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The Gorka Dissertation, Part II

[ 66 ] February 25, 2017 |

I

JDCIn my prior post, I tried to make clear that you don’t need to get very far—less than twenty pages, in fact—into Gorka’s dissertation to recognize its academic shoddiness. Something like 7% of it is a cut-and-paste job from an earlier article. In of itself, that’s not a problem. But the article came out 3-4 years before the dissertation, and Gorka couldn’t be bothered to change the text or update the data to reflect that gap. The first twenty pages also reveal a pattern that persists throughout the entire thesis: Gorka is not big on citations, especially scholarly ones. Moreover, the citation practices are, shall we say, lax. For example, here’s footnote 10:

The sarin gas attack executed on the Tokyo metro by Aum in 1995 was in fact preceded by several unsuccessful biological agent attacks prepared by the private laboratories the cult had established with millions of dollars of its funds. For a journalistic account of the history of the cult see David E. Kaplan and Andrew Marshal: “The Cult at the End of the World”, Arrow Books, London, 1996. For a scholarly and detailed analysis see the relevant section in Richard A. Falkenrath, Robert D. Newman and Bradley A. Thayer: “America’s Achilles’ Heel: nuclear, biological, and chemical terrorism and covert attack”, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1998 [emphasis added]

In fact the discussion of Aum Shinrykio appears to be spread over multiple chapters. Along these lines, footnote 20 reads “CNN even showed footage of al Qaeda experimentation that involved the gassing of dogs.” That’s it. In fact, getting an appropriate citation isn’t that much of a challenge. But, at least, a reader can be thankful that he provides references at all. The section called “The New International Scene” runs from pages 19-23. It contains myriad empirical claims—such as the countries within which Al Qaeda had affiliates in 2001—and analytical ones—that Al Qaeda launched 9/11 against the United States to divide it from its allies,  or that “the Arab and Muslim world still has a perturbed relationship to the question of modernity” (21)—none of which are sourced in any manner. The only such reference, involving the number of CIA officers who spoke Pashto on September 11, is to “author’s discussion with Marine Colonel who had served in Afghanistan as a covert paramilitary operator within the CIA, Summer 2004” (2007, 22 fn18).

I stress this lack of citations not merely because it amounts to poor scholarly practice—if anything, the typical dissertation suffers from too many citations—but also because it reflects the bloviating tone that runs throughout. The lack of references creates the impression that Gorka is passing off every insight—from the shopworn, the clichéd, and the banal to the unoriginal but tendentious—as his own.

Some examples:

Here it may be too early to prove the existence of a large-scale trend, but with the second and successful attempt against the World Trade Centre (WTC), – following the earlier truck-bomb attempt in 1993 – al Qaeda at least, has demonstrated a determination to attack highly symbolic targets. This author believes the logic behind this tactic is clear. Terrorism is, like guerrilla warfare, always the tool of choice of weaker actors that cannot win a stand- up fight against their nation state adversary. As a result they will rarely, if ever, be in a position to exact lethal damage to the vital interests or functioning of the state they have pitted themselves against. This is why fear has to be the overarching goal, a fear which can be directed as a tool in applying greater and greater political pressure upon the targeted authorities until policies are changed. In this inculcation of fear, the attack of universally recognisable symbols – such as the Pentagon and WTC – is invaluable, especially in this age of live, global cable and satellite news services. Thanks to the likes of CNN, NBC, BBC, etc., Osama bin Laden was able to send his message of fear to as wide an audience at possible in the fastest time imaginable. Add to this last element of media exploitation, the recent rise of media outlets which challenge the ‘white man’s’ news monopoly, e.g. Al-Arabiya and al Jazeera Television, and we now have channels which in fact may be favourable to the terrorist and act as a force-multiplier in the globalisation of his message (2007, 18).

It is interesting to note that despite the beacon-like example that modern Turkey represents, here too there have been significant developments recently toward a revitalisation of a national identity that relies far more on religion than would otherwise even have been imaginable during recent decades. This resurgence can in part ironically be explained by the negative way in which the European Union has delayed talk of Turkish EU membership (2007, 22 fn17).

Globalisation as a process is not new. Many an ancient empire can be seen as a form of (limited) globalisation. Even so, the fact that globalisation is now occurring in an environment of interconnected market economies and the spread of one specific model of nation-state structuring, namely market democracy, means that an actor wishing to exploit the inherent weaknesses of the democratic model, such as a the religious terrorist, has a broader environment in which to operate. Additionally the attitude of many people nominally belonging to the faith community of Muslim fundamentalism may be swayed by interpretations of the current trends to globalisation that exacerbate the centuries old question of Islam’s relations to modernity and the West. Lastly, the fact that the pre-eminent exponent of globalised terrorism at this time has chosen to restrict his actions very much to attacks aimed against just a handful of Western nations (UK, US, Spain) results in the fact that existing alliance frameworks may be severely weakened by differing assessments as to whom has most to fear from “Transcendental Terror”. Within the previously united western world there is now no agreement on whether or not this is a significant new threat that applies to all of us. In part, the problem is that man has a propensity to judge others based upon himself. As a result it is very difficult to believe in, let alone comprehend, an adversary who thinks in a fashion so contrary to our own. We tend to posit our rationality, even our morality, onto the other. Additionally, many of America’s European allies are more inclined to resolve dispute and potential conflict through diplomatic and political means, rather than through the use of force (2007, 24).

The basics needs of a human being are quite easy to identify: shelter, sustenance and community. The importance of the first two is also simple to explain. As a biological entity, without protection from the elements and food and water, we will not function and quickly die. The relevance of the third requirement is superficially obvious, but on closer examination more complex. There are, of course, the economies of scale that come from living in a cooperative group. As our ancestors who did not have the use of firearms well knew, it is quite difficult to hunt and kill a large animal by oneself. Likewise to fish the seas in an efficient fashion or even to build a sizeable home is a faster and easier a task when done in the company of others. But there are also the psychological and societal benefits of not living the life of a hermit or recluse. Man craves friendship and companionship and finds fulfilment in living within community. If this were not the case, given all the benefits of technology, we could in fact choose to live in total isolation from one another today, but we do not. Then there is the more practical profit that accrues with regard to safety in numbers.

It has been said more than enough times that the history of Mankind is the history of conflict. Respect for one’s territory, one’s chattels and even one’s right to life was never a given. There have always been, and will always be, those that threaten our very existence or livelihood. As a result, the need to be able to defend oneself and one’s family has always been apparent. Such defence is easier when done in numbers than individually or just by family unit. In modern terms, this is the function of providing security (2007, 27).

This last bit of banality opens a section entitled “The Evolution of National Security.” Gorka presents one of the diagrams for which, if nothing else, he deserves all the credit due to him.

It-hurts

Gorka (2007, 28) did not think this through.

In conventional language, shifts in scale from “micro” to “macro” are shifts in size: smaller to larger. As best I can tell, Gorka is trying to tell a temporal story here: the evolution of security is a story about the increasing scale of the object that needs to be secured. The result is a mess. As he writes:

It is not the purpose of this dissertation to provide a lengthy discussion of this evolution, to enumerate the dates when one macro level gave way to another.  In gross terms we can speak, however, of a chain of security being tied first to the tribe or clan, then to a village and, or, religious community, and further to the local landowner unit, followed by a kingdom or empire, or a city-state until we arrive at the modern object of macro-security, the nation-state’ (Gorka 2007, 28).

There are a bunch of problems with this, but the most obvious goes something like this.

Here is the Neo-Assyrian Empire:

640px-Map_of_Assyria

Here are some empires in around 750 AD:

height_of_omayyad_caliphate_cropped

Over the past three millennia, there have been many empires that are much larger in scale than national-states. Indeed, empires—along with federative and confederative polities—constitute some of the most time-honored ways of organizing large, heterogeneous political communities. It makes no sense to call “nation states” a more “macro” stage in security evolution than these forms.

Regardless, Gorka next briefly discusses Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles—for just long enough to tell us that “while there is much to commend the work… it does have its distinct flaws, flaws that it shares with a majority of recent treatise that have proclaimed the death of the nation-state, somewhat prematurely” (2007, 30). This allows him to open his next section (“The Westphalian Inheritance”) with a paragraph that gives me hives.

It is often far too easy to take for granted the system of governance and administration in which we today live. If one does not professionally study modern history or the evolution of international law, one could be forgiven for thinking that the current system of independent nation-states has existed for much longer than it has in fact existed. The truth is that as a concept we can describe its evolution as being quite recent in historic terms. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 is taken by most commentators as introducing the foundations for the creation in the West of a system in which the objects were states, bodies that were independent of each others – although which could ally with one another – and into whose internal affairs it was not allowed to become involved, a system in which sovereignty would eventually become paramount26. Later, as this concept evolved and as the individual allegiances of the people would shift from local landowner or royal house, to a professional political elite defined around a national identity, the state would evolve further into the nation-state, with is fundamental aspects of citizenship and nationality.

26In fact it was the sacrosanct nature of sovereignty that would later lie behind the creation of the ‘balance-of-power’ system that would be so important to Europe in following centuries.

Again, no sources. None. Zero. And while “most commentators” may have once believed this, it’s wrong. Westphalia had nothing to do with the foundations of the state system. At least if Gorka had been troubled to cite some of the (very smart) people who argue that it did—even if erroneously—he would come across as less of a pretentious blowhard. The footnote is just the icing on the cake. The balance-of-power system did not render sovereign sacrosanct, because it was premised on moving territory around to maintain the balance of power. The inhabitants of what would later be called “Belgium” certainly did not appreciate being placed under the rule of the United Netherlands for the sake of blocking future French expansion.

All of this amounts to a belabored way of making a rather simple argument: almost all states are organized to defend themselves against military aggression, to police their territory, to engage in espionage, and to protect themselves against espionage. Moreover, Gorka contends, the western allies oriented those capabilities against the Soviet Union and its clients. With the end of the Cold War, things are so much more complex and uncertain, what with the cyber, and the environment, and the terrorism. Add a few footnotes, and we’d have pretty much all we need to move forward.

Thus Gorka returns us to terrorism. Or, more accurately, he summarizes a very few sources to tell us nothing original about conceptual issues related to the study of terrorism. But he does supply us with this wonder of a passage: “One more avenue that takes us out of the abstraction of mere words is a pictographic representation of the mechanics of terrorism. By resorting to a Venn diagram-like approach, it may be easier to understand the dynamics at work between the various subjects and objects of political violence [emphasis added].”

A Venn Diagram-Like Approach (Gorka 2007. 47)

A Venn Diagram-Like Diagram

Now, to the uninitiated, this may look merely like a simple flow chart. So I’ve created a diagram to help make sense of it:

WTF

Locating Venn Diagram-Like Diagrams: a Venn Diagram

 

That’s the end of Part II. I still haven’t gotten to the ‘good stuff’. 150 or so pages to go.

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Sebastian Gorka’s Dissertation, Part I

[ 88 ] February 25, 2017 |
Seriously

This is real. This is an actual diagram from Gorka’s (2007, 166) dissertation. I will discuss it in a later post.

We should exercise caution when evaluating dissertations. Dissertations are not works of scientific perfection. I finished mine in a marathon month, as I was pushing the deadline for retaining my position at Georgetown. Even the substantially revised book that emerged from contains a handful of truly embarrassing historical errors. In other words, I think it would be grossly unfair to reduce Gorka to his dissertation, or to use it as evidence that he is unqualified for his position. Moreover, I concentrated in the study of international security. I know a bit about the intersection between great-power politics and transnational religious movements. Still, I am not a terrorism expert. I am certainly not an expert on Islam. And I am far from an expert on Islamic terrorism.

Nonetheless, I did read the dissertation last night. Members of the Lawyers, Guns and Money community have asked for my opinion. I would not characterize it as a work of scholarship. I am confident that it would not earn him a doctorate at any reputable academic department in the United States. Indeed, it would be unacceptable as an undergraduate thesis for the Department of Government or the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. My guess is that Gorka wanted to call himself “Doctor,” and his PhD-granting institution was happy to oblige.

Despite its overwrought title and often ponderous prose, the dissertation starts with a rather straightforward claim. There are two “sub-divisions of terrorist, the Rational and and Pragmatic and the Irrational, or Transcendental Terrorist.” The former seek a “fundamentally feasible and realistic goal”—such as national independence or autonomy—and hence “there is the possibility for a political or diplomatic solution to the root grievance.” The latter, however, “has as his end goal the realisation of a state-of-affairs that is not obviously feasible or realistic and which is completely antithetic to the opposing government. There is no possibility for a political resolution or even negotiations” (2007, 12).

In November 2007, when Gorka finished his dissertation, this was already a well-established line of argument. Scholars were debating the degree that the latter characterization applied to movements such as Al Qaeda, and bringing multifaceted evidence to bear on the subject.Thus, there was certainly room for an intervention that moved the ball forward. But that would require a dissertation with discipline and focus. This is not such a dissertation.

That becomes clear on the next page, where Gorka (2007, 13) introduces four hypotheses and ways that he will validate those hypotheses. They are:

1. Irrational terrorist actors have become more numerous since the cessation of the Cold War
2. Governments are sorely limited in the selection of tools that can be used in the face of such actors
3. The Irrational or Transcendentally informed terrorist represents a wholly different category of threat, since due to the fact that he is completely uninterested in political resolution, he can justify the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
4. Osama bin Laden typifies the new threat and poses a challenge which we cannot adequately deal with given existing Westphalian state structures and national security divisions of labour.

The evidence comes from:

a) How national security has evolved as a function of the modern nation- state.
b) What the difference is between the geostrategic environments of the Cold War and the post-September 11th 2001 state-of-affairs.
c) Who Osama bin Laden is and how novel an organisation al Qaeda is and,
d) What should be done to reform Westphalian security architectures so as to make them applicable to the new threat environment that has been shaped by the rise of the Irrational/Transcendental Actor and the globalisation of security.

If you wonder how Gorka can accomplish these tasks in 240 pages, the answer is that he can’t. He makes little effort to consider alternative explanations, use anything resembling a proper methodology, adequately source key claims, cite or take seriously more than a smattering of scholarly works, or even sufficiently develop lines of thought. Parts of the dissertation come across as filler. Perhaps they are. Toward the end of the piece, he dumps about eight pages of “potential theories or doctrines that have been penned in an attempt to make the current strategic environment more understandable” (page 167ff). He also used the same text in a September 2007 co-authored survey for the Council on Emerging National Security Affairs (CENA), which is no longer online.

Regardless, the bulk of the dissertation summary—its first part—consists of boilerplate within the realm of conventional wisdom. Gorka argues that the end of the Cold War made the international security environment more complex and the identification of the proper hierarchy of threats more challenging (2007,  7-8), he offers a fairly standard definition of terrorism (sourced exclusively to “discussions” with “Dr. Jenkins“) and defends restricting the term “terrorist” to non-state actors (2007, 11).

The introduction continues apace. He writes that “there has been a resurgence in terrorism that is not purely political in nature” and that the Aum Shinrykio 1995 gas attacks, along with Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, “together… describe a proto-trend that is supported by quantitative statistics pertaining to terror attacks in the last decade” (2007, 15-16). The only such statistics offered appear in Appendix I, which uses US Department of State data for 1993-2003. This obviously does not cover the “last decade”—recall that the dissertation was deposited in 2007. The data boils down to a rather crude average of number of death per attack.

Why does the”last decade” ends with 2003? The relevant sections are—as best I can tell—recycled from a paper Gorka first wrote in 2003, and come from what I think is a 2004 version. Regardless, this is a good example of how shoddy the scholarship is. Gorka wants to claim that there’s something radically different about contemporary terrorism from that of, say, the classic terrorism of the 1970s. So he needs to extend the data back well beyond 1993. That is, we need to actually compare the different waves. It would also require some basic statistical work that looks at regions and countries, the effects of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, how much the average is driven by outliers, and that kind of thing. It’s hard not to read this section and hear Gorka insisting on “empirical evidence” in his phone call to Smith.

I’m only about 17 pages in, and there’s a lot more to talk about, including some parts that seem relevant to Gorka’s worldview. Stay tuned for Part II.

A warning, though: working through it this way is quite a slog, and I’m not sure that I have the energy to blog the whole way through.

The Trump Administration: Restoring Integritude to the White House

[ 51 ] February 23, 2017 |

ap640238329376

On the plus side, the FBI rejected the request. On the massively minus side, the White House violated long-standing restrictions designed to protect ongoing investigations.

The FBI rejected a recent White House request to publicly knock down media reports about communications between Donald Trump’s associates and Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign, multiple US officials briefed on the matter tell CNN.

But a White House official said late Thursday that the request was only made after the FBI indicated to the White House it did not believe the reporting to be accurate White House officials had sought the help of the bureau and other agencies investigating the Russia matter to say that the reports were wrong and that there had been no contacts, the officials said. The reports of the contacts were first published by The New York Times and CNN on February 14.

It gets better:

The White House initially disputed that account, saying that McCabe called Priebus early that morning and said The New York Times story vastly overstates what the FBI knows about the contacts. But a White House official later corrected their version of events to confirm what the law enforcement official described. The same White House official said that Priebus later reached out again to McCabe and to FBI Director James Comey asking for the FBI to at least talk to reporters on background to dispute the stories. A law enforcement official says McCabe didn’t discuss aspects of the case but wouldn’t say exactly what McCabe told Priebus

No, of course we don’t need to worry about the ghost of Richard Nixon haunting the White House. Why would you ask?

Extra special bonus: listen to Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka make an unhinged phone call to Michael S. Smith II (via Pejman Yousefzadeh). Really, listen to all twenty-some minutes. It isn’t just that Gorka’s an unqualified hack and a charlatan, it’s also his pseudo-academic bluster. Gorka sounds like someone trying really, really hard to come across as a Deep Thinker™️ and scholar in an attempt an intellectual dominance. He fails.

Trump and Antisemitism

[ 136 ] February 23, 2017 |

BritLibCottonNeroDiiFol183vPersecutedJewsIs Donald J. Trump an antisemite? If so, he would not be the first American president to harbor prejudices against Jews. Nixon, despite his close relationship with Henry Kissinger, obsessed about whether Jews were out to get him. Regardless, this question was the subject of a heated exchange on CNN yesterday.

CNN commentator Kayleigh McEnany posed a simple question to Steven Goldstein, the Anne Frank Center’s executive director, on Tuesday night: “You think the president does not like Jews and is prejudiced against Jews?”

Goldstein’s response was unequivocal: “You bet.”

So began an intense exchange on CNN’s “Out Front” that escalated when McEnany suggested that President Trump cannot be anti-Semitic because his daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism when she married Jared Kushner.

“Does he hate his daughter?” McEnany asked. “Does he hate his son-in-law?”

“You know what, Kayleigh?” Goldstein shot back. “I am tired of commentators like you on the right trotting out his daughter, trotting out his son-in-law as talking points against the president’s anti-Semitism. They are Jewish, but that is not a talking point against anti-Semitism, and that is a disgrace. Have you no ethics?”

Indeed, ‘some of my best friends are Jewish’ isn’t much of an argument—even when it extends to one’s own family. As Erin Burnett correctly noted, it’s far from unheard of for people to make exceptions to their prejudices when it comes to, say, ‘their Jews’ or ‘their blacks’ or ‘their Catholics.’ For that matter, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the Prime Minister of Israel praised a President supportive of his policies.

However, I think that a focus on Trump’s personal views misses the point entirely. Since the start of his campaign, Trump has rarely missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity to condemn antisemitism, whether among his supporters or in the form of anti-Jewish terrorism. The administration’s exclusion of Jews from its Holocaust remembrance statement, and the way that it doubled down on the matter, justifiably provoked concern among members of the Jewish community and their allies.  Consider the statement by the Trump that McEnany invoked:

Well, I just want to say that we are very honored by the victory that we had — 306 electoral college votes. We were not supposed to crack 220. You know that, right? There was no way to 221, but then they said there’s no way to 270. And there’s tremendous enthusiasm out there.

I will say that we are going to have peace in this country. We are going to stop crime in this country. We are going to do everything within our power to stop long-simmering racism and every other thing that’s going on because lot of bad things have been taking place over a long period of time.

I think one of the reasons I won the election is we have a very, very divided nation. Very divided. And, hopefully, I’ll be able to do something about that. And, you know, it was something that was very important to me.

As far as people — Jewish people — so many friends, a daughter who happens to be here right now, a son-in-law, and three beautiful grandchildren. I think that you’re going to see a lot different United States of America over the next three, four, or eight years. I think a lot of good things are happening, and you’re going to see a lot of love. You’re going to see a lot of love. Okay? Thank you.

As Callum Borchers noted:

“For those wanting to give the president a fair chance,” McEnany said, “you would have heard him condemn anti-Semitism. … That sounds like a condemnation to me.”

If it was a condemnation, it was one that did not specifically mention anti-Semitism and began with an off-topic boast about Trump’s electoral college win — all in all, an unconventional answer from a president.

To put it differently, Trump took a softball question—’Mr. President, I am providing you an opportunity to condemn a wave of antisemitic incidents’—and provided an discursive and elliptical answer. We shouldn’t have to be parsing his precise meaning. When Trump did call antisemitism “horrible,” it shouldn’t have come across as petulant damage control. What this suggests to me is not so much that Trump is antisemitic—but rather that he just doesn’t care that much. It’s another example of his narcissism and spotty empathy for the suffering he might inflict—by commission or omission—on others. Trump’s Jewish problem, in other words, is merely a symptom of the fundamental flaws that render him unsuited to the Presidency.

 

 

The Pruitt Emails

[ 41 ] February 23, 2017 |

Hear_speak_see_no_evil_Toshogu_cropped_enhancedAs you may recall:

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt on Friday won Senate confirmation to head the Environmental Protection Agency, a federal agency he repeatedly sued to rein in its reach during the Obama administration.

The vote was 52-46 as Republican leaders used their party’s narrow Senate majority to push Pruitt’s confirmation despite calls from Democrats to delay the vote until requested emails are released next week.

As part of a public records lawsuit, a state judge in Oklahoma on Thursday ordered Pruitt to release thousands of emails that he exchanged with oil and gas executives by Tuesday. Pruitt has refused to release the emails for more than two years.

Yesterday the emails came out, and they’re pretty much what you would expect.

The documents show that Pruitt, while Oklahoma attorney general, acted in close concert with oil and gas companies to challenge environmental regulations, even putting his letterhead to a complaint filed by one firm, Devon Energy. This practice was first revealed in 2014, but it now appears that it occurred more than once.

The emails also show that American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, an oil and gas lobby group, provided Pruitt’s office with template language to oppose ozone limits and the renewable fuel standard program in 2013. AFPM encouraged Oklahoma to challenge the rules, noting: “This argument is more credible coming from a state.” Later that year, Pruitt did file opposition to both of these regulations.

It takes a special kind of craven to push through Pruitt’s nomination before their release. Here you have a Republican official who resisted compliance with public records laws, and the GOP rushes to secure for him his promotion before the American people have a chance to see what he was hiding. Of course, the whole reason someone like Pruitt is attractive to the modern GOP is his war against the environment on behalf of polluting industries. So the contents of the emails should be a feature, not a bug, right?

Such shenanigans reminds me of Pruitt’s attempts to dissemble on Bernie Sanders’ question about climate change—or, for that matter, Betsy DeVos’ refusal to directly answer questions about educational accountability. Such an unwillingness to take public ownership of their own positions tells you, I think, quite a good deal about modern Republicans.

Image.

The National Security Council as Canary in the White House

[ 56 ] February 18, 2017 |

NSC

If you’re on Twitter, you should be following Colin Kahl’s feed. Not only was Colin the Deputy National Security Advisor under Obama—and therefore knows stuff—but he was also involved in the transition process, which gives him insights into the workings of this rather opaque and unusual White House.

This morning—as I learned from Cheryl Rofer— he tweeted about Russia, the National Security Council (NSC), and Bannon’s “Strategic Initiatives Group.

As Colin points out, none of this is likely. None of it makes much sense. Russia can’t do much to help counterbalance China. Putin’s unlikely to make concessions of the kind that would make any of this remotely worthwhile. What he doesn’t mention is that it is far from obvious whether Moscow can credibly commit to uphold any grand bargain. It would take enormous skill and planning to proceed in a way that doesn’t set the United States up for massive failure.

Yet here we are, with Trump defaulting back to his campaign rhetoric on Russia and standing by while Putin probes American resolve by buzzing our naval vessels and making a push in Ukraine. .

Colin goes on to lay out two possible reasons for the Trump Administration’s continued folly.

On the one hand, the preferences of the American ethno-nationalist right—particularly its opposition to the European Union and liberal order—align with Russia’s. We might call this the “elective affinity” story. It’s been my default understanding of why elements within the Trump Administration seem determined to undermine US power and influence.

On the other hand, this all amounts to  a “quid pro quo” for Russian assistance in the election. Such a scenario also raises questions of kompromat and other, more complicated, explanations. Regardless of how far down the rabbit hole one prefers to go, it seems increasingly likely that we’re looking at, if nothing else, tacit collusion between members of the Trump campaign and Russian agents.

Of course, neither is exclusive. Some kind of elective affinity—or, at least, shared interests—helps makes sense of why Moscow sought to influence the election in the first place.

Setting aside the “why” for a moment, the possibility of a parallel decision-making structure—let alone one headed by Bannon—making policy should worry everyone. It creates serious concerns about accountability. And it suggests that other national-security principals on the NSC—such as Secretary of Defense Mattis—may prove unable to counterbalance Bannon, Miller, and other ideologues.

Indeed, the evidence suggests that—at least for now—there’s little hope that any “adults” are going to come in and really limit the damage. I still have difficult wrapping my head around the extent of the calamity we now face. The last time someone used American foreign policy as a demonstration of dubious ideological beliefs, the United States invaded Iraq. Hundreds of thousands died. The fallout continues to rock the Middle East. Yet, somehow, the infrastructure of American security survived. Now we have a cabal of white nationalist bloggers intent on correcting that state of affairs.

There is, of course, another possible outcome. Faced with mounting political pressure at home, the Trump Administration swings to a hardline stance on Moscow. Even if it doesn’t overcompensate in dangerous ways—which I think not unlikely—I can imagine of all kinds of reasons why such radically inconsistent signals would prove destabilizing.

McCain can give all the speeches he wants to. The President enjoys enormous discretion on foreign policy and national security, and it requires a very committed legislative branch to put a dent in that discretion. So here we are.

The Legitimately Elected President of the United States is an Authoritarian

[ 95 ] February 17, 2017 |
Photo-le-molay-littry-4-1944

American Troops in Liberated France

I’ve been warning about the risks of confirmation bias when it comes to the strength of American political norms and institutions. That is, I worry about the American tendency to read our history neither as a series of significant shifts in the nature of those norms and institutions, nor as a long series of near failures. This was a major component of a post that I wrote in November that garnered—from my perspective—a surprising amount of attention. I alluded to another variation of this theme recently: the assumption that just because ‘things work out okay’—or even that because they are likely to work out okay—there’s no crisis.

I mention all of this in light of the Trump tweet that Rob posted earlier.  Here it is again:

And here’s my reaction, also in the form of a tweet:

This tweet is actually the start of a rant. You are free to read it, but here I want to expand on a few issues found there.

One of the basic challenges in dealing with Donald Trump is that he’s a confidence artist. This makes it rather difficult to pin down his actual beliefs. It’s why many voters simply refused to accept that he really intended to do many of the things that he said he would. It also makes it easy to dismiss critics as overly alarmist. After all, perhaps he just comes across as an authoritarian because he’s a thin-skinned narcissist. He’s not really an authoritarian in the political sense.

Nonetheless, it doesn’t matter. Sure, the risks are different. The sources of Trump’s demagoguery will affect how this national nightmare plays out. But the President of the United States has been talking like an authoritarian for quite some time. Whether he calls tough media the “enemy of the American People” because he’s unhinged, so wounded that he’s lashing out as his critics, building his brand, or a dyed-in-the-wool authoritarian—well, we wind up in the same place.

Right now, Trump is an authoritarian operating in a democratic system. American institutions and norms are facing yet another stress test. Some overestimate their strength. Some underestimate it. Some have it right. But we won’t know who is actually correct until the crisis plays itself out. This means complacency is not an option. It also means that political action to protect our institutions must do just that: we cannot destroy them to save them.

Jonathan Rauch makes this point well in The Atlantic:

The 45th president, Donald Trump, might pose the gravest threat to the constitutional order since the 37th. Of course, he might not. Perhaps we’ll get Grown-up Trump, an unorthodox and controversial president who, whatever one may think of his policies and personality, proves to be responsible and effective as a chief executive. But we might get Infantile Trump, an undisciplined narcissist who throws tantrums and governs haphazardly. Or perhaps, worse yet, we’ll get Strongman Trump, who turns out to have been telegraphing his real intentions when, during the campaign, he spread innuendo and misinformation, winked at political violence, and proposed multiple violations of the Constitution and basic decency. Quite probably we’ll get some combination of all three (and possibly others).

If we get Strongman Trump or Infantile Trump, how would we protect our democratic institutions and norms? “Don’t be complacent,” warns Timothy Naftali, a New York University historian who was the founding director of the Nixon presidential library. “Don’t assume the system is so strong that a bad president will be sent packing. We have someone now saying things that imply unconstitutional impulses. If he acts on those impulses, we’re going to be in the political struggle of our lifetimes.” Meeting that challenge, I think, hinges on whether civil society can mobilize to contain and channel Trump.

I worry that Grown-up Trump is a pundit’s hedge. A fantasy. More likely, if Trump “succeeds”—leads the GOP to conservatopia, wins himself a second term and the adulation he so craves, and lines his family’s pockets at the same time—it will be in spite of himself. And there’s no more “if” on the other possibilities. Calling the press the “enemy of the American People” is not idle chatter: it’s a political act. And it’s an authoritarian one.

Refugees Flee the United States for Canada REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

Refugees Flee the United States for Canada

 

Top image by Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Central and North American Border Crossings

[ 11 ] February 17, 2017 |

7032168939_9e2632e063_bI recently discovered that an article—written by Noelle K. Brigden—in the journal that I edit is available for free. I mention this because it’s based on ethnographic work with Central American migrants. In particular, it explores border crossings with a focus on the journey of a Salvadoran boy.

An excerpt:

In Mexico, a country where the ‘mestizo’ of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage represents the dominant racial ideology, profiling renders black migrants most vulnerable to identification. Of course, since it standardizes practice in a dynamic strategic setting, racial profiling may also create opportunities for smuggling. Smugglers sometimes blend high-paying Peruvian clients into travel groups with indigenous Guatemalans, because of their similar phenotype (smuggler, El Salvador, 7/5/10). The Peruvians pass as Guatemalan, and if they are captured, they only need to travel to Central America rather than returning to South America. This minimizes financial risks for the smugglers transporting them. Therefore, racial stereotypes can be harnessed, not only by state authorities, but by migrants and smugglers as well.

Like state authorities, criminals identify potential victims for kidnapping, rape, robbery, and extortion by trying to detect the accent, migrant clothing, and phenotype of Central Americans. In part because of racial profiling, Hondurans, and in particular black Hondurans, are most likely to rely on the dangerous train route where mass kidnappings and muggings occur with frequency, thereby avoiding buses that travel through migration checkpoints. The proportion of migrants reporting Honduran nationality on the registration rolls of the shelters has been the highest of any national group since Hurricane Mitch in 1998, often by a very large margin (Ruíz 2001). One rumor circulating among migrants suggests that organized criminal groups particularly seek out Salvadorans, who are known to be better connected to established families in the United States and thus fetch higher ransoms, than the poverty stricken Hondurans, who throng the migrant shelters and crowd the most desperate routes to the US. Whatever the preference of kidnappers might be, any identifiable Central American nationality invites legal, illegal, and extralegal violence en route.

Social scientists and academics in the humanities should find the piece pretty accessible. Non-academics—well, you can skim the denser academic prose at the top; once you hit the substantive sections, its easier going. Still, it’s not a work of journalism, so be forewarned. Given the rise of Trumpism, and its concurrent devaluation of empathy for immigrants, I thought some readers might be interested.

I’m going to make an effort to call attention to work of interest in my field—from International Studies Quarterly, but also more broadly. Hope that’s okay.

[Image by Peter Haden (CC-2.0)]

The Dangers of Trump’s Approach to Burden Sharing

[ 59 ] February 16, 2017 |

It seems a bit anti-climatic after today’s Presidential performance, but I have a piece (co-authored with Abe Newman) at Vox’s “The Big Idea” section on burden-sharing. The title is somewhat misleading: the crux of our argument is that the benefits of burden-sharing are overblown, the context in which the Trump Administration is pushing for it are dangerous—especially in Europe, and the US derives important benefits from the asymmetry in capabilities it enjoys with its security partners.

The argument for “burden sharing” — that American allies, who are much richer in both absolute and relative terms than when the United States established the current global security architecture, should pay a larger share for their own defense — is far from new. During the primaries, Bernie Sanders called for American allies to do more, and Hilary Clinton pledged to work with NATO partners to get them to meet the 2 percent of GDP spending targets affirmed at a 2014 NATO summit in Wales. (In fact, there is considerable variation on how much NATO members spend on defense. Some, including Greece, Estonia, and Poland, easily meet the target. Others — such as Hungary, Canada, or Slovenia — spend closer to 1 percent of GDP.)

But the Trump administration’s statements and dispositions seem to go further than previous calls for burden sharing. Many allies — especially those on the front line with Russia, like the Baltic States and Poland — are extremely worried that Trump intends to in effect abandon long-standing commitments.

Go read, if so inclined.

No, it Really is that Bad

[ 208 ] February 16, 2017 |

Crisis

My default blogging mode is pretty snarky. I guess, in that respect, I’m an old-school academic blogger. The common approach now seems to be professional and scholarly. But sometimes it’s appropriate to set aside the snark—not in favor of scholarly detachment, but to articulate warranted fears.

The United States is facing a major institutional crisis.

While at least some of the leaks we’re seeing about the Trump Administration emanate from factions within the White House, others are coming from the professional civil service—most notably the intelligence community. All of these leaks suggest a White House plagued by incompetence, insularity, and paranoia.

People are searching for scapegoats. But the Cossacks work for the Czar and a fish rots from it’s head down. Trump, as E.J. Dionne wrote yesterday, is simply “unfit to serve.” It’s not just the leaks that suggest this. It’s what we witnessed, through the eyes of patrons paying for access, at Mar-a-Lago. It’s the unhinged Tweets through which Trump riles up his supporters, disrupts diplomacy, and showcases his authoritarian dispositions. It’s a senior White House advisor channeling Carl Schmitt while he reads from cue cards on national television.

But the leaks are, in fact, at the heart of the current crisis. Various conservatives claim that this is a war of the “deep state” against a ‘change agent.’ Some argue that that the revelations about Flynn were a dead-hand effort by the Obama Administration to save the Iran nuclear-weapons deal. This is a profound misreading of many things, including what an actual deep state looks like. But it’s how dysfunction and civil-service blowback play out in a highly polarized environment.

Indeed, some GOP officials are doing their best to avoid serious oversight. Representative Jason Chaffetz has signaled a preference for going after those leaking information. The House GOP voted against even closed-door evaluations of Trump’s tax returns. Because, GOP officials claimed, it would create a slippery slope.

This may be the “standard playbook” with unified government, but nothing is “standard” about the current moment.

Democrats, in general, see the leaks as the only way to get to the truth given Republican and White House intransigence. Many key disclosures have come in the wake of Trump administration falsehoods, or attacks on the intelligence community. The difficulty here is simple. There’s nothing “good” about the status quo. Members of the civil service should not be at war with a new administration. Members of the civil service should not have to be at war with a new administration. And recall that Trump played a major role in starting this conflict by making clear that his priors—and need to avoid cognitive dissonance—take precedence over US intelligence findings.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that Trump wants to put a completely unqualified loyalist in charge of a “review” of the intelligence community.

Bringing Mr. Feinberg into the administration to conduct the review is seen as a way of injecting a Trump loyalist into a world the White House views with suspicion. But top intelligence officials fear that Mr. Feinberg is being groomed for a high position in one of the intelligence agencies.

Mr. Bannon and Mr. Kushner, according to current and former intelligence officials and Republican lawmakers, had at one point considered Mr. Feinberg for either director of national intelligence or chief of the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine service, a role that is normally reserved for career intelligence officers, not friends of the president. Mr. Feinberg’s only experience with national security matters is his firm’s stakes in a private security company and two gun makers.

This kind of action would look strange—even foolish—in normal times. In the Trump administration, it seems downright sinister. Multiple press outlets report that long-standing communication between Trump advisors and Russian agents goes well beyond Flynn. While defenders focus on the lack of evidence of active collusion, this is a bit of a red herring, especially. but not only, given that Trump publicly called for Russia to help defeat Clinton.

Beyond that, we have many reasons to believe that Trump’s business interests are becoming intertwined with the Presidency. Not simply in the form of crass moves to “cash in,” such as hiking the price of Mar-a-Lago membership or trying to assist Ivanka Trump’s line of apparel, but in the kind of ways that affect US national security.

These operations reflect a serious breakdown in the long-standing faith in the direction of American policy by some of the country’s most important allies. Worse, the United States is now in a situation that may be unprecedented—where European governments know more about what is going on in the executive branch than any elected American official. To date, the Republican-controlled Congress has declined to conduct hearings to investigate the links between Trump’s overseas business partners and foreign governments, or the activities between Russia and officials in the Trump campaign and administration—the very areas being examined by the intelligence services of at least two American allies.

Some details about Trump’s business partners were passed to the American government months ago. For example, long before the president’s inauguration, German electronic surveillance determined that the father of Trump’s Azerbaijani business partner is a government official who laundered money for the Iranian military; that information was shared with the CIA, according to a European source with direct knowledge of the situation.

Of equal concern to our allies is Trump’s business partner in the Philippines, who is also the special representative to Washington of that country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte. This government official, Jose E.B. Antonio, is the head of Century Properties, which in turn is a partner with the president’s business in the construction of Trump Tower at Century City in Makati, Philippines. According to people with direct knowledge of the situation, a European intelligence service has obtained the contracts and other legal documents in the deal between the Trump Organization and Antonio. That deal has already resulted in large payments to Trump’s business, with millions of dollars more on the way—all coming from an agent of the Philippine president.

The financial relationship between an American president and the Philippine government comes at a time when the historic alliance between the West and the Southeast Asian country is under great stress. Since the election last year of Duterte, a campaign of slaughter has gripped the Philippines, with death squads murdering thousands of suspected drug users in the streets. The carnage, which intelligence officials have concluded is being conducted with Duterte’s involvement, has been condemned throughout the Western world; the Parliament of the European Union and two United Nations human rights experts have urged Duterte to end the massacre.

There are a number of directions all of this could go. Consider three broad possibilities.

In the first, things worsen. The damage to the United States—at home and abroad—proves profound. One scenario: continued disruption and paralysis, while Trump enriches himself. This results, whether in 2018 or 2020, in sufficient Democratic victories for deadlock, investigations, and other forms of ‘harm mitigation.’ Another possibility is a slide toward soft authoritarianism, starting with the eviscerating of the intelligence community and spreading into other branches of the civil service. As we jump from shock to shock, Trump, as well as Bannon, Miller, and other loyalists, ratchets up the threat level—for example, they scapegoat Muslim Americans, engage in diversionary uses of force, launch investigations against their opponents—until we reach an inflection point. Then, who knows?

In the second, things get better’ Adults take firm control over the National Security Council. Eventually, Trump’s inner circle decides that they need seasoned hands to oversee the White House. We get an increasingly normal Republican administration, albeit with a Justice Department more committed than any before to rolling back civil and voting rights. Perhaps the economy is doing well enough that Trump wins a second term, and the GOP becomes increasingly “Trumpist”—but that Trumpism looks not all that different from where the GOP was in the first place.

The third looks like the second, but is really a variation of the first. That is, the adults solve the day-to-day competency problem, but can’t ameliorate the fundamental dispositions of Trump and his inner circle. So we get kleptocracy, ethno-nationalist governance, and much greater democratic backsliding—but with trappings that make it possible to attract a stable plurality, or majority, of support.

Regardless of how we look back at this period in four years, we should not forget that, right now, on Day 26 of the Trump administration, American democratic institutions are in crisis. We need to mobilize, and organize, to defend them. We must demand oversight, and we must demand that the public learn to what degree this smoke hides raging fires.

Wikihacks™ and the GOP Enjoy a Little Vulcan Mind Meld

[ 81 ] February 14, 2017 |

Here’s the House Intelligence Committee Chairman only hours before Flynn resigned:

“It just seems like there’s a lot of nothing there,” Nunes told Bloomberg News on Monday.

“There is no question that Flynn has been a change agent … which is why I believe Trump likes him,” Nunes added. “[Flynn’s] in a Catch-22 situation. Did he have substantive conversations? No. It’s easy to play ‘gotcha.’”

Nunes added that he is “very comfortable” with Flynn advising Trump on Russia, despite reports that Flynn talked about sanctions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak before the president took office.

“He knows of the danger that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin poses,” he said, claiming Flynn’s appearance at several weekend events with Trump shows the president’s faith in him.

Nunes said the people leaking details about Flynn to reporters oppose Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp.”

“[They] want the swamp to remain and they know that Flynn is not going to let the swamp remain,” Nunes said.

Sure, there’s the whole “awk-ward!” factor. But it all illustrates the real, and very serious, problem. So long as Republican in the House and Senate continue to stick their fingers in their ears and say “la-la-la tax cuts, la-la-la privatize it all”, the Trump Administration will persist in using the White House for private gain—while, as a bonus, posing a clear-and-present threat to US national security and national interests.

UPDATE: it’s like clockwork, I tells ya.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Stephen Miller?

[ 113 ] February 12, 2017 |

-Don't_Fall_for_Enemy_Propaganda-_-_NARA_-_514139

With Kellyanne “Bowling Green Massacre” Conway on videotape violating ethic rules, it was Stephen Miller’s chance to do his best Joseph Goebbels impression on the Sunday talk shows. He did not disappoint.

In the clip below, provided by Bradd Jeffrey, Miller simply lies. Nonstop. He argues that voters bussed in from Massachusetts cost Tump and Ayotte victories in New Hampshire. He repeats figures from the long discredited study (thanks, Monkey Cage!) about non-citizens voting. He invoked Kris “Voter Suppression” Kobach as an authority on voter fraud. It was an ugly, disgusting display of falsehoods in the service of partisan propaganda and stripping people of their rights.

Naturally, our President—whose authoritarian dispositions are counterbalanced only by his laziness and incompetence—wanted to make sure that we all know that Miller did a smashing job (also that Mark Cuban’s criticisms are just because he has a sad that Trump wouldn’t be his bestest friend).

But the more important is this: in the clip below, George Stephanopoulos proves, despite some headlines to the contrary, utterly ineffectual. He demands evidence and looks incredulous, but Miller just chews up the time being a lying liar who lies. In turn, Miller effectively turns ABC into a vector of disinformation.

There’s only one solution to Nyhan’s observation. Any journalist whose job description doesn’t include the line “forward Trump Administration propaganda” should impose a blackout on Miller.

A final note: this section of Miller’s interview is downright chilling:

if this is an issue that interests you, then we can talk about it more in the future. And we now have our government is beginning to get stood up. But we have a Department of Justice and we have more officials.

An issue of voter fraud is something we’re going to be looking at very seriously and very hard.

Hold onto your hats, people. More disenfranchisement and democratic backsliding is just around the corner.

Stay mad.
Stay mobilized.
Get organized.

UPDATE: the alternative is to follow Sam Wang’s recommendation:

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