In case it wasn’t absolutely clear from the Helsinki press conference, Donald J. Trump has officially confirmed in a TV interview aired on the Hannity show yesterday that Vladimir Putin is giving him direction on how to respond to Robert Mueller’s investigation. Also, in 2013, many many years ago, as President Putin said, I Donald Trump was just one more wannabe pimp. And “he also says there is absolutely no collusion, which you know, and Tucker standing over there definitely knows, because he gets it. He’s one of the people that get it.” Now I’m wondering whether Putin gets it, or Tucker gets it, or both. I think they both get it, it being the absolute lack of collusion. OK settled that. Four hours ago, everything changed at the end of a very very long period of time when we came to a lot of really good conclusions. And “foreign relations, I’m going to have a great story.” A story of me bowing low. “I did say, you have to pay up.” And President Putin, he told me to tell everybody that the Mueller witch hunt is a real shame and Russia might have to attack us if we don’t get rid of the Mueller shame. He, Putin, felt is was very hard for me, Donald Trump, to make a deal because of, you know, all of this nonsense and much of the muchness of the case.
Yes, Trump did go overboard in blowing any remaining cover. In fact Putin may have tried to dial it down a couple of times (along with dunking on Trump a couple of times, e.g. “are you kidding, of course I wanted this puppet Trump to become president”). But some of the hot takes from reporters that they are “shocked” makes me wonder: have you considered reassessing your assumptions? your reflexive “bothsidesism”? what news sources have you been reading and watching for the past three years?
Between “I miss the name ‘England’ and insulting the Prime Minister in a tabloid interview and making Queen Elizabeth II wait ten minutes for his arrival while she stood out in the hot sun, the President of the United States lost the run of himself this week. I agree with the notion that it’s not enough to say that he is a moron–it’s more complicated. I’m sure that along with the buffoonish commentary about “the name ‘England'” that he intended to bully Prime Minister May by touting Boris Johnson and insinuating that he had a secret sauce for negotiating Brexit and that May has foolishly failed to heed his (so far and probably forever unspecified, like his taxes) brilliantly “brutal” advice. The purpose of all that was to weaken the existing government, making the “Leavers” feel Trump will surely give them a deal that is the “highest level of special,” all for the sake of making Trump look like he alone can solve the UK’s problems.
He, Trump, may or may not be consciously following a playbook that Putin or his minions have laid out explicitly. Trump has, though, had contacts with Russians going back over thirty years, long before Putin became czar. Nevertheless, the Soviets of the 1980s had and Putin today has a consistent purpose: attack the main enemy, the US, via maskirovka aimed at sowing internal divisions. With Trump they managed to hit the jackpot. Bullying and autocratic rule and thuggishness have been in Trump’s head (and heart, to speak loosely) for his whole life. When Trump warned the other day that Europeans had “better watch themselves” lest they lose their “culture,” he was parroting straight-up white nationalist rhetoric, rhetoric that many in Congress, Republican as well as Democrat, have denounced for decades. But the Republican Party leadership, Senate and House, is now going almost completely silent as Trump becomes ever more open in his alliance with voices that until very recently were completely off-limits for their openly racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim abuse. Sam Brownback, Trump’s “ambassador for international religious freedom,” has apparently threatened British officials with reprisals if they do not release Tommie Robinson–that is way out of the bounds of how the US and UK have dealt with one another. It is apparently not enough for the president to issue pardons to wingnut “sovereign citizens” and arsonists, now they want to meddle in British justice on behalf of the so-called English Defence League.
Who is really the “rootless cosmopolitan” in 2018? That phrase was used to target Jews in the 20th century. Trump has his own version of racial dog whistling and targeting. His rhetoric is approaching klaxon horn volume–but he is dangerous precisely because, as so often, he is projecting onto others his own weaknesses. If there was ever a truly and pitifully rootless wannabe cosmopolitan in our time, he’s it.
Trump today, channeling Emily Dickinson, apparently: hey, I’m nobody, who are you?
The Crimes, the Terror, and the Repression that the Black Book of Communism (1997) describe are likely to fascinate Donald Trump as Vladimir Putin–who speaks pretty good English, I have heard–reads the black book lullaby aloud during their summit meeting. I expect Putin to lull Trump into a dreamlike fugue state as Trump imagines how beautiful it would be to wield dictatorial power that so far he has just glimpsed longingly from afar.
By the way, what the hell were 7 Republicans from the US Senate doing in Russia on the 4th of July? Where, in particular, do Senator Ron Johnson’s loyalties lie?
If Donald Trump is not following Putin’s script in Europe this week, how would we know the difference? Yes, some NATO countries have not yet reached the 2% of GDP military spending target yet, but the agreed deadline is 2024. Yes, Germany’s dependence on Russian pipelines is troubling (at least to some Eastern Europeans, whom Russia could cut off more easily if Germany increases capacity on a route that bypasses East Europe; also US natural gas producers don’t like it), but Trump gave a wildly exaggerated picture. Germany gets less than 10% of its energy from Russia. Trump may have been accurate when he threw out “60-70% of gas,” but natural gas is just a small part of Germany’s energy use. Trump probably knew he was spreading lies when he said Germany is “totally captive to Russia,” and he has already moved on to spread other lies in Brussels and London. Europeans would do well to increase military spending–for their own reasons–but Trump forgets to mention that NATO’s Article 5 clause of mutual self-defense has been triggered just once–in the fall of 2001, after the 9/11 attacks on the United States. NATO soldiers from several countries have died in Afghanistan and Pakistan and elsewhere in support of policies driven by American presidents. Trump does have at least half a point in pushing NATO nations to increase their spending (the “half against” argument might be that the US spends far less than 2% of its GDP on military efforts related to NATO countries, though some military assets are mobile enough to reach Europe fairly quickly), but his careening from one extreme position to another is not encouraging me that we have a very stable genius as president.
P.S. The latest revelations from the Financial Times about Russian money in Trump’s Toronto project are looking unclean:
“Chinese government bans media criticism of President Trump”–today’s Washington Post. And why not, in spite of the tariffs thing, dictators gonna dictate it comes to suppressing free speech and showing that they’re “strong leaders.” Speaking of which, the summit is going to be so easy for our Trump because he has a special gift for Putin, even better than a Rocket Man CD. Trump will be announcing that our national capital will be renamed in October (to commemorate the October Revolution, naturally) as “Putingrad,” which may not roll off the tongue quite yet. But after a few years of mandatory Russian in mandatory Christian academy white nationalist charter schools, it’ll go down easy.
If President Trump had called out German Chancellor Angela Merkel to her face for Germany’s supposed “captivity” to Russia, instead of yammering at a Norwegian (Stoltenberg) about Germany’s pipeline, I would be ready to say he might have half a point. But as it is, he smiled in the photo shoot with Merkel, and so I have to keep it 100 and call our US president the cowardly weasel he is. It was embarrassing and sickening to see Trump try his “no puppet, no puppet, you’re the puppet” routine on Merkel. She had a firm yet courteous response to Trump: I grew up in Russian-controlled East Germany, and am happy to live in a unified and free Germany where we make our own decisions. Other European leaders will, I hope, learn from Merkel’s response to Trump. Trump’s cult followers may be willing to have Trump groom them to see Putin as an ally in the white nationalist cause, but I expect a wave of anti-Trump revulsion this November. European leaders and others will, I hope, hang in there until Trump is cut down to size by actual constitutionally-based oversight from the next House of Representatives.
Does President Trump know that Finland was attacked by the Soviet Union during his sister’s lifetime? Or that Finland was part of the Russian Empire during his father and mother’s lifetime? History sometimes seems to have begun fresh every morning for the president of the United States. If only someone suspicious of the Russians and Chinese and North Koreans–John Bolton comes to mind–were keeping an eye on this, and giving the president good advice, and not buying into the talking points of Putin and Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping. If only two or three Republicans in the US Senate cared enough about “country over party” to say out loud that the Russians and the North Koreans and the Chinese might not actually follow up on their very beautiful handshakes with our stable genius president. If only…
Update: and now we learn that US Secretary of State Pompeo delivered a Trump-signed CD of Elton John’s Rocket Man to Kim Jong Un the other day. There is no bottom.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump are planning to meet in Helsinki next month for what will reportedly be “one-on-one” talks. There is plenty of reason to believe that this is a misnomer. What worries me most is the “third” lurking in the background. Putin, you can be sure, does not actually need to bring a literal pee tape into the room. Putin does not need to place on the table a pile of transcripts of all the kompromat material he has intercepted from Trump Tower and Trump’s Samsung phone. Putin is already living, as the saying goes, rent-free in our president’s head. No wonder if Trump agrees to do Putin’s bidding. Easing off sanctions imposed by the US and EU after the little green Russian men invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, that would be a big plus for Putin. Russian state TV is already crowing that “Trump is ours.” Imagine what they will say after this summit–especially if Putin leans on Trump to say negative things about NATO. I’ll concede that Trump, even leaving aside the likely effect on his brain of Putin’s kompromat and blackmail operation, is temperamentally opposed to alliances of democratic republics, and temperamentally attracted to thuggish rulers. But what Putin has on Trump sure seems to be pretty heavy. I do hope that Robert Mueller, the Southern District of NY prosecutors, the NY Attorney General, and the media bring even more unambiguous evidence of Trump’s collusion to light, and soon. If Manafort really owed Oleg Deripaska ten million bucks, for example, that in itself may not implicate Trump–but it’s just one example of a nefarious web, far worse than Watergate or the Teapot Dome or Iran-Contra, in my opinion.
The one-on-one is bad enough. It’s the “third” mediating terms that are even more dangerous.
Sarah Sanders said yesterday that the US “stands in solidarity with its closest ally, the United Kingdom.” Today she put on her most resolute voice and stated that Russia will have to decide whether it wants to be a good actor or a bad actor. Meanwhile, the president has said little to nothing publicly about the Salisbury poisoning, which sickened dozens of British citizens, not just the former Russian spy and his daughter. (Of course some say you can never quit being a Chekist, just as there are no true ex-Catholics.)
I expect Russians will laugh and think: heck no we are not about to choose between being bad or good; the whole point of maskirovska is to sow FUD. Meanwhile, Trump boasts of making up trade deficits with Canada. Justin Trudeau knew Trump was wrong, Trump knew he had no idea whether he was speaking the truth, and Trudeau and every other foreign leader already knew Trump is talking smack 99% of the time.
American presidents have not always told the truth in public or private, but Trump is not the master of maskirovka that Putin is, even though he can still befuddle the mainstream media some of the time. Most of us here in the US have become embarrassed by our transparently lying leader, discount every word he says as dubious, and I expect it’ll show in the elections coming up soon.
Wake up, Paul Ryan! Of course Trump doesn’t believe in free trade. Can you imagine? In fact he doesn’t believe in freedom at all. Except for himself, to be president-for-life like Mr. Xi.
Ever since grade-school-Trump was reportedly caught throwing rocks into the crib of a toddler next door in Queens, he has been, shall we see, less than fully committed to freedom in any sense normal people can recognize. Paul Ryan, meanwhile, has not troubled himself to condemn Trump’s many other assaults on American freedom and rule of law, but is suddenly horrified that the president shows no respect for free trade. Really? Will Paul Ryan sit Trump down and read aloud to him from David Ricardo’s writings on “comparative advantage”? Will Paul Ryan persuade our president that global trade is a win-win proposition in which voluntary mutually beneficial transactions shine the light of freedom into every corner of America (and the rest of the world)?
No, he won’t, because Donald J. Trump understands better than Paul Ryan that what America great in the first place was not the fantasy spontaneous-order world of Hayek and Mises. Nope, it was the zero-sum world of baksheesh and Ndrangheta and omerta and Maskirovka and grease. The whole point of the art of the deal is to fool and screw somebody else, not to find mutually beneficial transactions. (The complex truth is other than either of these simple options; another post another day).
And if Trump appointed a “religious freedom” ambassador, that was for the “evangelical” suckers. If he speaks of “God,” it is a God of wrath and vengeance, not the God who promises and brings good news of Christian freedom. If he ever butters up members of the press in private, it’s only so as to catch them off guard when he calls them “enemies of the people” in public and tweets violent anti-CNN images to rile up his loyalists.
Paul, admit it: your president and ours doesn’t give a fig for “freedom.” You at least make a big show out of promoting “freedom,” even if it is, IMO, a dystopian kind of freedom disconnected from the actual experiences of millions of hard-working and economically and otherwise not-completely-secure Americans–Americans who might want to look into FDR’s Second Bill of Rights to discover a version of freedom that might make a positive difference. If you want to know what the president really thinks of freedom, just look at his envious praise of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte and Erdogan and–you get the idea, Paul.
Rob Goldman, VP for ads @ Facebook, has weighed in on the Mueller indictments, media coverage thereof, and Facebook’s glorious “No Collusion! No Puppet!” role before, during, and after our 2016 election. Rob, you protest too much. Facebook is not the only bad actor and guilty party, no doubt. I am sure you are right that plenty of media coverage of Facebook’s role in the last election was less than 100% accurate. But did Facebook really share proprietary information on Russian ads with Mueller’s investigators out of a pure-hearted desire to “help the public understand how the Russians abused our system”? Your company is in large part the social media system. Mark Zuckerberg said after the election that the accusations against Facebook were all “crazy talk.” Are you old enough to remember that? You can say all you want that “swaying the election was *NOT* the main goal” of Russia, but sorry to say your words are far from “definitive.” Your point is apparently that disrupting and weakening our democracy was their main goal, thus the election was just a little detail. That’s a truly silly argument. Of course the cultivation of Trump, and Jill Stein, were means to an end, not ends in themselves. But if you think that excuses Facebook’s inattention and laxity, you are way off the mark.
P.S. Mr. Goldman does have a point that Finland, Sweden et al work hard at promoting a well-informed citizenry to keep Russian disinformation at bay. In the US we reacted to the breakup of the USSR by exhaling and fooling ourselves that Russia was a far-off problem we didn’t have to worry about anymore. Unless we lived in Alaska, we couldn’t see Russia from our window. Facebook or no Facebook, maybe we have learned better now. But critical thinking might still not be one of our national strong points, alas. Mr. Goldman writes “there are easy ways to fight [Russian trolls and bots]. Disinformation is ineffective against a well educated citizenry.” Education is “easy”? Really? Facebook and other Silicon Valley titans do promote better education in some ways, but are Facebook and Apple and Google willing to pay more taxes to support better education for all young people? Mr. Goldman links to an article referencing Finland’s “strong public education system.” Does Facebook support strong public education in the USA?
If there is a “coup” going on in America, from what direction is it coming? Is Robert Mueller, long-time Republican and Marine veteran, leading a leftist coup to oust Trump? Or is Fox News colluding with Vladimir Putin to destabilize our American democracy? Much closer to door #2, I would say. I am not sure exactly who is calling the tune, but Trump, Fox News, and most Republicans (or, as some say, Republirussians) are sure singing from the same nasty hymnbook. The rightwing noise machine is a feedback loop of attacks on Robert Mueller these days.
If Trump’s lawyers really think emails from the transition period between November 9, 2016 and January 20, 2017 were seized illegally by Mueller’s team, they have a remedy: file a motion with a Federal judge in DC. If they had any kind of valid legal case, they would have done that already.
If Robert Mueller were really trying to engineer a coup by relying on a team of corrupt pro-Hillary partisans, why did he get rid of the FBI agent who wrote those 2 am texts? Mueller got rid of the indiscreet and dubious agent. So what exactly is the problem? Senator Cornyn of Texas had no good answer when asked that question yesterday, though he did clear his throat and harrumph a while.
Republicans tried and pretty much succeeded in delegitimizing Lawrence Walsh’s investigation into the Iran-Contra scandal in the late nineteen-eighties (hat tip Charlie Pierce). Will Trump succeed in delegitimizing Mueller? Trump has something Reagan didn’t: Fox. He also has majorities in both houses of Congress, for now. Will Mueller turn out to have more conclusive evidence (and time to present it) than Walsh did? I think yes and who knows. Three days from now, if the tax bill passes, as seems likely, and Congress and the country get ready for Christmas and New Year’s, the situation becomes more volatile between Mueller and Trump. I would be very surprised if Trump went away quietly, but I also think Republicans in Congress would much rather have Pence as president.
When Putin calls Trump, does he give direct marching orders? Or is it more subtle and refined? What are the safe words? The safe words that may have been worked out in their hourlong meeting with no US translator or official present, in Europe, a few months ago, that was not disclosed by any US official but by Buzzfeed? And do they talk every few days? We have heard more about their phone calls from the Kremlin than from the State Department. Is Fox News looking into this? Putin is mighty white, which appeals to some people, but do the patriots who voted for Trump believe that our constitutional republic is in good hands with Putin as Trump’s case officer (as James Clapper said recently, and I don’t trust Clapper a whole lot, but he seems to have assessed Putin-Trump accurately)? Trump’s “national security strategy,” which he just presented on TV, does call out Russia and China to some extent, but Trump read those sections of the strategy report like a zombie, skipped some parts critical of Russia altogether, and only became animated when he spoke of collaboration with Putin. Collaboration is not necessarily collusion or criminal conspiracy, but sometimes smelling a whole lot of smoke ought to be enough evidence to flee the crime scene, eh?
Julian Assange blames US deep state for delay. Of course he would say that. Ted Cruz’s father is no longer with us, unfortunately. Trump is the master of distraction. Some people say King Xi of China pulling strings. Putin called Xi “odin boyets,” i.e. “lone warrior.” Is Trump really going to Asia next week? Many people say he is going to settle up with whoever is holding his markers–who could that possibly be? Is Russia in Asia? Meanwhile don’t sign any mandatory arbitration clauses for anything no matter how much the sales people bamboozle you. Obamacare is not dead yet, it’s just pining for the fjords.
To the best of my knowledge I have never promised Facebook anything or accepted any of Facebook’s Terms of Service or acknowledged Facebook’s “Rights and Responsibilities.” But just because I have been uninterested in belonging to Facebook doesn’t mean Facebook has been uninterested in subsuming me (and all other humans on our planet) in its grand social project. (See Pericles of Athens: “just because you are not interested in politics does not mean politics is not interested in you.”)
Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, posted an “update on information operations on Facebook” yesterday. Stamos acknowledges that Russian interference in last year’s election included about $100,000 worth of Facebook ads (which I assume is the tip of the iceberg). He also acknowledges that “we know we have to stay vigilant to keep ahead of people who try to misuse our platform,” but he does not yield the high ground, asserting that “we believe in protecting the integrity of civic discourse, and require advertisers on our platform to follow both our policies and all applicable laws.” OK, Mr. Stamos, let’s back it up a bit. You “require”? I think you didn’t. I think you and Mark Zuckerberg did not make that “requirement” a high enough priority. I am glad to hear that Facebook is “exploring several new improvement to [y]our systems for keeping inauthentic accounts and activity off” Facebook. If you are serious about spending some real money to keep Russian troll farms away from our next election, that’s great. I suspect that you and Mr. Zuckerberg did not do enough to protect our election last year because of a particular blind spot: you feel overregulated. You are mistaken. We can and should debate how to implement net neutrality and how to keep the internet and social media from becoming even more dystopian than current trends portend. But the bias of Silicon Valley that “we are a whole lot smarter than government, let alone the masses, and the world is best off when we pay minimal taxes because we will choose philanthropic projects that are far better than what government would come up with.” Maybe that’s partly true, but Silicon Valley’s success in evading regulations (and Congressional paralysis and tech illiteracy, to be fair) led to a disastrous outcome last year. I am not referring to the victory of Trump so much as the grossly suboptimal investment in real time in technologies and human-engineer-power that could have kept trolls, bots, and other “inauthentic” activity at bay. Does your “suboptimalness” bother you yet, Mr. Zuckerberg? Do you have the “bandwidth” to deal with the serious problem on your hands? Are you willing, despite continuing underregulation of your remarkably profitable enterprise, to look at a picture that is possibly even bigger than the glorious philanthropic initiatives you have doubtless planned? Do you actually have enough social imagination to lead Facebook where it needs to go?
Putin said today that Trump “is not my bride, and I am not his groom.” Of course not. In this new day, the etiquette of gay marriage permits both parties to be the groom, should “they” so desire.
Immanuel Kant, writing less than a decade after the U.S. Constitution gave our president an almost unlimited power to grant pardons, wrote that “of all the rights of a sovereign, the right to grant clemency to a criminal…is the slipperiest one for him to exercise; for it must be exercised in such a way as to show the splendor of his majesty, although he is thereby doing injustice in the highest degree–with regard to crimes of subjects against one another it is absolutely not for him to exercise it; for here failure to punish is the greatest wrong against his subjects. He can make use of it, therefore, only in case of a wrong done to himself…This right is the only one that deserves to be called the right of majesty” (Metaphysics of Morals, Doctrine of Right, Part II, #49).
Our current president has just exercised his pardon prerogative for the first time by commanding amnesty for former Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt earlier this summer for ignoring a federal court order to cease arrests based on racial profiling. Arpaio had not yet been sentenced, so the pardon short-circuited both the juridical process and the work of the Justice Department pardon attorney. The pardon is irreversible from a legal point of view, but our First Amendment also permits me to give my opinion that the president’s action was the opposite of majestic and has irreversibly dimmed the splendor that could have belonged to him. Instead of displaying the splendor of his majesty, he slipped and fell into an underworld of shadows. He confirmed the fears of the founders who feared during the debates of 1787 and 1788 that the executive pardon power could be abused in just the way we saw yesterday.
From Kant’s ethically rigorous vantage point, Trump’s pardon of a political ally was utterly knavish, not at all kingly (or “very presidential”). The concerns of founders (some of whom were antifederalists) such as “Centinel” (Samuel Bryan of Pennsylvania) and Luther Martin of Maryland regarding the pardon power were rigorous in a different sense. Their rigorous thoughts were in the domain of prudential politics. They were worried about the dangers to civil society of unchecked presidential pardon power. “Centinel” proposed in the Philadelphia Freeman’s Journal of October 24, 1787, a “small council” without which the “chief magistrate could abuse his authority, “for as it is placed [solely in the president] he may shelter the traitors whom he himself or his coadjutors…have excited to plot against the liberties of the nation.” Is it hyperbolic to worry that our president might “shelter traitors” he himself has riled up in order to weaken our constitutional liberties? How many of us are unwilling to give our president yet another benefit of the doubt, when he seems to enjoy unchecked powers a whole lot more than working with anyone in Congress on actual nitty-gritty and possibly unpopular details of any issue at all? Here’s what Luther Martin worried about in “The Genuine Information” (Not Fake News, that is), published in the Maryland Gazette, January 29, 1788: “the power given to the president of granting reprieves and pardons, was also thought extremely dangerous, and as such opposed–The president thereby has the power of pardoning those who are guilty of treason…it was said that no treason was so likely to take place as that in which the president himself might be engaged–the attempt to assume to himself powers not given by the constitution, and establish himself in regal authority–in which attempt a provision is made for him to secure from punishment the creatures of his ambition, the associates and abettors of his treasonable practices, by granting them pardons should they be defeated in their attempts to subvert the constitution.” Did Luther Martin foresee what happened in last year’s election? Did he know the names of Paul Manafort and Felix Sater and Kislyak and Putin? Of course not–but I can imagine he knew people like them. The Arpaio pardon, legal but knavish, is not the big problem; the big problem is what might come next.
Federalist par excellence Alexander Hamilton saw (Federalist paper #74) reasons for and against the exclusively presidential pardon power. For: “it is not to be doubted that a single man of prudence and good sense, is better fitted, in delicate conjunctures, to balance the motives, which may plead for and against the remission of the punishment, than any numerous body whatever.” But also against: “the supposition of the connivance of the Chief Magistrate [in crimes of treason] ought not to be entirely excluded.” Hamilton in his wisdom is telling us, I think, that no formula or text or even “norm” is guaranteed to give us good outcomes or to protect us against a corrupt executive devoid of conscience. Are we there yet?
Am I disappointed that Anthony Scaramucci is not letting us know anything at all, in his first White House briefing, about what stocks to buy. Sad, and low energy. President Trump, on the other hand, is getting brighter, cleaner, and more articulate every week. His interpretation of the Napoleonic wars, for example. Long story short, “Napoleon ended up a little bit bad,” or words to that effect, per his New York Times interview this week. Trump is way too articulate, bright, and clean to end up like Napoleon. No freezing Russian tundra for him, no way. Trump will never end up stuck to the seat of a frozen Siberian toilet. Believe me. The system works. Only the very shiniest golden toilet.
There used to be homes for penitent victims of seduction. The whole United States is, or probably will soon be, such a home–for just about all of us. I am not sure what the true story behind Trump’s utter loss of dignity vis-a-vis Vladimir Putin really is. I do know that Mr. Putin is openly laughing at Trump. H.R. McMaster, Gary Cohn, and Steve Mnuchin did not deny Putin’s claim that Trump accepted Putin’s denials of election hacking. Of course Putin is happy to pocket his victories and move on without “relitigating the past,” as Russian award-winner and U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson put it. And of course no one wants needless confrontation much less war with Russia. But when the president of Russia treats the president of the USA the same way Trump treats his own “lickspittle toadies” (as Josh Marshall writes) it is not a happy day for any American. At least not any American not getting lots of Russian cash.
What if President Ronald Reagan had gone to Berlin and said “we’re moving forward” instead of “tear down this wall”? “Not a lot of relitigating of the past,” reports Rex Tillerson about today’s meeting between the leaders of Russia and the United States. It’s hard to be at all sure about what happened today, but President Trump’s idea of how to represent America (and Western civilization?) is very different from that of Reagan and every other president in my lifetime. Is our president an accessory after the fact (or worse) to Russian espionage and subversion of our constitutional republic? Matt Yglesias has thoughts on that:
Meanwhile the best leader of the free world we have, Angela Merkel, rolls her eyes at Putin and Trump.
I am ready to show the next president the same courteousness and deference that he and Mitch McConnell gave President Obama.
I am prepared to take Trump’s tweets and other public statements just as seriously (or literally) as Vladimir Putin does.
It could just be accidental, all this drilling of the swamp. Maybe it’s not the result of KGB hypnosis administered years ago, maybe decades ago. Right–and Rick Perry might possibly remember the name of the federal department he is nominated to lead. As Jennifer Rubin points out in her Right Turn column in the Washington Post, if Trump had in fact been turned by Russian intelligence, what would he be doing differently than he is in fact doing?
Some say–Senator Harry Reid, for example–that Donald Trump, before he does any “extreme, extreme vetting” of other people, ought to take a naturalization test his own self. But Trump, believe me, just trust me, has as usual gone beyond the norm and flat-out self-deported. Some, actually many, thought he wanted to lose, just secretly. But few (because we are mostly losers) predicted that Trump would scram completely out of the country in the middle of summertime and into the frozen zone (per Vladimir Putin) of Transtrumpistan. Have a very, very nice, very long vacation, Mister.
Vladimir Putin today took a break from sub rosa subversion of former Soviet vassal states to demand the immediate surrender of a named chair in international law at Oxford University. Prime Minister David Cameron offered to refer the matter to an interdisciplinary faculty committee world-renowned for its passive-aggressive behavior. Putin, well aware that this was a neo-imperialist ruse, reiterated that only Oxford’s chair of international law would do. Any counter-offer of Cambridge, or another Oxford department, would be considered as a grave threat to Putin’s sovereign dignity. In another worrying sign, senior Russian officials rejected out of hand the suggestion by international observers that Putin might enjoy the Chair of Deconstructive Studies at Sciences Po in Paris, let alone the Anschluss Chair of Post-Fascist Studies at the University of Vienna, going so far as to charge that these offers were cynical attempts to encircle Holy Russia.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to visit Washington later this week. I am confident she can both chew out President Obama over the NSA’s intrusions on her, and walk the important walk of responding with Obama to Putin’s intrusions on Ukraine. There is a formal equivalence in the sentence above, and I imagine Merkel is not amused at all that her cellphone was (is?) monitored by American signals intelligence. But Putin’s aggressive destabilization of Ukraine is, I think, a threat to the entire post-Cold War order in Europe. Russia was invited into groups such as the World Trade Organization and the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, seven of whose observers are still being held captive in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists), but as a recent Carnegie Europe blog by Jan Techau points out, “the Kremlin does not seem to share the principles that the OSCE was designed to uphold.” Twenty-first century Russia, contrary to the red herring spread by its enablers and apologists, was included in Europe’s security architecture, says Techau (“Why European Security Works Better Without Russia,” 4/29/14). The “narrative of humiliation and justification that maintains that Russia has been ostracized, excluded, and conspired against” is “wrong on many levels.” The reason the OSCE is not working as designed is that “no matter what binding or nonbinding agreement Russia has entered into since the end of the Cold War, it has attempted to torpedo the deal from within,” and this applies also “to the Council of Europe and the World Trade Organization, the other major multilateral forums Russia has joined in recent decades….The reason behind Russia’s behavior is its archaic understanding of what constitutes a sovereign nation….Moscow…adheres to the idea that a nation is fully sovereign only as long as it is strong enough to take care of its own security. This notion means that only a small handful of countries in the world can claim true independence….Russia…can never accept an architecture in which a country of lesser stature has an enforceable legal claim against–or even a formal veto power over–Russian objectives. That makes it amazingly unattractvie for almost anybody to enter any kind of legally binding, or even nonbinding, agreement with Russia.”
Jan Techau, unfortunately, has accurately appraised the behavior and standpoint of today’s Russia. Merkel and Obama have a tough job in that U.S. and German finance and business oligarchs seem to be lobbying hard for looking the other way. In another sense, though, it should be easy for the political leaders of Germany and the U.S. to see that they need to act based on a longer-term horizon than their economic elites seem able to imagine. Moreover, Obama and Merkel are aware that their “job creators” cannot “build it themselves” in that they need protection and support from government–and sometimes much more support than road maintenance. Sometimes governments in democratic regimes are compelled, based on a long-term strategic worldview, to defend their citizens against the rogue behavior of countries like Putin’s Russia. Doing so is not high-risk behavior, it is risk management and mitigation.
And meanwhile Obama might be well advised, since he is no longer running for office and only lives once, to reconsider some of his insupportable, petulant, and unworthy responses to the Snowden leaks. It is high time to acknowledge, which he has not yet done, that we have a surveillance state, as a German official said recently, “acting without any limits.”
Among the greatest hits of Vladimir Putin’s annual live call-in show (which was shorter than usual this year at 3 hours 58 minutes) were his declarations that he does not wish to be president-for-life and that Russia will surely come to a “mutual understanding” with Ukraine, his references to southern and eastern Ukraine as “novorossiya” (new Russia, following tsarist usage), and his laughing remark that he would not seize Alaska because it is too cold. Less noticed was his take on Russian memory politics: “it’s not 1937 or anything.” In other words, what is there to complain about when the state is not executing hundreds of thousands and sending millions to the gulag! Life is good!
(Hat tip to Anne Applebaum via rferl.org live blog; she also has an article on Slate.com explaining “Putin’s New Kind of War”: “forget D-Day or ‘shock and awe’: the Kremlin is reinventing invasions with thugs, criminals, and lies”)
The rule that “you break it, you own it” did not seem to apply very well to Ukraine in the twentieth century, and this 21st century does not seem to be starting out too well for them either. From the forced collectivization and starvation imposed on Ukrainian peasants by Stalin in the 1930s to the horrors of the Second World War when Ukraine was the “bloodland” (see Timothy Snyder’s book) between Hitler and Stalin, to the corruption and oligarchic bleeding of Ukraine in the twenty-some post-Soviet years, no one who broke Ukraine seemed to bother to own the project of repairing it.
The foreign policy “realism” of Kissinger et al continues to consign Ukraine to the netherworld of pawn status in the great power game. For “realists,” what matters is that Ukraine cannot be considered a “foreign country”–from the Russian perspective, that is, which counts far more than the “unrealistic” fiction that Ukraine and its 45 million inhabitants might actually possess sovereignty that anyone is bound to respect (hat tip to Lilia Shevtsova’s excellent recent article on the “Putin Doctrine”). And Putin has played on this assumption, thus having his cake and eating it too, by asserting, though not in these exact words, that Ukraine has no right to use violence even or especially to defend itself against Russian-sponsored violence. The notion that anyone would suffer inconvenience to protect Ukraine–even after it gave up nuclear weapons in a 1994 agreement signed by Russia, the US, and the UK–has not stopped, for example, UK prime minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha from enjoying a weeklong Easter break at a luxury yoga retreat in the Canary Islands. (Heaven help the Obamas if they went on a weeklong yoga retreat!) Ukraine is looking incapable (though today the fog of war has descended, making conclusions dicey) of defending itself militarily against subversion by Russian special forces in its eastern regions. The process of re-colonization of terrain that from an imperial Russian point of view was only “external” temporarily and accidentally seems to be going well for Putin so far, though he may not intend all the consequences that follow. Thus far it seems the “Pottery Barn rule” (attributed to Colin Powell, but not an actual Pottery Barn policy) will not soon apply to the Ukrainians.
It seems that traders in world markets have little concern that Russia’s annexation of Crimea will be much of an impediment to anyone’s profitability, given that Ukraine is a “far-off country of which they know little,” to paraphrase Neville Chamberlain’s reaction to the German annexation of Czechoslovakia. The bankers and hedge funds and bond traders do not see Putin coming for them. Right they may be, at least in the short and medium term, after which it will be somebody else’s problem, like global warming. The EU governance rules require unanimity, and sanctions are only as strong as whatever Cyprus and Bulgaria, let alone loyal-servant-of-the-City-of-London David Cameron, will approve.
President Obama and NATO can certainly protect their own sovereign space, but do they simply watch while Putin destabilizes and propagandizes Ukraine? The amoral logic of capitalism that makes sanctions hard to enact or enforce seems to be in Putin’s favor, but it could cut more than one way. How about dropping all sanctions that keep Iran from freely selling its natural gas? If western Europe and the U.S. are going to continue doing business with a guy like Vladimir Vladimirovich, why not do business with Rouhani? Let Iran and Russia knock themselves out competing and cutting energy prices. I may not have thought through all the possible consequences, I admit, but it seems worth considering, if only to get out of the mindset that the West is simply reacting rather than initiating.
Hat tip to Kyrgyzstan for stating the obvious: Yanukovych is no longer the legitimate president of Ukraine. The word “kyrgyz” means “we are forty,” referring to forty tribes that united against the Uighurs, says Wikipedia. Will the forty or so tribes of Europe unite in an effective response to Putin? They seem to have a collective action problem and a myopia problem. Maybe they could use a charismatic Kyrgyz leader to put them all inside a yurt until they get themselves together.
According to former Georgian President Saakashvili, speaking from Ukraine as quoted in today’s WSJ, Putin knows “exactly what to do” while in Ukraine “nobody knows quite what to do here, and it’s really messy.” If Putin’s actions were governed by Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule, “you break it, you own it,” he might be more cautious, but as Saakashvili observes, Putin is sowing chaos on purpose in order to chop Ukraine into pieces. He seems to have taken control of the Crimean region, while claiming the high ground of simply protecting the “rights” of ethnic Russians–and, as in Georgia in 2008, issuing plenty of Russian passports to sympathetic local people. Until today the Russian troops, or perhaps Russian “Blackwater” mercenaries, denied they were doing anything out of the ordinary. As a joke on Twitter described Crimean airport passport control: “Nationality?” “Russian.” “Occupation?” “No, no, just visiting.” But today the Russian Duma and Putin have come out of their closets, though still hypocritically paying tribute to virtuousness.
If I were in Yalta, or perhaps Kharkiv, the message I would probably get from radio and TV (if the connections were still open) would be that “fascists” and “brigands” had illegitimately overthrown the Ukrainian government (probably without saying much about Yanukovych, whom I doubt the Russians will allow to give many more news conferences) and that Mother Russia stands ready to help protect their neighbors in need. No sense of irony is apparent when far-right Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whom some would call neofascist, is sent to Crimea to remind the “little Russians” of their “fraternal” ties to greater Russia. If I were in Kiev or Lviv, I would probably hear a very different story, emphasizing the heavy hand of Putin and expressing the yearning to be closer to the sparkling westerners (!) in Krakow or Bratislava. The message I get from American and western European reporting is that Putin may perhaps be doing something deplorable and dangerous, but that much remains “unconfirmed.” True as far as it goes, but the gist of the story is clear enough.
Putin no doubt thinks Nikita Krushckev was a fool in 1954 to present Crimea as a “gift” to the Ukrainian SSR (Krushckev was at least half-Ukrainian), and it looks like he has now taken the gift back, with extra interest soon to be charged. John Boehner has implied, and John McCain has said outright, that President Obama is “incredibly naive” about Putin and that whatever happens that they don’t like will be his fault, although they propose no particular actions. For his part, President Obama remarked in a recently published New Yorker interview that he doesn’t really need George Kennan anymore–he might want to rethink that one. Christine Lagarde seems in no hurry to promise bailout money to a fragile new government in Kiev until they enact austerity measures sure to cripple that very government’s legitimacy. Meanwhile, Putin has the price of gas to hold over Ukrainians. Are Western Europeans ready to impose real costs on Putin by cutting off energy purchases from Russia and themselves suffer the inconvenience and cost of finding alternatives?
Krushckev probably did not think he was giving anything of value away in 1954. Putin is redressing that mistake, and perhaps more, in 2014. In 2013 he had the luxury of the moral high ground on several issues, while this year his kinship with the Night Wolves and the Berkut is no longer hidden sub rosa. As another tweet (#Russiainvadesukraine) put it, “Visit Russia before Russia visits you.”
P.S. Frank Costigliola’s NYT op-ed on Feb. 27 goes into detail on why President Obama and U.S. policymakers should pay attention to what George Kennan had to say about Russia and the Soviet Union.
Update Monday March 3: Though NPR tells us there is “no resistance” to Russian control of Crimea, they may be missing the significance of nonviolent noncooperation, as Shaun Walker and Graham Stack of the Guardian explain in a dispatch from Crimea, where the officers at Ukraine’s naval HQ refused to go along with the recent defector Berezovsky and he snapped at them “don’t ask provocative questions,” which is a fair summary of the Putinist mindset. Wives of Ukrainian military barricaded inside bases are taking food and, along with at least one Ukrainian Orthodox bishop, providing human shields. Putin may well provoke a shooting war, but for now there is an intense propaganda battle going on. (Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands, has a piece at nybooks.com on the “haze of propaganda” surrounding Ukraine. For a mid-20th century view on propaganda, see George Orwell’s 1947 preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm.) Samantha Power and Vitaly Churkin presented vivid contrast at an extraordinary Security Council meeting convoked by Ukraine’s UN ambassador Saturday night. Russia tried to take the session private! Samantha Power did a public service, in my opinion, simply by expressing more of the truth of the situation than the French or the British were willing to do. Putin has probably calculated correctly that Angela Merkel and Barack Obama and David Cameron are not prepared to do anything that would change his determination to repossess Crimea; the rest of Ukraine is on the table now.
Vladimir V. Putin, current President of Russia and future Visiting Professor of Philosophy of International Law, appears to have seized, at least for today, the white man’s burden of duty and rectitude from President Barack Obama. Is he going to be accepting complimentary lifetime memberships from Amnesty International and the ACLU next? Can we handle the truth that “exceptionalism” is largely a dangerous fantasy, coming from such an imperfect messenger as him?
I do not agree with the reaction of some that the op-ed should not have been printed. Putin’s name appears as the author, and he thus assumes responsibility for the contents. Who cares if Russian speechwriters or the Ketchum P.R. firm wrote or edited some or all of it? Barack Obama and (one hopes) John Kerry are perfectly capable of presenting evidence to counter Mr. Putin’s assertion, for example, that the poison gas didn’t come from the Syrian Army. They can also supply relevant context that Putin conveniently omitted. If Mr. Putin is taking advantage of worldwide suspicion of American veracity and arrogance, and who do we blame for that?–he is setting himself up to be judged by higher standards when Olympic time rolls around. Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker notes, by the way, that “American exceptionalism” was coined as a negative reference point by Stalin-era Russian propagandists!
It is at least possible that the sometimes Mr. Magooish spectacle, as some have noted, of the last few days’ diplomacy may yield some good results
- White House responds to Putin’s NYT op-ed (thelead.blogs.cnn.com)
- Putin warns US against unilateral military strike on Syria (thehindu.com)
- The Tsar of All the Concern Trolls (newyorker.com)