Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

Lies and voters

December 21, 2016
Erdogan

Erdogan

After Turkey’s attempted coup last summer, Turks marched en masse to support their democracy – and their President Erdogan – who is a bigger threat to that democracy than the coup was. Soon they’ll be asked to vote to effectively give Erdogan total power. Seems they’ll say yes.

Why? Isn’t it national suicide?

Erdogan has pretty much crushed independent media; Turkish public information sources now spew his propaganda. Similarly in Russia, state controlled media feed the people a diet of distorted and false “information” to manipulate them into thinking what Putin wants them to. And so they do think it. If you call that “thinking.”*

If I lived in such a country, I would, on principle, believe (and vote) the opposite of what the regime wants. Yet few people follow such logic.

images-2Fortunately we don’t live in that kind of country. Yet, perversely, many Americans view our own media with exactly that sort of distrust. In the last campaign, we had the “lugenpresse” trope – an unashamed borrowing from Nazi propaganda – retaining the original German no less! “Lugenpresse” meant “lying press” – a line Hitler used until he solved the “problem” by (like Erdogan and Putin) suppressing independent media.

Regarding Trump’s campaign, the press’s alleged “lying” consisted chiefly of reporting what he said. As though he meant what he said. When honest reporters would have realized he didn’t. Or something.

images-4The other great irony here is that while the mainstream media, truthfully exposing all Trump’s moral degeneracies, was distrusted and ignored as the “lugenpresse,” what his followers did trust instead was a farrago of fly-by-night fake news venues. They reported such obvious howlers as the Pope endorsing Trump, President Obama (that Kenya-born Muslim) encouraging illegal immigrants to vote, and Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of a Pizza parlor basement. (Incoming whacko National Security Advisor Michael Flynn  seems to have embraced the latter story.)

images-3And when Trump said Hillary wouldn’t be prosecuted, demonstrators outside his New York palace marched with signs saying “Hillary’s Lies Matter.” The Biggest Liar Ever had lied to them about prosecuting her, yet it was still her supposed lies that matter! Trump also says he’d won “the single greatest victory in the history of politics.” Does that mean capturing the presidency despite losing the popular vote by millions? Of course he says he didn’t truly lose it. And denies the obvious fact that his Russian pals actively worked to elect him. Sheesh!

The left is not immune from the syndrome; they too live in their own separate reality of so-called “information.” The problem actually isn’t that mainstream media have somehow failed in their mission of giving us objective, unbiased information. images-5It’s that people hate information that contradicts their beliefs. And in today’s world of totally free media, there is an incentive for providers of biased information (and outright fake news) that caters to a particular mindset. They can profit and gain power and influence by coddling their followers’ prejudices (as Steve Bannon of the racist Breitbart News has done). Why listen to mainstream media when you can go elsewhere for “information” that better flatters your prejudices?

unknownAnd so we have countries like Russia and Turkey without free media where people lap up the propaganda fed them by cynical state-controlled sources; while in America with free media people choose to lap up the propaganda fed them by cynical biased sources.

* There are limits. Venezuelan President Maduro’s effort to blame economic implosion on conspiracies is getting short shrift when his own folly is so obviously at fault.

Russia’s newest satellite nation: America

December 12, 2016

images-1America’s Central Intelligence Agency, after careful analysis of the factual evidence, has reached a firm conclusion that Russia’s regime not only interfered with our presidential election, but did so specifically to help Trump. We can be sure that such an explosive charge would not have been made unless the CIA felt confident of the evidence. In fact, Russia’s game was obvious; they hacked both parties, but only material damaging to Democrats was leaked (not that anything really damaging emerged; but the consequent foofaw hurt Clinton nevertheless).

And moreover, it was also obvious why the Kremlin preferred Trump. He was dissing NATO and our treaty commitments, lauding Putin, excusing Russia’s aggressions, and suggesting sanctions against Russia should end. unknown-1And of course it would delight the Kremlin for America to be weakened and to look bad, due to a presidential bull in a china shop.

A foreign government interfering in an American election – successfully! – is a matter of the highest seriousness. It cannot be tolerated, and calls for a robust response, doing everything possible to deter this kind of thing happening again.

Trump has responded instead by attacking not Russia but America’s own intelligence services, as “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” What others see as obvious truth he dismisses as “ridiculous.” He also brayed that the election “ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history.” A “massive landslide,” he called it; the Democrats “suffered one of the greatest defeats in the history of politics.”

unknown-2Fact check: we have had 58 presidential elections. In 45, the winning electoral vote margin, percentagewise, was greater than Trump’s. And he lost the popular vote by a decisive 2-1/2 million. We are suffering one of the greatest liars in the history of politics. Exactly the jackass Russia wanted to saddle us with.

Further still, in the wake of the CIA’s explosive revelation, and Trump’s moronic response, we also learn that the top choice for Secretary of State is now Rex Tillerson.*

Tillerson with the new top dog

Tillerson with America’s new top dog

He’s the head of Exxon Mobil, where he’s spent his entire career. Not a jot of governmental, diplomatic, or public policy experience. But that’s not the worst of it. If we wanted the most pro-Russian Putin-loving guy possible – short of naming Sergei Lavrov himself – it would be Rex Tillerson.

images-3Make America great again? We’d better start learning Russian.

* I always thought Trump was deliberately jerking Romney around, as payback for Romney’s words about him. Creeps will be creeps.

Trump: Making China great again

November 27, 2016

unknownThanks to president-elect Trump’s opposition, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal is dead. And considering all his China-bashing in the campaign, it’s a supreme irony that they’re high-fiving each other in Beijing – because Trump has handed China one gigantic geopolitical triumph.

This is America forfeiting – to China – Pacific region trade leadership. The TPP, painstakingly negotiated over many years, was our way to unite the other regional nations with us to resist Chinese bullying. unknown-2With America pulling back, now they’re left to fend for themselves, which will mean accommodating to China as the region’s big Kahuna.

But the words “trade deal” have become so politically toxic here. Shame on Democrats for their cowardly unwillingness to defend one of President Obama’s key initiatives. He himself was forced to give up on it. Not to mention Republicans, who until recently knew better on this issue too.

America’s share of global manufacturing has not been falling. Manufacturing jobs have been disappearing — but due more to technological advancement than trade. And trade-related job losses are overwhelmed by the benefits to U.S. consumers when prices we pay are lower. That savings translates into more consumer spending, which creates jobs, making up for any lost. Furthermore, if trade makes countries like China and Mexico richer, that’s good for us — they can buy more from us. And anyhow, the TPP would not actually have given other countries much added ability to sell us stuff – our tariffs were already quite low. unknown-1But it would have required those other nations to reduce their trade barriers, enabling U.S. businesses to sell more to them. For us, it was a no-brainer. But I guess we have no brains now.

President Trump, of the Nation Formerly Known as America

November 16, 2016

Give him a chance. He can’t be so bad. He’s our president now. Let’s hope he succeeds. You’re just a bunch of political sore losers, get over it. This is what we’re hearing.

unknownThere’s an idea that his critics have been refuted, that being elected somehow laundered him – proving all the negative stuff about him during the campaign was untrue or irrelevant. That the media misrepresented him. Sorry, not so. Things said don’t become unsaid; facts don’t become non-facts. He’s still Donald “Grab them by the pussy” Trump.

But America does love redemption stories, and it’s hoped the presidency’s awesomeness will reform him. He did seem subdued in his post-election appearances. However, so many times I’ve seen some foreign leader elected, thinking what a great opportunity he has to prove the doubters wrong. They never do. Look at South Africa’s Zuma. A creep before. A bigger creep after.

Power does corrupt. It doesn’t make bad men better, it makes them worse. As a student of history and world affairs, I know this story doesn’t have a happy ending.

Steve Bannon, Senior Counselor to the President

Steve Bannon, Senior Counselor to the President

It’s also hoped that a “successful businessman” will naturally surround himself with the best people. What a joke. He was a failure at actually building businesses, making his fortune by looting them and leaving others holding the bag; then marketing his celebrity name. And the best people? Steve Bannon? Reince Priebus? Rudy Giuliani? Newt Gingrich?

Send in the clowns.

In hindsight, Trump won the election on his campaign’s first day, with two words: “They’re rapists.” Not that it was believed literally, but it set the tone. Enough voters instantly latched onto him as their personal avatar, and nothing could budge them. “He tells it like it is.” Another sick joke – the biggest liar in our political history.

His voters feel America has been going downhill, and Trump will turn it around. They’re right about the former, in some ways, but not the latter. unknown-2Our politics has certainly been going downhill, with divisions hardening, and truth, reason and decency among the casualties. Trump is the culmination; not a national renewal, but a national degradation; the bottom falling out.

This is not being a sore loser about an election, it’s the loss of our country. Not about politics or ideology, but culture and values. I keep hearing, “This is not who we are.” And I say to myself: “Well, it is now.”

Of course this is all hyperbole. Life will go on much as before; America is still a great place to live. Unlike in many others, I can still freely write this blog. For now; Donald Trump truly does not like that, nor do a lot of his followers. That’s just one way they trash the principles that actually made America great. unknown-3When will we see the Trump neighborhood brigades to “defend the revolution,” like in Cuba and Venezuela? (And in Sinclair Lewis’s now uncanny 1935 book, It Can’t Happen Here.)

This American travesty reflects an unfortunate worldwide trend of short-sighted voters brainlessly demolishing what was so painstakingly built. Like in the Brexit vote. The democratic, genuinely liberal and humanistic lights are also going out in Turkey (a huge tragedy), the Philippines, Hungary, Poland, Thailand; France and Italy could well be next. The EU’s continuation is doubtful. While Russia and China get more repressive and emboldened; look for a Baltic invasion, putting NATO to the test. And America’s steady leadership is a bygone. A tough time for optimists.

I am politically homeless today. The name “Republican” is ashes in my mouth. I find myself in some sympathy with “progressive” Trump opponents; however, they’re wrong on so many issues, and often just as bad on the fundamental ideal of freedom of thought and expression. The alternative in the next election will likely be far left.

unknown-4But no matter how lonely, I will continue speaking out for the humanistic values I hold dear, and that have given us so much progress. I will continue — until that brigade comes for me.

Our Gal in Iraq

October 17, 2016

elizabIn the last episode (“Our Gal in Kabul”), daughter Elizabeth (now 23) was headed to a job with a humanitarian organization in Afghanistan, to sort out the country’s problems. Having put Afghanistan to rights, next she’s off to Iraq.

This time she’ll be working for the Danish Refugee Council (her third NGO), a topnotch outfit which she rates very highly, an opportunity she couldn’t refuse.

She’ll be stationed in Erbil, in the good part of Iraq. The one with sun-drenched beaches, four-star hotels and restaurants, spas, designer stores, opera. Well, okay – just sun-drenched. unknownActually, this is Iraqi Kurdistan which, though not without its problems, has put distance between itself and the mess that is the rest of Iraq. The Kurds have a long history of being America’s friends; we haven’t always done enough right by them; I’m gratified Elizabeth will be making a contribution there.

If it sounds like I’m living vicariously through my daughter – a common enough parental syndrome – well, perhaps a tiny bit. A part of me does have the feeling she’s doing the kinds of things maybe I should have. Oh, I have no regrets, I did have a great career, doing some important and worthy work. Yet in truth that was only sheer luck, since I was so clueless starting out, lacking the wit or imagination even to consider the full range of possibilities that might have been open to me. Can’t say that of Elizabeth. She is seizing the world by the horns, to live a meaningful life.

Her chosen path is not one followed by your typical American millennial. And it does please me to think that’s at least partly down to having had parents who were not typical either.

Pakistan: shooting polio doctors

October 2, 2016

images-1Dr. Zakaullah Khan was shot dead on September 11 in Pakistan. He was a leading figure in the push for polio vaccination. A huge global effort has nearly eradicated polio. Pakistan is one of only three countries where the disease still ravages children. In all three, this is thanks to the efforts of Islamist militants who deem vaccination a Western plot. They’ve killed about 80 Pakistani polio workers.

I’ve written of Pakistan as “the f**ked-up country.” Many nations (even America) do some things wrong. But if we’re giving awards for that, you could hardly beat a country that tries to exterminate not disease but disease fighters.

Some fatalists see such human follies as inescapable facts of life. But I’m a believer in free will, not fate, I see humanity as having choices, and responsibility for the choices made. America is a product of choices, and so is Pakistan. In fact, its very existence resulted from a choice.

Jinnah

Jinnah

Until 1947, Pakistan (and Bangladesh) were simply part of India. Nobody thought of them as separate. But as India’s independence was being negotiated, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, leader of its Muslims, insisted on a separate Muslim state. There was no mass Muslim groundswell for this; maybe it was just that Jinnah fancied himself president of a country. The Brits didn’t much care; and Jinnah made himself such a pain-in-the-rear that India’s Hindu leaders gave in rather than have his stroppiness derail independence.

Fatalists also invest big historical events with inevitability. I again lean more to the view that individuals, and their actions, matter. Pakistan’s creation was a perfect example; there was nothing inevitable about it.

It was catastrophic from the start. Violence erupted among Muslims and Hindus sorting themselves between the two new countries. Estimates range up to two million killed. Another three million died in the ghastly 1971 war when Bangladesh broke free from the disaster that was Pakistan. Not that Bangladesh has done much better.

Meantime, a couple hundred million Muslims chose to remain in India. A smart choice because, for all its poverty and other troubles, India is a far more decent country than Pakistan. Far more democratic and peaceable, making progress. There have been some conflicts, even violence, between Indian Muslims and the Hindu majority – but nothing like the vicious animosity (several wars fought) between India and Pakistan.

Imagine . . .

Imagine . . .

But imagine a world in which Jinnah – and hence Pakistan – never existed. All those millions would not have been killed, none of those wars fought. India would long have been the world’s most populous country. There’s no reason to think it would be any less democratic – indeed, absent the conflict with Pakistan, Indians would have felt far more secure and confident. Without refuge in Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban would have been beaten long ago. There might not even have been an Afghan Taliban – and hence no 9/11. A very different and probably better world.

We also hear much babble about arbitrary international borders, implying ethnically homogeneous nations are best, to avoid internal conflict. What rubbish. America is the most ethnically mixed country ever, and works pretty well – its polyglot diversity a strength, not a weakness. India likewise exemplifies this, with its large Muslim minority. That minority would have been much larger had Pakistan not been hived off – probably a good thing. I’d bet India’s Hindus and Muslims, more numerically equal, with the necessity of sharing a nation being even more acute, would have done even better at learning to live together.

images-2And I’m pretty sure no polio doctors would be getting shot.

World leaders admirable and loathesome

September 30, 2016

unknownLibertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson was embarrassed the other day being unable to name a foreign leader he admired. At first I winced – it seemed ignorant. But then I pondered how I’d answer the question myself. It’s actually quite hard!

images-1Unfortunately, it’s far easier to name foreign leaders I revile: Putin, Mugabe, Maduro, Zuma, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-il, Castro, Al-Sisi, Al-Khalifa, Al-Bashir, Al-Assad (pretty much all the Als), Ortega, Lukashenko, Kaczynski, Orban, Erdogan, Obiang, Bongo, Prayuth, Nkurunziza, Tsipras, Museveni, Afwerki, Kiir, Salman, dos Santos, Kabila, Hun Sen, Mswati, Razak, Khamenei, Aliyev, Hasina (my wife would scold me if I failed to include a woman). That’s just a quick list off the top of my head.

Naming ones I admire is much tougher. Political life being what it is, even the better ones tend to be compromised in one way or another. Take India’s Modi. I had high hopes. And he has done much right. But not nearly enough. And he has blood on his hands. Our own President Obama has some admirable personal qualities, but I don’t admire his record in office.

images3But okay, after much thought, here’s my answer. I most admire the Dalai Lama. Maybe that’s cheating because he isn’t actually a head of state.*

unknown-1I also admire Aung San Suu Kyi – who hasn’t had time enough yet to disappoint. The same is true of Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, Argentina’s Mauricio Macri, and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen. Possible candidates are Italy’s Renzi and Colombia’s Santos. And Canada’s Trudeau seems surprisingly admirable for a man from the left side of the political spectrum.

Not much of a list, for such a big world. And it’s sad that no American makes the cut – nobody on today’s political stage do I really admire.** Certainly not the two main presidential candidates. I’ll vote for Johnson, despite his Aleppo moments, for reasons of principle (the only candidate making economic sense), without admiration.

* And a strange choice for an atheist like me? No, he doesn’t believe in any gods either!

** Chris Gibson alas is leaving that stage. John McCain is disqualified for endorsing Trump. Charlie Baker did not, and seems an excellent man, but I don’t know enough about him.

Syria

September 22, 2016

So by mistake a U.S. airstrike killed sixty-odd soldiers of Bashar Assad’s Syrian army.

images-1Boo hoo.

We abase ourselves with apologies, while the Russians (who bomb hospitals and UN aid convoys) gleefully stick it to us with breathtaking hypocrisy. Well, those soldiers were human beings after all. Or had once been. More victims, really, of this horror.

At one point documentation emerged about eleven thousand tortured to death in Assad’s prisons. That was years ago already; I wonder what the count is now. Does anyone care? Nobody has been called to justice by any international tribunal.

I have no answers. Any good options on Syria were squandered long ago. We did go through the motions of training and deploying some indigenous good guys. They were wiped out. Last I heard, the force numbered four or five. Not four or five units. Four or five guys.

images-2And remember how President Obama made a fool of himself by failing to punish Assad for crossing the “red line” on chemical weapons use? And how Putin cynically “rescued” Obama with a face-saving deal for Syria to give up its chemical weapons? Well, guess what? Of course it was just a charade. Assad has flagrantly violated the deal, continuing to freely use chemical weapons. With not a peep from Obama about it.

The Russians are not our friends. Any cooperation or coordination with them, in their Syrian military operations, is a trap. So is any negotiation with them because any deals they make are only self-serving and never honored. They just pocket the concessions and then make a mockery of their obligations.

As in Ukraine. Russia actually had signed a treaty with Ukraine, pledging (in exchange for Ukraine giving up nuclear weapons) to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. I guess that didn’t apply to Crimea, ha ha.

images-3So regarding Syria, nothing negotiated with Russia could be beneficial. We’re just played for patsies. The repeated “cease-fires” are a cruel joke. And what is our Syria policy objective anyway? Just to destroy ISIS? But doing that would help not just the blood-soaked Assad regime and its Russian patrons – and our great pals the Iranians – but also Al Qaeda. Because, although this is murky, the other main anti-Assad force, rival to ISIS, is the Nusra Front, now renamed JFS, which originated with Al Qaeda. Though objectively, among all Syria’s contending forces, JFS may actually be the least bad.

images-5And anyway, destroying ISIS is not a Syria policy because it would not resolve the basic conflict. Bashar Assad may “win” in the end by thoroughly destroying his country.

Then he can stand upon the seared devastation and declare,

images-4“Look upon my works ye mighty and despair.”

Colombia’s peace deal: how to end wars

September 10, 2016

There are important lessons to be learned from Colombia’s recent peace deal with its FARC insurgency, ending a 52-year civil war.

Uribe

Uribe

The FARC may have started as an ideological “revolutionary” movement but degenerated into murderous drugs-and-kidnapping criminality. Its atrocities prompted the rise of anti-FARC paramilitaries which behaved just about as brutally. Colombia seemed headed for failed-statehood until President Alvaro Uribe (2002-10) got serious about combating the FARC militarily and also cracked down on the paramilitaries. He was a hero.

Santos

Santos

His chosen successor, Juan Manuel Santos, capitalized on that progress with painstaking four-year negotiations, culminating in the peace settlement.

The “No-more-war” crowd sacralizes the word “negotiations,” fantasizing that all conflicts can be solved that way. Historically, the vast majority of wars have instead been solved militarily, by one side simply winning. A combatant who sees a chance to win through arms won’t likely make the concessions necessary for a negotiated settlement.

Colombia shows this. Repeated negotiation efforts failed until the FARC was first brought to its knees militarily. Yet the government couldn’t wipe it out entirely, hence both sides now had incentives for concessions to get a deal. The government had to swallow some bitter pills, including a degree of leniency toward people with blood on their hands.

Unknown-1But it was wise to do so. All normal human beings have a powerful inborn justice drive, an instinct that crimes should be punished. And punishment for crimes is indeed just. However, retributive justice is all about the past, while a peace deal like Colombia’s is all about the future, and we mustn’t sacrifice the latter for the former. If leniency is what it takes to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” and lay a foundation for a brighter future, then so be it.

images-3In this, Colombia’s peace deal conforms to what is becoming the modern model for such settlements. We’ve seen broadly similar ones in Northern Ireland, South Africa, El Salvador, and elsewhere, with magnanimous “truth and reconciliation” processes, so that losers aren’t just stamped on, but accommodated back into society. Colombia’s pact enables the FARC to turn into a normal political party.

All this is, quite simply, the way it’s done now, and it’s a very good thing. We may not have “outlawed war” as pacifists dream (though in fact, in history’s broad sweep, war is very much on the decline). But we have gotten a lot better at resolving conflicts, and in ways that are beneficial for the societies involved. This is a very important form of progress, bad news for cynics, and a big point scored for those with an optimistic outlook upon humankind and our world.

Still, conspicuously absent from the growing list of conflicts resolved in this intelligent, foresighted way are any involving Muslims (and a disproportionate number of the world’s violent conflicts involve Muslims). Regrettably, this seems to reflect a cultural difference: most Muslim societies are still locked in a bloody-minded “winner-take-all” mindset regarding conflicts. They have failed to grow to greater maturity in the way so many others (like Colombia) have done. As an optimist, I expect they one day will, but in the meantime it’s frustrating. (However, let me note Tunisia’s progress, the one nation with (so far) a good outcome from the “Arab Spring,” thanks to the kind of modernist mentality I’m talking about.)

imagesColombia is still fighting a smaller but stroppier rebel group, the ELN, and its FARC deal must be approved in a referendum. The vote may be close: the lack of prison time for miscreants is indeed hard to swallow, and Uribe, to his discredit, is campaigning against it. One might think the desire for retributive justice would be strongest in the rural areas that suffered most at FARC’s hands; but because they’ve suffered the most, they are keenest to approve the deal and draw a line under all the suffering. Let’s hope Colombia follows their lead.

Hillary’s convention speech II; and more Trumpery

July 30, 2016

imagesWell, Hillary did use some of the draft I wrote for her (see previous post). But mainly she insisted on giving the Standard Model Democratic Speech – covering every policy, every voter niche, stroking every interest group.

It was a speech for the ‘90s.

images-1Not only is Hillary running as a Democrat, she’s running as a Bernie Sanders Democrat (though Bernie always called himself not a Democrat but a socialist). Yet if Clinton is running as a Sanders Democrat, you wouldn’t know it from listening to the Bernie-or-busters. While her stances are practically a carbon copy of his, they still talk as though it’s a saint versus a Satan. As Sarah Silverman told them, they’re being ridiculous. Of course, their candidate always was.

UnknownHillary (like Andrew Cuomo) seems to think orating means talking loud. As though that shows your speech is really important and you really really mean it. Hillary often sounds as shrill as a harpy. And often looks like smiling is painful for her. Trump spent his entire speech scowling darkly, as though he could spit bullets. Why did Hillary try to imitate that?

Meantime, Trump has endorsed – encouraged – the idea of an enemy nation engaging in espionage against us and interfering in U.S. politics. This is the man who says only he can protect us.

But he also says he won’t necessarily protect other nations against an attack by that enemy, notwithstanding our treaty obligations to do so.

images-2And when asked about America’s opposition to Russia’s grab of Crimea, Trump said, “We’ll be looking at that.” Which is Trump-speak for “I don’t know what the frick to say, but that doesn’t stop me from saying something stupid.” His answer has been interpreted as bowing to the Crimea crime. But I doubt he meant that – rather, his answer revealed he knows nothing about Crimea, doesn’t know where it is, or why it’s an issue.

When a man thinks he knows everything, he thinks he needn’t bother himself actually knowing anything.

(I’m voting for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate.)