In Leaving Syria, Trump Perfects the War on Terror

OK, so a few things about Donald Trump’s seemingly unilateral announcement that he was withdrawing US troops from Syria.

  1. We have not in any way “defeated ISIS”, even if, as Sarah Sanders put it, the “territorial caliphate” is, for the time, kaput.
  2. We weren’t going to “defeat ISIS” with US troops on the ground, because that’s impossible.
  3. ISIS, even as a “caliphate”, was never an existential threat to the US
    They are, however, a humanitarian catastrophe and a pack of atavistic murdering ghouls.
  4. Keeping US troops there forever would be insane and self-defeating and there would be no logical withdrawal point.
  5. Keeping US troops there forever would add to regional instability by furthering the narrative of US colonialism.
  6. Trump’s withdrawal is going to foment more regional instability, by creating new fronts between Russia, Turkey, the Kurds, and various anti-Asad, AQ, and ISIS groups.
  7. Russia is thrilled– this helps them get what they want, i.e. a chance to have more regional influence. So nice job giving Russia what they want, Trumpo!
  8. Good- let them have it. A fundamentally weak Russia is going to get mired in a dissolving region, because Putin can never help overplaying his hand.
  9. We’ve once again abandoned the Kurds
  10. That’s one thing every American President does well
  11. We’ve strengthened Iran’s position. So nice job giving the mullahs what they want, Trumpo!
  12. See #7.

So here’s where I slightly exonerate Trump. There are no good outcomes for US policy in the Middle East, especially when it comes to Syria. I don’t think this can be blamed entirely on Obama, of course: I don’t see what kind of US intervention could have prevented its disintegration, unless he acted on the “regime change” level of the Iraq invasion in 2003, which, as you might remember, led to the disintegration that spread to Syria.

So there is a certain beautiful logic in withdrawing from Syria just like that, with a stumpy-fingered snap. For years, cynics and wags have said that the only way to win the “War on Terror”, a nonsense concept, would be to just declare victory and go home. After all, you can’t actually fight or defeat “terror”, so saying that you’ve won fits neatly into the woozy and blood-letting futility of the last 17 years. A perfect capstone!

Of course, it isn’t neat at all. Trump’s decision was made without any consultation and seemingly without any concern for its ramifications. There was never a Syria plan for him, just a repeating pattern of ineffective and contradictory airstrikes and a continuation of Obama-era anti-ISIS strategies.(Which he never understood, anyway.)

For proof that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, dig this tweet.

So…ISIS isn’t defeated? The whole thing is nonsense, but that’s to be expected.

All of his Syria strategies were a disaster. And they were a disaster in way that is inherent to Trump, but not drastically out of line with the way the US has conducted its surreal and destructive foreign policy over the last few decades.

In a way, of course, this was classic Trump: decide to take credit for something that didn’t happen just so 1) you can get press for it; 2) your acolytes will immediately say that you did the right thing; and 3) so that you can whine about the TV people not giving you enough credit.

That’s how he operates. It’s the only way he knows how. There’s no real forethought, there’s no insight into the situation. It’s just pure self-aggrandizement with no basis in reality. It is a decision based solely on a manufactured and pre-ordained reaction.

But so what? The entire last few decades have been that way, beginning with the very concept of a War on Terror. The shock and horror of September 11th obscured the fact that these massive strikes required insane luck and were basically non-repeatable. The only way that al-Qaeda could actually destroy America is if we let it.

And we did. We gave into fear and anger, to our natural habits of couch-quivering and xenophobia. We gave into insane security theater at the airports, the militarization of the police, and the inability of any politician to appear “Weak on terror”. When John Kerry said that fighting terrorism is a police, rather than a military action, he was mocked across the board even as every goddamn terrorism expert nodded with such simultaneous vigor that it was registered seismically.

None of that mattered. What mattered was the theatrical idea that America was doing something, even as our plans got bogged down, even as the Middle East imploded, even as bodies came home in thousands of bags and were measured by shattered limbs and broken brains.

We still can’t tell the truth. Even now, jackals like Lindsey Graham are weeping over the withdrawal, calling it a “stain” on US honor, because that is measured by our willingness to use troops to playact conquering fantasies. These last decades have been built on lies and delusion, fueled across party lines and by a compliant and timorous media.

So sure: Trump’s actions are uniquely his in their unreflective stupidity. But Trump didn’t make these wars unreal. He is the end result of a willingness to accept and even celebrate artifice. That Trump’s actions are in logical line with 17 years of illogical policy is a sobering epitaph to US primacy.

Love, Indifference, and the South Side: Eve Ewing’s “Ghosts in the Schoolyard”

Late in Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing’s short and dense and powerful exploration of the closing of African-American schools on Chicago’s South Side, she talks to a young man named Martin who walks past his old shuttered grade school every day. Giving Marvin the space to explore his thoughts, she quotes:

You remember a tree! We played near that tree and my brother would take us to school…Like you’ll walk to school with your brother and I see the tree and I see the school…and then I walk into my school. So it’s like I would take a left and you would walk down and you just start remembering everything. Because like, it’s this house, it’s a house that you always remembered…I remember walking past it and I remember they were building it. Then I walked past this tree and there was a beehive there. And you know we were kids so-

[Ewing (laughs): You’re throwin’…”]

You’re messing with the bees [laughs]. I know it’s not good now, but you’re messing with the bees and we’re running from the bees and every time I walk past that tree I just think about the bees.

Reading this passage, I was moved by the reality of his memory, by the freshness and the rawness of it, by the sweet elegy of the bee memory, the kind of thing that maybe happened a handful of times but stuck in his head as monumental, and enters his brain every day. 

Even as I read it and entered into the strangeness of another person’s associations- strange both for being not your own, and strange for being so recognizable and shaded in a universal amber- I was thinking of a literary comparison. In his eloquent inelegance, Martin sort of reminded me of Holden talking about the Natural History Museum in Catcher in the Rye, except, really, that’s not right at all. 

For Holden, the point was that in the museum “everything always stayed right where it was”, and “the only thing that would be different would be you.” That’s far from the case here. For Martin, and virtually everyone else in Ewing’s powerful and powerfully-researched book, everything had changed. Their neighborhoods and their institutions were ravaged. Their memories were torn down. The names of their heroes were effaced. 

And all this was done because Martin wasn’t Holden. That is, because centuries of racism and neglect and generations of institutional indifference and cruelty had erased African-Americans from their own stories. There was no conception that the people impacted by decisions in City Hall were people, that they had genuine feelings for their communities. They were erased from their stories. There was no moral imagination to allow the people of Bronzeville to be the protagonists in the narrative of their lives. 

Ewing’s book changes that. 

Let us not mince words: Ghosts in the Schoolyard is a wonder. It’s both sweeping and intimate, deeply-researched and deeply-felt, giving air to individuals while exhaustively weighing the impact created by decades of decisions and indifference. 

Ewing’s book telescopes back and forth in examining the closing of schools in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, the heart of the historic “Black Belt”, an area that was penned in and crowded by redlining and the Dan Ryan, a place that was synonymous with an explosion of arts and culture and with violence, an area that saw the worst of housing project architecture. An area, in short, that fit many narratives, few of which were ever told by the people who lived there. (Or, more accurately, were told, but were rarely listened to outside the community.)

Ghosts in the Schoolyard sets out to change that. Ewing focuses on one high school, Dyett, which the CPS and Rahm Emmanuel wanted to close to turn into a charter school, and three elementary schools, which were “underutilized and under-resourced”. 

Ewing tackles these issues from the narrow and the broad, and in doing so shows us there is no difference between them. She talks about the community effort to save Dyett, to keep it an open enrollment high school, one that could actually prepare students for the future. After all, if the city was going to spend money to make it a charter school, why couldn’t they spend money to improve it as an open enrollment school? 

Why not, indeed? Because that wasn’t part of the plan. The plan was to fix a “failing” education system by neoliberalizing the hell out of it. That is what Rahm wanted, and that was the direction the CPS was going, in the footsteps of Arne Duncan (whose ideas were supported by, ashamedly, Barack Obama). 

Ewing ties that decision to the history of Chicago, which crowded people into Bronzeville and the Black Belt through institutional racism, refusing the chances to desegregate the city when building public housing. Instead of building across the city, the built straight in the air. 

We know that story. But the story that isn’t told as much is that when those towers came down, when Mayor Daley pushed to create ground-level public housing, communities were destroyed. I know that I, safe and sound and decidely liberal, rejoiced when the projects were torn down to make for more human living conditions. What I forgot, or probably never thought about, was that those were still actual communities. They may have been bad, but people had set up lives there. 

I never explored what it meant to suddenly disrupt the lives of all these people; I took it as axiomatically good, because I still refused to give proper agency or narrative control to the people whose lives were impacted. In this, I wasn’t alone. What Ewing does is place the narrative where it belongs, while still keeping the thread of how these decisions waterfall on each other. 

So: overcrowding became “underutilized” schools, after the communities that once crowded the classrooms were dispersed. But there were still students there. There were still teachers. There were still lives built around the routine of the classroom and the safety of known and accepted routes to school. 

The disruption of that, and the trauma it create, is what the heroes of the book fought and still fight against. They fight because they are people, and they fight not against the overt racism of yesteryear, but the passive wonkish racism of the spreadsheet. 

In one of the book’s most maddening passages, Ewing quotes a CPS official reading the numbers explaining why the grade schools have to close. It was an elegant mathematical formula: “the enrollment efficiency is plus or minus 20% of the facilities ideal enrollment”; “the number of allotted homerooms in approximately 76-77% of total classrooms”, etc. 

It’s bizarre. It’s inhuman. And Ewing takes it to task not just for its absurdity, but for its mulish implacability, its use of cold numbers to mask the human truth of the situation. She talks about how the numbers are seen as unquestionable, even though they are essentially arbitrary. They are positioned as inarguable, presented with the shrugged shoulders of the bloodless apparatchik, instead of something created and massaged in the service of a preordained ideal. 

In this, Ewing captures the perfect and seamless continuity between the old man Daley’s thuggish racism and Rahm’s neoliberal paens to equality, and how, in the end, there is no difference. She is cutting and accurate in pointing out that words don’t matter. Intentions might not even matter. If at the end of the day the result is the same, if you are continuing the dehumanizing assault on black lives, who gives a damn about your words? 

We see who gives a damn in this book. We see the community activists, and we hear from the people whose lives were ruined. And through it all, there is a surprising theme: love. 

We meet people who genuinely love their schools. They love what it means to go to the school their grandmother attended. They love the institutional links between generations. And of course they love their friends and their family. 

Ewing dives deep into black culture, and how ties go beyond nuclear family, and how mourning means something different. In doing so she demonstrates the impact of American culture on the black community, and Chicago in particular, and how traumatic these mathematical closings really are. 

For me, the thrust of the book is erasure. It’s an erasure of a culture. It’s an erasure of lives. It is how we rarely let African-Americans tell their own stories. In literature, sure, but not in life. 

That’s nowhere more clear than in school names. Dyett High was named after Walter Henri Dyett, who spent decades teaching music in Bronzeville, imparting upong generations that mystical combination of discipline and ecstasy. He was a community legend. His name was erased. 

While the school was saved, it was officially changed to “Drake”, named after a racist hotel magnate with zero ties to the Bronzeville community. That’s not all though. 

Mary C. Terrell Elementary- named for a black suffragist who was a charter member of the NAACP- became ACE Technical Charter School in 2001. Two years later, Sojourner Truth Elementary School became the Chicago International Charter School. Ralph J Bunche Elementary School, honoring the first African American to win a Nobel Prize, is now Providence Englewood Charter School.

To say this is all gross is an understatement; replacing Sojourner Truth with some neoliberal perfidy is a literal assault on a culture. The changing of the names is an effacement. The names matter. Lives matter. 

That’s the heart of Ewing’s book. These are lives here. And while she doesn’t argue, of course, that all schools should always remain open, trapped in amber and surrounded by the same beehives, she urges us to actually think about the people. 

There is a luxury in hiding behind spreadsheets. There is a luxury in ignoring the decades and centuries of distant decisions that led to a crisis and then blaming the people who suffer from those decisions, and uprooting them more. There is comfort in having no memories, but personal institutional amnesia isn’t the heart of the program. 

The heart of the program is denying other people’s memories. It’s denying other people’s agency. It’s removing them from the story, taking away their beehives and their recollections of Double Dutching before class and their knowledge that their parents had to fight the same damn battles against the same damn oppressors. That’s how racism wins time and time again. 

Ewing’s book is a correction to that. It is a non-polemic that gives no quarter, and is fiercely urgent. It’s a book that tells the right story. It’s a book that reminds us these stories have to exist. 

Signposts Along a Road of Bones: The US Fights International Climate and Migrations Action

First, from the weekend: 

KATOWICE, Poland—The United States worked with Russia and Saudi Arabia on Saturday night to sideline climate science in U.N. negotiations, angering nations that say urgent action is needed for their survival.

The three countries and Kuwait blocked nearly 200 nations involved in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change from “welcoming” a U.N. report in October saying that “unprecedented” action is required to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and stave off worldwide hardship.

Vulnerable island nations and other developing countries tried to elevate the 1.5 C goals with the type of diplomatic subtlety these talks are known for. But welcoming the report was too strong a message for the United States and other nations that oppose climate action.

Scientific American

Then, from the week:

The first ever international deal on the migration crisis was signed on Monday by a majority of UN states, despite vociferous objections led by the United States.

The historic, non-binding global pact seeking to better manage migration was approved by delegates from 164 nations following 18 months of debate and negotiation. German chancellor Angela Merkel hailed it as an “important day”.

The UN’s global compact on safe, orderly and regular migration, signed in Marrakech, is aimed at coordinating action on migration around the world. It was rejected by President Donald Trump a year ago. Since then Austria, which holds the EU presidency, has pulled out of the process, along with Australia, Chile, the Czech Republic, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Latvia, Slovakia and the Dominican Republic.

The Guardian

(Since then, Brazil has also rejected the migration pact, though that might not be too surprising)

Neither one of these moves should cause too many monocles to shatter in shock. Republicans reject climate science, even when it is our own government and our own scientists projecting, with certainty, catastrophic and possibly civilization-ending results unless we act literally right now.  The President himself has said he doesn’t believe that climate report, because who knows who is paying these scientists, and anyway, he’s like a real smart guy. His uncle taught at MIT! 

(One could point out that it is the US government paying these scientists, something Trump could maybe have found out, except that he is a dim, conspiracy-addled doofus. This isn’t incidental to the whole thing.)

The migration compact, while in the long-run less absolutely catastrophic, also isn’t a surprise given the current state of our politics (and honestly, all but a few bright and shining times in our history of Chinese Exclusions and Operations Wetback). But it is also head-in-the-sand ignorance. The migration and refugee crisis is breaking the world as we know it, as people flee war and climate change and war worsened by climate change and environmental catastrophe exacerbated by war. You can’t hide from it. You can’t wish it away. It’s remaking politics across the globe. 

So why are they doing this? Well, if you want to be archly-cynical, you could say that they are right-wing supranationalists, and know that refugees and migrants can be useful to right-wing politicians, as they have been in countries like Poland, France, the US, Hungary, and the UK (and others). So stoking the crisis by doing nothing to help it aids in the ushering in of those governments. 

There’s an element of that, to be sure, but that’s too neat. It’s almost too smart. What it comes down to is paranoia and greed and short-sightedness, and the selfish and Randian idea that doing anything to help others, that sacrificing anything at all, is anathema to hyperbolic and rock-stupid ideals of masculinity and self-sufficiency. 

Look at the US’s “reasons” for pulling out of this pact. 

On Friday, the US described the pact as “an effort by the United Nations to advance global governance at the expense of the sovereign right of states”

The Guardian

This is an official statement. That’s paranoid, and it is cynical, but also sort of accurate in its extreme plugheadedness. It is correct around the margins, in that the UN recognizes that international crises, like the collapse of nations and the melting of the ice caps, demand international solutions.

That’s not easy, and really no country likes that. It’s part of human insanity. After all, how many current borders existed in their current form even 100 years ago? The United Kingdom? Japan? Australia, for sure, but even then it was part of the Empire. All over, we hold to new lines as if they were sacred truths, even as those lines are shown time and time again as fiction.

But of course, it’s taken to another level in America. It has to be twisted in American politics to mean “global governance”, a phrase redolent with tin foil and the staccato bursts and blurbs of some desert pirate radio frequency. It’s a phrase that should be only heard in dim warrens in strange cities, or at least in less-visited parts of the internet. 

But that’s who is in charge now. It would be the same if it was any Republican, but it has reached its oafish apex in Donald Trump, whose vanities and empty insecurities are a perfect match for the moment. He doesn’t believe in climate change because he doesn’t understand it and doesn’t like when people show off by being smarter than him. He doesn’t want to help solve the migration crisis because that means being nice to non-white people who might not like him, personally. He doesn’t like international solutions to things because that means there were negotiations made without the solo force of his unique genius. 

Policy-wise, there is little difference between him and, say, Marco Rubio, who would have stuttered some nonsense about “waiting to see some scientific consensus, and also Bible.” But Trump’s raving paranoia and his absolute certainty that he has nothing to learn, coupled with his quivering fear of knowledge, lend this pivotal moment an absolute carny garishness. 

The world is burning and melting; it is flooding and desiccating. Jellyfish are taking over anoxic oceans. And we are being ruled by nitwits, whose corruption and illegitimacy are reduced to bitter punchlines in the face of such disaster. This is the worst possible moment to have such people in charge. Our last chance is here, and we’re running away from it.  

Wisconsin and Amazon: America’s Slide into Dystopia


Left unsaid by Robin Vos, Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, is that this “very liberal governor” was elected because of his beliefs, not despite them. But really, he didn’t need to say it. Tony Evers defeated Scott Walker, and the Republicans of Wisconsin decided they didn’t like that. In direct contravention of the explicit wishes of their state’s voters, they stripped the incoming governor and attorney general of an extraordinary amount of power, giving it back to the legislature, which remained in Republican hands despite them losing the popular vote. 

It’s left unsaid because the Republican Party of Wisconsin barely even pretends to care about democracy anymore. Outside of perhaps North Carolina, they have been the most aggressive about gerrymandering in an attempt to solidify minority rule over the last decade.

It’s naked and blatant and barely even pays tribute to virtue. Vos talks about how it’s a check on an executive power and how he is worried about Evers running roughshod over the state, but that’s obvious transparent bullshit, a cynicism to which even Mitch McConnell would tip his hat. If you imagine they’d have been similarly concerned about executive power had Walker been re-elected, I have a bridge to Washington Island for you to invest in. 

OK, but what powers is Evers losing to this not-at-all by chance tinkering? 

The Republican-controlled state Legislature has approved new limits on the power of Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers in a lame-duck session, including his ability to keep a campaign promise to remove Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act.
Following overnight debate, lawmakers voted early Wednesday morning on that measure. The bill would also limit early voting in Wisconsin and give state lawmakers more power over the state’s economic development agency, which Evers has said he would like to eliminate

Wisconsin Public Radio (link above)

That’s the Republican vision of America in a nutshell, isn’t it?

  • Make sure that health care is a privilege of the lucky, and even most of them are at the mercy of fortune and the dubious beneficence of the marketplace. Human immiseration is the goal here
  • Continue to push huge corporate giveaways at the expense of the environment, solidifying private control over the land. The Foxconn scam is just the most blatant example here. Walker and the legislature have used the agency to undermine the state’s land and wildlife protection, allowing companies to ruin what makes Wisconsin great, without even giving a few alms to its actual citizens. That’s the whole programs: everything should be turned into capital. 
  • Limit voting as much as humanly possible in order to cement Republican rule, so that they can continue to do the above. 

You want an example of how this future looks? As you probably know, on Wednesday, the USPS was closed to honor George HW Bush. I think it’s obscene we do this for presidents. I feel this was for any president, not just HW, he of the Complicated Legacy.  The whole state pageantry, the “Day of Mourning”, the shutting down of institutions: none of it seems like a democracy or a tribute fitting the elected head of the executive branch. It’s like we still long for god-kings. 

And in a way, we do, because while the USPS was shut down, it wasn’t shut down entirely

Services and offices across the country are closed or suspended Wednesday in honor of former President George H.W. Bush’s funeral.

With a National Day of Mourning declared by President Donald Trump, everything from the federal government to the stock market will not be operating today. But while the U.S. Postal Service is observing the day by closing post offices and not delivering regular mail, there is at least one exception: Amazon orders.

USPS explained in a Monday statement that it would “provide limited package delivery service on that day to ensure that our network remains fluid.” It added that these packages would be delivered to avoid “negatively affect[ing] our customers or business partners during the remainder of our busy holiday season.”

And I get that. Amazon ships about 1.6 million packages a day, probably a lot more during the holiday season. To stop that for a day would cause chaos. But it would also make Amazon look bad, because people would get their packages a whole day later. 

So think about that: the insane mournful pageantry of a State Funeral, in which we weep and moan and all our public officials are in ashes and sackcloth is only interrupted by the grinding wheels of commerce, but a company that wrecks its workers and bends cities to its will and crushes independence in a manifestation of perfect capitalism. 

The Amazon model, in which the obscenely wealthy can control ogvernments and bend the wheels of state to their wills while crushing worker rights and ignoring environmental legislation, is not just a GOP thing. But while Democrats are too often in thrall to preeningly bloodless Silicon Valley chumps, the idea of a capitalist dystopia is the number one goal of the Republican Party. Enacting it is why Wisconsin Republicans are doing what they are doing. Their stated goals aren’t even trying to pretend otherwise. 

As climate change continues to make lives worse for the non-rich, this trend could accelerate. We’re not ready for the dual shocks of automation and climate change, and if we keep cedeing power to the wealthy, it’ll get worse. The Republicans have revealed in full their program. It’s up to the rest of us to stop them. 

The Memory of George Bush is the Myth of America

A rich, complicated man

If you were Very Online over the weekend, by early Saturday morning you had already glassed over every possible take on the passing of George Herbert Walker Bush: patriarch of America’s most prominent Republican family, congressman, CIA head, Veep, POTUS, statesman, symbol of a better time. 

You probably also read that he was a race-baiting war criminal whose phony War on Drugs condemned hundreds of thousands of mostly poor minorities to rot in jail, who helped pave the way for the destruction of Roe, and who deliberately fiddled while the AIDS crisis burned. 

You heard how he was a statesman whose cool head and WWII-born desire to protect the international order helped bring a mostly-peaceful end to the Cold War. You heard how he was a genuine liberal internationalist, a man who saw the horrors of war, was a true hero, and who spent a lifetime making sure that never happened again. 

You also may have heard (although this weirdly is never mentioned) how he invaded Panama for no good reason, continuing a century of violent colonialism in Latin America. Maybe you also heard how he approved bombing on the Highway of Death in Iraq, an absolute cravenly and brutal war crime. 

Oh! He also abandoned the Kurds and the Shi’ites to their fate after encouraging the to rise up against Saddam. And he also gracefully ceded the stage after losing his election, becoming friends with Bill Clinton, and showing us that politics doesn’t have to be so rough. 

That’s where we are. Actions against actions, perceptions against perceptions. Some of the perceptions are high-blown idiocies, of course: politics is inherently personal unless you are sheltered from their effects; Bush’s DEA entrapped a kid with no record so that Bush could hold up a bag of crack on the TV.  

The rich doyens of the media and the consulting class have spent a weekend pining for the days when we didn’t take things so darn personally, and when gracious patricians like George Bush the Older showed us a better path. 

That is pernicious bullshit, of course. Politics matters. Health care and welfare aren’t a debate between Paul Ryan and Steny Hoyer or whatever: they are a matter of life and death for people. The myth of George HW Bush is that this stuff doesn’t matter, that we can just reach across the aisle and find middle ground, which always results in screwing over the non-rich. 

That was Bush’s career. He rose to prominence by running a race-baiting campaign against Richard Yarborough, a true GOP lion on Civil Rights. He consistently sold out his principles on women’s reproductive rights in order to win over the evangelical base, going to far as to appoint Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court (which had the double-pleasure of letting conservatives sneer “What are you complaining about? We appointed a black guy!”). And of course, Mr. Gracious Politics Should Be Nice ran the Willie Horton ad implying that if Mike Dukakis won your wife would be raped by a black felon. 

This stuff matters. His War on Drugs mattered. His kissing up to the Evangelicals mattered (that it was unsuccessful for him doesn’t mean it was any less empowering for them). George Bush, in his race-baiting, in his trolling, in his indifference to the suffering of the wrong people, didn’t just help set up today’s GOP; he was a major part of it. 

But…he also believed in civic service. He also believed in family (his, anyway). He also believed strongly that the world should be bound by treaty and institution to avoid the horrors of WWII. He was a man who understood the world and studied it deeply, far more than could be said of his son or, god knows, Trump. In the second half of the 20th century and beyond, he was certainly the finest Republican president, and a man who helped make the world peaceful. 

So what does this mean? It’s not any bullshit like “he was a complicated man!” He was, and he wasn’t, like everyone else. It means, perhaps, that you can be a decent President even if you are a race-hustling war criminal. Which means that being a race-hustling war criminal is built into America. It’s baked into the job of being President, but it is also who we are. 

America has always been a country that has sided with the powerful against its workers. It’s always been a country where racism works (see: Stacy Abrams, for example). For the last century it’s been a country that throws smaller countries against the wall. We’re a nation dictated and determined by the absolute dictates of capitalism, which is inherently violent and cruel. 

That we are also a nation that fights against this is inspiring. That we are a nation where labor leaders, civil rights leaders, LGBTW leaders, and so many more try to take from the powerful what we deserve is inspiring. It isn’t uniquely American, but there is an American ferver. That’s cool, and that’s why this stuff matters. 

Our politics is based around violence, both physical and statutory. George Bush was part of that. That’s why the myth of decency is inherently indecent, an insult to what we’re still fighting for and fighting against. George Bush was a fine American President. The job of the future is to change what that means. 

McRaven and Saudi Statement: Trumpism in Full (UPDATED)

It’s difficult to say what might be the most craven and sickening moment of the week (it is Wednesday at 7:00am as I write this; there is still a lot of time for more cravenness). 

Was it Trump’s Fox-addled, conspiratorial, and self-serving statement on Admiral McRaven, which was somehow only two days ago?

This is a strong contender, because it makes clear that Trump’s admiration of anything, even of Navy goddamn Seals, is contingent upon their praise. In his logic, criticism of him by one of the most respected warriors of his generation isn’t a cause for reflection, but an imputation of conspiracy and a chance to lash out. 

That’s not new, of course. We knew this. We know that Trump can’t see anything past his own self-interest. What’s always nice to see, though, is that the official GOP is fully in his corner, even after a true electoral nutstomping, even when he is attacking the people who killed Osama bin Laden.

Worth noting! It’s also worth noting, of course, that he was on the Trump transition team’s short list for NatSec posts. Being on a short list doesn’t mean anything, except that you are respected by just about everyone. That McRaven has been critical of Trump since he first started lowing his ugly dirges in 2016 isn’t a sign that McRaven is political or partisan, but that his patriotism demanded an extraordinary response to an extraordinary threat. 

And this threat won, and continues to pervert our politics. GOP fealty to that seems unshakable. And while I obviously don’t expect the party to criticize the President over Twitter, they are under no obligation to continue an attack on McRaven. That they choose to do so demonstrates once again, and hopefully forever, that protecting Trump’s ego and interest tops every other consideration of decency or even political rationale. 

But of course, the real low point of the week came yesterday, in the insane, childish, clinically dishonest, and deeply amoral statement in which the White House washed their hands and the hands of Mohammed bin Salman over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. 

OK. 

First off, this was clearly dictated by the President, if not actually typed out by him. It probably wasn’t typed, since there aren’t really any typos or anything. It starts with two exclamation points, the first being the old fascist slogan which Trump has adopted, even though by now he surely knows its provenance. That he keeps it is because he wants to do so. When someone says they are a Nazi, they are. 

What is perhaps more insane is the second one: “The world is a dangerous place!” I know that Trump believes he is telling us a hard truth here, but for a President to imagine that to be some kind of bold statement just shows his insane self-absorption and his need to be a tough guy. Only he is brave enough to say that the world is dangerous. 

But then the immorality and dishonesty really sets in. While Iran is no innocent in Yemen, it is completely wrong to say that they are responsible for the “bloody proxy war” in Yemen. Even just using that phrase “proxy war” implies guilt on both sides, as it takes two to proxy. But that’s a phrase Trump clearly heard once or twice, and thinks it makes him sounds all military-like. 

(UPDATE: Greg Johnsen has a great piece on Just Security absolutely refuting this particular lie, with a year-by-year detailing of Iran and KSA’s involvement in Yemen)

The idea that Saudi Arabia would love to pull out of Yemen if only Iran would is blistering nonsense, and shows someone who has either been easily convinced by MBS’s half-baked lies or has decided to invent lies of his own, out of whole cloth. Saudi would do nothing of the sort

For Trump to even pretend to be concerned about Yemen is stomach-turning, as he’s given Saudi Arabia carte blanche to do whatever they want inside that broken and shattering land. But that’s the point of this statement: Saudi Arabia, and MBS, can do whatever they want no matter what. 

In some ways that’s nothing new; US foreign policy has been unduly influenced by Saudi Arabia since WWII. But there have been no statements as cravenly and openly immoral as this one, in which the President dismisses his own intelligence agencies in order to declare the US indifferent to slaughter, whether it is the personal and gruesome slaughter of a dissident journalist residing in the US or the wholesale slaughter of a nation. 

It’s hardly worth saying that none of this is true, of course (or to ask what a “heavily negotiated trip” is). The money isn’t accurate, the contracts aren’t really contracts, and the idea that it will create “hundreds of thousands” of jobs is so preposterous that it in and of itself is grounds for invoking the 25th Amendment, if just on the basis of sheer contempt for the public. 

But, as has been discussed, this completely inverts the idea of leverage. We have what the Saudis want and need. They can’t actually switch to Russia and China; that would take decades. The US has the power here. But we have ceded it to Saudi Arabia. 

Why we have done so is and isn’t a mystery. Obviously, the US has never been a particularly moral country, feeling free to look the other way or to openly abet murder and abuse. In a way, this is a continuation. But never before have we been so open about a price; never before have we subsumed every aspect of our foreign policy to the whims and needs of one man. 

I don’t know if Trump is personally in hock to the House of Saud, or if he depends on them for business. It’s very possible; he’s an grubby conman who always needs a source of easy cash, and rich immoral regimes enjoy that. And they enjoy having leverage over the President. It’s weird, I know. It does seem clear that Kushner is heavily over-leveraged and deeply dependent on Saudi money, which explains why MBS so gleefully cultivates this callow know-nothing. But it is unclear as to whether Kush has any influence anymore. 

And while we do know that, from a neocon point-of-view, Saudi Arabia=Good because Iran=Bad, and having them as an ally is part of a scheme both grandiose and vague, we know that Trump isn’t truly motivated by any grand plans. He’s only motivated by self-interest. 

Everything that happened this week is a result of his narcissism, his inability to take criticism, his constant need for praise, his pathological dishonesty, and his existence as both a conman and the easiest fucking mark on the planet. Since he only understands transactions, he is easily bought, and finds everything easy to sell. From rubbery steaks to any moral or actual foreign policy leverage, he’ll put it on the market if the buyer makes him feel special. 

That’s who our President is. And despite some mewls of protestation from the GOP, until they decide to actually do anything, they are continuing to cede our country to his darkly mirrored vision. If their “resistance” can be summed up, it has to be done by Lindsay Graham. 

If anyone knows about losing their moral voice, it’s Graham. 

History, Cont.

So, there’s a lot going on here.

First, of course, is the rueful and mirthlessly gobsmacked chuckle that comes thinking about Trump putting his great brain into high gear. There is no doubt he thinks he’s making a hell of a gotcha here, that France maybe forgot they fought Germany in the wars, but that he, Trump, who knows history maybe better than anyone, reminded them. Checkmate, Pierre!

There are a lot of things to say about this, primarily that Macron probably didn’t forget the war, since he was at the goddamn memorial services Trump skipped out on. But there is actually something more interesting going on here, and it is the heart of Trump’s fallacy.

The central idiocy of this tweet, of course, is that Trump is saying that Macron shouldn’t want a European defense league in case Germany tries to get rowdy again, which is weird, since Germany would be part of that league. In theory, this could make sense: the post-war order was designed to, essentially, curb German ambitions by integrating it fully into the Western alliances. If that world order crumbled, Germany could become aggressive again, and turn its eyes across the Rhine.

So there is a kernel of sense in what Trump is saying. And it is true the huge bulk of NATO’s budget comes from the US…but that’s because the US benefits enormously from NATO. And, more to the point, Trump is not trying to defend NATO. He’s trying to destroy it. He’s trying to destroy every Western alliance.

That to me is the point of what Macron is doing. The US is openly trying to get out of the alignments that have been a primary reason why the Rhine has gone uncrossed for 70 years. Macron is trying to protect that order, and if he can’t, find a system to replace it.

Macron clearly remembers the lessons of the wars; that’s why he is desperately trying to find a way to maintain some system to keep that in place. He sees Merkel is stepping down, the UK is caught up in Brexit, countries like Poland and Hungary have been taken over by far-right anti-democratic parties and charismatic psuedo-populists, that Austria and Greece have their own issues with fascism, and that he barely staved off a right-wing anti-modernity force of his own.

That’s the interesting thing about Macron. His corporatist-wienie techno-optimist venture-capital-suited bloodlessness is, I think, tempered by the knowledge that none of this has truly made a new Europe. It hasn’t made Western civilization peaceful or truly pushed us past the centuries of fighting that ravaged the continent. He seems to know that this is a blip, and that 70 years of peace is nothing compared to the hundreds of years of war that preceded it.  He seems like a man who has realized his treasured philosophies won’t beat back the demons of nationalism and blood.

This isn’t to say he’s a hero; he still seems to lean toward a jargony b-school style of politics. It’s that he knows this moment is dire. Angela Merkel knows it too. They don’t need history lessons from a barely-literate old sofa of a President; they certainly don’t need those lectures from someone who is trying to destroy the system that has kept their countries at peace.

It’s a sign of how much we’ve gotten used to the insanity of the Trump era that this tweet it taken largely in stride. I am sure that Macron and Merkel are now just shaking their heads. The President of the United States is openly trying to break of NATO unless he can run it as an extortionary wing while undermining everything it purportedly stands for, skipping out on meetings with our allies but giving his cheesiest jabroni grin at the man squeezing Europe from the East.

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He seems genuinely happy. 

This would be a diplomatic scandal in any other time, and would scream across headlines around the world. But how can there be a scandal? How can there be malpractice when the patient is already dead? Trump has made it very clear what he actually thinks about the alliance. He wants it gone so that he can play big power politics unconstrained by any norms.

It’s not so much philosophical as it is instinctual and narcissistic: no one can tell him what to do; no one can make better deals. That his grotesque pathologies match up with this terrible authoritarian moment isn’t exactly a coincidence- the world has been moving toward his oafish cruelty for a few decades, much as American politics has lined up with his dimwit vanities- but it is good luck for other authoritarians.

There are leaders who understand the sweep of history and work to sweep it the other way. Then there are leaders who understand history and use it to their bloody ends. Then there are leaders who only understand themselves, who only see things through the spectrum of their own glory, and who will reap their gluttonous way around the globe if it will satisfy some deep pathological itch. Right now the latter is the most powerful person in the world.

It’s a cruel and needed reminder that we don’t get to live outside of history. We just have to try to see it while we’re in it.

 

100 Years and a Day

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This is probably more racist than sensical, but the important thing is: what the hell is that one dude riding? 

For no real reason, other than it being a recent NYRB offering, I’m started reading Omer Pasha Latas: Marshal to the Sultan by Ivo Andric last night. There wasn’t a particular point to me reading it now, no search for present-day relevance. But of course, it is impossible to read just about anything now without tying it to our uneasy times.

Anyway, the book is about a cruel Turkish figure who comes to Sarajevo to subdue a rebellious and restive population, chafing under Ottoman rule. It’s set in the middle of the 19th-century, where exiled Hungarians still feel the pull of 1848 and hints of modernity seem even into this mostly-forgotten backwater.

While talking to a particularly stubborn local chief, the Marshal reminds him of what a sweepingly big deal his presence in Sarajevo really is. He says that an Ottoman serkasier (his title) comes to Sarajevo “maybe once a century, and sometimes not even that!” It’s meant to show the seriousness of the situation, of course, but also shows the grinding permanence of Ottoman occupation, which at that point had lasted nearly 400 years.

400 years! It’s impossible for us to imagine such a state of things, a sweep of time. Columbus had yet to take sail when the Ottomans swept into Europe, terrifying a weak and fractured continent. And while it had long been the “sick old man” of power politics, it still existed into the modern era.

However, it wasn’t to last much longer. One of the ironies hanging over the book (and I’m only like halfway in, so maybe this becomes more clear) is that Bosnia would only be under Turkish rule for a few more decades. In 1878, it became part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Sort of, anyway. It became administered by the Hapsburgs, following war between Russia and Turkey. Why did the Hapsburgs get it? Ask Gilded Age great powers, man, not me.

Anyway, in 1908 it was officially annexed following an artificial crisis, underscoring Turkish weakness in the Balkans and setting the stage for the Balkan wars of independence. This rising tide of nationalism also turned against the Hapsburgs, who sent one of their own to Sarajevo in 1914. Franz Ferdinand’s trip didn’t end very well for him.

And of course, yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the war that launched following Ferdinand’s killing by a Bosnian nationalist. It was a war that brought down empires and reshaped the world, that opened up the cruel bloodshed of the 20th-century, and that paved the way for greater horrors to come. The vast waste of the war, waged for the glory of the ruling classes and the wealth of empires, yoked by the ancient pomposity of nonsense treaties and paper-thin alliances, haunts us to this day. WWI seems more brutal, more hideous, more choked with mud and falling autumnal sadness, than any other conflict. We still feel it today.

Part of the reason for that, I think, is because to say “WWI: 1914-1918” is reductive and misleading idea. As we saw above, its roots stretched back into Ottoman times, into Balkan restlessness, born of hundreds of years of occupation. Hundreds! The cliched powderkeg of the Balkans didn’t come about in the wars if the early 1900s; it had been created through generations of powerful meddling, of treating it like a place on a chessboard, of squeezing every local rivalry and individual dream through the grinding fulcrum of a great game.

And WWI lasts until today, or at least its reverberations. It’s been a contention of this blog that the war in Syria, and the chaos of the broader Middle East, is the last act of the Ottoman Empire. The same is true in the Balkans.

The modern Middle East and the Balkans were both born of the same historic moment: when the rise of the nation-state coincided with the death throes of an ancient empire- the Ottomans. They aren’t exactly the same, of course. The Balkans went through a brief Austro-Hungarian phase, but that was due to the long-running collapse of the Ottomans, the Sick Man of Europe.

It’s hard to think about now, but these were places that had a political system in place for hundreds and hundreds of years (the Ottomans began to dominate in the 14th and 15th century). It was a multi-ethnic and ever-shifting empire, with central power waxing and waning, but never disappearing. When it died in the aftermath of WWI, it was suddenly due to be replaced by modern states.

We don’t really recognize that this is a long and uncertain process, but think of it like this: pretend you are reading a history book in the year 3500, or about 1500 years from now. (I know there probably won’t be books at that point, but you’re going to be dead by then anyway, so just go with it, ok?)

You’d read of the 500 years of Ottoman domination, and then the tumult of the 20th century. The Balkans were briefly dominated by the Soviets and Tito’s 3rd-wayism, and the Middle East by colonialism, followed by nationalism and tyranny, followed by religious fanaticism, until it all collapsed, slowly and then suddenly, starting in around 2003. But the thing is, that section wouldn’t be long.

We’re fewer than 100 years since the Ottoman’s collapsed, and while a lot has happened, it always seems like a lot happens when you’re living through it. But we’re still in the last rigor-mortis flicker, the dying tail of that millennial empire. The Soviets mutated the direction of the Balkans, but they were just a blip, a large factor in determining what would happen in the post-Ottoman Balkans, but still a mere factor in that longer story. Everything that has happened in the Middle East is part of that same tale. The mutations of colonialism, nationalism, and religion are just playing a role.

This isn’t, of course, historical determinism. But we also can’t ignore the continuity of history. We can’t pretend to live in rigorously-defined times, marked off by thick black lines. Want more proof that the past was just yesterday: Mohammed bin Salman, if he indeed becomes king, will be the first Saudi king not a son of Ibn Saud. Ibn Saud, of course, fought against the Ottomans. He was the dude who palled around with Lawrence of Arabia. His sons are still kings.

I get that one old man’s singular undying horniness doesn’t shed light on any universal truth about history, but the point is that we’re still living in the post-WWI world, which while epoch-defining and nation-shattering, didn’t come out of nowhere. It came out of short-sightedness. It came out of raw bloody-mindedness. It came out of the inability of the ruling class to see non-rulers as anything but pawns or money symbols. It came from unchecked power harrumphing its way toward greater wealth and glory. It came from a dimwitted adherence to symbols, and to convincing people that true individual brilliance came in getting torn up on barbed wire for the motherland.

As we move toward a new gilded age, more ferocious and entrenched than ever before, more ensconced by technology and a compliant media, and as we move back toward power politics, it is vital to remember the lessons of history. Today is different than 100 years ago. It has to be; we’re all an accumulation of what came before. There are different challenges and different dangers. But as we mourn the waste and hear the sudden stirring silence of the quieted guns, we need to reflect that the past isn’t over. It’s not even the past. It never is.

Protecting Mueller is A Vital Part of International Leftism

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It’s true that a Republican head of the FBI isn’t the natural progressive ally, but strange times

After the victories (and coming victories) of the midterms, two things have happened: 1) Donald Trump is becoming seemingly more unhinged and conspiratorial, accusing Floridians and Georgians of massive voter fraud for the crime of counting all votes, and 2) he has fired Jeff Sessions, appointing in his place an un-confirmed hatchet man, some goonish Crossfit freak who thinks judges should have no power.

These things are not unrelated.

That’s why it was no surprise that tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets demanding that Congress protect the Mueller investigation. They probably won’t, as Mitch has clearly said he sees no need for it to be protected, and anyway, there are ways to thwart it without a complete shutdown. But the activism in the streets has shown that people are generally afraid of Trump’s looming authoritarianism, and hoping to make Congress afraid of their votes.

What I’ve noticed on the Left, though, is some grumbling about this. There is talk about how we shouldn’t rally for Jeff Sessions, or to protect Mueller, who I’ve seen described as “A Republican cop” (which is essentially true). And really, throughout the Russian investigation, there have been many leftists who call it at best a distraction, and at worst xenophobia. (Here I’m not including Glenn Greenwald, who has never been of the left).

The former charge, rallying to protect Sessions, is of course nonsense. No one was upset that Sessions got fired, except for what it meant for the Mueller investigation. The appropriate response is rueful mirth that such a horrible man met such an ignoble end, after taking the scorn and public abuse of a giant wet couch of a President. It’s what Sessions deserved. Unfortunately, he was also a very successful AG, in what he set out to do, succeeding in smashing civil rights, even unto the end. He was a genuine racist and old-school Concerned Citizen, and the country has suffered for his ever having power. It’s a black mark that he was allowed to rise to that position. He can go to hell.

And that might be the point of the anti-Mueller left: there are real horrible things that are happening in this admin. Kids in cages, police departments being given carte blanche to abuse civil rights, the starvation of Yemen, the wholesale packing of the environment to late-stage capitalism, the end of Roe, the death of labor, etc.

To me though, that is all part of the same cloth. Jeff Sessions had power at least in part because of Russian interference in the elections. And Russia helped Donald Trump win because he is a far-right-wing goon and would impose other far-right-wing goons. Yes, Putin also wanted to create chaos in our democracy, to weaken the US, but also because he is opposed to democracy. 

Vladimir Putin’s long-term idea for Russia is not to compete in a democratic world, but to weaken and destroy the democratic world and have a balance of great powers, in which Russia would be a vital part. He resents democracy for its messiness and for its ability to get in the way of strongman politics.

It’s all part of a whole. There are a few things around which Putinism revolves: it’s all about the misogyny, the racism, the virulent homophobia, the anti-Islam demagoguery, the hatred of “political correctness” and common decency, the trolling dishonesty, the reckless disregard for the truth, the ability to manipulate our perception of reality and muddle opposition, and the sneering hatred of anything that doesn’t fit a clownish idea of blood-and-soil masculinity.

It’s also being exported. In Russia, it has a Russian context, but we see it in Orban’s Hungary, in Poland, in France and Germany and Greece. We see it in the Philippines and in Brazil. These aren’t all exports of Putin’s plan, but they are part of a similar movement, an anti-environmental and anti-worker fake populism, an authoritarian revolt against the very real dangers and failures and atomization of capitalism and modernity.

It’s bad! It’s worse than what we have now, and what we have now is really bad. And as you may have noticed, what was described above is also the essence of Trumpism. It’s clear (and obvious) that Trumpism is part of this movement, given a particularly tacky American character and wrung through the grinder of our history and contradictions. It pulls at those contradictions, forcing them open, and making them worse. It’s anti-democratic.

That’s why the Left fights it, and why we should. But part of that is fighting this transnational fascism, or at least this far-right global movement, that is setting the world on fire. If Leftism is to mean anything, if there is to be a global left-wing movement, it has to mean that. It has to mean uniform opposition to a worldwide threat.

This isn’t a different enemy than the one the left has been fighting since the dawn of capitalism. After the ravages of last century’s Gotterdammerung, it is hard to say that we are at the peak of violent, cruel capitalism, but we are at some sort of hideous birth, the parturition of a fully-formed monster, something saggy and callous and with many teeth. It’s the disaster we’ve been fighting against.

That’s why the Mueller investigation isn’t a distraction; it’s a look at how this happened, and a key part of the story as to how we got here. It isn’t the whole story, and it isn’t an excuse. There’s a reason why Russia’s manipulations worked here. That’s the American story. Changing that story is part of the work of the left. But the manipulations are part of a global story. Fighting that is also the work of the left.

It has to be. If there is to be a left-wing foreign policy, fighting a ravaging right that mounts itself in opposition to everything decent is the key plank of that strategy. Fight it here, and fight it abroad. We don’t get to choose the times we live in. We live in these, and they are fighting times.