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

April 30, 2019

Rethinking Russia--Part Two

By David K. Shipler

                Donald Trump certainly acted like a guilty man when it came to accusations that he and his campaign had cooperated with Russia in promoting his candidacy. If a playwright had created such a character, he would have been considered too obvious.
                This is the fourth key question in assessing Russia’s actions during the 2016 campaign. The first three—whether the Russians hacked the Democrats’ emails, whether the Russians impersonated Americans online to exacerbate fissures in the society, and whether those activities helped elect Trump—were examined in Part One. Now we look at numbers 4 through 6.
                4. Based on Trump’s display of anxiety about the Russia investigation, his attempts to stop it, his aides’ interactions with Russians, and the lies some told to Congress and FBI agents, the assumption of a cover-up seemed reasonable. Trump and some of his people acted as if they were hiding something illicit or illegal.
Furthermore, the Mueller report said, dozens of Russian tweets and posts were cited or retweeted by campaign officials, including Donald J. Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Kellyanne Conway, and Michael T. Flynn. But there is no evidence that they knew of the Russian origins. And the investigation didn’t find cooperation or coordination or conspiracy. Rather, the evidence it lays out portrays a haphazard array of contacts among Americans and Russians in erratic pursuit of two apparent goals: profitable business opportunities and improved superpower relations.

April 29, 2019

Rethinking Russia--Part One

By David K. Shipler

                Imprecise thinking about Russia has afflicted the United States in the wake of the 2016 election. The lines between fact and speculation have been blurred. The evidence of Russian misdeeds has been expanded into broad, unproven theories about Moscow’s motives and the impact on the election results. Legitimate contacts between Americans and Russians have been clouded with suspicion. And together, all these parts—both Russian activities and American reactions—have hobbled the ability of the United States to engage Russia in the kind of fruitful relationship that would promote American national interests.
                The election interference was only part of a broad deterioration, notes Kenneth Yalowitz, a veteran diplomat who served many years in Moscow, and then as US ambassador to Georgia and Belarus. It was preceded by a series of damaging episodes that broke down dialogue. “The bureaucracies have no connections anymore,” he said. “There’s no systematic conversation any longer. We don’t know each other. Given the very difficult state of the relationship, this is the time we should be talking to each other.” Instead, he said, “Our policy is just sanctions and breaking agreements.”
The downward slide can be mapped with landmarks of hostility: the West’s expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders, which ignited historic Russian fears of close encirclement; the European Union’s courting Ukraine, the home of defense industries and a Russian naval base; American support for street protesters’ ouster of Ukraine’s elected, pro-Moscow president; then Russia’s thinly-disguised invasion of eastern Ukraine and overt annexation of Crimea, which reanimated Western fears of aggressive expansionism; a Russian tit-for-tat maneuver in America’s back yard to help prop up the anti-US regime in Venezuela; Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which restored Moscow’s foothold in the Middle East; Moscow’s violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and President Trump’s scrapping the agreement instead of renegotiating; Russian backing for right-wing racist parties in Europe; Moscow’s cyber intrusions into politics and elections in Estonia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Germany, France, and Austria; and Russian money to support Brexit, seen as part of a grand plan by the Kremlin to break up European cohesion.
                It’s a grim and dangerous list. When the election is added, with the surrounding political anger, the rigor and clarity required to evaluate what has happened is going to be hard to achieve. Trump, who campaigned on improving the relationship, has handcuffed himself by appearing unduly pro-Russia. He has fawned over President Vladimir Putin, downplayed the election interference, tried to thwart Mueller’s investigation, and left real policy to such hawks as National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
                Moreover, the American debate has been muffled, thanks largely to Russia’s having cemented its standing as an adversary. Unorthodox voices have been marginalized as they question conventional wisdom and hold Washington at least partly responsible for the rising tensions.

April 17, 2019

The Scourge of Military Commissions

By David K. Shipler

                Of all the self-inflicted wounds by the United States since 9/11, the flawed military commissions set up to try suspected foreign terrorists rank high on the list. At Guantanamo, the commissions have been bogged down in a swamp of dubious ethical, legal, and procedural practices. Their constitutionality has been challenged, their partial secrecy denounced.
Some of their military judges have demonstrated bias, and one was reprimanded this week by the powerful Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which vacated all his orders back to Nov. 19, 2015, the date he initiated a conflict of interest by applying to the Justice Department to be an immigration judge. All rulings on his orders by the Court of Military Commission Review were also set aside, wiping the slate almost clean of pretrial decisions in the case, now requiring re-argument on many of the issues. It was a telling illustration of the mess that’s been created.
Without the military commissions, it’s a good bet that the most prominent prisoners at Guantanamo would have been executed years ago, or at least be sitting on death row waiting for the needle. They would have been tried in civilian federal courts, which Republicans have blocked, although the courts are the jewel in the crown of the American judicial system. If juries had found them guilty, it’s hard to imagine anything but the death penalty. Instead, the alleged organizers of the 9/11 attacks and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen have been in U.S. custody for more than 15 years, at taxpayers’ expense, waiting for trial by military commissions that are so ill-conceived as to be vulnerable to obstruction by prosecutors and multiple motions by defense attorneys seeking to guard their clients’ rights.

April 10, 2019

Will Israel Slam the Door?

By David K. Shipler

                In the 52 years since Israel took control of the West Bank from Jordan during the Six-Day War, the prospect of attaining peace by granting some form of self-government to the area’s Palestinian Arabs has hovered over the conflict like an apparition of hope or dread, depending on your political view. Now, that approach to solving the conflict might be closed off by Israel’s tight election results, since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is positioned to form a right-wing coalition.
In the first two decades after the 1967 war, the notion of an independent Palestinian state was so anathema to most Israeli Jews that it was supported only on the far left, mainly by Communists in the tiny Hadash party. Even liberal Peace Now leaders, who opposed Jewish settlements that were being built in the West Bank, avoided advocating Palestinian statehood for fear that their movement would lose credibility in Israel’s mainstream.
Indeed, Israel’s 1978 Camp David accord with Egypt, which led to a peace treaty in 1979, stopped short of calling for a Palestinian state, providing instead for “autonomy,” which was ill-defined and never implemented. Once statehood gained traction in Israeli politics following the 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization, support among Israelis usually oscillated just above and below 50 percent, with occasional spikes during peaceful stretches.
That support itself carried so many caveats that it would have been impossible to convert into statehood without broad changes of attitude among both Israelis and Palestinians. Spates of terrorism by Palestinians knocked off some percentage points, as would be expected, but even in relatively calm periods, Israeli Jews expressed serious doubts about statehood defined as Palestinians might accept, and Palestinians had their own reservations about the compromises they would have to make.
A joint Israeli-Palestinian poll in December 2013, for example, found an abstract two-state solution supported by 63 percent of Israelis and 53 percent of Palestinians. But the numbers declined as details were specified. Israeli withdrawal from all but 3 percent of the West Bank—all Jewish settlements except those in several large blocks—was favored by only 44 percent of Israelis. A Palestine with no army and only a strong police and multinational force appealed to 60 percent of Israelis but just 28 percent of Palestinians. Dividing Jerusalem was accepted by merely 37 and 32 percent of Israelis and Palestinians respectively—each side wanted the city all for itself. And in December 2012, a refugee solution providing for compensation to Palestinian refugees, their right of return to the new Palestinian state, and an undefined number admitted to Israel, won only minority support on both sides—39 percent of Israelis and 49 percent of Palestinians.