Sunday, July 22, 2018

some dour thoughts on Helsinki and executive legitimacy and the legacy of the United States arranging for puppets and proxies ...

Because I've reached a point where I regard the United States as a kind of spent force in global power terms, a credit card that has been maxed out but has not yet had to pay its bills yet, the headlines about Russian hacking and the election hasn't exactly outraged me.  I don't think we were in a good spot in 2016 if the choice between the two parties was to vote for someone who could be described as a predator and someone who could be described as an enabler.  If anything the cumulative Clintonian legacy on foreign policy seems dangerously hawkish.  Even as someone who has self-identified as moderately conservative much of my life the Bill and Hillary Clinton legacy of bombing the former Yugoslavia or backing Gulf War 2 or the War on Terror ... I don't see that legacy as meaningfully separable from the neo-conservative militarism that, for a time, blue state voters seemed set against.

Not that I ever wanted Trump in office ... but it has seemed for decades we're stuck with the candidates that sufficiently powerful business interests were going to give to us.  No sooner had Obama been elected did I doubt we were going to get any rollback of military presence or that, crucially, if we did then the soldier might be replaced by a drone or a mercenary. 

So while a certain amount of panic about the way things went at Helsinki doesn't entirely surprise me the surprise is that some of my fellow Americans feel that the United States must be in the pocket of Russia.  Does the prospect of the United States being in the pocket of international corporations on the order of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, or a panoply of banks seem ... safer?  But let's just set that off to the side.

Let's just go straight to Slate, with a piece opining on how the real threat to American democracy isn't Russia, it's the American right.

There are people concerned that the way that Trump was able to win the Electoral College vote put the masses of urban, city-dwelling voters at the mercy of the electoral interests of rural hick Republican-voting farmer types.  Minority rule, in a phrase, is what has been mentioned in the wake of 2016.  It might be that we're stuck with a lose-lose scenario for minority rule.  Should the densely populated urban areas be able to dictate policy back to the rural fly-over regions?  Should a handful of what amount to city-states in electoral/districting terms be allowed to guide the course of policy across the entire United States?  Should a sheer population majority have the power and the rights to be a geographical minority rule simply because of herd values? 

There's no reason to be sure that the mass in the Milgram experiment suddenly has to be right just because we'd prefer cities to guide policy a la The Stranger's "The Urban Archipelago".  The big sort and its geographic and electoral implications seem to have become a self-fulfilling prophecy but in the wake of gerrymandering and district changes the result wasn't Hillary Clinton as president as predicted by comedians and entertainers but the era of Trump.

The question is, arguably, which minority rule is going to prevail, not whether or not some form of minority rule is going to start characterizing electoral dramas.

A few years back some were wondering whether Obama's election might foretell the irrelevancy of the Republican party.  There are probably fools right now who hope that one day the Democratic party could become the "right wing" party and that everything else would be to "the left" of the Democratic party.  People who are that ignorant of how history plays out might benefit from Richard Taruskin's macabre but humorous observation about how in the history of European nations the one thing the left and right agree on when you go far enough in either direction is that European nations need to exterminate more Jews.  There were plenty of men in 19th century Europe who espoused radical and progressive ideals who loathed Jews and wanted them removed or expelled or even exterminated from Europe.  Deciding that any of the bloodshed of the last century by the left and right could be dismissed on the basis of some no true Scotsman fallacy is not the way to go.  Or as Jesus said to some of his adversaries, by saying they would never have killed the prophets of old they testified to being the sons of those murderers.

So, ever since Trump was technically, legally elected it's been clear that for more than just some fraction of blue state voters that Trump was never legitimately president.  Sometimes a journalist will even spell out what is often merely implicit in online discourse:

Donald Trump is a natural-born citizen over the age of 35. Under the rules in place at the time, he received sufficient electoral votes to secure the presidency. American law does not provide for presidential election do-overs no matter what wrongs a candidate is revealed to have committed after the fact. Trump is the lawful president, but legitimacy is not decided by technicalities.
There’s a reason we have two different words for legality and legitimacy. Each new wave of information about Russia’s targeted assistance to Trump—and the Trump campaign’s acceptance of that assistance—subtracts from this presidency’s quantum of that second, higher quality. His supporters may not care. But legitimacy is important precisely because it shapes the behavior and beliefs of non-supporters. And in Trump’s case, those non-supporters are the large majority of the American population.
While Trump’s latest trip abroad provided some important insights into his worldview and ideology, which has long stumped observers, for many it simply confirmed once and for all that he is Putin’s puppet. Charles Blow, the New York Times columnist, wrote that “Trump is a traitor and may well be treasonous,” a sentiment that other Trump critics appeared to share. “Dear Allies - Call on Trump to resign,” MSNBC contributor Scott Dworkin tweeted. “The world can’t afford to have Putin’s puppet acting as if he’s president.” Even Hillary Clinton chimed in: “Question for President Trump as he meets Putin: Do you know which team you play for?”

These and other critics couldn’t think of any other explanation for Trump’s behavior over the past week. (Last week, in a New York magazine cover story, Jonathan Chait floated a theory that Trump has been a Russian asset since 1987.) But there’s a more plausible explanation. Trump sees himself in—and aspires to be—the Russian president, not just as a nationalistic authoritarian but a distinguished culture warrior.

To be fair to the critics above, Trump’s behavior was indeed troubling. During the NATO summit, Trump insulted and alienated leaders of the United States’ closest allies, and it became clear early on that he had no intention of toning down his rhetoric. After declaring that Germany was “captive to Russia,” blasting other members as “delinquent,” and threatening to “go it alone” if other countries didn’t raise their spending, the president held a bizarre press conference on Thursday to declare the summit a success and once again refer to himself as a “stable genius.” The NATO summit was a success in at least one sense: As Alex Ward put it in Vox, the big winner of the summit was Vladimir Putin, who “wants to divide NATO.” 


Well, why wouldn't Russia want NATO divided?  Didn't the expansion of NATO and EU membership in the last twenty years annex a variety of nations that in the Soviet era could be construed as buffer states or part of the "Iron Curtain"? 

Yes, we can and should be considered about the power the executive branch has and yet by and large it's not clear to me that anyone has scaled back executive powers since Trump got elected, or before.  Years ago I had a conversation in which someone said that the problem with Bush 2 was that, if anything, he didn't have enough power. That was back in 2006 and I replied at the time that if this person, within ten years, was complaining about executive tyranny should a Democrat be the president, then this would signal to me that the person was less concerned with limited government and restrained governance than with Republicans having the power of the executive branch. 

Decades ago I had relatives who were fretting about UN helicopters and the likelihood that Bil Clinton would suspend the Constitution; declare an emergency or martial law; and appoint himself dictator for life.  During W my blue state friends or family had comparable concerns about W; when Obama was elected within DAYS of the announcement I got spam about how he was some Manchurian candidate puppet of communists at the behest of Muslims (why Muslims and communists would collaborate on such a project seems to have been something that would have to be assumed rather than explained at the time); and now, here in the age of Trump, blue state pundits seem to have returned the favor by deciding as a group that Trump simply can't be the legitimate president of the United States, however technically legal the selection process may seem.   It would be easier at several levels to have some sympathy for objections to fake news if it didn't seem as though the blue and red had their own pragmatic definitions of fake news.

Maybe having half my lineage being Native American has played a part here but the whole idea that merely saying "not my President" means anything at all seems ... absurd.  There is not a single thing that you can change by simply deciding that X or Y is not "your" president. 

So ... maybe Trump was legally elected to the chagrin of the establishment.  If so, then making a case that Russian hacking influenced the electoral college result in some way is a case that, by the mere fact of it being made at all, insists that we view the electoral process as illegitimate.  There's no take-backs on this kind of thing.  If it turned out that Russia hacked the 2016 election in a way that really influenced the outcome then it's a question that will hang over any and every subsequent moment of electoral decision unless we, you know, insist on making it impossible for such a thing as deciding to do something about it.

But I'm not sure that everyone who would be willing to claim the first half understands the necessarily war-mongering implications of the second half.

So now much of the foreign-policy establishment—I count myself a proud member, though not a letter signer—is a little angry. They didn’t vote for the man. They don’t like the man. He is terrible. But he did get the necessary majority in the Electoral College and, being Trump, his attitude toward all those letter signers has been—I win, you lose. So, to paraphrase Bill Clinton: That’s President Terrible to you.
But it’s Trump’s words that are terrible. His policies are, in the main, not. The United States has crushed Russia beneath escalating sanctions, pulled out of the dreadful Iran deal, armed the Ukrainian opposition to Putin, stood up to China’s theft of American intellectual property, actually bombed Syrian chemical-weapons sites, and increased defense spending. Sure, there’s plenty to dislike in Trump’s foreign policy, including his trade wars, his dismissal of allies, his toying with NATO, and his Obama-esque desire to skip out of Syria. But his stupid rhetoric masks a mostly normal, if not always sensible or desirable, foreign policy. And Trump’s national-security strategy is at least coherent when compared with the incoherent global retreat embraced by the last administration.


Yes, Trump is a shallow, vain, not terribly bright, lazy president of the United States. He might even have been interested in dirt Moscow scraped up on Hillary Clinton. And he will do some damage—which is to be expected, as our last few presidents have also done some damage. Maybe he will do more. But he can also do some good. He is not the anti-Christ, any more than Barack Obama was a Muslim, or Hillary Clinton was trafficking in children. Frothing conspiracy theories about Trump only drag everyone into that world. Nonstop outrage is exhausting and counterproductive.

Perhaps Twitter has dragged us all away from the considered responses this presidency requires.
Perhaps Trump is driving us all mad. But it’s time to get a grip.

Twitter ... if Russian bots on social media influenced the election then my first thought is that blaming the Russians for figuring out how to weaponize social media should have us reconsidering whether we use social media and whether it's a good thing that social media could be so influential as to be a target for Russian hacking, however that form of hacking may have transpired.

Given the data breaches at OPM or Target or ... just go back and look at all those data breaches.  Did anyone imagine that so many national-level corporate data breaches would just amount to "no impact" on an increasingly cyber-spaced political climate?  Here's hoping nobody would be surprised that Russian hacking would be on the horizon.  Whether it "worked" is not exactly the same thing.

But if it "did" work then it reminds me that years ago I was blogging about how what made 9/11/2001 daunting was that people with reasons to take aggressive and symbolic action against the United States didn't use anything like traditional warfare or weapons; they weaponized our commerce and transit systems against us.  I wrote a few years ago that the likelihood that this would happen again seemed low.  Whatever the "next thing" was going to be, it was probably not going to be some overt form of military action but some other way to transform our commerce system into a way to make things difficult for us in the United States and the perceived global legitimacy of the United States.

Well ... thanks to the polemics between blue and red and red and blue some of that work has been getting done without any foreign parties having to be involved at all.  If any time a red executive or a blue executive gets sworn in the opposing electoral demography swears that the victory may be legal but can't be legitimate (Obama wasn't born in the U.S. canard, for instance; or the GOP gerrymandered to a degree that should be illegal and Russian hacking means Trump should be impeached ... or impeach Bush ... I hope you're getting a sense of how long this has been going on over the last twenty years) then what countries besides the United States have to say can be moot.

But let's suppose that it were both practical and possible to hack an election in some way at a national level.  This is the part where it's become easier to go back and look up the ways in which the United States has transformed nation states into vassals and puppets.

... Donald Trump’s refusal in Helsinki to credit his intelligence agencies’ findings about Russian electoral interference has unleashed a nationalist fury in Washington unseen since September 11. In this moment—thick with accusations of “treason” and references to Pearl Harbor—discussing America’s own penchant for election meddling is like discussing America’s misdeeds in the Middle East in the wake of 9/11. It’s apt to get you labeled a traitor.

That’s a problem. Discussing America’s history of electoral interference has never been more necessary. It’s necessary not so Americans can downplay the severity of Russia’s election attack. It’s necessary so Americans can determine how—and how not—to respond. The less Americans know about America’s history of electoral interference, the more likely they are to acquiesce to—or even cheer—its return. That’s dangerous because, historically, American meddling has done far more to harm democracy than promote it.


and then we get to a matter of foreign policy and election history that could be easy to forget because it's twenty years old.

What many Russians, but few Americans, know is that 20 years before Russia tried to swing an American presidential election, America tried to swing a presidential election in Russia. The year was 1996. Boris Yeltsin was seeking a second term, and Bill Clinton desperately wanted to help. “I want this guy to win so bad,” he told Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, “it hurts.” [emphasis added]
Clinton liked Yeltsin personally. He considered him Russia’s best hope for embracing democracy and capitalism. And he appreciated Yeltsin’s acquiescence during NATO’s march eastward, into the former Soviet bloc.

Unfortunately for Clinton, ordinary Russians appreciated their leader far less. Yeltsin’s “shock-therapy” economic reforms had reduced the government’s safety net, and produced a spike in unemployment and inflation. Between 1990 and 1994, the average life expectancy among Russian men had dropped by an astonishing six years. When Yeltsin began his reelection campaign in January 1996, his approval rating stood at 6 percent, lower than Stalin’s.
So the Clinton administration sprang into action. It lobbied the International Monetary Fund to give Russia a $10 billion loan, some of which Yeltsin distributed to woo voters. Upon arriving in a given city, he often announced, “My pockets are full.” [emphasis added]

Three American political consultants—including Richard Dresner, a veteran of Clinton’s campaigns in Arkansas—went to work on Yeltsin’s reelection bid. Every week, Dresner sent the White House the Yeltsin campaign’s internal polling. And before traveling to meet Yeltsin in April, Clinton asked Dresner what he should say in Moscow to boost his buddy’s campaign.

It worked. In a stunning turnaround, Yeltsin—who had begun the campaign in last place—defeated his communist rival in the election’s final round by 13 percentage points. Talbott declared that “a number of international observers have judged this to be a free and fair election.” But Michael Meadowcroft, a Brit who led the election-observer team of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, later claimed there had been widespread voter fraud, which he had been pressured not to expose. [emphasis added] In Chechnya, which international observers believe contained fewer than 500,000 adults, one million people voted, and Yeltsin—despite prosecuting a brutal war in the region—won exactly 70 percent. “They’d been bombed out of existence, and there they were all supposedly voting for Yeltsin,” exclaimed Meadowcroft. “It’s like what happens in Cameroon.” Thomas Graham, who served as the chief political analyst at the U.S. embassy in Moscow during the campaign, later conceded that Clinton officials knew the election wasn’t truly fair. “This was a classic case,” he admitted, “of the ends justifying the means.”
Why does this history matter now? Because acknowledging it begs a question that few American pundits and politicians have answered yet: Is the problem with Russia’s behavior in 2016 that it violated principles of noninterference in other countries’ elections that America should respect as well? Or is the problem simply that America’s ox was gored? [emphasis added]

During the Cold War, America’s leaders saw nothing wrong with electoral interference, so long as the United States was conducting it. ...


The author cited above could, if anything, have soft-pedaled the Clinton legacy a tiny bit.  If we assume, for the sake of thought experiment, that Russia "did" make a concerted bid to hack the election to put a corrupt or incompetent leader in the Oval Office, couldn't someone with a little history of global politics in the United States at least "consider" the possibility that making a point of trying to wreck the odds of a Clinton win in 2016 could be considered a form of payback for the placement of Yeltsin in power twenty years ago?  You don't have to think the least bit highly of Trump as a person or a president to get that in international politics and covert meddling that the old phrase "turnabout is fair play" could at least come to mind, if only once.

But ...

let's just stop a moment, step back, and consider the legacy of Gulf War 2 and the War on Terror and the fact that 9/11/2001 happened.  If the intelligence establishment, if the intelligence communities that sold us on the idea of WMDs and the necessity of war in Iraq managed to be, well, either wrong or dishonest about those things how sure can we be they're being honest with respect to allegations of Russian hacking?  If we're angry that with the election of Trump that an imperialist racist executive is calling the shots then, well, did we just forget how racist and imperialist Woodrow Wilson was?  Possibly?   Was the way that Kennedy and Johnson escalated our involved in Vietnam ... not militaristic or imperialist?  On the whole it has seemed that if you want a not-technically-war military action you go with Republicans but if you want an official war you had best go with Democrats.  The question isn't really about how militaristically adventurous the executive is going to ultimately be, if we look at the last century and a fifth, it's more a question of what technicalities will be invoked to justify that adventurism. 

I had enough friends in college who were from the former Yugoslavia and acquaintances from central and eastern Europe that the Clinton foreign policy legacy that always springs to mind for me is deciding to bomb in the interest of "human rights" but perhaps that was just NATO and EU adventurism of a sort; a commitment to a kind of Atlanticist Euro-American dominance that the East could see as the same old imperialism that Soviets were set against during the Cold War.  Whether you believe that or not isn't really the point here, the point is that what could be construed as a crisis of the legitimacy of Trump now may embody a larger crisis of the legitimacy of the United States that won't go away even if we lived in an alternative universe where the other Clinton was currently president. 

To fail to grasp the significance of U.S. meddling in Russian and neighboring elections over the last twenty years, but specifically during the Clinton administrations (and appreciate that history as relevant to recent allegations of Russian hacking) is to in some way to fail to grasp the "payback" element that any American could understand being involved "if" we can prove there was a hack and could also prove that the hack was in any way measurably successful.  It's not clear yet that those later parts can be established but if they could be the payback element becomes more and not less prominent in our consideration of what should be done next.   After all, if "we" gave Russia  Boris Yeltsin who could be thought of by at least some as a corrupt puppet beholden to corporate or even foreign interests then ... well ... couldn't Trump be considered simple "payback" should it be possible to prove there was a hack and that the hack worked?  Moreover, couldn't the payback be considered to be necessarily tied to the Clinton era backing of Yeltsin? Just a weekend thought experiment.  I'm rusty on a lot of policy issues related to foreign policy so I can't claim I'm as in the loop about this kind of stuff as I tried to be about twenty years ago.  It was interesting to live during what was the end of the Cold War and I was curious as to how foreign policy would be adjudicated in a post-Cold War America. 

That's not even counting the time the United States made an attempt to keep Bolsheviks from gaining power a century ago.
Now, sure, the communist legacy was monstrous but as the anger over  the possibility of Russian meddling in American election could show us, nobody likes the idea of their own civil conflicts or elections being decided in some way by the manipulations or outright aggressions of a foreign power.

The possibility that Clinton lost in 2016 and without there having to be collusion or hacking; that Clinton lost because after decades of the cumulative Clinton legacy involving foreign policy adventurism and elections rigging that even a faux populist could win against her is not something that those who are devoted to the Clintons would be willing to consider.  As someone who's never really liked or trusted the Clintons or liked or trusted Trump I don't write all of this because I think we "should" have someone like Trump in office ... but if Trump makes the United States look to itself the way it often looks to the world in the post-Cold War era we might have an opportunity to learn that whoever "they" are, they don't hate us because of our freedom, they can hate us because we pretend to love freedom for all when we are mainly concerned about freedom for us, whatever freedom is supposed to mean, and we have shown that we're not afraid to rig a few elections if it gets us the freedoms we feel we deserve regardless of the freedoms others might lose along the way ... if they had freedoms. 

I've written about this idea a few times but we may be moving back toward a multi-polar world in terms of global power politics. Why anyone in the United States should be shocked by this suggests a uniquely terrible form of American hubris--if we've exported our manufacturing base over the last thirty years; if we've shifted from production to "service economy" and "financial services" then we've outsourced plenty at the expense of profit.  Where are the new powers emerging?  Well, at the risk of being both pugnacious and glib about the point, the places where powers have emerged would sure seem to be in the regions to which "we" outsourced a lot of stuff because the company bottom lines made it seem it was cheaper to move all that stuff elsewhere.  Whether to the East or the South, we've moved things so that profit margins can improve and yet should those regions gain enough influence or political momentum to dissent from a Pax Americana "end of history" then ... why are Russians the bad guys?  Didn't we "win" the Cold War?  Didn't we effectively make Yeltsin our puppet? 

If people who could otherwise grasp that anti-Soviet Islamic groups who were given aid by the United States could turn on us and prepare a 9/11/2001 attack is it that much harder to imagine that "if" a 2016 cyber attack was staged by Russians that that, too, could be considered a form of retaliation for generations of U.S. imperialist intervention abroad? 

In the Hollywood depictions of the 1950s the paranoia of the Red Scare regarding Russian influence and communist influence is depicted as paranoid.  here we are sixty years later and it would seem that we're supposed to believe that after the end of the Cold War the Russian threat is even more pernicious than before?  I'm ... just not ... quite seeing that. 

By all means if it turns out the election was hacked we should confront some difficult truths about the corruption and corruptibility of our electoral system ... but if all of that becomes an excuse to take military action against Russia then, no, I don't think that's a good idea--if Democrats become the party of a new Red Scare that doesn't bode well for anyone's future. 

The only thing that may be scarier for Americans at this point is that "the end of history" has ended and we're looking at the re-emergence of a multi-polar world.  That uni-polar world in the wake of the end of the Cold War was, yes, a Clinton era ... but perhaps living in a world in which we are forced to admit other global powers exist could be good for us if we don't choose the path of trying to remain on top  After all the ways we've exported our industrial base abroad and outsourced even swaths of our service economy we can't make America great again and we can't pretend that it "is great" as a rebuttal to Trump voters if it turned out, after all, that Russians somehow hacked our election.  How great can America really be if Russian hackers with bots attacking Twitter could change the course of an election?  Either way it seems like it's lose-lose.

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