Morning Reading, May 21, 2018

This morning:

  • I thought I was all done with the royal wedding, but then this morning I read a Vox article by Dylan Matthews arguing that a constitutional monarchy is better than an elected head of state:

    Monarchs are more effective than presidents precisely because they lack any semblance of legitimacy. It would be offensive for Queen Elizabeth or her representatives in Canada, New Zealand, etc. to meddle in domestic politics. Indeed, when the governor general of Australia did so in 1975, it set off a constitutional crisis that made it clear such behavior would not be tolerated. Nothing like it has happened since.

    As Margit Tavits at Washington University in St. Louis once told me, “Monarchs can truly be above politics. They usually have no party connections and have not been involved in daily politics before assuming the post of the head of state.” But figurehead presidents have some degree of democratic legitimacy and are typically former politicians. That enables a greater rate of shenanigans — like when Italian President Giorgio Napolitano schemed, successfully, to remove Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister, due at least in part to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s entreaties to do so.

    I am sympathetic to this point of view, partly because I think the American system (where we just tack on all the responsibilities of being head of state to the president’s already overwhelming portfolio) is a hot mess. Both because the president doesn’t really have time for ceremonial duties and because the fact that the president has just survived a highly contentious, several-month-long election means that a sizable chunk of the country doesn’t feel represented by and, in fact, very likely wants nothing to do with him (or, someday, her). Some countries elect their head of state, which solves the first problem but not the second.

    To be clear, I think there are big philosophical issue with monarchies (the financial arguments against them are pretty weak to my mind) but I’m not convinced they don’t work better than elected heads of state, and if you don’t elect the head of state and it’s not an inherited position, how do you choose someone? Maybe in the future we can use a lifelike robot.

  • In the Atlantic, Joel S. Wit writes about a series of meetings with North Koreans that he attended in 2013, and what the North Koreans said then about denuclearization. His argument here is that Bolton’s “Libya model” (in which North Korea unilaterally denuclearizes and then receives rewards in return) will doom the summit and that the United States needs to be prepared to make upfront concessions of its own:

    . . . [W]hat they outlined was a step-by-step process of denuclearization accompanied in each phase by U.S. measures of their own. It is entirely different from the “Libya model” espoused by John Bolton, which involves giving up its program first and only then getting benefits in return. Indeed, the Trump administration doesn’t necessarily endorse Bolton’s view. Susan Thornton, the acting assistant secretary of state in charge of Asia, said last week that it was obvious there would be multiple steps in a long process of denuclearization, and the key issue was what happened first.

    How those differences over denuclearization are resolved inside the Trump administration, and whether common ground can be found with the North Koreans, will determine the future of the Korean Peninsula. The stakes are nothing less than the success or failure of the world’s best current chance to disarm North Korea. The Thornton approach could mean, over the long term, that it really happens. The Bolton approach would assure that it won’t.

    Wit seems a little more bullish on the summit than I am (my own view is that it’s either going to be cancelled or we’re going to be taken the cleaners, since I suspect Kim both has a much firmer grasp of the issues at hand and is less desperate for a win than Trump is). I think it’s possible we could get somewhere if we had the right people at the table, but I don’t think we do. Also, if they were so open to negotiation and ultimately denuclearizing as Wit claims, why couldn’t previous administrations get this done? I couldn’t help but wonder if Wit wrote this article before North Korea threw a fit over previously scheduled joint American/South Korean military exercises and the U.S. caved and canceled them. I’m more skeptical of the North Korean’s sincerity than Wit seems to be.
    (Also, this article introduced me to Wit’s North-Korea-centric website, 38 North, which looks excellent and informative.)

  • Slawomir Sierakowski writes in Foreign Policy about the collapse of the left wing in Europe:

    In his latest research paper, titled “Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right,” the economist Thomas Piketty presents an interesting theory of how we ended up here. Analyzing electoral results in France, Britain, and the United States and comparing them to data on voters’ income and education, he found that in the 1950s and 1960s, left-wing parties drew most of their support from poorer, less-educated voters. Since then, the political left has gradually become associated with well-educated voters, giving rise to a “multiple elite” party system in the past two decades: Highly educated elites now vote for the left, while high-income elites vote for the right. In other words, elites control both the left and the right.

    Under these conditions, the working class, which does not feel represented by the left, is giving its support to populist parties, and only the center-right remains to confront them. The European political spectrum has been reduced to the mainstream right and the populist right, with the mainstream gradually evaporating as it absorbs the ideas and rhetoric of the populists.

  • And I guess I’m going to have to talk about the Constitutional crisis that the president is absolutely determined to provoke. Two pieces on this caught my eye this morning: one by Theodore B. Olson in the Weekly Standard and another by Benjamin Wittes in the Atlantic.
    Olson (who turned down an offer to represent Trump a few weeks ago) argues that the president can’t be required to testify before a grand jury because Mueller hasn’t yet shown it is legally necessary.

    The importance of all this to the president is that it is unlikely that he can be forced to give grand jury testimony simply to satisfy Mueller’s curiosity and submit to a potential perjury trap. He could, in short, put Mueller to his proof—make Mueller show that the president’s testimony was necessary to prosecute someone else. And that such evidence could not be obtained elsewhere. That is a high bar, indeed, and one that at this point Mueller has not shown he would be able to surmount.

    I am not a lawyer! But I don’t really understand this argument: Mueller hasn’t shown he would be able to surmount the bar, however high it is, because he hasn’t yet tried. All we know about potential subpoenas of the president come from leaks or from the not-necessarily-reliable chatter of Rudy Giuliani. So why would we assume that Mueller can’t make the case if he wants to? It just seems odd to me to argue that Mueller hasn’t shown something when he’s never, to my knowledge, attempted to make a legal argument for it. I am a little surprised at how insubstantial this article seemed; I usually think Olson is smart and thoughtful even when I disagree.
    Meanwhile, Wittes is decorously freaking out over the president’s tweet yesterday:

    I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes – and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!

    Which, I grant you, is a pretty extraordinary tweet coming from the president of the United States. As Wittes says:

    It’s a statement of intent to issue a specific investigative demand of the Justice Department for entirely self-interested and overtly political reasons. And Trump published it in the absence of a shred of evidence that might support the demanded action. If we take his tweet at face value, the president is announcing that he will on Monday “officially” “demand” the Justice Department launch a specific investigation of activity that would be criminal were it true—about whether the DOJ and FBI spied on the Trump campaign for an improper purpose and whether the Obama administration demanded such action of them.
    This is a nakedly corrupt attempt on the part of the president to discredit and derail an investigation of himself at the expense of a human intelligence source to whose protection the FBI and DOJ are committed.

    As Wittes also says, though, given that Trump is Trump it’s hard to know how much this means. It could mean that tomorrow he’s going to order Rosenstein to pursue a full-fledged investigation (Rosenstein said yesterday he had asked the OIG to look into it, which may or may not appease the president); or, it could mean that he needed a nap and by the time he woke up this morning he’d forgotten about it. Who knows? My guess is that Rosenstein’s statement yesterday will be enough to calm him down and forestall a Monday Afternoon Massacre. So we’re OK for the short term, but the long term could get sticky.

Morning Reading, May 16, 2018

So when I checked the primary results this morning I was amused to discover these dueling takeaways: Politico says that “moderate Democrats took it on the chin,” while Slate proclaimed that “Democratic voters responded by playing it safe, picking a bevy of establishment-friendly candidates.” And both articles talk about some of the same races! I think the disconnect here is that the candidates Politico considers moderate (specifically John Morganelli in Pennsylvania’s 7th district and Rachel Reddick in Pennsylvania’s 1st) seem more conservative to me, almost in the mold of Joe Manchin or Joe Donnelly. Morganelli doesn’t support abortion rights, which puts him solidly outside the Democratic mainstream; and Reddick was a Republican not too long ago. The winners of these primaries (Susan Wild in the 7th district and Scott Wallace in the 1st) are progressive but more “establishment-friendly” than the Bernie Sanders crowd; in fact, Wild beat Sanders’s preferred candidate, Greg Edwards. So (somewhat to my surprise) I think Slate got this one more right than Politico did.

The most interesting result of the night, to my mind, was Paulette Jordan’s victory over A. J. Balukoff in the Idaho governor’s Democratic primary. Now here is a win that really is progressive over establishment: Balukoff had sewn up most of the Idaho Democratic establishment’s endorsements, while Jordan was endorsed by Cher and Khizr Khan. To a degree, the progressive vs. establishment divide is cosmetic: Balukoff and Jordan have strikingly similar policy positions. But she’s younger and female and, if elected, would be the nation’s first Native American governor; it’s hard not to think (or, maybe, hope) that she represents the future of the Democratic party and Balukoff the past.

Having said that, she’s almost certainly going to lose to Brad Little in November.

Other stories I read this morning:

  • In the New Republic, Eric Cortellessa argues that moving the American embassy to Jerusalem without extracting any concessions from Israel is only going to make peace negotiations more difficult than they already were:

    It is a foreign policy axiom that the U.S. is the only third party that can give both sides the kind of guarantees they need to make the compromises necessary: It’s why in the past, throughout the Oslo Peace Process, Israelis and Palestinians alike wanted American officials in the room for negotiations, not a delegation from the United Nations, not the European Union. Of course, only Israelis and Palestinians can ultimately cross the rubicon of peace, but the Palestinians now rejecting American leadership has far-reaching ramifications, effectively sidelining the only international actor that can facilitate a deal.

    This isn’t an original argument, I realize, but Cortellessa does a good job here of summing up the issues with the embassy move.

  • Marc Thiessen has a Washington Post op-ed that is both weird and dumb: Trump has had two “major foreign policy achievements” over the past week and Democrats are not giving him enough credit. The achievements? Bringing home three North Korea hostages, and moving the embassy to Jerusalem.

    I’m sorry, I found this piece completely infuriating. Granted, I am a Democrat and I recently blamed Trump for the leak in my dishwasher so I am not a disinterested observer. However, moving the embassy isn’t a diplomatic achievement; it’s something that any president could have done since 1995–including George W. Bush, the president for whom Thiessen worked. They all chose not to. Moving the embassy didn’t require any negotiation skills; it just required signing something. The reason the three earlier presidents didn’t do it wasn’t because they couldn’t but because it was a bad idea (see Cortellessa’s article above). “Americans see Trump being criticized for doing exactly what Congress demanded, and his Democratic and Republican predecessors promised, and they rightly see hypocrisy,” Thiessen writes, conveniently ignoring the polls that show that only 36% of Americans actually support the move.

    Also, Thiessen doesn’t even mention the dozens of Palestinians who were killed in protests during the opening of the embassy. “This is a huge victory for Trump, pay no attention to the dead people behind the curtain” seems to be his thesis.

    Meanwhile, as Thiessen himself acknowledges, Democrats aren’t unhappy that the hostages are home; they are unhappy that the president effusively praised Kim Jong Un for returning them. Kissing up to an authoritarian dictator is not a foreign policy achievement and not worthy of praise! (I continue to be shocked by the things that have to be said out loud in 2018.) It is also not particularly effective, as this morning’s news that North Korea will reconsider attending the summit if denuclearization is on the table. So in addition to being weird and dumb, this article has also aged very poorly since it was published at 4:41 yesterday afternoon.

  • In Foreign Policy, Dahlia Scheindlin makes the enormously depressing argument that Benjamin Netanyahu’s political survival depends on continual conflict with the Palestinians:

    The result of strongman leadership is that people become much less enthusiastic for the foundations of democracy, favoring splashy personal achievements or controversy instead. And the irony of consolidating power is that it harms democracy but simultaneously generates an environment in which one person gets credit for everything going well, reinforcing support for that same leader.

    Such a leader could also be blamed for all bad things. But many Israelis have apparently traded personal economic frustrations for an occasional celebration, be it Israel’s victory in the Eurovision contest or the U.S. Embassy moving to Jerusalem. Voters have lowered their standards on personal integrity in return for domestic tranquility, punctured only by the occasional war that most believe could not have been prevented. And, so the logic goes, it’s better to have Bibi fighting that war — or killing those protesters in Gaza who dare to seek a way out after 11 years of closure — than a despised left-winger.

    Sooner or later, Netanyahu will eventually exit the political stage. But given the way that every crisis reinforces his power, and what his years in power have done to Israel, the pendulum doesn’t look likely to swing in the other direction soon.

  • And in Lawfare, Harry Litman has a fascinating post about how one might go about flipping Michael Cohen:

    Step one in that transition is the isolation of the lieutenant from the family and the daily social life, which usually consists largely of a lot of hanging out and killing time and not all that much actual criminal activity. That much seems already to have happened, notwithstanding that Cohen has yet to be arrested. The Times reported recently that Cohen has told associates that he feels isolated since the FBI search.

    With the spell of daily connection to the family broken, the feds will seek to persuade the made man that the Don doesn’t esteem him—or worse—doesn’t even respect him. Here, again, Trump has provided the FBI and the New York prosecutors quite a lot of material to work with, should they need to. Cohen appears to have endured years of petty slights from his narcissistic boss. One such humiliation recently reported by the Wall Street Journal was Trump’s boorish speech at Cohen’s son’s bar mitzvah, when he arrived late and gave a speech telling guests he had only come because Cohen called him, his secretary and the Trump children begging Trump to attend.

    I’ve just started rewatching The Sopranos for the first time in a decade and it feels very timely. Michael Cohen reminds me forcefully of Big Pussy Bonpensiero. But comparing Trump to Tony Soprano feels a bit insulting to the memory of James Gandolfini.

 

Morning Reading, May 14, 2018

This morning:

  • Charles Sykes says we’re living in a crab bucket:

    Wikipedia defines the crab mentality as “a way of thinking best described by the phrase ‘if I can’t have it, neither can you.’”

    We all live in Trump’s crab bucket now.

    If you can’t win respect, then try to destroy the basis by which respect is granted by flattening the moral landscape. Because Trump is incapable of appreciating or emulating the senator’s sense of duty and honor, Trump resorts to the petulance of the bitter and the envious. “You’re no better than me,” is the timeworn playground taunt of the bully, the cretin, and the coward.

  • Matthew Yglesias cautions against praising Trump’s diplomacy in North Korea prematurely:

    [T]here are at least three big ways this could end up going badly:

    Trump could make a big show of a decisive diplomatic breakthrough at some strategically opportune moment in the fall to try to gain the upper hand in the midterm elections, only for the actual details to prove meaningless when there’s time for analysis later.

    Trump could sell out American interests by agreeing to an unfavorable deal, simply for the sake of the positive PR of a major breakthrough — with Republicans in Congress backing him up out of partisanship and nobody able to do anything about it for years.

    Trump could show up in Singapore, discover that Kim is not in fact interested in the kind of thorough disarmament that Trump has in mind, and then, feeling miffed by the North Koreans, embrace National Security Adviser John Bolton’s preference for an unprovoked American military strike.

    Meanwhile, at the Washington Post the director of Voice of America and the chief of the VOA Korean service urge us to intensity the efforts to get information about the world to ordinary North Koreans:

    Now, as the world’s eyes are once again focused on North Korea; as U.S. citizen prisoners are released from their captivity and there is a whiff of a promise of change, North Koreans need more information about the rest of the world and are willing to take risks to get it. It is time to step up efforts, public and private, to satisfy this thirst. Objective news retains power even in — perhaps even more in — the places that have the least experience of it.

  • In the New York Times, a lawyer who worked on the [expletive deleted] Clinton email probe makes the obvious point about Comey’s October surprise:

    What was Mr. Comey’s third option on Oct. 27? Wait and see. Monitor the progress of the review closely. Do nothing until there was something to report.

    Even a delay of a few days would have afforded the F.B.I. investigative team time to get a very good idea of what most likely was and was not in the new evidence. As it turned out, the team was able to complete its work days before the election, and Mr. Comey informed Congress in his Nov. 2 letter that the F.B.I. investigation was again closed.

    If he had waited a few days, Mr. Comey would have made a better-informed decision. The F.B.I. would have done meaningful due diligence. Had that course been followed, perhaps he would not have ever sent the letters.

  • In Foreign Policy, Peter A. Coclanis defends Aung San Suu Kyi:

    Emerging democracies are often marked by populist, ultranationalist behaviors that seem unseemly, if not repellent, to citizens in more mature democratic states in the West. Muslim-Buddhist conflict in Myanmar — including the bloody campaign against the Rohingya — can be seen as an extreme example of the same. That’s not totally surprising in a fractious, divided country that is just beginning to emerge from generations of military control.

    Any and all assessments of Aung San Suu Kyi’s stance regarding the Rohingya must take all of this into account. The fact that she is a nationalist, a Buddhist — as are somewhere between 85 and 90 percent of the Burmese population, and a Burman matters a lot. Like the vast majority of Burman Buddhist nationalists — including her late father, Aung San, the “George Washington” of Myanmar — Aung San Suu Kyi seeks more than anything else to keep whole her large, unwieldy, ethnically diverse country, which despite its formal name (“The Republic of the Union of Myanmar”) is at present a “union” in name only. Right now, taking up the cause of the Rohingya — or even mentioning their name —is not conducive to this end.

Reading the News: North Korea

There has been a great deal of saber-rattling about North Korea lately, and the presidential Twitter account certainly seems to be encouraging it. If you’re looking for resources to better understand the current crisis, here are some suggestions:

  • Brothers at War, by Sheila Miyoshi Jager, is a readable, comprehensive history of the conflict between North and South Korea, as well as the involvement of the United States.
  • Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick, describes life in North Korea today. It’s drawn from interviews with defectors, and it is unputdownable. Fascinating and heartbreaking.
  • The Orphan-Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson, is a fictional look at North Korea. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. It’s important to keep in mind that this book is fiction; you can’t assume it’s an accurate portrayal of life in North Korea. But it’s one of the best books I know for helping me think about what life in a totalitarian regime really feels like.
  • Black Flags, by Joby Warrick, is about the rise of ISIS and may seem like an odd choice for a list of books about the crisis in North Korea. But since the president does seem to be enthusiastically sounding the trumpets of war, I think it’s important to look back at the mistakes that the U. S. government made in the Middle East under Bush and Obama that led to the emergence of ISIS. A second ISIS arising out of the ashes of Korea is something we should want to avoid at all costs.
  • Thirteen Days, by Robert F. Kennedy, is the classic insider’s account of what happened when the Kennedy administration faced a potential nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union in 1962. Of course there is not a one-to-one relationship between the Cuban Missile Crisis and today’s North Korean situation, but I think it’s instructive to look back and consider how and why the Kennedy administration responded as it did.