Morning Reading, May 22, 2018

This morning:

  • A long Christopher Caldwell article in the Weekly Standard about the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte:

    There is no world leader quite like Duterte, but in his special claim to run a country being drawn at lightning speed into modernity, he bears a resemblance to Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who also made the leap from big-city mayor to maximum leader. As Erdogan once was in Istanbul, Duterte was an extraordinary boss of Davao, the largest city on the vast and violent island of Mindanao. Duterte is political royalty there—his father was a governor of the province of Davao. When Duterte himself became mayor in 1988, Davao City was one of the most violent places in Southeast Asia—racked by both the New People’s Army (the Maoist armed wing of the Philippine Communist party) and radical Islamic terrorism. Islam moved through Indonesia to what is now the southern Philippines centuries ago, and Muslims make up 5 percent of the population. Most of them live just west of Davao and many want self-determination and even independence. Last year ISIS-inspired guerrillas took over the city of Marawi and were rooted out only after the army and air force waged a Stalingrad-style house-to-house campaign of urban warfare that killed hundreds. Muslims have brought their war to Davao with terror attacks, and Manila’s malls will remind Israelis of home, with bag-opening guards at the doorways of coffeehouses and sneaker stores.

    That is the secret of Duterte’s electoral success. Over two decades, at a time when Davao was doubling in size to over 1.5 million, Duterte transformed the city from a Third World hellhole into a pleasant place for a law-abiding person to live—even a business hub. He pulled this off by mixing wiles and ruthlessness, offering Muslims and Communists financial incentives to carry their campaigns elsewhere and threatening them with retribution should they not. Many human rights groups hold him responsible for about 1,000 unsolved killings during his tenure, carried out by shadowy assailants who came to be called the Davao Death Squad.

    Prior to reading this profile, I knew nothing about Duterte other than a vague impression that he was an anti-democratic authoritarian who used personal death squads to rid his country of drug dealers. That’s all true! But the Caldwell article does draw interesting parallels to the current situation in the United States; Trump and Duterte have similarities, alas, but the country is also seeing the same kind of breakdown in the separation of powers and the delegitimization of the media that we’re experiencing here.
    Most alarming of all is this quote from a Philippine senator: “The strategic aim of the [extrajudicial-killing] campaign is not to win the war on drugs. It is to promote a broader authoritarian agenda by establishing a climate of intimidation and fear that will make the destruction of democratic political institutions and political rights and their remaking in an authoritarian direction a ‘walk in the park.’” Isn’t the same thing true of the draconian crackdown on immigrants in the United States?
    I don’t necessarily agree with Caldwell’s conclusion (“Under the circumstances, it would be natural if the Philippines looked increasingly towards China, which has made ‘build, build, build’ the cornerstone of what it offers its allies, and less towards the United States, which in recent years has contented itself with ‘nag, nag, nag'”): I don’t see how it follows naturally from what came before it; it felt a bit tacked on. And I get the feeling that Caldwell has some pangs of admiration for Duterte that I do not share. But the deep dive into Philippine politics and culture is interesting.

  • In the New Republic, David Dayen takes down Paul Ryan:

    The next six months before the midterms will put the ungovernable House on display. They still have to pass a budget in September to avoid a government shutdown. There can be no greater boost to Democratic hopes to win the midterms than a Republican government unable to fulfill such basic tasks.

    You can lay that at the feet of one man. Ryan will likely leave office with Nancy Pelosi or another Democrat taking his speaker’s gavel. His own seat, in Republican hands for decades, is now a toss-up. He achieved almost none of the vaunted “reforms” he spent a lifetime promoting: Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, and countless other policies remain mostly the same as when Ryan entered office. Sure, Republicans got their tax cuts—that’s no feat with a caucus of tax-cutters—but Ryan imagined the overthrow of the welfare state and got next to nothing. However he exits the House this year, it’s sure to be an appropriately ignominious end to his political career.

    Congratulations, David Dayen, on making me almost feel sympathy for Paul Ryan. This is brutal. Accurate, but brutal.

  • Duelling articles on impeachment in the Nation and the Atlantic. In the Nation, John Nichols argues that congressional Democrats are too skittish about the idea of impeachment:

    Top Democrats have largely refused to embrace an essential truth of the American experiment: that the threat of impeachment is a necessary tool for maintaining a functional system of checks and balances. It is an unfortunate fact that the Republicans who currently form a majority in the House—the chamber that is charged with beginning an impeachment inquiry—are unlikely to respect their oaths of office. It may even be the case that some of those dishonorable members are conspiring with the president to undercut the inquiry.

    But that is no excuse for dialing down discussion of impeachment. If there is any point to a two-party system, it is this: When one party is acting in a lawless manner, the other must be all the more vocal in explaining and defending the rule of law.

    I agree with Nichols that impeachment should be the consequence of Trump’s really egregious misdoings; where we disagree is whether it’s wise for the Democrats to bring this up now. I just don’t think this is the energy we need to be coming from the Democrats before the midterms. He calls that “cowardly”; I call it pragmatic.
    Meanwhile, in the Atlantic, David Frum reviews the new book by Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz, To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment, which throws oold water on the idea of impeachment.
    The thesis of this book is that voting and activism are more effective in the long run than impeachment; as they put it, “Under most circumstances, removing the president from office this way is bound to be divisive and disheartening. Even when taking that step is fully justified, the price may be higher and the benefits more modest than some would envision.” Frum–a never-Trump conservative–calls this “aspirin to cool a political fever.”
    But (without having yet read the book) my feeling is that this point ignores one enormous problem: Trump is perhaps unprecedentedly incapable of doing this job. By many accounts, he pays little attention to briefings and makes wide-ranging decisions out of fits of pique, without caring about or even considering their long-term consequences. He is also inclined to use the powers at his disposal not just to enrich himself and his family but also exact revenge on his political enemies. He is literally dangerous to the world, and becomes more dangerous the longer he remains in office; and for that reason I believe he should be removed as soon as possible, political consequences be damned.

  • And Foreign Policy has two articles about the Trump administration’s plans for Iran, one in favor of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s strategy, the other opposed.
    Ray Takeyh and Mark Dubowitz write that “The United States today has a strategy, one that is expansive in its ambitions, justified in its tactics, and judicious in its assessments of Iran.” Their argument is that Iran is so dangerous that its “clerical imperialists” must be defeated and the Iranian people won over to the West’s way of thinking.
    On the other side, Jon Wolfsthal and Julie Smith say that making a series of unilateral demands is no way to negotiate, and that the United States has no way to make Iran accede to any of its preconditions, especially given that Europe isn’t showing any signs of abandoning the accord the Trump administration just withdrew from. “So, Iran remains a problem, ” they conclude, “the United States is more isolated and less trusted abroad, and Iran is now able to, at a time of its choosing, turn up the nuclear pressure, because the nuclear accord is on life support. That is not a strategy for success. It is a strategy for disaster.”
    I incline more to the Wolfsthal/Smith side; if making unilateral demands isn’t going to work with North Korea I don’t see why it would work with Iran. (Luckily no one has yet used the words “Libya model” in regard to Iran; maybe that’s next week.) Regime change hasn’t worked in Iraq, so why would it solve the Iran problem?

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