Republican Party, Year Zero

For several years, and with increasing vehemence, I’ve doubted the reliability of media polls. I have no reason to think the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll is better or worse than other media polls, but it is notable that the poll of the Republican primary they released this morning has a margin of error of 6.5. In 2012 no major media poll of the Republican nominating contest had a margin of error over 6.0. So, as with all media polls, accept the data warily. With that caveat, look at the NBC/WSJ polls since April, and you can see an astonishing trend toward complete rejection of anyone who has ever held elective office.

A few weeks ago Monmouth asked Republican voters which they favored, someone with government experience, or someone from outside government, 67% favored someone from outside government. That preference shines through in the NBC/WSJ results, with increasing intensity since the spring*:

Sept July June April
Has Held Office 39% 66% 84% 91%
Has Not Held Office 52% 29% 14% 8%

That is an electorate unhappy with it’s party. In fact, if the tea partiers, ultra-conservatives, and generally disaffected and alienated who vote Republican weren’t disproportionately riding scooters at big box stores they might be leading a revolution against their party elites.

But they do appear, for now at least, to be going against the predictions of the political science fundamentalists who pat people on the head and tell them they’re silly for believing campaigns are ever different. This election, they say, will be just like every other election cycle; the parties will sober up from their ideological debaucheries and nominate a responsible figure of the party establishment. Republican primary voters appear bored by responsibility. Since the spring they have tempered their anger, they have further radicalized.

Republican primary voters won’t be denouncing and executing anyone wearing glasses. But they may purge their field of candidates of anyone who has ever served in government or won an election.

*The “has not held office” group is Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina. Not all the other Republicans currently hold office, but all have at some point held elective office.

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Iran Strategy Against Democrats So Bad That Trump Uses It for Republicans

Senator Barbara Mikulski’s support for the nuclear deal with Iran ensures enough Senate votes to sustain a presidential veto of a Republican bill to scuttle the deal. The New York Times has a fascinating overview of how skittish Democrats were convinced to support a deal many of them were reluctant to back and that until recently the political press declared in danger of collapsing.

According to the Times, the key figures besides Obama were Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. A White House official called Moniz a “secret weapon” who could explain the details clearly and persuasively. [Unmentioned by the Times is he even traveled to meet Senators in their home states.] Pelosi–probably the most underrated American politician of the last half century or so–ran a war room with a focus and urgency similar to her work in passing the Affordable Care Act. House Democrats helped create a sense of momentum by managing a carefully planned flow of nearly daily announcements of Democrats supporting the bill.

As described in the Times’ article, the administration & early Congressional supporters employed a variety of tactics and resources:

  • Administration officials met personally with about 200 Senate and House Democrats
  • Obama met personally with about 100 Democrats, & called 30 while on vacation
  • The White House arranged meetings between Democrats and diplomats from the other partners to the agreement–Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China–who made clear there would be no new negotiations, nor continued sanctions
  • Secretary of State John Kerry conveyed support for the deal from former heads of Israeli intelligence and internal security
  • Letters from policy experts addressing concerns and arguments against the deal were passed to Democrats and the news media
  • Pro-deal Democrats pushed back against negative news reports
  • The messaging focused on the policy, and support for the policy was framed not as support for the President, but as agreement with his arguments for the deal

The tactics used by the opponents was much narrower:

  • Opponents ran $20 million in TV ads against the deal
  • Lobbyists & advocacy organizations opposed to the deal threatened retribution against Democrats who supported the deal
  • The key validator put forth against the deal was Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Republicans had brought to speak before Congress in March
  • The messaging was partisan and intended to cast doubt on the deal and on the administration; according to a spokesman with the America Israel Political Action Committee, “this strong opposition conveys an important message to the world — especially foreign banks, businesses and governments — about the severe doubts in America concerning Iran’s willingness to meet its commitments and the long-term viability of this agreement”

According to the article, one Republican blamed their failure on news media focus on Donald Trump and on Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Let’s look at this from the perspective of the Democrats who were (and in a few remaining  cases still are) making up their minds on this matter. They know Republicans have opposed nearly everything Obama ever proposes. They know that Netanyahu is opposed to the deal but experts whose job was not winning votes, but protecting Israel, are for the deal. Opponents told them that foreign banks, businesses and governments would react negatively if the US ignored Republican opposition, but they also heard foreign officials say the more negative response would come from the US opposing the deal. Democrats were told there would be political costs to supporting the deal, but no broad grassroots opposition ever materialized. And while opponents told Democrats about all the supposed problems with the deal, opponents never offered an alternative. It may not have been the solution Democrats wanted, but it was clear Republicans would not offer any alternative solution.

Eventually, Democrats saw that opposition to the deal was isolated along the Netanyahu-Boehner/McConnell axis, that the world powers were unified behind the policy, and that opponents had no policy. As for Trump undermining the effort, it’s a funny complaint, since Trump denounced the deal. Maybe the opposition failed not because Donald Trump took attention away from the argument, but because it was such a bad argument, that appealed to almost nobody outside the Republican base, that it was adopted by Donald Trump to get primary support from the Republican base.

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“Candidate X went to [local food speciality establishment] and was so out of touch she ordered [local food, probably derived from workman’s lunches at the turn of the century] and asked for it with [condiment or complement that sounds sensible but isn’t the typical local choice.] {Implication that the candidate is a phony, or out of touch with the common people.}”

This week we had one of those stupid stories, about Scott Walker going to a venerable Philadelphia sandwich shop and ordering a cheesesteak with the “wrong” cheese.

Yeah, whatever.

The NPR show The Takeaway–new to the Chicago market, but quickly becoming one of my favorite things on NPR–just did a piece using the Walker story to question if food stories do, or should be expected to, tell us anything about a candidate more than “he’s not from here.” Somewhat cheekily, the guest suggested that rather than worrying about appearing authentic and in touch with all local traditions and mores, Walker could have just been his own man by bringing with him some Wisconsin cheese curds, ordering the cheesesteak without cheese, and dolloping the curds on top.

Sometimes the stupid food story is incidental. A candidate is traveling, stops for lunch, and the press sees her order a salad, or a chicken sandwich without mayo or bun, or an expensive caffeinated drink. Other times, as appears was the case in Philadelphia, the campaign builds an event around going to some local eatery and ordering the local specialty. In that case, the campaign is as much to blame as is the frivolity of shallow journalists; if you have an event with no message other than “the candidate is eating a cheesesteak,” it shouldn’t surprise anyone if we get critiques of the candidate’s performance of eating a cheesesteak.

But candidates still need to eat, and they’ll still stop in the Detroit area for a coney island, or in Chicago for an Italian beef sandwich, in Buffalo for a beef on weck, in the Four Corners area for a Navaho taco, in Maine for crab rolls, or anywhere in the country, where they will order something that originated in, or is unique to, that area. How can candidates prevent the stupid “ordered her food wrong” story?

It’s easy to avoid most of the stupid food stories, and by using an approach candidates should use everywhere and always, and all matters: ask questions, and listen.

If a candidate is really committed to Swiss cheese, then she should have Swiss cheese on her sandwich. If a candidate–like a majority of adults not of northern European background–is lactose-intolerant, she shouldn’t get a cheesesteak, and nobody should make an issue about it. But, if she wants to try a local specialty, she should ask someone for suggestions on how to order it. She should go to the counter, or wait for the server, and when it’s time to order, say “I’d like an Italian beef sandwich; how do you recommend I order it?” [My answer, for what it’s worth, is “hot and wet,” meaning the entire sandwich dipped in the gravy, and topped with spicy relish.] Or say “what’s a popular way of eating it,” or “is there a traditional way, or maybe some recent popular variation?”

Whatever the food, whomever the candidate, a politician will almost never get in trouble for being seen listening to people in public. It’s a great visual. The candidate may learn something. And the citizen will appreciate being heard by a politician pledging to represent her interests and asking for her vote. Even if it was only about which cheese to put on a sandwich.

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This has been a fairly quiet space the last two years. After starting this blog in 2011 I posted fairly regularly, but since June 2013 I’ve only posted just eleven pieces. But while this blog has been quiet my life has been far from quiet. Nearly a year and a half ago my wife and I became parents of twins. For the first several months we both cared for them full time. But last summer my wife returned to teaching and writing her book, and I took over primary care of the kids.

I expected that being a full time parent would take up most of my time. What I didn’t expect was a protracted problem with the adoption that left me no time to write anything longer than quips and snarks on Twitter. But things eventually worked out. We’re happy with the resolution, and relieved to be able to get on with our life free of all but the normal distractions and fears faced by every parent. And i’m eager to get back to writing.

Over the next few months I expect to be writing about politics, how the country is changing, but also how many of our problems are rooted in the past. Conflicts over pluralism, cosmopolitanism, immigration, voting and civil rights, economic development, taxation, internationalism, use of military force, religion, labor, wealth, inequality, individualism and community have always been fought out along the divides of political party, of education, of religion, of North and South, of rural and urban, of white and non-white, and of young and old. But now there is another divide: a tenacious effort to hold on to the fading white-dominated past versus an inevitably more cosmopolitan future. I expect to write about how these conflicts, as well as about the structures and dynamics of campaigns and elections, the politics of Washington and the politics of states, America’s place in the world, and the many things our news media and pundits get wrong, and why.

I may even write a little about baseball.

I intend to use this space to think out loud, but I don’t want to do it alone. I encourage people to comment, and I hope to have discussions.

Finally, I hope this is not the only place where I can be read. I intend to write for publications, so look for my work around the web. And if you’re an editor who thinks I have something interesting to say, please reach out to me about writing for your publication.

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Are Nearly Half of Protestant Voters Unaware They Are Protestant?

According to the 2014 exit polls, 77% of the electorate was Christian. That’s almost identical to the percentage of Protestants in the general population (78%) according to the 2008 Pew U.S. Religious Landscape report. In both the exit polls and the Pew report 24% were Catholic and 2% were Mormon. Pew has Protestants at 51%, and Jehovahs Witnesses, Orthodox and other Christian denominations at less than 2% of the population. However, only 29% of exit poll respondents self-identified as Protestant, while a whopping 22% said some form of Christian other than Protestant, Catholic or Mormon.

I’m going to guess that Jehovah’s Witnesses, Quakers and Mennonites, and Russians, Greeks, Ukrainians, Copts, Keralites and Eritreans and people who’ve converted to those groups’ dominant faiths did not make up 22% of the electorate. Rather, it looks like nearly half of the Protestants who voted in 2014 do not identify as Protestant, or do not realize they are affiliated with a church or denomination that is Protestant.

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The Southern Value of Being a White Southerner

From a surprisingly and refreshingly non-craptacular piece by Byron York on Bill Clinton’s potential effect on the Arkansas Senate race:

Cotton is appealing to lots of Arkansans who once voted for Clinton, either as governor, or president, or both. To some of those voters, there’s a certain continuity between supporting the moderate Democrat Bill Clinton, beginning when he was first elected governor in 1978, and supporting Cotton today. In a state that has rapidly switched from blue to red, they believe they have stayed the same, while the Democratic Party has changed.


“I voted for Clinton as governor and president,” said Hardy Herrington, who with his wife Tabitha was among the 60 or so who came to see Cotton at a small park on Main Street. “Of course, Clinton dabbled in the left, but he had enough sense to come back to the center and won a second term.” […] Hardy went on to say that after Clinton left office, his party changed. “When the Democratic Party made a sharp turn to the left, they left me behind,” he said. “I didn’t leave them. They left me. They just no longer support the values that I cherish.”

Which values do Democrats supposedly no longer cherish? And in what ways was Bill Clinton all that more conservative than Barack Obama? Barack Obama was much more effective in his two years with a Democratic Congress than was Bill Clinton, but that was partly due to more liberal and larger Democratic caucuses than Clinton had to work with. Obama in 2014 is more liberal on social issues than were Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1992, but so are Bill and Hillary Clinton. For a national Democrat Clinton was at best indifferent toward labor, while Obama, though not a big labor guy, has been better than OK. So there’s a difference. But I doubt what pushed Mr. Herrington away from Democrats was the Speaker Pelosi-led House passing the Employee Free Choice Act.

The differences between Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are much smaller than the differences between Bill Clinton and any Southern Republican of the last 40 years or so. But the “continuity” Arkansans perceive between Bill Clinton and Tom Cotton does exist in a way important to many white Southerners: both are themselves white Southerners, who, as one of their own, white Southerners trust more than they trust white Northerners to protect the status–and if not that at least promote the interests–of white Southerners.

The South was nearly exclusively controlled by the Democratic party from the end of Reconstruction; most general elections had only a Democrat on the ballot. But even before the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, in presidential elections it had been decades since the so-called “Solid South” had been solidly Democratic. In 1924 Democrat John W. Davis garnered only 28% of the popular vote, and lost every non-Confederate state except Oklahoma, yet Davis won every Southern state by huge margins. Not coincidentally, it was the last time a Democratic presidential candidate was a public advocate of segregation; thirty years after his defeat, in a companion case to Brown v Board of Education, Davis defended segregation before the Supreme Court. As a West Virginian, he was technically not a Southerner, but Davis was about as close to a Southerner as could appear on a national ticket.

1924, however, was arguably the last hurrah of the Solid South. In 1928 Catholic New Yorker Al Smith ran 12 points better than Davis nationally, but he lost Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Florida, and nearly lost Alabama. FDR won every Southern state all for times, but outside the Plains and northern New England, he also won almost every other state all four times. But by the late 1930’s the Southerners in Congress regularly aligned with the Republicans to thwart anything they deemed too liberal, especially anything they believed threatened white dominance of the South. In 1948 Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond won four states, and in 1952 and 1956 Eisenhower won a smattering of Southern states. In 1960 Nixon lost every Southern state, but “undeclared” won Mississippi, and Kennedy and Johnson’s margins in several Southern states were within a few points. That was the last time a non-Southern Democratic presidential nominee didn’t run worse in the South than he did in the national popular vote.

Goldwater’s Deep South success in 1964 was therefore not, as many have argued, a portent of Republican success in the South, but rather a continuation of a trend going back to 1928. In 1968 that trend continued. Humphrey squeaked out a win in Texas with 32% of the vote, but Nixon or George Wallace won every other Southern state. In the 1960’s the South was not yet becoming more Republican, but with repeated Southern protest votes, it had definitely become less Democratic. In 1972–despite the efforts of the McGovern’s campaign’s top Texas staffer, Bill Clinton–Nixon ran stronger in the South than he did nationally. The South, in presidential elections, appeared to have turned a corner and was finally become Republican.

Then the Democrats nominated Jimmy Carter.

Unlike Johnson, who was as much a Westerner as a Southerner, Carter was from the Deep South, and he reversed the trends and briefly turned the South back in to a Democratic stronghold. In 1976 he won every state of the Confederacy except Virginia, as well as every one of the formerly slave-holding border states. Other than Mississippi, his wins in Southern states were larger than popular vote margin of victory. In 1980, though Reagan won an electoral vote landslide and a ten point popular vote victory, his share of the popular vote was only 50%. In the South, only Virginia, Florida and Texas gave Reagan more than 50%. Carter won Georgia, and his other Southern losses were by less than five points.

The Republican realignment of the South appeared back on track when in the next two elections Democrats nominated Northerners and performed worse in the South than the nation overall. Then Bill Clinton came along, and like Carter, he reversed the trend. In 1992 he won his state of Arkansas and Al Gore’s Tennessee, along with Louisiana and Georgia, and came within five points everywhere else except South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi. In 1996 he lost Georgia but picked up Florida, and was within seven points in the rest of the South. And because the Perot vote was much less in the South than elsewhere, even where he lost by solid margins, his share of the vote was within a few points of his national percentage.

Although he got more votes than George W Bush in Florida, Southerner Al Gore lost the entire South. It was the first time since Reconstruction that a Southern Democrat lost a presidential race. But it was also the only time both parties had nominated Southerners.  Despite being born in Greenwich Connecticut, where his grandfather was a Senator, George W. Bush was the first Republican presidential or VP candidate raised in a Confederate state. In 2004, when he lost by two points nationally, John Kerry lost Florida by five and Virginia by eight; every other state went for Bush by over ten points. In the post-George W elections Obama won in Southern states with large percentages of African Americans, immigrants and transplanted Northerners–Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. But with no Southerners on the ballot, the rest of the South reverted to the pattern, giving Obama over 10% less of the vote than he got nationally.

Which brings us back to Mr Herrington. I can’t prove which values are cherished by Mr. Herrington that he believes have been abandoned by post-Bill Clinton Democrats. But, if not for him specifically, for many Southerners like him there are two obvious possibilities.

First, within the South, the Democratic party is no longer seen as a white party, or even a white party with some blacks. It’s seen as a black party. Since Bill Clinton left state politics in Arkansas, the rise of majority-minority districts, and the fading white loyalty to economically populist but socially conservative white Democrats, has resulted in many more black Democrats holding office, far fewer white Democrats, and the white vote largely being Republican now even for local and state legislative races. In most of the South more Democratic votes come from black voters than from white voters. The party that tries to keep black Southerners from voting and exercising power is no longer the Democratic party, it is the Republican party. And whether they consider it a feature or a bug, white Southerners are more than willing to vote for Republicans trying to restore a modicum of the white dominance they enjoyed prior to federal intervention to enforce civil (and voting) rights.

The other big change in the Democratic party since Bill Clinton is seen by looking at presidential elections back to 1924. The change is rooted in what for many native-born white southerners an unchanging priority that transcends partisanship: Southerners choose Southerners over Northerners for president, and if there are no Southerners, or both candidates are Southerners, they choose the candidate most inclined to support states’ rights, to speak of the federal government as a threat to the liberties of (white) Southerners, and to support breaching the wall between government and conservative evangelical protestantism. Today those candidates are always Republicans. And in Congressional and Senate races, the Republicans try to make the contest in to a proxy conflict between North and South.

They are Republicans, in fact, like Tom Cotton. Molly Ball’s terrific profile of Cotton describes Cotton’s rise from Arkansan farm boy whose parents supported Bill Clinton to an ideological warrior and frequent Mayflower Hotel dining partner of William Kristol, and the tensions between his ideological purity and the parochial (and perfectly reasonable) interests of Arkansans. Democrats and the Pryor campaign have hammered Cotton for voting to deny federal money for Arkansan hospitals and farmers. It’s a problem for Republican ideologues: it’s impossible for Republicans to maintain fiscal purity without eventually screwing over their states and districts.

Ideological purity (and the personal charm of a commissar) may keep Cotton from the Senate. But if he makes it, it will probably be by playing the Southern Card. Cotton justified his vote against Sandy relief as blunt sectionalism: “I don’t think Arkansas needs to bail out the Northeast.” Pryor, whose father was a popular Senator, emphasizes his bonds with Arkansans. Cotton is countering by equating Pryor with Barack Obama, which is probably also intended to keep discussion from his own connections to elite institutions and networks rooted in the North:

I heard this loathing for Obama frequently in several days traveling around Arkansas, often from voters who described themselves as lifelong or former Democrats. Some also were unimpressed by Cotton’s credentials: “I don’t have much in common with a Harvard lawyer,” said Jill Hatcher, a 48-year-old city councilwoman from Shannon Hills who nonetheless planned to vote for him. Judy Curry, a 68-year-old hairdresser from Pine Bluff and a Democrat of long standing, recoiled as if stung when I asked if she’d voted for Obama. “Heavens no,” she said, adding, “I don’t think he’s one of us Americans.” She had voted for Pryor in the past and thought he was someone who “works for the people,” but was reconsidering based on his support for Obamacare.

The ironies pile up. Mark Pryor–student at Little Rock Central High School, two-time graduate of the University of Arkansas, son of a popular Arkansas politician–has to take the focus off his ties to a black president from Chicago who’s seen by white Southerners as alien and hostile to their values. If he fails, Pryor will be defeated by a graduate of Harvard College and Law, whose career has been nurtured by Republican elites in Massachusetts, California and Washington DC. If he succeeds it will probably be with the help of a man many Arkansans see as one of them, as the quintessential Arkansan…even though he attended Georgetown, Oxford, Yale, now has an office in Harlem, a home in suburban New York, runs a foundation focused on matters beyond our borders and which takes him around the globe, and whose wife is the favorite for the 2016 Democratic nomination for President…but was defeated in 2008 by the black President that so many white Arkansas, even Democrats, revile.

The South is not destined to always and everywhere be dominated by fealty to “Southern values” too close to the values underlying Jim Crow. After all, Obama did win North Carolina once and nearly twice, Virginia is no longer a Republican stronghold, and Florida has voted for the Democrat in four of the last five presidential elections. The social and demographic changes that have made North Carolina and Virginia winnable for moderate and liberal Democrats may end the Republicans’ effortless dominance of Georgia and even South Carolina. Texas is becoming a more Southwestern than Southern state, where the key racial/cultural divide is not white/black but Gringo/Latino. But in the interior and Gulf South, what’s associated more with the North than the South, or is thought more pro-black than pro-white, will be seen by white Southerners as hostile to their Southern values. And while the party allegiances have changed over the last nearly 100 years, a core value of white Southerners is to be different from, block interference by, and thwart progress in the North.

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Shoddy Thinking & Fevered Churchillian Visions About Ukraine

[Update Below]

Obama isn’t doing enough to keep people in [Country X] from doing whatever they want to do in their country!

Every bad leader in the world is doing whatever he wants because Obama’s feckless!

If we’re not tough with [Foreign Leader], it will be just like Munich in 1938!

If you can learn to quickly fill in the blanks with current events, those comments will be much of what you’ll need to be a typical foreign policy pundit. And as Michael Cohen laid out a few days ago, you’d be showing you don’t understand the limits of US power, and that you approach foreign policy like it’s a board game. Cohen mentions several ways such rhetoric demonstrates fundamental misunderstandings of foreign policy, but he couldn’t mention them all. He did not, for instance, mention that pundits often fail to imagine multiple and possibly conflicting pressures or goals that could be motivating an actor. And if a pundit cannot imagine multiple causal factors, she probably also cannot understand that various states may prefer the same results, but because costs and benefits are proportional, they typically do not share the same willingness required to bring about the results they prefer.  These pundit failures are on full display in this New York Times piece published the same day as Cohen’s.

One could probably spend days discussing what’s wrong with Ben Judah’s op-ed. But almost everything wrong in the piece follows from what’s wrong with the first three sentences:

Russia and Ukraine are now at war. At least 2,200 people have died in the conflict; thousands more may die yet. The Western powers — America, Europe, NATO — now have no good options, but they cannot do nothing. President Vladimir V. Putin has left us with two dire choices, both fraught with risk: Either we arm Ukraine, or we force Kiev to surrender and let Mr. Putin carve whatever territories he wants into a Russian-occupied zone of “frozen conflict.”

The Western powers cannot do nothing? Of course they can do nothing. In fact, doing nothing militarily–neither giving material to Ukraine nor pressuring it to surrender–may be our best option.

Before arguing in favor of a strategy to respond to Putin’s actions in Ukraine, we should first try to figure out what he’s doing, and why. The crisis of legitimacy in Ukraine began in 2004, when Putin ham-handedly tried to install his puppet Viktor Yanokovych as President. Despite being bankrolled by Putin, Yanokovych’s team had to rig the election to give him a winning margin, leading to the Orange Revolution. Economic problems, poor governance, corruption and dysfunctional factional politics eventually undid the political coalition from the Orange Revolution, and Yanokovych finally did become President. But he so screwed things up that earlier this year he was overthrown, the second time Putin’s proxy failed to achieve Putin’s goals. Putin responded by seizing Crimea, and supporting rebellion in the ethnically Russian southeast part of Ukraine. But his separatist rebels, like Yanokovych before them, were failing: they were in danger of being defeated the Ukrainian military. Yet again, Putin’s Ukrainian proxies were incapable of achieving his objectives.

So Putin has been helping the rebels. But it is not, contrary to some pundits’ fevered blatherings, a 1939-style massive invasion, nor even a brutal suppression like Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968. There are probably only a few thousand Russian soldiers in non-Crimean Ukraine, and Putin even denies any of his forces are in Ukraine. Putin wants something, but there are few indications he wants to do it through a massive military action, which would be required to subdue a huge country of 45 million.

Putin tried to use Yanukovych to keep Ukraine out of NATO and the EU. He’s since tried to force the Ukrainian government to accept a kind of veto by the mostly ethnic Russian areas of the southeast. These aren’t expansionist moves. They’re more akin to imperial actions like the United States’ repeated military interventions in the Caribbean and Latin America. What Putin’s doing is not benign; it’s undoubtedly a bad development. But you can’t identify and assess options if you do not have good theories about what an antagonist is doing, why, and why it requires your response.

Judah’s piece reminded me of the Robert Benchley quip, that there are two classes of people in the world: Those who divide everybody into two classes of people, and those who don’t. Judah’s is a coarse binary approach, with Putin vs a monolithic Western powers, with their options being force the Ukrainians to surrender (which we would impose on the Ukrainians how? And to whom are they surrendering?), or we commit to a military confrontation (with the possibility of NATO troops in Kiev, Which. Is. A. Crazy. Idea.).

This gets us to the problem of costs, benefits and proportionality. The US, Europe and NATO share many of the same interests, but not not every interest is shared by all of us, and the effects of Russian actions or a war in Ukraine are different. Unlike many European countries, the US does not rely on Russian oil, and our banking system is not stuffed with Russian petrodollars. Exports to Russia are a very small part of our economy. We don’t share a border with Russia. Our government and political system isn’t endangered by democracy, transparency and the growth of civil society on our borders. We do not have to worry that Putin will aggressively assert that Russian forces must protect the Russians of Brighton Beach.

The US does share many interests and priorities with the EU and NATO countries. But the costs and tradeoffs are not the same. Choking off Russian oil sales would have a different effect in the US, where we don’t purchase much Russian oil, than in European countries that rely on Russian oil. On the other hand, tensions with Russia didn’t complicate Romania’s efforts to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, since unlike the US, Romania wasn’t the main player in that operation.  The costs to the western nations of putting economic and diplomatic pressure on Russia are not proportionally the same. And of course, flouting international standards like Putin has in Ukraine warrants a response, but that response should be proportional to the offense, and to the threat of further violations and dangers. Overreacting would be a grave mistake.

Thinking Putin has “left us” with only two choices is silly. Such thinking is amenable Churchillian bombast, but it’s usually just unimaginatively dumb. The world is complicated and contingent. There are many combinations of responses we can have to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. Distilling everything down to binaries and wiping out ambiguity may be a great way for an ambitious young writer to pose as a Very Serious Person, which in turn can get you a moment on the New York Times opinion pages. But the declarations that follow are awful advice for the conduct of foreign policy.

[Update 4:00 CDT]

 Whaddya know, as this piece was being finished, Putin announced terms for a cease fire in Eastern Ukraine. It may be a dubious offer–after all, what power does he have, if we take him at his word that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine, right?–but it’s strong evidence that while he’s not a force for good right now, he’s also probably doesn’t have any intentions of marching to Warsaw by way of Tallinn. [Note, btw, that in that article a rebel dismisses the cease fire talk, which is consistent with the idea that Putin has unreliable proxies. He’s probably has only loose control over the rebels, who are likely a melange of nationalists, miscreants and criminal mobsters.]

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