychobabble.  The Governor compared students who complained about $15,000/year fees to bankers asking for a golden parachute, offering them the “reality sandwich” that his generation dodged because their parents were willing to pay the taxes that his generation then repudiated.  
The failings of these two UC Chancellors illustrate the flaws at the upper levels of the University.  But they are symptoms of the Regents’ efforts to introduce corporate values to a public institution, the state’s flawed political economy, intellectually-impoverished and spineless leadership, and the disconnect between voters and their institutions.

The University should use its search for replacements to be clear-eyed about the nature of the problems it faces, and to engage with campus communities and the public to show that it actually understands why the behavior of some campus leadership is unacceptable.  
Fiat Lux.