If a blogger sees his shadow …

Groundhog

I’ve been kind of laying low these last few months, at least as far as the blog goes. I’ve got good reason. A couple of weeks ago political theorist Jacob Levy said on Twitter what I’ve been thinking and feeling:

The problem, as Levy points out, is the president. Dan Drezner, patron saint of blogging political scientists, summed it up this way: “All the arguments about Trump have already been made, and there is no point in thinking up new ones.” In short, there are only so many ways to write about the same nonsense.

Drezner, to his credit (and to honor his arrangement with the Washington Post) is going to soldier on and keep writing about the seemingly endless series of corruptions, missteps, mistakes, ineptitudes, outrages, cruelties, and lies large and small that characterize this present administration.

Now that I’ve poked my head out of the burrow, I’m going to try to be like Punxsutawney Phil and make an optimistic prediction for the future. Phil called for early spring. I’m predicting more frequent posts here on the blog.

Of course Phil is usually wrong. I’ll try to do better.

The curious case of Paul Whelan

(Lutz Creative)
(Lutz Creative)

 

The case of Paul Whelan, the former Marine and Michigan resident who has been charged with espionage in Russia, keeps getting stranger and stranger.

A Canadian-born US citizen, Whelan is also apparently a British citizen. Who also happens to carry an Irish passport. Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs describes him as “an Irish citizen,” and like the American and British embassies, has offered him consular assistance.

So, if you’re keeping score, that’s four countries, four separate citizenships, and four passports. Meanwhile, the Russian lawyer working on Whelan’s case, and approved by him, Vladimir Zherebenkov, has been described by human rights activists and prison monitors as likely to have been chosen by the same Federal Security Service (FSB) that arrested him in the first place.

Whelan is security chief for auto parts supplier BorgWarner, and was, according to his family, visiting Russia for a friend’s wedding when he was arrested and charged with spying. In an interview with The Daily Beast, his lawyer stated his objective in handling the case is:

to arrange a trade and bring home “at least one Russian soul.” It’s widely assumed that the intention is to exchange him for Maria Butina, who recently pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an unregistered agent for Moscow and signed a broad cooperation agreementwith the U.S. Justice Department. Prosecutors said she tried to build a back channel between Kremlin officials and Republican operatives during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Such spy-for-spy exchanges are pretty standard stuff. The most recent high-profile example I can come up with dates from 2010, when the Obama Administration exchanged 10 Russian sleeper agents for four Russians who had been convicted and imprisoned for spying on behalf of the United States. In a scene straight out of the movies, the swap took place on a runway at an airport in Vienna.

But is Whelan a spy? Former CIA officers have told the New York Times and other media outlets that they doubt it. US intelligence operatives typically work under some form of diplomatic cover that gives them immunity from prosecution should they be caught.

Most C.I.A. officers work in foreign countries while posing as diplomats, and if caught by a hostile government in an act of espionage, their diplomatic passports ensure they cannot be long detained, and at worst face expulsion.

Former C.I.A. officials who have operated in Moscow said the agency almost never sends officers into Russia without diplomatic protections. The United States, said John Sipher, a former C.I.A. officer who served in Moscow and ran the agency’s Russia operations, would “never leave a real intelligence officer vulnerable to arrest.”

Whelan was in Russia as a private citizen, ostensibly to attend a wedding and show visitors around Moscow. But he was also a regular visitor to the country, dating back to 2006, showing up every six months or so. He had an account on Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, which is unusual for the casual visitor. And his social media contacts include ordinary Russians, but also many others, mostly men, with connections to academies run by the Russian Navy, the Defense Ministry, or the Civil Aviation Authority.

So is Whelan a spy? Beats me. But this case just keeps getting more intriguing by the day.

Praise for Donald Trump

American-Exceptionalism

President Trump’s statement on US-Saudi relations in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a perversely refreshing breath of fresh air. That sounds kind of like praise, but it really isn’t.

No, what Trump has done, in his typical barely-literate way, is to brutally expose the hypocrisy that has long marked the United States’ approach to human rights. In this, his statement represents a real service.

Other American presidents have long claimed to stand for human rights, but as human rights scholar Julie Mertus writes in her award-winning book Bait and Switch:

The United States still pretends to support universal human rights when it actually recognizes different standards for itself and its friends than those it applies to its enemies.

Mertus concludes:

For the White House … human rights talk is not supported by consistent human rights behavior. On the contrary, the United States applies a double standard for human rights norms: one that applies to the United States and one that applies to the rest of the world.

This makes Trump’s honesty that much more surprising, given his serial dishonesty. He doesn’t even bother with the human rights talk. Trump truly does not care if human rights are violated if there’s something in it for us. Like arms sales, or cooperation against our enemies, or a regional alliance, or low oil prices:

After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States. Of the $450 billion, $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!

Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!

That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region. It is our paramount goal to fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world!

After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world. They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world. As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!

Journalist Graeme Wood sums it up like this: “In other words: our friendship is too sweet to spit out, no matter how poisonous it may be.”

By reaffirming our alliance with Saudi Arabia and standing by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, whom the CIA has determined ordered the assassination of Khashoggi, Trump shines a bright spotlight on the very hypocrisies other presidents have hidden behind high-minded human rights rhetoric. Like this from Ronald Reagan:

The American people cannot close their eyes to abuses of human rights and injustice, whether they occur among friend or adversary or even on our own shores.

And now consider the reality of Reagan’s record on human rights: condemnation for abuses in the Soviet bloc while turning a blind eye to the brutality of the Haitian government, the murder of civilians by the Honduran and Guatemalan militaries, government-backed death squads in El Salvador, and pro-US contra rebels in Nicaragua, atrocities committed by pro-American rebels in Angola, selling arms to the genocidal Suharto regime in Indonesia …

So maybe we should thank Trump for his honesty by saying out loud what foreign policy realists like Hans Morgenthau long advocated:

The principle of defense of human rights cannot be consistently applied in foreign policy because it can and must come in conflict with other interests more important than the defense of human rights.

Or, as Trump says, America First!

What the lit fuse looks like

(Cartoon: Dom Nelson)
(Cartoon: Dom Nelson)

 

The three members of a Kansas terrorist cell convicted of a 2016 plot to detonate simultaneous car bombs at an apartment complex housing Somali immigrants are now facing sentencing. The lawyers for one of the convicted terrorists, Patrick Stein, are making a plea for a more lenient sentence.

By citing President Donald Trump’s rhetoric.

That’s right: Stein’s lawyers are arguing that the judge should consider how Trump’s words fanned the flames of Stein’s fear and hatred of Muslims, which he learned from and had reinforced by the internet and conservative talk shows, when deciding their client’s sentence.

You can read their sentencing memorandum by following this link. As attorneys James Pratt and Michael Schultz argue:

Patrick Stein was afraid of the Muslim refugees that had come to live in the western Kansas towns of Liberal, Dodge City, and particularly Garden City, Kansas.

Patrick was afraid of Muslims because of what he read about them on the internet and the videos he watched on YouTube. …  Patrick’s knowledge of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, came directly from the internet and conservative talk-show hosts such as Sean Hannity and Michael Savage. Patrick himself had never read the Quran, nor had he participated in a comparative study of any religion.

All of Patrick’s exposure to the Muslim religion has been negative – by choice, through the media to which he exposed himself …

And by the poisonous and paranoid political swamp in which Stein, described by his lawyers as “an early and avid supporter for Donald Trump,” wallowed. That swamp echoed with the anti-Muslim bile vomited up by Fox News hosts like Sean Hannity and talk-radio bigots like Michael Savage.

The fear that it inspired was stoked and amplified by the opportunism of the Kansas Republican Party, which produced campaign mailers like the one below. Gary Barker, executive director of the Kansas State Republican Party, explained that this mailer, and others like it, were distributed across the state because polling showed it was “a positive issue for Republicans.”

Campaign mailer for Kansas GOP candidate
Campaign mailer for Kansas GOP candidate

 

As Stein’s lawyers put it:

2016 was “lit.” The court cannot ignore the circumstances of one of the most rhetorically mold-breaking, violent, awful, hateful and contentious presidential elections in modern history, driven in large measure by the rhetorical China shop bull who is now our president.

They go on to argue that Trump’s appeal for people like Stein, was as “the voice of a lost and ignored white, working-class set of voters,” and that the eventual president’s words had a particularly powerful effect on their client:

Trump’s brand of rough-and-tumble verbal pummeling heightened the rhetorical stakes for people of all political persuasions. A personal normally at a 3 on a scale of political talk might have found themselves at a 7 during the election. A person, like Patrick, who would often be at a 7 during a normal day, might “go to 11.” See SPINAL TAP.

In their effort to secure a lighter sentence for their client, Stein’s attorneys make one last pitch. Acknowledging that the FBI disrupted the plot before it was carried out, his lawyers argue that, thanks to Trump’s victory, Stein and his fellow conspirators would have shelved their planned terrorist attack.

Trump’s win changed everything, and it is reasonable to speculate that it would have changed things among the defendants as well. The urgency for action would be gone. The feeling of a losing battle would be gone.

In short, Stein’s lawyers argue that their client wouldn’t have become a full-fledged terrorist. He wouldn’t have gone through with the plan to slaughter innocent Somalis after all.

Because Trump was the terrorist’s candidate. And Trump won.