Thanks to Taylor for putting together this awesome video. Our travel course in a nutshell!
The downing of Malaysia Flight 17 by Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine put the Ukraine crisis back into the world’s attention, and marked a dramatic escalation in the seriousness of the crisis. 295 people were killed, a civilian airliner shot down, and Russia appears to be at least indirectly responsible through its arming of the separatists. So where do we go from here?
Here’s the situation: Vlad the improviser stumbled into his Ukraine policy with a series of reactions to the downfall of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych. Suddenly Ukraine shifted from a tilt toward Russia to a strong lean towards Europe, and Putin’s reaction was to grab Crimea, and then foment unrest in the ethnic Russian regions of eastern Ukraine. Personally, I get the Crimea gambit. Crimea was traditionally Russian and give to Ukraine by a misguided Khrushchev in 1954. But the rest?
For Putin, who was losing his luster at home, it was an unexpected political opportunity. He could play the Russian nationalist anti-American card and watch his popularity grow. Though the West feared an effort to grab all of eastern Ukraine, Putin instead tried to maintain a balancing act.
Knowing that the Russian economy in the era of globalization needs to keep reasonably healthy ties with the EU, he avoided the massive land grab that could have forced the EU into more draconian anti-Russia sanctions. However, he also sent units from Russian intelligence there to start/support an indigenous uprising, knowing it might flounder, but counting on it destabilizing the hated Ukrainian government and helping keep his nationalist bona fides in place.
For awhile, it seemed to work. The West seemed to be losing interest in the conflict, especially as it was clear the Russian separatists were not faring well against the Ukrainian military. At home his stoking of Russian nationalism kept his popularity high. The balancing act seemed to be a bit of political genius.
However, supporting a rebellion is tricky. While Putin might have been OK with the crisis dragging out indefinitely, the rebels were fighting for a cause. Angry that Russia seemed to be “deserting them” (read: just giving them weapons and support, but not actively participating in the effort to build New Russia), they exercised more autonomy and, as we know, brought down Malaysian Flight 17.
So what now? First, the US has to recognize that there are limited options and all require serious cooperation and even leadership from the EU. While some in the US huff that Obama hasn’t done enough, blaming the American President for what goes on in the rest of the world, the reality is that US power is limited.
The key is that Russian President Putin knows that the Soviet Union fell primarily because its economy was isolated. Globalization began in earnest in the 80s, and the rapid connections in the West combined with the economic failures of Communism in the Soviet bloc made economic disintegration inevitable. If Putin severed ties and focused on building his own internal empire, the result would be disaster.
Moreover, Russia’s future is very much connected to the EU, and Germany in particular. Earlier this month Germans, already incensed by the monitoring of Chancellor Merkel’s phone calls for years, kicked out a CIA agent who was spying on Germany from the US embassy. German Chancellor Merkel is clearly not an American proxy; the Germans have become more independent in crafting a foreign policy to serve European interests. The Cold War is long dead.
It is Germany and the EU that can put the most pressure on Putin, and Merkel’s leverage with the Russian President has been increased by this tragedy. Not only are the Europeans feeling more pressure than ever to turn up the heat on Russia, but Putin has to recognize that his balancing act is a very dangerous one.
President Obama needs to keep rhetorical pressure on Russia and be in close consultation with Merkel, crafting a plan to both pressure the Russian leader but also give him a face saving way to withdraw support from the rebels. What we do not need is rah rah Cold War style chest thumping, nor do we need to up the ante by dramatically increasing military aid for Ukraine. That would force Putin into holding firm – he will not allow himself to be seen as giving in to the US. At best, it would only deepen and lengthen the duration of the crisis. At first, things could spin out of control.
That’s in no one’s interest, saving the hyper-nationalists on either side. A gradual reduction in tension, with action more behind the scenes than in the public eye, is the best way out. So far, the Obama Administration has behaved admirably, keeping up pressure but not being belligerent. More importantly, the US has learned that we do not need to lead, especially not when our direct interests are not at stake.
Ultimately it is up to Putin – he is a very vain politician, and the West needs to construct a path to de-escalate the crisis so that he saves face. Recognizing that the Crimea is part of Russia is perhaps part of the calculus. Putin giving up on any further annexation of eastern Ukraine must be another.
If anyone epitomizes the toxic partisan atmosphere of the US Congress these days, it’s Darrell Issa, Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Whether it’s allegations about Benghazi, the IRS, or most recently the Hatch Act, Issa has searched for anything he could use to manufacture a scandal in order to tarnish the Obama Administration. He has issued 99 subpoenas, most of them unilateral and political.
Recently, trying to argue that the White House was violating the Hatch Act prohibiting senior officials from engaging in political activity while doing their duties, Issa subpoenaed David Simas, a top White House advisor. The White House balked, saying there is no reason to him to testify and as a top advisor he was immune from such a subpoena. Issa had called two other witnesses, but after seeing that their testimony would contradict his claims of clear violations of the Hatch Act, he quickly ended the session without giving them a chance to testify.
The subpoena abuse and abrupt cutting off of testimony that would weaken his claim angered ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings, who said Issa was using the committee as “center stage for political theater.” Indeed, Issa’s activities go far beyond the norm for that committee. His subpoenas are mostly “unilateral,” meaning they don’t have the approval of the ranking Democrat nor has the committee voted. In essence he’s casting his net wide hoping he’ll find something.
This is unprecedented – in the past (except for a brief time when the GOP pursued Clinton) the committee has been very careful with subpoenas – almost always they had bipartisan support. That in a microcosm is what’s wrong with Washington. Rather than trying to figure out how to run the country better and solve problems, the goal is to find some way to politically embarrass the other side.
But there is also reason not to trust Issa. Issa has been accused of car theft, insurance fraud (he settled out of court for $20,000 with an insurance company rather than collecting hundreds of thousands he was insured for because the fire was so suspicious) and there is no evidence of how he was able to purchase his business anyway. In short, the guy is at best shady. (Read more: here)
The desire on the far right for some kind of scandal to use to impeach Obama has failed, yet they have created a fantasy land where they think Obama’s been acting like a tyrant. They claim he’s trying to run the country with executive orders when the number he’s made is small by historical standards, and minuscule compared to his predecessor. Of course, when Dick Cheney, architect of an Iraq war that has damaged US foreign policy more than any other policy in history, says Obama’s the worst President – well, it’s clear he can’t handle reality.
The GOP has to watch it. While inbred blogs and talk radio can get them to bolster their own fantasies and think it’s clear that Obama is an idiot and the scandals are real, that’s not reality. It’s a political fantasy shared with an almost cult-like set of memes and false beliefs.
They correctly see how the culture of the US and our role in the world is shifting due to globalization, changing demographics, and economic reality. They don’t like the way the country is changing, and a black President Barack Hussein Obama personifies the new emerging America. Rather than dealing with reality, they hope they can make it go away by finding some sexy scandal that could destroy Obama and thus the America he represents.
That prevents them from playing a constructive role in dealing with the real issues (rather than improve Obamacare they try in vain to eliminate it). Ultimately, reality bites. The world is changing, and there is no super scandal that will turn back time. We need a constructive conservative voice, not a delusional one.
For a little over two and a half hours Sunday we were treated to a spectacular finish to an amazing World Cup Tournament, one that even saw Americans showing soccer enthusiasm as the US team made the final sixteen. My wife and I were on the edge of our seats at a local pub as we’re too cheap to have cable. We were pulling for Germany and experiencing moments of panic, such as when Toni Kroos messed up a head shot and gave Argentina a clean shot at a goal. Later it appeared Argentina had scored only to be ruled (correctly) offsides.
There were also numerous moments of hope. Germany handled the ball well, a shot went off the post and passes just missed – Miroslav Klose, the all time World Cup goal leader was just off on handling a pass. The tension was palpable. Because games are often won 1-0 at this level, every possible goal is exciting.
It looked, alas, like it was going to be a 0-0 decided by a penalty shoot out. Then in the second overtime, at minute 113 the incredible happened.
Let me back up. At minute 87 Miroslav Klose left the game to thunderous applause. The 36 year old is retiring and this was his last World Cup appearance. The camera focused in on his replacement, diminutive midfielder Mario Goetze. At 5’9 and just 145 pounds, the 22 year old from Memmingen Germany who plays for FC Bayern Muenchen looked almost like a child heading into the most important game in four years. I thought to myself, “wow, they’re removing the all time World Cup goal leader? But that kid might end up a hero tonight, you never know.” I was prescient.
Goetze’s talents have been known to the German soccer world for some time – he’s one of the brightest up and coming stars. That night it was only fitting that as Klose’s replacement he’d score the winning goal. It came at minute 113. Andre Schuerrle sent a cross pass to Goetze as he closed into the goal. He skillfully controlled it with his chest and kicked a perfect shot past Sergio Romero, who had been spectacular for Argentina the entire tournament. Suddenly Germany had a 1-0 lead with only seven minutes to go!
Argentina did get another shot when Lionel Messi, who won the Golden Ball as the World Cup Tournament’s best player, had a chance with a penalty shot. It sailed over the net, and Germany held on to win.
Wow! Schuerrle, who made the pass, had come in earlier in the game to replace Christoph Kramer, who left with a head injury.
Of course, for Germany this victory came on the heels of an unbelievable 7-1 shellacking of the favored Brazilian home team. At this level games with scores like 7-1 are unheard of. It was a shock. The German press didn’t know how to respond the next day. Americans used to blowouts now and then (Superbowls that end 52-14, or a World Series game that is 10-1) might have thought it was just a bad day for Brazil. But soccer is a game of such skill and control that at the level of the World Cup semi-finals this just doesn’t happen. It would be like a 96-6 Super Bowl!
Brazil lacked two of its regular players, but clearly what happened was more psychological than physical, and involved a kind of collapse that a very disciplined and opportunistic German team could take advantage of. The trouble started when Miroslav Klose scored to set the World Cup all time goal record, overtaking retired Brazilian hero Ronaldo. That put Germany up 2-0, which is a huge lead in World Cup level soccer. It’s hard to score twice, especially if the other team focuses on defense.
For whatever reason, perhaps a momentary lapse due to the fear of letting down the home crowd, Brazil collapsed. Within the next six minutes Germany scored three more goals (this was all early in the game – Klose’s goal was at minute 23). Toni Kroos scored twice in a row so fast many thought they were watching a replay of his first goal. It was a complete breakdown. Germany scored two more timesin the second half and Brazil finally got a goal near the end, but soccer fans were left realizing there might not be a game like this at the last stages of the World Cup in 50 years. Or ever. It also speaks to the level of skill and control soccer players need to demonstrate – and almost always do!
So Germany wins its fourth World Cup, the first officially as unified Germany. The others were in 1954, 1974 and 1990. Germany would unify in October 1990, and that World Cup victory was in the midst of an amazing transformation – it was just after the wall came down and before unification. Germany lost to Brazil in 2002 the last time it got close. Of course, Mario Goetze wasn’t even born when Germany unified or Germany won its last World Cup.
To be sure, most Americans didn’t really follow the World Cup, especially after the US was eliminated. Conservative pundit (or jester) Ann Coulter mocked soccer, saying that American Football was a real man’s sport. Yet if one gives soccer a chance, it’s clear that there is a good reason why this is the world’s most beloved sport. Perhaps only Quidditch is superior. And even Coulter would have to admit, soccer players have much more impressive physiques! And it was nice to watch a sporting event that didn’t take time out for TV commercials.
So the World Cup is over, and tonight I was out practicing soccer with my eight year old son who is on a soccer travel team this fall. He’s already better than me (and knows it), and it’s good to see young Americans finally embracing soccer – or to be accurate, football.
The buzz is out there. Mitt Romney is reportedly signaling to the GOP donor base that if he doesn’t face a difficult primary season and is, in a sense, anointed, he would consider running for President again in 2016. Publicly he claims there is no way he would run, and I would be very surprised if he did. Yet, is it possible?
A Romney run could only happen if Republican party (read: the main power brokers and donors) agree that they see Mitt as the best chance to unite the party and beat presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. There is a logic to that. The Republicans will have a better shot if there is no bloody primary battle for the nomination. Not only will there be more money in the campaign coffers for the fall, but a united party should fare better than a divided one.
Of course, the biggest argument against Mitt is that he’s a proven loser in the Presidential sweepstakes. It’s a rare Presidential candidate that goes from being a loser to a winner. Richard Nixon did it in 1968, but that was eight years after his loss. Of course, Romney’s likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, lost a high stakes primary battle. But that’s not the same – and that was in 2008.
Would conservatives accept Romney? He was always seen by some as too northeastern or moderate. If he were the candidate, they would – but I’d expect them not to forego having a true conservative run in the primaries. While people like Cruz, Rubio, and Walker are probably un-electable, the tea party believes that somehow there is a secret conservative majority in the US that would come out and vote them into office. Of course, they also believe Obama should be impeached (eyes rolling).
One way Romney could deflect conservative opposition is agree early to a tea party friendly VP candidate. That would scare a lot of people (heartbeat away from the Presidency), but historically the VP choice has not been a game changer. Only John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin seemed to actually hurt his chances, but that was less due to her views than the fact she proved herself not ready for prime time.
Romney would need to find someone who he could respect and trust – not a Cruz, perhaps Rubio (who has been a bit more careful about being too extreme) or maybe Nikki Haley, Paul Ryan (an interesting repeat performance), or Susanna Martinez. Choosing a woman would be helpful to his cause, especially if he runs against Hillary. There doesn’t seem to be an obvious black running mate in the GOP ready for the role, though neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson got a lot of conservative attention when he spoke at the 2013 prayer breakfast in proximity to President Obama.
Carson was not over the top extreme, but some of his comments (e.g., seeming to compare bestiality with homosexuality) could come back to haunt him. More damaging is his lack of political experience – would he have the discipline and ambition to run a national campaign? Yet he is intelligent, black, and conservative – the right would love to embrace someone who is brilliant but does not believe in evolution. Most arguments against evolution are inane and batty – but that’s mainly because of the people making those arguments. Dr. Carson can make a cogent and intelligent argument for conservative positions usually seen as anti-rational.
Still, he’s a long shot, as is a Mitt reboot. The only reason the possibility can be considered is that the GOP is fearful of a neophyte tea party type hijacking the primary process, yet worried about turning off conservatives already irked by Thad Cochran’s victory. Mitt developed support among the right in the 2012 campaign and he might be the Republican’s best shot to have a chance in 2016. Not likely, but….
On Thad Cochran’s fourth birthday Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, sending the US into World War II. Like most Mississippians of that era, Cochran grew up a Democrat. In those days the south produced very conservative Democrats who eschewed the Republican party because it was the party of Abraham Lincoln. Cochran was a success at almost everything he undertook: he was an Eagle Scout, majored in Psychology (minored in Poli-Sci), served a stint in the Navy and ultimately graduated from the University of Mississippi Law School.
In the sixties the country was changing and Cochran recognized that the Republican party was increasingly reflecting the view of southern conservatives. He became one of the early converts to the GOP, winning a seat in the House of Representatives in 1972 in a close race.
After three terms in Congress Cochran successfully ran for the Senate, replacing retiring Democrat James Eastland. That made Cochran one of the first of the new breed of southern Republicans to get elected. Given the Democrats’ choice of George McGovern to run in 1972, the next decade would see a massive shift to the Republican party in the south.
Southern Democrats were in something of a civil war then. The establishment Democratic candidate opposing Cochran was Maurice Dantin. He was supported by Eastland and part of the good old boy southern Democratic tradition. Yet the Democrats were also now the party of the civil rights movement, and Charles Evers, a black liberal, ran as an independent. This split the Democratic vote and allowed Cochran to win with a plurality.
Time once labeled Cochran one of the most effective Senators. Always a behind the scenes “persuader,” he brought pork to Mississippi (he was a master of the earmark) and earned a strong 88% rating from the American Conservative Union. He developed considerable influence in both Mississippi and the Senate, and was generally well liked. In 1990 he ran unopposed, and after his narrow first win his margins were: 61-39, 100-0, 71-27, 85-13, and 61-39. He was never given a serious challenge in a state Republican primary.
Now as the GOP is engulfed in its own civil war, Cochran faced a surprisingly serious challenge from Tea Party backed State Senator Chris McDaniel. In the state primary, a candidate must win a majority to gain the nomination. In the first round, McDaniel won a plurality, defeating Cochran 49.57 – 48.88. That is enticingly close to a majority, but 50% + 1 vote is needed for a majority. In the second round, Cochran prevailed 50.9% to 49.1%.
This result was not expected. Most polls showed McDaniel comfortably ahead by 5 or 6%, with national groups questioning giving continued support to Cochran. McDaniel went into the day the favorite, and came out defeated. He is supposedly considering legal action against Cochran because Cochran’s team reached out to black voters and Democrats. In their mind a true conservative Republican was defeated because an old establishment Republican got support from black voters. It appears they are right – the numbers indicate that black voters probably did give Cochran his margin of victory. They may not have been Republican, but they didn’t like McDaniel’s views.
So what does Cochran’s victory mean? Well, coming so soon after Eric Cantor’s loss, it shows that the establishment is not dead, and the tea party has less influence on the Republican party than any time since its 2009 inception. There is a sense of desperation within the movement that their ideals are under threat from their own party leadership.
Cochran’s victory means that the GOP “civil war” is about to enter it’s final stage. The tea party/far right sees politics as good vs. evil. They do not want compromise and pragmatic governance, they are driven by ideology and many of them want a kind of political holy war – defeat the liberals completely and bring America back to their image of what should be/once was. That image is more nostalgic fantasy than reality, but they are convinced they are the only ones with the proper conception of what America should be.
When they thought they could dominate their party and defeat the Democrats, their disdain for RINOs (Republicans in name only) meant primary challenges and, more often than not, electoral defeat at the hands of the Democrats. This led the establishment to fight back – they can tolerate the extremists, but they can’t tolerate continual electoral defeat – and now the tea party realizes that they are a minority in their own party, and Eric Cantor notwithstanding, losing clout.
The last act of this civil war will be the tea party going all out to fight against the GOP leadership. It will either lead to a bitter primary season in 2016 as the Tea Party goes for the big prize – the Presidential nomination. Or if truly cut out, more radical elements will likely try a third party, convinced they are the future of the conservative movement – that the Grand Old Party is obsolete. Either way, the Tea Party will lose, and the Republican establishment will reassert control.
Ironically, this would be a Republican version of what helped bring Thad Cochran to Congress in 1972. The Democrats had been engaged in their own civil war thanks to the anti-war and civil rights movements. The 1968 Chicago convention started a fight that ended after a tortured 1972 Democratic Convention rejected party moderates and nominated the fiercely anti-war liberal George McGovern. This created widespread dissent within the party and the Democrats had one of their worst Presidential elections in history.
The good news for the Republicans is that if history is a guide, the election isn’t a direct threat to their holdings in the House and Senate. The House Democrats did lose 13 seats in 1972, but kept their majority. Senate Democrats actually gained two seats. People did not automatically take dissent with the Presidential candidate as a reason to distrust their own representative.
Thad Cochran’s career will thus bookend the two biggest internal civil wars the major US parties had in the post-war era: The Democrats in the late sixties and early seventies, followed by the Republicans since 2010. And he represents the side that wins those civil wars – the party establishment.
The blame game is going in full force. Pro-war enthusiasts like John McCain say that they had “won” Iraq but Obama lost it. Others say Bush lost Iraq and there is nothing Obama can do. But trying to blame Obama or Bush is to miss the real point: Iraq proves the limits of US power. The US was never in a position to “win” in Iraq or reshape the Mideast.
The current crisis reflects the dramatic gains of a group known as the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), which has seized control of most of the major Sunni regions in Iraq and threatens Baghdad. Their goal is to create a Jihadist state out of the old Baathist countries of Syria and Iraq. Their power is one reason the world doesn’t do more to help get rid of Assad in Syria – as bad as Assad is, his government’s survival prevents Syria from falling to extremists. The ISIS has its roots in the US invasion of Iraq.
In 2003, shortly after the invasion began Abu Musab al-Zarqawi begin to recruit Sunni Muslims in Iraq and especially Syria to form what at first was called “al qaeda in Iraq.” His goal was to create an Islamic state patterned after the beliefs of Osama Bin Laden. He felt the US invasion gave his group a chance at success. He could recruit extremists and use the Sunni’s hatred of the Shi’ites and the Americans to create a powerful force.
At first it worked brilliantly. Al qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgents were two separate groups who really didn’t like each other but had a common set of enemies – the Shi’ite led government and the Americans. By 2006 Zarqawi achieved his dream of igniting a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war, throwing Iraq into utter chaos. At that time the US public turned against the ill advised war, the Democrats took Congress, and President Bush was forced to dramatically alter policy.
He did so successfully – so successfully that President Obama continued Bush’s policies designed to get the US out of Iraq. In so doing President Bush completely redefined policy goals. The goals had been ambitious – to spread democracy and create a stable US client state with American bases from which we could assure the Mideast developed in a manner friendly to US interests. Instead, “peace with honor” became the new goal – stabilize Iraq enough so the US could leave. In that, the goal was similar to President Nixon’s in leaving Vietnam. The Vietnam war ended in defeat two years later when the Communists took the South. Could the Iraq war ultimately end with defeat? If so, who’s to blame?
The key to President Bush’s success was to parlay distaste Arab Sunnis had for Zarqawi’s methods – and their recognition that the Shi’ites were defeating them in the 2006 civil war – into a willingness to side with the Americans against Zarqawi’s organization. When Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike, it appeared that the US was on its way to breaking the back of the organization, unifying Iraqi Sunnis against the foreign fighters.
So what went wrong? Part of the success of the ISIS is the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who seized the initiative when Syria fell into civil war and the eastern Syria essentially lost any effective government. In conditions of anarchy, the strongest and most ruthless prevail. Add to that the fact that the Iraqi government has never truly had western Iraq under control, this created the perfect opportunity to create a new organization. With the Americans gone, Sunni distaste for Shi’ite rule grew, and with the Kurds taking much of the northern oil region, Sunni tribes found it in their interest to support ISIS – even if it is unlikely they share the same long term goal.
So what can the US do? Very little. Air strikes might kill some ISIS forces, but they could also inspire more anger against the government and the foreign invaders. Ground troops are out of the question – the US would be drawn into the kind of quagmire that caused such dissent and anger back against President Bush’s war. Focused killing of top ISIS leaders – meh. Zarqawi was killed, but a more able leader took his place. Focused killing also means killing civilians, these things are sanitary. So it might just end up angering the public more and helping ISIS recruit.
The bottom line is that the US lost Iraq as soon as it invaded. The US undertook a mission it could not accomplish – to alter the political and social landscape of a country/culture through military force and external pressure. The US did win the Iraq war – the US won that within three weeks. The US military is very good at winning wars – but it’s not designed for social engineering. The idea that we could create a democratic pro-US Iraq and simply spread democracy to the region was always a fool’s pipe dream.
The fact is that the kind of military power the US has is not all that useful in the 21st Century. We are not going to fight another major war against an advanced country, nuclear weapons would bring massive harm to the planet, including ourselves, and intervening in third world states sucks us into situations that assure failure. We won’t be able to change the cultural realities on the ground, and the public will rebel against the cost in dollars and lives. Moreover, as our economy continues to sputter, such foreign adventures do real harm.
The lesson from Iraq is that our power to unilaterally shape world events if far less than most American leaders realize. Foreign policy wonks from the Cold War area are still addicted to an image of the US as managing world affairs, guaranteeing global stability and being the world leader. That era is over. Gone. Kaputt.
Now we have to work with others in the messy business of diplomacy and compromise, accepting that other parts of the world will change in their own way, at their own pace. The good news is that they are mostly concerned with their own affairs, and if we don’t butt in, we’ll not again be a target. The real al qaeda condemns the ISIS for its brutality – without the US trying to control what happens, the different groups will fight with each other. But that’s the bad news – change is messy and often violent.
But we can’t fix the world, or somehow turn other regions into little emerging western democracies. That’s reality – and the sooner we accept and focus on what we can accomplish, the better it will be for us and the world.