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The Confused Russian Hacking Debate, Trump Victory, and U.S. Global State

18 Dec

 

 

The U.S. Government, with the collaboration of a disturbingly compliant media, seems to have discovered a deeply rusted version of The Golden Rule: “Do not permit others to do unto you, what you have repeatedly done.” Everybody in the slightest degree attentive to the way world works, knows that espionage and covert meddling in foreign elections has long been a standard weapon in the arsenal of geopolitical diplomacy. The U.S. proudly thwarted the electoral success of Communist Parties in Europe after World War II, not to mention countless interferences large and small, overt and covert, in elections throughout the Global South, with an especially dark record in Latin America (“so far from God, so close to the United States”). Beyond that, if the outcome of democratic elections should produce leaders that pursue policies that disturb Washington such as nationalization of resources, adoption of leftist policies, friendship with U.S. adversaries, more than meddling is likely to follow. Such a government can depend vary degrees of delegitimation, destabilization, sanctions, and eventually even military intervention. This pattern has been frequently relied upon in the past, and there are several current instances. (Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954, Chile 1973, to name a few instance of reversing political outcomes that our elected leaders deplore); Iran, Venezuela are examples of present instances. [On Chile see authoritative article by Ariel Dorfman, “Now Americans Know How Chile Felt,” NY Times, Dec. 17, 2016.]

 

The mainstream media in the West has focused relentless outrage on claims of Russian hacking of the American electoral process without even taking note of relevant American practices. The establishment’s most trustworthy public voice of imperial reason, Thomas Friedman, refers to Russian behavior as an ‘act of war.’ The very slippery ex-CIA Deputy Director, Michael Morel, uses even more inflammatory language, describing Russian hacking as ‘the political equivalent of 9/11.’ There are numerous raucous calls for a ‘proportionate response’ by the United States including even such provocative and punitive acts as equipping the Ukraine with offensive weaponry. What is extraordinary, even for those familiar with the geopolitical dimensions of world politics, is for this debate and discourse on alleged Russian hacking to proceed with no questions asked about the thick dossier of comparable American electoral meddling all over the world over the course of decades, including taking much more direct forms via bribery, assassination, and assorted other consequential interferences than anything the Russians have done.

 

When we think further about what has been hacked, the hullabaloo is comedic. Wikileaks is accused only of leaking the awkward disclosures of internal Democratic National Committee documents that revealed embarrassing Democratic staff concerns about the way Hillary Clinton was handling her emails and confirming that the DNC actively worked to undermine the primary prospects of Bernie Sanders. If another Snowden had done the original hacking, it would be treated as another case of whistleblowing with ambiguous consequences. The disclosures would be an admittedly controversial status, especially objections to the intrusions on the privacy, really secrecy, relating to the way political parties manipulate the American electoral process. At the same time the emails allowed citizens to know parts of shabby goings on behind the scenes of party politics. Is this truly an interference with American democracy of a magnitude that warrants dangerously escalating international tensions? Barack Obama, while reacting with calm language, goes along with these exaggerated reactions, falsely implying by silence an American innocence of undertaking similar to, and often far worse than what the Russians, under Putin’s direction, are alleged (without even some supportive evidence) to have done.

 

What is more fundamentally at stake is a challenge directed at the one-sided prerogatives of the United States as the first aspiring ‘global state’ in all of history. The Russians violated the First Law of Geopolitics as implemented by the United States in its role as global state: “You are prohibited from doing to us, what we are doing to you and others.” The Second Law: “You will be severely punished if you violate the Fist Law.” The Third Law: “You are forbidden to object to, or even mention, the First and Second Laws of Geopolitics.” The Fourth Law: “The public media is expected to express outrage when the First Law is violated, call for the implementation of the Second Law, while remaining quiet about the presence of double standards and moral hypocrisy.

 

This way of interpreting right and wrong, or the application of law, inverts normal understanding and expectations. What we expect is that all states are either subject to a legal constraint or that it doesn’t exist. We do not expect some to be subject to constraints and one or more others to be entitled to have discretion to act as it wishes, and do so with impunity. Yet international society has long formally and informally allowed power to take precedence over law and the legal ethos of equality. Even the United Nations Charter in establishing the Security Council embedded geopolitics in the formal structure of the world organization by granting the five winners in World War Two with permanent membership (P-5) and the right of veto. This combination means effectively that for these five states compliance with international law is completely voluntary and only those decisions that meet the approval of the P-5 become mandatory. Put more vividly, the UN was able to act decisively in Libya (2011) because there was no veto, while in relation to Syria over the course of the last five years there has been no capacity for the UN to act due to the right of veto threatened and exercised by Russia and China. Another example–Israel has been consistently shielded from UN censure by the Security Council over the years due to U.S. reliance on its veto power.

 

The geopolitics of the global state are similarly structured, although less explicitly. Standards of criminal accountability apply effectively only to losers of major wars (Germany, Japan after World War Two) or countries in the Global South. The United States has exempted itself from any prospect of accountability except by symbolic actions resulting from civil society initiatives. For instance, during the Iraq War of 2003, there took place a series of legal inquiries conducted under civil society auspices. These culminating in a session of the Iraq War Tribunal in 2005 that reached conclusions through its jury of conscience that the United States and the United Kingdom, and their leaders and collaborators, were guilty of aggressive war and violations of the laws of war. The Western press in the liberal democracies upheld the 4th Law of Geopolitics by maintaining a steadfast silence about these proceedings, although the Iraq War Tribunal proceedings carefully documented its findings and enjoyed the participation of some of the world’s leading jurists.  

The same pattern with minor variations applies across the board with respect to global security issues. The nuclear weapons regime is a prime example, with the United States, in particular, using the instrument of ‘counter-proliferation’ to justify aggressive war and to ignore completely the reciprocal legal duties imposed by the Nonproliferation Treaty. Iraq was invaded, Iran and North Korea repeatedly threatened, because of the geopolitical resolve to avoid Iraqi acquisition and possession of nuclear weaponry despite credible security arguments that such weapons were needed to deter hostile adversaries. As is certainly relevant to the hacking debate, prior to the Iraq War the intelligence community was similarly unified in supporting the false contention that Iraq possessed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and was actively pursuing the development of the capability to produce nuclear weapons. The head of the CIA at the time notoriously reinforced this intelligence consensus by calling it ‘a slam dunk.’

 

The nuclear weapons states, as part of the nonproliferation bargain to induce other states to forgo the weaponry, promised back in 1968 to engage in good faith negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament along the way to demilitarization and general and complete disarmament. Although the International Court of Justice in 1996 unanimously upheld this interpretation of the treaty obligations of the nuclear weapons states there has been no movement in the direction of compliance. In fact, Barack Obama, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize partly because of his anti-nuclear posture, approved of a $1 trillion dollar modernization and development program for the American nuclear arsenal over the next thirty years and for the eight years of his presidency has never called upon the United States and other nuclear weapons states to implement their clear NPT treaty obligation.

 

The same geopolitical structure is present with respect to ‘humanitarian intervention’ and general standards of compliance across the spectrum of human rights violations, ranging from torture to judicially enforced racism. The West under American leadership operates as if it enjoys a right of intervention, preferably to be exercised with UN backing, and a corollary tacit right to be free from reciprocal claims even to correct its most flagrant human rights abuses. When the George W. Bush presidency overtly relied on and justified interrogation practices widely viewed as torture, there was no call for the implementation of the international legal disallowance of torture and related abuses of human rights. For the United States to renew a reliance on waterboarding is, at best, a matter of policy, while for other countries such practices would be regarded as a matter of law.

 

My friend and colleague, Rich Appelbaum, raises an important point. Granted this kind of interference has been used a major foreign policy instrument of the United States, what Russia apparently did with respect to hacking and possibly even tilting the election in Trump’s favor is clearly undesirable, and should be treated as unacceptable. Yet even here the context is complex. First of all, to retaliate against Russia without even acknowledging that the U.S. Government has habitually interfered in foreign elections creates a false consciousness among the American people and invites accusations of hypocrisy.

 

There is also a deeper problem associated with security in a state-centric world with a weak UN. If our leaders were confronted by a foreign election in a major state in which one of the candidates was a warmongering extremist and the opponent a moderate, would it not be rational, and in the national, and even the global interest, to do all that could be done to tilt the election away from the extremist. From the Kremlin’s perspective, Hillary Clinton was perceived as hostile and militarist, while Donald Trump was evidently regarded as friendly and supportive of a lower American military profiles, especially in the Middle East. I think these perceptions are faulty overall, but all the evidence suggests that such views are widely believed in Russia and sincere.

 

Regulating the use of cyberspace is decidedly a gray area. International law and the UN Charter give little guidance beyond the vague directive to respect territorial sovereignty. This Russian hacking incident may serve to provide the political impetus for a lawmaking treaty binding all countries to a framework that at least establishes guidelines for governments of sovereign states to follow. Even if such a framework can be agreed upon, a big if, there are many areas of doubt as to what is best considering the present structure of world order. A first question is whether to keep cyberspace as a playground for geopolitics, and a second is whether it is desirable to prohibit all forms of meddling in foreign societies, and their elections and internal politics, no matter how dangerous and malevolent we perceive foreign developments to be. In a globalizing, interdependent, and nuclear armed world it would be playing with species suicide to decree by law, morality, and practice detachment from developments in foreign societies that pose deep threats beyond territorial borders.

 

In the end, perhaps, the best solution is to treat such hacking incidents and related disclosures the same way as espionage. Our spies are heroes, rewarded and honored in various ways, their spies are notorious intruders subject to the harshest punishments that criminal law can impose. Espionage goes on by every conceivable means, including increasingly reliance on the best tools that innovative technology possesses. The ‘game’ played is to defend our ‘secrets’ against foreign spies and domestic whistleblowers by all available means, but to do everything possible to learn their secrets. We can hope for prudence, but little more, in this double game, and maybe this is the way to handle hacking intrusions in our political space: scream about violation of our electoral process, while doing our best to exert control over theirs, but not succumb to the sort of outrage that raises international tensions in dangerous ways. We should take account of the fact that sometimes espionage provides information about adversaries that is reassuring, and discredits domestic hawks calling for dangerously adventurous policies.

 

I am someone who fervently wished, despite strong reservations about Clinton’s foreign policy inclinations and past record, that Clinton has won the election by norms of the electoral college as well as a result of the popular vote. I regret deeply the Russian role in hacking the DNC, their failure to disclose the RNC hacks, and deplore their profoundly flawed judgment in believing that they and the world would be better off with a Trump presidency.

 

In conclusion, I have long opposed American interferences in the political life of foreign countries, believe in accepting the outcome of the dynamics of self-determination, and have long thought the United States and the rest of the world would be better off if the government accepted the discipline of international law as setting limits on foreign policy options. In my view, such a realization is the unlearned lesson of the Vietnam War. I would repudiate the four laws of geopolitics, and opt instead for a global leadership role for Washington based on the rule of law.

 

Of course, we should not embrace international law, or any law, with illusions.

Law can be twisted in contradictory ways by legal experts. Law often is an instrument of geopolitics. Nevertheless, with eyes wide open, international law, diligently applied in accordance with a culture of human rights and peacemindedness, is a better guide for the national and global future than geopolitics.

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Testing for the Mental Disabilities of U.S. Presidential Candidates

21 Sep

 

 I would have hoped that any sensible American citizen would by now have been sufficiently scared by Donald Trump’s morbid flights of fancy, high school playground style bullying, outlandish threats and bluffs, unrealistic and unsavory promises to crush enemies and enrich workers, to put aside all their concerns about alternative candidates and refuse any temptation to cast a masochistic vote for Trump.

 

Yet such confidence seems sadly unjustified in this election and points up the vulnerability of the institutional arrangements governing qualifications to be an American president. Far more important than the constitutional requirement of an American birthplace, or even than physical health, is the mental condition of a candidate. Clearly, we cannot trust voters to pass this judgment, even if they were so inclined, as the Trump saga confirms. With Trump’s over the top narcissism and wild bipolar swings of sentiment, it seems painfully obvious that he is mentally unfit for the presidency, and this is frightening considering the embedded capacities of any occupant of the Oval Office to initiate war and use nuclear weapons, as well as inflict less spectacular harms as might result from unraveling the world economy, scrapping the Paris Climate Change Agreement and Nuclear Agreement with Iran, and irresponsibly ending old alliances and entering into new ones.

 

It must be acknowledged that Hilary Clinton is also multiply deficient as a presidential candidate, but not nearly in ways so scary and in forms far less likely to involve blind dives from the high board of flights of fancy into waterless pools. I dearly wish she was closer to Sanders in outlook, commitment, and character, but she can at least be counted on to do some decent and constructive things to enhance the quality of governance and life at home. She will surely push hard to implement the climate change agreement and probably will abide the Iran agreement despite Israel’s continuing efforts to undermine all that was achieved. Above all, she is not Trump!

 

It is not that Clinton deserves our vote, especially taking into account her hawkish regime-changing approach to foreign policy in the Middle East, but maybe, just maybe, she learned a thing or two from her support of the Iraq and Libyan disasters, and even if she hasn’t, she still earns my vote by the lamentable logic of ‘the lesser of evils.’ At the same time, I would not criticize those who weighed the pros and cons differently than I do, voting for a third party nominee that seemed the best available candidate regardless of their prospects of winning in November. There is much to be said in favor of voting for someone who is a good enough candidate that a vote of support would be something other than one more iteration of the lesser of evils. It is one of the few ways that an ordinary citizen has to register a vote of no confidence in a system that can do no better than provide citizens over and over again with nothing more congenial than a choice among evils. Unlike football, winning isn’t everything in politics, although most of our politicians approach their challenge with a zero-sum mentality. It is damaging to democracies when the cynical among us call the tune with their belief that casting a principled, yet losing, vote is a wasted vote, or worse, almost a crime against reason! Remember the liberal fury directed at Ralph Nader and his 90,000 or so supporters in Florida that allowed George W. Bush, with a major assist from the U.S. Supreme Court, to win the 2000 election.

 

In the end, Americans, whether or not they realize it, have a responsibility to the world that citizens of other countries possess to a far lesser degree. If Trump were to become the next American president it would imperil the world, and likely cause grave dislocations in many international settings that could cause massive suffering along with possibly disastrous unintended consequences. Even our most ‘rational’ recent presidents have caused havoc in foreign societies. Our militarized government rests on three principal pillars of influence: the Pentagon, Wall Street, and Israel. These constraining forces can push even the most decent and intelligent of presidents in militarist directions as Barack Obama found out.

 

The United States as a liberal democratic global state, projecting its power throughout the whole of the planet, should ideally extend its electoral franchise globally. As things stand, and will indefinitely remain so, the United States and its people insist on the absolute prerogatives of territorial sovereignty while denying comparable autonomy to many other nominally sovereign states. Given this uncontested reality, there is as much likelihood of Americans agreeing to extend the vote in its national elections to foreign societies throughout the world as there is of the ISIS leadership waking up one morning to announce adherence hereafter to the pacifist precepts of Gandhiism.

 

What is a distant second best option, yet far better than nothing, is for as many Americans as possible to be at least aware of their custodial role for the peoples of the world. With such awareness would come the duty to vote responsibly with respect to the wellbeing of others, including taking into consideration impacts on a sustainable human future. Again, predicting that a substantial number of American voters might be willing to behave like world citizens is a bet no oddsmaker in Vegas would be foolish enough to take.

 

Obviously, mere awareness is not nearly enough to secure the wellbeing of either the country or the world. The realities of technology and complex interdependence are such that the current world order has no capacity to absorb and localize serious mistakes of judgment made by the United States Government. The most minimal elements of political sanity at this stage of history mandates the adoption of a constitutional requirement that candidates for the presidency be certified as to their mental health, and not only by a psychiatrist of their choice. A professional politically neutral mechanism should be established to select a panel of qualified psychiatrists that would then be entrusted with certifying the mental health of aspiring candidates for the presidency and vice presidency.

 

At present, there is some relevance accorded to physical health with much attention accorded to the disclosure of medical records and indications of physical ailments that might interfere with the discharge of the formidable burdens associated with being president. When Hilary Clinton was found to be suffering from a mild case of pneumonia earlier this month a media frenzy ensued that examined the issue of her health from every conceivable angle. Such a preoccupation highlights by comparison the neglect of the far more serious, and possibly more difficult to detect, presence of serious mental disabilities of a kind that could produce the worst sorts of governmental decisions and policies. The mental disorders of an aspiring presidential candidate are far more threatening to the security of the country and the world than are physical ailments, which although also potentially dangerous to the person, are far less likely to cause catastrophic damage or twist decisions in sinister directions.

 

Admittedly, certifying mental health is an awkward process that needs to be handled with great sensitivity, and even then could misfire, or be wrongly interpreted by the public. At the same time, this forthcoming election amply demonstrates that business as usual, with eyes and ears closed to issues of mental disability is no longer an acceptable approach to the selection of American leaders in the 21st century. Too much is at stake.

 

Despite this, there persists a strong taboo surrounding mental health. Raising questions about the mental condition of a candidate for public office is still widely perceived as hitting below the belt. And what is worse, some mental disorders perversely give rise to enthusiastic support among the citizenry. In this regard what makes Trump seem a high risk candidate because of his mental health is what may yet get him elected! This is a thought to ponder. The memory of Hitler and Mussolini reminds us that pathological mental imbalances can be a source of public charisma and political popularity. The Trump candidacy is certainly not the first time that a demagogue’s manifest mental disorders are a principal explanation of his passionate populist support, but it could be the last time!