Frayed Alliance: Turkey, Russia, and Iran Circle Back to Familiar Patterns


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he This map helpfully has every area I want to talk about

During WWI, the Ottoman Empire’s main concern wasn’t the British or French, and certainly not the Americans, but the Russians. The Russian Empire had fought the Ottomans time and time again throughout the centuries, with at least 11 distinct wars over territory.

Most of these wars revolved around the Balkans and the Ukraine, territory both empires thought was rightfully theirs. Russia, when the wars began in the 1600s, was an upstart, unfurling its frozen limbs from St. Petersberg after a slow recovery from Mongol depredations.

But conflict wasn’t entirely in Slavic lands. The reason why the Turks were so worried about the Russians, of course, was that the Russians had pushed their empire into the Caucasus Mountains, on the Ottoman’s eastern flank. That region, flanked by the Black and Caspian seas, was of vital importance to the local players, which is why a fur-hat dominated European hereditary dynasty fought bloody and indecisive wars to tame it.

This should clear everything up

Some of these wars that Russia fought for the Caucasus were against the region’s other historic power, the Persians. As Russia moved into that area, they fought a series of wars against the Persians, being rebuffed in the first war in 1651, but slowly gaining ground as the empires traded strength. By 1828, Russia was in firm control of what had been Persian territory.



So during the Great War, the Turks got awfully worried about the Armenians, Orthodox Christians who had spent nearly 100 years as part of the Russian Empire, serving as a buffer or a fifth column inside Ottoman territory. And it was pretty clear with whom the Armenians sided.

So, in order to prevent the Russians from consolidating territory, they had gained from the Persians and using it as a launching ground for an eastern front, the Young Turks tried to eliminate the Armenians, whose crime was being in the middle of three great empires.

This is sort of a long way of saying: that’s where we are again today.

Post-West, A Region Falls Into Historical Patterns

I was thinking about this when I read an article on Eurasia Review, originally from the Tasnim News Agency. It is about the Iranian president criticizing Turkey for their incursions in Syria.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged that Turkey’s military assault on Afrin region in northwest Syria should come to an end, stressing that the presence of an armed force in another country needs the consent of that country’s government and people.

Now, you might be skeptical of Iranian concern for this, given that they have been operating in Syria for the duration of the war, being, along with Russia, the main supporters of Asad. Rouhani could probably scoff at charges of hypocrisy though, since his statement was couched by saying “needs the consent of…government and people.”

And he has the consent of the government, if you believe Syria really exists anymore, which I sort of don’t. The people? That’s a bit trickier. But the main point is that none of the major players are actually concerned with the wishes of a sovereign Syrian people. Instead, this is a regional battleground. For Iran, it is partly (largely) against the Sauds, but more and more, it is becoming the testing ground for old enmities against Russia and Turkey.

Last year I talked about these powers, and how they were maneuvering with and against each other. There was sort of an alliance between the three, but that, to me, was one of quick convenience, a way to fully and finally push out the US and the rest of the West. And that’s what happened: while we can still bomb Syria and supply Saudi Arabia to destroy Yemen, there isn’t much in the way of US influence.

Trump is so emotionally conflicted by this image


It is tempting to say that’s a void into these other powers are filling, but that’s not really accurate. Rather, the presence of the West is a recent imposition which has been removed. Your mileage may vary about Russia being the West or not, but there is no doubt it has been active in the region for nearly 500 years. While Russia has always cared about its east, and pushing into Europe, it is its south, with warm water, open ports, and route into the Indian Ocean, that has driven it.

Russia would love for Asad to win, and to be able to take advantage of a friendly country to establish warm water ports in the Mediterranean. Along with its Crimea grab, that would give it a foothold in the both that sea and the Black. And it needs those, because it is being outmaneuvered by both Iran and Turkey in the Caspian (which we talked about last year, my favorite to write and least-read article.)

But it isn’t like Turkey and Iran are buddies, either, as Rouhani’s criticism of Turkey shows. This is more Iran wanting Turkey to stay out of what it considers its zone, but Turkey wants to rid itself of meddlesome Kurds, and so is creating, in Afrin, a “buffer”.

If it happens to claim a chunk of Syria, well, what is Syria anyway?

That isn’t their only front either. They are also waging a war of influence in the Caucuses, with Azerbaijan beginning to turn toward Ankara, even though the historic Azeri heartland is split between that country and northern Iran.

And so that’s where we are. Once again, the Eurasian heartland is slowly being dominated by its historic powers, with Saudi upstartedness as essentially a rearguard action by the West. I have no idea who this will play out. But it is time to stop looking at the brief flicker of the 20th-century as a regional paradigm. For better or worse (but most likely neither, or both), it has been snuffed.

The new old reality is back.





How Democracies Die: In America, Part Farce, Part Fearful Spear


At one point last year, I think shortly before the inauguration that wrenched us across the border into this absurd and terrifying period, I woke up with a palimpsest of thoughts, the first a video-like replay of the moment during the debate where Hillary Clinton accused then-reality-star Trump of being a Russian puppet.

If you remember, he leaned into the mic and said, “No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet.” At the time, we all knew there was something hinky going on with Russia, but the next layer of thought in that morning black wasn’t about his deflecting the truth, but the artless and childish and idiotic way in which he did it. There was a moment of disconnect for me, where I thought how amazing it was that someone so dumb could come close to the Presidency. And even as that thought flickered through my gauzy dawnish brain, the horrible truth of what happened next came roaring like an unstoppable train.

For me, that is one of the worst parts of this horrible period, where the Republican Party is going all in on undermining every one of our institutions, subverting the rule of law in order to protect one man. It’s not just that they are breaking our democracy, it is that they are breaking our democracy for this schlub, for this witless dummy and his graspingly moronic children.

But that’s just for me. I have the luxury of having semi-removed despair. For those on the spear-end of racial authoritarianism, there is no remove. For those who are being ripped from their country and torn apart from their familes, or who are in the crosshairs of a new push toward massive incarceration, there is no distance.

In their incredible and powerful new book, How Democracies DieSteven Livitsky and Daniel Ziblatt outline the ways in which democracies can be eroded from within, slowly and then very quickly. They talk about the way in which norms are ignored, and more importantly, how allies give up any pretense of democratic leanings in order to protect their primary representative, whether that is Hugo Chavez or Donald Trump.

The cover isn’t subtle, but then, neither is what is happening. 

But most importantly, in the American context, they put into stark relief how central a role race and racism play in our democracy. They make the now-obvious but to me unremarked upon point that post-Civil War, democratic comity was dependent upon both parties agreeing to ignore civil rights.

It was only when the moral force of that issue was no longer ignorable, thanks to the bravery of the activists, the cruelty of the perpetrators, and the unrelenting and unmistakeable humanity of those ground under Jim Crow’s footsteps, that movement was made. And once the Democrats shook off their racist roots and became the party of Civil Rights, and the GOP became the home of apartheid, that our norms started fraying.

In this accelerated period, we see it in stark relief. Really, we see both sides. For people like me, protected from the worst by race and class and circumstance, the sudden capsizing of our democracy is playing out as farce. For those who are paying with their lives for the Republican reliance on racial animosity, it is tragedy.

The two sides are connected. If we really want to understand what is happening here, we have to look at both sides.

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Year End Subjectivity: Best Books of 2017

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In some ways, it’s been a bit of a weird and dark year. For some evidence of that, you can check: this blog’s entire archives. If you don’t feel like doing so, you can just reflect on why you need to pull tight the cloak around your shivering body, nervous with dread at each new dawn, wondering what horrors await. Either way!

But it’s also been a pretty good year for books. I’m usually pretty terrible at reading new things, especially new fiction, but for a few reasons have made more a point of doing so this year, in addition to the usual nonfiction.

So, here’s a totally subjective list of some of my favorites. This isn’t to say the “Best Books of 2017”, since that would be absurdly arrogant, not to mention extremely myopic. Here are the best books read this year, with no real division between fiction and non. I’m sure there are many I am missing, and will kick myself later on. I really need to start writing this stuff down.

The first list are ones published this year, then a shorter one of books I finally read, whether a few years old or many.

There’s no real order here, except the first one would probably be on top if I did.

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A Reminder That Iran Protests Don’t Exist Because of or Despite the United States

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I am far from an expert on Iranian internal politics or its economy–though, if you’ve watched the shows or been on Twitter the last few days, that shouldn’t stop anybody from opining intently. Is this anti-regime? Pro-Trump? Anti-Trump? Does it show the nuclear deal was a success, or another capitulation? Should we investigate Hillary? What does Tucker Carlson think? Etc.

What is happening in Iran has quickly become, as these things do, internalized. It’s become about the United States, subsumed into our domestic debates and endless dining room squabbling. Who was right about Iran? Who was wrong?

This is frustrating, and not just because it is myopic, and frankly irritating as hell, but because it gets to the very heart of the problem: we don’t see the Iranians as actual people, but rather as pawns in our imperial power and our domestic maneuvering. And because of that, we’re almost doomed to make worse what could be a propitious moment in regional history.

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Roy Moore Calls For New Election Due to Voter Fraud; Is Mainstream Republican


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Erie PA is not a metaphor for the chilling freeze overtaking our democracy, but it’s not not, either


Dave Wiegel this morning talked about a ridiculous, ludicrous story that barely even bats a single brow, here in the late bitter cold of 2017.

Roy Moore, the Republican nominee who lost Alabama’s closely watched Senate race this month, has filed a last-minute legal complaint alleging “election fraud” and asking the state not to confirm the victory of Democrat Doug Jones.

In the complaint filed in state court, Moore’s campaign argues that Alabama “will suffer irreparable harm if the election results are certified without preserving and investigating all the evidence of potential fraud.” It cites rumors of election fraud that have already been investigated and refuted by the Alabama secretary of state, argues that high Democratic turnout in key areas was statistically unlikely, and reports that Moore himself has taken a polygraph test — an attempt to disprove allegations that he made unwanted sexual advances on teenagers when he was in his 30s.

Weigel obviously gets to the heart of this nonsense when he talks about rumors that have been “investigated and refuted” by Alabama’s deeply-red Secretary of State. These aren’t even “rumors”, really, as much as “completely made up nonsense by racists and vandals.”

They involve, as you would assume, Soros-funded buses dragging out-of-state blacks and other liberals into small towns in a state with the toughest voter ID laws in the country to swing an election by some 20,000 votes.

There’s another great part in this story.

The complaint also recounts how the secretary of state investigated a viral video of a man saying people had come from “across the country” to help beat Moore — but goes on to argue that the investigation was not transparent. The man in the video turned out to be a legal Alabama voter.

Now, anyone who has ever worked on any election know what that means: there were volunteers coming from everywhere. That happens in every election.  This was one Jones volunteer who excitedly said that they united the country to win, and the right-wing took that as proof of a massive conspiracy. That’s right: they think that they caught some guy going “We have voter fraud, baby! We made the illegal!”

(The whining about it being investigated but not being “transparent” is great. You know the investigation was the SoS going into another room, counting to ten, and coming out and being like “Well boys, we looked into it…”)

The other part of the complaint is that it was statistically unlikely that Democratic turnout in general, and black turnout specifically, was so high. That’s almost cute, because Roy Moore can’t fathom how so many people hate him.

Now, Moore is backed up in this by “election experts”, which is a way of saying people who make up stuff about elections in order to suppress black votes. Weigel politely puts paid to the story.

The experts came to the case with baggage of their own. James Condit Jr., one of the election analysts who signed an affidavit on behalf of Moore’s campaign, has written and spoken about “Zionist” control of world politics, and alleged an Israeli role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Richard Charnin, who provided the court with an argument that there was just enough possible fraud to swing the election, claimed to have “mathematically” proven a conspiracy behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

OK, so a loathsome, wildly unpopular figure disputes that unpopularity by claiming to be the victim of massive fraud and conspiracy, against the reality of any evidence, gethers cranks and weirdoes to “prove” his entirely fabricated allegations, takes every opposition statement in bad faith and blows it up into conspiratorial nonsense which gets amplified by the right-wing noise machine, and uses the machinery of state to further his ambitions and monkey-wrench our democracy. What does that make Roy Moore?

An establishment Republican.

As we (unoriginally) pointed out when he won his run-off against Luther Strange, Roy Moore is a perfect establishment Republican: beholden to conspiracy, an expert at self-victimization, a bully and a brute, and an anti-democratic demagogue. To quote myself, because no one else will:

 Roy Moore is just another example of how wild and ultimately ungovernable this country is, and how mean-spirited and bigoted and narrow-minded today’s right wing is, and with that, with his comic-opera cruelty and sneering, gun-blasted piety, he’ll fit right into Mitch McConnell’s Senate.

What was true then is even more true now. Since then Trump’s assaults on the FBI have ramped up, and the Republican Party has continued to march lockstep with this hammering away at our norms. They are undermining any attempt to have a law-based society, and a fact-based one, and are giving into authoritarianism far quicker than I had even thought possible.

This week’s terrifying calls for “purges” of disloyal FBI agents by Florida Congressman Francis Rooney is part of that. While it is easy to write off as the ravings of a lunatic, it isn’t very far off from what other people, both inside government and in the influential right-wing circus media, have been saying.

These people are working for a government of permanent minority, dedicated to white supremacy in the form of plutocratic worship and exclusionary theocracy. They are willing to commit treason for it (as Digby points out, the leading Congressional charge against Mueller is coming from Floridians, who seem to be pretty involved in Russian electoral interference). They believe in wild conspiracies and outlandish assaults on reason.

So why should Moore concede? Why should he back down? What difference do facts make when you have no shame, and are willing to do whatever it takes to establish a denuded landscape of wage-servants fighting each other along racial lines while walled off from the billionaire class and their self-selected fetch-servants?

After all, he is a Republican, dead-center in the mainstream of that wretched collection of goons and thieves. They’re falling in line behind Trump, and Trumpism, as this terrible year ends in the vice-grip of a shattering cold, driving deep into the frozen marrow of our bones, threatening to break everything we once knew.

Happy Holidays! The President is a Deranged Bigot!

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Yes, that’s Dean Cain, in case you were wondering if Trump can’t pull in the stars. He still can, baby! 

So, I was on the el yesterday, and at one of the stops a woman shambled toward the seats in front of me, causing her potential seat-mate to instinctively scoot away. Understandably: she was singing and laughing to herself, dressed in baggy rags, with that particular human odor of neglect proceeding and enveloping her.

She sat in front of me, so for the next 10 minutes I had a one-man audience to her songs, a garbled mix of half-remembered hymns and “Frosty the Snowman”, interspersed with high-pitched laughing when the robotic voice announced the stop. She incorporated the name of the station in her tunes in a way that I found delightful.

When I got to my stop, I walked past her and sort of half-smiled, and she looked at me, burst into laughter, and said “MERRY CHRISTMAS, FROSTY!”

And I thought: well, she must be crazy. It’s only November 30th.


In his later remarks, the president told the crowd how long he’d been waiting to say “Merry Christmas,” a nod to his 2016 campaign promises that Americans would be “saying Merry Christmas again.”

“Today is a day that I’ve been looking very much forward to all year long,” the president said. “It’s one that we’ve heard and we speak about and we dream about and now, as the president of the United States, it’s my tremendous honor to now wish America and the world a very Merry Christmas.”

This was one of the main talking points our dumbest possible candidate had during the campaign, before he transitioned into the idiot President: that people would be saying Merry Christmas again, because of him. It wasn’t very subtle. He sort of understood the War on Christmas talking points and, but doesn’t understand (and indeed rejects) anything like subtlety or nuance.

What he does have a genius for is how to turn the lingering scars of resentments, both real and imagined, into gaping, suppurating wounds. And, due to his overwhelming ego, he convinced people that he would be the one to change it. So he ratcheted the rhetoric up to 11.

In Trump’s telling, absolutely no one said “Merry Christmas” during the Obama years. It never came up. December was a grim and joyless slog toward an undefined date where we gathered, in a foggish trance, driven only by the sense-memory that Dec 25th used to mean something, and exchanged practical gifts and bowls of oatmeal around a fake gingko tree.

It was basically this grim. Check out what he said in St. Louis the other day, in a speech about the “tax plan” (he didn’t talk much about the tax plan, because he certainly doesn’t understand it, and isn’t smart enough to pretend it is something other than the class warfare Gotterdammerung).

“Remember, I was the one when I was here the last time, I said, ‘We’re going to have Christmas again,’ ’’ Trump said. “I was the one that said, you go to the department stores and you see ‘Happy New Year’ and you see red and you see snow and you see all these things. You don’t see ‘Merry Christmas’ anymore. With Trump as your president, we are going to be celebrating ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”

In Trump’s telling, having red and having snow and all those things is somehow not celebrating Christmas, which comes as a surprise to anyone who has been to any store since Thanksgiving and been assaulted by “The Little Drummer Boy”. He is right, though, that people don’t say “Merry Christmas”, but there is a reason for that: it isn’t fucking Christmas until December 25th.

Think of how insane their proposition is. They think that when you walk into a store this evening the person checking you out should say “Merry Christmas”, 24 days before the holiday. It would be like the dude at Target saying “Happy 4th of July!” in mid-June. I mean, we have the American flag paper plates on display, so why not say it?

The thing is, everybody says Merry Christmas on Christmas. And usually for the few days before. If you’re going on vacation on like, the 18th, you say “have a Merry Christmas” to your co-workers as you leave. That’s normal. What isn’t normal is to say a day’s salutations literally weeks in advance, with numbing repetition.

And they obviously know all of this, and you know all of this. Their whole point isn’t to celebrate Christmas; the point is aggressive identity politics. The snarling, combatitive “Merry Christmas” is to make anyone who isn’t celebrating uncomfortable, unwelcome, excluded.

And it isn’t even just anyone who isn’t celebrating; it’s anyone who isn’t celebrating the right way. Hell, I love Christmas, and I’m as secular and liberal as you can get. My bride and I are decorating this weekend. We go nuts. Lights illuminating the every nook and cranny, a real tree, fake fluffy snow bringing memories of frost to every windowsill. It’s a goddamn wonderland. But that’s not enough.

It’s not enough because they have an extremely exclusionary and bigoted vision of what America should be, one that isn’t close enough to encompass a general holiday season, where you can be happy about a lot of things for a whole month. That’s how small and petty and terrified they are. And their avatar is in power.

We see this narrow bigotry in so many places, in so many ways. It manifests itself in the cruelty of the border wall. It manifests itself in the repeated Muslim bans. It manifests itself in Jeff Session’s daily racism. It clearly manifests itself when Trump tweets out fascist propaganda in order to incite violence (alientating our primary ally). It even comes to fore in our nuclear terror with North Korea, where the President preens and blusters and has to show he’s a bigger man than some stunted Asiatic.

It’s beyond argument that bigotry (which is broader than racism, and sometimes less cruel, though they are related) is at the heart of Trumpism. The insane tax plan, which will solidify the plutocracy’s power-and-money-grab for a generation, puts paid that this was at all about helping Johhny Blacklung.

There are people who thought Trump could help the overcome their economic straits, for sure. A lot of people genuinely thought he was a good businessman, with the evidence being: he was on TV. A lot of people were just crying out against change, in some ways an understandable thing.

But at the end, Trump was taking the pain of change and promising not salvation, but retribution. He didn’t promise to make things better; he was the promise of getting even. He promised to bring the rest of us down to size, so we can all be miserable together. He would give the disposssed not any real hope or opportunity, but a chacne to jab the flag of final surrender right into the spine of a fallen enemy. We might all be in the trash heap, but someone’s trash heap has a few gnarled and flickering strings of Christmas lights and the blood of the fallen to brighten their hovel.

Happy holidays!