Twenty Questions (and answers, sort of) on the House Report, Impeachment, Russia, and Ukraine

If you don’t want to wade through all 300 pages of the House “Intelligence” Committee Report (which, unless you take proper precautions, will shave 50 points off your IQ), read the Republican rebuttals (which will take care of any remaining points), and are unable to read thousands of pages of documents in multiple languages, research at least 30 years or so of complex and often obscure history to understand this in context here’s twenty questions and answers (sort of, with a dose of snark) to clear things up:

  1. Did Trump and his minions abuse their authority for personal gain with respect to Ukraine? Absolutely.
  2. Did they commit crimes? Almost certainly. Trump’s people seem to be amateurs at political crime.
  3. Did Biden and his minions abuse their authority for personal gain with respect to Ukraine? Absolutely.
  4. Did they commit crimes? Perhaps, but Biden is experienced at committing crimes legally so maybe not technically in violation of US law.  Ethically?  Oh, yeah …
  5. Did Russia attempt to influence the 2016 election? Absolutely.
  6. Did Ukraine attempt to influence the 2016 election? Absolutely.
  7. Wait – did any foreign country *not* attempt to influence the 2016 election? I doubt it. They’d be crazy not to, given the US is by far the world’s largest military power (and doesn’t hesitate to blow stuff up for “reasons”) as well as one of the top two economic powers depending on how you crunch the numbers, and there too it throws its weight around based more on domestic politics than sound foreign policy. US administrations of both ilks generally don’t follow international law they don’t like, freely abrogates treaties, and only participates in multilateral organizations when it can get its way. So about the only way to influence US foreign policy is to attempt to influence domestic US elections, and most countries do it, some far more overtly than Russia or Ukraine did (Israel, for example, or China.). And of course the US actively influences, interferes, and overthrows elections worldwide at will … so it sort of deserves it. I’ve seen nothing in what Russia did in 2016 that is technically different than what the US did in Ukraine in the lead up to the 2014 Maidan revolution.  And, again, many other countries have used similar techniques to influence US politicians, elections, and policy.
  8. Isn’t (pick something you don’t like from (1) through (7) above) just a conspiracy theory? More than likely, that thing you don’t like is at least partly if not mostly true with just enough uncertainty/fiction/error/bad reporting to allow you to discount it and keep believing the stuff you want to believe – which is also probably mostly true, but lacks context and your conclusions are just as wrong, without context, as the “conspiracy theory” you just dismissed.
  9. Is Russia our enemy? It’s not straightforward, but even though there are some problematic aspects and some serious issues, essentially No.
  10. Why do so many in the US Government hate Russia? It’s really complicated, mostly involving history, ego, bias, ignorance, and convenience. And money and resources. Lots and Lots of Money.
  11. Is Ukraine our friend? It’s not straightforward, but even though the majority of average people in Ukraine are great, and trapped in a horrible geopolitical trap, essentially No. Unless you don’t mind Nazis, or can be bribed (or better yet both). Then, yes, a lot of the current Ukrainian Government and Military is your friend.
  12. Why do so many in the US Government love Ukraine? Also really complicated, but mostly because they hate Russia for various reasons. But also money. Did I mention money?
  13. Is the Russia-Ukraine conflict a vital US concern? Really hard to see any vital US interests in it, in the great scheme of things, and a lot of the conflict is on various levels the fault of the US and NATO.
  14.  Did the US violate agreements and common sense to get involved? Yes. This is a result of 30 years of idiotic policies and greed with respect to the former Soviet Union.
  15. Why did it become so central to US Politics? Did I mention money? Follow the money. Also, hubris.
  16. Are the various career State and Military officials sincerely doing what they think is best for the United States? Sadly, they probably think they are.
  17. Are they doing what is best for the Country? Absolutely not. And there is nothing more dangerous than someone who thinks they are doing the right thing, and aren’t. They are sincere – sincerely delusional; and are blind to their own biases.
  18. What makes you so right and them so wrong? The main reason is I don’t have any overt conflicts of interest.  I also use multiple sources on all sides, and I don’t make assumptions unless I have to.  When I do, I try to constantly re-evaluate them. But the main reason is I don’t care about being wrong yesterday as long as I understand why, so I can do my best to be right today or tomorrow. Most analysts invest a lot of effort in proving they were right yesterday … and in the case of Russia/Ukraine, yesterday (Soviet times) was a different world from today.
  19. Where can I get unbiased information to understand this mess? Sadly, that’s hard. The few rational voices on this subject are marginalized and dismissed, and to understand the complex and overlapping issues of US, Russian, and Ukrainian domestic politics plus the multilateral treaty aspects you also you need to have access to Russian and Ukrainian sources. And then study international affairs ranging from bilateral agreements to international law. It’s nuanced – and nuance is an alien concept in modern American reporting. If you don’t agree with the “Putin owns tRump and is bad” narrative, or the “Our President is a saint, Biden, Ukraine, and Hillary’s Emails are Bad” extremes, it’s hard to be heard. Stephen F. Cohen, for example, is one of the few sane voices on the subject of Russia, and has been for 50 years, yet is dismissed as a “Putin Apologist” by both sides these days. There was a good background article in the otherwise establishment echo-chamber that is Foreign Affairs, “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault” by John Mearsheimer (who is sort of a an idiot about nuclear weapons, but got this right).
  20. Are we doomed? Yeah, probably.

There, hope that clears things up …

The US and International Law and Conventions

A lot of people are incensed with the Trump administration’s announcement of the formal withdrawal of the US from the Paris Accords (the latest agreement within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or UNFCCC).  These discussions are of course largely set within the internal domestic sound-bite wars that define modern US Politics. Republicans are applauding getting out of an agreement they contend would hobble the US economy and transfer wealth to foreign governments over the “fake” issue of climate change.  While some Democrats such Elizabeth Warren are noting the environmental and economic impacts, the response from other Democrats is emphasizing the disengagement from the treaty itself.  Bernie Sanders called  the President an “international embarrassment,”  and Biden tweeted “Trump continues to abandon science and our international leadership.”  Former Obama SECSTATE Kerry and SECDEF Hagel (technically Hagel is/was a Republican) have an op-ed in the Washington Post that emphasizes the disengagement from the international community as a central theme.

I won’t rant again about climate change and the UNFCCC, you can click here and read my views in another post.  In short, human impacts on the global climate system are increasingly serious and we’ve got to do something about it, but the present process and ideas on the table are utterly broken.  So while withdrawal is a bad idea, I don’t think the US pullout is going to make things worse because the Paris Accords and measures the Obama Administration committed to weren’t going to do much good anyway.  What concerns me here is how this is yet another example of the US undermining the entire framework of international law, norms, and conventions since the end of the Cold War.  This trend spans administrations and political parties.  At least the Trump Republicans are somewhat honest about it: they make their disdain for multilateral treaties clear, and have withdrawn from numerous agreements having much more direct consequences than the Paris Accords, such as the INF treaty, Iran Nuclear deal, TPP, NAFTA, and at least three other UN conventions/organizations (UNESCO, UNHRC, and UNRWA).  But Democratic Administrations (as well as prior Republican ones) have done tremendous damage to these organizations, and for individuals like Kerry and Hagel to whine about Trump’s actions is rank hypocrisy.

I have been involved with the technical operations of various international treaty organizations within the United Nations and Organization of American States for a bit over 25 years.  It’s a complex, frustrating, politically and technically complex world that at its worst is a monumental waste of time and money, but when it works (which is far more often than the critics would have you believe) it helps literally billions of people and makes the world a better place.  It requires a huge amount of patience and humility, and a willingness to compromise. Yes, you must keep America’s interests in mind, and there is nothing wrong with holding to reasonable lines that cannot be crossed, but one of those key interests is the long term stability of the complex system of international law, treaties, norms and conventions.  And that means sometimes you just can’t have everything your way, and you have to recognize that other countries also have legitimate concerns and interests.  But since the early 1990’s, the US has abandoned those concepts.  It views itself as “the Indispensable Nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future …” (per Madeleine Albright, the Clinton Administration Secretary of State from 1997-2001).  It feels “Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.” (Dick Cheney, SECDEF in the 1990’s and VP under George W Bush). Time after time the US has not followed international law, intervening illegally in other countries, undermining treaty organizations, and acting as it likes simply because it has the military and economic power to get its way in matters great and small, pushing for its own position even in areas that are of little impact to vital US interests.  Compromise just isn’t in the US Diplomatic vocabulary any more.

After the GW Bush administration, many in the international community were hopeful that the US would re-engage the world on a more collaborative basis.  They were bitterly disappointed at subsequent Obama administration actions under Clinton and Kerry.  Given his pre-election rhetoric, there were no expectations of Trump.  He may be the last straw, but the loss of US prestige and influence in foreign affairs was a long time coming.  Eastern Europe and the Middle East are obvious failures, but in other areas less well known to the US public such as Central America, Africa, and Asia, the US has been playing a hypocritical game: flouting international law and treaties, all the while insisting other countries scrupulously comply with US interpretations.  You can’t have it both ways: to insist on rules, but violate it them when you don’t like having to follow them.

For the first 50 years after the Second World War, America was a leader in trying to create a stable framework of international relations. Over the last 25 years it has squandered that role. I hope the next Administration takes a long hard look at our Foreign Policy from first principles, and doesn’t just react to perceived flaws in the Trump administration’s term, because the problems run much deeper than that.

I close with a recent quote that sadly captures the current situation …

Washington’s daily display of contempt for other sovereign States has become the painstaking, mundane work of the U.S. state Department and the President. This policy has led to a virtual loss of competence in world decision-making, and the United States of America is perceived by fewer and fewer countries as a world leader, because the main feature of a leader is justice.

Washington has lost its bearings, who are friends and who are enemies … Washington is not able to reach a consensus, but uses blackmail and threats in its Arsenal of “diplomacy”.

It is impossible to build world politics and the future of our planet on the interests of only one state. I hope this will soon be understood by all the countries of our beautiful Earth.

— N. V. Poklonskaya

 

The Problem With Expats (and their Children) in Policy and Media

Note: This post was written before the firestorm over LTC Vindman’s testimony in Congress.  I don’t know Vindman, or how much of this discussion may or may not apply to him.  What I do know is that the Trump Administration and its supporters have a  peculiar talent for taking a perfectly valid and important issue like this (biased perspectives in foreign policy) and turning it into a poo flinging contest, just as his opponents have a talent for ignoring their own corrupt and biased practices.

Note after Vindman’s testimony: yeah, this is him …

In watching the media coverage of foreign policy issues, particularly of the Former Soviet Union, I am struck by the number of expatriots (refugees? immigrants? Is that term itself biased?) and their children who  are either in policy positions or are media “analysts”. This applies to many other countries, but it seems more prevalent in that area of the world.  I have to say it’s a two edged sword, and on the whole I think it is a problem and introduces some dangerous biases if not viewed with some skepticism, or balanced in some way, such as with current citizens of those countries or (better yet) vetted neutral analysts.

On the plus side, there is little better than someone who was born and raised in a culture.  Understanding the language, history, and so forth is invaluable, as are connections to the “old country”.  It’s hard to over estimate that value. But there is also a darker side and risk to solely relying on those who chose to leave their native land for perspective, and not appreciating and discussing the biases that might color their views.

Think about how traumatic it must have been for those who fled the Soviet Union in the late cold war, only to see communism collapse a few years later, and in some cases (like Ukraine) their native land “liberated” (ignoring, of course, that Russia was just as much occupied and victimized by Communism as the other Soviet Republics, and many communists from the Republics were among the most tyrannical of the bunch).  I think many may have intended to go home after communism fell – but were surprised it happened in their lifetime and once settled in here, with children who are native US citizens, that would be a hard thing to do. On some level to they must have regrets, and I think sometimes look for the worst in order to validate their decision to stay.  Some rise above it, have maintained contacts with friends and family, and have a good perspective.  But others have a biased view because their contacts are, naturally enough, largely with dissident communities who may be well meaning but are focused on “making things better” and therefore may be looking at what remains to be done rather than appreciating how much things have improved.  This applies to many special interest groups here at home, but that’s another story …

The children of these expats also can carry baggage.  While having perhaps learned the language and culture from their parents, which is certainly a positive thing, it must be kept in mind they also grew up hearing stories of how bad things were, and why their family had to leave.  Many enter the military or other service for their new American homeland, and have likely faced subtle pressure to prove their loyalty.  And some have, despite their heritage, lost touch with the land of their parents; I checked the biography of one analyst who frequently comments on Russia as a “security analyst” with the implication of native knowledge.  This person left a former Soviet Republic (not Russia) when three years old, has never actually been to Russia, and has apparently only briefly been back to the FSU for a few weeks to visit a grandparent.  Again, could be a great analyst, but in that case I’m rather skeptical because the views expressed are rather biased and simplistic in my view.

Government building in Moscow, with old Soviet crest still in place below Russian flag. Still a frequent sight in modern Russia.

Listen carefully to how often various analysts (both expats and former Cold War era vets) say “Soviet Union” when they mean “Russia”, or use old cold war metaphors and language.  I have to wonder if they haven’t caught up with the times, and the new opportunities (as well as threats) that time has brought. I’m not saying this is the case with every analyst, but as someone who spent his formative years being trained to fight the Soviets, it was a very hard transition to make to realize that Russia is not the Soviet Union.  Likewise, the landscape in the Middle East has changed remarkably since the 1980’s and 90’s. It’s hard to keep up, and I know many of my colleagues still think in terms of Cold War memes that no longer apply. The media has an obligation to make sure the views they present to the public are unbiased – or make sure those biases are apparent to the viewer.  Having independent, unbiased, skeptical analysts is vital to a democracy, especially when it applies to foreign policy matters of war and peace.  I suggest those views are increasingly absent in our infotainment driven world.

With respect to perspective, I’d also like to point out how rare it is to hear a spokesperson from foreign countries in the US media, especially those in which the US is in conflict.  All we seem to hear are US politicians, US Government PR people, or “analysts” who are often “former” US government employees (and let’s be honest here, senior military officers, especially retired flag officers, are almost never “former” in any real sense of the word).  I recall that during the late Soviet era various Soviet spokesman and analysts would appear on US TV.  Why don’t US cable “news” networks interview someone like Maria Zakharova, the articulate spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the omnipresent (on Russian TV) journalist Vladimir Solovyov, who practically lives in the studio (FYI, Moscow Times isn’t exactly neutral, but it’s in English :O here is a story in Russian that is more “pro Solovyov”)?  We may not agree with what they say, but we should certainly hear it.  To argue their statements are significantly more biased or manipulative than those of our own government is probably a bit naive.

In conclusion, we need to bring a wide variety of reasonable, unbiased perspectives in foreign policy debates.  We also need to understand other countries from *their* perspective, not just through the prism of our domestic politics and “national interests”. I would love to see more young people of all backgrounds study foreign languages and cultures, including longer trips and immersion to get to see other countries and, equally importantly, how they see us, to be able to provide perspectives that come without the baggage that comes from being part of an expat community. That’s not to say that those from that background should be minimized or discounted – they have and continue to produce some vital insights – but their baggage has to be considered and understood as part of a nuanced whole.

#Russia, #Ukraine, and #Impeachment: some missing context

Administrative note: I had some problems with drafts being posted straight to the site/FB/Twitter, causing some confusion, broken links and partial posts.  Hopefully that is fixed! Update on storms will be coming this afternoon.

Sorry this article-length post isn’t about the weather, but it is on a topic I know quite a bit about, and like hurricanes it is an area that the US media and political establishment exploit for drama and manipulation.  And, like hurricanes, it is a complex and nuanced thing.  As the US House of Representatives gets serious about Impeachment over the Trump, Biden, Ukraine and Russia connections, I hope everyone will take some time to understand how and why we got here and realize it’s not really about Russian or Ukrainian attempts to interfere in our politics, it is blow-back as a result of over two decades of the US  manipulating and exploiting financially those countries after the fall of the Soviet Union, and how US domestic politics got entangled with them.  I hope you will take a few minutes to read it through, and not jump to a conclusion based on which political team you cheer for.  As in so many things, both parties have utterly failed you, and are blaming the “other” for the ensuing mess.  Although this post is long, it’s still overly simplified, but at least it’s a start.

It’s hard to know where to begin this story, but to avoid writing a book we’ll start it with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, and why the shadows of that event are now cast in the heart of US Politics.  The Soviet economy was in shambles, and numerous deals were made to facilitate a peaceful transition between the Former Soviet Union (FSR) and the independent nation-states that resulted from the breakup.  There are two key elements of that breakup that are of interest to us here: the disposition of the nuclear arsenal, and  reforms of the “communist” economies (they weren’t really communist, and barely deserve the term “socialist,” but that’s the label that stuck).  First let’s look at the post-Soviet borders and military situation …

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#Saudi Arabia Refinery #Attacks

The weather isn’t by any means the most dangerous threat facing us.  My guess is most folks think of Enki as a hurricane or weather research group.  In fact, Hurricanes and Weather/Climate research is about 60% of Enki’s work right now.  Geophysical hazards (Earthquakes, Tsunamis) are another 20% or so, and about 10% “anthropogenic” hazards like LNG or nuclear power incidents.  But about 10% of Enki’s work is in the area of Foreign Policy and related issues (space, remote sensing, and open source intelligence) and impacts of WMD (nuclear mostly).  While the WMD/Foreign Policy related work is the smallest percentile it has been in a long time, in many ways that field was the most important, as many of the techniques used in the other areas originated in that dark realm.  I don’t often post about it for the obvious reasons, but also because unfortunately in modern day America it’s becoming increasingly hard to have a nuanced discussion about anything that touches on Politics. This blog actually started in the early 2000’s as “SatBlog”, and most of the posts were about  monitoring disasters, including war zones, using satellite remote sensing.  In may interest some of you that SatBlog broke several news stories during the Iraq invasion, including that the Iraqis had set the oil fields on fire.

This morning the Houthis rebels (with almost certain help from Iran) are alleged to have attacked multiple targets in Saudi Arabia, damaging several refineries and taking offline over half of Saudi oil production (there is reason to be skeptical of this narrative, but that is what the official sources say).  The fires and smoke plumes are visible from space, as this MODIS quick look image shows …

If these facilities are heavily damaged or stay offline for long, it will have a ripple effect throughout the fragile world economy.  And, of course, the inevitable retaliation will have consequences, and a spiral of violence is possible.  Scary stuff.