Tag Archives: Putin

Collusion, Not Statecraft

I don’t usually cite to Daily Kos, because I am aware that its articles are reported through a liberal lens and I’m not interested in simply becoming part of an echo chamber.

Despite its clear–and acknowledged–editorial perspective, however, I have found the site to be factually accurate–and often, very persuasive. I was especially convinced by a post analyzing the effects of Trump’s decision to renege on U.S. commitments made in the Iran Agreement (an agreement our inarticulate President likes to call a “deal.”)

A number of foreign policy experts have expressed frustration with the withdrawal because it reduces America’s ability to exert influence in the region and rather dramatically increases the prospects of destabilization, if not war. The recurring critique is that no one  (not even Israel, Bibi notwithstanding) benefits from this decision.

As the post reminds us, however, there is a beneficiary. Putin’s Russia.

Crude oil futures have leapt from $26 at the time of Trump’s election to $77 today. Back in January, Trump actually certified that Iran was in compliance with the nuclear agreement. However, Trump threatened to end the agreement if it wasn’t expanded to include items unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program and “strengthened” in unspecified ways.

Trump increased his warnings that he would end the deal in February, and by March was engaged in talks with European allies—talks at which allies consistently urged Trump to remain in the deal and Trump consistently announced his intention to walk away. As the talks wore on, and Trump’s intransigence became clear, fears of a destabilized Middle East began to shore up oil prices.

Russian oil production hovers around 10 million barrels a day. That means the increase that has already happened in oil prices is providing Putin with an extra $520 million a day. …

Everything else that Trump has or hasn’t done about Russia, any sanctions, any tariffs, any expelled diplomats, absolutely pales in comparison to the huge boost he provided to the Russian economy by backing away from the Iran nuclear deal. In fact, short of actually starting a shooting war in the region, it’s difficult to find anything else that Trump might have done of more benefit to Putin. It’s certainly difficult to think of anything Trump might have done to generate a more certain boost for Russia.

As any political pundit worth her salt will confirm, poor economic performance is a threat to even an autocratic politician, and Russia–which is very dependent on oil prices–has been running up steep deficits and cutting vital programs.

As the post notes, Russia’s economic problems have also hobbled its ability to deploy its military.

In 2014, as oil prices declined again, the value of the ruble tumbled, making it more difficult for Russia to borrow or import goods. At the start of 2015, the purchasing power index for Russia—the actual value of the country’s money when it comes to buying a standard “basket of goods”—was the lowest in the world.

The falling ruble triggered waves of inflation across Russia, putting prices up by double digits across the board, raising the interest rates to near 20 percent, and leading to widespread calls for wage and price controls. In 2016, Russia faced growing debt and declining GDP. Retail sales and personal wealth were both sharply down. Predictions were for a sustained period of oil prices below $20.

Anti-Putin demonstrations during the past few years have addressed a number of grievances, but this economic reality was clearly a major source of popular dissatisfaction. But as long as Iran continued to participate in the world’s oil markets, the oil prices that are so important to Russia’s economy would remain low.

Oil prices could be driven up only if the U.S. re-imposed the sanctions that had prevented Iran–the third largest player in OPEC–from selling its oil on the world market.  Those sanctions had been lifted under the agreement Trump just trashed. Immediately after he reimposed them, Americans faced  additional sticker shock at the gas pump.

Rising pump prices are blunting the positive effects of sweeping tax cuts on Americans’ spending, potentially undercutting a pillar of economic growth this year.

Withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran agreement may have infuriated our European allies, imposed costs on American consumers and made the world less safe. But it was a huge gift to Putin.

For a communist, Putin sure understands return on investment.

Incompetence? Or Sabotage?

There’s an old saying that even paranoids have enemies.

When Trump appointed Mick Mulvaney to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau–despite a provision in the law creating the Bureau that seems to vest appointing power in the departing head of that agency–I had a sudden epiphany. (Or–more probably–indigestion. But bear with me.)

When he was in Congress, Mulvaney voted in favor of killing the agency, which was created after the financial crisis to protect consumers and keep an eye on Wall Street. He has argued that the agency has too much power; he’s called its regulations “harsh.” In other words, he fits the profile of almost all Trump appointees: he wants to dismantle the agency he is being appointed to run.

Leave aside, for now, the lawsuit over this appointment. My “epiphany” isn’t about this particular appointment. In fact, it is a conspiracy theory–and I should be ashamed of entertaining it, but it seems so persuasive….

What if Putin really is blackmailing Trump? And what if he is demanding, as payment for his silence, the decimation of America’s federal bureaucracy?

Think about the people Trump has appointed. Betsy DeVos wants to destroy public education. Scott Pruitt wants to erase the EPA. Just this weekend, the New York Times ran a story about Tillerson’s hollowing out of the State Department. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wants to shrink or eliminate national monuments. Ajit Pai is intent upon repealing net neutrality. Don’t get me started on Sessions. In fact, every single person Trump has appointed has approached the job with a hatchet in hand.

I’ve previously attributed this continuing disaster to the profound incompetence that characterizes this administration. But really, mere incompetence can’t explain all this. Maybe it’s malevolence–his obsessive hatred of Obama and his determination to erase everything Obama did–but why would Trump deliberately and intentionally destroy the agencies of  federal government? Clueless as he is, even he would have to know that history wouldn’t be kind to an accident of the Electoral College who presided over the destruction of American government.

Putin is a terrible human being and a ruthless despot, but unlike Trump, he’s smart. The various ways in which Russia influenced our election were clever; we’ll never be able to calculate the actual effects of that stealth operation. Putin also knows that Russia could never defeat the U.S. militarily. Trump’s election victory was probably an unanticipated gift. If he really does have the goods on our unstable, needy, none-too-bright President, why not use that leverage to make Trump do his dirty work?

He wouldn’t have to deploy a single soldier….

We’ve already seen incalculable damage to  America’s profile abroad. We’ve already watched as Trump’s “troops” have undermined, understaffed and rendered impotent some of our most important federal agencies, dramatically weakening the country.

If all that isn’t the result of Putin blackmailing Trump, what could possibly explain it?

 

 

Russia Abroad, Theocrats at Home

Welcome to the Trump/Pence Administration.

Per Right Wing Watch

Last month, it was reported that President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team was giving Religious Right activists, especially the members of his presidential campaign’s evangelical advisory board, unprecedented input in shaping his administration,

Earlier this week, one of the members of that board, Richard Land of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, appeared on the “Point of View” radio program, where he told host Kerby Anderson that he has been shocked by how much influence he and other Religious Right activists have had over the make-up of Trump’s administration.

“Some of my conservative friends and I, we have been pinching ourselves, are we hallucinating or is this actually happening?” Land said. “I know a good number of people on the transition team and I can tell you right now, about half of them, Kerby, think I’m liberal. I mean, these are very conservative people.”

Land went on to say that he had personally been solicited several times for names of potential appointees, something that had never happened with prior administrations. He predicted that the Trump/Pence administration would have more conservative Christians in it than any administration he’d had contact with, including the Reagan Administration.

Hoosiers who suffered through four years of his administration can see Mike Pence’s fingerprints all over these appointments.

Americans now have a President who has neither experience with nor interest in government. He still hasn’t filled most staff positions, he hasn’t educated himself about the challenges he’ll face, and he’s given no evidence that he understands what the job of President entails. Instead, he has engaged in the same petty, self-aggrandizing behaviors we’ve come to expect: arguing about the size of inaugural crowds, lashing out at the women and men who marched in opposition to him, threatening the press, and generally acting like a five-year-old spoiled brat.

Meanwhile, reports of his campaign’s Russian connections continue to grow.

It shouldn’t surprise us that, in the absence of any interest in actually governing, Trump would hand off pesky details like staffing to his Vice-President. After all, when Trump Junior approached John Kasich about the Vice-Presidency, he reportedly promised Kasich he could run the country while Trump spent his time “making America great.”

If it were Kasich making the decisions, I would actually feel a lot better. Giving Mike Pence that authority is another matter. Pence is equally uninterested in the boring details of policy (ask anyone who observed his performance as Governor of Indiana), but unlike Trump, who is concerned only with himself, Pence does have an agenda–a theocratic one.

Pence is a Christian culture warrior. His priorities are outlawing abortion, defunding Planned Parenthood, taking money from public education and directing it to Christian schools (Betsy DeVos was deeply involved in Indiana’s voucher program), insuring that Christians can discriminate against LGBTQ citizens and a variety of other measures that would legally privilege fundamentalist Christianity. (He seems to have skipped over those passages in the Christian bible that counsel caring for the poor, refraining from judgment and abstaining from public prayer…like most culture warriors, his is a highly selective reading of the bible.)

So this is what voters in white, rural America have given us: an unstable child-President with mysterious ties to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the various oligarchs who funded his projects after American banks declined to do so, and an equally vacuous Vice President who is a True Believer intent upon imposing his crabbed version of God’s Will on the rest of us.

Worse, if we somehow got rid of both of them, we’d get Paul Ryan, whose deepest desire is to throw grandma off Medicare…..The next few years are going to be very trying….

To Russia, With (Trump’s) Love

MarketWatch is a subsidiary of Dow Jones, and a property of News Corp. It operates a financial information website that provides business news, analysis, and stock market data. It is neither a fake news site nor a particularly ideological one (certainly not left-wing–News Corp also owns Fox News), so I was surprised to read a column headlined “Top 10 Signs that American President is a Russian Agent.”

The “signs” the column identified were: (1) U.S. Intelligence has concluded that the Kremlin helped put him in power; (2) the new President sides with the Kremlin against the CIA; (3) He receives vast sums of money from mysterious Russians (Including an astonishing $95 million that Trump personally received from a Russian billionaire during the 2008 collapse); (4) His election made a lot of people in Moscow rich–their stock market is up 20% since the U.S. election; (5) He wants to end Russia’s global isolation and terminate U.S. and international sanctions against Russia; (6) He has surrounded himself with known Russian allies and sympathizers; (7) He repeatedly refuses to criticize the Kremlin; (8) One of his first steps as President-elect was to drive a wedge between the U.S. and China, Russia’s chief Asian rival; (9) He has announced policies that would undermine NATO; and (10) He once had his own brand of vodka.

Okay, that last one is a stretch.

The column gives “chapter and verse” for each of these signs, so those interested in more detail can click through.

My reaction to this seemingly outlandish theory is not altogether dismissive. Two points are worth consideration: first, whether Trump is simply being his clueless self or knowingly acting on behalf of the Kremlin–being blackmailed by the Russian oligarchs who financed several of his projects after American banks stopped doing business with him, perhaps, or otherwise being bribed to do so–is irrelevant. If he were a knowing Russian agent, how would his behavior differ?

Second, MarketWatch’s list of ten signs is missing a huge one. Russia’s economy is heavily dependent upon oil, and Putin’s stranglehold on the Russian people is heavily dependent upon the economy.  The Kremlin is thus threatened by U.S. efforts to address climate change–efforts that diminish reliance upon and use of fossil fuels.  Trump’s cabinet nominees are virtually all anti-science climate change denialists. His energy transition team has already signaled a witch hunt against government scientists working to protect the environment.  

A military friend recently told me that Russia’s conventional armed forces are substandard. Evidently, according to the CIA and the New York Times, they are much better at cyberwarfare. (Slate also has a good overview of the history and tactics of the Russian hackers.)

Wouldn’t it be ironic if Russia subdued us without having to deploy a soldier or fire a shot?

 

When What We Know Just Ain’t So

A recent research report from Journalists’ Resources examined whether regulations intended to protect the environment cost jobs. The belief that such regulatory activity has a negative effect on employment has been an article of faith among conservative Republicans, yet research on the issue fails to confirm that faith– there is little evidence that environmental regulations substantially impact overall employment figures.

I thought of that report, and a number of other areas where reality fails to confirm our firm expectations, when I read a post to an academic listserv in which I participate. The article of faith that Kim Lane Scheppele–an eminent comparative constitutionalist– called into question in that post is a critically important one: the belief that American democracy cannot be subverted.

Scheppele cited the work of a Columbia professor who had watched Turkey fall under the control of a populist autocrat who won democratic elections–and who sees dangerous parallels to Trump and the U.S.

Confidence in the exceptional resilience of American democracy is particularly misplaced in the face of today’s illiberal populist movements, whose leaders are constantly learning from each other. Trump has a wide variety of tried and tested techniques on which to draw; already, he has vowed to take pages out of Putin’s playbook.

Scheppele had just come back from Chile, where she had lectured on the advance of illiberal constitutionalism around the world.

People there asked me how Trump could have been elected in the US, and I showed them this data: Nearly one quarter of young Americans no longer believe in democracy and since 9/11, faith in the way America is governed has plunged to all-time lows (raised slightly in election years when Obama was elected, but then plunging back again).

These are danger signals that should have alerted us earlier to the possibilities of Trump. I might add that very similar danger signals appeared before the election of other populist autocrats of both left and right: Putin, Erdogan, Orbán, Kaczynski, Correa, Chavez.

There’s a clear pattern here. First people lose faith in the system. Then they vote to break it. And when the new leader decides to trash constitutional institutions, he is cheered on by those who want change at any price. When people wake up to the damage done, it is too late because their constitutional system has been captured.

Scheppele is particularly concerned because in our interconnected world, these autocrats learn from each other.

I am admittedly among the number of Americans who have always had a false sense of security: it can’t happen here. But as we have seen, that article of faith–that particular element of our belief in American exceptionalism– has proved to be fragile in other countries that had seemingly stable democratic institutions.

Just last weekend, the New York Times ran an article about the “alt-right” (our homegrown Nazis) and its ideal of leadership.

As the founder of the Traditionalist Worker Party, an American group that aims to preserve the privileged place of whiteness in Western civilization and fight “anti-Christian degeneracy,” Matthew Heimbach knows whom he envisions as the ideal ruler: the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin.

Russia is our biggest inspiration,” Mr. Heimbach said. “I see President Putin as the leader of the free world.”

Despite our belief that America is somehow different, we are not exempt from the white nationalist fervor that is sweeping large sections of the globe. If we want to emerge from this very dangerous period of time with something resembling an actual constitutional democracy and the rule of law, we will need a determined and informed resistance.