American foreign policy elites are in near-unanimous agreement that President Trump’s withdrawal of troops from northern Syria, along with the ensuing influx of Russian and Syrian troops, is a “gift to Putin.” Some variant of that phrase has over the past two weeks appeared in headlines from the venerable New York Times, the venerable Foreign Affairs, and the quasi-venerable CNN, among other mainstream outlets.
Russian elites have joined their American counterparts in viewing recent developments in Syria as a zero-sum game that Russia won and the United States lost. One Russian newspaper touted Russia’s “triumph in the Middle East,” and an analyst on Russian TV said this triumph is “sad for America.”
There are certainly things to be sad about. It’s sad that Trump’s withdrawal—impulsively ordered, with no diplomatic preparation—has caused so much more havoc and suffering, especially for the Kurds, than was necessary. And to me, at least, it’s sad that Trump, in his record-setting incompetence, is giving military withdrawals a bad name.
I’m not a big booster of Silicon Valley mindfulness. That is, I don’ go around telling people they should meditate because it can increase their productivity by a few percentage points. I think the best reasons to meditate are to clarify your view of the world and to become a better person.
Besides, I don’t know if mindfulness meditation does enhance productivity, and I don’t have time to research the question. (I’m not very productive).
But there’s one version of the enhanced productivity question that I find fascinating, because it arises in some of the deeper regions of contemplative practice. Meditators who go very, very deep — so deep that their very sense of self may dissolve and stay dissolved — sometimes report a paradox: they no longer think many thoughts, and they don’t feel that they’re consciously making decisions, or consciously shaping their path through work and life — yet some of them report becoming more productive, often in very demanding jobs.
Twitter’s policies are abetting government repression in India, according to a piece by Avi Asher-Schapiro and Ahmed Zidan on the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Last year Twitter obliged the government by rendering all tweets from the periodical Kashmir Narrator invisible in India. The periodical’s crime? It had written about a militant in the restive province of Kashmir. (The person who wrote the piece is in jail, and the restive province isn’t as restive as it used to be—not just because of the jailing of journalists, but because the internet has been shut down in Kashmir.)
Twitter’s subservience shouldn’t surprise us. Given the power of governments to regulate or even ban social media sites, Twitter has a commercial interest in staying on good terms with governments. Same goes for other social media companies. I wrote a piece for Wired last year noting how unquestioningly Facebook bans any group the Trump administration labels a terrorist group—even though this administration’s approach to applying that label is, to say the least, loose.
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Thursday was an amazing day even by the elevated standards of the Trump era. In the span of a few hours, these four things happened:
1) The Trump administration said it had orchestrated a five-day ceasefire—whose wording, it turns out, validated Turkey’s invasion of Syria the week before and its goal of creating a 5,400-square-mile “buffer zone” in the Kurdish part of Syria.
2) In proudly discussing the ceasefire, Trump seemed to validate, as well, one product of that invasion: the ethnic cleansing of some 150,000 Kurds over the past two weeks. Trump said that, from Turkey’s point of view, northern Syria had to be “cleaned out,” and that sometimes you need to exercise “a little rough love,” an “unconventional, tough love approach.” Which in this case apparently entailed invading a country in plain violation of international law, shelling and bombing it, and, for good measure, deploying Syrian jihadists who set about committing atrocities that terrified Syrian Kurds into fleeing—all of which left Kurdish troops little alternative to accepting the ceasefire. Or, as Trump cheerfully characterized the dynamic he’d set in motion by abruptly withdrawing US troops from northern Syria: “When those guns start shooting, they tend to do things.”
The New York Times wants to make sure you know that Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria has strengthened US adversaries.
On Tuesday, after Kurds imperiled by the withdrawal cut a deal with the Syrian government to step in and protect them—thus expanding the influence of the Syrian regime and its allies, Iran and Russia—the Times featured two front page stories about Syria. Over one of them was a headline that said “Battle Lines Shifting to the Benefit of Iran, Russia and ISIS.” The other one said, in its very first paragraph, that Trump had “given an unanticipated victory to four American adversaries: Russia, Iran, the Syrian government, and the Islamic State.”
OK, we get the message. But there’s a problem with the message. These two stories are at best misleading and at worst flat-out wrong. And, sadly, they’re typical of much mainstream media coverage of Syria—and reflective, I think, of cognitive distortions that afflict many American journalists, warping our view of the world.
This week I was reminded anew of the promise and peril of tweeting right after your morning coffee. And in the process I was reminded (not that I really needed it) of Twitter’s tribal nature.
On Friday morning, just as the caffeine was taking full effect, and I was settling in to work on this newsletter, I fatefully took a look at my Twitter feed. I saw that Hillary Clinton, in an interview, had suggested that Tulsi Gabbard was being “groomed” by Russia to be a third-party spoiler candidate, and that Jill Stein, who played that role last time around, was “also” (like Gabbard, that is) a “Russian asset.”
That’s pretty extreme. As Hillary Clinton undoubtedly knows, and as Wikipedia confirms, the term “asset,” in that context, is typically taken to mean that the person in question isn’t just being exploited by a foreign power but is consciously and secretly cooperating. Not to mention the fact that people aren’t typically “groomed” without being aware of it.
Now, my opinion of Jill Stein—like my opinion of Ralph Nader ever since his third party candidacy got George W. Bush elected president—is low. And I’m not a big Gabbard supporter. I like much of what she says about foreign policy, but I also find her in some ways offputtingly quirky. (For example: She replied to Hillary’s conspiracy theory with a kind of conspiracy theory of her own. And, though I’d like to think this was sly commentary on Hillary’s seeming paranoia, I fear it wasn’t—and if it was, I think it was too subtle for its own good.)
This week’s abrupt withdrawal of US troops from a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria inspired a variety of criticisms, as politicians and commentators of all major ideological stripes condemned Trump for ordering it.
The main criticisms have a lot of validity, in so far as they go. In greenlighting Turkey’s military incursion into Syria, Trump indeed, as charged: (1) abandoned the Kurds, who at America’s behest had spent the last few years fighting ISIS; (2) probably helped ISIS, at least in the short run, by diverting Kurdish attention and resources toward fighting Turkey; (3) ensured the death or displacement (a.k.a ethnic cleansing) of lots of Kurds.
But there’s one criticism I haven’t heard, and I think this silence is an indictment of the entire Washington foreign policy establishment — and more evidence that it deserves its evocatively pejorative nickname, the “Blob.”
This was a tough week for San Francisco Warriors coach Steve Kerr. It all started when the General Manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protestors. The Chinese government—and lots of Chinese people—didn’t like that one bit, and China is a huge market for the NBA, so various NBA officials and players set about saying conciliatory things. Kerr, when asked about the controversy, did what you might expect: He declined to comment.
At this point Donald Trump somehow found the time—even while getting impeached and getting Kurds slaughtered—to tear into Kerr (a longtime Trump critic) for not being manly enough to stand up to China. Which in turn kept the whole issue alive long enough for Kerr to be asked by a reporter whether, in the course of his many visits to China, there had been discussion of how the NBA’s financial interests relate to “a country whose human rights record is not in step with the United States.”
I recently had a conversation (just posted on meaningoflife.tv and also available in The Wright Show podcast feed) with one of my favorite people: Bhikkhu Bodhi, a Buddhist monk who is also a renowned scholar of Buddhism and a prolific translator of ancient Buddhist texts.
One reason I like him so much is that when he laughs—and he laughs at more offbeat things than your average monk, I’d guess—it lights up the room. Consider, for example, this exchange, which started with him telling me what the Buddha said about eating meat:
This week baseball’s postseason playoffs were proceeding uneventfully when St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley threw the Atlanta Braves a curve ball. In between games one and two of the Cardinals–Braves series, Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, criticized a controversial Braves fan ritual: rhythmically simulating a tomahawk chop while humming something that is either a Native American war song or Atlanta’s idea of one.
Braves officials took the complaint seriously. When the decisive game five rolled around, Atlanta fans didn’t find in their seats the complimentary foam tomahawks that had always been there for playoff games. And the loudspeaker didn’t, shortly before the first pitch, prompt the tomahawk ritual by playing the war song.
If you were a superstitious Braves fan, you might have worried that this desecration of ritual would anger the gods. And sure enough: St. Louis scored ten runs in the top of the first inning—which, for those of you aren’t baseball fans, meant that the game was over before the other 8.5 innings were played. (Final score: 13-1. The Cardinals moved on to the National League Championship series, and the Braves went home.)
Before I say more about the tomahawk ritual per se, I’d like to say one thing about the recurring controversy over Native American sports names (which typically focuses on the Braves, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Redskins, and the Kansas City Chiefs). Namely: these four names fall into two groups, and one group seems more offensive than the other.
Our dog Frazier was on death row when we got him—slated to be “put to sleep” if the animal shelter couldn’t find a home for him.
If you don’t recognize that sentence as virtue signaling, you need to get more in touch with the zeitgeist. Over the past few decades it has become cooler and cooler to casually mention that your dog is a “rescue dog.”
Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Matt Bershadker, president of the ASPCA: “Rescuing an animal has become a badge of honor,” he told a New York Times reporter. “People proudly go to dog parks and walk around their neighborhoods talking about the animal that they rescued from a shelter.”
And this fact—that you can actually brag about your dog being an outcast and get social credit for it—seems to have been good for dogs. The percentage of dogs at animal shelters that have to be put to sleep for lack of adoption has dropped sharply over the past decade, the Times reported this month.
This week president Trump went before the United Nations and declared, “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.” A year earlier he had gone before the United Nations and declared, “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” Sense a pattern?
In last year’s address Trump also, as he often does, zeroed in on the particular manifestation of globalism that seems to most concern him—“global governance,” which he says poses a threat to “national sovereignty.”
Some people might consider it impolite to go before the UN and denounce globalism and global governance—kind of like, I don’t know, being given a speaking slot at a Trump rally and then using it to denounce xenophobia. But Trump’s annual UN ode to patriotism and national sovereignty has one virtue: It crystallizes the confusion that drives his opposition to global governance.
This impeachment thing worries me. But don’t worry—I’m a worrier, so my worries are probably unwarranted.
Still, if only for therapeutic reasons, I’d like to enumerate them, after which I’ll see if, upon reflection, I can dispel them.
On his Scientific American blog, Scott recently posted an interesting piece about what kinds of things give people’s lives meaning.
It turns out people say they derive meaning from (among other things) extreme emotional experiences—not just positive ones, but negative ones as well. Which makes sense, when you think about it. The death of a close relative is an intensely negative emotional experience, one you wish you’d been able to avoid—but you certainly wouldn’t call it meaningless.
Washington spent the first part of this week trying to figure out who blew up some Saudi oil facilities. Was it Houthi rebels in Yemen, who proudly claimed responsibility? Or was it Iran? Or was it both—an attack conceived and orchestrated by Iran but executed by Iran’s Houthi allies?
There’s an important and underappreciated sense in which the answer doesn’t matter. The moral of the story is the same regardless of how the blame is distributed between Iran and the Houthis. Namely: If you don’t want people to blow stuff up, don’t attack them in the first place!
Sunflowers, believe it or not, play non-zero-sum games with one another—and do so with impressive skill! At least, that’s one reading of a study published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.
A typical sunflower, not surprisingly, tends to send its roots more profusely into nutrient-rich patches of soil than into nutrient-poor patches. But two researchers—Megan Ljubotina and James Cahill—report that, when there is another sunflower in the neighborhood, this behavior gets recalibrated.
If much closer to the nutrient-rich patch than its neighbor, the sunflower sends its roots into the patch more profusely than when there’s no neighbor around—as if it were rushing to colonize land before a rival gets to it.
Samantha Power—who wrote a Pulitzer prize–winning book about genocide that catapulted her onto President Obama’s foreign policy team, where she was a forceful advocate for humanitarian military intervention—has just published another book. It’s a memoir called The Education of an Idealist.
So far the commentary on the book illustrates a general principle of foreign policy commentary: the more your views depart from the establishment consensus, and the more willing you are to attack credentialed members of that establishment, the smaller the platform you’re allowed to express those views on.