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More on the Normalization of Relations with Cuba

Daniel Drezner has a very good primer on the issue. One of the strengths of his post is that it does not promise the sun, moon and stars for the United States in exchange for normalization. This, of course, is a good thing; no one should want to harbor unrealistic expectations for Cuban-American relations in the aftermath of normalization. But as Drezner’s piece makes clear, normalization is the best route for the United States to take:

. . . while the benefits of catalytic carrots are not all that great, the status quo policy was worse. Way worse.

It’s not like 50 years of economic sanctions altered Cuba’s regime. Sure, Cuba’s chief economic patron Venezuela is ailing right now, but Cuba endured far worse when the USSR disintegrated and the Special Period started. So anyone who tells you that the sanctions just needed more a little time to work is flat-out delusional. After more than a half-century, they were never going to work.

Read the whole thing for more. Meanwhile, Will Wilkinson–who in a just world would take over Andrew Sullivan’s blog while Sullivan slinks off to an inglorious retirement–takes on those who fret that Cuba will be somehow polluted by American consumerism:

Look, I totally understand the sentiment. There is something singular and vivid about a vibrant, tropical ruin frozen in the 1950s. Cuba is a showcase of dilapidated anti-commercial mid-century nostalgia, and I too sort of wish I had gone to see it, just as I wouldn’t mind having seen Soviet Leningrad. Come to think of it, it would be pretty interesting to see the slave ships coming into harbor in prebellum Savannah. What a scene those auctions must have been! But the human part of me, the moral part, as opposed to the aesthetic and amorally curious tourist part, can only regret that slaving Savannah and communist Russia lasted as long as they did, and today I can be nothing but hopeful that something like freedom is finally coming to the Cubans. If it does, and I make it to Havana, and see a McDonald’s, I will walk into that McDonalds, buy a large Diet Coke, and pour a little on the ground in half-sincere mourning for the pretty, impoverished theme park of tyranny I never had the chance to see.

Walter Russell Mean–whose opinion always merits serious consideration and respect–is also pleased with the deal:

This is one of those cases, increasingly rare, where President Obama can please his base while serving the national interest. The standoff with Cuba serves no real American interest and hands our enemies a useful propaganda tool. Furthermore, a policy that denies Americans the right to travel to countries of their choice is an infringement of personal liberty that could only be justified by a serious security concern. (A travel ban to Syria, for example, might have some merit.) The argument that Cuba, however bad its intentions, poses such a concern has been a joke since the fall of the Soviet Union, and there is no sound justification for limiting the rights of Americans to visit the island.

Mead also goes on to point out that if we really want to undermine and endanger the Castro regime, we will end the embargo–which will take congressional action:

. . . The Castro government isn’t dying to have hundreds of thousands of well-heeled Cuban-Americans descending on Havana and buying the island back as foreign investors. Fidel and Raul have never wanted a total end to the embargo; they have understood for decades that the embargo acts to protect their socialist experiment. If the U.S. repealed the embargo, the Cuban government would have to choose between two unattractive courses. It could move toward normal and open economic relations with the United States, swamping its underdeveloped and scrawny local economy with gringo dollars and influence (with Miami Cubans leading the charge), or it would have to enact a tight set of regulations aimed at keeping American and Cuban American money and investors from overwhelming the island. That would make it crystal clear to every Cuban citizen that the Cuban government needs to keep the island isolated and poor in order to protect its grip on power.

Cuba’s strategic objective has always been to keep the embargo up and to make the embargo look like America’s fault. This has always made for odd relations between Cuban authorities and do-gooding American liberals anxious to heal the breach and help a poor, third-world country. U.S. liberal agendas and Cuban agendas mesh much less than liberals often think, and the Cubans have at times deliberately sabotaged efforts by American liberals to improve relations.

Speaking of Congress and its members, kudos to Jeff Flake for doing what he could on the Republican side to normalize relations. Here’s hoping that he and others can work to end the embargo as well–an action which will serve American interests for all of the reasons Mead outlines.

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An Appalling Act of Cowardice


With theater chains defecting en masse, Sony Pictures Entertainment has pulled the planned Christmas Day release of “The Interview.”

U.S. officials have reportedly linked a massive cyber attack against Sony to North Korea, which is at the center of the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy.

“We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public,” Sony said in a statement. “We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”

[. . .]

Tuesday’s message accompanied another data dump. It threatened violence on theaters that showed “The Interview” and people who attend screenings.

“The world will be full of fear,” the message reads. “Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)”

In response, exhibition industry lobbying arm the National Association of Theatre Owners said its members must decide individually whether to release the picture and Sony said it would respect theater owners’ decision not to exhibit “The Interview.” That set off a cascade of cancellations.

The bulk of the country’s 10 largest theater chains — a group that includes AMC, Regal, Cinemark, Carmike and Southern Theatres — announced they would delay showing the picture or would drop it altogether. In statements, many of the theater chains suggested that Sony’s lack of confidence in the film prompted their decision.

Let’s be clear about this: An anonymous hacker group has successfully intimidated Sony and hundreds of American movie theaters into refusing to show the film. I struggle in vain to think of any comparable act of mass cowardice–especially one that occurred in the United States. Charles C.W. Cooke is quite right:

As far as anybody can tell, [the hackers’ threat] all seems to be so much guff. “At this time,” the Department of Homeland Security has confirmed, “there is no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theaters within the United States.” Nor, for that matter, have the police departments of New York City and Los Angeles heard anything concrete. And yet, despite the lack of any tangible hazards whatsoever, the powers-that-be have elected to play it safe. First, Sony Pictures, which produced the film, canceled tomorrow’s inaugural showing. (“Security concerns,” natch.) Then the Carmike Cinemas chain, which owns 278 theaters in 41 states, announced that it would not be showing it at all. In the last few hours, the Hollywood Reporter has suggested, the other four giants of American cinema — Regal Entertainment, AMC Entertainment, Cinemark, and Cineplex Entertainment — elected to join in the boycott. And, finally, the studio pulled the December 25 release entirely. Perhaps Sony hopes to be “denounced” after all?

Arguendo, let us suppose that the e-mail does, in fact, contain a genuine threat. Would a resolute and free people not ask, “So what?” So the buggers denounce our films? So they issue threats against our theaters? So they are sufficiently delusional to try to instill “fear” into the United States? We are talking here, as Michael Moynihan noted this morning, about “a country that subsists on bugs and grass” — a ridiculous, farcical, anemic shell-nation that, as unconscionably ghastly as it can be to its own people, is unlikely to achieve much in the United States besides the prompting of unalloyed hilarity. Not only does North Korea sit 6,000 miles away from California and 9,000 miles away from New York City, but its contributions to the world of technology and transportation are known primarily for their backwardness. Hackers are hackers, and while they are using their talents to wreak havoc on the Internet, they are to be taken seriously wherever they reside. But there is little reason to believe they are capable of wreaking havoc outside the digital world. Do we imagine, perhaps, that moviegoers in Chicago are likely to be faced with the Blitz?

No. How grotesque it is, then, to see businesses in the United States reacting so cravenly to what appears to be little more than a glorified letter of complaint. Is this now to be how America works? If so — if the friends of a campy two-bit dictatorship can force us to put our tails between our legs and ask not to be thrown into the briar patch — then one can only wonder how we might expect to stand up to our more competent foes. Will we perhaps start pulling books critical of the Iranian leaders, the better to protect Barnes and Noble from incoming Molotov cocktails? Will we remove websites that satirize the Chinese Communist party in order to forestall denial-of-service attacks on their hosts? Will we shut down newspapers that print broadsides against the Putin regime, lest his online buddies send a few death threats our way? I would certainly hope not. Rather, I would hope that we recognize that freedom of expression is the most vital of all our civic virtues, and that no good whatsoever can come of according a heckler’s veto to hackers, to family crime syndicates, and to their nasty little enablers on the international stage. If the right of a free people to associate and to speak as they wish is not deemed by civil society as worthy of fighting for, what exactly is?

Eugene Volokh is quite right as well:

I sympathize with the theaters’ situation — they’re in the business of showing patrons a good time, and they’re rightly not interested in becoming free speech martyrs, even if there’s only a small chance that they’ll be attacked. Moreover, the very threats may well keep moviegoers away from theater complexes that are showing the movie, thus reducing revenue from all the screens at the complex.

But behavior that is rewarded is repeated. Thugs who oppose movies that are hostile to North Korea, China, Russia, Iran, the Islamic State, extremist Islam generally or any other country or religion will learn the lesson. The same will go as to thugs who are willing to use threats of violence to squelch expression they oppose for reasons related to abortion, environmentalism, animal rights and so on.

And the beauty of all this, from the perspective of those who want to suppress movies they dislike, is that they don’t even actually have to bomb anything (something that’s very risky). All they need to do is put out some well-anonymized threats, and they have a good chance of prevailing. To be sure, it helps if they can back up the threats with something (such as a successful hacking attack), but the threats might succeed even without that. If terrorist threats worked with “The Interview,” even despite DHS’s statements that there’s no credible intelligence supporting a risk of actual violence, they might well work elsewhere as well. That, I think, is the lesson that many will take away.

The entire United States has been made subject to a hecklers’ veto. And the hecklers won. To say that this isn’t a proud day in the nation’s history is to understand matters severely.

The Very Definition of “Scandal”


The Obama administration overturned a ban preventing a wealthy, politically connected Ecuadorean woman from entering the United States after her family gave tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic campaigns, according to finance records and government officials.

The woman, Estefanía Isaías, had been barred from coming to the United States after being caught fraudulently obtaining visas for her maids. But the ban was lifted at the request of the State Department under former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton so that Ms. Isaías could work for an Obama fund-raiser with close ties to the administration.

It was one of several favorable decisions the Obama administration made in recent years involving the Isaías family, which the government of Ecuador accuses of buying protection from Washington and living comfortably in Miami off the profits of a looted bank in Ecuador.

The family, which has been investigated by federal law enforcement agencies on suspicion of money laundering and immigration fraud, has made hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to American political campaigns in recent years. During that time, it has repeatedly received favorable treatment from the highest levels of the American government, including from New Jersey’s senior senator and the State Department.

At best, this is highly unethical, and at worst, it is illegal. Oh, and way to completely undermine any serious move towards immigration reform, Obama administration. You just handed every opponent of reform who thinks that you lot are interested in handing out “amnesty” a club with which to beat you politically.

Of course, there should be congressional investigations concerning this news revelation. And given the involvement of our would-be next president of the United States, someone should ask Hillary Clinton why members of a family of alleged criminals should receive “favorable treatment from the highest levels of the American government” under her tenure at the State Department.

A Welcome Change in Cuba Policy

Let’s get the following out of the way: The Castro regime in Cuba is despicable, bloodthirsty, murderous, tyrannical, totalitarian, and entirely opposed to granting basic human rights to its people and to foreign innocents.

Let’s also get this out of the way: The United States embargo that has been in place against Cuba has done absolutely nothing whatsoever to change things for the better in Cuba.

So I am glad that Alan Gross is finally getting released by the Cuban government–which never should have been holding him hostage in the first place–and I am glad that the United States and Cuba are finally talking about normalizing relations. There is no reason whatsoever why a failed policy should be kept in place any longer, and quite frankly, it was held in place for far too long. No less a Cold Warrior than the late Richard Nixon thought as much, and as usual, his foreign policy judgment was on point. We will achieve more change in Cuba by constructive engagement with the country than we will by shunning and isolating it economically, and once the embargo comes to an end, any and all failures concerning the Cuban economy–and there will be failures concerning the Cuban economy–will more easily be considered entirely the responsibility of the Cuban government, which heretofore has been blaming the bad economy on the American embargo.

Yes, I know that there are people who believe that if we just “hang tough” against Cuba for a few years longer, things will change for the better. How much longer we are supposed to “hang tough,” we are not told, of course. Why haven’t things changed for the better by now, or years ago? Absolutely, positively no one can say. Why should we follow so incoherent a policy any longer? And yes, I know that there are plenty of people who are delighted that the embargo is coming to an end, who hated the embargo from the very beginning . . . and who think that we should initiate sanctions against countries like Israel, while ignoring human rights violations in countries like Cuba (and Iran, and China, etc.). These people can’t really be taken seriously, and I will be the first to state as much, but that doesn’t change the fact that our Cuba policy was a disaster and had to change. We opened up to countries like China and Vietnam, and the world hasn’t come to an end. Indeed, our engagement has brought about significant positive changes. Why can’t the same hold true in Cuba?

So, it is good that the embargo is finally coming to an end, and with its end, we can more realistically hope that things will change for the better in Cuba. And kudos to the Obama administration, which deserves a great deal of credit for bringing about a change in policy than previous presidents–both Republican and Democrat–very likely wanted to bring about on their own.

No Virginia, China Is NOT the Biggest Economy In the World


Call it another false alarm in the China-overtaking-the-U.S. saga. Notwithstanding the latest estimates from the International Monetary Fund, the U.S., the world’s largest economy is still, well, numero uno.

China’s gross domestic product will climb to $17.6 trillion this year, while the U.S. grows to $17.4 trillion, IMF projections showed yesterday. One major caveat: the comparison is based on purchasing power parity, which uses exchange rates that adjust for price differences of the same goods between nations.

“The U.S. remains the biggest by the more common, more widely accepted and in our view, more useful measure,” said David Hensley, JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s director of global economic coordination in New York. As for PPP, “it’s not quite the real thing.”

And of course, even if we pretend for a moment that the Chinese economy is in fact bigger than the American economy, that would still not be the end of the story. The per capita income in the United States is ten times bigger than that of China. If the Chinese economy slows even a bit from its gangbusters rate–a gangbusters rate that exists because in so many ways, the Chinese economy has nowhere to go but up–it is in big trouble and so are the Chinese people as a whole. And then there are the demographic problems that are the consequence of China’s infamous one-child policy. China is aging remarkably fast as a country, and demographic disasters do not economic powerhouses make.

So, the status quo has not changed. The United States remains the largest economic power in the world. And even if/when the Chinese economy overtakes the American economy in terms of size, it will still likely not overtake the American economy in terms of the ability to deliver prosperity.

We Have a Defense Secretary. But Will He Be Allowed to Lead?

I applaud the nomination of Ashton Carter to be secretary of defense. He is hyper-smart, passionate about defense and national security policy, knows the Pentagon like the back of his hand, is tough and assertive, and he will be a forceful participant in debates about foreign, defense and national security policy. He is, in short, everything that Chuck Hagel was not and is not. (Incidentally, recall that a whole host of people thought that the Hagel nomination would be a wonderful thing because it would stick it to Benjamin Netanyahu for supposedly supporting Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. Not that I ever expect such people to have the class and decency to admit that it was a bad idea to support a presidential nomination merely because it would spite the Israelis, but maybe from now on, it would be better to have more substantive and intellectually defensible reasons to support or oppose a particular presidential nomination, no?)

So I hope that Carter will be an effective defense secretary and if he is, then I also hope that the next president of the United States–whoever he or she may be, and from whatever party he or she may be–will keep Carter around and empower him to make serious and consequential changes in defense and national security policy that will be to the advantage of the United States.

But as I have written before, we have reasons to be concerned that the next defense secretary is being set up to fail–just like the last defense secretary (who unlike Carter, had no serious intellectual abilities to bring to bear at his job)–was being set up to fail. There are still no indications whatsoever that the Obama administration will allow its next defense secretary to actually exercise line responsibility over his cabinet department. There are still no indications whatsoever that foreign, defense and national security policy will no longer be run out of the White House–a policy that has led to confusion, the disempowerment of cabinet officials, and general disaster. In short, there are still no indications that Ashton Carter will be allowed by the Obama administration to live up to his potential.

I hope that I am wrong about this. Carter should have been nominated as defense secretary in order to succeed Leon Panetta, and perhaps with this nomination, President Obama is implicitly admitting that he needs to change the way in which defense and national security policy is being managed by devolving power back to cabinet secretaries. Perhaps as well, Carter’s combination of brilliance, savvy and knowledge of the Pentagon will help him maneuver around the White House, much as Robert Gates and Leon Panetta were able to do. But while Carter’s nomination is certainly praiseworthy, it is also tragic. He is a superbly qualified, intellectually talented, public-spirited public servant who is possibly being asked to work in conditions that will not be conducive for his success.

Russia’s War Against Fracking in Europe

Covered here and here. It should surprise no one that Russia would do this, as realist theory predicts this behavior. Gazprom’s profits need to be protected, after all, and those profits would not be protected if Europeans were allowed to engage in hydraulic fracking. But just because the allegations against Russia are not surprising does not mean that they are any less alarming. As the stories I cite note, Russia is using soft power in Europe to expand its own strategic interests, and it is doing so at the expense of its neighbors. The neighbors in question are obliged to fight back in order to protect their own interests and in order to curb Russia’s hegemonic ambitions.

Incidentally, what is American policy vis-à-vis Russia? Do we even have a policy?

I Pity the Fool Who Becomes the Next Secretary of Defense

More evidence–as though any were needed–that while Chuck Hagel is leaving the Pentagon, bad governance practices designed and implemented by the Obama White House will remain. And those practices have been around for a while:

On a trip to Afghanistan during President Barack Obama’s first term, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was stunned to find a telephone line at the military’s special operations headquarters that linked directly back to a top White House national security official.

“I had them tear it out while I was standing there,” Gates said earlier this month as he recounted his discovery. “I told the commanders, `If you get a call from the White House, you tell them to go to hell and call me.'”

To Gates, the phone in Kabul came to symbolize Obama’s efforts to micromanage the Pentagon and centralize decision-making in the White House. That criticism later would be echoed publicly and pointedly by Gates’ successor, Leon Panetta.

The president’s third Pentagon chief, Chuck Hagel, was picked partly because he was thought to be more deferential to Obama’s close circle of White House advisers. But over time, Hagel also grew frustrated with what he saw as the West Wing’s insularity.

There have been similar gripes from other Cabinet officials, but the friction between the White House and the Pentagon has been particularly pronounced during Obama’s six years in office. That dynamic already appears to be affecting the president’s ability to find a replacement for Hagel, who resigned Monday under pressure from Obama.

Within hours, former Pentagon official Michele Flournoy called Obama to take herself out of consideration, even though she was widely seen as his top choice and would have been the first woman to hold the post.

Flournoy officially cited family concerns, but people close to her say she also had reservations about being restrained like Hagel and would perhaps wait to see if she could get the job if another Democrat – namely Hillary Rodham Clinton – won the presidency in 2016.

The story goes on to note that “the president’s approach to the military seems particularly cool and detached when compared with that of his predecessor, Republican George W. Bush, who was more eager to embrace the military and accept its judgments.” Recall that during the Bush administration, there were criticisms that President Bush did not listen enough to the generals. Turns out that he did, and that President Obama should be the one faulted for not taking the advice of the military more often. There is also this:

Stephen Biddle, an occasional adviser to U.S. combat commanders, said the White House has fallen victim to “group think” and is distrustful of advice or perspectives that challenge its own.

“That’s a bad policy development design,” said Biddle, a political science professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

Remember how epistemic closure supposedly only affects Republicans? Boy, that claim sure turned out to be a laugh and a half, didn’t it?

In which I Agree with James Stavridis

There are many reasons to support the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. One such reason is that Vladimir Putin cannot stand the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership:

President Barack Obama recently spent some quality time with leaders of Asian nations at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing and again at the G20 Leaders summit, where he continued honing trade and diplomatic ties, and made another push for the long-delayed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. He also held several tense sideline meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin without any discernable reduction in the gridlock over Ukraine.

Flying under the international radar is one of the most potentially important agreements ever negotiated across the broad Atlantic: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), also known as the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA). It is a big basket of agreed-upon rules and regulations that would make the United States and much of Europe a free trade zone, perhaps increasing overall trade by as much as 50 percent, according to the European Commission and the White House.

Guess what? Putin hates it.

It’s not hard to figure out why: it would more tightly bind Europe to the United States, thus hurting Russian leverage. The TTIP is a sensible agreement on economic grounds, broadly speaking. But it also holds enormous real value in the geopolitical sphere. The increased linkages between the United States and our European allies and partners will stand in direct opposition to Putin’s key strategy of driving a wedge between the United States and the EU as the central members of the transatlantic community.

There is very little not to like about TTIP, as Stavridis writes. Here’s hoping that the negotiations get concluded, that it receives the necessary congressional authorization, and that the Obama administration is actually able to use it to curb Russian hegemonic ambitions.

Chuck Hagel Is Leaving, But Problems with the Obama Administration’s National Security Apparatus Will Remain

Let there be absolutely no doubt that Chuck Hagel was at best, an inconsequential secretary of defense, and at worst, a terrible one. But while we ought to be relieved that Hagel has been shown the door, we also ought to be concerned that a completely dysfunctional national security apparatus will remain long after Hagel is gone:

Two months before he was pushed out as defense secretary, Chuck Hagel penned a private letter to the White House, arguing for new measures to rein in Russian President Vladimir Putin and greater efforts to reassure anxious European allies, according to officials briefed on the matter.

Shortly after the September letter, he wrote another memo calling for the administration to clarify its approach to the conflict in Syria. The two messages capped a year of frustrations for Mr. Hagel, who repeatedly found fault with what he saw as indecisiveness by the White House National Security Council, according to current and former officials close to him.

“One of the things that Hagel values most is clarity,” said a confidante of the defense secretary. “That’s not something that this White House has always done well.”

Mr. Hagel wasn’t alone in his frustration. His upset over what he saw as slow decision-making and White House micromanagement of the Defense Department was shared by his two immediate predecessors at the Pentagon.

[. . .]

James Jeffrey, who served as Mr. Obama’s ambassador in Turkey and Iraq, said of Mr. Hagel: “His removal won’t make things better because he was not the source of the problem. The problems seem to be closer to the president.”

Other members of Mr. Obama’s security cabinet have privately voiced similar frustrations, complaining to aides about monthslong discussions that lead to no decision and of having little input in the process, which is tightly controlled by a small number of top White House aides, officials who work for these cabinet secretaries say.

Mr. Hagel’s predecessor, Mr. Panetta, a Democrat, complained to aides that the NSC let proposals “just hang out there” without being acted upon. “You can’t use caution as an excuse not to make a decision,” Mr. Panetta told aides.

And of course, the White House does not seem to be inclined to do anything about these problems:

With his party in a shambles after a disastrous midterm election and his administration ensnared in a messy war in the Middle East, the president stood in the East Room and showed his defense secretary the door.

History seemed to repeat itself this week when President Obama dismissed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, much as President George W. Bush sacked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld eight years ago this month. But beyond the eerie echo, Mr. Hagel’s removal bears little resemblance to that of Mr. Rumsfeld.

The ouster of Mr. Rumsfeld signaled a fundamental change of thinking about the United States’ war strategy and a profound shift in power inside Mr. Bush’s administration as it came to the end of its sixth year. The departure of Mr. Hagel, on the other hand, augurs no such pivot for the Obama administration and seems to cement the current approach to national security.

Mr. Hagel fell short in the president’s eyes because he was passive and quiet in Situation Room deliberations, hardly the commanding figure needed when the country is in a new war against Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria. To the White House, he seemed a captive of the generals and not in sync with the president’s team.

“The clear suggestion is that the White House does indeed still want a doormat — Hagel just forgot whose doormat he was supposed to be,” said Rosa Brooks, a former Obama administration official at the Pentagon. “So it’s sure looking like this move presages a White House doubling down on existing ways of doing business, not a White House interested in making real changes.”

Others pointed to Mr. Hagel’s pushback on budget cuts and a recent memo he wrote criticizing the White House strategy for Syria. “With Hagel, President Obama is firing the guy who wants to change the policy,” said Stephen Biddle of George Washington University, who advised Mr. Bush’s White House on Iraq strategy. “With Rumsfeld, Bush was firing the guy who had opposed changing the policy and was widely seen as a barrier to new thinking.

“So whereas the Rumsfeld firing cleared the way for a policy reversal,” he added, “the Hagel firing appears to be reinforcing a continuation of the pre-existing strategy by removing one of its critics.”

Would it be too much to ask–or perhaps even demand–that some senator say something about this dysfunctional national security apparatus during confirmation hearings when we have a nominee for secretary of defense? Would it be too much to ask–or perhaps even demand–that some senator say something about how no sane person would or should want to be secretary of defense in this environment? Or will senators during the confirmation hearings be content to pretend that there are no problems whatsoever with the Obama administration’s national security team and approach, and that everything is proceeding as planned?

Meanwhile, Tyranny Continues in Venezuela

I don’t believe for a single moment that there was a plot afoot to kill Nicolás Maduro, but of course, the Venezuelan regime pretends conveniently that there was. This makes it easier for the government to suppress protest and dissent, and allows the government to try to distract Venezuelans from the existence of truly awful economic conditions and living standards. Of course, I am not writing anything that anyone doesn’t know, but it is worth emphasizing that the Venezuelan government’s response to the problems afflicting the country–problems the Venezuelan government itself was responsible for having created–is to constantly exclaim “Squirrel!” No one should be fooled.

Once again, all of the people who once pretended that everything that Hugo Chávez and his cronies did was A-OK–especially when George W. Bush was president and Chávez was busy picking fights with the Bush administration and the United States in general (there’s some patriotism for you)–cannot be reached for comment.

I Told You So (Chuck Hagel Edition)

Chuck Hagel was never cut out to be secretary of defense. I wrote as much. Repeatedly (just scroll down, and you will see). Hagel was selected because he was deemed the ideal secretary of defense to preside over declining Pentagon budgets and a declining American presence on the world stage, and astonishingly enough, he was also selected because rabid anti-Israel anti-Semites thought that selecting Hagel as secretary of defense would be a great way to “to pay back Benjamin Netanyahu for all the ‘cooperation’ Obama received from him during the first term, as well as Bibi’s transparent attempt to tip the scale for Romney last fall?” Yes, you read that right; people like Stephen Walt wanted Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense so that it would hurt Benjamin Netanyahu’s feelings. That is how rigorous Walt’s thinking has become these days.

Well now, Hagel is gone. The firing was sudden, it was notable, and yes, it was a firing; do not believe the nonsensical claims that the decision to let Hagel go was somehow as much Hagel’s as it was the president’s:

[Hagel’s firing] was a striking reversal for a president who chose Mr. Hagel two years ago in part to limit the power of Pentagon officials who had repeatedly pushed for more troops in Afghanistan and a slower drawdown of American forces from Iraq. But in the end, Mr. Hagel’s passivity and lack of support in Mr. Obama’s inner circle proved too much for an administration that found itself back on a war footing.

Aides said Mr. Obama made the decision to remove his defense secretary on Friday after weeks of rising tension over a variety of issues, including what administration officials said were Mr. Hagel’s delays in transferring detainees from the military prison in Guantánamo Bay and a dispute with Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser, over Syria policy.

The strains were evident in a stilted ceremony on Monday at the White House, where Mr. Obama called the defense secretary he had pushed out “exemplary” and lauded his status as the first enlisted combat veteran to hold the job, saying it had helped him to empathize with American soldiers. “He’s been in the dirt. He’s been in the mud,” Mr. Obama said. “He sees himself in them. They see themselves in him.”

But as the president spoke of the “blood and treasure and sacrifices” of enlisted men and women like Mr. Hagel, turning several times to try to address his defense secretary directly, Mr. Hagel stared ahead fixedly, declining to make eye contact with Mr. Obama.

So, I am guessing that Hagel and the president won’t be having any beers together in the near future. And the following is quite notable:

If the ouster of Mr. Hagel was intended to minimize coming fights with Congress, the Republicans were not impressed on Monday. “The Obama administration is now in the market for their fourth secretary of defense,” Representative Howard (Buck) McKeon, Republican of California, said. “When the president goes through three secretaries, he should ask, ‘Is it them, or is it me?’ ”

Good question. One wonders if the president will be brave enough to ask it of himself. And let’s remember that Hagel was never intellectually up to the job of being secretary of defense:

Even Mr. Hagel’s defenders say that articulating strategy is one of his biggest weaknesses. He never entirely gained traction in the administration after a bruising confirmation fight with his old Senate colleagues, when he was criticized for being tentative in his responses to sharp questions.

In the past few months he has been overshadowed by General Dempsey, who officials said had won the confidence of Mr. Obama with his recommendation of military action against the Islamic State.

Of course, it is worth pointing out that the decision to fire Hagel reflects broader and more serious problems with the Obama national security team:

Almost as soon as Hagel’s departure was reported, dueling narratives emerged about the real reason he’s stepping down. Administration officials whispered—predictably—that Hagel was never up to the task of running the fight against ISIS or responding nimbly and dependably to the other crises that appeared on the horizon. But others inside the Defense Department accused the White House of trying to micromanage the Pentagon and keep Hagel from stealing the spotlight, as earlier secretaries, including Panetta and Robert Gates had been known to do. And they said that the blame for managing foreign policy crises can hardly be heaped on the departing secretary. Inside the building, “the louder criticism is directed squarely at the White House and not the Pentagon,” according to another Defense Department official.


Former Democratic aide Brent Budowsky said Democrats across the Capitol saw Hagel’s ouster as the latest example of “unprecedented” drama created by “too tight and too controlling of an inner circle.”

He noted that not only had each of the president’s previous Defense secretaries voiced concern over his Syria policy, so had former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“This is going to precipitate a very visible battle beginning today and going through the confirmation of his successor about what the policy should be, and highlight the long-term and chronic internal disagreement,” said Budowsky, who is a columnist for The Hill.

Other defense experts say Hagel was not particularly close with the president or members of his national security team.

“He had no relationships that were already established within this administration,” said a retired military officer with current policy experience in Washington, who wanted to speak on background.

Unfortunately, the broader problems with the president’s national security team will likely not be addressed, as it seems that there will be no other firings of members of that team. A pity; whatever one’s feelings regarding Chuck Hagel’s performance at the Pentagon–and make no mistake, it was an exceedingly poor performance–there are other problems with the national security apparatus that need addressing, and those problems start with the equally poor performance turned in by national security adviser Susan Rice. But President Obama doesn’t seem to have the intellectual willingness, energy or horsepower to engaged in a deeper look at his national security team and their shortcomings. And the United States itself will pay the price for that lack of introspection with foreign and national security policies that are poorly designed and badly implemented.

The Difference Between Israelis and Terrorists

Let’s be abundantly clear about something: It is not the policy of the state of Israel to purposely send people to kill and terrorize Palestinian civilians. That kind of action is anathema to the overwhelming majority of Israelis, and to the extent that there are some crazies among the Israeli population who think otherwise, those people have never wielded power in Israel and never will.

If only the Israelis were the beneficiaries of some reciprocity regarding this issue:

Four Israelis were killed and eight more wounded in a frenzied assault by two Palestinian men on Jewish worshippers praying at a Jerusalem synagogue in the most lethal incident in the city in years.

The two assailants who launched their attack with meat cleavers and a gun during early morning prayers were then killed by police officers in the ensuing gun battle at the scene of the attack.

The deaths occurred as the two men – identified by family members as cousins Ghassan and Uday Abu Jamal from the East Jerusalem district of Jabal Mukaber – burst into the Bnei Torah synagogue in Har Nof, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of West Jerusalem.

Three of the victims held dual US-Israeli citizenship, and one was a British-Israeli citizen – 68-year-old Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, who emigrated to Israel from the UK in 1993.

The three US citizens were 59-year-old Rabbi Moshe Twersky – the head of an English speaking religious college – Aryeh Kopinsky, 43, and Kalman Zeev Levine, 55. The grandson of one of the founders of the Modern Orthodox movement, Twersky lived close to the scene of the attack in Har Nof.

[. . .]

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a militant group, said the cousins were its members. A PFLP statement did not specify whether the group instructed the cousins to carry out the attack. Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that runs the Gaza Strip, also praised the attack.

[. . .]

A cousin of the men, Sufian Abu Jamal, a construction worker aged 40, described it as a “heroic act and the normal reaction of what has been happening to Palestinians in jerusalem and at the Al Aqsa mosque.”

Supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement could not be reached for comment.

Venezuela’s Disastrous Economic Situation

Behold what Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro hath wrought:

The sprawling street market that radiates outward from the metro station in Petare, Caracas’s largest slum, is the retail equivalent of an anti-Target.

There’s no organization to it. Tube socks and school supplies are sold beside giant pyramids of pineapple and piled yucca. Leopard-print hot pants stretch over mannequin buttocks next to the stinky stalls of fishmongers.

The bazaar was known until this month as one of the city’s biggest open-air black markets, the place to find all the scarce items that shoppers must queue up for hours to get in supermarkets, or can’t find at all. Earlier this year, toilet paper and corn­meal were scarce; lately it’s diapers and deodorant that have “gotten lost,” as Venezuelans say.

Authorities mostly turned a blind eye to the informal commerce, but late last month Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro went on TV to decree a ban on street sales of coffee, eggs, shampoo and some 50 other “regulated” items whose prices­ are capped by the government. He ordered the National Guard to police market stalls for such items as mayonnaise and powdered milk, and threatened to prosecute recidivist violators.

The crackdown is tricky for Maduro. In Petare and elsewhere, it risks alienating some of the poor Venezuelans who had long been loyal to Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, but are increasingly unhappy with his understudy.

Maduro ya se maduró,” quipped vendor Maribel Nieble, with a play on the president’s last name that meant “Maduro has turned rotten.”

I am waiting, of course, for all of the people who once praised Chavismo to admit that they supported a disastrous economic and governing ideology that is responsible for the immiseration of an entire country. Isn’t it time for them to do so? I mean, after all, surely their consciences have caught up to them by now.

Vladimir Putin’s Dangerous Thoughts

The president of Russia happens to think that the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 was not so bad, and possibly, fine and dandy. Of course, it ought to go without saying that he could not be more wrong in this assessment:

2014 will be remembered as a year in which Eastern Europe suffered one of its greatest crises since the collapse of the Soviet Union: the still-unfolding, still-destabilizing situation in eastern Ukraine. Some observers have noted how similarly Russia’s moves in the region track the USSR’s previous patterns of engagement with its “satellite states,” suggesting that we could be in the midst of a “new Cold War.” Others, the Obama administration among them, agree that the conflict’s threat to continental security is on a level unseen in recent decades, but does not approach the machinations that the USSR and the USA plied against each other at the height of hostilities. A more subtle stream of thought has fixated on Russia’s alleged “hybrid war” against Kiev, where the Kremlin has shaped the conflict as “an aggressor whose moves are shrouded in deception.”

In light of this recent “hybrid war,” Roger Moorhouse’s latest book, “The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941,” could not be more timely. Stridently anti-Soviet, it urges readers to harken back to the insidious intrigues of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed between Hitler and Stalin on the cusp of World War II, an alliance that shocked both realists and ideologues worldwide when it was revealed. In this work, Moorhouse is largely successful in presenting and explaining the history of the pact and its implications on populations throughout the region. . . .

[. . .]

Moorhouse’s first target in the book is the sticky narrative that the USSR agreed to the pact for defensive reasons. The official Soviet argument for the pact, up until the regime’s collapse in 1991, was that it was meant to forestall a German invasion until the Red Army could modernize and challenge the Wehrmacht in battle. Yet Moorhouse makes clear that Stalin could have defensively allied with other powers that were just as repugnant ideologically to the Soviets as the Nazis were, such as the British. Moorhouse argues that while other considerations may have influenced Moscow, including its dislike of the United Kingdom, the prototypical “capitalist aggressor,” Stalin entered into an alliance with Germany because Hitler offered tangible territorial benefits. For the Kremlin, the lure of regaining the land it lost in the Brest-Litovsk Pact, regardless of it coming at the expense of Poland, the Baltic States and other countries, was too seductive to pass up.

And more from Linas Linkevičius, the foreign minister of Lithuania:

Vladimir Putin has stated that there was nothing wrong with the Nazi-Soviet Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which was made 75 years ago on 23 August 1939. The Soviet Union simply did not want to go to war, Putin added.

Two tiny details seem to be ignored in this evaluation: the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact merely enslaved eastern Europe (by the Soviet Union, incidentally). Second, the pact led to the second world war. It was not an escape route by the Soviet Union, but instead a cold-blooded calculation to ignore Hitler’s growing appetite for territories.

Leaving history to historians, I would like to draw attention to the western responsibility here. We cannot let such statements go unnoticed because they are part of a bigger narrative, under which the Russian leadership now seeks endorsement for its aggressive and revisionist foreign policy.

Otherwise we, the western democracies, risk becoming part of a similar pact. Not by consciously entering into dirty deals with the aggressor, but by not doing enough to prevent it, and leaving the impression that anything is possible. True, the western response solidified recently, albeit a bit late. However, notions of the need to appease Russia are gaining speed.

The confidence with which Russia is acting now comes partly from our inability to stand by our values and principles. Russia applied similar tactics in the case of Georgia in 2008. We searched for ways to get back to normal quickly, hoping that “normal” was also the intention of the Russian regime. It turned out it was not. So unwillingly, we became part of their plan. History repeats itself now.

Linkevičius is quite right in pointing out that history is being perverted here in order to justify imperialist and hegemonic acts on the part of Russia. The question, of course, is whether anyone of significance and note is going to speak out and object to this attempt to rewrite history. Thus far, in general, there has been silence from the West. I realize that not every lunatic pronouncement coming out of Moscow deserves note, mention and to be dignified with a comment, but surely, someone can say something about an attempt to portray the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as stuff that happens in the ordinary course of dealings between foreign ministers.


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