Clear Failures

We don’t invade poor countries to make them rich. We don’t invade authoritarian countries to make them democratic. We invade violent countries to make them peaceful, and we clearly failed in Afghanistan.

James Dobbins, former special envoy to Afghanistan

This week’s featured post is “The Evangelical Deal with the Devil“.

If you were wondering what I was up to last week, I talked at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Billerica, MA about the humanistic holiday that has built up around Christian Christmas.

This week everybody was talking about impeachment strategy

The House approved two articles of impeachment, but adjourned for the holidays without delivering the articles to the Senate. This temporarily freezes the process in a state where the public agrees with Democrats on the next step.

Majority Leader McConnell has expressed his preference for a minimal trial in the Senate: no witnesses, just introduce the record from the House, have closing arguments, and go straight to debate on the vote. Presumably, the vote would happen quickly, and Trump would be acquitted.

Democrats (and most of the American people) understand that Trump has prevented key witnesses from testifying, but would have a harder time blocking them if the Senate subpoenaed them. For example, the best witness to Trump’s role in blocking military aid to Ukraine is clearly Mick Mulvaney, who was simultaneously White House chief of staff and head of the Office of Management and Budget. The best witness to the policy discussion within the White House is then-National Security Advisor John Bolton. If there are any doubts about how things happened, why not ask them?

I think it’s safe to assume that Trump (and McConnell) don’t want Mulvaney or Bolton to be asked, because they’ll have to either perjure himself or reinforce the evidence of Trump’s guilt. If (on the other hand) they were happily waiting to exonerate Trump, Republicans would have every reason to want them to testify.

Delaying the process at this point may have little effect in the long run, but it does make clear to the American people who wants to get to the bottom of things and who doesn’t.

It’s possible that four Republican senators can be persuaded to vote with the Democrats to have an actual trial. It’s still a long shot that four out of the 53 Republican senators would decide to take their responsibilities seriously rather than obey Trump, but it’s possible.

The abuse-of-power article passed 237-190-1, and obstruction-of-Congress 236-191-1. No Republicans voted to impeach. Two Democrats (Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey — who has announced that he’s switching parties — and Collin Peterson of Minnesota) voted against the Abuse article and a third (Jared Golden of Maine) against Obstruction.

Presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard voted Present on both counts, explaining it on her campaign website like this:

I come before you to make a stand for the center, to appeal to all of you to bridge our differences and stand up for the American people. My vote today is a vote for much needed reconciliation and hope that together we can heal our country.

Personally, I don’t see how letting Trump get away with attempting to cheat in the 2020 election is “standing up for the American people.” When the question is whether the president is above the law, and when he acknowledges no wrongdoing and apologizes for nothing, I don’t see a way to bridge that difference. Either you grant him permission to commit more crimes or you don’t.

Gabbard’s vote gave weight to a speculation Hillary Clinton made in October, that the Russians had “their eye on somebody who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She’s the favorite of the Russians.”

Speaking of the Russians, Vladimir Putin takes Trump’s side in the impeachment debate, and Trump thinks it boosts his case to point to Putin’s support.

A number of conservative voices have unexpectedly come out in favor of removing Trump: Christianity Today, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, American Conservative’s Daniel Larison.

Michele Goldberg identified an ailment I can identify with: democracy grief.

The entire Trump presidency has been marked, for many of us who are part of the plurality that despises it, by anxiety and anger. But lately I’ve noticed, and not just in myself, a demoralizing degree of fear, even depression.

When I examine those feelings in myself, it’s not about democracy per se. It’s more related to something I have believed in, perhaps naively, all my life: the power of truth. The most dispiriting thing about watching the impeachment hearings has been to realize just how little it matters that Trump actually did the things he’s accused of. Republicans have enough votes to acquit, and they don’t care.

and trade

Months after Trump started taking credit for a Phase One trade deal with China, a deal actually exists. The US has cancelled tariffs scheduled to start December 15, and rolled back some other tariffs. The Chinese have pledged to buy more American farm products. The major goals the trade war supposedly was seeking — progress on intellectual property rights, for example, — have been kicked down the road to a future Phase Two agreement.

Trump (of course) is claiming victory, but so are Chinese hardliners.

In essence, a year and a half into the trade war, China seems to have hit on a winning strategy: Stay tough and let the Trump administration negotiate with itself.

“The nationalists, the people urging President Xi Jinping to dig in his heels and not concede much, have carried the day,” said George Magnus, a research associate at Oxford University’s China Center. “I don’t see this as a win for market liberals.”

Frequent Trump critic (and Nobel Prize winner) Paul Krugman proclaims Trump the loser of this trade war.

On one side, our allies have learned not to trust us. … On the other side, our rivals have learned not to fear us. Like the North Koreans, who flattered Trump but kept on building nukes, the Chinese have taken Trump’s measure. They now know that he talks loudly but carries a small stick, and backs down when confronted in ways that might hurt him politically.

but we should all pay more attention to the Afghanistan Papers

It’s a coincidence that I just wrote an article about “The Illusions Underlying our Foreign Policy Discussions“, but the themes of that article couldn’t have been better illustrated than they were by the revelations about the Afghanistan War that the Washington Post started publishing the same day.

The Post articles are based on a “Lessons Learned” project undertaken by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR). The Post won a three-year legal battle to get the 2000-pages of reports released to the public, and supplemented the material with its own reporting. The Post summarizes its conclusions:

  • Year after year, U.S. officials failed to tell the public the truth about the war in Afghanistan.

  • U.S. and allied officials admitted the mission had no clear strategy and poorly defined objectives.

  • Many years into the war, the United States still did not understand Afghanistan.

  • The United States wasted vast sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan and bred corruption in the process.

In particular, I want to call your attention to two aspects of the series: First, the Post article on the lack of strategy.

In the beginning, the rationale for invading Afghanistan was clear: to destroy al-Qaeda, topple the Taliban and prevent a repeat of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Within six months, the United States had largely accomplished what it set out to do. The leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban were dead, captured or in hiding. But then the U.S. government committed a fundamental mistake it would repeat again and again over the next 17 years, according to a cache of government documents obtained by The Washington Post. In hundreds of confidential interviews that constitute a secret history of the war, U.S. and allied officials admitted they veered off in directions that had little to do with al-Qaeda or 9/11. By expanding the original mission, they said they adopted fatally flawed warfighting strategies based on misguided assumptions about a country they did not understand. …

Diplomats and military commanders acknowledged they struggled to answer simple questions: Who is the enemy? Whom can we count on as allies? How will we know when we have won?

Second, the unwillingness to tell a complex story of limited successes and larger failures that led to a consistent misleading of the American people across three administrations.

It’s worth considering what that more complex story might have sounded like, and how unlikely it is that the American public as it is could have accepted it.

Imagine if, six months or so into the war, we had declared partial victory for getting Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan and sending Osama bin Laden into hiding. Imagine further that we had begun negotiating a settlement (in an honest coordination with Pakistan) that would have given the Taliban a role governing the country in exchange for verifiable assurances that Al Qaeda would not be allowed back in.

Whatever administration negotiated such a deal would have had a hard time defending it. Al Qaeda is an international group that attacked us and the Taliban is an indigenous Afghan group that we could only keep out by continuing to fight a long-term civil war (more intensely than we have been). Pakistan would help us against Al Qaeda, while protecting the Taliban against us. But both groups represent “radical Islam” and neither hold values consistent with ours.

But we could probably have worked out a way to live with one and get rid of the other.

and corporate surveillance

The NYT and the WaPo independently had scoops on the extent of the surveillance we have all put ourselves under by using current technology.

The NYT’s Privacy Project acquired a datafile of 50 billion location pings from 12 million smartphones, and demonstrated some of the things that could be done with such data.

Each piece of information in this file represents the precise location of a single smartphone over a period of several months in 2016 and 2017. The data was provided to Times Opinion by sources who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to share it and could face severe penalties for doing so. The sources of the information said they had grown alarmed about how it might be abused and urgently wanted to inform the public and lawmakers.

The data comes from a “data location company” that buys data from apps on your phone that collect location information. Such companies are essentially unregulated.

The companies that collect all this information on your movements justify their business on the basis of three claims: People consent to be tracked, the data is anonymous and the data is secure. None of those claims hold up, based on the file we’ve obtained and our review of company practices.

For example, the companies refuse to attach personally identifying information (like your name) to your data. But if a smartphone regularly makes the trip from your home to your workplace, who else could it possibly belong to? And yes, you did click a box that allowed a Weather app or a restaurant-review app to access your location, but you probably assumed these apps would only access your location when they needed it to answer your questions, not that they would track you wherever you go.

Such a track can be very revealing.

One person, plucked from the data in Los Angeles nearly at random, was found traveling to and from roadside motels multiple times, for visits of only a few hours each time.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post pulled apart the computers in a 2017 Chevy Volt to find out what General Motors knows about its customers.

On a recent drive, a 2017 Chevrolet collected my precise location. It stored my phone’s ID and the people I called. It judged my acceleration and braking style, beaming back reports to its maker General Motors over an always-on Internet connection. … Many [cars] copy over personal data as soon as you plug in a smartphone.

The reporter’s hacking was necessary, because GM doesn’t tell owners what data it’s collecting on them, much less allow them to see it.

When I buy a car, I assume the data I produce is owned by me — or at least is controlled by me. Many automakers do not. They act like how and where we drive, also known as telematics, isn’t personal information.

When you sell your car, the information about you the car has stored goes with the car, unless you figure out how to delete it.

For a broader view, Mason also extracted the data from a Chevrolet infotainment computer that I bought used on eBay for $375. It contained enough data to reconstruct the Upstate New York travels and relationships of a total stranger. We know he or she frequently called someone listed as “Sweetie,” whose photo we also have. We could see the exact Gulf station where they bought gas, the restaurant where they ate (called Taste China) and the unique identifiers for their Samsung Galaxy Note phones.

and you also might be interested in …

An uplifting story from the world of sports: Recently retired NBA star Dwayne Wade (best known as the Miami Heat star who created a multiple-championship team by convincing LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join him) supports his trans child.

I’ve watched my son, from Day 1, become into who she now eventually has come into. For me it’s all about, nothing changes with my love. Nothing changes with my responsibilities. Only thing I got to do now is get smarter and educate myself more. And that’s my job.

I had to look myself in the mirror when my son at the time was 3 years old and me and my wife started having conversations about us noticing that he wasn’t on the boy vibe that [older brother] Zaire was on. I had to look myself in the mirror and say: “What if your son comes home and tells you he’s gay? What are you going to do? How are you going to be? How are you going to act? It ain’t about him. He knows who he is. It’s about you. Who are you?”

I’m doing what every parent has to do. Once you bring kids into this world, you become unselfish. It’s my job to be their role model, to be their voice in my kids’ lives, to let them know you can conquer the world. So go and be your amazing self, and we’re going to sit back and just love you.

The Hallmark Channel backed down on banning the lesbian-wedding-themed ad from the wedding-planning site Zola. Afterwards, GLAAD looked into the One Million Moms organization that pressured Hallmark, and found that it’s more like One Mom.

and let’s close with something cold

It’s a cliche to call music “cool”, but ice drumming on Lake Baikal surely qualifies.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • hiltonbill  On December 23, 2019 at 1:13 pm

    The closing was very cool.



  • Meredith  On December 23, 2019 at 3:50 pm

    After following your blog for a few years now I still look forward to The Weekly Sift every week. It remains one of my favourite current affairs blogs.

    As an Aussie trying to understand an ‘interesting’ government here downunder, I find your commentary on US affairs to be thought provoking. I can see many parallels between what is happening in the US and what is happening here in Oz.

    I hope you have a lovely Christmas. And I hope we all have a 2020 that restores some hope.

  • Anonymous  On December 23, 2019 at 10:49 pm

    Re: corporate surveillance
    This is partly a “money in politics” problem. We could enact something like GDPR in Europe, which gives people control over their data. But if corporate America doesn’t want it, and corporate America funds political campaigns, the politicians who got the corporate funding aren’t likely to pass a GDPR-like bill in the U.S.

    The American Anti-Corruption Act addresses things like corporate money (also gerrymandering, voting rights, and a few other things).

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