Friday, February 16, 2018

The Shape of Water, a film of our times

Last week, in an attempt to check off the remaining films on the list of Oscar nominees, I went to see The Shape of Water, by Guillermo Del Toro.  I'm not terribly impressed by this year's list and my two favorites for the year--The Big Sick, a great film about immigrants, and The Florida Project, a harrowing piece of social realism--were not nominated.  I am not going to discuss The Shape of Water primarily as a film, although I will have to give away the plot. It held my interest as a thriller and included several fine performances.  I don't know much about Del Toro's background--he wrote, as well as directed--but it struck me that the film reflected almost perfectly the new left wing world view, based upon identities, that now dominates our campuses, much of the liberal media, and a good deal of the Democratic Party.  Almost without exception, each character's moral worth is determined by their demographic characteristics.

The film is set in the fall of 1962 (the Cuban missile crisis briefly enters in) inside a secret U.S. government research facility that seems to be working on questions relating to the effort to put men in space.  The protagonist of the film, Elisa Esposito (played by the wonderful actress Sally Hawkins), is part of the custodial staff, and a mute.  Her inability to speak makes her sufficiently marginalized to be the film's hero.  Her best and indeed her only friend at work is Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), who happens to be black.  Zelda, as she lets Elisa and the audience know several times, is married to a stereotypical mid-century man who never helps with housework or talks to her very much.  Of him, more later.  Eventually it turns out that it is only her dual, "intersectional" status as a minority--both a woman and black--that makes her so sympathetic to Elisa.

Elisa's only other friend in the movie lives next door to her upstairs from a movie palace--Giles, played by the excellent Richard Jenkins.  Giles is an artist who is still working on drawings of white bread American families for ads, but his work is no longer being accepted, for reasons that are not initially clear. The most likely reason emerges as the film goes on: Giles is gay.  When he makes a very tentative advance towards the manager of a nearby dessert cafe, he is immediately thrown out and asked not to return.  The same cafe turns some black patrons away without serving them.

The drama in the film comes from the arrival at the institute of "Amphibian man," as he is known in the credits, whom the US military has managed to capture somewhere in the Amazon basin.  He is under the care of security man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). The government--and more specifically the military--are interested in Amphibian man because they think he might have natural abilities from which astronauts might benefit, but they quickly decide that he has to be killed, instead.   Strickland is literally a comic-book villain with no human feeling and a particular contempt for Elisa--whom, at one point, he also harasses sexually.   Meanwhile, Elisa has gotten close enough to his tank to see the humanity in him--which none of the white males in charge, of course, can do--and to fall in love with him.  Amphibian man is also being stalked by two Soviet spies, one of whom has infiltrated the research group.  They also decide that he is a threat who must be killed, but the covert spy--the only white male in the film with a heart--has a change of heart and eventually collaborates with Elisa in a plot to help Amphibian man escape, stash him in her apartment, and wait for the water in a local canal to rise to the level that will allow him to escape into the ocean and swim home.  Elisa's other confederate in the escape is, of course, the gay Giles.

The film takes things to the next level after the escape, when Elisa, already in love with Amphibian man, has sex with him.  This struck me as a paean to sex "outside the binary," as the saying now goes.  Strickland the bad guy gets on to their trail thanks to Zelda's husband, who turns out to be a craven coward, suggesting that not even black straight men can be trusted. Eventually the couple outwits, outlasts and outplays the bad guys, and do indeed swim off to live happily ever after in the Amazon basin, leaving the wicked, white-male dominated US of the early 1960s to stew in its own wretched juice.  One can believe, as I do, that all deserve equal rights, without believing that the United States for most of its history has been ruled by an evil white patriarchy, concerned above all with its own hegemony.

The reason that I did feel The Shape of Water was worth this post is that the world view that it embodies--that of an evil white patriarchy oppressing virtuous women, minorities, differently abled peopled, gays, and perhaps transgenders as well--not only dominates campus humanities departments and diversity bureaucracies today, but is constantly popping up in the op-ed pages of major newspapers as well.  "This is an administration," wrote Lindy West in yesterday's New York Times, "that campaigned, explicitly, on a promised return to some mid century mirage of American 'greatness,' when white men ruled unfettered and the rest of us resumed our places on the spectrum between poverty and servitude."  That is exactly the vision of the 1950s and early 1960s on display in The Shape of Water, and it is the image that young people are getting from their college experience, too.  One would never know that that was an era in which young families could afford to buy homes, in which the prison population was a fraction of what it is today, in which the working and middle classes were gaining, and in which 91% marginal tax rates made it impossible for billionaires to emerge who would dominate our politics.  None of that, however, seems to be very important to many of today's liberals.

In the course I taught for many years, Generations in Film, I nearly always used the 1958 classic, Twelve Angry Men about a jury charged with judging the guilt or innocence of a young Hispanic charged with murdering his father.  Every member of the jury is a white male--but for nearly two hours, they argue violently about what should be done about the case.  The clear message of the movie is not that there is anything particularly virtuous about being a white male--virtue lies in ones beliefs and actions, one's openness to evidence and one's capacity for tolerance.  Today much of the left believes in a world where virtue or the lack of it is defined by skin color, gender, and sexual orientation.

Another glimpse of this new ideology came from the last season of the tv series Transparent, when the younger sister Ali--now studying gender--speculates that among all those silenced or marginalized by "the patriarchy"--women, gays, minorities, those outside the binary--must be the new Messiah.  Indeed, the new ideology resembles certain strains of Christian thought--strains which argued that "the last shall be first," and that the poor are the guardians of virtue among us.  But that is a subject for another time.  I do not believe a functioning free society can be built on moral scheme that specifically links virtue and vice with demographic categories.  Meanwhile--to state the obvious--the new ideology, whatever one may think of it, has no resonance at all among a very large number of our fellow citizens.  And since we live in a democracy, their votes count as much as anyone else's.


Thursday, February 08, 2018

Nuclear weapons

   During the last two weeks, I read a remarkable book, The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg's chronicle of his long involvement with US nuclear strategy in the 1950s and 1960s and beyond.  Born in 1931, Ellsberg was a child prodigy as a pianist, but as he explained in a documentary about him (and not in this book), he gave up the piano after his mother was killed in a car accident involving his whole family. He went to Harvard in the early 1950s, became an officer in the Marine Corps after the Korean War, and went to work for the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, working under contract to the Air Force on problems relating to the use of nuclear weapons.  It took him only a few years to begin to have serious doubts about American nuclear strategy, and in the Kennedy year he suddenly found himself within striking distance of the highest levels of the government  Regular readers know that I retain a great deal of respect for the politicians and statesmen of that era, whom I still regard as more responsible and intelligent than those of this one, but one cannot read this book without feeling that we were lucky indeed to survive that era.

I am not going to try to summarize the book, but I will try to present what struck me as its most important findings.  Its principal contribution is to show how the military ran rings around civilian authority, including successive Presidents of the United States, regarding the production and deployment of nuclear weapons.  In the years immediately following our victory in the Second World War, as I found in a short article I wrote more than fifteen years ago, both civilian and military authorities accepted the idea that should war with the Soviet Union occur, we would use atomic weapons to try to secure a complete victory.  That strategy, as Ellsberg shows very effectively in a later chapter of the book, grew naturally out of what the British and American air forces had done during the Second World War, when first the British and then the Americans had adopted the strategy of setting whole cities on fire to try to persuade their opponents to surrender.  (Although he doesn't spend much time on the results, the strategy was a failure in Europe, and only the A-bombs made it a success in Asia.)  But General Curtis Lemay, who had run the firebombing campaign against Japanese cities and who became the head of the Strategic Air Command and then Chief of Staff of teh Air Force in the 1950s and 1960s, naturally regarded atomic weapons as simply an easier way to carry out the strategy he had already used against powerful enemy nations, and civilians did not dissent.

The question of strategy became much more urgent in 1949, when the Soviets exploded an atomic bomb of their own, and we found out that they had been privy to the idea of an H-bomb or "superbomb" thanks to their spy Klaus Fuchs, who worked at Los Alamos.  I did not know that not only J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had run the Manhattan project, but also most of our top nuclear scientists, had opposed the immediate development of the H-bomb after the Soviet explosion, both for technical reasons and because many did not regard such an enormously powerful weapon--a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs--as a usable weapon of war.  I did know that George F. Kennan of the State Department--who was a friend of Oppenheimer's--had written one of his most brilliant papers opposing the H-bomb development himself, on the grounds that nuclear weapons could never serve a positive military purpose, and were therefore useless to a power like the United States. Neither Kennan nor the scientists, however, got anywhere, and development went ahead.

Ellsberg reveals that by the late 1950s, our plans for fighting the Soviet Union with hydrogen bombs were so closely held that no civilian, including the Secretary of Defense and President Eisenhower, had ever seen them.  They were referred to as the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan, a name chosen to conceal that they laid out the operational plan for war against the Communist bloc, not just a nuclear order of battle.  And those plans, Ellsberg discovered when he got authority to ask some questions about them, called for the obliteration of the USSR, the satellite states of Eastern Europe, and Communist China.  He interviewed the major commanders in the Pacific and discovered to his horror that there was no plan for fighting the Soviet Union without fighting Communist China.  When he asked a leading Admiral about this, the admiral replied, in effect, that only an irrational President would think of fighting one of the major Communist powers without leaving the other alone.  This raised, for me, another big question, however, which Ellsberg did not directly address.

I learned a lot about military planning for was with Communist China while researching
American Tragedy and more information has come out since then.  Whether such a war broke out over the Taiwan straits (as it threatened to do in 1954 and 1958) or over Southeast Asia (as it seemed likely to do over Laos in 1960-1), our military assumed that it would rapidly escalate to all-out war involving nuclear weapons, beginning with attempts to take out the Chinese Air Force.  But Ellsberg's stories raise the question of whether, at that moment, the military would have wanted to make an all-out attack on the USSR as well.  The answer might easily be yes.  I feel quite sure, incidentally, that Lyndon Johnson understood what the consequences of Chinese intervention in the Vietnam War would be, and that that was why he was so determined not to provoke the Chinese to intervene in the conflict.

Ellsberg was even more interested in issues of command and control.  He eventually was told that the President had authorized subordinate commanders far from Washington to undertake nuclear war in certain circumstances, for instance, if war appeared to have broken out and communications with Washington had broken down.  Ellsberg doesn't seem to know, or perhaps he has forgotten, that 20 years ago, in 1998, the National Security Archive published a remarkable series of documents showing exactly how President Eisenhower had in fact delegated that authority--documents he did not get to see at the time.  I remember circulating the announcement of that publication to my War College colleagues under the subject heading, "The Real Wing Attack Plan R," a reference to Dr. Strangelove. As Ellsberg also makes clear, this was only one of several plot lines in that film that he found uncomfortably close to reality when it came out.  He had also discovered that the military had never trained pilots in returning to base from their fail safe points after being ordered into the air in a crisis, and he became convinced that many would not return, certainly if they did not for any one of a number of reasons receive an order to do so, but would proceed to their targets.

Any war with the USSR, it was assumed, would lead to an all-out pre-emptive attack on its presumed nuclear capabilities, its industrial plant, and therefore, its people, together with simultaneous attacks in Eastern Europe and China.  The Air Force estimated that the attack would kill more than two hundred million people.  When the Kennedy Administration came into office, Ellsberg was spending a good deal of time in Washington, and he got to brief McGeorge Bundy, the President's National Security Adviser, on what our war plans looked like.  It was around that time that satellite reconaissance discovered that the USSR did not have between 500 and 1000 workable ICBMs, as the Air Force had insisted, but rather somewhere between two [2] and four [4] that were operational.  It turned out, Ellsberg discovered, that both Secretary of Defense McNamara and President Kennedy had strong personal reservations against initiating the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances.  They proved that during the Cuban missile crisis, when JFK in particular was determined to avoid war precisely because it was so likely to become nuclear war.  (It was as it happened even more likely than he knew: we now know that the Soviet troops in Cuba would have used tactical nuclear weapons at once if a US invasion had taken place.)  But no President--not Kennedy, not Johnson, or Nixon or Ford or Carter or Reagan or Bush I--had the nerve to order the Chiefs to rewrite their plans for nuclear war along more reasonable lines.  That, to me, is a very frightening piece of historical data.

One reason that some Presidents did not cut back on nuclear options was that they believed nuclear threats had brought benefit to the United States.  Both President Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles insisted that the Chinese Communists had agreed to make peace in 1953 because of threats to use nuclear weapons against them, and Ellsberg seems to believe that such threats took place.  He doesn't seem to have read an excellent article from the 1990s by the historian Roger Dingeman that showed that there is really no evidence either that there was such an explicit threat or that it led to the breakthrough in negotiations, which came shortly after the death of Stalin.  Ellsberg also writes that an international peace activist whom he knows heard from Xuan Thuy, one of the Vietnamese Communist negotiators in Paris, that Henry Kissinger, by 1972, had threatened the North Vietnamese 13 times with the use of nuclear weapons.  This raises very interesting questions. I have read Kissinger's own verbatim accounts of those conversations and I am quite sure that those accounts do not include such an explicit threat.  Nor did such a threat ever come up in Kissinger's taped reports to Nixon when he returned from Paris. That does not prove, however, that the story is false--we would have to see the North Vietnamese records of those conversations to be sure.

It turns out, by the way, that Ellsberg was an important source for David Halberstam's 1972 book, The Best and the Brightest, which was written at the same time that Ellsberg was arranging for the leak of the Pentagon Papers and then preparing his defense.  Two stories from Halberstam--of a leading McNamara aide (who turns out to have been Adam Yarmolinsky) reporting that neither McNamara nor JFK would ever begin the use of nukes, and another one about the number of Minuteman missiles that the Administration wanted to build--reappear almost verbatim, but with more specific attribution, in The Doomsday Machine.

In his concluding chapters, Ellsberg laments that US and Russian arsenals are still large enough to trigger a nuclear winter and end human life on earth, and that they are once again increasing.  To eliminate the threat of worldwide nuclear catastrophe, he would like to ban land-based missiles.  (As things now stand, the US government claims the right to deny Iran and North Korea such missiles, but without, of course, renouncing our own.)  He wants a Congressional/scientific investigation of nuclear winter, to cripple the miltary-industrial complex; and dismantle the Russian and American and Chinese and other doomsday machines, their nuclear arsenals.  These are the kinds of proposals tht got a serious hearing at least in intellectual and some political circles 40 years ago, in the wake of Vietnam, but they have little resoance today.  Ellsberg knows that neither the current Congress and Administration or another Democratic Congress is likely to pursue such policies, but he takes comfort from the fall of Communism, which proved the possibility of unimaginable, revolutionary change.   I cannot share his optimism.

Despite all the horrifying data in this book, the fact remains that Eisenhower and Kennedy and Khrushchev and Brezhnev and Nixon and Mao and all the rest avoided a nuclear exchange throughout the period of the Cold War.  That was, I continue to believe, an era of relatively enlightened statesmanship, driven on both sides by high ideals. Yet we no longer live in such an age.  The men and women who were even teenagers or young adults at the time of Hiroshima--like Ellsberg--managed to keep the genie in the bottle. Now however they are almost gone, and future generations will discover whether more nuclear war did in fact become inevitable at the moment that the first bombs went off.



Friday, February 02, 2018

The Nunes memo

Devin Nunes's memo has been released today with the approval of the White House.  Here are my thoughts about the memo as a document and its significance.  I predict that it will inaugurate a constitutional crisis that may well leave us with an Administration immune from investigation into its ties with a foreign power.

The premise of the memorandum is that the FBI obstained a series of FISA warrants to listen in on the communications of Carter Page, a somewhat mysterious figure who became part of the Trump campaign during 2016, in late 2016.  The memo asserts that the FBI should have told the FISA court that it's request was based on the "Steele dossier" compiled by Christopher Steele (originally at the behest of other Republican candidates, although Nunes naturally leaves that out, but later for the Clinton campaign).  It says that Steele confessed his "bias" against Donald Trump during the campaign, and claims that the FBI paid him for his information as well.  It also says that the FBI terminated its relationship with Steele, whom it had regarded as a trusted source, because of his statements to media outlets during the campaign.

The problem--which is undoubtedly what has enraged the Democratic minority of the House Intelligence Committee, the FBI, and the Justice Department--is that the memo presents no evidence for any of this at all.  It does not tell us what exactly from the Steele dossier was used to craft the FISA application.  It does not make clear how such information (if there really was any) was corroborated by other information known to the FBI from other sources.  It is entirely  possible, based on the memo, that the Bureau wasn't relying on information from the Steele dossier at all.  I suspect that will emerge in leaks from the Democratic minority and the FBI in the next few days, but it will never catch up with the original story.

The whole theory of evidence that the memo is relying on, however, belongs on Fox News or in a speech by the late Senator Joseph McCarthy, not in a document issued by a House committee.   The premise seems to be that since Michael Steele was being paid by the Clinton campaign and did not want Donald Trump to become President of the United States, the FBI had an obligation to disregard anything he said, rather than to act on it.  It does not occur to the authors of the memo (on which more later) that a person might become very concerned about the election of a certain person as President because one had received credible information to the effect that that person and his campaign were closely connected to a hostile foreign power.   The memo, in short, is presuming that President Trump and his campaign must be innocent, and that therefore anyone who claims otherwise must be guilty of partisan opposition to him.  And that is why I believe, although I cannot prove it, that the ultimate source of the memo is Donald Trump and people very close to him.

There is another layer to the way in which the memo is presented. Because it omits any specific information at all about the warrant or its content, it does not include any classified information.  But if Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the Committee, were to release information refuting the claims and logic of the memo, he probably would be guilty of releasing classified information.  By relying on asserting, rather than demonstrating, its key argument--that the application for the warrant was based on the Steele dossier--the memo makes it harder for anyone to disprove it.

The memo has to be seen in the context of an incident ten months ago involving Nunes, the White House, and the very same investigation, which was described again this week in the New York Times.

"Then, in March, as the investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election appeared to be picking up momentum, Mr. Nunes set off a bizarre Washington drama when he made a late-night dash to the White House, and followed up with a morning news conference in which he claimed that he had been given intelligence reports that Mr. Trump and his associates were incidentally swept up in foreign surveillance by American spy agencies during the campaign.

"Furthermore, Mr. Nunes charged, the identities of the Mr. Trump and his associates swept up by the surveillance, which are supposed to be “masked” in intelligence reports, had been unlawfully revealed in classified reports at the order of senior Obama administration officials.

"It turned out that the intelligence cited by Mr. Nunes was given to him by a pair of senior officials at the Trump White House, and that it had selectively cited certain incidents to show wrongdoing where none may have existed. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, declared that Mr. Nunes was running an “Inspector Clouseau investigation.”

"The incident prompted an ethics investigation and forced Mr. Nunes to recuse himself from the committee’s Russia investigation, a move that Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York and a committee member, said almost certainly left Mr. Nunes feeling disappointed."

Rather than doing his job of indepedently overseeing the intelligence community and its relationship with the White House, Nunes was acting as the mouthpiece and shill of the Trump Administration in its efforts to undermine the FBI--efforts which then led to the firing of James Comey.  As it turned out, the ethics investigation cleared Nunes and he witdrew his recusal.  He has now taken a new and bigger step along the same lines. I do not know, but I would not be at all surprised if the "Nunes memo," like the intelligence he claimed to have discovered last March, had come from the Trump White House in the first place.

President Trump, I think, will now use the memo to argue that the investigation of the Russian connection is fundamentally and irrevocably tainted because it began as a partisan withhunt undertaken by the Clinton campaign through Steele.  Indeed, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his press secretary, has already been saying this for some time.  I think the odds are better than 50-50 that the President will fire Robert Mueller, shut down the independent investigation, and fire Deputy Attorney General Ron Rosenstein, who is rather pointedly dragged into the Nunes memo as well.  That, I suspect, is why leading Republicans in the last week have been saying that there is no need for legislation to protect Robert Mueller: they know he'll be fired soon.  Buoyed by the tax cut, the booming stock market, and continued economic growth, the Republicans, like the President, have talked themselves into the idea that they are on the way to a new era and a great political triumph, and that only an unfair, partisan investigation stands in their way. In addition, it now develops that a great many Republican legislators, including Mitch McConnell,. have received large campaign contributions from Russia-lined interests as well.  They too may have a personal interest in shutting down the investigation of Russian influence.

Outrage will break out among the mainstream media and the Democrats if Trump fires Mueller, but the Administration won't care.  Will such outrage move large numbers of swing voters to vote Democratic next fall and give the Democrats control of at least one house of Congress? I don't know, but I'm skeptical.  The Republicans are betting that the mass of our people are sick of Washington scandals, and they may be right.  Having endured Whitewater, Monicagate, Benghazi, birtherism, the WMD controversy, and so much more, our people may just be tired of it all.  Once again, the Republicans in Washington are trying to even the score.  In 1999 some of them admitted they were impeaching Clinton as revenge for Watergate.  But Clinton was acquitted, and now they may be determined to see that Trump gets away with it too.

The President, I suspect, simply has to stop the investigation because it's bound to reveal damaging information about himself and many of those closest to him.  That is why he, like Nixon, had to begin trying to stop the investigation right away.  Nixon's attempts culminated in the Saturday Night Massacre, after which bipartisan outrage forced him to back down. Trump won't face bipartisan outrage.  In our era of all-out partisanship--the fourth great crisis of American national life--he may prevail.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Alternative Reality

The real political constellation surrounding that bright star Donald Trump is emerging from the mists.  Michael Wolff's book, Fire and Fury, which I have dipped into (focusing on the latter parts), makes it clear that Trump does not have an organized cadre around him in the White House, but rather a relatively unorganized gaggle of individuals and factions, of whom John Kelly, his Chief of Staff, and his daughter and son-in-law Ivanka Trump (who was careful not to discard the family brand!) and Jared Kushner seem to be the most important.  Trump, the books clear, will always be erratic and unpredictable because he can't bear having anyone outshine him, he always wants to respond to attacks,and he loves surprises.  Thus those around him--including his lawyers--will always be struggling to keep up.

Meanwhile, as I have written before, Trump has struck up an alliance the Koch brothers' network, which in turn dominates the Republicans in Congress and particularly in the House.  The fruits of that alliance are the tax cut, the rollback of EPA regulations, and, most recently, the tariff on solar panels, which will make it harder for our growing domestic solar industry to compete with fuels.  The tax cuts have probably brought a good deal of corporate America on board as well, because they will allow corporations to bring so much money back into the United States.  And the economic boom, as long as it lasts, sill significantly strengthen Trump's position in much of the country.

The threat to the Administration, of course, is Robert Mueller's investigation and what it might reveal about Russian influence on the election and on Trump.  And Trump's new allies in Congress are not taking a hands-off attitude towards tose proceedings. Led by Devin Nunes of the House Intelligence Committee--who showed himself to be a Trump lackey in a much-publicized incident last summer--they are standing this investigation on its head.   Increasingly they and their allies in the media--especially Fox News--are arguing that the whole Russia imbroglio is an FBI conspiracy hatched out of hostility to Trump.

Devin Nunes, apparently, has written a four-page memo, still classified, alleging that rogue FBI agents abused the FISA program to put taps on Trump aids during the campaign.  The details of the accusation have not yet emerged, but this may refer to taps on Carter Page, Paul Manafort, or both of them that the Bureau might have undertaken to uncover Russian connections even before those men became involved in the Trump campaign.  Nunes and others are also arguing that pro-Clinton, anti-Trump FBI agents--whose biases, they claim, are revealed in their text messages--fixed the investigation of Clinton's emails to exonerate her and started the investigation of the Trump campaign to discredit him.  I doubt that Nunez or any of the others in Congress or at Fox really know much about the career of Joe McCarthy, but this technique is very reminiscent of his own.  McCarthy tended to make irresponsible accusations of Communist influence, and then dismiss anyone who complained about them as a witting or unwitting dupe of the Communist conspiracy.  Nunez and Trump are trying to turn any evidence of Russian connections to hm or his campaign as evidence of an FBI conspiracy against him.

A new and very important aspect of the story emerged this week.  In 2016, the Dallas Morning News reports, "Donald Trump and the political action committees for Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Lindsey Graham, John Kasich and John McCain accepted $7.35 million in contributions from a Ukrainian-born oligarch who is the business partner of two of Russian president Vladimir Putin's favorite oligarchs and a Russian government bank."  In a notorious mid-2016 meeting of Congressional bigwigs that leaked to the public, Republican House whip Kevin McCarthy commented that there were only two people whom he thought Vladimir Putin "owned:" Donald Trump and Representative Dana Rohrabacher.  But with so much at stake for the Russian government in the lifting of American sanctions, an organized effort to buy more influence in the Congress would not be in the least surprising.  Mueller may almost singlehandedly be contenting with a very broad and successful foreign campaign to build up influence in two branches of the government--as well as with those like the Kochs who find themselves allied with Trump for other reasons.

The economy is definitely playing as a winning issue for Trump at this point, and a deal on DACA would fwork powerfully in his favor as well.  Mueller's investigation will however remain a serious threat.  For that reason, Republican cries of an FBI conspiracy will get louder.  This will be a very difficult problem to deal with, since we do not, as we did during Watergate, have any media outlets that a clear majority of the public trusts.  Nor do we have a readily available mechanism to rid ourselves of foreign influence.  It has emerged as a real threat to our democracy.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Note to readers

I have been delay
ed this week by a sudden crush of work relating to a new book and a computer crash. I hope to have something up tomorrow.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The western imperial project

Formal imperialism became unpopular during the first half of twentieth century and nearly disappeared during the second half.  The great empires of the British, French, and eventually the Portuguese were given their independence.  The Soviet Union still included plenty of non-Russian territory that was in effect ruled imperially, but after 1989 it too became independent.  By 2000 western intellectuals had become obsessed, consciously or unconsciously, with the virtues of third world nations and peoples, which served as a counterpoint to the nations of Western Europe and North America, increasingly viewed as bastions of racism.

Imperialism seemed to be unnecessary, as well as unjust, in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR, since democracy and capitalism were spreading further and further around the world.  But the George W. Bush administration introduced a new form of imperialism to world politics after 2001, claiming the right to overturn any government that assisted terrorism or that sought weapons that the United States government did not think it should have. Both the Obama and Trump Administrations have endorsed that policy, declaring respectively that Iran and North Korea must not be allowed to have nuclear weapons.  Meanwhile, a different kind of imperialism was emerging among western governments in North America and in Eastern Europe.  Essentially, it seems to me, it is attempting to take advantage of the global economic order to impose certain western political and cultural values on other parts of the world.

The new imperialism is on display today in the European Community, which is trying to force one of its newer members to fall into line.  That nation is Poland, which was welcomed into the EC in the 1990s but whose politics, like those of Hungary, have taken a sharp turn to the right.  Its Law and Justice party won a majority in 2015, a very rare event in European nations today, and it has reformed its judicial system to allow the government to purge it and bring it into line.   The EU has now sent Poland a warning about these developments, carrying with it a threat of actual economic sanctions.  22 of the EC's 28 member states, as it happens, would have to agree to impose real sanctions, which has never been done.  The EC has also criticized Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic for refusing to accept any refugees.  Mainstream western liberalism not only believes in an independent judiciary, but seems to feel that advanced nations need to open their borders to threatened people from other parts of the world.  But these views are not universally shared, even within their own societies.

The attempt to impose western values also shows up in sanctions against Russia and particular Russians for human rights violations.  It has also manifested itself in the demand that President Hafez Assad step down in Syria, and the earlier demand for the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.  That was part of the movement begun by the George W. Bush administration to spread democracy through the Middle East, but within two years, the Obama administration had effectively reversed itself and effectively blessed the return of military rule in Egypt.  European liberalism also favors stronger action against Israel to withdraw from occupied territories and allow for a Palestinian state, but the United States government has for the time being moved in a completely different direction. 

The backlash against this movement is growing.  Two other world powers, Russia and China, specifically reject western political and cultural models and maintain authoritarian states.  They also have rejected the western tolerance for homosexuality, which is unpopular in much of the third world as well.  Turkey, which had gone further in the direction of the West than any Muslim nation during the twentieth century, is now ruled by an intolerant, authoritarian state as well. 

The values of democracy, the rule of law, equal rights for citizens, and broader social tolerance remain precious gifts which western democracies bestowed upon the world.  Yet the assumption that some Hegelian momentum is inevitably driving them forward is hurting, not helping the effort to keep them alive.  The changes of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries did not happen automatically, but because millions of people believed in them and made them work.  They always encountered vigorous opposition, most notably in the Second World War--and that war was hardly an unmitigated triumph for liberalism.  The belief in citizenship and equal rights, in my opinion, very powerful emotionally, but so is tribalism in both its older and newer forms. To prevail, the ideas of citizenship and equal rights must be renewed through effective collective action.  Those values also turned out to be the best counterweight to economic inequality--the natural result of capitalism--when nations had to mobilize their resources to fight depression and foreign enemies.  For the moment, the people of the United States, in particular, lack any unifying vision that could renew these values.

History does not move automatically in the right direction, and western leaders and NGOs cannot make it do so simply by telling the rest of the world how to behave.  Throughout modern history nations have led by example.  If the best values of modern history are to maintain their influence, teh western nations must act them out at home.  They must also recognize once again that other parts of the world may not share them.  That will become the challenge of statesmanship and diplomacy in the decades to come.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Thr Russians aren't coming--they've arrived

Over the past week I have read the new book, Collusion, by the journalist Luke Harding, which attempts to unravel the connections between Russia on the one hand, and Donald Trump and many of those who worked for his election on the other.  Despite the title, the book has relatively little to say about the Clinton hacked emails and the Russian role in the election itself. It is about something more important, a network of relations between Russians and Americans.  It is a jaunty, but not an easy read.  I am going to summarize the most important things that I learned from it, to try to fill in the picture in a couple of places myself, and to ask, as I always do, exactly what the broader significance of all this is.  The easiest way to do this is by talking about some of the major players in the story

Carter Page, born in 1971, is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.  Although he does not seem to have been born to great wealth, a Naval Academy classmate told Harding that he had lavish spending habits as a student.  The Navy apparently sent him to Georgetown University to earn an M.A.  After serving his statutory five years on active duty, he went to work for Merrill Lynch, specifically in their Moscow office.  He left their employ in 2008 and founded his own energy firm in New York, but that firm does not seem to have any other employees or any business. How Page earned his living since 2008, thus, is something of a mystery.  Meanwhile, he became known as an admirer of Vladimir Putin and an opponent of the Obama Administration's anti-Russian policies, especially after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Then, in March 2016, as Trump became the favorite to win the Repubican nomination, Trump named Page as one of his five foreign policy advisers.  That July, the Russians invited him to Moscow to give a commencement address.  That address featured extensive criticism of US attempts to spread democracy in the former Soviet Union.

According to the Steele dossier, Page actually traveled to Moscow in July to meet Igor Sechin, one of Putin's closest aides.  Two years earlier, Page had written a fawning blog post about Sechin, protesting the sanctions that had been imposed upon him.  According to Steele, Sechin offered a deal. If the Trump Administration listed sanctions on Russia, joint ventures in the energy sphere might proceed. As it happened, a large venture involving Exxon in drilling in the Arctic had been put on hold by sanctions.  Sechin also dangled a large brokerage fee before Page.

Steele also reported that Page had a later meeting with a another high Russian official, Igor Diveykin.  Divekin told him that the Russians possessed damaging information about Hillary Clinton, but also about Trump--something that Trump should keep in mind.  After returning to the US, Page was one of several Trump aides to meet with Soviet Ambassador Kislyak at the Republican convention.  By this time, as it happened, the FBI had become sufficiently concerned about Page's many Russian contacts and his pro-Russian attitudes to ask for, and receive, a FISA warrant to tap his electronic communications.  US intelligence also briefed senior Congressional leaders about Page, and Harry Reed made a public comment about the briefings. In September 2016, the Trump campaign dropped and disavowed him.

Just two months ago, Page testified before the House Intelligence Committee--too late for the appearance to figure  in Harding's book.  He confirmed that he had fully reported on his Moscow trip to various Trump campaign officials, including Jeff Sessions.  He denied meeting with Sechin but admitted to meetings with two other high Russian officials.  This forced some of the Trump campaign officials to refresh their memories about having heard about Page's trip.  Robert Mueller's office will presumably get its hands on Page's contemporary reports of his meetings.

Born in 1949 in New Britain, Connecticut--where his father became Mayor--Paul Manafort holds a B.A. and a law degree from Georgetown University.  He was active in the Ford and Reagan campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s,worked in the Reagan White House, and worked in the George H. W. Bush and Robert Dole campaigns as well. Meanwhile, Manafort's lobbying firms signed lucrative contracts with a number of foreign leaders.  He might easily have been the model for the parallel career of the Doonesbury character Duke.  His clients included the American client in the Angolan civil war, Jonas Savimbi; Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines; President Mobutu of the Congo; and many other governments as well.  During the 1990s he also received $700,000 that came from Pakistan's Interservice Intelligence Agency, or ISI, for lobbying activities and a documentary film production designed to improve the image of the Pakistani government.

During the 00s Manafort had a long and lucrative relationship with the Ukrainian politician (and eventually President) Victor Yanukovych, whose image he remade after Yanukovych was driven from power by the Orange revolution of 2004, after he had tried to steal the election.  Manafort helped get Yanukovych into power as Prime Minister just two years later, assuring anyone who asked (including Harding, who interviewed him at length) that Yanukovch was now a changed man and a friend of the West.

Around 2005, Manafort also entered into a relationship with Oleg Deripaska, a Russian aluminum magnate who cannot travel to the US because of suspected ties to organized crime.  The Associated Press has reported that Deripaska paid him $10 million a year [sic] to improve Russia's image in the West.  Shortly after signing that contract, Manafort bought a $3.6 million apartment in Trump Tower in New York.  With Manafort's help, Yanukovych was elected Ukrainian President in 2009 (the supposedly democratic and pro-west regime had proven ineffective and corrupt), and began eliminating his opposition.   The Maidan protests five years later drove him out of office and out of Ukraine. Putin's annexation of the Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine followed.

Manafort had signed Trump as a lobbing client in the early 1980s.  In March 2016, he approached Trump through a mutual friend, Thomas Barrack, who introduced him to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.  On March 29, 2016, Trump announced his appointment as campaign manager.  Manfort immediately began trying to do for Trump what he had down for Yanukovych--telling anyone who would listen that Trump was simply indulging in campaign rhetoric and would be a different man in office.  The Washington Post credited Manafort with securing the nomination of Mike Pence as Vice President.  But in mid-August, a story broke that a secret ledger discovered in post-revolutionary Ukraine showing that Yanukovych's right wing nationalist Party of Regions had paid Manafort $12.7 million in cash between 2007 and 2012.  Both Manafort and Trump claimed the ledger was phony and denied the story, but he left the campaign, and Steve Bannon replaced him.  Much later, in mid-2017, when Manafort tried to register retroactively as a foreign agent, he admitted to receving $17 million from the Party of Regions in 2012-14.

It has been reported that Manafort, like Page, had been wiretapped by American intelligence before the 2016 election.  Mueller's team eventually raided his home, and he has now been indicted for conspiracy against the United States, money laundering, and failing to register as a foreign agent. Just this week he has sued to block the indictment, claiming that Mueller's charge did not allow the prosecutor to deal with these matters.  It seems rather striking that while endless hours of cable television have been wasted on the issue of "collusion" regarding Democratic emails, hardly anyone ever says bluntly that Donald Trump's campaign apparently featured a director and a leading foreign policy adviser who were both suspected of being foreign agents for Russia and Russian clients in Ukraine, respectively.

Then there is the case of Michael Flynn, who rose to the rank of Lt. General in the US Army  In 2012, Flynn had been appointed head of the Defense Intelligence Agency by President Obama--in whom Flynn had no confidence whatever.  In 2013, Flynn received a mysterious, unprecedented invitation to speak at the headquarters of the GRU, Russian military intelligence, in Moscow, on leadership.  He returned saying he had enjoyed the trip very much.  In 2014 he was forced to leave his position early and retired.  He was informed that he had to report any income from foreign sources.

Flynn formed a consulting firm and co-authored a book with neoconservative Michael Ledeen.  It was very anti-Obama, and in August 2015, Flynn met Trump.   In December of that year he was invited to a 10th anniversary party for the Russian television network RT in Moscow, and sat next to Vladimir Putin. He received, but did not report, nearly $34,000 for the trip.  In March 2016 Flynn, along with Page, was named as one of Trump's foreign policy advisers, and he became an avid campaigner for Trump, declaring at the Repubican convention that Hillary Clinton should be locked up. In August, Michael Steele claimed that he received a report that Putin was very happy with the progress of his campaign to influence the American election. Visits to Moscow from a delegation of supporters of Lyndon Larouche, of Jill Stein of the Green Party, and of Carter Page and Michael Flynn had had good outcomes for the Russians, and even if Clinton won, she would be too weakened by domestic divisions to make much trouble for Russia. And just before the election, Flynn signed a $600,000 lobbying contract with a firm linked to the Turkish government--and failed to report it. (Jill Stein's Russian connection is reportedly under investigation by Robert Mueller. She drew significant numbers of votes in the states that decided the election.)

Flynn was, of course, appointed National Security adviser by Trump. Meanwhile, he was having conversations with Russian Ambassador Kislyak, including a meeting at Trump Tower with Kushner and Ivanka Trump. FBI surveillance picked some of them up.  The Obama Administration had just imposed new sanctions on Russia in retaliation for the intervention in the election, and although we do not yet have all the data, it seems that Flynn may have been discussing the lifting or easing of these and other sanctions--Putin's primary goal.  In any case, he, like Manafort and Page, was now heard by US intelligence surveillance.  He denied, to Vice President Pence and the FBI, that he had had certain conversations with Kislyak. The Justice Department informed the White House that he ws lying.  Flynn was forced out, and has now pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is cooperating with Mueller. It has occurred to me that the appointment of Rex Tillerson, who as CEO of Exxon had negotiated a big oil exploration deal with Russia that had to be canceled as a result of sanctions--and who has argued repeatedly that human rights considerations should not control US foreign policy--could have been designed in part to make the lifting of sanctions easier, as well.

The reader will note that I have managed so far to avoid discussing the Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump, Jr., Manafort, and two Russians, the well-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, and the former Soviet intelligence officer Rinat Akhmetshin, now a lobbyist and US citizen.  They had promised derogatory information about Hillary Clinton. Their goal was the repeal of the Magnitsky Act, named after a dissident Russian citizen who had died in custody, which barred Russians guilty of specific human rights abuses from the US.  Indeed, apparently some of the derogatory information they brought involved links between William Browder, Magnitsky's partner, and the Clinton foundation.  This was, clearly, just one of a number of channels that the Russians had developed to persuade a possible Trump administration to lift sanctions.  Donald Trump Jr. had been to Moscow several times himself, and the approach that led to the meeting came from contacts he had developed there, in the same way that Page, Manafort and Flynn had developed contracts of their own.  Jeff Sessions clearly knew about a lot of this, and had spoken to Kislyak himself. When Al Franken asked him about contacts between the campaign and the Russians in his confirmation hearing, he simply lied.  It is shocking that his tenure has survived the subsequent revelations.

And last, but hardly least--what about Donald Trump himself?

The President, it turns out, has sold many apartments in his properties to Russians going back to the 1980s, including some linked to Russian organized crime.  He has had Russian-American partners in deals who have been involved in criminal activity.  Ample evidence, reported at length by Harding, shows that Russians have invested in Trump properties to launder money.  And US Attorney Preet Bharara, of the Southern District of New York, used wiretaps to catch a Russian mobster running a gambling ring out of his suite in Trump tower.  Bharara, of course, lost his job shortly after Trump became President.  (This episode could be the origin of Trump's famous tweet accusing the government of wiretapping Trump Tower.)  Harding discusses other connections as well, including the remarkable sale of a Florida property to a Russian oligarch for about a 100% profit at the height of the financial crisis. But what struck me as potentially critical to the whole story was the role of Deutsche Bank in Donald Trump's career.

Trump's career as a developer has been marked by repeated failures to meet expectations, resulting in several bankruptcies.  When his Atlantic City casinos collapsed, his creditors, sadly, decided to allow him to keep operating because they thought they would be worth more with his name associated with them. However, American bankers, according to many accounts, had finally learned their lesson by the early 2000s and wouldn't lend to him again.The Deutsche Bank stepped in, apparently, to fill the gap.  Trump personally guaranteed a $640 million loan from Deutsche Bank to build Trump Tower in Chicago.  When the financial crisis struck, Trump stopped paying, with $340 million left to go.  When the bank sued to get their money, he counter sued for $3 billion, blaming them and the other big banks (correctly) for the financial crisis. A judge threw out the suit.

Amazingly, in 2010, Trump settled the matter with the help of a new series of loans from another office of Deutsche Bank, their private wealth sector.  Bloomberg estimated that by 2017 Trump owed the bank about $300 million, due in 2023 and 2024.  Meanwhile, beginning in 2005, Deutsche Bank had been involved in huge money-laundering deals with Russian interests.  Their Moscow office had developed close ties to leading Russian officials.  It does not seem at all impossible to me that the Russians had encouraged Deutsche Bank to bail Trump out in 2010 partly to secure leverage over him. Reading this part of the story, I was reminded of a recent interview in which John LeCarre described the similarity he saw between Trump and his own father, a lifelong con man, whom he described length in his novel A Perfect Spy.  LeCarre voiced his suspicion that Trump--like his father--actually has no real assets at all. I began to wonder, once again, if that might be true.

Jared Kushner is also deeply involved with Deutsche Bank, which lent him $285 million in October 2016 to pay off an earlier loan on the old New York Times building, which he had purchased from a Russian.  And in early December, Kushner met with Russian Ambassador Kislyak to propose setting up a secure communications channel, using Russian facilities, between the Trump transition team and the Kremlin.  He denied, when this was discovered, that lifting sanctions was discussed.

Where, then, does all this leave us?

The Trump campaign, from the moment that it first seemed likely to get the Repubican nomination, hired or involved three men--Carter Page, Paul Manafort, and Michael Flynn--who had close personal and business ties to the Russian government and wanted to advance its interests, specifically by loosening or ending the sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration.  At least two of them were benefiting financially from that connection.  To judge from his many friendly statements about Putin--which continued after he took office--Trump would have been delighted to improve relations as well.  That proved impossible, as it turned out, because the whole effort became so obvious.  After Manafort, and then Flynn, had to leave the campaign and the Administration, Congress passed a new and tougher sanctions law tying Trump's hands.  One reason Tillerson has fallen out of favor may be that he could no longer play the role some had envisioned for him.

Manafort and Flynn face serious legal problems as a result of their Russian connections.  The real question is whether the President of the United States, Donald Trump, is bound to the Russian government by indirect financial obligations, compromising information developed during his trip to Moscow, money laundering deals over a period of years, or something else.  That would be a very proper subject for an impeachment inquiry, but I see no possibility that the House of Representatives will undertake one any time soon. They too are in thrall of oligarchs--though not, for the most part Russian ones. I have no idea how much of the story Robert Mueller will be able to uncover. I am afraid that the real story is much too complicated and intricate for our news media, as they are now configured, to convey to the American people. I have done what I can to do so today.

As I mentioned last week, Europe in the late 16th and early 17th century was ruled by oligarchs, largely independent of state authority.  Today much of the world is ruled that way--including, increasingly, the United States.  Within the Trump campaign, when Manafort had to go because his Russian patronage was exposed, he was replaced by Steve Bannon, a creature of an American oligarch, the hedge fund manager Robert Mercer.  The Koch brothers have just rammed the tax bill through Congress. Other oligarchs are influential within the Democratic Party.  Our President and the people around him are tied to the Russian oligarchy through Deutsche Bank and perhaps in other ways.  This is the world we live in, and it still would be, even if Donald Trump were to die tomorrow of natural causes.  I do not know what it would take to change it fundamentally and I don't expect that to happen any time soon.

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