Thoughts on Life, Love, Politics, Hypocrisy and Coming Out in Mid-Life
Saturday, March 19, 2022
Republicans Continue to Put Party Over Country
Russian President Vladimir Putin is in trouble. Despite his limited gains on the ground in Ukraine, he is facing strategic defeat in a war that no one (including me) would have expected him to lose. . . . Only one military force in the world can save Putin from utter humiliation now: NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO intervention in Russia’s war on Ukraine could halt that country’s barbarous attacks. But it would mean war between Putin’s regime and the West, and this war would be such a gift to Putin that we should expect that he will soon do everything he can to provoke it.
The U.S. and Europe should resist such provocations. First and foremost, NATO intervention would help Putin by allowing him to rally his nation and impose even harsher measures to suffocate dissent.
Although some observers may believe that Putin would fold before he approaches the nuclear threshold, and others worry that even the smallest NATO action will inevitably spark World War III, such arguments at both extremes ignore the role of chance and risk.
The danger is not that the Russian war on Ukraine becomes a replay of 1939, in which a coalition must stop a mad dictator at all costs, but that a Russia-NATO war becomes a nuclear version of 1914, in which all the combatants would find themselves moving from a crisis none of them expected into a cataclysm none of them wanted.
Despite this dangerous reality, a column in the Washington Post by a former Republican stratgist predicts that Republicans seeking partisan advantage will push for more dangerous actions that could lead to a nightmare senario. Here are excerpts:
The American politics of Russia’s war on Ukraine look calm on the surface but are about to get ugly. Republicans slapped blue-and-yellow flag pins on their Jos. A. Bank suits and took a short break from anti-vaccine bleating and blaming President Biden for global inflation. This moment of unity looked promising; who could miss all those congressional Republicans cheering as loudly as Democrats during Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to Congress?
It cannot last. Republican leaders are desperately trying to find a weak spot in Biden’s handling of this war. Even if there is unity for a moment, they will soon lay any mistake, or misstep, or outcome where the Russians prevail at Biden’s doorstep.
If that sounds cynical, I would ask: Have you met my former party?It wants to play the most beloved game in the GOP playbook: that the Democrats are weak on defense. In my decades as a GOP ad maker and strategist, I made some pretty notorious ads about it. And I can tell you they work.
Republicans specialize at turning Democratic successes overseas into disasters. It’s a slow-burn strategy designed to trigger an outrage culture that doesn’t stop at the water’s edge. GOP leaders don’t care about reality; their audience doesn’t care about the truth, and their political media apparatus always stays on message.
Donald Trump bungled the 2020 negotiations ending the war in Afghanistan, freeing the Taliban at scale and setting a date certain for U.S. withdrawal. When Biden stuck with that commitment to exit, Republicans leveraged the inevitable chaos in Kabul into a cataclysmic political fable; if only the weak Democrats had held on for another year, victory was ensured.
Similarly, the terrorist attack on the Benghazi facilities in 2012 was another faux scandal-in-a-box . . . I distinctly recall being in a focus group that year and watching the pollster tease from participants how Benghazi could be used to offset the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden under Barack Obama and transformed into a political millstone for Hillary Clinton.
The go-to notion that “Democrats have endangered your family” in every international moment from Vietnam to 9/11 is not about altering Democratic foreign policy or improving our national security; it is about peeling off White, working-class (and lately, Hispanic working-class) voters and turning them into reliable Republicans. The idea that Democrats are overcommitted to diplomacy and international institutions became standard GOP messaging long ago.
[T]he GOP will soon try to flank Biden on Ukraine. Some, like Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), will try to box him in on a no-fly zone — ignoring the negative externality of a nuclear exchange — while others will push him further than he wants on lethal aid to Ukraine. Win or lose, the GOP will declare that Biden blew his main chance.
But let’s also be honest about the landscape: A not-so-secret faction of the GOP is rooting for the bad guys in this one. We’ve already heard that from the Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) wing of the party. Many Republican base voters are dictator-curious and believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is the savior of White, straight, law-and-order Christianity; the virus of Trumpian hyper-nationalism . . . . has deeply infected the GOP.
Not long ago, the two parties worked together to face down, contain and repudiate Russian aggression and Moscow’s oppression of free peoples. From Truman to Eisenhower, from JFK to Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the Soviets respected American resolve. A few Republicans might yet hear the call to that unity in the face of Putin’s war, aware that Biden is leading the fight about the shape of the world in the coming century.
But if you think the majority of today’s GOP will leave politics at the water’s edge much longer, think again.
Friday, March 18, 2022
Russia's Military Failures Make Putin More Dangerous
Put it all together, and it’s clear the war has been devastating to Russia — and perhaps crippling to Putin. Crucial to a despot’s grip on power is the perception of strength. Like absolute kings centuries ago, modern tyrants rely on elites and the wider public believing they can do no wrong. Their rule cannot be questioned because they must present themselves as critical to the survival of the country.
As Hal Brands and John Lewis Gaddis wrote for Foreign Affairs magazine last year, it is “the claim to infallibility on which legitimacy in an autocracy must rest.” They added: “That is why graceful exits by authoritarians have been so rare.”
Indeed, the revelation of Russia’s military ineptitude and the total failure to achieve his aims makes negotiating an end to the hostilities difficult for Putin. The worse his conduct becomes, the harder it is to “give” him something for the sake of reaching a peace deal. After weeks of Russian attacks on civilians, it’s inconceivable he could escape accountability for war crimes witnessed by the entire planet. Likewise, giving in to his demand that Ukraine forswear its ability to ally itself with the West would be a horrid betrayal of the heroic efforts of Ukrainians.
This is precisely why U.S. intelligence officials expect that Putin will become increasingly desperate and reassert his aggression. Beth Sanner, a former top intelligence official, recently told the New York Times, "It wasn’t a cakewalk for Putin and now he has no choice but to double down. This is what autocrats do. You cannot walk away or you look weak.” Ironically, Putin’s abject failure and international humiliation may pose the greatest barrier to ending his terribly miscalculated war. It’s hard to give a war criminal an “off-ramp.”
The second Post column looks at the dangers the world faces because of Putin's madness:
This was Volodymyr Zelensky’s week. . . . . Zelensky has taken the West with him, emotionally, to the barricades of Kyiv. He evokes the idealism of the popular uprisings that swept Europe in the 19th century and inspired Victor Hugo’s classic novel, “Les Miserables.” We know the rousing chorus of the musical version: “Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men? It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again!”
But this isn’t a musical. And it would be a mistake not to cast a cold, unsentimental eye at the Ukraine crisis before it damages the world irreparably. Even as we try to support Zelensky and his noble fight against Russian President Vladimir Putin, we should understand the dangers ahead.
Here’s a summary of what I’ve gathered from recent conversations with people who are watching the Ukraine war as closely and rationally as possible:
The longer this war continues, the more dangerous it will become. Russia will bleed out, in the corpses of its invaders and the ruin of its economy. The world will cheer. But as this process continues, a desperate Putin may become more likely to escalate this crisis toward a world war. A combination of military pressure and diplomacy that presses Putin toward a settlement is in everyone’s interest. Compromises will be anguishing but necessary.
Putin’s military failures have been exhilarating to watch. The bad guy seems to be losing. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. Putin’s menace increases at home and abroad as he is cornered. It was chilling to watch his rant Wednesday against Russian “scum and traitors” that oppose him. The intelligence services of every rational country on the planet should consider ways to reduce Putin’s unchecked power before he moves from nasty bully to mass murderer.
The Ukraine war’s creepiest byproduct is its demonstration of the utility of nuclear weapons. NATO isn’t intervening directly in this war with a no-fly zone because Russia has 4,000 nuclear weapons. It’s that simple. And let’s be honest: Would Putin have invaded if Ukraine had kept its nuclear arsenal back in 1994, when the United States pressed it to disarm? I doubt it. The lesson won’t be lost on Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea — go down the list. This war might prove the greatest stimulus to nuclear proliferation in history.
Russia’s invasion has also shown that a nuclear power can engage in vicious regional aggression without paying the most severe price. America and its NATO allies are deterred in this conflict, but Russia isn’t. The paradox of our restraint is that it enables the unrestrained. Somehow, the balance of deterrence must be restored.
President Biden and his allies should begin planning for the endgame of this war. Putin doesn’t have a plan, but neither does the West. What’s needed is an architecture of security so that neither Russia nor Ukraine feels threatened. Putin kept telling us for 15 years that there was trouble ahead; he meant it.
Russia will be in disarray after this war, politically and economically. It will be tempting to let that mess fester, especially if Russia continues to occupy parts of Ukraine. But beware: As bad as Putin has been, there are future versions of Russian despotism that could be even more destabilizing for Europe. A punitive peace after the horrors of World War I spawned the nightmare of Nazi Germany. Russia is in radical decline; we are watching, in effect, the second fall of the Soviet Union. Beware the dangers as Russia crumbles.
The Ukraine war may be just a rehearsal for a more ruinous conflict to come. That was the case with the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905; the world assumed that Russia would sweep to a quick victory, but its poor performance prefigured the fall of the czarist monarchy and was in many ways a prelude to World War I. Many of the most hideous features of 1914 had a trial run in 1905.
Diplomacy may seem irrelevant at a moment when Russian bombs are falling on Ukrainian maternity hospitals and opera houses. Zelensky needs more weapons to fight back against a tyrant — and pressure Russia to accept a cease-fire. But Zelensky’s allies should also be thinking about how to put the pieces back together when this war ends.
Be very worried about where this all could lead given Putin;s apparent insanity and poor judgment.
Thursday, March 17, 2022
Boycott The Businesses Supporting Putin's War
In his gut-wrenching address to Congress, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked the United States for more — and more he will get.
U.S. leaders across the spectrum saluted Zelensky after he spoke to them Wednesday from Kyiv in his olive-drab T-shirt — part Winston Churchill and part Che Guevara. For all the cheap politics of the moment (Republicans reflexively blaming President Biden and refusing to applaud when Zelensky thanked Biden), Washington is uncommonly unified in purpose.
But Zelensky made another ask on Wednesday morning, and it’s something all Americans can help with. We can stop buying the products of businesses that continue to fund Vladimir Putin’s war machine, even after its full horrors — indiscriminately targeting civilians, murdering children — are obvious to the world.
“All American companies must leave Russia. … Leave their market immediately, because it is flooded with our blood,” the young leader said, asking lawmakers “to make sure that the Russians do not receive a single penny that they use to destroy our people in Ukraine, the destruction of our country, the destruction of Europe. … Peace is more important than income.”
Most American companies get that. Some 400 U.S. and other multinational firms have pulled out of Russia, either permanently or temporarily, according to Yale’s Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, who has kept the authoritative list of corporate actions in Russia. Oil companies (BP, Shell, ExxonMobil) and tech companies (Dell, IBM, Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter) led the way, and many others (McDonald’s, Starbucks, Coca-Cola) eventually followed.
But, according to Sonnenfeld, there are, at the other extreme, 33 companies (as of Wednesday afternoon) that form a “hall of shame,” defying demands that they exit Russia or reduce their activities there.
“The whole idea is to freeze up civil society, to get people out on the streets and outraged. They’re undermining an effective resolution” and increasing the likelihood of continued bloodshed.
Those who want to stop Russia’s murderous attack against Ukraine should stop investing in or buying the products of these companies.
Koch Industries, whose owners gave to right-wing causes for years, is now financing Putin’s war. The people who make Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups, Quilted Northern toilet paper, Vanity Fair napkins and Georgia-Pacific lumber are abetting the spilling of Ukrainians’ blood.
Like Reebok shoes? They’re being used to stomp on Ukraine. Authentic Brands Group, which also owns Aeropostale, Eddie Bauer, Brooks Brothers and Nine West, among others, is in the hall of shame.
Before you bite into a Cinnabon (or Carvel ice cream, Schlotzsky’s sandwich or Auntie Anne’s pretzel) consider that parent company Focus Brands is taking a bite out of democracy in Ukraine.
So is Subway. . . . . Several other household brands — Truvia and Diamond Crystal salt (Cargill), Avon cosmetics (Natura), LG appliances, ASUS laptops, Mission tortillas (Gruma) and Pirelli tires — are produced by companies on the shameful list.
Are you or your mutual fund invested in Halliburton, Baker Hughes or Schlumberger? Then you should know that these oil-services companies could deal a huge blow to Putin’s ability to wage war — but they choose profit instead.
An additional 72 multinationals have made only partial pullbacks from Russia, such as reducing current operations or holding off on new investments — actions Sonnenfeld calls “very questionable” and “smokescreens.” Included here: Dunkin Donuts, General Mills, Mondelez (Oreos and other Nabisco products), candymaker Mars, Procter & Gamble, Yum Brands (Pizza Hut, Taco Bell), Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott.
All these businesses could be doing more to stop Putin’s savagery and war crimes. Because they won’t, we all should do more to stop them. Go to Sonnenfeld’s website via Yale’s School of Management to make sure you aren’t funding the businesses that are funding Putin’s war machine — and reward the vast majority of companies that share Zelensky’s belief that peace is more important than profit.
Wednesday, March 16, 2022
Tuesday, March 15, 2022
Putin Should Be Tried for War Crimes
Almost three weeks into Russian President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine, harrowing images of bloodied pregnant women and children emerging from an obliterated hospital in Mariupol have shocked the world. Congress is now considering a resolution to investigate the Russian invaders for possible war crimes.
In an email interview with CNN Opinion, Michael A. Newton, an expert on war crimes, argues that such an investigation is justified due to the attacks on civilians.
He is a professor of the practice of law and professor of the practice of political science at Vanderbilt University. Newton served as the senior adviser to the Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the US State Department from 1999 to 2002.
According to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, a war crime is any act by which combatants and commanders fail to ensure respect for the civilian population, or illegally subject civilian objects to hostilities. Many other duties flow from this baseline, such as warning civilian populations "unless circumstances do not permit" and obligations to take "all feasible precautions" to minimize harm to civilian lives or property.
War crimes law relies on the foundational principle that fighters must "at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants -- and between civilian objects and military objectives, and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives."
The laws of war apply in Ukraine because the Russian invasion is real. Despite the Russian label of the war as a "special military operation," the Geneva Conventions on armed conflicts apply "even if the state of war is not recognized" by Russian officials.
A record 41 other states have asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to formally investigate crimes committed inside Ukraine because there is "reasonable basis" to believe that Russian forces are committing war crimes.
The list of possible charges grows daily. Karim Khan, the ICC prosecutor, observed that "if attacks are intentionally directed against the civilian population: that is a crime. If attacks are intentionally directed against civilian objects: that is a crime. ... There is no legal justification, there is no excuse, for attacks which are indiscriminate, or which are disproportionate in their effects on the civilian population."
Attacks aimed at demoralizing civilians are war crimes because civilian morale is never a legitimate military target. . . . Targeting of humanitarian convoys or relief operations providing food, water and medicine may constitute the crime of intentionally using starvation as a method of warfare.
Prosecution of Russian leaders, oligarchs and commanders for crimes in Ukraine must be a "whole of the Free World" approach. Brave Ukrainian lawyers are doing their part, and we should support them.
American leadership provides the centripetal force to consolidate documentation efforts and incorporate the rapidly coalescing array of private documentation efforts. Investigations will also provide corroborating evidence to refute Russian propaganda and legal distortions.
Russian commanders, oligarchs and leaders may be prosecuted for ordering, committing or assisting war crimes. The law of command responsibility also criminalizes those who "knew or should have known" of crimes and failed to take necessary and reasonable measures to discipline the forces under their "effective control."
The judges of each case assess the legal basis for every charge. Because the Geneva Conventions grant broad criminal jurisdiction to sovereign states, domestic officials may prosecute war criminals found on their territory, too.
The ICC treaty permits charges against senior leaders because it applies "equally to all persons without any distinction based on official capacity." It adds that a person's capacity as head of state does not exempt them from criminal responsibility.
Russian leaders should feel deep disquiet in the face of a deeply entrenched body of precedents since the Second World War.
Prosecuting those responsible for crimes committed in Ukraine conforms with patterns of international criminal justice that include many defendants who thought that they were above the law. . . . . We should instead work with our EU allies and/or the UN to establish a "New Nuremberg" empowered to adjudicate aggression-based offenses -- minus Russian judges of course.
The United States has a moral imperative to help Ukraine win the war that Russia brought to its citizenry. As the ICC came into existence, American diplomats promised that the US would not "retreat from its leadership role in the promotion of international justice and the rule of law." We must uphold that promise.
Indeed, coordinated efforts to restore the rule of law are necessary to augment financial sanctions. . . . . In upholding the law of war, our efforts will reclaim the initiative from the Russian aggressors. We must stand fast in upholding professional military norms and reinforcing the laws and customs of warfare.