Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Dreams of Bedford Falls

It's A Wonderful Life is my favorite film, which is saying something because I've seen lots of films. This year the film seems particularly poignant. In my mind It's A Wonderful Life has always been paired with The Bicycle Thief, both because they are closely contemporary and thematically synonymous. The protagonists of each film, George Bailey and Antonio Ricci, face the same crisis: they become reduced to pieces of capital. Antonio's value is subsumed in his stolen bicycle, George's in the insurance policy he offers to Mr. Potter. 

The Bicycle Thief (Spoiler Alert) resolves tragically. Antonio never recovers his bicycle, the final shot shows him and his son, swept along in a crowd, yielding to the streetcar plowing through the teeming urban masses, symbolizing the inevitable displacement of human labor by machines. It's A Wonderful Life is of course the inverse of The Bicycle Thief, unless one ends the film at the point that George is standing forsaken on the bridge, contemplating suicide- then the two films would be virtually identical. 

A lot of Capra's films seem to work that way- Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington- they build to a crushingly tragic ending that then gets reversed through fantastic circumstance. His quixotic optimism has always felt uniquely American to me. But so has the tragic ending nested within each of those stories. Capra understood that American capitalism, like industrial capitalism worldwide, had the capacity to dehumanize individuals, tear apart communities, and erode families. 

In this respect his message in It's A Wonderful Life corresponds very closely to that of The Bicycle Thief. In The Bicycle Thief, Antonio Ricci transits from one source of support to another in search of aid. He entreats the state, the community, his family, his friends, the spiritual powers (in the form of a local holy woman)...all to no avail. These are all the groups and institutions that George feels abandoned by as he stands on his bridge of sorrow (and all come to his rescue in the party scene at the end in which Zuzu hears Clarence's bell ring). 

There are a number of ways to read the divergence between the two films. One could argue that Capra is shilling for the system- offering people a saccharine fantasy to lull them into complacency about the soulless destructiveness of the market. But that has never seemed persuasive to me. If Capra's goal was to anesthetize, the scenes in Pottersville would not be so jarring or so true-to-life. The most upsetting thing about the juxtaposition is that the people of Pottersville are the same as the residents of Bedford Falls, only organized differently. 

This seems to be Capra's point- we might all wish that we live in Bedford Falls, but we all know on some level that we live in Pottersville. Or rather, each community in America is both Bedford Falls and Pottersville at once. In every city and town there are those for whom state, family and community are working, and those for whom they are not, and the scope of each condition is contingent on the choices we make as individuals and as a society. Moreover, the better choices in that regard *require* optimism. As Americans the freedom our institutions grant us for expression, commerce, and conscience are potentially a blessing, but they also entail peril- pessimism overindulged can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As FDR said, in our liberal democracy the greatest thing we have to fear is "fear itself." 

So that is the message I take from It's A Wonderful Life this holiday season- not that we used to live in Bedford Falls and we are slipping into Pottersville, but that both have been with us all along, and that the duty to work for one and against the other has never changed. Yes, at the moment there are a lot of people (one particularly orange-tinted) out there spreading fear and malaise, but that doesn't change the fact that it remains a wonderful life, and it is a virtue to keep listening for Clarence's bell. Happy New Year's to all. I may run into you in Pottersville, but I'll be looking for you in Bedford Falls.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Jerusalem, Israel, and American Jews

The recent debacle at the UN touches upon a subject that is a source of confusion and rancor among my fellow Jewish-Americans. When, about a year ago, I first expressed opposition to Donald Trump's plan to move the American embassy to Jerusalem I received angry messages from friends demanding why, as a Jew and a Zionist, I did not see the clear logic of acknowledging Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Similar reactions have attended my commentary on Trump's revival of this plan after his having seemed to drop it earlier.

Because most Jewish-Americans assume that there is a single, consensual narrative at the heart of Israeli identity, the controversy over Jerusalem incites significant cognitive dissonance. Most are surprised to learn, for example, that though Israel claims Jerusalem as its capital, it likewise denies having annexed the territory constituting the larger eastern section of the city that was occupied after the Six Day War, and has refused to give its Arab residents citizenship unconditionally. This latter paradox reflects contradictions among Israelis themselves over the nature and mission of their shared state, conflicts that are deeply woven into the history and culture of the Zionist movement.

On the eve of the Six Day War the journalist Geulah Cohen interviewed David Ben-Gurion, the founding prime minister of Israel:

Cohen: Mr. Ben-Gurion, what will you tell your grandson today when he asks you, "Grandpa, what are the borders of my homeland?"

Ben-Gurion: Well, I will answer him, "The borders of your homeland are the borders of the State of Israel as they are now. That is all. There are no absolute borders. Had the Arabs accepted the UN resolution [of 1947], our borders would have been reduced...'Historical borders' is a concept for the coming of the Messiah."

Cohen: Would you encourage an Israeli child to write a song of longing for a greater Jerusalem?

Ben-Gurion: If he wants to write it, he should write it. I would not write one.

[Quoted in: Anita Shapira, Israel: A History. Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2012, 302-3].

Ben-Gurion's perspective here was that of a classic Labor Zionist in the mold of Theodor Herzl. For Ben-Gurion (as it had been for Herzl), Zionism was a secular enterprise, and thus Israel was a nation conceived in secular terms. When and if the messiah came s/he could worry about reconstituting the Kingdom of David, until then the Labor Party and its coalition partners would see to serving and protecting the people of the Jewish state wherever they were lucky enough to be able to hang their hats. Ben-Gurion's Israel served the purpose of allowing Jews to live free and dignified lives in a modern state free of antisemitism, a goal that could be achieved as efficiently in the profane city of Tel Aviv as in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Ben-Gurion's understanding of Israel's identity and purpose was never a universal consensus among Zionists, even before the founding of Israel in 1948- there were competing alternative narratives about the project of Jewish nationhood from the very inception of the Zionist movement. But in May of 1967 it is fair to say that Ben-Gurion's perspective was overwhelmingly hegemonic in the political discourse of the Israeli state, and in the projection of Israel's image to the larger world. The Labor Party had been the overwhelmingly dominant force in the founding and defense of the pre-1948 Yishuv (the organized community of Jewish settlers in Ottoman and Mandate Palestine) and had controlled the Israeli government continuously from its founding after the UN partition.  Within the pre-1967 boundaries of Israel the story that Ben-Gurion had to tell about why Israel existed and where it was going had much clearer and more persuasive explanatory power than any of those promulgated by more religious or more militant nationalists.

The situation changed drastically in the wake of the Six Day War. The dramatic circumstances of the war- the survival of Israel in the face of seemingly inevitable destruction by its Arab neighbors, the swiftness of Israeli victory against insuperable odds- produced a profound emotional catharsis among Israelis and electrified the imagination of observers abroad, especially American Jews. 1967 saw the birth of a newly robust Zionism in the US, as American Jews found inspiration in the Israeli display of strength and military prowess.

As they became more invested in Israel post-1967, the kind of Labor Zionist narrative purveyed by leaders like Ben-Gurion was ill-adapted to inform American Jews' engagement with Zionism. For Ben-Gurion the crucial dimension of the "Jewish State" was its coherence as a state- the fact that it contained Jews was almost incidental. Jews needed a state to protect them because they were arbitrarily oppressed for being Jews, but the fact that the state was militarily and economically defensible was what counted, not that it fulfill any cultural or spiritual goals in service of Jewish tradition. This secular tendency of Labor Zionism could be quite militant in its expression. In the second seminal Zionist text of Theodor Herzl, the novel Altneuland, for example, the great villain is a rabbi who is trying to turn Herzl's Zionist utopia into a theocracy.

For American Jews, who already had a state that they called home, this pragmatic Labor Zionist ideal lacked romance and appeal. They saw in Israel's victory an image of Jewish dynamism and assertiveness with which they desired to identify, but for them the crux of Israel as a "Jewish State" had to reside in its being Jewish. The image that most epitomized what American Jews found fascinating and awe-inspiring in Israel's story was the famous photo of the Israeli paratroopers gazing in rapt wonder at the Wailing Wall on June 7, 1967, just after they had "liberated" it from Jordanian control. The fact that Jews had been barred from access to the Wailing Wall, the holiest site in Jewish sacred geography, had been a grievance of Jews everywhere. The fact that Jews would now be able to reconnect with that part of their history and religion made sense to Jews in the US as a fundamental expression of Israel's mission and purpose. The perspective of American Jews, moreover, was inflected by the fact that they lived among millions of charismatic Christians, for whom Israel was perceived in fundamentally religious terms. Evangelicals saw the reunification of Jerusalem as a miracle that heralded Christ's return, and their excitement and admiration, conveyed through many forms of media, naturally caused their theological reading of events to color the reactions of American Jews.

These intuitive perceptions on the part of American Jews tallied coincidentally with the narratives purveyed by political groups that had been more marginal in Israel prior to 1967 but that steadily gained in influence in subsequent years and decades. Many religious Jews had rejected (and still reject) Zionism and Israel altogether, but Rabbi Abraham Kook and his son Zvi had written theological tracts in which they interpreted the founding of the secular state of Israel as an inadvertent fulfillment of scripture. For them the territorial reunification of Jerusalem had the force of prophecy, and in the years after 1967 their followers grew into the Gush Emunim movement that has established settlements throughout the Occupied Territories, in the hopes of restoring Israel to biblical parameters. Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940), the founder of "Revisionist Zionism," constructed his doctrine as a form of classic blood-and-soil nationalism. For him the Jewish State was a secular entity, but rooted in the history and shared cultural legacy of the Jews as a people, thus it had to inhabit the original territory ruled by David and Solomon (found mostly in what is now the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and parts of Jordan). His followers formed the Likud Party, which first took power under Menachem Begin in 1977, and controls the Israeli government now under the leadership of Bibi Netanyahu.

Thus though many American Jews view the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital as an intuitively obvious choice for anyone who supports Israel, in reality such a move is working in explicit support of religious Zionists and Likud Partisans and their particular ideological goals. As I have written in other posts, the religious and ultranational ambitions pursued by Likud and the Gush Emunim settlers are strategically unsustainable. Thus in lending power to them American Jews are unwittingly working against the best interests of Israel, of Zionism, and of global Jewry more generally.

If American Jews are to play a constructive role in supporting Israel, it is time for Zionism here in the US to grow up and put aside childish things. As Ben-Gurion understood, the boundaries of the Jewish homeland are whatever the boundaries of Israel are right now, and if Israel is to remain both a Jewish and a democratic state it must grant sovereignty to the 4.4 million non-Jewish people living in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. American Jews are faced with a choice: they can cling to the romantic notion of Israel as a state that serves Jewish tradition (and see Zionism collapse), or work for a two-state solution so that Israel can continue to nurture and protect the Jewish people as human beings, both in Israel and abroad. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Oh, Jerusalem

Today's UN General Assembly vote demanding that the US rescind its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital is another object lesson in the poverty of the "Art of the Deal." With 128 nations voting for the resolution and only 8 joining the US in opposition (with 35 abstentions), few events have so dramatically illustrated the depths of isolation to which the Trump White House has brought the US internationally. The embarrassment of the moment was exacerbated by the empty threats made by Trump himself, who declared that US aid would be denied to those nations that supported the resolution. The hollow bluster of such pronouncements was cast into stark relief when staunch US allies such as the UK, France, and Germany joined the overwhelming majority in defiance of the White House.

What effect this will have on Trump's image here at home is difficult to say. His Evangelical supporters, for whom the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital is considered a precondition of the fulfillment of prophecy, will no doubt be very moved by his perceived adherence to principle. Some of my fellow American Jews may view this as an extraordinary gesture of support for Israel. But because the question of Jerusalem's status is so poorly understood by most Americans (even those, like Jews and Evangelicals, most emotionally invested in the issue), the long-term effect of Trump's "Jerusalem adventure" will most likely be to confirm Americans' initial impression of the President, for good or ill.

The controversy over Jerusalem dates back to 1948. In the original partition plan endorsed by the UN, Jerusalem was designated a specially mandated international protectorate, in deference to its broad religious significance.  The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 undermined that plan, leaving the city partitioned between a Western zone under Israeli control and an Eastern zone under the control of Jordan. The residents of East Jerusalem were never wholly reconciled to Jordanian rule. In 1951 King Abdullah I of Jordan was fatally shot by a Palestinian assassin while visiting the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem.

Jerusalem came under unified Israeli control only after the Six Day War in 1967. East Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, were among the territories that were occupied by the Israeli Defense Forces in that conflict and that have been the focus of negotiations over a proposed Palestinian State. The question of whether or not Jerusalem is "really" Israel's capital is thus something of a red herring. Israel's government has been housed in the western section of the city since 1948, thus any debate over the location of the Israeli capital seems absurd. But what is really at stake in this controversy are the municipal boundaries of the city itself: the question is not whether Jerusalem is Israel's capital, but how much of Jerusalem is (and will remain) in Israel?

On this latter issue the Israelis themselves are ambiguous. Though the "Jerusalem Law" of 1980 declared the city a unified municipality under Israeli jurisdiction, Israeli leaders have persistently denied that this constituted an "annexation" of East Jerusalem. Why would the Israeli government be so coy about the territorial status of its own capital? There are several reasons, but they mainly resolve on the implications for Israel of "annexation" under international law. Chiefly, "annexation" would obligate the Israeli government to unconditionally grant citizenship to all residents of East Jerusalem, which it has refused to do. Residents of East Jerusalem are deemed "permanent residents" of Israel (the equivalent of holding a "green card" here in the US). They may apply to become citizens of Israel, but only on the condition that they renounce all other citizenship and pledge loyalty to the state of Israel, which few Arab East Jerusalemites have been willing to do (as this is naturally perceived as a betrayal of the cause of as-yet-unrealized Palestinian sovereignty). Even then they may be denied citizenship on various criteria.

Why, if the Israelis were so motivated to claim Jerusalem as their capital, would they be so circumspect about granting its Arab residents citizenship? Several factors made the Israelis unwilling to unilaterally and comprehensively naturalize the residents of East Jerusalem, but chief among these was the presence of the Shuafat refugee camp, which housed Palestinians displaced by the 1948 war, in East Jerusalem at the time that the IDF occupied the territory. The five hundred families resident in Shuafat had previously owned homes in Israeli cities, some of which, like Lydda, had been forcibly cleared of Arabs by the IDF during the 1948 conflict. Making them into Israeli citizens would have opened the Israeli courts to claims for restitution that would quickly have become very costly and potentially complicated, especially if the residents of Shuafat made pleas on behalf of relatives resident in Jordan, Lebanon, or elsewhere. Thus though Benjamin Netanyahu presents the status of Jerusalem to the world as an innocuously symbolic formality unworthy of controversy, the policies of the Israeli government itself acknowledge that the question of East Jerusalem is deeply implicated in all of the most existentially fraught issues implicit in the enterprise of distinguishing Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty.

The fact that the 300,000 Arab residents of East Jerusalem cannot be easily accommodated with Israeli enfranchisement without opening up the can of worms that is the question of a "Palestinian right to return (i.e. how many of the 6 million members of the Palestinian diaspora will be empowered to take up residence and/or claim compensation for property owned in Israel)" may help explain why, at the Camp David Summit of 2000, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was willing to concede that East Jerusalem should become part of Palestine. Since then most international observers have assumed that East Jerusalem would fall to Palestine in any two-state solution, especially since the removal of East Jerusalem would deprive that prospective Palestinian state of a significant portion of its population and economic assets, rendering it unsustainable in the long term. This is why world governments have generally refused to establish their embassies in Jerusalem until the final status of the city's territorial parameters is resolved.

Donald Trump is not a man who does complicated, thus there is little hope that he can ever be made to understand the controversy that he has courted. The isolation and embarrassment to which he has subjected the US are made all the more execrable by the gratuitous timing and manner of his actions. This policy was not made with any forethought or consultation with key government agencies, but was resurrected from a pile of discarded controversies for the purpose of distracting the media and the electorate from the various scandals in which the administration has been continuously embroiled from its inception. What the long term effect of Trump's bluster and the UN resolution will be on Mideast politics is difficult to predict. The only certain outcome is that US influence in the region (and in global diplomacy more generally) will be reduced for as long as the current administration remains in power. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Lessons of Alabama

Doug Jones's victory over Roy Moore in last Tuesday's special election in Alabama will be repeatedly analyzed in the weeks and months to come. Once again the conventional wisdom has been overturned, the expectations of pundits and prognosticators confounded. At the danger of adding a droplet to what will no doubt be a torrent, I would venture to offer my own reading of the lessons to be garnered from the event:

1)Turnout is destiny. Alabama's election replicated a pattern displayed by the presidential race of 2016, which demonstrated that the distribution of opinion among the populace matters less than the raw number of people who take the trouble to go to the polls. That is to say, though Donald Trump was deemed an inferior choice by a majority of the electorate, larger percentages of his supporters (among whom were many people who had never voted before, and were thus difficult to predict as "likely voters") actually cast votes on November 8. That fact, combined with their fortuitous dispersion across the electoral college map, gave Trump the White House. In the same way, though it is hard to know whether any clear majority of Alabamans favored Jones, a larger percentage of his supporters showed up at the polls. A growing awareness of this trend (that elections are, presently, being decided by actual voters in open contradiction of the polls) is likely to affect voting behavior in the near future, making polls less useful as predictive tools. Fewer people will be dissuaded from voting by polls that tell them the outcome is foreordained.

2)Credibility matters. Why did a larger percentage of Jones's voters take the time to cast a vote? Some of the answer no doubt lies in Roy Moore's lack of appeal. But the outcome would not be fully explicable without some accounting for why so many thousands showed up to vote for Doug Jones. This is especially true in the African-American community, which turned out in greater numbers (relative to the total number of registered voters) for Doug Jones than it had for Barack Obama in 2012. Cynics who would reduce all electoral strategy to narrow identity politics have been proven wrong. Jones's race mattered less than the fact that, as a federal prosecutor, he had brought to justice the murderers responsible for the 1963 bombing that had killed four young black girls in Birmingham. He had actually taken personal and political risks in service of the interests of the African-American community, making him a much surer gamble than the average politician who merely talks about what s/he will do if elected. Call it a variation on the "Field of Dreams" rule ("if you build it, they will come")- "if you give them a reason to, they will vote."

3)Ideology matters less. Jones is a moderate by national standards, but is very liberal within the political field of Alabama. That was supposed to have ordained that he would not stand a chance, even under the extraordinary circumstances of this special election. But voters obviously care less about standard ideological desiderata than they do about having some credible reassurance that a candidate's victory will make a concrete difference for them personally. This was already demonstrated by the 2016 election, in which many Republican voters pulled the lever for Donald Trump despite his break with GOP orthodoxy, on the perception that he would be a champion of the working class (whether they actually had credible reassurance of this is debatable, but they clearly believed they did). Any qualms Alabama voters had about Jones's politics were quashed, especially among African-American voters, by the feeling that Jones stood a better-than-average chance of fighting for them.

4)Principles matter. In the run up to Alabama's election, many Democrats nationally bewailed what they perceived to be a strategic gap between their own party and the GOP. Lawmakers like John Conyers and Al Franken were falling due to allegations of sexual misconduct, while Roy Moore continued to enjoy Republican support. This was taken to portend doom, as Democrats naively ate their own while smart, cynical Republicans continued to back morally compromised candidates for win after win. But last Tuesday's election clearly gave the lie to such scenarios. A key factor in Jones's victory was the demoralization and disenchantment of the GOP electorate. Many Republicans, taking the example of Senator Richard Shelby, withheld their votes from Moore. Others who might have told pollsters that they favored Moore lacked the motivation to actually go to the polls: turnout in "pro-Moore" counties was much lower than in those voting for Jones. If turnout is destiny (and Alabama shows us that it is), then the side with the strongest motivation is the one that will prevail, and giving people reason to feel that their vote counts for something more than the naked seizure and exercise of power is intensely motivational.

What does all of this portend moving forward? Democrats should focus on offering credible solutions to voters, and worry less about ideological labels. A candidate like Elizabeth Warren, who has taken real political risks on behalf of working- and middle-class voters in her struggles to curb the financial sector, stands a much greater chance of motivating turnout than some more "middle of the road" candidate that has no record of such service. Getting one's own voters excited is a much more urgent need than trying to attract votes from or avoiding the ire of the opposing side. Democrats who fear that running a woman for president would fail to attract Trump voters are hunting unicorns. Better to ponder how one might bring the energy of the Women's March to the polls. A presidential ticket in which both spots were held by women, especially one in which the candidates had an established record of serving the working class and people of color, would be a virtually unbeatable force in the current climate.

Donald Trump's nominal support is likely to remain stable for the indefinite future, 30-40% of the electorate will persistently tell pollsters that they approve of his leadership. But Alabama showed us that the degree to which that approval translates into action at the polls is very variable. Motivation was high among Trump voters in 2016 when his movement was a complete novelty. Whether that enthusiasm will persist after his administration has been in power for 2 or more years is doubtful.  Many voters who still speak fondly of Trump did not show up to the polls in Alabama, not because they dislike Trump, but because nothing he has done has sustained their excitement about what voting for him (and, by extension, his program in the person of Roy Moore) might mean in their own lives. Barring some drastic change in Trump's governing style or level of competence, the trend we saw in Alabama will deepen and intensify in 2018. The lessons of Alabama dictate that the next election should be a blue wave, if only Democrats can field candidates with credible records of service to the voters and offer practical solutions to the problems voters face.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Trump and Raqqa

The fall of Raqqa, the putative capital of the caliphate declared by ISIS within the territory they held for more than three years, is a vitally positive development in the global struggle against violent jihadism. Unfortunately, as has become unavoidable in the current climate, what should  be a consensual moment has become politicized and polarizing here in the US. President Donald Trump was quick to use the occasion to claim credit for himself and heap opprobrium on his predecessor, declaring that Raqqa had not fallen until now “Because you didn’t have Trump as your president." Such assertions have fueled a debate (one that might have ensued in any case, given the hyperpartisan moment) about whether Trump fairly deserves credit for this victory.

Superficially the basic question of whether Trump deserves credit for Raqqa's fall is moot. He is the President and the Commander-in-Chief, thus even though the contention of his critics that he simply followed the plan of the Obama White House to completion has real merit, on the principle of "first do no harm" Trump deserves credit for having avoided disrupting the operation in any of many ways that were possible during a transition of leadership. Raqqa fell on his watch, and thus some part of the credit for this achievement is inalienably his.

Though superficially it invites simple answers, for the question of what role the Trump White House may have played in the fall of Raqqa to have any real strategic (rather than merely political) significance, it must be approached differently than either Trump or his critics have done thus far. Debates over whether (as he himself claims) Trump "changed the attitude" of the US military or whether changes he made to the rules of engagement radically altered the tactical dynamics of the conflict are of dubious importance. The former "phenomenon" is not empirically measurable, the latter is not likely to be more than marginally significant. For the role of the Trump White House in the conflict to be strategically assessed in meaningful terms different questions must be asked.

For this to take place the focus must be taken from the role of US air power, which has remained relatively constant since the fall of Mosul in June of 2014, to that of the regional ground forces engaged in the fight against ISIS, which has been variable and dynamic over the course of the conflict. From January of 2014 (with the fall of Falluja to ISIS) until May of 2015 (when it captured Ramadi) ISIS forces were on the advance, taking territory from and driving back military opponents such as the Iraqi Army and the Assad regime. That trend only reversed in late 2015, and has reached a culmination point (though not an end) now with the fall of Raqqa. In this regard, the role of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the ground troops that assaulted and occupied Raqqa with the aid of US air power, deserves scrutiny. We should ask: What has made the SDF consistently successful in opposition to ISIS, where forces like the Iraqi Army have at points yielded key ground to the jihadis? What conditions, if any, might have expedited the SDF's assault on Raqqa?

The SDF was formed in October 2015 to redress a persistent problem faced by the US-led campaign against ISIS. By that point an expensive effort initiated by the Obama administration to take a contingent of Arab Syrian rebels opposed to Bashar al-Assad and train them to serve as a free-standing force of ground troops in the fight against ISIS had failed. The anti-ISIS coalition had thus had to rely on the People's Protection Units (known by the acronym of their Kurdish name as the YPG), the military wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union party, to carry out the bulk of the infantry operations in the anti-ISIS campaign, as the YPG had proven the most cohesive and tactically effective force in the Syrian theater. This strategy had produced some battlefield success, but had been hampered by the fact that reliance on the Kurdish YPG engendered suspicion and resistance among the Sunni Arab populations whose support was vital to any operations within the territory held by ISIS. It also occasioned the active resistance of regional powers such as Turkey, which feared any perceived rise in Kurdish power. The SDF was thus formed as an explicitly multi-ethnic force, with the core of the 20,000 personnel of the YPG joined to 30,000 mainly Sunni Arab fighters drawn from various groups within the Syrian opposition.

The participation of Sunni Arabs in and support for the efforts of the SDF has been crucial to the success of the campaign to retake Raqqa. This trend was slow to develop. As the Syrian-American journalist and chronicler of ISIS Hassan Hassan writes: "Many in the Syrian opposition perceived the SDF as a vehicle for the YPG and the regime. But attitudes appeared to shift just before the Raqqa operation began on June 6, 2017." Why might this have been the case? Hassan himself does not cite it as a cause, but the US missile strike against the Shayrat air base on April 7, 2017, ordered by President Trump in reprisal for the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons against Khan Shaykhun, cannot be discounted as a factor.

The logic behind such a hypothesis is very clear. Unless and until the US gave Syrian Sunni Arabs some reassurance of support against the Assad regime, they would naturally be reluctant to expend blood and resources in a campaign against ISIS, a strategic power which, while odious, posed a check on Damascus.  The Shayrat missile strike gave Syrian Sunni Arabs such assurances in a way that no gesture undertaken by the Obama administration ever did. By committing the US to military action against Assad, however minimal, President Trump foreclosed the possibility that Washington could ever be perfectly reconciled with the Assad regime, and invested political capital in the anti-Assad struggle in a way that all of the rebel groups operating in Syria could clearly understand. President Obama's failure to do this during his tenure as Commander-in-Chief was (to my mind, and as I have written before, as have others) his greatest error in the conduct of the conflict against ISIS.

Further study would obviously have to be done to corroborate such a hypothesis empirically, but any assessment of the strategic situation in Syria that has not taken these factors into account cannot have been done with due diligence. To be clear, my point here is not to enter into a partisan debate, or to suggest that the Trump and Obama administrations present us with perfectly opposed positive and negative role models, respectively. Though President Trump may have taken advantageous action and deserves credit for doing so, it is far from clear that he did so with any strategic deliberation or that he understands the strategic significance of his policies even now. Certainly it would be erroneous to argue that his White House is following any kind of consistent strategic wisdom or principle. The Trump administration, for example, has done political damage to the struggle against Boko Haram in North Africa (through adding Chad, a key ally in that struggle, to its international travel ban) equivalent to and the inverse of any political benefit accrued in Syria with the Shayrat missile strike, suggesting that both policies were arrived at arbitrarily and without regard to their strategic impact.

If it is true that the Shayrat missile strike facilitated the fall of Raqqa, this provides further evidence that the political dimensions of the strategic situation in the Levant are as or more important than the tactical deployment of firepower. In the last week, for example, the Iraqi Army occupied Kirkuk over the opposition of the Kurdish Peshmerga, a military force that held fast against ISIS even as the Iraqi Army fell back in confusion from Mosul and Ramadi. Why would the Iraqi Army perform so much better in Kirkuk than it had initially in Mosul and Ramadi? Training and experience might provide some of the explanation, but it would be foolish to discount the difference in motivation between a (mainly) Shi'ite force defending a Sunni city against a Sunni adversary and that of an Arab force aiming to liberate (what they perceive as) an Arab city from Kurdish occupation.

These lessons of Raqqa, Kirkuk, and Chad must be learned and assimilated if the recent strategic gains in the struggle against ISIS and other violent jihadis are to be maintained and consolidated. As long as the US is perceived as a credibly fair broker in the fraught conflicts between opposed ethnic, sectarian, and regional forces it will be able to rally the support necessary to achieving tactical goals. If we allow ourselves to slip back into being perceived as a biased, partisan, or irredeemably self-interested agent in the affairs of North Africa and the Middle East, we will encounter battlefield setbacks equivalent to those of 2014 or the recent tragic loss of four soldiers in Niger.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Crunching the Numbers

An inflexible math governs American political life at the current moment, grounded in ratios that control the behavior of our sovereign institutions. Republicans make up 44% of the American electorate, or 88 million people. Of these, 29.6 million (14.8% of the total electorate) cast ballots in the Republican primaries of 2016. The fate of Donald J. Trump and the nation he leads thus hinges upon the opinion of 51% of Republican primary voters, or 15.1 million people.

The reasons for this fact are easy to grasp. In 2014 Eric Cantor, the six-term Congressman serving as House Majority Leader and poised to eventually become Speaker, was ousted from his legislative seat by a primary challenger. This served notice to all GOP House members, that they live under the sword of Damocles. If any one of them sufficiently displeases the party base, particularly those activist voters who turn up for primary contests, they will be sent packing regardless of seniority or institutional leverage. Combine this with the startling hostile takeover of the GOP nominating process that Donald Trump effected in 2016, and it is clear why House GOP members will watch Trump's approval numbers very closely as they decide what to do in the face of the White House's escalating scandals.

15.1 million people (51% of the GOP primary electorate) make up about 7.4% of eligible voters. If we assume that about 1 in 4 people who answer "approval rating" polls will actually cast a vote in the primary elections (based on the 28.5% total turnout of registered voters in the 2016), Donald Trump can safely see his national approval rating fall to 30% before he lacks the support among GOP voters necessary to sway Congressional primary contests. Until his approval ratings fall to that floor or below, Trump can expect Republican voters to throw out any Representative he targets, and all GOP House members know this.

This is why, no matter how erratic or inept his conduct and no matter how much evidence of his wrongdoing comes to light, Donald Trump will not be impeached as long as Republicans control the House. Robert Mueller and his team are evidently working rigorously to investigate the Trump campaign. Given how evasive the administration has been (suggesting they have something to hide), given the proclivity of such investigations to spill over into new realms (such as money-laundering, bribery, etc.), and given the Trump Organization's reputation for unsavory dealings, the "Mueller Report" (when it eventually appears) is likely to entail hair-raising allegations, but none of that will matter. Unless and until his approval ratings fall to or below 30% (or until Democrats attain control of the House), Trump is immune to sanction.

Trump's approval rating is not likely to erode to that requisite level. Those who voted for Trump did so in full knowledge of the malignant qualities that have been on such lavish display during the months he has been in office. They knew he was ignorant, a bully, a braggart, and a liar. They knew that he had grotesquely threatened and insulted women, Muslims, Latinos, and people of color. They knew that the Russians had conspired to aid his campaign (and they now know, in the wake of Don Jr.'s emails, that the Trump campaign welcomed such support).  They voted for him anyway. Nothing that has transpired since can be surprising to them.

What is going on? This polarization in the perception of Donald Trump himself has been among the most upsetting and alarming aspects of the current political scene for many observers. It is distressing, in the face of so much mounting evidence to the contrary, to see his supporters continue to describe Trump as "a good man," "a man of integrity," "strong". The discourse is reminiscent of the recent internet fracas over the color of a photographed dress, except that the disputed image in Trump's case is so much less ambiguous. Moreover, it is not merely his supporters' positive view of Trump that dismays, but their insistence that any negative perception of the president must be the product of bias or malicious intent. Discussions across that chasm of dispute can make it seem as if the world has lost its bearings altogether.

Many social, political, and economic factors obviously contribute to this moment of polarization in American politics, but the sheer intensity of disconnect between the opposing extremes cannot be explained without reference to the issue of race. Many millions of voters, swayed by messaging and rhetoric broadcast by various well-funded interests, were willing to believe that our nation had fallen into a uniquely dire cataclysm under Barack Obama, a moral and social disaster quite apart from the economic distress of the Great Recession. For many this may not have been a function of conscious racism- Obama's race triggered latent feelings and proclivities, so that voters were willing to be persuaded that he was a singular monster without being consciously aware of why they were inclined to think the worst of him. Combine this with the signs that many read in Obama's election concerning the larger racial demographics of the country, and one can see why certain voters (many of whom are affluent and well-educated) went into the 2016 election gripped by an inchoate feeling of panic.

For those voters, what was important about Donald J. Trump was not any particular plan or skill that he brought to the political stage, but the ways in which his persona gave expression to their fears and anger. His eschewal of "political correctness" validated their own anxieties about the Obama presidency. The fact that he was in almost all ways unfit for the office made him the perfect "anti-Obama" protest candidate, embodying the assertion that the one, non-negotiable requirement to be president should remain being a white male.

Again, I would not claim that these represent conscious calculations on the part of most Trump supporters. But they make sense as subconscious motivations that explain the bifurcation in the way Trump is perceived. Because they sense a disaster and they want Trump's election to be its solution, his supporters are ever inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and attribute qualities and motives to him that others find implausible. Moreover, because they are so convinced that the Obama administration was catastrophic, waiting for Trump's diehard supporters to become disappointed with his failure to deliver "results" is likely to be a fool's errand. For many of Trump's supporters, the only thing that Trump needs to do to satisfy their sense of urgency is to be himself. Simply by being in the White House and being so obviously antithetical to its previous occupant, Trump is giving his supporters the reassurance for which they searched. He need not do anything else to please them.

All of this explains why no one should hold their breath waiting for Donald Trump to be impeached. If the Democrats should win control of the House in 2018, however, the odds change significantly. At that point the residual support Trump retains, however robust, will not be enough to protect him from impeachment if (as seems likely) the "Mueller Report" broadcasts evidence of "high crimes and misdemeanors." What Trump might do at that point, given how unscrupulous he has proven to be in every other regard, is a sobering thought. Even more distressing is the question of how his supporters will respond to whatever transpires, given their seeming refusal to see Trump in anything but a positive light. 

UPDATE: An old friend and classmate on Facebook was kind enough to point out discrepancies in my numbers. I've corrected the math, but the larger point I was trying to make still stands.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Bush-Obama-Trump Retrocolonial Complex

Donald Trump returns from his first overseas excursion as President to meet predictable choruses of praise and criticism from opposing precincts of the political spectrum. I would (predictably) join his critics in noting that much if not most of what he said and did during this trip was for the consumption of his base supporters here at home rather than in pursuit of genuine foreign policy. That being said, it is important to note that many of the problems revealed by Trump's tour began long before he took office, and show no sign of abating in either the near or long term.

Trump's speech to Arab and Muslim leaders in Riyadh is the most salient case in point. His repeated rhetorical exhortation to "Drive them out" (referring to violent jihadists such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram) no doubt played very well to his voters back home ("You tell 'em, Donald!"), but it almost certainly was met with inward groans of exasperation by his audience. As Trump himself noted, the governments represented by the leaders that he was addressing are the most focused targets and cataclysmic victims of jihadi terror, and have been engaged in brutal efforts to "drive out" extremist groups since long before September 11, 2001. They allowed themselves to be lectured by Trump about the need to "drive out" terrorists in the hope that providing him with such favorable optics would win them concessions on issues like Israel, Syria, and Iran.

Trump's speech was trumpeted as an historic realignment of US-Arab relations by many conservative pundits, but it was basically a familiar turn in the neocolonial dance in which the US and the Gulf States have been engaged since the end of World War II. The leaders that Trump was addressing were compradorial elites employed in servicing the oil markets on which the US economy depends. Trump's deference to them on matters of human rights and trade gave them political capital to spend at home, at the same time that their polite reception of his superfluous call to "drive them out" provided him with a prestige moment for US television.

This neocolonial codependence is more than half a century old and will not be remedied until the US and other industrialized economies break their addiction to fossil fuels. But a more acute problem was also manifest in Trump's ironic injunction to "drive them out". Even as he spoke (and as he himself acknowledged), Iraqi soldiers were engaged in desperate house-to-house fighting to dislodge ISIS from the city of Mosul, while other Kurdish and Arab fighters are similarly occupied in Syria and Libya. These struggles drag on interminably, not because of a lack of determination to "drive them out," but because of US reluctance to allow its allies in the Middle East and North Africa to possess and employ the material means necessary to that end. This is a new wrinkle that has emerged in the conduct of US foreign policy in the wake of 9/11: in our determination to retain old-style colonial control over forces in Iraq, Syria, and Libya (what I have called "retrocolonialism"), we have helped foster perpetual instability and turmoil in large parts of the Arab world and beyond.

This problem is most acutely manifest in Iraq. The military commanded by the government of Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi has about 300,000 active duty personnel. In terms of heavy weapons, it has about 300 battle tanks and 42 combat aircraft. Compare that to the time of Saddam Hussein, when the Iraqi military could deploy more than 1,000,000 personnel armed with 950 combat aircraft and six thousand battle tanks. Even if one allows that Hussein's military was the product of excessive militarization, present-day metrics expose the Iraqi military as totally inadequate to Iraq's defense needs. Iran, Iraq's more populous neighbor and erstwhile enemy, has a military of 500,000 personnel armed with about 3,000 battle tanks and 350 combat aircraft. If hostilities opened up again on that front, absent US protection Iraq would cease to exist. The decisions that keep Iraq in this state of dependency were not made by Prime Minister al-Abadi or his cabinet, but by US functionaries in the Green Zone and Washington DC.

This retrocolonial complex has consequences. Whenever complaints arise about the slow pace of the struggle against ISIS in Iraq, the same shibboleths about the need of the Iraqi military for "more training" are intoned by US officials. But this is ridiculous. After more than a decade of training the Iraqi army has shown poor cohesion and discipline in the face of ISIS aggression because it lacks the capacities of a sovereign military, and its soldiers know this fact. At the time that ISIS first took Mosul and Ramadi the entire Iraqi combat air force consisted of two Cessna prop planes modified to launch hellfire missiles. ISIS terrorists, with their captured Syrian humvees, heavy machine guns, and mortars, had equivalent armament to their Iraqi military counterparts and superior motivation. Members of ISIS believed they were fighting for a caliphate in the process of being born, while Iraqi soldiers knew they were fighting for a nation whose sovereignty had yet to be restored- one that remained (and remains) a colonial client of the United States.

This is not to make a reductionist argument about the nefariousness of American motives in the Middle East. If the US set out to materially profit from the exploitation of Iraq, that gambit has proved laughably self-defeating. But the initial invasion of Iraq, the current hobbling of Iraqi security forces, and the basic strategic posture of the US in Syria and Libya are all expressions of the same dysfunctional paternalism that has informed US policy since 9/11, and that has been consistent no matter what administration has been in power. Despite the fact that violent jihadis are a fringe group generally loathed and feared throughout the Arab and Islamic world, US leaders refuse to fully trust our Arabic and Islamic allies in the fight against jihadi terror. Most particularly, we refuse to entrust the people of nations like Iraq, Libya, and Syria with the full means to "drive out" the jihadis that are destroying their countries.

The US does not keep the Iraqi military hobbled totally out of blank bigotry. If and when Iraq has a truly sovereign military force the current homeostasis prevailing among contending forces in Iraq might break down, and the country could slide into an expanding civil war between regional and sectarian rivals, a contingency that the US does not trust Iraqi leaders to avoid. But the motives of the US in this regard are not humanitarian. The US fears a widening civil war in Iraq because of its consequences for the American economy and US security. Moreover, even if a fully armed Iraq did avoid civil war, it would be empowered to embark on a truly independent foreign policy, and might decide to ally itself with Iran, Russia, China, or any number of powers whose interests do not perfectly align with those of the US. The political embarrassment of such a contingency alone is enough to give US leaders night terrors.

In the same way that the Bush administration operated on the principle that only US power could be trusted to "cure" Iraq of Saddam Hussein, the Obama and Trump administrations have assumed that only US power can be trusted to keep the peace in the wake of Saddam's fall. Thus rather than do the hard work required to enlist the Iraqis as a genuine ally, we attempt to manipulate them as a colonial proxy. This is a strategy of sorts, but its tactical and moral shortcomings are displayed in the protracted and destructive struggle to dislodge ISIS from the Levant, and it makes all exhortations to "drive them out" such as Donald Trump delivered in Riyadh purely theatrical.

Similar forms of paternalism have animated American policy in Syria. Unlike the case of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the movement to depose Bashar al-Assad was a genuinely homegrown expression of Syrian popular dissent. Though Barack Obama gave lip service to the legitimacy of the Syrian rebellion, his administration never offered robust support to its efforts. In the same way Washington has never trusted post-Saddam leaders to keep the peace in Iraq, the Obama White House did not trust the Syrian opposition to replace the Assad regime with a better alternative, thus they refused to commit US military power to any degree that might give the Syrian rebellion a chance at success.  In like fashion, though Donald Trump made token missile strikes to chastise the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons, his White House is otherwise in lock step with the strategy of the previous administration, ignoring the depredations of the Assad regime while working to wear down ISIS through the use of weakly supported US proxies in concert with American air power. As in post-Saddam Iraq, in Syria there is little to show from US "caution" except for smouldering ruins, massive casualties, and hordes of refugees.

The ethnocentric paternalism expressed by this strategy is deeply endemic to the political culture of the United States. Even well-informed American observers of the Arab world are prone to applying a soft bigotry of low expectations to the situation in the Middle East. Coverage of the Syrian Civil War in the wake of the fall of Aleppo, for example, has focused on the excesses of the rebel coalition, portraying them as equivalently venal and corrupt by comparison to the Assad regime. Such commentary indulges in a "static state" fallacy, however. It posits that anything that may be observed in the Syrian opposition now must be assumed to have been true all along, and to have been inevitable from the beginning. But history shows us that unsuccessful rebel movements, from Europe to Latin America to Africa to Asia, degenerate over time into increasingly apolitical and predatory gangs.  If the Syrian opposition had enjoyed robust international support early on it might have evolved into a much more integral and disciplined force as success bred success. Such a possibility is persuasively evinced by the fact that even in its current depleted form the rebel coalition enjoys enough support to hold out against the combined might of Russia and the Assad regime, and shows little sign of being totally defeated in the near future.

The current US strategy in Syria and Iraq of "war by colonial client proxy" may ultimately dislodge ISIS from Raqqa, but it is unlikely to effect a long term solution to the problem of violent jihadism in the Levant. The government in Damascus has been crippled by civil war, the government in Baghdad by invasion and colonial paternalism. In the power vacuum opened between these two capitals jihadism is likely to fester and re-emerge, whatever tactical victories might be scored by the US and its proxies in the near term.

The tragic irony of US "retrocolonial" paternalism in the Middle East is its self-defeating nature. America has kept both the Iraqi government and the Syrian opposition hobbled in an attempt to exert control, but in doing so, it has only fostered chaos and destruction, swelling the ranks of ISIS and Al Qaeda and setting millions of refugees to flight, thus disrupting the politics of the entire world. For the situation to improve, more than the Trump presidency must end. US citizens and leaders must cease to treat the people of the Arabic and Islamic world with total (if, at times, unspoken) condescension and suspicion, and must accept the realities of a world in which US power can exert influence, but not maintain control.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Gianforte Problem

The assault on a reporter by Montana Congressional candidate Greg Gianforte brings our politics to a new inflection point. Democracy is a fragile affair, and there are many forces and contingencies that can work to its detriment. Among all such factors, however, violence is the most destructive. Political violence acts like a corrosive acid on the institutional coherence and functional foundations of a democracy. The fate of republican systems in Germany, China, Spain, and a host of other nations stand testimony to this fact.

American democracy has proven very resilient in the face of this peril. The Civil War did not bring the American project to an end; nor did the wave of anarchist terrorism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; nor did the attacks on John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and George Wallace in the years between 1963 and 1972. But such experiences prove that the American public and leaders have been perspicacious enough to defend the system against such challenges, not that the system itself is immune.

What is most distressing in the case of Gianforte is that today's vote will inevitably (rightly or wrongly) be viewed as a referendum on Gianforte's use of violence. This is not an unprecedented event. In a special election on August 1, 1856 the voters of South Carolina's 4th Congressional District returned Prestoon Brooks to the House after his brutal caning of Senator Charles Sumner. The fact that the Civil War followed less than five years after that event does not bode well for anyone trying to use Gianforte's prospective election as a bellwether.

Political violence was on the rise in our country before the election of Donald Trump. Terrorist attacks like those in Boston, Orlando and San Bernadino were obvious examples of this trend. So were the attacks on Representative Gabby Giffords, the assault on the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, and the murder of churchgoers in Charleston. In the rising climate of fear and anger created by such incidents, the rhetoric and tactics employed by the Trump campaign were (and are) potentially very toxic to our civic life. It is difficult not to look at Gianforte's assault on a reporter, followed by his rationalizing it as a response to the provocations of a "liberal journalist," as a further regressive stage in a persistent downhill slide. 

It may seem strident to juxtapose Gianforte's transgression to atrocities such as Charleston or Orlando, but if history teaches us anything it is that political violence can not be tolerated as a matter of degree. Either we respect one-another's physical persons absolutely or we abdicate the basic principle of civil discourse on which our democratic political life depends. As I wrote in another blog, even the "glitter bomb" attacks that have been popularized in some recent activism are in breach of this imperative. There may be room for reasonable people to reasonably disagree about what the boundaries of "politically correct" speech should be, but in a functional democracy there is no such thing as "politically correct" violence.

Speaker Ryan has called upon Greg Gianforte to apologize. I applaud Mr. Ryan's statements, and I hope that Mr. Gianforte will comply. If he does so before polls close today some of the damage he has done to our civic life might be ameliorated, even if he should win a seat in Congress. In any case, for the sake of our institutions I hope that he will be seen to pay a political price for what he has done.

UPDATE: I feel moved to add the punching of Richard Spencer, "Alt-Right (read: Neo-Nazi)" leader on January 20 to the list of recent acts of political violence, which I am sure could be vastly expanded. Spencer's case is particularly important because it illustrates a fundamental truth: for democracy to work even the person of a figure as reprehensible as Spencer should be sacrosanct, much less that of a reporter seeking answers about a matter of public policy.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

An Open Letter to President Donald Trump

Dear President Trump,

        Though I am a lifelong Democrat and voted against you last fall, I approach you not as a partisan but as a fellow American. I appeal to the highest aspirations of your campaign, to your sense of duty to your supporters, and to your patriotic concern for our Republic in asking you to resign the presidency. Though your election to that sacred office was legitimate, your conduct since being inaugurated has made it impossible for you to fulfill its responsibilities efficaciously.

         I make this plea without rancor and under no pretense of knowledge about your private character, motives or designs. The problems that you have encountered could as easily be the product of inexperience, miscalculation, and miscommunication as corruption or malicious intent. But they are real and at this point have become insuperable.

         Your tenure was inevitably going to be divisive. You championed causes (for example, the repeal of Obamacare) that many Americans opposed. In this respect you were not entirely different than any incoming holder of your office. Unlike most of your predecessors you made no attempt to "mend bridges" with your political opposition, but launched into an aggressive push to enact the most controversial measures of your program without bipartisan support. This was unusual but not wholly discreditable. Your supporters, after all, had voted for you as a "disrupter."

        But there was another respect in which you differed from your predecessors. You had used unprecedentedly belligerent and alarmist rhetoric in your path to the White House. You had spoken about banning Muslims from entering the country, and allowed speculation about instituting a "registration" system for Muslim-Americans to go unanswered. You joked about beating up dissenters or jailing members of the press. You questioned the competence of a federal judge because of his Mexican-American heritage. In other words, you created an atmosphere that caused many Americans, some of them already marginalized and vulnerable, to fear the consequences once you assumed the awesome powers of the presidency.

        Unlike the general wisdom of "mending bridges" with the political opposition, the onus upon you to win back the trust of these citizens was a non-negotiable imperative. You had traded away their trust in exchange for political advantage, and it was incumbent upon you to repair that breach so that the business of government could move forward. You have not acknowledged this necessity, but on the contrary have made the situation worse. The precipitate and aggressive manner in which you pursued policies like your travel ban and the continued stridency of your rhetoric has only deepened the fear and distrust sown by your campaign pronouncements.

       If these were the only problems, the situation might yet be redeemable. But compounding these issues have been your general failures in carrying out the task of the executive. Dozens of cabinet-level posts remain unfilled. Critical military maneuvers like your recent dispatch of a carrier group to the waters off of the Korean Peninsula have been bungled. Secret information entrusted to us by our allies has been let slip in conference with a hostile power.

      Questions of basic amity and competency notwithstanding, there might yet be world enough and time for you to repair the damage of your first months in office. But finally, you have forsaken the trust and confidence of the electorate in your mishandling of the FBI's Russia investigation. The nation is very polarized, and it may be true that the vast majority of your supporters remain convinced of your probity and integrity. It was inevitably going to be the case, however, given the polarizing nature of your campaign and your policies, that a substantial portion of the populace would hold you in suspicion, especially given the strange circumstances surrounding Russia's hacking of the election. You have not only failed to assuage the natural and understandable suspicions of these citizens, but have thrown gasoline on the fire of their fears. However innocent your motives may have been in private, your public moves to fire the FBI director and discourage investigations into the ties between your campaign and Russia give you the appearance of a man with something to hide. Indeed, they may rise to the level of criminal obstruction of justice.

     Whether or not criminal charges are warranted, such a mistake cannot be put down to inexperience or benign ineptitude. Given the clear logic of your situation from the outset and the obviously high stakes, your actions constitute political negligence and malpractice of the highest order. It is unreasonable for you to expect the necessary confidence and trust of a critical mass of the electorate moving forward. The best that you can hope for is to set one part of the nation against the other, each side convinced that it has more than ample cause to loathe and fear the other. There is no way to govern under those circumstances. More tragically, that situation can only lead to a coarsening of our civic life and a general deepening of public cynicism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic in the long term.

       Resignation is the clear and honorable choice. This is made all the more evident by the fact that there can be no partisan advantage for your political opponents in such a contingency. Quite the contrary. Your stepping down will make Vice-President Pence our new executive, which will guarantee an uninterrupted dedication to the implementation of a Republican agenda. More months of scandal will hurt the electoral chances of the GOP in the midterm elections, especially if they resolve in articles of impeachment. Resigning now will give Vice President Pence and the Republican Congress an opportunity to enact policies in hopes of winning support for next fall.

      Whether from the perspective of partisan obligation or patriotic duty, resignation is the right thing to do. There is no shame in admitting that you are not up to the task, especially if the job is as crucial to the general welfare as the presidency. History will judge you with gratitude for having the wisdom and the strength to sacrifice your own ambition for the greater good. I respectfully beg you to consider this course of action for the sake of your voters, the country, and our venerable democracy. In any case, should you read these words I thank you for your attention and hope that this message finds you well.


                                 Andrew Meyer

Monday, April 10, 2017

Tragedy and Farce in Syria

Airstrikes launched against Syria by the Trump administration on April 6 prove Marx's adage about history transpiring first as tragedy, then as farce. The Obama White House's indecision and passivity in the face of the Syrian crisis were an excruciatingly protracted tragedy. For Obama's "red line" to be enforced by a man who has in all other ways disgraced and discredited the office of the presidency is so absurd that to call it "farce" is completely inadequate.

Those on all parts of the political spectrum who grieve at the damage Trump is doing to our Republic will no doubt be inclined to condemn this new Syria policy.  That inclination will be strengthened by the undeniable fact that Trump's motives are suspect and the politics of this policy malodorous. It is no coincidence that Trump has transgressed upon Russian strategic interests just when he most needs to distance himself from Moscow, and seeks the luster of a "war leader" just as his approval ratings hit historic lows.

That being noted, it is nonetheless true that, like the proverbial broken clock, Trump has stumbled upon the right course of action in response to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons. To understand why this is so one need only contemplate the motives of Assad in murdering his own people with sarin gas. There are only two real possibilities in this regard.

The first, a scenario that will be favored by the conspiracy-minded, is that the Assad regime (presumably at the behest of Moscow) launched the sarin gas attack last week to provide Trump with a pretext to "wag the dog." Though appealingly plausible, this scenario is highly unlikely for many reasons. The Assad regime is engaged in a fight for its life, it has little motive to take potentially fatal risks to provide Donald Trump with political cover. The perceived possibility that chemical weapons might be used is a strategic asset Assad would be loath to part with, and any military action on the part of the US will boost morale among the rebels in ways that will materially degrade Damascus's strategic advantage. The same caveats apply when we think of Russia's perspective. Even if we assume that Moscow views Trump as an asset that it wants to protect, Putin has little cause to expend political capital in this way. Moscow faces dissent at home, it can hardly afford to risk being "humiliated" by the US in the eyes of its own people simply to save Donald Trump's bacon.

Occam's Razor dictates that Bashar al-Assad had a different motive in using chemical weapons against his own people. Expressions of disengagement and disinterest on the part of the Trump White House had left the Assad regime feeling that light could be seen at the end of the tunnel leading to a final military resolution of the Syrian civil war. Last week's sarin gas attack was thus a "test balloon," launched in the expectation that it would elicit no response from the US or its allies, and that such a contingency would create terror and chaos among anti-government forces. If the populations among whom the rebels live became persuaded that the Assad regime was about to unleash mass-murder on a scale that even this brutal civil war has not yet seen, the purchase of rebel forces in their current strongholds might become untenable. That was an outcome worth risking blowback from committing such a heinous war crime.

Because this was most likely the motive of Assad's gas attack, it required a response. However minimal the damage done to Assad's forces may have been from Thursday's air strikes, they sufficed to violently commit the U.S. to the proposition that Damascus must not use chemical weapons. Assad understands how politics works- he knows that another gas attack in the future will force the Trump administration to respond with greater destructiveness or risk crippling political embarrassment at home. Therefore, if they have done nothing else of value, the air strikes in Syria have made it highly unlikely that chemical weapons will be used again by the Assad regime. Though that is an admittedly tenuous benefit, it is still real.

If Donald Trump's leadership remains true to form, this military action will not produce a coherent or effective policy in response to the ongoing crisis of the Syrian civil war. Indeed, the risks entailed by any military action cannot help but make one wish that a steadier hand was at the tiller. Still, in this one instance Trump has achieved an at least minimally positive impact. If he garners unearned political capital from this act, the blame unfortunately lies with President Obama. Obama left open the opportunity for Donald Trump to distinguish himself from his predecessor with this display of "decisiveness."  Though this is bitter farce, it does proffer one clear lesson for those who are paying attention: if and when the White House is again occupied by a leader worthy of the presidency, he or she will have to chart a course between the dysfunctional inaction of Barack Obama in Syria and the reckless adventurism of George W. Bush in Iraq.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Donnie and the Nihilists

I cannot believe I was alone in feeling cognitive dissonance while listening to the testimony of former FBI Special Agent Clint Watts before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday. As Watts explained:

[T]he reason active measures (viz., Russian hacking and propaganda) have worked in this U.S. election is because the Commander-in-Chief [Trump] has used Russian active measures at times, against his opponents...He denies the intel from the United States about Russia. He claims that the election could be rigged. That was the number one theme pushed by RT, Sputnik News… all the way up until the election. He’s made claims of voter fraud, that President Obama’s not a citizen… So, part of the reason active measures works, and it does today in terms of Trump Tower being wiretapped, is because they parrot the same line.

          Watts was making a point so obvious that it should have been the driving message of every credible political and cultural leader on any part of the political spectrum for the last year or more: America was made exceptionally vulnerable to the narratives fabricated by Russian intelligence because these narratives were broadcast and lent credence by the man who held the nomination of the Party of Lincoln. For it to take a special Senate hearing to give robust voice to this observation seems incredible at first, but on second reflection the reason for this circumstance is clear.

As cynical as we have become, as widespread as disenchantment and malaise have grown, we have yet to encounter a wholly values-free candidate for the Presidency of the United States. Even those who most violently abhor Hillary Clinton, for example, would be forced to admit that one could list a set of values that she consistently at least desires to appear to hold. She has allowed her political ambitions to be constrained by the norms of a larger system, as when she conceded the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama for the ostensible sake of party unity or the election to Donald Trump in deference to the integrity of the electoral process.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, is something new. Whatever norm or value he seems to have upheld in one instance (as, for example, when he said gracious things about his opponent on election night) he has violated in another (for example, tweeting without evidence that his predecessor, the nation's first African-American president, was a felon). Outside the interests of his close family (and even that is something of a gray area), it is impossible to determine what might be truly sacred to him beyond the gratification of his own ego.

Herein lies one of the greatest dangers of the Age of Trump. The checks and balances in our system are robust, but their efficacy ultimately rests upon a minimum threshold of commitment to the principles of our founding documents. Our constitutional order is well-equipped to deal with greed, hunger for power, cravenness, extremism, and other politically dysfunctional proclivities. But it is not well-prepared to confront nihilism. An individual unconstrained by loyalty to the most fundamental ideals of the system or even the most basic institutional imperatives can move unchecked by the infrastructure of the state, because the state is designed to presume a minimal assent to its own legitimacy on the part of its operatives.

It is as if in the transition from Obama to Trump, the laws of physic have changed, dissolving the gravitational forces that hold the Executive together. When, for example, the Acting Attorney General brought the White House Counsel the extraordinary news that the National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, was susceptible to blackmail by a foreign power, the system was prepared for almost any response from President Trump. Contrition, defensiveness, alarm, evasion- all of these would have fallen within the range of reaction that officials in various agencies and branches of government could understand and engage. Total inertia, expressing a complete lack of concern for both the present crisis and the functional credibility of the White House as a whole, fell completely outside of the institutional logic that animates the machinery of state.

The leak of classified information to the press in the face of this conundrum was an intuitively sensible solution, but one that fell outside of the parameters of the regular operation of government, and that created new opportunities for the derailment of the machinery of state. It has been remarkable to watch the White House complain about leaks and improper surveillance on the one hand while it simultaneously lies about its members' contact with Russian officials and works to undermine the credibility of the House Intelligence Committee on the other. The idiom of the Trump White House persists in a realm light-years beyond garden-variety hypocrisy. It is the language of a topsy-turvy world in which Rhyme and Reason have been exiled and no gnomon of value can be anchored in the shifting sands of obfuscation and distortion.

Much has been written comparing Donald Trump to figures from history. Is he a latter day Mussolini? A reality-TV version of Huey Long? With his observation that shooting someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue would not spoil his image among his supporters, Trump perhaps hit upon the nearest analogue for his political persona in the American past. In his nihilistic disregard for the values and logic of the system he serves, Trump most resembles that other famous New Yorker, Aaron Burr. Indeed, the Trump presidency might be deemed "Aaron Burr's Revenge," in that the same electoral college that denied Burr the presidency has paid out in victory for his historical doppelganger just over two centuries later. Unless an alert citizenry can hold our leaders accountable and defend the integrity of the institutions that are our shared legacy, this time the murder that Burr gets away with may not be that of an individual, but of the system as a whole.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Public Option Now

The embarrassing failure of the GOP caucus to make good on their six-year pledge to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act is an inflection point in the politics of health care. Democrats should, in the words of an old Chinese adage, "take a warning from the overturned cart ahead" and pursue a robust policy that seizes upon the opportunities of the moment. Many on the left are advocating that the Democrats lift a page from the GOP playbook and begin proposing new legislation right away, in the same way that the Republicans held countless "repeal" votes before there was any hope that they would pass a presidential veto. Though there is provisional wisdom in such strategic thinking, it will only be effective if Democrats are able to take the correct lesson from the GOP's debacle.

The "repeal" dimension of GOP legislation was always going to be much easier than the imperative to "replace" the ACA. Though united in opposition to "Obamacare," when tasked with formulating a policy of their own Republicans were hounded by the same divisions that beset Democrats in 2009 when the ACA was being formulated. Just as some portion of the opposition to the ACA has always been comprised of progressives who do not feel that the bill went far enough in extending coverage and reducing costs, the Republican effort was scuttled by the division between moderate conservatives worried that "Trumpcare" took coverage away from too many people and Freedom Caucus partisans angry that it did not take health insurance away from even more.

The big takeaway from this battle is thus that the bill that can be passed with a unilateral partisan coalition will inevitably be one distorted by ideological wrangling, and therefore unfocused and ineffective as policy. Democrats who are getting ready to propose the institution of a "single payer system" (Medicare for all) are failing to read the lesson of the moment. Such proposals will open up the same kinds of rifts in the Democratic coalition that nearly sank the ACA, and will galvanize energies on the right that have been otherwise neutered by the failure of the "Trumpcare" vote.

Democrats should undertake to move the ball forward from where it sits now, rather than trying to reinvent the field from scratch. The Republicans have declared that the ACA is in peril, and have failed to muster their own coalition to effect a "repeal and replace" rescue. The Democrats should thus respond with a moderate proposal to fix the system as it currently stands. If private insurers are unwilling or unable to offer policies serving the markets created by the ACA exchanges, the federal government should create a "public option" plan to do so.

Ideological opposition on the part of Republicans and conservative Democrats to the creation of a "public option" has been rendered moot by the failure of Trumpcare. If Americans' health care is at stake (and I believe it is), and the GOP cannot summon the political will to act, it naturally falls to the Democrats to step into the breach. Democrats should craft and propose legislation to create a public option immediately and invite their moderate colleagues from across the aisle to join them in a bipartisan initiative to repair the ACA. In the best case scenario the passage of such a law will materially improve the health care of millions of Americans. In the worst case scenario, the proposal of such legislation will put the Trump White House and the GOP on the political defensive for the next four years (and beyond).

Having failed to "repeal and replace" the ACA, the GOP will no doubt try to make the "death spiral" of Obamacare a self-fulfilling prophecy by de-funding key parts of the program and withdrawing institutional support from structures that maintain the working mechanisms of the law. Democrats must move to prevent Republicans from capitalizing on such a strategy by broadcasting that there are reasonable and moderate fixes to the system that could be effected with a modicum of bipartisan compromise. In this way, even if the GOP succeeded in eroding the efficacy of the ACA in the short term, Democrats could run in 2018 and 2020 on the platform of offering the American people a workable alternative rather than more obstruction, dysfunction, and malaise.

The drive for a public option is an imperative that transcends even the urgent chaos of the Trump implosion. Indeed, at this point President Trump is largely irrelevant to Democrats' strategic thinking on this issue (and most others). Even discounting the prospect that Trump may have committed treason and be facing ultimate impeachment, he has so disgraced his office that he can no longer be taken seriously by anyone on any side of the political aisle, in any arena, foreign or domestic. His is now effectively a "zombie presidency," and his political opponents may plan long-term strategy without regard to his preferences or likely actions. If Democrats managed to pass a bipartisan "public option," Trump might veto it in an attempt to pander to his more radical supporters or, conversely, he might sign it into law in a desperate attempt to alleviate the cloud of suspicion and disgrace that is steadily engulfing his administration. The hole into which he has dug himself is so deep that neither stratagem would lift his political fortunes for very long, and in either case the winner in the long term would be the American people.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

One State, Two State, Red State, Blue State

Watching Donald Trump stand next to Bibi Netanyahu yesterday was an exercise in dizzying optics. However much I vehemently disagree with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I grudgingly respect his political acumen and the sacrifices he and his family have made for the state of Israel and the Jewish people more generally. It thus did not surprise me to see Bibi laugh when, during his joint press appearance with Donald Trump, the President answered a question about his commitment to a "two-state solution" by declaring, "I'm looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I'm very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." Perhaps I am projecting my own feelings (and giving Bibi too much credit for his own), but I sensed a Pagliacci-esque melancholy in that laugh, as if the Prime Minister could not believe that his long and distinguished career had landed him in the middle of such a farce.

The lead headline in many of today's newspapers is, predictably "The US Appears to Back Away from Two-State Solution." This is understandable, but is also ridiculous. That is to say, the situation as a whole is inherently nonsensical. For the President of the United States to say something so simultaneously consequential, irresponsible, and utterly incoherent is fundamentally absurd. It is an existential non sequitur, a circumstance that defies logical response.  

The most obvious and perhaps least vexing absurdity about the situation was the failure of anyone in the room to immediately produce the necessary follow-up question: "Which one-state solution do you mean?" For Donald Trump to speak as if there was a single "one state" alternative to the "two-state solution" made as little sense as declaring that one would be happy with either flavor of ice-cream, chocolate or the other one. There are at least four possible "one-state solutions": 1)the one in which Israel's Jewish inhabitants are killed or driven into the sea; 2)the one in which the residents of Gaza and the West Bank are killed or driven into exile; 3)the one in which Israel annexes Gaza and the West Bank but denies its residents citizenship, embarking on a career of apartheid; 4)the one in which everything from the Jordan River to the sea becomes one state of coequal citizens, transforming Israel into the binational state of Israel-Palestine. Which of these "one-state" solutions would the United States find acceptable, and under what conditions would the U.S. acknowledge that "both parties like" it?

The most charitable reading of the situation is that Donald Trump simply did not know what he was talking about, and that he was extemporizing rhetorically as has been his habit all along. As David Brooks has written, "Over the past weeks, we’ve treated the president-elect’s comments as normal policy statements uttered by a normal president-elect...But this is probably the wrong way to read Trump...His statements should probably be treated less like policy declarations and more like Snapchat. They exist to win attention at the moment, but then they disappear...Trump is not a national leader; he is a national show."

The problem, of course, is that now that he has been sworn in, all of Trump's maladroit dicta issue forth with the weight and authority of his office. It does not matter that he is a clown, his words are still heard as those of the President of the United States, and thus cannot fail to do tragic damage. The Jewish settlers on the West Bank who have been quivering in messianic fervor since the election, for example, can only be further inflamed by hearing the words "one state" come from Donald Trump's mouth. There is only one "one state solution" that they care about, and they are not likely to have heard Trump's caveat about what "both parties like" (or to pay it much mind if they did).

I would say that we are through the looking glass, but after almost four weeks of the Trump presidency that Carollian metaphor is too one-dimensional to serve. More aptly, we are falling down a rabbit hole that seemingly has no bottom at all. I began this blog out of dismay at the decisions that led us into the Iraq War, and coined its motto, "Politics can not be conducted in ignorance of the history and culture of other nations," in the conviction that such a deficit of knowledge had derailed our foreign policy in the wake of 9/11. My dismay deepens on seeing that, even as the problem of ignorance becomes more and more obvious, the will to redress it recedes ever further.

Donald Trump is ignorance personified. Were it not so, it would be impossible for him to be so unaware of how little sense his statements of yesterday made, much less how potentially damaging they could be to the cause of peace. The only circumstance more shocking than his political malpractice is the negligence we the American people have displayed in electing him. The fact that Donald Trump knows nothing and cares less has been on display since he began his campaign last August, but we nonetheless elevated him to the office of Washington and Lincoln. Moreover, despite the egregious incompetence he has evinced, Trump still enjoys an approval rating of roughly 40% in most polls, suggesting that he would still win the Republican primary if it were held today. For so many citizens to be content to place the immense wealth and power of the United States into such ludicrously feckless hands feels like national hubris. I hope, for the world's sake as much as our own, that error will not bring about repercussions reminiscent of ancient myth.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Trumpty Dumpty or Trumplestiltskin?

As the second week of the Trump presidency rolls on, the struggle ensues to make sense of the herky-jerky motion of the administration in power. So much frenetic activity has transpired to so little discernible constructive purpose that it is difficult to place the current political moment into a comprehensible framework. Two general pictures have begun to emerge among observers grappling with the problem of "Trumpology."

David Brooks of The New York Times exemplifies one side of this analytical divide. He sees the Trump administration as "incompetent" and worse than "amateurs." In his view, "the Trump administration is less a government than a small clique of bloggers and tweeters who are incommunicado with the people who actually help them get things done." Brooks does not completely acquit the Trumpites of bad intent. He calls them out for their ethnic nationalism and bigotry. But he attributes the chaos they have sown to inadvertent malpractice rather than nefarious design.

Though this view is eminently plausible, it is understandably contested by those who view Trumpian entropy with an even more jaundiced eye. This latter perspective is embodied by Yonatan Zunger, who blogs at Medium. Taking together all of the actions and statements of the Trump administration's first week, Zunger asks if they should be read as the trial balloon for a future coup against the democratic institutions of the U.S. government (funded by a recently acquired 19% share in Russia's state oil company).  Where Brooks sees amateurism and incoherence, Zunger sees a "tight inner circle" that "is actively probing the means by which they can seize unchallenged power." All of the provocations (what Heather Richardson calls "shock events") of Trump's first days are not, in this view, arbitrary or unplanned, but are deliberate attempts to gauge the reactions of various federal agencies and to induce "dissent fatigue" in the wider public.

It is easy to see why Zunger's view is persuasive. It is difficult to believe that the denizens of the Trump administration, having risen so precipitously to such heights of power, could possibly be as incompetent as the tenor of their first weeks would suggest. If one eliminates that possibility, then fitting the observable facts into a pattern of malignant intent is the next natural choice.

Zunger's read cannot be dismissed as entirely far-fetched. Nor, it must be emphasized, are the two scenarios outlined by Zunger and Brooks necessarily mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible that the Trump administration (or different parts of it, to varying degrees respectively) are simultaneously deliberately anti-democratic and incoherently maladroit. Time and circumstance will tell which of these two Trumpological analyses is more accurate. Two things are clear from the outset, however.

The first is that, whether they are blundering or scheming, their penchant for callousness and cruelty (and the pain they inflict) remains the same. Whether his travel ban order was a botched attempt to make good on a polemical campaign promise or a clever ruse in pursuit of unconstitutional power, Donald Trump knew it would cause misery and hardship to hundreds of people, and he did not care. However one slices it, Trump's politics incorporate a degree of sadism. His claims to political efficacy all revolve to one degree or another on the promise to make the "right" people (that is, the "wrong people" who don't hold the privilege of being deemed "real Americans") hurt.

The second clear imperative of the Trumpian moment is the urgent need for citizenship. In the end it will not matter whether or not Donald Trump's actions were taken with an eye toward unlimited power. The damage this mode of governance will do to our democratic institutions will be similar in the long run in either case. Citizens on all sides of the political spectrum must stand up and demand that Donald Trump govern in a way that does not sow anger, fear, and chaos, and that the rest of our government (the House, the Senate, the courts, the governors, the state legislatures) hold him accountable to that constraint. In the end, only our vigilance and active civic engagement can insure that our Republic will survive the length of Trump's tenure in office, whatever the truth may be about his intentions and competence.