Suleimani’s assassination and the muddled moralism behind it

By Robert Wright, Jan 04 2020

Here’s this week’s news quiz:

Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian military leader who was assassinated by the US,
(a) has blood on his hands.
(b) doesn’t have blood on his hands.

If you chose “b” you really should spend more time online. Just look at these Google search numbers: 


Or, instead of going online, you could watch cable news. Anderson Cooper’s Thursday night show on CNN featured, if I recall correctly, at least three references to the blood on Suleimani’s hands, including two references to the specifically American blood on his hands. 

What’s interesting is how often these references are followed by a “but”—how often people who note the blood on Suleimani’s hands go on to raise doubts about the wisdom of assassinating him. Condemning Suleimani seems to be a ritual that commentators and politicians must perform before condemning, or even questioning, the killing of Suleimani. 

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Overhyped and too simplistic

By Robert Wright, Dec 21 2019

You know those old people who are always seeing signs of civilization’s collapse in the way patterns of English usage are changing? You don’t? Well you do now!

Let me call your attention to this recent headline from no less an arbiter of linguistic propriety than the New York Times Book Review: “Is Blockchain Technology Overhyped?”

Now, when I was a boy, to “hype” something meant… well, let’s consult the actual dictionary I bought when I was in seventh grade, the Second College Edition of the Webster’s New World Dictionary: “to stimulate, excite, enlighten, etc., artificially by or as by the injection of a narcotic drug.” [emphasis added] Twelve years after buying that dictionary, when I got my first job at a newspaper, I discovered that this meaning of the term was alive and well, as reflected in a specifically journalistic usage: For a reporter to “hype” a story was to overstate it, to write it up in a way that exaggerated its actual significance (typically in hopes of getting it on the front page). 

Before I proceed with my jeremiad, let’s pause to note an etymological irony: though to “hype” a story means to overstate it, the word derives not from the root hyper, which means “over,” as in “hyperbole,” but from the root hypo, which means “under,” as in “the hypodermic [under-the-skin] needle that brings the artificial stimulation.” OK, enough irony—now back to my jeremiad.

So, if to “hype” something means to overstate it, then to “overhype” something is to “over-overstate” it. Which is, well, a bit much, right? Even flat-out redundant? 

The week in non-impeachment news

Dec 14 2019

If you’re the kind of person who likes to watch movies even when you know how they’ll end, you may have spent much of the past week focused on impeachment proceedings (which—in case you’ve managed to avoid the plot spoilers so far—are sure to end in President Trump’s acquittal by the Senate, with his base having been energized in the meanwhile). Personally, I hate watching movies when I know how they’ll end—especially this one! So I’m well positioned to tell you what’s been going on in the world this week other than impeachment. 

And a lot has been going on. Unfortunately, much of it, from the vantage point of my own ideology, has been bad. If you, too, find this summary of the week’s big events a bit dispiriting, just remember this. OK, here goes:

A kinder, gentler Trump: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won re-election, as his Conservative party routed Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. This apparently means that Brexit will happen next month, though the terms of the post-Brexit economic relationship between Britain and Europe won’t be worked out until long thereafter. Also, Britain may get smaller. The Conservatives lost big in mainly anti-Brexit Scotland, which may now seek a second referendum on whether to secede from the United Kingdom. And, for the first time, most members of parliament from Northern Ireland favor ditching the UK for union with Ireland.

A not much kinder, not much gentler Trump: Narendra Modi, the ethno-nationalist Prime Minister of India, hailed his parliament’s passage of a bill that would create a path to citizenship for migrants from nearby countries—with the notable exception of migrants who are Muslim. 

Donald Trump, Space Commander

Dec 07 2019

You’ve probably heard the big news from this week’s NATO summit. As reported on the front page of the New York Times and the Washington Post, several European leaders were captured on video talking about President Trump, over beverages and hors d’oeuvres, in a less-than-reverential way—and Trump, needless to say, got in a huff about it. 

What you probably haven’t heard—because it was reported almost nowhere—is this news from the summit: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced, "We have declared space as the fifth operational domain for NATO, alongside land, air, sea, and cyber."

There may be a hidden link between these two developments. One reason leaders of NATO countries dis Trump behind his back is that he spends so much time dissing NATO. And according to some observers, one reason NATO decided to expand its mission into outer space is to get Trump to cut down on the dissing. 

After all, Trump this year, amid great fanfare, created the US Space Command—which, Congress willing, will soon beget the US Space Force, a military branch equal in status to the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. So what better way for NATO to get some Trump love then to say that it, too, thinks the final frontier could use more policing?

The week in Trump-related lawlessness

Nov 23 2019

This week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said something no US secretary of state has ever said before: that Israel’s West Bank settlements are not a violation of international law. He said this in spite of the fact that (a) a plain reading of the Fourth Geneva Convention—which Israel signed, and which prohibits the transfer of civilians to territories acquired by force—indicates otherwise; and (b) the UN Security Council, the ultimate arbiter of such matters, has repeatedly said otherwise.

On Israel, Sanders and Warren depart from the script

Nov 16 2019

The Democratic presidential candidates haven’t said much about foreign policy, and what they’ve said has often been frustratingly vague. This week brought a rare opportunity to compare their positions on a specific international development.  

It started in Gaza, when Israel assassinated an Islamic Jihad military commander who was thought responsible for past missile attacks on Israel, including a strike in September that disrupted a Bibi Netanyahu campaign event. In response to the assassination (which also killed the commander’s wife), Islamic Jihad fired a barrage of missiles into Israel. Israel replied with more military strikes, which killed at least 30 additional Palestinians, including a number of civilians.

Most of the Democratic presidential candidates who weighed in—including Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Kamala Harris—reacted the way American politicians have often reacted to such things. They condemned the Palestinian rocket attacks, expressed solidarity with Israel, made no reference to Palestinian casualties and no mention of either the immediate precipitant of the missile barrage (the killing of the commander and his wife) or conditions that might have contributed to earlier missile attacks on Israel (most notably Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza, which has helped sustain extreme poverty).

The two exceptions were Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Impeachment should be about America first

Nov 16 2019

This week, as the public phase of the House impeachment inquiry got underway, Rep. Adam Schiff, who is leading it, began his opening statement with these two sentences: “In 2014, Russia invaded a United States ally, Ukraine, to reverse that nation's embrace of the West, and to fulfill Vladimir Putin's desire to rebuild a Russian empire. In the following years, thirteen thousand Ukrainians died as they battled superior Russian forces.”

The Washington Post’s editorial board, on the same day, struck a similar tone. “The heart of the case” for impeachment, the editors wrote, is that, in trying to get Ukrainian help for his 2020 re-election run, Trump “allied his administration with some of Ukraine’s most corrupt elements, and undercut its military defense at a time when its soldiers were fighting and dying.”

I don’t want to sound hard-hearted, but could we please leave the Ukrainian soldiers out of this? I think it’s a mistake for impeachment supporters to frame their case against Trump in terms of the geopolitics of Russia and Ukraine—bad for their case against Trump, bad for America, and bad for the world. 

Apocalypse approach update

Nov 09 2019

Keeping track of Donald Trump’s contributions to the coming of the apocalypse is a job too big for any one person. The best I can do is check in every month or so and list a few of the latest highlights. 

During the past 10 days: 

  1. The Trump administration notified the UN that the US will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement in a year, the earliest withdrawal date permitted by the accord.
  2. A Russian arms control official warned that the prospects for sustaining the most important US-Russia arms control treaty after its expiration date in February of 2020 have been dimmed by Trump’s refusal to discuss the matter.
  3. Iran announced that, as a result of Trump’s abandonment of the 2015 nuclear deal, and his ensuing imposition of draconian sanctions, it has reactivated centrifuges in a uranium processing plant that lies deep underground, resistant to military attack (but perhaps not resistant to the bunker-busting megabombs that President Obama gave Israel and that Israel may now be tempted to use).   

There’s a unifying theme here, and it isn’t just the increasingly plausible end of Planet Earth as we know it. It’s Trump’s apparent aversion to playing non-zero-sum games with other countries—that is, games that can have a win-win or lose-lose outcome (such as, respectively, avoiding a nuclear war or having one). Or at least, it’s his failure to play them well, to get win-win outcomes—and sometimes, it seems, his failure to even see that such outcomes are possible, that we live in a non-zero-sum world. 

This is no news flash. Ever since the earliest days of Trump’s presidency, he’s been referred to by some as “the zero-sum president.” The label has its merits (I’ve riffed on it myself), but it has one important, even dangerous, downside.

Meet the new boss

Oct 26 2019

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.

Essence of Trump

Oct 19 2019

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.”