Never Quite in Charge

Any movie with Mel Brooks as King Louis XVI is bound to be good, even if his 1981 History of the World, Part I was a bit of a mess. Maybe it was supposed to be a mess, because the world is a mess and always has been a mess, but Brooks gets to deliver that one line everyone remembers from that elaborate bagatelle – “It’s good to be the king!”

It was, but only for a short time. The peasants revolted of course, and then it wasn’t good to be the king at all, and of course Brooks was doing a goof on the persistent notion that those in charge always seem to have, the idea that they’re actually in charge. They aren’t. Things don’t work that way, which was the whole point of that movie, and probably the basis for all comedy. Still, people don’t get the joke. Think about it. Every worker in America ends up fantasizing about being the boss, or being his or her own boss. As boss, they could do things right for a change. They could force others to do things right too.

That would be so cool, and then the inevitable promotions come along and that worker ends up in management with Mel Brooks giggling in the background. Damn. You can’t do what you want – there are cost and schedule restraints, and the market for your goods or services can suddenly turn elsewhere for better or cheaper stuff – and those who work for you don’t seem to be doing quite what you want, as they have ideas of their own, or personal issues. Fine – that happens. But fire them, and replace them with folks who are more submissive and compliant, and in a few months you’ll discover that those who seemed refreshingly submissive and compliant quickly turned out to be just as pesky as those you showed the door. There’s no winning. It’s not good to be king. That was the joke all along. People should pay more attention to Mel Brooks.

Dick Cheney and William Kristol and the rest of the remaining neoconservatives, and John McCain and the rest of the Republicans, should pay more attention to Mel Brooks. Their notion seems to be that if Obama is the boss he should act like one – he should slap down Putin for his nonsense in the Crimea and now eastern Ukraine, even if it means war – and he should have slapped down Assad in Syria, and told Malaki we were keeping our troops in Iraq no matter what Malaki or any of his folks said, and we should say the same to whoever ends up running Afghanistan now, and we should stop those talks with Iran on ending their nuclear weapons program, if that’s what it is. Tell them to stop it or we’ll nuke them to make them stop it – plain and simple.

That’s what leadership is, even if it means war again, or many wars again. Maybe no one wants another war or two, or three or four, but Kristol has said that a real leader would rally the nation to the great cause – every single young man in America, or every young single man in America, would drop everything and run off to enlist. Obama can’t do that because he’s a weak leader – he doesn’t know how to bend people to his will. He doesn’t know how to be boss. He’s hopeless. Dick Cheney’s new career is telling America just that – repeatedly saying that Obama is the weakest president he has seen in his lifetime – and this had made America weak. No nation will bend to our will any longer.

This notion took some odd turns last year, with Mitt Romney saying that Vladimir Putin is a far better president that Obama could ever be – then walking that back, and he certainly hasn’t said that lately. His point, however, was clear. Real leaders are bold. They do what they want and take what they want and set things right, no matter who is whining about what. Not that long ago that was the buzz – the American people agreed that Putin was cool, a great leader, and Obama was hopeless. Putin even sent the gay folks off to Siberia. He’s even a better Christian than Obama is, if Obama is even a Christian.

No one is saying that now, after Putin’s guys in eastern Ukraine shot down that passenger jet and killed three hundred men and women and (lots of) children, but that talk was in the air not so long ago, and that’s always been in the air. Back in 2006, when Iraq was falling apart, John McCain, in Manhattan for an exclusive fundraiser, explained what a real leader would do about that:

In a small, mirror-paneled room guarded by a Secret Service agent and packed with some of the city’s wealthiest and most influential political donors, Mr. McCain got right to the point.

“One of the things I would do if I were President would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, ‘Stop the bullshit,'” said Mr. McCain, according to Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi, an invitee, and two other guests.

Hey, when you’re Boss of the World, when you’re in charge of things, they’d have to stop the bullshit. They’d have no choice, and now those on the right are saying the same sort of thing. Obama should tell Putin to stop the bullshit in eastern Ukraine, and tell Hamas to stop the bullshit in Gaza and just let the Israelis have it all and do what they want, and also tell Iran to stop their bullshit with those nuclear reactors and all those centrifuges, and as for Sunnis these days, Obama should just tell ISIS to stop their bullshit about building an new Islamic Sunni caliphate in the middle of a lot of actual countries over there. In short, show some leadership. Take charge. Be a man. It’s all very simple. They’d have to be submissive and compliant. They’d have no choice.

Mel Brooks is still giggling, because it really isn’t good to be king. Take charge and resentments grow and grow, until they explode, and you’re never really in charge anyway. Even last year’s hero on the right, Vladimir Putin, is finding that out. Things turned on him:

As a military trumpet sounded in tribute, the first bodies of victims from the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash arrived in the Netherlands on Wednesday after an airborne journey from Ukraine.

Sixteen coffins were aboard a Dutch military flight and 24 aboard an Australian jet, both of which left the northeast Ukrainian city of Kharkiv after a solemn ceremony. They landed a couple of hours later at Amsterdam’s small Eindhoven airport to a somber reception from King Willem-Alexander, Queen Maxima, Prime Minister Mark Rutte and others.

Black hearses pulled up on the tarmac to receive the coffins. A moment of silence was observed.

Wednesday was an official day of mourning in the Netherlands, with bells tolling throughout the country at various times of the day. Flags on all Dutch government buildings and diplomatic missions around the world were ordered to fly at half-staff.

These are the first of the hundreds of bodies that will be arriving and this is not what Putin intended. There weren’t supposed to be all these dead kids. He was the bold guy who took Crimea, because he could, and was going to take eastern Ukraine, and he would be awesome and make Obama look like a fool. His daughter lives in the Netherlands and now they want to deport her – they know what happened. They cannot do anything about him, but they don’t have to host this jerk’s daughter. Their own kids are dead.

Louis XVI eventually faced the same thing. Eventually it’s not good to be king, and at Business Insider, Bill Nichols explains the new panic in the Kremlin:

The one emotion most of us who study Russia never associate with the men of the Kremlin is panic. They’re not the type. They’re more like mobsters, prone to say “we have a problem,” rather than to freak out.

They think everything has a solution, although sometimes that solution might mean someone has to take nine grams of lead behind the ear.

They do not raise their voices – my experience is that most Russian tough-guys are mumblers, not yellers – and they get things done, even if the final outcome might lack a certain, say, elegance.

That’s why it’s unusual to see the government of Vladimir Putin, and maybe even Putin himself, panicking over the downing of Malaysian Airline Flight 17. For the first time in a long time, maybe even since Putin’s first election to power, the Russian regime has a problem it cannot solve, one that will cost the Kremlin in both money and reputation.

They were in charge, chipping away at Ukraine without leaving any fingerprints, but that’s changed now:

We have a mountain of evidence that the Russians were up to their necks in this. The BUK is a Russian system, found in both Ukraine and Russia, but it looks like the Russians brought some over the border, along with Russian military intelligence guys – the men actually running this “partition Ukraine” operation – and they taught some of the locals, including transplanted mercenary “separatists,” how to use them. The thing is, the BUK is really too complicated to use without adult supervision, and that’s especially true of a battery.

And now we get to the panic. Evidence is mounting not only that the BUK that killed MH17 came from Russia, but that the firing on the airliner was either supervised or ordered, or even operated, by Russian personnel.

If this is the case, the “lone rebel with an itchy trigger finger” theory goes out the window, and the “Russia is running a reckless and undeclared air war inside Ukraine” theory comes into sharp focus. Suddenly, an act of terrorism becomes an act of interstate war, directed with subterfuge and deniability… with the goal of dismembering the Ukrainian state.

Nichols imagines the briefings Putin got:

No, Mr. President, we will sweep any Ukrainian military jets from the sky. Yes, Mr. President, we will control their airspace, and paralyze them, until they accept partition, as we did with Crimea. No, Mr. President, we are professionals and there is no chance of error or detection. We have trained to fight Americans. This will be a piece of cake. …

And then a few weeks later, some somber-looking, sorry bastard walks in and says: Sir, we have a problem…

It was our stuff. Our missile. Our goons. Commanded by our officers. Yes, we’ve been caught on camera. Yes, there was some clumsiness on social media. No, we have not allowed anyone near the crash site, but we can’t hold it off forever. The men involved are in hiding. Except Strelkov, who has said the plane was full of dead bodies. (He freelanced that one, sir.)

How far does this go, Mr. President? Well, sir – and here the aide might shuffle some papers uncomfortably to avoid noting that the orders came from the very top – we can deny it all, but sooner or later the trail leads back through military intelligence to special channels in the military, to special channels here in the President’s office, to… well, you know…

The game is up, and Nichols is not surprised by their next steps:

Put out the story that Ukraine was responsible. Suggest the plane was off course and thus imply it was doing something nefarious. (Didn’t we work that angle in the 1983 crash?) Pledge our cooperation, but tell those idiots in Donetsk we want the black boxes in Moscow immediately. Don’t talk to the Western press. Send Churkin to take his obligatory ass-whipping from Sam Power…

But most importantly, keep doubling-down on everything.

Make sure the crash site belongs to us and no one else. Obfuscate as much as possible about who was doing what, and where. Suggest the Ukraine military planned this all along. See if you can dig up old stories about that Iranian plane the Americans hit, what was it? Iran 655? Yeah, work that for a while.

Yeah, we sort of did do the same thing in 1988 – we accidentally shot down a passenger plan and killed almost exactly the same number of people – but this is different. Nichols says the Russians’ mistake is a little different:

Panic in Moscow is hard to spot, but even from 6000 miles away, it’s easy to smell, and the metallic stink of fear is rising off the palace offices of the Russian executive as if from the gurneys in a cancer ward on the morning of an operation.

The only question, really, is how far Putin wants to go toward a trade war, economic collapse, further status as a pariah, maybe even open war, only in order to save face. The conventional wisdom is that he has to cut the insurgency loose.

Maybe. But if he doesn’t want to, he may settle for leaving a grinding conflict in place for now, in which he will claim that any real investigation and closure is impossible. He can then place his hopes in the West’s short attention span, and wait until all this blows over.

It won’t blow over:

I suspect the investigation, the tick-tock of the moments before the BUK fire, is already clear enough and widely distributed enough that we have the complete case against the “separatists” with a bill of particulars that stretches right to the rug in front of Putin’s desk.

And he knows it, and he knows that we know it. And until he finds a way to square this circle, panic – and more death – will be the order of the day.

Actually, all the signs are that he now knows he has lost control over the guys fighting his clever separatist war eastern Ukraine – those guys won’t even listen to him now. He’s not the good guy now and not even in control of things. Panic might be appropriate, but things had been going so well. Drat. It’s good to be king? That’s a joke.

The same sort of thing is happening in Gaza. The Israelis are in charge and they’ve had just about enough of Hamas, and they have all the power to wipe them out, and will do so. Their modern military is ten thousand times stronger than whatever ragtag crap that Hamas can come up with – mostly lots of high-trajectory missiles, ballistic missiles not guided missiles, rockets really, that can’t hit a damned thing except by chance, and ambushes and an occasional bomb in a café or bus. This will also be a piece of cake, although what has happened so far makes Israel seem like bullies. They do have the right to protect themselves – but the kill-ratio looks bad. That runs about two hundred to one, and there are too many dead Palestinian kids. It’s hard to get warm fuzzy feelings about Israeli heroes when four kids are blown away while playing soccer on a beach, or they blow up a Palestinian hospital. At least they don’t shoot down passenger planes, but they’re not as in charge there as they think they are.

Zack Beauchamp in this item takes a look at Israel’s new strategy in Gaza, based on the idea that “Israel would have to live with a certain level of threat but would use its military to occasionally weaken those threats and ensure they didn’t ever reach truly existential proportions.”

Beauchamp sees some flaws in that:

Obviously, Israel recognizes that the threats from groups like the Gaza-based militant group Hamas aren’t the same as the Cold War-era threats it faced from Arab invasions. So it’s developed a new version of its long-held threat management strategy, which is often called “mowing the grass.” It’s a pretty creepy term, as it implies that periodically killing people is the same as keeping your lawn groomed. But that’s the basic analogy: Hamas, like grass, can’t disappear, but it can be regularly cut down to size. And, like mowing the grass, it’s implied that this is a routine that will be continued forever.

According to Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir, Israeli academics based at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, the basic difference between “mowing the grass” and Israel’s old strategy is that the end-goal has changed. In the era of wars with Arab conventional armies, Israel hoped that eventually “a long and violent struggle, punctuated by decisive battlefield victories, could eventually lead Arab states to accept the notion of Israel’s permanence.” In other words, Israel believed that its threat-management strategy would eventually lead to peace, which in cases such as Egypt it did.

Israel does not believe the same thing today about applying this strategy to non-state militant groups. Israel sees Hamas and other militants as “implacable enemies, who want to destroy the Jewish state and there is very little Israel can do on the political front to mitigate this risk.”

Fine, but “mowing the grass” will not make Israel safe:

Israel’s approach to Arab states worked, after a fashion, because it accomplished critical political ends. Some of Israel’s greatest enemies, such as Egypt and Jordan, gave up on the quest to destroy Israel. They’ve even signed peace treaties with Israel, making the Jewish state far more secure than it was during the Cold War.

But there’s no equivalent political endgame in mind here. Israel has no vision for how to “solve” the Hamas problem, which means rocket fire and periodic crises are inevitable for the foreseeable future. In both 2009 and 2012, Israel fought similar wars against Hamas, both designed to stop rocket fire out of Gaza. Yet here we are today.

In the New York Times, Gershon Baskin argues they got it wrong, because there is no military solution here:

The underground bunkers are protecting the Hamas leadership and its military commanders. Those taking the hits are the Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Not a single important Hamas commander has been killed, but hundreds of civilians have paid with their lives. … The Hamas regime can be brought down by Israel; Israel has the capabilities to do this. But it will require a full reoccupation of Gaza for an extended period of time and in the end, I fear the Israeli victory in Gaza will look very much like the victory of George W. Bush over Saddam Hussein – and look at Iraq today.

Wait! George Bush was a “strong” president. He did what he wanted – damn the Geneva Conventions and international law. Could it be that that’s foolish? Don’t tell Dick Cheney.

Also in the New York Times, Daniel Levy argues that there always has been an alternative to Israeli big-stick strength:

Perhaps start by not denying another people’s rights in perpetuity, including the right to self-determination. Reverse the current incentive structure that reciprocates both Fatah demilitarization and Hamas cease-fires with variations on an Israeli brand of deepening occupation. There is no military solution, but Israel’s government refuses any political solution – neither it nor the governing Likud Party have ever voted to accept a Palestinian state. Hamas’s non-recognition of Israel is troubling, and so should this be.

Humans do not respond well to humiliation, repression and attempts to deny their most basic dignity. Palestinians are human. Palestinians will find ways to resist – that is human – and sometimes that resistance will be armed. … What would you do under such circumstances? Start by treating the Palestinians as humans, as you yourself would wish to be treated.

That would be a start, but Alex Massie suggests that might be impossible:

Israel’s tragedy – or rather, one strand of the several tragedies threatening Israel – is that it feels obliged to follow a course of action in which it cannot quite believe. It must do something, make some response to Palestinian provocation even though any such response offers at best a period of temporary relief and, quite probably, will make matters worse in the longer-term. But what else can she do? Doing nothing is not an option either.

The rockets fired from Gaza are a kind of trap. Hamas knows that and so does Israel and so do all the rest of us. But Israel will fight anyway because it cannot avoid doing so even though if fights on ground that is not of its choosing and on terrain upon which, in terms of international opinion, it cannot possibly win. It is futile and counter-productive and unavoidable.

It’s the trap of not being in control when, given who has what capabilities, you should be. That’s not fair and that’s not right, but Andrew Sullivan is not cutting Israel any slack here:

Hamas did not initiate this round of conflict. Netanyahu used the murder of three Israeli teens by a splinter Hamas group often at odds with Hamas proper to sweep across the West Bank, and imprisoning countless Hamas operatives and supporters who had nothing to do with the horrible crime. And he did so while suppressing the full facts at his disposal and whipping up the Israeli populace to a Putinesque degree. Equally, Israel is not a victim when it comes to the settlements. It can choose to end them but has instead chosen to accelerate them as its most important priority. This empowers Hamas as much as it undermines Abbas.

Those in power in Israel have always had these choices. They still do. They had a super-power willing and able to hold their hands through the entire process and an international community committed to Israel’s security in return for some basic equity for the Palestinians. Netanyahu didn’t only say no; he did all he could to humiliate president Obama and even back his opponent in 2012.

This cul-de-sac has always been a choice. And I’m tired of finding excuses for the inexcusable crime of the settlements – a permanent and constant provocation every day.

Now imagine Mel Brooks strutting around in that movie, in his powder wig and velvet pantaloons, blurting out that it’s good to be king. Now imagine Netanyahu doing the same thing, and Putin doing the same thing. It is the same thing. Now pretend it’s a comedy. That’s the hard part.

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One Nit Successfully Picked

By all accounts Ronald Reagan was a pleasant fellow, and he was thoroughly sincere about what he believed without being a jerk about it, at least too often. Those who thought that what he believed was dangerous nonsense still liked that man. Tip O’Neill, a Democrat’s Democrat, stalwart friend of the unions and the poor working stiff who was never going to get rich, got along famously with Reagan. They were two Irishmen of the American sort – full of bluster and blarney and good humor. They could get things done on the side and then swap old stories over a few drinks, or more than a few drinks.

Reagan was, then, a good guy, a man’s man, and that goes a long way in national politics. Voters may not have paid close attention to what Reagan was actually proposing, but they never do pay attention to such things. They took the measure of the man and he would do just fine. In 1980, Reagan defeated the enigmatic Jimmy Carter easily, and in 1984 he wiped out Walter Mondale, carrying all but one state. Mondale carried only his home state of Minnesota (by 3,800 votes) and the District of Columbia – that was it. But this wasn’t surprising. As usual, and is always the case, the two Democrats insisted on talking about policy, and what needed to be done and could be done, and what we shouldn’t be doing at all. Reagan smiled. His message was simple. You know me. I’m a good guy. There was no arguing with that, and now, to everyone on the right, he is that on iconic heroic figure from the past, the man who got everything right and convinced America that it was right.

That’s odd, because Reagan, who hated the whole idea of taxes, which led to big government doing things the private sector should be doing, raised taxes several times, out of necessity, and his deficit spending on the military made the deficit grow enormously. His virulent anticommunism, which had to do with being strong and never giving an inch, was impressive, but at his summit with Gorbachev in Reykjavik he almost reached an agreement to have both the Soviets and us get rid of all nuclear weapons of any sort, finally settling for an agreement for both sides to get rid of a lot of them. Reagan wasn’t a tax-and-spend Democrat or a peace-and-love hippie, but these things happened. They are left out of the grand narrative about the guy, and the angry old white Tea Party crowd, who want the government to keep its hands off “their” Medicare, tend to forget that 1961 LP Reagan made, financed by the American Medical Association, of a speech he often gave that was all about how Medicare, if passed, would be the end of America as we know it – “We are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”

In 1980, Jimmy Carter called him out on that. Reagan bumbled about and finally said he never opposed Medicare, really – old folks should be cared for by this sort of program – but he was lying. The evidence was there, on vinyl. He hated the idea of social insurance, a government safety net for everyone who is foolish enough to get old without being smart enough to get rich. If that happened, well, that was their problem. What about personal responsibility? We all should be free to succeed, or fail, and the consequences of either are ours alone. That’s what freedom is all about, and Medicare was socialized medicine. If it was passed, as it was four years later, our precious freedom would be gone forever.

Medicare actually was socialized medicine i a way, and our precious freedom wasn’t gone forever. Those over sixty-five ended up with a lot more freedom – they were free from worry about how the hell they’d be able pay for their inevitable increasing medical needs and still manage to live out their sunset years without ending up dead in the gutter next week. They were free to tell their children and their children’s children what it was like when few of those who somehow got old had any way to keep themselves relatively healthy, or even alive, way back when. They were also free, now that they had few worries about medical costs and had the free time to get involved in big issues, to tell everyone in sight that the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, would be the end of America as we know it. It was socialized medicine, of a sort, even if it was no more than a way to hook up those who need health insurance with private parties willing to sell it to them, providing a government subsidy for those who couldn’t pay what those private parties decided to charge, and setting minimum standards for what a health plan should cover. No matter – it was still wrong. What about personal responsibility? What about freedom? And what about the free market too? If enough people want something, the private sector will see those dollar signs and sell it to them. If there’s no money to be made insuring certain people, well, maybe it’s not worth doing. That’s how capitalism works. Health insurance should be market-based. The free market, through competition for what enough people want and are willing to pay for, will provide just that thing, and at the lowest cost and most efficiency, as private parties scramble to outdo each other to grab the few available dollars people are shoving at them to get what they want and need. Everyone wins. That’s our system, and the last thing we want is socialized medicine. What does the government know about medicine anyway?

These were the exact same arguments that their hero, Ronald Reagan, offered in his noble last plea not to pass anything like Medicare. Irony is a bitch, but Republicans didn’t have the votes to stop the Affordable Care Act from passing in 2010. They didn’t have the votes to repeal it in 2011. They didn’t have the votes to win the presidency and the Senate by campaigning against it in 2012, explicitly. The law was passed fair and square, long ago, by both houses of Congress, and survived a Supreme Court challenge too. The rules of the system were followed, scrupulously, and there are explicit rules for repealing a law. You find the votes to pass something else in its place. If you don’t have the votes, you don’t have the votes – at least the Republicans don’t have the necessary votes in the Senate. Obamacare is in place and working rather well. It’s a lot like Medicare now. It’s a given, and it also frees a lot of people from worry, and frees a lot of folks, who can now buy their own insurance, good stuff at a good price, from having to keep a job they hate just for some kind of health coverage. They can quit and start their own businesses. They can become entrepreneurs. Republicans love entrepreneurs and they love personal freedom. What’s the problem here?

The problem is that along with Obamacare setting minimum standards for what an actual health plan should include, where some of what is included is what Jesus hates and wants His followers to stop at any cost, with Obamacare the wrong sort of people are getting government help purchasing what they should pay for themselves, or do without. There is such a thing as personal responsibility. Those who choose to be poor need to face the consequences of that decision. That’s the American way. We don’t do socialism.

It may be too late to do anything about that. That horse has left the barn so to speak. Obamacare, like Medicare, is settled law. There’s not much that can be done to get rid of it now, but then with enough nitpicking there might be one special nit to pick that will make it all fall down. You never know. It might happen. And it just happened:

Two federal appeals court panels issued conflicting rulings Tuesday on whether the government could subsidize health insurance premiums for millions of Americans, raising yet more questions about the future of the health care law four years after it was signed by President Obama.

The contradictory rulings will apparently have no immediate impact on consumers. But they could inject uncertainty, confusion and turmoil into health insurance markets as the administration firms up plans for another open enrollment season starting in November.

By a vote of 2 to 1, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down a regulation issued by the Internal Revenue Service that authorizes the payment of premium subsidies in states that rely on the federal insurance exchange.

If it stands, the ruling could cut off financial assistance for more than 4.5 million people who were found eligible for subsidized insurance in the federal exchange, or marketplace. It could also undercut enforcement of the requirement for most Americans to have insurance and the requirement for larger employers to offer it to their full-time employees.

That will end what Reagan would have seen as evil nonsense, or it won’t:

Critics of the law, who said the ruling in Washington vindicated their opposition to it, did not have much time to celebrate. Within hours, a unanimous three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., issued a ruling that came to the opposite conclusion.

The Fourth Circuit panel upheld the subsidies, saying the IRS rule was “a permissible exercise of the agency’s discretion.”

The language of the Affordable Care Act on this point is “ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations,” the Fourth Circuit panel said, so it gave deference to the tax agency.

This is a mess, but it’s pretty basic:

Subsidies, in the form of tax credits, are a major element of the health care law. Without them, many more consumers would be unable to afford coverage and could be exempted from the “individual mandate” to have insurance.

The employer mandate is enforced through penalties imposed on employers if any of their workers receive subsidies, so it could become meaningless in states where subsidies were unavailable.

And there are at least two other cases on subsidies pending in federal district courts, in Oklahoma and Indiana, so this will go on and on. And Kevin Drum explains the nitpicking here:

Well, the DC circuit court has ruled 2-1 that Obamacare subsidies apply only to exchanges set up by states, not to exchanges set up by the federal government. This is because one section of the law says that taxpayers can receive tax credits only if they enroll in a plan “through an Exchange established by the State under section 1311 of the [ACA].” The court ruled that a state is a state, and as far as that goes, it’s reasonable enough. Even if this was merely a drafting error, it’s pretty clear that the federal government isn’t a state.

The problem is that there’s more to it than that. The court is also required to ensure that its interpretation of a single clause doesn’t make a hash out of the entire statutory construction of a law. The majority opinion makes heavy weather of this for a simple reason: virtually everything in the language of the law assumes that subsidies are available to everyone. Why, for example, would federal exchanges have to report detailed subsidy information if no one even gets subsidies on federal exchanges in the first place? The court blithely waves this off, suggesting that it’s merely to allow the IRS to enforce the individual mandate. But that’s pretty strained. Enforcing the mandate requires only a single piece of information: whether a taxpayer is insured. It doesn’t require detailed information about eligibility for subsidies and the amount of the subsidies each taxpayer gets. The fact that all these details are required certainly suggests that Congress assumed everyone was getting subsidies.

The court, following the arguments of the plaintiffs, also makes a brave effort to figure out why Congress might have done something so transparently ridiculous as limiting subsidies to state exchanges. Their conclusion is that Congress deliberately withheld subsidies from federal exchanges as an incentive for states to set up exchanges of their own.

Yeah, well, in his dissent in the DC court, it seems Judge Harry Edwards wasn’t buying that:

Perhaps because they appreciate that no legitimate method of statutory interpretation ascribes to Congress the aim of tearing down the very thing it attempted to construct, Appellants in this litigation have invented a narrative to explain why Congress would want health insurance markets to fail in States that did not elect to create their own Exchanges. Congress, they assert, made the subsidies conditional in order to incentivize the States to create their own exchanges. This argument is disingenuous, and it is wrong. Not only is there no evidence that anyone in Congress thought § 36B operated as a condition, there is also no evidence that any State thought of it as such. And no wonder: The statutory provision presumes the existence of subsidies and was drafted to establish a formula for the payment of tax credits, not to impose a significant and substantial condition on the States.

It makes little sense to think that Congress would have imposed so substantial a condition in such an oblique and circuitous manner… The simple truth is that Appellants’ incentive story is a fiction, a post hoc narrative concocted to provide a colorable explanation for the otherwise risible notion that Congress would have wanted insurance markets to collapse in States that elected not to create their own Exchanges.

All that may be a bit hard to follow, so Drum clarifies:

There’s no evidence that Congress ever thought it needed to provide incentives for states to set up their own exchanges. Certainly they could have made that clear if that had been their intention. As Edwards says, this claim is simply made up of whole cloth. In fact, he says acerbically, the entire suit is little more than a “not-so-veiled attempt to gut the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.”

Yes, and it may work, or not, but Brian Beutler in the New Republic sees trouble from Republicans either way:

The case of Halbig v. Burwell (formerly Halbig v. Sebelius), in which plaintiffs are attempting to void Affordable Care Act subsidies in states that didn’t set up their own healthcare exchanges, was and remains a fundamentally dishonest solicitation of right-wing judicial activism.

But that doesn’t mean right-wing judges won’t accept the invite, potentially devastating ACA marketplaces across the country. And on Tuesday, two Republican-appointed judges on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia drew up RSVPs, creating a template that the conservative majority on the Supreme Court may ultimately follow.

An adverse ruling would be devastating to the law itself. But the politics of a victory for conservatives would be anything but predictable.

And there’s this:

A majority on the three-judge panel essentially held that phrases read out of context in a section of the ACA statute “unambiguously” prohibit the IRS from subsidizing insurance plans in states that didn’t set up their own exchanges. That’s what the originators of the suit wanted them to do. But it required those judges to ignore no less a conservative than Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who last month described the “fundamental canon of statutory construction that the words of a statute must be read in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.”

This then will be fun if it gets to the Supreme Court:

What the challengers have asked judges to do is to ignore the “fundamental canon” and buy into the idea that the Democrats who passed the law unambiguously structured it to withhold premium subsidies from states that refused to set up their own exchanges, as some sort of high-stakes inducement. This is plainly false. It’s the giant whopper underlying the entire theory of Halbig. A completely fabricated history of the Affordable Care Act, which treats the scores of reporters who covered the drafting of the law as idiots, and the aides and members who actually drafted it as bigger idiots and liars as well.

But the Supreme Court is a danger to both sides in the Obamacare fight:

An adverse Supreme Court ruling would throw the ACA into chaos in three dozen states, including huge states like Florida and Texas. The vast majority of beneficiaries in those states would be suddenly unable to afford their premiums (and might even be required to reimburse the government for unlawful subsidies they’ve already spent). Millions of people would drop out of the insurance marketplaces. Premiums would skyrocket for the very sick people who need coverage the most.

But that’s where the conservatives’ “victory” would turn into a big political liability for red- and purple-state Republicans. An adverse ruling would create a problem that could be fixed in two ways: With an astonishingly trivial technical corrections bill in Congress or with Healthcare.gov states setting up their own exchanges. If you’re a Republican senator from a purple Healthcare.gov state – Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, and others – you’ll be under tremendous pressure to pass the legislative fix. If you’re a Republican governor in any Healthcare.gov state, many thousands of your constituents will expect you to both pressure Congress to fix the problem, and prepare to launch your own exchange.

Or, on the other hand, you could lecture everyone on personal responsibility and leave it at that. That could happen, and Kevin Drum plays this out:

So let’s suppose the Halbig case goes up to the Supreme Court and they rule for the plaintiffs: in a stroke, everyone enrolled in Obamacare through a federal exchange is no longer eligible for subsidies. What happens then? Is Obamacare doomed?

Not at all. What happens is that people in blue states like California and New York, which operate their own exchanges, continue getting their federal subsidies. People in red states, which punted the job to the feds, will suddenly have their subsidies yanked away. Half the country will have access to a generous entitlement and the other half won’t.

How many people will this affect? The earliest we’ll get a Supreme Court ruling on this is mid-2015, and mid-2016 is more likely. At a guess, maybe 12 million people will have exchange coverage by 2015 and about 20 million by 2016. Let’s split the difference and call it 15 million. About 80 percent of them qualify for subsidies, which brings the number to about 12 million. Roughly half of them are in states that would be affected by Halbig.

So that means about 6 million people who are currently getting subsidies would suddenly have them yanked away.

That’s unfortunate, but those six million would be in red states, and that changes things:

The key point here is that people respond much more strongly to losing things than they do to not getting them in the first place. For example, there are lots of poor people in red states who currently aren’t receiving Medicaid benefits thanks to their states’ refusal to participate in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. This hasn’t caused a revolt because nothing was taken away. They just never got Medicaid in the first place.

The subsidies would be a different story. You’d have roughly six million people who would suddenly lose a benefit that they’ve come to value highly. This would cause a huge backlash. It’s hard to say if this would be enough to move Congress to action, but I think this is nonetheless the basic lay of the land. Obamacare wouldn’t be destroyed – it would merely be taken away from a lot of people who are currently benefiting from it. They’d fight to get it back, and that changes the political calculus.

That also makes the new anti-fraud voter-ID laws and clever restrictions on the time and place of voting in those red states – which will, by an odd coincidence, keep the poor and the elderly and those pesky black folks from ever voting again – even more important. But how many people can you keep from ever voting again and for how long? And what if they get angry because they can’t vote? The Republicans may have found that nit that will destroy Obamacare, three or four ambiguous words buried deep in some subparagraph or another, but taking away what millions desperately needed and that they now have, finally, is a dangerous business. Reagan ended up expanding Medicare – once in office he knew better. Even he didn’t take the crazy things he said all that seriously. It was blarney. He was Irish. Those who worship him forget that. Let them pick nits. The joke’s on them.

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Character Judgment

There may be no such thing as love at first sight – just one set of neuroses running into a generally complimentary set of other neuroses, to each party’s immense relief – but sometimes one just knows that other person is the right sort of person. There’s no specific reason why. The other person just feels right. There’s no explaining it, and that’s always been a puzzle out here in Hollywood. Movie stars’ careers are built on masses of people feeling that they’re the right sort of person – Jimmy Stewart depended on that, and maybe John Wayne did too. James Garner, who just died is his sleep a few miles west of this quiet street off the Sunset Strip, had that thing going for him, that way of appearing to be the right sort of person – “He constructed a new kind of hero, one who would much rather be playing cards or going fishing. But all right, if no one else was going to save the girl, or solve the case, or prevent the crime, well, then – here, hold this for a second – he’d do it.”

It seems that the guy who “effortlessly combines strength and humility, humor and capability, frankness and empathy, to create an ideal Alpha-male” is the right sort of person. Sneering Tim Cruise isn’t, nor is perpetually angry Mel Gibson. Harrison Ford could pull it off and that explains his long career – Indiana Jones is the right sort of person. James Garner showed how it’s done, and the same seems to hold true in politics. Barack Obama twice seemed to be the right sort of person, to enough of America, in 2008 in spite of his lack of experience, and in 2012 in spite of the mess the economy was still in, even then. All it took was the other guy not being the right sort of person – McCain, the angry old war hero with a few too many senior moments, and then Romney being the rich guy lecturing those who weren’t rich on their moral failings. Policy hardly mattered – most voters have only a general idea what the government is up to or could be up to – or no idea at all. They vote on character, on the scantiest of evidence that they can’t even explain. They vote for the right sort of person.

That means that George Bush lucked out in 2000 and 2004 – Al Gore was prissy and stiff and sanctimonious, even if he was right about all sorts of things, and John Kerry was stiff and formal and often severe. Kerry also got all sorts of things right. George Bush was a goofball, but then he was “someone you could have a beer with” – shorthand for the right sort of person, if you like born-again cowboys. Just enough people did, and needless to say, all presidential campaigns, since Karl Rove came along, have been about establishing that your guy is the right sort of person. He – or now she – might advocate for locking up anyone who prefers Pepsi over Coke, but that hardly matters. If they’re the right sort of person they’ll end up doing the right sort of thing, eventually.

It’s not a bad system. No one knows what a new president will face – an unthinkable terrorist attack, a sudden war in a place no one’s ever heard of, or the worst hurricane in a century wiping out a major American city, or the total collapse of the economy. It’s all new, and no random thing they said in the campaign that got them to the White House, about policy or whatever, could possibly cover any of this. All one can hope for is that whomever seemed to be the right sort of person, way back when, is the right sort of person now.

That didn’t work out well for George Bush, probably because he took what was only a campaign tactic, establishing who is the right sort of person, and applied it to governance. He trusted his instinct – his “gut” as he said – and had no patience for those who wanted to think things through and account for all the possible consequences of any given decision. That gave us the Iraq disaster that lasted eight years, that got nearly five thousand of our troops killed and has cost us one or two trillion dollars so far, and now has left the entire region in shambles – but it seemed like a good idea at the time. It felt right. But deep feeling isn’t careful thought. Deep feeling gets you elected. Careful thought keeps the country from doing really dumb things. Obama implicitly suggested that in every campaign he ever ran.

Obama guessed, rightly, that Americans finally understood that. The right sort of person doesn’t base all his decisions on his vague sense of who is the right sort of person, who won’t lie to them or stab them in the back. Reagan was famous for saying “trust but verify” – but Bush wasn’t big on details. He trusted, or he didn’t. That was that, and that led to what now seem miscalculations. Reagan was referring to the disarmament deals he had just concluded with Gorbachev, reminding those on the hard right that he hadn’t betrayed them or betrayed America. We would verify everything. Gorbachev was a fine fellow, perhaps the right sort of person, but that wasn’t the point. In international politics being the right sort of person doesn’t mean jack shit.

Bush never got that. From June 30, 2007, in the New York Times, byline Carla Anne Robbins, there’s this item:

President Bush’s June 2001 declaration that he had looked Russia’s Vladimir Putin in the eye and “was able to get a sense of his soul” was greeted with bemusement and also relief. The cowboy president wasn’t, after all, going to start another cold war. But that sudden effusiveness wasn’t as sudden as it appeared.

Preparing for that first summit, Mr. Bush met at the White House with a group of outside experts, some of whom urged him to pay attention to Mr. Putin’s already emerging autocratic tendencies. Mr. Bush had talked tough about Russia during the campaign but now had only one thing on his mind: getting Moscow to drop its objections to his missile defense plans. His goal for the meeting, he said, was to make Mr. Putin feel comfortable.

When Mr. Bush announced in December that he was pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Russian leader made only pro forma complaints. Six years later, Mr. Bush is still emphasizing the personal and only episodically taking note of all that’s gone wrong in Moscow.

Robbins is writing about Putin arriving at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, noting the Putin is the only foreign leader Bush ever invited there, and that Bush is still saying Putin is the right sort of person, he just knows it, somehow, in spite of this:

Putin has proved to be even more autocratic at home, and more bullying abroad, than those experts had warned. Acquiescence is no longer his style. In recent months, he has accused the United States of imperialism and warned that he may retarget Russia’s nuclear weapons at Europe if Mr. Bush goes ahead with plans to build parts of the still notional missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Mr. Bush’s wooing slacked off after the ABM announcement and his advisers say the president is a lot more skeptical of his former soul-mate. Still, on the same day that Mr. Bush criticized Russia for derailing democratic reforms, he volunteered to reporters that he still calls Mr. Putin “Vladimir” and hoped to explain to Vladimir that he shouldn’t fear a missile defense system.

It’s hard to know if these two men ever genuinely liked each other. For a while Mr. Bush certainly looked more comfortable standing beside the former KGB operative than he did standing beside Bill Clinton’s then best-friend-forever Tony Blair. When a reporter asked after their first meeting what he and Mr. Blair had in common, Mr. Bush awkwardly joked that they used the same brand of toothpaste.

That encapsulates the Bush administration. It was love at first sight, or nothing, but if love at first sight is nothing more than one set of neuroses running into a generally complimentary set of other neuroses, Bush must have sensed they were soul-mates, they were both authoritarian kind of guys, each in his own way, but now there’s Joe Biden. The New Yorker is about to go behind a paywall – buy the hard copy of the magazine or pay them a hefty fee or no one will ever read their stuff again – but for now there’s a new and typically long profile of Joe Biden available, and Biden claims he had that Bush experience with Putin, but it went the other way:

“I had an interpreter, and when Putin was showing me his office I said, ‘It’s amazing what capitalism will do, won’t it? A magnificent office,'” Biden recounted, saying Putin laughed in response.

“As I turned, I was this close to him,” Biden continued, indicating the two men were face-to-face. “I said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.'”

According to Biden, Putin smirked and said in response that the two men “understand one another.”

Biden might be spinning tall tales – Fox News claims that he does that now and then – but that seems about right. Putin might have thought Bush was a fool. Looking into men’s eyes and seeing their souls is what teenage girls do. Hollywood depends on it. That had nothing to do with running a country or running an effective foreign policy. Check your soul at the door, if you have a soul – and if you don’t it doesn’t really matter. Souls only get in the way.

Putin may feel that way, but now, unlike Bush, we know his character, and there’s no need to look in his eyes:

Four days after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, a clearly frustrated President Barack Obama called on President Vladimir Putin to exercise his influence over Russian separatists who are preventing an investigation of the crash that killed almost 300 people.

“Given its direct influence over the separatists, Russia – and President Putin in particular – has direct responsibility to compel them to cooperate with the investigation. That is the least they can do,” Obama said in a statement outside the White House Monday, noting Russia had “urged on” the separatists, trained them, armed them, and that many key leaders are Russian citizens.

Obama said he had been assured by Putin that the Russian leader supported a full and fair investigation at the crash site. “I appreciate the words but they must be supported by actions.” Obama said it was time for Russia to “get serious” about trying to resolve the hostilities that have gripped Ukraine since early this year.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan sees a few signs of that:

Some signs suggest Putin might be backpedaling. Just this morning, news agencies reported that secessionists are letting the international inspectors enter the crash site unimpeded, a refrigerated train filled with bodies of passengers is finally rolling toward western Ukraine, and the plane’s black box will be released shortly. In another possibly significant development, an observant Ukrainian tweeted that, while Russia’s government-controlled TV newscasts from Donetsk were once datelined “Donetsk Republic” or “New Russia” (Putin’s name for eastern Ukraine), the datelines now read “Donetsk Region, Ukraine.”

Things will cool down, maybe, and a price will be paid:

This episode does not mark a return to the Cold War, and in some ways, that’s to Moscow’s disadvantage. The Cold War was a global clash of systems: the communist East vs. the capitalist West. In the most deep-freeze moments of the Cold War – for instance, in 1983, after a Soviet air-defense fighter shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 7 and the United States responded with a near cessation of diplomatic contact – Moscow still had its empire and its centrally controlled economy; what the rest of the world did was much less significant. Now Russia has no empire – no Soviet Union, no Warsaw Pact, no Comintern – and its economy is intertwined with global markets.

In short, in this conflict, Moscow has no sources of sanctuary, economic or otherwise, and a great deal to lose. Contrary to the image that he’s cleverly managed to convey, Putin is far from a master grand strategist; his many missteps during the Ukraine crisis demonstrate as much. But he’s not an idiot either. He seems to be a shrewd tactician, a clever calculator, who’s prone to wager too much while bluffing. This time the bluff’s being called. The question is whether he takes Obama’s offer to fold – or whether he doubles down and comes out blazing.

In Forbes, Paul Roderick Gregory explains the problem with this:

California Senator Barbara Feinstein has demanded that Vladimir Putin “man up” and admit that pro-Russian separatists downed MH17, mistaking it for a Ukrainian transport plane. That this is true is obvious to all except Putin’s propaganda machine that is frantically churning out absurd conspiracy theories, while Putin lies low and limits himself to vague claims of Ukrainian guilt.

Feinstein may not understand that Putin’s “manning up” could spell the end of his regime and he can’t admit the truth. Instead, Putin will ramp up his appeals for peace (with the very thugs who shot down MH17, it is now clear), pledge full cooperation with international investigations, and then stonewall like crazy. Meanwhile, he will not let Ukraine go. As a Russian analyst notes Putin has “never admitted a single error” and “never made a single step backward” in his 15 year rule. His KGB training requires him to double down, fight his way out, turn up the pressure, never admit, never retreat. He will continue his support of his proxies in east Ukraine and hope that the West’s attention span will be short.

That may be his character, what Bush didn’t see when he looked deep in the guy’s eyes, but Gregory points out the obvious:

Be it noted that Putin has already lost. He had already shelved his grand ambitions for a new Russian empire even before the MH17 catastrophe. With the downing of the Malaysian 777 with three hundred souls on board, Putin has now turned his once-proud Russia into an international pariah and has put his whole regime at risk. Putin has no hope of convincing the outside world of his propaganda fancies – that Ukraine was trying to shoot down his plane, or Ukraine somehow lured MH17 to its fateful destiny.

To keep his regime intact, he cannot afford to lose the average Russian, who gets his or her news from Putin-controlled TV. That will be his challenge. If he fails, he is in the deepest doo-doo. Russians do not want their singers and sports stars booed abroad. They do not want to be stared at standing in line at world airports. Putin gave them a chance to be proud. Now he has taken that away.

This is a PR thing:

Images – police unleashing attack dogs on black segregation protesters in Birmingham, the young Vietnamese girl burned naked by napalm – can change history. Putin must somehow neutralize the outrage of images of burly, drunken, masked thugs, menacing international investigators at the crash scene. Even worse, video from the crash site shows Putin’s surrogates openly hampering the investigation, while unceremoniously dumping victims’ bodies on rail cars destined for who knows where?

A cable networks, covering both the Gaza and Ukraine crises, recently showed a split screen of a ranting masked Hamas spokesman alongside a masked pro-Russian separatist. There was little difference between the two. Such images are not easily forgotten.

Words matter. Before MH17, the world press dutifully referred to the separatist fighters as “pro-Russian separatists” or “militia,” conjuring up images of the valiant colonial minutemen. Diplomats were similarly restrained in their choice of words. That has all changed. Secretary of State, John Kerry, on his round of Sunday interviews, repeatedly referred to Putin’s surrogates as “thugs, terrorists, and murderers.” Putin’s apologists in Europe and the United States have gone remarkably silent.

Any public relations firm worth its salt would advise Mr. Putin to come clean. Explain that the downing of MH17 was a tragic and regrettable mistake. Had the rebel forces known the incoming aircraft was a passenger jet, they would have held their fire. Putin should declare Russia’s deep regret that those fighting in its name made such a mistake. Russia should magnanimously apologize, even though it is not directly responsible. Putin should express his deep condolences to the victims’ families, and declare that he will compensate them generously for their loss. Moreover, to make sure such a tragedy never happens again, Putin should renew his pledge that Russia will fully support a professional international investigation.

And pigs will fly:

Putin cannot take this public relations advice. He cannot support an admission that shreds his public statements and contradicts his own propaganda. His public stance has been that Russia has nothing to do with this conflict. His spokespersons have denied that Russia is sponsoring the pro-Russian separatists with mercenaries and heavy equipment, including tanks and missile systems.

He’s committed, and no good will come of this:

In American politics, they say that the cover up is always worse than the crime. Come clean and you will be just fine. Putin’s is a case of a criminal regime where the crime is so bad that the costs of cover up pale by comparison. Putin can only hope that the world will be distracted by another outrage, that he can stone wall any investigation, and that his apologists can stave off action by international criminal tribunals. If he fails, he is in deep trouble.

He knows that, and Julia Ioffe covers his efforts to calm his own people first:

Did you know Malaysia Air Flight 17 was full of corpses when it took off from Amsterdam? Did you know that, for some darkly inexplicable reason, on July 17, MH17 moved off the standard flight path that it had taken every time before, and moved north, toward rebel-held areas outside Donetsk? Or that the dispatchers summoned the plane lower just before the crash? Or that the plane had been recently reinsured? Or that the Ukrainian army has air defense systems in the area? Or that it was the result of the Ukrainian military mistaking MH17 for Putin’s presidential plane, which looks strangely similar?

Did you know that the crash of MH17 was all part of an American conspiracy to provoke a big war with Russia?

Well, it’s all true – at least if you live in Russia, because this is the Malaysia Airlines crash story that you’d be seeing.

Well, he has to do something, and Gregg Rowe explains why:

Russia is a nuclear power and a near-dictatorship, but it’s a weak state. This is paradoxical given the overweening authority Putin manages to project, but it’s true. Putin has full authority over the security establishment, but that is no longer enough to endow unquestioned solidity upon the state he built. For one thing, Russia is no longer an isolated command economy. It’s been integrated into the capitalist world… You can police dissidents, but you can’t police the price of natural gas abroad.

If the old Soviet economy has been “privatized” … so, too, have other parts of Soviet power. Corporate conglomerates, a military-industrial complex, rich and insecure churches, noisy social movements (more of them on the Right than the Left), local governments carving out their own extortion zones, and many more mini- and mega-oligarchies multiply … For all his shirtless preening, Putin is no muscle-man able to wield top-down control. Instead he must exhort, scare, cajole, and distract the rest of society till he gets his way.

He’s good at that, but Daniel Berman suggests he’s not that good:

This tragedy is going to raise the economic costs of Russia’s policy, at a time when even the half-hearted sanctions have started to cause some damage. On a wider level, the events also illustrate the bind that Putin has managed to get himself into with the Ukraine. By encouraging the separatists he has raised their political expectations sky-high in a manner that can neither be met by Kiev, nor is it in the interests of Russia to meet, and while by arming them, he has vastly increased the amount of damage they can inflict in their frustration. Furthermore, for all the talk about cease-fires, it’s unclear if Putin could bring all of the groups to the table even if he wanted to, not without leaving the holdouts at the mercy of Kiev, whose success in such an operation would raise the Ukrainian Armies prestige to an unacceptable level.

Putin therefore finds himself trapped. There is no clear political objective behind the separatist campaign that Moscow can sell as a victory; but their abandonment would almost certainly lead to a clear-cut defeat.

Other than that he’s a master at this game, and George Bush looked deep in his eyes and saw his soul – and saw that Putin was the right sort of person. It was love at first sight – or it was one set of neuroses running into a generally complimentary set of other neuroses and feeling amazing relief. Sure, character counts – Michael Josephson got rich selling that idea to America – but he’s the one suing his daughter’s fancy private school out here for not cutting the kid some slack when she mouthed off to all her teachers and tore up some classrooms. One can take this character thing too far. It’s what you do, not what’s in your eyes. And now the world knows Putin. It sort of makes you miss James Garner.

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Eyeless in Gaza

High school English teachers know that they can’t go too far. Shakespeare, which some of the kids might get, after struggling through what seems to be almost a foreign language, with English words, is the limit. There’s no way they’d get Milton – the language is almost as difficult and there are no moody Danish princes or star-crossed lovers or murderous kings or those who would be king. Milton, even when he soars, is all theology, and teenage boys aren’t so sure Paradise is lost. She seems to be sitting two rows up, by the window. But it might be interesting to spring Milton’s Samson Agonistes on them – the story of Samson, captured by the Philistines, his eyes burned out, taken to Gaza, and forced to work grinding grain in a mill. Gaza is in the news. That might grab them. Israeli heroes always have a hard time in Gaza. Bad things happen there. Samson wanted to deliver Israel from the Philistines and got stuck there – “Ask for this Great Deliverer now and find him Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves.”

Okay. Substitute Palestinians for the Philistines. It’s still Gaza. Go to war there, to deliver Israel from its one real enemy, and the place will blind you. You’ll end up clueless, eyeless in Gaza so to speak, but maybe your long hair will grow back, and chained to those pillars, you’ll pull down the Philistines’ temple on them, killing them all. You’ll die too, but it will be glorious. You won’t see it of course. Your impetuous incursion into Gaza left you blind, unable to see anything. There’s a lesson there.

That’s probably a stretch. Samson didn’t lead an army into Gaza to kill all the bad guys – he was grabbed elsewhere and taken to that awful place – but he still ended up blind and confused and in despair in his chains there. And really, the current Israeli government didn’t want to end up in Gaza either, but they ended up there anyway – so maybe drawing the parallel is not such a stretch. And they do seem blind to world opinion slowly but surely turning on them. Their modern military is ten thousand times stronger than whatever ragtag crap that Hamas can come up with – mostly lots of high-trajectory missiles, ballistic missiles not guided missiles, that can’t hit a damned thing except by chance, and ambushes and an occasional bomb in a café or bus. That makes Israel seem like bullies, although they do have the right to protect themselves – but the kill-ratio looks bad. That runs about two hundred to one, and there are too many dead Palestinian kids. It’s hard to get warm fuzzy feelings about Israeli heroes, each one a Samson, when four kids are blown away while playing soccer on a beach, although the editor of the National Review, Rich Lowry, did gave it a try on Fox News:

Lowry told Fox News host Tucker Carlson that the misidentification would never have happened if Hamas had not have provoked the Israelis in the first place.

“The whole idea is to invite retaliatory fire, to tell your civilians not to hide or to flee the areas where the Israelis are about to hit, and then get the civilian casualty numbers up,” Lowry explained. “And then use that as a propaganda tool, and hope the media will report it as if it’s Israel’s fault.”

“The four little kids, for example, who were killed right on the beach right on the Mediterranean in Gaza, you think that’s Hamas’ fault,” Carlson wondered.

“Yeah,” Lowry insisted. “It’s wouldn’t be happening, there’s no reason for this conflict except for that Hamas is sending the rockets over into Israel.”

“Why don’t they tell people, ‘When Israel warns you that they’re about to hit, please flee, please go somewhere someplace safe’?” he continued. “They don’t. And you’ve had various Hamas officials over the years bragging, ‘We’re going to win because we love death more than you love life.'”

That might be it, except for eyewitness accounts – there was no warning in this case and no rockets were ever fired at Israel from anywhere near there, ever. Gaza seems to have blinded Lowry too, although not everyone is blind just yet:

President Barack Obama “raised serious concern” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about growing casualties from his country’s offensive in Gaza designed to put an end to Hamas rocket fire, the White House said today.

Perhaps Obama sees what’s obvious to anyone with eyes to see – telling civilians to get the hell out quick, the bombs are coming, doesn’t do a lot of good if there’s nowhere they can run to – a minor detail perhaps, but kind of obvious. Gaza can blind you, and things are getting worse:

Israel and Gaza have both suffered their bloodiest day since the beginning of the current offensive.

Israel says that 13 of its soldiers died since Saturday night, the biggest one-day loss for its army in years.

At least 87 Gazans were reported killed on Sunday – 60 of them in the district of Shejaiya alone. The total death toll in Gaza now stands at more than 425.

Hamas said on Sunday evening that it had captured an Israeli soldier, but Israel has issued a denial.

“There’s no kidnapped Israeli soldier and those rumors are untrue,” said Israel’s UN ambassador Ron Prosor.

Celebratory gunfire and shouts could be heard in Gaza City after the claim was made.

This has a context:

Sunday’s death toll for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is higher than that sustained by the IDF during the entire three-week duration of Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, the last time that Israel sent ground troops into Gaza.

It brings the number of Israeli soldiers killed in the current offensive to 18.

The deaths of so many soldiers on a single day will shock Israeli society, the BBC’s Chris Morris reports from southern Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue operations in Gaza “as much as we need to” despite the casualties.

That might be called willful blindness, given how this looks:

The UN says 83,695 people have now been displaced in Gaza and have taken refuge in 61 shelters and that the figure is “rising all the time”.

Witnesses spoke of bodies lying in the street. …

The death toll in Gaza rose sharply over the weekend, with the number of Palestinians killed now standing at more than 425 since the operation began, according to Palestinian health officials.

They say the number of wounded from the operation now stands at more than 3,000.

The majority of those killed are civilians, the UN says.

There are two ways of looking at this:

The United Nations went into emergency session on Sunday night in New York to discuss the Gaza crisis. The meeting was requested by Jordan. …

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a press conference on Sunday that the operation in Gaza can be expected to continue. Addressing the families of the fallen soldiers, he said that there was no war more just than the one for which their loved ones had given their lives.

There’s a lot of blindness going around these days, and there are protests too:

Hundreds of peaceful protesters gathered in Washington on Sunday to demonstrate against Israeli violence in Gaza, with many expressing frustration with what they see as unconditional U.S. support for Israel.

“The U.S. is the primary patron of Israel and provides unequivocal diplomatic and military support,” said Noura Erakat, a Palestinian lawyer and professor at George Mason University. “It’s a complicit third party in what amounts to a massacre of the Palestinian population entrapped within the Gaza strip.”

The demonstrators gathered outside the State Department, where Palestinian Americans, Muslims, Jews and others waved Palestinian flags and held up signs calling for an immediate end to the violence.

The United States may or may not be a complicit third party here, but we will try to stop the spreading violence:

Secretary of State John Kerry is heading back to the Middle East as the Obama administration attempts to bolster regional efforts to reach a ceasefire and sharpens its criticism of Hamas in its conflict with Israel.

The State Department said Kerry would leave early Monday for Egypt where he will join diplomatic efforts to resume a truce that had been agreed to in November 2012. In a statement Sunday evening, department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the U.S. and international partners “deeply concerned about the risk of further escalation, and the loss of more innocent life.”

The Obama administration has toned down its earlier rebuke of Israel for attacks on the Gaza Strip that have killed civilians, including children, although both President Barack Obama and Kerry expressed concern about the rising death toll.

That will be a hard needle to thread, but the Obama team will give it a go:

Making the rounds of Sunday talk shows, Kerry pointed to Hamas’ role in the violence.

“It’s ugly. War is ugly, and bad things are going to happen,” Kerry told ABC’s “This Week.” But, he added, Hamas needs “to recognize their own responsibility.”

Both Obama and Kerry said Israel has a right to defend itself against frequent rocket attacks by Hamas from the Gaza Strip. Kerry accused Hamas of attempting to sedate and kidnap Israelis through a network of tunnels that militants have used to stage cross-border raids.

He said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Hamas must “step up and show a level of reasonableness, and they need to accept the offer of a cease-fire.”

They’ve already given Israel a pass on that reasonableness thing, although that’s not enough for some:

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, urged Israel to “stay as long as you need to stay, go wherever you need to go, do deal with a viper’s nest called Hamas.”

“If it’s left up to Hamas, thousands of Israelis would be dead,” Graham, R-S.C., told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Meanwhile, over in Israel, in the Knesset, there’s Moshe Feiglin:

Gaza is part of our Land and we will remain there forever. Liberation of parts of our land forever is the only thing that justifies endangering our soldiers in battle to capture land. Subsequent to the elimination of terror from Gaza, it will become part of sovereign Israel and will be populated by Jews. This will also serve to ease the housing crisis in Israel. The coastal train line will be extended, as soon as possible, to reach the entire length of Gaza.

According to polls, most of the Arabs in Gaza wish to leave. Those who were not involved in anti-Israel activity will be offered a generous international emigration package. Those who choose to remain will receive permanent resident status. After a number of years of living in Israel and becoming accustomed to it, contingent on appropriate legislation in the Knesset and the authorization of the Minister of Interior, those who personally accept upon themselves Israel’s rule, substance and way of life of the Jewish State in its Land, will be offered Israeli citizenship.

And that’s that, but on the other side of things, Imam Sohaib N. Sultan offers a thoughtful Ramadan warning about this sort of thing:

The Qur’an often describes sins and wrongdoings as “oppressing one’s own soul” (7:23). It begs the question, therefore, what the difference is between the oppressor who commits wrongdoing and the oppressed that is wronged if both are, ultimately, being oppressed. I think the answer may lie in that oppression attempts to strip the oppressed of their rights and dignity; whereas oppressing strips the oppressor of their very own humanity.

And thus everyone ends up blind, and we here in America, not in Gaza, can only hope we won’t end up blind like Milton’s ultimate strongman, Samson. We are not a complicit third party in what amounts to a massacre of the Palestinian population trapped in Gaza, nor are we blindly bumbling about there like the current Israeli government. We only approve of what they’re doing, sort of, but not really, but maybe really. Our position is ambiguous, and Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir examines that ambiguity:

Both in the real conflict on the ground and the ideological conflict for hearts and minds, both sides feel misunderstood and unfairly stigmatized – and if you’re willing or able to take the long view, they both have a point. Along with every other American journalist, I received emails this week from Arab-American groups complaining about the pro-Israeli bias of the mainstream media, and from Jewish activists eager to elucidate President Obama’s “pro-Muslim agenda” and his long-term campaign to undermine Israel. Within the American left, which for generations has been closely allied with the Jewish intellectual tradition, this ideological combat can often be intensely personal and painful. I’ve managed to stay out of the angry debates between friends and acquaintances in my Facebook feed – about whether Rachel Maddow is an Israeli shill, or whether American progressives are hypocrites for weeping over Gaza but ignoring the death toll in Iraq, Syria and Egypt – and I don’t even want to know what kinds of insults people are hurling at each other on Twitter.

What do we talk about when we talk about Israel? Perhaps this is an index of our bottomless narcissism, but the not-so-secret subtext of both pro-Israel and anti-Israel arguments is that they’re really debates about America and its role in the world. Israel is of course closely tied to the U.S. in military, economic, cultural and psychological terms, and in all likelihood would not exist if not for six-plus decades of staunch American support. Although it’s a distinctive society in many ways, Israel is also a familiar kind of place – a Westernized consumer democracy of yoga classes, designer cocktails and gay pride parades – in a way no Islamic Middle Eastern country even approaches. Israel can be read as an American proxy state, a wayward bastard child or (in the paranoid view) as a sinister force behind American politics, pulling the superpower’s strings. However you understand this “special relationship,” the genetic kinship is unmistakable.

Everything about the politics of the Israel-Palestine debate – which are mostly the politics of guilt, victimhood and mutual, purposeful incomprehension – is distorted and exacerbated by the gravitational effect of America. As I said earlier, both sides have valid points to make about the nature of that distortion. But I don’t mean to retreat to some journalistic posture of false equivalency and despair: Everybody has done bad things, and it’s just dreadful. Can we get back to watching HBO? That only fuels the hapless status quo, as captured so memorably in Mitt Romney’s phrase about kicking the can down the road, in which the U.S. appears subservient to the Israeli right wing while continuing to advocate for a two-state solution that will never happen. I have no solution to that dilemma, but it’s useful to understand that pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian forces are responding to the same phenomenon – Israel’s inextricable relationship with the United States – and interpreting it in different ways.

That simply makes things weird:

First of all, Israelis and their American allies are justifiably outraged when leftist critics compare Israel to Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa. It is not excusing Israel’s policy misdeeds or the racist excesses of Israeli settler culture to insist that such comparisons are intellectually lazy and dishonest, and serve only to pour gasoline on an already inflammatory situation. Now, there are specific areas, such as the tormented relationship between the Israeli military and Palestinians under occupation, where those analogies may come much too close for comfort. This was famously observed by no less an authority than former Shin Bet head Avraham Shalom (in the mesmerizing documentary “The Gatekeepers”) – a man who had been born in Vienna and once saw Adolf Hitler speak in person.

But in the bigger picture, the differences are more striking than the similarities: For all its flaws, Israel is a functioning Western-style democracy that pays lip service to the rule of law and (like most other democracies) occasionally lives up to those promises. Dissent and free speech are generally tolerated, and more than 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Palestinian Arabs, who at least in theory possess full political rights. A dozen Arab Israelis hold seats in the Knesset, and an Arab judge has sat on the Israeli Supreme Court since 2004. There is unquestionably anti-Arab discrimination and ethnic tension between the Jewish and Arab populations, but it is ludicrous to compare that situation to Nazi Germany or South Africa. How many Jews hold similar positions in Muslim-majority nations? For that matter, how many African-Americans served as judges or cops or state legislators in the Jim Crow South?

So Israelis feel they have been unfairly demonized by American and Western progressives who ought to see the essential similarities between their societies, and also feel themselves (again with some justification) surrounded by enemies who would rather they disappeared. While Hamas’ rockets have been militarily ineffective – at this writing, only one Israeli civilian has been killed – they have engaged the semi-permanent condition of national PTSD resulting from decades of border wars and occupations and intifadas and suicide-bombing campaigns and all the rest of it. Now the Israeli military is certain to inflict many times the amount of damage on Gaza that the ragtag guerrilla bands of Hamas could ever inflict on Israel, while insisting the whole time that it is behaving honorably and that every atrocity that makes clear how cheaply it holds Arab lives (children killed on the beach, children killed in their bedrooms) is a regrettable accident for which the other side is to blame.

That means one must decide what to be blind to:

One Facebook post I saw from an old friend raised an argument I mentioned earlier, originating from the pro-Israel lobbying group UN Watch: If you’re outraged by the deaths of civilians in Gaza but didn’t say a word about thousands who died in terrorist attacks in Iraq, the slaughter of street protesters in Egypt or massacres in South Sudan and Nigeria, then you are motivated not by human rights concerns but by bigotry against Israel (and by extension by anti-Semitism, although that accusation was left unspoken). It’s a provocative argument, and anybody who tries to tell you there is no anti-Semitism on the pro-Palestinian or anti-Zionist left is lying. But the response is simple enough: Americans don’t feel implicated in those other crimes, or at least not to the same extent.

On the other hand, we may be a complicit third party in all this:

Like everything else about the grossly asymmetrical Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the current invasion of Gaza involves American guns, American money and the unswerving support of the American political elite and the mainstream media. If left-wing supporters of Palestine draw outrageous comparisons between Israel and murderous autocratic regimes, that is both a veiled claim that America itself is sliding toward fascism and an attempt to shock American liberals into decoupling from the Israeli cause.

But that’s not going to happen:

What ties together those who forcefully support Israel and those who forcefully oppose it is that both groups see the essential kinship between Israel and the United States, and interpret that historical legacy in different ways. Supporting Israel has become a benchmark of American patriotism – which means that no major presidential candidate of either party can ever question that support – while those who oppose Israeli belligerence and expansionism are generally the same people who see U.S. foreign policy as a baleful influence around the globe. Viewed this way, discussions about Israel and Palestine in the U.S. are really metaphorical debates about America’s role in world history – about whether we are a good or a bad nation in the end, and whether our mystical sense of national purpose can be redeemed.

There’s much more, but it comes down to this:

From the American perspective Israel looks something like Frankenstein’s monster, a morally dubious and arguably unnatural creation that was stitched together with the noblest of intentions but not much foresight, and that produced a painful litany of unintended consequences. In that analogy we are Victor Frankenstein, who can never unmake his wayward creature, control it or untether himself from it. If I remember the story correctly, they destroy each other in the end.

We seem to be blind to that, but maybe Israel isn’t so much Frankenstein’s monster as much as it is Milton’s Samson, Eyeless in Gaza. Either way it’s a horror show. And that brings up another famous British writer Aldous Huxley – that odd fellow who wrote Brave New World and ended up out here living the rest of his life up in Beachwood Canyon just under the Hollywood sign. There’s his 1936 novel Eyeless in Gaza – all about a young fellow blind to the world around him, but who then discovers pacifism and then mysticism and everything works out just fine. The novel has nothing to do with Gaza at all of course – it’s all about upper-class British twits – but the metaphor is always useful. On the other hand, there never was any point in making those high school kids read Milton. No one reads Milton. Everyone already knows Paradise was lost long ago, and now they know all about Gaza too.

Posted in Gaza Crisis | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Assessing Relative Thickness

They say blood is thicker than water, but then so is motor oil and Hershey’s Syrup too – but that’s just shorthand for the notion that there are some allegiances that override common sense and thoughtful analyses, and often override any sense of what is right or wrong, or even common decency. If your little brother turns out to be a child molester who tortures kittens in his spare time, you stick up for your little brother. He’s family. He’s not a “bad” person, really. He’s just misunderstood – cut him some slack. He needs help. He’ll be fine.

He obviously won’t be fine, but family is family. Lie. He’s family. Family sticks together. It’s the only real social unit that means anything. In fact, family may be more important than your marriage, but there things get complicated. You married someone outside your family – everyone does – and started a new family, so if the mother-in-law hates her son’s new wife, because she’s just not like the rest of the family, the son must transfer allegiances – unless he wanted to marry a girl just like the girl that married dear old dad, and did, in which case something strange and kinky is going on. Blood may be thicker than water, but incest is nasty stuff. It’s a muddle.

The new social unit, the new family created by marriage, over time, renders many of the allegiances of the previous social unit null and void. What was once the only thing that matters is superseded by someone choosing something else that matters more, and this engenders inevitable resentment. That new spouse isn’t really family – everyone can see that. Thanksgiving dinners from that point forward will be subtle and subversive sniping and snide “compliments” bantered back and forth as each side attempts to assert the validity of what they see as the real family. It’s quite unpleasant, and needless to say, there is no such thing as an extended family. Those are friends. You choose those.

Everyone alive has been through this, but the same sort of attempts to assert the validity of what some see as the core social unit have also developed on a far larger scale. The late nineteenth century gave us the modern nation-state, actual countries, not kingdoms or empires or that place where you happened to live and everyone seemed pretty much like you. Maybe we started that in 1776, but we weren’t that good at it at first and finally had our Civil War to decide if we really were a nation or not, whether or not we were two nations, or that the individual states were really all nations in and of themselves. We had to work that out, and maybe we’re still working that out, but we settled on at least a nod to nationalism – that’s when the individual identifies with, or becomes attached to, the nation, as they imaging the nation. We’ve developed a national identity too, even if we can’t quite agree on what that is – Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had quite different views on that the last time around – but we are patriotic. Everyone modern nation-state is run on patriotism, that the fuel to keeps things going, that gets mothers to send their sons off to war and all that. Patriotism, which involves obvious social conditioning and approval of personal behaviors that support the state’s decisions and actions, is damned useful. We’re all family here. Act like it.

Hey, people buy it. It may be that G. K. Chesterton once said that saying “My Country Right or Wrong” was like saying “My Mother Drunk or Sober” – but Americans keep saying that. It’s a blood-is-thicker-than-water thing, something which can override common sense and thoughtful analyses and any sense of what is right or wrong, or even common decency. We should know all about that. No one’s little brother was torturing kittens at the time, but in the late sixties, as the war in Vietnam was raging on, and the evidence was mounting day after day that we couldn’t win that war and the whole thing was a stupid idea anyway, and that what we were doing was as immoral as could possibly be, and we kept on doing it, those who took to the streets to shout that America was a great country and we could do better than this, and should, were shouted down by the hardhats and their buddies screaming out “America, Love It or Leave It!”

That a lot of that was probably cooked up by Richard Nixon’s media adviser at the time, Roger Ailes, who now runs Fox News, offers a bit of curious continuity to all this – Fox News is still at it – as this is a family thing. In 1968 or so, those hardhats, and those angry middle-aged women with the big lacquered helmet-head hair, were pretty much yelling at the hippies that America was their mother, and she may be curled up drunk in the corner with her half-empty bottle of gin, drooling, but she is still your mother, damn it! Show some respect! She’s family!

That still goes on, with years of those on the right outraged that Obama is always out there apologizing for America, instead of doing the family thing, saying America could do no wrong and never did do any wrong. Maybe we were misunderstood. Hell, we were misunderstood. Mitt Romney rode that “no apologies” one-trick pony for months, even if Obama seemed to peddling no more than common sense and thoughtfulness – but of course Obama wasn’t family because he wasn’t “blood” – all you had to do was look at him – and blood is thicker than water.

All of this is the family dynamic writ large. You stick by your family, no matter what. And you’d damned well better know who your family is.

We may never work this stuff out, and this week it got even odder with a reminder of who the American family is. The Senate passed a resolution backing Israel’s new invasion of Gaza:

Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) authored Senate Resolution 498, which reaffirms Senate support for Israel, condemns unprovoked rocket fire and calls on Hamas to stop all rocket attacks on Israel. “The United States Senate is in Israel’s camp,” Graham said on the Senate floor Thursday.

Of course the Senate is in their camp. Israel is family – always has been and always will be – even if Israel as a nation was formed in 1948, which makes them the little brother here, and maybe the one who tortures kittens. They’re misunderstood. They’re just trying to keep safe, and the Hamas crowd really is awful. Ignore the nasty stuff.

Some can’t do that. On the left in Israel, Emily Hauser can’t do that:

Targeting enemy civilians is a war crime. Let’s not entertain any doubt about that. Hamas and other Palestinian militants have targeted Israeli civilians with rockets for years; the fact that these rockets are crude and their aim poor doesn’t mitigate the simple fact: Targeting civilians is a war crime. Trying to determine who “started” our current state of conflict is not quite so simple, though, unless we accept ideology as fact. For some Jews, the Palestinians started it by refusing to accept our nationalism as ascendant to theirs; for some Palestinians, the Jews started it, in precisely the same way.

If, however, we’re trying to uncover a chain of discrete events leading to the seemingly permanent state of war between Israel and Gaza, the waters are muddy. Did the latest round of rockets come in response to an IDF incursion, or the other way around? Did it start when Israel neutralized a terrorist infiltrator, or was that terrorist a farmer trying to gather crops? Both sides play into the provocation-response cycle, each conveniently forgetting that actions have consequences, often beyond those we first imagined.

Deciding whose nationalism is ascendant is absurd, and no good will come of this:

I have lived under missile attack, and I have family under attack in the south right now. I do not for one moment doubt Israel’s right to self-defense. But even if we set aside the damage and forget the dead, if we remain incurious about the impact both might have on our enemy’s will to compromise – even if all we consider is sheer efficacy – how can we look at this history and believe that repeating past failures will keep the Jewish State safe? Are you safe now?

Does it matter? Blood is thicker than water, or something, and at Forbes, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, shows that he’s a family man:

What I have not forgotten is the following: the State of Israel is a democracy with the rule of law and respect for human rights (yes, imperfect, unlike the United States and Europe, which, as we all know, are perfect); demonic hatred of Jews is a real and persistent fact of history and when left unchecked it always leads to atrocities; this demonic hatred is absolutely clearly distilled into the enemies of Israel; and most, most importantly this: if tomorrow Hamas, Hezbollah and other enemies of Israel dropped their weapons, peace would break out; if tomorrow Israel dropped its weapons, a genocide would break out.

There is, there can be, no moral equivalency. Sometimes there really are Good Guys and Bad Guys.

In the Guardian, Seumas Milne, tries a bit of logic:

The idea that Israel is defending itself against unprovoked attacks from outside its borders is an absurdity. Despite Israel’s withdrawal of settlements and bases in 2005, Gaza remains occupied both in reality and international law, its border, coastal waters, resources, airspace and power supply controlled by Israel.

So the Palestinians of Gaza are an occupied people, like those in the West Bank, who have the right to resist, by force if they choose – though not deliberately to target civilians. But Israel does not have a right of self-defense over territories it illegally occupies – it has an obligation to withdraw. That occupation, underpinned by the US and its allies, is now entering its 48th year. Most of the 1.8 million Palestinians enduring continuous bombardment in Gaza are themselves refugees or their descendants, who were driven out or fled from cities such as Jaffa 66 years ago when Israel was established.

Paul Waldman offers this:

It’s been said many times that no government would tolerate rockets being fired into its territory without a response, which is true. But those rockets do not grant Israel a pass from moral responsibility for what it does and the deaths it causes, any more than prior acts of terrorism have. In this as in so many conflicts, both sides – and those who defend each – try to justify their own abdication of human morality with a plea that what the other side has done or is doing is worse. We’ve heard that argument made before, and we’ll continue to hear it. But when we do, we should acknowledge it for what it is: no justification at all.

Actions are either defensible on their own terms or they aren’t. The brutality of your enemy makes no difference in that judgment. It wasn’t acceptable for the Bush administration’s defenders to say (as many did) that torturing prisoners was justified because Al Qaeda beheads prisoners, which is worse. And our judgment of Hamas’s lobbing of hundreds of rockets toward civilian areas tells us nothing about whether Israel’s actions in Gaza are right or wrong.

What? Judge your nasty little brother as if he weren’t a member of the family at all? That’s what Waldman is proposing. That’s cold. He’s family.

That sort of thinking is always a problem, and in the New York Times, Timothy Garton Ash sees how it has played out in the other issue of the day:

In 1994, I was half asleep at a round table in St. Petersburg, Russia, when a short, thickset man, with a rather ratlike face – apparently a sidekick of the city’s mayor – suddenly piped up. Russia, he said, had voluntarily given up “huge territories” to the former republics of the Soviet Union, including areas “which historically have always belonged to Russia.” He was thinking “not only about Crimea and northern Kazakhstan, but also for example about the Kaliningrad area.” Russia could not simply abandon to their fate those “25 million Russians” who now lived abroad. The world had to respect the interests of the Russian state “and of the Russian people as a great nation.”

The name of this irritating little man was – you guessed it – Vladimir V. Putin – and I know exactly what he said back in 1994 because the organizers, the Körber Foundation of Hamburg, Germany, published a full transcript. For the phrase that I have translated as “the Russian people,” the German transcript uses the word “volk.” Mr. Putin seemed to have, and still has, an expansive, völkisch definition of “Russians” – or what he now refers to as the “russkiy mir” (literally “Russian world”). The transcript also records that I teased out the consequences of the then-obscure deputy mayor’s vision by saying, “If we defined British nationality to include all English-speaking people, we would have a state slightly larger than China.”

And the rest, as they say, is history:

Today’s Kremlin has its own perverted version of the Western-developed and United Nations-sanctified humanitarian doctrine of the “responsibility to protect.” Russia, Mr. Putin insists, has a responsibility to protect all Russians abroad, and he gets to decide who is a Russian.

This is a family dynamic at work, and that’s never good:

Poland has expressed concern for the position of Polish speakers in Lithuania. Hungary has handed out both passports and voting rights in national elections to citizens of neighboring countries whom it deems to be members of the Hungarian people. To pin down what is illegitimate, we have to explain more clearly what is legitimate.

As of Friday, American and Ukrainian officials were saying it was likely that a Russian-made antiaircraft missile had brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, in yet another harvest of sorrow on Ukrainian fields already blood-soaked by history. It was not clear who fired it. But it is hypocrisy on an Orwellian scale for Mr. Putin to maintain, as he did on Friday, that “the government over whose territory this happened bears the responsibility for this terrible tragedy.” There is undoubtedly bitter discontent among many self-identified Russians in eastern Ukraine, but the violence of their protests has been stirred by a massively mendacious narrative on Russian television, and their paramilitaries have been supported, to put it no more strongly, by Mr. Putin’s Russia – including the presence of members or former members of Russian special forces.

It seems plausible already to suggest that a regular army (whether Ukrainian or Russian) would usually have identified the radar image of a civilian airliner flying at 33,000 feet, while a group made up solely of local militants (even ones with military experience) would not ordinarily have had the technology and skill to launch such an attack without outside help. It is precisely the ambiguous mixtures created by Mr. Putin’s völkisch version of the “responsibility to protect” that produce such disastrous possibilities. He subverts and calls into question the authority of the government of a sovereign territory, and then blames it for the result.

Talk about family, and the nation as a family, and things can spin out of control. David Remnick recently spoke to Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Soviet dissident, and at the New Yorker’s website, Remnick recounts their conversation – mostly about Putin – and it is odd:

When I met Pavlovsky in Moscow a couple of weeks ago, he seemed especially concerned about the lack of strategic thinking by Putin, and about the consequences of the feverish anti-Ukrainian, anti-American, and generally xenophobic programming on state television, from which nearly all Russians derive their news and their sense of what is going on in the world…

Since returning to the Presidency, Pavlovsky said, Putin has “created an artificial situation in which a ‘pathological minority’ – the protesters on Bolotnaya Square [two years ago], then Pussy Riot, then the liberal ‘pedophiles’– is held up in contrast to a ‘healthy majority.’ Every time this happens, his ratings go up.” The nightly television broadcasts from Ukraine, so full of wild exaggeration about Ukrainian “fascists” and mass carnage, are a Kremlin-produced “spectacle,” he said, expertly crafted by the heads of the main state networks.

“Now this has become a problem for Putin, because this system cannot be wholly managed,” Pavlovsky said. The news programs have “overheated” public opinion and the collective political imagination.

“How can Putin really manage this?” Pavlovsky went on. “You’d need to be an amazing conductor. Stalin was an amazing conductor in this way. Putin can’t quite pull off this trick. The audience is warmed up and ready to go; it is wound up and waiting for more and more conflict. You can’t just say, ‘Calm down.’ It’s a dangerous moment. Today, forty per cent of Russia wants real war with Ukraine. Putin himself doesn’t want war with Ukraine. But people are responding to this media machine. Putin needs to lower the temperature.”

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog connects some dots:

Think of Fox News, talk radio, the Alex Jones media empire, or the speeches of Wayne LaPierre. Does what Pavlovsky describes sound familiar? Propaganda declaring that a “healthy majority” is being oppressed by a “pathological minority”? (In America, perhaps the specific number is 47 %.) The focus on one set of Enemies of the People after another?

There are huge differences between Russia and America, of course. We don’t have a one-party Putinite government. We have free speech, so this kind of propaganda genuinely competes with other messages. Circumstances would have to change dramatically for America to become like Putin’s Russia.

However, in a few pockets of angry red America, where the right really does seem to dominate the transmission of news, you get hints of what Putin has created. You get the armed standoff at the Bundy ranch. You get mobs blocking buses full of immigrant mothers and children in Murrieta, California.

You get people saying that blood is thicker than water. There’s the family, not matter what, and Andrew Sullivan connects Putin and Netanyahu:

Both have been riding nationalist waves of xenophobia – and have done their best to inflame it some more; both believe that military force is the first resort when challenged; both have contempt for the United States under its current president; both regard Europeans as pathetic weaklings and moral squishes; both use a pliant mass media to instill the tropes of paranoia, wounded pride and revenge; both target “infiltrators” in their midst, whether it be African immigrants and Palestinians or gays and Westerners; and both have invaded and threatened their neighbors. Perhaps most important of all: both have lost control to the even more enraged extremists to their right.

Yes, things got “overheated” here:

Now consider the vigilantes who poured gasoline down the throat of a young Palestinian and burned him alive. Do you think they come out of a vacuum? Or the horrifying tweets of young Israelis proudly urging genocide of Arabs? Or the cheers from the hilltops outside Sderot as Israelis celebrate the slaughter of civilians in Gaza? Or the fact that Netanyahu’s endless provocations have led to a cabinet even more hawkish than he and a country ever further away from any reconciliation with the people whose land it took decades ago.

No good comes from this nationalist “family” stuff:

Both men have the supreme self-confidence of fools; and the political instincts of geopolitical arsonists. Our only hope in restraining them is to watch them slowly hoist by their own canards. The problem is that hundreds of civilians in an airplane and in the crowded streets of Gaza keep becoming the collateral victims of their posturing.

Ah, but blood is thicker than water, whatever that means. It’s just that there’s too much blood everywhere. And some people are really thick.

Posted in Benjamin Netanyahu, Nationalism, Vladimir Putin | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Not Implying Even Correlation

Post hoc ergo propter hoc – correlation does not imply causation. A correlation between two variables does not necessarily imply that one causes the other – two things just happened at the same time. That your team wins every time you wear that funky old flannel shirt doesn’t mean that funky old shirt causes your team to win – but you wear it anyway. It couldn’t hurt and it feels good to embrace this particular logical fallacy. People do, however, make that mistake all the time, thinking the one thing caused the other, and that might be a function of pattern-recognition – a key human skill necessary to survive, in an evolutionary sense – gone wild. We all have to make sense of the world around us or we’ll get killed, metaphorically or literally, but imagining what’s just not there is kind of stupid.

This sort of thing seems to happen on news days when there are at least two big stories. They must be related. On Thursday, July 17, 2014, someone shot down a big airliner over the eastern part of Ukraine, killing all three hundred aboard quite instantly, and there’s little doubt that was done with a Russian surface-to-air missile fired by the Ukrainian rebels that Russia has been arming heavily, hoping they might overthrow the current pro-western Ukrainian government and make the whole place part of Russia again – unless the missile was fired by the Russians themselves. This happened one day after the Obama administration announced severe new economic sanctions on Russia for arming those very rebels so heavily. Did the one cause the other, or did some trigger-happy asshole just shoot at whatever was moving along way up there in the sky? Causation is the issue here. Nothing is clear yet. And then, within an hour or two, Israel launched a major ground operation in Gaza, a massive invasion actually – it was shock-and-awe time there now – which will not sit well with the international community. Did they think no one would notice, because everyone was looking away, looking at the crisis in the Ukraine? That seems unlikely, although it’s best to do the unthinkable when no one is looking, when they’re busy with other matters – but Israel was going to do this anyway. They just lucked out. Everyone was looking elsewhere. Correlation really does not imply causation – this sort of massive invasion with a modern army, with coordinated support from a large navy and a nifty high-tech air force, takes careful planning and logistical preparation, and has to be kept to a tight schedule. This was the day, whatever happened a thousand miles north. It was a coincidence.

That’s hard for some to accept. One element of this was hard for the master of pattern-recognition of the American right to accept:

Rush Limbaugh is always quick to label news a convenient distraction from the real issue at hand, and the Malaysian Airlines passenger jet crash on Thursday was no exception.

“I don’t want appear to be callous here, folks, but you talk about an opportunity to abandon the Obama news at the border?” Limbaugh said on his radio show Thursday. “And, no, I’m not suggesting anything other than how the media operates.”

He wanted to be clear that he wasn’t saying that Obama ordered the Malaysian Airlines plane shot down, by our guys, not the Russians or their rebels, so people would have something else to talk about and stop hammering him for letting all those diseased little kids from Central America, who might be small Islamic terrorists, into the country. Limbaugh will leave that to others, although he does think it’s a curious coincidence that Obama ordered those new sanctions and this happened the very next day. But whatever – he’s just miffed that the stupid mainstream media will talk about this now, and only this. He sees a pattern here. It’s always something. The mainstream media will always find a way to ignore the big story – Obama is much more awful than anyone even imagined. Hell, Obama probably called up Netanyahu too, and told him to invade Gaza that very day, and then called CNN to give them a heads-up, just to make sure no one would be talking about the invasion of the United State by Obama’s Toddlers of Terror – but no, Limbaugh did go there. He just thinks something is fishy here, some correlation, and perhaps causation. He became a wealthy and amazingly influential fellow by saying there’s something fishy here, and over there, and over there too. There’s a lot of money in that.

There’s just one problem with that. Not only does correlation not imply causation, sometimes, or maybe more often than not, there’s no correlation in the first place. People screw up more than they conspire. What seems sneaky and nefarious is almost always nothing more than incompetence, and that may be the case with the downing of that Malaysian Airlines plane. Read what was revealed by the end of the day – the flight left Amsterdam for Kuala Lumpur and was clearly shot down over eastern Ukraine just before it would have passed into Russian airspace, shot down by what had to be an advanced surface-to-air missile, as it was way up there at over thirty thousand feet – and there’s no doubt about that. Our satellites picked up the targeting radar lighting up and detected the launch, but then it gets tricky. There’s an intercept of a rebel commander telling his Russian overseer that his folks finally shot down a big Ukrainian military transport plane, so thanks for the missiles – no wait – checking things – lots of civilian bodies here in the fields – the plane’s markings are all wrong – wait, still checking things – OH SHIT!

This appears to be a screw-up, a monumental one. Now the rebels and Russia are denying everything. What missiles? There are no missiles. No one fired anything at anything. Maybe the Ukrainians shot that plane down to make us look bad. Maybe it was mechanical failure. Then Vladimir Putin offered a real classic – “The country over whose airspace this happened bears responsibility for the terrible tragedy.”

Right – it’s not his fault, or the rebels’ fault, if those guys in Kiev can’t keep their own skies safe – and their skies would be safe if they just stopped fighting the rebels, who only want as much of the Ukraine as possible to rejoin Russia. That’s why those three hundred hapless tourists are dead. Peter Feaver in Foreign Policy says this is a game-changer:

But in which direction the game is changed depends on whether this was (a) an accident by Ukrainian forces, or (b) an accident by Russian or pro-Russian forces, or (c) an intentional act, in which case pro-Russian rebels would be most likely culprits (since it is hard to come up with a reason why Ukraine or Russia would intend something like this). Accidents like this happen… but when they do they change the game politically.

Play out the possibilities:

If Ukraine is at fault, then Obama’s options of response are more limited: mainly reinvigorating efforts at negotiation. If Russia or pro-Russian forces are at fault, we will likely see much greater pressure to ratchet up sanctions even more significantly than has happened thus far, albeit in conjunction with reinvigorated efforts along the diplomatic track. Moreover, if Russia or pro-Russian forces are at fault, this puts Putin on the defensive to the point where a meaningful retreat is plausible – not a retreat from Crimea, which appears to be lost, but a retreat on Eastern Ukrainian pressure points – provided that Obama does in fact re-engage at a level commensurate with the stakes.

Julia Ioffe uses livelier prose:

Make no mistake: this is a really, really, really big deal. This is the first downing of a civilian jetliner in this conflict and, if it was the rebels who brought it down, all kinds of ugly things follow. For one thing, what seemed to be gelling into a frozen local conflict has now broken into a new phase, one that directly threatens European security. The plane, let’s recall, was flying from Amsterdam.

For another, U.S. officials have long been saying that there’s only one place that rebels can get this kind of heavy, sophisticated weaponry: Russia. This is why a fresh round of sanctions was announced yesterday. Now, the U.S. and a long-reluctant Europe may be forced to do more and implement less surgical and more painful sanctions.

This also seems to prove that Russia has lost control of the rebels, who have been complaining for some time of being abandoned by President Vladimir Putin.

Putin certainly didn’t plan for that to happen. There was no plan here. We do this and the other guys will have to do that, and then this other thing? That’s not how things work in the real world, no matter what Rush Limbaugh thinks. More often than not, screw-ups happen, no matter what your plan, and then you have to deal with what may look to others like a subtle plan, when it’s just chaos, which leads Andrew Sullivan to say this:

If the plane was downed by the Russian separatists – as seems pretty obvious from the smoking gun audio – then Putin has just found out how reckless grandstanding can come back and bite you back in the posterior. It will change a huge amount in the fraught politics between Putin’s neo-fascist Russia and Europe. The new Tsar will soon have a choice: to keep lying and become an international pariah, or to back down and get a grip. I suspect he’ll keep lying … and quietly back down.

That happens when an awful random event meets any clever plan. There’s denial, followed by quiet backing down, and it’s possible that this will happen to Israel in Gaza. As CNN reports, even their plan is a little hazy:

Deadly clashes broke out after Israeli tanks drove into Gaza and launched a ground operation that escalates the conflict with Hamas.

The incursion Thursday night follows 10 days of Israeli bombardment of Gaza that has killed more than 200 people. Israel launched the aerial offensive last week, saying it aimed to halt the firing of Hamas rockets from Gaza into Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon ordered the ground operation to destroy tunnels dug from Gaza into Israeli territory, according to a statement.

Thirteen Hamas militants used a tunnel earlier Thursday to launch an attempted attack in Sufa, near an Israeli kibbutz, but were stopped by Israeli soldiers, the Israel Defense Forces said.

The IDF said it had sent a “large” force into Gaza that includes infantry, tanks, artillery, combat engineers and intelligence units, with aerial and naval support. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Mark Regev, Netanyahu’s spokesman, whether Israel planned to occupy Gaza for a long time.

Regev didn’t answer directly, but said Israel’s goals are to “diminish” the Hamas military force and to show that it cannot attack Israel with impunity.

This is a major invasion with one minor objective – destroy those tunnels – and one vague general objective – to “diminish” the Hamas military force and show them who the boss is here, now, and forever, but not to take over the place and run it forever – all to keep Israel safe. The first is overkill and the second impossible. That’s pretty much what we tried in Iraq. That didn’t go well.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan puts it this way:

From a purely tactical and short-term view, this makes sense. From a strategic and medium-to-long-term view, it’s crazy.

The short-term outlook has a certain clarity. Hamas militants are firing rockets into Israel. There’s no dealing with Gaza’s government, since its leaders are Hamas militants. Retaliating with air strikes doesn’t finish the job and leads to horrible errors. So, let the tanks roll.

But let’s say an invasion crushes Hamas, a feasible outcome if the Israeli army were let loose. Then what? Either the Israelis have to re-occupy Gaza, with all the burdens and dangers that entails – the cost of cleaning up and providing services, the constant danger of gunfire and worse from local rebels (whose ranks will now include the fathers, brothers, and cousins of those killed), and the everyday demoralization afflicting the oppressed and the oppressors. Or the Israelis move in, and then get out, leaving a hellhole fertile for plowing by militias, including ISIS-style Islamists, far more dangerous than Hamas.

Either way, what’s the point?

They can have their own Iraq by doing what they’re doing – we should know – and Kaplan sees the core problem as this:

The Israeli government seems to have forgotten how to think strategically; at the very least, they have a self-destructive tendency to overplay their hands. For instance, in 2006, when Hezbollah made incursions into Israel from southern Lebanon, the entire Arab League condemned the action – an unprecedented act – and Egypt offered to host a summit where the League would consider actions. But then, Israel escalated the conflict, retaliating with massive, disproportionate air strikes, turning Hezbollah into local heroes and, more seriously, alienating the neighboring Arab states. Egypt called off the summit; the chance for a genuine strategic pivot was blown.

Now they’re blowing it again. Until this conflict with Gaza, Israel had been enjoying a level of security it hadn’t seen in many years. Terrorist attacks from the West Bank are all but nonexistent. Its enemies to the north – Syria, Hezbollah, and a gaggle of Islamist terrorist movements – are embroiled in their own wars with one another. Egypt is once again in the firm grip of a military government committed to putting down the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies (including Hamas). Iran has – at least for now – frozen its nuclear program, as a result of negotiations led by the Obama administration. And speaking of the beleaguered President Obama, the Iron Dome anti-missile shield, whose production he greatly accelerated, has shot down the few dozen – out of several hundred – Hamas rockets that would have exploded in Israeli cities.

Kaplan doesn’t make the connection, but once, long ago, there were those telling Bush, and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Rice, that Saddam Hussein wasn’t that big a threat and we were rather safe, or at least safe from his foolishness. And what would we do next if we ousted him? It wasn’t just the French who were saying that. A bit of a cowboy, Bush, and his posse, didn’t believe that. It just happened to be true, for what it’s worth, and this is a parallel situation:

Hamas is hardly blameless in this conflict, and the Israelis can’t be blamed for doing everything they can to stop a terrorist regime on their doorstep from firing rockets into their territory.

But it’s interesting that some of the most senior former Israeli intelligence officials have urged Israeli leaders to choose peace talks over war. In the stunning 2013 documentary The Gatekeepers, six former commanders of Shin Bet, Israel’s Secret Service, speak on camera, on the record, making just such a plea. They are hardly peaceniks. One of Shin Bet’s main missions is to infiltrate the Palestinian territories and root out terrorist cells. It was, and is, brutal work, and none of the commanders makes any apologies for it. But those who infiltrate a society often learn how it works: its culture, values, fears, and motives. They don’t condone or sympathize with what the terrorists do, but they understand its linkage to living under occupation – and they’ve concluded that this condition must end, unless Israel wants to face endless war.

Israel doesn’t want that, they’ve only chosen that, even if they don’t seem to realize they have. This happened to us more than ten years ago, but back then we didn’t have what Israel could have:

The Israeli leaders need an outsider to broaden their view, and that outsider can only be the United States. Exhausted as Kerry must be in his travels, and belabored as Obama must feel in his entire relationship with Netanyahu (and much else going on in the world), both need to immerse themselves in this crisis, work with Egypt to impose or cajole a cease-fire, then get Israel to realize its momentary strategic advantage and the need to seize the moment before it passes. That has to involve renewed negotiations for a two-state solution (even if the talks go nowhere), coupled with a freeze on settlements (in part to show good faith, in part because it’s the right thing to do), and a lavish program of aid and investment in the West Bank (to make it a showcase for Gazans seeking an alternative to their rulers who want only war).

It’s a large package, but the alternative is to watch Israel roll its tanks all the way into Gaza – and to lose a lot more than it might gain.

As Americans might say – been there, done that, got the t-shirt, so maybe we should send Netanyahu that t-shirt. On the other hand, in the New Republic, Yishai Schwartz argues that Israel just doesn’t have any other options:

Israel could have continued its aerial and artillery exchanges with Hamas, but this campaign did not appear to be damaging either the will or the capability of Hamas. It could have loosened its rules of engagement and struck Hamas more effectively – but doing so would have inflicted unconscionably disproportionate civilian damage. It could have capitulated to Hamas’s ultimatums to release hundreds of security prisoners and reopened Gaza to shipments of arms- and tunnel-making materials. Apart from the moral implications of such a concession, doing so would simply have strengthened Hamas and ensured additional fighting. An extended cease-fire would be ideal. But so far, Egyptian attempts to broker such a cease-fire seem to have fallen on deaf ears. So Netanyahu was left with a choice that wasn’t really much of a choice.

Planning, based on careful consideration of correlation and possible causation goes out the window. Do stuff. See what happens. And then there’s what just happened in the skies over Ukraine. Sometimes people just screw up, big time, and it becomes necessary to fake it. Either way, drawing on all your pattern-recognition skills does no good. None of this is related to any of this in any way. Don’t tell Rush Limbaugh, but most of the news is like that – no correlation, much less causation. Everything happens for a reason? It could be that that’s just not so, or that the reason is never what we want it to be.

Posted in Israel and the Palestinians, Israel Invades Gaza, Ukrainian Crisis | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Agony of Having It All

The Occupy Wall Street crowd, that introduced America to the concept of the One Percent who had it all, and want to keep it all, and use their vast wealth to make sure they keep it all, by buying the levers of power, jumped the gun. They made their move in late 2011 and nothing much came of it. Americans seemed to still think that the few at the top were better and smarter than the rest of us, that the rest of us weren’t up there on top because there was something wrong with us – and maybe if we got our act together, if we shaped up and did the right things, we’d be right up there with them too. Those were the smart people, and the good people, and the job creators after all – even if some of them were jerks, even if many of them caused the economic collapse of 2008 with their wild speculation and by lying and cheating the poor suckers who took out absurd mortgages or bought their worthless mortgage-backed securities, those at the top still had to be protected. They were our financial system. Maybe they were a necessary evil, but they were necessary – and you can’t resent someone for being successful. You might be successful one day. You wouldn’t want people to resent you. That wouldn’t be fair.

It took a few years but America finally got over that. This is the year that those two documentaries on the Koch brothers were finally widely available – Koch Brothers Exposed and Citizen Koch – and this year also brought us Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty – if you prefer reading a book to watching a movie. Those two are the face of the One Percent, and the big bestseller this year is Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century – the detailed explanation of why we have the widest income inequality we’ve ever seen, and why it’s going to get much worse, and how that’s big trouble. Books on economic theory, by economists, never become bestsellers, but this one did. America final caught up to Occupy Wall Street. Something is wrong here. They whole system is out of whack. Almost everyone is getting screwed over. It’s not fair. It’s not right. And it’s dangerous.

The Democrats will run on this in 2016, and Hillary Clinton had better watch her back. She can say it’s not fair and it’s not right, but who would believe her, the friend of Wall Street and the woman whose speaking fees could feed a family of four for a decade? Elizabeth Warren, who lives and breathes economic populism, and who can give one fiery speech after another on economic fairness, and actually believes it all, might clean Hillary Clinton’s clock. The Republicans can only respond with what they always say – don’t pick on the successful – they made America great and will continue to make America great – and you too will be just as successful one day if the government just leaves everyone alone – and look, someone you don’t like is getting affordable healthcare and their funny looking kid is getting free lunch at school, and it’s fresh healthy food too! The battle lines have been drawn.

Save for the resentment-factor, this doesn’t seem like a fair fight – the chances of everyone becoming as wealthy as the Koch brothers or the Walton family are far more remote than winning those the big multistate lotteries twice week for a month. Everyone knows that’s not gonna happen, but luckily, those who have it all, and want to keep it all, and use their vast wealth to make sure they keep it all, by buying the levers of power, had found and nurtured and financed a steadfast ally in that effort – the Tea Party movement.

That has worked out well. The losers in life, making little and still paying taxes, and seeing people not like them receiving goodies from the government, paid for with their pwn painfully forfeited tax dollars, damn it, hate paying taxes as much as the rich folks hate paying taxes. And they hate big government just as much the rich folks hate big government, even if for different reasons. The rich want low taxes in order to stay rich and get even richer, and they want small-government so there’ll be no meaningful pesky regulation of what they’re up to, for the same reason. The low-end movement that they nurtured and financed, however, just wants some relief from their tax burden, to survive. Their resentment of the wrong sort of people getting “goodies” from the government, paid for with their money, was the fuel for the fire of outrage that the Koch brothers could light to get what both sides wanted – and they lit that fire. All it took was a few millions dollars targeted here and there – chump change for the Koch guys and a few others, and money well spent. Everyone hates taxes, even if they have quite different motivations. Everyone hates the IRS – so attack that. The IRS is the enemy, not the rich.

There’s not much new here. Think back to 1998 – the year Frank Sinatra died and Bill Clinton was impeached and Google was founded – and the year Senator Bill Roth had his IRS hearings:

The Internal Revenue Service was once again under fire on Capitol Hill Tuesday, as a Senate committee launched another round of hearings, this time focusing on alleged abuses of power inside the tax agency.

In the first of four days of testimony from taxpayers and agents, the Senate Finance Committee heard instances of the IRS stepping over the line, including stories of retaliation against whistleblowers and raids on taxpayers’ homes that may not have been justified.

Some of the harshest criticism was aimed at the agency’s criminal investigation division, as witnesses complained that the investigators used excessive techniques and were out of control.

Tax attorney Robert Davis characterized the investigative agents as “cowboy agents” who are “undisciplined, who are inadequately controlled, and who think that the end of putting away the bad guys justifies the means, that is these intrusive, intimidating and oppressive investigations.”

Steve Benen has characterized those hearings this way:

One of the great scams of the 90s was the Roth Hearings, a brilliant piece of performance art staged by Senator William Roth as an attack on the Internal Revenue Service. The hearings were deliberately dramatic: Roth held them in a committee room designed to block electronic eavesdropping and had guards search everyone before they entered the chamber. IRS employees called as witnesses were blocked by black curtains and had their voices electronically altered, like mobsters afraid of being murdered in their sleep.

The testimony was equally dramatic: IRS agents, they said, routinely made false accusations against people, busted into people’s homes and waved guns in their faces, and once even forced a girl caught in a raid to change her clothes while agents watched.

As it happens, virtually none of this was true, but that didn’t matter. Republicans lined up to denounce the IRS as “Gestapo-like” and a law was quickly passed that handcuffed agents and slashed the budget for audits and enforcement, especially against high-income taxpayers. It was a boon for the rich in the same way that it would be a boon for drug dealers and street criminals if Congress slashed the budgets of local police departments.

Hey, it worked, and that was before there was a Tea Party to represent the oppressed “little guy” getting screwed, and Kevin Drum sees how this sort of thing continues:

The most recent is the seemingly endless investigation into charges that the IRS targeted grassroots conservative nonprofits at the behest of its partisan masters. These charges have turned out to be almost entirely groundless – just like Roth’s – but don’t make the mistake of thinking this makes them pointless. You just have to wait for the other shoe to drop.

Drum notes that the other shoe just dropped:

The House late Monday night adopted proposals by voice vote to cut funding for the Internal Revenue Service. Rep. Paul Gosar’s (R-Ariz.) amendment to the fiscal 2015 Financial Services appropriations bill would cut funding for the IRS by $353 million. Specifically, Gosar’s amendment would cut that funding from the IRS enforcement account and use it toward deficit reduction.

Gosar argued that funding for the IRS would be better used toward reducing the deficit than toward the agency caught in GOP crosshairs…”More directly than financial or condition of the country is the fact that this agency has shown contempt for the American taxpayer.”

Drum:

The Roth Hearings ended up with reduced funding for IRS enforcement, something that took over a decade to recover from. Now Gosar wants to cut IRS enforcement funding too. Coincidence? Not so much. If you want to reduce taxes on the wealthy, after all, there are two ways to do it. You can either reduce their tax rates or you can make it easier for them to evade the tax rates that already exist. Either way, it’s a boon to anyone with lots of money and good tax planners. But I repeat myself.

In any case, this was always inevitable. The goal of anti-IRS jihads is always to reduce funding for enforcement. And despite what Gosar might want you to believe, very little enforcement has ever been aimed at middle-class taxpayers or small nonprofits. It’s mostly aimed at the rich, for obvious Willie Suttonish reasons. Weakening enforcement actions against the Republican Party’s core constituency has always been the end game for the IRS scandal, and now we’re finally there.

The famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks and gave the obvious answer – “because that’s where the money is” – and Drum thinks this is the same sort of thing. Defund the IRS and keep your money. It’s pretty simple, as is this from Rita Rudner – “Someday I want to be rich. Some people get so rich they lose all respect for humanity. That’s how rich I want to be.”

Were Elizabeth Warren a sixty-year-old left-leaning comedienne she’d say something like that, but she’s a bit more circumspect – and it’s not the the rich don’t know folks will laugh at a line like that, because it seems to hit on the basic idea here. In fact, Paul Waldman examines their plight:

As we well know by now, being rich in America is tough. Imagine driving your Porsche out the Goldman Sachs garage, intent on a relaxing weekend at your Hamptons retreat, only to find some wretched Occupy sympathizer giving you a dirty look through the haze of patchouli and resentment that surrounds him. Who could endure it? No wonder they keep comparing their fearful existence to that of the Jews of late-1930s Germany.

Cute, but Waldman points out that now, according to the Washington Examiner, these folks have a new worry:

Democratic super PACs have outraised their Republican counterparts by millions, a factor attributed in part to GOP donors’ fear of being targeted by the Internal Revenue Service – or “getting Koch’ed.”

Republican political operatives concede that there are multiple reasons for the Democrats’ advantage in super PAC money raised.

Among them: Labor unions have become among their largest and most consistent donors. But this election cycle, two new challenges have chilled GOP super PACs’ effort to raise cash from wealthy individuals and corporate donors: anxiety that they could get slapped with an IRS audit and unease that donating could lead to public demonization.

It’s that damned IRS! Those folks must be stopped! And Waldman is amused:

Not to let facts intrude on their paranoid fantasies, but let’s not forget what the IRS scandalette actually involved. There’s never been any credible allegation that anyone was audited because of their political beliefs. There’s never been any allegation that the IRS “targeted” donors to Republican super PACs. The worst thing that happened was that some Tea Party groups that had applied for 501(c)(4) status – claiming, utterly falsely, that they were charitable, non-political organizations, I might add – had to wait longer than they should have to get approval on their applications. (And, I have to repeat, when you’re waiting for your approval, you’re permitted under the law to act as though you’ve gotten your approval. You can raise and spend money, which they did.)

On the second point, I suppose one might be concerned that Harry Reid would go to the Senate floor and denounce you for undermining our democracy with your donations, even if those donations are perfectly legal. But in order for that to happen, you’re really going to have to get into the first rank of donors. A couple hundred thousand dollars isn’t going to do it; in order to be “demonized,” your contributions are going to have to reach at least eight figures.

Maybe it’s time for these folks to grow a pair:

I’m sure it’s unpleasant for the Kochs to get criticized by politicians. But being criticized – even vigorously and even sometimes unfairly – is the price you pay for certain choices you make. If you decide to do anything that puts your efforts in front of the public – running for office, becoming an actor, or being a writer, among other things – people who don’t like that work are going to tell you so. They may even say rude things, like “You’re an idiot” or “You suck,” or whatever other insults their limited creativity can produce. People track me down to tell me things like that all the time. It certainly isn’t fun to hear, but since I’ve chosen a profession where my work is public, it’s just part of the deal.

That is the deal. If you hate the IRS, because you believe that all taxation is theft – from you, specifically – and that the government is always too big and should not do much of anything – then say so out loud, and put you money where your mouth is, and show everyone your receipt from the treasurer of that SuperPAC – waving it around, proudly. Stand with the Koch brothers. What, is Elizabeth Warren going to say bad things about you? What do you care?

Of course it’s never that simple where the rubber meets the road, literally, as Greg Sargent explains:

It’s funny how quickly House Republicans will tell conservative groups to take a hike when refusing to engage in basic governing becomes politically unsustainable.

Late yesterday, the GOP-controlled House overwhelmingly passed a temporary $10.9 billion fix to the Highway Trust Fund, replenishing it until next spring. The White House had warned insolvency could grind state infrastructure projects to a halt and cost as many as 700,000 jobs. As Glenn Kessler explains, this figure is probably overstated. But economic firms such as Moody’s Analytics were warning that failure could imperil the recovery just when it may be poised to accelerate.

The House GOP fix is loaded with gimmicks, and it defers the tougher decisions over how to keep the fund going over the long term. But it avoids a short term disaster, so the White House is supporting it grudgingly. I’m told the Dem-controlled Senate will likely pass it. “We’ll probably end up passing theirs,” a Senate Dem aide emails.

It seems no one has the courage of their convictions:

Conservative groups such as Heritage Action had warned darkly that Republicans must not “bail out” the HTF. Yet the HTF fix passed the House by 367-55. As the New York Times observes, this was “another in a series of defeats for conservative groups” who think “responsibility for highways and bridges should return to state and local governments.”

That might be unworkable:

The battle over infrastructure in the context of the HTF is one area where GOP anti-government rhetoric collides with reality. It’s easy for Republicans to strut around ranting about crony capitalism, and they know they can attack the Export-Import Bank’s efforts to help U.S. exporters as improper Big Gummint meddling in the economy because no one cares about it. But here was a case where infrastructure projects – and jobs – could have been put on ice in many GOP districts.

Sargent also points out the New York Times editorial board points out something basic, that infrastructure funding is “one of the most basic functions of government,” and the “enormous cost to society of poor infrastructure grows every year, and most of the blame can be placed directly on a Congress that refuses to collect and spend enough money to fix it.”

You may think government is useless, in the abstract, but roads and bridges and ports, and running water and electricity, are pretty nifty. Every country should have those. Any country that doesn’t isn’t much of a country. There are the most basic functions of government, and then there is ideology. Perhaps we can save the ideology discussion for later, when funding for a new space telescope comes up again. As for roads, could we all just chip in for roads? People need to get to work, manufactures need to get their products to market, and people and products to travel not only from town to town but also from state to state, so maintaining a highway system is exactly what a national government ought to be doing. What’s so hard about that? Sargent also point out that according to Moody’s calculations state and local investment in infrastructure as a percentage of GDP is lower than at any point since World War II – so they’re not doing a damned thing. Someone has to do something.

Will it be the libertarian small-government no-taxes wealthy and the Tea Party cheerleading squad they’ve hired? They’ll do nothing, at least as David Atkins sees it:

Republicans aren’t really “conservative” anymore. These are radical economic libertarian ideologues as wild-eyed and unrealistic about human nature and economics as any Bolshevik. What they want is a society that has never existed before in modern history, testing an already-discredited economic theory that has never been pursued to its full extent because it’s too demonstrably crazy, with social order enforced by a code of morality and institutional hierarchy most voters have already rejected.

That’s why American politics is so impossible right now. These are not traditional disagreements over this program or that, or the size and scope of this effort or that one. Modern Republicans aren’t conservatives so much as revolutionary revanchists, seeking to “take back their country” by creating a libertarian economic utopia such as has never existed (nor, due to its internal unworkability, will it ever exist) in the world. The left can point to other countries that work reasonably well along the lines we would prefer: we can point to Canada, Germany, Sweden and many other countries besides whose solutions to vexing American policy problems have worked out substantially well for them. Republicans cannot point to similar examples because they do not exist.

Yes, they cannot point to another wonderful country where if you want to go somewhere you buy the land and hire someone to build you a road, or you stay home. There is also no other rich and successful nation where there is nothing like the IRS because no one pays any taxes at all. No one likes the tax man, and being rich can be a drag, with all the little people whining about this and that, and a strong central government establishing basic rules for how citizens must behave can seem oppressive, but maybe some things are necessary. Perhaps those who believe otherwise should move to that other imaginary country. Somalia is supposed to be nice this time of year.

No, they’ll stay here, telling us about the agony of having it all when everyone else has very little, expecting a bit of communal sympathy – and deep respect too – because the pain of it all is just not fair. Then they’ll ask for our vote. Everyone knows what happens next.

Posted in Defending the Rich, Income Inequality | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment