Is Anyone In Charge?

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides – on many sides…” [President Trump on Charlottesville violence, as quoted by Fox News].

What is this remark supposed to mean? Is there no distinction to be made between extremists and their victims? Are those calling for hatred and violence simply one side in a debate with those who happen to prefer some other approach? Does Trump have any idea what happened while he was playing golf? Is anyone responsible for keeping him informed of national emergencies? While he is off duty (for we all deserve a rest), who is covering for him? Do we still have a Vice President?

Should we assume that a race riot by apparent Neo-Nazis who apparently seek to re-ignite the Civil War does not qualify as an “emergency” requiring action by the nation’s Chief Executive? Then, what would? Or am I missing the point? Rather than asking if this emergency—and I assert that an act of domestic terrorism that succeeds in murdering someone does, at some level, undeniably constitute an “emergency”–rises to the level requiring Presidential attention, should our conclusion be that the events in Charlottesville constitute, in the President’s mind, a useful step in the direction he wishes this country to go?

Indeed, in Trump’s defense, the President should not micromanage every problem. That is why the nation has…well, for example, an Attorney General! Is Sessions also playing golf? OK, it is, after all, August. Who covers for the Attorney General when he is otherwise occupied?

And what about the FBI? Doesn’t the FBI have a new director? Does he also play golf? If Sessions is too busy to attend to domestic terrorism (should it occur), shouldn’t the head of the FBI perhaps stay in the office, just in case?

There was a day, perhaps now forgotten, when police dogs were turned against school children whose skin was the “wrong” color. The President of that day, although a Southerner, was first an American, and he felt it proper to send military forces to patrol the streets. He acted to protect innocent victims against extremists, even though the extremist in question was the sheriff!

Down to the very lowest level of management in the Federal bureaucracy, when the boss (even a branch manager with only 3-4 guys) is out of the office for the day, someone steps in to fill the temporary vacancy. Things happen; decisions need to be made…because even at the lowest levels of the Federal bureaucracy, the work they do matters. So, at the top…

???

  1. Play a game of golf.
  2. Threaten war against some state.
  3. Do not go back to the office.
  4. Hit the ball again.
  5. Threaten war against another state.
  6. Do not go back to the office.
  7. Hit the ball again.

Would someone kindly explain this behavior to me?

Verbal Violence Destroys Liberty

A vibrant democracy to defend our liberties requires vigorous popular involvement in politics, but that involvement must draw the line not only at physical violence but also, equally important, at verbal violence. Threats of aggression–against groups or countries–simply open the door to actual aggression.

The late 19th century was by all rights a time of great hope given relative peace combined (not coincidentally) with marked advances in science as well as average living standards in the richer societies and governance (most notably, the elimination of slavery) of the richer states. Yet these advantages were undermined by their very own dark side: the warping of advances in scientific thought (specifically, on evolution) into a fake-science conservative justification for that particular form of rape and pillage known as “colonialism,” nothing new but now “scientifically” justified. This moral contradiction between advancing knowledge and the misuse of this knowledge to export the barbarism now finally considered no longer acceptable at home laid the foundations for the catastrophe of the twin world wars to follow in the next century. The global 20th Century scourge—roughly bracketed by what we incorrectly think of as “two” world wars plus the Cold War—was the titanic struggle between the revolutionary concept of popular self-government (democratic forms plus civil liberties) and the resurgence of old autocracy in a particularly vicious new form that, depending on the state might be termed communism or fascism but which essentially amounted to claiming the moral right to govern through violence. It was precisely the morally contradictory insistence among the “most advanced” societies that–despite their rising attention to the rights of the common white men, then all common men, and finally even all common women at home—that these societies retained some right to commit arbitrary violence for profit against people abroad that led the small corner of the world that was slowly turning toward domestic freedom into this great scourge that swamped the 20th century. Someone once made a remark about “half slave and half free” that fell on deaf ears.

Democracy (a form of government), or, more broadly, freedom (the goal) rests upon a certain moral perspective. Democratic forms were enshrined in law in the Soviet Union and are today in Venezuela and Turkey. Lacking a moral underpinning based on a shared perspective that political activity must exclude violence, democratic rules fail to produce freedom.

This lesson, purchased at such terrible cost in the 20th century, is today being forgotten again, across the globe, with the result that a new version of the same old threat by those who prefer compulsion to compromise, barbarism to mutual respect (or at least, mutual tolerance). Black shirt thuggery, politicization of the judiciary, political trickery to rewrite a constitution, terrorist attacks on olive groves, extra-judicial police violence against portions of the population using “drugs” or “alien status” as the excuse, and military occupations of domestic cities holding large minority populations might still shock Americans and West Europeans, but many of the less obvious examples of political extremism are coming to be tolerated by those who know better, and not just in places like Weimar Germany, Russia, Venezuela, Israel, the Philippines, and Turkey.

Thus, the pattern repeats: 1) a vicious war to establish a moral principle; 2) the moral principle is not fully implemented; 3) a generation or a century later, the same war must be fought again. The world now stands on the edge of the moral cliff: if most of us now have learned and most of our regimes have now accepted (most of the time) that nonjudicial violence is unacceptable and so counter-productive that it is not even useful from the long-term perspective of society, we nonetheless seem to have missed the other element that simply cannot be omitted from the moral structure required for the preservation of freedom. Removing physical violence from a democratic society is not enough; one must also remove verbal violence.

Sneering, threatening, insulting–in a phrase, “verbal violence” opens the door to physical violence by dividing society into groups of winners and losers such that your status as a “loser” no longer depends on your personal attitude and effort but on your race, religion, or birthplace. Such a situation is intuitively unfair because it puts the “loser” in a hopeless position: lose forever…or respond with violence, thus burning down the house we all live in.

From this, does it not follow that verbal abuse—loud threats of nuclear aggression, sarcastic racial slurs—constitute, over the long term, attacks on our way of life fully as serious as actual actions?

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P.S. Literally minutes after writing this essay, I noted on the news that there is an official state of emergency in Virginia, illustrating the absence of borders between verbal violence and physical violence. A state of emergency indeed does exist – but not just in Virginia; the state of emergency exists throughout the whole of the United States, and those responsible should stand trial.

No One Is Above the Law

The chief executives of Brazil, Israel, Venezuela, and the U.S. are all currently under investigation and/or in the midst of a dispute with their own departments of justice. In which of these countries will the fundamental principle of democracy–that no one is above the law–be upheld?

A very interesting reaction has occurred in Israel, where the leader is not being investigated for winking at domestic racism or using terror weapons against civilian populations but simply for the humdrum crime of economic fraud. Despite the relatively minor nature of this allegation, calls are being voiced in Israel for their chief executive to step down as soon as indicted, not waiting for what might turn into a media circus trial continuing endlessly and imperiling the security of the state by distracting its chief executive from performing his duties. However much one may look askance at the daily performance of the Netanyahu regime, this call from the broader public to take democracy seriously by removing power temporarily from chief executives under legal investigation should be evaluated immediately by all democracies whose governments face such a crisis: all should be under the law, especially those with the most capability for bending the law in their own personal favor.

There is, of course, an alternative, namely, placing the judicial branch of government directly into the back pocket of the chief executive, as Putin and Erdogan have done and as Maduro is desperately trying to do.

The Way Forward on Health Care

Just as the fundamental life goals of American citizens (security, happiness, good health, help when you are in trouble, freedom to enjoy life) are not a function of party lines, the policy goals of our elected representatives do not follow party lines either, but to realize that it is necessary to wash away the rhetoric and identify the politicians’ actual priorities.

Alaska Senator Murkowski, reacting to the Administration’s apparent threat to punish the whole Alaskan population unless she kowtows on health care policy, noted that she believes in reforming “the health care industry.” That is not exactly the disagreement between her and her GOP colleagues, however: while the Senator apparently takes to heart the needs of the people of Alaska for health care, the GOP goal appears to be the elimination of government health care supports for the poor…the exact opposite.

Senator Murkowski’s stated opinion may put her at odds with the new Administration, but it should find strong support from Democratic progressives. Reforming the health care industry…indeed, ending health care as an industry, is precisely what progressives want: replacing health care as an industry for private profit with health care as a service for everyone provided by the government, as in all other modern societies.

Senators Murkowski and Sanders need to have lunch.

Mideast Sand Castles

Childish posturing? Muslim civil war? Or do the two authoritarians have a plan?

 

Albeit a bit less super than they were and surely less super than they think they are, the two old superpowers are once again intensifying their competition in the Mideast. Having made its big move into Syria to fill the vacuum left by Washington’s long-standing confusion, Moscow is now wisely consolidating its new Shi’i stronghold. Its point has been made: Mideast problems can no longer be resolved without Moscow’s participation. Washington, having forgotten its excesses earlier in this century, is grasping at loose sand trying to erect its own Sunni castle. The effectiveness of Washington’s move was instantaneous, shattering the superficial unity of the Sunni Arab Peninsula states/fiefdoms/oil baronies. If Moscow’s new-boys-on-the-block Shi’i allies were not content with their enhanced strategic position, they certainly must be now. Castles in the sand or not, the Shi’i castles look wet and well-packed relative to the massive but dried out, blowing-away-in-the-wind strongholds of the old money Sunnis.

In this interesting context, Washington’s chief has curiously decided that the timing is perfect to meet Moscow’s chief. Like everything else about the new guy on the Potomac, one can only wonder at this decision. Does he intend to cut a deal, on his heels, with the man with the Cheshire Cat grin? Putin has a couple reasons for his grin, from U.S. post-election infighting to last year’s smooth little display of gunboat diplomacy. It is hard to imagine how he might be cowed by Trump’s famous snarl.

Perhaps, however, these two gentlemen are more sophisticated than appearances would suggest. Perhaps they have something in mind that would enhance the reputation of each. Are they dreaming of a new Treaty of Tordesillas?

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Update Jul 8, 2017: If we believe a piece in the Guardian based on body language, it was all about one-upmanship, and, in the end, the great meeting boiled down to a hand wrestling match won “hands down” by Putin. The two great authoritarians strode together across the world stage looking…very small.

Making Saudi Arabia Great Again

Trump has officially joined the U.S. bipartisan tradition of transforming the House of Saud into a modern military power, but there is a difference, for the Saudis have decided, as well-armed regimes are wont to do, to go on the offensive. One might have thought that the semi-official Salafi jihad that fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and brought us 9/11 would have taught Washington to let the petro-sheikhs focus on managing Oil, Inc. Their financial manipulations were, after all, quite effective, as the rapid collapse of the Arab Spring–and specifically the return of the Egyptian military dictatorship–suggests. But no, Washington now likes Saudis as the shock troops for outright military confrontation, and the new generation of Saudi leaders seems delighted.

Trump–uneasy with Iran’s complicated political stance of stern independence, partial democracy, and willingness to make a landmark nuclear settlement with Obama—evidently feels more comfortable with the authoritarian and starkly male-oriented, and increasingly aggressive Saudi religious plutocracy. Put more simply, Washington and Riyadh both want an alliance against Tehran. But Tehran is not only in the midst of a tacit military cooperation with Washington against the Islamic State but also now enjoys the military protection of Putin, anchored by his new Syrian bases. In any case, that anti-Tehran alliance is the apparent dream in the eye of both Trump and Salman.

So, the Saudis now have the West under control: Trump has, as the titular head of what is no longer called the “last remaining superpower,” conferred upon the petro-sheikhs full authority to consolidate control over the peninsula and, indeed, as much of the Mideast as they can…including semi-democratic Iran. Trump will, following the hallowed footsteps of his much esteemed predecessor Obama and others before him, provide the bombs, and it shall be called the “elimination of extremism.”

A problem does, of course, exist, but it is very theoretical—i.e., beneath the notice of all who want to make someone or something “great again.” More important, it is very long-range, i.e., unlikely to reach fruition within the horizons of someone focused on the mirror. So, it does not matter. But for those self-hating intellectuals who want to inflict pain upon their own brains, here it is: all who understand history know full well the difficulties that exist when two caliphs simultaneously claim authority over all Islam. No religious prejudice is implied: having two contesting chiefs of Christendom has also been known to cause difficulties, as has two contesting chiefs claiming to rule the whole world of communism or the whole world of fascism (this latter, by the way, a not utterly irrelevant comparison, these days). Competing claims for absolute authority do not predictably generate positive-sum conflict resolution in a predatory species.

In the event, the two competing claims for the position of Caliph that have now implicitly been made are pitting the very, very rich and now very, very well armed Salman against the very skillful political operator Erdogan. One can only observe in awe how in a mere afternoon the latter took down the leader of…well, not only is “the last superpower” a bit dated, but so is “the free world”….In any case, Erdogan pinned his opponent not only quickly and in his opponent’s home territory but with cameras running. Just look at the expression of satisfaction on Erdogan’s face.

Compare Erdogan’s march to total power (setting the 21st century model for how to destroy a democracy) and his scornful defiance of Washington (not just violating U.S. constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly but also asserting the right to kill U.S. troops) with Salman’s desperate struggle to gain the upper hand after two years of total air control over poor, starving Yemen. Endless bombs or not, Salman is still trying to figure out the distinction between defeating the opponent and destroying everything…not just the enemy, but one’s allies, one’s own economy, perhaps even the stability of one’s own…well, we are getting ahead of ourselves. The point is that Salman will have his work cut out for him, no matter how hard Trump tries to make the Saudis great again.

Swimming in the Swamp: The Mideast Extremist Triangle

Mideast War Triangle

The implications of promoting the transformation of Saudi Arabia from financial empire to military empire are vast and unpredictable, but one thing is certain: whether the Saudi elite takes on its old persona as the source of Salafi extremism or adopts its new persona as regional policeman, the further stimulation of Mideast chaos is the entirely predictable short-run outcome. Whether you think aggravating chaos across the Mideast by empowering the fundamentalist authoritarian rulers of Saudi Arabia will be good or bad for the security of the American people is a judgment call, and your judgment is likely to be influenced by your attitude toward the choice between authoritarian and democratic government.

The real swamp in Washington is the vastly profitable collusion with Sunni extremism (extremist dictators who alternatively if not simultaneously promote and provoke extremist Salafis). The dictators get protection (from external enemies and domestic democrats), global status, and personal wealth. The West gets oil, bases, personal wealth for the elites, war (which, in certain circles, can burnish a resume), and—as the direct result of the endless war–all the justification for repressing domestic dissent an authoritarian could desire. Between these two groups stands the crucial third group, those Salafi jihadis the dictators pump up and push out. These precious jihadis serve three purposes: 1) they propagate the messianic version of Sunni Islam that constitutes the core justification for the Saudi regime’s family rule, 2) they provoke conflict with Shi’i Islam to destabilize the Mideast to create opportunities for the expansion of Saudi influence, and 3) they frighten the West into doing Riyadh’s bidding.

Trump just dumped a cool $100 B into this swamp, thus becoming a card-carrying member of Riyadh’s loyal Potomac pool club of political fish and arms merchant fish…a club that of course managed to sign up that other President so admired by Trump: one Barack Obama.

Whatever one may think of the efficacy of Trump’s domestic policies, he has just had a tremendous impact on the Mideast with his $100 B in arms plus his rhetorical calls for attacking “extremism,” by which all will understand that he means those who refuse to swim in the swamp. Specifically, the world can count on rising Saudi-Iranian tensions, a further empowerment of Iranian state extremists in the IRGC as they react to Saudi pressure, a further empowerment of the new state extremist faction in Riyadh favoring military expansion (tested in Bahrain and now proudly on permanent display over Yemen), the continuing collapse of Yemeni society, further authoritarian crackdowns against democracy advocates in Bahrain, further conflict in Syria, as well as intensifying ripples of religious conflict in Iraq and Pakistan. Most of all, the world can count on the prolongation of the great saga of Salafi jihadi violence, invigorated—as always—by state repression and societal chaos.

Erdogan Humiliates Trump on Washington’s Embassy Row

If you watched the TV evening news last night (May 17), you saw—right on Embassy Row in downtown DC—what the 15 million Turkish citizens of Kurdish ethnicity have been living through under Erdogan’s campaign of oppression. You also learned why all those who love liberty reject authoritarian leaders.

At the end of a state meeting with President Trump, Erdogan’s gang of…well, you saw the video…gave Trump a slap in the face as well as spitting on American values with a brutal public demonstration of what the Mideast’s newest authoritarian thinks of American liberties. Make no mistake; this was an attack on America and should be treated as such; the fact that it comes only days after Ankara launched an air attack on Syrian Kurdish allies of the U.S. that came very close to killing U.S. soldiers and followed up that attack with a public warning that American troops were in danger of being hit the next time only underscores the seriousness of Erdogan’s little demonstration about his attitude toward democracy…not just in Turkey but here in the U.S. as well.

What I would like to know today is this: has the U.S. ambassador to Turkey been recalled yet?

You’re Fired!

Investigated me? You’re fired! Or, perhaps not. Perhaps, with Pence, we should all just assume that Trump fired Comey out of his patriotic concern for the welfare of the American people.

Senator Paul said he has seen no evidence…so therefore, he implied, Trump was correct to fire the man who is in charge of gathering it. Whatever the truth of the mess over Trump and Russia, firing Comey right after he requests additional funds to pursue the investigation certainly gives the impression that the White House has something to hide. Unless Trump moves rapidly to appoint an undeniably independent-minded replacement for Comey as FBI chief, what will any outsider be able to conclude except that we are witnessing a cover-up?

Republican Senator McCain compared Trump’s firing of Comey to Nixon’s infamous Watergate cover-up and noted:

This scandal is going to go on. I’ve seen it before. This is a centipede. I guarantee you there will be more shoes to drop, I can just guarantee it. There’s just too much information that we don’t have that will be coming out. [The Hill.]

White House deputy press secretary Sanders suggested that the world should move on from the Russia investigation, implying that the dismissal of Comey was, after all, intended to interfere with the FBI investigation.

Republican Senator Burr said he was “troubled” by Trump’s action.

Republican Senator Corker noted the importance of having an investigation “free of political interference.”

Republican Senator Flake tweeted that he could not “find an acceptable rationale” for Trump’s action.

We ain’t seen the end of this yet.