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.

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Could we please kill the Blob’s “gift to Putin” meme?

Oct 26 2019

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.

How The New York Times distorts our view of Syria

Oct 19 2019

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.

How the Blob’s lawlessness brought mayhem to the Middle East

Oct 12 2019

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.”

In defense of ‘America First’

Sep 28 2019

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. 

Samantha and the Power of Denial

Sep 21 2019

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.

John Bolton, public menace but useful expository device

Sep 14 2019

Thanks to President Trump (and I don’t often start a sentence that way, believe me), it’s an auspicious week to rechristen a newsletter as the Nonzero Newsletter. 

For a long time now, a huge part of my worldview has been the belief that, as technology marches on, the world’s nations are playing more and more non-zero-sum games with one another—games that can have win-win or lose-lose outcomes, depending on how they’re played. On Tuesday Trump fired National Security Adviser John Bolton, who perennially fails to play such games wisely, or for that matter to even recognize that they’re non-zero-sum. More than anyone else—more even than Trump himself, which is saying something—Bolton epitomizes the zero-sum world view this administration has become famous for.

To list big non-zero-sum opportunities in the world is to list the kinds of opportunities Bolton has made a career of sabotaging: treaties for controlling nuclear weapons, bioweapons, weapons in space, cyberweapons; accords that address climate change and other environmental threats; international tribunals for peacefully settling border disputes and trade disputes; and the whole overarching project of nurturing global governance and the various multilateral institutions that mediate it. Bolton once said that if the United Nations building in New York “lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” (So, naturally, George W. Bush later made Bolton America’s ambassador to the UN.)

When NPR is more dangerous than Fox News

Jun 21 2019
What to do when military conflict between the US and Iran seems to be approaching, and you’re trying to get a clear picture of the situation? I’m only half-kidding when I say there’s a case to be made for staying glued to Fox News. Sure, you’ll hear a lot of pro-war propaganda. But at least you’ll know that’s what it is. If you instead tune in to “mainstream” media, you may think you’re getting an objective account when in fact you’re getting an account that’s biased in favor of war—just biased in subtler, harder-to-detect ways than the accounts on Fox News.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying that mainstream journalists and commentators who evince these biases are consciously anti-Iran or pro-war. Usually the problem is just that they’re Americans, viewing the world through American lenses, relying on America’s ecosystem of expertise. And, of course, they’re human—which means they have cognitive biases that distort reality in accordance with their group affiliations (such as, say, being American).

Consider a report that ran on NPR Thursday, hours after Iran downed a U.S. surveillance drone that, according to Iran, had violated Iranian airspace and, according to the United States, hadn’t. Rachel Martin, host of Morning Edition, began the segment by providing some context: “Since the Trump administration announced a maximum-pressure campaign against Iran, Iran has responded by attacking oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.”

American Foreign Policy Has an Empathy Problem

Dec 20 2016
[First published in the Nation, December 21, 2016]

American foreign policy has an empathy problem.

The problem isn’t a shortage of empathy. Large quantities of empathy have been harnessed to build support for ill-advised interventions. The Iraq War was waged in part to help suffering Iraqis, many of whom, as it happened, wound up dead. The United States and its allies justified the arming of Syrian rebels as a way to help the oppressed Syrian people, though, in retrospect, had there been no armed insurrection, hundreds of thousands of Syrians would be better off — living under an oppressive regime, but still living. Not to mention the millions of refugees and the many Syrians who have suffered under ISIS’s rule.

No, the problem isn’t a shortage of empathy, but rather an imbalance between two kinds of empathy. Psychologists distinguish between “emotional empathy” — the feel-your-pain kind, which supporters of military intervention are good at cultivating — and “cognitive empathy.” Cognitive empathy means putting yourself in the shoes of other people in the sense of seeing how the world looks to them: perspective-taking.