Talking to Myself 1.

Brett Kavanaugh has just been blind-sided at the last moment before the Senate Judiciary Committee votes on whether to approve his nomination to the United States Supreme Court.  He’s been hit by an accusation of “sexual misconduct” that is alleged to have occurred thirty-five years ago, when he was seventeen.  There is no corroborating evidence so far.  Apparently, sixty-five women who knew Kavanaugh at that time say he never mistreated women to their knowledge.

What to do?  It’s difficult to say because there are several different issues that over-lap in this case.

First, we don’t yet have any proof that this event occurred. It’s just “He said-She said.”

Second, if proven, would such behavior thirty-five years ago, followed by unstained behavior since then, disqualify Kavanaugh from the Supreme Court?  In the current environment, it certainly should disqualify him.  By “current climate” I mean that people (myself included) are finally starting to pull their heads out of their “culus” about an age-old problem.  With any luck, this isn’t just a phase that is going to pass.  It will become the new normal.  Certainly that would be unfair to Kavanaugh, whose alleged action would have occurred under a different morals regime.  Thirty-five years ago was, like, 1983.  (In January 1983, the Washington Redskins beat the Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl.  That’s how long ago it happened.)

Third, Diane Feindstein holding onto the letter, then releasing word of it at the last possible moment is pretty slimy.  However, if you think that Senator Feinstein’s actions are wrong, then you must also think that the Republican majority refusing to hold hearings on Merrick Garland was wrong.  They didn’t have to approve Garland.  The Constitution doesn’t say that “The Senate must approve anyone nominated by the President-Emperor.”  Ask poor Harriet Miers.  The appointment of judges at all ranks has become politicized because people have taken to the courts to obtain what they can’t get through the legislative process.  As Mr. Dooley opined, “politics ain’t bean-bag.”

Fourth, what should happen?  Put the clutch down on the Kavanaugh nomination.  Thoroughly investigate the accusation.  Yes, if the Democrats regain the majority in the Senate before the investigation is completed, then Kavanaugh is toast.  He will lose any vote on a purely party-line vote.  It will not matter what the investigation discovers.  It could acquit him and he would still lose.  Even so, that would be better than having someone appointed to the Supreme Court under a cloud, especially this kind of cloud.

Reasoning by analogy, we’re all in the same boat as the Catholic priesthood.  You can’t solve the problem by saying “Sorry” and promising transparency in the future.  (Yes, there’s a certain comic element in Democrats going “zero tolerance!” on this issue, while rejecting it on other issues.  Hypocrisy is central to American public life.)  On the other hand, I’d be opposed to trying to strip Kavanaugh of his current position as an appellate court judge.  (Like I said, hypocrisy is central to American public life.)

Final thing.  Take a moment to recall the Duke lacrosse and Charlottesville frat cases.  Both were examples of liberal lynch mobs.  We can’t tell yet what is true about the Kavanaugh case.  So, everyone should take a deep breath and think about what is best for th republic.  Here endeth the sermon.

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Where did our love go?

First, the Supreme Court’s decision in “Plessy versus Ferguson” was considered settled law from 1896 to 1954.  The Supreme Court’s decision in”Roe versus Wade” has been considered settled law since 1973.

Second, given the politicization of the judiciary since the Warren Court, should the Justices of the Supreme Court be elected officials serving for limited terms, as are the members of the Legislative and Executive branches of government?  The ideal of an impartial and disinterested group of experts regulating the passions of the people currently seems impossible to fulfill.  The spectacle of Court nominees appearing before the Seante’s Judiciary Committee only to evade questions and of potential presidential candidates buffing their profiles in courage could appear equally disgusting.

Trump latest news.

After Russo-American relations soured, the American Justice Department and the F.B.I. came up with the idea of roping-in some Russian “oligarchs” with tight links to Vladimir Putin as sources of information.  Oleg Deripaska is one such “oligarch.”  He is suspected by the United States government of involvement in extortion, bribery, and possibly murder.  From 2014 to 2016, the Justice Department and the F.B.I. hoped to turn him into an informer on Putin and on Russian organized crime.  At first, they were interested in Russian organized crime and its possible connections to Putin; later they added an interest in possible connections between the Russians and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  So the Americans offered Deripaska help in getting visas to the United States for business purposes.[1]

Bruce Ohr, who had led Department of Justice campaigns against Russian organized crime, and Christopher Steele, the former head of the Russian desk at the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6), played roles in this effort.  Steele’s role was to serve as an intermediary between the Americans and Russians.[2]  While the contacts between Ohr and Steele focused largely on the Deripaska case [and the other oligarchs?], they also discussed Steele’s “dossier” during the final months of the 2016 presidential campaign.

On 16 June 2015, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president.

In July 2016, the F.B.I. began investigating possible contact between members of the Trump presidential campaign and Russians.  Paul Manafort left the Trump campaign in August 2016 after reports surfaced that he had worked for pro-Russians in Ukrainian politics.

The Americans contacted Deripaska in September 2015 and again in September 2016.

In September 2015, the Americans pitched their theories of Kremlin-organized crime links to Deripaska.  He rejected the theories, declined to help them with their inquiries, and quickly informed the Kremlin of the approach.

From mid-summer 2016, the American intelligence had become concerned over the Russian hack of the Democratic National committee’s e-mail and by reports of Russian contact with Trump campaign staff.  In late Summer 2016, Steel began briefing American intelligence officials on his findings.

In September 2016, the Americans over-rode Deripaska’s refusal to hold a second meeting by showing up at his apartment or hotel in New York.  This time, they wanted to explore their theory of Trump campaign collusion with Russia.  In particular, they wanted to know if Paul Manafort had provided a connection between the Russians and the campaign.  Again, Deripaska derided the theories as “preposterous” and doubted that any Trump-Russia connection existed.[3]

With this avenue closed, Steele continued to share his information with American officials and journalists, both before and after the election.

[1] Kenneth Vogel and Matthew Rosenberg, “U.S. Agents Tried to Turn Oligarch into an Informer,” New York Times, 2 September 2018.  Presumably they also assured him that they wouldn’t let word leak to Putin or the “vory” that he was helping a foreign state.  What with their impulse-control issues and all.

[2] After retiring from MI-6, Steele had started a private business intelligence company.  Among his clients was one of Deripaska’s lawyer.  So, was that, perhaps, how the approach was made?

[3] The anonymous sources leak to the NYT apparently did not include a report on the response of the other oligarchs.

Afghanistan 30 July 2018.

After toppling the Taliban in 2001-2002, the Americans determined to hold Afghanistan against any return by the Taliban.[1]  To this end, they established a host of outposts in the countryside and began training-up a new Afghan national army.  This policy began under President George W. Bush and continued during the first term of President Barack Obama.

Thus, in 2006, the American created a network of posts in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan.  Offensive operations against the Taliban would launch from these bases.  By 2009 the Americans were re-thinking this plan.[2]  In 2010, their effort shifted toward protecting the major population centers.  Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south became major battlegrounds.

In 2014, the coalition of American, Afghan, and NATO troops fighting the Taliban declared an end to major combat operations.  The Western troops withdrew to a few major urban areas.  Kabul, Kandahar, Kunduz, Jalalabad, and Mazar-i-Sharif have become heavily defended centers.  Everywhere else, on-going defense responsibilities fell to the Afghan army.  In 2015, the American began urging the Afghans to give up trying to garrison or control areas far from the major cities.

For its part, the Taliban has concentrated its efforts at capturing the little outposts in rural areas.  Frequent attacks on isolated posts have inflicted hundreds of casualties on Afghan soldiers every week in recent months.  Afghan government forces have been reduced by about 5 percent since Summer 2017.  Along the way, the Taliban picked up not only momentum, but also a good deal of arms and equipment.

Afghanistan is divided into 407 administrative districts.  By the most recent estimate, the government controls 229 of them, while the Taliban controls only 59.  That leaves 119 districts that are considered “contested.”  The thing is that almost three-quarters of Afghans live in rural areas.  Little more than a quarter live in heavily fortified big cities.  Falling back on the cities abandons most Afghans to the Taliban.

Initially, President Trump followed the advice of Secretary of Defense James Mattis Recently, the United States has pressed the Afghan government to follow the Western lead.  Afghan army troops are falling back on the cities, leaving the country-side districts to the Taliban.  That suggests that the Taliban could soon control almost 180 districts.  This would give them near-parity with the government.

People offer the conventional excuses: we’re just regrouping in the cities in order to counter-attack into the rural districts at some point in the future.  More honestly stated, falling back on the cities “is a rational approach to secure the cities, and provide the Afghanistan government the political opportunity to work with the Taliban.”  That seems to mean that the government has to hold the cities in order to have some valuable chips in negotiations for a “compromise peace.”  The Trump administration is trying to begin talks with the Taliban.  What can the Afghan government get in such negotiations?  What will they have to give?  Will the Taliban be content to negotiate on the emerging balance of forces or will they try to erode the security of the cities by attacks?  Who will be aboard the last helicopter out of Kabul?

[1] Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Helene Cooper, “New U.S. Tactic in Afghanistan Urges Retreat,” NYT, 29 July 2018.

[2] For some sense of why this happened, see Sebastian Junger’s film “Restrepo” (2010) and book War (2010).

Iran–and we all should run.

Iranian-American relations haven’t been good since the revolution of 1979 overthrew Shah Reza Pahlevi.[1]  Sometimes they are less-bad.  Right at the moment, they are more-bad.  During the Obama administration, Iran pushed on many fronts that menaced not the United States, but its allies and clients.  All of this put both Israel and Saudi Arabia on edge.  They saw—and still see—Iran as determined to make itself the dominant state in a re-ordered Middle East.  The twin pillars of this dominance would be a series of client states in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon; and nuclear weapons with the ballistic missiles to deliver them.  The re-ordering might include the annihilation of Israel and the limitation of America’s role in the region.  In the wake of the disastrous Iraq war, the American people clearly didn’t want another big war in the Middle East.  Sensibly, the Obama administration’s diplomacy focused on a successful effort to constrain Iran’s nuclear program.

That left many other issues unresolved.  In May 2018, President Trump chose to leave the nuclear agreement.  He has re-imposed economic sanctions and has sought to coerce other countries to impose an effective embargo on Iranian oil.

On the left, there is a suspicion that the president believes that regime-change in Iran offers the only reasonable solution.[2]  President Trump’s rhetoric both attacks the Iranian ruling elite as corrupt and illegitimate, and celebrates Iranians who protest against that government.  However, the Iranian regime wields powerful tools against dissent.

On the right, there is a hope that confrontation will force the Iranians to make concessions in other areas as well.  Many experts doubt that Iran’s leaders will bend.

Will Iran’s leaders do something stupid?  For its part, Iran has raised the possibility of closing the Straits of Hormuz at the outer end of the Persian Gulf in retaliation for American actions.  Some 40 percent of the world’s oil passes through the Straits in tankers.  They tried this during the long Iran-Iraq War in the Eighties.  The US Navy began convoying tankers.  On 22 July 2018, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that President Trump was running the risk of “the mother of all wars.”[3]  Trump responded in kind.  If Iran actually did try to close the Straits of Hormuz, then the possibility of military conflict would become very real.  It seems unlikely that American air and naval forces operating from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and the Arabian Sea would stop at suppressing Iranian forces around the Straits.  Very heavy air attacks could follow on Iran’s nuclear facilities and key regime assets like the Revolutionary Guard.  So, Iran probably will not close the Straits.

It seems equally unlikely that American leaders will do something stupid.  Americans still don’t want a big war in the Middle East.  Iran’s nuclear program can only be constrained voluntarily.  Nuclear weapons are a matter of science, engineering, and money.  Iran has all three.  An attack would not necessarily do more than postpone the Iranian program.  An attack would sent Iran in pursuit of other, indirect ways of striking back at American interests in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Maybe Vladimir Putin will quietly mediate a settlement.

[1] Rick Gladstone, “A War of Words With Iran Risks Spiraling Beyond Control,” NYT, 24 July 2018.

[2] It worked OK from 1954 to 1979.  We’ve had forty years of hostility in return for twenty-five years of cooperation.

[3] Saddam Hussein used the same phrase when faced with an American invasion in 2003.

Migrants 1.

Social scientists posit that people experiencing disturbing social change can seize on particularist identities like ethnicity or nationality.  Demographic change and economic change and shifting social values all can trigger such a response.  On the other hand, cultural and economic elites in Western countries celebrate the free flow of goods and labor.  They also have developed more cosmopolitan views than have many fellow citizens.[1]

Illegal immigration provides a good example of the particularist-cosmopolitan tension.  In recent times, illegal migration has become easier than ever before in history.  In both Europe and America bitter quarrels over immigration rack politics.[2]  These controversies arise not from heavy current immigration, but from heavy prior immigration.  More importantly, the general backlash against elites–who led us to war in Iraq and then into the financial crisis—has ensnared migrants.

Illegal migration to the United States dropped sharply during the Great Recession.  It hasn’t picked up immensely in the past year.  However, that still leaves 10-12 million illegal immigrants in the United States.  Human symbols of elite failure.  Liberals insisting on calling them “undocumented immigrants”—as if there is just some bureaucratic foul-up in Washington—adds fuel to the fire.  President Obama’s skirting of the law angered many people.  Illegal immigration in the European Union is more recent.  There the flood of migrants from various failed states mixes with refugees from war-torn Muslim states.

People leave their “shithole” countries for good reasons and not just on a whim.  Until conditions in those countries improve, there is not likely to be a significant drop in attempts at illegal immigration.  To complicate matters further, while many of the migrants are economic migrants, the law allows them to request asylum as victims of persecution.  This clogs the immigration system and delays repatriation.

In light of this reality, attention has turned to deterring them from reaching American or European soil in the first place.  Europeans have negotiated with pathway countries—Libya, Sudan, and Turkey—to stem the departures for Europe.  The implementation of those agreements involves a good deal of brutality that is much worse than anything suffered by Central American migrants to the United States.  Mexico is unwilling to play that sort of role for the United States.  The “zero tolerance” policy attempted by a Trump administration grown tired of waiting for Congressional approval of a border wall offers another form of deterrence.

Cosmopolitans sometimes phrase the choice in a misleading way: “What sort of society do they wish to be?  Do they wish to be immigrant nations with continual demographic and cultural change?”  First, both the European Union and the United States have long had substantial legal immigration.  Second, it is legitimate to debate what kinds of immigrants best serve the interests of the community.

[1] Benjamin Barber, Jihad and McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Shaping World Society (1996).  Barber’s analysis remains engaging, but it wasn’t new.  Late-Nineteenth Century sociologists had identified the problem of anomie.  For that matter, historians long ago diagnosed the rise of “mystery” religions as a response to the cosmopolitanism of the Hellenistic kingdoms.

[2] Amanda Taub and Max Fisher, “In U.S. and Europe, Conflict Over Migration Points to Political Problems,” NYT, 30 June 2018.

Indonesian Islam.

Back in the day, Seymour Martin Lipset wrote The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective (1963).  Like most of Lipset’s work, it was about several things at once.  For one thing, it was about the United States as the first colonial territory to gain its independence from a colonial overlord.  Therefore, American could serve as a model for all the Asian and African countries recently or about-to-be liberated from European empires.  For another thing, it was about the related issue of how to create a stable democracy.  (That’s what most of the leaders of new nations said that they wanted, although the historical record now suggests other ambitions.[1])  According to Lipset democracy is intimately connected with economic growth: “[t]he more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy.”  This idea lay behind both the Marshall Plan to aid Western European economic recovery after the Second World War and the First Gulf War (1990-1991).[2]

Time hasn’t fully born out Lipset’s ideas–so far.  China, for example, is an increasingly prosperous autocracy.  In many Muslim countries, oligarchies have gobbled up national wealth, while the vast majority of people have little opportunity.  More importantly, religious belief can outweigh political theory.  It isn’t clear that the beliefs of Islam are compatible with Western conceptions of democracy.  Traditional Islam rejects any separation of church and state, it rejects law derived from legislatures rather than the Word of Allah, and it rejects the very idea of nation-states in favor of the “umma” of all Believers.[3]  Moreover, Islam is socially conservative in ways that Western liberals find repugnant.  Women’s rights and gay rights antagonize social conservatives.

Indonesia provides an interesting case.  It is the most populous Muslim country in the world.[4]  Piled on top of religious conservatism are hostilities related to ethnic or religious minorities.[5]  The very small share of people with Chinese ancestry play an out-sized role in the economy and have long been the target of Muslim hostility.  Women’s rights and gay rights have a salience in Muslim concerns because of Indonesia’s popularity with Western tourists.

Like Turkey, Indonesia has a democratic system.  Can democratic politics can be used to impose an Islamist agenda?  In 2002, Jemaah Islamiya—an Islamist group linked to Al Qaeda—killed 200 people in bomb attacks on the Indonesian island of Bali.  Repression followed.  Recently, however, there have been both a mass mobilization of Muslims against the Christian governor of Jakarta and renewed terrorist attacks.  There is also legislation pending to criminalize public display of affection by gay people.

Will Southeast Asia become the next front in the war against radical Islamism?

[1] A friend insists that there is a scene from one of Ionesco’s plays in which a character says “We will drink wine under the willow trees.  AND YOU WILL BE MY SLAVES!”  I haven’t been able to run it down.

[2] It was a war for oil prices and oil markets, not a war for oil companies.  The historically-minded men and women behind the war were aware that the 1970s “oil shocks” had pitched the world close to the edge of depression and that the Great Depression of the Thirties had been the principal cause of the Second World War.  They didn’t want that to happen again.

[3] We’ll probably hear complaints that the University of Michigan Museum of Art is a sign of creeping Islamization.

[4] Indonesia’s population is 270 million.   87.2 percent Muslim, 9.9 percent Christian, 1.7 percent Hindu, and 0.7 percent Buddhist and 0.2 percent Confucian.

[5] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Islamist Shift Unsettles Indonesia’s Democracy,” WSJ, 29 June 2018.