In this week’s MRN, we offer background links on subjects ranging from ethnonationalism to “cultural Marxism” to the midterm elections. Plus various angles on the Saudi murder case, Elizabeth Warren’s DNA, and other news of the week. Also: the gruesome truth about the DC foreign policy swamp that Trump isn’t draining. And in News You Can Use: What you can do about US involvement in the Saudi war on Yemen.
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Roughhousing: After two weeks of denials, Saudi Arabia conceded that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed by Saudi operatives in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul—but said the death resulted from a “fist fight,” not premeditated murder. Five Saudi officials were fired and 18 Saudis were arrested, paving the way for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely thought to have ordered the operation, to claim ignorance of it and blame underlings.
Caravan approaches: Trump threatened to send troops to secure the southern border if the Mexican government allows a caravan of 4,000 Central American migrants to pass through the country.
DNA announcement DOA: Senator and likely presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, whose claim of Cherokee heritage has often been mocked by Trump, released DNA test results suggesting she has a Native American ancestor between six and ten generations in the past. The move, intended to put the issue to rest, got negative feedback from conservatives, liberals, and the Cherokee Nation itself.
American mercenaries: Buzzfeed reported that former American soldiers were paid by the United Arab Emirates to assassinate people in Yemen for several months during the Obama administration. Speaking on the BBC, Buzzfeed reporter Aram Roston said that “everyone I spoke with said it’s simply inconceivable” that no American military or intelligence officials knew about the arrangement.
Deficit grows: The Treasury Department reported that the 2018 budget deficit has grown to $779 billion, its highest level in six years and 17 percent higher than in 2017. Trump critics called this a predictable consequence of the GOP tax cut, but Mitch McConnell said entitlements are the real culprit.
And you thought they were mellow before: Canada became the second country to legalize marijuana for recreational use.
Circular firing squad forms around alleged firing: Multiple journalists reported on Tuesday that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the subject of 14 government investigations, had fired the department’s inspector general and replaced her with a political appointee. But on Thursday the Interior Department claimed that the inspector general hadn’t been fired, and pinned the blame for the misunderstanding on HUD Secretary Ben Carson—who, it said, had sent an email with “100 percent false information.”
For-profit colleges suffer loss: A federal court thwarted a Trump administration attempt to undermine Obama-era regulations meant to protect students from predatory loans. The regulations, which Betsy DeVos’s Education Department had delayed implementing, would make it easier for students to get federal loan forgiveness and allow students to take for-profit colleges to court for fraud.
Disenfranchisement claimed: The ACLU sued Georgia in response to hundreds of absentee ballots being rejected.
My favorite subject (Bob): Thanks to everyone who wrote in suggesting names for this “Notes from Bob” (formerly “The Bob-O-Sphere”) section. Nominees included Wright Resistance (from Keith), The Rob Report (Paula), Notes from Bob’s Not-self (Jim), Wright Thinking (Rob), and Bobbing for Truth (David). Brian counseled reverting to the Bob-O-Sphere. (“Don’t give in to peer pressure.”) Shockingly, nobody suggested Wright Angles. (Come on, people—if you’re going to play this game, put on your “embarrassingly bad pun” hats!). Nor did we get a “Wright Mindfulness” nominee. Among possible hybrids of the above candidates, I like The Wright Report. But I’m not going to do anything rash.
Trump’s admirable candor: On the one hand, Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia, may be a man who is inclined to have his critics chopped up into little bits. On the other hand, he gives us lots of money. And, really, what’s a single episode of dismemberment compared to lots of money?
That seemed to be the subtext of Trump’s remarks early this week when he was asked about Turkey’s claims to have evidence of the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Such evidence may well exist, Trump said—but when he visited Saudi Arabia last year, the Saudis “committed to purchase $450 billion worth of things, and $110 billion worth of military.” Both numbers are wildly exaggerated, but never mind; they presumably figured in Trump’s accepting, later in the week, the highly dubious official Saudi story about how Khashoggi died.
Predictably, Trump opponents were appalled by Trump’s emphasis on incoming Saudi cash. Also predictably, they were appalled that Trump supporters weren’t appalled. How on earth could a person keep supporting Trump in light of his inhumanly cold calculations and his candid admission of them?
I think the key word here is “candid.” To Trump supporters, this candor proves Trump isn’t a member of that most despicable of groups, typical politicians. Typical politicians cloak their cold geopolitical calculations in phony talk about “shared values” and the like, whereas Trump is bracingly transparent.
And there’s some truth in this. Historically, presidents have countenanced the killing of all kinds of innocents for all kinds of ignoble reasons, ranging from the crassly commercial to the coldly economic or political. And they’ve pretty much never fessed up to these motivations.
I note this mainly to emphasize that the mission of the #Resistance shouldn’t be to just bring the Trump era to a close—to turn back the clock to the glorious pre-Trump era. The reason Trump is president is because the pre-Trump era wasn’t glorious. It gave birth to a number of dark things that helped get Trump elected, including a severe cynicism about politicians that wasn’t, to say the least, wholly without foundation. As we look forward to the day when Trump packs his bags and leaves Washington, we need to be thinking about how we can—if you’ll pardon the expression—drain the swamp that helped get him there.
Trump’s troubling lack of candor: I don’t mean to suggest that Trump is anywhere near completely transparent about his motivations. His core policy in the Middle East is to join with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to confront Iran so forcefully (both militarily and economically) that war may ensue. And he never mentions that this policy deeply gratifies his biggest donor, the octogenarian casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Adelson, who spent tens of millions of dollars getting Trump elected and recently committed tens of millions more to help Republicans keep control of Congress, once seriously advocated dropping a nuclear bomb on Iran (in the desert, just to show that “we mean business”).
In the Washington swamp, campaign donations are just one of the ways rich people and powerful interest groups get their way. Adelson has funded, among other things, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a “think tank” that pays its thinkers to declare, on America’s opinion pages and in congressional testimony, that the economic strangulation and military confrontation of Iran is a great idea. And Adelson’s not alone. A lot of other right-wing “pro-Israel” advocates give money to FDD and to other thinks tanks that keep finding reasons to be hawkish toward Iran. And this money is increasingly joined by money from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Sometimes these funders find ways to cut out the middleman and put money directly into the pockets of individual pundits, such as the host of the prominent foreign policy podcast Deep State Radio.
The people who get this money aren’t necessarily corrupt. Many of them actually believe the things their patrons want them to say. The corruption lies less at the personal level—the level of individual pundits and think tankers—than at the systemic level, in the fact that people who believe certain kinds of things get an artificial boost in prominence and influence.
Why do the beliefs that get this boost tend to be hawkish? Foreign policy is something most Americans, including rich ones, don’t care much about. So the subsidizing of foreign policy thinking is left to people (and countries) with intense commitments to specific issues, and intense commitment in this realm often means belligerence.
The main exception to this rule—the main source of money not tied to intense commitments to specific issues in specific regions such as the Middle East or China—is the armaments industry. The money it showers on Washington has the effect of supplementing the narrow, tightly focused hawkishness of people like Sheldon Adelson and countries like Saudi Arabia with a broad, vague hawkishness. And that’s pretty much the whole story when it comes to money as it shapes issues of war and peace in America. The countervailing force—the dovish money that influences thinking and policy in this realm—is so modest in comparison that “force” isn’t really the right word.
Asymmetrical warfare: On this week’s DMZ Show (the bloggingheads.tv podcast featuring liberal Bill Scher and conservative Matt Lewis), Lewis trotted out a theory about the final weeks of the midterm election campaign: “Anything that excites or stokes people actually benefits Republicans.” After all, “Democrats are already excited,” so “if Trump says something crazy or stupid,” that won’t do much for Democratic turnout. But if Democrats say something crazy or stupid, previously complacent Republican voters may head for the polls.
This week offered an example of how Lewis’s theory could play out.
Trump said a couple of seemingly outrageous things. At a Montana rally, he praised GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte for physically assaulting a journalist last year. And on Twitter he called his former paramour Stormy Daniels “horseface” after she lost a defamation suit against him. On the other side of the fence, Trump opponent Rosie O’Donnell said a seemingly outrageous thing: “I want to send the military to the White House to get him [Trump].”
Now, if you watch the video, it looks like O’Donnell is probably joking (though she wasn’t joking when, moments earlier, she recalled her view in November of 2016 that “we should impose martial law until we make sure the Russians weren’t involved in the final tally of the votes.”) But, according to Lewis’s theory, that may not matter: arguably outrageous statements from the left will have more impact than unambiguously outrageous statements from the right.
Is Lewis’s theory right? Your guess is as good as mine. But, ominously for Democrats, the Daily Caller story about O’Donnell’s remark was the most shared news story on Facebook on Thursday.
Don’t be evil: Last week we ran an item in The Week noting that Google had pulled out of the bidding for a $10 billion Pentagon contract. We preceded the item with the boldfaced heading “Don’t be evil.” MRN reader Scott, who works for the Defense Department, wrote in saying we had “crossed a line.” He added, “Just what evil you see I can only guess. Perhaps you disagree with aspects of the US Government’s foreign policy. If so, keep in mind that elected civilians and their selected underlings run the government and set policy. Perhaps you think war is evil and any organization that engages in war must also be evil. That sort of thinking helped weaken western European countries and opened the door for Hitler to start World War Two. War is never desirable, but like surgery, it is sometimes necessary…”
Actually, the “Don’t be evil” title wasn’t meant as an editorial comment. It was an allusion to Google’s motto. A reference to the motto seemed apt, since Google’s change of policy was spurred by protest from employees—some of whom, no doubt, alluded to the motto in the course of making their case.
As for my own take on this complicated question:
1) I have a genuine respect and affinity for the military. I grew up on and around army bases, as my father was a career officer. I once wrote a fond reminisce for the New York Times called “My Life in the Army”.
2) I think in recent years America’s use of its military has been often unconscionable (as with our current logistical support for Saudi planes that bomb Yemen) and sometimes has been in violation of international law (as with the Iraq war). But, yes, there are things our military does that I approve of. And what Google did—declining to help build computing infrastructure for the Pentagon broadly—does seem like a pretty blunt instrument.
If I were ever to get so worked up about America’s militarism as to, say, engage in some kind of civil disobedience, it wouldn’t be that blunt. I wouldn’t, for example, refuse to pay the portion of my taxes that goes to the Pentagon. It would be more like refusing to pay the portion of my taxes that supports the infrastructure of permanent, undeclared, global war, ranging from the stationing of troops in Syria (a violation of international law, among other things) to various ill-advised (IMHO) drone strikes.
Anyway, I do acknowledge the complexity of the issue. If any readers want to weigh in on this—about how to protest excessive militarism, or how to define excessive militarism, feel free to do what Scott did: write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The blob in the swamp: Last week I spoke with Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt about his new book The Hell of Good Intentions, a scathing indictment of the foreign policy establishment (aka “the blob”). You can watch that here, on bloggingheads.tv, or listen to it by subscribing to The Wright Show audio podcast.
MRN unplugged: Before we put this newsletter together, I sometimes discuss the week’s events with others on the staff as a way to prime the pump. We’re experimenting with taping some such conversations and posting them for the benefit of any MRN readers who face a grave shortage of entertainment options. So here is me talking with our Russia correspondent, Nikita Petrov, about Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test, and Trump’s “Horseface” tweet about Stormy Daniels, and the alleged murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as less well-known stories like Putin’s recent comments about the possibility of a nuclear war, the big split within Orthodox Christianity, and my dog Milo losing ten teeth. If you click on any of these links and look at the “pinned” comment beneath the video, you’ll find a much longer list of topics you can click.
On Twitter, journalist Osha Mahmoud lays out the series of false statements about the fate of journalist Jamal Khashoggi issued by the Saudi government and its proxies before it finally conceded on Friday that Khashoggi had died in its embassy in Istanbul.
In Buzzfeed, Emily Tamkin writes about how think tanks are responding to new scrutiny over funding from Saudi Arabia. The Brookings Institute announced it would no longer accept Saudi money.
In the New York Times, Maggie Astor explores why the Cherokee Nation didn’t respond warmly to Sen. Warren’s claim of Native American ancestry. In the Atlantic a geneticist who is a member of the Navajo Nation weighs in.
In Buzzfeed, Ben Smith writes that this week’s Elizabeth Warren story illustrates how easy Trump will find it to “dominate” the Democratic presidential primary unless journalists change the way they operate.
The New York Times provides background on the migrant caravan that originated in Honduras. Apparently the caravan required little orchestration. The original group of two hundred migrants departed from a city known for high rates of violence, and its numbers grew rapidly as news spread via television and word of mouth. Traveling in the caravan provides safety in numbers against criminals who prey on migrants.
The New York Times caught heat for its profile of Gavin McInnes, founder of the far-right men’s group the Proud Boys. The Times was criticized for glossing over McInnes’s flirtations with Nazism and Holocaust denial and his endorsement of violence.
Twitter took down a bot network that was tweeting messages in Arabic supporting the official Saudi line about the Khashoggi case.
On CNN.com, Ron Brownstein summarizes the trends and developments that should most encourage Democrats, and the ones that should most discourage them, as the midterm elections approach.
The New York Times explores how an “army of Twitter trolls” fit into a larger Saudi effort to identify and counteract critics of the Saudi regime. The consulting firm McKinsey, according to the Times, helped Saudi Arabia identify three influential Twitter critics, after which one of them was arrested by the Saudis, another saw two of his brothers arrested, and the third saw his (anonymous) account shut down.
In Lobelog Graham Fuller argues that the consequences of the Jamal Khashoggi killing can’t be fully understood without reference to the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which involves a kind of struggle for the soul of Islam.
A New York Times story early this week explored the fear on the part of Trump administration officials that Saudi involvement in the Khashoggi killing could jeopardize their strategy of portraying Iran as the primary source of instability in the Middle East. In Foreign Affairs, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo details the administration’s plan for confronting Iran.
In the New York Times, Thomas Edsall argues that the Democratic party’s drift to the left has been long in the making and is driven more by white voters than minorities. For example, white liberals now place “much stronger emphasis than African-Americans on the role of discrimination” in holding back African-American advancement.
Ethnonationalists are misusing data from genetics research, according to a forthcoming statement from the American Society of Human Genetics. In an effort to give scientific legitimacy to racist rhetoric, for example, far-right groups have taken to chugging milk as a supposed show of genetic superiority over non-European ethnic groups that have higher rates of lactose intolerance.
In Reason Magazine, Brian Doherty dissects the idea, propagated by figures ranging from Pat Buchanan to Jordan Peterson, that “cultural Marxists” threaten Western civilization.
An essay in Aeon examines the culture of dueling and Voltaire’s relationship to it, proposing three ways to look at offense today: as hurt, as harm, and as insult.
Millions of public comments submitted to the FCC opposing net neutrality came from fake accounts using stolen identities, and New York’s attorney general has subpoenaed dozens of telecom industry organizations as part of an investigation.
Vermont has an unusually high level of voter registration—92.5 percent of eligible voters are registered—due, in part, to a new system that automatically registers residents whenever they make a change to their driver’s license or other forms of ID.
The Russian Orthodox Church officially cut ties with the Constantinople Patriarchate after the latter recognized the independence of the Ukrainian Church. This is the biggest split in the Eastern Orthodox Church since it took shape in the 11th century.
NEWS YOU CAN USE
Yemen is the site of the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world, caused by a three-year, Saudi-led military campaign along with a Saudi economic blockade. The US gives logistical support to the Saudis, as well as selling weapons to them, but opposition to the US role has long been growing and may grow further after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi operatives. If you oppose America’s role, you can contact your representative and encourage support for House Concurrent Resolution 138, which directs the president to remove US Armed Forces from hostilities in Yemen within 30 days.
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade, Brian Degenhart,
Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh
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