How to stop Russia in Ukraine?

In violation of international law, Russia has invaded Ukraine and the world is rightly outraged. Countermeasures to stop the fighting and punish Russia’s aggression do not include sending NATO armies against Russia for the very good reasons that it would significantly increase the risk of a devastating nuclear war and because our experiences with such wars in the last half century are not encouraging. What countermeasures might we (and are we) use(ing)?

Our primary tools are to economically and culturally isolate Russia in order to damage their economic ability to continue waging their war and to hurt their pride. What might that include within the limits of our commitment to the rule of law?

Each of us as individuals, companies, and governments have the right to decide who we trade and deal with. Refusing to sell to or buy from Russia can have a powerful impact on the Russian economy. Examples of companies that have ended or restricted their sales to and/or operations in Russia include Ford, GM, Toyota, VW, Volvo, Nissan, Honda, Subaru, Harley Davidson, Apple, BP, Equinor, Shell, ExxonMobil, Visa, Mastercard, Google, and Netflix. And the list continues to grow by the hour.

“Ikea, the world’s largest furniture company, is closing its 17 stores in Russia. The company said the conflict is having a “huge human impact” and “resulting in serious disruptions to supply chain and trading conditions.” In addition to pausing its retail and manufacturing operations in Russia, it will suspend all trade with the country and its ally, Belarus.” “CNN: Companies pulling back from Russia”

Sports and entertainment organizations certainly have the right to determine their members and kicking Russian teams or performers out of competitions, etc. can usefully demonstrate disapproval of Russia’s behavior.

More problematic are the announcements by Boeing and Airbus that they have suspended support services to Russian airlines flying their planes. Airbus stated that “it has ‘suspended support services to Russian airlines, as well as the supply of spare parts to the country.’” These are problematic because they might be breaking provisions in contracts these companies have with Russian airlines.  However, such contracts often provide for suspension in the event of war or other unusual circumstances. Moreover, if Russia withdraws from Ukraine in the next few weeks and the more severe sanctions are withdrawn, these reservations may become mute.

While social media platforms and entertainment companies (Disney, DirectTV, and WarnerMedia) also have the right to cut off Russian users, I am not convinced that it is always wise to do so. In my view we should all be able to view the propaganda disseminated by, for example, RT.  While I am sure that WarnerMedia’s decision to “pause the release of ‘The Batman’ in Russia,” will be devastating for many Russians, they do have more challenging issues to worry about at the moment.

A rather different category of sanctions are those taken by and/or imposed on others by governments. For example, all Russian airline flights are now banned from EU, U.S., and Canadian airspace. As a result, or perhaps for other reasons, the Russian delegation to the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA-20) of the International Telecommunications Union now underway in Geneva didn’t come. This important meeting is held every four years to allocate spectrum and set other global telecom standards. By its absence Russia has lost all opportunities to nominate and elect chairmanships of any study groups and task forces for the next four years.

Most payments in dollars, Euros and most other currencies have been forbidden by the issuers of those currencies with specific exception. Russia has been blocked from using S.W.I.F.T. for sending payment instructions. The most important economic exception is that Russia may continue to sell oil and gas to Europe and to receive payment for them. Another is that Russia may continue to make debt service payments on Russian debt securities held abroad. The assets of all Russian banks outside of Russia, including its central bank, have been frozen. I am not sure how these two are reconciled. “BBC News”  

The approach of blocking economic activity by blocking payments for them is a bit similar in spirit to Anti Money Laundering (AML/CFT) restrictions, which attempt to stop illegal activities by stopping the use of the proceeds of “crimes” that haven’t been proven, rather than stopping the illegal activities themselves. The effectiveness of blocking payments in key currencies depends on how widely they are supported. A UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was supported by 141 members. Only 5 countries voted against (Russia, Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria). China and India and 33 other members (including, surprisingly, Cuba) abstained. Germany completely reversed earlier policies and is sending serious weapons to Ukraine and is increasing its military expenditures above NATO recommended minimums. While the extent of support is impressive, the abstainers open sufficient holes to undermine the impact of financial sanctions. None the less, the dramatic shrinkage of trade and real economic interactions will be devastating. Russia will be flattened and isolated.

More recently some countries have seized the assets of private Russian citizens.

The Russian Oligarch Igor Sechin’s yacht was seized Thursday by French Authorities while docked for repairs in La Ciotat, near Marseille. On the same day “Germany seized the Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov’s 512-foot mega yacht Dilbar, which is valued at $600m, which was moored in Hamburg.” “Russia sanctions superyacht seizures”. To my knowledge, neither of these Russians committed any crimes in France or Germany or anywhere else outside of Russia. The legal basis for these seizures, unless they are being held temporarily pending a court determination of whether crimes have been committee, is very questionable.  

Imposing harm on Russia and Russians of the types discussed above, will have costs to us as well. This by no means suggests that we should not use them. Properties and businesses abandoned in Russia and goods and services no longer sold there or purchased from there will impose costs on the western companies involved.  Western owners of Russian securities are likely to incur losses. Some Russian debt will default. But Russia’s aggression must be stopped, and future aggression strongly discouraged. Watching the Soviet tanks crush Hungarian and Czech demonstrators in 1968 without our military intervention to help them was very painful but was the right thing to do, just as our nonmilitary approach now is the right approach, as long as we apply sanctions lawfully.

Putin’s reckless war in Ukraine is destroying Russia. Let’s hope that the good and long-suffering people of Russia will not allow him to also destroy the whole world.

Ukraine: How should we help?

It is impossible not to admire the bravery of the people of Ukraine as they fight for their independence and freedom. Without help, Russian troops are almost certain to capture Kyiv and other key cities. The EU and many other countries have pulled together as never before to impose serious sanctions and provide military and humanitarian supplies. See: “Sanctions”  Putin’s failure to prepare the Russian people for a military attack on their fellow Russians and cousins in Ukraine is provoking protests in Russia against this war.  But these may not be enough to save Ukraine and it is tempting to think we should provide boots on the ground to insure a Russian defeat. President Biden is right to believe that this would be a grave mistake.

Military interventions always look more compelling at the start, while going through the front door. Sure, our army can squash whoever. Years later, as we leave or are pushed out the back door (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc.), they are revealed as foolish endeavors from the beginning. While Vietnam has prospered after our withdrawal and Iraq’s development is promising, they might well have reached these achievements sooner if we had stayed out. Why is this so? Why can’t we just take over countries under attack and make them better?

Generally, the countries we attack are engaged in civil wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Libya). Even Russia’s attack on Ukraine has elements of a civil war. We almost never understand the nuances of such battles nor have sufficient military and diplomatic officials who speak their languages and know their histories as they rotate in for two years then out. We can never be sure which side or sides we should support.

Putting aside that we don’t really have the resources to fully police the world, we have rarely achieved our objectives in the wars we have undertaken since WWII even if those objectives seemed reasonable at the outset. Iraq is an example where we did not have a good reason (or any reason at all except feeding our military industrial complex) to begin with. Part of the reason is that we have never invested in the training needed to be successful imperialists. We are bad at running other countries. You can read some of my firsthand experiences with just how bad we were at running Iraq in my book: “My travels to Baghdad”

If we send in the American Army to defend Ukraine against Russia, even if no escalation in fighting results (which is by no means certain), we will be forced to remain there for X number of years to keep the peace. Which factions would we support or favor? Why do we imagine that it would be different than our experiences in Afghanistan or Iraq? While it is emotionally hard not to walk through that front door with our troops, we must remember what the back door feels like, not to mention the X years in between. President Biden is right not to do so. “Reflections from the netherworld”

Most Americans are good hearted and want to help those in need. However, I am hard pressed to think of a time when we successfully did so with our Army.

Ukraine–Russia–NATO

Russia has surprised most of us with an all-out attack on Ukraine. What should the U.S., NATO, and Ukraine do now? Each possible answer implies different possible consequences. We would be wise to understand them as well as possible. We should try to evaluate the probable long-term effects as well as the immediate ones.

The fact of the matter is that that we made serious errors since the disbanding of the Soviet Union (the expansion of NATO, establishing Aegis Ashore missiles in Romania and Poland, etc.) that began on Christmas 1991. The effect was that Russia walked away from NATO rather than becoming a member. While all of this is very regrettable, it is nonetheless history. We are where we are now because this history has inevitably influenced the present and thereafter the future of Russian relations with the rest of the world.

While Ukrainian resistance appears stronger than Putin expected, Russia may well take control of parts of Kyiv and other western Ukrainian cities within days or weeks. However, following earlier examples of Russian incursions and given the inadequate size of its forces, it is likely to quickly withdraw after flexing its now stronger muscles in negotiating an agreement with the U.S., NATO and Ukraine.

According to Edward Luttwak tweeting on the afternoon of Feb 24 “Air strikes can reach any target but Russian troops are much too few to achieve a coup de main, the single act that both starts and ends a war. Yes, they control airfields & some city centers. Beyond them individual soldiers & volunteers will start killing Russian soldiers w/o end. They had a missile strike plan viz Ukraine air force, very weak in any case. Russian troops too few to control the country beyond airfields, central Kiev, Odessa, etc., nothing for hostile W Ukraine. Ukrainian soldiers & volunteers will fire & kill Russians. Final result: the end of Putin.”

President Biden has wisely stated that the U.S. will not send troops into Ukraine, which is not a NATO member. While he has rightly condemned Russia’s illegal attack, and together with our European allies has significantly increased economic sanctions on Russian banks, businesses, and officials, though still with significant carveouts, he has correctly, in my judgement, concluded that the cost to our already overstretched budget to fight a war over Ukraine is not in America’s interests.  We care about many people and things in the world for which it is not justified to spend our financial and human resources rather than focusing them initially on our own domestic needs. Some among us may want to rule the world but we can’t afford it either financially or morally. Our military industrial complex, which profits from wars, probably disagrees.

Luttwak claims that “close[ing] the road and rail connections between Germany and Russia… would be the most powerful of all sanctions.” This could be done unilaterally by Poland or the Polish people. “Polish peace demonstrators [could] stop the unceasing traffic of trucks delivering Western European exports to Russia.  German cars, Dutch vegetables, French luxury exports.  That very powerful sanction does not require NATO or EU approval, just some people who care. ‘No bypass’”

More generally, sanctions have historically not been a very effective tool. “A new history of sanctions has unsettling lessons for today” Trade is win win. Both sides benefit. Thus, blocking trade is loss loss. Both sides suffer. Moreover, it is very difficult to design sanctions that hurt the target government more than its people. “Econ 101-How to help Afghans”

Ukraine is more important and relevant to European security than to ours (though one may argue that if Ukraine falls and the democracy in Europe suffers and crumbles, this affects the United States in the long run as well). In addition to financial and military aid to Ukraine, one or more European countries could, outside of the NATO context, send their troops to help defend the existing government of Ukraine.

It is very unlikely that Putin would escalate the fighting further, though it is not clear how rational Putin is these days and Russia has nuclear weapons. He was close to crazy to have launched the war now underway in Ukraine. Such European military intervention would likely save the Zelensky government and the negotiated peace (which should have been negotiated a month or two ago on the basis of Putin’s eight demands last December) would still need to mutually satisfy the interests of Russia, Europe and Ukraine.

If Ukraine receives no military help, it might still hold off the Russian army from toppling the Zelensky government. Russia might then be forced to be satisfied to hold the eastern, Russian dominated piece of the pie. The final settlement might take a bit longer in this case, but it might contain similar provisions. As Luttwak has argued above, a full Russian victory is unlikely and is expected not to last for long and would be a huge drain on Russian resources. Russia will surely pay a very high price for (presumably) gaining a government subservient to Moscow.

The longer run (five to ten or more years) consequence of one or another of the above scenarios is, of course, hard to predict but it should be taken into account. If the Zelensky government survives largely on the basis of its own efforts, it might be hoped that Zelensky’s far from complete efforts to clean up and reform his government will continue and be strengthened. A Russian victory (replacing Zelensky–dead or alive–with a Moscow puppet) would surely perpetuate and strengthen the corruption Ukraine has suffered for decades. Putin’s original eight demands would still have to be resolved and agreed in a mutually acceptable way. Doing so in January, of course, would have saved everyone a lot of lives and treasure, but discussions of these issues were hard to find in the American press.  

How this war is settled will also have consequences for American, EU, and Russian assessments of each other’s strengths and interests and thus how to deal with one another in the future. Will Russia revert to an enemy in which we keep our defense industry happy with another cold war or will we undo the NATO inflicted damage of the last twenty years that turned a potential friend to a costly enemy? China has decided to stay out of the fray neither supporting the US-Europe alliance nor the Russians which is a wise decision on their part.

The initial reactions in Russia have not favored Putin. The Russian population was not prepared to shift from seeing Ukraine as part of the family to an enemy that its sons and daughters were dying to overturn. A Russian defeat or even stalemate “victory” could be the end of Putin.  I am predisposed to believe in happy endings, which is perhaps why no one pays me for my forecasts.

We must never lose sight of the fact that Russia is more than Putin, Ukraine is more than Zelensky, and NATO is more than Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. If I had said Biden (or Trump) you would have understood instantly. And among the population are many factions. The U.S. seems rarely to take such domestic realities into account when it decides to march into and take over countries.

In an email February 26, Chas Freeman said: “Regrettably, the place of Ukraine in Europe, which might have been decided through negotiations between Moscow and Washington in consultation with Kyiv, will now be decided through interactions by Russian dictation to Ukrainians without reference to either the United States or NATO.  Russia’s coercive diplomacy failed to elicit an offer to address its longstanding, oft-expressed concerns about the possibility that Ukraine might become part of an American sphere of influence on its border under circumstances in which the United States has officially designated Russia as an adversary.  So, Moscow made good on its ultimatum, and used force.  As it did so, it moved the goalposts.  Now Russia appears to seek the subordination of Ukraine to its domination rather than simply its denial to the United States. This is a tragedy that might have been avoided.  Now we are left to hope for a resurrection of diplomacy when there is no clear path to it.”

On February 25, Pavel K Baev stated that: “Now we know that Putin’s obsession with Ukraine — which constitutes a threat to his regime not because of hypothetic NATO missiles, but because of its choice for democracy and closer ties with Europe — prevailed over common political sense and strategic risk assessments.” “Implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine–Brookings Brief”

But the almost last word should go to Edward Luttwak who tweeted on Feb 26: “Having invaded with too few troops to pull off a fait accompli, with many Russian troops killed because of incautious tactics that presumed no real resistance, Putin has also closed the door to talks with Pres Zelensky: ‘I will not talk with drug addicts and neo-Nazis’. Sanctions.   Not too late to send large numbers of small arms and point & shoot anti-tank weapons to Ukraine via Poland or Slovakia. There are warehouses full of both (+ their ammo) across NATO because of the drastic reduction in force-levels. Ukrainians are resisting bravely and deserve help”

And the final word goes to Thomas Pickering (former US Ambassador to the Russian Federation and other places): “The end result must be respectful, fair, and balanced for the people of Russia and for all other parties. It will take wisdom, time, sacrifice, and persistence. To get there, the U.S. must lead, help to finance, and participate extensively in an international coalition — through the United Nations if possible, outside it if necessary — and listen to all like-minded states.” “Implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine–Brookings Brief”

Diplomacy

What does the press coverage of the Canadian trucker strike and Russia’s threatened attack on Ukraine have in common?  Matt Taibbi’s column on the “The Great International Convoy Fiasco” will tell you. For good measure, he added that “On February 4th, 2004, the Wall Street Journal published, ‘A Historian’s Take on Islam Steers U.S. in Terrorism Fight’, about the influence of a Princeton Scholar named Bernard Lewis on George W. Bush’s Iraq policy. The ‘Lewis Doctrine’ was simple. The good professor believed there was no point to asking, Why do they hate us?”

For many weeks the American press (I apologize for lumping our somewhat diverse collection of newspapers into one camp) have been shouting that Russia might invade Ukraine any day now. Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, says that that is nonsense and to please stop saying it. I am inclined to believe him over our newspapers.

Something similar is going on with the striking Canadian truck drivers. The message in both cases is that we need to be tough. Arrest them and remove their trucks that are blocking the border with the U.S. Beef up our troops in Europe and tell Putin all the nasty things we will do to him if Russian troops cross the border. The mindset that reacts in these ways is not in our national interest.

Why are the truckers striking and why is Putin demanding a rethink of European defense architecture? While Putin has told us explicitly what he wants, to my knowledge no meetings have occurred between the Canadian truckers and the Canadian government. We may or may not sympathize with some of the Trucker’s concerns, but the proper (dare I say adult) starting point is to sit down with them and understand what they want.  At least the Biden administration is talking with the Russians, but it would be healthier if more were said in the Press about these talks and the issues that Russia has raised, and less about the potential for, if not eminence of, war. Such discussion of the pros and cons of mutually acceptable options are out there, but you need to search for them.

The role of diplomacy (the first intergovernmental tool of civilized nations) is to understand the concerns and desires of the other side. That is the essential first step in seeking out areas of common ground that each side can live with. War is (or should be) a last resort.  I am sure that Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, etc. can figure out other uses for their manufacturing and technical capabilities. “National Defense”

China and the United States

“Biden describes the China challenge as a global, ideological struggle between democracies and autocracies…. Any event from the pandemic to the Olympics will occasion commentary, particularly in the United States, of who “won,” China or America, and what it means for the epic struggle for global supremacy.” “There is no unified front against China”

I am not sure what it is that we want to win. We don’t seem to mind selling planes and bombs to other autocracies (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc.). Anything to keep the defense industry’s profits flowing short of yet another war seems a (relatively) good deal. And why might “global supremacy” matter?

Winning things sounds to me like rooting for our own basketball team and cheering when it wins the championship. How do we go about striving to have the best basketball team? First, we recruit the best basketball players we can find and hire the best coach to train them. Everyone must play by the agreed rules, and we win by playing the best game. In short, our efforts go into being the best team possible, not into poisoning the drinking water of the other teams.

But sporting contests are zero sum. One side wins and the other losses. Global cooperation and trade is win–win. The goods we produce and sell (for example) to China, with which to pay for the goods we buy from China make us and China both richer. The citizens of both countries benefit from this exchange. Win–win. Sharing information on the source, nature, and potential cure of a virus (which knows no borders) benefits all of us. Win–win.

The world’s output is maximized when our productive assets (labor and capital) are allocated to their most productive uses globally. That requires that market prices reflect the true productivity and value of each activity. Thus, the world as a whole benefits from rules governing government interferences in market prices and allocations. The World Trade Organization is the forum for agreeing on these rules of fair trade and enforcing them. “Econ 101- Trade in very simple terms”

The airplanes built by Boeing and Airbus benefit from government support of one sort or another. For years they have fought one another over whether this support conformed to fair trade rules. A settlement has finally been reached. “Boeing – Airbus settlement”

Trade restriction in the name of national security, while potentially legitimate, can easily cross the line into wealth reducing protectionism. Does the use of Huawei 5G equipment really threaten U.S. national security or U.S. business interests (protectionism). Some of these cases are hard to call but we must look carefully at narrow business interests in protecting their markets to the detriment of the rest of us. “Huawei ban could crush US aid efforts”

Global supremacy suggests that we would set these rules. To be successful the rules of international trade must be very broadly followed. Thus, their formulation must be a collective undertaking. It is fine for the U.S. to exert influence in setting these rules, but unfortunately, we have a poor record of even following them. We have caused the demise of the WTO dispute resolution body. We have strangely and counterproductively withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was then replaced by the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). These set high standards for more open trade that China will hopefully have to meet to join. The self-image of supremacy has corrupted U.S. behavior. Former President Trump’s protectionist tariffs on trade with China, EU, Canada, etc., which President Biden has so far failed to remove, have further reduced U.S. and world income. “Trade protection and corruption”

So, what should our policy be toward China? China has no intention or interest in attacking the United States. They care about their own economies and their own neighborhoods. We should keep our nose and military home to look after our own neighborhood. We should work with China (and Russia and others) to formulate win-win rules for international interactions and behavior. We should apply the mechanisms of the WTO and other international bodies, and diplomacy more generally, to hold China (and others) to the agreed rules. But we must abide by them as well. The rule of law is not just for others.

We should fix the problems in our own economy. We should work to make our domestic rules of commerce fair and efficient so that our economy will be the best in the world. We should work with other countries, including China, to maximize the productivity of their resources because we and everyone else will benefit (win-win).

The United States was founded on principles that have served us well providing a model that the rest of the world would do well to follow. The idea that we should (or can) impose our principles on others rather than provide an example like “a shining city on a hill,” is a violation of those very principles. We have repeatedly failed to uphold those principles, but we keep trying. We must continue trying and must try harder.

Never Again

On this 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack on America, many of us are saying “NEVER AGAIN”. What those saying it mean will determine the future of our country.

If “never again” means to you that we will never allow attacks on our homeland again, you are saying that out of your fear you chose safety over liberty. You support the authoritarian, repressive measures of the so-called Patriot Act and the related government intrusions in our privacy and liberties in the name of greater security. This is not the spirit of those Americans who continue to get into their cars to drive to work or wherever despite automobile accidents killing ten times more Americans every year as American soldiers who have died in Afghanistan in the past 20 years.

For me and thankfully for many other Americans, it means that we will never again surrender to the fear that blinded us to the tragic mistakes of American aggression in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Uganda. Lawrence Wilkerson explains our self-destructive behavior in the following interview. COL Wilkerson was a senior official in the Bush administration when it launched the Iraq invasion. Now he calls it a mistake born of rage and fear. https://www.cnn.com/videos/tv/2021/09/10/amanpour-wilkerson-9-11.cnn

We have the most powerful military in the world. No military force could protect us at home (to the extent that our safety depends on military force) better. When it comes to its effectiveness in offensive attacks on other countries, its effectiveness is less clear and its effectiveness in efforts to rebuild the countries it has occupied…… well this fantastic three hour discussion reveals it as worse than zero https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GkjsjBknWfo

We once revered and defended our liberty above all else and we were respected and envied around the world. We prospered. Over the last twenty years we have gradually, year by year, squandered our cherished traditions and our standing and respect in the world has declined as a result. Former President Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban promising to remove all American troops from Afghanistan by May 1 of this year. It was a bad agreement, but our departure was many years overdue. President Biden extended our stay for a few more months but has now honored Trump’s commitment. Why our military was unable to prepare properly for our withdrawal from Afghanistan with this two-year notice is a mystery we need to investigate.  

Never again should mean that we never again act out of fear. https://wcoats.blog/2021/09/05/nation-building-in-afghanistan-2/

BearingPoint Afghans

Sometime around 2004 or 2005, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) contracted BearingPoint (now part of Deloitte Consulting) to recruit and mentor approximately 80 young Afghan college graduates into Afghanistan’s central bank (DAB) and Finance Ministry. These young Afghans worked in DAB and the Finance Ministry for two years while being trained and mentored by BearingPoint experts. Following these two years they were offered regular jobs in these two institutions. While some moved on to higher paying jobs elsewhere most of them stayed with DAB and the MOF. Over the years that followed they rose within these institutions, and in DAB headed many of the departments including the position of Second Deputy Governor. Working with and watching the progress of these young Afghans was one of the most enjoyable and gratifying assignments in my career with the International Monetary Fund. They were smart, honest, and dedicated to improving life in their country (including their own). They were, and I hope still are, the hope for a better future for Afghanistan.

The elected Afghan government under which these BearingPoint Afghans worked has now been toppled by the Taliban, a group that harshly ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until displaced by an American-British invasion in November 2001.  Back in 1996: “Gaining control over most of the country, the Taliban impose their rule, forbidding most women from working, banning girls from education, and carrying out punishments including beatings, amputations and public executions. Only three countries officially recognize the Taliban regime: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.”  “Afghanistan conflict timeline”

The Taliban in 1996 claimed to impose Sharia Law on Afghanistan. “Sharia” translates to ‘the way’ in Arabic and refers to a wide-ranging body of moral and ethical principles drawn from the Quran and from the sayings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad. The principles vary according to the interpretation of various scholars who established schools of thought followed by Muslims who use them to guide their day-to-day lives. Many Muslim-majority countries base their laws on their interpretation of the principles of Islamic law but, despite this, no two have identical laws.”  “Taliban and Sharia Law in Afghanistan”

The Taliban imposed a very severe version of Sharia that has not been embraced by very many Muslims. It was particularly restrictive on the activities and rights of women. Twenty years later Afghanistan is a different place, and the Taliban sounds like a different organization.

“KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban vowed Tuesday to respect women’s rights, forgive those who fought them and ensure Afghanistan does not become a haven for terrorists as part of a publicity blitz aimed at reassuring world powers and a fearful population.

“Following a lightning offensive across Afghanistan that saw many cities fall to the insurgents without a fight, the Taliban have sought to portray themselves as more moderate than when they imposed a strict form of Islamic rule in the late 1990s. But many Afghans remain skeptical — and thousands have raced to the airport, desperate to flee the country.

“Older generations remember the Taliban’s previous rule, when they largely confined women to their homes, banned television and music, and held public executions. A U.S.-led invasion drove them from power months after the 9/11 attacks, which al-Qaida had orchestrated from Afghanistan while being sheltered by the Taliban.”  “Afghanistan Taliban Kabul”

So, what should American policy be toward the forthcoming Taliban or Taliban lead government? What does the Taliban pledge to “respect women’s rights consistent with their version of Sharia Law actually mean? We should deploy every diplomatic tool possible to encourage/pressure the new government to live up to its promises. Former President Karzai, current CEO Abdullah Abdullah and others are currently in discussions with the Taliban leadership over terms for an inclusive government.

The alternative of nonrecognition, once there is a government to recognize, is to encourage and even support civil war. Or, God forbid, to send our troops back (there is not much chance that our NATO allies would be conned a second time into join us there again). And how did that work out for us last time? Our over used weapon of economic sanctions harms the public we should be trying to help. Our inhuman sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela are imposing horrible pain on the their citizens with little impact on their governments. “Evidence-costs and benefits of economic sanctions”

In a recent Washington Post oped Nikki Haley argued that we should not recognize the Taliban government no matter what. “Nikki Haley-America must not recognize Taliban” I respected Ms. Haley when she was Governor of South Carolina but I eventually got over her when she embarrassed us while Ambassador to the UN. “The future of Israel and Palestine” Her unqualified attack on the Taliban firmly ties her to those who were responsible for our Afghan disaster in the first place. The new Afghan government may turn out to be as bad as the previous Taliban government, but we should do everything possible to prevent that.

The U.S. has suspended currency shipments purchased by Afghanistan’s central bank. Afghan assets (foreign exchange reserves, etc.) deposited abroad have been frozen including “its” access to reserves at the IMF. These may appear to be rejections of a new government, but they are not. There is no new government yet and those holding Afghan assets must keep them safe until their new owners are clearly and properly identified. The situation is much like the bank in which you have deposited money, freezing your deposits when you die until the new lawful owner is determined. There is an unavoidable, awkward period of uncertainty. It is not too late to reverse our mistake in closing our Embassy and running out while at the same time accusing the Afghan Army of behaving the same way.

It is also not true that nothing was accomplished these past 20 years. Our military leaders may have failed in their task of building a reliable Afghan Army, but many others, myself included, did not waste our time by helping Afghans build better institutions (see the story of the BearingPoint Afghans I started this article with above). See the discussion of this issue by Jonathan Rauch: “The  Afghanistan war was a partial success”

No one knows what the Afghan government will look like or which way it will go, but we all (except for the war mongers) have an interest in promoting its success, especially the hopeful, new generation of Afghans. “Can US work with Taliban”    “What do Taliban’s really want?”

And we must resist the siren calls of those who think that we can and should impose our vision and institutions on the rest of the world. We must keep our Army home to defend our homeland rather than messing with other people’s business. Our defense industries have profited enough.

The Band of Brothers and Afghanistan

Sunday night Ito and I finished the tenth and final episode of the WWII story of Easy Company of the 101 airborne division of the U.S. Army–The Band of Brothers. It is a moving and masterful depiction of the horrors of war, and its impact on those (often) brave men who fight them.  How, I asked myself, can good people do such terrible things to each other?  And why?  Who benefits (that is too obvious to answer explicitly)?

I woke up that morning to the fact that the government in Afghanistan that I had been working with for the past 20 years had been replaced by the Taliban who intends to form a new government. Fingers are being pointed all over the place in the search for fault. I am afraid that this American question is of little interest to my Afghan friends. Those who have not already left the country are holed up in their homes afraid to go to work. Their question is what the new Taliban regime will look like.

Our objective now should be to join with all other nations to exert diplomatic pressure on the new government (which potentially will have the cooperation of at least former President Hamid Karzai, CEO Abdullah Abdullah, and Islamic Party leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) to adhere to UN standards of humanitarian treatment of its citizens and to help them administer an efficient and honest government. America’s leadership in this regard will be critical for Afghanistan’s future.

But who should we blame for, and what lessons should we learn from, Afghans fleeing the country by climbing onto the outside of planes leaving the Kabul Airport (something I have done many times but more comfortably seated)? Working backward, President Trump gave our military leaders a May 1 deadline for leaving. It rather looks like they ignored him (tempting but not appropriate).

The speed with which the Taliban took over the country with barely a shot fired surprised most of us. We had dinner at the home of Edward and Dalya Luttwak Saturday. During the conversation I passed on the statement by an Afghan friend emailed to me that afternoon that the Taliban could take Kabul by the next day or week.  We all thought that would be impossible, thinking it might be as fast as a few months. In fact, they peaceably took over the city the next day (Sunday Aug 15).  In fact, our Embassy and Military leaders should not have been surprised. My work in Afghanistan with its central bank did not require that I be thoroughly versed on Afghan history and customs, but that is not true for our foreign policy establishment working in and on Afghanistan.

Rather than arm, train, and support Afghan fighters in regions they cared about, we pulled together a national Army with the incentive of money. In addition, the broader Afghan public did not strongly support its corrupt government and could fairly easily change sides. “Afghanistan military collapse-Taliban”  Moreover, waring tribes and political groups such as the Taliban have a long tradition of negotiating peaceful surrenders when the outcome seems clear.  “Afghanistan history-Taliban collapse”

The initial blame for our failure to “build” a strong government in Afghanistan falls on George W Bush who gave in to the Cheney/Rumsfeld fantasies of American Imperialism, and abandoned the original and sensible approach of American support of the Northern Alliance war against the Taliban. “Its plan was for small teams of CIA officers, along with Green Berets and U.S. air power, to assist the indigenous Afghan resistance—the Northern Alliance.” “Afghanistan withdrawal-CIA-bin Laden-al Qaeda-Bush-Biden-Northern Alliance” Instead we took over and occupied the country.

Rather than work with and build from Afghanistan’s traditional tribal structures, we imposed an alien, centralized government that was not understood and was generally resented outside of Kabul. Rather than elevating village chiefs to govern provinces, for example, Kabul sent strangers to oversee areas they knew nothing about. Our ignorance and arrogance were mind boggling, but sadly typical. And our military—the best in the world for waging wars— is incompetent at nation building, which should be the job of others. We couldn’t even build an Afghan Army in 20 years. “How America failed Afghanistan”  

Those who are most loudly criticizing Biden’s troop withdrawal are those most responsible for creating this mess to begin with.   “Afghanistan disaster started with withdrawals most ardent critics”  See my account of my work with the central bank in Kabul:  “My travels to Afghanistan”

Do what we say and not what we do

In his meeting with President Putin, President Biden is thought to have proposed red lines against the use of cyber weapons such as ransomware. The idea of shutting down something like Colonial Pipeline with a computer hack is surely repugnant. I seem to remember that many of us cheered when the U.S. (and Israel?) damaged the Iranian uranium enrichment facility at Natanz with a malicious computer worm called Stuxnet. Nor were many of us much bothered when U.S. financed coups topped unfriendly governments, or when we attacked Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Haiti, Nigeria, Syria, to name but a few.

“The supreme international crime according to 2017 U.S. media reporting is interfering nonviolently in a democratic election — at least if Russia does it. William Blum, in his book Rogue State, lists over 30 times that the United States has done that. Another study, however, says 81 elections in 47 countries.”  https://davidswanson.org/warlist/

While this is hard to swallow, our bad behavior differs from that of Russia’s or of other autocrats. I will not go to jail for writing this. Most Americans (I like to believe) condemn such behavior contrary to our founding principles when they learn of it. Our press is happy to expose such breaches when they discover them. In short, while our government often violates our principles of individual rights and the rule of law and lies regularly about it, public scrutiny and outrage tend to check bad behavior and move us back toward conformity with our principles. We never get there but it is very important that we keep trying.  

What to do with Social Media?

Social media is changing how we get news and debate public issues. How should its contents be regulated and by whom? The answer should reflect the fundamental importance of free and open speech for forming broadly supported public policies and social attitudes.

The quality of public discussion in the United States today has deteriorated. There are even some who wish to end debate on some issues altogether (the cancel culture). Take two recent examples:

In reaction to Georgia’s new Voting Rights Act President Biden said: “Parts of our country are backsliding into the days of Jim Crow, passing laws that harken back to the era of poll taxes — when Black people were made to guess how many beans, how many jelly beans, in a jar or count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap before they could cast their ballot.” “Biden US backsliding-Jim Crow”

Representative Maxine Waters traveled to Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, to join crowds protesting the police shooting of Duante Wright. On that occasion, “A reporter then asked, if Chauvin isn’t convicted on all charges, “What should protesters do?”

“Well, we gotta stay on the street,” Waters said. “And we’ve got to get more active. We’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business.”

For her complete comments see: “In her own words-Maxine Waters”

In response to Water’s words Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted:

_________________________________  

@RepMaxineWaters you don’t live in Minnesota.

You crossed state lines and incited riots, violence against police, shootings at the MN NG, and threatened a jury as a sitting US Congresswoman.@SpeakerPelosi surely you will expel this criminal from Congress and uphold the law! pic.twitter.com/twH52VwFTP

— Marjorie Taylor Greene 🇺🇸 (@mtgreenee) April 19, 2021

_________________________________ 

“Marjorie Taylor Greene says Maxine Waters incited riots calls for her expulsion from congress”

‘Maxine Waters-Kevin McCarthy Minnesota police”

President Biden’s and Representative Greene’s comments both earn four Pinocchios. Senator Ted Cruz’s comments about Waters’ statement were just as bad. But then we are used to politicians lying to us, especially in the heat of campaigns. However, they do not contribute to the constructive dialog needed over these and other pressing public issues.  

With regard to Georgia’s new Voting Law, assessments are mixed. For example: “Rather than allowing voters to request ballots six months from Election Day, the new law says voters can start requesting ballots 78 days out; counties can begin sending ballots to voters just 29 days before Election Day, rather than the previous 49 days.” “Georgia voting law explained”

This hardly strikes me as voter suppression. I grew up in Bakersfield California and our voting precinct voted in our garage. As a kid I was fascinated by it all (though not thrilled with having to clean the garage for the occasion). There was no such thing as early voting except for absentee ballets by military service men and women. No drop boxes or any of that stuff. You came to our garage on election day or you didn’t vote. But there is surely a place for serious pros and cons of each provision of the law. As the press has been overwhelmingly (almost hysterically) negative (despite Georgia’s Governor and Secretary of State’s refusal to yield to Trump’s pressure to overturn his election defeat in Georgia) here is a more measured defense of the new law: “Exclusive 21 black leaders defend Georgia voting law as proper honest reform”

The real question is why were changes in Georgia’s voting law needed in the first place? What weaknesses were being addressed? Even with this new law, Georgia’s law is more permissive than those of Biden’s Delaware. In a negative, but more balanced assessment, Derek Thompson stated that:  “Georgia’s voting rights have long been more accommodating than those of deep-blue states including not only Delaware, but also Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York.” “Georgia voting rights fiasco”

Maxine Waters didn’t, and often doesn’t, use the best judgement in where, when and what she said, but she didn’t say anything that she should not be allowed to say whether you agree with her or not.  Referring to Reps. Waters and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich, Newt Gingrich wrote that:

“House Democrats have produced two radical demagogues whose policies would endanger the lives of innocent Americans, lead to the breakdown of society, and undermine the U.S. Constitution.”  “Repudiate Tlaib and Waters promote mob rule Newt Gingrich” This is precisely the sort of name calling that impedes the serious dialogue over concrete issues and proposals that we so badly need. Demonizing opponents–turning opponents into enemies–is a tactic of the weak (think Vladimir Putin).

Rep Waters’ charge that protesters should get more confrontational did not strike me as an incitement to violence anymore (and rather less) than former President Trump’s call for his assembled supporters on January 6 to march to the Capital and “fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” The brief submitted by Trump’s lawyers for his impeachment trail stated the “his call for the crowd to ‘fight like hell,’ was not meant to be taken literally.” OK, then perhaps he should keep it to himself. This reminds me of my favorite “apology” for lying about voter fraud that kept Trump from remaining in the White House. In response to a liable suit by the voting software company Dominion Voting Systems,  Sidney Powell stated in court that “’no reasonable person would conclude’ that her accusations of Dominion being part of an election-rigging scheme with ties to Venezuela ‘were truly statements of fact.’” “Sidney Powell-Dominion-No reasonable person”  Sadly I know some very fine people who did (or do) believe her nonsense.

But what if Biden’s, Trump’s, Waters’ and Greene’s comments were suppressed–erased–rather than challenged? These were opinions, however off the mark, rather than statements of fact. What if someone (named Trump) claims that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and thus not eligible to run for President (despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary)? I will spare you the very long list of such lies. And, to finally get to my real topic, what should social media do about it?  

Unlike newspapers and magazines, which are responsible for the accuracy of their content, Facebook and Twitter and Tiktok (I am too old to be current with all of the other newer platforms) “merely” provide the vehicle by which its users (you and me) distribute our content. The government does have laws that limit speech.  “Categories of speech that are given lesser or no protection by the First Amendment (and therefore may be restricted) include obscenity, fraud, child pornography, speech integral to illegal conduct, speech that incites imminent lawless action, speech that violates intellectual property law, true threats….and defamation that causes harm to reputation….”  “United States free speech exceptions”. What is not legally allowed generally, should not be allowed on social media. But in my opinion, those are the only restrictions that should be allowed in the law.  The last thing we want is Nancy Pelosi or Ten Cruz deciding what is allowed and not allowed on Twitter.

In short, beyond speech that is already restricted by law, the government should leave social media free to set their own policies for what they permit on their platforms.  But what should those policies be? In my opinion, all opinions should be allowed, even those, and especially those, that the platform operators consider wrong or repugnant. Bad policy prescriptions should best be countered by counter arguments not by censorship. It is not possible to over emphasize the benefit to America of free and open debate. Bad ideas are best countered and refuted by good ideas.  You are not likely to find a better statement of these views and a better defense of free speech than in Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.

But what about clearly fake news? Unfortunately, the distinction between fact and opinion is not always 100 percent clear. Tweeter should not have removed Donald Trump’s pages, though full of lies. Facebook should not have removed QAnon’s totally ridiculous conspiracy claims to take another extreme example. Many far less controversial posts have been removed as well for very unclear reasons. Facebook and other social media are working diligently to strike the right balance but are not there yet in my opinion. When Facebook or other social media platforms have good reason to doubt facts posted on their platforms, rather than remove (censure) them it would be better for Facebook to attach its warning and perhaps a link to more reliable information.

If Facebook (or any other platform) chooses to forbid hate speech, it would be better to rely on user complaints than its AI algorithm to determine what is hate speech. In an amusing, but not so amusing, example of the pitfalls of reliance on programmatic detection of disallowed speech, Facebook removed a post of a section of the Declaration of Independence because of its “nasty” reference to American Indians.  “Facebook censored a post for hate speech-it was the Declaration of Independence”

It is often argued that given the realities of network externalities (everyone wants to be where everyone else is), Facebook and Twitter are virtual monopolies and that this justifies more intrusive government regulation.  But the competition has expanded to include at the top of the list: YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter, and Pinterest. Even Trump plans to launch his own platform. Facebook and the other popular platforms must ultimately please their users or they will be replaced even if network externalities are hard to overcome. It has happened before and can happen again. Government intervention to regulate platform content beyond the restrictions already in the law would be contrary to our traditional freedom of speech and potentially dangerous.

There are measures that the government might take to make competition easier. When phone companies were required to give ownership of phone numbers to the subscriber, making them easily portable from one phone company to another, competition received an important boost. Something similar might be done with social media data of users (e.g., username, friends, pictures and posts).

A much more challenging area concerns social media algorithms for directing users to others with similar interests (or beliefs) in order to better target the advertising that pays for it all. If users only see or hear the views of the likeminded, unhealthy ego chambers can be created and promulgated. Agreeing on constructive approaches to dealing with this danger will require more public discussion.

Summary: Demonizing political opponents is bad for democracy. Opponents are not enemies. There needs to be enough common ground for most of us to stand on if we are to remain a viable country. Free speech has been a very important feature of America and its flourishing. It is best to protect free speech and counter misinformation and bad ideas with rebuttal and better ideas. No opinion should be censured. Social media should flag questionable information rather than remove.

A liberal dad complained about the one-sided liberal (in the American rather than classical sense) education his children had received in college because, he said, “they are completely unable to defend what they believe.”