Impropriety in Government Hacking

It’s an obvious and well-known fact that governments hack each other all day, every day. While I think it’s stupid and potentially dangerous, it’s roughly the same as the rampant spying that exists between even friendly nations (ie Israel/US). I might not like it, but that doesn’t stop it from being standard. And if something is standard, then even my dislike doesn’t change the fact that it’s going to happen.

Now that I’ve established that, I feel it’s important to finally touch on the release of DNC materials to Wikileaks. Specifically, about how the DNC was so poorly led by Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Make no mistake, this lady was incompetetant, irresponsibly, and stupid. And this leak in no way implicated Clinton or illigimized her candicacy. Again, just establishing our ground.

Moving on, let’s take a peek on the why and how. The US government is fairly certain, according to many sources, that the culprits were Russian government hackers. It isn’t concrete enough to get Obama talking about it and starting a serious diplomatic row, but it is concrete enough that nearly every source says it with confidence. As I said in the first paragraph, I’m not thrilled with international espionage, but it’s fair game at this point. Russians can hack the US. The US can hack Russians.

The problem comes with the release of the information. That’s an entirely different story that goes many directions. For one, the Russian government specifically timed this to hurt Clinton in the campaign. That’s fucked up. Even worse is the reason why. The Russians prefer Trump because he’d be Putin’s lapdog. So here we’ve got international espionage playing out in American politics, where the leaders of foreign nations are manipulating the citizens of the US for political purposes. I don’t like that one bit.

Then we’ve got Wikileaks. I was never thrilled with Wikileaks. While the anonymous and random release of information can be informative, it can also ruin some damn good diplomacy. And remember, diplomacy is what we have INSTEAD OF WAR. Diplomacy, even though it’s often veiled in secrecy and can seem undemocratic, is an excellent way to come to a thoroughly decent agreement that wouldn’t be possible if the discussion happened entirely in the public realm. Diplomacy saves lives. And when Wikileaks releases information, it’s not vetted, it doesn’t protect the innocent, it doesn’t consider the ramifications or care who gets screwed. Wikileaks just releases all of it.

It’s a lot like my opinion of Manning versus Snowden. Manning released a bunch of classified but not really important information in great big dumps. Snowden contacts reports to vet the information so he could disclose a very important thing being kept from the American people. Manning caused a bunch of problems without much payoff. Snowden responsibly informed the US and the world of deplorable world spanning spying that we all expected existed, but nobody could definitively prove.

And what does Wikileaks do now? They release information with the specific goal, according to Assange, of hurting Clinton’s campaign. This Australian national is attempting to butt into American elections by cooperating with Russian spies. Snowden might be living in Russia, accepting Russian aid, but Snowden isn’t helping them. No, that’s Assange and his personal vendetta, one that could put a stupid and dangerous president in power in the US.

That, of course, brings me back to Snowden. We need to end that travesty. Let him come home. Stop forcing him in bed with the Russians. It’s absurd. The man is a national treasure.

Back on track, my larger point is this: releasing information is good. Leaks are good. I will absolutely not dispute that. HOWEVER, using foreign hackers to manipulation the electorate is bad.

Foreign Policy in the Age of Trump

The state of international relations isn’t great. Obama has been a very cautious leader, and while he’s avoided anything terrible, he also hasn’t solved anything. Overall, I think he’s done fine. But now the US has a choice. More Obama (Clinton) or Trump (shit, literally a piece of shit). With the current babbling that Trump pretends are words, it’s worth looking at issues with US foreign policy.

First, I want to go over a few issues with the Trump campaign in terms of international diplomacy (in other words, forget about the race baiting, the blind religious intolerance, and let’s just stick with pure foreign policy).

It starts with wanting to disband NATO even while being unaware of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. There’s the disquieting fact that one of Trump’s advisers was the architect of Viktor Yanukovych’s campaign for reelection before the protests (during which police snipers murdered quite a few protesters) and subsequent flight of Yanukovych. Here’s a tidbit from a very interesting article that frames the situation nicely:

Mr. Manafort has already had some success, with former Yanukovych loyalists — and some Communists — forming a new bloc opposing Ukraine’s struggling pro-Western government. And now Mr. Manafort has taken on a much larger campaign, seeking to turn Donald J. Trump into a winning presidential candidate.

There’s the fact that he wants to DESTROY our trade relationship with China in spite of the fact that if we did that, everything we buy would be way, way more expensive. It’s something people don’t seem to think about when they talk about bringing back manufacturing jobs. Anyway, back to foreign policy.

There’s the troublesome praise of petty tyrants like Saddam and Kim Jong Un, not to mention Putin, Assad, and Gaddaffi. And even as he praises Assad, he wants to get the US involved in another war in the Middle East, or maybe he’s changed his mind and now he wants to magically make Turkey go single-handedly defeat ISIS? It’s impossible to say.

I probably failed to mention something. In fact, I didn’t even mean to write that much. So let’s go back to the issues with NATO. Is there any merit in somehow forcing the other members to do more? Well, that’s a thorny issue. How would we do that? By somehow renegotiating trade deals? Because that sounds like a titanic task that would require a lot of things to go right. The fact is, we have no real way of making our allies up their commitment. The only real thing we can do is lower our commitments, thereby putting them in danger.

The horrible thing is, Trump is (shudder) right (gag) about one thing. Our allies in NATO aren’t carrying their weight. If Estonia is so afraid of being invaded, they need to start acting like it. THey need to militarize like crazy. Of course, no doubt that would be met by an equal militarization and further breakdown of relations between Estonia and Russia. The same goes for Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. So what does this mean? Does that preclude these countries from building up their armies?

One thing that I do know is these countries do have something to fear. Russia fought an actual war with Georgia to snip away Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia outright invaded Crimea and then quietly send their “little green men” into Ukraine. If I lived in Latvia, I would be very worried about Putin trying something like that.

So, if we know there’s something to fear and there’s no good way to beef up the threatened countries without the US unilaterally doing it alone (which is a bad idea and would definitely escalate the issues), then what options are there? If Latvia won’t spend the money and the UK won’t spend the money, is it really the obligation of the US to potentially get involved in a massively destructive conflict? And if the answer is no, are we really going to let international bullies run free?

Personally, I think the United States is the reason there’s been no wars between nations (that is, excluding civil wars like Libya, South Sudan, Syria, etc). The US is the world police, for good or for ill. Once the US stops doing that, all hell is going to break loose. There will be wars between nations primarily led by dictators. It will be bad. Is it so expensive that the US can’t afford (literally use of afford) to head off these conflicts? Isn’t it better to be the pushy world cop than to let open warfare come to the fore? I don’t know. My gut says yes, but the chance of being wrong is potentially catastrophic. Global thermonuclear war, anyone?

Now, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Monroe Doctrine, so here’s a primer. The Monroe Doctrine started off as a rather innocent way of declaring that the European powers of the day wouldn’t be allowed to form any new colonies in the Americas. Obviously, it was more complicated than that, but it doesn’t matter because the real issue with the Monroe Doctrine came much, much later. During the Cold War, the US used the Monroe Doctrine as an excuse to do a bunch of slimy, disgusting stuff in an attempt to stop communism from spreading.

In reality, the Monroe Doctrine was basically saying that the Americas were the domain of the US and the US alone. No other country was allowed to intervene, only us. It was basically a statement of regional imperialism. As I said, slimy. Yet, now that the US is a global power, even THE global power, we can no longer support the type of actions we used to perform under the Monroe Doctrine. We can’t overthrow a regime just because we don’t like it. In terms of the public perception and voter power, the best we can do is something like the no fly zone in Libya. We can’t go in and assassinate people, or arm people. At least, if it were revealed that the CIA was doing that, not only would the world be furious, but the American people would punish whoever allowed it. Of that, I am certain. Even if it was the US assassinating Putin or some such nonsense.

The point of bringing up the Monroe Doctrine is to discuss regional supremacy. As in, is it okay for Russia to claim regional supremacy? How about China? When China claims the South China Sea in the Chinese equivalent to the Monroe Doctrine, is that okay?

First off, my gut says no. Regional supremacy was scummy when the US did it and it’s no less scummy when other countries do it. The problem is imperialism. The US might not be great when it comes to being world cop (the debacle of the Iraq War comes to mind), but at the same time, are we really going to let China muscle in? My gut says the US is right to do freedom of navigation patrols and potentially antagonize China.

Look at Vietnam. They fought a war with the US. But you know who else they fought a war with? China. Cambodia. Ever heard of the Khmer Rouge? They were insane, murderous, and terrible in every way. China backed the Khmer Rouge because it was ostensibly a communist movement (it was also insane). Yet, for some mind numbing reason, Pol Pot was absolutely certain that Vietnam wanted to destroy Cambodia, so he intentionally and repeatedly slaughtered Vietnamese villages on the border (also purged everyone inside Cambodia who might be Vietnamese). In the end, Vietnam really had no choice but to go secure the border, and when the attacks wouldn’t stop, they took over all of Cambodia and removed the scourge that was the Khmer Rouge.

And the entire world sanctioned them. China was furious and immediately invaded Vietnam. The two had several border wars. They had conflicts in the South China Sea. Now Vietnam is allied with the US because China is a regional power that wants to bully them.

Stepping back, let’s view this through the Trump lens. Consider that China and the US are best buddies when it comes to trade. We need each other. Our relations are good and strong in that regard. A real war between the US and China would be horrific for both sides. This ain’t no US/Russia conflict. And what does Trump want to do? He wants to destroy that bond.

So consider our options here. Either we have regional power players who bully their neighbors and simply take what they want, or we have a very expensive apparatus funded by US taxpayers to prevent truly devastating wars. These are the options. People like Putin who seize the reigns of power are bullies and you have to have someone to stand up to them, so stare them down and warn them off. Trump wouldn’t be that guy. Trump would smile and talk about how Putin is a GREAT guy.

Fear wins

As most of you probably heard by now, the UK voted to leave the EU. That is, rural England voted to leave the EU. Scotland sure as fuck didn’t vote to leave and London was strikingly remain. But the totals are clear. On this Financial Times article, someone left a remarkable comment that’s been bouncing around the various media.

A quick note on the first three tragedies. Firstly, it was the working classes who voted for us to leave because they were economically disregarded and it is they who will suffer the most in the short term from the dearth of jobs and investment. They have merely swapped one distant and unreachable elite for another one. Secondly, the younger generation has lost the right to live and work in 27 other countries. We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied. Freedom of movement was taken away by our parents, uncles, and grandparents in a parting blow to a generation that was already drowning in the debts of our predecessors. Thirdly and perhaps most significantly, we now live in a post-factual democracy. When the facts met the myths they were as useless as bullets bouncing off the bodies of aliens in a HG Wells novel. When Michael Gove said ‘the British people are sick of experts’ he was right. But can anybody tell me the last time a prevailing culture of anti-intellectualism has lead to anything other than bigotry?

Not a coup

Dilma Rousseff is facing impeachment in Brazil. Why? Well, that’s actually rather complicated. To start, it has a lot to do with the fact that she’s supposed to be a leftist, but her government hasn’t helped the poor as promised.

Not only has she presided over a faltering economy (not her fault), but the country is facing an Olympics that’s shaping up to be a huge mess (and has already been very messy and very classist), there’s Zika to contend with, and on top of all that, the machine of corruption and graft that is Petrobras was opened up and exposed.

Even worse was her reaction to the economic problems. From a BBC article:

Ms Rousseff won the election by promising to keep the stimulus in place and criticised opponents who said an adjustment – such as higher taxes and budget cuts – was needed. But once re-elected, she single-handedly opted for an aggressive fiscal adjustment, angering those who voted for the opposition and leaving her own supporters feeling betrayed.

That, however, was not criminal. Stupid, yes, but not impeachment-worthy. As is often the case, it’s not the original deed that gets the politician in trouble, it’s when they try to cover their tracks. In her case, the original deed was merely a mishandling of economic issues. Covering it up, on the other hand…

From the same BBC article:

Brazilian governments are required to meet budget surplus targets set in Congress. Ms Rousseff is accused of allowing creative accounting techniques involving loans from public banks to the treasury that artificially enhanced the budget surplus. This gave the appearance that government accounts were in better shape than they actually were. The surplus is one of the measures taken into account by investors of how sound an economy is.

And that is why she’s facing impeachment. Not because of Petrobras or the Rio Olympics or the economy or anything, but because of deceptive accounting. Now, the real reason I wanted to talk about this was her reaction to it.

She denies that this accounting scheme was wrong. She says she did nothing wrong. As if it’s supposed to be an excuse, she basically said, everybody was doing it. They’re common practice, she claims. Perhaps this is true. Regardless, that doesn’t make them legal.

So here we have a politician who has done something wrong. Her opponents in congress want to impeach her, so they’ve started the process.

Rousseff has repeatedly called the impeachment process a coup. Let us be clear- this is not a coup. There is a process in place. Impeachment is a legit function of government. Is it ugly? Sure. Is it illegal? No. No it is not.

Here’s a line from a different BBC article:

If she is impeached, Vice-President Michel Temer would take over as interim president. Ms Rousseff has accused him of being one of the ringleaders of the “coup” attempt against her.

In an interview to the New York Times, Mr Temer said: “I’m very worried about the president’s intention to say that Brazil is some minor republic where coups are carried out.”

So that’s all very unfortunate. Let’s continue on and take a detour to Venezuela. As you may know, for many years, Hugo Chavez was the popularly elected leader of Venezuela. He functioned as a dictator in many respects, yet it was all through a public mandate. He nationalized a whole lot of industries and basically made Venezuela a petrostate. Before, they actually had quite a few industries, but by the time he died, they sold oil and not much else.

When Chavez died, his handpicked successor was Nicolas Maduro. Now, Maduro was/still is a hardcore Chavista. He will never, ever change the policies of Venezuela. Unfortunately for them, oil is worth way, way less. Their currency is in free fall, yet the price controls artificially inflate the face value of the money, which fucks everything up even more. They can’t keep stores stocked with basic necessities. Everybody is suffering.

In the last election, the Chavistas were crushed. Like, they went from having a decent majority to the opposition party having a substantial majority. Before they went, however, they packed the judiciary (shady but legal). While they still control a lot of the government apparatus, they have zero mandate to govern. At this point, they’re simply trying to hold on.

Here’s a bit from a New York Times article:

Venezuela’s electoral commission on Tuesday released documents that would allow opposition politicians to collect signatures and formally begin a process aimed at removing President Nicolás Maduro from office.

The decision by the commission — which is controlled by Mr. Maduro’s Socialist government and previously resisted handing over the papers — lifted hopes of the opposition politicians, who control the National Assembly and have vowed to oust the president by the end of the year.

And what is the reaction of Maduro?

This is a coup! A terrible coup. Even though the recall process is legally enshrined. Even though this is a process that is clearly described and clearly being followed. Yet he still claims it’s a coup.

Are you noticing a bit of a pattern here? It’s insulting. It’s disgusting. This is a level of disingenuous that borders on criminal, in my opinion. This is their attempt to hijack a legit political process.

I’m not saying impeachment or a recall would be a good thing. I wouldn’t know. But I do know they aren’t illegal. These are not coups. Saying otherwise is a deplorable attempt to tear their own country apart just to stay in power.

Russia and Syria

I’ve been coming across a lot of interesting takes on Russia pulling out of Syria. There’s the idea that Russia played it smooth and that Putin is savvy as hell. I won’t disagree with that, but to compare how Russia dealt with the Syrian situation to how the US did is absurd. Russia backed Assad instead of some random ill-prepared rebel alliance. We know why the US backed the fractured rebels, but why did Putin back Assad?

First, let’s check out the motivations. Russia got involved with Syria for a few reasons: 1) to prop up a client state and thereby preserve the ability to project influence. 2) wage war on Russian extremist militants. 3) show off new Russian military hardware that’s totally on sale now! 4) to present themselves as a genuine superpower. 5) to reinsert themselves into the world at large after their castigation by the West for the debacle in Ukraine.

Now, basically every one of those was a slam dunk. All the goals were achieved. But five months? Five months doesn’t win a war. Five months is NOTHING. So, you know, why only five months? From Slate:

But over time, the mission’s costs have soared and the benefits have waned. As for costs, the Russian air force ran out of “smart bombs”—munitions that can hit targets with pinpoint accuracy—after the first few days of airstrikes (this is why its jets hit so many civilians and hospitals), and it is now fast running out of dumb bombs as well. In other words, in addition to his many economic and political problems at home, Putin cannot keep this up for much longer.

It’s not just the money drying up. It was genuinely a good time to go. Here’s a few choice quotes from a New York Times article:

“Syria doesn’t have to be a slippery slope,” Mr. Tabler said. “Putin actually demonstrated you could intervene, bomb, put troops on the ground and still get out. They effectively changed the situation on the ground, and kept the regime from collapsing.”

HOWEVER. Right before this, it says:

“He clearly set out to buy time for Assad, and that worked,” said Derek Chollet, a former State Department and White House official in the Obama administration, referring to Mr. Putin. “But he made the situation in Syria demonstratively worse. When you go in without scruples, it’s fairly easy to succeed.”

Which is interesting, but not entirely accurate. The Russians got a peace deal. Sure, they committed some hardcore human rights violations that the US couldn’t have gotten away with, but to say the situation is worse, that is not true. That shit was already really bad and now there’s a tenuous peace.

So here’s we’ve got Russia, with an economy in shambles but with a serious desire to make Russia great again. And they go do their thing in Syria. It sorta works? Yet, everything isn’t exactly peachy in Assad-land.

Russia is leaving. That’s no secret. But, Iran is quietly slinking away too. From the National Interest:

The Israeli report, according to which Iran is withdrawing all of a 2,500-strong fighting force while leaving 700 military advisers in Syria, is consistent with a brief comment by Secretary of State Kerry in a Congressional hearing less than two weeks ago that Iran had withdrawn a “significant number” of its Revolutionary Guard Corps troops from Syria.

And there’s this fascinating tidbit from that Slate article I mentioned before:

Putin’s exasperation with Assad has been clear for a while. After Russian airstrikes allowed Syrian ground forces to recapture Aleppo, a chest-thumping Assad declared that he would now proceed to reconquer all of Syria—until Moscow diplomats slapped him down. Just days ago, when Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem proclaimed that there would be no talk of elections or a political transition in Geneva, Moscow once again told him to pipe down.

Assad may not want to be a client state, but the fact is, there’s no choice in the matter. It’s either get a solution now or slowly fall into the black hole of instability and perpetual revolution (looking at Libya here).

Assad doesn’t really have much of a choice anymore. Putin has put him in a situation that doesn’t have any good outcome except bowing to Russian interests. First, in terms of military, Assad doesn’t really have much to offer. From Foxtrot Alpha:

Although Russia has left Assad in a far better tactical position than before their intervention, strategically he remains very vulnerable with few military cards left to play should the fighting reignite.

This puts Russia in a nearly perfect position to attempt to broker a solution to the conflict on an international stage. Once again, such a solution would be partial to Moscow’s interests—but it could very well include using Assad as a sacrificial pawn.

With this in mind, you can see why Russia agreed to stop its cooperative hammer and anvil operation against Syrian rebels in the battleground metropolis of Aleppo. If they had finished the job, and Assad’s forces took the entire city and continued their hunt for rebel forces with the help of Russian air power, the rebel threat would be almost totally diminished. Without that threat to the Assad regime in place, there would be far less leverage when it comes to pushing Assad to the negotiating table.

All in all, there’s something very interesting going on and it is nothing like what the US wants. The US uses pretend goodwill to try and help countries, which of course, that means the US fakes compassion to get whatever it wants. But the US has to pretend.

The Russian people lay down no such demands of the Russian government. Putin has run on the exact same platform as Trump. Make Russia great again. Well, this is it. Will it fail? Who knows. It certainly might. As the Slate article pointed out, Russia frequently surprised the world, be it Syria, Ukraine, or way back in Afghanistan. But just because it’s a surprise doesn’t mean it actually ends well for Russia.

make russia great3

How do we respond to Russia?

How much of a threat is Russia to US interests? I ask that question in all seriousness. There’s some indication that Russia is essentially no threat. There’s a couple articles over at the National Interest (here and here) that Russia isn’t a threat and that, basically, we should be friends with Russia. Sure, they took a chunk out of Ukraine and snapped up Crimea. Sure, they’re backing Assad in Syria. But they aren’t doing anything directly contrary to our interests. So, the argument goes, we should let them have their little regional sphere of influence. We should try to placate them.

In those articles, however, it fails to take in the other stuff. For instance, when Russia buzzes on the edge of British airspace, or when they send submarines through Swedish waters, or even the massive military buildup along the Ukrainian border.

How should the world interpret that? Let it go? Turn the other cheek? Be the better nation?

Putting aside my personal dislike for Putin and his ilk, I have to ponder what exactly is the proper response. On one hand, Russia isn’t directly doing anything that crosses any line. They’re intentionally being provocative, sure. They’re being assholes. But they aren’t violating anything directly. They’re being aggressive in that hormonal teenage way without actually picking a fight.

What is their goal and how should the rest of the world respond?