Is Iran Rogue for Arming The Houthis? Only If You Think the US Should Determine What Happens in the Middle East

 

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Pictured: Not the US

 

It’s been a big couple of day for people pointing out Iran’s involvement in Yemen’s cruel and generationally-destructive civil war. The Times had a pretty big story about it, relying on the unbiased reporting of the United States.

The top American admiral in the Middle East said on Monday that Iran continues to smuggle illicit weapons and technology into Yemen, stoking the civil strife there and enabling Iranian-backed rebels to fire missiles into neighboring Saudi Arabia that are more precise and far-reaching.

Iran has been repeatedly accused of providing arms helping to fuel one side of the war in Yemen, in which rebels from the country’s north, the Houthis, ousted the government from the capital of Sana in 2014.

The officer, Vice Adm. Kevin M. Donegan, said that Iran is sustaining the Houthis with an increasingly potent arsenal of anti-ship and ballistic missiles, deadly sea mines and even explosive boats that have attacked allied ships in the Red Sea or Saudi territory across Yemen’s northern border. The United States, the Yemeni government and their allies in the region have retaliated with strikes of their own and recaptured some Houthi-held coastal areas to help blunt threats to international shipping, but the peril persists, the admiral said.

This is an…interesting spin on this. To be clear, it is almost certainly true. Though initial Iranian involvement in the Houthi conflict (dating back to 2004) was clearly exaggerated, as there weren’t any real links between the Houthi version of Shi’ism and Iran’s Twelverism, Iranian influence and involvement have grown disastrously.

But one of the main reasons Iranian involvement has grown is because of increased involvement by Saudi Arabia, its regional and sectarian rival. Saudi Arabia wanted to break the Houthi rebellion and support their chosen President, and so invaded, with horrifying results.

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Radicalization and the Rohingya: How Terrorism Works On The Edges of the State System

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Is Myanmar SE Asia or is it the Subcontinent? Or are these arbitrary and meaningless?

First off, I’m not going to pretend to an expert, or even particularly knowledgeable about Myanmar and the Rohingya. Before the crisis of the last couple of weeks, I could have told you exactly three things about that group: they were Muslim, they were frequently the victims of persecution by the Burmese government, and they were essentially stateless. But if pressed, I don’t think I could have given you the details.

That said, it is a humanitarian crisis that has now come to the world’s attention, partly because the sainted Ayn Sung Suu Kyi seems to be, at the very least, complicit in the ongoing ethnic cleansing (if not outright genocide) of a long-persecuted people.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing state-sanction violence, the latest in the ongoing Burmese campaign against the Rohingya. Who are they? I’ll leave that work to this easy al-Jazeera explainer.

The Rohingya speak Rohingya or Ruaingga, a dialect that is distinct to others spoken in Rakhine State and throughout Myanmar. They are not considered one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups and have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982, which has effectively rendered them stateless.

OK, but…why? Well, even though many historians agree that Muslims have been living in that area since the 12th-century, the Buddhist-majority post-independence government of Burma/Myanmar disagreed. They considered them recent interlopers, because a lot more Muslims had come to the area from Bangladesh. To the government, they are officially Bengali.

OK, so then…why aren’t they refugees? A delightful quirk of history!

During the more than 100 years of British rule (1824-1948), there was a significant amount of migration of labourers to what is now known as Myanmar from today’s India and Bangladesh. Because the British administered Myanmar as a province of India, such migration was considered internal, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Because the British colonized both “India” (which also became Pakistan after independence, and then Bangladesh after the 1971 war which killed at least a million), as well as Burma, where Orwell shot an elephant, these are not refugees. But they also aren’t recognized. So they have no rights, and are denied basic services. That’s a neat trick!

Not everyone thinks so. When you have displaced and persecuted Muslims, that becomes a breeding ground for radicalization. Not necessarily of the Rohingya (I haven’t seen much about radical tendencies in that population), but for al-Qaeda, ISIS, and regional offshoots/independent groups.

This is quickly becoming a major cause for transnational Islamist groups. As The Soufan Group points out, “An example of how the situation can easily get worse and morph into a larger issue came in a September 12 statement by al-Qaeda  The terrorist group called for all Muslims to come to the defense of the Rohingya; a call to jihad similar to that of the Afghan War with the then-Soviet Union that set al-Qaeda’s foundation. Now three decades later, al-Qaeda is calling for more of the same in Burma. The statement derides the ‘fight against terrorism’ and calls for ‘all mujahid brothers from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines to set out for Burma…to secure their [the Rohingya] rights, which will only be returned to them by force.’”

This is like Bosnia, Chechnya, Yemen, Algeria: a place for jihadis around the world to flock to, to train, and to use for recruitment purposes. It is also a boon for regional groups, as Eurasia Review points out, with the charismatic Masood Azhar, leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, calling for much the same.

JeM is a Deobandi Sunni group, which is similar to Salafism, but has its roots in South Asia and the Subcontinent. It has largely been active in Kashmir, and its primary goal is to bring Kashmir back to Pakistan. Its relationship with the Pakistani government is officially complicated.

Actually, this is all really complicated. What, one might reasonably ask, does JeM really have to do with this? Is it just opportunism? And same with al-Qaeda. They’ve never shown a deep interest in Burma before (little need for aftershave)(sorry). So what is this all about?

For one thing, it is partially opportunism. Groups like Qaeda see a void in the state that leaves Muslims vulnerable and in danger, and they step up to be the protector. We’ll see of course if this translates into any action, but that’s almost beside the point. They are positioning themselves as champions of any Muslims, when the state can’t, and won’t protect them.

This is where this gets very dangerous. As we saw with the brief history above, the Rohingya are victims of history and geography; like Iran, their legacy rests on the perversions of colonialism and nationalism. The problem is that their land is in one of the soft spots of the state system, where maps were fluid and borders were permeable until, suddenly and horribly, they weren’t.

Whenever I had thought of the Rohingya before, skimmed a headline that talked about tens of thousands in misery or whatever, my mental map had people feeling in an Asian jungle, akin to Laos or Cambodia. That’s where I saw them going.

But that’s not really the case, as everyone now knows. They are inextricably linked to the bitter and violent history of the sub-Continent and the legacy of colonialism. Take a look at this map.

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Look at the way India pushes through the top of Bangladesh, encircling it save for the tiniest border with Myanmar. And think how irrelevant these borders really are to the historic lived experience of these people. You don’t have “Indians” on the east of Bangladesh as something ethnically dissimilar. There is mixing and blending, right through to Myanmar.

This is where the ridiculousness of the state system makes itself known. This is where the bitter fruits of “partition and parturition”, in Christopher Hitchen’s memorable phrase, fall to the ground, overripe and rotting. And this is what groups like al-Qaeda (and especially al-Qaeda) are so skilled at manipulating.

Al-Qaeda is both pre-and-post state. They reject borders and want to move the world to how they felt it was before: huge rolling Eurasian landscapes united by Islam. It was never that neat, of course, but the vision is nearer to the truth. These borders, which divide groups, and render the same people stateless or stated depending on the accident of migration and the whims of Westminster, are ridiculous, and al-Qaeda knows that.

They exist to exploit the crumbling and ahistorical state system that exists on the Eurasian heartland (and that isn’t doing too terribly well in Europe, either). They are wrong to think that a continental centralized caliphate is in line with history; things were always more subtle and local and free-wheeling and interesting than that.

But they know that the modern system, a legacy of the West trying to impose itself over the long-held order of the East, a paternalism imposed upon highly-developed cultures, couldn’t last. The contradictions and conquests of the 20th century are breaking up the order of the world, and groups like al-Qaeda know how to exploit that. Until we understand what is actually happening here, we’re powerless against groups that actually do.

 

 

Nikki Haley and the Iran Deal: Willful Misunderstanding of the Past and Present

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Lots of country’s think they have zones of influence.

It was washed away by storms last week, but Nikki Haley gave a speech to the AEI about the Iran deal, and the need to revoke or renegotiate it. It was a masterpiece of alternate realities, falsehoods, and outright lies. It was, in short, everything the right has been saying about the Iran deal for years.

That is was Nikki Haley is significant. She hasn’t come up much on this blog, mostly because, unlike nearly everyone else in Trump’s orbit, she isn’t trying to actively destroy her department (Pruitt, Sessions, Devos) or use it to further enrich their own class (Mnuchin, Cohn, the First Family). She seems to take her job seriously.

But at the end of the day, she’s still a Republican in 2017, and beholden to the idea–really, the totemic belief–that everything Barack Obama did was wrong, and evil. They’ve based an entire philosophy, nearly an eschatology, around that, and so it must be pursued. In very few places was that more clear than the Iran deal.

By literally every measure, the Iran deal was a sweeping success. As Stephen Walt points out in his dissection of Haley’s speech, in the deal “Iran gave up enriched uranium, destroyed 13,000 centrifuges, dismantled the Arak reactor, let the U.N. install monitoring devices, implemented the NPT Additional Protocol, and a host of other measures — all before the United States or anyone else began lifting sanctions.”

Iran went from zero centrifuges to 12000 between 2002 and 2012, when we were acting unilaterally. Then in a triumph of diplomacy for Obama, Kerry, and co, we roped in not just European allies but Russia and China to increase sanctions on Iran, which hurt them enough to get to the negotiating table. It not only got them there, but they gave up a lot.

The problem, from the right, is that Iran didn’t give up everything. They still have an army. They are still able to project influence across the region and interfere with US goals and interest, whatever they are now. They got some stuff out of the negotiations, which, as advanced, high-level students of diplomatic history will tell you, is the whole point of negotiations.

Look at how Haley spins this.

Iran was feeling the pinch of international sanctions in a big, big way. In the two years before the deal was signed, Iran’s GDP actually shrunk by more than four percent. In the two years since the deal, and the lifting of sanctions, Iran’s GDP has grown by nearly five percent. That’s a great deal for them. What we get from the deal is much less clear.

Sounds compelling! The only issue is that the GDP-pinching sanctions were levied explicitly as a way to get Iran to the negotiating table so it would stall and open up its nuclear program. Russia and China weren’t going to impose sanctions forever, and neither was Europe.

We didn’t give Iran an out from a crippled economy; we crippled it so that they would give up their nuclear program to heal. Haley’s argument is entirely mendacious, misleading nonsense that demonstrates embittered opposition to reality.

Musical interlude! 

Walt, in his vivisection (which you should read: he offers a point-by-point rebuttal, even as he acknowledges that it is way easier to them to lie than for us to point out the truth), gets to the heart of the issues.

When facts and logic fail them, opponents of the JCPOA resurrect the myth of a “better deal.” Having failed to stop Obama’s original negotiation, they now claim decertifying the deal is the first step to persuading Iran and the other members of JCPOA to agree to major revisions or new restrictions. As I’ve written before, this is a vain, even laughable, hope. Contrary to unreliable sources like Bloomberg reporter Eli Lake, the other signatories remain strongly committed to the agreement and want it to remain intact, even if they would also like Iran to modify some of its other behavior in other ways. More importantly, this view incorrectly assumes the United States has unlimited leverage over Iran, and that getting tough now will magically produce a better deal.

This is it exactly. For one thing, it is crazy to think that after years of holding together a multinational sanctions regime to get a deal that gave the world what they most wanted, i.e. an Iran that can’t restart its nuclear program for 15 years, the rest of the world will be thrilled that we ripped up the deal. It’s crazy to think they’d want to start over, and wildly delusional to think they’d trust the United States at all. They wouldn’t if a normal GOPer like Rubio or Cruz tore it up; they certainly won’t trust Trump.

And more than that, do you really think Iran would actually respond to that? That they’d say “OK, now that you’ve made it clear we get nothing at all for giving up our weapons program, we’ll be sure to come to the table. What’s that? You actually want us to give up more? To stop trying to influence our region? To stop acting like the historic power we are, and let America do whatever it wants in the Middle East? Great! Where do wanna do this? We’ll bring orange slices!”

It’s madness and fallacy to think that the Iranian regime, or really, any post-Shah Iranian government, would enter into any agreement that lessens their regional power and increases that of the West. To believe that is to have zero historical understanding, of the near or the distant past.

The Iranian revolution wasn’t about Islam, or not entirely. There was a mix of anti-imperialist leftists, communists, other various secularists, religious types who didn’t want clerical rule (which remember, is what Khomeini first promised) and non-ideological nationalists who were just tired of western interference.

Western Europe and Russia had eclipsed Persian power in the region in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until oil that the West really started controlling what was happening in Iran. Lopsided deals with venal flunkies gave England and then America a dominant role in the expropriation of Iranian resources. Shahs got rich, the west got rich, and most Iranians stayed poor. The same thing happened in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc.

Western colonialism in the Middle East was a 20th-century phenomenon, which in our lifetime seems like all of eternity, but was really a blip. It was a terrible one, from the perspective of the inhabitants, of course. It was dirty and condescending and venal and greedy and grubbing. It was literally crude. Khomeini wasn’t just deposing a shah for the sake of Islam: he was kicking out the west for the sake of Iran.

That’s the heart of this. Iran, after a low and brutal, but historically brief, interregnum, is trying to reassert itself in a changing and fluid Middle East, still reeling from the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the perversions of 20th-century colonialism and nationalism.

To think that it won’t continue this process is madness. To think that we still have unlimited influence is absurd. The US hasn’t had any real influence in Iran since 1979, and even before that it was limited, as the Shah clumsily played the US and the USSR against each other. Even where we had influence in the region, it clashed with the waves of current politics and with history, and the way those two smashed and foamed into each other.

It isn’t a unique American delusion to think that we can control everything everywhere. Iran believes that too! They are trying to influence Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and more. And that’s the point. Iran sees itself as a major player in an important part of the world, a hinge part of the world. It is right to see itself that way. Historically that has been the case, and now that it once again has control of its resources, it wants to reassert itself.

Our goal shouldn’t be unlimited influence. The history of Asia has been major and minot powers balancing themselves with others, dominating when they can and cooperating when they can’t. Our influence in the region is extremely limited. That Barack Obama was able to get Iran to give up its single-biggest asset was a miraculous display of geopolitical reality.

The attempt to destroy that comes from Obama blindness. It comes from ignorance of the 20th century and a misperception of how powerful we actually were. It comes from a complete denial of the way history actually works, and Iranian self-perception. Combined, it is a potential disaster. But then, what else is new?

Weekend News Roundup: Gorka, Tillerson, and Harvey

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There’s a Soviet-era sci-fi book by the Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov called The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years. I really liked it as a book (though it has been like 18 years since I’ve read it), but love it as a title. It’s a truism every day, of course, the long pace of a day, with each individual tumbling thought taking up its own space, elongating the day beyond memory. But it is especially true in our moment of nitwit authoritarianism, when we’re so consumed with the daily thrum of horror and inanity that time itself is distorted.

All of this is a long way of saying that a whole lot happened since Friday. Let’s do a quick breakdown of the hits (we’ll have a standalone post on the Arpaio pardon).

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New Afghanistan Strategy Essentially the Max Power Theory Of Counter-Terrorism

(I’m going to try, but probably unsuccessfully, to ignore the grotesque spectacle of a deeply unpopular President, aided in his minority-of-voters election win by both the remnants of slave power and of a foreign power, sending more soldiers off to die. That’s America, baby. I’ll even try to leave personal animosity out, with a discussion of his unique pathologies only as relevant to the strategy. Which are very relevant. Basically, I’ll leave out his talking about unity a day before he pardons Joe Arapio, using soldiers as a way to stifle dissent, and how you can’t talk about Arlington the same week you praise Lee. Christ, this guy.)

In case you can’t see the above clip, or for some reason don’t have the context for it, it’s a Simpsons episode where Homer wants more respect, and so changes his name to “Max Power”.  If memory serves, he got it from a hair dryer. That leads to this exchange, where he’s talking about the new Max Power experience.

Homer: There’s three ways of doing things: there’s the right way, the wrong way, and the Max Power way.

Bart: Isn’t that the wrong way?

Homer: Yeah, but faster.

To me, this has always been as perfect a summation of US foreign policy as there can be. The need to “do something” in order to “show leadership” and “set a clear standard” is always a disaster, with the idea of reputation being more important than success. In other words, it is somehow better for our reputation as a superpower to invade somewhere and fail than to not intervene at all. It’s the Max Power way.

But never, I think, have I seen a more clear example of this than in President Trump’s Afghanistan speech last night. The strategy is to focus entirely on counter-terrorism, sending in more troops (though it is unclear how many more) in order to fight ISIL, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and sundry other baddies on both sides of the Durand Line, it seems. We’ll also be training the Afghan army to fight on its own.

This could be an interesting strategy, except that a) that’s essentially what we’ve been doing since most of the soldiers now fighting and dying were toddling around in short pants, and b) it is, by design, divorced from political and diplomatic realities on the ground.

Trump said time and time again that we aren’t there to nation build, and we aren’t there to play nice. He gave lip service to making sure the government was viable, but considering we don’t yet have an ambassador, it seems like lip service is all we’re going to get. That basically means that we’re going to be bombing Afghanistan and will be there as a force dedicated to killing, and not, say, helping young girls get to school.

And I get that! It’s tough. No more pussyfooting around, snowflake. Let’s let our boys do what they do best. Kill people and break shit. Right?

Right. Except that in no way has that ever helped stop militancy, and certainly never stopped terrorism. The history of the last 16 years has taught us that. There’s no doubt a lot of people will die, many of them “bad guys”. There will also be a lot of civilians that die, many more with a looser combat conduct code. (US-led attacks on ISIS in Raqqa have killed 100 civilians this week.)

This acceleration of less-discriminate violence will be playing out without a strong political component, which to me makes it madness. It is our Yemen strategy on PCP. It’s doing the wrong thing, but faster, and with the volume turned up on Ride of the Valkyries. I’d say it is doomed to failure, but our Afghanistan policies probably have been from the start, through multiple administrations. This will just make the failure bloodier and costlier.

That isn’t to say there is no political component. Trump spent plenty of time threatening Pakistan and cajoling India to pay more. Neither of these are bad on their face, of course. The problem is that he is treating India like a responsible grown-up partner, Pakistan like a vassal state, and Afghanistan like a colonial battleground. This is part of the weird retrograde foreign policy that has formed within the Adminstration, a combination of the British East India Company and a cult of personality.

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The world here is essentially America’s to do with what she wants, and what she wants is for Donald Trump to make deals. Unilateral if possible, but the deal is this: you do what we say. It’s colonial and personal, and ultimately absurd. It’s clear that Trump is not a good negotiator, and this is compounded (and predicated by) his ignorance of everything in the world. So he likes to say big things, act tough, and then hope that no one notices when things fall apart. It’s how he’s always done things, but now there is nowhere to hide. Even the smart people around him can’t avoid getting sucked into the black hole or his detached malevolence.

That’s why this “policy” is what it is. It is a reality show, Let’s be Forceful, but without any substance behind it. That it is real, and real human being, American and Afghan, will die with piteous cries or in a blinding instant of non-being, makes it even more loathsome. There is no chance at success, but there is a chance at holding up some head or another for cameras and preening about how toughness leads to victory.

You can tell it is nonsense because Trump spent a long time saying how he wasn’t going to tell our enemies when we’re going to attack, a reference to how he thinks Obama did so. This is a reference, I think, to Mosul, a battle for which Trump took credit, even though he spent all fall complaining that the war for the city wasn’t a sneak attack.

To me, this shows that he still knows nothing. He really thinks it is possible to take a city without first massing troops. He’s so cable-news addicted he thinks that we actually announce attacks, and that he’s the first guy to say we shouldn’t. He’s so self-absorbed that he bases his statements on being tougher-sounding than Obama. He wants to project toughness without actually backing it up. He wants cheap and easy victories without caring about the long-term problems. He wants to do the wrong thing as quickly as possible. It’s the Max Power way.

When the President Matters

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How many times over these last few horrible days have you heard a variation of the phrase “Donald Trump failed to act like the President when the nation needed it.” I’m guessing a lot. The POTUS faced universal and happily bipartisan outrage for his mealy-mouthed avoidance of the true nature of this weekend’s horror, for merely conjuring up vague images of violence and bigotry from “many sides”.

The condemnation was of course correct. This is a man who pulls out the knives for literally anything that displeases him, from Gold Star families to newscasters to suspected Islamic knife attacks in Turkey. For him to be vague was a deliberate choice.

What’s more, it isn’t like he has been reticent to plunge into matters of racial violence beforehand. Last year, after the horrifying and sickening murders of police officers in Dallas by Mich Johnson, Trump consistently repeated the lie that Black Lives Matters activists called for a moment of silence for the shooter.

There was literally no evidence of it. As far as I was ever able to tell, no one (not even O’Reilly, who also repeated this) ever even found like a stray comment on an obscure message board that could get conflated to BLM “calling” for a moment of silence. It was something that was just made up.

But that didn’t matter to Trump. So not only was he legitimately angry and sickened at the murders (as we all were), but he added to it an incredibly divisive and dangerous lie. Those are his instincts.

And then we saw his instincts again this weekend when he refused to condemn anything except vague violence. Yeah yeah, he gave a “firm” statement yesterday, but the damage was done. His white nationalist allies know whose side they are on, and they are emboldened because of it. They all know that yesterday’s statement was pro forma and forced.

There is a chance that their hands are forced. There’s a chance that Jeff Sessions, who grudgingly admitted that the car attack “met the legal standard” of terrorism, will have to crack down on white nationalist militias and gangs, because it is politically impossible not to. My guess is that not much will happen. My guess is that a conviction of the driver will be touted as a major win, and be used to say “get off our backs.”

This is why the President matters. His appointments and his priorities matter. Jeff Sessions matters. Trump’s de facto approval of white nationalism matters. His using the phrase “cherish our history” was a direct homage to the ostensible goals of the white nationalist movement, to protect Confederate monuments, because liberals are trying to erase white history, which is, of course, “our history”. He encourages them because his only political ideology above and beyond the cult of self is vague white nationalism.

But then, there’s that phrase: “when the country needed the President”. To me, that’s super pernicious, and it is shown to be so because of Trump. The country doesn’t need a father-confessor, and we shouldn’t pour our hopes and dreams into the Presidency. We shouldn’t have an elected public official be our moral guidance counselor.

That’s a problem we have had for generations, and it is dangerous. Sure, we’ve had some good compassionate people. Barack Obama was incredibly empathetic and eloquent, and could channel grief into something productive (like in his Charleston eulogy). George W. Bush wasn’t as eloquent, but was able to speak to the country in times of grief. Bill Clinton could do it well, but never seemed totally sincere; seemed more like a man in love with his voice. George HW Bush was distant and patrician and saw the Presidency as a job, not a calling. Reagan was a gifted storyteller.

And HW was the only one who served one term, because we have a need for the President to be the Boy Scout leader of the nation (that’s not the only reason he lost, of course). That need we have is sometimes filled when we have a Reagan or and Obama, but it clearly isn’t when we have Donald Trump, a paranoid racist tiny little man. Because then the opposite happens. We feel more adrift, and the worst get filled with even more passionate intensity.

But maybe that’s changing. Maybe that’ll be Trump’s one positive contribution to this country. No one even really expected Donald Trump to do the right thing. No one, I think, except pundits and other Green Room creatures, turned their lonely eyes to Washington. We know we can’t rely on him. We know we have to fight these bastards locally, city by city, message board by message board. Maybe breaking the feeling that the president has to be the best of us will make it matter less when we elect the worst of us.

 

Shooting Irrelevance “Classics”: THE TRUMP NUCLEAR TERROR SHOWS THE GODLIKE POWER OF THE PRESIDENCY

 Obvious accompaniment to the post

(We’re probably not going to have a nuclear war with North Korea. Probably. But it is a good reminder that the Presidency in invested with literally godlike powers, essentially unchecked control over life and death on the planet. I’m linking back to an article I wrote last June about how this is power nobody should have, especially not Donald Trump. Denuclearization may be a pipe dream, but it is one worth fighting for.)

“But then…who should have that power?  Even by being asked, the question quickly reveals itself to be ‘nobody.’ Merely by dint of winning over undecideds in Ohio, one person can end civilization. A human being, woken up at 2:00AM, and told that the bombs are coming, and most people they’ve ever met may be killed, and they themselves might die horribly tonight, have to decide what to do. They have 5 or 6 minutes in which the literal fate of humankind rests in their hands. Even Ronald Reagan, rarely a deep thinker, couldn’t believe that the most important decision a human could ever make- the most important decision any human ever made- could come down to those few moments.”

Read the full post here, kids! And never sleep again.