The Art of Thinking Well

Richard Thaler has just won an extremely well deserved Nobel Prize in economics. Thaler took an obvious point, that people don’t always behave rationally, and showed the ways we are systematically irrational.

Thanks to his work and others’, we know a lot more about the biases and anomalies that distort our perception and thinking.

Before Thaler, economists figured it was good enough to proceed as if people are rational, utility-maximizing creatures. Now, thanks to the behavioral economics revolution he started, most understand that’s not good enough.

But Thaler et al. were only scratching the surface of our irrationality. Most behavioral economists study individual thinking. They do much of their research in labs where subjects don’t intimately know the people around them.

It’s when we get to the social world that things really get gnarly. A lot of our thinking is for bonding, not truth-seeking, so most of us are quite willing to think or say anything that will help us be liked by our group.

This is where Alan Jacobs’s absolutely splendid forthcoming book “How to Think” comes in. If Thaler’s work is essential for understanding how the market can go astray, Jacobs’s emphasis on the relational nature of thinking is essential for understanding why there is so much bad thinking in political life right now.

Jacobs makes good use of C. S. Lewis’s concept of the Inner Ring. In every setting — a school, a company or a society — there is an official hierarchy. But there may also be a separate prestige hierarchy, where the cool kids are. They are the Inner Ring.

There are always going to be people who desperately want to get into the Inner Ring and will cut all sorts of intellectual corners to be accepted.

As Lewis put it, “The passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

People will, for example, identify and attack what Jacobs calls the Repugnant Cultural Other — the group that is opposed to the Inner Ring, which must be assaulted to establish membership in it.

Other people will resent the Inner Ring, and they will cut all sorts of intellectual corners in order to show their resentment. These people are quick to use combat metaphors when they talk about thinking (he shot down my argument, your claims are indefensible). These people will adopt shared vague slurs like “cuckservative” or “whitesplaining” that signal to the others in the outsider groups that they are attacking the ring, even though these slurs are usually impediments to thought.

Jacobs notices that when somebody uses “in other words” to summarize another’s argument, what follows is almost invariably a ridiculous caricature of that argument, in order to win favor with the team. David Foster Wallace once called such people Snoots. Their motto is, “We Are the Few, the Proud, the More or Less Constantly Appalled at Everyone Else.”

Jacobs nicely shows how our thinking processes emerge from emotional life and moral character. If your heart and soul are twisted, your response to the world will be, too. He argues that by diagnosing our own ills, we can begin to combat them. And certainly I can think of individual beacons of intellectual honesty today: George Packer, Tyler Cowen, Scott Alexander and Caitlin Flanagan, among many.

But I’d say that if social life can get us into trouble, social life can get us out. After all, think of how you really persuade people. Do you do it by writing thoughtful essays that carefully marshal facts? That works some of the time. But the real way to persuade people is to create an attractive community that people want to join. If you do that, they’ll bend their opinions to yours. If you want people to be reasonable, create groups where it’s cool to be reasonable.

Jacobs mentions that at the Yale Political Union members are admired if they can point to a time when a debate totally changed their mind on something. That means they take evidence seriously; that means they can enter into another’s mind-set. It means they treat debate as a learning exercise and not just as a means to victory.

How many public institutions celebrate these virtues? The U.S. Senate? Most TV talk shows? Even the universities?

Back when they wrote the book of Proverbs it was said, “By long forbearing is a prince persuaded, and a soft tongue breaketh the bone.” These days, a soft tongue doesn’t get you very far, but someday it might again.

The New York Times

Syria: The Myth of a Regime Victorious

These are my last days as the UK Special Representative for Syria. As I look back at three short years in this role, much has changed in Syria, and yet much has remained the same.

For sure, this conflict has seen far worse times and atrocities, the vast majority of these perpetrated by an Assad regime that cares not at all for the Syrian people. Syria has seen chemical weapons use, brutal sieges, forced migration and – far from the public eye – arbitrary detentions, torture and disappearances. Much of this continues today, under the guise of a just war against terrorists, masking the truth of a total war on Syrians.

Today, there is much talk and lazy analysis of Assad and his backers having ‘won the war’, through a combination of military advances, under cover of heavy air bombardment, and a series of many hundreds of so-called ‘reconciliation deals’ with besieged communities, faced with the choice of surrender or starvation and bombing.

The propaganda machine screams reconciliation, while the military machine puts community leaders and civil society activists on green buses headed towards a dangerous and uncertain fate.

For all the complexity this war presents, I am confident still in three facts.

First, there is no such thing as a ‘win.’ There never will be a ‘military solution’ to this conflict. Assad’s forces stretch ever thinner and depend ever more on foreign militias and air power to prop them up. Behind the advancing front line, Syrian Arab Army and militias leave behind them a fractured landscape intimidated by local warlords seeking personal gain above all.

Of course it can be argued that Assad doesn’t care, so long as he keeps a chunk of ‘useful Syria’ and Syria’s seat remains warm at the UN thanks to Russian protection. The regime’s mission, after all, has always been to survive and dominate the country, not bring it peace.

But this should give us no comfort. The toll that the regime and its backers have exacted is staggering: well over 400,000 dead; over 13 million in need; over half the pre-war population displaced within Syria or forced to flee; an economy shrunk by over 60%; a people traumatised; a generation of kids with no education or hope.

Assad’s regime bears overwhelming responsibility for the suffering of the Syrian people, fuelled extremism and terrorism, and created the space for ISIS. The United Nations has before now called attention to the ‘devastation of the Syrian mosaic’ of the country’s diverse communities. Assad and his regime are largely responsible for this, while claiming to defend it.

This brings me to my second point: Syria can only find true peace with transition away from Assad to a government that can protect the rights of all Syrians, unite the country and end the conflict. As Ibrahim al-Assil has written so eloquently in the Washington Post only days ago, Syria cannot be stabilised under Assad’s leadership: Syria’s institutions are broken and near destroyed; those in charge of them think only of enriching themselves; a regime which has perfected state sponsorship of terrorism and so-called ‘weaponisation’ of refugees will only go on to do so again.

Finally, the hatred of the regime and desire for a better future that propelled millions of Syrians into the streets in 2011 perseveres to this day – young Syrians from all walks of life tell me it is only a matter of time before the revolution will come again.

I am often challenged on my country’s focus on Assad’s wrongs. Why do we not shine a light on abuses by others?

First, I do not presume to ignore any and all abuses conducted in the name of this war. But second, Assad’s self-described ‘government’ has the primary responsibility to protect its population. And third, it is Assad’s war machine that has killed, maimed or forced to flee the vast majority of Syrian victims of this conflict.

My third fact concerns what’s happening now: de-escalation. The international community has a moral obligation to reduce and calm violence across the country.

Critics will say that de-escalation is a step by the international community towards normalisation with the regime, or, indeed, the exact opposite: that calming different parts of Syria in different ways is a step towards breaking up the country or at least freezing the conflict in perpetuity.

Yet others will question whether Western countries can meaningfully use reconstruction as leverage to force transition. After all, Assad – not the Russians – has made clear that he won’t let his enemies ‘accomplish through politics what they failed to accomplish on the battlefield and through terrorism’.

The regime, it is argued, will survive on what limited help it can gain from something generally described as the East. Assad, then, will wait us out until we give in.

These are hard challenges to contemplate, but contemplate them we must. It means very clearly that any work on de-escalation has to preserve the Syrian identity of de-escalated areas. And it means that the West needs to hold firm to the position that it will only help with Syria’s reconstruction when comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition is ‘firmly under way’.

These last words are critical: reconstruction at transition, and not before. To engage early is to bet that we can reform Syria from within, as Assad and his regime remain in power. That is naive and ignores the regime’s singular focus on itself, rather than on Syria and Syrians.

This leads me to a fourth fact where, unlike the previous three, I am not confident on how it plays out: that transition must proceed and that Syrians will decide how this happens.

The easy and lazy way to look at this is that Syrians will decide transition, and leave it there. After all, there is the Geneva Communiqué and UNSCR2254. Both are clear enough.

The harder way to look at this is to recognise first that negotiations in Geneva have not made progress in 18 months, notwithstanding the sustained and patient work by UN Special Envoy de Mistura. For all the criticisms made of the Opposition, again it is the regime that bears overwhelming responsibility; it has never shown it is prepared to negotiate, but rather has played for time while attacking Syrians back home.

What to do about this is no clearer to me than when these Geneva talks started in January 2016. I can only recall that if the Geneva talks had not been invented, they would have to be, that there are a number of firm principles which de Mistura has already reached, and that the onus for advancing a peace process lies firmly with those who back Assad to win, even if that victory looks pyrrhic. Meanwhile, we should ensure that Geneva understands and reflects the views of millions of Syrians out there without a real voice.

One thing that is clear is that Syrians must see accountability for human rights violations and abuses conducted throughout this war, again if there is to be enduring peace.

It pains me that the Geneva process has been unable to make progress on the critical issue of detainees and the disappeared. The pressing challenge is to discover where people are and ensure their welfare and that they are released. The longer-term task is to ensure accountability for the suffering inflicted on them.

Moving to peace — and a just peace at that — in Syria matters, for Syria, for the region, and for the world. Absent movement forward, Syria’s tragedy will continue, a stain on the world’s conscience.

As I prepare to move on, let me pay tribute to the many Syrians that I have had the privilege to work and partner with in their quest for peace. Their patience, resilience and courage humble me.

Syrians are never overwhelmed by the challenges before them, nor daunted. It has been my pleasure to work with my team across the region to support Syrians in their communities, doing what we can, with what we have.

*UK Special Representative for Syria*
*Exclusive Opinion for Asharq Al-Awsat*

What Congress Should Do Now About Iran

You’re a member of Congress who opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the grounds that the plan had critical flaws and the Obama administration had in essence given away too much without permanently cutting off Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon. However, you correctly recognized that President Trump’s decertification stunt would alienate allies, give Iran the high ground and threaten to unravel the JCPOA with nothing to take its place.

What’s more, you’ve now heard that Trump is threatening to impose sanctions in January to effectively end the deal.

What in the world do you do now, especially if you are a Democrat seeing the president try to make you and your party an accessory to a foreign policy catastrophe?

Maybe Democrats go along with the proposal from Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to create penalties for breach of the JCPOA, as well as a penalty in case Iran does not negotiate on removal of the sunset clause. That, however, seems unlikely because Congress does not trust this president and really cannot gauge whether the actions would trigger the end of the JCPOA.

Corker may work some magic, but right now that doesn’t seem to be in the cards unless Congress can manage to pull back Trump’s unilateral waiver authority. (Congress also should take the opportunity to redraft the waiver authority and the recertification requirement. Congress would need to approve reimplementation of sanctions — that is, take unilateral authority away from the president — and do away with certification in exchange for full transparency and information-sharing with Congress on the status of the deal and on Iran’s behavior.)

Democrats understandably want to be partners, not stagehands in the president’s theatrical productions. If Corker’s effort doesn’t bear fruit, Congress might ignore decertification and focus in a bipartisan way to set new standards for dealing with Iran on a list of items including its missile testing, the sunset clause, Iran’s regional aggression and so on.

In other words, Congress could craft the policy the administration won’t, with flexible benchmarks for progress.

That’s the suggestion of long-time Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross. He urges that we “invite the British, French and German ambassadors for quiet discussions before finalizing the legislation and work genuinely to make this a bipartisan product, meaning Democrats need to be involved in crafting this lest it become again not a national policy but a narrow political policy.”

Benchmarks that relate to changes to the JCPOA (e.g., enhanced inspections) would unify the United States and the European Union and provide the negotiating position to bargain with Iran. Benchmarks that are not directly covered by the JCPOA could be the basis for joint US-EU action on non-nuclear sanctions.

The real problem here is winning back the trust of Europeans so we can present a united front and pressure Iran on both nuclear and non-nuclear items.

Ross explains, “The Europeans will be open to some of our concerns as long as they can preserve the JCPOA — and here is the challenge for the administration and the Congress: how to get the Europeans to see that the key to the maintenance of the deal depends on meeting at least some of our concerns.” He suggests that “the administration requires a calibrated diplomacy that reflects our leverage but does not overplay our hand and permits the Europeans the time to see that we are making a good faith effort and not simply seeking a cover to walk away. ” But who thinks this administration is capable of doing any of that?

Ross offers an intriguing proposal: “A premium needs to be put on [the] administration that can orchestrate a complicated set of discussions and in a way that they support and don’t undercut each other,” he says. “That is why I think an outside senior figure who has credibility should be appointed . . . [who] would convey a message of good faith to the Europeans and help give them an explanation with their own publics.”

That would, in essence, take the administration and the president out of the day-to-day haggling over the deal and not make Congress the fall guys if things go wrong (e.g., if legislation triggers a collapse of the JCPOA). Why not former senator Joe Lieberman or former CIA director Robert Gates or former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams? Someone of that caliber could help defuse tensions between the United States and the E.U. and convey a level of seriousness without rattling our allies. If nothing else, appointment of a negotiator could soothe the president, who would be assured that we are doing “something.” (The trick, of course, is getting Trump to be quiet and let such a person do his job.)

Unfortunately, there are no great options here and a very, very problematic American president. We’ll need to find a way to muddle through. Corker has suggested one avenue; we’ve come up with another. Perhaps Democrats have a third approach. Everyone in the effort, however, would need to agree that the purpose is not to destroy the JCPOA and get into a military confrontation with Iran but to strengthen the deal and Western resolve to contain Iran.

The Washington Post

Russia’s Election Meddling Backfired


Intelligence officers sometimes talk about “blowback,” when covert actions go bad and end up damaging the country that initiated them. A year later, that is surely the case with Russia’s secret attempt to meddle in the US presidential election, which has brought a string of adverse unintended consequences for Moscow.

The Kremlin is still issuing cocky statements accusing the United States of “political schizophrenia” in its response to Russian hacking. And there are vestiges of the triumphal tone I encountered in Moscow this summer — a sense that the United States is in decline and that a mistreated but resurgent Russia is in the driver’s seat. But Russia’s confidence must be flagging.

Interference in the US election has created antibodies to Russian power: America is angry, Europe is newly vigilant, and Syria and Ukraine are becoming quagmires. Moscow remains a dangerously ambitious revanchist power, but its geopolitical goals look harder to achieve now than they did a year ago.

The basics of Russia’s covert operations were best summarized in a Jan. 6 report by the US intelligence community: “President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.” Russia’s goals were to “denigrate” Hillary Clinton and “help . . . when possible” Donald Trump. A broader aim was “to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order.”

So, how’s it going for the folks at Lubyanka Square? Well, Trump was certainly elected, though the factors driving the US vote were much deeper than Russian trolls and bots. And there’s definitely disarray in the global order. But since Trump’s inauguration, the world has begun moving in reverse from what Moscow’s active-measures specialists must have hoped.

Let’s take a brief inventory of this global resilience:

●Russian meddling has produced a strong bipartisan counter-reaction from Congress. Last month’s overwhelming passage of new sanctions against Russia showed how Putin’s assault on US politics has united otherwise polarized legislators. “Russia” is once again a toxic word in US politics, as Russian commentators are lamenting. It may take years to recover. And Putin has nobody to blame but himself.

●European politics similarly has been galvanized by Russia’s attempt to manipulate debate. The populist firestorm the Russians were secretly fanning — which engulfed Britain in the Brexit vote — has been dampened. The moderate center has held in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Russia’s covert support for right-wing nationalists has partially deflated those movements. To be credible, European politicians left and right are voicing their independence from Moscow.

●Russia’s Internet manipulations have spawned a new push by companies and civil society groups to combat such “fake news.” One example is the online “dashboard” created by the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy. It monitors 600 Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations to collect a regular summary of trending hashtags, topics and URLs. (Note: I’m a GMF trustee.) The world is forewarned now, and partially forearmed.

●Internet and social-media companies are seeking technology solutions to bots, trolls and fake news. Facebook plans to identify dubious articles and steer them to independent fact-checking organizations, which will warn users if supporting evidence can’t be found. Google is creating algorithms to identify reliable sources from the billions of pages it indexes. Such private-sector efforts are the best hope for sustaining a fact-based electronic environment.

●Investigations have exposed groups and companies with alleged links to Russia’s hacking campaign, such as WikiLeaks. The Russia-WikiLeaks connection is explored in a new edition this month of “The Red Web,” the superb book by Russian investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan. Among their claims is that WikiLeaks moved at least part of its Web hosting to Russia in August 2016.

More heat: A New Yorker piece this week by Raffi Khatchadourian challenges WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s denials of Russian involvement in the release of hacked documents. And the New York Times reports that a Ukrainian hacker known as “Profexer,” who may have helped write code used by the Russian covert operators, may now be talking to the FBI. The active-measures structure is weakening.

One of the few positives for Putin is his new support from Republicans. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Republicans who say they trust the Russian leader has nearly doubled since 2015, although to just 34 percent.

Putin’s problem is that he overreached. His dislike of Clinton and enthusiasm for Trump led him to violate the cardinal rule of covert action — namely, make sure it stays covert. As Putin discovers anew every day, secret influence operations backfire if they’re exposed. Revelations compromise sources and methods, including the cutouts who masked Russia’s hand.

Putin, the ex-KGB officer, should appreciate the paradoxical lesson of this spy story: In the Internet era, deception may be amplified. But eventually the truth will out.

The Washington Post

In Dealing with North Korea, Trump Needs Allies

President Donald Trump holds a rally with supporters at an arena in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, June 21, 2017.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has defiance in his blood. It’s said his grandfather once asked what would happen if the United States defeated North Korea in war, to which his father answered: “If we lose, I will be sure to destroy the Earth. What good is the Earth without North Korea?”

President Trump has decided to confront what’s probably the most reckless, risk-taking regime on the planet. His hope for a diplomatic solution depends on convincing North Korea and China that he’s ready for the “fire and fury” of nuclear war should negotiations fail. If Hollywood were pitching the story, it would be “The Art of the Deal” meets “Dr. Strangelove.”

A careful look at the details of US military and diplomatic planning shows why this confrontation would be so delicate and dangerous. Despite Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric this week, the path ahead is really about finesse: Both the military and diplomatic paths require close cooperation with regional partners. The United States can’t go it alone in Korea, in either war or peace. The danger is that Trump’s rhetoric could destabilize partners more than adversaries.

Robert Work, a deputy defense secretary in the Obama administration who stayed on and just left the Pentagon, explains: “A preemptive war to protect our homeland from future attack is an option, but the major risks would be borne by South Korea and Japan, which face the threat of missile attacks today.”

Let’s start by examining the military option. “OPLAN 5027,” as it’s known, is a compendium of logistical details, but the basic premise is simple: The United States would fight alongside South Korea to gain control of the peninsula, and the Pentagon would need nearly two months to transport needed soldiers and equipment.

This protracted prep period would be a time of nuclear brinkmanship. If Trump decides that negotiations aren’t likely to succeed, he would presumably start moving materiel and troops from the United States, Europe and the Middle East. The cargo manifest would include armed drones, counter-battery artillery, communications and intelligence gear, scores of planes and many thousands of troops. The military calls it the “time-phased force and deployment List,” or TPFDL.

All the while, as the United States conducts this 45-to-60-day buildup, Seoul and its 10 million residents would be vulnerable to a preemptive North Korean attack. What would Pyongyang do as the assault force gathers? Bargain, or strike?

Significant civilian casualties would be inescapable if war comes. North Korea has thousands of artillery tubes just across the Demilitarized Zone. If attacked or threatened with decapitation, the regime could launch a barrage. The Pentagon estimates that on the first day, North Korea could fire up to 100,000 rocket and artillery rounds.

To protect the estimated 300,000 American civilians in Seoul from this artillery inferno, the Pentagon plans to stage “noncombatant evacuation operations.” Organizing planes and ships for so many people would be a nightmare, as would the chaos among those left behind. Analysts estimate that an additional 1 million non-Koreans may live in the country, including many Chinese. How would they get out? China might help in an evacuation, but at what political price?

The United States could try a lightning strike to preempt a North Korean attack, perhaps using cyber and other exotic weapons. But the Pentagon cautions policymakers that there isn’t a way to guarantee that North Korea couldn’t launch a nuclear missile in response to such an attack. It would be a cosmic roll of the dice.

What about diplomatic options, if war is so scary? The Trump administration has been working for months to encourage China to help broker negotiations. To woo Beijing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has pledged that the United States doesn’t seek regime change or collapse in Pyongyang, won’t support any quick Korean reunification and doesn’t want to send US troops north of the 38th parallel. This formula satisfies Beijing’s conditions about the future of the peninsula, and it should assuage some of Kim’s worries, too.

Tillerson, who is driving Korea policy (at least when Trump isn’t tweeting or speaking publicly), told reporters that Kim can demonstrate he’s ready for talks by halting missile tests.

The table is set for negotiations. Sources knowledgeable about China say that party leaders are being briefed at their annual seaside retreat this month about possible tougher moves to squeeze Kim, including a cut in oil deliveries or even a naval blockade.

At a moment that requires subtlety, Trump unwisely amped up his rhetoric once more Thursday, warning the North Koreans of things “they never thought possible.” He talks like the promoter of a WWE wrestling match. But this is real.

The Washington Post

CIA and the ‘Anti-Assad’ Program


What did the CIA’s covert assistance program for Syrian rebels accomplish? Bizarrely, the biggest consequence may be that it helped trigger the Russian military intervention in 2015 that rescued President Bashar al-Assad — achieving the opposite of what the program intended.

Syria adds another chapter to the star-crossed history of CIA paramilitary action. These efforts begin with the worthy objective of giving presidents policy options short of all-out war. But they often end with an untidy mess, in which rebels feel they have been “seduced and abandoned” by the promise of US support that disappears when the political winds change.

One Syrian opposition leader highlighted for me the danger for his rebel comrades now: “The groups that decided to work with the US already have a target on their back from the extremists, but now will not be able to defend themselves.”

The demise of the Syria program was disclosed by The Post this week, but it’s been unraveling since President Trump took office. Trump wanted to work more closely with Russia to stabilize Syria, and a program that targeted Russia’s allies didn’t fit. The White House’s own Syria policy remains a hodgepodge of half-baked assumptions and conflicting goals.

The rise and fall of the Syria covert action program conveys some useful lessons about this most delicate weapon in the United States’ arsenal. To summarize, the program was too late, too limited. It was potent enough to threaten Assad and draw Russian intervention, but not strong enough to prevail. Perhaps worst, the CIA-backed fighters were so divided politically, and so interwoven with extremist opposition groups, that the rebels could never offer a viable political future.

That’s not to say that the CIA effort was bootless. Run from secret operations centers in Turkey and Jordan, the program pumped many hundreds of millions of dollars to many dozens of militia groups. One knowledgeable official estimates that the CIA-backed fighters may have killed or wounded 100,000 Syrian soldiers and their allies over the past four years. By the summer of 2015, the rebels were at the gates of Latakia on the northern coast, threatening Assad’s ancestral homeland and Russian bases there. Rebel fighters were also pushing toward Damascus.

CIA analysts began to speak that summer about a “catastrophic success” — in which the rebels would topple Assad without creating a strong, moderate government. In a June 2015 column, I quoted a US intelligence official saying, “Based on current trend lines, it is time to start thinking about a post-Assad Syria.” Russian President Vladimir Putin was warily observing the same trend, especially after an urgent visit to Moscow in July that year by Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force and Assad’s regional patron.

Putin got the message: He intervened militarily in September 2015, decisively changing the balance of the Syrian war. What Trump did in ending the CIA program was arguably just recognizing that ground truth.

What could the United States have done to provide a different outcome? Here are some thoughts gathered from US and Syrian officials who have followed the CIA program closely.

●CIA support could have started earlier, in 2012, when extremists weren’t so powerful and there was still hope of building a moderate force. By 2013, when the program got rolling, the military opposition was dominated by warlords.

●The United States could have given the rebels antiaircraft weapons, allowing them to protect rebel-held areas from Assad’s brutal bombing. The rebels trained with such weapons but could never use them on the battlefield.

●The United States didn’t have a political strategy to match the CIA’s covert campaign. “There was no ‘there’ there, in terms of a clearly articulated national security objective and an accompanying strategy,” said Fred Hof, a former State Department official who has followed the Syria story closely.

The American effort unintentionally “created massive divisions and rivalries instead of being used as a tool to unite disparate factions,” another former official said.

Washington Post

Celebrating the True Meaning of Politics on July 4th


It’s time for July 4th, otherwise known as Independence Day. It’s one of my favorite holidays for all the reasons you’d suspect: flags, patriotic songs, and fireworks. But I’m uneasy with the trend towards making the US military might the centerpiece of the occasion.

Without reservations, I’m all for the post-Vietnam agreement that we’ll all appreciate the troops regardless of how we feel about the wars they fight. But we have two national holidays for those who fought. That’s appropriate, but it’s also sufficient.

July 4th should be a celebration of the one thing that really makes the United States of America an exceptional nation. That’s politics.

The United States began as an experiment in politics, with a founding document declaring us dedicated (as Lincoln said) not to a patch of land, a religion, an ethnicity, or a culture, but to a proposition: that “all men are created equal.” The revolution was completed by a constitution which institutionalized politics, including participation by ordinary citizens. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for the framers, the ability to take part in politics was the whole point of establishing the nation.

We shy away from that idea now, for many completely understandable reasons. For many, “politics” is now associated with the very worst of our nation’s culture, rather than with our basic ability to collectively decide how we want to organize American life. We may be getting better at granting immortality to the revolutionary generation, but we’re worse at doing so for twentieth century heroes.

And yet: We still get involved in politics, conservatives and liberals, generation after generation, whether it’s Tea Party or #Resistance, ad hoc demonstrations organized over the latest app or legacy organized groups that have been around since before telephones and telegraphs were widespread. And while it’s fair to be concerned about the effects of amateurism, the impulse to get involved and do something about whatever one thinks is wrong is exactly what the nation was structured to accommodate.

Take time to appreciate the citizens who flood the Capitol switchboard with phone calls when an important bill is being considered, who show up for rallies wearing silly hats (whether they’re Tea Party tricorns or anti-Trump), and who line up for town hall meetings, at least when politicians are willing to show up in their districts. Honor the courage of those standing up to speak in a meeting for the first time, whether they’re 15 years old or 85.

It’s time for July 4th, otherwise known as Independence Day. It’s one of my favorite holidays for all the reasons you’d suspect: flags, patriotic songs, and fireworks. But I’m uneasy with the trend towards making the US military might the centerpiece of the occasion.

Without reservations, I’m all for the post-Vietnam agreement that we’ll all appreciate the troops regardless of how we feel about the wars they fight. But we have two national holidays for those who fought. That’s appropriate, but it’s also sufficient.

July 4th should be a celebration of the one thing that really makes the United States of America an exceptional nation. That’s politics.

The United States began as an experiment in politics, with a founding document declaring us dedicated (as Lincoln said) not to a patch of land, a religion, an ethnicity, or a culture, but to a proposition: that “all men are created equal.” The revolution was completed by a constitution which institutionalized politics, including participation by ordinary citizens. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for the framers, the ability to take part in politics was the whole point of establishing the nation.

We shy away from that idea now, for many completely understandable reasons. For many, “politics” is now associated with the very worst of our nation’s culture, rather than with our basic ability to collectively decide how we want to organize American life. We may be getting better at granting immortality to the revolutionary generation, but we’re worse at doing so for twentieth century heroes.

And yet: We still get involved in politics, conservatives and liberals, generation after generation, whether it’s Tea Party or #Resistance, ad hoc demonstrations organized over the latest app or legacy organized groups that have been around since before telephones and telegraphs were widespread. And while it’s fair to be concerned about the effects of amateurism, the impulse to get involved and do something about whatever one thinks is wrong is exactly what the nation was structured to accommodate.

So this year on the Fourth take time to celebrate political participation and those who get involved, whether out of self-interest or public spirit. Honor the people who form interest groups and lobby their city councils, state legislatures, and members of Congress. The business folks who join the Chamber of Commerce, the workers who join unions, and everyone else who does more than sit at home and gripe about it.

Take time to appreciate the citizens who flood the Capitol switchboard with phone calls when an important bill is being considered, who show up for rallies wearing silly hats (whether they’re Tea Party tricorns or anti-Trump pussyhats), and who line up for town hall meetings, at least when politicians are willing to show up in their districts. Honor the courage of those standing up to speak in a meeting for the first time, whether they’re 15 years old or 85.

And yes, it’s also an opportunity to remember that democracy wouldn’t work well without the party hacks: The people who stuff envelopes and hang door signs; who sit at voter registration tables; the precinct committeepeople who still, in many places, walk their neighborhoods and get to know their voters.

The US political system cannot work without politicians. But there’s no point to it working without citizens who take advantage of way the republic functions and actually get involved in politics beyond just voting every two or four years.

No, political participation isn’t for everyone, and one of the virtues of the democratic system is that it is supposed to protect the rights of even those who don’t do politics.

But democracy, especially the US variety, also means giving the opportunity to meaningfully participate in collective decision-making to anyone who wants to get involved.


America And The New Travel Ban Rules


President Donald Trump’s administration has issued guidelines through the State Department for who will be exempt from the travel ban from six majority Muslim countries, which the US Supreme Court allowed Monday to partly go into effect. The guidelines are highly arbitrary in defining what counts as a family relationship that merits exemption. For example, your mother-in-law is close enough to come into the US, but not your grandmother, a blood relative without whom you wouldn’t exist.

That’s because the Trump administration wants to keep out as many people as it can. But it’s also the result of the Supreme Court’s decision, which created a brand new legal category of “bona fide relationship” while defining it only in connection with the plaintiffs in the case. The result will be practical difficulties as well as more litigation in the months before the justices directly address the legality of the ban.

When the justices ruled on the ban this week, they sought to craft a compromise that would preserve the temporary restrictions on the ban put in place by the lower courts while simultaneously allowing Trump to declare victory, as he in fact did.

The centerpiece of the compromise was that the travel ban would not apply to foreign nationals seeking admission to the US who have a “bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.”

The court made up this category out of whole cloth. That’s allowed because the court has wide latitude to craft remedies when it is deciding on what will happen while litigation is pending. It’s exercising what is called “equitable discretion,” a legal phrase with roots in an old English legal distinction between strict law and flexible equity. When courts do equity rather than law, they don’t have to follow rules laid down in precedent or statute. They can weigh competing considerations and make up a rule to fit the specific case.

The upside of equity is that it’s flexible. The downside is that when courts make up new rules, those rules have to be applied by government officials who lack detailed guidance.

The justices told the Trump administration that there were two kinds of “bona fide relationships” that it must consider. The first was what the court called “close familial relationships,” which is said were “required.”

The court didn’t say much more than that about what counts as close. Its only examples were two of the original plaintiffs on the challenge to the ban: Ismail Elshikh, who sought to bring his mother-in-law to the US from Syria, and the unnamed plaintiff “John Doe,” who wants to bring his wife from Iran. The court wrote: “A foreign national who wishes to enter the United States to live with or visit a family member, like Doe’s wife or Dr. Elshikh’s mother-in-law, clearly has such a relationship.”

As a result of the Elshikh example, the Trump administration had no choice but to include parents-in-law and sons- and daughters-in-law in its guidelines. It also logically had to count children and siblings, who are closer than in-laws. And it made the choice to count “half” relationships including “step relationships.”

But the administration excluded grandparents and grandchildren, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, as well as unmarried partners, even when they are engaged.

It’s truly arbitrary to say your grandmother is not as a close a relative as your mother-in-law. Ditto your uncle.

It’s not that Trump likes his in-laws more than his grandparents. This arbitrariness is a direct product of the court’s mention of Elshikh’s mother-in-law. If he had been trying to get his grandmother in, grandparents would now be allowed — and I bet in-laws would have been out.

The Trump administration is trying to be as exclusionary as possible without violating the letter of the Supreme Court’s opinion.

Expect litigation over the grandmother issue — starting as soon as today.

Another potential legal issue is that none of the six countries has same-sex marriage, so the rule as written effectively discriminates against gay partners.

The Supreme Court may never rule on the arbitrariness issue. Its “close familial relationships” rule is only supposed to remain in place until the court addresses the merits of the travel ban in the fall. It may prefer to let the lower courts sort it out.

In the meantime, the anti-grandmothers rule stands as a testament to the Trump administration’s grudging attitude toward immigrants — and the limits of the court’s equitable approach to compromise in this case.


The Supreme Court Is the Last Leakproof Institution


With another term of the US Supreme Court behind us, full of decisions both predictable and surprising, perhaps we should take a moment to consider a question very much of the moment: Why doesn’t the court leak? The rest of Washington has reached the point where confidentiality is a joke. So why not the Supreme Court too?

I’m not saying that no secrets ever trickle down from our sacred legal mountain. Back in 2012, CBS News ran a story that Chief Justice John Roberts had changed his vote in the decision upholding the Affordable Care Act. Court-watchers were suitably shocked. Experts speculated on who the leaker might have been.

Yet in and of itself, the leak wasn’t interesting. Justices change their votes all the time; in a deliberative, reflective body, one would even hope that this is true. Although disclosing the internal processes three days after a decision is handed down was treated justifiably as a big scoop, what’s proved harder for reporters is to discover the outcome of a pending case. 1 What made the Roberts story news was not its content but the fact that the court seems all but leak-proof.

The last time a decision was leaked in advance seems to have been 1986, when Tim O’Brien of ABC News reported not only the outcome but also the actual votes in Bowsher v. Synar, the decision striking down the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings balanced budget act. That’s more than three decades in which we have become accustomed to a flood of reports about the secrets of the executive branch, particularly those concerned with intelligence and national security. And during all that time, despite all the interest in its decisions, the court has sat in its marble temple, distant and sphinx-like, an all but impenetrable oracle.

Why the difference? One common response is that it would be very hard for the leaker to avoid being caught. The staff of the Supreme Court is very small, and the circle of knowledge of pending opinions is even smaller. In particular, a law clerk who talked to a reporter might find a once high-flying legal career ruined. And of course fewer people in the know means fewer potential leakers.

A second argument stems from the fact that cultivation of a source usually takes a considerable investment of a reporter’s time and energy. The effort might make sense when the potential source will have access to government secrets for years to come. But the most likely source of leaks at the Supreme Court — again, the clerks — turns over every year. There is little point in investing months trying to convert a clerk into a source if the clerk will shortly disappear into private practice or the academy.

This leads to a third point: The Supreme Court actually tends to be undercovered by news media. As the political scientist Tyler Johnson has pointed out, what’s fascinating is not how much news coverage the court receives but how little. By most estimates, only a dozen or so reporters are assigned to the institution as a full-time beat. In comparison, the Washington Post alone has eight journalists on its White House team. For nearly all journalists, covering the court means reporting its decisions and the responses those decisions evoke. That’s a pretty small investment of resources in an entity whose future is discussed in presidential campaigns in terms suggesting that the sky will fall if the bad guys win.

No doubt each of these factors plays a role in the ability of the court to keep its secrets. Yet even taken together, these explanations seem insufficient, particularly in an age when so much of life is lived so openly. Both social media and casual evening conversation are chockablock with information of the sort that earlier generations would have considered private. Why hasn’t this logorrhea afflicted the court?

Let me offer a suggestion based on my own admittedly ancient experience. During my year as a Supreme Court law clerk, I recall only two instances of reporters asking me for information, once via a phone call to my office, once at a party. Of course I didn’t tell them anything. But that’s not the point of the story. What’s interesting as I think back is my emotional response. I was angry and offended.

I suspect that even today, most of those who work at the courthouse would have the same response. With its small staff treading its broad but hushed hallways, the Supreme Court is able to instill in those who work there a sense of common purpose and esprit de corps that cannot possibly be created in a huge bureaucracy. Not only the law clerks who pass through each year but everyone who works in the building seems to share this almost sacred commitment to the tight-knit family. An outsider’s inquiry about a pending case is an insult to the common faith; to give information to the outsider would be a blasphemy.

That’s why I responded with offense: For the reporter to think that I would break faith with my fellows was to strike at the core of the belief. To the insider, privacy is essential to the court’s work. One might even say that the veil of secrecy is as much as the written opinion the court’s principal product.

Of course many a government agency will make a similar claim. But the claim will almost always be false. As an agency grows larger, as branches become more distant from one another, it is that much harder to tend the lamp. Everyone in the Supreme Court building knows everyone in the Supreme Court building. The atmosphere is intimate. The circle of knowledge is always tiny. The law clerks work directly for their powerful bosses, with no buffers in between, a relationship that typically engenders not only respect but also affection. No faraway contractor can download secret information. No bitter lifer sits alone and ignored in a distant cubicle. The Supreme Court doesn’t leak because it learned long ago how to maintain the mystical walls separating its internal deliberations from the rest of the world: It stayed small.


Putin between the Tsar and The Commissar


After decades at the top of Russian politics, Vladimir Putin should not be an unknown quantity, at least as far as Western specialists are concerned. One question they ought to consider is how hard and how far Putin should be pushed to remain within the limits of acceptable behavior.

Putin’s brief visit to France, in fact to the Palace of Versailles this week, provided an opportunity to pose that question in a calmer and more pondered manner.

The fact that Putin accepted a short-notice invitation from the new French President Emmanuel Macron showed that the Russian leader is desperate to regain entry into the circle of the so-called “great powers”.

Excluded from the G-8 and regarded as a pariah in capitals that count, Putin was only too keen to secure a photo-op indicting a breach in his isolation.

Next, one of the themes Putin hammered in at Versailles was that he hoped the Western “specialists” would regard Russia today as it is today and not as the defunct Soviet Union it once was.

The excuse for the Versailles visit was the 300th anniversary of a visit to France by Peter the Great, the founder of modern Russia. Tsar Peter was the founder of the so-called Westernizers school in Russian national debate, those who believe that Russia is part of Europe and should free itself from its “barbarian” Asiatic heritage.

Peter wanted Russia to adopt modern sciences and systems of education and went as far as forcing the boyars to shave their long beards and the Muzhiks to wear “European” style clothes.

During his 12-week stay in France, the tsar hired a host of French, and other European, teachers, historians, artists, architects and administrators to accompany him to Russia and help transform it into a modern European nation. Those recruits were to build Petrograd, today’s Saint Petersburg as an Italian city and redesigned Moscow as a French metropolis.

Peter’s westernization platform was opposed by Slavophils who believed that Russia has its own soul and should fulfill its own manifest destiny by expanding its empire and spreading its version of Christianity.

During his career Putin has played both themes, he has been a westernizer at some times and a Slavophile at others. In Versailles, paying glowing tribute to Peter, the current master of the Kremlin was in his westernizer mode.

The sub text of his message was that Russia’s recent “conquests” in Georgia and Ukraine should not be seen as part of a broader attempt to revive the Soviet Empire. At his joint press conference with Macron in Versailles, Putin ditched his nationalistic routine and described the task of politics as one of improving the lives of the people.

His aim was to reassure Russian middle classes badly affected by economic sanctions, the falling oil prices and the Russian economy’s general decline since 2012.

Putin also tried to change the conversation by casting such issues as Syria and Ukraine as only some of the items on a heavily loaded global agenda. He made some song and dance about fighting terrorism, always a topic that catches the attention in the West, and offered Russian cooperation.

Obviously keen to show that he has re-attached Russia to “big power” circles at least in a minimal way, Putin instantly accepted Macron’s suggestion to create a joint group to suggest strategies in fighting terrorism.

All in all, he Putin, we saw in Versailles this week seemed to be less defiant, less arrogant and more amenable to playing the game according to some rules. To be sure, that could be nothing but a pose, adopted at a tough moment by an adventurer that has been mugged by reality. Therefore, it may be prudent not to fall for Putin’s new “I can be a moderate” number.

Maybe those who think like the US Senator John McCain, that Putin is more dangerous than ISIS, are not that wide of the mark, although I doubt it because McCain has hardly been right about anything.

Nevertheless, it would be unwise to dismiss even the slightest positive modification in Putin’s demeanor. The aim should not be rubbing Putin’s nose in dust by making sure he meets his comeuppance. Nor should it be to humiliate Russia. Putin has put Russia on a frisky trajectory that also threatens the peace of Europe and the stability of the Middle East.

The aim should be to walk Russia aback from that trajectory. If Putin is prepared to open a window of opportunity it would be unwise to shut it in his face. This does not mean offering him a smorgasbord of concessions as the hapless Barack Obama did with his childish “re-set” gimmick.

Putin is right in suggesting that Russia isn’t the Soviet Union. For the USSR was an enemy of Western democracies while Russia today is at worst an adversary.

According to French sources, at Versailles Putin dropped a number of tantalizing hints. On Syria, he made mention of Bashar al-Assad, the puppet that is manipulated by Tehran and Moscow for their own ends. Instead, Putin insisted that any solution for Syria should not pass by destroying “the state institutions.”

That is something that the Western powers, and the mass of the Syrians; should have little difficulty accepting.
Leaving aside a few hundred individuals directly involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity there is no reason why the remnants of the Syrian states personnel should not have a place in a future free Syria.

Putin’s new posture comes against a background of a sharp drop in Russian military activity in Syria. Last month Assad and his Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem announced an Aleppo-style operation against Idlib with the Russian air force launching a massive carpet bombing operation. That hasn’t happened.

Russia has also swallowed two attacks by US forces against Assad’s positions and units without trying to reciprocate in any way. Putin now uses the term “de-escalation” for both the Syrian and Ukrainian crises.

He may well be trying to buy time or to divide his adversaries.

But he may also be reflecting the fact that he is learning from his experience that old Imperialist policies are self-defeating in the end. His new posture shouldn’t be dismissed out of and; it should be tested. If it is verified that he wants to walk his cat back, he should be helped to do so.