Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

January 12, 2017

To Russia With Love

By David K. Shipler

            It is impossible now, in the maelstrom of information and disinformation swirling around Donald Trump and Russia, for the United States to deliberate reasonably about its relationship with Moscow. It could happen if Trump were just slightly nuanced and sophisticated, because he is clearly disposed to patching things up with Putin. That would be a good thing if the open hand were accompanied by a clenched fist, to be raised when necessary.
Oddly, though, Trump cannot summon an unkind word about Russian policy and behavior, possibly because he sees the world in black and white, is consistently blind to shades of gray, and is determined to overturn all the tables and chairs of conventional thinking in Washington. He has thus polarized, not persuaded, and has helped fuel a dangerous hysteria about Russia in the national security and political establishment. It is reminiscent of the Cold War, when the Moscow-Washington global competition was viewed as a zero-sum game, with every gain by one seen as an equivalent loss by the other.
But the Russia-US relationship today is not a zero-sum game. It includes intelligence sharing on terrorism, the potential for joint efforts in Syria, collaboration in space and science, work on climate change and preserving the Arctic, and on. The relationship is an intricate tangle of conflict and cooperation, of clashing and mutual interests, of risks and rewards. Hillary Clinton clearly understood this. So, it seems, does Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, as indicated in his Senate confirmation hearing. But the President-elect shows no sign of seeing the cross-currents or looking past his next move. He plays checkers while Putin plays chess.
Did Putin authorize the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s emails? The FBI, the CIA, and the NSA say yes; Trump said emphatic no’s until his press conference this week, when he acknowledged that Russia might have done it. But a small group of former US intelligence agents have organized to express their conviction that the emails were leaked, not hacked, and that the evidence of Moscow’s involvement was “thin gruel,” as it was called by Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst, and William Binney, a former ranking technical specialist for the NSA.
Still, the consensus in Washington and the press that Russia did the hacking raises the next question: Why? To damage Clinton and help Trump in the campaign? The intelligence agencies say yes, mostly citing open-source Russian media as evidence—plus some intercepted Russian cheers after Trump’s victory.
But one has to wonder if Putin is really short-sighted enough to prefer an impulsive, erratic US president with his hand on the nuclear button, a man who can switch on nastiness when offended. Putin may have despised Clinton for allegedly fomenting protests over ballot rigging in his 2012 re-election, but a smart Russian leader would have to recognize Clinton as a more stable and dependable adversary—tough, yes, but schooled in realistic assessments of the opportunities and limits of foreign policy.
Then, did Russia’s supposed preference for Trump actually change votes? The DNC emails distributed by WikiLeaks contained nothing earthshaking: officials preferring Clinton over Bernie Sanders, some complaining about her as an inadequate candidate. “Fake news” about the Clinton Foundation’s ethical lapses was reportedly spread by Russian media in the US.
Russia was out “to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order,” say the intelligence agencies in their public report, “the promotion of which Putin and other senior Russian leaders view as a threat to Russia and Putin’s regime.” The Russian leader had complained that the release of the Panama Papers, which cast aspersions on some of his associates, and the disclosure of Russian doping of Olympic athletes, were American capers to damage Russia’s reputation. Russia is reportedly poised to influence German and French elections in favor of nationalist, rightwing parties.
But no adequate research exists to document that enough votes in the US were changed by the release of hacked emails. And even if they were, then the fingers that have been pointed at Putin should also be turned around and pointed at ourselves, at American voters too lazy or too biased to do any critical thinking, check sources, and drill into the truth. In the end, only American voters, not agents in Moscow, can be the downfall of American democracy.
Finally, how much truth—if any—is contained in the 35 pages of memos sent to the FBI by Christopher Steele, a former MI6 British agent who once worked under diplomatic cover in Moscow? Hired by a Republican opponent of Trump and then by Clinton’s campaign, Steele portrays a concerted effort, which he deems successful, to ensnare Trump in a web of wrongdoing involving sex, corruption, and coordination with Russian officials during the campaign. Trump heatedly denied any of it, and no news organization after months of trying has been able to verify a single piece of the story.
As anyone who has lived in Moscow knows, both during Soviet and post-Soviet times, the KGB, now the FSB, indulges routinely in tricks designed to entrap foreigners in compromising situations. A US military attaché in Soviet days told me, almost misty-eyed, about an approach made to him by a beautiful young woman. He was canny enough to know what was going on and to refuse, while wishing he could have accepted. American journalists and business executives were also targets.
So, if Russian intelligence had not attempted—the key word is attempted—to lure Trump as a wealthy visiting American businessman into compromising situations, it would have been the first time in history that Moscow had passed up such a chance. Trump hasn’t acknowledged any such attempts, which hollows out his emphatic denials. Why doesn’t he describe the Russians’ efforts, which can often be clumsy and obvious? Did they really make no approaches? If so, did he steadfastly refuse? Or can he be blackmailed? Washington is buzzing with speculation.
The unverified assertions have been lent plausibility by Trump’s predatory sexual behavior and his ethical indifference. From what we have learned of him, the details don’t seem entirely out of character. That doesn’t make them true, as we should remind ourselves.
The trouble with all this is that it generates bipartisan anti-Russianism, which blocks the conduct of sensible foreign policy. Russia is a complicated country, and Putin is a wily operator who harbors the age-old Russian complex about the West’s disdain and the hazards of geopolitical encirclement. The West’s unwise expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, to Russia’s border, has ignited paranoia in Moscow, and a quarter-century after the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin appears bent on regaining, at least to a point, the reach of the Russian empire from Central Asia to Eastern Europe.
Given Trump’s doubts about the virtue of NATO and his nonchalance about Russia’s annexation of Crimea and instigation of warfare in eastern Ukraine, Putin might see a real opening in his chess game. As a former KGB agent trained in flattery, blackmail, and manipulation, he seems to have a taste for recruiting people, attempting to enmesh foreign leaders in a web of deference, dependence, and affinity.
Perhaps he regards Trump’s vanity and naiveté as offering opportunity. Perhaps he reads Trump accurately, for a normal American politician facing all this suspicion about his collaboration with Russia would want to rebut it with a demonstration of hawkishness. To bolster his credentials, he would want to find a way to confront Putin. Trump has shown no such inclination.
A nasty backlash has been unleashed in Washington, less so in the American heartland.  
            The Gallup poll’s graph of favorable vs. unfavorable attitudes toward Russia over time shows lines undulating dramatically, from nearly a decade of favorable ratings beginning with the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev and extending into the early post-Soviet era of embryonic democracy. Then the lines crossed, with the negative side soaring until 65 percent expressed an unfavorable view of Russia in 2016. At the end of last year, an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found 55 percent of Americans bothered “a great deal” or “quite a bit” by the gathering evidence that Russia had hacked the DNC’s emails. As in other areas of life, the country’s polarization was acute, with 86 percent of Democrats bothered, but only 29 percent of Republicans. In Congress, though, the outrage spreads across the aisle.

 A return to a reasonable balance between repelling and respecting Russia, between guarding the West’s security and building on areas of mutual interest, depends on qualities the next administration has yet to acquire: calm expertise and an ability to think a few steps ahead about cause and effect. Mr. Trump, it’s your move.

December 29, 2016

Facts, Fantasies, and Foreign Policy, Part II

By David K. Shipler

            Secretary of State John Kerry made the speech this week that he should have made three years ago, when it might have had an impact greater than to antagonize. In a well reasoned analysis of the harm being done by Israel’s practice of settling Jews on territory to be used for a Palestinian state, he warned that prospects for peace were being curtailed. He justified the US decision not to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning settlements this way: “If we were to stand idly by and know that in doing so we are allowing a dangerous dynamic to take hold which promises greater conflict and instability to a region in which we have vital interests, we would be derelict in our own responsibilities.”
            But standing idly by while settlements have been expanded is exactly what the United States has done for decades. It has never put its money where its mouth is. It has used plenty of words but no real leverage. It has never made Israel pay for this “dangerous dynamic.”
The most recent punishment, in fact, was President Obama’s award to Israel this fall of $38 billion in military aid, which, Kerry noted, “exceeds any military assistance package the United States has provided to any country, at any time, and that will invest in cutting-edge missile defense and sustain Israel’s qualitative military edge for years to come.” Israel gets more than half the entire military financing that the US provides to the entire world. For this, Obama gets denounced as anti-Israel by right-wing American Jews and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extremist claque.
            Words have weight in foreign affairs, no doubt. And every Republican and Democratic administration, through Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama, has tried—and failed—to sway Israel through vehement words, criticizing the settlements in the contested territories as “obstacles to peace.” To that standard indictment has occasionally been added the charge that the settlements violate international law that governs the rules of war and occupation, as the recent UN resolution stated.
But no financial penalty has been imposed. In effect, because money is fungible, American aid goes into one pocket, freeing Israel to use funds from another pocket to subsidize settlements through housing loans, roads, power lines, water and sewer hookups, and security by the army.

December 26, 2016

Facts, Fantasies, and Foreign Policy, Part I

By David K. Shipler

            Donald Trump, the hot-air balloon who floats and weaves untethered to facts, is poised to create foreign policies (there will be many simultaneously) based on his fantasies and myths, which he will sell convincingly to a plurality of adoring Americans and spineless Republicans in Congress. He is even less curious about the world than George W. Bush. Into this knowledge vacuum will flow the imaginary demons and fairies conjured up by officials in modern America’s most extreme right-wing government, which he is now assembling.
            It will be a dangerous time. But let’s not pretend that fantasy-based foreign policy is unprecedented. It induced the United States to overthrow legitimate, nonthreatening governments and enter at least two losing wars: Vietnam and Iraq, with more to come, undoubtedly. Paranoia is one of America’s most prominent afflictions.
            The New York Times columnist James Reston used to call the State Department the Fudge Factory, an apt name to any reporter who tried to cover it. Attempting to pin down a hard fact of policy was like nailing a custard pie to the wall. Only occasionally would you come across a candid foreign service officer, usually in a US embassy abroad, who would share insights openly into the country that you both were working to understand. I treasured those folks and still count one of them from the embassy in Moscow, Ken Yalowitz, as a close and trusted friend, who went on to become an ambassador himself, to Belarus and Georgia.
             One key mission of both the State Department and intelligence agencies is to act as fact-gathering machines. They are populated with experienced people who speak the local languages, know local history, and are charged with reporting back to Washington. It’s hard to think that Trump will ever listen to them. Indeed, all signs point to ideological pressure for subordinates to avoid thinking differently from his latest tweets, lest they lose their positions.

December 8, 2016

On Whiteness

By David K. Shipler

            About 20 years ago, I asked a small class of white students at the University of Maine what percentage of the American population they thought was black. Maine is one of the whitest states in the union, so these students—all from Maine—saw hardly any African-Americans in their daily lives. But their estimates were high: One woman thought 50 percent of the country’s population was black. Another student agreed, and a couple of others guessed 40 and 30 percent. The actual figure was 13 percent (and, at the time, 0.4 percent in Maine).
            Why such exaggeration? And what did it signify? Was it one seed in the tangle of identity issues that brought Donald Trump to power two decades later?
            For a long time, in the midst of campaigns for affirmative action and other remedies to the wrongs of racial discrimination, polling has found many whites exaggerating not only the numbers of blacks but their prosperity and privileges. Last summer, only 2 percent of white Trump supporters, and just 13 percent of all whites surveyed, agreed that “white people benefit a great deal from advantages that blacks lack,” according to the Pew Research Center. By contrast, 62 percent of blacks recognized the existence of white privilege.
            An earlier Pew poll showed African-Americans at least 20 percent more likely than whites to think that blacks were treated less fairly by the police, by the courts, by mortgage lenders, in the workplace, in stores and restaurants, and when voting in elections.

December 2, 2016

In Vietnam, a Patriot Without a Place

By David K. Shipler

            The name Nguyen Ngoc Luong will not ring a bell for most Americans, but it should. Through his anonymous work with correspondents, readers of a certain vintage who followed the Vietnam War through the pages of The New York Times were broken open to the distress and resilience of the Vietnamese. He understood his country at a depth far beneath the headlines, and so helped us see, learn to listen, and enrich our reporting.
            He once leaned over to me and whispered, as we sat in a Danang restaurant near a table of paunchy South Vietnamese Army colonels, “I cannot stand Vietnamese who have no sign of suffering on their faces.”
Luong was not just an interpreter of language, from Vietnamese into his fluent English, but also an interpreter of culture. His streetwise, romantic sense of righteousness and purpose led him to find the small, human narratives that illustrated the whole. And he kept us safe, sniffing out the danger of a too-quiet lane or a village of deceptive calm long before we had an inkling that something was wrong.
Luong died recently at the age of 79, in Ho Chi Minh City, in the country that he loved, but which did not love him enough. Alone among Times employees as Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces in 1975, Luong chose to stay, to decline the offer to uproot himself and flee with his family to America. “I am a buffalo boy,” he used to say, proudly and wistfully, for it had been decades since he had ridden a buffalo while playing his flute.
            There are hundreds of people like Luong all over the world, local citizens of countries in conflict, who interpret, arrange, guide, open doors, and protect the foreigners who arrive as journalists or aid workers to observe and assist. Their help is crucial, and is done mostly behind the scenes, where they become invisible heroes. My son Michael, who does conflict-resolution work in many parts of the world, met Luong in 2001 after hearing from me about him for years. “He has left me with the Luong Principle,” Michael said. “Find a Luong wherever you go.”

November 23, 2016

The Election of Wishful Thinking

By David K. Shipler

            Mark Twain is said to have once advised, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” So it might be said of Donald Trump. If you don’t like his policy on this or that, just wait a few minutes. It was true during the campaign and has been the case since the election.
His shifts have stoked the wishful thinking that some on the left have embraced since his candidacy. First, his cruelly personal, bigoted assaults were supposedly so off-putting that voters would surely flee from him in droves. On the contrary, he did better and better as the primaries proceeded.
Then, conventional wisdom in the press and political establishment held that a) he would moderate his tone during the general election campaign to appeal to a broader electorate, or b) his repeated misogyny, crude ignorance of the world, and narcissistic rants would propel him into the dustbin of history. He did not moderate, and he made history instead of being buried by it.
All assumptions about the power of good manners, truth-telling, and common decency fell by the wayside. Whenever Trump said something obnoxious, and especially after the recording surfaced of his boasts about his predatory sexual preferences, The New York Times and other mainstream news organizations rushed to hear from the distraught and fractured Republican leadership about the party’s imminent disintegration and how it might put itself back together again after the expected devastating loss.
Most of the chattering class, including conservative Republicans, couldn’t believe that voters would tolerate his rude attacks on sacred cows—the parents of a U.S. soldier who had died in combat, a former P.O.W. named John McCain, a Miss Universe, a handicapped reporter—or his flirtation with Vladimir Putin or his nonchalance about NATO commitments and the spread of nuclear weapons. But even when his poll numbers dipped after an egregious remark, the support then steadied and never signaled the collapse that some political coverage predicted.

November 9, 2016

Let History Judge

By David K. Shipler

All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.
                                    --James Madison


            In the Revolution of 2016, alienated Americans have set the stage for a hard lesson in how democracy can be used to disable democracy. It would not happen at once, but as gradually as if the constitutional body were afflicted by an autoimmune disease. The curing power of the people’s voice would be turned against itself. The strong hand at the top, so fervently desired by the forgotten and ignored, would evolve into a counter-revolution of authoritarian demagoguery, which even a tradition of pluralism could not withstand. This is the gloomiest scenario.
            There is another scenario, however. It envisions a successful test of the ingenious American system, imagined and created to separate, check, and limit the power to reign and abuse. The Constitution restrains and holds. The president’s autocratic impulses are shackled to the rule of law.
            Nothing in Donald Trump’s pronouncements, policies, and behavior so far suggests that he grasps or accepts the constraints of the Framers’ inspired concepts. He fired up masses of aggrieved citizens by promising them decrees, not proposals. He talked as if he could do whatever suited him, as if no legislative branch existed, no courts stood to thwart his whims. He has recognized no principle of protecting minority interests. He has nurtured a cult of personality more suitable to a dictatorship than a democracy.
            Therefore, it is reasonable to expect in him a president who will push far past the boundaries of his constitutional prerogatives by trying to politicize law enforcement and the judiciary until they are mere shadows of justice. It is logical to expect a president who will insult and dismiss citizens along racial, gender, and religious lines, as he did during his campaign, and continue to give license to the hate-mongers among us. It is likely that he will use the bully pulpit of the presidency to divide and diminish this once-great nation, and even to bring dissidents to subservience.

October 31, 2016

Can the FBI Be Trusted?

By David K. Shipler


            On a March weekend in 2004, senior fingerprint examiners were called urgently into work at the FBI crime lab in Quantico, Virginia. A print had come in from the Spanish National Police, found on a blue plastic bag of detonators discovered after ten bombs had blown up on trains in Madrid, killing 191 passengers and wounding more than 1,400. Under stress, the examiners hastily matched the print—erroneously—to Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon lawyer who had converted to Islam.
This case is worth recalling in light of the current uproar over Hillary Clinton’s emails, because it provides rare insight into the FBI’s capacity for circular reasoning and sloppy forensics—even downright intellectual dishonesty. Time and again over the years, Americans have seen that alongside the many fine FBI agents are lazy thinkers who filter evidence to suit their imagined theory of a crime, and who prejudge people based on religion and ethnicity.
The agency is less nefarious than under Director J. Edgar Hoover, when it launched covert operations against civil rights and antiwar activists, but it remains well below its mythical high standards. Given the rules-be-damned posture of its current director, James Comey, it needs to be watched closely.
Mayfield was arrested as a material witness, his reputation was shredded, his family was traumatized, and his law practice was severely damaged before he was cleared—not by the FBI but by the Spanish police, who kept insisting that the print was not a match at all. In the end, the FBI’s misdeeds cost taxpayers $2 million to settle Mayfield’s lawsuit.

October 26, 2016

Who is the Toughest of Them All?

By David K. Shipler

            The answer, which should be obvious by now, is Hillary Clinton. A good many of Donald Trump’s supporters like him for his supposed toughness, but the three presidential debates, combined with his “whining” on the campaign trail (President Obama’s word), exposed his weak-kneed nature as a vulnerable personality who couldn’t hold his own in a face-off with a foreign leader if his country’s security depended on it—which it would.
In the debates, he was easily rattled. He meandered off subject. He couldn’t muster hard facts and bring a thought to a persuasive conclusion. In a summit meeting, the likes of Vladimir Putin would eat him alive, both by flattery and stiletto argument. Trump would either give away the store, make agreements he’d later disavow, or stomp his foot in temper tantrums. Never in this campaign has he demonstrated any talent for the tricky diplomatic negotiation, despite his dubious boasts about his commercial deal-making.
By contrast, he and his fellow Republicans have given Clinton a stage to show her grit. During hours of small-minded grilling on Benghazi by Congressional Republicans, she stayed steadfast, cool, and professional. They failed to dent her armor.
Nor did she flinch when Trump, in a tactic of cruelty, used four women as props to poison the gathering for the second debate. The age-old practice of blaming the victim of sexual misdeeds, in this case the wife of the philanderer, backfired.

October 18, 2016

Trump vs. America

By David K. Shipler

            While Donald Trump reflects the worst characteristics of American society, as many have said and written, he has also emerged as the leading voice of contempt for the country he wants to lead. He doesn’t really seem to like America very much—at least the America that exists in reality: the pluralistic, multiracial, multiethnic, fair-minded America that is engaged with the broader world.
Especially as he sinks in the polls, he is flailing recklessly at the most crucial elements of pluralistic democracy. He has become the leading opponent of a free press and of an electoral process that has guaranteed smooth, peaceful transitions of power for nearly 250 years. Now that he appears to be losing, he has set out to undermine public confidence in the country’s prominent news organizations and in the election itself. And for months he has made pronouncements and promises as if he could, as president, simply dictate and overrun the separation of powers, the checks and balances that the Framers ingeniously created in the Constitution.
A pillar of American democracy is the capacity of the winners of tough campaigns to then govern. Trump could not govern, given the distrust and disgust he has sown at large in the population and among the Republican leadership in Congress. He is now trying to make it impossible for Hillary Clinton to govern as well.