Year In Review 2014: And The Winner Is?

More than most years, 2014 will be retrospectively consequential. The US post-1945 order finally enters its transition era. Most obviously, Putin launched an ill-conceived war to challenge its foundations. Other developments promise significant portent. Modi’s rise in India is but one example. Domestically, Americans’ facade of a post-racial society collapsed. And Neocons re-emerged.

American Luck Holds

Americans remain lucky internationally for now. Russia’s war began with clumsy improvisation and lurched to a strategic dead end. Ukrainian grit surprised Moscow – just one of many Russian strategic intelligence failures. China, India and others support Moscow symbolically in part yet preserve their own options and interests in the present order. They follow their own timetable for systemic change, not Putin’s.

America avoided directly engaging Russia, denying Moscow the co-equal status it craves. That US stance encouraged Merkel and the EU to confront Russian aggression themselves. Russian hawks (like Sergei Markov, etc.) concede their hopes to split the alliance (to date) are unrealistic. One would like to think a coherent US strategy helped shape these events. Equally plausible is American tactical improvisation simply was more fortunate.

Putin? We’d rate him 2014’s net loser. Had he stopped at Crimea, he faced no sanctions and enjoyed stratospheric domestic approval. Russia is far weaker, more isolated, and domestically more fragile than during the Sochi boondoggle. From canceling Russia’s pet Southstream pipeline into Europe, ruble woes – Russian Central Bank Chief Elvira Nabuillina may have the toughest job in Russia today – to a bad gas deal with China and Putin’s isolation at the G20, Russian horizons shrunk a great deal.

Ukraine, conversely, is far more unified and committed to a European liberal path than ever. Two successful elections and a newly vibrant society show potential. Russia’s war in the Donbass forged a new nationalism and but sidelined a region (along with Crimea) that would’ve sent significant votes for Communists and pro-Moscow parties in Kiev.

Ukraine’s struggles are still beginning. IMF-driven reforms will pack a dislocating wallop. Kiev’s economy will remain on edge for some time. And vital domestic initiatives such as lustration and anti-corruption are still embryonic.

Merkel’s clear stance against Russian revisionism surprised Moscow. Many predicted she would follow German SPD party’s equivocation and German industrialists’ demands for “understanding”. Her marathon 6 hour November conversation with Putin in Australia may mark a watershed. Merkel now directly confronts Russian subversion in the Balkans. It’s a new German EU foreign policy leadership role. Will it work? Does she have the vision to sustain it? Can she maintain German domestic support?

2015 may be another story. EU sanctions expire soon if not renewed. Some US European experts are certain sanctions will be lifted. Moscow re-packages itself as a peace maker yet again to empower EU apologists. Putin hedges bets by advising Moscow technocrats to prepare for ten years of confrontation.

Wine In A Brand New Jar?

Neocons took 2014 by storm. 2015 can only offer more blue sky.

2014 marked the year Democrats en masse scrambled to join. Yet Democrats can’t articulate an alternative to Obama’s foreign policy that differs. The Right and Rand Paul’s conversion to internationalist Realism (while Paul remains instinctually an isolationist) remain the exception. Interestingly, Fred Kagan and others openly declare their true home is in the Democratic Party (again).

The Neocons’ greatest 2014 success is framing ISIS as an existential threat. A tentative and reactive Obama Administration jumped on to ill-advised, ill-considered spastic kinetic force without a clear strategy.

The New Republic‘s demise is a different story. The larger and more important indictment? TNR long ago ceased to be an authentic, liberal, progressive voice.

Should TNR be a new Gawker or Buzzfeed for a certain social set, perhaps it’s a fitting epitaph. The staff’s reaction to young owner Chris Hughes’ decisions reveals a mindset accustomed to benefactor patronage. To discover they’re employees like much of America is a harsh lesson.

Home Alone

America’s long vacation from social realities crashed on a global stage. Ferguson, Eric Garner in NY, Tamir Rice (the 12 year old boy shot by police because he had a bee bee gun) and so many others highlight the cost in lives and potential lost. American social dysfunction can’t be obscured. And it’s more than de-legitimized, excessively militarized local law enforcement.

The US for the first time nationally experienced how social technologies fueled protests from Tehran to Tunisia, Hong Kong to Maidan. Many Americans didn’t like uncensored voices. Protestors (from varied backgrounds) self organize, distribute video and photos, and use Livestream for alternative broadcasts to cable “news” coverage. (That America in 2014 lacks an actual cable news channel at all is merely symptomatic).

Racial inequality is the most prominent aspect of American disinterest in forging a healthy, inclusive society. Socio-economic stratification continues to widen. Congress’ roll back of its own weak 2008 Wall Street reforms — at the request of Wall Street — underscores the fault lines only grow. Dysfunctional government that responds only to the few doesn’t happen by accident. Nor is it sustainable.

Richard Haas observed that Foreign Policy Begins At Home. Our effectiveness abroad is directly linked to good governance at home. The link above deliberately is to the Daily Show. American youth (or young at heart), unfettered by old wedge issues on race, gender and class, can make a powerful difference – if they choose to engage politically.

These are the year’s highlights (or low points) to us. What did we miss? Who or what do you think made 2014?

All You Need Is Putin, Nukes And A Sharpie

Putin, NATO, Ukraine, War, Rita, Iron Man

FADE IN:

INT. RADIO STUDIO, WASHINGTON DC – MORNING- SUNLIT WINDOWS

SOUND: Theme music, UP TEMPO with PERKY GUITAR as we see –

RADIO HOST is maybe 45. Slightly pale. Looks BUSINESS LIKE in shirt and tie. Sits at TABLE across from ASHBURY. Both have HEADPHONES. Radio host points to PRODUCER behind STUDIO GLASS as music ends.

RADIO HOST (V.O.)
Welcome to CNMBS’ FRESH AIR.
ZYX Resident Scholar Ambrose Marius Ashbury the First is here.
Deerfield grad, Williams then an Athenian poetry PhD from Yale.

Doctor, good morning.

ASHBURY, coiffed in dark suit, black glasses. A green room WARRIOR of plastic age, demeanor is one who just UPGRADED TO FIOS.

ASHBURY
Call me Ash. All my interns do.

RADIO HOST
Sooo. Your NRO review on Christopher Nolan’s
new movie Interstellar
is burning up Buzzfeed.
But first, you call in the Washington Post for general European war

Ashbury UNFOLDS SMILE.

ASHBURY
We’re already at war. I’m just saying it out loud.

Radio host reaches for a DUNKIN DONUTS coffee but pauses, picks up handwritten question LIST.

[Read more…]

Play Russian Apologist Bingo!

We present to you “Russian Apologist Bingo!” Apologists for Russian aggression, lies and even lunatic screeds are everywhere. They’ll do about anything to defend Kremlin propaganda. From the infamous “Whataboutism” to “change the subject” or claiming that Ukraine tried to shoot down Putin’s plane and hit MH 17 (never mind Putin was in South America) — all their greatest hits are here. Play, won’t you?

Russia, Bingo, Propaganda

Can you spot all the Kremlin apologists’ tricks?

Putin’s Sochi Spring Break

Putin’s $51 billion gamble to re-make Russians’ self-image achieves its initial, limited goals. Putin wanted Sochi to sell Russians they’re active participants in the 21st century’s pop culture meme bubble, not just observers. Sochi’s distraction and legitimization will buy crucial time for his regime.


Giving The Russian People A Chance To Escape Today

It’s beyond just Putin individually. His restive elites need him to peddle illusions of Russian global emergence. All have a stake in prolonging the faltering system’s inertia. Russia’s economic growth, once over 8% in the mid 2000s, may not break 1% in 2014. Infighting among self-dealing elites over extractive and infrastructure resources grows more public. Putin’s no longer the axiomatic arbiter. Russia fails to embrace economic innovation to replace dead dinosaurs/gas/oil in the ground. Russia’s future is bleak.

Worse, Putin’s bag of tricks is almost empty. He’s tapped Russia’s Reserve Fund and also guaranteed Sochi expenses. His extravagant but ineffectual re-armament plan forced his earlier Finance Minister, Kudrin, to resign. Putin adds promises for grandiose Soviet-mega projects to develop the desolate and decrepit Far East. His $15 billion bribe to Ukraine in December 2013 drains reserves still more.

It’s understandable the regime naturally turns up the AgitProp. Putin’s State-controlled media is doing everything it can to manufacture artificial “us” versus “them”.

What is the regime promoting? A toxic blend of revanchism added to ethnic and religious chauvinism that trumpets a “Russianness” brutalizing the needy and marginal. Even the Kremlin is concerned about how how to keep this environment sustainable, fearing a slide toward nihilism or spontaneous ‘chaos’ (organization) without something more.

Enter Sochi. Its essential mission — sell Russians that Putin’s noxious mixture is internationally mainstream. Revanchism with a patina of glossy, Daft Punk-loving globalism. The squalor and bigotry of Russian daily life hidden by Euro disco hip sheen.


Why Sochi Is Not Berlin

Comparisons to 1936 and Berlin miss this critical point: Putin needed Sochi because he and Russia are weak. His elites increasingly tempted to think past or through him. 1936 by contrast? The Corporal, 2 years after the famous Nuremberg rally memorialized on film, totally controlled his elites and populace. Germany’s economy boomed.

1936 declared the regime to the world. 2014 asks the world for help to make Putin’s regime look cool.

Of course, global perceptions matter. World leaders boycotting Sochi hurts. But the regime is adept turning real and imagined hurts into daily AgitProp fodder. Watching and reading the regime’s lieutenants and sycophants’ reactions to the games instructive. Not just their unhinged anger over a U.S.-Russia hockey game. Day in and day out while the games unfold the regime can’t mask its true psychology of petty resentment or rages that few Americans will ever see or care to see.

Two questions today: How long will Putin enjoy a post-Sochi halo? And was it worth the cost?

On the latter, our answer is clear. The regime faces a looming, possibly severe crisis at home with a faltering economy. Sochi may help distract by buttressing Russian self-identity and vague global legitimacy. Sochi’s reprieve – if it’s real – for Putin is worth its weight in gold. For a little while.

2014 And Limits Of New Romanticism

2014 And The New Romantics

We’re witnessing another New Romantic historical moment end. We see it wind down in domestic American politics, including L’Affaire Snowden. And in Kiev’s Streets. We turn our gaze from Syrian killing fields. Spontaneous, unorganized mass sentiment failed to create real change anywhere.

1848 Europe’s revolutionary, democratic moment and its lessons come to mind. Europe saw its widest ever democratic revolutionary wave quickly collapse into a Continental reactionary resurgence. Historical analogies should always be suspect, especially here. Yet, we can’t help but ask, “What comes next, now?”


The New Romantics Aren’t A Pop Group

Our last 15 years constitute a Romantic Moment. First it flourished with the Colored Revolutions’ early promise. Even elements of Americans’ manipulated arc in Iraq and Afghanistan floated on misguided sentiment. Mass sentiment erupted in Tehran, ignited the Arab Spring, Syria, rock both Thailand and now Ukraine, again. Obama’s improbable 2008 presidency and aftermath are part of the tableau, too.

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A Day In Edward Snowden’s Moscow Life – The Secret History

Cut to scene: Ed Snowden flees to Hong Kong, spending his 30th birthday there at the Russian consulate. Yet we are told his immediate run to Moscow was both unplanned and caught the Russian government completely by surprise. Some tabulate the cascading coincidences intertwining Snowden and Russian operatives or their known consorts. The sheer weight of incidents is non-trivial.

As with all things, data by itself is not information. The key questions remain unanswered: (i) when did Snowden decide to be an adversary of the U.S. government?; (ii) how did he reach that decision – by himself or did Others recruit or encourage him?; (iii) carrying out his actions, did he have help and from whom?

[Read more…]

Snowden’s Pyrrhic Victory? *

Episode Recap

State of play so far since our last episode. Putin bemoans now being stuck with an unwelcome Christmas present (Snowden). Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia offer Snowden asylum but can’t get him there. The man of the hour meanwhile finally seeks asylum in Russia yet’s vague about ceasing public ‘anti-U.S. activities’, a pre-condition set by Putin.

Greenwald in turn threatens the U.S. with the worst disaster in history should anything ever happen to Snowden – while decrying that people pay too much attention to Snowden. And the U.S. hints about canceling a tete-a-tete with Putin after the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg.

So we ask you to join in our poll:

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Thoughts On Boston’s Crisis, The New Tribalism And Participatory Meaning

Events in Boston last week illustrate how technology shapes our personal identity. And how little we understand the process. Boston shows us a foretaste of the new tribalism that relies on ephemeral situations and adrenalin to create a sense of belonging. It will change what it means to be an American.

Boston Is Saved By An Angel

What Is The New Tribalism?

First, the definitions. We’ll start with new tribalism is an individual’s sense of self, belonging and loyalty. That sense of self is defined by participating in communal activity responding to an ad hoc event or crisis. Here, it’s a new tribe following a terrorist bombing. This new ‘tribe’ is interesting because its values can supplement traditional ones, at least temporarily.

Doubtlessly you are already asking, ‘So is it really new’? In the past, rallies and concerts might be seen as the forerunners to today’s phenomenon. Certainly true of the Party rallies in the 1930s, for example. And the various ideologies of the now trite ‘happenings’ and ‘sit ins’ in the 1960s, as well as mass spectacles of Woodstock, etc.

[Read more…]

Keeping Up With ‘The Americans’

Pop culture fascination with the covert continues to crest. Under Bush besides the torture porn of ’24’, NCIS began its long run exalting ‘warfighters’ and hierarchical obediance. We endured the Bournes’ editing and celebrated a more brutal Bond.

And it continues. “Homeland” has become a ‘Starbuckian’ touchstone. “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” pull crowds. Even lighter, sillier cable fare like the CW’s “Nikita” and USA’s “Burn Notice” name check espionage argot.

And Comrades, Remember The Paco Rabanne
And Comrades, Remember The Paco Rabanne

So what to make of FX’s new series, “The Americans”? Larval CIA employee Joseph Weisberg (1990-94, no overseas) launched it all. He runs with the 2010 ‘Anna Chapman Spy Ring’ sensationalism but places his ostensibly married Soviet ‘illegal’ couple in Reagan’s 1981 America. The producers add some “Californication”-esque gestures; within the pilot’s first hour the female Soviet spy fellates a hapless presidential confidante, ostentatiously wiping her mouth afterwards and is later shown raped brutally. She also asks said confidante, supra, if he liked her finger up his ass. Quelle shock!

If It’s Phil Collins, It Must Be The 80’s

But is it any good?

When credits rolled, we asked “What did we just see?” It’s all preposterous, of course, as it must be. A show survives if it entertains. Here, the team generously drops gratuitous and titillating details to provide a modicum of verisimilitude – beyond say, “Burn Notice”. Yet for all that “The Americans” likely will be a soap opera.

The Soviet husband likes American malls and wants to defect. The wife is fiercely opposed, clinging to a memory of Moscow in 1962. And their kids! Already their young boy seems to have the hots for the next door neighbor’s daughter. Her dad’s an FBI counter-intelligence agent (yes, really). Oh, and there’s a KGB general. He pops up somehow at the end in D.C. to tell the female spy he’s fighting off extremists in Moscow while defending the motherland.

The atmosphere is the show’s real star and asset. Like Miami Vice, the show wants us to notice the music, style and set decorating. The clothes accurately are post 70s muted browns and not the much later, stereotypical big hair, neon and mullets. (Watch for Members Only jackets in future eps). They’ve gone the extra mile recreating 1981 on a basic cable budget. The music from Phil Collins to Pat Benatar is true to that year’s charts. (The only bum note was using The Who’s ‘Eminence Front’ as the FX TV ad campaign, which was from 1982).

Still, atmosphere can carry only so far. A soap opera requires caricatures acting broadly. The show’s premise and conceit point the other way. And nothing suggests ambition to deconstruct the American self-image through the eyes of its Soviet protagonists. Leaving us with what, precisely?

We doubt we’ll stick around after initial novelty dissipates. Aside from name-check fan service, it feels like Oakland, no there, there. (For that matter, we’ve never been able to sit through a re-watching of the recent “Tinker, Tailor” remake; the original BBC show remains sublime). Many pulp series have overcome inauspicious pilots. Will be interesting to see if we’re given a reason to care in time.

Hello From The Shut Down Imperial City

We’ve always maintained that D.C. is a weird amalgamation of First World Starbuckian smugness and Third World dreariness and incompetence. Nothing makes that point better than the regional utility companies. Or Metro. But today let’s go with the utilities.

It’s true that every American is convinced that their utility is uniquely incompetent. Dominion, PEPCO et al. actually are. Once one leaves the federal enclaves the infrastructure, particularly the electric grid, is beyond feeble. It’s not that the grid failed so broadly after this violent storm. Rather, it predictably fails after almost every storm.

(Dominion, too. Bueller? Bueller?)

Right before the utilities folded like a paper napkin a TV personality friend sent an email about a DHS report detailing domestic incidents of Stuxnet contaminating U.S. computer networks. Which naturally prompts one to imagine the post-storm quasi-apocalytpic landscape (SUVs forlornly waiting outside dark Wholefoods, drivers unable to overpay for prosciutto) as D.C. under a foreign power’s decision to ‘take down the lights’. Via their version of a less discriminating Stuxnet or even kinetic fire strikes like Belgrade 1999.

It’s a stretch, of course. Only the electric grid collapsed. Other than a stray tree in the road here or there, the transportation remained intact. Communications continued; cell networks, while congested and slow, eventually did work. And psychologically, a storm as culprit is easier to process than a foreign adversary.

But only a stretch. For as sure as Dominion, PEPCO et al. will fail again soon, we will as a nation reap the whirlwind we have sown from 2001-2012.

Update
Newt on Italian vacation plugs utility incompetence as prelude to EMP attack ala Frank Gaffney.

His next tweet underscored how the storm aftermath proves the need for East Coast BMD installations but got lost in Italian packet networks.