Monday, July 24, 2017

Rollout of the Democrats' "Better Deal"

Sen. Chuck Schumer after his pre-rollout rollout on Sunday, presents the Democrats' A Better Deal for American Workers New York Times 07/24/2017.

The column version doesn't give me more encouragement than yesterday's version he delivered on This Week. This one continues with the litany Democrats have been maintaining for so many years now of apologizing for being Democrats:

In the last two elections, Democrats, including in the Senate, failed to articulate a strong, bold economic program for the middle class and those working hard to get there. We also failed to communicate our values to show that we were on the side of working people, not the special interests. We will not repeat the same mistake. This is the start of a new vision for the party, one strongly supported by House and Senate Democrats.

Our better deal is not about expanding the government, or moving our party in one direction or another along the political spectrum. Nor is it about tearing down government agencies that work, that effectively protect consumers and promote the health and well-being of the country. It’s about reorienting government to work on behalf of people and families. [my emphasis]
A few decades back, it became a joke to say, "What we have here is a problem of communication." The joke was that this is a nicey-nice way of papering over disagreements that are over substantive questions, not just word choices. The Republicans have communicated very well that they want massive tax cuts for the very wealthiest. I understand what they're doing, it's not that they've failed to communicate that. It's that I think it's a bad idea.

So Schumer saying the Democrats are not communicating well enough is something similar, an excuse for not being able to get voters to identify the Democratic Party as anything much more clearly than being a party of urban elites. In the first paragraph just quoted, he tries to say two different things at once. One is the party now has a new vision. But they are adopting this new vision not because anything was wrong with their previous approach, only that they've had a failure to communicate effectively.

This is not very convincing as a re-positioning statement.

And he continues with the Democrats' chronic habit of framing issues in Republican terms. The Democrats are the party that has at least some visible remnants of the New Deal idea of positive govenrment, of government as an activist democratic entity that can and should work for the general good and particularly for the well-being of working people, poor and otherwise. The Republicans have long since successfully positioned themselves as the anti-government party. As in St. Reagan's famous campaign line, "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem." (Although he often pronounced it, "gubment.")



When Schumer writes, "Our better deal is not about expanding the government ...", he's repeating what long since has become a me-too refrain of Democrats saying, we're against the gubment, too!

Schumer talks up antitrust enforcement. But he's hardly sending a clear message. An obvious antitrust message might be, "Break Up ExxonMobil!" Or, "Split Up the Too-Big-to-Fail Banks!"

Here's Schumer's version:

Right now our antitrust laws are designed to allow huge corporations to merge, padding the pockets of investors but sending costs skyrocketing for everything from cable bills and airline tickets to food and health care. We are going to fight to allow regulators to break up big companies if they’re hurting consumers and to make it harder for companies to merge if it reduces competition. [my emphasis]
There's a big difference in saying, we want to break up this monopoly that is acting in destructive ways, and saying, "we'll allow some regulators to consider breaking up some monopoly or other if they decide it's bad." One sounds like tackling an identifiable problem, maybe even like the classic populist stance of standing up for the People against the Elite. Schumer's version sounds like the Democrats making a half-hearted gesture at being Democrats, apologizing for it as he does it.

And this is another case of the Democrats rolling out lists. He has a list of three themes, then a hodgepodge of proposals. Which adds up to a muddled message.

And the message he does deliver is full of telltale signs of the Democrats' adherence to neoliberal economics. American voters may not use the term "neoliberal" very much. But they do recognize some of these arguments and don't put much faith in them.

The neoliberal Gospel holds that it's wrong for the gubment to directly create jobs. Doing so for the explicit purpose of creating jobs is derided as creating "make-work jobs." But creating jobs is, you know, making work. So accepting that framing, as the Democrats have for decades now, is already buying into the notion that there's something wrong with jobs directly created by the government. Because, of course, gubment is not the solution to our problem, gubment is the problem," amirite?

The neoliberal buzzwords for sounding like you maybe possibly want to do something to increase jobs without doing so directly include: "infrastructure"; "training"; and, "education." Obviously, infrastructure, training and education are good and necessary things. But "infrastructure" is easy to say, while committing public funds to specific projects to accomplish specific goals with an explicit purpose of stimulating the economy and creating jobs where people will get not only trained but paid is much more specific. But "infrastructure" in the abstract sounds great. And a package of tax breaks for hedge funds combined a privatization program (everyone loves toll roads, right?) can also be packaged as "infrastructure." Which is what Trump's plan is about, to the extent it's a real plan at all.

Of course, corporate-deregulation treaties packaged as trade agreements like TTIP and TPP are a major part of the neoliberal scheme. Democrats and Republicans have justified those in the United States since the debate of NAFTA ratification by saying, we know they will costs some jobs, but there will be more jobs to replace them, and we will have retraining programs to take care of the displaced workers. Jobs went away, the new jobs weren't in the same areas the jobs were lost, and the retraining did little to ameliorate the situation, when it happened at all. At this point, "training" in this context is like a ritual incantation with little credibility.

Chuck's substitution for a program to create jobs or actual training programs is, yes, you guessed it, tax cuts for business! (Remind me again how the Dems are different than the Republicans; sometimes it's hard to keep up.)

A federal jobs program can be complex. But it doesn't require a new Manhattan Project effort to discover how to do it. They can be a combination of directly creating positions and actual job-training relevant to available local jobs. It requires good administration to be done in an optimal way. But it's not a mystery. And much more straightforward to explain than some trickle-down hocus pocus with tax cuts for business.

This Better Deal effort so far looks like the Democrats think they can coast to electoral victory in 2018. I would rather see some urgency about getting the base voters out next. And "gosh, we apologize for being Democrats but we're really not so bad" is just not the best way to achieve that.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Democrats come up with a new slogan to try to get people to forget they are Democrats

Linguist George Lakoff has been bugging the Democrats for years to improve their framing of issues. They've made some progress in some ways. But the results in 2016 up and down the ticket shows the Dems have a long way to go. Not just on framing. But framing is important.

And the Democratic Party are still so enchanted - and paid by their donors to be enchanted - with the neoliberal doctrine that their reflex response to a defeat is, unfortunately, exactly like that of the Republicans. When the Republicans lose, they decide that it was because they weren't Republican enough. When the Dems lose, they also decide it was because they weren't Republican enough. This is known, in one the politer forms, as an intensity gap.

This is a stunningly appropriate example, from the 2014 Kentucky Senate campaign. The Democratic candidate using this ad lost:



Democrats run trying to convince voters they're not really Democrats. Then they wonder why more people don't vote Democratic. Or why people are unclear what the Democratic Party stands for.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer was on This Week today. Chuck Schumer from the solidly Democratic state of New York. Here was me after listening to him:



Here he is, starting around 31:45:



You can't make this stuff up. Schumer says than on Monday, the Democratss will issue a set of economic proposals to be called a "Better Deal."

They must be using some consulting firm specializing in the blandest slogans possible. Because this is on the level of "Stronger Together."

Chuck promises it's "not going to be left or right." Of course not! Maybe they should call it the Better Bipartisan Deal instead.

With a drooling Troglodyte in the White House and a Republican Congress that just made the word "Obamacare" very popular, the Democrats can't come up with anything bolder than a Better Deal That Is Not Going To Be Left Or Right.

Cenk Uygar likes to say that corporate Democrats are "paid to lose" by their donors. This is another piece of evidence for that case.

Chuck does say the Better Deal will be "bold" and "sharp", so there's that. If you took a wild guess that what Chuck had to say about it in his preview to the rollout sounded a lot like the same vague list of vague ideas that the Dems usually roll out, why, you'd be right!

He even puts the list into another three-point list. One of three points is that they want to give the American people "the tools they need to be compete in the 21st century." Which is Herbert Hoover/neoliberal-speak for, "Create jobs? Are you serious? No, we're going to let you go to college with a lifetime of student debt peonage and if you can't support yourself, it's your own fault, losers!"

This is exactly the kind of problem Lakoff has been talking about. Chuck says, "We are united on economic issues." Uh, no, Chuck, economic issues are what Democrats are least united around.

Chuck's preview sounds for all the world like a throwback to the DLC circa 1990. Talk vaguely about economic ideas while they carefully avoid any kind of proposal that might provoke serious discomfort on Wall Street. He talks about how the Dems are divided between what he calls "the old Obama coalition" and voters who deserted the Democrats for Trump, "the blue collar workers." That phrase "the old Obama coalition" is one to watch. That sounds like a suspiciously DLCish euphemism for "black people." And Chuck's whole This Week presentation was conspicuously missing any explicit references to defending the rights of women, minorities and immigrants.

It also is DLCish in that it avoids something that should be a no-brainer: making segregationist voter suppression a central focus. They've been beating the Russia-Russia-Russia drum since last summer, and rightly so. But they've often been weird in the way they went about it.

What they have so far failed to do is to define the Russian election-meddling as inextricably bound with the voter-suppression problem. Because the remedies to protect the vote against foreign election tampering would also block a lot of the Republican voter-suppression program, as well. Things like paper backups for voting machines, regular audits of vote counts, monitoring and quick response to false information being circulated about voting locations and schedules, and regular checks of voter rolls to prevent voters from being inappropriately altered would be good backstops against foreign interference. And also to the Republican voter-suppression program.

Digby Parton picks up on this extremely important point at the end of Donald Trump’s voter fraud panel is all about his insecurities about losing the popular vote Salon 07/20/2017, which deals with Trump's commission against "voter fraud" that is really a voter-suppression commission:

There is one slight mystery about all this, however. With all this talk of our electoral system being vulnerable to fraud the commission isn’t the least bit interested in the subject of Russian interference in the election. That seems odd.

Of course if the goal of the hacking was to create chaos sow the seeds of doubt about the integrity of our democracy the Russian government is probably are wondering why they went to the trouble. Kris Kobach and his friends are doing a fine job of that all on their own. If he could manage to get all that voter information for them in one place that would be very helpful for future hacking. They’re pulling for his success if no one else is.

The law and a lawless President

Slate reports that it has increased its coverage of the issues around the Trump-Russia scandal. Jed Handelsman Shugerman brings up an important consideration on the Presidential pardon power in this situation, Trump Can’t Escape the States 07/21/2017:

The bottom line is that the only significant barriers to self-pardons are politics (impeachment) and federalism (state powers).

Presidential pardons can’t apply to state prosecutions. That means state attorneys general, especially New York’s Eric Schneiderman, Washington, D.C.’s Karl Racine, and Delaware’s Matthew Denn should think about canceling their summer vacation plans. (Yes, Delaware. Go Google “quo warranto,” see this old post, or better yet continue reading.) And maybe they should open up some office space for Mueller and his A-Team when he inevitably gets fired for getting closer and closer to hard evidence of serious crimes.

The president cannot pardon people for state crimes. Even if Trump pardons, say, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a state prosecutor can bring charges under state law anytime. Similarly, Trump can be prosecuted under state law. President Richard Nixon’s attorney general concluded in 1974 that a sitting president can’t be indicted, but there is no constitutional text or precedent for such a conclusion - and it was obviously an interpretation that benefited Nixon. I think this is an open question. [my emphasis]
This also means, though, that if Trump pardons people, if they still face state charges, they would be able to take the Fifth before Congressional or other federal investigators.

Dahlia Lithwick, whose column is always worth reading, writes about how we need to remember that Lawyers Aren’t Wizards 07/21/2017. The political remedy (political in the broad sense) of impeachment is a ccritical backstop if the President successfully evades normal legal processes.

Please don’t get me wrong. I continue to believe the law and lawyers will eventually save us all, or at least die trying. But the real answer to the myriad legal and constitutional questions Trump raises with each exhale is, of course, that the legalities don’t matter because he doesn’t care, and he either fires, berates, or isolates the lawyers around him who do care. This is asymmetrical warfare insofar as the people who continue to think in terms of the rule of law mistakenly believe that there might be legal solutions.

The Framers erected an edifice of law intended to constrain power, and the president believes that framework is made of spun sugar and cobwebs. The United States is a nation built upon, as John Adams told us, “a government of laws and not of men.” The Trump administration adheres to no law, and whatever men or women keep faith with the law rather than him are discredited as biased against the president. This only goes one way [from Trump's perspective]: Norms are for losers, and laws are for poor people. And now Trump has his dream team of mob lawyers and mad dogs hard at work proving that the only lawyer without a disabling conflict of interest is the one pledging fealty to him. [my emphasis in bold]
Pointing to the Republicans' painfully obvious resistance so far to opposing Trump in the Russia scandal, which will surely soon turn into a tangle of related business scandals, she comes up with a beautifully concise statement about how an abstract ideological belief in the rule of law can facilitate people who intend to undermine it:

This is a problem that requires our focused long-term attention to money in politics, partisan gerrymandering, and voter suppression. And this is, in the end, a problem only because Americans — myself included — are prey to a form of magical thinking about law and the Constitution. The Framers believed the law would fix it, and that makes it easy to hope that the lawyers will fix it. The lawyers became the wizards, and the Constitution became a book of spells, and the best thing a citizen could hope to do is make a donation to a group of lawyers who could perform the right incantations, fondle the correct talisman, and save democracy. [my emphasis]

Saturday, July 22, 2017

"Zero hour" in the Venezuelan crisis?

The situation in Venezuela is starting to look more and more like a US-driven regime change operation.

The basics haven't changed:

"Venezuela is Latin America's biggest exporter of crude oil and has the world's largest petroleum reserves." - Brian Ellsworth and Andrew Cawthorne, Venezuela death toll rises to 13 as protests flare Reuters 02/24/2014

"Venezuela claims the world’s largest proven reserves of petroleum, an estimated 298 billion barrels of oil." - Michael Klare, The Desperate Plight of Petro-States TomDispatch 05/26/2016

Now the New Cold Warriors are publicly linking Venezuela to Russia. And the Cuban anti-Communists groups sometimes collectively referred to as "Miami" are pushing the idea of a US oil boycott aimed against Venezuela. They long since adopted Venezuela as a target for regime change efforts. Familiar names pop up among the Republicans prominent in the latest push to overthrow the Maduro government: Congressman Carlos Curbelo, Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Sen. Bob Menendez, Sen. Marco Rubio. And also one of our bestest Democratic friends, the paydown loan industry's BFF, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. New York Democratic Congressman Gregory Meeks is also joinning the (anti-Maduro) party.

Mazzei and Daugherty in the report cited below make it sound like a more recent development, although they may be referring to a recent intensification of the effort, "The fight for a free Cuba — a fight carried in their bones, transcending all politics — has fueled Cuban-American lawmakers for decades in their campaign against Fidel and Raúl Castro. But President Donald Trump has already taken a tougher line toward Cuba, as the legislators wanted. So, the unfolding Venezuela crisis has become Cuban Americans’ new crusade."

Venezuela's national oil company PDVSA has an American subsidiary, Citgo. One of the state-owned Russian oil companies, Rosneft, has 49.9% of Citgo pledged to it as a collateral for a $1.5 billion loan late last year. The Venezuela regime change lobby is raising this as a security danger of come kind for the US. Why that would be isn't entirely clear. But when do American excuses for overthrowing disfavored regimes in Latin America.

The Ulmer and Parraga report cited below does describe an effort by Rosneft to use their Citgo holdings as a way to evade US sanctions.

President Nicolas Maduro is planning a Constituent Assembly to write a new Constitution for Venezuela as a way to end the crisis and pacify the country. Alex Daugherty writes:

[Marco] Rubio, a Republican who’s spent years in Congress criticizing Maduro, says he’s been in regular touch with Trump and especially Vice President Mike Pence about how to sanction Venezuela if Maduro moves forward with a planned July 30 election. That vote would create a constituent assembly empowered to rewrite the nation’s constitution, effectively replacing a democratically elected legislature with Maduro loyalists.

“The United States will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles,” Trump said in a statement Monday, released as Rubio made similar remarks on Twitter. “If the Maduro regime imposes its Constituent Assembly on July 30, the United States will take strong and swift economic actions.”

Aljazeera reports on the position of pro-Washington Latin American governments in support of the Venezuelan opposition, South American leaders offer to mediate Venezuela crisis 07/22/2017:



Aljazeera's reporting that I've seen has tended to be sympathetic to the opposition. Their Inside Story program recently presented this report, which also talks about threats of new US sanctions, How long can Nicolas Maduro cling to power? 07/19/2017:



Aljazeera reports that the opposition is calling the current moment "zero hour."

Atilio Boron blogged in May that any analysis of any country in Latin America that doesn't mention the United States even once is "irredeemably erroneous." Because of the enormous role US business and government interests play in Latin America. He notes that Venezuela's proven oil reserves are the largest in the world and the Caribbean Basin area is one that the US considers as practically an internal lake.

He also writes, "Sólo si la Casa Blanca y sus agencias estuvieran pobladas por imbéciles o por individuos completamente irresponsables, desconocedores del interés nacional norteamericano, podría el gobierno norteamericano ser indiferente o mantenerse al margen de lo que ocurre en Venezuela." ("Only if the White House and its agencies were populated with imbeciles and by completely irresponsible individuals who disregarded the American national interests, could an American government be indifferent or maintain itself on the margines of what goes on in Venezuela.") He was writing in May, at a time when those conditions are fulfilled. But the Trump Family Business Administration and bipartisan troublemakers in Congress are nevertheless very interested in events in Venezuela.

Boron claims that the opposition president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Julio Borges, met with the head of US Southern Command, Kurt Tidd, to ask the US to intervene militarily on behalf of the opposition. Christopher Woody reported in April:

Regional groups and international actors have worked in recent months to bring the government of President Nicolas Maduro and the political opposition to the table and a resolution.

Those efforts have thus far achieved little, and Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, chief of US Southern Command, raised the situation to the US Senate in his most recent posture report, delivered last week.

"Venezuela faces significant instability in the coming year due to widespread food, and medicine shortages; continued political uncertainty; and a worsening economic situation," Tidd said in written testimony submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee. "The growing humanitarian crisis in Venezuela could eventually compel a regional response."

Efforts by outside parties to shepherd Venezuela toward a resolution have been complicated, especially because Maduro has in the past used the specter of international interference to blunt criticism at home and abroad.
Boron, as one of a series of contributors to "Encrucijada venezolana" cited below, sees the current opposition efforts to create turmoil in Venezuela as part of what he calls the "Libya model," i.e., the way Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown by internal opposition forces allied with foreign intervention. And he warns that if the counterrevolution actually succeeds in overthrowing the Maduro government, Venezuela would face being a "51st state" of the US for the indefinite future.

Mark Weisbrot writes about current US efforts to destabilize the Venezuelan government:

According to the U.S. State Department, Washington "provided training, institution building, and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved" in the 2002 military coup against former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez that ultimately failed. And since the coup, Washington has provided tens of millions of dollars to the Venezuelan opposition.

In 2013, when the opposition initiated violent protests to overturn the results of a democratic election, Washington supported the protesters. The same was again true in 2014.

Today, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., openly threatens governments in the region, including those of the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Haiti, with punishment if they do not cooperate with Washington's abuse of the Organization of American States to delegitimize the government of Venezuela.
And for some perspective, he observes, "recent U.S. involvement in Venezuela's domestic affairs has dwarfed anything anyone has even accused Vladimir Putin of doing here."

Sources:

Friday, July 21, 2017

Yes, there is a Trump-Russia scandal and, yes, some Democrats are saying weird things about it

Some Democrats really are saying some fairly strange stuff in connection with the Trump-Russia scandal. Donna Brazile, for instance:



I agree with Jordan Chariton here that some of the Democrats' hype amounts to "neocon Russia hysteria," Donna Brazile Cashing In On Cold War Hysteria TYT Politics 07/21/2017:



Brazile tried to brush off Chariton last October when he pressed her about the leaked Clinton emails. She tried to duck the question by invoking Russia. Even though the Russian hackers may have been the ones to expose the emails via Wikileaks. But most of the stuff in them was at worst mildly embarrassing. And regardless of the source, I haven't seen anyone claiming that the content was doctored. So it always looked arrogant and disingenuous to just try to brush the questions off by using Russia-Russia-Russia. Jordan's NOT HAVING Donna Brazile's Russia Dodge! 10/19/2016:



There are plenty of things the Democrats can use to highlight what a problem the Trump-Russia scandal is. For instance: Josh Marshall, The President At War Talking Points Memo 07/21/2017. Something new and significant seems to be coming to light every day. If you're trying to highlight that, why insist on dubious connections or nonsense like labeling Putinists as "Communists."

Since I've been watching TYT Politics videos on the topic, here's one in which Nomiki Konst interviews Michael Isikoff on the notorious Don Jr./Veselnitskaya meeting.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

On ending CIA assistance to those Syrian Moderates

Chris Matthews and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper makes Trump's announcement that the CIA would be cutting off support to "the moderate opposition groups" (sic; Clapper) sound like a mindless concession to the Russia. And it may actually be. James Clapper: President Donald Trump Is Making Russia Great Again 07/20/2017:



But as Trump's Secretary of Energy Rick Perry once memorably observed, even a stopped clock is right once a day.

And, as Juan Cole explains, there isn't much left of that famous Syrian Moderate Opposition in any event (Trump hands Putin gift, cancels Support for Syrian Rebels Informed Comment 07/20/2017):

"Ever since Russia intervened in Syria in fall of 2015, its Aerospace forces have given support to the Syrian Arab Army in a bid to roll back and defeat the armed opposition, especially in the northwest of the country," he writes, adding:

Still, the Syrian Arab Army is small and stretched thin. The small and not very important CIA program was enough to keep some of the rebel groups going in ways that proved an irritant to the Baath government and to Russian strategic planners. They would much prefer that the US stopped supporting the rebels in any way. For one thing, withdrawal of Washington’s backing would be a huge blow to the flagging morale of the opposition. [my emphasis]
So it's a concession to Russia and the Assad government in Syria.

But the material effect on military operations is unlikely to be substantial:

Many of these remnants of the Free Syrian Army appear to have been small and to have controlled two valleys and a hill each. The most effective fighters in the opposition continued to be extremists, whether Nusra or its forrmal ally, the Freemen of the Levant.
The Free Syrian Army and the more radical groups have in any case been decisively defeated, with Russian help. The only reason given for continued US backing of a lost cause was to maintain some leverage to force Bashar al-Assad from office. But al-Assad won’t be forced out as long as he has Iranian and Russian support, so that wasn’t going to happen. The US program was just prolonging the violence in some northern provinces.
As Cole also alludes to in that post, the moderation of these Syrian Moderates has also been hard to find all along. But maybe the same people still searching for Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction" are searching for the Syrian Moderates.

But not all US aid to anti-Assad forces has been cut off:

The cancellation of the CIA program does not affect the Department of Defense effort in the northeast of Syria, which has formed the Syrian Democratic Forces, mainly leftist Kurds fighting ISIL.

Al-Akhbar (leftist, Beirut) wonders if this move will have an effect on the rivalry between US-backed rebels in the southeast near the Jordanian border where the US has a small base. That base is aimed at ISIL to its north but also at Iran and Iranian logistics for supplying Hizbullah. It could be that US troops will now be evacuated from this southeast pocket which would be a victory for Iran more than for Russia. [my emphasis]
It's always good to keep in mind that Turkey is highly suspicious of Kurdish separatists. And that the EU is relying very heavily right now on an agreement with Turkey to hold refugees headed for Europe. Richard Haass and Gareth Porter had these Twitter comments:

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The drama of documentary evidence, Trump-Russia edition

The stories of the Trump campaign's apparently myriad contacts with Russians has me thinking more about what kind of contacts cross the line of propriety.

One good guideline in thinking about it is that if it's illegal, that means it's officially improper.

Most contact between Americans and non-Americans are perfectly legal. From business deals to personal contacts to hearing presentations made by foreign officials to sports competitions to attending shows by foreign celebrities to being a tourist in another country, most of it is far from being illegal or improper in any meaningful sense. Fiona Hill, the top Russia adviser on the National Security Council, who I've quoted here recently, has dual UK-US citizenship. It's legal for her to associate with herself. And it doesn't prevent her from getting a security clearance.

There are American laws regulating American business dealings with foreign firms. That's why companies have lawyers.

And there are laws about foreigners contributing financially to American political campaigns. There are also laws and regulations about governments directly influencing political campaigns. And laws against hacking other people's computers. And working with foreign intelligence agencies. The Washington Post has a column by a former CIA officer, Trump Jr.’s Russia meeting sure sounds like a Russian intelligence operation 07/14/2017, that explains why the now-notorious Don Jr./Veselnitskaya meeting looks so much like dirty business. Although that's already pretty obvious to everyone but partisan Republicans who will defend anything Trump does.

Obviously, political ideas don't stop at national borders. Nor should they. And there is a broad spectrum of things that facilitate those. There are books and movies and TV reporting and commentary, for instance. At the other end of the continuum we would have paid agents promoting political subversion or, say, hacking the computers of one party or campaign to give an advantage to another. Hacking into election systems is also illegal, even if they don't do it to manipulate the vote.

It's impossible to not thing about precedents in this situation. There were Nazi Fifth Column operations to deal with in the 1930s and 1940s. And there the Red Scares after both world wars, the one after the Second World War being largely remembered as McCarthyism.

There were several sensational cases of espionage in the postwar era involving Communists. In the United States, the conviction and exection of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union was easily the most serious. Klaus Fuchs was a german-born British Communist who also passed atomic secrets to the USSR. He was imprisoned for several years in Britain, but later was released to East Germany, where he became deputy director of the East German Central Institute for Nuclear Research. Marian Smith Holmes has an article about atomic espionage figures, Spies Who Spilled Atomic Bomb Secrets Smithsonian 04/19/2009.

Alger Hiss became (in)famous as a target of investigation by California Congressman Richard Nixon and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He was convicted not of espionage but of perjuring himself before Congress by denying he had been a Soviet agent. There are respectable historians who believe that Hiss was guilty, and that seems to be the leading opinion. Hiss himself denied to the end of his life that he had been a Soviet agent. And there is still no clear historical consensus on Hiss' guilt. The loathsome nature of Hiss' main accuser, Whittaker Chambers, and the role of the perennially unsavory Tricky Dicky in his case are more than sufficient cause to be reserved about the conclusiveness of the case.

Robert Oppenheimer, civilian head of the Los Alamos laboratory in the Manhattan Project, had his security clearance removed and was accused of espionage for the Soviets, as well. Hardcore rightwingers still like to make that claim. But it remains a far-fetched one.

But if an American political party wants to take a foreign government or movement as in some way a model to which to aspire, there's nothing illegal about that in itself. In the case of the US Communist Party, they explicitly took the Soviet Union as a model to emulate. There's some argument to be made that this association helped them win support after the Great Depression struck capitalist country but not the USSR. And, of course, the Soviets were American allies in the war, which also helped the US party's image somewhat. That didn't mean that the armed services didn't look askance at known or suspected Communists in the armed forces. Oppenheimer's admitted association with Communists, though he always claimed he was never actually a party member, caused him problems after the war. But the Army was willing to put enough confidence in him that he had a key role in developing the atomic bomb.

But the Communist Party's close identification with the Soviet Union was probably more of a turnoff to potential supporters most of the time than a net benefit. Because taking a dim view of Russia has been more the norm than the exception for Americans during the last century or more. The Czar wasn't that popular for Americans, either, though Russia was also an American ally in the First World War.

Speaking of tradition, the way some commentators and politicians talk about the Trump-Russia scandal has notable echoes of the way anti-Communists talked about Communists and the Soviet Union. And conservatives like Nixon and hardcore rightwingers like Joe McCarthy were more than happy to identify liberals and Democrats with Communists and the USSR.

I was reminded of one comparison to today's situation reading this, "Nothing so effectively shores up the American predilection for moral certainty as a good batch of incriminating documents." (Maurice Isserman and Ellen Schrecker, "'Papers of a Dangerous Tendency': From Major Andre's Boot to the VENONA Files"; Cold War Triumphalism: The Misuse of History After the Fall of Communism, E. Schrecker, ed.; 2004)

Whittaker Chambers' Pumpkin Papers stunt is a good example of using "incriminating documents" to good effect.

But the (digital) papers that Don Jr. released about his Veselnitskaya meeting are more damning than anything in the Pumpkin Papers were for Alger Hiss!

Isserman and Schrecker have some other worthwhile observations based on information including a number of Soviet documents release after the fall of the USSR:

Of the approximately 50,000 party members in World War II, 49,700 were uninvolved in espionage, even taking the highest estimate of communist participation in the KGB's network. The average Communist in 1944 was far more likely tobe a fur worker or a public school teacher than a policy maker in the Treasury Department, and thus an unlikely candidate for a Soviet operative to approach for workplace gossip. And even among the tiny minority of Communists and their fellow travelers who did occupy sensitive posts, not all were necessarily approached or agreed to spy on behalf of the Soviet Union.
After the Second World War, the Soviets tended to recruit agents in more conventional ways rather than on an ideological basis. Aldrich Ames, arrested in 1994 on espionage charges, was a CIA employee. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reported in 1994 (An Assessment of the Aldrich H. Ames Espionage Case and Its Implications for U.S. Intelligence 11/01/1994):

While the precise extent of Ames's espionage activities was unclear at the time of his arrest, Justice Department officials confirmed that Ames was believed to have caused the death or imprisonment of a number of Soviets who had been sources of the CIA and FBI. ...

The affidavit made public at the time of the arrests also confirmed that Ames had received substantial payments for the information he had provided -- money that he had used years earlier to purchase a new Jaguar automobile and a $540,000 home, with cash, in Arlington. Apparently, these seemingly large expenditures by an employee making less than $70,000 a year had not raised questions at the CIA.

On April 28, 1994, Ames and his wife, Rosario, pled guilty to charges stemming from their espionage activities. Entered into the record at the time the pleas were made was an agreed-upon "Statement of Facts" which provided new details regarding the Ames's espionage activities. Meetings with the Soviets in Washington, D.C., Vienna, Bogota, and Caracas were acknowledged for the first time. Ames also acknowledged that as of May 1, 1989, he had been paid over $1.8 million by the KGB and that $900,000 more had been set aside for him.
The blowhard alcoholic Joe McCarthy who claimed he had a list of Communist employees of the State Department never uncovered a single Communist in federal employment, much less a Russian spy. Not even with the help of his lieutenant, the future mob lawyer and political mentor to Donald Trump, Roy Cohn. Isserman and Schrecker write that McCarthy "was not simply 'exaggerating' a problem - he was making it up."

They also note, "We also now know that by 1953, the year of the Rosenbergs' execution, the FBI had quietly written off the American Communist Party as a serious espionage threat." Go figure. It's a reminder to everyone to keep their critical thinking skills working in the Trump-Russia scandal.

They also quote Richard Hofstadter, "[T]here are conspiratorial acts in history "and there is nothing paranoid in taking note of them."

Monday, July 17, 2017

McCarthyism and the Trump-Russia scandal

Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report writes about a theme that some others who identify with the left also elaborate (The New McCarthyism Is Destroying the Democratic Party Truthdig 07/15/2017):

For more than a year now, the collective U.S. ruling class, with Democratic Party and corporate media operatives in the vanguard, has frozen the national political discourse in a McCarthyite time warp. A random visit to a July 26, 2016, issue of the New York Times reveals the same obsession as that which consumes the newspaper today: “Following the Links from Russian Hackers to the U.S. Election,” “Spy Agency Consensus Grows That Russia Hacked D.N.C.” A year later, the allegations persist, piled ever higher with innuendo and outright nonsense. However, proof of the predicate act — that Russia, not Wikileaks, penetrated the DNC — remains totally absent. [my emphasis]
As I've said before, this is a disingenuous argument. The January 6 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) said:

This report includes an analytic assessment drafted and coordinated among The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and The National Security Agency (NSA), which draws on intelligence information collected and disseminated by those three agencies. It covers the motivation and scope of Moscow’s intentions regarding US elections and Moscow’s use of cyber tools and media campaigns to influence US public opinion. The assessment focuses on activities aimed at the 2016 US presidential election and draws on our understanding of previous Russian influence operations. When we use the term “we” it refers to an assessment by all three agencies. [my emphasis in italics]

We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.

  • We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence. [my emphasis in italics] ...

  • We assess with high confidence that Russian military intelligence (General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU) used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets and relayed material to WikiLeaks.
No, we don't have every bit of documentation of every step in the analysis. and 50 years from now, some new document will come out related to the case. But the fact that the FBI, the CIA and the NSA are saying this is something we can take as a fact. And if the Office of the DNI was lying about that, we need to know about that, as well. That's one of the reasons why we have a Congress, to investigate and confirm or disconfirm such claims.

But this is something that needs to be taken seriously. Those arguing otherwise should be explicit about what kind of evidence would convince them there's a real problem.

And that's just on the specifics of which hackers working for whom did what when. On the larger question of whether there was active collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, here's what Bob Bauer was writing a week ago (Open Door to Moscow? New Facts in the Potential Criminal Case of Trump Campaign Coordination with Russia Just Security 07/10/2017):

The Trump campaign in 2016 was signaling to Russia that it would be happy to have the Putin regime’s help. President Trump, as a candidate, famously called for Russia’s assistance. Later, when pressed, he repeatedly refused to clearly acknowledge its interference or condemn it.

Now it appears that Trump campaign was not simply hinting that it would welcome this help. The Wall Street Journal very recently, and now the New York Times, have reported active Trump campaign or campaign supporter contacts with Russian agents or intermediaries toward the goal of obtaining negative information about Hillary Clinton. And, for the first time, someone named Trump – Donald, Jr. – has publicly confirmed that the campaign communicated directly with a Russia foreign national connected with the Putin regime in the bid for material damaging to the former Secretary of State.

In previous pieces, I have discussed the ground of legal liability based on “substantial assistance” to, or “aiding and abetting,” a foreign national’s providing a “thing of value” to influence an election. To this date the evidence has been largely on the public record, in “plain sight,” and it included Mr. Trump’s own comments. The recently published reports do not replace this theory; they supplement it, or round it out, by corroborating that what the campaign was pursuing through private channels were the same goals–help from the Russians—that were strongly indicated by the candidate’s words and related public behavior.
Bauer continues directly to caution about the need to get a full picture in the public record:

Of course, it should go without saying that we will have a reliable grasp on the evidence only when the facts are developed and tested through the legal system. There are a host of questions still to be answered about the reported Trump campaign contacts. But the most recent press accounts are especially significant because they include specific statements on the record conceding the Trump campaign’s expressed interest in what the Russians could provide. Those statements show intent – a clear-cut willingness to have Russian support – and they reveal specific actions undertaken to obtain it. [my emphasis]
It's worth noting that what came to be known as "McCarthyism" involved people being accused of being Communists and thereby having their careers hurt and subject to public hostility. And it involved not just actual evidence, and not just specific evidence of law-breaking. It also involved smearing and something imprisoning people with innuendo, gossip and even manufactured testimony from "professional anti-Communists."

There's also only one degree of separation between President Trump and Joe McCarthy himself in the person of Trump's political mentor, Roy Cohn.(For just one reference, see ‘He Brutalized For You’ by Michael Kruse Politico 04/08/2017.

I want to unpack this part of Ford's column:

The only unequivocal winner is the bipartisan War Party, which has used the manufactured crisis to drench the nation in anti-Russian hysteria – worse than back in the bad old days of the Red Scares. By March, Black Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) was using much the same language as Dick Cheney to describe the Kremlin. “I think this attack that we’ve experienced is a form of war, a form of war on our fundamental democratic principles,” said the hopelessly brainwashed representative of the Black Misleadership Class. “Liberal” Democratic Maryland Rep. Ben Cardin called the nonexistent “attack” a “political Pearl Harbor.”

If the U.S. Congress actually took seriously its Constitutional powers to declare war, the human race would already have been exterminated.

So insane have the Democrats become, that we are probably better off with war powers effectively in the hands of Donald Trump, than with California’s Barbara Lee, the only member of Congress that voted against the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. She was in her “right mind” then, but no longer. Trump’s willingness to talk with the leader of Russia, in Hamburg, infuriated Rep. Lee, who tweeted: “Outraged by President Trump’s 2 hr meeting w/Putin, the man who orchestrated attacks on our democracy. Where do his loyalties lie?” A better question is: When and where did Lee join the War Party?
I do have a concern, which I've also expressed here repeatedly, that bad actors and people who advocate unnecessarily warlike policies toward Russia are trying to piggyback their policy recommendations on the outrage over the Trump-Russia scandal.

It's hyperbole to say that Congress would have insisted on full-blown nuclear war, which I assume is more-or-less the meaning of Ford's "the human race would already have been exterminated." But it is important to remember that Congress taking its Constitutional war powers seriously wouldn't inevitably result in less warlike policies than Congress' current passivity in the face of Executive power on war and peace. But it is Congress' job, and they should take it seriously. And it would certainly allow more opportunity to air a broader spectrum of opinion and bring more expert opinion to the attention of the public. Until the robots take over or the zombie apocalypse descends on us, the Members of Congress will still human beings. So there is no guarantee of decisions that are invariably right or optimal.

I'm with Ford in wishing the Democrats would stop calling the 2016 hacking an act of war. I think it's the kind of threat inflation that has done so much damage in American foreign policy since the Second World War.

But I'll stick up for my Representative Barbara Lee on this one. Her formulation "attack on our democracy" is an accurate description of the hacking the FBI, the CIA and the FBI say occurred. And we certainly are at the stage in the Trump-Russia scandal, the question of where Trump's loyalties lie is unfortunately a valid one.

Here the nature of McCarthyism as we know it is also relevant. When cheerleaders for the Iraq War called Barbara Lee and other opponents of the Iraq War sympathizers of Saddam Hussein, that was just sleazy. And sleazy in the same way McCarthyism was sleazy.

It's also worth noting that the Iraq War was justified by cooked intelligence that was concocted by the Cheney-Bush Administration who didn't trust the CIA to provide the recommendations they wanted to see. That process has been extensively reported and documented. Jason Vest and Bob Dreyfuss, for instance, reported on The Lie Factory (Mother Jones Jan/Feb 2004) that cooked the intelligence. Based on what's now in the public record, the cooking of intelligence in this case does not compare to the deception of the Cheney-Bush team on the Iraq War. But we still need Congressional and/or independent investigations to confirm the facts on the Trump-Russia scandal. And not just on the hacking but on the larger question of collusion.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The popular version of comparative politics, US-Russia version

I heard West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin on one of the news shows recently saying that the rule of law is what makes the United States different than everybody else.

This will be a surprise to much of the rest of the world, since all countries that I know of have the rule of law, at least in theory. And the next time an unarmed black man is gunned down by a cop somewhere in the United States, we might do well to stop and wonder how secure the rule of law is in practice in the United States. Sadly, we won't have to wait long for the next such incident, if recent years are any kind of indication.

This is the kind of self-referential claim that I sometimes try to explain to people from other countries. (Full disclosure: I associate regularly with foreign nationals. Particularly with the one to whom I'm married. Shocking, I know, but, yes, I do talk to furriners.)

So here is Joe Manchin claiming that the rule of law is distinctive to our own country. If you don't really have any experience in foreign countries, or don't travel abroad anywhere, or don't make any effort to find out about some other countries more than what you would get from watching TV news, you don't really have a comparison. So, saying we're superior to other countries because of X, Y or Z becomes just another way of saying, "America, f**k yeah! USA! USA!! USA!!!"

I thought of that when reading this Washington Post editorial, This is why Russia wanted to help Trump 07/12/2017. I don't speak Russian, I've never been to Russia. I have met Russians at times in my life, including sitting next to the Russian consul in San Francisco years ago at a Rotary Club lunch. I also went to a panel presented by Russian journalists at the Netroots Nation convention in 2014, journalists brought to the US by the State Department. I even chatted with one or two of them after the presentation. Oddly, these encounters stick in my memory. The Russians with whom members of the Trump campaign and transition teams were meeting seem to have been far more forgettable for the Americans in those meetings.

While I'm on the topic, I had several things in mind at the Russian journalists panel. They were brought here on a State Department program, so presumably the Obama Administration didn't regard them as uncritical defenders of Putin's government. And presumably Russian intelligence wanted to know what was happening on that trip, so one or more of the journalists may have been cooperating with them. Given the sponsorship, I also assumed that American intelligence was interested in what they might have to say. Given that the group was being sponsored by the US government and the audience was composed of blogger types with mobile phones and computers, I didn't assume any of the interactions were private. I don't remember if the convention was recording the panel, but they may have been.

None of those considerations required any specialized knowledge on my part. And I wasn't hesitant to attend the panel, because there was no reason to be. Now, if one of the panel members had taken me aside and whispered, "Hey, I've got some Kompromat on Person X that I want to share with you; meet me at the Sleazo Bar in two hours," I would have thought that was unusual. Especially if they had said they specifically wanted to give me the information to do something illegal. It doesn't require any specialized knowledge of Russia or the ability to speak Russian to make those kind of judgments. I'm just sayin'. And since I remember the panel anyway, I definitely would have remembered an offer to do something illegal!

Similarly, if we want to keep up with major foreign policy issues, we have to make some kind of evaluation coming to us from sources that we should expect to be reliable, or at least serious. Which brings me back to the WaPo editorial:

What makes Russia hostile is Mr. Putin’s adherence to, and dependence on, a set of values that are antithetical to what have been, at least until now, bedrock American values. He favors spheres of influence over self-determination; corruption over transparency; and repression over democracy. His antipathy toward Hillary Clinton was not personality-driven but based on her advocacy of values that would threaten his rule. [my emphasis]
I'll be generous and just observe that adherents of the foreign policy "realist" school would think concerns like maintaining national borders, secessionist nationalist movements and military basing considerations (like in Crimea) are more important in shaping Russian foreign policy under Putin than his rejection of the US "value" of disapproving of corruption.

Even saying that, though, brings up the obvious consideration: do Russians really think that US politics and business are free of corruption? Or that our business and political elites disapprove of it? And given the cosmic scale of corruption on which the Trump Family Business Administration operates, and the indifference with which his Republican Party regards it, can we really claim that anti-corruption is one of the "bedrock American values"? Even with WaPo's qualifier, "at least until now"?

And the WaPo editorialists claim that the United States values "self-determination" over "spheres of influence." Two words: Latin America. That doesn't mean that the US should not object to irregular annexations of territory on the part of Russia or other international actors. But the Russians hate us for our values? As Charlie Pierce sometimes says: honky, please!

They continue:

It’s sometimes hard for Americans to understand the gulf between the two nations because Mr. Putin has maintained the trappings of democracy — a parliament, national elections — even as he has made them meaningless by shuttering most independent media and eliminating most political opposition. The state now serves Mr. Putin and his cronies, who have become immensely wealthy, rather than the reverse. When people try to expose the corruption, they are imprisoned or killed (or both, as in the case of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky). When Mr. Putin stakes out any position, the first question on his mind is not “Is this good for Russia?” but rather: “Will this help my regime to survive?” [my emphasis]
These kinds of claims are only meaningful in comparison. I think that what they claim about the nature of Putin's regime there is accurate. But our mainstream press - not even to speak of FOX News and Breitbart - do a poor job of providing good information and analysis on which to base such judgments.

They conclude their editorial, "So while the younger Mr. Trump may have seen advantage in accepting Russia’s help, Russia certainly would have seen an advantage in proffering it. Mr. Putin’s values are antithetical to American values, but the Russian dictator had good reason to hope that they would not be antithetical to the values of a Trump administration." Apart from the triumphalist "values" plug again, it's at best simplistic to characterize Putin as a "dictator." I would go with "authoritarian democracy" myself. I'll consider "illiberal democracy," but I've never much liked the term. But even relatively sophisticated and well-informed American readers are far too quick to believe that any non-American government is on the verge of being a dictatorship that doesn't accept our obviously superior Values.

This is not the most desirable state of affairs.

A linguist discovers that Trump talks like regular people

No, most 70-year-old men do not fantasize aloud about how he likes to "grab them by the pussy."

But a Georgetown University linguist, Jennifer Sclafani, has discovered that Trump's speeches make him sound like a reg'lur guy (Bastien Inzaurralde, This linguist studied the way Trump speaks for two years. Here’s what she found. Washington Post 07/07/2017):

“He is interesting to me linguistically because he speaks like everybody else,” said Sclafani, who has studied Trump’s language for the past two years. “And we’re not used to hearing that from a president. We’re used to hearing somebody speak who sounds much more educated, much smarter, much more refined than your everyday American.” ...

The features of Trump’s speech patterns include a casual tone, a simple vocabulary and grammar, repetitions, hyperbole and sudden switches of topics, according to Sclafani.

As for the criticism that Trump sounds erratic when he changes subjects in the middle of a speech or sentence, Sclafani said that “this is something that we all do in everyday speech.”

“It’s just unusual to hear it from a president speaking in a public, formal context,” she added.
There is an accompanying video. Sclafini presents her findings as some special insight into Trump's political appeal.

She has a book coming out about it, which will presumably contain considerably more analysis and detail.

But the WaPo article and video don't seem to me to say much more than: Trump uses conversational digressions in his political speeches, and everybody else also use conversational digressions in everyday speech.

But in terms of giving any insight into Trump's political appeal, I'm not sure that actually tells us anything. And I feel reasonably confident in saying that most people, at least most people not seriously intoxicated at the moment, don't typically speak this way, as the President did this week talking to journalists about his Big Beautiful Wall (Excerpts From Trump’s Conversation With Journalists on Air Force One New York Times 07/13/2017):

One of the things with the wall is you need transparency. You have to be able to see through it. In other words, if you can’t see through that wall — so it could be a steel wall with openings, but you have to have openings because you have to see what’s on the other side of the wall.

And I’ll give you an example. As horrible as it sounds, when they throw the large sacks of drugs over, and if you have people on the other side of the wall, you don’t see them — they hit you on the head with 60 pounds of stuff? It’s over. As crazy as that sounds, you need transparency through that wall.
I would think that a more fruitful way to inquire into the effectiveness of Trump's speaking style would be to look at its similarities to the typical type of rambling and ranting that is standard for Rush Limbaugh and other Republican talk radio pundits.

It's also worth asking why Trump's use of this idiom in political speeches was evidently more effective than Sarah Palin's use of it.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Fiona Hill and the succession to Putin as leader of Russia

I wrote yesterday about a 2016 article by Fiona Hill, the senior adviser on Russia and Europe on Donald Trump's National Security Council (NSC), brought on to the team by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. John Hudson wrote of her at the time of her hiring (Trump Taps Putin Critic for Senior White House Position Foreign Policy 03/02/2017):

Hill, a dual U.S.-U.K. citizen and former U.S. intelligence officer from 2006 to 2009, has written critically of Putin’s autocratic tendencies and desire of a “weakened U.S. presidency.”

“Blackmail and intimidation are part of his stock in trade,” she wrote in a column last summer explaining Putin’s interest in interfering in America’s presidential elections.

In her 2013 biography of Putin, she warned policymakers not to underestimate the Russian strongman given his strategic cunning and ability to find weaknesses in opponents derived from his experience in the KGB.

Since President Donald Trump’s election in November, she has dismissed the possibility of a dramatic rapprochement with Russia given the inherent differences between Washington and Moscow. “The Russians will get all giddy with expectations, and then they’ll be dashed, like, five minutes into the relationship because the U.S. and Russia just have a very hard time … being on the same page,” she told the Atlantic in November.
But this means she is more a conventional foreign policy analyst of Russia, and not an admirer of the authoritarian, ethno-nationalist and Islamophobic aspects of Putin's politics. Unlike the Steve Bannon partisans.

There were disagreements within the White House on whether Hill should go to the Trump-Putin meeting last week. (Asawin Suebsaeng and Lachlan Markay, Trump Aides Want Kremlin Critic in Putin Meeting Daily Beast 07/05/2017) While Hill did go on the trip for the G-20 summit, Trump allowed neither her nor McMaster to attend the meeting with Putin.

Kate Brannen in The Knives Are Out for Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster Foreign Policy 05/09/2017 wrote about the infighting against McMaster and his supposed loyalists.

In other words, Hill is in a major NSC position dealing with Russian affairs. But it's uncertainly how much of her advice and counsel on the topic gets to the President himself, much less how seriously he takes it.

The article I discussed yesterday was Putin: The one-man show the West doesn’t understand (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 72:3 2016). In it, she stresses one of her favorite themes, the distinct ways in which Putin's experience as a KGB officer shape his governing as President of Russia.

Dædalus had an issue this year devoted to the topic "Russia Beyond Putin" (146:2 Spring 2017) As the theme indicates, the articles give particular attention to the functioning of the political system and practical considerations about how a successor to Putin will be selected. This is the "Kremlinology" of our time. Fiona Hill contributes an essay to that issue, The Next Mr. Putin? The Question of Succession.

This is an important observation of Hill's, defining Russia's current brand of what is often called illiberal democracy, though she doesn't use the term here:

The Russian president is not an autocrat like the tsar with divine right to rule. Nor is the president a dictator, who can simply give orders from above and be sure that things will get done outside the Kremlin walls. The president’s legitimacy depends on proof, in both electoral results and opinion polls, that he is genuinely popular. After Putin’s rough reentry in 2012, the next presidential election will be an important pivot point for the system, as will the subsequent Duma elections, and the projected end of Putin’s presidential terms in 2024. Putin and the ruling party will have to clear each electoral hurdle with a resounding victory and significant majority of the votes.

This is a talk she gave to the International Institute of European Affairs (IIEA) on the topic, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, which is also the title of the 2013 biography she co-authored:



In seeming contrast to the argument she makes in the Bulletin article about how Putin runs the government heavily based on his own experiences in the KGB, in Dædalus she talks about his careful political planning. This article has a similar focus to her IIEA talk.

In a different contribution to the same journal issue, Henry Hale describes the Russian political system as dominated by what he calls "patronalism," a system in which personal and family networks play such a key role that they override the rule of law and formal political procedures and even organizations like political parties.

Hill points to some actions of Putin's that seem to fit with Hale describes as patronalism. For instance:

In 2016, Putin moved to consolidate Russia’s military and paramilitary structures and to weaken the power bases and independent authority of individual agencies by putting in place a smaller cadre at the top of the security elite who directly report to him. In April 2016, Putin issued a decree on creating the new National Guard–essentially his own personal army – appointing Viktor Zolotov, the former head of his Presidential Security Service (SBP), to lead it. ...

[These and other] appointments ensured that people in charge of important state institutions and functions would have close individual relationships with Vladimir Putin. Many of the replacements were, like Dyumin, younger figures from the security services and Putin’s bodyguard corps. Given their age and relative lack of experience, in contrast to their predecessors, they had not (yet) achieved the independent standing or built a power base to challenge him. [my emphasis]
But, as we saw above, she cautions that she does not regard Putin's government as a dictatorship. And her following comment suggests that Putin is likely to want to reduce the role of patronalism in the Russian system:

... Putin has a personal obsession with the idea of Russia as a “dictatorship of the law,” where law is an instrument of the state that directs and constrains political and individual behavior. The Russian constitution is the law above all laws. It was drafted by a team led by Putin and Medvedev’s mentor at Leningrad University Law Faculty – and their boss as mayor of St. Petersburg – Anatolii Sobchak. The team drew on Sobchak’s work on nineteenth-century Russian legal and constitutional thought. So, in this respect, the Russian president is the first Russian constitutional monarch, albeit in an elected monarchy. [my emphasis]
And she offers two models of how that transition could take place. The first is, "the USSR of the late Soviet period, when the state was institutionally and politically complex. Each individual Soviet republic had its own party and government structures. Their intraelite politics contributed to the leadership dynamics of the central Communist Party and the politburo."

The second model she suggests comes from France Japan:

Over the next decade, the existing framework of United Russia [Putin's main party], or movements like the All-Russian People’s Front and Kremlin-sponsored youth organizations, could be drawn on to create a new structure with bureaucratic instruments to carry the system forward. This would, in essence, be a holding mechanism for powerful people, and one powerful person in particular. One potential model, which could address the many facets of the “Putin problem,” might be the moderately conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan. The LDP is a pragmatically motivated power structure that serves as a frame for collective bargaining among major power-brokers to avoid ruinous factional battles. Since its creation in the 1950s, the LDP has provided a “home” for former powerful prime ministers between elections and at the end of their terms. Russian officials have periodically shown considerable interest in the creation and structures of the LDP in bilateral meetings with Japanese counter parts, and notably returned to this theme in 2016.
So she sees a real likelihood that Putin would actively encourage a development toward more secure rule of law and greater institutional regularity.

Election security and its opponents

Richard Clarke and Robert Knake have a straightforward and practical recommendation about vote security (The Russians Will Be Back. Will We Be Ready? Politico 0713/2017:

A central requirement of any attempt to protect the voting system must be that states evolve past the first generation of electronic voting machines and voter database systems to newer, defensible ones that were built with modern cybersecurity in mind. Even then, it’s imperative we have certain fail-safe measures—especially a paper trail of all votes, so that voters can be sure their ballots were counted correctly and the entire system can be audited and tallied by human beings.
What they don't describe is the single biggest political roadblock to this. Systems and procedures that would prevent election fraud would also have to focus on securing the voter rolls before the elections and preventing irregular alterations of them.

But the Republican Party nationwide is completely committed to segregationist voter suppression, i.e., minimizing the number of black and Latino citizens registered to vote. Securing election systems and voter rolls would frustrate much of this activity, though not all of it. The Republicans will fight tooth and nail against it.

The Republicans in Congress and the White House also don't display a lot of obvious concern about whether Russia wants to meddle illegally in American elections.

I'm in favor of critical restraint on the claims people make about the Trump-Russia scandal and the labels they attach to it. (Carlton F.W. Larson, Sorry, Donald Trump Jr. is not a traitor Washington Post 07/11/2017)

But it's also painfully obvious that the Republicans would mostly just prefer to see Trump-Russia scandal investigation to just dissolve into smoke.

TeleSUR's reporting on Venezuela

Jacobin had a post last month about TeleSUR that essentially it's a propaganda operation of the Venezuelan government. "Critical voices used to appear as part of the conversation — set up, of course, against opponents with proper Bolivarian views — but they have all but disappeared." (Patrick Iber, The South Is Our North 05/19/2017)

Their Twitter account promoted it this weekend with a tweet:



I recently posted this report from Abby Martin's Empire Files program on TeleSUR, Abby Martin Meets the Venezuelan Opposition 07/03/2017:



She has made this more recent report, Abby Martin in Venezuela - Supermarkets to Black Markets 07/11/2017:



The viewer can judge whether her reports ignore what the opposition is saying and doing.

She responded to Jacobin's piece in a tweet:


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

White House Russia adviser Fiona Hill on Vladimir Putin

Fiona Hill is President Trump's senior Russian expert on the National Security Council. (Kyle Scott Clauss, Fiona Hill, Trump’s New Russia Expert, Went to Harvard Boston Daily 03/02/2017)

She wasn't even invited to go to Europe with Trump and his team last week when the Trump-Putin summit took place. (Correction 07/13/2017: Hill did go on the summit trip but was not invited to the Trump-Putin meeting.)

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an article by her last year: Fiona Hill (2016) Putin: The one-man show the West doesn’t understand (Bulletin 72:3 2016).

She also talks about Putin in this podcast from the Legatum Institute dated 05/03/2015, titled, "Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin with Fiona Hill." she is the co-author with Clifford G. Gaddy by that title, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (2013).

The Bulletin article is an interesting combination of pragmatic observation and some dubious psychological assumptions merged with stock Western images of Russia.

She affirms several broad assumptions that seem to command a remarkable amount of consensus across the political spectrum about post-Soviet Russia:

Even though the superpower nuclear arsenals were retained, US leaders thought that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, they had created a new framework for relations with Russia, and that the new Russia, under President Boris Yeltsin, had agreed to that new framework. Putin sees it differently. Russians (at least Russians like him) never agreed to accept the role the West assigned them in the new framework – the status of a large but second-rank European country ... If treaties were signed, or pledges made, says Putin, it was because post-Soviet Russia was too weak to say no. It was a fragmented and chaotic state, on the verge of bankruptcy, kept on life support by International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans. The Russia of the 1990s that the West so admired was, in practice, not a sovereign country.
This consensus narrative usually includes the disintegration of the USSR with fairly rapid declarations of independence by various former Soviet republics, notably including Ukraine and Georgia, as well as the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Per capita income and standards of living declined sharply in Russia, as President Boris Yeltsin's government brought in the IMF and Western economic advisers and applied the neoliberal economic shock therapy they recommended. The result was similar to those in all places the neoliberal prescription is applied: low wages, high unemployment, decline of state services. And the privatization which is part of the package turned many senior Soviet officials and managers of state enterprises into the now-notorious Russian oligarchy. The two decades after the USSR's fall saw two nasty wars in the Muslim Caucasian republic of Chechnya.

In foreign policy, things generally went in a way that many Russians regarded as retrogression. The progressive expansion of NATO, including the Baltic states. The Kosovo War. The invasion of Iraq. Georgia and Ukraine pursued closer ties with Europe and aspired to join NATO themselves. All this was perceived by Russians as a threat to their national security and an insult to their national pride.

Hill doesn't go into all those events in her article. But she agrees with the broad line of the account. At the moment, there doesn't really seem to be a notable difference in this narrative between those who are New Cold War enthusiasts and those with more pragmatic and less war-oriented views. It's just that the hawks look at that sequence and take the position of, so what if they perceived things that way? We do what we want and the Russians just need to sit back and take it.

And most narratives agree that, in one way or another, Putin became a popular figure by improving the country's economic performance, fighting corruption or at least organizing it better, and becoming more assertive in foreign policy. Putin is generally understood to have regarded the fall of the USSR as a geopolitical disaster and humiliation for Russia. Hill writes, "For him, the Soviet-era international paradigm has not changed so much."

And although she takes a dim view of Putin, she also reminds her readers of the need for practical negotiation on common problems and common interests. "Russia demands and what Western leaders are willing to give may be irreconcilable. But that is what negotiation is all about – moving toward mutually acceptable positions. To negotiate, you have to talk, even to those you do not like, including Russian President Vladimir Putin."

Those are all encouraging signs of pragmatism. There is nothing in her article glorifying the pursuit of the sort of ethnic nationalism and religious chauvinism that America's alt-right and their counterparts in Europe find so attractive about Putin's politics.

Putin's psychology

Hill's descriptions of Putin strike me as more questionable. As the title of her book indicates, she views Putin as being overwhelmingly defined by his role as a KGB officer.

As a former KGB agent, Putin operates very differently from a president who climbed the ranks of a political party – including both of his predecessors, first post-Soviet Russian President Boris Yeltsin and last Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party and President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev. Operatives like Putin usually have political oversight, political handlers, and an institutional frame. Putin himself was subject to these constraints in his previous career. Today, Putin has no such constraints. There are no significant checks and balances on his presidential power.
And if you're thinking, hey, wasn't some other Russian leader a KGB guy, too? Yes, but Hill dismisses the precedent as follows, "No other leader has worked his way, as Putin did, through the back corridors of the intelligence services to become the president. Former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov was chairman of the KGB for 15 years, but Andropov never actually served in the agency; he was a career Communist Party functionary."

Now, obviously people are heavily shaped by their personal experiences. But she seems to be trying hard to making the case that Putin is more of a spy than a politician: "Putin, by contrast, was not a Communist luminary. Nor had he any high-profile executive experience before coming to Moscow in 1996. Since ascending to the presidency in 2000, he has fused intelligence, security, politics, and even oversight of the commanding heights of the economy into one Kremlin-based operating system rooted in informal networks of power."

I'm reserved about this view, because we heard from various commentators in the lead-up to last week's Putin-Trump meeting about how Putin's KGB training provided him with particular specialized training in charming, deceiving and cajoling people. But then a lot of normal diplomacy is about charming, deceiving and cajoling people, too. And it's not as though Russian politics has been known for its cordiality and lack of intrigue.

She notes, "He and his Kremlin spin doctors have worked hard at making him as inscrutable and unpredictable as possible to increase his tactical advantage." That sounds plausible enough. But spin doctors are also a standard part of politics and corporate public relations. Nothing especially KGB-y about that.

At least in this article, it's not clear on what she bases the following judgment:

But Putin does not know the West well. He has limited experience living abroad – in Dresden in East Germany from 1985–1990. This was hardly a window on the West. Although Putin speaks German, and speaks it well, he has only a handful of contacts with European and US political and business insiders, some of whom he met as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s. Putin does not have deep insight into the way our societies work, nor does he care to obtain it.
But then we hear all the time these days, especially from Democrats and the mainstream media, about how Putin's government is running a super-sophisticated political subversion operation in Europe and the United States. Gene Lyons writes, expressing an opinion that seems to be common among Democrats and liberals these days, "the single greatest threat to the integrity of Western democracy is the Kremlin." (Trump’s G-20: A World-Class Presidential “Kayfabe” National Memo 07/12/2017)

So it's a bit hard to imagine Putin being so incurious about the West. He's certainly shown a great deal of sophistication in dealing with Germany since he's been head of the national government.

Stock Images of Russia

We've seen the resurgence of various cliches about Russia like those we commonly heard during Cold War 1.0. Like various tales about Russian drunkenness. So it's worth being cautious about such shopworn claims, such as assuming that particular priorities in present-day Russian policy are due to some centuries-old territorial or cultural obsession.

Hill stresses the inscrutability of Russia and Russian politics for Westerners. This aura of inscrutability gave us the word "Kremlinology," which has come to stand for trying to understand any kind of impenetrable goings-on. Applying the term to understanding the Trump Family Business Administration gives the term even more nuance.

Of course, Russia tries to keep state secrets. So do all other countries. It's axiomatic that more authoritarian governments are more difficult to analyze than more democratic ones. But elections over the last year or so in North Atlantic countries (Trump, Brexit, Macron in France) suggest that even the most open liberal democracies may have their own kind of inscrutability.

With Russia as an adversary, which is how the US has generally viewed for most of the last 100 years, charging them with "inscrutability" in their government affairs serves a couple of useful purposes. One is that it makes them sound more mysterious and therefore more dangerous, perhaps at the cost of adding an exotic element to its image that also has its appeal. It also reminds us of how luck we should feel to have specialists who can explain the mysterious Rooskis to us.

Most Americans don't speak or read Russian, including me. But I have enough familiarity with a couple of other languages to do a double-take when I see comments like this:

To Russian ears, Putin is very clear about what he and Russia really want, but his plot-driven analysis and way of trying to communicate his demands do not work with Western interlocutors.

Putin’s language is loaded in Russian – a simple translation into English of what he says does not convey the deeper meaning behind the words and expressions. The language of Russian politics and diplomacy that Putin favors is inherently “alpha male.” [my emphasis]
I'm going to make a generalization here that goes way beyond my own personal knowledge and guess that political rhetoric in nearly every language on earth is "loaded." Except maybe for your random isolated tribe in the jungles of Paraguay or Brazil. Yes, most Americans, including highly educated ones, are unlikely to be familiar with the nuances of political phrasing in other countries. Even English-speaking ones.

But that "to Russian ears" comment is another example of making Russia sound exotic and mysterious.

But this judgment of Putin's foreign policy outlook doesn't seem to rely too much on pop psychology or stale stereotypes:

Everything Western leaders and analysts say about Russia’s internal weakness – economic, ethnic, political, and religious – or about the inevitability that Putin will fail in securing his objectives, or that the state will be pulled apart by domestic tensions, gets Putin’s antennae up. It is a signal to him that the United States and the West are “at it again” – trying to play with opposition and other groups to bring down Russia. Whenever we talk of Russia’s weakness, we increase Putin’s and other Russians’ sense of vulnerability. In feeling threatened, they react forcefully. Putin doubles down, he does not draw back. From his perspective, it is the West that needs to back off or be pushed back.
Which sounds like the kind of situation that requires deft, careful diplomacy well informed by sound intelligence and real expertise.

So far, that does not seem to be the approach of the White House she serves.

Trump-Russia scandal: the Fusion GPS Dodge

The Republicans are starting to try out a new dodge on the Trump-Russia scandal in which the real scandal is ... Hillary Clinton and Fusion GPS.

What is Fusion GPS, you may ask? Marcy Wheeler gives us a reality-based explanation here, Be Careful How You Define Collusion: On the Veselnitskaya Bombshell and the Steele Dossier Emptywheel 07/10/2017:

Remember: A supporter of Hillary Clinton paid an opposition research firm, Fusion GPS, to hire a British spy who in turn paid money to Russians — including people even closer to the Kremlin than Veselnitskaya — for Russia-related dirt on Don Jr’s dad.

Yes, the Clinton campaign was full of adults, and so kept their Russian-paying oppo research far better removed from the key players on the campaign than Trump’s campaign, which was run by incompetents. But if obtaining dirt from Russians — even paying Russians to obtain dirt — is collusion, then a whole bunch of people colluded with Russians (and a bunch of other foreign entities, I’m sure), including whatever Republican originally paid Fusion for dirt on Trump.

Breaking: Our political process is sleazy as **** (but then, so are most of our politicians).

The claim that merely meeting with Veselnitskaya is collusion is all the more dangerous given that it invokes some weird details about the Fusion dossier. Most importantly, as Trump’s lawyer’s spox has pointed out (incoherently, at first), like whatever Clinton supporter retained the oppo research firm, Veselnitskaya also employed Fusion. An update to NYT’s Friday story laid some of this out, in the form of Mark Corallo’s more clever than you actually might think suggestion that the Democrats might have paid Fusion to set up this meeting.
Marcy notes, like just about everyone else who is talking about it and is not a partisan Republican, that Don Jr.'s emails that he himself released makes a case for collusion much stronger than anything we've seen so far in the public record.

But the Reps are obviously starting to talk up a story that the whole thing with Veselnitskaya was a Hillary false-flag operation, or something. It's preposterous. But we're talking about the Republicans here.

Rachel Maddow on her show Tuesday explained the bits of the emergin Republican narrative, Donald Trump Jr Collusion Admission Leaves Jared Kushner Exposed 07/11/2017, especially after 7:30:





On a related issue, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware explains why he's cautious on using the word "treason" to describe the picture that is emerging, Dem Sen: Donald Trump Jr. Russian Meeting Emails Are 'Jaw-Dropping' 07/11/2017:





I'm in that camp myself, because Article 3 of the Constitution does specify a definition of treason: "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court."

Back during the Vietnam War, there was some serious discussion about whether North Vietnam or the Vietcong (National Liberation Front) counted for Article 3 purposes as an enemy. Because Congress never declared war on either of them. And as James Madison wrote in Federalist #43, the Founders were keenly aware that there was a strong temptation during political disputes to expand the definition of treason:

As treason may be committed against the United States, the authority of the United States ought to be enabled to punish it. But as new-fangled and artificial treasons have been the great engines by which violent factions, the natural offspring of free government, have usually wreaked their alternate malignity on each other, the convention have, with great judgment, opposed a barrier to this peculiar danger, by inserting a constitutional definition of the crime, fixing the proof necessary for conviction of it, and restraining the Congress, even in punishing it, from extending the consequences of guilt beyond the person of its author. [my emphasis]
George Fletcher discusses the complications of the legal definition of treason in Ambivalence about Treason North Carolina Law Review 06/01/2014