Europe, Russia & Ukraine: Stumbling Waltz

Ukraine, much in the news, is essentially a failed (failing?) state. Yet everyone wants to have a dance with her. Who will be on the card?

The EU still seeks an association agreement after Ukrainian President Yanukovich’s last minute rejection at the altar. He faced severe Russian coercion and is inherently pre-disposed to Moscow and Putin’s neo-Soviet “Customs Union”. After pro-EU riots broke out in Kiev, the Russians declared it all pre-planned foreign manipulation.

Ukraine’s economy is a wreck. Its contraction during the 2008-09 global economic crisis the highest percent in the world. Its leading export is commodity steel. Yanukovich’s government has no love for economic reforms as demanded by the IMF as a precondition to financial support. Ukraine’s government is almost as dysfunctional as Washington. Yanukovich’s political position in parliament hangs by a thread. Demographically, Ukraine is also a quasi-basket case.

[Read more…]

NSA, Obama & Digital Vandals Shaping American Power

One of NSA Director Keith Alexander’s cruelest feats? Forcing some of his fiercest critics (us) again to defend American self-interest and the role and purpose of intelligence. Despite NSA’s (and the Community’s) wanton, flagrant contempt for both. If Neocons were America’s malignant Id at her moment of apogee, then as Nemesis follows Hubris, they ushered in her over soon decline. NSA and the Community, engorged on national security self-entitlement, scuttled behind as ever-present shadow.

We get no pleasure writing that. Nor seeing so much needless and perhaps irretrievable ruin in Snowden’s aftermath. Much of it gleefully celebrated by those who care nothing for American interests, privacy or otherwise. It takes a big man to bring down an epoch in American and global history, they say. So why are Alexander and Snowden perfectly, coevally so small?

Crushed Like A Spent Can Of Diet Coke

The seemingly ancient preceding post here about Obama’s first NSA-focused press conference reads quaintly now. We see in stark relief the cost of this Administration’s (typical) passivity. That’s not to excuse or diminish NSA’s stunning, profoundly stupid (and so totally unnecessary) transgressive acts. But we all should be clear about one distinction – intolerance for NSA’s transgressions is not embracing others’ attempt to exploit political fallout to see America diminished.

[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.

Demotic Hierarchy And Exclusion – Get Used To It

What’s most bothersome about this invitation [from the Hirshhorn Museum] is the statement about members: “Members get in free and have access to VIP area.” You can see that line for yourself in the picture at left.

“A VIP area”? At a public museum, an arm of the Smithsonian Institution? . . . And now, the Hirshhorn — no doubt in an effort to raise money (the lowest level of membership costs $100 to $249 a year ) — is creating a VIP lounge within an already questionable activity? After Hours seems to involve gallery tours as well as “music and live performances on the plaza.” Guess which is the draw?

As a subsequent press release said:

From his infamous dance parties (RAW, MIXTAPE) to his guest spots at numerous DC nightlife events, audience favorite DJ Shea Van Horn sheds his drag alter ego, Summer Camp, and returns to After Hours to stir up the dance floor and leave a trail of exhausted revelers in his wake.

We’ve been left behind in steerage for some time. It’s the little details that speak volumes. It’s tempting to see this through the prism of elitist art, etc. — in fact, precisely how the Movement assaults ‘wealthy’ union families earning $49,000 a year. Or perhaps some well-intentioned if clueless ‘Yes we can!’ believer thought a rave party at the Hirshhorn would improve visibility, attendance and promote art (somehow).

We agree the larger, more important issue the symbolic: the non-chalant acceptance of class privileges in public spaces.

Erik Prince, True To Form

The NYT discovers Prince is trying to insert himself into the Somalian civil war even as he exits Blackwater/Xe. Of course, the Times gets only part of the story. Prince the past 18 months or so has been prospecting a whole host of African conflicts to use in his search for new financial sponsors.

There’s the old business phrase ‘turn around meeting’. It’s where a party goes in expecting to discuss X but finds the other party surprisingly make it all about the opposite, discussing er, Z. Prince inflicted that on one unsuspecting non-governmental but supremely influential institutional figure. This figure thought the meeting would be about Prince making charitable contributions. Instead, Prince made the meeting about this non-governmental entity funding him to ‘solve’ a human crisis in Africa by killing any identified bad guys. Just one example of many.

We’re all for the Times keeping an eye on Prince. But if the Stiftung knows all this, then surely an intern at the Times could put it together.

Garfinkle’s ‘Obama As Innocent Abroad’ — American Foreign Policy As Rorschach Test

We first met Adam Garfinkle 30 years ago or so when he was starting out at FPRI. We’re under no illusions about his ideological prisms. His re-printed piece in “The American Interest”, ‘An Innocent Abroad: The Obama Foreign Policy’ easily could come from Hudson or the usual suspects. Yet he correctly observes:

Indeed, the fuzzy indeterminacy that characterizes the Obama foreign policy holds true even at the highest echelon of strategy. The United States is the world’s pre-eminent if not hegemonic power. Since World War II it has set the normative standards and both formed and guarded the security and economic structures of the world. In that capacity it has provided for a relatively secure and prosperous global commons, a mission nicely convergent with the maturing American self-image as an exceptionalist nation. To do this, however, the United States has had to maintain a global military presence as a token of its commitment to the mission and as a means of reassurance to those far and wide with a stake in it. This has required a global network of alliances and bases, the cost of which is not small and the maintenance of which, in both diplomatic and other terms, is a full-time job.*

[Read more…]

Bob Gates’ Sacrificial Lambs: Thrown Aside To Preserve Perpetual Pentagon Overspending

We should reject Bob Gates’s pre-emptive effort to lock in future defense budget growth with his PR statement declaring $100 billion in DoD out year budget cuts. Don’t fall for the flare off the back of the jet. He’s throwing Congress and the public a few meaningless sacrifices. His admitted long term goal? It’s not to cut costs per se but justify permanent 1% increases from this year’s already record defense outlays. This stunt is political kabuki intended to head off real defense cuts by offering a Potemkin facade of budget discipline.

Will Americans be deceived by his PR sleight of hand? Probably.

[Read more…]

Can We Tweet You Major Tom?

Diminishing Powers seem to grasp reality in phases. Past self images lurch to synchronize painfully with events. Just ask the Romans, Ottomans, the Chinese Emperors, Sovs or Brits and Dutch et al.

There’s little reason America should be different. It may be even harder for us. We generally are oblivious to America as metropole. Until 2008 we took the fringe benefits for granted. We should expect our flashes of recognitions to surprise. Like a baseball bat in a dark room. If how a Power rides the adjustment curve says as much as its Noontide reign? We have massively surreal moments ahead. Just ask Clement Atlee Obama in three or eight years.

We’ve all discussed at length (and seemingly agreed) that the British should have known the Empire was over in 1940, their actual bankruptcy. American financing and willingness to at least pretend to a quasi-subordinate role after May 1945 cushioned matters. Americans got a longer ride from Japan and then China from 1980s till Fall 2008.

Hindsight brutally reveals that the 1947 Greek Crisis and the Marshall Plan pulled the mask on British feebleness. Psyches are a tricky thing, though. Just a year later, in 1948, the British — still embued with imperial self image — sought to ‘guarantee’ Western European defense with the Treaty of Brussels. The prostrate Europeans saw more clearly than British delusions. In 1949 the Western Europeans demanded Americans handcuffed to them all, keeping the Germans down and the Russians out – hence NATO.

Suez was a shock in London no doubt. It still took 20 years after 1947 and a Chancellor of the Exchequer, Roy Jenkins, to jam financial reality to the fore and force British withdrawal from military footprints East of the Suez (Singapore, Malaysia and the Persian Gulf). George Lazenby’s fiasco in 1969 served as exclamation point. America unfortunately likely will not have until 2029 to adjust.

Whatever Happens Be Gentle With Tom Hanks

Where does the collapse of the American civilian space program fit? Do Americans really care about it? Few deny it’s a hangover imperial luxury. Shouldn’t we just let it go?

Landing on the Moon remains perhaps the last truly astonishing triumph of the American idea (beyond wearing out the Sovs). But in terms of the popular culture, it’s about as relevant as a Woodstock reminiscence clip. Americans only seem to care about space when it’s well done on a movie screen. (American military reliance on space deserves a separate topic (but then the American people have almost no familiarity with military – again unless on TV or a movie screen)).

Bush launched an absurdly ambitious boondoggle for American contractors to return to the Moon and Mars. A Mars Mission is a long running fantasy among certain Movement demographics for various biological, philosophical and spiritual reasons. You may recall Movement types in the 1980s — including a back bencher named weirdly ‘Newt’ pushing for Mars. Under Bush 41, Bill Kristol/Dan Quayle’s office served as the campfire around which the various constituencies gathered. Newt then picked up the Mars torch in 1995-96. After 8 years of exile under Bubba — presto! The Warlord eventually is manipulated to make it happen. (Remember Dave Chappelle’s now hoary ‘Mars, bitches !!’)

Like the Warlord’s other schemes it falls apart. Obama appointed a NASA Review Panel to find cheaper ways to get into space. Today his Panel reports NASA can’t go anywhere even on $80 billion through 2020. Not even the Moon. Meanwhile, nefarious *ferriners*, the Indians, Japanese, Chinese and even the Germans have or are planning on sending probes to the Moon. American public reaction? Yawn.

So shoot the horse. It’s time to put down the civilian space program as a grossly unjustifiable self-perpetuating government-industrial sector. Closing out this consortium of interests seeking handouts and subsidies to find a reason to get more money is overdue. Billions spent and to be spent on a rocket engine (Ares) even Obama’s Review Panel excludes from 3 of its 4 castrated scenarios. As some totem of uplifting nationalism the program is useless as even Sally Ride and others on the Review Panel concede. Who really believes seeing more pictures from the Moon would restore faltering legitimacy to a federal government? More than a functional jobs program? That wad has been shot. NASA (as currently configured) is the poster child of past tense Imperial self imagery and indulgence.

Obama by all accounts set up the Review Panel look for budget efficiencies. Upon receipt of the Panel’s Report he may even pretend that he has options. The always formidable Norm Augustine noted “Our view is that it will be difficult with the current budget to do anything that’s terribly inspiring in the human spaceflight area.”

Squandering control of national destiny has consequences. The Warlord was too stupid to realize it. Your job, Mr. Obama, is to ease the American people into the truth. Before your own East of Eden moment is forced upon you. You don’t have 20 years.

A Black Hole Party: Five Things You Would Send From The Imperial City

It’s the new jenga you’ve seen on the InterTubes. You know, throwing black hole parties. How does it work? For example, GameLife offered a list of games so bad they should be tossed into a black hole (Sonic was number one). In July gadgets got The Gong.

Why not here? The Imperial City in August itself is relatively quiet if one is not enmeshed in the health care morass. Brownshirts are out on location. Even Novak’s Corvette doesn’t menace drivers and pedestrians like just a few scant years ago.

So, what should go into a black hole? We’re setting some boundaries. First, we can exile things or persons that started in, or have a {Barry McCaffery’s-best-closing-new-client-retainer-voice} ‘center of gravity’ {/Barry-McCaffery-voice} in D.C. So, for example, News Corp. itself is out of bounds. Conversely, Britt Hume’s All Stars aren’t. And so on. Here’s our list and why. By all means, offer better suggestions or save a candidate:

1. Focus Groups

They’re a disgrace. What a crude thing to exert such a cynical, corrosive impact on political conversation in America. Two specific individuals are probably responsible for staking this statistically meaningless, rare and theatrical practice into the heart of American politics. What followed for those two was a tsumani of personal wealth, empty posturings and professional copy catters. These farcical bull sessions with 20 or so participants are the political equivalent of the Wall Street fake wealth creation of the 2000s. CDOs with zero real value and lots of toxicity. Yet the practice determines the very vocabulary that almost everyone uses on a policy issue, changing estate taxes to ‘death taxes’, global warming to ‘climate change’, and so on whether they know it or not.

We cop to using them, too, to manipulate a Congress, media and White House on behalf of private sector clients. Mostly because our clients believe in the stuff like some arcane druidic rite. Sadly, it also works. (You’d be surprised how ‘sophisticated’ media, politicians, other operatives lap it up). There was a time when a politician or their speechwriter offered the best words they knew how at the time. America was a better place then.

Don’t believe us? You must adore Xe!

Extra Credit For Those Who Smile Seeing This

[Read more…]

Final Version: Les Grossman Holds The Moscow Summit (NSFW) (Updated Post Summit)

Not Safe For Work Or Kids


Long time readers know we’ve spent years and years immersed in U.S.-Soviet/Russian strategic issues, both through the traditional lense of American policy and academics as well as more, shall we say, hands on means. And it is certainly true that summit meetings used to be the professional equivalent of Live Aid. All scrambling to convey, discover to promote a ‘meaning’ discerned from conversations on Olympus. We just couldn’t summon the interest or energy to devote much attention to Obama’s all too predictable meetings in Moscow.

So we did the next best thing: imagined what real audacity would do with Putin and Medvedev. That can only mean one man: Les Grossman. If you’ve seen the movie ‘Tropic Thunder’ all should be clear. Les is a Hollywood producer, which in *that* universe is more powerful than the president of the United States. It’s also pretty damn funny. To us, anyway. So Les Grossman, meet Putin and Medvedev. To underscore: this is definitely *not safe for work* or kids. But enjoy on the Q T . . . (the following is in Flash, so you iOS kids are out of luck):

We keeed. We keeed because we love. Or used to. It also seems so remote.

This old hoary chestnut from STSOZ 1.0 shows how difficult even a hollow slogan like ‘reset’ will be (assuming the U.S. stumbles upon even the right word and this time then also spells it correctly in Russian). (Perhaps the savants at State will latch onto ‘abort’? Audit? Colonoscopy? Seriously. One really can’t be too imaginative and then be too bemused to see what emerges from the other end of the bureaucracy).

Inchoerent Hegemon

We’ve ultimately decided to skip making comments about Putin and Obama. Feels like joyless work. One reason? We spent so many years on the Sov front. Before the Russian Federation emerged. And the aftermath in the 1990s. Most the strategic errors in U.S.-Russian relations are in our opinion unfortunately more due to American ignorance, bellicosity, lack of historical perspective and plain Warlord recklessness. Like a car crash unfolding in slow motion, one could anticipate almost every Russian reaction to U.S. policy since 2001 years in advance. If anyone had a clue about Russian history, politics, society, etc. Oh wait, Cher Condi was a Russian ‘expert’. The prosecution rests. So even typing why we don’t have the energy to comment on the summit feels like rehashing the obvious.

Frankly, we’re a bit envious of the young wonks, ‘specialists’ and bloggers on this topic. Everything is fresh and new. Soviet Union? Might as well be Carthage. The supreme Soviet/Russian leader hiding behind a cats paw to retain power and manipulate the West? Why, it’s shocking and a totally new development and so on. These are the same youngsters who can close a bar drunkenly talking about health care savings account and productivity offsets via deferred cost structures tied to section blah blah of the Code. We envy their ability to be so consumed. And also want to shoot them. (Metaphorically, with an ironic finger pistol – relax our dear Bureau Friends and your NSL xerox mills).

So forgive us if we close with Les Grossman once again. Celebrating the conclusion of the Putin-Medvedev summit. Yes, yes, we know, our peers, mentors and old friends from the Soviet/Russian days/arena are likely shaking their heads. But we’ve paid our dues. Don’t be a playah hata.