Issue #32: Mar 11–Mar 17, 2018

In this week’s newsletter, after we summarize yet another high-intensity week, including a State Department personnel change that some fear makes war with Iran more likely, I look at how think tanks and media outlets have for some time been making war with Iran more likely. Then we examine a link between this newsletter and marijuana; bestow the Dubious Tweet of the Week Award to a well-known and worthy recipient; and offer background links on such subjects as the Democratic Party’s civil war, YouTube’s allegedly radicalizing tendencies, and the allegedly non-radical tendencies of college students.

–Robert Wright

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Shakeup at State: Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and said he would replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who in turn would be replaced by Pompeo’s deputy, Gina Haspel. But it would take only two Republican votes in the Senate to deny confirmation to Pompeo or Haspel, assuming Democratic unity. And Republican Sen. Rand Paul quickly announced his opposition to both, claiming they want war with Iran and have supported torture. Fellow Republican John McCain expressed doubts about Haspel. She reportedly was in charge of a Thailand “black site” when Al Qaeda suspect Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was waterboarded, and she is said to have urged that video evidence of waterboarding be destroyed. (A 2017 report that she also personally oversaw the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah was retracted by ProPublica last week.)

Pompeo’s Iran thing: As for the basis of Rand Paul’s fears that a Tillerson-to-Pompeo transition could lead to war with Iran: Part of the concern is that Pompeo, unlike Tillerson, shares Trump’s inclination to tear up the Iran nuclear deal, which seems to be exerting a stabilizing influence in the Middle East by, among other things, ensuring that Iran doesn’t develop nuclear weapons. More deeply, Pompeo holds the extreme view that, as he has put it, Iran is “intent on destroying America” (a view that may be partly grounded in a suspicion of Muslims that has put Pompeo in league with some of America’s most extreme Islamophobes).

And as for Korea: Pompeo would be more hawkish than Tillerson on North Korea, not just Iran. But the Korean Peninsula seems a less likely battleground than the Middle East. There are more regional players in the Middle East than in Asia pushing the US toward conflict, and more American institutions fomenting tensions with Iran than with North Korea. (For elaboration on some of the forces pushing the US toward conflict with Iran, see HOW COGNITIVE EMPATHY CAN PREVENT WAR, below.) Also, the chaotic landscape in Syria, a country inhabited by conflicting armies and militias, including both Americans and Iranians, is fertile ground for small-scale conflicts that could escalate. Add to all this one other factor—widespread reports that Trump will soon replace national security adviser H.R. McMaster, possibly with someone as belligerent as John Bolton—and the chances of conflict with both Iran and North Korea rise further. In the Pompeo-Bolton scenario, Defense Secretary James Mattis—no dove, and no Iran sympathizer, but a fairly judicious man, as people in this administration go—would be the main check on military adventurism.

Lambslide: Democrat Conor Lamb won the special election to represent Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, freaking out Republicans worried about losing control of the House in November’s midterm elections. Trump had won the district by 20 points, and he paid it a visit right before the special election, but to no avail. In the lefties-vs.-moderates debate playing out in the Democratic party, Lamb is on the side of the moderates. He didn’t attack Trump personally, and he embracedTrump’s steel and aluminum tariffs. But he did criticize the Republican tax reform law, so his victory suggests that lower tax rates may not by themselves be enough to protect Republicans from a “blue wave.”

To boldly go where no non-economist has gone before: Trump appointed Lawrence Kudlow to be his top economic adviser, replacing Gary Cohn, who quit in protest of Trump’s tariffs. Kudlow, a former Wall Street executive who has no graduate or undergraduate degree in economics, is a financial commentator on TV. Economist Brad DeLong said Trump’s Kudlow appointment was like appointing “William Shatner to command the Navy’s 7th Fleet.” Kudlow opposed the very Trump tariffs that sent his predecessor packing, but he is an ardent tax-cut advocate, and is already pushing a second tax bill.

Mueller gets personal: The New York Times reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has subpoenaed “records related to Russia and other topics he is investigating” from the Trump Organization. The subpoena would seem to be somewhere in the vicinity of the red line Trump laid down in July, when he threatened to end Mueller’s investigation if the special counsel started looking into his family’s finances. Meanwhile, the Republicans who run the House Intelligence Committee—and who have been labeled Trump shills by some Democrats—ended their investigation, concluding that there was no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

More Stormy: As of Friday morning, we were poised to publish an issue of MRN that made no mention of adult film star Stormy Daniels. But then Trump alleged in legal papers that Daniels had violated an agreement not to talk about the 2006 sexual affair with him that he had previously denied having. Trump is seeking as much as $20 million from Daniels for the alleged violation. Some speculate that Trump hopes to, among other things, prevent 60 Minutes from broadcasting an interview with Daniels that is scheduled to air on March 25.

Tougher on Russia: The Treasury Department imposed sanctions to punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 presidential election. Targets of the sanctions include all the Russians and Russian entities indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller last month. The sanctions came on the same day that the US joined with France and Germany to back the British claim that Russia was likely responsible for a nerve agent attack against a former Russian spy in Britain.

Trump balks, students walk: President Trump withdrew his previously expressed support for gun control measures opposed by the NRA, such as raising the minimum age for buying a gun, and focused instead on such NRA-approved measures as arming teachers. Hundreds of thousands of students across the country walked out of school on Wednesday to protest gun violence.

Dodd-Frank rollback: The Senate passed, by a vote of 67-31, a bill that would ease some of the banking regulations imposed after the financial crash of 2008. The bill was opposed by all Democratic senators who are considered contenders for the 2020 presidential nomination.

FBI firing: Andrew McCabe, former deputy director of the FBI, was fired from the FBI by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions said McCabe had leaked information to the media and “lacked candor” when questioned by FBI internal investigators. McCabe suggested his firing had been orchestrated by Trump to discredit him as a witness against Trump in the Mueller investigation.

Other exits: John McEntee, a former campaign aide to Trump who had become the president’s “body man,” was fired and escorted off the White House grounds, reportedly because he had a gambling habit thought to pose a security risk. An adviser to the Department of Housing and Urban Development severed ties to HUD after The Guardian uncovered evidence that he was an international con artist. A regional spokesman for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) resigned because, he said, ICE had disseminated false information.

Cleansing the State Department? There has been a coordinated effort between Trump administration officials and conservative activists to malign career State Department officials and drive them from their posts, according to emails that a whistleblower gave to House Democrats and that were described in a Politico story. For example: neoconservative David Wurmser, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, singled out a civil servant of Iranian descent, whom a conservative magazine had accused of bias toward Iran, and wrote in an email to Newt Gingrich, “A cleaning is in order here.” Gingrich forwarded the magazine article to Rex Tillerson’s chief of staff, and the civil servant,  Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, was soon transferred out of the department’s Policy Planning Staff, before the scheduled end of her tenure there.

Data Dump: Cambridge Analytica, the data company backed by Trump-supporting billionaire Robert Mercer, “harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users” in “one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history,” The New York Times reported. This happened in 2014, not during the 2016 presidential campaign, but it “allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016,” according to the Times. Facebook rejected the Times’s characterization of the incident as a “breach” but did suspend Cambridge Analytica for violating Facebook policies.


[Below is an article I wrote that was published by The Intercept the same day this newsletter was published. It’s about the New York Times’s reporting on Iran, and I think it has particular relevance in light of the possibility that the ardently anti-Iran Mike Pompeo may become Secretary of State. Still, it is a case study that is meant to have application well beyond Iran and the New York Times.– Robert Wright]
IT’S NOT EASY to say which country America will fight in its next ill-advised war. Iran? Or, assuming President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un don’t hit it off at their summit, North Korea? Maybe even Venezuela or Russia?

It’s easier to say what one of the major causes of the war will be: the failure by many Americans — notably politicians, journalists, think tankers, and other elites — to employ a specific mental power that we’re all capable of employing.

That power is called cognitive empathy, and it’s not what you might think. It doesn’t involve feeling people’s pain or even caring about their welfare. Emotional empathy is the kind of empathy that accomplishes those things. Cognitive empathy — sometimes called perspective taking — is a matter of seeing someone’s point of view: understanding how they’re processing information, how the world looks to them. Sounds unexceptional, I know — like the kind of thing you do every day. But there are at least two reasons cognitive empathy deserves more attention than it gets.

First, because the failure to exercise it lies behind two of the most dangerous kinds of misperceptions in international affairs: misreading a nation’s military moves as offensive when the nation itself considers them defensive, and viewing some national leaders as crazy or fanatical when in fact they’ll respond predictably to incentives if you understand their goals.

The second reason cognitive empathy deserves more attention is that, however simple it sounds, it can be hard to exercise. Somewhat like emotional empathy, cognitive empathy can shut down or open up depending on your relationship to the person in question — friend, rival, enemy, kin — and how you’re feeling about them at the moment.

And, to make matters worse, there’s this: In Washington, lots of money is being spent to keep us from exercising cognitive empathy. Important institutions, most notably some we misleadingly call “think tanks,” work to warp our vision. And the reality-distortion fields they generate can get powerful when the war drums start beating.

Consider, as a case study, a recent piece about Iran in the New York Times.

It was a front-page story — the lead article in the physical edition of the paper — written by Ben Hubbard, Isabel Kershner, and Anne Barnard. The headline, in the top right-hand corner of the front page, read, “Iran Building Up Militias in Syria to Menace Israel.”

Just about any expert on Iran would agree that, strictly speaking, this headline is accurate. However, a number of experts would add something that these three reporters failed to add: From Iran’s point of view, the purpose of menacing Israel may be to prevent war; having the capacity to inflict unacceptable damage on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv can be a way of keeping both Israel and the U.S. from attacking Iran.

You may have trouble understanding why Iran would fear an unprovoked attack. Most Americans don’t think of their country as wantonly aggressive and most Israelis don’t think of their country that way, either. But Israel has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran — and eight years ago assassinated Iranian scientists on Iranian soil. And America, for its part, has repeatedly signaled that it reserves the right to bomb Iran and that it would stand by Israel in the case of war with Iran.

Against the backdrop of Iranian history — including America’s support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, which produced hundreds of thousands of dead Iranians — it’s hardly surprising that Iran views both Israel and America as forces to be deterred; or that Iran sponsored anti-American Iraqi militias after a massive American military force invaded and occupied neighboring Iraq in 2003; or that when America and its allies armed Syrian rebels, thus turning a probably doomed insurrection into a full-scale civil war, Iran sent forces into Syria to save its longstanding ally, Bashar al-Assad’s regime, rather than see it toppled possibly by pro-American forces.

If you want this kind of insight into Iran’s perspective, I recommend avoiding the New York Times and checking out the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. There you’ll find a piece by Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, called “Iran Among the Ruins.”

Nasr writes that “the Israeli and U.S. militaries pose clear and present dangers to Iran.” He explains how this threat, along with hostile Arab neighbors and other perceived threats, has given rise to Iran’s policy of “forward defense.” He writes: “Although Iran’s rivals see the strategy of supporting nonstate military groups” — in Syria and Lebanon — “as an effort to export the revolution, the calculation behind it is utterly conventional.” Iran’s foreign policy, Nasr explains, is driven by national interest more than revolutionary fervor and “is far more pragmatic than many in the West comprehend.”

The New York Times reporters don’t seem to have consulted Nasr, or any of the other respected analysts who have similar views of Iran’s strategic perspective. The result is unbalanced reporting.

The Times piece tells us that Israel and the U.S. “fear Iran’s growing influence,” that Israel “fears that it could face a threat” from Iranian proxies in Syria, that “many Israelis” sense “danger,” and that Iran’s behavior “worries Israel.”

All true. But there’s no mention of Iranian “fears” or “worries” or perceived “danger.” There’s also no mention of what, from an Iranian perspective, is a glaring asymmetry: Iranians and Iranian proxies in Syria are there with the permission of Syria’s government. But when Israeli jets routinely enter Syrian airspace to bomb those proxies, Israel doesn’t have the government’s permission and so, is violating international law. So too with the American troops that are stationed in Syria without the government’s permission and that have fought against pro-Assad forces; this is illegal under any but the most tortured reading of international law.

Far from highlighting this asymmetry, the Times story could give the casual reader the idea that the asymmetry points in the other direction. The story opens with this sentence: “When an Iranian drone flew into Israeli airspace this month …” No mention of the fact that this incursion, apparently by a surveillance drone, not an armed drone, was such an aberration that some observers think it was accidental. And no mention of the many Israeli violations of Syrian airspace that had preceded it, sometimes with lethal consequences. (And, at the risk of getting too picky, no mention of the fact that the “Israeli airspace” the Times said was violated was actually over the Golan Heights, which under international law is Israeli-occupied Syrian territory.)

This unbalanced presentation isn’t surprising in light of the Times reporters’ choice of sources…

To read the rest of this article, go to the complete version at The Intercept.

—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)


Have you seen our cool social media sharing icons—placed not just at the top of the newsletter, but at the top of each section, so you can use Twitter or Facebook to draw people directly to any given section? Oh, you haven’t? Well that gives you something in common with MRN reader June.

June (who also identifies, without elaboration, as “Marie of Venus”) wrote to us, “I’ll admit to not the best correctable vision, evening cannabis before eating my only meal of the day, & numerous other personal oddities & shortcomings but: are you kidding about these fb & twitter icons?” June says she’s “looked over and over” for the social media sharing icons we claim are embedded in the newsletter, but to no avail.

We suspect that the problem is neither June’s vision nor the cannabis.

Some email software, depending on your security settings, may not download graphic elements (like the logo of this newsletter, or the sharing icons) by default. When that’s the case, the places where the graphics are supposed to be will appear as empty squares or rectangles, perhaps with some tiny text in them. If you right-click on any of these targets (the biggest target is at the very top of the newsletter, where the MRN logo is located) and click “download pictures,” or words to that effect, all the graphic elements will download—and the previously invisible Facebook and Twitter icons will magically appear.

And, June, if you want to accentuate the “magically” part, try doing this right after your pre-dinner cannabis.

—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)


After Trump fired Rex Tillerson and named Mike Pompeo as his successor at the State Department, famous neoconservative Bill Kristol tweeted: “I guess you could say Trump chose Putin over Tillerson.”

This is kind of silly. As Kristol no doubt knows, Pompeo has long had a much more aggressively anti-Russia stance than Tillerson (see, e.g., this Atlantic piece on Pompeo’s world view). Indeed Pompeo is in this and other respects reminiscent of neoconservatives like Kristol.

It’s true that Tillerson, as it happens, was fired not long after endorsing Britain’s conclusion that Russia was likely behind the poisoning of a former Russia spy in England—and before the Trump administration had formally signed on to that view (which it did shortly thereafter). So it’s understandable that the Putin-the-puppetmaster take on Tillerson’s firing quickly gained currency among people who don’t follow foreign policy closely, or who didn’t know much about Tillerson’s designated successor. 

It’s understandable, in other words, that Kristol’s tweet got more than 5,000 retweets and 20,000 likes.

To put a finer point on it: It’s understandable that people who dislike Trump and saw Kristol’s tweet felt strongly attracted to the tweet and acted on the urge to retweet or like it. After all, most people don’t make a point of tweeting mindfully; they don’t try to examine their emotional reactions to a given tweet and then, before acting on them, reflect on whether acting on them makes sense. (Of course, pretty much all of us—certainly including me—sometimes fail to tweet mindfully.)

A lot of “resistance” energy has been invested in the Putin-as-puppetmaster narrative. And, to be sure, it’s possible that Putin has leverage over Trump we don’t know about and has exercised it. The Mueller investigation may eventually clear this question up. But meanwhile, as liberals focus so much on Russia, they don’t have time to pay much attention to other geopolitical issues, notably the possibility of a military confrontation with North Korea or, more likely, with Iran.

And there’s an unfortunate interaction between the Russia and Iran issues. Though many liberals who focus on the perceived Russian menace aren’t historically Cold Warriors, they are, whether intentionally or not, putting pressure on Trump to get more confrontational with Russia. And that’s happening. (In part, of course, it’s happening because Putin has a way of doing outrageous things that invite sanction.) And the worse our relations with Russia get, the less likely that we’ll be able to peacefully resolve the various tensions in Syria, and the more likely we’ll wind up in a dangerous confrontation with Iran there.

So for neoconservatives—who have long advocated stronger confrontation of both Russia and Iran—things are looking pretty good on the geopolitical stage. Plus, their Twitter followings are growing.

—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)


538’s Nate Silver observed that Tuesday’s special congressional election in Pennsylvania had high turnout, which should “reassure Democrats — and worry Republicans” because it could mean that “registered-voter polls could be underrating Democrats in this year’s midterms.”

In Politico, Heather Caygle assesses the Democratic party’s “civil war” in the wake of the Conor Lamb victory in Pennsylvania.

Uri Friedman of The Atlantic assesses Secretary of State–designate Mike Pompeo’s world view.

In Lobelog, former intelligence officer Paul Pillar argues that, if Pompeo is confirmed as Secretary of State, he and Trump will likely chart “a course toward endless conflict, escalating tension, and an upsurge in weapons proliferation.” Pillar also wrote about Pompeo in the New York Times.

As personnel changes in the Trump administration suggest an increasingly militaristic and interventionist foreign policy, Jacob Heilbrunn argues in Politico that in this regard Trump “has more in common with his Republican predecessors than his detractors are typically prepared to acknowledge.” In a Twitter thread, Colin Kahl, who served in the Obama administration, replies that, actually, Trump is appreciably worse than, say, George W. Bush.

The Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman reports on opposition to the nomination of Gina Haspel as CIA Director and examines what we do and don’t know about her involvement in torture.


In the New York Times, Zeynep Tufekci writes that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm steers viewers toward extreme views and “may be one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century.” The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf suggests that the effects Tufekci describes may have less to do with YouTube’s algorithm than with generic properties of the online world.

In Vox, Matthew Yglesias argues that, notwithstanding stereotypes about “political correctness” on campus, polling data show that support for free speech among undergraduates is strong.

Also in Vox, Will Wilkinson says it’s important to view the fight over DACA as, in large part, a battle against white ethnonationalism.
Key takeaways from a journal article (which is itself behind a paywall) by two NYU psychologists about the psychology behind political polarization.

A ranking of journalists who draw the most attention on Facebook shows that the leaders are “primarily from hyper-partisan sources like the Daily Wire, Truth Examiner, Breitbart, Washington Press, and several small but politically-charged sites.”


If you’re of the view that Mike Pompeo and/or Gina Haspel are dubious candidates for, respectively, Secretary of State and CIA Director:

1) The liberal pro-Israel group J Street is circulating a petition opposing Pompeo’s confirmation.

2) The ACLU has sent a letter to the Senate asking that CIA documents relevant to Gina Haspel’s involvement in torture be declassified before the Senate votes on her confirmation as CIA director. 

You can’t sign the ACLU letter (though 28 organizations did), but if you want to contact your senator about either the Pompeo or Haspel issue, the usual avenues are available.  

—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade & Brian Degenhart

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