Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Jamie Galbraith on the left and center-left in Europe

Jamie Galbraith has been writing about the state of politics in Europe, The Future of the Left in Europe The American Prospect 08/17/2016 and From the destruction of Greece to democracy in Europe Boston Globe 08/22/2016.

In his Prospect piece, he notes that there are varying patterns in whether voters that have been heavily disadvantaged by neoliberal economic and social policies tend to left parties or rightwing ones:

Stymied for now, the radical left faces a strategic choice. One option is to break up the European Union, hoping that the voters in the newly exited states will move to the Left, once the heavy thumb of austerity imposed from Brussels and Frankfurt comes off. This strategy is known as Lexit. Its advantage lies in the disillusion of many working-class voters with the European institutions, a fact clearly seen in the turn of traditional Labour Party districts across England and Wales to the Leave column in the referendum.

But Lexit faces the difficulty that the dominant anti-European forces are not left-wing at all. They are the extreme parties of the radical Right—from the frankly Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece to UKIP and France's National Front. Lexit forces are therefore allied, distastefully, with nativists, xenophobes, and neo-fascists. Once out of Europe, there is reason to fear that the far Right would come to power first, and would undermine the democratic guarantees, which flow partly from European law, that preserve the possibility of progressive victories later on. This process is already advanced, even within Europe, in Poland and Hungary; it is a potential threat to democratic stability even in France.
And he describes how drastically the situation of the center-left parties has been changing:

The rise of radical-left parties just a quarter-century after “the end of history” has put the mainstream into a spiritual crisis. Several decades back, leaders like Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder, and (more recently) George Papandreou could plausibly claim to be the modern generation. There were framed and forged by the economic and ideological transformations of the Thatcher-Reagan era and by Western triumph in the Cold War. They rejected old-style socialism and trimmed the welfare state. They advanced the European project, accepted the leadership of the United States, and deferred to the free market. In parallel, they also advanced a broad liberalization of social life, including reproductive choice, gay rights, racial and ethnic and religious diversity, and freedom of movement. These were what (largely) defined the mainstream as progressive: They imparted a veneer of social equalization over rapidly rising economic inequality. [my emphasis]
In the Globe column, he gives this picture of the current political moment:

Greece was given collective punishment as a lesson [for its attempt in 2015 to stop radical austerity policies]. It was done to show that “there is no alternative.” It was done to stop any other attempt to develop, articulate, and defend a more rational policy. It was done to protect the power of the European Central Bank, the German government in Europe, and the policy-making authority, in face of a long record of failure, of the IMF.

Greece is now a colony — the polite say “protectorate.” Elsewhere in Europe the left — Podemos in Spain, the Left Bloc in Portugal, Die Linke in Germany — has stalled out, for now. In France the Socialists are destroying themselves. Italy alone is interesting: It is in the midst of a banking crisis whose only solution is stronger growth; this requires the government to defy Eurozone doctrine or it may lose power to the radical Five Star movement soon. But, apart from that one case, progressive Europe is blocked.

Next up will be the far right, especially the National Front in France, which if it came to power would blow the European Union apart. Similar pressures are building in Poland and Hungary, which have governments already outside of European democratic norms. In Britain, right-wing Tories and the UK Independence Party have combined to vote the UK out of the European Union — although with surprisingly moderate political results so far.

Identity politics and class among Trump supporters

Josh Marshall makes a really good analysis on the effect of economic conditions on generating support for Donald Trump. He manages not to get tangled up in the dilemma that's been with the left and center-left since forever, the priority to be given to "identity" issues vs. "class" issues: Trumpism is a Politics of Loss and Revenge TPM 08/21/2016:

It's obvious that white racism and "traditional family" (i.e., anti-feminist) ideas have an appeal that's not tied directly or obviously to economic status.

On the other hand, economic status and opportunity aren't totally unrelated to the emphasis people put on identity and civil rights issues. Discouraging economic conditions make people more open to demagogic appeals on race and gender as well as on economic issues.

Josh's emphasis on looking at the community context as well as the individual's own status is a very realistic approach to take in looking at this:

I tend to come down on seeing Trumpism more through a racial prism. But seeing the above evidence as ruling out 'economic anxiety' is a naive way of thinking about how societies and social groups work.

It actually reminds me of an equally insipid debate about the roots of terrorism. Liberals say that the breeding ground for terrorism is joblessness, economic stagnation, lack of hope about the future, etc. - whether in the suburbs of Paris, Cairo or Riyadh. Conservatives point out that many of the top jihadists actually - many of the 9/11 hijackers, for instance - cAme [sic] from affluent or at least middle class families and have good educations. Ergo, sorry liberals, your argument falls apart.

Again, that's not how it works.

It is almost a cliche of historical and sociological literature that the people with their noses closest to the grind stone tend not to be activists or revolutionary figures. It's people in social proximity to great penury and suffering but often not experiencing it so directly or sometimes not experiencing at all who turn out to be the big political actors.

Trumpism is about loss. And that loss is real. It's not just about being haters or uneducated or stupid. The fact that what's being lost is in most respects something that wasn't legitimate to have in the first place - status, centrality and racial privilege - should not blind us to the fact that the loss is real and that it will have political consequences. [my emphasis]
People on the left tend to believe - with good reason! - that our favored economic policies would benefit working class men and women of all ethnic backgrounds more than the dominant neoliberal ideology practiced in drastic form by Republicans and with a smiling face in the corporate-Democratic version.

But it's also the case that some significant portion of people who stand to benefit economically from left-leaning policies are not convinced that such is the case. They may find Republican/neoliberal arguments more persuasive. The Democrats who don't adhere to the neoliberal gospel have some convincing to do on that front, as well.





The Democratic-Republican intensity gap

Rick Perlstein has a great piece on the intensity gap between the Democratic establishment, on the one hand, and the entire Republican Party, on the other, when it comes to "down ballot" elections. Hillary's GOP Sympathies Washington Spectator 08/22/2016.

The version at the National Memo is titled Don’t Save The Speaker—Let Him Go Down With The Trump Ship.

This section makes Perlstein's point dramatically with this series of flashbacksd:

You see the mid-1990s, when President Bill Clinton, kneecapped by his botched initiative to welcome gays into the military, the defeat of his healthcare plan in 1994, and the Republican takeover of Congress the same year, responded by taking Dick Morris’s advice and defining his administration via the neologism of “triangulation”—living halfway between the screaming lunacy of Newt Gingrich on the one side, and the Congressional liberals in his own party on the other, thus enshrining a false equivalency that Democrats fighting to preserve the social safety net and perhaps to even expand it must be, well, just as extreme as the guy who said, “I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.”

There was 2004, when John Kerry’s Democratic National Convention team—at the height of the Iraq debacle, a faltering economy, and a series of corporate scandals capped by the collapse of a fraudulent company called Enron, run by one of George Bush’s old pals - vetted all speeches to make sure they didn’t criticize George Bush. (“Bush will come up this week,” explained Kerry spokesman Stephanie Cutter, “but we don’t have to tell the story of George Bush because the American people are living it every day. What we’re talking about is the future.” Only old man Jimmy Carter, God bless him, exercising a former president’s prerogative, dared defy the ukase.)

Then there was 2008 when, waking up to the smoking ruins all around them, the American people repudiated conservatism so thoroughly that Republican pundits like David Brooks began opining that their party’s “stale, government-is-the-problem, you can’t trust the government” rhetoric was “a disaster for the Republican Party.”

And when, instead of throwing ’em anvils, our new president made Kerry’s 2004 mistake all-but-official party policy. As he put it of our friends on the other side of the aisle in 2010, “no person, no party, has a monopoly on wisdom,” and it was time to find “common ground.”
No wonder that so many Democratic base voters and activists are so tired of this "bipartisan" posturing by Democratic leaders.

A cynic might even suggest that this approach might have something to do with the preferences of the Democratic Party's corporate sponsors. It's convenient for them for a Democratic President to be able to say, gee, I'd like to do Democratic things, but I have to support all this conservative stuff because the Republicans control the House, or the Senate, or both, whatever.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Plenty of complications in Syria

Turkey's role is one of the chronic complications in considerations of expanding the US military role in the Syrian civil war.

Bashar al-Assad's government in Damascus recently opened up a front against the YPG, the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdish PKK. (Konflikt zwischen Assad-Regime und Kurden: In Syrien droht eine neue Front Spiegel Online 20.08.2016; Kurdish militia launches assault to evict Syrian army from key city of Hasaka Reuters 08/21/2016) Turkey's President Tayyip Erdoğan's government has been a foe of the Assad regime. But Turkey is more concerned about the PKK becoming strong enough to mount an effective secessionist movement inside Turkey.

As Robert Fisk notes in Turkey's hit list of enemies is growing as Erdogan prepares to buddy up with Putin in Syria Independent 08/21/2016, this could presage better relations between his government and Assad's. Not least because of Turkey's current efforts to improve relations with Assad's ally and sponsor, Russia:

Syrian opposition figures in Turkey have been alarmed at reports of secret talks between Damascus and Ankara – through what the French used to call “interlocuteurs valables”, or people trusted by both sides – and an apparently stray remark by the Turkish Prime Minister just before the attempted coup (and before the St Petersburg meeting) to the effect that relations will one day have to be restored with Syria.

Clearly Erdogan’s new love for Mother Russia comes at a price. The Tsar will surely have discussed his own affection for Bashar – and Turkey’s role in trying to crush the Government which Moscow supports with its armed forces – at their mutual summit. Could it be, therefore, that the Sultan is thinking of renewing his old friendship with the Lion of Damascus? Be sure he is.

The Obama Administration has been providing assistance to the PKK as a fighting force opposed to both the Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus and the Islamic State.

For public consumption, the Obama Administration has always claimed to be developing a fighting force of Syrian Moderates. Such people seem to be hard to find. That tends to happen in civil wars, I hear.

The closest thing we've been able to claim as Syrian Moderates the last few months has been the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition headed up by the Kurdish YPF. (Kurdish-led SDF launches offensive on Syria's Raqqa Aljazeera 05/24/2016) Also awkward given the interests of our NATO ally Turkey.

The US has "embedded" American troops with the Kurds. It's a small commitment of US forces. But it's likely to escalate, especially if Hillary Clinton continues her hawkish stance on Syria when she becomes President. Juan Cole writes (Near-War: US Planes almost tangle with Syrian MiGs, which bombed area of US troop Embeds Informed Comment 08/20/25016):

Since the YPG is the only really reliable ground force willing and able to take on Daesh [the Islamic State], the US has allied with it (over the objections of Turkey). Washington has embedded some 200 US troops with YPG units (some were even caught wearing YPG insignia). ...

if you bomb the YPG, you might well hit an American special operations soldier.

Washington minded, and flew its own jets over Hasaka on Friday, apparently scaring off the Syrian pilots (the Pentagon tried to play this confrontation down).

But this US and coalition intervention could have a long tail. Is the US committing itself to a no-fly-zone over Rojava, the area of Syria on which the YPG wants to erect a mini-state? Arguably, the US no-fly-zone over Iraq helped get us into the Iraq War.

So not only are US troops in danger of being killed by al-Assad’s mad bombers (as tens of thousands of innocent civilians have been) but US pilots are in danger at any moment of going to war in the skies against the Syrian air force.

Me, I think this is a dangerous flashpoint.
Another group that the US is supporting is the Nusra Front, which is also opposed to both the Syrian government and the Islamic state. The Nusra Front has some rather embarrassing connections, though: "The al-Nusra Front's pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda has ended speculation over the suspected ties between the Syrian jihadist group and the Islamist militant network." (Profile: Syria's al-Nusra Front BBC News 04/10/20136) This has been an embarrassment for a while. (Robert Perry, Should US Ally with Al Qaeda in Syria? Consortium News 10/01/2015)

The Nusra Front has recently made a show of renouncing it's Al Qaeda affiliation. Though the sincerity and meaning of that nominal disavowal is quite dubious. (Gareth Porter, Al Qaeda’s Name Game in Syria Consortium News 08/06/2016; Robert Fisk, Don't be fooled by reports that al-Qaeda and Nusra have split for the good of the suffering Syrian people Independent 07/29/2016)

Ray McGovern gives us a sense of the kind of disregard for international law that the Obama Administration too often has in its military policies, not a promising sign for Syria policy (A Lawless Plan to Target Syria’s Allies Consortium News 08/20/2016):

Remember, after the U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine in February 2014, when Russia intervened to allow Crimea to hold a referendum on splitting away from the new regime in Kiev and rejoining Russia, the U.S. government insisted that there was no excuse for President Vladimir Putin not respecting the sovereignty of the coup regime even if it had illegally ousted an elected president.

However, regarding Syria, the United States and its various “allies,” including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel, have intervened directly and indirectly in supporting various armed groups, including Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, seeking the violent overthrow of Syria’s government.

Without any legal authorization from the United Nations, President Barack Obama has ordered the arming and training of anti-government rebels (including some who have fought under Nusra’s command structure), has carried out airstrikes inside Syria (aimed at Islamic State militants), and has deployed U.S. Special Forces inside Syria with Kurdish rebels.
And there is no shortage of actors in the Syrian civil war who would love to see the United States become more deeply involved militarily. Patrick Cockburn reports (There are so many foreign backers in the Syrian war that nothing is changing – rebels hope that Hillary Clinton could change that Independent 08/12/2016):

Each side [in the civil war] responds to any setback on the battlefield by asking and getting greater support from foreign backers. In this case, the Syrian government is looking to Russia, Iran and Shia militias from Lebanon and Iraq for reinforcements and air strikes. As they have shown repeatedly since 2011, none of these allies can afford to see Assad defeated and have a great deal riding on his staying in power. They were caught by surprise on 1 August when the rebel umbrella group Jaish al-Fatah, of which the main fighting component is the salafi-jihadi al-Nusra Front, broke through government lines in south west Aleppo. Rebel fighters, numbering between 5,000 and 10,000 men, are supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. The Syrian army, battered by suicide bombers, retreated and their commander has been sacked. ...

Pro-Assad forces are reported to have been reinforced by 2,000 fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shia militias – their military experience, training and morale often making them superior to the regular army. ...

A further factor reinforcing the stalemate in the war is that much of the fighting in Iraq and Syria is conducted on all aides by criminalised warlords with no interest in the well-being or even survival of the civilian population. But such cynicism, while usually realistic, can also be deceptive because it fosters a belief that nobody has a core of firm believers who will fight to the end.

Every fight in Syria takes place in political, sectarian, ethnic and social landscapes so distinct that they falsify generalisations about the course of the conflict. ...

Indigenous factions in Syria are not going to bring an end to the war except by victory on the battlefield and this is a long way off. But the conflict has become progressively internationalised with the US starting its air campaign against Islamic State in September 2014 and Russia doing the same in defence of Assad a year later. ...

... the Syrian Kurds are the main military ally of the US in Syria. ...

It may be ... that Turkish capacity and willingness to help the anti-Assad rebels will be more limited in future. The rebels will hope this does not happen and wait to see if they will be rescued by a Hillary Clinton Presidency. More hawkish towards Assad than President Obama, she might shift from giving priority to destroying Islamic State, but more likely she will stick with his policies. [my emphasis]

Being realistic about combating terrorism and "naming" the enemy

Paul Pillar cautions against conceiving combatting terrorism in the framework of a War on Terror or the like (The Cold War Mindset and Counterterrorism The National Interest 08/20/2016):

We have seen this with references to “World War IV” (the idea being that the Cold War was number III) and “Islamofascism”. The same pattern crops up in numerous other ways. The recent memoir of a former deputy director of the CIA, for example, is grandiosely titled The Great War of Our Time.

Several things are fundamentally wrong with framing counterterrorism this way. One is that this badly misrepresents the nature of the threat from international terrorism in suggesting a foe with a degree of unity and organization comparable to the enemy powers in the twentieth century world wars or to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. If terrorism is what we are worried about, then we need to remember that terrorism is not a foe or an organization or an ideology but instead a tactic used by many different perpetrators with many different ideologies. Even focusing just on the radical Islamist variety of terrorism, there is neither this kind of organizational unity (as indicated by several of the very attacks Trump mentions in his speech, in which the perpetrators had no organizational ties to any larger group) or even ideological unity (as reflected in the Sunni-vs.-Shia conflicts that dominate much of the current strife in the Middle East).
He also makes this observation about one of the Republicans' favorite rhetorical obsessions of the day: "Particularly stupid is the insistence on 'naming' Islamic terrorism. Not only President Obama but also President George W. Bush understood that such 'naming' has nothing to do with understanding threats and instead only alienates more Muslims."

There's also something downright superstitious about the notion. It's as though they think saying the name of someone gives them some magical power over the person.

There actually is a concept in some varieties of Christian fundamentalism called "name it and claim it." Particularly in the "prosperity gospel" trend. Essentially the idea is that if you ask God for some specific thing in prayer and have true faith that He will provide it, then you will get it.

Viewed in a less theological way, it's a mind-over-matter belief.

Pillar is also concerned about the neo-Cold War approach that has, unfortunately, bipartisan support:

The Cold War mindset that is involved here wasn't even an entirely appropriate way of looking at the Cold War itself. It saw global communism as more monolithic than it really was, a misconception that led to such misdirections as the Vietnam War. But at least there really was a USSR, which was a nuclear power and had a global policy of expanding its influence. Applying the mindset to current policy challenges is even less appropriate than it was during the Cold War. And it's not only Donald Trump we have to blame for corruption of public thinking about such challenges.
Grandiose, Manichean Christian fundamentalist thinking is also analogous to overblown Cold War notions.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Progressives' worries about a new Clinton Administration

I always try to be cautious about the proverbial unhatched chickens.

But Donald Trump's Presidential campaign has been such a disaster so far that I'm going on the assumption that President Hillary Clinton will be inaugurated in January 2017.

And that means that the most consequential debates over practical policy have already taken place. In the context of the Sanders/Clinton nomination contest.

For progressives, there's good reason to assume we'll have plenty to criticize about a new Clinton Administration.

Memories of the Clinton I Administration

Jake Johnson recalls some the policies of the first 8-year Clinton Administration that were definitely not on the progressive political agenda in Leftists Against Clintonism Common Dreams 08/11/2016:

With their championing of welfare reform, NAFTA, and the omnibus crime bill in the 1990's, along with their continued support for interventionist wars abroad and pro-business "trade" agreements, Democrats have moved rightward along with the Republicans, who, as Noam Chomsky often observes, have gone completely off the political spectrum.

But one need not look back in time to find reasons to reject Clintonism: In 2016, Hillary is actively courting the favor of conservative billionaires and, according to recent reports, the contemptible Henry Kissinger, who she touts as a personal friend. Despite purporting to be in favor of campaign finance reform, she has accepted millions in donations from Wall Street and hedge funds. And, having also received a significant sum of campaign cash from the insurance industry, she has turned her back on what was previously a key plank of the Democratic agenda, single-payer health care.

Her decision to choose a running mate who has in the past been hostile to labor and whose most notable claim to fame is his ability to woo corporate donors is just icing.

Clinton's record, in short, betrays a series of rightward sprints on matters of extreme consequence, sprints that were often accompanied by the crass, reactionary, and hostile rhetoric that has come to characterize the anti-poor, fanatically pro-business Republican Party. And though in 2016 Clinton has put forward a new image, the substance of her politics remains fundamentally unaltered.
In a separate article, Johnson reminds us of how hostile the Democratic establishment actually is to progressive reforms, and to the people who advocate them (Liberal Elites Hate the Left Common Dreams 06/23/2016):

Liberalism has become a political framework that, as Emmett Rensin has written, "insists it has no ideology at all, only facts. No moral convictions, only charts, the kind that keep them from 'imposing their morals' like the bad guys do."

Since the presidency of Bill Clinton, Democrats have become increasingly anti-ideological (in word), opting instead for an approach cloaked in the garb of objectivity and pragmatism: No longer, for instance, would liberals favor, in principle, labor over business.

Simultaneously, however, despite liberals' professed disdain for political doctrines, a new ideology arose in the place of the New Deal tradition, an ideology that would ultimately come to infect both of America's major political parties: Neoliberalism.

And with the rise of neoliberalism came an aversion to the politics and projects of the left, including its persistent support for the working class, its focus on rising income inequality, and its opposition to the entrenched free market consensus.
Foreign policy and war

Hillary Clinton's well-known hawkish inclinations are a huge worry for progressives.

Elizabeth Schulte writes in Hillary Clinton, Secretary of War Jacobin Aug 2016 (accessed 08/19/2016):

On most foreign policy decisions — including Libya, after the US turned against sometime-ally, sometime-enemy Muammar Qaddafi — Clinton was in favor of equally aggressive action, if not more so, than former Bush appointee [and Obama's Republican Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates. But Clinton and Obama got away with hawkish policies Bush never would have because they stuck to the language of “humanitarian intervention” and “liberation.”

In Libya, Clinton argued for intervention against the backdrop of a popular uprising against a dictator. But the end game for the US was little different from the Bush Doctrine of unilateral regime change across the Middle East. Clinton helped assert the “right” of the US government to intervene in any country of its choosing, using the most brutal means possible to achieve its ends.
I'm not sure I would agree that the Bush Administration would not have gotten away with such things. Since, you know, it got away with invading Iraq - with Sen. Hillary Clinton's support.

Campaign Marketing and the Chance for a Mandate

Alex Wagner writes about the Clinton-Kaine campaign's worries about turnout in How Scared Do Clinton Voters Really Need to Be? The Atlantic 08/18/2016:

But behind closed doors, there is a shared, quiet paranoia among Democratic strategists and voters alike: don’t get too publicly confident… or voters won’t show up in November. The thinking is that if too many Democrats believe the Trump threat has been neutralized, they won’t turnout for Clinton. Democratic voters, after all, are not as reliable as Republicans — a point proven every mid-term election.

And the importance of oppositional threat as motivating factor would seem to be historic this year in particular, given how much of this season’s Democratic enthusiasm is built on the indignation, fear, and shame around a Trump administration, rather than a particular enthusiasm for a Clinton presidency.
The reference to "every mid-term election" can only apply to a period shorter than ten years. Because in 2006, as a result of the Cheney-Bush Administration unpopularity and, very importantly, DNC Chair Howard Dean's aggressive "50 state strategy" in recruiting Congressional candidates and focusing on midterm turnout.

Unfortunately, those "behind closed doors" concerns about turnout carry another message. I'm not current on the details of the get-out-the-vote and voter-registration campaigns going on. But if the Clinton campaign is worried about turnout, it suggests that their view of voter registration is more Vote Against Trump than Vote Against the Republican Party Down The Line. What we don't hear about in Wagner's article is any plan by the campaign or the Democratic Party to mount a massive get-out-the-vote campaign comparable to the Obama For America mobilization in 2008.

Which in turn means that Clinton's campaign is not trying to build a Democratic mandate but is rather sticking to her At Least She's Not Trump emphasis. This has consequences for how fights over policy starting in 2017 could play out. Very high on the list of those consequences is likely to be that such an approach will not maximize the potential of reducing the Republicans majorities in the House and the Senate.

And the more Clinton campaign argues that Trump is not a real Republicans, that he's somehow hijacked a Party whose values and policies are drastically different from his, it could cripple the campaign's ability to frame issues like campaign financing, bank regulation and minimum wage increases in specifically Democratic terms.

Molly Ball in The Republican Party in Exile The Atlantic 08/18/2016 promotes the more than dubious notion that somehow the real Republican Party is teeming with diversity and moderation.

... Republicans don’t have anything they agree on anymore, as the conservative columnist Matt Continetti recently noted. There are Republicans who favor more foreign adventurism and those who favor less of it; those who would drastically shrink the government and those who would consider raising taxes; those who favor gay marriage and those who oppose it. (President Hoover’s great-granddaughter, Margaret Hoover, is a pro-gay-marriage activist.) Nonpartisan analyses of Trump’s tax proposals say it would explode the deficit, something of great concern to budget hawks like Cogan. "But, judging by the candidates’ proposals, I’m not sure there’s agreement that a problem exists," he said mournfully.
Be that as it may, I see no reason to assume at this point that the Republicans in the House and Senate in 2017 are going to be any less obstructionist to a Clinton Administration than they have been with an Obama Administration.

At least one Clinton primary supporter, Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog, seems to be pooh-poohing the whole idea that there can be any such thing as a Democratic mandate (Democrats Don't Get Mandates 08/15/2016):

I'm not going to worry about whether the strategy is going to deprive her of a mandate. I know Democrats don't get to have mandates ...

Republicans faced with a Democratic president invariably find a reason to be the Party of No. It's always something.
This scans to me as a way of saying: It's silly to expect that a Democratic President can actually get anything done; the best we can hope for is some decent Supreme Court appointees and a few decent Executive orders. I suppose it sets the bar for a Hillary Clinton Administration so low that, in those terms, it's virtually guaranteed to be a Success!

But I'm on the same page with Steve M on this, "As president, she's going to be a mix of centrist and progressive, and we have to influence the mix."

Clinton's Transition Team

Policy concerns are not just a concern for campaign marketing. Clinton's recently-announced transition team doesn't point toward a new New Deal, to put it mildly. (Amanda Becker and Luciana Lopez, Clinton names close confidants, Obama veterans to transition team Reuters 08/17/2016)

Bill Black discusses it in Few (If Any) Progressives on Clinton's Transition Team The Real News 08/17/2016:



Fortunately, the news is not all bad for progressives on the transition team. Jennifer Granholm, for instance, is part of the transition team. Clinton Campaign Announces Heads of Transition Team NBC News 08/16/2016.

The Young Turks also take a dim view of the transition team, headed by ConservaDem Ken Salazar, Hillary’s New Hire Reveals Her Pro-Corporate Priorities 08/17/2016:



That report also talks about the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) corporate-deregulation "trade" treaty.

Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP)

Corporate-dergulation treaties like TPP are now so unpopular with so much of the public and the Democratic base than even a corporate Democrat like Clinton would prefer not to have to go to bat for it. But corporate Democrat Barack Obama is willing to do so. (Adam Behsudi, Obama puts Congress on notice: TPP is coming Politico 08/12/2016)

Joe Stiglitz earlier this year explained how damaging the deregulation provisions of the TPP would be to democratic government and to health-and-safety and environmental regulations (In 2016, let's hope for better trade agreements - and the death of TPP Guardian 01/10/2016):

The problem is not so much with the agreement’s trade provisions, but with the “investment” chapter, which severely constrains environmental, health, and safety regulation, and even financial regulations with significant macroeconomic impacts.

In particular, the chapter gives foreign investors the right to sue governments in private international tribunals when they believe government regulations contravene the TPP’s terms (inscribed on more than 6,000 pages). In the past, such tribunals have interpreted the requirement that foreign investors receive “fair and equitable treatment” as grounds for striking down new government regulations – even if they are non-discriminatory and are adopted simply to protect citizens from newly discovered egregious harms.

While the language is complex – inviting costly lawsuits pitting powerful corporations against poorly financed governments – even regulations protecting the planet from greenhouse gas emissions are vulnerable. The only regulations that appear safe are those involving cigarettes (lawsuits filed against Uruguay and Australia for requiring modest labeling about health hazards had drawn too much negative attention). But there remain a host of questions about the possibility of lawsuits in myriad other areas.

Furthermore, a “most favoured nation” provision ensures that corporations can claim the best treatment offered in any of a host country’s treaties. That sets up a race to the bottom – exactly the opposite of what US President Barack Obama promised.
Cenk Uygur looks at this move, Obama Pushing TPP So Hillary Won’t Have To The Young Turks 08/18/2016:



Robert Reich broke down why TPP is a bad thing for the American people in Robert Reich takes on the Trans-Pacific Partnership MoveOn 01/29/2015:


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Aleppo and the very messy Syrian civil war

This Los Angeles Times story gives us a glimpse at how messy and complicated the Syrian civil war is (Soldiers on both sides see the fight for Aleppo as a battle between jihadists 08/17/2016):

Opposition groups announced the “Ibrahim al-Yousef” offensive earlier this month to break the government’s siege on rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

It was another sign of the cataclysmic sectarian confrontation the battle of Aleppo has become for the rebels arrayed against Assad, not to mention the growing integration of hardcore jihadists in rebel ranks despite U.S. efforts to wean the opposition of them.

Although the five-year civil war in Syria began as anti-government protests, it has devolved into a sectarian bloodbath that has pitted the largely Sunni opposition against forces loyal to Assad, which include Shiites, Druze, Sunnis and Christians. Shiites in Syria, including Assad’s Alawite sect, comprise roughly 13% of the population but long have had an outsized role in state affairs.

The battle has drawn Shiite militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan on the side of Assad, even as Sunni would-be jihadists from around the world have filled the ranks of the many Islamist groups fighting his rule, including the Islamic State extremist group.

That would be the Syrian civil war in which presumptive President-to-be Hillary Clinton wants to see more extensive direct military intervention.

Dan Wright reminds us in With Libya, US Now Has Ground Forces in Four Wars Shadowproof 08/11/2016:

While it is impossible to know all the dirty deeds of America’s sprawling global empire, news that US ground forces are now fighting in Libya means that US troops are involved in at least four active wars:

Afghanistan: A planned draw-down of troops in 2015 was curtailed by President Obama to leave more troops for combat and advisory missions. This week, US forces were forced to abandon military equipment that then fell into the hands of ISIS.

Iraq: After a removal of major combat forces in 2011, Iraq has become a battleground once again. President Obama has sent 4,600 troops roughly in for combat and advisory roles and built a new base in northern Iraq called “Firebase Bell.”

Syria: Though the US had been supporting Syrian rebel groups, including jihadists, since 2013, US troops have entered the fighting in the country. In January of this year, US special forces took control of a military base in northern Syria.

Libya: In 2011, the US assisted in the overthrow of the Gaddafi government in Libya. In the aftermath, Libya has fallen into total chaos, making it ripe for ISIS to establish a significant presence. Now, according to the Pentagon, US forces are fighting on the ground to drive ISIS out.
Paul Pillar also notes the US ground combat forces in Syria and suggests the US could learn something constructive from Russian conduct in the Middle East (Russian Realism in the Middle East National Interest 08/17/2016):

The United States is conducting airstrikes in Syria, too, and, although it seems to escape our notice sometimes, a limited ground war against ISIS as well. The United States has more of a military presence in the Middle East, and is doing more with that presence, than anything Russia is doing there. If we are worrying about Russia one-upping us in the Middle East, it is not because the Russians are doing more militarily in the region than we are.

The lesson we should draw from the Putin government's policy in the region is how an outside power is able to pursue its objectives and interests more fully and freely because it is willing to do business with anyone, not limiting itself to business only with states it considers allies and not letting old animosities or current differences get in the way of diplomatic initiatives and practical cooperation.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Need for some Niebuhr

Oliver Turner and Chengxin Pan write about the state of neoconservative foreign policy (How Neocons Are Still Winning in 2016 The National Interest 08/15/2016):

... at its core, neoconservatism is a broad and powerful discourse which is closely underpinned by two widely held and enduring ideas about the United States and the world around it: American virtue and American power. What defines neoconservatism is a largely unchallenged belief that the United States is a virtuous nation with a moral entitlement to superior power for the global good. Thus defined, neoconservatism gave rise to the Bush Doctrine, but the doctrine, which for many epitomizes the very essence of neoconservatism, was not the definitive neoconservatism. Making this distinction helps explain the longer and more mundane lineage of the present neoconservatism. Emerging from the extreme events of 9/11, it was an extreme articulation of long-ingrained ideas about American virtue and power.
The also call attention to Hillary's words in a speech aimed at veterans, in which she called the US "the greatest country that has ever been created on the face of the earth for all of history." This sounds like boilerplate talk in American politics now. Bizarrely immodest as it is. And it's in formulations like this where neocon cynicism meets the liberal "humanitarian hawk" interventionist inclination. A heavy dose of Reinhold Niebuhr's brand of realism would do our foreign policy a lot of good, I'm thinking.

Andrew Bacevich did an introduction to a new edition of Niebuhr's The Irony of American History a few years ago. He talks about Niebuhr in this lecture, Illusions of Managing History: The Enduring Relevance of Reinhold Niebuhr Bill Moyers Journal 08/15/2007:

... to read Niebuhr today to avail oneself to a prophetic voice, speaking from the past about the past, but offering truths of enormous relevance to the present. As prophet, Niebuhr warned that what he called "our dreams of managing history" — dreams borne out of a peculiar combination of arrogance, hypocrisy, and self-delusion — posed a large and potentially mortal threat to the United States. Today we ignore that warning at our peril.

As a prophet, Niebuhr thought deeply about the dilemmas confronting the United States as a consequence of its emergence as a global superpower. The truths he spoke are uncomfortable ones. They do not easily translate into sound-bites suitable for the Sunday morning talk shows. Nor do they offer material from which to weave the sort of stump speech likely to boost the poll numbers of your favorite candidate in Iowa or New Hampshire.

Four of those truths merit particular attention at present. They are the persistent sin of American Exceptionalism; the indecipherability of history; and the false allure of simple solutions ...
Luca Castellin looks at Niebuhr's legacy in Reinhold Niebuhr and the Irony of American History in and after the Cold War Telos 168 (Fall 2014):

Niebuhr tried to judge reality and to offer sound criteria for political action. In the confrontation with the Soviet Union, it was once again “Christian realism” to engage in biting and constructive criticism of U.S. international politics and to manifest “patriotic dissent.”7 The main purpose that the protestant theologian wanted to achieve was to interpret the American position in the world from the point of view of Christian faith. ...

Although acceptable by all, an ironic interpretation of history — which always accompanies Niebuhr’s analysis on the international role of his country12—becomes crucial and “normative” in Christianity.13 And this, he claims, occurs for two main reasons. First, Christian faith recognizes both the creative power of human freedom and its misuse and corruption. Second, this faith affirms a source of meaning that is outside of history and can give it rationality.14 On the other hand, from Niebuhr’s perspective, Christianity and irony are closely knit, because both dwell upon the contradictions and the duplicities of human life and history. ...

As Niebuhr points out: “the more uncritically a civilization or culture, a nation or empire boasts of its disinterested virtue, the more certainly does it corrupt that virtue by self-delusion.” ...

The everlasting temptation to believe in a divine justification of a state’s behavior is considered by Niebuhr to be a kind of sin. ...

its original aspirations to global responsibilities and frustrations. It is particularly after World War II that the country is, in his view, even more dipped in irony, for the very reason that many of the dreams that America nurtured were cruelly deluded by history. If the ambition to practice a pure virtue fades into the responsibility that comes with the nuclear dilemma,26 then the feverish attempts to escape from a bitter reality through the constitution of an ideal world order cannot but prove to be useless in front of ever-increasing dangers and duties. ...

In Niebuhr’s political theory, irony has a clear and basic origin. It derives, as we have discussed, from human pretension, which corrupts the gift of freedom. The consequence of a misuse of freedom is the misrecognition of the limits of power, wisdom, and virtue. Hence, the meaning of irony lies in the necessary call

Monday, August 15, 2016

Hillary Clinton and the risks of incrementalism

Scott Eric Kaufmann reads Paul Krugman's latest New York Times column as not only a warning against cautious incrementalism as a strategy for a Hillary Clinton Administration, but also as drawing a lesson from the failure of the first Clinton Administration's effort at comprehensive health insurance reform. (Krugman: Kaufmann: Wisdom, Courage and the Economy The time for liberal pundits to push Clinton’s economic policy to the left is now Salon 08/15/2016)

Krugman writes:

Is the modesty of the Clinton economic agenda too much of a good thing? Should accelerating U.S. economic growth be a bigger priority?

For while the U.S. has done reasonably well at recovering from the 2007-2009 financial crisis, longer-term economic growth is looking very disappointing. Some of this is just demography, as baby boomers retire and growth in the working-age population slows down. But there has also been a somewhat mysterious decline in labor force participation among prime-age adults and a sharp drop in productivity growth.

... I’d argue, in particular, for substantially more infrastructure spending than Mrs. Clinton is currently proposing, and more borrowing to pay for it.
Kaufmann notes:

Though Krugman never openly states it, the clear comparison is her failed attempt establish HillaryCare in the ’90s and President Obama’s successfully pushing ObamaCare into law through any and all means necessary.

Of course, Clinton has acquired quite a bit more political savvy during the intervening decades, so perhaps Krugman’s point is simply not to forget the lessons learned, but to remember what is known and knowable and what, at this point, simply isn’t ...
Another way to think about the political risks is that Republicans will continue their radical obstructionism on domestic policy when Clinton becomes President. The economy could weaken and go into another recession, which the Republicans and their media networks will cheerfully blame on Clinton and the Democrats. Clinton is also talking about setting up a protected zone in Syria, which would be a qualitative jump into a guaranteed disaster. Throw in a spectacular terrorist attack or two in the United States by Muslim extremists, and the next Trump could be in a strong position in 2020. And then there's the 2018 midterms, which will go to the Republicans by default if the Democratic National Committee doesn't make a drastic change in the practice of neglecting Congressional elections, we could be looking at four more years of domestic policy paralysis capped by a Republican resurgence in the 2020 Presidential election.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Karl Popper's falsifiability criterion

Massimo Pigliucci writes about the philosopher Sir Karl Popper (1902-1994) and the "demarcation problem" in Must science be testable? AEON 08/10/25016.

He talks about the way theoretical physics challenges the relentlessly positivist assumption of Popper's philosophy, in particular the “falsifiability" criterion for scientific claims, the idea that for a scientific claim to be valid it has to be formulated in such a way that it can be clearly proven true or false by experimentation.

Pigliucci discusses the argument Popper made in his essay, Science as Falsification (1963).

Stephen Thornton describes Popper's outlook this way (Karl Popper Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2013):

As Popper represents it, the central problem in the philosophy of science is that of demarcation, i.e., of distinguishing between science and what he terms ‘non-science’, under which heading he ranks, amongst others, logic, metaphysics, psychoanalysis, and Adler's individual psychology. Popper is unusual amongst contemporary philosophers in that he accepts the validity of the Humean critique of induction, and indeed, goes beyond it in arguing that induction is never actually used in science. However, he does not concede that this entails the scepticism which is associated with Hume, and argues that the Baconian/Newtonian insistence on the primacy of ‘pure’ observation, as the initial step in the formation of theories, is completely misguided: all observation is selective and theory-laden—there are no pure or theory-free observations. In this way he destabilises the traditional view that science can be distinguished from non-science on the basis of its inductive methodology; in contradistinction to this, Popper holds that there is no unique methodology specific to science. Science, like virtually every other human, and indeed organic, activity, Popper believes, consists largely of problem-solving.

Popper accordingly repudiates induction and rejects the view that it is the characteristic method of scientific investigation and inference, substituting falsifiability in its place. It is easy, he argues, to obtain evidence in favour of virtually any theory, and he consequently holds that such ‘corroboration’, as he terms it, should count scientifically only if it is the positive result of a genuinely ‘risky’ prediction, which might conceivably have been false. For Popper, a theory is scientific only if it is refutable by a conceivable event. Every genuine test of a scientific theory, then, is logically an attempt to refute or to falsify it, and one genuine counter-instance falsifies the whole theory. In a critical sense, Popper's theory of demarcation is based upon his perception of the logical asymmetry which holds between verification and falsification: it is logically impossible to conclusively verify a universal proposition by reference to experience (as Hume saw clearly), but a single counter-instance conclusively falsifies the corresponding universal law. In a word, an exception, far from ‘proving’ a rule, conclusively refutes it.
Popper is also known for his positivist and conservative political work, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). Among others, the Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse analyzed the problems of that work in his Studies in Critical Philosophy (1972), "Karl Popper and the Problem of Historical Laws," which originally appeared in Partisan Review 26:1 (1959).

But Popper's falsifiability criterion is a much more solid concept and is widely cited in the philosophy of science. And in popular treatments of pseudoscience like Skeptical Inquirer, to which Massimo Pigliucci frequently contributes, it is often cited. For example, Keay Davidson in "The Universe and Karl Sagan" SI 23:6 (1999):

How does one distinguish a bona fide scientific hypothesis from a pseudoscientific one? The classic response is d1ar of philosopher Karl Popper, that no hypothesis can be considered ~scientific" (which is nor necessarily the same thing as saying it is "rrue~) unless ir generates predicrions rhar are conceivably disprovable ("falsifiable," in Popper's term).
Mary Frances McKenna observes, "Academic work that does not utilize the scientific method, as Karl Popper noted, is not 'insignificant' or 'meaningless,' but it is not based on empirical evidence even if it is the result of 'observation.'" ("The Role of the Judeo-Christian Tradition in the Development and Continuing Evolution of the Western Synthesis" Telos 168:2014)

It's that latter issue that Pigliucci addresses in the context of string theory in physics. When established theories come into conflict, which has been the cases for decades with quantum mechanics and Einstein's relativity, scientists elaborate alternative theories that might provide a solution to the discrepancies and seek to find observations or set up experiments to validate or invalidate the theories.

But some kinds of science are more amenable to controlled experiments than others. Investigating a particular reaction of a small number of chemicals together can be done by controlled experiments in which the quantities involved and the conditions under which they are combined are defined. And different sets of scientists can replicate the experiment and see if they get the same results.

The more variables involved, though, the more difficult it is to interpret the results of such testing. The protocols for testing new medicines to be used on people involve testing and confirmation based on the general principle of Popper's falsifiability criterion. But treating diseases in the human body involve a huge number of variables. There are well-established methods for determining levels of probability of a new medicine's effectiveness. But even the best medicines may be ineffective for some patients. And even the most effective ones can involve major side effects. And the exact reasons a medicine is effective may also not be 100% clearly established.

For sciences like paleontology or astronomy, falsifiable experiments are more problematic. Paleontologists can make detailed observations and comparisons of physical evidence on the development of various species. But controlled trials on natural selection are more difficult. Setting up multiple parallels trials of how a species develops over millions of years is obviously not feasible. Much less setting up such experiments on the development of galaxies. They have to rely much more heavily on observation.

And this is a hazard of a too narrow and dogmatic application of the falsifiability principle can also play into the hands of pseudoscience. Creationists, for instance, have been known to cite the lack of experimental viability are a reason to reject the Darwininian theory of evolution by natural selection.

Pigliucci argues that Popper himself was quite so dogmatically Popperian in this sense:

Popper himself changed his mind throughout his career about a number of issues related to falsification and demarcation, as any thoughtful thinker would do when exposed to criticisms and counterexamples from his colleagues. For instance, he initially rejected any role for verification in establishing scientific theories, thinking that it was far too easy to ‘verify’ a notion if one were actively looking for confirmatory evidence. Sure enough, modern psychologists have a name for this tendency, common to laypeople as well as scientists: confirmation bias.

Nonetheless, later on Popper conceded that verification – especially of very daring and novel predictions – is part of a sound scientific approach. After all, the reason Einstein became a scientific celebrity overnight after the 1919 total eclipse is precisely because astronomers had verified the predictions of his theory all over the planet and found them in satisfactory agreement with the empirical data. For Popper this did not mean that the theory of general relativity was ‘true,’ but only that it survived to fight another day. Indeed, nowadays we don’t think the theory is true, because of the above mentioned conflicts, in certain domains, with quantum mechanics. But it has withstood a very good number of high stakes challenges over the intervening century, and its most recent confirmation came just a few months ago, with the first detection of gravitational waves.

Popper also changed his mind about the potential, at the least, for a viable Marxist theory of history (and about the status of the Darwinian theory of evolution, concerning which he was initially skeptical, thinking – erroneously – that the idea was based on a tautology). He conceded that even the best scientific theories are often somewhat shielded from falsification because of their connection to ancillary hypotheses and background assumptions. When one tests Einstein’s theory using telescopes and photographic plates directed at the Sun, one is really simultaneously putting to the test the focal theory, plus the theory of optics that goes into designing the telescopes, plus the assumptions behind the mathematical calculations needed to analyse the data, plus a lot of other things that scientists simply take for granted and assume to be true in the background, while their attention is trained on the main theory. But if something goes wrong and there is a mismatch between the theory of interest and the pertinent observations, this isn’t enough to immediately rule out the theory, since a failure in one of the ancillary assumptions might be to blame instead. That is why scientific hypotheses need to be tested repeatedly and under a variety of conditions before we can be reasonably confident of the results. [my emphasis in bold]

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Russia-Turkey complication in the Syrian civil war

Despite Hillary Clinton's apparent eagerness to get the US more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war, there are lots of complications. One of the latest being a seeming momentary improvement of relations between Russia and Syria.

John Helmer argues in this interview that Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan's visit to Russian President Vladmir Putin was actually a failure for Erdoğan, Putin and Erdogan Meeting Leaves All Fronts of Policy Unresolved The Real News 08/11/2016:



Helmer argues that Russia opposed the July coup attempt because of its concerns about stability in Turkey, not because it is looking for a new strategic relationship with Turkey. He notes that Turkey is supporting Muslim extremist groups in numerous places that are inconvenient to Russia.

Dimitar Bechev writes in What's behind the Turkey-Russia reset? Aljazeera 08/09/2016:

It appears that the current rift with the West pushes Turkey closer to Russia. The US is blamed for failing to cooperate with the Turkish authorities for the extradition of Gulen - the alleged mastermind of the coup attempt.

Many in Turkey see the US as the chief culprit. The majority of Turks also berate the EU's reluctance to stand by Erdogan as he faced a life-threatening situation, and criticise Europe's exclusive focus on the clampdown that followed , ostensibly targeted against the "parallel state".

The historical record shows that any time relations with Western allies are strained, Ankara tilts to Moscow. This happened after the 2003 war in Iraq; between 1997 and 1999 when the EU refused to invite Turkey for membership talks; following the invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and so forth.
But, as Helmer's discussion of the public diplomacy this week shows, it''s too early to assume that any drastic change in Turkish-Russian relations.

But Turkish relations with the US and the EU has definitely been disturbed by the July coup attempt and its aftermath. Atilla Yesilada reports (Could Turkey turn its back to the West? Aljazeera 08/08/2016):

A danger lurks around the corner. The Justice and Development Party's (AKP) effort to cleanse the society of Gulenists is causing a deterioration in relations with the United States and the European Union, which might lead to a confidence crisis among investors and creditors.

There is little doubt among Turkish citizens that the Gulenists organised and largely executed the putsch. ...

The EU is deeply concerned about the human rights violations that are occurring with increasing frequency in the process of the purge, such as the arrest of journalists and the alleged mistreatment of coup-plotting officers under custody.

The EU authorities also told Ankara in no uncertain terms that the reintroduction of capital punishment of putschists would trigger immediate suspension of accession talks.
The Gulenists are the Hizmet network composed of followers of the currently US-based Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen.


Juan Cole warns against the catastrophe of direct US intervention in Syria

The more it looks like Hillary Clinton will win the Presidential election against the stark, raving Trump, the more immediate the question becomes of how strongly will the Democrats in Congress and the grassroots will resist foolish, reckless or destructive foreign policies attempted by a new Clinton Administration.

Juan Cole warns in Monsters to Destroy: Top 7 Reasons the US could not have forestalled Syrian Civil War 08/12/2016:

The interventionist temptation, muted since the Iraq imbroglio, is now returning. Sec. Clinton’s team are already talking about taking steps to remove Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from office as soon as they get into the White House. An excellent and principled NYT columnist called the non-intervention in Syria President Obama’s worst mistake.

I understand the impulse. Who can watch the carnage in Syria and not wish for Someone to Do Something? But I beg to differ with regard to US intervention. We forget now how idealistic the rhetoric around the US intervention in Vietnam was. Johnson wanted to save a whole society from the Communist yoke. Our idealist rhetoric can blind us to the destruction we do (the US probably killed 1 to 2 million Vietnamese peasants, recalling Tacitus’ (d. after 117 CE) remark about the Pax Romana, “and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”–atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.) [my emp0hasis]
And he points to the experience of the Iraq War as something that should reasonably make American policymakers extremely reluctant to become more directly involved in the Syrian civil war. And the no-fly zone that Clinton is saying she will establish in Syria would be just such a qualitative escalation of US involvement. As Cole writes, "a ‘no-fly-zone’ [in Syria] is not a minor intervention but a very major one. Now that the Russian air force is flying in Syria, a no-fly zone for regime planes is completely impractical."

And he writes:

Civil wars like that in Syria are forms of micro-aggression. Fighting happens in back alleys and neighborhoods where no outsider understands the terrain. The US had 160,000 troops in Iraq in 2006-2007 when Iraqis fought a civil war that ethnically cleansed hundreds of thousands of Sunnis from Baghdad and turned it into a Shiite city. So many thousands of people were killed each month that Baghdad police had to establish a morning corpse patrol. If Iraq was occupied and run by Americans but it still had excess mortality of hundreds of thousands, why does anyone think that a much more limited US intervention in Syria could forestall death on this scale? I am a little afraid that the widespread underestimation of civilian excess mortality in Iraq is producing the wrong impression here. Its death toll was similar to that of Syria. I also think it isn’t realized that US troops don’t know the language and can’t tell one player from another unless they are specially trained small special forces units. And, they are targets for suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices. When the US troops stopped patrolling major Iraqi cities in summer of 2009 the number of bombings and civilian casualties actually went down, because their patrols had been a target. [my emphasis]
But Cole supported the Obama Administration's military intervention in Syria, which Hillary Clinton apparently sees as a success to be repeated. Cole makes some self-criticism of his own position on Libya:

I supported the UNSC no-fly zone in Libya in 2011, but was dismayed to find that it soon became a NATO mission and then it soon became replaced by another policy entirely– bombing Tripoli and trying to change the regime. Critics forget that the initial resolution just wanted to protect civilians in places like Zintan from Gaddafi’s helicopter gunships. I perceived that once the no-fly zone was implemented, there were enormous political pressures on NATO generals to achieve a tangible victory– hence the bombing of Tripoli (which isn’t exactly the same as a no-fly zone). Then because the mission was transmogrified into regime change from above, the militias never demobilized. That there were no foreign ground troops was a plus in some ways, but it did also mean that no one was responsible for training a new army and incorporating the militias into it. Despite promising democratic elections, militia demands gradually undermined the civilian government, taking the members of parliament more or less hostage and leading to Libya having two or three governments, each with its own militia backers. And then some fighters declared for Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). So the intervention in Libya went from being a humanitarian one to a method of regime change to having a legacy of civil war. Why exactly would Syria be different? [my emphasis]
He notes in conclusion, "The most effective thing anyone has done to tamp down violence in Syria was the Kerry-Lavrov ceasefire of the past spring and early summer. If someone wants an intervention, let’s try to get that one back on track."

Thursday, August 11, 2016

GOP: Not moderate yet

Josh Marshall gives us another warning about assuming that Trump is somehow and outlier and that once the Presidential election is past the GOP will somehow become more cooperative, less obstructionist and somehow even less fanatical: The Gathering Storm TPM 08/11/2016:

I've noted several times recently that for all that we've seen from Donald Trump - Curiel, Khan, wink wink calls for murdering political opponents - Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, John McCain, the institutional apparatus of the RNC all remain as active endorsers of his candidacy and say they believe he should be the next President. That is an astounding fact. We can say that it shows a bracing lack of principle or political courage. And that may all be true. But again, it's not the most important point. What's really most important is that each of these people believe that the center of gravity in the GOP is pro-Trump and that their political futures would be damaged by turning against him. That is the big deal, far more important than this or that single person being admirable by bucking the tide.

Earlier this week I asked the question whether Trumpism would outlive Trump's campaign. What I've just described above tells us pretty clearly that it will and that the GOP is now a Trumpite party and will remain a Trumpite party. To get a little more specific, this means that the white ethno-nationalist party which Trump has brought out of the shadows and mobilized is now and will continue to be the Republican party. You can see that future in Stephen Miller, the Sessions staffer who was first seconded to the campaign and now appears the genuine ideologue articulating the policy agenda of white nationalism, apart from the occasional shopping list of GOP talking points that we heard in the most recent economic speech. Notably, it was Miller, working at Sessions' behest, who organized the defeat of immigration reform in 2013 - a critical harbinger of Trumpism. This is no aberration that will snap back into the pre-2016 place after November. [my emphasis in bold]
Dave Weigel writes about signs that Hillary Clinton is leaning Republican-lite, at least on foreign policy in Clinton’s Republican outreach a step too far for already suspicious liberals Washington Post 08/10/2016:

In 2015, when it appeared that Clinton would have a lazy stroll to the nomination, neoconservatives such as Robert Kagan suggested that she would be acceptable to Republicans and hawks. The Sanders campaign put a freeze on that talk, and of Clinton’s acceptance of it. At a February 2016 debate in Milwaukee, Sanders shamed Clinton for writing that Kissinger was a friend who “checked in with me regularly, sharing astute observations about foreign leaders and sending me written reports on his travels.”

“I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country,” Sanders said. “I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger.”

Although Trump’s romp through the Republican primaries rattled some supporters loose, the Clinton team hesitated to publicize the endorsements until Sanders’s campaign was over.
Phyllis Bennis looks at the foreign policy concerns over Hillary neocon sympathies in Clinton Vs. Trump: Treacherous Foreign Policy The Real News 08/11/2016:



This, of course, does not mean that Trump would be better: John Feffer, The Myth of Trump’s Alternative Worldview Foreign Policy in Focus 08/03/2016.

Bill Black in this video describes the Establishment pressure that Hillary is also getting to embrace her inner neoliberal on economic policy, as well: Thomas Friedman’s Advice to Clinton: Shift Right The Real News 08/11/2016. Embedding on this video is not available for some reason.


Trump talks about the Islamic State/ISIS with his usual level of factuality

Donald Trump is out there saying that the Kenyan Muslim President Obama started the Islamic State.

Juan Cole has a reality-based version, No, Obama did not found ISIL, Mr. Trump: That was the GOP Informed Comment 08/11/2016:

So Obama was not asked to stay in Iraq by the sovereign Iraqi government, and international law made it impossible for him to keep troops there in a war-fighting capacity without an extra territoriality provision.

He simply abided by the agreement worked out by the Bush administration.

In 2011 when the civil war broke out in Syria, the elements of the ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ that had evolved out of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia went to fight in Syria. Obama had nothing to do with that development.

There had been no al-Qaeda in Iraq before Bush invaded. Operatives flocked there to fight the US troops, and gathered under the rubric first of al-Tawhid of the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But al-Zarqawi initially had bad relations with Usama Bin Laden. In order to fight the US presence, he made up and joined al-Qaeda and formed al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. AFter he was killed by the US in 2006, the new, Iraqi leadership declared itself the Islamic State of Iraq and deepened their al-Qaeda affiliation.

Philip Breedlove and the New Cold War hawks

Spiegel International recently reported on new details that have come to light on the hawkish maneuvers of Gen. Philip Breedlove in the Ukraine crisis. (Christoph Schult and Klaus Wiegrefe, Dangerous Propaganda: Network Close To NATO Military Leader Fueled Ukraine Conflict 07/28/2016) Breedlove was the commander of the US European Command and the Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO from 2013 to 2016. Schult and Wiegrefe report:

The newly leaked emails reveal a clandestine network of Western agitators around the NATO military chief, whose presence fueled the conflict in Ukraine. Many allies found in Breedlove's alarmist public statements about alleged large Russian troop movements cause for concern early on. Earlier this year, the general was assuring the world that US European Command was "deterring Russia now and preparing to fight and win if necessary."

The emails document for the first time the questionable sources from whom Breedlove was getting his information. He had exaggerated Russian activities in eastern Ukraine with the overt goal of delivering weapons to Kiev.

The general and his likeminded colleagues perceived US President Barack Obama, the commander-in-chief of all American forces, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel as obstacles. Obama and Merkel were being "politically naive & counter-productive" in their calls for de-escalation, according to Phillip Karber, a central figure in Breedlove's network who was feeding information from Ukraine to the general.
Some of the more prominent names they mention as collaborating with Breedlove on his hawkish project are Wesley Clark, Colin Powell and Victoria Nuland, the neocon heavyweight and wife of Robert Kagan. Nuland serves as the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs and played a key role in the Obama Administration's regime-change efforts in Ukraine against Viktor Yanukovych's government, deposed in 2014. Her "f**k the EU" comment over Yanukovych's ouster didn't set well with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, unsurprisingly. (Angela Merkel: Victoria Nuland's remarks on EU are unacceptable Guardian 02/07/2014)

Breedlove's hawkish stance and the differences Merkel's government had with him aren't news. (Erik Kirschbaum and Tom Körkemeier, NATO and Germany are not on the same page Business Insider/Reuters 03/07/2015)

Spiegel International reported 03/06/2015 (Breedlove's Bellicosity: Berlin Alarmed by Aggressive NATO Stance on Ukraine):

... General Philip Breedlove, the top NATO commander in Europe, stepped before the press in Washington. Putin, the 59-year-old said, had once again "upped the ante" in eastern Ukraine -- with "well over a thousand combat vehicles, Russian combat forces, some of their most sophisticated air defense, battalions of artillery" having been sent to the Donbass. "What is clear," Breedlove said, "is that right now, it is not getting better. It is getting worse every day."

German leaders in Berlin were stunned. They didn't understand what Breedlove was talking about. And it wasn't the first time. Once again, the German government, supported by intelligence gathered by the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency, did not share the view of NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR).

The pattern has become a familiar one. For months, Breedlove has been commenting on Russian activities in eastern Ukraine, speaking of troop advances on the border, the amassing of munitions and alleged columns of Russian tanks. Over and over again, Breedlove's numbers have been significantly higher than those in the possession of America's NATO allies in Europe. As such, he is playing directly into the hands of the hardliners in the US Congress and in NATO.

The German government is alarmed. Are the Americans trying to thwart European efforts at mediation led by Chancellor Angela Merkel? Sources in the Chancellery have referred to Breedlove's comments as "dangerous propaganda." Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier even found it necessary recently to bring up Breedlove's comments with NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg.
The same article mentions German concern over Nuland's role in pushing escalation against Russia over Ukraine.

Schult and Wiegrefe note that Nuland is "considered a potential candidate for secretary of state" in a Hillary Clinton Administration. They don't say whom is doing the considering in this case. But a Nuland appointment would be a strong sign that Clinton intends to pursue a "new Cold War" approach against Russia.

Wiegrefe writes in Eastern Flank Security: The Siren Song of NATO's Hawks Spiegel International 07/12/25016:

Hawks like the former NATO commander Wesley Clark and former German General Egon Ramms refer to the border [between Russia and the Baltic states] as the "Baltic Gap," an allusion to the famous Fulda Gap of the Cold War, the site on the eastern border of the German state of Hesse where military strategists feared a major Soviet tank offensive. It never happened. Now, though, the fear is that a massive Russian invasion could take place somewhere along the plains between the Estonian town of Narva, in the country's northeast, and the Belorussian town of Brest, located on the border with Poland.

At the NATO summit in Warsaw on Friday and Saturday, the alliance followed through on its desire to bolster its conventional forces. A rapid reaction force had already been established, but now, the alliance intends to station thousands of soldiers in the three Baltic countries and Poland. In case of a Russian attack, NATO is to have almost 50,000 troops available to beat it back. And there are plenty of military and political leaders who would like to see an even more robust presence.

The hawks would seem to be setting the tone at the moment. Russia is an "existential threat," NATO's then-top military commander, Philip Breedlove -- who also adopted a hardline position during the height of the Ukraine crisis -- said not long ago. This spring, Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said that Russia represents a greater risk to Europe than Islamic State. And at the beginning of June, the Danish NATO officer Jakob Larsen publicly suggested that "we need to learn to fight total war again." Larsen commands NATO's advance post in Lithuania and apparently isn't aware that the last call for "total war" was made in Germany during the infamous 1943 speech delivered in a Berlin sports stadium by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. [my emphasis]
Wiegrefe notes, apparently in line the official German position, "The democratic West could certainly afford to be a bit more even-tempered. It is, after all, vastly superior to semi-authoritarian Russia in many respects,including militarily, economically and politically."

Wiegrefe cites this article by Elbridge Colby as an example of the hawkish position, America Must Prepare for 'Limited War' The National Interest 10/21/20155. (Behind subscription; full text available from the Center for a New American Security).

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Turkey and the Syrian civil war

Another reminder of the hazards of intervening in other countries' civil wars, Syria's in this case. Robert Fisk (Erdogan’s meeting with Putin will tell us what the future holds for Syria Independent 08/09/2016):

[I]f Nato and the EU believe they can rely on their faithful ally Sultan Erdogan to pursue the destruction of the Assad regime or curb refugee flows to Europe – or tolerate US jets flying out of Incirlik airbase and other former Armenian properties in Anatolia – they can think again. ...

The first post-coup visit [the failed coup attempt of July in Turkey] of [Turkish President] Recep Tayyip Erdogan is to Russia –and there’s a coup of a different kind.

Here’s another line from the Tass version of Erdogan’s pre-St Petersburg declarations: "A solution to the Syrian crisis cannot be found without Russia. We can resolve the Syrian crisis only in cooperation with Russia.”
The US is heavily dependent on Turkey and that Incirlik airbase - which reportedly has something like one-sixth of NATO's nuclear arms supplies - to conduct the war against the Islamic State in Syria. The EU is relying on Turkey to hold refugees from Syria, Libya and other African countries in Turkey and not send them on to EU countries.

This is likely to get even more complicated.

Fisk also notes:

And then, above all others perhaps, those who will fear for their lives in the aftermath of this fraternal jaunt to the Tsar’s palace: the Turkish army. For what is becoming ever clearer is that – and this is called the kicker to the story – Russia and, indeed, Iran played an intelligence role in warning Erdogan of the military coup plotted against him.

The Arabs have already been told by their Russian collocutors that Putin, being the old KGB boss that he was, personally sent a message to Erdogan after learning of the coup from Turkish army communications, which were picked up and listened to by Russian technicians at their air base just outside Latakia in Syria.

The Iranians – who would be happy to see Turkey turned against their Sunni Islamist enemies in Syria – also tipped off Erdogan about the coup, so the Arabs have been told. [my emphasis]

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Trump and the Republican Party and violent fanaticism

My Facebook peeps were quick to share this piece by David Cohen, Trump's Assassination Dog Whistle Was Even Scarier Than You Think Rolling Stone 08/09/2016.

Cohen writes that Trump "has incited violence against Hillary Clinton and/or her judges, even if he doesn't know exactly who will carry that violence out."

Yep. But this is what today's Republican Party is. This is exactly the kind of thing that Southern segregationist politicians did for decades. Including that legendary Mississippi "moderate," known (in the North anyway!) as “the Great Pacificator,” L.Q.C. Lamar, who Jack Kennedy for some reason included in his Profiles of Courage. But then Kennedy learned an awful lot more about how Southern segregationists worked after he wrote that book.

Republican politicians almost to a person echo the NRA line that we need to have so many guns available that mass shootings have become routine - because people have to be ready to defend themselves against "tyranny." And they all talk about Obama's tyrannical habits. With him being a Kenyan Muslim and all.

But in plain language, using guns to defend against tyranny means doing what the pro-Allied partisans in Europe did during the Second World War: ambushing soldiers, sabotaging infrastructure (i.e., bombing bridges and power plants), killing police, assassinating particularly obnoxious local officials. This kind of talk has been standard stuff in the Republican Party's White Identity politics for at least two decades. Most of them don't push the rhetoric quite as far as Trump in public. But Trump's comment is an outlier only in its crassness.

It's also worth remembering, as Dave Neiwert has been pointing out for years, was the antiabortion movement that largely spawned the "Patriot Militia" movement in the early 1990s. Since the mid-1970s, even the "mainstream" antiabortionists have been talking about how women having abortions, medical personnel performing them, and pro-choice politicians are complicit in "mass murder" of innocent babies. And it's common as dirt for the "mainstream" antiabortionists to talk about "millions of innocent babies" having been killed in the US since Roe v. Wade, "worst than the Holocaust." What purer motive could a violent fanatic have than saving the lives of millions of innocent babies?

I was reminded the other day reminded me of the Max Horkheimer quote from 1939*, "Whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about fascism." A good 2016 version would be: People who aren't prepared to talk about the Republican Party's fanaticism should also not bother complaining about Donald Trump.

Will Democrats try to sell Hillary as more a "real Republican" than Trump?

With the polls currently indicating a likely Hillary Clinton win in the Presidential election, the question of what kind of mandate she will claim and how the Democratic Party will take advantage (or fail to do so) given indications that Clinton will have a strong margin of victory.

Paul Krugman (even-the-hardcore-Hillary-supporter Paul Krugman!) made the following set of Twitter entries on 08/08/2016, which he called "A short (?) Twitterstorm on Trump and his predecessors."

  1. I'm hearing some people claim that given how bad DJT [Donald J. Trump] is, some of us were too hard on Bush and Romney -- that we should have saved our ire
  2. This is actually quite silly as a practical claim about politics -- do you really think that Trump supporters care what NYT [New York Times] opinion says?
  3. But more to the point, it misses the story. What people like me and Norm Ornstein were trying to tell you was about a GOP breaking bad
  4. Bush, who was dishonest in an unprecedented way -- including misleading us into war -- and Romney, who followed his lead, were harbingers
  5. Trumpian awfulness is basically a continuation of the process -- it's a vindication of these warnings, not a sign that we were too harsh
  6. And looking forward, it's important not to let Trump move the Overton window. "Better than Trump" will not be OK in future candidates.

Faced with the possibility of a strong electoral margin, the Democrats have two basic approaches. The "safe" and conventional approach would be to try to win as many Republican votes as possible by emphasizing how off-the-tracks Trump is and by talking tough on national security and fiscal discipline. Conventional Democratic neoliberalism and, yes, militarism, in other words.

The other would be to use the lead to present issues in a Democratic framework. The dominant approach in the Democratic Party since 1992 has been to frame issues in Republican terms and present themselves as more sensible and better able to achieve them than Republicans. And as a result, the Overton Window has moved further and further to the right.

Krugman is obviously concerned that the former approach will dominated the Presidential campaign. In other words, instead of using the chance to say, Donald Trump is what the Republican Party really looks like, to instead try to say, Trump isn't a real Republican and so Republicans should vote for Hillary because she's more like a real Republican than Trump.

I share Krugman's concern.

Monday, August 08, 2016

The US, Fethullah Gülen and his Hizmet movment in Turkey

Dani Rodrik, a critic of the Islamist trends represented by both Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan's AKP (Justice and Development Party) and Fethullah Gülen's Hizmet movement, addresses recent accusations by Erdoğan against Hizmet in Is the U.S. behind Fethullah Gulen? Dani Rodrik's weblog 07/30/2016.

Formerly allies, Erdoğan made a definitive break with Gülen's and Hizmet in 2013. Erdoğan now blames Gülen's and Hizmet for the failed July coup attempt against his government.

Rodrik's argument in that post:

I don’t think Gulen is a tool of the U.S. or has received support from the U.S. for its clandestine operations. But it is possible that some elements within the U.S. national security apparatus think Gulen furthers their agenda, is worth protecting on U.S. soil, and have so far prevailed on other voices in the establishment with different views. Regardless, the U.S. needs to seriously reconsider its attitude towards Gulen and his movement.

However, on Gülen's role in the coup itself, he writes that "the Turkish government’s claim that Gulen was behind the coup ... is largely justified." The link there is to a previous post of his, "Is Fethullah Gülen behind Turkey's coup? (with update)" 07/23/2016.

Rokrik dismisses suspicions about how Gülen got permanent residence in the US and the assumption that Hizmet could not have mounted an operation like the July coup attempt without active US support.

However, he does cite this circumstantial evidence for some kind of "tacit" US support for Gülen's movement over the years since he immigrated into the US in 1999:

Judging by Wikileaks cables, U.S. diplomats in Turkey were exceptionally knowledgeable about Gulenist activities. These cables are in fact a goldmine of information on the Gulen movement. Form these we learn, among others, about the elaborate ruses used by Gulenist sympathizers to infiltrate the Turkish army, Gulen’s request for support from the Jewish Rabbinate’s during his green card application, and the attempt by sympathizers within the Turkish national police to get a “clean bill of health” for Gulen from the U.S. consulate in Istanbul. We also learn that even in the heyday of their alliance, Gulenists presciently regarded Erdogan as a liability.

Perhaps of more direct interest to the U.S., foreign service officers have long been aware that many Turks have been obtaining visas under false pretenses, with the ultimate aim of ending up as teachers in Gulen’s charter schools. Yet apparently nothing was ever done to stop this flow, nor to hold the movement to account. A ridiculous number of H-1B visas have been issued to Turkish teachers in these schools. One naturally wonders why the U.S. administration never clamped down on the Gulen movement for apparent visa fraud.

The same question arises with respect to the widespread pattern of financial improprieties that has been uncovered in Gulen’s charter schools. A whistleblower has provided evidence that Turkish teachers are required to kick back a portion of their salary to the movement. The FBI has seized documents revealing preferential awarding of contracts to Turkish-connected businesses. Such improprieties are apparently still under investigation. But the slow pace at which the government has moved does make one suspect that there is no overwhelming desire to bring Gulen to justice.

Gulen typically defends himself against such charges by saying that the schools are run by sympathizers and are not directly under his control. Yet the fact is that he took direct credit for the schools in his green card application, saying he had overseen their establishment.

Then there is the Sledgehammer case, which has the Gulen movement’s fingerprints all over it. This and the closely related Ergenekon trials did untold damage to the military of U.S.’ Nato ally. The jailing of hundreds of officers, including a former chief of staff, sowed a climate of fear and suspicion within the army and sapped military morale. Perhaps the U.S. was bamboozled, like many others, early on about these trials. But by now it should know that these sham trials were launched and stage managed by Gulenists. American officials have been quick to complain in public about the damage the post-coup purge has done to Turkish military capabilities. Yet there was not a peep from them during the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer witch hunts; and nor has the U.S. administration expressed any discontent about the Gulen movement’s role in them since.
And he cautions at the end:

It is very unlikely that Gulen would receive a fair trial in Turkey. So the U.S. has a legitimate ground for not extraditing him. But the U.S. foreign policy establishment would be making a very big mistake if they simply dismissed the calls from Turkey about Gulen’s complicity. It is easy for the U.S. to hide behind Erdogan’s clampdown and the ill treatment of the putschists. But the U.S. has considerable explaining to do too.
Weeks before the coup attempt, Stephanie Saul wrote about some of Gülen's activities in the US, Charter Schools Tied to Turkey Grow in Texas New York Times 06/06/2016:

[A]n examination by The New York Times of the Harmony Schools in Texas casts light on ... the way they spend public money. And it raises questions about whether, ultimately, the schools are using taxpayer dollars to benefit the Gulen movement — by giving business to Gulen followers, or through financial arrangements with local foundations that promote Gulen teachings and Turkish culture. ...

Harmony Schools officials say they scrupulously avoid teaching about religion, and they deny any official connection to the Gulen movement. The say their goal in starting charter schools — publicly financed schools that operate independently from public school districts — has been to foster educational achievement, especially in science and math, where American students so often falter. ...

... records show that virtually all recent construction and renovation work has been done by Turkish-owned contractors. Several established local companies said they had lost out even after bidding several hundred thousand dollars lower.

“It kind of boils my blood a little bit, all the money that was spent, when I know it could have been done for less,” said Deborah Jones, an owner of daj Construction, one of four lower bidders who failed to win a recent contract for a school renovation in the Austin area.

Harmony’s history underscores the vast latitude that many charter school systems have been granted to spend public funds. While the degree of oversight varies widely from state to state, the rush to approve charter schools has meant that some barely monitor charter school operations.