Qatar and Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, War in Syria: The Dangers of Unserious Leadership in Fragile Times

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I’m not saying that to be a successful President you have to understand what this map means. But you actually kind of do…

America has been rightfully consumed with the subdued opera of the Comey hearings, in which members of both parties accepted as a stipulation that the President was a grotesque, habitual liar, and that his best defense was he literally has no idea what he is doing, so how could he be obstructing justice? I don’t know the legal ramifications of this, but even as the GOP desperately tried to downplay Comey, which seems to imply a return to the status quo, I think there will continue to be a steady drip of revelations. Comey implying that Sessions is dirtier than we (well, the media) thought might be the first major crack. No one is going to want to be the last person to go down for this.

But think again about the essential shrugging reaction even senators from his own party have to the essential nature of Trump: sure he’s dishonest and completely incapable of being President, but is that illegal? Maybe for the former, probably not for the latter. But that’s not the issue: the issue is that it is extremely dangerous. It’s dangerous domestically, and potentially catastrophic abroad.

There could be few worse times to have a blundering, spite-filled, ego-driven ignorant man as President of the United States. The post-WWII order was crumbling, but just as importantly (if unremarked), the post-WWI order in the Middle East (and much or Eurasia) is crumbling and reforming in unexpected and difficult ways as well. This is a hinge moment for a huge part of the world, and with his disaster-junkie approach to things, Trump can’t help but make it enormously worse. And it starts, of course, with Qatar.

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Russia’s Caspian Problem: Weird News Update About the Workings of the World

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Every day, there are millions of stories that don’t make the headlines, and don’t get written up in the papers, but that reflect the slow and grinding way the world really works. They reflect the tiny changes in policies, the historical patterns that ebb and flow but are never really absent, the way that past actions impact present decisions, and the way that political abstractions like “countries” and “borders” crash against the real world.

All of these factors are interesting, and I think especially so to Americans, a nation which is nearly unique in trying to ignore history, the ramifications of decisions, and geopolitical realities. But all that is catching up.

I bring this up due to a neat little story by Paul Goble in Jamestown’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, called “Collapse of Russian Shipping in Caspian Put’s Moscow’s Regional Strategy at Risk.” Even though shipping in the inland sea is booming, Russian ports, a key part of both its North-South and East-West regional strategies, is drying up. It’s about how the other Caspian nations are essentially colluding against Russia to starve its seaports, creating new regional alliances based on both underwater rights and the laws that govern surface territory, all hinging on the question: is the Caspian more like a lake or like an ocean?

What then is going on?  The answer can be found in the complicated politics of the Caspian region, the continuing difficulties the littoral states have in demarcating the seabed, as well as growing tensions among some of these states with Russia. And because that is the case, the decline of freight traffic at Russia’s Caspian ports in the first quarter of 2017 is even more significant than might appear at first glance.

In Soviet times, Moscow and Tehran divided the Caspian into two unequal zones, a division that even then had important implications because of the oil and natural gas reserves discovered on the seafloor as well as due to the rising trade between the Soviet Union and Iran. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the number of littoral states increased from two to five: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan thus become involved in talks about delimitation and trade on the Caspian alongside the Russian Federation and Iran.

For 25 years, these five littoral states have been unable to reach an agreement on the division of the seabed, something Moscow has exploited to block many pipeline projects that would not have involved Russia. Yet, at the same time, that deadlock has led to expanded contacts between other pairs of littoral states and increased shipping between and among them—again to the exclusion of the Russian Federation (Abo.net, April 18, 2016; Natural Gas World, May 6, 2017). Now, Moscow’s policies have returned like a boomerang to limit its future role in the region.

Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan call for treating the Caspian as a lake rather than an ocean, an arrangement that would divide the seabed among the countries but leave surface commerce open to all. Whereas, Turkmenistan and Iran want it to be treated as a sea and be divided totally into five sectors. Despite suggestions at a January 2017 ministerial in Baku that the five Caspian littoral states would sign an agreement overcoming the divergence of positions (see EDM, May 8), the participating foreign ministers could not even say when such a meeting would occur this year, an indication that they remain far apart (Mfa.gov.az, Azernews.az, January 25).

This isn’t a headline story, and nor should it be. Could you imagine if you got a buzz on your phone signifying a news alert and it was this? “Russia, Turkmenistan Remain Deadlocked on Oceanographic Nomenclature!” Holy shit, you’d be furious.

But that’s a reflection of how, regardless of the way time feels right now, the world doesn’t work in headlines. People come and go, and the decisions they make are momentous, but slow patterns of geography and history grind underneath their feet, constraining and shaping their actions.

Moscow’s centuries of expansion, whether as Russia or the Soviet Union, influence its relations with its former vassal states, as well as Iran, not to mention the ethnic federal entities that actually border the Caspian (most notably restless Dagestan, whose port revenues were seen as a guarantor of some stability). Russia also has no non-arctic  oceanic sea ports; it is a continental power. That’s why it is so aggressive in the Caspian and Black seas, as a way to control the Eurasian sphere.

But its aggression can often backfire, as we see here, when its oppressive thumb led other states to pair with each other and Iran, bypassing Russia, and perhaps putting its regional goals in check. This gives more lie to the “Putin is a flawless puppet master” myth. I still think Russia will rue their cruel Middle East adventures. He just got lucky with America and Trump.

But then, what choice did Putin have, with the Caspian? He was dealing with the legacy of an empire that rushed from the colds of northern Europe to the sunbaked sea, colliding with Iran and with other ancient Muslim nations, having to bloodily hack their way through the Caucuses to get there.

The sea is what mattered to Russia, as an easier way to get across the continent. And then, after WWI, for its insane abundance of oil and natural gas. This was heightened in WWII, when Hitler diverted a good chunk of his invading army south to secure the oil fields near Baku. And certainly, after the fall of the USSR, Russia fought to hang on to it Caucus territories both to stay by the sea, and to avoid letting the rest of its hard-fought empire, which we take for cartographical permanence, from spiraling away.

These things matter. History matters. Geography matters. America, whose long racial history is catching up with it, which is seeing the impact that its centuries of continental aggression and century of global aggression have wrought, and who is slowly learning the real lessons of geography, needs to understand that. Russia does. Iran does. The butchers of the ISIS and al Qaeda do. It’s time we do, too.

The “Chemical Weapons” Fiasco Is A Result of Not Understanding Syria or Russia; or: Spicer Is an Idiot, But He’s Also Carrying Water for Idiots

 

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“Ok, but…” No! Just don’t start that way. It’s SO easy

 

Look, it’s not hard. Normal people don’t slip up and say things like “Hitler never gassed his own people!” Most people don’t even start sentences with “At least Hitler…”  That’s Human Speaking 101, and something that, if your entire job is to talk, you should have learned. So one can reasonably come to the conclusion that Sean Spicer isn’t particularly good at his job.

One can also, when riding in the wake of Seanspicerholocaustcenterdumbassgate, draw darker conclusions. This is an administration that didn’t mention Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day,  and it is one that employs not just Steve Bannon, but the ludicrous and grotesque pro-Nazi bigot Sebastian Gorka. It’s attracted the very worst elements of American politics, people who were more repulsively fringe than Steven King, mucking up from the bile of the hardest right. Every half-bright sexless bigot like Steven Miller with an axe to grind gyered and gimbled their way to the White House.  They were drawn by Donald Trump, who himself is a half-bright bigot. Like attracts like.

So yeah, you could say that hearing some perhaps mixed messages about Hitler contributed to Spicer’s confusion Choitner discusses that, but also gets closer to the real issues, which is that Spicer has to flip-flop almost daily.  Or not even flip-flop: wrench around based on the ill-informed whims of above-mentioned half-bright bigot.

The horrible weight of electing someone who never deeply considered any policy before, other than spouting off about headlines he skimmed, much like every other ill-informed paper-reader, is beginning to really press down on us. Our allies have no idea what to believe. Russia doesn’t even pretend to take us seriously. It has zero interest in listening to the administration, because, as we said yesterday, it is clear the administration doesn’t know what it is doing. Hell, right now, Putin is leaving Tillerson twisting in the wind.

Vali Nasser goes in-depth about why Russia will stay with Assad, and it is pretty clear that no one in the Trump administration has given these reasons much thought. They seem to believe that suddenly believing Assad “should go” is tantamount to a coherent policy that should be respected. I still think that Putin is making a mistake, and that even if things are going “well” right now, he’ll still end up broken on the rocks of an impossible conflict, but his short-term logic requires him to stay. And it certainly doesn’t require him to listen to an administration that has believed in what they are saying for about 15 minutes.

Trump likes to say he is “unpredictable”, and sell that as a virtue. And, to an extent (or rather, in neutral conditions) that could be true. But he isn’t “unpredictable” as part of some clever game; he’s unpredictable because he has no idea what he’s doing. His talk of not letting enemies know what he is going to do is pure bluster: he has no plans, no goals, no strategies, but couldn’t ever say that. So, like with everything else in his entirely empty life, he spun that off as a virtue. Oh, I can’t tell you what I am going to do, you’ll have to wait and see, but it’s great. Super great. I know more about everything that everyone, you’ll see. It worked during his days as a real estate and promotional carny, and it somehow worked during the campaign. He became President.

But it doesn’t work when you actually have to do things. When his casinos failed after empty promises, he declared bankruptcy. That’s something you can do when you are rich. He always had a system that would pick him up after he failed. But that doesn’t exist anymore. There is no backup. You actually have to produce, and you can’t suddenly have a coherent foreign policy when you’ve never actually thought of one before.

That’s where we are at now. A huckster who claimed that he was unpredictable as a way to mask his total ignorance is in a position where there is no net. He acts entirely on emotion and whims, never actually thinking things through. Eric Trump, showing the family gift for argument by evidence-free and indeed self-evidently counterfactual assertion, told the Daily Telegraph that his father was a “great thinker, practical not impulsive,” and added, “Believe me he thinks things through.” The last sentence also showed the family flair for relying on a non-existent wellspring of reliability.

This isn’t just snark. Pointing out the way this family runs is to point out how they are running the country. You can see that with Syria. One day it’s “Assad? He’s ok, I don’t care” and then “Well we should do something about that maybe” and then “Did we get good press for blowing things up? Then our position is that he’s big-league worse than Hitler. Got it Spicer?”

So no, Spicer can’t handle it. Partly because he’s an idiot, of course. But partly because he’s working for people with no idea what they are doing. In a way, he’s doing us all a service. If they had someone good at their job, they might be able to spin this in a way where you could potentially believe that the Trump administration knew what they were doing, that our allies wren’t terrified, that we weren’t being buffeted on the whims of an old man who is equal parts terrifying and laughable. Spicer’s wild incompetence does us the kindness of laying bare the enormoity of our world-historic mistake.

 

Tillerson’s “Warning” To Russia about Assad: Trump’s Meaningless Foreign Policy in a Nutshell

 

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The President gathers his top men

 

The Wall Street Journal reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has landed in Moscow, where he will seek to convince Russia to back away from its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Yeah, Russia: you better start following this policy that we’ve had for nearly five days now.

It isn’t even that I disagree. It’s just that: is Russia supposed to take this seriously? “Oh, the Americans bombed an empty airfield and announced it was a one-off, except when Spicer said it wasn’t, then said he was wrong. This sure seems consistent and permanent. We better do what they say!”

This is what happens when you elect a man who has no idea what he’s doing and whose top advisors (Bannon, Kushner, Priebus) have exactly zero days of federal government experience between them.

Clint Watts Sums Up What Trump’s Collusion With Russia Really Means

 

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Pictured: Me engaging in Godwin’s Law times, like, a million.

 

One of the most irritating parts about living in this madhouse political time is that the very worst people are suddenly influential. I literally couldn’t believe that, as of late, we were having a Sebastian Gorka moment, with his “ideas” being discussed on serious television programs, not to mention that he had actual influence in the White House. If you paid attention at all to CT, he was always this fringe idiot who was inexplicably taken seriously by a few people, but thankfully very few. He was more a persistent irritant. That he suddenly was everywhere was as boggled and distorted as the fact that some reality show idiot was being saluted by Marines.

But, on the other hand, people who you respect, who should have always been listened to more than bigoted fascists like Gorka, suddenly have their own moments, to help us explain how the reality TV dummy is President. For the last few months, that’s been Clint Watts. His testimony in the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday clarified what we should be talking about when looking for collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian provocateurs.

Clint’s appeared on this blog a handful of times (which I’m sure is a thrill), first about foreign fighters, and then more Trump-y stuff, and over at the old joint we had a neat little roundelay about drones. So when the Senate called for his expertise, I knew we were in for something good. What I didn’t expect was him to draw the parallels between Trump and Russia so clearly.

“I think this answer is very simple and is what no one is really saying in this room. The reason active measures have worked in this US election is because the commander-in-chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents.”

That’s the money quote right there. What we see, clearly, is that there doesn’t even need to be active collusion to say that the Trump campaign worked with the Russians in order to influence the elections. They purposely amplified Russian propaganda, giving it even greater attention, which, as he pointed out, is the whole goddamn point of propaganda.

And, furthermore, he was saying that because the Russians wanted to demonstrate that they could influence the election, because you don’t want to be subtle in doing so, the Trump amplification was, in addition to helping his horrorshow campaign, aiding and abetting Russia’s position as a power capable of doing such things.

And that’s part of Russian’s entire 21st-century purpose. They are a weakened superpower practicing asymmetrical warfare in the zone of influence. They want to intimidate and bully their Eurasian neighbors, as they jostle with China and form tenuous, loose-handshake alliances with Turkey, and Iran (and to an extent India) for continental dominance. They are playing the Eurasian game on multiple overlapping fronts, and being able to show their power is more important to them than using it, given their diminished resources.

And Trump, through his vanity and lack of self control, helped them do so.

I don’t know if any of this is actually actionable. The way I drew it here, I don’t think it is impeachable, though maybe there is an obscure law about helping Russia become more powerful.

But this is also just the beginning. That Michael Flynn is asking for immunity is…odd, since no one has accused him of any crimes (sure, the Logan Act, but I haven’t heard anyone seriously say he might be prosecuted for that). He’s either acting under a superabundance of caution or knows he’s got some problems coming his way. Either way, as soon as the investigation moved away from Nunes’s doltish coverups to an actual Senate hearing, dude got spooked. He knows it is serious now.

And that’s the point. It clearly goes much further. That literally everyone in the administration is compromised, in some form or the other, by Russia, and that they are being the opposite of forthcoming is too much smoke. As Charlie Pierce said, to assume that it stops with mere amplification is “to believe to the point of fanaticism the power of coincidence.”

If you live long enough, you see Donald Trump become President. But maybe if you live just a bit longer, you’ll see him become a disgraced ex-President.

The Republican’s Comey Strategy: The Bubble and the Damage Done

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The story, to any rational person, is that FBI Director and de facto Trump Campaign Chaperone James Comey confirmed that the FBI “is investigating Russia’s meddling in the presidential election, including possible links between the Trump campaign and Moscow.” He also shot down, in no uncertain terms, Trump’s insane wiretap claims, British involvement and quotation marks and all.

As a lot of people are saying, this might be just the beginning. Comey made it clear that all he will say is that there is an ongoing investigation, and he can’t comment on that. While that might seem like hypocrisy, it fits his very narrow definition that he established with Hillary Clinton.

There is something here, and while it is true that Russia didn’t literally hack the election, there is clearly enough to warrant an investigation. So the GOP strategy, led by Trump? Ask just who is doing the leaking that top security advisors are having secret meetings with Russians while also getting paid by Turkey.

Republicans on the committee focused their questions on getting to the bottom of who leaked to the news media the fact that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had pre-inauguration conversations with Russia’s ambassador.

Sure, part of this is distraction. They don’t want to talk about the real issue here, and are hoping that people will be more offended by the leak. But that’s because, I think, a lot of them actually sort of believe that. Once all this started, the idea of “leaks” being part of the Obama shadow campaign has become axiomatic on the Right. It’s an article of faith. It’s how they explain the disaster everything has been.

This is part Trump, part the broader GOP, and entirely at the intersection between the two (and there is very little difference, really). The GOP has no idea how to govern, and no desire to. They’ve based their entire identity on being not-liberals, and more to the point, not-Obama. So being faced with the reality of government, of course they turn to what it comfortable.

For many, it isn’t much of a turn. These are talk radio kids and internet idiots. They live in the bubble, and what they hear is that people are worried about the shadow government. I think they actually believe it, and that they actually also think it is good politics.

That’s also the world, of course, in which Trump lives. He honestly thinks the only important thing here is the leaks, because that’s the “deep state”, and it’s the only reason he isn’t already being placed on Mt. Rushmore (or a bigger, better mountain, somewhere in Manhattan). His own personal pathologies and vanities make it impossible for him to understand that he’s a know-nothing idiot with no idea how to be President. So of course, the only thing that matters is the leaks.

By temperament, in paranoia and accusatory frenzy, in believing that what 10,000 idiots on Twitter are convinced of, Trump and the GOP are perfect for each other. And so they believe it’s not what we know that matters, but that we know it at all.

And that it’s the black guy’s fault. I mean, that goes without saying, right?

A Reminder about Obama and Russia

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This week’s must-read story is The New Yorker’s exhaustive piece on Russian propaganda machine and how it influences elections around the world. The article, a joint production by Evan Osnos, David Remnick, and Joshua Yaffa, filters the rise of Putinism through the first post-Soviet decade the Putin’s personal need to avenge slights against Russia. They demonstrate how Russia has been trying to reshape the world, in an asymmetric way, for most of last decade, culminating in working to elect Donald Trump (something they didn’t think would actually work).

It’s a great read on its own, but one thing that is highlights is what the Obama Administration knew, and why they didn’t act on it.

Remarkably, the Obama Administration learned of the hacking operation only in early summer—nine months after the F.B.I. first contacted the D.N.C. about the intrusion—and then was reluctant to act too strongly, for fear of being seen as partisan. Leaders of the Pentagon, the State Department, and the intelligence agencies met during the summer, but their focus was on how to safeguard state election commissions and electoral systems against a hack on Election Day.

That caution has embittered Clinton’s inner circle. “We understand the bind they were in,” one of Clinton’s senior advisers said. “But what if Barack Obama had gone to the Oval Office, or the East Room of the White House, and said, ‘I’m speaking to you tonight to inform you that the United States is under attack. The Russian government at the highest levels is trying to influence our most precious asset, our democracy, and I’m not going to let it happen.’ A large majority of Americans would have sat up and taken notice. My attitude is that we don’t have the right to lay blame for the results of this election at anybody’s feet, but, to me, it is bewildering—it is baffling—it is hard to make sense of why this was not a five-alarm fire in the White House.”

The Obama circle, which criticizes Clinton’s team for failing to lock down seemingly solid states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, insists that the White House acted appropriately. “What could we have done?” Benjamin Rhodes said. “We said they were doing it, so everybody had the basis to know that all the WikiLeaks material and the fake news were tied to Russia. There was no action we could have taken to stop the e-mails or the fake news from being propagated. . . . All we could do was expose it.”

Remember this when right-wing friends talk about how Obama “illegally wiretapped Trump!” When presented with unassailable (and not even covered up!) Russian interference in the election, they played it as close to the vest as possible. You have to believe that they would do this, in order not to be seen as partisan, but at the same time personally engineer a massive criminal scheme, and at the same time not do anything afterwards. It’s insane.

(It’s also a reminder that Putin hated Obama because he thought Obama interfered too much in Russian greatness, which might be accurate. And if anything, he hated Hillary more. Remember that when people say Obama and Hillary were weak on Russia.)