The West’s experts on modern Russia — its national interest and its conduct of foreign policy — have had a rough 18 months.
U.S. intelligence estimates concluded in late February of 2014 that Russia’s massive military exercises on the border of Ukraine were a hollow display of force. Russia would never openly invade its European neighbor, much less annex sovereign territory into the Russian Federation. Wrong. Following the Ukrainian invasion, an ever-stiffening sanctions regime on Russian individuals and institutions was said to constitute an inflection point at which Moscow would begin to climb down from the crisis it had sparked in Europe. Wrong again. Today, a new contention is becoming increasingly popular among the West’s Russia hands. The Kremlin is financially strained, politically isolated, and increasingly in over its head, the thinking goes. Vladimir Putin is dangerously over-extended. Russia cannot afford to sustain an expeditionary force in Syria and simultaneously conduct a covert war in Ukraine. The West has bled Russia white once before in the mountains of Afghanistan. There is no reason why the West should stop Russia from making the same mistakes again by ill-advisedly overextending itself. This is a perilous strategy.
“Overextending its power, Russia is likely to face disastrous political consequences,” wrote College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University Professor Peter Eltsov in Politico Magazine. He noted that Tsarist Russia fell into the trap of expending more resources on foreign wars than it could sustain during the Russo-Japanese War and again in World War I. The same trap was sprung again on the Soviets when they sought to prop up the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan militarily while simultaneously extending an economic lifeline to the moribund Warsaw Pact member states. A similar set of circumstances in the Middle East may soon ensnare Putin’s Russia.
“When Russian soldiers begin to return home dead or even beheaded, it is going to be much more difficult for Putin to justify his war,” Eltsov concluded. “Putin’s Syrian campaign may become the beginning of the end of his autocratic regime.”
Even the New York Times editorial board has echoed these themes. “Mr. Putin enabled the Assad government early on, and he has no particular strategy to contain the Syrian conflict,” the editorial read. “With Russia grappling with sanctions, lower oil prices and a weakened economy, it is unclear how much he can afford to invest in a dead-end war in Syria.”
This is a convenient line of logic. It excuses Western inaction and feebleness by fostering the impression that Western dominance is predestined. But this line of reasoning is fallacious. The presumption that a great power faced with substantial limitations on its ability to act in the form of political and material constraints will be forever docile is thinly supported. The declining power is as (or more) likely to strike out at adversaries as is a rising power blessed with an abundance of resources and domestic political security. The Empire of Japan did not execute a strike on American naval forces in the Pacific because it perceived itself to be ascendant. A U.S.-imposed oil embargo and an acute perception inside Japanese high command that theirs was a country on the decline compelled Tokyo to embrace preventative war. Their window of opportunity was closing; better to strike now than risk fighting a losing war at a time not of their choosing.
None of this is to suggest that Russia will contemplate executing preemptive strikes against another great power. Merely that a declining power is an unpredictable power, and that it rarely goes quietly into the night.
Even if Russia’s material limitations prevent it from becoming a dominant geopolitical force, Moscow can do a lot of damage to Western interests. In the Obama administration’s desperate efforts to avoid becoming embroiled in another Middle Eastern war, it has allowed the Kremlin to step into the regional power vacuum it created. On Monday, NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Philip Breedlove warned that Russia’s augmented presence in Syria includes the capabilities to create a “A2/AD [anti-access/area denial] bubble” around Syria. Meaning the West might soon find that military intervention in Syria has become a prohibitively costly prospect and that the sub-optimal status quo is beyond its power to change.
Similar access denial systems are reportedly set to augment Iranian air defense systems. In August, Iran and Russia signed a deal that would transfer into Tehran’s control a number of advanced S-300 surface-to-air defense systems. The move came following a high-profile visit to Moscow by Revolutionary Guard Commander Qasem Soleimani, indicating an enhanced level of cooperation between the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic – cooperation that is being tested on the ground in Syria.
The Middle East’s anti-Western rogue states are not the only nations that find themselves the target of Russian overtures. Over the weekend, Washington was reportedly stunned by the news that Russia and Iran had signed an intelligence-sharing agreement with Baghdad. “Even as the United States has banked on a diplomatic strategy of trying to enlist Russia’s cooperation in Syria, the Kremlin has continued to join the White House with its unilateral military and political moves,” the New York Times reported.
Egypt, too, has been courted by Moscow. In February, in response to the imposition of restrictions on U.S. arms exports to Cairo following to the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi by the nation’s military, Egypt’s new regime negotiated the purchase of $2 billion in defense-related equipment from Russia. Several weeks later, Cairo followed up by inking a deal with the Kremlin to create a Russian industrial zone near the Suez Canal and to have preferential access to the Eurasian Economic Union – a trade zone designed to compete with the European Union. Even Israel, America’s closest ally in the region, has begun to look to the East. In mid-September, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Moscow where he and Putin revealed their intentions to coordinate military actions in Syria in order to avoid coming into contact in that increasingly crowded theater of operations.
On Tuesday, Evelyn Farkas, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, resigned her post.
If the West is going to wait around for Russia to overextend, recognize as much, and unilaterally deescalate the crises it has ignited in Europe and the Middle East, it might as well get comfortable. This could take a while. In the interim, Moscow can do a fair bit of damage to Western interests. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the cold conflict that puts Western military assets in close proximity with their Russian counterparts will not spiral out of control. Provoking an irredentist Russia is certainly dangerous, but a “hurry up and wait” strategy is not without its own set of risks.
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The Threat of an Overextended Russia
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.
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Convenience, wrote Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, is a tyrant. It makes our lives easier and more enjoyable, but everything comes with a price tag. We may not recognize that which we are sacrificing in the pursuit of convenience, but we are sacrificing nonetheless.
The instant gratification associated with on-demand society has made America’s shared cultural moments a thing of the past. The explosion of online shopping has eliminated the time consumers wasted traveling from store to store, but physical retail is dying as a result. The modern public square and the daily human interactions that it encouraged will disappear along with it. Machine learning has the power to introduce a “more compassionate social contract” and reduce physical risk associated with workplace hazards or lifestyle choices. But risk is just another word for freedom and, in the pursuit of convenience, we risk sacrificing our independence along with our hardships.
“We’re really reinventing the traditional insurance model with our vitality program,” said Marianne Harrison, the CEO of one of North America’s largest life insurers, John Hancock, in a recent appearance on CNBC. The beaming insurance executive boasted of her firm’s effort to marry a “technology-based wellness program” with an “insurance product.” That’s a loaded way of saying that this American insurer is soon going to charge based on the real-time monitoring of your daily activities. Behavior-based insurance will track the health data of policyholders through wearable devices or smartphones and distribute rewards based on individual choices. You don’t have to wear a tracking device to participate in this program—at least, not yet. Harrison assured skeptics that they could also dole out rewards to policyholders who take simple steps like reading preapproved literature, the consumption of which they presumably track.
This innovation is optional today, but the savings it yields for both consumer and insurer guarantee that it will soon become a standard feature of the insurance landscape. Your freedom to eat poorly, use tobacco products, drink alcohol, or perform any number of physical activities that include varying levels of risk are not limited. You’ll just have to pay for them. And if Democratic policymakers succeed in nationalizing the private health insurance industry under the auspices of Medicare-for-all or single-payer or whatever other euphemisms they apply to the public confiscation of private property, these “tools” will only become more pervasive.
A similar rationale—the primacy of collective health—can be applied to any number of activities that invite unnecessary risk that technology can mitigate. Foremost among these is the terribly dangerous American habit of driving a car.
In 2017, there were over 40,000 automobile-related fatalities. This was the second consecutive year in which the roads were that deadly and, if observers who attribute this rate of fatal traffic accidents to an increase in smartphone ownership are correct, there will not be a decline anytime soon. A 2015 study purported to show that replacing manual vehicles with autonomous cars or vehicles with advanced driver-assistance systems could eliminate up to 90 percent of all fatal accidents and save as many as 300,000 American lives each decade. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the option to own a driverless vehicle becomes a mandate with a hefty financial penalty imposed on those who opt out.
“[T]he threat to individual freedom that the driverless car is set to pose is at this stage hard to comprehend,” wrote National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke. Presently, the car transports its diver to wherever they’d like to go, whether there are roads to facilitate the journey or not. In a driverless world, as Cooke noted, the driver becomes a mere occupant. They must essentially ask the car for permission to transit from point A to point B, and the whole process is monitored and logged by some unseen authorities. Furthermore, that transit could ostensibly be subject to the veto of state or federal authorities with the push of a button. That seems a steep price to pay for a little convenience and the promise of safety.
The pursuit of convenience, as Professor Wu explained, has resulted in remarkable social leveling. We enjoy more time today for “self-cultivation,” once only the province of the wealthy and aristocratic, than at any point in history. And yet, we cannot know true liberty without hardship. “The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity,” Wu concluded.
There is more to celebrate in the technological revolutions of the last quarter-century than there is to lament. But in the pursuit of convenience, we’ve begun to make spontaneity irrational. In life, the rewards associated with experience are commensurate with that which is ventured. In a future in which the world’s sharp edges are bubble-wrapped, your life may exceed today’s average statistical length. But can you really call it living?
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Podcast: Christine Rosen on Brett Kavanaugh.
The podcast welcomes COMMENTARY contributor and author Christine Rosen on the program to discuss the allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Have his confirmation hearings have transformed into another chapter in the national cultural reckoning that is the #MeToo moment?
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Justice both delayed and denied.
According to Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat Chris Coons, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when she was a minor, did not want to come forward. In an eerie echo of Anita Hill’s public ordeal, her accusations were “leaked to the media.” With her confidentiality violated, Ford had no choice but to go public. Coons could not say where that leak came from, but he did confess that “people on committee staff” had access to the letter in which Ford made her allegations. Draw your own conclusions.
Though many observers insist that what we have witnessed since Ford’s allegations were made public is about justice, it’s hard to see any rectitude in this process. Ford has been transformed into a public figure apparently against her wishes. The details of the attack that Ford alleges are deeply disturbing, but they are not prosecutable. Ford’s recollection of the events 36 years ago is understandably hazy, but what she alleges to have occurred is too vague to establish with much accuracy. She cannot recall the precise date or location in which she was supposedly attacked. Contrary to the protestations of Senate Democrats like Kamala Harris, the FBI cannot get involved in a matter that is not within the federal government’s jurisdiction. And even if local authorities were inclined to involve themselves, the statute of limitations long ago elapsed.
With precious few facts available to congressional investigators and without the sobriety that public scrutiny in the age of social media abhors, the spectacle to which the nation is about to be privy is undoubtedly going to make things worse. A public hearing featuring both Ford and Kavanaugh will be a performative and political display, if it happens at all. It will be adorned with the trappings of courtroom proceedings but with none of the associated protections afforded accused and accuser alike. It will further polarize the nation such that, whether Kavanaugh is confirmed or not, public confidence in Congress and the Supreme Court will be severely damaged. And no matter what is said in that hearing, it is unlikely to change many minds.
Given the dearth of hard evidence, it is understandable that observers have begun to look to their own experiences to evaluate the veracity of Ford’s allegations. The Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan is the author of a powerful and compelling example of this kind of work. Her essay, entitled “I Believe Her,” is important for a variety of reasons. Maybe foremost among them is how she all but invalidates defenses of Kavanaugh that are based on the positive character references he’s assembled from former female acquaintances and ex-girlfriends. Flanagan was assaulted as a young woman, and her abuser—a man she says drove her to a suicidal depression similar to what Ford has described to her therapist—was not interested in a romantic relationship. CNN political commenter Symone Sanders, too, confessed that “there is no debate” in her mind as to Kavanaugh’s guilt, in part, because she was the victim of a sexual assault in college. The similarities between what she endured and what Ford says occurred are too hard for her to ignore.
These are harrowing stories, but they also reveal how little any of this has to do with Brett Kavanaugh anymore. For some, this has become a proxy battle in the broader cultural reckoning that began with the #MeToo moment. Quite unlike the many abusive men who were outed by this movement, though, the evidentiary standard being applied to Kavanaugh’s case is remarkably low. His innocence has not been presumed, and a preponderance of evidence has not been marshaled against him. It is not even clear as of this writing that Kavanaugh will be allowed to confront his accuser. At a certain point, honest observers must concede that getting to the truth has not been a defining feature of this process.
In the face of this adversity, there are some Republicans who are willing to sacrifice Kavanaugh’s nomination. Some appear to think that Kavanaugh’s troubles present them with an opportunity to advance their own political prospects and to promote a replacement nominee with whom they feel a closer ideological affinity. Others simply don’t want to risk standing by a tainted nominee. The stakes associated with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court are too high to confirm a justice with an asterisk next to his name—a justice who may tarnish future rulings on sensitive cases by association. Those Republicans are either capitulatory or craven.
Based on what we know now, Kavanaugh does not deserve an asterisk. Maybe he will tomorrow, but he doesn’t today. Those who would allow what is by almost all accounts an exemplary legal career to be destroyed by unconfirmable accusations or outright innuendo will not get a better deal down the line. Some Republicans are agnostic about Kavanaugh’s fate and believe that his being stopped will make room for a more doctrinaire conservative like Amy Coney Barrett. But they will not get their ideologically simpatico justice if they allow the defiling of the process by which she could be confirmed.
The experiences that Dr. Ford described are appalling. Even for those who are inclined to believe her account and think that she is due some restitution, no true justice can be meted out that doesn’t infringe on the rights of the accused. Those in the commentary class who would use Kavanaugh as a stand-in for every abuser who got away, every preppy white boy who benefited from unearned privilege, every hypocritical conservative moralizer to exact some karmic vengeance are not interested in justice. They want a political victory, even at the expense of the integrity of the American ideal. If there is a fight worth having, it’s the fight against that.