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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

The US/Russian Confrontation in Syria

The Daily Escape:

Going to the Sun Road, Glacier National Park, 2016 – photo by Wrongo

They told Wrongo that if he voted for Hillary, we’d be at war in Syria. He voted for Hillary, and sure enough, looks like we could get into a war with Syria! Particularly after this:

A U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet from Carrier Air Wing 8 on board the USS George Bush shot down a Syrian Air Force Su-22 ground attack aircraft near Raqqa, Syria after the aircraft struck ground troops in Ja-Din, south of Tabqah, near Raqqa.

According to most sources it is the first time a U.S. combat aircraft has shot down a manned enemy aircraft in aerial combat in nine years.

The pro-Assad regime Syrian Su-22 that was downed had attacked Syrian Democratic Forces aligned with the U.S. led coalition and inflicted casualties on the friendly forces as they were driving south of Tabqah before it was intercepted.

Russia was displeased. They announced that they could possibly shoot down any US air craft operating in western Syria:

In the combat mission zones of the Russian aviation in the air space of Syria, all kinds of airborne vehicles, including aircraft and UAVs of the international coalition detected to the west of the Euphrates River will be tracked by the Russian SAM systems as air targets.

Treating US and allied planes as “targets” does not mean the Russians will shoot at them. What they’re saying is that they will track the planes as they would track any target, they will send their own planes to observe the targets, and possibly escort the targets out of the area.

This gets tricky: what happens if the “target” refuses to be escorted away? Do the Russians then shoot at the target? They haven’t said. But until they do start shooting, we’re not in a hot war. We’ve just moved a step closer to one possibly occurring soon.

And this would be the most dangerous confrontation between the US and Russia since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Wrongo remembers the Cuban Missile Crisis very well. He was in college. We sat around thinking that DC (where we lived) would be taken out by nuclear missiles launched by the Russkies.

This is one outcome of Trump’s outsourcing full control of military action on the ground to the generals.

One miscalculation, and Trump’s generals are making new foreign policy. Clemenceau was correct when he said that “war is too important to be left to the generals”. Who we decide to fight is one of our most important national decisions. From the American Conservative:

There has never been a Congressional vote authorizing US military operations in Syria against anyone, and there has been scant debate over any of the goals that the US claims to be pursuing there. The US launches attacks inside Syria with no legal authority from the UN or Congress, and it strains credulity that any of these operations have anything to do with individual or collective self-defense.

The US says we are in Syria to fight ISIS and evict them from Raqqa. But we have also been arming the Syrian opposition for at least three years. And we have been a party to the Syrian civil war for at least a year before that. But the underlying assumption, that it is in our interest to be fighting in Syria, has not been seriously questioned by most members of Congress.

Americans are so accustomed to fighting wars on foreign soil that we barely notice that the policy has never really been debated or put to a vote. If this Syrian confrontation leads us into a larger conflict with Russia, will it finally be time to notice what’s happening?  

Shooting down a Syrian jet shows the dangers that come from conducting a foreign policy unmoored from both the national interest and representative government.

It was shot down because it was threatening rebels opposed to the Syrian government, and the US supports those rebels, apparently up to and including destroying Syrian regime forces that attack them. We say we are there to fight ISIS. That has sufficient support by the people and the Congress. If we are also fighting to oust Assad, we are doing something that requires a full debate.

Without that debate, when we shoot down a Syrian plane inside its own country, we have committed an act of war against another state.

A bit of music. Here is Paramore with “Hard Times”:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

Takeaway Lyric:

All that I want Is to wake up fine
Tell me that I’m alright
That I ain’t gonna die
All that I want
Is a hole in the ground
You can tell me when it’s alright
For me to come out

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Monday Wake Up Call – June 19, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Round Hill Highland Games – Litchfield County, Connecticut

From Zandar:

The slow death of the civil rights era under the Trump regime continues as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will proceed with handcuffing the department’s civil rights office, because systemic racism and sexism in education is embarrassing to Dear Leader, so in order to Make America Great Again™ it will no longer be exposed or even acknowledged.

What’s up? The DoE is scaling back investigations into civil rights violations at the nation’s public schools and universities, easing off mandates imposed by the Obama administration that the new leadership says have bogged down the agency. The NYT reports that Candice E. Jackson, the acting head of the Department’s office for civil rights issued an internal memo stating that: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

Requirements that investigators broaden their inquiries to identify systemic issues and whole classes of victims will be scaled back. Also, regional offices will no longer be required to alert department officials in Washington of all highly sensitive complaints on issues such as the disproportionate disciplining of minority students and the mishandling of sexual assaults on college campuses.

The new directives are Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ first steps to reshape the DoE’s approach to civil rights enforcement, moving away from President Obama’s efforts to require that schools and colleges overhaul policies addressing a number of civil rights concerns. That approach sent complaints soaring, and the civil rights office found itself understaffed and struggling to meet the department’s stated goal of closing cases within 180 days.

So, DeVos’ new protocols have the cover of “we need to move faster” to resolve the big case backlog.

But civil rights leaders believe that the new directives will have the opposite effect. Since DoE staff members would be discouraged from opening new cases, and efficiency will take priority over thoroughness, the entire process will be weakened. Catherine Lhamon, who was the assistant secretary of the Education Department’s civil rights office under Mr. Obama, and who now heads the United States Commission on Civil Rights says:

If we want to have assembly-line justice, and I say ‘justice’ in quotes, then that’s the direction that we should go.

So the logic of DeVos seems to be: “Well if we can’t close civil rights cases in six months, why bother opening them? Let’s just save the money.”

This is another example of Zero-Sum Thinking by the Trumpists.

Time to wake up America! While you are following the twists and turns of Russiagate, the Trump administration is overturning the civil rights accountability that Obama put in place for the nation’s schools. Obama’s idea was that ALL students should have their civil rights protected, not just the Taylors and Hunters out there in the suburbs, but those kids in the poorer school districts.  

To help you wake up, here is The Weeknd with his newly released “Secrets”, which owes a big debt to Tears for Fears:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – June 18, 2017

It’s Father’s Day. Here is Wrongo’s tribute to his own dad, now gone for 19 years. Steve Goodman’s song, “My Old Man”:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

Takeaway lyric:

I miss my old man tonight
And I can almost see his face
He was always trying to watch his weight
And his heart only made it to fifty-eight.
For the first time since he died
Late last night I cried.
I wondered when I was gonna do that
For my old man.

Happy Father’s Day to all who qualify!

On to cartoons. This week, it’s hard to decide where to look first. How long will the current era of political good feeling last? We can be hopeful, but cracks have already appeared, and the urge to score political points has already begun:

The DC shooting reminds us that Congress still plays the ‘ol ballgame:

NOW we need some protection?

While America’s busy looking at the Russian drama, the GOP has had a breakthrough:

Trump’s team ruminates on replacing Mueller:

 

 

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Saturday Soother – June 17, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Mt. Fuji, Japan- photo by Takashi Yasui

The news and the pundits are non-stop in their analysis of the shooting in DC that critically wounded Republican Congressman Steve Scalise and 3 others. Much has been written, but Wrongo likes what Charlie Pierce wrote the best:

Violence doesn’t “intrude” on everyday life in America. Violence is a part of everyday life in America. A little more than a week ago, five people were shot to death in warehouse in Orlando. Is a warehouse in Orlando less innocent than a Virginia ballfield? Is a disgruntled worker taking his mad vengeance less of a demonstration of a country unhinged than a home-inspection specialist who fried his brain over politics? Is somebody who wounds over politics a worse murderer than someone who kills because he got fired? I admire the ability of anyone who can make that measured a moral choice.

On the whole, people shouldn’t get shot. They shouldn’t get shot in the streets. They shouldn’t get shot in school. They shouldn’t get shot in the workplace. They shouldn’t get shot while carrying snack food in the “wrong” neighborhood, and they shouldn’t get shot while they’re trying to surrender. They shouldn’t get shot while dancing in a nightclub. And they shouldn’t get shot on the ballfield on a spring morning.

In the main, one victim is not more “innocent”—and, thus, of more value—than any other one. Their occupation shouldn’t matter. Their politics shouldn’t matter. There is a violence inherent in the country’s history and there is a wildness present in its soul and, on occasion, both of these surface more clearly than is usual. Technology has made the violence more lethal and the wildness more general. The uniquely American conflation of innocence with hubris is a luxury we can no longer afford.

OTOH, according to Heather Digby Parton:

Meanwhile, 93 people on average are shot and killed every day in America, many of them in incidents involving multiple victims. More than 100,000 people are struck by bullets every year. President Donald Trump was right to speak about “carnage” in America in his inaugural address. He just didn’t acknowledge that the carnage is from gun violence. According to the gun safety website The Trace:

Using data from the World Health Organization, researchers found that America accounted for 82 percent of all firearm deaths among 23 comparable nations in 2010. Ninety percent of women killed by guns in the study were in the U.S., as were 91 percent of children under 15.

There is no solution for this that will fly politically in this country. The gun-toter, and the no guns crowds are already spinning their version of the narrative to the crowd that sits in the pews directly in front of them.

America just has to accept that this is perhaps the most concrete way in which America is exceptional, and, it.just.sucks.

It is difficult to get to a soothing place on this Saturday, with all that has happened. Also, my brother died a year ago this week. Back in the late 1970’s he was (very) down on his luck, and each weekend, he would come to visit Ms. Right and me to get fattened up for the coming week. He would walk into the house, grab the album “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and play its opening track, Funeral for a Friend”. There would be no talking until 11 minutes later when it ended:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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From Russian Hacks to Russian Collusion: Where’s the Beef?

The Daily Escape:

Image of Saturn taken from the Cassini spacecraft on July 19, 2013

Wrongo has read much of the evidence that Russia interfered with the 2016 US Presidential election. He has watched House and Senate committees ask the intelligence community and the Justice Department what is known and not known about the Russian hacking story.

 It is clear that the Russians have extremely capable cyber technicians. They have a pragmatic view about getting what they need strategically, so it is both feasible and possible that they could have been disruptive to our democratic process.

But is there actual evidence that Russia interfered in our elections in 2016? And if they did, is there evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with them? The answer so far is summed up by Caitlin Johnstone:

Russiagate is like a mirage: from a distance it looks like something, but once you move in for a closer look, there’s nothing there. Nothing. Nothing solid, nothing substantial, nothing you can point at and say, “Here it is. This hard evidence justifies saturating the media waves with obsessive 24/7 coverage, escalating tensions with a nuclear superpower, stagnating political discourse in America and fanning the flames of a hysterical, xenophobic McCarthyist feeding frenzy.”

Most of what we know comes from the intelligence assessment by James Clapper when he was the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) for Obama; Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections. Here are the conclusions:

  • We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.
  • Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.
  • We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.
  • Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls.”

From Sic Semper Tyrannis:

The assessment says Russia did three basic things to “influence” the Presidential election. First, the NSA, CIA and, to a lesser extent, the FBI, believed that the Russians hacked into the DNC and John Podesta emails, then passed that content to WikiLeaks and DC Leaks, who subsequently published the information. Second, the Russians supposedly obtained access to “elements” (undefined) of US state or local electoral boards. Third, Russian media outlets, RT and Sputnik News, put out Kremlin friendly messages.

There is no evidence backing up the claim that the Russian intelligence service hacked the DNC and Podesta that has been presented to the American people. The FBI did not conduct a forensic examination of the computers of either the DNC or of Podesta. The belief that the Russians did it is based on an independent firm, Crowdstrike’s examination of the DNC emails. Moreover, the release of Podesta’s emails had little to no effect on the election, while the Comey on-and-off-and on again investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails were certainly damaging to her electoral chances.

The larger point is that Democrats have convinced themselves that getting rid of Trump justifies throwing pasta (or any other sticky substance) at the wall to see what sticks. And that is what is happening with the “all Russia, all the time” hearings in the House and Senate.

An important subtext to this whole Russian conspiracy theory is the insistence that the Trump campaign colluded with Vladimir Putin to sabotage Hillary’s campaign.  That is repeated endlessly on the cable channels, and has become an article of faith to many Americans, especially Democrats. But, a few meetings do not create collusion. Possibly the intelligence community has some proof, but it has not been presented in a form that inspires credibility.

About a month ago, the DOJ appointed a Special Counsel to ferret out what is real from what is fake in the allegations about Russiagate, from hacks to collusion.

Let’s hope that he gets to the bottom of the story.

In the meantime, stay focused on the potential damage that Messrs. Trump, McConnell and Ryan are trying to do, from the gutting of Dodd-Frank to passing an Obamacare replacement that hurts many Americans.

Now for a tune. The Beatles’ “Back in the USSR” was released in 1968. It was intended to be a parody of “Back in the USA” by the Beach Boys. The song shocked many at the time for its pro-Soviet message. Years later, Paul McCartney stated he knew very little about the Soviet Union when he wrote the song. Here is McCartney doing the song live in Moscow’s Red Square:

Note Putin vaguely rocking @ 0:14

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Monday Cartoon Blogging – June 12, 2017

The Wrong family is back from graduation weekend, Rod’s homebrew was the best, and a good time was had by all. Except for possibly the newly minted graduates, who had to listen to recycled exhortations to put down their screens, find their own compass, etc.

Trump started infrastructure week saying we should privatize the FAA. You might see this:

British Prime Minister May’s snap election strategy backfired:

Wonder Woman dominated the news:

And many wondered about the Wonder Woman vs. Working Woman comparisons:

How did Comey rehabilitate himself with Democrats?

The Saudis say the Qataris support terrorism, but what about them?

RIP Adam West:

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June 9, 2017

(There will be no Saturday Soother this week, and Sunday Cartoon Blogging will appear on Monday. The Wrong family is attending the high school graduation of our granddaughter in Pennsylvania. Congrats Claire! She is #8 in our 12-part series of grandchild HS graduations)

The Daily Escape:

Kingfisher with crayfish – photo by JH Clery

Everyone is following the Comey testimony, and Wrongo has nothing to add, except that none of this matters unless and until Special Counsel Robert Mueller provides a report that the public can review. That may never happen. There might be a report, and it could go to Congress and disappear without any public scrutiny, just like the report on CIA torture.

The bigger story of the day is the outcome of the snap election in the UK, where PM Theresa May lost control of Parliament. The Tories lost 12 seats, when just two months ago they reasonably hoped to gain nearly 100. Labour did far better than the pundits expected, but that outcome should have been clear to everyone. After nearly 40 years of neoliberal policies in the UK, the pundits believe that ordinary citizens are content to get the short end of the stick forever. Probably not, since the backlash has started.

ICYMI, here is an interview by NPR with the head of RT, the English-language news channel funded by the Russian government:

http://www.npr.org/2017/06/09/532196946/russia-needs-to-counter-mainstream-media-head-of-rt-network-says

The BBC has an interesting story about the Taliban in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. The Taliban controls about 85% of Helmand, and recently struck an arrangement with the Afghan government whereby the government is funding schools and hospitals operated by the Taliban.

  • Is this the outcome of America’s 16-year long failed effort to destroy the Taliban?
  • Can the Taliban be brought into the government, thereby ending the war?
  • Are the Taliban simply biding their time until the central government collapses from its own inability to keep the country secure?

See you on Monday!

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Some Thoughts on L’affaire Comey

The Daily Escape:

Cathedral Cove, New Zealand – photo by Niels Holm

For the past few days, it has been “All Comey, all the time”, both in America and around the world.

You can count Wrongo as one of those who thinks that Comey made some huge mistakes trying to position himself after his take-down of Hillary Clinton, and her self-inflicted email disaster. You can also count Wrongo as thinking that Hillary’s loss was mostly her own fault. That means that you can also count Wrongo as agnostic regarding whether the Russians were behind the hack into the Democratic National Committee, or that their intervention was because they wanted to help Trump win the election.

Democrats argue that Trump and/or members of his administration are “soft on Russia”. Democrats have adopted a neo-con worldview that just a few years ago, they would have hated: That policies are either pro-America or pro-Russia. And, it’s in that pro-Russian box that Democrats are trying to stuff The Donald.

This makes Democrats blind to the possibility that people (even Trump!) could genuinely believe that it’s in America’s interest to be friendlier to Russia. That we could cooperate on certain issues without being agents of Putin. Perhaps you remember that Obama said just that in his first term.

So let’s turn to Comey’s firing. Thursday’s NYT had a complete listing of members of the House and Senate and their reaction(s) to the firing. And yes, if you went back a few years to Republican calls for special prosecutors to examine Democrats, the script was flipped, with most Dems then taking the position that Republicans are taking today.

It’s the kind of game that has become acceptable in today’s Washington swamp.

Wrongo isn’t happy with Comey’s performance as FBI director, but we now stand on the edge of a precipice without him. He ran into trouble because AG Loretta Lynch had to recuse herself during the Clinton email investigation. That led to his free-lancing, and his inexplicable testimony. Then AG Sessions had to recuse himself from any Russia-related investigation. And shortly thereafter, the tempo of the investigation changed, and Comey needed someone to approve additional resources for the Russia investigation. The WSJ reported:

Comey started receiving daily instead of weekly updates on the investigation, beginning at least three weeks ago…Comey was concerned by information showing possible evidence of collusion.

Now, the firing of Comey opens up the FBI and the DOJ, by custom and tradition an agency that is independent from politics, to outside political control, to a new director forcing a reduction in funding or other resources critical to the investigation.

Ostensibly, the issue isn’t the fact that Comey was fired. It’s about the timing. In turn, that is directly linked to the fact that the FBI is investigating Trump. Most think that the FBI Russia operation was breathing down the neck of the Trump campaign and their operatives. They think that the Comey firing is an effort to slow down, or wind down, the investigation prematurely.

The question is, will the new FBI director do either of those things? Wouldn’t the FBI agents involved in the investigation revolt/go public if a new director defunded the effort, and/or reduced the commitment to it? And the FBI is not running the investigation by itself. Their investigation is overseen by prosecutors. We heard this week that there is a grand jury. We hear that they’re issuing subpoenas. That’s not being done by the FBI. It’s being done by prosecutors in the DOJ.

And that’s where the ball sits. The American people have to rely on AG Jeff Sessions, who may be recused, but who guarantees that? Or it rests with Deputy AG Ron Rosenstein, who is in the job for a couple of weeks. Or it rests with a to-be-appointed FBI Director. Bloomberg is reporting that Trump is considering former Congressman and former FBI agent Mike Rogers, who is far too political, or former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who is all hat and no cattle.

There are hundreds of thousands of stories and millions of words being written about this. Trump shouldn’t expect this to go away.

In fact, he should publicly support getting to the bottom of it, rather than acting like Richard Nixon. That didn’t end well.

Some music: Here are the Waifs, an Australian blues/rock band formed in 1992, fronted by two sisters, doing “Crazy Train”. It’s the train America is on right now:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Buffett: Focus on Lower Health Care Costs, Not Corporate Taxes

The Daily Escape:

Ribbon Chapel, Onomichi Japan – photo by Koji Fujii

Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote about Warren Buffet and the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha. Thousands of people attend these meetings, which are known as “Woodstock for capitalists.” Sorkin reports that Buffet made this comment:

The tax system is not crippling our business around the world.

Sorkin said that Mr. Buffett, was blunt and pointed, implicitly rebuking his fellow chief executives, who have been lobbying the Trump administration and Washington lawmakers to lower corporate taxes. Buffett said that those who have been single-focused on seeking relief from their tax bills would be smart to shift their attention to health care costs, which are growing and swallowing evermore corporate profits. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 49% of Americans, about 156 million, are insured by their employer. More from Sorkin:

The need for corporate tax relief has become the lodestar of the corner office, with CEOs rhapsodizing  over President Trump’s plan to try to stimulate growth by cutting tax rates for businesses.

But as Mr. Buffett pointed out, these chief executives are missing the bigger issue: As a percentage of our GDP, the cost of maintaining our American health care system is rising at an alarming rate. And Corporate America pays a big (and growing) chunk of that bill.

Buffett wasn’t talking about the cost of health insurance, which is a fraction of the total cost of health care. He suggests that today’s corporate tax rates are a distraction, not a true impediment to growth:

If you go back to 1960 or thereabouts, corporate taxes were about 4% of GDP…And now, they’re about 2 % of GDP.

While tax rates have fallen as a share of gross domestic product, health care costs ballooned:

About 50 years ago, health care was 5% of GDP, and now it’s about 17%.

Buffett is a smart guy. He raises an argument for focusing on the underlying costs of our health care system, something that goes far beyond the debate around the Affordable Care Act, or what will replace it. Buffett says that our global competitiveness has fallen largely because our businesses were paying far more for health care — a tax by another name — than those in other countries.

As Buffett said: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

When American business talks about [corporate taxes] strangling our competitiveness, or that sort of thing, they’re talking about something that as a percentage of GDP has gone down…While medical costs, which are borne to a great extent by business, have swelled.

Here are the facts:

  • In 1960, corporate taxes in the US were about 4% of GDP. The percentage fell steadily, reaching a bottom in 1983 before rising slightly over the last few decades. Today, it is 1.9%.
  • In the meantime, health care costs as a percent of GDP have skyrocketed. Today our health care costs are 17.1% of GDP, up from 13.1% in 1995.
  • Germany’s cost is 11.3%, up from 9.4% during the same period. Japan’s is 10.2%, up from 6.6%. Britain’s health care costs are 9.1% of GDP, up from 6.7% percent in 1995.

That makes our health care cost disadvantage far greater than our tax differential. It harms American companies in particular, since they bear such a large share of those costs, which firms in our competitor countries do not. US Corporations spend $12,591 on average for coverage of a family of four, up 54% since 2005, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But Congress avoids the issue, and CEOs don’t talk about it. A final quote from Warren:

It’s very tough for political parties to attack it…it’s basically a political subject…

In fact, Buffett’s partner, Charlie Munger, is the rare Republican (Buffett is a Democrat) who has advocated for a single-payer health care system. Under his plan, the US would enact a sort of universal type of coverage for all citizens — perhaps along the lines of the Medicaid system.

Which brings Wrongo to his final point: Medicaid expansion is the one part of Obamacare that can be said unequivocally to work. It’s a single payer program funded by the Federal government. So it’s bitterly ironic that the Republican’s reaction to Obamacare is to assault and roll back an existing Federal program, from LBJ days.

Of course, kicking poor people who benefit from Medicaid will always be popular with Republicans. So, Republicans, by making Medicaid worse, will try to restore their natural order of things.

Lazy, uninformed voters = Lazy, uninformed legislators = Lazy, uninformed policy.

It’s that simple.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – May 7, 2017

The House Republicans’ passage of the Trumpcare Bill dominated the news last week. Sometime later today we will learn the results of the French presidential election, but the hacking of Mr. Macro’s servers and emails sounds depressingly familiar.

America’s “unsolvable problem” with health insurance led us to Obamacare, and now, to the botched GOP effort to replace it. We should remember that this unsolvable problem has already been solved in dozens of countries.

Trumpcare is an event of domestic terrorism:

GOP will need a different pitch to the public:

How the GOP defines “pre-existing”:

Preexisting conditions also include political health:

 

GOP thinks health insurance is only for people who make good choices – like being born rich:

Stay unhealthy my friends:

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